Monday, October 05, 2009

Apple is gradually sucking me in...

I'm frugal. People who know me personally might say cheap, but I'm writing this so I'll say frugal. I've never bought a new computer in my life (and in fact could argue that I still haven't) and I definitely tend toward either building my own or buying lightly used, since most people really don't need the cutting edge of technology (or the bills that come with it.)

I built a Hackintosh from a Dell Mini9 refurb early this year, and have really enjoyed OSX in spite of the tiny poorly-laid-out keyboard. I have for some time used a Dell Latitude D610 that I bought used as my "TV computer" for watching Hulu or Netflix on the flat panel in our living room, but the improving image quality of streaming sources and displaying them on a 1080p set was starting to point out the Latitude's shortcomings.

One of the important considerations of a Home-Theater PC is noise. One needs a quiet machine to avoid having fan noise interfere with quiet passages of movies and music. One of the quietest machines on the market is Apple's Mac Mini, and they've recently upgraded it significantly with nVidia video processing and a 1066-MHz front-side bus, so I decided to give it a shot for home-theater duty. True to my frugal nature, I scanned the list of Apple refurbs for a few days until I found a base config (1g RAM, 120g hard drive, 2 GHz Core2 Duo) refurb.

I've had the machine 5 days now, and so far I'm quite pleased with its performance for my needs. I'll point out here that I wasn't going for a full PVR system, I have a DVR from my cable company and I'm happy enough to use that, or I'd have needed a dedicated system like the Tivo HD or a Windows-based system so I could use cablecards. I'm primarily using this for Hulu and Netflix and music (streaming and shared from my primary desktop in the house.)

The configuration was Apple-easy, though it's a bit snotty about recognizing my wireless keyboard on a reboot. (It's a 2.5 GHz keyboard with a USB dongle, not bluetooth... I have to unplug it and plug it back in after a reboot and then everything's fine until the next reboot.) Silent, stable, plenty of open-source choices for my needs. I'm using Plex instead of Frontrow, since Plex gives me nice integration with Netflix and Hulu and other sources. Video performance is good, though I'm still trying to tweak the desktop UI to be clear enough from across the room (the Plex interface is fine.) It's an almost-new machine and I'm quite happy with it... if I keep drinking all this Apple kool-aid I'll end up with a Macbook Pro.

So now for my personal machines, I'm at 2 Windows (XP), 1 Linux (CentOS) and 2 OSX... just in case any readers wonder if I really AM a geek!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Honda spits on wagon fans with the Accord Crosstour

In the interest of honest disclosure, I'll start by admitting that I'm not a huge fan of Honda automobiles. They have for the most part produced very good vehicles that strike me as bland, though there are notable exceptions like the rare and exotic (for its day) Honda NSX (sold in the US as an Acura) and the excellent S2000 sports car.

That said, they rarely seem to make real mistakes. Opinionated schmucks like me bitch and moan about them being soulless and torqueless, but we can rarely claim they are actually bad cars. Their sales would prove us wrong anyway, and their repeat sales definitely show a strong brand loyalty.

One of my beefs with Honda of late is that they make cars I'd actually want, but only sell them elsewhere. They have for several years sold a wagon in Europe called the Accord Tourer that is by all reports an excellent car and is certainly nice to look at. It's well-proportioned and seems an excellent choice for someone needing some cargo capacity in a nice car. Now, the European Accord is not the US Accord, it's more like the previous Acura TSX. It's a bit smaller than the now full-sized US Accord. This means they can't just "bring it here" and sell it as an Accord Wagon (or, god forbid, leave the name alone and call it an Accord Tourer.) They could fairly easily produce an Acura TSX Sportwagon (or Tourer, or call it a WSX or TSX Type-W if you want to pick an Acura-ish name.)

The motoring press started teasing with sightings of mules based on the nice Euro Accord Tourer around a year ago, and things were looking good for a Honda or Acura I might actually put on The Short List. The silver car at right in a Brenda Priddy spy shot looked like an Accord Tourer with a Honda Pilot-style grille. It looked slightly tall, but it's common for US-market cars to have more ground clearance than Euro cars to deal with our more variable road surfaces, so that wasn't a reason for concern.

Then the spy shots showed something just WRONG. Maybe they were trying to throw us off... but no, American Honda is bringing a fat, swollen, repulsive pig of a crossover hatchback lump that's more like the off-scale, overweight, clumsy-looking BMW X6 than the sleek Accord Tourer. The fat white beast to the left is the all-but-undisguised production car, as confirmed by official pictures released by Honda. So far I've only seen postings from a few people who don't hate it, and for all I know they're sockpuppets anyway. For some reason Honda created a Facebook page for the thing, where it's been almost universally panned by people signing up as "fans" just to pour derision on it. In my (completely unscientific) ad hoc analysis of the comments, it looks like about 20-1 in favor of haters. Go haters!

Maybe now they'll bring the Accord Tourer.

Oklahoma students' civics knowledge is not OK

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a study on the basis civics knowledge of Oklahoma public high school students in which 1000 students were asked 10 questions taken from the citizenship test required for candidates to become naturalized citizens of the United States. The actual test also contains 10 questions and requires that the candidate answer 6 of them correction. According to KWTV News 9 in Oklahoma City, about 92% of candidates for citizenship pass on their first try.

The Oklahoma high school students' performance in the study contributes to my already-cynical view of our public education system. Only 3% of them would be allowed to become citizens if they hadn't been born here! Only 23% of them knew that George Washington was our first president, and only 28% knew that the President is the person in charge of the executive branch. Hell, only 61% of them correctly named the ocean bordering the US to the east!

Instead of basic useful knowledge like this, our citizens debate whether or not we should teach intelligent design and creationism. They're entitled to their opinions, but they probably wouldn't know that such entitlement is written into the Constitution if they hadn't heard it at a Teabagging Party.

UPDATE: Statistician and blogger Nate Silver is a bit suspicious about the pollster who put out the Oklahoma results, and has an article about it here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The (Forgotten) Concept of Moderation

I see examples frequently that pragmatism and moderation are largely forgotten concepts on modern society. I'll skip the political bullshit that offers myriad examples and cut straight to the event that prompted me to write this post.

Author and New Yorker Colin Beavan came up with a gimmick for a book... he'd become "No Impact Man" and subject his family to a year without modern conveniences and products in order to reduce their impact on the world... to shrink their "carbon footprint." They were to do this while living in a 9th-floor co-op apartment on 5th Avenue.

The premise itself is reasonable enough, but the execution is almost farcical. Why should we care that some schmuck decided he'd walk up 9 flights as a personal hair shirt in a building that has a functional elevator? His fairly ridiculous antics such as turning off the electricity and replacing their refrigerator with a "pot in pot" evaporative cooler are simply not inspiring to normal people leading normal lives... I doubt that it's going to encourage many people to consider working conservation into their everyday choices and paring down waste in their lives... and frankly I think people who buy their kids $975 boots aren't people to emulate anyway.

The rational thing to do is to reduce our impact in sustainable ways... meaning things we can continue to do indefinitely as improvements in the way we live, not as ridiculous overdone experiments that grate on us during the whole time we've deprived ourselves of a normal life (and often lead to overcompensation when the experiment is over.)

Keep a car as long as it's economically viable (few of us live where it's truly possible to live without one altogether unless you're a writer who doesn't have to go to a job.) When it's really time to replace a car, buy one that MEETS your needs, not one that's ready for taking 7 passengers on the Paris-Dakar rally.

Buy a house that's big enough, not one you think will impress your friends because yours is bigger than theirs. Maintain your house and stay there, nearly everything about moving is both wasteful and expensive, especially if you're "moving up" to a McMansion. Part of maintaining your house is making its systems efficient, and USING them efficiently. Flush the toilet when you need to, but don't cool your house to 65 when it's 90 degrees out (and don't heat it to 80 when it's snowing out, either.)

There are thousands of things that nearly everyone can do to drastically reduce our impact on the planet without getting all stone-age about it. Ridiculous stunts like this just make many people think "that's crazy!" rather than "that's easy, I should do that!"

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Wack Job Extraordinaire: Michelle Bachmann thinks she could be president

I thought that I had become immune to surprise at Michelle Bachmann's idiocy, but I'll be damned if she didn't manage to attain new heights of craziness.

According to MediaMatters,
on Mike Gallagher's radio show Bachmann claimed that Democrats want to sabotage any Republican woman who might become president (citing Sarah Palin specifically) and suggesting that's the reason Dems have negative things to say about her.

I guess that's possible, but it seems much more likely that Democrats aren't fond of Bachmann because she's a vapid, rabid, paranoid, delusional hack who shouldn't be president of the local John Birch fanclub, much less a member of Congress.

Sometimes a service policy is worth it.

In general, I advise against buying service policies. Companies sell service policies because they are profitable on the whole... the house always wins. Especially for new toys you buy under warranty, the service policy is really just extra money you're giving the vendor because you feel like you didn't pay enough for your new toy.

While there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, sometimes you can get a good discount on the blue-plate special. Our refrigerator recently decided it was tired of keeping our food cold and needed a break. A 7-year-old Kenmore Elite, I felt it was a bit early for it to retire so I did a little research. Based on the symptoms, troubleshooting guides indicated that the problem was either quite inexpensive or the most expensive problem a refrigerator can have, so bet on it being the $25 start capacitor/overload relay assembly (and lost.)

Per the collective wisdom of the troubleshooting guide, if it wasn't the start cap it was the compressor itself. My first surprise was that many companies marketing themselves as appliance repair services don't work on the refrigeration system of refrigerators. I guess they just fix icemakers and replace thermostats... they can't be bothered to maintain a license to handle refrigerant apparently. When I finally got an appointment, it was 4 days out. (This is when it's really nice to have a "beer fridge" so we didn't lose our entire inventory of perishable food.)

I had plenty of time to research the state of the refrigerator market. It turns out that nice bottom-freezer refrigerators are not bargain goods, and viable substitutes for mine were $1600-$2000. I was not enthused. I remembered that Sears offers 12-month service policies on appliances less than 10 years old, though, and thought it was worth a call. Sure enough, I could buy one. Here's how it works:

For my refrigerator, they offer a 12-month service policy for $250 that covers repairs (trip-charge, parts AND labor) up to $500 per incident. If the repair costs more than $500, you can opt to pay the rest out of pocket or apply $500 to the purchase of a replacement at Sears. Since the guesstimates I had heard for replacing the compressor ranged from $400-$600, this seemed like the right move.

The total for the repair ended up being $622, so for $397 ($250 for the service policy plus $122 for the excess on the repair plus $25 for the part I bought to troubleshoot the problem initially) I got a $622 repair AND 12 months of coverage should the repair work turn out to be less than perfect. I think that's a reasonably good outcome.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Smitten with a giant Ford?

I notice that I haven't written anything automotive in a while. I think that's a function of being cranky... I've written mostly grumpy negative stuff in recent posts, including the last automotive thing I wrote. There's a bit of confusion in this topic, but not really the negative kind.

What am I confused about? Well, normally I like smaller cars. My current car, a 2005 Subaru Legacy GT Wagon, is the largest car I've ever had as my daily driver. Even so, the Legacy is on the smaller end of its group of competitive midsize cars, and even though mine is enlarged a bit because it's a wagon, it's not a large car, and never FEELS like a large car. Why then do I like the Ford Flex?

This thing is big. I think it's something about its overall proportions and especially the ride height that make it look reasonably sized. Visually, it seems to be smaller than the Edge, which is actually the smaller of the two by quite a bit. In actual dimensions and interior space, it's close to the size of GM's Acadia/Traverse/Enclave trio on their Lambda platform, but it never looks as huge as those.

I thought at first that it was just some photographic magic, but I've seen many of them in person and they seem to be the "right size" somehow. Happily, I'm not in the market... My Legacy is a great car and I'm still very happy about it, and working from home has really cut the number of miles I'm putting on it anyway. At this rate I'm likely to keep it until I can pay cash for my next vehicle, which would probably make me even more insufferable than usual. Maybe I'll go drive one and feel like it's huge and hate it, but what if I don't hate it? 355 hp/350 lb-ft of torque from Ford's new EcoBoost V6 wouldn't suck, though all that weight would certainly take its toll on performance.

Ah, well, it's safe to be fascinated with expensive toys when I'm too practical and cheap to buy one!

Contradictions in terms: "Glenn Beck" and "Common Sense"

I was shopping at Costco yesterday, as is pretty normal for me on a Saturday. I browsed through the books, which is less typical of late because I've been utilizing Fort Worth's excellent library system for my own books since we're spending big bucks on David F's textbooks these days.

I noticed a paperback the just set off the "WRONG!" warning in my head... a book by Glenn Beck entitled "Common Sense." Now, the synopses I've read sound like at least part of the book focuses on a decent topic (that our government is spending us into a very deep, dark financial hole) but it just strikes the wrong note with me that a "news" entertainer who frequently comes across like a bipolar guy who's off his meds should fancy himself a modern-day Thomas Paine and brand his musings as common sense. Maybe it's just the title that concerns me, but I'm loathe to give him $6.59 to find out. (Oh, and I noted in reading up about the book that it costs the same for the real, physical paperback at Costco as it does to rent the ephemeral right to read it on your Kindle until Amazon changes their mind. Buy the real one if you're buying.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rick Perry loves tolls, hates affordable health care

Ah, Rick Perry... everyone's favorite States' Rights proponent. I guess he's been logically consistent about States' Rights. He certainly supports the State's right to sell off its highway system to the bidder offering the sweetest backroom deal and the best junkets.

Now Mr. Perry has come out against the proposed federal health care plan. No surprise there, since Perry hasn't spent a penny he didn't have to on health care, trusting that the Magical Market will somehow improve preventative health care for the poor and the working uninsured. Like Roy Blunt (R-Mo), chair of the "GOP Health Care Solutions Group" Perry has no alternative to offer. No market-based magic bullet to lower health care costs or improve access to insurance, just that worthless "Not gonna do it!" attitude.

Liz Cheney supports "Birthers," thinks Obama is unpatriotic

Liz Cheney thinks that "birthers" aren't crazy, she and they are just concerned that President Obama doesn't "defend our nation overseas."

So, here we see the arch-con(servative) attitude coming out. Being respectful of other nations and cultures rather than being bellicose and swaggering is "not defending our nation." Admitting that we as a nation have perhaps not always done what is best for the world is not sedition, it's intellectual honesty. Of course, there's no reason to expect Ms. Cheney to have learned intellectual honesty at home...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fox News' Brian Kilmeade channels Hitler for morning show

Ah, such entertainment that's offered by Fox... as long as you aren't actually looking for what they say they are selling (that fair, balanced thing) you can be amused endlessly by their slant, lies, and racism.

This morning, Brian Kilmeade educated us all on why America is going to the dogs... MISCEGENATION! Why, those Italians and Irish aren't even the same species as us dUhmuhricuns! And Victoria dingbat Jackson thinks Obama is the one like Hitler?

There's a link to video of the segment here at

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Senate's amateur buffoon fears competition from professional comic

Perhaps the most ridiculous and ridiculed member of the US Senate, James Inhofe (R, OK) must be worried about competition. After all, he never seems to be worried that someone listening to the dreck that spills from his festering pie-hole might think he's an idiot, so he must be going for the laughs, right?

Now he's concerned that the senate is "... going to get the clown from Minnesota." Inhofe is the same backwards knuckle-dragger who offers such intellectual gems as comparing proponents of Global Warming to Nazis by stating "It kind of reminds . . . I could use the Third Reich, the big lie." He has also compared "An Inconvenient Truth" (which he admits he's never seen) to Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

Inhofe manages to be enough of a redneck jackass to embarrass Oklahomans, many of whom are damned proud of being redneck jackasses. He's worried that with someone in the senate offering a bit of thinking humor, people will realize that his yucks stem from thoughtless buffoonery.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Coda electric sedan

Behold, the Coda electric car by Miles EV. The company reports this as being a "midsize" car, so let's think of it as comparable to a Kia Optima for the sake of discussion. Coda claim that their car will hit the market at $45,000 before a $7,500 federal tax break for electric vehicles, so let's assume that they're right and call it $37,500. It's limited to about 80 mph (suggesting that it has a single-ratio transaxle connecting the electric motor to the wheels) and they report 0-60 in 11 seconds.

Let's compare that to a Kia Optima EX with the 2.4-liter 4 cylinder. It offers 10-ish second 0-60 performance with a proven company that has made tremendous strides in vehicle quality in recent years and has the most generous standard warranty in the business. Since Coda have the chutzpah to compare the price of their car to that of a BMW, let's assume that it's a full-on luxury car with leather seats, nav, etc. You know, all sorts of goodies installed to use up that battery power! So for a reasonably conservative comparison, I checked every option box on Kia's configurator and came up with $25,495. The Coda site lists only "climate control" as far as interior features, and we all know that no one is paying list for a Kia, but let's just stick with that number for now.

If you drove the Optima exclusively in town, getting only the 22 mpg city EPA-rated mileage, you'd have to drive 66,000 miles while paying $4/gallon for regular unleaded to burn through that $12k price difference, without even considering a) the cost of electricity to charge the Coda or b) the time value of money to amortize that $12k over the years it would take you to rack up 66,000 miles (and of course you could only drive 100 miles/day in the Coda, so no long trips... you'll have to rent a different car or pay airfare to go over the river and through the woods.) So realistically, you're looking at a payback of 8+ years without even considering whether or not you could get a better, nicer car for nearly 40 grand...

Do you want an expensive, unproven, limited-range, low-performance car from China?

Friday, May 29, 2009

The "debate" about Sonia Sotomayor disgusts me

In the 110th Congress, 59 senators and 174 representatives were also lawyers. You'd think that our national body of lawmakers, especially those who are also lawyers, might know something about the law, about judges and about courts of appeal. Apparently you'd never get these dolts to actually ADMIT it, though, because it might cramp their style when they have to tell the big lies about the other party's judicial nominees.

If Republicans want to paint Sonia Sotomayor as a liberal and/or activist judge, let them show the cases in detail that might suggest this. Let them also step aside after slinging their mud so that others might talk about the rest of Sotomayor's decisions that the Republicans weren't able to spin to their advantage so that we could actually have a reasoned debate on the topic.

Let every Republican who praised Alito's humble upbringing and said it would make him a better justice who understood the "real world" stand up after videotape of their remarks about Alito are played and say why this same standard shouldn't apply to a latina who had better grades than Alito and more years on the federal bench than he had when he was nominated. If even one elected official has the balls to do that, I might admire their ability to lie as much as I despise their willingness to do so.

I shouldn't even bother to be upset about it. No big scandals have turned up so far, so it looks like her nomination is likely to be confirmed. Still, it's galling to see the same people who huffed and puffed and cried "Politics!" about any suggestion that Democrats might not support Alito turn around and threaten filibusters and focus on irrelevant minutiae when a qualified, experienced, intelligent judge is nominated by a president who scares them as much as W scared sane people.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rick Perry: Stupid, or evil?

Rick Perry, supposedly the duly-elected governor of my state, has repeated the long-debunked canard that Texas joined the US with a pre-approved agreement to secede if it chose to do so.  He couched this in a half-hearted statement that he didn't think Texas should do so, but the fact that he thinks we somehow have the right to do so is troublesome.  He's already been busy selling off as much of our state's infrastructure as he can get his helmet-haired head around to the private sector (including private companies based in other countries.) 

I was able to ignore Perry for the most part when the biggest part of my shame was that our former governor was busily wrecking the federal government (along with Iraq and Afghanistan) but now that there are signs that we have a president with detectable brain activity, it's time to get rid of Perry.  Even Kay Bailey Hutchison would be an improvement, and that is saying something.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Michael Steele is not very smart

So the shiny new chairman of the Republican party thinks that government-stimulated jobs are just work, but private-sector work is all JOBS and they'll last forever. Never mind the fact that the 8 years of tax-cut driven job-growth bonanza under our last president represented the LOWEST period of job growth since WWII. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Here is a man who either hasn't even a vague clue about economics, or is such a partisan hack that he doesn't mind lying through his teeth to get the job done... either he's not very smart, or he'll say anything to oppose, obstruct and delay. How can addressing infrastructure needs that have been piling up since Saint Reagan convinced everyone that all government is bad and the private sector is the only group that can create the Shining City on a Hill be a short-term fix? Hell, we have enough real infrastructure needs to have projects going on for many years!

Whom does Steele think will do this work? Does he believe we'll suddenly have a Ministry of Work that runs the projects from start to finish, employing all the workers and manufacturing all the materials? Has he such a tenuous grasp on economics that he thinks there is a way to address these big infrastructure problems such as crumbling roads and bridges and an electrical grid largely designed in the 1950s such that all of the jobs and all of the money spent on the projects will just evaporate without any lasting effect on the economy?

I for one don't believe Steele is quite that stupid. I think he's really just a partisan hack who'll say anything to get on the news and get in the way. In his tiny, cold, calculating heart, Steele probably wants the stimulus to pass with as little Republican consent as possible, so they can go on saying what a horrible waste it is for another couple of years and pray that the economy is still wobbly when the 2010 election cycle rolls around.

The Republicans themselves ruined the very idea of government spending to fix things when they were given $350 billion dollars to buy up some toxic assets and stabilize the banking system, and instead they turned it into a big giveaway party to pay off John Thain's decorating bill and fund billions in bonuses to Wall Street zeroes who should be applying for unemployment instead. The real question is whether they were shrewd enough to think they were poisoning the well, or dumb enough to believe they'd get away with it.