Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Prius Plurality

Back in the day, the Buick represented a sophisticated level of luxury and automotive classiness. It came from a magnificent, mechanical gene pool, and a challenge in 1935 from Buick’s President, Harlow Curtice, to his Chief Designer, Harley Earl, who always drove Cadillac’s.

Curtice told Earl to build a car he would be proud to own.

The result was the 1936 Buick Roadmaster, and the trademark triple port-holes along the upper front fender. Earl never owned anything but Buicks from then on.

Buick’s were always hot cars—fast and sleek.

The Buick V-6 engine, first offered in the 1962 Buick Special, is the great-granddaddy of the spectacular Buick 3800 V-6, reknowned for its power and smooth operation.

Somewhere along the way, however, Buick’s became synonymous with aged, slow drivers. The stereotypical Buick driver devolved to common traits of blue hair, thick glasses, barely able to peer over the steering wheel, and the uncanny ability to maintain a steady 54.5-mph in the left hand lane. Regardless.

If stuck behind a ‘90’s-model Buick Century, for example, I generally always scan the rear view mirrors for traffic, and quickly scoot past.

However, I’ve encountered a new traffic nemesis:
The Toyota Prius.

Now, don’t misunderstand—the Prius is an amazing automobile.
Toyota has captured the market in hybrid gasoline/electric personal transportation in a car that owners fiercely love, and tirelessly drive.

I have friends with Priii (the plural form) with hundreds of thousands of miles on them.

Now riddle me this:
What do a Prius and a Dodge Ram Pick-up pulling a loaded trailer have in common?
They are a devastating combination in morning traffic…especially when the Prius driver is practicing his “hyper-mileage” techniques in the inside lane of the freeway, running along side the lumbering truck.

Honestly—I applaud all you Prius drivers.
Way to go, save the planet, kudo’s to you.
I hope you squeeze 60-mpg out of those things.
But you cannot do it all yourself, and you should not try to impose such frugality on others, especially when you’re sitting in the fast lane of the freeway.

So now, if I’m ever behind a Prius by as little as a quarter of a mile, I immediately shift over one lane—sometimes two—just to avoid the inevitable log jam.

(Want to know how to blow a Prius owner’s mind?
Tell ‘em the Hummer H-2 is actually more earth-friendly to produce and operate than a Prius.
It's a fact, Jack.)

By the way, remember what is shiny…comes in threes and fours, and is usually found on the upper front fender of a Buick? Those three, oval chrome rings that have for decades visually branded Buicks…until now.

What is it these days, with everyone is putting trios of chrome accents on the front fenders of their beloved clunkers.

It is not cool looking, I hate to tell you.
An ’86 Honda Civic with chrome portholes is not a Buick.
A ’91 Toyota SR-5 Pick up with chrome portholes is not a Buick.
A ’98 Dodge Ram with chrome portholes is not a Buick.

A freakin' PT Cruiser with portholes is just... embarrassing.

I will admit, however, you might fool someone by putting a trio of chrome rings on the upper front fender of a Prius!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What's Missing from the Housing Bill

Reading the fine print of the new housing bill awaiting the President’s signature is a little like reading the boilerplate on the back of a Castaways Vacation Club membership agreement: At the end of the day, it ain’t all that and a bag of chips.

In fact, the chips may be stale, if there are even any left in the bag.

The housing bill was passed to essentially keep the two biggest lenders for residential mortgages, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, from failing after ingesting portfolios that included loans that should have never been made, and are now failing.

The bill is essentially giving these entities something they’d never give you or me: an unlimited line of credit, just in case, no strings attached.
Lord help us if Freddie decides to take Fannie to the Mall.

There’s some Dr. Feel-good written into the bill, too, but it’s a false feeling when you drill down into the details.
The Devil, you say?

Take that $7,500 tax credit for first time homebuyers.
What a deal!
A 10% credit, up to $7,500, on homes purchased between April of this year and the end of June 2009, hoping to spur more young, flat-bellies to buy their first house.
Except, it’s really not a credit, you don’t actually get the “credit” until after you’ve closed on the mortgage, and uh-oh—you’ve got to pay it back within 15-years.
Say what?

Another little nugget that bears closer scrutiny is the FHA Modernization component, intended to drag the Federal Housing Administration kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. FHA loans have always been around, but frankly, were more trouble than they were worth to deal with. FHA loan packets were euphemistically referred to as Carpal Tunnel in a box, and a boon to hand surgeons across the land.

Modernization means FHA will be a little easier to deal with, right?
Wrong, disclaimer-breath.

In the interest of making the loans more palatable to snake-bitten investors, the seller-funded downpayment assistance has been eliminated. An unintended consequence of this may be that FHA loans are still too much trouble for most buyers to mess with.

Congress is trying to show the public it has the cojones to address the crisis of confidence that has sucked the wind out of the sails (and sales) in the financial sector. As is typical with anything coming from Capitol Hill, where there’s smoke, there are mirrors.

What our esteemed representatives and senators have failed to do—and would instantly restore confidence—would be to take the guys at the lending companies who created the mess and flog them publicly. I want names named, and heads rolled.

What Washington has missed is what the public needs most: accountability. Then the rest will take care of itself, and there’s no need for a housing bill.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Vacation Blues

I’ve had it with these vacation groups that promise you the moon, but barely deliver.
I’m calling one of them out—Phoenix Vacations, which is somehow tied to the “Castaways” vacation club. As far as I am concerned it’s all a scam.
Here’s why:

The company uses out-bound telemarketers to generate leads.
They promise you a free cruise for two, a free week at some resort—attractive incentives to entice you to show up for their presentation.

When you get there, you’re herded into a room where a jovial, entertaining host does 30-minutes of stand-up comedy, tinged with information about how much money one can save by utilizing their travel connections.
And it’s mighty attractive.

Why, do you realize, over your lifetime, if you travel as much as they propose that you will, you could pay for your membership fee several times over?
That argument, of course, is predicated on the assumption you’re going to buy-in to their deal.

After show and tell, couples are descended upon by closing agents like a swarm of locusts. They sit across the table from you, eyeball to eyeball, asking about your kids, your job, your bank account. It’s all calculated to help them determine how much blood they can squeeze from your turnip.

Never accept the first offer.
There’s plenty of “wiggle room” in these plans, because they’re all priced with more inflation than a Goodyear Blimp. My notes show we “haggled” the price down from thousands to about $1,300.00, which still, in retrospect, was way too much.

Quite simply, the plan never worked for us.
We never were able to take our “free cruise,” and the weekend package went unused because they were so difficult to arrange. At the end of the first year, the score was Castaways – 0, Brent’s Travel Service – 2.

Pricing for things like hotel rooms in New York City were vastly different—and more expensive—when quoted through the Castaways plan vs Plain ‘ol Me calling the front desk for room rates and availabilities.

I asked for a refund, which, of course, I didn’t expect to receive.
And did not.
What I didn’t expect was to keep receiving calls from Castaways’ marketing mavens, still trying to scam me for a membership a year and a half later.

I don’t know what’s more irritating about that:
The fact that I have documented proof, in writing, that we were unhappy with them, and do not wish to have any further dealings...or the ignorant, barely literate people who continue to call me, speaking in broken English, and who hang up when I ask to speak to someone I can understand.

I just received such a call this evening.
I spoke with a manager in the Castaways office shortly thereafter, who promised to get it taken care of.
Of course, that’s what I was told last month when this all happened.
We’ll see if it sticks this time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ghosts of NAS Hitchcock

I am a bit of a history nut, one of those nerdy types prone to stop and read every scrap of information about a place when I am visiting.
Drives the rest of my family nuts.

Last year we took some out-of-town friends to see the Battleship Texas, one of my most-favorite historical sites in the state. I could spend an entire weekend on the old Dreadnought. My wife was ready to hit the gift shop within the first hour.

Fortunately, my friends were impressed enough by the park to take in the magnificent San Jacinto Monument as well. I could spend a week there.
We managed to kill an hour.

Recently I was a guest in the beautiful weekend hacienda of Ed Gardner, near Hitchcock, Texas.
A friend pointed out a strange site to the northwest of his home, four odd-looking monoliths, shimmering in the distance in the summer heat.

He told me it was the remains of a blimp base from World War Two.

I was intrigued, and on my way home that afternoon, followed some rough directions to find the concrete quartet of markers for NAS Hitchcock.

The Blimp Base, as the locals know it, was built by the US Navy during the most fearful months of the War, when German U-boats were lurking off the coasts of major American cities, sinking commercial shipping vessels with wild abandon. Airships had been proven to be able trackers of the elusive subs, and a string of air bases were hastily erected along the coastlines to protect our shipping interests. NAS Hitchcock was the last such base to be built; had the war continued, a second hangar would have been added.

The Blimp Base at Hitchcock was only in use for 17-months, as the U-boat threat to the Gulf Coast was neutralized by that time.
In October, 1944, NAS Hitchcock was converted from blimp traffic to more conventional naval aircraft.

After the War, the base was sold and used for various research and storage projects. In 1961, Hurricane Carla so damaged the hanger, that it had to be dismantled.

All that remains today are those four sentinel columns and a concrete water tower. The nearby Administration Building is being renovated as a bed and breakfast.

A steel warehouse has been constructed over the west row of concrete pedestals that once supported the wooden trusses of the hangar's roof. The ocean breezes from the nearby Gulf of Mexico whistle through the barren support posts on the east side of the hangar's footprint.

I was in the area recently, and much to the chagrin of my Bride, had obtained permission to walk the property and capture some images. Hey, she's just lucky there weren't any plaques around there to read!

You can view more photos from this weekend excursion on my Facebook page.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dolly Llama's

The South Texas Coast just experienced the first Hurricane of the 2008 season. A Category-2 storm, Hurricane Dolly came ashore near Brownsville on Wednesday, with triple-digit winds and a 6-foot storm surge, and lots and lots of rain.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has declared 14-counties as disaster areas, and portions of Northern Mexico are also dealing with the aftermath.

Don’t misunderstand, this was a storm to be reckoned with, but it paled in comparison to Katrina and Hugo, which devastated the Gulf Coast a few years ago. Still, if you watched any of the news coverage on TV for past few days, you’d have thought Dolly was the harbinger of the Apocalypse.

What is the deal with these TV news correspondents reporting the hurricane’s progress on-location---why must they place themselves in the teeth of the storm to do their job?
Does that help their credibility one iota?

If you see some soggy spokesman on camera, do you pay closer attention him or her, because they’re on the scene… or do you think—this dodo doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, what else about him is wacked?

I’m looking at these guys, and they’re standing there in the glare of the spotlight, wind whipping the rain into their faces, blinded, barely able to stand up.
Are these people showing good judgment?
Would you trust a news reporter who couldn’t get out of the way of a trainwreck?

I know, I know, there are some in the TV viewing audience with a morbid sense of curiousity--even hopeful--that a gust of wind or a mighty wave will knock the reporter to his or her knees, or even into the crashing surf behind them. These people also like to watch NASCAR, hoping for a spectacular crash.

While the images we’ve seen of Hurricane Dolly’s wrath have been interesting, I wonder if the TV network’s used less risk-averse folk to put out there to gather the video and file the reports—with rain flying sideways across the camera’s field of view.

In Central America there is the Llama: an animal that is so curious about the world around it, they sometimes get into trouble. "Llama" is also used as a denigrating term to describe newbies in the computer world.

I would rather take my cues from someone with enough sense to hunker down for a storm—not parade around in the wind and rain.

Maybe we should call those reporters “Dolly Llamas.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Old Grey Mare (she ain't what she used to be)

There’s an old hymn that’s based upon this phrase: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul.”

That’s chilling thought, whether you’re very religious or not.
Even more so in the context of a couple of articles that recently appeared in the national media.

The Associated Press published a piece showing the statistical value of a human life has diminished over the years. This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency, of all groups, calculated the value of a U.S. life at $6.9-million.
That’s about a million dollars less than in 2003.
A million here, a million there…what shall it profit a man, indeed.
Remember, for the EPA’s purposes, the value being reckoned is of a statistical life. Helpful to know if you’re cutting rules and regs that might have an impact on life in these United States, like, for example, something that would allegedly provide “life saving” benefits.

If the bean-counters figure the statistical value of a life, like the Old Grey Mare, ain’t what it used to be, then the need for tighter regulations on things like air pollution just don’t make financial sense.
Hmmm…and they needed an actuarial wizard to discover this?

Interestingly, the statistical value of a human life is not calculated based upon your earning power, or the possible contributions to society you might make, but instead on what you’re willing to pay to avoid risk. The EPA presumes we’re less willing to pay to avoid the unknown, but misses the fact that as we the people become more affluent, the value of a statistical life increases as well.

Meanwhile, columnist Froma Harrop has discovered that our quest for eternal youth—or at lease the ability to live longer--is actually costing the country money. More money, it seems, than would be spent if we were to experience an untimely demise from diseases we’ve been programmed to prevent.

Sounds a little goofy…but, if you don’t keel over from a heart attack in your ‘70’s, you’re more likely to grimly reap a dose of cancer in your ‘80’s. Or need a fresh set of hip joints in your ‘90’s. Juan Ponce De Leon probably never thought about that aspect while searching for the Lost Fountain of Youth.

The Dutch have run a study showing medical expenses for smokers who achieved room temperature at age 77 were cheaper than for non-smokers who clogged around in wooden shoes until they checked out at 84.
So now we’re supposed to apologize for cheating death?

The point is, medical spending does not become more affordable just because you have the genetic ability to live a tenth as long as Methuselah. Harrop quotes University of Virginia Med School Provost Arthur Garson, Jr., who says the best kind of aging is “having early old age as long as possible, and late old age last about 15-minutes.”
Wonder how that would mess with the EPA’s calculations on the value of an American life?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rush vs Ralph

Perennial Presidential Spoiler Ralph Nader wrote a letter to Rush Limbaugh in response to his new 8-year, $38-milllion-a-year contract with Premiere Radio Networks: “You are making this money on the public property of the American people for which you pay no rent. You, Rush Limbaugh, are on welfare.”

The man who killed the Corvair, and is considered the father of OSHA, rightly pointed out in his epistle to the apostle Rush that public airwaves belong to the American people.

“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is supposed to be our trustee in managing this property,” wrote Nader. “The people are the landlords and the radio and TV stations and affiliated companies are the tenants.”

Hmmm...wonder why Ralph didn’t write to Sumner Redstone (CBS Corporation) Lowry Mayes (Clear Channel) or Farid Suleiman (Citadel Broadcasting), who are in fact the “corporate tenants,” as owners of most of the Radio stations in America, not Rush.

Limbaugh is no different from Dr. Laura, Paul Harvey, or in an extreme example, Howard Stern, all of whom are media personalities, not station operators.

Their job is to entertain to such an extent that the owners of stations who carry their shows may generate revenues by selling advertising during the programs. The networks who syndicate their shows also sell advertising around the programs.
That's how media works, Ralph.

Will you next be asking Jay Leno and David Letterman to pay rent for their time on the NBC and CBS television networks? How about getting Rupert Murdoch to pony up some rent money for pedalling his papers on the street corners of Anytown, USA?

Could it be, ladies and gentlemen, the same man who leveraged his position against General Motors for enough dough to start Public Citizen is now perhaps a little jealous of the marketing machine of Limbaugh’s EIB? Me thinks he doth protest too much.

Why not attack Premier Networks, the programming syndicator that provides shows like Rush Limbaugh, Jim Rome, and Glenn Beck to Radio stations across America?

Those stations are airing those programs at no cost other than the barter for the airtime. Rush, Jim, and Glenn are really no more than vaudeville entertainers—highly paid, of course—but in the final analysis, they’re just actors.

But, in a politically-charged atmosphere where everyone is scrambling for a little limelight, people are prone to say just about anything—from comments about castrating candidates, to proposing to charge rent to Radio talk show hosts.

I can’t wait to hear Rush’s take on this, in response.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Public Servitude

The Houston Chronicle has taken the bold step of publishing on its website the database of public employees’ pay, from the Mayor down the line to the janitors at the jail.
Think of it as a public service in letting the rest of us know where are tax dollars are going.
The controversial part of the report is that the full names of all public employees are given for all to see.

Could be a good thing; could be bad thing.
The comments posted to the paper’s website are certainly revealing of the level of sophistication and understanding of public works financing on the part of the Chronicle’s readership.

Still, it is interesting to note that the highest-paid public employee is not some fat-cat politician, but the Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Abe Saavedra, booking a whopping $442,556 salary last year for managing the state’s largest school system.

I believe there is a clue here as to why HISD is turning out less than stellar academic results, when the top administrator is paid so highly while classroom teachers struggle to make ends meet. Remember the stories of elementary school teachers having to buy needed teaching supplies with their own, meager paychecks?
Sorry, Abe, the math doesn’t wash with me.

Not surprisingly, the most overtime paid to a public servant went to a Houston ISD police Sergeant, Marcella Singleton, whose pay last year of $158,914 include $95K in overtime. Runner-up was an HPD sergeant, Scott Smith, whose $180K income was more than half in overtime pay.

Now, before you fire off indignant letters to the editor—or the Mayor, City Council, or the Chief of Police (who earned $199k, placing him in the Top 25 Highest-paid category), remember that these are gross salary figures, before taxes and other deductions are applied.

Still, makes you wonder if there might be a better way to do things down at City Hall…or the Administration Offices at HISD. By the way, the Mayor of the 4th largest city in the country, Bill White, earned $176k for his work last year. It was a significant cut in pay from his private sector job as CEO for Wedge Group.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Green Genes

I have the best job in the world...even when I don't have a job!
Most of you know by now that I am "between gigs," in the vernacular of the Radio realm. For the past few weeks, I have been hosting a Radio show on behalf of the UBuildIt office in Houston's tony Galleria Financial District. Mark Jeffrey is the franchisee, and he has collected an assortment of experts in design, materials, applications, finance, and general experience in planning and building homes.

Oh, you haven't heard it?
Find CNN 650 Radio News in Houston weekday mornings from 7-8am. You can also listen live on line at

On Tuesday mornings we discuss Green Building.
"Green In Action" features the stories of people who are actually doing constructive things (no pun intended) in environmentally friendly ways.

Today's guests included Kevin Topek from Permaculture Design, who immediately impressed me by proclaiming, "there's nothing green about wasting money." I like that attitude, because there's way too much going on in the "green building" realm--and our general environmentally friendly bent-- that is not cost-effective, is over-priced, and in some cases, is downright foolish.

Exhibit-A: Al Gore's house.
Exhibit-B: The state of California will require all cars to display a Global Warming Score number starting with the 2009 model year.

According to an article on, "the labeling law forces cars for sale to display a global warming score, on a scale of one to 10, which is based on how vehicles in the same model year compare to one another. The higher the score, the cleaner a car is.

"The score takes into account emissions related to production of fuel for each vehicle as well as the direct emissions from vehicles. The score will be displayed next to the already-required smog score, which also rates cars one to 10 for how many smog-forming emissions they emit. For both scores, an average vehicle will have a score of five."

I finally feel sorry for the people of California.
No, I take that back.
They voted into office the morons that passed this insipid piece of legislation.
They get what they deserve.

One must wonder what the Global Warming Score labels might look like. Like the flags on the sides of fighter planes representing enemy kills, might they feature one to ten polar bears, denoting the car's lethality to environment?

There is an upside to Global Warming Scores, but I believe some clarification is in order: If I want it to be warmer where I live, should I buy a car rated #1 or #10?

And in a really strange twist, this kind of logic would result in a world in which it would make more sense to buy a used car instead of a new one. According to GreenBiz, here's why:

You'd have to drive 60,000 miles for a Prius to break even with a non-hybrid equivalent car because of the emissions that result from creating the materials and energy used to build the cars. Now if you follow this line of reasoning, and used 200,000 gallons of diesel to build a car that gets 100MPG, it would get the best possible global warming score in California!

So...buying a used car would be better for the environment because there is no environmental cost to produce it. It saves the raw materials and energy necessary to build a new one.

I get it.

I don't think we have to worry about such fallacious theories on Tuesday's shows.
Co-hosting with me each week will be Teri Mercatante of the Greenology Consulting Group. It's more than just talking green.
It's Green in action.

I'll see you on the Radio.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

July 4th Follies

Nothing says the 4th of July like fireworks.
Especially when they’re between neighbors and home owners associations.
Let me explain.

We live in a fairly new but modest subdivision outside the City Limits.
The HOA has in the past been active about keeping the reflecting pool/retention pond in good repair, making sure the light bills are paid for the street lamps, and contracting to have the trash picked up each week.

We don’t have a security patrol, but there are two FBI agents, a private investigator, and at least two Sheriff’s deputies living within our community.
And a couple of kids who are dead-shots with water balloons.
Miscreants, beware!

It’s a nice place to live…unless…you enjoy shooting off fireworks in your back yard, because that’s against the deed restrictions… or, unless you dislike hearing the snap, crackle, pop and bangs of fireworks this time of the year, because other neighborhoods around us do allow them. And sometimes, the exuberance of the holidays is just too much to resist by some within our community.
This July 4th was no exception.

As afternoon turned to twilight, one of our youthful residents could hardly restrain his patriotic fervor, finding outlet only by cruising past my house in his convertible, tossing over-sized firecrackers at some of the neighborhood kids at play along the way. Then, he proceeded to set off massive loads of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and large skyrockets from his back yard and the street in front of his house.

My neighbor is the HOA President; her husband is the past-President. I am the Secretary for our association. Together, he and I drove around the block to remind our over-zealous celebrant that he was posing a threat to his neighbors and himself.

I cannot publish here what he said in response to our comments; this is, after all, a family-friendly Blog.

I can report that he was the most ill-tempered, arrogant little snot I’ve run across in quite some time, antagonistic, belligerent, and rude to my neighbor and I. So much for “love thy neighbor.”

Other neighbors on his street had already called for a sheriff’s deputy to respond. One man was standing in the street in front of his house, warily watching for the next act. A couple were peering from their front yard. In the street, a smoldering launcher gave mute witness to the fiery folly.

Are you ready for this?
The kid’s father called the HOA management office to complain about our visit in response to this moron’s reckless behavior (where were the parents, anyway??)

My neighbor tried to talk to the mother about it; she shook her finger at him, and slammed the door in his face.
Guess the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Last Chance TAKS

In the Houston ISD today, 58,000 Junior High students are taking an achievement test to determine their academic worthiness to advance to High School in the Fall. These are the kids who did not pass the TAKS test when it was administered—twice—earlier in the school year.

For them it’s make or break time.
I think the rest of us may have already reached the point of no return.
Here’s why.

In Texas, the passing rate for the Math portion of the test, is about 82%. Yet there is still pressure to advance kids to the next grade, even when they haven’t mastered the current year’s material.

One Eighth-grader was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying she asked for extra work to increase her grades because, as she said, “I don’t want to stay here no more.”
Obviously, none of the extra credit was in English grammar.

In Massachusetts, there is less emphasis on the applied Math that a study of Physics would require, than for studies in Biology. I daresay that Music, too, requires a direct application of basic Math, and exercises both the left and right lobes of the brain.

Of course, with some school districts prohibiting the use of actual chemicals in the teaching of Chemistry and Physics, no wonder the kids aren’t getting it.
We are to blame for letting things get out of hand.

I read this week where the BBC ran a survey revealing so little emphasis had been placed on the study of Physics in schools in the U.K. that they’ve mandated having at least 25% of science teachers with a specialty in Physics by 2012. You would have thought that hairlipped the Queen, by the hue and cry of posters to the article.

Not too surprising, however, when you have British High Schools giving points on English essays turned in with nothing on them but obscene two-word phrases.
I kid you not.

The Examiner justified the two-point grade (out of a possible 27) because the student’s work, “f***-off,” showed basic skills of communication, “like conveying meaning and some spelling.”

Glad the bugger could spell.
The Examiner said the student would have gotten a better grade “if the phrase had been punctuated.”
George Carlin assuredly is rolling over in his freshly made grave.