Monday, December 31, 2012

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

A lot of people receive preapproved or prescreened credit card offers in the mail, and I am no exception.  I sometimes receive several in a week, and on more than one occasion I've received several in a single day.  Thus throughout the years I started to wonder how many of these applications are actually sent to me in a given year... and in 2012 I decided to find out.  Therefore, beginning on January 1st I began collecting and documenting each and every prescreened credit card offer that arrived in my mailbox not only to determine how many of these offers I received, but also to document the differences between the offers.

Since January, I have documented a total of 69 offers that have arrived in the mail.  Initially I thought about attempting to document offers received via email as well, but I soon realized that would include hundreds of such offers, so I opted to limit this experiment to only offers that happen to appear in my physical mailbox.  I then used a spreadsheet to list details such as introductory interest rate, regular interest rate, annual fee, balance transfer fee, as well as any particular "bonus" offered with the card such as airline miles, cashback bonuses, or points per dollar spent.

Yes... I apparently have far too much free time.

The Offers

Here is a summary of some of the more interesting facts about the prescreened offers I received:

  • 57 of the 69 offers included a introductory APR of 0%.
  • A shortest intro APR offered was for 12 months; the longest for 18 months.
  • The lowest, regular (non-intro) APR was for 9.99%; the highest was for a whopping 25.24%!
  • 61 of the 69 offers had no annual fee.  The few cards that did include an annual fee were typically travel cards that offered airline miles for every dollar spent.  The annual fee for these cards ranged from a low of $95 to a high of $150 although in most cases the fee was waived for the first year.
Now as far as which banks were responsible for the offers I received, the breakdown is as follows:
  • Discover: 23
  • Citi / Citbank: 16
  • Capital One: 14
  • American Express: 11
  • HSBC: 2
  • Comenity Bank: 2
  • Chase: 1
It should be noted that in mid-2012 Capital One bought HSBC, so I could have listed those as the same company for a total of 16 offers.  Either way Discover is the clear winner here with a total of 23 offers out of the 69 I received.

If you prefer a visual reference, here is a pretty chart showing the final outcome taking into account conjoined companies:

Factors Impacting The Number of Offers

There are a few specific items I need to point out regarding the total count of prescreened offers showing up in my mailbox.  First of all I currently hold three credit cards.  I have a Wells Fargo Visa, a Chase Freedom Visa, and a Menards card issued by HSBC (aka: Capital One).  My relationship with these companies most likely impacts the number of offers coming from them, as I wouldn't expect to get a lot of offers from companies that I already hold cards with.

I have been told that Wells Fargo does not currently send prescreened offers to non-Wells Fargo customers therefore if someone isn't a Wells Fargo customer and doesn't receive offers from Wells Fargo I wouldn't exactly be shocked.  In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I do in fact work for Wells Fargo, but I do not work in the Credit Card line of business so don't quote me on how they handle their prescreening process.

As to my Chase Visa card, I should note that prior to me having a Chase card, I would get prescreened offers from Chase about as often as I do from Discover.  Apparently these people don't give up easily.  Capital One on the other hand doesn't seem to care that I have a HSBC issued Menards Card, because they continue to send me prescreened offers on a regular basis.

In years past, I have had cards from Capital One, Citibank, Discover, and retail (store) cards issued by Wells Fargo and GE Financial.  The Wells Fargo card was from a furniture store, and the GE account was for a carpet purchase.  The cards from Discover and Capital One were closed upon my request because I rarely used them and they were simply taking up room in my wallet.  The store accounts were opened at the time of the purchases due to 0% APR offers, and they were closed within the interest free window in order to prevent any interest charges being applied to the accounts.  I only mention these cards because I have an account history with these companies which may or may not impact the number of prescreened offers I receive from them.

My Credit Profile

I will admit if you would have asked me how many prescreened credit card offers I receive in the mail over a one year period, I would have guessed at least 150.  When the total count showed me that I actually receive less than half that amount I was somewhat surprised, but I cannot state if my estimates were based upon past experience, or if perception simply doesn't match reality.

I don't believe my actual credit score has changed much in the past few years, so I doubt that has anything to do with the number of offers arriving in my mailbox.  I monitor my credit report on a regular basis and have good to excellent credit.  My credit score ranges from high 700s to low 800s depending upon the credit bureau and when I happen to check (the most recent score I have seen was in the upper 700s).  I've never been late on any payments and I have verified my credit reports do not show any late or missing payments.  

That said, I have noticed over the past year my credit score appears to have dropped a bit which I attribute to the fact that some of my older accounts are dropping off my credit history due to them being closed.  This likely impacts my credit utilization, and because I no longer have a car loan that I'm paying on a monthly basis I'm assuming there is some impact due to fewer types of credit being used.  

One mistake I made in years past is to close old credit cards and open new accounts when there was a tempting bonus offer.  For instance at one point I had a Capital One card with a fixed 5.9% APR, however because I rarely used the card I closed it and opened up a different account with another card issuer because of a $300 cash bonus.  Because I don't typically carry a balance on any of my credit cards, I generally don't care about the APR of a card, however the cycle of opening and closing credit card accounts can have a negative impact upon a credit score.  Because of this, I plan to keep the cards I have even if I only use them several times a year.  

The Never-ending Sales Pitch

It seems clear that Discover, Capital One / HSBC, and Citi are very determined to give me a credit card and on more than one occasion I received multiple offerings from these companies within a one week period.  In fact, I received an offer from Discover on April 16th, and a second offer from them two days later on April 18th.  The offers themselves were identical, so I could see no reason why they were so quick to send a follow-up mailing.

As mentioned previously, Discover was responsible for sending me a total of 23 prescreened offers throughout 2012 or an average of two offers per month.  I am convinced that they are single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Speaking of Discover, their typical offer included a 0% intro-APR for 12-15 months with a regular APR of 9.99%.  However in May I noticed their regular APR moved upwards to 10.99% and in July it moved up to 12.99%.  In August the APR reached a peak of 14.99%, but two short weeks later in September they were back down to 9.99% where they have remained until the end of the year.  I'm not sure what drove the varying interest rates, but it seems odd that an APR would slowly rise only to drop 5% in a matter of two weeks.  I guess this is one case where it clearly pays to keep track of the various offers before sending in an application.

The Outliers

If this little experiment has taught me anything, it is that there are vast differences between offers when you look at the details.  Late in the year I received two offers issued by Comenity Bank for the "Express NEXT" card (a store credit card for the Express clothing stores).  This wasn't exactly shocking to me because I had recently signed up for a rewards program in my local Express store, and shortly thereafter the prescreened offers showed up.  The disturbing aspect of this was that the regular APR for this card is a whopping 24.99% which was second only to an offer received from Sears.

Speaking of Sears, their offer (issued by Citibank) not only was the highest APR of any card received throughout the entire year at 25.24%, but they didn't even include any type of intro APR.  They were nice enough to offer a $10 statement credit after the first purchase, but honestly... I find this offer insulting.  I realize store-branded cards typically hold higher APRs than regular bank-issued, non-branded cards, but a card with an APR above 25% is simply insane especially considering the card offers no significant benefits on top of a traditional card.

I realize Sears has been losing billions of dollars a year for the past few years (yes that is billions with a "B"), but if they want to stay in business and build brand loyalty it probably isn't a great idea to attempt to return to profitability on the backs of their credit card holders.  To make matters worse I hold a Sears loyalty card with VIP status meaning I have spent thousands of dollars with Sears in a one-year time frame... and this is the way that loyalty is rewarded?  I'm underwhelmed Sears... but that really isn't anything new.

The Fine Print

I of course am not about to list all of the fine print for each of the offers I received, but I will provide a little insight as to my methodology.

First, if the regular APR was listed as a range (for instance 9.99% - 12.99%) I always listed the lowest APR in that range to correspond to a person with good to excellent credit.  Obviously not everyone would qualify for the lowest APR, but this was one way to level the playing field.

Next, most APRs were listed as varying with the market based upon the Prime Rate.  I documented the APRs at the point the offer was received, but if the Prime Rate happens to change, it is assumed some of the APRs would as well.

Finally, I didn't list all of the bonuses that are included with each offer.  I did document them in my spreadsheet for comparison sake, but I didn't take the time to outline each here for space reasons.  Most of these offers were for point or mileage bonuses after charging so much on the card within a specific time period.  For example it is very common to receive 10,000 bonus miles or $100 statement credit if $1,000 is charged within three months.  A few offers included gasoline gift cards, cashback bonuses, or bonus miles upon an approved application as well.

Stop The Madness

As fun as this process is, I really have no desire to receive dozens upon dozens of these offers each and every year, and because of the ever-increasing threat of identity theft, I'm forced to shred these offers rather than just chucking them in the trash.  Therefore, I will be putting a stop to most of these offers by following the recommendations of the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC advises anyone who wishes to stop such prescreened offers to call toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visit  Either of those options should remove your name from the mailing list for five years, which for most people is probably a good thing although if you do decide you want a credit card you may have to reach out to a card issuer rather than waiting for them to reach out to you.  However as a bonus, you will probably save several trees due to the massive reduction in junk mail arriving in your mailbox.

Do you have a question or comment about this post?  Sound off in the comments and I'll do my best to respond.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Motoring Memories

This is one of those blog posts that is more of a mental memory dump.  I was thinking the other day that I've owned a lot of cars throughout the years, but I've never actually taken the time to count them.  There are also a few of them that are a bit blurry as far as the year or exact model, so I felt it was a good idea to just go ahead and write them down once and for all.

1986 Chevy Cavalier CS

This was my first car that my dad bought for me.  Technically he bought it for my sister and it was handed down to me a couple of years later, but who was I to complain.  It wasn't the sportiest car around, and it was nothing more than a typical four door econobox, but I loved it just the same. 

It had a white exterior and red/maroon interior and originally it came with a AM/FM radio with two speakers in the dash.  No tape deck, no rear speakers... just a AM/FM radio.  There were no power locks, no power windows, no rear window defrost, and no keyless entry.  Heated seats hadn't even been invented yet, and the term airbag was something associated with politicians rather than automobile safety.  The Cavalier had a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that produced a whopping 86 horsepower (thank you Wikipedia), and yet I still managed to get something like three speeding tickets while driving it.

Eventually my father paid to have a tape deck installed and some rear speakers, and I actually felt that stereo was pretty nice.  A few years later when CD players became the norm, I installed a CD player and then proceeded to install various amps and speakers to ensure my neighbors hated me each and every time I arrived home.

I was involved in my first accident in this car during a winter storm.  The car in front of me lost control on an icy road and slid sideways blocking traffic, and I in turn bumped into the side of their car because I couldn't stop in time.  It was a minor no-fault accident and the only thing that was damaged on my car was the plastic bumper... along with my ego.  Months later I was rear-ended by a different car while I was sitting at a stop sign and it practically destroyed my car.  I still remember it was $2600 in damage which doesn't seem like a lot now, but in the early 90s it was probably about half what the car was worth at the time.  The accident blew out my rear window and pushed the rear fenders up into the rear tires along with causing significant damage to the trunk, bumper, and taillight areas.  Eventually the car was fixed, but I continued to find little bits of broken glass each time I vacuumed the interior even months later.

At one point in my high school life I ended up foolishly attempting to drive through a puddle out by a lake and the car stalled.  The interior filled up with muddy stagnant water and I ended up having to walk to a nearby home and call a friend to come get me.  Eventually I was able to tow the car out and it started just fine, but the next several weeks involved a lot of vacuuming with a shop vac to pull the nasty water out of the water logged carpeting, several different types of carpet deodorizer, and a continual need to drive with my windows open regardless of the weather due to the unpleasant smell.  I think I eventually got it all cleaned up, but I swear on a hot day there was still a little aura of swamp stench in the air.  Good times.

Everyone has a special place in their heart for their first car, and part of me wishes I could find it because it would be neat to own again, however the reality is I'm 99.7% sure this car has long since been crushed and recycled into something a lot whole more useful than a 86 Cavalier.

1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais

The Olds was a car my step-mom drove while I was in high school, and because it was a two-door and had a few extra horsepower on top of what I had in the Cavalier, I thought it was a pretty nice car.  When I was in my freshmen year of college my dad offered me a deal that I could buy the car by giving him my Cavalier plus $1000 cash.  At the time it was a pretty good deal, so I jumped at the opportunity.

The major issue with this car was the fact it was this horrible brownish orange copper color.  Sure in 1987 it was probably ok, but when I owned the car (circa 1994) that copper color was incredibly ugly, and it seemed anytime you saw a copper colored GM car it was probably a 1987, so I'm assuming this particular color was not a great seller since it only seemed to last that one model year.  For whatever reason about a year later when I bought my next car, my dad wanted this thing back so I sold it back to him.  I think they drove it for a couple more years and eventually passed it on to another relative.... I never heard what happened to it, but I'm pretty sure it is either sitting in a shelterbelt somewhere or it was melted down to make new manhole covers.

1983 Mazda RX-7

Sometime around 1993 or 94 my brother Dean had purchased this RX-7 and he was ready to get rid of it a  short time later.  I loved the idea of a small sporty car, and I loved the idea of a manual transmission, so we worked out a deal where I traded him a laptop computer and a few hundred bucks for the car.  My father thought I was nuts because it was several years older than the Olds, but to a teenage kid there was no comparison between an Olds and a RX-7. 

I loved driving this car, and I have a lot of great memories with it.  It wasn't the fastest car around, but it handled well so I managed to get into trouble from time to time.  I even had a little incident that involved being unsuccessfully pursued by one of Mitchell's finest which looking back upon probably could have landed me in jail.  Who knew that driving about three times the speed limit is typically frowned upon?  Granted not pulling over when you see flashing lights is even worse, but I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations is up so I can probably admit to it now.

Also, due to the car being so low to the ground I was actually able to drive under the barriers they used to close down the public beach at the lake which meant I could park at the beach at night without ever worrying about being bothered.  Years later I was told they modified the barriers and thinned the trees so you could see the parking lot from the road all because of rumors that people were driving under the barriers when the beach was closed... I suppose that is part of my legacy.

One feature of the RX-7 that I always loved was the fact it had a manual choke.  This is something that was almost unheard of at that time, and I still remember pulling on the choke in order to start the car in the winter.  As the car would heat up you could push the choke in further and further until it was closed, but if you left it wide open and came up to a stop sign, as soon as you pushed the clutch in the engine would rev up.  It took a while to get used to, but it was just one of those things that made the car special and unique.

Unfortunately the RX-7 was a maintenance nightmare and it required something to be fixed or replaced about every other week.  The AC never worked and was way too expensive to fix, and eventually the car started burning so much oil that I feared OPEC would start sending me Christmas cards.  It had some electrical quirks that were impossible to trace down, it was starting to show many signs of significant rust, so I figured it might be time to look into something a bit more reliable. 

By the time I traded the RX-7 in, the fuel tank would start leaking if you filled the car up more than half way, the rear bearings were howling and needed to be replaced, the AC still didn't work, the car would not downshift into second gear and would often grind a bit when upshifting, the APEX seals on the rotary engine were all but shot, and I'm sure there were at least 20 other things wrong with it.  It was fun while it lasted, and I'm sure I was responsible for many of the things that were wrong with the car simply because I was so hard on it.  However all good things come to an end, and I ended up trading it off on my next car.  The funny thing was that they gave me $1800 in trade-in value which was far more than the car was worth at the time, and was more than Dean had paid to buy the car a few years earlier.

1989 Chevy Cavalier Z24

I bought this car in 1995 or so and I must say I loved it from day one.  It was a two door and it had a V6 which was actually pretty powerful for its day.  It had a maroon exterior with some gold accents along with a black interior.  I spent a lot of time and money on the stereo and to this day I've never had a stereo that was as loud or as nice as what I had in this car.

For all intents and purposes the car was actually pretty reliable.  It wasn't horrible on gas (although my driving style probably didn't help matters), and it was comfortable.  This is probably one of those cars I wish I would have kept longer, but I have often been guilty of simply getting bored with my cars and feeling the need to trade for something else.  I suspect another reason I ended up trading is because at one point I was stuck in a snowbank for four hours during a blizzard which made me think I should really have something that was 4WD.  The day after that little blizzard I was stuck in a different snowbank when a woman in a minivan rear ended me.  Thankfully the accident was relatively minor and it was ruled her fault, plus it has given me some good stories to tell, so it really wasn't a huge deal even if I wasn't so impressed at the time.

1995 Jeep Wrangler Rio Grande

I think Jeep Wranglers are one of those vehicles that everyone should probably own once.  What's not to love about something as versatile as a 4WD convertible that has a trailer hitch?

The biggest mistake I made with buying the Wrangler was buying the four cylinder engine rather than the V6.  I think that engine had something like 115hp, and due to the total lack of an aerodynamic shape, it honestly struggled to hit 75 on the Interstate.  In fact at one point I tried pulling a trailer out to Rapid City to deliver some furniture to my sister and brother in law, and there were points even with the pedal to the floor I was unable to hit 65mph. 

The other main issue with this idiotic vehicle was the fact I was so in love with the idea of owning a Jeep that I ignored the fact that it was bright orange.  Officially Jeep called this "Bright Mango" and it was a very, very rare color.  I'd like to think it was rare because it was a limited edition or something, but I'm fairly certain the only reason it was rare is because it was ugly.  In the right light it looked orange, but other times it looked red, and I even had someone ask me if it was pink (I'm assuming that person was colorblind, but you never know).

My Jeep did have the hardtop, and I purchased a softtop for summer use.  It was also a manual transmission which was perfectly fine for day to day use, but the few times I went off-road it was less than ideal.  Of course I soon found out that in the winter time Jeeps are essentially worthless because of the short wheelbase and lack of weight.  The other negative was the heating system in a Jeep was superb at roasting a person's feet while they were freezing from the waist up, and even with the hard top installed there were still gaps and cracks that resulted in a cool breeze blowing through the passenger cabin at highway speeds.  To make matters worse, the Jeep was horrible on gas at any speed above 35 and because I was commuting about 30 miles each direction at the time, it wasn't exactly efficient.

1998 Chevy Cavalier Z24

This Z24 was my first new car.  I bought it in late 1997 and at the time I was incredibly proud.  I think the purchase price was right around $17,000 which was a lot for me at the time, but I made it work.  This was my third Cavalier which probably tells you I had fond memories of the first two, and I honestly have to say this was probably one of the most reliable vehicles I have ever owned.  In fact during the time I owned it, the only thing that ever broke was the latch to the glovebox.  Mechanically speaking aside from routine maintenance and a couple sets of tires I never had to spend a dime on the car.

The Cavalier was bright red with a gray interior, and I opted for the 5-speed manual transmission.  Chevy had started using four cylinder engines in the newer Cavaliers so it didn't feel quite as powerful as the V6 in my previous Z24, but it was plenty peppy and fun to drive.  I even drove this car from Rapid City to San Diego and back again only stopping for gas and food... it was over 26 hours each direction and the car never let me down.  Note this is not something I would recommend someone do, but I was young and stupid, and there was a girl involved.  Enough said.

Anyway the car was very good on gas, it treated me well, and I drove it over 87,000 miles in four and a half years.  I owned that car longer than any other vehicle, and I have no regrets about buying it.  If anything I probably should have kept it longer since it was such a great car.

1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited

Looking back buying this Jeep was a really, really bad idea.  It was fairly expensive to buy, and it was one of the most unreliable vehicles I have ever owned.  Within the first month I owned it I had to take it in twice to have issues worked on which thankfully were covered under warranty.  Then it seemed that almost once a month I was taking it in to the dealership for one thing or another.  It was a very comfortable vehicle, I liked the styling, I liked the color, and it had a large V8 engine that made boatloads of power... so had the thing actually been able to go six months without a trip to the dealership I might have kept it longer.

The truth is I still have a soft spot for Jeeps, but based upon this particular vehicle I haven't been willing to take another gamble.  Whenever I see a similar body style Jeep driving along the road I always feel sense of pity towards the owner knowing they are probably on a first-name basis with the service advisor at their local Jeep dealership.

1990 Volkswagen Jetta Wolfsburg Edition

This Jetta was a gigantic pile of crap, and is by far the worst vehicle I ever owned.  I bought it from the back lot of a dealership because they were sending it to auction.  That probably should have been a clue that it wasn't worth buying, but if I recall correctly they only wanted $1500 for the car.  This was going to be a second car for me in addition to the Jeep, and the goal was to just have something I could drive to work without worrying about door dings.  At the time I was parking in a ramp where the spaces were very small, and I was do a lot of driving from building to building for work... so the idea of a small economical car was very appealing to me.

I kid you not - after I signed the papers to buy this rolling disaster I was on my way back home when a warning light and buzzer came on indicating low oil pressure.  This light would come on at any time the car was at idle, and the only way to stop it was to rev the engine, so you can imagine sitting at a stoplight was less than pleasant.  There were a handful of other things wrong with the car too, but for $1500 I thought I could afford to put a little money into it.  I paid a visit to a junkyard and picked up a few parts, and then I took it to a local indy mechanic who did a few things for me. However - the more I drove it, the worse it got and it slowly became clear it was going to nickel and dime me to death.

It was nice to drive a car that I didn't have to bother locking the doors on, but it was not nice being worried that you weren't going to make it across town before it broke down.

1996 Ford Probe GT

One day when I was driving the Jetta I drove past a local user car dealer that had a dark red Ford Probe GT on the lot.  Years earlier a friend of mine had one (well technically it was his mom's car but he drove it much of the time) and I had always loved those cars.  There was something about the styling of them and just the way they drove that I really, really liked. 

So there I was staring at this Probe and a saleswoman approached.  We spoke about it for a few minutes and she offered me the keys for a test drive.  I can still remember to this day being so impressed at how much power the car had and how it seemed to lurch when the RPMs hit 3500 or so.  It was such a violent surge of power that I actually opened the hood and searched for a turbocharger thinking a previous owner may have installed one. 

The idea of having another manual transmission was a nice bonus, and the overall allure of the car was simply too much.  I ended up agreeing to a trade and soon enough the Probe was mine while the Jetta would be retired.  At this point I had only owned the Jetta less than two months and I didn't even get the title in the mail yet.... but I knew the Probe was a much better option.

As with most of my cars, I spent some time fixing a few things that previous owners had overlooked, and I bought a few parts from junkyards to get things just how I wanted them.  I really did enjoy driving the car and for the most part it treated me well.  The problem I had was that at this point I had two fairly nice cars... the Jeep and the Probe, and I was considering the purchase of a motorcycle so one of the cars had to go.

I tried to sell the Jeep for quite some time, but had little success, so eventually I tried to sell the Probe and it sold fairly quick.  As with most of my old cars I sort of miss having it, and if I ever saw a nice clean Ford Probe GT sitting on a lot I might be tempted to pick one up just for fun... but I doubt that will ever happen.

2003 Volkswagen Jetta 1.8T

This was another new car that I bought when I started to realize the Jeep was probably not the best vehicle for me.  I wanted to get into something that was a bit sportier and the idea of a German sports sedan was appealing.  I traded the Jeep in on the Jetta and probably came out ok on the deal, but in the end the Jetta wasn't much more reliable than the first Jetta I owned.

Thankfully I had a warranty, but after three or four trips back to the dealership in the first six months of ownership I was less than impressed with the quality. The other major problem was that when I bought it I couldn't get the color I wanted (white, or possibly gray) so I was stuck with what the dealer had on their lot, and to get a manual transmission with the turbo engine and the options package I wanted left me with one color option... black.  I hate black cars, and I really hated them after owning this Jetta.

This was also about the same time I bought my first home, and I soon realized trying to haul trees, shrubs, and building materials home in a Jetta didn't exactly work, so I started looking for a pickup.  I only owned the Jetta for about a year and although it was a nice car, I can see now it was a mistake to buy it.

2004 Ford F150 FX4

I set out to buy a small used pickup... something like a Chevy S-10 or a Ford Ranger.  However after test driving a Ford Ranger, I opted to test drive a full size F150 and the differences were huge.  Yes it was more expensive, but at the time I sort of got wrapped up in the moment.  I did like the truck and it was reliable, but I never really fell in love with the color (red and gray two-tone).  I also regretted not springing for the four door truck and instead I got the extended cab version. 

The F150 was also my first (and last) experience with leasing, so after 39 months it went back to Ford and I had nothing left to show for it.  I decided at the time that I would never lease another vehicle and I also decided to shy away from buying anything new.  I do still like F150 pickups though, and I may own another one someday, but it won't be new, and it most certainly will not be leased.

2003 Audi A6 2.7T

When the lease ran out on the F150 I opted to buy something that was considered to be a luxury automobile.  I can't explain why I opted for an A6 or even why I focused on Audi, but I do recall trying to decide between an A6 and an A8.  My local VW and Audi dealer is known for bloated pricing (which I learned from trying to buy VWs from them in the past) and I wasn't able to find anything locally, so I ended up buying a car via eBay.

From the moment I got the Audi I loved that car.  I flew out to Cleveland, OH to buy it and I drove it all the way back to Sioux Falls.  I loved the way the car drove, I love how it handled, I loved the power, I loved the options, and I really loved the color (white) - it was a great car.  At first, the A6 was fairly reliable and didn't give me any troubles, and as time progressed I just had to do a few minor things.  However this was at the same time that I found out I was going to be a father, and I started wondering if having an Audi was such a great idea.

I weighed the pros and cons of the Audi versus getting something like an SUV, and it was about this time I started suspecting the turbochargers were going to need to be replaced soon.  I also knew the car was going to be due for a timing belt, and the front suspension needed to be replaced.  All things told, if things suddenly got bad I could have been looking at $4000 to $5000 in repairs, so I opted to trade the car off and move to an SUV.

I do still miss the Audi though, and it was the nicest car I've ever owned.  Because of it I have developed an affinity for Audi and fully expect to own another one in the future.  I just hope I can find out that is a tad more reliable than the A6 I had.

2004 Honda Civic

I can't really say all that much about this car.  My ex-wife (Katie) bought it while we were dating so technically it was never really mine.  I only mention it because after my daughter was born I ended up driving the Civic while Katie drove the SUV since she was responsible for getting Tae back and forth to daycare the vast majority of the time, and we both felt it would be safer for Tae.  In addition to that, I worked on the other side of town so the gas mileage was also a factor.  The Civic was a reliable vehicle and was great on gas, but it just wasn't exciting to drive.  In fact it was flat out boring and I almost felt embarrassed to drive it because it seemed like a "girl car" for some reason.  After the divorce Katie took the Civic and she put something like 110,000 miles on it before finally selling it, so if nothing else she got her money's worth out of it.

2007 Honda Pilot EXL

I sort of purchased this on protest as I was never a huge fan of Honda Pilots.  Katie wanted it and although I had agreed to trade in my Audi, I had my heart set on a white Pilot.  For whatever reason, I have had this thing about white cars and felt a White Pilot looked better than any other color.  My first car was white, and my Audi was white... it just seemed like the perfect color.

However, after a couple of months of shopping we were never able to find a white Pilot.  So one weekend we were wasting some time at the dealership and thought maybe we should take a Pilot out on a test drive.  We drove one, and it seemed nice.  I hated the color (black) but Katie was really excited about getting a newer car so she pretty much had her heart set on it.  Against my better judgement I opted to go for it, and a short time later we were signing the paperwork.

After our divorce I ended up with the Pilot and it was a good car.  I suspect there is nothing very exciting about any Honda, and the Pilot was no exception.  I never got excited about driving it like I did with previous cars, and I honestly never really cared for it.  I hated the color and I was never sold on the styling, but I must say it was super reliable.  I changed the oil and put gas in it... that was about it.  I did have to put brakes on it, but it also had over 80,000 miles so that isn't unheard of, but aside from routine maintenance the thing just ran.  I drove it for over 50,000 miles on it and it never left me stranded... it just worked.

Anyway eventually Katie decided she wanted to buy the Pilot from me, so we worked out a deal and I passed it on to her.  It is still going strong and I expect it to have another 100,000 miles ahead of it if she really wants to keep it that long.

2003 Chevy S-10 ZR2

When Katie decided to buy the pilot, I was sort of under the gun to buy something quick, so I started shopping.  I had been thinking about trying to get a pickup although I still liked the idea of driving a car on a daily basis and just having a truck for when I needed to haul something or when weather required four wheel drive.  Therefore I opted to start shopping for a less expensive truck along with a nicer car.

After a bit of shopping and narrowing down my choices, I settled upon the S-10 with the ZR2 off-road package.  I always liked the S-10 trucks ever since I was a kid, and I have memories of my grandfather buying a new GMC S-15 (the GMC equivalent of the S-10 at the time).  The S-10 was discontinued in 2004 and the ZR2 package was last available on a 2003, so I knew in order to get one it was going to be a bit older and probably have higher mileage.

Thus the search began.  This time around I knew I wasn't going to settle for black, and I really wanted a white one.  However, finding a white S-10 was more difficult than I had anticipated, and finding one that wasn't entirely rusted out or that was in need of major repairs was difficult.  I eventually found a one-owner white 2003 with zero rust, but it was up in St. Cloud, Minnesota which is about four hours away.  I made the deal over the phone, and my brother and I drove up to get the truck.

Thus far I'd have to say I really like the truck.  No it isn't the most powerful vehicle around, and it doesn't handle like a sports car.  It had 125,000 miles on it when I bought it so there were a few things that needed to be cleaned up and the normal Chevy squeaks and rattles here and there, but overall the truck is in fantastic condition for its age, and I think I got it for a fair price.

The Next Vehicle??

Now that I have the truck to get around in, the search has started for the car which eventually will become my daily driver.  I'm focusing my search on RWD or AWD four door sedans, and ideally I'd like to find a vehicle with a manual transmission.  I'm looking at something that is probably about five years old because I don't want to pay depreciation of a new vehicle, and I don't want a run-on-the-mill Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu, so it will take a little hunting to find the right vehicle.

I would consider an automatic transmission if it were a dual-clutch / sequential transmission to allow manual shifting, but I really don't think I want to go for a straight automatic.  The problem is finding a sedan that happens to have a manual transmission is very, very difficult and generally limits me to only a few cars such as select vehicles from Audi or a Subaru.  I also am about 90% sure I want the car to be white, although for the right car I would consider silver or gray.  I can say for certain that I won't be doing black however... that much is a given.

15 cars seems like a lot I suppose, but what can I say - I just like cars.  If space and money weren't an issue I'm quite sure I would probably have a dozen vehicles to suit my needs and desires on any particular day, but since space and money are always issues I suppose I'll have to limit myself to perhaps no more than two vehicles at any given moment... not counting motorcycles of course.  That is very much a different topic for a different day.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Things Even James Bond Can't Make Look Cool

In a recent post, I spoke about James Bond films and the actors that portrayed him.  The character of James Bond is known to be cool, calm, tough, smooth, and to have truckloads of confidence.  He is good at practically everything, rarely makes mistakes, and it is safe to say every man who has ever watched a James Bond movie has wanted to be James Bond at one point or another.

With that being said, there are several things that even James Bond couldn't make look cool.  What are these things you ask?  Well read on:
  • Eating gummy worms
  • Flossing
  • Tripping on his way up a flight of stairs
  • Wearing skinny jeans
  • Trying to run while on ice (without the special shoes made by Q)
  • Hanging out at a Star Trek convention
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • Clipping his nose hair
  • Wearing those gigantic hipster glasses without any lenses in them
  • Trying to scratch a spot on his back that is just out of reach
  • Walking a tiny dog and then having to use a plastic bag to clean up the resulting "landmine"
  • Driving a Smart Car
  • Using a Snuggie
  • Tube socks with shorts... enough said
  • Utilizing a fanny pack
  • Talking on a Bluetooth headset while buying ANYTHING from Walmart
  • Wearing New Jersey levels of self-tanner
  • Using a hula hoop
I'm sure there are many, many more - but the point is even the smoothest guy on the planet can't do everything.  I mean really... could anyone actually make a Snuggie look cool?

I rest my case.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bond... James Bond

I've been a fan of James Bond movies for as long as I can remember.  I recall watching Bond movies every chance I got whenever they were on television and I'm sure I have seen every single movie numerous times.  As a kid I fell in love with the gadgets, the watches with lasers, the cars that could double as submarines, the stunts, the action, and yes... even the Bond girls.

I also came to love the theme song, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't ever fantasize about being a government spy or actually being James Bond.  The films invoked a lot of emotions from me... I suppose to some degree I have to equate them to what those horrible Twilight films do to teenage girls, but I somehow doubt Twilight will ever have the staying power to match James Bond.  Or at least we can hope not... because the idea of over 20 Twilight movies is rather disturbing.

I know some people have a strong opinion on which actor was the "best" James Bond, and it seems many people prefer Sean Connery for several reasons.  First of all Connery just had a certain swagger to him and was a bit of a ladies man... so he was believable as a womanizing spy type.  He was also the original Bond, so to some degree he will always be associated with the role and he set the standard.  Finally, Connery had staying power - he became a major Hollywood star and he had a career that spanned six decades, so he wasn't easily forgotten and to this day remains a fan favorite both for his work as James Bond, as well as his other major movie roles.

I do think Connery was a great James Bond, but his one fatal flaw was probably the fact that he never bothered to even try to fake an English accent.  Then again, I don't think anyone really cared that he was Scottish... at least Scotland is still part of the UK, and since most people outside of the UK can't explain the differences between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom, I suspect most people heard Connery's accent and simply said "close enough!".

After Connery, George Lazenby starred as Bond in one film entitled On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  I actually liked the film, but due to him only starring in the one film he isn't often mentioned when people talk about the "best" Bond.  Lazenby was actually Australian rather than British so the credibility factor may have hurt him a bit, although I don't recall his accent being all that distracting.  Lazenby didn't have much of a career after Bond and he was never considered a household name, so I suspect the fact that most people can't even remember his name means that he will likely never be mentioned in the same sentence as Connery or Roger Moore.

Speaking of Moore, he starred in a total of seven Bond films and some argue he was even better than Connery.  I liked Moore in the role, and I probably associate him with Bond more than anyone else merely because his Bond career lasted 12 years, and his films seemed to be the ones shown on television so often.  Back in the 1980s and 90s it seemed there was a Bond marathon on television about once a month, and Moore's films like Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and The Man with the Golden Gun were staples on television and I watched each of them to the point I can still quote lines from them to this day.

I will admit that although Moore was a fine actor, I never felt he was as believable in the role as Connery.  I did appreciate the fact he was an English actor and as such he had the proper English accent, but the whole concept of Bond being such a ladies man was harder for me to believe with Moore in the role, and I can't really put my finger on why other than to say the scenes with him kissing women seemed almost forced rather than convincing.

After Moore retired from the Bond role, the next actor to play the role was Timothy Dalton.  Many Bond fans are a bit harsh towards the Dalton films, but I have always felt it had less to do with him as an actor as it did to do with the scripts he happened to star in.  Dalton has shown he has incredible acting range and he has had a strong career outside of the Bond films, and I felt he was very believable as Bond.  He had that certain look, he had the proper accent, and he just pulled it off.

In truth I would have loved to see Dalton play Bond in a few more films, and in fact his original contract was for three... but due to lawsuits between studios and production companies that lasted for several years, Dalton went another direction and the search for a replacement Bond began.

Pierce Brosnan became the fifth man to play James Bond, and I still remember when it was announced that he was going to start in the next Bond film.  I had become familiar with Brosnan from the television series Remington Steele and I seemed to like him as an actor so I was pretty excited to see what he was going to do as James Bond.

At the time, I felt the Brosnan-era films were the best James Bond movies to date, and he had the right mixture of charm, believability, looks, and attitude to successfully pull off the Bond role.  I have a hard time picking a favorite Bond actor because time tends to blur some of what separates them, but I do think Brosnan is near the top of the list.  He may not have won the praise of all the critics, and I will admit his final Bond film Die Another Day flirted with jumping the shark, but that had more do with a heavy reliance upon gadgetry and CGI than it had to do with Brosnan or his talents.

But seriously... a palace made out of ice, Madonna playing a fencing instructor, and an invisible Aston Martin?  It is no wonder that the Bond producers decided to reboot the series after this movie was released.

I will say that I was fairly upset when I learned Brosnan wouldn't be starring in another Bond film, and I can still remember an interview where Brosnan was asked who should play the next James Bond where he emphatically responded with "me!".  When I found out Brosnan's replacement was going to be the first blond James Bond, I was fairly certain the end of James Bond films was near.

This brings us to the current Bond played by Daniel Craig.  Aside from the travesty of a blond James Bond, I will admit I was very skeptical that Craig could pull off the role.  I didn't know a thing about the guy other than he was English, but when I saw him for the first time I just didn't see what the draw was.  He didn't seem to have the same "Bond" look as I was used to, and I was somewhat convinced the new Bond film would be a flop.

Oh how wrong I was.

Since I'm such a Bond fan, I was more than willing to give Craig, and the new film, a fair chance.  So I waited until Casino Royale was released and I watched it in the theater.  To say my reservations were eliminated was an understatement, and I immediately became a fan of Daniel Craig.  Not only did Craig pull of a convincing portrayal of Bond, but he added so much depth to the role.  For the first time, James Bond showed legitimate emotion as well as a vulnerability which hadn't been presented in previous Bond films.  In a word - Craig was credible in the role.

The fears of a blond Bond evaporated, and Craig displayed a swagger not seen since Sean Connery's 1960s-era Bond.  The script was well written, the film focused more upon plot and action than they did upon CGI and gadgets, and in the end the film was able to stand on its own merits.  Casino Royale didn't need to rely upon the previous four generations of Bond films, and the new realism and gritty nature of the film has made it my favorite Bond film to date.  In fact I liked it so much that I actually purchased a DVD copy which I've watched numerous times.

I didn't enjoy Craig's followup film Quantum of Solace nearly as much as Casino Royale, but his performance didn't disappoint.  I suppose it is somewhat unfair to claim Daniel Craig is the best James Bond to date considering the script and writing have improved so much that they might make it easier for Craig to succeed, but I do think he deserves the credit for much of the film's success.  Clearly he swayed opinions and he made a lot of people eat their words (myself included), and I have no reason to doubt the next Bond film (scheduled to be released in October of this year by the way) won't continue to impress.

So who is really the best James Bond?  I can't really say... because they each brought something new to the role, and they each played the character in their own way.  As of this moment I'd probably lean towards Daniel Craig being my personal favorite, but I suspect my opinion may change through the filter of time.  If history has shown me anything, it is that James Bond films, as well as the actors portraying him, can evolve, adapt, and improve based upon the demands of the role, so who can really say whether there is only one "best" Bond.  Perhaps they are all the best in their own unique way, in their own unique time, and playing their own unique version of the iconic character that is Bond... James Bond.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Online Dating Feature Translator

Note:  This post includes sarcasm and humor.  If you don't have a sense of humor, can't laugh at the world around you, and/or you are easily offended... you might want to avoid reading it.  On the other hand if you don't take everything quite so seriously then by all means read on.

I've had a bit of experience in the online dating world, and I've learned a few things along the way.  The most obvious thing I have learned is that people are less than honest about how they represent themselves in their dating profiles, and with a bit of knowledge you can do a much better job of interpreting what some of these key terms actually mean.

Bubbly Personality:  If you read a profile that indicates the person has a "bubbly personality" it probably means they won't stop talking for more than 20 seconds at a time - even while eating a meal.  These are the types of people who feel that the number of words coming out of their mouth is actually more important than the words themselves.  In short this is like dating someone who acts like they have drank six cups of coffee and slammed two Red Bulls within the last 30 minutes.  Much like alcohol and fast food, these are the types of people who are best in moderation.

Athletic:  This is a tough one.  This can often mean that a woman is referring to her build rather than the type of activities she is interested in.  In many cases it means they like to shoot pool or play darts, and they have been known to go bowling, but in other times it simply means they are stocky and look like a softball player... even though they don't play softball.  What it does not mean is that they are the type who works out five days a week and has a washboard stomach nor does it mean she is known to wear sports bras and go for a nightly run.  Keep dreaming.

Enjoy being treated like a lady:  This simply means she has no intention of paying for any dates, and you had better be prepared to go to a nice restaurant, so scratch Applebee's off the list.  This also means she will most likely need to get her eyebrows waxed every three weeks, her nails done at least once a month, and she very well may have a membership to a local tanning salon.  In short - she is high maintenance, and she knows it.  Be prepared to open a lot of doors and don't be shocked if a date gets ruined due to a broken nail at some point.

Fun-Loving: As much as you may want to think this means she enjoys ice skating and trips to Disneyland, it really means her idea of a good time involves a small town bar, a karaoke machine, and numerous rounds of stale tap beer.  There is also a high probability that she has had the same friends since high school, and they have a strong desire to talk about their high school classmates even though they graduated sometime in the 90s.

Drama-Free:  This typically means her last relationship included a lot of screaming and yelling and perhaps at least one visit from the local police after neighbors called in a possible domestic disturbance.  She assumes because they broke up that there will be no more drama and she assumes the former boyfriend and/or husband was the problem.  Oddly enough she claims three of her four last ex-boyfriends were all responsible for untold amounts of drama, and if you end up dating her you can anticipate a fight that results in her either threatening to kill herself or one in which she is sitting in the driveway blocking your car as she cries her eyes out and tells you how special you are.  Run.  Don't even think about engaging her in conversation... just run.

Goal Oriented:  This typically means she attended a reputable College or University and earned her degree and/or is currently pursuing a degree, and that she has goals.  The goals typically include having anywhere from two to four children, driving a Lexus, and marrying someone who either has a trust fund or currently makes at least six-figures.  Oh yea... and they also want to travel to Europe and/or vacation in Mexico at least once every other year.

Goal Orientated:  See "Goal Oriented" above, and instead of a college degree from a reputable College or University just assume they attended (or possibly graduated from) a local Community College.

Carefree:  Chances are she has at least three collection agencies looking for her, and she hasn't been tested for STDs since the Clinton administration.  This is the type of women who might be fun to date once or twice because that is about as long as she will remain interested.

Shaped like women should be:  There is no nice way of saying this... if a woman brags that she is shaped like women should be, it simply means she is overweight.  Worse than that, she won't admit she is overweight and thus she feels society should adapt to her version of "normal" even if it means her BMI is somewhere north of 30.  She will try to fit into clothing that is far too small and she will insist on wearing pants that are so tight that she will have a permanent muffin-top spilling out from her waist.  She will also be known to exceed the tensile strength on most of the fabrics she wraps around her body and it isn't unheard of for women like this to carry safety pins and duct tape to address various wardrobe malfunctions if and when they do occur.  If you do decide to date a woman like this, I'd suggest wearing eye protection anytime she wears something with buttons because a button under pressure is like a ticking time-bomb and can seriously injure someone when it lets go.

Curvy:  This can be a couple of different things.  In rare instances, this could be a very average sized woman who is not entirely comfortable with her body.  In other cases, it could be a thin woman who has had breast implants and who is very proud of them, but in the vast majority of the time it simply means the woman has a very large backside and instead of trying some targeted exercises to tone up, she is more interested in buying bras from Victoria Secret that will push her breasts together with such force that it can create an optical illusion that tricks the viewer into thinking her breasts and behind are in direct proportion to one another.  Let there be no doubt, curves on a woman are sexy, but there is a difference between legitimate curves, and the type of woman who waves hello and her arm stops moving six seconds after her hand.

There you have it - just a few tips to let you know what you might come across.  There are many others of course, but I can't possible cover every scenario here, but it should give you a good head start.  Above all else just remember that when it comes to online dating, people are generally liars, and it is in your best interests to remain skeptical about almost anything that comes out of the mouth of the other person until you have time to verify it for yourself.  Online dating profiles are a lot like print ads for fast food places... they look nice and peak your interest, but the real thing is often a disappointment.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Thoughts On: Dog Breed Bans

Q:  What is the most common phrase uttered by a neighbor when they find out the guy who has lived next door to them turns out to be a serial killer? 

A:  "He was always so quiet and he kept to himself"

Q:  What is the most common phrase uttered by a dog owner after their dog ends up biting, mauling, injuring, or even killing someone? 

A:  "He was always so kind and gentle and great with children"

Sometimes things aren't always as they seem, and idiotic platitudes don't really change the facts.  Like it or not, some dogs are capable of doing much more damage than others. Temperament might have something to do with it, but when a small dog bites someone, chances are the damage can be addressed with a band-aid rather than a trip to the ER.  Due to the jaw structure and power of some larger breeds, they can easily result in massive injuries or even deaths.

Check the statistics surrounding dog bite fatalities, and you will soon find that Pit Bulls (and their associated mixes) as well as Rottweilers are responsible for a vast majority of the deaths. This isn't opinion, but rather it is supported by hard evidence, including several studies on the subject as well as government data.

Since numbers without context are meaningless, lets ask ourselves if we find it feasible that these same breeds make up the vast majority of dogs in the US? I think most people would agree that isn't the case... in fact per AKC registrations, where Labrador Retrievers are consistently the most popular dog, and Bull Terriers come in somewhere south of 50th most popular, these statistics SHOULD alarm everyone. What we should see is Labrador Retrievers being responsible for the most dog bites simply due to statistical averages. However that isn't the case, and when speaking of significant injuries and/or deaths the numbers are even further skewed.

The facts are that certain breeds of dogs have a higher propensity to maul, injure, and kill. We can blame this on humans for a lack of training, we can blame it on the breed, or we can blame it on specific dogs, but the facts are the facts. If you read the actual reports from many of these dog bite fatalities, you will find that in many cases the owners had never witnessed any hostility from the dogs in the past, and at one point the dog(s) just snapped. I dare say no matter how well trained they are, almost any dog can still revert to their instincts in some situations, and in some cases those instincts can result in significant injury.

When you boil it down and remove the emotion to simply look at the statistics and the facts, you soon realize that it is an indisputable fact that Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are dangerous when compared to other breeds. That isn't to say other dog breeds are never dangerous, or that other dog breeds aren't responsible for injuries or deaths, or that certain Pit Bulls and Rottweilers aren't the gentle and peaceful dogs that so many owners claim they are... it is just a fact that as a whole, these dogs are more dangerous.

It is like comparing a modern Volkswagen with 10 airbags, ABS, stability control, crumble zones, and active head restraints to a 1950s Volkswagen with no seat belts, no crumple zones, no airbags, and doors that were less than three inches thick. One of these is clearly more dangerous than the other, but it may never be obvious until it is too late.

Now I should note that I am not sure breed bans actually work, thus I'm not sure they are the answer.  Some people who are very much opposed to such breed bans are quick to point out that some people will go out of their way to get a dog that is banned because they think it makes them part of some secret club.  I imagine these types of people are also the type of people who like to carry around concealed, unregistered firearms and who do whatever they can to show others that they don't follow the commonly accepted rules that society has instilled upon itself.  

The reality is there is always going to be a certain type of person who is attracted to Pit Bull type dogs because they want to have that "wow" factor and they want to be seen as a rule breaker.  Just walk though the more "colorful" parts of any city and you are bound to see countless examples of how certain types of people attract certain types of pets.  Everyone knows areas like this - these are the areas where you find people with a tattoo to limb ratio above 3:1, and people standing around the street corners wearing their flat brimmed hats over their ears. When these people are out walking their dogs what breeds do you think are most common? I'll give you a hit... it isn't a Yorkie or a Chihuahua.

So yes some people might help contribute to certain breeds having a bad reputation, but when a dog is bred to do certain things, those traits can come to the surface even if they aren't desired, and characteristics that were bred into a dog over the course of hundreds of years don't just disappear in a few generations.  For many of these dogs, a certain aggressiveness is their nature, and I hope many of the same people telling us how sweet and innocent and kind their Pit Bulls are never have to experience an event that would make them change those opinions.

Perhaps we should simply mandate anyone who wants to have one of these dogs registered within city limits needs to be bonded for any potential damage it may cause. The size of the bond needs to be tied to the risk factor... which shouldn't be too hard to obtain since insurance companies already have a pretty good idea of which breeds are more likely to result in their claim payouts being higher (and oddly enough some insurance companies won't offer homeowners insurance to a person who owns a Pit Bull type dog). If someone is found to not have their dog licensed or bonded, then that dog needs to be confiscated from them and they need to be fined at a level which would prevent them from ever doing it again ($500 to $1000).

Finally, I'm not the type of suggest we euthanize any dog which has not shown aggression, but if and when a dog does bite or maul someone it should be put down no questions asked, and again the owner should be held responsible via fines (and likely a nice civil court case from the victim or victims).

Clearly there are other ways to address the concerns with certain dog breeds other than breed specific bans, since people find clever ways of getting around such bans in the first place.  The fact is, unless a city is going to perform DNA checks on dogs, it is difficult to prove that a dog is primarily a banned breed rather than a mix with only a small portion of that specific breed.  However, I dare say that as long as people remain ignorant to the facts surrounding dog bites and the breeds most involved, and as long as people continue to make claims about how these very same breeds are gentle and loving and would never harm a fly... well then we will continue to see articles in the paper and reports on television of people being maimed and even killed by these same breeds time and time again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why I Hate Audiophiles

I've been a "techie" type of person for many years, and I've taken an interest in audio equipment since I was perhaps as young as seven or eight years old.  My father had an old Fisher receiver that I used to play with and at the time I thought it was amazing.  I can still feel the mass of the tuning dial in my hand as I could flick it and watch the dial swing across the AM/FM spectrum from side to side.  I would even make a game of it to see if I could  get the needle from one end to the other in one spin... which was difficult but not impossible.

My father's "hi-fi" system also included an old cassette deck and even an 8-track player that I fondly remember using from time to time. I don't recall the brand name of the speakers (I'm thinking perhaps RCA) but they were the large cabinet type that provided a lot of noise when asked although I'm sure they produced just as much distortion as they did music.

When I was a bit older, for Christmas one year I was given a small tabletop stereo of my own. It had dual tape decks AND a turntable, so clearly I thought I had something. The speakers were those small cabinets connected by what appeared to be paltry 24ga wire, but at the time I thought they were pretty amazing. I played all types of records on that system and I made more than my fair share of mix tapes from the radio as I listened to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.

Eventually my interest in audio led me to expand and improve upon what I had. In college I upgraded to what I thought was high end audio equipment at the time - or at least high end in my particular budget range. That setup included a Sony receiver that had surround sound, a Sony CD changer, and a set of Bose 201 speakers. They weren't necessarily bad components, but knowing what I know now there are much better options for the price. I do still have the Bose speakers and they are still capable of producing a good sound although I am the first to admit Bose is a lot better at marketing then they are at producing audio equipment.

My current receiver is an Onkyo which is paired to an Onkyo disc changer. I'm well aware this is nowhere nearly "high end" audio, but it is capable of producing clean sound and it didn't require me to take out a second mortgage to purchase it. I've used a number of different speakers over the years, but I'm the first to admit even when looking directly at the nameplates on the speakers my ears are hard pressed to discern a difference between a $500 set of Klipsch towers and a $3,000 set of Definitive Technology towers.

Throughout the years I've stayed fairly well informed as to the new technologies and I've paid attention to what works versus what people think works. I've read magazines and comparison tests, and in the past I've subscribed to magazines devoted to audio equipment (I recall a subscription to Stereo Review back in high school which was always one of my favorites although it has since been renamed to Sound and Vision).

I won't claim to be an audio snob, but I have been known to research what type of power supplies are found in various receivers and I've taken the time to research the various THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) levels of amplifiers. I'm not an electrical or audio engineer by any means, but I do have experience in electronics and at one point I was a Certified Electronics Technician and a Certified Broadcast Technologist, so I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the science behind audio equipment and electronics.

This is probably why even to this day I simply cannot stand when a self-proclaimed audiophile brags about his (and they are almost always men in my experience) ultra high end audio equipment. These are the types of people who brag about their McIntosh tube amplifiers without having any recognition of the fact that the tubes in these amplifiers are notoriously noisy and require a lot of circuitry required to clean up their signals. Even with that said the THD level of a high-end $5,000 McIntosh tube amp might be in the range of 0.50% with a signal to noise ratio (SNR) of 100dB. Compare that to a off-the-shelf receiver from Denon, Onkyo, or Yamaha and you are likely to find a THD level of something like 0.08% and a SNR of 106dB.

This is the part where I need to try and explain what THD and SNR are and how they relate. Obviously anyone who cares can read detailed descriptions elsewhere on the Internet, but I'll keep it simple by simply saying these are two of the most often cited specifications provided for audio equipment. THD is simply a way to measure how much harmonic distortion exists in a particular device. A lower THD is better, and the lower the value, the better that device is at reproducing the original signal. So this tells us that the THD of a cheap receiver purchased at Best Buy or Radio Shack is much better at reproducing the original input signal than a "high end" luxury tube amplifier which costs thousands of dollars more.

SNR is, as the name implies, a measurement of the difference between the original signal, and the noise added by the power supply and circuitry of the device. In this case a higher number is better. It may not appear a difference of 100dB and 106dB is significant, but because dB is measured on a logarithmic scale, this is actually much bigger of a difference than it may appear. I don't want to get boiled down in the technical aspects since this bores most people to tears, but the bottom line is as far as audio quality goes and in terms of how faithfully a musical recording can be reproduced, a modern and inexpensive amplifier will almost always outperform a much more expensive tube amplifier that many audiophiles seem to worship.

There is a reason that tube amplifiers cannot pass the testing process to become THX Certified even though a $400 receiver from Pioneer or Onkyo can, and it all boils down to faithful rendition of sound. If these audiophiles would simply admit they prefer tube amps because they like the faint glow of the tubes and they think they are "pretty" I might cut them some slack... but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

The next component that annoys me greatly is the turntable. I like listening to records as much as the next person, but the reason why I like records is due to nostalgia... not because they are a faithful rendition of the original recording. The fact is, audiophiles often claim records "sound better" and that they create a "warmer" sound, but they are actually listening to the scratches, pops, and crackles created by the needle running over the grooves in the record itself - none of which would exist in a live musical performance or in a studio recording. There is a reason why modern sound stages and recording studios are all digital and why they don't burn things directly to a record these days, and it all has to do with how faithful the recording can be to the original performance.

The fact is, an uncompressed digital format such as a CD will always outperform something like a vinyl record when it comes to the faithfulness of the original sound when compared to the recording. The same is true for analog formats such as a cassette tape or reel to reel tape. That isn't to say some people won't prefer the sound from a tape or from a vinyl record, but if they are interested in reproducing the most faithful sound possible... a record or any other analog source simply will not do.

Audiophiles are also the same people who will spend thousands of dollars on connecting cables from brand names most people have never heard of. Many technical people will openly mock people for spending money on Monster Cable or other more expensive name brands because these people understand in the digital era, connecting cables are not nearly as vital as they once were... yet to an audiophile, even something as overpriced as a Monster Cable connecting cable would never suffice. These are the types of people who will spend $2,800 for a single pair of connection cables, or $5,300 for a set of six foot speaker cables.

To make matters worse, these people will actually replace the receptacles in their houses with what they consider "audio grade" and/or "hospital grade" receptacles ranging in price from $30 up to over $150. That is $150 for a cryogenically treated audio grade receptacle with rhodium plating (because gold or silver would just be too mainstream I imagine). 

The amazing thing here is that some snakeoil salesman not only convinced these people that they needed these high-end receptacles, but they turned the dial up to 11 and convinced the idiots that they needed high end power cables to plug in to their high end receptacles.  Did I mention that these power cables can range from several hundred dollars to almost $7,000?  Yes you read that correctly... audiophiles have been convinced that spending $6,900 for a power cable will improve the sound quality flowing out of their speakers.

Yes seriously. I'm not making this up... I'm just not cynical enough to fabricate a story like this.

Spending thousands of dollars on cables which perform no better and produce a sound no different than those which can cost less than $10 is bad enough, but these self-proclaimed experts will go so far as to claim they can actually hear the difference. The problem is, aside from the fact they are willfully displaying their ignorance as to how traditional AC power works, they aren't able to hear any differences when subjected to double-blind testing. Whether the testing is done by people involved in the audio equipment industry, or done in magazines such as Stereo Review in the 1980s, or even tests where name brand speaker wire was compared to ordinary disposable wire coat hangers, it seems even the most ardent supporter of this woo is unable to support their beliefs (and their own ears) with hard, replicable data.

In fact, notorious skeptic James Randi went so far as to offer $1 million to an audiophile if he could prove that a pair of $7,250 speaker cables sounded any better than a pair of off-the-shelf cables from Monster cable that cost around $80. However when push came to shove, even the company that sells the $7,250 speaker cables wasn't willing to put their reputation on the line, so they backed out from the challenge. It seems there just aren't any audiophiles willing to put their reputations on the line in order to support the very claims they make on a daily basis.

This is why I hate audiophiles - because they cannot support their beliefs with any type of legitimate data or science. It is almost as if they are begging to be openly mocked and yet they don't care, because they assume if they have tens of thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment then their ears must be able to tell the difference as if having a bigger bank account somehow suggests your ears are more sensitive than the average person.

There are so many flaws in their logic I'm not even sure where to begin, but I wonder if these people ever stop to realize that their high end $150 receptacles are connected to the rest of their household wiring with the same traditional unshielded copper wire everyone else uses. This wire runs back to a breaker panel and through a meter which is fed power from the same source as everyone else, through the same transformers, the same substations, and from the same grid. Do they really feel a silver plated or gold plated or rhodium plated electrical receptacle is going to improve the sound quality? What is next... sucking the oxygen out of the air and replacing it with helium to allow the sound waves a cleaner path from the speaker to the listener's ear? Granted the listener will be forced to wear an oxygen mask when they want to listen to music... but hey - anything to get the cleanest sound possible right?

When it comes to speakers, things get even worse. It is not unheard of for an audiophile to have speakers that weigh hundreds of pounds each and which measure over seven feet in height. These speakers are often hand built with exotic materials like rare hardwoods and carbon fiber, and they can cost more than $50,000 for a single pair.

I'm not naive here and I do admit there can and is a difference between a cheap speaker and an expensive speaker, however there comes a point of diminishing returns. I'll go on record and openly state I'm convinced if you take a quality set of speakers priced in the range of $2,000 and you perform blind testing against a set of speakers costing ten times as much, that most people (audiophiles included) will not be able to state which is the more expensive set of speakers with any consistency.

In fact, I recall years ago reading an article about a blind test that involved several sets of speakers behind an acoustically transparent curtain. A sample of music was played using each set of speakers in random order enough times to eliminate selection biases. In the end, a set of inexpensive speakers was selected as being the "best" although none of the speakers in the test was statistically superior to the remainder. So in essence, when the supposed experts can't see what they are listening to, and when they no longer see the expensive name brand cables or the dim glow of a tube amplifier or the movement of a turntable these minor nuances they claim to be able to hear seem to disappear. I find the irony that audiophiles who are often seen listening to music with their eyes closed seem to rely so heavily upon their vision when they are performing comparison tests.

The entire concept reminds me of a professor who acts smart and seems to know so much about the material, but at the end of the semester you realize the only reason they knew more than you was because they had the book with all the answers printed in it. Take away the book and the notes you are left with nothing more than a nice tweed jacket and a laser pointer.

Now I realize it probably seems a bit harsh to say I hate audiophiles. I should clarify I don't actually hate the people, but rather I hate their (lack of) logic, their reasoning, their biases, and their tactics. In truth I probably hate the companies and snakeoil salesman who fool audiophiles into believing that they need a $7,000 power cable or a $150 audio grade receptacle much more than I hate the audiophiles themselves, however for the sake of simplicity I'm focusing on the audiophiles since they seem to be so vocal about their superiority.

Part of the reason I feel this way is because of how audiophiles can be presented with evidence proving their equipment is simply overpriced, and yet they make claims about how they can tell a difference. As mentioned previously we know they can't prove it, but that doesn't wipe the smug looks off of their faces nor does it remove the undertones of superiority from their voices.

Take for instance Michael Fremer who just happens to be senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine along with contributing to a number of other audio publications. Needless to say he is heavily involved in the audiophile community and could perhaps be one of the most influential or well-known audiophiles on the planet. Fremer has hundreds of thousand of dollars worth of audio equipment in his listening room and he will even make claims that he can tell the difference between a $2,600 power cable and a $4,000 power cable claiming the more expensive cable produces a "warmer, fuller sound".

In some cases, audiophiles like Fremer will even go so far as to make excuses for the hisses and pops coming from their tube amplifiers and turntables as if to suggest they don't matter. Really? The very same people who will spend tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars on audio equipment and cables and even little pucks to prevent their precious turntables from having to sit on a hard surface claim it doesn't matter? If these annoyances don't matter... then what does matter? If the sound itself isn't a priority, and if the faithfulness of the sound is secondary, then what is the point? Frankly aside from talking around the issue with fancy words and cliched phrases I'm not sure most audiophiles have any idea.

In Fremer's case, I have to admit the man annoys me a bit because I've seen pictures of his actual listening room and it boggles my mind how someone can claim to care about sound quality when he has a room full of junk surrounding him.  He has stacks of records leaned up against the walls and on the floor.  He has pictures hanging on the wall that are covered in sound-reflecting glass.  He has hard surface walls and furniture and stacks of equipment with wires running every which way. Does this sound like a place someone could detect minor subtleties in an audio track? Not likely.

If someone was really concerned with the ultimate listening room, I have to imagine it would start with covering the walls and ceiling with sound absorbing materials. The equipment and hard surface objects other than the speakers themselves would be isolated in a closet or another room, and obviously there would not be shelving unit after shelving unit of vinyl records sitting along the walls. This is why recording studios isolate the booth from the actual room where the music is being played and why they take so much time to soundproof the rooms as much as possible.

Better yet, if the ultimate audio clarity is really what they are after, a quality set of headphones will outperform practically every set of speakers known to man. Headphones all but eliminate reflected sound and outside interference, and you don't need a padded room to be able to get the best possible sound. Aside from John Cusack's character in High Fidelity, I can't say as I've seen many audiophiles sitting alone in their listening rooms or dens with a set of headphones atop their heads.

The fact is, in the real world people don't really have rooms with ideal acoustics. In the real world most music is listened to in a room with windows and doors and hard walls and furniture where acoustics are an afterthought. Most home audio systems - even those owned and operated by audiophiles - reside in less than acoustically ideal rooms. Speaker wires are often laid next to or routed on top of power wires which could create inductive coupling (electromagnetic interference) and a slight buzz or hum, HVAC systems blow air through ductwork, and dust finds its way onto vinyl records.

Yet to an audiophile, they likely will ignore the rushing sound of conditioned air or the fact that their patch cables are incapable of transmitting a signal with as much accuracy as a $5 optical cable purchased from Amazon or Monoprice... not because they haven't thought about it, but because they simply don't appear to care. The excess noises produced by a record needle are just part of the experience apparently. As Michael Fremer says, "It's like when you go to the symphony, and the old men are coughing—same thing". For an audiophile to use this logic is probably what tends to frustrate me, because it is almost as if they don't even try to hide the flaws in their reasoning.

Another aspect of audiophiles that tends to annoy me is the way they speak when talking about sound. They use phrases like "a dimensional and rich presentation" or a "euphonic sound experience". They speak about the color of music and the flavor of the sound. They talk about a sense of openness or space and how dark or bright the sound is and they make comments about the dynamic envelope, the ambience, or the subtlety of the tones. It seems they try to rely heavily upon personification as if the sound can reach out and touch someone or that it embraces the listener.

Even worse they rely so heavily upon cliches such as "jaw-dropping" and "tonal texture" that you can swap out the product names in most of the equipment reviews and nobody would notice. The entire concept reminds me of a hipster who turns a simple three line Haiku into a 40 minute discussion about what the poet was thinking when they chose to use the word "crimson" as opposed to just saying "red".

Try as they might, all the fancy wordsmithing and pretentiousness used by these audiophiles doesn't change the fact that the man behind the curtain is far from a real wizard... and in this case the wizard not only refuses to admit he has been outed, but he claims removing his curtain doesn't really matter in the first place.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Used Car Feature Translator

If you have ever shopped for a used car, you know there is a lot of wordsmithing that goes on for the advertisements.  I've purchased more than my fair share of cars in my day, and I've spent countless hours browsing for cars, speaking to salespeople, driving through car lots, and researching cars on the Internet. 

During this time, I have come to realize that much of is written in car advertisements takes a bit of knowledge to interpret, and here are a few of the more egregious examples of terms used to describe a vehicle along with what that term actually means:

Well maintained:  This means if something broke and the car wouldn't start it was taken to the dealership and it was fixed.  The oil has probably been changed at least once or twice a year, but only after the car started "making funny noises".  The car was washed at least once a month though, so that qualifies as maintenance.

Chances are this car will need to have the transmission serviced, the power steering and brake fluid replaced, the radiator flushed, the air filter, cabin air filter, and spark plugs replaced, and pretty much an entire tune up.  The suspension components need lubrication, and the alignment hasn't been checked since the Clinton administration.

Glossy paint:  The fact is, any car that has been washed on a regular basis and that isn't more than 15 years old probably has glossy paint (or will have after a good wax job) so if you see this written in an ad, it probably means there isn't much else to brag about.  The tires will be shot, the seats will be torn and faded, the stereo probably only plays music from the front passenger side speaker, and the windshield looks like it lost a battle against a gravel truck.

New tires:  This can mean a few different things.  If the car is less than three years old, this probably means the previous owner did a few burn outs and ruined the tires.  If the car has 40,000 miles or more the tires are probably new but they will be from some random tire manufacturer in China or Korea that you have never heard of, and they will probably sound like you are driving on a washboard at speeds in excess of 50mph.  The chances of finding a car with a set of new Yokohamas or Bridgestones is highly unlikely. 

Also, when a dealer brags about their used car having brand new tires, it can often be simply a way to cover up the uneven wear on the tires due to camber or toe-in issues.  Trust me... they aren't doing you any favors by putting $300 worth of cheap import tires on a used car.

Always garaged:  This probably means the owner of the car parked in the garage when at home, so those scratches on the door are from when their eight year old slammed against the car as they tried to ride their bike out into the driveway.  It also may mean the car was in pieces for several years and wasn't running so they used the back seat to store lumber and aluminum cans.  Let's just say if you open a car door and catch a strong cedar-like odor... you might want to start asking questions.

A classic barn find:  If you are in the market for a 60s muscle car or unmolested numbers-matching sports car, the idea of an old barn find is very appealing.  However, most cars that are pushed into a barn and left there for a few decades were put there because they didn't run - not because the previous owner thought it might be worth restoring one day.  The reality is, if someone advertises a car as a barn find, the engine will be seized and there won't be a battery in the car to see if it would even be possible to turn it over.  The oil in the crankcase will essentially be the consistency of road tar, the transmission fluid will look like honey, the tires will be flat and cracked from dry rot, the headliner and interior will be ripped, faded, and stained, and the driver's seat foam will be chewed up from the family of mice who has been making the car their home for the past few decades.

If someone claims their car is a barn find, chances are you are looking at at least 30 years of neglect on top of whatever forced the owner to push the car into a barn that many years ago.  You can also bet that at least a few of the parts that are meant to be installed on the engine (carburetor, valve covers, radiator, distributor etc) will be contained in cardboard boxes stored in either the back seat or the trunk.  At some point the owner will probably utter the phrase that "it just needs to be cleaned up and tuned up", but unless you are prepared for a complete frame-off restoration that could very well take three to five years of your life... this is probably a bad idea.

Adult driven:  This is a classic, and at first glance you think that means the car was probably treated with respect and that the oil was changed every 3,000 miles.  The best thing to do in this case is to examine the owner's garage when you go to look at the car.  If the garage is full of NASCAR memorabilia or the owner is wearing a t-shirt featuring their favorite race driver... you may want to reconsider.  Another good tactic is to check all the radio presets.  If they are set to the classic music, talk radio, or oldies stations you are probably in the clear, but if they are set to the hard rock, metal, and hip/hop stations chances are this "adult" is still suffering from a mid-life crisis, and the transmission, rear tires, and suspension are all shot.

One owner:  This one has always baffled me.  Why should I care if a car was owned by one person or three people?  I could see a red flag popping up if the car had been owned by five different people in the past two years, but for the most part the own owner thing is meaningless.  The one owner line can sometimes be used when a parent buys a car but every kid in the family has driven it at one point or another. 

Mechanic's Special:  This means they couldn't afford to have someone fix it for them since the cost of the necessary repairs are at least 20% greater than the blue book value of the car itself.  For every problem the car displays while it is sitting in the owner's driveway, you can easily assume there are at least five or six more that will present themselves within 45 minutes of signing a bill of sale.

Dependable:  Chances are everything that can typically go wrong with a car has probably been fixed in the past three years or so, thus the owner feels the car should be dependable from this point forward.  This is no way suggests the car has been dependable up to this point, and if you decide to take a chance you may later determine your chances of getting home on any given night depend if you are able to fix it yourself when it breaks down on the side of the road.