Friday, August 31, 2007

Things that Make You Go, "Hmmm..."

Is it just me, or have you wondered just where Jenny Craig has been throughout the Larry Craig Airport Pottygate saga?

Think about it: You never see Jenny Craig and Larry Craig in the same place at the same time.

I just wonder whether they might be one and the same, (a la that Michael vs Janet Jackson thing...) and living a double life has finally caught up with them.

Would explain the Congressperson's unusual behavior in that bathroom stall...

Also, I have held my tongue throughout the Michael Vick affair.
Pardon the pun, but I really saw no benefit to “piling on,” or kicking a dog while he was down.
Seriously, what kind of punishment should be meted out to this guy?

The NFL is talking about lifetime suspension.
I disagree.
Let the man play ball for what ever pro team will have him, with one important caveat:
He can play as long as he wins.
First time he loses, just electrocute him.
Or hang him.
After all, the punishment should fit the crime, right?

Speaking of crime and punishment, what is the rationale behind the White House seeking a rule change within the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide some relief for folks falling behind on their mortgages? The thinking is that people who bit off more than they could chew (or should have been allowed to chew) would be allowed to refinance under the federally-insured loan program.

I have a few problems with this.
First, it blatantly rewards the stupidity of lenders who bent the rules, or turned a blind eye to reality in providing loans to people that on any other planet could not have qualified.

Second, it eliminates the consequences the rest of us must acknowledge for defaulting on a loan, no matter how skanky the underwriting.

Third, and this is personal, if the greedy lenders and shady borrowers get away with this, does that make the rest of us who bought houses within our means, and have continued to pay our mortgages without fail, just a bunch of chumps?

Coincidentally, the banking establishment pushed really hard last year to get a change in the bankruptcy laws. It’s now much harder to discharge debt under the new rules. I think there is some culpability that must be acknowledged in the creation of an impossible situation for many people: Banks have become thinly veneered dealers of financial crack, offering dimebags of easy credit.

When they get people hooked on the opiate of instant financial ability, and ignore the fact that putting folks in expensive houses with limited ability to pay and minimal (or zero) down payment in the deal, they’re going to walk when forced to choose between making an escalated mortgage payment and buying groceries. All the while, these same banks are papering the mailboxes of these people with multiple offers of easy credit. There seems to be a huge disconnect within the financial community between cause and effect, actions and consequences.

I’ve got zippo sympathy for investors who knowingly bought up large blocks of subprime commercial paper, sucked in by the attractive rates of return they promised. Did these people forget one of the most primal tenets of finance: The higher the rate, the higher the risk?

Now they’re holding the bag on a few billion dollars worth of loans gone bad, which has tainted their credibility, and shriveled up the supply of money available for lending to more credit-worthy borrowers.

The answer is not lower lending rates necessarily. The share of mortgages that are subprime are a fraction of a fraction of the total lending pie, and dropping interest rates just because one sector went FUBAR is a perfect example of the tail wagging the dog.

The answer is not change the FHA rules, either.
Why infect that system with this subprime virus?

The answer is to force the bankers and lenders and borrowers who are all complicit in this mess to face the consequences of their irrational actions.

If President Bush wants to offer a government solution, great: How about creating an incentive for lenders to work out plans with their delinquent borrowers? I don’t know—give away tax credits for lenders who are able to keep people in their homes; there’s a novel concept.

In other words, create the solution within the structure or sector that created the mess, and not infect the rest of the economy any more than it has already become exposed.

Special Thanks to Chris X. Blayney and Vincent T. Rowe for submitting some of the graphics found in today's post.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Behind the Scenes: Dislaimers

One of the seldom-mentioned facets of our operation is that we are operating on air time purchased from another source. It really matters not who owns the transmitter to which you’re tuning to pick up our programming; so long as we keep the BizRadio Network on the air, you’re able to hear our daily offerings of wit and wisdom.

The owners of the broadcast properties we lease have insisted, however, that we air a disclaimer each day, just in case any of you were under the misconception that they were responsible for our shows. They’re not. But they insist we run a ten-second blurb disavowing any association with our content.

Pretty ironic, since there are people waiting in line to pay us to be on the Network…

Anyway, this morning, due to a scheduling error, the disclaimer did not air in its usual position, between the CNN news feed and our local newsfeed. Instead, it played after the local news, and after the National Anthem, just ahead of the start of my show. Actually torqued me off a little bit, because I prefer to present a somewhat seamless presentation, once the show is launched. I did not appreciate having to play some corporate disclaimer right before my show intro. Call it disgust by association.

If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity wrought from frustration is the first-cousin. Buddy Cantu, the BizRadio Orchestra and I began to let the creative juices flow, and wondered aloud whether there might be a more creative way to express the hated disclaimer. There is.

Imagine if you can a rap music sound track—nothing booming or obnoxious, but with enough of a rhythm to make it interesting as we state the obvious:

"The following program ain’t got much sizzle, cause it’s a piece of paid programming on the station, fo shizzle."

Now, that’s short and sweet, pretty succinct, and it gets the job done without mentioning any of the usual suspects. It was, however, just enough to trigger a second, more loquacious rendition, behind which the theme from the “Fractured Fairy Tales” was played by the Orchestra:

“I think that I shall never see
A disclaimer as useful as a tree…
A tree which shades by day, and at night
Refreshes the air with its boughs of the blight
Of toxins and poisons and particles we breathe,
Through the miracle of photosynthesis in its leaves.

“Disclaimers, however, are interruptions of thought
That pull attention to the fact that the air time’s been bought.
So enjoy this segment of our show as you do every day,
And don’t worry about the fact that the time’s here for pay.”

The operative theme here, obviously, is entertainment.
I don’t know how enthused the owners of the station were at our antics, but I know the boys (and girls) in the Band were amused, and we trust you were as well.

Chinese Checkers and Double Standards

China’s playing the Protectionism-card as it whines about the rash of product recalls in the US recently. The Chinese believe Mattel has only itself to blame for a huge toy recall that has exacerbated global alarms about Chinese-made goods.

Call me culturally-challenged, but I have a hard time grasping that kind of logic.

Mattel recalled over 18 million Chinese-made toys because they had small magnets that could be easily swallowed by kids. This incident followed a recall of 1.5 million toys that were painted with leaded paint, which followed a string of other product pullbacks, including tainted Chinese-made toothpaste, pet food, tires, eels and seafood, and lethal chemicals in some Chinese-made medicines.
Yeah, we’re protectionist, alright.
Of our health.

People's Daily, the Communist Party's official paper (the only paper you need to read in China), said stories about unsafe Chinese food and products in the Western media were exaggerated, and ignored the good record of nearly all the country's exporters.

Here’s a news flash for you guys: The good record of any company is not news.
It’s expected.
It’s a given.
It’s generally how successful companies stay in business.

You put leaded paint on kids’ toys…poisonous chemicals in pet food and medicine, and put stuff in toothpaste that’s not good for folks—that’s news.
That’s the way it works.

Interestingly, the Chinese sense of honor and remorse runs far deeper than in its Western counterparts. Over here, cheating on stock options or ripping people off is punishable by a few months’ incarceration at Club Fed.
Whereas in China, you let nasty chemicals slip into toothpaste, the local ChiCom Brigade stands you up next to a wall and holds an impromptu target practice.

The owner of the company that painted those Mattel toys with leaded paint committed suicide within weeks of the fiasco. That the competitive environment in China is unforgiving is an understatement.

Meanwhile, from the “Do as I say, not as I do” Dept… Presidential wannabe John Edwards now says you and I should give up our SUV’s, even if he’s not.

Edwards spoke at a forum hosted by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Florida, where he was quoted as saying, “I think Americans are actually willing to sacrifice…”
I must have missed participating in that poll...

In Edwards’ view, among those sacrifices is the adoption of more fuel-efficient modes of transportation. Some wiseacre in the crowd asked whether a President Edwards would ask Americans to give up their SUV’s, to which he responded, “Yes.”

Then he jumped into his Cadillac SRX and roared off into the sunset…at 15mpg.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Maxed Out for Peter Max

I once read a magazine article when I was a kid, entitled, “Mr. Sinatra Has a Cold.” It was a piece written by Gay Talese about a recording session for which Frank Sinatra could not stay, due to a head cold and sore throat. I completely sympathized with that; anyone who uses voice to make a living—whether a singer, talk show host, or telemarketer—could run into rough times, sitting things out for a cold to blow over.

Famous people can get away with that kind of thing.

We had a famous guy booked for the show today.
You may have heard of him—Peter Max, the painter. Max has painted for Presidents, airlines, and an entire generation. But he’s just another mortal, and on this day, he was a tired mortal.
Peter Max missed his wake up call, and did not call in for the show.

With two minutes remaining before the segment is to begin, we frantically call the back-up number for the publicist who arranged the interview.

“Mr. Max is supposed to call us, and the segment starts in two-minutes,” I tell her.
“Well, he’s supposed to call you,” she replies.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” and respond urgently, “and he hasn’t. Do you have a number for him, please?” I ask.
“Lemme call him,” she sighs.
“Please ask him to call this number,” I answer, giving her the toll-free number into the control room.

45-seconds to go.
Peter Max is a missing Pete.

Once the BizRadio Network Orchestra has started the music for a segment, there’s no turning back. The mic is open, and the clock is running, and I cannot tell Buddy, my Producer, to just get someone else.

Peter Max is no where to be found, and the clock is ticking. A discussion on the important of Max’s artwork, the management of his branding, and his perspective on other topics of interest…all lost, for want of a wake up call.

A segment on the finer points of business in fine art is abruptly converted into a tap-dancing session on how the Bank of China is reacting to the subprime mortgage meltdown in the US, as we fill for time, Peter Max supplanted by Earl Scheib.
It’s not a pretty picture.

As soon as the segment is over, I call the publicist; her voice mail connects. I hang up, and text-message her cell phone: “Peter Max did not call BizRadio. Must move on to next guest. Sorry we missed you.”

The news break is finished, the Orchestra is intro-ing the next segment, market futures are starting to react to durable goods figures just released…and I see my cell phone light up out of the corner of my eye.

It’s a text message from the publicist, “Any way to do it quickly?”
I can’t text and talk at the same time…and my next guest is already on the line.
Three minutes into a discussion of the next-generation of Air Traffic Control systems, Peter Max calls in on a second line…

But the moment has passed, the opportunity closed.
The paint has dried.
Not exactly the same level of drama as Frank Sinatra catching a cold.
Maybe Peter Max was looking at a painting of a clock by Salvador Dali.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Commuting with the Crazies

There are all sorts of bizarre things happening at 4am as I commute to the station. It’s really pretty hazardous duty because the usual folks out and about at that hour are either drunks or newspaper route runners, and in my experience, neither subset of society is very precise when it comes to observing traffic laws.

Full disclosure: on a clear, moonlit night, with an empty stretch of pavement beckoning, I will sometimes “push the envelope” in terms of time and distance traveled. However, I don’t cross the double yellow lines, and I manage to find the brake pedal in time for red lights and stop signs.

This morning’s pre-dawn commuter reverie was interrupted by a large, black sedan barreling through the intersection ahead of me at an excessive rate of speed, and in blatant disregard for the red light for traffic on that street. This guy was going so fast, I almost thought I imagined it. Had I been coming through the intersection 30-seconds sooner, the outcome would have been tragically different.

Curiosity overcame common sense, and I turned off my route to see whether the fool behind the wheel of the speeding car had made it to the end of the block in one piece. He had. The moron blew through three more stop signs, and ran all the way into the dead end of the street, pulled to the side of the pavement, and parked his car.

I pulled up about 25-yards behind, hit my high beams, and just sat and watched for what might happen next.

For the longest time, the driver of the car remained inside.
Then slowly, the driver’s side door opened, and a Hispanic male in a black t-shirt and dark jeans spilled out of the car on legs of jell-o. This character wobbled and bobbled around to the front of the car, weaved alongside the passenger side, and stumbled to the rear of the vehicle. He looked up and down the darkened street, stared into my headlights for the longest time, and then clambered back into the car, and started it up.

Amazingly, this guy pulled-off a three-point turn into a driveway without driving off the sides. He slowly drove up even with my car and stopped. When he rolled down the window, I said, “Good morning.”

He slurred his words as he tried to apologize for running the red light in front of me.
“You saw me back there?” he asked.
“Man, I F***-ed up,” he grinned sheepishly. “I am so sorry…”

I asked his name.
“George, how fast were you going through there—fifty or sixty?” I asked.
He nodded.

“You know, I come through here every morning about this time, on my way to work," I said. “Do you realize that if I’d been in the intersection when you ran that red light, you would have killed me, and maybe, you?” I asked.
He nodded blankly.
“Yep, about thirty seconds sooner, and you would have gotten me,” I let the statement hang in the damp night air.

“Oh, man, I am sorry dude, I know I F***ed-up,” he bleated.
I asked him how old he is.
“George, do you want to live to be 23?” I asked..
He nodded blankly.
“Then don’t run red lights,” I said. “It’s that simple.”
“Oh, dude, I am sorry, so sorrrry,” he continued to ramble.
Only now he realized he wasn’t really being busted by anyone with a rank higher than civilian. Still, he extended his hand, as if we were bonding over his lucky near-miss in the intersection.

“George, are you driving drunk tonight?” I asked.
He nodded meekly.
“How far away from here do you live?” I asked.
“I jus’ livvv o’er dere,” he mumbled, gesturing in about three directions at once.
His house might as well have been on Pluto.

“Why don’t you go park that car, and turn it off, and go inside,” I suggested in my most authoritarian voice. Yeah, me and what Army, I thought to myself…

“Okay, man; I am sorry, okay?” he continued to whine, right hand extended through his window towards me.
Did he have a gun in the left hand?
Was he going to bust a cap in my chest and drive off into the night?
Was I in danger?

I didn’t think so.
This guy could barely stumble in a loop around his car.
He almost didn’t know where he was.
He was clearly a danger, to himself and anyone he passed in his car, but not a likely threat here and now. His car was motionless.

I grabbed his right hand with my left.
“George, go home. Don’t drive drunk. I don’t want you running into me on the way to work some morning, okay?” I intoned.
“Now, go home, and be careful,” I finished, releasing his hand.

“Okay, man, I know I F*****-up. I’m sorry…” he began to ramble again.
He put his car in gear and jerked forward.
I pulled a three-point-turn in the same driveway, and followed him out of the cul-de-sac.

At the stop sign, he hooked a sharp left, never touched the brakes, blew through the intersection, and disappeared into the bowels of the darkened neighborhood.

I hope he made it home.
I made it to work.
Tomorrow’s another day.

I’ve never understood the usage of phrases like “near-miss” vs “near-hit.”
Think about it—if you’re trying to survive, say a drunk speeding through an intersection, do you want a near miss or a near hit? I suppose it’s all about proximity and the nature of the hit or miss.

Sometimes the word usage is just not accurately applied.
We say near-miss for nearly-missed; we say near-hit for nearly-hit.

“I nearly missed you.”
Thank goodness?
Actually, I want to be nearly hit.
Nearly missed means hit.
Nearly hit means missed.

But that’s not what the phrases say.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Office Kleptomania

This morning’s show would be brought to you by Red Bull…but no, some slack-jawed mouth-breather took it upon him- or herself to drink my last can of Red Bull over the weekend. So here I sit on a Monday morning with a bad case of the Red Bull DT's.

We recently gave up the official BizRadio Network refrigerator so that our landlord could place furniture in the commons between the broadcast studios here. Now, the lunches and beverages are co-mingled in a large refer in the company kitchen…open to all. Easy pickings for people with low scruples.

I guess my lonely can of Red Bull was just too much to resist, what with all the extra cans of Countrytime Lemonade and Coca Cola on hand, just for the taking.

We also contributed Nestle's ice cream “Drumsticks” to the public good, recently. I had 'em delivered to the broadcast operations center for the folks who work behind the scenes.

I am told there was a feeding frenzy over the weekend, as the foriegn-language programmers across the hall discovered the cache.
Guess that just wasn’t enough.
Still no respect for others' stuff.
How do you say "thou shalt not steal" in Chinese?

So today’s show is brought to you by the office kleptomaniac.
The one who drank my last Red Bull.
I hope he has to pee all day long…

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Auto Review: 2008 Scion xB

Every occupation has its rewards...and its hazards.
In my job as a real live Radio announcer, I have been fortunate to go places, meet people, and do things that most folks can only dream about.
Or buy a ticket for.

Generally, I am an enthusiastic observer, trying to remain objective where ever I may find myself, be it a luxury cruiser on the Caribbean, a non-stop flight to London, or sitting in the jumpseat of a 747 en route to Tokyo.

This weekend the zeal could not be contained, and over the abyss I plunged, actually purchasing a product I’d been assigned to review. It's called putting your money where your mouth (or Blog) is, and there's not enough of that anymore. Talk is cheap.
I don’t regret it…and after reading this, you will understand why.

For the past year I’ve been a member of a fraternity of media reviewers for products built by Toyota Motor Company. Lexus, Toyota, and Scion vehicles have found their way to my driveway for a week at a time, during which I put them through the same paces I would my personal automobile.

(Full disclosure: I own an ’07 Mazda MX-5 hardtop, the latest iteration of the popular Miata lineage, and my 4th drop-top automobile built by Mazda. I love that car.)

For the past several days, however, I’ve been testing the responsiveness of Scion’s distinctively shaped xB—the bread box on wheels that’s getting a new skin for 2008. (My wife was skeptical about this thing, and she made me put it in the garage at night so the neighbors wouldn’t see.)

I am very impressed with the total package, however, and despite my wife’s opinion, the xB is sitting in my Mazda’s place of honor in our garage by choice. (Oh, don’t worry, The Silver Bullet is safety tucked beneath its protective blankie in another parking garage.)

Scion’s bringing forth the next-logical iteration of its popular Urban Utility Vehicle in 2008 with a beefier look, a 12-inch longer chasis for a smoother ride, and some interior refinements that will stretch the xB’s appeal across multiple demographics.

The average age of a Toyota consumer is 54; the average age for Scion owners is 39—the youngest demo in the biz. Maybe I’m just young at heart, but this unique combination of quirk and quant appeals to me…even if the xB is bigger and heavier than last year’s version.

I like the way it handles (the McPherson strut suspension is a nice improvement), and the smooth 5-speed manual gear box shifts like velvet once you figure out the optimum engine RPM for shifting.
And with the new skin, frankly, I like the way it looks.

The engine is the same 2.4-L 4-cylinder power plant Scion puts in its tC and the entry-level Toyota Camry. The good news is this is going to be a frugal vehicle.
The rebel in me longs for the up-graded turbo booster that increases tC’s 158-hp to 200-hp. Wonder if that would fit under the hood of the xB?

Creature comforts are important to me, especially as my tortured carcass loses a bit of its flex and bendy-ness (a word first coined by Lisa Kudrow's character on "Friends," Phoebe Buffay.)

The Scion xB is easy to get in and out of.
It has great visibility.
Grocery shopping was a breeze, with ample rear access through the hatch or rear passenger doors.

I particularly like the iPod interface on the xB, which allows the upgraded Pioneer in-dash system to read the files on the player via a special harness that connects to a docking port in the center console.

While Scion’s engineers built this to appeal to Generation-Y, it’s got some hidden appeals for older aficianados looking for value and dependability in an automobile--yet still hankering for unique styling and something that’s fun to drive. I think my generation should be called "Gen Y-not?" Why not drive a car that's this much fun?

In fact, I am so impressed with the Scion line, we purchased an ’07 tC during the course of the weekend for one of the Clanton heirs.

Objectivity is one thing.
Acting on a value proposition is another.
I think I covered both bases here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tuesday's Tales

Wal Mart earnings were released this morning—viewed by some as a litmus test on how the economy is really faring. The thinking is, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping—at Wal Mart. The smiley-faced bean counters said total revenues were up nearly 9%, but the company was less than enthused by its performance behind the scenes.

The same forces tugging at other businesses—and individuals—are thwarting the Wal Mart way: interest rates, credit concerns, and higher prices for food and gasoline (which in some ways, actually plays in Wal Mart’s favor.) Still, Wal Mart’s forecast for the rest of the year was not encouraging.

Nor were things any more rosy at Home Depo, where they’re predicting a tougher rest of the year, and into 2008 for the housing market. Frank Blake, chairman & CEO, commented this morning, “We believe the housing and home improvement markets will remain soft into 2008.” Home Depot reported fiscal 2007 second quarter consolidated net earnings of $1.6 billion, or $0.81 per diluted share, compared with $1.9 billion, or $0.90 per diluted share, in the same period in fiscal 2006.

"You can tell it’s Mattell—it makes your face swell." That could be the next tag line for the toy maker, now facing a second recall of some die-cast cars and toys with magnets kids could swallow. The toy cars are painted with leaded paint. The owner of the Chinese factory implicated in Mattel’s first million-toy recall reportedly committed suicide last week at his factory.

Speaking of something that’s hard to swallow, TXU is telling its shareholders they might not get their money’s worth if they vote against the deal to sell the company to private investors.
Apparently, TXU’s executives don’t think the company is going to be anywhere near the $45-billion in value being offered if this deal falls through.
What a strange tale to tell.

Wonder how that must sound to the folks a KKR, who’re all revved-up to buy the utility…and makes you wonder what the people in charge of TXU are really up to.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hurricanes and Mondays Always Get Me Down

The Hawaiian Islands are bracing for a Category-3 hurricane…
named Flossie.
Hurricane Flossie?

Sorry, but that just doesn’t sound very ominous…unless it means the storm is capable of blowing food particles from between your teeth.

Speaking of bluster and blow…for all the tumult on Wall Street last week, the markets managed to end the week with a gain. That’s right—if you just left well-enough alone last week, you would have made a little money. The Dow finished with a .4% gain, the S&P 500 made 1.4%, and the Nasdaq was up 1.3% for the week.

Questions to ponder as we enter the week: Were the liquiduty injections by the various banking systems around the world sufficient to soothe the nerves of investors? And like treating a cancer patient with chemotherapy, what will be the likely side-effects of such strong medicine on the world’s currencies?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Auto Rieview: 2007 Toyota Sienna

Soccer-Mom-Mobile extraordinaire

Our family vehicles for shuttling kids and groceries in the ‘90’s were those ugly ducklings from GM, the Safari/Astro-series of mini-vans.

In those days, your choices were somewhat limited to full-size vans with individual zip codes, mini-vans like the Safari/Astro’s, or the front-wheel drive Caravans from Plymouth, or their wannabe competitors from Toyota and Nissan. Ford’s forgettable Aero and Windstar were also players…but take a look around at what’s still on the road today for clues as to who won that battle.

Toyota’s 2007 Sienna is comfortably in the middle of the pack of what I describe as today’s family UPC's (urban personnel carriers), with a few features that are unique to Toyota, and others that are stamped into the DNA that defines this vehicle genre.

Generally, a family van isn’t designed to inspire passion in its owners. Instead, you’re looking for safety, efficiency, and convenience. I’d tag dependability up there in my top tier of criteria (after having replaced alternators and starters on each of my GM vehicles within the first 30k-miles.)

Both of our heirs are now responsible for their own transportation. Our son terrorizes the Beltway in a Mazda RX-8; our daughter sensibly commutes to work in a Honda Accord. Both cars were purchased used. We no longer need or use mini-vans.

So it was with a somewhat detached sense of curiosity that I took the keys of a new Sienna for a week, just to see what the new generation of Soccer-mom-Mobiles were like. I was pleasantly surprised, though not moved enough to swap my present vehicle for one of these!

The ’07 Sienna boasts four trim lines, three of which also offer the all-wheel-drive configuration. Our test vehicle was the standard front-wheel-drive configuration, but with the larger, improved 266-hp 3.5-litre V-6 engine. For a mom-car, this rig can move!

What I like about the new Sienna: electrically-operated side and rear deck doors. The remote entry device will open or close those doors from across the parking garage. There’s also a command center cluster of buttons on the interior ceiling that will operate these doors. The side doors also feature glass windows that roll down (an nice improvement from the stodgy pop-out glass that GM’s Astro vans never improved upon!)

One of the litmus tests when I was shopping for a family vehicle back in the day was whether you could put sheets of 4 X 8 plywood in the back. The Sienna passes this exam, and has a few other neat ideas—like a split third seat in the rear that stows into the floor. Another silly qualifier--but important to me--is how well you can transport groceries without unloading instant goulash when you arrive home. The split third row configuration was very effective in preventing watermellons from becoming projectiles, stowed securely in that bottom compartment!

The model we drove had smaller rims than I would have preferred. The AWD versions feature 17-inch rims on run flat tires. (Note—those are way cool when the car is new, but replacing one run-flat tire is like buying an entire set of conventional tires. Caveat emptor!)

While the standard 16-inch rims were effective, I imagine the improved geometry with larger rims would be a noticeable improvement in Sienna's handling characteristics. As it is, the standard version maneuvers very well for a 119+ inch wheelbase--which also creates a very smooth ride.

Road trip, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

One other interesting note about this Toyota—despite the nameplate, it’s for all intents and purposes a domestic automobile. Toyota builds the Sienna’s in Princeton, Indiana, with engines and transmissions that are assembled at their power train facility in West Virginia.

If I had it to do over again, I would consider the Sienna a worthy competitor for my dollar. Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to make the choice!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Fearlessly Fearing Fear

Not a pretty day on Wall Street this week…and no European Vacation for investors, Thursday, either. European shares are finishing Friday with a second straight session aversely affected by credit fears.

The fractional sub-prime mortgage market that everyone pooh-poohed as much ado about nothing has managed to take on Tsunami-like proportions around the world. International investors have jettisoned shares of Deutsche Bank, AXA and hedge fund manager Man Group.

Have we gone from irrational exuberance a few years ago, to irrational paranoia? Or is there still another show to drop in the credit markets—could the financiers be aware of something gone horribly wrong that hasn’t come out, yet?

I loved this line in a story on “Economists at UBS insisted there's not a credit crunch -- money is available, just at a high price.” Methinks they’re toying with reality…

There’s not a shortage of gasoline…it’s available, if you’re willing to pay $3.00/gal at the pump.

There’s not a shortage of Crude Oil…there’s plenty if you’re willing to drill deep enough, or pay $72/bbl for it.

There’s not a shortage of heart, liver, lung or kidney transplants, if you’re on the list: You just have to outlive everyone else to get yours. (Wow—what a novel approach for a new Reality TV Show: Organ Donor Survivor. Adds new meaning to the tag line, “Out-wit, Out-last, Out-live.”)

The Fed is now making noises about holding an emergency, inter-meeting conclave, possibly to lower rates. That might be the worst thing to happen, because it would simply validate the paranoia that’s been festering for the past few weeks.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do know the worst thing about fear is fear itself. Would you rather work through a situation that’s fraught with doubt, but tinged with hope…or try to manage a situation that’s confirmed to be dire by the hopeless?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Census Senses

The Census People say more Hispanics than Anglos now live in Harris County, Texas, my home county.
This is wonderful news, I would imagine: I now qualify as a minority, right? Eligible for all the government goodies other minorities have enjoyed? Affirmative action, et al?
I think I will establish a local chapter of the NAAWP.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Armageddon Close?

Jim Cramer’s impassioned rants that the economy is going to hell in a hand basket unless the Fed immediately lowers interest rates fell deaf ears, as the FOMC unanimously voted to maintain the 5.25% lending rate.

Volatility is the phrase that pays on Wall Street, with the Dow’s intraday performance posting a 200-point swing. The Fed's somewhat rosy take on the U.S. economy was not shared by everyone, the proof being the sharp pullback in the major market indices from their highs of the session. As we like to say in Texas, the markets finished “fair to middlin’.”

The Fed says the failure of inflation to moderate is still its chief concern. While core inflation has showed signs of easing, the Fed sang a second verse from the same hymnal used in June, and needs more convincing evidence of the trend.

So what about the subprime mortgage market, the housing market, and worries over credit liquidity and Jim Cramer’s angst? The Fed rendered a typical, oblique reference that risks to economic growth have increased since its last meeting, but the committee still expects moderate growth in the coming quarters, despite reports of slowing productivity and upward wage pressures.

Interestingly, mortgage applications are up, as loan rates fall in reaction to everyone running for the exits in the lending business. The Mortgage Bankers Association's index of applications to buy a home or refinance a loan jumped 8.1% from the prior week. A gauge of demand for credit for home purchases rose 7.4%, and the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell for the fourth consecutive week.

Armageddon this or not?

Subtextual message: the good guys are still open for business, still need to make loans to remain in business, and if you're "bankable," you're business is bookable.

Subliminal message: It's a buyer's market if you've got your financing lined up ahead of time, and are willing to purchase an existing piece of new home construction.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

La Balota

The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish.

--Robert Jackson

The next loss-leader for retail grocers? Not $1.50/gal milk or Blue Bell ice cream at two for $7.

Would you believe prescription drugs--for free.

WalMart’s been selling generics for $4 a pop for a while, but now the Publix supermarket chain is going to give away 14-day doses of the seven most-often prescribed antibiotics in all of its stores.

One Florida newspaper quoted a woman as saying this would "save her thousands of dollars in meds…" which makes you wonder how much longer before she reaches room temperature. These drugs aren’t that expensive to begin with…

I read this somewhere this week: Mexico’s Carlos Slim is the richest man in the world, with a fortune worth $59-billion. To express it in other terms, El Slim’s holdings represent 5% of Mexico’s total GDP (compared to John D. Rockefeller, whose total wealth was a mere 1/52nd of US GDP at his death.)

Shouldn’t Mexico just change its name to “Slimlandia?”

By the way, Univision is proposing hosting a presidential candidates’ debate next month Spanish.

Yes, I know that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population…but a debate among US Presidential candidates conducted in a foreign language? Sorry, folks, that’s where it really looks like things are coming off the rails. I was reading some of the comments about this in the Houston Chronicle on-line editions…pretty hilarious—or just sad—to observe the level of English competency.

"Pretty soon I will need a spanish translater (sic) just to go shopping in Houston! Viva Texico!" [No, but a working knowledge of English spelling and punctuation wouldn't hurt--which would make the original premise moot.]

"More people vote for American Idol than the US Presidency. Of course, the eligible voter pool is larger. So, why don't we have a sing-off, or make the candidates dance with one another?"

Eww--that's a visual I could have gone until November 2008 without having. Which would be more gross--Hillary waltzing in John Edward's arms...or Obama's?
I know, I know--Obama in John's arms. (Well, he does have great hair...)

I think it's time for my meds.
See you on the Radio.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Thy Neighbor's Keeper

Homeowners Associations.
Can’t live without them...and can’t live with them, in many cases.

The examples of HOA’s gone wild are myriad, and sordid.

You may recall the story I covered on the show a few years ago of an 80-year old woman who lost her home to an unscrupulous real estate investor, who took advantage of an HOA foreclosure on her house for alleged non-payment of dues.

That one is probably the most egregious example of a civic group that went above and beyond the call of duty in making sure their fee collections were all up today and buttoned down. Bet they slept real good, knowing that slack-jawed mouth-breather learned her lesson.

Texas Sen. John Carona’s property management company is in the crosshairs of irate home owners in Rockwall over a proposed rule that would allow their HOA to impose fines for alleged infractions (real or imagined?) and collect those fines from the HOA dues on deposit before the money is applied to the annual fee—thus leaving open the door for foreclosure on grounds of non-payment of dues.

What lawmaker Carona seemed to miss was an existing law specifically forbidding such shenanigans:


"A property owners' association may not foreclose a property owners' association assessment lien if the debt securing the lien consists solely of (1) the fines assessed by the association or (2) attorney's fees incurred by the association solely associated with fines assessed by the association.

In other words, don't you be goin' and slappin' fines on your neighbors and then turning around and dropping the hammer on their house. It's not the neighborly thing to do.

We received a somewhat smarmy letter from our HOA over the weekend, informing us that the brick paving stones used to provide wider access to our driveway were "not approved."

The interesting thing about this is, we live next door to the current and past-Presidents of the HOA, both of whom have admired the work (“Hey, the paving stones look great.”)

My bride and I took an impromptu survey of our block to see how our “improper addition” stacks up to the rest of the ‘hood. We were shocked, shocked I tell you!

We found neighbors who had run diagonal bricks along the borders of their sidewalks. Scandalous!

Bricked houses with uncomplimentary flagstone borders to their driveways.
How gauche!

We also found a house where the brick border had been allowed to become overgrown with grass and weeds (Hmm, isn’t that an infraction of the HOA Good Housekeeping Code?)...

...and two adjacent houses where freakin' chicken wire had been stretched across the wrought-iron fencing facing the landscaped flood-retention pool.

That’s when I became seriously miffed about this whole HOA sham. That, and when I found one cul-de-sac impassable because the neighbors had parked their extra cars in the circle. I think that might also be a fire code violation.

Watch this space for progress as we do battle with the Forces of Evil and people with little else to do with their lives than to make the lives of our neighbors a living hell trying to keep up with their notions.

You know, for the HOA fees we pay each year--and they're not cheap, I expected a little more professionalism than this.

P.S. My neighbors, the past- and present HOA Presidents, are cool. We tell our friends we live next door to "the Mayor." The "mayor" is aghast at the pettiness the HOA management company has exhibited.