Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Click and Clack are right

The Tappet brothers (Car Talk on PBS) recently related that car salespersons are right above lawyers on the "I trust you list," which means they are very nearly at the bottom. And why should we not trust them? Hah. Funny you should ask. Yesterday I went shopping for a car (people who know me will say, "This is news?"). Anyway, I got exposed to the newest wrinkle in car trading.
See, there are a number of ways to assess the value of a used car. The three most popular are the NADA (National Auto Dealers Association), Kelly (The Blue Book), and Edmunds. Until recently, the consumer didn't have access to the information in these books, so the dealer had a certain advantage. An upstanding dealer shared this information; others didn't. Now, since anyone can find exactly what their car is worth, the dealers have lost their advantage. So, they came up with a new one. Many dealers buy their cars at auctions, from which the general public is excluded. Generally, prices at auctions are lower than the trade-in prices noted in the books. So, if your '02 Flashfire low books (low book is the wholesale or trade-in value) for, say, $5000, it will probably sell at auction for $3500 or less.
Here's the way dealers work it now. They tell you, "Forget the book value. I can only give you what the car sells for at auction." Then, they will show you the records for your car at the auction sales for the last little while. When it comes time to pricing their car, though, the auction price never comes up. Instead, they offer you their car at high book, which is the retail price.
In my case, the dealer offered me $3500 less than low book for mine, and asked about $1500 higher than high book for his. I didn't ask for the dealer to let me see auction prices on the car he was trying to sell me (I just wanted out), but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that this particular model would tank badly at the auction, and the dealer, if he tried to wholesale it there, would have to hitchhike home.
None of this is illegal, mind you. Ethically is has a little odor, but hey, whoever got rich being ethical?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Looking forwards and backwards, and sideways

I think I've given my contention that conservatives worship a past that never was and liberals worship a future that will never be. One of the consequences of these views is in how we view contemporary events, say race relations or gender equity. The liberal seems to always be saying, "Look how far we have to go," and the conservative seems to be always saying, "Look how far we have come." Liberals come off sounding petulant and conservatives come off sounding smug. A larger problem is that, because the two groups are looking past each other, they have trouble speaking to each other. Each side thinks, "How can those bozos be so mistaken about the nature of things?" Because we tend to concentrate on how other opinions differ from ours, we tend to lose sight of some pertinent facts. For one thing, we lose sight of the fact that conservatives are by and large people of good will. We lose sight of the fact that liberals are by and large people of good will. I think I could cheerfully put up with the fact that I am a foot dragger (conservative) or impatient (liberal) if I knew my compatriots across the spectrum appreciated that I actually want pretty much the same things that they want.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sanctity of life

I remember reading in a novel once the statement, "all life is infinitely precious." I remember thinking that sounded a little extreme. Are we talking bacteria here, or only those things that we can see as live? Or, do we move even up higher on the chain? I had an associate tell me she didn't eat anything that had a face. So, if it has eyes and a nose, its life is important; no nose, no sanctity?
But let's limit the discussion to humans, and say, "All human life is precious." I simply can't agree with that. But first, some background.
The idea that life is sacred has two sources, I think. The first is religion. We have no right, righteous people argue, to take over the powers of God. Note though, that that's not an argument for the sanctity of life. After all, God kills people left and right. The religious argument is that we're not God; ergo we can't decide.
The second argument is more along the lines of "If we say that one person's life isn't as important as another's, where do we stop?" Kind of the camel-with-its-nose-in-the-tent argument. The argument assumes that if we kill really bad guys, then we will progress to not so bad guys, to merely useless guys, to old guys, to helpless guys, until there's an orgy of destruction that spreads through the land like a plague ("guy" here is used as a trans-gender term). And yet, we make value decisions of the same kind, if not the same magnitude, every day. In fact, part of the human makeup is the ability to make clear-cut decisions on items that are really on a spectrum. There is no reason at all to assume that once we decide life is not inherently precious we'll kill our neighbors for their lawnmowers.
I believe that life is mysterious, wonderful, surpasses understanding, something that we can't create, etc. etc. etc. I do not believe, though, that life is "infinitely precious," not even human life. Some people are just better off dead.
But I'm not about to bump off people I think are a menace. For one thing, they kill you for doing that sort of thing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On being very old

I’m not there yet, but I know someone who is. A man, wealthy, old, alone, sits and waits for death to come and get him. He has tons of money, but can’t seem to pay disease enough to stay away, certainly can’t pay death not to come and harvest him. His children are not the type to gather solemnly around the bed, ready to serve his every need, ready to talk him through this time, ready to just be there. They are, instead, the kind of kids who stay resolutely away, waiting for him to die so they can have all that lovely money.
This is the place for ironic comments on wealth, health, children, love, loneliness, and all that sort of stuff that such a topic seems to generate: old grouchy misers turning into loving grandfather types and so on. But think about it for a moment. Here’s this old guy, can’t move much, can’t get out and around, has no family who want to visit him. What’s he got? Well, he’s got a warm fire to sit by, or a nice window to look out of. But, more than that, I hope at least, he’s got memories. Memories of a life well lived, of adventures and misadventures, of a woman’s love and a family raised. Of successes and high times, what psychologists call “peak moments.” In those times when there’s nothing on TV, when the books on CD have all been read, in that time between waking and sleep, when he says, “Do I live? Am I dead,” he has his whole life to relive.
If he’s lived a full one. And there’s the rub, as my friend Bill says. We need to live full, exciting, daring, doing lives. Because at the end, the memories of that life will be all we have as we wait in our beds for the shadows to get longer and longer until they take us away.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


One of the tenets I believe is that liberals and conservatives have built-in approaches to problems, which usually results in something that doesn't work.
Two examples. First is the emergency preparedness plan my university is developing. It's billed as a plan for almost anything, but it's really what the university will do if someone comes onto campus and starts shooting up the joint. The liberal approach (which the university is taking) is to let the authorities handle it. It's a complex early-warning and communication system that cannot possibly work. Suppose Joe Nutcase walks into a classroom with a Glock 9mm and four extra clips. It would be about a minute before anyone in the building would know what was happening, another minute to get the news out, and maybe (at best) five minutes before the cops come. By then it's all over. Try it. Walk around your living room for a minute pointing your finger and going "bang." You can kill a lot of knicknacks in a minute.
How would conservatives respond? By putting an armed guard in the hall, or a man with a doberman patrolling the hall, gun at the ready. Would this work? There are two possibilities: yes (but probably not), in which case we've got a police state, or no (probably) because Joe Nutcase will simply target the cop first.
The other example is the mess we are in with money. The university has to cut a zillion dollars from its budget RIGHT NOW, and plans to do so by cutting everybody's salary by a little. This is the liberal option: punish everybody a little. The conservative option would be to save most of us and sacrifice a few-- just get rid of 'em.
Quite frankly, I don't like either option in either case.

Monday, February 2, 2009


I discovered a new mystery series the other day, about a forensic anthropologist who gets in to the most awful scrapes. Someone said that in a novel the ratio of interesting people is much much higher than it ever is in real life, and I think I believe that. Anyway, I settled in for a good read amongst bones, mayhem, clues, dead ends, red herrings, and hairbreadth escapes, when I got tangled in -- her relationships. Her ex-husband, whom she still loves, she thinks, the hunky cop whom she love, she thinks, her bright but erratic daughter. All tangled in with bones, creepy cellars, mysterious artifacts, strange phone calls, and obnoxious male cops.
I mean, why can't I have a good mystery without all this baggage? The formula for a woman writer seems to be one part mystery and two parts relationship misery. Not one, not one, mystery features a well-adjusted female with a loving husband and a secure marriage. Even my favorite novelist, Liz Adair, has moved. Her first three novels were very good mysteries, with a country cop, a ranch, a loving wife, and corpses. Then, when she started writing about woman protagonists, relationships started creeping in, and her latest novel, Counting the Cost, though a whang doodler of a novel, is all about --- relationships.
Not that men don't write about relationships. They do. But with men it tends to be straightforward narration, not a convoluted agonizing about motives and moves. Can you imagine Abe Lieberman worrying about his relationship with his wife? If he does, it's simply, "Abe was worried about his wife." Or how about Matthew Scudder and Elaine. Does he torture himself about what she's thinking at every moment of the day.
And how about Sam Spade? He'd shift his toothpick from left to right in his mouth and say, "Sorry sweetheart, gotta go now."