It is best to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Strip the Representatives of their Power

Whether you are a liberal, independent, or conservative, you have to admit that the Electoral College was a brilliant idea. Key word in that last sentence: “was”. When the framers of the constitution had to decide on the best process for electing our leaders, they needed a method that would be efficient, reliable, and representative of the people. The creation of the Senate and House – another brilliant method of representation – allowed the members of congress to cast their votes based upon what their constituents wanted. However, what many people do not realize is that they are not voting for their president, only for how they want their representatives to cast their ballots. Normally, the representative casts their vote in accordance with their constituents (I can think of only one instance where a representative cast their vote for someone else, but then they were not re-elected the following term). This has been the closest to true representation that our elected officials have come to recently.

There has been some discussions on “Electoral College Reform”, but the “reform” still remains elusive from mainstream media. The primary purpose of the Electoral College Reform is to elect the President based solely on a popular vote by the people, rather than by the electoral college. The electoral college was great back in the day when information traveled by horseback and carrier pigeon. This process, however, was very vulnerable to theft, corruption, etc. Fast-forward to today, where information travels faster than the speed of light, and with security tighter than ever on that information, there is no reason why we cannot allow the popular vote to determine our leaders. Now, granted that over the course of history, rarely has a candidate won the electoral vote without the popular vote. But, as recent history proves, this could have made a world of difference – for the whole world.

Nonetheless, this article is not just about eliminating the electoral college, but also to strip our representatives of their voting rights. For far too long, we have stood idly by as our elected congress men and women cast their votes in the best interests of their pockets. We can no longer afford to have our country run by greed or special interest groups. Thus, my proposal is for each bill that comes to a vote, the vote should rest in the hands of the constituent, not the so-called representative.

“Now what purpose will the representative serve then?”, you ask. Well, they will still be able to vote in committees, introduce bills, and do all of the aspects the representative is supposed to do.

“But we the people do not have the time or knowledge to vote for each bill that comes to a vote”, you may argue. To curb that, voting sessions can be setup not only once a year, but perhaps quarterly. Additionally, the representative’s job will be to disseminate any and all information pertaining to the bill to their constituents, thus empowering them with the knowledge to vote. The representative can even give their recommendation. The quarterly vote can be done online and/or in voting booths.

“What about measures that need immediate resolutions, such as the TARP funds last fall?” In those extreme cases, a special voting session can be setup.

In essence, so many people complain how their representatives only represent their own interests or lobbyists/special interest groups, and not the people that elected them. We need to create a reform that will curb this mockery of democracy, and put the power back in the hands of where it was intended – the people.

Anyone else got a better idea?


Car buying Experience

While many folks fear the “car-buying” experience, I look for any opportunity to embrace the challenge.

The opportunity arose for me and my family when I asked my wife to take her 1999 Lexus RX300 (125k miles) into the dealership for a routine oil & filter change (normally $30). While waiting for her car to be worked on, a service consultant emerged and informed her that there are some “issues” that she might want to address. The services they “recommended” were around some oil leaks (gasket, oil pan, etc.) – total bill: $3,000. She immediately called me and asked me what to do, hinting that this service cost exceeds 50% of the trade-in value. I checked our garage floor, and there was no leakage of any kind on the ground. However, I know that this dealership has been good to us over the seven years that we have owned this car, and are probably a key reason why the car is still in excellent running condition. Nonetheless, a big decision needed to be made, and we were not going to make up our minds over the phone. Thus, we told them to hold off on the service, and we will commence our car-buying process.

Granted, buying a car is not a task that should be made over an hour, a night, or even a week. After all, the buyer is planning to spend thousands of hard-earned dollars, and just throwing the money around is rarely any fun. The fun part for me, however, is haggling with the salesman (I would say sales people, but I have yet to meet a car sales woman). Before haggling can begin, I needed to do my homework. I spent several days researching reviews, specifications, prices, etc. on other sport utility vehicles. I used a funnelling process whereby we would start with the features that are more important to us, and eliminate all others.

The most important feature to us is safety, followed by reliability, cost of maintenance, fuel consumption, options (V6, AWD, leather, sunroof, heated seats, navigation, interior space, etc.), and finally appearance. Our population quickly filtered down to four vehicles: Acura MDX, Ford Edge, Chevy Equinox, and Lexus RX. I firmly believe in buying only used cars for the following reasons: cheaper, better fuel consumption (typically, most cars do not achieve their projected miles per gallon rating until after the first several thousand miles), less depreciation, whatever bugs the car may originally had would have been ironed out by then, and more wiggle-room in negotiating a price.

So after we had our top four choices, I made calls to our nearest dealerships to schedule test drives. My wife and I got her parents to watch our 4-year old son for the day while we went cruising. I wanted to keep the process as smooth as possible since my wife is eight months pregnant, and thus a lot of driving around could be tiresome on her. Thus, I asked each sales person to have the keys for the test drive ready upon our arrival. However, I figured that the outcome of our test-driving would be 50% chance that we would not make a purchase, 25% chance that we would buy a Lexus, 15% chance that we would by an Acura, and 10% chance that we would buy the Ford.

My research told me that the Acura MDX was rated the top midsize SUV, so I wanted her to drive the “benchmark” first. We had a 10am appointment and arrived at the Acura dealership and examined a green 2006 Acura MDX with 72,000 miles. We were most impressed with the optional third row of seating. This car had all of the options we desired, plus was certified up to 100,000 miles. My wife took the car for a spin and really enjoyed the ride, however, the high mileage turned us away. Upon our return from the test drive, the salesman informed us that they would buy her car for $6k. I thanked the salesman for his time, and told him that we would consider the offer. He gladly handed us the keys, and told us to keep in touch.

Driving away, I was glad that he complied with my request of speediness, but somewhat disappointed that he did not attempt to close the sale right then and there. My guessing is that he was sympathetic to my wife’s pregnancy, and was more interested in her getting some rest.

Our second stop was at the Ford dealership to drive the Ford Edge at 11:30am. I really wanted this car to be the choice, as the vehicle the salesman brought out to us had everything we wanted, plus at a very good price. The car even sported the panoramic sunroof – very cool! Unfortunately, my wife could not get comfortable in the drivers seat, and complained that there were too many blind spots. Additionally, the brakes were too loose, and the car seemed too “plasticy” – almost like the vehicle was made in Mexico (which is true by the way). Our test drive ended rather quickly, and we informed the salesman that we were not satisfied with the car. He tried to persuade us to re-consider, and even got his manager to talk with us. He also tried to pull the “I’ll hide your car keys trick to keep you here longer”. None of their tactics worked, as they did not even mention pricing. We thanked them for their time and headed out for lunch.

After lunch, our next scheduled stop was to be at the Chevrolet dealership to examine the Chevy Equinox. However, I knew that they did not have one with leather available, so we decided to skip that car for now. Thus, we went to the same Lexus dealership where we have been servicing our car since our purchase seven years prior. We had called ahead and asked to test drive a RX330 and/or RX350. Upon our arrival, they claimed to have none available, only a 2006 RX400h with 57,000 miles (just in) for $25,000. So we gave that a car a whirl. The drive was smooth and exceeded our expectations, but we noticed too many problems (no heated seats, the air conditioning was blowing hot air, etc.), and I refuse to buy a first year model hybrid (at least without a warranty on the battery). Interestingly, they only offered us $5,600 for our car (supposedly without knowing of the work that needs to be done).

Thus, we left for the day in our original car, still searching for the next addition to our family. But we were not disappointed, as we still enjoy the current car. However, we do know that we need to make a decision soon, as we want to some value for our car in a trade-in.

iPod Generation

First, there were the baby boomers, people born between 1946 – 1964 (as defined by the US Census Bureau). Then, they yielded generation X (a.k.a “gen exers”). With the baby boomers’ second marriages, they spawned generation Y. For those of you thinking, “Well what about the MTV generation?” That generation is a blend of the X and Y generations. So what’s to make of the generation formed from the Xers breeding with the Yers? How about the “iPod Generation”?

Sure Nick Bosanquet and Blair Gibbs tried to coin that phrase back in 2005, but they were mostly referring to education and socio-economic status. For them, IPOD stood for, Insecure, Pressured, Over-taxed, and Debt-ridden. Plus, they tried to tag that generation label on the MTV generation. Given that the members of that generation detest labels, the IPOD label failed to gain any steam.
The iPod generation I am referring to is for children born not with a silver spoon in their mouths, but with an iPod in their hands. Today’s new-borns have so much technology at their tiny fingertips, that they are already able to do more than in the palm of their hands than their grandparents can do with a map, calculator, telescope, and compass. Clearly, they are able to do so much because this technology is all they have ever known. Thus, they never had to “re-learn” a process or get confused from an old method.
My family is not exempt from this epidemic. When my son turned two, he received an iPod from his grandparents. We used it to play his songs while taking him out in his stroller. I eventually figured out how to hook it up to the television so that he could watch some of his favorite shows. When his grandparents visited a year and a half later, they allowed him to play with their iPhone. My son was captivated by the ease of use of the device and thoroughly enjoyed playing the game (some animal memory app game). During this time, we were still potty training him, and thus we used this tool as a reward once he became completely trained. Sure enough, we decided to buy the iPod Touch (mostly for my wife so that she can do her e-mail, facebook, etc.). Each time my son used the potty, he was permitted to play with the iPod Touch. He was fully trained in a month! Best $200 I have ever spent (for any of you that are parents, I’m sure you would gladly pay even more than that to potty train your kids within a month’s timeframe).
Thus, on a recent drive to the airport for a flight to the sunshine state, we realized that we forgot to bring the iPod Touch. We actually contemplated turning around and getting the device, but decided against it, as we despised using the device as a crutch just to keep our son occupied. Upon arriving at the airport, we proceeded to the security line. We noticed several other families in line with us. What did they all have in common? You guessed it, iPods for the kiddies.
Fortunately for us, our son did not need the device for the 2 1/2 hour flight, as he rested most of the way.
While in Florida, we visited my sister’s family. When entering their house, we knew that they were all about those little hand-held devices, as they have five of them. Each parent has an iPhone and old iPod, and the oldest daughter (age 5) as an iPhone. They even refer to her as “The Pod”.
I conducted a recent poll on a parenting website. Out of the 32 respondents, 23 have iPods. Of those 23 though, 6 have devices purchased primarily for the child.
Sure, that may be less than 20%. But this is a $200 device. Compared to generations X and Y, we were lucky to get a watch or calculator that cost more than $5 by middle school.
As much as I despise the product, it is the best device available, and Apple certainly has made a complete 180 from nearly becoming extinct from the technology industry. Plus, I recall begging for a Nintendo game system back in 1988 – using such arguments as, “It’s great for ‘hand-eye’ coordination”, and “Everyone else has one”.
Did my “hand-eye” coordination improve? Probably.

Was the gaming system a necessity? Nope.

Playing it Smart with Smartphones

Over the past few years, I have been contemplating on getting a smartphone, but have been reluctant to as I could not justify paying the $30/month data charge. I work at an office and sit behind a computer all day, so I have immediate access to the internet and worldwide information throughout the day. I’ve also got computers with broadband internet access at home, so no real worries there either.

My wife and I each have basic phones, and have become comfortable with them over the past few years. However, they were getting a bit old and the features seem to be more of a drag on our needs rather than a benefit. Thus, I began researching smartphones to see which ones would best suit our needs.

After establishing which ones we wanted – iPhone for my wife (since she is technologically challenged), and a droid (Samsung Charge) for me – I began to weigh the costs and determined how we could afford them.

On our current family plan, we share 700 minutes for $70/month, each have 250 text messages for $5/month, and my phone (Samsung Reality) has a $10/month data plan for 75 MB (which I have never exceeded 20 MB over the past 18 months since I got the phone). Thus, our total wireless bill was $90/month (not including taxes, fees, but also not including a 25% discount I get via my employer).

Recently, Verizon Wireless launched two promotions specifically targeting my ilk:
1.) Data plan made available for $20/month (up to 300MB)
2.) $100 gift card when upgrading from a basic phone to a smartphone

Both promotions expire September 30th.

The temptation suddenly became irresistible. I contacted Verizon Wireless via their online chat service a few times to see if they could answer some of my questions as I was hunting for a way to find more discounts. They seemed clueless about the promotions, and did nothing to help convince me to make the upgrade. I then noticed other sources for upgrading my phones via Wal-Mart, Target Mobile, Best Buy, etc. However, none of those places were able to help me out either. Finally, I contacted Verizon Wireless’ customer support, and was connected with a very patient and helpful representative named Anne from Wisconsin. She helped walk me through the process, and even informed me of a customer loyalty discount whereby I could lower my talk plan to 550 minutes for $60/month (my wife and I have never even exceeded 400 minutes in a month, so this was a no-brainer $10 savings). Furthermore, a colleague informed me that there are text messaging apps and Google Voice that would allow us to drop our $5/month texting plan – another $10 saved! Given that my current data plan was $10/month, increasing this to $20 would result in just a $10 monthly adjustment. My wife’s would be a $20 monthly increase – thus resulting in a $30 monthly increase in our bill. However, since we will be scaling back $20/month, we would be netting out just a $10 monthly increase overall.

My wife got her iPhone for $200, and I got my droid for $200. However, since we EACH get $100 gift cards, that will be savings of $200 off the cost of the phones. And to add a cherry on top of the deal, Anne informed me of my loyalty upgrade discount of $30 off the cost of a new phone (and waived any upgrade fees – which as we all know, is a bogus charge that the companies try to ding on the customers hoping that they would not care or notice).

So all in all, we paid $170 for two new smartphones and increased our monthly wireless bill by just $10/month. I should be able to offset that $10 monthly increase by bringing my lunch to work rather than going out and spending ~$10 a meal. Now, if I could get my wife to kick her $40/month Starbucks habit, then we’ll be golden!

The only way we could have gotten a better deal is if we took advantage of their “Buy-One-Get-One Free” offer on the Motorola Droid 3. However, I knew that my wife would not be comfortable using that device, and I did not like the touch screen on that phone either.

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