Friday, November 9, 2012

The Sad, Untimely Death of Your Car

You've probably heard this adage: "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat out." Humbly, I would like to present another adage in the same vein: "If you can't afford maintenance, you can't afford a car." I possess a modicum of knowledge about cars. I have done work ranging from oil changes to transmission swaps on others' cars. I've seen a number of cars in various states of upkeep, but the vast majority of cars I've worked on for friends have left me shaking my head and thinking some variation of the above.

I intend to lecture you, reader, so feel free to leave off here if you're unwilling to listen.

Maintaining a car is optional in the same way that bathing is optional. You can skip it or put it off as long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences. If you don't bathe, you'll smell, have fewer friends, and probably get ill. If you skip or delay auto maintenance, you'll spend more on repairs, go through more cars, and maybe injure or kill yourself (and others) in an avoidable crash.

Let's talk about the costs first. If you keep your tires at the proper pressure, they'll last drastically longer than underfilled ones. (Like they're designed to) If you do oil changes with the proper oil at the correct interval, your engine will probably outlast your car- at least, if you live somewhere with salted roads. If you change your air filter at the proper interval, you'll enjoy the fuel economy your car ought to have. If you have the major manufacturer-recommended maintenance done when it's due, your car will likely last much longer, and you'll have significantly higher resale value to boot.

If you ignore these things, you'll have a car that burns more gas than it should, is less reliable, will die sooner, and could involve you, your loved ones, or someone elses' loved ones in a fatal accident.

Do you think I'm joking or exaggerating? Overworn or underpressurized tires, worn shocks, squealing brakes, and ignored dash warning lights are the kind of problems that make your car stop more slowly and fail to swerve like you want when another driver, deer, or child is in your path. Do you really think your car is going to perform like it should in an emergency driving situation when you've been treating it the way you have?

I did an oil change for a friend recently. The oil hadn't been changed since the car was bought months ago, and instead of the five quarts the automotive engineers mandated be in the engine, less than three drained out. The tires on the truck were visibly- dangerously- low, and the air filter had been changed recently, but only because I suggested it when I was ordering some parts online last month. The one that came out then looked like the inside of your vacuum cleaner bag. This is typical of what I see on friends' cars. This vehicle will inevitably die a early death, consuming plenty of the owner's dollars before it does, unless it takes someone's well-being or life first.

What about consequences that go deeper than your wallet or your health? I am a Christian. I know myself to be a steward charged to take care of and effectively use God's things that are on loan to me. This includes my time, my money, my health, my possessions- including my car. Before any Christian buys a car, they should assess whether they are ready to be a diligent and faithful steward of God's car. It's not a lofty ideal, it's a practical thing you do every day. You bathe the body you're the steward of every day, right? (...right?) If your car had arrived on your doorstep with a note from God saying "You may borrow my car, just take care of it and use it well." Would you lazily forget when the oil change is due on God's car? Would you fail to put air in the tires until they were visibly deformed? Would you drive God's kids in the car with shocks that won't be changed they're clunking?

I didn't think so. Whose car do you drive?

Owning a car is responsibility. It's not (just) a rite of passage, a necessity, or a convenience. You cannot and may not evade this responsibility by virtue of your lack of skills, brokeness, or busyness. Learning how to own a car isn't hard. Crack open your owner's manual and follow the maintenance schedule. If it's asking you to do things you don't know how to do, get on YouTube, CarBibles, or ask a friend. If that not your style, you'll garner no judgement from me, just crack open your wallet and have a professional do it. On time.

I'm considering advising my friends to buy electric cars. Sure, you can only go 60-90 miles on a charge, but all of the maintenance is so much less. The first oil change comes after 240 months in a i-MiEV. 20 years. Yes, you must still worry about tires, shocks, and brakes, but it's kind of like a Fisher-Price My First Car in the maintenance respect. Judging by the maintenance I typically see, that's what a lot of people need.

Although this is a topic for another time, your responsibility to drive your car well is arguably greater than your responsibility to maintain it. Learn how to drive your car properly, and don't assume that you know how to drive properly because you took the test 3 or 30 years ago and haven't killed anyone since then. In Finland, new drivers must have 15 hours of in-car training, 20 theory driving lessons, additional time driving on a slippery driving course, pass a theory exam and a 30-minute driving test in the city. Finlanders are three times less likely to be injured in an auto wreck than Americans*.

I'm not going to tell you how to maintain your car here, nor how to drive it. I'm just going to say that if you're not, you're the person who doesn't tip their server and hasn't showered lately. The difference is that you're not just hurting the waiter and smelling up the room, you're hurting yourself and endangering everyone you share the road with.

Before you turn the key next time, assess whether you've fulfilled the responsibilities of a car owner.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Grocery store showdown: Germany vs. Arkansas. FIGHT!

I went price shopping lately, and compared Aldi with Walmart. Here are the results. These prices reflect the cheapest option and don't attempt to compare brand-for-brand, just equivalent items. The prices were current as of last week in Plainfield, Illinois. Note that this is an upscale area- Walmart probably has higher prices here than they would in another area, while Aldi's cost-cutting techniques probably serve them well, allowing them to keep their prices comparable to other Aldis elsewhere.

Apples (Granny smith, 3lb)
Milk (Whole, 1 gal)
Eggs (large, dozen)
Canola oil (48 fl oz)
Bread (12 grain, loaf)
Mayonnaise (Kraft Olive oil, 22 fl oz)
Turkey deli meat, sliced, packaged (1 lb)
Mangoes (each)
59 ¢
98 ¢
Sausage links, Italian, packaged (per ounce)
14.7 ¢
15.7 ¢
Sliced cheese, packaged, cheapest (per ounce)
24.9 ¢
27.7 ¢
Baby swiss cheese wedges, foil wrapped (per ounce)
32.3 ¢
46.3 ¢
Cooking spray oil, canola
Green peppers, each (Sold by threes at Aldi)
50 ¢
74 ¢
Red, orange, and yellow peppers, package with one each
Boneless, skinless chicken breast (per lb)
Onions, yellow (3lb bag)
Flour tortillas, 6” (dozen)
89 ¢
98 ¢
Peanut butter, chunky (per ounce)
11.3 ¢
13.7 ¢
Olive oil (virgin)
17.7 ¢
16.0 ¢
Tall kitchen bags (per bag)
6.3 ¢
13.5 ¢
Black beans, 15 oz can
59 ¢
68 ¢
Parmesan cheese, grated (per ounce)
29.9 ¢
33 ¢
Paper towels, decent ones, but not name brand (per roll)
Avocados, Hass
49 ¢

Some notes: Some items were on sale at either place. I don't remember them all, but some are the milk and canola oil at Walmart (competing with Aldi, I am sure), avocados both places (!), mangoes and onions at Aldi.

I shop at Aldi now. The reason is obvious- it so much cheaper! It's an almost meaningless statistic, but the cost-normalized savings* at Aldi is about 25.6%. The selection is not there for all the stuff I want, but I can go to Aldi for 80% of my trips.  I don't even want to know what this chart would look like vs. Meijer- the one here is amazingly expensive!

*I got this by multiplying the mean price of the item between the two stores with the percent savings at Aldi for each item, taking the mean of those, and dividing by the mean of the average price. Is this valid? I don't know. You should still shop at Aldi.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Q: Is Clear 1.5mbps service fast enough to use Skype?

Q: Is Clear 1.5mbps service fast enough to use Skype?
A: Yes. On a Google Plus hangout, I get comfortably clear picture and audio with 1.5 service with the cheapo laptop dongle being in good range of a tower.

Here's what I get:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Q: What is the best way to remove silver nitrate stains from surfaces?

A: Bar Keeper's Friend scouring powder.

409, bleach, Pine-Sol: no effect.
BKF and several minutes with the scouring side of a sponge: stain gone.

Monday, January 23, 2012

This was a little too long for a facebook update, and my blog has been neglected.

Okay, I gotta be honest about my day. First off, there wasn't any Sarah in it. Now, my day at work- my first at my new position with CB&I was just fine- but here's the sequence of events that was my evening: left work at about 4:40 desiring to get to the post office before it closes (presumably at 5). I didn't understand the intensity of traffic in Plainfield/Naperville. I was coasting through green lights at first, but as it got closer to 5PM, I indexed along in sequence and started catching all the red lights. What's at stake here? $35 in rebate cash that need today's postmark. Middlin' on the bummer scale. 5PM comes and goes, but you know, it might be one of those post offices that is open until 5:30. Don't give up hope. Still more red lights.

Okay, so I make it- and- answer to prayer! It is open, and not just until 5:30, but until 6:30! Amazing! The post office I was directed to by my new work friend is the distribution center. But- bummer again, there's a long line, and all I need is stamps. Maaan, I gotta wait anyway. Hey- I wonder if there's one of those stamp vending machines in here? Well, now somebody got in line behind me, and I'd have to give up my spot in line to look... and I don't see one... not worth it, I don't think. (5 minutes pass) Now a woman is saying that the machine is broken. Null effect: there is a machine, but it is broken. I'll check that first on my next visit.

Alright, now I'm leaving the post office- but I don't know where I am. I just followed the directions to the post office, and I don't know if I went too far on 59 and am now past my hotel, or haven't gone far enough yet. I don't have a smartphone to check with. (Yet.)

I'll bet on having not gone far enough. Also, I need to get something for dinner. I'm hungry. Should I visit a restaurant, or go grocery shopping? On the pro-restaurant side: Immediate gratification, and there is a Sweet Tomatoes salad buffet quite close to the hotel which can help with my healthy eating goals. I wouldn't be grocery shopping hungry. I don't know if the hotel has pans to go with the mini-stovetop that's in the room. On the pro-grocery shopping side: I save money, and can get something to pack for lunch tomorrow, which also saves money.

I have plenty of time to ponder this, as there is a decent amount of traffic on the road, and the light I am trying to get through is timed instead of sensored. Very little traffic is going through the other way, but lots of traffic is backed up on my road. I watch a green-light cycle go by for the left turn I want to take because I'm trapped behind traffic and there's a median preventing me from getting into the turn lane. Grrr. Estimated minutes spent at stoplight: 6.

I get onto the main road again, and I see a Meijer. Snap decison time- grocery or restuarant? Decision made- groceries. Bonus feature: I can ask someone in the Meijer how to get to the hotel. Shopping: Pro: granny smith apples are reasonably priced. Con: have to wait to get sandwich meat at the deli. Pro: This is a pretty nice Meijer. Con: I don't know if the "10 for $10" sale requires you to actually buy 10. Pro: the deli guy gives me a sample of the turkey, I didn't even ask. Con: I grab the turkey but am immediately unsure if he was holding it out for me to take, or just to inspect, because he asked if the thickness was okay. Eat turkey anyway. Pro: bread is on sale. Con: I still don't know about these "X for $Y" sale prices. Pro: random lady in frozen foods aisle is friendly when I ask if she knows about the sales. Con: I don't know if random lady in frozen foods aisle thinks I was awkwardly trying to start a conversation and ask her out. Con: She doesn't know about the sales either. Pro: Meijer guy in dairy area tells me I don't have to buy 10 to get the 10 for $10 price. YESSS. Con: I don't know what to get for dinner that I can make in a hotel room that isn't really bad for me. Pro: I decide on canned soup, and find some on sale. Con: I am dragging out my grocery shopping because I have nothing to draw me away from the grocery store. Pro: Kalamata olives are reasonably priced. Con: self-checkout aisle scanner is acting up and doesn't want to scan. Pro: lady at in-store bank gives me some directions that I can infer my location from. Con: IT'S SO DARN COLD AND WINDY Con: I want to take a left to get onto that one road, but there's a solid median. Pro: Oh, the hotel is right there. Nice.

Okay, so here's the deal with the hotel: CB&I is putting me up in a hotel for the first little bit of work while I get my lodging figured out. More on that in a later post. Anyway, when I arrived last night, the hotel didn't have a reservation for me- alright, I thought that might happen, since I hadn't heard back from the training coordinator. I can put it on my card and get reimbursed, and things will get sorted out for the second night. So now I'm at the hotel for the second night- having re-packed all my stuff into the car again this morning since I couldn't leave it there, having only paid for one night. The hotel's computers are down, and he doesn't have a reservation for me in the stack of paper he's got. Okay, the system is coming back up right now. It's slow, and- no, sorry, no record of a reservation. Well, alright, on the card it goes again, and I'll do another expense report. Now, though, I have groceries in my car and the same conundrum as last night. I'm hungry.

What's the natural thing to do? Escape! Escape from the world! I get to my room, nuke a can of soup, and decide to watch a movie on my laptop. What's handy? I eventually settle on 2001: A Space Odyssey. I've never seen it, and it's got such a prominent place in movie culture, it must be good, right? WRONG! Crazy piece of film- it makes no sense at all, and only my misguided sense of finish-what-you-start keeps me from turning it off. Blech. I finish and waste too much time on the computer. Now it's getting late. I meant to hit the exercise room tonight, so I feel lame for not doing that. I feel lame for my focus on God being so up-and-down lately. What to do? Obviously, look at the olives I bought. I won't eat any, though, because I already had way too many of those 75% off close-dated almonds. Gee, what does 'thrown' mean in the context of an olive label? I wondered about that in the store. The internet tells me. I still feel empty.

Is this how God gets my attention? Has he intervened here to get me to where I can't ignore that I need him, or is it just so much the way that he created us that it is impossible to ignore that the hole in me is God-shaped? I pray. I sing a verse. I read Proverbs. I am reminded that yes- God is the center of the universe, and I am best when the God-shaped hole in me is being filled.