November 29, 2008

Honesty the Best Policy?

Apparently not, in some quarters. My last week's Wheels column peeved off some. I've overstepped my bounds, it seems, in calling it like I own it. With the Big Three taking it in the teeth, I'm not allowed to say I don't like my GM van. You know, the one I pay for. The one I bought because the one I'd owned before it - same van - had been fine.

I say nuts to that. When the American CEOs can fly private jets to Washington to beg, when some of us can seem to conveniently forget that cars we pretend are totally American or Canadian-made aren't (Mexico became so attractive after NAFTA), I'm suddenly flexing my ego by stating I don't like something? Read this piece from Edmunds - it's one of the most concise descriptions of where your cars come from that I've seen.

I've been bitching about stupid oversized SUVs for years. Years. And I've been panning the people who buy them. That's right - I played the chicken and the egg game (if nobody wanted them, nobody would build them. If nobody built them, nobody could buy them), and I chose the egg. Or the chicken. Whatever. Consumers have been stupid, and totally complicit in the downturn of this industry.

But. There were still many manufacturers ahead of the ball, who realized that not all consumers were idiots. They balanced their lines, they poised their positions, they had some vision. Other manufacturers, not so much.

I don't recall any bouquets showing up on my doorstep last summer when I wrote about buying my second '94 Chrysler Intrepid. That's right - the first one was great; a reader read my column about having to finally get rid of it, and I bought a second one from him. And of course, wrote another column about that. Instead, a throwaway line - "I hate my GM van" - pisses people off.

I have always written honestly. I don't see cars as trophies - they're commodities that serve a purpose - getting me from A to B. They cost a great deal of money, I maintain them well, and I expect them to uphold their end of the bargain. When they do, I say so. If they don't, I'll say that too.

Do the Big Three deserve a huge loan? Too many people connected to the industry for the government not to step in. But I've watched many, many good people in other industries lose their jobs in the past twenty years, and I really wonder: who decides where the lifelines land? And shouldn't the saviours - that'd be you and me - get a say in how things move forward?

You vote with your dollars. And sometimes you lose. I won't set foot in a Wal-Mart, but I'm outvoted judging by their bottom line. I do not support ridiculous standards in China for workers and product safety, and I refuse to support a store that is filled to the rafters with the crap. Same for dollar stores. But, I'm seemingly alone in my position. That's okay. As we've finally learned, doing what everyone else is doing doesn't make it right. And even listening to the talking heads of banking institutions, governments and think tanks should always be weighed against common sense. Add to the list CEOs that fly to a meeting in a private jet, holding a tin cup.

November 28, 2008

Blame Flat Screened TVs

I do. In my wee brain, I can trace the beginning of the end of this ridiculous consumer acquisition Olympics to flat screened televisions. It's front and centre again this week, because the ads have been tumbling in already.

I'll never forget an old family friend, her lips pursed together like a prune, storming around her kitchen snarking that today's young people were so out of line with reality. She was peeved that we (meaning people in their first apartment or home away from their parents) believed they should have a couch or TV. Let me correct that: she was appalled that any of them should believe they deserved to own new stuff - she herself hadn't had a new living room set until she'd been married 15 years.

I saw her point, to a point. We all had hand-me-downs from each other, until we all made the first foray into Low Quality High Price Shouty Ads Store and got seduced by new and shiny that cost 40 bucks a month.

But this lady was pissy because I mentioned that I'd purchased a microwave. Now, this was the later generation of microwaves, and I think it cost a hundred bucks. Early ones, you may recall, were as big as Oldsmobiles and cost upwards of $700. But I mentioned I'd picked one up. She fumed; I gently reminded her that 'this' generation (why is that such a swear word to some?) usually had both people working, and something like a microwave was indispensable to us.

I let it go. I knew what we could afford (very little) and what we actually purchased (very little), so I was good with my decisions. I've watched people keep their furniture covered in plastic for forty years to keep it nice. I don't get that about *that* generation, but whatever.

But one thing's for certain: electronics have gone from the 'want' to the 'need' pile in a heartbeat. Multiple gaming systems, computers, TVs, telephones - there's no such thing as too much.

And that's the bird that's come home to roost. We can blame the bankers, we can blame auto makers, we can blame government, we can blame outsourcing, we can blame hedge funds, we can blame the media. But you know what? It's our fault. Consumers knew better, and failed to do better. Guess what? You can't spend more than you earn. You can't. And yet, most of us have. People used to work hard to acquire a life they aspired to. Now, aspiring is enough, and you slap it on a credit card.

To me, flat screened TVs reflect the worst of a generation. Not everyone bought their kid $300 sneakers. Not everyone has a latte maker sitting on their granite countertop, and not everyone bothered with a hot tub. I'm aware that the signal will be changing in February for the older TVs, but this mad replacement started years ago. Remember when we used to wait for something to wear out before we replaced it? How quaint.

But read this: A Wal-Mart employee has been trampled to death in the early morning rush of people trying to shop before they've even processed their Thanksgiving turkey. Read the comments from people they've interviewed. People unemployed, or broke, making sure they get a new TV. And iPods. Is this for real? They don't know how they're going to feed their kids, but they need to make sure they get a deal on a TV? And it's apparently worth killing a man for?

Another stor
y in the NYT shows a twit of a woman bemoaning that in order to buy her daughter a boatload of crap for Christmas, she's had to forgo a pair of designer jeans for herself. Get a grip, NYT. Take a look at the pic - a garage already full of last year's discards, from the looks of it, with more garbage on it's way down the chimney for little Brittnee.

We've spent our way into Stupidville - and it's obvious many deserve to be there.

November 22, 2008

The End

Sub-prime Mortgages. The term has entered the vernacular like some kind of ringworm, but even though they proved to be the jenga block that pulled the whole tower down, who really understands what they are? Or how they came to be the beginning of the end?

I have a general working knowledge of what is going on, but like most of us, I still would like to know who to blame. I mean, that's what everyone else seems to be doing - banks blame government, government blames banks, auto manufacturers blame governments, workers blame manufacturers, importers blame exporters, all of the above blame the consumers, and everyone blames China.

Back in the 80s, every 20-something was pretty much an arrogant little fart who graduated into high paying jobs and spent, spent, spent. I know this; I finished university in '84, and watched it happen all around me. Unfortunately, I started my own company, and lived on handouts from my parents while my peers were buying their first Beemer and looking down their nose at me. This Age of Consumption was pretty gross, in retrospect, and it didn't last.

But of course, humans are dumb, and everyone scrambled on board for the next uptick, and continued the same ridiculous spending. In my tiny little mind, big screen TVs are the true symbol of lunacy. Over the past few years, everyone - I mean everyone - had to have one. Didn't matter if you had a great job, or no job, you had to have one. So you could sit and watch a life instead of living one. The other constant symbol of all things stupid? Don't Pay A Cent events. When a store says 'no interest for two years, no payments' This means you will have this almost always inferior quality living room set (or whatever) for two years (or whatever) before you have to pay for it. It will look like crap then. It will look like crap in 6 months, actually, and you will resent having to pay anything for it, let alone too much.

Enough from me. Here is a tremendous article in a publication called Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker about his time as a young Turk in the 80s in trading houses, where he knew admittedly knew nothing. Not little, nothing. This piece, called The End, explains the current situation, and how we got here. It's long - take the time. It's complicated - there are still bits I don't get. Then again, I'm starting to believe that the subprime is so blantantly stupid that most of us are looking for complicated pieces of knowledge that just aren't there.

The End - read it here.

Life Magazine Photos

Oh, now this is a truly great way to spend a grey November morning.

Life Magazine has put their photo archives on line - go here to discover new gems, or recognize old ones.

November 21, 2008

Live @5:30 Friday - oops, make that Monday!

Pregnant women and prison...what becomes of the babies?

Join us on CHCH at 5:30, repeat at 11:30...

November 16, 2008

Behind The Story Sunday

7pm tonight, Behind The Story on CTS - channel 26.

Join us for a round table of recent events in the news.

November 13, 2008

P.J. O'Rourke

This is a brilliant piece in the Weekly Standard, from P.J. O'Rourke. Yeah, we're not political kindred spirits, but he's too smart to ignore.

While there's been a veritable pile-on to the whole Sarah Palin thing (see? I'm getting nicer! I didn't call her a pile on...), and more than a few pieces about how McCain seems to have lost his soul, the American Republican party needs to hear this from O'Rourke, one of their own. I am so bitterly fed up with the slimeballs at Fox speaking for so many people, I think this piece goes a long way to speaking for those members who can't possibly be that stupid or that mean.

Somebody should read it out loud to Palin - she's blaming all the wrong people and making the fiercest mistake of all - not learning from her own mistakes. Actually, it should be required reading for the whole party. And Democrats. Admiring your reflection in the shininess of a newly minted win can sometimes make you fall in and drown.

November 12, 2008

CHCH Live@5:30 Wednesday

Oh, it's so easy to be able to count on breastfeeding kerfuffles...

Join us at 5:30, CHCH Channel 11...repeat at 11:30

November 10, 2008

Michael Coren - 8pm Monday

Look ma, no bruises!

Join us at 8pm on CTS - varying topics, and yeah, I had to bring that up.

November 9, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Here's the long-promised motorcycle piece from yesterday's Star. Column will be posted tomorrow...

If I can talk editor Mark Richardson into getting them to me, he took some more pics of me going really, really fast.


November 6, 2008

CH Live@5:30 Thursday

With the heartbreaking discovery of Brandon Crisp, the conversation on teens and gaming and parents lurches into its next phase.

Join us at 5:30 on CHCH Channel 11, repeat at 11:30.

November 5, 2008

President Obama

About eight months back, I was sitting in the Jordan House drinking with a bunch of writers I meet with. We call ourselves the JH Gang - how original. And to be truthful, I'm not an original, but I'm lucky enough to be included in their elite crew. It's about fun. And politics. And conversation. And Guiness on tap. After a couple of pints, I opined that I felt truly sorry for whoever won the U.S. election. Didn't matter who I liked or didn't like, didn't matter about sex or race or religion or, as Palin would soon introduce - species - it was sure that whoever won was going to be paddling a canoe through a sewer.

Anyway. We were talking politics, and as one of our august members is an American by origin, of course the rest of us seized on the opportunity to lambast him for his Republican ways. Stan's a helluva sport. A deluded sport, but hellish nonetheless. He dishes far worse than he endures, and I often find myself driving home, finally getting what it was he was talking about. The upside is he has a son in Berkeley who leans so far left he tugs his old man's needle out of the red zone.

It's no mystery I was rooting for Obama - it would appear that everyone was. But you know, that ol' electoral college thingee is misleading. Sure. 65 million Americans voted for him, but, hell, 55 million voted for McCain. There is much mudsliding shindigging going on, but I have this niggling little tick in my side that keeps saying '55 million - really??'

Here's the thing: I don't think Barack Obama is Obalma. That country, like so many, is so surely in the sh*tter for the next little while. And as the economy settled into a pit of despair, hauling the rest of the world down with it, it became more and more apparent to me that Obama was not just the man for the job, he was the only man for the job. I actually went from feeling sorry for whomever inherited the mantle to realizing that there is a reason this man is now wearing it.

Think about it. Whoever leads the United States for the next four years is going to have to have balls of steel. Who else is going to be able to deliver some hard truths to a nation mired in debt, despair and doubt? Who else is going to be able to tell them them are going to have to suffer more before they get hauled out? Who else can better tell them they are going to have to help themselves, do with less, do without and quit bitching?

This man. Finally, a president who can open his mouth without a silver spoon clattering out of it.

This is the difference between an Obama and a Stephen Harper. This is the reason Canadians have been so charged up for an election that technically isn't theirs. Is it some crazy romantic notion? Maybe for some. But when you can get 52% of a nation as historically divided on racial lines as the U.S. electing a black man to lead them, you have to admit that finally, the majority of them have put that aside.

But still, I come back to that 55 million. Man, that's a huge number. I've spent too many hours reading on sites of the right (for all of you that think I live in the left wing), and there is a serious disconnect that worries me. I don't have to share political views with someone to have a rapport with them (see: Stan, above - who, believe it or not, I adore), but I'll be damned if I can fathom the reasoning of some of the wingnuts with access to a modem. The difference I detect? A vehement, visceral hatred of the man coming from the right, compared to a total incomprehension of the right's approach to the issues coming from the left.

So I think Sarah Palin is an embarassment to women? She is to me. I deplore everything she stands for. But I also recognize she was totally used by the Republicans, and thrown away when it backfired. Do I feel sorry for her? No. She's 44, not 24, and her claws are sharper than Karl Rove's. But I've said it repeatedly: the Republican campaign was slimy and low. It was an appalling time at my dinner table, dissecting with my sons the crap thrown around by adults fighting to represent us. And yeah, Harper, I mean you too. You were vile.

In the end, it came down to many discussions about style on the right, and substance on the left. I'd frankly love if from now on, everyone had to wear a uniform (yay Rachel Maddow!), and be done with the stupid Barbie and Ken dress-up nonsense. Sweater vests or wardrobes from Saks, I'm not electing the clothes.

Here's a prediction: If those who voted against Obama shut up and listen for a moment, they might learn something. And if those who voted for him shut up and give him a chance to steer the ship, that whole country might right itself and sail to calmer waters. And with that ship goes much of the world, if only because they will be so relieved that the criminals of the past eight years have finally been tossed, no doubt leaving a string of pardons and bad laws behind them.

Here's to a balanced Supreme Court (yes, courts around the world cite judgments from that one - if only they could be convinced to return the favour), a return to a man of the people as opposed to a man in contempt of the people, and a leader who isn't having his strings pulled by a patriarchy of evil warmongers who should have to serve the rest of their lives in a jail they created - if Obama doesn't close it first. The Evil Lorraine would so like to size Cheney up for prison issue duds from Guantanomo Bay...but I digress.

Obama has much to undo. There will be few changes overnight, but here's hoping he chooses brilliant minds to assist him and maintains the razor focus that got him this far.

I've heard comments that McCain's concession speech was more moving than Obama's winner's words. I believe that. Sometimes I think Obama is the only one who realizes how much work there is to be done, and just how tough it's going to be. Actually, I think McCain knows. And maybe there was more than a little relief wound into his words.

November 3, 2008

CHCH Live@5:30 Monday

Teens and sex and TV.

Yeah, I'm there. Tune in at 5:30, repeat at 11:30 to CHCH 11.

November 2, 2008

Seems Like Old Times

The clock in the bathroom is finally right, after 6 months.

This just may be my favourite day of the year. The bathroom clock is up really high, so last spring it just got left. Everyone just made a note in their head to deduct the hour, and off we went. The clock by my bed is 15 minutes fast, so I'm no stranger to the concept of a certain fluidity in time. The rest of the family rolls their eyes ("what's the real time"), but I've been doing it since I was a kid, so I can't change now.

The clock in the kitchen used to be 6 minutes fast, so Christer wouldn't miss his bus. It was the only way to get him out the door on time. When the Poor Sod moved in, he kept having a little heart attack every morning as he got his lunch together - he thought he'd lost 6 minutes somewhere between putting on his boots and finding his sandwich. It took months before I finally admitted the clock was messed.

The kids don't take a bus now, so we put the clock back a couple of years ago. It took me ages to know what time it was. I don't wear a watch, but I am never, ever late for anything. I'm anally punctual (that sounds a little painful as I look at the words), and my favourite people to meet are my two sisters. We're all the same. Gilly and I met for lunch the other day, pulled into the parking lot within a minute of each other. Ten minutes early. Same with Roz - we've pulled into the cottage driveway within five minutes of each other.

Make sure you replace all your batteries in your smoke detectors. If they're old, just buy new ones - they come with batteries. Make sure you have them on every level of the house. Here in Burlington, they have a program where firefighters go door to door checking that you have up-to-date alarms. A crew showed up on my doorstep last year; they went around with a little checklist, all pleased we had so many detectors, a fire extinguisher by the kitchen (don't say it), and a couple of carbon monoxide detectors. Actually, I learned later if you don't have fresh batteries, they give 'em to you. As 4 firefighters traipsed around my house, I realized our attention to detail meant they wouldn't be staying long. I offered to make coffee.

I've already planned my extra hour today - I have to pick walnuts up out of the grass out back. I may love the canopy the huge trees provide (they're in a neighbour's yard) but walnuts are nasty. My Dad used to pay us a penny a piece to pick them up each fall. My Mom used to get peeved when we did it in our little knitted mittens and got them all stained. Avoid doing it on a windy day - I've been conked on the head more than once (don't say it).

I've ordered snow tires (thanks, Dave & Kathy - I have the best readers!), winter coats are up and I put flannel sheets on the beds the other day. We're going to put the nice new planters we bought away in the garage, instead of leaving them out to crack, like usual. The boys don't know it yet, but they are cutting the grass for the last time today, and raking leaves. They will throw walnuts at each other. I'll let them, unless they hit me. They will say it was an accident (don't say it).

You know how if you get a tax refund, some Advisor Stickupmyarse will point out to you it was actually your money all year, and you've lost the interest on it and shouldn't see it as a windfall? And you look at them and think, 'Buddy - I would not have this money unless they sent me a cheque just like this, so shut up'?

Well, this time change is the same. Some idiot will always point out that it's not really a bonus hour. It's the one they took away in the spring.

But, I'll take my windfalls where I can find them. And speaking of windfalls, there are walnuts waiting.