Wednesday, March 30, 2005

 

Ford Explorer Roof Strength Issues Come To Light

Via Autoprophet comes word that recently-unsealed documents show that the roof of the previous-generation Ford Explorer barely surpassed FMVSS requirements - and violated Ford's own internal standards:

In 1995, the Explorer's strength-to-weight ratio was 1.72. In 1999, the number had fallen to 1.56, just over the federal minimum of 1.5. The slim safety margin concerned company engineers, according to internal e-mails from October 1999 that were unsealed at the trial.

The roof became weaker after the Explorer was redesigned in the 1990s. Ford executives decided each time to put the redesigned SUV on the market even though the roof's strength-to-weight ratio fell below 1.875, the internal safety guideline Ford used for other vehicles, Link said.


To clarify, what's meant here by "strength-to-weight ratio" is the weight that the roof can support, divided by the gross vehicle weight.

There's a few issues here, not all of them Ford's. First, the whole thing with with FMVSS requirements is really getting to me. If the public at large decides that we're going to set vehicle safety standards, then those need to become standards, not suggestions. Either the vehicle meets the requirements or it doesn't, and if it does, I don't see where the manufacturer should be held liable. That's if indeed we think that the feds are best-suited to determine how to engineer a car, and after watching the recent events unfold in Congress, I don't want them anywhere near a CAD tube. So if the OEM does the smart thing and treats those FMVSS regulations as generally inadequate, then the it really needs to hold itself to its own standards.

The next issue is with the spec itself. I'm a sparky, not a mechanical engineer, but even I know that even the most gentle impact force is generally in the neighborhood of 2 G; that is, twice the weight of the object. If the FMVSS spec calls for 1.5, and Ford barely surpassed that, then it shouldn't come as a surprise that roofs collapse.

I fully believe that safety is worth a few hundred dollars per vehicle, and I'd pay for it (and in fact, I have paid for it in the form of some very expensive seatbelts, and an upcoming roll cage, for my Impala SS). And a lot of others will say the same. But when it comes down to actually paying for that safety in the showroom, well... let's just say there's a reason that automakers ignore engineers and make compromises for the sake of saving some money. I'm certainly not comfortable with that reality, and I think it violates engineering ethical standards - consumers are not equipped to understand the nuiances of rollover safety, and thus automakers either need to listen to their engineers or 'fess up to customers that the beancounters are really in charge of keeping everyone safe.

Maybe in the end, we'll get some good third-party verification of rollover safety, much like the frontal offset barrier tests that the IIHS performs (I'm not necessarily a fan of that organization, but I'm unaware of anyone else performing similar work).

 

Salvation

Despite rumors to the contrary floating around the Motor City, Larry Brown stated today that he will be rejoining the Pistons - as early as tomorrow.

Having watched what a family member went through this year with a hip transplant 8 months ago, I imagine that Coach Brown is not having a fun time right now - and with his rush to return to coaching right after the operation, he's probably stretched out his recovery time even longer than it'd normally take.

But if the Pistons are to go deep into the postseason this year, I think that having Brown on the sidelines is absolutely, 100% necessary. Their recent performance would seem to prove this.

 

GM's Product Planning Decisions

BlueOvalNews.com (probably not the same Rick Jensen that writes for GM High-Tech Performance mag) takes on GM's product planning decisions in the past 5 years; namely, the money they've poured into platforms that are relatively minor contributors to GM's sales while allowing the high-volume trucks and W-car FWD platform to languish.

I agree with this, but I also think much blame lies in GM's lack of ability to create sales momentum (except for Cadillac). As the '05 Mustang and 300C have demonstrated, it isn't just about volume, but also exposure and excitement. For as good as the Cobalt and G6 may be, they're not the sort of vehicles that will be stimulating a lot of study-hall sketches. And let's not underestimate the ability of a moderate-volume vehicle like the 'stang or LX trio to bring in serious amounts of cash.

 

Sloppy Criminal Work

In sports news not involving steroids but still providing plenty of legal intrigue:

Former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Terry Long has been indicted for fraudulently securing loans for a chicken-processing plant that he eventually burned to the ground for insurance money.

Several months after running into stiff resistance from neighbors who opposed plans to open a chicken slaughterhouse in the basement of the processing plant, Long set fire to his Value Added Foods Group, destroying it on Sept. 25, 2003, according to the indictment.

Um, yea.

 

Auto OEM credit ratings

Wanna see how your favorite auto company is rated by Standard & Poors? Probably not, but if so, here you go (via Autoblog).

Despite working in the industy, I wouldn't invest any money in it right now. Sad, eh? I'm not sure if that reflects poorly on my investment skills, or my career path.

 

GM Ain't The Only One With Problems

The Detroit Free Press picks up on something that's gone virtually unnoticed (except at Autoextremist) in the shadow of GM's woes - Honda's hurtin' pretty badly right now, too:

Honda's trucks aren't the big problem. While the CR-V and Element SUVs are down for the year, the Pilot SUV and Odyssey minivan are more than offsetting those losses. Honda truck sales are up 4 percent for the first two months of the year.

Honda car sales, meanwhile, are in the tank -- down 20.7 percent.

Now, as a devout Honda fan (first with their motorcycles, and more recently their cars), I'll have to say that this is surprising - but yet it's not.

First, the Civic. Previous Civic models are basically small-car perfection. They feel well-engineered (and that feeling goes well beyond just perception - go poke around one for a couple of hours), and simply don't make the driver feel like he's being punished for buying a compact. But the most recent Civic? Well, we've got two of them in the pool at work, and frankly they're nothing but disappointing. Cheap-feeling interior materials (including the dreaded "mouse fur" that's plagued so many GMs) and a lack of ride compliance that somehow offers insufficient roll stiffness manage to overshadow the typically wonderful Honda drivetrain and ultra-precise steering to yield a vehicle that feels far short of perfect - not what we expect from the Big H.

The new Accord isn't quite as bad, but beltlines are creeping higher while the waistline grows larger - both wrong directions for a car that's known for an exceptionally usable greenhouse and a certain solid-yet-light feel that has helped make the Accord such a great midsize sedan. I'm not so hot on the styling, either, at least not the four-door's sheetmetal. The front just looks wrong, and the rear looks like something stolen from Saturn's reject bin. Fortunately, the excellent suspension system remains, and Honda's V6 can run with anything in its class (um, not to mention some pony and muscle cars).

I'm thinking that we'll see something much better in the form of the '06 Civic, but with the competitiveness of the compact marketplace being what it is, how many buyers have already been lost? And is the Civic brand overexposed? Toyota's launch of the Scion brand was in no small part a counterreaction against those youngsters who see a Camry in their parent's driveway, and perhaps Honda's facing the same thing.

Hopefully Honda can find their mojo, because they still remain my favorite car company, and I've yet to see a vehicle as well-engineered as the wife's '01 Accord for anywhere near the same money. In the meantime, I'll just sit back and see if the Ridgeline tanks, or if there's more of a market for Avalanche Jr. than I think.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

 

NIN

After hearing the new Nine Inch Nails track, "The Hand That Feeds", I can only guess that Trent Reznor is intent on forcing us to recall just how great The Downward Spiral was - in other words, the new single sucks.

Just listen to the new song, remember just how insane "March Of The Pigs" (the lead single from The Downward Spiral) sounded the first time you heard it, and for extra credit, spin up "The Perfect Drug". No contest - sorry.

I heard rumors that Reznor did the new album because he's strapped for cash, and based only on this one song, I believe it. I can only hope that the rest of the new record is much, much better.

 

Lutz - GM Needs To Cut A Division Or Two?

Lutz thinks that Pontiac and Buick might be on the bubble:

GM's Buick and Pontiac are both "damaged brands" due to lack of investment over the years, and GM is working to correct that with an array of new vehicles coming to market, Lutz told a Morgan Stanley automotive conference in New York.

But if some of its brands fail to meet sales projections, "then we would have to take a look at a phase-out. I hope we don't have to do that. What we've got to do is keep the brands we've got."

I say that if one brand needs to go, then it might be time to axe nearly all of them - make the cuts deep and quick, to let the healing begin. I don't think that GM can afford, literally or figuratively, to stretch this process out over a decade or more.

At most, GM needs three car divisions, and I gotta be honest - two truck brands probably aren't necessary. Keep Chevrolet and Cadillac, figure out which division is best-suited to fill the gap inbetween, and kill off the GMC SUVs (GMC should still be kept around as a work-truck brand; light trucks and full-size vans would be useful to the GMC heavy-truck dealerships out there).

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

 

Return Of The Hatchback

Jerry Flint weighs in with the current trend towards wagons, five-doors, and hatchbacks.

I think that Honda could do a lot to improve their product standing in the US by bringing over the Accord wagon from Europe. Barring that possibility, I'd have to rank my top 3 affordable wagons as follows:

1 - Dodge Magnum RT
2 - Subaru WRX
3 - Chevrolet Malibu Maxx SS

 

Abrasive Balls

I was doing some searches on magnetic modeling and came across this article on Magnetic Aided Machining, or MAM. It's a great idea, relying on force rather than position to facilitate the polishing or burnishing of a nearly-finished part.

And, no, I couldn't think of a better title for this post.

 

New Car Discounting

Edmunds weights in with the widely varying discounts on newly-introduced models:

Not all new car models first introduced in the 2005 model year are faring as well in others in today's competitive marketplace, according to the Edmunds Price Index released today by Edmunds.com, the premier online resource for automotive information.

Of the new introductions, Land Rover LR3, Chrysler 300 and Hyundai Tucson sold at the smallest discounts -- 0.1%, 2.8% and 3.6% below sticker price, respectively. Pontiac G6, Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Cobalt had the highest average discounts: 19.9%, 14.7% and 10.4%, respectively. Overall, new models averaged a 9.0% discount from MSRP in February 2005, compared with the industry average discount of 15.0%.

I think the word for GM is "owned". While the lack of discounting on the Chrysler 300 shouldn't come as a surprise, and anyone dumb and rich enough to buy a Land Rover probably doesn't care much for dickering, I'm quite surprised that the Hyundai Tuscon is selling so close to sticker. Perhaps GM could learn a thing or two about realistic pricing from the Koreans?

 

Stupid Lawsuits

Say what you will about the Israeli practice of destroying the homes of suspected suicide bombers - that's open for discussion. But if someone wants to protest this practice by standing in front of the D9 dozer that's charged with executing the job and gets her dumb ass run over in the practice, it doesn't seem like Caterpillar has a lot of liability in the matter. That hasn't stopped her family from suing.

It should go without saying that anyone who stands in front of this thing, with an operating weight of 50 tons, probably forfeits any claim of liability. And, uh, it's got a top speed of 7.3 MPH. Kinda reminds me of that steamroller scene from the first Austin Powers movie.

 

Our Elected Officials

It's nice to know that the federal government (Congress in particular) is getting so interested in meddling in the affairs of the state of Florida, and has so much concern about the use of steroids in baseball. Sure, it's silly and insulting to the idea of state's rights, but at least the time they're wasting on these topics is that much less time spent putting the country into further debt.

Plus, the irony of Sen. Rick Santorum complaining to Sean Hannity about the judicial branch overstepping its boundaries was just too precious.

If there was any decency in this country, we'd vote the bastards out. Let me know when it's time to secede from the union.

 
Let's ponder, for a moment, the question of the most mundane vehicle types. Surely at the top of the list is the utility vehicles such as vans and pickups, and as a combination of those two, the SUV surely isn't far behind (how it's become fashionable, albeit temporarily, I have no idea). But following close behind is the four-door sedan. For the most part, sedans inspire little but a series of yawns.

So Porsche, having already built an SUV, must have been faced with a difficult choice for the next vehicle to tackle in their attempt to undo five decades of sports-car excellence (the sort of which had P.J. O'Rourke referring to the 911 as a "Nazi slot car"). With the Cayenne SUV already doing its best to tank the reputation of Porsche, it might have seen straightforward to do a pickup truck. But never assume that the German car guys will do things the easy way, and thus the decision was made to do a four-door.

The first question, of course, is what the hell is a "Panamera"? That's quite a terrible name. But moving past that, I think the real questions surround the true market for a four-door that's going to sell for $100,000 and up, the damage that's going to be done to Porsche's name by building a four-door (I thought it was bad enough that Ferrari did another four-seater), and the ramifications by doing yet another water-cooled front-engine vehicle.

Face it - dilute the brand image enough, and the 911 becomes an overpriced novelty compared to the new Vette, and the Boxster seems like a poseur's S2000.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

 

RIP, John DeLorean

The man known mostly for the failed DeLorean DMC-12 and drug trafficking has died at the age of 80.

While best-known for a $24M cocaine bust, he probably should be remembered for basically kicking-off the muscle car craze by developing the Pontiac GTO. Some will argue that the GTO really wasn't anything new, but even if one feels that's the case, it's still difficult to ignore the fact that the Goat was a commercial success like nothing before it.

 

Um, Yea

Not sure what effect this might have on man boobs:

A chewing gum which the makers say can help enhance the size, shape and tone of the breasts has proved to be a big hit in Japan.

B2Up says its Bust-Up gum, when chewed three or four times a day, can also help improve circulation, reduce stress and fight ageing.

 

Our Allies In the WOT

Dang:

In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.

But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.

Once again, Pakistan, that regime who possesses a nuclear bomb, harbors Al Qaeda, and is controlled by a military dictatorship that had overthrown a democratically-elected government, is offered protection by the US. I continue to not understand this, and it seems like we're just setting ourselves up for future problems through the same sort of diplomacy that brought us the current situations with Iran and Iraq, among others.

Also disturbing is the administration's continuing willingness to bend intelligence to fit its needs. But with the American public consistantly agreeing with such policy in the voting booth (we've been re-electing such liars ever since the 'nam era), I don't see things changing any time soon.


 

How Much?

GM has announced official pricing on the 2005 Grand Prix GTP, the one with the 5.3 V8. Should be interesting to see how many it sells at that price - I can't imagine too many people picking it over a similarly-priced Acura TL or Chrysler 300C.

 

GM - Zeta RWD Platform Dead

Aw, for fuck's sake:

General Motors confirmed Friday that it has stopped development on vehicles being designed for a new rear-wheel-drive platform in the North American market.

Sources said the move is not related to financial woes and the company's projected loss of $850 million for this year. They said the decision to stop developing cars on the platform, code-named Zeta, was made last year.

This was also confirmed to me personally this weekend by what I'd consider to be a reliable source.

Let me get this straight. Chrysler's car sales have been single-handedly turned around with the LX platform and especially the 300C varient. Ford is cleaning up with the Mustang (production has just been increased by 20%; the V8 GT models are nearly sold-out for the current model year). Currently, there are no hotter vehicles on the market from domestic OEMs. Go figure - we still like vehicles that are distinctively American.

One can make all sort of doom-and-gloom predictions about the future popularity of such vehicles if oil prices continue to creep up, but I offer two counterarguments. First, one no longer pays a significant penalty for power. The 300C Hemi carries an EPA Highway rating of 25 MPG, not much less than, say, an Accord, Impala, or Maxima. Second, the first vehicles to suffer from fuel cost increases will be large SUVs, and I wager that the drivers who migrate from those vehicles will find themselves at home in a large sedan or wagon that offers more performance, nearly as much usable room, and perhaps a 50-75% improvement in fuel economy, even if they don't end up in Prius territory.

GM, however, has apparently chosen not to play in this market, which is about the most disappointing decision that they could make. It'd be in their best interest to recall that the Japanese got their foothold in the US market not by making carbon copies of what was already available (big RWD vehicles), but rather cars that simply weren't offered (efficient FWD compacts). Perhaps Detroit's salvation could come from employing a roughly opposite technique - offer vehicles that aren't available anywhere else. It's odd to think that Detroit might be reduced to what could be viewed as a pursuit of niche markets, but, hey, they need to make something happen in the current environment, and it ain't getting done by battling the Asian manufacturers in the compact and midsize sedan market.

Friday, March 18, 2005

 

"Fab Labs"?

Apparently, they're rapid-prototyping machines that have gone mainstream. But, shit, with the reluctance right now to make the capital investment to automate even the most simple of tasks, I'm somewhat skeptical that the concept will take off unless there's a big change of mindset in this country.

 

Trouble With Airbus Composites?

In November 2001, with the attacks of Sept. 11th still on nearly everone's minds, an Airbus A300 lost its rudder and vertical stabilizer assembly after encountering wingtip vortex from another airliner. The official NTSB report placed the blame on the pilot's use of the rudder instead of alierons to correct the aircraft's path - supposedly, the initial rudder input was excessive and caused an over-correction, which then lead to a second and also excessive correction, and eventually resulted in a combination of yaw and opposite rudder movement that caused aerodynamic overloading and failure of the vertical stabilizer.

But in the past weeks, news of another rudder seperation have surfaced:

At 35 000 feet above the Caribbean, Air Transat flight 961 was heading home to Quebec with 270 passengers and crew. At 3.45pm last Sunday, the pilot noticed something very unusual. His Airbus A310's rudder -- a structure over 8m high -- had fallen off and tumbled into the sea. In the world of aviation, the shock waves have yet to subside.

Mercifully, the crew was able to turn the plane around, and by steering it with their wing and tail flaps managed to land at their point of departure in Varadero, Cuba, without loss of life.

As they say, "not good". Thoughts persist surrounding the design and inspection techniques used for composites:

Airbus, together with aviation authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, insists that any deterioration of a composite part can be detected by external, visual inspection, a regular feature of Airbus maintenance programmes, but other experts disagree.

In an article published after the flight 587 crash, Professor James Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world's leading authorities in this field, said that to rely on visual inspection was "a lamentably naive policy. It is analogous to assessing whether a woman has breast cancer by simply looking at her family portrait."

This brings up a good point. While metal failures will typically start at the surface and migrate inward (except perhaps in the case of material impurities), the same perhaps is false for composites. And if that's the case, then techniques such as ultrasound and X-ray are undoubtably required to provide for a safe and thorough inspection.

Is all of this damning of composites? Certainly not. For starters, the strength-to-weight ratio, ability to alter stiffness and strength along different directions, and the immense increase in fabrication "flexibility" are all huge advantages over metallic materials. And let's not forget the nasty fatigue problems with aluminum - there is no minimal level of strain that will not fatigue aluminum (keep that in mind the next time you watch wings flex during take-off), and stress corrosion is a dirty little secret of many alloys - check out the saga of the T-34 for proof of aluminum's peculiar characteristics. But it would seem that the helicopter business has been dealing with composite rotor blade cracks for a while now, and I'm thinking that teething problems might be a fact of life for the next few design cycles using composite technology.

Here's some good musings on the problems facing future spaceflight, and how composites play into that whole equation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

 

The General's Dying Breath?

OK, probably not - we're probably a couple years off from seeing any major financial failures at General Motors. They've got a lot of cash available - not nearly enough to cover long-term obligations (the pension numbers get particularly scary), but certainly enough to stave off Chapter 11 talk beyond the long-term outlook of the stock market (currently estimated at approximately 3.2 milliseconds).

But, needless to say, today's announcement that GM would post a first-quarter loss and downgrade earnings potential certainly shocked the investment community like a cattle prod to their collective ass, driving down stock prices by 14%. This made fools out of those who figured that GM's bad karma was already figured into a stock price that was forty-some percent off its 52-week high. Never doubt Wall Street's ability to accommodate additional bad news.

According to the report I heard on NBC Nightly News this evening, GM was going to address the situation by placing less emphasis on incentives, and more on "aggressive advertising". Fine and dandy, if there's anything deserving of such "aggressiveness", and if traditional advertising still works to move vehicles. I think it's generally ineffective compared to street buzz, and that's been running decidedly negative against GM ever since they picked up the reputation for killing off any niche vehicle that was remotely interesting.

So what to do? Anyone can sit and bitch about those hapless fuckers in Detroit - perhaps it's time to give them some suggestions that they'll disregard anyways, because short of supplying them with a sufficiently large crowbar and a case of 5W30 to assist in the reversal their rectal-cranial inversion, not much is going to help. And besides, the bond traders will show up with the crowbars anyways, albeit without the lube.

First, let's start with the assumption that we're not going to kill off any brands. It's what needs to be done, but I don't think that GM wishes to absorb the costs of pulling another Oldmobile any time soon.

With that in mind, Saturn needs the best small car they can get. Either bring the ION up to the standard of the Cobalt, or simply reskin the 'bolt and get it into Saturn dealers ASAP. Better yet - absolutely kill off Saturn's dull-and-drab sales image once and for all with some unique and interesting product. I thought Scion was going to bomb, and it didn't, so maybe that's the direction to take Saturn. Maybe give them an exclusive wagon version of the Delta. Let the HHR do its weird little thing with a Saturn badge on the grille. Either ax the Relay minivan or turn it into a VW minibus-like oddity.

Pontiac wants to be considered as an "American BMW", in Lutz's words. Forget that - let Cadillac handle that role. Instead, strive to steal sales away from the dying VW. Hire some honest-to-goodness German designers who can somehow turn a jellybean profile into something bohemian. Forget this "excitement division" crap - the only exciting thing in the lineup is the GTO - and concentrate more on those stupid little touches that look really great in meaningless ads that are targeted towards college grads that are well on their way towards becoming hollow thirtysomethings (I'm thinking of one VW ad in particular that focused on the turn signal lamp, as if that perfectly polished reflector, clear lens, and orange bulb was the modern equivalent of Da Vinchi's work). And one last very important thing - offer a diesel in the G6 and Grand Prix, along with a proper manual transmission and AWD. Do this, and some relatively small number of weirdos will beat down your door. For the rest of the vehicles that still burn gasoline, one simple rule should apply - no more pushrods. I'd feel differently if GM would execute a pushrod V6 as well as it does the GenIII/IV engines, but they're not doing that. So make it clear - if someone wants a "high value" engine, tell them to hit the Chevy dealership. There will be only premium engines here.

Common to Pontiac and Saturn are the Kappa roadsters. I've stated what I don't like in previous posts. All of that would be erased with a small V8 under the hood. This is the American way to build such a car, and if someone doesn't like that fact, they are welcome to get on the next boat to France and spend the rest of their lives fawning over the virtues of Citreon's air suspension. Goddammit, we're supposed to be the world's sole remaining superpower and we're stuck trying to build a pudgey roadster with a fuckin' inline-4. That sort of attitude during WWII would have had us speaking Japanese or German by now (which I'm not sure). Grow some balls, put a smallblock underneath the hood and create the next cult car, because I guaran-fucking-tee that middle-aged men don't get boners over classic ponycars by thinking about base-model engines. I swear, any man who thinks that 170 HP is sufficient for a 2900 lb car probably needs to be slapped hard enough to dislodge the cock from their mouth that is currently occupying the majority of their attention. The last time that sort of power-to-weight ratio was acceptable, it was still cool to wear pastel T-shirts under sportcoats.

Buick - I don't fucking know what to do with them, nor do I care much right now. Even if GM dumped every dime they had into the three-crest divsion, it wouldn't be enough to save their bacon. So let's ignore them for now. OK, that's not fair - let's give them something along the lines of the T-Types and Grand Nationals of the 1980s - maybe their own version of the GTO with a wicked supercharged 3800, since that engine is tragically underutilized in GM's FWD product due to their use of a 20-year-old transaxle. 350 HP seems like a nice number to shoot for from the factory (leverage Holden's relationship with Calloway if necessary), and let the aftermarket go nuts. This could be an instant cult car along the lines of the Toyota Supra.

GMC - Yikes. Over the past 15 years, pretty much since the days of the "merger" of their Class 8 busines with White and the eventual sell-off to Volvo, this division has been meandering along the verge of meaningless. Yet, there's still some folks out there that remember what the GMC nameplate used to mean, and those people specifically walked into that dealership because a big General, Brigidier, or cabover Astro sitting on the same lot gave their "little truck" instant credibility. How to restore that? Hmm. Probably ain't gonna happen, at least not easily. The first step might be to given GMC the exclusive rights to commercial vehicles (cab-chassis models, vans, etc.). Next, no more crap like the Envoy whatchamacallit with the retractable roof. If there's going to be something special, how about a one-ton-plus model that trumps Dodge and Ford without getting as ridiculous as the International SXT? Next, GMC needs truly distinctive sheetmetal. Right now, they have different parts than the comparible Chevy models, but the subtle differences are enough to make one ask "Why bother?". So as long as seperate tooling is being make, stir things up. Something needs to be done here, since GMC is current GM's second-biggest brand from a sales perspective.

Chevy - Build a full-size RWD sedan. Sell it in a variety of trim packages, from "I can't believe that geezer made it into the showroom without a walker" to "anything shy of a Nextel Cup car will look pussified in comparision". Price it right. Use it to replace the Impala, and let Ford mop up the wuss FWD sedan market with their Five Hundred (which, uh, is going to happen anyways). Bonus points for building a full-size wagon with a 3rd-row seat of marginal usefulness. Redesign the Malibu to look more like something - anything - from the Sixties. Rush the SS version into production with a ballsy motor, AWD, and a manual transmission (same for the Maxx wagon). Fix the trucks. Offer a diesel in the Colorado, and figure out a solution for the half-ton trucks and SUVs immediately - it'll pay off when the gas crunch comes.

Cadillac - keep doing what you're doing, and hope it continues to rake in enough cash to fund other operations in the short term. Don't get lazy and sit on things for too long - maintain a consistant 4- or 5-year model cycle, with updates inbetween.

So, there it is. A list of perfectly fine suggestions, none of which will happen except by pure accident. We're probably not too far from the point where we accept that it's the end and start reflecting on the good times, but maybe things will turn around yet. After all, for all the inertia in the auto industry, fortunes change in the blink of an eye, and often for unexpected reasons. Perhaps the GMT900 trucks are a smash hit, or maybe the new stuff from the past two years decides to take the slow-but-steady growth path.

But if I were GM, I'd be taking a good hard look at every single product that's out there, and figuring how to maximize return on what little cash they have left. Incentives may have worked in the short term, but that $12B/year ($3K average spread over 4 million units/year - a rough guess) might have been better spent in product development, and it's time for that sort of thought process to dominate in Detroit.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

 

Foo To Deliver New Album In June

Yep, it's getting time for a new Foo Fighters album - and we'll see one in June. Supposedly, "In Your Honor" will contain 20 tracks, half typical Foo and half acoustic, spread over two CDs. Grohl:

Describing the record the frontman wrote: “There are subtleties. There are complexities. There are extremities. There are familiarities. There is orchestration. There is simplicity. There is a pile of blown speakers on the floor. There is full bottle of whiskey covered in drywall dust. There is a full bottle of whiskey covered in drywall dust that is about to disappear.”

But the real news is probably in the list of guest stars, which certainly follows the current incestual trends in rock music.

News to me is that Grohl is also appearing on the new Garbage disc, and on the upcoming release from Nine Inch Nails (coming April 3rd). The influence and shear volume of work produced by this man in the past 15 years has to rival that of any other single man in rock, and to think that he would have been justified walking away after Cobain's death.

 

Big Dig Gone Wrong

The engineering consultant hired to investigate leaks at Boston's Big Dig tunneling project is now stating that he can no longer vouch for the safety of the project:

"I am now unable to express an opinion as to the safety of the I-93 portion of the Central Artery," Jack K. Lemley wrote in the March 9 letter to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a copy of which was obtained by The Boston Globe.
...

In the latest letter, he said new information has surfaced that more than 40 large sections of tunnel wall contain construction defects and that fireproofing material has been damaged by leaks.

He also wrote that project officials have blocked him from obtaining records and data related to the new problems. Lemley added that his change in position also was driven by the apparent lack of any formal plan by Big Dig officials to address the leak problems.

Should be interesting to see how this one plays out, but one thing is for certain - I'm glad I'm not in his shoes.


 

Vocabulary Expansion

Wedgie has been added to Webster's Dictionary.

Hopefully, we can someday get the dreaded Rear Admiral added as well.

 

How Long Can GM Tread Water?

So asks Danny Hakim from the NY Times in a new article on GM's CEO, Rick Wagoner:

G.M. might be in better shape than it was when it lost $23 billion in 1992 and was on the brink of bankruptcy, but many analysts say it will be treading water for years to come and extending economic distress across the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes.

Company executives, while acknowledging that G.M. faces serious problems, say they are confident they can weather any storm. "We've been ahead for 73 years in a row," Rick Wagoner, G.M.'s chief executive, said in response to a question at a January news conference about Toyota's looming presence. "I think the betting is we'll be ahead for the next 73 years."

"Is it a birthright?" he added. "Absolutely not. Could we blow it next year? I doubt it. Could we blow it in 10 years? For sure. We could do anything in 10 years."

Mr. Wagoner declined to be interviewed for this article. With the company's stock down about 50 percent on his watch, his legacy is on the line, as is the company's.

So, how bad are things? Well, things would appear to be better than they were a decade or so ago, and things looked just as bad at Chrysler and Ford a short few years ago. But the problem with GM is that we appear to be over the hump with new product introductions, and none of them are showing the same class-leading characteristics as the Chrysler 300C or Ford F-150 and Mustang. Sure, they're good - especially the Cobalt, which is all the more remarkable considering GM's small-car history - but quite honestly, none of them are the sort of gotta-have vehicles that have customers lined up outside the door.

Until GM creates a uniquely-American vehicle, something that'll still have people talking 10 years from now, at an accessable price point (unfortunately, the new Vette Z06 misses that last criteria by about $40K), I don't think they're going to pull out of the current tailspin. Could the Sky and Solstice be it? Perhaps, but without a significant advancement beyond the same theme that the Mazda Miata has carried to consistant-but-not-exceptional sales over the past 15 years, I don't see the new roadsters bringing GM across the finish line. A "baby LS1", perhaps the 4.8 L version of the GenIII with an aluminum block and a relatively aggressive cam, would make all the difference in the world.

 

HST In RS

For the first time in what seems like ages (it's actually been about 2.5 years), I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone this past weekend. The reason was simple and pure - it was the issue containing their eulogy of Hunter S. Thompson.

RS's website has some of the material from the printed magazine - I thought that Johnny Depp's piece was particular nice - and among the best of the online stuff is the hilarious "Memo From The Sports Desk", authored by the fictious Raoul Duke:

To all employees without exception

Why is the staff so fucking lazy? It's getting so I can't even walk fast through the hallways any more without stumbling over some freak on the nod.

Is it drugs? Has it come to that?

If so, by God, we're going to clean it up pretty damn fast. My attorney has worked out a series of disciplinary measure that will zap this thing where it lives. Henceforth, anyone caught with narcotics, crazy pills or other stupor inducing agents will be dragged down to the basement and have his scrotum torn off.....and, conversely, any offender without a scrotum will have one permanently attached to her.

Side-splittingly funny, yes, but not so much as the loving recollections of those he considered to be friends. Consider this passage from Jim Clancy, who was a roommate of Thompson's in New York around 1957:

One evening when I pulled up, Hunter had the stereo going good and loud. He came out of the house and put this big bag of pot up on the roof. One thing led to another, and Hunter dragged the couch out of the living room into the snow in the yard, poured gasoline on it and set it on fire. Then he walked back into the house with this huge ball of fire going up in the air. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I am a master of tools".

Those last six words literally had me howling out loud with laughter, much to the distress of my wife who generally tries to discourage anything encouraging me to set furniture on fire.

Throughout the comments of approximately 37 people, including Jack Nicholson, Ed Bradley, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Sean Pean, Keith Richards, Anjelica Huston, and Marilyn Manson, we get sprinkling of Thompson's own writing (a painfully funny and very mean letter to Tom Wolfe; an actually quite sweet letter to Jann Wenner on the topic of Thompson's dying mother) and quite the variety of photos - Hunter shooting a handgun from a Harley-Davidson, hanging out with George McGovern on the campaign bus, sitting on his John Deere tractor with son and grandson, and blasting his IBM typewriter with what appears to be a Ruger Super Blackhawk.

While the stories range greatly in scope and topic, one thing remains constant over the 39 pages of copy - every single writer is celebrating the life of someone who's single overriding goal was to maximize fun while pushing the limits of human endurance.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

 

Oil Shocks To Come Soon?

For those interested in doom-and-gloom predictions of an impending oil crunch (a topic I find darkly fancinating) comes this article (I pulled the link from the comments on a Daily Kos diary entry). There's lots of interesting data tidbits in the article; whether they add up to much of anything, who knows.

It'd be nice if there was some balance in this debate coming from more conservatives and Republicans, seeing as how energy prices have such an impact on commerce and, ultimately, on individual freedom. I'd like to hear commentary involving something beyond Bush's ties to the oil industry, and I'd like to hear how American innovation is going to pull us through. Unfortunately, the silence is nearly deafening.

 

From The Man Himself

Yikes:

THE PRESIDENT: Let me ask you something about the Thrift Savings Plan. This is a Thrift Savings Plan that has a mix of stocks and bonds?

MS. WEBSTER: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Now, how hard was that to learn how to do that?

MS. WEBSTER: And I chose the safe plan, government bonds. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: That's all right. Well, not so safe, unless we fix the deficit. But other than that -- (laughter). We're fixing the deficit. (Applause.)


 

Terrorist Watch Lists And Gun Control

This past week, it was reported by the GAO that approximately 40 terrorists whose names appear on The Watch List were "allowed" to buy firearms. These people were not felons or illegal immigrants.

A lot of people were alarmed to hear this, but I for one would find it unacceptable if anyone was denied a constituational right (whether it's related to the 2nd Amendment or any other) because their name was put on a list unknowingly and without due process.

Additionally, even if people on The List were prohibited from buying firearms from a dealer, they would still legally be allowed to buy from a private party, without a background check, if indeed they met the same general criteria as stated above (non-felons and legal residents). And even if they didn't meet those criteria, there's always the thriving black market that's been created in response to firearms laws.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

 

Scary

MSNBC reports that ChoicePoint's data is riddled with errors. Big fuckin' surprise, eh?

It seems to me that if this sort of data collection is going to be legal, then individuals must have the right to verify the accuracy of the data.

I think it might be time to purchase some info on myself from ChoicePoint just to see how bad is really is.

 

An Interesting Take On Social Security

Paul O' Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury, has this proposal:

And the way to do that is on the day that a child is born, we, the American people, put $2,000 into an account in their name. And every year for the next 18 years, we put in another $2,000, and with the six percent interest rate, when they get to be 18, that account would have $65,000. And if left to accumulate to retirement at 65, it would be worth over $1 million.

I'm not sure that it's perfect or anything, but it's sure interesting.

I'd recommend reading the rest of the interview as well - Mr. O' Neill has some interesting perspective on the tax cuts and the president in general.

 

Bankruptcy Bill, Part II

No sense in adding yet another update to my previous post on the topic, so here's a new one. The folks over at Redstate.org (if you can't figure it out from the name, it's a pro-Republican blog) weigh in on the issue.

While their main concern seems to be that the name of the Republican party doesn't get tainted (frankly, I hope both parties come away from this experience stinking of shit), the points brought up are still valid.

I'm certainly not backing down from what I stated earlier - individual responsibility has to be the primary tool by which people maintain their financial health in lending system, and I'm still not comfortable blaming lending companies for their predatory marketing practices (aggressive marketing should never be a reason for disengaging one's brain). However, the more I think about it, the more I'm distressed that we've taken away the abilty of bankruptcy judges to consider the facts in each individual case, and that alone is reason enough for me to think that this is a bad law.

It will certainly be interesting to see how things play out in the aftermath of this bill, especially if (when?) the economy takes another crap, the dollar drops even more severely, or if the housing market collapses,

 

Top 10 Auto Recalls Of All Time

Via Yahoo!, Bankrate.com brings us the Top 10 automotive recalls of all time. It's an interesting list which does little to counter evidence that auto recalls primarily concern "simple" stuff - well-established technology - that probably would have not failed if not exposed to negligence during some phase of the design or manufacturing process.

What struck me as odd is this quote:

Cars today depend more on computers and electronics. "New functionality always presents new complexity, and complexity means more ways to fail," says Joe Ivers, executive director of quality at J.D. Power and Associates, which rates vehicles annually in areas such as initial quality and longer-term dependability.

While electronics have certainly played a role in customer satisfaction and nuisence quality problems, they seem to be a disproportionally low contributor to recalls. This, despite the fact that they're playing an ever-increasing role in both passive safety devices such as air bags, and active safety devices such as ABS and stability control. Clearly, the complexity and criticality of these systems brings with it an appropriate level of engineering concern - but that's no reason to divert one's attention from seemingly mundane stuff that still counts, like tires, wheel lugs, parking brakes, or headlamps.

 

Mmm, Displacement

Popular Hot Rodding has posted a detailed technical article on the abso-freakin'-lutely amazing LS7 engine from the upcoming 2006 Corvette Z06. The specs and results are absolutely amazing - particularly the wide powerband (WOT torque never drops below 350 lb-ft between 1000 and 7000 RPM), and the fact that it will go into the only 500 HP car sold in the US that does not carry the gas-guzzler tax.

Somewhere out there, a riceboy is bemoaning the American reliance on cubic inches. Unfortunately, no one in the mainstream automotive press has ever latched onto the concept that power per unit volume and unit mass are much more important to a car designer. If the end result is an engine of modest size and weight, why concern one's self with the swept volume of the cylinders?

Friday, March 11, 2005

 

Quiz Time

Programming language inventer, or serial killer - can you tell the difference?

 

The Virtue Of Manliness

Without a doubt, the most manly of 20th-century presidents was Teddy Roosevelt. His support of labor unions and conservation most likely would cause modern conservatives to turn their backs, and one cannot imagine a contemporary liberal finding much comfort in Roosevelt's love for killing animals or figuratively slaying intellectuals. But no matter what one's stance in the modern political spectrum, it's impossible not to respect TR - hell, the dude took a bullet to the chest and still delivered his speech. That's toughness, American-style. Teddy was indeed a cowboy, albeit one with a tender heart and a great appreciation for the planet we live on, and unfortunately our country doesn't generate more leaders like him - with our national history, we really should be generating 'em by the dozen.

Harvey Mansfield, a Professor of History at Harvard, writes about the "virtue of manliness" in his upcoming book, and an essay excerpt from it discusses Roosevelt's embrace of that particulare virture:

The most obvious feature of Theodore Roosevelt’s life and thought is the one least celebrated today, his manliness. Somehow America in the twentieth century went from the explosion of assertive manliness that was TR to the sensitive males of our time who shall be and deserve to be nameless.

TR appeals to some conservatives today for his espousal of big government and national greatness, and all conservatives rather relish his political incorrectness. As a reforming progressive he used to appeal to liberals, but nowadays liberals are put off by the political incorrectness that conservatives rather sneakily enjoy. Conservatives keep their admiration under wraps because they fear the reaction of women should they celebrate his manliness. Liberals have delivered themselves, in some cases with discernible reluctance (I am thinking of President Clinton), to the feminists. Yet they too are concealing an embarrassment. Nothing was more obvious than Roosevelt’s manliness because he made such a point of it not only in his own case but also as necessary for human progress. It was being a progressive that made him so eager to be manly. Here is gristle to chew for liberals and conservatives, both of whom—except for the feminists—have abandoned manliness mostly out of policy rather than abhorrence.

The problem with manliness nowadays is that it's become almost self-parodying, or at least nothing more than maniless for the sake of simply not being something else (a fear of being wussy, perhaps?). The virtue isn't celebrated for the same reasons that drew Roosevelt to it; that is, the way it provides a moral vision while at the same time serving as a means by which to "get 'er done!". Nope - nowadays, manliness in itself is the end goal, and if indeed there's a some further purpose to it, it's usually to obtain superiority over some perceived weaker group ("there's no way that fags could do a job this tough" or "those tree-huggers would never enjoy such a manly hunt"). It's good for the SUV manufacturers, but perhaps not so great for the country as a whole.

Too bad, since in these times, times that are tough much like most of American history, a bit of manliness, irregardless of gender, and an honest appreciation for nature could help pull the country along and help keep us from finding the path of least resistance. Teddy would have wanted it that way.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

 

More Senseless Attempts At Gun-Grabbing

Good ol' Sen. Chuck Schumer has proposed a ban on the FN Five-seveN semi-auto pistol, notable because it fires a small-caliber (for a handgun) projectile at high speed (once again, for a handgun). This is said to give it some measure of anti-armor capability - a capability shared by most rifle rounds, as well as knives, broadhead arrows, and so on (but don't let the guys in Washington know that, or else we'll get a ban on kitchen utensils before we know it!). The proposed ban is being spun with a pro-cop angle.

This is interesting - in a ridiculous sorta way - for two reasons. One, there's already a ban in place on armor-piercing handgun ammunition, and has been since 1986. Along these lines, the ATFe's Firearms Technology Branch has already evaluated the Five-seveN - more accurately, the commercially-available ammunition available for it - and found that it is not armor-piercing:

FTB has also examined a 5.7 X 28 mm projectile that FN Herstal has designated the "SS196." The SS196 is loaded with a Hornady 40 grain, jacketed lead bullet. FTB classified SS196 ammunition as not armor piercing ammunition under Federal firearms statutes.

While there are AP rounds loaded in 5.7x28, they're not available to civilians.

The second silly aspect to this whole thing is that larger-caliber rounds are prefered by cops and criminals alike nowadays. Admittedly, the reasons why are unrelated and contrary to armor-piercing capability, but regardless, some in .45 ACP would be much more preferable to those on either side of the Thin Blue Line than an expensive foreign gun chambered in a .22-caliber round.

I guess if ol' Chucky was so worried about small-caliber high-velocity pistol rounds, one would think that he wouldn't have let the Smith & Wesson Model 53, chambered in the dimunitive .22 Jet cartridge, go unnoticed for four decades, or for that matter, one wonders why he's ignoring the multitude of new revolvers chambered in .22 Hornet. Oh, that's right - those aren't made of black plastic and don't accept "high-capacity magazines", so they must not be sufficiently evil - right?

 

Screwing Up The Easy Stuff

Continuing the rash of stupid recalls on well-established pieces of technology, we heard this week that Mitsubishi is recalling vehicles due to parking-brake failues, and Chrysler has issued a recall for headlamp failures. Nice, folks - real nice.

So - I wonder if anyone's tallied-up the annual cost to the US economy of such recalls?

 

A Piece Of Automotive History

Allpar.com has a wonderful article on the development history of the Chrysler Horizon/Omni, focusing heavily on its European roots. Seeing as how I knew absolutely nothing about Chrysler's involvement in Europe during this period of time, and the similarity of this development process to the "world car" exercises that are still common, it's a fascinating piece of writing.

Even though the Horizon and Omni are rather humble pieces of transportation, their contributions to Chrysler's survival throughtout the 80s shouldn't be underestimated, and indeed they were among the, uh, least awful of American compacts during that era.

 

Cadillac BLS - Bad Idea?

Jerry Flint makes his case, and it's a good one.

 

Wanker Of The Week

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh yesterday afternoon while on my way to a supplier, and I got to catch his take on the whole deal with the price of oil and gas. To paraphrase, he stated that he doesn't care much about such things because they aren't significant costs to him, and that people who do have concern about energy prices would be better-served by finding ways to make more money. Um-hum. As if the job market is just going to explode with new opportunities as the price of energy takes its toll on the economy.


Today, he went on to state that as oil dries-up, we'll just innovate our way out of the problem, since that's what American has always done. Except that if we wait until prices skyrocket, it might be too late. And last I checked, we've got relatively no history in this country with energy crises. It would probably be prudent to note that we hit a bump in the road about 30 years ago, and in the past three decades have mainly figured out ways to replace big sedans with bigger SUVs. Perhaps that's the innovation Rush spoke of.

What's interesting is that a report recently prepared for the US DOE seems to conflict with what Rush is stating (big surprise!):

* Waiting until world conventional oil production peaks before initiating crash program mitigation leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for two decades or longer.
Initiating a crash program 10 years before world oil peaking would help considerably but would still result in a worldwide liquid fuels shortfall, starting roughly a decade after the time that oil would have otherwise peaked.

* Initiating crash program mitigation 20 years before peaking offers the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

The date of world oil peaking is not known with certainty, complicating the decision-making process. A fundamental problem in predicting oil peaking is uncertain and politically biased oil reserves claims from many oil producing countries.

As recently as 2001, authoritative forecasts of abundant future supplies of North American natural gas proved to be excessively optimistic as evidenced by the recent tripling of natural gas prices. Oil and natural gas geology is similar in many ways, suggesting that optimistic oil production forecasts deserve to be viewed with considerable skepticism.

The Belmont Club weighs in with their opinion on future energy matters; unfortunately, they don't explore the possibility of a world-wide supply shortage but instead address regional shortages. While that makes for interesting conversation, I hardly feel that it paints a realistic picture of decades to come.


 

The Good News Just Keeps Rollin' In...

Wow, it's just all fuckin' roses and sunshine in the auto industry:

Parts Suppliers Sent Reeling

On the heels of soft sales in February, both General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. announced a new round of production cuts that have left suppliers facing new problems.

Standard & Poors said in a new report that rising materials costs and reduced car production by GM and Ford are making for a difficult business environment for automotive suppliers such as Collins & Aikman. Collins & Aikman's cash flow has been poor in recent years and free cash flow is likely to be negative this year, S&P said. The company has relatively high borrowings, S&P added. The company has securitized unpaid customer bills and sold assets to raise funds, which reduces available sources for funds in the future, S&P noted as it lowered Collins & Aikman's corporate credit rating to "B," the fifth-highest junk rating, from "B-plus."

General Motor Corp. plans to close five assembly plants this week, including factories building the brand-new Buick LaCrosse and its high-profile mid-size sport utility vehicles. GM's weekly production report said the automaker planned to close plants in Detroit and Lansing, Michigan; Oshawa, Ontario; Moraine, Ohio; and Oklahoma City. GM's market share has dropped to 24 percent during February and the company also said that it planned to reduce first-quarter production by an additional 45,000 units. GM also plans to reduce production by another 149,000 units during the second quarter, which starts April 1 and also announced it was suspending production at the Lansing Car assembly plant by the end of May, about one year ahead of the planned closure.

Delphi CFO Quits, Debt Rating Cut

Delphi Corp.'s credit rating was sharply reduced by one major rating service and another warned it might do the same, as an accounting scandal at one of the world's largest automotive suppliers continued to grow.

Fitch said it was cutting Delphi's debt ratings to junk, after the giant parts supplier said it may restate financial results from multiple years and said its chief financial officer had resigned. Fitch cut the company's senior unsecured rating one notch to "BB-plus," the highest junk rating, from "BBB-minus," and said it may cut the company's ratings further.

In addition, Standard & Poors also said it was considered reducing its ratings on Delphi's outstanding debt. The rating reductions are considered a serious blow to Delphi, which will have to pay more to borrow at a time when its profits are non-existent. The company said in January it expected to lose $200 million and the higher borrowing costs could increase the size of the future losses.

I think we're getting ever closer to finding out what happens when the world comes crashing down for suppliers and OEMs alike.





 

The Bling King

The Detroit Free Press recently ran an interesting profile on Ralph Gilles, the design direction for the Chrysler 300C.

While something could be said of Gilles' ethnic background, what's probably more important is his young age. The 300C neatly blends contemporary styling (high beltlines, short overhangs) with an appreciation for the upright chromi-ness of the early 80s, something that could probably only be acheived by someone in his 30s. On the other hand, GM's Ed Welburn seems stuck in the monochrome Euro-fashion of the late 80s and early 90s - teardrop shapes drapped in a single color, preferably dark and devoid of brightwork. While GM is indeed pulling off this look somewhat more successfully with the G6 than they did with, say, the Lumina, that's vastly overshadowed by the 300C's stretch back towards the day of rear-wheel-drive Fifth Avenues and their boxy large-car competition - a otherwise antiquated and forgotten slice of American design that really wasn't much more than a big set of wheels away from looking pretty frickin' cool.

 

Buffet warns of "sharecropper society"

Word:

Warren Buffett has warned that the US trade deficit risks creating a “sharecropper’s society” as his letter to shareholders sounded an increasingly bearish tone about the value of the dollar.

...

“This force-feeding of American wealth to the rest of the world is now proceeding at the rate of $1.8bn daily, an increase of 20 per cent since I wrote you last year,” he said. “Consequently, other countries and their citizens now own a net of about $3,000bn of the US”

In particular, he warned that this meant a sizeable portion of what US citizens earned in future would have to be paid to foreign landlords.

“A country that is now aspiring to an “Ownership Society” will not find happiness in – and I’ll use hyperbole here for emphasis – a “Sharecropper’s Society,” added Mr Buffett. “But that’s precisely where our trade policies, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, are taking us.”

The running tally.

 

The Whole Bankruptcy Bill Thing

I've been waiting to write this piece for about a week or so, but just haven't gotten around to it. That, and I'm still not sure which side of the issue I stand. That's unusual. And what's even more unusual is the reaction of the left and right. Compare the comments in a thread on Daily Kos to that on Free Republic, and you'll see similar reactions and thoughts on both. Scary.

My first instinct is to think that this is yet another handout to the credit-card industry that will allow them to continue offering credit to poor risks, while insulating them from the negative effects of their business practices. And that's probably a dead-on accurate statement. This would seem to establish that credit-card companies are evil and are constantly handing-out money to politicians in Washington - politicians on both sides of the aisle. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff here.

But then again, in order for this whole credit thing to work, individuals actually have to accept the credit offer. Last I checked, no one in this country was really forced to take out a loan or line of credit larger than they could afford. Oh, sure, there's plenty of folks who will justify a 60-month loan on a new $35K car instead of buying a quality $10K used car because "they need a warranty" or "don't want to get ripped-off on used-car interest rates", or those that take out interest-only loans on a huge new home because "the kids are running out of room" and they're just positive that they're going to get a raise next year, or a spouse will return to work, or a previous property will sell, or... you get the point.

So, who's really to blame here for the credit problems we have in this country? I gotta come down on individuals here and blame them for the poor decisions that are being made every day. Big, evil corporations will do mean things to the public, but when it all comes down to it, we often have only ourselves to blame. I mean, shit, even thought the CC company sends you a shiny piece of junk mail promising Low Introductory APR, doesn't meant that you've got to respond like a slobbering dog. This isn't much differen than Joe Camel, and that bastard never convinced me to so much as take a single puff.

And while a significant number of bankruptcies are triggered by circumstances outside of one's control, I've got little doubt that many of those people set themselves up for disaster. Sure, a medical problem puts someone over the brink, but it's rarely mentioned that before the $50K hospital bill came along, there was a new home or two, maybe some big vacations put on a credit car, and a couple of shiny new vehicles put in the driveway that are really at the root of the problem. All that money spent on Lexus depreciation and property taxes might have gone into savings instead and averted disaster when the unexpected happened.

The problem I see with current bankruptcy law is indeed that it allows people to make poor decisions and then wipe the slate clean. The new law seems to shift the balance of power toward's the leading industry's stupidity. It seems to me that a balance needs to be struck somewhere in-between, when bankruptcy offers some protection of one's home and vehicles while still making provisions for repayment of debt.

We also need to do something about corporate bankruptcy, which the lending industry seems reluctant to address - probably because it'd reveal so much about their stupidity (or at least their tolerance for risk). After all, the lending industry lost about $10B during the Enron collapse.

Finally, I think that setting proper health savings accounts, rather than the use-it-or-loose-it crap that most people are faced with, would help those that are really interested in protecting themselves against an expensive emergency medical crisis. Generally speaking, more saving and less borrowing would solve the problem. But people are reluctant to do so without tax breaks.

UPDATE: Some good reading on bankruptcy statistics can be found here.

UPDATE 2: Looking back through some older links on the topic (I've been collecting them for a few weeks), I found this info:

Under the proposed law, those filing for bankruptcy would have to undergo a two-step test outlined in a formula that permits judges little leeway. It would force an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 people a year who now seek protection under Chapter 7 to instead make some repayment under Chapter 13.

That seems like an awfully small impact, considering that at the rate of about 5 personal bankruptcies per 1000, there's about 1.5 million per year in the US. I'd like to see if that's an accurate number, or if it's understated.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

 

Judge - Charge Padilla, Or Release Him

Awesome:

U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd in Spartanburg, S.C., ruled Monday that the government can not hold Padilla indefinitely as an "enemy combatant," a designation President Bush gave him in 2002.

The government views Padilla as a militant who planned attacks on the United States, including with a "dirty bomb" radiological device.

Floyd wrote in his 23-page opinion that to rule in favor of the government "would not only offend the rule of law and violate this country's constitutional tradition," it would be a "betrayal of this nation's commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties."

And just who is this "activist judge"? Heck if I know - there doesn't seem to be a lot of information available on him (at least not with 90 seconds of searching on Google). But we do at least know he was appointed by Bush - which is wonderfully ironic. I'd welcome a lot more guys like this on the bench.

Meanwhile, Gonzoles chimes in:

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said today the U.S. has the right to hold suspects in the war on terrorism "for the duration of hostilities,'' a statement that struck two lawmakers as impractical.

The war "will not end in my lifetime,'' Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington. He said the Bush administration should press charges against Jose Padilla, an American who has been held without traditional legal rights as an "enemy combatant'' since June 2002.

I'd almost be willing to accept Gonzales' proposal if we could get an actual declaration of war from Congress. But we know that's not going to happen, and so I'd have to say that the idea is not just impractical, but quite awful.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

 

Nuclear Test Video

Holy crap:

Direct link

or

Right-click-save-as

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