Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Monday, January 31, 2011

It's Official: No Happy Chinese New Year in Hong Kong for Me

No doubt you've been on pins and needles about my Hong Kong trip. Let's all heave a collective sigh of relief; I am still in the States.

My drop-dead deadline for making a decision was noon yesterday with the first leg of the trip set to depart Greenville-Spartanburg Airport at 7:30 AM today. On Thursday I pointed out to the PR agency in charge of arrangements on this end that my name was incorrect on the tickets. Had I purchased these tickets myself, I would have had the problem fixed with a 10-minute phone call. But what do I know?

The crux of the issue was that the tickets had only my middle and last name rather than my first, middle and last name as it appears on my passport. Adding to the problem, the travel agent booked the domestic and international flights separately. So the mistake had to be fixed twice.

56 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/40 Hours Before Departure
Sometime between Thursday morning and Saturday afternoon, when I received a voicemail that the fixes were made, the travel agent changed the international tickets (and someone paid $150 to do so) so that my first name was added; but it was added as my middle name. The domestic tickets were unchanged.

I was on the phone with both Delta (the domestic carrier in this debacle) and Cathay Pacific (the international carrier). Getting a boarding pass wasn't an issue with Delta; I had a confirmation number. I could do it online. Delta wasn't even aware I was to end up in Hong Kong. I did want to get credit for the domestic miles, though, and to have my usual Delta clout in case something went wrong with any of the flights due to weather or whatever. Nope, sorry, can't add your Sky Miles number because the name isn't the same. I did question whether TSA would let me through security in Greenville without my first name on the boarding pass.

Cathay Pacific told me in no uncertain terms that they wouldn't issue my boarding pass with my first and middle names reversed.

58 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/38 Hours Before Departure
I passed this info back to the Hong Kong U.S. tourist bureau that was now wrangling this issue. I heard nothing more on Saturday.

72 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/24 Hours Before Departure
I popped out of bed Sunday morning, checked again to see if my Delta tickets were changed and they were not. Unless you are registered as a frequent flier on Cathay Pacific, you can only confirm flights over the phone. I called to discover they are closed on Sunday. Closed on Sunday! What sort of third-world operation is this?

Write this down: Never fly Cathay Pacific on a Sunday. They are closed.

I promptly sent an e-mail to my contact at the HK Tourist Bureau and CC'd a few other folks who had been involved up and down the line, saying I was canceling I immediately received a flurry of e-mails from several players in this comedy of errors asking me to give them a few more hours. That's when I announced my drop-dead deadline of noon.

75.5 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/20.5 Hours Before Departure
At noon I get yet another e-mail saying that the problem was close to being solved. By this time my head was pounding and I was ready to strangle a Koala bear. Instead, I went to the gym.

78.5 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/17.5 Hours Before Departure
I returned home around 3 PM, somewhat revived and a good bit more calm to discover that the errors persisted. In the hot-and-heavy exchange of e-mails throughout the morning, I saw one from the actual travel agent in which she stated that my Delta tickets didn't need to be changed because Delta only looks at the first name. (I have no clue if that is actually true.) At that instant, I suspected the travel agent, who had been telling everyone else that I was good to go, was under the impression that Russell is my first name.

I had an e-mail from the HK Tourist Bureau asking me to contact the travel agent directly in the hope that she could make dumb-ass me understand that everything was all right. Unwilling to have a Rush Limbaugh moment, all I will say about her command of English is that it leaves a little something to be desired. In serious CYA mode, she chattered on about how everything was okay and I should go. When I finally found the opportunity to jam a word or two into the conversation, I managed to say that "Russell" is my middle name and not my first name. That slowed her down. After repeating that a couple of times, along with repeating "Donald" as my first name, she finally grasped the concept. "Then these tickets are wrong," she said. Ding, ding, ding, ding, confetti filled the air! We then had a conversation about how Cathay Pacific wouldn't issue a boarding pass to me with my name wrong. Hmmm... where had I heard that before?

80 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/17 Hours Before Departure
At this point I was three and a half hours past my drop-dead deadline and sick of the whole mess. I e-mailed all the players telling them that I was officially canceling my participation in the trip. What a weight off my shoulders. But wait, we're not done yet.

83 Hours After Notifying Them of the Error/14.5 Hours Before Departure
At 6:30 a message was left on my voicemail and then another at 7:00. Both telling me that everything is finally all fixed and I'm good to go. The HK Tourist Bureau has been in contact with the VP of Cathay Pacific and he has personally assured them that I will be boarded with no problem.

Yeah, well, I don't think so. If I could have solved this issue with a 10-minute phone call on Thursday, why couldn't the half a dozen people who were working on this not get the job done until Sunday evening? Amazing.

I didn't even respond last night. When I got up this morning, I e-mailed all the players once again reminding them I canceled out Sunday afternoon and did not get on the initial flight this morning.

Around noon today I get another call asking if I want to reschedule the trip and go tomorrow.

Where the hell is that Koala bear?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Hong Kong Nightmare Continues

Wow, I am really over trying to get my trip to Hong Kong worked out. Since Thursday morning I have been struggling to get my name corrected on the tickets. With my initial flight due to push away from the gate in less than 20 hours, the issue remains unresolved. I have a pounding headache for the second day in a row as I deal with layers of people attempting to get this resolved.

Because the travel agent involved either doesn't know what she is doing or is attempting to put a couple of extra bucks in her pocket -- I suspect it's a combination of the two -- my tickets are still booked under just my middle and last names. She claims that she paid a $150 penalty fee to get the change made, but so far, nada.

What little desire I had to make this trip has rapidly dissolved over the course of the past 24 hours. I actually canceled the trip this morning with the PR agency involved, but they begged me to give them a little more time. My cancellation will be a major problem for them with Hong Kong (their client). I gave them until noon and that is now four minutes away. Tic-toc, tic-toc...

I may give them even a little more time. I'm heading to the gym in an attempt to get my blood pressure back down to some level where I'm not in danger of the top of my heading blowing off. Welcome to Scanners II. So, I'll give them until I get back. Meanwhile I am neither packed nor have my house in order for this trip. I've been hoping against hope that the problem won't be resolved and I can walk away without repercussions. What are the chances?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Some Worries Are Bigger Than Others

It's late Friday morning and I have two worries on my mind. That one of them has to do with the Steelers in the Super Bowl, is some sort of a statement, I guess, on the absence of true adversity in my life. That's really not the case; I have simply trained myself to ignore my larger problems.

No, this morning I am still concerned about my Hong Kong flights. I fly out of Greenville-Spartanburg Airport at 7:30 AM on Monday and issues regarding my flights continue to linger. What I have seen of my itinerary is in two separate pieces: domestic and international. I have a question as to whether these flights were booked at the same time by the same agent or if they are considered, by the various airlines involved, as separate trips. If they are considered separate, I will be forced to check in when I leave Greenville and again when I reach JFK. If I check a bag, I'll have to retrieve it at JFK and recheck it to Hong Kong. I await an answer on this question.

Moreover, at least for the domestic portion of this trip, the tickets are in just my middle name, rather than my full name as current FAA regulations demand. I have been assured by the PR agency handling arrangements on this end that they are trying to make the required change. Tic-toc, tic-toc.... If they can't, I'll be sitting this trip out.

A lessor issue: Whether I must recheck my bag at JFK or not will determine how I pack and which suitcase I take. Rechecking my bag will mean I'll pack very light and use my carry-on rollerboard. If I don't have to recheck, I'll take everything I think I might need and use my larger, 5-day suitcase. There is still plenty of time to pack.

The other topic on my mind is the health of Steelers starting center Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey. In a story in the online edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this morning, it was reported that further x-rays revealed that not only is Pouncey's ankle sprained, but there is a broken bone as well. He is now in a plaster cast. For what is, for all intents and purposes, the Steelers second-string offensive line, Pouncey has been the leader credited with making it work. Now he is gone.

Doug Legursky replaced Pouncey after the opening drive in the game against the Jets. If you don't count the two points it gave the Jets, the offense didn't score during the second half. Was that all do to the loss of Pouncey? Probably not, but it certainly had a hand in it.

Legursky will enter the Super Bowl with two weeks of snapping the ball as the presumed starter. That should make a difference. I hope it's enough. It worries me, though.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

When Does 0% Auto Financing Make Good Sense? Always!

It may lull you to sleep, but my piece on 0% financing is valuable reading for anyone pondering the pluses and minuses of 0% auto financing versus a cash rebate. It's usually a no-brainer. Read all about it at  

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Winter's Journey or What the Heck Am I Doing?

As I pen this missive, it is 7:30 AM. I've been up and at'em for an hour. No, I don't normally rise this early. Those who know me from my stint at Taylor and Francis Group, as well as AMI, remember the days when I went to the gym prior to arriving at work. At T&F I was at my desk by 7 AM. I'm not a stranger to waking early, but see no sensible reason to do so these days. Yet I remain a "morning" person. My energy is at its greatest and my creativity at its zenith in the morning. I do 80% of my writing before 1 PM. Typically, if I accomplish any writing of significance after that hour, it's this blog. Perhaps "significance" is overstating it.

I am up early this morning because I have a drive to Atlanta in front of me. As a member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association -- GAAMA to the uninitiated -- I try to make the monthly lunch meetings. This month's gathering is today at the W Hotel and is sponsored by Acura. We'll hear from one of its execs and look at some of its product. It's an opportunity, not only for a free lunch, but to reconnect with industry friends and do a little networking.

Because Atlanta is a 2-plus-hour haul, I only make about every-other monthly lunch. These noon meetings require a full day's investment for me: 2 hours over, 2-3 hours of meeting and 2 hours back -- all carved out of the heart of the day. I also have a seat on its board of directors and this group often meets for lunch on another day each month. I already missed that meeting for January, so I feel doubly compelled to make this one.

It is cold, rainy and nasty; weather I face the entire distance. I would normally push off around 9:30 for a noon arrival, but today I will need to be on the road by 9:00. I am not looking forward to the drive. I fully expect to encounter an accident or two that will stop the traffic flow dead in its tracks. Three hours may not be sufficient. I refuse to donate more.

So that is my day today. Oh, boy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sometimes I Bore Myself

I just finished writing a review of the 2011 Ford Fiesta. Roughly more than two weeks have passed since I wrote my last car review. I had a little spurt of work that required my undivided attention; so my car reviewing took a backseat.

My procrastination, however, was more involved than that. I calculate that since I began writing car reviews for publication in 1986 or so, I've cranked out, let's see, carry the 1, ummm...nearly 2,000 of them. Yikes, I'm tired.

Let's face it, there are only so many creative ways to say a vehicle has an engine, transmission, interior, four wheels and a trunk. Have I used them all? Probably and many of them more than once. Every once in a while I get to talk about something new when it first appears. Antilock brakes added a new twist for about a year when first introduced. Bluetooth and integrated iPod hookups were two more new features to explain. But most of the time, it's the same old, same old: horsepower, torque, comfort, handling...ZZZZZZZ....

Some vehicles are just more fun to write about than others. Getting geared up and excited to write about an entry-level econobox requires having a real pep talk with myself. "You can do it, you big lug. You're a professional...." Scribbling a few words about the Audi R8, on the other hand, happens almost without thought.

All in all, though, sometimes I bore myself with what I'm writing about a car. It's sad when you put yourself to sleep. Wait, it's not just when writing about cars. Wake me up when it's over........

Monday, January 24, 2011

Super Bowl Bound: Steelers Hold on to Win AFC Title

You didn't think today's blog would be about anything other than last night's Steelers-Jets game did you?

Limping away from another nail-biter, the Steelers somehow managed to hold off a very determined second-half onslaught by the Jets, to take the AFC Championship. I am less than impressed. I stayed home to watch last night's slugfest that featured an unstoppable Steelers offense for the first two quarters and then NFL's version of "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" for the bulk of the second half. I wanted to be able to suffer in silence if things went badly for Pittsburgh. At the end of the first half I was second guessing that decision; halfway through the third quarter, I knew, like Grasshopper, I had chosen wisely. It was a dispiriting offensive performance.

For all intents and purposes, the Steelers defense was pretty tough. A team that had humbled both the Colts and Patriots to get to the Steelers was bound to move the ball and score some points. The Steelers held them to 3 the first half and 14 the second. Any time a team holds an opponent to 17 points (I'm not counting the 2 pts the Steelers offense gave them.) or less, they should win. I won't question the strategy pursued by the Steelers defense that basically gave Jets quarterback Sanchez a free pass the second half. Dick LeBeau certainly knows more than I do. However, I've never been a fan of the "prevent defense." I like to see a defense get after a QB and no team does it better than the Steelers...when they want to. We saw damn little of that the second half. The D's one-yard goal line stand was brilliant and, arguably, its brightest moment during the game. I'd give the Steelers defense a B+ for last night's effort.

No, it was the Steelers offense that, once again, only managed to deliver their "A" game for two out of four quarters. A reoccurring problem with the offense has been its inability to get the ball over the goal line. The three games before the Ravens playoff game offered some hope that the offense had finally exorcised its demons and could deliver touchdowns. It came out in the opening drive of the Ravens playoff game, playing as if to punctuate that point by scoring a quick 7. Abruptly collapsing, they left it up to the defense to try to keep the game close the remainder of the first half. The offense came out the second half firing on all cylinders, scoring 24 points and winning the game. Yet more reason for optimism.

Scoring two TDs and a field goal the first half (The defense scored the other first-half TD.), the Steelers offense pretty much had its way with the Jets. It was an awesome performance. The second half was an offensive calamity. Historically outscoring opponents in the third quarter, that quarter is my litmus test for how the offense is going to perform the second half. Last night the Jets outscored the Steelers 7 to zip. Big Ben was sacked twice and intercepted twice. Mendenhall, who dug out nearly 100 yards rushing the first half was held to less then 30 yards the second half. Giving credit where credit is due, the offense did manage to put points on the board in the second half when a bobbled Steelers snap on the one-yard line turned into a safety and 2 points for the Jets. Yea, team!

Part of the Steelers lackluster second-half offense was probably due to the loss of its Pro-Bowl center in the first quarter. Pouncey is credited for much of the offensive line's success this season. I'm sure his absence contributed to the lack of second-half production. Likely he will miss the Super Bowl as well. Not good news even for a glass-half-full fan. Somehow during the next two weeks, the offense has to figure out a way to score without him. Even if the defense can hold the Packers to 17 offensive points, that's 21 points the Steelers will need to score to win.

My grade for the Steelers offense last night: A- for the first half and D- for the second half, for an average game score of C-. Not exactly a championship performance.

I agree with Mike Tomlin that style points aren't important; the win is everything. But I shudder to think about last night's second-half offense facing off against the Packer defense. The offense has two weeks to get "it" together. I hope they put them to good use.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's Football, Baby!

It is the Bears-Packers game that seems to have garnered most of the hype today. That's fine; it's a storied rivalry that has been going on about as long as there has been an NFL. It will be fun to watch, particularly since I don't have a dog in the fight. If the Steelers win, I'd rather they play the Bears; but I'm not going to get all riled up about the NFC. Let'em sort it out and the Steelers will play whomever.

As for the Steelers-Jets game, all bets are off in the post season. Teams seem to rise to the occasion in the playoffs. Short of making a prediction I will say, Polamalu was missing the last time these two teams met and the Jets won by 3; Troy is a game changer. Moreover, the Steelers defense played as well last week against the Ravens as they have ever played. If they show that same intensity this week, the Jets will have their hands full. I admire the Jets for knocking the Patriots to the side of the road, but my gratitude goes only so far. This week, I'm all Steelers!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011 Hyundai Elantra: A Car for All Reasons

I teased you with some initial reactions to the redesigned Hyundai Elantra. Here is the complete scoop on this little car with a big heart.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Not to Find Out You Are Out of a Job

Yesterday my press credentials came through for the Chicago Auto Show in February. Nissan has seen fit to include me among the guests it will bring in for the event. I fly there two days after I return from Hong Kong; if indeed I do return from Hong Kong. My sister and others have expressed their doubts.

Historically my favorite among the larger auto shows, Chicago isn't the overwhelming, chaos-riddled, logistical mess that is the Detroit show. New York City puts on a good show, but you have to go to, well, NYC for it. I'm not a fan. I judge a location by whether I would spend my own cash to go there. I've been to NYC at least 10 times and have never spent a nickle of my own money on a trip. I am told it has many wonderful qualities; and I even agree, in part, but it's just not where I want to vacation. However, I am always open to going there on someone else's dime, for the auto show or any other reason. I'm not stupid.

My last trip to the Chicago Auto Show was in 2004. I don't even have to think about the year. It is burned into my memory. Why? you might query. Because it was at the 2004 Chicago Auto Show when I first learned that my replacement had been hired as editor in chief of the two auto magazines I was running at the time.

My editor-in-chief role was temporary. When my buddy, the editor in chief who hired me, saw the writing on the wall and returned to the Miami Herald, the mantle of leadership fell to me as the managing editor. Originally it was to be a permanent appointment (well, as permanent as any editor-in-chief job is in that organization), but when I was low-balled on the salary, I turned the job down. There was no way I was going to deal with the nut-job CEO on a regular basis for a mere 10 grand more than I was already making. At that point I became "acting editor in chief."

My situation became even more precarious when, before the first issue for which I was responsible had even gone to the printer, I was called into the CEO's office for a pow-wow. Forty-five minutes later, covered in his spittle, my ears ringing from his pounding on his desk, I staggered out of his office suite convinced that my days at that company were numbered. This is a guy not used to hearing the word, no. I had turned down the job and was, thereafter, a marked man.

I returned to my desk and recounted the episode to the staff, advising them to polish up their resumes. With my former boss at the helm, we had no idea of the behind-the-scenes drama. He did a superb job of insulating us from the politics. My first one-on-one encounter with the CEO was an eye-opening experience. We all knew he was a tyrant, but until that meeting, I had no clue he was stark-raving mad.

For two or three months preceding the Chicago show in 2004, I had friends at other auto publications call to tell me they had been approached to take the job and had either refused the interview or turned down the job offer. I was aware that the wheels were in motion. Still, it's quite a shock to find out you are out of a job by having an industry peer, with whom you were only mildly acquainted, walk up and say, "Dude, tough break about the job; so what are you going to do?"

No one could ever accuse this organization of being professional. Its human resource director, who spent 80% of his time laying off or firing people and was therefore known around the company as "the Prince of Darkness," and the CEO, whose combined intellect couldn't generate enough brain power to make a sparrow fly, had not considered that I was attending the Chicago show and the cat might be out of the bag.

The phone in my hotel room rang that evening. It was the human resource director apologizing for my finding out that way. He promised a meeting with me and the staff as soon as we were all back in the office together. By this time our little staff had bonded together like so many survivors adrift for weeks in a lifeboat. It had been three months since I had taken over. It had been a roller-coaster ride where each day could prove to be our last. We remained on staff for another 90 days as the company moved the auto magazines to Detroit. None of us made the transition.

Am I looking forward to the Chicago show this year? Yes, I am. I think I will enjoy it a lot more than the last time I was there.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not All Writing Assignments Are Equal: Taking the Long View Can Be Painful

I am suffering a bout of buyer's remorse. I had one of my editors call me the other day with a travel assignment. An assignment, that's a good thing, right? Yes, on its surface it is. The destination: Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Well yes, on its surface it does. The operative word here being "surface."

I'm a pragmatist and when it comes to assignment offers, I take the long view. I will sometimes take an assignment that I'm not keen on because, if you turn down too many from the same editor, suddenly those offers stop coming. Moreover, the dearth of current assignments means that I have nothing but time right now. So I am more open to taking on assignments that, in busier times, I might turn down.

As it turns out, the Hong Kong assignment is a hand-me-down that another journalist had pitched to my editor. When my editor accepted it, this journalist then used that acceptance to move the Hong Kong tourist folks to organize and underwrite a press junket. Getting approval to visit China, even when the destination is the more accessible Hong Kong, is an ordeal that makes the convoluted path to canonizing a Pope into sainthood look like applying for a hall pass to use the bathroom. This journalist had passed through this gauntlet; but when it came time to book the flights, she balked.

The PR agency facilitating the arrangements on this end was faced with either going back to the Chinese, hat in hand, and reporting that all of this prep work had been for naught, or finding an unsuspecting rube as a substitute journalist. That's where I come in.

Because this trip is scheduled to begin on January 31, I had no opportunity to really mull the idea over. The PR agency and my editor were on a mission to quickly find a replacement who could be successfully vetted by the Chinese and be on a plane in two weeks. I had to make a snap decision. Red wire! No, wait, blue wire!

I worked in Hong Kong about 11 years ago when I was with Discover America. I was there for a week trying to get enough footage to cobble together a 30-minute video. It was one of the most miserable work experiences of my 10 years with the series, and probably my life. Even though we were there at the behest of the communist government and had a tourism liaison assigned to us, the level of cooperation was ridiculously low. Everything was a tooth pull. Permits to shoot a particular location were so specific that we had maybe 60 minutes to get what we needed. If traffic or some other unforeseen calamity delayed us, the permit could easily expire before we even arrived at the location. This happened at least once. A couple of other times we had to make do with 10 minutes out of the hour permit and settle for two set ups when we needed eight or ten. By the fifth or sixth day of this nonsense, I was ready to step in front of a tank.

Furthermore, I'm not a fan of the cuisine. I'm a meat-and-potatoes guy. They eat some strange stuff over there. If you think because you go to the Canton Garden once a week for the fried rice that you like Chinese food, you are greatly mistaken. They eat stuff over there that I wouldn't feed my cat; and if I did, she probably wouldn't eat it. If it wasn't for a Ruth's Chris Steak House half a block from our hotel in Kowloon, my videographer and I would have starved.

I tell you all of this as a less-than-subtle way to say, Hong Kong isn't at the top of my list to revisit. I haven't been sitting at home jonesing to go back. So, accepting this assignment wasn't a "gimme." I wasn't given any real time to reflect on it. Additionally, I was in the middle of some interviews for a story I was doing for another editor and my thoughts were with that. I did what my long-term view dictates, I accepted. I also was hoping that somehow I could fly Delta and pick up some serious Sky Miles.

It wasn't until the following day that I realized the trip was scheduled to return on February 6. February 6: Why does that date sound familiar? Oh crap! It's the Super Bowl. Well, the game is played in the evening; I should be back in time. Yeah, right.

I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from the PR agency that included the proposed flights for the trip. Despite the fact that I offered to make the 2.5-hour haul to Atlanta in order to fly Delta, the flights were on Cathay Pacific and whatever regional airlines it uses here. Cathay Pacific! Evidently this is the airline that the Chinese tourist people have a contract with. Drat, no Sky Miles. Twenty-four hours traveling each way and no Sky Miles out of it. Even worse news was that they had me getting into Greenville at 11:45 PM on February 6.

Now I haven't sweated bullets over the Steelers all season to be on an airplane and miss them playing for the national championship. Whether or not they will be playing in the Super Bowl will be decided this Sunday. If they don't prevail in their contest against the Jets, it will be a moot point. But I can't take the chance. I didn't confess to the PR agency why I needed to be back, just that I did.

My request to get back five or six hours earlier was met with an emphatic, no can do. There is no set itinerary for my time in Hong Kong. Evidently they are going to dump me at a hotel and I'm on my own until I get back on a plane to come home. If I return a day early, it won't upset some grand plan. So, that's what I proposed. Bring me home on the 5th rather than the 6th. They didn't exactly enthusiastically embrace the idea, but they finally worked it out.

One small victory for democracy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taking It to the Streets: A First Look at the Buick Regal Turbo

I just returned from putting the first 25 miles on a 2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo. I am thoroughly impressed. Including the destination charge, the base price is $29,495. Its turbo-charged inline four delivers 220 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. It gets 29 mpg on the highway, thanks in part to a six-speed automatic tranny.

It looks great inside and out. Buick didn't skimp on the styling. A rich-looking cabin has the full-range of luxuries like leather seating, full power accessories, remote keyless entry, a seven-speaker audio system with USB port, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and six airbags.

My test Regal has a $2,605 option package that includes rear-seat airbags, 19-inch alloy wheels, and an upgraded Harmon/Kardon nine-speaker audio system, among other enhancements.

This is a lot of bang for the buck and a pure joy to drive. Thankfully the snow is gone and I can push it a bit. This is a sedan well worth shopping. It should give some imports fits.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There Is Old and Then There Is Old Man Winter

Although I lived more than 25 years in South Florida, I never considered myself a "Florida boy." I have friends who wouldn't live anywhere else; that was never my position. As with any region, there are things to like and things to dislike about South Florida. When on that scorecard we all keep in our head the dislikes outnumber the likes, it's time to go. I reached that juncture in 2005.

It is no coincidence that 2005 was the year Hurricane Wilma tore through Palm Beach County. As close as I ever want to come to losing everything, Wilma was one scary broad. She followed Frances and Jeanne that roared through the year before. Skyrocketing insurance rates -- mine more than quadrupled in five years, a hurricane-caused 50% hike in utility costs, and the clean up from three hurricanes in less than 18 months, was sufficient to get me packing my bags for a move away from the ocean.

I could have put up with some of the other negatives of living in Florida. Anyone who has spent any time in South Florida knows there are three glaring negatives:
  • If you under the age of 50, you are in the minority. Obviously, by 2005, I was on the majority side of the age equation; but even old people don't like to surround themselves with "old" people. It makes you feel, well, old.
  • Partially an extension of the "old" issue: Too many people driving in South Florida are simply incompetent. Notice I didn't say Florida drivers are incompetent. Many of them are, but I'm talking about people -- all the people -- driving on South Florida streets. You've got retired snowbirds who are on streets they don't know and in rental cars they can't operate; this is a formula for disaster. You have French Canadians, who evidently find making the mental computations to translate miles per hour into kilometers per hour beyond the scope of their high school degree. They stubbornly drive at least 5 mph below the speed limit at all times. Then a function of the next bullet point, you have drivers who are simply rude. Common courtesy isn't in their lexicon or behavior. Why use your brakes when you have a horn? Why let someone into your lane when that will put you an additional car length behind? Why switch off your turn signal when you will probably need it later?
  • Too many people in South Florida just aren't very nice. For them every-day interaction with other people is a contact sport. They are rude, pushy, loud and generally obnoxious. At the risk of libeling the population of an entire region, the Northeast serves as the source for the majority of transplanted South Floridians. There is a reason that the definition of happiness in South Florida is the sight of 100,000 French Canadians heading for home with a New Yorker stuffed under each arm.

Yes, by 2005, the dislikes on my mental scorecard were far outweighing the likes. However as I sit at my work station bundled in sweats looking out at spotty patches of snow in my yard, I am ready for winter's end. With more than half the cold season still spread in front of me, I am ready for some warm weather.

The lack of seasons in South Florida gets old and boring. It is possible to grow tired of 80-degree days. I like having an excuse to wear a sweater and don my leather jacket. There is nothing better than reclining in front of a fire with an Irish coffee. But after two or three weeks of winter, I am over it. Enough already.

April can't get here soon enough.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New England Patriots: Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead

Ah, the sweet aroma of the AFC championship game unfouled by the putrid stench of the Patriots. Leaving the petulant Tom Brady and pouting Bill Belichick in their wake, the Jets earned a meeting with the Steelers for the AFC title next week. I can hardly wait.

That I became a Jets fan for a day -- actually a week because I rooted for them in the living room of my Jets-loyalist buddy the Saturday before -- doesn't alter my deep-seated support for the Steelers. I was showing respect for my host when I supported the Jets against the Colts last week. Had he been a Colts fan, I would have cheered for them. And yesterday I was only following my personal creed of rooting for two teams each week of the NFL season: the Steelers and whichever team is playing the Patriots.

I trace my animus toward the Patriots to the schlocks masquerading as knowledgeable football analysts at ESPN. Since 2003 ESPN has been the All-Patriots-All-the-Time Network. Literally gushing over Brady as the "greatest" QB of all time and Belichick as the "great miracle worker," the majority of ESPN hacks have named the Patriots the team most likely to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season for seven years. I suspect their holiday bonus is determined by how much praise they can heap on the Patriots throughout the season, and how many times they can manage to include the Patriots accomplishments in unrelated stories.

After a couple of seasons of this slobbering worship, I gave up on ESPN as having any NFL credibility whatsoever. No doubt they are having a meeting this morning discussing the excuses they will forward to explain the stunning reality that once again the Patriots won't be the national champs.

The problem with corinating winners at season's start is, more often than not, you are left looking foolish. I give you the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, that many of these ESPN boneheads picked at the beginning of the season to battle it out in Super Bowl 45.

So along with most of football-watching America, I am thrilled the Patriots are out of it. Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of fellas and their loyal ESPN sycophants.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Steelers: On to the AFC Championship!

Some how in yesterday's game with the Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense pulled its head out of its collective butt in time to capitalize on some Baltimore third-quarter turnovers and put one more TD on the board than their opponents. Will miracles ever cease? I hope not.

The text messages were flying back and forth with unbridled fury last evening. During most of the year, I rarely use more than the half the 500 free text messages my cell phone plan awards me each month. During the NFL season, 500 is sometimes not enough. My free message bank took a severe hit yesterday. All of my Steelers-loyalist buddies, you see, live in other states. Nearly every Steelers offensive drive and defensive accomplishment requires tapping out messages to my personal "Steelers Nation." Yesterday's game required more texting than most.

I won't bore you here with all the details. If you were truly interested, you would have watched the game, right? Suffice it to say, by half time I was thoroughly dispirited. Although the game was broadcast on CBS and I could have watched it from the familiar comfort of my favorite recliner in my living room, I decided to check out a local joint that I had never visited. It was a restaurant I had heard about, that looked interesting, but is only open from 4:30 PM until 11:30 PM Monday through Saturday. Moreover, I had a Steelers-loyalist acquaintance tell me that any time a game was televised during its business hours, this joint was all Steelers.

Because the city of Greenville bans smoking in restaurants, and a number of restaurants in the county voluntarily follow suit, it's easy to forget that smoking is permitted in those restaurants in the county that so choose. To my dismay, this joint was one of those. The owner is this weather-beaten, unfiltered cigarette-smokin' old dude who wears a black eye patch; I kid you not. Before the game even began, I texted a buddy, who had expressed some interest in coming out to watch the game, that I would be relocating at half time because of the smoke. He just quit smoking last week; a smoke-filled bar was not the ideal spot for him.

Not only did I have to deal with the smoking, the guy who told me this was a "Steelers" joint for the games was dreaming. Not only was I the only Steelers fan in the place, I was the only person really interested in the game. It was not fun. Then to have the Steelers offense crumble after the first 10 minutes was almost more than I could stand.

Two plays in particular took the wind out of my sails. The first was when Roethlisberger had the ball knocked out of his hand at his own 13-yard line, and with not one Steeler realizing that the play hadn't been whistled dead, Cory Redding of the Ravens scooped the ball up and skipped into the end zone as the Steelers offense milled around in a stupor. Are you kidding me? What is this, Pop Warner?

The second first-half play that I thought had ominous implications was the 45-yard missed field goal by freshman Steeler Shaun Suisham. A 45-yard kick is not a gimme by any stretch, but he was successful kicking longer during the regular season. He came to Pittsburgh with a reputation for choking in the big games, which is why he was available to join the Steelers in the first place. This miss certainly didn't reassure me. With the offense playing so erratically (They did have a great opening drive that put seven points on the board.), I figured they would need his leg.

I took advantage of halftime to drive home. The game was two minutes into the third quarter when I snapped on the TV. By now, I had already sent texts to my Steelers peeps that I didn't see how, with the way they were playing, this Steelers offense could somehow put 15 more points on the board than the Ravens in the second half. That was the minimum needed to overtake the Ravens lead. With one of the toughest defenses in the NFL and an offense that rarely turned over the ball, the Ravens seemed to have built an insurmountable lead.

Midway through the third quarter I was receiving texts of "See!" and "I told you so!" from my friends. By the quarter's end, I was back among the believers. The Ravens melt-down was of biblical proportions and truly awesome to witness. Moreover, the Steelers offense made the most of it.

As a Steelers fan, here is what I find positive about that game:
  • In November I wrote in this space that the Steelers wouldn't get far in the playoffs because the offense didn't seem capable of scoring a touchdown. You can't get to a Super Bowl, let alone win one, 3 points at a time. In the last three games, the offense has scored 12 TDs. It would seem they have found their groove.
  • Despite the Ravens scoring 24 points, the Steelers defense played a great game. One of the Ravens TDs was scored with the Steelers offense on the field. And the Ravens second quarter score came after the Steelers offense coughed up the ball inside the Ravens Red Zone. At the end of the first half, Baltimore had scored 21 points with less than 100 net yards of offense. They only had 126 net yards of offense for the entire game. That's some tough D.

As the Steelers bask in their win and I nosh on some crow, I look forward to the Jets/Patriots game. Go Jets!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

NFL Playoffs: A Steelers Fan Today -- A Jets Fan Tomorrow

Getting ready to head out for the Steelers/Ravens game. Going to give a joint I've never been in a try. I'm told it's a Steelers stronghold. If nothing else, at least the stool I'm sitting on will be. I could stay home and watch the game, but I want to surround myself with like-minded, hard-core Steelers fans. There is strength in numbers.

I have a friend who is a Pittsburgh native. Although she now lives in Toledo, she keeps pretty close track of sports analysis out of the Burgh. She forwards Steelers-related stories to me nearly every day during the NFL season. I, of course, then forward them on to other Steelers loyalists I know.

Although these pieces are positive and quite insightful, none has predicted a winner in today's contest. I guess the thinking is to avoid jinxing the game. I won't tinker with that approach. Although the Steelers/Ravens are considered one of the game's great rivalries, I don't harbor any ill will toward the Ravens. It is a great team that never fails to give Pittsburgh a good game. Do I want the Ravens to win? Not on your life, but I don't hate or even dislike them.

No, my hate I reserve for the Patriots and the most despicable coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick. As will most of the nation tomorrow, I will be a New York Jets fan for a day. The only thing that will improve my mood with a Steelers victory today would be a Jets win tomorrow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Yet Another Lexus Hybrid: Lexus CT 200h

Had work to do today that I will actually get paid for, so I'm slacking on today's blog. But so that checking in on this site isn't a total loss, here's a link to my write up of the new Lexus hybrid the CT 200h:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Green-eyed Monster: Envy I Can Live With

Winter continues here in Greenville, SC. Evidently my front yard is an idiot magnet. For the second time in two days, some fool has slid off the road and wound up in the open run-off culvert along the front of my property. The most recent nominee for the Mensa society somehow lost control in broad daylight, slid off the road, narrowly missed the utility pole and AT&T junction box, and came to rest nearly on its side in the culvert. Like so many clowns streaming out of a circus car, at least six adults and a kid popped out of the two doors they could get open.

They took turns walking around the car trying to figure out what happened and how to best extract the machine. They must have decided that reinforcements were in order and promptly called one of their relatives with a 4WD truck. It's always the relative with the truck who has to crawl around under both vehicles hooking up the tow rope or chain. What sort of justice is that? In any event, after about an hour, the car was resting on all four wheels on the pavement and they were on their way. My front porch is the best seat in the house for the demolition derby that my street becomes whenever it snows.

Snow is also the culprit that kept some of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars away from their social responsibilities at the Peddler. This is the couple, who, with their three children, made the pilgrimage from Greenville to Phoenix to watch Auburn in the college championship game. They were to fly back home on Tuesday. It didn't happen thanks to the snow. They were able to get as far as Las Vegas and that was that. As of Thursday morning, they are still there. They may get out this afternoon.

I don't get jealous about material stuff. Sure, I'd like to have a nicer house, a plump IRA, more money to blow and all the other things that would make my life easier and more fun. But I don't really think much about it. I do, however, like experiences that create memories. Sounds sappy, I know; so shoot me. I've been lucky enough to accumulate a lot of experiences and the memories that go with them on someone else's dime. Journalism has been berry, berry good to me in that regard.

But today I am a bit jealous about my Vegas-trapped friends; not because they are in Vegas -- not my favorite place -- but because they are having an unscripted adventure as a family. Certainly it's an aggravating inconvenience, and no doubt the missed work and costs of housing and feeding five people are running up the expenses of an already expensive trip; however, they are stranded together. What an unexpected opportunity to create memories.

It's not as if they're two young parents (No one will accuse them of that!) being stuck on the road with small children. No, the children are grown. Two are over 21 and the third is in college. They have been known to take a drink now and again. They should have had no trouble occupying themselves for two extra days. In a the-glass-is-half-full way, no matter the inconvenience this delay is now, it is going to be a terrific "war" story for years to come. And no one appreciates having a good war story to tell more than I do. Yep, I'm just a little jealous.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Movie, Inception: Who's on First?

Holy confusion, Batman, what is happening in this movie? OK, I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I am a high-school graduate. Moreover, one advantage of the single life is that I can watch a movie or TV show at home virtually uninterrupted: No kids keening for my attention, no significant other grilling me about my day's activities. Nope, I can concentrate on what's on the screen. Yet I still had trouble keeping up with the plot of the latest DiCaprio vehicle Inception.

I ventured out for the first time in two snowbound days to the local supermarket to return two Red Box DVDs; and while I was there, I rented Inception. I had no preconceived notions about it. I had seen the TV ad for it a couple of times and it looked interesting. I was semi-lost 60 seconds into the first reel.

Here's the bottom line: Although it is escapist action entertainment, you can't watch it with the same zoned-out disconnect with which you can watch, say, Die Hard or even Salt. Watching Inception requires a high level of concentration. Share your attention with texting your BFF about tomorrow's activities and you will be forced to retrace whatever portion of the film you missed.

Based on the fantasy that somehow people can intentionally share your dreams, the plot involves not just stealing ideas (like industry trade secrets) from a dreaming person, but also planting seeds of ideas (inception) within the sleeping minds of those same people. Doing so requires building worlds for several layers of dreams. Dreaming people dream they fall asleep and dream ever deeper dreams for several layers. Time in each dream layer is accelerated by some multiple as you go deeper. So what is a minute in wide-awake time might represent 10 years in the third or fourth layer, or 50 years in limbo where you go if you are killed in a deep layer. Clear as milk, right?

Trying to figure out who is sleeping, who is dreaming, what layer they might be in and why some people are sleeping in one layer and not the next keeps the old synapses popping.

The special effects are outrageously good and you will see some things you haven't seen before. After the first 45 minutes or so, the action is nearly nonstop. Reality and dreams are constantly overlapping and, at times, separating one from the other is a challenge.

As in nearly every movie in which I've seen him, DiCaprio is hard to like here. He's just not a likeable guy and the self-centered jerk he plays in this movie failed to give me warm fuzzies. In fact, the entire cast is less than likeable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the kid from TV's Third Rock) and Ellen Page come closest, but even they don't give the audience much to like. But if you want suspense and action mixed in with a bit of thought-provoking plot, you should love this movie.

I'll probably watch it again before returning it. I might actually figure out what's going on the second time around.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day 2 of the Great Greenville Blizzard

We are now well into day 2 of the great Greenville Blizzard of 2011. We did get some sleet yesterday, which was just enough to put a layer of ice over everything. If anything, being on the road today is a bit more dangerous than yesterday.

The best aspect of this mini ordeal is that it has given me the opportunity to pull a bunch of my winter clothes out of the cedar chest. I'm getting to wear some boots and snow pants that I haven't worn since my days of working for Discover America. Although I lived in Florida, I'd get to a snowbound location once or twice every winter: Canada, upper Maine, Minnesota and so forth. I'm finding winter wear that I forgot I even had.

I woke up this morning to find some genius had driven down the hill in front of my house, lost control and ended up across the opening to my driveway with one of his front wheels (a front-wheel-drive-car, of course) trapped in the open culvert that runs along the front of my property. I can't imagine what this fool found so important as to take him out on the ice-covered roads in the middle of the night. I'm just happy he didn't take out my mailbox. He did leave a note on my door listing his name and phone number. It also included a request not to have him towed. In this sort of weather, his POS would have had to sit here for a day or two before I became concerned enough to have him towed (or in this case call him).

Thankfully Ford brought an all-wheel-drive Explorer by early this afternoon for me. I used it to drive the two miles to the grocery store to return two Red Box movies I rented Sunday night. It's a bit of an adventure getting up the hill to the main road, but not too bad after that. I am now preparing to head to the gym. I've got two weeks of holiday gluttony to work off. We all have our priorities.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Let It Snow; Let It Snow; Let It Snow

I just finished doing something that I've only done one other time in the past 30 years. For you wisenheimers, no, it's not having sex that I didn't have to pay for. I just spent more than two hours shoveling snow off my driveway. Yesterday the forecasts were revised upward for an accumulation of 8 to 12 inches. The original forecasts of 5 to 7 inches made last Friday were closer to the mark. I went to bed last night with no snow and got up this morning at 6:30 to about 3 inches. Another inch or two fell during the morning.

Those of you living north of the Mason-Dixon line probably see a 5-inch snow dump as not even worthy of shoveling. Here in South Carolina, where they break into TV programs to announce it's raining, 5 inches of snow is a major weather event. Although the snow has probably stopped, we are still supposed to get sleet and some sort of an ice storm. I'm not enthusiastic.

The last somewhat-serious snowfall here was two years ago when we got about 4 inches. That started coming down about 6 PM and was all over by 11. By mid-afternoon the next day, the roads were virtually clear. Because temps are supposed to stay cold, this snow could be more stubborn.

Very little traffic is moving, at least in my neighborhood. Of course, that could be because its very hilly. If you don't have four-wheel drive or chains, the chances of you traveling from in front of my house for the two or three blocks to the main drag without incident are slim indeed. Three or four vehicles are abandoned at the bottom of the hill; several more were all over the place going up and down.

As I shoveled, I stopped every once in a while to enjoy the show. One poor sap in a late 60s GMC pickup truck slid off one of the side streets to the road in front of my house. He was determined to work himself free. When the klansman who lives across the street from me came out to clean off his vehicles, our adventurer walked over and borrowed a shovel from him. He went back and continued to try to free himself. At one point I looked up from my labors to find him well off the road and into the woods. He continued working his way in reverse until he managed to exit the woods nearly to the main road where he promptly got hung up. Some guy in a 4WD pickup stopped and pulled him out onto the road. Our adventurer returned the shovel, got back into his truck, got it rolling and immediately slid off into the woods on the other side. No kidding; I'm not making this up. No doubt he's still stuck there.

I can't imagine where I might have to go sufficiently important to get me out on the road today. Neither vehicle I currently has is armed with AWD. One is front-wheel drive, which helps a little. Nope, I'm going to stay hunkered down in my toasty little house. I am actually getting some work done. Later I'll get a fire going and have an Irish coffee or three to celebrate the snow. It'll be like a hurricane party only with snow.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Don't Tread on Me: Gearing Up to Take on "Big Phone" and "Big Water"

I am the victim of advancing technology. Evidently AT&T in my neck of the woods is upgrading to a fiber optics scheme of some sort. I don't know enough about such things to calculate whether this project will translate into anything positive for me or not. I haven't had a land-line phone since moving to Greenville. I do use AT&T DSL for my Internet access. No clue as to whether AT&T's tinkering about will enhance my Web uplink. It certainly hasn't so far.

In bringing the 21st century to the unwashed, AT&T has dug up my yard no less than four times in the past 12 months. I now have a big ugly green terminal box situated next to the big ugly utility pole that is located in the setback about mid-way along my front yard. Every two or three months, AT&T shows up to excavate a trench that runs from the side street (I have a corner lot) to this terminal box, and then from the terminal box down my side yard to one of the two, new big ugly terminal boxes they have installed in the front yard of the neighboring house behind me. It's quite the operation with all manner of trucks, trailers and backhoes parked in my yard and along the side street.

AT&T doesn't do this work itself, but contracts it out to some private vendor. In what can only be classified as blatantly stupid, AT&T pays these guys to come back again and again to dig the same trench in the same spot and lay more line, cable or whatever in the hell they are laying. When they are finished, they fill in the hole and scatter some straw over the whole mess. Meanwhile my yard is rutted and pitted from all the equipment that has been parked in it.

They were here last about six weeks ago. As usual, they were digging up the same trench. I returned from the gym to find a geyser of water spraying about 40 feet into the air. These geniuses had punctured the water main. Water was gushing into the tops of the pine trees in my side yard and flowing like the Colorado River down the side street where it came to rest pooling in people's front yards. Eventually the side street assumed the role of water-soaked parking lot containing the vehicles of a couple of AT&T supervisors, two Greenville Water Company trucks (one towing its own backhoe), a county sheriff's car and a fire truck. A EMT ambulance and a sanitation truck would have rounded out the collection.

The water company employees finally got things under control and the water flow stopped. They excavated a huge hole in my side yard to fix the violated pipe. This was halfway filled in when they finished. They then taped it all off with yellow "police" tape and left it. Thus it sits today. Neither AT&T nor the water company has returned to finish the job. Tic toc, tic toc....

With the hubbub of the holidays and my natural propensity toward inaction, I have yet to address the issue; but with every passing day I am growing more frustrated. Obviously, this isn't going to be resolved on its own. I am going to be forced to act. I'm sure once I begin making calls, I will embark on a round robin with AT&T and the water company as each points the finger at the other. I can hardly wait.

Friday, January 7, 2011

AFC Playoffs: What Me Worry?

I get to relax this weekend; the Steelers aren't playing. By beating the Browns last week, they earned the advantage of sitting out the first round of playoff games. That's an extra week to rest up, layout a strategy for their game the following week, and to mentally prepare.

I will pay attention to this week's AFC games with little more than a passing interest. I don't think it really matters which team moves forward from the Jets-Colts match-up. Although it's true that any team can beat any other team on a given day, the chances of either the Colts or Jets beating the Patriots the following week are slim at best. Likewise, unless something goes terribly wrong for Baltimore, the Steelers will face the Ravens in two weeks. I suspect Baltimore is the team the Steelers are preparing to play.

When the Steelers faced the Ravens in the playoffs in 2008 on their way to winning Super Bowl 43, the pundits made much of the fact that Pittsburgh had already beaten Baltimore twice during the regular season, and it would be very difficult for them to pull off a hat trick against a very formidable Raven's team. So much for conventional wisdom. No telling what those same pundits will offer up this year with the Ravens and Steelers splitting their two regular season meetings. It is worth noting here, though, that in the first Steelers-Ravens game -- the one the Ravens won -- Rothlisberger had yet to rejoin the team, and Steelers kicker Jeff Reed, who suddenly developed two left feet this season, was still on the roster.

Regardless of the outcome of the coming playoff game, it is going to be a very physically beat-up winner that faces the Patriots. The Ravens-Steelers game will be a slugfest of the first order.

I am feeling pretty good about Pittsburgh's chances. This team seems to be peaking, and just at the right time. It looks like starting defensive end Aaron Smith will be back in the lineup for the first time since the beginning of the season. Polamalu is healthy. The prospect of his coming nuptials seem to be having a positive impact on Big Ben. He had a hell of a game last Sunday. Perhaps some stability in his love life is just what he needed.

So, I am going to kick back and relax this weekend as the AFC playoff picture sorts itself out. But for the Steelers, I think the road to the Super Bowl is through the Patriots and the road to the Patriots is through the Ravens.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Technology: Garbage In, Garbage Out

The grand experiment is over. I have met the enemy and been kicked in the keister. Technology 117; Russ 0.

I have resisted upgrading to a Smartphone of some kind because I don't feel the need to "stay dialed in" with e-mails and such. I don't recreate on my PC or netbook; I'm sure not going to do it on my phone. I don't play games or goof-off on my computers. If I'm online, I'm researching a story or answering e-mails. I am content to have a phone that makes and receives calls without dropping them, and that has a full keyboard for texting. I rarely use the camera function. So when one of my nieces surprised me on Christmas with an Android-based media tablet, I was excited, seeing it as an opportunity to leap ahead into the world of apps. I was going to join the "dialed in."

My leap turned into a faltering stumble.

One thing I was eager to do was download the Nook app from Barnes and Noble. After logging a number of longer trips last year -- several to California, one to Hawaii, and another to Barbados -- I realized I can lighten my load by carrying along a reader of some type rather than two or three books to get me through these mini Odysseys. But no soap. The Nook app wouldn't load.

In fact, after several hours of trying on a variety of app sites, I was unable to download a single app of any sort. My blood pressure elevated to stroke-inducing numbers, and my frustration level growing to the point that I was ready to kick the crutch out from under Tiny Tim, I toiled away red faced.

Of course the instruction manual was no help. Simply listing the steps required to download an app, it didn't bother to provide any clue about what to do if an app won't download. The manufacturer's Web site is equally vague, lacking any troubleshooting hints, or even a serious customer service contact.

Like so many manufacturers of today's high-tech gadgets, this one takes the attitude that if a consumer buys its product, he certainly should already know how to operate it. My intuition fails somewhere between flipping a light switch and setting the clock on a VCR.

Surfing the Internet looking for anyone with the same tablet, experiencing the same issues also failed to throw any light on the subject. At this point I have no idea if the problem is operator error -- not out of the question -- or a malfunction of the tablet.

Unwilling to invest any additional time or energy into this endeavor, I am returning the tablet from whence it came. I really prefer turning pages anyway.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

North American International Auto Show: Detroit in Winter! Are You Nuts?

It's been a few years since I last attended the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Most sane folks shorthand that to the Detroit Auto Show; most motoring journalists contract it even further to simply Detroit. As the press days of the show creep closer and one journalist asks another, "Are you doing Detroit?" It is a given that he isn't inquiring about summer vacation plans. Nope, it's the auto show; and it's not summer, but blustery January. Burrrr....Look, my hand is stuck to the taxi's trunk lid.

My last three-day sentence at the Detroit show was in 2004. Gloomy skies, temperatures in the single digits or low teens, gray slush-covered sidewalks and cold shuttle rides from the hotel to Cobo Hall are memories burned into my soul.

It wasn't all bad. Fortunately at the time I worked for a guy who rarely planned ahead. I was working for AMI Auto World magazine; it was a given that we were going to send a contingent to Detroit. There were no approvals needed from AMI's looney CEO that held up the planning. The only question: Who among the staff would make the trek from Boca Raton, Fla. to the jewel of Lake Michigan? My boss never rendered this decision until a week or two before the show.

As managing editor, it fell to me to see to it that all the travel arrangements were made. This was a task made easier because AMI had an in-house travel agency. Flights were booked with a 15 sec phone call to an office down the hall. Of course, we usually paid more because my boss procrastinated, but AMI was a company that wallowed in waste; who were we to rock the boat?

The real benefit to the late planning was that by the time I was given the go-ahead to book hotel rooms, all the "inexpensive" hotels were full. While our peers, who planned ahead, stayed in the Hilton, Marriott or Airport Quality Inn, we luxuriated in the Four Seasons. If you have to go to Detroit in January, the Four Seasons at least makes it bearable.

Sure, you might conclude that attending the Detroit show press days is exciting, but you would be wrong. Yes, it's a gathering of most of the movers and shakers in the auto industry; and yes, many new or redesigned models are unwrapped; and yes, all-new concepts are revealed; however, very little of this matters because the opportunities to get up close and personal with any of it are few. Getting credentialed and attending the show's press days are no guarantee that you are going to benefit in any way other than to say, "I was there."

Each year the show's administrators laud the huge turnout of "journalists" attending its media days. Somehow they believe this is a good thing. Historically around 5,000 or more so-called journalists are credentialed and show up for the media preview that used to last three days, but has been reduced to two. That's 5,000 plus people stampeding from one 10-min or so press conference to the next one located somewhere on the other side of Cobo Hall. A manufacturer planning for such a press conference -- most have one whether or not they have anything of substance to show or announce -- typically has 200 or 300 folding chairs set up in front of its stage for the media to use. The other 4,700 people stand behind the chairs. It's like being in the pit of a Lady Gaga concert.

If you are lucky you can hear the press conference because you stand damn little chance of actually seeing it. Whatever hand outs, press kits or giveaways are available are gone before half the journalists work their way to the front to try to get them.

At Auto World, we always tag-teamed the press conferences. Each of us was assigned specific manufacturers and we hopscotched to about every third conference. We usually even managed to secure a seat. Journalists on their own, trying to cover the entire show, were not so lucky. Today, I would be one of those poor schmucks.

I haven't been to the Detroit show since leaving Auto World in 2004. I don't miss it. If a manufacturer invited me, paying my expenses, I would probably go again. But spending my own money to go to Detroit in winter to attend an event with little benefit to my business just makes no sense to me.

I'm happy to do what most of you do: I'll follow this circus on the Internet.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twilight Zone: The Future in Black and White

Syfy Channel treated us to a refresher course in the Twilight Zone over the New Year's holiday. With little besides time on my hands these days and fresh TV programming virtually nonexistent during the holidays, I stumbled on Syfy's nearly 48-hour marathon of the early 60s anthology series quite by accident. Some accidents are gifts; this was one of them.

As a kid, I don't remember Twilight Zone as appointment TV in my house. Despite the fact there were probably only one or two other programs to choose from at whatever time slot the series played, I don't remember the family assembling in the living room and jockeying for the most advantageous vantage points from which to best see our 21-inch black-and-white Philco television -- a routine that was repeated for must-see shows such as Have Gun Will Travel, People's Choice, Ed Sullivan and The Danny Thomas Show.  But I do recall watching several episodes, and have vivid memories of two or three of them.

Ah, the miracle of the DVR. Because I have DVR capability with my cable plan, I rarely watch anything in real time. I record and watch later, skipping over the commercials. I scrolled down through the 70 or 80 episodes scheduled and cherry-picked a few to record. Based on either my fond recollection of a particular episode, guest stars in a certain episode or just the description of the story, I chose about 15 episodes to record. I finished watching them last night.

Was Twilight Zone great television? Not really. At a time when much of TV drama consisted of mini-stage plays shot in front of a camera, it was pretty standard fare from a production-quality standpoint. Certainly Rod Serling's on-camera introductions are legendary and the sci-fi storylines were unique to the day. But most episodes consisted of actors delivering pages of dialog to one another as they stood or sat in place. Yawn.

Among my two favorite episodes, and ones that I remember from seeing the original broadcasts: William Shatner on an airplane sees a Bigfoot-like thing on the wing and tries to convince his wife and the crew that he's not nuts; and Burgess Meredith as a timid bank employee, who spends his lunch hour every day in the bank's vault reading, escapes a nuclear holocaust and is the last person in earth. The Bigfoot-on-a-plane-wing episode gave me nightmares for months.

What I do find remarkable about that original Twilight Zone series is the quality of the pool of guest actors. It was a virtual who's who of future movie and television stars. A few of the notables not already mentioned: Robert Redford, Leonard Nimoy, Charles Bronson, Jack Klugman, John Astin, Bill Bixby, Carol Burnett, Johnathan Winters, James Coburn, Burt Reynolds, Robert Cummings, Andy Devine (I can't write, read or say, Andy Devine, without smiling), Robert Duvall, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, and Cliff Robertson.

Twilight Zone may not have been great television, and anyone below the age of 40 would probably find it unwatchable; but for someone who grew up with it, watching a few old episodes was a great way to waste away a few hours over an uneventful holiday weekend.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Winter Blahs: Postponing the Inevitable

Returning to my routine for the first time after New Year's Day is by far the most disheartening reoccurring experience of my many years. As wretched as my life has been during a few sporadic periods along the way, somehow I have always been able to put my worries and troubles on the back burner for the three or four weeks spanning the Christmas and New Year season. That first bite of reality after New Year's Day, however, always brought the negatives screaming back with a crash and a bang.

I suppose it's the long stretch from January 2nd until, well, summer's portal, Memorial Day, that creates such an intense sense of dejection in me. It's a long, dry spell of holiday-free weeks that rapidly turn a routine into a rut. Yep, I despise that first weekday after January 1. Can you tell? I'm not particularly happy today.

Adding to my cheerlessness is the inevitable end to the NFL season. Even in those more recent dark years when the Steelers underperformed -- let's call them the Mike Tomczak/Kordell Stewart/Tommy Maddox/Bill Cowher-lost-grip-on-reality years -- I was saddened to see the season draw to a close. Years when the Steelers made it to the playoffs, prolonged the season for me and therefore thankfully postponed my discontent.

Here I am once again sitting at my keyboard on the first official workday after New Year's Day and the regular NFL season has ended. I am buoyed by the Steelers effortless beat-down of the Browns yesterday. It was the best the offense played all year. That they get to sit out next week's clashes, providing an extra week to prepare, lifts my heart.

I am glad to have the distraction of the playoffs to divert my attention away from the fact that it is winter and a damn long haul to Memorial Day. I am hoping for a brief respite from the ho-hum with a St. Paddy's Day trip to South Florida, but too soon to tell.

Who knows, the Steelers may cause me to put off the worst of my winter blahs until February 7th. Now wouldn't that be something?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Selling My House in Florida: The Reprint of a Golden Oldie

I've had a few (very few, really, but enough to act) requests for a reprint of my classic e-mail regarding the sale of my home in Florida. Here it is in all of its unvarnished glory:

Free at last; free at last; thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!

Just had the closing on my house. I feel 500 pounds lighter. I do now believe in miracles. I’m not alone. My real estate attorney Brenda, who also owns the title company where the closing took place, now refers to this as the Santa Claus Closing.

In case you run out of steam part way through digesting this opus, I’ll give you the moral of the story up front: You just never know where that buyer is coming from.

I was sitting in my recliner late on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 4th, watching a DVD and sipping some chardonnay. I was nattily attired in a pair of old, stretched-out gym trunks. My cell phone rang. I hear a very heavily-accented voice ask something about the house on Longmeadow. I’m like, yes, it’s for sale. The Hispanic accent replies something about, look at it. I roll my eyes, take a slug of Meridian Chardonnay and tell the voice that he is welcome to look at the house and when would he like to do that. “Now, now,” he says, “I in driveway with customer.” It’s a real estate agent from down south someplace. I tell him to wait a minute, throw on a tee-shirt and go to the door.

There I find Mauricio, the “English is my second language and I don’t know diddly about selling real estate” real estate agent with a forty-something couple fresh off the boat or bus or whatever from Uruguay who also no speak-a the English. I’m thinking, “I interrupted Wedding Crashers for this?” But being the gracious individual you all know me to be, I invite them in.

They spend all of 10 minutes looking around inside, outside, around the pool and hot tub and in the garage. I’m not kidding; it took no more than 10 minutes. On their way out of the house the husband approaches me and asks, “What about my butt?” I say, “Excuse me?” He says, “What about my butt?” I scrunch up my face and study his lips and try again, “What?” He’s becoming a little frustrated. “WHAT ABOUT MY BUTT?” giving it another go – a little slower and louder. Finally Mauricio, the great communicator, wades in, “He asking about boat.” “Oh, oh, a boat!” Now we’re all on the same page. “There is no neighborhood association,” I tell him as he looks back at me with all the comprehension of a kitten being told to stay off the sofa, “so no problem there, but I don’t know what the county rules are.” “Keep in side yard,” he says. “No problemo,” I respond, “You can do whatever you want behind the fence. Believe me, I do.”

With that the couple smiles and leaves. Mauricio hangs back and says, “I’ll fax offer in morning.” I’m like, sure you will. Adios, muchacho and don’t run into anything on your drive back to Miami. I go back to Vince Vaughn and my wine. Forty-five minutes later my phone rings and it’s a young girl asking for my fax number in refreshingly fluent English. I don’t have a fax machine. Well, I do. I inherited Amy’s old printer/fax when her company replaced it, but I’ve never hooked up the fax end of it or tried it out. I tell the kid to hold on, call Amy and get her fax number. I give the kid the number and still don’t hold much hope. I mean, they hadn’t had the opportunity to talk among themselves while here to convey to the agent any real interest in making an offer. We hadn’t discussed price – as if that would have been possible – or anything of real import about the house. We had established he could keep his butt in the side yard behind the fence and that was the extent of our negotiations. Yet, I was as giddy as a school girl trying on her prom dress.

I alerted Amy that a fax could be coming and to keep her eye on her fax machine. Monday passes without a fax arriving. On Tuesday morning I attempt to e-mail Mauricio at the address on his card. The e-mail is returned as undeliverable. Figures. I write them off as Dade County kooks and basically give up on receiving an offer.

Late Wednesday morning I get a call from Amy: The faxed offer has landed. Expecting a low-ball offer on my asking price, I inquire as to the amount of the offer and Amy tells me it’s $4,500 more than list. I am dumbfounded. I leave work on my lunch hour, er, half hour and run up to her house to fetch it. My euphoria rapidly evaporates when I read the contract a bit more closely and discover that indeed the offer is $4,500 more, but the buyer is getting $12,000 handed back to him to cover closing costs, points, and etcetera. So the offer is really $7,500 below my asking price. This still isn’t bad considering I was going to drop the price another $10,000 the following week.

The contract was nearly illegible. It looked as though Mauricio had fallen into a mud puddle with it on his way home from real estate school. I contacted my friend Kimba (I owe you dinner, Kimba), who is a real estate agent, and asked if she would take a look at it. I faxed it to her and she called to say there were several problems with it, not the least of which Mauricio had listed a selling agent on the contract who would suck up another nine or ten large from my equity. This is a FSBO deal. It turned out that the selling agent listed was the guy I paid $300 to to list the house on MLS. This problem was easily addressed, but there were others.

Problems needed addressing, but how to accomplish that? Other than requesting “una mas cervaza” or “Donde es el banyo?” my Spanish is nil. So I call my buddy Jose, who enjoys nothing more than jacking up a salesperson whether it’s at Best Buy or the Jeep dealership, and he is more than happy to play translator/seller representative/hammer.

Hose gets Mauricio on the phone, explains who he is and why he is calling. Mauricio is relieved to have the language barrier breached and tells Hose that the $12,000 isn’t going into anyone’s pocket, but is to cover closing costs. Jose asks, all the closing costs? “Si” is the answer. Even Russ’ closing costs? “Si.” Hmmm…

Other areas of the contract, such as timeline provisions, hadn’t been filled in. Over the phone, Mauricio said there was no problem; they would essentially follow whatever timeline I dictated as well as taking my lead on other unresolved issues. Jose then put me in contact with the real estate attorney he had secured to help with the sale of his house that is also on the market. It turns out Brenda offers her services for free if a seller uses her title company for the closing. Free certainly fell within the parameters of my budget.

I faxed her the contract. She raised questions on several issues. The most crucial was that this was a 100-percent financing deal and almost no lender was doing those in the 2006 market. Now it’s a U.N. showdown. The attorney would ask me for clarification on some issue. I’d call Jose. He in turn would then call Mauricio. Mauricio would call the buyer. Mauricio would call Jose back. Jose would call me. I’d call the attorney. This happened three or four times. If you ever played telephone as a kid in which something is whispered from person to person down a line of several kids, you have some sense of how well this worked.

Likewise different copies of the contract began flying back and forth. At one point the selling price was up to $10,500 more than the asking price with a 6-percent closing cost disbursement to the buyer. At this juncture Brenda said, based on 18 years in the business, there was no way this deal was ever going to close and maybe I should walk away. “Snowball’s chance in hell,” I think was said more than once. I explained to Brenda that after the house being on the market for five months that this might not be the prettiest girl in the room, but she was the only one dancing with me. I wanted to press ahead, roll the dice and take my chances.

Jose would have a conversation with Mauricio. Mauricio sounded as though he understood and I’d get another version of the contract more screwed up than the previous one. Jose quipped at one point that this guy was as dumb in Spanish as he was in English. Meanwhile the attorney is digging in her heels and becoming more insistent in her demands. She finally had had enough and faxed him off a bullet-point memo outlining what should be included in the contract. I’m sure at this point old Mauricio wished he had taken his mother’s advice and become a chili pepper farmer. I know I was wishing I had stayed a renter.

Two days of playing rope-a-dope taking head punches, Mauricio was about to throw in the towel and take his customers elsewhere. Exasperated, I sat at my computer very early Friday morning and wrote an item-by-item list of how I wanted each section of the contract completed. I contractually stipulated my closing costs would be paid by the buyer. We put a firm closing date into the contract. I would retain possession of the house for 15 days after the closing (I wasn’t going to take this risky flight of fancy without some sort of parachute), and a few other blurry items were more clearly defined. I faxed the list off to Mauricio, called Jose and asked him alert Mauricio it was coming, and waited. In fifteen minutes a signed contract, including all my provisions, was faxed back. It was also faxed to the attorney who still wasn’t real happy with it, but said it was probably about as good as we were going to get. She also moderated her original opinion, saying it could possibly close, but not without some pain and anguish. It was wobbly as all get out, but a signed contract nonetheless. We were in business.

Through Jose and Mauricio, the buyer asked if he could come by on Sunday to show the house to his kids. Sure. Around 5:30 the entire Bruno clan lands at Casa de Heaps. It’s the buyers, their two teenage kids, and Grandma and Grandpa, who despite having lived in this country for 10 years, also don’t speak the language. They descend on my house like the seventh plague. They scatter and I give up trying to keep my eye on everything. Trying to use Mauricio as a translator, Grandpa is asking if I’ll throw my furniture into the deal. He and Mauricio then open the front door and look at the door jam and have a 30-sec conversation. Mauricio looks at me and asks (I swear I’m not making this up.) if the house is wood or concrete block. Those of you familiar with my house know that there is no way it could be confused with a concrete block home, particularly by a real estate sales professional. I guess professional is the operative word. And obviously this had never come up in any previous conversations. “It’s frame,” I say. “Que?” “It’s all wood – sticks, lumber,” I try again using the shotgun approach and hoping some word hits home. “Okay,” was all that was said. Twenty minutes after they arrived, they were gone.

The appraisal also proved to be a hurdle when Mauricio tried two or three Dade County appraisers, all of whom said the house couldn’t appraise at more than $12,000 less than the contracted price. Through Jose, I told Mauricio they were full of caca and there wasn’t a house in the neighborhood that had sold for less than the contracted price in the past three years and some for a heck of a lot more. Find a Palm Beach Country appraiser, I suggested. He eventually did and the house appraised out just fine.

Although by contract the buyer only had five days to bring in an inspector and back out of the contract based on what might be found, the inspector showed up on day 14 of this ordeal. Of course, this was another product of Dade County. The mom and daughter buyers showed up with him. When I bought the house, the inspector spent nearly two hours going over every square inch. He marked electric outlets with the polarization reversed, he brought a ladder and climbed up on the roof, he rang the doorbell, ran the garage door up and down, flushed the toilets and ran the automatic lawn sprinklers. This guy did none of that. The inspection took all of 25 minutes. He did ask how to turn on the light in the pool, but that was the only question he asked. The three of them walked around chattering away. As he was leaving he shook my hand, complimented me on the house and said, “No problems.” I wanted to yell, “What about this?” and point a couple of things out to him, but restrained myself. Somehow I had been blessed with an inspector every bit as incompetent as the agent.

On Friday, March 3, the title company called to say the lender had ordered the title work to begin. I was becoming optimistic. Ten minutes later a lady from the surveying company called to say they would be by to do the survey on Monday. Man, this might actually happen. However, in the back of my mind Brenda’s warnings continued to percolate: There are going to be problems and they will arise in the final 24 hours before the closing.

On Thursday, March 8, the title company called to ask if I was available to close that day. Does Jessie Jackson hate using the white courtesy phone at the airport? Heck yes, I’m available. The mortgage broker had called to say everything was approved and the loan package would be delivered to the title company within the hour. This was at 9:30 a.m. Ten-thirty came and went. Noon came and went. Finally around 1:00 the loan package arrives. Brenda calls to make the appointment with me and while she has me on the phone, her assistant interrupts her and says there’s a problem with the numbers. The lender is under the impression that the buyer has already purchased his home owner’s insurance, but he hadn’t. In other locales this might seem like a small thing; but here in Hurricane Alley where the annual insurance on a house like mine can run as much as $8,000, it completely throws off the amount of money the buyer is required to have in his bank as reserve on the day of the closing.

The title company worked everything up and sent the HUD to the lender. The lender called and said the buyer would need to come up with more money somewhere, somehow. My day was circling the drain. At 3:00 Brenda called to say there was no way there would be a closing that day. I got done at work at 4:00 and I headed to my standing Thursday happy hour in West Palm Beach. At 4:30 as I am walking through the door of City Cellar, my cell rings. It’s Brenda and she says, “I have money for you! When can you come in, sign the papers and pick up your check?” My check – the most beautiful words in the English language. Well, next to “I finally got my period.” But that’s another story for another time. I told Brenda I was in West Palm and could I come in first thing in the morning? No problem. She then says, you won’t believe what happened. I’ll tell you tomorrow.

I scoot out of work about 8:50 AM on Friday and make the 15-minute drive to Brenda’s office. We sit in the conference room and as I am signing things, she fills in the blanks of what happened the day before. The loan went back to the underwriters three times before it was all worked out. She still didn’t have the go ahead when the mortgage broker and the buyer showed up at her office about 3:30. Originally they were supposed to be there at 3:00, but when the deal when south, Brenda called and told them to hold off until the approval arrived. Evidently in Uruguay “hold off” means come half an hour late. At this point Brenda is figuring they have put all this work into this deal that isn’t going to fly and she isn’t going to get paid, but she starts going over the paperwork with the buyer (through the mortgage broker, of course) even though the approval hasn’t arrived. Fifteen minutes after the buyer arrives, so does the approval and the re-issued package. While they are sitting there signing the papers, the mortgage broker, who gets immediate e-mail alerts whenever a lender changes its program or goes out of business or whatever, receives an e-mail alert saying that as of midnight that day the lender involved in this deal will no longer offer full-financing deals. She said had this carried over into Friday, it would have been dead and the buyer would have had to start all over again securing financing from another source. That’s why she refers to it as the Santa Claus Close.

In any event, I am a free man. Now come the hassles of finding a place to live and moving. I guess no plan is perfect, but the tapping you hear is me doing the “happy boy” dance in my…er their driveway.