Saying Goodbye To Your Car – Buying A New One

I’ve been thinking about this idea of saying goodbye to your car for a while and when I just read this post about selling a Volvo and buying a new Prius, I thought I’d share my thoughts also.

I traded in my 2001 Saab 9-3 SE last month on a shiny new electric car: A Chevy Volt. More on the Volt later.

I found the process of deciding on a new car and going through the purchase process much more difficult now than I did 8 years ago. Part of the reason was that the Saab was the first car that I ever owned that I really loved. And part of the reason was that there are no cars on the market that did what the Saab did as well as it did them for the price.

I know that Saabs are not known as popular cars. They’re quirky and sometimes unreliable but for the quirky girl that I am, my car was perfect. Here’s why:

  • In a time when oil & gas were cheap the 9-3 had an average of 25 mpg (28 hwy) and carried 4 people easily with plenty of room for luggage/stuff in the trunk.
  • In a time when big engines were becoming more popular for more power, the Saab had a small 2 liter engine with a powerful turbo that engaged with a sport button. Giving you lots of power on demand without sacrificing fuel efficiency.
  • It was an elegantly designed car. The interior was both sporty and had burl-wood on the dashboard, a great balance to have.
  • And most of all, those clever Swedish engineers allowed the back seats to fold down, and sloped the back window all the way to the bumper to add a hatch. This made the car as effective as a station wagon at hauling things, and I made use of it!  So many sedans have a back window design that could accommodate this, and yet they don’t design hatches on them. So frustrating.

There were negatives to the car too. The SAAB did break down in really weird ways and at the end had an unknown unsolvable electrical problem that drove me to the brink of screaming-anger when it would leave me stranded for 30-60 minutes while doing errands.  It was like flipping a coin on whether the car would start if it was still warm from driving, and it kept getting more frequent. And my brother kept saying my car was “Borked”, like the SAAB company. Heckling never helps even when it includes Muppet references. The rust on the fenders and bottoms of the doors was just annoying.

I really struggled to find a car I liked for a long time. The used car market where I usually look was decimated by the cash for clunkers program and a lot of natural disasters leading to smashed cars. Also cars 3-5 years old didn’t have great fuel efficiency. I was left with only new cars as choices for the first time in my life. I needed something innovative and revolutionary to talk me out of my attachment to the SAAB.

I considered the Buick Regal since it has a turbo charged GS version, although at the time I was looking, it was not available. It is an attractive car, similar gas mileage as what I had and in the right price range. I unfortunately found the local Buick dealer was inexcusably rude and the car felt small and the interior wasn’t very elegant. It would have been an OK choice, but it didn’t feel like something I would love for 10 years.

Buick Regal GS 2013 in Red via Motor Trend Online Magazine

I considered buying one of the new old stock SAABs shipped over from Sweden on a suggestion from my brother. Someone bought the one I was considering in Chicago while I was trying to transfer funds to buy it. I worked through a deal with a dealer in another state to buy and ship a beautiful chestnut brown one, but couldn’t sign the papers when I read how excluded everything was from the 3rd party warranty and how SAAB/GM held no responsibility for this quirky 9-5 at a pretty high price and no MPG gains over the old one.

Saab 9-5 Brown Auto Show via Flickr

I briefly considered a suggestion from a dealer of an Infinity sedan because Consumer Reports really likes their quality and the cars are elegant. But the gas mileage sucked.

Infiniti G37 Sedan in Grey

Soooo… I came back to the car I had been watching develop for a long time. The Volt.

I was initially very excited about the car when it was a concept.

Then when I saw the real deal, I was not impressed. It looked cheap and somewhat Delorean back to the future-ish.

chevy volt concept vs reality car - the truth hurts

Then I saw the price. Woah, no way.

Then we heard about the government rebates and sat in a Volt a year later at the auto show. (the first year you couldn’t get close enough to see them). The car was more elegant on the inside than the outside. And it was a practical 5 door.

So we went back and payed more than the car should really be priced at, for the size and looks of it, but we admitted we were paying for the technology development and the novelty of it being new and not so much for the car itself.

Chevy Volt 2013

Am I happy with the Chevy Volt? Yes, it does impress me in different ways than the SAAB did. I don’t spew emissions when I’m driving most of the time now and its a lot faster than people think. I still spend most of my time driving in the left lane and I think its important for people to see an electric car in the left lane passing them. This car is very quick, capable and fun to drive. (sporty) Sure, I sacrifice some battery life driving that way, but I’m still way ahead of the efficiency I had before.

What are the drawbacks other than the price? The trunk is really small. The radio doesn’t have that DVR rewind feature that the Buicks have. It costs more than most luxury cars it doesn’t look like one, and it has the same brand badge as a really cheap Sonic.

Brand aside, the Volt is the best car for us for the next 5-10 years. As gas prices continue to rise and my job will be moving from 25 miles away to 50 miles away I needed a fuel efficient car that I would still be able to put a baby seat in and have the capability to answer the phone wirelessly with Bluetooth. And its a revolutionary technology platform for a car. I like things that are different when they’re really better and I think this car really works.

2013 chevy volt red driving fast in left lane passing all the priuses

My husband likes it a lot too but I think we may need a larger vehicle for kid related stuff so we need GM to make a larger version of the Volt before we buy another one. And he isn’t really ready to say goodbye to his blue 1998 Acura Integra GSR either. He may possibly be more attached to his car than I was to mine.

Saving Your Yard In A Summer Drought

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to save my yard, landscaping and trees from the summer drought we are having (July 2012) and I thought I would share what has been working and not working so far.

usa drought map july 2012, its hot!

We had an early spring this year and yet very little rain. This has been a much larger issue for farmers in the Midwest but as an average homeowner I’m not happy about the weather either.

We have tried several ways of keeping our yard alive and green and these are the results.

1. Underground sprinkling system. We bought the house knowing it had a sprinkling system and then didn’t use it for 2 years. By chance, we decided to fork over a lot of $ to have it hooked up this year and then paid again for the control box to be replaced. After all that how well does it work? Eh, not great. Its a lot of money for spraying a lot of water into the air. We still get brown spots where there are gaps in the area sprayed, and I battle certain spray nozzles that soak the roses when the wind blows, therefore defoliating them with black-spot. I don’t recommend this option if you don’t happen to have one installed in the yard already. I think there are better options out there.

2. Soak hoses. We decided early on to invest in some really long soaker hoses. The kind that have permeable membranes rather than the ones that spray in several directions like a sprinkler. We wound them around the landscaping in the front, the roses in the back and the perennials at the base of our lot. We then covered them with mulch and you can’t see anything there at all.

hose connector splitter lawn sprinklers

The key to using soaker hoses is to use a splitter connector at the faucet. (we got ours at Meijer, they come with 2 or 4 connections) This way you can have the soak hose and regular hose connected at all times and there are switches on both ends of the splitter so they can run at the same time or individually. We also leave the soak hose at the base of the lot 365 days a year and just run a regular hose out to it across the lawn when we need to water.

We have come home many times and just switched on the soak hoses around the landscaping and then went on with other things while they ran for 2-3 hours. Plants like hydrangeas and ferns really need this because their roots are very shallow. Also, if your trees are less than 5 years old they probably have shallow roots and can’t reach a reliable water source yet. Help them out with a soak hose in your landscaping around the tree drip line or a regular watering.

If you’re really tech savvy you can buy a programmable electric control box for your hose system/network and set them to run on a schedule. You can even have small connectors from the soak hose set up to water pots individually. We’re not that clever and we just turn them on and off as needed.

3. The good old rotating/oscillating sprinkler. These are still the simplest and best solution for watering a large area without wasting water. The water spray is heavier so less evaporates, you control when its on and off and where you are watering. Yes you do have to go move it every hour or so, but if it isn’t a drought you don’t have to do this every week. They waste a lot less water than in ground sprinkling systems. Remember that trees need water too. If you have some shade in your yard remember to water there even if its green since the trees need water in the heat. If your leaves are turning brown and falling off it is dangerously dry and needs more water. Don’t let it get that far. You can use a splitter at the spigot to run 2 hoses with sprinklers at the same time if you have a small parkway space to water and don’t want to be up all night.

it gets the corners rotating sprinkler vintage etsy

4. Succulents. I experimented with more succulents in pots on our deck this summer because I thought they looked pretty cool. What I found was that they are perfect for a drought because they’re from the dry southwest. I have some other pots with geraniums and coleus but they’re covered by the front porch most of the day and not in full sun. The succulents are basically cacti without thorns and they are the only things surviving without water this summer in the hot 100+ degree Chicago heat.

Weight Loss Strategies & Thoughts

sparkling water bottle for weight loss success stories blog post lemonI have been on a bit of a weight loss journey for the last few months and I finally have had enough success to blog about it.

After I tried a round of IVF in February (it failed) I found that I had gained another 5 lbs on top of the 20 or so pounds I had gained from the time I got married in July 2009.

The IVF hormones and drugs seemed to make me puff up around the middle and I am sure that there was some stress eating along the way also.

I had been battling my lifestyle, stress and eating behavior for years thinking that just changing one thing, or giving up one key item would be the turning point to weight loss success. Boy was I wrong. People who say that are lying.

I had been pretty successful at losing weight when I needed to earlier in life. Once in high school (90’s) while very active in sports and discovering lean cuisine and diet coke and another time in my 20s while dancing up to 7 days a week (2000’s).

Now in 2012 with a sedentary desk job that demanded hours of excel analysis and implementation and a husband/home/cats/yard to take care of I had given up all of my personal interests and hobbies. Yep, every single one of them. I had no way to exercise and no time.

I finally have had some weight loss success because of several factors coming together to change a lot of things in my life. Like hundreds of things. Lifestyle change isn’t really the right word for it, it is more like millions of really small decisions adding up every day. I don’t actually feel like my lifestyle is any different. I am not sure how much of your lifestyle is really about food anyway.

Some of these changes were:

1. I was diagnosed with ADHD, documented by years of childhood report cards with attention issues. Medication helps me concentrate and stick to things until I get them finished, and keeping the long term goal in mind has always been a problem for me with weight loss. Some people may cry foul because many ADHD meds do lessen appetite, but I counter that with the fact that my stomach still growls if I am hungry while taking it. I just eat a more normal amount and I don’t use food as a stress reliever as much since I’m less frazzled in the first place.

2. I mostly gave up cooking, and certainly the idea that I had to provide my husband with a fancy full course dinner several times a week. (I never cooked before we were married) This led to less groceries being bought, less exotic ingredients in the house, less opportunity to snack. Less choice in the matter of snacking. And fewer trips to the store, which are tempting within themselves. I also canceled all those email recipe newsletters, unsubscribed to the food blogs and droped the idea that desert was needed at all. It actually gives me more time to do other things if I don’t have to always be meal planning, cooking, cleaning and prepping. I have a few staple things I still make, (roast chicken, onion/green pepper/mushroom omelette with egg beaters, quinoa veg salad, organic cornbread) but overall the cooking is much less frequent.

3. I reduced portion size by half. It is important and needed its own mention separate from the previous item on the list. Small plates help but someone isn’t going to lose weight on that method alone as certain statistical studies and books suggest. Basically I have the slowest metabolism in the world so my body can make a tiny bit of food last forever. It may have been an evolutionary bonus but now its a huge negative. I probably live on 1000 calories a day because I don’t exercise. There has also been research lately that states that people who have been overweight have cells that have a history of expecting overeating and slow processing. My take on that is I will always have to eat less than my contemporaries because of my history and extra slow metabolism.

4. I don’t eat breakfast. All you breakfast eaters that hate my method can shove it. I know that my eating snowballs during the day. I start out with lots of motivation/focus and as I get more tired/frustrated/stressed I eat more. My resolve weakens. I also have a kind of weird rebound effect to eating where I get hungry again within 2 hours especially if it is sweet stuff. So why sabotage myself by eating first thing in the morning if I’m not hungry? My metabolism isn’t going to get jump started by eating but my stomach cravings will. Sometimes I wonder if this suggestion is deliberate sabotage by the skinny people of the world that seem to talk about food constantly and eat nothing. Here is an article stating that you never start burning fat reserves unless you fast for 12 hours.  

5. I don’t drink soda – I drink organic coffee with organic creamer in the morning (I guess instead of breakfast) and sparkling water the rest of the day. I’m not a big alcohol drinker so cutting that out is pretty much status quo for me. ( a 1/2 beer is enough to make me sleepy) I don’t think soda is inherently evil but I do think I can’t afford its calories and my teeth don’t need the sugar/nutrasweet. (just like most parents thought back in the 70’s when I was a kid). I don’t drink diet soda because my body was past the point of being tricked by sweet tasting stuff that has no actual nutritional value in it and my body was pissed. About an hour after drinking diet soda I get incredibly hungry and inhale just about any food around me because my stomach hurts so much. Sparkling water seems soda-ish enough with the carbonation, but not sweet or with any calories. (avoid the flavored waters with nutrasweet or splenda) Other people make their own infused waters with cucumber, mint or orange/lemon/lime. That is cool too but I’m not going to cut up produce and do dishes at work, so my sparkling mountain bottle just sits on my desk.

6. The only exercise I do occasionally get is yard work and walking. At first I had no stamina to do basic things like mow the lawn (it’s not self-propelled but still it isn’t like we live on a hill either). I did force myself to get through yard tasks whether I liked it or not because I am incredibly embarrassed if the yard looks bad. This is only really something I have time for on weekends so if I have a bonus of some time during the week I do walk around the subdivision. There is a 1 mile loop around it that takes about 45 minutes. I even go out after dark. No excuses. The dog walkers are still out there and the weather is nice in the evenings now that it is summer.

7. I don’t obsess over lunch. If I bring lunch it is a Tupperware of fruit (pineapple, grapes, oranges & apples) or something like broccoli salad. I have also learned that the potbelly chickpea salad is the healthiest thing within walking distance of the office. I also get chipotle burrito bowls from time to time but only eat half. And the rest is for dinner. I told you I could make a few calories go a long way.

8. I like organic products but I am wary of some since they seem to have more fat, sugar and calories than their non-organic counterparts. I think the organic decision is more about long term health and less processed food, fewer chemicals, fewer hormones and pesticides that you ingest to hopefully avoid cancer. This may be more meaningful for some than others depending on your genetics and other factors, but I just think its safer to minimize the risks a bit. Its impossible to go totally organic so I don’t try but when I find a good organic alternative I usually stick to it even if it is a bit more expensive. Just avoid the organic granola/energy bars. Some have as much fat as a big mac.

In summary it took a lot of changes and a lot of time but after 4 months I have lost 15 lbs (to fit into things I wore in 2009). My hope is to lose another 5 and I hope this blog post doesn’t jinx it!

Design Trends 2012: More reprocessing of the past

This article in Vanity Fair describes a design rut that we seem to be in at the moment.

I’m not sure I would describe it as a rut, but I think there is a lot of reprocessing going on.

You may wonder why I care.

I don’t work in design but I do have this habit of moving around a lot, and buying/selling/decorating houses so I can move seems to be my unofficial job. I also have 47 blogs in my RSS reader under the home/interior/design category that I have been using as resources for about 4 years. I see a LOT of design in order to have an opinion on it.

Looking at all these blogs, I have wondered how the 18-25 crowd looks at a lot of the resale stuff, clothing and music from years past as new. (anthology, lonny, backgarage are examples) I attribute this to a specific age group because that seems to be my observation from the bloggers but it could be more widespread.

I do think as a rule the younger generations tend to drive style & design innovations and it then travels through age brackets like waves. By the time it reaches the eldest brackets the youngest don’t want it anymore.

eddie izzard coolness circleIts like Eddie Izzard once said, things work in a circle: cool hip & groovy is right next to looking like a dickhead, but you can’t back into it, there is only one way around.

Some of my thoughts about this younger generation’s design mash ups:

  • They take furniture that my grandparents donated to charity years ago and call it mid-century modern and cool. I sometimes call this style “granny chic”. I make fun of it, but I do have a 1965 stereo credenza in my living room now.
  • Sometimes the rooms look like a 19th-20th century explosion with no 2 pieces with any similarity whatsoever. I sometimes think of it as the garage sale look. (I also have a mixed era home.)
  • This new generation takes jeans and sneakers from the 80’s and call them cool one day and wear bell bottoms from the 70’s the next. (This I can’t do)
  • They have convinced me that yellow gold colored jewelry is ok again after loathing it for about 20 years post 80’s. (about 75% of what I wear is yellow gold now)
  • They like 80’s music, and not really the stuff I feel nostalgic about.
  • The people who haven’t lived through much of the 20th century seem to be driving the rebirth and reprocessing of all the styles from that time.
  • It is also important to note that the millennial generation has the highest unemployment of any age bracket due to the recession. It may not be a surprise that they would think so differently about design/life and choices based on what they can afford and have experienced.

The vanity fair article cites several reasons for this design rut. One being a cultural overload where people just can’t process any more new information because the internet/call phones was too much! This may be true for the Boomer age groups but not the Genx-Millennial. I think the millennial is actually driving the design changes and for completely different reasons.

Does this drastic innovation make me less interested in new stuff? New design? More nostalgic for the past? Not at all.

I feel lucky that all the drastic innovation and change that is listed in the article happen just after I graduated high school. (internet, computers, cell phones, social networks, search engines) None of the available professions at the time really appealed to me so it makes sense that I now work in a field (internet marketing) that didn’t exist in 1993. I look at these radical changes as “normal” and something I need to and like to learn about.

I think there are other elements to this design nostalgia epidemic and reprocessing phenomenon.

1. It is easier and cheaper to reprocess than invent. This relates to my previous post about ROI being the only metric in business these days.  Society has no time for developing cutting edge design. Good ideas come at the sacrifice of time and a lot of re-dos, and time is expensive just like materials. And what materials are available now that weren’t 10-20 years ago? No real innovation there either. Things just keep getting made from cheaper less durable materials. The only R&D going on is how to make things cheaper that look good but fall apart quickly so the customers come back again to buy more. Plus we don’t have enough trees for everyone in the world to own teak/oak/mahogany furniture.

2. We have had a more documented history in the last century than ever before both through museums, video/audio, photographs and the family history of people passing down their personal stories while living much longer. We look back at history and think, boy they had it right.  Nothing is as elegant as how they designed things back then. And they took pictures in B&W, what an elegant design choice! You get reprocessed things like the PT Cruiser/Plymouth Prowler/Chevy SSR, Oxford Heels, Swing Dancing, Sailor Pants, Pea Coats, Red Lipstick/Bottle Blondes, Bombshell hair, Mad Men, Starburst Clocks and just about any kind of hat.

3. Law of diminishing returns: It is also more difficult to keep finding something “new” in design when we have to design so much more stuff. It is common for Americans to replace their entire closet of clothes every 3 years and retail stores have to replace everything on the sales floor every 6 weeks to seem “new” again. We kind of don’t respect good design, or any design. As a culture we want to throw it out as soon as we see it in too many places and be more unique again. Shows like Project Runway also show how anyone can be a designer with training and everyone gets more educated about what the demands of great design should be. This makes the general public much harder to impress.

4. At the same time a certain part of the population is sick of all the new-new-new and the churn that happens. We want useful, dependable, reliable and timelessly elegant.  We don’t have time to go shopping for things every 6 weeks in order to find those elusive great items at a great price before they’re sent off to the overstock stores. And of course when you do need something…you can’t find it anywhere because the supply chain in China didn’t anticipate that need 6-12 months ago, and it’s not “new”. I think some people literally choose to go retro because they see it as timeless. In many cases this is cheaper, more elegant and less work.

5. Globalization happened. We used to think it was quaint to go visit another country and come back with something to remember it by.  Now we see places all over the world in places other than World News Tonight or National Geographic. We see the world on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Imagur, Stumble Upon and Google. What used to be new to us is not all in mash up mode. We take the best of every era as well as every culture in our past to create this new hodgepodge mix that represents who we are. And everyone is more global now than we were 20 years ago. I have had fascination with Asian prints and Indian jewelry as much as Scandinavian furniture. We have bought most of our cars from other countries for a while. It is just lagging that the rest of the items we buy are more globally influenced too. I sometimes click to buy things on Etsy or from a blog link to a store and don’t notice that the store isn’t even in the USA until I see the shipping cost. Sometimes I buy it anyway, it is a rare moment to be unique in my neighborhood.

Lastly, we’ve seen the future before.

We grew up hoping for flying cars and they never showed up.

Our future can be found in watching FUTURAMA. Or Wall-E and  Idiocracy.

We know where things are going, and it seems more about recycling and less about space ships so I’m going to hang out with the millennials and see what else they come up with.

Is More Data Always Better?

google think magazine data overload obesity information ideas processing analysisThere has been a discovery in the online marketing and data/statistics world in the last few years. We have had more websites, products and tools created online than we can possibly keep track of. The terms to describe this deluge of activity we have been hearing the most are “data overload” and “information overload” from both companies and consumers. This Google Magazine uses the term Data Obesity to describe this phenomenon.

They ask the question, why is more data always better?

I think the idea of “more data us better” is common from people who lived before the Internet was prevalent. We had to work hard to find data. Researching something meant going to a library and looking in a card catalog (or maybe something called Gopher) and then finding your way around the Dewey decimal system to find that book. And then sometimes they didn’t even have the book because it was checked out or possibly it was just filed wrong because nobody understood the Dewey decimal system.

On a related note recently we got invited to my cousin’s wedding in Santa Fe New Mexico. My dad promptly went to the library and checked out 3 books on Santa Fe and New Mexico. I cringed. He asked how to find out the flights to book something without a travel agent. I realized I have been traveling since 2000 this way and he stopped traveling about that time so he never has. I introduced him to Travelocity, it was mind blowing and a bit of data overload compared with the OAG book he used to use in the 80’s.

The point here is that finding data was really difficult. People had control over its distribution because it was in print. When it became more freely accessible due to Google and other companies efforts we assumed this would be good, because people could remember where to find it and use it whenever we wanted. We never thought it would get this big so fast. Now travel sites are overwhelming, they have too many choices and there are too many of them trying to get you to opt into something you don’t want while being over charged for bringing a suitcase on a flight. This is just one example of how data has gone exponential so quickly.

Others of us have come to a data overload conclusion when they have 200 emails in several in-boxes, 1000+ rss reader posts from feeds waiting, several work projects, 500+ Facebook wall posts in their feed and hundreds of tweets that have gone un-read. This is among a climate where you have to follow-up with projects 5-10 times to get things done, post blogs/tweets/FB status updates daily to keep on people’s radar, empty the DVR so it doesn’t get overloaded and auto delete something you really wanted, listen to the radio on the way to work just in case something big happens and still find time to scoop the litter box before it gets full and the cats poop on the floor.

And the real purpose in all those tweets/FB posts and feeds is that you business changes yearly and if you don’t know about the latest trend and some real insights about it before your boss asks about it, you won’t have a job for all that long. (in digital marketing)

Having data overload be a “good” problem to have from some people’s perspective (as in that it is growth oriented). The democratization of publishing combined with tracking methodology and databases have all contributed to this problem, giving everyone a voice, a potential following of readers, a data trail to analyze and method to say something important online 24/7/365.  And then we have an even bigger problem of processing what is being said, figuring out if it is important or not and sharing/processing/saving it in some way if it is. Acting on that data is way down the line and many of us don’t even get there.

And this isn’t even the big problem with data overload. Where will we store it all? Why do tweets disappear from search so quickly? Because there are millions of them and the failwhale is full. According to the ThinkQuarterly UK, there are 800 Exabytes of data/information created every two days. It took humans from the beginning of civilization until 2003 to create the first 800 Exabytes, and we’re on a roll now.

Where does all this seemingly random data go? How will we know what it says without having to go into a database table and read specific field information? Where are the software tools to manage all this and still give humans the ability to customize the out put in ways that match the behavior or business purposes that we really need? Does any of this stuff ever get deleted?

These are all huge questions we have to answer as more people publish, share, create, track and do business online. We also have to weigh the possibilities of sharing data openly and locking it behind walls as well as how will people comprehensively find what they need when they want to as well as gauge the validity/accuracy of the information presented?

I’m betting on paid services for personal and business data management/archiving & Analysis tools. We will pay for good analysis, good data access & processing and good reliability/backups when we feel the pain of missing good insight, losing good data and just too much happening. Both personally and professionally. But unless you know how to work with SAP, SPSS, SQL, Oracle or a bunch of other systems data management is largely out of your control at this point. They are the librarians of our digital data and they need to find a workable way to Dewey decimal system it back into order and allow us to use it as humans need to.

Japanese Earthquake Tsunami Disaster is Different from Haiti

japanese earthquake nuclear reactor tsunami mapWithin a day after the Haiti Earthquake in January 2010 (7.0)there were celebrities on TV urging people to donate money to help those who were in need. Within a day of the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 we saw the same attention drawn to the even in the name of help for those in need. Both had telethons on television pleading with the public to donate millions of dollars to the relief efforts.

This time there is a very different mood in the USA a week after the 9.0 scale earthquake off the eastern coast of Japan. (2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami) There have been some Facebook/Twitter/Yahoo links to the red cross to donate but overall the donation numbers I have seen shown on U.S. sites were very low. We haven’t seen any celebrities saying that they have donated money to the cause and our own government isn’t really talking about loans or donations right now in our budget crisis (and yet they’re contemplating invading Libya at the same time). 

We’ve seen the news focus their coverage on the nuclear disaster that was the result of the loss of electricity during the earthquake and the loss of the backup generators because of the water/power of the tsunami. This combined with explosions that cracked containment vessels and a lot of hot spent fuel sitting around in 6 reactors has an enormous risk associated with it. Sure, that is the big-blockbuster-disaster-film story here, but it is not the largest problem facing Japan. The newscasters have a captive audience worldwide with this topic because this is the one issue that could affect people outside Japan.

It is a weird difference in opinion that Americans have about Japan compared with the past earthquakes/tsunamis/disasters in Indonesia & Haiti. At this point in time it surprises me greatly that Americans have issues with a country like Japan to the point that they do not want to help. It makes us look un-educated and small minded. I thought Americans would identify directly with the Japanese, like I do but I’m not seeing a lot of evidence that it is the case.

Some celebrities have been cited making rude jokes about the Earthquake/Tsunami within the last week and Gilbert Godfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac Duck (he needs to be retired anyway) because of rude and insensitive tweets he sent. 50 cent also has been criticized for his lack of understanding and even a government spokesperson in Mississippi had to resign over tasteless rude comments (not really surprising for Mississippi).

I was not always a huge fan of Japan. In the 1980’s I viewed them like many people did, as the reason that US car companies and manufacturing companies here were going out of business. There was the assumption that the Japanese were ruthless and as smart as robots and we felt threatened by that. Now we feel that way about China instead. (I do not feel that way about China though, one of my best friends is Chinese and I’ve spent a lot of time with her family for decades and could never think of them that way)

 In the last 30 years things have changed. I think Tokyo and most Japanese people share a lot of commonalities with us. They love their cell phones & gadgets as much as we do. We’ve adopted their Anime and Video gaming interests as mainstream. Toyota/Honda/Mitsubishi/Mazda sell more cars here than American companies do because people really like them and they’re innovating with hybrids and new ideas like Scion. (I don’t have the exact sales numbers for this, it is more my impression from seeing what is on the road in Chicago). Entire movies have been made about the following for Japanese imports (Fast & Furious) And who is going to give up their big screen TV or computer monitor from Samsung, Sony or NEC? Or their Wii?

But the real change in perception happened when people started liking Sushi. About 10 years ago Sushi started getting popular in Chicago. With it U.S. audiences began to discover the california roll, spicy tuna and the joy of Miso Soup. Along with our broadening pallets beyond teryaki we discovered udon noodles, bento boxes, tempura, sake, mochi and red bean ice cream. (red bean ice cream may also be Chinese, and it is better than the green tea flavor)

japanese sakura flowers white pink trees cherry blossomsWe also discovered through Flickr that Japanese people love their cats as much as we do (Junku) and Sakura is the cherry blossom festival each spring.  A blend of Asian styles from China, Japan and other areas is very popular right now in home decorating, emphasizing the strong minimalist lines of furniture pieces and the delicate organic patterned styles. We also share our love of all things digital with Japan. And who can forget Sanrio and the super-popular Hello Kitty and her cast of friends? Can you get any more cute and friendly than that?

So how did I overcome the feeling of competitive anxiety with Japan? By enjoying the exported food. And the rich culture of preparation that surrounds it that makes it unique and special. Exporting your culture really does change views that people have of your country around the world. Through this I have realized that the Japanese are competitive people, but they are also very nice people and respectful of us as a country too. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can learn a lot from them about managing large populations in small places (like Tokyo) and how to continue to innovate in industry, manufacturing and the economy.

So that is why it bothers me that the U.S. population is not really doing anything to help here. Sure, some closed-minded conservatives will always have rude views, but I really think the people in America should do something to help.

Instead of understanding that Japan is a nation of people with a lot more in common with us than most of the world, a large portion of the U.S. public continues to focus on the differences. The bottom line is that Japan is an industrial/manufacturing/technology based economy like ours. The average person in Japan is pretty well-educated on a world scale, like us.

In fact we really do depend on each other a lot, buying/selling from each other and sharing strong bonds of family and friends across borders. We can’t just stand by and watch these nuclear reactors go out of control and not think about the people who don’t have food, water or homes anymore. It is a disaster just like anywhere else in the world. And that world has gotten a whole lot smaller in the last 10 years with the internet, skype,  international business and Sushi. And we’re not doing enough to help.

TopGear’s MyFirstCar contest

You may know by now that I’ve been a huge Top Gear UK fan for about 7 years now. I discovered the show when I was on a quest for Eddie Izzard comedy performances and saw that he was a guest on the show. This slightly crazy show really caught my interest. I almost immediately found the Top Gear episode where they take 3 supercars through France and get them stuck in a parking garage and I was hooked because it reminded me exactly of the stuff that my brother and I were into back in High School and college.

When I heard about the #MyFirstCar contest from BBC America I thought, we had a good story to tell. And although it is a cost saving move to ask your fans to do your advertising for you, I was still hooked.

For the contest I set out to figure out how one makes a video with the very limited tools I had available. I did not want to talk in front of a webcam, it felt too awkward, and I’m not exactly a glamour model at this point in time. Plus I’m never going to be as interesting on camera as Jeremy Clarkson without some training.

I was looking for the “ken burns” slow zoom effect on some photos because that is mostly what I had to work with, 1990’s advantix camera photos. I thought I might be able to do a voice over narration and possibly talk Scott into it too, but it ended up just as me in the end. 

We did find that Scott had one vhs tape with some stuff a guy Paul had taped and given copies to the guys. It was fun to watch and see some of the racing stuff I had not seen them do but most wasn’t fit for broadcasting due to my flip camera video of the TV and the nature of the comedy on screen.

I ended taking a few shots with the Flip camera I got from work for Christmas and used them at the end with the car in the garage and we pooled photos from my house, his and my parents. Scanning them in and finding the software wasn’t that hard. (I found Muvee and it wasn’t hard to learn to use, although some people may find it too automated)

Writing the story was the most difficult part. I wrote out a few versions, Scott edited them and then we realized the photos and content were nowhere near as long as the written piece. And I could not read it and watch the pictures to keep up at the same time. So I was winging it, and I say “Um, So, Yea” a lot as I’m thinking of what to say next. We also found we didn’t have photos of crucial parts of the story that were funny so they were cut. We also tend to be funniest when we play off eachother and make fun of eachother and he wouldn’t take part because he’s shy or something.

The end result isn’t a funny video like I had hoped, but like I said most of the funny content wasn’t suitable for publishing. We ended up with a more sentimental documentary piece. It doesn’t have the views to really be a contender in the competition. It was fun though to do something new and try and think about the story in a video creation like what they do on TG all the time. I have even more respect for what they do and the high level of quality in their work.

UPDATE: it is now 2/8/2011, a week into this contest and my video has received a whole 62 views. This is in comparison to the other people’s videos who had really old falling apart cars as their first car and weird stories as to how horrible they were are all 1,000 views and such.

I guess my video isn’t the intended story they wanted to tell. And I admit my storytelling wasn’t great considering my editing ability is limited and the story had to fit what the software and photos provided. And I can’t exactly get on camera and talk about this right now. And I’m just more low key than the guys jumping around on their cars in the videos.

I suppose that I should have expected this. I haven’t been to an improv class in far too long. Best of luck to the rest of the crowd, I applaud your ability to get the BBC people to put your videos on TV.

UPDATE: 2/8/2011 As I was lamenting that the video has not performed very well with views, I got an email from BBCA. Plot twist…

Update: 2.28.2011 – So, they did email us a release form to use the video in their promotional process for TG UK (America). We did see that they did post our video to the Top Gear My First Car Tumblr feed, of which drove about 400 views to the video. I’m guessing that is where our story ends. We haven’t heard anything since and although I asked if our video would be included in snippets used to advertise the contest on TV, and they said yes, we never saw it there. Granted, it has been a pretty busy few weeks so I could have missed it. .

This was fun and all, but considering that Rutledge Wood posted on FB today that he was flying to the UK to meet Hammond for the first time today, and he’s the host of the USA show, I’m not going to hold out thinking that the general public will have any way of enjoying Top Gear in person anytime soon.

I kind of wish I did re-record the voice over since I think I sound like a dork in it, but I’m not going to have time at the moment. Maybe at a later time I will be able to spend more time on car related videos.

Update 3.1.2011 – I finally had time to go through the episodes on BBC America tonight and look for the 1 commercial spot they use the #myfirstcar clips in, which is usually somewhere in the 2nd half. I saw a one second glimpse of a  photo from my video used, so they did indeed use something after sending me all kinds of forms to sign. It wasn’t actually a picture of the car we had as our first car though. (possibly the assignment had a bit of scope creep adding the history like that) So the Electra – Park Avenue gets its brief moment to shine instead of the IROC camaro. I think they had to use this picture because it had people in it and they seem to want someone’s face involved in the video. I’m not wild about my appearance these days so I thought I’d spare people the pain, and keep the focus on the cars but I guess that wasn’t outlined in the guidelines, but it was still important.  I kind of want to reshoot it and start over, but time is fleeting and the contest is almost over.

Update: March 2011. I ended up with about 400 views on the video and have taken it down now since the contest is over and things have moved on.

Top Gear USA Review

TopGear USA Buick Roadmaster Wagon 2011 Redesign Cool ModernSince the holiday hullabaloo has passed I am sloooowwlly catching up with the programming on our DVR. One in particular that I was both excited about and dreading at the same time is Top Gear USA. Here is my review of the first 4 episodes of the show.

We were curious to see if it was going to become Top Gear Lame Edition, and it has its lame parts but seems to be more good than bad thus far. (or like my Brother calls the Aussie version Bad Top Gear) To be clear, it is worth watching!

If you have all the Top Gear USA episodes on your DVR/TIVO or eventually on DVD, my recommendation is to skip the first episode. Start watching at Episode 2. We showed the first one to my brother-in-law when he was visiting from Norway and he fell asleep while watching it. All it does is establish the three character types in the show of which I will share with you now and save the hour of time in your calendar:

1. Tanner Faust is the geek. He lists facts and figures the whole time thinking he can estimate how every matchup will turn out and tries some lame smack talk to try and be superior because of his history winning races. It is lame and he establishes himself as the nerdy-geek from here on out. He is the best driver but the one with the least personality and is most annoying trying to be superior instead of relating to his Top Gear USA cast mates, of which he doesn’t seem to really like. I guess its hard to become friends when you’ve been competing against people for so long. (this gets better later in the season, but it takes a while)

2. The Italian Guy – (Adam Ferarra) is an interesting choice for the show. I like that he isn’t a pro driver and is new to this space and I like his Italian character as an element in the series since it is one you run across a lot in car circles. That spot on the side of his face worries me, is it skin cancer? (I just had some removed so I may be paranoid) I do like his genuine emotion and feelings about the cars and the experiences. You can tell this is very real to him when it is being filmed. I think he should loosen up a lot though in the studio, he seems very nervous on camera in the first few episodes. Best quote yet: “That has the turning radius of Pennsylvania” about the Buick Roadmaster. (sometimes he seems a bit too harsh in his car put-downs in the studio but he has loosened up a lot)

3. Rutledge Wood is the underdog that becomes the most entertaining and likeable character in the series. If you’ve seen his NASCAR game show, just watch this instead. Rutledge is a little more southern than most of us, but he is informed of things that happen in the northerly areas and with non-us cars. Above all, he seems to be most adept at making fun of the situation, revealing the emotions linked to a car or situation and willing to tease his castmates without seeming mean. I think he is the new Jeremy Clarkson because of his timing and ability to understand the improvised comedy with these situations messing around in cars. He also gets big bonus points for choosing a Buick to run through the Save GM testing and defending Buick a few weeks later in the studio. And because he also has a beard. Best quote yet: “Anyone seen Tom Cruise in a Girly Ferrari?” in Las Vegas. (everyone looooooves Rutledge except James May)

Some Top Gear USA show segment suggestions from the peanut gallery:

1. Car sledding – pull someone on a sled with the car, extra points for jumping the car and the person. This suggestion is from my brother who used to do this with his late 90’s purple cavalier.

2. NPR recently had an article about Caterpillar, Volvo and Case construction and earth moving equipment being stolen all over the US and Canada because of the universal key system where one universal key will start any vehicle and you can buy them at a dealer for $10. This is too weird to not use in some segment somewhere.

3. I recently saw a car carrier on Ogden Avenue in Naperville unloading cars in the center turn lane inbetween lanes of traffic going both directions because it couldn’t make the turning radius into the dealerships. This was a dicey process in the middle of rush hour. A challenge where the guys have to unload cars from train cars, load them on car carrier truck trailers and deliver them somewhere would be interesting/exciting/scary. Also the old American Revolution car carrier commercial where they get the Chevy band back together comes to mind if you would like to integrate some stunt driving with a car carrier. (the commercial still gives me goosebumps! And its amazingly from an era before TG UK influenced car commercials)

4. A challenge involving a grocery store parking lot covered in a sheet of ice and a lot of shopping carts.

And you can follow my tweets about the show @chicagogirl1 on Twitter.

Another afterthought about the new show: It is nice to have feelings/remembrances of the cars that they pull up in for challenges on TG USA. In the UK version it is always kind of unknown/weird/quizzical at that point but in the US version we start voicing our opinions at the TV at that moment we see the cars and sometimes have driven them.

Predictions for the next 10 years

2020 predictions vision of the home video media center family roomBack in 1999 I went to a conference at the Field Museum in Chicago called The Next 20 Years (sponsored by ZDNet, I still have the button that says Believe in Technology).

Now that we’re rolling over the odometer to 2010 I can honestly say that none of the predictions about string theory have come true.

It was an interesting idea though, to think about what is possible now and in the future and speculate in ways that may inspire people to do more, make things better and improve life.

I have been thinking a lot about this decade ending in the last few weeks and aside from an obvious comment about how blindingly fast it went by, I’m skipping the recap and these are some thoughts for the next ten to twenty years.

Disclaimer: These are just my ideas as one person, who analyzes things for a living, and I don’t have a lot of data to prove any of it. Take it with a grain of salt or as entertainment only.

1. Photo Recognition will be big. And I am not talking about face recognition software. But with smartphones we mostly have decent cameras at our disposal that are connected to the internet 24/7. I have been thinking I’d like to be able to redeem the coke-points my husband collects by snapping a picture of the cap rather than entering the number on a form online (boring and slow). This is the exact stuff that QR code readers are used for that work for UPS tracking and a whole bunch of other applications. Expect them to be used as the new coupons, contests, offline-online gaming and a whole bunch of other stuff. Then maybe by the time all that is common place facial recognition of images will be working online.

2. You will probably work in an industry that does not exist yet. Continuing education is a must. I say this because my life is an example. I work in Online Marketing and data tracking for ad agencies and this didn’t exist as a job or a technology available to most companies in 1999. I have to make sure I spend time learning on the job and off the job each year because things change a lot. This does not make having a family easy and we have no idea if we will do that as a result, but it means that you have to be curious about new stuff and be willing to investigate it and you may end up the local expert when you’re the only one with that knowledge. And learn a lot of math.

3. Taxes will go up. All this BS about lowering taxes to stimulate business and rich people spending will go away since we can’t fund the programs required, can’t borrow any more as a government and we would still have the lowest taxes for those rich people to pay when compared to other developed economies. Interest rates and inflation may follow, and of course oil prices crunching a lot of people out of the middle class. Someone will finally do the math proving that investment in hiring new people at a company and creating jobs is inversely related to lowering taxes on the rich and everyone else.

4. There will be a whole new batch of media mavens that we listen to and we will like them because they are curators not experts. No one person will be able to create enough content or be syndicated to as many channels, mediums and messages as would be possible in this fragmented media world. The people you will look to for advice are blogging now, looking at thousands of sources of information, knowing how to process it, evaluate what is good-bad-meaningless and just filter down to the good stuff. We need people like this because the big media push to produce new stuff 24/7/365 is too much for one person to go through and we all still have jobs/families/houses to attend to. And not everyone wants to spend every day plugged into a screen reading constantly. We just want those wow, aha moments. Eventually maybe this 1000 cable channels, commercials every 10 minutes, 100 blog posts a day, constant content model will streamline due to lack of popularity of most of it (no ROI) but as there is more digital space available someone will put something on it, with no guarantee of quality because people seem to randomly stumble upon things still and listen/watch/interact with amusement/laziness/procrastination of their day job. 

5. Expect more digital sensors everywhere. And this could mean in our clothing, in our fridges, on the roads, in our homes. There is a lot of bandwidth for transmitting data and ways are improving for processing data and analyzing it (without human intervention, or programming needed). I foresee more real-time data on traffic and alternate routes in my car guided by my voice requests (like Knight Rider’s Kit?). I foresee clothing measuring weight and texting me that I shouldn’t eat any more calories today. I foresee my fridge telling me the milk has gone bad again and there is a cracked egg leaking all over it. We may spend all day responding to automated messages. These may be an upgrade fee kind of thing but I think at some point the regular cost will include it because the data will be so valuable and targetable for marketers. The recent privacy discussions prove that people are becoming more aware of ad tracking as well as digital capabilities and the younger generations don’t want to go back to a time without it. But we do need better security options for this to work or an opt in policy for managing what companies know and how we want to get/share/target this info.

6. We’re going to get a whole lot more competition from China, South America and Africa for jobs. Companies are going there for operations now and not just to supply their own regions with goods and services. All the Bill & Melinda Gates (plus Oprah, Warren Buffet & That Facebook guy too) funding health/education programs in Africa will create a continent of healthy people who have jobs that used to be here related to their natural resources and possibly other areas as well. China will continue to be a leader in growth and the US needs to define itself. I always wonder why there is such an emphasis on making sure all the other countries have the help they need to solve their problems by these foundations and not the ones with people starving/not getting educated or employed in the USA. Also Immigration, population growth and birth rates in the US will all drop by 2020. (based on what I saw from the census in 2010)

7. The market will continue to be tumultuous. Up, down, sideways. It isn’t connected to real people or the economy as we know it anymore. We’re not sure how to gauge it or if it will make any positive growth in 10 years. With higher interest rates in 2012-2013 CDs may be the hot investment again.

That is it for now, but I may have more ideas later. One thing is for sure, let’s get out there and party like it’s 1999.

rolling over the odometer 1999 2000 2010 100000 miles

Why is Black Friday such a big deal?

I’ve been thinking about the holiday shopping season and why Black Friday and the entire Thankgsiving weekend is so crazy for shoppers. Why do all these people go crazy trying to get the best deals? Why do they spend so much time out in the malls that weekend buying things? Why is it specifically just this weekend that is crazy?

Some things have occurred to me this year since it is the first one I have had living with my husband in a house vs a condo/townhome setup. One thing has struck me for sure this year. People are scheduled. Everyone has events to attend, multiple family members to see, possibly neighbors or coworkers also and way more work around the house and at their day job than anyone can really handle.

What does this really mean?

People don’t have a lot of time to prepare for Christmas even though they feel the weight of the expectations from kids, family members and themselves after seeing the onslaught of advertising and promotional decorating that happens around town every year.

With way too much going on you usually end up with all your time too busy and scheduled to start shopping until the Thanksgiving event is checked off the list. Then you luckily have a three day weekend with the family that people tend to sacrifice on doing all this work in prep for the bigger deal holiday down the road.

This may be the one weekend  that moms can get out of the house to shop without the kids in tow, since their husbands/relatives are likely off from work also and can watch the kids at home. suprising the kids is impossible if they’re in the store with you so this weekend is important for the element of surprise.

Stores have long made a big deal out of this being the “busiest shopping day of the year” because it is the “first official day of the Christmas Season” even though Holiday decorations usually pop up the day after Halloween. The inside lingo of calling the day “Black Friday” became public about 6-7 years ago as companies admitted that stores may be in the red financially (operating at a loss) for the year until this day because so much of their business is done in the Christmas Holiday Season.

Since then people and marketers have been even more obsessed with having the biggest sales to attract the most buyers and people want the best deals. Entire websites have sprung up (and mobile apps) to track all the prices from competing stores and give you the inside scoop on getting the lowest prices for those items your kids and relatives want.

Some people shop online but how many of us hate it when something is pictured on a site and looks different/color/size/texture than you thought and has to be mailed back and it is twice the hassle of getting it at the store? It is also equally frustrating to see something online and then go to the store to find it isn’t even stocked and you wasted a trip.

So are these special sale prices on Black Friday really all that great? From what I have seen most of the really low prices on high demand items are very limited (4-6 per store, hence the waiting in line to get in first) and most people don’t get them. The other aspect of the deals that you hear less about is that these items are never the high end good quality items on sale. We have been looking at LED TVs this year and none of the ones I’ve seen on sale have been the 240 hz models. Only the 60hz and 120 hz models are on sale. It seems like a way to make a big fuss about people going to your store to get a good deal and limiting the sales to lower quality items and in limited quantity.

In addition to that, the Christmas holiday seems to have little or no religious meaning for most Americans at this point. It is a family oriented economic event. I agree with the ideas of getting together with family and spending time with those who really mean a lot to you in your life. I also believe that everyone has a few things they can’t afford or won’t quite go buy even though they need them and it is family and friends that should help them out this time of year and that is where the gifts come in. But this Santa brings everyone everything they ever wanted thing has to stop. As does the over-buying that the TV/Radio ads tend to promote.

I don’t know if it is worth going through all the craziness of shopping on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Weekend unless you are like us, both employed and scheduled for something on every day of all the weekends from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. Then it is your only chance to get things bought and decorated before family starts arriving expecting your house to look perfect. I am just trying to figure out when I will have time to clean it.

If you’re into Black Friday Sales you probably have: Kids, Inlaws, Someone staying with you over the holidays or a million christmas lights on your house and lawn. You probably live near a large metro area or in a city that has big box stores.

If you’re not you may be a: College Student, Single Guy or Girl or just not have kids. You probably don’t get into the decorating thing either. Someone else in the family probably hosts all the events and you get more sleep per night than they do per week.

A side note: It has also been reported that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving has become the second most crowded night in bars in the year. This used to be a big binge night for College students becasue they didn’t have class the next day and would be back home with all their old friends to meet up and hang out. It is interesting that it has flowed into the single people at older ages category and possibly others also. Maybe they drink because they know what is coming?

Five reasons to Tweet

how to grow your twitter presence graph chart table ideas marketing advertisingThere are millions of useless tweets out there on Twitter.com. Here are some suggestions for things I’d like to see tweeted more:

1. Tweet to say thanks. Not enough people do this in real life, business or online.

2. Tweet something you found useful or helpful.

3. Tweet your reactions to something surprising. Good or bad reactions to products are actually very helpful to the product dev process for companies.

4. Tweet ideas you think may help others. Especially ones not related to your core business. I believe that ideas from outside companies can revolutionize how they think by bringing in fresh info.

5. Tweet back comments to questions. This informal way to survey has developed into a valuable real time tool for people to find answers to real questions.

Things I’d like to see less of:

1. Breakfast, lunch and dinner photos.

2. Celeb following and retweeting

3. Drunk Tweeting

4. Flame tweet wars

5. Lame product pitches disguised as articles, white papers and special product sales deals without full disclosure.

Got any ideas to add?

The Man in the White Suit – Ben Collins Stig Book

ben collins is the stig 2010 and a pretty hot guy if you ask me.I just finished The Man in the White Suit by Ben Collins and I found it to be an interesting look into the life of a man that landed in an amazing job on TopGear UK, and a telling look at the life of TopGear behind the scenes.

I was one of the many people saying “why?!” after I heard that The Stig published a book about his experiences on TopGear and revealed his identity and effectively lost his job. It seemed like career suicide to do this and lose this sweet gig racing some of the rarest cars on the planet and hooning some of the funniest moments in car television for an audience of 350 million people worldwide.

After reading the book I understand his motivations a bit more. In the press Ben Collins has said that he revealed this information in order to better move on in his career rather than be taunted by Jeremy and the other presenters about the difference in pay and benefits. And, I agree that taunting or lording things over the heads of your employees will produce resentment that can’t be undone and eventually things always end badly.

Reading this book has surprised me though, about the man who was The Stig and about how TopGear UK is actually run on a daily basis.

I think the first thing people realized after hearing that The Stig had written the book (after they were initially upset to lose the stig on the show) was that they had never heard of Ben Collins and most of the speculation up until that point was about F1 drivers in this role.

The truth seems that while Ben Collins was talented and up and coming in the racing circuit ranks of England he did not make it to F1 or stay in any one race style for that long. His race story started late in life (teenage years) and was mostly considered too old for positions with teams or had bad timing/luck with the teams he was on. But that is the story for 99% of race car drivers isn’t it? We just never hear about them so it seems unusual.

So, TopGear coming up as an opportunity was a blessing in a way, almost as much as it was a curse. What it seemed to be was a very-very part time job that despite the risk involved, would not provide enough regular pay to live on. The calls for doing appearances seemed irregular and in order to make ends meet after ditching his marketing career in favor of race driving, he had to enlist in the army in order to pay the bills.

Something does strike me as slightly crazy about Ben Collins knowing that at one point he was working in Marketing, racing cars, doing stunt work on films, enlisted in the Army and doing TG all at once. Who does this? It isn’t possible. That is like burning the candle at four ends. Nobody can keep that up and not end up dead somewhere. (yes, marketing is deadly)

On the same note Ben has also had some amazing skill/luck combinations that have mostly kept him out of the hospital/emergency room with a racing, stunt driving and military career. He only details one serious crash injury and with all those miles. It seems amazing it has only happened once considering all the crashes in racing that you see on TV.

On other notes it is surprising that in the Top Gear early days many of the stunts and shots they want to get with the Stig are vaguely defined and not at all specked/planned out from a safety or logistical perspective before Ben Collins gets there. It seems to be all managers and idea people pointing at him to figure it out and do the stunts without killing himself. This knack for figuring it out and nicely working for people who don’t really know what they’re doing landed him in his fifth career as a stunt driver and that has worked out in providing some choice movie driving roles, but again not regular salaried work.

I don’t know if I identify with the side of Ben Collins that puts himself through grueling Army military exercises running marathons through the un-marked wilderness while practically starving… but the side that shows juggling act of career with ambition is one that most people face and can relate to, so that angle in his writing works. I think most people have genuinely appreciated the creativity, skill and tenacity that he has brought to The Stig role over the last six years (this was way longer than the time the last stig was able to remain anonymous).

Do I think Ben did the right or wrong thing in reveling his identity? I think he realized that this job like most had an expiration date on it, and with the press on his heels he would be fired eventually when they published some weird proof of his identity without his knowledge. I think he just wanted to get in front of that and get the real story out before it got ahead of him and he lost his job as a result. Everyone wants some kind of control over their career and he hasn’t been allowed any in the last 6 years by taking extreme measures to remain anonymous and it was hampering his ability to get legitimate work so I can understand the motivation on his part.

I’m not sure what the BBC, Andy Willman, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the TopGear staff should do about this. It is obvious that the unknown driver element is crucial to the Stig character but there are serious gaps in their understanding of what constitutes a full time job. Either find different drivers to freelance all the time or find one to employ with regular pay and benefits. Even if that means they have a desk job the rest of the time or something. You will have far less resentment between presenters if there is more fairness in the compensation structure of the show. That said, keeping secrets in a TV show that is seen by 350 million people in the camera phone internet connected world is going to get more and more difficult. The person tasked with this needs to be compensated/rewarded as much for their secrecy and confidentiality as their driving skill since that is half the work.

I hope that the BBC and TopGear can come up with a solution for this because I certainly can’t. It is weird from all angles and delicate for the BBC as well as the Driver and the fans of the show. I will still enjoy the show regardless though, because of the creativity and general nuttyness of what they continue to do.

Yet, we are dealing with a completley different issue here in our family this week so with a slight change of topic I’d like to remember our car past here a bit. We are mourning the loss of one of our dear friends here that was a hoon-tastic car loving, Granada driving part of our high school years back in the 90’s. This reminds me that there are guys (and girls) all over America that could and would be great TG presenters (and Stigs) because of their love of cars and of pushing the boundaries with them (and laughing at them). 

In comparison, looking at the issues facing the BBC and Ben Collins, it is hard to identify with either side at this point, because they have both had so much success with their shows/careers already and probably have worked something out within five minutes. I’m not sure it is worth getting upset about.

granada whiteWe had just as many laughs with the guys from DGS high school and their Camaros, Mustangs, Fords and Imports over the years as TG has on a daily basis. Now years later it is sad that we’ve seen that some of them have had some serious issues in their lives and in this case we’ve lost one of the best guys to ever take apart a motor. We will miss Edgar Schuster and always remember his 8-track stayin-alive tapes, the 70’s white Granada and the snow tires with spikes doing sparky burnouts while driving my brother to school in 1994-95. Almost all of the four-corners guys showed up to pay their respects this weekend and say goodbye. For my brother, things just won’t be the same without his friend Ed. I’ve heard there is a VHS tape floating around of some hoontastic stuff, maybe worth uploading at some point. Maybe some car-sledding?

Why is it that the brightest stars go out the fastest?

camaro n mustang

I didn't have a picture of the Granada or Ed all I could find on facebook was this one of Scott and Brian from that era. It seems like a blink of an eye and yet it was 15 years ago. Brian says this is the only time Scott wasn't behind him while they were racing and Scott says that Brian has a broken dryer vent sticking out from under his car. I'm just glad they couldn't afford cars with very much horsepower back then when they were 18. Edgar's Granada probably smoked both of them with his nitrous.

Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and our Jobs

gordon ramsay's kitchen nightmares cooking chef jobs

Gordon Ramsay is actually really encouraging to the people trying to turn the business around.

I really thought Gordon Ramsay was a loud mouthed cook that just liked to take people’s head off from the media snippets I had seen. I wasn’t big on reality television so I never saw one of his shows until I ran across Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares show on BBC America last week and found it so interesting that I added it to the DVR schedule. I can’t verify that some of the stuff that happens on this show or any show isn’t scripted/rehearsed/planned ahead in some way, but the underlying cause here is that these restaurants are in a dire state of business and will go out of business soon, so the object is to figure out the problems and find solutions to give the owners in one week, and then the business owners have to take that knowledge and see if they can turn it around.

The thing I found most insightful was (aside from the cooking, of which I can appreciate more now that I am cooking more) that Gordon Ramsay is very direct when he finds something wrong that is hurting the business and nobody ever does that if you work in a  corporate environment. I wish there was a way that this kind of investigation would happen with companies, in a slightly less dramatic way. Sometimes a company or department is ailing for years and nobody wants to say the things that need to be said, and eventually it just dies.

I find it interesting that the problems I’ve seen in these restaurant businesses have been (in about 7 shows so far) either: 1. The cooks are either too slow or make food nobody likes. (in one case the cook was making food the owner wanted but nobody liked) 2. The food is great but there is a management issue and/or service problems. 3. The decor is not welcoming, clean or classy, but this is never the main reason, always a secondary one.

Within these problems Gordon Ramsay has to sort out the people who work there also and decide if they can do a good job if they aren’t already and how if possible he can transform their work. In several cases he found the head cook to be the main issue and suggested that they remove the cook from the job. After they were gone he found several lower level cooks with better skills and ability than the head cook that were just doing what they had to in order to keep their job. They were stuck working for someone who didn’t know what they were doing, but the lower level rank made it impossible for them to  do anything about it.

I think this is a huge problem in business too. People get hired and stay in a management position for 5-10 years and while they are there the world changes, technology changes and the industry changes. If people don’t keep learning (something that is really difficult to do with a full work and family schedule) eventually they will be completely out of date with their information and the business won’t sell/develop/produce enough or the right things to make a profit. It’s an over simplified view of things but the elements  are true, I’ve seen it many times. In these cases lower level worker people grit their teeth and deal with it because they have mortgages, kids and credit cards that they have to earn a paycheck for. The lucky ones leave and find a better job somewhere else, although there is always the risk that the new job will be the same way since its near impossible to get a feel for personalities before you get hired.

I think that a small part of the solution to this is that the mid & lower level people in a company need to have their opinions viewed as more important. These people know the details of what is needed to the tasks that the company survives on. Sure, some management experience is useful sometimes, but try to solve a programming problem if you’ve never programmed before. Try and manage the tech operations if you’ve never been an admin or be CMO if you have never been a media planner, analyst or advertising creative designer and your previous job was sales. It just turns out badly. It’s incredibly risky to turn to your employees and say “just get it done or else” even if you do have some understanding of what a problem is, if you can’t set the strategy for fixing it and get involved in the process. None of the people who do these tasks have any respect for the managers that demand things all day without any of the knowledge that gets the job done.

I think the large part of the solution revolves around how manager’s roles have changed. It is no longer sufficient to “manage” people without doing the job yourself while you are the manager. It’s a dual role but it is the only way managers can make appropriate decisions about the work being done since they are involved in doing some of it themselves. Gordon Ramsay is actually very good at this. When cooks leave or get fired due to poor work, many times he jumps in and is cooking in these small crowded spaces. (nothing like his restaurants). My current boss also jumps in a lot and knows the ins and outs of what we do, this is rare though, I’ve seen many who don’t.

I think the other job situation he has uncovered several times is how to turn things around for that person that is 2nd or 3rd in command who really does have the knowledge but have been sidelined for years under the direction of the head cook/manager. How do you get that spark back in someone who has been demoralized for so long? It is hard to work in an environment every day when you know that something is not the right thing to do, yet you have to keep working that way because your manager requires it in order to keep your job. It is related to the feeling that I think people have about determining their own destiny.

I also think people need to feel like they have some control/choice in their job situation and taking orders all the time with the knowledge that this is the wrong thing to do wears someone’s confidence down and turns off their creativity and enthusiasm for the job. I call this burnout. I don’t think burnout is from too many hours of work, burnout is from being at odds with your you are tasked to do for too long. And contrary to what people think, being at odds with what you are tasked to do is usually a management problem, the younger people who have been in school more recently are more likely to follow the rules, do things right and want to make things better in an idealistic way. I find that the higher level people who have been there a long time have little  knowledge about how the business technology/process works in detail and make demands based on outdated info, cut corners because they can get away with it and do old things because they have just always done it that way.

That said there are no easy solutions to these problems. Gordon Ramsay is a dynamic personality and he can work with these people one to one to discuss things honestly and figure it out, and in many cases this needs to happen on an individual level in business also. It’s not a company-wide initiative or something that has one solution to. The solution would be different things to different people, all very specific to their individual job and knowledge. And I think managers resist this discussion because they are insecure about the knowledge they may not have and don’t want to lose their job either. I think managers need to spend more time doing the low-level work or else they will be disconnected. Asking your employees to make suggestions or tell you the solutions is a cop-out too. If they have the all answers to problems all the time, they should be paid the same level as the managers who are really supposed to do that work. (or be the manager) So, there is no incentive for group management when someone is paid a higher wage to be the manager.

I suggest that managers/directors, VPs and C-level execs start digging in the trenches with their workers on a weekly basis and they will learn more about their jobs/departments/businesses than they thought possible and the business will be healthier as a result. The workers will hopefully have a better job situation where they do have some control over what they do because the expectations are in line with what they can provide, so they don’t get burnt out and have to leave. People also need more time to learn, but with homes, kids and regular 40 hours a week of work, I’m not sure how to fit that in, but it is an important part of the recipe for success.

Who thought Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares would suggest a new paradigm for American business? Its possible, let’s get to work.

And this recent article seems to support my idea that constant learning is the only way a workforce can stay competitive in the global chaos we live in.

Government Income Taxes in History

income tax brackets rates through history united states usa

income tax brackets rates through history united states USA

(click graph to see full size version) I was just looking at this really interesting infographic of the income tax rates for the United States over the last century or so. It is an interesting graph because it makes it very clear that the wealthiest people are paying the lowest taxes by percentage of any time in our country’s history. By contrast the low and middle class are paying the most they’re paid or close to the most. 

I’m not sure how the government got away with a 90% tax rate in any time period, but it sure looks like they did. As much as I think the wealthiest people need to pay more again, nobody deserves that.  It makes the 5-10% increase in taxes we need on the wealthy people making over 1 million a year now seem paltry and insignificant. 

According to the graph the yellow areas say that in the 50’s and 60’s if you made more than $10 million you gave 90% of it to the Government. Wow. (9 million?) That doesn’t really seem plausible although they tell a story about boxing matches being held only yearly for this reason. There has to be something between 90% and 35% though because these people are the cash cows of our country/economy and are the only ones that can actually pay for the fancy jet security and government health care. 

Also I found it interesting that in the early 90’s people making less than 10K had to go from 0% tax to 15%? That is a big loss for the part-time workers of the country and it happened just in time for me to start working at my first job. Someone making 9K would lose $1350 to taxes, a huge sum for someone who may be just scraping by. Previously in history this tax bracket was taxes between 10-20%, so it has been higher, but the logic seems difficult that the people who make the least are losing the least also. Maybe if more government programs like healthcare actually give back to this income bracket this will be a more justified expense.  

I am also surprised looking at the top income bracket at 50% through the 1980’s and it re-frames how to think about Ronald Regan’s presidency (known for cutting taxes), but seeing that he got a larger percentage of paychecks to finance things with during a time of de-regulation and government cuts, no-wonder he was able to make things work. I doubt he would have believed that the tax rates should go as low as they are today though seeing how much government is expected to provide. 

Seeing over time how high these income tax rates have been in order for the country to survive and knowing what people expect from government right now (more services), I think we will have to return to the previous income tax rates and raise business tax rates at the same time to make up the difference even in a good economy. We have a huge budget deficit, increasing costs and government loans that are ballooning (bonds that are declining in value). Things aren’t looking good. It’s all our civic duty to pay taxes and the country can’t survive without it.