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How I bought a car Fri, Oct 31, 2014
My 2004 Toyota Camry hit 200,000 miles recently, and I didn't feel like dealing with the potential problems that could occur with a car of that "experience level", so I was in the market for a new car.  Obviously buying a new car is a unique process.  You can't go to a car store and simply try out the various product offerings from different car companies.  You have to do research to figure out what you want.  Or alternatively you could simply drive to the nearest car dealership and talk to a salesperson whose sole objective is to charge you as much as he/she possibly and legally can while making you believe you didn't just get robbed. 

So naturally I did my research.  I figured out what I wanted, which happened to be a combination of all-wheel drive and good gas mileage.  There's really only one choice for those things, and that's a Subaru.  I decided on the mid-sized Legacy, and chose the trim level and color I wanted.  I got some price quotes from places like Cars.com and Edmunds so I would know what I could expect to pay.  Then I priced out my trade-in at Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds.  I even downloaded an app on my phone that calculated a monthly payment for a car loan given a purchase price, trade-in value, tax rate, down payment, APR, and loan term. 

The next step was visiting dealerships, which is arguably the most unpleasant part of the car-buying process.  Seriously.  I already went through the selection process and the options pricing and whatnot.  The only thing missing from these websites is a "Buy It Now" button.  I'll drive to a dealership; I don't care.  Just don't make me deal with salespeople.  Anyway, the few dealerships I went to did the same sort of spiel: 
  1. Here are the options we have in stock.
  2. We can order whatever options you want, but it'll take 6-8 weeks.
  3. Here's the MSRP and here's what we want to charge you.
  4. Here's a somewhat crappy offer on your trade-in.
  5. Your monthly payments will be [X], though we won't tell you the APR or loan term up front.
I realized quickly that salespeople are sociopaths who manipulate buyers with a few tried and true techniques: 
  • "We're barely making any money on this deal."
  • "Let me go in the back to talk to my sales manager."
  • "No other dealership will give you this price."
  • "This offer is only valid right now."
  • "All other dealerships are terrible except ours."
I was astute enough to recognize when these tactics were being used on me, but I wasn't powerful enough to avoid getting sucked in.  I drove away from one dealership feeling a little bad that I didn't buy anything, because it was a good offer and I liked the sales guy.  But then I felt stupid that I felt anything at all; it was a potential financial transaction, not a hug. 

I finally happened upon what amounted to a volume dealer that paid their salespeople a salary and had a very simple pricing formula:  Invoice plus 2%.  After lowering my expectations a little by suggesting they might not be able to get me a good deal on my trade-in, they got me a good deal, and I bought from them with no hassling or stupid salesmanship. 

Bottom line:  Buy cars from volume dealers like Bill Kolb. #business

Explaining modern activities Wed, Oct 15, 2014
Some activities in modern middle class life seem like they'd be difficult to explain to someone who lives on the other side of the globe, or even someone who lived 50 or 100 years ago.  Case in point is last weekend's mud run.  I'm trying to envision explaining to a poor, dirt-covered villager the idea of running (willingly) through mud (for fun) while climbing over obstacles (for no purpose) while also paying a large amount of money to do so.  In what universe does that make sense? 

It's similar with camping:  Let's go trudge through the woods with heavy equipment and crappy food in our bag, then sleep on the hard ground while trying not to catch an insect-borne disease. 

Or apple-picking:  Instead of buying moderately-priced apples from one of many local stores, let's go walk around a muddy farm, pick the apples ourselves, try to avoid yellow jackets, then pay several times more than they're worth simply for the experience. 

Sometimes it seems like we've removed most of life's major obstacles and so feel the need to occasionally reintroduce them. #lifestyle

Tough Mudder (1) Sun, Oct 12, 2014
I just ran my first Tough Mudder yesterday.  For the uninitiated, it's a 10-ish mile obstacle run through mud.  The obstacles are things like walls and ramps that require teamwork to complete.  It's not really a competition unless you want it to be.  My five-person team completed it in around 3.5 hours. 

My first observation is this:  Damn, white people sure do like their mud runs.  This is something I first noticed a few years ago.  The Tough Mudder came to town, and then a bunch of mom-and-pop races followed suit.  And I don't know if it's because of the demographic in my area or the friends I have on Facebook, but it seems like the only people who do mud runs are white.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but damn. 

The race itself wasn't all that terrible.  It's the farthest distance I've ever run at one time, and I didn't run out of stamina.  The obstacles were mostly fun.  I'm in moderate physical shape by doing weight training and running, so it was rewarding to be able to use my strength to climb up walls and ropes and help other people do the same.  One obstacle consisted of jumping into a pool of ice water, which didn't turn out to be as bad as I'd thought.  I was already cold and wet, and despite some brief hyperventilation, it wasn't that bad. 

The electrical shock as the final obstacle was fairly bad.  You had to run through dangling wires and jump over hay bales.  I made it over the first set of hay bales while getting shocked pretty hard, and the next thing I remembered was the pain of my face hitting the mud, which was after the second set of hay bales.  Apparently I blacked out and continued moving, which was good I guess, but also kind of unsettling because I didn't realize you could black out by getting electrically shocked. 

The weather was rainy and in the 50s.  The rain didn't matter because everyone got wet anyway.  But the temperature was a struggle.  It's difficult being shivering cold for three hours (and then blacking out by getting shocked with electricity).  It wasn't as cold as it could've been, but I wouldn't have minded if it was 75 or so. 

I'm not sure if it was a New Jersey thing or what, but the lines were stupidly long.  I realize it's a popular event and it's a crowded state, but I didn't expect the first obstacle to be standing around in the cold rain for an hour before the race actually started.  And they kept getting our hopes up and making us wait some more.  It was a little demoralizing.  Several of the obstacles had long lines too, which was annoying when you were trying to keep warm by running, only to have to stop to stand around in cold puddles. 

The end of the event was kind of poorly done.  The organizers (and participants) kept talking about the free beer and headband you got as you crossed the finish line.  But when you're cold and wet and exhausted, all you really want is something warm and dry like a giant bonfire or a heated pool to wash some of the mud off.  Instead we stood around shivering holding our ice cold beers, trying to get the mud out of our eyes after faceplanting unconscious. 

I realize that's a lot of complaints for a completely voluntary activity, but that's kind of my thing.  All in all, it was a fun experience, and I would consider doing it again in slightly warmer weather. #sports

UK plus and minus Wed, Oct 01, 2014
Traveling to Scotland made it easy to see some everyday differences between the US and the UK.  For example, here are some things they do better: 
  1. Hallway lights with motion detectors that shut off after a certain amount of inactivity.
  2. Bathroom fans that run for a few minutes after you leave.
  3. Drink measurements.  There's a difference between a medium glass and a large glass of wine.
  4. Paying the check at a restaurant.  You can pay on your way out or they can bring a wireless credit card reader.
  5. Gas mileage.  Our ridiculous little rental car got 45 mpg.
I make note of these things because they legitimately impressed me, but also because I try not to be overly enthusiastic about supposed American exceptionalism.  That said, here's what the UK does poorly: 
  1. Sinks.  For some reason, almost all sinks in Scotland had a cold spout and a hot spout.  How are you supposed to get warm water?
  2. Shower enclosures.  It was common to see a glass door that only covered half the length of the shower.  The obvious and immediate result was that water went everywhere.
  3. Door locks and knobs.  My favorite example was this one hotel where the lock was located under the knob, and it wasn't obvious which orientation the metal key should be in, and the knob was about two feet off the floor.
  4. Road sign size and distance from turn.  If I can't see what the sign says until I'm making the turn, how am I supposed to make the turn?
  5. Lack of screens on windows.  This was an issue in Italy too.  Isn't it a relatively established fact that window screens reduce the spread of insect-borne disease by like eleventy billion percent?  They at least would've prevented that giant spider from crawling across my pillow.  True story.