In the past, we Angry Men have been rather rude to hybrids. Not without reason, of course (and not without provocation–as anyone who’s been nearly suffocated in the cloud of Smug produced by the Prius crowd can appreciate).

Still, the mark of any rational man is to realize when he may have been unfair, and since it’s Friday and we Angry Men traditionally want to have a bit of fun today, let’s take a look at some hybrids and electric vehicles that we might all actually want to drive:

 
 
 
 
 
 
Tesla Roadster
Tesla Roadster
($109,000)
 
 

Why, you may ask, are we spending time looking at these toys for the idle rich? Well, mostly because they’re awesome, of course (this is Friday). But, also, it’s been so long that we’ve all probably forgotten that roadsters were one of the original driving forces in automotive development and adoption. Back when cars were far too expensive for just anyone to have one, commercial vehicles and roadsters helped pave the way—two markets where bottom line price is usually not as important as other factors. Here’s hoping this is the start of a whole new way to drive!

But, on to the discussion: What will make you switch from the good old fashioned internal combustion engine? Price? Performance? Street Cred? Geek Cred? What will it take to persuade you to drink the Kool Aid?

As you can tell by reading the comments, my article on hybrids generated a ton of interest and comment. On top of the actual comments, we’ve had a bunch of discussion on our super-secret internal email list. Given the quality of the discussion in the aforementioned article, we’d like to give everyone a chance to continue the conversation.

For those of you who missed the first edition, I basically argued that hybrid automobiles only start to make sense for the typical American driver (as defined by the DOT) when gasoline reaches the economically crippling $10 a gallon. Mere “European” gas prices won’t cut it. Inflation, which is largely driven by gas and commodity prices these days, will not make matters any better as it increases prices across the board. If anything, hybrids are even more screwed.

So what do the 12 Angry Men have to say?

Angry Overeducated Catholic
Right, in fact hybrids in general (even at the SUV level) aren’t yet worth it economically. But they may be worth it for early adopters (who by definition buy such goods before it is economically rational to do so), nerds, and greenies.

Of course it would be far more worth it for the greenies to drive their old, decrepit, smog-producing VW minivan to a rally for greatly increased use of nuclear power, which would do far more to reduce fossil fuel emissions and oil dependencies than any number of hybrids.

But you can’t drive a pro-nuclear rally around to show off to your hippy friends, so that doesn’t work out…

Status good is spot on. (Note: Strictly speaking economists don’t use the term “status good” but such things would be a type of Veblen good.)

Mildly Piqued Academician
Right, in fact hybrids in general (even at the SUV level) aren’t yet worth it economically.

Well, not accounting for externalities. And “worth it” is tricky. It ain’t just gas mileage, or no one would ever get the add-ons to a car… or buy anything but the basic economy vehicle that gets you around.

But they may be worth it for early adopters (who by definition buy such goods before it is economically rational to do so), nerds, and greenies.

Right. If the nerds and greenies (big overlap there, obviously) need to justify their purchase, they can go right ahead. Fundamentally this is no different than the lawyer justifying his purchase of an Infiniti as a sign of having “made it.”As David Brooks has noted, it’s become acceptable to spend lots of money on high end “basics” such as a fancy kitchen among the bobo class, aka the current upper class.

Status good is spot on.

That’s true. But many other goods fall into that camp. Early adopter markets are quite important for the eventual broadening of the market. When fleet vehicles such as taxis, cop cars, etc., end up going hybrid you’ll see a big shift. Third gen hybrid may well push this as it will be cheaper, smaller, and better. In this case, the early adopters did
the rest of the world a big favor. 🙂

Angry Overeducated Catholic
Well, not accounting for externalities. And “worth it” is tricky. It ain’t just gas mileage, or no one would ever get the add-ons to a car… or buy anything but the basic economy vehicle that gets you around.

Right. I meant in simple economic analysis based on fuel efficiency. As you say, very few people buy their car for entirely (or even primarily) economic reasons. Otherwise the Fusion, Milan, and Altima could not all successfully compete—being the same car with different shells and options. Fortunately (for them) external options make a difference.

Right. If the nerds and greenies (big overlap there, obviously) need to justify their purchase, they can go right ahead. Fundamentally thi is no different than the lawyer justifying his purchase of an Infiniti as a sign of having “made it.”

Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with either. Both also signal to one’s peers that one is a member in good standing of the group and agrees with the aims and beliefs of the group, and such signals are of great importance to us naked apes.

As David Brooks has noted, it’s become acceptable to spend lots of money on high end “basics” such as a fancy kitchen among the bobo class.

Yes indeed. Or to spend lots of extra bucks on organic food at faux farmers’ markets like Whole Foods. I suspect part of this a legitimate interest in these things and part is a desire to be able to consume conspicuously without appearing to be a wasteful and evil conspicuous consumer.

That’s true. But many other goods fall into that camp. Early adopter markets are quite important for the eventual broadening of the market.

Yes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with status goods—together with other luxury goods they form a huge component of the economy, after all.

When fleet vehicles such as taxis, cop cars, etc., end up going hybrid you’ll see a big shift. Third gen hybrid may well push this as it will be cheaper, smaller, and better. In this case, the early adopters did the rest of the world a big favor. 🙂

Exactly. If hybrid tech pans out the early adopters will be those who kept it alive long enough to do so. And if it fails, they’re the ones who took the risk (and loss) to give it a try. Entrepreneurs of consumption, as it were… 🙂

Mildly Piqued Academician

Yes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with status goods—together with other luxury goods they form a huge component of the economy, after all.

They always feel a little “dirty” though… Why else would bobos go through so much trouble putting on counter-cultural airs? Why else would people like Richard Nixon famously go on about wife Pat’s “good Republican cloth coat” in the Checkers speech? Honestly I think that the argument that bobo-ism represents nothing more than changing tastes of the upper class is spot on.

Angry New Mexican
So, to paraphrase AOC from the comments of the original article are hybrid car owners
“driving around the block displaying your Goreon commitment to the admiring public,” like the folks who shop at Whole Foods (evidently including Obama… no wonder the wacky left opposes The Clinton Restoration(TM))? Are they really interested in engaging in self-promoting faux-greenery, namely saving the planet without sacrifice (or at least without their sacrifice… the opposition to Tata Motor’s ultra-cheap car betrays this hypocracy)?

Or on the other hand, are folks who buy hybrid just crazy first-adopting geeks (I can relate, I bought a 1st gen Iomega Zip Drive back inthe day), who will eventually help move the technology to the mass market?

Only time will tell… Readers, what’s your call?

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ObFascism Tag: Boboism is nothing new. Adolf Hitler practiced it personally—put on of being a “man of the people” while living in luxury himself—and it’s a part of the denouement of previous romantic movements.

In case you missed my last article detailing my passionate hatred for the latest bit of consumer stupidity, known as hybrid automobiles, I’m back with a sequel piece. Here I’ll be employing the mighty power known as algebra to explain why buying a hybrid automobile makes no economic sense, except in what would be best classified as a nightmare scenario. To illustrate this, I want to compare the Toyota Prius with (in my opinion at least) one of the best inexpensive cars on the market, the Toyota Corolla. The cars are of a similar size and equal seating capacity (5). So what makes the humble Corolla more than a match for the mighty Prius from an economic perspective? The answer is simple: cost.

Consider the following vital stats about the two automobiles:

Car City MPG Highway MPG MSRP Range
2008 Prius 48 45 $21,100 — $23,370
2008 Corolla 28 37 $14,405 — $16,415

According to Uncle Sam, it’s plausible to assume that the average driver puts about 15k miles on a car every year. Likewise, according to the DOT, the average American keeps their car about 4.5 years. That’s not a whole lot of time to recover the cost of the vastly more expensive Prius. But with the price of gas these days, it has to be a good deal, right? Wrong.

Assuming that the cars depreciate at an equal rate (or you just crash them into a tree and get nothing from your insurance company) and that inflation (now pushing 4% per year) drops to zero, here’s where the Prius becomes cheaper as determined by the price of gas (here we only consider the lowest end model of each car):

When the Prius Price of Gasoline (per gallon)
Costs Less $2.00 $3.26 $5.00 $8.00 $10.00
Years 22.8 14.1 9.1 5.7 4.6

So for a Prius to be more economically sensible for the “average” American, gas has to cost $10.00 a gallon. And this is assuming 0% inflation. The numbers get worse when you factor in a 3% inflation rate. Assume that the gas price listed is the price today and that the cost of gas increases inline with the 3% inflation rate (Ben Bernanke and I are both being hopeful). Then the crossover point looks like:

When the Prius Price of Gasoline (per gallon)
Costs Less $2.00 $3.26 $5.00 $8.00 $10.00
Years 36 18 11 6 5

So unless we assume that gas prices are going to head up significantly faster than the inflation rate, it’ll still take $10.00 per gallon gasoline to make the mightly Prius cost-competitive with the humble Corolla. Perhaps that’s something to think about the next time you head to visit the Toyota dealer…

You’ve seen them around, you know, the greener-than-thou yuppies-cum-hippies who own their shiny new $25,000 hybrid automobile and insist on castigating everyone about how they should be more green — you know, by buying a hybrid like they did. Nevermind the cost arguments — $25k is too much to spend on a car that doesn’t carry little Johnny’s soccer team and can’t go from 0-60 in 4.2 seconds (like Tata Motor’s Electric Car, say)— it’s all about the planet man. Didn’t you see Al Gore’s movie?

Now, I’m all for making the planet a better place for the grand-kids to live in, but thinking that your hybrid is going to do that means that you’ve succumbed to Toyota’s marketing machine. You know, Prius == Green (not Prius == Lunchbox as Jeff Dunham might have you believe. In a sense, that’s right… Toyota is getting lots of your green for that Prius. The planet, on the other hand, might not be feeling as good. There are a few serious problems with hybrid automobiles — first, the environmental impact of the batteries, second, that they have batteries at all and third that the better gas mileage advertised for hybrid was largely an illusion. I’ll deal with each of these points in turn.

First off, making batteries, especially the quantity of batteries needed for your average hybrid, is an environmentally nasty process. Mining the lead or nickel needed to make the current generation of batteries creates an environmental mess worthy of
Black Diamonds, not to mention all the copper for the added wiring or that creating batteries is a very energy intensive process that involves taking a ton of electricity from the grid (yay for coal). And the newer batteries are even worse — the old lead ones are merely an environmental disaster, the NiCAD’s and Lithiums have the added danger of being highly chemically reactive. Yum! Overall, this is a negative environmental impact that good old non-hybrid just doesn’t have. Score one for gasoline.

Second, adding an additional drive mechanism (aka the electric motor, batteries and the like) adds additional weight. Automobile manufacturers (from my quick googling) don’t seem to like listing curb weights for the hybrids because of the fact that they’re much heavier than a comparable single-fuel car (howstuffworks.com explains this quite well). The best estimates I’ve seen are somewhere in the realm of 10-30% weight increase if nothing else is done to drop the weight of the car. While regenerative breaking will mask this in city driving, on highway driving where your electric motor is just dead weight, you’ll see your hybrid doing worse than a single-fuel car on the same chassis. Another often missed point is the comparison of energy density. Gasoline is 45 MJ/kg, while the lead acid battery is somewhere in the range of 90-162 KJ/kg. Just moving around the “fuel” takes substantially more energy for a hybrid than for a good old gas guzzler. Score another one for gasoline.

Finally, the initially advertised ultra-awesome gas mileage for hybrids is largely an illusion. This is due to an artifact in how the EPA mileage tests were conducted and this artifact favored hybrids immensely. The EPA has since revised their numbers turning your 2007 Prius from 60/51 to a 48/45. That would be a 20% decrease in estimated city gas mileage (which is still higher than what you actually get in practice. Wired has a nice bit on this phenomenon, noting that Consumer Reports was routinely getting less than 60% of the EPA numbers on their real-life road testing.

But 48/45 on that ’07 Prius is still green-good, right? Yeah, it beats the heck out of the mammoth SUV, but still pales in comparison with the real-world 72 MPG you’ll get out of an ’05 Kawasaki Ninja EX250R. Behold the power of the crotch rocket! You see, the big difference between the Prius and a standard gasoline car is not so much the battery, but the shape and engineering. If we ripped out the hybrid stuff from a Prius it would still get better gas mileage than most normal cars — because the car is engineered to be light weight (to make up for the secondary drive system) and aerodynamic. Hence why the Ninja eats any automobile for lunch when it comes to gas mileage.

As our longtime reader, the Angry Diesel Engineer will attest, this gives you a much better bang for the buck than the fancy schmancy electric drive. Why this is not obvious to consumers is largely due to Toyota’s impressively successful marketing machine and their alliance with yuppy pseudo-greens (who believe that you can save the planet with no effort beyond writing a check). I mean, we’ve always known that driving smaller (lighter) cars gives better gas mileage. Even in the hybrid era, this is still true — a shiny gasoline-only ’07 Corolla does better on the highway (and not so much worse in the city) than the larger (and much heavier) ’08 Camry Hybrid even with all that extra hybrid engineering. So instead of banging their heads to make better batteries, perhaps the car industry could take some of that advanced engineering, currently the province of the Prius and put it to use on old-fashioned gasoline cars… a 40 MPG (highway) Corolla would be really nice… and with an MSRP starting around $15k or so for the ’09 it’ll be a lot less expensive too.

Special thanks to Angry Political Optimist and loyal reader Angry Diesel Engineer for some really good suggestions for this article..

In our 12 Angry Men email discussions, one Angry Man asked why one of us didn’t rant about the “subprime mortgage meltdown”. After some consideration, and at the risk of offending those in finance with considerable more precision than I can provide, I delve into the topic. One of the reasons for the reluctance to address the topic is its complex nature. To truely understand what occurred, you have to understand securitization and structured investment vehicles. But as one who participated in a company who securitized credit card receivables, as I researched, I discovered several underlying commonalities. In fact, there is a lot of commonality with the way Congress and our government manages the Federal budget. When one sees so many threads aligned together, there is a suspicion of a whole cloth of consensual conspiracy, a tapestry of belief that underlies the way we view risk.

Before 1970, banks maintained portfolios of loans, serviced those loans, and generally covered the amount loaned by use of deposits, or by debt incurred by the bank itself. Regulatory agencies required that banks maintained a certain level of liquidity reserves, i.e. they couldn’t loan more than say 80% of the amount they had on deposit . When loans matured and the principle was paid, it could be relent to another. This serial process set limits on the amount of growth in the country as growth requires a pool of capital to finance that growth. The more capital available, the more growth. This was particularly true in the home building and mortgage industry. Mortgages were particularly bad because the cash assets were tied up in fixed terms of 20 or more years. Demand was high for new homes.

The solution was to package loans up as a “managed asset” and sell them, transferring the long term debt, future cash flows and risk to third party investors. Two benefits arose from this: accounting rules treated the movement of debt to a third party as a sale, and thus the debt could be moved off the bank’s balance sheet (and reduce the liquidity reserve required by regulators); and the bank received immediate cash, albeit discounted, from the sale which allowed it to originate more loans. Investors who purchased the asset received the interest cash flow and eventually the principle back. Moreover, such asset backed securities (ABS) could be traded between investors like any other security. Trading is important in that it allows information relevant to the asset, such as credit quality, to be reflected into the price of the asset. Assets which aren’t traded have no mechanism to establish their value (price).


Now if I go out onto the street and lend the first 100 people I meet $1000 each, with their promise to pay it back in one year with some interest, (say 6%), I have receivables of $100,000. Further, I make them sign a piece of paper that says that they will pay me back. Now I go to another person, who happens to have some money he wants to invest. Hey, I’ll trade you this package of notes for $100,000 and you can keep the interest. Does he take the offer — I suspect not. What would I have to do to entice him into taking the offer?

First I would need a plan as to how I would collect the principle and interest, i.e. how I would service the loan. The investor doesn’t want to be bothered with running a collection operation. So either I have to do it or I have to hire someone to do it for me — both at a cost. Hmm. I could create a spread in interest rates. Charge each person a higher rate than I offered to pay the investor and use the difference to pay for the servicing. Hey, I could even wet my beak a little. I charge 6% and offer the investor 4% and use the 2% to pay for servicing.

But then I remember that the forth and fifth person I loaned the money to were bums. Hmm. How likely is it that they will just drink up the money and never pay me back? But that first guy has a cashmere coat and a nice haircut — he would probably pay me back. But the 10th guy was a used car salesman. Maybe I had better look at these loans and arrange them in order of who is likely to pay me back. In fact, it sure would have been better to look a little closer a them before I handed them the money. So I divide up the loans in to three piles. All the bums in pile three, all the used car salesmen in pile two, and all the cashmere coats in pile one.

So now my plan is to take all of the loans to guys in cashmere coats and package them up as an asset based security. Since the risk is very low that these guys will default and not pay me back, I am essentially giving away a sure thing. For sure things I offer a 2% rate.

The used car salesmen loans, I also package up. These guys are more risky so I offer the package for 4%. And since many of these investors don’t know me personally, I need to convince them that I haven’t slipped a bum or two into the used car salesmen group. So I go to Joe the Bookie. Now Joe really doesn’t know much more than I do, although he has one advantage — everybody knows Joe. Joe make a cursory glance through my package and doesn’t recognize any bums, sees a few car salesmen he knows, and decides that my package is worth a couple of B’s (It’s not really A list material, but it’s not that BBa-d either.) So when I offer this to my customers, I tell them “Joe says it’s not too BBad.”

The remaining bums are kind of a problem. I know I can’t package them up and offer them. (I mean, I could try, just to get rid of them, but I’d have to offer 6-8% and Joe would say to toss them in the junk.) No, these I’ll have to keep and make an aggressive attempt to collect my money. Hopefully, the 2% I get to keep for servicing will cover any loss. And who knows, some of the bums are trying to reform.

So I manage to sell of a couple of groups of my packages and get back some of my money. Plus the 2% is generating some cash flow. I decide to take the money from the sale and lend it out again, but this time I’m going to be really really careful about lending it to bums. I’ve just learned how to securitize my debt — cool beans. Since my assets are loans, these are asset-backed securities (ABS). If they were loans collateralized by homes, or mortgages, they would be mortgage backed securities (MBS).

  Loans to Cashmere Coats Loans to Used-Car Salesmen Loans to Bums
  Securitized Loan to Cashmere Coat Securitized Loan to Used-Car Salesman Securitized Loan to Bum
Rate 2% 4% 6-8%
Risk Low Medium High
Joe’s Rating AAA BBa ‘junk’

[News flash!!! — Today the government announced that ‘bums’ are henceforth to be known as ‘homeless people’ and that since it is in everyones’ interest to own a home, the government is going to make it easier to loan money to the homeless people. Fanny and Freddie are no longer going to require that the homeless people put down 20% on an empty refrigerator box to live in.]

As I look around, I see that all of my friends are loaning money right and left, competing with Fanny and Fred. I better get on this bandwagon if I want to stay in business. I guess I’ll accept a few more used car salesmen this time, and maybe a few more bums —err homeless people than I initially planned.

Next installment: How to give used car salesmen cashmere coats.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our readers from the folks here at the 12 Angry Men Blog. We know that behind the celebration of the Hallmark holiday that drives up the stock prices of the likes of Hershey and Nestle we have a serious celebration, well, at least in Europe, anyway.

Today is the feast day of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, as celebrated in the Latin Church. These two brothers, co-patrons of Europe are known as “Apostles to the Slavs.” Born in 827 and 826, respectively, they are responsible for the evangelization of much of Eastern Europe. They not only invented the pre-cursor to the modern Cyrillic alphabet, but they also invented the (Old Church) Slavonic language, and developed the first Slavic civil code.

In many ways, I can’t think of a better pair of saints on whose feast day to celebrate love. They not only model for us the love of brothers and family, but a love of God that reached so wide they went into the hinterlands of Eastern Europe to bring it to everyone. And I imagine they presided at a whole lot of weddings too!

So, as you indulge in the depths of gushy, passionate, hedonistic, romantic love, remember that you do so on a day sacred to two celibate brothers who worked themselves to death to spread the Faith to the absolute ass-end of their world! All the best to you and your sweetie-pie!

(As an aside, St. Cyril is buried in Basilica di San Clemente in Rome. If you’re ever visiting the Eternal City, it’s definitely a place not to miss.)

The taste of succulent albacore with a hint of wasabi and soy sauce… Eel perfectly laid out over rice… A tasty roll of crab, expertly wrapped in fresh seaweed. For many, sushi is a tasty way to break free from the tyranny of bland, generic American cuisine. But wait just a minute Ms. Sashimi! Before you have another bite, realize this: When you dine on sushi, you dine with the Reverend Moon!

That’s right, that tasty bit of fish puts you in league with the Unification Church, and it’s leader the enigmatic Rev. Sun Myung Moon. But what do you mean, Angry New Mexican? I don’t believe in mass weddings, the insufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice courtesy of John the Baptist’s failings or a literal kingdom of God on earth. I mean, I don’t even read the Washington Times, a redoubt of the Moonies since its founding. How can I possibly be in league with the Moonies?

My dear sushi-eating readers, you are in league with Rev. Moon, and I’m about to explain why. To start off with, none of this is “new.” The Chicago Tribune and the East Bay Express pointed this out several years ago. But time and time again, I’ve found the American people woefully unaware of their role in the New World Order [Moonie Edition]. You see, Rev. Moon’s route to your California roll was revealed to the world in 1980 with his speech the Way of Tuna. In it Rev. Moon outlines his plan to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth starting first with the oceans, hence the Way of Tuna. The means is simple — build a Korean chaebol, of the likes of Samsung or Hyundai (whose yes-men seem to alternate control of South Korea’s government), but build this chaebol in fish. The building of ships, fishing and distribution network in the US and Korea will all exist in one big happy (Moonie) family, under the guise True World Foods.

Rev. Moon started assembling his empire in the late 70’s, buying key companies and slowly taking over the town of Gloucester, MA. The Moonie fisherman have since also moved into Bayou La Batre, AL and Kodiak, AK. Gloucester does much of the processing and their 22 distribution centers are located in places like Elizabeth, NJ and Elk Grove Village, IL. According to The Trib, TWF brings in $250 million dollars a year in revenues. While not a monopoly, TWF does have a substantial market share, and taking direction from Rev. Moon, has played a key role in the sushi explosion in the US in the last 30 years. On the TWF site, I found a choice quote, I felt our readers would enjoy:

“What we believe makes True World Foods LLC unique in the marketplace is our corporate culture. Its underlying principles are that we look to live our lives for the sake of others, believe in the philosophy of oneness and instill the idea of teamwork to all our employees.”

Oneness indeed… how wonderfully Moonie. So before you have that next yummy California roll, just remember: The Reverend Moon thanks you for your investment.

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Aside: You may notice the “Hates America” tag. I have decided, following the Mildly Piqued Academician (in homage to Angry Midwesterner), to tag all my rants with “Hates America” from here on out. I give it a fig leaf of justification by noting that readers of the Washington Times are part of the Grand Neoconservative Conspiracy (TM), and therefore must hate America.

The current restaurant trend is tapas. For those of you who don’t dine out much at “nice” places, American-style tapas involves a bunch of small dishes of mostly quasi-Mediterranean “fusion” food ordered a la carte, which are sampled by everyone at the table “family style.”

Pah.

I don’t pay good money to have to pass a bunch of stupid little dishes filled with pretentious food I don’t understand around a table. Tapas can return to whatever culinary fad hole it crawled out of as far as I am concerned.

This rant is inspired by two recent events, my reading of this Dec. 5, New York Times article and my going to a Japanese “japas” restaurant with some relatives on roughly the same day. (I name no names to protect the innocent and guilty both.) I’d been to the restaurant a few years ago and liked it quite a bit, but the menu had changed from being more traditional Japanese restaurant, which always had a fair bit of a la carte on the sushi menu, of course, to “japas.” There were no entrees at all, just a long list of small dishes mostly priced between $3 and $8, with a few over that. No clue as to what they were, no clue as to what goes with what, how big anything is, and so on. The waiter was a useless ‘tard (both kinds). Now I’m not especially fond of Japanese food but can usually find something decent on the menu, for instance one of the Japanese adaptations to please the Western palate, shrimp tempura. There was a shrimp dish (“sweet shrimp”) which I ordered hoping that it was shrimp tempura… when the plate showed up with small shrimp in the shell with heads still on I realized the answer was a resounding no. Sure they were breaded and fried but definitely not shrimp tempura and definitely not satisfying either. I ended up ordering something else which was OK… but of course added to the bill, which added to my dissatisfaction. More on that below.

Basically, the whole phenomenon is just an upscale reinvention of an old American classic: the buffet. The big difference is that at a buffet, all your choices (as incoherent they may be) are laid out in front of you and are usually pretty simple stuff like mac ‘n’ cheese, steamed vegetables, overcooked roast beef, etc. With tapas, you’re sitting down at your table facing a menu with a blizzard of dishes. Some are straightforward, such as mixed olives or bread and olive oil, but most suffer with vague, pretentious fusion cuisine titles like:

  • “Roasted beets with goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Hazelnut-crusted wilted arugula with maple goat cheese vinaigrette”
  • “Rabbit with wilted arugula, goat cheese and nuts”
  • “Watermelon goat cheese salad with citrus vinagrette”
  • “Wild bighorn sheep sausage with blueberry mustard goat cheese vinaigrette.”

Goat cheese and vinagrette for EVERYONE! The standard tapas menu is the culinary equivalent of “feature vomit.” Given the questionable edibility of most fusion cuisine, it’s none too far from being the actual, honest-to-goodness kind, too, especially after one’s third Grey Goose appletini in two hours, coupled with those cigarettes “smoked only on weekends.” Unsurprisingly, the Spanish—inventors of tapas—practice it more sensibly. Basically, it’s bar food, something Americans aren’t exactly ignorant of. That’s right, tapas is just the Spanish version of buffalo wings, peanuts, fries, etc., except it’s olives, bread with toppings, etc., which restaurateurs in the US have convinced the public should cost a bundle. And who ever thought bar food was a good deal? 😉

Diners are, as the New York Times article linked above, supposed to like this because of Americans’ desire for more choice, whether we need it or not. As far as I’m concerned, tapas is just another way to fleece me out of my hard-earned money while making me agonize over picking a meal, but I’m one of those seemingly relatively rare people who hates shopping, and tapas brings all the joy of accessorizing to the dinner table. Behavioral economics tells us that, from the standpoint of the retailer, tapas makes sense: Many small transactions are more easily overlooked than larger ones and it’s easier to get diners to spend more thereby. Of course my discontent is also understandable—too many choices and too many transactions can be disconcerting. If you want a nice short introduction, look at Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz‘s little book The Paradox of Choice, which explains quite nicely why more choice isn’t always better for our own well-being. (Read this review for a short course.) In a nutshell, each choice we have to make involves cognitive effort on our part, and a comparison with all the other choices we could have made but ended up rejecting. All this comparison is tiring and opportunity cost is a stone-cold bee-otch, if you’re aware of it. Schwartz characterizes two basic ideal-type cognitive styles: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers carefully compare their options. Satisficers, by constrast, are willing to settle for “good enough” and move on. Evidently I am a “maximizer” when it comes to meals at good restaurants… and, at least according to Schwartz, maximizers are unlikely to be happy about what they get because they spend more time comparing their options, paying attention to opportunity costs, and so on. Tapas is, therefore, pretty much guaranteed to piss me off. (I’m better at satisficing in other choices, fortunately.) I admit a lot of this is my descent to fogey-ism. I don’t like the “mix tape on steroids” that is the modern Ipod playlist and I never play albums on shuffle either. I hate surprise parties. I have a decidedly unfashionable desire for a coherent whole, be it an album or a meal, and tapas (of whatever variety) doesn’t deliver it for me. The fact that it’s a way to run up the tab just nails it.

The only good tapas experience I’ve ever had was a few years back in Minneapolis. The restaurant was not my choice, but I was with friends…. The waitress had the sense to suggest that we “course” the meal and let the kitchen take over. She asked us for a basic list of our preferences and went back to the kitchen. So “choice”—if you want to have a good experience, anyway—is an illusion, too.

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Aside: You may notice the “fascism” tag. I have decided—out of deference to Angry Midwesterner—to tag all my rants with “fascism” from here on out. I give it a fig leaf of justification with Spain’s experience under the dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the man about whom Adolf Hitler said “I would rather spend two hours in the dentist’s chair than have another meeting with him.” Franco would have enjoyed tapas. So there. 😛

As we approach Christmas (or as the quaint locals here call it: “Parking Lot Season”), I thought it would be helpful to present to the world a list of things that don’t make me angry. Many many things fail to deliver on their promises, and so few live up to them that I feel it’s valuable to offer to you, fair reader, a few gems that in my own personal experience, don’t suck.

Item 1
Situations High-Back Microsuede Manager’s Chair, Black

Having done heavy computer use for years being only supported by my friends, family, and a folding chair, my lumbar was in need of some lumber. Bringing about much relief was this chair. It’s cheap (by chair standards), easy to assemble, and — most importantly — it doesn’t suck. There’s a headrest if you feel like using it, and enough controls to get you comfortable( up/down, tilt/no tilt, and tilt-tension ) without the ridiculous Aeron problems of 1) needing a chair technician and 2) always having that sneaking suspiscion that your chair adjustment could be more optimal.

Unfortuntely for you, fair reader, this chair seems to be discontinued. If you can find it anywhere (ebay?), it doesn’t suck.

Cost: $70.
Savings: back spasms.
Overall Rating: Doesn’t suck.

Item 2
Best Wheel Products Folding Hand Truck

Mrs. Angry Immigrant and I are moving to a new apartment, so I popped out to the atrocity that is the local mega-strip mall and picked up one of these folding hand carts. While compared to a real hand truck this is a glorified luggage cart, you don’t need anything more for moving boxes of books.

It holds ~200 lbs of boxes without breaking (it wobbles, but doesn’t fall down). It has big wheels for a small unit, it folds up very flat, and it’s light enough that it’s easier to carry it than roll it when it’s empty.

Cost: $40.
Savings: taking 3 boxes to the car per trip instead of one (and the aforementioned back spasms)
Overall Rating: Doesn’t suck.

Item 3
Forearm Forklift

These (admittedly hideously colored) straps help transfer the weight of bulky objects so that you can maintain good lifting posture and use larger muscles when trading your valuable weekend time for pizza & beer while helping people move.

Especially helpful for mattresses where there are no good handholds, these let you concentrate on steering through doorways rather than just maintaining your grip. When my parents moved a few years ago, Dad stumbled on these, and it really made the whole thing a lot smoother. Yes they’re “as seen on TV”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a 100% cheap plastic kitchen gadget.

Cost: $25
Savings: Helps get a grip on bulky objects, saves back strain (notice a theme?)
Overall Rating: Doesn’t suck.

Item 4
Firefox keywords

Hopefully everyone visiting this site already uses Firefox. If not, please stop reading and go install it. Unless you’re reading from work. Then send an email to your sysadmin (copy your PHB) insisting that he install this on all company workstations. Then continue reading.

They’re quick, they’re easy, and they help you quickly navigate to common places you have to get to. To set it up, right-click over any search input box, and select “Add a Keyword for this Search”. Next time you want to ask the Internet a question, just use the keyword.

The company I work for uses web-based source code navigation tools, so I use these to quickly move through the code and the versioning system databases rather than starting at the search page each time.

Cost: One right-click
Savings: Repetitive Typing Time
Overall Rating: Doesn’t suck

Item 5
Heat-reflective Window film

Given that the local pagan populace here is so amazingly adept at appeasing their sun god with burnt offerings of Malibu canyon homes and other low-lying shrubbery, it’s important for those of us with south-facing patio windows to take steps to repel the major effects of the day star.

Although this is a little annoying to install, (and looks terrible if you do it wrong) the effect is immediate and significant. After applying the film to one patio door, you could feel the difference between the heat still coming through that one relative to the heat coming through the empty door. It’s basically like sunglasses for your house.

It made my living room much more bearable as the outside temperatures got over 110F in the summer. Plus the shininess adds to the privacy for a window that’s a bit too close to a sidewalk for my taste.

Cost: $50
Savings: gallons of sweat, and $$ on A/C bill.
Overall Rating: Doesn’t suck

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Your mileage may vary.

Merry Parking Lot Season!

Fellow blogger Pascal has an interesting story running today about how WordPress is using Google Adsense to display advertisements, without annoying its users. From the article:

If you’re a regular reader (let alone poster) on WordPress.com, cookies will prevent you from seeing ads. Regular readers don’t click ads anyway, they’re there for the content. Ads would be off-putting and keep readers from becoming contributors.

But it turns out it is far more clever than just keeping ads out of view of regular users. WordPress also pays attention to how you found out about a specific blog:

Chances are you never visited Kris Hoet’s blog* – Kris is EMEA Marcom man for Msn/Windows Live. Although he has it mapped on his own domain crossthebreeze.com, the blog is hosted by wordpress.com. Yet if I refer you to his holiday report, you won’t see any ads either, even as a first time visitor, even if you delete your crossthebreeze.wordpress.com or crossthebreeze.com cookies (this cookie-killing Firefox extension will save you time).

However, if you land there by accident after a Google search, things are different. You’re quite likely not to be interested by his blog, but more by bars in Kota Kinabalu… The served ads (fitting your search terms even more than the content of the post) offer a convenient click away.

It’s quite an interesting model, and an incredibly smart way to show advertisements, make a little money, and yet still be a good net citizen. Read more at Pascal’s Blog, and from the WordPress Staff on this interesting and innovative idea.

-Angry Midwesterner