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May 27, 2008

Back to Speedfactory

Last week I was doing an overdue update to my iPod battery pack page. Traffic has trickled off lately to 150 visits per day whereas before I moved everything to iGirder I was getting about 300. Part of the reason may have been that I hadn't updated the pages in a while, but the page just doesn't rank very high (I did get a payoff almost immediately when someone bought one of the new iPhone battery packs I wrote about for $50 yielding $3 in commissions). Overall revenue from AdSense and Amazon is down to about a third of what it used to be.

Although I have had redirects in place since January, the page still had no page rank with Google and when searching for "iPod battery pack" I was coming up on the second (which I described in my post about my advertising client) page of results. On a whim, I thought I would put a copy of the page back in its original location on Speedfactory. Within a couple of days it was top-ranked at Google and had a page rank of 3 (it had been 4). Because Amazon sales and AdSense revenue are kind of spotty, it's hard to say if this means more revenue, but I was getting more hits on the relocated page than anything else. I'm thinking about moving the DeJumbler over as well to see what would happen. If I see significant increases in revenue, it would probably be worthwhile to continue my Speedfactory dial-up account for $99 per year just to keep the free webspace that I use for that web page.

I will keep iGirder, but maybe only as my personal homepage while Speedfactory becomes the more technical site.

May 22, 2008

Zoom Zoom

I'm back from the dealer and am the proud owner of a Mazda 3! Everything went pretty smoothly. I got there at 7:00 and was out by 8:30. They didn't push warranties real hard or even explain a whole lot. The only glitches were the price was wrong, but we tracked that down to the car they were originally going to get that had the spoiler on it. Another glitch in the price was that $500 of the discount was a rebate, so they had to charge me a price $500 higher than I thought. While they would take the $500 off at the end (the dealer will actually receive the rebate), it meant I had to pay 7% sales tax on the $500. So that cost me $35. The last glitch was I wrote the check for the full amount I had to pay, forgetting about the $1000 I had already put down. The finance guy said I wrote the check for $1000 too much and I thought he was kidding. Eventually he said "No, really, this check is for the wrong amount." They said they could put a credit on my credit card, but I said I could just write a new check.

When I first got there my car was parked right in front and looked great. The salesman met me and I got in the car and we drove to the nearest gas station to have my tank filled on their card. The car performs a little better than my Civic and has more conveniences and extras, some of which have developed over time (like the fading courtesy light when you take the key out) and some are extras that Honda still doesn't include in their high-end Civic. It's pretty on the outside and in. After looking for them all over on the roads during the last week and seeing hardly any, I looked over while I was on I-285 and there was a gray one like mine a couple of lanes over.

One interesting thing I found out was that Mazda of Roswell will automatically give you invoice price if you are a USAA member. It is part of the S Plan, which is normally for families of Mazda employees. I got mine for a little below invoice, so it wouldn't have helped me to know that earlier.

May 21, 2008

Car Clay

When I bought my car in 1998 the salesman said that I should make sure I put a good coat of wax on it. I waited a while and then I got sap on it and the paint job was never the same. Even when I did wax it, there were bumps and rough spots. With a new car on the way (probably tomorrow) I wanted to see what I needed to do to keep the finish in good shape even though the car will be in the sun all the time.

The internet is full of people who are insane about taking care of their cars. There are all kinds of different products out there, but one new thing to me was the idea of claying a car. It consists of applying some kind of liquid to the car and then rubbing clay on it. The clay isn't abrasive, but picks up specs of dirt that give a rough finish. It only picks up things that stick above the surface, so it isn't intended to fix scratches. It seemed pretty extreme, but as I read about it, it started to intrigue me. There are How-To clay videos about how to do it on You Tube. Meguiar's, a reputable "over the counter" car wax maker (as opposed to online only), sells a Smooth Surface Clay Kit that includes two blocks of clay (like modeling clay), the liquid, a buffing towel (it's all microfiber these days, no chamois), and some cleaner wax. I wound up visiting AutoZone last night and picked up a kit for $18.

Even though it was dark at that point, I washed a small spot on the hood of the Civic, and then started with the clay. The Civic's surface is almost like sandpaper that has lost most of its grit. You don't have to rub very hard, just let the clay move over the surface. Within seconds I had smoothed out a spot. I was able to smooth out the whole test spot in a minute. It was very smooth (except for some scratches from road debris that has hit the front of the car). I applied the wax and buffed it off. Unfortunately the scratches caught all of the wax and showed up white against the black surface. It might be better to either try to repair the scratches or use something that goes on clear. Maybe NuFinish, though I need to look into that some more.

Anyway, the clay doesn't really do anything except give you a smooth surface for you to apply wax. It offers no protection in itself. So you still have to find a wax (not a polish which technically is abrasive and removes material). The one that fanatical people on the internet use is called Zaino. It is a process consisting of six different bottles of stuff and an entire kit costs $84. But it leaves an amazing shine that is more durable than a conventional wax (a regular carnuba wax only lasts a couple of months tops; the synthetics last 3-6 months). The Zaino process takes all day and is kind of expensive and is only available online or through distributors. People posting messages at autopia.com like to make fun of Turtle Wax and other readily available and inexpensive products and then say "there are other products that are better and not that expensive." But they don't tell you the name of those products. Then they might point out that other discussion threads go into the details. Eventually I found out about Duragloss products.

The first thing I found out about is a synthetic coating that gives the car a wet and shiny look. That product is Duragloss AquaWax. It's about $8. They also make a more conventional wax that you should apply first called Total Performance Polish 105, $10, (not actually a polish). But for best results they recommend another product called Polish Bonding Agent 601, $7.50. This is some kind of wax which chemically bonds the 105 to the finish of the car and then hardens like an epoxy. I guess eventually it wears off without affecting the paint. Some people swear by that system, though it doesn't give the shine of Zaino. They say it is more durable than anything Meguiar's makes (apparently Meguiar's is geared towards people who wax their cars monthly). Duragloss is not available at AutoZone or most other chains, but it is available at CarQuest. There are a few stores in Atlanta, so that's what I plan to use.

May 15, 2008

Car Shopping Part 2

After looking closely at the Toyota Prius and Honda Civics in Part 1 I started looking very closely at the Mazda 3. The 3 comes in too many varieties to keep track of, but got good reviews in Consumer Reports with very good expected reliability. The mileage was just a mile per gallon or two less than the Civic, but it has more horsepower and therefore better acceleration. By choosing a manual transmission, the mileage should still be very good, around 27 mpg to the Civic's 28. While the Civics were running around invoice price, the 3 is selling below invoice due to some dealer incentives. The guy at the dealer said via e-mail that his offer was for me to build any type of Mazda3 I wanted and he would take $2,000 off the MSRP, putting it below invoice. For about the same price as the Civic LX without a sunroof, I could get the 3 with a sunroof and a stereo that holds 6 CD's (including MP3-encoded CD's). Like with Honda, I could get 1.9% financing for up to 36 months. So I can finance $11,000 and pay about $320 a month. Then I only have to come up with $7,000 in cash.


Not wanting to waste any time and having already taken the morning off to take the dogs to the vet, I went to visit Roswell Mazda today. They did not have any manual transmission cars because they said with Atlanta traffic most people seem to want automatics (I think cell phone usage in cars is playing a part too). There was nothing particularly great about the car. It was very similar to my Civic but with some nice touches. For instance, it has an aux input for the car stereo so you can hook up your iPod. Rather than have a jack on the front with wires hanging out, the jack is in the console along with a power port. So the iPod can sit in the console with no wires showing. If you want to have the iPod out in the car, there is a wire passthrough into the console. Also the console has a top compartment where you can put an iPod if you don't want to put it in with whatever other junk is in the console. The glove compartment will hold a laptop computer. It has air bags all over the place: front, side, and side curtain. It comes with some nice doo dads like alloy wheels, fog lights, cruise control, floor mats, power windows, sunroof, mirrors, etc. It's pretty much loaded.

The only problem was getting the car I wanted. The 3 comes in a 5-door hatchback and a souped up hatchback called the Speed3 shaped like small station wagons and not what I wanted. The sedan comes in an i and s version as well as touring and sport. The s version has a bigger engine, goes faster, gets worse mileage, and costs $2,000 more. The sport model seems to be stripped of most options. To further complicate matters, they came out with a newer version in the middle of their 2008 year, called a "value" edition because they put all the options on and charge more money. This model is called the Mazda3 i Touring Value 4-Door. Of course there are automatic transmissions and manual ones. The only option I wanted was the combined moonroof and 6-cd stereo upgrade which is $890. I didn't think I was picky on colors, willing to go with silver or gray. Originally I also wanted a bright blue, but that one comes with a tan interior that I think would show too much Katie and Austin fur. Silver and gray both come with dark interiors. The gray is called Metropolitan Gray and is a charcoal gray with blue in it. The dealer said it was very similar to a gunmetal gray they offered a few years ago. The only car like that in the southeast was at a dealer in Raleigh. They said that was too far for them to go without charging me additional transportation. I said I would fly to Raleigh and pick it up (on the way home Clark Howard was talking about a $39 deal AirTran is having to Raleigh), but they said then I would have to get the sale from the dealer in Raleigh and it would probably cost me more (they just do a one-for-one trade when they get a car from another dealer, so very little money changes hands). They looked some more and found another gray car in Nashville but it had a spoiler on the back which added $325 to the price. It's a pretty dinky spoiler (not the bigger wing spoiler they also offer, it is called a lip spoiler and is just a piece of molding that fits on the top of the trunk). I asked if they could just order the car I wanted and they said that since the cars are made in Japan that it would take 3-4 months. So I'm buying the spoiler.

They're supposed to get it as early as this weekend, but probably Monday. They were also interested in my car, saying 1998 Civics are very easy for them to sell right now with students looking for cars. The good thing about a trade-in, if their offer is what I want, is that they apply the cost of the trade-in to the price I am paying, which reduces sales tax on the new car (I think). Jeb has also expressed interest, so we'll see.

For completeness, here's a table of the cars I was looking at with the Mazda3, including EPA city mileage and gas costs for 100,000 miles at $3.80 per gallon:

CarPriceMileage100k GasTotal
Toyota Prius$26,12648 mpg$7,917$34,043
Civic Hybrid$24,47340 mpg$9,500$33,973
Civic EX$19,53226 mpg$14,615$34,147
Civic LX$17,81626 mpg$14,615$32,431
Mazda3$18,10524 mpg$15,833$33,938

Honestly, I think the car will get better mileage than 24 mpg, even mostly in the city. If I use EPA's higher numbers for the hybrids and Consumer Reports' higher numbers for the non-hybrids, the chart looks like this:

CarPriceMileage100k GasTotal
Toyota Prius$26,12648 mpg$7,917$34,043
Civic Hybrid$24,47340 mpg$9,500$33,973
Civic EX$19,53231 mpg$12,258$31,790
Civic LX$17,81631 mpg$12,258$30,074
Mazda3$18,10530 mpg$12,667$30,772

May 14, 2008

Bluejay Babies

In the last couple of weeks, any time I would let the dogs out in the backyard, a robin would start yelling at me. Also I saw a broken eggshell where a baby robin had hatched. So I was on the lookout for a nest. This morning I found one in the branches of my maple tree in the back. But the bird sitting on the nest was gray, not a robin. This afternoon I noticed the mother bird was gone so I got the camera and ladder and went up to check out what was there. The babies (3 or 4) opened their mouths when I came up. But before I could snap their pictures, their parents came around yelling at me. Bluejays! The father actually smacked into my head a couple of times. With them yelling the babies crouched down in the nest. I still got a picture:


Here's another one taken May 23, getting feathers:

By May 29, the nest was empty but the parents were still hanging around and protective. I found a fledgling under the tree hidden in the ivy:

May 13, 2008

Car Shopping Part 1

Today I started car shopping seriously. One of the top cars on my list is the Toyota Prius. However, with gas prices having gone up so much lately, demand is much higher than it was a few months ago and dealers want full MSRP sticker price. In the Southeast all Toyota dealers will also charge a "doc fee" which is $599. I will also have to pay 7% in sales tax. The good news is that tag and title are only $21. As long as I order the car in advance I can get whatever color I want and avoid dealer add-ons like Toyoguard which add hundreds of dollars more (Toyoguard alone is $699 almost all of which is profit). But there is a 4-8 week wait. One dealer admitted they are asking $1995 over MSRP, but the norm seems to be right at MSRP. The Prius with Pkg 2 options then is $23,799 plus $599 doc fee, $1707.86 in taxes for a total of $26,126.

Vexed by Prius prices, I thought I would try the lesser known Honda Civic Hybrid. It gets close to the mileage of the Prius. Also, because they sell fewer of these, it still qualifies for the government tax credit of $1,050 up until June 30 (it was $2,100 until December 2007 and drops to $525 July 1; next year it will go away completely). Using Edmunds.com I sent a notice to 4 dealers that I was interested. Two called me back and said the Civic Hybrid can not be had for less than MSRP. Total with taxes would be $25,523 (but I'd get $1,050 back when I file my taxes). They both advised I would be better off with a Honda Civic EX or LX. The EX and LX are exactly alike except that the LX does not have the sunroof or alloy wheels and has a 4-speaker audio system instead of 6-speaker in the EX (so you're paying $1,700 for a sunroof essentially; when I bought my current EX it offered a bigger engine and anti-lock brakes in addition to the sunroof). The EX and LX are selling for the invoice price ($17,221 and $15,616 respectively for a total of $19,532 and $17,816 after fees and taxes) and have 1.9% financing available for up to 36 months or 2.9% for up to 60 months of financing. I don't know that I want to finance the car, but if it's that cheap, why not? I wouldn't do more than 36 months regardless.

So, while the MSRP and invoice prices of hybrids are only $3,000 or so more than non-hybrids, the actual buying price difference is more like $5,000.

What are the savings? Consumer Reports says the average mileage of the Prius is 44 miles per gallon, the civic hybrid gets 37 mpg, and the regular civic gets 31 mpg. I've put about 100,000 miles on my old car in 10 years. So for the life of the car the gas (assuming $3.80 per gallon) will cost $8,636 for the Prius, $10,270 for the Civic Hybrid, and $12,258 for the regular Civic. The gas savings for the otherwise equivalent Civic Hybrid and non-hybrid are only $2,000.

Using Consumer Reports overall mileage (non-hybrid mileage seems suspect at 31 mpg and people report better mileage with the Civic hybrid):

CarPriceMileage100k Gas
Toyota Prius$26,12644 mpg$8,636
Civic Hybrid$24,47337 mpg$10,270
Civic EX$19,53231 mpg$12,258
Civic LX$17,81631 mpg$12,258

Using EPA city mileage (reduced some for the Prius because 48 doesn't seem realistic, so I used 44 instead; most of my miles are probably city driving):

CarPriceMileage100k Gas
Toyota Prius$26,12644 mpg$8,636
Civic Hybrid$24,47340 mpg$9,500
Civic EX$19,53226 mpg$14,615
Civic LX$17,81626 mpg$14,615

The second table indicates the increased mileage pays for the hybrid premium over 100,000 miles. At that point you may need to pay $3,000 for new batteries for a hybrid which is not included. Also that's over 10 years, so the present value would reduce the gas savings. And if gas goes to $5 a gallon, then the hybrids really start looking good. The price of the Prius being higher than the Civic is okay given that the Prius is a little bigger than the Civic. If I'm paying MSRP anyway, I would probably choose the Prius over the Civic Hybrid.

Lastly, Consumer Reports also likes the Mazda3, a small sporty car that has more zip than the Honda Civics, has a little worse mileage, and seems to cost about the same.

Continued in Part 2

May 8, 2008

Bridge Builders

This week is Public Employee Recognition Week. To celebrate, our management gave us ice cream and cake on Tuesday. Another event was to have a bridge building contest. They had a wooden bridge about 4 feet wide and 20 feet long that you could assemble like blocks and the contest was to see which team of 4 could disassemble and reassemble the bridge in the shortest amount of time. When they sent the sign-up sheet around I was surprised nobody in our office was participating, but I wanted to do it and three other people in my group were willing to do it too. Yesterday we watched as they unloaded the pieces and started thinking about the fastest way to assemble the bridge (which some people thought was cheating), but the bridge was in a courtyard, so a lot of people could see it from the windows.

This morning we watched a few of the early teams try it out and got a couple of good ideas. We thought of some more stuff and drew up diagrams of where people should stand and what parts they would be responsible for. Given that we design bridges, the expectations were much higher for us than, say, our contract administration office. We showed up in hard hats and vests and our plan in mind. When the whistle blew we worked very fast and it was over in what seemed like no time. I was actually breathing hard from the exertion even though it had only taken about a minute. Our co-workers watching from the offices above held up signs with "10" on them like in the Olympics. After lunch they tabulated all of the scores and we were the only team out of about 10 that had broken the one minute barrier: 57 seconds. Each of the team members got a $25 gift card, t-shirt with our logo, mouse pad, and a couple of other trinkets.


May 1, 2008

Treasury Direct

After my attempt to buy Savings Bonds finally succeeded, my access card arrived. First they assigned me a long account number and let me pick out a password to access the account plus they asked three personal questions (I gave them fake answers). When you log in you enter the account number but the password can only be entered by clicking an onscreen keyboard with the letters placed at random (a new level of hunt and peck). But the card adds an entirely new layer of obscurity: Some people have called it a bingo card, where they will call out A4 like in Battleship and I have to type in the appropriate letter or number on the card (in this case, the letter A). I also have to supply the serial number on the card. I think there are a limited number of types of cards because my login asks me to choose from 3 different serial numbers. Here's my card:

  A B C D E F G H I J
1 6 S 7 S F S E 2 X 6
2 E H J H R L C M 6 K
3 C T A U C D Y T W 1
4 A 9 A 6 H 5 M Y Y M
5 E L N W X 8 D Y 2 8

This has to be one of the most ridiculous forms of security ever. There is no way you can memorize this so you pretty much have to take it wherever you go.