Archive for January 28, 2010

Toyota Camry Death-Mobiles

My first car was a Buick, a hand-me-down from my father who wanted me to have a safe car.  It came with Firestone 500 tires, but that’s another story.  When the Buick finally died, as an act of rebellion, I bought a Toyota.  Since then, I’ve owned 4 of them.  4 cars in 30 years.  I was a good driver and they were, for the most part good cars.  Until last August when I traded in my 10 year old van,  who went by the name of Van Gogh, for a Camry.  I’d been planning to buy a smaller, more efficient car, but the very nice shocks and lumbar support spoke to my middle-aged body (that’s defined as I could get in and out of it without pain).  And the mileage was much better than the van, which sadly had gotten an official 19 mph, meaning it wasn’t a Clunker so no rebate like those folks who traded in for more efficient trucks that got 18 mph.

By the time I had owned it for 2 days, I knew that despite months of test-driving various cars, I’d made a bad choice.  For one thing, there was no logical place to put my purse, something I’m guessing male designers weren’t too worried about.  Second, the rear vision is lousy. And you have to do some weird body contortions to plug your pod into the USB port.

But its those new-fangled electronic keys that are not actually keys that leave me just gob-smacked.  You start the car by pushing a button that works if the key is in radio range.  Okay, kinda cool but…if the battery in the gizmo dies, it’s a problem although there is a workaround, explained in detail in the manual that I completely did not understand.

20th Century Key versus 21rst Century Smart Key System

20th Century Key versus 21rst Century Smart Key System

And what if you lose your keys?  No problem, Toyota will make you a new one.  But it will cost a couple hundred dollars.  This is supposedly an advancement on the old-fashioned kind of key that cost about $3 to replace and could be gotten at the hardware store and did not require batteries.  But wait, it gets better.

The very best thing about the key that isn’t a key (in fact just to avoid any confusion, Toyota refers to it as a “smart key system”) is that it takes more than 20 pages in the manual to explain how to use it as well as a whole other section on what to do if the key fails.  My particular favorite paragraph reads,

When riding in an aircraft:

When bringing a key with a wireless remote control function onto an aircraft, make sure you do not press any buttons on the key while inside the aircraft cabin.  If you are carrying the key in your bag, etc. ensure that the buttons are not likely to be pressed  accidentally.  Pressing a button may cause the  key to emit radio waves that could interfere with the operation of the aircraft.

Of course Toyota could have maybe provided a locking mechanism, but no dice.  The best part is that instead of posting this warning in huge letters on the front of the manual, it is buried on page 25.

Which brings us to the small matter of the floor mats that might catch on accelerator pedals that might not quit accelerating.  And you know it is major doodoo when they quit making the cars and haven’t issued a fix.  But they have lots of helpful advice about what to do if the problem occurs (press down firmly on the brakes and presumably kiss your ass goodbye).

So cars were invented what, about a hundred years ago?  Forgive me the presumption, but if I’m paying tens of thousands of dollars for one of these (and that after hours of dickering, and I do not use that word lightly, with the sales dude, I’m taking the leap of faith that the car manufacturer will provide me a product that:

  1. Starts
  2. Goes
  3. Stops and
  4. Does 1-3 safely

Hello Toyota, your customers deserve better than being told to just keep driving your new-fangled death mobiles.  How about you give us our money back?  Offer us free service for life if indeed this is fixable?  In the meantime, and I can just imagine my father trying not to smirk, might be time to go check out those Buicks.

I’ll leave you with Neil Young’s ode to his first car:

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Reclaiming Our Ground–The Empowerment Of Standing Up For Our Lives

Like many of you, I have discouragement fatigue. No matter what we do, it seems that the corporate and and government leaders are determined to take the fast road to hell in a handbasket. We keep waging war, we continue to destroy the environment, people are hungry and sick, too many have lost jobs and homes, our schools and roads are in disrepair. Getting out of bed in the morning sounds like a really bad idea. What difference will it make if we sign one more petition, call our elected officials one more time, let alone head out into frigid temperatures to a protest gathering?

One very good reason is that it is not so much about the impact our actions have on others but rather how our actions empower ourselves. I have written multiple times about the power of protest and standing up for what you believe in (here, here and here) but what is so difficult to capture in words is the spiritual empowerment of standing your ground. I’m not sure how many protests I attended before I came to understand this–quite a few–until one day, standing with a few friends protesting outside of a lecture given by Condoleezza Rice, I found myself feeling literally rooted to the cold sidewalk where we stood. That is something you have to feel to understand, not something that can be adequately said in words. But since that time, whenever I am out on the street, I stop to pay attention to the strength and connectedness that comes from standing your ground.

Wile at a vigil in 2005, two days after being arrested and jailed when trying to enlist at the Times Square Recruiting Center (left to right: Miriam Poser, Joan Wile, Cindy Sheehan, Carole Abrahams, Joan Kaye and Maggie Vall)

Joan Wile, founder of Grandmothers Against the War and one of my sheroes has a wonderful piece on her blog, where she talks about why the sense of empowerment that comes from standing up for what you believe in is so important in these discouraging times (and while both she and I are talking about standing in the literal sense, as I try to do in my writing every day, you can do a whole lot of standing up from a sitting down position :-). Describing the weekly gathering of Grandmothers Against War on the day after George Bush was re-elected she writes,

The other people standing on Fifth Avenue with me were equally depressed and ready to give up the struggle. You’ve never seen so many long faces.

Then, an amazing thing happened. As we stood there with our peace signs and banners, the black clouds in our minds began to waft away. Slowly, we began to smile and chatter in our usual good spirits. By the end of the vigil, we were practically jubilant. Nothing had changed — the grim reality was still the fact that the worst President in history was going to head the government for another four years and reap hideous injustices and catastrophes. But, WE had changed. We had decided to press on and continue battling for our issues.

It was clear that in the act of fighting back, we were able to banish our hopeless feelings.

Eve Tetaz at an anti-war protest in March 2007. By Lori Perdue.

Eve Tetaz at an anti-war protest in March 2007. By Lori Perdue.

Or put another way, in the words of Eve Tetaz, an almost 79 year old who has racked up her 21rst arrest for protesting puts it,

“In everything I do,” she said, flashing her large smile, “I want to be a reflection of my faith.”

Indeed. Imagine the power of what might happen if every person who feels that corporations should not be more powerful than people and every person who is unemployed and every person who cannot afford healthcare and every person who believes in the right to breathable air and drinkable water and every person who has lost a home or lost a child or spouse to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were to gather with their neighbors in the town squares of this country. Not in anger although goodness knows we have every right to be, but simply to empower ourselves with the act of standing up for our lives. That would be a force to be reckoned with.

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The Economic Reality Show

Several years ago, in an effort to make sure that I had no excuse for not getting enough exercise, I bought a treadmill.  Multi-tasker that I am, the plan was that I would do catch up on my inevitably overflowing reading pile while doing the cardio-vascular thing.  Turns out that I am not one of those walks and chews gum let alone runs well with scissors types.  So  I broke down and started to watch television while I exercise.

Before going further, I should perhaps share that I didn’t watch much television as a child, an hour a day at most, well below today’s norm.  We didn’t even have a color television until I was almost in college, not that we couldn’t, it was just deemed unnecessary.  After I graduated college and got my first apartment, one of my first purchases was a small television.  I actually bought that before I bought a bed or a table.  And I sat down and watched it.  And watched it.  I watched soaps, I watched Dallas.  The  cheesier the better.  This went on for a few years.  And then I was over it and since then, my limited  television watching, by national standards, has been practically unpatriotic.

But now thanks to my treadmill, I am catching up with what makes America tick, and it isn’t pretty, and I”m not even watching Fox (it might get my heart rate up a bit higher, the gastro-intestinal risk is just too high).  While there is no shortage of edifying entertainment options out there , I’m finding the advertisements far more interesting.  For instance, after a lifetime of being told to worry if my butt is too big, now there are undies that make your butt look bigger.

Not only that, but ‘news’ programs that you are supposed to take seriously actually spend  time analyzing if this is a good product or not.

This is serious stuff, it is our ticket out of economic malaise according to Robert Reich who tells us that we need to spend if we are going to recover:

The truth, of course, is that the most important fiscal indicator is the ratio of the debt to the GDP. And the most important issue there is how quickly America can get jobs back and the GDP growing again. More spending in the short term is the only way to accelerate a jobs recovery, and reduce the debt-GDP ratio over the longer term.

So spend, baby, spend, get that 2nd pair of Booty Pops free, you just have to spring for the extra shipping and handling.  But first we might want to do a wee bit of thinking about the economy those fancy new undies are helping to save.

First the good news, at least if you happen to work in the top echelon of a large financial institution:

Major U.S. banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their people about $145 billion for 2009, a record sum that indicates how compensation is climbing despite fury over Wall Street’s pay culture.

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal shows that executives, traders, investment bankers, money managers and others at 38 top financial companies can expect to earn nearly 18% more than they did in 2008—and slightly more than in the record year of 2007. The conclusions are based on an examination of securities filings for the first nine months of 2009 and revenue estimates through year-end.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.,

earned $11.7 billion last year, more than double its profit in 2008, and generated record revenue. The bank earned $3.3 billion in the fourth quarter alone.

and

on Friday announced a record $9.3 billion payday for its investment-banking employees, setting the stage for competitors like Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS) to also make eye-popping payouts. On a per employee basis, JPMorgan investment bankers, sales staff and traders, on average, are set to make about $379,000 for 2009, up more than $100,000 from 2008, when the broader financial sector was mired in crisis.

“People looking at it from the outside look at the dollars and say they are high,” said Kenneth Raskin, the head of law firm White & Case. “There is no question the dollars are high. The question is whether they were deserving.

No, actually the question is how do these people live with themselves and why has this been allowed to happen. Based on the above, they earned as much as $279,000 a piece in 2008 while the economy imploded. There is no question of whether they are deserving.  They are not, and no amount of Booty Pop wearing women is going to  make them look better.  Incidentally, according to the same article, median U.S. household income in 2008 was $50,303.

Meanwhile back here in reality land:

Consumer inflation was tame in 2009, with prices rising 2.7 percent. Yet families felt squeezed as their spending power sank in the face of falling wages, job losses and higher prices for energy, medical care and education.A surge in energy prices last year offset the biggest drop in food costs in nearly a half century.

The Labor Department says its Consumer Price Index rose a modest 0.1 percent in December. Excluding food and energy, prices were also up just 0.1 percent last month.

and,

The Commerce Department said on Thursday retail sales fell 0.3 percent last month, the first decline since September, as consumers spent less on vehicles and an array of other goods during the holiday shopping month.

Analysts had expected an increase of 0.5 percent, but disappointment was tempered by upward revisions to prior months’ data. November sales were revised to show a 1.8 percent gain from an initially reported 1.3 percent increase, and October sales were bumped up a touch as well.

A separate report from the Labor Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 11,000 to 444,000 last week, higher than the 437,000 claims analysts surveyed by Reuters had forecast.

A separate report showed inflation-adjusted weekly wages for the 12 months ending in December were down 1.6 percent, the biggest decline since 1990. Slack wages and scarce job creation have slowed consumer spending, hindering the economy’s ability to mount a strong recovery…

…While the economy remains on a steady recovery path, the housing market — the main trigger of the economic downturn — continues to show signs of stress.

The nation closed out 2009 with a record number of foreclosure actions and is poised to set a fresh record this year, real estate data company RealtyTrac said.

According to the group, 2.8 million properties with a mortgage received a foreclosure notice last year, up 21 percent from 2008 and 120 percent from 2007.

And in case you were curious, even the porn industry is suffering.

This is what a buy stuff so we can make more stuff economy looks like when it goes bad.  Mr. Reich’s solution is to prop that system up, including more military spending, which the President and Congress keep happily ponying up,

President Barack Obama will ask Congress for an additional $33 billion to fight unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on top of a record $708 billion for the Defense Department next year, The Associated Press has learned..

Compare that to the amount of aid that the U.S. is offering to Haiti, as Jesse Hagopian points out,

Yesterday, Secretary Hilary Clinton was sent to Haiti and gave a speech saying that the US is doing “every thing we can” to help the Haitian people. But that fact that her trip to the Haitian airport stopped all aid from arriving for three hours – three critical hours on a day when the difference between life and death for tens of thousands is a drink of water – should tell you everything you need to know about the US relief effort.

Obama has pledged $100 million, which will only just begin to help; and only if it is used for direct aid at all and not squandered on private contractors looking to make a dime (or many millions of dimes) off the suffering of Haitians.

U.S. Bankers got bonuses totaling over $100 billion last year. The US is spending trillions to destroy countries in the Middle East. We can raise the money needed to help our brothers and sisters of Haiti, but it is going to take ordinary people doing extraordinary things to push even the liberals in power to help.

Then there is the healthcare bill, which whatever the cost, will still leave some of the most needy in the lurch,

At any given time, an estimated 1.8 million disabled workers languish in the Medicare coverage gap, a cost saver instituted nearly 40 years ago. Many, like Walker, are uninsured. Lawmakers had hoped to eliminate the gap as part of health care overhaul, but concluded it would be too expensive.

Too expensive to care for those most in need…And just a little over a week ago, Secretary Clinton pledged “$63 billion over six years to improve global health by investing in efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality, prevent millions of unintended pregnancies, and avert millions of new HIV infections.”

So there you have it, our national economy--$63 billion over 6 years for global health, $100 million in aid and not enough to care for the most medically needy…$145 billion to bankers on Wall Street…$708 billion for ‘defense’, and $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) for Booty Pops.  Not technically the definition of a depression, but definitely depressing.

Until we redefine what a healthy economy is, one that supports caring and sustainability, Wall Street may continue to thrive.  For awhile.  But the downhill spiral for Main Street and our national soul is picking up momentum and the current prescriptions from economic talking heads will not save it.

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Eat Your Heart Out Purell

A few days ago, I saw an ad on television proclaiming that using Lysol will keep your countertops safe from H1N1 germs. This sounded hugely useful to me in case someone with the flu starts hacking and wiping snot all over your kitchen and bathroom because you certainly can’t inoculate a countertop and you wouldn’t want the poor thing to get sick. It also occurred to me that if there is a shortage of vaccine (although from news reports in recent days, it sounds like exactly the opposite is true and there is glut of the vaccine because apparently enough people aren’t properly scared), maybe we could all just spray ourselves with Lysol.

We don’t use commercial store-bought cleaners in our house because of asthma and chemical sensitivity issues.  That said, the house is clean and we  rarely get the flu not to mention we save a fortune every year by using such dirt cheap substitutes as baking soda, vinegar and wait for it…soap.

So being a tad cynical about these things (which you may have already gathered), I decided to take a little look-see at Lysol’s site which, after providing us with the facts about H1N1 (not that they want us to be scared or anything),  helpfully tells us which of their products will kill it:

  • LYSOL® Disinfectant Spray
  • LYSOL® Disinfecting Wipes
  • LYSOL® All Purpose Cleaners (both pourable and trigger products)

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database, there are multiple versions of these products.  For Lysol Brand All Purpose Cleaner With Bleach (trigger bottle), the database provides the following information:

PRECAUTIONARY STATEMENT: Hazard to Humans and Domestic Animals. Warning: Causes eye and skin irritation. Do not get in eyes, on skin or clothing. Remove contaminated clothing and wash clothing before reuse. For sensitive skin or prolonged use, wear gloves. Odors may irritate. Use in well ventilated area. Avoid breathing of vapors. Not recommended for use by persons with heart or chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema or obstructive lung disease. Harmful if swallowed.

Last I heard, the flu definitely qualifies as a respiratory disease, so why would you use this product to fight it?  I decided to look a tad further and what I found next just floored me–the Center for Disease Control specifically recommends Lysol by brand name! According to the Center For Disease Control’s “Ounce of Prevention Campaign:

Arming health educators and consumers with information as well as practical and useful tips on preventing infectious diseases, the Ounce of Prevention campaign was created by the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with Reckitt Benckiser, Inc., the makers of LYSOL® Brand Products.

Talk about a marketing coup!  Why Lysol instead of say Purell, whose dispensers have been popping up faster than dandelions in spring.  According to the EPA, there are a whopping 500 products that will kill Influenza A on hard non-porous surfaces.  Um wait a minute, weren’t we talking about H1N1?  Not to worry,

EPA believes, based on available scientific information, that the currently registered influenza A virus products will be effective against the 2009-H1N1 flu strain and other influenza A virus strains on hard, non-porous surfaces.

Guess we’ll have to take that on faith.  But many of these products, like Lysol are contraindicated for anyone with respiratory issues.  In addition, with mounting concerns about the overuse of antibiotics, both in people and in our food supply and cases of drug-resistant TB being reported there is also the concern that we are buying a huge risk with the over-use of these products.

But the big question remains, how did Lysol get the very cushy real estate on the CDC site which is tantamount to recommending it over other products.  You don’t have to look very far to find out just how incestuous the relationship is between the governmental bodies that oversee our health policies and corporate America.  Just recently, former CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding took a position with Merck & Co. in their vaccine division:

“I am very excited to be joining Merck where I can help to expand access to vaccines around the world,” added Gerberding, who will head up the company’s $5 billion global vaccine business that includes shots to prevent chickenpox, cervical cancer and  pneumonia.

The CDC under Gerberding has strongly recommended Merck’s Gardisil vaccine to protect against HPV and cervical cancer for all young girls, despite significant doubts as to whether this is good medical practice.  The vaccine  costs approximately $375 according to the CDC, which needless to say has enriched Merck’s coffers substantially.

The CDC has also strongly recommended the use of Tamiflu to fight the flu, but it’s effectiveness has also come under scrutiny:

Nick Fremantle and Melanie Calvert from the University of Birmingham reviewed additional studies and concluded the drug may reduce the risk of pneumonia in otherwise healthy people who get the flu, but the benefit is probably very small and needs to be weighed against potential side effects.

Stay tuned to find out which lucky CDC official will be jumping ship to go work for Lysol.  Eat your heart out Purell.

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Scan(t) Evidence

Remember when you got that flatbed scanner and the first thing you did was scan your ass or your lips or your breasts and post them to your GeoCities site (and don’t even think about asking, I’m not going to repost them)?  Well now TSA  can do the same thing and zap you with a bunch of radiation at the same time which does not make me feel safer, in fact it scares the crap out of me.

What scares me a whole lot more though is just how fast the Gotta Have Scanners cheer went up after the Is That A Big Stick In Your Pocket Or Are You Glad To See Me bomber wannabe totally messed up his chance to please all the awaiting virgins in heaven.  If you recall, so barely 24 hours after September 11, 2001, we already knew who piloted the planes, where they were based and who sent them, a few weeks later, we mysteriously had a large enough supply of flags and decals for every car in America.  If  we were good enough to figure it out so quickly afterwords, lets face it, we knew ahead of time.  And it is pretty damned clear that just happened again.

If that isn’t enough to make you a tad cynical, the fact that Michael Chertoff is a big scanner cheerleader ought to.  As James Ridgeway points out, it’s all about the money, honey:

(T)he rush toward full-body scans already seems unstoppable. They were mandated today as part of the “enhanced” screening for travelers from selected countries, and hundreds of the machines are already on order, at a cost of about $150,000 apiece. Within days of the bombing attempt, Reuters was reporting that the “greater U.S. government shift toward using the high-tech devices could create a boom for makers of security imaging products, and it has already created a speculative spike in share prices in some companies.”

Which brings us to the money shot. The body scanner is sure to get a go-ahead because of the illustrious personages hawking them. Chief among them is former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, who now heads the Chertoff Group, which represents one of the leading manufacturers of whole-body-imaging machines, Rapiscan Systems. For days after the attack, Chertoff made the rounds on the media promoting the scanners, calling the bombing attempt “a very vivid lesson in the value of that machinery”—all without disclosing his relationship to Rapiscan.

Want some swamp land in Florida too?  Meanwhile…there is now a new, new, new recommendation regarding mammograms:

This new advice, which is published in the January issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology, comes from the Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) and the American College of Radiology (ACR). And these groups suggest just the opposite – that the screening does save lives.

The latest recommendations seem to be based primarily on bad-mouthing the earlier new recommendations to get less mammograms and dogged insistence that finding more cancers and finding them earlier saves lives.  This is the mantra that we have been made pepto aware of for years now, despite the questionable evidence to support it.  For more on this, see here, here and here.

I’m not a scientist, but what I do know is this:  No other country suggests that women have as many mammograms as we  do in the U.S.  And other developed countries where women start getting mammograms at a later age and less frequently have comparable or better survival and incidence rates.  But again, as with the airport scanners, we need to look at the money angle–if women don’t get mammograms on a regular basis before the age of 50 and then get them every few years, radiologists and imaging centers are going to lose a lot of money.  But that is not a justification for zapping our breasts unnecessarily.

Of course as a convenience for the busy traveler, maybe now we can just get mammograms at the airport.  But in all fairness since we now know you can hide explosives between your balls, how about we squish those too as a matter of national security.

But what really is key here is that our national security policy is a bad joke.  Scanners aren’t the answer (and lets be very clear here–any amount of radiation adds to our body load and is a risk).  Nor is stoking the fear of ‘terrorism’.  Nor is militarism. And like breast cancer, detection isn’t a cure-all.  If you want to end breast cancer, you need to find what causes it and eradicate the cause.  The same is true for global security. Real security comes from enabling people, not from disabling them.  Food, health, jobs.  For far less money, we would  reap far greater results.  But where’s the profit in that?

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