Congratulations On Your $1,000 Donation To Puerto Rican Relief (At Gunpoint)

True confessions time: Until today, I was under the impression that the American response to the hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico had been a little, shall we say, stingy. How could you blame me for feeling this way? The media has continually told me about our stingy response. Hell, it’s been worse than stingy; it’s been trashy. Fully ten percent of the food aid to PR consisted of candy or snacks that you CANNOT FIND at Whole Foods! The idea that you would hurriedly box up a bunch of aid to starving people and have THE NERVE to let a full tenth of it be the kind of food that rich people in Los Angeles wouldn’t buy… We might as well have dropped Fat Man (the bomb, not the self-congratulatory automotive journalist) on the place and let it vaporize in the nook-u-lar flame.

Well, it’s time for you to feel better. I just sent a thousand dollars to Puerto Rico. So did you. In fact, I’ve been sending about $250 a year to Puerto Rico since I was a teenager, give or take a few bucks. And there’s more to come.

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WeWork, WeLive, WeGrow, WeDie

“Always working or always semi-working.” That phrase basically sums up my life for the past two decades. For about twelve years I ran a Web-hosting co-op in addition to working anywhere from three to nine other contracts at a time. It enabled me to spend money like water on every ridiculous thing and activity possible; I could have saved money like water but that wasn’t the point of working eighty hours a week. While there are certainly people out there with a thoroughly domesticated sense of delayed gratification, I’ve never been one of them. If I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone, I expect to take a champagne bath afterwards. Simple as that.

Somewhere around 2010 I started closing up shop on the tech-biz stuff so I could use my spare time to write about cars. This doesn’t pay nearly as well but the twelve-year-old me never had any dreams of running a Web hosting business and in any event the hosting model was going the way of the lowest common denominator. Nowadays I spend about 45 hours a week in tasks associated with my day job and another 20 hours at the keyboard. Sometimes I spend 10 or 20 hours of top of that accumulating the experiences about which I’ll write later. There was a five-day period a while back where all I did was go to work then write until 4am then sleep until 8am then go to work, just to meet deadlines. I never truly know when the work will arrive or what demands it will make. Take this week for example; it was supposed to be a vacation from both my “careers” but I had a couple of things fall in my lap so I’ve turned the vacation into a work-cation and I’ll end up writing for 25 or 30 hours total before Sunday ends.

What makes this state of affairs bearable is that it is entirely voluntary. At any moment, I can quit writing and just become a cubicle bee like everyone else. It would mean an end to the supercars and the outrageous trips and the race weekends, but that’s very different from losing my home or not being able to feed my son. At the end of the day, I would still be a relatively healthy middle-aged man with 2,600 square feet in the suburbs, a Porsche in the garage, and the ability to eat dinner at a steakhouse without kiting a check. Most importantly, I have a home. I think of it as mine and in truth every year it becomes closer to being entirely mine. I am free to do what I want in it: leave towels on the floor, walk the halls at night, crank up a 100-watt guitar amp and noodle until the paintings on the wall sympathetically shiver.

This quaint notion, of having one’s own home where one is free to retreat from and forget about work entirely, is apparently just too unproductive to survive.

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Diamonds Are Forever Worthless

Diamonds are for suckers. They always were. Thirty-five years ago, you could buy two books that explained, without the slightest bit of hyperbole or misdirection, how an absurdly secretive cartel and a cooperative mass media turned an easily-duplicated stone with primarily industrial worth into an indispensable signifier of middle-class success.

As fate would have it, I read one of those books right before getting engaged, and I took absolutely seriously. As a consequence, my first wife’s engagement ring was a quarter-carat pawn-shop special, just a bit under $250 after tax. To her credit, my bride didn’t complain too much, even as our friends and acquaintances went to the altar with a full carat or even the two-carat honker that a friend’s sister received from a construction worker in the midst of a boomtown year.

“The bigger the ring, the shorter the marriage,” I laughed, and I wasn’t wrong. I was also correct about just how worthless a used diamond ring is. By the time we officially divorced fifteen years later, some of our friends had already managed to buy, and sell, a second set of rings.

Right around then, my girlfriend of the time suggested out of nowhere that $15,000 would be a nice number for the engagement ring she expected me to put on her finger. “You have to be kidding,” I replied.

“But I’ve seen you spend that much on a guitar,” she snapped.

“Yeah, and I could sell that guitar for something more than a nickel on the dollar.” Alas, the engagement never came to pass. The current Mrs. Baruth wears an heirloom from a deceased relative on her left hand, while I rotate through an ad hoc collection of titanium and silicone rings designed to be lost in a set of gloves or at a skatepark without sorrow. I feel good about this. Diamond engagement rings are a scam.

Yet most Americans, if pressed, will admit that they believe at least somewhat in the value of a “natural” diamond. That belief is on the way to being utterly shattered.

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Introducing… The 633CSXi (Or is that the X6 3.3?)

From the fertile mind of automotive sketch and Photoshop artist Zykotec comes this decidedly retro take on BMW’s infatuation with the CR-V form factor. I’m feeling a bit of Princess in the overall look, but I also think it’s a dramatic improvement over the current X6. Most importantly, it looks vaguely depressed, just like the original 6-Series did. What say you, dear readers? Would you smash?

Facebook Is Making You Fat

Hey there! Do you need another reason to quit Facebook? Not a problem. It turns out that people who quit Facebook experience lower cortisol levels after just five days. Cortisol, for those of you who don’t receive the daily email updates from LIVESTRONG, is the “fight or flight” stress hormone. One of the side effects associated with high cortisol levels: extra fat creation, especially belly fat.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve gotten thinner since quitting Facebook. It ain’t necessarily so. I do feel mentally healthier, however. I’m kind of looking forward to the day where I don’t write for a living any more. I’ll delete all my accounts everywhere and disappear like Salinger or Bobby Fischer. The only difference is that nobody’s going to come looking for me. They will still be glued to their phones.

I Thought You Said We Were Climbing Aboard The Peace Train

I don’t know if this is a metaphor, a call to action, or just a series of unconnected events, but… When I picked Spike The Accord up from his previous home in Birmingham, I thought I smelled something odd. More than odd. Just plain bad. It was a relief to fire Spike up and get a whiff of that 103-octane unleaded. Although it was seventy-two perfect degrees outside, I didn’t roll my windows down until I was fifty miles north of the city.

At the time, I put it down to being tired/irritable/oversensitive. Turns out that I wasn’t the only person to think that there is something rotten in Birmingham.

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Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

No, I’m not talking about the book of that title by nerdist writer Cory Doctorow, although there are some fascinating ideas in said book that are gradually manifesting in real life — most notably, the idea of Whuffie. I’m talking about people who spend their day smiling for children and spend their evenings struggling to find a meal or lodging. People who play princesses or wizards at Disneyland but who are powerless to break the spell of their own poverty.

The New York Times just did a piece about poverty-stricken workers at Disney’s California resort. (The link is an archive link, because fuck the Times, fuck their transparent agenda, and fuck their puppetmaster Carlos Slim.) The most damming part: “According to the report, 15 percent of employees who responded to the survey said they have received food stamps or visited a food bank.”

I’ve never personally visited Disneyland, although Danger Girl has been there many times. I’ve probably been to Disney World in Florida a dozen times, starting when I was six or seven years old and including a trip I took there with DG a while back so I could see the places she worked when she was an intern with the company. I’m not sure I’ll go back now. Disney is an obscenely profitable firm that espouses a variety of social-justice causes, up to and including rotting the Star Wars Universe from within via the mandatory inclusion of Mary Suewalkers. That’s fine — but to talk the SJW talk without walking the social justice walk seems a little too much even for me to accept.

A few weeks ago, when I was with my son in California, we looked at the cost of a ticket to Disneyland. It was $135 per day. A hundred and thirty-five dollars. To walk around in a place where young women are paid eleven bucks an hour to smile at my boy then go “home” to a car parked by the side of the road with homemade curtains drawn around the windows. It’s a hell of a business model, and it must thrill the investors, but it stinks to high heaven. Something is rotten in the Magic Kingdom.

Go Ahead, Take The Banana

My long-departed (from my house, not from this earth) first wife had a lot of suggestions for me during our marriage: Stop skipping work! Don’t leave stuff all over the kitchen! Quit buying things you don’t need! Tucked in among those absolutely ridiculous ideas, however, was a rather brilliant one. She thought I should write a book called Self-Service Nation about the bizarre lengths to which modern corporations will go in order to offload labor from employees to customers. I told her I’d get around to it as soon as I cleaned up the kitchen, which never happened.

Too late now, of course. We now expect as a matter of course that we will be self-servicing much of our interaction with everybody from Wells Fargo to Kroger to Google to the airlines, via Byzantine web forms with unique logins and mandatory 12-character passwords that expire every afternoon at 3:01. We understand that when we call for help that we will be forced to navigate through a deliberately confusing touch-tone questionnaire in which the penalty for making a single mistake is to be disconnected and pressing the “O” key out of frustration results in a snippy-sounding recording of a stoned Valley Girl saying, “Hmmm… I didn’t get that.” Bitch, of course you didn’t get that! You’re not real!

They promised us that service and retail work would replace the factory jobs that were sent to China, but the minute people got uppity about wanting to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of 1968’s minimum wage the corporate cash taps get opened and all of a sudden an insane amount of money is being spent on machines to replace those service and retail jobs. The most obvious and obnoxious example: the self-checkout machines at grocery stores and Wal-Marts across the country, which cost about $20,000 per lane and last five years, thus theoretically saving money over the $60,000 per year it would cost to staff a checkout lane sixteen hours per day.

The numbers really work. You could arguably have $250,000 worth of additional theft and shortages over that five-year period and still come up ahead compared to a human cashier. That’s about $150 a day of theft that you can just wink at.

Well, if recent reports are any indication, there’s a lot of winking going on.

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Z for Zegna

My father was an Armani man, but his thirtysomething son was a Zegna dude. Since the turn of the millennium the majority of the suits and sportcoats I’ve purchased and owned have been from Ermenegildo Zegna’s ready-to-wear line, most of them being made from whatever “Trofeo” grade wool looked most outrageous at the moment. Just last year I bought what will likely be my final pair of Zegna coats; the future for me is mostly Hickey Freeman on the low end and Richard Anderson on the high.

Like the nice folks at Rolex, the Zegna family has managed to put a relatively upscale and reasonably exclusive face on a company that moves a whole lotta product. Rolex makes over a million watches a year; Zegna is the largest upscale fashion brand with boutiques across the globe and a vertically-integrated manufacturing operation that does Armani and other brands behind the scenes. It’s all relative, of course. Rolex did $4.7 billion worth of sales last year and Zegna did a quarter of that. Still, it takes quite a few $11,000 watches or $3500 sportcoats to make those numbers.

Those of you who gag at the idea of paying motorcycle prices for machine-made suits might want to read the new Grailed piece on the history of Zegna. It’s impressive, to say the least. The company has never deviated from its vision. More importantly, in an era where most “luxury brands” are mere tentacles of LVMH or Richemont, the man who runs Ermenegildo Zegna today is named after the founder, who happens to be his grandfather. The company controls production from sheep to showroom floor. I’ll also say that they make a hell of a product. Eleven years ago I managed to fall out of a moving car while doing something remarkably stupid. I landed on my back and elbows, which were covered by a 1997-era Zegna standard-issue tweed coat. The impact was strong enough to scrape my skin beneath the clothes, but the Zegna coat remained intact and I wore it for another five years before misplacing it due to alcohol consumption at a press event. Try doing that with your Chinese sportcoat, why dontcha?