How not to sell a car

Followers of my Twitter stream know that my wife and I bought a new car over the weekend. Our local Honda dealer, Vista Honda, was the very soul of helpfulness and the antithesis of the stereotypical dealer experience. Full marks to Ruben, Ramiro, and Stephanie for their help. This post is not about them.

The day before we bought the car, we traveled to a neighboring community to look at a competitor whose cars offered increased content at a reduced price. This post is very much about them. 

I was fairly sure we'd end up with a Honda anyway, but before laying out twenty large on a new car, it only makes sense to consider the alternatives. To that end, I wanted my wife (who would be the primary driver of the new car) to try one out, just to see if it might suit her equally well, and therefore save us a pile of cash. So we walked onto the lot, and were greeted by an old-style car salesman. "Oh, great," I thought to myself. "This isn't going to end well." We selected a couple of cars, test drove them, and left without making any commitments, because it was fairly clear that my wife was not as pleased by the cars we drove as she was with the Hondas we'd been considering. I might add that the salesman kept up a stream of bad jokes and negative comments about the competition throughout our time there, which did not help. Of course, in order to do a test drive, they made a copy of my wife's driver's license and took down our phone number. Fortunately, I was prescient enough to give them not our home or cell numbers, but my Google Voice number. 

The salesman called me a couple hours after we left. I let it go to voicemail (I should mention here that I always let sales calls go to voicemail as a matter of course).

The next day, he called me as I was driving home from church. Again, I didn't pick up.

An hour later, he called me again. I started to get seriously irritated at this point, and once again let it go to voicemail.

Then, three hours later, as my wife and I were seriously discussing a possible purchase at the Honda dealer, he called again. At this point, I started to get so irritated that even if I wanted to buy the brand of car he was selling, I'd go somewhere else. If his dealership was the last one on Earth, I'd take up horseback riding. A few hours later, my wife was driving home in her brand new Honda.

The calls resumed the following day, while I was at work. I decided, "enough is enough," and went into my Google Voice settings and first set all calls from that dealership to go to the spam folder, which means he'd hear a ring, then get my outgoing message, but my phone wouldn't ring and I wouldn't be notified of the call. Later, I had second thoughts, said "the hell with it," and blocked all calls from that number, which means that callers from that number would hear a message saying my number had been disconnected (have I mentioned how much I love Google Voice?).

This probably just confused him, because if you count the calls marked as "Unknown Caller" that were likely from him, he called a dozen times that day.

Now, I don't know about you, but if I called someone sixteen times and didn't get a return call, I'd figure they didn't want to talk to me, had no intention of doing so, and weren't going to buy a car from me. Call me crazy, but that's how it would look to me.

Not to him. Apparently, he went to the trouble of looking up our home number (we're in the book, although I'll be fixing that) and left a message on my home machine. This was infuriating. I never give out my home number any more; if I wanted to be called at that number, I'd have given it to him. I picked up the phone, dialed the dealership number, and someone else picked up. I left explicit instructions for the salesman to STOP CALLING ME! and hung up. So far, there's been no further contact.

You might be wondering why I didn't just call the guy at the outset. The reason is simple: I didn't feel that should be necessary. I didn't owe him anything. As much as I love cars, most of the ones on the market today are just overgrown appliances to me. When I go shopping for a refrigerator or a washing machine, I don't call the guy at Sears to let him know that gee, he was real helpful and everything but we liked the Whirlpool better and he shouldn't take it personally and we wish him all the best in the future. He's not my mother, my wife, or my boss. He's a freaking salesman, for cryin' out loud. 

Contrast this with the modus operandi of the dealership from whom we ultimately bought a car: each visit to the dealership was followed by a single phone call, thanking us for our visit and offering to answer any further questions we might have. When you are a modern dealership, with quality vehicles for sale, it isn't necessary to harass and annoy potential customers.

Unfortunately, that's a lesson that the other guys will probably never learn.

The scourge of Foursquare

The screenshot above (no longer available, sadly--Larry) perfectly illustrates what I dislike about Foursquare. Somewhere along the way, the idea developed that we not only need to broadcast our every thought (à la Twitter), but also tell the world where we are at every moment of the day, regardless of whether the people to whom we're broadcasting want to hear it or not.

Personally, I find the idea of telling the world my location constantly a little creepy. I figure there's no reason to make life easier for psychos and stalkers, but that's just me. Unfortunately, Foursquare fills up my Twitter stream with cutesy messages that someone I follow on Twitter is now the "mayor" of something. For some reason, the "cute" aspect makes it particularly disagreeable. When I was more active on Jaiku, it was somewhat interesting being able to see a person's location, but the appeal wore off quickly. Making it an annoying, gushing statement with an exclamation! point on the end (and that I have no choice about seeing) doesn't make it any better. There are better ways it could be done; Foursquare's chief competitor, Gowalla, makes it a simple statement (like this) which is much less hyperactive, and consequently less irritating.

I've thought about unfollowing anyone on Twitter who insists on filling up their stream with this dreck, but the chief offender among those whom I follow is someone from whom I get useful information on a fairly regular basis, and I'd hate to lose that. What I really need is some kind of tool that would let me filter out the automated Foursquare spam and focus on the informative posts. If anyone wants to write a program like that, I'll gladly volunteer to do your beta testing.

Devastation in Haiti

As a native Californian, I've been through a few serious earthquakes in my life--Sylmar 1972 and Northridge 1994, just to name two--but never have I experienced anything like the devastation in Port-au-Prince. A 7.0 is less an earthquake than it is a subterranean nuclear bomb, and in a Third World country stricken with almost impenetrable poverty and questionable building standards, the extent of the damage and loss of life will be overwhelming, as is already becoming evident.

The question for those of us in more fortunate areas of the world is simple: how should we react to this? The two obvious answers are to give to relief efforts and to pray for the victims. Religion is rarely all of a piece, though, and there have already been two distinct reactions to the events in Haiti. Let's compare them, and you can decide for yourself which is more humanitarian, more helpful, and dare I say more Christian.

First, the televangelist Pat Roberts, on his show The 700 Club :

Now, an Orthodox priest, Father Jonathan Tobias, on his blog _Second Terrace_ :

Pray for mercy. repeatedly, profligately. Do not wait for detailed information to give to the Lord, as He knows it already. Do not wonder whether one should pray for non-Christians or non-Orthodox. Do not try to figure out how your prayers may make a difference. Now is not a good time to be deterministic or gnostic.

Give. Repeatedly. Profligately. Give through the IOCC, through the American Red Cross, through the MCC, Friends Disaster Service, World Vision. Do not wait for detailed information. Do not wonder whether one should give to secular or Christian or Orthodox organizations. Do not try to figure out how your gifts will make a difference. Now is not a good time to be an accountant.

Do not be philosophical and think decrepit thoughts like Voltaire upon Lisbon.

Wondering why an earthquake happened is a waste of time. For Christians it could be worse, as it takes away time from prayer._

One need not tax one's brain too hard to figure out which one I choose to stand with. Axios!

Double Atomic bomb survivor dies in Japan

TOKYO -- Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the only person officially recognized as a survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings at the end of World War II, has died at age 93.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip for his shipbuilding company on Aug. 6, 1945, when a U.S. B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city.

He then returned to his hometown of Nagasaki, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) southwest, which suffered a second U.S. atomic bomb attack three days later…

Yamaguchi was the only person to be certified by the Japanese government as having been in both cities when they were attacked, although other dual survivors have also been identified…

He spoke at the United Nations in 2006, wrote books and songs about his experiences, and appeared in a documentary about survivors of both attacks…

Immediately after the war, Yamaguchi worked as a translator for American forces in Nagasaki and later as a junior high school teacher.


Slowly but inexorably, a world is passing into history, and this man occupied a unique place in that world. As with the Holocaust, someday the last witnesses to the atomic bombings will breathe their last, and God help our species if we don't remember their stories.

California's priorities and the problem therewith

Wow, it's been a while since I posted here. Did you have a nice holiday? Good. Yeah, mine was great--thanks for asking. And you're looking good--new hairstyle? Lose weight? I thought so. Sweet.

Anyway, I'm back, and I've got a bit of a rant for you…

I got the following email today (boldface is mine):

---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: UC President Mark Yudof <[email protected]
> Date: Wed, Jan 6, 2010 at 20:24
> Subject: California's priorities
> To: Lawrence Anderson
> Lawrence-
> I write to share with you some good news from Sacramento. Governor Schwarzenegger today proposed a dramatic change in the way public higher education is funded in California, a plan that if adopted could give UC a secure financial footing for the future.
> This is a bold and visionary plan that represents a fundamental restoration of the values and priorities that have made California great.The plan would provide a constitutional guarantee to fund public higher education at a minimum of 10 percent of the state's General Fund budget. I commend the Governor for recognizing that UC - the world's premier public university - is an investment in California and its people that more than pays for itself.

(rest of email snipped)

Now, I'm a graduate of the UC system, so perhaps I shouldn't begrudge others the chance to get the same education of which I am a beneficiary. However, I can't help but point out that the last thing California needs is another constitutional spending mandate. One of the reasons this state is in the dire straits it's currently experiencing is that we have tied the hands of the legislature by creating constitutional requirements to spend X% on schools, Y% on social services, and Z% on law enforcement. And, by the way, they can't raise property taxes to pay for anything because of Proposition 13.


How the hell is the government supposed to respond to changing needs? What if we need to rebuild freeways? What about bridges? What if we need to restore a waterway or improve an airport? What if we have a public health crisis that requires an immediate and widespread inoculation program? How in the name of all that is holy are we supposed to intelligently manage the state's finances when we've locked in the percentages?

Mark Yudof, this is most assuredly NOT "a bold and visionary plan that represents a fundamental restoration of the values and priorities that have made California great."This is a cowardly and buck-passing plan that continues the bad choices that have destroyed the finances of a state that was once the envy of America.Mr. Yudof, if you really believe the drivel that you spouted in this email, you're a bigger fool than the geniuses we inexplicably elect to represent us in Sacramento. I have no problem supporting public universities, but we've got to pay for it with commensurate taxes. Voting in spending mandates without paying for them by imposing corresponding taxation is the act of a political coward.

Not a Californian? You still might want to pay attention to this. What happens here tends to happen elsewhere eventually, and as American politics becomes more and more polarized, it's going to look like California politics writ large. Look upon our works, ye mighty, and despair…

Which brings me to my next point: on both state and national levels, despite the polarization and divisiveness, there is no longer any meaningful distinction in practical terms between the Republican and Democratic parties. Both of them spend like drunken sailors on leave and both of them are hopelessly corrupted by the money they receive from corporate entities and political action committees. For God's sake, the health care reform bill was emasculated due to the opposition of the man who was the Democratic nominee for Vice-President ten years ago, because he also happens to be the senator from Aetna--er, I mean Connecticut. My bad.

In short, both major parties have completely lost my confidence. We need to fix a lot of things in this country, which requires leadership, and we're not going to get it from the Republicrats--at least not the ones in power today. Political discussion in this state and in this country needs a serious jolt, and our elected leaders need to have the living crap scared out of them. American history shows that the two major parties embrace widespread and systemic change only when there is danger of a third force gaining the upper hand. The time has come to remind them that they serve only at our pleasure, and they have to earn their return tickets every two, four, or six years. It's time to bring forward and support alternative parties on both ends of the spectrum, such as the Greens, the Libertarians, and even the Socialists (among others). They may not be perfect, but they can influence the debate in meaningful ways, and serve as a warning to the established parties that they do not have a guarantee of permanent power.

I, for one, no longer intend to support either of the two major political parties until they demonstrate, through their actions, a commitment to serious, systemic, and thorough reform, and concern for the average citizen. I will accept nothing less.

And who knows? We might even break the deadly stalemate we find ourselves in today. And that would be a wonderful thing.

A cybervisit from Down Under

For an amateur blogger, Google Analytics is a fascinating resource. Unlike pro bloggers, I'm not trying to maximize ad revenue (or even generate revenue) but it's kind of fun to see who's visiting my site and what they look at. Understandably, most of the visits are from people I know either in real life or online, but I also get visits from around the world, mostly one-off visits from people who find me via Google or through a referral from a blog where I left a comment. Occasionally, though, something kind of jumps out at me.

When I checked tonight, I found someone from the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Sydney had visited my blog three times yesterday (presumably because I said nice things about the ABC and its programming). I can only assume that someone on the ABC staff is looking for mentions of their programming online, as they'd have to look fairly hard to stumble over my little corner of the internet. Whatever the details, whoever you are, Aussie friend, thanks for visiting, and I hope you'll leave a comment next time.

The problem with California

Gerrymandering into "safe" legislative districts means that state senators and assembly members face no serious opposition and can't get voted out of office unless they're caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. There's no incentive for them to perform, since the initiative/referendum process means they can pawn off the difficult or controversial issues onto the people themselves. Add into that the tendency of the public to vote yes on bond measures and entitlement programs while simultaneously taking away the ability to pay for such things by limiting the ability to collect taxes (see Prop. 13), and then requiring a 2/3 majority vote to pass a simple budget, and you've got a recipe for, well, the disaster we find ourselves in today.

I'm a native Californian, and I'm completely disgusted. We need to rewrite the state constitution to fix these issues, or nothing will ever change.

--My comment on Rod Dreher's blog

The folly of idols

I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children. I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try.

I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow competitors, for their understanding. What's most important now is that my family has the time, privacy, and safe haven we will need for personal healing.

After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person._ _Again, I ask for privacy for my family and I am especially grateful for all those who have offered compassion and concern during this difficult period.

--from Tiger Woods' website

Once again, I am led to wonder about a culture that makes role models of ordinary human beings for the silliest of reasons. Tiger Woods is undoubtedly a superior golfer, but let's be absolutely clear about one thing: it means he has the ability to hit a small ball with a large stick and send it in a particular direction, chasing it into a small hole, hitting it fewer times than most others require to achieve the same result. Nothing more, nothing less. He has been very fortunate in that he has been able to parlay this ability into a lucrative career, and it's certainly nothing that I can do, but perhaps you will forgive me if I find this less impressive than, say, finding the cure for polio or devoting one's life to teaching 7th graders (which surely should qualify one for canonization).

Nevertheless, we live in a society that likes to put people on pedestals, essentially setting them up to fail, then we are surprised to find out that they have feet of clay like the rest of us. It isn't just popular culture, either; the leader of my church, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, said at his elevation to the metropolitanate that when it comes to bishops, "What happens to a guy? You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever." And then we're surprised when problems happen.

So when a pro athlete with a beautiful wife, millions of dollars in sponsorships and a jet-set lifestyle turns out to have violated his marriage vows, it becomes front-page news and fodder for all the tabloids and talk radio hosts, and everyone professes shock. Sorry, but I'm not shocked. Tiger Woods has been in the public eye for his entire life--his first TV appearance was on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, putting against Bob Hope. He's enjoyed fabulous success, has played on the finest courses in the world, has traveled around the globe, and has been showered with obscene amounts of money while women were throwing themselves at him at every turn. And then we're surprised that problems happened--that he was less than perfect, that he turned out to be an adult male with a prodigious sexual appetite, that his squeaky-clean image was just that, an image. Oh dear, stop the presses.

And if this is unfair to Tiger Woods and those, like him, who find themselves the fallen idols of an unforgiving public, it's equally bad for said public. Focusing on the private peccadillos of our secular idols does nothing to improve the quality of our own imperfect lives, and we would be far better off giving him and his family the privacy and the time to put their lives back together. Otherwise, it's all just gossip, judgment, and condemnation, and we might as well be flogging ourselves, since all of those things are transgressions, and none of them are salvific.

More thoughts on Google Wave (plus invitations)

By now, if you're tech-savvy enough to have found this blog (or the pointers to it on my Twitter feed), you've probably heard about Google Wave (if you haven't, look hereand here). It's been heralded as the Next Big Thing, as the replacement for email. and as yet another facet of Google's diabolical plot to take over the world.

None of that is really true; what it is, as far as I can tell, is a potentially great collaboration tool and a platform upon which another model of communication can be built. I say "potentially" because Google Wave as it stands right now is tremendously disappointing. However, it's currently just a "preview." making it the web equivalent of pre-alpha software, and it will undoubtedly evolve in interesting ways as people bang on it to see what it can do. Google's decision to open it up to invited users was seemingly designed to foster exactly that kind of public hands-on development, rather like letting a bunch of second-graders into a room full of Legos to see what they can create. The difficulty is that the Wave experience is not exactly an intuitive one. As Gina Trapani put it on the latest edition of _This Week in Google,_ Wave is unapologetic about this, and that it may not necessarily be a bad thing that there is a bit of a barrier to entry. I disagree.

If there is any feeling in the emerging Wave community that a certain level of difficulty is a good thing, they're dead wrong. There's a precedent for this, and it's called Linux. Don't get me wrong--Linux is a fine operating system, as long as you're willing to invest some time in configuration and are comfortable in the command line. But as a mass-market OS, it's largely been a bust. I've heard for years about how this could be "the year of desktop Linux," but it never seems to happen. This is at least in part because while some Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, have made user-friendliness a priority, there is still a certain segment of the Linux community that will respond to newbie forum questions with "Jeez, all you have to do is sudo gedit xorg.conf. RTFM!" Which is not helpful, to put it mildly.Rather than duplicate that kind of user experience around Wave, Google needs to do what Google does best, which is to innovate and make things simple but relatively powerful, if somewhat unpolished. Take Gmail, for example--compared with Hotmail or Yahoo, it's an untraditional email user interface, but most people can grasp what everything is, how it works, and adapt to it fairly quickly. Wave needs to do the same.

On the surface, the Wave interface looks simple enough (see photo above), but you can spend a couple of hours playing with it and still not figure out how to do something simple, unless of course you've taken the precaution of reading the ambitiously-named Complete Guide to Google Wave. So far, the innovation part is happening, and there is definitely power there; the making things simple is hopefully still to come. It's completely understandable that Wave in its current form is primarily useful only for techies and early adopters, but if it is to have a future with the general public, it can't be another geek fortress.And now, the offer: if you've read this far, haven't been scared off, are curious about how Wave works, and would like to try it yourself, I have invitations and I am giving them away to anyone who wants one. All you have to do is go to my Wave invitation pageand fill out the form. When I run out of invitations, I'll take down the form. Sound like a plan? Great. Then go fill it out, and I'll see you in Wave!

If the Earth had rings

Found this tonight while aimlessly cruising the Web, and it's too good not to share--at least if you're an old sci-fi geek like me. It also raises a few questions. How do you suppose our various cultures would have explained the presence of rings in the sky? Would it have precluded the emergence of the flat-Earth myth? Fun to think about…