Monday, March 28, 2011

When fuel prices go up…get a new car?

With the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded at over $4.00, along with the civil unrest in Lybia and Egypt- compounded by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan…is now the best time to buy a new fuel efficient car?

Well, like anything else, it all depends on whom you ask and what your current situation is. There have been very few occasions in recent history that I can remember when there have been so many good deals and favorable financing when it comes to shopping for a new car than now. From 0% financing for 5 years, to leases offering no down and payments under $200 a month. It seems like nowadays you can find yourself in a brand new Honda Civic that gets 40 mpg for around the same price as what some people pay for their cell phone bill.

However, the very reasons I just mentioned in favor of buying a new car right now, ironically enough are the same reasons why you should hold off on purchasing that new set of wheels. Purchasing something in the midst of frenzy is like going grocery shopping when you haven’t eaten anything all day. Emotion trumping logic is almost always a formula for buyer’s remorse.

We need to remind ourselves that gas prices could drop just as easily and as fast as they went up. The rise and fall of crude oil is not always directly correlated to supply, but rather on the overall sentiment of those who trade it as a commodity. Just because the price of crude oil is at a whopping $105 per barrel (the highest its been in years), that does not mean that there is a shortage of it. It ‘s merely a nervous reaction to what is going on around the world that is causing prices to rise.

So if global calamities and high gas prices are the reasons why you want to buy a new car, I suggest that you wait a couple of months, you will thank me for it later. However if your car is on its last leg and you’ve already been thinking of purchasing a new vehicle for sometime, then now is the time to buy. There are a plethora of reliable, fuel-efficient cars in the marketplace today. Toyotas, even with their recall issues still have a very loyal following and seemed to have garnered a favorable verdict in the court of public opinion. Sportier options are also aplenty with the Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Jetta and the return of the Fiat 500- are all stylish alternatives for those who want a little fun to go along with their practicality.

Living in L.A. where we are often judged by what car we drive, it can be very easy to succumb to notion of constantly wanting to be seen in what is the latest and greatest just so we can impress the valet or the person next to you at a stop light. I have always considered myself to be a "car guy" and I sometimes miss the days of weaving through Laurel Canyon in my sporty Audi Quattro, with its 6 speed manual transmission and all its Teutonic glory. Whenever that longing tries to become a new reality, I remind myself that there is no better way to hedge or balance out high gas prices than not having a car payment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Inside Job

For anyone out there who is the slightest bit intrigued by the financial crisis of 2008- "Inside Job" The Academy Award winning documentary is a must see. This has been a topic that I have been borderline obsessed with for the last 2 years. I have read countless articles, books and have seen pretty much every interview or documentary available and few tell the story in a more clear & understandable way than this movie.

Why should anyone care about a bunch of finance geeks with their fancy degrees who seem to speak a language that only other finance geeks can understand? Because what happened in October 2008 was the financial equivalent of the "Cuban Missile Crisis" minus the "almost". With subprime mortgages instead of nuclear warheads that were launched on a global scale.

How exactly does a "simple" home mortgage that originated in the United States ultimately bankrupt a country as far away as Iceland? What ever happened to regulation? And why didn't anyone see this coming? All these questions were asked and no one seemed to have any answers.

The film is narrated by Matt Damon and does an excellent job keeping its audience captivated about a topic that few people understand by breaking it up into 5 parts.

1. How We Got Here
2. The Bubble
3. The Crisis
4. Accountability
5. Where Are We Now?

"Inside Job" looks at the financial meltdown of 2008 as a product of the human condition and not just as a numbers game. It delves into the ever expanding breadth & influence of the world of Wall Street on Government and education which shapes legislation in its favor.

While watching this movie, a midst all my feelings of betrayal and outrage, I kept asking myself one simple question, if I was in the same position as some of these Wall Street titans making obscene amounts of money by just being in the right circle of influence "Would I have acted any different?" Morality is often more or less ambiguous depending on which side of the transaction you are on.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not so basic cable

With cable and satellite providers still charging a premium price for not so premium content, even the least technologically adept consumer is becoming savvy when it comes to getting more T.V. for less. Nowadays devices that offer Internet content and downloadable programming are becoming more and more commonplace, a gradual yet significant sea change that may one day force cable and satellite companies to restructure the model in which they charge subscribers for their service.

I myself was once a cable company’s easiest target. For the better part of my young adult life I opted for the “all inclusive” packages that included the many different variations of HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz and God knows what other channels were included that I seldom watched. As I graduated from my twenties and into my thirties I started to realize that television in general was becoming less of a focal point in my life and when I was watching TV, I was primarily watching news programs, sporting events and other shows that were on basic network cable or network TV. While following some of my favorites such as the hit British automotive show Top Gear online and renting other movies and documentaries from Netflix.

I have long heard of Blu Ray Players and game consoles like the Nintendo WII and Sony Play Station offering Internet connectivity directly to your TV, however not being “gamer” by any stretch of the imagination and since I primarily watched independent movies and foreign films, the idea of getting a Blu-Ray player just so I can watch subtitles with life like clarity did not appeal to me. So when I heard about the unveiling of the latest Apple TV offering Internet connectivity, Netflix and Youtube directly to your TV- all for a little over a hundred bucks I was more than just a little bit interested.

I have to admit however that I am a bit biased, as I sit here typing away on my iMac, while owning a MacBook, 3 different iPods and an Apple Time Capsule, that Apple TV with its low price was probably review proof and for all intents and purposes had me at “Apple”. But after purchasing one and bringing it home, it did not disappoint and fulfilled almost everything I was hoping for. Here is the breakdown:

At a Glance

Apple TV
Apple Inc.
Price: $99
Dimensions: 3.9 x 0.9 x 3.9 in.
Video output: 720p HDTV
Audio output: W5.1 surround sound
Remote control: IR remote, iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad apps
Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n, Ethernet, HDMI out, optical audio out
Basic media channels: YouTube, iTunes
Premium media channels: Netflix, iTunes store movie and TV rentals

PROS: It’s very reasonably priced at $99 and its size (which resembles a square hockey puck) is very sleek and unobtrusive. Its functionality is simple and very easy to install only needing a power cord (included) and an HDMI cable (not included) and connects directly to your home WIFI network. Once you get the install out of the way the set-up phase is almost as easy. By using the remote control that is literally the size of a stick of Juicy Fruit, you can navigate through the process of accessing your Netflix account by simply typing in your username and password.

You can also sync your various computers Mac or PC, to wirelessly play your iTunes library, showcase pictures and video directly to your TV. Syncing all other Apple devices such as the iPhone, iPod, iTouch and iPad are a snap as well. Once the device is recognized almost anything you see or hear from it can be seen and heard directly from your television set. You can even download the free “Remote Control” App that allows you to use that device to control Apple TV.

Sifting through the Netflix library is pretty intuitive and mimics the way you would look through titles directly from the Netflix website. You can even rent movies and television shows from iTunes for 99 cents for older episodes and up to $4.99 for newer releases. YouTube can be accessed straight from the Apple TV as well, allowing you to watch YouTube videos on your television from the comfort of your couch rather than watching it on a computer screen.

CONS: for those looking for a complete and comprehensive way of surfing the Internet through your Television Set, Apple TV is not the right device for you. There are other devices that offer a more all around web experience like Google TV that comes with a wireless keyboard but costs three times more. The remote control that comes with the Apple TV might almost be too small and sleek and can easily be lost. Another somewhat annoying feature is that the remote control not only controls the Apple TV consul but it also controls any MAC computers you may have in your home as well. So if you happen to have either an iMac desktop or MacBook in proximity to your Apple TV you will end up controlling both simultaneously.

Bottom Line:
My modest needs were met by Apple TV at a modest price. Just this weekend I cancelled all of my premium movie channels, which brought my cable bill down from almost $140 a month to less than a hundred. In just two months time, purchasing the Apple TV will almost pay for itself. The bottom line does not get much clearer than that.
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