Friday, March 30, 2012

Oil change wars: An "A" for Jiffy Lube, an "F" for Pep Boys

I usually go to Jiffy Lube for oil changes, but when the time came recently to take my car in, I thought I might try a new place. Jiffy Lube oil change prices are kind of high   about $43 if you don't have a coupon and I've tired of their continual attempts to upsell ("Change your wipers?  Flush your radiator? Replace your gazoodlefrackus?")

A couple coupons in the mail suggested other options. One came from a Long Beach car dealer, Harbor Hyundai, offering an oil change for $21.95.  Hmmm, not too bad. I called and scheduled an appointment for the next day, then asked how long the oil change would take. "About an hour and 15 minutes," the dealer man said.

I'm not an automotive genius, but I know that an oil change should not take 75 minutes. You remove the drain plug, let the oil run out, remove the filter, put in a new filter, reinstall the plug, then pour in new oil. How could that take an hour and 15 minutes, especially for experienced mechanics?

"It won't take as long if you don't want your car washed," the Hyundai man told me on the phone. Huh? Who said anything about a car wash?  "We always wash your car," he said. Actually, I told him, I just needed an oil change. I set aside Harbor Hyundai as an option while I kept shopping.

I also received a $21.99 oil change coupon from Pep Boys, and the flyer said I could schedule an appointment online. So I went to the Pep Boys "E-Serve" page. After going through several pages carefully entering my name, email address, phone number, type of car, new password and appointment time, the system told me,"Sorry, we cannot schedule your appointment at this time." Thanks a lot.

So I called the Pep Boys on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, and as I was on the phone, I received an email confirming my appointment. Huh?  Did my appointment go through after all?  Yes, said the man on the phone. Actually, there's TWO appointments in the system. First, no appointment, then two.

This should have been a tip off to me that Pep Boys might not be smoothest operation on the planet. Still, I did discover that Pep Boys offers a $19.99 oil change Tuesday through Thursday, and I would be going in  on a Wednesday. That's the best price I'd found yet.

But when I got to Pep Boys the next day at the time of my appointment I was in for a shock: They didn't have the correct oil filter. Yes, this is an auto parts store, and yes, they have scores of shelves packed high with products. But they didn't have the correct filter for a 2011 Hyundai Santa Fe, hardly a rare vehicle (75,000 of them were sold in the U.S. last year).  Even with 24 hours notice that a Hyundai Santa Fe was coming in for an oil change, Pep Boys made no effort to get the correct filter, or to warn me they couldn't do it.

It's safe to say I won't be doing any more business with Pep Boys.

Stymied, I found a $9-off coupon for Jiffy Lube and headed to the shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. To my delight, Jiffy Lube was having a $10 off special, so I didn't need the coupon. Even better, they changed my oil in about 15 minutes (take that, Harbor Hyundai!).  Minor complaint: They inflated my tires to 35 psi, even though the door panel clearly states that 33 psi is ideal for this car.

All in all, my Jiffy Lube visit cost $33, and very little time. Did they try to upsell me? Yes, but it was mild, and no one even mentioned the gazoodlefrackus.


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Monday, March 26, 2012

Why the Expo Line will hurt Blue Line riders

Los Angeles Metro is trying to get everyone excited over the opening of the new Exposition Line from Culver City to downtown L.A. in April. But one thing is receiving little attention: When the Expo Line starts running, riders on the Metro's existing Blue Line are going to suffer.

The problem is that the Blue and Expo lines will share the last mile of track to downtown Los Angeles. Currently, Blue Line trains run every six minutes during rush hour, but they will not be able to keep up that schedule once Expo lines join the mix. Some Blue Line trains will be replaced by Expo Line trains.

Couldn't the Expo trains slip in between Blue Line trains on the current schedule? No way. If you've ever watched the slow motion ballet of trains at downtown's 7th Street/Metro Center you'll realize it's impossible to send off trains more frequently that they do now. Each train has to come in, deposit passengers, pull up, shift to the other track, change directions and load up new passengers.

What I predict: Blue and Expo lines will end up alternating, which means that Blue Line passengers will only get a train every 12 minutes.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Book review: "Fatal Crossroads" by Danny S. Parker

On Dec. 17, 1944, at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, a lightly armed U.S. Army convoy was surprised by a German tank squadron at an intersection near Malmedy, Belgium. Realizing that they were clearly outgunned, most of the Americans quickly surrendered.

The Germans disarmed the 127 prisoners, gathered them in a field and then fired into the crowd with a machine gun. Those men that showed any sign of life after the machine gun stopped were executed with a pistol. In all, 84 Americans died. The other 43, most of them wounded and bleeding, played dead in the field for up to two hours before running or crawling to safety.

The Malmedy Massacre, as it has come to be known, was a horrific atrocity for which some German officers were sentenced to death after the war (the sentences were later commuted to prison time). In "Fatal Crossroads," author Danny S. Parker THOROUGHLY recounts the events of that day, relating the stories of dozens of the men who were there, both American and German.

Parker is to be commended for his comprehensive research, but unfortunately his storytelling suffers from too much repetition. Parker tells every moment of the day from multiple perspectives, even when different participants recall basically the same thing.

At first this is confusing. As various Americans each describe the moment when the convey first encountered the Germans, for example, I thought they were relating different, though strangely similar, events. Later the repetition becomes annoying. On page 105, for instance, with the Americans gathered in the field, the massacre begins. Then it all starts again on page 106, then again on pages 108, 109, 111, 116, 118, 119, 121 and many times more. Clearly, this is a book where you can skim through large parts.

This IS an important story to tell; I just wish it was told better. I didn't know a lot about the Battle of the Bulge going in, so I did like the early parts of the book describing how the Germans chose this unlikely place for their assault, and how the front lines were so unclear that the Americans never expected to run into the enemy near Malmedy. I also really liked one chapter called "Escape," which told the story of how American Charles Reding saved the life - with the assistance of a Belgian family - of fellow soldier Bill Merriken.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Movie review: "A Little Help"

 "A Little Help" can be classified as a "feel good" movie simply because the main characters are so screwed up you feel good about your own life by comparison.

Daniel Yelsky and Jenna Fischer
Jenna Fischer stars as Laura, a dental hygenist and mother who drinks, smokes, and lies too much and allows herself to be pushed around by everyone in her extended dysfunctional family. Her husband (Chris O'Donnell) is a philandering, mostly absent father. Their 12-year-old son (Daniel Yelsky), not surprisingly, turns out to have his share of problems, and makes up a whopper of a lie that entangles his mother.

When she's not being bullied by her husband, Laura is bossed around by her control-freak sister (Brooke Smith) and hypercritical mother (Lesley Ann Warren).

With all this negativity, it's a nice surprise to see the story has moments of humor and warmth, largely because of amiable performances by Fischer and Rob Benedict, who plays her brother-in-law, the least screwed up character in the cast.

Still, while we're supposed to be rooting for Laura, her relationship missteps are so painfully wrong that the movie is sometimes hard to watch.

Also, one element of the story's premise doesn't ring true. Laura has been a mother for some 12 years, apparently without much help from her husband, yet she has none of the characteristics experienced mothers develop. She is uncertain and indecisive, and has no sense of self-reliance. It's almost like she's just noticing that she has a son to raise.


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Monday, March 12, 2012

Dish Network: How to stop "Press select for live scores" message

If you watch sports on Dish Network, you may have seen the message "Press select for live scores" pop up repeatedly on your screen. To turn this feature off, do this:

  • Press Menu on your remote.
  • Choose System Setup, then Installation, then TV Enhancements.
  • Lastly, choose "disable" under "Enable/Disable TV Enhancements."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Real estate letters do not inspire confidence

Like most people, we get a lot of unwanted mail at our house. But two items that showed up yesterday struck me as particularly unusual.

The first was a thick envelope from Anchor Seaport Escrow of Long Beach, Calif.  The letter on the top began, "Thank you for selecting Anchor Seaport Escrow to process your escrow." One problem: We didn't select Anchor Seaport to process our escrow. In fact, we don't even have an escrow to process.

The rest of the envelope included two sets of "Loan Escrow Instructions," plus a form that asked for the kind of information that an identity thief would consider a gold  mine: social security numbers, driver's license numbers, birthdates, names of former spouses, and a history of addresses and occupations.

I actually don't think this was an identity theft ploy, just a strange misfire that reflects badly on Anchor Seaport Escrow. You rely on escrow companies to handle large financial transactions carefully and accurately, but this one not only sent this package out by mistake, it also botched my wife's name throughout the documents.

The letter also had these odd sentences: "All documents should be signed EXACTLY as your name(s) appear. Should your name(s) be misspelled, sign them correctly and advise us in writing when you return these papers." Um, so sign EXACTLY as your name is shown but don't. That's really clear. (Here's a crazy idea: Don't misspell my name in the first place.)

The second item also came from the real estate field. The letter starts: "Please contact us today concerning your current home loan with Wachovia Mtg Fsb."  Two problems: It never says who the "us" is in "contact us" and we don't have a home loan with Wachovia in fact, Wachovia Mortgage doesn't even exist anymore (it was taken over by Wells Fargo three years ago).

There's no company name in the return address or in the chipper sales pitch. The fine print refers to a "Pacific Platinum Properties," but it's unclear if that's the company that sent the letter. And when I called the toll-free number, I got a recording with a male voice that said, "You have reached Thomas voice mail." Can you say "shady operation"?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book review: "No Surrender" by James J. Sheeran

In "No Surrender," James J. Sheeran recounts his experiences as a U.S. Army paratrooper in World War II during 1944 and 1945. The title seems an odd choice, since Sheeran does surrender in the second chapter. But I guess it is meant more as a metaphor, for even after being captured by German troops, Sheeran didn't give up.

In just eight months, Sheeran collected enough amazing experiences to last a lifetime. He parachuted into France on D-Day, but was soon captured. He endured mistreatment as a prisoner of war, then boldly escaped by jumping from a train. He was hidden by French villagers, and helped the Resistance attack and sabotage Nazi troops.

In a what-are-the-odds kind of twist, he and a buddy stumble into Sheeran's mother's hometown in France, and he learns some long-hidden family secrets from newly discovered relatives. He eventually returns to the Army, declines an offer to be sent home, and ends up in the thick of the Battle of the Bulge, dodging death multiple times.

I especially liked the stories of Sheeran and fellow soldier Burnie Rainwater, after their escape from German hands, hiding behind enemy lines. These are different from your typical war stories, and you can feel the relief as the two scared young men are welcomed, often with lavish meals, into the homes of French villagers who are risking their lives by harboring U.S. soldiers.

Still, I do have a few quibbles.

While the book is generally an easy read, there are occasional hiccups where events aren't clearly explained. At one point, for instance, he and a fellow soldier creep up on some Germans and Sheeran says, "Getting them all at once was the only way we could survive." Yet they choose not to attack and do survive. Huh? Normally I would expect an editor to work with the author to fix such items, but Sheeran died in 2007 while the book was being prepared, so perhaps there was no way to do so.

The book quotes some characters in their native French, I suppose to give a feel of authenticity, but too often there is no translation. Unless you read French, you'll be confused.

Sheeran is a chipper and upbeat guy and comes off as very likable, but this characteristic also seems to diminish the serious nature of some of his tales. Sure, he was mistreated as a prisoner, but he doesn't dwell on it. Yes, he was shot at, dodged bombs, and saw men die around him in the Battle of the Bulge, but in Sheeran's telling it seems like more of a game than a war. Even when he kills Germans in hand-to-hand combat it seems a bloodless event "A German soldier came outside, and we dealt with him quickly, and silently, with a knife."

Still, those are minor weaknesses. Overall, the stories are interesting and the book enjoyable to read.