Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Week-Long Quest

Last week, I purchased my first Quest--a 2009 Nissan Quest SE (grey with grey leather interior). Prior to this time, I had owned a 2008 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited and a 2005 Honda Odyssey Touring Model.

The Honda was a dismal experience. The touring model ate up tires in no time; I had to replace the PAX tires twice in 28,000 miles. The inside was comfortable on a fundamental level, but the vehicle was poorly assembled with little attention to fit and finish. Like every Honda I owned from 2000 on, the vehicle was a rattle-trap, and the dealer had no willingness or inclination to address that as a problem ("If you want a quiet vehicle, buy an Acura," they said--which I would have done, had Acura made minivans). The seat configuration required me to fill my garage's storage area with two second-row seats, which took up room I'd rather use for something better. Even worse, Honda released the 2004 and 2005 Odyssey with a known defect: they put the air conditioning compressor very low, just behind the lower air intake vent, which had no mesh or gridwork to protect it. Naturally, within a year, I had a punctured compressor, damaged by a rock thrown up from the road. Honda admitted the problem, but was willing to do nothing to cover any cost of the repair. ("Road hazard," they said.) And because I really enjoy listening to music in the Honda, I was bothered by the fact that the sound was mushy and flat and lackluster, with no built-in iPod integration. And speaking of mushy... the vehicle also had a mushy ride, dipping into curves and seeming to stress under any load over 900 pounds. It braked poorly and seemed to grind when the van was loaded.

Honda's horrid customer service on the air conditioning compressor led me to trade in that van for the Sienna. The quality control was much better, the fit and finish greatly improved. The compressor problem didn't exist, thanks to intelligent design of that front air intake vent and wise positioning of the compressor. Tire wear was much more even and tires lasted longer. While the Sienna didn't have a manufacturer-built-in iPod interface for the deluxe JBL Synthesis/Nav system, the Toyota dealer did hook me up with a third party dealer who installed the interface the same day I bought the van. There were problems, though: the second-row seats still had to be removed, for instance. The JBL sound system, while better than the Odyssey system, was still aggravatingly bad. Toyota, for some reason, put limiters on the front speakers that filtered out bass. The speakers had no real tweeters---they were just midrange speakers, so they sounded tinny, with no highs or lows. And the subwoofer thumped like a bad differential, but it had no tonality to the thump... just a dull thud. Like the Odyssey, the vehicle drove like a van--heavy and sluggish in response, and it too was mushy when carrying a load. It braked better, but still seemed taxed by a load. And no one has a more dysfunctional voice-activated system than Toyota; never once in the year and a half that I owned the van did it recognize a SINGLE SPOKEN COMMAND. We would occasionally just babble nonsense at the car to see what it would do, since that frequently got results no worse than using the suggested voice commands. The Toyota DID seem a bit more refined, though: it had a better dash design, more intuitive controls, a sueprior touch-screen nav system, and little touches like turn signals on the rearview mirrors, power folding mirrors, and courtesy lights on the mirrors that would light the ground below the doorways to make it easy to avoid puddles. It also had HID headlights and a power folding third row seat.

The Nissan is the only van I've ever owned that drives like a well-made SUV rather than like a van. Steering is responsive, the engine seems confident and responsive, and the mushy ride of the other two vans is nonexistent here. The seating is of higher quality, both in terms of leather surfaces and in terms of comfort. The stereo is outstanding; people may make fun of Bose speakers, but anyone who has ever had to endure the Odysssey and the Toyota system will realize that the Nissan's upgraded system is vastly improved, with rich resonant sound, crisp highs, and resonant, note-worthy bass response. Even XM radio sounds good on this system (and anything that can make XM sound good is really accomplishing something!). The second row fold-almost-flat seating is flat enough for my needs, so I have my garage storage area back again. (I own a comic shop, so once a week I have to pick up from 700 to 1100 pounds of books--but the rest of the time, the cargo area of the van is pretty much empty.)

Is the Nissan perfect? No. The Nissan-added iPod interface is embarrasingly bad. If an iPod is connected, XM doesn't work. Every time you want to randomize the playlist on the iPod, you have to use the seek button to choose setup (which may take five or six pushes of the button), then quickly press track up/down, then use the seek button again to choose random list, then quickly press the track up/down again. Turn the Quest off, and it loses all those settings and you have to start over. And the steering wheel track up/down button doesn't work at all with the iPod interface. This is a horrible design, and Nissan should be embarrassed. Still, it IS a built-in iPod interface...

The Nissan also has park-assist sonar on the rear bumper only; the dealer had third party front-bumper parking sensors added prior to delivery of the vehicle, but both the Sienna and the Odyssey include that. Oddly, the Nissan needs them even more than the other two vans; due to the extreme slope of the front hood, it's much harder to determine where the nose of the Quest is without parking sensors.

Nissan should have gone one step further and designed the second row seats to fold absolutely flat rather than almost flat; this is one of the few areas where American vans like the Chrysler Town and Country surpass the Japanese vans.

The central command console/stack is a bit too large and rounded, intruding slightly into the knee area on both driver and passenger sides. A little ergonomic design there could have gone a long way.

For some reason, Nissan removed the compass display from the rear-view mirror with the 2009 model, while both Honda and Toyota still include that. An odd step backwards...

Nissan could also benefit from a more intuitive redesign of its climate-control and sound system; the buttons seem poorly placed, too similar in size, and arranged in a haphazard pattern.

Finally, the navigation system would benefit from an aesthetic redesign that makes it look like it was intended to be there. Right now, it looks like an afterthought, so oddly shoehorned into the dash that everyone assumes it's cleverly designed to fold away when not in use. If it actually DID fold away, the design would be quite clever indeed; since it doesn't, it's just quizzical.

Even so, I can say that based on my first week's experience, the Quest is the best of the three vans I've owned. The ideal van would have the best features of all three vehicles, of course--but when you have to buy based on what's there rather than on a nonexistent ideal, you can't do better than the Nissan Quest.

Monday, January 26, 2009

On a Quest for a Reliable Nissan Van

Last week, I traded the Toyota Sienna van for a 2009 Nissan Quest. What led to the trade, other than a very competitive deal from Gwinnett Place Nissan? A growing intolerance for a pair of Toyota seats taking up too much space in my garage, for one thing. I desire for a stereo system with better full-range sound, for another. The Quest has almost-fold-flat second row seating (it's flat enough to work for what I need, anyway), and the Bose sound system is much more impressive than the JBL system in the old Toyota (which was in turn much better than the muddy system in the Honda I owned before that).

There's a problem, though: somehow, in prepping the Quest for delivery, either Gwinnett Place Nissan or the people with whom they subcontracted to install front park-assist sensors managed to turn the van into a fire hazard. They somehow disconnected the fog light in the front bumper, leaving it dangling so that the very, very, very hot bulb was in direct contact with the inside edge of the bumper. The plastic bumper, in turn, responded by melting and smouldering... two things you really don't want your bumper to do. And believe me, it's not a pleasant surprise when your garage smoke alarm goes off shortly after you get home from a trip to Target--and it's doubly disturbing when you open the garage door to the sight and smell of smoke coming from underneath your car!

Doug Wells, the sales manager of Gwinnett Nissan, says that they'll come over and pick up the van tomorrow and see what needs to be done to make it right. I'll be honest, though: this doesn't instill a great deal of confidence in the dealership or the vehicle. (I also suspect that this problem has shorted out the front parking sensors as well, making the problem even more complicated.)

If they still had the 2008 Toyota (and I don't think they do), I'd just trade back with 'em and call the deal off. I don't think that's gonna happen, though, so we'll see what they can do to make it right... I'll keep everybody in the loop...

Never Will Be Here Soon!

Hallelujah! As this link confirms, Sean Connery's final go as James Bond will come to Blu-Ray in March with the release of Never Say Never Again. In case you haven't seen the film (and many of you may have missed it, since it hasn't been available in many years), it's a remake of Thunderball starring an older Connery as an older Bond, back in action once more. It's one of my favorite James Bond films, since it's a remake of my favorite James Bond film starring my favorite James Bond, and it's great to know I'll finally have a chance to own it in the best possible format!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I took French in high school and in college. In high school, my French teacher was Anna Armona, a wonderful woman who came to the US from Cuba; she spoke French with a strong Cuban accent, apparently, so everyone who heard my French asked which Latin American school I attended.

In college, I took French from Franher Jean-Baptiste, a Jamaican gentleman who mocked my Spanish-accented French as he attempted to strip away the Cuban dialectical elements. Alas, he replaced them with Jamaican dialectical elements, so once again my French sounded very unFrench.

I can still remember enough rudimentary French to understand the gist of what people say to me in that language (provided the vocabulary isn't too complex), and if I'm given enough time to rummage through my memory in search of the proper word or three, I can even assemble a simple-minded answer. That was enough to get me by during two visits to Montreal, but I think everyone who spoke with me eventually concluded that I had recovered from a life-threatening blunt-trauma-to-the-head injury.

I tell you all this to make it clear that I do not pay visits to French websites gladly. In fact, I never go there unless I have to.

Recenty, Susan told me that I had to.

She wanted an obscure book on antique European samplers, and it was only available from, the French version of Amazon. So I stumbled through the various screens and ordered the book just so I could get out of the linguistic hell in which I found myself.

That's it. That's the only French site I've ever visited.

And beginning 48 hours after that visit, I began getting French spam. Lots of French spam. French letters from Australians and Nigerians and the sons of Middle Eastern caliphs, all looking for my help to move vast fortunes from their homeland... and of course, I would get a cut. I got French offers for sex aids, for drugs sans prescriptions, for anatomical improvements... In 72 hours, I got over sixty French language spams--and prior to placing this order with, I had never gotten a French-language spam.

So if anyone had any misconceptions that Amazon kept all of its user data private, think again. (Makes me wonder how much English-language spam comes from spammers given my address by Amazon...)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Service Notice from the US

We wanted to notify you, our customers, that we have recently replaced our server, and you might notice some service anomalies over the next four years.

While our old server had performed extremely reliably for the past eight years, some members of our team were convinced that a new server would be beneficial. Thus far, however, the new server has proven to problematic, and we have no current solutions for the problem.

Our new server has displayed a tendency to allocate most of its resources to our least active customers, leaving little or no resource allocation for our larger clients. The problem seems most severe at times when the largest clients are most in need of the resources for which they are paying. Not only do we not have a solution for this problem, we anticipate that it will get significantly worse over the next four years.

Systems engineers indicate that there are logic flaws within the new server's operating system. It has already displayed a disconcerting tendency to abruptly and illogically cease successful operations (refer to Guantanamo for more details), while diverting excessive resources into operations that display logical flaws (see global warming, earned income tax credits, and mortgage relief, among others).

The new server has already proven to be more expensive than anticipated. We were originally told that the new server would be cost-neutral for all our clients whose gross revenues fall below $250,000 per capita. However, those levels have already been reduced and are being reduced further over the next few weeks; we anticipate now that all clients will see an increase in cost. The only exception will be those who already pay nothing; they will actually see a significant credit to their accounts.

We apologize for the inconvenience, but we felt it necessary to let our clients know that we are aware of these problems and are looking for a solution. There is a possibility we will see some minor degree of improvement in 2010, but it is unfortunately likely that the problem will continue until 2012 (and some within our operation are convinced that no real solution will be found until 2016).

Thank you for bearing with us during this unfortunate transition.

The United States

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Playing Chicken

Susan ran across a great recipe for a quick 'n' easy low-fat chicken soup that we've tried twice now; it's incredibly rich, very tasty, and easy to make.

1 pound of chicken tenderloins (uncooked)
1 1/2 to 2 cups of sliced celery
2 cans of 98% fat free cream of chicken soup
1 can of fat free chicken stock
1 can of sliced carrots
8 ounces of noodles
lots of freshly ground black pepper

In a crock pot, place chicken tenderloins; put celery on top, then cover all with two cans of cream of chicken soup. Add pepper to taste. Cook on high for three hours.

Remove chicken; pull apart with forks to shred the chicken. Add it back to the crock pot, mixing in the sliced carrots and the chicken stock. Add more pepper if you like it peppery. Cook on high for an additional forty-five minutes.

Cook the noodles in boiling water until done; strain and stir into the soup. Cook on high for an additional 30 minutes.

The result is an incredibly thick, hearty soup that has almost no fat at all, yet is filling enough to work as a meal by itself. Susan ran across the basic recipe somewhere, then modified it to match our tastes and our low-fat preferences; the result is the best chicken soup I've ever eaten, loaded with large amounts of chicken.

Writing about it makes me want more...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

All in Color for Seven and a Half Dimes

I was surprised to see the daily comics printed in full color in this morning's Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The addition of color was pleasant lagniappe; while black and white comics were fine, the color is a plus. However, in order to get the color, readers had to give up something--and the something was a second page of comic strips.

Ever since the Journal and the Constitution merged back in the dawning days of the Atlanta newspaper collapse, the two single comic pages from the morning and afternoon editions were merged into one double-page spread. This meant that there were strips for readers of all ages and interests, from classics to new-and-trendy, from humor to human interest, from universal appeal to politically-niche-marketed. The strips that geared towards older readers were the ones most devastated by the cutback; only the most popular of the bunch made the cut, while a number of strips with long Atlanta runs were tossed aside.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter much to me, since I was given a one-year subscription to the King Features comics site as a Christmas gift. Combine that with the free strips at the Universal and Tribune Media sites, and I can get every strip that's in the paper plus the ones that have been dropped, along with dozens of others. But it is one more nail in the coffin for my AJC subscription, which I will almost definitely let lapse later this month. For the first time in thirty years, I will not be reading their paper on a daily basis; political bias, bad editorial policy, and decreasing entertainment value make the decision a fairly easy one.

Still, I hate to see these strips go; it marks an increasing marginalization of comic strips, which I have enjoyed since I was a young child. I am left to wonder just how long some of these strips can survive, what with waning interest in print newspapers and declining sales; can a strip survive with a syndication of less than two hundred papers? One hundred? Fifty? I don't know what's the minimum level for an artist before he starts looking at a job outside of comics.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Stop and Go

Speaking of Buick Enclaves (which I was, honest--just read the prior post!), I heard from the salesperson at Carl Black Buick this afternoon. You may recall that was the first dealership I visited. The first day I went there, I couldn't get a test drive; the second, they couldn't find the keys for the vehicle that I wanted, nor could they find the keys to move the other vehicles that had that one blocked in the lot--nor did they have anyone look at my trade-in, in spite of my having asked three times that they take a look.

On Friday, the salesperson called and said that he had received a shipment of two Enclaves that had the features I wanted, including cooled front seats and second-row bench seats (they fold flat, which makes 'em much handier for me when it comes to picking up books). He ran through the vehicles' features, but said nothing about the entertainment systems. "Do they have Entertainment Package #4?" I asked (this is the package that includes a 5.1 DVD-Audio-capable surround system, which is what I wanted). Long delay as he read through the list of features.

"It doesn't say," he finally replied. That seemed odd, but I took his word for it.

"Can you find out and call me back?" I asked.

"Just come on by and take a look," he said. I explained that my schedule didn't allow for another pointless trip, and asked again that he find out and call me back with the info. He said he would.

Today, three days later, he calls back. "What did you decide on that Enclave?" he asked.

I reminded him that I wasn't supposed to have decided anything until he called back to give me the information I needed, and he hadn't done so. Apparently, this totally confounded him. "Don't you want this car?" he asked. I explained that I had no idea if I wanted that car or not, since he had yet to tell me what features that car had.

"You're just going to have to give up something if we're going to make this deal," he countered. I explained that actually, I wasn't going to have to give up anything; if he didn't have the vehicle I wanted, then I had a perfectly adequate vehicle with only 10,700 miles on it, and I could just keep driving that. "So why don't you find out what sound system is in these cars and call me back?"

"These cooled front seats are the real problem," he replied. I reminded him that three days before, he had explained that he had two cars that had cooled seats. Ignoring that, he went back to his line, "You're not going to get everything you want--you have to be willing to give something up."

I told him again to call me back with the information, and we'd talk about it. I suggested he call me in 15 minutes.

It's been 3 hours, and I've yet to hear back from him. I suspect that, in two or three days, I'll get another call akin to the one I received today, and I'll be no closer to knowing what features they have in the vehicles on the lot, or what trade-in value they might offer on my 2008 Sienna. And I suspect I'll be no closer to owning an American car.

Is this the way all these guys do business? One dealer tries to take advantage of customers on trade-in, the other tries to make the deal as difficult as possible... I guess I've been spoiled after 32 years of dealing with Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Acura, and Toyota...

The Buick Stops Here...

You may remember that I mentioned having looked at a 2009 Buick Enclave. I ended up not buying, largely because of lowballing on the value of the Sienna I would have been trading in.

Well, apparently I wasn't the only person who found Buick difficult to deal with: their sales dropped 38% in December, which was much worse than the 31% overall drop that GMC experienced.

Bear in mind that I was impressed enough with the Enclave that I was willing to make a deal; I was merely looking for $25k in trade-in value for my 10,700-miles-driven 2008 Sienna XLE Limited model with navigation and RES. That's right on the value listed for this vehicle on KBB, Edmunds, &

However, Capital GMC decided that $19k seemed like a fair offer. I pointed out this was undervalued. "Have a look on and see what Sienna's similar to yours are retailing for and you will see where we are coming from," Capital's internet rep, Martha, wrote to me. "As I mentioned earlier, the value of the Sienna has depreciated greatly."

So I followed her advice. The first car I found was a 2008 Sienna, same features as mine, with 10,400 miles (only 300 less than mine). Asking price? $31,400. That made my $25k trade-in request seem quite reasonable. So I wrote back and explained that--and even included a link.

"I couldn't get that link to work," Martha wrote back. She went on to explain how she had looked again and their offer was acccurate, and I must have made a mistake.

For an internet rep, Martha seemed oddly internet challenged. I clicked on the link included in my e-mail and it took me right to the site I had bookmarked. Assuming that her crude Windows system might not work so well, I then tried copying and pasting the link; took me to the same place. I must conclude, then, that her "I couldn't get that link to work" statement was akin to putting one's fingers in one's ears and repeating "la la la" in order to avoid hearing information one would rather not know.

So no American vehicle for me. And no American vehicle for lots of other people. You'd think they'd be willing to deal more fairly and honestly with people who are trying to help them avoid bankruptcy, wouldn't you?

But then again, they've got several billion of our bucks already, so maybe they don't feel the need to actually, you know, sell cars.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Two days ago, the gas tax in Georgia dropped by 4 cents.

If you live in the state and didn't notice the change, there's a great reason: prices didn't drop at all. Rather than passing along that 4 cent tax decrease, every gas retailer in Georgia chose to keep 4 extra cents per gallon in profits.

I am not at all a proponent of higher taxes, but based on this, I hope that Georgia goes to the higher gas tax rate and fails to change it. It's absolutely despicable that the only entities that benefited from this change were the gas stations and oil companies; they had no problem jacking that price up by 4 cents when the tax increased in July, so now they've proven that their nothing more than petty thieves.

I also hope the governor and the legislature are noting this; perhaps it's time to implement stronger pricing regulations on gasoline in the state to prevent this sort of profiteering in the future.

Compounded Laziness

Because of the holidays, Quebecor (our printer for Comic Shop News) required us to submit the files for CSN #1125 and CSN #1126 early. Normally, we don't upload the issue until Wednesday night, so I do most of my writing on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. For the weeks prior to Christmas and New Years, however, we had to turn in the issue on Monday, so I ended up finishing each issue by Sunday night.

Now you'd think that I'd be self-disciplined enough to use that extra three-day lead to pace myself on CSN #1127, doing a little more during the nine-day gap between issues, wouldn't you?

Of course, that's not the way it worked. I spent most of the time doing a little bit of work around the house--and whenever I sat down at the computer, I noodled around pointlessly, kept up with news 'n' rumors, read a few blogs, engaged in some forum discussions... all the things one might do instead of working.

So now it's Saturday and I'm back to the usual schedule... Ultimately, it's just as well, since I think most people in the industry took time off during the Christmas/New Years holidays, so finding news 'n' interview material would have been a bit more challenging anyway...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy Beginning of 2009!

Another year is underway. As is our wont, Susan and I stayed home and did nothing exceptional; since I don't drink, don't enjoy overly loud music that I haven't personally selected, and don't care for fireworks, I'm out of touch with the rest of the world and their way of welcoming in another year.

While 2008 has been a challenging year for many, it's been a good year for me. No family member died, no family member suffered a debilitating illness, our cats were healthy and happy, and Susan and I finished up 2009 not too much the worse for wear. Ultimately, you can't ask for much more than that!