How to Total Cars for Fun and Profit

Insurance is a wonderful thing…

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This is a story.  And it’s longer than my usual post, so get comfy.  I may be stretching my own rules, but I swear, I’ll tie it back to databases… somehow! Let’s get started.

Back in December 2016, I was in an accident in my 2011 Mazda 3. Ironically, I was driving home from filling up with gas, plus I’d just had some maintenance done the month before. These things are ironic because the car was a total loss. “Totaled”, in layman’s terms. It means the damage was such that the insurance company would rather pay off the market value of the car, than pay for the repairs. Or, put another way, it means that the cost of repairs would be within nominal range of the vehicle’s value. Short version, I’m not getting the car back. Oh, and that gas fill-up and mechanic bill? Money down the drain.

dumping-money-down-the-toilet
I haz a bucket…

FYI, I was just fine – so the car and its safety-system did its job, protecting me from harm. Safety is an important part of choosing a car, kids… remember that.

safety-first

Anyway, the car gets towed off to a local yard, I have a day or so to collect my possessions from it, and then they tow it somewhere else to the “salvage yard”, where it becomes somebody else’s property and problem. Insurance sends me the check for the value of the car. I was actually worried that it wouldn’t be enough to cover the loan balance, because I was still making payments AND I’d refinanced midway thru the original loan term, lowering the interest rate and payment but also extending the term. But, thankfully, the car’s value was above the loan’s balance, so I was able to fully pay it off and still pocket some cash.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have “loss of use coverage” on the policy – meaning, no free rental car. So I pay for it, for a little while. Fortunately, around the same time, my parents were getting ready to dump their old 2000 Honda Accord for a newer one, so we started talking and they offered to us as a gift. (Did I ever mention how awesome my parents are? They are!) Excellent.

Actually, this is the same car that I used to drive around in high school, so it’s got some memories.

Including, of all things, my very first accident! You’ll see why this is ironic in a few paragraphs.

irony-alert
Someone call Ms. Morissette…

Now, this car is what we call a “beater”. It’s 17 years old, it’s been through the wringer, it’s got 190k miles on it; but hey, it’s a freakin’ Honda. It’ll last another 50k at least, if maintained properly. And it has been – faithful oil changes, scheduled maintenance and beyond. But it’s not the safest vehicle on the road; the e-brake light comes on sporadically, and the airbag warning light is always on, so we don’t actually know if the airbags (particularly the passenger side) will work. So we need to start shopping for a new vehicle, at least for the wife.

I won’t go into car-shopping here, it’s a pain the arse unless you use courtesy buying services like those offered thru your credit-union or your some kind of “club membership” or whatever. Long story short, we got a 2017 Hyundai Elantra, in black, not brand-new but used with only 3k miles on it (apparently they had buyer’s remorse).

black-hyundai-elantra
This is “Tigress”, or “Tigz” for short.

I will digress just for a second about black cars. They look pretty slick, even though they do show dirt a bit more than gray/silver (which is what the Mazda was). But you know what makes them look super-duper slick? Those “legacy” CA gold-on-black license plates. I convinced myself that I had to get those. Until I went to the DMV and found out that they’re $40 initially plus an extra $50/year on your registration fees. Jesus H… I get that they need to make money, but that’s ridiculous. Srsly. Ding the people that want those silly vanity plates, because I understand it adds a lot of processing/tracking overhead and makes the data (see? I told you I’d tie it back!) more complex. But this is the same old metal made by the same old prison inmates with a different coat of paint. Don’t pretend it actually costs anything extra for you to make them and pass them out. Anyway. Back to the story.

ca-plates-regular-vs-legacy
because it’s SOOO much harder to make black metal than white metal…

So we get the car, the wife’s driving it home. She’s heat-sensitive, and it’s been a pretty long, warm day. She ends up passing out for a second and veering off the road to the right shoulder, which is a small dirt embankment into some bushes and trees. Fortunately enough, she realizes what is happening and she’s able to bring the car to a gentle stop without actually hitting anything. So the car’s only real damage is some scrapes & bruises on the front end, a bit of scratching on the sides, and some dings to the under-carriage-panel. Now, me being the savvy consumer that I am, I’ve already added it to our insurance policy and added rental coverage. The new car goes into the shop before we’ve even had it a day, but we get a free rental while it’s there. (Ford Fusion – I like it alright, but the wife hates it; she has a bit of an anti-Ford bias.) Insurance covers about 1.5k damage for the bodywork, it gets done, we get it back in less than 2 weeks. Yay.

Alright, here’s where it gets fun interesting.

oh-it-gets-better
I don’t know why, but this is one of my favorite lines of his from this movie.

That was all back in December/January.

March rolls around, and I’m driving the Honda home from work. There’s a sudden pile-up of stopping cars in my lane and I can’t stop in time, so I run into the SUV in front of me. Fairly low speed, nobody panics, we pull over and start exchanging info and pictures. Now, my bumper is nearly detached, and my hood is quite scrunched in at the point of impact. This is because I hit his tow hitch, which stuck out from the rest of his rear body quite a bit. So even though he literally has a 1-inch scratch on his bumper, I’m looking at significant damage. But it seems mostly superficial, so I figure, well, I might not even need insurance, and he certainly doesn’t care enough to report it unless I do, so he leaves it up to me.

He helps me rope-up the bumper so it doesn’t fall off (he was such a nice guy, no joke!), and I start driving the rest of the way home. Quite a distance, mind you (I have a 60 mile total commute). After a little while, I start seeing smoke coming from under the hood. Fortunately it’s white, not black, so I know I’m not in terribly immediate danger. But I pull off to a gas station and take a look. Well, I can’t actually open the hood due to the scrunchy-ness, but I peer inside and see that there’s a significant bit of frame damage, and the radiator looks hurt. Sure enough, it would turn out that that was the biggest problem – the radiator (and compressor) would need to be replaced, and the frame around it needed repairing/re-welding.

old-car-on-fire
Not quite…

This is not a small job. I take it to a body shop first, but as they look inside and see what I saw, they know that it’s beyond their scope, so they send me next-door to a full-service mechanic & repair shop. Next day, he gives me the estimate: $2.7k. Now, about this time, I’m talking with the insurance reps. I know they’re going to want to total this car – it’s KBB value is literally just over $2k, and these repairs are significantly more than that. What I was trying to ask them, and never got a straight answer, was whether we could file the claim for a lower amount, by asking for the mechanical repairs only. Remember, this car is a “beater”. We don’t really care how it looks, we just need it to run. And the shop was kind enough to provide that “bare-bones” estimate as well – only about $750.

honda-wreck-damage-picture
You can see where the tow-hitch rammed thru the bumper/grill in towards the frame; the blue arrow points to the frame inside that got the brunt of it.

But then my insurance adjuster did two things that were very insightful & much appreciated.

I have to give a shout-out to Safeco here, because throughout all of this, they’ve been immensely helpful and easy to deal with. (Even though I mentioned not answering my question in the paragraph above, as you’ll see, that was really my own fault for not understanding the process, and it was a moot point anyway!) So if you’re in the market for a new insurance policy, definitely check ‘em out.

First, because this shop was not an official “authorized partner”, she couldn’t accept their estimates as gospel; but, she could offer this newer “pilot” program whereby any shop (or even the customer) could submit pictures of the vehicle and the damage, and, provided enough detail and the right angles, a 3rd party estimator could assess the damage and estimate the cost. Great!

Second, she heard me out as I explained the concern with totaling the car, and understood that I really wanted to keep the car after simply getting it mechanically sound. But, she clarified, because I had collision coverage on this car, they (the insurance company) literally “owed me” the full cost of those repairs or the vehicle value, whichever is lower. So in fact, I would be doing myself a disservice and actually losing money if I tried to simply file the claim for the lower “bare-bones” amount, just to avoid the total-loss.

Instead, she explained, what you can do is keep the vehicle, even after it’s been declared “totaled“.

There’s a process and paperwork to this, and it involves the DMV, obviously. But because the insurance policy will still pay me the value of the vehicle, I should have more than enough to get the minimum repairs done and pocket the rest. Yay!

smiley-with-money
cha-ching!

Now, the process. The CA DMV has done a fairly decent job of documenting this, but it’s still unclear (at least to me) what the order of operations is. There are 5 things you need:

  1. Salvage title (which is different than the regular title, aka pinkslip)
    • DMV form REG 343, which you fill out yourself
  2. Salvage certificate
    • REG 488c, which you also fill out yourself
  3. Owner retention of salvage vehicle
    • REG 481, which your insurance company completes & sends to the DMV
  4. Brake & light inspection (to make sure it meets road safety standards)
    • Certificates are printed & given to you by the inspecting shop
  5. Full vehicle inspection (again, safety & compliance)
    • REG 31, which is completed by DMV personnel only

Number 4 can be done by many authorized 3rd-party shops, most of which also do smog tests and such things, so they’re not hard to find. The rest are DMV forms, as noted above. (#5 can be done either by the DMV or by CHP; but, CHP has quite a narrow list of “accepted” vehicles which they’ll inspect for this purpose, and honestly their appointment “system” for trying to get them done is horrendous, so it’s easiest to let the DMV do it.) But again, what’s the order in which I should do these things? Well, let me tell you!

joker-just-let-me-finish
I’m trying!

First, you get that payout check from your insurance, and you get the repairs done. Then you take the car to a brake/light inspection place (#4 above), and get that “certificate” (much like a smog certificate, it’s an “official” record that says your vehicle passed this test). Actually, if the vehicle hasn’t been smog-checked recently, you probably need that too. Mine was just done in 2016 so it wasn’t necessary.

Ooh! Another database tie-in. Okay, we all know a car’s VIN is like the primary key of the DMV’s vehicle database, right? Plate#s you can change, but the VIN is etched in stone steel. But they’re largely sequential – so two 2000 Honda Accords are going to have mostly the same characters in their VINs, up to the last, say, 2-6 numbers (ish.. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the system, I’m just guessing based on my observation of what happened to me). So when the paperwork comes back from the insurance, it ends up with the wrong VIN, off by 3 #s at the end. But I don’t realize this until I check with the DMV as I’m filing the accident report. Also, you can use online services to look up a VIN and find the basic info about it, but again, because I had such similar VINs (my correct one, and the insurance’s one from the papers), both turned up the same descriptions, down to the body style and trim level (4 door sedan, LX, if you’re curious). The only way we actually found the mistake was that the DMV was looking up “ownership” info based on the VIN, and when the agent read me the name on file, I was like “whodat?”, since it wasn’t me or my father, and then I went back to my pinkslip and checked it there, as well as on the car’s door-panel.

The lesson here is, always double-check your VIN when filing paperwork, especially with the DMV. Moving on.

vin-number-atm-machine
STOP adding redundant words to acronyms phrases!

Before you go further, you need to actually make sure that the insurance and/or the salvage yard has officially notified the DMV of the vehicle being a “total loss”. (See #3 in the list.) In my case, they hadn’t – it had only been a month (between the actual payout and the first time I went to the DMV). So I have to check again before I go back.

But, since I was there, I made the DMV agent answer all my questions and specify exactly what I needed to do to complete this process, and the order in which to do it. Which is why I’m now writing this and sharing with you!

Once that notification is done, the DMV will have record of the vehicle being a “total loss”, or “salvage”. Then you can make a new DMV appointment, go in, and get #5 and #1-2 done all at the same time, in that order. I.e., go to the “inspection” or “inspector” side first, have them do the inspection and fill out the form (REG 31). Then go to the appointment line and take all your paperwork to the agent that calls you. So that’s your “inspection-passed” form (REG 31), your salvage title form (REG 343), your salvage certificate form (REG 488c), and your brake & light certificates. If you have a copy of the insurance co’s REG 481, might as well bring that too! You also need your license plates – you have to “surrender” them, which means turn them in and get new ones (not that same day, obviously – I think they still mail them to the DMV and you have to go pick them up… but I’ll find out soon).

austin-powers-dmv-live-dangerously
Life on the edge, man!

Finally, to add a little icing on this crap-cake. I was driving the Hyundai to work, literally the next day, and I got rear-ended by another driver who wasn’t paying attention at a red-light. Again, super low speed, minor damage, but, another visit to the body shop for that poor black Elantra, and another week with a rental car. (Hyundai Santa Fe this time, which is actually quite nice, and if we need a small/mid SUV in the future, I’d definitely consider it; but due to my commute, we swapped for another Ford Fusion, this time the hybrid model, which again, I enjoyed, but the wife did not. Hey, you win some, you lose some.)

crap-cake-smiley
Frankly, 95% of Google image search results for “crap cake” were gross and offensive, but this one was almost cute.

So that’s the story of how we totaled two cars (and damaged one car twice) in less than 4 months.

And that’s the reason I’m now taking a van-pool at least 2 days a week.

I’d always been a fairly safe & cautious driver, but I’ll admit, this long commute had turned me into a bit of a road-rager. Impatient would be the polite term. After all this, I’m back to my old cautious slow & steady ways… for the most part. I still get little flashes of panic when I go by the intersection where the Mazda wreck happened, and I’m always reminding the wife to stay cool and drink her water. She’s never had that happen before, and never felt like it since, so I’m sure it was a one-time fluke, but still.. the DMV wants her to re-test to get her license back, even after her doctors cleared her to drive. That’s a whole other topic, for another time. I will note that none of these incidents were due to cell-phone use, so at least we’re not guilty of that particular vice.

keep-calm-and-drive-safely

Thanks for reading!

Now, go out there and DRIVE SAFE.

DBA Holy Wars Part 2

Battle 4: GUIDs vs Identities

This is an oldie but goody.  A) Developers want their apps to manage the record identifiers, but DBAs want the database to do it.  B) Developers prefer abstracting the identity values out of sight/mind, DBAs know that occasionally (despite your best efforts to avoid it) your eyeballs will have to look at those values and visually connect them with their foreign key relationships while troubleshooting some obscure bug.

but-wait-theres-more-billy-mays
there’s ALWAYS more…

But there’s more to it than that.  See, none of those arguments really matter, because there are easy answers to those problems.  The real core issue lies with the lazy acceptance of GUI/designer defaults, instead of using a bit of brainpower to make a purposeful decision about your Primary Key and your Clustered Index.

Now wait a minute Mr. DBA, aren’t those the same thing?

NO!  That’s where this problem comes from!

A good Clustered Index is: narrow (fewer bytes), unique (or at least, highly selective), static (not subject to updates), and ever-increasing (or decreasing, if you really want).  NUSE, as some writers have acronym’d it.  A GUID fails criteria ‘N’ and ‘E’.  However, that’s not to say a GUID isn’t a fine Primary Key!  See, your PK really only needs to be ‘U’; and to a lesser extent, ‘S’.  See how those don’t overlap each other?  So sure, use those GUIDs, make them your PK.  Just don’t let your tool automagically also make that your CX (Clustered indeX).  Spend a few minutes making a conscious effort to pick a different column (or couple columns) that meet more of these requirements.

For example, a datetime column that indicates the age of each record.  Chances are, you’re using this column in most of your queries on this table anyway, so clustering on it will speed those up.

Most of the time, though, if your data model is reasonably normalized and you’re indexing your foreign keys (because you should!), your PKs & CX’s will be the same.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Just be mindful of the trade-offs.

Battle 5: CSV vs TAB

bluray-vs-hddvd-fight
Who doesn’t love a good format-war?

Often, we have to deal with data from outside sources that gets exchanged via “flat files”, i.e. text files that represent a single monolithic table of data.  Each line is a row, and within each line, each string between each delimiting character is a column value.  So the question is, which is easier to deal with as that delimiter: comma, or tab?

String data values often have commas in them, so usually,the file also needs a “quoting character”, i.e. something that surrounds the string values so that the reader/interpreter of the file knows that anything found inside those quotes is all one value, regardless of any commas found within it.

But tabs are bigger.. aren’t they?  No, they’re still just 1 byte (or 2, in Unicode).  So that’s a non-argument.  Compatibility?  Every program that can read and automatically parse a .csv can just as easily do so with a .tab, even if Windows Explorer’s file icon & default-program handler would lead you to believe otherwise.

I recently encountered an issue with BCP (a SQL command-line utility for bulk copying data into / out of SQL server), where the csv was just being a pain in the arse. I tried a tab and all was well! I’m sure it was partially my fault but regardless, it was the path of least resistance.

Battle 6: designers vs scripting

no-wizard-allowed
Wizards are usually good, but in this case, they’re lazy and bad for you…

This should be a no-brainer. There is absolutely no excuse for using the table designer or any other wizardy GUIs for database design and maintenance, unless you’re just learning the ropes. And even then, instead of pressing ‘OK’, use the ‘Script’ option to let SSMS generate a `tsql` script to perform whatever actions you just clicked-thru.  Now yes, admittedly those generated scripts are rarely a shining example of clean code, but they get the job done, even with some unnecessary filler and fluff.  Learn the critical bits and try to write the script yourself next time– and sure, use the GUI-to-script to double check your work, if you still need to.

Confession: I still use the GUI to create new SQL Agent Jobs. It’s not that I don’t know how to script it, it’s just that there are so many non-intuitive parameters to those msdb system-sp’s that I usually have to look them up, thereby spending the time I would have otherwise saved.

Bonus round: the pronunciation of “Data”

its-data-not-data
Call me “big Data” one more time…

Dah-tuh, or Day-tuh?  Or, for the 3 people in the world who can actually read those ridiculous pronunciation glyphs, /ˈdeɪtə/ or /ˈdætə/ ?  It’s a question as old as the industry itself… or maybe not.  Anecdotally, it seems like most data professionals, and people in related industries, tend to say “day-tuh”; while those in the media and generally less technical communities tend to say “dah-tuh”.  (Where the first syllable is the same vowel-sound as in “dad” or “cat”.)  This likely means that the latter is more popular, but the former is more industrially accepted.

In either case, it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, we’re talking about the same thing.  So if some dogmatic DBA or pedantic PHB tries to correct your pronunciation, tell ’em to stop being so persnickety and get on with the task at hand!

Until next time…

DBA Holy Wars

On a lighter note than usual, I thought it was time I weighed in on some of the long standing “programmer holy wars”, but with a little DBA-twist (like a twist of lime, only less delicious).  Like any good holy war, this will be full of posturing, pontificating, and political correctness.  And I probably won’t even commit to a particular side on some issues.  But hey, isn’t that the point?

Battle 1: Tabs vs. Spaces

tabs-vs-spaces-run-away
OH SHI…
Text editors and IDEs have long been mature enough to handle “smart tabs” and preference-based tab size.  However, you will occasionally have to copy-paste code into a non-code-oriented environment, such as an email or a document, where of course the tab size is based on inches rather than spaces in a monospace font.  I will admit in those rare instances, tabs are annoying.  But what is more annoying is the inconsistency you can get when spaces are used incorrectly, especially in the midst of lines in a sad attempt to do some kind of vertical alignment.  Plus, if you happen to have a different spacing-size preference than the original code author, you’re now battling that visual discrepancy as you read & maintain said code.

So I prefer tabs.  But I won’t fight my team on it if everybody else prefers spaces — that’s what those settings in the editor/IDE are there for!  I will happily conform with the best of them.  A quick Google says I’m in the minority anyway — which I’m OK with.

Battle 2: The Case for Casing

capslock-cruise-control-for-cool
The original, if somewhat dated.
Certain languages (COBOL, SQL) have a historical bent toward ALLCAPS for their keywords and language constructs.  Some argue that this is archaic, outmoded, etc.  I don’t mind it, working primarily with SQL, but in almost all other languages (C#, Python, JavaScript), I think it makes sense to follow the established conventions, and modern conventions never favor caps.  As I transitioned from C# to SQL, I actually wrote my scripts and stored-procs primarily in lower case for the longest time.  And then I came into an environment where RedGate’s SQL Prompt was in heavy use, and since its default “auto-format” settings are in-line with the SQL language “standard” (however old and dated it may be), it started YELLING all the keywords at me.. and like most people, I just accepted it, eventually letting it become my own “default” style.  (SQL Prompt is a fantastic tool, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love it, but its default formatting settings never agreed with me — then again, nor do anybody else’s, as we already discussed!)

But that’s not really what this battle is usually about.  Most often, it’s about your names, i.e. the identifiers for objects/methods/variables/procedures/APIs/etc. that your team and your developers have to come up with on a constant basis.  And usually it comes down to camelCase, TitleCase (which are often incorrectly used interchangeably!  and is apparently better known as PascalCase, which I just learned today, or possibly re-learned after several years), or lower_case_with_underscores (which, in another learning moment, I discovered is named snake_case!  How cool is that?).  Rarely, if ever, do people argue for ALLCAPS in these areas — it just feels.. obnoxious.

caps-lock-not-always-necessary
Yelling doesn’t always get you what you want…
As with any programmer-y topic, you can dive down the rabbit-hole and dissect layer upon layer of nuance in this battle until you’ve lost all semblance of productivity.  Because casing is, in some languages, important; while in others it’s simply convention-based, dependent on the abstraction level or family of things you’re talking about.  For example, C# Class names are TitleCase, and so typically are Methods, while object instances are usually camelCasepublic members can be TitleCase or camelCase, and private members can be _underscore_led, or whatever flavors for each that your boiler-plate/template system prefers.  Scoped variableNames are most often camel’d as well, while global constants are typically CAPS_WITH_UNDERSCORES.  And god help you if you ask a team of more than 3 people what their dependency packages’ names should look like.

omg-object-and-casing
Shamelessly borrowed from Adam Prescott’s blog, which you should definitely go read.
So in this battle, I have to play Switzerland.  I’m not vehemently opposed to any particular flavor of casing, finding it best to work within the conventions of the language and tool-set at hand.

Side-battle: Spacing in Names

That said, I can’t stand names/identifiers with actual white space in them, but that’s a somewhat different battle.  Most languages don’t even allow that, but most RDBMSs will happily accept your ridiculous My Cool Database and its resident Silly Tables and Happy Column 1/2/etc. as long as you properly “quote” them (surround them with [square-brackets] or `backticks`, depending on the SQL flavor).  If you submit that kind of nonsense to me, I will find you, and I will slap you with a large trout.

trout-slap
Particularly offensive names may warrant a double trout slap.

Battle 3: ORM vs Stored-Procs (vs Linq?)

This is that little twist-of-DBA as promised.  I recently read an interesting post related to this topic, and essentially the point was this: Developers have “won” (won what? I thought were all on the same side!), the ORM is here to stay, and as DBAs/DBDevs, we (you/I) need to build up our understanding of them so that we A) know them even better than our devs, and B) can troubleshoot performance issues with them.

I think there’s some truth to that, and some necessary context as well.  Ideally, yes, I would be an ORM expert on whatever 1 or 2 specific frameworks my colleagues are using (Entity Framework, most likely), and any time there was a potential performance challenge with a app-to-database call, I’d be able to parachute-in and sprinkle some magic dust and make it all better.  But I’m also the one DBA (out of approx. 1.3 total), serving 4 teams of 3-6 devs each, so in the immortal words of meme-dom:

Ain’t nobody got time for that!

nobody-got-time-old-fashioned
because sometimes old-fashioned things are funny too…
Now I’m not making excuses.  All I’m saying is, the burden of understanding is on more than just one team member or job-role.  If your dev team is adapting an ORM, said devs need to learn how it works too — at least enough to help with basic performance troubleshooting.  Even if it’s just the ability to extract, from a debug session, the actual T-SQL code that’s being sent to the server, and give me a sample query to analyze for performance bottlenecks.

Let’s step back a bit.  It’s all about using the right tool for the job, yes?  ORMs are meant for basic CRuD operations and simple data access patterns, right?  So why try to build complex business logic into them?  Because, like it not, teams do build complex business logic into the data layer — despite our protests and soapbox sermons to not do it.  And because the vast majority of applications we’re dealing with are not greenfield.  Furthermore, ORMs tend to work best when the data model is well-defined, or the database is modeled well (well-modeled?).  And again, we don’t all get to work with unicorns in utopia.

Put it this way: If you want an efficient, performant module of data-layer business-logic against your SQL database, it’s likely going to be a stored procedure carefully crafted by a DBA/DBDev.  Could you achieve the same results from the app layer, using Linq and/or some mix of ORM and code?  Probably.  Do you have the time and patience to do so?  Maybe not.

i-have-no-strong-feelings-neutral
If I don’t survive this… tell my wife, “hello”.
So once again, I’m Switzerland.  Well, preferably a more pragmatic version — what country would that be?  Norway?  Anyway.  Use the methodology that’s the best compromise between “right tool for the job”, “optimized developer productivity”, and “easiest to troubleshoot”.  It’s a tough call, but that’s why we get paid.

Until next time!