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Chris Tann's Walkabout Blog

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Friday, November 14th 2014

11:58: The future, now-er
A couple of years ago, I posted a blog entry on the advances of Supercomputers, and how close we were coming to the theoretical processing power requires to emulate a real-time human consciousness.

At that time (2011), we had just hit 10 Petaflops. Today, a US company announced they are developing a 300 Petaflop machine (150 Petaflop sustained)

The original estimate I read was that a human consciousness emulation would take about 10 Petaflops, but that got bumped a few years ago to 100 Petaflops.

Get ready for the future, digital consciousness is now a real possibility. OK, there is a little matter of Software, but I'm sure there are a few smart guys out there working on it!

Sunday, February 12th 2012

15:27: The joys of health insurance - part 9, dental "insurance"
As part of my return to the land of the self-employed, I have had to once again purchase my own health insurance. In this marvelous internet age, that is far less of a chore than it would have been a few years ago - ehealthinsurance.com lets you compare health insurance companies, and find the best plans.  In the end, I picked a medical plan very similar to that my last employer provided. The difference? My employer-sponsored plan cost the company in the region of $700/month, buying direct costs less than $200/month. True that my portion under the employer-sponsored plan was only $50-ish/month, but it just irks me to see some middle man pocketing $500/month, even if it is not coming out of my pocket...

Anyway, on to the point of this blog, dental insurance. Last time I was self-employed, I picked up a cheap dental plan, which was a mistake. So, this time I did a lot of shopping, and decided to pick (what I thought was) a decent dental plan. It still has lots of restrictions, waiting periods, and copays, and costs close to $800/year, but after carefully working out the expected return, I figured that it would pay out a little more than we pay in.

Well, I guess that should be a hint, shouldn't it. Dental insurance companies are not, in fact, in the business of providing any sort of accessible dental services, or anything like that. They are in the business of making money - in other words, ensuring that they pay out less than the subscribers pay in.

So, after my first routine dental checkup, I got my statement from the insurance company. True, they only pay out 70% for services, and there is a $50/year co-pay - that I was expecting, and had taken into account in my calculations. However, there is a little catch that they do state, but that makes it almost impossible to really calculate your costs and benefits in advance - they only pay out on what they say is a "reasonable and customary cost for services". My dentist is pretty reasonable, and I after a little checking, it looks like he charges right around the average for San Jose. However, my insurance company expects him to charge half of that! So that is the basis that they pay 70% on. The bottom line? They paid out only 40% of the cost, rather than the 70% I was expecting. Take out the deductible, and that comes down to fifty bucks they paid out.

So, that changes the balance in my equations. On calculating 70% of actual costs, I figured we would be a little in front, or maybe break even. When they are only paying 40%, its definitely a no-win situation. Couple that with the fact that there is an 18-month waiting period for major items such as crowns, it really doesn't seem worth it.

Hmm, I just had an idea. Maybe I will reverse-insure. I'll take the $65/month I would have paid in dental insurance, and buy lottery tickets. One big win, and my teeth will be covered for life! Now that's more my kind of idea!


Tuesday, December 13th 2011

13:03: COBRA is an absolute ripoff!
I just changed jobs, and went from being an employee, back to the wonderful life of being a consultant - in other words, a small business owner. So, I have embarked upon the task of procuring for myself, all of the little details and benefits that an employer usually provides. Now that I am both employer and employee, it behooves me to ensure I get the best deal possible!

Now, I have done all of this before, so I pretty much know the ropes. I Still have a Self-Employed 401k plan (which is much better than the plan that was used by my previous employer), I know where to apply for Business Licenses, DBA's, etc... And of course, it is time to tackle Health Insurance.

Now I am a big proponent of HSA's (Health Savings Accounts). When coupled with an "HDHP" (High Deductible Health Plan), they allow you to put pre-tax money into a special savings account. This is kind of like a special 401k plan, with the added advantage that you can draw out money straight away, and as long as it is used for "Approved Medical Expenses", it remains tax-free. I could go on at great length as to why HSA's are such a good deal - feel free to ask, I will bore you to tears on the subject!

Anyway, back to the subject in hand - COBRA. Now, the idea of COBRA is a good one - it allows people that are leaving (or are laid off from) a job to be guaranteed continued health care coverage. This is a government mandate from back in the 80's. Sounds like a good thing, right? Righhhhhhht.....

So the problem is, companies (at least on paper) pay far more for health insurance than individuals do. Ridiculously so, to the point that I have a very hard time believing it. I just got my COBRA offer to continue my HDHP with Blue Shield - over $900/month for myself and my Spouse! That is an outrageous charge. Was my Company really paying all of that? 

So, off to a little website (www.ehealthinsurance.com) to get a competing quote. A similar plan from Blue Shield (and mind you, similar is always the best you can do - the insurance companies make sure that there are so many plans with so many small differences, that it is really difficult to compare) came out with a retail price of $172/month. Yes, $172 compared to $900. For almost the same plan, from the same insurance provider. Something is definitely out of whack here...

OK, we are lucky enough to be healthy, so that is a big plus. If we weren't, or we were older, then it would probably cost far more, and the COBRA amount of over $10k/year might start to look good. But doesn't that seem odd as well? That if we were old or sick, we would have to pay so much more for the health insurance, and we would be so less likely to be able to afford it...

Now I ran into a slightly different situation a while ago, and that gave me a suspicion as to what I think is going on. I had some routine medical tests done, and when I got the Bill, the fees were over $600. But, luckily for me, my insurance company had a "negotiated rate" - of $150. No wait a minute, if I had gone in there without health insurance, I would have paid 4x as much? Where is the sense in that? And if this medical company can survive with getting paid $150 for these services, how do they justify ever charging 4x as much?

So, let me tell you my suspicion - The healthcare industry, just like a lot of retail industries, inflates their "retail price" artificially, and then give discounts, bonuses, and rebates to bring the amounts back down to a "reasonable" amount. But because there are so many rules and regulations, it makes it even trickier - and I think that it has grown to outrageous proportions - and is bouncing around in all parts of the system. So, the medical providers jack up their retail prices, and then offer bigger discounts - i.e. the income stays the same, but it just looks like the costs of healthcare are "spiralling out of control". The insurance companies probably do the same thing - jack up the prices of the plans that they sell to employers, and then give discounts, rebates, etc. These discounts, of course, are hidden from the poor schmuck that is footing the bill for COBRA...

Anyway, these are just my suspicions. Its time someone blew the lid off this whole thing....

Saturday, November 5th 2011

12:40: The future, now.
OK, so how far off could I be in my Supercomputer predictions? 10 PetaFlops is here, today, in little-old 2011 - 9 years ahead of (my) schedule. And the interesting thing from this article - they are now predicting *exaflop* (that is 1000 petaflops) by 2020. In other words, my predictions need to be adjusted by 100x.

My other prediction was that consumer-grade technology follows the peak of research technology by about 20 years. So I was predicting 10 peta-flop consumer grade technology by 2040. So, bring that in to 2031, and that means we may well have "AI-class" computing power in a small enough package to be portable by then. "Uploading" is starting to look more and more of a reality...

Chris.





Wednesday, February 9th 2011

11:13: AI - how far away can it be?
 
As I wrote 2 years ago:

"IBM has announced that they are working on a 10 PetaFlop computer, and expect to have it operational by 2010"

(see the full entry here).

Well, they seem to built one, Although the article states that they don't know "when it will be available", it seems to indicate that they have a working prototype.

All this was in respect to modelling a human personality, which was estimated a long time ago to require about 10 PetaFlops of performance. In the same article, they go on to say:

"[Mira]  is a stepping stone on the path to an exascale supercomputer, which is expected to arrive in the 2020 time frame and will be at least 100 times faster than Mira".

Holy cow, ExaFlop level by 2020! My year 2000 predictions are looking like being 100 times off (I had predicted 10 PetaFlop by 2020).

Start writing those AI modeling programs now...



Tuesday, December 21st 2010

10:36: EMail to Senator Barbara Boxer about Californian High Speed Rail
 Dear Senator Boxer,

Thanks you for your recent message about high-speed rail. That is some great news about the extra funding - and I have a suggestion on exactly where that could be applied.

Currently, the planning commission is refusing to even consider constructing tunnels for the train as it passes San Jose. Their potential solutions all involve a system of bridges and flyovers. Now San Jose does not have exactly the prettiest skyline to start with, but it seems that the planing commission is firmly stuck in the 20th (or perhaps 19th?) century style of railroad building. I believe that their decision was based purely on cost, and as far as I know a full review of underground options has not been performed.

Obviously America lags the rest of the world in passenger rail infrastructure. Here we have the chance to put California IN FRONT - rather than compromising on a system that is obsolete the day it is put into operation (take, for example, San Jose's compromise on the Light Rail, a system so hobbled by design compromises that it is almost useless for regular commuting).

European train systems make enormous use of tunnels, and I see no reason why the same can't be done in America. That is where the rail infrastructure belongs in highly populated areas. I urge you most strongly to push heavily for a full investigation into putting the trains underground as they pass through San Jose. The same would probably be true further up the peninsula, through cities such as Palo Alto, Menlo Park, etc. Please, lets make this venture an exercise in 21st Century design and construction, and create something that will allow California to say, not just "yes we have one too, sort of", but "look - we are the leaders in world technology, and to prove it, we have the best high-speed rail in the world"!

Regards,
Chris.

ps - to see what a little bit of will (and some huge machinery) can achieve when it comes to public transit tunneling, please research the construction of line 2 in the Cairo Metro system

Friday, March 19th 2010

14:41: Its broken, and no one has the will to fix it...
In the US, sales tax varies from state to state, and even from county to county (and possibly city to city, for all I know). Back in the dark ages (i.e. pre-internet), that was fine - each shop new its local tax rate, added it on to the bill, and charged you the final result. The end user didn't have to worry too much - well aside from the "sticker shock" - where you wind up paying more than the advertised price. Although I loath this tendency in the US, at least it applies to pretty much everything - you know that any time you see a price, there are going to be a bunch of hidden fees and extras.

Now even back in the dark ages, you could purchase things by mail order, and if you bought something from out of state - even if you bought it from a place that would charge a local resident Sales Tax - you got it tax-free. In theory, the purchaser was supposed to track all of those, and declare them to the State at tax time (assuming that they live in a State that actually charges sales tax). Of course, how can you trust the consumer to do this, when there are no checks in place? Big ticket items such as cars were handled separately, so it was hard (although possible) to get around the sales tax there, but It was pretty much a given that no one would voluntarily cough up the sales tax on out-of-state purchases.

So, zoom forward a few years, and we are in the golden age of e-commerce. A large percentage of purchases are made online, and that means the States are missing out on a large chunk of potential revenue. Some states, such as Colorado, are trying to make online retailers collect the sales tax based on the purchase location - to which the online retailers heartily object. Other states, such as my home-state of California, are pushing the consumer to do the work, and making threats to assist in the motivation.

In California, the "State Board of Equalisation" (though exactly what they are trying to equalise, I am not sure) has started a push to collect back-owed Sales Tax on out of state purchases. They're being smart about it, rather than going after Joe Consumer, they are starting off targeting businesses with over $100k in revenue, and making them fill in extra declarations on purchases. Unfortunately for me, I fall into that category, so I have just landed myself with a huge bunch of extra paperwork - going back through all my purchases for the last few years, and checking for any possible places where Sales Tax should have been paid, but wasn't. Of course, I am very meticulous, and keep good records, so it should be relatively easy for me to show where Sales Tax was already paid, and find any cases that might have slipped through the cracks. I can't really cry "unfair" on this, but it does seem a little tough - because Joe Consumer is unlikely to have kept the sort of records necessary to do this, he gets away with it. Well, for now, there's no telling whether the state might go after everyone next...

Still, putting the burden of this work on the consumer is ridiculous. So, what is the answer? Simple. One flat-rate sales tax, similar to VAT in Europe, that is collected by every single retailer. All prices would be post-tax, so what-you-see is what-you-pay (well, assuming we can get this horrible tipping thing wrapped into restaurant prices as well). Simple, clean, it would eliminate loopholes, reduce the burden of collecting the money, and increase the revenue. There would probably be some teething problems, as there was with VAT in Europe, but in the long run, it really is the only realistic solution.

Why don't I think this will happen?
 - Online retailers benefit by not charging sales tax, meaning they can offer a lower bottom-line price
 - Retailers benefit from hidden prices, to confuse the consumer as much as possible
 - The individual states (/counties/cities) either want to keep control of this revenue source (despite the fact that some of them are spending a fortune trying to collect on it), or want to keep the benefits they gain by collecting no sales tax.
 - Consumers would eventually wind up paying more, so they are not going to be excited about it.
 - Politicians are so beholding to special-interest groups, that they will take one look at all the above, and decide that their campaign contributions are worth more than fixing something that is so obviously broken. 

Please, won't somebody stand up and fix Sales Tax in the US???

Tuesday, December 8th 2009

10:18: Well my predicitions were a bit off. There are various calculations floating around estimating that a human brain requires around 10 PetaFlops of processing power. About 10 years ago, I calculated that Supercomputers would reach this performance level by 2020, and that by 2040 hat sort of performance could be packed into a laptop size package. Last year, my estimates were still looking on target - Super Computers were breaking the Petaflop barrier, and we looked to be running a little bit ahead of my prediction.

Now IBM has announced that they are working on a 10 PetaFlop computer, and expect to have it operational by 2010. That's shaved 10 years off my calculations! Time to start dusting off "Eliza" and see what sort of personality emulator can be run with that sort of number-crunching capabilities behind it...

Chris.

Monday, September 14th 2009

11:40: Parasites in the system
You have probably heard about the big debates over US healthcare that are going on, and for those of you outside the US, you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. The US is currently trapped in a vicious circle of spiraling health costs (note, I didn't say health *care* costs), and the bottom line is that a large number of people in the US have no health insurance - which means basically, no health care, aside from emergency treatment (for which they will still be billed exorbitant amounts).

But why is it that the US suffers so greatly from this problem, where as other countries seem to keep it maneagable. Yes, each country's system has its own inherent problems, but none seem to go through quite the issues that the US is facing.

My analysis - parasites in the system.

It is no secret the the US economy functions on a real Capitalist basis. That is, bottom-line is the driving factor. That has become so deeply ingrained in the US culture, that often the quest to make a profit (and a short-term profit, at that), generates sacrifices in many other areas, such as job security, job creation, etc. The problem is when this Capitalist bias runs into something that requires a Socialist basis - i.e. anything where we cannot let money be the driving force. For all the materialistic things, fine, but when it comes to health, doesn't everyone deserve good treatement, irrespective of net worth? Not necessarily equal treatment, I have no problems with the well-off paying more for "better" (usually, more personalised) treatment. But at the end of the day, you have no choice (OK, lets not get into the grey area of health-effecting lifestyle choices) about whether you get sick or not, and it should be a goal of a supposedly fair and equal society to ensure that all its citizens have access to health care, without having to mortgage the rest of their lives.

I had a medical recently, which required a few extra tests. Now I have the cheapest health insurance plan possible, and so a large deductible - which means that most of cost comes out of my own pocket. I received a bill for the tests - $495. That is a heft chunk of change. However, my insurance company apparently "negotiates" with providers, and procured me a discount of $352.51 - leaving me a balance to pay of about $140.

Lets be clear, that $352 was not money the insurance company paid out. So what was the "real" cost of the tests? $500, or $140? Now I have no idea how all of this works under the hood (as Scott Adams would say, it is a "Confuseopolis", designed specifically to hide its own workings from the consumer so the consumer doesn't know when he is being screwed...). So, it seems that someone without medical insurance would have been billed $500, where as someone with medical insurance is billed only $140. Does that make *any* sense what so ever? The medical provider is trying o make a fat profit, off the group of people who probably can't even afford the health insurance in the first place. I'm sure the $500 is what is reported to the government, and used for their "cost of healthcare".

Another interesting number is what I pay for health insurance. There is a big scare over the price of health insurance, but when I was self employed, I paid only $150/month to cover myself and Jenny. Yes, that was a "High Deductible" plan, which means I could have to pay thousands in a year before the insurance kicks in, but as a healthy couple with no kids, that is usually not a problem (and the savings in premiums over a lower deductible plan would just about cover any deductible I would have to pay). Now I am an employee, and my employer pays part of my health insurance - and for the same plan, they pay 3-4 times as much. So what is the "cost" of insuring me? Again, you can be sure that the numbers are extremely complex, but if a health insurance company can sell me a plan direct for $150, and sell it through a third party to my company for $500 - well, again someone is getting royally screwed.

I don't have the answers to America's healthcare problems - heck, I know that I have no chance of even figuring out what the problem is from where I stand, and I consider myself far more informed than the majority of healthcare consumers. But I'll tell you this - if a commission was formed to route out the parasites, profiteers, and money-drains from the healthcare industry (and by that, let me be clear that I am talking about companies and individuals that have nothing to do with sick people - to these parasites, sick people only exist on statistical charts), we would be one step closer to getting the problem under control, so that true change can then occur.
Current Mood: annoyed

Tuesday, September 8th 2009

15:08: Mr. Fixit
My life still seems to be full of mechanical goings-on. A week or so ago, I noticed that the pump on the Hot Tub was starting to make an odd noise. Sure enough, a few days later - no pump at all. I dug into pulling it apart this weekend, hoping that it was going to be an easy fix such as removing a blockage or some such.

I started off by shutting down the power, and unbolting the control panel so that I could get to the pump. I then unbolted the electric motor from the base, and from the pump itself (A Hot Tub pump has two parts - the "Wet End", which is where the water circulates, and the impeller spins, and the actual electric motor itself), hoping that I would be able to remove the motor without actually removing the "Wet End". No such luck though, the impeller is tightly attached to the motor shaft, probably an "interference fit" (i.e. it is pressed on). So, there was nothing for it but to drain the whole hot tub, and remove the entire pump unit.

Getting the pump to the bench, the first thing I tried was manually turning the motor - there is a covered slot in the end of the shaft opposite the pump, which can be turned manually with a screwdriver. But with crunching and grinding, I could only turn the shaft about a 1/4 turn - not a good sign.

A little more inspection showed a water stain underneath the impeller housing - it looks like the main seal (which seals the water inside the impeller housing) had a leak - very small, but enough to start to contaminate the main bearing of the motor. When turning the motor by hand, the main bearing was obviously the blocking point, and forcing it to turn started to release some rusty debris - looks like the main bearing had actually rusted and disintegrated!

Now fixing this is not beyond reason - but does require some specific tools for pulling and pushing bearings, and requires finding very specific repair parts. A little web research showed that I could purchase a brand new pump and motor for $260 (including shipping) - so I placed the order, and stuck the old motor on a shelf in the garage - fixing it will become a project for another time!

So, no hot-tubbing at the lounge for the time being, Which is a real pity as the new patio furniture and pirate-bar (complete with draft "Hop Along Silver" beer) is ready for christening!
Current Mood: curious

Thursday, August 27th 2009

16:22: Petrolhead re-redux
Well, it seems that some people found my mechanical-musings to be interesting, so I thought I'd give you a quick update on how the denizens of the garage are keeping my life interesting.


Stella (1994 Volvo 940 turbo-wagon):
The Volvo has a name, and her name is Stella. Replacing the RPM sensor was 10 minutes work, and in a 25-mile test drive, Stella behaved herself perfectly. The part was actually less than what we payed for the Fuel relay, so hopefully Sage can return that part to Kragen's, and come out ahead.

The Wasp (2005 BMW F650GSA): To keep up the theme of parts falling off my bike, I was lubing the chain and noticed that the little clip that keeps the master link in place had gone missing. Now the original chain has a riveted master link, so no clip to fall off. But San Jose BMW replaced the chain a year or so ago, and used a "removable master link" style. I took her in to CalMoto, and they suggested replacing the clipped master-link with a riveted one. $50 later, I had a freshly riveted, lubed and adjusted chain, and had gone one step further towards undoing any work that San Jose BMW have done to the bike. I was impressed with Cal Moto, and I will definitely be taking the Wasp back there in future.

SallyX (2008 Saleen S302E): I have been playing with the OBDII data collection for the Saleen, which has been very interesting, but so far has revealed no issues. In fact, the calibration engineer I have been working with said that he had rarely seen such good fuel trims. Next step will be a trip to a different dyno (at Mustang Ranch, the shop that did the Shelby restoration), to rerun and collect some more log data in the process.

Lola: (2008 MINI Cooper S): Lola has been off on adventures without us! On Tuesday night Jenny parked Lola in San Francisco, and came back to find her gone! It turns out that there had been a complaint from the people who's house Jenny had parked in front of, and the car had been towed. Thanks to google-maps, I got the chance to take a good look at where she was parked from the comfort of my armchair (I wonder how long it will be until google-maps goes real time? :-> ). You can clearly see that someone has actually taken a chisel to the curb, and hacked it down so that it looks like the driveway "easement" is wider than it really is. I think that she was parked legally, but that the parking inspector used the wrong location for deciding if she was encroaching on the driveway easement. We'll be fighting this one...

Betty: (1990 Ford F250): I have tested Betty a couple of times, and each time she has started up first turn of the key. Seems like what ever fiddling around I did fixed the problem. Either that, or she was just being difficult to prove a point...

Shelby: (1968 Shelby GT500KR): Sorry, no more news, just some photos I posted on facebook.

Wednesday, August 19th 2009

11:56: Petrolhead overload
Well, its time for a bit of a petrol-head update. For one reason or another, cars and all things mechanical have been much on my mind of late. So, for those who might be interested in that thought of thing, here is a quick rundown.


              Volvo, Interrupted.
Our friend (plus superb poet and performer) Sage was staying with us for a few days, along with her gorgeous dog George, and her classic "brick" 1994 Volvo 940 Turbo wagon. Her car was having a few problems, and kept deciding to stall and leave her stranded. After a San Francisco garage charged her $300 to swap around a spark plug wire and replace a lightbulb, we decided to do a bit of digging to see if the internetz could do a better job of being a mechanic. One good thing about these old Volvo's is that they seem to have a very strong fan club. We determined that there was a good chance that it might be the fuel-relay, but we replaced that, and the car stalled yet again. I decided I needed to have a chat with the car directly.

Chris: Yeah. Your car.

Sage: Yeah?

Chris: Very angry.


Sage had to get back to LA, so left the car in my care. I decided that politically-incorrect Native-American voices wouldn't do the job, and started looking into really talking to the car. It turns out that these Volvo's have a simple "OBD" (OnBoard Diagnostic) port, and that by plugging in a wire and pressing a button, the car will actually tell you whats wrong. A few minutes of morse code later, and the car had told me that it wasn't actually a fuel problem it was an ignition problem - and that the RPM sensor was intermittently failing. So, I ordered a new part (which should arrive in a few day), and it should be a matter of minutes to install - we'll see just how truthful he was being when he told me what was wrong. Lets just hope it doesn't end like this:

Chris: The car's still angry, huh?

Sage: Angry? That car is pissed!

 
Betty lives, and the tale of a bush mechanic

As readers might remember, Jenny and I had a minor car accident in Betty. The damage wasn't too bad, but the front bumper would rub on the left hand front wheel when turning sharply. Being a well-known bush mechanic (and for once not having an angle-grinder to hand), I found us a nice spot between two trees, unlimbered the winch, a chain, and a couple of straps, and popped the bumper back into place. After that, Betty happily carried us a couple of thousand miles, including into the heart of off-road Death Valley. (photos to follow).

I got a quote for the repairs, but the assessor was more worried about what my insurance company would cover, rather than actually fixing Betty. As the accident was totally the fault of the other driver, I decided it would make a lot more sense to claim from her insurance. The assessors came out, and thoroughly checked out Betty (including pointing out several things that my assessor had missed). The final result was that Betty was a "write-off".

Now, that's not as bad as it sounds. All that means is that the insurance company pays out the total worth of the vehicle, and for a small charge, you get to keep the vehicle itself. In this case, the "residual" was about $1000 - meaning that I got a nice cheque from the insurance company, and got to keep Betty. There are several bureaucratic hoops to jump through to get a "salvage" car re-registered. The most annoying part was the fact that the DMV says in big letters "YOU HAVE 10 DAYS TO COMPLETE THE PAPERWORK", but when I fronted up to the DMV, they couldn't even start the paperwork, as the salvage note hadn't made it into their system yet. Still, a followup visit a few weeks later, and Betty is now re-registered, and back on the road.

With some hot cash in my hand, of course, I started to think about replacing Betty. She is almost 20 years old, has 115k miles, and although she is in great condition (except for the bent bits), does have her "character" moments. She is also a model from before such items as air-bags, ABS, and Direct Injection diesel, so I figured if there was a time to replace her, now would be it. Above all, the places we take her (and plan on taking her), reliability is key, and a newer truck is bound to be more reliable, right? Or is it? It turns out that the new engine in Ford trucks in notoriously unreliable. So, that limits my choice of new vehicles. After much research, I decided that a 7.3l diesel F350 4x4, Supercab, with an 8' bed, would be the truck to do the job. I also wanted single rear wheels (not the "dually" sort). After some research, I discovered that Dodge does do a similar truck in the 1-ton style (i.e. with single rear wheels), but those are even harder to find than the Fords.

I tracked down one, a 2003 not too far away, and took it for a test drive. It was great, one owner, pretty good condition, and had some "interesting" aftermarket addons. The woman's asking price was a little high, and after some discussion with Jenny, I decided to make a lower offer. We went back and forth for a few days, and I made an offer that she said "she thought she would accept" - but in the end, sold it to someone else for a little more.

About this time, Betty started being a little finicky - difficult to start, transmission shifting strangely. Did she know that I was driving her, but thinking about another truck? Well after the deal on the new truck fell through, I played around with Betty some to figure out the problem. Some patience, some fiddling, and some harsh words, and I got her started, and seem to have temporarily fixed the problems. Most importantly, I think I know why she wasn't starting well - a simple o-ring leak at the fuel-heater connection. A 20c part, but an hours (smelly) work to pull the filter and heater connection apart. My prodding seems to have slowed the leak, so maybe it was just Betty being difficult.

So, Betty lives on. I am still looking at other trucks, but I'm in no rush, so I can wait patiently for just the right truck, and just the right price. Or maybe Betty will just keep powering on, and really will carry us to the end of the world and back again...


Saleen, Uninterrupted

So, flushed from my success as a Volvo-whisperer, I decided that I really should be talking to all of my cars. The Volvo had an older (and unstandardized) "OBD" port, but all US cars manufactured since 1996 include an "OBD-II" port. This makes the old pushbutton/LED method look downright primitive. Using a plugin cable and converter box, it is possible to access all of the cars sensors, and see all of the inputs that the car's ECU (Engine Control Unit) sees. There are many stand-alone boxes, but I decided to opt for a computer interface, so that I can run software on my laptop, and connect it wirelessly to the car. Although there is a lot of freeware software out there, I chose the ScanXL software, as it seemed the most competent, and also supports (at an extra fee), all of the "extra" data that Ford cars put out. You see, although the OBDII interface is a standard, that standard only specifies generic parameters. Each manufacturer then adds a bunch of their own custom parameters on top.

As you might remember, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the dyno results from testing Sally. While she was still putting out a solid 500HP at the wheels, the air-fuel ratio was low (10.0, meaning the car is running rich), and I was expecting a little more power than that. She is still technically under warranty, but there is a long and sad tale about what happened to the Saleen company. In the end, the news was all good for us owners, with not one, but two companies offering to cover warranties - MJ Acquisitions (which now owns the "Saleen Inc" brand), and SMS Supercars (Steve Saleen's new company). I will not comment on the politics of the whole thing, but I got little help from Saleen Inc/MJ when I contacted them about the issue. However, after contacting SMS Supercars, I got a call from an actual Engineer! Not a tech, not a customer support person, but the guy that actually designs and calibrates the engine management systems for SMS (and previously, for Saleen Inc.). He was a wealth of knowledge and help, and with his assistance I am learning a lot about the internal working of the ECU. It is one thing to be able to look at sensor data from and engine, but quite another thing to actually be able to interpret what that data means! Being an Engineer myself, I really appreciate this. I provided them with a new set of captured data, measuring "fuel trims" at idle, which is a great diagnostic tool. The data looked OK to me, as in it didn't seem to indicate any underlying problem such as a vacuum or exhaust leak, but I am waiting on confirmation from SMS. If that is the case, then the next step will probably be to re-dyno the car at another location, to try and eliminate equipment problems in the measurement.

Another thing that OBDII provides is "DCT", or trouble codes - but Sally was clean in this respect, no problems of any kind reported.

I could go into a long discourse about what I have learned about A/F ratios, but here is a potted summary. You can go see wikipedia for more information if you are interested.  In practical (rather than theoretical) terms, an AF ratio of 10.0 is rich - which means that the car is "safe" (an important consideration in high-performance, and particularly supercharged, engines), but not as optimal as it could be. It can also damage catalytic converters, as there is more un-burned fuel in the exhaust than necessary. For a car like this, the target is somewhere around 11.5, although there could be long and detailed discussions over exactly where to aim. If the AF ratio gets up to 13.0, then the car is starting to run "lean". This is the dangerous one, as it pushes combustion temperatures up, and can cause "detonation" - A Bad Thing(tm).

So, an AF ratio of 10.0 is not really a big deal, but never the less, seems to indicate some other issue. It could be as simple as a measurement problem on the origin dyno run, or it could indicate some other problem. The bottom line is, I have found a way that I can nourish my inner petrol-head, without getting my hands dirty - is that not a perfect hobby for Chris? :)

UPDATE***

After writing all of that, I felt the other members of the stable might feel a little left out - each one has their own story too!

Mini makes me laugh. The play the hip, cool, retro-Brit image to the hilt. But under that thin veneer, they really are a German car company. (in my best non-PC Clarkson impersonation) "You vill not bving your car in for service before ze due date!". Lola flashed me a message on her message board about a service reminder, but it disappeared again, and the only date I could find in the onboard computer showed the next service as 06/2010. I knew there was supposed to be a 12-month service, and I figured if the 2-year service was due in June 2010, that the 12-month service would be due in June-09. Sounds reasonable? Well, not so... I booked Lola in for a service on July 8th, and when I arrived - they turned me away! The "anniversary" data was July 26th apparently, and Mini does not tolerate early service. This despite the fact that I had received several emails and letters warning me that my service was due (but none of them told me exactly when). I complained to Mini about this (because they "value my feedback") - and was told in no uncertain terms that this is the way things are, and nothing could ever possibly change it, ever. When I suggested that perhaps if they were going to refuse to service cars (I should point out that Mini does foot the bill for the services for the first 3 years), that perhaps they should be a little less enthusiastic with the reminder emails and letters. That suggestion was met with a deafening silence...

Still, i took Lola back a few weeks later, mostly to have a recall done (the original center-mount exhaust tips stick out too far, and can burn incautious legs). They gave me a zippy little BMW 3-series to get around in, which was a good thing because they wound up keeping Lola for two days. When I picked her up (after a little mixup when they bought around the wrong car...), she was shiny and clean - and I swear she has gained some extra HP and throttle response. I really wish that I had my OBDII interface before I put her in, so I could see what had changed, but I'm not going to look a gift tune in the calibrations!

I put the latest Wasp story on yelp. Here it is again:

This is a review of their service department. I have been coming to San Jose BMW for service on my BMW F650 Motorcycles for about 6 years. It was kind of a "Devil you know" thing - they are friendly and helpful, give out loaner bikes, but their actual mechanical aptitude is poor. Perhaps it is because the BMW F650s are not that common, but this *is* a BMW house - you would expect them to be the best.

My first bike was a '97 F650. I had starting problems with the bike, and tried several times to get it repaired. After spending a lot of money, I decided it might be a carb issue, so had them rebuild the carbs. I picked up the bike and made it 3 miles before the bike died. Waiting 15 minutes, it would start again, and then die.

Finally I gave up, and bought a new '05 F650 from them. I sold the old bike to a guy, who had to re-rebuild the carbs, and quickly tracked the original problem down to a burned valve, which he fixed.  As this is a comment on their service department, I won't go into the problems I had with the purchase procedure.

Being a new bike, my '05 has been pretty trouble free. They had to replace the sprocket and chain after only 10k miles, and when I asked them for some advice as to why, the response from the tech was "I don't really know much about chains" - not the sort of answer I expected from a dealership.

I recently took it in for a new front tire, and oil change. 2 days and 100 miles after the oil change, I walked out to the bike, and noticed that it looked a little odd. Looking closer, I realized that the engine skid-plate (the aluminum piece that sits under the engine) was hanging down, held on by just a few turns of one bolt.

While they were very apologetic about this, and fixed the problem, I am afraid that there is no excuse for parts falling off a motorcycle. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been taking a corner and the engine guard had come off. They offered nothing more - no refund for the work done. Their apologies were sincere, but no offer of a refund, and no word from upper management (I'm sorry, parts falling off a motorcycle would seem to me to warrant a call from the owner).

And as for the Shelby - well, admittedly I drive her the least, but it is interesting that the oldest car in the stable (she turned 40 last year), is also the least dramatic. She always starts right up, drives beautifully, looks great, and gets more attention on the road than any other car I have owned!
Current Mood: bouncy

Saturday, August 1st 2009

16:29: Miffed at Sony
I have a Sony Vaio Laptop, VGNTZ180N/R. A great little laptop, but recently I have been having some DVD problems. So, as I didn't have anything better to do, I embarked on a service call this afternoon. 1 hour and 20 minute late, I am still going...

The laptop is a year and a half old, but I purchased a 3-year extended warranty, so I know I'm covered. But finding out where to call isn't as easy as you might expect...

After navigating the website, I didn't find any online service support, so I started with the Sony Style support number - and got a recording telling me to call another phone number. I called that number, and after navigating the menu for a while, was asked to enter my Credit Card (as the computer is more than 12 months old). OK, no way... so I tried again, and managed to get through to a human, who gave me a number for the extended service plan. After wandering through their menu, I got through to someone, who checked and toldme I had a 2-year Manufacturer's Warranty, and so transferred me back to Sony. The guy there tried to charg me $50 (again, because the computer is more than 1 year old). We are about 25 minutes into this now.

After describing the problem, trying some firmware updates (which I had already done), he was about to sign me off with a ticket number, as I couldn't consistently reproduce the problem. Luckily enough I figured it out just at that point - the DVD drive works fine when I insert a disk and play it straight away. If I insert a disk, and wait or the disk drive to spin down, and the try and access the disk - I get a horrible mechanical clunk/grind noise, and it won't recognise the disk. So, the first guy got a "Product Specialist" on the line. We went through many of the same things again, including rebooting (this is Vista remember - each reboot is about 5 minutes). We're now at about an hour for this.

So, finally they agree there is a problem - and inform me that the only solution is to ship them them computer, which they ill keep for 7-10 business days, and then ship it back. So, I would be without the computer for at least 2 weeks, not to mention that all my data is on the machine. Ah well, I have been looking for an excuse to reinstall Vista, so I might as well take the opportunity to move all my data off and just reinstall the whole thing. Its a pity Windows 7 isn't here yet, otherwise I would just go with that. At lest I have a month to ship the laptop to them, so time to play around with it. Still - I really wish I had ponied up the extra for the "onsite" warranty plan...
Current Mood: annoyed

Monday, July 27th 2009

17:19: What I do
From time to time, people ask me to explain exactly what it is that I do. I'm usually a little vague, because in this industry, especially working for a startup, you have to be a little careful about what you say. But for my company Caustic Graphics, stealth mode is most definitely over, and we hope to make at big splash at the upcoming Siggraph (one of the major Computer Graphics Conferences). So I thought I would post up a few links to what the company does.

Basically, we are working on hardware that will accelerate "Ray Tracing". Here is a very non-partisan primer on just what "Ray Tracing" means today. Caustic Graphics is on the cutting edge of this exciting technology, and our solution addresses many of the problems that the author notes.

For an idea of the end result, here is an image gallery of stills that were generated using our rendering software. Now imagine those images being generated in real time - being able to move the viewpoint, move items around, switch on and off lights, etc. That is our goal, and as you can imagine, the end results will be nothing short of breathtaking.

As for what I do - I am working on the design of the hardware that will enable this acceleration. It is a real challenge, and I have done more mathematics in the last year than I have done since leaving college. Fun stuff, and with the economy showing definite signs of a turn around, I think we are well on our way to big things!

Chris.

Current Mood: artistic

Wednesday, July 8th 2009

15:59: It wasn't me!!!
As most narcissists, I occasionally do a web search for my own name. This is usually fun, sometimes informative, and occasionally downright scary!

It wasn't me!!!



Current Mood: scared

Monday, June 29th 2009

12:59: We're baaaack
Jenny and I returned from a wonderful week's vacation yesterday. Lots of adventures were had, and we'll post a full write-up soon. We camped out in Betty (our 1990 F250 with a Northlands Camper) for a week, in 4 different National Forests and one National Park. Oddly enough, it was hotter in San Jose when we got back, than it had been in the middle of Death Valley!

The trip got off to an inauspicious start - while driving through the small town of Groveland on the Friday night, a woman backed her car straight across the road infront of us! This happened at 9:30pm, right outside the main pub, and so within minutes just about the entire town had turned out to watch the entertainment. No injuries, and while her car was pretty badly beaten up, Betty got off pretty lightly. I consider this a good thing - if we had to have a car accident, having one while driving slowly through town in a big truck with a bull bar on the front, is the way to do it!

Although Betty's winch mount and fog lights were pretty bady bent, the worst part was that the bumper was pushed back onto the tires. A bit of judicious bending using a "Hi lift" jack got us driving again, but the tires would still rub when turning sharply. A brief bit of work with two trees and a winch popped the bumper back into place again, and we were good to go on the rest of our adventure!

Stay tuned for more stories of our adventurous week....

Thursday, June 4th 2009

16:45: Keeping the rubber side down
If I were Raffaele de Rosa, I would have this Motorbike mounted in pride of place over my mantlepiece. I suspect my underwear would be headed for the trash though...



Current Mood: anxious

Wednesday, June 3rd 2009

19:25: SallyX - Extreme by name, Extreme by nature

So, as faithful readers will remember, in December Jenny and I were treated to the delivery of a new addition to the family. 
SallyX


Being an out-of-state car (I purchased the car from Frontier Ford in Anacortes, Washington), it was a bit of a hassle getting through the California Smog and Licensing, but finally I got the number plates, and she was now road-ready. 
On the road


The next bit of drama was an announcement by Saleen Inc that they would no longer honour warranties. That was a bit of a concern, and till the man himself, Steve Saleen, stepped up and said that his new company (SMS Supercars) would honour all existing Saleen warranties. What a guy!

Now in the owner's manual, Saleen were very clear about the running-in period. Opinions differ on whether this is necessary or not, but with a high-performance, hand built 5.0l engine, I wasn't taking any chances. So, being the good boy I am, I kept the revs down to a reasonable range. Well, today was a big day!

1000 miles

So, a quick call to the lads at TPS Motorsports, and SallyX and I were off for our first run on the dyno. Unfortunately I wasn't prepared enough, so the video is a totally crappy one shot from my phone - it really doesn't do justice to the adrenalin pumping scream that SallyX lets out as she runs her way up to 6400RPM.



The results? 500HP (SAE), and 460ft-lbs of torque - right where I was hoping to be!


Dyno sheet


Not bad for a bone-stock car. Here are the gory details of what an S302E consists of, if you're interested:

Window Sticker
Current Mood: excited

Thursday, May 28th 2009

10:57: American Idle
As a surprise for Jenny, I managed to pick up tickets for "Opening Night" of Spamalot, at the Golden Gate Theatre. I'm not sure it was officially opening night, but it was the first non-preview show, so that spells opening night to me!

Jenny and I are staying up in San Francisco at the Mark Hopkins International. That became our favorite hotel when we discovered the superb Sunday brunches they serve at the Top of the Mark (the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel). Yes, it looks fancy-schmancy, but me being an eagle-eyed bargain hunter, I managed to not only land us a great rate - but also get a deal where for every two nights we stay, they throw in a free one! We walked down Taylor street towards the Theatre (although it was still a surprise for Jenny as to where we were going), and decided to stop for dinner at the Grand Cafe in the Hotel Monaco. The place had a great Ambiance, delicious food, and fantastic decor (with many sculptures by an artist who's name escapes me right now!)

Jenny looked fantastic, dressed up in her green dress, with brunette hair. Yes, as a fun little change, she was wearing a really cute little brunette wig. For those who havan't seen me lately, I currently have black hair, and a long black beard and mustache, and was wearing a dinner jacket and Hawaiian shirt - so as usual, we made quite the pair! jenny's wig played quite a part in the adventures of the night, as you will see later!

After dinner, we wandered down to the Golden Gate Theatre for the show. Our seats were OK, in the orchestra level but quite far back, and the view and sound were both fine. The curtain came up on the first act, and of course, I started giggling in the first few seconds of the show, and pretty much didn't stop for the next hour! it was great fun, well put together, and so packed full of "in" Monty Python jokes.

Intermission came around, and Jenny and I headed to the bar to pick up our (pre-ordered) drinks. A slight mixup with the order got us a second beer for free. As we were trying to find a quiet spot to stand, I spotted a familiar looking profile just walking through the door into the lobby. At the same time, Jenny turned to me and said "There's a guy here that looks just like Eric Idle." Not so - there was a guy there that *was* Eric Idle. How exciting, I was standing three feet from the author of the show, and the Monty Python legend.

After we finished our drinks, I headed down to the bathroom. On my way back, I peeked in the door of the theatre, but couldn't see Jenny. Ah, but that was because I was looking for a blond, and she was currently a brunette! So, I wandered back to where we had been standing before, and who should I see standing at the merchandise stand, but the man himself. Now I have never been good with meeting famous people - I can't but help imaging what it must be like for them getting pestered by fans all the time, and I am usually a little shy. In actual fact not many people seemed to have noticed him, and I waited my chance, and walked up and shook his hand. I complimented him on the show, and then added "and thank you for all that you have done over the years". Yeah, pretty lame, but it was from the heart. I was all abuzz when I finally got back to my seat, and settled in for Act Three (Two, sir).

After the show, which culminated with a standing ovation, Eric Idle got up on stage to say a few words. It is the 40th anniversary of Monty Python, and I think he was quite touched by the reaction he got from the audience. The show really was great - in true Monty Python style, Eric Idle managed to poke fun at just about every aspect of Musical Theatre - while at the same time, paying homage to Musical Theatre's great entertainment value.

The evening culminated with Profiteroles and Lagavulin back at the Grand Hotel, and Jenny and I virtually floated back up the hill to the hotel. All in all, a superb night out in San Francisco!




Current Mood: ecstatic

Monday, March 23rd 2009

14:13: Chris the Plumber...
Spring has sprung, and naturally a young mans mind turns to ... plumbing? Yes, I decided to play the plumber for the weekend. I'm not exactly "Joe the Plumber", but I actually quite enjoyed it, so i thought I would recount the tales...


A few months ago, I noticed that our water bills were going up - despite the fact that winter had arrived, and the sprinklers had been shut off for ages. Our water softener has (or rather, had) a feature called the "Water Mizer" - a little red light that lights up when there is water running. I checked that to see if anything was running - and found that the water softener itself was leaking! Luckily it was not actually leaking onto the ground, but the overflow was running out of the backwash pipe and into the drain. It did pretty good service for 11 years, so I figured we did OK. I disconnected it from the system - which should have been an easy job, but was actually quite tricky - a previous owner of the house had done some DIY plumbing in the garage (including the water softener hookup) - and they were not all that good at it. In fact, instead of water pipe, they used thin-wall electrical conduit! This was probably 25 years ago, so the water softener hookup was fragile to say the least. Not only that, but there had at one time been a sink installed in the garage, and there was now a rats-nest of pipes and drains. Anyway, I managed to disconnect the water softener without breaking anything, and left it at that, planning to come back and do the job properly at some point.

Now a week or so ago, i was taking a look at where I would install the new softener - and noticed that the ground was damp. Yep, things always seem to happen at once - turns out that the water heater had sprung a leak. It did us pretty good service too, considering its warranty expired in 1990 (making it at least 25 years old). It was a slow leak, but it had soaked the "pedestal" (water heaters in CA have to be raised off the floor when installed in a garage, to avoid petrol vapours), which was made of wood and sheetrock - when sheetrock gets wet, it basically starts to fall apart. So, in the spirit of "doing the job right", I pulled out the old heater, and pulled apart the pedestal. Uggg, it turns out that under the pedestal was a lovely place for a rats nest, that had then been soaked by the leaking water - not pleasant. I spent several hours breaking things down and cleaning up, ready for the "new install".

I did a lot of research on new water heaters - I like to upgrade to the latest technology where possible. But in this case, the alternative to a classic old water heater is a "tankless water heater" - but the more I read about them, the less I liked them. They may be slightly more economical (as they have no storage costs), but require a much higher gas draw (10x that of a standard water heater), which means that the old gas line would probably not be big enough, and the venting would also have to be upgraded. There is also a question of how much they can supply, and even the biggest will struggle if you want to shower while the washing machine is running. The solution is to install two or more in parallel, but that was all starting to get way too complicated - so it was off to home depot for a plain-old storage water heater.

In looks, the new heater is more or less *exactly* the same as the one it was replacing - same height, same width, same inlets, outlets and vents - not much has changed there in 25 years. I did choose a good one, a GE with a 12-year warranty, and an energy star rating wualifying me for a $30 rebate from PG&E (thats the gas and electric company), and, believe it or not, a tax-credit for next year! Well, I guess that should make me feel green, right?

I rebuilt the pedestal, with cement board this time (water proof), and added a "drip pan" under the water heater to catch any eventual leaks, and direct them to a drain. I even painted the pedestal and wall "sunburst yellow", which makes this little corner look quite cheery - although of course now the rest of the garage needs doing as well... the trickiest part was getting the new water heater into place - these things weigh in at around 150 pounds, and the pedestal is 20 inches high - plus a 3-inch lip on the drain pan. But I love a challenge like that, so with three long boards resting on some bricks in the pan, I slowly "walked" the water heater into place. The last little step of removing the bricks required a little brute force (and help from Jenny), but it all went prett smoothly.

Hookup was simply a matter of reconnecting the water lines, gas line, and vent. The tricky part was the "overflow" pipe - water heaters are fitted with a pressure release valve (which should be tested once a year - have you tested your pressure relief valve today?), which needs to be piped through hot water pipe (i.e. no PVC), and to a drain (or to the outside, as this one was). The previous installation was "dodgy" to say the least, built out of bits of galvanised pipe, and not at all following "code". Well, I hooked it up as is for the short term, knowing that I was coming back to attack the rest of the plumbing shortly.

So, next was the water softener. As I said, the plumbing for that was extremely dodgy, so finally I just pulled out the lot, including the afore mentioned "rats nest" of pipes and drains. Amazing, it opened up a huge space in the garage! The new water softener (also a GE, as it happens) has connections for 1" pipe. The water pipe coming up from the ground is also one inch, as is the pipe leading into the house for service. So, I carefully made all my plans for the new plumming route, and went and bought all of the 1" parts and pipes I would need. When I went to cut off the water mains though, I discovered that the actual pipe leading off the water meter is only a 3/4"! Ah well, 1" pipe won't hurt, but I definately could have got away with 3/4".

One thing I didn't like is that the new water softener is designed for a "fixed" connection - the old one had flexible pipes for the hookup, which makes things easier. With a rigid connection, you have to make your measurements carefully so that the connection is at just the right height and spacing - and from experience, that can sometimes prove tricky. But, luck was on my side, and after I finished all of the hookup, I was spot on in the right place. I plumbed everything in, waited the 2 hours for the pipes to cure, and with fingers crossed - turned on the mains. No leaks, hurrah! So, no we have nice soft water again (the water at our house is very hard, as it is all well water).

Next step on the plumbing front is installing a new water filter. Water softeners don't add all that much sodium, but we do drink a lot of water, and that means our sodium intake was probably 10-20% higher because of the softener. That doesn't worry me too much, we don't eat much processed food, and never add salt when cooking, so our sodium intake is still probably way less than the average person's. Still, water is pretty important stuff, so I am considering fitting a reverse osmosis filter for drinking water. Any one have one?







Current Mood: geeky

Tuesday, March 17th 2009

15:00: PetrolHead redux - The arrival of SallyX.
Introducing the latest member of the stable - SallyX, a 2008 Saleen S302E "Extreme" in Speedlab Yellow.



And for all of you who are concerned about the environmental impact of this 5.0l, 620HP beast - I have put less than 500 miles on her in three months, so not too bad for the environment.



Buying the car was kind of a tough process - because I am picky, and had to have a yellow Mustang, my choices were limited. In fact, you are looking at it - 1-of-1, the only factory yellow Mustang for 2008. I bought the car from Frontier Ford in Anacortes, Washington State - a great dealership, highly recommended. I had been virtual tyre-kicking for months, but had been waiting to see what the new GT500KR would be like. Luckily for me, the KR was delayed long enough for the bottom to fall out of the car market. In the end we decided against the KR, but Frontier Ford made me an offer I couldn't refuse on this Saleen.

The original plan had been to drive up to Washington in the '98 Saleen, drop that off for the trade, and drive back in SallyX. Unfortunately the Gods of Weather had a thing or two to say about that, and with many feet of snow piled up between here and Washington, we decided it was far more prudent to ship the car.

We were knocked out when she arrived - she is abslutely stunning! You can't see too well from the picture, but the entire roof is glass - the Saleen "Scenic-View" roof. We are still running through a few paperwork challenges though. First off there are many beaureaucratic hoops to jump through to import a car to California, and the "smog-referee" gave me the run around, insisting I provided reams of paperwork for the car. I got all that sorted, but still haven't got the official plates yet - with the California Government on a "go-slow" (they laid off many temporary workers, and now shut down 1 work day in 10), things are a little behind. Then, the car manufacturer decided that they would go bust, so I am was left without a warranty! The owner of Saleen Inc, Hancock Park Associates, seems to have done some serious behind-the-scenes maneuvering, so I am seeing what we can do to get them to provide at least something to existing warranty holders. At least I paid out for the extended warranty (these high-end cars only come with a 12-month warranty anyway), so will be covered in the event of any serious problems.

As SallyX is still "running in" (and I am sticking to it with this hand-crafted engine), I haven't had a chance to push her too much as yet - but even at 4000RPM, she rumbles along nicely. In order to make up for this running-in period (and for neatly going bankrupt and taking my warranty with it...), Saleen Inc gave me a gift-certificate to the Skip Barber High Performance Driving School. This is a *must* for any petrolhead - a day spent driving high-performance cars hard - skidding, drifting, autocross, track time - it was a heavenly day! No Fords in the line up, but I did get to drive a couple of BMWs, and Infinity IS3, a Porche Boxter and 911, a Mazda RX8, and a Lotus Elise. I think my favorite part was drifting the RX8 in the skid pan, followed closely by zooming around the cones in an autocross course in the Elise.

So, have you nourished your inner petrol-head today?



Current Mood: hyper

Wednesday, February 4th 2009

12:42: Chess club meets D&D
Like many of my fellow geeks, I was in Chess-Club when I was in high-school. I used to do pretty well, but never quite had the "killer instinct" necessary to really be a good player - that burning desire to win. Perhaps that was because I also pursued another geekly pastime - Dungeons and Dragons. And yes, I will admit that I still play D&D to this day, although my chess playing ability has fallen seriously into disuse.

But some creative people manage to mix their passion for chess with their passion for Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it is best to stick to one or the other, and not try and combine the two...




Monday, February 2nd 2009

13:29: Road-rash (but not mine).
It was a beautiful day on Sunday, and so I got the first chance to take my new car for a spin (more on the car itself later). I went for a wander, up Uvas Canyon Road, over Hecker Pass to Watsonville, and then along the backroads towards Corallitos. I was taking it easy, the car only has 100 miles on the clock, and is "running in", so I can't go over 4000rpm. The road was small, twisty, and mostly deserted. As I came around a corner, I saw a guy standing in the road, waving his arms. I immediately slowed down and put my hazard lights on, and took a look what was going on.

Biker down.

The rider was lying in the middle of the road, conscious but in a lot of pain - his Motorcycle was piled upside-down against a tree. I was third on the scene, and the paramesics had just been called. The guy was reasonably coherent, but didn't want to listen when we told him not to move. I tried to keep him from moving around too much - he even wanted to stand up, but it was obvious that wasn't a good idea. He was wearing good motorcycle gear, and already got his helmet off (the current wisdom is that you should never remove an accident victim's helmet - but the information doesn't tell you what to do when the victim insists on taking it off himself), so there wasn't too much I could do except keep him "calm and reassured". We put his bag under his head to support it, and just kept him talking until the paramedics arrived.

First on the scene was the fire brigade, and at that point we left them to it. A chopper arrived just minutes after the fire brigade, and pretty soon there were ambulances and police on the scene. They took quite a while to stabilise the guy, and then loaded him onto a stretcher, and off for a helicopter ride.

Yup, motorcycle riding is a dangerous business, but there was somthing that struck me about this. The guy had apparently been riding with a bunch of people. He was obviously last of the group - and not a single one noticed that he wasn't with them anymore. It is well known that being last, with a bunch of people that ride faster than you, is the most dangerous place to be - it is the place that suckers people into riding beyond their abilities... I'm not saying that is what happened in this case, but anyway - bad karma to his riding buddies for "leaving a man behind".

Last time I went for a group ride, it was with a bunch of people from work. A great day out, but we're all pretty careful riders. After we set off after lunch (at Alice's Restaurant) - we were passed by another bunch of sport-bikers. They zoomed past with little regard for us, and at one point, as one rider was passing the guy infront of me - another rider was passing him! Later on that day, we also went past a "biker down" - probaby not from the same group, but seeing the behaviour of some made it just that little bit harder to feel sympathy with the downed rider. There are  lot of good and safe riders out there, but there are also a lot of idiots - on 2 wheels, on 4 wheels, on 18-wheels, they are everywhere. Just make sure that you stay well out of their way, and don't let them put you in a position where you are in the danger zone!

Safe rides, drives, flys, and travels,

Chris.

Monday, December 22nd 2008

22:31: My new car...
Here she is!



Hehehe, Merry Christmas!!!

Tuesday, December 16th 2008

10:52: The next big thing in elective surgery...
I just read a news report that blew my mind. Face transplants are here! Of course for the moment they are rare, and reserved for those that are desperately in need. But once the technical hurdles have been overcome, it can only be a matter of time before some less needy people are lining up for the procedure. Imagine a rich (yet ugly) person forking over a few hundred thousand to a poor (but beautiful) person, for a face-swap. Even face-theft is a possibility! And forget the anti-wrinkle cream, just throw on a whle new face when the old one gets a little saggy...

And imagine bumping into someone wearing the face of a deceased friend or relative. I suggest everyone takes a good look at their donor cards and makes sure the "face" box isn't ticked! Or not, maybe some people would like their faces walking around after they're gone...

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