Another Car Rant: Rear Visibility

I don't know if my audience is tired of my various car rants, but this New York Times review of the new Cadillac station wagon made me go, "Ugh... car designers are still that stupid, eh?"

Incidentally, for previous rant examples, see this, this, or this.

First, the article goes into the logic of station wagons--I know that they are a fine idea as a practical cargo-carrying passenger vehicle, after almost 15 years of driving a 1992 Subaru Legacy wagon.

For most of us, the classic American station wagon — with its acres of fake woodgrain siding, sticky vinyl bench seats and lazy-revving V-8 engine — is a fixture of our collective automotive consciousness. It is also extinct. The gas crises of the ’70s hobbled it, the minivans of the ’80s dealt a knockout blow and the S.U.V.’s that followed stomped on its grave.


On the Continent [Europe], station wagons never were the wallowing land arks we knew, so today’s European car buyers aren’t scarred by that memory. And with Europe’s sky-high gas prices and narrow streets, S.U.V.’s make even less sense there than they do here, so Europeans who are engaged in all those much-talked-about “active lifestyle” pursuits — or who just need to carry a lot of stuff — often drive station wagons.

But the portion that actually set me off was this triumph of style and design over usefulness and safety:

“There’s a stigma of what a wagon is and I think what we were trying to do is something that was not a traditionally defined wagon,” said Clay Dean, Cadillac’s chief designer, who is also executive director for G.M. global advanced design. “The D-pillar is thicker than you would normally do; normally you’d thin that thing up as much as you can for visibility, but it was a conscious choice — we were trying to convey a sense of dynamics and sportiness and masculinity.”

From the driver’s seat, the low priority given to visibility is painfully evident, as the chunky pillars have a tendency to make cars in the adjacent lane disappear. Before changing lanes, precise adjustments of the side mirrors are advised, along with over-the-shoulder glances.

Terminology: D-pillar = pillar between rear window and rearmost side window. Pillars are lettered from front to rear: A-pillar is the one between your front windscreen and driver/passenger window.

F'ing morons. This is analogous to an interesting point brought up in Malcolm Gladwell's 2004 New Yorker article on how SUVs became what they are. He interviews G. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born cultural anthropologist whose speciality is getting beyond the rational—what he calls "cortex"—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, "reptilian" responses. He notes:

During the design of Chrysler's PT Cruiser, one of the things Rapaille learned was that car buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser smaller. Of course, making windows smaller—and thereby reducing visibility—-makes driving more dangerous, not less so. But that's the puzzle of what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe has become more important than actually being safe.

Grr. Once again, f'ing morons. I am extremely happy with the "glass house" effect I have with my Subaru wagon--loads of visibility in all directions. I suppose I care about people looking into my car, say, when I need to sleep in it overnight. But that has happened all of one time.

As a final note, another entertaining auto-industry related snippet, from AP newswires, about the 2011 Buick Regal, which will be built in an Oshawa, Ontario plant:

The Regal, based on the Opel Insignia, is a key product for the brand, which has an average buyer age of 70 and is trying to attract buyers in their 40s and 50s.

Oh god... average age of 70? That's absolutely terrifying... and a clear sign that your brand is about to die out. What--free box of Depends(tm) with your Buick purchase?


Getting My *Weld* On

I spent this past weekend taking a welding and metal cutting course at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont. It seems a bit like a school run by unrepentant back-to-the-land hippies--hey, that's not a knock, it was a pretty cool and fun experience. It's a bit of a haul (3-1/2 hours out of Boston), but the campus is lovely.

The course itself was well taught--two instructors, six students, and loads of hands on experience. This was the first time I have ever welded--I consider it embarrassing that at my age, I have not developed that skill set (a similar rationale to taking that wilderness first aid course). Also, there are plenty of projects I have done where just a quick amount of welding would have been really useful.

We did oxygas cutting--heat up the metal with an oxyacetylene torch, and then dump boatloads of pure oxygen on the cut, and the steel burns off (like fuel--highly exothermic), blasting out the molten metal. It's pretty wild... I've suffered through cutting 1/4" plate with all sorts of tools before (bandsaw, horizontal bandsaw, abrasive cutoff saw, angle grinder)--but cutting through that material with oxygas like it's barely there is a really odd (and wonderful) sensation.

We also did some metal bending--classic heat it and beat it stuff.

The main portion of the course was stick (SMAW) welding--it's electric arc welding with a flux-coated consumable electrode. For instance, when you see ironworkers welding steel, it's stick welding. It's pretty much classic welding--if you can do this right, you can pick up MIG (metal inert gas) no problem. It's a bit difficult to figure out at first, but by the end, I thought I was laying down a passable weld bead.

TIG (tungsten intert gas) welding was positively magical: an airbrush-shaped gun which, with a blinding light and a quiet hissing noise, melts away a 4 mm diameter puddle of steel. All that with a welder that plugs into a 110 V wall outlet!

One part of welding is that you need to wear those big masks--unfortunately, when you're working in a crowded shop, you end up getting "flashed" once in a while--somebody else is welding, and you get a blast of electric arc seared into your retina. My eyes were feeling a little bit achey after the weekend, but they're fine now.

The instructors were a pretty neat bunch. One swaggered in with his union ironworker Local 7 sweatshirt, looking a bit like Jesse James (from Monster Garage), complete with wallet chain, who spends nine months out of the year erecting wind turbine towers in Alaska. Who later revealed that he's a former architect who gave up on the profession because he was friggin' tired of drawing bathroom details. The other was a sculptor who needed to pay the bills, so he does architectural-detail-level welding for a shop in Vermont, with most of their installations in the Boston area. They were really great guys and excellent instructors.

Not a bad weekend cost-wise either: $415 for tuition ($300), plus lodging for two nights in their dormitory and their home-cooked local meals. And the communal meals were neat--lunch outside, and folks from various walks of life.

Yeah, I know you next question--"So what kind of a welder are you gonna buy now, Bats?" Well, I think I'll hold off for a while--honestly, I have plenty of hobbies involving expensive equipment that I have no time for already. But would like to find some arrangement to use a welder once in a while. And heck, if I find one for cheap on CraigsList, I might pick it up. But all of these newly found skills make me want to come up with some project to use them.

But overall, this experience at Yestermorrow was very positive--perhaps I'll take another short course in milling lumber ("from stump to sticker"), concrete countertops, or shop machine maintenance.

However, that course took all of the weekend, from driving up on Friday night to driving back on Sunday night. So I really need a break from my weekend... but let's hear it for a three-day week for Thanksgiving!


Travel Coinciences: Schtick!

Today's work travels were a miserable and highly objectionable 5:20 AM BOS-CVG flight, which necessitated a 3:30 AM wakeup. Why did I think that was a good idea?

However, while I was waiting for the rental car shuttle with my colleague, I heard somebody next to me say, "K.???". I looked up.


No way! Gave him a great big hug. Schtick just happened to be traveling through Cincinnati at the same moment, dressed in classic business casual blue blazer/tan slacks, on his way to a meeting.

[Note: photo of him from Facebook; I did not have the presence of mind to snap a shot, but he looks about like this nowadays.]

He was on a final day or two of travel for a long trip, bouncing all over the place. He even passed through Boston during part of that (and stopped by the haus, I think).

Anyway... a pretty cool coincidence... although a clear sign that I am traveling for business far too much.


Condoms and Climate Change

A recent snippet from a home energy efficiency periodical that I read:

A recent study conducted by the London School of Economics for the organization Optimum Population Trust concludes that expanding access to family planning is five times more cost-effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than low-carbon technology. Based on recent estimates that the world population in 2050 would be half a billion smaller than projected if all women who want contraception now had access to it, the researchers calculated that CO2 emissions could be reduced by 34 gigatons.

Putting the cost of providing the contraception at a total of $220 billion, that amounts to $7 per ton of CO2 averted. Among more conventional technologies, per-ton costs were found to be $24 for wind power, $51 for solar, $57–$83 for coal plants with carbon capture and storage, and $92 and $131 for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, respectively. The full study is available online: “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost: Reducing Future Carbon Emissions by Investing in Family Planning”.

Heh. Pretty cool.

Although I wonder about the phrase, "study conducted by the London School of Economics"--is this an actual endorsement, or did OPT just pay a grad student at LSE to crunch the numbers for them?

Incidentally, that image above is a Hand silkscreened giant condom pillow with giant fabric condom. Something I found while doing random image searches; thought it was amusing enough to share.


Bay Area Trip: Burning it at Both Ends

I managed to continue my pattern of being out to the Bay Area every even-numbered month of 2009, for that continuing house project in Oakland. It’s a nice feeling that we’re getting this project pretty close to buttoned up and ready to go.

Incidentally, this trip was a week ago--I've been slamming on a week-long trip to Vancouver, and haven't had time to post since then.

Infrastructure Disasters and Dorkery

First, I managed to time my visit right during the period when the Bay Bridge was dead closed for several days, due to a cracked eyebar—thus tying up Bay Area traffic into knots. Happily, I just stayed in East Bay for my weekday work. Perlick pointed me at this fantastic web page, which has loads of pictures and engineering explanations on the failure and the repair.

In retrospect, it is impressive to me that they managed to cook up this kludge (that what us engineers call an inelegant solution cooked up to solve a problem quickly) in short order, but it was a little underdesigned. It might have been a better idea to also try to replace the broken Eyebar soon after the band-aid was installed (it's been almost two months, but I guess they didn't want to close the bridge again to install a new Eyebar).

Kludge... excellent.

I was shocked by the picture of the cracked eyebar. I was expecting, “Oh, it’s some hairline thing they found with magnaflux, or some special detection technique.” Nope… it’s this huge, visible, ugly, rusty crack... holy crap. Nobody happened to notice that before?


Anyway, as usual, I was working everywhere in the house, from up on the roof…

…to down in the crawl space…

…doing everything from airflow measurements to equipment efficiency to checking photovoltaic output to installing a condensate drain to building my own Ethernet cables (data acquisition system network connection).

Some serious frustrations at work… for one, I FedEx’d my big case of tools to my client’s office, which arrived the day before I did. Unfortunately, nobody was in their office to take delivery. So the case went into FedEx limbo, despite multiple phone calls and offers to pick it up at their warehouse. And thus, I had to spend a day and a half trying to do my job with a Leatherman and my teeth (FYI, your teeth are a passable, albeit unpleasant, way to strip 24 gauge telco/network wire).

On Friday around lunchtime, my tools showed up. Man… this totally made me think of Jess’s turn of phrase describing her previous job--Waiting for FedEx:

Let’s go.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for FedEx.



I managed to wrap up at a reasonable time on Friday, and have a lovely dinner with Bradley, Janie, Sabrina, and young Mr. Griffin. Also, a special guest appearance by Jill—yes, she lives in the Boston area, but she was out visiting randomly.

Griffin showed incredible competence at being extremely photogenic and cute for the camera.

Incidentally, email showed up at 11 AM on Friday morning from Quincy:

I am turning 36 on Friday. Do come celebrate with me. Pumpkin-carving and going 'AW' at kids' costumes starts at 6:22pm. There will be food. Bring something to share, or drink my booze. I'll have some beer and mixers too. Wear your costume. Even I am wearing a costume this year. Really! Merry Samhain!

Aw dude… Quincy, next time you’re throwing a party, give us more than 7 hours notice! That would have been an awesome way to wrap up the week, if I hadn’t already made plans.


After crashing chez Bug’s in Alameda, and having a filling brunch at Jim’s Coffee Shop, I actually went back to the jobsite, for a half day of wrapup. It was nice to have the flexibility, though, to go back and finish things off. However, this was followed by annoying logistics:

  • Drop off 118 lbs of gear at FedEx
  • Drive down East Bay, then across San Mateo Bridge
  • Drop rental car off at SFO
  • BART from SFO to Millbrae
  • CalTrain to Jen & Schmooz’s, to catch the tail end of Halloween

Unfortunately, this only got me down there by around 7 PM, so I missed most of Halloween with the kids. However, I did get to check out Schmooz’s most excellent mad scientist setup, for distributing candy! A Jacob’s ladder buzzing away, a Jello-O brain bubbling away inside a vat of green liquid, a variety of fake dead animals in jars, and wafts of dry ice smoke rolling down the whole thing. Awesome.

And did you know that quinine makes tonic water fluoresce? A neat touch. I knew it was a good sign that a few of the small kids were too scared to come up to get candy.


Sunday morning, I managed to shoehorn in lunch with Jofish and Perlick at Palo Alto's California Avenue Farmer’s Market. A huge variety of choices… mmm… crepe-licious.

Then back onto Caltrain, to BART, to the jobsite. Wait, what? Back to the jobsite? Well, it turns out that we were missing a line of code in our data acquisition system program, and changing the program made the system actually write the data to the file correctly. Argh…. thus a quick trip out to Fruitvale. By random coincidence, while walking from BART, a Prius pulled up and folks waved—turned out it was Bradley and Janie, heading over to the Dia De Los Muertos festival at Fruitvale.

This was followed by dinner in Berkeley at LaLime’s, with John and Judy, who were in the Bay Area in their bicoastal relationship. Neat to catch them while I was in town.


I had the oh-so-lovely experience of taking BART around 5:30 AM to catch my flight to Vancouver—my next work destination. Hey, at least it wasn’t crowded, and I got some nice view of sunrise over SFO.

On my flight out of SFO, we flew over some fantastic views of the city, East Bay, Marin County, and the eerily empty Bay Bridge. Man… all these trips out to the Bay Area, and I’d never gotten that view. Neat!

Anyway, this trip was completely exhausting and jam-packed, running all over East and South Bay. Apologies for those that I didn’t get to see on this trip, and here’s hoping I have an excuse to make it out there in December, just to make it every even-numbered month of 2009!