Friday, February 29, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Welcome Kai

Jennifer and Clay welcomed their first child, a boy named Kai Jacob, into the world last night. I'd like to extend my congratulations to all three of them.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oh By Gob, I'b Sig

I think it's safe to say that I'm seriously ill, given that the effort required to turn the steering wheel while playing Forza 2 wore me out, and I had to take a break.

The fevered dream I experienced during my nap this afternoon also indicates that the virus infecting my respiratory system is no pansy strain. In said dream, Stewie and Brian Griffin tooled about in a Miata that had had an RX-8's 2-rotor Wankel engine dropped into it. Brian was driving, of course, since Stewie is too young to be licensed. Come to think of it, swapping a 2-rotor into an MX-5 isn't that crazy. As for a 3-rotor, only a madman would do that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Automotive Heraldic History

Regular readers know that I am unreasonably interested in superficialities, how things look or sound. It's also clear form my posting history, that I am a car enthusiast. You can imagine my excitement, then, when Jalopnik pointed out this web page devoted to the history of automotive logos. Although the site is not entirely comprehensive and is riddled with grammatical errors*, I enjoyed it. One commenter on the Jalpnik post pointed out a more comprehensive subsite devoted to automotive iconography, including the evolution of each logo. I suggest you check it out.

* In the case of Mitsubishi, it is factually in error.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ready, Set, Unstrike!

The writers' guild has voted to end its strike after reaching an agreement with the studios. While the strike hasn't seriously interfered with my lifestyle---I've been spending my time playing board and card games, gaming on the 360, watching old eps of Top Gear, and working on my cars---I'm glad to know that I can look forward to new installments of Heroes, Pushing Daisies, My Name is Earl, and Joss Whedon's new project, Dollhouse.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obama Sweeps the Potomac

Barack Obama appears to have gone 3-for-3 in today's Democratic primaries, wining Maryland, Virginia, and DC. Obama has now pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the delegate count. Meanwhile, John McCain solidified his lead in the Republican delegate race.

This is getting interesting.

It's Alive, It's Alive: Replacing a Dead Roomba Battery

Recently, after more than a year of good service, our Roomba robot vacuum cleaner stopped working properly. It would reverse out of its dock at the scheduled cleaning time, then immediately play the "I'm tired" music and return to its dock. This behavior indicated to me that the battery pack wasn't holding its charge, and a search of the internet revealed that many Roomba and Scooba owners were experiencing the same problem. Apparently, iRobot was cutting corners with the OEM batteries.

The internet also showed us that the battery pack was composed of 12 sub-C-sized 3000-mA-hr NiMH batteries and a thermistor wired to 3 connectors. I thought about buying some higher-capacity batteries and rebuilding the pack using the existing temperature sensor, but then I came across this item for sale. It offered slightly more capacity than the stock batteries and was cheaper to buy than I would pay for the same batteries, retail, plus it included a new thermistor. Thus, I decided to purchase it. Then I saw this pack, which offers 40% more capacity, and I knew I had to get it.

The new pack arrived last night, and we set about modding the Roomba. The major problems with this operation were unscrewing the odd, triangular (not Tri-Wing) screws that hold the battery case on---this ground-down Tri-Wing screwdriver wasn't a perfect fit---and pulling apart the glued-shut case. After Alison took care of de-casing the battery, I set about soldering the connectors onto the new pack while watching Top Gear. (I guess I should have said "whilst" watching Top Gear.) We charged the robot up overnight---the new pack takes 1.4 times as long to charge---and this morning, the Roomba vacuumed the floors without hesitation.

So, not only have we fixed the instant-fatigue syndrome, but the robot can now clean for 40% longer than it could when new. I'd call that a successful repair.

Monday, February 11, 2008

An Unsolicited Miata Update

After owning my Mazdaspeed MX-5 for about a week, I have formed some opinions on the car's merits and demerits. And I've taken a couple of photos.


Overall, the car is pleasant to live with. It's quite easy to drive, even in traffic. Because of the large wheels, stiff, lowered suspension, and upsized anti-roll bars on the Mazdaspeed model, it rides somewhat more firmly than the standard Miata and much more stiffly than a family sedan. In my opinion, the ride quality is a small price to pay for the sure-footed handling the car offers. (Of course, I ride a bike with a 160-gram saddle, so perhaps my keister isn't the most sensitive.)


The steering ratio is very quick, which is quite fun. Another fun feature is the way the car seems to exaggerate your speed. Because the vehicle is so small and so low, it always feels like I'm zipping along, even at modest velocities. This effect is magnified with the top down.

The 6-speed transmission has a very short throw, which means shifts can be made very quickly. The downside to this design is that the stick positions corresponding to the gears sit quite near one another in real space. In particular, 1st and 2nd are close to 3rd and 4th, which are close to 5th and 6th. It's taking me some time to become accustomed to this proximity, so I don't shift into 4th when I was looking for 6th, for example. The gear ratios are also close together in gear space. That means that you always have just the right ratio available. The downside to the close-ratio setup is that you have to shift many times on your way up to cruising speed. I've found it convenient to skip 5th gear, when I'm not driving hard, just as I often skip 4th in the CRX. Another ramification of the closely spaced gearing is that the engine still spins at about 3000 rpm at 60 mph. So, if I had thought that the 6th ratio would let the engine loaf along at highway speed and really improve my fuel economy, I would have been mistaken. The shifting could be a little smoother, I must admit; the transitions to 5th and 6th, in particular, are rough.

The boost from the turbo really comes on around 3500 rpm. You'll be casually accelerating and---wham---you're suddenly going 10 mph faster. This feature combines with the gear ratios to make the car want to run at around 75 on the highway; if you are trying to drive around 65, the boost will creep in, and you'll be doing 75 without realizing it. I guess it's a testament to the vehicle's handling that, even though it feels fast at neighborhood speeds, it seems perfectly stable at 75. Of course, when you are trying to go fast the turbo boost is invaluable.

The outside mirrors could stand to be about 8 inches further forward in my opinion. That placement would make it easier and faster to check them.

Some might find the cockpit to be too tight, but, given my small size and personal preferences, I find it more snug and secure than cramped. There isn't a lot of storage space in the cabin, but what exits is well thought-out. Similarly, there's not much room in the trunk for luggage or purchases, but I knew that would be the case when I bought the car. I hasten to point out that the boot is far from useless; you can put a week's worth of groceries for 2 people in it, as long as you don't buy an 8-pack of paper towels, too.

The Bose 6-CD, 5-speaker sound system is fantastic. It even has automatic level control, which changes the volume according to your speed, depending on whether the top is up or down. I would have been happy with a decent single-CD system with 2 nice speakers; this system is certainly beyond my needs.

All in all, I'm enjoying the car quite a bit, and I expect to continue to do so.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Zoom-Zoom

My recent automotive acquisition has prompted me to examine its place in my auto-owning history. Here's a list of all the cars I've had:
Now, here are few assorted---and unsolicited---thoughts:
  • The Miata, like all the others, is Japanese, though it is the first Mazda.
  • It's the first convertible.
  • It's the first with any kind of forced induction.
  • It's the first with a 6-speed transmission. (I've never owned an automobile with an automatic tranny, by the way.)
  • It's the second that's rear-wheel-drive. (The Z was also RWD.)
  • Only the Prelude had more than 2 seats, and the rear seats on that car were suitable only for malnourished contortionists. Thus, I've still never owned a vehicle with more than 2 usable seats.
  • Given my white-silver-black-silver color trajectory, I can only predict (a) that my next car will be white and (b) that I will never own an automobile that isn't some shade of gray.
  • The Miata is---and this may come as a surprise to you---the largest car I've ever owned. Not in terms of total length; that distinction goes to the Z. Not in terms of number of seats; that's the 'Lude. Not in terms of usable space; that would be the Rex. No, the Miata, at 2,529 lb is biggest in terms of weight. (The others weigh(ed), in chronological order, 2355, 2130, and 2103 lb.) A lot of that bulk comes from the rag-top and the chassis bracing that's needed to make up for the lack of a fixed roof, but a lot of it also comes from all the safety features that are required on 21st-century cars: airbags, side-impact beams, and so on. Additionally a little of that weight comes from the powered convenience features that are sadly* standard on so many cars nowadays: power windows, power door locks, even power mirrors. I'm just glad the top is manually operated.
  • Fortunately, the Miata is also the most powerful, so it moves out quite smartly, thank you.
  • Man, that name is a mouthful!
* Power features cost more, weigh more, and break down more often, so I would really rather not have them. Sadly, only a bottom-tier vehicle or a dedicated and stripped down sports car can get away without including them in this modern era.

A Proper Sports Car

Regular readers and those of you who know me in meatspace---probably the same 7 people---are aware that I've been pondering replacing or supplementing my near-antique 1991 CRX. The Rex is still going strong at 145,000 miles and 17 years, but I knew a new vehicle might be needed soon. I've gone back and forth between planning to get something fun, like the MX-5 Miata,* something practical, like the Fit, or something intermediate, like the upcoming production model based on Honda's CR-Z concept.

I finally realized that this is probably my last opportunity to acquire a true sports car until any hypothetical Grondulspawn have grown up and left home. So, with Alison's encouragement, I began shopping on the interwebs.

Ideally, I wanted a small, rear-wheel-drive automobile, with only 2 seats, an emphasis on handling, and a fixed roof.** Why a hard-top? All things being equal, a coupe will be cheaper, lighter, stiffer, lower-drag, and more durable than the convertible version of the same car. Unfortunately, such a car isn't available on my budget: There is no Miata or S2000 coupe, I wasn't about to pony up the dough for an Exige, and most other performance cars on the market are both more expensive and larger than I wanted. Thus, I gave up the coupe criterion and began looking at gently used Miatas and S2000s.

I soon realized that the S2000 is simply a more expensive car, which it commands due to the considerably higher power output---240 brake horsepower from 2.0 liters, normally aspirated!---and Honda's reputation for reliability. To buy one of them for about what I wanted to spend, I would have to sacrifice some age and mileage, compared to the MX-5. I also found that the insurance rates for the S2000 were considerably higher, due, I can only guess, to all that power. Thus, I focused my search on the Miata, which my one-time overlord Masta has endorsed.

This week, I found a 2004 Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata with only 16,250 miles on the odometer. When I inspected the car, I found that it was in excellent shape, barring some cosmetic defects on the doors and bumpers. We talked the dealer down to a couple thousand dollars below blue-book value and got him to agree, in writing, to fix the aesthetic issues. Thus I am now the proud owner of a dark silver*** roadster.

I should explain what this "Mazdaspeed" notation is all about and why I was so interested in this version of the car. Mazdaspeed is Mazda's racing and performance-parts house. Several Mazda models are available in high-performance Mazdaspeed versions. The Mazdaspeed Miata, or MSM, as it's known on the miata.net forum, was only offered during the 2004 and 2005 model years, the last 2 years of the second-generation (NB) Miata. There are about 1000 differences between the standard Miata and the Mazdaspeed version, but here is a brief summary:
  • The engine is turbocharged to the tune of about 8 psi, boosting the output from 142 brake horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque to 178 bhp and 166 lb-ft. A small air-to-air intercooler cools the turbo's output before it reaches the cylinders.
  • A close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission, with gears hardened by shot-peening, is the only tranny available; there is no automatic option.
  • The drivetrain is uprated to cope with all the power and torque.
  • A torque-sensing (Torsen) limited-slip differential is included.
  • Unique dampers and springs stiffen the suspension and lower the car by 7 mm (about 1/4 inch). Thicker anti-roll bars (swaybars) fight body roll.
  • The wheels are huge-but-light Racing Hart 17-inch hoops, and they are shod with very low-profile 205/40R17 tires.
  • Front and rear air dams are fitted, as is a small spoiler.
  • The standard sound system includes a 6-disc CD changer and (I think) 6 Bose speakers. I'm a little overwhelmed by it, since the radio in my Rex has a tape deck and only reliably drives 1 speaker.
  • The word "Mazdaspeed" appears 9 times---!---on the exterior and interior of the car.
Reviews of the MSM were universally positive, and most cited the low price premium associated with the Mazdaspeed model, given the number of high-performance parts included. One test measured the 0-to-60 time, quarter-mile time and cornering at 6.2 seconds, 14.59 seconds, and 0.86 g, respectively. In short, the MSM is the most powerful, quickest, and best-handling factory Miata ever sold in America. And only 5,428 were built. Neat, eh?

I haven't taken any photos myself yet, but here are some I pulled down from the internet advert for the car:




I must admit that I've taken every opportunity to put the top down, even when the weather has been marginal. Open-top motoring feels almost as much like being outside as cycling does. That's enough from me for now. I have to go for a drive. Zoom-zoom.

* Mazda has decided to phase out the use of the name "Miata," leaving only "MX-5." The name no longer appears on the vehicle, but it is still used in the marketing text. Eventually, "Miata" will disappear even from the brochures and web pages. I believe this move is a mistake. Not only is the name easier to say than the alphanumeric designation, but all the non-car-enthusiast I've spoken to only know the vehicle as a Miata; "MX-5" means nothing to them.

** My ideal car is actually a roofless, tiny, bare-bones sports car, like a
Caterham CSR or Ariel Atom. Unfortunately, not only are these cars rather outside my budget, but, due to their lack of safety features, they have to be registered in the US as kit cars, which is quite time-consuming and inconvenient. The KTM X-Bow is even more interesting, but is only legal for track use.

*** Officially, the color is Titanium Gray Metallic.

He Just Smiled and Gave Me a Vegemite Sandwich

As Joss Whedon might say, I loves me some '80s music videos. Here's one I just came across: Men at Work's "Down Under." Ah, good times, good times.