Thursday, December 30, 2010

MGM Reborn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has completed restructuring and emerged from bankruptcy. Let us hope that Cabin in the Woods will see the light of day---or of a movie screen---sometime soon.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Soul Stiss

Happy winter solstice everyone. The days just get longer from here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

PR: Weighted Ring Dip

My dislocated finger didn't stop me from setting a new personal record for a single weighted ring dip on Friday: 78 pounds. I think the low eighties is do-able, since I was fatigued from the day's workout before putting up that number, but I think T's 100 pounds is out of reach.

PR: Pull-Ups

On Tuesday I managed a new personal record for consecutive pull-ups: 46. That's good enough for second place, all-time, at CrossFit Diesel. When I went for number 47, my grip failed. Many of you regular readers already know what happened after that.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

PR: Annie

Today I set a PR for the workout known as Annie. My new time, 8:36, was much faster than my previous best, 14:02. Most of that saved time came from improved skill at double-unders. Once I master them, I should be doing this WOD in under 7 minutes.

PR: Clean and Jerk

On Monday, I set a new personal recored for the clean and jerk: 175 pounds. Strangely, 175 didn't feel that difficult, but I just couldn't manage 177.5. Oh well, I'll take a PR any day.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Book. Trailer. Huh?

Does anyone else find this trend of book trailers a little strange?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Short-Run Sci-Fi

Another link from io9: This one is a list of 10 short-lived but entertaining science-fiction series that you could watch in a weekend. Having seen and enjoyed 6 of the entries on this list,* I'm interested in checking out the others.

* Firefly, the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Jekyll, Life on Mars, and Cowboy Bebop.

93

Here's a fun video I found. It's a montage of 93 anime series' opening sequence, showing that some elements are not just pervasive, but nearly ubiquitous in anime.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Buffy De-Whedoned

In what can only be described as a travesty in the making, the rumored Whedon-less remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is apparently going forward. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of fanboys, male and female, around the world making whatever sound is the opposite of "Squee!"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: The Dark Deeps

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

The Dark Deeps: The Hunchback Assignments 2 is Arthur Slade's sequel to---you guessed it---The Hunchback Assignments. The novel follows the further adventures of the hunchbacked chameleon Modo on his further adventures protecting the Victorian British Empire from various steampunktastic threats.

Much of what I said in my review of the first volume applies to this story, as well.

What I Liked
  • The setup is compelling.
  • The plot is exciting and moves quickly.
  • The protagonist is sympathetic.
  • Some of the steampunkery is fun.
  • There's just a hint of a love triangle.

What I Disliked
  • Most of the technology in the book isn't too unbelievable, even if it's almost a century ahead of its time. This is steampunk, after all. There is one piece of "tech" that is more fantasy than science fiction, and its presence annoyed me.
  • The narrator is just as whiny as she was last time around.
  • Once again, the antagonists' actions don't seem sufficiently motivated.
  • This book feels more like a a kid's book than some of the other YA fiction I've read recently.
The Bottom Line

Overall, I give The Dark Deeps 7.0 out of 10. It's entertaining, but far from great.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Most Ridiculous

The most ridiculous new food product I've come across recently: individually wrapped prunes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Embassytown

As my reviews may indicate, China Miéville is perhaps my favorite recently discovered author. A pair of synopses of his upcoming novel, Embassytown, have hit the internet. As a lover of well-developed extraterrestrials, I think it sounds very intriguing. How about you?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

(De)Motivation

Here. Have some (de)motivational posters. Now with science-fiction themes.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Movie Review: Pretty in Pink

I just finished watching Pretty in Pink in its entirety for the first time. My considered opinion is very much meh. 5.0 out of 10.

Lucky Number 13

The latest issue (volume 1, issue 5) of the online magazine Miata Journal---a scholarly publication with a readership rivaling that of Nature or Science---features an article I wrote about Zelda. A few copy errors were introduced during the online publishing process, but it's otherwise very close to what I wrote. To read it, go here, register, click on "Contents," then click on "134 Lucky Number 13."

Audiobook Review: The Hunchback Assignments

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

The Hunchback Assignments is a young-adult steampunk adventure that follows Modo, a deformed orphan with some extranormal abilities, as he is raised and pressed into the service of Queen and country. The story combines elements of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

What I Liked
  • The story is fun and fast-paced.
  • The protagonist is very relatable.
  • Some of the ideas in the story are very compelling.

What I Disliked
  • Some of the technology is rather ridiculous. Yes, this is a steampunk story, but the "regular" steampunkery doesn't seem as well-grounded as in, say, the stories of theClockwork Century or the Leviathan trilogy. In addition, there is some mystical "life force" or some such, which might be at home in a fantasy novel, but seems out of place here.
  • Several of the characters---Mr. Socrates and Dr Hyde, especially---are very stereotypical.
  • The actions of the antagonists seem poorly motivated.,
  • Of the young-adult novels I've read recently, this one feels the most like a kid's book. Somehow, the factors I mentioned above combine to give that impression.
  • The narrator, Jayne Entwistle, does a good job of making the characters' voices distinct, but her own voice is rather whiny and annoying.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give The Hunchback Assignments 7.0 out of 10. It's entertaining, but a little juvenile.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Audiobook Review: Fast Times at Fairmont High

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

This novella by one of my favorite authors, Vernor Vinge, explores life in a near-future junior high school where the abilities to adapt and to work in a team are emphasized over the more traditional accumulation of knowledge.

What I Liked

  • This story contains a very realistic and believable near-future society.
  • Several interesting technologies and societal developments are investigated.
What I Disliked

  • Some major plot elements are left unresolved.

The Bottom Line

I give Fast Times at Fairmont High 8.0 out of 10. It's far from my favorite of Vinge's work, but it is still an entertaining and thought-provoking story.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Audiobook Review: The Alchemist and The Executioness

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

The Alchemist and The Excecutioness is two novellas written by two authors---Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell, respectively---that share the same fantastic universe created by the two authors together. In this universe, magic can be practiced by anyone---though some are more adept with it than others---but using magic brings bramble, a virtually indestructible vine that poisons or kills those it touches. Thus, in this world, magic is illegal, except for officially sanctioned government use. The first story follows an alchemist---surprising, I know--working to find a nonmagical method of killing the bramble, while the second follows...well, a female butcher, actually.

What I Liked
  • The universe. These two authors have created a fascinating setting for their stories.
  • The stories. Both plots are interesting, though the second may be better than the first.
  • The characters. Both main characters are believable and relatable, despite the fantastic setting.
  • The voice acting. Both narrators----Jonathan Davis and Katherine Kellgren, respectively---do an excellent job of animating their characters.

What I Disliked
  • I really have no complaints about these stories.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give The Alchemist and The Executioness 8.5 out of 10. I highly recommended it to fans of "relatable fantasy."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Clementine

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Clementine is the second long-form work in Cherie Priest's zombie-infested, alternate-history-Civil-War universe known as the Clockwork Century, coming after Boneshaker but preceding Dreadnought. The story is stand-alone, though its characters and locations overlap with those of the other works. The book is a novella, rather than a novel, because Priest wanted to write a book for Subterranean, but Tor had right of first refusal for any works over 60,000 words. One drawback to this deal is that Subterranean only published a small number of copies of the first printing---a hardcover---which instantly sold out. A paperback will be published next year, but that was too long for me to wait. Thus, I read this novella in Kindle form on my iPhone.

"OK, but what's it about?" I hear you ask. The story follows dirigible pirate Croggon Hainey as he attempts to reclaim his rightfully stolen airship, the Free Crow, from those who wrongfully stole it from him. The plot also follows former Confederate spy and current Pinkerton detective Maria Isabella Boyd in her efforts to ensure that the dirigible, newly re-christened the Clementine, reaches the destination intended by its new owners.

What I Liked
  • Dude, airships. It was gratifying to read a Clockwork Century story focused on the steampunkiest of vehicles, the dirigible.
  • The characters. The two main characters I described above, particularly Ms Boyd, are interesting and compelling.
  • The plot. The story is entertaining. I especially enjoyed the way Hainey's story intertwines with Boyd's.
  • The pacing. The story moves along very quickly. It never drags, as I feel Boneshaker does at a few points. For example, the story wraps up quickly after the resolution of the main plot line, without an extending winding down. I'm guessing this speed is a direct result of the necessity to keep the book under 60,000 words.
  • The crossover. The plot crosses over with another Clockwork Century story in a way I didn't expect but enjoyed.

What I Disliked
  • The duration. As I said, the brevity of the book keeps the story moving, but it also means that there isn't room to follow any side stories or explore the universe of the Clockwork Century as much as I'd like.
The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Clementine 8.0 out of 10. So far, I'd say Dreadnought is my favorite work from the Clockwork Century, but this one is a satisfying read.

Audiobook Review: Kraken

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Kraken: An Anatomy is the most recent novel from China Miéville. The author has stated that he wants to write a novel in every genre. This book is firmly in the urban fantasy genre, though it is also a dark comedy. Yes, comedy in a Miéville book. Seriously.

The plot is kicked off when the preserved carcass of a giant squid, Architeuthis dux, is stolen from a London museum of natural history. The squid's curator, Billy Harrow, finds himself sucked into a hidden world of exotic religions and magical gangsters.

What I Liked

  • The universe. Once again, Miéville creates a complex and richly detailed world in this novel.
  • The plot. The story is interesting and moves along quickly.
  • The characters. Dane Parnell and Cath Collingswood, in particular, are fun.
  • The cults. The varied and various niche religions, most notably the central Church of God Kraken, are entertaining.
  • The comedy. The jokes in this story are played very dead-pan. Given that the plot centers on the investigation of a mystery, the book reminds me somewhat of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but the gags are much more subtle and infrequent.
  • The shout-outs. Popular works of science fiction and fantasy are explicitly referenced throughout the book, none more so than, perhaps surprisingly, Star Trek. There's one passage about three quarters of the way through that calls out every major SF&F series, including both Buffy and Angel. It's enough to make a fanboy like me squee aloud.
  • The narrator. John Lee does his usual amazing job of bringing the characters to life. I can't say enough about this man's voice acting.

What I Disliked

  • The universe. The rules by which magic operates in this universe struck me as somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent, what Nick would call Want-'em Mechanics. I realize that magic is, by its nature, mysterious and nonsensical, but the world Miéville created for this book seems somehow less cohesive than the equally magical one he invented for Perdido Street Station.
  • The Londocentrism. Although I enjoy the way the author's affection for London comes through in this book, I can't help but feel that he thinks London is the center of the universe. There are many instances where "London" or "the city" is used as a synonym for "the world."
  • The comedy. Although a number of the gags are quite amusing, many of them are delivered so sparsely and seriously that they either go unnoticed or fall flat.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Kraken 8.0 out of 10. It's my least favorite Miéville book so far, but it's still an impressive act of creation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Top Gear: What it's All About

Regular have not doubt seen many mentions of the BBC motoring show Top Gear on this blog. Those of you unfamiliar with it may have wondered what appeal it could have to someone who's not as interested in automobiles as I am. Well, American news magazine series 60 Minutes has the answer for you in the form of this story. Enjoy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Review: Behemoth

(This review contains no significant spoilers for Behemoth but some minor spoilers for Leviathan.)

The Setup

Behemoth is the sequel to Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, which I reviewed, in short form, early this year. As such, it's a young-adult novel that takes place during an alternate-history World War I. On one side of the war are the Clanker powers, lead by Germany. The Clankers have advanced steampunk---or more precisely, Dieselpunk---technology: walkers and other mechs. On the other side are the Darwinists, lead by Britain. The Darwinisth technology is even more alternate than the Clankers'. In this universe, Darwin not only developed a theory of evolution by natural selection, but also discovered the "chains of life" and kicked off a bioengineering revolution leading to "fabricated" life forms far more advanced than the transgenic tomatoes available in our grocery stores in 2010: whale-zeppelins, hydrogen-sniffing dogs, parrot-lizards, krakens, and fléchette-defecating bats.

As is typical of young-adult books, the main characters are teens. One is a Scots girl masquerading as a boy to serve in the Air Service. The other is a prince, and not just any prince, but the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As you might expect, the prince's parents are killed at the beginning of Leviathan, and the rest of that book, Behemoth, and, presumably, the forthcoming Goliath, follow the repercussion of this murder, as the world hurtles toward and enters the largest war ever sen.

What I Liked

  • As I've mentioned, I enjoy steampunk, and Dieselpunk is just as much fun while being perhaps more believable. And walkers shaped like olifants? How cool is that?
  • The fabricated creatures in the book's universe are arguably more creative and interesting than the mechs.
  • The two main characters are well-developed, though I find myself more interested in and sympathetic toward Deryn, the masquerading Scotsgirl.
  • The adults in the story aren't entirely incompetent or uninteresting, as they are in many teen-targeted fiction. In particular, I'd like to know more about Dr. Barlow, the "lady boffin."
  • The plot is interesting and very fast-paced. The book is a pretty rollicking ride from cover to cover.
  • The illustrations by Keith Thompson. There's approximately one drawing per chapter, and I think they help bring the story to life. They are slightly stylized, which seems appropriate.

What I Didn't Like

  • The plot is a little straight-forward. I mean, it's not always obvious what's going to happen next, but I would like there to have been twists and turns.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Behemoth 8.0 out of 10. It's a well executed sequel to Leviathan, and a successful one, too. Successful how? I'm already excited about reading Goliath.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Short Story Review: Tanglefoot

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

"Tanglefoot" is the first work published in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century universe, which is also the setting for Boneshaker and Dreadnought. The story is either a short story or a novelette, depending on which web page you read.

What I Liked

What I Didn't Like
  • The action's of the story's antagonist don't seem very well justified. OK, that's a rather small nit to pick, given the nature of this story, not to mention its length. But still.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give "Tanglefoot" 8.0 out of 10. It's good fun. And, by the way, a creepy way to spend an hour, in bed, with the lights off, reading on your phone while your wife slumbers.

Audiobook Review: The City & The City

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The City & The City is the second audiobook written by China Miéville that I've read in as many weeks. Below is my review of it.

The Setup

The novel takes place in two small, fictitious European city-states: Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two countries are distinct, with different governments, cultures, and languages, but they share the same geographic space. The citizens of each country are trained from an early age to "unsee" and "unhear" the citizens of the other. The only way to legally travel from one to the other is to pass through the the official border crossing. The greatest taboo in these cities is "breach," the act of overtly ignoring the sovereignty of the two nations.

Miéville has said that he wants to write a novel in every genre. The City & The City is his entry into the mystery genre. Its story follows, in first person, the investigation of the death of a young woman. The crime, as you might expect, is not as simple as it first appears.

Interestingly, unlike, as far as I can tell, the rest of the author's work, this story contains no science-fiction or fantastic elements, beyond the mere existence of such impractically constrained metropolises.

What I Liked
  • I found the concept fascinating, and the author does an amazing job of exploring the premise and following it to its logical conclusion.
  • Although the story takes place in the real world and in contemporary times, the level of worldbuilding is on par with that in Perdido Street Station. The geographies and cultures of the two cities are richly realized.
  • The plot---the investigation of a crime---is quite interesting, though, for me, it takes a backseat to the setting as far as my interest is concerned.
  • The narrator, John Lee, does just as amazing a job with this book as he did with Perdido. each character has his or her own voice and accent. Even his American accent is quite good. His Canadian seemed a little dodgy, though; it sounded almost Scottish to me.

What I Disliked
  • You know, I really can't think of anything I disliked about this story. I was somehow expecting a fantastic element, but, I don't think this story needs one.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I give the audiobook of The City & The City 9.5 out of 10. It is an interesting story set in a fascinating world and brought to life by an impressive voice actor. What's not to love?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Deadlift Re-Progress

Today I did my first 300-pound deadlift in quite some time. It's no PR, but I do seem to be making progress again, after dialing the weight down so I could keep my spine correctly arched to prevent injury and then slowly cranking the resistance back up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Zombigenic

I just made up this perfectly cromulent word for my review of Dreadnought:
zombigenic, adjective. Resulting in zombification.

Friday, October 08, 2010

PR*: Fran

Today, I set a PR for Fran, at least as performed at CrossFit Diesel. Why should location matter? Because, at CFD, one has to clean the bar before each round thrusters and, if your thrusters are broken, before each set in each round. Plus, their pull-up bar is about 1.5 inches in diameter, which tires the grip and forearms much quicker than my 1-inch pull-up bar. Anyway, my new PR at CFD is 5 minutes, 43 seconds. That's not incredibly fast, but it's good enough to put me on the record board at the gym. I think this is the fourth (or so) best time on that list.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Audiobook Review: Dreadnought

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Dreadnought is the fifth and most recently published work from Cherie Priest's steampunk-plus-zombies alternate-history universe known as The Clockwork Century. The stories in the Clockwork Century take place in North America in 1880 or thereabouts. The Civil War is still ongoing, thanks to the support of the Confederate States of America by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Texas. The Republic is a wealthy and technologically innovative country due to the discovery of fossil petroleum many years before the real-world date.

The stories, both published and forthcoming, from this universe are as follows:

  • "Tanglefoot", a short story published in 2008. It's available online and in an anthology called Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. I encourage you to read it.
  • Boneshaker, a novel published in 2009. This book tells of the accidental release of zombigenic gas in Seattle, in the Washington Territory, and the ramifications for members of one family that happens to be central to the bigger story. Boneshaker seems to have been Priest's breakthrough work, taking her from modest success to the vanguard of steampunk. I gave this book a 7.5 out 10, but, given how it has stuck with me, I've since cranked that rating up to 8.0.
  • Clementine, a novella published in 2010. This book relates the piratical theft, re-theft, and attempted re-re-theft of one example of that quintessential steampunk conveyance, the airship. Clementine was published by Subterranean Press, unlike Boneshaker and Dreadnought, which were published by Tor. Subterranean seems to have printed too small a number of these books, and it is sold out everywhere. It's certainly not available in my new favorite format, audiobook. See the Clockwork Century FAQ for a full explanation. Thus, I have been unable to get my own copy of this book to read. However, it's just been released in Kindle form, so I'll be tackling it as soon as I finish my current book.
  • "Reluctance," a short story published in the zombie anthology The Living Dead 2 in September 2010. This is the story that Priest read for us at Dragon*Con. I found it quite enjoyable, and having the author read it to me was a nice bonus.
  • Dreadnought, a novel published in 2010 and the subject of this review. This book tells the story of nurse in a Confederate army hospital and the transcontinental journey she undertakes.
  • Ganymede, a novel due to Tor on November 1 and is expected to be published in 2011. This story follows the interactions of airship captain, a female Union spy, and a...wait for it...submarine. Priest has been reporting on her progress with the book, and it looks like she may be late. You can hardly blame her. As you can tell by the above list, she's been quite busy over the last couple of years writing stories in the Clockwork Century, and she has also written some other stories as well.
  • Inexplicable, a novel scheduled to be published by Tor in 2012. This book will be set in Seattle and involve both zombies---fairly expected by now---and at least one sasquatch---not so expected. If we're lucky, we'll see a zombie sasquatch by the end.
I should point out that the stories in this universe are essentially stand-alone. They have overlapping characters, but one can read them in any order with no significant loss of understanding or enjoyment.

Disclosure

After seeing Cherie Priest at close range during her panel* and reading at Dragon*Con, I find that I like her and want her books to do well. My personal affection for her might lead me to be enthusiastic about her work and to give this novel a better review than I otherwise would.

What I Liked
  • Dreadnought gives readers of the Clockwork Century their first glimpse of the war at the center of this universe. The scenes in the Confederate hospital are grim, as you might expect, but also gripping.
  • The plot is fast-paced. One of my not-favorite aspects of Boneshaker was that if seemed to drag just a bit at times. Dreadnought barely stops for breath after it gets going.
  • The central character, Vinita "Mercy" Swackhammer Lynch is an almost inhumanly strong character but is somehow still believable and relatable.
  • Airships, walkers, train engines equipped with heavy weaponry, and zombies. What's not to love?
  • The narrator of this story, Kate Reading, brings the text to life. She does not match John Lee's ability to produce seemingly limitless voices and accents, but she does a solid job. In particular, the voice she uses for the protagonist seems just about perfect to my ear. My only complaint related to her is that she tends to draw out the word at the end of a sentence or clause in a way that sounds almost like a whine to me.

What I Disliked
  • The last chapter and a half felt somewhat tacked-on. In my opinion, those who have read Boneshaker will find this epilogue-like segment of the book almost entirely superfluous, and those who haven't will find it hurried and too expository. There's a point a little before the end of the penultimate chapter that I feel would make a better end to the story. That being said, I did enjoy the particular two quotations on which the story ends.
The Bottom Line

Overall, I give Dreadnought 8.5 out of 10. By following Boneshaker with an even better novel, Priest has solidified her grip on the tittle of "high priestess of steampunk," as given to her by The Seattle Times. Perhaps the most succinct way to express my feelings about this book is this: I'm excited to read Clementine. If you like steampunk or zombies or Civil War fiction, you should look into this novel.

Update: OMG pwnies! Cherie Priest tweeted about this review and about why our blog's address had her worried. My carefully considered response to this devlopement is this: Squee!

* I don't think that a single person can hold a panel, but that's what the event was called.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Audiobook Review: Perdido Street Station

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

The Setup

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville's second novel, is probably his most famous, and it is the one that introduces the fantastic world of Bas-Lag, where humans are just one of many sapient species and where magic---called thaumaturgy---and steampunk technology exist side-by-side. Bas-Lag is also the setting for The Scar and Iron Council. Perdido Street is set specifically in the city-state of New Crobuzon, which is ruled by a corrupt government and inhabited by a mostly miserable populace.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but I will say that numerous seemingly unrelated threads are followed throughout the novel, and they all come together in the end. On the whole, I'd describe the story as a horror thriller.

What I Liked

  • One of the hallmarks of good science fiction or fantasy is rich worldbuilding, and this book has that in spades. The world of Bas-Lag and the city of New Crobuzon are excellently realized, with awe-inspiring variety and equally impressive detail.
  • Miéville's writing style is almost poetic in its imagery.
  • The plot is exciting, and the characters are varied and interesting.
  • The audiobook's narrator, John Lee, does a spectacular job bringing the setting, story, and characters to life. He uses a distinct voice and accent for essentially every speaking part in the book. There are a handful of one-scene characters who all have essentially the same working-class British accent, but the twenty or more recurring characters are all very distinct. Amazing.

What I Disliked

  • The plot takes a little while to really take off. Once it does, though, it doesn't slow down until the end.

Cautions

  • This book is grim. The story starts out depressing and just goes downhill from there. That feature is not a deal-breaker for me, but if you are in the mood for a light-hearted romp, look elsewhere.

The Bottom Line

I'd give this audiobook a 9.5 out of 10. Miéville's worldbuilding and imagery are unassailable, and Lee's voice-acting only enhances the experience. I can't believe I waited this long, after Nick's and Alison's recommendations, to "read" this novel.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

PR: Randy

Today I set a new personal record for the workout called Randy: 7:44, more than a minute faster than my previous best (and only) attempt at this workout.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Primer: Autocross

(I've recently had call to describe autocross to a few people, so I'm placing this introduction here to have something to point to in the future.)

The Setup

Autocross is perhaps the most accessible form of motorsport. In auto-X, a course it set up, using traffic cones, on an open expanse of tarmac or concrete, usually a parking lot, but sometimes an airfield. A new course is used at each event. Each driver runs the course, effectively alone, attempting to minimize his or her time while not hitting any cones. A penalty, usually 2 seconds, is added to the driver's raw time for each displaced cone. The driver's best net time, after several attempts, is compared against the best times of drivers of other similarly capable cars. The courses are designed to be very challenging for the car and driver. Typical autocross runs have more turns per minute than a lap of a Formula One race. When not driving or preparing to drive, each competitor must work the event, either reseting downed cones, recording times, directing drivers, safety-inspecting cars, or doing whatever else is needed.

Safety

The risk of car damage or injury is very low for three reasons:
  • The course is defined by cones, so, as long as you don't go too far afield, there's nothing to hit but orange rubber pylons. The courses are designed to keep cars away from light poles, curbs, and other fixed obstacles.
  • The coursees are kept very tight, which keeps speeds in check. For many cars, most courses can be run without shifting beyond second gear, though some vehicles will need third for short periods. Indeed, one figure of merit for an autocross car is its top speed in second gear.
  • Cars are released onto the course at intervals of 20 or 30 seconds. As a result, the odds of a two-vehicle collision are low.
All the organizations that I've run with require each vehicle to pass a technical inspection. To pass, the car must have all loose parts removed from the interior or exterior, and the car must be in good mechanical condition. I've worked as a tech inspector at numerous events, and the most common cause for rejecting a car is a loose battery; that's a problem that can usually be fixed in a few moments, allowing the car to be reinspected and passed.

All the orgs I've competed with also require the driver to wear a Snell-rated helmet, ether M (motorcycle) or SA (special applications, meaning auto racing). Most orgs seem to accept the current rating (currently 2010) and the two previous ones (2005 and 2000).

Duration

Depending on the organization, location, course design, car, and driver, each run takes from 30 to 80 seconds, though most of the events I contest have 40- to 60-second runs. The number of runs each driver gets depends on the organization, the duration of the event, and importantly, the number of drivers that must be fit into the event. Bigger events, with 150 or 200 people, usually offer 4 runs, while smaller events, with 20 or 30 people, might give each driver 20. Numbers like 4 and 5 are most common.

And you might be there for 3 or 5 hours. So, for the events I go to most, the ratio of waiting to driving is about 60:1. This fact is my least favorite aspect of the sport, but I've made peace with it. I try to find a work assignment that keeps me busy rather than bored, and I focus on the non-driving activities that I enjoy most: the car preparation, the socializing, the "bench racing," and so on.

Organizations

Numerous organizations host autocrosses. In any given metropolitan area, there are likely a handful of such clubs to be found.
  • The club that organizes the largest number of autocrosses is probably the Sports Car Club of America. SCCA calls their version of autocross "Solo," and they also offer a version called "ProSolo," which features two cars running head-to-head and a drag-race start. You can read more about ProSolo and see an annotated video of my last Pro event here. In the area around the nation's capital, the local chapter of SCCA is the Washington DC Region. You can sign up for the WDCR Solo mailing list here.
  • The National Auto Sport Association is another national organization that runs autocross envents, which they call NASA-X, pronounced NASA-cross, races.
  • There are a number of smaller motorsports clubs around the country. In the DC area, the most popular are the Capital Driving Club and Autocrossers, Inc., which is an affiliate of the SCCA's Washington DC Region and uses SCCA rules. You can sign up for the AI mailing list here.
  • A number of marque clubs also host these events. At least in my area, the BMW Car Club of America, the Porsche Club of America, and the Mazda Sportscar Club of Washington all put on races.

Classing

Each club has its own system for classing cars.

  • SCCA, being the most popular group, has the most byzantine ruleset. It's a two-dimensional system; one axis is based on the stock performance of the car in question, while the other is how modified the car is. I don't have the room to discuss the SCCA classes here, but I hope to add a post about that in the future.
  • NASA uses a points system, where each car is awarded a certain number of points based on its stock performance capability and accrues more points for each modification. Each class spans a range of points values.
  • The CDC uses a simple indexing scheme based on power delivered to the wheels, weight, and treadwear rating.
  • The BMW CCA, at least the National Capital Chapter, uses a matrix approach, like a streamlined version of SCCA's, for BMWs. For non-BMWs, it applies a very simple, four-class structure based on engine displacement, engine type (piston or rotary), induction type (natural or forced), and, of course, treadware.
  • The MSCW, which puts on very relaxed, casual events, imposes no classes at all.

Schools

Several clubs offer schools that teach you everything you need to know to compete in and work during an autocross. In my area, the Washington DC Region of the SCCA offers several Level 1 and Level 2 schools throughout the season.

Cost

The cost varies form org to org, but, for single-day events, 25 to 35 dollars is normal, at least in the DC area. It's very affordable as motorsports go.

Video

This video, a class project of someone in the San Diego Region of the SCCA, covers some of what I discussed in this post. Keep an eye out for the lime-green, rotary-powered Bugeye Sprite.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

PR: Lynne

Today I managed a personal record for the workout called Lynne: 169 total repetitions and 23,153 lb of moved weight. All of that gain came from pull-ups; I even lost a few reps of bench press. Huh. I guess my pull-ups are getting stronger.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

PR: Michael

Today I did the workout known as Michael at CrossFit Diesel for the first time. I managed a time of 19:33, over two minutes faster than my previous best and the fastest time of the day at the gym. I think the increased speed was due not to improved fitness but to the pressure and excitement of working out in a group, which is one of the two reasons I joined a gym in the first place. However I achieved the result, I'm Brian with the overhead projector about it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

PR: KB & PU

I set a new personal record (17:07) on today's unnamed workout. My previous best time was 17:56, so today's time, which was also the fastest time of the day at CrossFit Diesel, represents solid progress.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dread Not, Clementine!

I ordered Clementine and Dreadnought this week. I guess Cherie Priest's reading at Dragon*Con worked.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Costumes Aplenty

Alison and I took a bazillion photos at Dragon*Con this year, and we plan to post the good ones---if there are any---to the blog. In the meantime, enjoy these photos of costumes taken by the folks at io9.

Dragon-Mentary

Those of you who haven't been to a sci-fi convention like Dragon*Con may be interested in this documentary on the 2009 edition of that con. Those of you who have my want to see if you appear in it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Dragon*Con 2009: Star Wars

At Dragon*Con, you can't swing a long-tailed cat without hitting three stormtroopers.




















Dragon*Con 2009: Star Trek









Dragon*Con 2009: Pirates (of the Caribbean)

Arrr!





Dragon*Con 2009: Lord of the Rings

One post to rule them all.





Dragon*Con 2009: Ghostbusters

Who you gonna call?

Dragon*Con 2009: Doctor Who

Well, Dragon*Con 2010 is almost upon us, and I haven't posted even half of my photos from the 2009 edition of the convention. So, here's the next batch of pics. Well, the next pic anyway. I really enjoyed this interpretive, rather than literal, Dalek costume. Note the whisk.


Monday, August 23, 2010

I Don't Want Directions

You know, I had almost exactly this same conversation last week. Except I was more polite about it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Automagic

I may have invented this word today, but I feel like I've heard it somewhere before. A quick web search didn't turn up this meaning, so here you go:
automagic, adjective. Automatic to a seemingly magical degree.

Example: Look, I don't know how the software does that; it just happens automagically.

Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke would approve.

TV Review: Jekyll (2007, BBC)

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

Alison and I just finished watching Jekyll via Netflix download, and I thought I'd post a review to this long-neglected blog.

The Setup

Note that I'm talking about the 2007 BBC miniseries, not the 2007 American movie of the same name. This series is not a direct adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel or a remake of any adaptation. Rather, it is a sequel. The main character is Tom Jackman, a contemporary Scotsman who does not create an evil alter ego by drinking a potion. Each of the six episodes was written by Stephen Moffat, who wrote perhaps the best single episode of Doctor Who and has been running Who for the last year.

What I Liked
  • The plot. The story is very interesting and moves very quickly.
  • The acting. James Nesbitt did an amazing job of portraying two very different characters. His expression, tone of voice, demeanor, and posture all changed from Jackman to Hyde, but remained consistent within each character. I think I've mentioned before that I was really impressed with Allyson Hannigan's and Amy Acker's portrayal of multiple characters within a single episode. Nesbitt was just as impressive in these roles. I also enjoyed Meera Syal as the detective, Miranda.
  • The makeup. I really enjoyed the subtlety of the makeup that was used to effect the transition from Jackman to Hyde and back. It was done so that the two characters were different at a glance, but it was difficult to say exactly how. (There was one glaring exception to the high make-up standards; during one scene, an ear prosthesis was glaringly, distractingly obvious.)
  • The music. The incidental music for this show consisted mostly of creepy and ethereal instrumentals combined with creepy and ethereal vocals. The result was, well, creepy and ethereal. But also effective.

What I Disliked
  • The resolution of the main storyline was very melodramatic.

The Bottom Line

Let me just say that, at the end of each episode, I wanted to see the next immediately. Alison felt the same. I give this show 8.5 out of 10. If you are an britophile like me, add another 0.5.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Torchwood. Now with Espenson

It appears that Jane Espenson, a well regarded writer for Buffy and Battlestar, has been added to the writing crew of the new, fourth season of Torchwood, which scheduled to air in 2011 and will feature a stongly serialized storyline like that of Season 3's Children of Earth mini-series.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Whedon Shall be Avenged

After months of rumor, it's official: Joss Whedon has announced he will direct Marvel's upcoming theatrical adaptation of The Avengers comic. From Whedon's comments, it sounds as if he'll be writing, or at least outlining, the film, too. Woo-freakin'-hoo!

Edit: A summary of Whedon's and J. J. Abrams' comments from their Comic-Con panel is here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

iCarcassonne

Fans of European board games in the readership will be interested to know that a version of Carcassone is now available for the iPhone/iPod/iPad. It's apparently pretty good, too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mouth Jewelry

Ah, remember Alyson Hannigan's first on-screen date with Seth Green? Maybe not, because it didn't happen on Buffy. Nope it was in the 1988 film My Stepmother is an Alien, and you can see it here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

2010 DC ProSolo: STR

Almost a month ago, I competed in the 2010 DC ProSolo. "What's a ProSolo?" I hear you asking. Well, solo is the name that the Sports Car Club of America uses for their version of autocross, which you've read me discus repeatedly on this blog. A ProSolo is not simply a solo contested by professionals; otherwise, I certainly wouldn't have been allowed to participate. No, a ProSolo is a closely related motorsport that mixes traditional solo with drag racing. It's a lot of fun, and, since the format is so different, I thought it warranted posting a video of me running my '09 NC Miata in Street Touring R at the event. Unfortunately, The video was cropped when I tried to embed it, perhaps because of the large number of pixels. So, instead, here's a link to said vid on YouTube. The superimposed text didn't work out as well as I would have liked, so I apologize for the difficulty you may have with reading it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

GR: Angie

Today I tied my previous personal record for the workout called Angie: 16 minutes, 59 seconds. That might have been a frustrating result, except I also set a new gym record for this workout at CrossFit Diesel. (See the comments here.) The new second-best time is about 3.5 minutes slower than mine. So, I'm quite proud of that performance. Sometimes being a smaller dude helps, as I've mentioned before.

In other CrossFit Diesel news, I've continued my trend of appearing on the gym's front page. For example, my image is included on the page for each of these WODs: here, here, and here.

Now please excuse me while I send this post to my mom.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Alison's Perspective

Regular readers are no doubt tired of reading all my long-winded posts about my various adventures in motorsport. So, for a change of pace, I thought you might enjoy reading Alison's post about her adventures in motorsport. See? Totally different. Anyway, Alison recounted her impressions from her recent autocross outing on the My Smart Puppy forum. Check it out.

Chain-Chew

Here's a habit related to, but less dangerous than, chain-smoking:
chain-chew, noun. To chew gum nearly continuously, so that the used piece may be wrapped in the wrapper from the new piece.

Stampyfeet

Stampyfeet is a canine affliction that I only learned of because of my association with Newton.
stampyfeet, noun. A canine neuromuscular disorder in which, due to the return of a dog's owner to its presence, the dog's forepaws rapidly and alternately strike the ground or floor. Usually accompanied by a submissive grin, excited panting, or nearly uncontrolled running about. Also known as stampyfoot or stampyfeets.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Return of the Face

The Face has put in another appearance on the interwebs. Now it has motion blur, so you know it means business.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Team Grondul Goes Racing

A couple of weeks ago, Alison and I attended an autocross run by Autocrossers, Inc., an affiliate of the local SCCA region. Below is a video summarizing our exploits.

Friday, June 11, 2010

GR: Run and Pull

Tonight was my first time doing today's workout at CrossFit Diesel, so it's no surprise that I set a personal record. What is surprising is that I, not only turned in the fastest time of the day, but also set a new gym record.

In other Michael-centric CFD news, a version of this photo appears on the latest CrossFit Diesel T-shirt.


So, I'm feeling pretty stoked about my recent CrossFitting experience.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Junk Mail

Yesterday, we received, in the mail, an envelope with "This Is Not Junk Mail" printed in big letters on the outside. Somehow, that declaration strengthened my belief that it was, indeed, snail spam. Perhaps the senders should rethink their marketing.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Firefly

(I bet you thought this post would be about Joss Whedon's series of the same name. Wrong, sucka!)

Tonight, I saw my first firefly of the season. Neat.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Team Grondul Motorsports: Part 3

I'm quite confident, gentle reader, that you haven't been pining away, wondering when I would post an update on my exploits autocrossing in the SCCA's Street Touring R class. Well, here is said update anyway.

My lackluster---nay, terrible---performance in the Washington DC Region's practice event, which I reported earlier, was delivered with Zelda in mostly stock trim. I'd installed stiffer engine mounts (to reduce engine motion), a stiffer, adjustable front anti-roll bar (to reduce body roll), and a lighter, higher-flow axle-back exhaust, and I had removed the Induction Sound Enhancer (because it was unnecessary), but the car was otherwise unmodified. I discovered on the course that stiffening only the front swaybar did reduce roll, but it also yielded substantial understeer. I did my best to compensate with differential tire pressure, but I only achieved partial mitigation. Even so, I made steady progress during my 4 runs; each was faster than the last. My final run was substantially quicker than the others, and I knew it as I headed for the finish. Sadly, I hit the last or next-to-last cone on the course and incurred a 2-second penalty. So, I finished an embarrassing 10th out of 10 drivers, but only by 0.003 s. Curse you, Aure!

The class winner at the practice autocross was driving a well prepared Clown Shoe. Also present were an M Roadster, a Z4 roadster , an S2000, and various generations of Miata. One of the things I like best about this new class is the variety of makes and models which are able to compete on a near-level playing field due to the wheel- and tire-width restrictions, which fact segues nicely into my report on my next autocross. Of course, the playing field is not completely level. I hope to post a quantitative analysis of of the potential performance of the most conspicuously competitive cars in the this class sometime soon. For now, I will only say that I expect the car to have for STR will be either a 2008-9 S2000 CR, a 2006-8 Miata Club Spec or SV (the trim level with the 5MT and without air conditioning), or a 2009-10 Miata Touring 6MT (in other words, my exact car).

For the next WDCR event, which was the first points event of the season, I fitted new rolling stock: Enkei RPF1 wheels, size 17x9+45, and Yokohama Advan Neova AD08 tires, size 255/40-17. These wheels and tires are the maximum width allowed in STR, and the tires' treadware rating of 180 is near the 140 minimum allowed in the Street Touring category. Just for comparison, the stock wheels are 17x7+55, and the stock tires are 205/45-17. This change should give Zelda more grip potential that almost any car eligible for the class. Again, my times improved during the event, although everyone struggled on the newly resealed and thus slick surface. With Zelda's new shoes, I was able to finish 9th out of 15 entrants. This time, the class winner drove an M Roadster.

Below is a photograph, taken by my Miata clubmate Kate Claffie from SCCA WDCR #1. This photo shows the wider wheels and tires that I've fitted. Note that I'm not looking directly ahead here; I'm looking at the exit of the left-hand sweeper I've just entered in this shot.


Here's another shot, this one by Danny Kao, from the same event. This is probably my favorite shot of Zelda so far. Because I'm turning left in this shot, the car has rolled to the right, and the ridiculous static wheel-well gap is hidden. If you could see the car from the other side, you'd be amazed at how high the left side of the car is.


For the second points event, I made no modifications to the car, other than tire pressure. However, I did change my approach to driving in an effort to improve my times. In particular, I used a bit of visualization to help memorize the course and plan my line. I was frustrated with my first 3 runs, but I somehow managed to uncork a fast run on my final attempt, and I finished 5th out of 13. The drivers who had won the previous two events were absent---this event's winner was behind the wheel of an AP2 S2000---which almost certainly helped me as much as or more than my more careful preparation. We did have a couple of non-competitive drivers in second- and third-generation MR2s, though, which added some nice variety.

Below is a photo, by Kate Claffie, from SCCA WDCR #2. The car looks quite attractive in this shot.


Below is a photo, by an unknown photographer, of me queuing before the start. It appears I'm concentrating on planning my run. In actuality, I believe I'm squinting because the sunlight is quite bright, but I don't want to lower my tinted visor, thus blocking off cooling air flow, until just before the green light.


After SCCA #2, I fitted higher-performance brake pads. The new parts are still "street"pads, rather than "race" pads. Race pads resist fading at higher temperatures but need to be heated to an elevated temp to work properly. In autocross, since the runs are short and nonconsecutive, the brakes need to work at ambient temps, and brake fading is not typically a concern.

The next event was not a competition but yet another school. This time, that school was the DC Region's Level 1. I suggested to Alison that she enroll as well, and she agreed. I was quite proud of her performance. I was worried that she would be tentative, afraid to hurt my car by stressing the engine or driving over pylons. Before we arrived, I encouraged her to use full gas and full brakes when necessary, and to hit the cones if she needed to. Based on how she drove, I believe she took me at my word. She drove faster than most of the first-timers in the class, including all 5 of the other novice women. For comparison's sake, I think my fastest clean run of the practice course was 33.o s, and Alison turned in several cone-free runs ranging from 37.7 to 37.9. That's not a bad performance differential for her, given how much more experience I have.

Last weekend brought my most recent events. I was involved in 3 days of autocross-related activities surrounding the SCCA Northeast Divisional Championships. On Friday, before placing the required decals and passing technical inspection for the Divisional, I attended the Evolution Performance Driving School's Phase 1 class. The class was helpful, certainly, though I struggled to improve my times much after the first few. The looking-ahead drill was quite challenging, as well.

Saturday and Sunday made up the Divisional proper. There were 4 runs of each day's course on each day. The lowest Saturday time and the best Sunday time were combined to yield a total time for each driver, and the total time was the figure of merit. I somehow managed to finish third on each day and---wait for it---third overall, out of 7 drivers. That high a placing might incite you to ask about the competition, and you'd be right to be suspicious. Several of the faster local drivers were absent, and only one competitive driver traveled in for the event. He won the event in his well-developed S2000 CR. My friend and fellow Miata driver James finished second in his 2006 6MT NC. I somehow finished ahead of Noel and his Z4. Noel has beaten me in every event where we've met so far. He said he was pushing his car as hard as he could, but that it just wouldn't give him any more. He also pointed out, quite rightly, that his car is not likely to be competitive, given equal driving talent. The Z4 has about as much power as an S2000, but weighs 200 lbs more and is limited to equal-width wheels and tires in STR. That means weaker acceleration and grip. Meanwhile, his wife said that eye's been eying S2000s. So, if Noel shows up to the next event in an S2k, well, I called it.

Here's a photo of me on Saturday by Danny Kao. Note that, although I've barely turned the wheel, I'm looking far off to my right toward the exit of the element I'm entering. This picture also shows off the Tire Rack banner required of all participants in the Divisional Championship. (The Tire Rack is a major cash and merchandise sponsor of of SCCA Solo.)


Below is a shot from Sunday by Kate and Alan Claffie. This is another of my favorite photos of Zelda, because the blurred wheels and background suggest significant speed. This shot shows 1 of the 2 Divisional Championship decals required for the event.


This next photo, is also by the Claffies and is also from Sunday; you can tell because I've removed the front license plate to maximize cooling on the nearly-90-degree day. This pic shows clearly that I have the happiest car at the whole championship. Mazda really needs to dial down their corporate smiling grill, at least on their sports cars.


So, what's next for Team Grondul Motorsport? I hope to install an STR-legal cold-air intake this weekend to help bring my torque-to-weight ratio more in line with the competition. In a week and a half, I'll be attending one of the regular points events of Autocrossers Incorporated, an SCCA affiliate organization that uses the SCCA rules and has a strong membership overlap with the DC Region. A week later is the DC ProSolo. ProSolo combines autocross, which the SCCA calls Solo, with a drag-racing-style start, and there are only about 8 ProSolo events each year, in the entire country. It sounds like great fun, so I am very much looking forward to it. A week after that is the WDCR's points event number 3. So I'll be pretty busy autocrossing for the next month.

Meanwhile, somewhere during that time frame, I should finally receive the custom coilovers I ordered a couple of months ago from Fat Cat Motorsports . Once I get them installed, no doubt with significant help from members of my local Miata club, the car should be much less prone to roll, and it should have much, much more grip on all surfaces. I hope so, at least.