Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Man Who Fell Sideways

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I loves me some xkcd.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Does this Guitar Come with Training Wheels?

Those of you who enjoy playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band---at last count, that was at least 66% of our 6 regular readers---might be interested in this Wired article about how the games are inspiring their players to learn real instruments. Hunh.

Friday, April 25, 2008

PR: Angie

Yesterday, I turned in a personal-record time on the workout named Angie: 17 minutes, 15 seconds. Angie was the second workout I did after starting CrossFit more than a year ago, on January 29, 2007. It took me 35:07 that first time. Most of that improvement hasn't come from increased work capacity. I cut about ten minutes off my time just by learning the kipping pull-up. Most of the remaining has come from tactics: I break each block of 100 repetitions into multiple sets, taking breaks before I reach failure. The 13 seconds that I shaved off yesterday was entirely due to knowing my previous time and pushing very hard during the squats. In other words, I certainly can't claim to be over twice as fit as when I began CrossFitting.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

PR: Weighted Pull-Up

Today, I set a new personal record in the weighted pull-up: 115 pounds (plus my bodyweight of 137). I'm Brian with the overhead projector about this performance, because I'm not only happy with it, but also surprised by it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another Sign of Impending Cancelation

According to Joss Whedon himself, the former Fred, Amy Acker, has been cast in Whedon's upcoming series, Dollhouse. Now, the last time I got excited about a show featuring Ms. Acker before it even aired, the series in question was quickly canceled. I can only hope that doesn't happen this time. Even this little snippet of Whedonish in the comment tickled me to no end, so I'm really hoping this show outlives the initial 7-episode order:
All in all, pound for pound, soup to nuts, man vs beast, it's a pretty amazing ensemble. I'm not sure how I landed this troupe, but rest assured I'm gonna write bestest good word for talkacting to them yes! They're in good hands.


This Saturday, I attended a "tech day" held by my local Miata club. I got to meet some of the guys and girls in the club, see some cool Miatae, watch some work being done, and even do some work on Mia. We had 12 little Mazdas at the event, plus an S2000 and even a Sunbeam Tiger. It was a lot of fun and made me glad I'd purchased a car with such a dedicated fanbase.

I'm planning to order a roll bar this week and take it with me to the tech day in May so I can get some help installing it. Then I'll be able to attend some high-performance driver education classes at Summit Point later this year. That should be challenging, educational, and fun.

My song is...

..."When I Need You" by Leo Sayer. How very, very unfortunate. From what I could tell from iTunes it is highly crappy.

You, too, can figure out what your song is by checking out this link. You can find the #1 song on any day going all the way back to 1890. On my birthday, that horrible piece of 70's crap was, apparently, #1. Ugh.

So, what is your song?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Engineer's Guide to Cats

I saw this video and thought of certain loyal readers (ahem, cough, Nick) who might need to see it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am neither an engineer nor a cat owner, so I think it has broad appeal. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Music Review: A Radical Recital by Rasputina

Some of you may know that I enjoy hearing modern music played with or accompanied by classical instruments. For this reason, my favorite Metallica album is S&M, on which the band is accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Similarly, one of my very favorite albums is Portishead's Live: Roseland NYC, which combines that band's signature melancholy trip-hop sound---including the scratching----with a full orchestra.

I'm not sure if our friend Ken knew this about me when he gave Alison and me Rasputina's A Radical Recital. Rasputina is a band whose membership has fluctuated, but which seems to usually consist of 2 cellos and a drum kit. They play mostly original, contempory music in addition to a few covers of what they call "classical music," where "classical" means "from the 1970s." So, this group certainly seems to be the kind of thing I would enjoy. But do I actually?


Their sound is indeed enjoyable, at least to someone with my musical proclivities. However, the lyrics really ice the cake. Consider the subjects of a few of the songs from this album:
  • "Howard Hughes" is about the germophobia and reclusiveness of the famous billionaire industrialist.
  • "The Mayor" is about a mentally ill person, although it's often assumed to be about the President. Hah!
  • "Mamma Was an Opium Smoker" is about...well, you can guess.
  • "Signs of the Zodiac" is perhaps my favorite song on the disc, and it's about belief in or skepticism of astrology.
  • "Rats" has the most amusing lyrics; the song relates my favorite anecdote from Catholic history.

Here's an anecdote about A Radical Recital: After Ken gave us this disc, around the winter holidays, we listened to it once and enjoyed it, but then it somehow filtered to the bottom of some stack and went unplayed for a couple of months. When I bought the Miata and browsed our collection for CDs insert into the car's new-fangled CD changer, I rediscovered it. The album has lived in the roadster since then, and the music has somehow become linked in my head with driving that car, in somewhat the same way that Dido's No Angel is linked with inline speedskating for me.

Overall, I'd this album 9.0 out of 10 if you are interested in this kind of classical-contemporary fusion. If not, I'd still give it a 7.0. Since I am into this kind of thing, I'm going to buy another CD of their music.

Holy Anime, Batman!

Batfans in the readership---this means you, Lisa---may be interested to learn about this "Animatrix-style tie-in" to The Dark Knight. Looks cool, eh?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Automobile Review: 2004 Mazda Mazdaspeed MX-5 Miata

I've owned my proper sports car for almost 2 months now, so I believe I can give an informed opinion concerning its virtues and vices. I certainly have more experience with it than I did with the Mustang when I reviewed it. So, here's what I think about both the superficial and the substantial aspects of my little Mia.

What I like:
  • Exterior design. In terms of sheet metal, the 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata is the face-lifted NB body style, which dates from 2001, with front and rear air dams and a spoiler stuck on. The NB itself differs only slightly from the NA body style, which in turn dates back to 1989. In other words, the MSM's styling was 15 years old when it hit the market and is 19 years old now. Still, I quite like it. In fact, the face-lifted NB (NB-F) is my favorite Miata body style. I've been seeing a lot of NC Miatas since I've been hanging out on the Miata boards,and their angular, flared-fender styling has certainly grown on me, but I still prefer the swoopier NB-F with all its inflection points. This may sound like a ridiculous comparison, but I think my car looks like a baby first- or second-generation Dodge Viper. Like the Viper, the MSM is very curvaceous, with a slightly bulging bonnet* and squinty-eyed headlights, but the cabin and wheels are disproportionately large (like a puppy's feet or a human baby's head), the bonnet is shorter, and the expression is not so much mean as happy. Oh, and the car is much, much smaller. My favorite details of the bodywork are the aforementioned headlights, the subtly creased bonnet bulge (which is difficult to photograph), and the 2 ripples along the lower sides of car.
  • Wheel design. I disagree with Mazda's choice of wheel and tire size, but the wheel style, finish, and construction are quite nice. First of all, at 17.1 pounds each, the wheels are fairly light for their 17x7 size. There are certainly lighter wheels available in those dimensions, but those wheels are quite pricey, so I can't really fault Mazda for not putting them their inexpensive roadster. Secondly the style is quite functional and attractive. Thirdly, the finish is polished, but not chromed, so the wheels are attractive without being flashy and obnoxious.
  • Interior design. The interior of the car is attractively designed. I especially enjoy the red-stitched, black-leather bits and the red inserts on the doors and seats. Additionally, all the controls are within easy reach. The cockpit is not what I'd call roomy, but Alison and I fit comfortably. Of course, we are small people. The only nit I have to pick with the interior concerns the steering wheel. It's about an inch too large in diameter. A smaller wheel would effectively give a faster steering ratio, and the loss of leverage would be mitigated by the power steering. Plus, the wheel just looks too large on a car where everything is size XS.
  • Convertible top. I didn't really want a convertible when I bought the car, but I'm really enjoying having it now. I feel as if I've been imprisoned when I must drive with the top up. I guess my feeling on this topic must be obvious from all the top-down, hat-wearing, heat-on driving I did in February and March. The top is easy to operate; I can put it down in about 10 seconds and bring it back up in about 15. I've been impressed with the weatherproofing, too. It doesn't leak a drop, even in a downpour.
  • Stereo. The stereo, with its in-dash 6-disc changer and 6 speakers, is a solid performer. I'm no audiophile, but it sounds good to me.
  • Size. In my mind, a sports car should be small and light. I'm a big believer in Colin Chapman's command to "simplify, then add lightness." Thus, I'm quite pleased with the MSM's overall size. The weight---500 pounds more than my CRX---is greater than I'd like, due mostly to the convertible top and all the modern safety equipment.
  • Engine. The 1.8-liter, inline 4-cyclinder engine, turbocharged to about 8 PSI was the big draw to most MSM buyers. I was more interested in all the uprated suspension and drivetrain components, but I can't say that the I'm not enjoying the 178 horsepower and---more important---166 foot-pounds of torque that the mill puts it out.
  • Handling. The aforementioned suspension and drivetrain--by which I mean the limited-slip Torsen differential---don't disappoint. I can throw the car through the cones of an autocross course surprisingly quickly, but it also feels solidly planted at <mumble-mumble> MPH on the highway.
What I don't like:
  • Tacked-on "aero" bits. The MSM came with stuck- or bolted-on front and rear "air dams." I'm not sure how functional they are, and I don't dislike them, really, but they'd look much better if they weren't just tacked on. The NC takes a better approach; the Mazdaspeed front and rear air dams available for the third-generation MX-5 are integrated with the front and rear bumpers, so they look much better. The front actually looks like a much more functional piece, to boot. The Mazdaspeed spoiler for the NC is still stuck on, much like the one on my MSM, but it looks more integrated into the bodywork and also appears to be a much more effective design. The spoiler is, aesthetically, my least favorite feature of the car. Not only is it clearly an add-on, but, to my untrained eye, probably increases drag without adding any downforce---or reducing the net lift, to be precise. I've considered simply removing the spoiler, but that would leave 5 holes that would need to be filled, sanded, and painted to match the rest of the vehicle. It seems like I could add a more functional aftermarket part for a similar price. Thus, I've decided to table my spoiler plans for now. Besides, I'm sure there's more to be gained by cleaning up the underside of the car.
  • Power accessories. The car features a full suite of power options---windows, locks, and mirrors--- that I'd rather not have had to pay for. I'm even skeptical that the power steering is really necessary. And don't get me started on the failure rate of power accessories.
  • Fit and finish. Certainly, the car is a step nicer than my 17-year-old CRX, but it isn't up to the standards of 2004-era Hondas and Toyotas, especially on the inside. The eyeball vents are a particular source of frustration; two of them are almost too stiff to move, while a third is slightly loose and droopy. (With my new eyeball-removal knowledge, however I might be able to fix this particular problem.)
  • Convertible top. I've certainly been having fun with my top-down motoring, but I'm not certain the open-top fun outweighs the shortcomings associated with a ragtop. A convertible is heavier, less stiff, higher-drag, less roomy, and less durable than the corresponding hardtop. Also, I'll have to put a roll bar on the car to take it to a track; I wouldn't have to go through that expensive and time-consuming installation if the Miata were a hatchback.
  • Instrumentation. All Miatas come with 5 gauges: a large tachometer and speedometer surrounded by small fuel-level, oil-pressure, and coolant-temperature gauges. I can certainly understand that Mazda didn't fit the Mazdaspeed Miatas with a boost gauge, since fewer than 5500 copies were ever produced, and adding that gauge would have required reconfiguring the entire instrument binnacle. What I am irritated about is the misleading nature of the oil-pressure and water-temp gauges. They are, in fact, idiot lights masquerading as real gauges. The pressure gauge shows about two thirds of maximum if there is more than about 7 PSI of oil pressure and displays the minimum otherwise. In addition to saving Mazda a few bucks on each car, this setup apparently cuts down on customer complaints, since the needle doesn't fluctuate with engine speed. The temp gauge is similar; it shows the minimum when the engine is "cold," about half maximum when "warm," and somewhere near maximum when overheating. This simplified gauge saves a few dollars as well, but I doubt customer satisfaction was a motivation this time. Fortunately, there are procedures to fix these frustrating gauges; I'll report back if I implement them.
  • Underbody. The underside of the car is an aerodynamic nightmare, in terms of both drag and lift. The rear bumper, in particular, probably catches a lot of air and unloads the rear wheels. I can't really expect a car in the Miata's price range to have a complete and functional ground-effects kit including a splitter, Venturi ducts, and a diffuser. I don't think it's unreasonable, however, to ask for some simple paneling to reduce drag and therefor lift. Something like what's on my neighbor's Civic Hybrid would be effective and inexpensive.
  • Wheel and tire size. The 17x7-inch wheels that came on the Mazdaspeed Miata are simply too large and heavy for that car. The 2004 MSM's wheels weighed 17.1 pounds, and the 2005's wheels weighed a whopping 18.4. And all that weight is both unsprung and rotating, which is the worst kind of mass to add to a vehicle. 17-inch wheels might be acceptable, but only if they were among the lightest wheels available in that size, which would not be appropriate OEM hoops for a car in this price range. The MSM also came with extremely low-profile 205/40R17 tires. The low profile results in an outside diameter similar to that on the non-Mazdaspeed Miatas and yields good cornering, but also exposes the rims to potential damage from potholes and other surface discontinuities. The 215/40R17 tires I put on have just about the right amount of sidewall, but add 2 pounds of unsprung, rotating weight. The MSM should have come with reasonably light, reasonably priced 15- or 16-inchers with somewhat taller tires. I'm hoping to put on some very light 16x7-inch wheels and 215/40R16 tires when the current tires wear down. If I could find some 16x7.5s, that would be even better.
  • Transmission. The 6 forward speeds offered by the transmission are nice to have, but I still find the shifting to be more difficult than it should be. Additionally, the short gearing does enable very speedy acceleration, but it also means the engine is working harder at highway speeds than I would prefer. I would argue that first through fifth gears should be exactly as they are, but that sixth should be geared quite a bit taller, so that, at 60 MPH, the engine is running at 2500 RPM rather than 3000. If I do put on the smaller wheels and tires I mentioned above, or if I add any significant power, I'll probably change the final drive ratio from its current 4.1 or so to something like 3.9 or even 3.6; first gear will be close to useless if I don't.
In summary, this car is far from perfect, but I'm enjoying owning it quite a lot. The car is simply great fun to drive, through neighborhoods, on the highway, or in competition. Even after having this vehicle for 2 months, I'm still disappointed each time I arrive at my destination, because I won't get to drive any further. Overall, and considering the modest price, I give it 8.5 out of 10.

* I've been watching a lot of Top Gear lately, and I've decided to adopt some automotive Britishisms. Pretty soon, I'll be quoting naught-to-60 times and explaining that estates are even more practical than saloons, but that I really prefer coup├ęs or shooting brakes.

Hey, I Need That Skin

Here's a photo of (most of) the Rollerquest inline skating club before the group skate around the BWI trail last Saturday. You may recognize stumpy guy on the far right as me.

About 45 minutes after this photo was taken, I was a bloody mess. I took a spill and got quite a bit more intimate with the pavement than I would have really preferred. Fortunately, I'm healing quickly, as usual. Even so, I skipped out on today's skate; another fall on the parts of my anatomy would be...unpleasant. I hope to be back on my wheeled shoes soon.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I set a new personal record in the deadlift yesterday: 313 pounds. That's not a lot of weight for a deadlift, even for a guy who weighs 137. Still, it felt like a major accomplishment.

Friday, April 04, 2008


After some indecision,* and more than a little work, I installed a Speedhut boost/vacuum gauge in my proper sports car this week. Here's a photo of the gauge nestled in its new home:**

I'm quite pleased with the appearance of the gauge. It almost looks as if it had been installed at the factory and even glows the same color as the stock gauges when the lights are on:

So, what have I gleaned from this gauge? I set the warning light at 7.5 PSI and found that appropriate application of my right foot would illuminate it pretty reliably. After adjusting the light to 8.0 PSI, I was unable to light it. So, apparently, Mia's peak boost is somewhere between 7.5 and 8. Depending on the reference you believe, the Mazdaspeed Miata is meant to deliver 7.5 to 8.5 PSI of compression. Thus, I'm in the right ballpark. I know the stock bypass valve on the MSM is prone to leak at high boost---or high engine speed, I forget which---so I might look into replacing mine to see if I can eek out a little more boost.

I think I'll put off installing an oil-temperature gauge in the right-center vent. I like being able to point one vent from each side at me. Besides, I effectively need to drain the oil to put the sensor in, and I'm not planning an oil change for another 3000 miles.

* Thanks for your input, Nick, Stingray, and Ken.

** The eyeball vent that was evicted from that fine abode now sits, lonely and unloved, in a zip-top bag in my draw of Miata parts.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Custom Time

Check out this feature of Gmail, new for April 1, 2008.