Friday, February 27, 2009

Maybe This Time...

Alison and I made an offer on another house last night.  This one's in Montgomery Village.  Now we wait...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Prosthetic Mermaid

We've posted before about an aquatic animal being fitted with a prosthtic tail, but this story's a bit different.  A New Zealand woman, who lost her lower legs to childhood medical condition, recently received the prosthetic mermaid tail she's long dreamed of.  The tail and attached suit were built by Weta Visual Effects, the Kiwi FX house behind The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, among others.  Neat.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


There is something that I think is very odd about my dreams. I'm curious to hear whether anyone else experiences this and/or if you have any idea if it means anything.

Whenever I have a dream that I can remember in any kind of detail, I remember that during the dream I could not keep my eyes open. I'm in my dream trying hard to open my eyes so I can see what's going on, and I'll get them open a crack, but once I get a glimpse of whatever is happening, they'll slide right closed again. I hear and feel what's going on, but constantly fight to see the dream. If I do succeed in really opening my eyes, I open them in real life and, thus, wake up and the dream is lost.

Isn't that weird? It's like I'm too logical even in my dreams! "Oh, I'm dreaming so I must be asleep and, therefore, my eyes are closed."

What do you guys think? Does this ever happen to you?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dallas the Dog

On Friday, I helped a stray dog get adopted into a wonderful new home!

The backstory is that he was found wandering down a highway in Virginia with no tags and taken to an animal shelter. One of the people on the dog message boards that I frequent is active in rescuing dogs in VA and became involved in trying to find this dog (a young male German Shepherd Dog who they named Dallas) a new home. Well, another board member who lives in NY decided to adopt him! The only problem was that her car has been having issues and she didn't feel comfortable driving all by herself from NY to VA and back to pick him up. The woman from VA could drive him as far as the DC area, and the adopter could pick him up in NJ, but they needed someone to give Dallas a ride for the middle leg. So...I did! I drove him to a rest stop on the southern end of the NJ Turnpike where I handed him off to his new owner. Here he is getting picked up:

Isn't he just adorable? Now he has a bunch of other dog brothers and sisters and a wonderful new owner who might even get him involved in pet therapy work. Yay! I'm really glad I could help out.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Alison and I made an offer on a house today.  We'll see how it is received...

Update:  The owner summarily dismissed our offer.  Apparently, he expects to get much more than comparable houses in the neighborhood have sold for.  Fortunately, we've already lined up a couple of other interesting properties to look at this week.

Friday, February 20, 2009

More Dollhouse Tonight

Don't forget to watch, Nielsen families.

My Commute Just Got Much Longer

Do you think our real-estate agent will be able to find a house with a driveway like this in our price range?  Notice the stripped curbing at each apex.  I don't think I'd ever get to work.  Or the store.  I'd just be turning laps all day.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Big Dress

I've learned many things from Alison.  This one I learned during our first dance at our wedding:
Big dress, small steps.

Happy Birthday, Enzo

Enzo Ferrari was born 111 years ago, yesterday.  As you can probably guess, he founded he automaker bearing his surname.  What you may not realize is that he founded the manufacturer after his establishing his racing team, Scuderia Ferrari, and did so strictly to fund the racing effort. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PR: Pullup-Per-Minute Thing

Tonight, I managed to set a personal record---just barely---in what I call "the pullup-per-minute thing."  For my previous best, I completed the 19th round, but made no attempt to at the 20th.  Today I only completed the 19th round again, so my score was technically the same.  However, I also managed 10 more reps before time ran out on the 20th, so I'm going to call that a PR.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Weird, Still House

This morning was very strange around here. Michael took Newton to the groomer, so I was home all alone for a few hours. It was weirdly still and quiet. Newton's back, though, and looking very handsome:

Often when he gets home from the groomer he'll burrow in the couch, rubbing his face on the cushions, etc. I think he's trying to replace his lost stink:

Anyway, maybe I can get some work done now that it's not so distraction-free around here!

Friday, February 13, 2009


After dispatching Fran, I took Newton for a long-ish walk.  As I sometimes, do, I'd occaisionally say, "Want to run for a little?" then break into a run.  Newton loves it.  He often looks over (and up) at me, mouth open in a big doggie grin, as if to say, "Isn't running fun?" It's infectious.

PR: Fran

The workout known as Fran is one of my favorite Crossfit benchmarks.  It's very hard, but very short, and the rounds get shorter as you go, which is psychologically helpful for me.  Today, I manage to score a new personal-record time on Fran.  I completed the workout in 4:38, an 11-second improvement over my best time, which I recorded in December.   

Dollhouse Tonight

Dollhouse premieres on Fox. Be sure to watch it. Especially if you are a Nielsen family.

Cat Proximity

I find that this old xkcd comic applies to dogs, too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

2 Handfuls of Awesome

Regular readers are aware that I've been fascinated with rotary engines for a while, and my interest was intensified by my recent test-drives.  You will therefor not be surprised to hear that I read a recent Inside Line article reporting a rumor about Mazda's future rotary-powered cars with unusual excitement in addition to the usual skepticism with which I respond to rumors.  

IL's source starts by saying that Mazda is hard at work on the next-generation RE, the 16X.  That part is well-established fact.  The source also claims that the engine, which I've described before, will put out abut 270 BHP, with atmospheric induction, while reducing emissions.  That claim is in line with Mazda's stated goals for the 16X.

The source also claims that Mazda is working on not one but two new rotary-powered vehicles.  One of these vehicles is a new RX-7 weighing about 2640 lb. The other is a follow-on to the RX-8, called the RX-9.

That two-vehicle part is a stretch.  Mazda hasn't offered more than 1 RX car since the mi 1980s, as far as I can tell.  The company seems to have felt that the RE's particular merits and demerits suite it to a niche applications of light-ish-weight sports cars.  Mazda has stated that they are committed to the Wankel, an they've been working on the new "long-stroke" engine since at least 2007, so I'm sure they are planning a vehicle to put it into.  But 2?  If that's true, they'd have to be very confident in the performance, the reliability, and---most importantly, in light of rising standards---the fuel consumption of this engine.  

For now, let's assume that Mazda is planning a two-RX line-up.  What's the likelihood that it would include and models called RX-7 and RX-9?  

The RX-7 name implies a two-seat sports car of light weight.  Many rotor-heads, myself included believe that, because of the RE's low-torque/high-power output, it works best in a light-weight, narrow-purpose sports car.  Additionally, the RX-7 is Mazda's most iconic car.  Thus, taking the rotary program back to an RX-7 is quite reasonable.  If nothing else, going to a two-seater will save weight and thus reduce fuel consumption, improving the company's CAFE situation.  Mazda has stated the goal of removing 100 kg---220 lbs---from each of their vehicles, on average.*  So, the source's claim makes sense, but I'm a little put off since the number the source offers is exactly the number Mazda has given out for it's fleetwide average.  It makes the source seem less credible, not more.  Another issue is that Mazda already makes a two-seat sports car:  the MX-5 Miata.  Of course the Miata is only available as a convertible, so perhaps the '7 would only be available as a coupe.  With the price and performance differences, that could yield enough product distinction.  Still, a pair of two-seaters seams like a lot for a small automaker,** even though Mazda has offered those same two models before.  One alternative would be to make the RX-7 a two-door 2+2 coupe.  I don't like that option, because the '7 has only ever been a two-seater, and tiny rear seats, without doors to get at them, are not very useful.

What about an RX-8 "sequel" called the RX-9?  The name implies, to me at least, something larger than than the current '8.  If the new car were to be a 4-seater with little suicide doors, like the current model, Mazda would simply call it the RX-8 again.  If they are planning a 2-rotary strategy, and if one of those cars is to be a 2-seater, it might make sense  for the other to be a sports sedan.

Still, I'm skeptical that well be seeing two Wankel-powered cars from Mazda in the near future.  But it would be seriously cool if we did.

* This is one reason that Mazda is probably my favorite mainstream automaker right now.

** If said automaker isn't Lotus, Ferrari, Lamborghini, or the like.

Preview the Dollhouse

In light of Dollhouse's premiere tomorrow at 9:00 EST, you might be interested in this spoiler-free and positive (p)review of the first 3 eps of the the show.

Happy Birthday, Darwin

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth.  It's impossible to overstate Darwin's contribution to modern biology.  Happy birthday, Chuckie D.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Miata

20 years ago this week, at the Chicago Auto Show, Mazda unveiled its newest design, a car that recalled the elemental British roadster but that also promised to start every time you turned the ky.  The car was named the MX-5 Miata.  The Miata---called just the MX-5 in Europe and the Roadster in Japan---was praised by critics and sold in numbers hotcakes would have envied.  After 20 years and 2 redesigns, the car has continued to receive awards from journalists and praise from enthusiasts, and it has been a strong seller and marketing icon for the small Hiroshima-based manufacturer.  Indeed, over 800,000 of these cars have been sold, making the MX-5/Miata/Roadster the best-selling 2-seat convertible ever.   The critical and sales success of the MX-5 was a huge boon to Mazda is partially responsible for the company's sporty image and comparative financial strength today.

To celebrate the Miata's 20th birthday---and to market all of its vehicles---Mazda threw a party today, at the Chicago Auto Show, the very show where the car debuted.  Featured at the party were several notable and interesting Miatas from the past 2 decades.  Also, sushi and beer.

Dollhouse is Coming. Dollhouse is Coming.

Regular readers and those who know me in meatspace are aware that I am a big fan of creator/writer/director/producer/composer/geek Joss Whedon.  What you may not realize is that I've never seen any new Whedon-created television.  By the time Nick introduced me to the wonder of Firefly, that series had already ended, as had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Thus, I only know those shows through DVDs.  I have been privileged to see some of Whedon's work when it was first available;  I saw Serenity on opening weekend---and also later in its run---and I watched each of the 3 acts of Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog as it was made available on the interwebs.  Still, Mutant Enemy, Whedon's production company hasn't made anything for small screen, since I became a fan.

Until this Friday.

Friday night, at 9:00 PM Eastern Time, Whedon's new series, Dollhouse, premieres.  The show is airing on Fox, which has prematurely canceled some of my favorite shows,* so I'm not optimistic about a long run, but you can certainly guess where I'll be on Friday at 9.

* As well as numerous others

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Straight-Up, Balls-Out

I once heard Joss Whedon say of Buffy the Vampires Slayer, "Oh yeah, we forgot to make it scary."  It sounds like, when it came time to write his upcoming horror movie Cabin in the Woods, he didn't forget.

Put Down the Bottle and Pick Up a Comb

Joss Whedon is My Master, as previously stated.  But Joss, could you put just a little effort into cleaning yourself up?  I mean, you look like you've been on a bender.


Alison made this one up this morning to describe me.
lether, noun.  A person afflicted with lethargy.
Example:  I've come down with lethargy and will therefor have to spend some time in a lether colony.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Automobile Reivew: 2009 MazdaRX-8 R3

Here at The Official Blog of Team Grondul, we like to offer a car review approximately annually,* so it's about time for one. For this post, I thought I would expand on my recent, brief comments about my test-drive of a 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3. This review is also based, in part, on my test-drive of an RX-8 Grand Touring toward the end of last year.


The RX-8 is the latest in the long line of Mazda's RX cars, which were all powered by rotary, or Wankel, engines. I recently posted a "rotary primer" to this blog; in that post, I discussed the features and history of the rotary engine and Mazda's RE-powered cars in some detail. If you are interested in that material, you might want to read that post.

The Car

In an effort to expand the RX-8's sales over those of its predecessor, the RX-7, the '8 was designed with 4 seats, rather than 2, and unusual suicide doors** through which to access the rear seats. The extra seats and doors make the RX-8 into a unique---to my knowledge--4-door "coupe." It was the coupe-like shape, size, weight, and wheelbase, combined with the extra doors---and, of course, the rotary engine---that attracted my attention to this car. Eventually, I plan to need a car with rear seats, so that I can haul Grondulspawn about, but I'd like that car to have rear- or all-wheel-rive and to be as fun-to-drive as possible.

The R3 trim line is priced almost a thousand bucks above the Grand Touring trim with manual-transmission, but it ditches some of the luxury features in favor of numerous performance-enhancing and appearance-"enhancing" changes. These difference include but are not limited to Bilstien dampers, a foam-injected shock-tower brace, a shorter final-drive ratio, reclining Recaro seats, larger, allegedly lighter 19-inch wheels with rotor-shaped spokes, 225/40R19 tires, a small rear wing (instead of a lip spoiler), restyled front bumper cover, side skirts, red stitching and gray mesh on the interior, and some "exclusive" paint colors.

The pricing? The MSRP for the cheapest RX-8, the Sport trim level with manual transmission, is $27,105, while the Grand Touring trim with with manual is $31,670. The Touring trim will be somewhere in between. You can add an automatic transmission to any of those trim levels for about 800 bucks, but, as I will explain below, I strongly recommend against the slushbox. The R3 is only available with a stick, and its MSRP is $32,600.

What I Liked
  • Layout. I really like the 4-door-coupe layout of the '8, as I mentioned before. That layout is very well executed. In particular, the car lacks fixed B-pillars; the front edges of the suicide doors latch into the unibody, forming movable B-pillars into which the front doors latch. The absence of B-pillars makes rear-seat ingress and egress very easy, even with smallish rear doors. Thankfully, because the front door latches to the rear door and not to the unibody, you cannot inadvertently close the front door before the rear, which could result in expensive damage to the front door.
  • Engine. The 1.3-liter, 2-rotor 13B-MSP Renesis rotary engine powering the car has all the advantages I discussed in my rotary primer: High specific power and torque output, smooth running, very high engine speeds, small size, and light weight. The Renesis puts out 232 BHP and 159 lb-ft, and it redlines at 9000 RPM. The 232 horsepower is plenty to push this car around, but that power comes on only at high engine speeds, and the 159 lb-ft of torque means that powerplant seems anemic at lower revs. Because of the low-torque, high-redline nature of the rotary, the RX-8 can't be driven the way you might drive a piston-powered car. You can't just push your right foot to the floor and expect the car to shoot off. You must keep the engine "on the boil," somewhere past about 5000 RPM. There's no being lazy with the shifting; your left leg and right arm will get a workout when you drive this car correctly. This description may sound like a criticism, but it's not, at least not entirely. A car with this engine is very engaging and rewarding to drive. You know when you are driving it well. The small size of the engine allows the powerplant to be located entirely aft of the front axle, making the RX-8 a (front) mid-engined car. The front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout gives the car a balanced weight distribution and a small yaw moment of inertia. The light weight of the mill also contributes to the light overall weight of the vehicle.
  • Transmission. Given how much you have to use the shift lever and clutch pedal in this car, the tranny had better be a good one. And it is. The throws are short and precise. Reverse is positioned out of the way, to the left of first gear, and it requires the knob be pushed down, toward the ground, before being engaged. I humbly suggest that under no circumstances should you buy an RX-8 with a slushbox; if you like automatics, this is not the car for you. Besides, the automatic RX-8 has a lower, 7500-RPM redline and thus reduced power (but the same torque).
  • Size. I like the overall size of the car. The RX-8's tidy dimensions---4470 x 1770 x 1340 mm, with a 2700-mm wheelbase---contribute to its feeling of agility. In particular, the low height gives the vehicle a low center of mass and makes me feel very comfortable and planted. By contrast, the 2009 Subaru Imprezza WRX STI that I drove immediately afterward felt tall and "tippy," like an SUV. Yes, the STI is far from an SUV---but if feels a bit like one by comparison.
  • Weight. I also appreciated the weight of the '8. Manual '8s are specced at 3064 pounds. That's about 200 pounds more than the heaviest car I've ever owned, but that heaviest car, a 1977 280Z was a 2-door 2-seater, and it lacked modern safety equipment. The RX-8 is quite light compare to modern 4-seat coupes, and I can't think of another RWD, 4-door sporty car that is anywhere near as light.
  • Weight distribution. The weight distribution of the vehicle---52% front, 48% rear---is near ideal.
  • Chassis stiffness. The car certainly felt much stiffer and more solid than my Miata. Most of that stiffness surely is due to the presence of a roof on the car, but still, that solidity is appreciated.
  • Handling. The low weight, low yaw moment of inertia, stiff chassis, and Bilstien shocks yield excellent handling characteristics. I didn't push the car too hard, being on public roads with the saleschick in the passenger seat, and especially since it wasn't my car, but the vehicle felt very agile. The '8 seems ready to go wherever you point it. OK, so it isn't as tossible as my little Miata, but that car is the lightest sports car you can buy, short of a Lotus. You can't really expect the same go-kart feel from a 4-door car.
  • Styling. Although the basic design of the car is now 5 years old, the styling still looks contemporary, even futuristic. The '8 received a facelift for the 2009 model year. The changes are confined, I believe, to front and rear bumper covers and the front fenders which now have awkward-looking triangular vents with inset triangular turn signals. The vents on the 2004-2008 models were larger, vertical, rectangular shapes located just behind the wheel wells, and they were much better looking, in my opinion. One plus to the facelift is that the gratuitous rotor-shaped styling element at the bottom center of both the front and rear bumper covers is now absent. Overall, the RX-8's appearance, before or after the facelift, is more cutting-edge and more attractive than that of most cars on the road.
  • Seating. The RX-8's front Recaros are far from full-bucket race seats, but they do provide better support than the base seats, which, in my experience, where pretty decent. They might be somewhat narrow for larger-waisted drivers---they were for the saleswoman---but they felt fine for my 29-inch middle. The rear seats offer adequate room for someone of my 65-inch height, as long as the driver is under around 6 feet tall. With the driver's seat set for me, legroom in the back is more than sufficient for someone up to, say 68 inches tall, at which point, the roof imposes a hard limit. Since I'm planning to put smaller humans in the back, there's more than enough space for my application. One downside to the seating results, perhaps surprisingly, from the emissions issues of the engine. You see, the catalytic converter is positioned to the passenger side of the transmission and forms a lump in the passenger footwell that could be annoying. I read somewhere that the cat must be positioned close to engine to be warm enough to do it's job, so it can't be moved aft to a more convenient spot. I believe that it can't practicaly be moved forward without impinging on the passenger compartment even more, because the transmission flares toward the front of the car.
  • Instrumentation. The gauges in the '8 are arranged in 3 separate little binnacles behind the wheel. They are easy-to-read and attractive. I especially like the center hood, which contains an analog tachometer with an inset digital speedometer. That arrangement may sound like a gimmick, but I find that it makes it easy to read out the engine speed and ground speed quickly. The tach has one feature that I'd like to see in every car. The redline is not permanently painted on the gauge but is formed by an arc of LEDs shining through it. When the car is started, the redline is low, perhaps 6000 or 7000 RPM. As the engine warms up, the redline advances, stepwise, until it reaches 9000 RPM. I can only assume the rev limiter, which cuts fuel to avoid over-reving, tracks the redline.
  • Trunk. OK the trunk isn't huge, but it's decent-sized for a sports car.

What I Disliked
  • Fuel efficiency. Fuel consumption is the Achilles heal of the Rx-8. The manual '8 is rated by the EPA at 16/22 miles per gallon city/highway, and I'm sure that, if I drove it for a full tank the way I did during my test-drive, I'd come in below that rating. This fuel efficiency is in supercar territory, without supercar power or torque, and that's inexcusable.
  • Engine. Yes, the engine is both an asset and a detriment. The RX-8's mill sadly suffers from most of the shortcomings I mentioned in my rotary primer, most obviously comparatively low torque. 159 ft-lbs is a lot of torque for a naturally aspirated 1.3-l engine, but it's not much for a 3000-lb car. As I mentioned, the weak torque output can be worked around; it can even be fun to work around the issue. However, that lack of torque could become wearisome in stop-and-go traffic, or if you just don't feel like working so hard to get everything out of the motor.
  • All the Wankelry. The exterior and interior is decorated with what one automotive review called "Wankelry:" gratuitously rotor-shaped design elements. I'm a believer in form following function. Wankel rotors are shape the way they are because they need to be. That doesn't mean the wheel spokes, shift knob, seat-recline knob, and other elements of the car need to be shaped that way, too. The knob is the worst offender; it's downright uncomfortable. Fortunately, you can easily and cheaply install an aftermarket knob in whatever shape you find most comfortable. To be honest, I actually found the rotor-shaped seat-recliner to give better leverage than a round one would, but 3 or 4 large splines would accomplish that end without being so silly.

The Bottom Line

The RX-8 is great fun to drive. It's a true driver's car that rewards attention to engine speed, awareness of weight transfer, and husbanding of momentum. The '8 is light and sure-footed, and it begs to be wound to its 9000-RPM redline and tossed down a canyon road or a hustled around a race track. And the R3 is clearly the trim to have.*** Plus, it offers 4 seats, 4 doors, and decent-sized trunk. All that for an MSRP of 27 to 32 grand. The car's torque production isn't great, but the only real drawback to the RX-8, in my opinion, is the terrible fuel consumption.

Hope exists, however, for increased torque and reduced fuel thirst, as well as improved power and lower emissions. That hope's name is 16X. The 16X engine is currently being prototyped by Mazda, and, as I detailed in the primer, it features several improvements designed to addressed the usual shortcomings of REs:
  • The new engine has increased displacement---1.6 l---and reworked geometry to produce more torque and higher thermal---and thus fuel---efficiency.
  • The 16X also features direct injection, which should improve power, torque, efficiency and emissions.
  • New aluminum housings are used to reduce engine weight, which is always good.
Conveniently, the 16X is sized to be dropped into the current RX-8 with few changes. Many "rotar heads" hoped that this next-gen RE would have reached dealers in the engine bay of the 2009 '8, but they were disappointed. Perhaps it will appear in 2010, or perhaps it won't show its face until the next RX car is released, whenever that turns out to be.

But none of that 16X stuff applies to the car as it exists now. How do I rate it? Overall, including cost, driving experience, practicality, and fuel efficiency, I give the 2009 Mazda RX-9 R3 7.5 out 10. If it had a somewhat more modest thirst for fuel, I'd have given it at least 8.5. I've put this vehicle at the top of my family-car shopping list, and I'm hopping that the next-gen RX features the same 4-door-coupe layout and a 16X engine. And 200 pounds less weight would be nice, too.

* See my review of the 2009 Ford Mustang V6 here and my review of the 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata here.

** Mazda calls these doors "freestyle" doors.

*** Unless you like modifying your car. In that case, you might want to buy an RX-8 Sport, put on an adjustable aftermarket suspension, some chassis bracing, and perhaps some heavily bolstered seats. You could probably do that for less than the cost of the R3, and you'd have a lighter car with a stiffer chassis and tunable handling.


I just made this one up for my post on edamame:
saliphile, noun.  A person who enjoys salt and salty foods.


I'm not a saliphile, like Nick.  In fact, I rarely add salt to my food, if it's not called for in the recipe.  One exception is edemame;  I like my soybeans very salty.

Back in Red

I've returned the blog to (a version of) its classic black/white/red color sheme.  I liked the green, but it just didn't say "Team Grondul" to me.  Your opinion?

Google Calendar on the iPhone

Awesome.  This is exactly what I need.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Recipe: Herbal-Tea-Flavored Hot Cereal

Here's another bachelor-style recipe that I invented, though I think even non-bachelors may appreciate it.

  • 1 serving (usually about 1/2 cup) dry hot cereal. I typically use oat bran, but you can use oatmeal, or anything else you like.
  • Milk or soy milk, quantity determined by cereal directions (usually about 1 cup). I like to use unsweetened soy milk, but you can do what you like.
  • 1 ripe banana.
  • 1 bag of herbal tea.*  I usually use something fruit-flavored: blueberry, pomegranate, apple-cinnamon or some such.
  • (Optional) 1 teaspoon of flax oil.

  • Mix the cereal and milk, then cook according to the cereal's directions. I usually find the 90 seconds in our microwave suffices.
  • Cut or tear open the bag of herbal tea, then mix its contents into the cereal.
  • Slice the banana into the cereal.
  • (Optional) mix the flax oil into the cereal.

This recipe may sound strange, but I find that the herbal teas usually have a melange of spices that work together to complement the cereal. I encourage you to try it.

I'm certain that the flax oil seems odd to most of you in the readership. I like to use it to provide a solvent for the oil-soluble spices in the tea and to add some essential fatty acids to the dish. It also produces a bit of an odd flavor, which some may not enjoy.

* I feel compelled to point out that "herbal tea" is a misleading name, since this bevearges does not contain leaves of Camellia sinensis.  Instead, it should be called a tisane.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Primer: The Wankel or Rotary Engine, with Emphasis on Mazda's Contribution

No one asked for this post, but I wanted to assemble a short introduction to the rotary or Wankel engine. It will be useful to me for a later post.


Rotary engines (REs) are internal-combustion engines that don't have reciprocating pistons; instead, they have "fat triangles," or rotors, which spin inside peanut-shaped epitrochoidal housings. Numerous fascinating animations of the rotary combustion process are available online. Here's one, for example; here's another.  To understand the process, don't watch the rotor; watch one of the chambers---called working chambers---created by the gap between the rotor and the housing.  The rotor is mounted on an eccentric shaft, and it both revolves around its center and orbits the shaft's center.  As the rotor spins, the working chamber expands and contracts, mimiking the traditional strokes of a 2-stroke piston engine:  intake, compressesion, combustion, and exhaust.

A rotary has several advantages over reciprocating engines:
  • Most importantly, well-designed REs put out more torque and much more power than similarly size 4-stroke piston engines with similar induction.* For example, the above-mentioned RX-8's powerplant, which is naturally aspirated, produces 159 lb-ft of torque and 232 BHP of power, all from 1.3 liters of displacement. That's 178 BHP/l. By comparison, 100 BHP/l is considered very high specific power output for naturally aspirated reciprocating engines. The reason for this superior output becomes obvious when you count the number of combustion cycles per crank-shaft (or eccentric shaft) revolution per cylinder (or rotor). In a 4-stroke piston engine, for each piston, there is a single combustion cycle for every 2 revolutions of the crank shaft. In a Wankel, each of the 3 faces of the rotor see 1 combustion for each revolution of the rotor. However, the eccentric shaft rotates at 1/3 the rate of the rotor, so there is 1 combustion for each rotation of the eccentric shaft, for each rotor. Thus, an N-rotor RE fires twice as often as an N-piston reciprocating engine, for a given engine speed.
  • Rotaries have very few moving parts, making them small, light, and durable. There are no valves or connecting rods; each engine is comprised of just an eccentric shaft---analogous to the crankshaft in a piston engine---some number of rotors---usually 2, but sometimes 3 or 4---and 3 apex seals per rotor.
  • Rotary engines run extremely smoothly. The main cause of this smoothness is the rotary, rather than reciprocating movemen of the engine. Additionally, the overlap of the combustion cycles on adjacent faces of the rotor smooths power delivery, when comparing an N-rotor Wankel to an N-piston reciprocating engine. Lastly, the twice-as-high rate of combustion cycles, as mentioned above, smooths power delivery, comparing and N-rotor to an N-piston. These last two advantages are mitigated when comparing the common 2-rotor Wankels to multi-piston reciprocating engines.
  • Also, since the rotary motion doesn't stress the parts the way reciprocation does, rotaries can reach very high engine speeds. For example, the Renesis engine in the RX-8 redlines at 9000 RPM.

Like everything else in engineering, the rotary engine also has disadvantages. I'm sure you guessed that based on the fact that the vast majority of vehicles on the road are piston-powered.
  • Rotaries tend consume fuel at a rate disproportionate to the amount of power they put out. This problem has several causes. First, the long, thin working chamber---analogous to the combustion chamber of a piston engine---has a hig ratio of surface area to volumn, yielding poor thermal efficiency; energy released during combution escapes the working chamber as heat, rather than being used to push the rotor through its orbiting and revolvling path. Secondly, REs designed to date have low compression ratios, and some hydrocarbons escape the combustion cycle unburned. Lastly, sealing the working chamber at its sides and its apex is more difficult than sealing a reciprocating engine with piston rings, so some fuel escapes unburned
  • Rotaries have tended historically to emit pollutants at a rate disproportionate to their power output. This problem stems from the the low compressin ratios and poor sealing, both of which result in the release of unburned hydrocarbons. Modern rotary REs, by which I mean the Renesis, engine have managed to meet contemporary emissions standards, however; THe RX-8 is classed as a Low-Emissions Vehicle (LEV) by California.
  • Although rotaries have high specific torque outputs, the peak torque is typically fairly small compared to the peak power. This phenomenon is related to the fact that power is given by torque times engine speed (RPM) ---with an appropriate multiplier to give you the units you want. Most drivers "buy power but drive torque": they compare cars based on the peek power (a scalar) but experience a vehicle's performance based mostly on the torque curve (a vector), especially at low engine speeds. As a result, a rotary with a "reasonable" peak-power number will feel "weak" to many drivers. This particular shortcoming can be partially overcome by keeping the engine at higher revs, in the "meaty" part of the power band.
  • Since rotaries burn some oil; indeed, a small amount of oil is injected into the working chamber. Thus, the owner must check and fill the oil regularly. The RE in the RX-8 reportedly burns much less than a quart in the 3000 miles between oil changes, so the refilling burden isn't onerous. However, this oil burning also means that REs must be lubricated with conventional oil; synthetic oils have flash points that are too high; they do not burn and instead leave behind residue. Thus, rotaries cannot take advantage of the beneficial properties of synthetic oil. I'm not sure if it's possible, but I'd like to see a design that uses synthetic oil to lubricate the engine but also has a small reservoir of conventional oil that feeds the oil-metering pump. Perhaps some lubricating oil reaches the working chamber by a route other than the OMP, making my solution impossible to implement.


The rotary engine was invented by Felix Wankel, a German,** in 1957, and it is often called the Wankel engine. I prefer to call this engine design a rotary, not out of disrespect for its inventor, but because I feel that "rotary" is more descriptive. Numerous manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, experimented with rotaries in the 1950s and 1960s, but few rotary-engined automobiles reached the market until Mazda embraced the rotary.

Mazda launched the Cosmo in 1967 and has been the leading proponent of the rotary ever since. When the oil crises hit in the 1970s, they had nearly eliminated piston-powered vehicles from their model line-up. They even offered a rotary-powered pickup. Because of the poor fuel consumption of the rotaries, Mazda suffered rather badly during the that time. But, thanks in part to investment by Ford, Mazda survived.***

Mazda remained committed to developing the rotary, but they recognized that the engine's particular advantages and disadvantages were best suited to use in a lightweight sports car, a small niche in the automotive industry. So, for about 30 years, at least in the US, there has only been 1 internal-combustion-powered automobile that you could buy that didn't have pistons. For many years, that car was the RX-7; 3 generations of the '7 were produced. Currently, the lone rotary-powered car available is the RX-8.

The rotary engine has also made significant contributions in motorsports, as you might suspect given the high specific power produced by this engine type. In competition, rotary-engined cars are typically classed based on an effective displacement given by the true displacement multiplied by a factor between 1.5 and 2. Perhaps the most famous rotary-engined race car was the Mazda 787B, which, propelled by a naturally aspirated 4-rotor Wankel, scored the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The following year, the governing body outlawed Wankel engines. To this day, this victory represents the only overall win at Le Mans by a Japanese manufacturer, or indeed any manufacturer outside of Western Europe or the United States.

The Present

The current single production rotary-powered vehicle Mazda's RX-8 With the '8, Mazda attempted to broaden the appeal of the car by adding 2 rear seats and unusual suicide doors by which to access them. The '8 is powered by the 13B-MSP Renesis engine. The Renesis---a portmanteau of "RE" and "genesis" displaces 1.3 l, hence the "13" in the name. The Renesis differs from the 13B that powered the RX-7 for many years partly by its slightly tweaked geometry but more significantly by the port location. The exhaust ports are no longer located peripherally; instead they are positioned on the sides of the rotor housings. ("MSP" stands for "Multi Side Port.") These changes yield improved emissions and fuel economy over the 13B. Unfortunately, I don't see how you can make a 3- or 4-rotor RE with side ports unless you leave space between the rotors.

The Future

The next production rotary engine from Mazda, the 16X, is currently being developed, and it powers Mazda's exotic Taiki concept car. The 16X offers several improvements designed to addressed the usual shortcomings of REs: low torque, poor fuel economy, and potentially poor emissions.
  • The displacement of the engine is 1.6, as the name indicates. The rotors have increased diameter with decreased width. The increased stroke analogous to increasing the stroke of a reciprocating engine---Mazda calls the 16X a long-stroke RE---and it increases the torque at all engine speeds. The new aspect ratio improves the thermal efficiency of the engine, keeping the energy produced by combustion inside the working chamber and not letting it leak out as heating of the rotor housing. This change should improve the fuel efficiency of the engine.
  • The 16X has direct injection. DI has been common in Diesel engines for year, and it is now becoming popular in petrol engines. In DI, the fuel in injected directly into the cylinder or working chamber rather than upstream, in the intake path. This injection method, when used with appropriately sophisticated injectors and engine-management systems yields very pieces control of the fuel delivery. The result is improved power and torque, efficiency, and emissions. The downside to DI is extra cost and complexity.
  • The 16X also uses aluminum side housings to reduce weight. That change should slightly improve the performance, efficiency, and even emissions any vehicle carrying this engine.

Conveniently, despite the increased displacement, the 16X is the same size, externally, as the Renesis. This, it can be dropped into the current RX-8 with few changes. Many "rotar heads" expected or hoped that the 16X would have reached dealers in the engine bay of the 2009 RX-8, but they were disappointed. Perhaps it will appear in 2010, or perhaps it won't show its face until the next RX car is released, whenever that turns out to be.

What about further in future? Mazda's rotaries have shown the ability to run on several different fuels, and Mazda is using this ability to experiment with cleaner, greener rotary engines:
  • A DI version of the Renesis called the Hydrogen-RE can run on hydrogen or normal gasoline with the flick of a switch. Mazda leases Mazda5s and RX-8s powered by this engine to commercial customers in Japan and Norway.
  • The dead-sexy and amazing-sounding Furai concept, is powered by a version of the 3-rotor 20B**** engine that can be tuned to run on 100% ethanol or ethanol-gasoline blends.

Further Reading

You can learn more about rotary engines and rotary-powered cars form Rotary Speed Magazine (formerly Mazdasport Magazine), Rotary News, and No Pistons forum.

* By similar induction, I mean that both engines are naturally aspirated or both engines are super- or turbocharged to the same level of boost.

** It may seem as if most engine designs were invented by Germans; Certainly Otto, Diesel, and Wankel get most of the press. However, the Stirling and Miller engines were invented by Anglophones.

*** (Later, by the way, the huge financial and critical success of the first-generation, or NA, Miata---known as the MX-5 Miata in North America, the MX-5 in Europe, and the Roadster in Japan---revitalized the carmaker and is significantly responsible for the company's strong financial position and sporty image today.)

**** The 20B is essentially 3/2 of the 13B, and it thus has peripheral ports.


I had a busy and productive day today, running some errands and taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather.
  • Got a damaged wheel from my fixie repaired.  By the way, I've recently been running 48/16 gearing.  I think it's just a bit to high, and I may go back to 48/17.
  • Shopped for Alison's Valentine's Day present.  After 6.5 years of being together, I'm all out of original ideas.  So, Alison, lower your expectations.
  • Test-drove a 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 (black) and a 2009 Subaru Impreza WRX STI (white).  The RX-8 is torqueless but fairly powerful.* It feels quite agile and is a very rewarding drive.  I also really like the 4-door-coupe layout with the "freestyle" suicide doors.  The STI is much more powerful and far more torquey.  It also offers AWD and computer-controlled everything.  Still, it feels overly large** and far less nimble to me, and it just isn't as engaging to drive.  The RX-8, despite its supercar fuel efficiency, is at the top of my list for when I need a "family" car.  If it, or the next generation of it, is still being made by then.
  • Got in some good top-down time in the Miata.  How could I not when the weather was so nice?
  • Rode about 24 miles on my Seven. See previous weather-related rhetorical question.
  • Test-rode a Trek Madone 5.2 Pro (52-cm size).  The bike is very stiff in the bottom-bracket and head-tube areas, but still offers a reasonably compliant ride.  It's very light with weight-saving design innovations*** in the head tube/steerer tube/ headset, bottom bracket, and seat mast that also reduce part count.  If I were in the market for a new geared road bike, it would be at the top of my list, though I'd have to look more closely at the geometry of the 50-cm size.
  • Took Newton for a long walk.

By contrast, Alison had much more...consistent day:
  • Listened to people talk about prostate cancer for 8 hours.****
* Only 159 lb-ft but 232 BHP, thankss to a 9000=RPM redline.  Note that my little turbo'ed Miata has more torque than that.
** The 4 cars I have owned average out to 2382  lbs, so I may have a skewed perspective.
*** These innovations are not, however, unique to Trek.
**** Alison also went on the dog walk, but it's more amusing to present our days this way.

Heroes Comma Canine

For the record, Newton's hero is the RCMP's own Diefenbaker.

Welcome to the Bradbury

Fans of science fiction in the readership---that would be all of you---might be interested in this article about one Los Angeles building which has appeared in a surprising number of science-fiction movies and TV series, including Blade Runner, Quantum Leap, Pushing Daisies, Star Trek, and Mission:  Impossible.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Black Wolf

Here's an interesting article on the origin of gene for black coats in wolves.  It turns out the gene comes from hybridization with domesticated dogs millennia ago, and it may confer survival advantages to some wolves.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Right-Wheel Drive versus Wrong-Wheel Drive

I just came accross this almost-6-year-old article where a non-car-enthusiast explains why he enjoys rear-wheel-drive vehicles more than front-wheel drive ones.  (There's also a reference to my favorite car magazine, Grassroots Motorsports.)  Enjoy.

Monday, February 02, 2009


I recently added the Shazam music-recognition application to my iPhone.  When I demonstrated it for Alison, after she commented how she liked the music underlining an episode of Bones, she gazed on it with wonder and glee.