Archive for February 2007

Chicago Auto Show 2007

12 February 2007
Categories: Transportation

McCormick Place is a massive complex, so gigantically out of scale with the human element that it looks like a set piece from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Some portion of it is continually under construction, and the long walk from the parking lots to the exhibition halls always involves skirting dusty areas cordoned off with yellow warning tape, and running narrow gauntlets bottlenecked by temporary plywood partition walls.

Once inside—and I highly recommend buying tickets online in advance to avoid another horrific bottleneck—the Chicago Auto Show is a crazy scene of giant corporate logos, flashing lights, and overpowering colours. It’s a blast, and a good entertainment value for $10. (Get there early, or go on a weekday. It gets crowded.)

In general, I don’t care all that much about the concept cars. They are usually complete pipe dreams and will never see production. For that reason, I prefer to focus at the auto show on the vehicles that I might actually have an opportunity to purchase some day.

Jeep had a dramatic-looking obstacle course that its vehicles were crawling around… steep inclines, water crossings, rock fields, and the like. It was eye-catching, and drew a crowd, but at second glance all the Jeeps were driven by trained employees, and the course was tightly controlled with plastic guardrails… which explains why the woman pushing the floor squeegee around at the bottom of the big hill wasn’t fearing for her life. And of course all the obstacles were designed expressly with the limitations of the Jeeps in mind, so there was never any chance of exceeding approach or departure angles, or drawing water, or getting hung up on a high center. All in all, it might as well have been one of those amusement park rides for four-year-olds where all the cars are tethered to a pull chain.

Toyota brought along a custom FJ Cruiser, this one with a cloth rolltop and a shortened cab for a small open bed at the rear, plus some suspension upgrades. FJ Cruiser in Heritage OrangeIt showed off the FJ’s potential for being souped up for off-road activities, but that stubby bed didn’t look useful for much of anything. (At least the shorter cab reduces the size of the C-pillar, which in the factory model is a big fat blind spot in both rear quarters.) About the only interesting part was the nice front-end bull bar with integral winch, and that was an aftermarket package by ARB that can be added to any stock FJ. The custom job was done up in “Heritage Orange” (more on this later), but this is not an available factory colour. Unfortunately, Toyota is otherwise standing pat on its existing paint, and we’re stuck with the same 5 colours as when the FJ was introduced last year. I guess I’ll have to wait at least one more year before they decide to resurrect the classic Rustic Green of my 1978 FJ40, thereby making it imperative that I will buy a new FJ.

Honda has figured out that its Element, now in its fifth model year, is more popular among the thirty- and forty-something age groups, rather than the hip-hop and surf kids it was originally targeting. For this reason it has toned down its two-tone grey plastic trimwork to a much more conservative and traditional level. The interior remains highly utilitarian with a hose-out plastic floor and rear jump seats that hinge to the sides. A new colour, Root Beer Metallic, looks sharp. I’m liking this vehicle more and more.

To be honest, the most interesting exhibit was… the U.S. Army. M2 Bradley They brought an M2 Bradley equipped with the M242 Bushmaster chain gun, and were letting folks crawl around inside. (The ten-year-olds sitting in the rear seats made the thing look spacious.) Some of the armored division soldiers were wearing chrome spurs in tribute to the cavalry, which of course no longer uses horses except for ceremonial parades. That was cool. You could get your name stamped on a dog tag, play on a team for a first-person shooter game (lot of friendly fire going on there), and stand next to a Cobra helicopter flown by their demonstration team. Pretty cool.

Overall, there just wasn’t much new to see this year. The one recurring theme: orange.

Not exactly orange-orange, though. More of a light orange. A hue that Dodge, nearly four decades ago, called “Go Mango.” In lieu of last year’s concept Challenger, which was the usual teaser pipe dream, they brought an original 1970 Challenger R/T convertible with the 440 Six-Pack, one of only 99 ever built, gleaming in Go Mango. It sat on a flatbed, tantalizingly out of reach.

Nissan 350ZThen there was that Toyota FJ custom job. The exact same colour, which they called “Heritage Orange.” Then came the variants, all about the same shade, but many in a metallic version. There was a Hummer H2. A Nissan 350Z. No matter where you turned, another car was cropping up in this light orange colour.

Did all the automakers get together and agree on this one? Or did the paint manufacturer screw up and make too much, causing a surplus of orange paint they’d have to sell on the cheap?


6 February 2007
Categories: Space exploration

Last month in my server logs I noticed that someone came to my site by searching Google for 10 most important events in space exploration and, lo and behold, my Book recommendations: Space Exploration page is ranked on Page One of Google’s results. (By the way, Google loves me… but that’s a different story.)

Of course, a list of “most important” events is highly subjective, and that searcher was unlikely to find a direct answer to their query on my page. (Sadly, they also didn’t bother to click on any of the book links, which would have given them the opportunity to learn much more about space exploration. No matter.) Nevertheless, it got me thinking: what are, in my opinion, the ten most important events in space exploration?

The following list is not exactly in declining order of significance, but comes close.

#1. Sputnik, 1957. It seems trivial now, a basketball-sized metal sphere beep-beep-beeping its way around an elliptical orbit. But given the rudimentary state of rocket technology (this was only a dozen or so years after the Soviets got their hands on a few German rockets and rocket scientists), it was a major feat of engineering. It was also Earth-shaking: around the world, untold thousands of students turned to a career in engineering, math, or science because of Sputnik. (My father, a high school senior at the time, was surely one of them.)

#2. Yuri Gagarin, 1961. Strapping yourself into a minuscule capsule perched atop a rough, converted ballistic missile, riding it solo into orbit—then bailing out of the damn thing after reentry to parachute back to the ground—that takes serious balls. Especially when no one’s done it before.

Apollo 11. Image credit: NASA.#3. Man walks on the moon, 1969. No explanation necessary: the Apollo program was simply the pinnacle of human ingenuity and engineering. Okay, maybe it’s disingenuous to place this one all the way down at third. Maybe it even plays into the conspiracy notions that we never really went to the moon. Anyone who perpetuates that bullshit idea owes it to themselves—nay, to the world at large—to read some of the books about the development of the technology that got us there, such as Stages to Saturn. Frankly, once we figured out how to build the tools to get to the moon, actually getting there was inevitable. (The real reason people keep telling lies about secret soundstages and mass hypnosis is because nowadays, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when there was enough of a consensus to back up the national will to accomplish anything.)

#4. Mir, 1986–2001. The culmination of Soviet/Russian long-duration spaceflight research, following a long line of successful Salyut projects (which in turn make the one-off Skylab look like a folly). The Russians still kick the USA’s butt when it comes to long-duration physiology and remote-control guidance and docking.

STS-61 crew installs WFPC-2. Image credit: NASA.#5. STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission, 1993. In a marathon session of five EVAs, a team of four astronauts (led by one of my personal heroes, Story Musgrave) added the corrective optics that cleared up one of NASA’s more embarassing mistakes (a mirror ground just a shade too flat) and instantly changed Hubble’s output from nice-but-fuzzy to jaw-droppingly beautiful. This mission demonstrated with dramatic effect the viability of on-orbit repair and maintenance, and because it had people actually working in space, more than most other Shuttle missions it really had a feeling of “the future is now.”

#6. Challenger, January 28, 1986. The loss of STS-51L was one of the most memorable and momentous events of the 1980s—the day we found out that spaceflight is not routine, it’s still difficult, dangerous work. Two years and one soft-pedalling commission report later, NASA was flying again. Unfortunately, the crew of STS-107 aboard Columbia found out the hard way in 2003 that NASA’s tendency for “normalization of deviance” continues unabated.

#7. Apollo 1, January 27, 1967. We lost three great men—Grissom, White, and Chaffee—but the silver lining is that it happened on the ground, where NASA could analyze the failure in detail. The lessons learned from the fire helped to make the Apollo Block 2 spacecraft into the fine piece of hardware that ultimately did get men to the moon.

#8. Voyager, 1977–?. Voyager 1 zoomed past Jupiter and Saturn and returned the first close-up pictures of both. It discovered active vulcanism on Io and unexpected complexity in Saturn’s rings. Voyager 2 built on Voyager 1’s discoveries and then went on to pass Uranus and Neptune as well.  More than thirty years later, both spacecraft continue to return valuable data about the far reaches of the solar system.

Sojourner "sniffs" a rock. Image credit: NASA.#9. Mars Pathfinder, 1997. An innovative approach pays off: wrap the hardware in air bags, throw it at a planet, and let it bounce. It helped too that the Sojourner rover was hardy, nimble, and the cutest thing on six wheels. This was the first mission to show the power of the Internet to fuel enthusiasm for space exploration—JPL’s web servers handled a major load in the days following the landing, peaking at 48 million hits per day.

#10. Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, 1975. An epilogue to the Space Race, this was little more than Americans and Soviets shaking hands in orbit and saying, in essence, “good game.” It was a pointless spectacle, but a fine effort in détente. Notable too for its inclusion of Aleksei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker, as well as being the only flight of original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

Super Bowl XLI ads

4 February 2007

A snap assessment of this year’s crop of new ads…

The ads heavily touted in advance, those with Jessica and Federline, well, BFD.

The Toyota Tundra ads were pretty cool, if only because (at least according to the small print on the screen) they were actual demonstrations and not forgeries (unlike their previous campaign, which showed the truck surviving a meteor impact, the Loch Ness monster, etc.). Ironically, the settings were so surreal—the runway to the edge of the cliff, the giant teeter-totter—that they looked fake anyway.

E-Trade’s “things you can do with one finger” ad was pretty funny—and the music track was the only obvious use of surround sound in the entire broadcast (including the game and halftime show). For what that’s worth.

Anheuser-Busch laid an egg this year. At least 3 Bud Light ads featured people getting their beer through underhanded means, a trend I find mean-spirited. (Interesting contrast from the Miller Lite “Man Law” ads, which preach a modicum of civility. I note that Miller was completely cock-blocked from Super Bowl advertising by A-B.) The stray dog making it onto the Budweiser wagon was an obvious attempt to recapture the glory of the “Clydesdale donkey” ad of a few years ago, but it missed a key point. The donkey worked hard to pursue his dream. The dog merely got lucky, using his splattered-mud spots to sneak onto the wagon as a phony dalmatian. (On top of that, the use of the world’s most clichéd Dean Martin song was painfully trite, and the computer-generated wink at the end only made it worse.)

In fact, overall there were too many ads with computer-enhanced talking animals, which still look creepy no matter how much CPU rendering time you throw at them. And the rest of the effects-heavy ads were flashy but confused and without substance, such as those for Coca-Cola. The one exception in this department was the Garmin ad with the “evil maposaurus” and the guy who uses his GPS unit to transform into a giant silver-suited superhero to save the day. That one was pretty funny, and kitchily surreal.

The best ad of all was a Doritos ad that’s perhaps the first Super Bowl appearance of the latest hot trend in advertising: it was shot on the cheap by a fan, not a professional advertising firm. The guy driving, checking out the girl, and crashing his car—this ad had great comedic timing. A close second was the Doritos ad in the checkout line… “giddy-up.”

Expect to see a lot more advertisers turn to fan-generated content in the future. It costs them next to nothing and provides them with a broad base of untapped creativity.

Finally, I must say: oh, my… Prince may have performed the greatest Super Bowl halftime show ever.

Time On Target

4 February 2007

Something’s been bugging me lately: flyovers of military aircraft during sporting events, generally in conjunction with the national anthem.

I’m not bothered by the fact that they’re happening. Jingoistic aspects aside, as an aviation buff I think it’s cool to see these high-tech birds flying in close formation.

The trouble is, more often than not, their Time On Target is for shit.

The way it should work, when a flyover is part of the national anthem presentation, is this. The last line is sung, “And the home of the brave,” the crowd begins to cheer, and a beat or two later—ROAR!!!

Sometimes it’s not the aircrews’ fault. I can’t recall who it was (some country combo) or what game this past autumn (one of the baseball league championships), but those boys were not only painfully off-key while struggling in vain to sing harmony a cappella, but they dragged the song out for a solid 30 seconds longer than it warranted. No wonder the jets came over before the last verse had even begun.

Sometimes they nail it. The 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade is a good example, with a B-2 Spirit bomber and three F-22 Raptors coming in with perfect timing (and cool contrail effects off the Raptors’ twin tails). I can only imagine the shock to the spectators, with that B-2 cruising down Colorado Boulevard.

But too often, they just blast through with no regard for the fact that people should be singing the national anthem, not drowned out by the roar of jets. I’m going to believe that the call to turn in is being made by oblivious television or festivity directors, who as usual aren’t quite on the ball. I’d hate to believe that our military could be that inaccurate on their own.

I wrote the preceding a month ago, never getting around to actually posting it. Leave it to the USAF Thunderbirds to blow my unaired complaint completely out of the water at Super Bowl XLI. Sure, Billy Joel helped a bit, staying true to his word that he would not “stretch it [the national anthem] beyond its recognition.” But it was absolutely precision timing on the part of the ’Birds, who blasted through at extremely low altitude exactly as Joel’s final chord faded away. Even knowing it was coming—the camera was pointed at the upper tier and the Jumbotron, in the shot, showed a cockpit view of a fighter pilot with the Thunderbirds patch on his breast, clearly on approach—I was completely astonished by the spectacle.

Speaking of that camera shot, that CBS cameraman deserves accolades for it. Standing on the sidelines with a shoulder-carried cam, he or she caught the delta formation completely in frame for the entire pass, which lasted no more than a second at most. The F-16s blasted out of complete darkness and rain, vanished in an instant, and that cameraman caught every moment of it. Nice job.

“Show them your digital sunshine, Err…”

2 February 2007
Categories: Rants

On Wednesday, 31 January, the city of Boston suffered major transportation disruptions because its public safety officials panicked and mistook cheaply built electronic billboards advertising Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force for improvised explosive devices.

I’m not a fan of so-called “guerrilla marketing.” A lot of guff has been flying around the Wicker Park neighbourhood of Chicago lately, regarding companies that use graffiti artists—experts, mind you—to create tags that are in fact advertising. Opponents attacked these, partly for supposed misogynistic content, and painted over them. While I don’t condone the ads, I can’t say I agree with that tactic, since the ad firm had the permission of the property owner.

That’s a big difference with the Adult Swim campaign—they installed their signs on public structures, without permits. So as far as that goes, if Boston has an ordinance regarding advertising placement without permits, then Turner should be fined for the amount the ordinance specifies, once for each sign.

But the fact that the City of Boston spent some half a million dollars or more to “eradicate” the “devices,” shutting down an expressway and a subway and God knows what else, allowing a city-wide panic to occur? Well, that’s just the city’s own goddamned fault. All they needed was one cop under the age of 35 who watches a little late-night TV to speak up and say, “uh, guys, that’s Ignignokt and Err. It’s a cartoon, not a bomb.”

Kudos, too, to the pair of young marketers responsible for placing the signs in Boston. Yesterday they pled not guilty to charges of perpetrating a hoax and disorderly conduct. Then they utterly refused to take their situation seriously, throwing the hot potato of severe overreaction back at the authorities and the media. described it succinctly:

At a news conference after the hearing, Stevens and Berdovsky stepped to the microphones and said they were taking questions only about 1970s hairstyles.

When a reporter accused them of not taking the situation seriously, Stevens responded, “We’re taking it very seriously.” Asked another question about the case, Stevens reiterated they were answering questions only about hair and accused the reporter of not taking him and Berdovsky seriously.

Reporters did not relent and as they continued, Berdovsky disregarded their queries, saying, “That’s not a hair question. I’m sorry.”

Their attorney said the two were putting on a “performance,” and noted that he had told them not to discuss the case.

What’s important to note here is that the signs had been in place in Boston for at least two weeks, yet no one noticed them until finally someone riding the MBTA said something to an authority. MBTA Lt. Sal Venturelli was quoted as saying, “This is a perfect example of our passengers taking part in Homeland Security.” Indeed. Two full weeks of people minding their own business, ignoring anything out of the ordinary, keeping their heads down like the fucking sheep and lemmings they’ve been trained to be.

The mayor of Boston said something—and I wish I could find it again, I only heard it once when Mary Dixon played it on WXRT, so I’m paraphrasing here—about how they had put a lot of effort into anti-terrorist planning “based on fear.”

Huh. Wouldn’t it make more sense to base your planning on logic and rational thought, rather than fear? Just an idea.

AP quoted him saying, “It’s about keeping a city on edge. It’s about public safety,” he said. Taken out of context, one can only wonder: do these two sentences refer to the same “it”?  Was the “it” in the first sentence referring to the so-called hoax, or about Homeland Security itself? I tend to think the latter—the power of DHS, its colour-coded threat levels, its bogus travel rules at the airports, is all about keeping people on edge, living in fear.

Instead of the authorities reacting rationally, the terrorists won. Again. I’m not talking about Turner Broadcasting, and I’m not talking about Islamic jihadists. I’m talking about the people who want to turn this country into a fascist state, the people who take comments like one blogger’s “Anyone older than 8 or 9 should be able to understand the dangers of staging such a stunt in the post-Sept. 11 world” as carte blanche to reduce our civil liberties to a mere vestige of what the Constitution guarantees.

Americans lived in fear long before 9/11. We were all taught that if we sit quietly and not make trouble, everything would be all right. If you’re on a hijacked plane, let them go where they wanted, and everyone will make it home alive. Long before 9/11 my wife said to me that if she was ever on a hijacked plane, she would rise up in anger and fight back. I thought she was crazy.

Today, I know she was right.

When Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll,” he and the people who joined him did the right thing. They tried to take their plane back. Now, the “official” story is that the terrorists knew they were coming through the cockpit door and nosed the plane into the ground rather than be forced to give it up. I have my doubts. I think there’s plenty of credence to the story that the plane was shot down by the U.S. military. If that in fact happened, after two towers and the Pentagon, it was the right decision for the military to make.

But what if there had been people like Todd Beamer on those other flights? The hijackers were wielding fucking boxcutters. They were seriously outnumbered. A few injuries would have happened—maybe even a death or two—but thousands of lives would have been saved.

Last week I flew from Chicago to San Francisco and back. The fucking TSA, in a knee-jerk reaction to a foiled plot from months ago, confiscated all my toiletries because a one-ounce bottle of mouthwash, still in its factory seal, is a threat to national security. That and a can of shaving cream that I successfully hauled to China and back just last summer. If only I’d had a clear zip-lock baggie to contain them, rather than an actual zippered black nylon toiletries kit, these things might have been rendered safe.

And yet—both times through security, NEVER ONCE did someone actually look me in the eye and compare my face to the photo on my driver’s license.