Archive for February 2011

Chicago Auto Show 2011

17 February 2011
Categories: Transportation

The last time I wrote about the Chicago Auto Show was… 2007. Wow. It’s been four years, and so very little has changed.

Sure, the handful of concept cars is different. And at least a couple of concepts of the past few years—the retro-look Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger—have made it into production. Nevertheless, what little change has occurred is not entirely for the better.

Back in 2007 I wrote, “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.” This was wishful thinking. Honda never knew what a gem they had in this vehicle—spacious, economical, fun to drive, versatile, and a great value. They insisted on marketing it to a demographic that couldn’t care less about practical transport; and meanwhile the people that would have appreciated the Element’s strengths—middle-class folks with families and a solid need for a dependable, do-everything daily driver—had no idea it was a viable option. Sure, the “Car Talk” guys have touted it week after week for years. But Honda did not.

And so, the 2011 model year will be the last one for the Element, and the lone example of the vehicle that Honda brought to the show was stashed in the corner, behind a giant display wall, treated like some unwanted stepchild. It was getting some attention, though—from current Element owners, commiserating about its demise. One guy said he owned two. His friend grinned and said he owned three Elements. Both were forty-somethings with families. They love their Elements, and spoke of them with the devotion of someone who would buy only Honda Elements for the rest of their lives. If only they could.

Airstream got smart, after last year’s crowded traffic jams, and now has gated access to its area. A lovely spokesmodel stands smiling at the Tensabarrier and allows only four groups in at a time to view the four products on display: a pair of classic polished-aluminum trailers and two well-appointed Class B conversions. The elbow room makes touring the Airstreams so much more comfortable, and really fueled our desire to hit the road someday and see America through the windows of a small RV.

Kia was very smart too. Downstairs, near the ticket sales kiosks and outside the show proper, they had a booth set up with a pile of high-quality cloth tote bags. It’s nice to have a tote bag at the show, to carry all the brochures and stuff, and it’s extra nice if it’s a bag you might wind up wanting to use later too. But to get a bag (and a baseball cap), they want you to take a five-minute test drive of the Kia Optima sedan.

No problem, I said, and we hopped aboard. It’s really a terrific car. Comfort, ergonomics, legroom, fit-and-finish, it’s all top-rate, especially for the price. The turbocharged four-cylinder engine gave it a nice kick in the pants as we cruised down Martin Luther King Drive. Sedans don’t fit our lifestyle, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever buy one, but next time I’m renting a car if I see a Kia Optima on the lot, I won’t hesitate to nab it.

Fiat stopped teasing us this year—after last year, when their only 500 model sat safely out of reach on a turntable—and brought a whole passel of the little coupés to sit in. Including a black one with bright blue racing stripes and a snowboard rack on its tail. These little babies are sporty and adorable; I’d want one if I weren’t so worried about getting flattened by an SUV. Alas, Fiat left the 500 Abarth model, with its mad 170-horse powerplant, back in Italia.

Toyota continues to struggle with the aftermath of recalls and bad press, spending their effort this year with a lot of handwaving about “what’s the plural of Prius?” Meanwhile, their FJ Cruiser is unchanged and remains two-thirds of a decent vehicle, looking classic from the front and fine in its chassis, but with its rear such an ignored design afterthought that any rearward view is all but impossible. The old, real FJ Land Cruisers were like terraria with all their glass; driving one of these is like sitting at the mouth of a cave.

Overall, one thing kept jumping out at me as I sat in numerous vehicles built by umpteen different manufacturers: the latest must-have, the portable music player connection, is not yet ready for prime time.

Amenities like this tend to go through phases: Phase One runs from prototype through early adoption, to the point where nearly every model has an example; Phase Two begins as real-world use and experience provide feedback that enables designers to redesign, upgrade, and improve the original.

Cup holders are a good example. For instance, our trusty ’97 Toyota came out toward the end of cup holder Phase One; it has exactly one cup holder, sized to fit a standard 12-ounce pop can. Passengers (or the driver, if he’s nice) must do without. An oversized cup won’t fit. This cup holder is, to be honest, laughably inconvenient much of the time; in praxis, we tend to wedge our drink containers between the parking brake handle and the sides of our seats.

Nowadays, every car has multiple cup holders—often more than the passenger capacity of the vehicle. (That makes a good punchline, but really, if everybody aboard has a bottle of water and a cup of coffee, you’ll want to have twice as many cup holders as seats.) Some are retractable; most are versatile in the size cup they’ll hold. That Kia Optima I drove—like many others—even has cup holders in its doors, along with a little graphic telling you to use capped bottles and not open cups in those holders, so they won’t spill when the door is used. The cup holder has come of age.

Not so the portable music player connection, which presently is stuck in the midst of its Phase One. Most cars now have an AUX jack; many include a USB port too. In recognition of modern use of cell phones, GPS receivers, iPods, etc., all at the same time, lots of dashboards have multiple 12-volt outlets (once upon a time, and occasionally still, used for cigarette lighters). This is rapidly becoming the norm.

However merely providing this connection is not enough—placement is important too. Most dashboards put the AUX jack on the face of the CD/radio unit; that’s fine for the assembly line’s convenience (aside from a different audio unit, nothing has changed and no extra wiring is needed), but where then do we put the music player? Most lacked a tray for it. Meanwhile, the power outlet is somewhere else entirely.

One manufacturer included an open slot for a player, presumably big enough for an iPod (though it looked tight for an iPhone wearing a protective cover) but left the device out in plain sight—and one thing we know from living in a city is that thieves won’t hesitate to break a window if they spot anything inside the vehicle with even the slightest value. Another manufacturer put the audio jacks inside a center armrest console, good for security and storage; but left the power outlet outside, so that a power cord will prevent the console lid from closing.

The upshot of all this is that today’s cars, with few exceptions, come with the unspoken expectation that we’ll accept a dashboard that looks like a spaghetti farm, with cables strung every which way, while our expensive personal music devices and other gadgets toss about at random with every start, stop, and turn. And that we’ll pack all that mess up every time we park the car.

Earlier, I mentioned the Honda Element. On the passenger side of its dash, in a flat, lipped tray above the glove compartment, is a 12-volt outlet and an AUX jack. It’s exposed to view, making it still a Phase One design, and yet—my music player stays put, and all its cables can be neatly tucked away. And that was in the 2009 model.

By the way, if you’re going to the Chicago Auto Show, I definitely recommend going on a weekday. The weekend crowds are completely insane.

Albums that deserve a thorough listen

11 February 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Some truly excellent record albums have spawned a hit single or two, but for the most part have been otherwise ignored. Here are seven examples that are essentials of my music collection.

MoontanGolden Earring, Moontan. “Radar Love” is an indispensable staple of Classic Rock radio. The four other tracks on this album: “Candy’s Going Bad,” “Vanilla Queen,” “Big Tree, Blue Sea,” and “Are You Receiving Me?” are each jazzy, dynamic, extended jams with solid hooks, and unique unto each other. Too bad they’re all too long for airplay—except for “Candy’s Going Bad,” which comes in just under the 6½ minutes of “Radar Love,” but whose subject matter is perhaps a bit too risqué for the radio. Apparently the same could be said for the original album cover: for its CD release MCA Records replaced the lovely, orgasm-faced, pastie-wearing burlesque dancer with a disturbingly close-up profile of an ear wearing—oh, how witty—a golden earring. And, in case that wasn’t obvious enough, the earring sports a tag stating “Golden Earring.” It is one of the worst fig-leaf album covers of all time.

IABDIt’s A Beautiful Day, It’s A Beautiful Day. “White Bird” is a strange beast, a slice of what might be deemed easy-listening psychedelia. The song is an anomaly, a red herring. So is that cover art: a wholesome young girl, standing on a windy precipice and gazing heavenward—combined with a dim, silhouetted gatefold photo of the band captioned “For those who love… time is an eternity”—can give the impression of a distinctly white-bread Christian record. Don’t be fooled. “Hot Summer Day” is like a fever dream, only far more pleasant, and the loosely melded suite of side 2 (“Bombay Calling” – “Bulgaria” – “Time Is”) surges with energy. Sure, some of the other tracks delve awfully deeply into the cheesiest tropes of acid rock—lyrics like “they told me that the sun turned green,” and pretty much all of “Girl With No Eyes.” No matter. Even with those oversteps, the record as a whole is one of the high points of the late-’60s San Francisco sound.

ChaseChase, Chase. Few have even heard of this early ’70s jazz-rock combo that, in terms of complex arrangements and virtuoso musicianship, gave both Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears a serious challenge—until a plane crash in 1974 took the lives of its namesake leader, Bill Chase, and much of the band. “Get It On” hits the airwaves occasionally, mostly on Deep Cuts weekends. Beyond that, radio listeners miss out on the album’s opener, the dense, cascading declaration-of-intent “Open Up Wide”; the eminently borrowable riffs of “Livin’ in Heat” and “Hello Groceries”; and a “Handbags and Gladrags” that stomps Rod Stewart’s 1972-charting rendition into lite-rock oblivion. Even the five-part suite “Invitation to a River” that closes the album is a worthy tour de force, studio tricks and all. (Link is to a two-disc collection of all three Chase albums. Totally worth it.)

Talk ShowThe Go-Go’s, Talk Show. Their third and final studio album before splitting up (not counting their middling 2001 reunion album) and, sadly, out of print. Sure, their debut Beauty and the Beat is the one that’s regarded as “one of the cornerstone albums of new wave,”* an accolade it deserves. Yet to me there’s something compelling about Talk Show’s high-aiming aspirations, the band finally shedding the last vestige of their punk roots—and outgrowing the bubble-gum tendencies of their sophomore effort, Vacation—and putting together something approaching a pop masterpiece. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly low on filler, and surprisingly coherent given the ongoing tensions (and rampant drug abuse) within the group. Too bad “Head Over Heels” is about the only thing that has ever gotten airplay. Among that song’s many terrific companions on this album, the heartbreaking lament “Forget That Day” and the Cold War meditation “Beneath the Blue Sky” are gems.

BoomtownDavid & David, Boomtown. The lead track “Welcome to the Boomtown” hit the charts in 1986, but it’s just the opening salvo of a manifesto that skewers the excesses of the 1980s as soundly and completely as the Eagles’ Hotel California did to the 1970s. This is the only album David & David made—they kind of came out of nowhere, made this record, and departed for the obscurity of studio work on others’ projects (mostly; one of the pair seems to have had a solo career as well). Boomtown is an odd, troubling blend of dark topics and heavy lyrics atop well-crafted and often-upbeat pop melodies, with a sound that avoids the worst clichés of mid-’80s audio production. It’s one of the best records of the decade; too bad only wonky music critics ever give it its due.

Child is Father to the ManBlood, Sweat & Tears, Child is Father to the Man. With “I Can’t Quit Her” sounding vaguely like BS&T’s later hits (“And When I Die,” “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”), it’s all too easy to dismiss this album as the group’s “no hit single” debut. But this original incarnation of the band is very different from the chart-topping (albeit short-lived) group that followed, and this album alone within the BS&T catalogue stands as a masterpiece of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era. Al Kooper took a vision of jazz-rock fusion, added tasty morsels of R&B and soul, layered on some studio strings, mixed it with a dash of psychedelia, and came out with this daring assemblage. Along with several solid Kooper originals are neatly assimilated covers of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Tim Buckley. It begins with an “overture” of overdub bedlam, and allows a Goffin/King pop tune to digress into the same tripped-out pandemonium for the closer. Would it be as unique a sound if the band had made a similar follow-up, rather than shattering and re-grouping sans Kooper? Definitely not. Which makes this album all the more special.

“But Seriously, Folks...”Joe Walsh, But Seriously, Folks. “Life’s Been Good,” with its tongue-in-cheek tale of a rock star’s wretched excess, is a Classic Rock staple—helped in part by its nine-minute length, making it popular among deejays as a smoke-break spin. But beyond that song, and despite reaching #8 on the Billboard charts, the album seemed to be swiftly ignored. When I sought out the LP record in the mid-’80s, it was hard to find and already relegated to the cut-out bin. It wasn’t remastered to CD until 1991, well after the initial spurt of “let’s put everything on CD as quickly as possible, audio quality be damned.” True, the album’s mellow, contemplative mood is belied by the guitar-rock sound of the hit single, making an unexpected juxtaposition. Too bad for us. “At the Station” and “Tomorrow” deserve routine airplay, and all the songs are catchy pop treats. The two instrumentals, easily dismissed as lead-in filler to the “Life’s Been Good” finale, are each atmospheric and evocative. All in all, it’s a witty, wistful collection.

A monkey pulling levers at random in zero-g could do better

10 February 2011

As a spaceflight historian, I know more than the average person about the details of the Space Race. Just as a baseball geek can cite the rosters of their favourite team for every season all the way back to a time when socks were called “stockings,” I can name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews—as well as their spacecraft names, backup crews, launch dates, landing dates, etc. Many of the Shuttle missions too. Trivial bits of data fascinate and stick in my mind, so that when I hear a narrator say the Apollo SPS (Service Propulsion System) engine used “a 50/50 mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and hydrazine” as fuel, I’m the one that blurts out, “also known as Aerozine-50.”

Even though I’m a stickler for accuracy, I try to give a little slack when I see errors in television and film. That the model builders for Apollo 13 painted the Saturn V rocket with the black-and-white pattern from the non-flight-worthy 500F “Facilities Integration Vehicle” is a sloppy mistake, but not one that detracts from the excellent and ingenious special effects of the launch sequence. I can live with episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon, “Spider,” using a piece of stock footage of a Saturn V on the launch pad that clearly shows the “S-IC-6” label of the Apollo 11 vehicle, rather than Apollo 9; and the actor portraying Rusty Schweickart using the event timer reset/count switch to power down the Lunar Module.

What galls me however, what I find utterly unacceptable, is the horribly error-prone use of stock footage by innumerable television documentaries. The U.S. space program is so incredibly well-recorded—NASA filmed everything, down to the most basic tests—that any event one might want to depict will have high-quality footage available. There’s simply no reason—or excuse—to fake it.

So why is it that we’re forced to watch, say, an Atlas rocket while the narrator describes Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight aboard a Redstone? Or a close-up of Space Shuttle Main Engines firing up, during a sequence about Apollo?

We wouldn’t accept a picture of a World War I fighter plane, used to illustrate the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Nor a horse-drawn carriage substituted for a Model T. And it’s not at all difficult to distinguish between the handful of vehicles and spacecraft that have been used for manned spaceflight. So what is it that makes this so pervasive—and, apparently, acceptable—in spaceflight documentaries?

As an aside, I’ll say that not all documentaries are culpable; the British production The Space Age: NASA’s Story which aired recently on PBS is a fine example of “the right stuff.” The four-part series was not only highly accurate in its use of archival footage, it also selected many examples of less-often seen film that avoided the clichéd shots we’ve all seen so many times that they’ve lost their impact. I definitely recommend this documentary for its clear, well-written and interesting overview of NASA history.

What really set me off on this rant is this: A History of the Space Shuttle, a five-disc box set of stock (i.e. government-produced and hence in the public domain and royalty-free) footage, distributed by Madacy Entertainment. Their stuff is usually pretty decent, albeit dry in the narration. But for this one, I had to hit the eject button within the first half-hour or so in order to resist the urge to put my foot through the television screen. A lengthy—yet incomplete—listing of the mistakes the producers had the audacity to foist upon us while pretending to know the “history”:

  • At the 4:15 mark; narrator: “Once the rocket ran out of fuel, the X-1 [rocket plane] would glide to the ground.” Image: a Bell X-2 gliding to the ground. The X-2 flew almost ten years after the X-1, at more than twice the speed. Oh, and it was painted white, not orange.
  • 10:25; “When Scott Crossfield flew the first X-15 flight…” Image: smiling pilot, in flight suit, walking toward the X-15. The pilot is Joe Walker.
  • 18:45; “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union changed history with its successful launch of Sputnik.” Image: animation of a generic rocket-looking thing, nothing at all like a Soviet R-7.
  • 19:30; “…the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2” (also aboard an R-7). Image: liftoff of an American Atlas A ICBM.
  • 21:35; “Jupiter AM-13 mission…” Image: Explorer 1. The large “UE” letters painted on the side of the booster are a dead giveaway.
  • 22:00; “Two monkeys named Able and Baker…” Image: two chimpanzees, not rhesus monkeys. But what the heck, all primates look alike.
  • 22:15; “[Ham the Astrochimp] launched into suborbital flight…”  Image: a Mercury–Atlas launch. Ham rode a Redstone. (The gaffes are coming fast now—nearly every clip is misused.)
  • 27:00; In the midst of a montage about Mercury development testing that never shows an actual test, a misplaced clip of a Gemini–Titan launch. (The Mercury test footage shows up later—during the chapter on Apollo.)
  • 29:20; “…America had finally put a man [Alan Shepard] into space.” After two correct shots of a Mercury–Redstone launch, presumably Shepard’s, they just had to insert one of a Mercury–Atlas.
  • 32:00; Not an error per se, but it’s peculiar how the section on John Glenn’s orbital flight skips from pre-launch preparations to his post-flight ticker tape parade, without any footage of the flight itself; they must have already used up all their Mercury–Atlas film.
  • 33:00; “Gordon Cooper became the first man to spend a full day in outer space,” aboard Mercury–Atlas 9.” Image: yet another Mercury–Redstone.
  • 33:55; As the chapter on the Gemini project commences, two shots of the Agena target vehicle—one as the narrator says Gemini was “named for its twin-seat capsule.” In fact, nowhere within the entire Gemini chapter is a clear view of said capsule ever shown; nor footage of any of the ten manned Gemini launches.
  • 35:10; “Between August 11 and August 12 of 1962, two Russian capsules [Vostok 3 and 4] lifted off…” Image: another American Atlas ICBM.
  • 35:20; Continuing discussion of the Soviet Vostok 3/4 rendezvous. Image: a piece of tumbling hardware in orbit, unidentified but clearly not a Vostok spacecraft.
  • 37:35; “…Astronauts Grissom and Young piloted [Gemini 3],” which (like all Gemini missions) flew aboard a Titan II rocket. Image: Saturn IB launch, followed by S-IVB staging.

By that point, I came to the conclusion that whoever assembled the footage either was utterly disconnected from the narration production, or they had absolutely no idea what the hell they were looking at. Anger and frustration at repeatedly hearing one thing and seeing another forced me to shut the damn thing off, and left no doubt in my mind that the litany of mistakes goes on and on throughout the 90-minute program. I was going to say that the narration itself is fairly accurate and not entirely uninformative—until I heard him say that after Apollo 11, “the Apollo program launched three more manned missions to the Moon.” Okay, seriously—WTF? (There were six, five of which landed.)

This box set is such a steaming pile of crap, I have to call out the people responsible for it by name. Executive Producer: Edward Feuerherd; Producers: Mike Fitzer & K.C. Hight; Scripting: Edward Feuerherd & Mike Fitzer; Research: Lisa Neil & K.C. Hight; Creation Films, 2007.

I said above that Madacy products are “usually pretty decent,” but on second thought I retract that statement. Madacy Entertainment distributes poorly produced documentaries, assembled by hacks from public-domain archives, packaged in high-quality box sets that utterly belie the recycled garbage within.

I just want historical documentaries to get their basic facts straight. Is that so wrong?

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

7 February 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Howard Zinn, Professor of history and political science, passed away a year ago at the age of 87. At the time, I’d never heard of Zinn or this, his perhaps most famous and popular work. But a mention of his passing by an artist I respect led me into reading it.

It took me a while to read this entire book, partly because I found it becoming repetitive and redundant. About midway through it reaches the point where the same things keep happening over and over again. And perhaps that is part of Zinn’s point: the history of the United States is one of ignoring the past, for American history continually repeats itself.

A People’s History of the United States could be summed up in two statements:

  1. Revolutions are appeased, co-opted, and absorbed by those in power, so that despite any surface appearances to the contrary, the power structure remains with the status quo.
  2. Wars are not fought for freedom or ideology. Wars are fought only for resources.

Zinn is awfully heavy-handed and single-minded in his thesis, but he provides convincing support for this shocking assertion: the United States of America, the land of freedom, has never fought a war for freedom. Never. Take some examples.

  • The American Revolution. The general public, the working classes, the poor, wanted revolution to throw off the chains of their oppressors, the wealthy landowners. Those same landowners co-opted that revolutionary spirit, promising freedom by equating it with kicking the British out of the colonies. (See point #1 above.) At the end of the war, the landowners kept their land—and no longer needed to pay taxes to the King—while the poor remained poor, lacking property and voting rights, and indentured to the same powers as before. Meanwhile, the wealthiest landowner in the States was elected our first President.
  • World War II. It’s easy to argue that this was really a war for freedom, a war against Nazism, Fascism and oppression; certainly that was a necessary and positive result. But if that were really the primary reason for U.S. involvement after years of isolationism, we would have entered the war upon Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, or its invasion of France et al in 1940, or its ruthless bombing of our closest ally, Great Britain, that same year. No, instead the U.S. entered the war when Japan attacked an important link in the American Pacific empire—the last straw in Japan’s ongoing threats to U.S. market potential in China; access to the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia; and the long-standing American occupation of the Philippines.
  • Vietnam. Promulgated as a fight to keep the people of Vietnam free from the “threat” of Communism, this war was really about access to Southeast Asian resources once again: tin, rubber, oil, and even rice.
  • Today’s wars. Gulf Wars I and II have been about oil, no more, no less; and Afghanistan is not about fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda ideologues—it’s about petroleum, natural gas, and at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, including the potential to make Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The list goes on; it’s all-inclusive of every war ever fought by the United States. We’re not unique—the “resources, not ideology” principle could more than likely be applied to every war throughout the history of the world.

Taking Zinn’s pacifist and populist stance with a grain of salt, this book is a surprising pin-prick to the pompous balloon of the standard, ultra-patriotic line of American history taught in schools. It should be a must-read for American college students.