Friday, August 12, 2016

In memoriam

Less about wheels and more about writing about wheels:

Of the smallish subset of humans who know (and inevitably have an opinion) about Gawker Media, I am in the distinct minority: I dearly love the place and have been watching the events of the past few months with nothing but dismay. Maybe I came along too late after their peak slash-and-firebomb, apocalyptically misanthropic years to really grasp why people think so ill of Denton and his legions as they still do. Maybe it's because I was just a weird kid from the Midwest and not the kind of gasbag that somehow attracts their kind of necessary puncture. I know I assign an outsize importance to the time I spent at Jalopnik and still feel a kinship with what goes on there even knowing how marginal my existence was (six months at one of the less-loved titles in the network) and how far removed it is from today. I am far from the only one so affected, though.

So over the next few days Gawker Media as an independent entity will cease to exist, being up for auction early next week, and with its demise comes an end to a truly important experiment in the evolution of media. The dangers that Peter Thiel's monomaniacal action represents will have to be unpacked and hopefully countered over time, and I would like to think that someone will see the need for safeguards against this kind of assault on a free (if occasionally obnoxious and antagonistic) press. That this case was even given consideration indicates something worrisome in the waters of American jurisprudence.

Beyond that I fear the loss of what Gawker is in itself as a sort of cultural autoclave, trying to burn layers of fatuousness from places which desperately need it. God knows that's what we tried to do at Jalopnik to and for an industry that still needs it just as much as New York media.

(And which I only rarely managed to do with any skill or style in the midst of just trying to keep up, hammering through a straitjacket three-paragraph template and verging on circulatory-system trauma at least three times a day. I probably shouldn't have been there anyway. I'm too nice, too unwilling to be intrusive and accusatory. Matt had to cajole the hell out of me sometimes to get me in the right mood, and the only real lasting legacy from those exercises was a fit of frustration that tagged Bernie Ecclestone as the billionaire Muppet, which is admittedly still one of my prouder moments. And yeah, there was also the grad school thing.)

All of which will most likely cease to matter in a few hours, depending on how the new corporate adoptive parents choose to treat their wild child. It will be interesting in a kind of postmortem sense to see how everything gets broken apart and redistributed and remade or shut down completely. I fear for the folks at Jalopnik and wonder how on Earth they'd fit in anywhere else, and that extends throughout the network.

At the same time, there have been any number of Gawker alums who have started to remake the broader media world according to Denton's rules, kicking aside niceties and coziness in favor of high-level writing that lays reality bare in any number of older publications that needed it. So maybe that will work out.

I'm just glad I was there for a while, fortunate to be part of something different. The world is less well off for its passing.

Friday, July 29, 2016


I would like to think that in each battle between ideals and reality that there is always somehow some kind of happy synthesis, some way to gather together everything and frame it just so. I'm sure that could theoretically be one of many answers, given the right chain of coincidences and decisions, but reality is rarely so generous - to me, at least, and I would wager to most other people as well.

Especially with calendar pages turning and a budget being eaten away by everyday life in parallel.

So yeah. It's mine, at least for the next three years. 2016 Volkswagen Jetta S, 1.4 TSI motor, manual transmission.

No, not what I wanted. Of course not, But probably what works best for the current situation. Or that's what I keep telling myself as a defense.

It's a good car, decently direct and lively and usable, acquired in what seems like a really good deal. Volkswagen lease offers are ridiculously generous for some pretty obvious reasons right now. So for the money it was about as good as anything else I could have found, especially considering such necessities as upkeep and usability in potentially harsh coastal weather and so on.

(Yes, I leased it, which is even more out of character for me. I'm almost wondering who actually bought or owns this machine.)

And it's new, which resolved a number of nagging fears in my head whenever I thought about something else. And whenever I thought seriously about something else, a list of mechanical or situational neuroses tended to follow. Miata? Cooling system. RX-7? Apex seals. Audi A4? Terrifying maintenance costs. GTI or WRX? Tuning abuses. Honda? That plus theft. Fox Mustang? Same plus driving on icy roads. 944? Have a seat and clear your schedule. MGB? One big reality check required in every possible way.

Never mind deep-seated uncertainties about twentysomething-plus-year-old suspension bushings and potential crash damage and so on.

Do I even have to go into how it's so much easier to want than to have, to dream about the good stuff without feeling that stomach-tightening sense that something will inevitably go wrong? Especially given my budget ($5000ish) and the fact that whatever I get would be a year-round commuter machine between a couple different campuses in the region?

Both parts of that fed into the ultimate decision. First, getting something even remotely good was likely to just about clear me out; if anything even moderately expensive had to be done on top of the purchase I was in bad shape. And if anything went wrong later on it would not only be financially troublesome but also cause major grief on a professional level.

So yeah, reality. Reality in its dismal dream-grinding functionality now sits in the lot downstairs.

I tried. Drove an MGB which had (more than) a few needs. Tried a well-worn and hail-damaged NA Miata; first thing the seller talked about was how easy it was to put back together after the radiator blew up on the drive to New Jersey from Virginia. Spent I don't even want to know how long scanning ads trying to find something that would work only to find repeated abuses against both cars and the English language.

The Miata issue deserves its own lamentation, just because it seems that Miata sellers are weirder than the norm. Not more crooked, not more difficult, but definitely weirder. Tried to go see a weathered but still promising '95 M Edition while still in Ithaca - and had the seller accuse me of being a scam artist before she hung up on me, which is not how Craigslist usually works. Had another who never returned a number of polite calls. And so on. Probably gave serious effort to at least five, only really got to see the one, and ended up perplexed.

Time and patience ran thin. With Wonderful One starting her new job my ability to do test drives would be severely compromised. Was in for more repairs on the Passat (see "A4," above), wandered the showroom, sales dude mentioned the please-help-us lease offers. Deal done in a few days. Problem solved.

It's not bad for what it is. Excellent ride and handling blend, smooth and torquey motor which returns great fuel economy, pleasant environment even given the basic trim and so-so seats (really need more lumbar support). Gripes? The shifter is traditional front-drive VW in its less-than-machinelike feel, the sound system is super-fussy.

And it's not really what I wanted. But again, that's life.

I tell myself (and Wonderful One seconds) that having something like this frees me up to have a pure project situation, something to have and fix and tune and enjoy without forcing it to endure the indignity of everyday life. Something purely enjoyable and gratifying, right? Which is true, although fulfillment of this possibility is dependent on (again and always) my unexciting budget situation being able to manage it while living up to everything else, including those good-but-still-real lease payments. Something to think about and hope for as things take shape this fall.

But this somehow seems slightly corrupt in its indulgence, in its failure to provide that synthesis from earlier. Going in to this whole process there was the wish for some kind of Grand Unified Solution, one good lovable car that would have worked for everything - the daily drive, the weekend two-lane blast, the trip to Mom's, autocrossing, whatever. But such is an ideal - it ironically requires a certain reality.

And quite honestly maybe I need to put all of that aside for a while anyway. The pursuit of ideals has rarely been nice to me. Holding myself to act in accordance with some esoteric faith has usually caused me to miss out on any number of great whatevers in the course of providing what too often turns out to be a very attenuated and sort of hollow satisfaction.

Maybe I just need a good set of everyday wheels to help manage reality for a while.

I hope so. It's what I've got.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The joy of pure speculation. Or maybe not.

A mental game played through a very frazzled end-of-semester consciousness and a few pints of IPA:

So we all generally know and accept that Apple is working on a (whole) car at this point. We can further guess that they're on the autonomy bandwagon because, well, that's that kind of thing right now, like it or not.

We also know with more certainty that Apple is sitting on an absolutely ridiculous pile of cash which it prefers to keep overseas because of US tax laws.

News item today: Apple and China's largest ride-sharing/car-hailing service, Didi Chuxing, have entered a billion-dollar partnership. (Lest you think that ride-hailing in China is some marginal entity, Didi Chuxung's customer base is about the same size as the population of the United States.)

Among the platitudes about learning more about the Chinese market and effective corporate goodwill, put the three pieces together:

How crazy is it to think that Apple could be planning to use its cash reserves to create a massive fleet of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles specifically to dominate the Chinese (and perhaps in time Indian, and so on) mobility market?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cyclonic patterns

Notes after a test ride of a Suzuki SV650 yesterday:
  • A 40° morning is not the preferred time to be on a motorcycle for the first time in about three years. (Doubly so since that time three years ago was on a Kawasaki Eliminator 125, a baby cruiser with about as much power as a Waring professional bar blender, peddling around a Queens parking lot for my MSF course.) It's not so much that I was cold - that was very manageable - but that my visor would fog up to a thorough and thoroughly unpleasant translucency in about ten seconds if I didn't keep it cracked open. Being on a fairly fast bike (more on that later) with limited visibility is not a good thing.
  • At least I remembered what I was doing. Didn't do anything stupid or painful, didn't drop, only missed one shift, made it around a good eight-mile loop without external drama.
  • Much love to K&H Motorsports in Homer for having a very reasonable test-ride policy and being all-around great guys.
  • This particular machine wore a K&N filter, a Dynojet carb kit, and a Yoshimura pipe. Don't know if that made the throttle as hypersensitive as it was, but something did. Even accounting for an uncalibrated (if very reserved) right hand, response was twitchy as hell and made shifting a bit of a herky-jerk kind of process. Definitely an adaptation situation, but not reassuring early on.
  • Going around corners from a start - think turning right at the stop sign - while being this out of practice felt like trying to go around a corner while jogging and carrying a bowling ball somewhere between my knees. Better to go way wide after making sure that nothing was coming for a mile or so than risk dropping, but still all kinds of awkward dealing with the balance. 
  • Once I got settled in this thing was weirdly comfortable.  After about five minutes we came to a very agreeable sense of positioning - feet on pegs, knees fitting in correctly, wind blast present but not troublesome.
  • Or else I was so busy with everything else that I didn't notice if anything was wrong there. I haven't faced this much sensory overload since at least the kart race. I can totally see how bad things happen sometime, especially for newbs like me: there is just SO MUCH going on all at once coming at you that it's hard to process correctly. Huge sense of motion and exposure, trying to manage a different set of controls, concerns about balance and positioning, watching out for the rest of the world, occasionally looking down to see how fast you're hurtling along some particular piece of road - it's just a lot.
  • Flip side of that is that my massive phobia about having to deal with some clueless Ashley checking text messages in her CR-V or some chemically-impaired redneck or even some otherwise normal dude in an averagemobile who just makes a mistake and is pulling out directly in front of me without seeing me has now been mitigated. It seems manageable. Sure, still a present risk for which one must constantly be watching, but now not as unsettling.
  • Dear God can this thing move. I would be very surprised if I cracked open more than quarter throttle at the absolute most simply to keep it from running away from me. A comfortably manageable 75 to 80 was no problem at all, and there was LOTS more to go. Even beyond the twitchy throttle this was way too much. Would it be better if I tried it again? Maybe, probably. Made me think of what someone once described as the three-session learning curve for club racers who got the chance to drive an old Can-Am car: the first session is all "Oh my GOD how does anyone manage these beasts? That is ridiculous! That is insane! I've never gone that fast!"; second session is more like "Wow, this is still a lot but I think I'm starting to catch up with it and it feels a bit better"; third session is, "okay, yeah...can we get more power somehow?"

But there won't be a second or third session for me on this one, at least anytime soon. All of the above will lead to a very grateful but somewhat regretful phone call to K&H on Monday telling them that I'll pass on this one. $2200 is a ridiculously good price for an SV650, especially one with a bunch of mods I would have wanted to do anyway, but the bike itself is too much right now.

And all of the above also deeply recalibrates my take on motorcycles in general, and makes me wary of a lot of received wisdom - and perhaps illuminates a few things which were between the lines in many cases.

First and most significantly is this idea about starter bikes and outgrowing a bike and a lot of the machismo which goes with the whole scene, which says that starting on something small is only a step towards a Real Motorcycle of serious (if not always well-defined) power and capability. SV650s have always been seen as being right on that border between "starter" and "Real" and well within reason for a capable newb, a decent mid-displacement mid-power machine that is fairly easy to learn, something that (per the script) You Won't Outgrow In A Few Months.

Screw that. This thing, all innocuous and cuddly per most magazine reports, is a ferociously fast and focused piece of machinery that will do 0 to 60 in less than four seconds and run a quarter mile in the twelves. You outgrow an SV like you outgrow a 911 Carrera S - you don't.

Which makes me wonder about this whole "you'll get tired of it and move on" mentality. I'm not sure when motorcycling became infected with the idea that everything must be a stepping stone to something bigger and faster, or how that ties in with the absolute drought of sensible low- to mid-power bikes which are only now starting to be made available here.

And even then...the hipsterrific Ducati Scrambler makes about as much power as the SV, and everyone raves about how perfect that is as a first bike for undertrained fashion victims. Same with the somewhat heavier Triumph Bonneville. I can't speak to how touchy or edgy they are, and hopefully someone had the good sense to put in some heavier flywheels or something, but still - that's a lot of power and capability to be put into inexperienced hands.

The other side of the argument is the lack of street cred granted to smaller bikes: the Honda 300s and 500s, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, and the Yamaha R3 most prominently on the new market, but really anything with single front brake discs and fairly narrow tires and power outputs in the 30 to 40 bhp range. The Yamaha Seca II works here; so does the Honda CB-1, so do a fair number of '80s machines.

Any of these would have been a world better underneath me than the SV, and most of them are now very high on my seriously-consider list. (The Ninja 300 in particular is drawing an inordinate amount of affection from me right now, but wait to see how that focus shifts according to availability and budget and so on.)

Other stuff - bigger, faster, more aggressive - can wait, if it needs to be considered at all.

Seriously: why the inexorable push for everyone to progress towards unearthly degrees of power and speed? Why the constant prodding to get a Real Motorcycle, as if the others aren't real enough?

A lot of this goes back to well-worn arguments about usability and reality. How fast does anyone really go? How does track weaponry like an R1 or a completely over-the-top creation like a Hayabusa interface with a world of jealously-enforced speed limits and blind corners and iffy surfaces and so on?

And for God's sake, what is it in society that gives anyone the idea that a Superbike makes a reasonable first machine? How do you manage a GSX-R1000 coming off of a bicycle? What failure of self-preservation vs. ego allows people to put themselves into these situations?

I'm not arguing that hypermachines shouldn't exist in the first place. That's a completely different argument which I do no believe and which I will not make. Instead I wish the general population emphasis was much more on real-world usability - including a fair bit of speed, to be sure - and, especially, a gradual but decisive defusing of the It Must Be Big thing.

Which actually gets mentioned once in a while, if quietly and sometimes obliquely, by those who know.

Think about those small-displacement sportbikes. Read a few reviews - the one from last year works well - about the Ninja 300 and the R3 and the like. Given that the folks running the test have massive amounts of skill and experience and therefore would have every right and reason in the modern paradigm to look down with contempt on these tiddlers, what are they saying? Good Lord, they're fun. They're great in real life. They aren't going to gasp and fall over if you go up a hill. They're easy to manage, and in being so they're that much more enjoyable to both live with and throw around when the mood hits. And maybe they won't outdrag a GT-R, but they'll still get the jump on just about anything that's in the next lane at a stoplight and be more than fast enough to be a joy on a good road without being grating on a commute or a highway drone.

Fun. Joy. Bikers - and too many times the rest of us - get so caught up in the push for ever-faster and ever-more-serious and so on that the pure fun part is marginalized or treated as less relevant. Power has to go up to remain competitive, everything gets designed around managing massive power, the intensity gets cranked up to levels which can be wearying on a day-to-day basis.

And there's the too-rare alternative - call it the Miata mentality - the counterculture which cares less about winning a bench race and all the more about just going out and feeling that pure sense of movement and control and sensual stimulation and gratification in the midst of the everyday.

If you outgrow fun, you need to go back.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Justin Wilson, 1978-2015

Just back from two weeks in Germany and the Czech Republic - something on that soon - but tonight is obviously dominated by the very sad news from Pennsylvania.

Lots of thoughts, hard to organize or connect them right now, but all under one very dark sky.

Be at peace, sir.