Monday, July 31, 2017

New Car Features

A couple of months ago, we bought a new car, a Mazda CX-9.  It's Mazda's large, 3-row SUV.  After living with it for a bit, I wanted to share some thoughts on this car in particular and new cars in general.

To set the stage, we had two cars, a 2005 Volvo V70 (the station wagon) and a 2008 Nissan Frontier.  The Volvo got walloped in the back a few years ago by a 91-year-old guy in a Cadillac.  We had it straightened out and it looks and drives great, but with 130K+ on the odometer and an accident on the CarFax, the resale value is about equal to a Big Mac with an order of fries.  So we're keeping it until it dies.  The Nissan was a good truck, but we didn't really need a truck anymore.  It was going to need a new set of tires and a new battery before winter, and if we did that, then we may as well keep it a few more years, and by then the resale value would be many thousands less.  So we decided to sell the truck and get something new, on the order of an SUV.

Long story short, we sold the Nissan almost immediately and bought the Mazda.  The CX-9 was at the top of my short list because all the comparison tests from places I trust (Car and Driver, for example) hailed it as responsive, fun to drive, high quality, reliable, and fun to drive.  Did I say I like a car that's fun to drive?  Yeah.  The Nissan wasn't.

So we've had it for a few months and yes, it's fun to drive.  Quiet, too.  And comfortable.  Feels like a much higher-end nameplate (think Audi, Land Rover, or Infinity) due to the high-quality materials in the interior.  And the engine is unbelievably powerful, especially when you consider it's a dinky 2.5 liter 4-banger, but the turbo gives it more torque than any of the V6's its competitors have, and it's as smooth as a sewing machine.  All in all, Mazda did a helluva good job.

But I'm not here to brag on a new car.  I wanted to talk about one major item that is significantly different from all my previous vehicles, something that is (I think) common to almost every vehicle made today.  And that is the onboard electronics.  I'm really stunned at how fundamentally different the electronics have made the entire vehicle.

To go back to the Volvo a second, I learned a few years ago, when I installed a new radio/CD/bluetooth unit, that computers controlled the whole car.  Turning the light switch didn't turn on the lights, it sent a signal to the computer, and the computer turned on the lights.  And it's that way with everything.  But it was all invisible to the driver, because the switches and gauges all looked and operated just like they did in most all other vehicles.  You can hop into our Volvo, instinctively adjust the seat and mirrors, throw a CD in the stereo, and be off, without any issues.  It's as easy as a flip-phone.

The Mazda is a different story.  If the Volvo is a flip phone, the Mazda is an iPhone 7.  Not only is everything controlled by computers (note: plural), but those computer capabilities have exploded.  Some switches are done by touch screen rather than a knob or button.  You can choose what your gauges show you.  It has capabilities that you can only learn by going through the manual.  It probably has capabilities that aren't in the manual.  Here are some of its features:
   - Lane guides.  It has a camera that watches for lane lines and if you start to stray, it'll gently tug you back or give you a warning.  Not only that, but it has different warnings for drifting to the right or left.  It was cool for a bit, but then it got annoying, so I turned it off.  Took me a while to find the instructions on how to do that.
   - Blind spot monitoring.  It has two side-looking radars in the rear bumper.  If somebody gets into your blind spot, you hear beeps and see flashing lights on the side mirror.  It beeps at me when I'm backing out of the garage because it doesn't like the door edge.
   - Adaptive cruise control.  Set the cruise control and it'll hold it within a mile an hour.  Come up behind somebody, though, and it'll slow down to match their speed.  Pull out to the next lane and it'll speed right back up again.  All this courtesy of a forward-looking radar.  Not only do you choose the speed you want, but you can choose the distance to follow the car in front.  I haven't figured that part out yet.
   -Remember when all you had to do to change stations was to punch a button?  Not anymore.  Now you have to choose which menu to use and then scroll through options that include AM, FM, Sirius, BlueTooth, Pandora, CD, and some other things I've never heard of.
   - Integrated navigation system.  Supposedly you can enter an address or pick a point of interest and it'll give you turn-by-turn directions on a screen and through audio.  I haven't figured it out yet.  I do know that you can have at least two different views on the nav screen and that it's very accurate.  When you're on an interstate or major highway, it'll show you the speed limit for your stretch of road.  If you're at or below, it's in green; go above the speed limit, and it's in red.  I don't see green that much.
   - Heads-Up Display.  This gives you your speed, the speed limit, and maybe a few other bits of information projected up onto the windshield in front of you.  It's pretty cool.  If you wear polarized sunglasses, though, the information disappears.  But if you turn your head sideways, it comes back.  So you look a bit like a goofus, turning your head sideways periodically.
   - The A/C system (sorry: climate control system) has three zones: front, middle, and rear.  I remember when "climate control" was how far you rolled down the windows.
   - Pull into the garage at night and shut the car off and the lights stay on for a while so you can get out and into the house.  You can adjust the time they're on.  I don't know how to do that.
   - USB ports everywhere.  I had to buy a USB plug for the cigarette lighter (er, 12V Auxiliary) for the Volvo and Nissan, but now the ports are apparently a Must Have for any vehicle that will transport kids.
   - Headlights that turn with the steering wheel.  Seriously.

That's a sample of this car's features.  The thing is, so many cars these days have them, and if you read the car reviews, everybody seems to expect this level of features.  Even Toyota Corollas have things like voice recognition, touch screens, and computer-assisted driving to maximize gas mileage.  I get the feeling that I've been asleep since 2005 and am going through future shock at seeing how far automotive technology has come since then.

The logical extension of all this technology is, of course, self-driving cars.  I can see a day in the near future when everybody is sitting in little pods, entertaining themselves watching YouTube videos, while the car does all the work.  Not for me, though.  I think my next car is going to be something made years ago, something with a manual transmission, a carburetor, and NO COMPUTERS at all.  Yes, I love the Mazda and we'll keep it until the wheels fall off.  But I'm old school and I also like things that are simple and uncomplicated.  And "uncomplicated" is NOT a word that describes the Mazda or any other car made these days.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Yellowjacket Wars

This isn't an art post.  This is a post about war.  Specifically, my war against the yellowjackets.  There is death and gore discussed here.  Parents, be advised.

Three weeks ago, I was doing some yard work.  I brought the wheelbarrow around to a spot next to the birch tree and set it down.  A minute later, BAM!  I was stung hard on the ankle.  I backed off but BAM!  BAM!  Two more stings, one on the leg and one on the arm.  Damn, they hurt.  I got away and nursed my wounds a bit and then went back out to do some recon.  Seems that I had set the wheelbarrow down almost right on top of a new nest of yellowjackets.  These are nasty little buggers, a type of wasp that is very aggressive and can sting multiple times.  So not only was I walking wounded, but a strategic part of my yard had been taken over by the ISIS of the insect world.  And they had seized my wheelbarrow.  This meant war.

So I studied the situation from about 20 feet away.  The level of activity indicated a modest-sized Combat OutPost (COP).  COP Stinger's main gate was easy to locate: a hole in the ground about an inch and a half in diameter.  There was a lot of traffic going in and out.  A bit of research (thank you, Mr. Google) indicated that any assault on the COP should take place after dark, when all the bastards are home and quiet.  So I made my preparations.  At about 9 pm, when the light was almost gone, I put on my body armor: heavy jeans with the pants legs tucked into my socks, high-top boots, and a hooded jacket.  My weapons consisted of a flashlight, a full can of wasp insecticide, and a rock.  From my observation point about 20 feet away, I verified that there was not visible activity, then launched the assault.  I emptied the whole can of wasp killer into the hole, blocked off the entrance with the rock, and quickly withdrew.  In and out in one minute.  The SEALS couldn't have done better.

The next day, though, there was still activity around the strike zone.  Their numbers were considerably reduced, but the area and my wheelbarrow were still under the bastards' control.  They had built a new main gate to their COP a foot or so away from the one I'd attacked.  It also seemed like the enemy fighters were physically smaller than the previous day.  So I resupplied my weapons and at about 9 pm, I conducted a second strike.  In, out, and another gate blocked.

The next day showed similar results: a smaller level of activity, another new gate, and definitely smaller fighters.  My guess is that the eggs were still hatching and the youngsters were having to fill in for the slightly older fighters who'd been killed in my two assaults.  So while I had decimated the yellowjacket population, I had not eliminated it.  And I still couldn't get to my wheelbarrow.

I struck again that night.  And again the next.  Two more cans of insecticide were dumped into the nest.  The next day, there were only two of the little bastards wandering around, seemingly lost, unable to find their way into the nest and unable to figure out what to do next.  I rated the battle as a success, with COP Stinger being effectively eliminated.  And I retrieved my wheelbarrow.

I was out of town for the next week.  This past Saturday, I went out to mow my weeds.  Everything was going well until BAM!  I was stung on the ankle.  I dumped the lawnmower and hightailed it out of the area.  As I was going into the house to take care of my new wound, BAM!  BAM!  Two more stings.  One of the little assholes was still on my boot, trying to get at my foot.  He became an ex-asshole pretty quickly.  We located another and chased him out of the house before he could do any more damage.

Okay, so where did these guys come from?  I thought COP Stinger was eliminated.  Another careful recon showed that COP Stinger was, indeed, inactive.  However, there was a new nest about 20 feet away.  It was much busier than Stinger ever had been.  Where Stinger was a medium-sized operation, this was a full-on major enemy base.  And I'd run the mower right over it.  So Little Bastard Air Base (LBAB) had to go.

The next question was: how?  I'd used four cans of wasp killer before COP Stinger was finally destroyed and it took four days.  I wanted something more effective.  I had an answer right there in my garage.


Okay, it wasn't really napalm, but gasoline is close enough.  That night, I suited up in my body armor again, grabbed my equipment, a Coke bottle full of gasoline, a butane lighter, and a kabob stick.  After my recon showed that Little Bastard Air Base was quiet, I launched the assault.  I poured the gasoline down the main gate and quickly withdrew to let the gas stifle them and soak into the infrastructure.  Ten minutes later, I came back, lit the end of the kabob stick on fire, and shoved it into the hole.  Whoooomp!  (No, it wasn't like in the movies, with a big fireball and a WHOOOMP!!! that rattles windows a mile away.  It was just a little whooomp and a small flame coming out of the hole).  After a bit, I sprayed some water on it to put out the fire and retired for the night.

Sunday, though, showed that Little Bastard Air Base was still active, although significantly reduced. They were still using their main gate since I hadn't blocked it off.  Damn, those guys are tough!  However, I was able to retrieve my lawnmower and mull over my next move while finishing the yard.  Well, not all the yard.  I stayed 20 feet away from LBAB, so now there's a small area of high weeds right in front of the birch tree.

Although the napalm attack did not eliminate the buggers, it did seem to be much more effective than the wasp spray.  And it was a helluva lot more fun.  So that night, I suited up and conducted another assault with the gas.  This time, I brought a rock to block their main gate after the attack.

Result: mission kill on LBAB.  There were only a few dazed survivors in the vicinity, apparently stragglers who couldn't figure out how to get back into the base.  They seem to be wandering off.

So the Great Yellowjacket War of 2017 seems to be a success.  I'm not claiming total victory yet, as other nests may crop up in the next few weeks.  If so, they can expect the Wrath of Rohde to come down on them with no mercy.  And ALL options are on the table.