Five months ago I posted a photo on flickr of a SMART car.
I remember seeing these little jewels on a trip to Europe as a teen, where they left a lasting impression on a young American. Would you look at that! Cars don’t have to weigh two tons! And these suckers can “parallel park” with their nose to the curb! I posted this shot because I’m very excited that they finally made it to America. I didn’t expect anything from the comments, but the first one, from my friend Atoosa, caught me off guard.
“My cousin Neda is a paramedic and she calls these ‘smartcoffins’ because she’s pulled so many dead people out of them. Basically she says in a collision, this is a little plastic deathpod.”
“That’s unfortunate. But understandable, considering how overweight American cars are. If everyone drove a SMART, I’m sure the story would be different,” I replied. While the SMART car is perfect for the tiny streets and low speeds of European city driving, I now see what a frightening proposition it is to take these things out onto the highway to slice and dice with SUVs and pickups at 70mph. I went on to post links to crash test videos of the little Mercedes/SWATCH “deathpod,” and an article on SMART safety, that indicates this city car wasn’t really intended for highway driving. On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety praises the car’s low-speed (40mph or so) crash safety in the official crash test video with commentary. I finished my flickr comment by saying, “It’s much safer than a motorcycle,” to which Atoosa replied, “My dear G, ‘safer than a motorcycle’ is hardly a reassuring recommendation.”
Fast forward to present day. I got an email from my brother-in-law (happy birthday, Dan!) about Volkswagen’s L1, a 170-mpg, tandem-seat-layout, carbon fiber monocoque concept that’s been around since 2002 and whose original prototype famously drove 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel.
They’ve updated the design of the new prototype with a diesel engine and a more production-ready design, hence the buzz. VDUB claims it will bring this beauty to market in 2013, but I told Dan I was skeptical. I love VW; Lorenia and I just purchased a Jetta and a GTI. But I admit I’d be surprised to see the L1 make it through to production. If it does, though, I’d buy a 2013 model. In 2018. In the meantime, there’s the glorious Aptera…if it ever makes it out of California.
I cracked up when in the comments on WIRED’s article about the L1, someone said, “Who’s going to be the first to comment on how the vehicle will fare in a collison with a semi? Somebody always does.”
Indeed, Atoosa made the semi comment five months ago. “And yes, they do pass all crash tests or they wouldn’t be allowed on the road, if they hit an SUV — or even worse, an 18 wheeler, the tiny car goes bouncing like a skipping stone. Remember the video with the concrete wall only demonstrates the effects of the momentum of the SMART car itself. What would the impulse transfer be like if it hit an 18 wheeler going 70 mph?”
And that brings us to the purpose of this entry, which is to post my little flickr manifesto from April. I made the following reply.
“True. It’s not as reassuring as, say, a new Volvo. I’d just like to point out that even SUVs are no match for 18 wheelers, so that argument against SMARTs is moot. Knowing that a big truck would pulverize your Celica doesn’t stop you from driving it. These are the choices that the individual driver has to make when we’re forced into car ownership by the societal status quo of a sprawled America devoid of intelligent urban design or the individual will to pay for such design through taxes that contribute to hard-to-measure quality of life benefits.
Bike vs. car is an even worse proposition than SMART vs. SUV, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my bike. Long story short, European-style, high density cities powered by renewable energy and with centers that exclude motorized traffic and emphasize pedestrians and bicycles are the way forward. Ultimately, the safety of a car is relative, and for most people cost, fuel efficiency, performance, utility and looks are all more important, since fatal crashes are relatively rare (42,000 vehicular deaths per year in the US versus 300 million inhabitants, or 0.00014% — 14 in 100,000).
Furthermore, almost no one considers the cost to the earth in terms of the materials and energy that go into producing a new car, which is why most don’t recognize that the greenest cars on the road will always be the pre-owned models: their environmental production cost has already been paid. No matter how efficient a 100% electric Tesla is, it can’t match the alternative: not gathering the materials and energy to build a new Tesla, and continuing to repair and drive what you have. Or better yet: selling your car and purchasing the nicest bike money can buy.
Fatal accidents in which you as the driver have no fault are exceedingly rare, on the order of acts of God. The majority of accidents can be avoided by paying closer attention to the task of driving and using defensive driving techniques, especially leaving enough distance between yourself and the car ahead. The unavoidable accidents, rare as they are, are not going to convince me to drive an SUV instead of a SMART, especially when the smaller, lighter car is more nimble and thus better at avoiding an accident. I’d rather die while trying to minimize my carbon footprint than survive crashes to burn another dinosaur another day. We can’t avoid it when it’s our time to go. What matters is how we treat others and our global life support system until we do.
Atoosa replied, “Very well put, my friend. That was like a blogpost unto itself. We keep fixing up our old Toyotas and riding our bikes when we can, but hopefully we won’t be pulverized, but will live to see the day when society around the world is built to minimize the human footprint on our planet.”
How strange, then, that both my 1992 Toyota Camry and her mid-nineties Toyota Celica would die last month. After an extensive search and over twenty test drives, Atoosa finally purchased a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Notwithstanding the repair nightmares of being an early adopter, I’m very excited about her car. But I’m equally excited that after my own protracted search for four-cylinder standard-shift cars, I found the fastest car I’ve ever owned: a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T.
That’s right, GDUB has a VDUB. One that goes to 70 in second gear and still gets 30mpg, thanks to the turbo. Not as flashy as the L1, and I’m working on a few repairs to problems the dealer failed to mention, but I’m thrilled. Living in a “city” where cyclists have glass bottles thrown at them and working at a job whose security gate is six miles from the office and bans bikes during rush hour may force me into car ownership, but if I must drive, at least I can have a car that’s responsible, affordable and faster than a scalded dog.
Just in case you were wondering where I’ve disappeared to lately, here’s a quick recap:
I spend half my time in Florida testing, fixing, and launching shuttles, and the other half in Houston helping to design the GNC systems for the new Orion vehicle.
It’s a sweet gig. I ain’t complainin’.
This new MacBook Pro ain’t too shabby either.
All bragging aside, I checked my voicemail today and had 20 messages. In my defense, they aren’t showing up in my inbox. I need to give Verizon a call and have that fixed. My gmail inbox is below 100 unread messages, and that’s good. I get around 40 work emails a day, so when I fall behind, it’s bad. If I haven’t gotten back to you, I apologize. Life’s going to be busy for at least the next couple of years.
So I’m sailing down the highway on the way into work this morning, spacing out to Moon Safari, when I notice a white Ford SUV on the other side of the highway slowing down. As soon as it pulls into the median I know I’ve been had. I gulp. There’s a new zero-tolerance policy around these parts, and the police force has been instructed to crack down on speeding. The unmarked cruiser makes a u-turn and starts to accelerate toward me, but I’ve been coasting since the moment I spotted it. I slowly apply the brakes and pull over onto the grassy shoulder before the SUV even catches up. The cop pulls in behind me and opens the door, steps out and starts walking toward my car. Then, strangely, the officer does an about-face and leans into the cruiser over the driver’s seat. Only then do the blue lights, hidden in the cab of the unmarked vehicle, flick on. I chuckle.
I roll down the window, turn off the car and get my license and proof of insurance ready. I hold them up as the cop approaches. I’m surprised when a female voice intones, “You’re spoiling me today. Usually I have to chase people down. Thanks for pulling over so quickly.” I smile and hand her my documents. “Registration?” she asks. I find it in the glove box and hand it over.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“Well, I knew something was wrong when I saw you pull into the median.”
“Do you know what the speed limit is here?”
“I think it’s forty-five,” I say sheepishly.
“Well, you were doing sixty,” she says in a motherly tone.
“I’m sorry,” I reply.
“Do you have any outstanding tickets on your license?”
“Not that I’m aware of. The last time I got a ticket was in 2008. January 1st, in fact.”
“Ok, I’m going to go run your license. For my safety and yours, please stay in your car.”
I watch as she walks back to the cruiser. I consciously avoid sipping from my tea, so as not to appear too nonchalant. It’s not long before she comes back and puts the license in my hand.
“I can’t do it,” she says. “You’re just too polite, too cooperative. I can’t give you a citation.”
Well I’ll be.
I smile, say thank you, and shake her hand. I roll up the window and do my best to coax Kashmir back onto the highway without too much herky-jerky (the intake hose is cracked and as a result the engine bucks and stutters at low rpm). I don’t want to get pulled over a second time for faulty equipment. My satisfied smile fades, though, as I realize the things I’ve said about police officers in the past. Perhaps I was too quick to judge. I probably shouldn’t generalize. Maybe this is what happens when you’re pulled over by a cop of the opposite gender. Perhaps being observant, polite and cooperative actually pays off. Or maybe it was just my lucky day.
At any rate, today I have nothing but good things to say about the police. And that’s refreshing.
Hey kids! Been a while, eh? I hope you’ve been enjoying the photos from our trip to Bolivia and Peru; I’ve been using my nightly internet allowance to edit and post those shots. Lorenia put it best this afternoon when she said, “I consider flickr the same as blogging. You’re simply leaning on images more than words.” I hope that explains my absence of late.
Huge changes are afoot. I get married in a matter of weeks (YAY!); my fitness, diet and sleep goals (yes, I have sleep goals) are getting closer to reality; new opportunities are arising at work; and I just got word that one of the references on my astronaut application has been contacted. You could say things are going well.
There is so much I’ve wanted to blog about. I have several ideas every day, and it pains me not to have the time to write about them all at length. Now that I’m on the Zone diet, I spend a little more time each day planning and preparing meals. Add work, crossfit, and flickr to that, and I do well to get a movie in here and there. Right now I have over a hundred blog entries started, just waiting to be fleshed out. At the very least I know I’ll have plenty to do if I ever lose my job or go to the hospital.
What’s broken my silence tonight, first and foremost, is a little something about NASA I’d like to share with the general public. As you may be aware, most of the infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center was put in place in the early sixties. The VAB has recently been re-clad after a series of hurricanes over the past few years, and many other upgrades are underway in advance of the new vehicle. One of those projects is the removal of the large blast-shield louvers on the front of the Launch Control Center.
Given the decades that these iconic shields have been in place and the millions of visitors to the Kennedy Space Center every year, there are probably billions of photos of these louvers in existence. Now, with the fancy new windows going in, they are being dismantled and removed. Out of curiosity, I called up the project manager today to see if they were being donated to a museum. He was very excited to tell me about the project, emphasizing the care with which the crane operator removed them and gently placed them on a flatbed truck to be sent to KSC excess. His mood changed, however, when he recollected that once at the salvage site, the workers stabbed the louvers with a forklift and tossed them into the woods.
My plea to you is this: if you know anyone who would like to include a large part of U.S. space history in a museum, memorial or large-scale art installation, please contact me, and I’ll get you in touch with the right people. There are three more firing rooms whose louvers have not yet been removed. Now is your chance to do something to support the space program.
Ok, next topic! I was on the crossfit website today looking up WODs when I ran across this little gem of an article. The TSA is one of my favorite whipping boys, and I consider this piece to be the final word on the futility of their existence. I hope the next Administration has the good sense to abolish the organization and apply their seven-billion-dollar budget somewhere it might actually do some good. I mean, seven billion dollars? Where did that even come from? That’s more than half NASA’s budget! Do you realize what we could do with those funds? At the very least, if you’re worried about terrorists, apply them to intelligence where they might actually do some good. I’ve always found the hassle of the TSA’s security theater galling. I’m convinced it’s a) a jobs program and b) a crutch for the airline industry who otherwise wouldn’t make as much money on non-refundable tickets.
I’ll leave you with a few words about an epiphany I had today. After a near-death crossfit workout at the gym, I walked out into the brisk evening breeze and witnessed the glory of the fading sunset. The cold blanket of air hovering over the continent had pushed all the clouds out of the Florida sky, so we were gifted with a rare, clear-sky dusk. I marvelled at the strip of orange resting on the horizon, and how the gradient passed through green before fading into the midnight blue overhead. Two bright planets pierced the veil of the heavens before the stars spilled out, and in thinking about the tilt of Earth’s axis and its role in the seasons it dawned on me: someday soon we’ll model all the molecules in the atmosphere, and the secrets of how the giant globs of warm, wet, cold and dry air dance around the globe will be revealed. With a clarity that only intense exertion can create, I further realized that all of mathematics is but a simplification. It is true, it is correct, the science that rests upon it can be empirically verified, but it is an approximation. If our beloved equations fully described reality, we world create worlds when we wrote them down. Instead, they allow us glimpses into creation; they are useful tools for understanding our place in this universe and how to manipulate this wonderful reality to our ends.
Not bad for a weightlifting session. Exercise is for nerds.
We weren’t visibly injured, so we called Rene to come pick us up while Willie got GEICO to tow his mangled truck. Rene dropped Tony off, then drove us to my place, where we picked up my car and drove ourselves to the ER. We were taken to the back before we even finished filling out our forms (how quick is that?). The nurses and doctors were very kind, even joked around with us. Willie and I got the same diagnosis and prescriptions, along with the directive to take a couple days off work to rest and recover.
It dawned on me as I took a hot shower just now that I said the Tablet of Ahmad on the way into work this morning. I find myself pondering now just how dangerous cars can be. Interestingly enough, my friend Christy had the exact same accident in the exact same intersection last year, except she plowed into the person who pulled in front of her and totalled her friend’s brand new car (she was designated driver). You’d think by now they’d install a green left-turn arrow.
As I drove home from work today, I saw a motorcycle pop a wheelie and get up to a buck and change on my street. I remember thinking about how cool that was. Nothing like a little wake up call to make you appreciate the unforgiving brutality of momentum, and savor each new moment you’re granted that much more.
In spite of childhood swim lessons in frigid water at the crack of dawn (or perhaps because of them), I have always been a waterbaby. In the past six months I’ve made rapid progress in scuba diving, beyond PADI certified rescue diver into specialties like wreck penetration diving. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the geology and location of blue holes, occuring in equatorial karst regions throughout the Caribbean and across the globe, ranging from the cenotes of Mexico to the springs of Florida to the blue holes of the Bahamas, Belize, and the Red Sea. In exploring online what I hope to someday explore in person, I ran across this video and was entranced. If you can’t see yourself doing this, then imagine you were along with Lorenia today, as she swam in the azure waters off the Yucatan with massive sea turtles and giant whale sharks, exploring undersea caves and catching rides from 12-foot wide manta rays.
Now. I’m an avid flyer. I love it. I love travel. I want to be a pilot. And amidst all the clamor of rising fuel prices, I’ve kept mum. I’m happy petrol prices are rising; I hope it spurs change, since nothing but the bottom line seems to be able to motivate the majority of humanity.
But I’m gonna take a moment right now just to vent about the creative ways that airlines are looking to make their business profitable. You’ve heard about American setting the standard by charging for checked bags. Within weeks everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, and that one’s easy: I travel light. I never check bags. It got a little tougher after the Theater Security Administration banned liquids and gels, but it’s just another bump in the turbulence, right?
Well we’re headed up to Chattanooga in a couple weeks to meet my new nephew (due any day now!) and I got the good word from Dad that I should check out Allegiant Air for direct flights from Orlando. All well and good, right? Yeah…
It’s nice that the internet has forced (or allowed, depending on your perspective) airlines to show you the price of each leg of your journey, so you can adjust departure and arrival dates in search of the lowest fare. But the fees are starting to get ridiculous. You think to yourself…each leg for under $100, that’s not bad at all! Then you’re reminded…oh yeah…taxes and fees. It would be one thing if it were on the order of sales tax, somewhere under ten percent. But twenty-seven percent of the base price?! Isn’t that higher that credit card interest rates?
Ok, where do we begin? Federal taxes of $23? That should cover the FAA and ATC and the TSA and any other TLA, right? Wrong. They’re STILL charging a “September 11th fee.” Just to keep the fear in us, I suppose. Segment fees? PFC? Miscellaneous? Forget what those are even supposed mean? Miscellaneous? Seriously, guys? You might as well say, “we added this on so we could advertise a lower fare.”
Still, all this I was already grudgingly aware of. What gets me is what comes next. Just like signing up for websites means that the little box for “please send me spam” is already checked, Allegiant pre-selects all its fees for you. Oh! How convenient! You’re going to charge me $15 to reserve EACH seat? There and back? It took me a full minute to figure out how to decline seat reservations. Surely that’s it. But wait, there’s more!
These are small regional jets, so the carryons are limited to 8 by 16 by 19 inches. Good thing I bought my suitcase in Lilliput. Even if I wanted to check a bag? $20 apiece. Just to start. And that’s when you tell them in advance! It’s even more if you show up at the counter with grandma’s heirloom wardrobe in tow.
Click through to the next screen. Surely I can input my credit card info now. Oh wait, what’s this? A rescheduling fee? You want me to pay you sixty bucks just so I can have the OPTION of changing my flights? You must be joking. Southwest does that for free. Quick, where’s the deselect button? Better yet, where’s another airline?
Add this to the fact that many airlines are now charging piecemeal for every single consumable on board, coupled with the TSA’s diligent prohibition of food and drinks from home and the airport’s oh-so-reasonable prices (did I mention how convenient it is to the airport’s quarterly projections that you’re forced to buy food there?), and you have a perfect storm of passenger discontent.
Still, I guess it beats driving.
Shout outs to my family in the Big Apple. Nas, Greg, thank you so much for hosting me. Naseem, congratulations on graduating law school! You know I wish you all the best in your bright future. Word to ‘toosa, Temi, Balazs, and all the cool kids I met on this beautiful weekend full of friends, food, fun and games. Toufan, Mike, sorry I missed you guys. Next time I might know I’m coming sooner than four days before arriving. To everyone else, thanks again for another amazing time in the City of the Covenant. Here’s a clip of pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge. This weekend marks my first time to make that fabled crossing.
It would take a novel to tell the tale of our recent trip south of the equator. I could wax poetic about the natural beauty of Peru and Bolivia, and indeed, Lake Titicaca is everything the Animaniacs crack it up to be, and Machu Picchu is most deserving of its spot among the New Seven Wonders of the World. What keeps emerging as I tell the stories to friends, however, is an aspect of that same modern world that we as Baha’is are working to eradicate: extremes of wealth and poverty.
Coming home to my first Radiohead concert, after waiting more than a decade to see one of my all-time favorite bands live, only threw the contrast between the United States and Peru and Bolivia into starker relief. While the experience was underwhelming (most likely due to the poor sound quality at Ford Ampitheater in Tampa, the lazy crowd and the mellow setlist), it was still worthwhile. There’s no comparing it to Peru, but I couldn’t get Radiohead’s songs out of my head for days. Indeed I still can’t. In Rainbows defies my knack for hyperbole. I think Vince, who joined us at the concert, said it best.
IN RAINBOWS – choose 1:
a) Great Radiohead Album, or
b) Greatest Radiohead Album
Leave it to a band who defines my generation to say what I wanted to say about South America (and indeed all countries not as privileged as the G8) with a powerful music video, released while we were in Peru.
Ladies, gentlemen, the lineup is here.
Chicago. August 1-3. Be there or miss Radiohead, Rage, NIN, Wilco, Kanye, Blues Traveler, Jamie Lidell, Bloc Party, Cat Power, Dierks Bentley, and Newton Faulkner!