How to abuse Toyota to increase readership

It seems like everyone is doing it these days. Now Consumer Reports is the latest to try to cash in on Toyota's recent bad press. The issue this time? The Lexus GX 460 skids in emergency maneuvers:

video of Lexus SUV not rolling over

If I remember correctly, the last time Consumer reports made a big deal out of a high roll-over risk SUV, the thing actually DID roll over when they did their maneuvers. This time, it's simply skidding instead of holding the road like a car would. So, to clarify, they're taking a large, softly-spring, top-heavy SUV, and complaining that it doesn't handle well. Really, people! Of course, they correctly state that skidding sideways creates roll-over potential, but that was probably for the sake of jumping onto the "Toyota=unsafe" bandwagon and cashing in on a few headlines.

Now, as for why. Is it because it's a large SUV with a high center of gravity and a Toyota-soft suspension? NooOOOOOooooo... apparently, there must be a software glitch! This is amazing. Actually, no. It's taken the amazing and soundly chucked it into the realm of the absurd. In the IT industry, we have a joke: Q: how does a product engineer fix a hardware bug? A: they don't: "We'll fix it in software". Now we can finally modernize that old joke: "How does a Toyota engineer fix an inherent conceptual design flaw?"

Consumer Reports says you shouldn't buy the GX 460 until the software is fixed. I have a better idea. How about you:

a) Don't buy a large SUV unless you actually have some towing or off-roading to do.

b) Don't buy a vehicle which, by virtue of its design, should be expected to handle with all of the agility of an elephant.

I'm sure anyone wants to read this sort of over-rationalized drivel. After all, it's no fun. Instead, let's think of all of the other things that they can also try to fix with software, aside from trying to make large SUVs handle like cars. Here are some ideas for starters:

1) Fuel efficiency. Large SUVs don't fare too well, and no amount of tweaks to the engine computer is likely to help. So, let's at least allow the use of hybrid technology, which GM was able to use to coax a 20mpg average out of the full-size Tahoe. That's still not car-like. Well, I'm sure we can fix the software so it can average at least 25.

2) Styling. Why are most SUVs so ugly, the GX 460 being no exception? Well, come on, it's no small task to make a really large box look good. A few car companies have succeeded (examples: Infinity FX, Hummer H2). Most fail miserably. Maybe they can install a device that emits hypnotic brain waves that send suggestions of aesthetic pleasure to anyone near by, or simply suggests that they shut their eyes.

3) Garagability. OK, this is a tough one. If your Excursion's butt won't quite fit into the garage... ah, got it! The truck's computer can intercept transmissions from the garage door remote, and block it from actually closing the garage door! Then, to protect your garage, the truck's backup warning system can be used to detect anyone trying to enter and sound the alarm (or maybe even just start the engine and run them over? Hmm, no...).

Anyway, I think we're getting somewhere here! The future of SUVs may be promising afterall. For anyone who needs the capacity of a large SUV and who's not willing to wait, though, don't despair. Unless you are among the few who actually do need towing and offroad capability, in which case you'll be willing to put up with the vehicle's weak points, there are, and have always been, some really good mini-vans out there. They offer what most people are likely to need: all-wheel-drive, huge interiors, and even modest towing capabilities. Check out the Honda Odyssey or the upcoming Toyota Sienna. The upcoming Sienna, amazingly, is a large Toyota vehicle that's not the FJ and that actually looks cool. And, even more amazingly, it's rumored to handle well! If you're concerned about unintended acceleration (which, BTW, might actually be a software problem!), there will even be a 4 cylinder model. There might still be unintended acceleration, but there sure won't be much!

CNN backtracking

CNN has been steadily improving the quality of their coverage of major issues over the past 10 years. But, today's editorial proclaiming Confederate soldiers in the Civil War to be terrorists, supporting the hypothesis with factual inaccuracies and faulty (if any) logic, is extremely disturbing. A whole bunch of the comments (many of which are probably from people who generally consider Fox to be middle of the road and CNN to be left-wing-biased), not surprisingly, proclaim it to be left-wing propaganda BS. Unfortunately, regardless of whether CNN intends to assume a role of left-wing advocacy or not, it's exactly what this article appeared to be. I felt like was reading a mirror image of Fox news.

Rice. Belongs on the table, not in the garage.

A friend in India who's into sports cars recently saw a picture of something low-slung and clearly trying to look sporty on the street in the U.S. He asked what it was. I didn't think it was possible to give an answer in just a few words, so I went ahead and explained the whole "rice rocket" culture. At least, that's the politically incorrect term for it. "Import tuner" culture is probably closer to what it calls itself, but the problem is that one needs a way to differentiate the wannabes from the small subset of the whole movement who actually manage to wring serious performance out of small economy cars.

For anyone not familiar with it, the idea is to take a relatively inexpensive economy car (but one that's at least modestly sporty -- Civics and Nissan Sentras are popular choices, but Corollas are never used for it), normally an East Asian import, do a bunch of mods to the engine and exhaust to make it fast, add some tack-on visuals to make it look sporty, and a minimal muffler to further add power. But, teens aren't typically loaded with money. That's why they're starting with modest economy cars in the first place. And, that's why they can't usually invest what is required to make these economy cars into high performance cars.

So, the typical end result is normally something that is still slow (they would typically add at most 20 horsepower between the exhaust work and a mod to the air intake, since those are the cheapest and easiest things to do), is now obnoxiously loud (due to the muffler mod) and looks quite ridiculous. The typical visual additions are a huge bolted on spoiler (as seen), sometimes fashioned from some normal household items such as shelving supplies, "coffee can" mufflers (huge exhaust tips), clear taillight lenses, and sometimes replacing the washer jets on the hood with little blue lights. And then, on the inside, they'll mount a fire extinguisher to the inside of one of the windshield pillars just to cast the impression that they had to make this car comply with race-car guidelines (hoping you'll ignore the fact that there's no roll-bar, which would certainly be required first). And finally, they'll be festooned with stickers, most predominantly one across the top of the windshield, that say things like "Saleen Racing", or just simply, "CIVIC" (I guess since some people might not recognize the poor car buried under the clutter of gaudy tack-ons).

Here's a relatively polished example:

sample Civic

Notice what lengths to which the owner went, after buying a very common car, to try to make it look different. Aside from the visuals I mentioned above, they've replaced the bumper covers with ones festooned
with vents (they probably don't realize that when a real race car has these, it's to channel air in such a way as to increase down-force), tacked-on side skirts that look like they're about to fall off (and indeed probably will the next time they go over a speed breaker), and then the one I'm most impressed by: they've managed to get the door handles to go away! (how, and how they open the doors now, I wonder). And for speed? Well, you can't actually tell what's underneath, but odds are, this thing is probably still pretty close to the power output of a normal Civic of that year, maybe 125 hp or so, and probably still not enough to out-gun the average family minivan.
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Charter Pipeline issues

We've got Charter. The good, the bad, the ugly can sum it up if used respectively to describe the speed, the value, and the reliability. And, really, if not for the reliability, then it's a reasonable value too. However... the reliability. The connection becomes unstable on some days. Not often, but when it happens, it's infuriating. I cannot stay connected to work. I cannot stay on a conference call. And when I call then to get tech support, I have to wade through 10 minutes of automated "support" spiel asking me to reboot my computer, reboot the cable modem (actually, Charter's term for this is "power cycle"), check the status lights, basically check everything there is to check on my end. Only, the problem isn't on my end. It's on theirs. Actually, to be fair, the last time we were having problems, they came out and replaced the modem just on principal since it was old. And, by the time the tech was done, the problem went away by itself. So, we may never know if the old modem was defective or not. I'm guessing not.

This morning the connection became horrendously unstable, blacking out several times, and then conking out entirely. The phone router is plugged into our cable modem. As I always do, I ensure the problem isn't on our end before calling. After "power cycling" the cable modem, I went to the phone router's admin console and hit "renew" on the DHCP lease. Nothing. I unplugged the phone router and plugged the wireless router into the cable modem directly, and "power cycled" the wireless router, checked to see if it was getting an IP address. Nope. Tried hard-coding the last known one. Nothing. Plugged my computer into the the cable modem directly. Again, nothing. No IP address. Plugged shortindiangirl's Mac into the cable modem directly... instantly, Charter's DHCP server wakes up and serves up an IP address, and we're connected. Wait... what? The hell?

Plugged in the phone router again... nothing. Wow, this is getting stranger by the minute. And worse. Meanwhile, shortindiangirl has called Charter to have them send someone out (why they always insist on doing this when the problem is actually on their end, I don't know). Just imagine, the Charter guy comes out the next day, finds one machine that is able to work perfectly well with the cable modem, and just proclaims that therefore their service is working fine and that our phone router, our wireless router, and my laptop must all be malfunctioning.

Not so fast, though. Most routers let you spoof their MAC addresses. So, I had to try it: I plugged the phone router back into the cable modem. Again, it gets completely ignored by Charter's DHCP server. But, then I change the MAC address to match that of the Mac (Yes, we're talking about two different types of "macs" here. Try to stay with me, OK?). The router reboots itself. And, upon waking back up... instant IP address.

Worth noting that since doing this, I've had the connection black out a couple more times briefly, actually causing me to have to "release and renew" on the phone router again, but, still, every time it renews successfully.

So, what the heck is going on here? What is Charter doing with certain MAC addresses? And why does it happen to coincide when a day of very unstable connectivity? Something reeks here. I can't quite tell yet what it is, but it doesn't look good.

Tomorrow a tech comes out. It could get interesting.

Eulogy for automotive versatility

No one seems to get it. GM has been forced to close Saab's doors. All the press reports on the demise cite that its current aging line up has been "surpassed by the competition". Surpassed in what way? Hardly anyone was even daring to compete with them in the first place? You can't lose a contest if the competition doesn't show up.

Maybe if you're comparing 4 door mid-size sedans with automatic transmissions. How many such vehicles are on the market currently? Has it reached a dozen dozen yet, still led as usual in value by the ugly but super-competent Accord? Sure, the 9-3 and 9-5 were offered in those forms. But, why would we even need to care?

No, what is really at stake here is versatility, which has been on life support in the North American automotive industry for quite some time, and the official death of Saab is only the latest blow in its long, drawn-out death. Surely, I must be missing something. With so many options today, it must be possible to get a 5-door model that is roomy, economical 30mpg highway, sporty, safe, has good performance/handling and is available with a manual transmission. Well, it is -- if the Saab 9-5 wagon is going off the market, then we can still choose between a VW Passat wagon or a ... a VW Passat wagon. Wait a second -- ONE option? Why should the market for versatility have all but died? Versatility makes sense, people. It means you get a better car that meets more of your needs without making sacrafices.

The mass market has whole-heartedly rejected this notion, however. Apparently, a car with 5 doors in the U.S. is fine, if (check one or more of the following):

1) It's too small for 5 people to be comfortable on a long drive
2) It's underpowered or available only with an automatic
3) It doesn't get more than 25mpg on the highway
4) It has no trunk space
5) It's hideously ugly
6) It's an SUV, in which case you can often check 2, 3, and 5, and add poor handling

Check one or more of the following, and it seems you're 5-door is good to go in the North American market. But, check only one of the above and it will probably be only for one model cycle, as Mazda has proven with its brilliant previous generation 6 hatch and wagon (yes, both!), or as Chevrolet proved with it's solid but grotesquely ugly Malibu Maxx (although, worth noting that that one wasn't offered with a 5 speed either), or other makes have proven over the years like Saturn, Alpha Romeo, Volvo, etc. And, chances are, the styling of new models like the Honda Crosstour, or the Toyota Venza will guarantee only a limited market for them as well. VW is now the lone hold out. But, for how much longer?

Rest in tranquility

I wasn't a fan of much of Michael Jackson's work since Thriller, but when I heard that he had just died as I was on my way home, it hit me harder than these types of things typically do. 50 is young for anyone to die. This particular someone is one who's life was a constant struggle to avoid illegitimate smear campaigns by the media and the constant prod of paparazzi, who had raised more money for charities and positive causes than any musician ever has, and who had battled one physical ailment after another on top of the stress from allegations of heinous acts that were never proven. On top of that, he graced the world with some top-quality entertainment earlier in his career: the dance moves, the original (if not overly synthesized) musical style, and the high-budget music videos that set the standard for all other groups are all ones I remember clearly from my childhood in the early 80s.

The positives remain far more pronounced in my memory than all of the negativity and the controversy, such as his music video that featured incredible special effects but ended with him repeatedly grabbing his crotch in a manner mimicing female masturbation and smashing up a car with a crowbar that made its debut on prime time network TV in front families across the country (the end sequence to that video was promptly removed and never shown again). Good or "bad", regardless, he was arguably a part of life for more people than any other entertainer.

So, it was with sadness that I paid tribute by turning off the A/C despite the 95 degree heat and high humidity, opened the windows and sunroof, and cranked up the MJ. Loud, with the Viggen's subwoofers rattling my eardrums. (Several radio stations were already playing MJ tunes continuously.) No doubt some people were wondering what the heck I was thinking. Me, I was just thinking it was a better way to pay tribute than to go along shrieking and grabbing my crotch. I was in the car, so no one would have seen the latter. Probably better that way.

Something that needed to be said

After moving to the Mid West, I have been exposed to a new phenomenon: imaginary political persecution. As a Liberal, I've always relished the freedom of political expression that we are granted in this country, and have enjoyed the fact that our environment provides many forums for healthy political discourse. Everyone is allowed so speak, everyone is allowed to be heard, and everyone is allowed to make up their own damn mind about what they believe. There is a wealth of information available (mostly biased in one direction or another, but with a little sensibility on the part of the reader/viewer, it's not hard to filter) from almost every type of source imaginable, and it's all easily accessible to those who bother to turn their heads to look.

So, the American dream is alive and we're enjoying the reality of it, right? Not everyone. Since moving here, I've been exposed to the fact that we have a class of the "politically oppressed and persecuted" right here in the U.S. Of course, this would have to be some seldom-exposed sub-culture, some sort of cult or eccentric sect, right? No!! Here's the amazing part: they are simply a subset of the Conservative half of the nation's population that believes (unlike most conservatives) that they are being oppressed from living by their beliefs and are being unfairly persecuted for it.

It's incredible. They have their own news network (Fox) that focuses much of their time on complaining that the news media is biased, when this particular news network has half of the TV news market share!! It is half of the TV news media! If that isn't irony, I don't know what is. I guess people realized that there is some serious money to be made in reinforcing these notions of oppression among these masters of self pity. They have an FM radio station here dedicated to hosting "conservative" talk shows (though many more rational Conservatives I know who would be offended by the notion that these stations represent their views) and primarily complain that conservative voices get stifled in our society... if that irony isn't already overbearing, it's worth mentioning that there is no "liberal" equivalent to this radio station. Oh, and this station fills half of its air time with advertising, but I guess some people find it worth sitting through it just to hear 5 minutes of "Liberals suck and are the reason for everything that's wrong!" stated 50 different ways with no factual evidence (quite a few falsehoods, though). The notion that Obama and the Liberals are "conspiring to make conservatism illegal and have all Conservatives thrown in jail" is frequently repeated on that station, using those words, by several if not all of its talk show hosts. Just how weak-minded is this prospective audience supposed to be, anyhow!?

Those who have constructed this imaginary "war against Conservatives" have used it as an excuse to launch an equal but opposite offensive against Liberals, a desperate attempt at image assassination. They are working hard to redefine "Liberal" as a bad word and associate it with everything that seems contrary to American values of freedom (such as Communism, fascist dictatorships, and even racism).

So, I particularly enjoyed the following article that appeared in today's paper:

The Right is not being persecuted

Leonard Pitts hits fairly hard in this article, but enough is enough -- someone had to say it and it's about time someone did.

I'll go a step further and address all the whiners who seem to think they're being oppressed if the laws of the country are not set to make it illegal for anyone to not be just like them (and if you're not in this category, make no mistake -- please ignore!), please get a life and drop your stupid image assassination campaign against me. Re-read history (or current news) and contemplate what it really means to be oppressed. Read some of Al-Jazeera's articles about the "war against Islam", reflect on how off-base it is the way we generally do, but then please try to spot the similarities to your own self-pity. I'm tired of having people put words in my mouth saying that I intend to take away people's freedom, seek out any and all ways possible to kill unborn babies, stifle debate and rational discourse, and other such atrocities.

Dell XPS Gen 2 overheating problem solved

After 4 years of nearly trouble-free service, my Dell's overheating problem was really getting out of hand. Just from running it under normal circumstances, it was becoming frying hot to the point that paint on the bottom was bubbling up and peeling away, and I could no longer have it on my lap without the computer branding an impression of its underside into my legs.

So, I finally bit the bullet and tore into it. After completely disassembling it I found a few layers of felt formed by dust that was blocking the two massive heat sinks that this machine depends on. So, I cleaned it all out, but then decided after taking all this trouble to spread the laptop's innards evenly across the desk, why stop there? There might be a way to get it to run cooler than when new. So I took off the heatsink for the GPU and peeled off the waxy membrane covering the nVidia chip. I cleaned it thoroughly with alcohol and did the same to the contact surface of the heat sink, then applied arctic silver paste (supposed to be a MUCH more effective conductor between the GPU and heat sink than the waxy film piece that came with it).

I re-assembled everything while managing not to have any screws left on the desk when finished. First test: turning on the computer. Still worked. Second test: I booted into Windows, started a game of Battlefront II with the detail turned all the way up. 90 seconds of this before this operation was enough to cause the computer to overheat and do a hard shut-down, followed by a bios message on the next boot up stating that the computer had overheated. This time, however, I was able to play a full round without even hearing the cooling fan engage at full speed. And, the case remained cool.

Really dramatic difference. I would suggest anyone with a laptop that has developed overheating problems over time to give this procedure a try (provided the warranty has expired, that is, as mine did a couple of weeks back). The only thing I would have done differently would have been to give the Artic Silver treatment to the CPU as well as the GPU, because now the CPU actually runs hot enough to kick in the cooling fans at times under load when the GPU is still relatively cool.

Between fixing the overheating issue and having a useful OS once again (Ubuntu 9.0.4 -- Cononical did a MIRACULOUS turn-around with this release and fixed ALL of the fatal flaws that plagued the 8.x.x versions!! I might give more details about this in another post), it's almost like having a new computer. All I need now is a new battery.

GM to kill Pontiac!?

I'm in disbelief. For the last few years, the big 3 have been under serious scrutiny for making poor decisions about what types of models to produce. The undertone is that they've deliberately chosen not to create cars that can really compete. Screwy market research and poor sensibilities have led them away from developing models that raise the bar of automotive excellence and appeal to the modern car buyer. Well, in their business plan proposal that was released in accordance with the rules for their economic relief package, they named only Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac as the four brands that would make up GM. So... no Pontiac? And, I suppose that must leave Saturn out of the picture as well. So, no more Saturn Sky, no more Pontiac Solstice, no more Pontiac Vibe, (which is the same as the Toyota Matrix only not as ugly), no more Pontiac G8, no more Pontiac G6 convertible... In other words, no more of the GM cars that I've actually found interesting and that are fiscally within the grasp of Joe the car-buyer. Well, actually, that's only if you don't count Saab, but GM has already announced a desperate urge to sell them off. So, let's re-cap what they've giving up:

1) Sky and Solstice: two of the hottest-looking cars, and the only two in recent years that have competed with the Miata in comparison tests.

2) Pontiac Vibe: a great 5-door model that can average over 30mpg like a Honda Fit but offer more space, higher trim levels, and a lower price (after you count the typical dealer markup on the Fit). And, it's Toyota quality to top it off. Look at how the Fit is doing! Seems to be enough proof to me that it would be worth being able to offer a vehicle with these qualities.

3) Pontiac G8: a European-class large sports sedan with an American sedan price. How did GM manage this? Well, like the Vibe, they don't get full credit for it. They sourced it from Holden, their Australian division, which knows a thing or two about how to make a sub-$30K sedan perform. The G8 offers Korean-style value with GM-style solidity, a real achievement.

4) Pontiac G6 convertible: a blend of styling, performance, and class with an accessible price that would have made headlines if it said "Toyota" on it.

5) Saab, provided GM makes good on their bid to sell it off: they lose the 9-5 wagon, which is probably the only vehicle on the road that can offer SUV interior capacity, a European driving dynamic (because it is...), good performance, and 30+ on the highway. Actually, the VW Passat wagon might be able to pull off the same feat, and having noted that, it might be of interest to point out that VW is actually turning a profit.

So, I guess GM must think that it can just offer a few high-end, world-class cars such as the CTS-V and the Corvette and keep them around as icons, but base their volume sales on a bunch of incredibly bland, numb-handling "bread-and-butter" sedans and cross-overs. Do they realize that today they are out-classed by rivals to such a degree that this isn't going to work?

I think their choice is simple. If this is their chosen path, then they should ditch cars altogether and stick to what they really do do best, which is pickup trucks. And then, don't let those slip too!

Another rare re-appearance in the blogosphere: DynDNS alternative

I first started using as a dynamic DNS redirect service a few years back, back when it was an excellent service. It was free as long as I renewed my domain listings every 30 days (they were nice enough to send an email warning me when a domain was about to expire), and it was directly supported by my Netgear router, which would automatically update my DynDNS account whenever my IP address changed. Pretty awesome for a free service, and for a while I was seriously considering upgrading to a paid account.

Unfortunately the service has crumbled to the point of non-usability. For a while I've routinely been having to re-create my account after it would just cease to exist, less than 30 days since it was last updated, with no email warning from them at all. I patiently kept re-creating my account each time this would happen until this past week, when again my account had disappeared with no warning. When I tried to re-create my account, I entered my usual spam gourmet email address ( domain) in the email field, and their system rejected it, popping up a message claiming they had banned email addresses from that domain. Normally when a company blocks domains it because spammers have been sending spam from the domains. But, if you're fighting spam, you don't go blocking spam gourmet domains.

I decided to email them to ask why they had done this and to see if it was in error. Their "contact us" link gave me two options: log in using my DynDNS account and then click the "support" link, or send an email to them from my personal email account to their "support" address. Obviously, I could only do the latter. So I did. A few minutes later I got back the following message:


We do not recognize your email address
(my Y! address), so your message
has NOT been submitted to Support. We require that you
correspond from the email address on the account so we can better handle
your query and to protect the security of your account.

I was speechless. How stunningly stupid can they be? How is someone who is having trouble creating an account supposed to get help? Anyway, there is absolutely NO way I'm going to register for a service from a site like this using a non-disposable email address. The logical only explanation I can think of is that they might now base their business model on selling the email addresses of subscribers to spammers, so they have to dis-allow the use of any disposable email addresses when a person signs up for the service (but I really, REALLY hope not).

Anyway, I feel badly complaining about a free service that's served me well in the past when it could just be a huge oversight on their part, but I didn't feel like dealing with it any longer in any case, so I found a better one: FreeDNS. Same type of redirect service, no expiration date. So far, so good.