Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sacred Cow: Offroad coupe

In the spirit of being more positive, this edition of Sacred Cow will not criticize an overhyped notion, but rather praise an undeservingly overlooked one.

For a lot longer than I can remember, manufacturers have built concept cars in the form of offroad coupes. The oldest of the current crop is probably the Audi Steppenwolf - originally slated to see production as an A3 Allroad, but axed in Berndt Pischetzrieder's war on needless niche models. There have been plenty since then, notables including the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution (the shape of the Dakar hero that never made it to showrooms) and the Range Sportster.

It could be argued that the original offroad sportscar was the dune buggy, but the notion undoubtedly traces its roots to the Lamborghini LM002 at least. But, while I believe you could get Brabus to build you a 640bhp turbocharged V12 three-door Geländewagen if you asked nicely, proper offroad coupes have been notable by their lack of presence. The powers-that-be simply don't think there is a market.

In reality, there is. There are a lot of places on the planet where the road quality does not match the concentration of wealth. In the winter especially, SUVs are desirable even for urban use simply because they give you the confidence to proceed over rough ground - and city streets can be very rough. These cars are also very often devoid of passengers, and hardly ever carry more than one. It's hard to design an evocative, gorgeous SUV - personally I am partial to even the garden-variety Pajero, but the only one enjoying universal acclaim seems to be the Range Rover Sport. If you stop thinking of it as a two-box wagon on big wheels, things can get a lot more interesting.

In the age of platform sharing, it is not that expensive to spin a car like this off an established model line. It's purely a matter of will; unfortunately the decision-makers live in a whole different world from the target audience.

The only true offroad coupe you could actually go and buy was the Mega Track. But it was mind-bogglingly expensive, and only five are known to have been built.

Three of them are in Russia.
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Monday, November 28, 2005

Hooray for gameplay

So, Dad's old machine finally kicked the bucket. I took the opportunity to flex the company's connections and get a discount on a new workstation. Athlon 3000+, a gig of memory and a 6600GT. An infinite improvement over the Athlon XP 1600/256mb/GeForce MX400 that we were stuck with for the last four years. Dad doesn't believe in upgrades.

And here's the thing: although pretty decent, it is by no means top of the line. Which means that it will not provide effortless performance on the brand new games, and instead I have been trying out the ones I've had lying around for some time, waiting for the hardware to make use of them. Namely Far Cry, True Crime: Streets of LA, and TOCA Race Driver 2.

Now, Far Cry is a game most renowned for its extraordinary beauty. It actually auto-rated the new machine as Very High on all accounts, but then it is a year old at least. I started it up, and... to be honest, was unimpressed. Oh, it's pretty alright, but despite the fact that I'm a shooter person myself (Serious Sam: Second Encounter is the most likely contender for my favourite game of all time, along with the original Unreal), it just didn't pull me in. First impressions are important, and the impression I got was, "run to the next location, shoot people in the face, keep running". It doesn't have the ambience of Unreal - which was the only game that completely terrified me in God mode - or the carnage factor of Serious Sam; graphics will only get you so far.

True Crime was infinitely better. In a couple of days (and using a trainer) I completed the core storyline. I am quite impressed by the idea of presenting different endings depending on in-game behavior, and intend to try for the two better resolutions to the plot. I'm not as convinced by the pressure to be Good Cop - KOTOR showed that it is possible to provide equally involving motivations for both good and evil. The other annoying thing is the sneak and follow missions, which in my mind have no place in a game that is supposed to be the more violent alternative to Grand Theft Auto. Otherwise it feels like a mod for Vice City, which is not at all a bad thing. Oh, and the console-port controls are preposterous.

And then there's TOCA 2. I actually got it to run on the old machine, but the framerate was too low for the game to be reasonably played. Now, it runs smoothly and looks great, and I'm really enjoying it. Still, it can't match the ultimate driving game of all time: Colin McRae Rally 2.

You can see what I'm getting at here. As a PC gamer, I am resolved to the fact that hardware becomes obsolete quickly. But the studios tend to lose the plot, and graphics is only a support branch of the industry - neither Far Cry nor Doom 3 are in any way revelations. I played through Half Life 2 on the old PC, and then got a chance to try it out on a friend's more powerful machine; it was certainly much more beautiful, but that's not why the game was so good.

At the end of the day, it's really all about gameplay.
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Thursday, November 24, 2005

The universal MP3 player dock

It's not like The Register to succumb to hype in the face of reason, but it does occasionally happen. It appears that Microsoft is pushing for an open standard to MP3 player connectors, a rival to the dock on the iPod.

The article does mention that the iPod dock was born out of necessitty rather than engineering brilliance, but only after mentioning that most other manufacturers "simply stuck in a USB port and and left it at that". The author then goes on to claim that it was the proprietary connector, made available to third-party vendors, that enabled the appearance of so many iPod accessories.

Now, I'm sorry, but this is a clear case of substituting cause for effect. The iPod dock did obviously come about because Apple wanted to provide both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity, and needed a charger plug as well - but didn't want to spoil the lines of their beautiful plastic box with too many holes. This is not in any way exceptional; if you look at mobile phones, each and every single one of them has an iPod-style flat port, where you attach the charger, or the sync cable, or (on most models) the handsfree. These ports are both proprietary and defiantly non-standard; the specifications and even physical dimensions change not only between manufacturers, but between model lines and generations.

The iPod solution itself is far from elegant. They made a huge effort to support FireWire, but that format has since become irrelevant - USB 2.0 is all the speed you'll realistically need, and this is coming from a person who regularly dumps episodes of Top Gear onto his Archos media player - and even obsolete: most new laptops and motherboards aren't actually wired for IEEE 1394 any more. In an ironic development mentioned in the Register article, Apple itself has dumped FireWire support from new generations of the iPod. As for power, my Motorola V500's charger takes up three pins out of about 20. And I can charge the phone off a USB port, just by sticking in the cable connector.

But the biggest crime against common sense committed by the abovementioned author is the assertion that the numerous iPod accesories came about because of the connector. As a matter of fact they appeared in spite of it. Let's be fair - the iPod may not objectively be the best product on the market, but it is infinitely desirable. The most popular accessory by far is the FM transmitter, and that is a two-bit chip replicated by every OEM factory in Taiwan. It doesn't even use the connector, but rather the bog standard headphone line out! The other accessories are generally either speakers of varying complexity (and daftness), or devices to attach the iPod to another system as an audio source. The iPod has so much shiny stuff available for it because a lot of people have it. Sure, Apple made it happen by letting the Taiwanese take a peak at the connector specs (an uncharacteristic move), but it would still be a hell of a lot easier if it was straight USB.

And that's what Microsoft's new unified MP3 player standard will be - same as the old unified MP3 player standard. The speed of USB 2.0 is sufficient even for HDD-based units with gig upon gig of storage, plus it can charge things well enough - the Motorola V3 RAZR is just one device that gets charges exclusively through a mini-USB port - plus it is a ready format for controlling pretty much anything. You have to remember that the audio player pretty much always connects as a peripheral, and if the Archos PMA400 has USB host functionality for hooking up a keyboard, it sure as hell won't be a problem for the OEMs to stick the right circuit in the next shiny white Belkin box.

No, what Microsoft is really after is not a unified hardware standard - Apple's a hardware company, but MS is a software one, as the Reg article rightly mentions - but a unified software standard. A generic driver that will allow absolutely any device, even the hard-drive ones (and not just Archoses either) to mount on any system right out of the box, and enable full access. USB inputs on car stereos? It's happening as we speak.
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Lovely.

Warner got his house.

I'm happy for him. Truly. He's an irritating sort of person and I only know him from the Circle Jerk board, but the news that he got the log cabin he grew up in, his name still written in the concrete of the basement, just put a smile on my face - for no serious reason.

A small Christmas miracle, I'd say.

Congrats, you wanker!
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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Proof by repeated assertion

So I'm watching TV, some American show, and they bring in a guy that apparently sings cowboy songs. Here's the peculiar part: all through the show they keep referring to him as "Country Western star John Doe!". And yes, they actually enunciate the exclamation mark.

This is what Joel Spolsky calls proof by repeated assertion. The absolute majority of people around the world - in fact the absolute majority of people in America - do not follow Country Western music, and have no idea who the guy is; so the presenters are forced to keep reminding everyone that he's a big star. (Incidentally I've seen this happen before with cowboy singers in particular.)

My best guess as to what causes this is the fact that Country Western seems to be a field of amateurs by definition. To be big, you need to look like the guy or gal next door, and you don't need exceptional musical talent either.

It's an interesting phenomenon for me as a linguist, and a person with at least some basic training in semiotics. Normally singers are sold on image (who cares if Robbie Williams has anything profound to say?) or exceptional talent. Looks are more useful than talent though. Despite the fact that this is an area where people listen a lot - and portable music players have been a major blow to all-show-no-go MTV darlings - we still receive the most information through visuals. But Country Western can't make itself too polished, and the music is only good if it sounds like your best friend strumming his guitar by the fire on a nice camping trip. Unfortunately you still need to promote the artists, to make them into big names. And how do you do that?

Proof by repeated assertion, that's how.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Differentials and torque steer

Here's another useful reference article.

A lot of beginner car enthusiasts have trouble understanding differentials, both regular and limited-slip ones. In fact it is a very simple device. So simple in fact, that the first vehicle that is considered in modern terms a car, the Mercedes Simplex of 1903, was distinguishable from other self-propelling carriages by the fact that it had one. (Among other things.)

The differential is a part that splits torque, usually into two equal parts. It has an input shaft and two output shafts, one per each wheel (or axle if it's the central diff in an AWD car). Now, when a car turns, the outer wheels take a wider curve than the inner ones, covering more distance and thus traveling at a higher speed. This happens because the axles have differentials, as opposed to just solid pieces of metal connecting the two wheels.

The differential is made up of gears. The input shaft has a cone-shaped gear at the end. The output shafts are just simple gears. (Their teeth are cut as curved, not straight - this helps them interlock properly and cuts down on noise; straight-cut gears on old offroaders and such tend to produce a loud whine.)

Now, the cone works just like a set of gears, each smaller than the previous one. At the base of the cone, the gear ratio is high and the torque is low. At the tip of the cone, the gear ratio is low and the torque is high. While driving straight on a dry surface with good grip, the output gears sit at the same height on the cone. The gear ratio of the spin, transferred from the input shaft to the output shafts, is the same. Both wheels spin at the same speed.

When a car turns, the outside wheel spins more quickly, so its gear travels towards the base of the cone; the gear ratio gets taller, with the output gear making more revolutions per one cone revolution. The inside wheel travels away from the base of the cone, the gear ratio gets shorter, and its output gear makes less revolutions. Effectively this is the same as the outside wheel shifting up a gear and the inside wheel shifting down a gear. This is what happens when both wheels have the same amount of grip.

But the differential is primarily meant to transfer torque, and torque goes down the path of least resistance. The more grip the wheel has on the ground, the more resistance to spinning it feeds back to its gear - and the less grip it has, the less resistance it gives.

Now, here is the counter-intuitive bit that took me a while to figure out, pondering over a simple drawing of a diff. Resistance makes the gear away from the base of the cone, looking for a shorter gear ratio and less spin. In normal circumstances both wheels have more grip than torque, so when you feed the grip in, the wheels simply start turning and you go forward. But torque really just wants to make the wheel spin freely, so if one wheel has significantly less grip, it will be as if the other wheel is stuck. Its gear will move so far up the cone, looking for less revolutions and more torque to move it, that it will simply pop off the tip of the cone. On the other hand, the wheel with no grip will use less torque to start slipping and its gear will be happy at the base of the cone, spinning quickly but getting little torque.

So you see, torque does travel down the path of least resistance - but not because more torque can be used there, but because less torque is required there. Torque is lazy like that.

To combat this situation, where one wheel is spinning and the other is stationary, engineers use a limited-slip differential. It has a sort of bypass gearing setup, where a certain amount of torque from one output shaft is fed to the other. As long as they are both spinning at the same speed and getting the same amount of torque, it doesn't matter; but if one wheel pops off the tip of the cone and loses torque, it will still get some from other wheel. Limited-slip diffs are rated in percent, as in, how much difference in percent can there be between the amount of torque the wheels are getting.

Active differentials, like the ones on the Mitsubishi Evo or Subaru WRX STI, are limited-slip diffs that have electronics controlling the rate of torque transfer through the bypass.

Locking diffs are much simples. You push a button (or, much more satisfyingly, pull a lever) and the gears are simply held in place, not allowed to travel up and down the cone. Both wheels get half of the torque, but they can't move at different speeds, so turning is tricky. Useful for offroaders though.

And torque steer? Oh, quite simple. In a FWD car, for packaging reasons, the output shafts are different lengths (because the gearbox hooks up right to the differential, it usually can't be in the middle of the axle). Because it takes a bit of torque to spin the shaft itself, more if it's longer, one wheel will get more torque than the other. More torque on one side means that the car will pull in the opposite direction. Besides, differentials are made so that the torque actually travels to one side before the other - normally it makes no difference, but if there's a lot of torque to put down, it does; which is why very powerful RWD cars will throw the tail end to one side under hard acceleration.
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Monday, November 21, 2005

Ah dammit.

I resent this. It's very close to being the betrayal of everything I believe in. But there is no other choice: fairness is paramount, and while I hate to admit it, I have to concede.

The BMW Z4 coupe looks good.

It's like one of 3D puzzles that you have to stare at. Out of a jumble of pointless lines and intersections comes a well-sorted sportscar. The roadster is awkward, although probably the least objectionable of the early Bangle designs, but fitted with a roof, it suddenly works.

Not the first time it's happened, either. The last E46 models (the previous 3-series) got a restyled front end in their final years. In pictures, it looks like crap, but in real life it actually fits in very well with the overall shape of the car.

I am one of the very few people who liked the shape of the Z3 coupe. Especially in M Coupe guise, with the wide rear arches, I think it looks wonderful - very purposeful, a proper sportscar that puts function over form. The function is to take two passengers and a reasonable amount of luggage around the continent, and at this it excels much more than any 911. It is also a great sports car - a popular choice with privateer teams in GT racing, getting good results with minor modifications and no factory support whatsoever. It is quite possible that the M Coupe will be my midlife crisis car. (That or a Z8, if things go well.)

And as long as I'm making confessions, I saw an iPod Nano today. It's still overpriced, and I'm not convinced by the small size - I like my gadgets chunky - but it is very desirable.

So there.
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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Now that that's over with...

So, I sold the car. Wanted 5000 for it, got 4000. (This is in Small Country Dollars, so bear with me.) Over the seven months I had it, I invested approximately 1000 in changing the oil, air filter and front brake pads, another 1000 in two new tyres, 500 in a new battery and 500 in welding up the exhaust. Considering I bought it for 10500, that brings the total money spent to (10500-4000)+3000=9500. Now, comprehensive insurance for even a supermini would be at least 500 a month, on top of the third-party I'm paying. So, not counting petrol or mandatory insurance, I spent about US$100 per month on running the Honda. If I also had to pay for comprehensive, my comparative budget would be $65 per month, with no money down. What sort of new car do you think I could have had for that sort of money?

So in my mind, the Thousand Dollar Car Theory is valid.

In other news: I decided to try Google AdSense. I've been getting a lot of hits for the AUX article and the taxonomy ones seem to be rather popular as well - so I'll see if I can make a buck on it. Hey, Google helped me find my inflatable dildo job, which paid for the Mazda, the Honda and the Archos, so it can't be all useless. I also turned on the squiggly words in comments - while I am against the concept in principle, under the theory that I must make it as easy as possible for people to post, it seems that most of what I'm getting is comment spam. If you really have something to tell me, you're at least vaguely motivated, so the squiggly word is not likely to put you off.

Google released a brand new Web-oriented utility today. (Are you old school enough to remember the word 'utility'?) I'm not sure what it's meant to do, honestly, ostensibly it analyzes your web traffic and referrals and tells you how to better drive traffic to your site - a glorified counter, basically. Anyway, I thought I'd give it a go, and put it in the template according to the instructions. Except the checker they have can't find it here on Antyx. Isn't it hilarious that Google's brand new toy doesn't work with Google's Blogger?

Or maybe it just doesn't work in Opera.
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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A real spirit-booster

Well, I knew it couldn't last. I tried so hard to banish anxiety from my life, but lately it's been a bit depressing. Not for any good reason, but a lot of smaller ones. The insurance has run out on the car, and I haven't sold it yet, so I'm having to take the bus to work - which isn't horribly uncomfortable, but I still resent it. And because sudden costs have piled up - a new battery for the car, winter driving courses, the cost of renewing my driving license, now the bank wants this year's interest on my student loan - I have not saved any money since my Sweden trip. I'm not starving, but it's still annoying.

Then it's the little things. I bought a new set of earbuds for the Archos, and they turned out to be crap. I found pictures of my old Volvo, which nearly drove me to tears - I really loved that car. And then there's the obvious. Christmas is coming up, and guess what - I have nobody to share it with.

But today it snowed. For the first time this year it snowed properly. It started after lunch, and by the time it got dark the scene was amazing: the black world outside the curved glass walls of the 12th floor, and snowflakes dashing past, reflecting the inside light. I leave the office, and it's a perfect snowfall - the world populated by huge flakes as far as the eye can see. I stand at the bus stop, looking at a streetlight with a couple cars parked underneath, and fir trees just on the edge of the lit area. It's amazing. This is Bridget Jones christmas snow: it doesn't happen in real life. Except it does. It is.

I'm sure it will all be melted and forgotten by the morning. But as I'm standing there, outside the bus shelter, letting the enormous flakes land on me - I'm happy.
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Monday, November 14, 2005

Wow.

Bloggers are assholes.

I mean, there are bloggers out there who are consumed by their assholes until their existence consists of nothing but it.*

But there are also bloggers out there who are self-obsessed dicks.

Case in point. I've talked before about Jalopnik - I've since had a mildly amusing email conversation with their columnist about his critique of articles in proper car mags, which I found terribly unprofessional - but I have to hand it to them, every time I've seen someone point out a factual error in their copy, they admitted it.

They link to a regular feature on the Hecklerspray blog, which talks about the good points of cars generally considered to be bad. (CAR started running a similar feature a few months ago - hmm...) Anyway, the last installment was about the Lada Niva. Their post says that the Niva went out of production in 1998. This didn't seem quite right to me, so I went on the Lada factory website; lo and behold, it's still very much in production, and in fact Lada's most popular export model for Western Europe. This I pointed out in a comment on the Hecklerspray website. Instead of admitting their error and rewording the copy to say it was simply not sold in Britain after 1998, they... well, you can click on the link at the beginning of the previous paragraph and see.

I don't really want to fill AnTyx with tales of woe about people being nasty to me, but this seems sufficiently weird - and very much in the spirit of human folly that I discuss here regularly.

* - an inside joke for the circle jerk regulars.
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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pipe dream: Pay-as-you-go software

Saw a movie yesterday with Whoopie Goldberg, where she played a Wall Street analyst who had to invent a white, male partner for clients to take her seriously. This character then obviously took on a life of its own, eventually even getting a subpoena from the SEC. Which had me wondering how something like that could ever happen; I'm used to living in Small Country, where everyone has an identity code and there is a comprehensive database of the population.

Just one more of those things which Americans (and apparently Brits) wouldn't think of as consistent with a free, democratic state. In truth though, it works wonders. We're the first country to successfully implement online voting, and that couldn't happen without digital signatures. Using your ID card and a PIN number, you can securely identify yourself online.

Which leads to an interesting idea I had upon hearing all the recent ranting and raving about the Sony rootkit. If every person on the planet was identifiable online (something that IPv6 intends to do anyway, as far as I understand), the entire software distribution model could be changed.

Imagine a world where the code itself is free. The Open Source dream has become a reality. Access control has reached a point where it no longer makes sense to limit the amount of copies - thus exploiting the natural killer feature of digital technology, the ability to reproduce content without loss of quality. You can download any software you want, in fact most of what you need probably comes preinstalled on your computer. The business model is pay-as-you-go. Because the Internet knows who you are, you can pay the authors for using it, not for having it on your machine. Go to an Internet cafe, and have full access to Photoshop Professional, if you've paid for it. Couple this with the server-based functionality, and IT gets taken to a whole new level.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a new idea, but pay-as-you-go isn't currently useful for software, simply because micropayments are too obtrusive. But think of the interface used by allofmp3.com. You charge your account with a certain amount of cash, in $10 increments, and then download music at your leisure; the account is debited depending on how much of the website's bandwidth you're using. (And because you pay for bandwidth, they get to claim that they're a broadcaster, not a retailer. As such they only have to pay a nominal fee to the relevant copyright protection agency, which is why you can download the new Rasmus album for two dollars.

Alternatively, think how good this would be for independent developers. Specialized tools are hugely expensive, and even I, with my everything-on-the-Internet-should-be-free mindset, concede that for this purpose you need to pay the authors. Yet a startup, or a single coder working on his better mousetrap on the weekends, cannot possibly afford all the tools that would make their life so much easier. Even if you can afford the license, how can you tell that it's what you really need?

But what if you only needed a license for commercial use? What if you could download and use every framework, every environment, every bell and whistle without limitation, until you sell your first copy? If you know you'll make money off of it, then you can shell out full retail for Adobe's finest.

Not that this will ever happen. But hey - a guy can dream!
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Friday, November 11, 2005

The Nearly Complete Taxonomy of Cars, Part II

The segmentation of vehicles is a complicated matter, mostly because of scale creep. Manufacturers need to convince buyers that the new model is better, so it gets bigger - although not necessarily roomier; my '82 Mazda three-door had more space in the rear seats than some of today's cars twice its length. New cars are also much heavier. The Skoda Fabia, built on the same platform as the current VW Polo, is bigger in every dimension than the original Golf - and weighs a ton and a half.

Body shapes are simpler. The basics are easily recognizable. Still, there are some fringe cases where it's hard to identify the style properly. There is also sub-classification, not terribly official, but nonetheless useful.
  • The classic car shape is a sedan. This is a car with four doors and a separate boot - a luggage compartment that opens separate from the glass above it. Note that the boot doesn't have to be in the back (cf old rear-engined Skodas) and doesn't even have to be horizontal; the original Mini was actually a two-door sedan, because it had a bottom-hinged luggage hatch that did not extend to the rear window. Also, a sedan is not necessarily a distinct three-box shape; if you think of the classic Saab 900 coupe, there was barely a transfer from roofline to trunk lid.
  • The sporty version of a sedan is a coupe. This has a separate boot and minus two doors; if you want to be strict, there is a distinction between a coupe and a two-door sedan. The latter has the same interior space as a four-door, whereas a coupe is a 2+2 at best. A great example of a two-door sedan is a BMW E30 (the 80s 3-series), whereas the succeeding E36 had severely less rear seat space. Basically, if it looks like they just erased the rear doors, it's a two-door sedan; to be a coupe, it has to look like it was designed like that from the ground up.
  • In smaller segments (C and below), the most popular bodystyle is the hatchback. Essentially this is any car that has three or five doors and is shorter than the equivalent sedan. Here you have a set of subclassifications. The classic hatchback is a MkIII and up Golf, with the tailgate close to vertical. If the rear window slopes, then turning into a dropoff sheet of metal, it's called a liftback - the term was, to the best of my knowledge, introduced by Toyota with the bug-eye Corolla of the 90s, which in five door guise had a very different trunk solution compared to the three-door. There is a subtle difference between this and the notchback which, as you may guess from the name, has a notch in the trunk line; the most obvious notchback shape is the Skoda Octavia, which actually looks like a sedan more than anything else.
  • The estate, aka station wagon, is distinguishable from the classic hatchback through length - it tends to use the floorplan of the sedan, and in some cases (like the new Opel Vectra) is actually longer than that. You can get confused sometimes as to whether a car is a hatchback or an estate, recently with the Kia Rio; however, because that car is demonstrably shorter than the sedan, it cannot be an estate.
  • The fastback is properly a type of hatchback; the problem is that a lot of sports cars these days have tailgates instead of bootlids. It would be improper to call them three-door hatchbacks, so this term has been adopted for things like the Hyundai Coupe/Tiburon, and the upcoming Jaguar XJ. Basically the difference between a notchback and a fastback is the same as the difference between a two-door sedan and a coupe.
  • The shooting brake is a rare breed these days, especially with the demise of BMW's metal-top Z3. It is a coupe with a raised glasshouse, a gentleman's touring car intended to carry enough luggage for a fortnight's blast around the continent. It doesn't even need more than two seats, or 2+2 at best. It's meant for speed, not space - and it's coming back; there are reports that the next-generation Audi TT will in fact be a shooting brake.

Now, there are fringe cases not covered by these increasingly specific guidelines. One such is the Mazda RX-8. Yes, technically it has four doors; but because you cannot actually open the rear ones independently, I'm willing to give it a little leeway and recognize it as a coupe. Especially since it is a proper sports car.

Oh, and for all my American readers, a clue: it is not pronounced 'coop'.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Nearly Complete Taxonomy of Cars, Part I

Based on the fact that the AUX input article has been giving me more Google hits than any other (with the Offroader 101 one a close second), I thought it might be nice to write another useful reference piece.

Car makers these days are obsessed with crossovers. The classic market is saturated and has established players, it's not really possible to achieve meaningful growth in that sector; whereas with completely new ideas, you can snatch away a competitor's customer base. Of course the problem is that your own buyers might start moving away from the staple diet - like buying the brilliant Mercedes CLS instead of the bland E-class - so you need to make your new model different from the sort of thing you usually do.

The last big thing was niche models; unfortunately there is a very good reason why it's a niche, why nobody has been selling a million cars a year to this audience - there is simply not enough demand to justify development. Not that this market has been without its success stories, which used a combination of reasonable creativity and existing platforms to excellent result. The Audi TT made an enormous amount of money for VAG; they had to invest in tooling for the new body, but underneath it was still a Golf, the development costs for which have been recouped many times over. With the New Beetle, they didn't even need to spring for real aluminium in the interior.

These days it's crossovers. The idea is that existing segmentation is somehow inappropriate, that people's needs have moved away from traditional sedans, wagons and hatchbacks. Of course if you give them just a little bit more functionality, you can ask for more in price - and it's not more expensive to develop an urban semi-SUV than it does a traditional sedan. In fact it's well known that the bigger the car, the easier it is to make good.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, with dividing lines being blurred by crossovers - not to mention normal model growth from generation to generation - I feel it is important to remind ourselves of the established taxonomy for classes of car. In Europe, the following segments are generally recognized:
  • A-segment. These are small urban runabouts, ill-equipped on the motorway but quite appropriate on crowded streets. There aren't many of these left, but notables include the Daewoo Matiz/Chevrolet Spark, VW Lupo and now the Fox, and most famously, the original Smart. These cars often have engines under a liter in size, and offer only the most cursory rear legroom; also, don't expect them to be proper five-seaters. Basically this is the smallest vehicle that can still be reasonably termed a car.
  • B-segment. Known as superminis in UK parlance, these are what you get when you need a small car with decent room. Typical examples are the Skoda Fabia, Nissan Micra and Fiat Punto. There has been a major trend for making these cars more vertical, cramming decent passenger space into a small footprint; examples such as the Opel Meriva, Renault Modus and Honda Jazz are all quite adequate family cars in European terms. Interestingly enough the Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1/Peugeot 107 are officially termed sub-B - not because of size certainly, but rather because all three companies have significantly more upmarket B-segment offerings.
  • C-segment, also known as the Golf-class. Just like the warships classified on the first of their kind, the name comes from the fact that Volkswagen Golf is the founder and unassailable leader of this segment - although the Ford Focus certainly has something to say about that. The Japanese are very strong contenders in this class, with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Formerly the biggest market in Europe, it has recently been overtaken by the B-segment.
  • C-segment minivans. This is a fairly recent development, but popular enough to merit a separate mention. The subdivision was started by the Renault Megane Scenic in 1995, and right now this is one of the bestselling ones. The secret of success is that by combining a Golf-sized footprint with a high roof, you can create a proper sense of exceptional space. Mentions go to the Opel Zafira, Toyota Corolla Verso and the new Mazda5.
  • D-segment. Whereas lower classes were almost universally ruled by hatchbacks, this is the first level at which we can see the classic sedan shape dominate. It is also the minimal classically appropriate segment for premium manufacturers. Typical examples are the Ford Mondeo, Honda Accord and Opel Vectra in the everyman section and the Holy Trinity of 3-series/C-class/A4 in the luxury department.
  • D-segment minivans. This is where minivans were born, in Europe at least. People carriers were introduced by Renault's Espace in the late 80s, and since then this has been the soccer mom's vehicle of choice. A Passat-sized footprint allows for genuine seven-seat space while still retaining manouverability around town. Major players, besides the founder, are the Peugeot 807/Citroen C8, the ancient Volkswagen Sharan and the outsized Chrysler Voyager, built for European purposed in Austria.
  • E-segment. This is well and truly the realm of luxury. The E-class, 5-series and A6 reign supreme, casually fighting off challenges from the likes of the Jaguar S-type and Lexus GS. Non-premium cars are few and far between, with the Opel Omega (beloved of cab drivers everywhere) discontinued and the quirky French offerings, consisting of the pointless Peugeot 607 and beautifully excentric Citroen C6, rarely seen outside their home market.
  • F-segment. The vehicles of choice for plutocrats. The Germans are still in charge, although the Jaguar XJ is a genuinely excellent car and the Maserati Quattroporte a compelling alternative. Interestingly enough, these cars - in standard wheelbases especially - are not as roomy as you might expect. The F-segment also contains, technically and purely because of size, the Chrysler 300C, which seduces with its looks and practicality: a lot of car for well-specced 3-series money.
  • Urban SUVs. The choice of soccer moms who don't want the stigma of the minivan. Based on C/D-segment platforms with token AWD capability, these offer more safety and a chance to see over the next car's roof. Notables are the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Santa Fe/Tucson; interestingly enough the Land Rover Freelander seems to be the main European offering, unless you seriously consider the useless BMW X3.
  • SUVs proper. Don't confuse these with offroaders! Big SUVs have no business off the beaten track, but you can expect a bit more confidence in snowbanks. Honorable mention to the VW Touareg, Volvo XC90 and BMW X5.

That's the simplified explanation. Join me next time, when I explain the difference between bodystyles.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

The last refuge of white pop culture

In the spirit of the frank discussion of race recently held at the circle jerk board you can find from the link on the right, I would like to call your attention to a peculiar fact.

You hardly ever see a caucasian face on MTV any more.

Now, there are some eminently respectable black musicians - from the grand masters of jazz and soul, to modern acts of considerable substance. I have more than a few tracks by these folks on my Archos, and this is down to a simple fact: good music will always be good music.

Unfortunately what you see on MTV is not, for the most part, good music. It's not even good pop music. With the exception of a few gems, the world's premier music channel is full of crap. Now, white crap I can tolerate, but black crap I cannot, because it is alien to me and thus very grating; I realize quite well that an enormous part of MTV's audience is still white, but I'm sorry, I haven't quite been bombarded with glorification of the pimp&gangsta culture to put on a sweatsuit and two pounds of gilded jewellery.

Rock music has been a refuge of whiteness for a long time, although I am aware of its roots in the original R&B scene. Unfortunately there just isn't any good rock music coming out these days. I've done my best to listen to Coldplay, I honestly have, and I'm sorry - it sounds like a cat being pulled by the tail. Franz Ferdinand is good, but by now, spent; they are an interesting contrast to The Darkness, which also recycled British rock of yore, but had the benefit of proper musical genius as opposed to doing one thing with impeccable skill. Metal? Nu-metal is insipid. The golden boys right now are Green Day, and they are good, but desperately outgunned by the last Judas Priest album - it's excellent that the old guard is still there to provide a fix, but it's not moving the game on any, is it? Even my dear Scandinavians have been dropping the ball; The Rasmus, which made excellent music until they became huge, have now relegated themselves to formulaic goth rock for thirteen-year-old girls with LiveJournals. The Hives and their followers really do sound, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson, like they're banging bits of garden furniture together.

But there is a major segment of pop culture utterly dominated by white people, and it shows no sign of giving in. This is extreme sports - skating, inline, BMX, FMX... Turn on EX, or whatever they have in the States (ESPN?), and name me one black person regularly shown there. There are a few Asians, most notably the Yasutoko brothers who dominate inline vert, and the scene is very much international, but you really won't see a black face anywhere.

And hey - it's a lot more entertaining than MTV.
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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Who needs choice?

Many years ago, just as mobile phones were beginning to be commonplace, I had a Motorola d520 and wanted an Ericsson instead. I was desperately in desire of one of those flip-down models. I'm ashamed to say that this wasn't because of some outstanding engineering solution; instead it was because I saw an accessories shop sell a replacement bodyshell for an Ericsson flipdown that was made entirely out of unpolished wood.

What can I say - I was fifteen, and it was the coolest thing ever. In fact I did get a T10 shortly afterwards, but I never bought the bodyshell. Eventually I got an Ericsson A2618s - a remarkable model in many respects, not least of which was the easy replacement of the front and rear panels; you could buy new ones and interchange them at will. This feature was shared by a later model I used, a Siemens C55. But guess what? I have never in my entire life bought an aftermarket panel for a mobile phone. Ever.

It really is an excellent example of marketing think triumphing over common sense and an understanding of reality. The customer may want to have a choice of colors when buying a phone - it was a stroke of genius on Siemens's part to offer the outstanding M55 in both 'youthful' red-on-silver and serious black-on-grey schemes - but with the exception of a small demographic of pink & fluffy schoolgirls with too much allowance, nobody in their right mind would purposefully spend money on something quite as ridiculous as a clip-on panel. If you see a Nokia 5110 in green leopard print, you can be sure that the current owner got it used, and the mobile shop replaced the worn bodyshell with one they haven't been able to sell for half a decade.

To my great relief, clip-on body panels and their progressively questionable companions like the flashing antennas of 90s folk legend have gone the way of the dodo. Nokia is still selling to fashion victims, but at least they don't soil the image of their more proper models with aftermarket paraphernalia.

The meme is still alive and kicking though: in the world of mobile phones, the preposterous customization itch is being scratched by ringtones, logos, themes and screensavers. But car designers are just beginning to rediscover the whole thing. Some applications have been good (the perfume cartridge in the Citroen C4 is a genuinely good idea), some bad (does any Smart owner actually have more than one set of body panels?) and some downright laughable. At the Frankfurt auto show this year, BMW presented the concept car that will become the next-generation Mini. Among the innovations offered to young buyers with active lifestyles are customizable rims: a central spoke-and-hub assembly onto which the driver can mount clip-on design patterns to suit the mood and fashion of the moment.

That's right. They've just discovered hubcaps.
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Friday, November 04, 2005

Meant to be broken

Before I drove my car into a post, I was already worried about it. November is the last month in which I can drive it on public roads without passing the annual checkup. The reasons why it may have had problems with it are the smoke coming out of the tailpipe when the engine is cold, and the surface rust.

I mentioned this to Mutton, who was mildly surprised by the strictness of our rules; apparently in Britain the only rust that matters is structural. I proceeded to tell him that it was essentially a question of money; rather than taking my chances and maybe having to repair the damage and pay for the checkup again, I would simply acquire the necessary paperwork on a, shall we say, commercial basis.

Not something that's done in England either.

Now, this is certainly not something the local DMV takes kindly to, although they really have no way of stopping it; but it does raise a point worth discussing. Even within the strict confines of administrative and criminal codes in Europe, often enough
the stricktness of laws is compensated by the fact that you don't have to follow them.
It is, in my opinion, an important and overall positive factor. As I've said recently, there is a lot of room in legal practice for judging a case on its merits, rather than verified against the statute; and there is even more room in the everyday interaction between citizens and overseeing bodies for the exercise of common sense.

Bill Bryson told in one of his books, don't remember which, of his first encounter with this phenomenon: European laws being unnecessarily strict, and a local explaining to him that it was all right, because they could choose which laws they would enforce. This attitude startled Bryson, and he commented on it in a strictly negative way, but I find it eminently worthy. Laws are created by people for people; they are rules for a society to live by. If one person chooses not to submit to these rules, he is free to leave, or be isolated; but the society in general has the right to choose the way the laws are used, ignore some which are outdated or have been passed to deal with a specific situation, and invoke others selectively or in a reduced way.

If we were to put the letter above the spirit, there would be no need for human law enforcement. Society is fundamentally an interaction between people. The rules of this interaction can be, and should be, flexible and dynamic - and above all, reasonable.
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Thursday, November 03, 2005

The iPod in-car entertainment concept.

I've spoken before of various ways to connect portable audio players to a car's head unit - and I still get a steady trickle of Google hits from that article. There are some interesting developments that I've not mentioned back then, such as the desire of car stereo companies to integrate Flash-based players; Jalopnik ran a piece on a plan to put a USB port in the glovebox, ostensibly to stop the driver fiddling about while in motion, although in practice it will achieve nothing more than have you rummage for memory cards as opposed to CDs. I've actually already seen a head unit, made by some generic Taiwanese outfit - Mustek I think - that had both an SD/MMC slot and a USB port on the front panel itself.

And yet, there is a design that nobody has dared to implement so far. The absolutely most useful way to integrate an iPod into the ICE is to use a sunk dock.

The more diminutive iPods are easily smaller in size than a cassette, and even the fullsize model - including the 5th generation video one - will have no problem fitting inside a 1DIN head unit. Just replace the MC dock, leaving the usage similar: stick the iPod almost all of the way in, having it straddle the lock; then push on the edge to have it pop out. All of them seem to use the same connector spec, so a system of restraints that would enable a single device to deal with all models is simply an engineering task, surely one that requires skill and imagination, but eminently doable. Maybe do a side slot with a USB input for the Shuffle.

The head unit would then take over the iPod, with its own front panel interface, or even integrating with the wheel-mounted controls. (There's a thought: why don't they make the wheel-mount interface standard, so manufacturers can sell all cars with the controls in place and capable of operating any newer head unit?) A scheme like this is excellent for device safety - the iPod is held snugly, and because the stereo itself contains no moving parts, it can be improved tremendously.

I'm sure it will be done sooner or later, probably by the Taiwanese OEMs first and by the big names afterwards, but you heard it here first.

Oh, and this doesn't mean that I like Apple.
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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A jury of one's peers

Read this book a few months ago - David Lodge's Ginger, You're Barmy. It's a curious thing set decades ago, back when Britain still had conscription. Anyway, it has a scene where a man accidently kills himself during target practice, and the incident is investigated by something called the Coroner's Court. In this institution, the decision on whether the death was an accident or a suicide attempt (and therefore, whether the drill sergeant is responsible) was made by the coroner, who reviewed the scene and the body.

A very interesting idea! Trial by a jury of one's peers is considered a fundamental human right these days, and like all such things it was eminently sensible when it was established. Concepts like reasonable doubt were useful back in the days when the majority of crime was cattle theft or bar brawl killings.

But these days the legal system faces a major problem in the fact that in complicated cases, the juries are not equipped to understand the evidence. CSI-type situations are one thing, but let's consider economic crime. Essentially if the principle was followed to the letter, the defendant would literally be tried by a jury of his peers - stock brokers, accountants, analysts, etc. It is, basically, an extension of the common law concept, where the criminality of actions is decided on the merits of the individual case. The peers decide whether the person on trial had done something wrong.

The problem, besides the shortage of any jurors, not to mention qualified ones, is of course bias. Common law cannot be the sole basis of society, there needs to be legislation because the peers may not consider it a transgression if they dislike the plaintiff and in their hearts applaud the actions of the defendant. The trial would need someone acquainted with the details of the field, but at the same time unbiased, trained in the social and legislative definitions of right and wrong, and capable of making the relevant decisions. Interestingly enough that type of person is a fixture of the legal system already. The judge is assumed to be impartial, and in most cases a specialist in cases of a specific sort. In criminal cases, the jury simply decides guilt, and it is the judge who decides punishment.

So if we accept it as a given that the judge is impartial, then can we not establish the institution of the Specialist's Court? Would it not be more appropriate, and essentialy more fair, to let the guilt of a perpetrator of complex crime to be decided by the legal personality that is best equipped to do so?
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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An opportunity has presented itself.

That is, an opportunity to test the Thousand Dollar Car Theory.

I reversed into a pole today. Fuck.

The bodywork is bent, and the left tail light is cracked. Considering the fact that the technical inspection runs out this month and the insurance on the 12th... not worth fixing.

I'll proceed to try and sell it, try to get something out of it at least. If not, I'll just junk it. Once it's done, I shall calculate the cost per month (not including insurance and gas), and report on the proceedings.

I also now need to find a new Thousand Dollar Car. There's a Mercedes W126 on sale right now that looks kind of promising (though it's more cash than I have), but I'm not going to give up on the dream - there was an automatic Volvo 240 sedan on sale a couple months ago for 200 Euro, so miracles do happen.

Still, from April 14th when I bought the car, to November 12th when I shall cease actively using it, it will have served me for longer than the previous two machines combined.
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