Tom Ashbrook and his guest from the Detroit Auto Show were salivating over high-tech cars and hyperventilating about the day when cars will drive themselves.

The first caller to the show said that he will never give up his 1999 Chevrolet because he’s just too old-fashioned. He uses a car to get from point A to point B and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. “You wouldn’t want a car that could drive you to work while you read the paper?” Tom asked him. He hesitated a moment before sticking to his guns and answering, “No, I’m just too old-fashioned for that.”

Oh, please. If you have a car only to get from one place to another, I don’t believe for a second that you wouldn’t want to sit back and read a newspaper, or play Angry Birds on your iPhone, or whatever you do for fun, while the car deals with all the aggravation of idiot drivers, egomaniacal bike riders and crazy pedestrians. If you have to drive the car, then your car isn’t just to get from point A to point B and you’re not driving it because you’re old-fashioned. You like driving cars.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As for me, I honestly do own a car only because I have to get from here to there. I wouldn’t miss driving for a second. Take the damned steering wheel out of the car altogether, I’m fine with that, and so is My Darling B, “as long as they make self-driving cars at least as safe as I am when I’m driving.” My standards aren’t even that high. If a self-driving car is no more dangerous than I am, and I’ll frankly acknowledge that I’m something of a danger to myself and everyone else on the road (and who isn’t, when it comes down to brass tacks?), then I’d be satisfied.


Listening to Car Talk on the radio this morning, we heard the story of a guy who stuffed an athletic sock down the intake manifold of his car to avoid dropping anything down there while he was working on it and then, of course, he forgot the sock was in there and put the engine back together. It ran just fine when he started it up, and he even drove it as far as the highway. Either the engine could suck enough air through the sock to run normally, which doesn’t seem likely, or the sock was immediately sucked into the intake manifold when he turned the key, which seems a lot more probable, but it got hung up on a piece of hardware inside that held it back from step two of its inevitable demise.

When he got to the highway, though, the shit hit the fan – or in his case, the sock hit the intake valves when he punched the accelerator and revved the engine up to highway speed. The engine died almost immediately after he stepped on the gas and the guy, wondering why, suddenly remembered the sock. After he steered the car over to the shoulder of the road and stopped, he tried cranking the engine again to see if it even worked, and it ran, but badly, like an engine knocking-on after it had been shut off.

The Car Guys thought that the sock must have been shredded, and that if the guy just started the engine up and ran it, it should burn whatever remained of the sock. There was a lot of discussion about this – the guy though the whole sock might still be down there somewhere, but Click and Clack just laughed and snorted at him and said, No way, buddy, that sock is lint.

The more I thought about it, the more I completely geeked out over this. To get the car up to highway speed, the guy probably revved the engine to at least three thousand rpms – might have been more, but let’s say an even three thousand just for the sake of argument. That’s five hundred revolutions of the drive shaft per second. Each time the drive shaft revolved, all the pistons in the engine went up and down once. Half of them were sucking in air and gasoline, and half of them were blowing out burnt hydrocarbons and water.

The car had a three point eight liter engine. That means the total volume of all the cylinders together was three point eight liters, but only half of them were sucking in air at any given time, so only one point nine liters of air were being drawn in on each rev. With the engine turning at five hundred revs per second, it would have been sucking eighty liters of air through the intake every second. To put it another way: You know how big a two-liter Coke bottle is? Imagine emptying forty of those every freaking second.

When the sock came loose, it fetched up against the intake valves of whichever cylinders were sucking in air at the time. It might have bunched up against the head of just one cylinder, but I’m thinking it probably got torn to pieces by the pounding air pressure whirling around in there and ended up being spread out more or less evenly between all the intake valves. If it was an old-fashioned engine with a carburetor, each cylinder probably had just one intake valve, but if it was a modern fuel-injected engine, there were probably two intake valves per cylinder. More valves doesn’t mean the cylinder gets more air, just that it gets mixed up better because there are more holes around the top of the cylinder for the air to come rushing in.

So, picture it: If there was anything left of that poor, hapless sock by the time it hit the intake valves, forty liters of air per second was whipping it back and forth between the intake valves that were chomping away at it like shark’s teeth. A shark that could suck in air like a jet engine. The intake valves were opening and closing two hundred fifty times a second, every time the cylinder sucked in air. That sock must have been chopped up in the blink of an eye. Literally. If you could have watched, and you blinked at the wrong moment, one moment you would have seen a sock, and the next moment you would have seen a few flying shreds, but probably mostly lint. Lots of lint. That’s why the engine died. It was used to getting forty liters of air a second and suddenly found itself sucking in a big cloud of burning cotton lint.

Employable after all

image of blue skies

Yesterday I got the phone call I’ve been hoping for: A manager at the Department of Regulation and Licensing called to offer me the job I applied for in her section. When I interviewed for it a week and a half ago she told me they’d make a decision some time this week, so I’ve sitting on tenterhooks since Monday. I told her I’d be happy to take it. I start on September 27th.

That’s a load off my mind. I haven’t been looking for a job nearly as long as some people, but it’s been nine weeks since my position was eliminated, and when I listen to the news it’s mostly bad: unemployment claims are up, jobs are down and the economy gets worse each day. On top of that, I’m nearly fifty years old and my professional skill set is geared toward office work. I can type eighty words a minute, I’m pretty good at ginning up a spread sheet and I can sift columns of data for eight hours without going blind. Trouble is, the office environment is glutted with college grads looking for work. Confident as I am in my abilities, the trick was to get potential employers to feel confident about hiring a fifty year old geezer instead of a freshly-minted twenty-one year old.

And somehow I managed to do it. Yay, me.

For my next trick, I’ll have to figure out how to get to work. My new day job starts at seven forty-five in the morning, same time My Darling B puts her nose to the grindstone, and, as it turns out, quitting time will be the same for both of us as well. To do that, one of us will have to get to work at least twenty minutes early, then look for something more stimulating that picking his or her nose for twenty minutes while waiting for a ride home.

Buying another car to get around this little kink would be a waste of money, as far as I’m concerned, unless I can convince somebody to part with his Volkswagen Beetle for a thousand bucks or less. I managed to do that once before in my life, and I used up a lot of my charm convincing my new employer to hire me, so it’s hard to imagine haggling a Beetle owner down to practically nothing again. But you never know until you try. Winter has typically been the hardest season in which to sell a Volkswagen, and the snow’s going to start flying in just a few weeks around here. Perhaps I still have a little haggle left in me after all.

Just for giggles, I rode my bike from Our Humble O’Bode to the offices of the Department of Regulation and Licensing, just to see how long it would take me and how hard the route was. The good news: The route’s easy, and it takes only forty minutes even in my decrepit state of physical fitness. The bad news: Remember what I wrote a paragraph before about snow? There are quite a few commuters around her hearty enough to bicycle to work on the bleakest sub-zero days. I’ve seen them pedaling to work when temps dip as low as twenty below zero. I’ve never tried that, but I feel I can say without benefit of experience that I’m not made of that kind of stuff. I might ride my bike to work for a little while yet this year, but by the end of November or the beginning of December I’ll have to find another way to get there, no question.

The only other thing I really need to know about finally accepting a new job is, do I get to keep on receiving unemployment benefits from now until September 27th? What I can find on the state’s web site is that I have to look for work, which seems redundant now that I’ve found a job. I called the state office that handles unemployment benefits claims but, after navigating the phone tree options, a recorded voice informs me that they’re getting more calls than their automated system can handle. Then the line goes dead. No help there today; I’ll have to try again tomorrow.

You May Be Driving A Junker If …

image of truck

Whenever we’re driving hither and yon, whether it’s just across town or from one end of our great state to another, My Darling B and I play a version of road bingo to help pass the time. Our game doesn’t really have a name, but if I had to give it one I suppose it might be called “Spot the Junker,” although I think “That Can Not Be Legal!” would be even more descriptive, on account of the truly remarkable condition of some of the cars in question.

We claim points for each feature of the car that makes it a junker. For instance, if there’s a significant piece of the car missing, such as a door or fender, that’s a point. If it’s a window, we allow a bonus point when the owner has “temporarily” replaced it with a sheet of plastic. I suppose you could even argue for another bonus point if the owner had not bothered with the plastic sheet and instead used duct tape to replace the missing window, because tape is good for a point if it’s ordinarily used to reattach a knocked-off piece back on the car and duct tape is obviously not a replacement for the window, any more than, say, plywood could be.

Tape gets used in all sorts of inventive ways to fix up junkers, if “fix up” is the right terminology in this case. Duct tape is most often used to reattached broken-off parts, but clear packaging tape gets generous use as temporary windows, and colored tape makes a handy replacement for broken-out tail lights and turn signals.

When duct tape is not available (how do they live down the shame of not having duct tape on hand? I just don’t know), broken-off parts get reattached with everything from bungee cords to nylon webbing, wire and twine. I saw a broken-off gas cap held in place with one of those recipe-card holders that has a fridge magnet on the back. Unfortunately I was on my own at the time or I would have claimed bonus points for sheer inventiveness.

Here in the frozen north, where road crews spread tons of salt to melt the ice that builds up on city streets, rust is a prominent feature of most clunkers. If a car is more rust-colored than any other color, that’s good for a point. A rusted-out hole big enough to stick a hand through is good for a point, and this morning we came up with a new one: Rust that has eaten a hole big enough that you can see through the car! The hole in question was in the side wall of a truck bed and was so big that there was a clear and present danger the beer cooler in the back of the truck could have fallen out through the hole. How would you explain that to the guys at the party?

Hot Hot Hot

I retreated to the cool, cool comfort of the basement lair this evening, once Tim went back to his apartment after dinner, because it was just too freaking muggy upstairs. Humidity had surpassed the ability of certified official weather personnel to measure it in the way they’re used to, so according to the local weather web source the humidity this evening was so heavy and damp that it had a dangerous undertow that would drag you way out beyond the dropoff and drown you.

I was pouring sweat just from the mild exertion of chewing my dinner. When I stopped doing that and I could sit absolutely still I was still pouring sweat, but I felt only almost as miserable as when I had to move my jaw up and down and continued sitting stock still right up until the time I had to get up out of my seat to say good-bye to Tim. That was agony.

Things weren’t quite so bad this afternoon while I was trying to do a little more work framing up the windows I installed by the back door yesterday. I was pouring sweat again, but once I’m already basting in my own juices I can just keep on chugging away and it doesn’t make much difference how much hotter I feel. At that point, hot is hot and doesn’t feel any hotter until right before I collapse in a puddle of my own juices and go sliding down the tunnel with the bright, shining light at the end.

It was so hot that a Porsche in the parking lot at the hardware store burst into flames and every fire truck in Dane County came to put it out. Seriously, there were almost as many emergency vehicles in the parking lot as there were cars that belonged to customers. With that many blinking lights I expected to see quite a show, but by the time I came out and saw what was going on the car was barely smoldering as its owner poked dejectedly through the interior as a couple dozen firemen stood by, ready to douse him in foam if the fire should somehow spring back to life.

Actually, I was much more interested in knowing why a Porsche was in the parking lot of this particular hardware store. It’s the sort of place where you see lots of pickup trucks and beat-up Econoline vans, but the most expensive car you’re likely to catch sight of would be a late-model Camry or possibly a Lexus. Driving there in your Porsche is practically begging the gods to drop a meteor on it.

And naturally on this hot, hot evening we planned to grill our dinner on the barbecue, a task I’m normally all to happy to do but this evening was thinking up ways to get out of it, like faking a stroke or gnawing off my own leg. My Darling B asked me to grill bison steaks, though, and I love those so I just manned up, lit the fire and grilled away. They were delicious.


Somebody’s been modding his scooter: I first caught sight of the rear quarter of this scooter and the first thought that came to mind was, How can that be street legal? Most of the body appears to be missing and several key parts, such as the rack and, I think, the rear light have been strapped in place with duct tape, as any self-respecting guy would do if his light fell off and he had to find a reliable way to re-fasten it.

So naturally I stopped to snap a few photos and, when I moved around to take a shot of the forward quarter I saw this. Pretty classy, eh? Ordinarily I’d make fun of any motorized vehicle in such an advanced state of decay, but in this case I want to applaud the owner for keeping up with the parts that are falling off by replacing them with even better parts. This is not just a scooter mod, this is a work of art in progress. I hope I catch sight of it again in a few months to see how it’s coming along.