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November 25, 2009

Four Book Mini-Reviews

Filed under: Review & Criticism — chuck goolsbee @ 11:53 pm
What I've read this autumn.
What I've read this autumn.

I’m usually pretty good about updating my site here with goings on in my life, but I noted that I’ve neglected to update my “what I’m reading now” links over there ->
…since late summer. It still has the book I stole from Christopher after our road trip. I finished it a long time ago and have since plowed through three other books in my rare snippets of free time. I mostly only find time to read on my lunch hour, which is a shame. I love to read, and always have a book or two that I’m into at any given moment. Though I carry them around more than I ever am able to clear my mental decks and dedicate time to them. Lunches during the work week are like a brief oasis for me. I grab a bite, then sit down and pore over the printed word for 30 to 45 minutes. It is as refreshing as a nap in many ways. It allows me to forget about work, deadlines, projects, whatever else is happening and absorb more abstract things.

To make up for my lack of updating, I’ll write up mini-reviews of all these books:


1. P. J. O‘Rourke on The Wealth Of Nations

On the back cover is a blurb, which sums up this book best: “P.J. O’Rourke reads Adam Smith so you don’t have to”.

I have a great admiration for the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, especially David Hume and Adam Smith. In many ways their eminently pragmatic philosophies were an inspiration to the contemporary generation of intellectuals here on this side of the Atlantic, who sought to apply those philosophies in the construction of a new sort of system of government. Smith in fact, as a recognized intellect was asked by the British government what to do about the break-away colonies and provided the ultimately pragmatic advice (which of course took a few generations to be heeded) which basically said: Let them go, and then trade with them. It was so simple really. Low cost, with a high return. Rarely do we have the courage to take such simple steps like this, so we end up killing one another at a very high cost and low rate of return.

But actually reading Smith’s work? That is tough. It is written in Eighteenth Century English, and makes many references to many instances of then-recent history and culture, much of which are lost on a Twenty-first Century reader. Further, Smith paints paragraphs with such minutiae that reading his great works “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations” is akin to watching Barry Lyndon, one frame at a time on your DVD player. Sure it is beautiful, artful, and intricate, but you’ll burn up a year of your life doing it.

P. J. O’Rourke is a lunatic. One I’ve enjoyed reading since my college days when he was writing for National Lampoon in their heyday. He does a fantastic job of creating a sort of Cliff’s Notes of Wealth of Nations filled with humor, insight, and examples from our lifetimes to illustrate how perceptive and prescient Smith was in his philosophies. Best of all O’Rourke does this in under 200 pages. It is a quick read and thoroughly enjoyable.

While I have always believed that the Chinese invented Capitalism, (how they became Communists is baffling to me) it was the Scots (mostly Smith) & Dutch who stripped it of all the trappings and encumbrances of Monarchy, Mercantilism and Religion; codified it within a moral framework, and gifted it to society. It would do well for people who claim every market down-cycle as a “failure of Capitalism”, or that Capitalism lacks a foundation in morality to give Smith a read. If plowing through a few thousand pages of Eighteenth Century English is too laborious, then grab this quick, witty summary and laugh your way through it.


2. Flyboys.

I grabbed this book off our bookshelf at home when I misplaced “Go Like Hell” for a few days. Within a page or two I was hooked and quite literally could not put it down. I chewed through it in a matter of days, often reading it as I walked to and from my car at work. Author James Bradley (“Flags of our Fathers”) uncovers and reveals the previously un-told fate of a handful of US Navy & Marine pilots shot down while bombing a Japanese-held island during WW2. The Island is Chichi Jima, which lies between Iwo Jima and Japan. Not a site of an epic battle like Iwo, it nonetheless was a critical outpost and serves as a microcosm of the larger conflict and the societal and personal impacts of that war. Using previously classified documents and first-hand interviews with survivors from both sides of the conflict it tells a gripping tale of the toll of total war on all the participants. Bradley admirably lays out facts of horrific brutality, from all sides.


3. Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and their battle for speed and glory at Le Mans.

The “Ford” and “Ferrari” in the title refer as much to men as to marques, as this book is as much about Henry (the 2nd) and Enzo as it is about the machines from Detroit and Maranello. It also covers other legendary men such as Ken Miles, John Surtees, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Lee Iococca, Bruce McLaren, Masten Gregory, Dan Gurney, Luigi Chinetti, Walt Hansgen, Dennis Hulme, Mario Andretti, and many more. The star of the show though is the legendary Ford GT40 and its rise from concept to champion at the pinnacle of sports car racing history: The 24 Hours at Le Mans. Ferrari famously snubbed (at the last second) an offer to buy his company by Ford, and “the Deuce’s” response was to hit Ferrari where it hurt the most: on the racetrack. A. J. Baime’s book is a thrilling read for any motorhead, as it recounts the tale of this rivalry at Le Mans throughout the 1960s. This was a time when the technology of speed was being refined and cars evolved at a shocking rate, as did the shocking carnage as it has taken safety technology decades to close the gap. A good number of those drivers named above did not survive to their old age, most famously Ken Miles and Walt Hansgen whose deaths are directly linked to their GT40s.

I heard on Adam Carolla’s podcast that a movie is in the works based on this book. That said, I suggest that you read this book as I’m sure Hollywood will screw it up somehow.


4. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War.

Hindsight tells us that this book, published in the mid-90s was a bit premature, as in the scope of history the “Gulf War” is still going on today and remains unresolved, far more than it was when Schwartzkopf lead the Victory Parade in mid-1991. It was the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia that prompted the fusion of Osama bin Laden with the Egyptian Islamic radicals into the 9/11 plotters. Of course this book is not about that forest, but the single tree of the expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait that started the whole affair. The book presents a chronology from the perspective of US military command, with occasional diversions into personal stories of minor participants. It is a worthwhile read, if only to see into that small and rarified world. Many of the people and places involved have familiar names that come back to haunt us in the following decade. My biggest complaint about this book is really one of layout and design. The maps, which are critical to diagramming text onto physical reality are all bunched in the back and are too small to be of any use.

September 20, 2009

Book Review: Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Filed under: Review & Criticism — chuck goolsbee @ 3:43 pm

Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Oddly categorized as a “travel” book, this is really more about driving. Specifically long-distance, intercontinental driving in pursuit of a world record. This entails the raising of other people’s money (aka sponsorship), registration and verification with those in charge of keeping such records, and logistics on a grand scale. Logistics of the sort that bureaucrats dream of, and want to imprint their stamps upon. In triplicate.

The record in question was driving the length of the Western Hemisphere, from Ushuaia, Argentina on Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, a distance of of over 15,000 miles in twenty-three days, twenty-two hours, and forty-three minutes. The distance however was not the limiting factor on this drive so much as the logistics and sheer bureaucracy of crossing more than a dozen borders, some of them hostile. The legwork required to acquire all the permissions and paperwork is touched upon, and then the actual acts of doing it is described with humor and wit. This drive was completed in September and October of 1987 by Canadian Garry Sowerby, and the author, Tim Cahill. They beat the previous official record by weeks, and the previous unofficial record by many days, therefore earning themselves a rightful place in history. If you don’t recall the record being set you can be forgiven as the nascent 24-hour-a-day news media were wrapped up in other events. Sowerby & Cahill exhibited amazing skill, but horrific timing in that upon their arrival in the USA the news media were distracted; as they arrived in Texas for a press conference the day a toddler named Jessica fell down a well elsewhere in Texas. Their arrival at Prudoe Bay coincided with the stock market crash on “Black Monday”. Literally a year of hard work and planning, followed by a month of marathon driving, all lost in the noise of other events.

They did not announce their attempt until they arrived in the USA for fear of criminal attempts to waylay them for ransom, a genuine threat in parts of Latin America. They did let various governments know ahead of time to secure the permissions required.

The book isn’t so much a travelogue as the telling of a tale. Sketches of places and events are drawn quickly and for the most part discarded as the landscape changes constantly around them. Cahill is an excellent writer and keeps your attention going throughout, frequently generating outbursts of laughter from the reader. I sought this book out specifically for a summer read as it serves as an oversized parallel to my own little drives. I’m not looking for records, but I tend to go for distance over dallying. There is a sort of bond that develops between drivers on a long-distance jaunt that is hard to capture. Cahill does an excellent job of doing so through humor, even though many of the situations and emotions at the time are anything but humorous. My only complaint about the book was the breezy fashion in which the final third of the journey was summarized. It felt as if Cahill ran out of time or up against a publishing dealine and just Cliff’s Noted the last parts of the journey. Sure the bulk of North America represents easy driving and a lack of Latin America border crossings but there is still plenty to see and experience.

It is a breezy and enjoyable read and I highly suggest any one interested in driving for driving’s sake to give it a look.

September 12, 2009

I’m gonna get you sucka! Review of an engine oil extractor.

Filed under: Cars,Review & Criticism — chuck goolsbee @ 6:40 pm

I’m not a very good mechanic, but I enjoy working on my cars. Part of it is because I’m cheap, and don’t like spending money on things that can be done myself. The other part of it is that every time I have any interaction with any part of a car dealership, I walk away feeling like a rape victim. Silkwood showers. Haunting regret. The works. Determined to rid myself of that feeling of being used, I made a commitment to gain the skills, and free myself from abuse. There are still a lot of jobs I don’t feel competent to perform on my own, but having the knowledge of how things work prevents me from being at a disadvantage when I buy the services of a professional.

I started by doing oil changes. The procedure itself is so simple that it boggles my mind that anyone pays for the task. Yes, time is money, but a car is a huge portion of the cost of living, and its longevity is abetted by proper maintenance. Knowing that it is done properly adds peace of mind to that longevity. I keep my cars as long as possible and generally wear out their interiors before their drivetrains. Oil changes are the most basic, yet vital maintenance step you can take to keep your car running a long time. Mechanically the process boils down to removing old oil, and pouring in new oil. If you can cook yourself dinner you can change your own oil. The most difficult part of the operation is getting underneath the car to drain the old oil. Now that is no longer an issue!

I first heard about removing the oil out of an engine via the dipstick hole on a mailing list about Diesel Mercedes-Benz cars that I read. Mercedes-Benz dealers only do through-the-dispstick-hole oil changes. I always thought it seemed silly, but now I’m a convert. I recently bought a Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus from Amazon. The event that lead up to my purchase was an accidental over-tightening of the drain bolt in my wife’s Jeep Liberty CRD. Last time I changed her oil I wasn’t paying attention and over-did it when putting the bolt back in. I didn’t strip it completely, but I felt that little “give” that told me I’d be doing a heli-coil job on her pan at some point in my future. (Remember I said at the beginning that I wasn’t a very good mechanic!) I did the bodger’s trick of sealing the bolt in silicone to hold it over until I can fix it properly. Meanwhile I’m still going to have to change the oil. Hence the The Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus.

The Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus arrives at my office
The Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus arrives at my office

The unit arrived with a damaged box, which is never a good start to a relationship. Thankfully no parts were missing and nothing was damaged. Included in the box was the unit itself, two different diameter extraction tubes, a main tube, and an instruction manual. I’m one of those guys who reads the manual of every thing I buy, so I sat down to read the skimpy pamphlet that serves as the unit’s instruction manual. It took all of about 32 seconds to complete. I can paraphrase it for you right here:

  • Warm up, then shut down your engine. (Warm is good, HOT not so much.)
  • Remove your engine’s oil cap and dipstick.
  • Insert the main tube into the top of the Mityvac 7201 unit.
  • Select an extraction tube that is just slightly smaller than your dipstick hole, and attach that to the main tube.
  • Insert extraction tube into the dipstick hole until you hit the bottom of the oil pan (your dipstick will serve as a guide as to how far to expect to slide it down.)
  • Make sure the drain plug on the Mityvac 7201 unit is secure.
  • Select “Evacuate” from the “Evacuate/Discharge” button options.
  • Pump the handle about 10 times, like you would a bicycle pump.
  • Stand back and behold the wonder that is the Mityvac 7201 Fluid Evacuator Plus as it sucks the old oil out of your engine!

Here is a photo of it in action this morning on the wife’s CRD:

It sucks!        Then again it is SUPPOSED to suck
It sucks! Then again it is SUPPOSED to suck

It takes about two minutes to suck the oil from a 6.7 quart capacity engine like this VM Motori 2.8L CRD. My 4.4 quart TDI took less than that. When it hits bottom and all the oil is out you’ll hear it sucking air. Once finished you pull the extraction tube out and off, insert the main tube into a good portable oil reservoir, flip the switch to “Discharge”, and it’ll blow out the old oil into something handy to carry it in off to the recycling station. Fill your engine with the proper amount of new oil, replace your cap and dipstick, and you are done. You won’t even get your hands dirty! Much faster than draining too.

Unless you have to also change a filter you won’t have to get under the car at all. In the case of my TDI, the filter is on top of the engine, so with that car the entire operation can be done from above. No muss, no fuss. No ramps, no jacks. There are other units besides the Mityvac 7201, but I chose this one for its size and discharge capacity. Some of the cars I care for are vintage machines with 11+ quart oil capacities. (The discharge feature also makes it useful for brake bleeding but I haven’t tested that yet.) The Mityvac 7201 is expensive at around $75, but a budget-minded gearhead could find a usable substitute for as little as $45. If you want powered options (electrical or compressed air) plan on spending a few hundred bucks.

July 1, 2009

Dick Dale: The Effortlessness of Mastery

Filed under: life,Review & Criticism,Thoughts — chuck goolsbee @ 12:41 am
Dick Dale
Dick Dale

When I was an on-ice official (Referee & Linesman) in hockey, we were always told that you have achieved perfection when you can work a game unnoticed. That is, when your craft and skills meet with experience and confidence, your mastery will make your effort appear effortless. Mastery in art and craft is something that truly requires a lifetime to gain. Old dogs don’t learn new tricks, they just become so good at old ones that they are no longer tricks, they are art.

I consider myself lucky, and privileged when I can experience the mastery of those who have worked that lifetime. I saw and heard Dick Dale tonight at the Triple Door in Seattle. I discovered Dick Dale’s music a long time ago, when I was living overseas and frankly found the music they played on the radio ranged from disappointing to awful. It is an odd experience to be a stranger in a strange land, and you find yourself longing for things from home. In my first months there I was alone and consoled myself on weekends by watching American movies, if only to just relax and not have to listen so hard while parsing dialects and accents. Seeing movies from home was like letting my brain rest. A movie I watched had a Dick Dale tune and it sparked in me the desire to explore uniquely American musical genres. I fell in love with “surf rock” and it became a staple in my personal playlists. Not long after my return to the USA, I flew to Southern California to see and hear the man himself play. It was at the “Route 66 Reunion” in San Bernadino, and he played outdoors amidst a giant car show on a warm autumn evening. His son Jimmy, then a young boy, played with him for a few songs. I chatted with him after the show and he signed the shirt I was wearing for me. The whole trip is a fond memory for me.

Above: Dick & Jimmy Dale play together that night nearly a decade ago.
Above: Dick & Jimmy Dale play together that night nearly a decade ago.

Since then I’ve tried to see him again, but for one reason or another I was always out of town when he visited Seattle, Bellingham, or Vancouver, BC, the large cities close to my home. I’d check his website for tour dates faithfully and inevitably be in another state when he came through here (which by the way is why I flew to SoCal to see him last time!) When checking his site last year I was taken aback to see that Dick had been stricken with cancer and had stopped touring. Being a tough old guy he beat it, and is (amazingly!) back on tour again. I sprung for some tickets and invited friends to come along and see him.

Dick Dale's performs tonight
Dick Dale's performs tonight

I’m so glad I went.

Dick Dale has been performing for longer than I have been alive. He is 72 years old and can rock like few others. Most importantly he has truly mastered his craft. His playing is so effortless that it is a joy to behold. He has no set list, he just plays what he wants, moving from one song to another based on whim. His two band mates literally follow him, their eyes glued to his figure, moving along as Dale drifts off of notes and chords from one song to another. The sounds that come from his guitar are beautiful cascades of, as he so succinctly put it, pain and pleasure – flowing as naturally, and relentlessly, as water down a mountainside, or waves upon a beach.

Riders in the Sky, The Wedge, Esperanza, Ring of Fire, Let’s Go Trippin’, In-liner, Miserlou, and Third Rock from the Sun.

After the show, I chatted briefly with him again, as I had all those years ago. I wore the same shirt, and had him refresh the now faded autograph. I handed him one of my personal cards, with a photo of the 65E on it and he mentioned that he owns one as well: a red ’68.

Small world, and better for having such artists in it.

May 21, 2009

Published.

Filed under: Cars,Review & Criticism,Writing — chuck goolsbee @ 8:40 am
A nice Summer drive in the North Cascades.
A nice Summer drive in the North Cascades.

My “review” of the E-type has been published over at The Truth About Cars this morning. Go over and have a look. It differs quite a bit from my original after the editorial process. I’m OK with that. As a more of my work is published it seems to happen more and more. Goodness knows I need a good editor! Mr. Farago has been fun to work with so far.

May 11, 2009

A review.

Filed under: Cars,Review & Criticism,Writing — chuck goolsbee @ 5:22 pm

I’m in the process of crafting a short “review” of the E-type. While I’m finding it difficult to condense a lot of history, and driving impressions down to ~800 words, it is fun to try and capture this bit of lightning it a bottle.

If you have a few moments have a look and tell me what you think.

I’m happy to scrap the whole thing and start over if need be.

May 6, 2009

Gearhead Flix: “Truth in 24”

Filed under: Cars,Review & Criticism — chuck goolsbee @ 6:46 pm
Truth in 24
Truth in 24

I just finished watching Truth in 24, and if you are a geadhead I have to say you owe it to yourself to watch. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is for me the only truly compelling event in motorsports. F1 just seems way too technical, delicate, and overdone. NASCAR reminds me of driving down the freeway, only with just left turns and more noise. Indy seems like an anachronism, or open wheel NASCAR. Le Mans however is completely different. It has deep history, combined with all the technicality and strategy you could imagine. They race, balls-out, rain or shine, in daylight and darkness, at speeds that boggle the mind, on a course made partially from public roads. The cars are all radically different, with four completely different classes on course simultaneously. The machines have to have seriously high top-end speed, while still being able to brake and turn at very low speeds. Best of all, the race is not a fixed distance, but merely hours on a clock. Endurance. The car has to be built to last, and the crews have to be able to keep it running, or rebuild it on the fly. Teamwork is vital. Engineering is critical. Driving skill is tested. Survival is as important as speed.

One item on my “bucket list” is to attend the event, by DRIVING there, ideally in the 65E. Meanwhile I have Steve McQueen’s iconic and epic Le Mans, and this wonderful documentary, Truth in 24. While nowhere near as compelling as McQueen’s classic, it has perhaps even better photography, which is saying a lot. It follows the 2008 Le Mans event from the perspective of Audi’s R10 teams. Despite having dominated Le Mans with their R8 and R10 cars over the past decade, Audi was viewed as the underdog last year as Peugeot had their Diesel-powered 908 HDI prototypes. The Peugeots were 3.5 seconds faster per lap around Circuit de la Sarthe. While that may not sound like much, over 24 hours that adds up to a daunting lead. How the Audi team pulls off a win is documented in this film. The difference at the end comes down to one decision, by one very tired engineer, who is being second-guessed by everyone at the moment, but he sticks to his guns. To show how truly grueling this event is, he savors his victory by walking to a quiet place and sitting down to rest, outside the whirlwind of everyone else spraying champagne.

My only complaints about this film is the obvious hand of Audi’s marketing department, and the trademark ‘NFL Films’ style and soundtrack, but if you can do your best to ignore those and soak in the excellent photography and the raw, “unedited for cleanliness” character of the people, the cars, and the emotions you really get a sense of the endurance part of endurance racing. It impossible to watch all of the event, but this film comes very close to doing so, albeit from the perspective of just one team.

One highlight that sticks in my mind, which oddly is not at all visual, but is just a straight sequence where driver Alan McNish takes us on a “guided tour” of the course, while sitting in a chair and watching a video taken from a car on-course. He relates the gear changes, the speeds, the line of the course, which apexes to hit, and which once to miss, where the car will fight you, and where you have to let it go. The video shown is taken at speed and the rate at which the course comes at you is mind-bending. He relates it all in real-time and is breathless by the end. Now imagine doing that for hours on end, through rain, darkness, harsh low-angle sunlight, and traffic.

Amazing.

Another highlight is a passage near the beginning where they briefly talk about the amazingly quiet TDI engine. The Diesel race cars are shockingly quiet. To anyone accustomed to the scream and roar of a typical race car going by the silent “whoosh” of the TDI is startling. More startling as “quiet” is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Diesel! Ulrich Baretzky, the head of the development of this engine says something very interesting in the film: “Noise is a form of energy, the less you hear the more you use in propulsion.”

This film is being shown on cable TV here in the USA, but best of all you can download it for FREE from Apple’s iTunes Store.

If you want a preview, head on over to the film’s official website: www.truthin24.com.

(Thanks go to reader Wil Langford for pointing me to this!)

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