What were they thinking?

Engineering Idiocy. I know I’m late to this particular party, but I had not encountered this until today. Several years ago, after picking us up at the Houston airport, Linda was riding in the rear seat of my father’s BMW 535i, and casually said “Charlie, I love your car. If you ever think about selling it, I’ll buy it from you.”

Long story short, we bought the car from my mom not long after he passed away last summer. We drove it home last autumn, where it spent most of the winter parked in my shop as it isn’t really an ideal winter car. For that we drive her old Subaru.

This 5-series is several years old, but has very low miles. We literally doubled the odometer driving it from Texas to Oregon. It is likely overdue for an oil change in time more than distance. I looked up the oil required and bought two large jugs of it yesterday. I had stocked up on filters from BavAuto (R.I.P.) soon after we bought it. I opened the hood in the shop to be presented with…

NO DIPSTICK!

I recall lots of complaints in Roundel (the BMWCCA magazine) about this issue back when BMW started doing this, but I didn’t give it much thought.

So I was sort of stuck. The owners manual doesn’t list the engine oil capacity(!) and everything BMW presents you with basically says “bring it to the dealer for oil changes”… grrr.

I’ve been changing my own oil since I was a teenager. It was the first thing I learned about automotive maintenance. For me it is almost a therapeutic action. It is good for the car, it is good for me. I drive away with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But now I’m just confused.

Thankfully I have the Internet. The Internet tells me I need 6.5 Liters of oil for this engine. Typical of how I’ve always done this I’ll fill it a bit short of what should be “full” and then top it off in small increments to avoid overfilling the engine.

However without a dipstick, there is no way to actually do this. To measure the engine oil you have to be in the car and use the onboard computer. Not only that, the car has to be on level ground, engine on, and UP TO OPERATING TEMPERATURE. ????

This is sort of stupid. I let the oil drain out overnight. The engine is cold. In fact it got below freezing last night, so the engine is about as cold as it will ever be. I feel stupid starting a cold engine with at least a half a liter short of the correct amount of oil… then letting it idle for long enough to warm it up.

The dipstick is a perfectly adequate tool for this task. It takes seconds to measure oil levels with a dipstick, and it poses ZERO risk to the engine to use it. While I’m not really scared of damaging this car, doing this for the first time ever does make me feel… mild trepidation mixed with annoyance for some engineers in Munich.

So here I KNOW I shorted the amount by 500ml, so I expect the car to tell me to add that after I perform the check…

…and…

Now I’m REALLY annoyed. How can I trust this thing? It’s like those temperature gauges they program to stay right in the middle unless something really bad is happening. I know I’m 500ml short, but the car tells me “I’m at 100%” (note the lack of actual measuring units).

I guess I’m going to have to check often to see if it changes.

So happy that all the other engines I care for have dipsticks.

An impromptu solo mini-cannonball. (Part Two, the actual Cannonball part)

So I’m alone, in Albuquerque, with a nice car and no co-driver. Our plans have gone awry, and I have a few choices of what to do next. One is to just continue on to SoCal and visit friends. I’ve already seen the Grand Canyon, so no need for that side trip. Another option is to drive straight home by the most direct route. It’s between 1200 & 1400 miles, depending upon which “direct” route I choose. But here is where I have to admit a personal quirk: I like to drive on roads I’ve never driven on. I’ve been wandering all over this continent in a car since I was a kid, and it never ceases to amaze me at the wonders one can find by taking a road you’ve never been on before.

Continue reading “An impromptu solo mini-cannonball. (Part Two, the actual Cannonball part)”

An impromptu solo mini-cannonball. (Part One)

My brain is fogged. I’ve been driving for two days straight with minimal sleep, after two previous days of driving as well. I’m only ~250 miles from my journey’s end, but I really felt the need to get out of the car.

So here I am, sitting in a Burger King somewhere west of Boise, Idaho, sipping on a cold coke zero, munching on some terrible onion rings, and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed to just give my brain a rest. How did I get here?

Continue reading “An impromptu solo mini-cannonball. (Part One)”

Thoughts while driving home at sunset…

Late today I had some errands in Bend, and did not get back on the road home until right around sunset. It has been rainy and grey all day, but just as the sun set behind the Cascades, a break in the clouds appears in the lee of the mountains and bathes Central Oregon’s high ground and low clouds with a reddish golden glow. My route from Bend to home is the Powell Butte Highway… a highway in name only. It is a narrow two-lane through Juniper and Sage. For some odd reason tonight it is utterly devoid of vehicular traffic, save me. Back in 2010-2013 this road was my daily commute, and after decades of Seattle’s stop-and-go it was a pleasant change of pace, and most of all I relished the drives home heading into the setting sun. Tonight takes me in the opposite direction, allowing me to soak in the light reflecting from the hills, the clouds, and most interestingly, from the windows of every home on the butte, including mine. These reflections were so strong as to appear to be very bright electric lights, as if every home was wearing its Christmas best finery.

Between the light show, and the absolute absence of any other cars on the roads the whole experience begins to take on a dreamlike quality. My mind starts wondering why I am so alone. Is something happening of global importance that I am blissfully unaware of?
But still, the amazing light show keeps me enthralled as I drive. Pulling through the penultimate corner and up the steep hill going up the butte I can see the light is no longer blazing off the windows and I put my foot into the accelerator to try and get home a few seconds faster to watch the last of the dying sunset…

That’s when the full-grown Mule Deer prances onto the asphalt about 15m in front of the car.

Reverie vanishes in an instant. Full on the brakes and horn simultaneously. The deer stops(!), rotates back around and bounds back to the right. Following it with my eyes, I see the inevitable herd (there is NEVER just ONE deer!) One of them is just off the road, just outside my passenger window.

I feel like an idiot for not seeing them earlier. The groceries (including a dozen eggs) are remarkably intact given that they launched off the seat, off the dash, and onto the floor.

Self-medicating with a vintage Bordeaux as we speak.

Imagine what we can do!

Perhaps the finest achievement of mankind, other than the chairlift of course, is the silicon transistor & integrated circuit. When you process it at a base layer we have taught rocks how to think.

I’ll say that again: WE HAVE TAUGHT ROCKS HOW TO THINK.

Place that now smarter rock into a powered device, with input/output systems, storage, memory, and a connection to all the other thinking rocks we’ve created and the potential is truly unlimited. I get very excited when I think about all we have created and my very small role in making it all happen.

Imagine what we can do!

Then I go out into the world and look around, only to see my fellow humans using these amazing devices…

…to play solitaire.

Laissez les bons temps rouler! Bon voyage Jerry…

Jerry Mouton, immediately after ascending Moki Dugway in Utah.

I learned earlier this week that my friend Jerry Mouton passed away. I’m quite shocked at the news. Jerry was truly a gentleman. Always gracious, always helpful. Eternally smiling. I’ve known Jerry for over fifteen years, and he never hesitated to lend a hand or good advice, especially with regard to helping me keep my old E-type Jaguar running. Jaguars are how we met and it was the core of our friendship. Jerry and his wife Kate graciously hosted Christopher and me at their home in Palo Alto during our father-son roadtrip in 2009 and I would often meet him and other Jaguar friends when I was visiting the Bay Area.

He drove his Jaguar. On tours. At autocrosses. He drove it hard… as it was meant to be driven. It inspired me to drive mine.

Jerry has also been the driving force behind the “Oil Leak Tours” that a group of E-type Jaguar enthusiasts attend every year. I’ve been on one (and part of another) but Jerry never missed one, and in fact passed away while attending the latest tour.

Jerry's Jag on a switchback of Moki Dugway

The “oil leak” crowd have collectively decided to change the name of the tour to the “Yearly Mouton Memorial Vacation” aka “YMMV”. I know Jerry would get a kick out of that.

I’ll miss him. Laissez les bons temps rouler…

Jerry's Jaguar.

Vanishing Point. Focus Point.

The road to Area 51 in southern Nevada

I hate Las Vegas. 

Actually “hate” is not quite the correct term for my loathing and aversion for that place. Vegas is a blight on the otherwise wonderful intermountain west. I can appreciate what Las Vegas represents; a manifestation of liberty. A sort of place where the concept of “sin” is embraced as an alternative lifestyle. 

I’m not at all a religious person. Philosophically I reject the claim that there exists any sort of deity that rules or judges our lives and behavior. Virtue is its own reward, not some e-ticket to a post-mortem amusement park. So it isn’t the “Sin City” aspect of Vegas that repulses me. No, it is something far more simple than that: Las Vegas is just a revenue-extraction machine on a grand scale. It steals from the people who love it. 

Recently I attended an event in Vegas. It was one of those rare gatherings of far-flung folk with whom all of our interactions are online. Vegas was chosen as the location primarily due to it being a relatively cheap and easy place to get to. The organizers/hosts are from Los Angeles, but attendees came from all over North America. The SoCal contingent drove, but most folks flew in and made a long weekend of it. I’m still seeing all their photos posted on Facebook. Famous Vegas locales where they went, things they did, etc. 

Me? I drove. I drove there, I attended the event and a bit of socializing afterwards, then I drove back. 

It is about nine hundred miles from my home in central Oregon to Las Vegas. Why the hell did I drive it? Well, because it is some of the last remaining true wide-open driving territory left in America. That is why. 

The Great Basin

If you look at a map of the USA, the Great Basin is just sort of a big empty space. A blank part of the world that ancient cartographers would have filled with dreadful monsters and nameless fears. Terra Incognita. “There be dragon here” To the west lie the Sierras, to the east lie the Rockies. The philosophically polar opposite cities; Las Vegas and Salt Lake City lie at its edges. In between there is seemingly nothing. Interstate 15 cuts across it’s right side marking a route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City via Las Vegas. Interstate 80 is the sole artery that dares to go directly through it east-to-west running from Salt Lake to Sacramento via Lake Tahoe. Otherwise this vast emptiness is devoid of superslab. It’s few small towns and settlements connected by a thin web of two-lane highways through giant valleys devoid of civilization. Empty blue highways. 

Perfect driving country. 

Before 2000, my only times spent in Nevada were an adult-league hockey tournament in Reno, and a middle of the night layover in the Las Vegas airport. It wasn’t until I drove Martin Swig’s crazy “La Carrera Nevada” car rally that I discovered the real Nevada. Not the smoky, white-trashy, sleazy Vegas or smoky, white-trashy, slightly less sleazy Reno… but the wide open and largely beautiful Basin & Range territory that makes up the rest of Nevada. It is vast. It is empty. It is awesomely scenic in its austerity. 

It is also the last place you can truly “stretch your legs” in an automobile. Yes, there is the autobahn, but no, I don’t live in Europe. I do live at the very northern edge of The Great Basin however. 

Safety Nannies might clutch their pearls and gasp, but… fuck ’em. Hemingway famously said:

There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.

True mastery comes from standing at the edge, looking into the abyss of death, and backing off just enough to truly understand where that edge lies. I’ve played two out of Hemingway’s three sports, and a failed at the basic task of herding some cattle into a pen before being branded, so I’ll take a pass on walking into a ring with an enraged bull.  Suffice to say I have a good handle on my limitations. I know and trust myself behind the wheel. 

What I can’t trust are the other humans on the road, who are so bored to tears that they have abandoned the act of driving so much that they yearn for self-driving cars to allow them to stare at their phones as they are shuttled from place to place. 

Out here in the American Outback, the roads are empty. Those drivers-who-would-rather-be-passengers are all either west of the Sierras, East of the Rockies, or are droning across the Basin on the Interstate. 

I chose my route to avoid even US highways  where I could and stuck to the most remote of the paved roads, state highways and county roads. It was bliss. 

Empty roads. Empty skies. Objective hazards measured largely in open range cattle and roadkill-feasting buzzards. 

There were stretches of road I traveled where I never saw another vehicle for hundreds of miles. I was utterly and completely alone for most of the trip.

What this sort of driving brings to the driver is FOCUS.

Well, that is if you choose to actively participate. One could set the cruise control and pass the time the same way I did in my childhood rides across the west, watching out the windows into the sagebrush for Pronghorns and Jackalopes. (I saw plenty of the former, and none of the latter.)

Or you can DRIVE.

I drove.

Due to some scheduling issues my trip to Vegas was split over two days. Friday I drove from Prineville, Oregon to Ely, Nevada, then Ely to Las Vegas Saturday morning, to attend the Saturday afternoon event. On Sunday morning I woke up and drove the entire return trip in one go, with only about an hour’s stop midway for lunch. Mapping software said the trip should be over thirteen hours long. I set out to see how many hours I could shave off that estimate.

I arrived home after about 10.5 hours of driving, alert and feeling fresh. How? I drove in a manner that many would describe as “reckless” or “dangerous” but is in reality exactly the opposite. I focused like a laser on the simple act of driving.

I played by a very simple set of rules:
1. When in or near any town, drive at or very near the speed limit.
2. When near any other vehicles, drive at or near the speed limit.
3. At all other times drive at the maximum comfortable speed I felt confident doing.

Given that well over 90% of my drive was on empty, well-paved, two-lane highways, with visibility often measured in tens of miles, it was very easy to drive the car at 80% of its true capacity. Being a modern, high-performance machine with tires rated well above my speeds, I felt very confident driving this way. I think I could have shaved more time off my trip had my car had a larger gas tank, or at least if I knew exactly where I might find gas along the route. Fuel consumption at higher speeds and “next gas in XXX miles” signs (which turned out to not be factual) forced me to slow down on two segments. It also rained on me for a short section through mountains in southern Oregon… for that I slowed down to well under the limit. Limited visibility and wet pavement is not the place to go fast.

Otherwise, I only made stops for fuel, food, and bio-breaks.

When I arrived home I felt oddly energized. Not at all tired. It was those hours of 100% focus. They don’t even allow you to become fatigued. So instead of covering ground at such a slow rate that the driver becomes bored, distracted, and fatigued, perhaps we should raise speed limits rather than keep lowering them.

It’s all about focus.