Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Missouri Parents Stunned After Daughter Says She Enjoys Macaroni and Cheese

photo credit: urbanspoon
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - A Gladstone couple was shocked yesterday when their toddler proclaimed that she "likes" macaroni and cheese. The incident occurred during lunch at a Cheddar's off 152 Highway near Liberty. The father, a 32 year old city planner, had the day off from his cushy government job and had decided to treat his family to a meal in the corner booth of the bar section.

"After our food finally arrived," he told us, "well, first they have to take it back because the bartender who was waiting our table mistakenly gave her the grilled cheese, but after that's cleared up she takes a bite of her mac and cheese, nods, and says 'I like this.'" Asked whether the 3 year old had ever made such a remarkable pronouncement, the father - who identified himself as Mr. Oldman - said, "Never. I mean, she's a pretty smart kid, she doesn't eat crayons or stick her tongue in light sockets, so we were beginning to worry because she's never, ever told us she likes mac and cheese."

The mother was equally startled. "It's usually lean meats and vegetables all the time with this kid, so we're relieved to see she's finally taking to something with high fat and cholesterol," said the 30 year old, a health care worker who was enjoying her lunch under a drafty A/C vent. "We were seriously considering taking her to a doctor or something."

Asked whether the girl, who her father called "The Heiress" (possibly a reference to the government job), had any more surprising announcements in store, he replied, "We think she's starting to come around to puppies, bouncy houses, and sticker books, and the other day she managed to shrug when I put on Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. Honestly, we were really holding out hope that someday she'd ask for ice cream instead of seconds on carrots. After today, it's fingers crossed."

The family was all smiles as they left the restaurant. "Now that we've broken down the mac and cheese barrier," said Mrs. Oldman, "I think anything is possible with this kid."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jonesing at the Movies: Interstellar

Synopsis: With the Earth dying and mankind out of solutions, humanity will pit their bravest and most brilliant against the universe's greatest threat: time.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and lots of family drama. There’s no sex and hardly any language, but your kids probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway.
Review: Interstellar, written and directed by Christopher Nolan with help from physicist Kip Thorne, is a beautiful and complicated saga of exploration and survival. Beautiful because it’s easily Nolan’s best attempt at a human story, with equal parts hope and heartbreak throughout. Complicated because of all the plot-muddying theoretical science based on the work of Thorne, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Grumbling at the Movies: Big Hero 6

Like a good casserole, Big Hero 6 depends on high-quality source material to deliver its metabolic reactions. Kids will only see and taste the fully-baked product, but for the seasoned moviegoer, it can be exhausting to mentally catalog all the Terminator 2 peas and Blade Runner noodles and Matrix green beans and Taken carrots and Incredibles cream of mushroom soups.

Ostensibly - and promotional-ly - BH6 is about a boy (14-year old Hiro) and his robot (Baymax). But the way the two come together (the robot is the creation of Hiro's older brother), what they do (chase down a masked industrialist who stole Hiro's microbot invention), and who they do it with (a team of the brother's tech school colleagues) incorporates various aspects of a buddy movie, revenge flick, and ensemble superhero romp. That these three genres are among the most active and profitable in Hollywood today is undoubtedly no coincidence, and in this combination is revealed both the genius behind BH6's gestation and the source of its biggest missteps.

Underlying the confusion about what it is, is BH6's confusing setting, which is a mashup of Japanese and American cultures nestled in San Francisco Bay ... or is it now San Fransokyo Bay? Though it lacks any timestamp, the movie's events obviously take place at some point in the future: The Golden Gate Bridge has been Nipponized with towers that look like pagoda roofs, elevated trains whisk around on spaghetti strands that run between and even through buildings, tethered wind turbines hover thousands of feet over the city, and the underground Bot Fighting scene is alive and well. But there are also plenty of cues which would set BH6 squarely in the early 21st century. Every bright color is contrasted by something matte black or carbon fiber like a Silicon Valley VC's speedboat, cars are still powered by internal combustion, coffee shops abound, and lithium ion batteries power the latest in personal healthcare robotics.

The grunge is lightly applied, mostly during night scenes, and rather than the whole city being destroyed during the raucous climax, as in recent films like Star Trek into Darkness and Godzilla, San Fransokyo is spared but for a couple of buildings. As it is - uncertainty about when it is notwithstanding - everything appears to have been a logical progression from today's City by the Bay, rather than a rebuild following some nuclear war or implied Japanese invasion or cultural takeover, ala Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Call it the post-postapocalyptic approach.

Nitpicking aside, I'd have to be Carl Fredricksen to not enjoy Big Hero 6. Almost two decades removed from Toy Story, the boundaries of digital animation continue to expand like Baymax's inflatable midsection; this is best represented in BH6 whenever millions of microbots combine into shapes and landscapes, or when opaque light is filtered through Baymax's white "skin." Characters are divided into tech-speakers and everyone else - though even the genius characters have personalities which can be characterized with one or two words, like neurotic, girly, burn-out, etc. - but everyone's moods and attitudes are thankfully unstable, and character reveals big and small are usually only one or two scenes away. The pivot point for this instability is the movie's central relationship, and the lack of tonal consistency does nothing to diminish the underlying chemistry between Hiro and Baymax, or dampen the impact of BH6's various emotional gracenotes. This is a Disney movie, after all, and Disney makes a good casserole. After consuming BH6, I was more than satisfied.

Unlike the best casseroles, though, it never really transcends the sum of its ingredients, and thus never becomes something truly original. To be fair, I don't get the sense that it's trying to be. There are no I, Robot-type threads about Baymax becoming human. In the movie, he's always a robot, and can only do what he's programmed to do, which is to either promote health by identifying and medically-treating illness and injury, or threaten it with karate moves and rocket launchers. BH6 is a lot of fun, provided you can forget it's programmed first and foremost to appeal to lots of people and make lots of money. If you can, and you're over the age of thirty, it might be a treat going on this cinematic scavenger hunt. If you can't, well, at least you'll get a meal out of it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

36,000 Mile Test Drive: One Year Report Card

It's been a year now with Freddy the Mazda 6. Would I lease one again? I actually get daily reminders of that question now that my neighbor has started parking a Kia Optima in his driveway. Let's break the evaluation down to its constituent parts before answering definitively:

Performance (A-)
After years of buying only used cars, I've had to recalibrate my expectations relative to manual transmissions. Prior to leasing the old 3, the newest used vehicle I'd ever purchased with a stick was a 2001 Maxima with 45,000 miles (not Daisy.) More typically, my cars had 130,000 - 160,000 miles when purchased. In other words, the break-in period was well past, with the cars often on their second clutch. With the 3 and now the 6, though, I've had to do the break-ins myself, and it's led to some frustration with the balkiness of their gearboxes, particularly when grinding and crunching my way from first to second. Repeated visit to the dealer, however, just resulted in the same old diagnosis of "Operating Normally."

Otherwise, the performance has been as crisp as autumn air. While the 2.5 liter engine isn't exactly a fondue of horsepower, it revs willingly and has no qualms about bouncing off its rev limiter, which I couldn't really say for the hoary old mill in the 3. The gear ratios are just about perfectly spaced, and if I find myself lugging around in the no man's land below 3000 rpm, it's usually the by product of my own shifting decisions rather than any fault of drivetrain.

The 6's suspension is the real keeper, though. It's nearly everything you get in a BMW 325i at 60% of the cost, and I have yet to encounter a corner which upsets or flusters this chassis. Granted, the stock Yokohama tires are non-committal and, when it comes to road feel, the electric power steering is less revealing than a Bill Belichick press conference; but here's the thing: those attributes are rarely difference-makers over a 20-mile roundtrip commute. The 6 nails the important stuff like ride and handling, pedal placement (easy heel and toe-ing all day), brake feel, and weight balance. In sum, the 6 exhibits an easy competence over the road which would be a credit to a car many times its price.

Comfort (C)
The 6 is a family sedan, so you might be surprised at such a low grade. First of all, C is perfectly average, so let's not get carried away (Mom.) To be sure, the 6 is all-around more comfortable than the 3 - except for the seats, which have odd pinch points, indifferent bolstering, and cloth which likes to grab cotton, polyester, and denim fabrics and wrench them into topographic features which numb my legs and hurt my back. The manual seat adjustment, like cheap insurance, creates gaps in coverage which compromise the ability of my left leg operate the clutch, leaving it either overextended or with inadequate space to maneuver around the pedal.

Overall, limb room in the 6 is a bit precious, both bottom to top and front to back. During car seat loading, I've bonked the Heiress's head on the low-sloping ceiling so often I'm shocked she's still willing to ride back there. Once buckled, the slim rear windows inhibit her spotting of school buses and horsies.

The true comfort test is yet to come, however. That will be in February, when a second (rear-facing) car seat is added into the mix. (#Oldmanonesie) At best, I expect things will be a bit cozy with all aboard; at worst, it'll be like putting ten pounds' worth of cats in a five pound sack.

Durability (A)
Ideally, you'd want this category to be boring. Fortunately, it is. Nothing has "broken" on the 6 so far. That doesn't mean things have necessarily worked perfectly, though.

Reliability (B+)
After nearly 7,000 trouble-free miles, Freddy decided to throw that reliability monkey off his back and came down with an issue. It wasn't a big issue, probably just a "me" thing (since he has 12,000 miles now, you can see the extent of my urgency) but in any case it was something I wanted fixed on a car which is under warranty for another 24,000 ticks. Oh, sorry, I haven't told you what it is yet. Frankly, when I write it out, it feels a little embarrassing: Every time the A/C compressor would turn on, I could hear a little squeak. Yep, that's it. Again, not the biggest deal in the world. There are bigger problems in the world, of course. Mudslides, flash floods, ebola, how to stop Iggy Azalea, all bigger crises than a squeaky A/C compressor. If Freddy wasn't under warranty, I'd probably just shake a can of WD-40 and approach the problem that way. But he is, so I made an appointment.

Turns out, this is actually a pretty big issue. Mazda has issued a bulletin on it and everything.The problem has to do with the clutch inside the compressor, which malfunctions and has to be replaced along with some shims. Whatever. Ready for the funny part, though? When I finally drive away from Northtowne Mazda in my (unwashed) car, I notice the A/C is turned on, but no cold air is blowing! There's a novel approach to fixing something: "Hey, you don't like that squeak this thing makes when it turns on? That's small beans compared to sitting in a sauna!" So I phone the dealership to schedule another drop-off time, this time to replace the entire compressor

Naturally, mother nature picked this particular weekend to dump approximately 40 feet of rain on Kansas City, and Mrs. OMS's Flex picked this same weekend to clog its sunroof storm drains and flood the carpet behind the passenger's seat. So, come Monday morning, both our cars are in the shop, and we get to tootle around (yes, that's the right word) in a loaner. Have you heard of loaners? Unless you drive a premium German brand or something, they're the worst. They're filthy, they always smell, and nobody bothers to replace or repair the myriad of things which go wrong with them, because the dealers know they're destined for a Buy-Here, Pay-Here lot on the corner of First-Degree Murder Street and Twenty-to-Life Avenue. Here's something you won't believe: The stripped-out previous-gen Mazda 3 I got stuck with while Freddy was being "fixed" made a little mouse chirp every time the A/C cycled. That's right, the loaner had the exact same problem I took my car in to get fixed.

The lesson? Just because warranty repairs are "free" doesn't mean they're, you know, free.

Design/Little Stuff (B)
I've spent copious pixel ink praising the exterior styling of this car. It's aged well, and the only things that I'd really change are the fake rear quarter windows and the chrome eyebrow on the trunk, which always makes me think of Fran from Dodgeball.

Even a beautiful oceanfront might wash up a few dead jellyfish, and the 6 has a its fair share of head-scratching details, some of which are immaterial, and some which are straight bad design choices. I've already covered the non-illuminated window switches, but those are just an annoyance. There's another bad design bit, one that hits me in that one certain way nobody likes to hear: AS A PARENT. Roll your eyes all you want, Millennials, but someday you'll enter your fifties and decide to settle down and have kids, so pay attention and hear me out.

Like all cars made since the Clinton years, the 2014 Mazda 6 comes equipped with child safety locks on the rear doors. By this point you'd think these things would be standardized. It's a simple concept which begs for well-thought execution. But no, turns out there's a right way to do it and a very wrong way to do it.

I'll start by showing you the child safety lock on the Flex, which requires the key to engage and - more importantly - disengage:

And here's the one on the 6, which is a simple sliding lever thing right at kid-eye level:

One of these was designed by a person with children, the other was designed by someone who's maybe seen three or four kids at some point, all of which were probably robots.


Would I make the same decision now that I made a year ago? On the basis of performance, absolutely yes. The 6 offers its buyers a discount BMW which also happens average 32 - 36 mpg, depending on the lead content of your right foot. On the basis of design, the 6 has a few warts. But, overall, I don't regret the decision. It's been a good car, and what aggravation it's given me comes in part from the indifference of the dealership from which I purchased it. Now that the drivetrain appears to have finally broken in, I'm hoping the next 24,000 miles are even better. I just need to quit approaching it from the rear.

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Which automaker will be the last to produce a manual transmisson?

In the November 2014 issue of Automobile Magazine, journalist Lawrence Ulrich goes on a mission to find the last (North American) Ferrari ever produced with a three-pedal manual transmission. That he ultimately finds it hiding out in Vancouver, BC is to me somewhat irrelevant, since Modena long ago turned a cold shoulder to such rudimentary, human-operated devices; what got me was the prediction made within the article by the car's owner, Bryan Walley. "Within five to ten years," he says, "all manual cars will have disappeared from showroom floors.

Maybe it was the fact that I was reading the article in a print magazine, or just my fatalistic views on the matter of preserving the vehicular man-machine interface and its value to society at large, but something about this pronouncement struck me as prescient, if slightly pessimistic. Like baseball and black and white movies, the manual has been pronounced dead many times before, and, like baseball and black and white movies, there's reason to think manuals will persist well into the future, if only for an increasingly niche audience.

Just for the sake of sensationalism, let's assume that Walley is Nostradamus himself - if Nostradamus owned lots of commercial real estate in Vancouver and drove a red Ferrari 599. If his prediction proves true, that begs another question: Which manufacturer will be the last hold out? Who will keep the manual transmission flame alight, and also be the one to finally blow it out?

Here's my list, ascending in order of likelihood:

Audi is killing the manual in the next R8. VW already makes one of the best dual-clutch gearboxes and the take rate is such that all their manuals could be gone within a few years, even from the GTI. The last high-performance Mercedes with a manual was the 190E 2.5, which is older than Los Angeles Angels centerfielder and presumptive American League MVP Mike Trout. As for Porsche, though it introduced one of the more recent "innovations" to the old-style manual by offering a 7-speed in the 911, it's obvious such transmissions have a place in Stuttgart only for an unprofitable minority who will soon be kicked to the curb in favor of less demanding yuppies.

So BMW is the only German who appears on this list. It's really more of a honorable mention type of thing, given that Bimmer has tried for years to kill off manual transmissions in both its standard and M models. In the case of the M5, the company's flagship performance sedan, only American outrage on the part of clutch pedal adherents saved buyers from getting stuck with a mandatory DSG gearbox in its last two iterations. If the future of German-made manual transmissions is a theater on fire, BMW is merely the one holding the door open so the others can run out first.

Did you hear? The latest WRX is available with an optional CVT! Jeepers. The Legacy and Forester gave up on manuals during the last model change, and, starting with the previous-gen, the Forester XT is available only with an auto. Subie is on the same path to automation as BMW, only they're about a generation or two behind, which is the only thing putting them ahead on this list.

Lotus shouldn't be this low. Understand, I think Colin Chapman's company would still offer a manual even after everyone else gives up. I only put them here because I have doubts about their survival as a company. (Did it just get more depressing in here? Sorry, I'll open a window or something.)

We Americans are traditionalists, which is why the new, state-of-the-art Corvette Stingray comes equipped only with a manual or slushbox. The Viper has never allowed a self-shifter to penetrate its haven of hoonery. High-performance Mustangs have always been manuals, along with the GT supercar. And Wranglers still come with potato chip doors you can remove in roughly the amount of time it takes to finish a Lucky Strike. Did you know that, between them, Cadillac and Buick offer no fewer than three different models with a manual transmission? Cadillac and Buick!! As usual, it's up to the Red, White, and Blue to show the rest of the world the way.

That is, unless you count Japan.

With the introduction of the auto-only TLX, manuals have all but disappeared from Acura. Over at Honda, CVTs are infiltrating the ranks like a zombie epidemic. But there's still a few glimmers of hope. There's the Accord Sport, which seems to exist solely as an excuse offer a manual in a model whose owners consist almost completely of pensioners, salesmen, and yoga instructors. Honda is still the only company to offer a hybrid with a manual. There's the Civic Si - still available exclusively with a stick - and the elemental Fit. Most importantly, outside of attempting to cram the maximum number of screens and buttons onto its dashboards, there's a serious lack of innovation these days at Honda, which I think bodes well for the survival of manuals.

Still, I'm putting Honda behind another Japanese company, one which both innovates and has a sense of nostalgia.

If this list were simply "The Last Mainstream Manufacturer to Offer a Manual", Mazda would obviously be at the top. The continued survival of the MX-5 Miata is proof enough (1990 model pictured above), but to that I also add that the company recently responded to customer requests by offering a manual in up-level Touring editions of the 6, is continuing development on a new rotary-powered RX, which we can safely assume will delegate its shifting duties, and is the last manufacturer to offer manual transmissions in a small crossover and a minivan.

Mazda might see themselves go out of business before they roll out a lineup without at least one stick-shift (just kidding, they wouldn't), which is why I don't think they'll quite be the last to offer one...

Here's the best argument for why manuals will never die: Because Morgan will never die.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Movie Cafe #11: Cool Hand Luke

Spidey: You know, sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

OMS: Sadly, "nothing" is exactly what our audience has been getting in terms of Movie Cafe. They probably don't know we operate on the inverse of Hollywood's movie schedule, which means we ramp up after Labor Day and go on vacation summer and Christmas.

Spidey: So, to kick our big fall season off with a bang, we're examining the evolution of the guy movie, from the sixties to today. We're gonna start with 1968's classic Cool Hand Luke, a guy movie's guy movie.

OMS: "A guy movie's guy movie." What does that mean?

Spidey: I don't know.

OMS: "Gettin' a little glib here, boss!"

Spidey: "Get a little glib there, Dragline."

OMS: Anyway, you were talking about the ways in which Cool Hand Luke is a classic guy movie.

Spidey: Indeed, they're almost all found in this film, along with a memorable cast and lots of iconic lines, but because Cool Hand is among the originals, it either avoids or pre-dates many of the clichés which seem so stale nowadays.

OMS: That struck me, too. Cool Hand is the trope-originator for lots of those guy movie clichés. By the way, when we say "guy movies" (which we will a lot), just imagine the movie that your wife or girlfriend would least want to see or that would get you the biggest eye roll.

Spidey: "Well, honey, I know you like it..."

OMS: Usually there's some quid pro quo involved, which usually obligates you to at least one Kate Hudson movie and a pedicure. Maybe it's easiest to say that guy movies, or at least the ones we're going to talk about, are on the opposite end of the movie spectrum from anything with Kate Hudson.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

36,000 Mile Test Drive: Coulda Had a V8

I'm coming up on a year of ownership with Freddy the Mazda6. Other than a squeaky A/C clutch shim (scheduled to be replaced), it's been a fine car. But after 12 months and nearly 12,000 miles, it seems fair to look back at the roughly $22,000 he stickered for and see to what other use that cash might have been put. No, I'm not talking about revisiting Four Wheel Fisticuffs, or the handful of pre-owned Civic Sis and VW CCs I considered during the course of that process. I'm talking about a nothing-off-the-table look at exactly what 70% of the average purchase price of a new vehicle will get you in 2014.

Let's ask Auto Trader:

The Heiress loves convertibles, so it's easy to imagine the sort of hero's welcome I'd receive after pulling up in this baby. Being a C5 Corvette, this lipstick red example comes with a 350 horsepower, 360 lb-ft torque version of Chevy's famed LS1 V8. The Heiress doesn't care about engines, but she does care about a place to sit, which means she'd be relegated to hearing the burbling center-exit exhaust as Daddy drive's off back to the dealership, having realized a car seat doesn't really fit atop those gleaming red leather seats.