Car Trouble

I mentioned that our car was having trouble last week. The car started overheating on the way home from the beach, and this seemed to affect the power and acceleration and also the braking. It was so bad we drove straight to our local garage rather than going all the way home. The car is a ’99 Jeep Grand Cherokee coming up on 100,00 miles. Jeannie has been increasingly concerned about the car’s reliability, and since this was an unexpected repair it called the whole issue of whether to repair or replace the vehicle into question.

The car was in the shop for the better part of a week, and we spent a good chunk of that time researching potential replacements. We had a camping trip coming up, which is the max load for us, with the kids and all our camping stuff filling the car to the limit, so time was tight.

We mainly use this car for family road trips, and I haul stuff around in it from time to time, so it needs to be big enough for that. Nowadays on weekdays I mainly drive it to the train station and back, but I used to work in Connecticut and that was a long commute, so the car needs to be versatile and good in rough weather, snow and terrain. It needs to be big enough, but I don’t want anything too huge. There’s a whole category of large and extra large SUV’s out there I’m not even looking at.

The one special consideration is that I’m tall, and so many car out there – even large cars – do not have enough headroom for me, so this is a major issue.

I don’t want to get another Jeep, mainly because they are not that well made, but also I don’t like the new body and style. Bigger and heavier but less interior room.

We had looked at Toyotas at the time we bought the Jeep. They were either too small or too monster-truck like, and none were especially well designed. I sat in a Sequoia, and couldn’t sit up straight because the moonroof ate up so much headroom. The one car we liked was the Highlander, but they were brand new at the time and on backorder, and we couldn’t wait, so we got a 3 year old Jeep instead. We rented a newly redesigned Highlander on or recent trip to New Mexico, and I don’t like it, particularly the interior.

We went and looked at Subaru’s earlier this week. Our other car is a Subaru, and we love the Subaru boxer engines and AWD drivetrains, and their really great long term reliability. Subaru has supersized both the Forester and the Tribeca in them last year or two so we thought we’d check them out.

We were hopeful about the Forester. It is just a bit smaller than the Jeep, but is significantly lighter and gets significantly better gas mileage, and is very well designed overall, and reasonably priced. It is big enough in the front seat but has less cargo space. The biggest problem is that you can only get it with a roof rack if you also get the sunroof, and then it doesn’t have enough headroom. Disappointing.

Tribeca is even more frustrating. It’s their flagship car and is as long and heavy as our jeep and gets comparable mileage. It has a 6-cylinder version of the boxer engine, which you’d except would be awesome. But the roof is just too low, and the curvy back end cuts down a lot on the cargo space. And again with conjoined roof rack moonroof option. With the moonroof I can’t even sit up straight in the front seat. Yeesh.

Next to look at is Hondas. The Pilot is at the top our list right now. It’s just a shade bigger than the Jeep, gets a bit better mileage, and is available in 4 wheel drive. We’ve seen a bunch of 2 and 3 year old Pilots listed for $10 less than a new one, which is generally a good point value curve. (We seem to put about $1000 a year into maintenance and repair on both of our cars, and the Subaru is even older than the Jeep, but that’s still a much better deal than losing $5K a year to depreciation.) We’re also considering the CR-V, but we’re concerned it may be too small. They look to be comparable to the Forester.

While we were building our dossier of cars to check out we heard back from the garage. The overheating was caused by a hole in the exhaust pipe up near the engine. I had known about the whole before, and the garage had said it would cost well over $1000 to replace, as the pipe was part of integral unit that includes the catalytic converter. The hole itself was caused by corrosion where a clip had been welded onto the pipe (using a different metal) to hold on a pretty-much-useless piece of heat shielding. This is a perfect example of why I’m not getting another Jeep.

When I was first told about this, I decided to fix it myself using a muffler patch kit from an auto parts store. It worked well enough thru the winter, but I guess by spring it had worn thru and the hole was larger than ever, with the weather in the 90’s it became an issue. So this time I convinced my mechanic to patch the hole by welding on a plate, which costs only a couple hundred bucks.

The repair was complicated, however, by the last time the car was in the shop. This was in Washington, D. C., at a Firestone, not at our regular garage. I had needed a new set of tires, because one of the tires was wearing unevenly on the trip. The tires were old anyway, so that was not a big deal apart from the inconvenience, but it was the result a bad alignment or something, so that needed to be done again. The thing is, the garage over-tightened and cross-threaded a bunch of the lug nuts when they put the tires on, so now my mechanic spent the better part of a day getting them off and destroyed one of the wheels in the process, which of course needed to be replaced. Luckily he charged me only a fraction of the labor cost, and wrote me a letter I can use to try and pursue some kind of remuneration from the Firestone.

But now that car is fixed and feels better than ever, and is quite again to boot. We took it camping and home again and it performed great, so hopefully we’ll get another year or two out of it without any trouble. So for now we saved ourselves the hassle and cost of buying an new car. But we’ll continue our research, cuz next time something happens to the car, we’ll probably decide to replace it, which will be much easier to do if we know what kind of car we want.

The camping trip itself was great fun, even though we had some rain. We had planned on going up Friday afternoon, but delayed because there were flood and tornado warnings up near the campground. So we went up bright and early Saturday morning, which was good because the traffic was light, by time we got there the rain was ending. Apparently Friday night was clear by nightfall, but it rained again in the morning, so everyone pitched in to help everyone else set up as fast as possible in case the rain came back. The day was clear but the rain came back shortly after dark. Lizzy and her friends go flooded out of the girls’ tent in the middle of the night when a big storm rolled thru. There was also plenty of car-related drama on the trip too. One couple drove up in an 80’s Camero that died as they rolled in. Another friend had his keys locked in his car when he sent one the boys to get mustard from his cooler. Sunday was sunny again by midday, and all our gear dried out, and we got to enjoy the lake and play guitars and all the usual cooking out and hanging out. We stayed until Sunday evening to make up for our late arrival.

Meanwhile, the summer is almost gone, and getting the Jeep fixed sort of trumped the Mustang, so doing the restoration work is deferred yet again. Ah well, one of these days…

New Song: Touch The Ceiling

I’ve been working on a new recording of a song called Touch The Ceiling. This is the last song for my current forthcoming album, whose working title is Face The Heat. Like the last number Making Miles, this one is a cover of sorts, a blast from my own past. Way back in the 1980’s I was in the prog rock group Infinigon. We did mainly covers by bands like Rush, Yes, Genesis, and ELP, but we aspired to write our own original songs.

Touch the Ceiling was one of the best. It was written by our drummer Mark Colicchia, crafted by contributions from the whole group. The song is a good expression of Mark’s philosophy as well as a really good song with a strong melody and groove, some interesting twists, an atmospheric middle section and a jamming ending. I recall contributing a few ideas to the arrangement.

I’m doing this new arrangement in collaboration with John Neumann, the original Infinigon bassist, who is now a fellow recording studio artist and the driving force behind Tea With Warriors. He’s playing the bass and guitar, singing the second parts, and contributing some cool synthesizer textures. Meanwhile on my side, I’m doing most of the keyboard parts, and this song involves more drum programming that usual, as there are a few different rhythms, a couple of drum breaks and a good handful of fills.

My friend Erik came by last night and I ran him though my mixes, and we worked out a strategy for bringing them over to his studio. The main thing is he doesn’t use SampleTank, which is my main onboard software synthesizer, so I’m going to have to take all my drums and keyboard tracks and render them out as audio. So I’ll be getting going on that as I finish this song.

Things have been hectic for me this week with work, the car and all, so it may be a couple weeks still until I have the rough mix up. Have to finish up the drums and the synth solo at the end, and drop in John’s parts. Meanwhile, you can enjoy Mark’s lyrics.

Touch The Ceiling
by Mark Colicchia

Light side of summer ready to roll vivid perfect day
Song playing over the radio with nothing to day
Land upon the lunar surface streets and I’m on my way
Going out to spend tomorrow’s half of next week’s pay

You gotta go with the feeling
Avoid disbelieving
If you can’t touch the ceiling
Reach as high as you can

Waiting for the weekend takes so long then it’s gone too soon
Young night lit by ancient stars and pie-graph moon
Strange invitation you go it alone and the evening seems to loom
Searchlight eyes meet a similar gaze from across the room

You gotta go with the feeling
The moment revealing
If you can’t touch the ceiling
Reach as high as you can

Work live for paper pagan reward it’s the modern way
Stress cynicism all from the game what a price to pay
Plan for tomorrow but don’t forget to enjoy today
Do what you know is right in your mind it’s the winning play

Making the scene what does it mean what does it say?
Too many flaws plaguing the laws that we obey
Don’t let the sights of golden lights lead you astray
Life can be hard sometimes the cards fall where they may

And go with the feeling
Avoid disbelieving
If you can’t touch the ceiling
Reach as high as you can

Deep Summer

Well it’s the second half of the summer now, and we’re getting our first real heat wave. It’s been in the 90’s since last week, with no rain for a change, and no end in sight. We’re getting peppers and tomatoes from our garden daily now. And even though we’ve been busy, we’ve had some time to enjoy summer activities. We took the kids to Playland last Friday evening and the kids enjoyed the rides and we saw fireworks. Michelle is exactly 4 feet tall, which was the cutoff for a lot of rides, and it some of the ride operators were being extra picky. They wouldn’t let her on the big rollercoaster (too short), and then later they almost wouldn’t let her on some the kiddie rides (too tall)! They wouldn’t let me on the bumper cars for being too tall. The park has a bunch of old, classic rides from the 1920’s. The carousel had a genuine calliope, sort of a player piano crossed with a pipe organ and robot percussion section, that was fascinating to watch and listen to.

We went to beach on Sunday, which was great, except for on the ride home the car started making trouble, one of the brakes was overheating and seizing up. It’s in the shop now, but the car has just about 100,000 miles on it, so we’re starting to think about how long we want to keep it and keep repairing it. There are a lot of things I like about the Jeep, and over all it’s in pretty good shape, so it’s tempting to just keep it running. On the other hand, that’s the strategy we’re following with Jeannie’s car, so we don’t want to be in the situation where we need to replace both cars at the same time. And of course to replace it would be a whole research project to figure out what kind of vehicle to replace it with, and it’s gonna take a whole lot of precious time to do it right. Since I’m so tall, most of the cars our there are not good for me to drive, and even a lot of larger SUV’s are not well designed for tall people. Right now is not a good time for it’s since we have a camping trip coming up this weekend, and another road trip a couple weeks after that. Still, I think we better start looking into it so we’re prepared.

I’ve been making progress on a bunch of side projects. Luckily we’ve had no major home repairs or other projects of necessity for a little while, and things are at an even keel for the time being with my job, so I’ve been doing fun stuff. I’ve basically taken the summer off from working on origami and my book, since I was jamming on it really hard back in May and June. But it’s getting close to the top of the list as other things get done. I dusted off the Foldinator and began development of version 2.0. I worked out a format for Origami XML, and posted a first build. The second build will be along in a few weeks. I stated redoing my web site in PHP to support dynamic pages, and have implemented the first set of scripts. Still on the todo list is take pictures of all my new 2009 origami models, which will happen sometime this fall.

I’ve been making great progress with music. I bought a guitar a few weeks ago, and have been playing it enough that I’m starting to get somewhere. I’m think of writing a guitar based song even, something in the approximate style of Greg Lake. That will be on a future project, as this one is nearing the end. My friend Erik has agreed and to help me mix and master my record, which is great news. And I finished a complete song in record time in July. Now I’m working on the ninth and final song for my record, with the help of my friend John. More on that in a future post.

Zingman Site Upgrade

Now that fears over the Y2K bug have pretty much calmed down I figured it would be a good time to upgrade my web site to use some good ol’ fashion 21st century web technology. I’ve begun adding dynamic elements to my pages using PHP. The high-level goal is to make the site more template driven so I can update content easily and have configurable views. For example, I’d like to be able generate pages in my origami section that display the models in a particular subject or from a particular year on-the-fly. Toward that end, as a proof-of-concept I designed a drop-in header and footer that can be passed args for Title and Section. Many thanks to Jeannie for helping with creating these templates.

So far I’ve implemented the templates in the “back half” of my site – the less visited sections Multimedia, Movies, Art, and Spew. Now that I know it’s working, I’ll be getting around to the rest of the site in the next few days. In the meanwhile, please alert me if you come across any broken links while the transition is on. The payoff is, going forward, if I want to for example add a new section, I can just update the footer file with the new link rather than having to go in and edit every single page. Now the real fun begins. Soon I will begin going thru my sub-pages to create more sophisticated reusable content blocks and begin serving more and more parts of the site dynamically.

Kickin’ the Guitar

Hey! Who’s that playing?
Hey! The guitar?

Last weekend we went camping with a bunch of friends and families. Cooking over fires, drinking beers, singing songs around the campfire. Ah good times. We were pretty lucky with the weather. It rained heavily Friday on the drive up, but stopped by the time we got there. Most of the trip was sunny but not too hot. It started raining again the last morning, just after we finished packing down the tent, and by the time we were on the drive home it was pouring again.

We went for a rocky and muddy hike up a mountainside. The kids did really well, Michelle in particular. Even as the more sedentary adults began whining, she was hopping from rock to rock, happy to keep going with great energy and enthusiasm. Lizzy lost a sandal in the lake, playing fetch with Seth’s dog Nula. We burned the giant U.F.O. I folded back in June for the oversize origami competition. My friend Nick has some powder to sprinkle into the fire to make it burn all kinds of crazy colors. We put it on the flying saucer and it was just the thing. Video coming soon.

But the main topic for today is about singing songs a playing guitar. This dude Joe brought his guitar and we had some jams. He also brought a stack of lead sheets he printed out from the Internet, which was a great help. I usually memorize the music I play, but everyone knows different songs. So it made it easy to follow along with a song you basically know but haven’t played before. And there are hundreds and hundreds of songs easy song like that. Next time I’m gonna bring some printouts of my own.

I got motivated to get back into practicing guitar. Actually, last year around this time I went thru a spell of playing guitar and trying to learn some tunes from my big Beatles book and a Neil Young book. I tried to practice two or three times a week for a half hour or so. I picked a couple tunes that were pretty challenging for me, such as “I Will”, and was making progress, but had to put it aside after a few months. I felt like I my progress was slowing, and I wanted to make time for other activities, and besides, my guitar playing would never rise to the level of my saxophone or piano playing.

Another factor is that even thought I have two guitars, neither one is very good. One an acoustic that I traded for a boom box many years ago. It has the dubious virtue of being made almost entirely not of wood. The body is plastic, a great big Ovation-style round back, and the neck is aluminum, wide and flat. It never is quite in tune and takes a lot strength to barre chord on it. At least it’s loud. And it’s great for camping cuz it’s well nigh indestructible and it doesn’t matter if it accidentally gets wet or dirty.

My other guitar is a bit nicer. It’s a Guild electric that I bought many years ago off my friend Mark (Yo Homeslice!). It actually has pretty good sound and action, and a nice two-pickup setup with a three-way switch and tone knobs. The main problem is the intonation. The joint between the neck and the body is not tight enough, so you end up doing Adrian Belew style tremolo effects every time you shift your balance.

Still, you can’t take a piano with you into the woods and you can’t sing while playing a sax, so I got motivated again. This time the focus is on easy rock and folk songs. I’ve just been googling lyrics and chords and finding pretty much every song I think of. It’s actually pretty funny how the same ascii tab charts that were floating around newsgroups in the 80’s are still out there circulating. One not-so-easy song I decided to tackle this time around was “Suitcase Blues”, a great ballad by Rik Emmet of Triumph.

And so, today I bought myself a new guitar. I knew I wanted an acoustic-electric (acoustic with a built-in pickup) so I could practice without and amp but could plug it in if I ever want to use it for recording or gigging out. After looking online, figured I could probably get a decent on in the $300 ballpark. I went to the music store on my lunch hour and it was nice and quiet, so I took some time and auditioned about 6 guitars. In the end I picked a Yamaha APX-500. It has really good sound and action, and a bunch of details that I like. The body has a nice shape and is thinner than other makes, so it’s more comfortable to hold, but still has a nice full sound. The neck is thinner and flatter than a lot of acoustics, but not as much as your typical electric. The jack is in a convenient place. It has a built-in tuner and 3-band equalizer and a slider labeled “AMF” that I’m not sure what it does. Its scale runs from 80 to 10K, so maybe it sweeps the resonant frequency for the middle band of the EQ. Finally, it has a really nice tobacco sunburst finish which is just gorgeous.

So now I’m totally psyched to learn a bunch of new songs. Too bad it’s too nice to take camping.

Here’s a picture of the guitar next to Michelle’s ukulele.