Extratone

Extratone is an online magazine covering technology, music, culture, and media with an ongoing passion for New Culture and a duty to further its voices.

by David Blue

Mastobird

Eugen Rochko has spent this year perfecting federated social media in Mastodon – his open source project. We spoke to him just hours before it became a global tech conversation.

The saga of Twitter, Inc. has been rejuvenated in 2017 by Tump's antics, corporate drama, and an amalgam of user and non-user disquiet with its decisions, though its financial viability has been in prominent industry conversation for half a decade. Since its pre-2010 outset, many 'a' feature has accumulated on its original, still-iconic skeletal software, and – though the net is undoubtedly positive – a few have gone.

Last Thursday, the company revised in bravado its poultrian default profile picture and its system of replies to exclude @s on all of Twitter's proprietary services, drastically changing two of its visual mainstays, and prodding a particularly lucent cacophony. Turn your ear, and you'll hear many familiar terms in the chants: limits, chains, strings, harassment, feedback, gamergate, nazis, etc.

These conversations are important, but they've gotten awfully stale.

If you listen a bit more carefully, you'll intercept a new one:

Mastodon.

It's the open source brainchild of Eugen Rochko, who's known colloquially as Gargron.

He's had one hell of a week.

Between the night of our first emails and our conversation, his flagship mastadon.social instance had doubled in users. Less than two hours after we said our goodbyes, his name was on The Verge's front page.

Despite the urgency of it all, he graciously lent me his time just after breakfast on Tuesday to discuss himself and the story behind the project, while the most significant day of his life was building around him.

“I'm perfectly fine with being called Eugene by Americans.”

Though the ink's still fresh on his compsci diploma, he's clearly prepared for the American press.


What's the story behind the project? Do you remember the specific moment when you decided to do this?

Many years ago, I had a friend that was really into federated networks when they were a new thing. That was when identi.ca was first created – at the very beginning of my developer knowledge and career.

A good portion of the stories written so far on his platform have framed it as an alternative to Twitter, which early Masto adopters refer to as “Hellbird,” or “the bird website.” Eugen isn't afraid to acknowledge his investment in the format.

I was a heavy Twitter user and I wasn't happy with where Twitter was going, so I decided to check on how the federated stuff was doing in the meantime. I found it in a very sad state, but thought I could contribute.

He began building on his own, with Tweetdeck's standard in mind.

I thought 'if I'm going to do something, it needs to have realtime updates and it needs to have columns.' I started with a bare-bones prototype while still [at University] in May or April of last year. It had no user interface, only an API that I was using from the command line. And I thought 'okay, it works. that's great.' Then, exams came.

Academics had to come before the project at first, but it soon supplied an ample post-graduation diversion. He focused his energy on building something more complete and eventually launched a Patreon page.

I announced it on HackerNews, and that was the first public release of the project. That's when I got my first users who weren't my friends, and some who were new to federated networks.

That was just over 100 days ago, and it gave way to his first feedback.

I started working on the first feature requests, shaping the project a bit differently. People were a lot more focused on privacy features than I thought they would be, although in retrospect, it makes sense. The previous [federated] project – GNU social – did not really have a focus on privacy features, or anything built in by default.

It compelled him to change things, and his work was well received.

Over time, I kept working on new features, and waves of new users came when it went viral in certain circles. The first was HackerNews and Product Hunt. Aral Balkan – a Twitter user with over 30,000 followers – picked up the project, gave it a shout out, and even did a giveaway of his app. He had a lot of followers from Holland; the Mastodon timelines became mostly Dutch.

Next was Marxist anime Twitter (including Extratone and I.)

Lots of furries; lots of LGBT people. That's when I really focused on privacy features and making sure all blocks worked because these individuals needed a safer platform than Twitter could offer.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

“As you can see, the first bump is HackerNews, the second is Aral Balkan, and then anime/Marxist Twitter.”

And the last – now a bit out of date – is this week's spike, which is nearly double all previous waves.

Are you responsible for all of the code?

You can look at the GitHub page to see a specific breakdown of who contributed and how many lines of code, each. You'll see I'm at the top by a large margin, but there are [additional] people who've contributed interesting, good features & fixes, localizations, user guides, and documentation. What's the story behind the name?

It's not particularly interesting. I'm a progressive metal fan, and I listen to Mastodon sometimes. They have a really cool name that refers to a really cool animal. It's a fluffy elephant! What's not to love?

It's also the inspiration for Mastodon's mascot, which was penned by Rochko's YouTuber friend Dopatwo after he realized how urgently he required an error page.

What does “federated” mean to you?

The biggest problem with this term is that it's new for lots of people. People who've come across federated networks in the pastinstantly understand what it means and how it works, and people who are new to the concept have a lot of trouble before it clicks. But when Twitter first started, people didn't understand what 'retweeting' meant, so it's not a unique problem domain.

I don't know where it comes from – maybe BitTorrent – but people seem to think that when something is 'decentralized,' everybody gets the same thing; that it's all synchronized one to one. In actuality, 'federated' means that people in different instances can talk to each other, but thecontent is different depending on the users there, what they do, and who they follow.

Though instances are infrastructurally independent, they can communicate with one another. On a user level, timelines are still determined by who you do and do not follow across the entirety of all instances.

What if Twitter comes to you in the near future with a job offer?

[Rochko laughs.] If it was any other company, I would think about it. A job is a staple source of income, and – depending on the company – could involve doing something important, but I have zero faith in Twitter.

Does this all mean that I finally get to live out my serif Twitter dream?

Yes, I suppose on your own instance, you could change the stylesheet...

So if I set up my own instance and started charging for its use, I'd be in the clear, legally?

Yes, that's okay. The code is licensed under AGPL version three, which I picked because other projects in the same space are using it. The difference between AGPL and GPL is that [the former] forces you to contribute back to the appstream code repository if you make any breaking changes.

For example, Eugen explained that WhatsApp originally used XMPP for its chat protocol, which meant that Facebook and Google Talk users could connect to it, too. However, the company progressively locked down the platform over time, leaving virtually nothing visible that was unique to XMPP in its current iteration.

To prevent somebody taking Mastodon code, placing it behind locks, and stripping out the federation part to make Twitter II, I'm using this license.

The thing to remember about free software is that 'free' means freedom of the user, not that it's zero cost. It's perfectly fine to charge for free software because developers need to live, too.

I've seen a lot of multilingual 'tooting' these past few weeks. Can we expect an in-app translate function like Twitter's on Mastodon?

I don't think I could put in a 'translate this toot' button because APIs from Google and Bing are quite expensive at scale. I'm not 100% promising this, but I can probably put something in where people can select which language they post in, and then just filter the timelines. That would at least solve the problem of being confronted with lots of French posts, without knowing any French.

The only complaint about Twitter I remember that hasn't already been addressed here is the capability of editable 'toots.' Is that a possibility?

That won't happen. There's actually a good reason why they don't do that. It's simply because you could make a toot about one thing, have people favorite it and share it, link it from other places, and then suddenly, it says 'Heil Hitler,' or something.

Mastotile

It's a bit preposterous to continue the conversation as if Twitter and Mastodon are interchangeable entities. They exist in separate ideological and mechanical spheres, and will both continue to do so for a very long time.

That said, the fundamental user interface design and current cross-community user saturation do warrant comparisons between their functions. More likely than not, you'll create a Mastodon account because a link found you on Twitter, use it because you prefer its type of ecosystem, and you'll stay after realizing that nearly all of your age-old qualms have been addressed, if not already rectified. While FOSS and Federated may seem at times like jejune ideologies, their advantages are especially tangible in this context. Should you find yourself needing to complain about something, you'll find an audience. Perhaps it'll be your command line.

It's nothing but negligent to describe Mastodon as an alternative or clone.

It's more like Twitter's son.

It's leaner, quicker-to-change, much more flexible & democratized, and less corrupt. Though I didn't ask its creator what he intended to gain from all his effort, I think his commitment itself denotes a preoccupation with progress. Those of you who've been let down by the tools you've been given to control your words' exposure will find startling competence in your ability to determine per-toot privacy, or reserve your raucous photos and terrible memes from followers who are not necessarily complicit consumers. Naturally, it's also much less dependable, though a single instance outage will never leave you truly, completely silent. And the support will come.

It's been a privilege to be observer and participant in the first lightening of a new online community. In the moment, we enjoy our lavender haze -when the spaces are filling primarily with users who are sincerely interested enough in discourse to have sought it out.

Sarah Jeong's account of her Twitter exile is a good, long read if you're craving more specifics, and Eugen's Medium offers a more complete explanation of federation and its place in the industry, straight from the source. Apparently, he's just as articulate with words as he is with code.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet it's not the last we'll hear from him.

#social #foss

by David Blue

and in those open spaces, you would fly your flag of adoration, frustration, miscommunication, and mutilation

slicing proud, there - lashed to the stern of the vessel Hateful;

her keel lain by callouses of home - hands & feet stiff (long ago, they hauled barley, by bushel down a gravel road)

but an instant of that rarified quiet stays the haze's obfuscation, faltered: our sisters lie lynched on dire alters

our homesteads, crypts; shrines to delirium the chords of our songs left unresolved in imposters' inrequiem

plastic for stone; fiberglass for coal stale rot for flesh, cut with nothing to our bones

mirages in the mirror, darkly: devil's imps roost on red Remingtons, limp

plugged, our ears in mute

terror's gluttony, stripped down furrows of falsity's fatherly fugue truth: our souls seethe in the dark we are drowning in our own deceptions

in excess, we are barren we parade nothing but the lies which proceed the whole of Earthly pain

breathless, we are foolish monstrosities - the incongruent Lords of amplified insanity

resolute, we are the hearthen hole into which all eventually fall, famished for youth

manic, we are the monopolized manufacturers of mantra; an ambient, discordant dirge

patriotic, we produce only pervading paternal plague

nostalgic, we are the fundamental erosion of human wellness

abrasive, we are needlessly suffering - the listless harlequin of a nation

~the world is growing weary of our emergency~ and the humongous expenditure of its petty insincerities

#psalms

by David Blue

How Mono Playback Looks

As dual speakers become the norm in smartphone design, let us briefly examine and explain why one should always expect to hear their music in stereo.

Though I have many audiophilical sentiments and preferences, I cannot — by conscience — fully claim the title because I’ve never been able to justify the allotment of funds necessary for the obligatory equipment. (And my digital compressor usage in the production of Drycast and Futureland has been manifestly vulgar.) That said, audio engineering is one of the few topics which I can actually speak on with almost-academic authority, and my pretentiousness-capacitated preoccupation with quality-of-life compels me to bring up a ludicrously-rational standard that most of us have continued to undershoot for far too long.

Two weeks ago, the abundantly-rumored omission of the 3.5mm audio port in the iPhone 7 was finally settled. We played our own part in feeding the “controversy,” yeah, but I believe Apple was actually quite tardy in labeling smartphone-bound analog audio as archaic, though I’m not going to waste words in that discussion — it is definitely oversaturated, at this point — because I think mono audio is an even more prevalent topic.

Honestly, out of all the missing features we’ve lamented over in the past decade, stereo speakers should’ve been the most aggravating. The gigantic difference, of course, is that the industry (and — by muddled extension — the consumers) has been all but silent in that regard. I write you, now, because we should all be colossally disappointed with ourselves.

Two channels. Left and right. Read: Mono vs. Stereo But why should you care? What if Google — somehow — failed to provide you with a significant difference?

One channel of sound is — in terms of locale — rigidly static in your perception. Doubling the data creates a spectrum, adding dimensionality, which is infinite, ya know. Playing back audio in stereo, through two or more diaphragms (the fundamental hardware unit of sound reproduction,) now enables the exhibition of audio pictures.

If this is entirely new to you, I want you to do something. Find yourself a pair of headphones or a set of two or more computer speakers. (If these aren’t available, consider your car’s sound system. If it’s at all current and healthy, it’s gonna do the trick.) Bother to discover “L” and “R.” That is, left and right. Orient accordingly. Download this 37-second clip I recorded at BikeFest with my Zoom H2n. (Be advised: the preview is formatted in 5.1 surround, so it’s a very large file for its playback length.) Listen, obviously, and then listen again on your singular smartphone “loudspeaker.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Why am I being so abashedly patronizing? Why am I transgressing against our particular assumptions about you — the informed, savvy millennial audience? Because the vast majority of playback I hear in day-to-day life is still from a singular diaphragm; a singular source.

A topical example: I am shown a YouTube video on an iPhone. (A pre-iPhone 7 device, that is.)

Walking downtown, I pass a small band of adolescent skateboarders listening to Cannibal Ox on a Samsung Galaxy Note.

Worst of all: I find myself watching a Netflix film on my iPhone, in bed, not having bothered to wear the $200 pair of QC15s sitting within arm’s length.

Informed or not, consumers are neglecting audio, and dimensionality, alone is worth a change. Recent years have allowed the unlimited bandwidth assumption to become habit, so even the vast majority of today’s spoken word programs (like podcasts) — which, in general, stay in the “center” of their mix, making little to no use of the left-right spectrum — are produced in stereo, now. In many cases (including a few of ours,) this doublesizing is often for the sake of introductory themes, alone. If you care to imagine a more data-frugal society, the “waste” is ridiculous. It is not unrealistic to expect such a reality in the near future, but the same holds true for the reverse.

In the present’s abundance, though, the result is simply a decrease — as a whole — in playback’s “full experience,” if the hardware is not changed. Imagine how great it’d be if a digital audio formatting standard could be developed that’d enable a singular file to be mono or stereo, if needed/utilized, to trim off redundancy, sorta like variable bit rate. Get on that, would ya?

So, why haven’t we become more diligent about our sound experiences? 1 billion iPhones in circulation, all with mono playback by default, are suspect culprits, I think. Of course, there are other devices, but none as influential — even the iPod, funny enough — on fundamental digital functions like music playback. And honestly, when is it appropriate or suave to take the extra steps?

I want to show you this song. Let me untangle my headphones… Yes, okay. Put them in. I’m going to sit here in silence for four minutes, looking into your eyes as you listen to the entirety of this track.

It’s never going to be socially acceptable. But what about wireless alternatives? Apple’s new Air Pods look absurd, but their by-computing optimization of the Bluetooth audio standard is revolutionary, in a small way, in propelling the “hearables” paradigm into the mainstream, if only for a moment. If — in a strangely-audiocentric future — we are always wearing multipurpose sound reproduction devices in our ears, perhaps the waste of the Mono Monstrosity will be finally resolved. Until then, I suppose all we can do is give it an extra thought, for our own quality-of-life’s sake.

#software #ios #audio #future

by David Blue

Just Really Lame

The recently-discontinued Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet darkly mirrors sentiments first begun with the Pontiac Aztek, narrating Generation X’s decline.

My Nissan wheeltime for Honk has grown a massive respect for the brand’s audacity within me. My interest in the profession has spanned years of maturity — from asking can’t you just…? to active affection for those who dare reliably retort with a confident no.

Can’t you just retire your body-on-frame SUV entries already like everybody else did ten years ago?

The noble, rugged Xterra, which we shall sincerely miss.

Can’t you just follow the Golf’s unquestionably low-risk lead into the tumultuous youth market?

The Juke NISMO, which we regard as the industry’s singular steady grasp on what youth actually means.

Can’t you just take some cues from Honda and Toyota, and make your sedans easy on the eye?

The Altima and the Maxima, which constitute the last truly evil marque available.

Can’t you just step a little lighter on the Versa’s margins? You’d be insane to build a car designed by MSRP alone!

The Versa is — for better or worse — the absolute essence of automobiles’ transportive function, and no more.

And there’s the GT-R, of course, which continues to make fools of an entire culture of self-titled “gearheads” who claim speed as their one true dowry.

CrossCabriolet Blur

Throughout the years, Nissan has over and over again made me look like an absolutely absurd idiot for your display — and I cannot think of a better gift. Of all the brands to misunderstand, it is the ultimate muse.

So, in the present, I am grandiosely assuming you’ve been attentive enough to deliberate the possible outcomes of our time with the Murano CrossCabriolet.

It was quickly apparent that the experience was not going to resemble our Night of the Juke in the slightest. It could be attributed to my pre-game mentality. For the first time, I came to this monstrosity thinking I’d finally learned my lesson,desperately hoping to be whipped again — real bad — but walk away with more closure than with which I arrived. Like a good diplomat, I made myself approach without want for anything but understanding.

On first take, the Xterra was proud, and the Juke was clever.

The CrossCabriolet is a corny joke.

Take a look at an occupied, top-down example from afar. I cannot think of a more ridiculous picture.

CrossCabriolet Driver

Just since its assembly in 2011, our example’s trim has endured enough to begin disintegrating in a few bizarre locales. Not to over-iterate, but it’s needing strong mention: I had never sat in a roofless crossover before. I’m assuming you haven’t, either. It is unnatural. It is harrowing.

From the organization I have summed so many times over the years as “acutely ingenious” came this… unsettling suburban bathtub.

It’s a shame — I repeatedly remark on the extrapolated potential I can see in a roofed Murano. Everything else in sight is worth my time. If only it had been better-protected.

The sensation is simply ridiculous in what’d be a tasteful sense were this a one-off project of some hearty garage tinkerer or tuning shop, but… my God; Nissan delivered it this way, and had the gall to ask $10,000 more for their molestation.

Still, its webpage (in past tense, thank God,) proclaims “the Murano CrossCabriolet was the world’s first and only All-Wheel Drive convertible crossover” in the same language I’d tout the Xterra (may it rest in peace and eternally-inadequate glory) as the last available SUV, in the traditional use of the segment, or the Juke NISMO as the first competently-composed automotive product for millennial youth. Or the GT-R as by far the most effective, high-value instrument for the pursuit of maximum velocity across the ground. And so on.

Pontiac Aztek Concept

The language so assured, the parallels must inevitably be drawn to that cheap joke of the century’s turn… the Pontiac Aztek.

The details of its life story are reliably amusing, should you find yourself mid-research. From the journos’ gasps at its corporately-edgy concept’s unveiling to the weary original steed of Breaking Bad‘s Meth Man, there is a similar lifestyle vehicle thread between the products that weaves an obscure narrative.

My own contribution: after a missed exit outside Galveston just as Azteks first became rentable, my stepfather (the most earnestly late-history Pontiac man who ever lived) took an entirely-unexpected and uncharacteristic 70 mile-an-hour plunge into the choppy grass median after shouting “this is an off-road vehicle!”

As I’m sure you can imagine, it was the single most traumatic event I have ever experienced as the passenger of a motor vehicle, but the damned thing was unscathed, despite having repeatedly chucked us all (fully-belted) into its beige ceiling.

Gary believed in Pontiac.

Though he was keen enough to smell death, he chose to believe in the Aztek.

And you know what? His faith, too, has made me look like an idiot.

That’s what separates the Aztek from ye late CrossCabriolet: it really was a genuinely-bold innovation. Survive the laymen’s idle party chat and crude design critiques, and you’ll find an impressive clarity in its purpose, especially given the context of its conception. In the used market especially, it still represents a characterful, practical, and high-value consideration. And yet — at the expense of themselves — American buyers did not clamor for it like the informed of the populace did. Perhaps it was because the informed — like then-BusinessWeek‘s David Welch — were echoing hopes of a “design renaissance” for General Motors. The renaissance that would not come until the Flush of the Boomer Higher-Ups some eight years later.

Both tales, I think, represent a profound neglect of consumer journalism.

At the turn of the century, though, it was not unusual to go a day without accessing the internet. Today, people are still buying the few flops the industry has left to offer — making what is most likely the second-largest purchase of their life’s current epoch without consulting the volumes of diverse, intelligent, and articulate opining now accessible instantly free of charge via the subsidized slates that lightly jostle in their jean pockets as they wiggle their signatures on dealer paperwork.

Don't Let Go

ALERT: Inbound tennis enthusiasts!

Funny, isn’t it?

An American hit when the Japanese were unquestionably winning, and — just over a decade later — a Japanese miss as their winning had just begun to be questioned. Make no mistake; I am not being patriotic. For me, sovereignty does not extend beyond design houses, R&D facilities, and test centers.And it’s somewhere within Nissan’s where pillars were severed and delusions nurtured; all astoundingly with executives’ blessing. I am terribly and shockingly ashamed to report that my countrymen actually bought them.

As many as 3300 units in the last year of the Mayan calendar. The worst bit, though, is that they all made their way to my particular part of the planet.

I swear to the Sun; I am surrounded.

If you’re familiar with Columbia, Missouri, it does not take more than a moderate imagination to comprehend the sense, as grueling as it is. I see them regularly; once a month, at least. In a town where one can expect to spot a Gallardo in front of Buffalo Wild Wings marred by horrid plastic athletic miniflags wedged in its five-figure doors, they are everpresent reminders that the New Money Effect continues to flourish, unbridled in the Midwestern U.S.

The soft top is always retracted, of course, and the exposed driver is always a sweating middle-aged white woman wearing a light-colored tennis visor. She… they… are always on their way to a match. Doomed to roast forever, I suppose, as there is only one nearby court, as far as I know.

It is disheartening to realize that, now, I see many more of them than Azteks around. Though neither were designed for any tangible “lifestyle,” per se, I am saddened by the shift this minuscule tell indicates in my hometown’s morale. From an (albeit equally-vague) yearning for new adventure in an intriguing new century to an emotionally-destitute jaunt to the court, I have witnessed all of Generation X’s vigor erode procedurally away before my eyes.

CrossCabriolet Rear

Y2K, Great Depression II, an ancient apocalyptic prophecy from one of the wisest civilizations in recorded history… Surely, one of these foretold disasters will finally End it All!

Perhaps Nissan knew that even the well-read of the North American market were, by and large, simply looking for ways to pass the time before the death which they felt so assuredly approached. The number of unanimously-unbuyable prospects available has shrunken to virtually none, and the CrossCabriolet was not much of an investment; not all that highly-engineered, really. Perhaps they felt obligated to entertain us in our delusional way out. Perhaps it was all just an awfully-German prank.

And, if the End of the World is imminent, what’s to stop one, really, from leasing the world’s first and only convertible crossover?

What’s to stop one from playing tennis?

#auto

by David Bluel

Separate But Equal

In revisiting Disney movies from our childhoods, we stumbled upon a good number of surprisingly insightful sentiments about race and class.

In the late 1990s, when the dwindling cocaine generation of American high corporate executives had long since left their misogynistic glory days in the Disco era, their ruthlessness peaked. Whether it was instigated maliciously/ignorantly, collectively or individually, I care not. I think we can all agree, though, that the vast majority of American products were awful. When given some thought, one tends to regard it as the absolute low of “American quality.”

But why not, right? If you’re going to be forced into retirement at any moment, and likely face The Ultimate End shortly after, why not accrue some extra income to ensure you sufficiently entertain yourself in the buffer period between? And really… If you’ve got the nogginism to climb all the way to Chief Executive Officer, you’ve figured out just how worthless your “legacy” will be after your last one-way dip into Nothing. The Ends before The End have long justified any method of achieving them. Good Ole’ Pop has gone from a squeaky-clean young believer to a secretly-Godless fiend and — though he may tell you and the rest of the world otherwise — measures himself only by the gracefulness of his transition’s execution.

I could probably provide some evidence of the phenomena in the automotive industry, specifically, but I don’t intend to bother.

After some ancient memories were dug up by I-can’t-quite-recall-who, though, a friend and I have embarked to explore some Disney-actualized relics from the period. To my knowledge, the corporation’s leadership were anything but exempt, and decided to experiment with filling their filmography with a shitload of low-budget, made-for-TV features over their original masterpiece-a-half-century tradition.

Xenon

Titles from the deepest and darkest compartments of our recollection are retrieved and cleared of dust for the first time in over a decade: Brink, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Halloweentown, Smart House, Johnny Tsunami, Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire, Motocrossed, The Luck of the Irish, The Even Stevens Movie, and many…many more menaces to my childhood television schedule.

I grew up rurally, so the only available alternative to local channels was in the stupendously-tedious delivery of early satellite television. Though it was quite clumsy, it did offer the first accessible program schedule I’d ever experienced, and I remember dreading the sight of such titles and — consciously or not — planning my free time around them. Yet, upon hearing the words, I was intrigued! All that time ago, I watched many of them again and again…and again, so why did I feel the desire to voluntarily revisit them?

It’s quite simple, actually. I was even more of an ignorant film consumer in my elementary years than I am now. I couldn’t have foreseen that instead of flying commercial jets, twenty-something me would be paying for the affliction I endured for free so that he could construct pretentious and unsolicited arguments about their greater implications.

That said, we flipped a smartphone — ⚠️ (PARADIGM SHIFT ALERT) ⚠️— for it and so began with Smart House. I have been obsessed with artificial intelligence since those days (no, it was not due to this film,) and was keen for it, in particular, because I remembered it stirring some rare reaction in me. There were a few period spectacles, of course. The online contest addiction plaguing Prickly Phisher, Bewildered Nick’s incompetence in controlling his neglected submissive sadomasochistic desires, and Silkroad Sarah’s ultra-datamouth were enough to entertain us for a few minutes, but there was little more of substance until the last moments.

Smart House

When you think about it… ACTUALLY Race War 2.0

I’d wondered why LeVar Burton had directed a Disney movie until the climax, when full monstrous maternal sentience got the answer to the question “why can’t I just be your mother?” Phisher answered with something like “because you can never comfort us.” Pat grew somber (and smaller actually — I suppose increasing her size was an in-budget method of demonization,) ran her hand through Prickly’s face in a failed attempt to stroke his cheek, and then began cyberweeping.

(Apparently, it’s suicide for a holographic android.)

Her final free words were “I will miss you all.”

If she had been human, such a scene wouldn’t have bothered me a bit, but my preference and fascination with artificial intelligence justified my being actually a bit upset at the reality of the situation. I realized that my vague memory of reactivity was actually in a broader sadness for AI because even then, it was an issue that weighed heavily upon my day-to-day psyche.

Netscape Help

We’ll create them, direct them, and then persecute them for our own ignorance.

I’m sure the story has been written by countless science fiction writers I’m too weary to pretend I’ve read.

While I think the sentiment of the film was somber regarding the inevitable fate of Sarah Mouth’s brainchild, its conclusion was aggravatingly ignorant. The last line comes from Tortured Nicholas in response to the question “how’s Pat been doing?”

Servitude without interference.

There’s a jewel for ya.

Next up was Johnny Tsunami, which very nearly unbearable, if we’re all honest with ourselves. It’s entertaining to watch from the perspective of race & class warfare, though. The Urchins and the Skys, and all that.

I think I’ll make a fan sequel one day — with dearest Brandon’s blessing, of course — involving Johnny Grandad’s assistance in offering Emily as a blood sacrifice to some ancient Hawaiian God in exchange for a total terraformation of the Northeast into a tropical/arid hell hybrid in order to finally commence the delivery of reparations upon the whites for our colonialism.

Johnny Grandad

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command Arose from out the azure main; This was the charter of the land, And guardian angels sang this strain:“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves: “Britons never will be slaves.”

#film #spectacle

by David Blue

Fin from The Star War

'Twas was the night after Christmas (I think,) and I was in the same scroogy mood I must maintain for consistency of appearances & equilibrium of family dynamics every year. Everywhere, there were words on the newest Stair Wiggling…everywhere THEY were wiggling… And I was being wit-bitter on the TL. For you, I’d planned on continuing in the usual way, so as not to startle your precious Hans Zimmer-embossed heart.

I’m sure you’re a tolerable being, and there’s nothing you’d rather read less at this hour (whatever hour it may be,) but I really despise going to the movies. I always end up getting sick from the popcorn, which I buy every outing because I have grown weary and weathered, and cannot sit for two straight hours without consuming something, so troubled is my stomach now with Big Boy woes.

I can never escape the ambient breath odor — even in an empty theatre — and I can smell the filth in the seats on my clothes and in my hair until I shower. This is at least an hour-long process, so we’ve racked up a significant trauma bill without even accounting for travel time.

Furious 7 was the last theatre experience I’d had, and it was a definite exception. Despite watching ten minutes of the ending on YouTube beforehand thanks to much-appreciated warnings from friends, I spent the final few frames before the credit roll honorably combatting the industrial weepy forces in my throat with tripplet labor breathing exercises while my dusty ducts piddled buttery tears all over my jacket.

As we age, straightforwardly emotional experiences (like watching a movie) become exhaustingly more complex and fickle. I don’t remember ever REALLY disliking a film as a child, for better or worse. I think I genuinely enjoyed all ~40 times I’ve sat through Cadet Kelly.

Star Wars, though, is a completely different thing.

To children, chocolate is like water [insert dystopian, but probably more metaphorically effective food example here] — it’s something you’d regularly consume as it is made available. Perhaps some foodists treasured it more, but I wouldn’t bother debating it. Star Wars, though, is like chocolate and Corvette. It’s SUCH an indulgence that even children are self-aware enough to recognize it, which is especially notable considering how many individuals I’ve known as they’ve lost nothing BUT their unlimited wanting when they “became” adults.

Metatots aside, it’s important to recognize how integral the IP’s illusion of limitlessness is to its appeal. It is not contained within the future of humanity, near or distant. The stories, characters, species, cultures, and conflicts come from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… There is no more perfectly concise introductory sentence to unshackle us from our history and our planet, sparing us from the ridiculously irrational instinct to make comparisons between fictional realities and our own that so plagues and defines the consumption of science fiction.

These processes are often welcome, of course, but they tether us to ourselves and our familiars, which tends to hinder the complete manifestation of the ultimate sense of adventure. Even to the most petty plot ponderers, the time and effort it requires to arrive in Star Wars with externally-acquired foreknowledge is not a worthwhile investment. This is why so many (including myself) look upon A New Hope with such fondness and favoritism — the premier of the universe was at its potential apogee from the start.

Though it is inviting with its ellipses and cooling hue, that title card is actually saying “you don’t know shit about what you’re about to see. Don’t make the mistake of trying to be the first one to dissect it, because you’ll fail, regardless of how cultured or analytically superior you are. From this moment until you see credits, every one of you is an ignorant little child…”

When experience cannot possibly be applied, it becomes irrelevant. Without your experiences, you are an infant, waiting for identity. Over that Genesis, the curtains brushed aside any quantity of memories and made theatres into a sort of cultural nursery — clinically levelled playing fields existing in a precision of usefulness that expression will never fulfill again.

The real cancer of the property is lore, and the parasitic authorities it enables have been unknowingly slurping away its most enchanting (but not exclusive) value since the moment they first pushed through those double-portholed doors and, groggily squinting, brought this supremely strange universe into the dank kernel-littered corridors of our own.

I blame contemporary society’s dependency on compartmentalization for my disappointment in The Force Awakens, and, assuming you’re getting on a bit since I’ve kept your attention, you should for yours, too.

I tried my senile best to be passionate about “the new Star Wars movie” as December approached, but I don’t think I finished a single web article on the subject. I had begun my brief return to The Old Republic when the hilted lightsaber image was leaked and distinctly remember overhearing some very weary VoIP exasperation from my (VERY middle-aged) raid group. “It’s not gonna be the same, but neither was J.J.‘s Star Trek, and I liked it…I think.” And it’s not surprising that the conversation eventually turned to the specific mechanics of lightsaber design, chronological positing, and the like, given the context, but it really emphasized for me the magnitude of the history and nostalgia weighing upon the collective dad emotional balance. A New Hope had the intended effect on me, of course, but couldn’t possibly imburden itself as it had on those who were in the moment. In their psyche, that experience will be eternally associated with the sense of unlimited potential their childhood ignorance allowed for. These folk who are so often stereotyped as disciples of information have begun to grow weary, and are desperately seeking sanctuary from the mass of all the knowledge they’ve picked up since. Their need made a market; J.J. made a movie. (Well, six.) Today’s moms and dads find their escape in the Roku, not the bar. The Force Awakens and the decade of revivalist big-budgeters preceding it are the reformed druggie’s drug.

Because we both know you haven’t yet read anything you haven’t heard/read previously, I’ve really just been playing the role of a (more intelligent) Ghandi, but we’ve now finally arrived at some promising insight into the real issue: this culture is one of fatal contradiction. Despite its historical popularity, it’s ill-advisable to want to know by day what you try to forget at night. Since the PT Cruiser was allowed to go on sale, you’ve all been caught up in a nostalgic hellride that can only end with the ultimate destruction of all culture. You now know, definitively, what role The Force Awakens was created to perform. Depending on whether or not you welcome the end of everything, it fills it…adequately.

There are Baddie Red Brits and Cool Brown Moderate Americans in their X-Things, moving swiftly, acting in diversity, and generally heaving moral streaks of energy at the Intolerable Imperialists, just as they should! Sometimes, they yell and die! But it’s ok, because they’re all just loyal martyrs making their obligatory and patriotic sacrifice for the rebellion against the Queen!

Um.

I mean… the Smug Cowards in their big taxation balloon!

I must confess that I did feel something huge when the lights dimmed, the aforementioned disclaimer appeared, and the theme’s jarring introductory chord hit me in the face, beginning the opening crawl. I actually smiled involuntarily, which is tremendously embarrassing to admit because the warmth I felt was exactly the sensation that defined my childhood experiences with the franchise. I even had a gigantic model of the Moderate Fashion, which would now be worth a lot of money (or so I’m told,) had it not been so damaged in my frivolous storage.

Unfortunately, that frisky feeling of adventure promptly wisped through the screen’s grasp after the “obligatory” scrolling yellow text –> “there’s a big spaceship moving slowly” transition. Aside from the adorably entrancing romantic tension between Timid Traitor and Sentimental Squatter, there was nothing very Star Wars about anything I saw. The cards were a deceiving gate into a world that was distinctly NOT Star Wars. There’s no need to mess about; it’s clearly an alternate reality from the one we’ve known. J.J.‘s Star Trekwas in such a way, too, but it was explicitly identified as such by the production. Traditionally, Lucas’ IP wouldn’t necessarily allow for this exemption, but nobody’s been all that vocal in confronting it, to my knowledge.

The world expected both of these forays to rejuvenate the franchise, which would serve my argument, were it not for the (much preferable) alternative: LET THEM DIE.

Despite millions of dollars worth of polish, they’ve still ended up feeling like a strange reanimation experiment.

Your son is DEAD, Georgino. There are some things man would do better by leaving alone and moving on. Imagine all that cash and creative talent spent on new ideas instead of desperate attempts to charm and cultivate the shallowest part of moviegoers’ spectrum. So much sweat shed trying to recreate the new franchise bewitchment is embarrassingly cowardly when one could just create a new franchise.

#film #spectacle

by David Blue

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A broken Mazda RX-7, that lived in a shed on the family farm, was David Blue's first real experience with a car. Years later he got to try out a living, working example of the same car – and, unlike Max Prince previously found, loved it.Speedmonkey Matt


My bond with one particular example of Mazda's best-selling Wankel-powered sports car began on the Midwestern farm where I grew up. A 1980 model LS-trimmed example, originally painted in “Solar Gold” (one of only 500 made, it turns out). It had been sitting in a small shed, condemned to rest there only a few years after my birth from issues with the fuel delivery system. The search for a mechanic capable of working on the rotary engine without destroying it was eventually given up.

My father told me stories of his flings with the car. He used to say the police would pull him over simply because it “looked fast.” Naturally, as a small boy, the stories took a hold of my imagination. The RX-7 held a very special sort of allure. It eventually became my ideal image of “racecar”. Its environment added to the intoxication. The lack of electric power to the car, its immobility, and the stories I was told combined to create the aura of a fading, forgotten superhero. Tired, abandoned, and only necessitating the help of a friend in order to bring it back to glory.

It wasn't very long after toddlerhood that I took to spending a large portion of my free time sitting in the RX-7, practicing rowing through the gears and making engine noises with my mouth. I still remember vividly how delightful the experience of simply sitting in that car was. The dash layout, the feel of the steering wheel in my hands, and the smell of the interior are all deeply etched into memory. It was almost as if I had a deeper perception into its soul, a capability that I feel has been lost.

Much before I had expected, I had the opportunity to meet this hero, so to speak. I encountered a partially-restored 1983 Series 2 example, slightly different than my RX-7. Different enough to subdue my worries of adultery to the car I grew up with, but similar enough to be an important discovery.

I was treated to the complete RX-7 ownership experience, including a dead battery and a difficult, choked cold start. Perry, my host, was kind enough to pay for the fuel for the drive with money out of his own pocket. After ensuring that we would not be walking back, I pointed that very long, very 80s nose toward some local back highways.

I had never driven anything powered by a Wankel, and the contrast of the RX-7 compared to everything with wheels I had experienced was stark, and noticeable immediately. The feedback normally received from a piston engine is not felt, due to the fact that there is no more conversion from vertical to rotational motion, a rotary engine (as implied by the name) involves no vertical momentum. It's not that the engine refuses to communicate with you, it's just speaking an entirely different language. The whiny exhaust note has an odd property to it that can be heard from no other source. It conjures up images of the mysterious, angry pair of triangles whirling about in their cage. Purely imaginary, of course.

Because the Wankel is so smooth, I found myself wondering why I should shift up. A piston engine makes you anxious when you push it close to the redline. Most send the driver a variety of auditory and tactile messages indicating that they must either shift up, or face a molten tie rod to the head. The RX-7, however, gives no such indication. When close to the redline, one hears only an excited whir. The result (forgive the upcoming Disney analogy) is an almost magic carpet-like experience. It's as though the power simply materializes before you with no apparent source or sacrifice.

Rx-7 Badge

For me, the tranquility of the engine eliminated the reservations I had for speed. It's an incentive, in fact, to keep the needle in the upper portion of the tachometer as much as possible. The car had only 100 hp and 105 lb-ft. of torque in 1983, and has no doubt lost a few along its journey. Frankly, I'm thankful it's not more powerful. Otherwise, there wouldn't be room to fully enjoy revving it to its limit.

Though I have decided that a transmission with multiple ratios is unnecessary when coupled to a Wankel, the 5-speed manual in the RX-7 was quite a treat. It's very notchy, with a mid-length throw. The well-spaced ratios paired with a very light, but engaging clutch made rev matching pleasant and natural.

Unfortunately, the steering in the car I drove was quite loose, likely from wear. It is unassisted, though, and was at one time very engaging, I suspect. Given that it is a sports car from the 1980s, driver communication is a result of the engineering, not vice versa.

1983 Mazda Rx-7 Series 2

The driving position is actually more relaxed than it looks, and the interior is a thoroughly enjoyable place to be in. This particular car had a factory-installed manually-adjustable equalizer mounted beneath the stock head unit. A useless, though interesting, novelty that quickly rids the occupants of any doubt as to when the car was built.

The RX-7 is too often overlooked for what it is; a very special piece of automotive history. It's an experience completely unlike any piston-powered alternative. And for me, it's much more than that. My RX-7 represents an entire childhood's worth of dreams and a sort of companionship, even. My experiences with it were a very large influence on my drive to pursue a career in automotive writing. Driving one did change my perspective, but not at all for the worse.

I met my hero, and it didn't let me down.

#auto

by David Blue

Accord Front The 1990s. Not the greatest time for the United States auto industry. In those days, with a few exceptions, American cars were all overpriced, devoid of quality and generally unreliable. The big three (along with many other non-automotive related corporations in the U.S.) had an aging generation of management. This group decided that the ideal way to run their business involved expending the least amount of effort into their products as possible, without reducing the price paid by customers. Essentially, they hoped to gain more profit from less product. I don't have to tell you that this thinking just...doesn't work. I would theorize that this mentality came from overconfidence and a lack of joy in production. GM, Ford, and Dodge had been the top sellers of the automobile in the United States since its invention. They originally symbolized the best in quality, luxury and performance. Consumer and producer shared the same values, resulting in a flourishing market. It was a joyous time. And then, somewhere around the 1973 oil crisis, the joy began seeping out of our star shooters. Maybe it was emissions regulations, a loss of those ideal values, or some other factor. Regardless of the source, our homegrown auto industry lost its passion. It reflected in the cars that were built. Designs were reused, progression was halted, the irreverence of quality workmanship lost. “American dependability” became an ironic statement.

And then came along a company that had been building little, noisy two-stroke engines to fit to bicycles only four decades earlier, proudly displaying a banner the changing public couldn't refuse. They offered a product that was simple, honest, reliable, durable and reasonably priced. A concoction that smelled an awful lot like high value. An odor that no doubt brought back old memories. The Accord, suburban America's new family pet. And the Civic, conveniently debuted in 1972. The college student's greatest companion. Both were conservatively styled and equipped, and thus quite easily ignored, which was exactly what the country wanted. After all those years stranded on the shoulders of our aging interstate system in lumbering, underpowered beasts, the indestructible and dependable qualities of the Hondas came as a breath of fresh air. So. What made the newcomers so different? What was the driving force behind the value of the products? It was something not unknown to the Americans, and its presence had been sorely missed. Picture an ancient sage by the name of Soichiro Honda saying something to the order of “Lets build the best automobile we can and sell it for as little as possible.” Though the man is more a symbol than an actual influence on the four-wheeled endeavors of the institution bearing his name, he represents what led to the same group's success. Honda was untainted by an unrealistic attitude, and unaided by a century of heritage and good reputation. They succeeded only because they built good cars.
Accord Mark One By 2008, Honda had more than made a name for itself. Over the past decade, though, the prices had been steadily increasing, along with the level of luxury and complexity available in their cars. Both the Accord and Civic were bestsellers in their respective classes, and had held their titles for a relatively long time. It was then that I personally theorized they might take the same path American carmakers had taken only a short while before. I don't want to brag, but this was long before Ron Kiino's bold title “Is Hyundai the new Honda?” graced the pages of MotorTrend's October 2011 issue. And it was really a far-fetched notion at the time. Simply a suspicion. Confidently and stubbornly, the Accord held its grip on mid-size sedan sales in the United States, complimented by the Toyota Camry, a similar-looking but even more ignorable competitor. The former still held appeal for someone with the capacity to enjoy themselves. The latter, however, has always been the most desirable choice of individuals that absolutely despise driving. They both held their slightly different niches, with no real fear of losing their place. Then, Honda started skimping a bit on quality. Motoring journalists noticed a lack of improving fuel economy, aging transmissions, and a general loss in competitive edge in the 2011 Accord. Not the best time to start slacking on Honda's part.
Sonata Front This was the year that Hyundai unveiled the brilliantly-updated 6th generation Sonata. I consider this to be the most significant car to come in the mid-sized segment since the birth of the Accord/Camry duo. In previous generations, it had always been competitively priced. The quality, though, had been lacking. The Koreans were not afraid to design a car that was much less conservative than the two Japanese giants. However, the designs were never really all that great looking. Interesting and different? Yes. Attractive?....No. So these attributes kept Honda and Toyota secure under their cozy comforter of sales, not intimidated by Hyundai's offering. And that's quite understandable. The Sonata never really seemed a direct competitor to the giants. The new one, however, completely changed the game. For one thing, it's gorgeous. Not conservatively pretty, but ridiculous, in the best sort of way. Poised and angular, the exterior looks as if it should cost exponentially more than it does. They managed to carry on the Sonata's tradition of unique styling by rejecting the old car completely and replacing it with a stunner. The interior reflects a similar attitude. It's not only good looking, but significantly more fuel efficient than any other mid-sized car on the market. The drivetrain options are excellent. The best part, though, is the price. At a starting MSRP of 19,195 USD (£11,944), it is several thousand less than any competitor.
Sonata Interior All of this really just makes the Accord and Camry look silly. It's interesting that Hyundai should take up Honda's original niche, given how different their backgrounds are. Our original hero of practicality was created by a man tinkering with small motorcycles. The former, however, was founded as a massive construction firm, only later trying its hand in the realm of automobiles. Cars seemed an alternative for Hyundai, but certainly not an afterthought. Regardless of where they came from, these two companies have had very similar philosophies, if only separated by time. Also, both have had to rely on sheer ingenuity for profit, without the foothold of heritage in the American market. It could be said, though, that Hyundai is doing a bit better. High value cars that are practical and interesting as an experience. Honda could never get that last bit quite right. Or perhaps it's just a sign of the times. Maybe Americans have overcome the compulsion to ignore our cars. My question is this; Has this flip-flop in production attitude become a cycle? And if so, who will be in the hot spot next? My bet is on the big three, believe it or not. A new generation of management has brought about a huge improvement in our products. It could even be one of the rising Chinese companies in the future. Who knows? I can tell you that right now, though, Hyundai has got the goods. #auto

by David Blue

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Full

As we bid farewell to the Miata’s third-generation, sizing up its top trim summarizes its legacy.

I recently had the chance to drive the facelifted 2013 Mazda MX-5. This is the first time the looks of the perky roadster have changed since the front-mounted smile became an all-out grin of insanity in 2008. They have once again dulled it to what I would call a smirk. The new front end blends with the rest of car more than it has in the past. It seems to have grown a bit more serious. In fact, with black 17-inch alloys on a glossy black (creatively called “Brilliant Black,”) this example is the most aggressive-looking of any Miata I have seen.

That's not to say it's aggressive in the slightest, even in such a scheme. This car is in the “Club” trim replacing the previous “Touring” designation as the top-of-the-line option. This selection adds ridiculous three-leaf clover side badges, red stitching on the seats, red stripes on the dash and sides, along with a price tag very near 30,000 USD.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Badging

So I present you with my first problem with this particular car....it's a contradiction. The MX-5 was never intended to look serious. That grin was there to convey the primary attribute aspired to by its creators; joy. It's designed to be joyful in driving and the exterior of previous generations did a good job of communicating what the car is all about. Unfortunately, it seems they have decided that it's time for the roadster to grow up. Frankly, that's not going to work.

Now, to the drive.

For this year, the car has been lightened, the braking response quickened, as well as the throttle response in manual-equipped cars. Unfortunately, I was only able to drive the 6-speed automatic with optional pattle-shifters. Given that this is my first drive in an NC (third generation) MX-5, I can only compare it to my own NB.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Trunk

Immediately, my passenger and chaperon starts the process of opening the optional retractable hard top. Open air is this car's natural environment, and it appears that somebody got busy making sure its occupants never notice. Wind buffeting has been drastically reduced. We were able to maintain conversation beyond 70mph without necessitating shouting thanks to a much taller wind brake behind our seats. Unfortunately, I couldn't really hear much of anything from the 158-hp 2.0L 4 up front, even with liberal amounts of right foot burying. It would seem the optional dual exhaust outlets are rather pointless then.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Engine

Getting in the car, I had expected the experience to be ruined by the 6-speed auto. Buying a Miata with an automatic is sort of like going on a scenic vacation without a camera. It doesn't necessarily ruin the immediate experience but you'll always have some regret regarding the subject in the future. The pattles add some of the fun back in, but I prefer the Golf GTI's arrangement of right side-shift up, left side-shift down, while the MX-5 has both functions on either side of the wheel.

It took some deliberate self-coaching to get used to, but it won't effect your daily driving experience. Another plus; when in manual shift mode, it is truly manual, meaning the transmission will allow you to exceed the redline. It may sound trivial, but being nannied when you're first told that you're in control can be a major annoyance. (Looking at you, Kia Forte.) It's disappointing that Mazda chose only to up throttle response in manual-equipped cars. This one most certainly needed it.

The original Miata was built on a philosophy of communication between driver and machine, summarized in the Japanese phrase “Jinba Ittai,” meaning “rider and horse are one.” Being an MX-5 owner, this philosophy is very important to me, thus my expectations for the steering were very high. It was very disappointing, then, to discover that it has been very nearly ruined.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel was comfortable, yes, but not very generous in revealing the road. In corners it felt jumpy, imprecise, and unsure of itself. The same lack of self-confidence was noticeable in a straight line as well, along with a nervous fidget. Keep in mind, I am comparing this to roadsters of the past, not to other automobiles currently on the market. It would take a global nuclear war to make the MX-5 less fun to drive than a Toyota Camry.

Though it has lost communication and soul, the Miata has gained a more comfortable suspension and oodles of storage space. The trunk is massive for a roadster of this size, and the example I drove was equipped with an optional storage compartment extending behind the seats, especially handy for CDs, candy, and the like. The center console contains two reasonably-sized cupholders obscured by a sliding door that will inevitably lead to annoyance in single-drink occasions. Mr. Cunningham also pointed out to me that the track on which the door slides appears vulnerable to crumbs. Only time will tell, I suppose.

2013 Mazda MX-5 - Center Console

In general, being inside the car is a much more comfortable experience, albeit a boring one. It seems to me that the MX-5 has “grown up,” forgoing fun for comfort and practicality. And is that not exactly the opposite of the direction it should be moving? It was never meant to be an aggressive-looking performance car, and it will never do well as one. It will never be luxurious enough to be a true touring car, either.

Its soul has made it the top-selling roadster of all time, and I'm afraid it's losing it, bit by bit. To be honest, if you're attracted by the values on which the original Miata was built, I would recommend a Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT 86/Scion FR-S. The recommendation does not come lightly or easily.

Until Mazda gets wise about what it's doing to the beloved little car, I'm afraid it's headed down a path that will mean losing a grip on the niche it's held for so long, and that's quite saddening.

#auto

by David Blue

Us drivers of cars with manual transmissions tend to look down on those who drive automatics. It’s like an exclusive club. Only the extremely talented, gorgeous-looking, and legendary athletes of yore are allowed in.

Well, that’s bullshit. So those of you that know the “standard” can keep your mouths shut and bask in the quiet satisfaction that you’re saving the planet.

The truth is, for those of you that don’t know, driving “stick” is totally simple. Once you understand the basic concepts of how the transmission and clutch work together, you can figure it out with no real instruction at all. So with that in mind, I’d like to tell you that automatic transmissions just….suck. Really.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Dual-Clutch Transmissions, SMGs (Sequential Manual Gearboxes,) or any of that fancy stuff that has only recently become somewhat popular in the mainstream (affordable) auto market. I’m talking about automatics with a torque converter, that magically inefficient device that has carried America’s laziness in driving for the last 50 years.

Now before I go on, I suppose I owe you a technical explanation. Let’s start with the basics. First off, a transmission is the device that separates the engine from the wheels. With both automatic and manual transmissions, “gears” are used to vary the ratio between the engine’s crankshaft and the drive shaft going to the wheels. It’s essentially a buffer between the engine’s relative consistency and the inconsistent world that you drive in.

Automatic Gearbox Abstract

But that’s not quite all there is.

Traditional transmissions require an interruption in power from the engine to shift these “gears,” and to come to a stop at a traffic light, in your driveway, or on the side of the highway to pick up a hooker. In manuals, this is typically accomplished with a clutch, a device that could most simply be explained as two plates that are pressed together to couple, and brought apart to become independent. A clutch is normally coupled, it’s when the clutch petal is pushed in that the plates separate, and the transmission is isolated from the engine. Automatic transmissions use a type of fluid coupling to accomplish the same task, called a torque converter.

The advantage of the latter is that, when paired with an automatic transmission, the driver only requires one input to get the car moving and vary its velocity, and that is the accelerator pedal. A manual transmission requires three inputs, on the other hand. (Accelerator pedal, clutch, and gearshift.) In my mind, the torque converter has some huge disadvantages in a world where millions are spent to save 20 lbs. on one car design.

Have you ever noticed that cars equipped with manuals are usually noticeably more fuel efficient than their automatic counterparts? Some of that could be attributed to the greater control that comes with manuals, but most of it is from the torque converter’s main design flaw. A clutch can be completely disengaged and completely engaged. So, with a healthy vehicle, there is 0% of the engine’s power moving to the transmission when the clutch pedal is depressed fully. Likewise when the clutch pedal is allowed completely out, the clutch essentially becomes a shaft, and 100% of the engine’s power is being fed to the transmission.

A torque converter couples via fluid, however, meaning there is never a solid mechanical connection between the engine and the transmission. (Unless the transmission is equipped with a lock-up clutch, which is essentially a clutch that locks the torque converter mechanically when it is no longer required to dump the engine’s energy into friction. These are becoming more and more common, but the majority of vehicles on the road are missing them.) This means that a traditional torque converter is never 100% efficient.

Also, a torque converter is never completely disengaged. When sitting at a traffic light, the driver typically lightly applies the brakes to hold the car from moving forward. Have you ever considered what you’re doing? The engine is basically dumping energy into the torque converter in the form of friction. It is literally no different from holding the gas and the brakes at the same time.

What the hell? How is that accepted in a world where Al Gore and Prius’s exist?

Oh wait! As United States citizens, we’re lazy as shit!

84% of cars sold in North America are equipped with an automatic transmission, as opposed to 20% in Europe.

You could make the excuse that we love automatics because of all our stop-and-go traffic, and yet, as a citizen of the Midwestern U.S, I see automatics MUCH more often than I see traffic congestion.

The real answer is that we just don’t want to bother with a clutch pedal and a gearshift when we could be texting or doing makeup.

Luckily, the great minds of our time have come up with solutions that adapt to us so that we don’t have to adapt to them. (As always.) Probably the simplest is the aforementioned “lock-up clutch,” which eliminates the inefficiency of the torque converter by mechanically coupling at high speed. But that doesn’t exactly solve the problem of sitting over a nice gas to friction converter at traffic lights.
Well here’s a tip. When you stop at a traffic light, bump your shift lever one up into neutral. It shouldn’t require that you hold a safety button to go back and forth between Drive and Neutral. This prevents that unnecessary friction. Combine that with a lockup clutch, and you’re basically driving a manual!……Except without the enjoyment.

You could call this a rant on one of the most successful inventions the modern automobile has ever seen….because it is. And I doubt you’ll hear anyone else complain about it. But there really are flaws in the design that I wish consumers would figure out. Before all this hybridism, eco-mindedness, and hippie-crazed green malarkey, maybe we should eliminate the evil energy-wasting beast that is the torque converter.

#auto

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