Friday, March 27, 2009

Rental Car Reviews

New feature here at Refugees: Rental Car Reviews.

I seem to travel every week, and drive a different rental car every week. I'm unlike many people that I usually seek out the smallest, simplest, most modest rental car I can find, because usually that means it will be easier to park, easier to maneuver in traffic, and cheaper to rent and refuel. Sometimes I get a larger more luxurious car anyway, despite my requests, and sometimes I get something completely random.

Last week I was rented a Prius, for the first time. I'd never even sat in a Prius, much less driven one, so it was an interesting experience. I thought about looking into buying one when gas was $4 a gallon, probably like everyone else, but felt like you could get most of the same fuel economy with a different, much simpler and cheaper, vehicle.

So... I got in the Prius and it took me a good while to even figure out how to start it up. Actually, you don't start a Prius, you turn it on, kind of like a golf cart. There's a big round button on the dash that you push, but you have to shove the door-opening key-fob thingy into a slot in the dashboard first.

That sort of sets the tone for driving the Prius: everything about it is a little strange, and different.

The dash in front of steering wheel is blank. The normal instruments (speedometer, fuel guage, etc) are in an LED cluster very far forward, underneath the sloped windshield, near the center of the dash. It took me a while to find them after I figured out how to turn the thing on.

There is a large multifunction display in the middle of the dash, where such things are located, but it has a number of unusual functions, including control of the radio and environmental controls, as well as a very distracting display of the Prius' multi-mode drive train. It shows you graphically whether the electric motor is driving the wheels, the gasoline motor is supplying power, or the wheels are recharging the battery through regenerative braking. The display is somewhat helpful in driving the car in an economical way, but probably somewhat dangerous because it can absorb too much of your attention.

Another display available is cumulative fuel economy, which is more helpful. It shows instantaneous and average mileage, and a chart showing mileage over the last 30 minutes. The most helpful part of that display is a bar graph of instantaneous mileage. Driving to keep that bar graph as high as possible proved to be the best way to get the best mileage.

I was disappointed in how "conservative" the programming of the drivetrain turned out to be. I though I could, by really going easy on the gas pedal, drive around in electric mode for a good while until the battery got low. The gasoline motor is programmed to start however, at the first sign of battery depletion, or the slightest acceleration.

The mileage looked pretty good however, as I was able to score up to 48 MPG on the cumulative mileage display by driving very carefully. But I'm a little sceptical of the display, because when I filled up the tank it looked like I got more like 35 MPG than the 47.9 the display indicated when I stopped for fuel. You'd have to drive the thing quite a bit to determine if the mileage indicated was really correct.

The fit and finish of the vehicle was adequate, but not great for a Toyota. The interior was very modern and unconventional, with strange cupholders, weird controls, etc, but not particularly impressive in terms of quality and appearance. Everything looked like a very cheap plastic, and the upholstery was typical economy-car fabric. I don't know if there is a fancier version of the Prius with a more luxurious interior.

Handling and performance were adequate - pretty good for an economy car, expecially a hybrid. There was a little more acceleration than I expected, and the car didn't feel off balance as I sort of expected.

Cargo room in the back was adequate - actually pretty good as a rental car because it was easy to get the suitcases and luggage into the baggage compartment.

Overall I didn't come away thinking I wanted to run out an buy a Prius, but it was very adequate as an economy car. I don't actually know what they cost, but I could see how some people would really like them.

Also I don't know if its possible to reprogram the car to make it less prone to starting the gasoline engine and get better gas mileage - from what I saw it looked like it should be easy.

Boy is this some exciting internet content or what!

Call of the (Socially Inept) Wild

We live next to a State game preserve. Like many in the Northeast we have a deer problem. And a coyote problem. Probably 3 - 4 times a month, the coyote pack takes down a deer within 500 meters of the house, waking us up with the noise of the kill and the fighting over the scraps afterwards.

Once in a while someone gets lost from the pack and spends half the night howling like some sort of mutated wolf with his testicles in a vise.

The other night we had something new. A coyote sat in the woods right behind the house and yipped. Not howled. Yipped. It sounded something like "arrrip, arrrip, arrrip". He'd repeat this about 10 times, shut up for 30 seconds or a minute, and just when you started to drift back to sleep, he'd start up again. Just when I'd had enough, and decided that getting fully awake enough to reach for the shotgun was warranted, he stopped. Did I mention the mangy cur pulled this at 2:30 AM? On a day I had to get up at 4:15 to catch my train?

The next day, my wife, who was having a bad day dealing with stupid people, mentioned that the coyote was just one in a line of mouth breathers she'd been dealing with. "I'm surrounded by idiots. Event he local wildlife is retarded. Come on, he didn't figure out that the pack either couldn't hear him or was so embarrassed by his lame-assed howl that they were lying quiet in the woods pretending to be asleep?"

She's right. He was probably the coyote equivalent of the geek who always shows up at the gathering uninvited, unshowered and smelling of cheese.

She and I have had this conversation before about sharks. The kelp-hugging ecologists love to say: "Sharks like seals. If you don't look like a seal, you won't get bitten. They bite you by mistake."

Yeah, right. Most sharks prefer seals. Most people don't prefer stinky tofu. But it is on the menu in some restaurants.

So one of the rules I live by is to always be on the lookout for the retarded shark*.

*The retarded coyote is not going to live long enough to put his genes into the pool if he pulls that shit again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Your Amusing Cultural Misunderstanding of the Day

My wife was not born in America. She did not arrive on our sunny shores until she was 11. However she did complete High School here. This means that she speaks English without an accent, save for the slight taint of New Yorkese in words such as daughter, and a twinge of Southern she picked up from me.

That lack of an accent can fool you. Stuff that we learned in elementary school, stuff that wasn't repeated in middle or high school, often passes her by. Between worlds, she is, never totally at home in either one.

So, the other day she got ahold of one of those Scholastic magazines they use to teach elementary school kids about stuff - usually there's one for every holiday. St. Paddy's day was no exception. Now, despite the Prussian surname, my background is heavily Scotts (Clan Munro) - Irish (Brady). So the wife calls me the other day and says:

- "wow, the Shamrock is a plant"

- "uh, yes, dear, how did you make it though school in NY not knowing that?" o.O

- "we had Italians and blacks, no Irish"

- "but you went to school in New York City"

- "the Italians weren't big on St. Patrick"

- "but surely, someone hung one up in the hall, sometime as a decoration"

- "if they did, they didn't bother to tell me its name"

- o.O "so, what did you think it was, then?"

- "a rock. possibly, a fake one. 'sham' and 'rock', see? but I thought it was an Irish rock"

- "no, dear, that's the Blarney Stone"

This is from the woman who thought for the longest time that the idiom for "the whole thing" was "the whole kitten and poodle". Well, you have both popular pets, don't you? Made sense to her.


Friday, March 20, 2009


I belong to a group of friends who call themselves the UCF, after a long-running joke that started over on John Scalzi's forum. You can see the logo one of our members made for us over on the side bar.

Yesterday, one of our number suffered a terrible personal loss, and we're noting that and nothing more on our blogs today.

Take time to appreciate those around you who make your life worth living, for truly no one knows what will happen tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hendrix and 'Nam

I've seen a number of references to the soundtrack to The Watchmen, usually noting that it failed, with the possible exception being in the "The Ride of the Valkyries" in the Vietnam sequence and "All Along the Watchtower". (Thanks Eric)

I'm not a fan of Moore, naked allegory or comic books in general, so I'll probably give The Watchmen a miss. One thing I did notice is that everyone was referring to the Wagner, and some people were referring to the Hendrix song as an homage to Apocalypse Now. I'm sure both are homages to the movie, as I don't expect Moore to have any original insights into the actual war. But the use of "All Along the Watchtower" in Apocalypse Now was motivated first by the stories of the vets themselves.

When I was a kid, my adult world was filled with Vietnam Vets, and to a man they responded to Hendrix in a special way. I never understood why.

Then, years later, I stumbled across this, by Sgt. Mike McCombs.

It is, hands down, the best Vietnam memoir I've ever seen, especially regarding the Special Forces.

And it has a wonderful tribute to Hendrix that bares the soul of the 'Nam Vet like a prayer to Mars:

It's always Jimi I think. His music is pulsing in my head. The headphones vibrate like an arclight and the guitar screams like the Phantoms used to. PurpleHaze, Voodoo Child, The Wind Cries Mary.... They beat on my mind. They twist in corridors long empty of the companionship of the brothers who always knew. The brothers who shared it with me.

And the past lives again. MP gyrates to All Along The Watchtower. Willie's foot taps to Gypsy Eyes. Weet sits and downs shum, body moving to Foxy Lady. It's like Jimi invented this kinda friendship, this kinda thing for all of us. It's the key to remembrance. The key to old friendships, somehow not quite dead. Though they all are. 'Cept when Jimi plays.

We were all musical conservatives, really. Well..., mostly. But Jimi picked up a guitar and strummed our souls with sounds like we'd never heard. The heart and the mind throbbed with the bass, the nerves trying to keep up with the rip. The music was not our style, but we lived by it; we loved it. Highway Chile, Long Hot Summer Night. Life blood. You were more likely to hear Bach there than Rock 'n Roll. But Jimi was there - in every hootch, in every meal, in every breath we took, in every waking hour. In many of the sleeping one.

Maybe it was 'cause he was dead, like so many we knew. Maybe it was 'cause he was different, like we thought we were. Or maybe he just found what really counted to all of us. Crazy fookin' music for a crazy fookin' war. Dunno. Just was. Just is. The spokesman of an age, the poet laureate of the Viet Nam War.

According to the SF rumor mill, Sgt. McCombs requested "Purple Haze" be played at his funeral.

When you get time, go immerse yourself in the words of the good sergeant. He died in 1997, but someone ought to remember him by making a movie out of his recollections. I'd watch it.