Archive for the 'Automotive Frustrations' Category

Reflections on Italy: Driving

19 November 2007 at 2:47 pm
by Berck

Don’t believe anyone who says the Italians are bad drivers– they aren’t. In fact, they’re excellent drivers. They sit upright in their seats, they pay attention to their surroundings and are prepared for whatever the road might throw at them. They are active, not reactive drivers. Americans who say Italians drive poorly certainly shouldn’t be driving in Italy, and probably shouldn’t be driving anywhere. Now, the Italians certainly take risks, but they are generally calculated risks. When many of the streets are so narrow that a car and a truck cannot pass without carefully planned maneuvering, merely driving anywhere at all is something of a risk. Italians do not leave 500 feet of space in front of them, but they generally do leave enough space so that they can react as necessary. US drivers manuals are written with the idea that, “What if the car in front of you suddenly comes to a stop?” Instead, one should think about the realm of possibilities. If the car in front of you is similar, then they will not be able to stop so that you cannot stop behind them– you merely need to leave enough space for reaction time. But as long as you’re driving actively and the other drivers are reasonably predictable (they are in Italy), then there’s no need to waste space. And in a lot of ways– that’s it, things work in a predictable fashion. Unfortunately for me, it takes some time to get the hang of what’s predictable around here.

For instance, roundabouts with multiple entrance and exit lanes can be a bit confusing. If there are the same number of entrance and exit lanes, it’s not too much of an issue to enter from the left lane and exit from the left lane. But if you enter from the left lane and there’s only one exit lane (common), you’ll have to find space to merge in order to exit. Roundabouts took me some time to get used to, especially considering the constant flow of traffic. Entering and exiting a circle could take less than 10 seconds, even in a large one. In that time, it’s critical to know who has the right of way and who doesn’t. If you fly into a circle and you didn’t have a clear path (traffic in the circle has the right of way), you’ll clearly cause an accident (or at the very least get honked at). If you stop before entering a circle, you’ve lost precious momentum needed to get your 0.4 litre 60hp vehicle moving again and you’ll need a huge gap to enter, not to mention you’ve just missed the purpose of a roundabout. What’s hard to remember with all the fuss is that the only thing that matters is what’s to your left. Nothing on the right side matters unless you got in the wrong lane to begin with. You can’t take the first exit from the left lane, and you can’t take the second exit from from the left lane unless there’s two exits. Signaling would be immensely useful on a roundabout, and the Brits, for instance, are very good about it. Unfortunately, the Italians almost never signal on a roundabout, and when they do, it’s in a totally useless and/or incoherent manner. This is perhaps my biggest complaint, but I think it only bothers me because I haven’t learned to judge as easily by the line someone’s taking through the circle which exit they’re going to take, something that takes practice.

Driving slowly is rare, but generally acceptable as long as you make it as easy as possible for someone to pass you. In my 1,500km of driving here, I never saw someone in the left lane on a multi-lane road unless they were passing someone– it simply isn’t done. If you’re not passing, you get back over into the left lane. The autostrada seems to readily accommodate speeds from 35mph all the way up to 150mph or faster with little difficulty because people stay right. If someone behind them wants to go faster, they wait until the faster car passes before pulling out to pass. They’ll also pass with a reasonable speed differential– none of this passing someone doing 75mph at 76mph.

Lane usage takes all sorts of getting used to. In general, roads only have a center stripe if there’s enough room to ensure that the road is wide enough for two large vehicles to pass, which isn’t terribly often. The rest of the time, there’s no center stripe, which doesn’t mean that the road is one-way, it means that you can’t relax and be prepared to stop in case there’s not room to pass an oncoming vehicle, even though you may both be doing 60mph. There’s always time to stop assuming you take reasonable care, and you obviously slow down while making 90 degree turns around buildings.

Are they crazy? They are aggressive and will pass given the slightest opportunity. If you hesitate or leave too much space in front of you, expect to be passed. They generally won’t pass around a blind corner, but they will certainly pass at times that do incur a bit of risk which generally managed.

But then there’s the folks on the two-wheel motorized vehicles. The fast motorcyclists do, mostly, appear to be insane, lack good sense, or simply have no fear. On larger roads, they drive down the centerline, and some smaller ones they pass without an inch to spare in any direction. I never followed a two-wheeled vehicle, they are always off to one side or another, fitting in the spaces between the cars like some sort of puzzle.

I did, eventually, nearly take one out. I’d been driving around the town for a couple of hours, was tired, and desperately trying to find our hostel. I was on an empty road and decided to turn left somewhat spur of the moment. There was no one behind me as I braked and turned left. No one behind me because the motorcycle had just started to pass me, and as I turned left I brushed his rear wheel, which caused him to wobble a bit. He never stopped, just turned around and looked at me, and just kept on going. It was certainly my fault, and I’m glad that he wasn’t injured. I’m not sure why I never saw him approach behind me, and unfortunately the bike was way too quiet.

My only other incident while driving was just slightly scraping a hubcap along a wall while trying to hug the outside of a turn so as not to hit a motorcycle between me and oncoming traffic. All things considered, I can’t believe I didn’t scrape up the car any more. I was glad to have gotten the more expensive no-deductible insurance and would recommend that anyone else driving in Europe for the first time do so as well– we’re just not used to driving with this sort of proximity to other vehicles, walls, hedges, buildings…

Google Goes Crazy

6 November 2007 at 9:21 pm
by Jonah

“I bought you a present,” Berck told me on the phone last week. “You should get it by the time I get home. I bought me a present too, so be watching for it.”

On Thursday there was a note on the door saying the UPS man had come and gone. On Friday there was a note saying he’d made a second attempt. There was also a note saying FedEx had made a SECOND attempt, and to sign and put back on my door if I wanted them to leave it. They apparently tried to deliver it again on Saturday, which was a nice day, and we had the door open, but they didn’t think we were home since we were in the study laughing uproariously at Top Gear. Berck was home yesterday, and when he went outside to water the plants, there was a note saying the UPS man had made his final attempt.

This meant that I had to go down and pick it up at the central office way down by the Citadel Mall. Berck could have done it, but I would have had to written a letter authorizing him to pick it up, because it was addressed to me. That and he’s up in Denver today sitting in on a simulator session. He took my car because it has a radio, and his has snow tires.

Last night I asked him where the heck I was supposed to pick up the package. “Just type the number in, and it will tell you.”

Google has this cool feature where you can type any FedEx or UPS package number into it, and it will connect you directly to the page with the tracking information on it from either company. Well, it’s supposed to do that. Here’s what happened when I did that:

packageTrack FedEx package 9253 3798 6688

Okay, but, remember, it’s a UPS package, not a FedEx package. So I went to Every single time I go to it asks what country I’m in, and every single time I tell it to remember that I’m in the USA. Then I put in my package number. Here’s what it said:

Tracking Number: 925337986688
Status: Not Available

So I called the 800 number. The automated answerer asked me to read out my package number. I did. The automaton said she was really sorry but she didn’t get it. I read it again. She apologized again and asked me to read it again. I read it extremely slowly. She suggested she connect me to a real live person. I said, “Thank GOD.” Why can’t they just let me type it into the buttons?

The guy I talked to asked for my package number again. I was beginning to memorize it. He asked if I’d been left a slip that said I could sign the slip and leave it. “This is my third attempt slip,” I said, “They’re not going to try to deliver it again.” He told me that I would have to go pick it up. “Yes, but where do I go to pick it up?” He gave me the address and told me how late they were open. I scribbled it down and then typed the address into Google. Google has this cool feature that you can just type in an address and it will give you a map of that location. It seems to like it best when you put in the street address and zip, so that’s what I did. (That and typing in “Colorado Springs, CO” takes a lot longer.) Here’s what I typed in:

911 emery cir, 80915

911 Emery Cir, Covington, KY 41011

You’ll notice the zips don’t even match. Fortunately, the first hit was for, and it had the whole address, so I added the last line. Notice that I even have the 9 digit zip:

911 emery cir, Colorado Springs, CO 80915-3413

911 Emery Ln, Elkhart, KS 67950

We’re getting closer, since Kansas is just next door. So I went back to the site, and clicked on the little link called “MAP.” It pulled up an map showing me exactly where the UPS center was. It also gave me the correct spelling of Emory Ln. Google has the best spell checker I’ve ever seen; most of the time I don’t even make the vaugeist attempt at spelling something correctly, trusting my sturdy search engine will figure out what I really mean. But apparently, they haven’t hooked it up to Google Maps yet. Come on… I was just one vowel off. Vanna, I’d like to get a refund.

Now I just had to get down to the UPS center. The problem is that there isn’t a good way to get there. The most direct way is to go down Academy Blvd., the busiest street in town. So I got off the Interstate and got on Academy at its northern end. I stopped for every single light except one until I got to Dublin Blvd. Then I stopped for good. The intersection of Dublin and Academy is on top of a hill, and in my little car, I couldn’t see anything, but people were getting out of the right lane like their lives depended on it. Then the light stopped changing. Northbound Academy Blvd. traffic kept coming, but we weren’t going anywhere. Then a fire truck that said HAZARDOUS MATERIALS UNIT on it edged out into the intersection, went north a block, and turned around and came back up to the right lane everyone was getting out of. This took ten minutes, I think, while we sat there doing nothing. Finally, the light changed, and we all gushed forward. I glanced back to see if there were a wreck or something, but I couldn’t see a thing. What a time to be in a car without a radio.

I had to stop for most of the lights after that, but at least we weren’t stopped for extended periods of time. The people at the UPS center wanted to make sure I was who I said I was before they gave me my package. “Have a good day,” the lady said, “What’s left of it.” That’s for sure, I thought as I walked out into the near dark back to my car. I went home via the Interstate, a much better way to go, even though I had to drive from the east part of town to downtown in order to head north. The road backed up right before my exit, and I thought it was everyone from Nevada trying to get out of the exit lanes while the people trying to exit onto Woodmen were trying to get into them. I got into the right-most lane, but I soon found out why everyone was stopped when I found my lane blocked by two cars who had tried to get into and out of the exit lane at the same time in the same place. Can we institute some rule that before you get your drivers license you have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you know how to NOT crash into other cars and maybe condemn some people to riding the buses for life?

But when I opened my present, I was very pleased. Was it worth all of the above hassle? I’ll have to try it out to find out.

Berck still doesn’t have his present. He called FedEx, and they told him to put the signed sticker on the door and they would deliver it today. The sticker is still there.

Hot Rod

31 March 2007 at 8:30 pm
by Jonah

Today I replaced the exhaust and sway bars in my car. Berck helped.

Actually, I spent a good portion of the day looking for pennies. I got four of them. I found a fifth, but Berck wouldn’t let me get it when I was fishing out the bolt he dropped in a drain while he held up the heavy grate.

I spent the rest of the day getting my hands dirty unbolting and then bolting things. Berck decided to go ahead and make the improvements that he wanted on the car now before he’s out of a job in July or gets hired elsewhere and he can’t use the Hobby Shop on the Academy anymore. Being able to use a lift for the day, along with an impact wrench and borrowing tools and getting a guy to thread a bolt that the store sent you with threads too short, all for fifteen dollars, is pretty hard to pass up… especially when torquing sway bar bolts requires the tires resting with the full weight of the car on them. Try getting under a Miata to do that without a lift.

Berck also ordered new shocks (the ones in my car don’t even match), but their train got delayed, and they’ll be here next week. The new sway bars made an amazing difference in the car’s handling. The new exhaust will add about five horsepowers, Berck reckons, and it also sounds really cool. On the test drive later in the day, he kept looking for bridges to go under.

Next we washed the car in the wash bays attached to the Hobby Shop; they cost half what it costs in town.

Berck rewarded my hard work with a special treat. The girl at the drive-thru at Culvers opened her little window and giggled, “I like your car!”

Berck replied, “I do too.”

The car works!

17 December 2006 at 10:09 am
by Berck

Amazingly, the car went back together without too many left over parts yesterday afternoon. It appears to be working just fine, which is something of a welcome relief. Unfortunately, I’m not totally convinced that I didn’t screw something up that will show up a couple hundred miles down the road, but there’s not much I can do about that. Joanna’s been busy washing and waxing it even.

The current plan is to leave Monday morning for Knoxville, spend a couple days there, then head on to Mobile in time for Jesus Day. After that, we’ll progress in a southerly direction to that lovely wasteland my dear mother has chosen to call home. Maybe we’ll put the top down or something.

Southern Tour — Day 6, Stuck in Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again

14 December 2006 at 5:12 pm
by Jonah

Berck declared that we had to do laundry yesterday, because it had been 5 days and he was out of underwear. Fortunately, the house’s new washer and dryer were being delivered. The refrigerator also arrived, so now we can keep the few remaining cans of Dr Pepper inside it. Unfortunately, the refrigerator wouldn’t make ice. Berck’s dad finally figured out that you had to hold down the water lever until water came out (a really long time, since it has to snake through all the tubing used to make it cold and then reset the ice tray.

I washed a load of sheets in the new front loading washer, after I went out to buy a bottle of HE detergent. Then I put them in the dryer, but the dryer kept saying that the filter needed to be cleaned. Being a brand new machine, we knew that wasn’t the problem, that there must be a blockage in the duct to the vent outside. I finally got the thing to quit beeping and shutting off by pulling the hose out of the wall and just letting it vent into the laundry room.

A guy came out this morning to look at it. He stuck a snake through the outside vent in and announced that he couldn’t get it through. There’s an indentation of the garage that separates the laundry room from the outside wall. This garage is the only one I’ve ever seen that’s painted and spackled. There’s a little hump of drywall along the floor of the indentation of the garage where the dryer vent goes, so the guy hacked through it and exposed the duct. It looked like someone had stepped on it, smashing the duct so that it was a wonder any air could go through it at all. Of course, then some idiot drywalled over the smashed duct instead of straitening it out or replacing it… a perfect example of “it’s not my job.”

As for the other appliances, we can’t use the dishwasher or the range, because when Berck’s dad bought the house, the developer agreed to swap them out for a quieter dishwasher and a gas range, only they haven’t done it yet. Berck’s dad hasn’t bought a microwave yet either, so we can’t even boil water.

Berck called the machine shop to see if the head was ready this afternoon. It had indeed been warped, and now it was all ground down to flat again. We took Berck’s dad’s ’96 Miata back over to South Memphis to pick it up. Berck insisted on putting the top down again. As we drove along I-240, we started smelling antifreeze. By the time we pulled into Napa, Berck announced that the engine was hot and switched off the engine. We coasted into a parking place as steam poured out from under the hood. It was like experiencing deja vu. Berck opened the hood to expose antifreeze squirting everywhere from somewhere behind the engine. With my Gerber and an enormous amount of effort, Berck managed to pull the offending hose out from back behind the blistering engine and was able to get a similar sized piece of hose from the auto parts store, in whose parking lot we were so conveniently located.

$60 (for the engine head shave), $1.07 (for the hose), a bucket of water, an hour, and a lot of grunting later, we were on our way back home. We got to the house in time for Berck’s dad and grandmother ready to go out to a very late lunch or slightly early supper.

We went to a Memphis original called The Half Shell that Berck’s dad used to eat at when he was our age, only this is a new branch way out at the city limits where all the new mortgage farms are being built. Berck’s dad ordered a dozen oysters on the half shell that we wolfed down immediately. I don’t think I’ve had raw oysters since I was seven. I haven’t known what I’ve been missing since. Now I understand why people eat them.

I ordered the crab cakes, which were pretty bad. Berck’s dad complained, and our waiter took them off the bill. Everything else was delicious, including the huge plate of fried mushrooms served with horseradish sauce.

Grandmother couldn’t get out of the air mattress by herself last night, so Berck’s dad made a platform out of boxes to put it on for tonight. He tried to get her to look at beds online today, but she didn’t want any of them.

Berck is going to work I don’t know how long on the car tonight, now that he can put it back together again.