Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lagnua Seca 10/1/07

I ran another one day, HPDE only, event with NASAproracing at Laguna Seca Raceway. I am in love with these events. There are just three run groups, with no novice group, so you know everyone there has at least a few events under their belts. More importantly, there are no races (and therefore fewer racers) crowding the sessions. With seven 20 minute sessions, and only 40 minutes in between to debrief, cool the car, grab something to drink, check out some of the other cars, pee, and maybe change the tape in the video camera, it is quickly time to grid again. It all makes for a Legend.... (wait for it) ... ARY day at the track.

I started the day on the wrong foot by driving off into the gravel trap during the first session at turn 11. I almost managed to drive out the other side, but ended up sinking the rear wheels deep into the gravel. Lewis Hamilton and I now have something in common. I missed the next session while I scooped and poked gravel out of every nook and cranny of my rear suspension and brakes. I determined the problem my next time out. I was catching my heel on the gas pedal under heavy braking. No wonder the car didn't want to stop. A quick software upgrade (to my brain) and everything was good for the rest of the day.

This was the M Coupe's first outing with its new rollcage, race seats, an
d full 6-point belts. The car is much easier and more relaxed to control now that I'm not sliding around in the seat. Kudos to TC Design for their great work.

I had one of the best single sessions of my life. I spent part of that session six chasing after a Ferrari 430. There was no keeping up with him on the straights, but I kept him in site for a few laps. I logged a new personal best for Laguna Seca (1:50.8), which came one lap after I stopped trying so hard to keep up with the 430. According to my Traqmate my theoretical best time is about .85 seconds faster, and I already have a two good ideas where I can pick up some time. I'm looking forward to breaking the 1:50 mark the next time back to Laguna.

Now for the obligatory photos and video...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

iDrive You Crazy

Here is a list of BMW iDrive design failures:

  1. zoom for map is backwards: clockwise should zoom in, not out. (mentioned this previously)
  2. clicking to Navigation dumps you into the menu (the last one you used) and not the map by default.
  3. No way to full screen the map. Selecting the same map on the"helper" screen on the right gives you two maps (one twice as big as the other) that twist and turn *almost* in synchronisity. This is very distracting and dumb.
  4. The maps leave out most street names. WTF? A map without street names? All three map schemes: North is always up, direction of travel, and prespective all suffer from this.
  5. The navigation direction arrows are ambiguous and frequently lack street names. Just try to figure out if you're making a right, hard right, or second right off a highway off-ramp. All they end up doing is obscuring the (somewhat) useful map on the secondary screen.
  6. Menus are slow. Response time to control clicks is slow enough to cause frequent multi-clicks. This compounds the driving distraction, because everytime you glance at the menu its one click behind causing more double clicks/jogs. Which in turn puts on in the wrong menu, which takes time to navigate back out.
  7. Why can't I just jump between the ipod and radio input directly? I never, ever, want to listen to 2 seconds of the weather radio, then 2 seconds of the demo satellite radio on my way through the options.
  8. I just can't figure out the custom climate control menu. The override button/knobs are intuitive and useful, but what's up with the menu that pops up? I'm tried all possible inputs and nothing changes. I guess I need to re-read the manual. Sigh.
  9. Bookmark/memory buttons are worthless. You can program a phone number or address to them but nothing else useful. Lets say you want to bookmark the map, (because it takes a varying number of clicks to get back to it depending on what you were doing last) you can't. Want to book mark "Now playing" for your ipod? Nope. The speed alarm (chime when you hit 70mph for instance) no. I have yet to find anything useful that can be programmed to these buttons.
  10. Bookmark/memory buttons are dumb. (So much so this deserves two bullet points) They don't know what can and cannot be programmed to them. They gleefully ask you to push them again to program them, then after a wait they inform you that the function you want cannot be programmed. With the helpful comment "---" displayed on the page. WTF?
The navigation has caused me to go astray even when it is right, becuase I'm so busy second guessing the crap direction and crap map that I've missed turns. I'm about to give up and never invoke it again. Ipod integration in particular:
  1. no way to navigate to the now playing. You have to navigate to the "entertainment" menu and then ..... wait. Eventually the current song information comes up.
  2. No speed sensitivity for scrolling. Forget about playing U2. Ever. It will take you a few minutes to scroll that far down in you play list, and if you're driving you'll probably discover that the menu times out and pops you out to the main ipod menu. Oh, and when you nav back, you're back at the top of the list.
Despite the iDrive headaches, I love the car. :)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

BMW 550i: Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

Well my BMW 550i finally arrived a few weeks back. I'm still in the 1200 mile break-in period, so I'm still babying the car: keeping the revs and speed down. The car just wants to go, go, go. The car is well suited for the autobahn, and it takes a light touch on the gas pedal to keep it reigned in around town. First gear is very short, launching from 2nd gear is the automatic's default unless you engage sport mode, or manually kick it down into first.

Ah, the V8 is a thing of beauty. Even keeping it under 4500 rpm and less than full throttle, there is gobs of power.

The sport automatic gear shifters on the steering wheel are awesome. I find myself naturally pre-selecting the next gear when braking for a turns. Shifts are super smooth and very fast. Supposedly shifts are even faster with sport mode engaged, but its way too easy to rev to redline in sport mode, and I'm still keeping the revs down for the break-in period. In sport mode the gearbox shifts for you, even in manual shift mode.

I'm feeling better about BMW's choice to make each "paddle" shifter symmetric, i.e. pushing forward sifts down and pulling back shifts up for both left and right paddles. This is contrary to what I consider the logical left for down, right for up as it is for paddle shifting in F1 cars, the Ferrari 430, and video games. The Acura I test drove had it right. The other issue with the BMW paddles is they are mounted to the wheel and not the steering column, which makes shifting while the wheel is turned a confusing proposition. At least with the 550i its usually easy to find the up-shift with the wheel turned, but shifting down is problematic. You're much more likely to be accelerating out of the corning and up-shifting anyway.

I though hard about getting the (very rare) manual option and I have zero regret about getting the automatic.

I did not get the dynamic steering assist option that changes the steering rate depending on how fast you are going. The steering is a bit heavy. That said, it feels spot on for highway driving and for spirited back road driving was very exact, ie point the wheel and the car follows.

Here is my take on the various options:

  1. Premium Sound: I ended up with the premium "L7" sound option. (I didn't get a custom option package, but found something very close.) I'm not a huge car audio fanatic, but its by far the best car audio I've experienced.
  2. iPod integration: OK, I'm a Luddite, I never owned an iPod until I got this car. I'm still in the "Holy crap! I have every song I own in my car." phase. The iPod is completely controlled via the iDrive controller. One issue is that qith several hundred artists on my iPod, it can take a very long time to scroll through to the whole list to U2, for instance. I gave up somewhere around Billy Bragg. The ipod must have some speed scroll mode that doesn't translate to the iDrive. My Sonos system at home has a "power scroll" mode that allows you to jump to any letter in the list, the iPod interface needs this badly.
  3. Heads up Display (HUD) : I didn't get this. I kinda wish I had now. I just cannot tell the difference between driving 60 and 90, so I spend a lot of time glancing down at the speed. With time, I'll get a better feel for speed/gear/revs but until then I set the speed limit alarm to chime every time I exceed 77mph. :)
  4. Comfort Access: This is BMW's new keyless entry system. There is no need to take the key out of your pocket to enter, start, drive, or lock the car. This is something that sounded lame when I read about it, but is just super cool. I find myself annoyed that I have to get my key out to get into my house.
  5. iDrive: I'm still getting used to it, but after just a few days its much easier. I still jog (push left/right/up/down) instead of rotate the controller occasionally, but less and less with practice. As a computer programmer, I consider it a point of honor to master it.
  6. Bluetooth: Rocks. My phone is paired to the car, and besides having to reboot my phone once, is perfect. I can answer inbound calls hands free from the steering wheel and even make calls using the voice recognition: push a button and say: "Dial Susan Home." No special programming, it just scans the cell phone's address book.
  7. Navigation: Its not as good as the Navigation in Susan's Honda Odyssey. The BMW system is not as intuitive, and the Honda Nav adds a touch screen. For instance, you rotate the iDrive controller clockwise to zoom out on the map, this is the logical opposite to me. Also, I can't figure out how to move the cursor on the BMW map. The Honda nav allows this and it is crazy useful for scanning ahead on the map to see your next turn or to find a nearby park for the kids to play in.
  8. Real Time Traffic Updates: The nav system can use the real time traffic data to route around slow traffic. Which sounds cool, but in practice in the San Francisco Bay Area is useless. Having the nav system decide that the 101 is slow during rush hour and re-routing me to the El Camino Real is a cruel joke. Thankfully the option can be turned off

That's all for now. I will write a follow up once I've gotten a chance to play with the sport mode and with DSC turned off.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

RIP San Jose Mercury News

I've decided to let my subscription to the Mercury News laps. The paper has the stench of death all over it.

I really feel for all the people at the Merc. Those that are still there must be in hell, they've gone through a change in owners, relocation, and massive layoffs. I got to see AOL/TW do the same thing to Netscape first hand.

The business section sucks now. This was the most noteworthy part of the paper. The Merc used to have the best coverage of Silicon Valley business, VCs, Web2.0, and Startups. The reporters had intimate knowledge of players, companies and culture. Now it looks like a crapy blog on newsprint. Christ guys, if you're going to imitate a blog in print, use some color.

The final nail in the coffin was reading a Wall Street Journal one day and seeing more relevant Silicon Valley business stories than the Merc's own business section.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Luxury Sedan Shootout

For father's day weekend Susan gave me all of Saturday to go car shopping. (Best wife ever!) So I took my father-in-law with me and together we had a lot of fun kicking tires and test driving.

Here is how they stacked up:

1. BMW 550i w/ sport package - I drove the steptronic transmission in sport mode, and manual shift mode. Both were excellent. Shifts were fast (almost aggressive) but completely smooth. In manual shift mode it will up-shift at redline, so making fast starts a no-brainer: just mash the gas pedal to the floor and take off. I hate automatics, but I LOVE this automatic transmission, it is a joy to drive. The brakes are firm and have an intimidate and strong bite. Lots of backseat space. Super comfortable seats and nice leather interior. The best seats and interior of the bunch. The front sport aero package looks like the current M5, which is to say it has a lot more character than the the standard 5er. I love the look of the sport wheels too.

Pros: Awesome V8 power. sport package aero kits looks good. Ipod integration. great handling with sport suspension. Nose bleed inducing brakes.
turn signal ( WTF?! I could not figure out how to turn it off. I really don't think I should have to read the manual to work the turn signals.) Otherwise perfect.

2. BMW 535i w/ sport package - yes, second place was the same car, but with the "smaller" engine. The new BMW twin turbo had all the other cars beat.
Pros: The engine. feels lighter than the 550i (because it is)
Cons: turn signal. Feels so plain after driving the 550i.

3. Mercedes E350 - This was the best and most comfortable ride. Not sporty. The engine is reigned in by the very sedate 7-speed automatic gear box. Extreme inputs from the gas and/or brake pedal are needed to wake up the beast.
Pros: SOLID feel. smooth boulevard ride. Nice, understated interior. classic looks.
Cons: not sporty.

4. Infinity M45 - This car makes a great first impression when you get in. Great, conformable seats. The most elegant dash and clean/sharp instrument cluster of the group. The control knob for the stereo and navigation was very iDrive like, but in a bad way, a worse way. It looked beautiful though. :) Very pleasing and powerful engine, rivaling the BMW 3.5l turbo. Great space and quality thoughout. Where the car fell down was on its electronic drivers aids: the computer is much too intrusive during driving. Even light throttle steering is rendered impossible without the computer kicking in to "save" you. It can be turned off, but with it on, anything but traveling in a straight line delivers a numb driving experience. It very sad that such a great car has been so completely castrated.
Pros: Mercedes should steal the M45s interior.
Cons: handling castrated by the stability control computer

5. Audi A6 - This car probably suffers a bit much in this review because it was driven immediately after the BMW 550i. Interior was the worst of the log. Very clean looking, but with inferior leather and by far the least comfortable. The the 3.2l engine, while sporting good stats, in reality didn't come close to the BMW 3.5l turbo. Under-steer was very pronounce, worst of the bunch. Even the M45 with its numb feeling did better. I really expected much more from this car. In its favor, it had the largest trunk of the group, by a large margin.
Pros: Lots of junk in the trunk
Cons: under-steer. Average engine power. below par interior.

6. Acura RL - My father-in-law goaded me into driving this one, he's a long time Acura fan. I'm a long time Honda fan, so I gave it an open mind. The car was nice. Least power of the group. The engine only comes alive above 4500 RPM (typical Honda) but then its all over too soon when it redlines at 6800RPM. It had the fewest gears: 5. The smallest trunk. Smallest backseat. To its credit was also the least expensive and the paddle shifters were crazy fun.
Pros: Its a "Honda." Its the cheapest.
Cons: least of everything.

So I ordered the 550i. I'm curious how I will adapt to iDrive. Despite reports of its lameness, I'm confident that I'm tech savvy enough to figure it out. I just hope I figure out that dang turn signal. In iDrive's defense, looking at the extremely cluttered dash of all the other cars it is clear that something like iDrive is absolutely necissary. They just need to get it "right."

Delivery in 6-8 weeks. I can't wait!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

It Worked

I just had to post from the road, (I'm in Elkhart, IN tonight) because I just couldn't let my last post linger at the top of my blog for too long. :)

Turns out the midwest isn't as vile as I remember.

I don't even mind the slow drivers so much anymore. They're a relief when you're trying to navigate a family filled Chevy mini-van along the I-80. Looking out on green trees and fields is a refreshing change from the typical California landscape. That and there is just so much space.

The wedding in Chicago went well. This was our first wedding where we took the kids along: It changes everything. Forget mingling at the reception, you're just trying to keep the kids from knocking over the cake and running into the kitchen.

The A-man got the virtual phone number of the flower girl, just 12 days his senior. He even got a kiss. I gave him a pointer, I told him to compliment her dress. He looked at me a little incredulously, but he tried it. I watched from afar, as the walked onto the dance floor, worked up the nerve and said: "Your dress is very pretty." She blushed and said "Thank you!". At which point he turned and shouted to me: "It WORKED!"

Monday, May 21, 2007

Boogers, Vomit, Poop and Parenting

The last two weeks have been very eventful on the kid front. I got vomited on, big time. Our precious little E did the duce in the bathtub. The A-man woke up screaming with a nightmare at 3am. Susan got peed on. The whole family got a cold at the same time, requiring an emergency call to the in-laws for more kleenex. And we had a chicken pox scare, that would have upended our next 3 weeks of travel.

All I can think about is: how much fun it is to be a parent.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Did you try Reboot?

The weather has taken a turn for the warmer here in "God's Country", also know as Sunnyvale, California to the less fortunate who don't live here. Not just warm, down right hot. Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Only our AC is on the blink, literally. The computer thermostat was blinking red-blue-red-blue and displaying "Call for service" and a 1-800 number. I have to admit, my first reaction was "Cool! My thermostat can do a self diagnostic. Star Trek here we come." Then the temperature hit 92 degrees outside. Very un-cool.

So what do I do? I power cycle the AC unit at the circuit breaker. No good. Time to call the repair man.

Two days of record heat later, the repairman arrives, and what does he do? He power cycles the furnace. Problem solved.

Now why didn't I think of that.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Garmin 305 Review

I'm not really looking to turn my blog into a product review site, but I cannot stay silent about the Garmin Edge 305. I needed a new bike computer and really wanted something with a heart rate monitor. I used to own a very expensive Polar heart rate/cycle computer but it is simply awful, so awful I may have to make a whole post to do it justice.

At any rate, I was leery of buying something that had too many features. I just wanted something to tell me how fast I was going, how far I'd ridden, and maybe my heart rate. Virginia at Palo Alto Bicycles convinced me I really wanted the Garmin Edge 305. She was right: it rocks.

I won't go into the feature list, that's what the web is for. Suffice it to say it is addictive. Once you've started using it, you need more, like a drug. If you forget the heart rate chest strap for a ride, or find your battery dead before a ride it makes you want to drive back home to get your strap, or wait an hour for your computer to charge. You want (dare I say need) it that bad.

If you bike, you owe it to yourself to buy one of these.

Here is a link to a recent ride posted on, and a link to the route on Google Maps.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Laguna Seca 3/21/07

I spent a beautiful Wednesday at Laguna Seca raceway, with NASA Proracing.
My last track outing in November was mostly an attempt to get my head back into driving fast, and taking some time to share the fun with Ron riding shotgun. As I wrote then, lots of stuff was out of sorts: tires, track, and confidence.

Lagnua Seca is one of my favorite tracks, and I have had more track time here. I've logged the most virtual track time at Laguna as well via the best video game ever: Sega's Ferrari F355 Challenge. That and having taken the Skip Baber 3-day racing class here doesn't hurt. So I felt right at home even on the first lap.

I got faster as the sessions progressed, and ended clocking a 1:52. Which is 5 seconds faster than my previous best, from the last time I drove the M Coupe there in 2002. I'm still analyzing the Traqmate data, but two mistakes i was frequently making were turning in a little too late for turn 4 and turn 8. According to the driver of the Cayman S that was lapping behind me for a while, I'm not carrying as much speed as I could though turn 11 either. Needless to say, its important I get back there soon to work on that. :)

The only place I was loosing to the Cayman S was in the braking zones. The brakes just didn't feel very inspiring this outing. Time for some racing brake pads.

Here is a short video including my second fastest lap. Its a tad more interesting: I pass a miata and spend the whole rest of the lap chasing some 911s and keeping ahead of a red Porsche CaymanS.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


I, like several of my friends and many other Flickr addicted geeks, was enthralled when I read the specs for the eStarling. A wi-fi enabled LCD picture frame that automatically downloads images via RSS. Specifically Flickr RSS feeds. I pre-ordered mine in November. When it finally arrived late December (just in time for Christmas gifting), excitement quickly turned to disappointment, and then slowly to hate after an hour or more of fiddling. Around midnight on Dec 23, I had decided I could not give the 4 other frames I had purchased as gifts. Thankfully, there were other gifts and I did not have to resort making my own hand drawn self-portrait and decorate the frame with dried macaroni. My 3-year son beat me to that idea anyway.

Here is my eStarling review in eight bullet points:

  1. Flickr RSS feed never worked.
  2. LCD quality very poor. The image would flicker, the color is not vivid , and resolution is poor. Completely the opposite of the Adobe flash demo on the eStarling homepage.
  3. LCD dimensions, a 16:9 ratio, required resizing/cropping every photo to fit on the screen without blank space.
  4. The WiFi range is unusably. I was able to get connectivity, but only less then 10 feet from the WiFi hub.
  5. The actual dimensions of the LCD in pixels is not in the documentation, I had to google for reviews. [The online support has added this info since then.] It is a paltry 480 x 234 pixels.
  6. The documentation is very sparse. It consists of just a postcard sized quickstart guide. It is not made clear that you cannot use the frame at all (ie via a memory card) without the wifi connecting.
  7. Status messages on LCD is uninformative. See the photo above.
  8. Menu navigation on LCD (slide show mode 6sec/10sec/stop) option flickers on the screen for a moment. It takes a few times through before you can read any one of the messages.

Gizmodo has several posts panning the eStarling:
eStarling Hands-On Update: Buyer Beware
eStarling Woes: Digital Picture Frame Shipped with Wrong AC Adapter

The one saving grace has been that ThinkGeek has a very slick customer experience, including making returns. Kudos to ThinkGeek for putting their customers first. Now, if only they vetted the products they carry.