Thursday, April 19, 2012

My new book: Headline

Available for free from 04/20 through 04/25/12
after that, only 99c

1977. A ruthless serial-killer is stalking Bay City.  His purpose is unknown, but the dismembered victims are always young and beautiful.  In order to find the perpetrator, Police Detective Markus has to set aside his personal troubles, and pull the evidence together before panic sweeps the city.  His only ally is a reporter with a tortured past and the chance to break the biggest story of her career.

Monday, April 16, 2012

First Impressions of the DSI Mopho Analog Synthesizer

In order to increase my music-making palette, I bought a Dave Smith Instruments Mopho.  Compared to my Akai MINIAK, which is a Digital "Analog Modeling" synth, I was taken aback by the power and punch of the Mopho Module.  Leading edges seem to have more bite, with a character that makes the Akai seem a little dull and rolled-off.  The over 380 presets are fairly good too, and with the wide-range of immediate modification, will definitely see some time in my next creations.

I've only put a few hours on the Mopho, but I've found the lack of USB problematic.  It would be nicer to have the MIDI jacks connected to my keyboard, but instead have to mess around with the virtual keyboard or the "Push It!" button to trigger sounds while I'm using the software editor.  The sequencer is also only good for 16 notes, though there are four of them for adding depth and color.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Zen of the Mercury Grand Marquis

This post is an expansion of my original review of the 2001 Mercury Grand Marquis.

 If cars can be objects of lust, then the Mercury Grand Marquis is the old lady gone slightly seedy, hanging out past closing-time, waiting for any man to take her home.  Okay, that's a little unfair, so let's try again.  This ancient hold-over of full-frame construction, RWD and V8 power is from an era of long highway drives, three martini lunches, and Brylcreem.  No, no - a little too Mad Men.  The Marquis is a popular car with elderly drivers who prefer size and comfort over efficiency and the latest techno-wiz doo-dads.  That's better.  It's also a retired platform, finally joining the Caprice and Roadmaster up in car heaven.

I drive a Grand Marquis almost everyday.  What's it like to be in an old-fogey machine with the performance of a 4-cyl Camry and the gas-mileage of a Chevy Corvette?  Interesting, to say the least.  To wring any kind of performance out of this heavy beast requires an equally heavy foot.  The 225hp 4.6L V8, coupled to a 3900lb car (without passengers) with 2.73 highway gears is not a recipe for speed.  However, on the highway it is very good, with very nice acceleration all the way up to the top-speed limiter.  Much of the off-the-line blame lies with the torque output of the SOHC engine, which churns out a relatively measly 275lb-ft.   Sure, this sound like a lot if you're used to driving normally-aspirated four or six cylinders, but my heavier Roadmaster, on the other hand, with only 260hp but 330lb-ft of torque, was a stop-light warrior.  In this case, the big torque down low coupled with 3.08 gears really pulled the car off the line.

Handling is better than expected, but not exactly a canyon carver.  But still, I've managed to leave some econo FWD cars behind on tight country corners - it's mostly the confidence and familiarity I have with RWD cars.  The weight balance is better, with less plowing and understeer.  The Marquis is also helped by the numerous braces and whatnot in the suspension.  Again, this isn't any sort of real high-performance machine, and first-time drivers of the Marquis will be intimidated by the sheer weight and size as you try to squeeze through the corners.  However, the Marquis brother, the Crown Vic Police Interceptor, seems to do a well-enough job in this regard, so let's leave it there.

Okay, so what's it like to actually drive one of these land yachts, er tugs?  Well, imagine a hood the size of a football field, where the car in front of you is like a small animal waiting to be crushed by your superior size.  I'm obviously exaggerating, but the girth of the Grand Marquis is its strongest (and perhaps only) selling point.  If you believe that weight and size are important for surviving a crash, then you can't get much bigger than this for a passenger car.  With this size comes confidence - knowing that the tailgater behind you can't actually do anything about it - What, buddy?  You're going to push me off the road with your Kia?  Yeah!  Good luck there, pipsqueak!  

Steering is responsive and predictable with less slop than your 80s-era GM product.  The nose of the car goes exactly where you point it, with only some hassle over rough surfaces.  As per most large full-framed cars, the drive is much smoother than your average non-luxury FWD car.  My Marquis doesn't have the air shocks, so the ride is probably closer to a newer truck than a Cadillac.  However, road feel is good without being overly intrusive.  It's a good balance, much better than, let's say, my old Volvo 850 GLT which felt every dimple and pebble.

In general, this car gets ignored.  People are more likely to want to pass you, even if you are going well over the speed limit, just because they will assume you are an old man at the wheel.  Bonus: At certain times, especially at night, other drivers are apt to think you are behind the wheel of a cop car.  Hilarity ensues as they stab the brakes and start driving all slow 'n' mellow.  Who me, officer?  Hilarity ceases when they get pissed off, realizing they were fooled.

Interior room for the front driver and passenger is a bastion of comfort.  If you suffer from aphenphobia, haphenphobia, or just don't like people in general, then you couldn't ask for a much wider car.  When riding along in my buddy's Nissan Versa, our elbows are touching!  Egads!  With the Marquis, you're kept a safe distance from your fellow plague carriers.  Seat comfort, with the cloth bucket seats, is fairly good with minimal discomfort over long hauls.  The back seat passengers are given second-rate seating arrangements with an uncomfortable bench seat and reduced legroom.  Oddly enough, my Olde Buick Roadmaster had less legroom for the front passengers, but was more comfortable out back.  Go figure.

Trunk space, as to be expected, is the other selling point.  If you like golf, boxing, kayaking, ping-pong, or any other sport of kings, then you can do them all - even at the same time - within the comfort of your own trunk.  There's enough room here to keep the most bloodthirsty of Mafia members happy as they careen through the night, looking for a place to bury their victims.  Not that I would know anything about that, but a trip to Ikea is no sweat, except for sofas, wardrobes, and long tables.  It's also good if your wife likes to pack her entire wardrobe in multiple suitcases.  Bonus - when not in use, you can sublet your trunk for extra money to pay for the gasoline you are going to use like a man in the desert with glass of water.

Which brings us to mileage.  The SOHC 4.6L, though no model of efficiency, is certainly better than the old push-rod engine.  Well, perhaps marginally better.  In the city, I average somewhere between 15-17mpg, depending on weather, my twitchy right foot, and the speed and direction of the wind.  The best performance, of course, lies on the highway where I can get up to 25mpg or even slightly more if speeds are kept under control.  This is where the difficulty lies, since as the speed increases, the gas mileage quickly decreases pushing this long and heavy metal box down the road.  This ancient transmission could really do with a 5th or even 6th gear.  Or perhaps some cylinder drop technology?  Nah, Ford already planned to obsolete this car, so why would they throw any more money at this dinosaur?  The only way to squeeze any kind of gas mileage out of this car is to drive it S-L-O-W-L-Y which is probably why all of the old geezers you see driving these things are going well under the speed limit.  They are just trying to save a buck so they can spend it on cat food, or whatever gourmet meal they are planning.

Reliability has been fairly good - the one major repair was a broken ball joint and the heater control unit replacement.  I also had a $10 sensor go bad, but a quick job with the scanner pinpointed the problem for a quick home mechanic replacement.  The drivetrain should be solid since it's so primitive - something I've generally found to be true even with RWD cars from the 70s and 80s.

So, what do I think of the Mercury Grand Marquis overall?  The car does lack a bit of soul, falling on the vanilla bland side of the fence.  It's quite predictable, boring, and fairly anonymous.  But on the positive side it's also comfortable, big, and great for highway cruising.  Though the performance is well into the snooze category - don't expect to win many drag races - it's slightly better than expected, provided you don't ask too much out of the ancient design.  I won't exactly be sad to see it gone, but, like a girlfriend who has overstayed her welcome, when the day does come, I'll easily remember the good things.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Next Book Update: Headline has gone to the editor

Headline has finally gone to the editor.  Since this is only a novella, I expect to publish sometime late next week.  The question arises - should I try the Amazon Select services?  I'm not exactly a big-time author with thousands of sales, so I really have nothing to lose.  Since the majority of my sales are through Amazon, perhaps this short novel would be the best way to test the waters.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Side-Effects of a Low-Carb Diet

 After reading Gary Taubes's Why We Get Fat, my wife and I switched over to a low-carb diet.  For the past three months, I've consumed less than 30 grams of carbs a day.  This means no sugar, minimal wheat products, and less fruit.  It has also meant more steak, eggs, salads, bacon, salad dressing, and various Atkins treats.

In the past, when I was trying to drop some weight, I did the Atkins diet for a one or two months.  Back then, I lost ten pounds, but found the diet to be excruciating difficult to follow.  I've since become better educated about what I can eat, and this second attempt has been much easier - so much that I can't imagine going back to eating carbs in any substantial amount again.

After getting over the initial 'carb-craving hump' I noticed some unexpected side-effects beyond the weight-loss:

1) Energy levels are now less bumpy.  Burning fat, instead of carbs, for my day-to-day energy levels has been a drastic change.  The low-carb method feels smoother and less 'jagged' - without the sugar highs and lows of the past.  I have pretty much the same energy level all day, and only get really tired when bedtime draws near.

2) Mental improvement.  I feel less stressed than before without that frantic level of work and life stress.  Sure, I'm still get anxious about stuff, but it doesn't have the same forcefulness of the past.  This also gives me longer and better sleep.

3) Less plaque on the teeth.  When brushing and flossing, my teeth are now considerably cleaner than before and my gums seem pinker too.  Of course this is to be expected with a dramatic drop in sugar and carbs going through the mouth.  For someone who has had his fair share of cavities, I'm sure this will reduce some dental issues.

4) Day-to-day aches and pain.  Over seventeen years of computer programming has given me pain and numbness in my right elbow.  In the past year, it's gotten so bad that I had to train myself to use my left hand for using the mouse.  But now, the pain has been reduced so much that I barely notice it anymore.  I also have less back pain.  Based on what I've read, this is from a reduction of inflammation caused by the low-carb diet.  It certainly makes me feel younger than my years.

It should be noted that I'm not primarily doing this diet to just lose weight, but to positively change my health.  So far, I'm beyond pleased.