Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tools of Guy Power

There are many ways for a guy to affirm his masculinity. Some  -- mixed martial arts cage fighting, for instance, or bungie jumping into a mountain chasm -- carry for the regular guy a significant risk of the humiliation that comes with whimpering and wetting your pants in public.  But for most guys, guys like me who aren’t ultra-violent ‘roid freaks or suicidal Jackass wannabees, power tools offer a safe, rational way to say to the world, “I have a penis.”

Of course anybody, even women, can buy power tools. And just owning a drill or a reciprocating saw will barely move the needle on the Guy-O-Meter. So if your goal is to wave Y chromosome around like the Jolly Roger, you need to actually do something with your power tools.
If you’re a carpenter or otherwise use power tools professionally, you’re already at the Jedi level in the guy hierarchy. Crack open a brewski, dude, scratch the body part of your choice, and baskl in your testosteronishness.
If, on the other hand, your power tools are just laying in their cases, their disuse taunting you with its unspoken suggestion that you’re better suited to ironing doilies, you can shut them up by following one of two paths to total male guyness.
The first path is to successfully complete a home project. If you can pull that off and whatever you build doesn’t fall over or explode within the first forty-eight hours, you’ve got it covered. Go back two paragraphs and see if the carpenter will give you a beer.
But successful home projects involving power tools require things like “measurement” and “precision” and “patience.” I don’t know about you, but those three words have never come into play any time I’ve ever described a really great weekend.
For instance, on a long-ago Saturday my wife asked me to use my power tools to remove a wall. The wall in question was in our own home, so right away the entertainment value of that project dropped to zero. The situation didn’t improve when, after I’d finished, my wife changed her mind and asked me to put the wall back -- which was a lot more difficult than taking it down, and required measurement, precision, and patience. Which is why, even years later, that wall may fall over or explode at any moment.
So if you rule out the use of power tools in a home project as proof that you would never admit to knowing the name “Carrie Bradshaw,” what’s left?
The answer is to use your power tools for purposes that a) will void the warranty,  and b) are likely to so offend power tool purists that they will send hit men, or lawyers, or lawyers on retainer with hit men to stop you.
For examples of such innovative and distinctly male uses of power tools, let’s turn to the vast cultural archive that is YouTube.
The first example is a video by a guy who identifies himself only as “The Gareth Peasant.” Mr. Peasant prepares an entire meal using drills, saws, beer, hammers, torches, beer, clothes irons, a hubcap, beer cans, a protective face guard, and beer. He does his “cooking” in workshop that would require serious disinfection in order to be considered merely unsanitary. I’d rather stab myself in the brain with a pencil than eat one of the Gareth Peasant’s meals. But by virtue of his use of power tools there’s no question that he’s a guy.

In our next video, Chef Francois, the Power Tool Chef, offers a more sanitary,  somewhat more appetizing, and certainly better produced demonstration of food preparation techniques using a variety of power tools. Plenty of guy cred here, but I’d have to go three or four days without food before I’d tuck into any of Chef Francois's concoctions.

If relaxed sanitary standards, a cavalier attitude toward the possibility of minor industrial injuries, and a belief that metal shavings are an acceptable garnish will sufficiently validate your guyness, then cooking with power tools may be the right strategy for you.
For pure, flat-out guyishness, Power Tool Drag Racing offers the kind of excitement, spirit of competition, mind-boggling pointlessness, and extensive use of extension cords that mark it as an activity practiced by people who have to be reminded to put the seat down. Behold:

But the ultimate award for guy cred in the power tool category has to go to the people behind the unique go-kart competition held as part of the annual KMS Tools Show and Shine car show held in Coquitlam, BC -- even if they aren’t all guys.  This competition centers on a specially modified go-kart that uses a cordless drill for a motor. Various power tool companies take turns powering the kart with their drills to see whose drill is the fastest and most powerful. Really, how else would you prove the effectiveness of a device designed to make holes in things?

And that’s exactly why that drill-powered go-kart is a shining beacon of guyness for those of us who may occasionally feel the need to re-affirm our guyish tendencies. If you want to try your luck in a cage with some tatted-up monster with no neck, or trust your fate to giant rubber bands as you plummet face-first into a rocky ravine, be my guest.  I’m going with power tools. 

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Electric Cool: The Rise of the Geek Machines

When you see the phrase "electric vehicle," what's the first thing that comes to mind?  Is it "environmental responsibility?"

"Small carbon footprint?"

"Ed Begley Jr.?"

My guess is that whatever thoughts or images the phrase "electric vehicle" conjured up for you, they had little to do with the sort of essential mating ritual-related stuff that has made the automobile such an  important aspect of American Cool. That's because the rationale and motivation behind developing electric cars has for far too long focused on important, socially responsible, practical stuff like reducing  greenhouse gases and ending our fossil fuel addiction. Those are unquestionably worthwhile goals. But in order to achieve those goals people actually have to buy and drive electric cars. And so far, appealing to  consumers' sense of social responsibility isn't working.

This headline from a storyin the Cleveland Plain Dealer says a tankful:
Consumers need to see a personal benefit to driving electric cars, auto experts say

According to that article, the experts at the Center for Automotive Research cite one big, overriding challenge: "Persuading consumers to give up driving cars that use petroleum because doing so benefits society, not necessarily the individual."

Increasing gas prices. Soaring oil company profits. Messy petro-based global political entanglements with countries that like American dollars but hate America. Add all that to the fact that the air quality around any freeway at rush hour will do to your ability to breathe what diving head-first into an empty swimming pool will do to your ability to do simple math. You'd think that would be enough to convince anyone to give an electric vehicle serious consideration.

But that hasn't happened, apparently. So a different strategy is in order. If electric vehicles are going to really take off, the focus has to shift from selling social responsibility to selling the more personal benefit of  getting from Point A to Point B with sufficient style and cool that the last 10 feet of that journey is littered with hastily removed lingerie.

If you want to convince a guy to buy an electric car, you have to convince him that owning one will make him more like James Bond or Batman or Jason Bourne, rather than like Ed Begley Jr. The electric car has to be positioned as a chick magnet. Car companies have been doing that for decades, so what's the problem now? While the experts at the Center for Automotive Research are trying to figure that out, there are others, dedicated electric vehicle enthusiasts and start-ups among them,, who have taken the issue beyond social responsibility and are actively demonstrating the sex appeal of electric cars by going back to the basics of speed and styling, with a healthy dose of modern geek cred to bring driving into the twenty-first century.

One group engaged in that effort is the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA), a chapter of the Electric Auto Association. NEDRA is dedicated to increasing public awareness of electric vehicle  performance and encouraging advances in electric vehicle technology through competition.

NEDRA's flagship vehicles are the White Shadow, John "Plasma Boy" Wayland's lithium battery powered 1972 Datsun 1200 Sedan, and Bill DubĂ©'s record-breaking, lithium battery powered KillaCycle

KillacycleDriver Scotty Pollacheck riding KillaCycle

If you're searching IMDB looking for all the Bond movies that featured a '72 Datsun, you can stop. But while the White Zombie isn't an Aston Martin, it goes from zero to sixty in less time than it takes to say "zero to sixty," and regularly blows the doors of off cooler-looking cars that burn dinosaur juice.

Unlike typical dragsters, which can be loud enough to liquefy your brain, the White Zombie and the KillaCycle make almost no motor sounds. What you'll hear in the videos below is mostly squealing tires -- and  something that sounds like a large, cordless electric drill.

[You can follow KillaCycle's exploits on Facebook.]

In the style department, Tesla Motors produces the hot-looking Roadster two-seater, and the sleek and stylish Model S four-door. You can own the Roadster today -- if you have $109k you're not planning on spending on lunch. The company is taking advanced orders on the Model S, at a very reasonable $49,000 base price that includes a $7500 federal tax credit.

Of course, before you shell out the $109k for the Roadster, you might want to watch the following video, in which the White Zombie eats the Roadster's lunch in the quarter mile.

But before you write off the Tesla Roadster as a pansy basket, check out the following video, in which a Roadster tames a Mustang.

While the Tesla models score high marks for demonstrating EV cool and style,  other new companies are taking EV style out of the box and into the future.

The three-wheeled Alias from ZAP(Zero Air Pollution) is a three-wheeler that oozes scifi cool. The Alias is the latest design from ZAP, which also produces a more utilitarian line of EVs. The Alias is available for pre-order at $35k.

Looking to the future, at least two way cool prototypes offer a glimpse of the EV cool to come.

The TZero from AC Propulision is a hand-built two-seater that has all the sporty cool and performance a dude could want, along with the extreme geek appeal of being powered by 7000 laptop batteries. The TZero's bulider claims a zero-to-sixty time of 3.6 seconds. Check out the video to see the TZero smoke a 500hp Dodge Viper.

The eight-wheeled Eliica is another wildly futuristic design. Created by a team led by Prof. Hiroshi Shimizu at Japan's Keio University, the Eliica reportedly has a zero-to-sixty time of four seconds and has hit 230 mph.

Of course, we have to give good old General Motors its due. Style-wise, the Chevy Volt, GM's re-entry into the EV field, is likely to make Prius owners envious. The Volt uses a gas-powered generator to charge its batteries or run it's electric power train. So while it's still dependent on fossil fuel, it's a big step in the right direction. With a base price of $33.5k, the Volt is affordable and cool enough to make social responsibility a bonus.

"What about the Nissan Leaf?" you ask. Yes, it's an EV. And yes, it's base price is well under $30k. But style-wise the Leaf is very much like Ed Begley, Jr. Nice, but not
likely to inspire the shedding of lingerie.

Today's generation of grade-school kids is already familiar with electric vehicles. When those kids come of age, they're not going to be resistant to the idea, but they are going to want what every other generation of drivers has wanted, a car that offers an ego boost, a style upgrade, a cool injection. Based on what's happening in the EV world now, it looks like they're going to get what they want.

End Note
Sadly, one of the of the coolest-looking EVs has already bitten the dust. The company behind the wildy futuristic Aperta three-wheeler recently anounced its demise [See: Aptera: A Brief Chronology Of The Collapse  ]. Too bad.

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    Sunday, March 04, 2012

    Human Shelf Life: You Are a Banana

    An open letter from a Baby Boomer to Generations X, Y, and Whatever…
    It's a fact: the human body will ultimately, inevitably fail. Today you may be absolutely dripping with youthful health and boundless vigor. With reasonable maintenance you may live to a "ripe old age." But the key word in that crusty idiom is "ripe." As is the case with a piece of fruit, the human body reaches it's peak relatively quickly before the inexorable ripening process renders it squishy, wrinkly, discolored, and grossly unappetizing. So regardless of how well you take care of yourself, your human vessel is compost in the making.
    That firm, brilliantly yellow banana in your fruit bowl, left uneaten, will begin to rot within a few days. For the human body, however, the process takes a bit longer. In general terms, the human body reaches physical maturity within two decades. (In contrast, the human mind will laugh at fart jokes pretty much right up to the moment of death.) After those first twenty years of human life, essential bodily processes begin slowly grinding to a halt. That shut-down process manifests itself in a variety of interesting ways, including hair loss, muscle loss, memory loss, loss of eyesight, loss of libido, and loss of the ability to get into or out of an automobile without loud groaning.
    Your first twenty years are spent growing and physically maturing. After that, based on the current worldwide average for life expectancy (67.2 years), you will spend the next 47-plus years falling apart. If you are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where healthcare does not involve incantations  and leeches, it will take even longer to achieve complete deterioration.
    Those of us who have already taken the first steps on that journey have, for the most part, accepted the inevitable because there's jack squat to be done about it. After all, if you're not aging, you're not breathing. So we settle in for the ride, taking what comfort we can in the knowledge that while we will arrive at life's final destination well ahead of our successors, we will have used up what is left of Social Security and Medicare.
    So eat it, punks. Maybe you can do 500 sit-ups. But today's six-pack abs are tomorrow's beer belly. One day you're going to look into your mirror and find a geezer staring back at you.  So you have choices. You can pretend you're not going to grow old --  which, while obviously bat-shit crazy, is what many people do -- or you can accept that your ticket is already as good as punched and arm yourself with a little knowledge about what's going to happen to you during the phase of life that begins a few years after puberty and ends a few hours before a mortician gives you your final makeover.
    More on this topic in future posts…

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