dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I waited through the winter, until the weather got warmer, to get new speakers for my car. I almost waited until it was too warm. This was the first morning where the sun felt hot before 9am. Hot is better than cold. I've worked on my car in the cold. Cold sux.

I installed four JL Audio TR570-CXi speakers into my 2005 Ford Five Hundred. The doors came off easily enough, the wiring came off with a bit of wrangling, and then there were the speakers. They were put in using Torx #10's, so I had to dig one of those up. The two front doors needed a short handled philips for the top, front screw. I needed a socket driver to take out the screws in the door handles. I don't recall how many 1/32's that size was.

I purchased the suggested adapters as well. Beats wiring. They fit snug and well. My understanding is that they were generic enough Ford wiring.

The reviews said that they wound good. My opinion? My confirmation bias says that they sound definitely better. However, I won't really know for a bit. There's nothing like the commute to test a system.


On my first commute to work, these fellows operated normally. I won't rave about them, as I'm not an audiophile. They do, however, succeed in being less bad than the stock speakers.

My setup is very simple. I have a Kenwood KDC-HD455U CD Receiver wired straight to the speakers. No subs, crossovers, or anything else that I don't understand. So when I speak of the stereo being less bad than stock, know that I am freakishly ignorant of "good." This thing is pumping out 22 watts of milk toast, white-boy mediocrity.

With me? Good.

The most important test was the noise test. If there's lots of noise going around the car, can I turn up the music in order to increase the clarity? The answer to this is a resounding yes. The distortion caused by increasing the volume did rise to match the other noise. Just with that, we've got a winner. I turned these guys up to their maximum volume and they held together far better than stock. I did hear some distortion rolling through, but I am more likely to blame the budget amp than I am to blame the speakers.

I'm getting far better fequency response. I noted far more low vibrations rolling with the bass. I couldn't hear that low, but the speaker swere producing those low sounds. That's good. The stock speaker's never did anything like that.

Once you're rolling on the road with the windows up, they do okay. I don't say "amazing" or anything like that because there's road noise, and in my opinion, those qualities that make "amazing" get distorted by road noise. That just comes with the territory. If you want amazing, go build a sound insulated listening room.

In terms of showing off, these speakers don't rate. You aren't going to rattle the next car with them. That is not a ding against the speakers as they were just never meant to rattle the windows.

In summary, this installation delivered a measurable improvement in quality (far less distortion), and an improvement in dynamic range. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
In 1989 I bought my first car: a beige, base model Honda civic hatchback. This car came equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission, air condition, and not much else that wasn't required by law. Ticket price for this treasure was $8. The funds for this car came from my first job, working the night shift at a gardening supply warehouse, delivering gardening supplies to stores all around Baltimore. A few months after I bought this car, I lost that job.

Learning to drive a stick was irksome. I knew the basics of stick, but getting all the coordination down took forever. Shifting at road speed was easy, but starting and stopping was where all the challenge was. I remember adrenelin rushes every time that I had to stop and turn. I never knew if I would stall the car or not.

I named my car Basil after the character Pazu from Laputa. They both seemed like little beige troopers that could.

For the life of me, I couldn't find a picture of a beige Civic, and I couldn't find of my own pictures of my Civic, so here's a silver one. My didn't have any sort of moon roof, but it did have hand-cranked windows that those louvered rear windows.

Three months later, I found a new job. I would use my fledgling PC skills to repair PCs at pharmacies all over Maryland, Delaware, Northern Virginia, a bit of West Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania. Back in those days, the bad old days, computers sure did like to die terrible, horrible, no-good deaths at the bat of an eye. They were big, expensive, and businesses held onto them for a long time. To get more out of them, some had custom DOS OS's that let terminals access them.

During my first winter, and my first snowfall, I discovered how sucktacular my tires were. I am surprised that I made it home during my first snowfall. The tired did nothing but slide. Not long after that, I replaced my tires out of self-defense. My tires weren't snow tires and they hated driving in the rain. My new tires actually worked in the rain and worked well in the snow, too, which converted me to the cult of good tires. I'll happily get overchanged for tires because I know what bad tires are like.

My friends ribbed me for getting a civic. All my school friends bought Ford Probes or other nice, sporty cars. I bought a Civic. My D&D group at the time suggested that I turn my Civic into a sports car as a joke. In time, the joke would be on them. I would never turn my Civic into a sports car, but others were. The Civic had a few traits which made it a great car for modding. First, the Civic was light. I could push that car up a hill by myself. I could pop start it drifting backwards across two parking spaces. (I frequently forgot and left my lights on.) Despite being light, the car was very stable, with a very low center of gravity. Put that together with an easily tinkered engine and a low price, and you  had everything necessary to be a great beater. Every HP that you put into one of those cars came straight back out. By the late 90's, the Civic was among the favorite cars for street racing. Little did I know that I might be ahead of the curve.

The only real modding that I did was to put a wooden shift knob onto the stick, and put a wrap around the steering wheel. The knob was for show, but the extra grip on the wheel was absolutely needed. Also, car seat covers because vinyl seats are for the birds.

I had a tendency on this car to drive using my wrist. The bottom of the wheel was open, so I would just hang my wrist there and cruise along, never having to worry about my arms getting tired.

I must confess to leaving the windows open during the summers. On more than a few days, I came out to a soaked front seat, so I worked out various ways of not getting my seat wet, but the results were never any fun. Keeping your behind on a wet seat for hours is a repice for woe and an itchy ass.

When the gulf war hit, the Civic made me a mint. As I drove about for a living, I earned mileage on my private vehicle. My Civic got me 40 mpg, and well tuned, could hit 45 mpg. As gas prices spiked during the golf war, the payments spiked as well. My little gas sipper barely noticed. I wound up earning so much from mileage in 18 months that the mileage flat-out paid for my car, and that's taking out insurance, gas, and tires.

My Civic was usually good in the snow. I rarely got stuck. I took the thing out after a major blizzard with no trouble. Ice was a different story. I was driving out to Herndon with Paul in tow when we hit a patch of ice on 270. A brief bump swung the car around in a graceful twirl, leaving us going backwards on 270 at 60 mph. Knowing this was bad, especially as there was a stuck car ahead of us, I flicked my front-wheel drive wheels, gunned a bit, and righted the car back around. After that, it was as easy drift over.

That wasn't the only accident or near accident. I did have to dive off the road once to avoid the tail end of a bus. That was easy. Scarier, I had a truck towing a race car decide that it wanted to be in the left lane for no goddamn reason. The car pushed me into the medium out in western Maryland. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

The only accident was when I tail-ended a woman on the Washington beltway. I still feel bad about that. I jammed down my foot, but put the weight onto my heel, not the toe, so I didn't brake well enough. Bam, she got it in the rear and I got an almost perfect circle poked through my bumped. I drove it home, too. After my car had gotten fixed, I found that the mechanics had taken all my spare change from the car and one of my mixed tapes. To this day, I don't remember what was on it, but I still wonder. It's like a lost pet. It's gone, but you don't want to forget.

I did eventually get a radio for the car. Crutchfield provided everything that I needed. Wiring the antenna in was the hardest part as I had to get the antenna down through the frame to a place where I could find it. Everything else just got pulled to where it needed to go. Once I had a cassette deck, I had happiness. That was the golden era of mixed tapes for me as I really liked having my tunes on those drives. Albums got put onto loops for days at a time. Particularly good survivors were the Bangles' All Over the Place, both Voice of the Beehive albums, all the Reivers albumbs, and Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting.

I wasn't very social before I started driving around in that job. I had never needed to be. My social skills were truly terrible. But visiting pharmacists over and over got me lots of social practice and my social skill pretty much went through the roof. Going to a job site became going to visit friends and fixing their computers. Me and those pharmacists had a great time together (except for those killjoys who werent' any fun.)

The hardest part of driving was that no amount of rushing could get you there faster. You could go faster, but really, it didn't matter. I just had to be patient and drive there. Sometimes the tedium of driving got to me. Getting bored of the highway system, I dropped back to using the rural route system which predated the highway system. The back roads were usually far more interesting than the main road, which helped me to stay awake, by God. I didn't drink coffee back then, so something had to keep me engaged. I knew my routes by the time that I was done. I could tell you how to get between any two pharmacies in my territory, off the top of my head, including how long it would take to within five minutes. Yeah, I was good.

Staying awake during the winter seemed especially hard. I would bundle up, roll down my windows, and stay awake in the cold.

On the job, I learned PCs and learned them fast. The techs down in Richmond were used to working with idiots who always needed to get talked through things. I usually only needed one call to learn something. This surprised them to no end, which I still find pathetic. By the time that I was laid of from that job, I had my foundation as a solid PC person.

I wound up selling the car in 1996 after I bought my Subaru. The dealership offered me $200 for it, so $500 seemed like good-enough to me. The girl who bought it from me didn't understand that you needed to hold it the clutch to start it, so that gave her some fits, but she worked through it. Meanwhile, I felt like I had sold my car down the river. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
When my friends graduated from college in 1988, Jim and Greg bought themselves Ford Probes. They were sleek, sporty, and cost more than I could afford. I had an opportunity to ride in one on several occasions, and they seemed like nice cars. In a world of strange bedfellows, this was a sporty hatchback. That's rarer today, but back then there were quite a few sporty hatchbacks coming out of Japan. The answer the unasked question, no, they didn't have great engines. They were peppy, but they weren't true sports cars. At $12-15k, they were just too dear for me to buy.

To be honest, I don't recall who had which color.

Greg's probe met with a sad fate. He was driving out to the restaurant in Katawba when he hit a patch of gravel that slid him off the road, tipping both him and Steve over nose first. Fortunately my friends wore their seatbelts and everyone checked out fine. The car received a bent frame and so got totalled.

I suppose that Jim eventually just replaced his.

The interior was pretty straight forward. It was much of what you'd expect from a Japanese designed car mated up with American dash design. The interior is now modern enough that you wouldn't blink to buy a car like this today. The car featured a seat belt head which automatically retratcted when you closed the door, relieving you of pulling on your own shoulder harness. However, you did need to buckle your own lap belt, so I'm not sure what good the system really did for you. Maybe it was for all the women who didn't want to muss their dresses? I don't know.

According to Wikipedia, this car was to replace the Mustang. You can see how well that worked out. However, I do think that this car was far more appealing to the female market than the Mustang. This car definitely had more girl street cred than most sporty cars, but not so much that the boys avoided it. However, the REAL MEN drove mustangs because REAL and MAN. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
After my dad's Ford Grenada caught fire and took itself to a fiery grave, he bought a 1979 Chevy Impala coup. This car came the closest of any car that I've ever driven to being a class '70's sex machine. If any teenager but me had been driving this car, it would have been going 90 in a school zone and not stopping at the crosswalks. He bought a dark blue one, same color as the blue one below. Judging by the images that I've found, it must have been a favorite to soup up. I can attest to its potential. Even stock, that car wanted to go.

Don't ask me whether it was the 6-cylinder or the 8-cylinder. I don't know.

I got to drive this car in high school primarly because my sister was afraid of its size. It was too big for her. (These days she drives an SUV, so go figure.) That left me cruizing down to the local library in style. Too bad nobody back then appreciated it.

You can see from the images that the interior was nothing special. It was your standard, psuedo-luxury fare, meant more to feel like luxury than actually be luxury. It even had a few surviving panels of wood-like material that spoke loudly but unconvinciingly about luxury.

The only real trouble that I had on this car was after stage crew one winter night. I left from school and went to turn left at the stop sign. Little did I know that black ice lay on the intersections, so the next thing that I knew, I was going sideway. These days I would just have drifted through it, but back then I didn't know better, so I turned the week and pressed the gas, sending me off to one side and into oncoming traffic. I could have corrected, but just then a car came around the turn and I didn't want a front end collision. Turning the wheel again, I went off the road at a 90 degree angle, blammed over the curb and stopped in an empty plot. Fortunately there was no damage as I wasn't going that fast. I also completely missed those pesky telephone poles that leap out to wreck cars.

Of all the cars that I've driven, this is the only one that I would take now, just for the fun.

I can't tell you what happened to the car. I figure that dad got rid of it when it got too expensive (disposable American car that it was). His next car was a Mitsubishi of some vintage that I haven't figured out yet.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
After driving a Chevy wagon for six years or so, just enough to pay it off and for the shitty American engineering begin breaking down, my dad bought a Ford Grenada. My guess is the year 1976, give or take a few. I don't remember what I felt about the wagon going away, but I do remember being excited by the new car. What's not to get excited about?

What my father bought was a green Grenada, which looked remarkably like the picture below. It even had the same icky white roof and uninspired interior. (There were designs that the 70's strove to forget, and this was among them.) At the time, they were pretty normal, so it all seemed spiffy. As the roof was this textured vinyl stuff, dirt got into it, so keeping the top clean actually took a fair amount of scrubbing. If it wasn't for these pictures, I would be hard pressed to sketch a picture of this car.

The image below is from the Gia variant, but the dashboard is pretty much the same. I don't know what kind of wood the dashboard was trying to imitate, and to this day, I remain befuddled.

There are many details that I've forgotten, like that arm rest in the middle and the cushiony looking doors.

I partly learned to drive on the car. It had power steering, so it was pretty easy to turn the wheel. (At least, I think that I learned to drive with this. Memory is funny that way. I may just remember sitting behind the wheel and pretending.) The thing had no power to talk about, it being a family car and all that. Ours was an automatic, of course, because mom did not drive stick.

I was in this car when we had its only accident. My mother was taking a carload of kids to school in a car pool when someone pulled out in from of her while she was going 25 mph. I was sitting in the middle of the front seat for the ride. I saw the hood crumple as I bent over. Before I could sit back up, my mother pulled me up in a complete panic, horrified that I might be hurt. If that had been true, she would have done more damage to me than the collisions. I'm happy to say that the car survived with just a bit of love and auto insurance money.

This car ultimately met its end on the beltway while I was in high school. My dad was driving home when the engine decided to catch fire. He got out and watched it burn. After that, he bought a used Chevy.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Having just sold this car, I would like to talk about my White Subaru Outback 1996 2.2 L 5-Speed Manual.

I bought my Subaru back in 1996 for $22k or so. I didn't know exactly what I wanted, but after some amount of car shopping I learned that I wanted cargo space, plenty of glass, and head room. My decision came down to a Corolla Wagon, which drove marvelously, and the Outback wagon. I could not decide which, so after thinking about the merits for a while, I decided that I would take the car that I like better because it was going to be with me a long time. I was expecting to have it for ten years, but that wound up being 18. There's something to be said for buying a car that you like.

An important part of this timing was my desire to buy my house. I wanted all my large purchases done so that I would know how much money I actually had for the house. That way I would not overbuy what I needed.

(Generic vehicle depicted)

When I bought my Subaru, I ordered one with a manual transmission and no wireless unlocking, because at the time I didn't trust wireless unlocking. One never came in, and I doubt that they ordered it. However, when a manual came in, the dealership called anyway and I was more than happy to say yes at that point and bought the car. For the next five years I paid my $440 a month payment. Irritatingly, now that I'm making so much more money, I couldn't afford such payments. (Kids! Saving for college is just killing me!)

My particular model came with the 2.2L engine, which was nice, but never quite as powerful as I really wanted. When I looked at getting the engine beefed up, everyone looked at me like I was an idiot. Nobody modded the 2.2 L as they were solid-ass workhorses as engines went. Modders only start with the engines that have the most potential, so they went with the 2.5 L instead. When the water pump went bad back in 2006, I also knew that the gaskets were bad, so I just had the engine rebuilt at that point for $2,000. The price might seem outrageous, but that was only six months of car payments. I would happily do that twice for this car. The engine place, which specialized in modding Subaru engines, didn't believe me at first when I told them that the seals were bad on a 2.2 L. Once they got the thing apart, sure enough, I had somehow gotten bad seals.

The final images are HERE.

The main reason that I kept this car year after year was that repairing it was always cheaper, on a per-year basis, than replacing it with a used vehicle. An equivalent used Outback of decent vintage would cost me about $200 per month, or $2400 a year.

The headlights had gotten rather fogged over the years, so two years ago I bought a polishing kit and scrubbed those things pretty. Two years later, and the film still hadn't returned. That was $25 well worth the price.

The car did get banged up a bit. By the end, rust had formed around the wheel wells and on the passenger side rear door. In fact, there was a hole in it. The cargo latch had broken, so I drilled a hole to pop it open. The cargo lock had broken as well. When my daughter was tiny tiny, she liked jamming a key into the keyhold. Only belated did I realized that you could actually damage the lock's moisture door that way. The little flap came off its hinge and blocked the cyclinder.

The car was grand in the rain and the snow. I never found myself unable to go up a slippery hill. That would have been terrific, but there were always trucks that found themselves stuck in front of me, in which case stuck goes to the least common denominator. It doesn't matter if you have a supervehicle if the car in front of you can't move.

The most serious accident for the car is when I moved to avoid a sliding car after a rainshower. Jenny was in the car with me at that point, but we weren't married yet. I wound up going over a curve to avoid the problem, which tore up my right-front suspension. Everyone else, including the out-of-control car, drove away. I had to wait for a tow truck. If that wasn't insult enough, the insurance company didn't think that they had to get my car out of the police tow yard where the truck operator had to take it. That took me a week of phone calls to straighten out, with everyone along the line saying, "Shouldn't your insurance company be doing this?"

By the end of it's life, I never bothered locking the car. I didn't keep anything valuable in there and I didn't care if it got stolen.

The car's new life will be in West Virginia. Good luck to it.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
My brother corrected me on the station wagon. It wasn't a Ford, it was a Chevy. So that would make the wagon some type of Kingswood. My best guess in 1970.

I think that I got fooled because some of the Ford features resembled the Grenada, so I got fooled as to the model.

If you compare the two together, you'll understand how you could get the two confused. The big differentiator should have been the back seats. I remembered a rear facing seat, but then I doubted myself. The Ford had a pair of side-facing seats, and that would have been something that I remembered more strongly.

The interior looked something like this. I had forgotten the levered door handles.

The tailgate of this guy swung outward like a big-assed door.

What I learned from one ad is that Chevy didn't have just one or two wagons, it had a dizzying and confusing array of wagons in every price range and size. Jeepers! How the might wagon has fallen. 

Datsun 710

Oct. 2nd, 2014 11:36 am
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Another car that we had when I was young was my mother's Datsun 710. This was our second family car for a while until mom bought the silver car (which I haven't researched yet). After mom, it went on to my brother. I drove it one summer in college at my mother's insistance, which was enough to get me to my summer job and back.

The year that matches the best looks like 1974, but anywhere near could easily be the model year. Not really knowing which is which (and mom doesn't remember exactly either), I picked 1974 as good enough.

The picture below is strictly representative.

I remember ours having a white interior with white vinyl seats. This was the first hatchback that we owned, and the first coup. The idea of popping the seats forward to get in an out was a novelty. Mom's was an automatic. Although the thing looks light, it drove surprisingly heavy by today's standards. Despite its appearance as riding high, the thing wasn't very tippy as its frame was quite heavy.

The interior screamed Japanese design. You see much the same exact design in  Japanese cars: center hand brake, bucket seats, padded doors, shifter on the center console, and stiff steering. It was a no-nonsense car in every sense of the word.

In high school, my sister preferred taking this car over dad's larger car, and if she only had dad's car available, would ride with friends, so I didn't drive this car that much once I got my license.

Ford Wagon

Sep. 30th, 2014 10:55 am
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Edit: My brother informs me that we had a Chevy, not a Ford. I got the wrong car! They were so similar in the picture. Take this as a lesson in what your memory does to you.

My family had a wagon as I was growing up, but I am not exactly sure which type. To get close enough, I picked a 1969 Ford Country Squire wagon because of its popularity at its the best match to my memory. Like the car that you see below, our wagon had fake wood trim, a roof rack, louvre windows, and a front end that went on for half a mile. I'm told that wagons of this era were like the SUV's of today: they had big-ass engines in them to haul campers and trailers, meaning that they also had big grills and radiators to dump all the heat.

Like most cars of the day, it had bench seats where we never used the seatbelts in both front and back. One of the kids always sat up front, between the parents, in order to fit everyone, and these cars were wide enough to accomodate that. In fact, three friendly adults could sit up front with little issue. The far back had some additional seating, but the far back also folded flat into an expansive area that a kid could easily lay in. I remember playing back there on a long trip to Chicago. Again, no seatbelts.

Louvre windows aren't around much these days, but back in the 70's when air conditioning was a luxury, you needed some way to push air into the cabin, and that's what the louvre windows did. The window twisted open, turning the window into an air chatcher, pushing in air as you drove.

Our roof rack was essential. Stuff got put there on a trip as we didn't have room for both kids and luggage. I think that we even used a trailer once on vacation, but that's a fuzzy memory.

This is a pretty typical interior. First off, you have ashtrays everywhere in these cars, for both the front and the back. You can't see them well, but they are there. Those straps for pulling the door closed were also typical. With no center console, you see the drive shaft going through the cabin. Contrary to what I said before, we did wear seatbelts sometimes, these days called lap belts. They connected in with a great metal CLICK and unbuckled with an equally great but different metal CLICK.

The driver had a pretty plain wheel, a left foot parking brake, and an automatic transmission connected to that big lever on the steering wheel. You pulled the lever, changed driving selections, then pulled it again to change back. To park, pull in and up, and you were in park. Each selection had a great little thump as haptic feedback. The radio had big selection buttons with equally great haptic feedback. Even the cigarette lighter had great feedback. We had great fun as kids pushing that thing in only to see it pop back out.

Here's an image from the 1982 Countyr Squire which shows the seats that folded exceedingly flat. They pretty much worked that way back in 1970.

That was the only wagon that I remember from our family. When we replaced it, most likely because at 5-6 years old it was getting too expensive to fix, we went back to sedans and mom bought a second car.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
When it came to things that went GO, the 70's were a wonderful, if not quirky time for toys that went go.

First up are SSPs, a car that worked because it had one big wheel that you made go fast, and lots of little weels to run on. You make the big wheel go by putting a tabbed strip into a slot. You then pulled fast, the tabs on the strip grabbing onto the gears around the wheel. You then made your cars go, usually across the driveway and out into the street. Look at the video below to see how it's done. Naturally, the commercial makers made sure that the cars flew along much faster than the toys actually operated at. To be honest, I don't remember which cars we had or our friends had. What I do remember is that we had the Demolition Derby version of the cars which popped off doors and hoods when they wrecked.

Don't let the bad fidelity of the YouTube recordings fool you: these commercials were VERY colorful and well filmed, and the car sets themselves were very colorful.

Of course, we as boys wanted them all but never got them all. NOBODY ever had the whole set of anything, no matter what the commercials told you to do.

And then we come to Evel Knievel. This was the second sort of toy that made cars go fast. Many varients of this type of toy were produced, including one that was just a wheel that you spun up and let go. However, the most noteworthy was Evel Knievel, THE stuntman of the 1970s, and pretty much the 1980s as well since there was nobody else like him. There was also a wheel form of this set, but searching for "wheel" and "toy' is pretty much a useless endeavor.

What led to the demise of these toys? Besides time and fashion, of course. My suspicion is that the late 70's led to an explosion of carpeting, which is nowhere near as good for racing as linoleum or bare wood. Or mabye I just grew up some and stopped noticing all the cool boy toys. I should look at a few period toy catalogs to get a better idea of when intertial racing toys fell out of favor.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
When I was in the sixth grade, I saw a commercial for the Micronaut Battlecruiser and said, "I want that!" I think that I said that once and never said it again.

The year before, 5th grade, 1976, my parents had bought me some Micronauts for Christmas. I don't remember asking for them, but that doesn't mean that they weren't popular enough to buy, or that I hadn't asked for them some other time that I didn't remember. That's how childhood works sometimes. So that year, I got a Biotron, Photon Sled (with Time Traveler), Crate Cruncher, Ultrasnonic Scooter, and Hydrocopter. Annoyingly, I got no extra figures to go with it, which always irked me. (So let me rail here against the great unfairness. Rail, I say, Rail!) And even worse, I wound up with two Time Traveler features. I made it work okay anyway, especially as I had an R2D2 and a CP3O to add in.

Strangely, I don't remember any of my friends having Micronauts. There is yet another thing in my life leaving me with nothing in common with my friends.

(Incdentally, look at this bad boy. Talks about hung! I'm surprised this ever made it into the advertising.)

Fifth to sixth grade was a time of transition for me. The biggest changes was the my reliable playmate, Gary, had moved away. My parents were more at a loss about what to do with me as I had so few friends. And mostly, my parents knew that this was the last year that I would be interested in toys. They wanted to make this Christmas something nice. So, when Christmas came around, I found this under the tree.

Behold the Micronaut Battlecruiser that blew my mind. I had zero expectations of getting it, yet here it was. To get this thing, by itself, was exciting. You could pull it apart and rebuilt it in any number of ways. The battles that this thing fought in! I remember arranging my toys for battle in the bedroom, white against my overly red 70's carpeting, all in a room dominated by darkly stained wood and overly blue walls. (The 70's were not a tume of subtlety, but still less subtle than the 60's.) I made that end of my room a mess, which of course I had to clean up because I shared a room with my brother.

Here's the Battle Cruiser box in German.

That was my last big toy. There would never be a thing like this again. The year after that, 7th grade, I began my descent into Dungeons and Dragons and a near-constant state of reading fantasy books.

In the years since, I have bought myself toys. I purchased all the Micronaut comic books and read them, finally learning what the story was. I purchased other toys that looked big and fun, but having is not a thing for me. Having is an empty experience.

A few years back my parents moved out of their house and the Battlecruiser box turned up. It still contained my toys. At first, my reaciton was nostalgic, wondering at the playset and feeling some old feelings. That was rapidly replaced by, "what the hell am I going to do with this?" The box wound up languishing on my basement shelves. I think that I eventually gave the box to charity. Better, in my mind, that the toys went to someone who would play with them. Sometimes I want to turn around and undo that decisions, but I know that moving it along was best. This story is done. The last great toy of my childhood was last and great because it was last.

If I had any wish, it's that I had friends to lord this toy over, to show that I had the Battle Cruiser and that they did not.


Sep. 19th, 2014 11:40 am
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Having nothing to do with college, here's one of the sexiest flying boats ever designed, the PBY Catalina. If I have to join WWII, I want to pilot one of these curvy girls. Every time that I see one of these in a war movie, I get a serious case of the wants.


Sep. 17th, 2014 01:38 pm
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Back to 1984, the thing that became my best friend of all during college was the humble sidewalk. Made of concrete, which is a highly specialized form of hardened dirt and rocks, concrete kept my feet out of the mud and myself away from cars in the street. Concrete walkways took me everywhere, in every weather, except when they didn't, and then the technologically inferior dirt paths took over.

Like all technology, concrete sidewalks didn't always exist. Flip back to colonial days, and you see dirt streets, or maybe cobblestone, gravel, or seashell. What went on the streets was all a function of what materials were available. Somewhere between there and here, someone got the bright idea of a sidewalk, especially once there were cars running people down, and cities thought them a good idea so put them in. They proved rather successful as the boot scraper, which scraped the mud off your boots, became a thing of yesteryear.

Today, concrete sidewalks perform as excellently as ever. Many have their top layer of cement worn off, leaving a slab of bumpy stones to give your feet traction. Literally billions of trips per day walk across this technology. So the next time you want to see a modern marvle, ignore you iPhone. Look down below your feet. It's the sidewalk that takes you everywhere.

The LP

Sep. 15th, 2014 10:02 am
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
One cannot talk about music in 1984 without talking about the LP, the long playing record, that disk of vinyl with little grooves. Although there had been 8-tracks and reel-to-reel tapes as competition, although cassettes had becomes popular for their portability, although the new format called the CD had reared its head, the king of the hill remained the LP.

12 inches in radius, the LP turned at 33 + 1/3 rotations per minute, giving you twenty to thirty minutes per side of music, and had been doing so since 1948. The LP's came in cardboard sleeves. Inside the sleeves, the record sat inside a paper sleeve so that it would not be harmed as you slid the record into and out of the carboard sleeve. The center of the LP had no recording on it, instead bearing a label telling you about the album. The cover told you about the album as well. The front contained the cover art and titles, while the back contained a track listing, notes, and other interesting tidbits. Sometimes the slipcase contained information and pictures as well.

LPs were usually black, although they didn't need to be. Novelty records were often released in different colors. Later in the era, picture disks were sold. I had a few in my collection. They were essentially clear vinyl over a picture layer. The disks themselves didn't even need to be round. Some novelty records had odd shapes, and some cereal boxes came with 45 rmp single-sized records printed onto them. The quality was lousy, but those square atrocities did play.

When records could not be sold, they were "returned", a hole was drilled through the cover, and then they were sold as remainder. You could buy music cheap that way if you didn't mind buyinig something 5-10 years old. Most of my cutouts were pretty lackluster, but some were fun.

In college, my music store of choice was Books, Strings, and Things. They had a square album stand in the middle of the floor, with another stand off to one side. I loved looking through all those records, flipping from one to the next. A few blocks away from that was a used record store, where you could get even more bargains. At home, my favorite record place was Kemp Mill Records, which were not only cheap, but had some of the best ads on the radio. Their continuous sales were always wacky. Eventually they tried to act corporate and got their lunch money taken away.

At the end of the LP era, you could buy vinyl for dirt cheap, but I did not keep my act together to snap up the remainders. My computer equipment kept sucking up my money.

I do still have a turtable, which is the fancy word for record player, but I never use it. I could, I supposed, by my daughter camps in my office playing Minecraft, which makes listening to vinyl rather difficult.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The 5 1/4 inch floppy disk was once the mainstay of compterdom. These thin things kept all our data safe and secure, or as safe and secure as you could get, in the days before hard drives, and even well into the days of hard drive. All software came on these disks. All the games that you copied from your friends sat on these disks. You had boxes and boxes of these disks sitting about. And when the time came to die, they stubbornly refused to die, sticking around for years afterwards, put into combo drives with the 3.25" disk drives.

You bought these things in boxes of ten, with the boxes doubling as storage boxes. The nicer disks came in plastic storage boxes. If that wasn't enough, there were any number of desktop disk holders which let you organize boxes and boxes with of disks. Once ubiqutious, they are now inexplicable artifacts of our society. Meanwhile, some folks got plastic sheets and filed their software into binders. Those were the organization freakshows and a true embarassment to all cool geekdom. In the image below, I had some of those cases, such as the clear one on the left and the beige one on the right.

Disks came unlabled along with a sheet of disk labels. You wrote on the labels, preferably, then stuck them on your disk so that you would know what was on it. Usually you had disks and disks of software, one application per disk, so you didn't have much to write on them. "Turbo Pascal," for instance, took up a single disk. Often, programs were far smaller than their disks, so you assembled many onto a single floppy. Yes, software was that small at one point. You only had 256k-640k to run everything. Even high/extended memory didn't solve that problem.

Floppy drives were audibly noisy. I still reflexively count the bumps as a floppy format, counting the tracks. You have no double about whether a floppy drive is working or isn't. There's a viceral pleasure to that. You hear the tracks go buzz-buzz, while the turning disk goes wish-wish. Happiness with an iron-oxide coating.

Eventually the 5.25's were displaced by the 3.25" hard floppy drives. They held more and were smaller. They stored better in vinyl sheets. I first saw them on Apples, but I don't know where they actually first appeared. They took a while to displace the 5.25's.

I dumped all my disks a long time ago. Although having them might seem cool, nostalgic even, I only have so much room in my house. Although I enjoy collecting, I don't care at all about having. The fun of collecting is in the search. Once something hangs around enough, I get annoyed at it and shove it out the door. I leave it to the collectors to collect.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Where would I have been in 1984 without the cassette tape? The humble and once ubiquitous cassette tape was the means by which we determined cool listeners from wanna-be's and fools.

Althought I used a variety of tapes, my tape of choice was the Maxell XLII-90. At a generous 45 minutes per side, it could easily hold two full LPs, one on each side of the tape. These were very good tapes. I did not opt for the even more-premium versions as I could not take advantage of the metal recording technology. By the time that I used cassette in a car, the road noise destroyed an fidellity gains.

Tapes worked by putting them into the tape player. (Obvious, I know.) When they hit the end of a side, the tape player felt the increase in tension, then either stopped or changed direction. Cheap hardware was unidirectional. You had to manually flip the tape to listen to the second side. Better hardware could play the tape in either direction. Quite literally, one side of the tape contained one track, and the other side of the tape contained the other track. In a deck, you slid them in tape down. In a car player, you slid them in sideways.

The tapes themselves came in plastic cases, and those cases, when new, were wrapped in plastic, kinda like a new pack of cigarettes or playing cards. I usually bought them singly or by threes. The tutke stickers were included as separate slip-ins, so that you could write the information on the stick, where writing was easy, then apply it to your tape. The stock paper of the case flipped around into sides and lines, allowing you to document what was on the tape. With some longer albums, you had to write tiny to fit all the tracks on. I was very good at writing tiny and neatly.

Recording onto tapes was also its own skill set. Since there were no automatic levels for you, and recording at the wrong level could really screw up your sound, you had to adjust the recording levels from LPs to be as strong as possible (thus maximizing the signal to noise rationi) without going into the red, producing a distorted recording. Very good tapes were resistant to these distortions, so you had more leeway, but even then you had to set reasonable levels. The other advantage of setting good levels was that your tapes were all the same apparent loudness, so you didn't have to constantly adjust the volume.

My tapes worked for me very well. I kept mine in my car for years. Only with the purchase of a CD player in 1997 (or maybe 98) did I stop using tapes.

I never bothered purchasing albums on tape. I never perceived that as a good bargain. Tapes were just too ephemeral and prone to degrade over time. Even good tapes degraded. That means that I didn't have a large stock of original tapes when I abandoned this technology, so abandoning proved very easy.

You can't mention tapes without mentioning mixed tapes, that way of getting a variety of songs in the pre-mp3 era. Creating these things was a labor of love, requiring some degree of meticulousness and care, as every step required you, a human being, to make it work correctly. You had to line up your recordings, get the levels right, and hope that nobody walked in or slammed a door, causing your needle to bounce. I used to wet each LP before I played it, just to keep the static down. In the late 1990's, I recreated all my mixed tapes as CDs, this time with the help of a computer. Since the MP3 era, my need for static mixes has fallen by the wayside. I now machine create random mixes and put them onto a USB stick.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Next up on my 1984 college kit is my TI-30 SLR solar powered calculator, by Texas Instruments. At the time, I chose this particular calculator because it was solar powered, so I thought that it would last me a long while. Time has proven me 100% correct because I still have that calculator, in working order, and it still lives in my desk. Rock on!

I have absolutely nothing special to say about this calculator, except to say that it did its job.

They aren't collector items like my Walkman was. The things go for $15-20 on ebay. Maybe mine could fetch a nice price if it were mint, but this thing isn't anywhere near mint. I don't have the manual, I certainly don't have the original box, and mine is certainly well used. However, not a single number is worn off, which beats the pants off the calculators of today.

The calculator served me well in my engineering and math classes. It's not reverse polish notation, but I never learned that. We weren't required to buy that sort of calculator. A few folks were surprised that I never learned RPN, but given the absolute non-necessity of its use in my lifetime, I can't say that I missed out on anything.
The Ti-30 SLR is the spiritual descendedn of those bulky, loud clicking, digital calculators of the 70's.

The original TI's had the classic LED "digital" display of the original digital watches. When Douglas Adams makes his digital watch jokes, this is the sort of display that they had. This model was thick enough to take a 9V battery as its primary power source. They had rubber feet so that you could put them onto your desk and they would not slide as you punched in numbers, yet also were small enough to hold in your hand comfortably. The keys were stiff and had a distinct click to them as you pushed them, or more accurate, punched them. These beasts were made to stand up to school children, and we kids were not kind to these monstrosities.

As the display was LED, despite being very low powered, it was still nowhere near the low power of LCDs. By around 1980, the LED display was onl the decline as the LCD was thinner, used less power, and was cheapter to manufacture. It's the low power LCD that enabled the creation of the solar powered TI-30 SLR.

Alas, I failed out of engineering, which only made me happy. I would have had a far better time going to trade school and learning machining. The numbers didn't really get through my brain, but process and process improvement would have. I am much more of a tradesman than a professional.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
When entering college in 1984, I was required to buy a computer. The school offered three different computers: the IBM PC, IBM PC Portable, and IBM PC Jr. Of those offered, I chose the IBM PC Portable for about $2500. This particular unit came with 340k of RAM, 1 half-height double-sided 5.25-inch drive, and a built in 7-inch amber monitor. The keyboard attached to the face, allowing you to lug the thing around. For software, it came with DOS 2.1, Volkswriter (a word processor), BASIC, and FORTRAN 75.

Over the years, I added a second floppy drive, rounded the RAM up to the maximum of 640k, added an external monitor, and in the latter days of its life, a color video card, a turbo board, and a 30mb hard drive on a card. By that point, I kept the case permanently open. I don't believe that I added a sound card.

I kept this computer until about 1992, when I finally had enough money to build a new one. Even with all its improvements, it had trouble playing all the modern/fast games.

From the picture, I had forgotten that there was a little nook for the keyboard cord, and the keyboard itself attached with a phone-like jack, which was genius. I wish more computers had adopted this little trick. Just along the back, you can see the big handle which folds out.

During freshman year, I dropped the keyboard too often, eventually knocking the mechanical keys out of place. I spent several hours tearing apart and rebuilding the keyboard because I could not afford a replacement. For the longest time, I always preferred having my functions keys at the side of my keyboard rather than along the top.

Volkswriter, my word processor, expected that you already had a printer, so if you printed without a printer, the entire computer froze up and you had to reboot. So naturally, my asshole friends decided that getting Doug to print while he was typing a paper was the height of hilarity. Fortunately, that amusement eventually faded. I reformatted all my college papers off of Volkswriter in the mid-90s by opening them in ASCII and removing all the format codes by hand.

My biggest woe in freshman year was disks going bad. At the time, I did not know about magnetics. I kept a large magnet in my desk draw which kept killing my disks and causing me no end of headaches. I eventually sorted that out. The drives were also quite audible, so I still know that it took 42 ticks for each disk to format.

I learned to type on this computer as well. I had taken touch typing in high school, but I hadn't gotten very good at it. With the computer, I forced myself to touch type and to backspace over any mistakes. That was more work at first, which is what I wanted. The end result was faster work because I did not want to retype. For part of my freshman year, I kept the computer on a dresser which sat by the bed, so I sat in the lower bunk typing away and playing games. Eventually the computer relocated back to my desk.

The computer came with my first computer bag, well capable of carrying this monstrosity. Believe me, you did not really want to carry this computer around, even in a well made bag.

My parents bought me a printer for Christmas, as I requested. Rather than get me a dot-matrix printer, they bought me a Brother HR-5 thermal printer. The thing was weird, using these waxy cartridges. It preferred printing on specialty paper which was expensive, so I printed on the smoothest paper that I could buy. Surprisingly enough, the printer also printed color if you used a color cartridge. As these were expensive, I rarely used this capacity.

After college, I rarely used this printer. One of the first things that I had bought on returning home was a 24-pin Epson dot matrix printer that had been a floor model.

dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
My first, all-mine music player was the Sony Walkman FM WM-F10, as displayed below. This was my graduation present from high school in 1984. I began by listening to it with batteries, but that proved expensive. Later in the winter, I moved to both a wall adapter and recharchable NiCads.

The unit is barely larger than a cassette. The motors that turn the tape are stunningly thin. This thing's engineering still impresses me. Even fifteen years later, this thing kicked the crap out of the generic cassettte players available. Overall, the build quallity was five-star solid.

What's not apparent about the unit is that it expands and contracts a little, depending on whether or not you had a casette in it. Here's a picture of it expanded.

In order to listen to my new but burgeoning record collection, I needed to record the records onto tape. That was done via my Jim P's full stereo. (He was "rich". He had and ENTIRE STEREO in his dorm room. I was easily impressed in those days.) As long as I could keep myself in casettes, I could keep listening to my LPs.

By the next year I had assembled pieces of an actual stereo, including an a turntable that I got for free from Jim P, and an amlifier/radio/8-track stereo gathering dust at home. They heyday for this fellow was already gone by. I still used it, I suppose, but the bulk of my listening was now via amplifier.

When I took this thing out of the attic for the last time, I discovered that it no longer worked. It would not turn on at all, so I recycled it. That was in the late-90's, before reselling on eBay. These days, there's a market for these things as these things are well remembered vintage. The ads claim that this model is rare, which I believe as I was the only person that I knew with this model.
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