Monday, September 12, 2016

The Infinite Subaru Wagons of Jackson Hole WY

(Many thanks to Jack Baruth at Road & Track Magazine for giving this piece a shout-out!)

We visited Jackson Hole WY in August 2016 and avoided the soul-crushing swelter of Tampa's summer for one week. The place is devastatingly beautiful, the mountains, the moose, the alpine lakes, yada yada, go look at a tourist pamphlet, etc.

But the Subaru wagons ... EPIC! They're more common than gnats on a summer picnic, more prevalent than long-lost relations when you've won the Lotto. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting four or five.

Initially upon arrival, I didn't really notice them,  I own one so I'm used to seeing them. But in Florida where I live they're a tiny minority. Nobody really digs their Swiss Army knife utility, their jack-of-all-trades capabilities. People in the Sunshine State tend towards bro-dozers, Ford F-150's, Silverados and Ram this or that. A Subaru doesn't prop up a tiny, damaged ego nearly as well. But in Jackson Hole where the men and/or women with mullets apparently don't need to prove anything the Subaru wagon reigns supreme.

I didn't start taking photos until our last two days there and even then didn't try that hard. Had I been diligent from the outset I can assure you there'd be 10x as many. I'll bet Marty from Mighty Car Mods would've been Johnny-on-the-spot about documenting them. Even then, I quickly decided to only photograph older generation Subaru wagons, so the more modern ones are the first few I shot. If one takes into account late model Subaru wagons, there might be more Subarus in that town than human inhabitants.

My takeaway is that there can't possibly be that many lesbians there. In fact, I suspect that's an overblown bit of marketing hyperbole. I think the denizens of Jackson Hole rock Subaru wagons because they're the perfect intersection of right tool for the job. If any other automaker can crack that code then good luck. It's going to take time, engineering prowess and some remarkable marketing. Even the unbelievably unkillable Honda CRV is a rarity there.

Now, in no particular order, I present to you ... The Subarus Of Jackson Hole!

Things have changed in Jackson Hole since the 1950's. I wonder how they got around without AWD and Thule bike racks? You'll be happy to know that the downtown district has hardly changed since the photo, below was taken.

Jackson Hole circa 1950's a.k.a. before Subaru

Since you scrolled down this far, here's the Craigslist posting that lured me into Subaru wagon ownership. 73,000 miles (not 78,000 as the ad stated), grandmother owned and garage kept are qualities I can't pass up. I negotiated the price to $3500 and drove an essentially new but classic car home. I'm not just a fan of boring cars as I also own a K20 engine swapped Honda Insight and a Triumph TR6, but we needed a four seater to schlepp people and dogs around and a Subaru wagon was the perfect tool.

This is the screen capture I posted on Faceballs. Exactly one person was perceptive enough to catch the easter eggs I hid in plain sight. Way to go Julian!

Where's the Milo Yiannopoulos link?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

In Defense of the Name Blaine

Blaine was the name of my childhood neighbor, a WWII vet with the best stories and all of them earned, not overheard. At nearly 80 he still lit his smokes with a Zippo and rolled his packs of unfiltered Camels into his t-shirt sleeve. He was dying of congestive heart failure but wouldn’t admit it, his conversations interrupted by long hacking coughs that drained his color. I’d see him walking on the side of the road in Florida’s 95 degree summer heat because his unloving wife drove their only car to Sears where she managed the shoe department. I’d stop and motion him in – he’d resist, complain that I had more important things to do. If I had more important things to do that merited letting him die in the summer heat, I don’t know what they could be.

Blaine deserved better. His children up north never called, forgot his birthday but used his place as a rest stop on the rare occasion they visited Disney. I really loved the guy, he was an appreciated substitute for my own deadbeat dad when I was in high school. Before he passed away in my sophomore year of college I’d sent him a new Zippo, monogrammed with my appreciation for my stand-in dad and a pack of Camels with a stern Sharpie’d note on them that they were NOT to be smoked. I was too broke to come home for the funeral but my mom said that Zippo was in his box of greatest treasures, next to the medals and Purple Heart and other sparse jewelry that a man acquires who’s too practical for such vane things. I've missed him ever since, not a week goes by that I don't think about him or ruminate on his battlefield stories of boredom and terror. I hope you've had a Blaine in your life too.

"Blaine? His name is Blaine? That's not a name it's a major appliance!"

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Nissan Pao - S-Cargo - Figaro Conundrum

Any devoted masochist would or should gravitate towards owning an automobile not sold in his/her own country, with all the pitfalls that go with it. To that end, Jennifer has thrown down the gauntlet and declared "I Will Have a Nissan Pao - or an S-Cargo!" and with that the search began. It was with some enormous disbelief that the first search on Craigslist returned a Pao only a 20 minute drive away. Had we called last month that would've netted a S-Cargo too. What are the odds?

As I am loathe to retype the entire sordid history of these truly and refreshingly odd vehicles, let me Google that for you. I'll wait for you to get up to speed. Meanwhile, the bare minimum is that Nissan in a fit of madness/genius back in '89 released a trio of vehicles that were an homage to styles of the distant past, like creating a parallel timeline. This was well before the New Beetle, PT Cruiser or Thunderbird, and even those cars were meant to ape their former selves. Not Nissan. At any rate, here's the Pao we're considering, as seen at Montu Motors in Oldsmar, FL:

Tailgate folds down, glass hinges up, nice!


The very definition of Spartan.

It's the black sheep at Montu.
Even its stereo is retro!

While not perfect, it's certainly much, much nicer than most any American 26 year old daily driver. There's a rust spot in the spare wheel well, the pivoting vent window frames are rusting, the accordion sliding rag top refused to open and there's a crack in the fiberglass hood. Sam tells us that he'll make sure that's fixed as well as service the a/c before the sale, so there's that.

In no order of preference, here's the other cars on their sales floor. I was smitten with the '89 Prelude 4WS 2.0xx - mostly identical to the one I owned, blissfully, over a decade ago.

The apogee of affordable Honda engineering.

Those turbine wheels look better with age.

The most functional automotive cockpit ever.

My a/c was manual. This one is much nicer.

Make no bones about it: it's FOUR Wheel Steering!
Nissan Patrol fire truck. My Japanese pal Nob noted
"The livery says it belonged to the Kamikawa
City Fire Department, part of the Fukumoto Squad."

I am a long-time fan of the Honda Beat - when I lived in Japan from 99 to 00 (that doesn't look right) they were still a common sight on the road, though their numbers were waning. It seemed that there was no closer four wheeled relative to the motorcycle available and certainly not with air conditioning and a stereo. I wonder if Kitano "Beat" Takeshi had any say in its name?

Honda's legendary Beat. A truly Lilliputian roadster.

Really, really tiny kei. No better deal out there by the pound.

"Trunk" No topside engine access?

Looks like a BDSM dream. I kinda like it!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Small Pickup : The Vanishing Unicorn

Our "New" Mazda B2300 110k Mile Truck

A Unicorn.
Got a hobby that's physically bigger than stamp collecting or watch repair? You'll probably need a pickup truck at some point. It's a fact of life. Recently we needed to schlep my Kawasaki AR80 motorcycle to have a new exhaust fabbed in Houston. Then we needed to get it down to San Marcos for some dyno time. Now we need to go to Temple and retrieve my Honda CA77 Dream from a four year delay in its restoration at the hands of a well meaning procrastinator. I've found borrowing a friend's truck to be a royal pain and most people drive trucks that are thorough overkill for small projects anyway. What to do? Easy. Buy the vanishing unicorn of trucks: the small, four cylinder, 5 speed 'compact' truck.

Go to any dealer today - Japanese or American and try to buy a small, efficient pickup truck. Now, while you're off on a fool's errand I'll break it down for the rest of you: they don't exist any more. As far as I can tell people would happily buy them but nobody makes them anymore. I think this might be a bit of collusion between oil cartels and America's auto manufacturers, but more than anything it's this one dirty secret: it doesn't cost appreciably more to manufacture a larger truck than a small one, the cost differential is vanishingly small even if the perception of value isn't. So for a captive, domestic market bigger is better. Unless you're the consumer and you value efficiency.

As I typically don't use a sledgehammer to hang a picture on the wall, we similarly don't need a 15mpg Ford F-150 Super Crew behemoth to cart tiny motorcycles around. Our needs were crystal clear: small, four cylinder, five speed manual transmission and late model either foreign or domestic. I implored two close friends who own 90's Toyota Tacomas  to sell theirs to us as both kept dropping hints they were looking to unload. Naturally they resolved to keep them upon detecting our fanatical interest.  I remembered my friends Les and Hilde who drove a Ford Ranger truck for more than a few years on the mean streets of New Orleans and never ever had an issue with it. Their experience opened my eyes to the non-crappiness of Fords, at least since the late 90's. A bit of Googling revealed that they cost a bit less than their Toyota counterparts, had two decades of development on their chassis and if it meant anything, we could get one with the word MAZDA emblazoned across the tailgate even if it was really a Ford in a tailored shirt.

So I hit Craigslist and made calls. Lots of choices. But as a longtime user of CL I know that the good deals are snapped up within hours of posting and that trucks with a few days or weeks hangtime were probably not worth my effort. There's a rule of thumb: buy the best you can afford, usually that's cheaper in the long run and we didn't want a project. Other buyer's shorthand exists too. If they say "just add freon" that means a $1000 repair minimum. No receipts for upkeep? The oil's never been changed and it'll crater in your first week together. Dirty ass interior in the photos? Same thing.  I specifically wanted to find one that was a one owner truck. The first owner is the one most likely to care about the welfare of his car.  Amazingly on my first evening of calling, I found it: one owner, receipts, and garage kept with recent BF Goodrich tires and a tuneup. The next day (9/1/14) we were face to face with Raj, an Indian semiconductor engineer looking to unload his 2003 Mazda B2300 with 110,000 miles. He'd used it for commuting to work and it looked like it had lead a pampered existence despite the burst stitching on the grey vinyl seats, a typical problem.

The test drive revealed a problem that Raj hadn't noticed: at any throttle setting above easy-does-it the engine would stumble and miss.  I reasoned that if he hadn't noticed this problem that he similarly probably had never driven it spiritedly, or perhaps even any faster than 55mph.

I had Luu Auto Repair do a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) which I can’t stress enough the importance of. One should always invest in this. It revealed that the truck has excellent compression on all four cylinders but needed new brake pads, rotors, drums and shoes. It needed all fluids changed, a new coolant expansion tank and a right front sway bar link.

Initial crank on each cylinder as well as continuous cranking scores:
#1 95psi, 190-200
#2 90psi, 190-200
#3 95psi, 190-200
#4 93psi, 190-200

Raj then inexplicably followed Luu’s recommendations & spent $375 replacing the inner and outer valve cover gaskets as the spark plugs wells had oil in them (its a dohc) as well as the intake gaskets. He also replaced the ignition coil as the car had a check engine light, returning codes P00301 and P0316 for missing cylinder #1. On top of this he also changed the oil! As we were going to offer him $3200 for the truck before these repairs, this was like getting a $200 better deal than we’d hoped to get. Woot!


Despite having lead a pampered life, miles still = wear and tear. We took our B2300 to Austin’s Alignments and Brakes where my pal Matt runs a tight ship and threw some Benjamins at it. Here’s the breakdown: (9/5/2014)

   * Front Ceramic Pads x2    $45.49
   * Front Wheel Seals x2    $$17.94
   * Front Hub & Rotor Assy x2     $135.92
   * Rear Brake Drum x2     104.90
   * Rear Brake Shoes      $33.88
   * Shop Supplies (aka tip)     $5
   * TOTAL $686.03 (parts $343 - labor $315)

The labor included tire rotation, brake fluid flush and bending the slightly cockeyed front bumper straight. Hopefully this is the last we’ll hear from these brakes for another 100k miles.

Then, feeling that we hadn't blown enough money on the B2300, we went back and had a front end alignment and fixed the worn out sway bar end links which also silenced the sleigh bell jingles from the front suspension. (9/18/2014)

Sway Bar Link Kit x2 $40.64
Shop Supplies (cigarettes & booze) $5
Alignment Labor .70 hour $63
Sway Bar Labor 1 hour $90
TOTAL $201.99


Next stop, bumping’ music and dark tint at CustomSounds on Burnet Rd. We literally took it straight from Austin’s Alignments to CustomSounds, heeding the axiom “no time like the present”. Mike Guerrero greeted us and remembered me as being that pleasant guy who asks probing questions then buys from Amazon. Well, not this time. Jennifer has a tendency to do things right now, so dorking around with delayed gratification was not in the cards. Our needs were complex: the fidelity had to be top notch, the stereo couldn’t intrude on the limited space in our single cab pickup and the head unit had to quickly read a 1tb hard drive, have bluetooth as well as a parametric or multi band equalizer. Here’s what we picked:

Kenwood CD KDCX998 - $230
JL Audio Amp KD5003 - $280
JL Audio Basslink control - $35
JL Audio Box Sub CP108LG - $230
Hushmat Ultra Door Kit - $100
Rockford Fosgate 5x7 Speakers R168X2 (2 pairs) - $140
Ford Multi w/ Pocket - $20
Ford Harness ’98 Up - $20
Step Up RCA 12 Ft - $30
25ft 16 Ga Spkr Wire Pack - $18
8AWG Power Kit 600 Watts - $50

Plus these additional charges from our two visits that I find maddening, inscrutable and wildly inflated:
Shop Parts     $44.25 + $8.25 (% labor heat shrink screws paint wtf)
Shop Charge $19.17 + $3.57 (% labor covering same stuff wtf)
Audio Labor  $350 + $55 + $25


Years ago I pieced together a complete headunit, amplifier and custom built sub enclosure sub installation for both my Scirroco as well as my '85 Civic, and did a decent job too. So I looked around online at what we would've spent if I'd been just a bit more motivated and had searched out the lowest prices and done the installation myself. It's REMARKABLY cheaper.

Me, buying online would have cost: $682 vs $1829 from CustomSounds. I'm not knocking going the dealer install route: it's a package deal and there's a warranty. No knuckles get scraped and there's no surprises, other than spending triple what a talented DIY'er would.

Sub $220 Crutchfield
Speakers $70 eBay (both pairs total)
Headunit $220 Rakuten
Hushmat $60 Amazon
Bass Knob $30 Amazon
Fascia single din $15 Amazon
Amp Wiring Kit $12 Amazon
Spkr Wire 14ga $11 Amazon
RCA cables 2x $24 Amazon
Incidentals, Solder, Connectors $20
TOTAL $682


The mechanic at Bill's Complete Auto Service is an older epically bearded gent who works at a glacial pace and often stops to stare off into infinity, I guess contemplating how he wound up in a trade he was so unsuited for. He left a rubber grommet off the firewall and we drove around with a loud whooshing noise in the cab until we could get the truck back to him.
Radiator and Clutch Master Cylinder Repair 12/20/2014:
Clutch Master Cylinder $104.86
Radiator $261.99
Antifreeze $16
Labor $225
TOTAL $639.43

A few weeks later I bought and installed these parts myself as I'd rather not pay someone to do a worse job than my own bumbling attempts:
Coolant Expansion Tank - $49.23
Heater Vacuum Valve $20 (Murray Climate Control - Vacuum Bypass Closes Heater Valve
Part # 74809 make sure you get the right one, either 2 or 4 port)
Ford coolant expansion tanks were made to fail. What shitty plastic. The only upside is that the expansion tank and the valve are replaced using basic hand tools and an afternoon of spare time.


Used, green bed topper. Smells of mold, doesn't match the truck's color and its clear coat is mostly gone. Pros: keeps the rain off our stuff and is lockable.


Custom Sounds of Austin also did the tint. How Raj drove this truck for a decade under Austin's baking sun without tint completely mystifies me.
Pinnacle Ceramic Tint 30% sides and 15% rear + eyebrow - $168
Pinnacle Labor - $110
Pinnacle Tint Labor Parts (huh wtf) - $3.19 


The pilot bearing suddenly decided to commit seppuku (or is it hari-kiri?) resulting in a truck that often refused to go into any gear unless the engine was first switched off. Similar to my contentions that the stereo install's cost was greatly inflated by usurious labor, so too is the installation of a new clutch - but not nearly as much of a drubbing percentagewise as the stereo. Where the stereo component's cost were roughly a third of the final overall cost, in the case of the clutch it's closer to 50% so not as much of a bitch-slap to the bank account.

The cost to do the clutch includes replacing the slave cylinder on a just-in-case basis. This is proactively done as the engineers at Ford (obviously high from sniffing glue) thought it made sense to mount the slave cylinder at the center of the output shaft, necessitating a transmission removal when it fails. For such a well designed and thrifty truck this is a big, stupid booger of a mistake. But it is what it is. While it was all apart we went ahead and tossed a new clutch in too. If you're smart enough to change your hydraulic fluid every five years it likely will never have any issues. Unless ... while changing the fluid you screw up and introduce air into the system. Then the only way to bleed all the air out is to do a voodoo dance while removing the transmission so that you can turn the slave cylinder upside down while introducing fresh fluid to it. So don't do that.

Clutch Slave Cylinder $67.50
Clutch Kit $214
Gallon Oil $32
Labor 5.10 hrs $382.50
Labor Resurface Flywheel $65
TOTAL $792


New shoes for the truck were needed as the BF Goodrich Comp T/A's were older than we realized, tired and quite the hand full in the rain. New kicks ran a bit pricey with most good tires being roughly $100 per. Being of a frugal bent we checked Craigslist & found 4 General Grabber AT-2 225/70-15 tires with an asking price of $250. Adam posted the ad and stated that they were only a couple years old and had approximately 1000 miles on them. He'd removed them after noticing a slight loss of fuel economy on his 70 mile commute but wanted to keep them for an impending move to a snowy climate where they'd work well. Eventually he replaced the Ranger they were on with a Wrangler, so it was time to let them go. A slight haggling took place and we acquired them for a piddling $220.

Discount Tires mounted and lifetime balanced them for $76. Total cost = $296. Contrast this with if we'd bought them through Discount Tires with all their ancillary fees, disposal charges and taxes of $542. Thanks to Craigslist we have $240 additional dollars to spend on pizza and beer.  Re. the Grabber AT2's the drive home was quieter than before as the prior tires would really sing. These are a bit more muted despite their very blocky tread design. Also slightly evident is the additional strain their 7 additional pounds per wheel puts on the engine. As the truck is not going to be used for long distance commutes, their lack of LRR "low rolling resistance' credentials is not as important. Overall they're good and we look forward to how they perform in the rain and eventually in the snow.


What initially looked like a great deal turned out to be a mirage - but it was just bad luck rather than ignorance on our part. The clutch throwout bearing could've happened any time, same too for the coolant system that waited until it was in our hands to puke. When buying any used car one should set aside a stack of Benjamins for all the consumables and assume they all need doing. I'm tacking this bit on in July 2017: we've had to remove the transmission again to replace another coolant line. Seriously. There's a plastic coolant line that snakes behind and around the engine that can't be replaced without removing the transmission, so that was another $500 labor bill. The alternator died while towing our TR6 across the country. Then a friend of ours destroyed our air conditioner compressor using a ham fisted technique to lever off the old a/c clutch, so there's that too.

Would we buy another Ford Ranger / Mazda B2300? Probably not. On a positive note, we're pretty confident that we've covered our bases for the foreseeable future for sh*t that might break. If you buy one of these trucks, find a pampered one and bargain hard on the price.

Or make your friend follow through on the promises to sell his Toyota truck to you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chad Gets Some Bad News About Herman "Guppy" Brown

Anyone whose been to the Caribbean knows the enchanting sound of the steel drums, a.k.a. 'pan' or steelpan - the perfect upbeat music for sun drenched beachside afternoons spent with friends. It's impossible to be sad and be around pan music - unless you've just discovered that your hero, the manufacturer of the most revered steelpans in the Caribbean has just passed away.

Jen & I visited London early December 2015 and spent our time doing some very untouristy things like trying to find Lawrence Hayward in Shoreditch, seeing Wire at Tufnell's Dome and shopping on Regent Street. Early on an uncharacteristically warm evening at the Oxford Circus tube station entrance we heard some accomplished pan playing - Christmas songs all. We stood close to the lone musician (later introduced as Chad), a dark-skinned man of African heritage as he played intently while a mass of holiday shoppers streamed by mostly oblivious to the talent they were briefly exposed to. Maybe I'm more hard-wired than most for appreciating the music; I spent the first five years of my life more often than not a nude brown baby on the beaches of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas where such a sound was not uncommon. But here in London? A treat I could not ignore.

I made two recordings of him with my Zoom H2n recorder. The first I elected to stand back a bit and get the sounds of London - people walking by speaking Russian, French and more, their heels clicking on the paving stones (the recorder was on the ground where it would pick up less wind noise). The second recording was started after we'd already talked to him for a few minutes about his time in London. For that I held the recorder. A very interesting aberration in the first recording is the high pitched noise, like electronic crickets that my recorder captured. My best guess is that there's a ton of buried power and telecommunications cables beneath the street that introduces EMI to things like a digital audio recorder. I can't think of any other cause for the noise. It's much less noisy in the interview when I held the recorder. Oh well. It's better than NOT recording it, eh?

Recording 1 - street playing 
Recording 2 - interview and Pan in A-Minor by Lord Kitchner

The second recording is Chad talking about why he was in London and encouraging me to not waste my time in cold New Orleans for Mardi Gras when I could be in Trinidad listening to pan music. While we were talking he received a phone call and became crestfallen. Turns out that his favorite manufacturer of the pan, artisan Herman "Guppy" Brown had passed away the same day. Chad pointed out that his pan made by Desmond "Mappo" Richardson, while being excellent in craftsmanship still wasn't the equal of one by Guppy Brown. 

Take a minute to listen to this man excitedly talk about the music that makes his life go 'round and revel that we live in the kind of world where magic like this can be found at Tube stops and beaches in the Caribbean.

Anyone interested in purchasing the world's second best hand-crafted steelpans would be advised to contact Desmond "Mappo" Richardson in Trinidad at phone: + (868) 675 0918. Life's short. Wait too long and you might have to resort to the third best.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Honda Dream CA77 Electronic Ignition and Coil

My 1967 CA77 Honda Dream. There are many like it but ...
I own a 1967 Honda Dream CA77. Being prone to rash decisions and quirky life choices it's a match made in heaven. I bought it in 2007. Now it's 2014 and I've ridden it ... once. It ran awful. That was after an ill-fated engine rebuild that it didn't even need, but I'm getting ahead of myself. At some point I'll go back and fill in the details on how I got here with so little accomplished (an innate talent). But for now, onward and upward.

I recently shelled out three Benjamins on a Probe Engineering FS-02E Electronic Ignition for the beast as after the rebuild I never could get it to run without fouling the plugs and/or flooding. I also got a Dyna DC8-1 Dual Output Coil  from Z1 Enterprises for $70. My rationale for throwing this vertigo-inducing amount of money at my shitty running bike is predicated upon my incompetence with adjusting stuff and a general disdain for having to do any task more than once. A points ignition system is a guarantee that you'll be doing the same task again and again, searching for your timing light, ordering new points off eBay, messing around with it constantly because you're not sure you got it right, wondering why the timing drifted and so on. I'd much rather be riding.
There are many who will swear by the point and mechanical advance. Good for them. I am sure we will see them on the side of the rally route with the points cover off smiling from ear to ear.
Probe Engineering FS-02E Electronic Ignition for CA77
I know guys who prefer points and condenser manual ignition systems. They have split fingernails and fingers like sausages. They disdain any technology after the AM transistor radio. They're also known as masochists. I'm not alone in this observation as I recently read this in a Norton motorcycle forum:
"There are many who will swear by the point and mechanical advance. Good for them. I am sure we will see them on the side of the rally route with the points cover off smiling from ear to ear."

The old coil and regulator looks like something puked out of a 1950's vacuum tube radio. Modern regulators are infinitely better at being efficient, small and protecting the bike's circuitry from alternator voltage spikes. I don't have my new regulator as it's a pending hand-me-down from my massively patient pal Scott, but I'll post its install when I get it. For now you can compare the old coil to the new Dyna. This 5 ohm coil is half the original's size and will make a very hot spark + I can go to my local NAPA Auto parts shop and buy spark plug wires by the foot as they aren't molded into the unit like the factory did in the 60's.

Out with the old...
The Probe Engineering box arrived containing the black control module with its internal components thoughtfully sealed in epoxy, the pickup plate, trigger rotor, rotor clamp, velcro for mounting it and bonus NGK spark plug boots that have resistors built into them so I don't have to find resistor spark plugs, I can use any that fit. Also included: an 11 page manual. As a veteran of I.T. work, my first question to the end user was typically "have you tried rebooting" followed by "have you read the manual?". RTFM indeed.

My decision to buy this ignition system was weighed against the alternative kits: Charlie's Place carries their own very different take on the concept though they were out of stock when I decided to buy mine. Then there's Elektronik-Sachse but at €320 the American dollar exchange rate would have been seriously out of kilter for buying this from Deutschland (why is the American dollar such a worthless proposition abroad when, for the first time in my life I have a few to spend? That's a rhetorical question btw).

Obviously there's a big difference in the design ethos of the Charlie's Place ignition system and the Probe Engineering unit. The Probe control module is remotely mounted, thus not on the cylinder head as Charlie's all-in-one design is, and therefore operates at a lower temperature. Mark Whitebook at Probe feels emphatic that a power transistor's operational temperature range is exceeded when mounted to a bike's cylinder. Other Honda's, CB's in particular had the points pickup mounted on the crankcase/crankshaft so the temperatures there are cool in comparison to the cylinder head but the Honda Dream's points are on the hottest part of the engine so mounting the control module module there is likely problematic. In the interest of full disclosure, I'd have bought the Charlie's Place system had it been in stock as it's $70 less expensive, but that's me, always looking to pinch a penny. Soon the difference between the two systems will be a moot point as I heard that Mark at Probe is discontinuing production of the FS-02e at the end of 2014 - or perhaps of ignition systems in general. If I hear otherwise I'll let everyone know.

Headed to the Harvest Classic...
Meanwhile, I must take some time to get my Dream out of storage and prepare it for the rapidly approaching Harvest Classic in historic Luckenbach Texas October 17th and 18th. Their website is down as I write this, so trust me it's a great event for any lover of vintage motorcycles to attend. It's a breath of fresh air for this part of the country as the focus is on European and Japanese bikes - Harley Davidsons are generally not evident unless they've been modified to a cafe racer spec (rare). Harley owners thankfully have their own festival called Republic of Texas Rider Rally (NAMBLA) with featured musical "talent" Ted Nugent. I strongly urge them to go enjoy their music and bikes there while we enjoy our microbrews, rockabilly and Betty Page lookalikes in scenic Luckenbach. Then again, I am a bit biased. I know one Harley owner who predates the modern era of accountants with mid-life crises riding $20k bikes covered in Harley logos - but he's the exception to the rule. There's always one.

When I first saw Quadrophenia, the classic Who movie about Rockers vs. Mods in mid 60's England, I totally identified with the Mods. I still do. Mods ride scooters and Vespas. Mods are intrinsically much cooler than their rocker counterparts with their big motorcycles. They bathe, they like ska and rocksteady. They've got cool fashion. The Harvest Classic is the modern manifestation of this epic rivalry. Go Mods!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Okay Bokeh

Not wine. It's bokeh.
It was over a glass of wine at San Francisco's Sons and Daughters restaurant that I realized the tragic lack of bokeh in my life. Here's the picture taken by my lovely girlfriend with her Sony Nex-7 that made me aware I wasn't going to impress anyone with the artistic capabilities of my Nikon Coolpix P510. It also made me aware of a new-to-me photography term: bokeh. What to do? I could go blow six Benjamins on a camera like hers, but I'm often tight with my lucre and like to explore creative options. My solution? Go back to my roots as a photographer and buy another Canon AE-1 Program and shoot film.

In photography, bokeh (pronounced boh-kay and sometimes boh-kÉ™) is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus portions of an image produced by a lens. A lens with a large aperture can take photos with a narrower depth of field than one with a smaller aperture. Borrowing from the wiki "depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image" and there you have it. Okay, bokeh. The wine is in focus, nothing else is.

One sure method to significant bokeh is to use a non-zoom camera lens, i.e. "fixed" in its focal length. Such lenses are often better for capturing the maximum amount of light and have larger apertures. Natually, you'll pay for this capability. Bigger diameter lenses make for much more stringent tolerances because a large lens amplifies defects, so they command higher prices. That's why the tiny lens in your cellphone often gets everything in focus, though this is not a rule of thumb.

My Nikon Coolpix has an astonishing 42x zoom lens, 24-1000mm if that's how you roll. I can take clear pictures of the moon's craters or the paintings hanging on a neighbor's wall - from one block away. What I can't take a picture of is the drama of bokeh, when only the desired object is in focus and everything else fades into blurry patterns and colors. Try as I might, the Nikon is a very literal camera, with typically everything in good focus even in aperture priority mode. Looking back through my favorite shots from my undergraduate journalism student days, the common thread that emerges is this: they're of people. They're doing things. They're neither far away nor are they macro. Some exhibit bokeh. All the times I carried a telephoto I wound up with pictures I don't care about today: an airplane. A race car. Things. But when I shot with a fixed mm lens like the 50mm f1.4 on my Canon there were the indefinable elements of atmosphere, tension and ambiguity. And I shot pictures of people.
   Canon fd 50mm  f1.8 Lens Haze

As I sold my Ae-1 Program in the early 00's I now had to search out another. Craigslist immediately yielded two. My first call to Carrie in Buda inspired enough confidence that I skipped the other listing. The camera I bought for $60 seemed a good deal, visibly in mint condition but on the pricey end of the spectrum. The battery was dead, but conveniently the 5th place we went had a PX28L and I could test it. I cranked the film winder over and hit the shutter button. It was much louder than I remembered but it seemed to work. It came with a Vivitar dedicated flash, a 50mm f1.8 lens and all the original boxes and manuals from 1984. I bought it and trekked home.
Nice find.
Canon AE-1 Program, Mint!

This is where I realized three things: the loud shutter squeak was abnormal and required repair, the 50mm lens, though free of dust and fungus, was fairly hazed looking eerily like cataracts and finally the Vivitar flash, despite looking like it had never been removed from its box, would not power on. Oh well. I'm sure Carrie was unaware of these things and I was not motivated to drive to the ends of Texas seeking a refund, then discover that all AE-1's look like this anyway.

My fix for the lens was simple: buy a much better lens on eBay. I found a fd 50mm f1.4 and asked questions and sent the seller the link to the Ken Rockwell page on how to test with a flashlight. Lunkfish57 said it looked fine so I took the plunge and what I got for a mere $50 looks like the elves at the factory made it yesterday. Let's contast this with what I'd pay for a similar lens for my girlfriend's Sony Nex 7: there isn't one. The closest E-mount is a 50mm f1.8 and even then it's a $300 purchase. Chalk one up for being frugal.

So now I await the syringe I'm going to use to oil the gears in my camera, and I'll run a roll of Kodak 400 asa color print film through it and we'll see what kind of dramatic bokeh my $110 got me.