Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Carbon Motors

Although this police car looks like a Chrysler 300, it's not. It's a Carbon Motors Corp. E7, the first ever car built just for police applications. The company, which is based in Indiana, doesn't have the funding or the orders necessary yet for real production (they've got 13,000 orders so far), but they're getting closer.

Carbon points out that while many municipal vehicles -- fire engines, postal trucks, ambulances -- are purpose-built, police cars haven't been.

It's got a number of novel features that the big three don't offer -- and since Ford is ceasing production of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor soon, the company has a chance.

It's powered by a BMW 3-liter twin-turbo V6 diesel that produces about 250hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. It'll do 0-60 in 6.5 seconds and get better mileage than the Crown Victoria (about 28-30 mpg).

Its suicide doors open wide to make putting people in the back easier. There's no light-bar on the roof -- all flashing lights are integrated into the body of the car. Its size is deceptive in the photos: although it's slightly shorter than the Crown Victoria, it's just as wide and six inches higher. And as the photo below shows, the back seats are easy to clean.

According to the New York Times, while Ford is ending the Crown Victoria's long run, it's still trying to stay in the running for police contracts with a modified all-wheel-drive Ford Taurus SHO (a 365hp turbo V6 that does 0-60 in 5.7 seconds).

Dodge's Charger is already in use as a police cruiser, and Chevy is pitching a rebadged Pontiac G8, an Austrialian-built car that was only sold in the U.S. for two years. They'd be calling it a Caprice this time around, a reference to another old police cruiser favorite. The Caprice has a big 6-liter 355hp V8.


The Robotic Dog Videos

A company called Boston Dynamics released the video below about two years ago, a video of its robot, "Big Dog," that can walk over nearly any surface by learning from its slip-ups. Big Dog is about three feet long, standing near waist-height, and weighs about 240 pounds. It can see, and it can carry up to 340 pounds on its back. It will run at 4 mph and set a record, Boston Dynamics says, for going almost 13 miles without stopping or refueling.

But watching the video is like watching a giant insect: it's disturbing -- this is the robot that will hunt us all down when the machines take over. I joke, but the robot does have obvious military applications. It's so loud because it's powered by a single 15hp go-kart two-stroke engine, driving a hydraulic pump.

It looks like it's alive because the movement is much more realistic (especially when a man tries to kick Big Dog over) than robots of the past, much less mechanical. And it's that life-like quality that's most fascinating and most disturbing.

In this next video, Big Dog is programmed to follow a human leader, instead of being controlled remotely.

Little Dog, another Boston Dynamics project, is much smaller, but equally mobile. Each of its legs is powered by three motors, and its batteries will last 30 minutes.

And of course Boston Dynamics is working on a humanoid version, still in the lower body phase of development.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Quote of the Day: Mark Williams

Tea Party talk radio host and blogger Mark Williams apologized for offending Hindus, when he, trying to offend Muslims, called Allah a "monkey god." His apology, in part:
In the course of the article I described the “god” worshiped by terrorists as “a monkey god”. I was wrong and that was offensive. I owe an apology to millions of Hindus who worship Lord Hanuman, an actual Monkey God.

Moreover, Hanuman is worshiped as a symbol of perseverance, strength and devotion. He is known as a destroyer of evil and to inspire and liberate. Those are hardly the traits of whatever the Hell (literally) it is that terrorists worship and worthy of my respect and admiration not ridicule.

So, again, to my Hindu friends I offer my sincerest apologies for my horrible lapse and my insensitivity. It was unintentional, inexplicably ignorant and I am ashamed at my offense toward you.
As comical as Williams sudden contrition is, he inadvertantly brings up some theological questions. First, does he (or anyone) think that Muslim terrorists worship a different god than peaceful Muslims do? And by refering to "Allah," are Christians knowlingly distancing themselves from Muslims, who come from the same tradition (and who actually recognize Jesus Christ as important, if not divine)? And does Williams really have any Hindu friends to offend?

The blog post he apologized for? It's now password-protected. To get the password, you have to read his book, "Mark Williams Taking Back America One Tea Party at a Time." But if you read the book, you can also learn "How the author cured his own liberalism."

But seriously, Williams' blog post was about the Islamic cultural center that's proposed near Ground Zero. A Muslim group bought a building that used to house a Burlington Coat Factory -- a building that was damaged by a chunk of landing gear that smashed through its roof on September 11, 2001. By most accounts, the man who wants to open the center, Imam Feisal -- a Sufi -- genuinely works for peace and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims: the FBI says he's acted as a go-between for federal investigators and has the blessing and support of some Christian groups.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Obituary: Frank Frazetta

Frank Frazetta, an artist who created some of the most familiar fantasy imagery and book covers, has died. He was 82.

His covers for Conan pulp novels would usually feature long-haired, under-dressed and absurdly muscled men fighting horrific beasts, often with scantily clad and incredibly curvy women watching.

"I didn't read any of it," Frazetta said of the Conan novels he illustrated, quoted in an obituary here. "I drew him my way. It was really rugged. And it caught on. I didn't care about what people thought. People who bought the books never complained about it. They probably didn't read them."

According to Comics Beat, Metallica's Kirk Hammett may be the buyer who spent a reported $1 million on an original Frazetta painting (possibly the Conan the Conquerer cover painting above).

Frazetta also illustrated covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (including the Tarzan series), a Mad Max movie poster, and rock album covers for Molly Hatchet, Nazareth, Yngwie Malmsteen and others.

Comic Beat has a fine assessment of Frazetta's career here, which includes this summary:
"Frazetta the man was handsome, athletic (a career as a pro baseball player was contemplated) and testosterone fueled. Smashing with every brushstroke the stereotype of the wimpy artist (or Rockwell,, pipe clenched firmly between teeth), Frazetta was the man of action in deed and thought. Accordingly his imagery was violent, shocking, brutal, even brutish. Men stabbing giant snakes; women with their gleaming, globular butts turned to the camera as they were kidnapped by bestial man-like figures; bodies piled up in battle being chopped to stew-sized chunks by bloody swords. This wasn’t subtle stuff."
It certainly wasn't. I confess, as a childhood fan of both Burroughs' novels (Tarzan, the John Carter of Mars series, the Venus series) and Robert E. Howard's novels (the Conan series, the H.P. Lovecraft pastiches and all of the other brutish pulp stories), that Frazetta's art arouses some nostalgia. There's no doubt that he was a skilled painter, but could his art ever rise above its kitschy, pulp fantasy novel teen boy eroticism? I'm picturing walking into a wealthy rock star's palatial estate, and seeing, above a huge stone mantel, a painting of a big-assed nude woman writhing on the ground next to a juicehead wielding a sword against some creature. How could I not giggle?

Is it because Frazetta's book covers weren't subtle? Is it because they were, in effect, advertisements for the books rather than nuanced illustrations inspired by them? Is it the exaggeration of anatomy? Is it because by doing so many of them, his paintings became pardoies of themselves? Was this art for Frazetta, or merely commerce?

Maybe it isn't even fair to ask why Frazetta's art isn't great art. He was essentially a comic book and pulp novel illustrator -- one of the best -- and that's a whole separate category.

Below is a fan video showing some of Frazetta's paintings from the 60s on.

The most comprehensive -- and personal -- obituary I've read so far is this one from the L.A. Times, written by Lance Laspina, who got to know Frazetta during the filming of his 2003 documentary about the artist. A trailer for that documentary is below:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Beverage Deception

“Whether it has caffeine or not is not really important to me,” said the owner of a Manhattan donut shop, after being accused of serving decaf coffee and passing it off as caffeinated. “I like the flavor like I like the flavor of chocolate.”

This revelation came from a customer who had been drinking coffee there for a year. You want to think that they’d always suspected, but who knows?

It reminds me of a delicious (and expensive) cocktail I had at Pegu Club last weekend, a bar famous for meticulously made classic mixed drinks. It was called a “Whiskey Smash,” and I ordered it because it was their version of a mint julep (the Kentucky Derby was on, and a Southern cocktail seemed appropriate). It was very tasty, but I could barely detect the whiskey.

I had watched the bartender make it—sort of. And when I thought about it, I didn’t see him pour any booze. Was it possible that this highly skilled mixologist had skipped the most important ingredient? Or was it just so expertly proportioned that the alcohol flavor was subtle, even absent? To be honest, the reason I didn’t ask the bartender about it was because I didn’t want him to be embarrassed if he really did miss it somehow. This, I think, is a very Minnesota reaction.

The recipe, created by the famous mixologist Dale DeGroff, is online at the archived Gourmet Magazine site:
3 lemon pieces (cut a lemon in half and then quarter one of the halves, use three of the quarters)
5 mint leaves
1 ounce simple syrup
1 1/2 ounces Makers Mark Bourbon
Lemon wedge for garnish
1 mint sprig for garnish
I tried it at home, and...it tasted just like the one at Pegu Club, which is to say it was delicious, but not boozy. Who knew whiskey could be so mild?

My girlfriend told me a story once about a bartender at Bar Abilene, a Tex-Mex establishment in Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood. The bartender, a bitter and work-averse sort, was upset by special orders: if a customer asked for a margarita frozen, instead of up, as it's listed on the menu, he would punish them by serving it without any liquor in it. No one noticed, of course. He apparently confided this with some pride to a fellow bartender at another Uptown bar.

This in turn reminds me of another beverage deception. In 2005, some food and wine critics at the New York Times participated in a blind taste test of 20 premium vodkas, with mid-market Smirnoff thrown in as a ringer. And it was Smirnoff, of course, that won, beating out all the Grey Gooses (it “was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness”), the Ketel Ones (it “was felt to be routine and sharp”).

Wrote wine critic Eric Asimov, “What set Smirnoff apart, we agreed, was its aromas and flavors, which we described as classic.”

I chortled, vindicated, as I read this five years ago. Thinking about all the suckers who fell for the marketing of expensive but ultimately flavorless vodkas. (And then I thought about how excited I was to bring home a bottle of Russian Standard vodka from a trip to St. Petersburg. Okay, I’m guilty too.)

We all like to think that we'd be able to detect a placebo, to spot an ambush in a blind taste test. But the same problem exists in other categories, like art. How gleeful we become when we hear about art critics unwittingly praising the scribbles of children or animals as "genius" and "deliberate." Context is everything: marketing will fool us into thinking Coke tastes better than Pepsi, a desire to please will steer us toward one thing over another, and a high price or well-placed praise will boost the stature of the lowliest crap.


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