Monday, February 02, 2009

The Month That Was - January 2009

The Month That Was - January 2009: We had a string of days in the middle of the month where I glanced at the thermometer in my car and consistently saw a minus sign for the outside temp. Ugh. Actually, the whole month has been a bloody aggravation. I had tech issues (see below). I took my car into the Toyota dealer for a half-hour oil change and left 4 hours later down $800. I tried to figure out a way to get down to Florida for a break from the cold, but failed miserably. Combined with a couple of other major foul-ups I think I am out around $1200 in unexpected repairs and idiotic purchases. Let's just say this year's tax refund can't come soon enough. And worst of all, after I wrote last month about Chad Pennington being the sort of rock solid QB a team needs to win in the NFL, he proceeds to meltdown in the biggest game of his life. Thanks for getting my back, Chad.

Check out my photos of the local winter over at SmugMug. T.S. Eliot was wrong. January is the cruelest month.

Tech Annoyances
Book Look: Resume with Monsters
Flick Check: I'm Not There
Book Look: Ficciones
Know Your (Planck) Limitations
Broken Record on Detroit
Travel Rewind: Detroit Auto Show '03

Tech Annoyances

Tech Annoyances: The new year started out with the Zune bug. I guess it was actually New Year's Eve, but every Zune of a certain model -- a first-generation 30 gig model -- suddenly stopped working at midnight Greenwich Mean Time on 12/31/08. This is, of course, the model I have. What happened was, in the middle of the night when I was fast asleep, the Zune kicked on, got locked on the splash screen with the hard disk whirring along at top speed, and no combination resets or USB connections or four letter words would have any effect. Trolling the web soon revealed this to be a global epidemic triggered when SkyNet became wait, I mean triggered by a chip from a third party vendor that gacked when confronted with the 366th day in the year. Yes, three years ago, some idiot software developer hard-coded a 365-day year into the device.

It took about 5 minutes for the internet to light up with reports of this. Before the guys at Microsoft even got out of bed, somebody had pointed out that since it happened to everybody and it happened shortly after the internal clocks of the devices crossed over into leap day, the likely culprit was some idiot programmer hard-coding 365. By about 6 pm Microsoft finally confirmed what we already knew -- that some idiot programmer had hard-coded 365 -- and said to just let the player run down until the battery drains, then recharge it and let it restart after the New Year and you would be good to go.

In treading the boards looking for info I was amazed by how many people still owned and used this player but I shouldn't have been. Despite being a generation or two old, there is no reason not to. Unlike Apple, MS has been good about keeping their legacy players up to date with new software and functionality. And you would be surprised how much music you can store on 30 gig. My entire music collection only takes up about 20.

The other thing I was surprised about was how the user comments on the bulletin boards ranged from utterly useless to completely insane. Even after the official response from MS was posted, people by the hundreds felt the need to post saying their Zune wasn't working (we knew this, it was the reason the thread existed). Others felt the need to demand an immediate fix from MS (um, even if MS could get a fix written and tested in less than 24 hours, your Zune was locked up, how are they supposed to get the fix on your player when you player doesn't work - some kind of Jedi mind trick maybe?). Some howled about whether there would be the same problem four years from now. (Well, they have four years to post a fix. If they fail, you will be without your then 8-year-old Zune for twenty-four hours at the end of the year 2012 -- it'll be hell, but I suspect you'll survive.) Unreal.

Despite the short outage, I still love my Zune. I would take it over even the flashiest iPod any day (except leap day).

I had a more serious problem with Sirius (heh heh). Simply put, my original old school Sirius Sportster, that lives in an aftermarket cradle in my car, stopped working. The audio was intermittently failing more and more often until finally, it ceased altogether. This was a bigger problem than it seemed because they no longer make the original Sportster model, which is the only one that will fit in my cradle. A call to Sirius support confirmed that It's Dead Jim.

So now I had a decision. A) I could hunt around for a used one. Relatively inexpensive, but risky. B) I could buy a newer version of the Sportster, but that would require a new cradle purchase and a new installation. And another problem is that the Sportster transmits it's audio to the car radio via FM. Because of an FCC ruling, the newer Sportsters transmit a much weaker signal than the older ones. Would the weaker signal still work? Expensive and somewhat risky. C) In addition to a new Sportster and cradle I could also get a new el cheapo car stereo that has an aux input jack in the front so I no longer have to use the FM transmission. Very expensive. 4) I could get a new car stereo that has built Sirius built in so I don't need an external unit at all. Also very expensive.

I went the cheap route. Won an auction on eBay for a used original Sportster via some egregiously cutthroat last minute bidding -- $47, and it came with a boombox. A quick call to Sirius to transfer my account almost became more expensive that the unit itself. Apparently there is a $75 fee to transfer a lifetime account to a new unit. I pled my case that I was not upgrading by choice, my previous unit died. Fee waived. I must say that Sirius tech support was exemplary in my calls to them. Zero wait; intelligent and knowledgeable reps; seemed anxious to help rather than just get you off the phone.

I do recommend Sirius (although I don't think you can get a lifetime sub anymore). It is about a million times better than terrestrial radio. Often people ask, "Who needs radio? Why not just listen to your iPod in the car?" The answer is that radio can be fresh. If you are only used to terrestrial radio with its typical playlists of about thirteen songs in rotation, you may not realize that with the enormous number of formats Sirius offers, you would have to have a pretty big MP3 collect to match it. You can think of Sirius stations as a set of giant, constantly updated playlists for various music formats, all set on shuffle. As much as I listen to my Zune collection, sometimes it's just better when you don't know what is coming next. Personally, my unit has been set to the Little Steven's Underground Garage for many months straight.

So my two tech annoyances this month had happy endings. Speaking of good experiences, if were to give away annual tech awards, my award for most reliable gadget would go to my SMC wireless router. I went through a NetGear and a Linksys unit, both of which failed immediately after their warranty was up. The SMC has been barreling on through power outages and equipment updates without a hitch. Never. Not one. Since I got my SMC I have never lost my wireless connection. That's saying something given my router history. No doubt I've jinxed myself.

Book Look: Resume with Monsters by William Browning Spencer

Book Look: Resume with Monsters by William Browning Spencer: If the name Cthulhu and the mythology behind it are unknown to you, much of this book will be lost on you. However, if you even have a passing familiarity with H.P. Lovecraft's horror classics you'll get a kick out of the exceedingly clever premise behind Resume with Monsters.

Philip Kennan is a loser who has been bounding from one dead end office job to another for decades and is now on the cusp of middle age. He's divorced. His girlfriend has dumped him. Horrible childhood memories of his father's descent into paranoid madness haunt him very deeply. All of this angst, along with whatever energy he can summon, gets hopelessly poured into a rambling, gargantuan novel based on Lovecraft's creations. Philip's problem is that he really believes in Cthulhu and the other unspeakable ancient monsters. They are the things responsible for all the horrors in his life from his Father's insanity to his wayward career. Our problem is that, as he describes the day to day happenings at his office jobs in Lovecraftian terms, we're not sure he's wrong.

The plot is b-movie stuff, and the ending is worse, but the premise and the view of contemporary activities as subtle forms of a prevailing demonic influence in the world keeps things interesting until the plot needs to be resolved. The prose is straightforward with occasional plunges into horror stylings. Nicely done. A good escapist read for the most part. Think of it as Office Space meets Stephen King.

Flick Check: I'm Not There

Flick Check: I'm Not There: A Bob Dylan bio-pic worthy of Dylan. That is to say rambling, enigmatic, vague, and pretentious, yet oddly compelling with flashes of brilliance. The movie leaps around interpreting Dylan's career, music, and personal life through a series of different actors/characters. Rightfully, the most renown was Cate Blanchett playing the rebellious folkie going electric and the experiencing the excesses of fame. She did quite a good job with the role, especially considering that the slightest misstep would have turned it into parody or novelty. The other threads coincide with flex points in Dylan's career and life (and, presumably, his precedent in the form of Woody Guthrie) but have less impact and reveal nothing that anyone familiar with Dylan doesn't already know. The fact is there are no clear themes to Dylan's life or work. He's really just being a singer and songwriter and going through the changes that life brings. Everybody thinks they see some profound storyline but there isn't one. He's not there. If that's what director Todd Haynes was going for, he succeeded.

If you never liked Dylan or saw the attraction, this movie will not awaken your interest. If you have a passing interest in Dylan or greater, it's an interesting document. I give it major points for getting through almost the entire film without playing "Like a Rolling Stone," which turns any such project into cliche. There is a brief excerpt over the final credits, but it seems tacked on and I'm betting the network suits forced that on Haynes.

Book Look: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Book Look: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges: The seminal collection of short stories from one of the founding fathers of modern Latin American literature. I have previous discussed the opening story, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (second entry), which is the best of this collection and one of the finest short stories ever written. The remainder of the stories vary in quality from stunning to passable.

Borges stands out for his unmatched imagination. A list of the topics covered by some of the stories here (besides Tlon, above) will give you a good idea:

"The Babylon Lottery" -- imagines a civilization where all facets of life are left to the chance of lottery drawings. The history of the lottery is described wherein it becomes more and more prevalent and more and more secretive until it takes on the aspect of God.

"The Library of Babel" -- an unimaginably large library of hexagonal rooms filled with books of an identical length. The books contain every possible combination of 25 characters (22 letters, space, period, comma). As such, although the vast majority of them are total gibberish, they also they must contain every concept that it is possible to express and every bit of knowledge that can be known.

"The Garden of Forking Paths" -- A Chinese spy in England in the employ of the Kaiser in WWI is the descendant of a man who wrote strange book with no apparent logical structure -- characters die only to reappear later, events show little causal continuance. The spy happens to cross paths with a man who has determined that his ancestor was writing a single story but following the different ways it could have played out. Each decision made by a character opened a new thread of reality. Interestingly, this corresponds to, but predates and presages, the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics by a decade. (Don't dig into it without clearing your schedule.)

"Funes the Memorious" -- the story of a young man who remembers everything in exact detail. He passes the time by reconstructing a full day's memory, an act which takes him a full day.

You get the picture. Borges existed at the intersection of speculative fiction, metaphysical epistemology, and literature. He was well ahead of his time in that respect, but to the modern reader some of this can seem unimpressive simply because imitators have done it to death over the ensuing years. Borges prose can be very dense and, to my eye, it is oddly parsed but that may be the result of translation more than anything else. If your taste is of an imaginative turn, Ficciones is a good book to keep handy. The stories are short and it's good to dive in at any point as a kick-starter for your neurons.

Know Your (Planck) Limitations

Know Your (Planck) Limitations: Many, many years ago, when I was a college freshman, I got into a moronic metaphysical conversation with a few other people in my dorm hall. The topic was not moronic, the people discussing it were (which is redundant to point out since I already said we were college freshman). Naturally the topic of discussion was nothing less than the nature of the universe, which we were going to determine, and being a lifelong, knee-jerk contrarian I argued that the universe was discrete, that space-time was not infinitely divisible. This was met with sarcastic missives about all of us walking around like images on film, moving in chunks at a time, or living as drawings on a deck of cards being flipped through. Patently absurd, right? (Actually I think this conversation started as a discussion about Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.)

In all honesty I had no actual reason for making the argument other than it was not disprovable, and because then as now, I love to be the outlier, and because then and hopefully not as now, I was something an ass. (Did I mention I was college freshman?) But current research indicates I may have been right.

We all know about the universal speed limit, right? Nothing can go faster than the speed of light (~186,000 miles per second). Not even relatively. If you were in a car going 50 MPH and another car was going the opposite direction at 50 MPH and you hit it with a radar gun, the gun would tell you the other car's speed in 100 MPH. Makes sense. If both cars were going 186,000 miles per second, the radar gun would not measure the other car at 372,000 miles per second, but 186,000 miles per second. Makes no sense whatsoever.

The reason it doesn't make sense to us is because of evolution. The human animal has never seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched a world with conceptual limitations. However fast anything was, there was always something that could go faster. However far away something was, there was always something a bit farther. You can divide things into smaller and smaller pieces, but you can always divide it again. Our minds accommodate infinity. That our brains evolved with the understanding of a limitless existence was probably a tremendous gift. It is almost certainly the basis of the species continued struggle to see beyond current boundaries and thus make constant improvements throughout the millennia.

It took a particularly highly evolved brain (Einstein) to discover that we were wrong; that when you reach magnitudes well beyond our current purview, there is a limit. No matter what you do, or how hard you strive, you will never exceed the speed of light. Perhaps one day, our brains will evolve such that that is as intuitive as limitlessness is now.

But how weird is that? Here we have this time-space continuum that is essentially limitless except for velocity. Other than velocity, there are no limits that we know of, right? Why just the one? Well, there is not just the one after all; the speed of light is just the most famous one. The other limits grow out the work of another highly evolved brain named Max Planck, who was one of the founders of quantum theory. Quantum theory states that energy is not infinitely divisible. In other words, a particle might have energy equivalent to 1 unit, and it might have energy equivalent to 2 units, but it cannot have energy equivalent to 1.5 units. Again, this is entirely illogical to our evolutionary ingrained sense of limitlessness.

From this understanding of energy only taking discrete values (quanta) Planck came up with something called Planck Length -- the shortest possible distance there can be; Planck Time -- the shortest possible time interval (which intuitively corresponds to how long it would take something at the speed of light to cover Planck Length); and a slew of others. I'll be damned if the universe is not discrete after all. The structure of the universe, to the best of our knowledge, is a thing we can calculate and imagine but not naturally comprehend.

Actually, that only goes as far as our current knowledge level. There is a phenomenon called Quantum Entanglement that makes even less sense that a limited universe. Two particles can be linked in such a way that no matter the distance between them, one reacts simultaneously to a change in the other. Think of it this way: two spinning tops both rotating clockwise are sent off in opposite directions. Eventually one suddenly begins spinning counterclockwise. The other does also, at the exact same instant. How does the other one know the first one changed? It couldn't be from having seen it or received any signal from it because we know the speed of light is finite, there would have to be a time lag before the second one changed, however small. But there isn't. No matter how far separate the two tops, they are perfectly in sync at all times. This is so bizarre that physicists have referred to it as "spooky action". It may indeed open the door to limitlessness again at some point in the future once we better understand it. Or it may be something even weirder.

I have no reason to delve into all this other than stumbling across an article in New Scientist about the world being a giant hologram that took me back to that conversation from freshman year. I guess the lesson is that no matter how obnoxious some little twerp can be he still might have a good idea. Doesn't mean he shouldn't be smacked-down on principle, though, just for being an ass.

Broken Record on Detroit

Broken Record on Detroit: The powers du jure of the City of Detroit have been repeating endless mantras about rebirth for the last 50 years. The Lions have been talking about "restoring the roar" for the last 50 years. And I have been hammering Detroit mercilessly on this site for the last 3 or 4 years. It's all a broken record and you are probably getting sick of it. There's nothing I can do about the Lions or the City, but I should probably lay off for a couple of months in the interest of not boring you to death. But permit me one more rant...

My problem is that I want to scream when I read some of the profoundly delusional opinions on Detroit -- the same things that have been said in various ways for the last half-century to no effect whatsoever, yet people keep repeating them. The latest overarching case-in-point comes from Detroit's favorite celebrity writer and hometown hero Mitch Albom via Sports Illustrated. I'm afraid I'm going to have to rip into it:

"There's a little too much glee in the Detroit jokes these days. A little too much flip in the wrist that tosses dirt on our coffins. We hear a Tennessee player tell the media that the Thanksgiving win didn't mean much because "it was just Detroit." We hear Jay Leno rip our scandalous former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, by saying, "The bad news is, he could be forced out of office. The good news is, any time you get a chance to get out of Detroit, take it."

We hear Congress tongue-lash our auto executives for not matching the cheaper wages of foreign car companies. We hear South Carolina senator Jim DeMint tell NPR that "the barnacles of unionism" must be destroyed at GM, Ford and Chrysler. Barnacles? Barnacles are parasites without a conscience. Sounds more like politicians to us.

Enough, we want to say. The Lions stink. We know they stink. You don't have to tell us. Enough. The car business is in trouble. We know it's in trouble. We drive past the deserted parking lots of empty auto plants every day.

Enough. We don't need more lofty national newspaper laments on the decay of a Rust Belt city. Or the obligatory network news piece, "Can Detroit Be Saved?" For too long we have been the Place to Go to Chronicle the Ugly. Example: For years, we had a rash of fires the night before Halloween -- Devil's Night. And like clockwork, you could count on TV crews to fly in from out of town in hopes of catching Detroit burning. Whoomf. There we were in flames, on network TV. But when we got the problem under control, when city-sponsored neighborhood programs helped douse it, you never heard about that. The TV crews just shrugged and left."

Unbelievable. What an enormous load of tripe. And the fact is, sentiment like that has been a rallying point for Detroiters for decades. Read through the entire article. It all comes down to "It's not fair" and "People are picking on us" and "Nobody talks about the good stuff". Then we get to the punch line:

"Do you think if your main industry sails away to foreign countries, if the tax base of your city dries up, you won't have crumbling houses and men sleeping on church floors too? Do you think if we become a country that makes nothing, that builds nothing, that only services and outsources, that we will hold our place on the economic totem pole?"

So let me see if I have this straight: Everyone is mistaken, Detroit is really a fine place with lots of good stuff; and even if it's not you shouldn't talk about it; and even if you do talk about it you should realize that Detroit is just a victim of circumstance, and you could be too one day if your city is ineptly governed as Detroit has been for decades on end. Unbelievable.

Mitch Albom is a paradigmatic sentimentalist. He sells billions of books with maudlin storylines that really tug at the heartstrings. I say that in admiration, by the way: all successful writing in any venue or genre takes talent, and Mitch's talent for goosing your emotions is second to none. But -- and this is the key thing I am trying to get across -- sentiment don't feed the bulldog. Detroit has fought the world using sentiment as its primary weapon for fifty years and look at the results. People who live in Detroit, who experience the reality of it -- not just the view from afar or the words in the press -- have been fleeing like Cubans in a boat lift.

Mitch thinks he is doing good by bucking up the fine folks of Detroit but we have long passed the point where bucking up is damaging. I do not know how to fix Detroit. In fact, I suspect it cannot be fixed, that it must simply die. That is mere supposition, of course. There may be people out there with the ideas and energy to save the City. I will guarantee you that if there are, the decisions and the actions they will have to take are draconian, cold-hearted, and hard-headed. How can anyone pedaling such a painful strategy compete with the uplifting prose of hope from Mitch Albom.

For a clearer, more honest picture read Matt Labash's stunning elegy from the Weekly Standard:

"Its recently resigned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, he of the Kangol hats and five-button suits, now wears jailhouse orange as he's currently serving a four-month sentence as part of a plea agreement for perjuring himself regarding an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, which yielded soupy love-daddy text messages that would make Barry White yak in his grave. Those in Detroit who are neither recipients of sweetheart contracts nor Kilpatrick family members on the city payroll at inflated salaries think he got off easy. Because what led to the perjury was concealing an $8.4 million payout from city coffers to settle a whistleblower suit brought by cops who'd been fired for investigating, among other things, the murder of a stripper named Strawberry who, prior to her death, was allegedly beat up by Kilpatrick's wife when she caught her entertaining her husband.

In a city often known as the nation's murder capital, with over 10,000 unsolved murders dating back to 1960, the police are in shambles through cutbacks and corruption trials. (They have a profitable sideline, though, as one of the nation's largest gun dealers, having sold 14 tons of used weapons out-of-state.) Their response times are legendarily slow. Their crime lab is so inept that it has been closed. One Detroit man found police so unresponsive when trying to turn himself in for murder that he hopped a bus to Toledo and confessed there instead.

Detroit schools haven't ordered new textbooks in 19 years. Students have reported having to bring their own toilet paper. Teachers have reported bringing hammers to class for protection. Declining enrollment has forced 67 school closures since 2005 (more than a quarter of the city's schools). The graduation rate is 24.9 percent, the lowest of any large school district in the country. Not for nothing did one frustrated activist start pelting school board members with grapes during a meeting. She probably should've reached for something heavier.

An internal audit, which was 14 months late, estimates next year's city deficit to be as high as $200 million (helped along by $335,000 embezzled from the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion). With a dwindling tax base--even the city's three once-profitable casinos are seeing a downturn in revenues (the Greektown Casino is in bankruptcy)--the city has kicked around every money-making scheme from selling off ownership rights to the tunnel it shares with neighboring Windsor, Canada, to a fast food tax. It's perhaps unsurprising that Detroit now has the most speed traps in the nation.

It also has one of the highest property tax rates in Michigan, yet has over 60,000 vacant dwellings (a guesstimate--nobody keeps official count), meaning real estate values are in the toilet. Over the summer, the
Detroit News sent a headline around the world, about a Detroit house that was for sale for $1. But it's not even that uncommon. As of this writing, there are at least five $1 homes for sale in Detroit."

And that is quite literally the least of it. Read the whole thing. It's mind-blowing. And if you can stomach anymore, the very best ongoing documentation of the death of Detroit is done over at Try this entry for example, which starts off: "Throughout Detroit there are still little libraries full of books that half the residents can't even read", and goes downhill from there.

Thanks for pat on the back, Mitch, but the bulldog is still starving.

Travel Rewind: Detroit and the North American Auto Show (1/25/03)

Travel Rewind: Detroit and the North American Auto Show (1/25/03): (In honor of the North American Auto Show's dutiful continuance in the face of the Carpocalypse, here is a re-run of my attendance from back in '03. The only thing I can say about this is that the comments about Detroit are as accurate today as they were then. Although I should have been less snarky, I claim validation.)

In the days before I attended the North American Auto Show, there was a minor dust-up going on about this article wherein some English journalist trashes Detroit.

"This is the biggest annual motoring festival in the United States but is held in the bleak and frozen inner-city wasteland that is Detroit. They advise you not to go out alone after dark in the centre, not that you can walk far in Motor City, where the pavement is a mere add-on to the wide roads and the cold freezes your breath on your lips."

The good people of Detroit loosened the thick woolen scarves from around their faces to shout in outrage. They fumed behind their triple locked doors. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (who gives new meaning to the term Black Irish) dashed off an angry letter to the London Times in protest. Detroit may be a fiscal mess, but he has his priorities. How dare they?

Now, I'm generally delighted to lambaste some euro-weenie who takes the opportunity to dis' things over here. After all, what business does this clown have denigrating the weather? Does he miss the year-round sunshine and balmy North Sea breezes of England?

But sadly, I'm on his side with regards to Detroit. Many, many people, including some of my friends, bristle when someone complains about Detroit. It just the reputation, they say, in reality it's not that bad.

Well, I'm sorry, but it is that bad. Oh I know, you can have some fun -- Greektown is fine and there are casinos and new stadiums and so forth. But that all misses the point.

While much of the country has experienced significant drops in violent crime, Detroit has always been one of the most dangerous cities. It may not be the murder capital of the nation anymore, but I bet it has never slipped out of the top five.

It is dirty and run down everywhere you look. They may have built a glistening new stadium, Comerica Park, yet directly across the street is a building that has been abandoned for ten years, covered with boarded-up windows and graffiti.

The infrastructure is atrocious. The People Mover? Don't make me laugh. As transportation it is only slightly more effective than the horsey ride outside of Wal-Mart. Streets lead off in seemingly random directions and it's not like you have any signs you can follow. Basically, you should not drive in Detroit unless you already know how to drive in Detroit.

The civil servants rival those of Washington D.C. for discourteous deportment.

Example 1: Naturally, due to the Auto Show, traffic was a mess down there -- bumper to bumper. At one point someone to the left of me needed to cut across in front of me to the right lane so that he could make a right turn. I let him through, but before he could make the turn he found himself being berated by some traffic cop for cutting across lanes. Now, there was no danger here, no one was going more than half a mile-per-hour. The guy was probably from out of town, just struggling to find his way around. But if you are a Detroit traffic cop, why pass up the opportunity to get in someone's face?

Example 2: I'm in a throng of people, now about 27 minutes into a wait on the People Mover platform. We have all been shepherded back a safe distance from the tracks by a transit worker. One couple is trying to keep their little kids under control but, bored from standing around for almost a half-hour, one of them breaks free and crosses a couple of feet out beyond the safe distance. The transit worker shouts, "Now I'm not a babysitter! You are going to have to keep those kids under control!" Even as a veteran of many trips to Washington D.C., the capitol of dismissive rudeness, I was amazed at the manner of these people at a time when the city should have been on its best behavior.

When you point things like this out to Detroit defenders, they say "that's just one bad experience" or "all cities are like that" or the classic, "it's not that bad." The underlying assumption is that everyone is just reacting to an unfair reputation. Despite all the statistics and all the experiences that make people flee Detroit, the powers behind the city proclaim it's really just an erroneous perception. So the response is to use public money for enormous rebuilding projects and to run PR campaigns claiming that Detroit is on the road to Renaissance and everyone should lend a hand.

Detroit has been rebuilding for the entirety of my adult life. Businesses are regularly duped or guilted or bribed into locating downtown, only to find that no one wants to work down there. Yet you can always find someone to appear on the local news express indignation at any belittling of the city, invariably invoking the phrase, "it's not that bad."

Yes, it is that bad. You can build all the bright shiny monoliths tax money can buy and they will still be outnumbered by the boarded up edifices between them. You can put on sporting events and festivals and auto shows, but people are still treated rudely, and every visitor to Detroit has the crime rate in the back of his mind.

Pretty buildings and public relations do not make it better. Convincing a lot of people to say "it's not that bad" doesn't make it better. The only thing that will make it better is to actually make it better in reality, not just words and facades.

But I was going to talk about the Auto Show.

One thing I noticed was, in contrast to the outside world, the Auto Show was not dominated by enormous SUVs.

I dislike SUVs. They are gaudy and crass. They block your view at almost every turn. They cause you to have to back out of your parking space blind. What's worse, the only way to see beyond them is to buy an SUV yourself. They are like an automotive virus.

And yet, if I was still in the market for a new car I would consider buying one just to irritate people who feel that SUVs help terrorists. That has to be one of the silliest, most poorly reasoned opinions I have ever heard. The supposition that oil consumption "helps terrorists" is ludicrous. By that way of thinking, if we did away with all petroleum based products and lived in caves, we might impoverish the terrorists to the point where they had to live in caves. That's terribly inefficient. It is more efficient, and less troublesome, to pay for the A-10s and Special Forces to make the terrorists live in caves. And to do that we need to buy the A-10s and pay the Special Forces. And to do that we need to have a strong economy that generates enough tax money. And to have that we need to a lot of commerce, which requires the use of petroleum. I'd be willing to bet there's a strong correlation between oil-consumption and tax revenue.

So why pick on SUVs as if oil consumption for SUVs is evil, as opposed to other oil consumption? Simply, because they block your view and disrupt your parking and generally annoy you in many ways. But you can't really get on your soap box and build yourself a noble cause out of fighting something that is just annoying -- you have to fight something that is immoral. Thus, the effort to ally SUV drivers with terrorists.

That's why I would consider actually buying one; just out of righteous indignation towards the righteously indignant.

But I was going to talk about the Auto Show.

I attended the Auto Show as part of a marketing project put on by a company called Gongos Associates, who were quite obviously employed by GM. My mission was to spend time evaluating three exhibits and responding to survey questions about them. In return I would get free admission, $8 for parking, and $75 for my trouble. The Saturn, Pontiac and GM Advance Tech exhibit were assigned to me. I suppose there is relationship between me getting those exhibits and the fact that I recently bought a Toyota Camry, but I cannot fathom what it is.

The results of my evaluation: Saturn had a very cool setup. Terminals where you could build your own car (virtually, of course) and they had a rotating platform with seating -- about the only place in the entire show that had seats. But the cars remain some of the most plain vanilla vehicles ever produced. [Update: still true. - dam]

Judging from the Pontiac display, they are about to go the way of Oldsmobile. Nothing much to show, no razzle dazzle, and pretty dour looking employees. They had a couple of things that looked like video games, but I don't think they actually did anything except play a video when you sat in them. Weird. [update: Despite the short-lived G8, I still maintain there is no reason for Pontiac to exist. - dam]

The GM Advanced Tech exhibit had one interesting tech demonstration -- a Drive by Wire car. Drive by Wire basically means all inputs are computer controlled. For example, when you hit the gas, instead of a mechanical link to the carburetor or fuel injection system, a sensor measures the pressure you exert and transmits an electronic signal to tell the fuel system how hard to kick it up. Similarly, instead of a mechanical link between the front wheels and the steering wheel, desired changes in direction are transmitted electronically. The effect is that control is much more consistent and precise, and there are safeguards built in to stop you from doing something stupid, like causing a spin out. Think of it as anti-lock brakes in the extreme. Advanced military aircraft have had this for years. It's a much better use of modern technology than, say, voice recognition. Have you ever spoken to a machine? I don't know about you, but I'd feel like a complete tool sitting in traffic and talking to my car.

Other than that there was nothing special at the tech exhibit. There was a truck standing up on four hydraulic lifts being jostled around, and an engine being run under various stressful conditions. These were designed to demonstrate how committed GM is to testing and quality -- despite their reputation -- thanks mostly to Cadillac, which is always bringing up the rear in any quality surveys. [Caddy's doing better these days. -dam] Speaking of Cadillac, they had a sofa sized, 16 cylinder, 1000-HP engine on display. Terrorists praised Allah.

With my assigned duties completed I was able to spend time wandering the rest of the show. As I said, SUVs are on the way out. The new big things are station wagons, which were last seen as new big things in the '60s. These new-breed station wagons have a little SUV influence. They are a little taller and sit a little higher of the ground than normal cars, but they don't go anywhere near the extreme of SUVs with their truck pretensions.

I like these nouveau wagons. They are technically referred to as Crossovers, as in they cross-over the line between cars and SUVs. They come in all shapes and sizes, and offer a good deal of character. Despite the commonality of the station wagon, the designs vary considerably.

Getting a lot of attention was the BMW xActive, which had a number of interesting features, not including the cutesy high-tech name. Along the same lines is the Infiniti FX45. There's even the Maserati Kubang. These are meant to meld the look and vibe of quality sports cars with the practicality of the station wagons. They are quite fetching, and I would consider getting one, but I'm afraid I would have to become a player first -- you know, read GQ, buy art deco kitchen appliances, hit on women at Starbucks, and so forth.

Some crossovers are just funky cool -- the Dodge Kahuna for example, although I would never buy a Chrysler product for quality reasons (I know three people who have had Chrysler products spontaneously combust). Equally funky and fun is the Honda Element. Yeah it looks goofy, but it's my kind of goofy. Of all the cars I saw, this was the one I would have possibly purchased over my Camry, had it been available at the time. [Not a bad call - dam]

Of course there was plenty of extravagance out on display also. Daimler introduced the Maybach. At 330,000 simoleans, the target audience is those who find the top of the line Mercedes too downscale. The Maybach was placed in the middle of a large platform behind velvet ropes and under high security -- the peasants were allowed to view from afar, not touch. Problem: even from afar you could tell that the Maybach is just plain ugly.

Less expensive but equally ugly is the entire line of Cadillacs. Sorry, but that toothy grill and those chrome encircled headlights make me think of a dorky looking guy with thick glasses and braces. In their commercials, they always show these freaky things in contrast to beautiful tail-finned classic Caddies from the '50s. Talk about advertising your faults. [Not a good call - dam]

These cars are for people who are long on money and short on taste. They are the automotive equivalent of Anna Nicole.

Is the Auto Show a good time? Yeah, sort of. It could be. There are lots of shiny cars to see and sit in. There are big flashy displays. There are smiling spokesmodels. On the other hand, it's crowded all the time. You might think mid-afternoon on a weekday would be less popular, but no -- it is always filled with people.

It would be fun to casually walk through for about an hour or so, but that's it -- unless you had another purpose: you were actually in the market for a car or you were with some friends and planning on dinner and gambling afterwards at Greektown. Absent something like that, it really becomes just a big auto showroom that you must survive the squalorous insanity of Detroit to reach.

How to make it better? Have it in the summer -- outside (or at least open air), give it twice as much space and locate it somewhere you can actually get to without having to adopt an eat-or-be-eaten mindset to survive.

Until then, I'll pass on future Auto Shows, unless I get offered a lot more than $75.

Originally posted 1/25/2003