Friday, August 23, 2013

An open letter to my former boss, Jim Menneto.

Dear Jim,

For the eight years I worked at Hemmings, you made it painfully obvious that if I wasn't sitting at my desk with a Word document open, you didn't think I was working. You and Rich Lentinello showed me over and over and again that you felt any time spent out of the office was too long, that a full day was too much time for a feature photo shoot three hours away; and you repeatedly publicly belittled those of us who sometimes "only" worked 8-5. The ludicrous, if informal, "three stories/day" rule for travel served only to generate a great number of truly terrible stories, none of which were ever rejected.

Since quitting, I've written just as much as I did while working full time. But with the luxury of being able to do some actual research, the quality of my work has improved. And when I don't have anything pressing, I'll stop and read a book, or go for a walk, or play a game, or watch a movie, or just stay home.

Because writing isn't an assembly line. If I'm not there pressing the keys, the factory doesn't stop. There weren't investors walking through the editorial department saying, "You run a tight ship here, Menneto." Maybe someone in the head office in Charlotte once gave you grief, but if so your job was not to make us conform to someone else's vision, it was to stand up for us.

I can write a six page feature story in four hours, but to do so requires another 40 hours in my head, Everyone's process looks different, but it's generally messy, and sometimes its invisible. That doesn't mean it isn't happening, just that it's happening in a way you don't like. Yes, you've demonstrated you can attempt to make people fit into your idea of how writers should act, but you've seen the results--crushing morale, high attrition and poor quality. Treating people like factory workers has created a factory product--bland, unimaginative and devoid of promise.

To quote Craig yet again, "They took what should've been a fun, engaging, interesting career and turned it into a soul-crushing experience." Congratulations--you're Henry Ford. Now go ship your 10 millionth magazine.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013



            Smash!  Grunt!  “30-Love!” calls the umpire.  Ivor takes a couple new balls from the ball girl, Linda, he thinks her name is.  He tries to learn all their names, but with over 30 tournaments in a normal season, and half-a-dozen or more matches in a good tournament, it’s hard.  Bounce, bounce, toss…Whack!  Damn.  Let.  The crowd whistles with the Cyclops and the umpire calls for silence.  OK, still first serve.  Bounce, bounce, bounce, toss…Whack!  That one feels good from the moment he reaches up, a high kicker at the corner.  But Joseba “Joe” Zulaika, the Basque great currently ranked in the top 30 in the world, has read Ivor’s motion and is ready with a backhand down the line.  Ivor comes up to the net following his serve and cuts it off, slicing it hard to the other side.  “40-Love!” call the umpire.   Set point for Ivor, to win this best of three match 2-1.

The crowd of Spanish fans here at the Olympic stadium in Barcelona doesn’t know who to cheer for—their Basque neighbor, or the ex-Norwegian pro, a man without a country.  In the end, the excitement of the match carries every one away and they cheer for every point, lost in the excitement of the game.  The Umpire has to call for silencia again.  As Ivor walks slowly back to the line, buying an extra moment or two to breathe, he looks up in the stands and catches the eye of his coach, the Englishman James MacGruder, and sees the confidence in his gaze.  Ivor is ready.  He takes another ball from the ball girl, not thinking about her name this time, knowing that Joe will notice that he only took one.  A deep breath…bounce, bounce, toss…Whack!  And Ivor’s running toward the line, racket already half cocked but Joe lets it go by.  Ivor pulls up short and heads back toward the line, but suddenly the noise from the crowd comes through and he realizes that Joe didn’t let it go by.  Ace!  Game, set, match.  As Ivor heads back to the net to shake the hand of the ruefully grinning Zulaika, it starts to dawn on him that he won.  He allows himself a moment to enjoy the feeling while he and Joe share the few words they have in common, before starting to look forward to tomorrow’s semifinal match, and the strength he’ll need then.  As hard as the last 75 minutes had been, tomorrow will be harder. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ford Contour: Looking Back at Six Billion Dollars of Used Car

2000 Ford Contour Sport

It is an unloved, small American car today, but the Ford Contour was designed to be revolutionary. It was designed to be the first new World Car in 50 years.

For some carmakers, the phrase “world car” has a frighteningly compelling ring. Like perpetual motion machines, squaring the circle or mysterious black helicopters, in some minds it can be an obsession that drives you mad, and, if you’re Ford, to the brink of ruin.

Standing next to a first (US) generation Contour today, your first reaction is “So what? It’s a used Ford.” Your second, if someone reminds you of the numbers, is: “This thing cost six billion dollars? Didn’t I rent one of these once? Did they actually sell any?”

The answer is complicated. If we’re generous, we can call US sales one million (peaking in ‘98 with about 260,000 combined Contour/Mystique). But let’s not forget, this is a World Car, so we can add sales of the foreign market Mondeo (which was comprehensively reworked by 1996). That’s a total of 3.5 million sales during the first twelve years in, according to Ford, 60 markets).

Development costs were at least $6 billion for the US version, and another billion dollars to get to the 1993 launch of the Mondeo in Europe. That’s 2Gs per car to break even. Figuring a worldwide average of $250 million per year for model maintenance and updates through 2003 and we end up with around $3,000 in development costs per car for this little jellybean to bear, and average sales of about 5,000 units per country per year. Sheesh! Little wonder that by 2005 Ford of Europe was seeing earnings decline on the order of $100 million a year.

Initially launched here with either Ford’s venerable Duratec 2.5 SOHC iron-block V6 or a more modern 2.0 DOHC Zetec I-4, the Contour always had power (and a 5-speed!) available on the option sheet. While the greatly appreciated 170-horse V-6/5-speed combination in the ‘95-‘96 SE (Sport) yielded a respectable eight-second dash to 60 and a 16.3 second ¼ mile at 87MPH, a 125-horse 2-liter with Ford’s optional 4-speed automatic in the GL or LX gives a tepid 10.3-second slog to 60, and a milquetoast 17.6-second quarter at 80. A high speed merge is a challenge as you enter the willing little engine’s thrashy upper ranges to get at it’s 5,000RPM horsepower peak. Torque maxed out at 127 lb-ft @ 3000 RPM in the I-4, giving decent grunt from a standing start.

Ride and handling characteristics for all trim levels were very good, and they should be, since this is where a huge chunk of that development money was spent, reflecting the attempt by Ford to engineer a platform acceptable to Europeans. The big news came in 1998 with the freshened second-generation Contour, available partway through the year as a 1998.5 model (shades of the Mustang, maybe?) in SVT trim. While the rest of the model line had undergone severe decontenting in an attempt to offset losses from the poor sales, the SVT was loaded with every single available feature except the sunroof and CD player, and was graced with a 195-horse SVT gem. Featuring a larger throttle body, lighter flywheel, conical air filter, larger radiator, oil cooler and a bump in compression to 10.0:1 from the 9.7:1 in the base V-6, this may have been the best $23,000 you could spend on an American car in 1998. Available only with the 5-speed and R-rated 215/50 16-inch tires, 0-60 drops to somewhere near 7.4 seconds, and the SVT Contour-only uprated suspension and brakes keep it planted at an estimated top speed of 143 MPH. Over the short 2½ years of its lifespan, the SVT Contour gained another five ponies to bring it to an even 200 by 1999, due to use of the extrude hone process in the intake. By that time, trim levels had shrunk from the four available in 1997 (Base, GL, LX and SE) to three in 1998 (LX, SE, SVT) to just the SVT and the SE Sport, which lost a slight amount of displacement in the standard 2.5 V-6 and gained a minor bump in compression. SE sales that final year were mostly to fleet users, with the automatic and I-4 combo predominating.

At the start, interiors were one of the Contour’s strong points, with soft-touch plastics and good interior panel fit marred only by a smattering of Ford parts-bin switches. Cost-cutting quickly took its toll, however, and by 1997 traction control was no longer available, body-colored mirrors became composite black and the original buckets were replaced with Ford’s notorious penalty-box, un-ergonomic seats.

A major freshening in 1998 saw the consolidation of the model line into the LX, SE and SVT. The LX was taken downwards to the old GL trim level, the SE to the old LX and an SE Sport introduced which roughly equaled the former SE trim. Glove box, underhood and door lighting were discontinued, and split/folding rear seats disappeared from all but SE trims. Two years later, leather seats and variable wipers were gone, as was Contour in North America.

By any empirical standard, the Contour could have been a resounding success. The words Ford used to talk themselves into the project can be very compelling—“We’re going to build an American car to European standards and everyone will drive it and love it and buy it.” And indeed, every now and then lightning does strike and a VW Beetle comes along. But as we all know, being struck by lightning is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Perhaps if the Contour had been introduced when it was originally scheduled to debut in the spring of 1993, it would have in the right place. Hard on the heels of the dramatic and successful LH sedans from Chrysler, it could have appeared as the next logical step in American car design. The Contour was supposed to replace the Tempo, one of the worst lumps of iron ever to disgrace our roads.

Or maybe it was too early, since we’re now seeing Cadillacs competing on the BMW field, and the Chinese are buying Buicks by the boatload. Perhaps it was contaminated by the specter of the Tempo, or maybe it just looked too much like a 7/8th-scale Taurus.

But it didn’t appear two years earlier, or ten years later. It appeared in 1995 and whether it was the wait, or persistent quality control problems and regular decontenting, or a lack of corporate support and dealer understanding that doomed it to the rental fleets of history, we will never know. Ford Contour, we hardly knew you.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Forbes-Aspinwall Mission

Fun Fact: On March 15, 1863, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles met with my Great- something grandfather William Aspinwall and John Forbes at the Fifth Avenue Hotel to discuss sending the two to England to buy suspected Confederate gunboats, specifically two ironclads under construction by Laird Brothers. For plausible deniability of what would be a covert action in direct contradiction to both Lincoln administration policy and international law, Chase only told two other people in the Union government about it.
To lay groundwork, Forbes and Aspinwall personally funded the English activities of Lincoln’s spymaster Thomas Haines Dudley, whose network quickly identified a number of potential targets.
Chase provided $10 million in 5-20 treasury bonds to obtain capital in England. Forbes sailed on March 16, and Aspinwall came two days later, bearing his trunks full of bonds. where in early April Forbes and Aspinwall obtained a £600,000 ($3 million) loan from Baring Brothers. Unfortunately, on April 7 the Times of London reported on their mission, which rendered it less than stealthy and ultimately, unsuccessful. However, Confederate agents never seemed to catch on that it was a Union-sponsored mission and in fact, it was 40 years before the truth was known.
The Forbes-Aspinwall Mission was successful in working with Dudley on counter-Confederate espionage. They remained in Europe until the end of June, 1863, during which time Forbes went to Germany and Aspinwall to France, where they were almost certainly at work in an effort to recruit foreign soldiers.
Aspinwall, incidentally, was a friend and advisor to General McClellan, and not particularly a fan of Lincoln, with whom he disagreed on economic policy.

“Men are governed by steel or gold.”
–William Aspinwall

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Introducing the Traverado PED

Introducing the world’s first ever scientifically proven precipitation enhancement device (PED) for small and midsized farms. The Traverado PED© is based on research conducted by the US Army and is the only method of increasing rainfall that works on a small scale—right over your crops.

The story of the Traverado PED© is one of coincidence, research and discovery, and for inventor Dr. David Traver Adolphus, it started one day in fourth grade.

On that overcast day, his school held one of their periodical air raid drills*. When the big siren on the roof went off, David joined his classmates under their desks, and waited for the all-clear to sound. So he had plenty of time sitting under there to think, and to look out the windows, and then to wonder: “Why did they always seem to hold air raid drills when it rained?” A seed was planted.

The seed didn’t sprout until years later, when Dr. Traver Adolphus saw a magazine article about new military technologies, including non-lethal pacification devices. One was a “sonic disabler,” which was supposed to incapacitate people through the use of specific frequencies broadcast through tone generators at high volumes. But the Army had a problem: The idea worked just fine in a lab, but when they tried it in the field, what they got instead was …fog.

Following up on the research, it turned out that the Army’s sonic weapon (SW) was emitting frequencies that just happened to coincide with the natural resonance frequency of water. Those emissions in the 32-42khz range are far higher than what humans can hear and would normally not have any discernible effect, but the Army eventually discovered that in combination with the audible high frequency tones around 10,000hz generated by the SW generator, they were setting up a standing wave in the atmosphere. Invisible to the naked eye, it both excited the water molecules present in natural humidity, and kept them suspended.

All the Army was interested in was eliminating the problem, and the odd side effect was forgotten. Until the light went on in Dr. Traver Adolphus’ head. Could this be why they had all those rainy days in school?

In 2002, Dr. Traver Adolphus acquired a surplus engine-powered siren and began small-scale experiments in a warehouse equipped with a commercial misting system. He quickly ran into a problem. He could easily tune his early PED prototypes to produce measurable precipitation, but the parameters varied by the minute. The frequencies needed both to establish a standing wave and to cause the excitement necessary for droplet collusion into precipitable size vary with factors including dust and other atmospheric conditions. After years of experimentation, the Traverado PED emits a continually changing tone. It covers the complete frequency spectrum needed for the effect, and with a repeated oscillation, droplets can't fall out of suspension until they overcome their weight threshold--in other words, until they're heavy enough to fall as rain.

Field testing and calibration of an early experimental Traverado PED©

Broadcast in a 135-145dB range (depending on the tone), it’s well within the range of some commercial machinery, and in most communities is permitted under Right-to-Farm laws.

There are other proven rain-producing methods, such as cloud seeding, but only the Traverado PED© is targeted at YOUR farm. Once unit—no larger than a home wood boiler with included 240VAC power supply—can cover 25 or more acres, depending on cloud deck height, humidity and wind. Timing also varies with conditions—in some cases, it can start to rain after as little as 90 minutes of operation.

Only the Traverado PED© is actually installed at YOUR farm, where YOU need it most. Multiple units with overlapping fields of coverage are possible, but must be properly calibrated to avoid sine interference. Or, it can even be redeployed to another location on your farm as your crops rotate or your needs change. All Traverado PED©s come with a service contract to ensure they stay properly calibrated. All YOU need to do is confirm with the included remote weather station that conditions for droplet formation are possible, and hit the remote starter.

The Traverado PED© is not magic. It can’t create rain from a clear blue sky. All it does is mimic the natural processes that normally happen far above ground. But when you have those clouds that just won’t drop a drop, a Traverado PED© can make them open up.