Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blogging for Dollars

It's recently become common knowledge (which means that before now, it was uncommon knowledge, also known as "duh, obvious to anyone with more brains than a turnip") that an increasing number of bloggers are shills. That is, they get paid to write blog entries promoting products or services that someone else is trying to sell.

(Go look it up: )

Personally, I see nothing wrong with that. However, I will never do that at Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters.

I would love to get paid to do product reviews for computer hardware and software, backpacking equipment, or books. When I get to that point, I'll set up another blog, and point to it from Zyzmog Galactic HQ, but this site will not change. I like this site just the way it is: independent, honest, unsolicited, and not for sale.

And eclectic.

I guess my readers like it, too. According to MapLoco, my readership is constantly increasing, and I have regular readers from all over the world. That's gratifying. I'm glad that you find my words worth reading. If you like what you read, please pass this site's URL on to your friends.

Okay, yes, I do have Google Adsense ads on my site. These ads are part of an experiment I'm trying. As far as I know, the ads contain nothing objectionable and are based solely on the content of my blog postings. I'm interested in seeing what they come up with. Please, feel free to click on the ads if they interest you.

Some of the matches Adsense comes up with are pretty funny. One time I posted about "clogging" and Adsense put up an ad for drain cleaner. Another time I wrote about the recent downfall of Detroit and the car companies, and how it's their own fault, and Adsense put up an ad for the Ford F-250 pickup truck.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tesla Motors and Lightning Hybrids: Two New Car Companies Worth Keeping an Eye on

In 2006, a three-year-old startup called Tesla Motors ( introduced the world to the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric, two-seat sports car that could go 0-to-60 in under 4 seconds, had a range of 200 miles, and was powered by about a zillion lithium-ion batteries just like the ones in your digital video camera. The Tesla Roadster only costs $101,000, and they sell so fast you can't even find one on a showroom floor.

Tesla recently announced its second model, the Model S, a sedan with a 0-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds, still a breathtaking time, especially for a family car that seats 7. The Tesla Model S sells for about $50,000, half the cost of the Roadster. I wouldn't turn down either one of them.

Tesla Motors is unique in that it's not located anywhere near Detroit, St. Louis, or any of the other traditional automotive manufacturing locations in the U.S. Its headquarters is in San Carlos, California, in the northern borders of Silicon Valley. Tesla Motors is an American company, but its components come from Germany, Norway, and the UK, as well as the USA. If you see any similiarities between the Tesla Roadster and the Lotus Elise, that's intentional: Lotus won a competition to design and build the Roadster's chassis, among some other parts.

Tesla Motors has been around long enough that it has gone through its share of intrigues, shakeups, and lawsuits. The founders have been kicked out of the company and the current CEO is Elon Musk, the South African genius behind PayPal. Dealerships are popping up in big cities nationwide, in preparation for the release of the Model S.

We wish Tesla well, and we wish we owned a Tesla with its carbon fiber body, kick-a$ acceleration and all-electric drive train. Maybe one day. In the meantime, there's another new player in the game.

In January 2009, an "automotive research and manufacturing company" based in Loveland, Colorado, calling themselves Lightning Hybrids (, quietly announced that they were developing a hydraulic hybrid automobile. They showed their concept car at the Denver Auto Show in April 2009, and had their prototype driving around the streets of Loveland in June 2009.

Lightning Hybrids hosted an open house on Friday, June 26. It was an invitation-only event, but everyone was invited, and you had to RSVP in order to find out the location. Several hundred interested guests crowded into their "garage" in downtown Loveland, to get a look at the prototype and the facilities, and to listen to the founders and employees of Lightning Hybrids talk with excitement about their creation.

The prototype is a model called the LH4, the "4" meaning "four wheels." A second model, called the LH3, is already in prototyping as well. The LH3 is a unique design in that it only has one back wheel. It's a tricycle that runs backwards. (I assume that the front wheels will be for both steering and propulsion, as research at Stanford and MIT has shown that a configuration like this with rear-wheel steering is inherently unstable.) Both the LH3 and LH4 will be 4-seaters.

The hydraulic hybrid propulsion system is analogous to the more well-known (think "Toyota Prius") electric hybrid propulsion system, with a hydraulic motor/pump and 5000-psi reservoir taking the place of the electric motor/generator and battery bank. The hydro hybrid system is 50 percent more efficient than the Prius' electric hybrid system, and it delivers enough horsepower to give the car the same kick-a$$ acceleration as the Tesla vehicles have been posting.

The LH designers have been fanatical about keeping the gross vehicle weight below 1000 pounds -- that's right, only 1000 pounds. (Or was it 1800 pounds? Help!) Like the Teslas, the LH cars have carbon-fiber bodies. The LH designers went the extra mile (sorry) to tweak the aerodynamics of their cars. The LH4 has only three body parts: the hood, the canopy, and the pan. The carbon-fiber pan gives the car a smooth undercarriage to reduce turbulence and drag in the boundary layer between the car and the road. The hood is the entire front half of the car -- no fenders, and no seams. The clamshell canopy opens and closes on hydraulic lifts, like an aircraft canopy or some of the futuristic concept cars from Ford and GM in the 1960s, so there are no doors, doorknobs, or door seams. Digital cameras take the place of side-view mirrors, and windshield wipers and radio antenna are recessed, retractable, or molded-in.

The result is a very slippery car that gets 100 miles per gallon in both city and highway. In the city, the hydraulic motor does most of the work, with the German-made Audi biodiesel engine only turning on to assist with heavy acceleration. On the highway, the high mileage is thanks to the super-efficient Audi engine, the lightweight construction, and the low-drag design.

LH plans to keep manufacturing costs low by buying off-the-shelf parts wherever possible. In a dark corner of the garage is the shell of a Mazda Miata resting on four jack stands, looking like something that was abandoned on a New York City street and stripped by, um, entrepreneurs for anything of value. Its dashboard, airbags and climate control system are now part of the LH4, as are key components of its suspension and steering.

Every component of the hydraulic system came out of somebody's online catalog. The (bio)diesel engine, as I mentioned, is a crate engine from Audi. Other key automotive components will be stock parts, purchased from other automakers or their suppliers. The only full-custom parts may very well be the body panels, window glass, and headlamp/taillight lenses.

In 2010, LH will expand into a manufacturing facility in Loveland, Colorado, large enough to employ 300 people and turn out 10,000 vehicles in the first year.

But at $39,000 and $59,000 respectively, the LH3 and LH4 may end up being LH's loss leaders. The company may end up making their real money on a couple of other product lines. First, they will sell an LH hydraulic hybrid retrofit kit for existing fossil-fuel-only vehicles. It wasn't clear to me if they will sell directly to manufacturers or to aftermarket garages (like Shelby, for instance). Second, they have applied for a $74 million economic stimulus grant to commercialize a plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) drivetrain developed at Colorado State University. Even though their market niche is hydro hybrids, they have the expertise to do PHEVs as well, and it's too good an opportunity -- a local university, partnering with a local company -- to pass up.

When the Big Three were the Big Three and gas was cheap, independent automakers didn't do very well. Nobody remembers the Bricklin anymore, and the DeLorean only lives on as a time machine driven by Michael J. Fox. But the world has changed. Today, the Big Three are the Struggling Two and a Half. Gasoline is no longer cheap and plentiful. Maybe the market is finally ready for something different.

Sign me up. I'll take one of each, please.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Homemade French Fries

When my kids started moving away from home, they used to call home and ask my sweet wife for certain family recipes. We loved having them call (hey, any excuse to talk with our kids!), but I thought they might want to have more reliable access to the family recipes. So I started an online recipe book. It's one of those projects that will get finished someday. You can see its current state at .

The latest addition is a recipe for homemade French fries.

When my older kids were little, we used to enjoy homemade, deep-fried French fries. That's because we had my Grandma French's awesome-possum Sunbeam deep fryer. After we finally wore out that deep fryer, we tried in vain to find another one that was as sturdy and robust as that Sunbeam. They really, truly don't make 'em like that anymore.

One day in June 2009, Mom and Chris and I wanted French fries for dinner. We didn't have the frozen kind in the freezer, but we did have a whole bag of real Idaho spuds. We didn't have enough oil for the deep fryer, but we did have a small bottle of oil. So I created what we thought was going to be a poor substitute for the real thing. They turned out to be just as good (and just as greasy!) as the real thing.

Here it is, adapted and edited for Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters.


1 large potato per person
1/4 C. vegetable oil (for up to 6 potatos)
salt or other seasonings

Preparation Instructions

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Put a metal baking sheet on the counter somewhere. You will need one baking sheet for every 3 to 4 potatoes.

Peel and wash the potatoes (or just wash them, if you prefer). Half-fill a large mixing bowl with cold water. Cut the potatoes into French-fry shapes. As you finish cutting each potato, put the raw fries in the bowl of water. Add extra water as needed, to keep the fries covered. After all the potatoes have been cut, pour off all the water. The water must be completely drained, but the fries must be wet still.

This next part is gooey! Pour the oil over the drained fries. Reach into the bowl with both hands, and tumble the fries in the oil until every square inch of every fry is slimy and disgusting. Your hands will also be slimy and disgusting. Rub those slimy, disgusting hands all over the surface of the metal baking sheet to coat it with oil. Now, wash your hands.

Pour the fries onto the baking sheet in a single layer. Don't let them overlap. Bake the fries at 450° F for approximately 40 minutes. Every 10 minutes, turn the fries over with a spatula, and if you're cooking more than one sheet of fries, swap the baking sheets on the oven racks.

When the fries have less than 10 minutes to go, sprinkle them with salt or the seasoning of your choice. Best served still sizzling from the oven, so the first one burns your tongue.


Yes, they do take a long time to cook. That's the only drawback.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Another automotive company bailout

They thought they could slide this one past us!

WASHINGTON (AP) - The House on Tuesday approved a "cash for clunkers" bill that aims to boost new auto sales by allowing consumers to turn in their gas-guzzling cars and trucks for vouchers worth up to $4,500 toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. ... Since the yearlong vehicle program is expected to cost $4 billion, lawmakers would attempt to find the additional money later this year.

This is a just plain bad idea. But the House of Representatives bought it, 298-119, and it will probably sail unopposed through the Senate as well.

Exactly what are Congress and the automakers trying to accomplish here? Reduce CO2 emissions? Stimulate auto sales (as they say)? Or give General Motors, Ford and Chrysler another handout?

Um, maybe buy votes in Michigan, Kentucky, New Jersey and every other state that stands to lose automobile-related jobs?

I don't know exactly what they're trying to do, but it's very clear what they're doing.

They're subsidizing people's poor decisions again.

They're rewarding past bad behavior and reinforcing current bad behavior.

And it's another bailout. A $4 billion bailout.

The Big Three pushed their gas-guzzling vehicles in past years. In fact, all three of them showed commercials touting their gas-guzzling pickup trucks last summer during the $4 per gallon gasoline mini-crisis, and in the fall and winter during the onset of the current financial crisis, and they're still doing it. American automakers have never been serious about selling more fuel-economical vehicles, and their advertising campaigns prove it.

So do their showrooms. Drive past any Chevrolet, Ford or Chrysler/Dodge dealer and compare the number of trucks, SUVs, and big cars with the number of small cars, hybrids and economy vehicles. That's right. They're pushing the big machines. It's as if nothing has changed in the last 12 months, as far as the Big Three automakers are concerned.

That's because that's where the big margins, and hence the big profits, can be found. It's all about money. For Detroit, it has always been all about money.

We must lay some blame on the consumers who bought these vehicles. They're the ones who had to suffer through the gasoline price crisis last summer, remember? I say, let 'em suffer. They chose to buy those big machines, now let them live with their choice.

But now the government wants to ease these buyers' remorse by subsidizing their purchase of more economical vehicles. These consumers are getting a government-subsidized $4500 discount, in addition to the trade-in value on their old cars, to buy new cars. (Okay, in some cases it's only $1500, but the article says "up to $4500," and that number shows up several times in the details. Live with it.)

Problem 1: Not everybody's gonna buy American.
Problem 2: Sellers are greedy.
Problem 3: Hey! What about the rest of us?!

Allow me to elaborate.

Problem 1: I predict that many people will dump their big American cars to buy smaller, lighter cars from Asia or Europe. I didn't read anything in the article that said the $4500 goes towards the purchase of an American car. So this won't help GM, Ford or Chrysler nearly as much as people think it will.

Problem 2: Car dealers won't be able to resist the temptation to jack up the price of the vehicles they're selling, to get their own piece of that $4500 pie. They won't be satisfied with just moving more vehicles through their lot. Don't be surprised to hear about salesmen negotiating with the buyer to "split the difference," so the buyer ends up paying $2,250 more than he should for a new car.

Problem 3: Once again, the good people of the United States are getting screwed. Let me explain that one in more detail.

First, it was home prices: those of us who bought houses within our means, who went responsibly through the traditional loan approval process, have seen our home values plummet because of the irresponsible actions of the borrowers, lenders, and investment entities who are really at fault for the current financial crisis.

Then, it was jobs: as the economy tanked and corporate profits fell, over 13 million hard-working Americans lost their jobs, while the executives who were truly responsible for the losses in corporate profits held onto their jobs, fired those 13 million, collected undeserved bonuses for their actions, and did absolutely nothing to relieve the suffering of their former employees. Do you know how many production workers you can keep employed if you replace an overpaid CEO with one who's willing to take a smaller bonus?

Then, it was tax dollars: while no politician has yet had the audacity to raise taxes on us, the politicians have been happily writing checks against our (future) taxes to pay for so-called "bailouts" for private industry: first the banks, and then the automakers.

(You may or may not remember, but when Congress said "no" to the Big Three the first time, General Motors tried to disguise itself as a bank (GMAC, its financing arm) and sneak in the side door, to get a piece of the bank "bailout" funds. Congress finally gave GM and Chrysler some money, but not as much as they wanted.)

Now, it's tax dollars again: this latest move by Congress is another attempt by somebody to give Detroit the rest of the money they wanted. If this plan works the way it's written, then every person who buys a new car under this plan will be shoveling more government money, $1500 to $4500 at a time, to the carmakers.

Hey! That's my money! Don't you go giving it to that Hummer driver! He's got more than enough money to replace that Hummer -- if he really wants to replace it.

Not only that, but: Hey! When are you going to reimburse me for my purchases? While so many other people have been buying trucks, SUVs, Caddys, Lincolns, and muscle cars, I've been driving economy vehicles since 1984! No government entity has ever given me a nickel for my good citizenship. Just like with the mortgages and everything else, the government is punishing good behavior and rewarding bad behavior.

GM is no longer "too big to fail." And Fiat almost gave up on their Chrysler acquisition because of meddling by the feds. I say, let 'em fail. Let the market sort it out. Enough with the government "intervention," already. You're making things worse, not better.

If you are as outraged as I am, please send this article's URL to your friends. Then print this article (yes, on paper) using Internet Explorer, and snail-mail a copy of it to your Senator, Representative and President. Make sure to include a cover letter expressing your outrage, and including your name and address so they know you're serious.