Thursday, December 29, 2005

T#10: City Without Cars

Excuse me for a second while I continue to bemoan the lack of a broadband connection (I can't help that I'm so cheap), and no-pictures reality this presents.

Ok, there. Done with that. Here's a post for you.



City without cars.


I guess I owe you an explanation.

When I said a bit before Christmas that I was disappearing into the land without internet, I was actually also absenting myself from the influence of the automobile.

I’ve been to Venice before, but never in winter. The cold weather and the companion limitation on the number of tourists makes for a much better experience at this time of year. I should still point out that it wasn’t my idea – spending a couple of days in a city without wheels – but my friend wanted to go somewhere for her birthday, and the sinking city turned out to be the cheapest as well as the favoured option.

I have nothing unique to say about this place – so you can stop looking for deep and meaningful insights right now. But I did find the atmosphere remarkably relaxing; for someone one who lives and breathes the complex hydrocarbons that make our motorized world go round, what struck me even more than the architecture was the slow realisation that there was absolutely no danger of being rundown unawares by an errant road vehicle. It states the obvious to say that there aren’t any (slight exaggeration, we spent a couple of hours following signs to somewhere called the Piazza Roma – I think – only to discover that this was the bus station), but it isn’t immediately that you realise that you aren’t having to check and check again before crossing any kind of thoroughfare.

Yes, I am aware that pedestrianised shopping districts do exist in this country, etc, etc, but even then you have to look out for service vehicles and delivery vans. In Venice, the biggest motive danger you face while ambling around is an out of control hand cart – and you’re more likely to get run down by a man in a straw boater demanding that you accompany him on a gondola ride. This is a city where people have no choice, and are forced to rely on public modes of transportation, the majority of which are waterborne – and much more tranquil as a result.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to it, but using a boat to get around seems like much more of an adventure. There’s no neatly finished and predictable road surface here, rather a moving, bucking act of nature – tranquil, yes, but a challenge too. Feeling rather than seeing the water taxis zipping along with wide open throttles in the pitch darkness stirred something in my soul – but even the gentle undulations of the bus boats was a soothing balm against the pressing worries of my real world. And despite the apparent chaos of movement in the waves, the public transport network runs with indefatigable consistency, too. I don’t think we waited longer than five minutes at any time when we were making a journey. For those who preach collective travel over individual and personal space, the system they are forced to adopt in Venice must appear as some kind of Mecca.

All the more ironic then, that this waterborne transport network endangers the city itself.

We were lucky. We went to Venice in winter and the place was entirely unflooded. Maybe not so surprising given the apparent inconsistencies in our climate patterns these days – though the city authorities and other interested parties are throwing Euros and Euros at improving flood defences all along the islands. But the problem isn’t just the weather, it’s the backwash and the wake from the continuous passage of motor driven boats that prowl up and down along the canals, servicing the city so it can go about its daily business. The situation is such that our guide book claimed hovercraft are being considered as an alternative to the current crop of traditionally keeled craft…er, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

A necessary, community wide project of an apparently idyllic public transportation network, that actually works, and still a city has problems.

I think we’re facing a reality here – even good things come with a price; a generally applicable understanding that we always seem to come to far too late. Our environment, for example: is it already screwed? And if so, what kind of bargain did we get for the price?

Oh, forget I said that. It’s Christmas – well, just previously, anyway – and I’d rather save depressing myself for the new year. And besides which, Venice has been threatening to fall into the sea for centuries – and there’s no reason to suspect it’s going to stop doing so any time soon.

Go see the place, though. It’s lovely.

I’d definitely recommend going in winter; while it was by no means as empty as we expected, at least the street has to get really narrow at this time of year before over-bearing tourist claustrophobia sets in. Try Easyjet for cheap flights – hell, if you’re going to NOx the atmosphere you may as well pay as little as possible for the privilege – they love getting there on time because there schedules are so tight. Plus, I experienced the smoothest landing ever on the return trip into Gatwick – which sets them apart from some of their competitors… And eat at places without any English on the menu – the food costs less, tastes better and the service will actually come with a smile.

I never said I wanted to be a travel writer.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

It's Christmas...

...so I'm taking a break. Plan is to re-start next Thursday - will let y'all know if it changes.

While I'm here, a couple of house-keeping notes.

First: as you can see, I'm back from the land without internet, but I am functioning only on dial-up. Blogger isn't exactly 56k -friendly, so the next few posts may well be picture-free, I'm afraid.

Second: Have a great Christmas.

;-)

Friday, December 16, 2005

AWWL

Hello.

Just a quick post to let you all know that I shall be away from the land of the internet on Sunday, and so most likely will not be able to post.

Sorry for the interruption...

Ciao.

T#9: Top Gear

Morning, peeps. Sorry this is a little later than usual but I was literally up all night doing an unnecessarily elaborate layout for handing in today.

Anyways, here's a little citation I had to write for a class earlier in the week.




Top Gear won a what?! Yes, an Emmy.

What can you say about Jeremy Clarkson that hasn’t been said already? Well, you could say he’s a tree-hugging friend to the environment, but that may have some “there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”-type factual issues.

Why am I talking about Clarkson? Well, because the BBC’s motoring magazine program Top Gear has won the international television Emmy for best non-scripted entertainment show. And without meaning to be unfair to the others involved, Clarkson has been the driving force behind the re-incarnation of this series.

Attitudinally mal-adjusted, opinionated, inconsistent – he is all of these. But since leaving the stuffy, fact based original iteration of the show in the 90s, Clarkson has also matured as a television broadcaster. And it is this combination or character and competence that has driven the new format’s rising reputation as adrenaline fuelled entertainment since his return.

Driven, yes, but fair to say not dominated.

Televise Clarkson on an empty stage with nothing more than a soapbox to stand on, and people would watch it. But that doesn’t make for an award winning television program. Top Gear has moved beyond the love him or hate him personal image of a single man – Top Gear exists as a whole. A primordial soup of personalities, product, and performance – let’s take each of those in turn.

Besides Clarkson, the show is now blessed with two other presenters in Richard Hammond and James May who are equally entertaining to watch. The joy here is in the rapport, and the differences between them. Like three ordinary blokes in a pub, they talk cars, they argue cars – but best of all they are passionate about cars. Without the genuineness of this enthusiasm, the willingness of all three to look silly because of it – or anorachy, or plain obstinate, even inconsistent – the show would not be such a success. We are entertained by the fact that they are entertained – it is their enthusiasm that enthuses us. And because each is different to the other there is a broad range of appeal – from over-the-top Clarkson switching between cynicism and excitement, to Hammond’s boyish enthusiasm and willingness to argue his point, to May’s more stately appreciation and apparent stoicism. The difference in appearance adds to the mix – Clarkson towering over Hammond as they dispute the merits of a particular model as Hammond refuses to back down, the laidback sheepdog look of the let-the-kids get on with it May. It’s the strength of their personalities as much as the content of the show that makes for great television – and allows a narrow subject to appeal to a wider audience.

And isn’t it great television? They’ve taken a fact based format and turned it into entertainment. By inviting an audience to participate, and having a recognised base of operation, Top Gear has become a kind of automotive Mecca for petrolheads everywhere. They’ve successfully mounted the celebrity bandwagon, with their Star in a Reasonably Priced Car feature. They wield such power now from their success that they get all the best drives – epitomised by their “race” series, where Clarkson in a car takes on Hammond and May in another form of transport. And they perform outrageous stunts, like playing football with cars and conkers with caravans. All the things that any motoring enthusiast dreams of doing, they are able to do it. The product is an appealing one because they are able to express enjoyment on our behalf.

And then there’s the performance. After going through a tricky patch where the camera shots in the filmed inserts often appeared too clever for their own good, the Top Gear format has also matured. Filtering to make colours vivid and the most of natural light and weather conditions gives the appearance of such slickness, almost beauty, that their ever-the-same test track still fails to become over familiar. Locations and set pieces are chosen with panache – whether it be Clarkson sitting on an enormous log being towed by a 4x4, or matching epic supercars to epic scenery. The dialogue is sharp [though the author notes that it is partially pre-written – despite the non-scripted category award!], though one criticism may be that the information they impart is somewhat selective – it is often only the headline facts that make it to the viewer, rather than the nitty-gritty. But remember, this is entertainment we’re talking about now, no longer journalism – too much information may turn some people off. For those who are really interested in the subject matter, Top Gear will never be their only source.

The Emmy press release describes Top Gear in this way:

Top Gear, now in its fifth series in its new studio-based format, introduces new cars to our roads, new motoring technology, and the very latest in concept cars. The show combines the elements of factual entertainment with motoring journalism.

But I’d say it’s polished, professional, enthusiastic entertainment, pure and simple, that garners Top Gear such an award.


Monday, December 12, 2005

#9: Project 1221

Ahhh, the joy of end of term deadlines. And such like. It has been A Very Busy Few Days, so in order to blog by way of a cop out, I have an excerpt for you.

If you've paid any attention at all to my other blog, you will have seen that on and off I've been writing some nonsense about Project 1221. The following is a slightly insane version of a possible introduction to that article, bang on 800 words. I will bring you more on this another time. if you want more details, you can check their website.



Project 1221, intro [excerpt]

The car industry’s grown complacent, fat. Look at GM, Ford – they’re struggling, especially in the US where no-one seems to want to buy their cars unless they’re so heavily discounted every one sold seems to inch them further towards bankruptcy.

Mercedes has quality control issues. Volkswagen got to profitability and went out the other side, with a platform sharing strategy that was once ingenuous, but due to pricing mis-management and the image-improvements of its “lesser” brands is now no longer the saving grace it once was; Porsche’s shareholders nearly had a fit when the Stuttgart sportsters upped their stake in VAG – and Porsche makes the biggest profit in the industry.

Everyone is running scared. Volvo are so desperate they turned out a hotrod this year. Err, is that complacency? No, that’s something else: a lack of ideas.

Porsche remain stuck in the 1930s – though to their credit they do occasional turn something out with a more logical powertrain arrangement they either knobble it to prevent it from being faster than the 911 or no-one seriously wants to buy the thing. The Carrera GT is a case in point.

We’re constantly being promised the next big thing, but it seldom delivers. Aren’t you bored with hybrids by now? All that extra-tech means added weight and lowered efficiency in the end; current talk from the likes of Audi, Lexus, and BMW about using electric motors for a performance boost defeat the point on this principle. Fully electric cars like the Venturi Fetish are all very well, but what about the noise they make – exactly, they haven’t got one. Who’s going to get turned on by that? I recognise that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, but I can’t help thinking it’s going to be incredibly dull – and on top of which, it’s miles off, anyway.

So what’s going on here? And what’s it got to do with a prospective supercar maker whose product possibly doesn’t even exist?

Innovation baby, innovation.

Ya see, the thing about the eponymously-named Project 1221 is that they are making some outrageously unique claims about their motor vehicle. It’s an interesting time for the supercar sphere, anyway, as much like the late-80s into the early-90s there’s a plethora of choice from established names, upstarts, and resurrected heros. Is it all just a pointless techno exercise, like Formula One? Or is there more to it than that? Will we ever see the benefits filter down to the microhatch that we’re all going to end up driving in a few years time?

Alright, now if that isn’t a dis-organised babble of questionable juxtaposition, I don’t know what is. And other such clichés. Let’s start with the P1221 boys, shall we.

Project 1221: Modenesse supercar project number umpteenth. Modena. Supercar valley, they call it. The roughly associable geographical area in Italy that’s home to Ferrari and Lamborghini. But they’re increasingly having to share the road space with other engineering examples of extreme automotive excess. Most recently, the success story and shake-up progenitor Pagani, for example, whose bug-out wildchild of a Group C racer for the road, the Zonda, must now surely be the stuff that boys’ bedroom walls are made of.

Powered by an AMG Mercedes engine (but apparently one that doesn’t blow up; wonder if an excuse-generator comes as standard on the McMerc SLR just in case the powerplant lunches itself as happens so often on the McClaren Formula 1 car?) no less, the Pagani is reportedly fabulously easy to drive for something that is over seven feet across at the back. Also more than capable of firing bananas out of its exhaust, but I digress. There was also the Edonis, revivaliser of the carbon tubs left-over by the abortion of the Bugatti EB110. Mad, bad, and extremely willing to let you make an acquaintance of the scenery, by all accounts.

Anyone else suspect that Lamborghini donated the rozzers a police car in order to keep the others from using the place as a test track? Now that’s a police chase I’d like to watch.

Looking further afield there’s the Konigsegg CCR – briefly the fastest production car in the world – which comes out of Sweden. The US is getting itself involved with the Saleen S7 and the SCC. Spyker from Holland. The Veyron, and now the Gumpert Apollo, even if it is (shhh) another Audi side-project, from Germany.

And now there’s Project 1221, hiding in the Modenese hills. Well, so the website claims, anyway.

I really hope Project 1221 is out there, testing, because the credentials sheet reads most intriguingly. I’ll start with the big one: 1500bhp. And they’re apparently developing a two wheel drive model. This seems completely absurd, let alone unfeasible – until you discover that they intend on using a gas turbine to provide this motivation. Hmmm…



Links

Project 1221

[I may add some other turbine resources another time]


Picture

From Project 1221's homepage. I have their permission to use the image in the article, so I shouldn't imagine they'll mind it appearing on here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

T#8: Car Chase


Hey hey, look at this - I'm posting early for once.

The reason being that I'm working on a bunch of other stuff, and as this is pre-prepared I'd rather try and get an early night than end up posting this at some God-forsaken hour of the morning. Plus I needed a break from writing about hydrogen. (Seriously.)

These here are the things I wrote as part of my application for this course. There's an edited and a draft version, both of which I'm posting in order to give you some idea of the process my mind goes through.

The fact that this comes after I posted the film review on Monday is, of course, entirely co-incidental... ;-)



Edit.

This is the edited version, 541 words in total.


I was watching The Transporter the other day when I started wondering, whatever happened to car-chase movies? In this film Jason Stratham is a wheelman, selling his talents to anyone prepared to pay the price, but as soon as the action gets underway this awfully underwhelming feeling sets in. The chase sequences are over-choreographed, too precise, and it ends, with a heavy sense of inevitability, in a climatic set-piece involving a ridiculously implausible jump stunt. And this is hardly the only modern film based around cars guilty of such sins. The remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds has the same choreographed unreality about it, and a awful jump stunt—but no-where near as bad as the one at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, where the protagonists manage to park their car precisely in a boat. These films—Sixty Seconds, and the pair of Fast/Furious movies—get to me particularly because their whole premise is based on driving cars quickly, and yet they fail to deliver in the excitement stakes. They are car movies that appear to have been made by people who don’t really care about cars.

A Top Gear presenter once said that the cars on that programme had to be thrashed in order for them to appear on screen as if they were going at any sort of speed at all. Watch any clip from The Sweeney where an old Jag or Ford is having its doorhandles driven off during a chase sequence and you begin to understand what he meant—the stunt drivers really were going for it. Maybe that’s what’s at issue here—you just can’t do that kind of thing with a modern car. Anaesthesia in the car movie is representative of anaesthesia in the car industry: the increasingly distant interaction available between car and driver.

It’s become almost clichéd to talk about the ever burgeoning amount of bhp available in unlikely guises, especially amongst certain makes of German car, as it has also become increasingly necessary for them to add more and more sophisticated forms electronic assistance in order to keep the things pointing in the right direction. This is the heart of the problem: with all this electronic intervention it has just become too easy to drive modern cars fast. To use motorsport as an example, just watch Petter Solberg’s eyes as he hurls his WRC Subaru towards the horizon. I by no-means intend to belittle his art, rather to point out how fast that car is capable of travelling—the man has no time to blink. And if you take this to extremes you just end up with Formula One—where by-far the most interesting race of modern times was at Spa two weeks ago, which was only good because so many drivers crashed.

Where my argument falls down is with the benefit that modern cars bring to safety. All those F1 drivers walked away from their accidents to tell the tale. Cars today are invariable safer than they used to be, which can only be a good thing. That doesn’t mean I can’t regret that such electronic distancing is necessary. And it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t feel sad that car-chase movies aren’t as exciting as they ought to be.



Draft.


This is the initial draft. I stopped writing it as soon as I was vaguely happy with the content since I was well aware it was beyond the word limit that was suggested. It is therefore a little rough around the edges! I have included it in order an idea of what I would do with a little more space.


I was watching The Transporter the other day—a not particularly good movie starring Jason Stratham and his “American” accent—when it suddenly occurred to me to wonder, whatever happened to the car-chase movie? The basic premise of this film is that Stratham’s character is a wheelman, pedalling (ahem) his transportation talents to anyone prepared to pay the price. It starts off ok, with Stratham spouting various nonsense about Koni shock-absorbers and the like when he arrives to whisk a band of robbers away from a bank job, but as soon as the action gets underway with the arrival of the inevitable posse of eurobox driving police officers this awfully underwhelming feeling sets in. The chase sequence itself is over-choreographed, too precise, and it ends, with a heavy sense of inevitability, in a climatic set-piece involving a ridiculously implausible jump stunt.

The Transporter is by no means the only modern film based around cars guilty of such sins. The remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds has the same choreographed unreality about it, and a awful jump stunt—but no-where near as bad as the one at the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious, where the protagonists manage to park their car precisely in a boat so far from land that terra firma doesn’t even show up in the following shots. These films—Sixty Seconds, and the pair of Fast/Furious movies—get to me particularly because their whole premise is based on driving cars quickly (and presumably dangerously), and yet they fail to really deliver in the excitement stakes. They are car movies that appear to have been made by people who don’t really care about cars: Sixty Seconds contains some fantastically emotive machinery, but some curiously fuzzy details (including the multiple appearances of an XJ220—which is either a homage to the green Beetle in Bullett or a very careless oversight); the Fast/Furious films expose a fascinating sub-culture but don’t really do a very good job of charging the watcher with the adrenalin of it. And jeez, the choice of vehicles and some of the paint jobs…just don’t get me started.

So what’s going on here? Am I being overly critical, or even falsely nostalgic for an era of car culture I’m not even old enough to have experienced first hand? I can’t really claim that all recent movies involving a car-chase have done a bad job of it, and let’s face it, the best scene in The Driver is where Ryan O’Neal’s character knocks every available bit of trim off a Mercedes in an underground car park, Vanishing Point goes decidedly weird in the middle, and what actually is so good about Bullett apart from the GT40 soundtrack? I can’t think of anything bad to say about The Italian Job, though—apart from its recent rehash—but I will just plain avoid saying anything at all about Smokey and the Bandit, and the Cannonball Run movies. However, there remains this sense in older car films that at least the cars were being driven honestly, and with a large amount of enthusiasm around the right-hand pedal. With most modern movies you just don’t get that sense that the cars are on the very ragged edge, and that’s something that no amount of ludicrously overdone oversteer or millimetre accurate j-turns can overcome.

One thing that does occur to me is something that an old Top Gear presenter once said, about how hard the cars on that program had to be driven in order for them to appear as if they were going at any sort of speed at all. Watch any clip from The Sweeney where an old Jag or Ford is having its door handles driven off during a chase sequence and you begin to understand what he meant—the stunt drivers really were going for it. And maybe that’s what the problem is—you just can’t do that kind of thing with a modern car. The anaesthesia in the car movie is simply representative of another kind of anaesthesia in the car industry, the increasingly distant interaction available between car and driver.

Now, I’m not at this point about to claim that modern cars aren’t any fun—for the most part that’s difficult for me to judge—but I can make some observations about how that fun is measured out. It’s become almost clichéd to talk about the ever burgeoning amount of bhp (or ps, or whatever the hell we’re supposed to call it these days) available in unlikely guises, especially to those privileged enough to be able to afford certain makes of luxury German car, as it has also become increasingly necessary for them to add more and more sophisticated forms electronic assistance in order to keep the things pointing in the right direction rather than trying to spit you off the road backwards into a bush. This is the heart of the problem: with all this electronic intervention it has just become too easy to drive modern cars fast (with the apparent exception of the Focus RS—a stark contrast to the universally praised SportKa, which appears as the very definition of a moderately powered yet fun to drive vehicle), they are just too capable of going quickly. To use motorsport as an example, just watch Petter Solberg’s eyes as he hurls his WRC Subaru towards the horizon. I by no-means intend to belittle his art, rather to point out how fast that car is capable of travelling—the man has no time to blink. And if you take this to extremes you just end up with Formula One—where by-far the most interesting race of modern times was at Spa two weeks ago, which was only good because so many drivers crashed.

But that’s where my argument falls down, of course. The benefit of all of this is that paramount human objective: safety. All those F1 drivers walked away from the accident to tell the tale. Cars today are invariable safer than they used to be, which can only be a good thing when there are so many of them about—and if you don’t believe me just take a look at the single-vehicle accident statistics for TVR, just about the only manufacturer left that doesn’t indulge in any electronic wizardry. That doesn’t mean I can’t regret that these things are necessary, when surely, as a recent reader of Evo pointed out in a letter to the magazine, the car industry could turn some of its attention and resources to the use of materials in order to reduce weight and up the interactivity. And it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t feel sad that car-chase movies aren’t as exciting as they ought to be.



I've recorded the date on these as 11/09/2004.


The fantastic picture was taken by Micke Fransson (REUTERS), though I found it on LeBlogAutomobile.

Gumball says...what?!


[This is a thoroughly updated version of a post I made last night (for starters the picture has actually uploaded this time).]



Got a link for you.

I can't decide whether this is one of the least responsible things I've ever read on the web, or one of the most interesting. It's Alexander Roy - of Gumball rally, etc, fame - talking about radar detectors, courtesy of Gizmodo.

Anyways, you can judge for yourself here.

My favourite part is the biog at the bottom, where it says:

"Alexander Roy is an automotive/travel executive and holder of several international racing records which must remain secret."

Hmmm.

Dammit, I'd love to know what those are. (Have you heard the one about the unofficial record for the M6 Toll...?)


Links:

World's Greatest...Radar Detectors [Gizmodo]


Picture was taken at MPH 'o5 - the NEC this time. That particular car was being auction on eBay... Those crazy Gumballers, what will they think of next?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Hey, how about a film review: Transporter 2


Jason Stratham is back – and so is His American Accent. That’s right, the second instalment of what seems frighteningly likely to become a franchise has hit our shores: Transporter 2 is here and acting like a badass.

In case you missed the concept the first time around, the premise behind this mindless action adventure is relatively straight forward: you want something transported, you call on Frank Martin (Stratham) to deliver. He’s a professional underworld driver – an expert in his chosen field. In the original movie he becomes unwittingly entangled in a people-smuggling ring after his “package” turns out to be a bundled-up woman. This time, however, he’s graduated to the school run, and has picked up work chauffeuring a young boy (Hunter Clary) – though claiming he’s only filling in for a “friend.”

The film runs a lukewarm in-joke to get things started, with a scene at the school gates echoing a bank-robbery that transpires in its predecessor. By this point we’ve already had a demonstration of Stratham’s macho prowess – single-handedly defending his Audi from a burly gang of car-jackers – so the cute scenes with the kid come as something as a relief. We even get to see the driver’s more sensitive side as he repositions the car to keep the boy from witnessing his folks fighting on the porch.

Things predictably take a turn for the worse. Surprise, surprise, cue the sprog for a kidnapping as his father turns out to be in a position of political power. This serves as the perfect excuse to wheel (excuse me) out a stick-thin psychopathic super-model blonde, toting two silenced machine-pistols and the sheer line from Victoria’s Secret. Mayhem joyfully ensues, complete with martial arts set pieces, ludicrous gun play (you show me a single scientist who can prove a plywood door will stop a round from a high-calibre automatic), and true-Hollywood over-elaborate stunts.

Trouble is I for one actually love this stuff. You know exactly what you’re going to get and – like Stratham’s character – it delivers. Kate Nauta is fun to watch as the blonde with the heavy psychotherapy bill (hey, no doubt the underwear helps), Alessandro Gassman is agreeably swarthy as chief villain, Gianni, and that the kid’s “mom” is the achingly beautiful Amber Valletta smoothes out more of the lumps. And none of the acting is crap – which is saying something for a Stratham movie.

The only really galling aspects are those familiar to most films involving fast cars – the apparent need to make the chase-sequences as unrealistic as possible. I swear there’s even a point where they speed up the footage of a Lamborghini Murcielargo (yeah, that’s right, it is a pretty good run out for VAG’s product line) in an attempt to make it seem quicker – and don’t get me started on the scene with the car bomb. I really can’t figure this out: if it doesn’t look good, get better stunt-drivers.

But all in all it’s an amusing, adrenalin-packed feature. There is a certain repetitiveness – the reappearance of the French police officer (François Berléand) is predictable, for example) – but there’s enough happening on screen to keep most action fans interested. The main man himself is convincingly not someone you’d want to upset in a bar room, whilst sustaining an aura of subtlety with the part that I still can’t quite believe I experienced. It seems even his accent is improving.

Directed by Louis Leterrier, written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Transporter 2 is out in cinemas now – if you act fast you may just still catch it. Just don’t go expecting too much.


Picture: yes, that is a French film poster, but it offers a good montage of images, so I thought, what the hell. Got it from: www.moviemaze.de

#8 Time for something a little more serious

Ok, so it's taken a bit of a while to get this up here, but here it is. Sorry it's so long - the clue there is in the colour... For those of you who don't like scrolling (which I'm told is a problem with the internet) - get a new mouse.

Anyways, sorry for the delay.






…The business of car design.

Thursday was a good day for me – I had a pretty fun time. Officially opening Friday 2nd December, the Coventry University, School of Art and Design, MA Automotive Design Degree Show 2005 (try saying that with a mouthful of olives), had its corporate preview, forum, and prize-giving the Thursday before. Somehow, they let me in. The honours are for ‘Best Vehicle Design’; I’ll cut right to the bone – the winner was a remarkable one, but I’ll beg your indulgence before getting to that.

Soundbite warning.

The show was called Fifteen. The reasons given being (and in case we didn’t get it, the points were drummed home not once, but twice – by the course representative first, and by its tutor, later):

Fifteen students on the course;

Fifteen months in the course – for the first time, and;

Fifteen minutes of fame.

I’ll stop being an arse and say I actually thought that was kind of cute. On top of which, I do have a vested interest in the success of this university – I should cheer when something goes so right. Although I’m hesitant to confuse these incidents, it has been a good couple of weeks for the Auto Design Dept here: success first in the Ferrari design competition for a Coventry University entry, and now the very obvious consistency in quality design displayed at the degree show.

The forum was a success, too. The event is sponsored by metals magnate, Corus –marking the ninth year of their involvement with the MA, and their fifth sponsoring the forum. The panel was chaired by Edmund King, Executive Director of the RAC Foundation for Motoring, who was joined by David Godber, Director of Nissan Design Europe, Richard Jones, Engineering Director, Corus Automotive, Gerry McGovern, Director of Advanced Design for Land Rover, and Professor Emeritus Garel Rhys OBE (no less).

Rather than prolythetising with any pre-prepped material, they took a series of questions handed in in advance – some of which (mostly the ones from us bunch of aj reprobates) they only received on the day – under subheaded themes including environmental and industry issues. Topics ranged from the future of supply-chain in the automotive industry to solving the problem of freezing windscreen washer jets in winter-time. The answers were universal in their informative nature and entertainment value, but for the most part diverse enough to keep the debate interesting. I’m sure, for example, Garel Rhys’ analogy of the abandoned merger between GM and Fiat will make an appearance elsewhere. (‘Two people drowning don’t make a swimmer,’ is the applicable quote. Speaking to the Professor afterwards, it’s clear his knowledge of the auto-industry and its history is simply vast – if anyone can get away with that, he’s the man.)

After the forum it was time for the degree show – where there was a satisfying chunk of hob-knobbing and face-stuffing before the awards were handed out. As I may have mentioned previously, I am fortunate enough to share a domicile with two of the new crop of budding design genii; speaking to one of my housemates at the event, the quality of the show is apparent – ‘there’s a lot for us to live up to.’ Knowing how many hours this guy puts in, I can only take that as a substantial endorsement.

Even to a relatively (natch – I am attempting to do this critic thing for a living, after all) inexperienced eye, the vehicle models on show here are good. And there’s diversity, too – everything from city car to Chanel-influenced sports limousine, rally-weapon, beach-buggy, taxi – plus a heavy emphasis on alternate propulsion methods and environmental acceptability. I was really impressed with a couple of the more real world renderings. Seung Mo, Kang had two models based on Hyundai lineage – one Kia, one Hyundai – and he enthused me with his attempt to differentiate the two brands, currently perceived as fighting over the same market-space; a real world dilemma, and a worthy attempt. There was also David Imai’s Honda concept, although I wonder whether his choice of name – Hammerhead – really fits with the Honda ideology. Still, a believable form.



Third prize went to Englishman Alexis Julian Waterson for “Space, Form and Structure” – the MiCity compact. A Northumbria University Transportation Design undergraduate, Waterson’s MA project focuses on making the compact city car competitive in an urban environment cluttered with oversized SUVs. A neat concept, it has no obvious design cues that I could see from any existing automotive heritage – with the possible exception of the “visible structure” being reminiscent of Smart’s Trident safety-cell. Indeed, he is quoted in the show book as suggesting “This visible structure supplies the occupant with a greater feeling of safety in today’s world dominated by the 4x4.” Forward looking – which, no doubt, is the point.

Second place: Christopher Lavelanet. A New Yorker himself he’s taken on the New York City Taxi, turning around the obscenity that is today’s V8 gas-monster, the Crown Victoria. Three-box in the most literal sense of the term, the Future NYCT has a central passenger compartment given the greatest priority, with a trunk slung out back and the driver, pod-forward, in front. It has a very strong horse and carriage feel – gladly that’s what he was aiming for. I prematurely dismissed it as design for design’s sake at first glance, but by placing maximum emphasis on fare-space, and dodging the packaging nightmare an engine bay represents (the concept relies on four in-wheel electric motors for drive) Lavelanet has created the kind of customer-focused vehicle that might realistically represent the future of paying-passenger transportation. I have a bit of an issue with the probable turning circle for an urban vehicle – that’s a long wheel base – and designers will insist on demonstrating rubber-band tires – not the greatest for ride comfort – but the centrally located driver and the deconstructive thought-process in analysing the absurdities of the current solution make for an inspiring piece of work.

And now for something entirely different; I hate to go all clichéd on you, but boy, is this out of leftfield (damn, there I go again).

This is not – repeat NOT – A Bad Thing. In fact, that this guy won – and the reasons for it – is probably the most inspirational thing that I’ve experienced all year.

Let me introduce you to…the MOOV. Designed by Jean-Michel Raad, the MOOV appears at first to be a four wheeled “bike” – by which I mean the front and rear wheels are very closely laterally spaced, though the hub design is intended to enable variation in the track width.

You’re already going “what?” aren’t you.



So was he, I guess, as when it came to modelling it Raad made a radical choice; rather than present a static model, formed of clay or fibreglass, Raad instead chose to animate the vehicle in 3D and cut its movements into a short film.

You see, the concept is inspired by "the art of displacement": “Parkour” – also known as “freerunning” – the French for messing about on buildings. Again, I’m being glib – this is actually an incredibly physical, athletically demanding discipline, personified by Sébastien Foucan, its best known exponent. It’s kind of like skateboarding, only without an inch of plywood, four wheels, and the attitude – the challenge is conquering all in your path, turning the entire would into your playground, and the MOOV is the motive vehicle equivalent.

Just to prove he isn’t just talking the talk, the parts of the film not involving the animation of the concept are clips of Raad himself practising the discipline – including a nice slo-mo of him forward somersaulting over a bench, climbing sheer surfaces and generally looking incredibly dynamic; the vehicle is then shown replicating these feats. In terms of both design and execution, it’s absolutely unlike anything else – what an incredibly glorious risk.

The judges awarded Raad first place on the basis that the concept – and, again, its presentation – represents a totally unique proposition in this year’s show. It’s also a very complete expression of its architect’s personality and passion. It therefore seems unfortunate that Raad is the only student whose cartoon is not pictured on the front of the show book – in fact, while many of the others are repeated throughout the program, his only features on the two pages dedicated to illustrating his design.

Of all the people this is likely to upset, Raad doesn’t actually strike me as being one of them. Immediately after the award ceremony ended with Raad’s reception of his first place prize he was ushered back to the show area, for interviewing, flashbulbing, and to receive further congratulation from the judging panel. While being positioned into a more ‘natural’ pose by the photographer – legs crossed, leaning casually-but-awkwardly on the plinth supporting his film projector – he complains jokily that ‘It’s natural – but it’s so vain.” This is a man who appears to shirk the normal pretensions of the design-set stereotype.

All the while that David Godber and Gerry McGowen are telling him that it was a triumph of ‘completely out of the box’ thinking, and truly the ‘personification of an individual,’ Raad grins bashfully, and repeats several times that he ‘wasn’t expecting it.’ He acknowledges that ‘the project was a big risk,’ and even gets in a few PR pleasing utterances such as his insistence that there are ‘very few limits between dream and reality.’ And as if that wasn’t enough, he did his undergraduate work here at CU – he’s Coventry through and through.

Once the video cameras and official photog are pointed away, us ajs still hanging out at the show grab a few words with him. I’m particularly interested in the use of a virtual model in presentation of his design. He begins by making sure we understand that it was the dynamic nature of this specific concept that led to his decision, but carefully acknowledges that it does represent an alternative future for the development of new ideas. This is something I’d be happy to encourage. If ideas can be demonstrated in virtual 3D then adaptability becomes closer to the forefront of design – a more fluid medium can perhaps lead to more creative solutions to the design issues of the future.

Raad is also certain in his conviction that his background is key to his success. That background is Lebanon, and a war he says leads to acute ‘sensitivity’ about the world that surrounds him – and a different way of looking at things. ‘Building dreams’ for Raad is ‘a way out’ rather than just rhetoric, even if it does look good on a press release. He’s a very happy man at this moment – until we stumble by accident onto a raw nerve.

The Ferrari design comp – an issue I suggested should remain separate at the head of this piece – is a slight point of contention for this young man. I would not accuse him of being bitter – it appears that he’s taken it rather philosophically – but Raad was part of the three-man team behind the F-Zero concept, one of the non-winning Coventry entries. And before you think this is poor sportsmanship, the F-Zero received over 40% of the popular vote via the internet, but wasn’t considered good enough for a place on that podium. Worth keeping in mind though is Raad’s particular part of that work – the repositionable three-seat interior. Expertly computer modelled once again, Raad suspects this may at some point be destined for production – though it won’t come from anyone else anytime soon. Raad grins again as he explains the ergonomics modelling for this system is ‘challenging.’

This disappointment shouldn’t overshadow the potential, however; he has a bright future – as should the rest of his year if the quality of talent on display demands any justice. But talking to Raad in the bar afterwards, the direction may not be the one you’d expect. Despite the presence of five new job offers on the night, he seems more relaxed talking about chucking it all in. His creativity is hungry for a new challenge it appears, as he speculates about an alternative path in film making. The creation of virtual worlds is what interests him – where he’ll have the chance to build all the dreams that he wants.

Ha! Finally

FINALLY. My internet connection has been restored.

I suppose it's my own fault as my 800 word post became a little over 2,000 this weekend. That'll go up in a bit - but I warn you, it will take a while.

Sorry for the delay.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Heheh. I can do (some) html

Right, just a quick entry to act as an explanatory tab for the new "Posts of Note" sidebar.

Personally, I'm still impressed that I managed to work the html out for that all by my lonesome...oh, you clicked this looking for an explanation, didn't you? Well, didn't you?!

Yes, right. Ahem.

Anyways, the links in the sidebar here are to previous posts that I think (completely subjectively. Obviously. After all, I wrote them) are worthy enough to not get completely buried in the archive hosting.

Please feel free to tell me if you disagree (I reserve the right to ignore you...but I will at least read the comments), or if there are any you think ought to be added.

I thank you for your attention!

[It occurs to me that I really must get around to updating this; I shall get to it as soon as the new site design is up and working as I would like - IR. Comment added: 12.06.06]

Friday, December 02, 2005

T#7: The true status of the auto industry...

All right, so this is a little bit of a crazy one for you.

Somebody asked me last week:

“If you were an animal, what would you be, and why?”

I had trouble thinking of an answer, so I polled a bunch of my friends by text message to see what they’d come up with…

…and the answers I got back were so funny that I thought it might be fun to make an article out of it – especially as I have deliberately avoided putting any proper images of myself up on here.

So, a quirky jigsaw puzzle of appearance for you, dear reader.

Then I thought, how can I make this relevant – coz animals are all very well, but you don’t put petrol in them. Well, hopefully. As a solution I sent another bunch of text messages asking the same thing only with “car” instead of the a-word.

The results are worth a read, but for a slightly different reason than I anticipated.


[All texts replicated as written – hence the dodgy spelling.]


Animals, in the order they arrived


Daisy [almost instantly]:

“A cat: intelligent, athletic, and nimble.”


Chris:

“One of the larger rodents? Or maybe some sort of hedgehog [obviously hasn’t seen my hair recently] crossed with a deer or something? [Chris does cartoons when he can be bothered. One he based on me was this character whose secret was that his hair stood on end all by itself without the aid of any product…!]


Pete [married to Daisy; the two being my housemates all through undergrad uni.
I was the bestman at their wedding]:

“Wut? Job application form, or auditory hallucination? I’ll have to think about it. Possibly quite a lot! My first thought is an ape, for purely genetic reasons…” [This made me laugh SO much. Pete’s studying for a PhD in physics if that makes more sense.]


Joel:

“Why! But I would say a pithon [sic – he is dyslexic, so I’ll let him off!], as they are stressy, thin and have trouble mating.” [Also made me laugh a lot. Joel being far too clever as usual. He used to work with me, and now has my old job, the poor bugger.]


Hayley [married to Joel]:

“Hedgehog.” [Again, hasn’t seen my hair recently…]


Arlene:

“A cat cuz ur very cuddley” [Er…I’m actually quite confused by that one!]


Kate:

“A zebra?” [No idea at all.]


Terri:

“Erm…a puppy?!” [Most interesting answer so far…I shall have to ask her about that!]

[After a bit of a struggle, she eventually got back to me with]:

“...sensitive, caring, cute! Erm. . Oh and loyal.


Claire:

“A monkey.” [?]


Lesley, who knows me very well, can’t think of an answer at all…


Tor [my sister]:

Ur having a giraffe!seriously thou i’d say cheetah cos they’re clever,quick thinking and moving and patient.plus they’re slim like u!”


Martyn:

"would say a warrior ant as you are protective of your friends always busy and a hard worker sorry not an exciting answer and looks wise would say a meer cat!"


Cars, ditto


Chris:

“Your one, of course. You dumb git!”

[I sent back: “That’s a bit predictable! But if that’s your answer…” Then got:]

“I just wanted to first on the list. Actually i suppose it would have to be an early 911, you know- the ones that go obsurdly fast but had a tendency to spin.”


Daisy:

[Initial response] “Thats difficult, especially 4 us girls. I don’t assign many characteristics 2 cars! I will have 2 ponder. I think this one might b more problematic as I dont know enough about the subtle differences between the cars, like which car would represent intelligent! It might b interesting 2 c if people suggest cars they have owned if they r like me and dont know much, or cars u have owned. Will let u know when i have pondered!”

[Later…]

“Cars r hard. Mum thinks an open top jeep. A black ford puma not convertible [?], sophisticated, intelligent and a bit shy and modest. I am not as happy with this as the animal one, although I chose an animal! There isn’t as much variety between cars as there r between animals!”


Terri:

“A white bmw and surely my reason is obvious!? Whenever I see on [sic] it reminds me of you. Plus im crap with cars!”

[Care to guess what I drive? And, as for her reason being obvious, well I would say: I don’t like to brag. But, her boyfriend is a jealous idiot so I’ll rest his mind at ease by saying that she’s been driven in it a couple of times, that’s all. Lol.]


KATE:

“Is this going to become a weekly thing? tee hee is quite fun! i think maybe a ford Capri or maybe a mark one escort. what am i?”

[I found this extremely confusing, so sent back asking why.]

[Much later]: “Something to do with seat of your pants driving… but am in a very important poker game so can’t go into much detail!”


Pete:

“A pointy streamlined one…”


Claire:

“Gonna b rubbish…n say I dnt really know.nt clued up on cars!You’ll b glad you asked me now!”


Joel:

“A pink caddy! I don’t know why it was the best I could come up with in a hurry!”


Martyn:

“a car hmmm tough one but i would say a ford mondaeo [sic] its safe reliable and is very popular!”

[I objected to this and got back:]

“i would say an Austin but hey everybody wants to be an austin!”

[What?]


Tor [via email]:

“I think that you are most like a Ferrari F430!!! Because its a super car- and you be super! No seriously because it is quick but able to hand all the bends, meaning its patient when it has to be, just like you are quick and able to handle all the difficult things, while keeping a cool head. Plus it looks good in a subtle way - not an obviuos show off - just like you!!! Will that do???” [I think she may have seen Top Gear last Sunday…]


You’ll notice I didn’t get as many replies to the car one – and that a lot of the answers are unsure of themselves, or the author simply feels like they don’t know enough about the subject.

This, I thought, is fascinating. In some ways it’s a bit of a reality check. You see, to me, and my compadres, cars are an integrity aspect of our essential being.

Yet to others they are less important, garner less attention, passing them by almost unnoticed. But an animal – despite their comparative lack of relevance to our everyday lives – is a much easier proposition.

Perhaps Daisy has it right (she is an educational psychologist, incidentally) and cars don’t have the same kind of emotional attributes – but I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe you just need to be an obsessive like me to create that kind of connection.

Any thoughts?


Picture from an AutoWeek forum thread. Couldn't resist a pink Ferrari - even if it is just a Photoshop job.