Bye-bye 2010

Hey there, year two-thousand-and-ten! Can we talk for a second before you head out?

All in all, I think you've been pretty good to me, but quite a bit of a roller-coaster. Nothing boring about you.

Not even two full months into the year, I got laid off. But promptly found a new job that made me happier.

It being recession everywhere and all, I was preparing for long-term unemployment and hoarded contract work like there's no tomorrow. But less than two weeks into my gainful unemployment, I had an offer, which was totally cool. Also, I had a month's worth of contract writing to do, and two weeks to finish it. Which I did, mind you.

Learning a new job, meeting all sorts of new people, and figuring out how the new company works, that was cool. I really like the group I am in, and enjoy working for my boss.

Switching from a startup to a viable company also meant that I could relax my white-knuckle grip on cash and buy a race car. That was really cool. I shared it with enough people in private, so I'll write it here in public now (for all eight of you to read)--I totally cried when I bought that car. There's a video of me all teary-eyed and excited, but I hope to be able to take it with me to my digital grave.

Before I had that car, I never realized just how much I have always wanted to be a race car driver. Like some people remember their first bicycle or their first kiss or their first baby, I will remember that hot May afternoon when I shook hands on the deal with Bill and the white number Forty was mine.

After that, you become a kind of a blur, 2010, punctuated by track outings.

I went to Thunderhill mostly, and that's where I rent a corner of a garage for my spec Miata (my mistress). Then I added Infineon/Sears Point to my repertoire. Fuck, the first time out at Infineon, I took my daily driver out and scared the shit out of myself.

Oh, I also ditched my good old daily driver in June--traded my S2000 for a 2006 M Roadster. That was a bit of a heartache, but much less traumatic than my first change of equipment.

I remember one night I came home from having a dinner out, and turned off the engine of my 1999 Miata, when it hit me: I will be selling the car. I loved that car. And when I realized that I had to sell it, I hugged the steering wheel and cried for a good five minutes before staggering upstairs to cry and mourn some more. I have learned since that cars are equipment, and it is unwise to get emotionally attached to your equipment. Equipment comes and goes, you break it, you smash it, you trade it for a better one, and you move on.

Still, even after all that, I felt quite a bit attached to the S, but the hard reality of having a seven year-old car with fucked-up shocks on my hands made the decision easy, and I switched my daily drivers.

Having a dedicated race car allowed me to buy a more comfortable car to be my commuter and autocrosser, but I still miss my high-revving S2k some days.

On a side note, I also had a final-final breakup with a guy I was seeing for nine years, and loved for about six. That sure was not easy, and still gets me quite a bit depressed some days, but it's getting better and better with time. I am so glad our brains allow us to forget eventually.

Going to track and autocrossing all the damn time helped me with the breakup somewhat. Definitely kept my mind off things, so I was almost never home on weekends. In a good month, I would do two autocrosses and one track event, and maybe have one weekend to myself to clean up a bit at home.

But track was more than just another activity to keep me busy: it turned out to be the passion of my life. Or so it seems at this point. Even fourteen track days later (and that's a lot for one season--ask my credit card!) I still spend a lot of time thinking about driving technique, practicing my laps in my mind, and talking with other car nuts about past and upcoming events.

I learned a ton during the 2010 season, and sure enough, there is plenty more to learn. I can't wait to wrap my hands around that steering wheel and put my foot to the floor accelerating out of the pit lane once again. Hear my little spec Miata buzz like an angry bee, and feel the tires go from slippery to grippy after a lap. But that won't be until 2011.

What else was there?

I made a lot of new friends, a few slipped back into oblivion, due to distance and time, but I now for the first time feel confident that I have at last found a home in the world.

So all in all, two-thousand-and-ten, you were an alright year. I will remember you fondly.


I survived 25 hours of Thunderhill!

Don't ask me why, but I volunteered to work as pit marshal at the Twenty-Five Hours of Thunderhill this year. I rolled my Miata out of the garage and set up camp inside. Not exactly princely, but better than sleeping in a car. Particularly when the car has no fully reclining seats.

My first shift was right at the beginning, so I got to hang out and watch the teams get ready, then clear the track. Then the iconic phrase "start your engines" fell, and off they went onto formation lap.

Green flag! You could feel the electricity in the air.

My job was to walk along my portion of the hot pits and ensure that only authorized people were there, working on the cars. Also, there are a few rules about what can and cannot be done during a pit stop, and what activities cannot overlap. For example, when the car is being fueled, no other work is allowed, except for driver change. Keep an eye out for fuel spills. That sort of stuff.

All of the volunteer pit staff (and probably most other if not all volunteer workers) got to eat unlimited free meals from the Thunderhill Grill. The menu changed at least four times in the twenty-five hours, so I never had to eat the same thing twice.

There was some carnage of course. Like this car. Thankfully, it was a right-hand drive, so the driver was on the other side. The incident happened during my second shift, but I was unable to find out much about it. I hope the driver was okay.

The weather was nasty, but not miserable, at least during my shifts. We had some drizzle coming down, and some fog, but all in all, I did not really suffer.

The club gave us really handy hand and foot warmers, and I used them for each of my shifts. Boy, do they make a difference! I did not freeze for a second!

I had four three-hour shifts, and slept as much as I could between them, in my tent. I could hear the race engines zoom past while falling asleep. Didn't get to take many pictures, because I was mostly busy working when awake. A number of better photographers did, though, so not a huge loss to humanity.

This here is my back with a backpack in the picture on the left. Everyone is heading across the hot pits to the pit wall to watch and wave and cheer and applaud for the last lap of the race. My job at this point was to make sure that everyone cleared the pit area when it was time for the cars to come in and pit after the checker fell.

Finally, the race winner.

I stayed just long enough to scarf down a lunch and an energy drink, then picked up my tent and headed out before the trophies.

Next year, I hope to get to play on track for the race!


Working my way up

Seeing as my blog is turning into some sort of a travel journal on my way to becoming a better driver, I'll share with you some of the newest discoveries I have made on my journey.

One really interesting thing I am discovering is that martial arts, racing, and yoga have almost more in common than they have differences. For starters, I have learned the importance of mindfulness, which is a fancy word for living in the present, focusing on the task at hand, be it sweeping of the temple floor or hitting every apex just so.

Another big discovery was how crucial proper breathing technique is for any challenging activity, on the track or off. Balance and integration of your body also come to mind.

All in all, I have made more progress in my driving working from within, than I could have done doggedly chasing apexes.

I have had a great season and am already looking forward to the next.

This month was quite eventful, with two track weekends at two different tracks. I have already covered Thunderhill in an earlier post, so let's talk about Infineon now.

That weekend was remarkable for a number of reasons. My friend was there for his first track event, I was running my first Time Trials and also attending the instructor seminar on Saturday afternoon. Yepp, I am aiming to become an instructor next season!

I was really excited about having a friend come out and play with us at the track, and he was doing great in HPDE1 in the morning. I could see that he was catching the "going-fast" bug. Then after lunch, I popped out from the instructor seminar only to find out that his car broke down on track. It had to be towed back home later that night, and I lost my track buddy for the weekend.

The instructor seminar was really good. The guys leading the program have tons of driving and coaching experience, and they make it available to all instructors, so we can continuously improve our skill. We had a few good discussions and did a mental exercise in which you close your eyes and drive the track in your imagination, visualizing everything.

It is a great way to train your brain to execute the line and all the inputs perfectly each time, and certainly much cheaper than driving laps in a real car. I have been practicing the technique since, and my improved lap times are in large part a result of doing this.

Over the weekend, I was able to shave off two full seconds off my time.

The magical moment was when the imaginary laps I have driven and the reality on-track merged into one, augmented reality. The track was unrolling in front of me, familiar and inviting, and I could see the line I was going to take as a dotted red line connecting the apexes of each turn and stringing them together into one. If there was a blind turn, I would see the dotted line through the side of the hill or whatever happened to be obscuring the view. It was almost like playing back a video, that's how predictable and clear the whole experience was.

Source: NASA TT

I started out on Saturday being last, and finished on Sunday two positions higher. It's not much, but it is a tangible improvement.

What also helped was that Sunday started wet, and we had to stay off the line, because that's where Infineon is the most slippery in the rain. The first two sessions I spent gingerly navigating my way around the course, spinning out once at a very low speed, and trying my best to visualize the line so I could work my way around it.

HPDE4 lead, Albert, said that the best way to cross the slippery line is to try and hit it at 90 degrees. In order to do that, you have to a) know where the proper line is, and b) plot your rain line in such a way that you can still go fast and cross the "dry" line at a right angle.

I think spending two sessions doing nothing but that has finally seared the line into my brain because when the rain stopped and the track dried up in the afternoon, I suddenly went two seconds faster without trying any harder.

Still, Albert drove only 2.5 seconds slower in the wet than my best ever time in the dry. I got ways to go.


The art of racing in the rain

Many people have recommended that I read this book. And I have. And it turned out not all it was cracked up to be.

Not very deep. Just your regular sobby novel that throws road racing jargon left and right without a deep understanding. Probably enough to fool an occasional Sunday driver.

Turns out the author got into track driving at some point, and sitting around over beers bench racing he got an idea for the novel.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not bad, it's fairly solid, just very shallow. And really not about racing. Driving and racing is only used as a metaphor and a weak backdrop.

Kinda disappointing.

Jinba Ittai revisited

A good while ago, when I was still autocrossing my C-Street-Prepared NB Miata, I wrote about how excellent Mazda is to people who compete in Mazda cars. They are still just as excellent, but I have found new appreciation for the feeling of unity with my car.

These days, I run a 1990 Spec Miata (very few original 1990 parts though!) on track, and never before have I trusted a piece of machinery more in my life.

It's almost eerie. When I drive my little Miata, I can tell what each of the four wheels is doing, whether any of them are slipping, how much more the car could turn, and how much more it can accelerate without breaking loose.

When I drive the little car, I don't really think of it as much as driving. It's more like "wearing" the car on track. I don't think about the car as separate from myself out there, much like you would not think of yourself separate from the pair of pants you put on in the morning. They're just there. And you move together.

Autocross is really not scary. Track can be. Having been in moderately scary situations now with my little white number Fourty, I can say now that I trust this car with my life.

Literally and figuratively.

Walking in circles

A beautifully-made animated film!


When things go sideways

I have learned a lot in a hurry this Monday.

It was my last track day for the year, running with PDC, a very informal group that simply rents the track and lets the participants drive as much or as little as they want all day.

My past couple events were at Infineon, and coming back to my comfort track, Thunderhill, was great. I felt very confident, and the track unrolled in front of me, corner after corner, so familiar and welcoming.

I just had the car aligned, and taken all the toe-in out of the rear, which made the car so much more responsive and eager to turn in. I was having a blast gently sliding the car around turns two and three, with the car so much easier to keep from pushing out.

I also seem to have figured out turn six at last, and was working my way up to carrying a decent amount of speed through there. That of course meant that I was going faster to begin with, and accelerated all the way through turns seven and eight.

Yes, I have finally overcome any fear of turn eight and was not as much as lifting for it. Coming out of there, with the car pointed at turn nine, I'd drop my gaze for a moment and see my exit speed climbing with every lap.

I was working my way to 100 mph.

I was getting really comfortable, almost complacent, and careless. Got a bit greedy on turn-in to eight shortly before lunch and dropped my outside two wheels into the dirt at about 95 mph. Dirt, as you will know, offers very little traction, compared to pavement, so the two wheels still on pavement tore me to the left, spinning the car violently around.

If I'd anticipated this, I may have had a chance to save it, but it hit me suddenly, and before I knew it, I was a passenger in a car sliding down turn eight, with my ass pointed forward.

Going off sideways on the outside of turn eight is not something you'd want to do, because just beyond trackout there is a ditch, which will catch your leading wheels and make you do a barrel roll. As I was sliding down the pavement, I was mentally prepared to lose my car in the roll.

Thankfully, the car must have scrubbed off enough speed on the pavement, that by the time it got to the dirt on the outside, it slid to a bumpy stop, mere feet from the trackout patch.

I stuck my arm out the window to signal to the corner workers that I was okay, and seeing that the track was clear, I carefully moved forward, back on the track.

My rear right wheel was spinning, not getting traction. In my mind's eye, I saw it bent in and toed in, spinning helplessly, unable to reach the ground.

The rules say that unless your car is on fire, you are not to ever get out of the car, so I had to save the inspection of the damage for the paddock. Until then, I had to limp the car back, my left arm out the window to show other cars that I am going to the pits. Slowly.

To add insult to injury, my gimpy right-rear caused me to spin at a very low speed in turn eleven, where I sat while all the traffic went by. It felt like forever until the track was clear again and I could get going.

Back in the paddock, I parked and got out of the car. Imagine my surprise to see that all my wheels were still attached, not bent even, and that the only visible damage was that my right rear tire debeaded, i.e. came off the rim.

I asked Stuart at the tire shop to mount a good tire, and shortly after lunch I was on the track again. The car felt great!

I spent the rest of the day restoring some of my lost confidence and working on my line more than pace.

Now, what have I learned from this, beside "not to do this again?"

One positive discovery was that even in an off as fast and admittedly scary as I had, I kept my head cool. I was able to get the car to a complete stop and get it back to the pits without freaking out or endangering anyone. I even remembered to wave to the corner workers.

This makes me feel more confident driving the car at the limits, knowing that I have the skill to deal with the situation if things do end up going sideways.

Another positive lesson learned was that my car is quite sturdy, and I will be able to trust it even more in the future.

In addition, I got to talk about my experience with other drivers, some much more experienced than I, and they gave me a number of good pointers. Now in addition to my "Inner Speed Secrets" exercises I have some new homework to do: learn proper left-foot-braking and heel-and-toe technique, and practice controlling my car in a slide.

For the former two, there's not much more than practicing daily, while the latter may require me going to a drifting event to learn.

I have also learned to never lose my respect for the track and the laws of physics. Flippancy when approaching the limits of traction can end up badly, and every lap requires precision and focus.

All in all, a great way to finish a season, which started great, and ended even better.


Cool pants

As many of you driving enthusiasts will know, fireproof clothing is required for racing. That includes a fire suit, as well as undergarments, such as long-sleeve turtlenecks and long-johns, balaclavas, and socks. You may also know that the weather during racing season gets pretty hot at times, and as a result, all your multiple layers of fireproof clothing get soaked in sweat.

There are different ways to deal with the heat. Some people choose forced air pumped into their helmet and passenger cabin, some have cooling shirts, where cold water is circulated through tubing attached to the shirt's front and back, others opt for lightweight suits and sweat, and then there's mentholated underwear.

When I was shopping for my racing gear, I opted for the mentholated shirt and underpants.

The other week, I was running with the NCRC in my first race, so I decided to try on the new garb. Turns out, the menthol works. Very well, actually. I hope it won't wash out after the first use.

So of course after the event it was time to wash the clothes. I had procured a bottle of special "technical fabric detergent" called Molecule that's supposed to help fight odor while you perspire in your suit for a whole weekend.

So I throw the suit into the washer, then the shirt and longjohns, my balaclavas and socks, and it still looks pretty lonely in there. I think "What the hell!" and throw a couple pairs of my black office pants in there too. It's going to be washed on gentle cycle, and if the Molecule detergent is good enough for Nomex, it'll be good enough for viscose, I figure.

So everything comes out of the washer smelling minty fresh. Including my pants. Which I have been wearing at the office today, and every time I move they would release a waft of mentholated freshness mixed with Molecule odor-fighting fragrance.

Really makes me want to hop in a car and drive stupid fast.



Mein Wagen tut was er will

So the Bavarians have figured out how to make a pretty solid car which goes fast and makes all kinds of good noises doing it, but they just don't seem to have that electrical thing down.

Yesterday on the way home from Thunderhill I was enjoying some tunes on the radio (yes, I need an auxiliary input wired in!) when suddenly the music cuts out.


I glance over to the radio display and there it says "BMW assist inactive."

Bah! We knew that! The subscription for the first couple years is included in the price of the car, but that time has long come and gone, and I had no intention on renewing.

I crane my neck to look at the BMW assist panel--two buttons, one with an "SOS" on it, and one to call for mechanical assistance. The "SOS" button is blinking.

Great. How do I cancel that and get my radio back?

Also, why did my car decide to call the cops anyway? I was not particularly abusive this time around, just cruising down the highway after two days of driving hard the other car.

Was it jealous that the Miata was getting all the attention? It must have not gotten the memo that I took it on two agricultural excursions, and one near-off during that time.

Anyways, I try to cancel the "SOS" and am not succeeding. Turning off the radio helps temporarily, but then the message "BMW assist inactive" comes up again, and the "SOS" button blinks.

I expect that any second a helicopter-load of angry Bavarians will disable my car remotely, then parachute down and whisk me away to an undisclosed location for interrogation about what kind of emotional and physical abuse I was inflicting on poor Bubba the Beemer.

All the while of course I can't have my radio back. I have a few brief successes, but less than a minute after, the SOS cuts in.

Thankfully there is no sound alarm going off, or I would have to pull over and see if turning the car off and on again would do any good.

This continues for about 40 minutes or so, then suddenly Bubba changes his mind about calling for help from BMW, and I get my music back for the remainder of the three-hour trip.


Who's driving your car?

This is the first time a fortune cookie actually made sense. I spent a day today driving around in circles, and not really getting ahead. I felt like I was stuck and could not break through to the next level.

I was running Open class and a race today, a total of 9 sessions, for 3+ hours of track time, all in all.

I drove all over the place, just not on the line, and messed up entry after entry, having to fight the car coming out of so many corners.

Towards the end of the day, April, a kick-ass driver, came over to me and mentioned that she saw me drive sloppily out there and said: Drive the line, and the cars will come to you. So for the final three or four sessions, I concentrated on driving the line cleanly and precisely, lap after lap. I got a bit better, but still far from great.

My main challenge today seemed to be my desire to keep up with the fast drivers -- both in the Open class and in the race. So much so, that I was no longer fully focused on my own driving. Today was a good example of what instructors mean when they say, you have to "be the driver," because today I was not the one driving my car. Every car that passed me, every car I tried to catch, they all contributed, yet I was not really at the wheel.

I wish I got my head out of my ass sooner, so that I could practice a good line longer. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Positives of today: I got a ton of seat time, and nailed the succession of turns 6-7-8 once so well that I carried 100 mph (161 kmh) through turn 8. This was the fastest I ever went there, and the car felt great, solid, pushed out gently almost all the way to the rumbles, yet gripped and shot out straight into 9.

Another good thing was to have practiced in a race setting. Even though I did not place well, I ran practice, qualifying, and two races, and finished them all. I avoided contact and had one controlled off in the second race.

Coming around turn 3, which is a blind turn obscured by a hill, I saw four or five Miatas in a skirmish, and one of them was in a spin, already pointed at 90 degrees to the way we all were going. I was not sure whether I would make it through there before the sliding car crossed my path of travel, so instead I braked, causing the rear end to come around and driving off the track and somewhat up the hill at pretty much a right angle. I backed onto the track and resumed the race. Car was unharmed, as far as I could tell.

Additional positive was getting more comfortable sliding the car on the track. Turns 2-3-4, if taken aggressively, will make your car slide quite a bit. Not in the same way as in a drifting competition, but you'd feel the rear tires slipping a fair amount, while still maintaining good traction. When you are unfamiliar with this feeling, it is somewhat unsettling, and it took me a while to get used to. I think today was the first time I felt comfortable enough to let the car slide around turns 2-3-4 in succession.

I guess all in all, I made some progress, but I have a lot to learn still. My goal for tomorrow will be to remain patient and to be 100% present while driving. Shut off any distractions and be the driver of my car. Concentrate on driving a good line, and have fun doing it!


Going round in circles

So now that we spoke about being a woman in racing, how about discussing why being a race car driver is such a huge part of my identity these days.

Don't forget, after learning how to drive in Berlin back in 2002, I never took the license test (ran out of money, and saw no need for getting a license in a country where busses and trains are all-pervasive).

I survived quite happily until moving to North Carolina in 2005, when it became apparent that driving was essential for any sort of successful living in that part of the United States.

My first car was a 1999 Mazda Miata, which came equipped with a double-diagonal roll bar, a cold air intake, and some suspension upgrades.

I named the car Bonnie, and kept it for just about two years, in which time the car transformed me from a bloody novice driver into an avid autocrosser and an incorrigible gearhead.

So five years and three cars later, I am deeper into motorsports than I would have dared to dream even a year ago. I got a dedicated race car, and am spending as much time driving it on the track as my paycheck will allow. More, even, as my long-suffering credit cards will attest.

On clearer days, I sit back and wonder, what keeps me coming back to track for more? Well, there are a few reasons. Some better than others.

First of course is the speed and the excitement of overcoming the gut feeling of impending doom when I steer the car into a turn at speeds that make me cringe. The "OMG, we're going to DIE!" followed by the adrenaline rush and euphoria when I make it safely through the corner. Lather, rinse, repeat indefinitely.

It is pretty cool that the thrill can be repeated quite reliably. One track no longer scares you? Well, there are many more to learn. The car is no longer enough for you to piss your pants? There are always faster cars. Striving for that perfect lap is no longer thrilling? Go into racing wheel-to-wheel. And on and on it goes.

And that is another good reason for me to keep coming back: The fact that you're never finished learning. There is always something you did not know, and someone will generously share their knowledge with you. It is in a way similar to martial arts, where no matter how good you are, there is always someone more advanced than you, and there is always a new challenge waiting just around the corner.

One of the biggest kicks I get out of driving is the experience of what I call "honest learning," something that cannot be faked. Let me illustrate my point. Like many of my readers, I have gone to school (for entirely too many years, but that's beside the point), and now I am a tech marketing professional. I have been in tech marketing as long as I remember making money, and though I get to pick up a new trick here and there, what I do for a living hardly ever changes. Even my biggest professional achievements are increments on years and years of doing the same thing--never an entirely new thing.

Not so with driving, where most of us arrive with merely adequate preparation, and have to master something completely new to them. Every second shaved off the lap time, every apex hit just so are objectively measurable and also something that I could not do even a year ago. Picking up a new skill and mastering it over time gives me a true sense of accomplishment. Every time I go to the track, I have new goals and new challenges and though it is very much a moving target, and I may never get perfect, seeing measurable improvement always makes my day.

Finally, there's the camaraderie, the socializing going on in the paddock, and a healthy dose of competitiveness. The social aspect is like the icing on top of an already perfect cake. Yes, I don't eat sweets, but the analogy still holds for most of my audience. I could probably go out and drive month in and month out and never talk to anyone, but finding the right group of people to run with, and meeting new friends who are just as nuts about cars and driving as I am simply makes my happiness complete.

If you still aren't getting why I like driving so much, come with me, and I'll show you :)


On being a woman in racing

It is no secret that racing is at the moment a male-dominated field. Being a social science major, I wonder about things like why that is and how it could be changed to be more representative of the actual gender ratios in the society. Not sure I am ready to present my theories to the public yet, but I wanted to take some time to share my experience being a woman race car driver.

The currently accepted gender roles (stereotypes) also tend to assign genders to professions and activities, leading to certain occupations being almost exclusively associated with a particular gender. Look at the picture, where the scientist and the fire fighter are men, and the teacher and the nurse are women.

Similarly, being a race car driver is something that is considered gender-appropriate for a man, and as these things usually go, men are the ones who mostly go into racing.

At the same time the perception of racing, which in no small part has been influenced by the media, is that women are only allowed in the pit lane, as "trophy girls" wearing spandex and showing cleavage for visual enjoyment of male drivers and the audience.

There is no objective reason for it to be this way. Power steering and power brakes have leveled the playing field (assuming that an "average" woman has less physical strength than an "average" man FWIW), but even without power steering, I don't find myself at a disadvantage running a Miata on road courses.

There is no scientific reason for women to enjoy speed and lateral Gs any less than men, just go to your nearest roller-coaster for a representative sample!

Also, not all performance driving events are races, and there are participation opportunities for all aggression (and testosterone) levels.

And lastly, sexism does not run rampant at the track. I have bought my spec Miata and ran each month since May this year, and so far at the track, nobody was a dick to me, and everyone was nice and helpful.

Sum total, the world of amateur racing has been consistently defying every gender discrimination stereotype I could think of. Nobody has ever said or done anything that would make me feel uncomfortable, be it an unwelcome advance or a comment about what "girls" are and are not supposed to do. Car people turned out to be an extremely welcoming bunch.

To be perfectly honest, I do wish that I were less of an exception when I go to the track. Believe it or not, I don't always like to stick out like a sore thumb, and would appreciate some female reinforcement. Women would find that it's a very non-threatening environment if they only got their asses in gear and came to one of these events, that I can no longer imagine not participating in.


True conversations with Mom (2)

I am so proud of my mom!

Last week, I got invited to run my very first race. Of course I was jumping for joy and had to share the news in my call with Mom the following day.

Her very first question was: "You're buying a HANS, right?"

Made my little heart swell with pride.

None of the "be careful," "are you sure you want to do this?" or "you'll get killed" nonsense. She's hardcore.

Way to go mom!


Fruit of her womb

As many of you know, my mother came to visit me in sunny Kaleefonya, so let me regale you with a tale of my mother's stay.

We started with figuring out the dates. "Which is the best time for you, my child?" she asked.

"Any time is good, with the exception of the last two weeks of August leading up to VMworld and first week of September, when the conference will be going on."

"Okay," she said and booked the tickets to arrive on August the 13th.

Her flight was one hour late, and I picked her up at the airport another hour later--though I was there just on time! She did not know that I would be waiting for her at the curb downstairs and waited to be picked up right at the spot where they leave the secure area. Shows how americanized I have become! After 30 minutes circling the airport and failing to see my dear mother, I finally parked and went to look for her inside. There we managed to miss each other, so I only found her another half an hour later, on my second frantic run through the airport.

All's well that ends well, and happily united, we went home.

To be honest, I was very nervous about her visit, harking back to the havoc that my father caused when he came to "help" me drive the Yeller cross-country from NC to CA. Turns out, I was mistaken, we had a great time together, and I was quite sad to drop her off at the airport two weeks later!

Among the things we did was go see the Winchester Mystery House, admire giant sequoias in the Big Basin Park, look at lots of critters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and of course complete a pilgrimage to the Thunderhill track for a weekend with NASA.

This was my mom's first direct exposure to motorsports. She's a racing fan, actually, and I thought she might enjoy a ride on a couple laps with me in the race car. While she did not quite pass out from excitement, she also did not hate it and has shown remarkable trust in my ability to control the car and keep us both out of trouble.

All in all, it was really cool to have her here.


It's not about you, silly!

"Drawing on a wealth of experience within the creative design and marketing arena, we at Room 58 have helped to generate significant return on investment and increased brand awareness for all of our blue-chip and SME clients."

The above quote came from the home page of a seemingly respectable creative agency. And yet, it says exactly nothing about what the agency does or why YOU, the reader, should give them even a minute of your time.

I bet when a company looking for a creative agency is searching on Google, they enter anything but "return on investment" as their keyword. Also, what exactly is "significant?" ROI is notoriously hard to measure with creative work, but I am glad someone is getting "significant" returns on it.

However, the second part of the sentence, talking about "blue-chip and SME clients" is the true reason for this rant of mine. These two categories of clients would look good on a quarterly report, but have absolutely nothing to do on a home page of a company, since nobody will type in a search for "marketing for SME."

For the longest time, terms "SMB and SME"* have been a pet peeve of mine, because all they really say is "customers who are too small for our sales people to bother talking to directly, and we'd rather they self-service or talk to our partners."

This is why in my professional life, whenever a colleague comes to me for help setting up an "SMB program" I ask "are you sure that your target audience self-identifies as SMB?"

Seriously, do you expect Joe Blow to come to work one morning and realize "Hey I need product XYZ for my business, but my company is too small for Megacorp to bother returning my calls, so why don't I google for 'XYZ for SMB' instead? Surely they will have a microsite for small fry like me!"

Chances are, Megacorp will have a page like this, only it will be frequented by its partners, not SMBs.

Just because it is convenient for you to define a target group in a certain way, doesn't mean that they will automatically self-identify and embrace such definition.

In marketing, it is never about you. It's about who you want to reach.

* SMB stands for "small and medium size business." By the same token, SME means "small and medium size enterprise." Because "enterprise" is so much cooler-sounding than "business," and everything has to be "enterprisey" these days.


How I got an eye pad

I must have gotten some dirt in my eye at the autocross on Saturday, because my right eye was bright red on Sunday morning. I could not wear contact lenses, and have made an appointment to see a doctor today.

I was not in any pain, just a mild discomfort and dryness, so I figured waiting for 24 hours to see the doc won't do much harm.

Sure enough, nothing is really wrong with me, and all the doc could see was a patch of irritated cornea around where the eye got reddest. He gave me some antibiotic ointment to treat the eye for 7 days and an eye pad shown in the picture and sent me home.

Wearing of the eye pad is optional.

The only inconvenient thing is that I can't go back to wearing contact lenses for a full week, as long as I am treating the eye, so I have to wear glasses. And I was very happy when I could ditch them six years ago, so the prospect of wearing them is not exactly thrilling.

The pair I am wearing today was made in August 2001, and is out of date. Style-wise as much as prescription-wise. These glasses are about 1.5 dioptries behind what my vision is these days, and that's sub-optimal for most things I do: Typing, driving, reading... Night driving is really hard. As in, do not attempt.

I have an optometrist appointment on Wednesday and should have my new glasses within an hour after they get my new prescription. After that, I should be able to deal with everyday tasks again. As long as needed to get the eye all healed up, so I can wear my contacts again.

I want pay-per-view F1 on hulu.com

I don't watch TV and haven't paid a cable bill in my life. The few TV shows that interest me, I watch on hulu.com and that is plenty for me.

The only unfulfilled wish I have is that either Hulu or some other online TV provider would begin offering pay-per-view (or season subscription) streaming Formula 1 coverage. It doesn't even have to be real-time. A day or two, even a week-long delay is fine by me. I would pay up to $10-15 to watch one full event: Saturday qualifying and the Sunday race. I just don't see myself paying upwards of $100 for a cable subscription with Speed channel add-on.


Help! My car is a douche magnet!

So when Honda and I weren't working out so well anymore, I was looking for a car that would make a fun but comfy daily driver which would also make a passable autocross car. My main criteria were:

  • That it be a true sports car, not a sporty compromise on wheels;
  • that it be a convertible;
  • that it be a step up from the S2000, to help me get over the loss.

That's pretty much it. The sad part was, that there really aren't that many cars that retail under 60K new that satisfy these simple criteria.

I wanted the few little creature comforts like heated seats and self-dimming mirrors all around, but those would not be deal-breakers.

So I found Bubba and we started puttering around town, doing our thing. Not racing anyone off the line, not revving the engine at the light, not even blasting loud music out of our stereo. Nothing really to attract attention.

Yet a strange trend established itself in very short order. The same kind of situation would play out over and over again. Here's approximately how it would go:

Me, sitting at a light, minding my own business. A car would pull up next to me and the driver would say something eloquent like "Hey girl!"

I would ignore the first one, yet his type is not to be discouraged easily, so he'd continue. If the red light would be long enough, I would finally look over, and he'd deliver another two syllables: "Nice car!"

"Thank you," I would say and face the road again, hoping for green.

"How fast'd it go? What's the quarter-mile time for this baby? How many horsepower? What's its zero-to-sixty time?"

I would answer, politely, but not encouraging any more conversation.

Interestingly, they would all end with something like this "Let me drive it, I'll show you some good times!" or a variation on it "I'd take that thing and drift it!"

Which truly perplexes me. I really can't parse the connection between them liking my car and their apparent assumption that I bought it for their driving pleasure.


Oh, it's green.

In suspension: TRX

I had lunch with a buddy at work last Friday, and she complained of being sore after her workout. I asked her what the workout was, and she said TRX.

Now, if you haven't heard of TRX, no big deal. I haven't heard about it either. Turns out, it's suspension training. Still puzzled? I was too.

So I took to the Internets to find an answer. And let me tell you, the company who holds the rights to the TRX brand knows how to market to me. The picture you see above is their default starting image for the series of three rotating banners.

If TRX means working out with men like this one, then sign me up!

I also watched some videos on the page and read a few paragraphs so I knew what it was about. But mainly, I ogled the guys.

So let me tell you how TRX goes.

You have two straps that get attached to something overhead, like a door, or a tree branch, or, if you are in a fitness club, a special suspension training frame.

At the end of each strap, there is a stirrup, and as you exercise, you can either hold on to the stirrups with your hands or stick your feet in them while supporting yourself with your hands or elbows.

At any given point in time, you will have some of your limbs on the ground and some in the straps, and you will use your body weight to work out.

So anyways, we went to that training together before lunch yesterday and in 30 minutes they wore me out something crazy! Today I am feeling the muscles a bit, but nothing tragic, should be good as rain for the Lotus autocross tomorrow.


Farmville for car nuts: Car town

I was able to resist the temptation of playing most games on Facebook, including the Mafia Wars, Farmville, and Vampires. I succumbed briefly to vDream Racing, but got bored after two or three weeks.

I thought I was done with social games.

Not so fast.

Autoblog article got me intrigued enough to try it out, and I am hooked!

The premise of the game is that you run a car shop, work on cars, and build experience doing that. You also earn money that way and can spend it on expanding your shop, buying new equipments like car lifts, and of course parts for your own cars. As you earn experience points, you reach specific levels in the game, which allow you to hire more workers and earn points faster.

And of course you can race against friends. The races are actually dependent on your skill and your reaction times, not just what the computer thinks of your car.

For my taste, this game is much more fun than that silly vDream Racing or FarmVille. Even though it's exactly like FarmVille when you look at it.

I am surprised that nobody thought of this sooner, and it was all farms and fisheries, and restaurants and mobs till Car Town came along.


Whatever that means

After nearly giving my boss a heart attack by saying the estimated cost for a one-hour session with refreshments and a projector was seven thousand instead of one thousand seven hundred dollars, looking the correct number up and correcting myself, I returned to my desk.

What the hell is the matter with me? It's not like I can't count, but when I need to retrieve numbers from memory, I might as well have a random number generator for a brain.

Well, and to be honest, I never could count without using paper or my fingers, or a calculator.

So there I was, sitting at my desk, wondering how I could mix up 7000 and 1700.

I heard of dyslexia, but if anything else, I have the exact opposite situation with language. I speak, read, and write in three languages, without as much as a spelling error. Words come easy to me, and if I have had a chance to see how a word is properly spelt, I would not have trouble remembering that.

Yet I can't even remember my own phone number, the one I have had for nearly five years, as a sequence of digits. I have to read it out loud to make sure that what I typed is right.

Where is a concerned geek to go but to the mighty Google? "Dyslexia but with numbers," I began to type and Google helpfully autocompleted my query. Guess it's not uncommon.

The results page suggested "dyscalculia" was the answer. How do you even pronounce this?

As I began reading through the list of symptoms, I began to recognize myself in many of them. Even my lacking sense of direction and my abject failure at learning to read sheet music fell into place.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. How I could never, not to this day, remember the multiplication tables, how I always mix up 6 and 8, how I can't perform even simple arithmetic mentally.

I guess I compensated well enough for this disability throughout my academic life for anyone to give it more than a passing note, and I made sure to avoid anything to do with numbers now that I am an adult. I function well, and I have learned to use my right brain wherever I can instead. I estimate very accurately, and have an arsenal of counting tricks available to me to figure how much to give as a tip at lunch or what the sales tax would be at the checkout.

Translating Imperial units into something I understand however is impossible. Even after looking it up and asking my friends countless times, I still can't remember how many inches to a meter and how many grams to an ounce. I gave up on kilos for measuring my weight, and thankfully 5'7" is easy to remember, even though 5 and 7 are kind of the same to me, but I know that 7 ft. would be an impossibly tall Alex.

And then there's technology. Navigation devices, calculators, self-serve checkout lines at the supermarket, so I don't have to deal with humans and change. There's the helpful online tax filing application, but doing taxes still gives me a mild anxiety attack.

When I bought my first TomTom in 2006, my mother disapproved: "This way, you will never learn to find your way!"

But mother, if I haven't learned to find my way till the ripe age of 30, don't you think it's time to accept that I never will?"

From what I can tell, there is nothing else to do but learn to compensate for mathematics disability with other parts of my brain or with gadgets, so there really is no point to this but to share the "ahah!" moment and to give you a glimpse of how different our all brains work.


So the week after I get all set up with the version control system and begin to follow procedure and go and want to check out some files and do my changes and check them back in again, is of course also the time when all the files I want are checked out--some by someone who's on vacation till next week, and others by someone who's left the company!


EDIT: Took me a minute to figure out that I could check stuff out and in while someone else had it. Got it all done and am now a happy camper.


It's coming together

Work has been busy lately. Good busy, and quite productive.

Last week was time for the quarterly metrics report, and most of the stuff that we care about either stayed stable or grew 5-10%. Like the number of posts, and the number of active community members.

We also saw a nice bit more traffic, so I think that my tweaks to the layout, usability and navigation are finally having an effect.

Two weeks after I joined, was the time for the Q1 report, which can be assumed to be virtually unaffected by me, allowing me to take it for the baseline to improve on.

Even though the daily race to get stuff done sometimes makes me forget the forest and see just a whole bunch of trees flying by at high speed, quarterly checkpoints afford a nice way to take a step back and evaluate what you've been doing, and adjust if needed.

Here's to a new quarter.


Living with the Robot: Apples and oranges

So I have been living the open source life since converting to the Android phone, and you know what, I am liking it so far.

Here's an example. I discovered that the contact info management (address and phone book) on the Android phone is nice: Today I was able to log into my Google account and do all the managing I wanted to do there, and instantly the changes propagated to the phone. I mean, instantly. It was there as soon as I unlocked the screen to check.

No synching required. Definitely a step up from Apple and iTunes.

Gmail contacts has the "find duplicates" function, which handily merged all the contacts that got accumulated in the different places. Very cool.

Oh, and I also have discovered what happens when you pour some water on the soft buttons of the Nexus One.

I get so bored brushing my teeth fifteen times a day, that I have taken to read Facebook or news on my phone when I do.

So today I was not very cautious and a nice big splash of water hit the bottom of the screen where the soft buttons are today. And guess what? The phone just recognized it as a touch.

Very uneventful.

The water ran off, and after I wiped the rest with a towel it was all fine.


Hmmm, do I know you from somewhere?

I know a knock-off when I see one. And I think I see one. The electric sports car Renault DeZir concept is liberally borrowing from the stunning R8. Have a look for yourself.

The impostor...

...and the original.

You can click through to the galleries on Autoblog to compare the two.



Reading a racing theory book, I was really shocked to find out that the word Powerpoint actually has a meaning beside "an advanced torture device which allows you to inflict varying degrees of pain and suffering using slides, handouts, notes, and outlines."

Apparently, a "power point" is the point in the turn where you stop slowing down and get back on the gas.


Exit Yeller-Screamer, enter Bubba

Yes. It is true. Yeller and I are over.

The ordeal with the Koni shocks was having me look at converting the car back to stock shocks, and with the original ones being near end-of-life, at least competition-wise, I would have to buy a new set. Car's needing new brakes didn't help either.

All in all, four months of the car being at first unpredictable, and virtually undriveable, spending a total of two or more weeks in the shop, and ending up uncomfortably noisy for a street car sucked out all joy out of driving the Honda. And it's all about the joy of driving for me.

Who better to help me with my motoring blues than the company that has made the joy of driving -- Freude am Fahren -- their corporate tagline, the Bayerische Motoren Werke AG.

Yes, their tagline in the US is the ultimate driving machine, but we all know better.

Before making the decision, I spent a long evening with a friend, drinking and brainstorming what could possibly replace the S2000 and still be a step up from the high-revving, 240-horsepower screamy roadster.

With the spec Miata in the picture, a comfortable street car became a more acceptable option, since I did not have to compromise performance on track anymore, having to choose between a cushy ride and crisp handling at 10/10ths.

A number of cars were brought up and rejected, until the BMW Z4 was mentioned. I have always been partial to the lines of the flame-surfaced body of the car, but was not convinced by the performance. The M coupé sounded more like it, but I did not want to give up the bugs-in-your-teeth joys of driving a convertible, and I was not aware that the M version was also available in roadster trim.

This got me intrigued enough to take one for a spin. And I liked it. A lot.

Next step was to find the car that I would feel like taking home.

Now the thing to consider with these cars is that only 5070 of them were sold worldwide before BMW stopped making them last year, and a mere 3042 made it to North America. Which means that finding one for sale at a dealer across the street from home the first weekend you look at the cars is highly unlikely.

Yet this is exactly what happened. The dealership within walking distance had a silver M Roadster with a tan top for sale, in about the sane price range. I tried it, and liked it, but was not ready to pull the trigger on the first car I came across in my search.

The sales guy pulled the old trick of claiming he had a buyer coming in an hour, so if I wanted the car, I should act fast.

I said that I am okay with that, and if the car was there next week, I'll come again and we can negotiate then.

He said that I was sure to lose the car, and I bid him a good night.

The next day, Monday, I got a call from him saying the buyer needed another day, so I could come in and get a chance to snatch the car from under that other guy's nose. I said okay and came in to negotiate, but we didn't agree on the price. They low-balled me on my car's trade-in value, and I got them to come to a reasonable offer, but when I tried to get a better deal out of them still, they would not budge.

So I walked again.

The next day, I decided to widen my search to CraigsList and sure enough found a Z4-M listed. It was about an hour away, in Half Moon Bay, but the ad said that it had 2700 miles on it and included all the cool options that I wanted in my new street car, and cost the same as the car near home.

When I went to see it, the car did not disappoint, and I signed on the dotted line the same evening.

The dealer offered me 500 less for the trade-in on my Honda, but agreed to swap out the performance parts for the stock ones that I kept (brake pads, front sway bar, and the shocks), and said I could have the performance parts back once they were off the car. That sounded like a good deal to me.

So here it is, my new little Bimmer. Built in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 2006.

I will call him Bubba.


Grownups are boring!

Some of you may know that I am currently in the process of getting my teeth transformed into a Hollywood smile with Invisalign. I am doing this mostly to help preserve the teeth than out of vanity, but there's some of that too.

Long story short, when you use Invisalign, you get to wear translucent hard plastic aligner trays custom-molded to fit over your teeth, each pair moves your teeth a little, and over a set period of time, you get them all nice and straight. In the process, you get to experience some discomfort while the teeth are moving and also to brush and floss your teeth after every meal. So far so good.

Until you realize that all mainstream toothpaste is mint-flavoured. Some add cinnamon or other flavours to it, but menthol dominates, wherever you look.

After five full months of tasting minty freshness in my mouth five or so times a day I got fed up with mint. Seriously. But grownup toothpaste is all minty.

So I turned to the kids toothpaste and my very first find was a success: Colgate Kids Manga toothpaste with "bubble fruit" flavour. Whatever "bubble fruit" is. I think it really tastes like bubble gum. And not a trace of mint.

Plus, it has sparkles in it!

I feel an urge to go on a web shopping spree for non-minty-tasting toothpaste.

When life gives you lemons, you make rum sour

Jason has a lemon tree in his back yard, which I have been oblivious of until recently, when we got together to make some ravioli from scratch.

The pasta came out great, and I contributed precious little to that, until my idle gaze fell upon the tree burdened with dozens of gigantic lemons. I picked two, and made us a rum sour each with some Myer's Spiced Rum and a little bit of sugar.

Came out yummy, and each lemon had about half a highball glass of juice in it!


Talking to strangers, Vol. 1

I turned on the OKCupid chat, because I wanted to talk with a particular person, and while I was trying to reach him (without success, because he signed off), I got into this schlamassel. I think I understand now why my parents did not want me to talk to strangers.

This exchange has not been edited, not even for spelling or punctuation, only annotated, and the user IDs removed to protect the innocent.

Stranger Number 1. greets me with...

Stranger: Why do all the cute women have such attitude?

Yours Truly: Have I done something?

S: lol...actually, no...just specualating

YT: well, you do have a charming way to kill a conversation

S: i'm sorry...didnt mean to

YT: That's alright.

S: want to chat?

YT: what did you have in mind?

S: or are you busting some other guys ball right now? :-)

YT: I really do not feel comfortable with this sort of humour that implies I am a kind of a ball-breaker.

S: well, you ARE intelkigent, I'll give you that (NOTE: I feel such relief. And you can't even spell "intelligent.")

YT: thanks

YT: i noticed that your profile is quite laconic (NOTE: He has no picture and exactly one paragraph about how he is looking for the one true love.)

S: what are your thoughts on foot kissing? yes is it loconic, but Ill be happy to answer any question you might have

S: wow, are you German? That is very sexy! (NOTE: He has not read my profile before contacting me. Love at first sight, I guess?)

YT: Is it?

S: to ME...yes

S: you have an accent (NOTE: Wow, an assertion, not even a question.)

S: ...and you have one hell of a bottom lip

YT: well, that's flattering I guess.

YT: tell me something about yourself.

S: sure it is...anything positive is flattering

YT: "one hell of" is positive then. noted.

S: ....something about ME...i'm sorta attracted to you....but NOW... i'm actually more attracted to what your personality is turning out to be...i like the way you talk

YT: so what do you do?

S: medical biller

YT: cool.

S: not really...but thanks for the positive vibe

S: looking for a long term romance?

YT: i am actually not really looking these days.

YT: are you?

S: i'm a bit particular these days, but yes

S: and we can role-play german senerios (NOTE: Whoa! Where did that come from? I mean, not like he hadn't me at foot kissing!)

YT: i am sorry, i am not even sure what it means. but if it implies nazi s/m -- thank you very much. not interested.

YT: and i never said i was german. (NOTE: I did not say it. At least to him. Particularly given his peculiar tastes.)

S: lol...i was kidding...and its ok if you're not German

YT: Oh thanks.

YT: I think I better go.

S: attitude...see how smart I am...it's the very first thing I said to you. ok....take care

S: thanks for the chat

S: :-)

YT: attitude?

YT: i think you were the one who approached me--a complete stranger--with requests about foot-kissing, and "German role-playing" and when I said I was not interested your response is "Attitude?"

S: Forgive me. I like you...no worries. :-) (NOTE: Whew, and I was worried he did not like me. But he does, so it's allright.)

YT: It's alright.

YT: I've gotta go.

YT: Bye.