Thoughts

Do you know there’s such a thing as an invisible bicycle helmet?

There is and it works.

I’ve always been annoyed by how bulky and ugly traditional bicycle helmets are, but then I’ve also fallen from a bicycle while not wearing one and it wasn’t pretty. This looks really good, sort of like an airbag for your head.

One question though, what do you do with it in warm weather, when you can’t wear it?

Via Likecool

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Thoughts

A crash test between a 1959 and a 2009 Chevrolet

In the 50 years since US insurers organized the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, car crashworthiness has improved remarkably.

Demonstrating this was a crash test conducted on Sept. 9 between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu, which you can see in the video embedded below.

In a real-world collision similar to this test, occupants of the new model would fare much better than in the vintage Chevy, which was surprising to me. I wash shocked to see that supposedly rock-solid car literally come apart at the seams, explosively, as if it were built of plastic. The crash test was conducted at an event to celebrate the contributions of auto insurers to highway safety progress over 50 years.

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Thoughts

How different dogs attack

This video from the National Geographic shows different breeds of modern dogs and how they attack their prey. Heavier dogs use their own body weight to bring you down, and lighter dogs build up momentum by running and jumping at you. The video also talks about bite strength and how head size affects it.

Takeaway lesson: do your best not to get bitten by a dog while it’s coming at you. Make it slow down or if possible, only bite you when it’s stationary. Or at the very least, avoid getting bitten by a mastiff. Those puppies pack a massive 500 lbs. bite. If one of them bites your hand, it will crush your bones and quite possibly sever a finger or two.


Dog Attack Styles from the National Geographic

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Thoughts

Are roadside trees a safety concern?

In Romania, many roadways are lined with trees. It could be walnut trees, or poplar trees, or fruit trees of some sort — the point is, they decorate each side of the road, standing guard, so to speak. I happen to think they enhance the beauty of the road, but I’ve heard talk of people who want to do away with them. They say they’re dangerous since drivers might run into them, as it happens every once in a while.

The road ahead

I recorded my own thoughts on the matter one day, while driving on a road in the province of Dobrogea. You can watch the video clip, or you can read on. My words and my voice both carry the same message.

I disagree. I don’t think the trees are dangerous. It’s the drivers who are dangerous. In the overwhelming majority of the cases where cars meet with trees, the drivers engaged in reckless maneuvers and were the very cause for the accident. Any trees that happened to be there simply drove that point home much more poignantly than some shrubs or an empty field ever could.

Thing is, Romanian roads, with very few exceptions, were built for low speeds. They were laid down during Communist times, when the car of choice (the only car, actually) was a Dacia — a relic of early 60s pseudo-design. It was underpowered, creaky — even when new — handled like a tractor hooked up to a blender engine, and stalled frequently in cold weather. If you managed to hit 100 km/h in those cars, it was definitely something. My grandparents had a Dacia 1310 model, and when that thing would get close to 100 km/h, it shook so badly I thought it’d fall apart.

Those were the cars that the road builders had in mind when they laid the roads and highways of Romania. The speed limit in the cities was and still is 40-50 km/h, and the speed limit outside the cities was 80-90 km/h. The latter has now been increased to 100 km/h. Problem is, people drive on these roads at 130-160 km/h or more. They just weren’t built for these speeds. The turns are steep, ungraded, sometimes unmarked, there are potholes most everywhere, and one often finds pebbles and mud on the roads from tractors that cross them to get to the fields, which makes braking on certain portions of the roads hazardous at best.

And yet, people just don’t get it. They think they’re somehow immune to accidents, until they lose control and run into a tree, often with disastrous consequences. Are the trees guilty? No. They simply point out the obvious — that the drivers themselves are to blame. If the trees weren’t there, I bet those same drivers would go even faster, knowing that if they ran off the road, they’d stop in some bales of hay or a wheat field. It would encourage even more irresponsible behavior.

A mountain road

I like the trees. Let them stay where they are.

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Thoughts

A rule of thumb to help you avoid accidents

So many traffic accidents happen when we don’t keep our proper distance from the cars in front of us. Here’s a simple equation to help you do just that:

Distance (in car lengths) = (Speed/10) – 1

Let me explain it. Say you’re going along at 20 mph — the distance between your car and that in front of you should be 1 car length. If you’re going along at 40 mph — the distance between your car and that in front of you should be 3 car lengths. Obviously, the formula given above is no good at speeds below 10 mph, so use your judgment there. I try to leave half a car-length to 1 car length between my car and someone in front of me, even if my speed is fairly low. I never know when they could brake suddenly. People’s actions can’t be predicted, and it’s best to have a little room for error in our calculations and reflexes.

I would go further and add an additional car length to that distance — in other words, modify the equation as follows, if you’re older and have problems seeing, if it’s dark, or if it’s rainy or foggy.

Distance (in car lengths) = (Speed/10)

If it’s snowing or it’s icy on the roads, by all means, drive slower and keep as far away from the car in front of you as you can. There’s no way to approximate distances in those situations. You never know just how your car will behave when you brake. Just hope you don’t have to brake on a particularly icy portion of the road, because you’ll skid all over the place, and chances are you’ll hit something.

MINI Cooper S on snowy country road

One additional word of advice. If you’re going to drive through snow, sleet or ice, make sure you’ve either got winter tires on your car, or you’ve got good all-season tires that aren’t worn out. And be sure that your brakes are in good working condition.

I don’t claim to be a traffic safety expert, so don’t think this rule of thumb is written in stone. See how my advice will work for you, and let me know if you think my equations need some adjustments. The idea is to keep the math simple so that everyone can understand and benefit from this.

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Events

Accident on I-495

Ligia and I were taking a leisurely walk on Beach Drive last night (Friday), when we were confronted with the overpowering smell of spilled fuel. On our way there, we’d seen a fire engine, but we didn’t think twice about it. This time, I thought I’d inquire, camera in hand. After walking through 100 yards full of fuel fumes, we were both a bit nauseous, but I pushed on, curious. By this time a few police cars had gathered as well, and I could see that there were two fire engines and more policemen on I-495, which runs parallel to Beach Drive on that portion of the road. Something big had happened.

Accident on 495 (1)

I walked up to a policeman’s car, waved, and he rolled down his window. “What happened?”, I asked. He lifted his eyes from the keypad of his laptop. “We got one death, and an overturned tanker,” he said, then looked back down at the keys. “That’s why the fuel smell…” offered I. “Yeah.” I thanked him, walked forward, took a few photos, then turned to join Ligia. It was then that the mention of death registered with me. Oops, I was more concerned with the stench of fuel than someone’s death… Shame on me. It’s sad how only the things that affect us personally register properly in our span of attention.

I don’t know who died up on that highway, and how he or she died, and truth be told, death always leaves me speechless. Don’t look to me for consolation when someone dies, because I won’t know what to say. I’ll just give you a blank stare, followed by an awkward pause and the usual, trite phrases.

Accident on 495 (2)

What I did want to say tonight is this: please be careful when you’re driving. That person that died out there was probably on the way home after a long work week. They were probably looking forward to the weekend, perhaps spending time with the one they loved. Now, they’re not here anymore. When you’re out on the highway, barreling down the lanes in your car, upset that the people in front of you are too slow, think about that. It may be your mistake or someone else’s, but you may end up dead. Keep your eyes peeled, put that phone down, and drive safely.

Accident on 495 (3)
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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2007-05-10

Like chicken soup, but full of plump bits of juicy data:

  • The Cellar is running a few shots of a nasty deer accident in IotD. Kinda graphic, but thankfully the driver was okay. Watch for those deer, folks! Drive slower when you’re in wooded areas. You never know when one of them will jump out in front of you.
  • There’s a city called Raoul in Georgia (State of Georgia, that is). Funny to me.
  • I’ve posted a Star Wars “Mahna Mahna” mashup yesterday. I’ve also been driving Ligia crazy singing the song at home. I’ve even IM’d her with links to that video. 😀 Now it’s time to post the original video. Ah, good old Mahna Mahna! Jump down to see the video directly, or use the link to view it over at YouTube.
  • DailyMotion’s got a neat video called L’image parfaite (the perfect image). It’s packed full of visual illusions that peel away to reveal sad truths.
  • Fulgerica.ca has a nice compilation of videos and images about and from Romania. I blogged (separately) about those images and videos here and here, some time ago, but it’s nice to revisit them.
  • New Scientist has a great post about spying on other people’s computer displays by tuning into the radiation emitted by the monitors themselves (CRT) or the wires (LCD). Interesting research.
  • Dark Roasted Blend has some really neat photos of newborn hedgehogs. Cute!
  • Urologists have approached the study of erectile dysfunction with engineering tools. The results are… interesting. [via Kottke.org]
  • BlogCritics is running a post on the proposed gas boycott of 5/15. I got news of this via email from my mom a few days ago. It sounded silly from the get-go. Remember that far-fetched idea of last year, when some people suggested we not buy gas on a certain day? What did that do? Absolutely nothing. Now they propose we stop buying from the two largest corporations: Exxon and Mobil. They say it’ll drive prices down. Not only is this silly, but it’s very short sighted. Even if it works, and I’m not saying it will, it’ll only be a short-term patch. Gas prices will still rise. I for one am happy about that. Let them rise. It’ll force people to purchase more fuel-efficient cars, and will provide a much-needed market drive toward the production of even more fuel-efficient cars. Incidentally, it’ll also encourage people to drive less and plan their trips better. I might also mention that it’ll provide added incentive for the oil and energy companies to explore new fuel alternatives, many of which are not financially viable unless the price of gas rises to match the production costs for the other fuels. So forget the boycott, and focus on the long-term solutions instead. It’s smarter and more effective.
  • I had no idea that Bill Gates was a bully at the office. But that’s his management style apparently. And, he curses, too. Who’d have thought? An ex-product manager at MS serves up the goods on his blog. [via Kottke.org]
  • This is absolutely awesome. If you haven’t heard of the movie Baraka, you should watch it. It uses time lapse sequences to explore life. This 10 minute segment published to Google Video is fantastic. You can also watch it below. I could write a whole essay about that segment alone. No wonder they say an image speaks a thousand words. The director looks at modern life and its dehumanizing aspects with a fantastic eye. Just watch the video and you’ll understand. [via Kottke.org]
  • Mental_floss has a post about a new re-telling of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in modern terms. It features striking paintings by Sandow Birk, and it’s animated in a very captivating way using cutouts. There’s even a trailer you can watch, and I’m making it available below as well.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7877306475042790908

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Thoughts

Amazing survivor of parachute malfunction

A parachutist from New Zealand by the name of Michael Holmes somehow survived a major parachute malfunction from several thousand feet with only a broken ankle, a collapsed lung, and a broken nose. And on top of it all, he wanted to keep jumping afterwards… Talk about not learning your lesson. The first part is raw video from his helmet cam, and the second part is a follow-up TV interview.

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Thoughts

SUVs: a guilty pleasure

I own a MINI. I am against gas-guzzlers of any size, shape or form. Yet I enjoyed driving a SUV recently. Here’s why.

I had brought my MINI Cooper S into the dealership for service. There were a few things I wanted them to look at, things that were troubling me. Because I’m fairly obsessive-compulsive, every little thing seems to bother me sometimes, although I’ve gotten better over the years.

The dealership offers free loaner cars to those folks whose repair jobs will take more than a few hours. Since I wanted them to look at several issues, I qualified. Unfortunately, they were fresh out, so they took me to their in-house Enterprise rental desk to get me into a rental car. Normally, I would get an economy or mid-size sedan since my MINI is a sub-compact, but they were out of those. I was told I’d have to wait for a bit, which I didn’t mind. They provide free snacks and beverages in the customer lounge, and they always have a good movie on a big-screen TV.

My wife and I meandered to the waiting area and watched a great movie – I think it was “The Transporter” – while the Enterprise clerks tried to find us a car. The movie was almost over when one of them told us our rental car was ready. After begging for a few more minutes so we could watch the conclusion, we stepped outside, where our view of the parking lot was obscured by some behemoth. I was about to step around the beast to look for some economy car, but the clerk stopped me. “This is your car,” she said, smiling. “You were so nice to wait, that we’re going to give you this BIG car!” She was genuinely happy that she could reward us in such a way.

I couldn’t help myself either. A broad smile started to stretch itself across my face. I thanked her politely while I examined the monster, all the while thinking: “Me, in a SUV?! If this isn’t ironic, I don’t know what else would qualify!” I looked at the make: Chevy Trailblazer. I looked at the tractor-sized exhaust pipe and winced. “My goodness,” I thought, “how much gas will this thing need?” I felt a vacuum pulling on my wallet, but I kept calm. I helped my wife into the car as I signed the final insurance forms and did the walk-around with the clerk. I waved to her as I got in and turned on the engine. Reality was starting to sink in – I had to drive THIS thing now, after driving my MINI for a year and half!

I’m not one to have problems driving any car. That was the least of my worries. It was the way this car felt and maneuvered that made me wary. It was too big to care about things like curbs or speed bumps, or even those little English cars we see happily zipping along the roads once in a while. “I have to be very careful,” I thought. “I’m not used to this thing’s dimensions, and I may bump into something.” I slowly inched out of the parking spot, and drove out of the dealership.

As soon as I was on the road, a feeling of ease came upon me. Without the fear of bumping into freshly crafted BMWs and MINIs, I could relax. Besides, this tractor was easy to handle! Even though it took up the entire lane width-wise, it was easy to keep in check. The brakes worked fairly well, and the steering wheel was surprisingly easy to turn. The steering pump would have to work pretty hard to turn those huge wheels! Sitting in the driver’s seat, one got a feeling of security, of unsurpassed safety. I felt like I could take my time driving, that nothing could hurt me. Now I was beginning to understand why people are so adamant about driving their SUVs – there is a certain unshakeable feeling of safety that one gets. Not only that, but one feels more relaxed at the wheel. I rested my left arm on the doorsill, and my right arm on the automatic transmission knob. I only had to hold the steering wheel with one hand – the car was easy to control. I could get used to this! I’ve driven big cars before, even bigger than this particular model, but the experiences had been unremarkable. I looked over at my wife, surprised. She was smiling, too. The great thing about my wife is that she always knows what I’m thinking about. I didn’t have to explain myself. She knew it, and my surprised expression made her laugh.

It didn’t take long to feel certain twangs of guilt pull at my heartstrings though. After all, I was diametrically opposed to SUVs! I wouldn’t have anything to do with those gas guzzlers! That’s why I got my MINI after all. It was small and beautiful, it was quick, and it didn’t need a lot of gas. How in the world could I enjoy driving this behemoth? I felt like I was engaging in some adulterous relationship – cheating on my MINI. How could I do that? I wondered how I’d make it up to my conscience. Grinning slyly, I wondered if I could pacify it by writing an article.

As I wrestled with these thoughts, we got on a winding road. For those of you who care, it’s Route 193, which runs parallel to the Potomac on its Southern side in Virginia. This is the kind of road that my MINI would love to run on. It would eat those curves and hills for breakfast! It would leave everything else in its dust on these roads. I had a problem though: I wasn’t in a MINI. I was in a rubber wheeled cargo train. I felt safe, but my wife and I were getting thrown left and right at every curve! I started to miss my MINI’s bucket seats quite a bit. I also slowed down, since I didn’t really enjoy being the car’s ballast.

We drove a little more, and were lulled into feeling safe once again, until – out of nowhere – a mean curve peeked its puckish face around the corner. This was a mean left curve, and there was nothing but a thin rail separating us from a downward ride into the tree-ridden valley below. From the little experience I had driving the car, I knew it couldn’t handle this curve although we were only going about 30-40 mph. I pressed gently on the brake pedal as I turned the steering wheel. I felt the tires starting to lose their grip on the pavement. Instinct kicked in, and I slammed on the brakes while continuing to turn the wheel. The anti-lock braking system began to work, and I could feel the hydraulic pumping vibrate the frame of the car. Unfortunately, we were still sliding toward the rail! There’s no worse feeling than impending doom, and we were in the thick of it! I could do nothing but sit there and wait for the car to stop moving. I looked at my wife out of the corner of my eye, and she was frozen in her seat. “Oh boy, this could be it!” I thought, as I braced myself for the impact… which didn’t come.

The car somehow stopped short of the rail. For a brief second, I looked around to check my surroundings, and then I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We both let out a sigh of relief as I pressed on the gas pedal and moved on. My body now had to cope with the stress. My heart started to beat faster, and my legs started to shake a bit. I had to slow down in order to keep good control of the car. What had just happened?

We had been lured into falsely believing that this car was safe. That’s what had happened! We realized that the car’s install appeal – safety on wheels – was also its downside – cargo train on wheels. When you pack that much steel into a car, when you make it that big, it’s going to be heavy. Heavy objects cannot be stopped or maneuvered quickly. There is a limit to the amount of grip that a tire can have on the road. The brakes can be the best in the world. They can be anti-lock brakes. The car can have a dynamic control system, or differential traction, or whatever other names these features are called. There is still going to be one limiting factor: the grip of the tires on the pavement. It is through the friction of the tires that all of the car’s power can be expressed, either to start or stop it. In the case of a heavy car, its weight works against the friction of the tires and overcomes it. This car will keep on going when you don’t want it to go. It cannot be stopped! I shudder when I think what would have happened if the pavement had been wet that day!

Yes, SUVs can feel very safe. They can lull you into thinking that you can’t get hurt very badly if you get into an accident. Yes, you may not be hurt very badly. But, if you would compare, side by side, the outcomes of SUVs and smaller, more maneuverable cars when placed in accident-prone situations, all other factors being equal (driver experience, alertness, etc.,) the SUVs would not be able to avoid any of those accidents if the outcome depended on maneuverability. By this, I mean things such as stopping distance, ability to veer away from or between other cars, etc. Sure, the drivers of the SUVs probably wouldn’t get hurt too badly (unless the SUVs rolled over, which is another story altogether,) but they would incur significant damage to their cars, cause serious damage to the other cars involved, and more importantly, to the drivers of the other cars. What I want you, the reader, to ask yourself is this: do you want to be responsible for the death of another human being simply because you wanted to drive an SUV? Try to talk to anyone who’s got to live with that guilt and see how they cope with that event.

Moralizing aside, here’s how the rest of my SUV experience went… After the accident, I learned to drive the thing much more cautiously, and I found its reactions around curves predictable if one went through them very slowly. I even got accustomed to the commanding view of the road, and I liked sitting in the chair, uncomfortable as it was. There a certain satisfaction one gets from operating a beast like this. One’s ego is awed by the ability to control it. Furthermore, that same ego has room to spread through that enormous cabin. It starts to feel very comfortable, and then a certain feeling sinks in. It’s called ENTITLEMENT.

Yes, on the second day of driving this thing, I started to feel entitled to drive it. Think on this, please. I care deeply about recyling and conserving the environment. I lobby my congressmen to pass laws that protect the environment, including restrictions on the emissions of SUVs. And yet here I was, driving my rental SUV, and feeling like I owned it – what’s worse, feeling like I ought to own something like it! I was shocked at myself! On one hand, I was dismayed at my lack of respect for all I stood for, and on the other hand, I really enjoyed sitting at the helm of that tractor-trailer. I couldn’t believe myself! I talked to my wife, and she had the same problem. She liked our MINI, but she also liked the size and the relative safety conveyed by the size of the Trailblazer.

Here was the curse of the SUV! This is why all of the people refuse to give them up! How could they give up something that makes them feel so good? It’s one more pleasure that they have to forgo, and in a society that’s so strongly oriented toward the attainment of pleasure, this is very hard to do! So what if it takes $50 to fill up the tank? It’s a small price to pay for feeling like you own the road! It’s a small price to pay indeed for such an ego-boosting experience. If I myself wasn’t immune to this – and I should have been – why should others feel any obligation to give up their SUVs? No, we haven’t reached that point yet, and I doubt that we will. There will need to be a stronger motivation. The price of gasoline will need to go much higher, and the smaller cars in general will have to be made much more attractive before that will happen.

As for me, how did I fare? I have to confess that I looked up the prices for a Chevrolet Trailblazer and a GMC Envoy the following day. Unfortunately, I also looked up the gas mileage. When I put the two together, I couldn’t justify owning the cars. Even if I could afford the price of the car, the price of the gas and the pollution created by the car couldn’t be ethically justified to a very loud voice: my conscience. The gas for the rental cost me about $20 by the way, for two days of driving – about 120 miles overall. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to spend on gas in two days. I happily gave the car back, although I had feelings of regret. Not to worry though! After I got into my MINI, all that regret melted away and I felt right at home!

There’s nothing like the feeling of being able to maneuver your car. There’s real safety in knowing that you’ll be able to stop or veer away from an accident. My MINI saved me from about three accidents so far – simply because the car can stop on a dime and turn better than a Porsche. Had I been in a SUV, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Yes, I feel a little threatened when I pull up to the exhaust pipe of behemoth at some stoplight, but I also can’t help smiling. I’ve got a car that can handle the meanest curves. I’ve got a car that can get me out of an accident. My ego may feel a little squeezed inside the cabin, but I can sleep well knowing I’m not part of the problem – I’m part of the solution. In the end, it all boils down to assuming responsibility or giving into entitlement. Which road will you take?

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