Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Davy Jones is Dead: I'm a Bereaver

I loved the Monkees when I was 13 and they appeared on TV. I started high school at exactly the same time the first episode ran. Monday nights at 7:30!

Their songs were great pop hits, even if the guys used studio musicians under their vocals. They had good writers--so did Frank Sinatra. Frank didn't play his own instruments either. Who cared? The four guys were fun, had cool hair (Mickey's, when he let go natural, was a lot like mine). And what about that Monkeemobile?

The first few bars of Last Train to Clarksville (I believe it was the very first radio hit) are as iconic as the intro to "Satisfaction" or "Day Tripper." I loved the lyrics and the sound of Pleasant Valley Sunday, too, although that was a "Mickey" song. When "Valerie" debuted it was a big deal on KFRC, the Big 610.

Davy sung some sweet ballads, and the girls ate it up. He sang "I'll be true to you, yes I will..." on one of the first two albums--which I owned. But his biggest song is probably Daydream Believer, and if you haven't heard it lately, you will certainly get a chance to over the next few days if you're turned to the right station.

My first crush, on Ramona C., was backed by those two Monkees albums. I can remember it clearly today, 46 years later. I changed my clothing style from dull khakis and checked shirts to "mod" looking bell bottoms and paisley shirts--and don't forget the wide belt! I began fighting to grow my hair long in those days, too, although I didn't look much like any of the Monkees.

Of course it's sad to lose Davy now, and it's also too soon for anyone to die at age 66. But that's what he got, and what he gave us will, it goes without saying, be with us forever.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Weekend of Music and Beer

Somehow, the last three days became a whirlwind tour of music and beer. Today, starting with my oatmeal with almonds, I will get back to normal.

Friday night, I met three people from a company I work with through my job at the Devil's Canyon Brewing Company's monthly public events. Music was by Billy Manzik, featuring Billy on guitar, a guy on saxophone and a lady upright bass player (always a treat). It went well with the two beers I sampled--a light champagne style and the Kaleidoscope dark.

Afterwards, we went to a Louisiana style restaurant where a third beer, along with a pound of spicy shrimp, went down much too easily.

Saturday evening I went to hear the highly talented Stadler Gibbons Band, featuring Mike Stadler, Mary Gibbons, with ace pedal steel and dobro player Jon Mitguard and incredible bassist Chuck Irvin--who makes it look easy (it's not). They played at the Urban Island Concert Series, which takes place at the loading doc behind the Urban Island used furniture store. The evening began with a surprisingly entertaining duo, The Red Shoes, comprising two young ladies that appeared to be high school seniors playing fiddle with cello, occasionally switching up for ukelele. Their stage presence and apparent total lack of stage fright was charming--and they had the chops to keep it moving with just the two of them.

The next act, Emily Bonn and the Vivants, delivered a powerful shot of old-time dance tunes, honky-tonk country, and western swing. Emily writes a lot of her own material and her powerful voice invigorates the show. Accompanied by a tap-dancing violinist, a double-bassist with the longest mustache I've seen in some time, and a stirring accordionist, Emily's guitar playing and presence made this a group worth watching--and following.

Stadler Gibbons was the headliner, and they gave the kind of performance that has kept me following them around for the last year. Mike has the fine pipes of an old folkie, as does Mary, and the musicianship is extremely high level. As a bassist, I appreciate Chuck's versatility and style, and Jon's pedal steel is out of this world.

The beer this time had to happen afterwards, since the Urban Island provided a solitary Thai food truck (the roti was tasty, but no alcohol was available). We went to the Hobnob bar nearby for a couple glasses of Arrogant Bastard Ale. Yum.

Sunday I shifted gears and listened to fine chamber music performances by the Summer Quartet (strings) and the Hillside Quintet (winds) at my local library. All nine people are members of the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra, of which I also am a member. Afterwards, some of the musicians went to a local Mexican restaurant for beer and, it turned out, some tasty food. (I had the golfos).

Now it, Monday, and time to get back to work!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Toyota Prius V - Bigger, but Thirstier

The Prius V has arrived! It provides more cargo space and practicality than the standard Prius, and is the third member of what is becoming the Prius family of cars. Besides the Plug-in Prius, a fourth model will arrive this year, the Prius C (compact, or, perhaps "cheaper"). The C will not offer significantly greater fuel economy numbers, but will be 19 inches shorter than the standard Prius and will, most importantly, have a lower entry price, bringing hybrid ownership to first-time compact car buyers.

The Prius has never been a particularly small car, but in the interests of maximum efficiency, it tapers down at the back.This gives it a coefficient of drag (cd) of just.25--excellent. The new V is more of a crossover/wagon configuration, with a more straight-back roofline and full vertical tailgate, so it rates at .29 for its cd. That, along with a weight gain of 232 pounds using the same 134 horsepower gasoline/electric powertrain, drops the fuel economy numbers. While the familiar Prius hatchback averages 50 mpg, the Prius V gets just 42. I averaged 38.8 mpg over my test week, which included a lot of freeway driving. Incidentally, the 0-60 time drops from 9.8 seconds to 10.4 with the V.

Those fuel economy numbers bring up an interesting point. One big difference between hybrids and normal cars is that the City rating for hybrids is usually higher than the Highway figure (it's 44/40 for the Prius V). So, oddly, if I had spent more time in town my average might have been a bit closer to the EPA's 42 mpg.

Toyota has made the Prius V feel a little more like a crossover SUV inside by giving it a more symmetrical and solid-looking dash panel. My Prius-owning neighbor noticed that the center console is not attached to the dash, so it feels more spacious up front. Of course the wagon-like practicality behind adds cargo space. Cargo space jumps from 21.6 cubic feet to 34.3 with the V, and with the seats folded, it can be up to 67.3 cubic feet--that's generous for a car that can get 40 mpg.

The price is a bit scary. My tester, a top-of-the-line level 5 model, was $36,692--approaching entry luxury territory. The list for the level 5 starts at $30,750, including shipping, but mine had the Advanced Technology Package, which added many things, including $5,580 to the bottom line. Prices for the Prius V level 2 start at a more affordable $27,160.

Prii for everyone! Stay tuned.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bill Maher - A Million Laughs, then a Million Bucks

Last night, I had the pleasure of experiencing a full hour of Bill Maher--in person. I had seen him before on TV when he'd open with a monologue and then sit down with guests to hash out the latest stories from the headlines. But live and in person works great for the 56-year-old comedian and social commentarian.

If you were brought up to be a nice boy or girl, your parents probably told you that to avoid trouble, don't bring up sex, politics or religion in the conversation. Well, Bill revels in talking about all three--sometimes at the same time.

It's natural that he'd go after the current trio of Republican presidential hopefuls, and he skewers Romney, Gingrich and Santorum with brilliant flair. In fact, it may have been the entire first half of his hour that was dedicated to tearing them apart, as only he can do it.

For religion, there's nothing like pointing out the documented weaknesses of the Catholic Church, in which the professed atheist Maher was brought up. Sex? Well, plenty of hilarious references to male and female sexual organs and things done with and to them. When he discusses old Catholic bishops' statements on a woman's reproductive rights (mixing sex, religion and politics in one topic!) he talks about "70-year-old virgins who wear dresses to work." Nice (big laugh, too).

If you're a liberal Democrat and not religious, like this crowd, Maher is your man, and he was in his element here in Silicon Valley, California. What was not expected, however, was his surprise announcement of a $1,000,000 donation to the president's political action committee. Maher first warned about not taking Obama's re-election for granted, despite what he sees as a crop of crazy men on the Republican side. Then he had two young women carry out one of those giant checks (see photo) and told of his support. He said, "I'm not a multi-millionaire, and this hurts," he said, but said he hoped that wealthy liberal Democrat donors would pitch in too, based on his example. Surely some smaller donations will be made today by those in the audience who are also worried about a Romney, Gingrich or Santorum presidency.

His CrazyStupidPolitics performance was streamed online as a debut of the Yahoo Screen Live Comedy Series, but being there in person was great fun and went all too quickly. When you're doing it live, when the show's over, it's over. No retakes.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

1947 Plymouth Sighted - a Happy Moment

Commuting back and forth to work 22 miles each way can become a grind. To ease the boredom, I listen to music, and that's fine. Sometimes I can use the Bluetooth connection and chat on the phone. But the real treat is to enjoy a car sighting--something special.

I've seen a late 1950's Chrysler, with its huge fins. Now and then a 40-year-old Volvo 1800s pops up, or even something like an original early 1970's Honda Civic. But when I see a car that's older than I am--it's pretty impressive.

Yesterday, on the way home, I saw that traffic was moving more slowly in the right lane. As I approached, in my futuristic silver 2012 Toyota Prius V, I saw why it was dragging. A 1947 Plymouth, serene in it's shiny tan paint and chrome bumpers, was rolling along at about 55 mph. Sweet!

The '47 was much like the '42, which was cut short for wartime production of military vehicles, so it looks especially tall and bulbous, even by the standards of the early 1950's. My scoutmaster, in the late 1960's drove a 1948 Chrysler that looked the same. What a fine beast that was--I rode in it at least once. A 20-year-old car really looked OLD back then, whereas a 1992 car on the road today wouldn't even attract attention.

I wonder what I'll see today? It'll be hard to top that Plymouth.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hyundai Veloster - Just for Fun

The Banana Car. Photo: Boundless Captures
I just spent a fun week with the new Hyundai Veloster, a compact and quirky vehicle. Showing up in "26.2 Yellow" didn't hurt--and it led to me calling the stylishly tapered ride the "banana car."

Hyundai has been producing nicer and nicer vehicles as they learn the lessons that Toyota and Honda did years ago. The materials and fit-and-finish need to be good and the value has to be there too. My little yellow car came well equipped, especially with its Style Package and Tech Package, which delivered such things as 18-inch wheels with matching yellow inserts, a panoramic sunroof, a premium audio system and various styling extras.

The best part of the car though, was its odd three-door configuration (not counting the convenient hatchback). On the right, the car has typical sedan doors--and a side pillar between them. The rear door's handle is hidden in its extreme upper right corner trim, so it's not immediately obvious. The driver's side, however, is like that on a coupe--one long door. I had fun demonstrating this to incredulous fellow parkers. And the funniest part is the window button panel on the door -- with two on the right and one on the left (see photo).

The hatch, with its quick-remove cargo cover, meant I could carry my bass and other stuff easily. Rear seating had enough legroom but headroom was quite tight thanks to the fastback design.

The Veloster, at this point, comes with one engine--Hyundai's 1.6-liter, 138-horsepower 4. Through a welcome six-speed manual transmission, it averaged an even 30.0 miles per gallon and was fun to point and shoot down the interstate. If you're looking for more dramatic performance, wait for a turbo model, but 30 mpg is nice to have, too. EPA numbers are 28 City, 40 Highway, 32 Average.

The stylists went to town on this car. Outside, its a festival of curves and lines, with interestingly scooped out areas next to the taillamps that make them larger elements. The front wears the fierce look favored by Hyundais these days. Inside, the silvery trim is applied jewelry, keeping your eye moving around the cabin. It feels substantial. The best odd element is the pair of door pull rings built into the armrests that project upward several inches.

My car's base price was just $17,300, but came to $21,300, plus shipping.

I could live long term with this car--it definitely fits my personality--especially in yellow.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Classic Cars to Help Returning Vets Reintegrate

I just heard about this great idea in the newsletter of American Collectors Insurance, the company that insures my 1956 Nash Metropolitan. The Road Home is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by a group of compassionate and generous automotive enthusiasts to connect returning veterans with social, training and employment opportunities. Think of all those old cars that need help, including my own (!) and it's a fantastic idea.

The network connects returning sailors, soldiers and airmen with any shops that are ready to put them to work. Here's what they say on their website:

We believe the automotive restoration industry is uniquely qualified to help provide social, training, and employment opportunities to returning American veterans of war. These individuals have skills and a strong work ethic, and many are struggling to get back to normal after life in the service.

What a great way to help those who take care of us to integrate back into civilian life.

Spread the word.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead - Moving

A lot of us realize that we are not eating the right food, and that our conditions--including fat bellies--come from those bad habits. But the world we live in here in 21st century America is filled with bad eating choices. What can you do to really make a difference?

Australian businessman Joe Cross was severely overweight, and ill for years with a condition that made him swell up with red splotches. But when he went on a fresh juice fast -- no solid food for two months--he regained his health. And not only that--he spread the word to others. What happens to Phil, a 429-pound truck driver from Iowa, is heroic and poignant.

This movement, known as Reboot Your Life, is going viral, as you can see on Facebook. There's nothing like a great example and a story you can  relate to to move you along. Although I don't have the issues that Joe and Phil do, I am still above my ideal weight, and my blood pressure is a little high. My wife and I are already making changes -- and we have one of those great Breville juicers. Next - a juice fast--but not for 30 or  60 days!

I need this.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Kia Rio - Small Car, Big Step Up

When you're selling in the lower end of the car market, it's easy to be dismissed as a cheap "econobox." The Kia Rio could be treated that way--but it would be a mistake. For 2012, it's not only better looking, but has the feel, inside and out, of a real car that's worth buying for its own sake--not just for the price.

Much of the goodness is its looks comes from the happy fact that Kia's design chief, Peter Schreyer, used to design Audis for a living. Everything Kia sells is getting a profound upgrade, and now, Kia's smallest vehicle in America has been hit with with the beauty brush (the opposite of an ugly stick). From the large headlight pods to the subtle scoops on the sides to the tightly integrated high taillamps,this car looks the part of a scrappy little hatchback now--or a tidy sedan, depending on which you choose.

I just spent a week driving back and forth to work and all over the place in a Signal Red Rio 5-door hatch. I got 29.6 miles per gallon in the process. It would probably have been a little higher if I had the manual transmission, but that's still quite good for a regular, non-hybrid vehicle.

Regarding the manual, it's available--but only on the LX base model, so ordering one would preclude some items I'd want, including Bluetooth, telescoping steering column and the standard audio system. The automatic worked fine with the 1.6-liter, 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and it wasn't too noisy in the cabin.

And what an interior you get now with this little car. While sister division Hyundai revels in swoops and curves, the little Kia is chunky and Teutonic--more like a VW Golf--and the flat, matte-finish dash is just one area where you can see the influence. The door armrests felt a little "sticky" with their soft plastic coating, but the overall sense of high quality, good design and attention to detail makes this car a whole lot nicer than the Kia Sephia I tested back in 1994.

Yes, the bass fits in there fine when you flip down the rear seats and remove the cargo cover. I had the scroll as an armrest, and it was the one time when I was glad I had an automatic.

My car, with SX model, with shipping, came to $18,545. Prices start at $14,350.

Things are going very well for the Korean manufacturers in the U.S. now, and that's because they're delivering what customers want--looks, features and price-and it's all backed up with a 10-year warranty.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Ramona Bar -- Candy Heaven

I remember when I was a kid, you'd open up a candy bar and it tasted wonderful. They were bigger then, and cost a nickel. I recall sitting with a Snickers of a Milky Way for a long time, nibbling away at its chocolate, nuts, and caramel.

Today, the bars are smaller, and maybe I'm just jaded, but they don't seem to taste as good.

So, when I heard about the Ramona bar, a supercharged, all-natural, top-quality version of the classic Snickers, I jumped at it.

In 2008, Double Dutch Sweets opened in Oakland, California to deliver super-quality candy. They targeted the Snickers, but used the finest chocolate, nuts and other ingredients they could find. They make the bars by hand and have a limited distribution network (although you can order then online).

Last night, my wife and I each sampled one. It was a little challenging breaking into the tightly-sealed wrapper, which, now that I think of it, was more like the form-fitted wrappers of the past and not one of today's machine-sealed plastic envelopes. The aroma of the chocolate burst forth, and with the first bite, I remembered that feeling of the perfect, intense flavor of a real candy bar.

About halfway through, I had actually had enough--they're so rich--but I carried on anyway. I'll have to be careful, because these treasures, despite weighing just 1.8 ounces, are $6 apiece. But they are worth it--for the occasional special treat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Day at the Antiquarian Book Fair

Yesterday, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print and Paper Fair. Having worked my first seven years after college for two distinguished rare book businesses, it was a happy homecoming. I also had the pleasure of reminiscing and learning about the state of today's antiquarian book world with my friend and former colleague, Jennifer Larson.

Antiquarian book fairs are amazing places to visit. Booth after booth features dealers from around the world showing off their best and most interesting wares. It could be a first edition of The Great Gatsby in its original paper dust jacket or a beautiful set of Shakespeare in handsome leather binding. I saw original drawings by Dr. Seuss, a case full of tiny miniature books, the first issue of Sports Illustrated (August 16, 1954), and a signed portrait of Margaret Thatcher. How about Harry Potter in the original British editions or a 1937 Coronation Souvenir book from the UK? Everywhere I walked there was something fascinating.

I was especially impressed by an amazing two-volume set of gorgeous plates of cities and monuments. Joan Blaeu's Theatrum Italiae from 1663 was so mind boggling that it took a 10-minute explanation from Paul Michael Dowling of Liber Antiquus to fully grasp the wonder of this item. Price? $75,000. See the photo.

Rare books can cost a lot, and so much is dependent on the true and perceived rarity. Jennifer explained how just as the Internet has made almost anything available to anyone anywhere with a checkbook, it has also discouraged some collectors, who are now aware of exactly how many copies of a book are available for sale at the moment. It reduces the urgency to own an item when it seems so easily found.

Despite this ease of location, there are still many surprises to be found. Don Lindgren, of Rabelais Inc., specialists in books on food, wine and the arts, explained that he can go into a shop that claims to have nothing he'd be interested in and turn up some treasures. Not everything is catalogued online, so the hunt continues.

I was impressed by the Judaica I found at Eric Chaim Kline's booth. Kline is a longtime expert in this field, and he kindly showed me some amazing old Hebrew bibles, books on Hebrew typography, and, two special treasures from his display case. The first was a Passover Haggadah from 1946, a slim paper volume printed right after World War II. It contained some shocking and painful depictions of concentration camps and the other horrors of the day. On a happier note from that period, a 1948 colorful book presented the story of emigration to an Israeli kibbutz for children, with sweet illustrations that would have helped the kids adjust to the move.

So much to see and talk about. How about a hand-drawn cartoon and letter from a San Quentin Prison inmate from 1935? A book from Adolf Hitler's personal library, with his bookplate (no thanks). I saw a sample book with hundreds of tiny skeins of silk in a rainbow of colors ($495).

Thanks to the Bonnetts of Windgate Press for sharing that delicious sandwich. Wayne was showing some beautiful automotive prints he's developing that may become available someday.

My community, San Francisco, hosts a major book fair every year in February. Be sure to see the 2013 fair, or look up one of the many dealers in your community. If you're in the Los Angeles area, their big fair, in Pasadena, runs February 10-12, 2012. You're sure to find something wonderful.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hyundai Accent Amazes

I just spent a very happy week with the new 2012 Hyundai Accent. The Accent is the Korean manufacturer's smallest car sold in America. It competes with other entry-level cars such as the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit.

The Accent is all new for 2012, offering hatchbacks and four-door sedans in three trim levels. All wear the company's swoopy, sculpted styling that has helped make the midsize Sonata sedan such a hit. The look successfully scales down to the Elantra compact and the now the Accent.

I had the hatchback, in a sober gray worthy of a Mercedes-Benz, but the car managed to have a cuteness mixed with a confidence in its own wheelbase. Inside the car, the sweep of the dash and doors, nice fit of the panels, lack of cheapness and remarkable solidity was impressive. There was plenty of rear legroom for adults. Hyundai, and the Accent, have come a long way.

My car was an SE--the sporty model--and it had, hooray, a six-speed manual transmission. There aren't that many around any more, with even the lowliest economy ride proferring an automatic. As it is, Hyundai has chosen to offer the manual as standard and the automatic as optional in each line. That's commendable, as the Accent's cousin, the Kia Rio, offers a manual only in the base car.

My tester was not base. I enjoyed Bluetooth for my phone, Satellite Radio, air conditioning (really standard everywhere these days), power windows, locks and mirrors (also pretty ubiquitous). A leather steering wheel and shift knob gave an upscale feeling, and the design itself was just right. Compared to the Ford Fiesta, which is a little overstyled, it seemed to be a balance between youthful exuberance and the kind of environment you wouldn't mind occupying for a few hours a day without getting distracted.

The Accent uses a 138-horsepower 1.6-liter engine that moved the car along smoothly and quietly, and delivered 32 miles per gallon. That's quite good. The EPA gives it ratings of 30 City, 40 Highway (34 average) and Green Vehicle Guide numbers of 6 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas (that's SmartWay-winning territory).

Prices start at just $12,545 for the GLS up to $15,895 for the SE, plus shipping. Hyundai vehicles have been attractively priced from the beginning, but they are today great cars to own and drive, even at the starting end of the market.