Tuesday, May 31, 2005

COOKIE..!! (Ahrm ahrrm ahrrm arrm...)


For the first time in my life, I voluntarily decided to bake cookies. Last time I baked was in secondary one home economics class, very nearly twenty years ago. The things kids drive you to do... Matt's cooped up at home with the rest of us chicken pox cases (luckily very mild ones, less than 5 visible spots each), so I thought we'd try something fun.

Well the recipe (idiot proof one on the back of the Hershey's chocolate chips packaging) was quite a big one, so I made to halve it. I certainly don't see us finishing all 5 dozen cookies as it promised to make! We actually had a roll of cookie sheeting and an electric hand-held whisk in the house already, so after Sean brought home the other ingredients, it was show time!

Expectedly, I forgot to halve the sugar and eggs, and dolloped the mix onto the tray too close, so it all ran together and became one big slab. Luckily still quite tasty! The second batch turned out rather better - with some flour added to the remaining mix, it was less runny, and we put them a little farther apart and Matt popped a Hershey's kiss on each one. I'm proud to say we have one solitary proper cookie, the rest were still connected here and there but were easily separated with a spoon before they cooled and hardened completely.

Anyway, they're out there cooling on the wire racks now, and I've to fend off Matt who's trying to steal them.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

(No) wonder(,) woman!

We happened to flip the TV channel to a re-run of Wonder Woman last Sunday morning. Matthew watched Linda Carter in action for a while, robustly full figured in her strapless top and satiny maxi-style, uh, shorts.

"Is that Superwoman?", he finally asked.

"No Matt, that's Wonder Woman."

He continued to watch a bit more.

"Is Wonder Woman Superman's mommy?"

----------

And what does an engineer say when he sees a not-so-well-endowed woman clad Hawaiian style in only shells and a grass skirt?

"The radius of the coconuts are too small."

Monday, May 23, 2005

Ford Focus MkII

I’d been anticipating this drive for so long, it felt strange when the moment finally came. Not that the car was weird or anything, I just wondered if it justified all the hoopla surrounding it…

Legacy
You see, my trusty MkI (but facelifted) Focus has done valiant duty for over three years and 115,000 km now, surviving the occasional g-force abuse and repeated snide comments about reliability and resale value along the way. It’s not let me down yet, and needless to say, I love it to bits. The adventurous styling still looks fresh after more than six years into production, the cabin and boot space are right up there with the best, the controls are simply-laid out with flawless ergonomics, and of course, there’s the drive.

Much has been written about the way the Focus rewrote the rulebooks regarding the way a mass-market family car should negotiate bends, so I’ll be brief. You will search in vain for a more finely honed front-drive chassis costing similar money, or for more precise and confidence-inspiring steering, regardless of asking price. Saying it was the class dynamic benchmark was like saying Michael Jordan was a decent basketball player.

But as with all things, it’s not perfect. The clutch has a high-ish biting point that takes getting used to, the low-speed ride is a little fidgety, wind and road noise kick in surprisingly early, and the 99hp engine lacks low-end grunt. Niggles for sure, and one that left me wondering about the follow-up, especially since the competition has closed the gap considerably in recent years.

Re-introduction
Wednesday was my first meeting with MkII. I can’t say it was love at first sight, because in my mind, the original still looks better. Each line and crease had purpose and destination, while the new car is a smoothened chocolate bar by comparison. Oh, and did someone say ‘Mondeo’? We had a chance to see both siblings side by side, and I’m convinced Ford saved a lot of design time by simply shrinking the Mondy’s front and rear lights, and morphing the bigger car to fit the new Ford/Volvo/Mazda chassis. After making cutting edge looks acceptable to the mainstream, this is nothing short of a regression. It manages to be handsome especially on the lovely five-spoke 17” wheels, but the Renault Megane and Opel Astra are far more striking.

Inside things are just as conservative. In an effort to out-Golf the Golf, Ford has gone the whole hog to make the dash look, well, boring. Straight lines and right angles replace swoops and slashes, and only anoraks would be able to see the oval vents as a visual nod to the previous car. The major controls are quite lovely to touch, and the top of the dash is moulded from soft feel materials. But move away from the driver’s personal space and things start turning quite grim. Scratchy plastics on the doors and ill-fitting door handle surrounds aren’t convincing at all.

And what’s this – blank switches? Now while most of you will not be surprised at having buttons in cars that don’t actually do anything, let it be known that my Focus has no blanks at all, and not because it was top-spec either. When a particular function wasn’t available, what the designers did was to combine two switches into one big button, rendering the whole ‘blank’ problem moot. And now… um, I’ve already said ‘regression’, haven’t I?

But my biggest static problem with the new car is the boot. Sure, the sedan is now actually prettier than the hatch (an odd reversal of fortunes compared with the MkI), but with the less frumpy looks there’s only 465 litres of luggage space, compared with the previous 490 litres. And what’s worse, it will not be able to swallow my daughter’s child seat upright, due to the reduced height. The hatch claims the largest boot in it’s class, on the other hand – 385 litres – and while it’s deep, it could again benefit from being a little taller. Blame the inclusion of a full size spare then.

So I walked away that day feeling slightly disappointed. It would need to produce a hell of a drive to impress.

Acid Test
At last on Saturday I got to do more than prod and poke at the plastics. Launch day saw us being ushered into a darkened room with loud music and lots of smoke. And amidst all the rah-rah-ing, the black curtain pulled back to reveal more static cars. Great. I left the others to ooh and ahh, and headed straight for a test drive. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with another current Focus owner, who agreed with my less-than-glowing initial impressions of the car. Sharing the same SE, he hopped into the test car as well when my turn came up. Not a wise move, my friend…

Now it may look different, but the new cabin certainly works as well as the old. If anything, there’s a better all-round range of adjustment for both seat and wheel, so I can avoid the slightly high-perched driving position of my own car. A wheelbase stretch of 25mm to 2640mm also means those at the back are just that bit more comfortable. And the middle rear passenger isn’t subjected to a head massage from the roof lining, an affliction of both the Volvo and Mazda cousins.

The information display between the chrome-ringed dials is a useful step up, telling you exactly which door isn’t properly closed, and thus avoiding those embarrassing circling-and-slamming routines I’ve had to endure. The left indicator stalk lets you fool around with the standard trip computer’s geeky details, while at the same time switches the gearbox’s behaviour between ‘Adaptive’ and ‘Sport’. I left it in the latter setting and hoped for the best.

The autobox allows for manual shifts, as well as the lazy ‘D’. The good news is that the quality of the shifts are excellent – butter-smooth and near-indiscernible. The bad news is that the speed of gear-swapping leaves much to be desired – I guess by ‘Sport’ Ford must have been referring to chess.

Not that the engine helped much. In yet another brilliant marketing move, Regent Motors decided to bring in the weedy 100hp engine variant, as opposed to its high-tech, variable-valve timing 115hp alternative. So between the gearbox’s leisurely responses, powerplant’s lack of power and the extra weight, you could quite rightly conclude that building up momentum isn’t one of the new Focus’ fortes.

But once at speed things brighten considerably. The cabin remains quiet and relaxed, apart from a little engine noise. The new electro-hydraulic steering works well, and being speed-sensitive means that it remains light at parking speeds, while weighting up nicely at higher velocities. Slowing down is not a problem either, the brakes being both meaty and progressive. And very effective – the afore-mentioned Focus owner must have regretted his decision to join me when I did an unannounced ABS test.

And when we entered some corners, the Focus really rolled up its sleeves and dug in. The chassis at once stable and nimble, with fabulous body control, accomplishing whatever you ask of it without batting an eyelid. It comes with ESP (Electronic Stability Programme) as standard, and the system reacts to on-the-limit situations such as a wet road, by easing off the throttle and braking the appropriate wheels where necessary. It works flawlessly but I suspect on a dry road under good circumstances one could do without it, because the balance of the car is so inherently predictable.

I attacked the same corner a couple of times, going faster each round, but the Focus just tucked in and shrugged it off, providing fine adjustability all the way. When the chassis, steering, throttle and brakes work in concert like this, you have more time to think and react to the conditions, instead of fighting the car’s waywardness. And that is why I’ll take active safety over a gazillion airbags any day.

The one dynamic disappointment was the level of absolute grip available - I took on the same bends in my car after the test and pulled through with much less squealing rubber. Okay, I’ll put that down to the comfort-oriented nature of the test car’s tyres and their higher profile (195/65-15 vs 195/60-15 of the MkI). The new Focus looks like a sissy anyway on 15” wheels, upgrade to 16”s or better yet 17”s if you get the chance.

Decisions
The Focus sedan costs $76,900 at launch, while the hatch commands an additional $1,000 premium. At this price, the Megane and Astra are it’s closest competition. Citroen’s C4 should be in the fight, but is absurdly $10,000 dearer, straying perilously close the Golf territory. If one was looking for a hatch, I’d have to bite my lip and go with the Opel. It’s far better-looking than the Focus, is generally better finished inside, and more importantly, has a superior engine gearbox combination. The Renault has the most comfortable ride of the bunch and the most toys, but the shortened wheelbase compared with the saloon robs it of valuable space.

However,there isn’t an Astra 4 door (yet), so if a sedan is needed then the choice is between the Focus and Megane. Here the French car wins the space race, especially in the boot, which is positively massive. The Focus though is not just wheeled transport, it’s a driving tool. And for keen drivers you still cannot find a better car in its class. The newcomer has been honed to achieve a refinement the MkI lacked, and yet its dynamic attributes are as precise as ever. I know I’d pick the Focus, but it wins only by a razor-thin margin.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Kimi's Humour

I love reading Kimi Raikkonen's press conferences, watching them are another matter - his mumbles are mostly indecipherable, so I leave those to the experts to translate. Anyway, he's no toastmaster, so his answers tend to be totally to the point, and refreshingly-free from BS. Here's another gem, taken from Wednesday's Monaco GP pre-race press conference. This journalist obviously hasn't been following the 2003-4 seasons, where McLaren's spectacular unreliability resulted in many a thrown steering wheel and pushed marshall...

Q: (Byron Young - Speed Sport News) Kimi, have you ever got angry about anything, and jumped up and down and shouted?
Raikkonen: Yeah, many times but of course you're not happy if you retire or something but I guess it mostly happens more in normal life than in racing.
Q: (Byron Young - Speed Sport News) Can you give us examples?
Raikkonen: No, not really.
Q: (Byron Young - Speed Sport News) What are the kind of things that make you angry in normal life, as you say?
Raikkonen: If you keep asking (questions like those)...

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Heartbeat

According to Matthew, hearing his own heartbeat through the stethescope when playing doctor-and-patient means that "Jesus is playing drums in my heart".

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Alt - Episodes II+III

I've never been satisfied that Padme fell for Anakin. He's SO infantile. It should have been this way instead:

Obi-Wan, being the cool dude he is, most naturally captures the heart of likewise mature and responsible Padme. She opens her heart to him hoping against hope that they will somehow find a way to be together although he is a celibate Jedi. However, being SO good, he remains true to his vocation and will not allow their mutual love to be fulfilled.

Anakin meanwhile also falls for Padme, and taking advantage of her hurt, wins her over with his selfish persistence. He doesn't realise that she finally accepts him only because she had to show Obi-Wan that she really didn't care about him, to salvage her fatally wounded feelings and pride.

Then one fine day when Anakin is baring his soul to Padme about his temptation by the Dark Side (after a lot of build up showing how it's trying to lure him), she grows totally disgusted with his self-absorption and drops the bombshell that Obi-Wan would never have even been tempted. Anakin realises she has continued to love Obi-Wan all this time. He watches her carefully, (they still have dealings with Obi-Wan), and one day confronts her in a terrible showdown. She breaks, weeping openly for Obi-Wan for the very first time.

And THAT's why Anakin turned to the Dark Side.

Sad thing is, Padme will not allow herself to leave Anakin even though she loves Obi-Wan, because her children are Anakin's, and she will not betray the father of her children. But she pines away, and on her deathbed she tells Obi-Wan that she wishes the children were his.

There. I for the life of me can't see how Padme could possibly have fallen for Anakin, the way he was portrayed in the actual Episode II. Also, sheer hunger for power alone is unlikely to be enough to turn a man completely evil. I think the emotional angle is a lot more plausible - there's got to be a great enough trigger that tipped the scales and allowed the Dark Side to finally get hold of him - because of his anger and hate. That's how they get at people, not merely by promising power and glory alone. You've got to start with anger. Which turns to hate. Leading to suffering.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The pox!

Matt's got it. Minimal treatment. I went and got the shot, yes, post-exposure, but better than nothing. We'll be taking Sarah for it tonight. He's ok so far, and understands very well about not scratching. Hope he can keep it up. He'll have to miss Dad's and Nicole's baptism this Saturday, and his school sports day that same day, basically quarantined for two weeks or until the scabs are fully crusted/fallen off.

UPDATE Thu 12 May 2005: I brought Sarah and our helper for their jabs last night. Sarah didn't complain at all at the doctor's, in fact she immediately climbed up on the examining table, pulled up her shirt to expose her belly and lay there waiting for the doctor. Not a peep from her when the dose was administered. But she cried like mad at home when we removed the little plaster before her bath! Goodness. Anyway, now it's fingers crossed the vaccine works on all of us.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

4 years old

Yup, he's that. We had a little tub of chocolate ice cream with four lighted candles on it to celebrate, last night. And a McDonald's party at the West Coast branch last Friday evening with his classmates and cousins. Has it been this fast?

Some gems he can come up with, when we explained death to him at Pope John Paul II's recent passing: "Why God is so good, make people die?"

Or, "Daddy, I want eternal life!" OK to be fair he's actually asking for that Jeff Buckley song to be played on the car stereo.

To me, he said once, "When you eat too much, you'll get a baby." To me, mind. "If daddy eats too much he'll just grow bigger".

And he's become quite good with remote-controlled toy cars and Tocar and Colin McRae and Need For Speed - Sean's got a Logitech steering wheel and pedals set which Matt operates with ease now.