Monday, December 23, 2019

Season’s Greetings; questions we have been asked …

Of late Margo and I have been asked many questions about what we are doing for Christmas, the New Year and beyond. At this time of year it is so different for each of us – Margo growing up in Warsaw and enjoying snow at Christmas whereas for me and my family, it was all about making jokes of a Santa Clause in traditional garb trying his best not to falter under the blistering Aussie sun. As you may recall Margo and I spent this time of year in Sydney only twelve months ago and the memories are returning with a vengeance. With snow on the ground all around us, a little warmth would be much appreciated. And yet the memories of that trip continue to linger if only for another chance to sit on shores of Sydney Harbor.

I was about to add how I sure wish we were both back in Sydney, but as they say, be careful what you wish for in case it comes true! No, reading each morning of the devastating bushfires that blaze out of control with some sources telling us the fire line stretches 10,000 kilometers does not seem too appealing. Like a jagged coastline weaving in and around headlines, the fire cannot be measured in straight lines but has to account for all the twists and turn it takes so I have to wonder about the longer term impact. Will we be able to see Australia’s famous bushland any time soon? Will the koalas, kangaroos and king parrots be welcoming us? Will we be able to turn around and see Sydney’s Opera House and Harbor Bridge all at once?

Then again, Australia is one of the most resilient landscapes on the planet even as it set the record for the hottest place on earth just a few days ago; the average across the continent touched 49.9 Celsius last time I checked and that’s 121.82 Fahrenheit! And that’s the average across a continent barely a few hundred square miles smaller than continental USA. But high temperatures only tell part of the story. The question we get the most living here alongside the Rocky Mountains is how could you possibly live in such a country? A desolate terrible island continent – how could you possibly love such a place? Is it possibly a foretaste of the inhospitable lands facing those planning on populating Mars, for instance? 

I first flew coast to coast in 1981 on a trip that would take me from Sydney to Singapore and then on to Europe. The flight would last 8 plus hours but for the first 5 plus hours we flew over Australia. Taking a southeast to northwest route and crossing at Derby, the one thing that struck me was that looking out of my window all I could see were waves of crimson earth. For hour after hour; you just don’t get to appreciate how desolate the country really is until you see it from the air. But at the same time you quickly come to understand why the country’s population clings to a few hundred miles of coastline along its south eastern shores.

Source: Getty

At this time of year with the fires raging up and down the coast and far inland, it’s hard to ignore the words of the poem “My Country” penned a little more than a century ago by a very homesick young lass, Dorothea Mackellar:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!
Yes, her beauty and her terror – until you drive over the crest of the highway to see the whole horizon ahead of you nothing but a billowing roiling cloudlike mass telling a story of its own: Devastation and loss. And yet, the country bounces back so quickly that in little more than a year, the leaves are appearing on blackened tree trunks and quickly mask all that transpired just a short time ago. My father spent many a day on the fire lines whether it was in the bush directly opposite our family home located as it was on the edge of a National Park or up at our holiday rental hundreds of miles up the coast. Blackened, blistered exhausted after dodging flames and yes, snakes too, there were many times where these fires only died down with a change in the weather. 

Drought, fires, floods and yes, flies and other pests – you can see it all back home in Australia. And it would be remiss of me not to highlight how California today shares much of the same flora as Australia thanks to the importation of Eucalyptus trees more than a century ago. Some disingenuous entrepreneur thought that their quick growth coupled with their straight tree trunks would make ideal railway ties, that is until California’s termites feasted on them faster than railway workers were able to set them in place. Today, we all witness dreaded fires up and down California’s famous coastline thanks to a much unwanted forest of Aussie imports! 

Before we get deeper into what Margo and I will be doing at this time of year – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the New Year and beyond, our conversations quickly turn to this time last year. In reality despite the headlines, it’s tough to ignore how different Christmas in Sydney really is – with summer temperatures pushing the mercury well beyond the century mark, it’s a time to enjoy the great outdoors with cricket, tennis and golf contests high on the list of pass-times that draw huge crowds. There is always an international “test match” between cricketing nations held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Australian Open tennis championships are taking place even as there continues to be a continuation of Golf Championships featuring many international golfing stars.

But most of all Christmas means family time. It’s the one big event of the year that brings together entire families. Australia, naturally enough, doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving and there are no other festivals around this time of year so Christmas is it! Gathered outside, ducking the ever present flies, families settle around tables enjoying everything that makes it onto the grill. These days, with the cosmopolitan makeup of the bigger cities together with the inclusive nature that comes naturally to all Australians, the Christmas Lunch is a time of celebration. And then, it’s off to the beach for a surf – there’s not too many places where you can say that.

For many Australian families it’s a time too to pack up and head to the holiday home for a much-needed rest. Christmas time is also the time when schools shut down and universities fall quiet. Anywhere from six weeks to nearly three months of down time means lots of holiday time that is spent either on the beach or on travel abroad. No matter where you might find yourselves at this time of year, if you listen hard enough there is bound to be a party of Australians nearby. For Margo and me, living in Colorado, it’s easy to suggest we look at Australia with rose-tinted glasses and in some respects we do. But Colorado is our home and we have spent many more Christmases here together than anywhere else. 

Yes, that is my brother Greg relaxing at the end of the table. And among the many questions Margo and I field at this time of the year has to do with our families. Greg is surrounded by his wife, Robyn and my sister Judy and closer to the camera but just out of view is our daughter, Lisa. This is such a traditional spread that is almost impossible to recreate in Colorado – spot the jar of Vegemite, the sausage and the chicken satay, the tomato sauce (not ketchup) and yes, bottles of  wine and beer. The beer is James Squire’s One Fifty Lashes of IPA – the name coming from the fact that it was the convict James Squire who, after stealing ingredients from the stores to brew the infant colony’s first batch of beer, was caught and the judge ordered him flogged with one hundred and fifty lashes. And yes, plus two barrels of the ale! Or, so the story goes ...

Heading into the city of Sydney for last minute shopping is not too different from last minute shopping in any other major city around the world. Except, that is, for the mad dash across any given streets and into the first air conditioned shop you can find. Sydney was under construction last year and while the trams have started running and more streets are closed to vehicular traffic, it’s apparently still very much a construction zone as overhead cranes continue to dominate the skyline. Then again, there were many highly-decorated Christmas Trees adorning almost every vacant space the city of Sydney affords.

 But then again, in my lifetime Sydney has grown from a city populated by barely a million residents whereas now, with 2020 fast approaching, the same city is host to more than five million Sydney-siders. And it’s still growing. In daylight, it seems to be heaving under the extra weight as tunnels continue to be drilled, structures continue to be torn down and yes, increasing less-tolerant Sydney-siders continue to yell for this or that! What I did miss seeing were the many fruit barrows that dotted the city streets that sold fresh produce picked up at the markets earlier in the day – fresh strawberries! fresh cherries! and much more!

On the other hand, Christmas by night is a revelation. A quick trip north to visit my cousin Mark and his wife Sue landed us in the middle of a proverbial wonderland. My brother had warned me that Margo and I might not be fully prepared for what we would see and clearly as we entered the street, we were not. Every imaginable Christmas icon and every possible combination of lights transformed the street into a northern hemisphere village. Even as the temperature still hovered around the century mark, it was hard not to feel transported to a very different place. And cousin Mark was right in the thick of things with perhaps the most ornate of presentations of all!

This year, it all starts with Christmas Eve as traditionally, for Margo it’s been all about the night before Christmas. We will be heading down to the home of our daughter Anna and her family. With three grandchildren there will be plenty of toys handed out. It’s a whole lot of fun for the little ones even as it will be borderline chaos for everyone else – fully expected and yes, a tradition that I am familiar with dating back to when all of the Buckle clan gathered at the Sydney suburban home of my parents. There isn’t any forecast for snow that I can see, unfortunately but hey, it’s Colorado so weather can change in an instant. Decorations are already hanging in our Windsor home even as boxes of wrapped gifts litter the floor of Margo’s office.

Then again, traditions very much have their place in all of our lives. You may call them routines or even habits and practices but there is something reassuring about re-enacting events steeped in our own families’ histories. In rural Colorado, there are fir trees liberally decorated in lights everywhere you turn and the short trip into Ft Collins one evening last week meant that for Margo and me, we saw that city beautifully illuminated for the very first time! Yes, it was a pretty sight.

But perhaps the biggest question asked of us at this time of year concerns the New Year. Where will we be celebrating? What parties will we be attending? For readers of posts to this blog who follow our travels each year, where we have been in 2019 will be no surprise.  Equally, it should be no surprise to read that Margo and I will be celebrating quietly, at home. For us and with only one exception, we have never made it to midnight on any previous occasion. As for the exception well, of course, it was last year on Sydney Harbor as we watched millions of dollars in fireworks erupt across the harbor and surrounds.

Even so, our thoughts will be returning to Australia as the news of fires continue to be posted with awful videos of blazes rising higher than Sydney’s Opera House – yes, walls of 70 meter high flames.  
And yet, it’s hard to forget a stanza in that poem by Dorothea Mackellar who captured the heartache along with the hope that has been ever-present across all of Australia at this time of year:

Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

To all of our friends – and in this case, particularly our Aussie mates – we wish you the very best for the holiday season. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Cause the power you're supplying It's electrifying!

As a car-focused family and just one of many families that simply abhor flying for any reason, we are often asked about our thoughts on future prospects of electric vehicle ownership. Throw into this line of questioning autonomous vehicles and you get the picture. Surely, isn’t it time to modernize your vehicle purchase “metrics” to better reflect imminent changes? Even here, in Northern Colorado, any drive around our township will highlight just how many Nissan Leafs and Tesla Model S, X, 3s whatever can be seen standing on driveways. I have to admit, when Tesla first announced it is taking orders for its then-upcoming Model 3, it was hard to ignore the many texts I received from excited folks who had placed orders for this latest Tesla.

As a car-focused family we continue to be inundated with statistics on just how fast today’s electric cars have become and yes, given access to the full amount of torque on hand as soon as the “gas pedal” is slammed to the floor, the numbers speak for themselves. And now that Porsche has entered the fray with its Taycan - both Porsche and Tesla are out on track at the Nürburgring trying to outdo each other over fastest lap times – isn’t our pragmatism becoming somewhat flawed? Any lap time around the ‘Ring in the vicinity of seven minutes, naturally enough, is a lap time that cannot be ignored, right? Even the new Jaguar iPace is attracting devotees and if you are a decent driver with lots of track experience, you can fork out $600K plus to join those who would like to compete in these Jaguar SUVs at Jaguar-sponsored races as part of the ABB Formula-E track weekends. 

At recent conferences and events it has been hard to miss the promotional pursuits of major technology vendors and at the HPE big-tent marketing events held each year in Las Vegas, there were private briefings from Virgin team driver, Sam Bird - along with a HPE technician from the team supporting the Formula-E program – and their excitement over Formula-E couldn’t be suppressed. It was impressive gaining an insight into how competitive this Formula-E series is becoming even as it was hard to ignore the enthusiasm from those racing these electric formula cars. Sure wish each of them could pipe to the spectators the sound of the former V10 engines we so loved to hear back when BMW has one of the best V10 engines in the paddock. 

It still did not do much to persuade either Margo or me to jump onto the electric car bandwagon or, dare we say, become active participants in the electric car hysteria. In the latest issue of one car magazine a whole page was devoted to upcoming models of electric cars that featured horsepower numbers equivalent to 2,000 hp with absolutely unbelievable times projected for the 0 – 60mph dash. Exciting? Electrifying? Most definitely – for some and perhaps not us! Surely, if everyone is talking about Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) does this imply that Margo and I have our heads in the sand? Are we going to be the odd-ones out?  As much as BEVs are hyped today, there is a little wrinkle that represents a starting point; hybrids! As it happens to be, hybrids in technology just happen to be what Margo and I follow and write about so it should come as no surprise that hybrid cars appeal to us both!

When our local BMW dealer handed us the keys to their demo hybrid i8, we thought well, naah! This isn’t for us. Then we drove it and everything changed. At the time, we were giving financial information to the local Corvette dealer as we were negotiating the price of a black on black Corvette Z06 (with yellow stitching and matching yellow brake calipers) – a thing of beauty. But when it comes to beauty, we were wowed by the i8. Definitely not a track car, but then again, no slouch either. We were both surprised. Futuristic and yes, a little heavy but just the thrill of driving this i8 was unmistakable. It took a while to get the price right but we did end up leasing the “White Knight” and well, the rest is history. We drove it to Toronto and back and yes, we drove it multiple times to the West Coast. On our first trip to Texas, we averaged around 70 mpg even as we drove it “energetically!” Sometime later I managed to score a drive in the all-electric BMW i3 but it did nothing for me and I suspect that this essentially sealed the deal for us – hybrids were the future!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in our daily business lives indeed not a day passes without some reference to Hybrid IT. Early on, Hybrid IT was about accessing multiple public clouds but today, it’s a reference to a data center with mixtures of traditional computer systems, collections of servers virtualized and running what is referred to as a private (on-premise) cloud as well as network connections to one or more public cloud service providers. This trend brings together the best of both worlds – the opportunity to keep running the applications already deployed while capitalizing on the cheaper storage and services that come with clouds. Of course there is talk that, eventually, all of IT will be running “in the cloud” and the data centers and mainframes we hear so much about will simply fade away – relegated to the technology scrapheap that is a reoccurring theme among all users of technology.

The similarities are inescapable – “it’s a software world, after all!” And if you still doubted this, imagine the surprised responses when articles began appearing questioning how IT professionals will respond when the cost of the processor chips falls to zero! Yes, zero; any wonder then that they are showing up in the vehicles we buy today, willy-nilly. When you consider the software in our “drive-by- wire” BMW i8 and yes, it has two separate gearboxes managed by a computer, the mere fact that is a reliable form of transportation is quite amazing. The vehicle is an automatic but with the option of being in sports mode where gears can be selected by column mounted paddles. The steering is electric as is everything else which, in eliminating the mechanicals reduced the vehicle’s overall weight, helping offset the weight of the battery pack, naturally enough. But it’s all about the software and should you be a member of the i8 Facebook community, you will know just how many “software glitches” have been reported by owners of the early models. 

When it came time to return the White Knight earlier this year, we “ummed” and “ahed” about with what to replace the i8 coupe – the newly released i8 roadster was a considerably more expensive vehicle and at first, not even considered by us as an option. While we had a 2015 coupe and experienced only the annoying issue of being unable to open the fuel cap when it came time to top up the gas, it had been smooth driving all the way. But what about another Corvette? 

Should we trade our old Corvette Z06 for another new seventh generation track-focused Corvette Z06? What about the ZR1 – a real supercar if ever there was one! However, when it came time to show up at the dealer with the i8 coupe that last time, we elected to do nothing. We had leased a Jaguar F Type and were in the process of replacing the Jeep SRT with a Range Rover Evoque so, what the heck, why did we need another vehicle? But then, a matter of half a year later, the earth turned substantially on its axis. We made that heart wrenching decision to sell our company command center – the RV – together with our car hauler and yes, the 2003 Corvette Z06.   
Even for us Fools for NonStop – check the tee-shirts – it was a tough call when we finally decided to part with the rig. Our good friends had opted out of track weekends and that essentially diminished the social aspect of the sport for Margo and me, adult beverages and grilled steaks notwithstanding. On the other hand, the market for such big rigs is almost non-existent so we were beginning to run out of ideas when a casual conversation with Steve, our Corvette sales manager, triggered a series of events that led to us swapping it all for another hybrid vehicle – yes, an i8 Roadster that sat on the showroom floor for nine months and was given such a price reduction that we were able to lease it for the same amount as we had leased the i8 coupe! We swapped the White Knight for the Black King! Just think about it – for a list price some thirty percent more than the coupe, you could get a roadster that didn’t have a back seat, no roof and diminished luggage space – a true deal, eh?

And what about BEVs? Was there ever consideration for leasing a pure electric vehicle – did Tesla come into the picture at any point, for instance? What about that Jaguar iPace? But here’s the thing; we live in the western state of the US, where roads go on forever. For Margo and me it’s always been about finding that perfect backroad that takes us two hundred plus miles into the middle of nowhere. Blame it on the “wanderlust gene” – yes, it does exist, identified as the gene variant   DRD4-7R that we both believe was passed down from our respective parents – but just the thought of heading out the front door is enough to get us anxious to just well, leave! It’s not a bad attribute to have even if it has driven our respective families a little crazy from time to time. 

We have the good fortune to be living in Colorful Colorado and so there really isn’t any need to hide our wanderlust. Everyone we know takes to the mountains at every opportunity and any time of year. Just in our small crooked street here in Windsor, happily enough called Sanctuary Drive, we have a mix of Maseratis, Porsches, BMWs, Jaguars, Audis, Corvettes and track-ready Camaros and much more – and this is just in the surrounding twenty plus homes that have sprung up since we moved in. Maybe it’s time to hold our own “Coffee and Cars” Saturday afternoon. But electric cars? Haven’t seen any as yet, but they will probably turn up. On both occasions we walked away from buying the Series Seven (C7) Corvette Z06 instead preferring the i8, but what about the new C8 Corvette mid-engine offering? Couldn’t you have waited? Readers of posts to this blog may recall our liking for a mid-engine vehicle and have frequently written about the Audi R8 and the Lamborghini Gallardo so wouldn’t this latest addition to the Corvette family be of interest?

Longer term, perhaps. But for now the i8 answers the immediate question concerning mid-engine placement but there’s more to the story. As already noted, when it comes to hybrid we are big fans and when it comes to software we have a lot of experience. The first batch of C8 Corvettes features millions of lines of “new code” – the transmission control unit (TCU) alone has two million lines of brand new code - all to handle torque delivery through different transitions. So when it comes to the long view we are taking, it doesn’t rule out the C8 Corvette, but we would like to see the specifications of the yet-to-be announced C8 Z06 which many Corvette pundits believe will be a hybrid along similar lines as our i8. That is, mid-engine driving rear wheels and electric motors adding torque (and some power) to the front wheels. Goodness knows how many lines of new code that will involve so it’s a much longer term prospect. Having said this, this latest Corvette admittedly is a pretty car …
I have left to last comments about autonomous driving. Simply put, I suspect that this is a long way off given the amount of one step forward, two steps back we read about today. Driver-assist will continue to develop but the reality is that given the real world we live in there is simply too many variables and I have to believe the insurance companies have yet to come to terms with suing a robot. When you go on track in any of today’s modern cars, once you have learnt “the track,” you begin turning off the nannies that constantly step in and overrule your decision making – want to wear out your front brake pads? Leave the nannies on and you will be very surprised at how much behind the scenes brake steering is being attempted. No, if you are a driver, then autonomous driving as it stands today will intercede at disturbing times – no, I don’t want to slam on the brakes right now? I am in the middle of a no-lift lane change and yes, I know I will safely clear the car ahead in my current lane. But no, up come flashing red lights and in some instances on hard go the brakes. Stupid …

Autonomous cars may make it onto our roads in one capacity or another but their presence will be limited. Possibly limited to small city centers and limited to just one car type. Why am I so hard on autonomous driving and the cars so equipped to step out into the traffic – it’s the software! We just don’t have fast enough processors to handle every potential vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication it would take (even with 5G or 6G), and we don’t have standardized infrastructure in place that would be mandatory for such vehicles to operate safely. At best, we will still be required to sit in front of a steering wheel, feet close to the controls and yes, paying attention to our surroundings all of the time. Perhaps Boston Dynamics will succeed in having us all purchase only robotic dogs in the future!

As for the near future and considering our desire to eventually reduce the number of cars we lease, it’s looking more and more likely we will reduce the number to just three cars. With winter setting in there is plenty of opportunities to talk about what comes next and if we are serious with hybrids then the next SUV will likely be a hybrid leaving us open to just one nice car. When you consider we have the BMW i8 and the BMW M4 Competition, this pretty pale blue Bentley Continental Margo sighed heavily over represents something that’s simply less expensive … it is pretty, isn’t it? And it’s not a BEV and there’s no attempted autonomous driving feature onboard. Possibly the last of this era: What do you think? From White Knight to Black King to the Blue Fairy; makes sense doesn’t it? Perfect!