Top Tier TV Pick #3 – Good Omens

When you find yourself watching a mini-series 4 times, it probably means you liked it.  Maggie and I rarely share the same affection for television programs. So when we are both uncompromisingly enthusiastic about a production, you can be sure it’s special.  And Good Omens is quite special.  Here’s why.

Good Omens, video seriesBesides a 1930’s Bentley, it has the apocalypse and its four horsemen, angels, demons, magic, a hell hound, a flaming sword, the Antichrist and witches.  It is based on a brilliant novel written by two amazing writers – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  The show stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant, a pair of terrific British actors at the top of their game.  American actors Jon Hamm, Frances McDormand and Michael McKean also play key roles, and Englishman Benedict Cumberbatch shows up, too.

What most drives this unabashedly endorsement is that it is pure fun – every single minute.  We’ve suggested it frequently to friends and been rewarded with grateful thanks every time, without exception.  Like the movie “The Princess Bride,” it does not get old.  Suddenly one of us will think of a particular scene, say one of the ones with Michael McKean and Miranda Richardson, and before we know it, the other one is laughing and we’re saying, “Oh God, let’s watch it again.” You’ll find it on Amazon Prime and, rumor has it, there will be another season starting soon.

Look, mom! A Barbie Boat

boat on a trailer

Living in New York in the early 90’s I caught a clip on television of a new radical boat from Bombardier’s Sea-Doo division called the “Speedster.”  This jet boat, weighing less than 1500 lbs., generated over 170 horsepower from twin Rotax marine rotary engines.  The clip showed the boat launching from ramp-like waves and flying through the air.  With its light weight, power and agility and 55 mph top speed, it sounded to me like my Lotus Elan, but for the water.  A bit of research led me to a dealer in Mt. Kisco, New York.  He had three Bombardier jet boats in stock, but only one with the twin engines, and it cost more.  But, he said, it was so quick, there were rumors it might be withdrawn by Bombardier for safety reasons and he wasn’t allowed to order any more.  Maybe it was too fast and dangerous? Either he was a superb salesperson and had me perfectly pegged or I was the biggest sucker born, but in a matter of hours, I was pulling this new boat and trailer into my driveway.  I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Having this boat on the Hudson River north of New York City was a hoot.  Nearly all the boats on the river were far larger. This “rocket ship for the water,” as it was to become known, was a blast to drive. On several occasions we made the 35-mile trip to Manhattan, circling NYC amongst monstrous cruise ships, powerful tug boats and high-speed cigarette-style speedboats. When sitting still or slowly trolling through the water, it looks a bit like a floating hot tub.

One afternoon, meandering slowly along the city’s west side, I began getting some derisive, NY-style trash talk from a hotshot captain of a 40+ foot, twin outboard engine racing-type boat, I challenged him to a race.  I pointed to the end of a pier about a quarter of a mile down the shore, and suggested we see who could get there first. With several people in his boat egging him on and a host of onlookers, he was eager to shut me up.  We lined up and pointed our respective craft toward the pier, about five football fields away.  Someone on his boat yelled “Go.”  We were off!  As his engines roared to life his props began wild and noisy cavitations, while my two internal engine impellers promptly launched my lightweight little boat out of the water and toward the pier.  We must have been 200 yards beyond the bigger boat before he’d managed to get his ride onto a plane.  His boat weighed at least 10,000 lbs. empty, and he had 5-6 people in it.  It really was no contest, given the short distance.  When I reached the goal-line pier, I did another thing my little speedster was great at, which was to turn on a dime and stop, calmly sitting in the water for 5-6 seconds waiting for the larger boat to come screaming by.  After he’d finally turned around and pulled his boat close to mine, the chagrinned captain and his amused passengers were intrigued. They had tons of questions about my little boat and they passed us over a few beers from their onboard refrigerator.

Cockpit of the See-Doo Speedster

I loved my little boat. In my mind, it was indeed much like my Lotus Elan — far faster and better-performing than anyone realized.  Captaining the diminutive craft, I secretly thought of myself as Mario Andretti on the water, capable of out-driving, out-running and flat out putting other boats to shame. One day Ginger and I were loading the boat onto its trailer at Croton-on-Hudson’s Senasqua Park boat launch.  As I pulled it out of the water with blond-haired, 8-old Ginger in the driver’s seat of the boat, my car window was down. I couldn’t help but hear the excited squeal of a young girl as she ran from the swing sets towards the boat ramp area with her arm outstretched, pointing at our boat and calling “Mommy, look, look, there’s a Barbie boat.” I was shocked. I fumed, “What could she possibly mean? This is a macho screaming high-performance jet boat!”  As I got out of the car to strap the boat to the trailer, I gradually began to see it in a new light.  “Okay, it’s color scheme ‘sort of’ looks like it ‘could’ have come from a collection of Barbie accessories, and it is kind of small.”  Ginger guided the little girl around the boat and with her mother’s blessing, helped her up so she could sit inside it.  She was beyond thrilled and I finally had to laugh.  And from then on, it lost its powerful and dangerous mystique and became “the Barbie boat.”

Moving to Minnesota a few years later turned out to be a boon for the boat.  You may not have heard, but Minnesota has an above-average population of lakes, as does nearby Wisconsin.  The Barbie boat became the ideal cabin accessory for my daughter and her cousins and my in-laws.  They all learned to drive it and parents learned to relax as they realized it had no dangerous props and how much fun the kids were having pulling each other around on inflatable water toys.  The boat was a hit at the annual Net Perceptions family picnic, although I was never able to get our CEO, Steven Snyder into it, but many employees had a great time.

The boat made the trek to Arizona. Pulling it behind our SUV, we were  driving along the Colorado River just east of Moab, UT, when I saw a spot where we could drop the boat into the water and so we did.  It was a beautiful, fun afternoon, although Maggie was nervous about what laws we might be breaking. We enjoyed the Sea-Doo for a few years on the man-made lakes in Arizona, zipping in and out of the water-flooded canyons. But with Ginger gone and her cousins visiting less and less, I finally let it go.  While it morphed in my mind to “the Barbie Boat” many years ago, it is always pleasing to see nautical sites refer to it as one of the greatest boats ever made.

End

P.S.  You can find the full specs on the boat here.  It’s full name is the Sea-Doo Sportster 4-TEC

On the lakes in Minnesota, pulling kids on inflatables
Three across seating keeps you nicely wedged in when doing rapid turns and jumping waves.

Disproportionately High Value – Episode 3

Writing for Motorcycle Consumer News magazine, I watched for things to enhance a rider’s ability to enjoy, maintain or repair their motorcycles.  When I found, bought and wrote about JIS screwdrivers, it generated a great deal of reader mail.

As regular subscribers to my newsletter know, this series is about items or experiences which turn out, in hindsight, to be far more valuable than when first encountered or purchased.  It’s been fun to write and a blast to hear stories from many of you about your favorite stuff.  When I bought my set of JIS screwdrivers, I only thought they were neat screwdrivers.  After many years, I now find them an absolute joy to use and I’m jazzed they’re in my toolbox.  Let me tell you why.

If you’ve ever run across a rusted or corroded Phillips screw nearly impossible to remove and you fear you’re about to strip off the top, it turns out there is a reason why this is happening.  Philips screws were actually made to resist high amounts of twisting effort.  A JIS screwdriver will help.  They look like standard Phillips head screwdrivers, but they’re not. They’ll work on Philips head screws, but where they really shine is on any bike made in Japan.

Nearly every product from cameras to carburetors made in Japan conforms to Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) 4633B-3/1991.  Although using a Phillips screwdriver on JIS screws will work, using a JIS screwdriver is mind-blowingly different. JIS screws are far less susceptible to stripping and a JIS screwdriver provides a satisfyingly tight, snug feel you only get when you’re using the right tool for the task. This is the rare treat when something just fits together perfectly.  But it’s not by accident.

JIS (squarely indented) vs regular Phillips (roundly indented) tipsHenry F. Phillips invented Phillips screws/drivers in the 1930s. He created them for automobile assembly lines. In addition to self-centering, his Phillips screwdrivers were built with an angle on the flanks and had rounded corners. This taper on the driving faces was created to cause the screwdriver bit to “cam out” of the slot before twisting a screw head off, which was a requirement for automated assembly lines. But what fills the requirements in an automated environment is prone to stripping when used by hand.  Unlike a machine, people are unable to deliver an exact and specific downward force to an appropriate screw and, as a result, the chances of stripping the head go way up.  JIS screwdrivers, on the other hand, have parallel faces on the driving flanges and will not cam out. They are likely to break whatever was keeping the screw from giving way (good), or strip the thread with excessive force (bad).  They were designed for humans to use, with appropriate human judgement, and not on an automated assembly line.

Identifying JIS screws is simple; they often have a small dot to one side of the cross slot.  Using a JIS screwdriver in the right situation on the appropriate screw head feels really good.  Every time I reach into my toolbox and come out with one of my JIS screwdrivers to use on a Japanese made product, I can’t help but smile. Not a giddy smile, but a smile, okay?  It is a genuine pleasure to have something work so well.  And it explains why so many Phillips head screws seem to get so bungled up and why it feels like they push back when pressure is applied.  And if you’re a tad pedantic, you now have something new to lecture your fellow weekend mechanics about the next time they visit your workshop.

Using a JIS screwdriver on regular Phillips head screws has some benefits, but you won’t get all the advantages. However, don’t apply a Phillips screwdriver to JIS screws, as it really won’t work well.

At one time, JIS screwdrivers were expensive and hard to find.  A few years back, none of the common tool places (ACE Hardware, Lowe’s, Harbor Freight) carried them.  But Amazon.com does and you can now buy them for $20 for the most common sizes.

Follow-on to In Praise of Talent

Occasionally feedback on my newsletters and resulting conversations are more informative and meaningful than the original piece.  The “In Praise of Talent” newsletter seems to be one of those. Here is some of the feedback, a day or so after publication of the newsletter with its special nod to photographers. First, I got the following email from my friend, Paul R. Hagan, who spent his career as a professional writer:

Paul wrote: “Enjoyed your article. You must have a great laptop!”

I replied: “Paul, Thank you for the brilliant, succinct and hilarious feedback. You truly are a great writer. I was lucky to meet you when I was young. Learning through you some of the skills necessary for putting words together in just the right way was an inspiration. Being close enough to you to see how much work it was, the time and amount of effort required and what it took out of you to do it helped me understand what it meant to be a professional writer.”

And then I added this postscript: “As you can tell, I rarely bother with the hard work of getting 1,000 words down to 100, much less 9.”

Not all great writing is making things as short as possible, part of the art and special skill of copywriters like my friends Paul Hagen and Arthur Einstein, Arthur of “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” fame. Like me, my good friend Rich Marin puts only a minimal amount of effort into reducing his written output or length of his prose. Rich expressed his thoughts about my newsletter and added some significant perspective of his own in his blog post this morning, which you can see here.

My good friend David Barnett came over yesterday morning and we chatted in my workshop over cups of espresso. We discussed the newsletter and I found myself telling David I believed there was a certain level of achievement or mastery of something one had to attain before you truly began to appreciate the way it is practiced by those who make a profession of it. As we talked, I came up with four areas where I felt my experience and skills had been refined enough to genuinely appreciate how much better the pros are: photography, motorcycle riding, driving a car fast on a track and writing. During our discussion, a fifth came to mind.  But first, these four:

  • Photography: This will be quick as you’ve just read the newsletter before this, which outlines my observations of those who have perfected these skills. I’ve spent hours with pro photographers and talented amateurs and easily see the delta between what I do and their work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a bad photographer, in fact, I’d rank myself as much better than most. But compared to them? Not really.
  • Motorcycle Riding: Over the years I’ve taken countless riding courses and tested my skills in amateur races on big name race tracks. My off road skills have been exercised in chasing the Dakar Rally and countless rides in and around Arizona, Utah, Mexico and Colorado. Finally, I performed and competed with a precision motorcycle riding team.  Without gloating or exaggeration, I believe my riding skills are better than 95% of the people riding motorcycles on the streets today. This is what allows me to see and appreciate the skills of those who ride for a living. I don’t care how good you think you are on a motorcycle, until you’ve ridden with those who ride many hours every single day of the year and their livelihood depends on this particular set of skills, you have no idea the width and depth of the gap between your skills and theirs.  I’ve been honored to ride with a host of professional riders over the years, including motorcycle cops, World Superbike and MotoGP competitors, flat-track racers and trials riders and many who teach motorcycle skills for a living.  And like my photography efforts, I know the difference.
  • Auto Racing: Although it’s been many years since I’ve tracked a car, I do know what is involved. I worked at it, read books, practiced and took lessons from very good instructors. However, it typically took less than half a lap for me to appreciate how much better my instructors were at driving my car than I was.  My most recent experience was riding with McLaren’s top test driver in a new McLaren 720S. Even on city streets and scratching ever so slightly the surface of the car’s full capabilities, his mastery of the vehicle was astounding.
  • Writing: Ha! Visitors to my home can’t miss stacks of magazines everywhere. I love those who practice this particular craft. For over 25 years I’ve nibbled around the edges and managed to get a fair amount of my work published. But I know that “real” writers hang out at places like the New Yorker, the WSJ, Washington Post or the Atlantic. Maggie is a skilled technical writer and I’ve learned the process required to be very good at that. Malcolm Gladwell gifted me with late night phone calls over a period of several weeks when he was working on one of his books and later he spoke at some conferences I’d organized. Again, the masters at this or any other pursuit, make it look easy. It genuinely is not.

The fifth area that occurred to me while speaking with David Barnett was the ability to successfully work on cars.  My friends Brett Engel, Wayne Viall, Jim Unsworth and of course, David Barnett come to mind.  Outside of the immensely competent and carefully vetted professionals who contributed to the rebuild of my Lotus Elan like Brian Duffy and Brian Buckland, these four men with day jobs did the greatest amount of work and impressed me so very much.  These four have core similarities:  First, absolute confidence in their ability to figure anything out, repair it or make it better. Second, they are always calm. They never panicked, threw up their hands and wailed, “Oh man, what are we going to do now?”  Lastly, they exuded pure joy as they worked. They were in the zone, doing something they were exceptionally skilled at doing, with friends who recognized and appreciated their talent.  For those of us around the edges of this process, it was a joy to bring them tools, run to the auto parts store, watch them figure things out and scream, clap and yell with them at winning battles along the way, like when the engine first fired to life after re-assembly.

Some of the best times of my life have been in the presence of these special people, those who have mastered one small corner of the world and play in it with such effortless joy.