Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Toyota Mess

I am a big fan of Toyota's products. And I talk about it. A LOT! Around the office I am known as the Toyota fan boy. I do try to be balanced about things, but in this regard I had the good fortune of owning a particular model that just never broke down and it skewed my perspective completely.

As a result, the trouble they're having initially took me by surprise and I found myself firmly in the company of the other fan boys. I was convinced that that the entire thing was probably just pedal-misapplication, and that a possible conspiracy to discredit a successful manufacturer (likely from Government Motors circles) is not entirely impossible.

But a lot of other bugs have since appeared from the woodwork. Some of them are a little silly, while others are reason for concern. Let me give two examples.

When all this started, a big production was made out of the fact that there was only one laptop in the entire USA that could read the blackbox in the cars. This, apparently, has an entirely plausible explanation, which goes like this if I understand it correctly. New legislation requires these devices to be in all new vehicles by 2012. Many vehicles already have them, but Toyota wanted to push the actual manufacture of the hardware required to read them to others. But they also wanted to protect their intellectual property, so the rights to build these devices had to be under some kind of license. Sorting out these things take time... so in the meantime all they had was a prototype. Of these prototypes, they had one in the USA. If this is true, the entire matter could be explained by a simple lack of sufficient foresight and no intended malice, or as the saying goes: Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

At the same time, however, there is the matter of the Tundra's steering. We don't have the Tundra in South Africa, but it is basically a small truck, probably not unlike the Hilux, though smaller. In Japan, there was a recall because of a broken part in the steering system. The engineers said that the problems are likely caused by the much smaller parking spaces and more crowded roads in Japan causing much more lock-to-lock steering action, and therefore placing more stress on the components involved. They therefore decided not to do the same recall in America, despite their being a limited amount of reports of the same thing happening. This, I think, does indicate a tendency to place cost-savings and profit ahead of a good product. It shouldn't break in the first place, and secondly, when it was determined that they do break, hiding behind an excuse that comes down to "it only breaks under extreme circumstances" just doesn't work for me. These vehicles are known not to break down, even under extreme circumstances (see the Top Gear episodes where they tried to destroy a Hilux). This means that there is at least SOME truth in the allegations, and indeed the admissions of Mr. Toyoda, that Toyota became too focused on growth and took their eye off the quality ball.

Be that as it may, I actually intend to get to the matter of sudden unintended acceleration.

The American NHTSA have now linked 89 deaths to possible cases of SUA. As many other people have noted, there is a statistically relevant skew towards older people, and a couple of similarities with the mid-80's cases of SUA in the Audi 5000. As was the case with the Audi, its blamed on the car, this time on some kind of electronic gremlin. While both companies initially blamed the drivers, both of them wisened up and realised it is a bad idea to insult your customers. It is unlikely that driver error will receive the attention it probably deserve. However, lets take a look at possible causes.

In the case of Mark Saylor and the loaner Lexus, I believe it was the floor mats that were to blame. Toyota issued a TSB (technical service bulletin) in 2007 with regards to the floor mat problem. The problem with TSBs are that they are aimed at dealers, not customers. Basically, Toyota was telling their dealers to stop being idiots, and not to fit winter all-weather mats over the existing mats, and to secure them properly. Interestingly, this TSB is now used as proof that Toyota knew there was a problem a full two years before they issued a recall... but that of course begs the question whether they could have known that addressing the dealers would not be sufficient and that they also needed to tell the customers not to be idiots? It really isn't that clear cut.

Sticking with Mr. Saylor, bless his soul, there is one thing that keeps bothering me about the defense that he was a Highway Patrolman who made his living driving a car and was therefore a skilled driver. The automatic gearbox in those vehicles are still a mechanical contraption. The brakes in those vehicles are still hydraulic and completely separate from the propulsion system (unlike the Prius where some integration exists). The brakes on every single car on the road is stronger than the engine and WILL stop the vehicle even if the throttle is wide open (a small exception is possible here, which I will get to later). Shifting into Neutral WILL disengage the engine and allow you to stop the vehicle. It seems to me that the skilled patrolman defense has a problem, as there seems to be some level of panic, unfamiliarity with the vehicle or simply freezing up as most of us would. However you look at it, even though this accident may have been caused by some kind of problem with the throttle system, the level of training of the driver does not appear to conclusively prove that this must be the case.

The lawyers handling the class-action suit - and lawyers are a weird bunch, it must be said - insist that over 80% of the cases of SUA are not caused by floor mats and must necessarily be the result of an electronic gremlin. But if Toyota has had a 40% share in the SUA statistics in 2008 (which amounts to 51 cases), and we know that a part of that is caused by older drivers and floor mats, is it entirely inconceivable that perhaps their numbers could in fact be less than 30%? Perhaps not, but how can we be so CERTAIN that it must necessarily be an electronic gremlin?

To make matters worse for those who insist on an electronic problem (most likely software, although its one and the same thing to the layperson), we have no reported cases in Europe, Africa or Japan. This could in part be explained by market share: North America makes up 30% of Toyota's market. But at the same time Europe makes up about 20%, so if America has between 51 and 89 cases, should we not have at least one or two in Europe? Indeed, Der Spiegel also notes that though no other country in the world has comparable problems with SUA, it seems to be a mass phenomenon in America. The article continues to state that there were cases of stuck throttles, but those drivers managed not to wreck themselves and simply had the defect repaired. Some speculate that the European ability to stay alive might be because of the prevalence of manual transmissions over there and the instinctive knowledge built into the driver of every manual vehicle to simply disengage the clutch.

But knowing how to avoid being killed by your car, and having a car that will try to kill you is two entirely different things. So, is there a way that there might be some truth in the matter? Unfortunately for me, the long time Toyota loyalist, there is.

Suppose there is a problem in the ETC (Electronic Throttle Control) system, a system that employs sensors to measure the pedal position, more sensors to measure the actual throttle position, an electric component to actually open the throttle, and a computer that brings it all together. Suppose this problem causes the throttle to flip wide open. Then there is a way where this will suck quite badly.

The problem is in fact the lack of sucking, or vacuum. Petrol-engined vehicles use manifold vacuum to amplify brake force. They include a small reserve-tank to store a bit of vacuum to allow you to brake once or twice even if the engine fails. In my personal experience, you get to brake 4 or 5 times before the vacuum runs out, but the point is that the vacuum MAY run out unless it is replenished. There is however very little vacuum available in an engine with a wide open throttle. Now if you don't panic and you don't pump away your reserve vacuum, you will always be able to stop the vehicle, but if you do waste the vacuum, the effect would be that the brake pedal becomes hard, and unless you know the technical details, you could be forgiven for thinking that your brakes have failed. This could account for the reports of brakes failing at the same time. It could be another reason why Europe don't seem to be plagued with this problem: Diesels are more prevalent, and a Diesel does not use intake vacuum because it usually doesn't have any, instead it uses a dedicated vacuum pump that is not affected by the engine speed (as long as the engine speed isn't zero).

The problem for the complainant, in the above scenario, is that it still involves a measure of driver error: The driver does not know 1) to press the start/stop button for three seconds to turn off the engine (this is documented in the manual, which they did not read), 2) shifting into Neutral will take power away from the wheels or 3) don't pump the brakes.

Unfortunately the above also includes a problem for the manufacturer, a problem in the shape of a bug in the firmware of the ETC. To understand this, you have to understand how the system works.

The Toyota throttle, and indeed those used by most other manufacturers who employ drive by wire, has two sensors attached to it. These are hall sensors who do not employ physical contact and do not wear. These sensors are employed in a voltage-divider setup, so that increased pressure on the pedal will cause increased voltages to show up at the ETC on the other side of the connecting wires. The sensors each have their own set of wires and do not share connections, not even a ground wire. The wires entering the pedal assembly are ordered in such a manner that a short between the wires will more likely cause a fault condition. In addition to that, the two hall-sensors produce different output voltages, so that a short between the signal lines will cause one or both to go out of range, enabling the ETC to detect the problem. You may recall that a certain Professor Gilbert managed to get around this by inserting a 200k resistor between the two signal lines, which are situated at opposite ends of the pedal assembly so that it is incredibly unlikely that this will ever happen by accident, but I digress.

The two values read from the pedal sensors are fed to a computer, which calculates how much current to send to the electrical device that operates the throttle (actually it uses Pulse Width modulation, but its close enough for explanation purposes). On the throttle body itself there are two sensors that reads the throttle position, and sends them back to the computer. The computer therefore has two values of what the driver wants, and two values of what is actually happening on the engine. These are all supposed to match up, or the engine will simply be killed.

Is there a way that this might all go wrong? Dijkstra said that it is possible to prove that there is a bug in a program, but not to prove that it is fault-free. In other words, yes. The initial idea I came up with was a buffer overflow, but then I realised that the ETC probably does very little to no string processing and that properly laid out integer values in memory should never overrun. But then I remembered the old MP9 we had in the citigolf...

To recap: The MP9 ecu also has a throttle position sensor, only one though, since the throttle is still mechanical and its just for information purposes. Among others, it reads the resting position of the throttle, and stores it in internal flash memory. It needs this to properly idle the engine, something caused in turn by petrol engines not being able to idle properly unless the mixture is rich, but once again I'm going off topic. Over time, your throttle position will usually increase as dirt accumulates in the throttle body, but once on a rainy day a piece of dirt might in fact drop out and the throttle resting position might decrease a bit.

Somewhere in its calculations, it subtract the resting position from another value. When the resting position of the throttle suddenly decreases, the result ends up being negative, but because of a simple bug in the software (using an unsigned variable), the value ends up being an extremely large positive number. In the case of the mp9, there are extra validation code that detects this, logs an error, and attempts to use some kind of safe value so that your car stays drivable, although it might fail to idle properly.

If you were paying attention, you probably know where this is going. If a similar bug exists in the Toyota ETC, such an extremely large positive number could be a disaster.

Given the extremely low number of occurrences, even in America, this is probably an edge case that is incredibly unlikely to happen. What we all hope is that someone at Toyota is not arguing that it will only happen under extremely exceptional cases and that it is therefore not a problem.

Toyota is however adamant that the problem is mechanical and NOT electronic. If they actually thought of the edge cases (and I expect they did), and they did not use a rookie-programmer to write the code (I doubt they did), I expect that the above possible software problem would be either VERY hard to find, or it doesn't exist.

For the moment, I'm watching this with keen interest, because however it turns out, it will either make an extremely interesting case in the dangers of software bugs, or it will completely vindicate (and restore) my faith.

In the mean time, I still drive a Toyota. I am not scared of it... for it is a manual, it is a diesel, and it does not have a push-button start :-)

Monday, April 12, 2010

A month with the Kitchen Appliance

I should perhaps have been a motoring journalist. I probably wouldn't make any money though. So here, without much further ado, my experiences with a 2007 Diesel Corolla.

The Kitchen Appliance is my pet name for this white car. Yes, it has been recalled. No, its not a death trap, unless you're American.

Let me start with some of the irritations, most of them mild. I will compare it with my previous vehicle, although this comparison is unfair to some extend.

Predictably perhaps, the boot, or more specifically, the boot lid. Surely Toyota has heard of something called a gas strut? They must have, they actually used them on their hatch models. This car is in serious need of gas struts or something similar on the boot, for the simple reason that the wind closes it, sometimes on top of your head.

Automatic door locking is missing. It will moan with the usual beeping if you forget to put a seatbelt on and go faster than 20km/h, but it won't lock the doors for you. The BMW locked itself at 16km/h, which was nice. In the same line, the double-lock feature, activated by pressing the lock button twice, should be the default, as it is on the BMW. The single lock feature, apparently meant for leaving other living creatures such as a wife or a dog in the vehicle, should be activated with a second button press.

Another thing that is missing, is phased unlocking: unlock the drivers door on the first button press, and the other doors on the second. This is not a new concept: The 1997-2002 GLE already had it.

Like the BMW, the Toyota has 4 settings for intermittent wiper control. The BMW adds another touch of detail though, if you switch to a higher speed setting, the BMW will immediately wipe the windscreen, which makes sense: You decided to increase the speed precisely because it was too slow, which means it is probably in need of a wipe right now. The Toyota doesn't do this, which points to a much simpler control unit.

When you close a window on the BMW, using the one-touch function, the window will stop moving if you open a door. The one-touch function also doesn't work in the up direction if the door is open, but it does work in the down direction. It is obvious that someone realised that you are more likely to get your fingers caught in the window if you close the window while getting out of the vehicle. On the Toyota, there is of course none of this. It has one-touch only on the drivers window, and it is not perturbed in any way by your opening of the door.

Getting into some of the settings of the onboard computer is non-intuitive, and fiddly. Setting the clock on a BMW is done by twisting the button to the left and to the right, not something you would guess, but very easy once you know about it, which usually only happens after you consulted the manual. On the Toyota you click through several options using the right-hand button, cycling though Odo, Trip A, Trip B, Setup. It seems odd to have Setup here, I would expect it to pop up if I held the button down or something, since it is not something I would use on a daily basis (but a trip counter is). Once in the Setup menu, you hit the button for a short period to cycle through the options, then hold it down to select clock. Okay so far, but now you have to set the hours. You glance down to your watch to see what time it is, and when you look up, you see that it has moved on to the minutes. You do not get to confirm your selection, instead it sees your inaction as confirmation that you are done setting that part of the clock, and moves on. Luckily I do not set the clock every day, but whenever I do, I go through the process a few times before I get it right.

Staying with the instrument cluster, when you turn the lights on, it dims the optitron instruments, which is expected and right. However, it dims it so much that should you want to drive with your lights on during the day time, as you would on some cloudy days, you cannot read the instrumentation. You can however adjust the brightness, once again using the right-hand button on the cluster, which now has an additional brightness option added in after Setup, once again requiring that you hold the button down while it jumps through the various brightness levels. If I need to do this at 100km/h, I would much prefer a turning a button, like I would on a Honda Jazz for example.

Finally, having some kind of backlighting on the lock buttons on the drivers door handle would help find the lock button at night, since that is now the only way to quickly lock all your doors at night.

With that out of the way, here is why I like it. Predictably once again starting with the boot. Its HUGE! And yes, it has a full size spare, although it is a steel wheel. On a recent trip to the karoo, I managed to fit all our luggage, all the baby's toys AND the stroller in the boot.

It also has a flat floor inside. This is a side effect of being front wheel driven, which is another compromise I had to accept when I downgraded from the BMW, but the lack of a transmission tunnel adds some space in the back.

The sound system is brilliant. The BMW's stock system, at least in the E46 (the 5-series has a much better system), isn't particularly good and never really impressed me, but the Toyota's stock system is much better.

At only 93kw compared to the BMW's 110kw, its no speedster, but it has plenty of torque and acceleration isn't so much noticed by the way your spine is mashed into the seat than it is by just watching the instrumentation. Against the clock, its your usual 0-100km/h in 10 seconds car, which is almost hot-hatch territory. Overtaking takes a cog-swap or two to keep it in the torque band, unless of course you are in the habit of breaking the national speed limit (Don't do this near Laingsburg!), in which case a cog-swap is not necessary and 120km/h to 160km/h passes before you fully comprehend it.

It is also somewhat lighter on fuel than the BMW was, probably as a result of the 6-speed gearbox (A comparison with the e46 2004 M-speed model, which had a 6-speed box, would have been more fair, admittedly).

Finally, most of the mild irritations can be rationalised away, if you want. Most of the nice functions of the BMW is controlled by a single computer, a part which does occasionally fail on some vehicles, leaving your wipers, electric windows and headlights non-operational, and which costs an arm and half a leg to replace. The non-integration of these functions on the Toyota is likely because they took the less complex option, something I am quite happy with as long as I keep my fingers out of the electric windows. I can get used to many things, even the odd instrumentation. I will remind myself that multi-speed intermittent wipers are really only available on executive vehicles (or on cheaper models that have to try harder, eg Mazda 3) and that having it at ALL on this vehicle is nice. And I just have to reprogram my lazy-ex-BMW-driver self to lock the doors, which thankfully can be done with a single button press, where my other vehicles had to by locked and unlocked by hand. Ad I will do this all in the name of a more family-oriented and practical vehicle.

But I really hope that Toyota will at least give some attention to the locking and instrument cluster in newer models.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A year with the beemer

Indeed, its been months since I posted anything, the last post having been about this very same vehicle, at the 3-months mark.

As I am writing this, I am getting ready to sell this vehicle. I made this decision after I realised just how much it costs to maintain this vehicle. Since it is no longer under motorplan, there is no safety net for me. The cost is such that I could buy a newer vehicle, albeit a little less luxury in nature, and spend no more than I already do.

At the moment I do not really know if my experience is indicative of BMW vehicles in general, or if my vehicle just turned out to be a "Monday" car. On the one hand, a few of the problems I had are listed on several BMW fan sites as "common problems", so it does seem to be a general BMW issue. On the other hand, perhaps other people with other makes of car suffer from similar problems and running costs, just not anybody I know (who all drive Toyotas or Hondas).

In general I am a little disappointed in BMW. Considering the effect of inflation, this wasn't the most expensive vehicle I ever purchased, but it sure was the most expensive to maintain. Because I am not afraid to repair things myself, wherever I can, I saw quite a bit of what goes on under the hood. And while it is all beautifully put together, some connectors are just a little bit too small for the current they have to carry (tail lights), the plastic brackets on the window regulators is just a little weak to deal with any dirt buildup on the rails, and the blower resistor had to be replaced twice, four months apart, because it has insufficient cooling. This was also the first vehicle I owned where the window washer motor sprung a leak and a handbrake cable broke. It seems like some materials engineer did the math to the exact decimal and made those parts EXACTLY as big as they needed to be, and somehow forgot that maybe the materials used to make these things might need some margins in order to make them reliable. Or perhaps they are designed to last no more than a few years, who knows. One particular theory I heard is that if parts fail often enough, you never have to do a recall. Just wait for the customer to come to you, and fit the uprated part.

But you also learn a lot about yourself. I have previously blogged about the image that goes with BMW drivers. This is very apparent when you're blasting down a highway at just a tad over the speed limit: people tend to get out of your way almost like it's protocol. But at the same time they resent you for it. I know this because I used to feel that way, I'd get out of the way just to get "this damn bmw driver" off my rear. I don't think I ever quite got over this, seeing as I come from a farming background where Toyota pickups are the rule. I never saw myself as the kind of business "executive" who should be driving an executive vehicle. Or as a colleague of mine puts it: I never felt like I deserve this kind of vehicle.

This also started to become clear one evening while driving the other car in our family, a 2001 Toyota Tazz, with the window down, the music nice and load, and the cool cape wind in my hair, and realising that for some reason I feel happy. It would seem to me that I do not need an executive car to make me happy, and in fact it only makes me less happy because of the cost.

Then our first-born arrived in December, 6 weeks ahead of schedule. Suddenly I found that this car really doesn't fare well as a family car. The boot (or trunk as the yanks call it), though ample in space, is long and narrow, not exactly suited to a pram. Even the smaller stroller we purchased would only fit diagonally across the boot. At this point in time I decided that this vehicle was becoming impractical and I probably need to replace it in the next six months or so. On a certain level I was sad: I had invested a lot into this vehicle, it is a real pleasure to drive, it looks good, and its incredibly fuel-efficient.

It was round about this time that the second blower resistor needed replacement, which also coincided with a financial year end. At this point I realised that this car, be it this one in particular or out-of-motorplan BMW's in general, is a financial disaster.

I am now replacing it with another Toyota. If my own experiences and those of my family is anything to go by I will soon be back to boring, reliable motoring, just the way I like it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Three Months with the Beemer

I once read somewhere that you should never ask the owner of a new car if it is any good, because they will explain away any flaws the vehicle might have in order to convince themselves that they did not buy a lemon.

For this reason, I hope three months will be enough that I be taken seriously about my "new" BMW.

I like

The 100 Kilowatt 280 Newton-Meter power plant really is lovely. 100KW might not sound like much, but it is the torque that makes this vehicle fun to drive. Overtaking requires a bit of planning because you need to get the turbo up to speed, but it is certainly nice not to have to shift down if you need to overtake swiftly. I no longer need to use the slingshot method to maintain speed up a hill, just turn on the cruise control and feel the torque. It also has lots of rear legroom and it is incredibly fuel efficient. On a recent long distance trip to the Karroo, with four passengers and their luggage, we obtained an incredible 6.37 l/100km.

I don't like

After the aforementioned long-distance trip, I found that the boot is in fact SMALLER than my previous car (98 Toyota Corolla). This came as a bit of a surprise, as the car is a hefty 4.5 meters long and required a substantial reorganisation of my garage in order to fit. This is the bit that disappoints me most. It is easy to stall the engine and every time I do this I am still a little surprised just how easily you underestimate the amount of shove needed to pull off on a small incline. This Turbo-Diesel doesn't have much power below 1000RPM. Combined with a sharp clutch, it tends to catch you off-guard. The sound system is adequate but nothing spectacular, I'd say that the no-frills aftermarket install in my wife's Toyota Tazz sounds better.

Things I had to fix

Anyone who's bought a second-hand vehicle knows that there are always a few things you have to take care of that the previous owner just didn't bother to do. On the very first day the instrument panel indicated that my right rear tail light needed replacement, but an inspection found nothing wrong. Some internet research showed that this is a common problem caused by bad grounding on the tail lights, something easily repaired by just adding an additional ground wire.

I also found that the tyres were mismatched: Although the car came with four Bridgestone Turanzas, two of them were ER30's and the other two were ER300's. This would normally not be a problem, except that they weren't on the same axle. At this point I thought I'd fit the "new" ER300 spare in the boot with one new additional tyre, only to find that the spare has a nail in it and needs repairing (the previous owner obviously forgot to fix it). A new Bridgestone Turanza tyre will set you back about R1050, although less expensive tyres are available, starting at around R850. This seems about par for the course, and given the size of the tyre (205/55R16) I suppose I shouldn't be surprising that these are about double the price I payed for 175/65R14's on the Toyota.


I do not regret buying this vehicle at all. For pure driver-involvement, driving my Wife's Tazz is more fun, but for getting to far-away places in an effortless manner it certainly doesn't disappoint. I do however plan on replacing it with something with a bigger boot, as my family often travels long distances with quite a bit of luggage, and this will only get worse when the first kid arrives.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Car buying

For years I used to drive a Toyota Corolla. I fell in love with this type of vehicle after I drove one from Cape Town to Windhoek (A distance of 1500km). Compared to other vehicles I've used on that same trip, it was just brilliant. Admittedly I never had the good fortune of driving an executive class vehicle on this stretch of road, but as far as family saloons go, it was hard to fault. So when I bought my first car, I searched high and low until I found one of these vehicles and bought it.

I loved my little Corolla, it did the job well and it almost never gave me any trouble at all. Over the years I helped friends and family to buy vehicles, which brought me in contact with vehicles such as the VW Polo, Golf and Jetta, a Honda Ballade. The Honda got closest. The result is that my sister and my father in law have a vehicle like this now.

I believe that a properly constructed automobile should not require anything besides normal maintenance and wear-and-tear materials and parts for the lifetime of the vehicle, and though this is hardly true for ANY vehicle on the road today, I got pretty darn close with the Corolla. Over the course of six years I replaced an exhaust manifold (that was a weak point on the 1997 thru 2002 models) and a clutch, and the clutch could be seen as a wear-and-tear article. I sold the vehicle last week with 213000km on the odometer and just about everything in it's original state, even the exhaust system.

After singing the praises of this vehicle, you're probably wondering why I moved on. Well, I was beginning to feel nervous about all those factory-original parts, but I also wanted a newer, safer vehicle to replace it with.

What to replace it with, with a budget of no more than R100 000? The obvious choice was another Toyota Corolla, so I tracked down a good looking 2005 model and took it for a test drive. Now while I bought my first corolla based on the surprising ride quality, this time I couldn't help but feel that the Corolla has become boring. It stills gets the job done and if I actually bought one I suppose it would have been equally dependable, but it failed to win me over on the test drive.

During the December holidays, my brother in law (who works for Toyota) arrived in a brand new Corolla, so I had a chance to sample this one as well. Two words: body roll. This is probably caused in part by it's 1.2 metric ton weight. It was especially irritating while driving in strong cross winds that required frequent corrections.

It seemed clear to me that my next vehicle wouldn't be another Corolla. I'd love to drive a Lexus, but those are still a bit out of my financial reach.

The French options were out of the question: no Peugeot, Renault or Citroën. I heard too many horror stories, for example, a friend of mine had the hand brake on his Scenic fail, only to find that repairing it would cost R12 000, and apparently the cost of replacing a timing belt on that same model will set you back R8000. You certainly don't want one of these out of motor plan.

Ford seems to have come to the table with a couple of really decent vehicles. I love the look of the new Focus, but finding one within budget seemed just about impossible.

VW's Jetta was a strong contender. I took a 2005 2-liter for a test drive and I liked it. It had everything except cruise control, and the price was right, but the fake wood inserts, which were showing signs of wear, didn't exactly agree with me. If I found one of these without the fake wood...

I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down a Honda Civic, for the simple reason that Honda wins the JD Power CSI just about every year. Like the Ford, it was hard to find one that would fit the budget, age and mileage constraints.

Finally there was the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4. These are executive level vehicles, but they fit the budget and I've always wanted to drive a Diesel, so I included at least the Diesel models in my search. The Audi then disqualified itself on budget constraints.

There are so many things counting against BMW that I had a hard time convincing myself that it is an option. First and foremost, there is the image that goes with a BMW, an image that isn't quite me. If you can mentally draw a picture of me, in my baggy pants and T-shirt, day-old beard and well worn comfy shoes, walking into the dealership and expressing an interest in such a vehicle, you'll understand. The dealer almost didn't take me seriously. Secondly, it is well known that BMW drivers aren't considered the most patient and well behaved drivers on the road, a club I wasn't certain I wanted to belong to. Thirdly, it is well known that BMW does not play in the same league as the Japanese makes when it comes to plain old never-break-down-keep-going-forever territory. On the upside though, it is the only rear wheel drive vehicle within my budget constraints, and the only one with cruise control (a nice to have, but very... nice). And I have friends who are very happy with it and on paper it looks like really good value for money. So I convinced myself that if I find a 320d priced at or below book value I'll consider it.

Then it happened. I found a BMW 320d at a very good price, to the extend that I could even drive it a year and sell it for close to what I've bought it for. So I ended up buying my first BMW.

Did I make a mistake? Probably. Only time will tell.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Fog Lights

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this picture sums up accurately why I have a problem with fog lights when there is no fog about. In South Africa, that is about 99% of the time for 99% of the people.

People are unaware that their vehicles also have fog lights at the rear, and those lights are rather bright. This picture was taken on a cloudy day (no fog about) on the R44 towards Stellenbosch. The make of car is fairly typical as well. Although it is a low quality shot it is clear that the fog lights are a lot brighter than people realise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The so called true story of David Johnson

I now receive about one of these per day: how to become a millionaire in three (longish) easy steps. It will supposedly take only five minutes of your time, a figure I find somewhat doubtful since one of the steps includes getting 200 names from the phone book.

I spent a lot of time trying to explain to these poor misguided soul how this is not only unlikely to work, but in the much greater scheme of things it does an incredible amount of harm.

So here, once and for all, are the reasons why you do not want to be involved in this scam.

The scam claims that it is perfecly legal, while this is not the case. These schemes are against the law in South Africa. It should come us no surprise that the scam claims not to be a scam. But even if there were no law outlawing this practice, good old common sense should still tell you that there is something very wrong with this. As the saying goes: if it is too good to be true, it usually is.

This scam essentially relies on asking people to give you something for nothing. That means that it fails the number one test: you are not selling a real product, and the buyer does not get a product or a service worth R150 (some versions have been adapted to three times R70 rather than R50). After you've paid your investment, this will supposedly entitle you to receive the same favour from others.

This would be all fine and dandy if you could always find someone to invest more money, that is, you had an infinite supply. This is effectively how many legal types of insurance funds work. A medical aid, for example, is a little like a big "stokvel" or savings fund: it relies on finding young healthy people to sustain the fund. This is perfectly legal, since they sell a real product, and a new supply of young people joins the work force every year, giving you an endless supply of new investors.

This is not the case with this scheme. Whoever started the scheme made no contribution, and it doesn't take a genius to see that it has to end somewhere since you cannot breed people that fast. That means you are effectively limited to the number of economically active people in the country.

How fast will it run out? Well, lets take the numbers from the three step recipe: You can make 3.2 million if everyone sends it to 200 people, of which at least 40 responds on each level. That means that you've passed this note to about eight million people, or 16% of South Africa's population. That means that this recipe will work for about five or six people in this country.

The scheme warns against breaking the rules and quotes a couple carefully selected bible verses for "legitimacy". The bible verses are quoted out of context, but it is an angle that admittedly works quite well. Despite these warnings, there is no way in which the rules can be enforced. The scheme almost begs to be abused, since there are some opportunists who realise that it is advantageous to break the chain. You have no way of knowing whether someone has followed the rules or not.

Time for some more maths. The growth of the investor pool can be calculated through a simple geometric series. To make this more practical, lets assume that each investor manages to sign two more. This means that every layer in the pyramid has double the number of participants. As anyone who's had the good fortune of receiving tertiary mathematical education should know: the bottom-most layer always has more participants than all the upper layers put together. That means that half of the participants are at the bottom. This scam relies on cash being injected from the bottom-most three layers, which means that 87.5% of all participants are affected. When the scheme runs out of new investors, 50% will lose out on the deal, and anything between 50% and 80% will fail to make any profit at all.

The upper limit for the pyramid would be about 26 levels, since that exceeds the population of South Africa. Since a substantial part of the population is either unemployed or too young to be economically active, you will likely run out way before that. The example above assumes double the investors, but in real live way more people fall for this, which means the pyramid has way less height and consumes investors a lot faster.

The fastest way to make a million using this method is when the three layers below you sign 28 investors each. That would pull 21952 investors into the pool, and create a void of three million rand. When those people manage to recover their investment, it creates a void of 9 million. And so on and so forth...

In the end this is in fact a moral decision. Even if it costs you only R150, it does so much damage that you should avoid, even fight this scam.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

About resizing and recovering filesystems

A colleague of mine did something horrible last night. He resized an LVM volume along with the file system on it without making a backup first. Murphy's law kicked in and we ended up with a file system that was 99% full, but with no files on it.

This morning, after enjoying the luxury of some five hours sleep, it dawned on me that the problem might well be the journal of said ext3 filesystem. Knowing that an ext3 filesystem is an ext2 file system with extra goodies, I tried mounting it as ext2:

# mount -t ext2 -o ro /dev/vg/volume /mnt/recover
mount: /dev/vg/volume already mounted or /mnt/recover busy

First line of defense: turn that error into a google search. This eventually tells me that the problem must lie with device mapper holding on to the device. After a bit of deliberation, I remove the mapped device:

dmsetup remove /dev/mapper/vg-volume

Then I do an lvscan to recreate it:

# lvscan
... snip ...
inactive '/dev/vg/volume' [70.00 GB] inherit
... snip ...

And activate it:

# lvchange -a y /dev/vg/volume

And just like that, I could mount it as an ext2 filesystem and get my files back.

The moral of this story, I think, is to remove the ext3 journal before you resize things, and add it back afterwards.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Is jesus a myth?

A lot of blog posts originate from arguments on IRC. In the most recent argument, a post from facebook (unfortunately requires a facebook login) was quoted in defense of an argument.

The above facebook posting basically aims to discredit the often quoted (by christian apologists) Testimonium of the Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities, XVIII, 33, italics added).

It is argued that the above piece was obviously forged. Not only was it forged, it was written in 93 or 94 AD, some sixty years after the events it reports, and therefore "late". This meant I had to go back and do some research, because until now I also thought Josephus made a good Witness.

First and foremost, and this will come as a shock to some Christians, the above piece was indeed tampered with, or at the very least, it is very likely that it was tampered with. Scholars now mostly agree that it is unlikely that Josephus -- who was an orthodox jew -- would make statements such as those marked in italics above. If you read the above passage without the italicised passages, you will find that it flows better and the line of thought is clear.

What escapes me is why this suddenly discredits the story. Even without the extraordinary claims that appears to have been added later, we still have an extra-biblical account that he did indeed exist. In order to completely disqualify it, it would have to be late enough so that there would be nobody around who knew the facts. Clearly that is not the case here. 60 Years simply doesn't cut it.

Nevertheless, if Josephus was the only ammunition the apologist had in his arsenal, it would admittedly be pretty weak. So on to the second report, by Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 AD). Once again, it is somewhat "late", and accused of being spurious:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, not all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumour, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also. (Annals XV, 44)

Now the source at my disposal (admittedly Christian in nature) made mention of the problems with Josephus, but it does not mention anything about Tacitus being spurious. It only says that this is the only ancient document that has come down to us that mentions Pilate. The facebook post argues that Christus (also spelled Chrestus) means "good" and in no way refers to Jesus. The opposing argument is that Christus was a common misspelling of christ, an error common among pagan writers. Seeing as he was explaining where the name of the group comes from, I actually doubt the facebook poster's argument, but since I am not an expert on the matter one would have to leave room for doubt. All we can safely conclude from this then, is that at the end of the first century, there was a group who called themselves Christians, and that they were followers of a supposedly good man.

Once again, I have to agree that if these were the only documents a Christian had to defend his case, we could probably ignore him right there. But we have no less than six other extra-biblical texts that references Jesus.

Lucian of Samosata
Lucian was a Greek satirist who lived in the second century. Lucian wrote a satire called "The Passing of Peregrinus" where the lead character takes advantage of the generosity and gullibility of the Christians. My other source says he spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians and quotes this:

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.... You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13)

This one is plenty late. We can conclude safely from this that in the second century there was a group called Christians, and they followed someone who was at some point crucified.

Suetonius was born somewhere between 69 and 75 AD and lived till at least 130 AD. He writes in "Life of Claudius 25.4":

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.

Once again the misspelling occurs. I think it is pretty clear that we are not talking of a good man here. This event, which occured in 49AD, is also described in Acts 18:2.

Pliny the younger
Pliny the younger (so called to distinguish him from the older one) was governor of Bithynia in 112AD. He wrote to the emperor Trajan to seek council on what to do with with the Christians. Up to that point he simply put them all to death, including women and children, but he ended up killing so many people that he wondered if this was the best thing to do. In the same letter, he explains to Trajan that he "made them curse Christ", something which a true Christian cannot be made to do. He also tells how the Christians meet on a certain day of the week to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves not to do any wicked deeds or commit fraud, theft, adultery, or falisify their word (ie lie).

Once again, we can conclude that at the beginning of the second century, there was a group called Christians who followed someone they called Christ.

Thallus lived somewhere between the middle of the first century until the end of the second century. Unfortunately none of his works survive to this day, but we have his works quoted by other writers. Around 52 AD (this is an educated guess of course), Thallus wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world. One writer who cited this work was Julius Africanus (221 AD). Africanus was a Christian, so this may affect his credibility in the view of modern critics. Africanus writes:

Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness [that occurred at the moment Jesus died] as an eclipse of the sun -- unreasonably as it seems to me, (Africanus, Chronography, 18.1)

Africanus says the explanation is unreasonable because a solar eclipse cannot occur during a full moon. That is however not the argument here, he is merely commenting on something that Thallus wrote. What it does show is that there is at least one extra-biblical account that tries to explain away, rather than deny, the darkness that fell upon the land as per the biblical account.

Phlegon wrote a history called "Chronicles". This work has unfortunately been lost as well, but once again Africanus preserved a fragment. Phlegon also confirms the darkness and explains it away as a solar eclipse. Phlegon is also mentioned by the third century apologist Origen.

Mara Bar-Serapion
Some time after 70 AD Mara Bar-Serapion writes a letter to his son from Prison. This is dated about forty years after the crucifixion, which could be seen as early. He encourages his son to pursue wisdom and compares Jesus to Socrates and Pythagoras. He calls him the "wise king of the Jews" and says that he lives on in his teachings.

Other references
The Babylonian Talmud reports that Yesua was hanged on the eve of passover, because he practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.

One of the earliest Christian writings is the first letter to the Corinthians, written in 55 AD by the apostle Paul. In this letter is preserved a very early creed of what the Christians believed. Early enough, but it lacks credibility with the critic.

There are also many writings by the so called Church Fathers and other early apologists. I only want to mention Justin Martyr who was born 100 AD. He explains that it can be ascertained from the tax records that Jesus was born in a small village 35 stadia from Jerusalem.

Last but not least, there is also the biblical accounts. Most people are quick to dismiss these, but Luke was actually a brilliant historian and many of the things he writes about checks out.

To conclude this rather long blog post, the point I tried to make all along, is that even if you don't belief all the extraordinary things said about this man, there is enough evidence to suggest that he existed, that he was sentenced to death by Pilate, and that he was crucified. The group of people who argue that he never existed and that we cannot know much about who he was may be in the good company of Bertrand Russell, but it is still a pretty small group of people. To quote F. F Bruce (Professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the university of Manchester):

Some writers may toy with the fancy of a 'Christ-myth', but they do not do so on the grounds of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the 'Christ-myth' theories.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I was wrong

Every now and then I reach a sort of a breakthrough, where new understanding suddenly floods my existence and all the world seems clearer. Sometimes it is truly a breakthrough, sometimes it is merely that I find a better way to express what the heck I mean.

I recently made the argument that men and women could never be exactly equal. If they could, men should be able to demand that they be allowed to bear children, the silliness of course intended to show that it isn't possible. I was then rightfully accused of setting up straw men.

I figured out the flaw in my argument. To sum it up in a couple of sentences: When two people go into a partnership, they usually bring different things to the table. The fact that they bring different things to the table does not affect the fact that they are equal partners.

What my fellow irc lurkers perhaps didn't understand, mostly due to my inability to express my thoughts, is that the partnership between men and women is one where the partners inevitably bring different things to the table. Exactly how different is of course still up to debate, but different it is.

Stop reading now if you have an aversion to religious matters.

The bigger argument at the time was whether Paul (the one from the Bible) was being a chauvinist when he told women to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22 in case you're interested), ignoring the fact that that was not the only thing he said: There is also the bit about submitting unto each other (5:21) and some useless stuff on how to treat your slaves (chapter 6). If you read the whole thing in context it appears he was telling people what they are supposed to bring to the table. Perhaps he made a mistake, after all, where does he get off telling people how to do things? On the other hand, perhaps it made perfect sense to his target audience. I don't know for sure, but what does seem clear to me is that he is definitely advocating a partnership and that almost everyone misses the point. Including many Christians.

There, I just needed to get that off my chest.