The Fundamental Difference Between New Jersey and Massachusetts Drivers

I’ve finally figured it out – the fundamental difference between Massachusetts drivers (of which I am, sadly, one) and New Jersey drivers (which I have been spending a lot of time around lately, for obvious reasons).

I’ve complained before that there’s something unnerving about going to a part of the country where people drive differently. People complain about it as well, without knowing it – it’s why people from other states are always proclaimed to be too slow, too stupid, or whatever. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; people from other states always suck.

However – in this case, I’m just dealing with the two states I have experience with – Massachusetts and New Jersey. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

New Jersey Drivers are suicidal; Massachusetts drivers are homicidal.

When you think about it, it really works well. I’ll leave it to you to think of all the implications. ;-)

Where have all the children gone?

The other day I found myself at the Solomon Pond Mall – ostensibly looking for the 2600 meeting that’s supposed to happen there in the food court on the first Friday of every month. (Hint: nobody showed up.) On the other hand, I did get to spend a lot of time observing people. Or, more accurately, kids. Let me explain:

I’ve been out on the road for a while now, almost a decade. In all that time, I’ve never seen any kids out playing in their yards. I’ve seen plenty of signs like “Drive Slow: Children at Play,” but I’ve never actually seen these alleged children out playing.

This confused me for quite a long time. When I was young, if I wasn’t in school and if it wasn’t raining out, I’d probably be outside playing. You could drive by my house and see me and my brother & sister out in the yard, riding bikes, playing in the dirt – y’know, typical children-type stuff. But I never saw anyone else doing this sort of stuff, no matter where I went. (Aside from some inner city kids who play around in my neighborhood, but somehow playing in the trash of a shitty neighborhood in Fitchburg isn’t quite what I had in mind.)

So I wondered, where were all the kids? Inside playing video games? Watching TV?

Well, those two things may be true for some, but according to my recent observations, the answer really is “at the mall.”

There were more children at the mall than adults – something which shocked me. And most of them were fairly young – probably between 14 and 17, I’d say, although it’s hard to tell these days. And most of them were there without their parents or any sort of adult. They were wandering around in little gaggles of giggles, all dolled up in the latest fashions, and (since I was mostly in the food court) eating the worst kind of food.

I saw a lot of people eating, and every single thing was either deep-fried or sugar-coated. I took the liberty of watching what people were drinking, as well, and the most popular drink seemed to be a super-sized soda. I’m talking BIG here, not just “large,” but really, really BIG. I’d guess these things held nearly a half a liter of soda – or more.

Now, I’m normally not one to judge (okay, I take that back – I am one to judge, or else why would I be writing this), but I must admit, I had something to eat at the food court too, and it wasn’t a salad. It was an Arby’s Beef & Cheddar (if you can call it “cheddar”) sandwich. It’s a personal vice of mine, but frankly I eat them so rarely that it’s almost a “treat” for me. The last time I had one was more than 6 months ago. I also had a soda. A small soda. Because I just had one sandwich, why would I need more than just a little soda to wash it down with? In retrospect, I think I was the only person in the entire food court with a non-large soda. And there were a LOT of people in the food court.

I think I’ve found the downfall of our society. What scared me even more is that this was on a Friday evening/afternoon – and it was an absolutely beautiful day out (aside from a passing thunderstorm). So why in heavens name would you be inside?

Maybe it’s just that being in a mall always makes me angry for some reason. I think I have an irrational fear/hatred of large crowds, or maybe just overzealous consumerism. Or maybe it was the pre-teen girls wearing shirts that said “I had a nightmare I was a brunette.” Might as well just wear a sign that says “I’m going to grow up to be white trash.”

But maybe I’m being too harsh. No, wait… I’m not. It’s not like this mall was in Boston or some other big city, where there are no outdoor places to go. If you’re not familiar with the area, the Solomon Pond Mall is on the border of Marlboro and Berlin, Massachusetts. Not exactly “metro Boston.” Hell, not exactly “metro” anything! I know these towns pretty well (I lived in neighboring Clinton for a while), and there’s plenty of open space, even with all the recent housing & commercial development.

What really gets me is that many of these kids I saw were clearly not old enough to drive on their own – which means that their parents must have driven them to the mall (and presumably dropped them off there, letting them fend for themselves). I swear, it was like a modern-day Lord of the Flies – only set in a shopping mall instead of a tropical island.

I just feel quite strongly that kids should not spend their free time inside a mall – they should be outside, doing the things that kids (used to) do! Go ride a bike! Play tag! Play Frisbee! Play baseball! Take a walk in the woods! Grab a canoe and go paddling down a river! Climb a tree! Build a fort! Explore your world!

I place the blame for all of this squarely on the shoulders of the parents. Not TV, not video games, not mass media – PARENTS. Yeah, you heard me. You guys are the ones dropping your kids off at the mall, after all. Instead of doing that, grab a $2 Frisbee or some nerf guns or some super-soakers and set your kids loose on a field or at a park. Take them to a state/national park with trails and give them paper and pencils and tell them to take a walk and make a map. Make sure they have a bicycle (and a helmet) and let them out of the yard. Give them building materials for that tree fort they always wanted to make. Just let them BE KIDS!

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I think I’m going to grab my camera and go for a drive somewhere, maybe take a walk through the woods and look for waterfalls to take pictures of. The rest of my seething anger will have to wait…

Peace out, y’all.

UPDATE: See my follow-up post “More on the ‘Missing Children’.” Apparently I’m not alone in this respect…

I Miss my Stick Shift

I miss my stick shift, I really do. I miss being able to row through the gears on a twisty country road. You can approximate a stick shift with a manu-matic (as I have in my Outlander), but it’s not quite the same. In fact, there are some serious shortcomings with automatics of any type, but you can boil it all down to one thing: the ability to select a gear before you need it.

Let me explain. (First, though, a disclaimer – what I’m about to talk about applies largely to small-engine vehicles; i.e. 4-cylinder engines. With bigger engines, the power band is different, so some of the values I’m about to talk about will be different, although much of the same principle applies, it just applies at different speeds and engine RPMs.)

Let’s say you’re cruising around at about 35 MPH. In most cars, this is a gray area for the transmission – you could be in 3rd or 4th gear, depending on certain factors. If you’re cruising along a flat road, your automatic transmission will probably have you in 4th gear – the top gear in many cars – like mine. But let’s say you need to accelerate quickly, maybe to take a corner or zip past someone.

In an automatic, all you can do it put your foot down on the gas to get going. The car will detect the increased throttle and try to respond. Since you are in 4th gear, and probably running around 2,000 RPMs, this is too low for the gear ratio, so the automatic transmission will have to down shift into 3rd, or maybe even into 2nd, depending on how hard you mash the throttle.

Sounds well and good, but what you have to keep in mind is that you’ve already put your foot down – you need to go now. But your car has to wait a moment while it realizes that it can’t go, and then you’ve got all sorts of hydraulic (or, depending on your car, electronic) systems that need to adjust their settings so that the car can shift gears. This takes time – and that is the problem. There’s always a lag with automatic transmissions from when you mash the gas down, to when the car actually responds by shifting gears. Now you’ve wasted a second (or two, if your transmission is sluggish) just sitting there, hardly accelerating at all. This may be fine for around-town driving, but if you like spirited driving, it is no fun at all.

With a manual transmission, you know that you’re going to want to accelerate in a moment – because you are the one who’s going to do it. So you pop the clutch and shift gears, and then, when you mash on the throttle, the car is already in 3rd, and you zoom away – keeping the car’s engine in the “power band” for your engine, with the RPMs tuned just right. Zoom-zoom, baby!

Now, some of the more astute readers out there might think “but you still have a time delay – you have to shift gears yourself, mash the clutch in, move the gear shift lever, and that takes time too!” And you’d be right. But the important thing to remember is that YOU moved the gears BEFORE you needed them (mechanically speaking). With an automatic, the gear change happens AFTER you need it. That difference is what makes an automatic feel sluggish, while the same car with a manual transmission (and a competent driver, of course) feels “sporty” and responsive.

So what about a manual-automatic hybrid, what some people call a “sport-tronic” or “manu-matic” transmission? Just pop the lever over to “manual” and down-shift, right? Well, not quite.

You see, unlike a manual transmission, an automatic transmission is always “in gear,” so to speak. I’ll spare you the technical details of planetary gear assemblies and so forth, but suffice to say that in automatic transmissions, the engine is always connected to the drive shaft. In a manual transmission, by definition, when you push the clutch in, you are disconnecting the engine from the drive shaft. The engine is spinning freely, with no load on it. Because of this, you can use the accelerator to bring the engine up to the right speed (RPM) before you re-engage the drive shaft. Thus, when you let out the clutch, the engine is already at the speed (RPM) you need for the most power. An automatic has to struggle through a (very brief) period of going either too fast or too slow for the gear you are in, before things get back “in synch,” so to speak. (The more technical readers out there are going to take me to task over this simplification – bear with me here guys, I know the details and I know this isn’t exact, but I’m trying to make a point here.)

So there you have it – even with a “manu-matic” transmission, there will always be a delay in power delivery when shifting gears, while a manual gives you the ability to anticipate power needs and shift gears accordingly. When someone invents an automatic transmission that can read your mind, maybe this won’t be a problem anymore, but until then… a manual will always win.

(p.s. Let’s leave out of this discussion the “flappy-paddle” shifting cars that actually do have a clutch, but the car controls it, rather than the driver controlling it via a pedal. These sorts of systems are popular on high-performance – and expensive – sports cars, and they work surprisingly well, but the computer is still in control – not you – even though you can force gear changes with the paddles and get the same benefits described above to having a clutch. Such systems don’t exist in the “average” car yet, and I don’t know if they ever will, due to their complexity. And even if they do work their way down to everyday cars, as I said, the computer is still controlling the clutch, and it will never be as “smart” as you – the driver – nor will it be able to anticipate your intentions the way you, with full manual control over the gear changes, could do.)

Snow in April

Snow in April

Why, yes, that is snow.

Why, yes, it is April 15th.

No, I don’t know what’s wrong with the world. It’s just crazy.

Timeline of Weather

We’ve had some crazy weather the past few days. It really become apparent once you spell it out clearly like this:

Wednesday: Warm, sunny, mid 60’s (F). Really felt like spring was here!

Thursday: Still pretty warm, but the temperature really started to drop in the afternoon.

Friday: Got cold pretty fast, and then started to snow. Hard. By 2pm it was coming down at a rate of about an inch an hour – and it continued like that until around midnight.

Saturday: Sunny and warm enough (32-33 degrees) that a lot of snow started to melt.

Sunday: Sunny but cold (20’s).

Monday: Warm enough during the day that snow started to melt again – probably just a few degrees above freezing.

Monday night: It started snowing again.

Okay, Mother Nature… I know this is New England, but seriously: WTF???