Wednesday, July 16, 2014

UPDATED: Top 10 Survival Tips for the LIRR Strike

Update: A deal was struck, and the strike is off for now...

The L-I-R-Rmageddon is upon us, and it’s going to be bad. For those NY’ers who don’t think this is going to affect you, think again; subways are going to be packed, and parking will be nonexistent. For us on Long Island, the traffic will be horrendous.  At this point, I guess about a 90% chance of this happening, unless some miracle talks happen at the midnight hour Saturday night.

Your preparations should have started already. However, if they have not, check out the below tips and resources to get a jump on planning.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My Nightmare Commute vs. The Most Popular Traffic Apps

Who would have thought 10 years ago, we would be able to surf the web, text our significant others and get real time traffic data all at 80 mph while at an unsafe following distance?

With the rise of FM traffic data and crowdsourcing, a slew of apps are available to commuters looking to get a real-time handle on what lies ahead for their commute. I tested a few of these apps to see which ones work the best, but also offer an interface that doesn't distract and can be used without taking my hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. I used this test to supplement my default traffic Device, Victoria, who is a Garmin Nuvi with live traffic data (which is right maybe half the time). She has a really bad habit of telling me to pick a route, and then turning into a solid red line as I am already in a dead stop. Hence my need to use a traffic app. 
This is My GPS's very accurate prediction of traffic
incidents. Red Lines indicate traffic incidents.
 This photo was captured during a
five hour standstill on the Cross Bronx the other night. 

This test is being done on a brand spankin’ new Samsung Galaxy S4, with a Verizon 4G network. (it was being done on an older S4, but I… um…shattered that) I’m using each app for a full week of commuting, so all are used in the same locations. This minimizes the inconsistency between load and processing times.

I tested four of the most recommended traffic apps to see which one could best handle my commute through Long Island, 3 Metro NY boroughs and New Jersey. Bonus points were also awarded for the couple of family road trips in between.

First: Waze
Welcome-  you just became a “Wazer” is the cheerful way this program greets you upon its initial launch. It pushes hands-free operation and social networking, and a sense of community within the app. It starts me out as a “Baby Wazer”. Not sure how my ego feels about that. The avatar assigned to me of a small ghost-looking thing with a pacifier in its mouth.

Waze is by far the most popular traffic app used today. You see a lot of Wazers on the road as you drive, and I found myself frequently wondering which of my fellow commuters were the Wazers. On the way back from a recent client meeting in another state, members of my team were also Wazers, and we used the app to dodge cops and pick the best route from Pennsylvania.

Almost anywhere you go, you can see your
 fellow Wazers with the App, making this
 a more social experience.
Overall, this is the one traffic app I continuously find myself consulting, even after I have since deleted the others off of my phone. The data is crowd sourced, so you get a truly accurate picture of how traffic is moving ahead of you. FM traffic data can sometimes be spotty, but by using actual real time data from other motorists, you can easily tell exactly how long a delay is going to last, and how fast you will get through it.

But the best feature of Waze isn't actually the traffic data, it’s the Cop spotting feature. Whether responding to an incident or setting a speed trap, a police presence is clearly indicated on the map, and the driver is altered when approaching said officer. Sure, its only right about 60% the time, but it is extremely useful for long-distance car rides, and adds a sense of security a radar detector can't match.

The interface on WAZE makes it easy to quickly
 report  road hazards. If i were a cop setting a
speed trap, I would also be using this app to tell
when my position was compromised. 
Another interesting thing about Waze is the way it looks to socialize and gamify traffic data. Users are rewarded for driving miles and reporting incidents with points. These points level you up.  Besides a personal sense of accomplishment, there really isn't a benefit to leveling up, but I’m sure your fellow Wazers on the road think you look cool when your icon gets a sword in the further levels.

But there is no such thing as a perfect app. My one biggest complaint with this app was the amount of driver involvement that was required to effectively operate it. its worth noting that simply waving a hand in front of the screen activates a hands free mode on Waze, which is certainly helpful, but I still have to take my eyes off the road for a bit longer than other apps to get the info that I need.

By waving your hand over the screen, Waze lets
you enter a hands free mode where you can command the app
Otherwise, the Graphical user interface (GUI) could use a little work. Its bright and contrasty, but I often times had a hard time distinguishing upcoming traffic. For example, I could see there was an ominous dark red line ahead of me, but I could not tell if it in my general direction or not. Also, it’s a huge battery suck. I start out my day with 100% battery, and I’m at 65% by the time I make it to work, which just isn't realistic.
Overall, this app is highly recommended, but I also recommend that you need to have your phone both mounted in a visible, easily accessible position and plugged in continuously if you plan to use it.
The GUI holds a lot of information, which can be
 difficult to discern what direction of travel the hazards are affecting.
o   Crowdsourced, most reliable data
o   Calls out cops
·         Cons
o   Interface / GUI need some work
o   Requires a lot of driver involvement, and it’s a ranking system, which I think makes people take their eyes off the road
o   The interface isn't the easiest to tell you which route to take. For example, when I approach the Cross Island or the Clearview from the Grand Central or Throgs Neck, I use traffic data to tell me which way to go and save a few minutes.
o   Huge battery suck. I can’t start my workday with a 65% battery.
o   The best way to use this app is mounted on a windshield, and plugged in
Second: Google Maps
Google maps is the by far the quickest and easiest to use. It’s got very straightforward controls, and has a turn by turn navigation feature built in which is also very helpful.  What Google lacks in features, it makes up for in its simplicity. The GUI is clean and straightforward, and tells you of incidents.

It’s interface is so straightforward though that it lacks some of the critical data. For example, since it does not have movement data, you can’t tell if the dark red line is stand-still traffic or just traffic moving under 20 MPH, which is par for the course for the Cross Bronx.

This app does although win when it comes to distractions. It loads very fast, and is super responsive. It can easily be operated with one hand so I don’t have to take the other hand off the wheel, and I typically don’t have to take my eyes off the road to wait for it to load data.
Google Maps traffic feature is very
 straightforward, and likely already on your phone.

The traffic data although is the same sourced FM traffic data and Travel time network info that the other apps use, so it lacks the real time updates of WAZE. Its usually pretty reliable though, but I cant wait until they start mining a crowdsourcing option for this app.
o   Clean GUI is easy to use
o   Fastest response
o   Least battery drain
o   Navigation option
·         Cons
o   Doesn’t tell you about cops or road hazards
o   Same data as everyone else
o   Vague colors to indicate speed
o   Second highest data consumption
Third: Sigalert
Sig alert has a great desktop feature ( for sourcing traffic data, which I often check before I leave for work. I just wish the app were as good as the desktop website, as it tells me average MPH with a full view of all traffic cameras.

The same traffic cameras are at the heart of the Sigalert app, which pop up as icons on the map interface for the program. It's traffic camera database is the programs most useful feature.

the gradual color scheme in Sigalert makes it the easiest to
 pick a route at a glance, without ever confusing travel direction
But overall, the interface to this program is just way to slow to realistically use while driving. On a 4G network it crawls to keep up, and the traffic cam data refreshes slowly and has such a slow frame rate, it isn’t as useful as it could be. Zooming in and out is also very erratic, and typically doesn’t land on the view you want. But as a positive note,  unlike the other programs, this app uses gradual colors from green to red to indicate traffic, so there is never any confusion about which direction has congestion or is free-flowing.
The traffic camera database is huge, and clicking
 any one of those camera icons will bring up the feed.

You also have the option to create a free account with Sigalert, and input route data to customize the app.
o   Traffic cam database
o   Color scheme means you never get confused about the flow of traffic
·         Cons:
o   Clunky interface requires a bit too much attention to be functional
o   Slow response
·         Fourth: Inrix
Inrix's home screen makes it a bit difficult to tell
local conditions, while red dots indicate alerts
·         Finally there is Inrix. This app has high aspirations, and tried hard to be the best of all of the programs available. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t really work all that well. Two main screens make up the interface. The default screen is all of the data around you, including a zoomed too-far-out local map, alerts and traffic cams. The secondary interface which you can access is an interactive map. By default it’s a 3D view which can be hard to read, so I opted for a less extreme angle which gives a nice view of traffic. But the map itself looks like a re-skinned version of Google maps, be it although less user friendly. With its latest version, the map interface is almost as fast as Google’s, and it has a nice “Follow me” feature to help ensure a perfect view.

When zoomed into the map feature,
 Inrix warns you of alerts with
an easy-to-navigate view
Apparently, the data in Inrix is also crowd sourced, as it usually tells me there are about 20,000 Inrix users around me at any given time. The only thing is, I don’t see the data from these people anywhere. The app gives the option to report issues, cops and other alerts, but I have never actually seen this data presented anywhere on the map. So while I don’t doubt it’s there somewhere, it’s buried too deep to be able to locate it while operating a motor vehicle.

But the cons to this program made its test a bit tedious. First, it destroyed my phones battery, taking me down to about 50 percent each day for my morning commute. It’s also a massive data hog, eating up nearly ten times the data of the others apps at about 65 MB worth. The only explanation for this I can think of is that the traffic cam data loading is very heavy.
the maps feature looks a lot like
 Google's, and is similarly responsive.

By swiping down, users can see more relevant
 information about hazards around them
Overall, despite its great all-around features, it falters in the fact that it just offers too much to be able to use effectively

·         Pros:
o   Best options for viewing – once you get out of the standard view into the map view is when it becomes really useful for route planning.The birds eye view is at an extreme enough angle so you can see what’s ahead and still navigate.
o   Has all the bells of whistles of the other apps, if you can manage to find them

·         Cons:
o   Traffic cams are easily accessible. This would work well, but the refresh is so slow, it doesn't apply to metro NY traffic, where cars can be bumper to bumper, but still moving at a good clip.
o   So I thought Google maps was a battery suck -  this took out half of my battery before I even got to work
o   No alerts for cops or accidents
o   Holy hell what a data hog -  for one round trip, Inrix used 62 MB of data.

Download: Google Play

The bottom line is that traffic apps are helpful, and a must-have for any hardcore commuter. There are many options out there, but these four represent the most popular. I would suggest trying them all and using the customizable interface to see what works best for you particularly. But please remember to drive safe, and don’t be one of those people who causes an accident because they are browsing on their smartphone to try and find the accidents. I would also recommend investing in some sort of dash mount for a phone and a car charger if you plan to make one a part of your everyday commute.

After a fulls weeks usage, Inrix turned into
a huge data hog, with Google maps a distant second.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Chronicling the E46 Project Car - Part 1

She was a black 2002 BMW 325i. It was 5-speed, RWD, and she needed A LOT of work. She came to me neglected and abused, desperately in need of some love and attention. But she is still a beautiful sight to be seen - black on black leather, with 30% black tinted windows and perfect 17" stock wheels.

Then I took her out for a date. Late at night when there was no traffic, we looped around the Southern State, up the Bethpage State Parkway and through the switchbacks in Bethpage State Park. I forgot how good it felt to drive a manual transmission. The suspension was so stiff and the steering so responsive, yet I could kick out the rear end on my command. The interior was supple yet supportive black leather, bathed in an orange glow from the instrument cluster. Sure the shift knob disconnected in my hand during a couple of enthusiastic gear changes, and I had to slow by downshifting, lest any police officers behind me notice the failed brake lights due to the faulty electrical system. But it didn't matter.

It was at that moment I made a fatal mistake; the same error chronicled through history as a precursor to many bad decisions.  I fell in love.

So the story goes like this. This particular model was a prime example of the E46, arguably BMW's most desirable 3 series. It had all the bells and whistles and sport packages available for the 2002 model year, but had 140K on the clock. Mechanically, the 2.5 liter inline 6 motor sounded good, but the clutch was completely shot. So bad in fact that every time I depressed the clutch pedal fully, the engine would grind. I almost named the car "Quackers" because every time I ran through the gears it would sound like a duck at every shift. I ruled this out to be a faulty throw out bearing, which was on its way out, and taking the clutch and flywheel with it. that's a $2000 job. I also needed to put  new tire on it. The one on the rim was flat, and apparently the previous owners attempt at sealing it with tire gunk were unsuccessful. I wonder why.
For reasons unknown, tire gunk failed to fix this flat tire...
It also needed some body work, with many scratches and dings, and missing a corner lamp with a cracked remnant was held on by painters tape. The sunroof made a terrible grinding noise when you tried to operate it, but it didn't seem to be leaking yet. Since it was an Arizona car, the sun damage was also very apparent on it, with all of the black trim rendered a permanent light grey, while the headlights were fogged beyond functionality. I also had to park it in-gear on a flat surface, because the e-brake was shot. but still I saw potential. 

I decided to buy this car both to enjoy it for some time and to flip it. I knew I could do the majority of the work myself, and as long as I set realistic budgets, I could make a nice 1-2K profit from this car.

The transaction complete, I set out to work. I regulated it only to around town travel and short trips, and used it to only commute to the office on Fridays.  
Her first mugshot, it aint too pretty
The first step was to fix the cars electric, sunroof and cornering lamp to make it derivable. This is when I discovered the website apparently, car parts are stupid cheap if you know where to get them. I got a new corner light for under 20 bucks, and slapped it in with about 5 minutes of labor. 
New cornering lamp installed, but
 only a good amount of Goo-Gone
could get the painters tape
off of the paint.
The electric was almost as easy. It looks like the previous owner had actually forced in the wrong kind of bulb to the tail lights, which caused a short and melted some of the harnesses. A few bucks in parts later and some new bulbs, and the tail lights were good as new. The battery though was still on its way out and needed replacing, as it wouldn't start after a few cold nights. it turns out, that the cold actually wreaked more havoc than I thought on this car. 

If you drive stick, you know an e-brake, or parking brake is absolutely a necessity to keep the car from rolling when parked. I took apart the console housing, and milled some of the shattered pieces of the brake mechanism back together. I secured it with some clamps for reinforcement, and now it works just fine. I will have to be gentle with it, but it holds securely. 

Then came the sunroof. The car had developed a leak in the rain, where pools of water would form on the rear passenger floor. My immediate thought was that the sunroof was the culprit, so I started working on that. My first mistake here was that i didn't Google "E46 sunroof problem" before I bought the car. Now is when I also realized one more thing; I'm no stranger to turning wrenches on Japanese and American cars. I have a pretty good tool set, and I know my way around a motor. But this is like learning everything all over again. It's all backwards, not where it should be, and instead of screws, everything is held down with Torx bolts, which are seriously annoying. But back to the sunroof...

After some searching through the forums, there appeared to be a pretty major design flaw within the E46, with the sunroof. Apparently, the sun shade rides on a track that is made of plastic. These plastic pieces of course break prematurely, and get stuck in the drive mechanism for the sunroof. This then bends and distorts the sunroof's mechanicals, rendering it useless. The solution is to spend 300 bucks on a new sunroof cassette and then a weekend installing it. So I closed the sunroof and disconnected the switch. This also solved the problem. 
The view with the sunroof removed. the track on the left is completely fouled and needs replacement. 

A few days later, I went out to the car after a storm, only to find more water. After more time on the forums, I found BMW massive design flaw #2. Apparently, the doors all have a "vapor barrier" on them, which is a layer of foam between the door and the interior door panel. When it gets cold, the factory sealant becomes brittle and comes off, which makes the doors leak. A lot. So begins the very messy job of ripping off every single door, and putting them back together using a very tacky RTV silicone adhesive. This took my about a six pack to complete to get everything to dry. Now the car is dry as a bone.

Applying the RTV silicone sealant to the
vapor barrier to stop the leakage
The door exposed to reveal the vapor barrier
that had come loose

Now that it was getting warmer the next job to tackle was the body work. There was some paint and scratch repair, and a full compounding the entire body was needed for the oxidized paint. This was followed by a thorough waxing and interior detailing. 

If you like black cars as much as I do, you probably realize that it s a love hate relationship; they are impossible to keep clean, but no color looks better than black when its clean and waxed. For this I use a great product on all my cars called the Black Box by Turtle wax. The black wax itself doesn't last long, but I coat that with an additional layer of Mother's liquid carnuba wax on top of it to retain the shine for a few more months. Next, the black trim was weathered beyond salvage, or so I thought. I sanded it down to smooth it out, and then hit it with about 5 coats of Maguiar's ultimate black plastic restorer, which works miracles.  I took a day off of work to clean my cars, which was only a 5 beer job.
After a days work of body work, she is looking good. 

Then came the headlights. This car came with beautifully crafted HID projectors, but they were hiding behind a very thick fog of corrosion. After doing some research, I settled on another Maguiar's product, Their heavy duty headlight restoration kit. See the below pics for a testimonial, this stuff worked great, and they are still flawless.
Before and After of the headlight restoration. 

Now that she was looking proper, it was time to dive into the motor. One day, after a spirited ride, I notice a drip, drip, HISSSSSSSS of oil droplets hitting the manifold. This terrified me, and immediately thought head gasket. So I checked the coolant, smelled the exhaust and inspected the oil cap, and the HG seemed to be intact. But there was a pretty good size trail of oil oil running through the engine compartment, and by the looks of it, the slow leak had been for some time.  Back to the forums I went. 

This is when I found yet another design flaw, which is premature failure of the Valve Cover Gasket. The parts only cost me about 20 bucks, and required doing open heart surgery on the motor to rectify. After ripping apart the whole block, the hardest part was actually chipping out the brittle, cracked old gasket without getting any into the crankcase. While I was in there, I also took the time to inspect the plugs, crank and timing chains, and all looked to be in perfect condition. but I definitely found the oil leak, installed the new gasket, doused it in RTV, and put the motor back together. The whole process took about 3 beers to do, which ins't that bad. 

Inside the inline 6 cylnder is a wonderful example of German engineering and
precision. Note the bottom right, where the gasket failed and the oil leak originated.
The next project is going to be the big one, which is the clutch and flywheel. apparently BMW felt that is was necessary to use a heavier, super expensive and more prone to failure dual-mass flywheel in their transmission construction, which is super helpful. Right now I'm getting slippage in 1st and 3rd, so I know the clutch is on its final miles. Driving is now limited to 5th gear highway cruising and the bare minimum to keep the motor healthy until this gets taken care of.

Budget: (Target $2500 )
Car - $1500
Tags/ Title / Registration: $200
Corner lamp assembly: $19
Valve cover gasket set: $22
various chemicals for detailing: $25
Maguiar's Headlight kit: $25
AMS Auto RhinoPak Clutch kit: $190
Insurance: $200
Beer: $20
Total so far: About $2200

So that's where we are. Overall, I want to thank my wife for her help on this. Well, rather her tolerance anyway. I kinda feel bad for her, because in the last few months, she has come to the realization the she married a car guy. Now I'm already hungry for my next flip project.

Stay tuned for part 2, which is going to be clutch installation and the actual flip of the car.