The Astral Log

27 March 2015

Vehicular Friday: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12

Filed under: Vehicular Friday — Andrew T. @ 23:59

Do you want to feel old? Then just remember that Back to the Future Part II was set in the present day. Still want to go on? Well, then let's talk about this car.

The tale of the DeLorean is a tale that's been told time upon time before and interwoven with plenty of soap-opera woe. John DeLorean, of course, is the name of the man behind it; an auto executive known for his flamboyant demeanor and his track record at General Motors. He left GM in 1973, subsequently dictating his thoughts to Patrick Wright for a scathing memoir of the corporate works thereof. The book was littered with references to an "ethical sports car."

It's debatable how ethical a person DeLorean was (his reputation was one of a con man by the end); but in the short term, he produced results. DeLorean somehow drummed up millions of dollars from friends and celebrities to bankroll his Motor Company through a convoluted web of holding companies. He somehow got a plant to be built in Northern Ireland; showering himself in subsidies while the Troubles raged. He somehow convinced the world's top designers (Giorgetto Giugiaro and Colin Chapman) to assist with his car. And he was able to fill the feature list with cynical gimmicks designed to make people swoon over what could have otherwise been an orthodox automobile: A rear-engined layout; gullwing doors; wheels that were smaller frontward than back. You could order a DeLorean in any color that you liked, as long as it was unpainted stainless steel: Impossible to rust, impossible to repair, impossible to clean.

Of course, that was just on the outside. What engine was to be used within? Various options like a rotary were tabled, then the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) V6 was hastily plucked off the shelf and stuffed in the engine bay after other plans fell through. The power it provided was probably adequate, but it didn't offer sports-car performance to match the looks and was disturbingly trouble-prone. (You might think that anything with "Volvo" in the name would be as reliable as a brick, but there's a reason why you never see 260s or early 760s on the road any more.)

After five years of gestation, the DeLorean DMC-12 (as it was called) finally went on sale in January 1981. And the DeLorean did debut with a bang...but it was expensive, unreliable, and hardly quick. The American economy plunged into recession the same year, and people who could have bought the cars weren't biting any more. Sales forecasts were so optimistic and emotions were running so high that the company was ill-prepared for the ill situation to come.

By the dawn of 1982, cars were sitting unsold and the DeLorean company was bleeding red. A stock issue was halted; the company entered receivership, then shut down entirely. John DeLorean resorted to becoming involved in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy as a last-ditch effort to save his company, but was arrested in a sting. With the company gone, the remaining cars and parts were shipped to Ohio and sold as closeouts by the corporate parent of Big Lots. You can't make this shit up if you try.

Which brings us up to Back to the Future, and an important question: How much of the car's popular fame and enduring appeal was due solely to its exposure in the film series? If Christopher Lloyd had never driven one on the screen, would the DMC-12 have endured in the popular consciousness at all?

In one word: No. One needs only look at the DeLorean's 1970s gullwing forebear, the Bricklin SV-1, to have a sense of what would have happened in a slightly different reality. Though similar to the DeLorean in many ways (concept and corporate malfeasance alike), the Bricklin has languished in obscurity and never really achieved the same status as a pop icon.

Besides the movie connection, was there anything good about the DeLorean at all? In one word: Yes. Cars can have emotional appeal, and the DMC-12 is no exception.

The DeLorean looks good. There, I said it. It's sleek, and its styling perfectly epitomizes the technological optimism of the 1970s and 1980s. The rear end is especially evocative, with a steeply-raked window and massive rump punctuated by bold cubed taillights that glow like afterburners. It looks fast, its profile is like nothing else on the road, and it looks like it means business.

Not all the goodness is on the outside, either: The interior features clear gauges, ergonomic dashboard controls, surprisingly contemporary-looking seats trimmed in cushy gray leather, and lots of legroom.

The DeLorean was durable. Stainless steel doesn't easily rust, and about three-quarters of the DMC-12's total production run survives. Parts are still available, and the reliability and assembly problems that struck the DMC-12 as new cars have long been weeded out and fixed by enterprising owners. (Speaking of new cars, you can actually buy a "new" DeLorean today refurbished from new-old stock parts.)

And frankly, it's not that bad a performer, either.

I spotted both of these cars locally around Madison: One in the wild, and one at a car show. (They might actually be pictures of the same car in two different places, though without having the ability to compare license plates or serials it'd be impossible to know for sure.)

The DeLorean is undoubtedly an automobile with enduring appeal. It resonates with me, and I don't even like the Back to the Future films.

17 March 2015

Freethought Festival 4, part 2

Filed under: Freethought Festival — Andrew T. @ 00:32

(Continued from Part 1.)

Day two of the conference consisted of every sort of thing day one had to offer and more, with seven speakers and two panels on the itinerary. Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the evening sessions; a small part of the whole...but they were well worth being there for.

After-dinner events began with keynote speaker Susan Jacoby, a prolific nonfiction author, reporter, and former program director for the Center for Inquiry. Her topic was "the conscience of a freethinker;" a dialogue ranging the gamut from specific and topical matters ("There wouldn't be a need for earthly laws if the fear of God controlled people.") to a discussion of more abstract concepts like consequentialism and free will.

Jacoby interacted with the audience and concluded with an extended question-and-answer session where she responded to questions and discussed her future projects. Fellow FTF4 participant Heina Dadabhoy posted an interview of Susan Jacoby on her own website a year ago.

Jacoby was followed by Tommy Nugent...a speaker from Michigan (with West Virginia familial ties, no less). Although ostensibly a comedian, Nugent prefers to be described as a "comedic storyteller."

He continued in conveying the comedic story of his own experience. The formative years of his life were spent cultivating himself in the model of a fundie's dream; attending Christian camp, Christian school, and Christian college, filling himself with the "holy spirit," and bouncing between Baptist and Pentacostal sects with regularity. His recollections were a real eye-opener, particularly when he shared a detailed account of an exorcism being performed on another student at his college. I don't regret not being in his shoes to see that!

The story of his religious career led to an abrupt fall from grace, brush with death, and subsequent bounds up and down through phases of occupations as a law school student and a strip club bartender! The plot took many twists and turns, but eventually led to the present day and an advice point to share: "Your life is more than enough." Nugent was the last speaker of the evening, and he ended the conference on both an energizing and entertaining note.

The day ultimately ended with a long and enjoyable social mixer where I had the chance to meet and chat with Heina from Freethought Blogs, Benny from Queereka, and many other names from both meatspace and cyberspace alike.

I've been an atheist since I was twelve years old, and I'm continually upset by the inequalities and injustices that religion is used as a crutch for...but I won't deny that my view of the atheist movement has been shaken by cynicism in recent years. Both online and off, activism is tarnished by an onslaught of too many harrassers and antihumanist reactionaries intent on grabbing the banner of the movement and tearing its substance down. There's little point in doing away with religion if you keep every element of socioeconomic inequality, sexism/homophobia, magical thinking, and hero-worship that it's used to prop up.

That's why the Freethought Festival was so important: The speakers were diverse, and the conversations had intersectional focus. Topics were focused on tangible, real-world issues; not endless mental masturbation. Everyone played their part and contributed something unique to a sum that's greater than the whole of its parts. That whole (and the skill and collaboration that put it together) was a heartening reminder that we can do good and accomplish tangible social change within our lifetimes.

16 March 2015

Freethought Festival 4

Filed under: Freethought Festival — Andrew T. @ 22:39

This weekend, I attended the fourth annual Freethought Festival in Madison, Wisconsin. The Festival is a free conference of speakers and participants focused on secular issues, organized by the AHA student group at UW-Madison.

After the prerequisite registrations and introductions were over, the weekend kicked off with a powerful speech by James Croft on the impact of the racial killings and resultant protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Croft is an English-born Harvard alumnus and "ethical culture leader" in the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a secular humanist organization that can be thought of as a church-like social construct minus the religion...and located a short distance from the epicenter of activity, which he witnessed firsthand.

The protests were peaceful, well-organized, and well-managed in spite of their depiction in mainstream media. The police donned military garb, physically abused protesters, colluded with a Catholic church to thwart and break up a vigil, and doled out fraudulent charges such as "manner of walking in roadway" with routine aplomb. It's an uncomfortable truth that the cultural narrative deems people of color to be subhuman...and the dogma that we're in a "post-racist meritocracy" is as insidious as the dogma of religion. His takeaway suggestion of what freethinkers could do was simple and urgent: Drop everything else you're doing, listen, and get involved in righting the wrong. His advice couldn't have been more timely, and it isn't limited to Ferguson alone: The sad saga of Tony Robinson provides a cold reminder that race-motivated police brutality exists everywhere, including our own backyards.

Lindsey Doe was the second speaker of the evening, and provided a shift in mood from the hard-hitting to the intimate. Doe is a self-described "sexologist" and Montanan with a YouTube channel.

The bulk of her hour consisted of lessons on consent and female anatomy. She shared a tale about Havelock Ellis—a nineteenth-century figure who battled notions that masturbation was deadly and wet dreams were a symptom of people starting to die—and concluded with a question and answer session where topics like routine non-consensual circumcision bubbled to the surface. (She's against it, of course.)

Altogether, it was informative and entertaining. Her talk was the talk that ought to have been given at my high school...where for fear of offending the fucked-up Christian sensibilities of fundamentalist West Virginia, there was an "abstinence only" curriculum that consisted of absolutely nothing at all.

Vegan comedian and Citizen Radio cohost Jamie Kilstein is getting to be a frequent visitor. This year's appearance at Freethought Festival was his second in two years in a row.

This time around, he brought a guitar and provided instrumental backing for several of his anecdotal stories and routines. Among the fodder at hand was a take-off on his own deconversion (The sight of Niagara Falls filled him with the awe of God, then his wife guided him to the sign explaining how it was made over millions of years), and an extremely pertinent song that he dubbed "Fuck the NRA" where he tackled the perpetrators of school shootings at their core: "'You can kill a kid with a stick. Are you gonna ban sticks?' Now I don't trust you with a stick, either!" "Arm teachers? You don't trust them to unionize, and they can't afford bullets!"

©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull