Archive for September, 2012

September 28, 2012

Playing with my Volkswagen

Ok, so call me superficial. I decided to buy a new car two years ago. At this point in my life I decided to finally get that ‘fun’ car that I always wanted: the quintessential ‘hot hatch’. I bought a 2011 VW GTI.

Since it’s a hatch that comfortably seats 5 and had folding rear seats and handles very well in the winter, it is also a practical car. It even gets good gas mileage for the performance it puts out. I’ve gotten two foldable kayaks and all relevant gear in it and can easily get three good sized hockey bags in the back.

So that was my starting point.

For some reason (mid life crisis or simply leaving children and therefore I can indulge myself) I got into this car and its possible modifications in a way I have never done with a car before.

And, being progressive, it is of course politically incorrect to be into cars. That might have been one of its appeals.

First mod? A tune. A chip. A reflash. These are all the terms used for after market reprogramming of the ECU (electronic control module–the brains of the car) for more power. Most cars, and VWs are known for this, are over engineered. That is to say, they can safely (up to a point) deliver more power without negatively impacting durability of components than the factory tunes them for. That means if you take care of your car then you can safely squeeze out more performance.

There are several companies that do this for VWs and the VW turbo engine (2.0l TSI) is particularly adaptable. I decided to go with the most popular North American tuner, APR, based in Alabama U.S.A. There is a Canadian company, Unitronic, a European, Revo and GIAC (? country of origin). They all deliver similar results but APR seems to have a very good reputation for customer service as well as a good dealer here in Toronto. So I went with them.

By the way, tuning the car actually increases efficiency and so increases km/l a bit.

Because VW doesn’t approve of this, the tuner must bypass the ECU encryption by removing the ECU and bench flashing it. There is a slight risk involved in doing this and so you must choose your tuner carefully and make sure they re-seal the ECU when it is replaced under the hood. Failure to do so has resulted in destroyed ECUs at a cost of just under $2000.

I chipped mine 18 months ago and am quite happy so far.

Chipping it increases horsepower by about 10 to 15% but increases torque by about 20%. It is noticeable when you step on the gas. It’s all very controllable, though. You just have to know how to drive.

So now I have a more performance oriented engine which will do 0-100 in about 6 seconds. As important, however, is that the stock suspension on these cars is great and cornering and on-ramps are a hoot.

A word of warning: if something goes wrong with the engine and VW determines it was the fault of a chipped ECU, they can deny repairs under warranty.

Applying power is nothing without control. I know I should have dedicated summer and winter tires but I decided to change over the stock (and pretty crappy) tires to Continental Extreme DWS (size: 225/45/17). These tires have a bit of a soft sidewall so aggressive cornering can feel a bit squishy. Personally I find them just fine but others have complained.

What is amazing about these tires is their grip on dry put particularly in the wet and slush. These tires are truly great in the rain and I feel a real added safety factor in wet weather. They have also been very good in the past two winters. I know last winter had very little snow but I was pretty impressed by their performance.

The DWS stands for Dry, Wet, Snow. As the tires wear and lose tread depth the S, then the W on the tires are worn down and disappear. That’s how you know what to expect from them. Two years into them I think I still have about another year on the S. In other words I should be good through this winter.

Next year we will see but I would buy these tires again.

I should note that I kept the 17″ wheels (most GTIs I see have upgraded 18″ wheels). The 17 s have better road feel (more comfortable as compared to lower profile tires), are cheaper to replace the rubber on and, since they are lighter in weight by at least 5 pounds (less inertial mass) they perform better in the corners. They also have better winter traction. I don’t know why people insist on getting the 18″ wheels. Looks, I guess.

So now I have the power and the contact with the road. Next I got a short shifter. The Audi TT has a short throw shifter that is an OEM direct replacement for the one that comes stock on the GTI. It is under $100 to purchase and instal. The difference isn’t huge but it makes the manual transmission just that bit nicer.

By the way, the DSG automatic transmission on the GTI is very nice. I’m just a ‘row the boat’ kind of guy.

These three mods are my main performance changes. I’ve done a couple of cute cosmetic things. I bought some decals to go over the dummy buttons that all cars have. The eject button on my console is my favourite.

I changed all the light bulbs in the interior of the car to LEDs. They are much brighter and much whiter. For $25 I really like the ambience that much better. I went with SuperbrightLEDs superwhite 5000.

To enhance level cornering and stiffen the body a bit I installed a Unibrace UB body brace underneath the car. As well, to prevent wheel hop and tighten up shifting through the gears I installed a modified polyurethane lower engine mount (cost all of $10 and makes quite a difference). Shifting gears is now a tighter more precise experience.

I’ve done a couple of minor cosmetic stuff I won’t bother mentioning for now.

Last week I disconnected the Soundaktor–a device under the hood that responds to the ECU to essentially pipe noise into the passenger cabin. They have so well insulated the passenger cabin that people can’t hear the growl of the engine, thereby detracting from the performance experience of driving the car. A number of high end cars do this.

I decided to see what the car sounds like with it disconnected. It’s not hard to do. You have to remove a rubber gasket under the hood, lift up the rain tray and reach under the windshield and disconnect. I am pondering this one.

The car is definitely quieter. On the highway it’s very nice. Around the city I kind of miss the growl that makes me feel I’m sitting on a more powerful power plan than I actually am. I may reconnect it in the future but for now it will stay disconnected.

September 28, 2012

Getting into squash

About 3 years ago I began playing squash. A little late in life but better late than never. It’s a sport that I’ve really come to enjoy. And the Athletic Centre at the University of Toronto has almost a dozen courts in pretty good shape… not to mention that the AC is a great facility that is very handy.

So, anyway, after several years I’m wondering about a new racquet and some stringing options to enhance my otherwise lame game. Me being me, I’ve researched the topic and thought others might benefit from some of the stuff I’ve learned.


There are two basic shapes. Almost everyone these days is using the teardrop shape with the open neck. Because the strings in these racquets are longer they give more bounce to the ball after being struck. They, therefore, result in more power. However there is always a trade off of power for control. A teardrop shaped racquet will impart less control.

Most teardrop racquets have a lower string density (usually 12 x 17 or so–that’s 12 vertical by 17 cross strings). That means each string is less tethered down and moves more with each ball strike, again decreasing accuracy of the shot.

The other basic shape is oval or quadra shaped. These racquets have closed throats. The string pattern is about 16/17, ie: a denser pattern for more control. But, there is less power imparted by an impact of the same speed and strength.

Contrary to what many people think, a tighter strung racquet is a less powerful one. The deformation of the strings and the resultant trampoline effect is what imparts speed to the ball. Tighter strings don’t move and therefore don’t trampoline as much.

That’s why teardrop racquets with longer string length and lower string density are used for power while the reverse is true for control.

Depending on your game, you should use a racquet that either enhances your strength or smooths out your weaknesses. I’m still working on what is best for me. My current racquet is more of a control oriented one (Dunlop Liquidmetal). More on my next choice later. Of course most racquets promise to to enhance both, but there is always a trade off.


Aside from string tension (as above) there are other attributes to string technology. First is gauge. The higher the gauge the finer the string. The finer the string the more power (they usually stretch more) as well as the better the control (based on finer ball indentations). But the world is unfair and finer strings will break more easily. That’s $40 for a re-stringing. Gauges are 17, 18 and even 19. I think you’ll likely find it hard to get anything other than 17 or 18. By the way, 16 gauge is pretty thick for squash and not recommended. I have heard of shops that don’t do much squash stringing who have used 16 gauge because they have it is stock for tennis racquets.

String can be nylon monofilament or braided and natural gut (from cows). I have yet to try gut but if you’re a serious squash player it sounds like gut is one of those ‘you gotta’ try it once’ kind of things. Gut is about $40 more expensive, raising the cost of a re-string to about $80. But gut holds it’s tension longer so you get better playing for longer. As well, it is more forgiving in that it imparts less tension through the racquet to your hand/arm and is therefore recommended for players who are struggling with tennis elbow. I haven’t personally tested this yet so I’m just going on written advice. Gut is very sensitive to moisture and can rot and sag with high humidity. You can’t leave it in the hot trunk of a car or a wet and smelly locker (oops, that leaves me out).

Ashaway makes most of the string sold in North America and the U.K. I am currently using a textured Ashaway string, the Supernick XL. It is a 17 g with a textured surface for better ball control. Next time, though, I think I’m going to try the 18 gauge Ultranick or Powernick. The Powernick comes in a 19 gauge but I haven’t heard a lot of good things about it. It confers power but with a real lack of feel I understand.

Re-stringing costs anywhere from $15 (at Sportcheck) to $20 (Sporting Life) for labour. String is $15 to $30 (more for gut). Usually you will walk out with a bill for $30 to $40. Rule of thumb is to re-string your racquet as often per year as you play per week. So if you play twice as week, as I do, you should string your racquet twice a year (which I haven’t adhered to).

By the way, the strings that new racquets come with are usually pretty bad. Depending how anal you want to be and how much you want to spend, you can play out the factory strings or pay to re-string your new racquet at the time of purchase. If you are new to squash just play with the new racquet as is until you decide what you want to go for in several months. Get to know your racquet and your game style.

So where am I at regarding my purchase? Well, my current racquet definitely needs to be re-strung. So I thought this might be a good time to put that money toward the purchase of a new one. For some reason, I’m stuck on buying a Head racquet. For me the price/performance ratios seems to be right and they have several models that might work for me.

Luckily all the models I’m thinking of are sold at the UofT Athletic Centre and all three models are available for trial before purchase. So I’m going to try:

Head Youtek Cyano 2: this is a 115 gm racquet. It’s very light, and as typical of such a light racquet, it is head heavy. That means the balance point is past the half way point of the racquet toward the head. Otherwise the racquet would feel too light. New players like lighter racquets because they feel they can swing faster. But a lighter racquet can impart less power and can be harder to control, even though you can get your swing off later than might be wise. Pros can use the lighter weight to greater advantage than can a beginner.

At 115 gm it may be too light for me.

It is a teadrop racquet that, in spite of being so light, is built for power.

Head Youtek Anion2: this is the same racquet as the Cyano but is heavier at 135gm. As well, it is head light. Where the balance point of the Cyano is 365mm, the Anion is 335. because the balance point is closer to the handle, the Anion feels very similar in weight to the Cyano.

Head Neon2: this is a 130gm racquet with a 370 balance point. It is quadra shaped and built more for control than power.

I am just going to have to try each of these for a game and then see what feels better. They can each be tweaked by a re-stringing as well.

They range in price from about $130 to $160 (even though ‘MSRP’ pegs them at about $200).

By the way: Dunlop double dot balls. Period. When the balls become shiny (and therefore less grippy), wash them under water and give them a rub (to roughen them) on a carpet.

Opinions vary on when to replace balls. Some say when they break, others when they get shiny and feel dead.

I signed up for squash lessons at the Athletic Centre to help improve my game. Who knows, with a better racquet and lessons I might be able to return the odd serve yet!

UPDATE(Sept 30): So I played squash yesterday and talked the Pro Shop at the AC into letting me serially go through the three racquets I’m interested in.

First I went with the Cyano2. I must say I liked it quite a bit. Although it is quite light the head heavy balance seems to work well to give it the feel of a bit of heft. I wasn’t blown away by the power but it did hit a bit harder than my current racquet. I didn’t feel any real loss of control. I appreciated the lightness.

The Anion2 just felt heavier and not as quick as the Cyano.

The Neon2 had quite a different feel. I think I could sense the lack of power in return for more control. My partner/opponent thought I was making more accurate shots. Hard to know.

In the end, I found a great deal on the Cyano at Sporting Life and decided to buy it. I may or may not keep it.

I’m thinking if I string it with 18 gauge Supernick XL string I may have the perfect balance.

I should also add that I developed some bad habits over the last several years of playing and since starting lessons my game has definitely fallen off as I concentrate on technique. In other words I’m playing at the bottom of my correct style rather than at the top of my bad habits. So far I’m down on my game. But, hopefully, it will all pay off in the end.

UPDATE (Oct 2): So this afternoon my new squash racquet arrived by UPS. Tonight I broke my old squash racquet! Karma.

September 27, 2012

Is Rob Ford really an indictment of our educational system?

This has been troubling me for a long time.

Rob Ford was elected on the basis of ‘respect for the taxpayer’. Having said that, he has skirted conflict of interest issues for several years. He has been caught using City staff to help in his private affairs (like coaching football kids).

Now there are allegations that he wielded influence to get the City to do some paving at his business.

He has cost the City millions in cancelled transit plans that were previously committed. He wants to build subways in places that planners warn are not economically viable and will, therefore, cost us millions down the road.

He hires expensive consultants to advise on budget cuts, none of which have panned out.

And now that he cannot ram through City Council any of his ideas he has taken his marbles and, essentially, gone home. At taxpayers’ expense. He calls this ‘respect for taxpayers’.

His brother this week called all reporters ‘pricks’ for asking the Brothers Ford questions they don’t like.

Just two weeks ago a public opinion poll showed 42% of Toronto residents (yes, mainly suburbanites) have a favourable view of Rob Ford.

So, what’s happening here? Why is Rob Ford so obviously a useless Mayor with so high an approval rating?

The only thing I can come down to is our educational system. We may score well internationally in Math and Reading skills. But I am guessing if there were a test for critical thinking Canada would do awfully poorly. How else could people read the newspaper and not say about Ford: ‘what an idiot’?

Surely it’s time to question an educational system that allows this to happen. Now, I know that there is a tendency for all progressive people to assume that an educated populace with perforce be left wing. And I admit to similar feelings. However it is possible that one could come to an informed conservative conclusion. But even so, people like Ford would not be electable. The point is that people should be able to at least spot a sham and ask questions to come to an understanding of issues.

And isn’t that really the main purpose of our education system? Oh, I know. Everyone is all up in arms about teaching kids things so they can get a job. But an informed citizenry is really what it’s about. And we are failing miserably at that. And our toady and uneducated press isn’t helping.

Frankly, if I were a teacher (or any kind of educator) I would be embarrassed by the election of people like the Fords. I think every school teacher should look in the mirror and ask what they can do in the classroom to make sure that their students can think. Otherwise, why go through the motions?

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