Life in Cascadia
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Pele and the Volvonic Convergence
Phil Singher

I build websites for a living. Most websites are pretty boring to design. Some are prettier than others and the pretty ones are less boring to design, but they still just sit there. Doing this stuff every day, particularly for an employer who insists on conservative designs without a lot of pretty pictures, eventually gets old.

Some years ago, I came upon a website that didn't just sit there. It was made up of cartoons that really animated, and it amazed me. It didn't have boring buttons down the left; navigation was by little flowers that would bloom when you passed the mouse over them. It was fun. That site was made using an application called Flash 2, developed by the Macromedia company.

Within a year, Flash sites sprang up all over the Web. Some were clumsy, some were funny, some were brilliant -- I wanted to play too. I downloaded the free 30-day trial from Macromedia (which was by then Flash 3) and set about learning to use it. I failed dismally. Some designers were doing very good work with it, but it all seemed complicated and unintuitive to me. The trial period expired before I could do much more than make a ball roll across the screen, and I couldn't do that without looking up the instructions.

By the time I got around to giving it another shot, Flash was version 4. Hitting a slow period at work, I download the 30-day trial and really, really worked at learning it. I printed out many pages of the online manual and did every tutorial and exercise. I took copious notes. At the end of 30 days, I still couldn't make a ball roll across the screen reliably. My brain was simply not compatible with Flash methodology and that's all there was to it.

So, you might well ask, why are you telling us this tale of geek angst? What does this have to do with Volvos? Patience -- it has everything to do with one particular Volvo. And it's my story anyway.

Macromedia makes a whole suite of perfectly fine graphics applications, but I've always used ones made by Adobe Systems. Right about the time I was giving up on Flash, Adobe came out with its own tool for authoring in the Flash format. It was called LiveMotion 1.0. I download the 30-day trial and set about working through the tutorials. After only ten days, I was able to make a complex 15-second animation that might serve as the introduction to one of my employer's websites. Wow, this was fun and it was easy! I showed it to the head of my department.

"You really need to get with our video people," he said. "We could use stuff like this on our cable channels." Trouble was, LiveMotion didn't export to video, and neither I nor our video people had any idea how to get my animations onto TV. I turned to Adobe's website for support and discovered the LiveMotion User-to-User forum. I posted my question and in minutes had a reply from an engineer named Joe -- a real, live Adobe LiveMotion engineer. This was infinitely better than spending an hour on the phone listening to soothing music while waiting to stump some clueless Customer Support person.

I became a regular on the U2U forum. LiveMotion might be simple to start off with, but it had unexpected depth. With some ingenuity, it could be made to do some really intricate tricks. I got a lot of help from the forum and eventually began posting more answers than questions. I became friends with Joe, Mad Doc, Dirck, Nacho, Sally, Bo, Scarecrow and other forum regulars, just as many of you have developed friendships on the BrickBoard, the 1800 list or other virtual Volvo communities.

Flash, by now in version 5, was very much the senior application, and there's a many times larger virtual community built up around it. Flash had gotten its own robust programming language in version 4, while LiveMotion was limited to a set of preprogrammed "behaviors." On the U2U, we'd show each other amazing Flash sites and try to get the same effects from LiveMotion. More often than not, one of us succeeded, or at least came close. It was like solving puzzles and brain teasers with some really smart people who happened to be in the same business I was in. LiveMotion might be the underdog, but we were pushing the envelope. It was fun, but we all realized that in some areas like user interactivity, we couldn't get close to Flash without the capability of real programming.

Then last summer, Joe asked me privately if I'd like to help test and develop LiveMotion 2.0. The very fact that Adobe was working on a new version was a tightly held secret. Well, I'd like that a lot -- I'd be honored, in fact. A few months later, having signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with Adobe, I was set up with a very buggy and incomplete copy of version 2, had secure communications with the other testers (a few friends from the forum and a few Flash defectors, some well-known designers) and the engineering team at Adobe. And I was learning a lot of programming in a hurry -- LiveMotion 2.0 could handle the entire Flash language, and I didn't know any of it.

The LiveMotion product manager was an affable young guy named John. Sometime in October, John wrote me about a Volvo he owned, a 1984 240 wagon. Ebay was holding its "Auction for America," meaning that the proceeds of whatever you auctioned off would go to the American Red Cross to support September 11th victims. John had bought a new car and wanted to auction off his old wagon for this good cause. What did I think he might ask for it? It needed some minor mechanical work, but was in very good shape overall and by the way, he'd painted flames all over the front. He'd even given the car its own website:

John's a very talented guy when it comes to Web design, but a mechanic he's not. He'd had a lot of things on the car fixed, but then it started not shifting smoothly. Probably it just needed a new clutch. The headlight switch didn't work. There was a rumbling sound under the car at speed. I told him a rust-free (which this was) '84 wagon with a good interior (which this had) in good running order (which this might or might not be close to, although driveable) might be worth around $2500 to the right buyer. I couldn't say whether the right buyer would consider the flames a plus or a minus. As we couldn't really make out what the car needed mechanically, he set the reserve price for the auction at $1200, and I advertised the auction prominently in VClassics, right on the Contents page. Someone would snap up the car, I was sure.

The auction ran its 10-day course, and the Flavawagon received not one bid. Oh well, I've been wrong before and will be again, no doubt about that.

It so happens that Marsha and I had been keeping an eye out for a solid 245 for several years, but those we could afford had all had serious rust or mechanical problems I didn't want to deal with. With our 122S in restoration and down for the count, Marsha's daily driver is our VW Westfalia Campmobile. It's fine for camping and we like it a lot, but it's not a good commuter. Air-cooled VW buses have miserable heaters, and Marsha was now facing a second winter of driving everywhere bundled up like an Eskimo. After a half-hour commute, there'd still be ice inside the side windows where the defroster doesn't reach. Gas mileage is not good, it blows around in a storm and is just not any fun at all in a Northwest winter. A nice Volvo wagon would be just the thing for her.

Also, I had projects in the works for my 1800. We need two running cars almost every day, and if I were to down the coupe for any major work, the bus would be the only one running. We really needed another car.

"Hey John," I wrote. "I'm really surprised the Flavawagon didn't sell. I'd give you $1200 for it myself except that I'm really broke right now and I have no idea how to get a car that needs work across the country." LiveMotion headquarters was in Burlington, MA, some miles north of Boston and the wagon was in the Adobe parking garage there.

"OK, how about you just make some sorta decent donation to a September 11th charity and I'll sign the car over to you."

There had to be a way. The vision of Marsha driving down the freeway in a dark blue 245 with flames all over the front was too appealing. They were a safety feature, actually -- people might drive off the road at the sight, but they wouldn't drive into Marsha.

On the U2U forum, there's a "lounge" area just for off-topic chit-chat. There's also an entity known as BALMUG, for Boston Area LiveMotion Users Group, whose sole purpose is to get the three or four users anywhere near Boston together for dinner with Joe and John every few months at a Korean restaurant. I explained the predicament on the BALMUG thread of the lounge. John needed to sell it, but I had no way of getting it out to the Northwest. Were any BALMUGgers interested in it?

My friend Dirck, who lives on Nantucket Island, fielded that one. No, he didn't need a Volvo wagon, but he and his wife would like nothing better than to drive it out for us if we bought it, probably in late January. They'd been talking about a cross-country trip for some time and wanted to visit relatives in Seattle. That way, they could stay a week longer and then fly back instead of having to drive their car both ways.

So, there was one piece of the puzzle in place. Next, who could I trust to fix the car for such a mid-winter trip? Lee VolvoGirl Holman lives in southern Maine, only a few hours from Burlington. Hmmm. "Lee, are you up for a Volvo Rescue League mission? I've got a little job for you..." After some tiny persuasion, Lee agreed to collect the car and take it home to Amazon Acres for a little brushing up. As soon as she had the chance, which would not be for a few weeks. No problem -- this was early December and the Dircks wouldn't need it until late January, so that should be enough time to fix whatever needed fixing.

I told Rusty at RPR about all this. I built the RPR website years ago, but I haven't found time to update it in the past few years, which causes no end of shame. I stopped charging Rusty for hosting it a long time ago. As a consequence, Rusty tends to sell me parts at cost if he even charges me at all. I owe him a whole new site by now, I'm sure. Anyway, Rusty said he'd donate parts to fix the wagon and arranged to have anything Lee needed for it shipped from his east coast warehouse.

Everything was coming together, except I hadn't actually bought the car yet. If John wanted a substantial donation to charity in exchange for the car, I didn't want to abuse that if he could just sell the car for more and donate the proceeds himself. I finally scraped up $1000 -- was that enough, and to whom would John like me to give it? I didn't think the American Red Cross was such a great idea, having seen reports that they were already flooded with more donations than they could efficiently distribute.

This worked out better than it might have. Adobe will match employee contributions to charity up to some limit, which John had already met for the year -- but in view of the circumstances, they'd go another $1000 just this once if the donation was made before December 31st. With two weeks to spare, I sent John my $1000, Adobe matched it and Doctors Without Borders got $2000 out of the deal, which pleased me a lot. I now owned a Volvo wagon with a unique paint job, LiveMotion 2.0 was shaping up nicely (although still secret), I was getting the hang of the programming, I'd soon get to meet a fellow LiveMotioneer I'd gotten to like a lot, the holidays were almost here, and life was good.

Marsha was greatly looking forward to having a car with a serious heater. She renamed it Pele the Fire Goddess, after the Hawaiian volcano deity, and that's how we've referred to it ever since.

The lucky streak was about to end. There was a BALMUG dinner on December 19th, and Dirck would be meeting Joe at Adobe (John was on a road trip). Of course he'd have a look at the car and take some pictures. I didn't hear anything from him on the 20th. One or two days later, Joe announced over the private tester channel that Dirck was in the hospital. He'd been feeling bad over dinner and was in enough pain afterwards that he turned himself in to the emergency room, rather than even try to get back home to Nantucket. The doctors found a mysterious growth the size of a fist between his heart and abdomen. He was on a morphine drip, but he had his laptop with him and would be checking his e-mail when he could, if anyone cared to send him their wishes. I cared.

In less than a week, remarkably, Dirck was back home and apparently in fine spirits, baking pies for Christmas. No one knew what the growth was. It could be some sort of inconvenient but otherwise benign tissue, it could be a parasite he'd contracted on a trip to China earlier in the year, or it could be cancer. He might have to have an operation, but that wasn't certain. A biopsy in a few weeks would tell all.

Just before New Years, Lee and partner-in-grime Max drove down to Burlington in Old Smudge, Lee's Diesel 245, to pick up the car. John was still on the road, but he'd left the keys with Joe. He'd been storing some junk in the back of the car, but that was to go into some other engineer's office temporarily.

Lee's report was less than enthusiastic. They arrived to find that the car had been vandalized, in spite of the security guards who pulled right up to see what Lee and Max were up to. It was covered in eggs and someone had bent up the gas filler, probably attempting to stuff eggs down it. The battery was stone dead. A quick installation of a new headlight switch did not make the lights work. With short daylight left, and faced with a three-hour drive to Amazon Acres, they couldn't delay. The Flavawagon started instantly with a jump from the big Diesel battery and seemed to run all right, so off they went. Whoever was supposed to transfer John's stuff out of the car hadn't done it, so that stuff went with them. I probably hadn't even mentioned to Lee that the back of the car was supposed to be empty, and she probably thought nothing much of it.

They got back to Maine without incident. The car was hard to shift because of a broken transmission mount -- much easier to replace than a clutch. The rumble was from a worn-out driveline support bearing. The engine tended to ping with little provocation, but that didn't mean much considering what might be in the gas tank. Someone had put H4 lights in the car without upgrading the wiring, which had basically burnt up. The suspension and steering were tight, it had new KYB shocks on it, the tires were fine, and it had a new three-row radiator. There really was no rust at all, and the eggs hadn't been on there long enough to damage the paint. They'd surely find more stuff to fix, but I'd gotten a good deal.

Dirck would prove harder to fix. In the weeks that followed, he had several painful needle biopsies that did not successfully extract enough tissue for a conclusive analysis. The doctors finally decided that they'd have to operate in any case, and that couldn't be scheduled for another month or more at whatever Boston hospital has the best cancer experts. The best guess was that the growth was something called an "indolent lymphoma" which is a relatively curable form of cancer, but its location was touchy. Only lab work following the operation would tell what it was for sure.

I told Lee that there was now no rush finishing the repairs, as Dirck's trip was delayed. She and Max found more problems, the worst of which was that everything associated with the timing belt was pretty well shredded. The cam timing had slipped several teeth, which probably explained the pinging. The engine wiring harness was fully afflicted with the insulation rot typical of early-'80s Volvos, so that would be repaired and rerouted. Rusty provided everything for the engine and driveline repairs, and I had David at OJ Rallye send Lee all the stuff needed to do the lighting upgrade correctly. As I recall, the fuel tank was replaced with one from Lee's junkyard. John's stuff was all stacked in a corner of the Amazon Acres shop.

Naturally, I hoped against hope that Dirck would recuperate quickly from his ordeal and would still want to take the trip, but I looked for alternates. Mark Hershoren thought he might cash in some frequent flyer miles and bring the car to us. Brooks Townes thought he might combine such a drive with magazine writing assignments if I could chip in enough to cover his airfare to Maine. Then there was some grand scheme in which Mark and Brooks collaborated in bringing the car out as part of another of Brooks's 9000-mile gonzo road romps. Bob Moreno would be delighted to drive it back if I flew him to Maine. Cameron thought he and I should both fly to Maine and take turns driving the car back without stopping except for gas and food. None of this turned out to be possible.

Dirck's operation went well, but it was indeed cancer, and it had spread. He was in for a course of chemotherapy through June and wouldn't be going anywhere. And there the matter, and Pele, sat for months. As far as I know, Lee still hasn't fully completed the work -- at least she hasn't charged me for it.

I am extremely pleased to report that Dirck's treatments have been a success so far, exceeding doctors' expectations. He has one more chemo session to get through. He and his wife still want to take the trip, but I have no idea if that's realistic or wishful thinking, and I don't think Dirck himself knows.

LiveMotion 2.0 was released at the end of January, give or take a week -- my memory of that period is a blur. Within a month or so, the development team in Burlington had been largely reassigned. John is now product manager for Adobe Photoshop. Joe is working on a new Adobe project he can't talk about, but still visits the U2U forum regularly. To me, he'll always be the embodiment of LiveMotion. I spent the next two months writing the chapters on Advanced Animation Techniques and Integration With Other Adobe Applications for a 900-page LiveMotion 2.0 "Bible" which was canceled by the publisher when practically complete. Since then, I've been working on Volvos and have done little of note with the application.

That's the end of the story for now, but there were a few more coincidences, synchronicities -- convergences if you will -- along the way that don't fit into the main narrative, so I'll add them here.

Around November, a woman named Roberta appeared on the U2U forum. She had recently begun working with LiveMotion 1.0 and needed some help. I have a little website with dozens of sample files one can download demonstrating various techniques and solutions of interest to LiveMotion 1.0 users, and links to some of the work I did with it. One of the links is to the VClassics Watkins Glen Gallery, the Volv-O-Vision thing. Roberta came upon that with some amount of amazement, exited to the main magazine and read Rick Hayden's account of his restoration of Art Riley's red 1800 racer with tears in her eyes, so she wrote me.

Turns out she'd been at Sebring and had witnessed the car's demolition. She has a recording of the race on which the crash can be heard, with the Cobra that hit Art's car flipping end over end. What's more, she knew Art Riley personally because she spent a season or two racing him, first in an MGB and then in an Elva Courier. Art was a friendly father figure who was delighted to help out "the kids." She'd eaten lunch more than once sitting on his car's fender chatting with him.

Roberta is in New Hampshire and has been trying to get down to a BALMUG dinner. It's likely she'll meet Dirck before I do. She's talking of having her old SCCA license reinstated and getting back into racing -- her grand kids are into NASCAR and she intends to show them that there are smarter things to do with cars than making them go around ovals. Meanwhile, she's kickin' posterior with LiveMotion 2.0 and is helping everyone out on the U2U.

The other coincidence is less striking. Pele is an Oregon car that was used for years for weather reports from Mount Hood. John bought it while living out here and Adobe had it shipped to Burlington when he was hired as LiveMotion product manager. Apart from a few trips from Burlington to New York, the car has hardly been out of Adobe's garage. We Westerners don't normally look back East for rust-free cars, but Pele has in fact never seen a salted road.

On any clear day, I see right where Pele used to drive. Mount Hood dominates our eastern horizon. I'm determined that she'll drive there again as soon as possible. Dirck has dibs on the trip, but in the event that doesn't come off, someone needs to bring Pele home. If you are so inclined, start thinking about it -- and stay tuned. I'll report on further developments.

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