JBL GT5-A402 Install & Review, sorta

When I bought my Miata back in June, the audio situation in the car was pretty dire. An aftermarket Pioneer head unit with possibly the worst front interface I have ever seen was rattling around in the DIN slot. The previous owner asserted without much confidence that it was indeed in working order. I turned it on, it sounded like it was shorting across the speaker outputs, so I turned it off and never turned it on again. Honestly, the stereo system is really at the bottom of my priorities when buying a used vehicle. The number of clean aftermarket installations are sadly outnumbered by various levels of clusterfuckery ranging from simply cheap components often inferior to stock (which it seemed I had encountered) to hacked up harnesses complete with a rats nest of unlabeled and severed wires.

So I paid no attention to it, and after I discovered that the head unit was held in place by nothing more than the force of gravity, I yanked it out. It was just so much dead weight, anyway.

I toyed with the idea of removing the remainder of the stereo. I didn't want to dedicate a huge amount of resources or accrue a large weight penalty by putting a monster stereo in the car. Besides, that goes against everything the Miata stands for. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I could get adequate performance from simply a head unit and door speakers. It's not quiet in the Miata cockpit.

So, rather than a head unit and an amp, I decided to skip the head unit completely and just use one of the many MP3 players I have lying around. Hey, head units are heavy. I decided on the JBL GT5-A402 for the amp because it was a) two-channel and b) cheap. But, importantly, not ridiculously, awfully cheap. There aren't any absurd and unrealistic wattage ratings on the casing and it comes from a big (very big) and reputable manufacturer, Harman International. In this case branding means it won't be completely crap.

Honestly, the hardest part of this install was getting wires figured out. Yes, the harness had been mutilated. Once that was done the rest of it was surprisingly easy.

There's a tunnel that runs from the trunk to the passenger compartment, and since the battery is mounted in the trunk, the install is almost trivial. No drilling in the firewall.

The amp went behind the passenger seat. Note that if you have a post-1994 NA, the ECU is mounted here. I think. Someone correct me. Either way, make sure what you're drilling into.

I was expecting to find stock speakers in the doors, but it looks like someone put in these poly cone Pioneer units when they installed the head unit. If they're installed with the same level of skill as the head unit, there are wires twisted around the speaker terminals and wrapped in electrical tape back there. At the moment I'm just going to leave them. They don't actually sound too bad, and I haven't figured out exactly what I want to put in the door yet.

I know this install is neither unique nor revolutionary, especially in the Miata world, but I am still pretty happy with it. It fits the Miata ethos. Functional, minimally complex, and light. The amp is very slightly heavier than the head unit that got binned, but I excised about three feet of tangled up wiring and three (yes, three!) inline fuse holders. At the very least, I've reduced the risk of my car burning to the ground in an electrical fire.

As for the amp itself? I didn't tear it down to check out the quality of the components or the packaging. I don't have reference quality speakers to listen to it critically. I can say it has way, way more power than those particular speakers need. It's not supposed to be a flagship amp - I paid $80 for mine - but I'm confident it'll deliver its rated output with a minimal amount of distortion. I've been impressed at how much detail I'm hearing even with the poor speakers and the large amount of cockpit noise. The screw terminal block could be wider and beefier but it's not exactly flimsy. The included mounting screws are the perfect length to mount through about half an inch of insulation and carpet. They aren't self-tapping. The amp has a nice soft turn on feature, but that's hardly ground-breaking or upmarket these days.

So, for a total of right around $100, including the mounting kit, I've added two 60 watt channels. Is it going to win any competitions? Well, I hope not. Does it go louder and cleaner than any head unit? Absolutely. Combined with an almost infinite playlist, the fact that I don't have to carry expensive and obnoxious media, and the fact that it looks like my stereo has already been stolen - this is an unbeatable upgrade for the working Miata.


Miata 'Ebay Clears' turn signal install

Well, the stock turn signal / running lamps at the front of my Miata were starting to show their age. As in they had huge rock chips and holes and were full of rusty water. One of them was starting to short out in heavy rain. Not good.

OEM replacements are $80 apiece. While I really do appreciate the factory look, I can't see spending $160 on a couple of molded plastic pieces. I really just wanted a functional replacement for the factory pieces. Well, the aftermarket knockoff hucksters on Ebay would be happy to sell you a pair of clear (or smoked - out of the question for this car) turn signal lamps for $30.

For the pair. With bulbs.

I have to say I was skeptical. Would they leak? Would they have fitment issues? Well, no. They may be slightly cheap, but they're totally solid. Proper venting in the back. The pigtails and connectors fit perfectly. I have to say I'm impressed. Worth $30? Absolutely.


Idle Speed Control Valves and safe failure modes

Finally. It has taken me a great deal of wrenching, cursing, and no small amount of money, but my 1992 Miata is finally running the way the good Lord intended, as she rolled off the factory floor in Hiroshima so long ago, the same year I started high-school in rural Connecticut. Back then I had no idea that this car would eventually be waiting for me, more than three thousand miles away and two continents later.

Well... of course, that first statement should come with a caveat or two. My example could do with a new soft top, a new timing belt and accessory belts, really, new rubber all around.

That said, it finally runs right. Yes, I'd say my example had some deferred maintenance. So far I've replaced:

  • Shock absorbers (Koni Sports)
  • Thermostat (was frozen shut)
  • ISCV (failed, probably due to overheating when thermostat was stuck shut)
  • Plug wires
  • Air filter element
  • Clutch slave cylinder
  • Brake pads and fluid
  • Battery (Duralast 8AMU1R)

Is that really it? It feels like I've done so much more. Maybe the fact that I've flushed the coolant three times while I was fighting the overheating issue, the fact that I've changed the oil and transmission fluid, spent so much time dealing with the sneaky idle control problem... I feel like I have more into the car than just a simple dollar amount.

The shocks are a good example. Far from being drop-in replacements, the Konis have a 12mm shaft that includes an internal adjustment rod - which of course won't fit through the factory shock mounts. So, I had to drill them out... under my carport, without the benefit of a drill press or even a bench vise. I have to admit that it's high time I set up a proper machine shop.

My latest adventure: replacing the idle speed control valve.

The old ISCV is on the right, with air intake tubing attached, and the new ISCV is already mounted on the throttle body. In the Miata (and I assume other Mazda cars from that era) the idle speed control valve can open to allow a calibrated amount of air past the throttle plate at idle to compensate for load. The best example would be the air conditioning compressor. Of course, as good engineers would, Mazda's realized that it would be safer for this valve to fail open. Far better to have the car able to run the A/C at a light if the solenoid actuating the valve fails. The alternative? The engine would either stall or do horrible things to itself at 200 rpm. So, the ISCV fails open, and your car idles at an annoying 1800 rpm. Yeah, that's how much extra throttle you need from a 1.6 engine to run a tiny air conditioning compressor.

Well... mine failed. Since my original ISCV would stop working as the engine reached operation temperature (later ceasing to work at all, cold or hot) my best guess is that the overheating problem I inherited with the car resulted in an broken conductor within the solenoid housing. If I can muster up the motivation, I'll grind open the housing and see if my suspicions are correct.

Either way, the 'new' one works perfectly. My baby now idles quietly and without fuss right around 800 rpm. It's beautiful. Even the valve assembly itself looks newer, which is strange as it was pulled from a '91. Either it was a replacement piece itself - possible - or that particular NA was parted out early on in its life. The $50 in cash from my local specialist was a lot less painful than the $500 new replacements fetch online.

So... my baby is now back to some kind of baseline. Handling and engine performance are 'stock-like'. This winter, it'll be ready for some proper modifications. I haven't decided exactly what I'm doing, but a manual steering rack is definitely going on, and the power steering hardware coming off. The steering is precise, but much too light.

One thing: if you take off the ISCV for inspection or cleaning, you probably won't be able to re-use the gasket that seats into the throttle body. At least, I couldn't. The gasket seated (I think) and promptly disintegrated.

I'll note that the gasket had swelled badly from being cooked for several hundred miles, and the rubber must have been pretty badly deteriorated. Since I was unable to source a replacement gasket, this time I went with a rubber/cork one that I cut by hand. I was considering a silicone sealant, but I'm weird and I'll probably want to pull the throttle body for inspection, at which point it'll come apart without a mess.

In retrospect, I should never have pulled the old ISCV for cleaning. It didn't do any good, and the gasket failure wasn't the best thing in the world to happen to my engine. Those missing pieces of gasket were nowhere to be found, which meant they probably went through the engine. That's not as big a deal as the rust on my old ISCV, which makes me think that small amounts of coolant were leaking into the intake.

Not good. So: don't do what I did and attempt to re-use that gasket. It wasn't broken for very long, though, and I think my car is ready to forgive me.


Do you REALLY need an airbag?

Actually, I just wanted to post this here so I could find it again.

Driver wearing 5 point harness walks away (laughing) from a 55 mph head-on in a Miata. Racing steering wheel installed.

It's kinda funny to watch the passenger bag blow. Heh.

Edit: NOT wearing a helmet.


Throttle Body and IAC (ISCV) Cleaning

Yes, that really is my car with the throttle body out and lying on the ground. I have no idea why there's a pile of rusting bike parts littering my work area, I need to clean up. Box that shit up. Yeah.

For the record, although you do see the Haynes manual pictured, it was pretty useless. This article is vastly more useful. Remember, of course, this is for the 1.6 - I don't know if the 1.8 is different.

I attempted a non-invasive cleaning with no real results. Apparently, so had the previous owner, as the main mounting screw for the plastic air intake had been removed. Permanently. So I need another one. However, spraying the face of the throttle restrictor plate is not going to fix idle problems.

When cold, my ISCV (idle speed control valve) worked perfectly, compensating for extra load (like A/C) exactly as it should. Idle was right around 900 with the idle control screw pegged shut. As the engine warmed, the idle would rise to about 1200-1300 and the ISCV would stop working completely. Turning on the A/C would almost stall the car at idle.

This made me think I had a very dirty ISCV. I mean, had it even been cleaned in the 102k miles the car had been driven? I have absolutely no records for this car.

Well, how does it look to you? I think it looks pretty filthy. That's the back of the throttle, by the way, with ISCV still attached.

The Haynes manual refers to the ISCV as the IAV (Idle Air Valve). I think that ISCV makes more sense, as there is another valve that's also an 'air valve' but responds to coolant temperature, not the ECU. I haven't been able to find that valve referenced in my Haynes manual.

ISCV removed. I think the hardest part of all this was putting that stupid gasket back in. It was way distorted, probably from heat, and much too big. Ended up using a simple, latex based adhesive on the back side of the gasket, applying pressure, and praying. I'm pretty sure it got back in it's groove, finally, as it's a very thick gasket and the ISCV seated without a gap of any kind and not a great deal of effort. But that was awful, and if you can find a new gasket for this, do so and save yourself some serious frustration. Or share with me your secret for getting a swollen gasket to stay in place.

Look any better? That's about halfway through cleaning it... I eventually pulled the gasket from the groove which proved to be a silly thing to do. Silly me.

Oh yeah, and that's the inside of my intake manifold looked before cleaning. Nice.

That's about all there is to it, really. I'm happy it all went back together, the ECU isn't throwing open ISCV solenoid codes like it used to sometimes, and so far it seems the idle problems are cured. At least, the ISCV problems. I now get a nice steady idle at all engine temperatures and the ISCV works whenever I test it. Of course, it's not over - I am suspicious of the other air valve. But that one's a lot easier to get to.


Serious Surgery

If that looks like my workstation laid out on my couch and getting it's guts torn out, it's because it is.

I have suffered a most impressive list of hardware failures over the past week or so. First my notebook hard drive simply failed without warning (sounds like the head motor is toast, as it spins up but no seeking sounds and won't be recognized by any BIOS). Boo.

So I start using my desktop for primary use. I buy a monitor to make it usable (a 37 inch LCD TV is fun for about 5 minutes) and the power supply, coincidentally, decides to give up the ghost after 5 or 6 years of faithful, continuous service.

I guess that's part of my problem. Notebook hard drives aren't really designed to be left on for two years. I should never have been using a notebook as a primary workstation. Even my ancient desktop suddenly made me realize how bad the memory and disk I/O bottlenecks are in a laptop.

Oh and then the hard drives fail in the workstation, one after the other. I guess five years of continuous use is reasonable for a consumer hard drive... and they did travel 2500 miles across the country not that long ago.

But then I bricked my motherboard. That was really dumb of me. The old BIOS images ASUS supplies for its legacy boards are apparently incompatible with their newer Windoze based flashing software. So let that be a lesson to you!

Let that be a lesson to me, actually.

For about $130 I upgraded to another crap motherboard and bottom of the line processor, and it's just orgasmically fast. No, really. So, I think the only thing that's still left in my workstation is the DVD writer - everything else has been replaced in the past couple of days.

Hardware fails. Back your shit up. That's the lesson for last week.


I Hate VB (Don't You?)

I have no idea when I wrote this, but I was digging around in an older module, and found this ode to the most busted language ever written (apologies to COBOL):

' i hate vb
' -------------------
' a poem by henry j. mason
' i hate vb
' quite passionately
' i hate vb
' and it's clear to me
' that while there will be more to write
' (and write until my hair turns white)
' my love for programming has waned
' languished under basic's bane
' indeed, so fundamentally broken a language
' could do naught but cause in the most boring programmer deep, bitter anguish
' a twinge of pain
' as again, and again
' the sisyphus must recite
' the banal syntax, and despite
' obsolescence, this poor slave knows there will never be
' true death for such mediocrity
' unkillable, the vb zombie
' feeds, slowly, feeds... upon you, and me

Clearly I am somewhat passionate about this subject. The same could be said, I suppose, about any legacy language left in place to support some vital business function, and maintained in perpetuity...

VB (and don't talk to me about VB.Net, as that's a whole 'nother can of worms) irks me mostly as it was created to allow non-programmers to write code. WHAT?? Non-programmers should be kept as far away from a compiler as possible.

It's funny, though. Microsoft has long had a reputation as being user-unfriendly, beyond surface details, at least. It requires a very competent user to keep a Windows system running smoothly, even more so in the age of the Internet. It's a hackers OS, to a point, and that's why I like it.

Maybe that's why, when they try and make something for the non-hacker crowd, they fail so epically?


Experiments in Raw Feeding

So, we get home from a week in the gorgeous city of Cleveland, only to find this note from the dog-sitters.

My first reaction was disappointment. Man! I missed my baby's first kill! What a bummer. I also felt bad for the rabbit. Visions of it suffering on my back lawn as the dog sitter held back the slavering woof-woof went through my head. Oh well. It could have been hit by a car.

Then, inevitably, I started wondering what happened to the rabbit. Had they buried it? Thrown it in the trash? Apparently Miyuki had caught and slain her prey only hours before we got home. Good timing, as it turned out. A message to the dog sitter confirmed the presence of a freshly killed cottontail in a bag in the garbage container under the car-port. It was a cool, 55F day. I wasn't worried about spoilage. So, out of the trash came one big-ass bunny. I'm guessing it was over three pounds, as fully dressed it came to 2.25 pounds on the scale.

Yes, I cleaned and 'dressed' it. That is, whacked it into half pound sections with a cleaver. I'm pretty sure my neighbors think I'm certifiable. I regularly hack up carcasses on the patio. Is this normal?

I've never cleaned and dressed a mammal before. Gutted plenty of fish. I have to admit, as a vegetarian, it really wasn't that bad. I mean, I don't plan on eating it - it's going to those that deserve it, our dogs.

The fact is, rabbit meat is expensive. Ground or whole expect to pay $7 a pound. There is, as far as I know, little demand for it as food for humans, it's the raw feeding movement that make this meat so lucrative.

So, all is well, and whatever guilt I felt about the suffering of the rabbit has been assuaged. It's painful end shall not have been in vain - it will be consumed, and the life cycle shall continue.

It's now in the freezer for a month. We'll see how they like it.


There's something new in my driveway. Something that's just begging to be tinkered with.


Mazda Furai concept race car

I'm not sure why I hadn't seen this before, but Mazda built a one-off three rotor race car that's just, well, stunning doesn't quite do it justice.

It's a runner, unlike most concept cars, and has an engine built by Racing Beat that produces this prodigious wail, reminiscent of the 787B, but throatier.

Watch it.


Batch 2.4: Clover Pollen Treat, redux

Ok, just tweaking the recipe slightly. Let's see how it works with a little higher starting SG:

Batch #: 2.4
Brew Date: 2009-05-14
Type: Extract
Malt Extracts:
8.5lb Briess wheat-barley liquid malt extract
1lb Clover Honey - 10 minutes

Malted Grains:
1lb Gambrinus Honey malt 25L
1oz Sterling - 45 minutes
Wyeast 3086 Wheinstephan Wheat

OG: 1.069 at 60 F

Yeah, pretty straightforward, honey added right before flameout, otherwise totally standard. Shooting for a slightly more potent batch this time, and rigged a blow-off tube as the Wheinstephan is very aggressive. Definitely need a temperature controlled primary, next. Right? Right.


Best of Craigslist: Miata hunting

I just had to preserve this for posterity:


Hi. I am posting this because I have become very disgruntled at the amount of stupidity in the minds of miata owners. I do not understand how someone could possibly believe that their dented miata in need of a new clutch with 250,000 miles on it could ask $5000. IT IS NOT A DAMN FERRARI. WE ARE IN A RECESSION. IF YOU DO NOT SELL YOUR CAR, REPOST WITH A LOWER PRICE. Its simple economics people. Nothing about your car makes it worth $3,000 more then blue book. NOTHING. This means you, retarded dealer that's trying to sell a miata with 150,000 miles and a salvage title for $5000. Are you ill in the head? If you have a miata with a dented fender and a replacement sitting in your garage, then fucking replace it and try selling it. Don't just sit there and say that you just don't have the time to do it. Do you want to sell your car or not? Its been on here for over a month and the fender isn't going to un-dent itself. FIX THE DAMN FENDER OR LOWER THE PRICE.

So true.

Next up: I finally post something about tinkering. Which I have been doing, despite all appearances to the contrary. Serious tinkering.


Batch 2.3: Clover Pollen Treat

After discovering that I'd apparently lost (can we go with misplaced?) the recipes and notes from the first three batches of beer that I'd brewed, I realized I should stop being an idiot and just post my notes here.


So without further ado:

Batch #: 2.3
Brew Date: 2009-04-09
Type: Extract
Malt Extracts:
7lb Briess wheat-barley liquid malt extract
Malted Grains:
1lb Gambrinus Honey malt 25L
1oz German Traditional (should have been: Hallertau) - 60 minutes
Wyeast 3086 Wheinstephan Wheat
OG: 1.050 at 70 F

Steeped the malted barley in 3 gallons of water at 165-155 F for 30 minutes, then sparged in remainder of boil water (2.5 gallons) at 170F. 1 tbsp Irish moss added. Otherwise totally straightforward.

4 oz of Clover honey pasteurized and added to primary at 24 hours.

This one looks like it'll come out properly, even though I managed to get a very violent (and over temperature) initial fermentation. I need better temperature control in my primary.

Edit: Kegged directly from primary on 2009-14-16 (7 days). FG: 1.012. Needs to settle and clear, but tastes pretty decent. Definitely going to go with Tettnang hops next time, and probably add the honey to the boil.


Bitten by the home brewing bug

No, that's a stupid title. That title implies that I somehow 'discovered' the joys of brewing beer, or brewing beer in my kitchen, or that I've never seen or participated in the process of brewing beer before. I have. I've brewed my own small (11 gal) batches at this cool brew-your-own place in Ohio called Buckeye Brewing, but then the owner sold it, and I never went back, and then I moved... I've made wine at home, so I know what a carboy is, and an airlock, and how yeast converts sugar into alcohol in this miraculous process that, ultimately, ends up meaning so much to me.

I've always been into beer. Well, not always. I've been into beer since I discovered real beer, beer that had been brewed with taste - with the exquisite experience that accompanies the enjoyment of a true beer - rather than profit motive in mind.

Unlike, perhaps, some people, I can't pinpoint the exact time and place of this epiphany. There was in fact no real epiphany. I do remember the first time I had a beer good enough, remarkable enough to remember. It was the very late 90s or very early 00s, and one of my promoter friends had booked Paul Oakenfold to play at what was essentially a club night. One of the stipulations on Oakie's rider was that a chilled case of Hoegaarden be provided backstage for, one would assume, his exclusive consumption - perhaps to improve his beatmatching skills. Regardless of the intent, myself and another dude known only to me as 'DJ Kevin' proceeded to help ourselves to the contents of the case. Hey, they weren't drinking it. Oakenfolds set was done, and it hadn't been nearly as good as the beer. We finished the entire case between us, and the promoter glumly informed me that it had been a $48 case of beer.

I remember thinking, "Hey, that might actually be worth it."

I didn't suddenly cultivate a taste for Hoegaarden, though. I was far too poor, and kept drinking the same things I'd been drinking before: PBR and The Beast. Hey, if you're going to waste your money on domestic beer, you might as well not waste your money on their advertising campaigns as well. Budweiser is swill. Inoffensive, 'drinkable', and certainly consistent, but swill nonetheless. This is a commercial product mass-produced in vast quantities using the cheapest possible ingredients, in the least amount of time.

It is at the opposite end of the spectrum where the beer connoisseur inevitably finds themselves. As Budweiser is to McDonalds, so the craft brewery is to the individual restaurant, a singular creation of a single chef, each dish tailored to a unique taste. Or, one would hope.

Somewhere amid this glow of idealism lies the true state of craft beer in America. From pseudo-craft startups launched or taken over by major domestic breweries, to legitimate microbrewery success stories that sell millions of gallons of high-quality beer ever year, there's a lot to choose from. Some of it fantastic. Some of it rather awful. The rest lies between.

The thing is, nobody in the region (as in, no other micro-brewer) seems to share my particular taste in beer. I feel that there is a void that must be filled. I want things exactly my way. When has it ever been any different? Of course, for now, I have to content myself with research and design spending, and test marketing. Naturally.