Intelligent life is just getting started

•August 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment


What if there’s a more interesting or easier to explore place to go than “out”? I propose two such places:

Used to be that as kids we’d play outside, tinker inside, explore our environment, physically interact with other kids, etc. Today, many kids are happy to stay immobile while they explore cyberspace, virtually interact with each other, or digitally create. Could ETCs all graduate to the point where they are happy to stay put and just explore virtual realities? Or create simulated universes (which we may be in one of) and enter them? This does assume that population pressure allows them the luxury of staying put. (There’s also cataclysm pressure which forces you to move or expand, lest a cataclysm makes you extinct; even if you can manage your population and resources, a civilization would have to be careless not to expand out.)

My second proposal: just as we’ve come to know the moon or Mars better than we know our ocean depths, and how the exploration of space is capturing more of our imagination than the exploration of our planet, maybe there are yet other places for us to go than out to space.

Could ETCs, in the process of trying to devise schemes to exceed the speed of light, have all stumbled onto inter-dimensional travel and discovered a much more fascinating and less energy-consuming frontier? Why bother with slow, dangerous and expensive travel to space, when stepping into another dimension is considerably easier and equally rewarding?  Just as a child has no reason to return to the womb, ETCs who step out of this realm may have no desire to return.

Originally posted on Praxtime:

space intel life

Update: also see my follow-on post about Sagan Syndrome

I wrote an earlier post supporting the view that Earth is a unique planet. It’s likely the only planet in our galaxy supporting complex life. I wanted to do an update after coming across an excellent post by Stephen Ashworth, who categorizes views on alien life into either “steady state” or “expansionist”.

View original 1,009 more words

Tesla: “The Most Impractical Car”

•August 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

It’s been just over a year since we purchased our 85kWh Tesla Model S. We’ve put a bit over 17,000 miles on it. We used some 6950 kWh (at 11 cents a kWh = $764) to cover those miles, and have paid PG&E (our electricity provider) approximately $850 (the discrepancy is likely due to electric use not related to moving the car). In this time period, we’ve used this car as we have other cars, except that we haven’t yet driven to Los Angeles, nor to Tahoe, from where we live in the east SF Bay Area.

Once, we drove this car 80 miles to Santa Cruz, spent the weekend driving around there, and returned, without needing to charge the car, and had 50 miles of range left when we got home – a total of about 200 miles driven.

A few months ago, I drove this car 140 uphill miles to Nevada City, and on the way back, I had my first and only episode of “range-anxiety”. It was self-inflicted (you can read more about it here) but has significantly reduced any worry about running out of juice; there are many Superchargers and slower charging stations available and the worse case scenario would be to get yourself towed to one of those. The take away for me was that the car doesn’t just stop when it hits “zero range”.

This car truly has been as useful as any other sedan, while outperforming anything I’ve ever owned, including a 300HP internal combustion convertible I still drive — it’s also really fun to drive! Yes, it doesn’t have as many seats as an SUV, nor does it have a tow hitch for my bike carrier or to tow something from the equipment rental store (like a wood chipper), but then, neither do most luxury cars nor does my convertible.

So what that it can’t go to LA without needing to be charged twice each way (once, if you try hard and can charge it again as soon as you hit the limits of LA) – how often do we drive to LA? I think we’ve done that trip once since we’ve had kids some umpteen years ago.

That brings me to why I am writing this. In a recent discussion, a friend who lives in the Midwest, overheard mention of the name Tesla and immediately muttered, “Tesla, the most impractical car”. I quickly said, “We have one and it has been quite practical for us”. I explained how we put at least 50 miles on the car each weekday , and plug it in each night, right at our home, and we never have to visit a gas station. “What exactly is impractical?”, I asked. “Electric cars are inefficient, there are not not enough charging stations, and they can’t store anywhere near the amount of stored energy a traditional car does”. I did’t quite understand his point, but changed the subject. If a car can meet your needs, without forcing discomfort, and at a lower operating cost, is it still “impractical”?

Any new technology will have hurdles associated with it. Surely, when the first gas-powered cars began traveling roads meant for horses and horse-pulled-carriages, there were detractors who wondered where one would fuel them, or how anyone could put up with the incessant noise. With time, those issues have faded away. In my opinion, the Tesla Model S is way ahead by having already resolved some of the “new technology hurdles” (it already has a 250 mile range), and with more time, we’ll see more charging stations, improvements in battery capacity, and lowered associated costs and environmental impact of creating those batteries.

Why would you need more stored energy when the car can outperform any other car doing the things we need it to do? If I needed an explosion, maybe gas would be a better choice, but seriously, unless you’re doing a 200 miles drive, each way, everyday, I’d say that you don’t need as much “stored energy” as a traditional car. As it is, I know of a number of Tesla owners who do a 100-140 mile commute each day, without compromise (round-trip, with plenty of charge left over for use later in the day). Some even enjoy a free charge while they are at work.

As for charging stations, there are plenty sprinkled around shopping areas and parking garages, but notable are the Tesla Superchargers, where you can get 170 miles of range added in just 30 minutes, for free! That’s a charge rate of over 300amps at 370volts! The number of Tesla Superchargers are growing at an astounding rate. By 2015, you can drive across the country, without much compromise of your direct route (right now you have to drive from the SF Bay area to Barstow and through Las Vegas to then go up to Salt Lake City). Here is an interactive map of current and future Supercharger stations. Keep in mind, at least for now, it’s free to charge your car at these stations so your trip across the US would effectively (ignoring tolls) be free, vs. approximately $500 for a traditional, but fuel efficient car. (By the way, the Tesla doesn’t need motor oil or transmission fluid, and brake wear is reduced due to regenerative braking.)





Honestly, I have more range-anxiety with my convertible gasoline car as I tend to put off going to the gas station until the EMPTY light comes on. At that point, I figure I have about 30 miles of range, but it’s variable. At least with the Tesla, it gets charged every night, and it is rare that we need to drive it far enough that “driving on fumes” is a worry. And don’t forget, you literally can charge anywhere where you find a power outlet (and have permission). It’s slow to charge at a regular 110v/15amp outlet, and a little faster at a 240v/30amp outlet – the ones that clothes dryers are usually plugged into. At our home we have a Tesla High Power charger that charges at 240v/80amps, which equates to about 58miles per hour of charge (we typically need just an hour or so per night ~ $3).

And here’s one other thought: as soon as we have solar panels on our house, we won’t be paying PG&E that $850 ($1600? once we have a second electric car), and will likely be getting paid for the extra electricity we generate!

Now back to my friend’s comment; if you’ve never driven a Tesla, you should. If you think that Tesla can’t possibly have the experience of Detroit and they’re building toys or impractical cars, you need to rethink that notion. (The best thing that Tesla could do is to give detractors a Tesla to drive for a weekend. But why would they? They’re selling them as fast as they make them.) This car may not be the perfect combination of a commute car + family daily errands car + long-haul vacation car. Two out of three isn’t bad, and with the savings you can just rent a car, a larger one with room for all your suitcases and camping gear, for that rare trip to LA or the Grand Canyon.

“Try it… you’ll like it.” Just don’t press the accelerator down too hard – for a sedan it has an unexpected race-car-worthy acceleration.

To preempt those who will point out the monetary and environmental costs of creating electricity, batteries or photovoltaic cells, I say: please go study the cost of wars and armed forces needed to secure and maintain access to oil fields, the cost of transporting oil across oceans, the cost of oil spills, the environmental cost of car emissions, and the many other recurring costs that impact each refuel of your car. After manufacture, electric vehicles could literally be powered by the sun or the wind, independent of fossil fuels.

The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats – Nick Hanauer – POLITICO Magazine

•June 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This is what I’ve been saying.  And I too have been couching it as a a self-preservation argument so it doesn’t get discounted as a bleeding-heart do-gooder type of wealth redistribution.

“These idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying my customer base. And yours too.”

via The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats – Nick Hanauer – POLITICO Magazine.

Is this domain for sale?

•May 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Hey.  I see you’re the owner of that piece of land over there”, says the stranger, with the pulled down hat and covered face.



“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Is it for sale?”, he asks, gruffly, almost as if to disguise his voice.

“No, sorry.”

“I’ll give you $250 for it.”

“Huh?  No, it’s not for sale.”

“I don’t have a lot of money.  I need it for this great business I want to build.  Will you take $500?”

“No, it’s not for sale.”

A few days later, he shows up again.  “My partner says I should offer you $1,000.”

“Please tell your partner that it is not for sale.”

Another week goes by.  “My investors are going out on a limb and want me to pay you $5,000.”

“For what, the land?  It’s still not for sale.”

That happens about once a month week.  Except that they are trying to buy one of my domain names.

And I don’t know how many of these strangers are the same person, just coming back with different disguises.  I’ve had people who want one or the other domain for some new business idea.  I’ve had people who want to use one for their new band.  I had another who wanted me to donate one to their non-profit, but wasn’t allowed to tell me what they were doing.  I had another who wanted one as a gift for his son.  Yet another was trying to add it to a group of other unspecified domain names so that they could create a sentence with all the words (presumably for a marketing promotion run by a larger company).  Mostly I get students or so they say, who are working on a project that requires one of my domain names.

They all need to learn something.  If you’re coming to me, who has owned these domains for almost 20 years, and you want to buy a domain, then you need to come up with a more compelling story to get me interested.

Don’t tell me that I should give away a perfectly good domain so that you can build what will make you a billionaire.  I could care less.

Don’t tell me that I should donate my domain name unless your new business is going to bring health or peace to the masses and you can prove it.

Don’t write to me from seemingly temporary or new email addresses, without a real name attached, because not knowing that you’re some entrepreneur (who has or has no money) won’t make a difference in whether I will sell you my domain.

And if the only thing you have to offer is money, please, don’t bother me for anything less than 6-figures (USD).  Because I’ve already turned down a couple of those.

(I might, however, rent you a domain for 5-figures.)

Maximizing Driving Range, or, Making it to the Charging Station Without the Help of a Tow Truck

•April 13, 2014 • 1 Comment


Yesterday, I had to drive into the Sierras to celebrate a friend’s birthday.  Due to a confluence of events (which included putting two new colonies of bees into hives), but mostly my lack of attention to the actual distances and the amount of climbing involved, I found myself in the predicament of not knowing whether I would make it to the charging station, BEFORE running out of juice.

It started at the Folsom Supercharger – my journey actually started in the Bay Area, but the important part started in Folsom.  As I was headed up to Nevada City, some 50 miles away, I had to do a quick mental calculation as to how much energy I was going to need.  I was already late for the party so I didn’t have the luxury to just “top it off”.  I just needed enough to get me there and then back to my next destination, the Supercharger in Vacaville – another 90 miles.  I put enough energy into the car so that it indicated a range of 160 miles.  I knew my margin wasn’t that big, but I always had the same Folsom Supercharger to fall back to, if I needed to.

Having never been up to Nevada City, and also having never driven any electric vehicle up a mountain range, I wasn’t aware how much energy was going to be used just to overcome the climb to Nevada city.  When I arrived at my friend’s, the car indicated that it had 80 miles of range left, while the distance I had left to travel later was 91 miles.

Seeing that I had done a lot of climbing to get there, I assumed I could gain some range back as I went downhill, both from regenerative braking, but mostly from just using less energy when going downhill.  I didn’t worry myself – and I didn’t want to bother the host for an extension cord and outlet to charge at a measly 3-4 miles per hour.

When I left the party, at 11pm, some of my expectations turned out to be correct:  From Nevada City to Auburn, and from Auburn and on to about North Highlands, north of Sacramento, I lost less range than I gained in distance travelled.

  • At Aubrun: 60 miles of range left with 64 miles to go
  • At Rocklin: 52 miles of range with 52 miles to go
  • At North Highlands: I had 45 miles of range and 42 miles to go

I was quickly approaching a point at which it would not be possible for me to turn back towards Folsom’s Supercharger, as my backup to Vacaville.  I continued to monitor the displayed numbers, now also monitoring my 5, 15 and 30 mile usage averages to make sure I was still gaining on range vs distance left.  This is what that display looks like, although this image isn’t reflective of my trip:  

Energy Display (Click for more info)

After Sacramento, as the predominantly downhill freeway transitioned to more consisted flats, I noticed that my range was dropping faster than my distance travelled.  One thing that has been an unknown to me with this car is its efficiency at different speeds.  I know that when my wife drives it, which is the norm, she gets much more distance out of each overnight charge than I do. I like the powerful acceleration in this car – it’s way better than my 300 horsepower V8 – and utilize it, so I typically get 30-40 miles less per charge.  What this car doesn’t do, and it should, is to give you some indication of “burn rate” comparisons:

  • at current speed, you’re using x kWh (and your range would be m miles)
  • at 65mph you’d be using y kWh (and your range would be n miles)
  • at 60mph you’d be using z kWh (and your range would be o miles)
  • at 55mph you’d be using w kWh (and your range would be p miles)

It’s hard to figure those numbers out by observation since they are impacted by the incline of the road, the wind, and even the car ahead of you.

Over the next 40 miles, I reduced my speed to 65, then 60 and then 55 in order to keep the range estimate within a mile of the distance left to go.  But what helped even more, was drafting behind trucks and buses.  I first tried it with a Safeway truck, but I found that the driver’s speed and desire to pass cars, had me accelerating and decelerating too much so I gave up.  Next I drafted a large bus, which was fine, except that the bus driver obviously didn’t like me so close behind, and kept trying to change lanes to let me pass, tap on the brakes to see whether I was going to get out from behind and eventually I gave up, and let the bus pull away and leave me behind going at 60mph (it’s a bit surreal how fast other cars pass you when you’re doing 60mph). A double tanker provided me with 10 minutes or so of drafting, at a nice constant speed and that helped tremendously.

I finally made it to Vacaville with 1 mile of range left, and by the time I was parked at the charger, I was at 0.  Here’s what that looks like, since I assume no sane person would ever go so low to witness it for themselves:


This is my energy usage profile for the last 30 miles.  Not bad?




If you’re wondering if this was a very stressful situation, I have to say that it was, only until I told myself that getting a flat-bed tow-truck around Vacaville won’t be the end of the world and won’t cost that much – and I do have tow insurance.  I might have to sleep in the car while wait for the tow :-) With that decision made, the stress level dropped and this whole thing became more of an experiment.

By the way, for this of you who haven’t witnessed this, it is incredible how quickly the Supercharger charges the car – at a rate of 110kWh!  361volts at 300+ amps!  At one point the car was literally humming at a roar (I believe from the fans cooling the battery cells) – and you can also hear the hum from the big transformers nearby that power the charging units.


(This is image is from the Tesla iPhone app).

 One thing I was hoping to learn from this experience, and maybe I should be thankful I didn’t, is how the car behaves once it is completely out of juice.  I suppose that when it says 0 miles of range left, it doesn’t actually mean that the engine will shut off and the car will coast to a stop.  I sort of expected a message to the effect of “You are now running on reserve power.  Please find a safe spot to pull over and park the car.  Here are phone numbers for tow operators and mobile chargers closest to your location…”.

If you’ve experienced a complete shutdown due to battery depletion, I would love to hear about the car’s behavior leading up to it, and after.  (I’m assuming there’ll be some power left for locking and unlocking the car doors, etc.)

What I found in the main power panel…

•January 28, 2014 • 1 Comment

ImageFor the past week or two, I noticed that my spouse’s EV hasn’t had the battery levels that I normally expect to see, later in the day. Two days ago, I noticed the house lights brighten a bit, as usual, between 1 and 2 am, and quickly checked the charge level, and saw that it was at least 50 miles short of a usual charge.

I didn’t think much of it, assuming that I had to change the settings to have the car charge itself more fully (it lets you set a max charge level, and the manufacturer recommends a setting that is not too close to a full charge as that would shorten the battery life).

Last night, by the time I remembered to make those changes, the car had already finished charging (it is set to start charging at midnight, at a current of 80 amps). This time it was closer to 100 miles short of a regular charge. I tried to get the car to start the charging process again, using its iPhone app. The car acted as though it wasn’t plugged in. I walked to the car in the garage, and shortly realized that the wall-charger was not powered. I went to our house’s main panel, and the charger’s circuit breaker hadn’t tripped. I tried to toggle it on and off and it wouldn’t budge. And that’s when I noticed that telltale stench of burnt electronics. (what exactly is that?)

Later, in daylight, I opened the panel and saw the mess. Although I don’t have a picture of the panel as it was this morning, I do have the circuit breaker, which was replaced, and I am sharing some photos:


This is what I think happened. Due to the heat generated when 80 amps flows through this circuit breaker, the contacts on one side would expand enough so that an arc would occur between it and the panel’s power bus. This arc is what burned the circuit breaker. It’s either a defect in the circuit breaker, or the breaker isn’t fully compatible with the power panel ( I don’t think that the power panel and the circuit breaker are made by the same manufacturer – but who knows, they may have been built in the same Chinese factory).

I am not sure how long this was going on, but one thing I do know is that the charging unit, or the car, most probably noticed the erratic flow of electricity. And it did an admirable job of filtering out the problem and even ending the charging process when it detected some disturbance. But what it really should have done was to send me a little notice that, due to power fluctuations, it interrupted the charging cycle, and recommend that an inspection be performed. No?

Daring Fireball: Shawn Blancs Grandpa’s iPad

•January 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Daring Fireball: Shawn Blancs Grandpa’s iPad.

John Gruber makes two great points here:

1. Apple really should supply the iPad with the same great camera as has been in the iPhone 4s and later iPhones. I’ve seen people with iPads at their kids’ sports events, using them as cameras. I’ve seen people at the Chinese New Year’s parade, at night, using the iPad to take pictures of the floats. I’ve seen people at conferences, holding up iPads – blocking people behind – and taking pictures of the presentation. (I’ve even seen developers at the WWDC take pictures of the Thursday night band, using iPads). The people have spoken: the iPad’s not just for consumption.

2. Too many iOS (and likely Android) users, are woefully unprepared for photo loss.  Many assume that their iCloud backup does an adequate job, and they are wrong; even those who are using PhotoStream don’t realize the shortcomings.  One thing Apple could do is to make it more clear exactly what is being backed up, how much and for how long.  (As others have suggested before, PhotoStream should back up all images, not just 1,000, and perhaps it should only keep 1,000 images on each device).

Back to the use case that was being referred to, an important question these days should be, how do you ensure that the photos you take today will have the same longevity as printed photos in albums or shoeboxes have had. 10, 20, 30 years from now, how do you get your photos off of an old iPad, iPhone, iCloud account, or your Facebook, Flickr or Dropbox accounts? Will formats be so different that if you have not been updating those images you wouldn’t be able to view them? Would any of those online services be around? Will they have faithfully maintained your images – or did they delete them when you stopped logging into the site? And what if you’re dead? Will they provide your next of kin with access to the site? And who exactly will notify your next of kin and let them know that a photo archive is being maintained somewhere on your behalf?

If we care to pass these images along to the next generation, it is up to us individually to:

– maintain the images in two, three or more safe locations (whether at your home, in a safe deposit box, or on some service’s servers)

– document where these images are stored, along with user ids and passwords, and include this information in your will to those whom you’d like to grant access or ownership to. You may also wish to provide a power of attorney that gives your heirs access to your online accounts in case the services don’t wish to allow a deceased person’s user id to continue to log into those accounts.

– you may even wish to print some of your favorite photos and place them in a shoe box :-)

Of course, in this digital age, you may wish to do the same for more than just your photos. You may have email correspondence you wish to pass on to your children. Or a Word document that contains your autobiography. Or an OmniGraffle chart of your family tree. I’m going to stop here as I have just opened a large can of worms (make sure you save these documents in multiple formats in case Word, OmniGraffle or your email app’s file formats are no longer supported in the future).

Oh, and keep in mind that when you you first pass away, there may be circumstances, such as grief, shock, or the young age of your heirs, that makes them unable to immediately think about preserving your digital creations. It maybe a decade or two before they start asking questions and wanting answers and your plans should include protecting those creations for some number of years after you’ve departed.

Sorry to be such a downer.



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