How Not To Treat Customers

•September 22, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Have you noticed how many companies will have special deals and promotions, with the small caveat, “*Only for new customers”?

It makes sense; you are willing to expend some effort, reduce some initial payment, or give something away, in order to acquire a new customer. Presumably, if this customer stays with you, reordering your product or paying you a subscription or monthly service charge, you will recoup that initial investment some time in the near future.

The problem is when you do the insane opposite: Your customer is going to renew a commitment to you, and you charge them a new fee. For that customer, this new fee is a signal, or a wake up call, and to “shop round since you really aren’t appreciated here”.

Specifically, today, I am referring to AT&T Wireless’s new phone upgrade charge. You’ve purchased a new phone and want to replace a phone on your account with this new one. You’re not asking for AT&T to subsidize your phone, nor to give you anything extra. Just to let them use this new phone instead of the old one, on the same account, with the same terms. AT&T sees this as an opportunity to charge you an extra fee, and they probably hope that you won’t really notice it.

This is idiotic, as the cost of acquiring a new cell customer is far greater than that fee. It used to be that cellular companies would subsidize your phone to the tune of hundreds of dollars in order to gain your business, and that would be just a part of the acquisition fee – add in the marketing and advertising dollars, and any “new account” discounts and promotions. Yet, when it comes time for you to replace your own phone, they are willing to risk losing you, instead of rewarding you for being a loyal customer.

For me, this issue really is a reminder to check and see what other cellular companies are offering. Who has the best plans, the most data caps, the most flexibility in offerings, etc. Am I gaining anything by staying with AT&T or is this a good time to switch to Verizon or Google Fi?

While I am sure someone at AT&T is shaking their head, thinking, “We know that this is a stupid charge, but we can’t do away with it since we’ve grown accustomed to it; any change would have a large immediate reduction in revenue.” They probably don’t even have a correlation between that charge and customers leaving them regularly, so they can’t compare the two losses to see that maybe the upgrade revenue doesn’t even cover the loss from leaving subscribers.

I’ll discuss this further in another post. This is a common problem with established businesses; the inability to fix something broken or undesirable, as it would entail taking a hit before knowing if the eventual outcome would mitigate that loss or create even more revenue.

This sort of customer treatment isn’t restricted to AT&T or its industry. Have you ever noticed that after you deplete your airline frequent flyer miles for a reward, that you no longer have any real reason to continue flying on that airline? That you are somewhat of a free agent, able to sample other airlines and decide just who you want to start banking your next thousands of frequent flyer miles with next? This is another stupidly designed system that doesn’t take into account that despite your now depleted frequent flyer miles, that you still should be treated like the valuable customer you have been and that there should be some offerings to continue to court your loyalty to that airline.


Why I’m Not Worried About 5G Or Other Radio Technologies

•February 25, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Wrote this on NextDoor, and I think maybe it’s worth sharing here too.

Valerie, the reason many of us engineers did not attend the City meeting on 5G towers is that we can’t believe anyone would believe this nonsense. Much of it can be refuted with just plain basic physics. And if people don’t believe basics physics, what good can we do attending a meeting?

Think about this: Do they use radio waves, 4G, 5G, light, or x-rays to look inside you for broken bones?

They use x-rays because x-rays can penetrate your tissues getting past some cells, while getting blocked[absorbed] or deflected by others). This is a property of the minuscule wavelength of the radiation, which is equal to 1/frequency (in hertz; greater the frequency, the smaller the wavelength).

When they use x-rays, do the technicians act like it’s nothing and hang out with you, and let themselves get exposed to the x-rays? No, they don’t. Why? Because they know it is dangerous. The x-ray photons can cause havoc in your cells by knocking subatomic particles around and damaging the cell DNA. They put a lead blanket/bib over parts of you and they hide behind lead glass in the other room. They understand the science involved. Now, do you think that a radiologist would walk home or use a cell phone without a bib or lead glass helmet if she thought that radio waves were going to cause her cancer? No. They would take no such risk, IF it were a risk. It is not.

But they, and most people, wear sunglasses and sunscreen when in the sun, because energetic ultraviolet radiation can and does damage your eyes/skin cells.

(I’ll be preemptive and add this here before those who say 5G is the same as TSA body scanners…

The science of electromagnetic radiation is well established. We know the dangers of that radiation are with frequencies so high that they have to knock an electron off an atom. Gamma rays do that (you get a little bit of that every day from the sun, and you would have gotten a whole lot more if the ozone layer damage hadn’t been reversed. You also get extra each time you fly a plane).

Ultraviolet rays at the higher frequencies, can also ionize. Ultraviolet rays from black lights at parties are the lower frequency and don’t ionize. Purple light doesn’t. Blue, green, orange, and red light don’t. Infrared doesn’t. Those all have frequencies higher than 5G and radio waves. So, why would anyone think that the lower frequency 5G or WiFi signal is more dangerous than a higher frequency flashlight?

Is this controversial? If you need a link, start here:

In the spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation, you have radio waves at one end and gamma rays at the other. Here’s how they are ordered:

Radio waves – 1hz to Gigahertz
Microwaves – gigahertz
Infrared – gigahertz to terahertz
Optical light – terahertz to petahertz
Ultraviolet – petahertz
X-rays – petahertz to exahertz
Gamma Rays – exahertz to zettahertz

It may be hard to picture this, but all of these are photons that also behave as waves. They are all the same, except the size of the photon’s wave (and the frequency is 1/wavelength).

(In contrast, power, is the number of photons. A more powerful lightbulb puts out more photons than a less powerful one)

In the early days of radio, we had 1 Hertz signals. Someone would transmit a spark in jar to another jar across the room. We didn’t have technology or electronics able to do very fast processing, so it took us decades to get to the point where we had stations transmitting on 97.3, 104.5 or 105.3 megahertz (good old KRQR, KFOG and KITS; do you remember when 97.3 was KRQR?). People did worry about getting harmed by those radio towers. (They also fought against alternating current electricity in their walls, on their poles, etc.)

Now we have the processing power to inexpensively handle EMR in the gigahertz range. Just because we can only now do it, doesn’t mean that we humans have not been exposed to much gigahertz radiation till recently. Infrared light that you’ve been exposed to all your life, starts at 300 gigahertz.

Ask those who tell you that radio waves are harmful, “why isn’t Infrared harmful?” Many of us have infrared heaters (heaters that have a red hot heat generator or red bulb). Do we get cancer from those? Both infrared and 5G are in the gigahertz range.

There is nothing inherently special about Gigahertz radiation. Megahertz, Gigahertz or Terahertz radiation hit us, no, bombard us everyday, and are harmless. Do I sound crazy? No, you’ve been exposed to megahertz FM radio for as long as you’ve lived, you’ve been exposed to infrared gigahertz every day and many nights, and you’ve been exposed to the spectrum of light in the terahertz range. Do we disagree on that?

At the Petahertz level is where you start to get into harmful UV, and Exahertz and above are X-rays and cosmic rays. Those are ionizing waves.

How about microwave ovens? Don’t they boil water with EMR? Isn’t the human body full of water? Yes. The way a microwave oven works is to blast EMR in a certain spectrum of the gigahertz range, focused on your food, and the water molecules in that food will vibrate and this vibration will cause the water, and the food in turn, to heat up. For this to happen, the amount of energy that is needed is high, and the food mush be within inches of the microwave’s magnetron, where the waves are created. For the same kind of heating occur from a 5G transmitter on a pole, the water or human cells need to be within inches of that transmitter. As for this radiation emanating from a cellphone, held close to a head, the cell phone doesn’t have that kind of power to generate the intensity of radiation required.

Ask those who tell you that radio waves are harmful, “why doesn’t green light, reflected from trees, or white light from light bulbs, give you cancer?” Surely, the light bulb in your room is closer to you and is imparting more power to you than a transmitter on a tower. Why isn’t it dangerous?

They’ll show you some stats, and maybe charts. And this is where we depart from science. While stats can be very useful to science, stats can be wielded in ways that defy science. If I showed you stats that showed that virtually every cancer patient also has been in a car, then you might think that the existence of cars cause cancer. If I show you, as someone here brought up, that everyone who is being treated for autism, has touched a minted coin, then you might think that coins bring about autism. Correlation does not imply causation. If the majority of the US has cellphones and the majority of cancers are in cell phone users, that actually shows that cell phone use isn’t correlated to cancer, not the opposite.

Stats (along with charts) can be honest and useful, or cherry-picked to make a point, true or false. Be careful.

There are things you could trust. The CDC has been very good at tracking why people die. They wouldn’t sit back and let a cancer inducing technology grow, regardless of the industry behind it. Cigarette manufacturers tried, but you still got stern warnings and more from the CDC and other official health agencies, about the dangers of cigarettes. Being under the influence of alcohol while driving, seatbelts, safer cars, poisons in our foods, and many more risks that industries hoped we would ignore in order for them to continue their profits, are all well-known.

Can I be wrong? Can scientists be wrong? Yes, of course. Science is no stranger to new concepts replacing old concepts. The chances of this fundamental concept being wrong is as likely as the cause of cancer being gravity or sound waves. Yet, any new concept begins with hypotheses, experiments, rational study, and not “gigahertz radiation is dangerous on a tower, but not in my room heater because one is new and the other one I don’t even think about”.

“But”, you say, “you make a living off of apps made for cellphones! How can we trust you?” You don’t. You open a physics book and see if I said anything that is false. You ask a physicist. You talk to an oncologist. You talk to a radiologist. You shouldn’t just trust me, or a psychologist, or a fireman, or a friend of your cousin who took a college physics course who now is an expert on cancers, or some random “scientist” who has a blog with no connection to a respected scientific organization. You can talk to recognized experts in the field, or read their writings. Check with the CDC, NIH, other organizations around the world. Of course, follow the money, and the influence, but beware that there are disingenuous ways to discount anyone: “I can’t trust that oncologist because he disagrees with me and probably wants more people to get cancer so he can buy a boat”…

Having said all this, and I really didn’t want to post because I don’t want any friends to feel like I am belittling their truly altruistic concerns, I have to add that Dan Miller is right. We are wasting time on something that isn’t a risk to us or to humanity, while we are ignoring the HUGE environmental disaster that is brewing. I feel like we are concerned about the paint used on the walls of the Titanic. Is the paint toxic? Shall we investigate? Someone said something about an iceberg, but this paint here could be poisonous! Some rats were fed a pint of that paint and they got sick! We should ask to meet with the captain about the paint immediately!

The climate nay-sayers are right: Earth won’t be hurt by a simple temperature change. Yep, Earth will be here for a long long time, with or without humans. But humans, and the organisms they rely on for sustenance, are in trouble.

There’s the present trouble: we burn fossil fuels, including coal. The byproducts are carcinogenic. Coal has the extra special side effect of containing mercury and uranium. When burned, the compounds of those two elements enter the atmosphere and then rain down on us. So we have radioactive rain, and mercury-tainted milk and fish. (I’m not sure if other fossil fuels are much better with their contributions of those two elements).

Then there’s the near-future trouble: oceans are rising, people will get displaced, freshwater will become scarce, wars will be fought over fresh water and livable land. Meanwhile, bees, crops, livestock and our food chain will shrink as the climate changes, fires burn, dust bowls are created, etc.

Sure, we’ll still have technology providing us with nice comfortable A/C to keep us cool, when not fighting a war, or starving.

If I am going to attend a City meeting to change how we stay healthy, it best be one about climate change; which virtually all scientists (used to be 97%, but is a larger percentage now) agree is happening. Not a topic that has virtually no scientists concerned.

Want Your Company To Move Fast?

•April 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Act like a startup.

What do startups not have? Revenue, customers….

Also, they don’t have:

  • a lot of meetings
  • too many layers of hierarchy
  • too much thought about growth and titles (sometimes called “politics”)

If you want to move as fast as the startup that may be coming after your business, then focus on having more individual contributors than managers, directors and VPs, reduce the number of hops to get from visionaries (CEO?) to the individual contributors, and throw all the main actors/groups into the same open office settings and let them communicate often and freely. Yes, the engineers, the designers, the quants, the stakeholders, and even, sporadically, the CEO, sit closely while they work at accelerated speeds.

Do provide private spaces for the inevitable and necessary handling of personal calls, and provide varied seating arrangements, such as booths and couches, but don’t let walls and distance to become blockers.

Make the managers be responsible for status collection and updates to execs, but make them be more focused on eliminating roadblocks for the individual contributors, than on trying to make the hierarchy look good. Managers should be the guardians of speediness, and presciently addressing issues.

Want the opposite? Spend your precious resources on creating an awesome management tower, making everyone, especially the few individual contributors you’ve managed to afford, see that what matters most isn’t getting work done, but doing it in a way that gets you up the tower.

Illegal Alien

•November 11, 2015 • Leave a Comment
On Oct 26, 2015, at 9:46 AM, Rob Orr <xxx@Princeton.EDU> wrote:
I hope you’re doing well. It’s hard to believe that this is year #37 for me here. Probably one of my fondness memories is you trying out for the team, way back when. Soon there after learning that I should be aware that some ‘bad guys’ may be coming on the deck some day to get you, as you weren’t really supposed to be here, or something like that- Actually I would like to hear the actual story so when I tell it to others it will be at least partially accurate.


Hi. I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I’ve been buried.

As for the story. I’ll let you start here: The One Way Trip
Now to get to the next part where you entered the picture. In hindsight it was a scary and uncertain period; while I remember the stress, it was an exciting period of my life and the excitement must have gotten me through the worry and fear.
After making my way from Pakistan to Paris, it was unclear whether I would have to stay there or could continue on to the US. After three different visits and a final little help from a friend of my dad in the US (Ambassador Clyde Taylor), I managed to get a student visa to enter the US. I left Paris on New Years Day 1983, and arrived at JFK late at night. I was so very excited to finally be at the end of my journey, with only an overnight stay and a bus ride separating me from my final destination – a high school in Williamstown, MA, that I had been pre-enrolled at for a few years in anticipation of my eventual arrival.
I proudly walked over to the immigration counter and handed over my passport. This was the same passport I had used to travel through and out of Pakistan where it was stamped upon exit, and later was stamped upon entry to France at the Paris airport. The same passport that I provided to the US embassy on those three visits, until it had finally earned a US visa imprint. And the same passport that was again stamped upon exit from Paris.
The immigration officer at JFK took one look at my passport cover, saw that it was an Iranian passport, and had me escorted over to a different area, to a uniformed and armed woman at a special counter. Even though I had a valid and legit US visa, sometime during my trip from Iran through Pakistan, my passport had expired. This had been known to me, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I had left Iran without permission – no way in hell was that government going to be renewing my passport. Yet, I had completely forgotten about it, given how much scrutiny the passport had gotten at previous ports without anyone taking issue with it or its expiration.
This special officer wasn’t slacking off. She took that passport and gave it a figurative cavity search. She tried to peel the cover off, checked how well my photo was attached, examined the visa stamp, poked at it, and tried to rub a corner off with an eraser… As her inspection came to an end, and I thought she was about to close the passport and hand it back, she did what seemed to be a mental double-take: “December 1982. Huh? Wait a second, it’s 1983 now!” She pointed to the expiration and said, “This passport has expired.” Before I could open my mouth, she picked up her PA microphone and announced “Air France agent needed at … for a return fly back”. My heart sank. I was on the verge of tears.
She looked at me and asked me if I had anything to say. Fighting back the lump in my throat, I told her that as far as the US is concerned, I had a valid visa and I was there legally.
“You cannot enter the US on an invalid or expired passport.”
I tried to explain that there was no way that I could get my passport renewed and that by sending me back to France, I could also get rejected there and be sent back to Iran. And that was possibly deadly or at best would lead to imprisonment.
The Air France agent was now with us. The officer asked her if there was a plane returning to Paris, and the agent replied that the same plane I arrived on was leaving very soon. The officer then asked her to hold the plane.
“You have two choices. You can go with this woman and get on the flight back to Paris, or you can request for political asylum in the United States.”
“Yes. I’d like asylum.”
“You need to request political asylum in the United States of America”.
“Yes. I request it.”
“Say it like I said.”
“I request political asylum in the United States of America.”
She turned and addressed the Air France agent, “Thank you for your help, you can release the plane now, we won’t be needing it”.
She then explained to me that she would be interviewing me to establish credible fear and that if I lied or misrepresented the truth, I would be deported. She placed me under oath and we spent the next hour or so with her asking questions, and writing both the questions and my responses down. At the end, she told me that I would have a hearing in NYC within a week, and that because I was enrolled in a school and had a US address, she would release me pending the outcome of that hearing. With that, I was reunited with my suitcase, and was allowed to proceed to the exit where I hailed a cab. I think it was around 10pm when I got to my hotel.
On Sunday I arrived in Williamstown, where my host family welcomed me. On Monday, January 3, 1983, I attended my first day of high school in the US, as an eleventh-grader.
I attended the hearing, back in NYC, a week later, and the judge determined that I had a reasonable fear of persecution and possible imprisonment and death, and my application for political asylum officially commenced.
Fast-forward eighteen months. I had graduated from high school. It was sometime in August, 1984. I received a thin letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Let me add that earlier that Spring I had received a number of thick envelopes, one from Princeton.) The letter simply stated, “Your application for political asylum has been denied. Please depart the United States immediately. If you do not leave the country by September 30, we will begin deportation proceedings.”
I won’t get into the dismay and dejection that overcame me. I mentioned the situation to a friend or two, and the news spread like wildfire. The Williamstown community was in shock that “this kid who came all this way with such hardship, attended school and got good grades and awards, made friends with our kids, is slated to start engineering studies at Princeton – is now being kicked out?!?” People called their congressmen and representatives. Newspapers and TV stations scrambled to interview me. Senator Kennedy, Senator Conte and Governor Dukakis all mentioned me, as reported in the local papers (and the Boston globe). Someone at Williams (where I had taken a couple of courses) called General Counsel Tom Wright at Princeton and gave him a heads up, and it was relayed to me that Princeton was still looking forward to my arrival.
It was the twenty-something of September when I arrived on the Princeton campus. Amidst all the Freshman week hustle, bustle and craziness, I was very unsure what was going to happen on Sept. 30th. It was easy to forget about it, until the end of each day. As I went to sleep each night, I worried that my time in this new paradise could come to an end at any moment. I still vividly recall numerous nightmares I experienced during those years, where I would find myself back in Iran, in a variety of scary situations, including being chased by the revolutionary guards.
Sept. 30 arrived and passed. I officially became an illegal alien.
My roommates came up with a plan. If they observed immigration agents, they’d warn me so I could leave out the dormitory window (ground floor), or if the INS agents were waiting for me in the room, they devised ways to warn me so I would stay away from the room. Not sure how effective their efforts would have been, or serious they were, but I sure appreciated their support.
Sometime during that first week of school, I went to an upperclass party in Cuyler. The upperclassmen, whose names I have forgotten (’85 or ’86) were busy asking me all about Iran. It came up that in Iran I spent much of my summers in a swimming pool, and that I was the fastest swimmer among my friends there. Some of those upperclassmen were on the swim team and that I should come try out for the team. I didn’t really take it seriously. In fact, I forgot about it completely. Some days later though, a couple of these guys, along with, I believe, Bob Rivers, showed up at my dorm to take me to dry-lands practice.
And sometime later, you became another ally who were to warn me if I needed to ditch the pool and run away.
The support I felt from the swim team, my roommates and much of the Princeton administration and community was instrumental in offsetting the fear and stress. In hindsight, I am surprised I didn’t have some sort of a breakdown. I’m sure the weekend partying helped keep me from thinking about the gravity of the situation. (Later my stress level got even more elevated when my dad – who had since, along with my mother and sister, moved from Iran to Walnut Creek CA – had a heart attack, with no insurance, and turned down the recommended treatment so that he could still afford to send his two kids to college. A successful central banker, influential in the social and economic development of Iran, he had left everything behind to ensure that his children would get a shot at a better future).
As for the swimming. Being the fastest swimmer among your friends and family in a city with no official swim team, isn’t saying much. I clearly recall my first day in Dillon pool, sometime after dry-lands, wondering how everyone got across the pool so quickly, while I was still midway – and even worse, we were swimming the pool width-wise! Of course, when the only form of swimming you know has you breathing while looking ahead, and that’s your version of the freestyle, then you’re not really a swimmer. I learned the strokes pretty quickly though (maybe not the backstroke). And later that same season I even managed to survive the 500 free in the Yale pool, and despite coming in last, I can’t forget the cacophony of my teammates’ cheering and applause at each turn.
I can only imagine how much more rewarding, educational and fun my time at Princeton would have been without the fear of deportation. But I am very thankful for people like you and Susan who took me in and provided the support that I needed to offset the dark cloud that was hanging over me.
It wasn’t until my senior year when I got a notice that my political asylum was granted. A year or so later I received a “green card”. I am now a US citizen.

Exponential Growth, not Incremental Growth

•August 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Businesses hope for exponential growth but most only see incremental growth at best. As
Andre Gide once said, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” If your business can’t leave the shoreline, then it has a very small chance of discovering anything new. Sure, you might own the shoreline, but you won’t own the ocean and countless other shorelines.

If your business leaders won’t let the company make significant changes lest their precious metrics dip, then it’s hopeless to think that the company can reap any great rewards through inaction or the illusion of an initiative. (The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different — better — results).

Years ago I worked on a consumer-facing smartphone app for Visa. The end result would allow a cardholder to access benefits and functionality that was unheard of, at the time. These extra features would benefit both the cardholders and the merchants selling services, by intelligently connecting the two in unique and non-spammy ways. There were a number of these new features.

As we got closer and closer to our release date, and as some users were testing our app and giving us more positive feedback than was expected, we had an onslaught of upper level visitors asking us whether we truly were about to release these features.

There were primarily two groups who wanted to whittle down the functionality; lawyers and business leaders. The lawyers were concerned that the new functionality would imply new commitments that Visa was making to users and merchants. “What if the user’s phone is out of range?”, “What if the user gets a notification from us while they are driving and subsequently they get into an accident?”, “What if the user has to pay extra to receive the messages we are sending them?”, “What if a merchant can’t fulfill their obligation?”, … None of these questions were anything that hadn’t already been encountered by the many other apps that were sending offers to their users, or using bandwidth to alert the user at all times, including while they drive. Solved problems.

The business leaders were more concerned that we had “great”, “game-changing”, and “highly desirable” features, and that they did not want to “give them away”, but to bundle them exclusively for their banking customers to provide their customers. (Visa’s customers are banks like Chase, BofA, etc., not cardholders like you or me). This makes sense of course, but the success of this app had a lot to do with the critical mass of those using it, and waiting for banks to decide when they’d roll it out and to which customers, meant that we would lose all first-mover advantage, and would also be unable to ramp up the user base fast enough.

To cut the story short, we ended up pulling most of features, and even those left were so dumbed down that the app never really had any compelling reason to exist (who needed an app to locate Visa ATMs?). The negotiations with banks had a long lead-time and our new features became irrelevant when companies like Groupon became successful.

Visa has a history of failed projects. There’s a reason that Square, PayPal, Venmo… weren’t started by Visa, even though Visa had those ideas and the 100s of millions of customers to roll out to.

Here’s my conclusion:

At some comapnies, a CEO or a visionary leader, moving forward with a bright idea, is surrounded by layers of protective lawyers and business leads. Our hero tries to run, but with all those folks, the whole group sort of shakes back and forth, vibrating like jello — no like Brownian motion — never really going anywhere. Bravo, you’ve managed to maintain your existing business, but that’s about it.

At the same time, you have companies like Apple with a CEO like Steve Jobs. Jobs was the bull who ran through the china shop. Apple’s team of lawyers and business leads were running behind him, catching most everything that was being knocked over, or writing checks for the damages. Meanwhile, Jobs moved Apple miles ahead, with new customers and new revenue streams.

(Remember, Jobs announced the iPhone before he had even secured the term “iPhone” which was originally a Cisco trademark. Now that’s courage.)

(And some business lead somewhere in Apple may have muttered, “The iPhone may remove the need for someone to buy a Mac, let’s not make the iPhone”. Thankfully Steve ignored that person.)

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 cataclysmic pressure which forces you to move or expand, lest the cataclysm makes you extinct; even if you can manage your population and resources, a civilization would have to be careless not to expand out.  Sometime I want to write about bees and their instinctual drive to replicate their hive.)

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.

Praxtime by Nathan Taylor

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 post 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.)