Monday, January 05, 2015

Telling a Tale for Ten Years

Exactly ten years ago I started this ridiculous blog as a way to collaborate with other game developers. At the time I thought I would dig deep and push out at least one title. This eventually led to the "Desktop Distractions" studio concept, and the nascent title Deskblocks. I also worked within the CrystalSpace engine as an entrant to the PlaneShift team. I just couldn't give these projects traction however, so I gave it up and moved on to tinkering.

Even though the driving force behind the blog had faded away, and even though no one else reads this blog (aside from the State of .NET Integration Frameworks post), I kept updating it. Writing - even if it exists only for your own edification - really does help with communication and critical thinking regardless of what you write about. Even though my day job has nothing to do with garage door openers, my posts on my garage door security system helped me organize the build in a way that informed the Hack Clock project. Back in 2006 I began investigating vector processing, and the resulting frameworks have helped me think about and design microservice architectures. Of course, there was plenty of venting as well with my favorite software companies being dissolved or SuSE Linux winning and failing and winning and failing again. All of this writing helped me when performing comparative analysis at work, or designing parallel architectures, or watching trends in software development.

It is hard to believe a decade has slipped by. It doesn't even seem real. I don't think I've evolved much since that one cram session in a crystal chair, but I'm glad to have my collected ramblings to reflect back on.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Your Garage as a Gas Station

I had evaluated electric vehicles previously to determine if they actually were more efficient than cars with internal combustion engines, and found that (at the time) they did have a lower carbon footprint and would save me considerable amounts on fuel costs. Of course, that was before gas prices dropped nearly 33% in a single week - however I knew the prices were being artificially deflated and would eventually push back up. An added bonus remained that I would no longer be late to work because I had to navigate out of my way and fill the tank.

I was able to take a Leaf out for an extended test drive and make sure it fit my commute - which it did. I couldn't find another auto manufacturer that actually had an EV on the lot aside from Tesla, so the Leaf was the only auto at my price point. Luckily there are many Nissan dealerships in my general area and I ended up picking a Model S Leaf that I have been driving for a few weeks now.

One great thing about an all-electric auto is that your garage is transformed into a "gas station," and you never need to leave your house to refuel. Bear in mind this does not necessarily mean you can use your normal 120V outlets to charge the car (using a Level 1 plugin-in charger) - you will at the very least need a dedicated circuit for charging, lest you blow a fuse from too much load. On my 24-hour test drive I quickly found out that the 120V outlet in the garage was on the same circuit as the master bathroom; when the car's 120V charger was powering up the battery it was consuming 11.3A of power, and a typical hairdryer will eat 12.5A. The combined 24A of load will trip your typical 15A circuit breaker quickly.

Ultimately a 6 kW, 240V/30A (Level 2) charger is necessary for home charging since even a dedicated 120V outlet will require 21-ish hours to go from empty to 100% charge. Normal usage often requires a 10.5 hour charge with 120V, which can easily be done in 4 hours with a Level-2 charger. The good news is that while the chargers offered through the dealership appear to be fairly expensive, Home Depot and Amazon will sell Level-2 30A chargers for under $500. If you add in the cost of an electrician adding a 40A 240V dedicated circuit, you can have a 6 kW charging station for under a thousand bucks. The daily cost per kilowatt will be the same, and while there are some who worry about peak/off-peak charging hours most residential agreements seem to bill based on volume, not based on time of day. 6 kWh at 2 AM is billed the same as 6 kWh at 2 PM.

The technology is changing rapidly. Level 2 chargers are rapidly eating from 20 amps to 30 amps to 40 amps, and Tesla is building a nationwide Level 3 charging network based on renewable energy. It's hard to say how all of this will play out... in 5 years we may have sedans with a 400 mile range... in 10 years we may have self-driving cars in metro areas... in 20 years 25% of new car sales may be EVs. Ari Jay's comparison between the Leaf and the Tesla S85 is a great example of the current state of the market - in the end both cars are great, to serve two different purposes and two different drivers. We're getting past early adoption, sliding past the peak of inflated expectations and heading towards the trough of disillusionment. Sure people are getting a bit anxious on range and worried about cost... but on the other side is mainstream adoption, and the widespread infrastructure to support electric vehicles and cross-country road trips.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Gear-Headed Mentality

The old Saturn Ion that I had been driving is nearly ready to give up the ghost. After nearly a decade on the road, it is time for it to be put to pasture. Even now the car is getting 30 miles per gallon, a completely respectable rate. Still, so much of my traveling is just limited to the daily commute and running errands -
and it is time to look at something more efficient than a controlled explosion eighteen inches from my knees.

The first issue I encountered when shopping for an EV was that dealerships still seem to be getting accustomed to selling all-electric cars. Several salespeople outright refused to speak to me about the Leaf, and instead passed me off to other sales reps. I couldn't find a single salesperson who would let me drive a Ford Focus. After I pried a bit further, it seems like the more "senior" sales staff believe that EV buyers are too high maintenance - the buyers don't understand the range issues, they fear higher return rates, they get cold feet and back out of the deal. Even the sales staff that would talk to me pressed very hard for a commitment, wanting faux signatures and asking for money down prior to delivery. I spoke to lot managers about the Leaf turnover rates, since I felt they had a more accurate sense of how inventory was moving, and they seemed to think the actual return rates were much lower than the rates the sales guys were assuming. For one lot, out of 15 Leaf sales only 1 had been returned.

If you troll the EV forums you find that there is some hint of truth to the conception that potential all-electric owners are a high-maintenance bunch. Several complain that they had to wait a whole 5 minutes in a maintenance bay, others are incensed at the 87-mile range, and many aren't quite ready for the anxiety of finding a charger when they need one. If you are planning on using an EV as a secondary commuter car the stress can be much less, however an all-electric primary car can definitely give you an ulcer. Electric vehicles definitely require a cultural fit right now, which may be why there is such friction between buyers and sales people.

As odd as it might seem, Focus/Leaf/i-MiEV/Soul/i3 owners are more akin to Corvette than to Corolla owners. A happy Leaf owner frets over charging temperatures, battery chemistry, wind resistance, regen strength, residential electrical codes, LED vs. halogen amperage - and enjoys doing so. Just as a Corvette owner is worried about properly gap'ing spark plugs, an EV owner is worried about electrolyte conductivity. If you wouldn't enjoy obsessing over the winter tires of a 'Vette, you likely wouldn't like obsessing over the optimum tire pressure for maximum EV range.

In all honesty, I've never been a car guy. I know that the engine belts form a mobius strip to allow for even wear... and... there are cables? And various and sundry liquids? Not sure. However, the mechanics of an EV are much simpler to understand, which lets dullards like me become car guys because there is
so much less to know. As is entirely too apparent, I'm more than happy to obsess needlessly about the baubles of technology... and so I think I can make the shift from the mainstream "it just works" mentality to the gear-headed "how does it work" mentality. Mainstream adoption may not be there for EVs just yet, but wannabe car guys have the perfect inroad now.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hack Your Alarm Clock

Kids, teens and adults are more inspired to tinker after they learn the basic framework of what they are tinkering with. Electronics and circuit sets are great, but it really helps to jump-start learning with demos or projects that are heavily documented in the box. After you get your bearings on what works and what breaks, you are more free to experiment and add your own ideas.

To that effort I'm working on a hackable alarm clock based on the Raspberry Pi platform along with several Adafruit/Sparkfun components. The idea is that we can build a customized, tricked-out bedroom alarm clock with some general off-the-shelf components to see how hardware and software work in concert to create something useful. After the project is done, I'm hoping its creators will feel inspired to rip it apart or build new features using the pieces.

I've already run these lessons with a few kids between the ages of 5 and 11, and it was pretty interesting to see what they found interesting. They all wanted to start playing music, but they celebrated being able to have whatever number they wished show up on the LED display. To simply type "77," hit "Save" and refresh the display was enough to send them clapping. They also spent a ton of time building their own enclosures out of Lego, designing the perfect case for their clock.

Right now we have made it to Lesson 6 (the AM/PM indicator), however I have only published up to Lesson 4. More are to come, and I have already found some refinements that need to be made in the previous lessons. The lessons are available at http://hackclock.deckerego.net/, the hardware project is documented on HackADay at http://hackaday.io/hacker/5116-deckerego, and the Python source code for the clock driver is posted on GitHub via https://github.com/deckerego/hack-clock. I will keep these sites updated as the project grows.

Let me know if you try out the project yourself. We are already making some fun hacks, such as using the LED display to show the answers to math problems. I'd love to hear what other people devise!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of Gas

I took a Nissan Leaf for an extended test drive today - I borrowed it last night and will return it tomorrow morning. It was definitely good to take an all-day test drive... there were a few things I didn't expect to encounter but are helpful to know.

First off: the range. I drive approximately 53 miles a day just to work and back, and I'm driving in a midwest winter. The temp wasn't terribly cold - it was above freezing - but I needed to run the defogger for most of my trek. I drove in "Eco" mode the entire time as well, and made sure to take advantage of the regenerative braking. While Nissan quotes the driving range between 75 and 84 miles, a single 26.5 mile trek ate 40% of my battery. This places my winter driving range closer to 66.25 miles, assuming a linear discharge of the battery. That ain't good, and is a full 12% less than the advertised range.

I am pretty fortunate to have EV charging stations at work, otherwise I'd be sunk within a year. Right now the plan is to use the regular 240V charger at work, and trickle-charge the battery at 120V at home. This means I need to charge for 4 hours once I arrive at work, and charge for 10.5 hours at home. Not terribly convenient, but doable. If I wasn't able to recharge at work I would definitely be sweating it on the trip back.

For a while I weighed the difference between the S and SL models (the low and high end), but I didn't find a compelling reason to move to the SL. True, the SV/SL models offer CARWINGS, however it uses an old AT&T 2G network that is scheduled to go dark by the end of 2016. There is also the navigation console and full Bluetooth support which is nice... but... meh. Overall I didn't find a compelling reason to upgrade from the base S model, other than adding the quick charge package.

The Leaf is tempting. I will definitely need to change my driving habits and will have to always be mindful of the nearest charging station; already I've petitioned work for additional EV spots. However, if I am willing to bend over backwards I believe I could make a switch to all-electric.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better than Combustion for Commuters?

I have a pretty regular commute of about 50 miles a day. The wheels are about to fall off my ten year old auto, which still manages around 30 MPG given my highway driving. I'd like to swap out cars prior to abandoning it on the side of the road, so I started to wonder if now was the time to go with an all-electric car.

I've never liked the idea of hybrids. I'd rather mess with a combustion engine or an electric motor, not both. Electrical systems are crazy enough as-is without a gas-powered mobile generator strapped to it. Luckily electric vehicle prices have also come down significantly, with a base-level Nissan's Leaf going for under $22k. With that kind of price tag, I started to wonder how much better an all-electric car might be compared to a hybrid or an efficient combustion engine.

I started to measure my gas consumption and prices at the pump, and keep a running total in a Google Doc Sheet which I'm happy to share. After a month of driving, I started to calculate what the cost and the CO2 savings might be. I took current fuel costs and compared them to what an efficient combustion or hybrid car might be, then found some analogous kilowatt-hour data to draw comparisons to an electric vehicle. Here's what I found for a four-week period:

Current Car Efficient Car Electric Vehicle
Total Fuel Cost $119.52 $95.43 $40.81
Avg. Miles per Gallon 29.52 37
CO2 Created 802.59 lbs 640.65 lbs 511.62 lbs
Monthly Savings $26.25 $85.74

So an EV would reduce your fuel costs by 66%, however it would only reduce your carbon footprint by 36%. By comparison the "efficient car" reduces both fuel costs and carbon footprint by 20%. One would think that an electric vehicle would trounce a moderately efficient car in carbon dioxide production, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Now, this is all based on an assumption that my data is sound... and maybe it should be reviewed by some more objective eyes. I'm effectively ignoring fuel transport and refinement costs (including battery production) - that's a rabbit hole I don't want to go down. I determined the CO2 output of gasoline engines using stats from U.S. Energy Information Administration and carbon output per kilowatt hour from the Environmental Protection Agency. Based on that info, I was able to determine the impact of either EV or combustion cars. This makes a few assumptions and generalizations for the different types of fuels being burned, such as ethanol mix and coal/natural gas combustion of power plants. Nissan's own "Feel Electric" Android app makes slightly different calculations than my own, using an "EPA formula" that equates one gallon of gasoline to 33.7 kilowatts per hour. It also does not add CO2 emissions from power plants into its equation. Using Nissan's formula, the savings for a week's worth of driving was slightly different than mine:


If we assume my cost calculations are correct and we add the additional engine fuel costs to a 36 month lease, how would monthly car costs compare? Let's take a look assuming $2,399 due at signing, adjusting if more is due by prorating the amount across the term of the lease:

Ford Focus Ford Focus Electric Nissan Leaf S Tesla Model S Chevy Spark Mitsubishi i-MiEV Kia Soul EV
3yr Lease $256.74 $202.00 $199.00 $890.28 No Lease Listed $216.47 ?

Note this makes a combustion car about $50 more a month than a comparable electric vehicle. The Kia is an interesting EV, unfortunately no Kia dealerships in my entire state carry one. From here we can narrow down affordable leasing options to the Focus, the Leaf S and the i-MiEV. Let's compare these three across the features I consider mandatory:

Ford Focus Nissan Leaf S Mitsubishi i-MiEV Kia Soul EV
Price $202.00 $199.00 $216.47 ?
AC Power (kW) 107 80 49 81.4
Horsepower 143.38 107.2 65.66 109.076
Battery Capacity (kWh) 23 24 16 27
Average Range (mi) 76 84 62 93
ABS Yes Yes Yes Yes
Traction Control Yes Yes Yes Yes
Bluetooth Yes Yes No Yes
Quick Charge Optional Optional Standard Standard

The i-MiEV seems a little underpowered and overpriced by comparison, however it did have several other amenities that the others lacked including more charging options. The Focus did offer considerably more power than the Leaf at a comparable price point, at the cost of average driving range. Another big difference is that the Focus has a water-cooled battery enclosure, while the Leaf's batteries are currently air cooled. This may extend the overall life of the Focus batteries, however this may not be a big issue for a 36 month lease.

The Kia Soul appears to be the stand-out performer, however it is off the list due scarce availability. I attempted to give the Focus a test drive, but after searching I found that I would need to travel 8 hours and cross three states to find one. That means the Leaf is the only one I can test drive, even though it ranked a close third by comparison.

The take away message is that the cost savings may be enough to trump a comparable combustion car by significantly lowering fuel and maintenance expenses for commuters with a predictable travel schedule. The environmental impact isn't as huge as I expected... however I'm just measuring greenhouse gasses and not contributors to smog, runoff or noise pollution. We may not have to weigh that impact however - the economics now seem to carry the day for EV's.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

DNS - The Internet's Phone Book

My earlier post about filtering Internet content for kids bringing home their school iPads may have created more questions than answers for some parents. The big confusion seems to step from what a Domain Name System (DNS) server is, and how it helps filter out objectionable content.

Let's go waaaaay back in time, back to the birth of the initial global network called ARPANET. Back in the day - and even now - you could reach a remote computer by using its numeric address. To connect to a remote computer, your machine may connect to "192.168.129.34" and send along some pretty data. Those numeric addresses could be a pain to remember however - so shortcuts were created that mapped a human-recognizable name (like "BubbaComp") to the numeric address (like "192.168.129.34"). Solutions were eventually engineered that let people share these lists... that way everyone could have this helpful list of shortcuts. This convention kept evolving as users continued to join the global network, up to today. Now when you type in "amazon.com" your computer is smart enough to look up this shortcut name and find out the numeric address is 176.32.98.166. Your computer always talks to 176.32.98.166, however you talk to your browser using https://amazon.com.

This operates just like a phone book. No one remembers people's phone numbers anymore... or at least I don't. Instead you look up a person's name in your personal address book or the big dead-tree phone book on your front stoop, then communicate using the phone number in the book. Connecting to sites over the Internet works in the very same way.

What if you didn't want your kids visiting certain sites? You could employ the same trick as you might to stop them from calling certain people over the phone - edit the phone book. If your kids can't look up a person's name and find their phone number, they can't call the person. If you edit the Internet's phone book and remove objectionable sites, your kids can't visit the objectionable site on their device of choice. That's exactly what OpenDNS allows you to do - use a phone book that only has acceptable web sites within it.

What if a kid memorizes a phone number tho? Your plan falls apart a bit in that case. DNS filtering has the same limitation - if your kids memorize the IP address of a site (or share an underground DNS server), then they can go directly to the site and bypass your sanctioned "phone book."

If your kids go to a site that has a wide variety of content (like YouTube), you can't filter out specific types of content within the site. Just like calling a party line on the phone... if you allow access to the party line, you can't control anything past the initial dial.

Hopefully that helps explain why OpenDNS is only your first line of filtering. Lemme know in the comments if I can clarify further!