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What do you know about hybrid cars? Lots? Then you probably won't learn much here, sorry!

Until two weeks ago, I knew very little.

Until four weeks ago, I had little reason to learn about it. There was too much hype, maybe a bit of smug, and the family had all the cars it needed. But then our little sedan decided it could do without one of its wheels. Unfortunately, it made this decision while in traffic. Fortunately, this happened close to home. After 22 years with little brown car, it was time to let her go.

But we still need two cars. Some requirements from me and the missus: four wheel drive, not gross on gas, not grossly expensive, large enough for our soon-excruciatingly-tall boys and our scouting gear. Quickly, a Big Manly Pickup Truck was imagined then ruled out. I hate having too much choice, so I decided to narrow things down to hybrids. Two weeks later, hello there, "Cargoyle", our new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Assembled just a few miles away, just a few days ago.

OK, so what? I had no idea how neat it would turn out to be.

A brief recap on car technology. Normal gas/diesel cars burn fuel to turn an engine, which in turn powers the wheels and electric accessories. Old school, works fine, always burns gas. Recent models have tricks to shut parts of the engine off when not needed, whether individual cylinders, or (when stopped at a light) the whole thing.

Electric cars like the Tesla series and a few others have big-ass on-board batteries to power the vehicle. They have regenerative braking (so slowing down charges the battery). When the battery's empty, you're stuck for a slow or not-quite-as-slow recharge. Plus big batteries = big cost.

Hybrids cars, like the original Toyota Prius / Honda Insight from fifteen years ago, are a normal car, with a little wee electric car hidden inside. A transmission lets both a little gas engine and a little electric battery/motor drive wheels. On-board software determines what to use when. There's a couple-thousand-buck cost premium over regular cars, much less now than originally.

Plug-in hybrids are a hybrid between hybrids and electric cars. They have an intermediate size battery that's worth charging at home, but a normal engine too. The downside: the battery is large/heavy and the engine small, so performance is often a problem. So is the cost of the larger battery.

Or in tabular form:

type propulsion battery size cost fuel consumption pros cons
Regular gasoline engine none low moderate low price, common fuel usage
Electric electric motor large high none futuristic high price, recharge delay
Hybrid gas+electric small moderate low good compromise moderate price
Plug-in Hybrid gas+electric largish high very low fuel sipper, no recharge delay high price, weak

The engineer in me appreciates the compromises and complications required in a good product. Balancing out many conflicting factors is IMHO an art. I get the sense that these wacky Toyota guys/gals did it well, really well. The thing that strikes me is how they managed to make a vehicle that's performant when needed AND a miser on fuel the rest of the time.

The performant part means that the vehicle should have enough acceleration to easily perform maneuvers like merging onto highway traffic. (Quite a few hybrids are anemic.) So, this guy has a medium but not small gas engine connected in parallel with two electric motors (front & back axles). When I floor the throttle, the thing takes off noticeably faster than any other common car I've driven. (OK, except that Ford Mustang I rented accidentally that one time in Boston.)

The miser on fuel part means the rest of the time, the engine is turned on as little as possible. It's ridiculous how little this can be:

  • When the car is stopped, the engine doesn't need to run.
  • When the car is slowing down, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery charges.
  • When the car is urban cruising, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery discharges slowly.
  • When the car is accelerating gently, the engine doesn't need to run, and the battery discharges quicker.

There is a pattern here! On the other hand:

  • When the battery gets low, the engine needs to run.
  • When the cabin is cold and the wimpy human wants more heat, the engine needs to run, just long enough to build heat in its coolant.
  • When the requested power level is high (accelerating rapidly, going uphill, going fast against air resistance), the engine needs to run to help the electric motors.

... but those can be rare. What does all this add up to? A gasoline system where the engine is tuned to run intermittently, and an electric system that tries to harvest energy whenever it can.

The thing is silent at rest. It is silent when rolling out of the garage or from a stop. Well, it would be silent, if certain influential people didn't fear silent vehicles, so they mandated that they make a noise. Our RAV4 gives a weird electronic chime / choir chord sound when going forward, and a louder version of the same when going backward. So it is "silent" when going down hills. It is "silent" when slowing down for a red light. It is "silent" scurrying around a parking lot.

Power consumption is smoothed out by the battery, so the power production by the engine can be intermittent and as brief as possible. The thing might turn on for 30 seconds here and there, climbing across a bridge or hill, or taking a longer/harder acceleration. Then it goes back to sleep -- while one's still just driving around. It's ridiculous. The power transmission is so smooth that I just can't feel in the throttle/brake response when the engine comes on and off. One would be barely aware, were it not for the little extra vibration, and the energy monitor display. Energy can flow to or from each of the wheels and the battery, changing instantly with the conditions.

Some of the engine-control thresholds are controllable by the driver. There is an "ECO" mode knob beside the "gear" selector. There are other modes where the engine cuts in more aggressively to give more acceleration by default, or charge the battery to a higher threshold, not sure. I haven't used these modes, because the novelty of the hybrid is maximized at ECO.

What's the fuel consumption bottom line? I still can't quite believe it, but when just goofing around in an urban chore, this comfortable medium-sized 4-wheel-drive SUV can sip less than 5L/100km, which is about 50 mpg for our American friends. At the same time, I can floor the gas pedal and get a comfortably strong acceleration -- noticeably more than Big Yellow Car with its larger 3.4L V6 engine, which by the way never consumes below 10L/100km. On a fully-loaded rainy-night crap-weather long highway drive, a worst-case condition for hybrids, we got around 7L/100km. As long as the machine keeps working, it will be our primary vehicle for fuel efficiency, comfort, safety (more air bags and sensors and stuff I could go into if someone asks).

Will report on disappointments as/when they arise, but so far so good!

Posted Fri Apr 19 16:28:42 2019

One should stop while one is ahead. Trite cliche? Yes. True for me today? Also true.

  1. Visit the Ottawa science & technology museum.
  2. Spot from afar kid #1 admiring electronic instrument.
  3. Must be famous, find in the museum's awesome online artifact database.
  4. Notice that this device is roughly as old as I am.
  5. Google it, of course, starting with "minimoog circuit diagram".
  6. Come across this collection of schematics, photos, manuals.
  7. Admire the engineering craftsmanship from back in the days when electronics were simple enough to be understood by hobbyists.
  8. Start showing the data to kid #2. Include the sounds made by this delightful device as recorded this video.
  9. Follow reference to http://www.synthfool.com/ with more stories about the device.
  10. Yep, amazing, reliving childhood & engineering fanboyness. Even contemplate building one, just for fun.
  11. Find links about (synthfool collector) Kevin Lightner's disease, and 2014 death. Heart broken.

RIP.

PS. 12. Find out that Moog has put a near clone of this classic back into production.

Posted Sun Mar 10 20:58:24 2019

In 2018, I have discovered the most harmful fallacy in the world. This logic error is worse than others, because its problem is not glaringly obvious, and has resulted in a lot of bad policy. I'm not talking about the good old standbys like ad hominem (insulting your opponent to prove him wrong), nor straw man (arguing against a caricature), even though these are very popular. It's something better (worse).

What do all these claims (made by serious people) have in common? OK, most of them are on political topics, but not that.

  1. Nazis made lists of Jewish people. You made a list of Jewish people. Obviously, you're a Nazi.
  2. Good software passes tests. This software passes tests. Thus it's good software.
  3. Bad people have guns. You have a gun. So, you are a bad person.
  4. Killing is bad. Weapons are designed to kill. Therefore, weapons are bad.
  5. Discrimination can chase away women from STEM black people in mathematics. There are not many women in STEM black people in maths. Discrimination did it.

It's the same mistake over and over again: the affirming the consequent fallacy. In mathematical notation, the logic is:

if P then Q
Q
therefore P

This is wrong, terribly wrong, because there can be other causes for Q. Stopping at the first possible cause P is a cognitive shortcut - and sometimes a powerful weapon.

Let's go through each of these examples.

  1. Nazis & lists. Yes, obviously Nazis are/were bad. But that was not simply because they made lists. Anyone can make lists, for all kinds of purposes. Somewhere around here, I have a list of my favorite Jewish musicians, but don't want to do away with them. But the accusation of "you're a nazi!!11!" is sufficiently toxic these days that defending oneself with elementary retorts like ... "Nazis drank water ... don't you drink water too?" can get one into trouble.

  2. Software & tests. Yes, obviously it is good for software to pass tests. But it is neither strictly necessary, and definitely not sufficient. The tests may be fictional, provide poor coverage, or even contain & enshrine errors. Focusing on testing may detract from gathering actual deployment experience. Seeing good test results may produce a false confidence of actual quality. Software quality can be better measured with success of the user base & their bug reports.

  3. Guns are bad, m'kay. Yes, obviously it sucks if criminals are armed. But many non-criminals also have guns, some millions of people here in Canada and perhaps a hundred million in the States. The worst thing they may do is cause accidents or suicides, but that's a tiny share. Most of them are just plain good reasonable people, and it is completely unfair to taint them with the crimes of, well, criminals. But, for a leftie politician, it is easier to punish this whole mostly-innocent class of people.

  4. Another gun one, sorry: Yes, they are "designed to kill". Except they really aren't: guns are designed so that they CAN kill. They are also designed to shoot holes into paper targets. They are designed to hold their value by being robust and long-lasting. They are also designed to be able to provide some protection even if just brandishing them. They are designed to make people be ABLE to do all those things, most of them fine and legal. (Even killing is sometimes legal - for example in self-defence.) I christen this particular variety as the inverse teleological fallacy, after teleology (explaining something by reference to their design / purpose), and inverting capability into mandate. You heard it here first.

  5. Yes, obviously unjustifiable discrimination is bad. But to assume that discrimination is the sole or primary cause of outcome disparities is simply wrong. There can be many other reasons, but in the present corporate/political atmosphere, even just to discuss the possibilities leads to fainting couches and firings. Worse, it leaves the other causes unexplored and thus unfixed (if they can/should be fixed at all).

The common thread is the lack of imagination to look for and quantify other causes. The danger is the tyrant's satisfaction with simplistic & weaponizable answers. Please let's try to do better, and call out others to do the same. Here's where you, cherished reader, come in. Please think of an example or two you have seen, and add a comment.

Posted Tue Jan 1 22:18:55 2019

My email addresses have been public for years - almost three decades actually. I'm not anyone important, but spammers don't give a damn. They just want someone to send to.

On a lark, boy #2 and I went digging through my saved spam folder. (I don't outsource spam detection to gmail, no, I run spamassassin and other stuff right here in the house. google delenda est.) We came across this darling of a post:

Subject: Your immediate response is required if you are alive

Whoa, what a hook! I had to investigate immediately - well, four months after receiving it:

Dear Client,

Please confirm if you are still alive because two gentle men
walked into my office this morning to claim your inheritance
funds with our bank. They said that you are dead and that they
are your
representative. I got your email from the file of your relative
who is yet to be paid for the Contract he has executed before his
death several years ago.You the beneficiary of this fund has
not been in contact with the bank to claim your fund. The
gentlemen submitted an address where they want your VISA DEBIT
ATM CARD sent.

If you are still alive, please indicate by sending your full
contact details within 7 day of receiving this message, faliure
to do so, I will send the card to the address submitted by your
representatives.

Regards

Derek

Derek, if you're still out there, you can REST EASY! I am indeed alive. All of my relatives are alive. All of my ancestors are alive. There is no one in my entire family history, going right back to the primordial slime creature in the volcano-lake of Gumzablobia who is not hiding somewhere on our property, in deep freeze.

So, sorry, better luck next time with a mere mortal, Derek.

Posted Sun Nov 18 20:17:27 2018

Sunset and/or flying photos might be a dime a dozen. This one stands out to me because of the way the horizon reflects on the propeller spinner & engine cowling.

Posted Sun Jul 29 19:42:38 2018 Tags:

This is what happens if a 13-year-old takes flight controls with "steep turns please!" on the agenda. Good thing there are no airborne cops pulling people over for suspected intoxication! (Don't worry, our airspace was clear, and neither of us got queasy enough to stop before sunset ... somehow!)

Posted Sun Jul 8 23:09:10 2018 Tags:

Some days, many days, my bosom swells with pride at the accomplishments of the free software community. (Let's not talk today about the other days.) Today's reason: GPS. So many devices can record gps traces, and some of it is interesting to archive long-term. But maybe you're like I am, and are worried about the privacy / big-brother implications of uploading your .kml/.gpx files to random proprietary borg computers (lookin' at you, big G). I don't want to use someone else's computer to draw maps of my private affairs.

So, what to do? Find free software to do it on your own workstation, of course. But what? The Fedora wiki lists approximately half a gajillion of projects, many of them dead, some of them doing only a part of the basic "superimpose this KML track on a map". After a bit of searching though, I came across the big jack-of-all-trades tool QGIS. The project is alive and well, is packaged for Fedora, and can do the job.

Be sure to install both the qgis and python2-qgis packages, to get access to the numerous plugins. The OpenLayers plugin gets access to OpenStreetmap, Bing, Google, and other vector & raster data sources. Layering it all together is easy peasy, like a paint program ... except that nature & civilization are doing the painting. It looks far better than if I did it!

So, here's the final result. It looks like any other map you'd find online ... but this one's running here, works offline or on, and no big brother computer gets to track it:

Posted Sun Jul 1 19:29:32 2018 Tags:

Why, it's election season in Ontario, how exciting. You probably have a favorite party or leader. You are probably certain that the other guys / gals suck and should never be given power. That must feel really good!

But perhaps let's play a game - the same game I proposed back in 2015 with a little more thinking. Let's make predictions about what you believe will happen if candidate/party X wins or loses. Then, as before, I'll come back in 18 months or so and score them. For this to work, the predictions have to be concrete and testable, like "provincial income taxes -2% in my bracket" or "EQAO education testing cancelled" rather than something ooey and gooey like "Ontario becomes the Leading Light of diversity and inclusion". Something specific, something objective. After all, if you love or hate a candidate, you must have a tangible reason for it, right?

I don't care if you're hard left, soft left, soft right, or up here in the hard right nosebleed seats. All are welcome to consider leaving a comment below with your 18-month-horizon predictions for any of the winning/losing possibilities you care about. Prizes of indescribable value are at stake!

Posted Thu May 24 09:04:27 2018 Tags:

Normal people are there first.

What am I talking about? In the aftermath of every emergency, such as today's murderer-driver attack in Toronto, there is a parade of politicians on TV. Right after the condolences comes the obligatory and effusive praise of the police / ambulance / fire services that came on scene. In the last decade or so, the phrase "first responder" seems to have been invented as a term of honour for these people. And yes, they can do important, difficult, occasionally dangerous or terrible work.

But the term "first responder" is a lie. When tragedy strikes in a populous location, normal people are there first. They were already there. Within seconds of an accident or incident, ordinary citizens get involved. Whether it's someone doing first aid or driving to a hospital, getting in a car and chasing down a suspect, engaging an armed attacker with counter-fire with their own firearm, dragging someone out of a burning car, or just starting to direct traffic ... within seconds, normal people will engage. First.

Some time later, hopefully quickly, the heralded government professionals will arrive and take charge of the emergency. That does not make them "first responders". They are simply the first of that small minority of the population known as "government" whom we are forced to employ. But other than in a prison, they are not everywhere, cannot be everywhere, and this is a good thing.

Therefore, you, the normal person reading this, should prepare yourself for an eventuality where YOU are the real first responder. Learn first aid. Learn self defence. Learn to always monitor your surroundings in Jeff Cooper's "condition yellow". Learn anything you can, so that you can be self-sufficient. Sure, you may not get much recognition from the media and government, but they don't matter anyway. A resilient populace is many times more powerful.

Posted Mon Apr 23 23:04:02 2018

I spent my evening with a few families of friends new and old. Among the topics: the sorts of gifted education offered for their children in the public school systems in our areas (plural). It was not what one might expect: more academic, more rigorous, more advanced, but rather more loose, un-academic, personal project-oriented. It is not where I would send a kid to teach him or her more deeply - it is where I might send a smart kid to have a more fun time.

Thinking about it now though, a darker hypothesis popped up its ugly head. What if you were an education theoretician of the "social justice" mold, for whom educational inequality is a problem to solve? You would not be fond of special programming for gifted students; after all their high achievements exacerbate the "gap" you hate. What if under the guise of gifted education, you could instead subtly undermine them by directing emphasis not on academic stuff but other sorts of work? Could you perhaps do it to such an extent that the kids' academics actually end up lagging by the time they finish your school?

As long as you dress up the program with lots of pretty buzzwords, and emphasizing how different these gifted programs are, maybe the school superintendents / ministers, through to the low level teachers and parents wouldn't realize the implications. What if the earliest signs of trouble would be when/if the students apply to universities and start struggling -- by that time well out of one's jurisdiction/accountability?

Wouldn't that be a horrible cruelty?

Posted Mon Feb 12 00:18:36 2018

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