2008

...now browsing by year

 

Where even snowplow operators don’t know how to drive

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

SigAlert snow plowWe got more winter rains this week, and of course, this being California, it meant that people started crashing left and right again. Every time it rains I get a bit of perverse satisfaction from watching SigAlert light up like a Christmas tree as people demonstrate their ineptitude at keeping their vehicles under control. California drivers suck and rain acts has something of a bottleneck effect: it takes a fraction of the worst drivers off the road, albeit temporarily in most cases.

This week it got cold enough that at modestly higher altitudes snow fell, and as SigAlert showed (excerpt of screenshot shown to the right), even snowplow drivers haven’t got a clue how to drive.

Peanut gallery, the floor is yours

Friday, December 12th, 2008

I’ve enabled account-less comments. That is, users without accounts—pretty much everybody out there, assuming there are any of you—should be able to leave comments. Assuming you can get by the spam filter, anyway.

Welcome to 2007

Friday, December 12th, 2008

I finally got on Twitter. Mostly it just reflects my Facebook status… but I do appreciate the fact that it does exactly one thing—no photos, videos, games, stupid time-wasting apps, etc. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Check out my “tweets” here: http://twitter.com/vtluu

Stretching Your Dollars

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Like many people I try to remember to pick up a few non-perishable food items to drop into the food bank donation bin on my way out of the supermarket, especially ’round this time of year. Upon further reflection it occurred to me that such an act, while commendable, is a bit of a symbolic gesture. Sure, if everybody gave a few items of food, then the amount collected might be enough, but of course not everybody does, and in reality not everybody could, if only because it would overwhelm the food bank’s logistical capabilities: a mountain of randomly-donated food would take far too much effort and expense to sort and transport.

That got me thinking about efficiency and scale. The amount I donate to some other charities would buy a pallet or more of food at wholesale prices. Nobody collects cans of soup and boxes of cereal to send to the hungry in impoverished nations across the globe, because as they’ve long ago figured out, it would be monumentally inefficient. Instead, people donate money, which can be collected and moved with very little overhead cost, and the money gets used to purchase food in bulk in a way that it can be quickly and cost-effectively delivered to those who need it. So what makes us think that dropping cans into a bin on the way out of the grocery store is a good idea?

Maybe it’s a sense of directness: we may find it emotionally rewarding to think that an item of food has gone from our hands into those of a needy family. It’s the next best thing to volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen and feeding people directly, which many of us are unable or—let’s face it—unwilling to do. Rationally speaking, however, there’s no arguing with the fact that money talks.

'Fake' shopping list from Second Harvest of Santa Clara's Virtual Food Drive website

To that end I decided that rather than trying to remember to get food for the donation bin, I’d donate money directly to the food bank. Sure, throwing money may be the “easy” way out, but in this case it’s easiest for me and easiest for the food bank and ultimately for the people it serves, so everybody comes out on the winning end… Except maybe the supermarket, who’s lost a few pennies’ worth of profit on the items that I didn’t buy for the donation bin.

My local food bank—Second Harvest of Santa Clara—has a “virtual food drive” site set up to receive online monetary donations. The “Virtual Food Drive” shopping page is fake—you don’t really choose what items to donate, your money just goes into a pool that’s used to purchase needed items, which makes much more sense anyway—and some of the “Our Price” vs. “Retail Price” numbers are a bit dubious, but nevertheless the economies of scale and the above arguments still apply. Wherever you are, find your local food bank and contribute however you can—it’s that much more important in these tough times.

Freedom is not free, and it can’t be purchased at a department store

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Today is Veterans Day here in the United States; in Canada and many other countries it’s Remembrance Day, a name I think more fitting to mark the somber occasion that the day represents: a commemoration of the hard work of and sacrifices made by military men and women in wars and conflicts past and present. Moreover it’s an occasion to reflect upon the price we as a society—not to mention the personal cost borne by families and individuals—have paid and continue to pay for the freedoms and liberties that we hold so dear.

Therefore I was rather taken aback when I saw an ad on television promoting Macy’s “Veterans Day Sale”. While I would never argue against their right to hold a sale for any reason that they want, to reduce the name of the day to an excuse to discount prices on goods and sell more merchandise seems a bit tasteless to say the least. Could they cast a more appallingly banal light upon what’s supposed to be a somber, meaningful occasion?

Freedom is not free, and it can’t be purchased at your stores, Macy’s. Shame on you!

Remember, remember, the Fourth of November

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

As a Canadian living in the United States, I’ve previously joked that regardless of whom voters here elect, as a non-voting non-citizen I reserve—nay, revel in—the right to criticize whatever choices Americans make at the ballot box.

Still, I can hardly be indifferent or neutral in the whole thing, given how the outcome does ultimately affect me personally and the rest of the world to no small degree. Encouraging Janice’s participation in this year’s vote is as close as I’ve come to voting myself. To be honest, not since the 1995 Québec Referendum have I felt as great a stake in a vote.

Racing, the Zoom-Zoom way

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Edmunds.com has a nice article about autocrosser-turned-club racer-turned pro racer Jason Saini, and about Mazda’s motorsports program. Racing in Spec Miata this year has given me great appreciation for Mazda’s support of racing at all levels.

Check out the article over at Edmunds.com.

FAIL Blog: Win

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

Is it wrong to laugh at others’ incompetence and stupidity?

I don’t know, but regardless, FAIL Blog has just moved up to the top of my personal list of “fun” sites (displacing ICanHasCheezburger). It never fails—pun intended—to put a smile on my face, at the very least. (Mild NSFW warning; I’d call it “PG-13” at worst.)

Check it out if you’ve got a minute or ten…

What goes down, must come up

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

There’s already been far too much already said about the economy so I won’t add to it especially given my relatively shallow understanding of the whole thing.

Suffice it to say that it hasn’t escaped my notice that my portfolio’s value has been significantly depleted.

That said, it boggles my mind that some people are now pulling money out of investments. Are they expecting the sudden collapse of Western civilization? Anything else makes no sense.

The end of MPG

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

I find it ironic that at a time when more people (here in North America; this is old hat to folks in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world) than ever are paying attention to new cars’ fuel efficiency, the system people have been relying upon for assessing that metric is becoming increasingly obsolete. I’ve been giving this problem some thought over the past few days and quite coincidentally, today came a press release from the Automotive X Prize organizers that recommended the industry, the EPA, etc. use “MPGe” (“miles per gallon equivalent”) to measure fuel consumption.

However, the X Prize folks are missing the point entirely!

Thinking about how to state fuel economy for an electric vehicle, one’s tempted to find some metric that will allow it to be compared directly to a fossil-fuel-driven automobile—hence the motivation for MPGe. I thought maybe a more esoteric measurement might be more suitable for comparing all cars on an apples-to-apples basis; maybe, for example, mass of carbon dioxide per distance driven, say kilograms of CO2 per 100 kilometres, to use an SI illustration. Of course, the amount of carbon emitted to produce electricity varies greatly depending on the means of production: more for coal, less (arguably none) for solar.

Ignoring that “little” complication, using a unit such as kg CO2/100 km is still just playing around with units. Call it MPG, MPGe, litres/100 km, kg CO2/100 km are all pretty much the same—multiply and maybe invert and you can convert from one unit to the other assuming you can agree on the constant conversion factors. Granted, it would be nice if decades from now when all cars are electric if the unit of energy consumption wasn’t based on some strange brew concocted out of fossil-based hydrocarbons sucked out of the ground, but then again we’re talking about an industry that still often cites engine “horsepower” a full century after cars started taking the place of equine-powered transportation.

What the above fuel efficiency metrics miss is the non-linearity of fuel consumption in some new cars. For example, drive a short distance in the new Chevy Volt and you’ll be getting great “MPG” (100+ is their claim), but drive far enough to deplete the battery and you’ll be consuming real, not “effective” gasoline and at an “effective” rate much greater than when the car was running from the electrical charge generated by more efficient means.

In fact, it’s easy to imagine how “your mileage may vary”: someone driving a plug-in gas-electric hybrid solely a short distance to and from work and other activities around town would see fuel consumption possibly a full order of magnitude less than someone regularly driving the same model of car on long trips.

The ideal solution to the MPG-number quandary would be a better-informed consumer who understands the problem of trying to oversimplify what is in fact a complex aspect of automotive performance. Skeptics and cynics would argue that greater consumer sophistication is unlikely to happen (read: people are stupid), or that auto makers will still want a dumbed-down metric that people can easily understand (read: they want to market to people who they believe are stupid).

Maybe a few energy efficiency numbers based on representative profiles might work; for example, one number representing a driving pattern consisting only of in-town commutes and errands, another number representing energy use for long trips… The two would seem to correspond roughly to the “freeway” and “city” mileage numbers currently quoted for cars sold here, leaving us pretty much where we started. Not good enough!

I think the fundamental question most people have is, how much (dollars, gasoline, CO2, etc.) will a given car cost them to drive? In this age of ubiquitous information-gathering I think that’s not too difficult a problem to solve. For example, based on measured data or, less ominously, a sufficiently in-depth questionnaire, it would be straightforward to come up with a semi-accurate prediction of fuel/energy consumption based on someone’s particular driving routes, style, habits and preferences.

Then again, “straightforward” assumes that it would be easy to get industry players and regulators to agree upon a single standard. Given how much they’ve butted heads over a “simple” calculation for today’s MPG figures, that’s taking a lot for granted.