September, 2008

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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.

Designed by Apple in California… manufactured by peasants in China

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

What is it about Chinese goods?

I was going to say “Chinese manufacturing”, but in my experience there are plenty of products conceived in the US (or Canada, or Europe), produced in China that are perfectly fine from a quality standpoint. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with Chinese manufacturing as such.

But when it comes to products and goods “designed” in China, things really fall apart—often quite literally. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if it’s tools, electronics, household goods, toys, food, even cars: what superficially looks like a decent product often turns out to be shoddy, even downright unsafe. I use “design” in quotes because as often as not, the Chinese product is a knockoff of a well-designed, well-made genuine article produced by another company.

You’d think that if they’re copying an existing product they could at least manage to replicate that product’s quality, but perplexingly that’s also rarely the case. Sure, it may cost more than the $20 or so my friend paid for the “Lolex” (as we jokingly call it) watch he brought me back from his China trip, to produce a real Rolex watch, but it doesn’t cost the thousands that the real thing is priced at, either. You’d expect to find quality knockoffs filling that middle ground, but you simply don’t. It’s as if they had one or two tries at duplicating the real thing, stopped trying, and started producing the result en masse.

To say nothing of the various fake/tainted food scandals that have plagued the country in recent years. What kind of mindset does it take to put inedible or sometimes toxic ingredients into food products and assume that no-one will be able to tell the difference? The mind boggles.

Is it a cultural thing?

Are inadequate laws and regulations and/or inadequate oversight to blame, or is there something else at play here? Here in the US, the FDA vigilantly monitors food and drug production… but food inadvertently tainted by pathogens still manage to make it to the consumer on a fairly frequent basis, proving the FDA and other regulators aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing, either. Accidental, even occasionally negligent tainting of products still happen, but what you don’t see is deliberate introduction of non-food ingredients into food products as is apparently often the case in China.

It really makes me wonder, what motivates the perpetrators? What mentality does it take to make a product that they know may be harmful to others? As far as I know, farmers and food producers in China are not desperately poor. Sure, no doubt many face dire financial straits, but the same could be said of farmers here and elsewhere. Greed? That’s an easy accusation to make, but again, there are greedy people everywhere.

I think it’s more to do with the population and the sociopolitical regime. In a country with over a billion people, a government without any accountability to its citizens who are given no voice, everybody becomes depersonalized, disconnected. The loss of accountability isn’t just between the government and the average citizen, it also occurs between people: if other people are reduced to nothing but a faceless set of numbers, the individual producer doesn’t feel personally accountable to whomever his product may ultimately reach.

Culture is a two-way road, of course: part of the reason the Chinese (and others) make cheap, shoddy goods is that people seem to be content to buy them. Almost everything we buy is regarded as “disposable”; infusing technology into many products somehow infuses with them with built-in obsolescence.

My parents bought many household appliances that served them for twenty, thirty or more years. I’m not that optimistic about my $10 toaster, nor any of the other appliances in my home. Sure, they’re cheap and easily replaced, but I have a feeling what they lack in longevity will ultimately result in a higher amortized price.

On one hand, I wouldn’t want a computer built to last longer than, say, five years; on the other, I wouldn’t mind paying more for a toaster that works well and lasts decades. The balance to be struck, I think, lies in doing one thing, and doing it well. Adding on techy features on to a product to “add value” will in the long run do the opposite. I don’t want my toaster to play music; I don’t need my fridge to surf the Web or play DVDs.

Nevermind how much money I’ve lost…

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

… or how much money I stand to lose.

A few years ago I switched my banking services over to those provided by my financial investment services company, because I hated the “service” provided by my local bank.

My financial services company? Merrill-Lynch.

My local bank? Bank of America.

Dammit.

The long and sordid history of vtluu.net

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Okay, not really long, nor sordid, but I did notice however that it’s been two years since I started hosting with Dreamhost and, according to the archives, two years next month since I moved vtluu.net over to DreamHost. Funny how I couldn’t even remember who I was using to host vtluu.net prior to that; I had to search my archived E-mail to figure out it was Your-Site.

Was Your-Site that bad that I’ve apparently repressed all memories of it? Probably not; nevertheless, that Your-Site seems still the sleepy little company it was two years ago and that DreamHost has grown and developed even in the same period of time says a lot of about the two.

Without sounding overly gushy, I couldn’t be happier with DreamHost. I think it’s their ability to anticipate everything that I want out of a hosting service. When I wanted to set up websites using Joomla and WordPress, they made that easy. When more recently I decided to move my E-mail hosting over to Google, they made that a breeze as well. Looking at their company info, I get the impression that their philosophy is to stay small, do one thing and do it well. I admire that kind of ambition—no fame-seeking, no Superbowl Ads… not what you’d expect from a company based in the heart of L.A.

Of course, business is business, and when it comes to the bottom line DreamHost has very competitively-priced service and a great referral bonus program, but here are a few other noteworthy items that make DreamHost stand out:

  • Their corporate blog, a genuinely interesting read.
  • Their environmentally-friendly approach (waste reduction, renewable energy, carbon-neutrality, etc.).
  • Their charitable efforts (e.g. matching donations); I’m a bit cynical about charitable contributions by corporations (i.e. why take my money and give some of it away when I could just give it away myself) but I nevertheless appreciate the effort.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a new/replacement web/domain hosting service, check out DreamHost (and kick a referral bonus my way) at this link: http://www.dreamhost.com/r.cgi?225447.

An Adobe moment

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Janice and I took a little road trip down the central coast last weekend, ending up at Cambria/San Simeon, or more notably Hearst Castle. (If you happen to find yourself in Cambria, by the way, be sure to check out The Black Cat restaurant; we had dinner there and Janice had what was possibly the best foie gras I’ve sampled since French Laundry.)

We did the first of the five tours offered, called the “experience” tour, which consisted of the bus ride a few miles up the hill from the visitor center to the castle grounds, a quick walk-through of some of the outdoor facilities and abridged visits to a couple of the buildings, and of course the bus ride back down to the visitor center. What was silly was that there was no single tour you could take to see everything (or almost everything), and moreover if you elected to spend the whole day there and do all five tours, you’d spend a large portion of the time in the areas where the tours overlap (e.g. the outdoors Neptune Pool), and an even larger portion of the time riding the bus up and down the hill.

Overall the experience felt a bit cheap and canned, not to mention rushed. The State Park people seemed to do everything they could to push as many busloads of tourists through the place as possible and milk as many dollars out of us as they could. What would William Randolph Hearst think; would the builder and collector frown at visitors hurried through his creation too fast to take a moment and truly appreciate what he’d built, or would the businessman approve of healthy revenue stream generated?

Granted, Hearst Castle is itself a product of the 20th century, much like, say, Disneyland, so maybe it’s not really fair to compare its tours to some I’ve taken of the ruins of ancient Rome or the Vatican, for example.

Still, I can’t help but be a bit cynical. Take the photo below, for example, of Janice and I in front of the beautiful Neptune Pool on the Hearst Castle grounds. Those with a keen eye will notice something seems not quite right about the lighting, and they’re right: the photo is a composite of a stock photo of the pool and a photo taken of Janice and I against a green screen just before we boarded the bus. It seems rather absurd, since minutes later we were at the Neptune Pool proper, and had we not been rushed along and crowded in with a few dozen other tourists, could have used our cameras to create the genuine article.

Of course, we bought the photo because we were rushed along and it was too crowded to get a clear photo. At least we can say that the photo was taken on the same day, and relatively close to, our actual visit to Hearst Castle… We joked about how they could take the same greenscreened photo of us, whip up Adobe Photoshop and drop us in front of the Eiffel tower, the pyramids at Giza, the ruins of Machu Picchu, etc. for a few extra dollars. At what point is the experience, or at least the artifacts thereof (souvenirs, photos, etc.) so synthetic that they become meaningless, if not worthless?