Saturday, 16-Aug-14 15:31
Driving with Electricity, pt 1

First, a small confession: I don’t actually own a car. I have never owned one. The reasons are partly practical and part environmental - cars are fairly expensive things to own, and as long as I can manage without one, I can spend the money on other stuff. Like buying an apartment near a major public transportation hub so I don’t actually have to own a car… Also, climate change is a serious problem, and I try to avoid contributing to it. Plus that I actually like my morning commute on the public transport - it’s some quiet time for myself, and it’s faster than driving myself.

However, it does not mean that I don’t drive. I am a member of a car-sharing service as well as a Five Star Gold Member at Hertz… I rent the car when I need one; and take a taxi fairly liberally. The Finnish taxation makes cars pretty expensive things to own, so I’ve been calculating that I am still saving money. Things may of course change when the kids will need to move around more; or if we move to a location where public transportation wouldn’t just work.

The great thing about renting a lot is that you get to drive all sorts of fairly new cars. And I like testing them out, in case I ever actually buy a car. It’s really like getting an extended test drive from the dealer (and I know some people use the test drives as really cheap rentals too, but I haven’t yet used that opportunity).

One car that I had had my eye on for a small while was the Volvo V60 PHEV - a hybrid diesel car that you can plug in at home to charge it up, but which still has a regular diesel engine for the longer trips. So when it popped up on Hertz reservation system when I was looking for my holiday car this summer, I seized the chance, emailed Hertz who got me a sweet deal on it (I’m kinda happy about it, so this is their free plug ;-). Therefore, for the past two months or so I’ve clocked some serious hours in that car - 5400 km worth of time to be precise.

The car

Why people want a hybrid in the first place.

I’m not a car expert, so I won’t be covering a lot of the technical details - frankly, I can’t be arsed to do a lot of research on it. If you’re interested, just go check actual car magazines, who can tell you everything you need to know about how the car lights work etc - I’ll just cover my impressions and thoughts after driving a half-electric-half-diesel car both in city runs as well as a couple of long road trips.

I’ve had a few earlier encounters with Volvos, and I have to admit that they kinda work for me. They’re comfy, spacious, feel a little luxurious (but not too much) and have this… aura of safety around them. Which is nice when you have your most important legacy fighting over toys on the back seat. The D6 engine (the biggest diesel engine that Volvo has) in the V60 PHEV makes this car really GO when it needs to, and the electric engine gives it a nice boost if you press the pedal. Put on the "power" mode and it’s got enough power to give me a scare followed by a big grin the first time I left the traffic lights.

The most wonderful thing about the car though is the electric drive. Driving with an electric engine is pure joy - in fact, I felt slightly offended every time the nasty, polluting diesel engine kicked in. “Why are you ruining my pure experience?”, I swore under my breath many times! Of course, the battery in the car is good for only about 50 km of electric driving, and even then the diesel engine starts from time to time to provide power in sudden accelerations. But there’s a “Pure” (pure!) mode, in which the car really tries to avoid using the combustion engine, so that makes avoiding nastiness a bit easier.

Driving with electric drive is addictive. Nevermind having to dodge people in the garages who’ll never hear you coming ‘cos the thing is just so **quiet**; sometimes I just shut off AC and radio and just listened the wheels and the wind, as there was no other sound from the car. (Aside from the kids bickering in the back, of course. Or the Lego Movie. Whichever happened to be on for the most of the road trips.)

Also, electric driving is cheap. I briefly chatted with the owner of a Prius PHEV, and he mentioned that he hasn’t been to the fuel pumps in over three months. He charges at home, he charges at malls, he charges at the office. He probably doesn’t pay for half of the electricity, since both malls and offices these days have free plugs for EVs. Malls, because it’s a marketing thing (we’ll get to that later); offices ‘cos they are often subletting from a larger garage complex and managing payment for electricity would be more expensive than the electricity itself. Note however that the V60 PHEV is a good deal more expensive than the regular V60, so by my very rough estimate you’d need to drive around 100 000 km with electricity to get even… So at this stage this is more of a lifestyle vehicle than a car you buy because you’re pinching money. But I hear that Volvo is planning to make PHEV versions of all of their models, so I’m certainly giving my thumbs up for that: more production = cheaper prices and more options.

Since everyone’s interested in fuel consumption figures, let me say that I got around 5.2 litres/100km averaged across the entire 5400 km. This is of course because a vast majority of that driving was long-distance (we did one 2000km trip and a few 300 km trips). In the city, the consumption was far less, because we could use electricity to propel us towards new adventures! Volvo themselves claim 1.9 litres/100 km, but that’s only true if you do a massive amount of driving in the city, and are able to charge often. But you could basically go to near-zero if your daily commute was < 50 km and you could charge the battery full at both ends.

But that really brings me to the charging aspect of the EVs. And that’s where things get ugly. Stay tuned for the next episode!

Sunday, 06-Apr-14 15:24
The Danger Of Ostrich Solution

Ever asked an engineer for a solution for a problem with your Windows installation? Ever gotten the answer “use a Mac!”? Or “Buy an iPhone?” Or “Use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office?” That’s the engineer’s Ostrich Solution right there: by pretending the entire premise of the question is invalid, you ignore the problem by blaming the victim. Kinda like putting your head in sand and ignoring the rest of the world exists.

I tweeted recently how I thought that Youtube is becoming useless because they’ve started adding ads directly in the middle of programs. As an automatic algorithm, it disrupts the experience of viewing because it has no concept of story pacing. For some pirated TV shows which have clear cues (like a few frames of black) it might work, but for a whole lot of programming it just ruins the experience.

The responses I got were all in the line of “use an adblocker”. The Ostrich Solution. Pretend Youtube is not screwing things up by ignoring it.

I agree that it is a good solution to annoying ads. It’s direct, it’s simple, it’s effective. It’s the kind of solution engineers thrive on. But it only solves the problem for one person. Everyone else, especially those who don’t have the technical knowledge of installing an adblocker, are completely thrown out in the cold. But the engineer no longer knows this, since he’s solved his own immediate problem, and does not even realize that someone else might have a problem. And that’s how you distance yourself from the general population.

I mean, we engineers know that encryption is important. We run things like “HTTPS everywhere” to keep our communications private. But it wasn’t until Edward Snowden revealed that NSA had been attacking the infrastructure of major internet companies that they decided to turn on encryption for ‘’everyone’’, not just those who actually cared about it. Was it because of cost issues, or was it simply because the engineers figured they know how to turn on SSL from the options so “it was already secure for those who wanted it to be secure”? The designers even made it user-friendly by making the tick look big.

We know that the internet’s freedom is at stake, so we build undeniably wonderful things like Tor and SSH ‘’for those who know how to use such things’’, and leave everyone else to be steamrolled by zealous nationstates. We design internet-enabled gadgets that make our house tweet, and glasses that let you record everything, but don’t really care about what might happen when everyone’s connected this way and someone cracks the OS or our government turns nasty. At least we’ll be rich and can protect ourselves.

I know it’s a human thing. It’s not only that naturally we’re interested in our own wellbeing more than that of other people, but that often it’s just easier and faster to solve the immediate problem and leave the underlying problem field for others. We’re occupied by a billion trivial matters, of which ten are satisfying, and the pressures of the civilization to provide even more and cheaper and better. And we look at people who have made a gazillion dollars and are willing to work long, gruesome hours to get even a whiff of the same success. And this is a wonderful time to be an engineer. We’re good at details, and details is what the world gives us right now in plenty.

Especially in IT, people want to be trailblazers. They want to be the next Twitter or Facebook. That means doing a lot of things that nobody has quite done before in the same way. That’s the nature of engineering in general: there are always exceptions, always problems to solve, no matter how many times you have done it before. And this is good, but it does make it very easy to get trapped in the details. Just solve the problem, and move to the next one.

But I just wish that we could sometimes stop and look at the big picture too. What do things really mean? Where are we going? Do we want to go there? How can we achieve that? What are the steps from here to there? How do we convince everyone else about this too? What will happen when everything is Done?

How to make Solutions For Everyone instead of Solutions Only For Ostrichs.

(OK, perhaps it’s just me who needs to stop and everyone else is constantly looking for the big picture all the time. But I don’t think I am deeply mistaken if I assume that I am not that different from anyone else, and that others share this similar feeling. Perhaps we could do something about it?)

Sunday, 23-Mar-14 03:18
ShadowRun Returns: Dragonfall

OK, so I've been running a ShadowRun game since, well, pretty much late teens, that is, over 20 years now. I've been there pretty much from the first edition of the rules, and been through quite a lot of revisions and world expansions etc - but still, my favourite era in SR is the decade of circa 2050-2060, where everything was still fresh and new and the writing was great. So when the original desktop Shadowrun line developer joined forces with some smart people to make a computer game, I was somewhat excited, but a bit wary - would it truly live up to the expectations?

I may have gushed over the original SR Returns campaign (Dead Man's Switch), and the empty, gutwrenching feeling you have when you realize you have to peek inside an "Universal Brotherhood" -chapterhouse in one part of the game. Without spoiling too much, that place played a pivotal role in the desktop campaign, and as such the campaign for the computer game hit just the right spots, but it was more or less riding on the excellence of the world rather than the writing itself. So it was okay, and promised good things about the future.

However, I just finished the new campaign for SR Returns - Dragonfall. And boy, that's exactly the kind of game the evokes the same feelings as the best game you ever thought you ran as a teenager. That's really where it's at. It's exciting, well-written, and completely and utterly engaging. And it's, well, different from a lot of games. At some point I realized I wasn't playing to win the baddies. I was playing to protect the people - the characters in the game - who were depending on me. I started to take things personally, and at some point I did my darndest to avoid making certain decisions, because they would be bad for the people. And I started caring for those well-written side characters, and wished there was more dialogue written for them. My character "Sparrow" started out as a cynic, no-nonsense street samurai, but over the course of the game he found a soft spot and a home for himself. The character evolved through roleplaying. I would never, ever have thought that that would actually happen in a computer game.

And there were some aspects of some of the missions I just hated. Hated with burning passion. Not because they were bad, but because there were only bad and worse moral choices to be made. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was wonderful.

Honestly, the last time a game evoked these kinds of feelings was the original Homeworld, where the story and the soundscape created something more than just a game - a feeling of being a part of a story. This is really gaming at it's best; something that lets you discover things about yourself too which you did not realize. I'm really glad to see yet another example of how powerful a game can be - truly justifying games as equal to books or to movies.

I am really looking forward to whatever Harebrained Schemes do next with this game. There are many, many wonderful stories still to tell - I have been telling some of my own for the past 20 years. The goodness of all this makes me giddy.

(You can download Shadowrun Returns on Steam. Well worth it. Both campaigns together took me about 35 hours over the course of a few weeks, an hour here and an hour there. And I just love the soundtrack.)

Tuesday, 04-Feb-14 19:41
A Pandemic

I've been a bit of a Scott Sigler junkie for a long time. I listened to many of his books as podcasts, and really liked the way he talked to his audience. And he has a gnarly imagination - if a whispered "chicken scissors" makes you wince, you probably know what I'm talking about. However, since he seemed to grab some fame with his Rookie series (Galactic Football League - yawn) I sort of dialed out of what he was doing. I was really looking for hearing more about hard scifi stuff, but got sportsy stuff instead. Oh well.

However, he's back. I just finished Scott Sigler's Pandemic, and boy, is it good. It reads like an action movie - and if any of his books should be optioned for a movie, this would be it. I could easily see myself watching this as a summer blockbuster in 2017.

Pandemic continues the story set in motion by "Infected" and "Contagious", in which a nearby alien robot spacecraft starts to convert humanity to its own cause using all sorts of nifty biotechnology. The alien is actually smart, so it keeps testing different approaches, which makes things sometimes... difficult to cope with. Even though the books are science horror fiction, the sciency stuff is actually rather light, but avoids the technobabble feeling. It is perhaps not entirely accurate, but it is totally plausible within the given constraints of the universe, and does not make me cringe.

The characters are lightweight, another sign of an action movie, but it works out ok - the book takes place over just a few days, and there's a lot to cover while still keeping the book trim.

So yeah, I liked this one. I liked it enough to even do this writeup :-). So if you're a fan of the techno-horror-scheme, this is certainly a good one. You don't have to read the two previous parts; but it might make the beginning of the book a bit more clear.

Update: forgot to mention - my kids were having chicken pox at the same time. The alien biotech causes similar effects, so I kept checking the kids extra carefully...

Monday, 23-Dec-13 19:15
A word to the wise wife

If the husband is always wrong, he can never state this.

You see, if the husband admits that he's always wrong, that would mean that he'd be right (in admitting that he is always wrong) and hence could not be always wrong. Which would make him wrong in stating that he's always wrong, which is contrary to the original premise that he'd be always wrong. Thus would form a logical impossibility, which would create a vortex that would suck in all of the humanity and destroy the universe.

You see, that's why when your husband can never admit he's wrong, even when he clearly is. He's just protecting the universe. Because Vortex Of Impossibility.

(Feel free to swap any other word to replace "husband" meaning the significant other in a partnership. I just really hate to write husband/wife/partner/polypartner/a partner of indeterminate sex in all places, 'cos, you know, that kinda takes the punch out of any text.)

Wednesday, 11-Dec-13 09:44
The Great Silence

You know, if I did game reviews - or pretty much reviews of anything - news like these would probably make me turn off the sound of any gameplay or ringtones or anything that might make sound. Just in case someone might slap me a copyright lawsuit within the next, oh, 150 years or so. Because if it's not being done today - copyright law has a nasty way of becoming retroactive, the inherent problem in any property law - it may be done tomorrow when the law changes.

So perhaps this will lead to The Great Silence, where most documentaries, videos, etc of our era will be made silent, just in case, because nobody wants to deal with the possibilities. In the example above, a guy has been making sweating to make stuff for the past several years, and suddenly someone can come in and claim 100% of their revenue based on the fact that there is a ten-second clip of their music audible at some point. There is no way this could be in any way constructive to anyone - but that's the way the law just is. So perhaps its better to simply turn the volume down on the computer or TV when you're playing and embrace the Great Silence.

Saturday, 02-Nov-13 10:15
So long...

Sometimes I dream that a big honking alien spaceship appears suddenly and puts itself on an orbit around the Earth. Then they just send a simple message: "Don't mind us, we're here just waiting until you destroy the planet and then claim it as salvage under galactic law. Dibs!"

Perhaps that would be a trigger for people to realize that there is something fundamentally wrong in how we're living.

(Yes, I know, this is a childish deus-ex-machina wish. We're not renting this planet, it's ours to destroy or to make prosper.)

Saturday, 05-Oct-13 19:58
Random fanboi moment

We were watching the 9th Season of Stargate SG1 (yeah, I know, it's eight years old by now, but there's only so much time so I'm badly lagging. Also, they weren't available before Netflix...) and I had my belated chuckle which all other geeks probably had eight years ago: Claudia Black's character comes and says to Ben Browder's character: "I don't think I've ever seen you before."

Of course, these two were the main characters of Farscape, one of the top TV scifi series of all time (which was inexplicably cancelled when it ended on a cliffhanger). So glad to see them together again.

(fairly sure quote is incorrect, but I have kids hanging off my left hand demanding stuff. that is why I tweet more these days than blog, that I can do onehandedly.)

Thursday, 26-Sep-13 12:49
Internet of Thongs

I'll rant a bit incoherently now, sorry.

There's now a tweeting refridgerator. Unsurprisingly, nobody cares about what happens inside the refridgerator. An inanimate thing - so far - has very little actually interesting to say, which is really my problem with the whole "Internet of Things".

Now, a massive portion of the internet traffic is already from things talking to other things - all sorts of automated alerts, checks, gossip is ongoing where machines are trying to keep track of other machines, and only a tiny percentage of those messages are ever shown to a human being: a machine will check the state of another machine, and only when it crashes, is a human alerted to go and fix the thing. In some cases, really smart systems can tell the human ten minutes in advance that it's going to crash, and we consider that progress. But this is all just stuff that engineers have developed to make their lives easier - and I'm seeing a lot of that in the Internet of Things as well.

So I'm a bit - well, not even a bit - sceptical about whether the Internet of Things really changes anything. Yes, surveillance becomes easier. Yes, your life becomes a bit more efficient. But that's just progress. The benefit of the phone in your pocket wasn't because phones could talk to each other - it was because you could talk to some other human being. Connecting people, as they say. So I just can't really see why things talking to other things would be disruptive, because they just don't have anything interesting to say.

What the Internet of Things needs to evolve to is the Internet of Stories: Creating an emotional connection between humans and machines. Become the real, first step towards the post-singularity period - 'cos if we don't make the machines care about us, they will overrun us in the name of the efficiency we have been teaching them. Our things should be able to tell stories about themselves and their relation to the world: who owned them, who cared about them. I don't want to see furry dolls talking to each other in incomprehensible code; I want them telling who they are and how they played with their last owner. In my mind, the proper model for the Internet of Things is "Toy Story", not "Matrix".

But anyway. Just a smallish rant for the bemusement of those who actually work on this stuff. I'm sure this isn't a new opinion, but I'm too lazy to google for references today.

Sunday, 15-Sep-13 18:29
Moar scientific experiments

I've wanted to do this for a long time, but really haven't gotten around to doing it. Now I finally went ahead and tried mixing vinegar with baking powder - a fairly basic chemistry experiment. Bumped it up a bit for the kids, and here's the result :)

http://www.thinglink.com/scene/435821312670171138

Idea shamelessly stolen from a set of science cards I got from the local science store.


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