Yay, Physics! Boo, Traffic!

I always enjoy Rhett’s articles. I rarely try to follow the math completely, but good stuff nonetheless. This one is pretty simple physics. I could probably still work out projectile motion problems like this. He often does nifty things with video analysis, although not in this piece. But what really struck me about this particular article was the secondary bits about traffic jams. The last video was cool, demonstrating just how little of a perturbation is needed in order to create a traffic jam of sorts. But the one before it, with Bill Beaty showing how to (help) defeat traffic jams was really awesome. I’ve done similar things in the past, trying to drive at the average speed, but I usually end up getting annoyed or frustrated when others cut in. His is a great reminder to have a Zen attitude about the whole thing. Imagine if everyone drove that non-competitively!! Spread the word!

As American as Apple Pie

I’ve posted before about buying American made jeans. I’ve come to like the All American Clothing jeans quite well, and so I’ve placed a number of orders there over the years. My first order was placed back on March 9, 2009, and was order #40208. It was for 3 pairs of jeans: one American made Carhartt black jeans, one pair of carpenter jeans, and one pair of their “AA101” jeans at $34.95. Curiously, the second order was 2 years to the day later, and included 2 pr of the AA101’s at $39.95. (Order 63502). I had accidentally ordered the wrong size of one type, but the person reviewing the order noticed the discrepancy and emailed me to double check. Score an A for customer service!!

At some point, they stopped selling the Carhartt, and then at a later time they added an AA101B in black. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but I did file this into their customer service website back on November 13, 2013:

Another abandoned cart. So, here I am with 3 pairs of jeans in my shopping cart, and I want to add a fourth — black jeans in size 37×32. But they’re not in stock. You don’t give me an option to back-order them, or anything else. I would backorder them. I’d be glad to wait for them to come back in stock, then have you ship the whole order. But I’m not going to buy 3 pair now, and have to pay to ship the fourth pair later. I’ve been waiting for the black jeans. One of my first orders with you, you still had Carhartt black jeans (I believe it was), and I ordered them. But then you stopped carrying them (perhaps it was that they were no longer made in America). So I ordered my black jeans from Diamond Gusset. But now I’ve been trying to place an order here for quite some time (not continually, mind you, just every so often when I think of it and have the time. Sometimes when you send an ad, I check out the site and try to place my order). But this is at least the second time that one of the items is out of stock. You also don’t offer me a way to be notified when an item does come back in stock, so it comes down to when I think of it and have the time. C’mon, now — you’re American! You can do better than this! 🙂

There was some back and forth in email, all very pleasant and thoughtful with their staff, but it wasn’t until 6 months later that I was able to order the jeans. So that was May of 2014 that I placed my next order, #112475, and the AA101’s were $48.99. They did give me a 20% discount on the black pair for having had to wait so long. At that time, they were promoting some concept of “traceability” and each pair of pants came with some little card with a unique number on it with which you could go to some website to look up the provenance of your jeans. I never bothered. Presumably, you could see pictures of the actual cotton plants that went into your jeans or something like that. And presumably, that was at least part of the justification for the big cost increase.

On the day of the last snowstorm of this season (fingers crossed…), I took a spill which ended up ripping my beloved AA101B’s, so that very same day I went to order a replacement pair. Another pair of blue jeans was getting a bit worn, too, so it was definitely time for an order. When I visited the site, I was dismayed to see that they were discontinuing the AA101B, due to lack of demand.

I don’t know, but it seems to me that demand would be pretty hard to measure if you don’t carry a product for 6+ months, and don’t allow people to back order it, and don’t provide a means for people to learn when something comes back in stock. Sheesh. So, not only that, but they didn’t have my inseam. Not only that, but there was no “sale” on the discontinued product. When I asked customer service, they said that I could get them hemmed for $10 more. After some email back and forth, they offered a 15% discount on the now $52.95 (!) jeans. So I bought 2 pair and had them hemmed. Order #205091 And now, what do I see a week later? Now they are selling them at $25/pair.

Thanks a lot, All American Clothing. I think that back when I initially ordered, the Diamond Gusset jeans were a bit over $50, so they were a lot more than the All Americans. But they have not gone up in price much, while the All Americans have gone up way faster than my salary. Not sure there will be a fifth order from me.


Fahrschaden: It’s what makes a TDI a Volkswagen

from the German fahren, to drive, and schaden, damage or harm. A play on the old VW slogan Fahrvergnügen: It's what makes a car a Volkswagen.

I wrote a while back about our most recent car purchase, a 2011 VW Jetta Sportwagen TDI. I confess I’ve really enjoyed the car. It’s fun to drive, it has enough passenger and cargo space to be useful, it gets very good mileage (so I don’t feel awfully guilty the vast majority of times when I’m alone in it), and it’s environmentally friendly, incorporating VW’s “Clean Diesel” (oh, the irony of that link bringing up a 404…) technology. Or so we all thought.

As it turns out, Volkswagen was pulling a fast one. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the great mileage they wanted to provide at the same time that they could reduce emissions sufficiently to pass EPA muster. It was interesting for me to learn that there is a trade-off here. I would have thought that burning the fuel more efficiently meant lower emissions. And perhaps that is true, but apparently it can mean more of the emissions that are harmful. For a software engineer, it turns out the answer to this conundrum was straightforward — you don’t need to do them both at the same time. Apparently, according to someone at VW (engineer? management? the engineer in me wants to think/hope it was the latter), you can generally run dirty with good mileage, but when there’s no steering input, you can assume that emissions testing is taking place (or idling) and then you can turn on all the fancy emissions reduction equipment.

I must say, this is very distressing to me. The purchase decision was made in large part from an honest attempt to be environmentally conscientious. As outlined in the earlier post, we bought a used car intentionally; we didn’t buy a hybrid out of concern for the environmental impact of mining the metals that go into the batteries; also, diesel fuel is less refined from crude than gasoline, so my gut tells me (the same gut that tells me efficiency == less emissions) that there must be some environmental cost to the additional refinement of gasoline; diesel fuel is more energy dense than gasoline, so transporting it is more economical; and miracle of miracles, VW had solved the emissions problem. Hallelujah! Now, it’s pretty challenging to get a good, accurate, complete “cradle to grave” analysis of the environmental costs of one car vs. another, but what I’m hoping to convey here is that we gave it some considerable thought to the issue, and intended to do “The Right Thing.”

I have expounded to countless friends and colleagues on the virtues of VW’s “Clean Diesel” technology, the problems of other technologies (i.e. hybrids). I was a walking VW ad at times. I would gleefully point out how I could accelerate uphill at 70 m.p.h. and still get better fuel mileage (thanks, MFI!) than my previous vehicle (a Ford Ranger) averaged with mostly highway driving. I proudly drove this car. I even had mental plans for creating a special TDI badge for the back of the car that would recognize when it passed another TDI and “blink hello” in TDI solidarity and camaraderie.

Now, I confess to being somewhat ashamed about driving the car. I want to put a big “Sorry, I didn’t know!” sign on it. I used to always suggest to Susan that we take the wagon instead of the van when we didn’t have a van load of people, and especially for longer trips. Now all I can think about is the fact that I’m spewing up to 40x the EPA limit of NOx when I drive. And that hurts.

So what is Volkswagen up to now? I’d like to think that in the intervening years since they hacked the software in this engine, they’ve been working diligently to make the promise of Clean Diesel a reality. But if that were true, I think we’d be hearing something telling us they’re close. But we’re not. So I hope that VW has their best and brightest working tirelessly on this now, and until it’s solved. And by solved, I mean delivering on the original promise of Clean Diesel — EPA approved emissions under real world conditions while providing the power and fuel economy we TDI owners have come to know.

On the practical side, what will become of these cars? Will I be allowed to continue to drive it? Will I be allowed to sell it? Will I even be able to sell it? How much value has been lost? Will VW make us owners whole?

Besides which, now my father-in-law is now teasing me about (cheating) VW being the official car of The (cheating) Patriots. Ouch. But at least I can stand up for the Patriots.

#BlizzBlog Day 1: The Plowing

It started snowing mid to late afternoon Monday, but the snow was pretty light until later in the evening. The governor declared a state of emergency, asking everyone to stay off the road except for emergencies. So why, oh why, do the plows go by so often on my little street? I can understand not waiting until the storm is over, but I think realistically there’s no need to plow every 1/4 inch that falls. Sheesh.

The Technology Optimist

I suppose I could rightfully be accused of thinking too often that I can solve a problem around my house with the application of just a little more technology. Guilty as charged. But for some problems, technology is the best answer, or the only rational answer.

Nicholas Negroponte is also a “TO.” I love the vision of the One Laptop per Child organization he helped to found, to “empower the world’s poorest children through education” and to provide that education, in part, by providing

each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

I bought two of these XO laptops, for my two older children, when the devices first came out. The organization had a “Buy One, Get One” campaign at that time. I would have called it a “Buy Two, Get One” campaign, though, because you paid for two devices and only received one. The other one went to a child somewhere the organization was deploying them, generally in conjunction with federal governments. Each “pair” of laptops cost $400 at the time. They were really nifty devices, so well thought out for their purpose like no commercial product could be. They were designed to be serviceable and rugged. The screen was an amazing piece of technology developed just for the XO — it was a color display, but had a monochrome mode that was enabled by turning the backlight all the way down. And in the monochrome mode, the screen was completely readable in the bright sun. This was important to them, because in rural African villages, which were one of their target “markets” that’s where school is held!

The devices were also designed to work together to provide a “mesh” network, so that if there was internet access in a village, the laptops themselves could extend the network outward to homes. They also came up with innovative chargers, and other adjunct bits of support technology. Later on, I bought a third one from a friend who had bought a couple, but wasn’t using one.

In the end, my kids treated the devices more as toys than anything else, at least in part because they had easy access to computers at home that were much more powerful. And I happily donated the three back to the foundation. They continue to work on innovative hardware and software to help spread knowledge and educate children.

So today my Twitter Feed had a link to an IndieGoGo campaign that sounded intriguing and very “TO” — the Lantern. This is a nifty, pocket(ish) sized device that receives all kinds of content over a satellite link, and can provide a wifi hotspot that any wifi enabled device can connect to in order to consume the content. It’s not an “active” connection to the internet, but rather acts like a web server with static content. They plan to provide the content of wikipedia, among many other things, including near real time news and weather info. This can help in areas where other infrastructure has been affected, or where governments restrict access to the internet. And as it’s a broadcast technology, nobody can easily track who’s receiving the data. They compare the drive to get these devices out to people like Andrew Carnegie’s building of public libraries, and it’s not hard to see why.

Going out of Business!

As a kid in high school, I loved reading through the catalogs that came in the mail. Biking catalogs were a favorite. Bike Nashbar and Performance Bicycle I remember. Campmor was another with all kinds of cool outdoorsy gear. But one of the most interesting that came in our mailbox was the Hidalgo Sunglasses catalog. It was printed on cheap newsprint, in black and white, but came loaded with interesting information about sunglasses, and prescription glasses as well. It had actual size pictures of the frames, so you could cut them out and try them on for size. Of course, back then I couldn’t afford anything in the catalog, but I learned a lot by reading it.

Since the dawn of the web, I’ve kept looking for Hidalgo on the web, but they were very late to the game. They did finally arrive, however, in more of a “Web 1.0” style than the “2.0” that was gaining traction. It still looks rather dated, but is full of good information and you can still actually download the entire old fashioned catalog as a PDF. According to the Wayback Machine, they first had a web site around 2001, but it was just a handful of static pages until 2010, when you could finally order from it!

I just visited again today, mostly to find the right URL to pass along to a friend, and discovered that Hidalgo is going out of business. Now I have to decide whether to buy a pair of sunglasses from them before they go out of business…

Doing our share

This past week was a pretty big one at the Stewart household. Two “environmental” projects came to fruition this past week. First, and most important, is that our photovoltaic array went live, and we are now generating some of our own electricity. We have 28 250 Watt panels distributed among our main roof, dormers, and the garage roof, for a maximum hypothetical power rating of 7 KW. However, the DC-AC conversion isn’t 100% efficient, and by design the sun doesn’t shine on them all equally, so we won’t expect to see that number ever come up. But it is fun to see numbers, and to that end, here is a web site that is publicly accessible that shows some statistics about our power production: http://www.solrenview.com/SolrenView/mainFr.php?siteId=1910. Today we produced 35.1 kWh, and had a peak power output of 5.7 kW. Payback of our initial investment in the system is expected to take 5-6 years.

On another front, we also purchased a new vehicle today. Well, more accurately, a used vehicle. Partly because we understand that the best value to be had in cars is in ones that are 1-2 years old, but also because a friend reminded us that buying a new car implies the assumption of the environmental cost of producing a new car. I was enamored of hybrids for a time, but the same friend educated us about the environmental cost of sourcing all the rare earth materials for the batteries. So the conclusion we came to was to find an efficient gasoline powered car. But we couldn’t find one. Perhaps my standards are “too high” but I remember cars from back in the 80’s that would achieve 50 mpg. Many friends have heard me wonder aloud whether this technology was somehow lost.

It seems that there are a couple of big factors at play here. First, people expect their cars to be more powerful that those “econo-boxes” of the time. We expect to be able to get up to highway speed from a standstill in a matter of seconds. Another factor is that people have come to demand/expect many more accoutrements in their vehicles, like power windows, power locks, GPS Navigation, big, honkin’ sound systems with 12 speakers, power seats, etc. Do they still make cars without air conditioning?

I also remember reading an article a while back in an online car magazine (TopGear) about a project where a team was challenged to put together a car for less than $7000 that would get 70 mpg and be able to get from 0-60 in 7 seconds. I think I’m remembering all that correctly, it was a long time ago, and the article was taken offline quite a while ago, unfortunately. All that remains are posts that link to it, and archive.org failed to have a copy, unfortunately. Here’s one post that at least references the series, called “Project Sipster.” They took an old diesel VW Rabbit that they got for next to nothing, and put a lot of work into it, including a new engine, and new suspension. I don’t think the $7000 included the weeks of labor. Watch the video, though, and tell me you wouldn’t want to own this car:

In spite of my 13 year old truck running OK, and having no major problems, we didn’t think it would necessarily last through the next 10 years which will include paying for three college educations. And so, inspired somewhat by the above, we bought a 2011 VW Jetta Sportswagen TDI with only 18,000 miles on it. It’s fun to drive, and gets an EPA estimated 30/42, but you hear plenty of reports of people getting better. Really depends on how you drive it. Unfortunately, it is peppy, fun to drive, and encourages acceleration. Hopefully it will last through the kids’ college years. Isn’t it cute?


Happy New Years!

For Christmas, I received an awesome kit clock that I spent a good part of the following day putting together. We have a tradition where we spend New Year’s Eve with another family, and as one of the neat things about this clock is that the software it runs (I know, it’s a weird concept…) can be modified. So I spent parts of the next couple of days modifying the original software to include a countdown to New Year’s mode, which is what you see in the picture.

Unfortunately, this CharlieCard isn’t valid for usage with in the system

The MBTA has for years now had available a “stored value” type of card for subway, buses, commuter rail, etc. All very neat. You can go to a vending machine at subway stations and refill the card with cash or use a debit or credit card. It’s even possible to refill them on the bus, but I always get flustered trying to do it, and the drivers are often impatient about it. More recently, they’ve added a web-based system for refilling your card, which sounds pretty handy. But I’ve tried many times to enroll my ancient CharlieCard, only to get an error back. I assume it was because it was too old, and pre-dated when the started allowing access via the web.

Yesterday, I was on the bus and ran out of money on the card, so I went to refill it. I was asking the bus driver “What do I do next?” but he wasn’t really answering me. I failed to follow the correct sequence, and ended up with a paper ticket with $5 on it, minus the cost of the bus fare. Argh! When we got to Harvard, I picked up a *new* CharlieCard, so I’d be able to enroll it in their system. When we got home, I did try to enroll the card only to get the same error message back. Sheesh!

I emailed the support email address listed on the site, holding out little hope that I’d actually receive an intelligent answer. But less than 10 minutes later, I did get a response: “Unfortunately you would have to grab another card at the station. This error is due to a glitch in the MBTA’s system, and there’s no way to tell in advance which cards are compatible with the online system and which ones are not. I apologize for the inconvenience. Thank You”

So, kudos to the MTBA (or their partner) for providing an “answer” so quickly! Generally, at best I’d expect a response about a day later, telling me that the company had received my inquiry, and telling me how important I am to them, etc., etc. And then I may or may not hear back in a reasonable timeframe. However, the MBTA (and/or their partner) get a failing grade for the content of the response.

Guess I will be picking up a stack of cards next time…