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February 18th, 2016

05:43 am - Phoney Baloney
Act One: I Say Good-bye To My Land Line and Most of My Cell Phone Bill

A few years ago, I had to do a lot of cost cutting. Most of you know why; those that don't, I'll just say there was a divorce. One of the things that got cut was my phone bill. I switched from a T-Mobile plan that was running me about $40/month to one from PureTalkUSA that's $10/month, and replaced the ISDN land-line phone service with VoIP.

For most residential users, VoIP means MagicJack or Skype or some such. However, all of them, although much cheaper than a regular phone line, are still not free. I found a way to get my land-line costs down to $0, atlhough it's a pretty convoluted scheme.

First, there's an account with sipsorcery.com. This free service gives me the internet component for VoIP. I can run client software on any of my computers, and even on my iPhone, and all those devices connect to the sipsorcery server to allow me to talk to people over the internet. However, this doesn't include a phone number. That's the part that makes Skype not free; they charge you to provide a bridge to cross over from the internet networks to the telephone networks. Without that bridge, you can't call any "normal" phone or any cellular phones because they're all connected to the phone network.

The 2nd part is an account with IPKall. *These* guys provide a free phone number. If somebody calls my IPKall number, they've got a server somewhere that accepts the call from the phone network, and bridges it onto the internet, specifically as a VoIP connection to a SIP server such as the one at sipsorcery. However, you cannot call OUT from that gateway. It's one-way phone net -> internet.

So the third piece is a Google Voice account. Google Voice *also* gave me a free ten-digit phone number. Google Voice, however, doesn't have any "real" phone lines of their own at all.  When somebody calls my GVoice number, I'd bet good money that the result is something like this: that call goes to whichever local phone company switch/computer (probably the ubiquitous Lucent 5ESS) 'owns' my phone number. The 5ESS tells the Google server that it has an inbound call for that number. The GVoice server tells the 5ESS to hold that call in suspension for just a moment. Then the GVoice server tells the 5ESS to call *me*. Specifically, it calls (1) my cellular phone number, (2) my IPKall VoIP number, and (c) my Charter VoIP/POTS number. (When I switched from DirecTV to Charter for televison and internet, the Charter system included phone service at no extra charge.) Hopefully, at some point I 'answer the phone' at one of those numbers. The 5ESS tells GVoice that one the numbers it's calling has gone off-hook. GVoice tells it to drop all the other calls, and then to take that *inbound* call it's got, and plug it into the line that just answered. Then GVoice lets go of the call.

Note that the Gvoice server never had to actually handle any data packets that had a human voice wrapped inside. It just had to be able to tell the 5ESS what to do. Now, the GVoice server does have to hande the voice call if I don't answer any of my phones, because then it provides voice mail services.

But if the IPKall number only accepts inbound calls, how do I call my dentist? Simple. Well, not exactly simple, but not rocket science either.  I sit down at my computer, open the Google Voice web page, and tell it I want to call my dentist. The GVoice server calls me first, and once I've answered, then it calls my dentist. If/when they answer, it tells the 5ESS to link the two calls, and lets go. So even my outbound calls are actually inbound calls.

Act Two: My Tech Leaps Forward

Now, this has been working fairly well for 3+ years. But about a year ago, in return for providing household tech support to a friend of my mom's, I received in return some of the Apple technology that they'd replaced with newer things. I'd been using an iPhone 3gs. This couple had upgraded their iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 to iPhone 6s, a MacBook Air to a MacPro, and an iPad to a Mini iPad 2 (or 3? I forget). In return for tying all their new gear together (along with their AppleTV, her iMac, and their new printer), I got the hand-me-downs.

Now the iPad, which one might want to call an iPad one, except that Apple never called it that because until the 2 came along, who needed to? so I tend to refer to it as the "iPad dead stop", cannot be upgraded past iOS 5.1.1. The current version is 9.2+, and new apps these days almost always require at least iOS 8, so I've really enjoyed it, but most of the apps I use have to run on the iPhone 5. There are a lot of apps I'd much rather have on a bigger screen.

But all this shiny new (or new-ish) tech has made me more acutely aware that my super-cheap cell plan does not include any data. It's voice and text only. (That means SMS, not MMS. You can't 'text' me a picture, just words.) That means no mobile mapping, no Siri in the car, and no GPS-enabled games, unless I can find an open WiFi hotspot.

Act Three: I Consider The Virtues of A Vow Of Silence

Let me emphasize something explained in Act One. When I'm at home, within range of my WiFi access point, I frequently will answer phone calls using my iPhone's VoIP client app, rather than as a cell phone. If I take the call via the cell network, it eats up my minutes. So it occurs to me that if I could find an adequately affordable data plan, I wouldn't NEED to have voice. If I could get a 'tablet' data-only plan, I could also answer and place phone calls.

Phone calls are nothing like, say, streaming a hi-def movie. You do NOT need "super-fast 4G LTE" data for a phone call. 4th generation cell data runs about 5 to 10 megabits/second. (Well, that's what Verizon says on their web page. Technically, it's required to deliver at least 100Mbps to moving users, and 1Gbps to stationary ones, or it can't be called 4G.)  Third gen speeds are  200kbps to as much as 10Mbps, depending on how new the 3G tower hardware is. A phone call needs about 12kbps. (An aside: Apple's FaceTime can be used for either videophone or sound-only calls. It doesn't have a mechanism for bridging to the telecom net, so you can only use it to talk to people on internet-enabled gizmos, but it uses an advanced codec for the audio, and most people notice the dramatically better sound quality compared to traditional phone calls almost immediately. As a bonus, FaceTime calls are encrypted end-to-end, so nobody except possibly the NSA can tap or intercept the call. Currently none of the alternatives (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) offer that. )

So if I could only find somebody that offered, say, 0 bytes of 4G LTE but all the 3G data I can eat at some super-cheap price, I would be a very happy camper. I use my iPhone to access the internet when I'm not home, and I can activate a WiFi hotspot and all my widgets can have internet access wherever I go! Sweet!

I went looking. Nobody offered exactly that (no surprise there), and, in fact, most of the cheap plans offered a little bit of LTE data, and then charged more if you went over your limit, even if/when you'd be limited to 3G after you'd used up your LTE quota. T-mobile came the closest, with a $20/month plan with 2 gigabytes of LTE, after which it drops to 3G (or, in some areas, 2G), but at no extra charge for all you can eat.

Act Four: I Travel To Barbaric Lands, and the Internet Forsakes Me

That's where things stood until I went to Seattle for Foolscap. I was staying with my friend Margaret, who had been inflicted by typical CenturyLink incompetence with loss of her land line and internet access for almost two months. She'd been surviving on crumbs of internet from her cell phone. The convention hotel wasn't much better. Non-guest access anywhere but the lobby was appallingly expensive. I had a couple of friends who could let me use their mobile hotspots, but if they left the room I was in, there went my internet connection as well.

As a result, I decided now was the time to act on my research. I took off from the hotel Saturday afternoon, went to the nearby mall, walked into the T-Mobile store, and said "I want your $20 tablet plan, please. For my iPhone. Yes, I know that it's a phone, and I know that the tablet plan means I won't be able to call people. That's what I want. So can I get that?"


Well, actually, it was more like "It depends" at first. According to my salesman, if he sold me a SIM card for a tablet and I put it in my phone, T-Mobile's cell towers would still be able to recognize that the device containing that SIM was a phone, not a tablet, and would not enable a connection. Unless, that is, my iPhone happened to be one originally purchased in another country? The T-mobile towers would not recognize a non-US phone's serial number, so they would assume it must be some kind of tablet, and this allow the data connection.

"We've tried it before, and it just doesn't work." Igor had the grace to look embarrassed and somewhat apologetic about this, and in return, I didn't come right out and say that in essence T-Mobile had hardwired "behave like an asshole" into their cell towers.

"But you also have mobile hotspots, right?"


"So if I got the $20 data plan, and one of those, and then tethered my phone to it via WiFi, then everything wourld work?"


"So I'd have to spend $100 for the hotspot box, and then have to carry two devices around with me, even though there's absolutely no technical reason whatsoever why my iPhone couldn't serve just as well as the hotspot?"

"Pretty much."


"Ah! But we've got a special promotion right now: a free tablet!" As Igor explained, instead of buying a mobile hotspot for $100, I could get a somewhat larger mobile hotspot that happened to have a display and touch screen built into it, for free. Well, sort of free, in a sense. It was a $200 Android tablet, which I would have to pay for, except that for every month that I kept my T-mobile service, they'd make the $7 monthly payment for the tablet until it was paid off, two years later. If I cancelled the plan, I'd owe the balance. No interest, no penalty, just the remainder of the cost.

Although I'd still have to carry two gizmos, at least the 2nd gizmo was free, and possibly even useful. But could I perhaps get an iPad instead? It would be wonderful to have something even slightly newer than an iPad dead stop. Yes, but I would naturally have to pay for one, either $500-ish or $650-ish, depending on which model I wanted.

I see. I guess I'll just stick with the Android, then. Sigh.

Act Five: My Android Is Kissed By A Princess, and Is Transformed

Other than the "yet one more gizmo to carry" issue, the Android tablet-as-hotspot worked really really well. Oh my gosh, having the internet with me wherever I went was even more fun than I'd imagined. Whee! My phone, my iPad, and my laptop all had internet wherever I went!

Barely one day later I'm telling part of this story at the post-convention dinner, and Beth wants to see this new tablet of mine. It seems that her Nook had died recently, her niece had received an iPad upgrade for Christmas and had given her old one to Beth, and that while Beth appreciated that quite a bit, the hand-me-down iPad was a lot bigger than her Nook had been. It was big enough that Beth really wasn't happy with it as a Nook-replacement. My Android, on the other hand, was much more the form factor she wanted. Would I be interested in trading?

Oh, dearie me yes! But is the iPad a WiFi-only, or was it a cellular-enabled one? Aha! A sim-card slot! Disappointingly, popping my SIM card into the iPad didn't work, but by the time we discovered that, I was so excited about turning my Android into an iPad upgrade that I arranged with Beth to meet the next day and take the iPad into the T-Mobile store to see if they could figure out what the deal was.

As it happened, the solution to the problem was provided by a tech at the Apple Store, and was excruciatingly embarrassing to Beth, Igor, and myself. None of the three of us had thought to reboot the iPad.{slap forehead}

So presto! The Apple guy turns the iPad off and back on, and there it is! I immediately try to turn on the hotspot, but I can't figure out how to do that, which is odd, because I could have sworn it was right near the top of the Settings screen. And it is. On my iPhone.

Come again?

I didn't learn all the details until later, but basically, it was a case of Apple, Inc. being even bigger dickwads than T-Mobile. The iPad 2 used to have a hotspot function, but Apple took it away with iOS 7. Every other iPad was still allowed to be a hotspot, but not so the 2. Unless I jailbroke the iPad and installed a hotspot app on it, although, the Apple tech rushed to add, that would void my warranty.

I rolled my eyes. A lot. And explained that I had already repeatedly deleted the gigabyte-sized iOS 9 upgrade that my phone kept downloading, because Apple kept making the iPhones less accessible with each iOS release, and I was already sick and tired of being prevented from accessing my own d**m data on my own d**m phone, so I wasn't going to let it upgrade until I could jailbreak it. It has been well over a decade since the last time I thought Apple's warranty had more value than being able to open the case.

Act Six: Where Apple Doubles Down on Being A Jackass, and I Make a Surprising Discovery

It's more than a week before I have time to try jailbreaking the iPad. The whole "jailbreaking" thing is, to me at least, a weirdly un-Apple-like issue to start with. For crying out loud, they have released nearly the entire Mac operating system as open source! I've seen a super-cheap Asus notebook running OSX! Well, strictly speaking, it was running Darwin, which is the core that OSX is built on. But it looks just like OSX, and it's completely legal. Anybody who wants to can download the source and compile it for whatever they want to try to run it on.

But with iOS, it's quite the opposite. With the iPad which can't be upgraded past iOS 5, I can plug in a USB cable and look at the files  on its flash drive. Staring with iOS 6, or maybe 7, Apple quit allowing programs to do that. They've never let people just load whatever they want onto the phone. No, you are supposed to only get apps via the iTunes store, which means only ones they've officially approved. Well, fuck you, Apple. I don't mind if you void the warranty and wash your hands of any obligation to help me fix my phone if I load any non-approved software. That's perfectly reasonable. But trying to force your opinion on me is utterly offensive.

And an asinine waste of resources. The hackers figure out how to circumvent Apple's childish selfishness. Apple releases a new version of the OS that blocks that avenue. The hackers find another one. Apple blocks that. Around and around and around.

So I start researching jailbreaking the iPad. The most recent iOS version they've broken is 9.0.2. Annoyingly, somebody had upgraded the iPad recently, it's got iOS 9.2.1 on it. I can't jailbreak it until I've retrograded the os back down to 9.0.2. I try to do that three times, but I am unsuccessful. More research reveals that Apple started authenticating all the upgrades, and the iThings won't allow firmware upgrades that aren't authenticated. This has to be done by a server at Apple at the time of the firmware install, and Apple stopped authenticating 9.0.2 last October 15th. It isn't possible to jailbreak the IPad yet.

And, as it happens, I'm just as screwed over on my iPhone. As I mentioned, I have repeatedly refused to allow the phone to install updates, because there have been multiple occasions when I needed my phone to have functionality that Apple couldn't be bothered to provide, and I'm sick and tired of it. Thus, my phone is still held back to iOS 8.4.1.

Nobody ever released a jailbreak tool for 8.4.1. There are tools for jailbreaking 8.2 and 8.3, but it appears they didn't get around to smashing open 8.4 before 9 was released. Now that they've cracked 9.0.2, I can't imagine anybody's going to bother trying to break 8.4.1. And, since Apple won't authenticate anything before 9.1, I cannot upgrade the iPhone just a little bit forward. I might as well let it upgrade to 9.2, because somebody might eventually jailbreak that version.

Thus, after spending hours trying to make this work, I am left with a phone that has absolutely no reason at all to not be the hotspot except that T-Mobile won't let it, and an iPad that has absolutely no reason at all not to be a hotspot except that Apple won't let it.

I decide, as a lark, because it's so easy to do, to go ahead and pop the T-mobile SIM card that's in my iPad into the iPhone. I'm a little curious as to the form that the non-working-ness will take. Will it say "No Signal" or "Carrier Error" or make a funny farting noise, or what? Naturally, the iPad's set up for the mini SIM size but the phone takes the micro SIM. All SIMs are the same, it's just a matter of extra plastic to make the actual chip fit in larger older trays. I put the T-mobile SIM in my phone, and the Puretalk SIM in my iPad.

I haven't tried sending a text to the iPad yet, but the T-mobile SIM in my iPhone is not malfunctioning nor showing an error message.

In fact, It. Works. Perfectly.

Well, almost perfectly. I have driven around town stopping wherever I wanted, and accessed the internet on my iPad by connecting to my iPhone via WiFi as a hotspot. I've plugged a USB cable into the phone and a laptop and the laptop's happily turned the phone into a a cellular modem. I've even tethered the iPad to the iPhone via Bluetooth, instead of WiFi.

The only thing that doesn't work right is the voice over IP part! The VoIP client on the iPhone itself is unable to connect to the sipsorcery server. Clients running on gizmos tethered to the iPhone can reach the server, and if I call my Google Voice number, they will ring, indicating an incoming call. But! None of them can *receive* the sound packets! If I talk on the phone, the person on the other end can hear me, but I cannot hear them. Either T-mobile is somehow partially firewalling the VoIP packets, or there's an address conflict with the local subnet somewhere.

The Ironic Conclusion

So do I now have to try to figure out how to route my VoIP packets around the barrier, whatever it might be? No, actually, that probelm is suddenly a moot point. Because the very next day after my epic battle with the iToys, I got an email message.

"IPKall will discontinue service on May 1."

Thus, some time in the next couple of months, I have figure out some other means for bridging my VoIP calls to the telecom network.

Now, one might ask, since Google already has their Google Voice servers connected to the telecom network, why they aren't just bridging the phone calls onto the internet themselves. In fact, many people have asked exactly that. Google hasn't answered. I'm not surprised, because the only honest answer would basically boil down to "We're too lazy/cheap to do it." There was a 3rd party that had actually done the coding necessary, and that some people were using to connect their VoIP to Google Voice without all the extra steps in between. Google bought that company, and shortly thereafter, they shut down the direct-connect service.

Oh, and even though my T-Mobile SIM card is a Tablet-only SIM (even though there's no such thing. It's just T-Mobile making bullshit up as an excuse for their behavior) it still has to have a phone number associated with it. Igor let me choose what area code I wanted. I told him "well, why not just use my existing number, since I'm going to drop the voice-plan anyway."

"No, we can't do that. That's a voice number."

I didn't say a word. I just gave him A Look. He replied with an embarrassed shrug; we both knew this was just more  T-Mobile make-believe.

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October 29th, 2015

01:57 pm - Foolishness in the Bathroom, Parts II+
Y'know what? It's going to be too much work to re-write the HTML for my essay to work properly on LiveJournal. I've put the whole thing on my own website where the illustrations can be placed more easily, blah blah blah. But you're welcome to come back here to comment.


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October 28th, 2015

11:47 am - Foolishness in the Bathroom
For literally decades, I have been fuming over the myriad design errors of the so-called “modern” bathroom. Whether through historical habit, inappropriate penny-pinching, or just a chronic lack of design intelligence, there are all kinds of ways that a bathroom could serve its customers better. These missed opportunities range from “what it does now works well enough, but wouldn’t it be nice if it also did this other thing” to “it doesn’t suck at that, but for little or no extra cost/effort, it could do it a lot better, so why not?” to “that’s totally stupid and irritating and no bathroom should every be built like that again.”
I wrote the first draft of this essay two years ago, and it’s over 10,000 words long, so I’m going to break it up for LiveJournal into five parts: The Sink, The Toilet, The Bathroom Floor, The Bathtub, and Showers.


Let’s start with the sink. What is a sink for? Personally, I find I use the bathroom sink for two main functions. One is washing stuff off my face and hands, and the other is as a convenient way of disposing of something. Let’s start with the classic task of washing your hands before dinner. The recommended method is to wet your hands, apply soap, scrub them (front and back!) for about 15 seconds (longer than you think!) then rinse.
    Hopefully you didn’t leave the water running the whole time you were scrubbing your hands. But if you didn’t, now you have to turn the water back on in order to rinse. How many sinks have round knobs on the faucet? Way too many. Your hands are covered in soap! One of the best designs for faucet valve handles was introduced over a hundred years ago; those classic white ceramic cross-shaped knobs. Even better is a long lever that you can push to get the quantity and temperature of water you desire, perhaps even moving it with your wrist so you don’t even have to wipe soap off the handle when you’re done.
  In fact, we can do even better than that. My parents are, even as I write this, planning to upgrade their bathroom sink to a hands-free faucet; one that turns the water on by using a sensor to detect your desire for flowing water. Public bathrooms have had these for years as a way to keep people from leaving the water running indefinitely, but some home models are wave-on, wave-off or use proximity sensors to keep the water flowing as long as you’re near the spout. However, currently all the ones I looked at still need some kind of handle to set the water temperature, so whether you get a sensing faucet or not, you still deserve a faucet that has something better than slippery round knobs.
  We do have such faucets, of course. But we also have showrooms full of dysfunctional crap, suitable only for a McGuest Bathroom. This would be the lavatory near the entrance of a McMansion, the overly-large, overly-pretentious houses that homebuilders have thrown up in cheap suburbs. They almost always have cathedral ceilings in the entryway, because one of the purposes of a McMansion is to try to impress a visitor with how important/wealthy/upper-class-y the owner is. We don’t want visitors wandering into the giant master suite bathroom with the sunken tub, so they get a little half-bath conveniently located on the main floor, with the stone or blown-glass wash basin and artistic faucets that are so high-end that you can’t even figure out what part you’re supposed to move to make water come out.
  I confess that there is a part of me that really loves Bathroom-As-Art. The sink basin that was a rubber sheet, with the drain in the bottom pulling the sheet downward to keep the water from going everywhere. The sink that sort of rose from the floor, everything balanced on one thin chrome stalk. The infinity-pool bathtub with window panels that allow one to take a bath outdoors on nice days. Gorgeous showpieces, as long as nobody has to actually use them, or even worse, keep them clean.
  But for your day-to-day working bathroom? I think not. The bathroom is a workspace you use multiple times every day. Unless you’re trying to relax with a long hot bath, you want to get in, get done, and get out quickly and efficiently. You want it to stay as clean as possible with as little effort as possible. You want it, in short, to just work.

  Back to that sink. Is the basin big enough? Is there even room under the faucet for you to get your hands, and rub them, in order to get the soap off? If you want to rinse soap off your face, can you bend over, catch water in your hands, ‘splash’ it on your face, and have the water fall back into the basin and not onto the counter? The basin needs to be deep enough that you can swish something around in it (a safety razor, your hands) without water getting out, and wide enough that you can work over it and have it catch things (water from your face, hair trimmings).
  Now, “wide enough” depends a lot on how far away that basin is. This is one place where almost every bathroom I’ve ever used has demonstrated institutionalized stupidity. It’s almost impossible to find a home remodeling book or design text that will even consider the issue of counter height. For that, we have to turn to industry, and the OSHA regulations. They have very strong opinions, based on mountains of ergonomic research. For the kind of stuff you do in front of a sink, your arms and back will be best served if your work surface lies just beneath your hands when your forearms are parallel to the floor. I’m referring to tasks like shaving; applying make-up; combing, brushing, or blow-drying your hair; and other tasks where you’re picking things up from the counter, or working on the counter but in a way that doesn’t require applying a lot of force.
  Now, that’s OSHA’s recommendation for a general work surface. A sink needs to be a bit lower, because you need to be able to get your hands down into the basin for washing and rinsing, so a better height is one where you hold your upper arms against your sides and angle your forearms downward at a 45º angle. The sink basin should surround your hands.
  Go ahead, try standing like that in your bathroom. How far away is the basin? Six inches? A foot? Foot and a half? Oh, I know, it’s much easier for tall people to bend over to get to a sink that’s too low than for short people to use a sink that’s too tall, but the ‘standard’ height of bathroom counters is so low that it’s too low for anybody more than five feet tall. What about children? Oh, please. Children are old enough to use the sink long before they’re tall enough even under the current stupidly-short standard; they have to use a stool for a few years. Putting the sink closer to a comfortable and more functional height for grown-ups just means the stool has to be there for another year or two.
  I am, to be sure, unusually tall for a human being. I do not expect the world’s bathrooms to be engineered to keep a 193cm person happy. Nor am I talking about what needs to happen in public bathrooms here; those should be built to provide useful services to an extremely wide range of people, even if it means making it inconvenient for many in order to make it accessible for a few. But the residential bathroom is used by just a few people over and over again, and it should be built accordingly. Because at 30”, the ‘universal’ bathroom sink is quite a bit shorter than my pants’ inseam, and if I can pee into the sink, it’s just too damn low.

  Please, in the name of intelligent thought and good design, do not confuse what you’ve gotten used to with what actually works best. If you tried standing over your bathroom sink with your arms out and then said “Oh, no, that would be way too high,” then try imagining it just 6” higher than it is now. Does that still seem too high? It shouldn’t, because that’s the height of just about every kitchen counter in the USA. Maybe you cook (or use your bathroom) very differently from me, but I do more stuff on the countertop in the kitchen, and more stuff above the countertop (usually looking in the mirror) in the bathroom, and (again, as per OSHA’s exhaustively researched regulations), the industry-standard kitchen countertop height of 36” is ideal for somebody who’s about 5’5” tall.

  To get from “that’s so stupid, why would anybody ever do that” to “it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t suck,” the counter needs to move up about six inches. But why settle for that? The best solution, and only marginally more expensive than the worst solution, is to have adjustable height counters. I recently went shopping at Ikea for a replacement to the piece of crap holding the sink in the house I moved into last year, and discovered to my utter joy that they have a line of cabinets that bolt to the wall! Hooray! I can put this cabinet at whatever height I flippin’ well want to! I have a stool for shorter guests, and if/when I move out, the new owners can reposition it to suit themselves.
  One huge advantage that might not be obvious to many is it’s so much easier to clean up after I’ve trimmed my beard. In my old bathroom, the short little bits of hair ended up all over everything, because they had such a long way to fall before landing on the counter. Now they all fall into the basin, since the basin’s actually up somewhere kinda near, oh, y’know, my face.

  That’s my biggest use for a sink that falls into my second category, “disposing of something.” I’ve also used the bathroom sink to wash out fountain pens, scrub gummy label residue off jars, and other small cleaning tasks. For years the canonical sink drain could be plugged by either a rubber stopper (perhaps on a chain), or by a chrome disk that rose and fell when you pulled a knob on the back. To get the knob to work meant having a bunch of levers and stuff inside the drain, and having a hole in the drain for the lever to pass through. All kinds of things well suited to impede the drain flow, catch hair, and leak. The lever often doesn’t lift the disk more than a few millimeters, so lumpier things (maybe some small gravel you’re cleaning off your shoes) can’t go down, and the sink takes a long time to drain, even before all the hair that gets tangled inside starts making it even slower.
  The one positive feature I see is that you can open the drain without putting your hand in the water. How often have I filled my bathroom sink with water that I then don’t want to put my hand in? Not very often. Not often enough to make up for the times I’ve had to get inside the cabinet and unscrew parts of the drain in order to release the plug so I could clear all the slimy disgusting hair that was clogging things, or replace the broken plug, or adjust the lever so the plug would rise high enough to drain the sink in less than an hour.

  As long as we’re down there looking at the plumbing, let’s take a closer look. There are cabinet doors in front of the sink, yes? And you do keep some stuff in that cabinet, but probably not a lot, because there’s all those pipes right in the middle that take up space and are just generally in the way. This is another case where some thoughtful designer at Ikea caused me to quit taking ‘stupid’ for granted.
  You see, with just a tiny bit of thought and practically no extra effort, it’s not that hard to position the drain pipes so the first thing they do is head toward the back of the cabinet, especially if you don’t try to include all the mechanisms to make the stopper rise up and down. You direct the drain pipe toward the back of the cabinet, and then plumb the P-trap (that’s the U-shaped segment, and yes, it’s there for a couple of very good reasons, the main one being smell management). There are also sink designs where the drain is already near the back of the sink instead of smack-dab in the middle, but wherever it starts, if it heads for the back of the cabinet first, it leaves you with much more usable space under the sink.

  Something else I’ve put under the sink a couple of times is a hose bib. “Hose bib” is the technical term for a faucet to which you can attach a garden hose. It’s one of those things that you might never need, but on the other hand, might be really really handy. When a plumber’s installing the hot and cold water pipes for the sink, it’s a trivial bit of extra work (maybe $5 in parts and $15 of extra time) to include an extra cold-water outlet right next to the one that the sink hooks onto, with the threaded nozzle for a hose. And what would you use it for? Well, I’ve used it to fill my waterbed. I can easily imagine somebody with a large dog who’d managed to get covered in mud using it to wash the poor dear. The hand-held shower attachments usually don’t have a hose long enough to easily use down at the level of a dog, nor do they put out all that much water. You might have an inanimate object that needs cleaning, where being able to blast it with water from your garden sprayer would be a lot faster than what the tub/shower normally provides. Or if you have a lot of indoor plants, I’ve seen kits (generally intended for outdoor potted plants) where you attach a small coiled hose to your faucet and wander around squirting water on the plants without having to lug a full watering can all over the place.
  As I said, you could have one for a decade and never use it. You only have to use it once, though, for it to have paid for itself. I plan to include a hose bib under either my kitchen sink or my bathroom sink whenever possible for the rest of my life, because it’s been handy enough to justify the minor extra effort and cost.


How many electrical cords do you have near your sink? I have an electric toothbrush, my electric razor, and the beard trimmer. Ten years ago, living in a house where the bathroom didn’t even have a counter (it was a pedestal sink), there was also my spouse’s water-jet tooth cleaning gizmo. Twenty years ago, when I was living in a condo, I also had a hair dryer.
  The condo was fairly new, and the bathroom sink had a generous amount of counter space to either side as well as electrical outlets in the walls on either end of the counter. Still, it wasn’t hard to use up the outlets, and I had cords running across the counter. So I tapped into one of the junction boxes, and added four more outlets inside the cabinet. Then I cut a hole into the counter, and dropped in one of those cord portals like you see in some office desks.
  After that, the electric razor and toothbrush sat on the counter near the sink, where they were very handy, but the cords disappeared right away, down into the cabinet. The blowdryer was in a drawer, but when I opened the drawer, I could start blow drying instantly; it was plugged in inside the cabinet. Everything was handy, everything was ready, everything was neat and tidy.
  In my current bathroom with the fabulous wall-mounted cabinet, I have a power strip fastened inside near the back, and my various electrical devices are in the drawers. (It has drawers, not doors, because Ikea routes the plumbing so far back in the cabinet that they can actually have big deep drawers right underneath the sink.) The power strip cord comes out the bottom and plugs into the outlet in the wall. The counter on this cabinet isn’t really big enough to leave everything sitting out, but all the rechargeable stuff still stays plugged in as it should.
  Outlets inside the cabinet? Won’t they get wet? No. The power strip is up high and on the far left, so it’s above and not that close to the hoses and pipes. Back in the condo, I didn’t put the counter cut-out right over the outlets! They’re off to one side and fairly high, where it would be very hard for water to reach. And even if it does, for the last few decades, building codes have required GFCIs (ground-fault circuit interrupters) in bathrooms, which will cut power to an outlet blindingly fast if they detect any sign of electricity going places it’s not supposed to. In-cabinet electrical outlets are another bathroom feature I intend to never live without again.

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September 18th, 2015

02:34 pm - Typing In Stereo
My friend Margaret sent me a link to some kick-ass violin music. "Black Violin-Stereotypes"

It's a wonderful composition, in part because it takes the violin into more percussive, energetic, aggressive musical territory where it doesn't usually hang out. Near the end, somebody (presumably the performer) adds voice-over dialog. One of the things he says is "My #1 stereotype is just because I'm 6'2" and 260# doesn't mean you're supposed to be afraid of me." Then he talks about stepping into an elevator, and feeling other passengers not necessarily backing away, but at least putting themselves "on notice."

What he doesn't explicitly include is that he's also male, and almost certainly black. (If he's the performer, the video shows two black men playing the violin, and the sound of the voice and the speech patterns are ones I've only ever heard come from blacks, so it seems a pretty safe assumption.)

I'm not black, and I weigh 100 pounds less than he does. But I'm 2 inches taller than he is, and still a guy, and I also am entirely aware of stepping into an elevator and feeling other people shift slightly, feeling their awareness increase as they include the perhaps remote possibility that I will do something inappropriate.

In the past decade or so, unbeknownst to many Americans, "thug" has come to be a code word for "black guy." It's reprehensible, but indicative of some societal stereotypical thinking. I have no doubt that the violinist gets a stronger reaction than I do in an elevator, from people triggering off his skin color. But they're also certainly triggering off his size. If this is the violinist speaking (and from here on out, I'm just going to assume it is), then he's not fat. That's 260 pounds of mostly muscle. He's in pretty good shape, or looks it, and that means he could easily mess me up if he wanted to. In the same vein, unless I'm in a swimsuit, it's not generally obvious how skinny I really am. Usually people think I'm more around 180#, and if I were, at my height, I would also have an advantage in a physical altercation, especially since I have a longer reach than just about anybody around me. So while I don't think it's exactly fair that people get a teensy bit nervous when they have to share a small enclosed room with me, I can't honestly fault them or blame them. For all I know, some other person has already taken advantage of those attributes and has harmed my elevator-companion in some way. In the same way, I will retain, guilt-free, my right to pull away if you're wearing a sidearm on your hip.

Most of the time, when I get in an elevator, I move to the back wall, lean against it, and slide my feet forward a bit. This moves my head down an inch or two, and is a difficult pose to get out of quickly. Both of these things signal a decreased threat level to my fellow passengers. Sure, it would be nice if I didn't feel like my fellow humans (especially the female ones) thought of me as a potential predator all the time, but some of my fellow humans have to deal with feeling like prey, and that's even worse, so mostly I just pretend not to notice, and do my best to not give people any reason to reinforce the stereotype.

Yet another thing I respect about "Black Violin - Stereotype" is that the violinist doesn't make any judgements. He just describes his experience. It's left to the listener to decide what, if anything, should be done about this. It's not a simple thing, prejudice. What crowds and media and protestors and agitators would like to paint as a black and white issue is actually beige and cocoa and brown and tan and taupe and a million other shades of brown.

I hope you don't mistake awareness of nuance for naïvete. It is easier for me to say "it's complicated" than many of my fellow Americans, because the society I'm a part of, like almost all societies, has asymmetric privileges based on a variety of superficial criteria, and I'm on the (+) side of most of them. What's worse, many people, especially those benefiting from such asymmetry, use "it's complicated" as an excuse to fail to attempt to change the status quo. If "it's complicated" means "let's just talk about it but not do anything," then I'll support those who are doing. What concerns me is that challenging prejudice with absolute statements often triggers resentment and resistance that is quite reasonable and justified. This makes reducing prejudice more difficult than necessary.

Well, so it seems to me. If you, dear reader, feel I am ignoring or overlooking something, I would encourage you to say so. I am invested in providing space for reasoned conversation and respectful disagreement.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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September 1st, 2015

03:38 pm - Was That What I Think It Was?
WorldCon (a truly historic one in quite a few ways!) wrapped up about a week ago. Monday morning after the con, Margaret, Hank, and I checked out of the hotel and prepared to go our separate ways. But first, we wanted to take a couple of spins on the Riverfront Park Carousel, so we did.

After we had our fun failing to seize the brass ring (quite literally), we were strolling away from the ride. I was wearing a day-glo orange shirt. As most of you know, I love color. Bright, saturated hues (Exhibit 1: PennyGems) delight me. Fluorescent colors are one of the rare real-world situations where "more than 100%" isn't tired hyperbole, since they shift UV-frequency energy downward into the visible spectrum, resulting in colors that reflect more than 100% of the (visible) light hitting them.

Because it's the brightest fluorescent color, yellow's my favorite, and I do have a couple of day-glo yellow shirts, but nobody really looks good in day-glo yellow. The orange isn't quite as bad; it doesn't make me look jaundiced like the yellow does. Still, I tend to wear it more because it's so dramatic, not because it's a staple for a flattering ensemble.

On the other hand, this particular shirt was an athletic shirt, made from a light, stretchy, flow-y synthetic material. For years, I bought most of my clothes (especially casual shirts) two to three sizes too large. Wearing clothes that are too big for you makes you look smaller. For most people, this is a terrible idea, but as tall (and thin! see previous essay) as I am, I can afford to lose a few inches of perceived height. However, lately I've been going for a more fitted look. This particular shirt isn't "skin-tight" as such, but it does lay pretty close to my torso. I'm still getting used to the idea that this might actually be a good thing, but "tall," "wide shoulders," and "narrow waist" (up to a point) are characteristics that many people find attractive, so I've started dressing toward that end.

What does this have to do with last Monday? As the three of us were approaching the crosswalk, I had a brief conversation with a woman going the other way, as follows:

Her: "You look good in that shirt."
Me (startled): "Thank you."
Her, as she passed: "It shows off your figure."
Me, stunned: ""

What? Say what?? Excuse me? I could only give stunned glances to Hank and Margaret, checking to see if they'd heard what I had. I don't remember Hank's comment, but Margaret said "I think you were just sexually harassed!"

"Yea, I think I was! And you know what? It was awesome!"

I assumed she was a left-over skiffy fan from the convention, because I couldn't imagine a female mundane ever saying something like that to some random guy. Margaret thought she might have been high. But whoever she was, she triggered a conversation that the three of us would have needed at least two or three more hours to finish, alas.

Go ahead, mull over the ramifications here. I mean, women receive comments like that (from both men and women) as a matter of course. I told this story to my mother, and she was, well, "shocked" is perhaps a bit too strong, but "startled" isn't quite strong enough. She clearly found the comment extraordinary, as did we all.

One facet is that men learn to try to detect painfully subtle signs of interest on the part of women in order to know whether or not to "make a move." Ladies, you might think you're being obvious. You're not. There's quite a bit of fascinating research about this, but trust me, you're not.

That's not what I think is the most important piece, though. I apologize in advance, because although Margaret and Hank both enthusiastically encouraged me to write about what I was discussing with them, this is not that essay. It's just a teaser.

The important part was my reaction. ""Yea, I think I was [harassed]! And you know what? It was awesome!" Of all the social injustices of which I'm aware, the power imbalance across gender lines is the one that makes me the most angry. When a very close (female) friend of mine was telling me about her experiences with harassment, and distinguished the overt actions of a particular incident from the "general background harassment," I was almost incoherent with rage. General background harassment? A bunch of it gets swept aside because it's just not obvious enough to be worth even acknowledging, as judged by the person receiving it?

I have given this topic a lot of thought, and I am (as my LiveJournal essays hopefully illustrate) very good at thinking. I'm a brilliant trouble-shooter and problem-solver, and I am extremely good at putting myself in other people's shoes. It's one of the reasons this issue pisses me off so much; I'm a hell of a lot better than most men at imagining what it's like for a woman.

More broadly, I'm a hell of a lot better than most people at imagining what it's like to be somebody other than myself. And because I've thought about this issue so much, I've got some ideas that I think could really help.

Am I going to tell you about them? Nope. I've tried to talk about this before. I'm not an idiot, and I know far better than most people can imagine how dangerous new ideas are. I've spent my life cooking up new ideas, and having them attacked, ridiculed, ignored, or (occasionally) stolen. I have years of personal experience with what I have to do to slide an idea out onto the table, gently, non-threateningly, so people don't freak out and reject it before even considering it. It took me months to lay the groundwork for combining Foolscap and Potlatch, for example, and that idea wasn't one-fifth as emotionally charged as harassment.

I've already lost a friend over this issue. I don't even know if she's aware of the fact we haven't spoken in years, or why we haven't, but I do.

You see, if I don't spout the party line, if I don't stick to the script, it's almost impossible to not get slapped down hard because "obviously" I'm Just Another Clueless Male. There are, sadly, so many Clueless Males that even though the assumption that anybody who doesn't buy in to the rhetoric about Privilege is simply clueless is pure prejudice, it's so often true that it's easy to miss that fact.

Now, one unearned privilege that I do have is the luxury of doing nothing. I could just say "Screw this. Unlike some people, I don't have to care about this. If nobody wants my help except on their terms, I've got other things I can do with my time."

Arrogant? No, I don't think so. I don't have a pocket full of answers that I'm just waiting to bestow on grateful supplicants. I have a bunch of insights, and ideas for using them; ideas that need to be workshopped. Remember, I've been launching ideas at people my entire life. I know that I've missed some things. I know that many of them are actually proto-failures; they won't get the job done because I'm missing some information. But my track record is pretty damn good. One of them probably kept Wizards of the Coast from going bankrupt before releasing Magic. Another one became Foolscap. Hypatia may yet change the world and make me millions of dollars along the way; Vonda McIntyre certainly wants me to keep trying with that one.

I don't think any of my thoughts about sexual harassment are quite that world-shaking, unfortunately. But I do think they could help people change things for the better, if only I could get people to look at them. But the same words that I need to use to talk about them have already been used by assholes to obfuscate hate and sugar-coat bias, prejudice, and selfishness. Pretty much every possible English word I can use has been misused, and is now a trigger word for somebody. On the rare occasions when I've tried to release some of these ideas, I've done it one-on-one, where I can listen carefully and watch closely the person with whom I'm speaking, so I can instantly tell if I've said some thing to piss them off, apologize, backtrack, and restructure the point in order to make sure they hear what I was trying to say, and not hear what somebody else was saying when they used those words.

It takes just about every last bit of my communication talents to make it through one of those conversations without setting off land mines. Essays are orders of magnitude harder. (1) I can't watch you when you read it; I have to anticipate what might be misinterpreted, and pro-actively correct it, and (2) I have to do that, in writing, for many different people, with different hot-buttons, simultaneously.

In the current online environment, I just don't think I'm good enough to pull that off. Sorry.

On the other hand, I'm also not (yet) giving up on these issues. So I'm going to point out a few things, and let you mull them over. These are some of the facts and observations that have influenced my thinking; see what you make of them.

(1) I think many of us have known people who seemed almost pathologically dependent on outside approval. A guy who'd do almost anything in order to be part of some clique or posse; a gal who would date the skankiest guys because nobody was worse than not having a boyfriend at all. Let me assure you I am not one of those people. I've been extremely trend-resistant and independent my entire life. And yet, a stranger tells me that my shirt "shows off my figure," and my reaction is "awesome!" If you already think you understand my reaction, I can almost guarantee you that you've missed something big, because there are some very complex issues tied up in it.

(2) If runway models were selected to appeal to "men," they would be the same women who are featured in Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue. They're not.

(3) It is extremely important to remain aware that sexual harassment is NOT the same thing as sexual assault. It's not even all that clear to what degree they're related, but I think the answer is "probably less than you think." Is that important? I'm not sure. But what I do think is very important is the CDC's study about sexual assault. Here's the primary source: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6308a1.htm Here's the Time article that first drew my attention: http://time.com/3393442/cdc-rape-numbers/ In a nutshell, previous rape surveys have used language like "attacked," and "forced." The CDC focused on "unwanted sexual acts," and one consequence was that the number of men reporting being victimized skyrocketed. In fact, 'when asked about experiences in the last 12 months, men reported being “made to penetrate”—either by physical force or due to intoxication—at virtually the same rates as women reported rape (both 1.1 percent in 2010, and 1.7 and 1.6 respectively in 2011). In other words, if being made to penetrate someone was counted as rape—and why shouldn’t it be?—then the headlines could have focused on a truly sensational CDC finding: that women rape men as often as men rape women.' [from the Time article]

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August 13th, 2015

02:32 pm - It's Not Easy Being Lean
Somebody on Quora asked "What's it like to be skinny?" Many answers were provided. Here's mine.

It's pretty clear that what it feels like to be skinny is hugely affected by two things.

(a) Are you male or female? and
(b) Are you short or tall?

A good way to get a general feeling for how skinny somebody will *look* is to figure out their BMI. Y'see, if you add a couple inches of height, you need to also add some width *and* some depth just to look the same as somebody shorter. BMI doesn't quite do that, but it's better than just trying to figure it out based on somebody who you know who's skinny, and then trying to figure out what they'd look like if they were shorter/taller and lighter/heavier.

My BMI is 17.2. This means I'm officially "too skinny." However, I didn't get nearly the crap about being skinny growing up that many men and women did, because I'm tall. 193cm/6'4". I mostly got comments about my height instead of my weight.

I think it's much worse to be on either end of the bell curve (skinny/fat) when you're a teen-ager. I talked my parents into a waiver from gym class for the last four years of school mostly because I was so sick and tired of feeling scrawny and weird, of being bad at sports, at picking up nicknames like "beanpole" and "chicken legs" (that last one came from a gym *teacher*). I didn't go swimming much, and when I did, I wore a shirt, for all the good that might have done: a wet t-shirt wrapped around a skinny torso doesn't hide much.

As an adult, things are a lot better.

(1) I tell friends "whether i'm in good shape or bad shape, it's the same shape." I'm defined by my bones. As a result, clothes I bought in high school still fit me 30 years later. I'm the same weight, and same shape, that I've been all my life.

(2) I can't wear gloves when I go skiing. Even the fanciest gloves don't keep enough heat in, and after an hour, my fingers are so cold that the pain is intense. I have to really shop to find good quality mittens for extra-extra-large hands.

(3) In bed, I have to be very careful where I put my feet, because if they touch somebody else, there's gonna be a scream. They're usually "ice-cold," as I've been told many times.

(4) I basically can't sit down anywhere for more than maybe 15 minutes. There's so little padding on my rear end that there's about a quarter-sized area where my ass muscles are pressed on by my pelvic bone. So I sit cross-legged a lot (like I am right now, on top of my office chair), or shift around, or lean way back, or do whatever it takes to keep moving which part of me is trying to support my weight. I eat most meals in my bed, pillow against the wall.

(5) Between lack of built-in padding and lack of insulation, most outdoor events are unbearable. Aluminum bleachers and metal folding chairs cause excruciating pain after about 10 minutes, between the metal sucking all the heat from my body, and sitting on that hard surface.

(6) This also applies to sleeping. There isn't a bed in the world (at least that I've found) that's soft enough for me to sleep on my side. All my weight is on one shoulder and my hip. My knees ache if one rests on the other. If I lay on my back, my weight's on my shoulder blades and my pelvis again. The only position I've ever been able to fall asleep in is somewhat corkscrewed.

(7) I can't really wear rings. Skinny hands means my knuckles are by far the biggest part of my fingers, so rings either won't fit over them, or they spin freely on my finger. Thus, any ring with more weight on one side (class ring with a big stone, or the like) will spin around until the big part is facing down. Even a simple band isn't very good, because the gap between the ring and my finger means it tends to catch on things now and then.

(8) I only have one pair of jeans that fit, and they were custom-made to my measurements by Levi's before they discontinued the "Original Spin" program. Of all the companies that make casual pants (jeans, twill, corduroy, et cetera), only Wrangler, Cinch, and Lucky even *make* jeans with a waist and inseam close enough to not look hilarious on me. The custom-made Levi's have a 27" waist and a 40" inseam. My inseam is actually 37", but the extra length means I can roll a cuff, and a cuff makes my legs look shorter. I have to get 29" Wrangler's, though, because men aren't supposed to have really wide hips. Since I'm shaped by my bones, my waist (below the rib cage and above the pelvis) is way smaller than my hips.

(9) On the other hand, when I dress up, I look fabulous. I have some suits and an overcoat that were all custom-made for me, and I look amazing in them. The thicker fabric hides my ribs, my collarbone, my shoulder blades, and my all-but-nonexistant ass, but emphasizes my wide shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs. My clothes are selected and engineered to make me look wider and heavier than I really am, which moves me from "scrawny" to "slim." Combined with "tall," it's a very admired appearance.

(10) Having a highly atypical body means if somebody needs somebody like that, they need me. I've been asked to model for friends who are professional painters, appearing as a magician (3 times), a zombie, a corpse, and a supervillain. Okay, being asked to model because I'm good photoreference for a corpse isn't exactly *flattering,* but it's fun, and it's my "zombie" body that also let me be a supervillain. (In that particular instance, I was eventually thrown in an incinerator by Neal Patrick Harris, so hey!)

(11) I probably spend less time worrying about health issues than many people, because many illnesses are exacerbated by being overweight. I'm not very likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, or have a stroke.

(12) It's really hard to swim. Unless I take a nice deep breath, I will sink. Sometimes for fun I'll just sit on the bottom of a swimming pool and freak out the lifeguard.

(13) I can move through crowds very easily. My height means I can see where I'm going, and turning sideways lets me slip between people. This has also occasionally been good for working in crawl spaces and under cars, and getting through fences.

(14) I'm not athletic. Having gigantic hands means I can still usually get the lid off a jar (guys are always being asked to do that), but if you look closely at the upcoming Winter Olympics, you'll discover that almost none of the athletes are tall. (Ski jump and speedskating are the only ones.) "Tall" means muscles have terrible leverage to start with (try lifting a broom by holding it right at the end. That's what it's like to lift a weight with a long arm). Adding "skinny" to that means I don't have all that much muscle in the first place on top of the poor leverage.

(15) When medical staff needs to get a blood sample, they have noooooo problem finding my veins. Ya can't miss 'em.

There's probably lots more I can't think of right now, but that seems like enough.

I feel a disclaimer is in order, though. Actually, it is easy being lean, all things considered. I just couldn't resist the pun.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
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July 25th, 2015

01:13 pm - Ask Not For Whom The (Bronze) Bell Tolls...
   I’ve enjoyed playing/reading text adventures for many years, as my re-creation of the “Double Fanucci” deck from Infocom’s Zork series clearly attests. For a while I was attending meetings of the Seattle Interactive Fiction group as well, and just a few weeks ago, while telling a friend about how it was possible, and in fact easy, to still play those old games using a truly remarkable selection of engines that can process and present works in this field, that I found and installed “Frotz” on my iPad.
   For those of you who haven’t had the experience, this particular form of computer game, a genre that currently is known as “interactive fiction”, usually goes something like this: when you start the game, you’re given some paragraphs that describe where you are, and probably some background info. Then you move around, typing commands like “go north” (usually abbreviated to simply “n”), “get accordion,” “inventory,” “squeeze duck,” “examine toenails,” and so forth.
   A huge amount of work has been done to make the underlying engine, the “parser”, understand English as much as possible, so that typing something like “put spanner in left wheel” or “read about nunchucks in manual on shelf” don’t utterly confuse the interpreter.
   This is all well and good, but returning to Interactive Fiction (IF) via Frotz just reminds me of the my ongoing disappointment with the genre.
   You see, the origins of the field were computer-mediated puzzles. Oh, yes, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and Leisure Suit Larry, to name but a few notable titles of the genre, did have storylines, but they were really a series of puzzles. The “reader’s” job was to solve the puzzles.
   Puzzles are fun, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever found a piece of IF that really lives up to the “fiction” part of the nomenclature. A novel (well, a well-written novel at least) does not come to a grinding halt because I couldn’t figure out where the ivory key was hidden.
   Years ago, I accidentally had an interactive novel experience. I acquired a bootleg copy of a game for my Amiga. I’d never heard of it before, I didn’t have the box, or instructions, or anything except the name of the game: “Millenium.”
   I popped it in my drive, and found myself on the moon in a mostly mothballed moonbase. Now what? Well, there were rooms with devices that didn’t work because there wasn’t enough power, and a backup generator, and, well, it seemed clear I needed to turn on the backup generator, since the power control room said we were running exclusively on solar panels.
   Why was I on the moon? Dunno. But there was almost always a fairly obvious “next thing that needed to be done” for me to do, and, bit by bit, the story revealed itself. Earth was uninhabitable. There had been other colonies in the system. If I could get communications back on line, I might be able to reach them. I was unexpectedly attacked; I had to get the defensive systems up and running before they came back and destroyed me. The research lab eventually came up with the means to terraform the Earth, and the story (and game) ended when the terraforming systems were installed and activated.
   As a game, I would have thought it was probably too easy and obvious. But (possibly because I didn’t have a box to spoil the story for me), the storyline, gradually unfolding in front of me, was a blast.
   The other big success for me in this genre was “Marathon.” This was a Doom-style first-person shooter for the Mac. Now, I am not a big fan of “twitch” games, where forward progress is made by mastering complex button presses and joystick wiggles with split-second timing. I would never have played Marathon for more than an hour or two if I hadn’t turned up a cheat code that rendered my avatar unkillable. Once that was done, I could enjoy exploring the alien-infested ship.
   At first, this still didn’t seem too promising. Every now and then there would be a computer terminal, and the ship’s AI would, with prompting, cough up little nuggets of info to help me along, presumably with the goal of eventually getting rid of the alien invaders, repairing the ship, and completing whatever mission the spacecraft had been on when it had been attacked. But then the computer’s information started to get a bit strange. The AI had what seemed like a pleasant, helpful personality, but bit by bit, it became clear that it had actually gone insane, and what it was really trying to do was (among other things) get me killed. Dang!
   A brief aside here. There might be some of you thinking “But you were invulnerable! That totally ruins the game!” You would be dead wrong. If I hadn’t found that cheat code, I would have deleted the game from my computer in complete frustration long before I even found out that there was a subtle and sophisticated storyline embedded in it. I still had to figure out where to go and what to do, and there were also a couple of places I got stuck because I didn’t have finely-honed video-game reflexes. One spot in particular required jumping off a platform and then jumping again at just the right split-second to get to a door high on a wall, or some such thing, and I had to do that over and over and over again before I finally got it. It was really annoying. However, I still spent quite a few hours playing that game, and had so much fun that I also played all the way through the sequel.
   There’s also an important lesson for game designers here. I’ve spoken with some designers (and plenty of players) who would probably say “But that’s not how you’re supposed to play it! Why did they leave those cheat codes in? ‘Cause, well, that’s cheating!” If you’re one of those people, here’s a word of advice: get over it. You’re being an egotistical fool. This is a single-player puzzle-style game, not a multiplayer head-to-head challenge. If a user has more fun playing your game with impervious armor, or with an unlimited money supply, or with a magic key to open all the normally locked doors, then they’re having more fun! So let them have fun! Include an “undo,” or a save/restore system, or hints, or other optional ways to make your game easier, and let the end user decide how much assistance they want in order to have the most fun playing your game. If you’re worried about bragging rights, or you’re doing some kind of global leaderboard where people get to post scores or completion times, then you can alter scores to reflect what assists were or were not used, or have separate leaderboards for people who get through a game without using the undo or restore feature, or whatever. But limiting your audience because you think players shouldn’t play your game the “wrong” way is just dumb.
   One even briefer historical note: the company that published Marathon was working on a follow up product for the Macintosh that promised to be amazing; an epic first-person shooter that would blow people away. In fact, it almost certainly would have. There’s every reason to believe that if it had come out for the Mac, it would have made hordes of PC/Windows gamers wet themselves in envy. But, as it happens, Microsoft was getting ready to enter the console game market to go toe-to-toe with Sony and Nintendo, and they wanted a killer app. So they made the publisher of Marathon an offer they didn’t refuse, and the rest is history. The publisher was Bungie, and the game that was originally slated for the Mac, and instead came out for XBox, was "Halo."
   But enough of history, Halo, and games that demand massive video cards, and back to Frotz on my iPad, and the humble text adventure. Frotz, as it happens, comes with a couple dozen works of interactive fiction pre-installed, a very intelligent decision on somebody’s part. I thought it would be fun to pick out a title and play it, even though playing on my iPad meant I’d be entering text using just a picture of a keyboard, rather than an actual keyboard, never mind a good keyboard. But that’s a rant for another day.
   I settled on a work entitled “Bronze.” Each work has a little blurb to give you some idea what it’s like, sort of like the back cover text of a paperback. Bronze had what appears to be part of somebody’s review of the game, and it said, in part: “This game is intended for those of us new to interactive fiction. Puzzles have multiple solutions...no time limits...the difficulty is on the easier side...[and] commands new to the form, such as GO TO, remove a lot of the tedium of the old-school games. I recommend Bronze to [people who] would have little patience with the intentionally frustrating and pedantic I-Fs of old.”
   Now, I am not “new to interactive fiction,” but I don’t have much patience for “intentionally frustrating” anything, and as for pedantic, well, please refer back to my previous comments about egotistical fools. So this sounded like an excellent place to dive in.
   I regret to say that I think the reviewer is almost certainly correct in his description of the game. The writing is solid, it is probably much easier than many modern titles, and some of the special commands did indeed remove what traditionally were very tedious aspects of the genre.
   One minor remaining problem was that I did still eventually have to build a map. Yes, mapping the terrain can be fun, but in this case I was playing on my iPad. If I were playing on a computer, I could easily have the text adventure in one window, and OmniGraffle in the other, and could jump back and forth building the map as needed. In the 80s, I usually used graph paper, but that meant having to redraw maps more than once when I found that I’d started in the wrong spot, and the map was now going off the edge of the page. Mapping on my iPad, though, means having to pop out of Frotz and into a draw program, then back to Frotz, then back to the draw program. I don’t have a structured drawing app for my iPad (a la OmniGraffle or Vizio), so playing/reading Bronze when I’m away from home would mean playing without a map. Instead, I kept my laptop handy, and built my map on that while playing.
   For, oh, about the first two-thirds of the game, everything was going pretty well. The back story was slowly unfolding about me as I wandered around the castle. Many things that seemed mysterious and intriguing at first were slotted into context bit by bit. The text artfully included little nudges to prod me to keep moving so that I didn’t get stuck trying to deal with, say, the jigsaw puzzle with one missing piece, until I’d finished exploring the castle, since solutions to puzzles were often a matter of just finding the missing piece (sometimes quite literally).
   But eventually I got stuck. There’s different kinds of stuck in these games. Usually, it’s a “I need to get through that door/open this box/do some specific thing. I just have to find the means to accomplish that.” But this was a Grade 2 stuck: “Now what? Okay, the end goal is, er, to make the beast feel better? But how is that done? What am I looking for?”
   There was an unusually well-done hinting system, where I could “think about” various objects, which sometimes would provide useful insights and information. But I was soon getting very tired of pecking out “think about XXXX” on my iPad as I cast about more or less randomly trying to figure out what to do next.
   The real problem here is that this is where suspension of disbelief fails. I had been reading a story. I was immersed in the tale, seeing this castle in my mind’s eye, admiring the portraits, smelling the roses, and seeing dust motes dancing in the sunlight that fell on the mechanical chessplayer. The Grade 2 stuck brought me to a screeching halt. Now I was forced into puzzle analysis, and the world I’d been enjoying was merely data.
   Eventually I had to resort to a walkthrough: a transcript of commands to solve the story. Talk about a buzzkill! Reading through the walkthrough eventually got me to some commands that I hadn’t tried. Long commands. Movement commands abbreviate to single letters. About 98% of the remainder will be two-word commands, usually “[verb] [noun]” style. The ones that I need to progress were seven word commands. Worse, they were along the lines of “look up [object or character] in the [adjective] [noun]” There were two different books, plus records, and notes. There were many items that needed to be read about in each, and many items needed to be researched in more than one of them.
   In effect, what I hadn’t done was to make a list of everything that might bear on the current situation, and looked them up in my reference texts one after the other until I’d extracted the information I needed. Basically the sit-and-read equivalent of bumbling about a dungeon pulling on every wall sconce you find hoping you’ll stumble across a secret passage. Gaaaah!
   So I typed in five or six of those seven word commands, learned important facts, and then headed off to do some things that now seemed fairly straightforward. Sadly, I had to do that a couple of times, so I never did get back into the story before I reached the end.
   And did I “win?” Well, no, not exactly. In order to not completely spoil the remaining fun, I wasn’t reading the walkthrough and following it step by step. I was skimming it for hints, which I’d then try to use on my own. As a result, when I’d put the P in the Q, picked up the Z, and then X’ed the Y, the game told me “Congratulations. You [accomplished this thing], but you didn’t also [accomplish this other thing].” Other thing? I hadn’t been aware that I was supposed to accomplish the other thing.
   I wish that I could say that Bronze just isn’t a particularly good piece of I-F. Unfortunately, I doubt that’s the case. It’s probably still one of the best introductory titles available, even though it was published in 2006. Certainly the comments on IFDB would support that.
   No, I’m afraid that Bronze is what it is, or more tellingly, isn’t what I wish it was, for two reasons. One of them is that the I-F community still tends to think of these things as games, not stories, which puts a very heavy focus on the puzzles. There are authors and player/readers in the community who are more story-driven, but I think they’re still a minority.
   The other main problem is much bigger. Writing non-linear fiction is really freakin’ hard.
   You see, I-F isn’t the only time this kind of writing has appeared. Other vectors into this genre, coming from other starting points, have been tried. When HyperCard came out, there was a flurry of attempts to write hypertext stories and novels. The invention of and growth of the World Wide Web was another chance to create works that liked in multiple directions. I have a work written by Kathryn Cramer and published by Eastgate in my library, as well as a hypertext-enhanced edition of “A Fire Upon the Deep” by Vernor Vinge that was published by Brad Templeton in 1993. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” books are another avenue into non-linear fiction.
   For a would-be writer, a good course or workshop on writing can be very dismaying. The importance of opening lines, avoiding the expository lump, showing vs. telling, successful character development; there’s just an astonishing amount of stuff that goes into making a story good. Some people are lucky enough to intuitively grasp enough that they can become successful authors by just sitting down and writing, but most authors have to write a lot of junk before they finally produce something good, let alone great.
   When attempting this non-linearly, many of the standard tools for the writer are lost. You can’t control pacing as well, you don’t even necessarily know which part of the story a reader will get to first, you can’t take for granted what a reader is aware of as the story progresses, and so forth. Many authors will end up with more pages of notes than pages of manuscript, and that’s for a single path through the work!
   Hard, yes, but not impossible. Millenium and Marathon were to some degree unintentional examples of interactive fiction, but I would be absolutely delighted to have another experience like those again.
   Currently, the term “interactive fiction” is almost synonymous with “text adventure,” which I think is really unfortunate, because I think it really limits many people’s thoughts on what can be done along these lines. What I think can be fairly convincingly described as the best piece of interactive fiction ever published has barely any text in it at all! I am referring, of course, to a title that was to non-linear storytelling what the iPod was to MP3 players: Myst.
   It was still fundamentally a great big pile of puzzles, many of them extremely difficult, but (in stark contrast to “7th Guest” released about the same time), the puzzles were made to work for and advance the plot. Even when you were absolutely baffled as to how you were supposed to get some blankety-blank door open, you were still there, in the world.
   Myst, like Bronze and many other works of interactive fiction, had more than one possible ending. I’m not arguing for works that don’t have puzzles in some form, because one potential pitfall of I-F is when the interactive element is pointless. If everything is going to happen whether I act or not, then why isn’t this story just a normal linear story that can be printed on paper? Most I-F puzzles are such that if you don’t solve the puzzle, the story stops dead. Some of them will branch one way if you solve it (sometimes before some kind of time limit) and branch another if you don’t. The latter approach complicates the writing, but helps a lot in keeping the reader immersed.
   Perhaps one of these days a well-known successful linear author will take on the challenge of writing a non-linear work. Or some unknown but talented author will publish a non-linear story that breaks out of the genre and is recognized as A Work of Literature. The ubiquity of devices that can present non-linear fiction is a critical advantage, of course. We might eventually see courses and workshops that cover how to manage branching stories, book clubs that get together to discuss non-linear works, and scholarly journals that deconstruct the latest works.
   Some day, perhaps. First, we just need more titles that are, first and foremost, a really good read rather than a really good game. I can hardly wait.
Current Mood: disappointeddisappointed

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September 23rd, 2014

10:36 pm - Why Hugo Base Design Contests Are a Bad Idea
Wait, what?

"But Dave, didn't you enter a Hugo Base design contest?"

Yes, I did, and I am all too aware of how the success of that entry has badly undercut my case. Nevertheless, I believe the headline is quite true.

You see, while I was still in college, my home town city council has a couple of design constest for banners to decorate the downtown district. Since I was studying graphic design at the time, I decided to enter. When I lost the first one, I thought "Oh, well, I guess that's just how it goes." But when I lost the second one, it became obvious that the problem was not with my designs, but with the fact there were factors being used to choose the winner that weren't included in the contest specs. Things like "we really like bright colors," and "even though we said you could use up to the three silkscreened colors on the fabric, we're actually very miserly, so designs with just one color have a real edge."

At that point, I'd already had enough of giving away my skilled, trained labor for free, and decided I would not be entering any more design contests.

I stuck to that, too, until 2008. Because it's the Hugo, which has enormous personal significance. I first got to attend the awards ceremony in 1993, and sitting in that crowd and watching winners picking up their trophies was absolutely thrilling. Even though I was at WorldCon in a professional capacity, it was obvious to me (or so it seemed) that my career path did not lead toward ever being eligible to receive one for my own. "What award," I asked myself, "would be even more thrilling to receive than a Hugo?" It happens to be a very very short list. Nobel Prize, MacArthur Grant, Kennedy Center Award. That's it. An Oscar, Emmy, Clio, Tony, Pulitzer? Not as amazing as a Hugo, not to me.

This hopefully gives you some idea of just how big a deal it had to be to make me break my rule about entering design contests.

But now, you see, I have a Hugo; the one I made. I am, of course, hugely biased as to where it would fall on a scale of "best to worst base designs ever," but there's an awful lot of fairly good evidence that it's somewhere in the top 25% at least. All of which means that I really doubt I'll ever enter another Hugo base design contest. Ever.

Unfortunately, perhaps in part because of the results Montreal (and probably Scotland) got from their contests, having base design contests has become more common. This is a Bad Thing.

"No, no, it's a good thing! We will get to choose from among multiple options, so we can get the best base!" No, you'll get to choose from among a very limited number of options, most of which will be unusuable, and the remainder of which will probably be merely okay. Because what you're going to get from a contest is entries from amateurs. Really good designers don't have to give away their time for free to get work. They're not going to give you designs.

Fortunately, you don't have to just take my word for it. AIGA is the leading guild for graphic artists in the U. S., and they have a handy form letter for their members (or anybody else) to use to help educate people about asking designers to work for free. It's called "spec work", defined as "work done prior to engagement with a client in anticipation of being paid," and here's some of what that letter says: "AIGA, the nation’s largest and oldest professional association for design, strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project, [because] successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer [whereas] design competitions ... result in a superficial assessment of the project. [Also,] requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process."

They do suggest an alternative approach. "A more effective and ethical approach to requesting speculative work is to ask designers to submit examples of their work from previous assignments as well as a statement of how they would approach your project. You can then judge the quality of the designer’s previous work and his or her way of thinking about your business."

As it happens, AIGA has an unusually mellow take on spec work. The Graphic Artists Guild says "Artists and designers who accept speculative assignments (whether directly from a client or by entering a contest or competition) risk losing anticipated fees, expenses, and the potential opportunity to pursue other, rewarding assignments."

The Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario goes so far as to "prohibit its members from engaging in speculative (spec) work" and goes on to state that "Spec work is universally condemned as an unethical business practice by responsible designers and design organizations around the world."

The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada says "The practice of asking for free design concepts in order to choose the 'right designer' or the 'best design' or the 'best logo' undermines and devalues the professional designer's education, experience, hard work and the entire design industry. GDC members do not engage in contests or other speculative, commercial projects."

There's even a domain dedicated to explaining the problems with spec work: http://www.nospec.com

So the problems with this contest so far are (a) the judges won't even get to see work from the most talented designers, and (b) the designs they do see are the designer's "best guess", rather than something custom-tailored based on interacting with the client. The design firm "artwurks unlimited" neatly summarizes the third big downside: "Speculative requests are often a result of 'I’ll know it when I see it,' thinking on the part of the client. The problem here is that it’s self-centered point-of-view rather than a position serving the needs and wants of the audience."

Not long after Montreal's base design contest, the WSFS Mark Protection committee (I think?) held a design contest for a logo, so that there would finally be some kind of symbol that could go on Hugo-winning book's covers and the like. It's an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the winning logo is not. As a graphic designer, my personal specific field of interest has always been logos and logotypes. Designing the Hugo base was a stretch for me. Designing logos is not.

Had I been hired by the Mark Committee, I know that part of my job would have been educating the judges in what makes a good logo. It's obvious to me why they picked the design that won: it does a very good job of replicating the appearance of the trophy, and the judges clearly thought that was important. Sadly, they were wrong. Most book buyers have never, and will never, see a real Hugo award. Making the logo look just like the trophy is not very important. Making the logo robust (recognizable under a variety of conditions and sizes), unique (not confused with anybody else's logo), eye-catching, and thematically appropriate (it does need to be Hugo-esque), are much more important.

Part of the irony of being so obsessed with duplicating the rocket is that logos are strongest when they're silhouettes: a single solid color, or black; but the silhouette of the Hugo doesn't look like a rocket! That's why the winning logo has to be two-tone black and gray. If you make it all black, the result is just sorta a lumpy vertical line that really doesn't have any "zoom" or "swoosh" to it at all. It would look a lot more like the Hugo if it looked less like a Hugo. It would look even more like a Hugo if it were foil-stamped in silver on a book cover. Alas, because it's two-tone, that's not going to happen. You can't half-stamp foil.

By now, you might be thinking that I'm about to say that no future Hugo awards committee should ever hold a contest again. Actually, no, I'm not. There is one very important consideration that tips me away from being that draconian, and that's budget. Science fiction fandom has never been a big-budget operation, and there's no way an awards committee could
afford a professional at normal union rates.

One of the requirement in Montreal's contest guidelines was that each base should cost no more than $150. My proposal included as part of the price, a modest but reasonable budget for my time, as well as the materials. I found out later that many of the previous bases had not paid the fabricator or artist for their time at all, although it was generally agreed that despite the fact that those people had been quite willing to do that, it was better if there was at least some acknowledgement of the value of skilled labor. For my part, I had put a fair amount of thought into how to keep the materials cost low, and the fabrication time short, in order to free up more of the budget for my own compensation. The Montreal adminstrators, in turn, told me point blank that they were entirely satisfied with the value I'd set on my time.

And yet! In order to make those bases, I ended up working fairly closely with Quiring Monuments, the largest grave marker maker in the Pacific Northwest. They were my source for the granite, and then they were sandblasting the partially completed bases. Naturally, when it was all over, I took my personal display Hugo over there to show them so they could see what it was they'd helped me make. I'd mostly worked with a woman in the front office, but when I was showing off the trophy, an older gentleman from a fancier office came out to see it, and he asked me what I'd been paid to do the work. When I told him $150, he was actually outraged. I was told that I should have received at least $800 for that kind of work.

Maybe so, but I don't think we're going to be handing out $800 trophies any time soon. Ergo, if a Hugo committee wants a great base for their awards, they have to find a competent professional who cares enough about the Hugos to cut them a really sweet deal. If they can't find anybody willing to do it who they believe can do it, that's when it's time to hold a design contest. It's better to pick from amateur designs handicapped by a contest communication blackout, than to have nothing at all.

But that means that a contest should be the last resort, used only if the committee can't find anybody better. Montreal couldn't come up with somebody, or so they told me. I heard the same thing from somebody on the Sasquan committee, but in their case, it just means they didn't bother looking. I can think of two or three intraregional fans who have skills and talents well suited for making a beautiful trophy base, entirely aside from myself, and I can think of at least a dozen more who might. Since I nearly won a Hugo (in 2010) for my 2009 Hugo Base design, and roughly two-thirds of the current committee knows me personally, to have one of them claim that they would have liked to have just appointed somebody except that they couldn't think of anybody to ask is just silly.

"Well, um, Dave? Here you are, kinda shouting and ranting and acting all scornful and stuff. Maybe it's because they know you that they didn't ask." Yup, that's a possibility. I am definitely not a 'people person,' and although I'm not aware of being actively disliked by any of the people on the committee (well, at least not until now), it's quite possible I am. Nevertheless, whether I could have been in the running to design this year's base or not does not change the fact that holding a contest is a bad idea. Nor should you mistake this blog entry as some kind of attempt to get the current committee to change its mind about having a contest and instead ask me to do it. I am no longer interested.
Current Mood: sadsad

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September 11th, 2014

02:09 pm - For the Record: The Endpoint of the Electric Car
In the long run, the ideal powerplant for a primary-use car (one that can be used for short and long trips) will be an electric car with a turbine range extender.

I think I first made this prediction three or so years ago, after the Leaf had been announced but before it was available. You see, the current crop of "plug-in hybrids" are still doing it wrong: they're connecting the fuel engine to the wheels. This is just dumb. One of the biggest if not THE biggest weakness of the internal-combustion (IC) car is the drive train. You need this elaborate and complicated transmission to turn the limited speed range of the engine into the far greater range required for propelling a car around. Since IC engines can't start themselves, an IC-only car has to keep the engine running when the car is stopped, so not only do you have to change gears (the transmission), you also have to be able to disconnect the engine entirely (the clutch or torque converter). The engine itself has to operate at a wide range of speeds, which inevitably means compromising overall efficiency to gain flexibility, and requires yet more mechanical moving parts (throttle body, variable output fuel injectors, and so forth).

The *last* thing we should be doing is making cars *more* complicated. Oh, goody, even more bits that can break down. Hybrid cars, like CFL lights, are lousy ideas from an engineering standpoint. They're both transition products, distinctly inferior to their coming replacements, but necessary (or at least economically desireable) because they can take partial advantage of new technologies until the infrastructure exists to make them unnecessary. If LEDs hadn't shown up so quickly, twisty-tube CFLs would eventually have been replaced by smaller versions of the traditional fluorescent fixture, with straight-line pin-mount tubes, because buying a new ballast everytime you buy a new bulb is stupid, and putting the ballast in the same space as the bulb means the heat from the bulb cooks the ballast and causes it to fail prematurely. What we really need to do is not prohibit the sale of incandescent bulbs, but prohibit the sale of any more light fixtures with Edison sockets. We've got vastly superior alternatives to the industrial-age light socket these days, and one of the worst things you can do to either fluorescent or LED lighting is to try to cram it into sphere-based 'lightbulb' form factor. But I digress.

An IC engine typically has more than 100 moving parts, which have to work in an environment with major temperature swings, serious pressure differentials, and an astonishing amount of high-speed metal-on-metal contact. An electric motor, by contrast, has one moving part, no significant pressure differentials, and generally will (and would prefer to) operate at much lower temperatures. All of that translates to much, much greater overall reliability.

Do you take your current IC car in for an oil change every 3 months/3k miles, or do you follow the manufacturer's recommendations, which are usually 6 months and 5k or 7.5k miles? Either way, compare that with the Leaf's dealer-recommended service schedule: first service visit is at 6 months, mostly to inspect for possible factory-caused problems. The next is sometime after 24 months. Again: 1 service appointment in the first two years of ownership, and that appt. doesn't necessarily involve changing or replacing a thing.
I expect that we'll eventually see primary-electric-drive cars easily exceed 1,000,000 miles. The overwhelming majority of them will be scrapped because of impact damage, not internal component failure.

The only real (as opposed to perceived) problem that *I* see for electric cars is a range issue, but probably not the one you think. Charging stations are going to keep prolifering, and even if your destination doesn't have a fancy car-charging station, if you can't find a regular old wall socket to plug the car into, you weren't even trying. The problem isn't that there's no place to charge a car, the problem is the time it takes to 'refill the tank'. The I-5 corridor along the west coast is already *very* well stocked with charging stations, but that won't let you get from Seattle to L. A. in 16 hours, like you can in a gas-powered car.

By the way, the oft-cited 'issue' of needing to replace the electric car's battery pack is a perceived problem, not a real one. Nissan, who (based on the evidence so far) seems to be very good about providing resonable, accurate, real-world-use based statistics for the Leaf, says that they expect a 5-year-old Leaf's battery pack will have about 80% of is original charge capacity. In fact, Nissan's warranty is for 70% or 60,000 miles after 5 years, so they're guaranteeing you'll get at least that much, so some Leaf owners might well not need to replace the batteries until the car is 6-9 years old. The current price for a new battery pack is $5,500, which is already pretty reasonable, but it's likely to go lower as manufacturing volume drives down the cost of lithium-ion batteries.

That brings us to the reversed-priorities 'plug-in hybrid'. As with the traditional gasoline-powered car, connecting your fuel engine to the wheels means throwing a huge pile of heavy and unreliable junk into the car. Dumb. What we need is a 'fuel-assisted hybrid.' Good grief, of *course* it's a 'plug-in,' because why would you ever drive a car that didn't? But if you need to be able to go further than a single charge will take you, that's when you use up some fuel in order to fire up the onboard fuel-powered generator.

Connecting the gas motor to a generator, and ONLY to a generator, makes a gigantic difference in the parts count. The engine itself can be set to run at one constant speed, and optimized for maximum efficiency at that speed. It and the directly-attached generator can be located anywhere in the car that is most convenient, without any need to ensure any mechanical linkage to the wheels.

Once you've abandoned the idea of connecting the engine to the wheels (like the rusty junker of an idea that it is), you have a much wider range of engines to choose from, as well, and one of the potentially most efficient engines, as well as one with a potentially astronomical power-to-weight and power-to-volume ratio, is the gas turbine engine.

What we're talking about in this case is basically a cute little teensy-weensie jet engine. Like an eletric motor, it typically as one moving part, which is the spinning shaft with blades that runs down the middle. In theory, the advantages are small size, reliability, and efficiency. (I was terribly amused when I first learned that the M1A1 Abrams tank has a turbine engine. Not the sort of vehicle that you'd expect to be jet-powered. :) The downsides are noise and heat, but there's no reason to think those are insurmountable. Sure, the exhaust gases might melt asphalt if you're not careful, but that just means you need to be careful; maybe a heat exchanger where an IC car has its catalytic converter. Whatever.

There's a microturbine currently available that, with generator, is about 1.5 feet long and 6 inches in diameter, and generates 7.5kW. That's big enough to completely recharge the Leaf in about 3 hours, and at least some of those hours can be driving hours. 7.5kW isn't quite big enough to keep the Leaf moving continuously at freeway speeds, but if you turned it on at the beginning of your trip, it would have the effect of turning the existing 24kWh packs into 34kWh packs (assuming you spend 90 minutes driving 100 miles), and the effective range from 100 to 140 miles. With a higher-capacity turbine, you could run the car continuously, in effect using it as a gas-powered car, while still getting far better mpg than IC cars. The transmission & torque converter of an IC car is replaced by the generator, voltage controller, and electric motor of the electric car.

This is, by the way, exactly the system that trains have been using for decades now. The steam locomotive was replaced by the diesel locomotive, but diesels are actually diesel-electrics: the diesel motor drives a generator, and the wheels are turned by electric motors. They just don't carry a lot of batteries along or try to plug in every time they arrive at a station.

"Oh, you make it sound all super-spiffy, but if this is such a great idea, how come nobody's doing it?" Indeed. I think there are two reasons. First, as you might have noticed, auto manufacturers in general, like most really big companies, truly suck at getting radical new technologies out the door. They're so invested in the current system that they have enormous trouble committing to something new. I'm very impressed that a company as big as Honda managed to get the first hybrid into showrooms, although introducing a new car is such an incredibly capital-intensive process that there may have been previous attempts that I didn't even hear about. (Yes, Honda, not Toyota. Honda's Insight came out a year before the Prius, and significantly outperformed it as well. It was, and is, a superior hybrid. Unfortunately for Honda, it turned out that people would happily trade poorer performance for extra doors; the original Insight was a two-seater car, and the first Prius was a four-door sedan.)

GM, semi-famously, HAD what could have easily been the first successful mass-market electric car, but after distributing EV1s in Californial, had a corporate psychotic break and snatched them all back and crushed them. It took brash start-up Tesla to give the world some idea of just how good an all-electric car could be. In the same vein, it's going to be years before a major car manufacturer finally gets over the idea that you can't put a gas-powered engine in a car without connecting it to the wheels, and any company small enough to already have that clue in their closet probably doesn't have the capital to develop the car.

The other reason we don't have an electric car with fuel-assisted range extender is that, when it comes to turbine engines, bigger ones are *easier* to build. The smaller you make the turbine, the faster it has to spin in order to run well and the tighter the tolerances are for the various parts. A plane's jet engine might run around 10,000 rpm, but car-sized turbines have to spin in the neighborhood of 100,000 rpm.

Tricky engineering = expensive. If we were manufacturing as many microturbines as we do V-8s, I suspect they'd lost a lot less than the V-8, but we don't, and they don't. Capstone's C65 turbine is slightly larger than most car engines, generates 65kW (about 90hp), and costs $56,000. On the other hand, they actually built a sparts car around their slightly smaller C30 turbine that could go 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, had a top speed of 150mph, and could go up to 500 miles before refueling. The exhaust from the turbine, by the way, met California's emissions standards without any further processing.

Until/unless some city get serious about microtransit, most Americans are going to be getting around by car for a long time to come (self-driving or otherwise). Most 2nd cars will be electric, and most 1st cars will be hybrids. Mark my words, the turbine-assisted electric will be the winner in the long run.

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April 23rd, 2014

05:44 pm - The sound of reality.
I try not to get too distracted by Quora, but some of the questions people ask are awfully intriguing. Many are asinine, of course, but those are easy to skip. Although I tried, I could not let a question I saw today pass without comment, in part because I felt none of the other 22 answers had done a very good job of it.

The question was: "Why does vinyl sound more 'real' than a CD?" Not surprisingly, more than a few people basically said "It doesn't," with one or two adding the equivalent of "...you idiot." to the answer. Somebody else said that, well, it was a scientific fact that vinyl was better, and went on to invoke the Nyquist limit, apparently blithely unaware of RIAA equalization.

Here was my reply:

This reminds me of when Babylon 5 first aired. It was the first science fiction television series to use CGI for the spacecraft, rather than motion-controlled cameras and miniature models. "I don't like their spaceships," a friend of mine said. "They don't look real."

"You mean they don't look like little plastic space ships."

Both CDs and vinyl involve huge compromises in terms of sound reproduction. Although notes that CDs are limited to (<22,000 Hz) are above the range of most human's hearing, the consequences of that do extend downward into the audible range. Those effects can be reduced with careful design of the electronics, but generally you won't find that kind of care in equipment that's less than a couple of thousand dollars.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is seriously handicapped at the low end. A loud bass drum would cause the groove on a record to have to move so far that it would cut into the next groove over, so low frequencies are dialed way down for pressing onto vinyl, and then the home amplifier runs them through a filter that reverses the effect.

I've performed with symphony orchestras, in marching bands, in large classical choirs and small jazz choirs. I don't think either CDs or vinyl sound especially 'real.' I think digital is much better than vinyl on really cheap equipment. On a system between, say, $400 and $2000 or so, I wouldn't be surprised if a $200 turntable and a really good record sounded more real than a CD in a $200 CD/DVD combo player.

However, one of the things that makes actual live music sound so great is the dynamic range. That amazing downbeat for "O Fortuna," the opening number of Carmina Burana? Wow. Then, just a few seconds later, the whisper of "semper crescis, auf de crescis..." Vinyl just flat out cannot do that. If you record it at a low enough level to keep the loud part from cutting into the neighboring grooves, the quiet is so quiet that it's almost impossible to stamp that subtle a wiggle into the vinyl. The CD audio standard has an amazing dynamic range. One of the first CDs I ever bought was a Telarc sampler that included an excerpt of the 1812 Overture, with real cannons. In the end, although the CD might have had the full dynamic range of that music, it didn't matter, because the stereo couldn't play it. I was in a science club in high school, and we were buying a new stereo to play music during the lunch hour, and I had a receiver with 1000 watts per channel. Trying to play the 1812 caused it to shut down. In order to actually play the cannon blasts, the volume had to be turned down to where the symphonic part was just way too quiet.

Then there's the fact that both CDs and vinyl record, at most, two channels of sound (yes, even if you have Dolby 5+1 playback, if it's coming from a compact disc or a record, it's reconstructed from two channels). "Real" music, if it involves more than two performers, doesn't just come from two places.

As an instrumentalist, I'm primarily a percussionist, and generally speaking, percussion instruments are the hardest to reproduce on recordings. To recreate a bass drum takes massive amounts of power; to get a cymbal or tamborine right requires extreme precision at the highest frequencies. I've heard a stereo play back a tambourine well enough to sound 'real' to me exactly twice in my life. The first time involved six-foot tall Magneplanar speakers that I think cost around $12,000 for the pair. I have no idea what the rest of the equipment attached to them cost, but it was probably between $20k and $30k. The other time a speaker actually sounded 'real' to me (with a drum set ride cymbal), it involved some JBL speakers with titanium tweeters, and once again, the whole stereo system was well over $20,000. (Both times, the sound source was a CD.)

So why does vinyl sound more 'real' TO YOU than compact discs? Could be any one of a number of reasons. It's what you've grown accustomed to, or you listen to music that suits vinyl better than CDs, or you've got a better turntable than CD player, or you're less sensitive to the audio compromises typical of vinyl vs those common to CDs.

Finally, please note that this entire essay was comparing compact disc digital audio and stamped vinyl records. On the analog side, 15 inches per second 1" wide two-track magnetic tape will totally outperform both of those, but 96KHz sample-rate 24-bit digital recording would crush them all in terms of fidelity. Even then, you still won't be able to hear what I hear when I'm playing with an orchestra. Musicians on all sides of me, with every instrument's sound unaltered by anything besides the air itself? That's real.

Enjoy and use which ever technology sounds better to you. As far as I'm concerned, they're both so far from 'real' that it doesn't really matter that much which one I listen to.

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