Butterfly murals and shoes

The artist Jane Kim has created some huge and amazing murals of monarch butterflies. See this photo of the side of a building in San Francisco. See the Migrating Mural section of her website for more murals, the featured work page for non-butterflies, and her Instagram page for more frequent postings. I think The Wall of Birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is particularly great.

There’s also an absurdly awesome $295 shoe, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Foundation series

In 2008 I said “I’m gonna make a prediction that someone will make a movie based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series within the next 8 years.”

Today Apple announced that they’re making a series to be released on Apple TV next year.

So they’re five years late, according to my prediction. And series rather than movie, which isn’t surprising. That’s kind of the way of things these days.

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Notes about how air quality affects you

It takes hours for carbon monoxide to leave your body

That means low exposure over a long period of time can be a serious problem.

“Once inhaled, carbon monoxide passes from your lungs into your bloodstream, where it attaches to the hemoglobin molecules that normally carry oxygen. Oxygen can’t travel on a hemoglobin molecule that already has carbon monoxide attached to it. As exposure continues, the gas hijacks more and more hemoglobin molecules, and the blood gradually loses its ability to carry enough oxygen to meet your body’s needs. … In fresh air, it takes four to six hours for a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning to exhale about half of the inhaled carbon monoxide in their blood.”

Those quotes are from Harvard Health.

I only learned about this recently, from an episode of The Sharp End podcast. (The podcast is ok overall… good for adventurers. This particular episode got a bit repetitive.)

“For cleaner air, set car vents to ‘recirculate'”

I used to usually turn off the “recirculate air” button in my car until some years ago when I read an article in the LA Times. Since then I’ve tended to leave “recirculate air” on.

Some quotes:
“Using that setting…can cut pollution concentrations inside a typical car to 20% of on-road levels.”

“Particle pollution is linked to respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer and premature death.”

“There’s one downside to keeping the windows up and using recycled air, especially if you’re carpooling: It can get stuffy. That’s a product of carbon dioxide from breathing, which can build up on longer drives in tightly sealed new cars with several passengers, according to the study.

‘To prevent this, outside air should be pulled in every 10 or 15 minutes for a minute or two, especially if there are two or more people in the vehicle'”

It makes me think that car review websites should measure and publish air filtration quality. I would take it into account when car shopping.

Classroom air filters might improve test scores

A study indicates that installing air filters in classrooms improved test scores. For more, see the Vox writeup or the original paper.

Another Vox article has a good collection of info about how poor air quality affects cognitive ability.

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Cognitive Biases

Five years ago a friend posted a link to Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases with this message, “Note to self: review this at least once a year.” And it really stuck with me. I think about it a lot. It’s a fantastic list. It’s challenging and beneficial to try to recognize and account for your own biases.

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Choosing another new car

Two years ago I wrote about our process for selecting a Subaru Outback. Recently we bought another new car—a Tesla Model 3. We used the same spreadsheet-driven process but with different criteria.

High level filtering

With the Outback we wanted something for long outdoorsy road trips. For this car I wanted something for commuting and getting around town. Something smaller and more fuel efficient. Specifically either a hybrid (“HEV”), plug-in hybrid (“PHEV”), or all-electric (“EV”).

It’s difficult to compare expected total cost of ownership between gas, HEV, PHEV, and EV since it depends on so many variables: price of gas, price of electricity, miles driven, and battery degradation (for which there’s not much data available, especially for EVs because they’re so new), but it seems likely to me that hybrid or all-electric make sense economically in the long run.

Even if not it also seems likely that all-electrics have a lower total environmental impact than the other options. That’s something I care about and am willing to pay a premium for.

I knew my commute would be about 30 minutes one way. A range of 60 miles would cover most days, but 100 miles is safer as it allows for some cushion, especially as the battery degrades over time. That’s longer than the battery-only range of almost all plug-in hybrids, which means I’d still be using the gas engine somewhat if I went that route.

I was particularly drawn to all-electrics because I love the simplicity. People don’t think about it, but automotive engines are absurdly complex. Valves, spark plugs, fuel injection, ignition system, intake, air filter, exhaust, catalytic converter, muffler, radiator, timing belt, cam shafts, fuel pump, fuel filter, sensors for intake and exhaust. It’s crazy. So many parts that require checking, tuning, and replacing. All-electrics have longer maintenance intervals and that’s hugely appealing to me.

I wasn’t sure I could find an all-electric we’d be happy with, but I felt confident I could find a hybrid at least. So I made a list of every hybrid and EV for sale in the US.

Frustration #1: Limited availability

Automaker websites happily tell you about their EVs but rarely detail their availability. For example, Hyundai dealers in NC, SC, and VA don’t keep EVs or PHEVs in their inventory. Dealers in NC have the Kia Niro PHEV in their inventory but not the EV version and they also don’t seem to have the Optima hybrid or PHEV. The VW e-Golf doesn’t seem to be kept in stock at NC dealers. We could probably have ordered any of these cars, but it doesn’t seem great to own a car that local dealers and shops won’t be familiar with. And test driving before buying could be tricky.

Frustration #2: Automakers treat hybrids and EVs like experiments

The aforementioned limited availability is one indication of this, but there are others. EVs are often small (BMW i3, Chevy Bolt). The Nissan Leaf’s infotainment system felt like it was from the ’90s. I think it’s weird that not all hybrids are plug-in hybrids. I guess there are additional electronics required and added development expense, but it doesn’t seem that bad considering the benefits. Other automakers don’t talk much about fast charging options, whereas Tesla has built out a country-wide network of fast chargers. Also Tesla’s Superchargers are really fast, with a max rate of 250kW. It looks like most alternatives use SAE J1772, which as far as I can tell has a max of 19.2 kW currently, with development in-progress for reaching 90 kW. Though this article talks about 100 kW charging a leaf, so maybe I’m wrong.

EVs have been on the horizon for a long time and it feels like automakers aren’t focusing on them. Tesla has a huge head start. The other automakers are far behind and that’s baffling to me.

Pre-owned?

Based on a friend’s suggestion I considered used cars. He pointed out that EV tech is advancing rapidly. Early adopters pay a price premium (and are also guinea pigs). Maybe it’s better to get a lightly-used car, own it for a few years, then trade up once there are better and cheaper options.

Since EVs are so new the options for used cars are small. The Nissan Leaf has been around for a while so there is decent pre-owned availability, but model years 2016 and earlier had a range of at most only 107 miles, which I feel is too short even before taking into considering battery degradation (and I’ve read that Leaf batteries do degrade a good bit, especially in hot climates (link 1, link 2, link 3), though some data shows that Leafs are basically on-par with other EVs (link 4, link 5)). So that ruled out used Leafs. The Toyota Prius has also been around for a long time. I looked at prices of used Priuses and the idea didn’t win me over. The options tended to be either very old and in not great shape, or just off a one or two year lease, where the price discount compared to a new car wasn’t huge. And Priuses are of course hybrids, which I was hoping to avoid.

A short list

At this point the list of possible cars was pretty short. The top hybrid contenders were the Toyota Prius Prime and Chevy Volt. The top all-electrics were the Tesla Model 3 and Nissan Leaf. The Chevy Bolt is reasonable, too. Maybe a bit short. But I wasn’t excited about it at all.

We test drove the Nissan Leaf and it was good. Acceleration was snappy, as you would expect for an EV. The infotainment felt dated. I got a bit of a weird vibe from the Nissan dealer. Almost like they thought it was weird that we were interested in the Leaf, but this was minor. The salespeople did typical car salespeople things like asked us to come sit in their office so they could try to talk us into buying it, so that was a turn-off—I get angry when people waste my time. The idea of having to negotiate with them on price and going through the purchase process was not appealing.

We test drove the Tesla Model 3 and it was great. I was worried about the lack of instrument cluster and physical buttons (most things are done via the large screen center-mounted on the dashboard), but it wasn’t as bad as I expected (but still bad—I’ll write more about this in a future post).

It seemed clear that the Tesla was the best car of the bunch, now it just came down to price. Was the Tesla more expensive? And if so, was it worth the extra cost?

Cost

The cheapest Model 3 is the “Standard Range.” It’s $33,175 when factoring in the $1,875 federal tax credit. Side note: It’s not possible to order a Standard Range using Tesla’s website. I’ll write more about this in a future post

The Leaf configured with the options we wanted and after the federal tax credit would have been around $28,000 according to TrueCar, so around $5,000 cheaper than the Tesla. That’s not a huge difference. I have a little more faith that Tesla batteries last longer than Leaf batteries, which is a significant future expense in the Leaf’s total cost of ownership.

I was actually a bit surprised by how expensive non-Tesla EVs are. I expected them to target a lower price point to compete against Tesla, but aside from the e-Golf (which is $11,000 cheaper) they weren’t much cheaper.

The Prius is actually quite affordable, at $25,000. That’s $13,000 cheaper. We possibly should have considered this more closely, but again, it’s a hybrid and I was drawn to the simplicity of EVs.

The Decision

After thinking about all the options we went with the Tesla. We’ve had it about four months now and it’s been great. I’m still happy the decision. In a future post I’ll write about the highlights and lowlights.

Here’s the spreadsheet we used:

Switch to “The Short List” tab at the bottom to see only highly ranked cars. View full size in Google Sheets for ease of use and to see full column titles. Please be sure to note all the caveats at the bottom of the full list!

Two final notes about vehicle registration

  1. In NC there’s a $130 yearly registration charge for EVs with the rationale that they don’t buy fuel so they don’t contribute to fuel taxes. This is a little reasonable… it’s roughly the same amount you’d pay in gas taxes for a non-hybrid driven around 10,000 miles. And I agree that this will be a problem when EVs are a higher percentage of cars on the road. But come on NC, this is super lame.
  2. We registered the car to just one of us instead of both of us. The other option was to register to “Mark and Emily JTWROS” (Joint tenancy with right of survivorship), but apparently that exposes the value of our house in a lawsuit involving the car, and the benefits of JTWROS are small (slightly less hassle retitling after one of us dies). See these two posts for more info: one and two.
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Assorted music suggestions

NPR hosts things called “Tiny Desk concerts” about twice a week. A band or musician plays a short set of 3 or 4 songs in the NPR office and they post it on YouTube. The quality is high and I’ve found it to be a great way to learn about new music. Some examples:

Unrelated to Tiny Desk I recently stumbled upon the early Cranberries song “Íosa” and I love it. Also this early Cranberries performance is mesmerizing. If you’re not sure whether you want to watch the whole thing then I recommend skipping to 3:38 because the second song is more lively. It’s crazy how young Dolores O’Riordan looks.

Three other amazing non-Tiny Desk performances:

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Laptop shopping

I bought a laptop four months ago. A 13″ MacBook Air with Retina display, 16 GB memory and 256 GB SSD.

I was laptopless after leaving Honor. I have a great desktop but I knew a laptop would be useful during our move from California to North Carolina. I’m a thorough shopper. I investigate every option and circle in until I find the best choice. I wanted to record my notes for my own sake, but also I thought it could potentially be useful to someone else.

Screen size

This was a big factor. Smaller is nice because it’s light and portable. Bigger is nice if you use the laptop a lot or it’s important to have multiple windows open side by side. I’d been using a laptop with a 15.4″ screen and it was fine. I knew I didn’t want anything much bigger than that. I didn’t intend to use the laptop for programming full time, so a smaller screen would be fine. But how small? I visited a local Best Buy to see a bunch of screen sizes in person. 13.3″ felt a little small. 14″ was good, though still on the small size. My sweet spot was between 14.5″ and 15″. Unfortunately there’s a dearth of options in that range. There are a lot of laptops with 13.3″ screens a lot with 15.5″ to 15.7″. It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for laptop makers.

Performance

I decided that performance was not at all important to me. I rarely play games. I wanted to be able to run Android Studio and Xcode but didn’t need them to be blazing fast, so I avoided ARM, Intel Atom, and Intel Celeron CPUs. I do think 16 GB memory is a good idea, rather than 8 GB, which is a common default. I hate disk swapping and 8 GB is cutting it a little too close. And I’m strongly in favor of SSDs, for reliability/durability as much as lower latency.

The finalists

Note: Prices and weights are from my notes from months ago and aren’t up to date.

  • Dell XPS 15, 15.5″
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, 14″, 16 GB memory, 512 GB SSD, 2.49 lbs, $1,702.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga 3rd gen, 14″, 16 GB memory, 512 GB SSD, 3.08 lbs, $1,799.
  • Microsoft Surface Laptop 2, 13.5″, 16 GB memory, 512 GB SSD, 2.8 lbs, $1,900.
  • Dell New XPS Touch 13, 13.3″, 16 GB memory, 512 GB SSD, 2.7 lbs, $1,870.
  • Macbook Air, 13.3″, 16 GB memory, 512 GB SSD, 2.75 lbs, $1,691 (plus I was able to take advantage of a 15% off friends and family discount because I have a friend who works at Apple).

The decision

The main thing that pushed me over the edge to the Mac is that I don’t like Windows. It has always been a poor operating system. The job of an operating system is to be unobtrusive. A facilitator. It should get out of your way and let you do whatever it is that you want to do with your computer. I’ve used Windows only rarely over the last 20 years, but my impression is that it still fails in this regard. It has regular severe security problems. Installing software updates requires reboots too often. It’s too easy to get into a state where the system is misconfigured. Uninstalling software frequently leaves artifacts on the computer. Windows 10 Home doesn’t even have full disk encryption standard. That’s completely unacceptable on a laptop in 2019.

And so if I got a PC I’d want to run Linux. But Linux on a laptop requires a lot of work to be on par with Windows and Mac OS regarding battery life, suspend/resume, Wi-Fi, special keys (volume up/down, brightness), etc. I’m busy and didn’t want to invest the time.

So I settled on a Mac. The only laptops Apple sells with a screen bigger than 13.3″ is the MacBook Pro. It has a 15.4″ screen and is $2399, which is more than I wanted to spend.

Emily bought a laptop, too

And then it turned out Emily needed a computer so she could start working as a contractor. She does a lot of intensive image editing, so larger screen and better performance are important. She got a Dell XPS 2-in-1 with an Intel Core i7-8705G, 16GB memory, a 512 GB SSD, and the nicer screen option for $2,034. She generally prefers Macs, but a similarly configured MacBook Pro is $2,600 and that’s a hefty premium.

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Interesting ideas, technologies, and companies

I’m in the market for a job! I left my old job at Honor in San Francisco at the end of February. I love Honor, loved working there, I’m proud to have been a part of their growth over the last four years, and I know they’ll continue to be a shining light in the home care industry.

So now what do I do?

I’ve been keeping a list of ideas, technologies, and companies that are interesting to me or seem valuable or useful to the world. I’m sharing the list here as a way to organize my thoughts and figure out what to do, and also because I thought other people might be interested. I’d love feedback! Are you working in one of these fields and looking to hire a software engineer? Let me know! Is there something else I should look into? Something I’m overlooking? Any mistakes or oversights in my thought process? Any help is appreciated. Leave a comment or email me at mark@kingant.net.

A vague responsibility: Improve government services

I’m sure there are a ton of city, state, and federal government websites (both internal and external) and software that could be improved and I always get satisfaction out of making things work better. Things that are used by large numbers of people, like HealthCare.gov, DMV online services, online property tax payments, etc.

Let me share an example about paying property tax online… In either Wake County, NC or San Mateo County, CA (sorry, I don’t remember which) the website threatens a >$50 fee for failed bank ACH payments. Like, WTF? That should cost them $0. What are they doing that justifies needing to charge any fee at all? The form might have also prevented pasting into the account number field for some reason and used bad terminology like “e-check.”

Related links: The United States Digital Service, Code for America, America’s Cities Are Running on Software From the ’80s

An industry: Spaaaaaaaace

My understanding is that SpaceX’s entrance into the satellite launch business has caused launch prices to drop significantly. Also there has also been increased attention on building small satellites. Consequently we’re launching more satellites and getting more clever about how we use them.

There’s so much going on here. There are the old launch companies like United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and new launch companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab. Companies that build satellites like SSL (now part of Maxar) and SpaceQuest. Companies with for-hire observation satellites like Planet, BlackSky, DigitalGlobe (also now part of Maxar), Radiant Solutions (also also now part of Maxar) and Spire. Companies working on satellite-based internet service: Swarm Technologies, OneWeb and Astranis. There’s the company “Spaceflight,” which helps people get their satellite into space. There’s an increased need for satellite tracking/coordinating, and an increased need for the ability to clean up space debris (see e.Deorbit and read about laser brooms). Also ion thrusters are cool.

A huge undertaking: Wikipedia-like website for collaborative law drafting

This idea requires a long explanation to do it justice, so I wrote a standalone post.

A website: Car comparison tool

Before we bought our car in 2018 I made a spreadsheet that listed every crossover and SUV. I filled in statistics that were important to me and used them to narrow down the list. I thought it was a fantastic tool.

There are websites that let you compare a few vehicles at a time, but that’s not sufficient. I want to be able to filter through all cars and keep refining the list until it’s sufficiently short. My approach is:

  • Start with a list of all vehicles in the US, so you can be sure you’re not overlooking any.
  • Choose a set of attributes that you care about. Things like mileage, safety ratings, seating capacity, whether there’s adequate space for a rear-facing child car seat, length, price, etc.
  • Filter out vehicles with attributes that exceed certain values. For example, if you know there are cars you’d be happy with that get 25 mpg, then you might choose to completely rule out a car that only gets 15 mpg.
  • For each attribute, specify desired values and a weighting to indicate importance.
  • Use the weighting to compute a score for each car.
  • Write notes about each vehicle.
  • Give a subjective rating to each vehicle based on the computed score and the notes.

Building the website would be a great project with a little bit of everything: design, frontend, and backend to store all the vehicle stats and allow people to save their progress. Maintaining accurate vehicle specs over time would be an ongoing and tedious effort. But it’s easy enough for one person to create and maintain. It seems plausible that it could earn enough ad revenue to justify the effort.

A technology: Software-defined radio

Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been traditionally implemented in hardware are instead implemented by means of software. —Wikipedia

I don’t have any experience with this. There are certainly malicious uses, such as OpenSesame, a small device that opens non-rolling code garage doors by broadcasting every possible code very quickly and RollJam, which attacks rolling code garage doors and car remotes.

But I think there’s a lot of potential non-malicious uses, too:

  • Auditing the security of wireless protocols like garage door remotes, car keyless entry, mobile phone cell radios, bluetooth, and NFC, baby monitors, transit cards, hotel key cards, etc. SDR could be used to check that traffic is sufficiently encrypted and not vulnerable to spoofing or replay attacks. This is essentially what the guy behind OpenSesame and RollJam did (at least, I assume he told the manufacturers about his findings).
  • GPS has become pretty important in our lives and in our military. For planes and drones, but also for everyday navigation. It might be valuable to test how resilient GPS receivers are to spoofing and potentially try to figure out how to improve resiliency when faked GPS signals are received.
  • A Wi-Fi signal strength detection and mapping tool, to help users find the optimum antenna placement for their home router. Could also review/compare/publish Wi-Fi performance of off the shelf routers.
  • Sorta related: Spire, one of the space companies I mentioned above, says on their website, “Spire collects data with sensors that are programmable and re-programmable when in orbit.”

A company: Security audits of anything

I mentioned security audits in the context of software-defined radio above, but there are many more things that would benefit from a security audit. Electronic door locks with keypads might ship with default admin codes and not force the user to change it (that’s bad because people tend not to change them). Same with apartment intercoms/door buzzers. Here’s a related article about an IBM security team who found problems with visitor management systems. There are a ton of Wi-Fi enabled appliances these days that could have problems: refrigerators, doorbells, cameras, TVs, etc.

The economics here are tough. Companies don’t want to spend more money than necessary, and security problems only become a problem when they start being publicized or exploited. Some companies pay rewards (called bug bounties) when problems are shared with them privately, but generally only large players who are already security-conscious, like Google and Facebook. There might be justification for a government agency or non-profit to perform security audits as a public service.

A product material: Carbon fiber reinforced polymers

As a material I think carbon fiber reinforced polymers aka carbon composites are super cool. Also to a lesser extent carbon fibers themselves, carbon nanotubes, and graphene. There are so many products where “light and strong” are important qualities. In the relative scheme of things these materials haven’t been around very long. It’ll be exciting to see the improved products we make. It will be good to see prices decrease over time, too, so more people can get the benefits of things like carbon composite wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers.

We also need to make improvements to carbon composite recycling techniques, infrastructure and cost effectiveness.

An Internet standard: WebAuthn

WebAuthn is a web standard for more secure logins by using a physical device like a fingerprint scanner or USB keychain instead of (or in addition to) a password. Essentially eliminates account hijacking from compromised passwords. Two factor authentication is fantastic and everyone should use it for their important accounts (email and banks), but typing in a six digit code is kind of a pain. With WebAuthn you can touch your finger to your phone or laptop’s fingerprint scanner, instead. Or tap on a tiny piece of metal sticking out of a USB port. It’s roughly the same level of security with a fraction of the effort for the user. I thought this article had decent explanations, if you’re looking for more info.

Websites that want to support these types of logins will need changes to support WebAuthn, so it’ll never become ubiquitous. But I’m hopeful that major websites will adopt it over the next few years.

A big undertaking: Unmanned autonomous solar powered boat or submarine

I don’t know what this would be used for, but it sure does sound cool. Maybe ocean research, surveying, or surveillance (e.g. scouting for pirates off the east cost of Africa).

I’ve read of two similar efforts: the Zyvex Marine Piranha Unmanned Surface Vessel and the Pliant Energy Velox. The latter page mentions some potential uses.

A slog toward a greener tomorrow: Grid-integrated hot water heaters

I read about this recently and I think it’s pretty smart. Intelligent water heaters (decrease water temperature at known low demand times and increase temperature for peak demand) and intelligent hot water recirculation pumps also have the potential to save water and electricity.

A chemistry experiment: Measure the amount of caffeine in beverages

Some instructions here. Originally I thought this would make a great website, then I discovered that it already exists. But I still think it’d be interesting to make a bunch of mugs of tea and measure how caffeine content differs based on tea type, water temperature, and steep time. And also how much variation there is even when keeping those factors consistent. Could be a good science fair project.

A joke website: Hamazon.com

An online marketplace for great deals on pork products. Emily suggested the logo could be the normal Amazon logo but with a pig nose above the smile arrow. Mostly I just think it sounds funny.

An endless amount of work: Make Linux better

I love Linux. When I was younger I did some work on the Pidgin instant messaging program. I’ve always wished I had more time to smooth out Linux’s rough edges. It’s fair to say my dream job would be for someone to pay me to improve whatever random weaknesses I encounter in Linux software.

  • I think there’s a lot to be gained by updating old online docs, wiki pages and Stack Exchange posts to describe the current best practice for X. I feel like pretty much anytime I need to do something (e.g. “how do I add a hostname to the resolver search path on hosts using DHCP on Ubuntu 18.04?”) I find multiple answers and it’s hard to know which answer is correct.
  • I’ve always felt like Linux install processes were clunky, fragile, and asked too many questions.
  • info-zip apparently needs a maintainer
  • I think having more consistent UIs across apps would give users more confidence in the OS.
  • I don’t have first hand experience, but I suspect Linux on laptops tends to be an area in need of improvement. See a random blog post about running Linux on a Lenovo laptop for an example of tweaks an average user would not be able to make themselves.
  • Standardizing more core software across distributions would cut down on parallel work and make developers available to work on other things. I have mixed feelings about systemd but at least there seems to be a de facto standard init system now.
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