My Volt Was A Good Car, But I Do Not Miss It

This week General Motors put out a press release full of corporate euphemisms that boiled down to this: several car models that aren’t selling well enough are getting axed. The press release was careful not to use the word “layoff” but it’s hard to imagine that workers will continue to be paid if there are no cars to be made. Obviously this got a lot of people upset, especially in light of the 2008 government bailout and more recent corporate big tax breaks. But here I’m going to focus on one specific car: the Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt was still in development when financial markets melted down in 2008. It expressed a potential high-tech future for General Motors. I saw it as one of the most convincing arguments against the “let GM die” school of thought. It was a much more interesting piece of engineering than what was found in a Toyota Prius and a sensible stepping stone on the transition to an electrified future for cars. And putting my money where my mouth was, I signed for a 2012 Chevrolet Volt on a three year lease. I took this picture when I took delivery, a day after Christmas 2011.

Roger Leases 2012 Chevrolet Volt

For three years it served as an efficient commuter vehicle taking me to and from work and everyday errands. The gasoline-fueled electric generator meant I could take it out on a few road trips and not worry about being stranded by lack of charging. 75% of its 30,000 leased miles were powered by electricity, a hearty endorsement of the “Voltec” architecture that maximized advantages of an electric power train using a minimally sized battery pack.

When my lease expired in December 2014, a Volt was at the top of the list if I needed another commuter car. But circumstances never motivated me to get another, and now it is likely I never will.

But I think that’s perfectly OK. Why?

First: the Volt was always designed to be a transition from gasoline to electric propulsion. It more than met its objectives, exceeding my expectation in many ways. But time moves on and that electric future is here. If I were to get a commuter car in the final days of Volt production, it would be evaluated against all-electric vehicles. Including the Chevrolet Bolt, which incorporated many of the lessons GM learned from making the Volt.

Second: the Volt was a sensible efficient commuter vehicle, not one to stir emotion or attachment. It handled far better than any Toyota Prius I’ve rented, but nowhere near the fun of my Mazda RX-8. When I returned the car at the end of my lease, I set down the keys, signed the paperwork, and walked away without looking back.

It was a good car that made sense for its time. It did its job reliably and efficiently, and I couldn’t ask for more from a commute appliance. But its niche is shrinking. So despite how bad the decision might look to history, GM made their business decision to look forward.

Time-of-Use (TOU) Electric Bill: Good Concept, Poor Execution.

Household electric power is a great convenience of modern living and a triumph of engineering. Most people living in first-world countries are so used to having power whenever we want it, we only think about the work behind the scenes when there’s a power failure. Most of the electricity generated is immediately consumed. So when consumption changes throughout the day, generation has to be kept in sync. This balance act is ongoing at all hours of the day, every day, and most of us don’t have to think about it.

One detail of this balancing act is the increasing cost of power as demand rises. Obviously the power company would like to keep their cost as low as possible, so the power plants that are the cheapest to run (base load power stations) run constantly. As demand outstrips the ability of the base load stations, they begin generating power via increasingly more expensive means. These peaking power plants are usually cheaper to build but more expensive to run so they are only used to handle peaks in demand.

Residential electric bills are typically insulated from this change. The standard home electric meters simply record the running tally so the homeowner is billed on the total amount of electricity consumed. With the introduction of more sophisticated meters, it becomes feasible to track energy usage in more detail which makes it possible to bill based on time of use. (TOU)

TOU rates correlate cost of consumption to cost of generation. This gives the consumer a financial incentive to be more energy-efficient. If enough energy usage is shifted around, the consumer can save money. Over a year ago, the local electric utility sent out an invitation to join a TOU pilot study. It would be an interesting experience to see that theory put into practice so the invitation was accepted.

The TOU rates were listed on the bill, where the peak hour rates are indeed appropriately expensive, roughly triple the non-TOU rate. But the off-peak rates were tremendously disappointing: only a 20% discount off the non-TOU rate. A 300% penalty for on-peak vs. 20% discount off-peak means it’ll be difficult to actually save overall money under this plan.

But the study was on and it’s time to put in the best effort. The most significant changes came from running the laundry machines and the dishwasher during off-peak hours as much as possible. On some days this was a severe inconvenience. The effort continued but the consumer was not always happy about it.

At the end of the one-year study, they mailed out a TOU cost summary. They took the year’s electric use and computed it two ways: Once through the TOU pilot study rate, and again on the non-TOU rate.

The reward for ecological awareness? The windfall for severe inconvenience?

SCE TOU Unimpressed

$1.93 over the entire year.

From the perspective of encouraging people to save, this was a complete failure. The utility needs to discount the off-peak rate much more significantly than they did during this study before people would see enough savings to be worth the inconvenience. The kind of time and effort expended during this year was not remotely worth saving $1.93.

Haas Automation is Surprisingly DIY-Friendly.

HaasLogoI hadn’t paid much attention to Haas Automation until recently. When I took my machining classes, there were no Haas machines in the school shop. My awareness of the company did not extend very far beyond the fact a Haas machine is on the cover of my textbook.

That changed recently because Tux-Lab is a fan of Haas Automation. The machine tools (which I aspire to operate) are all Haas machines. I started learning about them and the more I learned, the more I liked what I saw.

First, they are the Home Team. Based in Oxnard, CA, roughly two hours drive away from where I currently live. It is challenging to operate a manufacturing business in the USA, never mind Southern California, and I’m happy to see they’ve found some measure of success in the face of overseas competition.

Second, they have transparent pricing of their equipment listed on a web configuration tool. No “contact your sales representative for a quote” runaround. I’m sure large customers can (and do) negotiate a discount, but at least there’s a price up there on the screen to let people know what they should expect.

The third and most important thing that impressed me: they are friendly to customers who wish to work on their own machines. Sure, they have the standard disclaimer “[work] should be done by authorized trained personnel” but they publish a lot of useful reference information for those who wish to forge ahead anyway. Most other machine tool companies do not publish this information. These non-DIY-friendly companies tell their customers to “contact your authorized service representative.”

And lastly – Haas open their doors to customers (and potential customers) during HaasTec, their own open-house event. See the factory in action, see Haas machines building more Haas machines. That sounds like a Disneyland trip for machining geeks, sign me up!

Motivation to Review My Machining Textbook

Many years ago I developed an interest in machining so I could tackle projects that demand capability beyond pliers and a Dremel tool. I found evening classes offered by Lake Washington Institute of Technology (formerly Lake Washington Technical College). The campus is only a short drive from where I lived at the time. I enrolled in the Machining Technology program on the theory I could learn by attending classes on my way home after work.

In reality I only managed two quarters of classes before my full-time job demands picked up so much I could no longer keep up the night classes. Since I’m unlikely to stock my own home workshop with industrial-level machine tools, I wrote the whole thing off as a self-enrichment learning exercise with no practical application. Or I almost did, because I kept my textbooks on the chance I would need them again.

That was a good thing, because another opportunity has now presented itself. There are a few machine tools at Tux Lab which gives me motivation. If I can get myself up to speed again and prove I’m not likely to break the machines, I might be able to return to those ideas that needed more than a Dremel tool. (And in the years since, I would add “… or a 3D printer.”)

So I dusted off my many-years-old textbook and started reviewing the fundamentals because I believed the fundamentals of machining has not changed. Computer software has evolved tremendously in this time but metal is metal. Still, I was curious about the current status of the book so I looked it up on My textbook is Machining and CNC Technology (First Edition) by Michael Fitzpatrick. It’s currently going for about $20, which I’m sure is far less than what I had paid.

According to Amazon, a second edition (~$40) has come and gone and we’re now on the third edition. And because it is the latest and specified by college instructors, the price is over $200. Ten times the first edition, and five times the second edition. Ouch!

Even in the age of Amazon, the college textbook market is still very distorted.

Machining Textbook Cover

Giggle Fiber: Silly Name, Speedy Service.

Two years ago I said goodbye to AT&T internet (formerly branded U-Verse) because it was slower yet cost more than the faster Charter Spectrum cable internet‘s introductory rate. As a longtime customer of Comcast Xfinity in the Pacific Northwest, I knew the game of calling in every year to renew that “introductory” rate. So after my first year with Charter, I called and got on a different promotional rate that was a little higher but still enough of a discount from the full rate to make me stay.

Since then, Charter has completed its acquisition of Time Warner and stories started surfacing about how they are aggressively raising their average revenue per customer. The prices went up and promotional discounts disappeared. This month I found out for myself. My promotional rate was expiring and the base cost is going up. I called in and talked to the normal customer service representative as well as the customer retention department. I was disappointed that no price discount was available even when I said I wanted to stop service. Well, they are indeed serious, and because I live in an area with some competition, I was not bluffing about leaving. So long, Charter!

Since I’ve been away from AT&T for two years, the fine print implied I should qualify for their introductory rate again. But before I move from one mega-corporation to another, I had another option: Giggle Fiber. The name is silly and it was easy to wonder whether they might be trying to riff off press on Google Fiber.  But as far as I can tell they are a legitimate internet service provider with a small local service area. Unlike most high-speed service providers, they don’t even have their own Wikipedia page. They were only mentioned in passing as an entity that acquired the internet service assets of a different company. Their business model seems to be fairly straightforward: to compete with the big guys, offer more speed for less money.

My home straddles a city line so I’m at the edge of their service area and it took some asking around to determine I was indeed eligible. Most of my research only found fluffy marketing pieces in local newspapers, which made me pause, but eventually I decided to support the small local business. The installation ran into a few issues and took longer than the scheduled time slot, but the installation staff were friendly and courteous and got their infrastructure problems resolved.

At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie. Giggle Fiber is fast. Now I just have to see if the service is reliable as well.

Giggle Fiber is Live - Edited

Minor Derailment Due To Infrastructure

One of the reasons I put Node.js education on hold and started with Ruby on Rails is because of my existing account at Dreamhost. Their least expensive shared hosting plan does not support Node.js applications. It does support Ruby on Rails, PHP, and a few others, so I started learning about Ruby on Rails instead.

The officially supported version of Ruby (and associated Ruby on Rails) is very old, but their customer support wiki assured me it could be updated via RVM. However, it wasn’t until I paid money and got into the control panel did I learn RVM is not supported on their shared hosting plan.

RVM Requires VPS

At this point I feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch…

So if I want to work with a non-ancient version of Ruby on Rails (and I do) I must upgrade to a different plan. Their dedicated server option is out of the question due to expense, so it’s a choice between their managed Virtual Private Server option or a raw virtual machine via DreamCompute.

In either case, I didn’t need to pause my study of Node.js because it’d work on these more expensive plans. Still, Ruby is a much more pleasant language than JavaScript. And Rails is a much better integrated stack than the free-wheeling Node.js. So it wasn’t all loss.

Before I plunk down more money, though, I think I should look into PHP. It was one of the alternatives to Ruby when I learned NodeJS wasn’t supported on Dreamhost shared hosting. It is the server-side technology available to Dreamhost shared hosting, fully managed and kept up to date. Or at least I think it is! Maybe I’ll learn differently as I get into it… again.

Dreamhost offers a 97-day satisfaction guarantee. I can probably use that to get off of shared hosting and move on to VPS. It’s also a chance find out if their customer service department is any good.

UPDATE 1: Dreamhost allowed me to cancel my hosting plan and refunded my money, zero fuss. Two clicks on the web control panel (plus two more to confirm) and the refund was done. This is pretty fantastic.

UPDATE 2: I found Heroku, a PaaS service that caters to developers working in Rails and other related web technologies. (It started with Ruby on Rails then expanded from there.) For trial and experimentation purposes, there is a free tier of Heroku I can use, and I shall.

Upsetting the NPM apple cart

Decades-old words of wisdom from a computer science pioneer, proven true once again.

A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn’t even know existed can render your own computer unusable.

Leslie Lamport

In a coincidence of perfect timing, my education of NPM yesterday came just in time for me to understand the left-pad incident. The short version is simple enough to understand: unhappy programmer took his ball and went home, causing a lot of other people grief in the process. The bigger picture, though, needed a bit more knowledge to understand.

While going through the NPM workshop I had noticed a few things. The workshop used a dummy placeholder registry but there was really no technical or policy reason why every Jane and Jack can’t run the same lesson against the global registry. Up to and including the fact that they can clean up (un-publish) their NPM package when the workshop is over.

I found that fact curious. Such open accessibility felt fragile and I was wondering about the mechanisms to make sure the mechanism is fortified against accidents or abuse. It wouldn’t be something covered in a workshop, so I thought I’d see more details of this protection elsewhere.

Nope, I was wrong.

The left-pad story proved that there wasn’t any mechanism in place at all. A hilariously trivial package was yanked, causing many houses of cards to fall down.

For all the wonders of NPM, there are downsides that had its share of critics. This incident kicked the criticism into high gear. The NPM registry owner received a lot of fire from all sides and have pledged to update their procedure to avoid a repeat in the future. But I’m not sure that’s enough for the famously anti-authoritarian OSS purists. For every “conflict resolution policy” there will be some who see “ruling with an iron fist.”


Unexpected find: ThingLink and its business

A Science News article online experimented with interactivity not possible in their print edition. It was fairly simple at first glance: when a cursor hovers over certain places in the image, additional information pops up. Seen all over the web, like the little pieces of trivia behind background picture of the day.

What caught my attention is the link in the corner: “Made with ThingLink, Learn More” What I had thought was a simple piece of HTML is actually a business built around the concept.

A brief exploration found that ThingLink hosts the image (and associated server storage and bandwidth) plus the interactive scripting. The package of content is then available to be served alongside content hosted elsewhere, such as I can embed a ThingLink right here in this post, if I had something interesting to show.

There’s a basic level of the service for free. To make money, they sell higher tiers with features like customization, branding, and analytic information. I’m ignorant on how this information might be valuable, but ThingLink has an idea: they believe the full set of features is worth over $200/month to some people.

So definitely not just a trivial piece of HTML. It is the tip of the iceberg of a corner of web commerce I didn’t even know existed before today.