audio: finding a Jambox replacement

I listen to music throughout the day on a Jawbone Big Jambox. This was one of the original “Bluetooth speakers” and the company is named Jawbone because it made Bluetooth wireless earpieces back when people debated whether using one made you look like a dork. I hate most Bluetooth audio setups because the music constantly drops out and pauses. So I plugged my phone in over a 3.5mm cable. When I signed up for Google Play Music All Access at the early adopter $8/month rate, suddenly I could listen to nearly any piece of music made any time through a decent-sounding box! I can direct the Big Jambox into the kitchen or into my office area, it can almost fill the house with music, and I can pick it up and move it into the garden. It’s less than 4 inches tall so the bass is limited, but I can adjust the bass response by how close I put it to nearby surfaces (just say NO to tone controls). I listen to it far more than my zillion dollar stereo.

I later bought the crazy cheap $35 Google Chromecast Audio dongle so that I could direct GPMAA to play music on the box without having to leave my phone plugged in.

Big Jambox from the side with a Chromecast Audio dongle

Years later the Big Jambox’s battery is dead, there are no software updates for it, and Jawbone is struggling to survive. It still plays music over the 3.5mm cable fine while plugged in, but I want something better-sounding. This sort of powered speaker is still called a Bluetooth speaker even though I almost never use Bluetooth. What I want is:

  1. Fantastic sound.
  2. Optical input. The Chromecast Audio dongle can output a digital audio signal over an optical cable, and then the speaker can process it digitally. This should boost the audio quality.
  3. A USB socket, for three things:
    1. 5V power to power the Chromecast Audio dongle so I have one less wall wart. I think every USB port can supply at least one power unit, 100 mA, at 5 Volts, and the Chromecast Audio
    2. USB digital audio input in case I want to play music from my laptop.
    3. USB drive support in case I have a USB flash drive with some music on it (like Electronic Dance Music DJs getting $50,000 a night).
  4. 3.5 mm input for ad hoc connections.

I don’t care about battery power, because in practice I never took the Big Jambox far from an AC socket. I don’t care about Wi-Fi and Ethernet because the Chromecast Audio dongle handles that for me, and likewise I don’t care about a remote control or app for the speaker because I’m controlling it from my phone.

There is a fantastic speaker that does all this, the KEF LS50W. It’s $2000 but it sounds worth every penny. The only problem is… it’s a pair of speakers. Great for listening in the office, but maybe not so good to listen way off axis in the kitchen, or in the rest of the house. And difficult to cart into the garden.

Two speakers would work in the office…

… but not so well moving them to fire into the kitchen and beyond


(don’t know how to get two images on the same line in $#@! WordPress!)

Turning to big maybe Bluetooth single speakers (all with optical input and a 3.5mm analog input unless otherwise noted),

  • Bluesound Pulse 2: unclear if its USB port can power the Chromecast Audio dongle. No Ethernet or Wi-Fi.
  • Definitive Technology W9: USB only for power, not playback. No Bluetooth which is odd. Instead it’s designed for Play-Fi over WiFi or wired Ethernet, but I’m using Chromecast. (Wow, a bunch of high-end audio makers are now making various Play-Fi devices, which don’t show up when you search for Bluetooth speakers.)
  • Devialet Phantom (and Silver, and Gold): no USB port, has Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet.
  • Marshall Woburn: no USB port.
  • Martin-Logan Crescendo X: USB port supplies power, unclear if it supports audio in over USB, but it has wired Ethernet and Play-Fi
  • Master & Dynamic  MA770: has Chromecast built in! made of concrete, very heavy
  • Naim Mu-so Qb: the USB port supports external USB drive, unclear if it supports audio in over USB and whether the USB port is powered. I bought one of these for a friend and it sounds excellent, better in most respects than the Big Jambox.
  • Peachtree Audio Deepblue 2: USB only for service updates (no music files or audio in), and unclear if the USB port is powered. No Wi-Fi or Ethernet. This model is The Wirecutter’s favorite. I was close to buying it, but right now you can’t buy it new on Amazon or from the manufacturer!
  • Polk Woodbourne: no USB
  • Sonus Faber SF16: no USB but Ethernet. And $10,000!

Other: AIWA Exos-9, Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless, Klipsch Heritage Wireless Three, Paradigm Shift PW-800, Sonos Play 5, Wren V5: no optical input. There are various expensive portable speakers at Cnet

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disintermediation: zero-value sellers on Amazon

The defective cardboard eclipse viewers fiasco shows the risks of blindly (ha ha) buying from the cheapest seller of some product off Amazon. It’s not even enough to choose a “fulfillment by Amazon” merchant or even a “✓Prime FREE Shipping” merchant, you need to choose the “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com” seller. Despite the Amazon logo, emails from amazon.com, and account and customer service on amazon.com, Amazon remains partly a flea market with thousands of shady sellers setting up booths in it, even when Amazon picks the item off the shelf in its own warehouse and ships it to you. I don’t know if Amazon is legally liable, but Amazon is happy to have people think of it as a better Walmart/Target despite filling most of its store with flea market tables that look pretty much like its own displays.

Who can you trust?

Today I learned that even when you buy the Acme Widget 209666 from the “Shiny Happy Goods Company” seller on Amazon with fulfillment by Amazon and ✓Prime free shipping, the product you get may not have come from S.H.G.Co at all! Merchants can allow their product to commingle, where Amazon puts everyone’s Acme Widget 209666 on the same shelf (well, shelves in its distribution centers worldwide). Hey, one seller’s 209666 is the same as everyone else’s, so why not ship whichever one that’s closest to the buyer nearest the front of the shelf? Answer of course: the widget you get could come from a fraudulent seller with even less quality control than Shiny Happy Goods Co. There seems to be no way to tell if this commingling is going on. I hope stuff “(actually) sold by Amazon” doesn’t engage in this crap.

All this raises (not “begs”!) the question, what value do all these sellers add to the Acme Widget 209666 anyway? As I so sagely wrote in Disintermediation part 2, the price floor is the cost at which AcmeWidget Co. is willing to put the widget onto its loading dock. Everything else is overhead. Amazon should buy UPS, take over the world’s loading docks, and get rid of all these crappy sellers.

Amazon actually tried to do the right thing with the faulty eclipse viewers. It contacted all buyers to inform them of the defect and credited then the purchase price without requiring a refund. The real problem is lax shoddy supply chains primarily in Southeast Asia. Cutting out all the useless zero-value sellers will let the actual manufacturers of goods compete to build brand names that you can trust.

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music: RIP Walter Becker 1950–2017

Another one gone. I own all the studio Steely Dan albums up to “Two Against Nature,” they’re simply masterful. A few years ago Google alerted me to a “new” Steely Dan album which turned out to be unauthorized bootlegs of their early demos released by their scuzzy first manager. Interesting for fans, but the best part of it is you get to hear Walter Becker sing! That world-weary groan is unique and only got one lead vocal on official Steely Dan studio albums, but it led me to his solo album, 11 tracks of whack (lyrics). It’s a modest melancholy great album. But it leaves me downcast after listening to it, so I have to pace myself, only listening to it twice a year. Then Pitchfork comes along and deservedly lists “Book of Liars” in 8 Songs That Show Walter Becker’s Brilliance, now I’m doubly sad.

Judging by their solo albums Walter Becker was the dark cynical backgrounds to Donald Fagen’s scintillating music. As a guitarist he’s outclassed by all the studio gunslingers the Dan hired (“6-7-8 guitarists for ‘Peg’” (video)); he’s neither a rock guitar god nor a chordal improviser like say Joe Pass, but his bluesy guitar solos towards the end of most Steely Dan songs are an essential part.

Santa Claus came in late last night
Drunk on Christmas wine
Fell down hard in the driveway
Hung his bag out on the laundry line

Stars imploding
The long night passing
Electrons dancing in the frozen crystal dawn
Here’s one left stranded at the zero crossing
With a hole in its half-life left to carry on
But now the world’s much larger than it looks today
And if my bad luck ever blows me back this way

Then I’ll just look in my book of liars for your name
I’ll just look in the book of liars for your name

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software: checking Android 5.1 (Lollipop) memory consumption

I wanted an Android tablet and bought the Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro for its great hardware – kickstand, long battery life, Dolby Atmos sound, comfortable to hold.

But its performance is abysmal. Firefox simply exits if you browse most web pages, and Firefox Sync fails to run in the background. It struggles to run more than one program at a time, so if you bounce between apps the tablet has to reload each one. This sounds like insufficient working memory (RAM) in this 2 GB tablet: small individual apps run fast because this tablet has a fast CPU, but it can’t keep lots of things going at once. Yet if you tap the recent apps square and then the broom icon, the tablet reports around 1270 MB free.

How to get to memory details

It’s easy to get more details on memory consumption in Android 5.1:

  1. Open Settings > About tablet/phone (sometimes in the System category. every Android device seems to organize Settings differently)
  2. Tap “Build number” seven times to enable Developer mode (you get a nice countdown tooltip)
  3. Go back to Settings and you’ll see Settings > Developer options (also often in the System category), open it.
  4. Tap “Process Stats (Geeky stats about running processes)”
  5. Tap the colored horizontal bar to get to Memory Details

Memory details will report how much time Android spends in various memory states. In the last 90 minutes my %*$&^*#&@! Yoga Tab 3 Pro 2GB model spent 41 minutes in low memory and 51 minutes in critical. My kernel size is 1.2GB, kernel caches is 725MB. These numbers are far worse (bigger) than any other Android device I have (nothing else spends more than a few seconds in critical even in intense use) and I believe they explain why this tablet kills background processes and multi-tasks so poorly.

The other thing you can do in Settings > Developer options is enable “Show all ANRs (Show App Not Responding dialog for background apps).” When I do this I get alerts that Google Play stopped updating, that Lenovo’s “VIBE UI service” died, that Facebook had a problem, etc. because the tablet is killing bits of software running in the background to keep the app you’re staring at working. I enabled this on my Moto X phone and never see such alerts on it. The Google Play failures meant that I went weeks without getting newer versions of apps, until I held the power button and chose Restart and let the tablet spend 30 minutes updating everything before touching it.

I considered returning the tablet during the exchange period but I was focused on getting Firefox Sync to work (so I could use my remembered passwords and form field entries and share my bookmarks), and when I got that to work I mistakenly thought my problems would be over.

Lenovo’s response to this has been abysmal. It shipped an update that enabled “ZRam swap” (compressing contents of overflow memory) and had the nerve to mark the humongous thread Lenovo Yoga Tablet 3 Pro: Serious memory issues (bug report) (64 pages of complaints) on its forums as “Solved.” No engineer with any understanding of Android internals has participated in the thread, I assume whoever worked on Lenovo’s Android system software only speaks Chinese and/or is kept far from customers. A Lenovo insider promised an update to Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) by December 2016 in the thread Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro and Android 6 update (now up to 42 pages!), that date came and went. But unless Lenovo addresses what makes this tablet consume so much memory, a new version of Android won’t necessarily fix the problem.

Lenovo has released a new version of this tablet with 4 GB of RAM. That should be enough to solve the problem, so now I have to consider how to force them to take back this piece of crap and exchange it for something that works.

Customer confusion

Customers have posted all kinds of fixes for this: disable encryption, turn off visual effects, change the launcher, remove a plugged-in micro SD card, free up storage. The problem is any change that involves closing things or restarting appswill give you the impression that the problem is solved, because it frees up a little more memory at first. It’s the interaction between apps that suffers.

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web: companies too lazy to follow phishing advice

Basic Internet security means “Don’t click links that resemble legitimate sites”. Yet lazy companies persist in sending e-mails that invite you to “View your statement” or “Enjoy our discount offer” that go to e.g. click.global.expediamail.com instead of expedia.com (that one doesn’t even use the httpS (ecure) protocol!). Even PayPal does it, sending me “⌚ 👜 Get a Credit decision in Seconds” which asks me to click https://epl.paypal-communication.com/blahblah, which is counter to their own security advice about suspicious activity! Companies engage in this stupidity because the people in marketing enter into agreements with third parties to deliver e-mail and track customer responses without involving the web site or security team, and the quick hack to make it work is to register a separate site.

Maybe it’s impossible for scammers to register http://LegitimateBigCo-myscamsite.com , but who can tell the subtlety of that distinction with the definitely fake http://myscamsite-LegitimateBigCo.com ?! I’m a web engineer and I don’t grok that level of detail in domain registration.

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books: bad SF

Singularly unconvincing

cover of 'Accelerando'

★★☆☆☆ The singularity assumes ever-accelerating technological change (hence the title), but after a fairly solid beginning it was a fatally dumb idea to spend a chunk of the book on a long space voyage. It’s beyond the author’s imaginative skills to cover what happens! Gibson’s solution to techno-overload is to focus on “The street finds its own uses for things”; Strosser’s is to move the action far from the inner workings (literally – advanced economics takes place near the center of the solar system). There are some ideas (tiny spaceships, smart lobsters), but it’s not thought through.

And the usual irritation of people in the future always choosing to dress and act retro solely to be familiar to us peons in the 20th century. Aggh.

Cybercrap

cover of 'Accelerando'

★☆☆☆☆ More rubbish that brings discredit to the term “cyberpunk.” People’s personalities get digitally transmitted to inhabit “sleeves,” including our protagonist to solve a perfect crime in a turgidly unimaginative noir crime (billionaire, sultry wife, hardboiled yet sexy cop partner, various goons, kill me now). Lots of ultraviolence. But since the sleeve is rented or borrowed, there’s no consequence to the death and destruction, and there’s a lot of unconvincing handwaving why everyone doesn’t get cloned into multiple sleeves at once. The best character is an artificially-intelligent hotel, and that is terrible too. Just awful.

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cars: fun with math and physics

People have a hard time distinguishing between energy and power, it really manifests itself when thinking about electric vehicles (EVs).

Batteries store energy, and people grasp that they don’t store a lot of it. To travel about 75 miles the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle has a battery that weighs 660 pounds and costs $5500 to replace. It stores 24 kW·h of energy.

A kiloWatt hour?

But what is a kW·h?  It’s a “kiloWatt hour”, which means the ability to provide a kiloWatt of power for an hour; the ‘·’ is multiplying power and time. It’s a measure of energy, and it’s the stuff that your electric company sells you. Be more energy-efficient and you use fewer kiloWatt hours.

pay the man

As Googling “1 kW in hp” will tell you, one kiloWatt is a mere 1.3 horsepower. So 24 kW·h is only 31 “horsepower hours,” and then the confusion sets in. “Ugh, electric cars are so weak! Wimpy granola-wearing sandal-eating hippies!” Or the new refrain “Electric cars are so weak, unless you’re a rich person pretending to be green who can afford Tesla’s huge batteries.”

No. Cars don’t need lots of power for hours, they need occasional bursts of power. A 24 kiloWatt hour battery holds the energy to provide 1 kiloWatt of power for an entire day, or 48 kiloWatts for 30 minutes, or…

Performance is a burst of power

Again, energy is not power. Let’s build a hot-rod that throws down 2,000 horsepower for 10 seconds to accelerate. That’s 1,500 kiloWatts for 10 seconds, which is only 4 kW·h. In other words the weakest battery in a plug-in car (currently the Prius plug-in hybrid) has enough energy storage to throw down a brief surge of power to out-accelerate any ultra-supercar from a stoplight! In practice only a big battery can discharge that much power without disintegrating, but there’s no physics preventing it. If and when someone improves battery chemistry so smaller batteries can discharge rapidly, even a mid-range EV will out-accelerate all gasoline sports cars. Most performance car fans haven’t woken up to this yet, but all the engineers working on AMG/M-series/RS-line/-V 600+ horsepower engines are going to be collecting unemployment and taking night classes in battery chemistry in less than a decade.

Recharging is about power and energy, and it isn’t

Let’s recharge our Nissan Leaf with its 24 kW·h battery pack. Firstly, it’s dirt cheap. Electricity averages 12 cents per kW·h (you’re buying energy), so even with some charging losses (the battery gets warm) you’re looking at $3 to travel 75 miles. If you charge overnight you should look into a cheaper rate from your utility. If you have solar panels, you’re laughing.

How do you put 24 kW·h of energy into a battery? As the unit suggests, you could deliver 24 kiloWatts for one hour, which is quite a lot of domestic power; for comparison turning on every light on my house only takes 4 kW. But again energy is power for a period of time; you can vary the power or time. A regular 110 Volt outlet can deliver 15 amps. That’s 1.6 kW, meaning it will take 15 hours, plus an hour or two for charging losses, to completely recharge a fully depleted Leaf. That’s a little tight to fully recharge overnight, So many EV buyers use a 240 Volt outlet. Most houses have one or two 240 Volt circuits to power ovens and dryers, an electrician can install a 240 Volt 30 amp socket for about $300. Now instead of 1.6 kW you can send 7.2 kW to your car, which means you’re done recharging your Leaf in about 4 hours. That means

Every morning you get into a car that you’ve cheaply, and overall-less-bad-for-the-planet, fully charged for your regular driving duties.

(Expressed that way, how come every two-car family with a garage doesn’t have an EV?! Suburban familes of the world, get a clue!)

The confusion between power and energy continues with recharging. Some car makers and fans trumpet how their plug-in car can fully recharge in only three hours from a wall plug, but that’s only because it has a small battery! “You can refill the Diamante in 30 seconds… because it’s got a tiny gas tank” is not a feature!

Similarly, people make fun that recharging a top-of-the-line Tesla from a wall plug can take days. That is stupid. Whether you plug a Leaf or a Tesla into an AC outlet, it’ll take about the same amount of time to recharge either car enough to travel 30 miles. So long as you wake up to a car with enough charge for your commute, who cares?

Fast recharging is power in reverse

SAE J1772 EV recharging plug

Besides billions and billions of regular AC sockets, there are lots of these 240 Volt sockets around the country, and there’s a standard plug for them. This government map shows 23,000 of them at 9,000 “public charging stations” around the USA. (My neighbor has and loves a Chevy Volt and recharges it at work, she doesn’t even have access to a garage at home.) But if you’re on a long road trip, that four hour wait to travel the next 75 miles is onerous.

No problem, just increase the power, and the time to provide the energy goes down. An EV is designed to transfer huge current at high DC voltage from its battery to the motor, so you add a circuit to the car that does the reverse, accepting huge current at high DC voltage to recharge the battery. It doesn’t add much cost to the car, but the station to provide it involves some more elaborate electrical engineering and so a “Fast DC charging station” costs $10,000 rather than $1,000. Nissan promoted the CHAdeMO standard that supplies 50 kW, the other car manufacturers dickered around in standards hell before coming up with the “Frankenplug” that adds extra pins for fast DC charging. If you go to the same map you can see these fast DC charging stations slowly popping up.  Meanwhile Tesla went their own way with the Supercharger that can deliver a staggering 130 kiloWatts. Again, because of battery chemistry limitations, only a big battery can accept that kind of power input, just as only a big battery can output Ferrari-beating power.

Gasoline is amazing!?

Let’s go back to that Leaf with its 24 kW·h battery pack.

Meanwhile a single gallon of gasoline holds 33.4 kW·h of energy and only weighs 6 pounds. It holds 100× more energy by weight than that Leaf battery pack! The comparison looks terrible, but it’s misleading. When an engine burns that fossil fuel, at best only around a third turns into forward motion. The rest turns into useless heat. The efficiency of the Leaf is reflected in its EPA sticker, which has the confusing “99MPG equivalent” number on it. The electric car goes a long long way on the same amount of energy.

Nissan Leaf EPA sticker

99MPG equivalent means what?

And when you discharge an expensive heavy battery pack, you still have an expensive heavy battery pack. You can recharge it over and over before eventually recycling it.

The amount of gasoline a car burns through is staggering. I made a spreadsheet that does the math. A car that gets 35 miles per gallon will consume 3,400 gallons of gasoline over 120,000 miles. That gasoline weighs 10 tons, and it turns into 33 tons of CO2 that contributes to global warming (and ocean acidification, plus smog, plus funds Middle Eastern terrorists). A 1.5 ton car burns through 6 times its own weight in gasoline! So any troll on the internet who bleats about all the pollution from making a hybrid or battery-powered car is a complete f***ing asshole crying crocodile tears while understanding nothing. The idea that making a 600 pound non-toxic recyclable battery pack is as bad as producing, spilling, refining, and shipping all those tons of gasoline is completely ludicrous. Obviously there’s more to the comparison than that, because the energy to recharge the battery pack has to come from somewhere, but remember the battery pack and motor are so much more efficient. These days the power most likely comes from a natural-gas power plant, and the proportion of renewables is going up while coal is going down.

Let us review

  • “Power” is doing hard labor, “Energy” is doing hard labor for some time.
  • Electric cars are incredibly efficient.
  • Anyone driving a conventional car is burning tons of gasoline and it’s bad for the planet.

Class dismissed!

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computers: power supply fix

I fiddled around with computers for five days straight over Christmas. I knew upgrading a laptop to Windows 7 and adding memory would be a chore, but I also had to repair my desktop.

cheap HP Pavilion, power supplies, old Northwest Falcon

On the right is the mighty $3000 PC that Northwest Falcon hand-made for me in 2004 out of slabs of aluminum and top-of-the-line parts.

On the left is the HP Pavilion I got second-hand for $100 to replace it when it died. They have nearly identical specs!

The HP Pavilion soon stopped resuming from standby, so I would mostly leave it powered on. Then it wouldn’t start up after being turned off. Thousands of people have this problem, many HP Pavilion desktops shipped with a crappy power supply unit (PSU). It turns out there’s a hack for that, the immortal “hairdryer trick” (Google it).  So I would only turn the computer off when I went away for a while; when I returned I had to hold a hairdryer to the back of it for 20 minutes until the power supply rose from the dead and then I could restart the computer. Crazy, but it worked.

Then at Christmas I had to reboot my PC into Windows to run Quicken to look up last year’s charitable contributions. (Quicken sort of runs on Linux thanks to the amazing WINE program, but it’s too fiddly getting the right mix of Windows code and Linux equivalents for it.) Instead of clicking Reboot I accidentally clicked Standby, and immediately started cursing. Sure enough the computer wouldn’t come out of standby even though I pressed the power switch immediately.  This time the hairdryer trick didn’t work even after blowing hot air into the PC for 25 minutes. Time to get another computer… except my last backup is 7 months old 🙁

So instead I tried to replace the power supply, the thing I should have done ages ago. There are lots of guides to doing this, it’s just unscrewing stuff and disconnecting and reconnecting a lot of connectors. In the photo the dead cheap HP power supply is the gray box at top center  First I swapped power supply with the brass and ball-bearing masterpiece from the $3000 hand-made Northwest Falcon PC (in the photo it’s at the top left of the computer on the right), but that didn’t work either. (Pro tip: the only way to tell if a power supply works is to short two pins together to make its fan start, see Power supply paperclip trick.) So I bought a new power supply, the Antec EarthWatts 380D Green (in the photo it’s the box at bottom center). I installed it in the HP Pavilion, only to find that HP’s stupid custom cutout for the PSU has flanges that overlap the Antec:

curse you, overlapping flange

Ahh, to hell with it, I screwed it tight anyway. I pushed the power button, and the power supply fan turned on! … and the HP’s cheap pastic power button broke off! So I removed the front panel, fixed the power button, and it powered on! Glory be! Both hard drives seem fine despite getting a 25-minute blowdry.

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cars: finally the new snow car

1998 Outback Sport dwarfed by 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid

I’ve driven the same Subaru Outback Sport (a Subaru Impreza with slightly increased ground clearance) for 16 years. After dealers sorted out a wonky thrust plate and rear bearing it’s been rock solid for over a decade. It’s a great snow car: decent control in a snowstorm without having to put on chains, and the next morning you can drive out of a driveway blanketed in a half-foot of snow without shoveling.

Small car needn’t mean cheap car

But even by 1998 standards the Impreza/Outback Sport was quite primitive. I criticized Subaru for treating their smallest car as a cheap car, with no winter package (heated seats, mirrors, and wipers), and I had to add aftermarket leather seats.

In 2011 Subaru listened to me and introduced the fourth-generation Impreza with all those options. At the time I complained there is “No small fuel-efficient all-wheel drive car… no one is making a small AWD hybrid,” and last year Subaru listened to me again and announced a hybrid powertrain option for the XV Crosstrek (like the discontinued Outback Sport this is another Impreza variant renamed – Subaru of America clearly hates the name “Impreza”).

So when the A/C gave out on the Outback Sport I was happy to reward Subaru for making the car I asked for. I ordered a 2014 XV Crosstrek Hybrid with a lot of options in August. I put aftermarket leather in the regular hybrid, avoiding the overpriced Touring model with a moon roof I don’t want and an nav/infotainment system that’s worse than my smartphone. It’s a fine AWD car and a huge advance over my 1998 Subaru Outback Sport (backup camera! Bluetooth phone! no ignition switch! electronic traction! stability control! a USB port!).

Impreza vs. XV Crosstrek (from CarAdvice.com.au, flipped)

inoffensive hatchback vs. “commanding road presence” mini-tank CUV

The regular Impreza has an inoffensive “nicer-looking than a Ford Escort/Focus hatckback” appearance. Unfortunately Subaru doesn’t offer the hybrid powertrain on the regular Impreza, so I had to buy this faux butch “commanding road presence” uglified poseur that I didn’t want, in order to avoid the unacceptably primitive behavior of belching out exhaust when the car isn’t moving.

1 step back, 1 step forward

The jacked-up stance and increased weight of the XV Crosstrek makes it less fuel efficient than a regular Impreza. The hybrid powertrain improves the city MPG but it still has worse highway MPG than the regular Impreza. (Somehow the 2015 model increments city and highway MPG each by 1 to 30/34, but combined remains 31 MPG.) I wish it got better MPG – I’d”un-UV” it with smaller tyres if I trusted a tuner like Brucie’s Executive Lifestyle Autos – but the new Lexus NX300h  and BMW 328d xDrive wagon are the only AWD cars with slightly better MPG, and they cost a lot more $$$.

License plate WEAKHYB

It’s definitely a weak hybrid. It’s more powerful than the regular Crosstrek, but the puny 0.55 kW·h hybrid battery drains quickly and the regenerative braking that recharges the battery can’t slow it down on a steep hill (the engine turns back on if you downshift with the flappy paddles!). Subaru is adding an “audible vehicle approach pedestrian warning system” to the 2015 model, which is comical because the engine lurches to life if you accelerate faster than walking pace. Every time the engine ignites I think “Goddam, if this thing had a real battery I’d have instant torque from 0 RPM and get 80+ MPGe around town instead of 29 MPG.” It’s funny to see people wishing for a more powerful engine on this and other cars; Tesla’s Model S shows the future is electric, with big batteries sending hundreds of kilowatts to a small powerful motor.

There’s a better way

All-wheel drive adds complexity and weight, because you have drive shafts running to the front and back wheels. But once you add an electric motor you can radically simplify this: have the engine drive one axle and the motor the other, with no mechanical connection between them. The motor flings the car forward from a standstill and powers the car completely gasoline-free for the first NN miles around the city; the engine only kicks in on long trips and when you need all-wheel drive. This “through-the-road plug-in hybrid” layout is the future of all AWD cars. Volvo and Mitsubishi are starting with bigger SUVs, BMW, Honda, and Porsche are starting with sports cars, and Subaru needs to abandon its mechanical Symmetrical AWD, with or without a puny motor spliced in, and make the transition.

Meanwhile Tesla’s ‘D’ version of the Model S shows you can ditch the engine altogether and put an electric motor on each axle for insane all-electric no-gasoline-ever performance. (I couldn’t wait for the Tesla Model X with the same dual-motor AWD, besides it’s much bigger than my needs and will cost over twice as much as the XV Crosstrek Hybrid.)

I sincerely hope this is the last car I buy without a plug.

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Fergus, 2001–2014

Fergus was a one-trick puppy, but it was a doozy, a monster über trick at the 1080 backside cab rodeo flip level. When he noticed strangers on the street he would perk up, assess the situation, make a bee-line for the least dog-loving person in the group, and turn on the dictionary definition of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” as he wagged his tail, turned in circles, and gazed up adoringly at the humans. Resistance was futile. If I had a dollar for every “aww so cute” it would have put him through Harvard. If the group were outside a restaurant or, better yet, carrying takeout food, winning their interest while the smell of cooking lingered in the air was transcendent canine ecstasy. It never ever got old.

sex and a stick

helllo boys and girls

Around 15,000 years of unnatural selection led to this apex predator of pet affection, an adorable dog. We’ll never know when or where he needed to turn on the charm to survive, or how his winning formula went wrong, before we adopted a scrawny sickly 8-month old mutt off the street whom the SPCA had infelicitously named “S crappy.”

The downside was Fergus had no great loyalty to his ostensible owners. The three times he managed to hop out of the car he took off for the hills like a jackrabbit, knowing he could lure a meal and a new living arrangement without breaking a sweat. We were lucky that each time an interesting smell distracted him long enough so I could tackle him. He was never off-leash on the street again, and even on-leash he’d wander expectantly into open doors and garages looking for a new relationship. Depending on the kindness of strangers was his modus operandi, so he was the least grateful dog we’ve adopted.

His charm power meter had limits. At parties, after 45 minutes of showing off I’d find him recumbent and pensive in a corner. I feel the same way (“You can’t expect me to keep up that  level of charm, I’d have a heart attack” — Play It Again, Sam); sometimes we’d curl up together. He was probably wondering what more he had to do for the adoring crowds to lift him onto the dining table in acclamation.

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur

Steiff bear

beady eyes, button nose, cotton fur

 

Fergus quickly learned to do the basic dog command repertoire: sit, down, shake, high five, and turn. When we got Nuala, a far smarter angry lesbian bitch, he struggled to keep up. He would “Go to your mat” if he liked the mat in question, but “Fetch the ball! Not the rope, the ball! Not the stuffed toy, get the ball!” ended with him wagging his tail in a transparent “I’m blonde and cute, you can’t expect me to discern the quiddity of objects!”

Fergus B&W

Looks go a long way

The darkness for him was narrow but deep. He was terrified of thunder, and despite how rare thunderstorms are where we live, his brain worked overtime to connect all kinds of events with it. Fireworks displays would make him desperate to find one unsatisfactory hiding place after another, his heart shaking his body from side to side like a rubber ball in a box. But then firecrackers too, so after a single crack he would turn tail and pull on the leash towards home. For the week around the 4th of July we would have to carry him outside. He learned to be scared of balloons that someone might puncture and even bubblewrap that someone might pop, and then any kind of package that might have bubblewrap, so that he would run away from deliveries and presents while Nuala would scrabble at the box hoping it contained treats and toys. The best thing about growing old was he couldn’t hear far-away explosions, but ’til the very end he could smell from a block away whether a party at the park had balloons (please, no further!) or not (yay!)

The narrow gap between our house and the neighbor’s is the only one on a long block, making it the cross-town route for cats with irresponsible owners and urban wildlife – possums, raccoons, skunks. Fergus believed his job was to alert us loudly and often to these interlopers (whereas a burglar would be a welcome opportunity for flirting and adventure). As his eyesight failed, any imagined motion would send him into intruder alert mode.

Epilogue

with Nuala

Here…

Rest In Peace

… and gone (still pretty in pink)

 

Fergus’ kidney function deteriorated but he soldiered on diminished, with regular subcutaneous fluids from nurse mom. This week he became jaundiced probably due to liver failure, and he stopped eating. Staying at the animal hospital for intravenous fluids was an (expensive) opportunity for him to meet new people, but we were not going to subject him to invasive procedures. After two days with no clear diagnosis, he was still trembling in pain and not eating, with only a slim chance that antibiotics might restore him to, at best, a feeble dog with kidney problems. As his guardians and friends, we chose to kill him. A shot of propofol (the choice of Michael Jackson) and he was at peace, then a shot of barbiturates and he was gone. It’s an awesome terrible power to wield over another, but I fervently hope someone does it to me when I’m near my end. It is utterly inhumane that we don’t extend the same dignity in death to ourselves that we do to our companion animals.

Two weeks ago: an evening stroll, lights ahead, a group of people outside a pizza restaurant (!), and another chance for Fergus to delight strangers and strengthen the bonds between man and animal. It never grew old.

Goodbye my ward, my companion, my true friend.

wuff wuff wuff

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