cars: Tesla Model S Plaid is a bargain at $131,000

Tesla Model S Plaid tearing down the dragstrip
Renz Dimaandal for Motor Trend

The Tesla Model S Plaid is crazy. Nitpicking fans are arguing over whether 0-60 in 2 seconds (!) is real because 1-foot rollout and special pavement blah blah, but Motor Trend managed to do it and found:

  • Faster projected quarter-mile than the LaFerrari ($1.4M)
  • “Its blistering 0-100-0-mph result was 8.2 seconds, besting the previous record holder, the McLaren Senna [also $1.4M], by 0.3 second.”
  • “Ironically, the breathtaking straight-line achievements distract from another monumental achievement: The Model S Plaid is quite simply the best Tesla yet. It doesn’t matter if you’re cruising down the highway, slogging through city traffic, or slicing down your favorite back road. The Model S Plaid delivers, no matter what you ask it to do. On the highway and around town, the 2022 Tesla Model S Plaid is comfortable, quiet, and a delightful place to pass the miles.”

That combination is insane. Thousands of people who can afford a $1,000,000 sports car are going to buy a Plaid. Tens of thousands of people who can afford a $150,000 sports car or performance sedan are going to buy a Plaid. Supercar-collecting YouTuber Manny Khoshbin, who has five white Rolls Royces at home for day-to-day driving in addition to his exotic collection, accidentally ordered a second Plaid and kept the order. Why not, it’s cheaper than the custom luggage for his specially-customized Hermes edition “1 of 1” McLaren Speedtail. This is how the combustion age ends, from the top down (and from electric bicycles up).

Counterfactual world

I also notice from comments how so many people are deep into the illusion that the counterfactual ” ’d “, as in “I’d still get the Taycan/Nevera” or “I would never get one because of the funny steering yoke”, has real-world significance. When I was a kid I would participate: “I’d buy the Countach in gold over the Testarossa.” Now I actually have that kind of money, I spent it on a kitchen remodel 🤷🏻.

Posted in cars, eco | Leave a comment

cars: genuine excellence vs. milking the ultra-rich

zOMG, the 25th McLaren F1 built with only 242 miles on the clock, including the luggage, the watch, the magnesium toolkit, … 😍

Side view of the 25th McLaren F1 built
Photo by Mike Maez, © Gooding & Company


Back in 1995 McLaren built a jaw-dropping advance on any production car and most race cars for “only” $1M, and struggled to sell 106 of them over 9 years. Now McLaren, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bugatti all routinely announce “limited” editions of so-called hypercars you’ve never heard of, with worse performance for MORE MONEY, and all 100+ cars immediately sell out before production starts. The increased wealth of the ultra-rich over 25 years is astounding, and an entire section of the car industry has cynically evolved to extract money from them like milking cows 🐄. Tax wealth!

Classic is another word for old and out-of-date

Most cars depreciate, but there are still dozens of vintage car models worth many times more their original cost. This McLaren F1 with its gold foil in the engine compartment, central driving position, bespoke V12, and 241 mph top speed is almost priceless (this example will probably auction for over $15,000,000). But in general there’s objectively nothing that makes an old sports car with less tech and performance than a $100,000 Tesla Model S worth six figures. For now there are ever-increasing numbers of crazy rich people with money to burn who want to own the sports cars they lusted over in their youth. As multi-millionaires age out and newer ones lose interest in combustion engines, I’m not sure how long the million-dollar vintage car party will continue.

Even the coffee-table F1 book now costs 4 figures. What I really want is a reproduction of the black & white Ralph Lauren Purple Label ad that’s a closeup of his two F1s parked side-by-side.

Posted in cars | Leave a comment

books: good non-fiction

Some non-fiction books that I read on paper. I sometimes wish this stuff was more interactive, even beyond a Kindle. I want to read words (15-minute YouTube videos entertain more than instruct!) and have easier access to the particular things referenced. Maybe people will read physical books wearing Google Glass spectacles.

Compelling argument to give Nick Bostrom’s institute money to study the dangers of AGI

book cover of 'Superintelligence'

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
ISBN 978-0-19-967811-2

★★★★☆ Dry yet readable explanation how we can’t understand or control an intelligence greater than ours, so we must figure out how to instill goals in it that are good for humankind (i.e. “donate to my Future of Humanity Institute”). The problem is real if far-off, and it looks like the first Artificial General Intelligence will have the goals of a sociopathic billionaire like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg.

Engaging travelogue and history guide to San Francisco

book cover of 'Cool Gray City of Love'

Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya
ISBN 978-1-60819-960-0

★★★☆☆ A clever way to present interesting details about the history, natural history, and built form of the city. It’s not a guidebook but it makes you want to visit the locations.

Unfocused rumination on alien-ness

book cover of 'Other Minds'

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
ISBN 978-0-374-22776-0

★★★☆☆ Interesting sensitive description of octopi and how different they are, but it doesn’t attempt to answer the hard questions about the nature of mind.

Weak book about an excellent project

book cover of 'The Vinyl Frontier'

The Vinyl Frontier: The story of the Voyager golden record by Jonathan Scott
ISBN 978-1-4729-5613-2

★★☆☆☆ The design, production, and curation of the audiovisual album stuck on the side of the Voyager probes is interesting, but this book quotes so heavily from the existing book written by Carl Sagan and other the participants (“Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record) that I wonder how much it adds. It feels like an extended magazine article, and it turns out the author writes for Record Collector Magazine. Also, it has five typos!

Intriguing mad scientist designs

book cover of 'The Inventions of Daedalus'

The Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes by David E. H. Jones
ISBN 0-7167-1413-2

★★★☆☆ Collection of the quasi-scientific imaginary inventions presented in New Scientist in the 1970s. Some are dated, but they still make you think.

How did I do this?

This blog post has bits of JSON-LD describing my book review that in theory tell search engines what I’m explaining; a script generates them along with the visible templated HTML that I paste into WordPress. The post “book reviews yet again” has the gory details.

Posted in books | Leave a comment

design: buttons barred, suit yourself

When I had Perry’s of Bangkok tailor a suit for me (in a very different time and place!), I knew I didn’t want that anachronistic row of buttons on the jacket sleeves. They used to work: I had a science teacher who would unbutton all 6 before rolling up his jacket sleeves, and the legendary suit that I found on the street when I was a roadsweeper (which deserves its own blog post) also had working buttons. But on nearly all suits today they don’t do anything beyond cheaply echoing the pips on military jackets that denote rank (read interesting details of “surgeon’s cuffs”).

The name is ‘P’. ‘SP’.

So instead I specified crisp equally non-functional gold bars in place of those buttons, and had Rama Jewelry in Thailand fabricate them with the simplest iteration of the ‘SP’ logo design by my imaginary company Slerge Design Industries (also deserving of a blog post). I also had Rama make some ‘SP’ cufflinks. I liked octagons at the time; Rama designed the cufflinks a little flashier than I envisioned but overall they came out really nice.

For the full brushed metal with gold accents design suite, I had a Seiko analog watch with high-tech display (it’s hard to believe that tiny monochrome strip was the biggest LCD screen anyone could fabricate), and a Montblanc Noblesse fountain pen (so much nicer than the groß Meisterstück fountain pen that later became popular). I also bought a knock-off of the Cartier Santos Decor lighter, then realized a) cigars taste awful, and b) I don’t want to light anyone’s cigarette.

(Thanks to Fred for modeling.)

Posted in design | Leave a comment

computers: bye to desktop

I realized I hadn’t powered on my old desktop PC for years. It’s an HP Pavilion I bought second-hand for $100 a decade ago, which had more features than my custom-built $3000 Falcon Northwest aluminum behemoth from 2004. I upgraded it to 2GB of RAM and replaced its power supply when the mythic “hairdryer trick” stopped working.

HP Pavilion a1012x desktop PC

It’s a relic from a different era. Although its motherboard has built-in Ethernet, it has a separate not especially powerful ATI graphics card because AMD and Intel hadn’t integrated graphics with the CPU of desktop PCs yet. It even has a fax/modem card to send and receive faxes with Windows Fax and Scan. And look at all the front-panel slots for obsolete flash memory cards, let alone the serial and parallel and PS/2 and mouse and whatever connectors the cards have on the back.

When I bought the HP Pavilion I slotted in my hard drive from the behemoth Falcon and plugged it into the wiring harness, and I could boot my existing Linux Kubuntu 9.10 and access all my existing files. Windows XP didn’t survive the transition, but the HP came with Windows Vista.

I kept it around to receive faxes, or in case I needed to run old software, or burn one CD to another, or needed to read a CompactFlash memory card, or got a Firewire device, or needed a parallel port or RS-232 serial connection (like syncing my Palm Pilot and Samsung Palmphones). … The likelihood of any of those happening is zero. It would be less hassle to buy a new USB peripheral, like the external Pioneer Blu-ray/DVD/CD/CD-ROM drive I bought to “rip” a music CD on my laptop for the first time in years.

I booted it up and it ran Kubuntu 9.10 and Windows Vista fine, but you forget how sluggish and noisy a PC with a spinning hard drive was.

Program installs and Windows Updates sucked in Windows Vista

I also forgot the hassles of installing programs and Windows Updates under Windows Vista. Each uninstall of Quicken and several years of TurboTax 20NN (the latter is pretty much the only Windows program I use outside of games that doesn’t have a free open source alternative that runs under Linux) took literally 10 minutes of thinking, mostly not even accessing the hard drive. I checked TaskMgr.exe and AVG anti-virus free edition was using up 30% of CPU; uninstalling that and rebooting sped up the rest of the program uninstalls to only take 7 minutes each. It was a great day when Microsoft integrated anti-virus into Windows!

Then I made the mistake of running “Windows Update” which failed with a classic error code 80072efe. I forgot that I had given up on Windows Update; it simply stopped working, grinding away at “checking for updates” for literally hours. There were thousands of struggling Windows Vista users reinstalling executables, running System File Checker, disabling and enabling internal Windows Services like BITS, Cryptographic, and MSI Installer. Back then I wound up downloading patches one-by-one and manually installing them. I had managed to update the machine to Vista Service Pack 2, and it turns out Microsoft never released another service pack for Vista.

Windows Defender wouldn’t update either and Vista was freaking out because with AVG banished I had no antivirus, so I tried installing the recommended Microsoft Security Essentials. However, Microsoft’s download web site is incompatible with Vista’s Internet Explorer, which displays a blank window instead of a [Download 32-bit version] button. I had already uninstalled Firefox, d’oh! So I visited the site in Firefox on my laptop, copied the static URL of the download, and put it in a gist on GitHub, only to find that Internet Explorer can’t display GitHub pages either stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye! Retro computing is not much fun.

Off to a new home the landfill

Anyway, after uninstalling these programs, deleting my Documents, Games, Pictures, Music, Videos and also the obscure application files in AppData\{Local,LocalLow,Roaming}, uninstalling all these programs, and changing the default user to “admin” with no password, I took it to Goodwill… who had a giant cardboard box for both electric and electronics donations where it was probably crushed by someone dumping a microwave on top of it. I doubt it will ever be powered on again.

Bonus: PC-TV integration was The Future in 2004

The only thing my big Falcon Northwest behemoth did differently than this desktop or any laptop since was its ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 graphics card. It could display, record, and output TV signals! To do this it came with dozens of connecting cables and breakout boxes for R,G,B,audio left, audio right,composite,component, and once set up it had a multimedia remote to drive the whole thing. “The ALL-IN-WONDER family of cards are powerful TV tuners, DVD players, Personal Video Recorders, and 2D & 3D graphics and video accelerators.” Wow! This was quite cutting-edge in 2004. I set it up in one corner of the living room (I ordered a quieter PC case with lots of sound insulation) and ran an S-Video cable to our TV. I was able to tune in and watch broadcast TV on it, display PC windows on our TV, and even recorded the Winter Olympics and a few other shows to hard drive. This seemed like the future, but it never gelled. It was too awkward to switch back and forth from running the TV to operating the PC. The remote had dozens of buttons to drive ATI’s multimedia programs but I still wound up needing to use a keyboard. Decades later this hasn’t changed. I think the only people who unify their TV and PC experience are college students who only have one screen.

I still have a bunch of proprietary .vcr video files that I recorded with the All-In-Wonder card, that even the great VLC media player can’t play… Damn! I should have installed ATI’s MultiMedia Center software to the old desktop PC to try to convert them to something more useful.

Posted in computers | Leave a comment

music: digitization and the Internet changed music, the Web didn’t

Videos-about-music maker Rick Beato made a stimulating video of “TOP 20 Inventions that CHANGED Music.” It’s entertaining and a pretty good list.


He left out the underlying technique of digitization. Without it, inventions he mentioned like CDs, PC music, Napster, and digital audio workstations, would all be impossible. Our computer devices would only be playing MIDI files – the bleeps and blurps of the soundtrack of the first DOOM videogame and early Nokia ringtones. Wikipedia says the technique of Pulse Code Modulation was invented in 1937! Then we had to wait decades for storage to become cheap and fast enough, and for Analog-to-Digital Converters (and their inverse, DACs) to increase in bit rate and decrease in cost, before digitized sound expanded from AT&T compressing voice calls for long-distance transmission to a storage format for music.

The Internet affected music, not the Web

Some people argued the list should have included the Web, because it made the Internet usable. I said no:

The web didn’t change music the way these other inventions did. Napster and P2P sharing like Bittorrent don’t use HTML or HTTP, they’re different protocols on the Internet. Before them people traded music files over other Internet protocols like USENET news groups and FTP file servers, and buying songs with the iTunes program came before widespread downloading of them from web stores. Sir Tim is my hero for solving hyperlinked presentation of remote information, but not for affecting music.

I would love it if the web had changed music more! Imagine if early multimedia CD-ROMs had successfully migrated to the web. You’d go to the artist’s web site for a new release or to a music fan like Rick Beato’s web site for a presentation of 20 great bass lines, and the pictures and text and video about the music would be integrated with a music player that plays the relevant songs (and ensures the musicians get paid). Instead all you get an audio file with the track name and an album thumbnail 🙁, or you watch a linear video. You don’t even get bloody liner notes until someone separately puts them on the web in a video description or Discogs entry.

Music as a computer file blew my fragile little mind.

Returning to digitization, turning music into files and then streams was an evolutionary process. I worked at a company that made multimedia chips (back in the days when you needed an add-on card to play PC games on Windows 3.0 and Windows 95), and we bought a $3,000 industrial CD player and installed special Windows drivers to access the 1s and 0s on a CD to turn a Pink Floyd album track into a Windows .WAV file. It was a bit-perfect copy of the song from the CD, perhaps one of the earliest to exist outside of a recording studio and years before “ripping a CD” became commonplace. It took up 1/5 of a hard drive! (Which is why games like DOOM used MIDI files for soundtracks, and sound files were only for short sound effects.) I knew turning a song into a computer file "PF_SORRO.WAV" was insanely significant and was going to change music, but I wasn’t sure how.

While writing this I learned that CDs (first prototyped in 1979) predated the first digitally recorded album, supposedly Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop (1983). Again, storage was key. I think the music on early CDs were transferred from the analog masters to digital audio tapes or digital signals on videotape (!), and the CD stampers were burned from these. It was years before each track in a recording could be stored on a hard drive. Steely Dan’s great engineer Roger Nichols has interesting recollections of the early years of digital recording.

Posted in electronics, music, software, web | Leave a comment

playing Pong with your mind vs. William Gibson

Ars Technica has an appropriately level-headed article about Elon Musk’s Neuralink company getting a monkey to play Pong with its mind, which reminds people of William Gibson:

the old Cyberpunk fan in me dreams of cyberdecks: devices without screens or without keyboards. You could have one implant in visual cortex and/or one in motor cortex and then connect wireless via Bluetooth. The latter part sounds ridiculous, but with this implant, we could build a device qualifying as a cyberdeck today.


Their misperception of his presentation of cyberspace lets me step in with exegesis of the master…

William Gibson was suitably vague about “jacking in” to the consensual hallucination of cyberspace, but the Ono-Sendai models definitely have keyboards. “distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face “; “the posture of another cowboy leaning into a deck, fingers flying across the board.” And Gibson went with electrodes, not wireless. “He knew that the trodes he used and the little plastic tiara dangling from a Simstim deck were basically the same.”

The whole panoply of interfaces Gibson presented in the sprawl series (Johnny MnemonicBurning ChromeNeuromancerCount ZeroMona Lisa Overdrive) is vague on inputs. He describes holoporn, Simstim, cyberspace, telepresence primarily by their outputs, not how you manipulate them.

Gibson’s other huge invention, microsoft, is also a brain-machine interface, also defiantly un-wireless. The silicon slivers of microsoft you slot into a carbon socket behind your ear give you knowledge of a language or kung fu or whatever (or in the exceptional case of biosoft, someone’s recollections and emotions 😍). “the microsofts he purchased were art history programs and tables of gallery sales. With half a dozen chips in his new socket, Smith’s knowledge of the art business was formidable”; “an entire body of knowledge driven into his head like a microsoft into a socket.” No web lookups required, hella cooler than playing Pong.

However, the same socket is clearly capable of controlling a machine.

  And then he was in the cockpit, breathing the new-car smell of long-chain monomers, the familiar scent of newly minted technology, and the girl was behind him, an awkward doll sprawled in the embrace of the g-web that Conroy had paid a San Diego arms dealer to install behind the pilot’s web. The plane was quivering, a live thing, and as he squirmed deeper into his own web, he fumbled for the interface cable, found it, ripped the microsoft from his socket, and slid the cable-jack home.

  Knowledge lit him like an arcade game, and he surged forward with the plane-ness of the jet, feeling the flexible airframe reshape itself for jump-off as the canopy whined smoothly down on its servos. The g-web ballooned around him, locking his limbs rigid, the gun still in his hand. “Go, motherfucker.” But the jet already knew, and g-force crushed him down into the dark.

The writing in Count Zero is soooo good.

Posted in computers, writing | Leave a comment

books: William Gibson flashes of excellence

Early William Gibson is so white-hot, not just the fantastic Sprawl series (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) but also his short stories, adaptations, and explorations. My 30-year-old web page captures all his output back then, including the rarities.

It’s unrealistic to expect that level of achievement throughout a career, and his subsequent trilogies are pleasant nearer futures with drily comic observations, a lot of cultural and branding references, engaging characters, and not a lot of plot.

He’s picked up steam in the 2010s…

Distrust That Particular Flavor

book cover of 'Distrust That Particular Flavor'

Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson ISBN 978-0-425-25299-4

★★★☆☆ Short non-fiction essay collection is essential for “Down the Line,” his sensational reverie on moving pictures from cave paintings in flickering firelight to a kid playing VR kung fu with classic movie characters.

Elegiac projected future sadness

book cover of 'The Peripheral'

The Peripheral by William Gibson ISBN 978-0 -399-15844-5

★★★★☆ The usual late Gibson: really short chapters intercutting, straightforward weak plot, the characters include a hollow man and a plucky young woman, it leads to a high-tech shootout. Add the tired Macguffin of time travel and my expectations were low. But the time travel has a clever twist, so that the intercutting is between here and now and a far future that’s post-post-apocalyptic; the rural dead-end and war veteran kids are fantastically well portrayed; the future has a bizarre trash cult. It’s the best late Gibson, and I enjoyed re-reading it.

Hilary Clinton lost

book cover of 'Agency'

Agency by William Gibson ISBN 978-1-101-98693-6

★★★☆☆ Gibson returns to the setup from The Peripheral. In interviews he talked about how Trump’s presidency threw his plans for the book into disarray, so he adds an alternate history to the time travel Macguffin which comes across self-indulgent. It’s nowhere near as strong as The Peripheral, continuing its themes but shifting the present-day thread from rural hurt to the same urban flâneur vibe as his previous trilogy e.g. Zero History.

How did I do this?

This blog post has bits of JSON-LD describing my book review that in theory tell search engines what I’m explaining. The post “book reviews yet again” has the gory details.

Posted in books | Leave a comment

Would aliens understand human music?

Listening to YouTube videos in which people get OpenAI Jukebox to continue songs, one is struck by how weird some of its flights of fancy are. Someone wondered what aliens would make of its attempts to make human music:

imagine meeting totally analytical aliens who are only used to math, and helping them understand the concept of human music using this bot… I wonder how it would go, and if they’d be able to understand the emotional meaning…

Al Sebald

Me: Interesting. The pure math of perfect intervals like the frequency doubling of an octave, and the perfect fourth of a fifth ending exactly an octave higher (3/2 x 4/3 = 2!), are independent of culture. They’re not like e.g. letters or counting in 10s. If aliens can hear vibrations, they’ll have music and will be aware of these intervals.

Me: I’m saying their number system might not influence their music, just as our doesn’t, much. If you play one perfect fifth on top of another, eventually you end up at 1.512 = 129.746 times higher frequency, which is almost exactly 7 doublings (octaves) higher; 27 = 128. And if you drop all 13 notes into the same octave range, the intervals between many notes approximate other pleasing relationships like 3:2, 4:3, etc. The way our music combines and sequences notes developed from those relationships, and then Western music mostly settled on making each note exactly 21/12 (the twelfth root of 2) higher, an “equal-temperament” tuning that lets music modulate between any key at the cost of every interval but the octave being slightly off those perfect fractions. Other musical cultures continue to divide the octave into uneven intervals that only sound good in some keys, or divide into 17 intervals (I’m no expert, but e.g. Wikipedia’s Frequently used equal temperament scale).

Maybe aliens don’t hear frequencies the way we do at all, otherwise surely they’ll respond to some of these frequency relationships. Whether they “hear” minor and major the way we do is impossible to tell. If all the aliens’ fleshy vibration organs and their instruments had an 8 octave range (1-256 times frequency) then maybe their music would just jump around all those frequencies instead of humans’ closely spaced dee-doo-doo-dee-dah-dah-dah, and they would think our music is weird. Maybe they have much better absolute time and frequency perception, so all their music is in one key starting at a frequency of exactly 8 trogzomps, and they would think all our key changes are stupid.

It’s fascinating to ponder!

Posted in music | Leave a comment

eco: energy storage is hard, gravity storage as a game

The majority of new electricity generation in North America and Europe is renewable wind and solar, hooray! But they’re variable. The wind and sun may generate more energy than is needed at times, and fall short at others. If enough of the electricity consumption isn’t variable demands that customers can shift out of periods of low renewables output (demands such as recharging EVs or pre-heating buildings), then utilities might have to fire up the evil fossil fuel plants. One way to smooth this out is to add energy storage to the grid. Tesla has made waves installing big battery packs worldwide to smooth out oversupply and shortfalls in generation. This works to store a few hours of power, which is great to increase the time that wind and solar can provide power, but not enough to make up for a shortfall extending through one or more cloudy windless winter days, or trying to power through an entire winter. So it would be great to develop some energy storage that’s cheaper than batteries.

We’ve had energy storage for years, in the form of pumped hydro. When electricity is plentiful, pump water uphill into the high reservoir, then when you need it, let the water flow back downhill through a turbine. This works well because a high-up lake holds a massive amount of water (= energy) that you didn’t pay for; and you can make the pipes quite fat (= power).

But two nearby lakes or reservoirs separated by a big vertical drop are pretty rare geography. So we need other kinds of energy storage.

Other energy storage ideas

The mainstream press is full of gee-whiz articles about energy storage. There are many ways to store energy, using:

  • gravity (Energy Vault’s ridiculous tower blocks, Gravitricity’s abandoned mineshafts, ARES’ train a-rollin’ down the tracks 🎶)
  • heat (Siemens Gamesa’s hot stone, Alphabet/Google X Malta’s molten salt)
  • flywheels (MAGFLY)
  • compressed air (two underground caverns set up a decade ago, a few planned that went nowhere)
  • liquid air (Highview Power’s CRYOBattery)
  • hydrogen (every natural gas company greenwashing to appear relevant)

And then there are all the better batteries such as flow batteries, which were apparently untarnished by the obvious scam nanoFlowcell run by serial fraudster and, I am not making this up, light pop singer Nunzio LaVecchia. Because if you’ve invented a revolutionary battery, you want to screw around making one-off concept electric vehicles and pretending they will go into production.

The latest uncritical coverage of alternative energy storage is “How to store power in soil and salt” on the BBC’s “People Fixing the World” podcast, which covers Energy Vault, Siemens Gamesa hot stone, Malta, and MAGFLY.

But when you look at actual storage bought by private companies with their own money, it seems to be lithium-ion batteries all the way. For example, the article “How US Grid Operators Plan To Tackle Energy Storage at Gigawatt Scale” doesn’t mention anything other than lithium-ion batteries.

Besides, since there will be massively more renewable energy built to electrify land transportation, heating, industrial processes, and Power2X and all of these are potential variable demands, I wonder how much longer-term storage we will actually need.

Anyway, let’s focus on man-made gravity storage.

Gravity storage!

Start-ups think “Let’s lift something else heavy into the air!”… not thinking too hard. They make great pitches and videos, but it’s close to nonsense.

Why this is dumb part one: common sense

Common sense can be wrong, but you may have noticed:

  • Riding elevators and escalators is free, even in really tall buildings, no matter how much you weigh.
  • Skyscraper management companies don’t roll tons of filing cabinets into their elevators at night and weekends to make some money raising and lowering elevators.
  • You don’t see farmers leaving their heavy farm equipment suspended high in the air before a potential power cut so they can generate some electricity.

Why this is dumb part two: let’s do some math

The potential or gravitational energy in an object of mass m at a height h above the ground is simply m × g × h, where g is the acceleration due to gravity, which is about 9.8 m/s2 at the surface of the Earth

I find a units calculator invaluable to do the energy conversions and keep track of the units for things like this. There’s an online version of the GNU units conversion program and scientific calculator at which knows how to convert between units and knows several values including the Earth’s acceleration due to gravity. You can paste all the calculations below into its Convert line, enter desired units in its To field, then click [Convert].

How much energy does it take to raise 1 tonne 100 meters into the air (the height of a 23 story building)

Convert: 1 tonne * gravity * 100 meters

⟶ Definition: 980665 kg m^2 / s^2

Almost a million chunks of whatever “kilogram meters squared per seconds squared” sounds like a lot of energy, maybe we should find a nearby office building and Make Money Fast Tonite! When dealing with electricity we usually deal in kilowatt·hours; you probably pay around $0.10 – $0.20 for each one from the utility whether you use it to run a microwave for an hour or keep an LED lightbulb lit all week.. If you put kWh into the To line of the units calculator, you get

⟶ 1 tonne * gravity * 100 meters = 0.27240694 kWh

Son of a bitch, 1/4 of a kWh doesn’t look like the path to riches! That’s how much energy it’ll take to raise the tonne in the elevator, assuming no losses. Lowering the elevator and spinning a generator is inevitably going to get you less energy than this (no perpetual motion machines in this universe), so even if you pay cheap night-time rates to raise a load of crap then lower the elevator when electricity is expensive, you’re going to make at best less than a nickel.

Let’s flip things around a little. Our energy company is competing with batteries. How much can a single rechargeable NiMH AA battery raise? The Eneloop AA is about 1,940 mAh or milliAmpere hours, which means it could deliver 2 amps for an hour. That’s not energy, because how much damage it can do depends on the voltage. The Eneloop’s nominal voltage is about 1.2 Volts. So how high can a single AA battery lift a TON?

Convert: 1940 milliampere hours * 1.2 V / ( 1 tonne * gravity )
To: meters
⟶ 0.85460376 meters

And now you can see why backyard tinkerers don’t hoist their cars int the air in case there’s a power outage: that will barely deliver the energy of a 4-pack of AA batteries. Tesla Powerwall has nothing to fear.

Why this is hard: “Let’s make it up in volume”

Energy = m × g × h is a simple formula. All that these gravity energy storage companies can do is fiddle with mass and height. But it’s really hard to increase either to meaningful amounts of storage. To store and recover the same amount of energy as in a midrange Tesla Model 3’s battery pack (60 kWh), you’ll need about 300 elevators each lifting a tonne 100 meters. Obviously instead you’ll use a few elevators lifting much more weight much further. But it becomes vastly harder to lift 1000 tons a kilometer into the air.

Energy Vault’s idea is to raise and lower 35-ton blocks into the air, constructing and deconstructing a vast Jenga tower. It has an amazing computer animation of how great this is.

Here is its demonstration system (I think this is a real photo, not a computer render) in Ticino, Italy:

It’s 110 meters tall, so basically the height from my calculation above, but much heavier blocks that are raised and lowered in pairs, one at each end of one of the three gantries to reduce stress on the cranes. So maximum energy per pair of blocks is

⟶ 2 * 35 tonnes * gravity * 100 meters = 19.068486 kWh

So it stores 1/3 of the energy that a Tesla Model 3 battery can, for about 140 times the weight. The demonstration crane is not actually raising and lowering anything yet. Here’s the fantasy, showing half of two of the cranes dismantling the top of the Jenga tower:

But there are huge problems with this.

The average height each block is raised. The only blocks that benefit from the full height drop are the highest-most ones which are the first ones you lower and the last ones you raise. As you dismantle more of the tower, each block generates less and less energy, to the point that it’s not worth lowering the lowest row of blocks. You can only lower every block to the ground if the cranes spread the blocks further away, but now this takes up a lot more space, the crane arms must be much more robust, etc.

The money cost and environmental cost of the materials. Energy Vault claims it’s going to use a cheap cement mix. But the blocks have to fit together well for years.

The money cost of the cranes. Look at how elaborate the demonstration unit is:

That looks hella expensive. Disqus user “dcarde” commented on an uncritical article in IEEE Spectrum (an engineering site!) that the winch to lower two 35 ton weights

is a 4,000 horsepower winch. It is a massive beast 30 feet long, 15 feet wide, weighing 160,000 lbs. It has two big gearboxes with two 1,000 horsepower motor/generators on each (4 motors total for each winch), lube cooling system, a massive emergency friction brake operated by a hydraulic system able to stop a runaway 80,000 load hurtling toward the ground. It has tons of sensors, encoders, and costs about 4 million USD. Yes, you need six of these. And no, they must sit on the ground and feed wire rope up the tower to the jib sheaves 160 meters up. Each winch will also have a 36 foot long house (container) for four VFD drives, regenerative braking system for emergency operation, air conditioning for cooling.

That is before discussing the complication of the Tower jibs. You have three massive slew axes with closed loop positioning to rotate the jib cranes independently, and six horizontal traveling assemblies to radially locate the top block. …

The rapid accurate positioning required. To generate substantial power, the winches can’t lower each pair of blocks in 5 seconds and then slow down and spend a minute gingerly maneuver each block into position while two people in hardhats talk to the crane operator over walkie-talkies. It has to be fast and completely automated. It has to work in the wind.

The wear and tear on the cables. 1-ton elevator cables have a long service life. 35 ton blocks being rapidly lifted and lowered put a lot more stress on cables.

Other gravity storage concepts

Gravitricity’s idea is to raise and lower tons of material in existing abandoned mine shafts. ARES’ idea is to drive a train pulling heavy train cars up and down existing steep train tracks. But both have the same problem as Energy Vault – where do you put the weights at the top and bottom? The mine shaft or train track might be several times as deep/high as the Energy Vault Jenga tower, but to store a lot of energy you need to store many units at the top and the bottom of the drop. For the mine, you need an automated container yard like the ones at a port to move multiple weights on and off the cable at the surface and another one deep underground in the mine; for the train, you need an automated switching yard full of rail cars at the top and bottom of the mountain. Gravitricity has the problem that existing mineshafts are narrow. So to increase the mass they have to lower a long narrow heavy weight. That might make the underground container yard impossible, but a single weight permanently in the shaft would put even more stress on the cables, and could be so long that it reduces the height drop.

Gamify it!

Apropos of this, I offer my surefire hit computer game idea for free: Energy Vault Tycoon Simulator!

You try to make money with these contraptions, struggling to code AI to raise and lower blocks fast enough and accurately enough to store/generate electricity at high power, trying to build blocks cheap that won’t wear out, firing and rehiring the cadre of construction workers needed to keep each crane working, shutting down in high winds, realizing that raising then lowering a heavy object actually takes and recoups a tiny amount of electricity, and that many of the blocks you raise and lower generate even less electricity. The game ends in an emotional meeting with Masayashi Son where he says his so-called Vision Fund is pulling the plug on further investment, joining his other venture capital flameouts.

Tagline “Have fun and learn as you fight physics… and eventually lose!”

Posted in eco | Leave a comment