music: stupidly great and in love

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Setting up a global guarantee

One of the sweetest love songs is “Wonderful World,” written and performed by Sam Cooke (who rewrote the original Lou Adler & Herb Alpert song). Go listen:

Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for

But I do know one and one is two
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Beautiful! The acknowledgment of failure gives the song its power. There’s knowing things which not everyone can do, but there’s also knowing an emotional truth which no one can gainsay. Merely being together would make the world wonderful, with the derivation from 1+1=2 left to smarter minds.

The song doesn’t glamorize dumbness; in a beautiful third musical motif, knowledge is a route to winning love:

Now, I don’t claim to be an A student
But I’m trying to be
For maybe by being an A student, baby
I can win your love for me

Cooke beats himself up some more about what he doesn’t know:

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

This is almost painful to hear, but that punishing enumeration of failure makes what he says he knows in the upcoming chorus unchallengeable. In the second chorus it was enough to be together with the beloved, but that’s not quite enough. He’s completely open and direct:

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me, too
What a wonderful world this would be

He links the undeniable truth of his own feelings to knowing a brave conditional; again the logical proof is up to smarter people. If the song opened with this it would be a weak plea to return his feelings; instead, everything he admits he doesn’t know sets the scene for this to feel like a true statement about the world. Just love him back, not for yourself, but for global nirvana!

Simpleton with untold E-$$$

29 years later, Andy Partridge of XTC wrote a song with a similar basis, “Mayor of Simpleton.” Go listen:

Never been near a university,
Never took a paper or a learned degree,
And some of your friends think that’s stupid of me,
But it’s nothing that I care about

Well I don’t know how to tell the weight of the sun,
And of mathematics well I want none,
And I may be the Mayor of Simpleton,
But I know one thing and that’s I love you

This is a delicious homage to Sam Cooke with the same wistful acknowledgement of no book learning, while knowing the same undeniable truth of “I love you.” But Andy Partridge isn’t as sweet, he’s already set the relationship in a wider social world that Cooke only references indirectly with the implied school setting. Where Cooke offers a conditional wonderful world without exploring it, leaving the music to conjure up sweetness and warmth, Partridge makes an explicit promise in a third musical motif:

When their logic grows cold and all thinking gets done,
You’ll be warm in the arms of the Mayor of Simpleton

Again like Cooke, in a fourth motif the song doesn’t glamorize dumbness. But Partridge goes on to point out the subterfuges he doesn’t have access to:

I’m not proud of the fact that I never learned much,
Just feel I should say,
What you get is all real, I can’t put on an act,
It takes brains to do that anyway

Then “Mayor of Simpleton” goes into overdrive. At the same point in the song where Cooke reuses his chorus to offer a conditional wonderful world for love returned, Partridge comes in low and direct, reusing his opening motif for his own conditional with a completely different allusion:

If depth of feeling is a currency,
Then I’m the man who grew the money tree,

Here I reliably start crying, in awe of the songwriting chops and the emotional depths he’s sounding. He maps love onto an uncomfortable hard axis of money, then immediately and utterly transcends it with the organic mysterious three-dimensional “money tree” he and/or his feelings have grown. Like Cooke’s guarantee of “if you love me back -> wonderful world” , this only works because of everything else in the song up until now; if the song started out “I love you like a million-dollar tree” we’d be left cold.

Again Partridge turns to the smart set he’s up against:

Some of your friends are too brainy to see,
That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay

By 1989 the culture of greed and money was in full swing in Britain, so the allusion is powerful and extends the reach of the song beyond just romance. The personal is political. But when that’s all done you’ll be warm in his arms. One of the best songs of all time, let alone best love songs.

The heavyweights chime in, sort of

Paul McCartney and Sting also tried to link dumbness and love, with Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” and The Police’s “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da.” They acknowledge their difficulty in expressing the wonders of love but they’re too pompous to bluntly state how dumb they are before saying something simple.

Listen to Silly Love Songs:

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you

It’s a love song that’s also a meta song about songwriting, which inevitably distances it from the emotional lives of us non-songwriters. Like Cooke and Partridge, McCartney says “I love you”, but it’s not struggling against any personal failing beyond his embarrassment at blurting it out.

In a lovely second bridge, McCartney bumps up hard against the problem:

How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one
How can I tell you about my loved one

The repetition is magnetic but hold on, McCartney seems to be talking to a different person than his beloved! If only he’d been able to fit “How can I tell you about my love for you, my loved one” into the line, the song would be immeasurably better.

In a marvelous background line as the song rebuilds around its bass line, Linda McCartney alludes to the depth of feeling:

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see

Now he’s bounced the problem to her, but that leaves us on the outside humming along to a song about the incoherent intensity of their feelings for each other. And although no one can blame their inability, not explaining isn’t a patch on having a dunce unexpectedly unleash “If depth of feeling is a currency, then I’m the man who grew the money tree” to leave no doubt.

Listen to De Do Do … etc.:

A reliably gorgeous Andy Summers intro sets up the song. Sting says he’s having trouble, but immediately uses clever talk to reassure us and himself that he’s not to be blamed for inadequacy:

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
They’re only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind

And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me

(The “rape” talk is cringeingly awkward now, it was merely uncomfortable back in 1986.)

De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
Their innocence will pull me through
De do do do de da da da
Is all I want to say to you
De do do do de da da da
They’re meaningless and all that’s true

Sting said to Rolling Stone “I was trying to make an intellectual point about how the simple can be so powerful. Why are our favourite songs ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’?” That’s a noble meta-songwriter aim like McCartney’s, and the song beautifully implies all its nonsense words are just “I love you.” But Sting doesn’t set the translation of his feelings into Klingon subtitles against anything that would give it emotional heft. The wordless instrumental break is an opportunity missed.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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music: talent overload on Aretha Franklin recording

“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” is a perfect pop song, then check the personnel and it’s not surprising – the talent involved is off the charts. Co-written by Stevie Wonder; Aretha’s own gorgeous piano intro then Donny Hathaway on electric piano; Jerry Wexler and Arif Marden producing; Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie nailing those knocks on your door and taps on your window, Hugh McCracken on guitar (Steely Dan hired all three chasing the same magic); almighty background vocals from Cissy Houston and more; WTF, Eumir Deodato doing the arranging?!!

I notice Arif Marden produced many of the R&B songs I’m enjoying, from the ’70s through the ’90s: Average White Band, Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti, …

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eco: carbon offsets to avoid hell

Shamefully, I’ve been traveling a lot recently. This is terrible for the climate, keeping a jet aloft at 600 mph uses tons and tons of fuel that turn into even more tons of CO2. The answer is to not fly, but if you do fly anyway, you can offset your carbon by paying for someone else to reduce their CO2 usage. This is easy to make fun of – rich people buying their way out of their sins – but is better than not doing it.

Next step is to choose an offset program you can trust. You want the biggest CO2 reduction for your money, but the environmental project your money funds must be verifiable (for example the farmer really does reforest a large area), permanent (the farmer doesn’t allow logging next year), and without leakage (the logging company doesn’t simply log elsewhere). There are organizations that certify projects such as Gold Standard, and organizations that certify carbon offset companies, and organizations that certify the organizations the other organizations…

Next is a calculator for your CO2. This is where it gets weird. For a return flight from San Francisco to San Diego,

  • air mile calculators think the one-way distance is 447 miles (720 kilometers).
  • Carbon Neutral thinks the distance is bigger 785 km (490 miles), the CO2 is 0.23 tonnes (regardless of flight class) and the offset costs $3.12 (£2.30). You can set your flight class but it doesn’t seem to affect the CO2.
  • NativeEnergy agrees the distance is 447 miles, the CO2 is 1.13 tons (1 tonne) regardless of flight class. So it thinks flying is really bad. It also rounds up to the next imperial ton, so it wants me to buy 2 tons of CO2 offset for $28.
  • TerraPass thinks the CO2 equivalent is 0.224 tonnes and the offset costs $2.47. Its rate per tonne is only $11 ($4.99 per 1000 lbs). Its calculator doesn’t let you enter a flight class, nor can you enter more than one person per flight (it’s focused on calculating your individual carbon footprint, not the carbon footprint of a family’s flight), nor does it show the CO2 for each flight, it just shows a running total.

From this, Terrapass’s rate is $11 /metric tonne, CarbonNeutral’s is $13, and NativeEnergy is $13.66. I don’t have the time or stamina to use every calculator to price each of my trips. Does TerraPass’s lower rate mean it is more cost-effective, or is backing projects with more bang for each buck, or is fiddling its books?!

I went with TerraPass due to its Green-e cerfitication and low price, despite its poor calculator. But when I first went to pay for some worthy project, oh noes!: uses an invalid security certificate. The certificate is not trusted because the issuer certificate is unknown. The server might not be sending the appropriate intermediate certificates. An additional root certificate may need to be imported. Error code: SEC_ERROR_UNKNOWN_ISSUER

Philosophically, if these projects are worthwhile, why does it matter how much I travel? I should donate all my money to them while staying home. Climate change is the single most pressing event facing planet Earth.

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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 regularly drops out and pauses for less than a second. 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 reposition the Big Jambox to project sound 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 puck 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 puck

Years later the Big Jambox’s battery is dead, there are no software updates for it, and Jawbone the company 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 puck 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 puck so I have one less wall wart. I think any USB port can supply at least one power unit, 100 mA, at 5 Volts, and I think that’s all the Chromecast Audio puck uses.
    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. 3.5mm input for ad hoc connections to friends’ phones.

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 puck 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.

my office area with standing desk surface

Two speakers would work in the office…

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

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 puck. 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.
  • JBL Authentics 16 “retro wireless USB speaker”, very wide
  • 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 was The Wirecutter’s favorite Bluetooth speaker. I was close to buying it, but it seems discontinued. You can’t buy it new on Amazon or from the manufacturer!
  • Polk Woodbourne: no USB
  • Riva Festival: this implements the Chromecast protocol, so you don’t need a separate Chromecast Audio Puck (… until the speaker stops getting software updates like my Big Jambox). This model is The Wirecutter’s favorite Chromecast speaker.
  • 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: all lack the optical input. (Stupidly, the B&W Zeppelin gets high ratings for sound quality, and the previous Zeppelin Air model did support optical in via its combo audio/optical 3.5mm Aux in, but B&W dropped this on the current Zeppelin Wireless.) 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” seller. Despite the Amazon logo, emails from, and account and customer service on, 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. instead of (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, 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 , but who can tell the subtlety of that distinction with the definitely fake ?! 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.


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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