Sunday, November 27, 2005

Honda Accord Hybrid review.

Like everyone else in California, I bought myself a hybrid car recently. I have a 2005 Honda Accord Hybrid. This is a larger and more powerful sedan than the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight. I test-drove those, but I didn't like them very much. They were small, underpowered and felt fragile on the road. The Accord, by contrast, feels solid, handles well, and accelerates respectably when you ask it to.

Of course, I needed some high-tech California personalized plates to go with the car. Fortunately, this one was available. Note the deft combination of my interests in scuba diving and high-performance embeddable database technology.

I used to drive a Subaru Legacy Outback wagon with all-wheel drive. That was our mountain car, and I had bike racks and ski racks mounted interchangeably on the roof. A couple of months earlier, my wife traded in her Toyota Avalon for a Toyota Highlander hybrid with four-wheel drive. That meant that we had two mountain cars. When my Subaru got needy, I decided to trade down to a sensible city car.

I bought the Honda with confused motives. I wanted a car that I enjoyed driving, and I was sure that I would have gone nuts in a Prius or an Insight. At the same time, I wanted to get hybrid mileage. This was about the time that gas spiked above three dollars a gallon, and I wanted to burn less oil.

The Accord's EPA mileage estimate is 37mpg highway and 27 mpg city, but in practice, it does considerably worse. My commute to work is short -- just four miles (I can't bike, alas), so in my first month or so of driving it, I was averaging about 19.5 mpg. For contrast, I used to get 22 mpg in my Subaru! My wife gets around 28mpg in city driving in her Highlander.

Too late, I did a bunch of research on hybrids and gas mileage. Here are the bullet points:

The first bullet bugs me tremendously. If you're from the EPA and you read this post, please fix your mileage estimates. On top of that, there just wasn't much I could do about either of the first two issues. The third, at least, held out some hope for improvement.

The Accord, like other hybrid cars, has a display screen that will tell you what the car is doing while you are driving it. You can use that screen, along with some other dashboard indicators, to understand what kind of mileage you are getting instantaneously, and what your average mileage is.

The Toyota has the same kind of display. (Sooner or later, somene is going to get into an accident caused by staring at the dashboard rather than watching the road.) If you were foolhardy enough to use your mobile phone to take a picture of the Accord's "trip info" display while you were driving, it would look like this.

Pretty fuzzy, pretty hard to read, because it's hard to hold a cell phone steady in a moving car. That blue bar coming in at the top left of the image tells you that the car is getting thirty miles per gallon just at that instant. That's a reasonable number for tooling down a city street. Because of all the stops and starts you do in city driving, it's hard to do much better than thirty or forty miles per gallon in any sustained way on this display. You can do much better on the freeway.

Just a short while after taking that photograph, I pulled into a gas station to refuel, and took this clearer picture of the display. In this shot, you can see that I am stopped (the blue bar says zero mpg), that I have averaged 23.5 mpg for a total of 301.3 miles on the trip, and that the motor ran for eleven hours and four minutes.

Twenty-three and a half miles per gallon is about four miles per gallon better than my average, up to this point. I did that much better by using the fuel efficiency display on the dashboard, and by driving to maximize my instantaneous mileage. For three hundred miles, I had that display on all the time, and tried to make that blue bar as long as I could. I made much slower accelerations from stoplights and stop signs. I tended not to accelerate or brake nearly as much in ordinary driving as I had before. Those are arguably good driving skills to have, anyway. It really does take some attention to change a lifetime of driving habits, though.

Even with those changes, I wasn't able to get near the 27mpg that the EPA promised me I'd get in city driving. My record for highway driving is 35mpg, nearly the 37mpg that the EPA advertises for the Honda. I was only able to do that well by paying careful attention to instantaneous fuel efficiency on the display. Cruise control helps here.

When I researched the car before buying, I learned that Honda's hybrid technology is different from Toyota's. Honda calls its system "Integrated Motor Assist", or IMA. In a Honda, the gasoline engine is always running, and the electric motor kicks in occasionally to deliver extra power. In a Toyota, by contrast, the system is called "Synergy Drive." A Toyota will run either on just the electric engine, or on the gasoline engine, depending on what the driver is doing. My wife backs her Highlander out of the garage on just the electric engine, totally silently. I believe that this difference is a big advantage for the Toyota. Certainly my wife's much better mileage in the much bigger car suggests that there are advantages to Synergy Drive.

Both makes do obvious things, like stopping the gasoline engine when you brake at a stoplight. The braking energy charges the batteries for the elecric engine.

I don't mean to whine, here. I like my car. Having the electric assist gives me lots of power on the highway for passing and acceleration. It's like driving a V8 engine with V6 fuel efficiency. After owning this one for a few months, though, I wouldn't recommend to others that they buy a Honda hybrid. The gasoline mileage is really disappointing, and that is a primary concern for anyone who buys a hybrid.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving!

The US shuts down today for the Thanksgiving holiday. Jon Carroll explains why.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Aurora borealis in central Nebraska.

I've never seen the Northern Lights. That's still a goal. It's an interesting phenomenon. High-energy particles that make up the solar wind are captured by the Earth's magnetic field at the poles, and travel down the field along lines of magnetic force. The ions collide with atmospheric gases and produce a glow. Before the science was sorted out, folkloric explanations included fires started by foxes, an earth-heaven bridge for gods, or a game of football played with a walrus skull.

Because the Earth's magnetic field is a polar phenomenon, you generally need to be pretty far north (or south) to see an aurora. Last May, however, a photographer in Blair, Nebraska shot some amazing pictures of the lights from a rooftop. Blair is about 30 miles north of Omaha, halfway to Tekamah. It's further south than Chicago, and much further south than Boston.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Links for 13 Nov 2005

Friday, November 11, 2005

Sony's rootkit DRM.

There's a ton of coverage of Sony's ill-considered DRM software (here, here, here and here, just to get you started). I have nothing to add to the debate, but I'll concur with a popular view: Trying to use technology to solve a legal problem is just as dumb as trying to use the legal system to solve a technical problem.

Need proof? Here's an interesting piece by Declan McCullagh, in which he points out that (a) it was probably illegal for Sony to install the software on users' computers, and (b) it's probably illegal for users to uninstall the software once it's there.

Sometimes the absurdity just reaches right out and whacks you.

[UPDATE on 12 Nov 2005: Microsoft's anti-malware team announces that it will remove Sony's rootkit from infected computers. It would be interesting to sit in on some meetings in Japan this coming week.]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The right kind of greatness.

An old friend with close ties to the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills send me an intriguing email message yesterday: A private showing was scheduled for this afternoon at Chabot's new Digital Planetarium. Entrance was restricted, but she could get me a pair of tickets if I wanted them. She thought I might, because Dr. Stephen Hawking would attend, and she knows what a groupie I am of Dr. Hawking's.

I snapped up the tickets -- I decided to take my daughter, who is approaching the age where girls stop thinking science is cool, and who needs some amazing experiences to keep her head right on the topic.

It was magical. The show in the planetarium spanned 1030 meters, or 65 billion light years: from the surface of the Earth to the edge of the Universe. The journey was projected on the dome roof using a custom projection system built from a collection of ordinary PCs with graphics cards, reading a database of the positions of celestial objects managed on a clustered file system, with the whole thing driven in real-time from a console.

Doesn't sound very sexy, does it? Try it this way: Galaxies went zooming past our heads. We visualized the sphere, at about 75 light years out, marking the boundary of radio emissions from the Earth, and saw the stars in that sphere with planets around them. Is there intelligent life on those planets? Do they know about us from our radio smoke? If they do, I wonder what they wonder about us. We saw the large-scale structure of the Universe, both in the distribution of galaxies and in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Now that's sexy.

We saw Dr. Hawking arrive and leave. We were waiting in the lobby when he passed us on his way into the planetarium in his wheelchair. After the planetarium show, he offered just a few comments -- he had a talk tonight to give at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, so stayed for just a short while. His comments were interesting: If, he pointed out, the atmosphere were just a little cloudier, or if our eyesight were just a little poorer, we would never have divined the deep laws of physics, and might never have developed the science that marks our age so profoundly. Our understanding of physical law derives from our understanding of gravity, and it was Galileo and Kepler and Newton who conceived that understanding, from the motion of stars and planets in the night sky. It was an unusual insight: because we can only conceive of those things we can see, we need some kind of radio smoke ourselves, if we are to learn about the Universe we live in.

My daughter and I had a chance to talk about Dr. Hawking on our drive home. Some people are famous for being rich or pretty to look at, but they don't matter very much. Some, like sports stars, are famous for their skills, and those skills were developed by hard work. Whether they matter in the large sense or not, their dedication and effort demand respect. Dr. Hawking is famous better reasons. His is among the finest minds of our generation, exploring the Big Bang and black holes and the nature of time from evidence most of us can't see. His continued efforts in the face of the progress of ALS are an inspiration. It's impossible for me to imagine what it would be, to be locked inside a body that refused to act, with a mind that worked perfectly. That refusal to despair is the right kind of greatness.

After his remarks, Dr. Hawking left to prepare for his speech at the Paramount, and my daughter and I hit the hors d'oeuvres bar. Chabot opened two of their three telescopes -- the eight-inch refracting telescope (built in the 1880s!) and their 24-inch refractor. We saw Mars low on the horizon through a soupy atmosphere, and the moon higher in the sky and considerably sharper because of it.

We got our amazing experience.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lessig on ICANN and TLD policy.

This is interesting. Larry Lessig surprises me. He argues first that splitting responsibility for TLDs among different DNS roots wouldn't cause any technical problems in address resolution, so taking exclusive jurisdiction away from ICANN wouldn't be a problem. He follows that with a second observation: That ICANN has developed a practice of exerting as little policy guidance as possible, concentrating instead on a narrow technical program to satisfy its mission. On that basis, he says, adding TLD servers would be a bad thing. If a new TLD administrator decided to lobby for legislation on content or transmission, it would really mess up the Internet.

Before reading it, I'd have taken the exact opposite position: Splitting address resolution among TLDs requires too much coordination, and ICANN's execution has created much too much concern among stakeholders about its intent. It may not make policy, but it has seemed so far willing to drop its administrative knitting and run off in search of policy battles to fight.

But Lessig makes a good argument. I'm not entirely persuaded -- I think his confidence in the technical administration of DNS roots is too high. If a new top-level administrator wasn't able to properly decide what names it owned and what it didn't, the rest of the Internet, wherever addresses got resolved, would suffer.

Nevertheless, it's a good article, with some interesting reasoning. Lessig has an insightful take on the political maneuvering behind the scenes, and the extent to which US foreign policy generally, and the confused mission of the UN, conspire to make fast, smart decisions impossible. I agree on one point strongly -- with authority split among WIIS, WIPO and others, the UN looks to have terrible execution problems in any real governance role.

Links for 8 Nov 2005

  • The military applications of Silly String.
  • Optical Illusion o' the Day: Tom Stafford and Matt Webb explain the mechanism for this effect in Mind Hacks. Movement processing happens earlier in the visual system than does color processing, and movement processing is more effective at the periphery of your vision than is color procesing. Evolutionarily, it makes sense to notice something at the edge of your vision that's moving, and not to worry about what color it is.
  • More visual system effects by Stuart Antsis at UCSD.
  • Buzz Game: Old news by now, but worth a look if you haven't seen it.
  • From Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools: Shapelock and Friendly Plastic. Dave Boulton says: "ShapeLock and Friendly Plastic are repackaging a polyester-like stuff called polycaprolactone (PCL). This particular formulation is sold by Dow as TONE P-767. It is inert, FDA approved bio-compatible, and biodegradable. Tensile strength is around 3500 PSI. Melts at 60 C,and is WAY fun to play with."
  • More cool tools: the car chip.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Wonderfest this weekend!

Late notice, but in case you're in Berkeley (Saturday) or Palo Alto (Sunday), you may want to carve free some time for Wonderfest. Dan Wertheimer of Project Seti@Home sent me a note to let me know it was happening. Looks like a great day, and a fitting way to remember Carl Sagan.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Update: Sound and fury

I expected to get a few corrections when I posted this, and I have. Let me shine the bright light on a few factual errors in the original post.

First, I was flat wrong: Oracle 10g Express isn't an Oracle Lite derivative. Express is a limited version of Oracle's 10g product line. The Express version pulls out certain features, including support for spatial data, grid deployment, some enterprise management tools, and others. More significantly, deployment is limited to single-CPU systems managing no more than 4GB of data. Total cache size is limited to 1GB.

I guessed early, and I think my guess was pretty clever. Too bad that's not enough!

Second, I said that 10g was a preannouncement, not available. Not quite right. A beta version is available for download, but the production version won't be ready until later this year. I've not downloaded and test-driven the product myself, but I understand that there were a few glitches in the beta installation that were relatively easy to work around, and that the binary then installed and worked as advertised.

Finally, Rex Wang commented on my original post that Oracle's move was the same as an earlier announcement by Sybase. He was right, and I ought to have pointed the same thing out. In fact, if any company should look on this move with concern, Sybase should. If there are two no-charge, low-end databases available from big relational companies, you'll probably take the one Oracle offers.

My original conclusion stands: It's community, not price, that will determine the success of these products in the market. I believe that the open source players are much more successful there already, and I am deeply skeptical that free beer builds lasting relationships.