EV Diary 2: The Honeymoon Continues

Minor update to my experiences with the ID.4 after a second road trip

My last post about having an electric car ended a couple weeks after my first road trip in it, from Oakland down to Los Angeles. I’d been worried about how much it’d change the dynamic of a long-distance drive, but in practice, the only difference was having more time to relax along the way while the car was charging. Tacking a couple of hours to the total trip time seemed like a small price to pay for not ending the trip still raging over all the drivers who insist on cruising in the left lane on I-5 instead of getting over.

The first week of November, I took a second road trip down to LA, and the results were about the same. It’s a comfortable, almost pleasant, drive now. And my total expenses (apart from having to spend the bulk of the day driving) were $8.50 for Taco Bell. The only thing that changed was that Taco Bell got demoted from “surprisingly delightful” to “at best, a sometimes food, and for road trips only.”

When I got the idea to make an EV Diary, I was sure that there were all these hidden aspects to driving an EV that people just weren’t writing about. There had to be a fundamental shift in the day-to-day experience, right?

Turns out: not really. The only real difference is that instead of spending 5 minutes at a gas station once every couple of weeks, I spend 30-40 minutes outside a Target1And invariably, inside a Target every three weeks or so.

The biggest change to my driving has nothing to do with electric vehicles, and is instead an aspect of the safety features added to most mid-to-high-end cars of the past several years. I already had similar on my last car2A Honda Insight, which is a traditional hybrid that is soon to be replaced completely by the Civic, Accord, and Clarity if my predictions are correct., and it was crucial for avoiding an accident. A car in front of me on the freeway had failed to stop, causing a four-car pileup with some injuries. My car automatically applied the brakes and slammed to a stop before I even had a chance to realize what was happening.

Fortunately, I haven’t had any similar incidents with the ID.4. I did have what I was sure was a minor accident on my last road trip: over the course of the trip, I kept running into a couple of guys in a similar ID.4 at the same charging stations at the same time. At one of them, they were watching as I was trying to back into a charging spot, which of course made me nervous and completely incompetent at backing into a charging spot. I felt a slam as I backed the car into the charging station, and I quickly got out, hoping I’d been driving slowly enough that I hadn’t caused any damage. When I looked, though, the car was still at least a foot away from colliding with anything. The back-up sensor had slammed on the brakes before I could do any damage.

More than that, though, the collision avoidance system allows for what they’re calling “adaptive cruise control.”3Yes, I’m aware that describing a feature that’s been available for years like that makes me sound like a grandpa. On every car I’ve ever had, I’ve hated cruise control and never used it. There’s not much more harrowing than feeling the car accelerate when my foot’s not on the accelerator, so I tend to turn it off immediately.

The drive along I-5 is a perfect test case for it, though, so I tried it out on my last road trip. This iteration of it is near-perfect. You set your desired speed, and it’ll try to keep at that speed unless there’s anything in front of you. In that case, it goes as fast as it can up to that speed, keeping a Volkswagen-calculated “safe” distance away from the vehicle in front.

It’s surprisingly good at recognizing the vehicle in front, too: on the instrument cluster, it’ll show you an image of the vehicle and how far away it is, changing between a truck, a car, and a motorcycle as appropriate. Surprising to me was that it even was able to account for people seeing my “safe” distance as an invitation to cut me off, gradually slowing down to make room for the interloper.

It’s still a long way from autonomous driving, which is fine by me because I have less than zero interest in autonomous driving. I think of self-driving cars in much the same way that I think about roundabouts: even if you show me that they’re statistically safer, they still freak my shit out.

I had the ACC on for much of the drive down to LA and most of the drive back. On top of the convenience, it seemed to be better for energy efficiency than my own driving, too. I ended up with a much higher charge on exiting the Grapevine, and I chose to make a third charging stop out of convenience more than necessity.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that it gets rid of much of the stress of being surrounded by asshole drivers: the people who follow too closely to the car in front of them, and are always lightly tapping on their brakes as a result. Whenever I get behind one of those people, I instinctively tap the brakes as soon as I see their brake lights, which is both annoying and gradually stressful as it accumulates over the miles. Here, I could just let the ACC do its thing, trusting that it would slow the car as necessary in time for me to slam on the brakes if I suddenly needed to.

Just about everything else in the ID.4 fits that same mindset: it relieves as much stress as possible from driving, and it’s comfortable, and it does exactly what I need it to do. I’d expected the honeymoon period to be over by now, and I’d start to notice more of the faults, or I’d just stop thinking about the car altogether. Instead, it’s actually growing on me. I like it more the more I drive it, and I’m looking for more and more excuses to drive it. I can feel myself turning into one of those insufferable people who loves his car and can’t stop talking about it. I’m not yet at the point of getting VW or ID.4 vanity license plates yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

EV Diary: Test Drive to Road Trip

Observations after about 2 months living with the Volkswagen ID.4

A couple of months ago, after about 13 years driving traditional hybrids, I got my first all-electric car, a Volkswagen ID.4. I had a set of requirements that narrowed the list of candidates down quite a bit:

  • My lease was ending in August, so I was limited to EVs available then.
  • Both because I can’t charge at home and because I wanted something suitable for road trips, I wanted a range of at least 200 miles.
  • No Tesla, because I hate Elon Musk and I hate the way the company does business, from deceptive pricing in their ads (taking “estimated gas savings” off the MSRP!), to building a proprietary charging network, to perverting the perception of EVs from environmental responsibility to dick-swinging for rich people.
  • I’d been hoping for a mid-life crisis convertible, so I wanted something that was at least a little bit fun to drive.

Even with just a few options left, I still went back and forth quite a bit over which one made the most sense. All the online discussion around EVs either made it sound either like it was a complete non-issue, which seemed unlikely; or that you spend all of your time fixated on routing to the next charging station, becoming intimately familiar with kWh/hour charging rates, charging curve, and your miles per kWh.

I wanted to see more accounts of what it was like to drive an EV day-to-day, for an average person. So here’s my thoughts on owning an ID.4 for a little over two and a half months, including one road trip.

Continue reading “EV Diary: Test Drive to Road Trip”

Friday Night’s All Right For Blending and Shading

Friday link post exploring the baffling world of non-photorealistic shaders

Above is a tutorial by Ocean Quigley on how to make a non-photorealistic shader for Blender that looks like an etching or engraving. I was lucky to work indirectly with Ocean on SimCity 4, and he remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Here, he makes the baffling process of shader creation seem not simple, but at least attainable. I definitely can’t claim to understand every step of the process he outlines, but he does do a great job of walking through step by step and explaining why he’s doing each part.

A simpler but interesting effect is explained by Ian Pitkanen, with this video demonstrating how to add a grainy effect to lighting transitions. It’s a nice, subtle effect that makes 3D objects seem less sterile and more like they’ve been printed on paper.

I’m frequently trying to learn how shaders work (and then getting hopelessly confused and giving up). One of the most useful-seeming resources is The Book of Shaders by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo and Jen Lowe, which encourages you to interact with the examples instead of just passively reading. This is a perfect approach, because it’s a reminder that this isn’t magic, but neither does it require a deep understanding of math. It is presumably possible to understand the basics and then experiment until you get what you want.

The reason I’m interested in shaders at the moment is to see if I can use Blender to make art resources for a possible game for an upcoming black-and-white video game device. This article by Braden Eliason on getting that classic Mac dither effect in Blender seems like it’ll be invaluable for that!

Space (I’m Somewhat Skeptical About)

Some observations about Apple Music’s push for spatial audio

(Image of a Brazilian lion who wants more space from Nick Park’s brilliant Creature Comforts short)

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you’ve already been bombarded with invitations to try out their new support for Dolby Atmos/spatial audio. It’s been available for about a month at this point, but I’m only just now investing the time to put on some headphones and check it out.

My take so far is that it’s not nearly as earth-shattering as Apple’s making it out to be, but when it does work, it’s pretty neat. One thing that I’ve heard people say repeatedly is that it’s hit or miss: on some songs, it sounds great, but it can actually make others worse. I’d agree with that somewhat. I don’t dislike it enough to turn off the feature, but I do think that on some tracks, it lets vocals get lost in the mix and can make some other parts have less impact than on the stereo version.

My hearing isn’t all that great, but I’d still say that I can tell that there’s enough difference to make a difference on more tracks than not. Also: it’s one of my pet peeves that whenever anyone on the internet is reviewing a feature like this, or some piece of audio equipment, they always make sure to qualify their review by saying that they’re not an audiophile. They do it because they know somebody is going to barge onto the comment sections making themselves out to be an expert, pointing out some extremely esoteric thing that the manufacturers or the engineers or whoever got horribly, embarrassingly, devastatingly wrong. We all need to stop entertaining those opinions, because those people are not the target market for 99% of this consumer-grade audio equipment.

Anyway, tangential pet peeve aside, my hearing tends to be pretty lousy. But I felt like these tracks (mostly from Apple’s suggested “Made for Spatial Audio” playlist) stood out:

  • “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
    Michael’s vocals are a little muted compared to the stereo version, but it felt more like being in the middle of a live performance, and I’m sold on the opening piano & bass riff alone.
  • “Don’t Know Why” and “Seven Years” by Norah Jones
    Consensus seems to be that jazz does particularly well under Dolby Atmos, and both of these feel like being at a live performance. (I already said “Seven Years” is my favorite track from that album, but “Don’t Know Why” is the famous one).
  • “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    “Song for my Father” by Horace Silver
    I’m not a big fan of jazz in general, but these are two of my favorite songs, and I think you can tell the clearer separation of the different parts, and it helps everything feel more “present.”
  • “Mystery Lady” by Masego & Don Toliver
    I’d never heard of this artist, but he must be on Apple’s list of Artists To Promote. I don’t have a non-Atmos version to compare it to, but I really like this song and the rest of the album.
  • “BOOM” by Tiesto & Sevenn
    Never heard of them, either, and this feels like a novelty song. Like a “Where’s Your Head At?” for today’s generation. But it’s pretty great as a loud, dumb demo of the spatial audio.
  • “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow
    I’ve liked this song (and the rest of the album) ever since it came out, and I don’t care who knows it. The remix feels kind of unnecessary, but it’s pretty neat how it separates the percussion and hand-claps from everything else. The other, non-Atmos tracks from the same greatest hits album illustrate the difference in the mix, since in those it does sound like the entire band was crammed together around one of two microphones.
  • “Not Dead Yet” by Lord Huron
    This is kind of a boring track from their most recent album, to be honest, but it’s a good example of what a sound engineer can do if they get creative with the mix. Parts seem to move around in 3D space, coming to the center to take prominence, and then fading out to the back left or back right. It’s a little like the Ghost Host in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion, if he were an alt-country musician.
  • “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
    I think the effect is a little subtle compared to the stereo, but it’s noticeable — everything seems to be positioned more like an actual orchestra, so the woodwinds sound to me distinctly separated from the french horns, which are separated from the trumpets, etc.
  • “Jessica” by The Allman Brothers Band
    Honestly, I don’t know if the spatial audio makes a bit of difference on this track, but I like this song and I liked getting another chance to hear it on headphones.

And that last bit is key: honestly, if somebody told me that this was all just a psychological experiment, and there wasn’t actually a remix involved, but just a placebo effect combined with listening to audio on better headphones, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s been an invitation to listen closely to music again, instead of just having it on in the background.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bold new future for music, but it’s a good excuse to enjoy some music, and all it takes is a pair of headphones.

In Praise of Unnecessary Devices

How I’ve begrudgingly fallen in love with the Kindle Oasis, in a world that’s making it harder and harder to feel good about consumer technology

My attitude towards dedicated e-readers has always been best summed up as Oooo, get a load of JL Gotrocks here, too good for paperbacks, too delicate to read books on his phone, can’t read on his iPad on account of the glare from his monocle!

And that’s after owning one for several years. Six or seven years ago, Amazon was so aggressively promoting the Kindle during some Prime Day or Black Friday or Bezos Yacht Christening Day that it somehow worked out that it would cost me more not to buy one. So I begrudgingly bought a Kindle Paperwhite, and I begrudgingly grew to like it a lot.

I honestly don’t know how much I believe the claim that reading E-ink reduces eye strain, but it certainly does feel more like reading paper than like reading paper after being pulled over in a traffic stop. The biggest appeal for me:

  • Weight: It’s much lighter than a tablet, and lighter that most phones while still having a tablet-sized screen.
  • Battery: It goes weeks without needing to be recharged.
  • Cost: The discounted Paperwhite I got is expensive in the sense that I didn’t actually need to own one, but cheap in the sense that it was a tech gadget holding every e-book I ever bought from Amazon and cost around 75 bucks. That meant I could be a lot less careful with it than I’d have to be with an iPad or phone.
  • Nerdery: I still think E-ink displays are just plain neat, almost straddling the line between analog and digital.

The most practical downside of the Paperwhite is that it’s just an awkwardly-designed device. I could never quite find a good place to hold it: I was always either inadvertently turning the page, or highlighting a section, and before I could undo it, it’d already sent a random collection of letters to Goodreads as one of my favorite passages in the book.

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They… they ASSURED me there was PEANUT BRITTLE in that can!

Get a load of the whiny sons o’ bitches at The Verge!

I have it on very good authority that this is the new mascot for the Volkswagen Group. Image from D23.com.

Given all the genuine stuff to get stressed out or worried about, I’ve got to thank The Verge for giving me something completely inconsequential to be irrationally annoyed by.

The story in brief was that Volkswagen did a beginning-of-April marketing stunt announcing that they were changing their US branding to “Voltswagen,” to reaffirm their commitment to electric vehicles. The Verge chomped on that like a starving bass, running it as a top story on the site. Now, after finding out that the obvious marketing stunt was, in fact, a marketing stunt, they edited their story from press release regurgitation into a long-form tantrum.

Normally, I’d do the Nelson Muntz point-and-laugh and then move on, but the Verge writers’ histrionics have actually made me kind of angry. First, instead of being good-natured — or even the wet blanket but appropriately skeptical approach that Ars Technica took — they changed the headline to say that Volkswagen lied about their rebranding! Here showing the same understanding of “lying” as the aliens in Galaxy Quest.

Worse, they made repeated references — in the byline of the rewritten article, and on Twitter — to “Dieselgate.” Because, obviously, fooling a couple of gullible and clickbait-seeking internet writers is equivalent to a multi-billion dollar, years-long, massive environmental scandal.

But now we know the rebrand was nothing more than another lie from a company that’s become known for something else: lying.

A butt-hurt, insufferably whiny baby

The reason this makes me so irrationally angry — apart from putting me in a position where I’m not just defending Volkswagen, but defending an April Fools prank — is that it’s another reminder of how embarrassingly low journalistic standards are in 2021. Actually, that’s a third strike against it: it makes me want to put “journalist” in sarcastic quotes, but I can’t do that, because that’s the province of all the knuckle-dragging losers on the internet complaining about Brie Larson and Kathleen Kennedy.

The writers can clutch their pearls and stand aghast at VW all they want, but the truth is that they simply didn’t do due diligence for their non-story. They valued page views over newsworthiness. “They published a press release!” insists the article, ignoring the obvious fact that you’re not obliged to run every press release as front-page news.

The undeniable fact of all this is that this stunt was not news. Even if it had been 100% real. Even for a company gigantic as the Volkswagen Group. It was so obviously as much a non-story as the results of the Puppy Bowl or the war between Left Twix and Right Twix. It’s depressing that they think the problem is a company fooling them with a lame (and clearly publicity-grabbing) stunt, instead of how eager they were to “report” on the stunt in the first place.

EV Pondering

I’m still comparison-shopping EVs, and I’ve got some questions.

I’ve been “researching” (read: watching YouTube videos about) electric vehicles for several weeks now, and a lot of the same ideas keep recurring: tips to speed up fast-charging time, maximizing battery life, maximizing range, etc. But never having owned an EV or spent a long time looking into them, there are a few things I can’t figure out.

I’ve had an entirely too charitable impression of car reviewers
One thing I’ve learned from watching lots of car reviews is that car reviewers mostly suck. There are obvious exceptions, but as someone who’s never been particularly interested in cars, I’ve always just assumed that reviewers are well familiar with all the myriad details about cars that are lost on me. But I’ve been surprised by how many reviews get the basic details wrong, ignore aspects of the car that are obviously specific to a review situation, or go on about aspects of the car that are irrelevant to drivers that aren’t reviewers. Is it all Top Gear‘s fault?

What’s the deal with the front trunk?
Speaking of terrible reviews: what the hell is this garbage review of the ID.4? The reviewer was biased against the car from the start, but that’s okay because I was biased against the review for being from a Gawker site. (Yes, I know that Gawker Media doesn’t exist anymore, but the taint is inescapable). What’s odd to me, though, is that this isn’t the only review I’ve seen to waste so much time talking about the lack of a front trunk.

It’s an absurd complaint. The closest I’ve seen to a reasonable explanation is that it’s convenient to keep the charging cable in there, but I’m not buying it. Is this supposed to be a real complaint?

How do Elon Musk’s fanboys justify a proprietary super charger network?
I’ve been in the SF Bay Area enough to see a depressing number of men go glassy-eyed and speak in reverent tones about how Musk’s visionary work is going to save our fragile planet. I’ve been so eager to get into a situation of no longer talking to them, that I never got to ask them the obvious question: how do they justify making the super charger network proprietary and exclusive to Tesla owners? Obviously, the ubiquity of the network is a selling point for the cars, but wouldn’t it be best for everyone to encourage more EV purchases in the US, while at the same time charging non-Tesla drivers for the convenience?

Are crossover SUVs really as popular as people keep saying?
The thing I found most surprising when I started comparing cars: there are almost no affordable options for 200+ mile range in a sedan, coupe, or hatchback. As far as I can tell, there’s just the Chevy Bolt or the Tesla Model 3. I understand that bigger batteries give better range, but I’m stunned that more manufacturers haven’t gone the ID.3 route, and that Volkswagen hasn’t made the ID.3 available in the US. The explanation was “Americans want SUVs.” I can’t tell if that’s a real thing or just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This News Will Throw This Car Into Chaos!

An update on the search for an electric car, with the surprising introduction of a new contender.

(For the record: the title of this post is a reference to Randy Candy’s part in this Saturday Night Live sketch, which I disappointingly found out recently was actual product placement).

When last we checked into my car search, I’d decided to forget the fun mid-life crisis convertible I’d been coveting, in favor of something that felt more environmentally responsible. I’ve been reading articles and watching tons of videos about the current state of electric vehicles, and I’ve been getting myself comfortable with the idea of a crossover SUV, since that’s apparently the body style America has declared it wants.

So far, the front-runner has been the Volkswagen ID.4, which seems unlikely to blow anybody away, but which strikes me as comfortable. I like their tech system, I like the sunroof, I like the interior lighting, I like the estimated range, I like the “free” charging, and it seems like they’ve filled it with just enough conveniences to hit their target: a comfortable, moderately-priced electric vehicle.

It might not be “fun,” exactly, but I can at least geek out over the technology while patting myself on the back for “zero emissions.” (In quotes because I think Alex Dykes makes a reasonable argument in this video that it’s disingenuous not to include the emissions it takes to charge the car’s battery).

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I Sing the (Car) Body Electric

I’ve been thinking about electric vehicles, and I want the internet to check my work

I’m turning 50 this year,1Whether I want to or not and I had big plans for a year-long banger of a mid-life crisis. Grow a wiry, dingy-graying ponytail. Get more age-inappropriate earrings. Pick up a new, ridiculous hobby. And pointedly: get a convertible.

Not a muscle-car convertible, because I may be a soon-to-be-50-year-old man, but I’ve got the heart of a sophomore sorority pledge. I wanted a convertible VW Beetle. I’m a big fan of the 2011 redesign, and I rented a convertible in Florida for a work trip, and it was a ton of fun. Plus I’ve spent the last 20+ years driving practical, fuel-efficient sedans — two of them hybrids — and I just wanted something dumb, fun, and completely impractical.

But getting an internal combustion engine in 2021 just feels a little too irresponsible. Assuming you’re in a position to do otherwise, of course: a lot of very rich people have spent an awful long time and an awful lot of money making sure that electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive for most people. Even now, they’re eye-wateringly expensive. But when even fuel-efficient cars are putting out tons of emissions per year, it feels gross to keep doing it just for fun.

So I’ve got the extremely privileged “problem” of having to decide what car I want to get when my current lease runs out. Some requirements:

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Raspberry Pi 400

Raspberry Pi has announced a new $100 computer that I hope can be as significant for 21st century kids as the Commodore 64 was for me

The Raspberry Pi 400 (link is to a review on Ars Technica) is a faster version of the famously affordable computer, now embedded in a keyboard with a suite of USB and display ports. The computer on its own is only $70, but a kit for $100 makes it an affordable desktop PC with everything you need except for the monitor.

For those of us who grew up in the 80s (or 90s, probably), I can’t imagine seeing this and not getting excited about the potential. I can still remember my mom taking me to K-Mart to get my first computer, a Commodore 64. More vividly than most things I can still remember from the 80s: I remember the dim fluorescent lighting, I remember the stacks of boxes and the excitement of getting to take one off the shelf, I remember getting a spiral-bound introduction to BASIC programming book to go with it, and I remember sitting in the kitchen, hooking it up to a TV to try it out and get our first ?SYNTAX ERROR.

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