Monday, September 6, 2010

What’s a high-mileage car worth?

--- This little rant is a follow-up to an online article I posted on ---

Whenever the subject of hybrid cars, plug-in hybrids and electric cars comes up, people invariably make the argument that these cars are “not worth it” and cite the differential cost of the vehicle compared with projected gas savings. I contend that unless you are going to buy one of these cars strictly as a cost-savings measure, this argument is specious.

The reason I say this is that what any of us spends on a car is primarily a matter of personal taste and preference and has very little to do with the intrinsic value of the vehicle. If all car-buying decisions were to be made strictly on utilitarian/economic grounds, we’d all be driving bare-bones little imports that cost $9,000.

Instead, some of us spend $40,000 to get the feeling of safety in owning a Volvo, some of us spend $90,000 to own the fabled engineering of a BMW 7 series, some of us spend $60,000 to get 556 horsepower in a Cadillac CTS-V, some of us spend $60,000 to look really cool in a Corvette ragtop, some spend $50,000 for any number of luxury cars, and a (very) few of us cough up $450,000 for a Lamborghini Mucielago so we can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds (and get 9 miles per gallon doing it.) For many of us, these cars may seem like unnecessary extravagances, but for those that buy them, I’m sure they are just great.

So this fall, when some folks start forking up $40,000 for a gasoline-extended electric-drive Chevy Volt, or perhaps shell out $33,000 for an all-electric Nissan Leaf, we should get ready for an onslaught of naysayers saying that these cars are “too expensive”. What this really means is that for these people, things like energy efficiency, environmental responsibility and an aversion to buying foreign oil don’t rate much of a price tag. To each his own.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rodent Wars

Living at the edge of a nature preserve has its benefits… and its costs. We get to interact with nature; lots of nature. According to the Chinese zodiac, this is the Year of the Tiger – but not in these parts. This is definitely the Year of the Rodent.

At the beginning of the year it was mice. We’d never seen any before, but we had a spill of birdseed in the pantry and a mouse discovered it. Pretty soon, the pantry became a home away from home for our little furry friend. Being kind-hearted folk, we got a clever “humane trap” and caught the little bugger and took him far away. To be safe, we reset the trap and waited. Sure enough, we got another one. But after another week or so with no action, we put away the trap and thought our mice troubles were over.

A couple of months later, I started hearing lots of little noises in the attic above my study and eventually we called in a pest control service. It turned out that there were lots of mice living up there. Well, they eventually took care of that and sealed up the various openings around the house that the mice were using.

With the arrival of summer, we encountered a whole new rodent problem. We have fruit trees in our back yard and for twelve years have fought battles against insects, fungus and unpredictable weather trying to get peaches, plums and cherries. This year, it was squirrels. We’ve shared our land with squirrels (or perhaps it is the other way around) for years but they never showed any interest in the fruit trees. Until now. One or more of our squirrels decided to harvest our fruit -- all of it. It was systematic, comprehensive and efficient. And we are talking hundreds of peaches and plums. Eventually I tried attaching metal flashing around the base of a peach tree to make it hard to climb. But the squirrel(s) found other ways up into the tree. So no fruit for humans this year.

Last but not least are our tomatoes. For several years, we have grown tomatoes in some great big pots on the patio where we can keep an eye on the plants and water them automatically with a drip system. It worked great a couple of years ago; last year was terrible, but that was weather-related. This year all seemed well at first but as soon as the first tomato was nearly ripe, something ate about half of it right on the vine. And it wasn’t a horn worm. This was something bigger.

We have lots of suspects around here but the most likely candidate was a rabbit. The bunnies have been multiplying like crazy for the past few years – probably since there don’t seem to be foxes around like in earlier years. They wreak havoc with our flowering plants, but never seemed interested in the tomatoes. Then, of course, there are the squirrels, which already seem to have taken some correspondence courses on expanding their diets.

Determined to win at least one more battle in the rodent wars, I built a big wooden cage with walls of bird netting and placed it around the tomato plants. I hoped that it would discourage squirrels and bunnies from further marauding. After a day or so, another tomato got chomped. So then I tried twist-tying plastic baggies around the ripening tomatoes. I happened to look out the window early the next morning and lo-and-behold, a chipmunk was clinging to the plant with its face inside the plastic bag (didn’t it know that was dangerous?), chowing down on a tomato. I got its attention and it skittered around for a moment and then scooted out under one of the sides of the cage.

With the enemy identified, the battle was joined. I figured that there was no foolproof way to prevent the thing from getting to the tomatoes, so I decided to get rid of him. I went out and got a “Have-a-Hart” trap and set it up with a variety of goodies, including a half-eaten tomato, some oatmeal and some peanut butter. Nothing doing for a couple of days. Then Rachel reminded me that we once had a chipmunk decimate our sunflower plants to get to the seeds. So I added sunflower seeds to the peanut butter glob in the trap. The next morning, we had a chipmunk in captivity. I took him for a ride several miles away to another part of the nature preserve and send him on his way.

I read up on chipmunks and learned that they are territorial and that there are generally two to four to an acre. So I reset the trap and waited. Sure enough, in a day or so, we had another one. I figured that we had taken care of Simon and Alvin but not Theodore. So back to the peanut butter and sunflower seeds. Two days later, we got chipmunk number three. The good news was that we also have had several quite delicious tomatoes and the plants are now looking much happier without little rodents climbing all over them. I’m trying not to think of the cost per tomato figuring in the cage, the trap, wear-and-tear on my car in the chipmunk relocation program, etc.

On the other hand, yesterday we caught chipmunk number four (and we’d already run out of cartoon names) and this morning we caught number five. [added later the same day - caught number six...]

How many of these things do we have? Are peanut butter and sunflower seeds an irresistible siren’s call that beckons chipmunks from far away? Am I going to spend next summer trapping squirrels?

There are many things to ponder in the Year of the Rodent.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Addicted to Solar Panels

Late in 2006, we decided to install a photovoltaic system on our roof. At the time, I was working on alternative energy technology and was extremely impressed by the fact that you could install solar panels on your house and make your own electricity. But would it work on our house?

Two things were worrisome: we used an awful lot of electricity in our house and we have tall woods behind the house that cast shade on the roof during the winter months. But we decided that if we could put enough solar panels on the roof to make at least half of our electricity and if it wouldn't be unaffordable, we would do it. Thanks to state subsidy funding and generous tax credits, it turned out that it was affordable to install such a system; so we signed a contract to do it.

While we waited for the wheels of bureaucracy to slowly turn and for elusive solar panels to be procured, we examined the details of our electrical usage and found ways to reduce it significantly without changing the way we live. Those curlicue lightbulbs save a ton of energy and we put them everywhere. By the time we got the solar energy system installed, we had reduced our electrical usage by 35%. As a result, our new system ended up making not 50% but 80% of our electricity. How great!

On sunny days, our electric meter happily spins backwards, effectively banking the excess energy we make. At night, the meter runs forward and withdraws our accumulated energy. For most of the year, the deposits outweigh the withdrawals and the meter reads lower and lower. Only during the winter does our usage greatly overcome our ability to generate energy. But on an annual basis, we were only 20% short.

Well, three years came and went and that 80% has steadily held up. And then the little itch started. Can't we do better? We still had some room on the roof for more panels. All the other gear is already installed so upgrading the system wouldn't be very complicated. The federal tax credits have gotten even better than they were in 2006. So why fight it? We're addicted to solar panels.

So today, the same folks who installed our system in 2006 came to our house and installed nine more panels - all that could be accommodated by the inverters in our basement that convert the DC power from the solar panels into AC power that runs the house. If all goes well - and it surely will - from now on we will be making roughly 100% of our electricity for the year. Some years it will be a little less, some years a little more.

I don't know what anything we buy will cost six years from now or perhaps even six months from now, but I know that I won't be worrying about my electric bills. And that is pretty cool.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Up in the Air with an iPad

A cautionary tale from the road

I am in a plane outbound from Albany, New York, winging my way towards Washington, D.C., the first leg of a trip that will take me to New Orleans, where I plan to spend three hours at Louis Armstrong Airport and then turn around and head home. How did I get into this ridiculous situation?

For years I was a road warrior, commuting across the country on a regular basis for a job located thousands of miles from my home. I amassed frequent-flyer miles by the bushel and was treated as a big shot by United Airlines. Then those days came to an end and I once again became an ordinary mortal, forced to shell out hundreds of dollars extra for seats with enough legroom to accommodate my 6-foot-4-inch frame.

With a summer looming that will include a trip to California and a trip to Italy, my lowly airline status weighed heavily. However, with all those years of flying, I had accumulated some 997,541 miles on United, a paltry 2,459 miles short of a million. It turns out that once you reach the million-mile mark, you achieve elite status for life! Comfy seats, free upgrades, priority boarding... lots of goodies.

So here I am flying round-trip to New Orleans on the same day, which will put me 99 miles over the top. This itinerary was the closest, cheapest and fastest way to get enough miles. And it is also among the goofier things I have done.

So what does one do on a 14-hour trip to nowhere? In a stroke of fortuitous timing, three days ago I got an Apple iPad -- the cool new gadget that some believe will take over the world. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but it has taken over this trip. I come armed with an Oscar-winning movie in HD, a TV show I've wanted to see, two electronic books, a couple of electronic magazines, nearly 5,000 songs and, when I'm at the various airports, access to email and the web. So I have lots to do on my iPad, including writing this log.

So, with heavy rain rolling into the Albany area, I nervously waited in the terminal for my 10:12 am flight. I check my email, look at a few websites, and peer at an animated weather map looking for thunderstorms. If this flight is delayed by more than about twenty minutes, this whole plan will unravel. I won't be able to get to New Orleans soon enough to come back tonight. But, it looks like we are going to board. We follow a United employee in his full-body yellow rain suit out onto the tarmac and board the commuter jet. Somehow or other, at precisely 10:12 am, we were airborne. It is now 11:48, the iPad battery is at 95%, and I sit back to do some reading.

Well, that hour didn't take too long. Wheels down at 11:12. So now I'm at Dulles Airport and boo! No free WiFi here. It isn't worth six bucks for the 45 minutes that I will be here. I will wait for the free Internet access at New Orleans. Meanwhile, leg one of my journey is complete. I am 325 miles closer to my goal. It's 11:45, the battery is at 92%, and I am hungry.

I get on the way to New Orleans at 12:40. I decide that I am going to watch the first episode of FlashForward. Well, the show started out much like the book but diverges in an interesting way at the end of this episode, so maybe I'll see some more of these sometime. Meanwhile, it is 1:35, the battery is at 85%, and I am somewhere between Washington and New Orleans in the last row of a small, crowded Air Bus with a serious leaner in front of me. It doesn't get much better than this.

I look around me and realize that all these people are actually going to New Orleans (or other places in the vicinity, I suppose) and will quickly make their way out of the airport when they arrive. Not me. The airport is my only destination. I hope it's a nice one.

It's a little after 2:30, 5 hours into my 14-hour adventure. My battery is at 80% and we are starting our descent into New Orleans. It will be a pleasure to get out of this tiny space and sprawl in the terminal. But not yet, so back to listening to music and reading a science-fiction novella.

We landed at 2:57, quite early. My first activity was to eat some beignets hot out of the fryer and drowned in powdered sugar. OK. New Orleans is a good place. Even at the airport.

Next I tried to get on the Internet. No go. Kept getting a fatal error after connecting to the network. What's up with that? I wonder if I can reach Apple? I have plenty of time to try. I have 2 1/2 hours until my flight.

Well, well. It's now 4:45 and I've been on the phone with Apple. Alot. This is a new one for them and they are very anxious to see a resolution. It could be something weird with the airport WiFi here, or maybe my iPad has freaked out. I guess I won't know until I get home. I have the direct line to the head of the product team, so I'll find out eventually. In any event, I won't be using the Internet here. So I am off to explore the airport.

There are the usual gift shops, bookstores, gadget shops and fast food emporia here. I considered some of the $29.95 New Orleans Jazz t-shirts and some beignet mixes, but decided that I didn't really need any of them. After a while, I decided to take a look at the Departures screen in the terminal. Next to my flight was the word you don't want to see: delayed. I decided to go over to the United counter to find out what kind of delay we were talking about.

The adventure continues... I won't be getting home tonight. There is apparently bad weather in Chicago and that is where my plane back to DC originates. So it will be 2 1/2 hours late and I will miss my connection. I get to spend the night in Washington and since it is because of weather, I get to pay for it! And the reason I want million-mile status is so I can fly some more??? My 14-hour trip to nowhere has morphed into a 24-hour trip to nowhere. I really should have brought some chargers. Talking to Apple for an hour has seriously drained my cell phone battery and I will need to find a hotel for tonight. I wish the iPad Internet was working.

Things then took a turn for the better... somewhat better, anyway. Because my cell phone battery was dying, I went to the AirTunes store to try to get a cheap charger. No dice (50 bucks wasn't worth it), but the guy there charged my phone while we were gabbing. And he told me that the WiFi network at the airport was all screwed up today. He even showed me the same mysterious "fatal error 500" screen on a Sony PSP. So the iPad isn't broken or defective after all. Yay! I just am having miserable luck in the Big Easy. It's 6:45, the battery is at 68%, and I'm ready for dinner.

I had some gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice. I guess that does it for my New Orleans experience. Now I just want to get out of here. And so I sit at an amazingly empty gate waiting for my flight, which is supposed to leave in 45 minutes. At the moment, it's me and 4 other people. One of them has a MacBook and he too sees the Fatal Error Screen of Misery. Perhaps everyone else bailed out. Anyway, it's 8:15, my battery is at 65% and the Best Western Dulles Inn beckons 954 miles away. Back to reading my novella...

At 9:10, we took off from Louis Armstrong, ending a particularly pointless six hours spent talking to Apple Tech Service (who had nothing to do with my problems), and standing in line waiting to talk to United (who had everything to do with my problems). It would have been nice to make use of that $400,000 WiFi system the airport brags about but alas, it was not to be. I must say, however, that the beignets were quite excellent! Two hours to Washington and 61% still in the tank. Time to watch a movie.

I spend the remainder of the flight watching Hurt Locker. It's a riveting movie and I am disappointed when I have to shut down the iPad for landing with only half an hour to go. We land at 11:15 and I make my way to AirTrains, hotel shuttles and such.

And now it's 12:15 am and I am in my hotel room. They gave me a handicapped room -- fitting, given that my handicap is that I am an idiot. In any event, the flight went by quickly. I almost saw all of Hurt Locker but ran out of time. Still 48% battery, so I can watch it now. On the other hand, I have to get up at 6 to catch a shuttle back to the airport for my 8:15 flight. So what? Im watching the movie. Gosh this is fun!

So it's now 7:30 am on Wednesday and I'm sitting at the gate for my final flight. Only 325 miles stand between me and home and success (of a sort). My scheme for an easy, relatively quick, and economical way to reach my mileage goal was defeated by weather in Chicago, a place that I never got anywhere near on my journey. Such is the lot of the frequent flyer. I had nearly forgotten.

I finished the movie last night (it was outstanding) and now I have only 33% of my battery remaining. Perhaps I will have enough juice for the rest of the trip.

After a delay caused by the late arrival of an obese, immobile passenger and her tiny dog (both of whom had to be loaded into the passenger compartment), my last flight left the ground at 8:50 am and I am less than an hour away from completing my ridiculous journey.

At 9:30, I land in Albany. When I walk into the terminal, the friendly United gate agent that Ive seen for years -- and who high-fived me yesterday as I set off took one look at me and said It didnt work, huh? Aint it the truth, though.

But the whole purpose of this trip was to fly 2,500 miles. At that, I succeeded. Next time, I'm taking chargers; you never know what can happen up in the air.