Monthly Archives: May 2022

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SecUnit is a rebuilt murderbot rented out as security to an NGO survey team exploring a new planet. It was designed as a ruthless killing machine, but prefers to sit in its cubicle and watch the entertainment feed, especially Sanctuary Moon, which appears to be some sort of sci-fi telenovela. SecUnit (he? she? it?) tells the story of the survey in the first person as all hell breaks loose. The new planet is not uninhabited and dangers await. We find SecUnit to be painfully shy about showing any emotion and almost apologetic that it feels an obligation to actually protect its clients. A murderbot, it seems, is mostly robotic but also has “organic” (never “human”, god forbid) parts, although without its armor and inorganic parts showing, it can pass for one. Its worst nightmare is having to converse with humans, make eye contact, and answer their questions about whether it is okay and especially how it is feeling. Entering into mortal combat with man-eating fauna or other murderbots is all in a day’s work, but showing emotion? … no way. Despite all its denials, SecUnit’s soft heart peeks through.

The book is ridiculously short and all fluff, but I really enjoyed it. All the artificial techspeak about feeds and hubs and governor modules and beacons is very well done and somehow plausible if you let yourself suspend disbelief and enter into the story. It’s the first in a series (The Murderbot Diaries) but I doubt I’ll read more of them. Any future ones are bound to be a disappointment after this charming introduction.

View all my reviews

Safe sad 75

Three years ago I wrote a blog post called #Safe70 lamenting slightly about how I’ve reached that age where attractive young women now find me old enough to be harmless. When running back then, a good-looking young redheaded lady ran with me and chatted for a bit before leaving me in the dust. I very much enjoyed it.

Today I had a similar moment, but with a sadder twist. As I was running, a young woman came running by and called out from just behind me “You’re doing great!” in the tone of voice used by mothers to toddlers who successfully used the training potty and then she went zipping on by. I looked around to see if there was someone else she was talking to, but, alas, I was alone, and no, she wasn’t on the phone. She also didn’t bother to jog along with me. At 75 I suppose I am even slower than I was at 72, but I didn’t think I quite yet looked like a doddering old fool in need of confirmation I wasn’t on my deathbed. I was three miles out from the nearest parking lot, which meant it was at least a six mile run.

My ego won’t let me post this without at least mentioning that I ran the San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll 10K five years ago and even with an injured leg, placed first in my age group. True, there was a guy in the 75+ group who ran faster, and several in the half-marathon group my age who ran faster for twice the distance, but still. This girl (and she was only about 20 or so) called out her disheartening praise before she even saw my face. My running cap was covering my bald spot, too. I would have thought I could have passed for 65 or so from behind. I suppose we all need a reality check and today was mine. But I’ll settle for any attention from a pretty girl. Thank you, miss, for that at least.

Cliff Knowles rides again

A number of people have been asking me when I’m going to write another Cliff Knowles novel. Well, I’m writing one now. No promises on when it will be done. My best guess is December, but if I’m lucky it might be as early as September.

The Song of Our Scars by Haider Warraich

The Song of Our Scars: The Untold Story of PainThe Song of Our Scars: The Untold Story of Pain by Haider Warraich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book was somewhat disappointing for me. Like many others, I have chronic pain (osteoarthritis, off and on lower back pain) and my wife does, too (Peripheral neuropathy). I was hoping to read about breakthroughs, promising treatments or at least experiments, in short, a beacon of hope. It is not that. The book is largely an outpouring of the author’s own experience as a chronic pain sufferer and as a pain doctor. It focuses largely on the psychological aspects, e.g. the difference between nociception (the biological process of detection of pain) and suffering, which is the broader mental effect the nociception has on the sufferer. There are many stories of individuals who experience chronic or severe pain (which are different things) but that becomes little more than a series of anecdotes. Some of it was interesting, but I believe the main purpose of the book is the catharsis the author felt in offloading his lifelong anguish.

View all my reviews

The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

The Underground Man (Lew Archer #16)The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Macdonald writes with an earthy Chandler-like style. His main character Lew Archer is a tough but decent private eye in Los Angeles. The book is written in the first person. It’s my first MacDonald novel. I enjoyed the writing style, despite some quirks. He never met a simile he doesn’t like and has no compunction about creating more, sensible or not. There’s a lot of dialog, so in that sense it’s an easy read, but there are many characters who have, or in the past, had, relationships both open and hidden. This makes it hard to follow. There are multiple murders but Lew Archer is on the job. The detective work is rather simple but also pretty realistic, speaking as an ex-FBI agent. That makes it more enjoyable for me. It reminds me of the Sue Grafton alphabet series in that respect. In fact, it also reminds me of that same series because it takes place largely in Santa Teresa, the fictional city representing Santa Barbara that Grafton also uses. The ending was a bit too neat and tidy for my taste, but I enjoyed how the author worked in the investigation of Archer with the local murders and the ongoing wildfire that served as a backdrop. It was unrealistic the way everybody seemed to tell Archer whatever he wanted to know, whether officials revealing official info, or involved persons who repeatedly told him to get lost and clammed up, only to start blabbing again and answering all his questions. If only it were that easy.

View all my reviews

Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk RoadLands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This very interesting book is a combination travelogue, history lesson, philosophy primer, and farce. The author, a Canadian, and her best friend Mel biked across Asia along what is loosely the modern vestiges of Marco Polo’s Silk Road. Beginning in southeastern Europe and proceeding through the Stans to Tibet and China she experienced the trials, tribulations, and joys of adventuring in a land of skyscraping mountains, corrupt governments, warmly hospitable people, and extremely open landscape. At times it borders on being ponderous but it is frequently punctuated by light moments of mistranslation, bike crashes, stomach-turning food offers, lecherous men unused to seeing white women, or any women unaccompanied by men. There was enough sameness to much of it as to lose my interest from time to time, but it was an enormous benefit to have along with me in audiobook form as I made my own journey by car from the Bay Area to Olympia and back. There was an unmistakable touch of braggadocio permeating the story, but the author’s academic credentials are impressive, assuming she represented them truthfully. I found the reader’s breathiness a weak attempt at inserting suspense where there wasn’t any, but all in all she did a good job.

View all my reviews

Road Trip in my Volvo XC40 Recharge – Part 2

My return trip to California taught me a few lessons. I’ll be giving some hard numbers and recommendations at the end. But first, this trip was different from the first leg. To start with, I contracted Covid somewhere on my trip north. I was feeling under the weather by the time of the return leg, but not horribly sick. Fortunately, my son and his wife tested negative, and still do, so I must have picked it up in one of the crowded restaurants I visited en route. Still, I was traveling alone and could buy food at drivethroughs so as not to infect anyone, so I decided to make the journey home.

My first stop was at Woodburn Premium Outlets in Woodburn, OR. This mall is very long and the app only said the towers were near the Coach store. Of course, I had no idea where the Coach store was, but I will say that’s a good idea to include the store because as tall as the charging machines are, they are not as tall or obvious as the store signs. I found the station at the very end and charged easily. It was fast (23 minutes) but I only charged to 56% full. In a continuing trend, my first stop was dictated more by my need for a bathroom break than a charging stop.

Stop 2 was the same Target store as before in Springfield. I took in 57 kw in 57 minutes, the longest on-road charge of the whole trip, but I knew staying an extra fifteen minutes would obviate the need for another stop before Grants Pass.

Back at the motel that night I charged 69 minutes to get 71 kw. My symptoms were getting worse. I hit the road the next morning with the battery 95% full. One odd thing was that my car’s range indicator said I had only 140 miles of range. It normally showed 190 miles when charged to 90% or more. I thought it was an error that would correct itself once I started driving. I was hoping to make it to Anderson without a stop, but the car kept warning me I wouldn’t. The range is estimated based on the past 100 miles of driving, or so I thought. I expected it had been uphill to Grant’s Pass, skewing the number. However, I was mistaken. The motel was at less than 1000 feet elevation. The high point ahead was Siskiyou Pass at over 4000 ft. The range estimator must actually have taken into account that long climb. The car performed great on that climb, as it had the entire trip, but I’ll forgo the non-charging review for this post.

I heeded the warning and asked Google to find me a charging station. It recommended a Chargepoint station in Weed, CA. I was ready for another break and some coffee anyway. Once again, relying on Google’s directions sent me in a circle around the truck stop because it was telling me to turn where there was no obvious turning spot. The Chargepoint station turned out to be a single machine dwarfed by nearby trucks, so it was hard to spot. I found it in the parking lot of a motel. It was well-placed for my car, so I backed up to it and plugged it. I have a Chargepoint account and app on my phone but had no card with me. Supposedly the machine can read the account info with near field communication (NFC) if you hold the phone to the scanner panel, but that didn’t work. I wasn’t sure if it took credit cards, but I remembered reading something about Chargepoint accepting other EV cards. I had my Blink card, but that didn’t work. I got a little nervous. I had one more with me, an EVgo card. I tried that and the charger started right up. Whew! The screen on the charger said Welcome to EVgo, even though it was a Chargepoint machine. I was also pleasingly surprised by the speed of charging, a decent 63kw. My impression was that EVgo chargers, which I had used once before, all had a maximum of 50kw, usually much less. In 37 minutes I left with 38kwh and 92% charged.

At Anderson I used the same EA charger as before and dared to go inside the Safeway briefly to pick up some food. I wore a mask, used self checkout, and hoped I didn’t infect anyone. In 67 minutes I pulled down a disappointing 43KWh charging to 96%. Those last few percentage points really kill the average charging speed. I’ve seen the charge rate drop to single digits after 90% even on EA machines.

I had planned to charge at Dunnigan again, but once more I made a fateful error. I still had 50% of a charge as I approached there, so I thought I’d let it get down more and charge at Vacaville, which I had seen on my EA app and knew I had the range for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my geography well and missed the turnoff for 505, the straight shot from Dunnigan to I-80. I thought it was farther down the road. So when I asked Google to navigate to Vacaville, it said I didn’t have the range. That confused me until I looked at the map and realized that I was headed all the way into Sacramento before turning west. So I asked for it to find me another charging station. It told me of three EVgo stations. I chose the closest. It turned out to be in an urban park. The machines were right at the curb. The first one turned out to be dead. I called the service number for help and was on hold for almost 15 minutes. I was directed to another machine next to it and plugged in there, but it didn’t start up for me. The service rep kept giving me directions based on what was on the screen of the charger, but I kept replying I couldn’t read anything on the screen because it had been vandalized and was totally unreadable. With considerable effort, together we got it going and it was charging. I soon saw that it was charging very slowly, though (36kw). In 15 minutes I got only 9 kwh. I checked the range and saw I could make it to Vacaville, so I unplugged early and left.

This turned out to be a smart move. At Vacaville Premium Outlets  I had trouble locating the chargers among the 87 stores. I found the Tesla ones right off, but eventually found EA in front of the Coach store. This charger turned out to be the fastest of the entire trip. Even though it was rated at 150kw maximum, my app (and the car, which was always consistent with the app) showed it at 153-154kw for a long time. I left there after 18 minutes of charging and got 36 kwh of energy, enough to get me home.

Total time charging for the round trip (not counting at home): 695 minutes. If you exclude the ones at the motel when I wasn’t in on-road mode, it’s 545 minutes. That’s roughly 9 hours stoppage for 1800 road miles, counting the navigation errors I made, or a half hour of stoppage time for every 100 miles of travel. Much of that, but not all, is time I would have spent getting food, using the bathroom, etc., in any event, but it’s definitely more than I would have in a gas car. The cost of gas, though would be much greater than the electricity cost. I’ll leave that calculation to you, since it varies a lot by car. The total kilowatt-hours received was 636 for a total cost of $275.77. [Edit: I realized later that this could have been cut by at least $100 if I had joined the EA monthly plan for $4.] A round-trip ticket from San Jose to Seattle-Tacoma Airport runs about $197. But then you have to account for extras. Driving, there’s two nights of lodging. Flying, you have the last mile problem. The lowest Lyft fare one-way from Sea-Tac Airport, the closest to my son’s house is $127 and takes two hours. Or a rental car, if you can get one, would cost even more. On my end an airport shuttle ride could be had for $60 or so, or long-term parking is available, so add $350 or so for ground transportation unless you have rides from friends or relatives on both ends.  That’s more than the motel cost. Then there’s the problem of the heavy stuff we wanted out of our garage and had no way to ship. One was a treadmill mat I could barely squeeze into my car and could never have packaged for shipping. Paying for a moving company to come pic k it up would have been prohibitive. It would have had to have been thrown out, sold or given away. My son would have had to buy another, and there were sentimental items as well. All in all, I think I made the right choice driving. Having done it, I know I could do it a lot more efficiently the next time, even on a different trip.

EA chargers are by far the fastest units around here, but only when your charge state is low. They quickly level out to a similar speed as Chargepoint or EVgo once you get over 80% or so. Route planner apps like ABRP take this into account and recommend charging when you’re in the range of 20%-80%. Chargers are also inconsistent, ranging from 36kw to 154kw for me on this trip with similar initial states of charge. When you add in the time finding the charging stations, waiting to get service help sometimes, or waiting for a slot to become available, you need to add at least five minutes for every stop, probably ten, unless you’re very familiar with the station. A Chargepoint station right by the freeway exit may be quicker than an EA station in a Walmart or mall parking lot three miles away and hard to find. Staying and charging an extra 15-20-30 minutes to avoid another stop may be worth it. The most important lesson to take from this is that electric cars have made it. They can replace gas cars even on road trips and the Volvo XC40 is a fine car for that.

Road Trip in my Volvo XC40 Recharge

Over the weekend I took a road trip in my Volvo XC40 Recharge, an electric vehicle (EV). I want to share with others the pluses and minuses of doing this trip using public charging infrastructure. The goal was to drive from Los Altos, California to Olympia, Washington for a visit with my son and his wife, and to drop off some heavy (~150 lbs) items they had left behind when they moved up there.

I began by charging my Volvo to 100% at home the night before leaving. My first stop was to charge at an Electrifying America (EA) charging station in Dunnigan, CA, a distance of 127 miles. My first charging experience did not go very smoothly. For starters, I was relying on Google to give me spoken directions. When I got off the freeway, it sent me around in a circle because I did not realize when it said to turn at the next left, that it meant into a restaurant driveway. The charger turned out to be behind the restaurant in the parking lot of a motel. Once I got there it was difficult to position the car the right way because the tall charging machines (towers)  here were positioned for cars pulling in forward. My car’s charging port is on the left rear. I gave up on the first tower I tried because its screen faced due south directly into the sun and was unreadable. I moved my car to the one on the other side, backing in, and tried again. I used the EA app but I couldn’t get it started. I called the 888 help number and an EA support person walked me through the process. Much of the delay could have been avoided if I’d been more familiar with the app. I did get the car charged to 85% of capacity in 44 minutes of actual charging time. Call it an hour with the delays. I needed coffee and a bathroom break anyway, so it wasn’t totally wasted time.

The next stop was at a Safeway in Anderson, CA to charge at another EA station. This one was easy to find. I had no trouble positioning the car, but it stuck out a bit into the parking lot aisle. I needed another break. The charger here ran a little slower than most of the other EA chargers. They are rated at either 150 kw or 350 kw. My car can only handle 150 kw, If the battery level is low, it can take 150 kw, but it slows down considerably as the battery gets more “full.” That’s one reason not to charge your car to 100%. The other reason is that it hurts the battery life. This charge took 63 minutes to get 48 kwh (compared to 36 min. for 44kwh at Dunnigan).

One problem I had with all the chargers, regardless of brand, is the difficulty of handling the cable that attaches to the car. It’s heavy, stiff and thick. I have arthritis in my hands and a bad back. I know that many women are not strong enough to wrestle them into position. That’s something to test before undertaking a road trip in your EV or even before buying one. This applies only to the high-speed chargers (Level 3) out on the road. The home units are manageable although there is still a rather hefty cable.

Stop three was at a Walmart in Yreka, CA. The chargers were a little hard to find in the lot. It’s worth taking some time with the app to zoom in and orient yourself with respect to the buildings. You can have the app give you oral directions using Google Maps. They can be confusing though because it just gives a series of lefts and right. It never says how far away you are, even if you’re 20 feet away. They are normally quite visible, but a large truck, building, or trees can block your view. This was the fastest charging station on my trip north: 52 kwh in 39 min. This charge took me to my overnight location in Grants Pass, Oregon. That’s 425 miles in eight and a half hours, including meal and charging stops.

I chose this motel because there was a Walmart with an EA charger nearby. Only “nearby” turned out not to be that close and there was a highway I had to cross on foot. It was windy, cold, and drizzly, too. You don’t need the speed of an EA charger for an overnight stay. In fact, it’s a disadvantage in a way. I went to eat at a nearby restaurant while it charged, and I was getting alarmed to see it nearing full while I was still eating. EA costs you an arm and a leg if you don’t unplug within 10 min. of the end of the charge. I let it charge up to 94% while I finished my meal. The motel was okay, but not great.

The next day my first stop was at the Target in Springfield, Oregon. The first charger plugged in and started up okay, but stopped immediately. My EA app wouldn’t let me start charging again. I had to move my car to another unit. I couldn’t start there, either, so I called for help. The service person got the machine started.  It was of average speed (57 kw in 44 min).

Next I made a blunder that cost me a lot of time. I told Google to navigate to the Walmart in Vancouver, WA, which was my next planned stop for an EA charger. What I didn’t know was that there were several Walmarts in Vancouver. I was directed to the wrong one, which did not have a charging station. If you’re relying on Google or Apple, you have to be very specific. Then  it got worse. I gave Google the correct address, which was still 20 miles away or so. It started me on my way there. I got nervous with my low state of charge so when I was stopped at a light I pulled up the EA app and asked it to find the nearest EA station. It said there was one 3 miles away. I selected that and asked for Google Maps to direct me there. What I didn’t realize was that didn’t cancel the existing navigation direction. So when I started driving, I was getting conflicting directions in the same Google voice. At one point as I came to a split the voice told me to go left at the split and to go right at the split. I ended up taking some right and some wrong turns and wasted time and energy getting nowhere. It was dangerous. I told the car to cancel all navigation and just headed north on I-5. after a couple of minutes I asked it for directions to next Walmart north of my position. It directed me to one shortly ahead. It wasn’t the one I’d originally intended, but it did have a charging station. Great! I started the charge going and went inside to get a late lunch. There were no restaurants nearby, so I had settle for the awful Subway inside. I was inside for over 20 minutes when I noticed on my EA app that it was charging at a rate of 36 kw. It should have been going at 150 kw or close. I finished my meal quickly and went out to the car. I verified the slow rate and called EA service. The rep there confirmed it was unusually slow and suggested I move to a different tower. I did that and it began charging faster, at around 63 kw, which is still not great. Then another driver pulled into the slot I had left and his car began charging at a rate of 90 kw. Go figure.

This got me to Olympia. I needed to charge up before getting to my son’s house because he did not have a 240V plug accessible to me to charge there. I stopped at the Capital Village Shopping Center to charge. I had real trouble finding the charging units. I learned from my prior experience and asked the app to direct me. Unfortunately, it was the usual problem with a bunch of “next left” or “then right” commands that are confusing since they may mean at the street, or to turn up the next aisle. For these big malls, it’s helpful to find out which store the charger is near. You can usually do that on the EA website before you go, but then you have to remember that when you get there. The store names are not shown on the EA app. In any event, I got there and had dinner at a Red Robin while the car charged. Just as in Grants Pass, I was worried it would charge up fully while I was eating and I’d have to run over there (several hundred yards) to unplug and then come back. This ended up having an overall slow charging rate, but that was mainly because I let it charge all the way to 97% as I ate. The last 5% can take an hour even when the first 50% can take 20 minutes. I finished up and drove to my son’s house.

Obviously some of the difficulties wouldn’t apply if you know the area well and especially if you are familiar with the specific chargers. On my return trip, I used some other chargers. I’ll detail that in my next post.