researched facts

Facts, backed by evidence, about popular topics

Category: Uncategorized

Edward Snowden: The Embodiment of Star Trek?

As much as Star Trek was about space and technology, it was really more about humanity’s struggle to make something better of itself. The ideal of a utopian future was most obviously sought after in The Next Generation, my favorite of the all the Star Trek spin-offs. While Captain Picard and his crew faced any number of technological challenges, it was the moral dilemmas and personal struggles to understand and to do what was right that took center stage in most episodes.

Last night I watched Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It isn’t one of the best of the franchise (though I think they are all good), but I hadn’t seen it in so long that the plot had become fuzzy in my mind. Watching it brought back that old Star Trek feeling. You know the one; it gives us hope that humanity might persevere and become something more than a bumbling lot of moderately evolved apes all killing each other over financial gain or unsubstantiated ideology.

What makes Star Trek so grand, in my opinion, is the commitment of the enterprise crew to the path of moral righteousness, no matter the personal cost. Time after time, we see the crew of that ship risk status, rank, limb, and life simply because it is the right thing to do. Kirk and Picard’s crews follow them not because they are ordered to, but because they respect who they are and what they stand for. I would argue that Edward Snowden, in his own way, would make a more apt captain of the Enterprise than any president ever to sit in the oval office and any congressman ever to walk the supposedly hallow halls of Congress.

Snowden had nothing to gain from what he did. in fact, he had everything to lose. He risked his citizenship, his relationships, and his life to do what he thought was right. He disobeyed the rules of those in charge to expose a corruption that was and is undermining human progress. Like Picard in Insurrection, Snowden took great personal risk to fight for those who didnt’ even know they were in the line of fire.

I won’t belabor the point, you can draw your own parallels and conclusions. What I will say, however, is that we need more people like Snowden. People who are willing to risk it all to ensure the our collective moral compass remains true. He is the type of hero we need, but not the type we deserve. (Now where does that paraphrase come from? Hint: Not Star Trek).

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Vindication in the Tesla versus New York Times Debacle

I’m sure most people remember this episode, but let’s just recap. In the early days of 2013, the New York Times put out an article by John Broder, which was universally positive in its review of the Tesla Model S except for one point, battery life. Mr. Broder was impressed with the car itself, but found that the charging network left something to be desired, namely there were not enough chargers and he found himself with a dead car just a few miles from a charging station.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, made a big deal out of this article, claiming that Broder lied and intentionally manipulated events to ensure the car ran out of energy. Of course, debate ensued and accusations were hurled by both sides. Tesla fanboys claimed that Broder was a liar while NYT’s fanboys claimed that Musk was manipulating his supposed facts and was missing the point. The truth in these situations usually lies somewhere in between, but new data may suggest that Broder’s version of events was closer to the truth than Musk’s.

Let’s be clear here. The truth is CLOSER to what Broder wrote than what Musk has claimed, but it is still not fully in either man’s court. Here is why I say that.

If you venture over to the Tesla forums, you will find this: http://www.teslamotors.com/forum/forums/battery-drain-model-s-vs-roadster. This link takes you to  a forum section where real Tesla owners talk about a real problem in which the battery, when not plugged in, loses range. It is being referred to as the “vampire problem” and it goes something like this.

A fully charged Tesla, sitting in mild conditions in Southern California, will lose anywhere from 10 to 18 miles of charge PER DAY if it is not plugged in. Some peple have even found that the car, when fully charged, loses range WHILE plugged in. In other words, some function of the Tesla Model S causes it to lose battery charge even when nothing is being done with the car. I am sure that most people could related to a mile every few days, but 10-18 per day is astounding and even Model S fanboies are calling for a fast fix. Some rightly point out, and this is from the mouths of Model S owners, that a leaking gas tank would be fixed by the manufacturer immediately in a recall. They suggest that the lose of energy in the Model S should be treated with the same urgency.

When Broder parked his car on that fateful night, he hadn’t recharged it. There is not doubt that if he HAD recharged it that the care would have made it to the next charging station with not problem. The key here is, however, that when he parked the car that night he had more than enough range to reach the charging station, even if the battery wasn’t at full capacity, and was told by Tesla employees themselves (by chief technology officer JB Straubel himself in fact, that he had enough range. in other words, he was treating the car the way Tesla claims it ought to be treated, just like any other car.

The problem is, the Tesla is just like any other car. As fans will tell you, it is much, much better, except for the places in which it isn’t, of course. As Broder found out, the car will lose energy all by itself, unlike an ICE vehicle, which doesn’t generally leak fuel unless there is a problem. What is more, conditions affect the rate of lose and cold weather is a particular problem for this car. What is truly disturbing is what Tesla told Broder when he found that the car had lost range.

First, they suggested that he sit with the car on and the heat on low to “condition” the battery. That, they claimed, would restore range. Tell me, how does using energy restore energy? If the battery range fluctuates that violently as a result of how warm or cold the battery is, which is the only way the Tesla claim makes any sense, then they have a serious problem.It gets worse, however.

Tesla also told Broder that driving at a moderate speed would “restore” lost range. Again, the only way this makes sense is if the effective range is drastically affected by the temperature of the battery. It means, in essence, that the range of your battery could change drastically simply because ambient temperature changed, traffic has forced you to change speed, etc. This is a problem because the range on an ICE vehicle is pretty much the range no matter what the conditions.

All of this boils down to one fact: The Model S is likely to leave you stranded on the side of the road if you  trust the range indicator and try to push the battery to its limits. You cannot rely on a 30 miles to empty indicator in the Model S the way you would in an ICE car. Imagine, for instance, that your low fuel indicator light is on in your petrol car. You know, based on your particular model, that that means you have roughly 1-2 gallons of fuel left. We’ll say 1 for now and assume your car gets 25 mpg. You know that you can go about 25 miles before the car stops and so, given the abundance of gas stations, you park the car and get some much needed rest, knowing that you will still have 25 miles of range in the morning. What about the Tesla?

In the same scenario, in which the Model S indicates 25 miles of range, you cannot be certain it will still have that 25 miles when you wake up. In the best of conditions, you are doing to wake up with only 15 miles of range and in the worse of conditions, your battery may be dead. It doesn’t matter, at that point, if the supercharger was 20 miles away. You are now screwed. You should have filled up the night before.

The bottom line here is that Broder’s report was closer to the truth than Tesla’s claim. The car is not like a regular vehicle and cannot be treated as such. You WILL lose range even if the car simply sits and you WILL lose range as driving conditions change and factors outside of your control impact your driving style, ambient temperature, etc. Broder was right, the Tesla is a great car, but there are problems and it IS NOT and CANNOT be considered a replacement for the standard internal combustion engine, not yet at least.

Ubuntu 13.04 Rocks

I decided, after a great experience with Linux Mint, to put a Linux distro on my laptop. Given its age, I had a few installation problems and finally decided to go straight to Ubuntu without any flavoring and hope for the best. It wasn’t a perfect install, but it was far easier to fix than any other and so I was up and running in no time.

Let me just say that Ubuntu 13.04 absolutely rocks. It is fast, easy-to-use, and clean. It is the best OS I have used and if more people start using it, then more vendors will start supporting it. In fact, the only thing lacking in Ubuntu is strong support from third parties like graphics card makers, game makers, etc. If those groups would come on board, then there would be no stopping Ubuntu. Hopefully Android will help push the adoption of Linux distros, but we’ll see.

In the interim. If you want to try Ubuntu, all you need is a USB drive. You can boot from the USB and try Ubuntu without ever installing it. If you love it, you can either install it over your existing OS or install it so that you can dual boot. Linux makes it easy to dual boot, so that is what I do for those moments when Windows is just an absolute necessity.

That’s all, just wanted to give a shout out to Ubuntu 13. Hopefully I’ll have time to come back and write about all of the great features.

Getting it Right – The George Zimmerman Trial

I have listened to a lot of media coverage, read a lot of blogs, and debated with people on forums regarding the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. Now, the first juror has spoken and has confirmed everything that I have been saying. However, before we get to the reasons George Zimmerman is not guilty of anything more than self-defense, let’s consider the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.

 

Stand Your Ground (SYG henceforth) does not GIVE you a right to defend yourself. It is designed to PROTECT your right to defend yourself. The law was enacted the very type of situation Zimmerman found himself in. You are being threatened with bodily injury or death and you defend yourself. Zimmerman never intended his defense to be lethal, but it turned out that way. The SYG law protects people in just such a situation from bullshit prosecution and imprisonment. The jurors understood that clearly and calling them “confused” is both condescending and wrong. In fact, calling the jurors “confused” only makes the media look:

A. Stupid and confused themselves

B. Biased

C. Racist

Now, let’s briefly (in bullet points) go over the EVIDENCE in the trial.

  • Trayvon Martin was acting suspiciously and George Zimmerman called 911 to report this activity. Zimmerman was on the citizen’s watch and there had been a rash of break-ins, so this would not have been an unusual action in any way, shape, or form.
  • Zimmerman followed Martin to ensure he knew where he was so that he could inform the police when they arrived (which took far too long). He says as much on the 911, lamenting the fact that the police never arrive swiftly and that “these assholes always get away.” Despite the doctoring my the media, this is what the tape actually says. The medial who doctored the tape should absolutely be brought up on charges of tampering with evidence, attempting to incite a riot, and hate crimes. I hope George Zimmerman sues and wins.
  • Zimmerman was ASKED by the 911 operator to identify Martin’s race as part of the overall description. He said nothing about race prior to that point, only that someone was acting suspiciously and appeared to be on drugs (the second point we now know to be completely accurate – Martin was one drugs).
  • The 911 operator never told Zimmerman to stop following Martin, only that they “don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman indicated he wanted to be able to tell police where Martin was when they arrived and was concerned that he was walking not on the sidewalk, but through yards and nearer to houses than necessary.
  • Zimmerman, at some point, was attacked by Martin who punched Zimmerman in the face and then began to slam his head into the pavement. This alone is bodily injury and falls under the SYG law. For the idiots who think Zimmerman had to be sure that Martin was reaching for Zimmerman’s gun before SYG applies, you are dead wrong and stupid to boot. When you attempt to beat someone, expect to suffer the consequences.
  • Zimmerman fired ONCE, indicating no anger or hatred, but only a desire to protect his life.
  • Police testified that Zimmerman seemed surprised that Martin was dead, suggesting he had no intention of killing him.
  • Race never entered into this until the media started calling Zimmerman a “White Hispanic,” a label he has never been asked about and which has never before been used by the media until it became a convenient way of inflaming a race issue.
  • Martin uttered racists comments on the phone, which were repeated in court, including phrases like “nigga” and “cracker.” Both were used by Martin in reference to Zimmerman, suggesting the only racist in this whole situation was Martin himself.

To add to all of this, the FBI investigated and found no evidence of racial motivation on the part of Zimmerman and no indication that he is or ever has been racist. In fact, the only race issues in this case have been people like Al Sharpton insisting that it is about race. My take on that is that Mr. Sharpton is racist himself if he insists that any time a person defends himself or herself against a black person that is must be racially motivated.

Think about it this way. You or your son or daughter follows a person through your own neighborhood while waiting for police to show up and do their job. The person being followed decides to attack you or your son or daughter and is slamming that person’s head into the ground, which can potentially kill. You have a gun and a clear shot. What do you do? Do you let yourself, your son, your daughter die? Do you care, in that moment, about the race of the person who is slamming said head into the concrete?

The story is tragic and so is the loss of life, but two things should be abundantly clear. Martin initiated the violent encounter and Zimmerman only drew and fired when he was being beaten. That is the bottom line and anything in addition to that is just hype. The jury came to the same conclusion, based on all the evidence presented to them. For once, justice has been done.

 

P.S. – To those rioting in the streets: If you attack my car, I will run you over. If you threaten my life, I will respond with force (lethal if necessary). I don’t care how angry you are. You have no right to threaten or intimidate others, especially those who had nothing to do with the trial.

P.P.S. – Threatening to kill white people is racist and should be treated as a hate crime.

 

P.P.P.S. – Any threats of violence against a person should be taken seriously. If you threaten George Zimmerman, his family, the jurors, anyone who testified, the defense team, etc. – you will likely be investigated by the FBI and I hope, beyond all hope, that you spend some time in prison and learn a little something about how a civilized citizen should act.

P.P.P.P.S – One last question. Assume for a moment that Zimmerman was unarmed and that Martin had continued to beat him. What then? Would that be racist on Martin’s part? What if Zimmerman had died? Is Martin then a murderer? Is it only racist if he had killed Zimmerman? Why can’t Zimmerman defend himself, regardless of the color of skin of his attacker?

Did Death Valley Break a Heat Record?

There has been a lot of press coverage about the heatwave in the Southwestern United States with a great deal of emphasis on Death Valley and whether or not it has broken a heat record. This all plays well into the general consensus that the globe is warming, but me thinks there is something more to the media bullshit hype.

The first thing that should impress anyone about the current “heat” is that it isn’t that unusual for Death Valley. It is, after all, the hottest place on the planet. Thanks to its unique geography and topography, Death Valley routinely breaks through the 120 F mark every July. Is there something special about this July?

The answer is Yes. This July 10th will mark the 100th anniversary since the world record temperature of 134 F (for Death Vally – this is still 2 F below the world record set in Libya) was set in Death Vally in 1913. Wouldn’t it be a great story to be able to say “thanks to global warming, heat records in Death Valley have been smashed” on the 100th anniversary that the records were set? What a great story that would be and it would go a long way to propping up the idea that global warming is real and severe. Too bad the whole story is bullshit.

First of all, how does one measure a heat wave? Is it just a single high temperature? What about low temperatures and stretches of high temperature? As it turns out, there is no pattern whatsoever when you start looking at these trends. Here are some examples:

1. Most days over 100 F: Summer 2001

2. Most consecutive days over 120 F: Summer 1917

3. Most consecutive days over 90 F: Summer 1992

4. Hottest April Temperature: 2012

5. Longest string of lows above 100 F: 1959

The list goes on, but the obvious conclusion one should draw from this is that extremes of weather in Death Valley have been recorded throughout the 20th century, including well before carbon levels were high enough to have an impact. But this still isn’t the whole story.

The weather station used in 1913 was located in Furnace Creek. The new instrument is located 20 miles south of that in Badwater (installed late 1990s, which is convenient for some of the records listed above). Why is this significant? Well, Badwater is hotter than Furnace Creek and the particular location of the new instrument almost guarantees that it will record higher temperatures in every instance because it is located in a depression (low elevation than Furnace Creek) and because it is protected from the winds that help to cool the Furnace Creek instrument. In fact, the new instrument may be the hottest part of the valley and thus the temperatures recorded there are not directly comparable to temperatures recorded at Furnace Creek. In other words, we aren’t comparing apples to apples here. A great map and more detailed explanation can be found at (http://www.john-daly.com/stations/badwater.htm).

The bottom line is that we still haven’t gotten close to the record of 134 F and even if we do break it, that doesn’t mean much. It is too bad the media looks to sensationalize information and can’t cover these topics accurately. Always be skeptical of extremes. Their ability to capture our attention makes them all too prone to manipulation, fudging, and good old yellow journalism.

 

Does Windows 8 Suck?

Yes,  I know W8 has been out for a while and that MS has sold >”100 million licenses.” However, about a month before it came out, my computer died and I was left with a wait as I didn’t want to invest in W7 if W8 would be out. My solution was to go with Linux (Ubuntu – Mint) as I had never used Linux more than sporadically and thought it would be a good time to install it.

I thought the learning curve from Windows to Linux would be massive, but it was much easier than I expected. Once I got the basics of the Terminal Down and understood how Software Manager and other niceties helped make life easier, I found Linux surprisingly easy to use. What is more, I found the software to be outstanding!

On Windows, I generally used the MS Office products and then freeware like GIMP, Eclipse, etc. for most of the rest of my work. While there is no doubt that MS Office offers superior products, the difference is small. LibreOffice, which comes free for Linux, not only works, but it works well. It is missing a few of the luxury features of MS Office, but I found that I used them so little that I barely missed them. In fact, the biggest shift for me was relearning shortcut keys. So, even though MS Office is better, overall, in terms of features, it just doesn’t compete with LibreOffice when you consider that LO is free.

So, after months of using Linux and doing all of my work on it (word processing, spreadsheets, programming, web surfing, graphics/photo work) I decided to pick up some Windows Phone programming as there was to be a seminar on it. Of course, the development environment they planned to use only runs on Windows, so I would need to get W8 finally. It was no big deal as I had planned on getting W8 at some point anyway. As I loved Linux so much, I decided to go dual boot and have the best of both worlds. This gave me an interesting perspective on both OSes.

As it turns out, moving from W7 to Linux was much easier than going from W7 to W8, which led me to wonder if W8 simply sucks. The answer is a qualified no. In terms of speed, stability, and features, W8 is actually the best OS MS has released. It blows everything else away. Unfortunately, some jackass decided to completely destroy the user interface and go against all the hard-learned lessons of the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. The UI on W8 is awful. It is pretty, but that is all. I find it hard to get to the things I need and very difficult to customize the OS. As an example, to shut the computer down, you have to go to the side “charm bar” and select “settings.” In there will be a power button. I would have thought the button was for setting power features like screen off time and hibernation. Nope, it’s where they put the damn shutdown button. It is just an example, but illustrates the elaborate lengths to which a person needs to go to do simple things on W8. This is ultimately what is killing the OS. Moving from W7 to Linux should NOT be easier than moving from W7 to W8.

As a last point, I want to illustrate something I have noticed, but not had time to dig into much and that is the difference between the “desktop” and the “Metro” (Yes, I know it isn’t called that any longer, but what in the hell should we call it?) interface. They seem to be almost like two entirely different OSes. Let me explain.

When you open IE from the Metro tiles, the navigation bar is on the bottom, there is no way to access Internet settings (at least not that I have found from tinkering, though I intend to look it up) and there is no way to open additional tabs. It is like a browser on a mobile device, very limited. If, however, you go to the “desktop” and open IE, then it works just as you would expect with full access to settings, tabs, and with the navigation bar on the top. Interestingly, these two browsers do not communicate with one another at all, so it is like running two OSes with browsers open in each at the same time.

Interestingly, the same thing I just said about IE applies to everything I have tested so far. For instance, if I open Eclipse in the Metro interface, it is only accessible in the desktop, where it actually opens. I can see the Metro interface next to the desktop (kinda like the old W7 snap-to feature), but they can’t both be used at the same time. Switching is necessary and it takes time (not much, but it is noticeable). It is almost like the two are running in separate sandboxes. If I had to create a good analogy, it would be like running one OS and then running a second in a virtual machine. They are both on the same CPU, but they really aren’t able to communicate in any meaningful way. Basically, W8 was designed to be fragmented from the beginning.

 

The bottom line is that W8 is a great OS that is completely knee-capped by its UI. Whoever designed the metro UI is an idiot and should never work in software again. It looks pretty, but to treat it as separate from the desktop is just strange, stupid, and useless. Ultimately, it is the UI that makes W8 suck (and it does suck).

Understanding Tesla Motors’ Profit

Yesterday, Tesla Motors announced its first profit in the 10 year history of the company. To many fans, this is vindication for the idea of electric cars in general and for Tesla specifically. However, a number of seasoned market forecasters, investors, and publications have treated the announcement with cautious optimism. This, of course, has led many Tesla fans to denounce publications, like the Wall Street Journal, as biased or claim they are shills for big oil. Neither of these is the case and I will explain why.

Before I explain, however, let me make a few things clear. First, I like the Tesla Model S. It is a good car with great potential. It is, however, technology with limitations and I think it is important to acknowledge those limitations going forward and understand why major manufacturers have not pursued electric cars the way Tesla has. Fanboyism won’t due anyone any good as blind adherence to a personal bias has never helped the world out. With that int mind, I want to take a look at the numbers behind the Tesla financial report just released and attempt to understand what technical and financial factors make some investors leery  of this company.

The Financial Report

Revenue – $562 million

Profit – $11 million

If revenue is looked at in detail, there are a few things that jump out at us. First, the company made about $7 million on development services. This basically means that they made money by developing tech for other companies, like Mercedes. This may be lucrative going forward, but for now is just a side show.

Next, the company delivered 4,900 vehicles, which is just below the 5,000 they will need to deliver each quarter to hit the 20,000 projection. They claim that demand in the U.S. alone is 15,000/yr and worldwide it is 30,000/yr. The question on everyone’s mind is whether this is sustainable demand or whether this will drop once the “rich” have their toys and few other buyers step up to purchase the $70,000+ vehicle. To put the 20,000 into perspective, it is half the number of Ford trucks produced in a month. On a yearly basis, that means Tesla has a demand that is 24 times lower than what would be the case for Ford trucks. Now, there is nothing wrong with selling niche vehicles, but the question is whether this niche will be enough to keep the company profitable for the long term. Many niche companies sell their cars for much more than the Tesla, which brings us to margin per car.

The claim is that Tesla gross margins are 17%, up from 8% in the previous quarter. The company claims that it can raise this to 25% from Q4 2013. The final balance of the margin depends on just how much the company can cut in terms of:

1. Wages – Up to now, Tesla has been paying overtime, double time, etc. as it ramps up production. This leads to a higher cost of production per vehicle. These costs should fall some as the company develops a production schedule.

2. R&D – This is down 23% from Q4 2012. The question is, how low can this stay as the company begins development of the model X? That car is purported to have an all-wheel-drive option, which is no easy engineering feet, especially for electric drive. R&D is expected to increase slightly.

3. ZEV Credit – This accounted for $68 million of revenue. That’s right, the ZEV credit is more than

ZEV Credits – $68 million six times the company’s profit for this quarter. This means that without government subsidy, Tesla would have lost money. We’ll get to the details of this fact in the next section, but Tesla claims the 25% margin is WITHOUT ZEV credit.

4. Loans – The 17% margin includes payment on the loan that Tesla received from the DOE. At least this one is predictable.

5. Selling, general and administrative expenses – These are expected to rise moderately with demand.

6. Supercharger Stations – Tesla needs these to make its cars viable. If the company continues to invest in these and provide “free” electricity, what impact will it have on the bottom line?

7. Demand – Longterm demand for a car that costs so much remains speculative. The new lease option will likely improve demand, but it is not clear how that will affect overall earnings. What is more, the long term reliability of the car has yet to be tested. The coming years will determine if range loss of only 25% over 10 years is reality or just marketing hype.

As you can see, there are a lot of unknowns in the equation here, which is why outlets like the Wall Street Journal are not as optimistic as fanboys would like. The fact is, measured optimism is warranted after the financial announcement. Unbridled enthusiasm is less warranted.

Government Subsidy

Despite Musk’s personal tirades against government involvement in personal business, Tesla has been the recipient of government aid in three distinct ways:

1. A $465 million loan from the DOE

2. A $7500 federal credit on every car, which drastically lowers price. This is a consumer credit. Loss of this would affect demand for the car, but not gross margin.

3. ZEV credits that could amount to as much as $35,000 per car. This quarter, they amounted to just under $14,000 per car, which is a lot of credit. Loss of this credit would directly impact gross margin.

Without the ZEV credit, Tesla would not have turned a profit this quarter (in fact it would have had a loss of ~$57 million) and this is the major reason that many investors are cautious regarding the earnings release. A separate article will be the place to debate the appropriateness of government credits, here we are exploring what it means for the future of Tesla.

The company claims that Q4 2013 gross margins of 25% can achieved without the ZEV credit, but it is hard to see how that is possible. Tesla has not elaborated on how this would occur, but insists it is possible. For the coming year, Tesla plans to focus on improve efficiency.

Despite the good news, Tesla remains one of the most shorted stocks on the market, suggesting it is highly vulnerable to volatility. Only the future will tell if Tesla can remain profitable going forward. At the very least, the company has given electric cars a nice boost into the mainstream.