Electric horses

by Rob Poulter


My wife and I recently returned from Honeymoon Part 2 on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. This isn't a travel post though (although it's a lovely, if somewhat rugged place to go!).

When booking the holiday back in February I looked around for car hire and noticed that one outlet was advertising electric cars. Since Telsa (spoiler: we didn't get a Telsa) has been in the news for ages and I wanted to learn more about plug in electric vehicles, I figured we'd hire one for a few days and see what it was like to drive one. I went to the trouble of looking at how many charge points there were around the island (one per town on the eastern side of the island, for a total of five) I went ahead and booked a Nissan Leaf.

On arrival the attendant at the rental agency gave us the rundown on how to turn the car on, plug it into the charging point, where the spare cable was to plug it into mains power and then let us loose. The downside is this is where I learned from the dash display that the estimated range was about 130km. The sticker on the windshield said this was the extended range version of the Leaf which should have gotten 170km with a 30KWh battery, but we only got anywhere near that shown to us on one of the charges, the rest of the time it stopped charging around the 130km point.

Range Anxiety

This is the point where the Leaf stopped being an exciting new technology to play with, an instead a resource to be managed.

First, some geography: Kangaroo Island is 150km (93.2 miles) wide, and we were staying on the eastern end of the island. As a result, our driving radius, assuming we wanted to get home again looked something like this (65km radius about our hotel):

The westernmost charging point was at Pardana, around the middle of the island, effectively cutting off the whole of the west coast unless we did a multiple day trip to factor in the time it would take to recharge the car in between legs. Since we'd already booked our accommodation this wasn't an option. (As an aside, this probably didn't bother my wife, since all the serious walking tracks are on the west coast, and she is far less keen on bushwalking than I am :)

This turned our trip into a series of calculations about how long we needed to stay in towns with charging stations in order to charge the car up for the trip back to the hotel against how much there was to actually do that was within walking distance. Not exactly ideal for a holiday.

One of the most anxienty-causing aspects of driving the Leaf was that the estimated range was always changing as the battery discharged and charged back up from recaptured energy. Hills were a killer: we would frequently lose 20-30km in range whilst going up a hill which, when the total range is 130-170km, occasionally made me really worried as to whether we'd make it to our destination.

The Charging Experience

There are different levels of charging points that exist in the wild, according to how much juice they can pump into your car. The ChargePoint stations which seem to be used around Australia come in three varieties: around 4KW (apparently similar to what you can get out of household mains), 7KW and 50KW. All of the stations on the island were of the 4KW variety (according to their app they tended to output somewhere around 3.7KW) and so charging our car was slow.

To charge up from half capacity usually took us around 5 hours or more, which is a long time if you're uncertain about whether you can make it home on what's left in the battery and need to fill in that time being touristy and doint touristy things entirely on foot.

Although we had a mains capable charging kit in the boot, we never got the opportunity to use it since there wasn't anywhere you could just drive the car up to and help yourself to someone's power. At our hotel we were lucky that the charging station was literally across the road from the carpark so that we could go back to our room while the car was plugged in and I could walk over to unplug it when it was done and bring it back.

 ChargePoint locations on Kangaroo Island

ChargePoint locations on Kangaroo Island

Charging is a mess. We weren't told exactly how the charging process worked when we picked up the car beyond where the catch was to open the port on the car, so our first experience was pulling up in front of the charging station. On a scrolling LCD display at the top of the station was the rate at which we would be charged ($2.80/hour[1]) and under the display was the symbol that is commonly used for NFC enabled credit cards.

I figured that this would be easy enough:

  • swipe credit card
  • plug car in
  • get charged when the car was unplugged

I don't have a credit card, so I swiped my debit card, and got a "card not recognised" message. OK, I borrowed my wife's credit card and tried again, similarly, "card not recognised". So I went to the website of the company who runs the stations: ChargePoint. I found out they have an app, so I downloaded it, put my card information into it, it used my phone's GPS to locate the charging station I was standing next to, communicated with it, and unlocked the handset so that I could plug it into the car. Success!

The app would report how long the car had been on charge, what rate it was charging at, how much power had been transferred to the battery so far, and sent SMS or email notifications on power interruption (e.g. if someone unplugged the car) or when power stopped flowing (in theory - we never had this actually happen).

So where does the mess come in? The app only managed to talk to the charging stations occasionally. Sometimes I could force quit it and relaunch and it would start working, sometimes trying to start charging a few times would get it to work, once I had to log out and log in again. On the final charge we had to do it failed to work at all and we had to resort to the swipe card which by that point we had found out about.

The ChargePoint website looks like it should give you all the functionality of the smartphone app, but I couldn't figure out how it worked.

After the second full day of futzing around using the app, I saw the sheet tucked into the pocket behind the driver's seat, which detailed the instructions for using the small RFID card attached to the keyring of the car, which is apparently the only card that the charging stations recognise. Charging using that card also wasn't charged to us at the end of the rental, so we would have saved ourselves around $30 if we'd been told about that first.

I am a Leaf on the Wind

The Leaf has two drive modes: Regular and Eco. The difference between the two is that Eco brakes more aggressively to reclaim power when you take your foot off the accelerator and doesn't respect your foot as much when going up hills.

Overall, the Leaf was a really nice car to drive. In regular mode it was quite zippy, and was pretty comparable with my Mazda 3 which is around the same size, and seemed to handle a bit better. Being electric it was super quiet apart from a slight aircraft-like whine as it accelerated. I would say that it was the nicest car that I've driven to date.

During the first day of driving my wife and I were discussing what it'd be like to own one, but came to the conclusion that we aren't really in a location that would be practical: living around 200km from Perth means that it'd be outside our driving range. For local driving it would be perfect, being able to charge up at home and just doing short trips around the city. Looking at what's available the moment, the Leaf looks to be about the best that is available since most electric cars bar the Teslas have 130km range or less.

Conclusions

My conclusion based on five days of driving around with the Leaf is that I'm really looking forward to the time when it's practical to own an electric car in Australia. As it stands the range isn't enough on the more affordable cars to be useful to us if we need to drive between towns, and the Australian government provides virtually no incentive to buy low or zero emission cars, with the Australian Capital Territory (i.e. Canberra) the only state offering any financial incentive in the form of no stamp duty on the purchase. The Tesla cars seem to have the range that we would need at significantly greater cost, which in fact may even attract the luxury car tax (the threshold for which is increased for fuel efficient cars, but at the same time, cars are expensive compared to the US).


Deferred Attention

by Rob Poulter


I shuffle my attention between four devices:

  • a (beloved if aging) 2012 13" Macbook Air
  • iPhone 6S+
  • iPad Air 2
  • Work Surface Pro 3

Because I split my attention between them all, it can be a struggle to manage the list of things that are interesting to me so that when I'm in a time which is suitable on a device which is right, things that I care about are easy to reach.

I find this difficult because there are a number of contexts I operate in into which I might want to store links:

  • Resources for teaching
  • Resources for programming
  • Articles which relate to teaching
  • Articles which relate to programming
  • Personal nerdery (articles I find interesting but aren't immediately applicable to any of my hats)

The issue is that for many of these contexts some devices aren't suitable. I mainly use my Macbook Air at home and so don't want to store teaching articles or resources on it since I use my Surface when I'm at work and in front of students. I find the phone and iPad cumbersome to use for long articles and they're not very suitable for following up on many resource types due to screen real estate or reliance on being able to run and test desktop software.

For some time I created bookmarks for followup on whatever browser I was using at the time. Of course this meant that I ended up with scraps of information scattered in "FU" folders across all four devices, and in some cases across different browsers on those devices. Typically I'd never get around to looking at them again. Eventually I gave up.

 My super-basic email Workflow

My super-basic email Workflow

To solve this problem I turned to the iOS app Workflow (which is awesome and I only use a fraction of what it's capable of) and email. This was a bit of a hideous solution, but it forced me to look at information in its given context: whatever link I wanted to save, I just sent to the relevant email address with the topic "followup" (and for Gmail the +fu modifier). In Gmail I created a filter so I was sure that I could sort through the silo easily, and for my work email I had to pay attention to it because unread work email is the bane of my existence.

Workflow is nice because I could automate most of that, so it would take whatever URL or article was looking at and put it in the body, and then automatically set the subject and destination address. Fire it off from a share action and there was some instant spam for myself for later. I found that I actually paid attention to a lot more of what I sent to myself, and it was easier to search for things that I eventually marked as read out of frustration at seeing the unreal mail badge on my phone since Gmail search is good.

The problem is that this isn't what email is meant for. Well, (un)surprisingly little of my personal email is actually direct communication with humans (hi mum and dad), and instead is full of newsletter updates, spam masquerading as legitimate email (hi Qantas), and receipts for purchases (which my wife the accountant would love, except there are so many of them). Essentially though, having extra emails there from myself wore a little thin.

 Workflow to send things to Reminders

Workflow to send things to Reminders

So what better way to organise myself than shoehorn yet another app that this sort of stuff wasn't really meant for into the mix? Enter Reminders. Now if you're an "organised person" you're probably saying "Rob, why didn't you use some sort of Todo app in the first place? That's what they're for after all", and the answer is that the stuff I send to myself doesn't have to get done. Ever. So many reminder apps and todo apps have a disturbing focus on actually wanting you do clear out the lists and so pester you with due dates, notifications and so on. iOS Reminders is nice in that its default state is letting you forget about what's inside. So, for URLs I might want to look at later on, I set up a Workflow to send things to a custom reminder list.

Not being a Workflow guru, the way I do it might not be as elegant as it could be, but so far it seems to work pretty well. I can dismiss the reminder when I'm done with the URL, and it syncs across all my Apple devices (tough luck, Surface Pro, you're still getting emails - good thing I send too many). The main drawback of this method is that URLs aren't treated as URLs and thus are not clickable on iOS, unlike in email.

A couple of honorable mentions which don't quite fit in since they only exist on my Macbook are Quiver and Taskpaper (just updated to version 3 but apart from the cosmetic differences haven't really looked at the changes yet).

Quiver is a really nice notebook which is organised in a similar way to OneNote but more focused on programming, so has code cells with syntax highlighting, tags etc. I use it to keep track of all the Swift resources I find when trying to solve a problem along with code snippets so that I don't need to look them up again (until the next Swift update breaks everything anyway ;P).

Taskpaper is a hybrid text editor and todo app, with a super simple text-only syntax, tagging and folding for projects and tasks, allowing you to hide completed tasks easily without deleting them. I use it for keeping track of bugs and features to implement by project. It's not ideal and not a replacement for a real bug and issue tracker, but for small scale stuff it's simple enough to get the job done easily.


Smile Acrobatics

by Rob Poulter


This morning I woke up to an email from Smile Software titled "TextExpander 5 Lives!" and I was a little sad inside. Now I still think that their original plan of moving to a subscription pricing scheme was the wrong decision, but I really wanted to see that they had a plan for it. As tech pundits left and right have said, Smile has been around for ages, they should have a good idea about how the business works.

So they will still be making a standalone version of TextExpander 5 and 3 (3 being their iOS version which I think is where the real mistake lies, since people have been building their API into apps for a while).

The bit that has confused me the most out of this situation has been the reason for subscription pricing itself: teams and sync, with the promise that moving away from iCloud and Dropbox sync allows a greater range of features down the line. It would have made much more sense to build some compelling feature set based on their own backend and then move to subscription on the back of that.

Anyway, same old story: company makes unpopular change, Internet gets outraged, company backpedals. Cue next disaster.

Edit:

After loading up a couple of podcasts about the issue for a drive to a different town today, it really strikes me what a marketing disaster this whole thing is. In particular, I was listening to the Chat Across the Pond podcast with Allison Sheridan where she interviews Smile founder Greg Scown about things. The whole episode was alternately me yelling at the phone on my dash that they should have explained their syncing and collaboration rationale this well before they pushed out their subscription model, and yelling at the phone for not having the interesting stuff built before the change.

Anyhow, go listen to the podcast if the topic is even vaguely interesting because Allison asks some great questions and Greg sheds a bit more light on their end of the situation.


Release Notes: Slack vs Box

by Rob Poulter


I remember someone else talking up Slack's release notes before, but looking at them side by side with Box's lately...

I honestly don't know why Box bothered with more than the first line since the other three dot points mean exactly the same as the single first dot point, providing no additional information at all.

Slack does a great job of what is arguably the job of release notes: information about features, and which bugs have been fixed. More importantly, they do it in such a way that you might actually read the release notes because they are entertaining, not just because you might be frustrated with a problem in an earlier version and you want to know if it's fixed yet.