On the Road Technology

Electric Cars

Image: digitalart /

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity (and there can’t be that many, since I don’t really update this blog with any regularity at the minute) will know that my posts tend to be about a few broad subjects: the world is ridiculous, or the world is stupid and not quite to my liking.

I’ve not written much on the subject of electric cars, save for a brief rant on the technicalities of claiming to have a ‘full hybrid’ car (oh yes, the other kind of post – pedantry). However I have for some time been fostering an opinion about them, I’ve just been waiting for a catalyst to make me post (as is usually my way).

Earlier today on Twitter, perennial electric car proponent (and all round nice guy, if his Twitter feed and Carpool are anything to go by) Robert Llewellyn posted a link to what is probably total link bait, a piece from the Irish Times neutrally titled Let’s Ban Electric Cars. Electric cars are no good, says the article, hydrogen is the answer, so let’s ban electric cars and pump the money into developing hydrogen.

An interesting point, although the article does have a whiff of a failed Modest Proposal parody about it (I admit I might possibly only be thinking that because it’s from the Irish Times).

I do have a problem with electric cars. They’re painted as being the saviour of motoring and yet they are still not ready for the big time.

I don’t deny that an alternative for petrol needs to be found, and reasonably quickly – there is a constantly decreasing amount of oil left and something needs to step up and replace it.

In a reply to Mr Llewellyn – which, unexpectedly, actually received a response – I pointed out that the article made sense as electric cars, as they are now, can only be a stopgap solution to what eventually replaces the internal combustion engine. I would have elaborated further, but it is a little tricky to have an in-depth argument with a 140 character limit – hence this post.

One argument I’ve heard – primarily from Robert Llewellyn who actually (briefly) debated with me on Twitter on this point some time ago – is that electric cars represent an inevitable fundamental shift in our car habits.  Rubbish. We have seen numerous significant shifts in humanity’s relationship with various technologies over the years, but all of these have been changes for the better, the easier. Smartphones, the internet, social networking – these are fundamental shifts in behaviour, but the upsides are clear. We won’t see a major shift to electric cars whilst they are more expensive, more effort, and without the capabilities of standard vehicles. You currently have numerous downsides and few upsides – the few being saving money and saving the planet, but still.

I’m not necessarily saying that electric cars have no future and hydrogen is the answer – both have their respective flaws, and I fully expect science to be able to solve them – but my point is simply this: electric cars, as they are now, can only be a temporary solution to what will eventually be dubbed the motoring crisis.

Here are the problems:

1. Cost.

Electric cars are still more expensive, by several thousands of pounds, to a petrol car equivalent – even after government subsidy. Eventually this will be solved by the machinations of supply and demand, but this requires the sales of these cars to continue to drive down the cost – and there are still other problems which are preventing widespread adoption.

2. Charging.

Petrol cars reign still because when one is running out of juice, you take it to a petrol station, and refuel it in minutes. This is easy to plan around because there are petrol stations almost everywhere (although, it must be said, usually they all seem to hide when you actually need some fuel). Electric cars, however, will take hours to refuel – all night from empty. And that’s if you’re somewhere that has a charging point or electrical socket. Which brings me straight on to the next point.

3. Range.

Most electric cars these days have a range of only 100 miles or so. This means you have to carefully plan your journey to make sure you can get to where you’re going without not getting there at all, or not making it back.

The huge shift people talk about with regard to electric cars is mainly due to range. More people will apparently use the train for longer journeys and the car for ‘city hopping’. Aside from the obvious problem of the cost of catching a train these days, stations have a habit of not being close to most people’s houses, requiring a further onward journey. This is not a massive shift towards convenience; people won’t buy into it until they have to.

4. Battery life.

We’ve all owned an iPod, laptop or phone that just doesn’t seem to hold its charge like it used to. This is an inherent problem with batteries; they can only complete so many cycles before they’re knackered and need replacing. When there was that whole problem a few years back when people were complaining about iPod batteries no longer working (the greater issue: Apple had built an MP3 player that lasted long enough for the internal battery to die), Apple started an iPod battery replacement program. The cost to replace an iPod battery? £39. A rechargeable battery for a MacBook Pro costs over £100 (if you’re lucky enough to have a MacBook that lets you replace the battery yourself). The battery for an electric car costs thousands of pounds, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from failing to hold a charge after it’s been through a thousand or so cycles. And that’s if you look after it and drain it all the way every time – if you keep ‘topping up’ the charge and don’t fully discharge the battery every so often it will last even less time.

5. Fun.

The future of the petrol car lies in track day-like events. This much I have come to terms with. But until an electric car can provide the day-to-day thrill of driving a petrol car, a majority of drivers won’t make the switch. I will admit that I’ve never driven an electric car, so I am assuming an awful lot here, but I do know how less enjoyable it is to drive a diesel-powered car compared to the same sized-engine petrol equivalent. Maybe against all the odds they’ve managed to build an electric car that is torquey and exciting, but I doubt it.


I openly admit that in the future we will all be driving around with a different sort of fuel. That much is a certainty. However, right now, alternative fuel cars are still primitive, underdeveloped, and not really a viable alternative to the incumbent internal combustion engine.

One of the reasons why hydrogen-fuelled cars get so much press is because they represent the future most drivers want – the convenience of petrol with the planet-saving longevity of low emission driving.

As scientists continue to develop battery technology, eventually we will almost certainly have electric cars that can hold enough of a charge to get us longer distances, can recharge in minutes not hours, and will last many thousands of cycles before they need to be replaced.

But that isn’t the point. Right now, electric cars are simply not good enough, and there are problems that simply will need to be solved before they see mass market adoption.

Image: Sujin Jetkasettakorn /

Think of it like energy saving lightbulbs. They were (and many still are) rubbish. They take ages to warm up to the right light temperate, and even then the light is terrible, and as they are effectively fluorescent they are flashing at 50Hz and can make some people ill. And as they contain mercury, don’t drop one in your house. But since they were first released, technology has moved on, and you can buy energy saving bulbs that work almost as well as the old incandescent bulbs, an adoption has been good enough that incandescent bulbs could be banned in the EU without a huge uproar (there was, of course, a slight uproar from the Daily Mail, but then that is to be expected).


Zero emission?

One final point on “zero emission” vehicles. I don’t think it is right to call a vehicle ‘zero emission’ unless its entire production has been emission free. The manufacturing process produces emissions, the batteries contain various harmful chemicals, the car then has to be shipped from whatever country it is made in to wherever it is sold. If that can’t be done with a net emission of zero, then it shouldn’t be a zero emission car (and don’t forget, the electricity out of your plug isn’t necessarily from a renewable source).


Media Politics Scary Technology

Illusion of Choice

This infographic seems to be doing the rounds today. It is mostly US-centric but a similar sort of thing is present in our own media, albeit not to quite the same alarming extent. This is, however, the very thing that The Whimpering Pen, had I ever gotten it off of the ground, was going to be highlighting (it may return as an Xmas project, who knows, but since the phone hacking scandal it doesn’t seem as ground-breaking).

You might have guessed this wasn’t going to be an entirely self-penned post owing to the fact that it has catchy headline for once.

[via The Loop]

Media Consolidation Infographic

Source: Frugal dad


Movies Pedantry Technology

Those limited edition film cell things are really stupid

Despite some slight reservations, I bought the complete Star Wars saga on Blu-ray the other month (I presume they call it a ‘saga’ rather than the more technically accurate ‘hexalogy’ because the latter sounds both a) stupid, and b) a little too Harry Potterish).

Being as it was a big bastard 9-disc edition of the saga (which takes up less space than the 4-disc edition of the original trilogy we previously had, I would like to mention), they felt compelled to include in the set one of those single film cells as some kind of ‘limited edition’ dohicky.

As much as I think they can look pretty cool – I admittedly have four frames of Jurassic Park at home, although those were pinched from a presentation reel after the film snapped whilst preparing the screening – the idea that these are something special and unique, as the marketing people often seen to claim, is complete rubbish.

To explain – it’s not like these are original film negatives or anything. They were not passing through the camera during filming. The cells have not been within mere metres of the stars of whatever film they’re from whilst they were acting the scene you can see. They’ve probably not been near the stars at any point at all.

In fact, the cells are most likely from the exact same prints as you see in the cinema, making them approximately as common as muck. Just in case you wanted to see the sums that got me to this conclusion:

Every film runs at the same frame rate – 24 frames a second (fps). So, for every second of a film you see at the cinema, 24 of those little film cells are shooting past. That’s 1,440 a minute, or 86,400 an hour, or roughly 130-172,000 frames for the average 1.5-2 hour film.

If the sheer number of frames is difficult to picture, let’s look at it another way. 24 fps translates as somewhere in the region of two or three feet of film in a second. A single reel of film is usually about 1,800 metres or thereabouts, and most standard Hollywood fare will run for six or seven reels – which works out to about 11 kilometres of film for a single movie.

That's a lot of film.

And that’s for just one copy of the film. Most big blockbusters these days open in somewhere in the region of 3,500 or more cinemas. The 2008 film Jumper, picking one partly at random although with a slight Star Wars connection, opened in 4,600 screens, meaning 4,600 copies of the film had to be produced and distributed – which, by my maths, works out at roughly 582,922,000 (nearly 583 million) frames of film, or 49 million kilometres.

When you look at your single cell at about an inch in length, you will see just how small a part of the whole it is. Remember, when talking about ‘limited edition’ stuff, ‘one in a million’ is bad. ‘One in a million’ isn’t really that limited at all.

It’s not quite that simple of course. Not every frame is usable for this purpose; some contain titles, or fades to black, or blurred action that doesn’t look that good as a single frame. Also, in my experience, major cinema chains don’t exactly treat their copies of the prints that well, and they are heavily abused during their time on cinemas, being screened multiple times daily for months, and usually end up being held together by tape by the end of a theatrical run.

So I’m pretty sure they make prints exclusively for this sort of memorabilia. My single Star Wars frame – which looks like it’s from Episode III – is almost certainly from a print deliberately produced for this purpose. This is because the film is in the Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, or the ‘very’ widescreen format that still has back bars when viewed on a widescreen TV; due to the technicalities of screening this type of film the image is distorted on the print (see the image right) and corrected by a lens on the projector. However, the cell I’ve got contains letterboxes and the image is correctly proportioned (not unlike the image at the top of this post). Also, the film only contains an analogue soundtrack – the waves on the image above – and none of the more advanced digital soundtracks (the blue strips and the black specks between the sprocket holes on said picture).

This is probably getting a bit technical. But as I warned some time ago, I love this stuff and can talk about it for hours.

The future of these little bits of memorabilia looks a bit uncertain when you consider that I read an article a few months ago that said that the world’s last film camera had rolled off of the production lines somewhere. The film industry is moving inexorably towards an all-digital system, from shooting to screening, and that does sadden me a little. Compared to film, digital projection looks cold, clinical, inorganic. Plus, film smells so much better. I love the photochemical scent of it, and that – along with the heavy mechanical sounds of a running projector – is something you only get from being in the projection room.

With new films being all-digital, will there still be the desire for these film cells? Surely they will lose their only appeal when modern films have as much in common with a sprocket hole as an iPod does with vinyl?

Maybe when film resolution gets high enough, they will start releasing larger print movie stills, which also have the added bonus of being visible from across the room.

Fail Technology Travel

Free WiFi

Dear hotels:

If you are going to offer free WiFi to your guests, it does seem like quite a shallow offering if the speed of said WiFi is about four times slower than the speed of the local 3G network (the 3G is the top result):


Movies Technology

An open letter to George Lucas

Dear George,

Come on now, enough is enough.

I let you be when you first started playing about with the original trilogy. You said you regarded the six films as a single story and as such, they weren’t finished until the last one came out – I accepted that. I can understand the desire to fix continuity errors brought about by starting in the middle or updating the special effects because its taken you thirty years to finish this thing and the newer bits are making the older ones look a little dated. I get that.

However, when you tinker with things seemingly just for the sake of tinkering, and even worse start actually changing the events of the films, then you start crossing the line. Why must you meddle so?

I don’t mind you going back and adding Hayden Christiansen to the end of Return of the Jedi. No one knows who the heck the other guy was so we don’t really care (although I hope he does still get some token royalties, you greedy bastard). Adding Ian McDiarmid to A New Hope didn’t upset me that much because again, continuity. I don’t mind all of the CG things walking around the background in Tatooine in the original trilogy because you’re updating the older films to look a little more in line with the newer ones. This, as I said, is fair enough. You’re also at least going back and fixing the new problems you created with your pervious meddling, which I guess serves you right.

But – but – please don’t go back and change the actual fucking story. Don’t go and make Greedo shoot first. Don’t make Darth Vader scream “Noooo!” when he throws the Emperor down the shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Oh yes, and Yoda looks much, much better as a puppet. How can you go from campaigning for Frank Oz to be awarded an Oscar for his performance as Yoda to replacing him with a substandard digital version? At least you’re only doing it in Episode I and leaving the original trilogy be on that front.

I would love to be able to say that, with today’s release of the Blu-ray versions of the films, that you might sit back and quit meddling for a while. But no – next year, you’re starting this shit all over again by brining out A Phantom Menace in 3D. Hopefully you’ll be so busy trying to be the first person to do a 2D to 3D conversion that doesn’t look like complete shit (James Cameron hurt you, didn’t he, when he released Avatar and became the new pioneer of motion picture technology?) that you don’t have the time to fiddle about with anything else.

It does sadden me, dearest George, that a man who has done more for the film industry than anyone – you’re the father of modern special effects and cinema sound – now spends so much of his time continuously playing with his one hit rather than working on anything else. There’s Indiana Jones, of course, but as much of a part you played in that series it’s still Spielberg’s baby.

I’ve bought the Blu-rays, of course, because I’m an idiot and don’t have the gusto to stand up to you. But at least you’ve worked some of that old Lucas magic, as I understand the picture and audio quality on the discs are second to none.

But George, really, isn’t it time to retire to Skywalker Ranch and leave well enough alone?




Apple Fail Technology

Facial Recognition

The software I use for dealing with my photography over at Creative Splurges is a nifty piece of software called Aperture. I chose it over Photoshop because it has an iPhoto-like library element to it meaning I can easily keep my photos in one place where I can find them easily, whilst still offering fantastic RAW processing and image adjustments (and I chose it over Lightroom because 1. Aperture came first, and 2. Aperture integrates with my old iPhoto library). But this isn’t really of interest here, this is talk for ‘Splurges.

One of the amazing features of the latest version of Aperture is facial recognition technology. It will scan your photo library and pick out all of the faces, and tell them apart. All you have to do is put a name to the faces, and then you can easily see every photo with that person in it. It does have a learning curve, so it will ask you “is this Steve?” or “is this Susan?” as it learns to differentiate between people.

Sometimes, however, the technology does get a bit confused. When I first tried it out in iPhoto, it presented us with an image that contained a screwdriver and said, “Who’s this?”. It also does tend to pick out faces such as ones in painting and on statues.

It also, from time to time, can pick out faces in other places:

Of course, that one is almost to be expected.

When you are viewing images which contain a particular person, Aperture will also present you with faces that it thinks are that person. Sometimes it’s flattering, sometimes it compares girls to old men, and sometimes it’s downright confusing – take, for instance, this selection of faces that it thinks are me:

The- er, wait, what?

Life Technology Work

Technical terminology

One of the good things about the job I do is you can learn a lot from working on educational projects. I can now probably outclass most medical students on my knowledge of the examination procedure for the cranial nerves and I’m more than aware how to not to do a technical presentation.

Of course, at the start of the project, I’m just about as clueless as anyone about whatever it is I’m working on. Take my current project, for instance. I’m working on a series of short podcasts for dentistry students, which involves a lot of shots of torture devices medical equipment with peculiar names.

This ultimately caused trouble when naming the clips in Final Cut Pro. Not knowing what the hell most of the stuff was, I had to resort to slightly less ‘official’ names:

It got worse when I then started reading the script in order to actually complete the edit, as I found that the script made use of the more traditional names. I had to just hope that the things in the script were the things on the screen. The client viewed the videos this morning without any complaints, however, so I guess I’m in the clear. Which also means that a ‘pokey stick’ is in fact an interdental brush.

I should also mention that working on these podcasts finally taught me the correct method for brushing my teeth. I guess you’re never too late to learn.

Fail Technology

The problem with Microsoft

I realised today what Microsoft’s main problem is. Simply enough, they don’t think things through properly. If it seems like a good idea at first they’ll run with it, and no-one will to have the courage to pipe up and say ‘hang on lads, is this really such a good plan?’ until after it’s too late.  Take their purchase of Skype, for instance. Is there anyone besides Steve Ballmer who thinks that Skype is worth $8.7b? Or the Kin phones, cancelled only six weeks after they were launched.

The Kinect too. It may be doing rather well, but as a gaming tool it is cripplingly ineffective compared to a good old-fashioned controller and the sort of games that are coming out are awkwardly twisted around this control interface. Impressive it may be, practical it isn’t. Or, for instance, the Windows 7 FAQ. I took a look today trying to find out the system requirements for Windows 7 for work. One of the questions caught my eye.

Wow. So in order to find out what version of Windows you are running on your PC, you have to already know what version of Windows you are running. Fantastic logic, and a worrying sign of what to expect from Microsoft’s tech support. You’ll be on the phone for ages with the same cyclic argument. A little further down, the section about drivers seems to be getting increasingly panicked:

It’s almost as if this is a transcript of an actual support call, where it is becoming increasingly apparent to the caller that they don’t know as much about computers as they thought they could get away with. Knowing this planet however, that caller is probably an IT manager somewhere.



[cross-posted from Outdated by Lunchtime]