Doing Good

Daniel and I have serious concerns about the incoming administration’s attitude and commitment to the environment and the rights of anyone who isn’t an old straight white guy. While we may not be doing well, we can at least do good.

We sat down and made a list of organizations that were tackling issues and supporting groups near and dear to our hearts. We focused on organizations that support women, LGBT, people of color, and immigrants, both locally and nationally. We ended up with a rather large list of organizations we wanted to support at the end of 2016 but not enough money to support them all like we wanted. Instead of giving everyone a medium amount of money, we gave big to a few organizations and gave small to the rest.

Primary organizations

We gave big to these organizations, wanting to focus locally and in areas that directly affect our LGBT community and women.



Secondary organizations

These aren’t any less important than the others, but we feel it’s more effective to give larger donations and there was only so much money to go around. We believe in the work these groups are doing and wanted to let them know they have our support.



Where are you doing good?

What organizations are near and dear to your heart? What groups are you supporting?

My new car: old hybrid with new batteries

If you own a hybrid vehicle that is 8 years old or older, replacing the batteries could make it run like new or better than new.

In 2009 I purchased a gently-used 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid with manual transmission from some good friends. At the time it didn’t have a whole lot of miles on it and still doesn’t — despite being almost 12 years old Eiffel1 only has around 82,000 miles on it. I’ve been an urban-dweller in the heart of Seattle the past 5 years and use the car infrequently, mostly on weekends to go out running or hiking.

Honda Civic Hybrids use the electric motor as an assist to the small, efficient gasoline engine. During acceleration the electric motor kicks in and provides more power to get the car moving. This is particularly noticeable when going up Seattle hills and getting the car moving from a stop in first gear. The battery is recharged during deceleration or when the car thinks the engine can spare the power. It gets around 41 MPG on average, including both in-town and highway driving.

About two years ago it was clear that the hybrid battery was losing its ability to retain a charge. There wasn’t as much ummph in going up the hills as there use to be. It was annoying but not extreme and didn’t significantly impact the fuel efficiency of the car. Honda warranties their batteries for 8 years or 80k miles and it was past the 8-year mark by the time I noticed it.

Last summer I made one of the biggest mistakes a hybrid car owner can make: I let the car sit for months without driving it.2 When we started driving it again, the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) light and the check engine light would periodically come on. Then they came on and stayed on. Throughout all of this, the overall fuel efficiency didn’t really decrease— still in the low 40s or upper 30 MPGs. The act of driving the car, however, was miserable: no power when going up hills and getting the car going from a stop on a hill was painful.

A Honda dealership will happily sell and install a new hybrid battery for the tune of $3500. As if that wasn’t expensive enough for a car with a Blue Book value of around $4k, most of the batteries they sell you have refurbished cells. I then found Bumblebee Batteries who will sell you a battery with brand new cells for $2100 including a 3-year warranty. They’re based out of Portland so we combined a trip down there to see friends with buying, and installing, a new hybrid battery. They usually ship it to you so I called prior to make sure we could pick it up and install it in their parking lot and they said sure.

We did a trial run of removing the battery in our garage before we left to ensure we had all the necessary tools, and to give ourselves confidence that we could do it. We drove down to their location in a light industrial area, bought the battery, and installed it in about 30 minutes. They were gracious enough to let us use their empty garage to do the work! They take the old battery, replace the cells with new ones, recycle the old ones, and resell it.

The car drives like it’s brand new. In fact, it’s better than when I got it. It has power going up hills! A drive up Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t involve downshifting into 3rd and puttering along at 45 MPH. Interestingly, the car still gets about the same gas mileage. The little gasoline engine is the main workhorse of the car whether with or without the assist, but the electric engine is what makes the car enjoyable to drive.

If you have an older hybrid that is in great condition but drive horribly because of the battery, I encourage you to consider getting a new battery rather than buying a new car. I also strongly recommend the good folks at Bumblebee Batteries as a source of that battery!

1 Eiffel is named after the band Eiffel 65 from their hit song Blue (Da Ba Dee). Sadly, the car isn’t as blue as the song might convey.

2 I’ve since learned that letting a NiMH hybrid battery sit for several months and then getting in the car and driving it is a Very Bad Thing. The battery cells discharge fully while sitting for months, but the car will only charge the battery until one cell is fully charged leaving most of the cells well below a full charge. The car isn’t capable of ever fully charging all cells and you’re down to driving on dribbles.

Pro-public transit? Ditch AAA

Many people, roughly 54 million Americans, use AAA (formerly: American Automobile Association) for tows and discounts. What you may not know is that AAA actively lobbies against public transit initiatives and other environmental issues (see the full report). If you think about it, this makes sense — AAA makes money from people driving on roads, the more people that drive on roads the better off they are.

There are alternatives, like Better World Club that offers similar auto services to AAA but with a distinct bent towards greener policies and other forms of transit. For example: if you are a cyclist, Better World Club will give you a 30-mile ‘tow’ should your bike break down anywhere in the US. AAA offers a 5-mile ‘tow’ if you live in Washington state and doesn’t offer it at all in most others.

Take a moment and compare Better World Club and AAA and see if one aligns better with your world outlook.

Gas prices aren’t high enough

Anyone who has purchased a personal vehicle in the last 10 years, new or used, that doesn’t get at least 30 mpg on the highway has no room to complain about gas prices. Note that I’m not making a judgement about anyone’s use of any vehicle, no matter how abysmal its efficiency1, just their lack of leg to stand on when it comes to gas prices.

I’m all about personal freedom – buy whatever car you want – but I’m also about personal responsibility: if you bought a car for commuting with shitty gas mileage, that’s your fault. My 2004 hybrid gets between 40 and 45 mpg in hilly Seattle. Between the gas efficiency and how infrequently I drive my car (I commute by bus every day) I fill up the ~10 gallon tank once every 3 months.

I assert federal gas taxes should be more than double what they are now with the proceeds going to assist individuals with the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles. And I’m not talking about the ridiculously low bar for efficiency used in the “cash for clunkers” — 18 mpg is not an acceptably high bar.

Lowering gas prices is great political pandering, particularly in an election year, but is addressing the symptom, not the problem.

1 At least in this blog post.

Honda Civic Hybrid – a month in review

I received possession of my new car on July 2nd. Meghann and Peter dropped it off after filling it up and running it through a wash. It’s been fun to drive, for the little driving I actually do.

A few days after driving it around the car and I had a brief discussion and the car was christened: Eiffel. Contrary to what you might think, this has nothing to do with Paris but rather the group Eiffel 65 which had the one-hit-wonder song “Blue [da ba de]”. Given that Eiffel is a very pale blue (or a very blue gray — you pick) it seemed appropriate. That and the song was really popular when I first met Benjamin. Apparently I have a distinctive head bop that I do when listening to it which he finds comical.

I had the windows tinted on July 24th and the tint really helps control the heat from our bright Colorado sunlight.

After driving my new car for a month I finally stopped to fill it up today. I went 500.7 miles on 10.104 gallons of gas, or 49.55 MPG. This number is slightly lower than that reported by the car (50.7) but close enough. At $26.42 to fill it up, that’s $0.053 per mile. If a 2004 model can get almost 50 miles to the gallon, why aren’t all 2010 models in that ballpark? What the hell is wrong with the automotive industry?

Moreover I predict at my next fill-up that my overall MPG will be slightly higher because it wasn’t until half way through this tank that I discovered the secret to Auto Stop. With the air conditioner off, when the car comes to a stop it shuts down the engine and starts it back up again when it’s needed. But not always. For the longest time I wasn’t able to discern what the magic sequence was to get the car to go into Auto Stop. I theorized that it was temperature related for a while but eventually ruled that out. After a few days of closely paying attention I figured out the key: the clutch.

When coming to a full stop I was correctly keeping the car in gear to enable the regenerative breaking but I was taking it out of gear without the clutch. Like any manual transmission there’s that sweet spot when the engine RPMs and the transmission ratio coincide to allow slipping the car out of gear without the clutch. In Eiffel that point is just after the car stops the regenerative breaking process when coming to a stop. If you don’t use the clutch, however, the car will not go into Auto Stop. This means for the first half tank of gas I was burning gas at almost every stop for no good reason.

Now that I know the secret I get a much more predictable entry into Auto Stop although there are still some times the car takes itself out of Auto Stop or just won’t go into it when I expect it to. My speculation is that the engine turns on to maintain the temperature of the catalytic converter which operates optimally at specific temperatures.

A TED report on Earth Day

Last weekend while Benjamin was working, I decided to determine two things:

  • our electricity usage baseline
  • which devices contributed to that baseline and by how much

Like any performance analysis you need to start with a baseline: where are we now. I wanted to see how much electricity in kW our house was using with everything turned off. Of course “everything” isn’t, well, everything — it’s everything you decide to have explicit control over. For instance – while I’m all about reducing our electricity usage, I’m not going to go around unplugging our microwave, oven, washing machine, and alarm clocks at every turn. All of these devices use some amount of electricity to display clocks or respond to the ‘on’ button.

So with every reasonable thing unplugged or turned off on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I loaded up my good friend TED and observed that we use ~0.168 kW. I then went through the house with my Kill-a-Watt to find out which of those always-plugged-in devices were using power and how much. Here’s what I found:

  • UPS = 34 watts
  • 3 alarm clocks @ 5 watts = 15 watts
  • 1 microwave = 7 watts
  • 1 wireless router = 5 watts

That only accounts for 61 watts, or 36% of our baseline. There are several other devices which I know use some power but I didn’t get to measure yet due to it being a pain to get to them:

  • cable modem (always on)
  • 5-port hub (always on)
  • oven (has digital clock)
  • washing machine (non-physical switch)
  • dryer (non-physical switch)
  • hot water heater (gas unit but plugs into wall too)
  • garage door opener
  • radon mitigation attic fan (always on)

Sadly, the UPS does not have a physical switch so even after turning it off the only way to stop it drawing power is to unplug it and it’s simply not worth the effort to me at this point.

Our current electric rate is $0.11883 per kW, so the smallest our electric bill could possibly be (excluding service fees and taxes) is $14.37 (0.168 kWh * 24 hours per day = 4.032 kW per day * 0.11883 = $0.47 per day * 30 days per month = $14.37 per month). Granted, we have to actually live in the house, so it will never be that low, but that give me our lower bound.

During the past few weeks I discovered some other interesting datapoints:

  • My computer, which is on at least 9 hours every day, only uses around 30 watts.
  • Benjamin’s hair dryer uses ~1 kW – which explains why the time he gets ready for work is often our peak kW usage during the day unless we turn on the oven…
  • The oven uses ~3 kW.
  • The clothes dryer uses ~3 kW off and on throughout its cycle and drops down to ~1 kW at other times. That’s unsurprising once you think about it – you’re not baking your clothes, you’re introducing hot air, tossing the clothes around a bit, and then more hot air.
  • The iPhone charger, as well as most other wall-worts, don’t actually use electricity unless they are being used. I was under the incorrect impression that these AC/DC converters would use some small amount of electricity while plugged in but not being used.

It’ll be very interesting to see how the electricity usage changes this summer when our AC kicks in.

Water conservation – harder than it sounds

Denver Water, the county and city of Denver’s water utility, has an extensive water conservation campaign. This is because, like many areas around the nation, Denver’s population is growing but it’s water sources aren’t.

Benjamin and I have been doing our part for a while now. Last year we bought a high efficiency washer and dryer when we moved into the new house. Living in a townhouse we don’t have much of a yard (no grass at all) but we do have some raised beds for flowers and vegetables. The previous owners installed a time-controlled watering system for those beds which we use during the summer. Our house was built in 2005 so it has low-flow toilets. We run the dishwasher only when full.

The last bastion of water wastage in our house is the shower. We use between 2000 and 3000 gallons of water a month and I believe around 1000 of that is from our shower usage. Benjamin likes to take longer showers and while he’s flexed on just about every other aspect of my environmentalist agenda, taking shorter showers is just isn’t in the cards. After some cajoling/sweet talking/bribing I was able to talk him into letting me replace our 2.5 gal/min shower head with a 1.5 gal/min shower head. He wasn’t happy about it but I promised him that I would never again bring up his longer-than-I-think-are-necessary showers if he’d let me install it.

As a bonus the new shower head has a pause feature allowing for Navy showers. No, when the button is pushed your shower stall does not fill with hot navy sailors — instead the flow of water either stops or the flow is significantly reduced. According to the package the pause button was suppose to stop all water flow but in reality it just reduces it down to a mere dribble.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations says that without the use of the pause button the new shower head is conserving around 390 gallons of water a month (estimated 13 minutes of shower for both people per day and changing from 2.5 to 1.5 gal/min flow) — and that’s a pretty conservative estimate. With my use of the pause button we probably shave another 45 gallons/month beyond that for a total savings of 435 — or about 45% savings total.

There was an interesting article last month in the WSJ that talks about shower water conservation and the resistance to it.

Performance engineers are green engineers

I’m a software performance engineer – my job is to make software faster. The ideal way to make software faster is to stop making it do things that it doesn’t need to be doing to get the job done. Any rational person would look at that sentence and say “well duh”. Any sensible software developer will look at that sentence and should be appalled that such a statement is even necessary. That said, it is. Removing busy work can take many forms such as changing an SQL query, adding a database index, reducing abstraction for specific cases, reusing reusable objects instead of creating new ones at every iteration, and using the right data model/algorithm for the job. Ideally when you get done the software is faster while using fewer CPU cycles and the originating developer has been educated as to how it should have been coded to begin with.

Using fewer CPU cycles directly relates to the new environmental movement. The fewer CPU cycles a computer is using the less heat is being generated and the less electricity is used to both power the CPU and cool the data center. In addition, the fewer CPU cycles required by a single application the more applications can reasonably share a pool of CPU resources (either on the same server, sharing via virtualized hardware such as AIX LPARs, or sharing via virtualized software such as VMWare, AIX WPARs, or Solaris Zones). The more applications you can cram on a single physical server efficiently using server’s resources the fewer servers you need, the less electricity you use, and the greener you are.

Thus my assertion is that performance engineers are green engineers. And not to make a too lofty point of it, but we play an important role of directly reducing the CO2 emissions from the IT industry, which currently accounts for 2% overall — the same as the airline industry. And if done well, the software we create just might help with reducing the other 98%.

The Ctrl-Z President?

There comes a time in all great nations when it’s necessary to hit the brakes and back up. My hope is that today we’ll start to see Obama hit Ctrl-Z several dozen times such as:

  • Rerouting funding for abstinence-only education to programs that provide education on and help obtaining condoms and birth control.
  • Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and allow everyone who wishes serve their country with dignity and not in hiding.
  • Repeal the “Defense of Marriage” Act and federally recognize same-sex unions, under whatever label, just as the federal government does opposite-sex unions.
  • Provide more stringent requirements on the financial industry to prevent a occurrence of this last financial fubar.
  • Hold all government agencies responsible for constitutional violations such as warrant-less wiretapping and ensure future violations do not occur.
  • Mandate more fuel-efficient vehicles and remove our dependency on foreign oil.
  • Listen to scientists who tell you the environment and planet is going to hell in a handbasket and act on the information.

Most of the above (with the exception of DADT) were done under Bush’s watch, if not by his hand. I’m hoping over the next few months we’ll see Obama make judicious use of Ctrl-Z and undoing some of Bush’s (and in the case of DADT, Clinton’s) screwups either via Executive Order or working with Congress. I don’t think Obama is the nation’s savior and I don’t think I’ll be happy with everything he’ll do, but for the first time in 5-8 years I have some confidence in our executive branch.

And, borrowing from my friend Mark, lets hope the undo buffer is big enough to support these actions.