Something Like Therapy

I can't stop thinking about my personal ramifications from watching the movie Bully last week. I mentioned one sentence in my essay about it last week, but it just opened up a big can of worms.

Perhaps most recently, I was working on writing a proposal to speak about the solar system I had installed last year, but I quickly grew disinterested as I worked through my estimates of return-on-investment. But what was really stopping me was my painful "to hell with them" attitude. I've never been much of a salesman — and notoriously anti-good at marketing (owing to my desire to permit people to make an informed decision). I feel like I'm constantly fighting the status quo on big-picture issues: I talk with enough people who wring their hands over increasing energy costs and blame "the man" for ripping them off, but then fail to see they can just walk away from "the man", get a solar system, and do away with a big chunk of variability. The debate, see, gets quickly personal for me when I have a solution and they won't listen — as if they're actually calling me stupid.

Or like a few years ago when I abandoned my "mileage maximizer" project for, essentially the same kinds of reasons: "screw them." I still think that idea would work, and possibly be a significant step toward winning a 100 mpg X-prize. But there's really two outcomes: either it works, and then either I fail to market it correctly, or someone else takes it away from me and turns it into a "Bad Thing" — or it doesn't work and I'm ridiculed for being so foolish. In no way does it work out that I gain any satisfaction from it because I can't help but hear the critical voices. And the last thing I want is to give something useful to my critics.

Another thing that comes up often enough is my hair-trigger on people taking advantage of me. I probably missed out on a pretty fair number of dates in my past: if a woman was sweet to me, I always assumed she wanted something. I'd hook up her stereo, or drive her somewhere, or fix her car, or help with her assignments — all with a begrudging pleasure at the certainty that this was my lot in life. In retrospect, I can deduce that each of them probably just kinda liked me and wanted to get to know me, but even now, I can't fully internalize that was even possible. And I still can't believe it — I'm still skeptical when I meet someone who (to anyone else) clearly likes me, and the stronger the attraction, the stronger the skepticism.

And then, I take an excruciatingly long time to trust someone. And that trust can dissipate instantly if I even start to believe the relationship has any ulterior value. It's a constant struggle to balance on that razor edge: a combination of denial and suppressing evidence, and a desire to really feel trust — trust where I don't even consider that I'm being played. That's how my closest relationships work: my best approximation to what real trust must be like.

In high school (and most of college) I found my niche skating by with minimal effort. I graduated 4th in my class, and I was very pleased at that because it absolved me from the responsibilities of being valedictorian or salutatorian, particularly giving speeches. My whole point was to try to be invisible; to get attention from nobody, good or bad.

Farther back, things get more hazy, and all lumped together. Was it first grade or fifth grade that I sat in back of the bus solely to endure (unsuccessfully) the psychology cruelty of the "bad kids" who sat there? Did some kid wreck my diorama on the way to school or was that Lisa Simpson? Why do I remember so few good times on the bus? Why didn't anybody do anything about the misery I was going through?

I went into the world with an open heart. I have learned to ferociously guard that kid in me who believes people are good and they want to help others. But then I met my peers and they were sometimes cruel. And the adults in the world would say, "well that's the way the world works, Jay." They sided with the evil. And it is evil. And wrong. Being good and nice is natural to all of us, and it's the way we should all be all the time — it should be exceptional to ignore someone who is hurting. Yet it's always the story of someone who takes five minutes to help that is treated as exceptional. Well God damn it: you're all wrong.

And to me, that's the take-away from Bully: these kids who are bullied, they are the best people in the world. To coddle the bullies is tantamount to child abuse — it's teaching that cruelty is okay, that rudeness is okay, that abuse is okay, that stealing is okay, that rape is okay: they're all part of the same family, grown from the same kernel. We get the chance to build a new society every day, but we keep supporting the ugliest parts and wondering why it doesn't get better.

Dropping Plans for the "Mileage Maximizer"

I think I started thinking of a way to improve gas mileage about 5 years ago.  I have been tinkering with it on-and-off since then. One of the features of the Buick RoadMaster that Ali and I bought was the throttle-body fuel injection because I thought it would be easier to modify than the direct injection of newer engines. Despite learning lots about how I would tackle the problem, I don't think I'm going to worry about ever actually implementing it; instead, I'll focus more of my energy on human-powered vehicles like custom bicycles and such.

I read an article that included a graph of engine efficiency for a Volkswagen (I think) that plotted efficiency (horsepower per gallon of fuel) as a color against throttle position and engine RPM. In this particular engine, efficiency varied between about 5% and about 30%. One way to think of it is that for any given engine speed (i.e. 2500 RPM), the efficiency the engine converts fuel to mechanical power varies with throttle position. A rudimentary observation is that the engine is more efficient at 50% throttle than at either 5% or 95%. Also, there is a "sweet spot" — a throttle position that is the most efficient (or a range that's pretty close) — for any given engine speed.

Automotive designers have not done much with this information as far as I can tell. They try to make the "sweet spot" bigger for efficient cars, they try to set the top gear in the transmission so average highway speeds are in the sweet spot, and in a few cars, they switch off half the cylinders sometimes to try and change the sweet spot.

My idea is to change the fuel system more radically. First, switch to "throttle by wire" — make the accelerator pedal more akin to a "torque selector" than a "gas pedal". The actual engine throttle would be computer-controlled to try and maintain the most efficient engine output for its current output RPM. To control the amount of power the engine actually produces, the computer would disable fuel to suppress firing of certain cylinders at a ratio that approximates the desired power output requested at the accelerator pedal.

For example, if you're driving up a grade on the highway and need the engine to deliver 40 horsepower, the car might be running at 1800 RPM and you'd have the throttle at 40%. Let's say this gets you an engine efficiency of 12%, but at 1800 RPM, the "sweet spot" 60% throttle you can get 20% efficiency. At 60% throttle, though, the engine delivers 80 horsepower and you'd be accelerating. So the computer would turn off the cylinders half the time so the effective engine output would be 40 horsepower, but the engine efficiency would nearly double — and so would your gas mileage.

The trouble is, it's quite a time-consuming, complicated project. The first step is to measure the engine data — and that starts with building sensors and recording equipment to get a good set of efficiency and power output data for a spectrum of both throttle positions and RPM. Then it's a matter of analyzing that data to get the target throttle positions and ratio calculations to match the existing performance of the accelerator pedal. But then it gets complicated: you need a throttle actuator, an electronic accelerator pedal, and a way to send the engine computer corrected data from the exhaust oxygen sensor (i.e. turning off half the cylinders increases exhaust oxygen a lot) — probably more sensors too, and a computer to process all that information real-time. Of course you need to make it safe, and be able to record data so you can present it truthfully.

And if everything goes perfectly, it's a gamble as to how much improvement you'd actually get. The thing that kept me interested in the project was the prospect of doubling the mileage — going from 20 MPG to 40MPG. I think it's more realistic to consider a 10%-20% improvement. But without the big step of collecting data, I don't even know at all.

I promised myself this year that I'd put forth extra effort and really try to make it work. I made this promise for 3 years now, and I still have no system. So I'm relieving myself of pretending to get it done. At the end of March, I was supposed to have a working Controller Area Network (CAN) to reliably communicate data between the various microcontrollers in my system. It's now the middle of May and I have no such system. So it's time to zip up the body bag and pack this one away. I learned a lot in doing research, and I'm glad I did, but I just don't think I'm going to bother finishing it.

How Far is Too Far for Cheaper Gas?

I was thinking about how people travel to a distant gas station to get gas that's cheaper. I mostly thought of it as a waste of time, especially with the 10-gallon tank in the Civic. If I filled it all the way, a 5 cent difference in gas price would net me all of 50 cents. So if I'd be willing to cross the street, but not cross town — driving the distance isn't free.

So what's the break-even point? Well let's say the price of the cheapest fuel we can get without going out of our way is P0. Further, let's assume we fill up about the same amount — like if we run similar errands each week, we might need to buy half a tank each week. Let's call that volume of fuel V0, so we pay C0: P0 * V0. So now we see fuel at a cheaper price, P1, elsewhere. But it'll use more fuel to get there, so we'll have to now buy a volume of V1 instead, costing C1: P1 * V1. How far out of our way should we go to still save money?

The break-even point is when the two costs are the same:

C0 = C1

which is also

V0P0 = V1P1

but we want to talk about distance. The ratio of the the distance traveled to the volume of fuel used is your fuel efficiency or "gas mileage" in miles-per-gallon:

E = D/V

we can rearrange that so

V = D/E

and substitute above so

P0(D0/E0) = P1(D1/E1)

Now, if we make a broad assumption that the efficiency is about the same — that your gas mileage is the same whether you go to one place or another — then we get:

P0(D0/E) = P1(D1/E)

and we can eliminate the efficiency factor on both sides leaving

P0D0 = P1D1

So let's say that P1 is some percentage cheaper and that D1 is some distance further:

P1 = ( 1 – cheaper ) P0

D1 = ( 1 + further ) D0

And then substitute P1 and D1 to get:

P0D0 = ( 1 – cheaper ) P0 ( 1 + further ) D0

And now we can cancel out P0 and D0 from both sides:

1 = ( 1 – cheaper )( 1 + further )

But what we want to know is how much further we can go — for now as a percentage of how far we usually go before filling up. So we get:

1 + further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper )

or, deriving some more:

further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper ) – 1
further = 1 / ( 1 – cheaper ) – ( 1 – cheaper ) / ( 1 – cheaper )
further = ( 1 – ( 1 – cheaper ) ) / ( 1 – cheaper )
further = cheaper / ( 1 – cheaper )

So in other words, we'd need to travel less than (further) percent further to come out ahead which is the percentage cheaper divided by 100% – the percentage cheaper.

To bring this back to the real world, let's start with the fact that most cars today can go 300-600 miles per tank. So it's not unusual to get about 200 miles on a half of a tank. Now let's say we find gas that's 5 cents cheaper than other gas at $3.25 — about 1.5% cheaper. The percent difference is then (1.5%)/(1-1.5%) = 1.5%/98.5% = 1.52%. So if we filled the tank halfway, the cheaper gas would need to be 1.52% * 200 miles = 3 miles out of the way. That's "out of the way" so if it's a separate trip, it's only 1.5 miles each way.

And that's just to break even.

Alternatively, what if you could get gas at 10% off — something like $3.00 instead of $3.33. Then it's a distance difference of 10%/90% = 11%. If you had to get close to a full tank and you could get 400 miles, then you'd still save money up to 44 miles out of the way.

The trap, though, is that it's still not a lot of money. Like if you went 10 miles away, you'd have to get 420 miles of gas at $3.00 instead of 400 miles-worth at $3.33. If you were driving a truck that got 15 miles-per-gallon, that's 28 gallons at $3 or $84 versus 26.7 gallons at $3.33 or $88.91 so you'd save all of $4.91.

But at least now you have a way to figure it out.