I don’t often talk about computer technology and software here because A) it’s generally pretty boring, and B) there are far better sources for information about this stuff than me. But I want to talk about “artificial intelligence”, or AI as it’s known, because it has some serious implications for all of us as it comes into more widespread use. While I used to be a programmer I’m not so much interested in the technology of AIs as I am in the ethical and social implications of AIs, and that’s what I want to talk about briefly.
Take a look at that painting up there. It isn’t bad, really. Personally I’d like it if it were a bit brighter, but overall it isn’t horrible. It’s sort of a generic winter scene, peaceful, pleasant even.
Or what about this one —
Both of these paintings are originals that I just did in the last few days, but I didn’t make them in the usual way by applying paint to a surface or even a using a stylus on a drawing pad as I usually do. These were done by an app on my cell phone that is available for free on Apple’s app store called Draw Things. And as you can see it is pretty damn good. Well, sometimes. I will admit that about 8 out of 10 of the images it generates are, frankly, a bit, well, surreal. Like this one below.
But that being said, that it works at all is, I think, a bit amazing. What’s even more amazing is that unlike some of the other art AIs out there which actually run on some massive server somewhere out there on the internet, Draw Things runs entirely on the phone, no external processing power required. You can try it yourself although I’ll warn you that your phone will need a lot of free memory (the libraries the software uses are a gigabyte+ in size and you need at least one for the program to work) and using the program frequently will suck up a hell of a lot of battery as well because it really makes that processor work hard.
When you run the program, what you do is type in words and phrases that verbally describe the scene you want painted. Let’s say you type in something like “A white cat sitting on a table with vases of flowers” as an example. What you get is something like this –
MrsGF thinks that image is just creepy but personally I think it’s kind of charming, but everyone’s tastes are different.
But these art AIs have also generated a hell of a lot of controversy as well, and for good reasons.
First of all, artists, actual real world artists who create real world art, are very nervous about all of this and for very good reasons. There are thousands of artists out there who earn their living as graphic artists, illustrators, etc. for advertising agencies, magazines and the like. Publishers and corporations don’t give a fig about things like ‘artistic integrity’ or keeping illustrators gainfully employed. They only care about money. So if it comes down to paying an illustrator money to create a piece of artwork for them, or generating something essentially for free with an AI, guess which option they’re going to take? They’re going to go with the AI everytime.
Another controversy is how these AIs are trained. Before these things will work properly they have to be trained by feeding them literally millions of illustrations. They do this by scraping the internet for every image they can get their hands on, whether those images are protected by copyright or not. Under a strict interpretation of copyright law some claim that this is an illegal use of those copyrighted images. Others claim that this use qualifies as what is known as “fair use” and is legally and ethically acceptable. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not even going to try to figure out whether how these things are trained is legal or ethical or not.
Then there is the question of who “owns” the artwork generated by an AI. That image over there on the right was generated by Draw Things. So who actually owns the rights to that image? You could argue that the image was generated by my phone, using an application that I own, so therefore the image is mine and I own all rights to it.
But it isn’t as simple as that. These days you don’t actually “own” the software you are using. You’re merely licensing it. Basically you’re renting it. That’s been the case for decades now. Under the licensing agreement you agree to, and which you almost certainly haven’t bothered to read because you’d have to hire an attorney to figure it out for you, the maker of the software can set any conditions they like, and it is claimed that your mere use of that software means that you agree to all of the conditions in the license, whether you read them or not. It would be entirely within the realm of possibility for the maker of the AI you’re using to claim any and all rights to any artwork generated by the program. Unless you carefully read the fine print in the license agreement, you have no idea what you are agreeing to.
Some people have started to claim that the AI that generated the image “owns” it. The people who are making this claim either need to find a new hobby or stop taking whatever drugs they’re on because this is just stupid. An AI isn’t an intelligence, it is a computer program. Period. It is no more ‘alive’ than the old Eliza programs people were playing with back in the early days of computing. They’re little more than a complex series of “IF-THEN-ELSE” choices pre-programmed into a computer. Oh, all right it’s a lot more complex than that, but what it boils down to is that an AI is just a computer program like the one I’m using to write this. It is no more “intelligent” or self aware than the calculator you use to figure out your taxes.
The other thing that makes people very nervous is the fact that these things can be used to generate images that mimic specific artists. Want to have your very own original Van Gogh to hang on the wall? You can. These things can easily mimic the artistic style of most well known artists, living or dead. Living artists claim that this reduces the demand for their original artwork. People who like their work don’t need to buy an original or, more likely, an authorized print of the original work, they can use an AI to generate their own in the style of that artist.
I would imagine that the companies that have become wealthy selling stock images for use in publications, companies like Getty, are terrified by this kind of technology because it would very easily put them out of business. Let’s say you’re writing an article about, oh, shopping malls, and you want to put in a photo of a nice looking mall. Instead of going to one of these stock photo companies and buying one, just make your own. Like the one over there on the left. It took Draw Things a little over a minute to generate that. My cost? Zero. So why would anyone ever need to buy generic photos for illustrating articles any more? So let’s just say that investing your pension fund in companies that sell stock images probably isn’t a good idea.
And these things can be used to produce some not so nice images as well. Pornography, s0-called ‘deep fakes’ that portray celebrities, politicians or other well known persons in, oh, compromising positions, let’s call it, can all be generated with nothing but a program like this and a few written descriptions of what you want to see.
Some of the developers of these programs are starting to put filters into the systems to try to prevent or at least limit their capabilities so they can’t be usfed for illicit purposes, but that is ultimately futile. The technology is now out there. A lot of it is open source, meaning anyone can tinker with the underlying code. And there are versions of these programs already out there in the wild, so to speak, tweaked to specifically crank out these types of illicit images. Let’s face it, my friends, that’s what human beings are like. As soon as human beings developed things like writing, painting and drawing, they started using it to make porn.
There are already people out there demanding that something need to be done. Right now. By someone. Somewhere. Congress needs to act now! Act how, though? Ban the software? Sorry, that horse is already out of the barn. Thousands of people are already using it and hundreds are tinkering with the code to make it work even better.
What it all boils down to is that we have a lot of questions, a lot of ethical concerns, a lot of legal issues, and no real answers.
Please feel free to leave comments about this. I’m curious about what other people think of all of this and if anyone has proposed solutions to the problems.
Dreams are weird things. I’m not sure if anyone has figured out exactly why we dream although it seems to have something to do with the brain sifting through things for some reason and if you aren’t permitted to dream, it can result in some serious problems. But I don’t want to talk about why we dream. I want to talk about what we dream.
I don’t run around asking people what they dream while they’re sleeping because that would be, frankly, odd and a bit creepy. But occasionally people have offered up brief descriptions of their dreams and they are almost universally far, far different from mine.
People seem to often share similar situations in dreams. Finding yourself back in high school, walking down the hallway, and you suddenly realize you aren’t wearing pants seems to be a theme that is fairly popular. Some people have genuine nightmares. They’re being chased by monsters of various interesting types. One fellow told me he dreamt he was being eaten, from the feet up, by a zombie unicorn. I thought that was a bit odd, but I let it go because he’s a rather odd fellow to begin with.
Some people have erotic dreams, sometimes rather intense and realistic ones, involving prominent celebrities and things like chocolate syrup and a very rude banana.
What about me? Certainly I dream as well but… But to be perfectly frank I think there’s something broken. Let me give you some illustrations.
The other night I dreamed I had to go to my wife’s sister’s place to feed her dog, Dash. I didn’t mind because Dash and I are great buddies and he likes nothing better than to sit on my lap and slobber over me. So I got in the car, drove out to her farm, took Dash out to go potty, gave him food and fresh water, and drove home. And…
And that was it. That was the whole dream.
Or there was the time I had a particularly vivid dream of painting the garage. I was out there on a nice Saturday afternoon, dipping the brush in the paint can, applying the paint, repeat and… And that was it. That was the whole dream. Painting the garage. It was so utterly boring that I think I bored myself awake somewhere in the middle of it just as I ran out of paint.
Then there was the dream where I went shopping. (Ooo0, the excitement!) I went down to Walmart, picked up a few things, pushed the cart down through the grocery aisles. They were out of my favorite brand of mustard but that was okay because they had another that I like so I got that instead.
Those are just a few examples of how utterly dull my dreams are. Other people get man eating unicorns, monsters, sex dreams with B list celebrities, etc. Me? I paint the garage.
I’ve stopped telling MrsGF about them because her eyes sort of glaze over and midway through she sort of wanders away. Don’t blame her.
One fellow I know tells me that what’s happening to me is not dreaming at all. He claims that we live in a multiverse, an endlessly repeating series of universes, each one just slightly different from the other. According to his theory, what’s happening is that while I’m sleeping I am really mentally connecting with other versions of me, living in other universes, and that in all possible universes I am just as boring as I am in this one. But since he also picks wild mushrooms that he finds growing near the nuke plant north of Two Rivers I tend to just nod and mumble and then point and cry out “Look! A duck!” and then run away while he’s distracted when he gets like that.
Now I am trying desperately to come up with some pithy, witty conclusion to this rambling nonsense and I’m having problems doing so, so let’s try this…
I’m going to go wandering off on a tangent so if you were expecting more photos or info about drones or amateur radio or farming you’re going to want to skip this one. I want to talk about the so-called metaverse. And I should warn you up front that there may be satire. Maybe even sarcasm.
And I can’t really talk about the metaverse without also talking about Facebook, The Great Satan, We’ll Sell Your Children If We Can Get Away With It… Oh, hell, what’s the name of that company now? Oh, I remember now. Meta. That’s it. Meta and it’s chief overlord, Palpatine… Oh, dear, that’s not right either. Zuckerberg? Is that it? Yeah, that’s it. But I’ll come to that later.
One of Meta’s problems with the whole metaverse thing is that they aren’t really very good at explaining just what it is. Zuck’s “vision” of the future, the metaverse, is a bit complicated. Let me see if I can explain. Please bear with me because this gets a bit complicated.
In his metaverse we will all be wearing something like those silly goggles he has on in that photo up there. In case you haven’t seen those before, that is a VR (virtual reality) headset that you strap over your face that contains cameras, microphones, and two high resolution video screens just an inch or so away from your eyeballs. The idea is that the headset tries to trick your brain into thinking you are actually inside of a different environment, the one being displayed on the video screens.
Now these have been around for a while. Some gamers use them, some drone pilots use them, sometimes they are used for training. You can think of them as, oh, sort of a video screen that completely surrounds you. The headset tracks the movement of your head and eyes so the scene you see on the video shifts perspective as you turn your head. They’ve been around commercially for, oh, must be ten years or so now. They’ve never been all that popular because they have a variety of problems. People who wear glasses can’t use them at all unless they have special lenses made to correct their vision when wearing them. A significant number of people, as many as 25% or even more, suffer from serious motion sickness when using them for any length of time. (I’m one of those people. Just a few minutes wearing these things makes me so ill I can’t function.)
The new models, especially the new “flagship” model Meta’s company Oculus came out with recently, include sensors that can track your movements so those movements can be mimicked inside of the game or world being displayed. Not just your hand and arm movements, but even track your facial expression. Eventually they hope to make the systems sophisticated enough so they can do away things like hand held controllers so that your movements in a game or whatever environment you’re in can be controlled by your gestures.
Now this can actually be kind of fun, if you can tolerate wearing them. Imagine playing Call of Duty or some other video game, only instead of sitting there staring at a flat screen, it looks like you are actually inside of the game itself. When you turn your head, your view of the world changes just as if you were physically there. Flying a drone that’s tethered to one of these headsets is absolutely breathtaking. You’re seeing the world through the drone’s “eyes” so to speak as if you were actually flying yourself. DJI actually makes a drone specifically designed for this purpose, complete with all the hardware and software to make it work and it is absolutely amazing.
But so far this just concerns things like gaming. We want to move into something called VR, Virtual Reality. VR doesn’t actually really need the goggles. Technically whenever we’re playing a game we are engaging in a kind of virtual reality. Even something like watching a movie or a video is, in a way, a kind of VR. We are engaging with an environment that doesn’t actually exist. We sort of, oh, lose ourselves in the drama we’re watching, projecting ourselves into the world we’re seeing on the screen.
In a way people have been engaging with virtual realities, well, forever, really. The difference today is that we now have the technology to make it seem as if you, personally, are actually in that world yourself and that you can actively engage in that world, moving through it however you like – walk, run, fly, crawl, whatever. You can manipulate objects that appear in that world. It’s like you can reach into that movie or video and move objects on the screen, engage with characters in the movie, as if you were there yourself.
In these virtual realities you can have a physical presence in the form of an avatar. An avatar is a physical representation of yourself and the other persons also inside of the virtual world you are in. These avatars can range from very realistic representations of human beings, even ones modeled on your real physical appearance, to simplistic cartoonish forms. You can be human or animal or fantasy creatures. You can change how you appear to others with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks. Feel silly? You can be a cartoon cat. Want to look respectable? You can appear as a human in a three piece business suit.
What do you do in these virtual realities? Why would you even want to bother with any of this? I’ll come to that in a moment. But I want to touch on something called AR first.
AR stands for Augmented Reality, and this is one of the directions Meta seems to be moving towards. With AR what you see through the goggles is the actual real world around you. Cameras in the headset project an actual image of your real environment. But you are still seeing a computer generated image, so that means it can be, oh, tampered with. AR lets you project objects that don’t actually exist into your real world.
Let’s say you need to have a video meeting with someone. Instead of seeing them on the screen of your computer or phone, you see the person (or their avatar) sitting in your living room on your sofa. Or the system can project information about objects you focus on, with text appearing to float in mid air near the object. Or if you’re walking through town and wondering where the hell you are, you can see the route you need to take projected onto the sidewalk in front of you as you walk.
Now this all sounds actually pretty neat, even fun. And it definitely can be. But it’s nothing new. None of it. Specifically created virtual realities, virtual worlds that can be “inhabited” by people, have been around for a very, very long time. Perhaps the first real attempt to create a VR experience could considered to be Microsoft V-Chat which dates back to 1995. V-Chat was pretty much utterly horrible in every single way but considering what the technology was like back then I suppose it’s surprising that it worked at all.
But I suppose the granddaddy of VR environments is probably Second Life from Linden Labs. Yes, Second Life is still around and doing quite well, actually. Despite all of the bad press it got for a time (some of it justified, some of it not), and articles that indicate that SL has “failed” somehow, it is still out there and doing rather well. The last data I saw showed SL has about 900,000 unique users per month. And then there is the in-world economy to consider.
In-World Economy? WTF?
Oh, I suppose I should explain what an in-world economy is, shouldn’t I?
People being people, you can be sure that no matter what kind of environment they might be in, they will eventually end up doing two things: First, try to figure out a way to make money off it, and second, sex. Yeah, sex. I’m not even going to go down that road, though, so let’s stick with money.
Second Life is an environment that is entirely created by its own users. Every single thing you see in SL was made by the people who “live” in the world. The vehicles, the trees, the flowers, the grass, the buildings, the clothes the avatars wear, the avatars themselves, the little props decorating scenes like pottery, cups, eye glasses, trains, all of it was made by someone. Now you can build your own stuff in SL if you have the time, the patience and skills to do so, but if you want to decorate your own personal space in SL, what you’ll probably do is just buy the stuff you want from the creator.
Now someone will come along and say, well, that’s silly. Why would you pay actual money for something that doesn’t actually exist except as a graphic in a video game? Well think about it for a minute, we do stuff like that all the time as it is. When you pay to rent or buy the latest blockbuster superhero movie from Marvel you aren’t really buying a tangible product either, are you? You’re simply buying the right to view someone else’s intellectual property. It’s the same with systems like SL, you’re buying the right to use someone else’s intellectual property, their artwork if you want to call it that, in your own environment.
And creating and selling virtual objects is big business. Seriously big business. Second Life’s in-world economy generates about $50,000,000 (US dollars) worth of transactions. Per month. That is not a typo. Fifty. Million. Dollars. Per month.
SL has its own currency, the Linden (usually shortened to “$L”, as in $L100 for one hundred Linden. And the value of the Linden is pegged to the US dollar. The current exchange rate is about $L 240 per dollar.
SL mimics the real world in other ways, not just the economy. You can buy or rent virtual land and put up your own buildings or whatever you like on it. Why? Because we’ve found over the years that people like to mimic the real world, even though there is no requirement to do so. We feel more comfortable in an environment that is more or less similar to what we experience in real life.
But to get back to the in-world economy for a moment. With it’s paltry 900,000 users per month, SL’s in-world economy generates about a half billion dollars of transactions a year. Facebook has literally billions of users. If Zuck and Meta can get significant number of Facebook users to buy into this system, the amount of money they could make off of just taking a cut of in-world transactions would be staggering.
What the Heck Do You Do in VR?
In the case of Second life you do pretty much whatever the hell you want to as long as you don’t violate Linden Lab’s terms of service. Linden Labs provides the environment and the tools, and the users define what they want to do with it. A lot of people love modeling things. You can find, for example, a virtually full sized, working, aircraft carrier (used in a Vietnam war simulation). You can find entire cities, both modeled after real world cities or created entirely out of the creator’s imagination. Want to have your own starship? I have one that’s about 250 meters long, has five decks, fully equipped with weapons, shuttles, and can handle a crew of a dozen or more people. You can fly ultra-realistic aircraft. You can go bowling. Want to be a dragon and breathe fire on people? Go for it. Second life has its own railroad, SLRR, and its own highway system if you want to play with trains or wheeled vehicles.
Mostly though, virtual realities like SL are social spaces. People go there to interact with others in some way. I belong to one group which put together a rather elaborate theater environment and we get together once a week or so and stream bad movies in-world while making snide comments and bad jokes.
Here’s a quick little video of one environment in SL, a place called Le Village de Roqueblanche.
Or you can go totally silly if you like:
Or get even more silly.
I’d show you my place but I just completely tore it down and I’m rebuilding it with a new theme so there’s scaffolding all over the place, cement mixers, construction crews, porta potties and debris all over the place.
What, GF, you ask, does Facebook/Meta’s virtually reality look like? It must be really, really cool considering the resources Meta has at its disposal, right?
Well, let’s take a look…
Wait, seriously? That’s it? With all of the billions of dollars Meta has thrown at this thing this is what they think a virtual world should look like? Yeah, seriously. Horizon World hasn’t been doing too good, and that video up there should tell you why.
So, Back To The Metaverse Again
These virtual realities, these metaverses that already exist and have managed to survive like Second Life are games and social spaces, and that’s about it. There are people who make a tidy bit of money creating and selling in-world content, but the majority of people who use these places do so for recreation.
What Zuck and Meta want to do is push you into a world where you will be “in world” a large part of your time. They want you to not just engage with these worlds as a game, but as an extension of your real life. In their vision of the new world order you will have some version of those stupid goggles strapped to your face pretty much all the time. You will work in some kind of version of this virtual or augmented reality.
Your interactions with your colleagues will take place in VR, not in the real world. Your business meetings? You’ll be talking with their avatars in some kind of augmented reality. You’ll work in there, too. Your documents will appear to be floating in space in front of you instead of reading them from a monitor. You’ll write your code or work on your spreadsheets or write your reports all inside of this world. Even when you aren’t actually working you’ll still be connected to this world in a way through augmented reality systems that will project information overlaid onto the real world like the HUD in your car does.
There are serious problems with all of this, though, that Zuckerberg and his people don’t seem to be able to grasp. The first is that we’ve tried a lot of this stuff before and gave up on it because it didn’t work. Second Life is still littered with the remains of companies, charities, news organizations, universities, etc. that tried to do this before. The few properties in SL that weren’t dismantled are now little more than little visited tourist attractions. The virtual world and the real world simply do not play well together.
We are still people, still human beings, and firmly grounded in the real world where we have to live, and Zuck and Meta are ignoring that. We have to accomplish real world tasks in order to keep our lives going. Most of us would much rather socialize with real people down at the local pub or interact with actual real people at work than someone’s cartoonish avatar. These virtual worlds are fine for games or the occasional diversion, but as human beings we crave, no we need, reality, not some bizarre, cartoonish version of it, no matter how realistic that cartoon version might eventually become.
And the majority of us not only live in the real world, we work in it, too. We aren’t stuck in an office somewhere sweating over reports or code or spreadsheets. We’re out here being carpenters, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, road builders, mechanics, caregivers, nurses, farmers, cooks… This metaverse has little or no relevance at all for people like us. Except when I was a writer and a programmer for a time, I’ve never had a job that I could do in some kind of virtual world. Milking cows, planting corn, repairing HVAC systems, repairing plumbing, laying floors, repairing roofs, installing water heaters, repairing laser scanners… None of it could have been done in Zukerberg’s metaverse. And I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of people who are reading this.
In my opinion, the image that Zuckerberg and Meta have for this metaverse of theirs is fundamentally flawed. They’ve put together a bunch of interesting ideas, almost all of which have been tried before and failed, put it all together and have come up with this “vision” of theirs that they claim is going to solve a lot of problems that, frankly, we don’t actually have.
I think that part of the problem is that Zuckerberg and people like him already are living in a virtual world that is disconnected from reality. He lives in a walled garden that is completely isolated from the reality. His power and money give him the ability to already alter his environment to suit his whims. If he doesn’t like something, he has the money to change it. He is surrounded by sycophants who will agree with any kind of stupid idea he comes up with, telling him how wonderful he is, because of, well, money, really. He already lives in a virtual world, but one created by his wealth.
But let’s talk about the real problem with this metaverse, and that is Meta itself, the company, and the people who run it.
Consider, for a moment, what Facebook does. What it does to you, the user. It “harvests” every single bit of data that it can scrounge up about you. It examines every post you make, every photo you put up, every message you send. It tracks every single thing you read or view. It knows how much time you spend looking at a particular type of post. It knows what you like, what you don’t like. It even tracks your physical movements via apps on your cellphone if you haven’t figured out how to turn tracking off. (Even if you have turned tracking off according to some reports I’ve seen.) And what it does with all of that information it has gathered about you is package it up and sell it to anyone who can cough up the money to buy it. Facebook has been called the most sophisticated piece of spyware ever created, and it pretty much is exactly that. That’s how the company works. That’s how it makes money. It sells you.
And now this same company owns this metaverse in its entirety. From the Oculus headset you need to wear, to the software that runs the systems, to the servers that run the code, Meta owns all of it. So everything you do in this metaverse is also going to be owned by Meta. Every document you write, everything you read, every meeting you have, every spreadsheet you work on, even your calls to your grandmother. Meta is going to have all of it. And you can be damn sure that what Meta is going to do with that data is the same thing Facebook does with the data it gathers on its users. It will collect it, slice it and dice it and index it and sell it to whoever can come up with the money to buy it.
You think you you don’t have any privacy now? Just wait.
I hate moving to a new computer and try to avoid it as long as I possibly can, which is why my MacBook Pro up there on the left has been still limping along despite it being about 10 – 12 years old and having a wonky screen that sometimes made me open and close the lid a dozen times before it was readable. That Macbook gets used a lot. It lives in the kitchen where it’s used for emails, reading the news, looking up recipes, sorting photos and writing this blog. That it’s lasted this long is a bit of a miracle. My attempt to replace it with the iPad were very awkward. I could have done it but the iPad was just too clumsy, the software uncooperative with the way I liked to do things, and too limited in its capabilities. The iPad is great for must messing around, playing games, reading and things like that, but despite Apple’s efforts, it just isn’t a full blown computer. It’s basically an oversized iPhone without the phone.
I originally was not going to get another Macbook Pro. Don’t get me wrong, I love the things. I love the whole Apple “ecosystem”, as they call it. But Macbooks are expensive, and I wasn’t willing to spend $1,500 or more for one. But…
I’ve had really good luck with refurbished computers. I’ve bought several over the years for various reasons. You can often pick up a refurbed computer that’s only a few years old for a fraction of the original retail cost. And that’s what I did here, I picked up a three or four year old refurbished Macbook Pro for a third of the cost of a new one. And it’s pretty darned nice. It arrived in a plain cardboard box with nothing but the power supply/charger, which was fine too. And upon opening it, well, the thing looks like it is brand new except for a very small dent in the lid which doesn’t seem to hurt anything.
Biggest problem with adopting a new computer is moving all my stuff from the old computer to the new one. But Apple makes that easy too. Just connect the two laptops together with a USB cable, start up a migration assistant app, and a little over an hour later everything on the old computer was on the new one. I had to verify a few things like passwords and log in information, but that was about it. When it was all done the new computer looked and worked pretty much exactly like the old computer did, with a few minor differences because some of the apps I used were now newer versions.
There are two things I don’t like about the new one. The keyboard is without a doubt the worst laptop keyboard I’ve ever had to use. I’ve typed on everything from 1960s era IBM keypunch machines (seriously, I’ve had crank out those ancient punch cards to program computers once upon a time) to the original (and excellent) IBM PC keyboards, to a variety of cheap slush boxes, to the excellent mechanical keyboards made today, and everything else imaginable. And I’ve never seen a keyboard that was this bad before.
The other thing I don’t like is that this thing only has USB-C ports. One of the things I’ve always found irritating about Apple is that they often are obsessed with form over function. They get what they think is a good idea into their heads over there and run with it, and the hell with whatever anyone else thinks, wants and even needs. Now USB-C is, probably, a good thing. But millions of us out here are still using devices that require the original USB plugs. And a lot of us are photographers who need to transfer photos to computers with SD cards. And Apple has given me neither of those. Grr… So I’m going to have get a stupid adaptor to hook things up or read SD cards from my camera.
Movies: Warning, Thor Spoilers
I want to talk about movies for a while. I’m not a huge fan of the genre, to be honest. I hate going to theaters. My idea of a good time is not being sandwiched in between a bunch of people who haven’t bathed in three weeks, who are constantly checking their cell phones, munching on snacks they smuggled in, and talking all through the quiet parts of the dialog.
I also think that a lot of the most hyped movies out there are, frankly, crap. I hated the Lord of the Rings, but to be honest I thought the novels were even worse. Avatar? I couldn’t make it more than half an hour into that thing before I bailed out. And and my feelings include a lot of Marvel movies.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was just plain nasty. The only bright spot in the entire movie was Awkwafina, who plays Simu Liu’s sidekick. The whole movie was just one cliche after another. But perhaps I’m jaded because I watch a lot of Chinese television where they’ve been making much, much better martial arts style movies and television series for decades. I thought the editing was badly done. It looks like large bits of the movie were left on the cutting room floor.
The biggest problem is trying to take a complex story like this one and squeeze everything into a two hour block of time. Often story elements that are necessary to help the movie and the characters make sense are left out, and that’s what’s happened here. The characters are never given enough time to really develop well enough that I wanted to care about them. And I don’t like Simu Liu, to be honest. I’ve seen him in other things, including the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience where he was, frankly, more of a distraction and even an annoyance than a necessary part of the show. In the Ten Rings he just never seems, oh, comfortable in the role? It’s like he’s trying way, way too hard to adapt to a role he just isn’t suited for.
Basically if you want to see how a movie like this should be done, go find the Wu Assassins on Netflix.
I did, however, like the Eternals. I thought that was well done, despite the bad reviews it got.
But then we come to Thor: Love and Thunder. And oh dear lord… There is a phrase in the entertainment industry, jumping the shark, which refers to the writers and producers having totally run out of ideas for a series and introducing ever increasingly bizarre elements to the story to try to keep viewers interested. What they’ve done to Thor is even worse than jumping the shark. They brought in the kids. Children. They’ve Disneyfied the thing.
I knew the Thor series was eventually going to end up being wrecked, the whole story line I mean. Once you take a story arc that is about love and loss, death, mass murder and literally genocide, and try to make a comedy out of it, you are heading down a dark, dark path from which there is no return. And ultimately you end up with TLT. They’ve – they’ve Disneyfied it, heaven help us. They’ve completely run out of ideas and now are trying to turn it into a kiddie show.
They took the tragic story of Jane Foster and turned it into a five minute soap opera. They shoveled a bunch of kids into the story for “reasons”. And end up with Thor’s new partner becoming, drum roll please, an eight or nine year old girl. Yes, apparently Thor’s new partner in running around the universe slaying monsters, killing off bad guys, enduring horrible tortures, watching mass murder and genocide, is going to be a tiny little girl wielding a magic weapon? Seriously?
Some parts of the movie aren’t bad. The special effects are decent, there’s some snappy dialog. This could have been a fairly decent movie. But a lot of the jokes fall flat to the floor and lay there twitching waiting for someone to put them out of their misery. The only good part about the movie was the screaming goats. Maybe Marvel could spin off the screaming goats into their own series of movies?
It’s definitely fall up here in Wisconsin. Temperatures last night were down in the 30s. The days are much shorter. Most of the birds have fled for warmer climates. We cleaned all the vegetable gardens out the other day. Good thing, too, because MrsGF and I are sick of dealing with the stuff. Our pantry has enough canned beets and various types of tomato sauces and pickles to last us probably two years. The freezer is full to overflowing with more tomatoes, peppers, wax beans, green beans and beets.
There are still some wild flowering plants out there when I bundle up and head out on the bike, but not many. It’s still pretty green out there but I can see that this isn’t going to last long. The grasses and other plants in the more wild areas around here are starting to dry up and turn brown, and a lot of trees are starting to turn color.
We had to turn the heat on in the house days ago already as daytime temperatures struggled to hit 50 degrees even with the sun out.
I like autumn, even though it means I have to bundle up to get out on the bike and I usually get home with cold feet and even colder hands. Getting out in the crisp, autumn air is worth it. After the heat and humidity of the summer it feels refreshing, cleaner, out there.
Of course winter will be here before long, but that’s all part of the cycle of life.
With the number of outdoor chores and projects dwindling it means it’s just about time to open up the wood shop again. I haven’t even been in there except to grab a tool since spring. I still need to finish taking down the old suspended ceiling, replacing the old fluorescent ceiling lights with LED lights and doing a general cleanup before getting started with wood projects again.
I need to get my vertical antenna down and checked over before the snow flies. It got smacked by a tree limb in the spring and I think there’s a loose connection up there somewhere. I’ve been using the dipole antenna all summer, but I would like to get that vertical working properly again as well because the dipole is probably going to have to be replaced or at least taken down and have some repairs done as well in the near future.
And speaking of doing stuff, I need to shut this down for this time and actually go get some work done!
Technically it is still summer, but it’s the middle of September and it is sure starting to look and feel like autumn out there. I have to wear a jacket when I go out on the bike in the morning. Early morning temperatures are generally down in the mid-50s. Not bad, really, but chilly enough that it makes things a bit shivery without a bit of extra clothing. But then, this being Wisconsin, the next day we have to turn on the air conditioning by mid afternoon. When I was still working at the school district there were a lot of days when we had to run the aircon during the day and then fire up the boilers at night.
The growing season is over for some things here. We took out the butternut squash plants two days ago. Well, what was left of them. They’d been dying back for a couple of weeks now as they came to the natural end of their lives. But they left behind a massive amount of squash.
This is the second year we’ve had squash in the corner garden by the air conditioner, and the second year we’ve had a bumper crop. This area is amazingly prolific no matter what we plant in there, as long as we water it regularly. The corner faces south-west, so it gets direct sun almost every day. Plus the white siding of the house helps to concentrate the light and keep the temperature in that corner more moderated. We’ve also dumped a heck of a lot of compost in there as well over the years. We put parsley along the edge, a line of wax beans just inside there, and squash in the middle, and everything grew like crazy. We have enough beans to last us more than a year, and the squash…
A whole wheelbarrow full of the things. These will keep just fine for a while, at least until we have time to process them and get them into the freezer.
We pulled out the cucumber plants as well. We only put in two this year, but those were ridiculously prolific as well and we just didn’t know what to do with the cukes any more. We have enough pickles of various types on the shelves in the basement to last us probably two years.
We still have some beets and carrots left in the ground that need to get harvested and processed. Carrots will get blanched and frozen. The beets that ar eleft are really too small to do much with and will probably get eaten right away. Most of those are already either canned or in the freezer.
Some things are still going strong, though. My jalapeno plants were disappointing all summer long. i didn’t get more than a dozen fruits off them during the summer. But now the dopey things have decided to start to go crazy and they’re covered with flowers. Why? I have no idea.
We still have lots of flowers in bloom around here and some of them are pretty spectacular.
Let’s see, what else…
If you’ve been following this blog you know the big ash tree in the backyard came down earlier this summer. That area is finally cleaned out. I found a local fellow in Forest Junction who built his own sawmill and could use the massive log that was left. I didn’t get paid anything for it. Didn’t want to. I just wanted to see that log get used for something useful rather than end up rotting in an old gravel pit which is where it would have ended up. Depending on the quality of the wood once he starts sawing it, it could end up as molding and trim for local houses being built just a few blocks from here. Wouldn’t that be neat?
MrsGF and I still haven’t decided what to do with the area that the removal of the tree opened up. It was way too shady back there to grow much of anything. Now that the area is opened up to full sun we have a lot of options. We kept the stump intact and we’re thinking of doing something interesting with that. Ideas range from using it as the base for a garden bench to using it as a pedestal for a piece of artwork.
We should have new garage doors going in fairly soon. The existing doors, hardware and openers are over 30 years old and definitely showing their age. But as is all too common these days, supply chain issues are a bottleneck. The installer said we’re looking at a 2 to 6 week wait for all of the parts to come in.
That doesn’t really bother us, though. MrsGF and I are from a generation where we often had to wait for things. We didn’t grow up in this instant gratification society that seems to have developed over the years. To us the fact that you can order something online and have it arrive at your door within 48 hours or even less still seems a bit startling.
Speaking of businesses, I’ve had three different job offers in the last week alone, ranging from some recruiter who wanted me to do COBOL programming (I haven’t used COBOL since, oh, 1985 I think and I don’t remember how to do even the basics) to a local fellow who is a professional carpet cleaner who would have paid me embarrassingly large amounts of money for even a few hours of work per week, set my own schedule, work however long I wanted, etc. That’s how desperate people are for workers around here. Last night we went to a restaurant in the Fox Valley for our son’s birthday and they’re so short handed they don’t have wait staff at all any more. They’re somehow keeping open by just manning the kitchen and customers ordering at a counter, getting their own drinks, etc. We certainly didn’t have to worry about catching covid. We were the only people in the place.
Sidenote: One of Wisconsin’s more well known village idiots (cough, sorry, typo there) politicians came up with the perfect plan to solve the labor shortage. He wants to kill Social security dead and force all those lazy old people to go back to work. Of course now that he’s facing an election he has a good chance of losing he denies he said any such thing, but he did. And some of the things he’s said recently indicate he still thinks that way.
Enough of that, though. What else… Oh, I want to talk about drones in the near future. I got a new one which is pretty darned nice. I want to talk about bicycling in general. A lot of communities claim that they are “bike friendly” and they claim they would dearly love to shift people out of cars and onto bicycles. But they sure as hell don’t make it easy for people to do that. Now that the growing season is winding down I should have some time to start fiddling around in the wood shop again. I haven’t even been in there in the last few months. That all got shut down because of how busy we get during the spring and summer. I was in the process of taking down the ceiling in there to do some major remodeling and that’s been on hold way too long.
I’m bored and waiting for the cable guy to come and fix my internet, so I’m going to complain talk about e-scooters for a while.
Oh, and I should warn you right up front that there will be sarcasm.
So let’s look at the abomination that is the e-scooter. Yes, I said abomination because that is what a of a lot of people think of them in the cities that they have infested. At least the ones who have had to jump for their lives off a sidewalk to avoid being run down by one of the things.
Some people are looking at the problem of “the last mile”. This refers to one of the problems with public transportation. Let me explain.
In the dreams of the more progressive city planners out there, personal transportation should work something like this: First you’ll take a high speed train (which doesn’t actually exist) to the city to a central depot (which doesn’t exist) where you will get on a subway or a light rail system (which doesn’t exist in the vast majority of cities in the US) to another depot somewhere in the city (which doesn’t exist) where you will get on a pleasant, clean bus (which doesn’t exist) that totally isn’t covered with the vomit, blood, feces, urine and body parts of the people who were on it the night before, that will take you to a bus stop (which doesn’t exist) near your final destination which is within easy walking distance (it isn’t).
Sidenote: The more practical of you out there will have several rather serious objections to these dreams of how personal transportation should work, even if you ignore the fact that most, if not all, of the infrastructure needed for all of this doesn’t actually exist, its cost to build would be mind boggling, that it would take decades to build, and that there would be thousands of lawsuits trying to stop it before anyone even turned over the first shovel full of dirt. The problem is, well, it doesn’t seem that anyone has actually bothered to take into consideration the reason why people want to go to town. All these city planners seem to think that I’m going to get on a train, go to, oh, Green Bay, take a bus around town, get back on a train and then immediately turn around and go home again. No. The only reason I want to go to town is to go to the shops and get out again as fast as possible. I want to get groceries, stop at Fleet Farm to get a new tire for my lawnmower, buy a cat tower that my cat will never actually use, and then scurry back to the house to spend two days recovering from the trip. The problem with these public transportation systems is what the hell do I do with all my stuff? There is no way in hell I am going to be able to lug all of that stuff along with me on a bus or commuter train or any of the methods of transportation they want to push me onto.
That last bit, the distance between where your bus drops you off and your final destination, is sometimes known as the ‘last mile’. And that last mile really often is a mile or more. In some cases a lot more. So that last mile is a real problem because people look at this whole plan and say wait a minute, why the hell should I go through all of that nonsense when I still have to walk a half hour to get to my destination? I’ll just skip all of that crap and take my car and be done with it.
And the entrepreneurs out there are dealing with the lack of infrastructure by simply totally ignoring all of it and concentrating instead on the last mile because that’s where they figure they can make huge gobs of money at very little expense. So a bunch of them sat around brainstorming one night and what they came up with was a… Wait for it… A scooter. A rental scooter.
A rental scooter? What? Seriously? A fricken scooter? Yeah, a fricken rental scooter. But wait! It’s special! It’s an e-scooter! (Waits for hushed ooos and aahs to die down) It’s like all “green” and stuff because they stuck an “e” in front of the word scooter. It’ll work. Seriously. Really. Trust me…
Take basically what is little more than an upscale version of the kid’s toy that seems to have been designed specifically to make sure emergency room doctors are fully employed, strap a motor and battery to it so it can zip along at 20+ mph, and there you go. It ain’t exactly rocket science. My kid literally made one of these back in the 1990s out of parts from an old office copying machine. Seriously. Granted it didn’t work very well but it worked. Sort of.
I have to admit that on the surface at least it doesn’t seem to be an absolutely horrible idea. Maybe? The idea is that they leave these things in appropriate places around the city. The user uses an app to unlock and pay for using the scooter. The user gets to their destination and then just leaves it there where, hopefully, someone leaving that destination will need a ride and then go through the same process to take the scooter elsewhere. Then at the end of the day someone with a truck will run around town, find all of the scooters, throw them into the back of the truck, take them to a central warehouse somewhere to recharge them, and then get them back on the streets before the morning rush starts.
Only it hasn’t actually worked all that well. First of all some of the companies never bothered to tell the cities they were moving into what they were doing. The city went to bed one night, got up in the morning, started to watch the morning news while having a nice cup of coffee, and immediately was deluged with complaints from people wondering what the hell was going on with all of these stupid scooters laying all over and people riding them at 20 mph down the sidewalks and running over small children, pets, and less than agile pedestrians, and the city says what? Wait a minute, what scooters?
Some of our more enterprising citizens went “Ooo, free scooters!” and snapped them up, stripped them of every resellable part they could, and tossed the remains off the nearest bridge into the river. Or they just tossed them off the nearest bridge without stripping them of parts because, well, hey, this is Wisconsin. It’s boring up here. We have to make our own entertainment. And I’ve ridden one of these things and after going half a block on the stupid thing I wanted to throw it off a bridge myself.
Building owners found their entrances so cluttered with the damned things that people couldn’t get into the shops or offices, and that even the sidewalks were blocked by abandoned scooters. Poor pedestrians out walking their little doggies or trying to walk down to the shops to get a coffee had to quickly learn the fine art of running for their lives or be run down by some loonie on a scooter zipping between walkers at about a zillion miles per hour. And if you think I am exaggerating this, I assure you I am not. This is exactly what happened when these things hit the streets. I have a lot of friends who live in Milwaukee and this is what happened down there when these things were dumped on the city almost literally without warning.
I won’t go through all of the nonsense that took place in Milwaukee when the e-scooters moved it. Let’s just say that it was real interesting. After a lot of threats of lawsuits and other ridiculousness they are apparently now back on the streets, but only in certain zones and with restrictions on how many can be in each zone. And, Milwaukee being Milwaukee, they want their cut of the action, too. Companies are apparently going to have to pay the city $50 per scooter, twenty-five cents per trip, and if a city employee has to touch one of the things to move it out of the way, the scooter company will have to pay a $25 fee. Considering none of these scooter companies seems to actually be making any money in the first place, yeah, that’s going to work real well.
Sidenote: The comment above may make it sound like the city of Milwaukee is desperate for money. That’s because it is. They’ve managed to so thoroughly screw up the city’s employee pension plan that within a few years pretty much most of the entire city budget is going to have to go to paying off the pension system.
Milwaukee and a lot of other cities wanted to ban the things completely. But there were threats of lawsuits, warnings that the city wouldn’t look ‘environmentally friendly’ if they tried to ban them, etc. So the city caved in and permitted them, but it did ban them from using sidewalks ( a ban which almost everyone ignores, by the way). This meant that e-scooters now had to ride on the streets. Streets which look like this:
Now do I really have to tell you that shoving what is basically a kiddie toy with a motor on it out onto streets that look like this is not a good idea? Streets and roads here in Wisconsin are utterly horrible for the most part. Wisconsin roads and streets cause about $650 damage to the average car driver every year. And now you want to push scooters onto those same streets? Scooters have tiny, tiny wheels, no suspension, not very good brakes, and are unstable to begin with. And now you’re going to dump them onto streets full of cracks, potholes, expansion joints, rocks, mufflers that fell off of cars, etc? Oh, and do I need to mention thousands of car drivers who are already pissed off by, well, everything, I guess judging from the way they drive?
And speaking of safety, according to a study published in the journal of American emergency room doctors, e-scooters have an injury per mile rate that is two hundred times higher than any other vehicle. Two hundred times.
Then let’s talk about money. These scooter companies have literally burned through billions of dollars of venture capital since this nonsense began. They might as well have just taken all of the money, put it in a big pile and burned it because to the best of my knowledge none of them has actually managed to make a profit. Several have gone bankrupt. Others are “right sizing”, pulling out of markets where they haven’t been able to bribe (cough cough, typo there, sorry) convince city officials that they are a “good thing” and should be allowed to operate virtually without regulation. Bird’s stock value was, when it first went public, selling for about $21 a share. The last time I looked back in June, it was hovering down round $0.50 per share. Yeah, half a buck a share, and the stock exchange was threatening to delist them. I hope you didn’t invest your kid’s college fund in the e-scooter business.
And people are still pumping tens of millions of dollars into these companies in the hopes that somehow, some way, they can make a buck off this whole scheme.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against electric vehicles. I love electric vehicles. I have an e-bike that I’ve put 500 miles on in less than 2 months. If Ford ever gets their act together and actually produces the electric version of the F-150 in sufficient quantities that I could actually buy one without being on a two year waiting list, you’d probably see one of those sitting in my garage as well. But these stupid scooters? No thanks.
I’ve had the Specialized Vado ebike for about three weeks now and I love the thing. By the time I get around to finishing this article and posting it I’ll have around 300 miles on it. But I suppose before I get started I should define the term ebike because it’s gotten a bit confusing since there are actually two types of bikes that now fall under the term. One is an actual ebike and the other, if one wishes to be pedantic about it, isn’t.
The first type has a motor and battery but it is still an actual, real bicycle that you have to pedal to make it move. It will not move on its own. This type of ebike uses the motor system to to provide assistance to the rider. It does some of the work for you. How much work the motor does is generally adjustable. I can switch mine from giving no support at all, all the way up to nearly 100% where the motor does almost all the work while I pedal along.
The second type isn’t really what I would call a bicycle. It looks like a bicycle, probably has usable pedals, but it is really more of an electric moped or small motorcycle. With these bikes the motor can be used to do all of the work. You don’t have to pedal at all. There is a throttle on the handlebars to allow you to control the speed. All you have to do is just ride.
There are some issues with this second type. There are potential legal issues for one thing. In a lot of jurisdictions these types of bikes aren’t technically bicycles, they probably should be classified as mopeds or even small motorcycles, and if one were to be strict about it, in those jurisdictions they should be registered and licensed as such and the riders required to have at least a driver’s license and perhaps even a motorcycle license, and they should be insured as such. But fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) no one seems to be paying much attention to that.
They also, legally speaking, should be required to meet the same equipment and safety requirements as mopeds or small motorcycles. They should have turn signals, proper brakes, headlight, tail light, brake light, properly rated tires and wheels, etc. And because a lot of these are basically just bicycles that someone strapped a motor and battery to, a lot of them have none of those things.
(Sidenote: A word about speed. Most people toodle along at about 5 – 10 mph on a bicycle. Someone who is in relatively good physical shape can cruise along considerably faster than that. With my 24 speed (no motor) a comfortable speed for me on level ground on a nice paved road is about 10 according to my gps thingie, and if I work really, really hard I can hit 19 mph on a level road for short periods of time. I used to work for a bicycle race and those guys cruise along at 24 to 30 mph all day long, and they can max out at about 45 mph. I usually average about 8-10 mph on the bike though because I’m in no real hurry to get anywhere. I’m just out there to enjoy being outside. With the ebike I find myself now cruising easily at about 13 – 15 mph, even going up hills. If I kick up the boost I can run at 20 mph all day long and I max out at around 28 mph.)
Prices on ebikes of both types are all over the place. They range from a low of about $700 up to, well, up to whatever your bank account can withstand. There is a Porsche branded ebike out that that supposedly sells for $10,000.
Sidenote: Yes, Porsche, the maker of supercars and sports cars with eye watering prices, is in the ebike business. They’ve been selling a Porsche branded ebike for a few years now, and have been investing in ebike companies for some time. They’re staring up two new companies specifically to develop, build and sell their own in-house created ebikes. Why would a company known for it’s overpriced, gas sucking, tire squealing sports cars that no one except influencers and trust fund kiddies can afford be getting into the ebike business? Money, of course. Ebikes make a lot of sense in Europe. The population density is high, towns are generally very close together, commutes to work or to do shopping are generally much shorter than they are in the US, traffic in cities is generally horrific with the average speeds for motor vehicles down to just a few miles per hour because of congestion. In most European cities you can get around a hell of a lot faster on a bike than you can in a car. So for a lot of people in the EU ebikes make a lot of sense. Porsche figures it can take a $4,000 ebike, slap some Porsche stickers on it and sell it for $10,000 to the same status hungry influencers and pretend millionaires it sells its cars to.
Now if you go online and start looking around at ebikes you’ll notice a couple of things. First, if you’re at all familiar with the bicycle market you’ll know that if you want to buy a good non-electric bicycle it’ll cost you around $600 and for anything really good the prices go up fast. So how can these companies be selling ebikes for the same price? It makes one wonder about the quality of those inexpensive models.
The second thing you’ll notice is that when it comes to a lot of those cheap ebikes, no matter what the brand name may be, they all look suspiciously alike. That’s because they are. Very few of the companies selling ebikes at the low end of the market actually manufacture them themselves. They all buy the bikes from the same factories and the only differences between them are a few plastic stick on bits and the company logos.
But I wanted to talk about the Vado and let myself get distracted, so let’s get on with this sort of review. I want to talk about ebikes and transportation but I’ll do that in a separate article.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first before I move on to the goodies.
First, it’s heavy and it’s big. It won’t fit into the back of my Buick even with the rear seats folded down. I had to use MrsGF’s Rav4 which has a larger cargo area to pick it up. And it is definitely no light weight. It scales in at around 60 lbs. It definitely is not some kind of sleek road racer. But it has to be big and heavy because it’s designed to not just carry a person around, but also a big battery, a motor, all the electronics, me, and supposedly 50 pounds of cargo as well. And unless you have the motor turned off and you’re using it as a regular pedal bike you won’t even notice the weight.
Second, it’s not exactly cheap. When all was said and done, with taxes and other stuff tacked on, that Vado up there in that photo set me back close to $4,000. That is a hell of a lot of money for a bike, even an ebike. In my opinion the Vado was well worth the money, but that’s me. I put a lot of miles on a bike.
Third, the seat it came with was horrible. It was one of the most uncomfortable saddles I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit on. First thing I did when I got it home was replace the seat with the one from my old 24 speed bike.
Fourth, it comes with pretty much nothing but the bike itself. While the bike is reasonably well equipped and includes a luggage rack on the back, it comes with nothing else. The bag, water bottle bracket and rear view mirror were add ons I put on myself. You’d think they could at least include a water bottle holder on a four grand bike, but that’s the way it goes I guess.
Let’s get on with the good stuff.
The brakes are frankly amazing. No caliper brakes that squeeze on the rim of your wheels. This thing has actual hydraulic disc brakes like you get in a car. Yes, hydraulic, not cable actuated. I’ve never had a bike that stopped this well before. Braking is smooth, predictable, with no unexpected grabbing or fading after repeated stops.
The Vado comes with a 10 speed derailleur gear changer. Anyone who has had a bike with a derailleur system will be familiar with this. It’s the one part of the bike that I think could be a weak point. When I first got the bike it would miss shifts and under hard pedalling it would jump a cog on the gears once in a while. I figured I was going to have to take it back to the dealer and have them take a look at it, but after I’d ridden it for about fifty miles or so the gear changes became smoother and it stopped jumping cogs on the gears. So perhaps it just needed a break in period to work smoothly? I still think this could be a weak point, however. It’s a 10 speed and I think that’s too many gears for a derailleur to handle without some issues. But it’s working fine now so we’ll see.
It comes standard with a very bright LED headlight and a tail light that wraps around the cargo carrier on the back. The tail light isn’t super bright but it will hopefully help make me more visible to car and truck drivers when I’m on the road.
Also note the fenders. I like fenders on a bike. I often ride on gravel trails, run through mud patches, ride right after rains when the roads are wet, etc. Not having fenders on my old bike meant I’d come home with a streak of mud up my back and splatters all over my legs. These fenders work quite well. They are very thin and very flexible but stiff enough to work well.
Front suspension is fantastic. The front forks seems to absorb bumps, railroad tracks and potholes very well. Some people don’t like front suspensions like this for various reasons. I think those people are, frankly, stupid. With the multiple railroad track crossings, gravel trails, potholes, washboard roads, etc. around here, some kind of decent suspension is a requirement around here.
The battery is removable and completely tucked away inside the frame of the bike. It’s relatively easy to get out. Removing it requires using a key in a lock located alongside of the charging socket. Just for the heck of it I looked up what a new battery would cost, thinking that it might not be a bad idea to have a spare. So go ahead, guess what that battery costs. Just take a wild guess.
Try $1,200. Seriously. Twelve hundred bucks for a replacement battery. I find it a bit difficult to believe that the battery alone costs more than a quarter of the value of the bike, but, well, that’s the way it goes I guess.
That’s the charging port in the photo up there, and it is one of the most unnecessarily frustrating things I’ve ever had to fiddle with. It has a kind of magnetic holding system which is neat, but trying to get the blasted plug actually inserted into that socket is infuriating sometimes. It won’t just slide into place and latch on. I’ve spent minutes fiddling with the damned plug, turning it, twisting it, trying to get it to lock in place. And from what I’ve read online I’m not the only one who has problems with the damned thing. There’s no excuse for this on a bike this expensive. Yo, Specialized! Fix the damned plug!
This is an ebike so you need some kind of display and control system. The dashboard, if you want to call it that, defaults to the view you see in the picture above. There are controls on the handlebars that let you flip through various screens that display various bits of information that I suspect I’ll never need to know and will never actually care about, but it’s there if you need it. The left handgrip has a push button control that lets you cycle through various information screens, and a + and – button that cycles through four different levels of ‘boost’, Eco, Sport, Turbo and Off, the latter turns the motor off completely.
There is an app (because of course there is because everything has to have an app on your phone these days whether you want one or not) that does many things, none of which I care about except for the ability to tailor the amount of boost you get from the motor. Eco setting has the motor take up about 30% of the work, Sport is 50% and Turbo is 100%. Basically in Turbo all you’re doing is moving your legs up and down, the motor does almost all of the work. And, of course, Off, which switches the motor off entirely and the only thing powering the bike is your legs. I’m told that I can change the level of boost the motor gives to almost anything I want but the defaults work good for me and probably will for most people.
Yes, you can use this as a normal human powered bike, and it works rather well that way. Despite the bike’s weight it works quite nicely as a normal bicycle.
You’ll have noticed that Garmin thingie on the handlebars up there next to the bike’s control buttons. That’s why I don’t care about the app the bike comes with. That’s a Garmin GPS/fitness tracker/mapping system and displays text messages, emails and other goodies. And, in a feature I hope I never need, will supposedly send an email to my wife if I crash that says something like “Hey, your idiot husband wiped out and he’s laying in a ditch somewhere at these coordinates so you better go sweep him up before you get fined for littering.”
But back to the Vado. I’ve put 300 miles on it now in the three or four weeks I’ve had it and so far I love the thing. It rides well, stops well, handles well. The motor works seamlessly with the bike. The electronics make its presence entirely unobtrusive. The only way i can tell it’s even working is because I can feel that I’m using less effort pedaling up hills or when starting out from a dead stop, which is exactly how it’s supposed to work. It’s very well made. The frame is extremely robust, the welds are just about perfect.
Normally I drive in Eco mode which is the least amount of boost, which is more than enough for me to deal with things like long uphill climbs. If I’m out on a long ride in hot weather and I’m getting tired out I might kick the boost level up to Sport. I’ve tried it in Turbo mode several times. I still have to pedal, but in that mode I’m not doing any work at all, just moving my legs up and down.
Range is always something one needs to be concerned with when it comes to electric vehicles. The manual says I can expect about 40 miles range under normal usage, but I suspect in real life it would be much, much more than that. I went out for a 20 mile ride one day, running mostly in Eco mode, and when I got back home I still had 70% battery life left according to the monitor.
I really, really like the Vado so far. It meets or exceeds all of my expectations. If I didn’t live in a rural area where it’s at least 15 miles to get anywhere I need to go I could easily see using it as my primary means of transportation when the weather was reasonably nice.
The only thing I hate about it is that damned charging port. It’s keyed, so it will only fit into the socket when you have the plug oriented at exactly the right angle. But the port is recessed into the frame, and down near the bottom of the frame, so you can’t actually see how you’re supposed to orient the plug unless you literally get down on your hands and knees. I thought maybe it was just me. I’m not exactly the most graceful person in the world, after all. But it isn’t just me. I’ve read other reviews of the Vado that expressed similar frustrations with the charging plug, so this is a common problem. And there is absolutely no excuse for this. Not on a bike that costs this much money.
To wrap this up, overall I really, really like the Vado. As I said earlier I have over 300 miles on it now and it has worked pretty much flawlessly. It’s great fun to ride, the motor and electronics work beautifully. It’s robustly made and has handled all of the railroad tracks, potholes, expansion joints and other garbage we have to contend with on the roads around here. Brakes are simply excellent. It’s expensive, yes, but I think it’s worth the money if you put as many miles on a bike as I do.
I want to talk about biking, ebikes and transportation in general but I’m not going to do that here. This is already getting on the long side so I’m going to end this right now. 🙂
After a brief bout with unusual heat where temperatures pushed into the 90s (Appleton school district actually canceled classes last Friday because of heat) we’re back down to daytime temps in the 60s and low 70s, which is close to what we should be getting. The gardens are coming along nicely. We decided to put off increasing the size of any of the planting beds or making other major decisions until after the trees come down so we can better decide what we want to do out there.
The big decorative bed out towards the back of the yard is doing well. The irises are looking beautiful and so are the other plants that made it through the winter. It doesn’t look like MrsGF’s blueberry made it though, alas. We just haven’t had any luck at all when it comes to blueberries. Either they succumbed to some kind of fungus, even though they were supposed to be resistant to that, or they didn’t survive the winter.
The raised beds are looking very good indeed. Carrots and beets are all up and looking good and the garlic and onions are doing quite well. We put in a lot of onions this year. We use a lot of them, both for eating fresh, as an ingredient in tomato sauces and other recipes, salads, etc. And they just taste better than what you get at the store. Most of the varieties you see at the grocery stores seem to be moving towards types that don’t actually taste like onions any longer. They’ve decided that consumers don’t like tangy, spicey onions and they want varieties that are more mild, lack flavor, and even are sweet. If you like sweet onions, good for you. Everyone has different likes and dislikes. But I want an onion that smells and tastes like an onion. We had one bag of store bought onions come through here where I swear I thought I had Covid because I couldn’t smell them when I was cutting them up. They were so mild you could have eaten one like an apple.
The hostas in front of the house are looking really good this year. They seem to do quite well up in front even though the soil up there is really, really nasty.
And the goofy little Hens and Chicks up there that we scattered around the fence posts are doing pretty good too. They’re now moving all along the area between the cedar fence and sidewalk. They’re fun little things and seem to do good up there.
We have pole beans in this one. They did pretty good last year so we decided to plant them again. Along with more onions and some lettuce that I think we’ll be able to start eating in another week or so.
The corner garden has squash again this year, with parsley planted along the outside edge and, of course Mr. Spiny the cactus back there on the right.
Things are really dry here right now. We had to start watering the gardens yesterday. Our weather patterns here seem to have really changed a lot over the last few years. We’re getting more long periods without rain at unusual times of the year, unusual periods of extreme heat, less snow during the winter. Weather is highly variable, of course, but this seems to be a trend moving towards less predictable weather events.
Dr. Who – I must confess I’m something of a Dr. Who fan. Sort of. Or was, rather. My affection for the Dr. goes way back to the era of rubber monsters, all the “alien” worlds being filmed in the same rock quarry, and the utterly silly fellow with the long scarf and an addiction to jelly babies. Basically it was a kids show with a skimpy budget, often ridiculously silly plots, bad acting and, well, you name it. It was juvenile. It was fun.
But then came along Colin Baker as the Dr and he and the writing just rubbed me the wrong way. Baker came off, IMO, as utterly arrogant and, frankly, an asshole. And his sidekick, Perry, played by Nicola Bryant, quickly became known around the family as “Miss Cleavage” because of the often ridiculously low cut shirts she was dressed in to show off her, well, cleavage, for basically no reason 0ther than trying to “sex it up”, so to speak. I suspect they were trying to push up sagging ratings as high as the outfits pushed up Ms. Bryant’s anatomy.
That was the end of my watching Dr. Who until the reboot when Eccleston popped up as the new doctor and, well, wow. All of a sudden the show had an actual real budget with actual real special effects and actual real plot lines and good acting (mostly) and good writing (sometimes). And it stayed good for quite some time. But then the show started to suffer from what I call The Topper Syndrome. The writers weren’t satisfied with just writing good stories. Every new episode had to top the last one, they had to get bigger and more exciting and cover more and more crazy monsters and conspiracies and have bigger explosions and you just can’t keep that kind of thing up for very long without ‘jumping the shark’, as they say. That phrase means a show has so worn itself out that it has to resort to ever more bizarre and ridiculous stunts and gimmicks in order to try to keep it’s sagging ratings from sinking even further.
Then along came Jodi Whitaker as the first female doctor and I thought that, finally, the show was going to refresh itself, become more interesting, more entertaining, focus on story and plot and… And no, it didn’t. They utterly wasted Ms. Whitaker’s talents by bogging her down in one endlessly dull, and even insulting story after another. A lot of people attributed the flagging ratings and increasing criticism of the show to misogyny on the part of the Who fans, and even to racism and prejudice because the story lines now included persons who experienced physical and mental challenges and dealt with racism. I don’t think that’s true, though. I do think the show went over the top occasionally because it seemed it was going out of its way to be “inclusive”, but I think the real problem was that the writing was just plain not very good and the directing was even worse. As often as not Ms. Whitaker was made to look like some kind of overactive, over excited child hopped up on espresso and sugar instead of a thousand year old Time Lord.
So now we’re about to get a new Dr. Who, Ncuti Gatwa and I am very much looking forward to seeing him in the role. He’s young, just 29, and IMO he’s an excellent actor who I think can bring new energy, new poise and a new interpretation to the role. He’ll be the first black actor to take on the role.
What I find a bit curious is that they’re bringing back the Rose Tyler character, but she is not going to be played by Billie Piper who was the original in the series reboot. Rose Tyler is now going to be played by Yasmin Finney. Exactly how they are going to explain Rose Tyler changing from a young white female into a young black transgender woman is going to be interesting. I’m rather looking forward to that too.
Rumor has it that the “multiverse” is going to be involved. The multiverse has become just one of a long series of deus ex machina plot devices writers turn to when they write themselves into a corner. Dr. Who has already dabbled in that nonsense early on when the Rose Tyler character became too intensely involved with the Dr, so they conveniently trapped her in a different universe that she couldn’t escape from. Well, couldn’t escape from until the writers decided that she could.
One of the issues with the rebooted series is that they constantly introduce story lines that focus on the Dr’s companions, and the companions start to become more popular with fans than the Dr and they can’t have that so they have to get rid of companions or the show isn’t about the Doctor any more. So Rose Tyler ends up trapped in another universe. Amelia and Rory get trapped in the early 20th century for reasons that are never adequately explained and die of old age, Clara outright dies, but then is resurrected again immediately and somehow is still out there, somewhere, running around in a stolen Tardis, still dead but somehow still alive, Donna Noble, they had to get rid of her because she got too popular and somehow absorbed all of the knowledge of the Time Lords, so they erased her memory… But then plot holes big enough to drive a truck through and unsatisfying loose ends (like Clara, and the the Dr’s daughter (technically a sort of clone but that’s what they called her)) are, alas, rather common.
Here’s a lesson for you, if some dude in funny clothes shows up in a Tardis and wants you to go traveling with him, don’t go. It doesn’t end well.
We’ve been getting rain! The drought finally seems to be over. We’ve received several inches of rain over the last week and will be getting more today. Things were getting bad, and not just for home gardeners like me. We’ve had enough rain now that the plants have completely turned around and things are actually starting to look lush out there. The tomatoes have tripled in size and in full blossom. We even have some baby tomatoes on them already. The squash are growing so fast you can almost see the vines getting longer. We have baby cucumbers developing. The raspberries are probably going to be ripe in a week or so. Wow, it’s amazing what a bit of rain can do.
Anyway, as you can see the gardens here have been doing very, very well of late. Yes, we were watering everything carefully during the drought and keeping an eye on soil moisture and all of that, but for whatever reason artificial irrigation never seems to give the same results as natural rainfall, at least not for me. Even though I was sure the plants were getting adequate water, once it started raining everything just started going crazy.
I’m going to (well, maybe) start selling some of my wood stuff. I got an account with Etsy now, but haven’t gotten around to actually putting anything up for sale over there, and I’m thinking of putting up a separate set of pages here to showcase a few things for sale. Don’t worry, none of that will appear here in the blog except for a link to the sales site. I’m not going to spam you or anything like that.
But I needed to come up with a name for this for Etsy, and a logo or something to mark the bowls. Most of my bowls have a 2 1/8 inch mortise (basically a shallow hole) in the bottom. This is how I attach them to the lathe with a four jaw chuck. I like using a mortise rather than a tenon because unlike a protruding tenon which has to be removed, I can leave the mortise in place. That means that if something goes wrong with the finish or something else happens, I can easily reattach the piece to the lathe to rework it or refinish it. And as for the remaining hole, I thought why not use it for a logo? I got these thin, 2″ wooden disks which work really well with the laser engraver, so I came up with a name and logo that looks pretty good when burned into the disk.
Then just glue the disk into the mortise on the bottom of the bowl. I’m not sure if this is going to be the final version, but so far I’m fairly satisfied with it.
One of the issues I’ve run into with wood turning is dealing with objects that aren’t actual bowls, but instead are what are generally called “hollow form vessels”, things like, well, this one down below here.
This thing is supposed to be hollow, and it is. Sort of. Kinda. But not much. I ran a 2″ hole into it with a forstner bit and then fiddled around with the tools I had to try to hollow it out, but it’s a damned poor job because trying to reach in there to hollow it out without damaging the small opening and without hurting myself is a pain in the neck, even with special tools. I have tools that claim they are for hollowing out forms like this, and for whatever reason they just don’t work well for me. I see guys on YouTube doing this stuff effortlessly. How the heck do they do that? I’ve tried using their techniques and tools and what I’ve ended up with is dangerous catches, broken bowls, broken tools, and a real mess.
So I spent way more money than I wanted to for this:
This is the “Simple Hollowing System” from Harrison Specialties. Harrison markets a line of lathe tools under the “Simple Woodturning” brand. I have some of their carbide tools and they are very, very good indeed. This system is supposed to make it relatively easy to hollow out even something like the bowl in that photo up there. This version comes with just about everything you need, including the system itself, the tools, cutters and even a laser guide system to prevent you from accidentally cutting through the side of a bowl as it is being hollowed out.
As you can see I haven’t even had a chance to set it up yet because it’s been so busy here, but hopefully I’ll be able to give it a try in the next week or two and I’ll talk about it then. I also want to cover the laser engraver in some detail as well in the future. So keep an eye out for both of those coming up.
Let’s see, what else… Oh, almost forgot. I sold the Corvette. It was a very, very nice car, it was huge fun, but, well, even I had to admit that it wasn’t exactly practical. Basically it was a vehicle that I could only use about 5 months of the year, was a two seater, had very little cargo space. Oh, and did I mention that new tires for that thing were $500? Each. Yeah, it was over $2,000 to put a set of four tires on it because it ran high tech, high speed, run flat racing tires.
I bought, heaven help me, a Buick. Yeah, a Buick. It’s an Envision Avenir which is, according to Buick, at least, “the highest expression of Buick luxury” available. Here’s a photo swiped from Buick’s website because I’m too lazy to go out to the garage and take a picture of mine at the moment.
And I really, really like it. Well, of course I do or I wouldn’t have bought it. Duh.
The list of options on this thing runs two full pages of small type. Emergency braking systems (which I tested the first day I had it. Neighbor’s dog ran in front of the car when I drove into my driveway and the car stopped itself before I could even get my foot off the gas pedal. Wow), lane divergence warnings and even steering. Apparently if you wander outside your lane on the freeway the thing will actually steer itself back into the center of the lane you’re in. Automatic headlights, automatic cruise control that slows down or speeds up itself to match traffic, a 360 degree camera system along with radar systems to assist with parking. I won’t go into the whole list because it’s a bit ridiculous, really. Bumper to bumper warranty that covers everything, and I mean everything. With the package I got even the interior fabrics are covered. Tears, burns, stains, paint chips… All covered. Sheesh…
This thing is very, very nice. I absolutely love it.
And there’s another reason I went with it. It’s four wheel drive with good ground clearance. The roads here in Wisconsin are utterly horrible and getting worse every day. We have one of the worst maintained highway systems in the country. The roads around here are so bad you’re risking doing serious damage to your car if it doesn’t have enough ground clearance to get through the pot holes, cracks, gravel patches and other garbage we have to contend with. The Buick can deal with that a lot better than the Vette.
Why are our roads so bad? Go talk to our state legislature if you want the answer to that one. They can find billions to pay for building new freeways down around Milwaukee that no one wants, but they can’t find the money to maintain the highways, roads and bridges we already have. Those multi billion dollar freeway expansion projects are done by huge corporations that funnel enormous amounts of money into the campaign funds and PACs of our dear legislators down there in Madison. Meanwhile most road maintenance is done by local governments and small contractors who don’t have any influence at all with the legislature.
Let’s see, what else… I’m hoping to actually go fishing this year. Maybe. Every year I get my Conservation Patron license. That is an all inclusive license offered in Wisconsin that covers just about everything you can legally fish or hunt for in the state. At first glance it seems expensive, but when you consider that it includes almost everything, it is actually cheaper and more convenient than trying to get individual licenses. So I get the license every year and generally end up doing, well, nothing, because I don’t have the time. Spring turkey season came and went this year before I even remembered I had a spring turkey permit. Sigh… I think I went fishing exactly twice last year, and once so far this year.
I don’t deal with leisure time very well, I’m afraid. Heck, I’m retired for pete’s sake. I don’t need to constantly be doing something practical. But every time I start planning to go fishing there’s this little voice in the back of my head that’s saying things like “you know you really should be weeding the gardens, not wasting your time with this”, or “you should be spending your time finishing that jewelry box you started last week not sitting along a river waiting to catch a fish and wasting your time.”
It’s been a while since I did one of these. It isn’t that I’ve lost interest in what’s going on in the ag industry, it’s just that since I’m not personally involved any more it just hasn’t had the same importance for me. But a lot is going on out there in the farming business, and one thing I want to focus on is ethanol today.
2020 was a bad year for the ethanol industry. This was due to the pandemic, of course, but only partly. A lot of production facilities had to cut back, even temporarily close. Some shut down completely and will probably never be brought back online. Adding to the problems the industry is facing is the fact that they primarily use corn as the base material to make ethanol from, and corn prices have jumped up to $5.50 a bushel and show no signs of going down any time soon. (It’s a bit ironic that an industry that was created, at least partly, as a government mandated program to push up corn prices is now threatened by high corn prices.)
But the real problem with the ethanol industry isn’t the pandemic or corn prices, it’s the fact that the entire ethanol fuel industry is dead and the promoters of this stuff simply refuse to admit it. Like it or not, it seems that the future of transportation is not the internal combustion engine, it is going to be electric motors.
Electric vehicles are no longer a novelty item, they’ve gone mainstream, and consumers are buying them in droves. And it’s easy to see why. There is little to no maintenance. No more oil changes, no more cooling systems to flush and fill with antifreeze, no more transmission fluid to check and change and flush, no more exhaust systems rusting off that need to be replaced regularly. They’re quiet, efficient, with ranges of up to 300 miles depending on the model. Fast charging systems that can recharge a vehicle in a half hour or less are finally starting to turn up in a lot of cities, and will quickly become more common. It seems virtually certain at this point that the vehicle you buy in the near future is almost certainly going to be electric.
It isn’t just me who’s saying this. Several countries have already declared that they will ban sales of cars and light trucks with internal combustion engines within the next 15 to 20 years. California will ban the sale of new gasoline powered cars in 2035, as will the Canadian province of Quebec. Britain will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel powered cars in 2030. Norway is doing it in 2025. China, of all places, is considering doing something similar.
And now GM, General Motors, has announced that it will only produce zero emissions vehicles by 2035 or 2040. And they aren’t the only car maker considering it. Heck, even the railroad and tractor manufacturers are getting into it. One company already has small utility tractors in the 30 – 40 horsepower range suitable for orchards, landscapers, organic farms and the like, in the $25,000 range. Run times are up to 4+ hours, and if you can’t wait to recharge, you can get a second battery pack and swap the uncharged one out, put the charged on in and keep working while the other battery charges.
The future is clear. The entire ethanol fuel industry is as good as dead.
It isn’t going to go down without a fight. It is spending millions of dollars lobbying politicians to try to keep itself on life support. It is about to embark on a massive lobbying campaign against electric vehicles, claiming they are actually more polluting than internal combustion engines, demanding ever increasing percentages in blending with gasoline, pushing for even more government subsidies and tax breaks… The industry will bluster and threaten and lie and bribe and do everything it can to try to hang on. It isn’t going to work. It’s time to nail the lid on the coffin of ethanol and bury it once and for all.
Instead of trying to continue to prop up a dying industry with ever more government bailouts and mandates, we should be preparing to deal with the repercussions of the industry shrinking and eventually going away entirely. This will cause problems that will ripple through the entire ag industry. Corn prices could potentially plummet. Livestock and dairy will have problems because they have come to depend on brewers grain, what’s left after the ethanol is made, as a relatively low cost protein supplement for cattle. All of this, and more, will happen. And it looks like no one is going to try to deal with this before it turns into a crisis.