bitguru blog

a guru of bits, or just a bit player?

Chevy Volt getting lots of press

Posted by bitguru on August 12, 2009

Chevy Volt under 230 mpg bannerThe Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid sedan anticipated in late 2011. Periodically I search for news stories on the Volt, but today the news stories found me. I have heard four different news blurbs discussing the Volt today (over three different forms of media) without even trying. I would say GM’s public relations department gets a gold star today.

I’m taking away a gold star, however, for the design of the banner unfurled above the vehicle at today’s announcement. (See image.) To me, it screams “23 MPG.” GM wants us to read it “230 MPG” but I just don’t see the smiley outlet thing as a zero. Do you?

The story lead has been GM’s 230 MPG claim. That it’s turning heads is no surprise, but I’m hungry for more details. GM says the Volt’s city EPA rating will be 230 miles per gallon, which I don’t doubt (even though the EPA hasn’t tested it yet) because GM has been negotiating with the EPA over methodology for a while now. But it will be interesting to see what the accompanying highway and overall numbers will turn out to be, and what assumptions will be made to reach them.

GM has said that a fully-charged Volt should be able to travel 40 miles without burning any gas, after which it should get approximately 50 MPG until the battery can be plugged in and recharge. So for the city rating, it seems the EPA is presuming that 78% of the distance traveled will be on battery power alone.

0.78 mi@∞ mpg + 0.22 mi@50 mpg → 1 mi / 0.0044 gal = 227.3 mpg

I don’t think 78% sounds unreasonable, but I’m curious how it was chosen Of course, should you want to know how much gas you would burn were you to drive a Volt, you should ignore the EPA’s 78% figure and come up with a percentage that represents your particular driving habits.

Charging the Volt’s battery at off-peak times (night) should cost less than $1 in most U.S. regions, so those first 40 miles will be reasonably cheap. Do you have an outlet in your garage?

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Sierra Mist Ruby Splash

Posted by bitguru on June 18, 2009

Sierra Mist Ruby Splash logoThere’s a new variety of Sierra Mist (PepsiCo’s clone of Sprite) out on store shelves. It’s called Sierra Mist Ruby Splash and it’s pretty darn tasty. Unlike some variations Pepsi has introduced, this one would seem not to be a limited edition or seasonal flavor but a permanent addition to the line.

It has a grapefruit flavor layered on top of the lemon-lime, but it’s not quite the same as other grapefruit sodas such as A-Treat or Squirt. Its appearance differs too. Sierra Mist Ruby Splash is clear, not cloudy.

I’ve cut down down on my soda consumption over the last few years, but I’m looking forward to imbibing Ruby Splash again before too long.

Pepsi also sells a diet version of Ruby Splash sweetened with aspartame/acesulfame instead of glucose/fructose. I think most diet beverages taste terrible (or at least worse than tap water) but I tried Diet Sierra Mist Ruby Splash anyway for the sake of the blog. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t much care for it. Your milage may vary.

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more third-party mini-DisplayPort adapters

Posted by bitguru on June 6, 2009

miniDP-to-DP cable from Circuit Assembly Corp.Monoprice started selling mini-DisplayPort adapters a few months ago, but now another vendor has joined the game. Circuit Assembly Corp. sells not only the three types of adapters that Monoprice does (albeit at slightly higher prices) but also two it doesn’t.

  • The miniDP(female)-to-DP cable allows owners of laptops/desktops with full-size DisplayPort ports to connect to those crazy miniDP-only displays Apple (and others) sell.

Kudos to Circuit Assembly Corp. for finally providing interoperability between DisplayPort and mini-DisplayPort that had long been expected.

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Mazda5 plug-in hybrid?

Posted by bitguru on May 29, 2009

Mazda5 interior

I have mentioned the hybrid Mazda5/Premacy six-passenger minivan before, but British magazine Autocar reports that Mazda has been working on a plug-in hybrid Mazda5.

Alas, it doesn’t sound like it will be headed for production anytime soon.

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USPS 1st class rates up again

Posted by bitguru on May 11, 2009

postal rate step chartMy blog entry on postal rate increases two years ago has been picking up a lot of hits, so I guess I should set the record straight. As of today, first class stamps are 44¢ and post cards are 28¢. This continues the recent pattern.

37¢ from June 30, 2002

39¢ from January 8, 2006

41¢ from May 14, 2007

42¢ from May 12, 2008

44¢ from May 11, 2009

(Additional ounces remain 17¢ each, up to the 3.5 oz. first-class letter limit.)

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Triangle Music

Posted by bitguru on April 14, 2009

Christine Balfa playing the triangleWhile driving home from work today, I listened with interest to a review of a solo triangle album on NPR. Great, I thought.

You see, the triangle is an oft-maligned instrument. It is frequently the butt of jokes. For example, it’s not hard to find lark “how to play the triangle” videos on YouTube where the punchline is some variation of just hit it with the little stick, stupid.

I can sort of understand the intent of the humor. The “instructor” whacks the triangle willy-nilly with no thought to technique. It’s supposed to be funny in the same way how to boil water lessons are, but I know better. It’s a lot harder to play the triangle well than it is to boil water.

As an undergrad I took a one-credit percussion class and, believe it or not, the triangle was the instrument I had the most trouble with. You must hold it so it rings out pure when stuck, but also so you can dampen it when the time is right. And you mustn’t dampen it too quickly (unless you’re going for this effect) or it will make an ugly choking sound; you must dampen it gently. Also, the coordination between the striking hand and the dampening hand can be nontrivial for rhythmic passages. In short, the YouTube jokesters have underestimated the level of skill the triangle demands.

Some jazz tunes start with a nice triangle into. I intended to link to one here, but I wasn’t able to find one on YouTube or elsewhere. (If you know of one, please leave a comment.) However I did find a couple of legit YouTube clips demonstrating triangle technique.

But back to the NPR review. The album is Christine Balfa Plays the Triangle. It’s 55 minutes of unaccompanied Cajun triangle, which sounds good in theory but in practice it is ostinato triangle. Evidently each five-minute track consists of the same measure repeated over and over with essentially zero variation. And as the review (the audio, not the text) points out, the tracks themselves don’t really vary from each other either. Also, the triangle itself seems to be of the larger/darker variety for this recording and is never allowed to ring out with the glorious unmuted triangle sound, except possibly at the end of a track.

Had this review aired thirteen days earlier it would have been taken as an April Fools’ Day joke, and a decent one at that. The disc’s label itself calls it “the perfect gag gift,” which I guess explains its low $6 list price. I call it a wasted opportunity.

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four arcade games and a pinball

Posted by bitguru on March 9, 2009

Wil Wheaton asks

Hey, this’ll be fun: you can have any four classic arcade games in the world. Maintenance and cost aren’t a factor, and there’s no ROM swapping. Which ones to you pick? It’s really tough, but more fun if you don’t spend a ton of time thinking about it, so it’s right off the top of your head. … You also get one pinball machine.

These machines came to me immediately. They aren’t necessarily the ones I would want to own, but they are the ones to which I devoted much quarter-feeding time in my youth.

four classic video games, in the order I played them:Coily and Sam as depicted on the Q*bert video game console

the pinball table:

The linked video shows a two-minute game of Taxi and looks and sounds suprisingly accurate considering it’s on a virtual table, not an actual one. Who knew? Here’s a decent video of an actual Taxi table, though it is overproduced and buries most of the pinball sounds.

Posted in Nostalgia | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Apple finally updates Mac Mini

Posted by bitguru on March 3, 2009

back of 2009 MacMiniFor those who have been waiting for a less antiquated MacMini (as I have been for well over a year now) the wait is now over. Apple released new Mini models this morning. The processors are about the same as before—no complaints there—but other components have moved from four-year-old technology to parity with the modern MacBook.

  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics (from Intel GMA 950)
  • mini-DVI and mini-DisplayPort with dual-display support (from one full-size DVI port)
  • 4GB RAM ceiling, or perhaps higher when larger-capacity DDR3 DIMMs appear
  • draft 802.11n wireless networking (from 802.11g)
  • FireWire 800 (from FireWire 400) — adapters are available
  • five USB 2.0 ports (from four)
  • the US$600 model can write DVDs (from the US$800 model only) — now SATA
  • Bluetooth 2.1 (from 2.0) — a very minor change
  • 1066 MHz front-side bus (from 667 MHz)
  • the Apple Remote is still supported but no longer included

A miniDVI-to-DVI adapter is included in the box. To connect to an older VGA monitor will require either a miniDVI-to-VGA adapter or a miniDP-to-VGA adapter. (Theoretically Apple could have supported chaining a DVI-to-VGA adapter on the end of the included miniDVI-to-DVI adapter on the Mini, but I presume not. It doesn’t work on other miniDVI-equipped macs.)

All in all it looks pretty good. If you’re in the market for a nice, simple, silent, desktop Mac I recommend you buy one.

As before, the Mini comes with neither keyboard nor mouse. If you plan to buy a keyboard, Apple introduced a smaller wired keyboard today. It’s sort of a combination of the existing slimline wired keyboard (which has a numeric keypad) and the existing Bluetooth wireless one (which doesn’t). All three are new since I last discussed keyboards for Mac Mini two years ago.

In addition to the Mini, Apple updated the iMac, the MacPro, Airport Extreme, and Time Capsule today as well. I am surprised there aren’t new external displays also.

Posted in Hardware | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Whither Mac Mini?

Posted by bitguru on February 14, 2009

Apple has been manufacturing the Intel-powered MacMini for three years now. All this time it has been using the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics processor. The GMA 950 was considered underpowered even in 2006*, but by today’s standards it is seriously lacking. Compare to the MacBook’s graphic chip, which has been upgraded twice:

  • May 2006 MacBook: Intel GMA 950
  • November 2007 MacBook: Intel GMA X3100
  • October 2008 MacBook: Nvidia GeForce 9400M

In many ways the MacMini is an ideal machine. It’s inexpensive (for a mac) and blissfully quiet. I used to enthusiastically recommend them to fiends and family. I can’t recommend them now. Why pay $800 (or $600 without a DVD writer) for a MacMini with four-year-old integrated graphics when $1000 buys a white MacBook and $1200 buys a 20″ iMac?

The MacBook has much more capable graphics than the Mini. Also a keyboard, pointing device, integrated display, and battery are included. Even for those that plan to use their own keyboard, mouse, and display it probably makes sense to buy a white MacBook (and just leave the lid closed) than to buy a MacMini for $200 less.

The next version of OSX (Mac OS X.6 “Snow Leopard”) is due this spring. There are indications that Apple considers GeForce 9400M graphics to be essentially the minimum requirement to run Snow Leopard properly. These are unsubstantiated, but Snow Leopard includes OpenCL technology which is designed to make the power trapped in the machine’s graphics cores available for non-graphical tasks. It remains to be seen how heavily OpenCL will be utilized in Snow Leoard, but the Mini is now the only Mac sold with anything less than GeForce 9400M graphics.

Because the Mini has such antiquated graphics, there have been many upgrade rumors. None of them have panned out so far. The most recent one is from December: an OSX kernal extension file refers to a new MacMini with an Nvidia MCP79 chipset, which would indicate GeForce 9400M graphics. So some Apple watchers are predicting new MacMinis any week now, but they don’t know for sure. I guess we’ll see.


*Way back in May 2005 ExtremeTech wrote:

We can state flatly that if you buy a system using Intel’s GMA950 integrated graphics and want to play 3D games, invest at least $60 in an add-on card. If what you want is simply a system that can run standard office software, plus maybe play some DVD movies, then Intel’s new graphics core is probably suitable.

You might wonder what the point is of putting all the engineering effort into the 3D core, if it sucks so badly at games?

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Ford electric van by 2010

Posted by bitguru on January 23, 2009

I have written about hybrid minivans b e f o r e but not for a few months because I hadn’t heard anything new. Well this week Ford announced that it will introduce a battery-powered van in 2010. It’s nice to know Ford is in the game, but there are some caveats:

  • It’s a full-size van (perhaps based on the Transit) not a minivan.
  • It’s a commercial vehicle intended for fleets, not private owners.
  • It’s a pure electric, not a hybrid or plug-in hybrid.

The announcement also mentions an “electric small car” in 2011 and “next-generation hybrid vehicles, including a plug-in version” in 2012.

While I’m here: The Chevy Orlando minivan is coming to North America in 2011 and could possibly get the Volt’s plug-in hybrid drivetrain.

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