ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

FaviconCar Capitalism 13 Nov 2018, 3:00 pm

What happened was, I was hurtling around a mall parking lot in a beautiful British-designed hundred-thousand-dollar sports car, and I thought “Is this the good side of capitalism?”

I ♥ Cars

Disclosure: I like driving sufficiently well to have written, ten years ago, an encomium on the subject that includes a police takedown and a poem.

And there are lots of things to like about the business. It produces products across a huge ranges of prices that work pretty well — better every year, in fact — and last a long time, and about which people have strong aesthetic feelings.

There’s no suggestion of monopoly; competition is fierce and it’s possible for new companies to grab a foothold. The industry tends to place value on its workers, paying them and treating them reasonably well. They do not, at least mostly, have bullshit jobs.

Also, cars address humans’ naturally nomadic nature; there is a special joy in getting on the road and heading out in any direction you damn well please, as far as the road goes. Making that possible really just can’t be a bad thing.

But…

Automobiles have had to be regulated fiercely almost from day one: Their speeds, where they can drive and park, the safety standards on their tires and electronics and brakes and crumple zones and seatbelts and child seating, and of course emissions. The notion of a laissez-faire auto industry is laughable.

And given the slightest chance, car companies lie, cheat, and steal. For example, the recent “dieselgate” scandal played out against a backdrop of nudge-nudge wink-wink regulatory capture where everyone knew that any given car emitted more and got worse mileage than it said on the label. Sometimes the corruption was laughably public, as with the US regulators classifying shitboxes like the PT Cruiser as “trucks” so they could skate around emission regulations.

Not to mention the resistance, in recent years, to looking seriously at electric cars. In the face of terrifying climate-change predictions, the industry did the absolute bare minimum they were forced to. Only now, under combined pressure from global regulators and Tesla engineering, are they showing signs of taking it seriously.

Your point is?

I’m a left-winger and somehow still like a lot of things about business: The drive to figure out what people need and want and get that to them; the labyrinthine fascinations of marketing and sales; drama in trying something out that might not work; satisfaction of being on a well-functioning team.

But yeah, the auto industry is the nice end of the private sector. So much of business is poverty-by-policy, bullshit jobs, institutionalized mismanagement, work-life balance seen as a failing, egregious sexism, corruption of the public sector, and hyperentitled one-percenters who are so, so sure that they earned it all with their own hard work, deserve every penny, and the 99% are just losers who deserve what they’re getting. [Me, I got lucky and know so many people who are smarter than me and work harder and are struggling to make ends meet. Why is that so hard to admit?]

I’m an optimist. I think we can find a better and more balanced way to build an economy and, in the fullness of time, will. And I hope we can still have cool cars.

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FaviconCar-Charge Economics 4 Nov 2018, 3:00 pm

The Wikipedia article on Electric Car Use by Country is interesting. Below I excerpt a graph (misspellings: theirs) of the leading electric-car jurisdictions: As I write, Norway leads, at over 20%, while the US average is 1.5%. (Visit the Wikipedia link for the latest whenever you read this.) How are all these cars going to be fed? Let’s consider the future business of car-charging.

Top countries in adoption of battery electric vehicles

My own angle

Since I’m about to become an electric-car owner, I’ve been pre-planning trips, both for work (i.e. to Seattle) and to visit family elsewhere in Western Canada. And I’m having a feeling I last had in the Nineties, as a bleeding-edge traveling Internet user. Back then, when you picked your hotel, you really cared about whether your dial-up Internet would work — there were certain 20th-century “digital” hotel phone systems that got in the way, and then some places had proprietary plugs, and others blocked calls to the local PoP because they thought you were trying to dodge their larcenous long-distance charges, which you were.

As a side-effect of this, I’ve learned a lot about what kinds of chargers there are, and it raises questions in my mind of how we get the ones we need, and (chiefly) who’s going to pay for them.

Defining terms

  1. A BEV is a Battery Electric Vehicle. Also you sometimes hear PEV where P is for Plugin.

  2. There are a bunch of ways to talk about how fast a charger charges your BEV, but I don’t think there’s a standard acronym for my favorite, how many km of range you get per hour of charging. Let’s use kRh for “km of range per hour”. American and British readers can divide by 1.6 and call those mRh.

  3. A Level 1 (L1) charger means plugging straight into your home current, either 240 or 110 volts depending where you are in the world. This is an unsatisfactorily slow way to charge a BEV, a handful of kRh.

  4. An L2 charger is what many people install at home when they buy a BEV. Ways to measure it include kW (6 or 7), amps (30-ish), and you might get 30 or so kRh. The idea with an L2 is, you plug in your BEV while you sleep, and it’ll be charged when you want to head out in the morning.

  5. An L3 charger is what you find in Tesla’s Superchargers network, and recently other networks such as Ionity in Europe. Don’t know the Tesla details, but the majority of publicly accessible ones in late 2018 run at 50kw or so, which is to say probably better than 200 kRh.

    The Jaguar I’ve ordered is advertised as being able to charge 80% in 40 minutes on a 100kW charger (of which there are approximately zero as I write), which my arithmetic suggests is like 450 kRh. Now, it’s more complicated than that, because it’s actually amperes that charge your car, which is a function of the upstream source plus circuits both in your charger and in your car. And it’s more complicated than that because fast chargers charge cars fast, but only for the first 80% or so of capacity, then they slow down. So the polite thing to do at a fast highway charger is to charge up to only 80%. For what it’s worth, there’s excited talk about higher and higher charger ratings, Ionity claims they’ll be shipping 350KW chargers: “Stop,drink a coffee, and go.”

Costs

A lot of people put in L2 chargers at their residences. They cost under a thousand bucks, but you can’t install one yourself, so for most people, by the time you’ve paid the electrician and so on you’re probably in for over a grand. I suspect these costs will come down, but not hugely; volume will go up, which will help, but nobody’s predicting big technology breakthroughs. Having said that, a thousand bucks may be economically tolerable when you consider the trips to the fuel pump you’re avoiding.

An L3 charger is another story. This useful page at OhmHome suggests you’re looking at $50K and up, possibly way up. Among other things, you have to run three-phase power to the site, and you have pay a highly skilled professional to do the installation because at this power rating, mistakes are apt to be lethal. In conversations before I ran across the OhmHome site, I’d heard typical costs north of $100K, and some really extravagant numbers for the cost of the Supercharger stations.

So, given all that, who should build chargers, and where?

Hotel and residential

I think this one’s pretty easy. Hotels and residential developments should try to have a number of charge stations corresponding to the local proportion of electric cars. Except for, they should start with maybe twice the current value, because the proportion of electric cars being sold is way higher than that already out there. And I suspect that in places like hotel and condo garages, the cost of installing ten is way less than ten times the cost of installing one. These should be L2 for charging while sleeping; there’s no good reason to pay up for fast chargers.

A word of warning to hotel operators and residential developers: The time is very near where I won’t consider your hotel or your condo if I can’t be confident of charging while I sleep.

Employers

This is an interesting one. Lots of office buildings (including Amazon’s) have car chargers in the basement parking. But so far, near as I can tell, they all seem to be L2. I’m not sure I see the point; even if you could hog the charger all day while you work, you probably wouldn’t get a full charge. Maybe it’s useful for people who have a short commute and don’t have a charger at home? And in fact most of these things are un-used when I drive by them, in Vancouver and Seattle. There might be a case for L3 chargers at HQ for people like me who occasionally drive down to Seattle and back in a day (I’ve done it, it sucks) but the current L2 deployment seems wasted.

Roadside attractions

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. When you’re doing an extended long-distance drive, you really need fast chargers or you’e going to be ridiculously, laughably slower than with a fossil-fuel car. So the place for them is by the highway. Who’s going to pay for them? Especially given the high cost?

I originally thought that coffee shops would be the natural homes for these things, add a charger and attract the crowds, but at $100K I don’t think the economics work. But here are a few other interested parties who might have an interest in making the investment to put a fast charger near a big road:

  • Malls; the scale is presumably large enough that the investment looks more tractable, and they have an interest in keeping you parked for a while once you’ve arrived.

  • Chambers of commerce; put a charger near the middle of a small town’s roadside shopping street. This is a variation on the mall theme.

  • Car companies, emulating Tesla’s strategy of using a charging network to help sell a brand of car. I’ve heard rumbles that Volkswagen is thinking of this, and they certainly have the scale.

  • Governments, interested in trying to meet their carbon-load reduction targets.

  • Electric utilities, trying to convince lots of people to buy electric cars. Since the vast majority of electric cars spend their time shuttling people back and forth to their place of work, the utility probably doesn’t need to charge enough to recoup the investment. In other words, the chargers serve a psychological function, reassuring people that if they have the urge to drive across a couple of time zones to visit the family for Thanksgiving, that’ll be no problem.

The future

One way or another, I bet there are going to be plenty of chargers out there. Just like today I don’t have to worry much about whether the hotel I’m going to has Internet.

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FaviconJag Diary 4: Marketing Tour 27 Oct 2018, 3:00 pm

What happened was, Lauren and I played hookey from work and took in Jaguar/Land Rover’s Art of Performance tour, and it was a total blast, a couple hours of pure fun. This is just a recommendation for the show plus a few things I’ve learned about the car (which remains super interesting) since the last Jag-Diary entry.

The Tour

If it’s coming anywhere near you, I recommend signing up and going; near as I can tell, the only requirement is that you have a driver’s license. It was in a big boring suburban mall parking lot. They started with good coffee and hors d’oeuvres in a tent, and a bunch of pretty Jags and Range Rovers outside in the parking lot, all unlocked so you could get in and fool around. I can’t tell one Range Rover from another, but there was this one the size of a small nation-state, and I mean just the back seat.

Back seat of a large Range Rover

Not like the beat-up old rattler we had on the farm.

We went in for an intro lecture, which was given by this charming dude who totally loved cars; early in his remarks he said “Our products are things that absolutely nobody really needs”. In maybe fifteen minutes we got the history of Jaguars, which is pretty interesting; also of Land Rover; like quite a few greybeards with a rural background, I have a memory of the farm Land Rover, the old kind with the sideways seats in the back. The new ones aren’t like that at all. The host was actually a little sarcastic: “We build these vehicles that can go everywhere and do everything, but I guess it’s OK that a lot of their owners don’t go anywhere or do anything”.

They showed some history-of videos, which were lavishly produced, with voiceover in ludicrously-plummy British toff accents. In which the pronunciation of the word “Jaguar” is ludicrous: JAAYG-YOU-AWW. I use a gruff North American JAG-WAHR. Neither is etymologically sound; Wikipedia tells me that the name (of the cat, obviously) derives from a Tupian word and was something like “yaguareté”.

The staff were uniformly charming, cheerful, and genuinely unironically enthusiastic about their love of cars.

The first demo was riding around in a pair of Land Rovers that they took up over and around the sides of purpose-built obstacle, tilting sideways at an angle of 27° (feels terribly dangerous) and up over an odd-shaped construct that left the car balancing on two wheels. Very cushy. Yawn. Over on Twitter, Mark Pedisic posted some pix of the event, including a Range Rover up in the air.

Then we took turns driving F-Types around this big parking lot. There were pairs of cones all over with lights on top, which lit up in random sequence and you had to drive through the ones with the lights on, getting scored on speed, precision, and distance (less is better). You had a driver in the passenger seat who yelled “Left! Hard right! Boot it! U-turn right!” and so on. I pretty well totally sucked, going through at least one gate backward. Never have been any good at following instructions.

The F-Type is a blast though, a two-seater that is somewhat Porsche-inspired in that it has no decoration, just shape. Its engine sounds like a dragon’s cough, there’s plenty of kick, and it loves being flung into a corner.

Jaguar F-Type at the Art of Performance Tour Jaguar F-Type

Then we walked over to another part of the parking lot where they had the I-Paces, which we drove around a course laid out in red traffic cones, no lights or anything. The I-Pace isn’t quite as agile into the corners as the F-Type but it’s still superb, and OMG it has twice the kick coming out of the corner and when you stomp the accelerator you can’t help but grin ear-to-ear. Also, the silence is eerie. The seats were divine. I thought it was way more fun to drive than the F-Type. I can’t wait to get mine.

Anyhow, if you like cars and you get a chance, go take in the show.

Leaping Jaguar logo Snarling Jaguar logo

Above: Leaping cat. Below: Grumpy cat.

More things we know

  • The I-Pace is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent less efficient at turning electrons into kilometers than its Tesla competition. Which means it is still vastly, hugely more efficient at turning units of global carbon loading into km than internal-combustion engines; “fossil cars”, we BEV (battery electric vehicle) geeks say. To start with, fossil car efficiency, in terms of turning the energy available in the fuel into km on the road, tops out around 30%; BEVs get 90% or more. The carbon load depends a lot on that of your local electricity grid. Which is to say excellent up here in the Pacific Northwest.

  • When you’re discussing electric cars, you can talk about kWh/100km or Wh/km; I prefer the latter. Modern BEVs get numbers between 200 and 250 Wh/km.

  • The Jag’s effective range, for typical driving patterns, is somewhere around 225 miles, 375 km.

  • Android Auto and iOS CarPlay now run fine on the I-Pace. At the moment, you have to put Android Auto into developer mode, go into the Developer menu, and enable 1080p output, or it looks junky.

  • Earlier reviews said that the infotainment was laggy and clumsy. My personal experience of it was fine, so they must have fixed it.

  • I threw it around the little track pretty hard, to the extent that on one straightaway the jovial Jag guy in the passenger seat exclaimed a word of caution. At the end of that straightaway, I tried to take the almost-180° turn with just the regenerative braking for slowdown, and I think it could have worked but my nerve failed me and I hit the brake. Fun!

  • The big modern electrics that are starting to arrive (Jag, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche) can charge from chargers delivering 100KW and up. Here in Western Canada, the “Fast DC” chargers only give 50KW. My calculations suggest that such a charger will add around 220km per hour of charging.

  • At the moment, long-distance trip planning in a BEV is a complicated thing. If you want to minimize your travel time, you have to plan ahead to figure out which chargers you’re going to stop at, and how long you’ll spend at each — for a variety of reasons, you don’t want to go all the way to 100%. There are apps for that.

  • Speaking of which, I have looked at ChargeHub, ChargePoint, Flo, Greenlots, and PlugShare. Of those, PlugShare is by far the best; in particular, its browser version does a great job of providing filters that you can use to see which chargers on the road ahead are appropriate for your use.

More later, when I have one.

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FaviconRetiring? 25 Oct 2018, 3:00 pm

I’m not young and I can afford to stop working. I’m wondering if I should.

Reasons to retire

  1. Some mornings, I feel like sleeping in.

  2. And then, when I get up, I’d like to spend two or three hours on Feedly and The Economist, just reading what’s going on in the world.

  3. I’d like to spend more summer time at my cabin.

  4. When I’m engaged in work I bring a whole lot of intensity; not significantly less than a few decades ago, I think. But at the end of the day, man, I’m so tired. Some days I can hardly scare up evening conversation with the family.

  5. Progressive friends, people whose opinions I respect, give me shit about working for Amazon. I claim that the problem is capitalism, flaccid labor laws, and lame antitrust enforcement, not any particular company; maybe I’m right.

  6. I want to write a truly great Twitter client for Android Auto, to keep me informed as I cruise down the road.

  7. I want to start working full-time on AR now so that I’ll have something cool running when the hardware becomes plausible. I have a couple of fabulous app ideas; nothing that would make any money, but I’m OK with that.

Reasons to keep working

  1. I get to write software that filters and routes a million messages a second.

  2. I’m in a position where it’s really hard for people not to listen to my opinions about technology. I’d become amazingly uninteresting about fifteen seconds after retiring.

  3. I like computers, and so it makes sense to work for (what I assume must be) the world’s largest provider of computers to people and businesses who use them.

  4. I get a chance to move the needle, a little, on the way people use computers.

  5. The people at work are interesting and nice; basically none of them get on my nerves.

  6. I learn things all the time about how to think about how to use computers.

  7. The Vancouver tech scene needs an anchor tenant and it’s cool to be helping build one.

  8. The money’s good.

When my Dad retired, he really hadn’t made any plans for what he was going to do with his time, so he didn’t do much, and that was bad; he went downhill really fast. I don’t have plans enough just yet to hit that Eject button.

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FaviconOn Weed 20 Oct 2018, 3:00 pm

Last Thursday, cannabis became legal in Canada. For example, here’s my local provincial government’s online cannabis store (screenshot below). There are going to be physical storefronts too, some private-sector, but the licensing process is slow so there aren’t any in Vancouver yet, except of course for the dozens of “dispensaries” that have been up and running for years; I suppose some of them will become legal. Which is to say, it hasn’t been very dramatic. But I think it is sort of a big deal.

BC Cannabis Store

It’s a big deal because it’s an example of democracy actually working. We had a legal framework whose goals — stamp out pot — were not only unachievable but unsupported by evidence. In fact, the support was negative: evidence showed that the previous policy’s effects were, on balance, harmful. And one of our major political parties decided to run on an evidence-based legalization platform, won the election, and went ahead and did it.

Now, we still have a bunch of issues to sort out:

  1. Can legal weed achieve a level of price, quality, and convenience sufficient to drive the current thriving underground trade out of business?

  2. Is buzzed-out driving going to be a problem like drunk driving? Unlike alcohol, we totally don’t have good statistical data on what intoxication measurements correlate with elevated likelihood of accidents. And even if we did, we don’t have high-quality roadside tech for measuring it. There’s legislation in place, but everyone expects a legal/constitutional challenge more or less instantly after the first driving-while-high charge, and from what I read, that law is a pretty soft target.

  3. What are the appropriate cannabis-use limits? Should the legal age be the same as alcohol? For high-judgment jobs like airplane pilot, what is the cannabis equivalent of their traditional “24 hours bottle-to-throttle”?

  4. Where can you use cannabis legally? I fervently support the draconian restrictions on tobacco smoking, but at least half the justification is tobacco’s addictiveness and lethality. And I seem to recall from the seventies that people really liked to get high socially; should there be the cannabis equivalent of licensed public houses? Should they be licensed public houses?

The really interesting question, though, is who’s going to use pot, and how much? I was a college student back in the Seventies and my recollection is that:

  1. Most people did, except for those who also didn’t drink and were just naturally abstemious.

  2. The real “heads” did all the time and were thus not very effective as students or employees, and in some cases really screwed up their lives, and some of those stumbled off into the badlands of speed and opioids and so on, and some of those died of it. But I think that was just them, the cannabis wasn’t the important part of the story.

  3. After a few years I started hearing people griping that weed was just making them feel stupid and paranoid.

  4. Sometime around 1980 almost everyone I knew stopped for one reason or another, often including the discovery of a vocation: microbiology or computer programming or finance or whatever.

Me, I’m strongly convinced legalization is a step forward. People are gonna use weed, and I think it’s a fine thing that they’ll be able to get it with clearly-labeled believable levels of THC and CBD, and minus random pesticides. Because most dope dealers are skanky people you shouldn’t trust.

If you look at history, among the first public servants were the people who inspected the brewers and pubs of Europe to verify that people could trust the advertised strength of beer and advertised size of the mug it came in. So we’re on familiar ground here.

But I do wonder what social patterns will emerge, now that weed’s legal and regulated? The change feels small now, but I’ve no notion how it’ll look in the rear-view in a decade or two.

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FaviconOn Cash 11 Oct 2018, 3:00 pm

What happened was, I was walking through a train station on the way to work with the buds playing randomly on shuffle and a knifeblade of Real Music came in from outside so I had to pull them out of my ears, there was this young dude getting great electric sound out of a teeny amp doing a slow take on Little Wing with a really good voice: When I’m sad, she comes to me… plenty room between the notes and lots of soul in them. He looked a little hard-pressed; I put my hand in my pocket for some coin but there was no coin there because I live on plastic these days and that busker went unpaid that morning. Another reason for a thing I’m thinking of: Going back to cash.

Used to be I had to hit the bank most weeks to arrange brass-in-pocket, but no longer. [Dear reader: The following is for Americans, who are a little behind on this stuff.] For a while now, almost anywhere I want to buy whatever for less than $100, I just tap the paymachine with my credit card. No PIN no waiting no fuss no muss. And more recently, because who wants to dig around in their pocket for their credit card like a filthy savage, I can just hold my phone up to the machine because of course I’m already holding it like you’re holding yours mostly, and Something Something Pay makes this ecstatic little Internet Chiming Sound to let me know that I can take my latte or jeans or flowers or beers and say “Thanks, have a good one” and walk away, that relationship is over.

So, why should I bother dealing with cash?

  1. Routing everything through my credit card is feeding the global payments cartel, who extract a tariff measured in freaking dollars for almost every routine transaction. I’ve seen so many great business plans go begging because they could have done something wonderful in the world if you could only do micropayments, which you can’t, did I mention that cartel that basically has it locked up and tied down?

  2. Obviously when you pay for everything with plastic (even if it’s your mobile pretending to be plastic) then The Man Knows Who You Are And What You’re Buying. Well, The Man also knows where anyone who carries a mobile phone around (which means everyone) is all the time, but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I mean, right now I do a single Amazon search for Resonant Cavity Extractors and the freaking cavity extractors follow me around the Internet for weeks; I’m pretty sure the Big Vision guys in the payments cartel have this notion where after I fill That Prescription at the local drugstore, I’m gonna get pervasive popups for [Stop right there, Tim -Ed.]

  3. There’s no good way to lay a couple bucks on the busker playing Little Wing.

I haven’t got this worked out along Microeconomics-theory lines, but I’m starting to hear an internal voice saying “Cash is good.” So I think I’m going to start dropping by the ATM more often, and making a clinking sound when I walk. And laying a few bucks on buskers, because if nobody does that there won’t be any.

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FaviconThe Green Man’s Heir 23 Sep 2018, 3:00 pm

I just read this 2018 book by Juliet McKenna, which I discovered in Reading August/September, a blog post by Nicola Griffith, author of the excellent Hild (which I highly recommend here). I really enjoyed it and I bet a lot of you would too.

The Green Man’s Heir

Green Man doesn’t aim too high — a straightforward story of a fellow whose mother is a Dryad (tree spirit) living in the middle of England in the present day. His heritage means he can see, and interact with, woodland creatures out of myth (naiads, boggarts, and of course the Green Man); also that he is large, muscular, and has unusual (hetero-)sexual magnetism.

The story starts, like so many set in the middle of England, with the body of a murdered young woman, and involves interactions with cops, carpenters, interesting trees, and lots of those magic woodland creatures, some of whom are seriously lethal. There’s even an apocalyptic boss-battle sort of thing to end the story with a bang.

It doesn’t aim too high, and also doesn’t have any significant flaws. Hard to put down, hard not to smile.

There’s a very slightly odd flavor that may be the result of a woman writing a first-person male narrative (something I’m sure that many women are familiar with the mirror-image version of). I enjoyed this bit of gender dislocation, if that’s what it is.

And I’m thinking I might want to go re-read Ms Griffith’s blog post and try a couple more of the books she liked.

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FaviconJSON Event Scheming 22 Sep 2018, 3:00 pm

I’m pretty sure that event-driven software is already a big deal and is going to get bigger. Events, de facto, are JSON blobs, and in general we’d like to make them easier to consume in computer programs. I’ve written before about how it’s difficult to specify JSON dialects, and also about Schemaless message processing. It turns out there’s good news from the world of JSON Schema, but the problem is far from solved.

“Event-driven”?

It’s not exactly a new idea; I first heard it back when I used to program GUIs where of course everything is an event, and your code is all about handling them in callbacks. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. From an AWS-centric point of view, I’m talking about the events that trigger Lambda functions, or get matched and routed by CloudWatch Events, or go through the SNS pub/sub machinery.

As far as I know, there are really only two ways to connect software together: API calls (I send you a request and wait for your response) and events (I fire off a message and whoever gets it does whatever they’re going to do). A common variation on the latter is that along with the event, you send along a callback address that you’d maybe like event consumers to call you back on.

APIs are straightforward and feel natural to programmers because we all grew up calling subroutines and functions. Sometimes that way of thinking works great on the network, as when I send you an HTTP request that includes everything you need to do something for me, and I wait for a response back saying what you did. But APIs have problems, the worst being that they constitute tight coupling; you and I have to stay in sync, and if sometimes I’d like to issue requests a little faster than you can handle them, well, too bad.

Eventing makes the coupling looser. Obviously, it leaves a natural place to insert buffering; if I get ahead of you, that’s OK, the messages can get buffered in transit, and eventually you’ll catch up when I slow down, and that’s just fine.

And that looser coupling leaves space to do lots of other useful things with the data in transit: Fan-out, logging/auditing, transformation, analytics, and filtering, to name a few. I think a high proportion of all integration tasks are a natural fit for event-driven code, as opposed to APIs. So, I care about making it easy.

Contracts and Schemas

APIs generally have them. In strongly-typed programming languages they are detailed and rigid, verified at compile-time to allow for fast, trusting execution at run-time. For RESTful APIs, we have things like Swagger/OpenAPI, and GraphQL offers another approach.

Schemas are nothing like a complete contract for an event-oriented system, but they’re better than nothing. I hear people who write this kind of software asking for “schemas”, and I think this is what they really want:

  1. They’d like to have the messages auto-magically turned into objects or interfaces or structs or whatever the right idiom is for their programming language. And if that can’t be done, they’d like their attempt to fail deterministically with helpful diagnostic output.

  2. For any given message type, they’d like to be able to generate samples, to support testing.

  3. They’d like intelligent handling of versioning in event structures.

Historically, this has been hard. One reason is an idiom that I’ve often seen in real-word events: the “EventType” field. Typically, a stream of events contains many different types of thing, and they’re self-describing in that each contains a field saying what it is. So you can’t really parse it or make it useful to programmers without dispatching based on that type field. It’s worse than that: I know of several examples where you have an EventType enum at the top level, and then further type variations at deeper nesting levels, each with EventType equivalents.

In particular, since events tend to be JSON blobs, this has been a problem, because historically, JSON Schema has had really weak support for this kind of construct. You can dispatch based on the presence of particular fields, and you can sort of fake type dispatching with the oneOf keyword, but the schema-ware gets baroquely complex and the error messages increasingly unhelpful.

But, there’s good news. Apparently the JSON Schema project is very much alive, and in the current draft (-07 as I write this) there’s an if-then-else construct.

Now, if you follow that link and read the description, you may find yourself a little puzzled. Instead, have a look at json-schema-spec issue #652, in which I raised the question about how to handle “EventType” fields and got an explanation of how their if-then-else idiom might do the job.

On JSON Schema

So, I’m glad that that project shows signs of life and is moving forward. And my thanks to the folk who offered smart, responsive answers to my questions.

I still have issues with the effort. Its spec comes in three parts: Core, Validation, and Hyper-Schema. I think that Core could be replaced with a paragraph saying “here’s the media type, here’s how fragments work, and here’s how to use $ref to link pieces of schema together.” I think Validation has grown to be frighteningly large; just check the table of contents. I have read the Hyper-Schema thing carefully, more than once, and I haven’t the faintest clue what it’s for or how you’d use it. The authors of JSON Schema do not generally favor using examples as an explanatory device, which makes things tough for bits-on-the-wire weak-on-abstractions people like me.

But hey, I’m profoundly grateful that people are wrestling with these hard problems, and I’m going to be digging into this whole space of how to make events easier for programmers.

It’s not an abstract problem

Consider CloudWatch Events Event Examples, which offers samples from twenty-seven different AWS services. The number of unique event types would take too long to count, but it’s big. This is a successful service, with a huge number of customers filtering an astonishing number of events per second. Developers use these for all sorts of things. I’m wondering how we might make it easier for them. Think you know? My mind is open, and we’re hiring.

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FaviconOh, Shenandoah! 11 Sep 2018, 3:00 pm

What happened was, back when I was doing Songs of the Day, I wrote up that great old American tune Oh Shenandoah, and idly wondered who Shenandoah was; the Wikipedia entry said he was a real person, an Oneida of the seventeen-hundreds. Then I thought of that lyric Oh Shenandoah, I loved your daughter, and wondered who she was and who might have loved her, and found myself going down a rabbit hole. I have now read several books on the subject, uncovered a hell of a story, an idea for a billion-dollar play or movie, and met some really interesting dead people. I’ve (so far) failed to solve the mystery of who loved his daughter, but haven’t given up.

Skenandoa’s tombstone

What we know

His name, in English, is written a lot of different ways: Skenandon, Skenandoa, Schenando, and Skannandòo are a few.

He was tall, said to be well over six feet, and strong, and lived to an immense age, from sometime around 1706 to 1816.

He became a Christian and, unlike most of his fellow Oneida, a successful farmer, because he didn’t mind working in the fields; the others thought that was for women only.

He has living descendents including entertainer and singer Joanne Shenandoah.

He fought in the Seven Years’ War with the British against the French.

During the American Revolution, he (and most Oneidas) came down on the American side. The Oneida are one of the Iroquois Six Nations, whose territory sprawls from central New York State up into Ontario. The majority of Iroquois sided with the British. More on that below.

He met George Washington (this is well-attested, and Washington wrote at least one letter recommending him to others).

Legend also has it that in the cruel winter of 1777, he sent a shipment of corn to Washington’s forces at Valley Forge; also that Washington named the Shenandoah river in his honor; but historical evidence is thin.

Statue: Allies in War, Partners in Peace

The picture above is of a statue in Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian entitled Allies in War, Partners in Peace; on the sides are George Washington and Skenandoa; at the center is Polly Cooper, who is said to have conveyed the corn to Valley Forge. As far as I know there are no historically accurate images of Skenandoa, so the sculptor Edward Hlavka must have worked from imagination.

Iroquois War History

Before the revolution, the Six Nations were getting along reasonably well with the European settlers. They hunted and farmed, and had a social structure that included “Sachems” (hereditary male chiefs), “Pine Tree Chiefs” (elected male war leaders; Skenandoa was one), matrilineal inheritance, and a council of Clan Mothers.

They were warlike and practiced slavery, torture, and cannibalism.

Like all the aboriginal nations of North America, they were successively displaced and cheated and uprooted and massacred and infected with European diseases, one of them alcoholism. It’s a sad story.

At the outbreak of the Revolution, the Six Nations tried hard to remain neutral, which probably would have been good policy. But both sides saw them as valuable allies and brought pressure, money, and rum to bear. The Oneidas were at the eastern edge of Iroquois territory and physically closest to the rebels; the other nations were further north and west, closer to Canada and the British forces.

And then, on the other side there was the Dark Lord of our story, Skenandoa’s nemesis (and maybe son-in-law).

The Adversary

Joseph Brant (1743-1807). was a Mohawk (another of the Six Nations), real name Thayendanegea. He became a Christian and not only met George Washington, but was taken to London where he was much-feted and met King George. He was a loyal subject of Britain and led many of his fellow Iroquois into war against the American forces.

Joseph Brant Joseph Brant

Two portraits of Joseph Brant.

And he wasn’t just another soldier, but to use the vernacular, a seriously bad dude. He was tireless, always raiding here, preaching there, burning a village upstate or farmlands downstate. I think it’s fair to say that he was one of the biggest and sharpest thorns in the Revolutionaries’ side.

He was quite a humanitarian by Iroquois standards, only occasionally slaughtering defenseless civilians, and there are stories of him saving women and children from massacre. Or at least trying; some of them ended up dead anyhow. After the war he retreated to Canada and remained an aboriginal leader into old age. Interestingly, he owned slaves. I seem to recall him popping up in my Canadian History schoolbooks as a kid; there are statues and places named after him.

Brant and Skenandoa

In 1779, Skenandoa and three other Oneida emissaries were sent off to bargain with the other Iroquois nations to argue the virtues of neutrality and/or alliance with the Americans. He met Brant on the way to Fort Niagara and contemporary narratives make it clear that they already knew each other. At the fort, the Anglophile Iroquois heard Skenandoa out, rejected his ideas, and threw the four emissaries into a “black hole”, a pit under a building, for 150 days. Skenandoa was in his seventies at the time; he survived but at least one of the others did not.

Brant let Skenandoa out of the cellar on condition that he would join the pro-British side, which he did with obvious reluctance. He was exchanged back to the United States after the war, where he was received with contempt and scorn, but must have done OK because, as noted earlier, he lived another thirty years or so and, on his death, received a huge funeral which included both the native and white population of his town. I found a narrative of him being one of the Oneida Leadership which welcomed an Italian scholar-tourist in 1790.

Skenandoa’s daughter(s)

But let’s get on to the main point: Who loved his daughter? Here’s where it gets interesting, because maybe it was Joseph Brant! In Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution, she says explicitly that Brant married Skenandoa’s daughter Margaret; they had two children and then, when she died, he married her sister Susanna. His first son Isaac eventually died after a fight with his father.

But other sources, for example Forgotten Allies; The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution, by Glatthaar and Martin, say that Margaret and Susanna were daughters of another well-known Christian Oneida generally called “Old Isaac”; the son being named Isaac might support that. Isabel Kelsay, in Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds agrees, but then later in her book, refers to Skenandoa as Brant’s “former in-law”. Each of Graymont, Glatthaar/Martin, and Kelsay have extensive bibliographies with reference to lots of original documents in the archives of this or that university or government. The authors are all apparently extremely elderly if alive at all.

There’s this very odd book I turned up called Franklin Listens When I Speak written in 1997 by a Paula Underwood, which claims that Ben Franklin had a relationship with Skenandoa, which is unremarked-on elsewhere and would thus be surprising. Peering through Amazon’s “Look inside the book” uncovered a passage in which Ms Underwood says that Skenandoa’s life got nine pages of write-up in the astonishing Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States by Henry R. Schoolcraft, commissioned by the U.S. Government and published in six volumes between 1851 and 1857. You can read Volume VI, which is a summary, at the Internet Archive, or buy that summary volume for a thousand and change from a used bookseller, and I saw one complete six-volume set in the original binding on sale somewhere for $20,000. I found a couple of references to Skenandoa in Vol. VI, including one with a footnote confirming the nine pages of Skenandoa coverage in Vol. V, which however is not available online.

Me and Skenandoa

How far into this did I get? I made heavy use of my local public library. I discovered that the Internet Archive acts as a library and will let you “check out” beautiful scans (with full-text search) of a huge variety of old books, including most of those mentioned above. I dropped in a bunch of research notes in the Talk Page for Skenandoa’s Wikipedia entry, which I will go and polish up once I’ve gotten tired of digging into this.

I discovered, to my glee, that the rare-books section of the Vancouver Public Library has a copy of Schoolcraft’s Indian Tribes and dropped everything on a Sunday afternoon to go check it out. When I discovered that those collections are closed while that floor is under construction, I was crushed. It’ll be open by year-end, they say. Maybe one of the local university libraries has it?

The Show

Clearly, Hamilton has shown there’s an appetite for entertainment informed by early U.S. history. And this story has five times the drama: Skenandoa the huge old Indian warrior, the birth of a nation, a tribe splitting down the middle, the perfidious Anglophile Brant who (maybe) married Skenandoa’s daughter then later locked him up, the corn going through the snow to Valley Forge, father/son mayhem, battles in the forests, slaughter and mercy, Skenandoa in the black hole then finally coming home. And the native peoples betrayed, finally, by both sides.

This has blockbuster written all over it. Feels like a movie to me, you need a broader canvas than you can fit on a live stage.

Last words

I’ll leave you with Skenandoa’s; maybe not his last, but uttered very late in his life, aged over a hundred, and blind:

I am an aged hemlock. I am dead at the top. The winds of an hundred winters have whistled through my branches. Why my Jesus keeps me here so long, I cannot conceive. Pray ye to him, that I may have patience to endure till my time may come.

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FaviconUnbrittle Events 30 Aug 2018, 3:00 pm

At AWS, I’m now in the Serverless organization, which in 2018 is big fun. Someone asked me to check out the work being done at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), particularly around CloudEvents. There’s been a particularly interesting argument going on around there that I think has useful lessons for anyone who cares about designing network protocols.

I’m naturally interested in Eventing because it’s central, not just to serverless computing, but to modern application construction in general. Events are a good way to think about a lot of different things: Actual events from the real world (“Garage door opened”), infrastructure happenings (“database failed over”), user activities (“Leila signed in”), or data movement (“Object 894t7 uploaded to bucket JXYT8-33”). Events are nice, particularly in well-designed modern apps, because among other things you can feed them to functions and drop them onto messaging queues.

My first project at AWS was CloudWatch Events, and one of the essential things about a CloudWatch Event is that it’s got a fixed JSON wrapper with a bunch of top-level fields that are guaranteed to be there. We never wrote down a formal spec but there’s a reasonably straightforward description here. CloudWatch events JSON objects, and that’s all they are; nothing fancy about them.

Evidence suggests those choices were good; the service has been pretty successful; loads and loads of customers doing all sorts of basic meat-and-potatoes automation, and then some pretty imaginative apps combining built-in and custom events. So, I have a lot of sympathy with the CNCF work.

CNCF CloudEvents have an abstract definition not tied to any data format, with the idea that there could be multiple different representations, although most examples and conversations still revolve around JSON.

The Pull Request

The problem is summed up Pull Request #277 and issue #294. It’s basically about whether it’s OK to put unknown fields not defined in the spec (“extensions”) into the top level of a CloudEvent, or instead, banish them to an extensions container field. It’s not that crucial an issue and I can see both sides of it.

The argument being advanced in issue 294 and by Thomas Bouldin in Codelab: Versioning is Hard (aka the “SEF theorem”) is that if you allow adding “extensions” at the top level, that might break some software. In particular, it’s going to break anything that relies on Protocol Buffers (everyone says “protobufs”). Because they’re not textual and self-representing but binary and rely on an external schema to help software unpick the binary bits; and that doesn’t leave room for any old random new bits to be dropped into the top-level record.

It turns out that some organizations have bought into protobufs heavily; for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter what their reasons were, or whether those reasons were good. So dealing with CloudEvents is going to be easier for them if they can rely on mapping back and forth between CloudEvents and JSON. Which they can’t if extraneous “extensions” might show up at the top level.

Lesson 1: The Internet isn’t abstract

I think the CloudEvents committee probably made a mistake when they went with the abstract-event formulation and the notion that it could have multiple representations. Because that’s not how the Internet works. The key RFCs that define the important protocols don’t talk about sending abstract messages back and forth, they describe actual real byte patterns that make up IP packets and HTTP headers and email addresses and DNS messages and message payloads in XML and JSON. And that’s as it should be.

Time after time, people have got the idea of sharing abstract objects across the Internet, and time after time it’s led to problems of one sort or another. There was a time when a lot of people thought that something like CORBA or DCOM or WCF would make objects-on-the-wire not only possible but straightforward, and free us from the tyranny of thinking about the bits and bytes in message formats. But as you may have noticed, those things are pretty well gone and the Web has outlived them; its klunky old ad-hoc tags and headers are how everything works, mostly.

To make this concrete: If CNCF had started out saying “A CloudEvents is a bag of bits which is a JSON Text” or “…which is a protobuf message”, well, issue #294 just wouldn’t ever have arisen. And neither choice would have been crazy.

Lesson 2: S, E, and F

Bouldin’s Versioning is Hard introduces the “SEF Theorem” where “S” is for Structured, by which he means “you need an external schema and you can’t just throw in extra fields”, “E” is for Extensible, i.e. you can go ahead and put in unannounced foreign fields without changing versions, and “F” is for Forward Compatible, which means you can add versions without breaking existing dependencies.

Given the choice, I’ll take “E” and “F” any day. When you’re pumping messages around the Internet between heterogeneous codebases built by people who don’t know each other, shit is gonna happen. That’s the whole basis of the Web: You can safely ignore an HTTP header or HTML tag you don’t understand, and nothing breaks. It’s great because it allows people to just try stuff out, and the useful stuff catches on while the bad ideas don’t break anything.

So what happened?

The committee took the trade-off I like. Which means you can extend CloudEvents pretty freely (good), but you can’t use protobufs and JSON interchangably and expect things to work (unfortunate). This way is less brittle but a little harder to deal with. Not gonna say that the right choice is a slam-dunk, but it is the right choice.

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FaviconDiversity “Goals” 15 Aug 2018, 3:00 pm

Many of us (speaking from the tech sector where I work) think the sector’s workplace diversity isn’t very good. Specifically, there aren’t enough women. Large companies — all the ones I’ve worked for, anyhow — have goals, and generally work hard at meeting them. Many companies now say they care about diversity, and have goals around improving it. But improvement is painfully slow; why? Maybe part of it is that those aren’t the same kind of “goals”.

How business goals work

When I say “large companies have goals”, I mean that in a very specific way. Each planning cycle, company groups and their managers take on a set of explicitly written-down goals for that planning cycle. Goals are tracked in a simple database and at the end of the year, each group/manager gets a pass/fail on each. The way that goals are defined and refined and agreed to and recorded and structured differs from place to place; at Google and several other big high-techs, they’re called OKRs.

The percentage of goal completion that’s regarded as “good” also varies, but it’s never 100%. The idea is that your reach should exceed your grasp, and if you score 100 you might have been sandbagging, choosing insufficiently ambitious goals to make yourself look good.

Goal completion is deadly serious business among most management types I’ve known, and the number has a real effect on career trajectory and thus compensation. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that in business, those things matter a whole lot.

Goals are sorted into “output goals” (example: $100M in sales for a product) and “input goals” (example: five customer visits per week by every salesperson). They can be technical too, around things like uptime, latency, and trouble tickets.

Input and output are not mutually exclusive. Input goals are at some level more “reasonable” because they are things that an organization controls directly. Output goals are more aggressive, but also liberating because they turn teams loose to figure out what the best path is to getting that sales number or uptime or whatever.

Generally, I like this management practice: Setting goals and measuring performance against them. It drives clarity about what you’re trying to achieve and how well you’re doing.

Diversity goal questions

Here’s a question: For any given company, do its diversity goals work like regular company goals? That is to say, do they go into the percentage completion number? The number that managers get judged on and rewarded for meeting?

I actually don’t know what the answers would be for most high-techs, but I suspect it’s “Not often enough.” I suspect that because the diversity numbers across the high-tech landscape are universally pretty bad, and because the people in management are generally, you know, pretty smart, and will come up with remarkably clever ways to meet the goals they’re getting judged on.

I’ve also observed that while the numbers are unsatisfying in the large, there are teams who consistently manage to do better than others at hiring and retaining women. And by the way, anecdotally, those are good teams (with good managers); the kind who get things done and have low attrition rates and happy customers.

Here’s another question: For diversity, should we be talking input or output goals? I say: Why not both? I’m not expert on the state of the art in building diversity, but wherever we know what the equivalent of “five customer visits per week” is, let’s sign teams up for a few of those. And yeah, output goals. Let’s ask managers to double the proportion of women engineers, measure whether they do it or not, and leave the details to them. The good ones will figure out a way to get there.

It’s like this: If you claim you have diversity goals, but your managers’ careers don’t depend on their performance against those goals, you don’t really.

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FaviconBye-bye Haida Gwaii 4 Aug 2018, 3:00 pm

I’m down to my last few pictures and stories from our July vacation in Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas.

Two eagles in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 200mm, 1/680 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Most of our stops were at old Haida village sites. One of the highlights, aside from the totem poles, were the sites of the large houses; here’s a sample:

Site of large house at an old Haida Village

Pixel 2, 1/350 sec at f/1.8, ISO 50

The idea was, they dug down into the earth, then they put up a fair-size house on top. The steps down to the floor would provide living and sleeping space; the fire would be in the middle. The interior space was really impressive; there are cool old photos at the Canadian Museum of History.

Skedans and the Hot Springs

Our first Haida-village-site stop was at Skedans; a couple of the locals told us it should be called Q’una, but the local Watchman (who was a woman) Carol Duck, called it “Skedans”, so I guess either works. Carol was absolutely great, and here’s a story. While we were there, the weekly supply boat pulled up, and there was a lot of chaos while they were unloading their stuff. Carol climbed on the boat to visit with someone; when it was pulling out, I noticed she hadn’t come back and mentioned that to one of the locals. He laughed and yelled at them and the boat turned around and brought her back. I guess one of the guys was her partner, because another man hollered out “he’s trying to take your woman away, just like one of those old Haida stories!” and there was a general outburst of hilarity; Carol (everyone called her “Duck”) wasn’t totally amused.

Another stop worth mentioning is Hotspring Island, a totally ordinary little place except for the geothermal hot spring, downstream of which they’ve built a bunch of hot tubs, just above a sandy beach, so you can do the “chill your ass in the North Pacific, then bake it in the hot sulphurous water” thing. A totally relaxing place to stop for lunch.

While we were there, an RCMP police boat pulled up, with a couple of personable young officers; they’d been on a training patrol up and down the remote, stormblown west coast of Haida Gwaii, and broken their boat in a couple of places. In distant communities like Haida Gwaii, the RCMP usually sends in ignorant junior white boys for four-year postings, then rotates them out as they begin to grow a clue or two.

After they left, I was shooting the shit with two Haida tour-guide guys, and it was a little tense until we discovered that we all mostly hold the RCMP in contempt. There’s the part where too many of their arestees die in captivity, the part where they systematically harass their female employees, the part where the leadership was embezzling the retirement funds, the part where they taser ignorant confused immigrants to death in Vancouver airport, and — particularly relevant in that context — the part where our indigenous people have come to regard them, generally, as the enemy.

Back to our vacation. One thing I want to highlight is the general wonderfulness of cruising from island to island in a small boat, every moment a feast for the eyes; I’m talking about the quality of light, and the textures of the trees and the stones and the water. Here are a few random snaps from in the boat.

Little water cave in Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/750 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Water and cave in Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/530 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Gwaii Haanas waterfront

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 55mm, 1/680 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200;
processed with Silver Efex

Gwaii Haanas seawater, very clear

Pixel 2, 1/1900 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Trees at the edge of an island, Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 55mm, 1/200 sec at f/4.5, ISO 200

Marine life in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 67mm, 1/200 sec at f/7.1, ISO 2500

It’s worth noting that those last two pictures are from the exact same spot, beside a random tiny island, looking up at the trees then down at the urchins and anemones. It helps that a Zodiac can float right up to the edge of a rocky island, that this is basically a fjord so there’s lots of water right up to the edge, and that our guide Marilyn was an awesome boat pilot.

Windy Bay

It’s another old Haida village site, but here’s the view coming in; there’s a new big house and totem pole.

Windy Bay on Lyell Island

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 67mm, 1/210 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

This is on Lyell Island, Athlii Gwaii, a special place. It’s beautiful, like many islands on Gwaii Haanas, but it was the site, starting in 1985, of a pitched battle between the Haida and some supporting greens on one side, and the logging industry, which was hell-bent on monetizing every old-growth tree in the hemisphere. 72 citizens were arrested but they won, and launched the process that led to the creation of Gwaii Haanas. I’m in awe, full of gratitude for those people and their work, and you should be too.

Here are a couple of shots of the totem pole.

Totem pole at Windy Bay on Lyell Island

Pixel 2, 1/3900 sec at f/1.8, ISO 55

Totem pole at Windy Bay at Lyell Island

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 78mm, 1/750 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

The Haida Watchman there at Windy bay was Henry Tyler (everyone calls him “Tyler”) and when we went into the big house, he told us stories of the Athlii Gwaii protest action (they sent in Haida RCMP officers to arrest their own elders, thinking that would help) and then took out a drum and sang the Athlii Gwaii song which, he said, is becoming the Haida national anthem. It was a moment of wrenching beauty. Thank you Tyler, and good luck to you and your people.

Time moves on, and the old totems that haven’t fallen yet will, but as you can see, the world has new totems too. And then, this is happening.

Tree on fallen totem pole, Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/1500 sec at f/1.8, ISO 50

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FaviconWhy Serverless? 31 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

We were arguing at work about different modes of computing, and it dawned on me that the big arguments for going serverless are business arguments, not really technology-centric at all. Maybe everyone else already noticed.

[Disclosure: Not only do I work at AWS, but as of earlier this year I’m actually part of the Serverless group. I still spend most of my time working on messaging and eventing and workflows, but that’s serverless too.]

Now, here are a few compelling (to me, anyhow) arguments for serverless computing:

  1. Capacity Planning. It’s hard. It’s easy to get wrong. The penalties for being wrong on the high side are wasted investment, and on the low side abused customers. Serverless says: “Don’t do that.”

  2. Exploit Avoidance. There are no sure bets in this world, but one very decent weapon against next week’s Spectre or Heartbleeed or whatever is: Keep your hosts up to date on their patch levels. Serverless says: “Run functions on hosts that get recycled all the time and don’t linger unpatched.”

  3. Elastic Billing. There are a few servers out there, not that many, running apps that keep their hardware busy doing useful work all the time. But whether it’s on-prem or in the cloud, you’re normally paying even when the app’s not working. Serverless says “Bill by the tenth of a second.”

Technology still matters

Now, when we get into an argument about whether some app or service should be built serverlessly or using traditional hosts, the trade-offs get very technical very fast. How much caching do you need to do? How do you manage your database connections? Do you need shard affinity? What’s the idempotency story?

But some of the big reasons why you want to go serverless, whenever you can, aren’t subtle and at the end of the day they’re not really technical.

This is a new thing

I’m a greybeard and have seen a lot of technology waves roll through. By and large, what’s driven the big changes are technical advantages: PCs let you recompute huge spreadsheets at a keystroke, in seconds. Java came with a pretty big, pretty good library, so your code crashed less. The Web let you deliver a rich GUI without having to write client-side software.

But Serverless isn’t entirely alone. The other big IT wave I’ve seen that was in large part economics driven was the public cloud. You could, given sufficient time and resources, build whatever you needed to on-prem; but on the Cloud you could do it without making big capital bets or fighting legacy IT administrators.

Serverless, cloud, it all goes together.

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FaviconNinstints and Koyah 25 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

On the second day of our Haida Gwaii excursion, our long morning Zodiac stage started just outside the park (the green zone on this map), headed through interior channels and then out into the Hecate Strait around the bottom right of Moresby Island, where we saw the seals and whales pictured previously here, then turning west along the bottom of Moresby through the Houston Stewart Channel and ending up at the place you can see marked “Ninstints” near the bottom center of the map. It has several other names but to the locals it’s SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay; they drop the third word so it sounds like Sgangway. The place is among the most amazing I’ve visited.

Cartographers call this “Anthony Island”; here’s a zoomed-in map. This is not on the scary but somewhat sheltered mainland-facing coast, it’s the last land on the Western fringe before you’re on the broad open Pacific, next stop Japan. Marilyn beached the Zodiac in the little islet-sheltered bay wedged into the north corner facing northwest; here’s a picture looking back out that bay.

Little bay on Anthony Island, Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/420 sec at f/8, ISO 200

We started with lunch; it’d been a long ride. What a picnic spot! Then we strolled across the island to the Watchmen’s cottage, the place marked on the map linked above as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Walking across SG̱ang Gwaay in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/60 sec at f/8, ISO 200

That walk was totally out of Tolkien; words cannot begin to describe the savage beauty of those big weathered trees and the mossy forest floor between them, the quality of light and of air.

The Watchmen were not on their best form; one of them had had to be helicoptered out the night before, probably gallstones. But still, welcoming. The watch house faces east, away from the Pacific, and is on a bay nearly 100% sheltered by an islet whose trees have been miniaturized by the winds and exposure, natural bonsai.

Natural Bonsai at SG̱ang Gwaay in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/480 sec at f/8, ISO 200

Then we visited the old village site; the path down there is another walk through fantasy.

Path to the SG̱ang Gwaay village site in Gwaii Haaans

Pixel 2, 1/60 sec at f/1.8, ISO 173

Many of the totem poles are still standing, deeply weathered of course. I’m betting they’ll be upright maybe another decade, maybe less; so if you want to see them, get on it.

Totem pole at the SG̱ang Gwaay village site in Gwaii Haaans

Pixel 2, 1/600 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Standing totems at the SG̱ang Gwaay village site in Gwaii Haaans

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/350 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

“Ninstints”

Back in the day, gringos like my ancestors tended to name each village they visited after its chief. And therein lies a tale. I’m going to give it to you as I got it from Marilyn and then from James, of James and James, guides for another touring party we met at another site; Haidas both of them. It seems roughly congruent with what Wikipedia and its sources say:

Koyah was the chief at SG̱ang Gwaay; he was a famous war leader and trader. He was trading with an English ship captain when one of his followers stole items from the ship. The captain was enraged, seized Koyah, abused him, and eventually released him from the ship with his hair cut off. After that, he had no status in the village — the women rejected him — and they brought in Ninstints to be the chief.

But Koyah was enraged at his loss of status and wanted to win it back. He went back to war, raiding here and there, over and over again, and finally, an old man, managed to sink one American and one British ship. After that, his status was considered restored.

For details, see Wikipedia and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

I’m not going to expand on Haida culture, except that it featured trading, war, slavery, and especially Potlatches, a thing that it’s worth reading about. One wonders how much of a fight they might have offered against the British had not smallpox wiped 90% of them out, emptying the villages; nobody but the Watchmen are there now.

Below, the remains of one of the big houses at the village site.

At the SG̱ang Gwaay village site, Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/1250 sec at f/1.8, ISO 50

After, we left the village site and scrambled around the north part of the island to a point where there was a view west, out toward the open Pacific.

View west from Anthony Island, Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/7800 sec at f/1.8, ISO 63

We had to climb up on a big rock outcropping for the view, and it was another dose of magic, maritime in flavor this time. In a crack, under water, were shells smashed on the rocks by gulls preparing their dinner.

Seashells in a pool in Gwaii Haaanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/220 sec at f/3.6, ISO 200

Of course Marilyn knew the name of the snail species, but I’ve forgotten it. I’ll never forget standing on that rock, the never-logged forest behind, the Pacific in front; a very pure place.

Our time on the island was too short; my thanks once again to the Haida Nation in general for co-management of the park, and to the watchmen at SG̱ang Gwaay for having us.

Rose Harbour

After, the boat ride back to our night’s lodging was a short double-back to Rose Harbour. [Side-note: That’s just the second Wikipedia entry that I’ve created.]

It’s the only enclave of privately-owned land in the vast park, originally set up as a whaling station around 1910, then vacated in the Forties. Now, it’s the one place in Gwaii Haanas where visitors can sleep in a bed under a roof, eat food that someone else cooked, and have a hot shower, its water heated by a wood fire.

As we passed earlier in the day, we went by a little old aluminium skiff going the other way; Marilyn said “That’s the girls, heading out after supper.” Later at the communal table we ate those ling cod with vegetables out of the Rose Harbour gardens. It was spicy and fresh and totally excellent, as were the pancakes the next morning. Here’s the guest-house.

Guest-house at Rose Harbour, Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/11800 sec at f/1.8, ISO 103

The rooms were tiny but comfy, the stairs up to them like ladders; I’m sure that’s how it is in Elven residences. There was no electricity. There were immense whale-bones on the beach. The wood-heated shower was delightful. The outdoor loos were not the best.

Rose Harbour’s most visible inhabitant (and our host), Tassilo Götz Hanisch, a voluble white-maned patriarch, is a musician. He and the other residents of Rose Harbour have a strained relationship with Parks Canada, who’d like them gone and the park, from their point of view, made whole. Götz says millions have been offered. He informed me at considerable length about the malignant but inept turpitude of his adversaries.

I didn’t get to hear their side. I guess, at one level, I can see the argument. But I have to say that I think it’s a good thing that Gwaii Haanas has a place that offers a bed and a meal to travelers neither athletic and accomplished enough to kayak, nor rich enough to have a cruising yacht. And the hospitality (excepting the loos) is damn fine.

Here’s a sunset from Rose Harbour.

Sunset at Rose Harbour, Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/210 sec at f/3.6, ISO 200

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FaviconPhotographing Haida Gwaii 22 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

The photographic landscape is shifting under us. I took four lenses to Haida Gwaii, assuming you count the Pixel 2 as one of them, and you should; that’s the landscape shift. The “real” lenses:

  1. Fujifilm 35mm F1.4, my favorite lens I’ve ever owned. Also one of Fuji’s cheapest; goes to show something or other.

  2. Fufifilm 55-200mm F3.5-4.8. Super-useful zoom range, could be faster, but then it’d be heavier.

  3. Samyang 135mm F/2.0, which I’ve blogged about a lot here; a difficult, beautiful, opinionated tool.

Let’s start with a case study; some old weathered Haida totems on the beach at SG̱ang Gwaay, an astonishing place that deserves its own write-up. Here’s the 35mm version from back a bit:

Totems at SG̱ang Gwaay

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/90 sec at f/8, ISO 200

I thought the grouchy totem at the right was the most interesting, and realized this was the kind of situation the Samyang was made for, and shot again.

Grouchy totem at SG̱ang Gwaay

Samyang 135F2, 1/300 sec at unknown aperture, ISO 200

From this we learn that the 35mm is wonderful at replicating what you saw during that moment when you were thinking “Wow, that’s beautiful’, and a long lens is just the ticket for composing detail shots at a distance.

But…

The problem is logistics. The Samyang is great when I go out for a nice leisurely walk looking for dramatic bokeh-laden detail shots. But when you’re switching from bouncy Zodiac to soft beach sand to scrambling over drift-logs to forest floor, carrying multiple lenses along and changing them really sucks, and so a wide-ish range zoom is just the ticket. Next time I do something like this I won’t take the Samyang.

But to its credit, it did a fab job on this Haida Watchman fire, which was producing some of the nicest-smelling smoke I’ve encountered.

Fire detail in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, Samyang 135F2, 1/900 sec at unknown aperture, ISO 200

But in terms of outperforming expectations… Wow, that Pixel. Let me show off a bit.

Fallen totem in Gwai Haanas Forest fringe in Gwaii Haanas Stone flowers in Gwaii Haanas Mossy-laden trees in Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/400 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51; 1/1250 sec at f/1.8, ISO 56; 1/120 sec at f/1.8, ISO 52; 1/320 sec at f/1.8, ISO 50

Don’t know about you, but I think the capture of detail and color is awesome. And unless you’re doing professional magazine or display work, here’s a news flash: You don’t need a wide-angle lens any more on your “real” camera.

Here’s another nice Pixel pic, and then the results of pointing the long lens at the same scene.

Crescent Inlet, Haida Gwaii Crescent Inlet, Haida Gwaii

Above: Pixel 2, 1/1150 sec at f/1.8, ISO 60; Below: Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 55mm, 1/250 sec at f/3.5, ISO 200

In the boat, I kept my waterproof knapsack by my side with the Fuji, 55-200mm strapped on, near the top. I could get it out and shoot fast, and there was really no other reasonable lens choice. I always had the Pixel in my vest pocket; just had to undo a couple of layers of waterproof and I could have it ready almost as fast.

But that sweet little beat-up old 35mm remains my heart-throb. Point it at something interesting and it’ll almost never be the limiting factor in the quality of what you get.

Voyagers examining trees in Gwaii Haanas Natural bonsai in Gwaii Haanas Tree base in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/125 sec at f/8; 1/480 sec at f/8; 1/250 sec at F5.6. All ISO 200.

I was reasonably happy with the results. But there’s a problem: The diminutive Fujifilm body is just kind of klunky and awkward with a long lens attached, even a relatively svelte one like the 55-200mm. Now, everybody knows that We Must Suffer For Our Art and since we’re talking metal and glass here, there’s not much relief on the horizon. But my wrists and neck got camera-sore.

One other person in the party had a Nikon SLR with an all-purpose zoom strapped on. Another had one of the “tourist” cameras with a built-in massive-range zoom. And there were a few old-school point and shoots. It’s not obvious that any of the above were a worse choice than what I took.

Final note: Haida Gwaii is more often dim, grey, and wet than bright and sunny as in my photos. We got seriously lucky. I wonder if shooting wet and under clouds would change the equation any?

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FaviconHow To Visit Haida Gwaii 21 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

It looks remote on the map and it is, but it’s not that hard to get to. The big reason to go is Gwaii Haanas, the huge southern Canada/Haida-Nation park. It is really hard to get to and, since it’s a large expanse of rocky islands, hard to get around in. But you can do it.

The rest of Haida Gwaii

I mean, outside the park. It’s beautiful and has roads and bridges and ferries so you can drive around and see it. We only allowed a single day and that was a mistake; you need two. We spent it driving from Sandspit, where the flights from Vancouver land and the tours to Gwai Haanas jump off, taking the ferry from Moresby to Graham islands, north through Skidegate and Tlell and Masset to Tow Hill, a huge chunk of volcanic rock with a nice boardwalk to the top. Here it is:

Tow Head, Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/300 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Those are big trees. Which is to say, it’s a big rock! Here are views looking down, then south, then north; in the last, you can see the Alaska panhandle on the horizon.

Looking down from Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 95mm, 1/280 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Looking south from Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/3900 sec at f/1.8, ISO 53

Looking north from Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii

Pixel 2, 1/3900 sec at f/1.8, ISO 68

Tow Head is great, and we enjoyed the rural old-fashioned-ness of Masset, and stopped a couple of times at really beautiful places on the way up and back. Also, someone had left the Beatles’ White Album 2nd CD in the rental car, so that was nice. But getting from Sandspit up to the top of the island and back took the whole day. So we didn’t get to take in the Museum and Haida Heritage Centre, which everyone says is fabulous; and it might have given us a little context for our conversation with the Haida people we met in the park.

The park

There are basically three ways to visit the park. First, if you’re a super-athletic, super-skilled, super-courageous ocean kayaker, you can camp on any random beach and get about as close as possible to nature. We saw several parties of kayakers, and I’m in awe of what they’re doing. Second, if you’re wealthy enough to have a boat that can make it across the 70 scary km of the Hecate Strait from the mainland, and competent enough to drive it and moor it, that looks like a good option.

But what most people do, and what we did, was take a guided tour, in our case guided by Moresby Explorers (the pictures on the front page of their Web site are nicely representative of what you see). Normally I’m not much for guided tours, but this was great; in a four-day outing we saw a whole lot of the park. And also our guide Marilyn Deschênes was beyond awesome. Her knowledge of boat piloting, geology, birds, fish, trees, and Native culture, along with her energy, was effectively infinite. Moresby’s price, which included three nights lodging and all the meals, seemed very reasonable. Here was our route.

Our route through Gwaii Haanas

Zodiac touring

Here’s how it works. First, you put on a T-shirt and shirt and fleece and raincoat; then Moresby gives you heavy waterproof overalls and coat and gumboots. Then you climb on to a 12-seat open-top Zodiac, and after your pilot has warmed things up, she cranks it up to 30 or 40 knots (in the 60km/h or 40mph range) and you blast away across the Pacific. Even on a warm day you totally need all those layers. Of course, you feel sort of like the Michelin Man, and every time you stop you have to budget ten minutes for climbing out of the waterproofs and back in. The Zodiac has a reasonably comfy padded bench to sit on which doubles as waterproof storage for your overnight stuff.

In between visits to Haida village sites and their Watchmen, there are stops at random beaches for lunch, snacks, or just to visit an interesting tree. Basically every one of these stops is breathtakingly beautiful. Here’s a picture of our Zodiac pulled up, people still in Michelin-Man mode; then a couple of random shots from places where we pulled up for snacks or whatever.

Walking up a beach in Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/2300 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Lushness behind a beach in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/1250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 5000

Trees behind a beach in Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/4700 sec at f/1.8, ISO 78

When you’re blasting around on the Zodiac, you see lots of beautiful scenery:

Big rocks in Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/7800 sec at f/1.8, ISO 83

Small wooded island in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 110mm, 1/680 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Tidelines in Gwaii Haanas

Pixel 2, 1/730 sec at f/1.8, ISO 51

Check out the tide-lines on that bottom picture; there are 10m of tide!

The other thing you see is wildlife. Let’s start with an eagle, of which there are plenty up there; this picture is mostly about the trees.

Eagle in Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 95mm, 1/210 sec at f/5.0, ISO 200

Next, a little island full of Steller Sea Lions. They were fun to watch, but what struck me hardest was the sound and the smell. Anywhere within a couple of hundred meters, the melodious rough-edged basso bellowing was a continuous flow; then as we maneuvered around their rock, Marilyn said “we don’t want to stay downwind too long” and indeed, the smell was as multidimensional as the sound; phew!

Steller Sea Lions in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 190mm, 1/2200 sec at f/4.8, ISO 250

And then, humpback whales, of which we saw at least three. My big take-away here is the swooshy “Ooooooh” they make breathing, audible a long way off. Sorry, the pictures aren’t up to much, because there was some sort of marine-food flurry going on with a horde of seagulls circling and squawking; those whales were too busy chowing down to show off.

Humpback whale fins in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 200mm, 1/2900 sec at f/5.6, ISO 250

Humpback whale back in Gwaii Hanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 200mm, 1/3000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

And finally, a fried egg jellyfish (Phacellophora camtschatica); these things are freaking immense, the best part of a meter across.

Fried egg jellyfish in Gwaii Haanas

Fuji X-T2, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8, 78mm, 1/450 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

The white things are cloud reflections.

We stayed for two nights at Moresby Explorers’ floating lodge in Crescent Inlet; a fine comfy place where they gave us a delicious, hearty, meal; that jelly above was just off the porch. Here’s the view from that porch as the sun sets, right side up and then reflected.

Crescent Inlet, Moresby Island, Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/210 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

Crescent Inlet, Moresby Island, Haida Gwaii

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/210 sec at f/3.6, ISO 200

It’s a peaceful place.

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FaviconT'aanuu ll­na­gaay 20 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

On Friday July 13th I was sitting under trees looking at the ocean and I thought “This is maybe the nicest place I’ve ever been.” The beach was at Tanu (T'aanuu llnagaay in the Haida language), which is here. In front of me, the Hecate Strait, much hated by West Coast mariners. Behind me, the old Haida village site, with interesting memento mori: a mass grave of fifty or so smallpox victims, and the beautiful modern gravestone of Bill Reid. Flowing over me, a breeze of what struck me as the freshest, cleanest, nicest air I have ever breathed. This was on the last day of our Haida Gwaii, uh, let me see, I can hardly call it an adventure after all that. But it sort of was.

Haida Gwaii is a waterspout-shaped triangle of Islands 70km off Canada’s left coast right up where it meets the Alaska Panhandle, a two-hour puddlejumper flight from Vancouver. Mostly it’s cool and grey and wet and stormy; but we soaked up five days of mild breezes, mostly sunlit, and came back with pictures, but words have been hard to come by, they seem inadequate.

I’ve pictures enough for a few entries, so I’ll talk about logistics and photography and so on later; today just Tanu.

Trees and beach at Tanu

Pixel 2, 1/2300 sec at f/1.8, ISO 54

Tanu is in Gwaii Haanas (officially: Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site); one of five Haida village sites where there’s a watch house staffed by Haida Watchmen, who’ll welcome you, give you a tour, and stamp your visitor book. Some of the watchmen are women and all the ones we met were awfully nice.

One of them at Tanu had her little niece visiting, a high-energy girl with a lovely native-flavored name; here she is with my daughter.

Girls at Tanu

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/200 sec at f/1.8, ISO 200

The Haida story, like that of darker-skinned aboriginal peoples wherever my pale ancestors showed up, is pretty sad: Disease, oppression, proselytization, expropriation. I’ve heard it said, by white urbanites like me, that today the Haida nation is generally better off than many other First Nations; but don’t take my word for it.

Here’s part of the old village site; house beams under that moss. Because of the mass smallpox grave, some of the Haida Watchmen don’t like to work here; there are ghost stories. Bill Reid’s family requests that his grave not be photographed, but it’s a fine, modest, unassuming piece of work.

Part of the Tanu village site

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/220 sec at f/5.0, ISO 200

Should you ever visit Tanu (and you should if you get the slightest chance), here’s a tip. Walk down to the right (facing the sea) end of the beach, where there’s a little mossy rise with a few trees.

At the south end of the beach at Tanu

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/105 sec at f/8.0, ISO 200

Even better, take your sweetie along for some private time.

For me the main attraction of Gwaii Haanas is the wonderful, wonderful trees and their forest-floor neighbors. Many of my pictures are about their huge scale, but they’re striking in the small as well. Everything has moss on it.

Mossy tree at Tanu

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/80 sec at f/4.0, ISO 200

I’ll sign off with the same picture twice.

Ferns in context

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/200 sec at f/4.0, ISO 200

Ferns in sun

Fuji X-T2, XF35mmF1.4R, 1/60 sec at f/8.0, ISO 500

Really, if you’re anywhere near the top left corner of the New World you should go visit Haida Gwaii. Next time out I’ll explain how.

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FaviconJag Diary 3: What We Know 7 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

Between June 4th, when the first wave of reviews of the New Jag hit (offically the I-PACE, what a dumb name) and the time the salesman called me saying “Time to sign the order if you want to be in the first wave”, I had to decide whether to spend a lot of money on a car I’d never seen or touched. So I paid damn close attention to those reviews. I’m a critical reader, and suspicious about the motives of product reviewers, and I think the picture that emerges is pretty clear. This post is to enumerate what I think it’s possible to know for sure about the car without having owned or even driven one.

I’ll throw in a bunch of links down at the bottom to reviews that I think are particularly useful.

Facts

  • The story starts in 2014, when Jag leadership decided to go all-in on a from-scratch electric model. They put an integrated development team all in one room at the University of Warwick — not exactly traditional auto-biz practice — and eventually brought the new car from nothing to market in “only” four years, which is considered very good in that industry.

  • It has two motors, one wrapped round each axle, with the space between full of battery, then the cabin perched on top. At moderate speeds, only the back wheels drive.

Underneath
  • It’s almost all aluminium and, despite that, is still super-heavy (2100kg), mostly because of the battery.

  • I’m not going to recite horsepower and torque numbers that I don’t understand, but people who do understand them sound impressed.

  • I don’t understand charging issues well enough to have an intelligent opinion, but Seth Weintraub does, and his review is full of useful detail. Tl;dr: The range is competitive with other high-end electrics.

  • It doesn’t have gears as such, just buttons: P, N, R, D. The North American edition comes only with air suspension, and has a thing where you can elevate the car for a tricky driveway or rutted gravel, and it settles down automatically at high speeds. I gather the Euro model can be bought with springs.

  • Another difference: The Euro model comes with either a standard or glass roof; in the New World it’s all-glass all the time. Personally, I’d prefer a layer of metal between me and the sun, but they claim it’s sufficiently shaded and UV-impervious.

  • Electrics are super quiet inside so, if you want, the Jag will play you a spaceship-y acceleration sound that changes with the speed. Fortunately it’s optional; although one of the journos who took it out on the racetrack said he found it useful in situations where you don’t have time to look at the speedometer.

  • There’s a screen behind the steering wheel where you can display speed and charge and maps and so on. Front center, there’s a biggish (but not Tesla size) screen above for Infotainment, and a smaller one below for climate control. On the subject of climate control, the console has a couple of actual physical knobs for that.

Black interior White interior
  • It’s got a fair-size trunk at the back (the back seats fold down 60/40) and a tiny one under the front hood; someone suggested it was just big enough to carry your cat.

  • As with most electrics, you can do one-pedal driving, where easing off the accelerator goes into regeneration mode and provides enough breaking for all but exceptional circumstances.

  • You can actually take it off-road, up and down stupidly steep hills, through really deep puddles, and so on: The “LR” part of JLR is Land Rover, and that part of the company knows something about those things.

  • There’s plenty of room inside for four big adults. The person in the middle of the back seat should be on the small side.

  • Nobody has seen either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto at work, but the company claims that both will be supported. My own Jag dealer said he’d heard that they’d done the technology work were just doing licensing and payment.

  • It has a SIM slot and over-the-air software update.

  • You can equip it with a tow-bar and bike-rack and roof-rack.

  • It’s built, not by JLR themselves, but by Magna Steyr, a contract manufacturer in Graz, Austria, that also builds the Mercedes G-Class and BMW 5 Series.

Things that are good

  • Everyone agrees that it’s a blast to drive. What’s interesting is that the most common comment was “feels just like a Tesla”. The Top Gear scribe pointed out, in a melancholy tone, that apparently all electric motors feel more or less like all others. This is a big change from the days of internal-combustion engines, which have all sorts of personality. It’s fast, maneuverable, and comfortable.

  • The one-pedal driving mode takes a bit of getting used to but all the journos ended up loving it, and assuming that pretty everyone would use it all the time.

  • The seats are said to be super-comfortable.

  • It has all the bells and whistles and technology gadgets anyone could want.

  • The cabin has all sorts of storage space in bins here and there and under the back seats and so on.

  • It has more than enough range for people who drive around town and then occasionally go 200+ km for business.

Things that are not so good

  • If you’re a road warrior, Jag doesn’t have anything to compete with Tesla’s supercharger network. I’ve started poking around PlugShare and ChargePoint and so on, and I think you could manage road trips, but it’s not going to be as slick as with a Tesla. Perhaps this situation will improve?

    Me, I have a carport on the back alley and I’ll put in a charger and I should be fine.

  • The infotainment system is slow and laggy, and some important settings are deeply nested into the menus. Android Auto is my answer to that.

  • The storage space isn’t that well-organized and it’s not obvious where to stow the charging cables.

  • The fifth person in the car is going to be kind of cramped.

  • Visibility out the back window is lousy, with big rear posts getting in the way.

  • The brake pedal tries to combine regenerative and friction braking and as a result is said to feel soft and weird.

  • The air-suspension ride has been reported as feeling a bit jittery and unstable at low/moderate speeds.

  • The center console crowds the driver’s leg a bit; more of a problem in left-hand drive vehicles, obviously.

My conclusion

What happened was, when the first buzz of publicity hit in March I was interested enough to drop by Vancouver Jaguar and talk to Caleb Kwok, the sales manager. He’s a plausible guy, responsive to email, and anyhow, he convinced me to put down a refundable deposit, buying me a place near the front of the line at the time actual orders would open up. Which turned out to be last week.

By which time I’d read all the material summarized in this piece. On balance, I liked what I heard; the pluses were pretty big and none of the minuses bothered me that much. Remember, the longest trip I normally take is 230km to Seattle, where I park for a couple of days then drive home.

So I signed on the dotted line, and my deposit is no longer refundable.

The big worry, of course, is reliability and manufacturing quality. Jaguar, at various times in its history, has had a miserable reputation. Of one famous model, they used to say “It’s a great car, so buy two, because one will always be in the shop.” It’s worse than that; Jag at one point had a particularly stinky track record around electrical systems.

But there are stats suggesting Jag’s doing better in recent years. And then there’s the fact that it’s being built in a plant where they also make Mercedes and BMW. Granted, I’m taking a chance here.

Helpful reviews

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FaviconJag Diary 2: “T-K” 6 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

Apparently Jaguar committed to developing a serious electric car back in 2014, which was a brave move at that point. Obviously, this wouldn’t have happened, nor would the upcoming Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), if Tesla hadn’t proved that these things can be built and people want to buy them. Now, suppose you had the job of marketing this new thing to the world; how would you start?

Launching

The I-PACE (Reminder: Dumb name, hereinafter referred to as “the Jag”) launched in early March 2018 at the Geneva Motor Show. They set up a sort of little go-kart track in a parking lot outside the show, with cones you had to drive around, whose tips illuminated in an unpredictable pattern. Sort of a “follow the flashing lights” course. Of course, in a parking lot the car couldn’t go very fast, or very far, and eveyone only got a couple of minutes. But more or less every single journo or car geek who got that two-minute experience then went and wrote a couple of hundred words about it, and/or posted video.

Going downhill Splash!

Not a Geneva parking lot. Explanation below.

As they did so, the big themes in the marketing campaign started to emerge. Put yourself, for a moment, in the position of a JLR marketing leader, planning the pitch to the world. Protip: The world’s attention span is really, really short. So every good marketeer knows that no matter how many great things there are about your product, there has to be one flagship message that grabs attention, is easy to understand, that people like, and will motivate them to sample the story you’re trying to tell.

So, if you were that JLR exec, what would your key message be? “Venerable British builder leaps into the future with high-tech product!” Not bad; Hardly anyone’s ever driven a Jaguar, but most people have the notion that it’s sort of classy. How about “Electric car that looks great and goes fast!” This has the advantage of being true, but really not newsworthy. Everyone knows someone who drives a Leaf or a Bolt, and if you’re in high tech, a Tesla.

The hook

Well, let’s skip over a bunch of other plausible concepts and zero in on where Jaguar actually went, and where it went was with only two words: “Tesla Killer”. Yes! Newsworthy, involves colorful personalities, and everyone loves to watch a fight.

Hold on, hold on! As far as I know, nobody from Jaguar has ever uttered those words. They didn’t have to, because in parallel with the Geneva Motor Show launch, they released this video: The Jag vs the X type in a drag race! Now, you might suspect that the video wasn’t totally one thousand percent fair, and you might be right; here’s a riposte video in which Tesla does better.

Boy, did it ever work. Later on in the year, when the journos got to drive the Jag at length and write about it, basically every review used the phrase “Tesla Killer”. It’s a really stupid phrase so let’s just say “T-K”.

To be clear: As almost every one of those journos concluded, the notion that the Jag is a T-K is idiotic. To start with, it doesn’t really compete directly. It’s an SUV form factor, while the S class is a saloon. It’s smaller and cheaper than the X class. The aesthetics, particularly of the interior, couldn’t possibly be more different. And most apparent, the biggest problem with high-end electric cars is making enough of them: Demand exceeds supply.

But it didn’t matter. T-K was a phrase any journalist could hang a review on, and very few were strong enough to resist the temptation, and it’s not as though that was dumb: It’s a phrase that’s going to get a lot of people to raise their eyebrows and click on that link.

Booze & Schmooze

The next phase of the marketing campaign involved a place called Faro, at the southern tip of Portugal. What Jaguar did was take a huge number of journalists and social-media hacks from around the world, twenty at a time, and fly them into Faro for two days each of schmoozing, boozing, and cruising. They got to take the cars through the narrow Portuguese country and town roads, then along the course of a running stream, then up a ridiculously steep dirt road (see, it’s a Sports Utility Vehicle, right?) (see pix above), and then a few laps of a well-regarded, technically-challenging race track.

An important subtext, which I’m pretty sure nobody from Jag ever uttered, but plenty of the scribes took up anyhow, was: “Teslas can’t do this.” Can they? I don’t know myself, but a lot of pretty seasoned auto writers were willing to say just that in their write-ups.

Amazingly, after visiting the T-K meme (usually dismissively, give ’em credit), they all enthused about JLR letting them loose to drive up mountains and down stream-beds and around a race-track. Some, but not all, of the journalists disclosed the free travel and entertainment; one explained cheerily that “It’s cheaper to ship the journalists to the cars than the cars to the journalists.”

Well yeah, but it’s not cheap. My mind boggles at the scale of the stage-managing: Keeping all those cars cleaned, charged, and ready to go at all times. Especially given that I suspect both the Faro infrastructure and the pre-production Jags were a bit sketchy. Anyhow, the deal was that all the write-ups were embargoed until June 4th. Which meant that any publication anywhere in the world that writes about cars had a Jag story in the first half of June. Did you notice the new Jag’s existence around then? Not a coincidence.

I read a lot of these stories, and pretty well discounted all of those that failed to disclose the schmoozing or to find any faults with the car. After which, I freely admit, I was impressed not only with the awesome marketing execution, but with the car.

The long haul

I suppose JLR’s marketing group isn’t exactly standing down now, but their first job is done: They got the car into the conversation. At this point it’s over to the dealer network, regular old advertising, the big serious reviews by serious auto geeks, and whether people are willing to pay serious money (but less than a Tesla) for what seems to be a pretty decent electric SUV.

A trailing note: For a while there, I was watching the conversation curl round the Net, and once the T-K meme became established, it got to a weird place: the Tesla-long vs Tesla-short battleground. Oh my goodness gracious me, is that ever some heavy trolling, both sides. Internet shitheads are everywhere.

Next

I think the nature of the Jag, its strengths and weaknesses, is pretty clear today, based on what’s been published. Clear enough that I converted my refundable deposit into the real thing and am now waiting for one. Next time, I’ll try to distill the highlights and lowlights into a few hundred words.

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FaviconJaguar Diary 5 Jul 2018, 3:00 pm

On Wednesday, I signed an order for a 2019 Jaguar I-PACE, to be delivered in the late autumn. For those who don’t follow the electric-car scene, this is a brand-new no-petroleum product with range and performance in the same range as a Tesla S or X. Since electric cars interest geeks and greens — both over-represented in my readership — and since the Jag is a new thing and contains a lot of technology, I thought I’d do a diary-and-notes series on the car and the experience of getting into the electric-driving space.

Jaguar I-PACE

The configuration I ordered. The picture is kind of fuzzy
because it’s a screen grab from Jaguar’s VR configurator.

Why electric in 2018?

I think we can all agree that we’d like our autos to be as spacious, comfortable, green, and fast as possible within our budget constraints. As of now, electrics are at least as spacious, comfortable, and fast as ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars, but more expensive. They’re greener because, obviously, they don’t burn petroleum distillates.

But the green part isn’t a slam-dunk. An automobile’s carbon load falls into the manufacturing bucket and the running bucket, and these often end up being roughly comparable over the lifetime of the car. So the green thing to do is to keep your car on the road for a long time, and thus inflict the manufacturing carbon on the environment as rarely as possible. Since, at the moment, our family cars average well over ten years in age and both are over-powered gas guzzlers, the green trade-off is OK.

But wait! If you’re living in a place where the electricity is coal-generated, it’s not obvious that exiting petrol lowers your carbon load. Once again, since we’re in the Pacific Northwest where the power is mostly hydroelectric, the greenness accounting looks good.

When I say the accounting is OK, does this mean I've done a detailed quantitative drill-down on the tons of CO2 that are getting into the atmosphere as the consequence of my actions? Nope. Just that the story, in this case, doesn’t suffer from any glaring implausibilities.

Why Jaguar?

My electric-car shopping has an extra constraint: Since I live in Vancouver and work for Amazon, anything I buy has to be able to take me to Seattle (226km), no doubt allowed whatsoever that it’ll get there on a charge. Up until recently, that meant Tesla. While I admire Tesla’s boldness and engineering skill, I find the cars, as design statements, blankly cautious. Model 3’s have started appearing in my neighborhood and they’re just hideous inside. Also, Teslas seem overpriced. Also, every geek I know who’s inclined to electric already has one. Also, I’ve enriched enough Paypal founders already.

The picture improved a bit with the recent arrival of the Chevy Bolt, which seems like a nice practical little car. On the other hand, reviewers say that many people find the seats violently uncomfortable.

Now, the I-PACE… aargh, that dorky all-caps name hurts my brain; from here on in I’ll just say “the Jag”. Its range and performance are similar to a Tesla S or X. I think it looks way cooler. It’s significantly cheaper, too. There’s a console with knobs you can spin and a data-rich dashboard behind the wheel. I’ll do another post digging deep into the car, which I’ve been researching pretty extensively.

Why now?

That’s a good question. Both of our 10-plus-year-old vehicles still run OK (although I don’t trust the one I usually drive enough for the Seattle trip). Buying an electric car now creates the same kind of fear you got buying a PC in the Nineties: If I wait six months, will there be something better?

Except that here’s where emotion enters into it. I’ve wanted an electric for a few years now, and have been frustrated that on my internal Venn diagram, the “I like it” circle didn’t intersect the “Can reach Seattle” circle. Second, when I was a little kid growing up in the Sixties, the Jaguars were the most beautiful cars in the world. I wasn’t car-centric then and I’m still not now, but I can remember thinking “Wow, that’s a great-looking car. When I grow up, I’m going to have a Jaguar!”

Well, I’m grown up. More than that, I’m getting kind of old. Who knows if there’ll be a tomorrow? I don’t feel like waiting, I feel like driving a great-looking super-fast electric Jag. So I put down a refundable deposit when the I-PACE news broke in March, signed the paperwork this week, and got an order number.

Next

First, the product launch was a marketing masterpiece, worth covering. Next, I’ll write what we know so far about the car. Then, I’ll offer opinions about how to order. I think electric-car politics are worth a few words too. Also, I’ve started to find out about the e-vehicle owner subculture that’s springing up. Then eventually later this year, I’ll report on actually owning the thing.

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