Memories of my Brother

My brother, William Randy Rainwater, died 8 Feb 2019 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. His death resulted in a lot of reminiscing about him and I thought I’d write down a few memories while they were on my mind.

I grew up in a family with five children. Randy was the oldest and I was youngest, so there was quite an age gap between us. In my early years, I just thought he was another adult who lived in the house. And I think he, as an early teen, didn’t really want to hang out with a pre-schooler, so we barely knew each other. Randy started college in Illinois around the time my family moved to Irving, Texas. I started first grade that year. At the end of Randy’s freshman year, he also moved to Irving and lived at home again while completing his education at UTA in Arlington. My Dad converted our garage into an additional bedroom for Randy, complete with the cheesy fake wood paneling that was popular in the 1970s. In the early days in Irving, my only distinct memories of Randy are from Christmas and other holidays. But by the time I started middle school, Randy and I began to get to know each for the first time. I suppose the age difference seemed less significant as I got older.

Randy, my dad, and I at the first Christmas in the Irving, Texas house.

I remember being fascinated by, and a little envious of, Randy’s garage bedroom. It was on the other side of the house from my parents’ bedroom and had a lock on the door. The idea of locking the door and keeping the parents at bay while talking to friends on the phone or doing whatever you wanted seemed very utopian to me. Randy’s room was always a mess but it was interesting mess.

Randy goofing off in his room with a plastic bubble wrap bag on his head

One day when I visited his garage room, he had dozens of two foot long wooden dowels and was cutting plastic tubing into little 3 or 4 inch sections. He was going to build a geodesic dome, he said. He was using the plastic tubing to connect dowels together two at time. Then he took three pairs of dowels and put a bolt through the plastic tubes in the center, forming the vertices of the six triangles that make up a hexagon. His plan was to then assemble all the hexagons into a dome. I don’t think he ever got that far though. Eventually all the components vanished from his room (years later I rediscovered the partially assembled dome pieces in our attic).

Another time, there were electronics parts scattered all over the carpeted floor of his room: discrete LEDs in red, yellow, orange, and green, some 7 segment LED numeric displays, ICs, and a 45 degree angle joint of 4 inch PVC pipe. Randy said he was going to build a digital clock and use the pipe joint as the case. He was going to cut a red plastic bezel to fit one of end of the pipe. We sat around on the floor lighting up LEDs with batteries and I was thoroughly fascinated by it all. The clock never got finished and the parts remained lying in piles in his room for several years; a fate that has met many an electronic hobbyist’s project. I shared his interest in electronics; maybe even picked it up from seeing him work on projects like this.

Not all his projects were abandoned but those two stand out for me because I found both particularly fascinating. Randy was also interested in hi-fi audio equipment and built his own three way speakers in hand-made, stained wood cabinets. He used them with his tube amplifier (this was not a retro thing; at that time tube amps were actually the conventional type of high end audio amplifier). He had some sort of DIY 8-Track tape deck that looked like he’d taken a car 8-Track player and bolted it to a piece of wood with a connected 12V power supply. I enjoyed watching it because you could see all the mechanics of the tape head changing tracks as it played. He also had a reel-to-reel tape deck for recording. And he was particularly proud of a new hi-fi stereo cassette recorder deck that was the latest technology.

He had a pair of microphones for the cassette deck and we spent a lot of time playing with it, recording ourselves or other family members doing dumb things, the sort of things kids today would record as video on their phones and post to YouTube. Back then we thought it was funny to hear your own voice on a recording saying stupid things because it was so novel. He was always looking for unusual sounds to record. Once, when we were having plumbing problems and a plumber had dug up the sewer line in the back yard, he stuck the microphone through a vent hole in one of the pipes and had me flush the upstairs toilet a few times. The result sounded like a recording of a roaring tsunami and we had a lot of fun playing it for people and having them guess what it was.

I remember Randy in those years listened to an eclectic assortment of vinyl records: Al Hirt, The Doors, Henry Mancini, The Moody Blues, any record with soundtrack music from spy movies or tv shows. He was a huge fan of “I Spy” as well as the older James Bond and Matt Helm movies. He also listened to an obscure comedic radio program called Chicken Man about an unlikely super-hero. I and occasionally some other friend or family member would join Randy in his garage bedroom to hear the latest weekly adventure of Chicken Man. Many years later, I ran across someone online who had worked at the radio station where Chicken Man was recorded and I was able to buy a complete set of episodes on cassette tapes that I gave to Randy as a birthday gift.

Randy moved to his own home in Irving after he was out of college but I still saw him fairly regularly. He worked for a succession of computer-related companies and by the time I was a Junior in high school, he was working with a company that made custom energy management systems for large buildings. They had a contract to do an energy management system to control HVAC at the Loews Anatole Hotel that was going to be constructed near downtown Dallas. During the summer of (I think) 1978, Randy talked his company into hiring me to help with the project. It was my first real job and I spent most of that summer on the Anatole construction site wire-wrapping relay control boards (wire-wrapping was an older technology that’s an alternative to soldering). I had a growing interest in photography at that time and, thanks to Randy’s help getting that job, I saved enough money over the summer to buy my first camera; the newly released Canon A1 SLR, and a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Randy then began traveling a lot with the energy management company, to places like San Juan and Germany to work on other hotel energy systems. He stayed for months at a time living in hotels. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he thought living in hotels was the perfect lifestyle because his room was always clean when he got home in the evening and someone else took care of cleaning his clothes. I think he would have lived in hotels the rest of his life if that had been an option. He had to leave behind his beloved red Honda Civic CVCC during his travels and he generously allow me to drive it while he was gone. So I learned to drive a standard thanks to Randy’s red Honda. Every car Randy owned or leased after that little red car was a Honda Civic or Honda Accord. And he always loved telling people about his latest Honda and its gas mileage.

Randy’s First Honda

The other thing that came from Randy’s travels was his own interest in photography. He bought an inexpensive Fujica SLR so he could photograph his travels. That gave us a shared interest, and when he came back to Dallas periodically, we would go out on photo expeditions to take time exposures at night or find new locations from which to shoot the Dallas skyline. He also came along with me to photograph model rocket launches with my geeky high school friends. Our father had been interested in photography in his younger days and once we even talked him into coming along with us on a photo outing; one of the only times I remember any sort of outing with dad and both sons. Randy’s interest in photography waned when his next job didn’t require travel but for several years we had some good adventures.

Randy and myself, posing for a selfie before an evening photo expedition
Randy (standing) and myself (sitting) on a Trinity River levee, shooting the Dallas skyline. Photo was taken by my father
A photo I shot on one of our outings in 1982. Williams Square in Irving under construction

Another thing I remember about Randy is that he would frequently come up with strange phrases and some of them would become “Randyisms” that we heard a dozen times a day for years. For a few years he responded to just about anything you said to him with the phrase “how quaint”. Later it became “what a deal”. Every few years he seemed to replace his stock phrase with a new one.

Once I moved out on my own, I began to see him less often but we’d still get together a couple of times a month for one reason or another. Then, in 1992 when I started my company, NCC, Randy wanted to get in on it and joined the board of directors. He was between jobs, and for a few years, he officed at NCC and we were hanging out together again almost daily. Eventually he moved on to other full-time work.

At some point along the way, Randy realized he was interested in ballet and began taking dance classes, which eventually led to some local dance performances. It also led to him meeting a lot of young, upcoming dancers including, he told us, Brooke Burns. Brooke eventually dropped out of dance due to an injury and tried modeling and acting, where she made the big time as a Baywatch girl. Years later, I was working on a business project with some New York rock-and-rollers and crossed paths with Brooke. Our NY clients were using Las Vegas as a test site for a video networking project we were developing and I was onsite regularly. They had somehow convinced Michael Berk, the creator of Baywatch, to invest in their company. My monthly Vegas trips occasionally involved me hanging out on the fringes of the rich-and-famous crowd with Hollywood and music people. At one such event, where Michael was doing a Baywatch promotion, David Hasselhoff and Brooke Burns turned up. I managed to introduce myself to Brooke and said, “so my brother Randy is always claiming that he knows you from his dance school days in Dallas. Is that true?” She confirmed it, said lots of nice things about Randy, and borrowed my mobile phone to call Randy (he wasn’t home at the time but she left him a long voice mail, which I gather he was very happy about).

Sometime around 2005 or 2006, I don’t recall exactly when, Randy began to notice his hands shaking. It continued for several years and seemed to get worse. Everyone encouraged him to see a doctor but he was afraid of what he’d find out and didn’t want to go. Eventually, as the shaking began to affect his arms and his feet, a business associate insisted he see a doctor. Randy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Because he had waited so long, it was fairly advanced and continued to progress rapidly despite treatment. We later learned he was also suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, which made things worse. He died in February of 2019 and donated his body to UT Southwestern to further research on Parkinson’s Disease and other neural degenerative conditions.

Going Electric: Part 2

Bolt EV Tail Light and Badge

In my previous post, Going Electric: Part 1, I covered how I decided to buy a Chevy Bolt EV and followed the process through signing the order and making the deposit on August 4, 2018. I was told to expect the car in 6 to 8 weeks.

If you order anything these days, it’s trivial to track it. Even the smallest order at Amazon, for example, includes more tracking information than you could need. You can find out whether it’s in stock, packed, shipped, and even see maps of the current location or find out how many stops away the UPS truck is. You can get automated texts and emails at every state of the process. Well, not so when you order a car, at least from GM. They have very limited tracking information. You can contact the dealer and ask them. You can go to the chevy.com website, start a support chat session and after providing phone name, number, email, and street address, you can chat with a person who might be able to get a scrap of information.

Buzz Smith at Classic has partially overcome this problem with a homegrown web page that tracks Bolt EV orders at the dealership. The information comes from their internal dealer connection to the GM network. So starting on August 4, I was checking that page daily for status updates and at first things looked great. The order entered the system on August 6 and my vehicle was assigned a build date of September 3 at GM’s Orion Assembly Plant. Surprisingly, things moved fast at this point and they got started early. The order entered production control on August 16, was “scheduled” on August 21, and the build process started on August 23. By August 31, the car was finished.

One of Several Parking Lots at the Toledo, Ohio Intermodal Facility

On September 1, my Bolt was listed as “in transit to Ohio” and I started getting excited that it was going to arrive sooner than expected. It seems to have arrived in Ohio on September 6. We’re talking here about the intermodal facility in Toledo, Ohio where vehicles from car manufacturers in Detroit are staged for CSX rail shipment all over the country. They arrive on trucks and move through huge parking lot queues to get onto railcars for shipment.

A week later, the status was “Awaiting shipment in Ohio”. Another week later, it was still awaiting shipment. And another week later the same. At the beginning of October, I began to get a little worried and started doing some research. I ran across a news article that said there is an on-going shortage of Autorack railcars for automotive transportation. This article talked about the growing backlogs of cars building up in intermodal facilities and had a chart listing the average time between ordering and arrival at the dealer for a variety of car models. The Bolt EV is on the list at 72-130 days, almost all of which is spent sitting in a parking lot in Ohio.

You may recall around this same time that Elon Musk tweeted several times about going from “production hell” to “delivery logistics hell” on the Tesla Model 3. This was due to the same sort of car carrier shortages afflicting GM’s deliveries of the Bolt EV.

What’s telling here is comparing the response of GM to Telsa. GM did nothing. Telsa, as indicated in the tweets, began putting together their own delivery system including building carriers, buying trucking companies, and securing long-term contracts with other shipping companies. So Tesla Model 3s kept reaching customers and by November were arriving in weeks rather than months. Meanwhile, I continued to check my Bolt EV’s status and it continued to say “Awaiting shipment in Ohio”.

When November arrived, GM kicked off a 0% interest loan deal on Bolt EVs, which was an incentive I had hoped would be available by the time my car arrived. But now I was worried the deal would expire before I could take delivery. I was also working against the clock for the Texas $2500 incentive, which comes from a fixed amount of state funding. Once they’ve used it up there are no more incentive checks. And, of course, the Federal $7500 incentive is not a check but a tax credit, so if I didn’t get the car before Dec 31, it would be another year before I could claim the tax credit. Making my budget work depended on all those incentives.

CSX Train Pulling Autoracks Through Kansas
CC-BY photo credit: Flickr user Tyler Silvest

The first, second, and third weeks of November passed with no change in status. My Bolt was still parked in Toledo. I really didn’t want to miss the 0% financing deal, so I decided to talk to the dealer about making the final purchase before taking delivery. It turned out several of their other Bolt EV buyers were getting a bit desperate too, so Classic had decided to do what GM wouldn’t and hire a transport service. They paid for a conventional auto carrier truck to pick up the Bolt EVs in Toledo and drive them down to Classic Chevrolet. So I visited the dealer on Saturday, Nov 24, signed the contract, made a down payment and traded in my old car. I got the 0% financing deal with a few days to spare. The truck was supposed to arrive in Dallas Tuesday, so I would only need rides to work for a couple of days.

Murphy’s Law was not done with me yet though. Classic confirmed the truck left Toledo loaded with Bolts. They confirmed my Bolt EV’s status was now “In transit to TX”. A few days later the truck arrived but my Bolt was not on it! It took several days to find it. Apparently a rail car to Dallas became available the same day the truck was picking up the Bolts. My Bolt got put on the train rather than the truck. Ohio to Dallas by train takes about two weeks vs two days on a truck. My Bolt was passing through Salem, Il that Saturday, Dec 1. My wife patiently drove me to and from work the next week as we waited on my car’s slow progress along the rail line.

A Section of the Mesquite, TX Intermodal Facility

Saturday, Dec 8, it arrived at the intermodal facility in Mesquite, TX. Rather than wait another week for GM to get it from Mesquite to Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, the dealer scheduled their own truck to pick it up. It took another couple of days to prep the car at the dealer because I had options like black bowties and window tinting. I finally got the call to come pick it up on Thursday, Dec 13, which was coincidentally my birthday. So a grand total of 129 days passed from the day I placed the order until the day I drove it off the lot (one day less than the worst-case prediction in the news article I mentioned earlier).

Susan’s photo of the new Bolt EV the night we picked it up at Classic Chevrolet

I’ve been driving the Bolt EV for a while now, so I’m planning to do one more post on it in the near future; something like a 1000+ mile review.

Going Electric: Part 1

Spoiler Alert, I ended up with a Chevy Bolt EV

I typically buy a new car once a decade after putting 100,000+ miles on the old car. That process was interrupted in October of 2008, when my blue 2002 Acura RSX was stolen. We used half the insurance money as a down payment on Susan’s new Nissan Versa because her car was just hitting the 10 year cycle. I drove her old car for about a year and finally used the other half of the insurance money to buy a slightly used 2009 Pontiac G6 GT that was intended to be temporary. I stretched it out longer than expected, but this year the G6 began exhibiting steadily increasing maintenance costs. So I started thinking about a new car in May of 2018.

This is a tricky time to buy a car if you’re on a ten year cycle because we’re just entering the adoption curve for electric vehicles. In another ten years, nearly all new cars will be electric, so if I buy another ICE vehicle (that’s short for Internal Combustion Engine vehicle), I’ll be stuck with an outdated technology in ten years. There are also persuasive environmental reasons to get an electric vehicle. EVs create less than half the pollution of gas cars, even when taking manufacturing emissions and batteries into account. But being an early adopter carries the risks and price premium associated with a new technology. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy a cheaper ICE vehicle, a hybrid, or make the jump to electric.

Summary of a UCS Study on Gas vs EV Car Pollution

By the time July rolled around, I was ready to start test driving some cars. While Pontiac is extinct, the Chevy Malibu shares a common ancestry with my Pontiac G6 and the 2019 Malibu is available in a hybrid version, so that seemed like a good place to start my search. Cabin noise is one of my personal points of concern with cars, so I installed a noise level app on my Pixel 2 phone and brought it along for comparisons of each car I test drove.

During the process of test driving cars, I stumbled onto Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, TX. It’s huge dealership but it’s also THE place to find the GM hybrid and electric vehicles. They have the hybrid Malibu, the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, and the Chevy Bolt EV. They’re one of the few DFW Chevy dealers likely to have at least one or two of each in stock. Also found at Classic Chevrolet is Buzz Smith, the most knowledgeable person around on Chevy’s electric vehicles. I found out later that people come from all over Texas and even from out of state to buy EVs at Classic because of Buzz. He’s very active online with his own website, My Electric Vehicle Journey, and on various Facebook EV groups. I highly recommend paying him a visit if you’re thinking about an EV.

My first test drive was the Malibu hybrid. It was really nice, quieter than my G6, and if the primary goal was a large luxury sedan that gets great gas mileage, it would be the way to go. Next I drove a Volt hybrid but I didn’t care for it at all. It’s much noisier than my G6 and has a cramped interior. It does get good mileage but not good enough to overcome the drawbacks. I returned a few days later to test drive a Bolt EV. The Bolt was completely silent on surface streets but at highway speeds you get some tire and wind noise. I’d say on the highway it was a little noisier than the Malibu but quieter than my G6.

There was no Tesla Model 3 available in Dallas to test drive but I’d already driven a Tesla Model S P100D. The Chevy Bolt offers a similar, if toned down, driving experience. Once you drive an electric vehicle, it’s hard to go back. It’s so obvious that electric vehicles are the future, even aside from environmental concerns. They accelerate faster, are much quieter, need no trips to the gas station, and need almost no maintenance. They’re expensive now because the battery technology is new and manufacturing volumes are low.  Less expensive and more efficient batteries are coming soon and competition is heating up as GM and other manufacturers play catch-up with Tesla, so expect prices to continue declining.

Did I Mention EVs Have Surprising Acceleration Compared to Gas Cars?

But cheaper cars in the future wouldn’t help me now. I decided I did want to go electric but my choices were fairly limited. Even with state and federal incentives, a new Tesla Model S or X and the BMW i5 or i3 were all out of my price range. I found several used BMW i3s in the $30k ballpark but the limited range and unfavorable reviews convinced me the i3 wasn’t a good idea. There’s the Nissan Leaf but it has a tiny air-cooled battery, very limited range, and didn’t seem at all attractive to me, so it was out. The Tesla Model 3 is awesome but beyond my budget until the fabled $35k version ships. Even stripped of every optional expense, the cheapest Model 3 was around $48k.

That left the Chevy Bolt EV as the only feasible option. It has a 60kWh liquid cooled battery with plenty of range (officially 238 miles but more in the real world). The 2019 model is the third model year, so most of the bugs have been worked out. For example, there were some complaints about the seats being uncomfortable on the 2017 model but the seats in the 2019 that I test drove seemed great. Best of all, I could get the high end “Premier” trim level on the Bolt with leather seats, Bose audio, all the option packages, and still come in $10k less than a stripped-down-to-nothing Tesla Model 3. So, it wasn’t a hard choice. You can find some good reviews of most of the cars I’ve mentioned on YouTube. Here’s one for the Bolt EV.

Review of the Chevy Bolt EV by TheStraightPipes

One downside to buying a Chevy is going through the traditional car-buying process and having to interact with a car salesman, which nobody likes. Tesla has a clear advantage with their simplified, modern approach to buying a car. I’m terrible at negotiating – the haggling process seems arcane and inefficient to me. So when I was ready to get serious about buying the Bolt, I thought I’d start the process with a visit to cars.com. You can configure your desired car and then get some numbers for what cars like that have actually sold for in your area. The MSRP for my Bolt EV as configured was $45k. Cars.com showed them selling at prices as low as $39k. And it gave me three local dealer contacts who were supposed to send quotes.

I share Brian’s negotiation skills when it comes to buying cars

The lowest prices seen on cars.com are almost never attainable by mere mortals; they’re usually friend-of-the-owner deals and things like that. So I figured $41-42k was a realistic goal. That’s more than I’ve ever spent on a car in my life! But remember, there’s a $7500 federal tax credit plus a $2500 state cash incentive in Texas, so that would put my real cost at more like $32k. On top of the dealer discount and incentives, people who follow my blog know I’ve been mining Bitcoin for years. I cashed out some bitcoin during the big bubble and allocated part of it towards my car purchase. So, about 25% of purchase price was paid with Bitcoin I mined myself for a few dollars worth of electricity, which seems like a fitting way to pay for an electric car!

Cars.com promised quotes from Classic Chevrolet (Buzz’s dealership, that made sense), Clay Cooley Chevrolet (located a few miles from my home, so that made sense too), and Graff Chevrolet (not even close, no idea why it picked them as one of my three). Graff contacted me first to say they didn’t have any Bolts in stock and didn’t expect to get any but they’d love to sell me a “fuel efficient” car. Thanks but no thanks.

Next I heard from a salesman at Classic who, surprisingly, said about the same things as Graff – “we don’t have any Bolts, how about a gas vehicle?” Since I knew Buzz, at this point I checked in with him. Better news. They didn’t have any 2018s left in stock but were just about to place orders for 2019 Bolts and they’d be happy to order one for me. However, Buzz said because of demand they couldn’t negotiate on price, it would have to be full MSRP. That was a bummer. I was really hoping to buy from Classic since they’d been so helpful in the selection process. I even tried making an offer in hopes this was just a negotiating tactic but it was turned down with no counter-offer.

While I was thinking about what to do next, I got an email from Clay Cooley Chevrolet with a quote of $39k for my Bolt, as configured. This seemed almost suspiciously good but I drove out and talked to a salesman. They seemed way too happy to sell me the car at a surprisingly low price with no negotiation but given that I only had to pay a $500 deposit and could cancel after the car arrived, it seemed risk free. They needed a day to get a quote on my trade-in so that evening I googled for reviews of other’s buyers experiences at Clay Cooley. I found several reviews of people who had gotten really low quotes on ordering a vehicle only to find that the final price was significantly higher after the car arrived. They could pay it or they could cancel and start the process over somewhere else, so it’s not like they were forced to pay the higher price but it still seemed weird. On top of that, Clay Cooley wasn’t a “certified” Bolt dealer, which meant no trained mechanics in the service department.

I gave Buzz at Classic one more try and told him Clay Cooley offered $39k. I asked if they could match it. No, still MSRP and nothing less. The next day, Saturday, I was about to head out to Clay Cooley to make a deposit when I got a call from Jeff in Classic Chevrolet’s Internet Sales Department wanting to follow up on my cars.com experience. I recounted my adventure so far and told them how helpful Buzz had been and how I’d really love to buy from Classic and was even happy paying a bit more but that I wasn’t going to pay MSRP when I knew other people were buying them for less than that. To my surprise, we ended up exchanging a few offers and counter-offers on the phone and I shortly had an emailed offer of $41k. It was still higher than Clay Cooley but based on my experiences so far and the online reviews, Classic seemed like the better choice.

So I drove out to Classic that day, signed the order, and paid a deposit for a white 2019 Bolt EV Premier with Infotainment Package (Bose audio, Sirius/XM, wireless device charger, front and back high power USB charging ports) and the Driver Confidence Package (all the automation – lane departure, pedestrian sensors/braking, automatic hibeams, follow distance sensors, collision detection). Also got the DC Fast Charge option, a set of black Chevy bowties, and window tint. Expected delivery time: 6 to 8 weeks.

So that’s it, right? Why is this called “Going Electric: Part 1” if I’ve bought the car? Trust me, there’s more than enough left of this story for a part 2.
Read Going Electric: Part 2

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia cover art by Mark Harrison

Ecotopia is a utopian novel that’s not as bad as its reputation but not good either.

I’ve read lots of bad reviews of Ecotopia and had several reports from other readers that it’s really awful. As an avid reader of utopian stories, I had to find out for myself. It’s true that Ecotopia is not that good as either a novel or a utopian idea. To be fair, nearly all utopian novels fail to hold up as novels, with the possible exceptions of H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. All of them have the same plot: a character known as the reader’s surrogate winds up in Utopia and wanders around asking “how does this work?” and “how does that work?” Various utopian citizens explain the workings of their society. Eventually the character returns home to deliver the message of how to improve the world. Or, in those novels that want to have an exciting twist ending, the main character may decide to abandon their home and stay in Utopia.

In this story, the reader’s surrogate is Will Weston, a reporter who is the first American allowed to visit Ecotopia, a Utopian nation formed by the secession of Oregon, Washington, and the Northern part of California. The current year is 1999 and the secession happened in 1980. In the intervening 20 years, Ecotopia has turned itself into a 1970’s hippy commune dweller’s idea of Utopia. The main differences I noticed between Ecotopia and other fictional utopias are the amount and variety of sexual activity described and a weird emphasis on the need for random emotional outbursts. Apparently 1970s people thought Americans suffered from a case of pent-up emotions. Ecotopian characters frequently burst into tears or become enraged about seemingly random things, get into fights, and make love with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s the exact opposite of Mr. Spock’s planet, Vulcan, where logic and reason lead to peaceful coexistence.

What holds up well for a 1970s novel:

  • pervasive use of battery powered electric vehicles
  • solar, wind, and geothermal power on a distributed grid system
  • houses and vehicles are individually customized from mass-produced interlocking modules
  • manufactured materials must be either naturally or artificially biodegradable
  • print-on-demand books/newspapers available from vending machines
  • city support systems are stable-state, no build-up of pollutants
  • stable-state agricultural system that balances food production with environment
  • clean air, clean water, natural environment (obvious from the novel’s name!)
  • direct political participation via a nationwide, interactive computer network
  • citizens allowed as much personal and economic freedom as possible
  • universal basic income for all citizens

What doesn’t hold up well

  • emotional outbursts, often leading to violence
  • armed, lethal combat sports (to channel violent tendencies of young males)
  • frequent, unprotected, casual sex with strangers
  • segregated racial “mini-nations” for African-Americans and Asians
  • healthcare system involves lots of sex between patients and providers
  • favorite clothing materials are natural leather and furs – this seems very anachronistic to a modern reader as we’d likely assume California ecological proponents to also be PETA members but back in the 1970s their outlook was more of a Native-American inspired ecological ideal, so the efficient use of animal resources made sense in context.

Young men who take part in the armed combat events shout “It is a good day to die!” when going into battle. This is another Native American inspired element of the book that will likely be lost on modern readers, who are more likely to associate the phrase with Worf, the Klingon character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the end, Ecotopia fails at the most important aspect of a Utopian novel: it doesn’t leave the reader with the feeling that they’d like to visit or even live in the world described. Final verdict: if you’re looking for entertaining novel, you’d be best to avoid the entire genre of Utopian books, that’s not their purpose. If you’re a fan of Utopian novels, this one is readable, moderately entertaining, but unconvincing.

Notes on my Selection of a VPN Provider

Barbed wire fence. Nothing to do with VPNs really but it suggested security to me. I shot this in Deep Ellum with a Canon 40D and Yashica YUS 135mm f2.8 lens. CC by SA 2.0

I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago asking for advice on VPNs after it became clear Net Neutrality rules were likely to be gutted. I’ve been meaning to improve my online security at home anyway and this seemed like a good time. I got a few replies to that post so I thought there might be some interest in which VPN I ended up with…

I narrowed it down to three: NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and TorGuard. I realized I really wanted a dedicated IP so that I could run a server (stuff like a bitcoin node or tor node). That eliminated ExpressVPN because they don’t offer dedicated IPs. I also wanted to pay with bitcoin. Both NordVPN and TorGuard accept bitcoin but NordVPN requires the dedicated IP to be a separate purchase, necessitating two bitcoin transactions and with the tx fees still running over $10 that seemed unappealing. Plus NordVPN has some other issues with their ordering/checkout system that annoyed me like requiring you to provide two email addresses.

So I went with TorGuard. I took advantage of a special offer that’s floating around on the deal sites and got two years of service plus the dedicated IP for $90, or about $3.75 a month. The checkout and bitcoin payment were super easy and fast. I selected a dedicated IP located in LA. Besides my dedicated IP location, I can also use any of 3000 other server locations in 50 countries as my apparent location. I can have 5 simultaneous connections (the dedicated IP eats one of those, leaving 4 and that’s two each for myself and Susan), so enough for home and work or desktop and mobile devices.

They support standard VPN stuff like OpenVPN, so setup on GNU/Linux systems and routers is trivial, they even provided an example conf file for OpenVPN. And they have downloadable software you can use if you’re on an OS like Windows or MacOS where VPN tends to be harder for users to figure out; there are also browser plugins and an Android app for smartphones if you need them.

I had it set up and working pretty quickly. It does increase latency a bit. I get about 30 to 40 ms ping times to google.com over the VPN vs 5 to 6 ms on my direct FIOS connection. But upload/download speeds are the same as always.

The biggest downside to TorGuard is that it’s based in the US so there are some security/privacy threats from the government that wouldn’t be there on NordVPN (Panama) or ExpressVPN (British Virgin Islands). But for preventing my ISP from monitoring or interfering with our activity, it should work fine. And FIOS has to allow VPN usage in work-from-home situations, so this should be a reasonable work-around for any user-side abuses that crop up in the near term.

If you don’t need a dedicated IP, you might want to consider ExpressVPN. Otherwise, I highly recommend TorGuard. Also, if you want to help me out (and if your ad-blocker doesn’t hide it!), use this link to visit TorGuard so I’ll get a referral credit: https://torguard.net/aff.php?aff=3811

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed


This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.