Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2024

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April 1, 2024

That's Googol.

Not Google.

Many of you know what Googol is, but for those who don't, "Googol" is a mathematical term for 10100. That's 1, followed by 100 zeroes, or 10,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000. The term was coined in 1920 by 9-year-old Milton Sirotta, nephew of U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner [Thank you, Wikipedia.] as a word for an unimaginably big number. That's a big number. That's a really big number.

Well, just how big is a googol?

That question arose one evening around the dinner table during a visit to my parents sometime around 1980. My dad was, like me, an engineer. He was born in the Soviet Union, and came to this country in the early 30s with a high-school knowledge of English, and graduated college with an engineering degree 5 years later. I don't remember how the subject came up in unstructured dinner conversation, but there it was, and we two engineers commenced to pondering the question. How big is a googol?

Well, are there a googol grains of sand on the Earth? That might be a good place to start. How many grains of sand are there on the Earth? That's an easy question for an engineer to answer. We start with an engineering approximation. We postulate a spherical shell the diameter of the Earth and 10 miles thick, and fill it with cubical sand grains, 0.01 inches on a side. Find the volume of that shell, and divide that by the volume the sand grain, and hey, presto, that's the number of grains of sand on the Earth. At least within an order of magnitude or three.

OK, what's the volume of that cubical grain of sand? Easy. .01" x .01" x .01", or 0.0000001 cubic inches.

What's the volume of that spherical shell? Easy. It's the surface area of a sphere the diameter of the Earth times the 10 mile thickness of the shell. OK, the diameter of the Earth is roughly 8,000 miles, so its surface area is...? What's the formula for the surface of a sphere? Neither my dad nor I could remember. We both remembered that the volume of a sphere is 4/3Πr3, but what's the surface area? All my old textbooks were at home. All his old textbooks were at work. And of course all this was way before Google, where one might look it up. We were stuck.

So, my dad says, "Let's derive the formula." So we both sat down at the table with pencil and paper and my 10-year-old memories of calculus, and his 40-year-old memories of calculus, and set to work. And he figured it out, and I couldn't.

The old man went up a few more notches in my estimation that night.

In case you're interested, the surface area of a sphere is 4Πr2, where r is the radius of the sphere. That calculates out to 1.3 x 1010 grains of sand on the Earth. So it would take 7.700,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000 Earths to hold a googol grains of sand.

Yep. A googol is a really big number.

March 7, 2024
Artificial Stupidity

It's all over the news. It's all over the Internet. It's all I hear. Artificial Intelligence. It'll make our lives so much easier. It'll put us all out of work. We'll all be able to write like Hemmingway and paint like DaVinci and sing like Caruso, and replace Abraham Lincoln's head with Donald Trump's ass on Mount Rushmore. It's already invaded my iPhone. When I start my car, and Google Maps lights up on the dashboard display, suddenly my car knows where I'm going. It's learned that if it's Friday late afternoon, and I'm in my car, I'm headed to the Troubadour Concert Series. It lights up with the address of the Troubadour all programmed into the app, waiting for me to press the"Go" button, smugly proud of how smart it is.

Well if it's so bloody smart, how come it can't figure out that if go there every Friday, maybe I don't need the friggin' map to tell me how to get there???

Does anybody know how to turn off this helpful "feature"?

Post Script, March 17:
Well, we have a new wrinkle on this issue. Yesterday, I was on my way to go dancing, when I stopped and parked the car near my local pizzaria to grab a couple of slices. Inside the restaurant, I had the occasion to use my phone. When I turned it on, it showed me a notification from Google Maps: "You've parked your car. We have marked its location on Google Maps."

Actually, although it feels sort of creepy, I don't mind that one. There have been times when I've parked in a big lot in a mall when I've had trouble finding it again. There was one incident sometime in the 90s when I visited the New York Subway Museum in Brooklyn, and had a hell of a time trying to find a parking spot. I finally found a spot and went to the museum. When I came out, I didn't remember where I had parked, and combed the streets in the neighborhood for over an hour, looking for it. I finally took a bus home, and waited for the police to tow it away and notify me. I could have used a little artificial intelligence then to supplement my own.

March 4, 2024
More on the Prius

I'm sorry if this Blog seems to be degenerating into a treatise on the Prius, but that's what seems to be occupying my mind these days.

I actually have some hard figures, which surprised me, and may surprise you. I bought a wattmeter. Not too expensive. Somewhere in the region of $20. You plug it in the wall, and then plug the device whose energy consumption you wish to measure into the meter. It has one mode where it measures accumulated kilowatt-hours (KWH), and will continue to count them until reset. I started measuring at the beginning of last week, and continued until Saturday, doing virtually all my driving in electric mode. Over that time period, I accumulated 51.1 miles, using 31.1 KWH. My electric bill says that my rate is $0.18 per KWH. That comes out to 11 cents per mile.

On a long trip I took in January, which was almost entirely done in hybrid mode, I drove 375 miles, using 9.41 gallons of gas, which came to 41.0 MPG That cost me $33.41, which calculates out to 9 cents per mile.

So, it’s actually more expensive for me to run on electricity than on gas!

There are a couple of mitigating factors, however.

  • The long trip was largely traveled at high speed. 70 - 80 MPH, which definitely lowers the gas mileage.
  • My driving over the past week in electric mode was all done with outside temperatures somewhere in the 20s. That meant I was using the cabin heater, the seat heater, and the steering-wheel heater, all of which use electricity, which would lower my miles-per- KWH number. Not only which, but the battery is less efficient at cold temperatures. We'll see how this comparison fares, as the temperature warms up with spring's arrival.
  • This one's the biggie. I purchase my electricity from Green Mountain Energy, which is all from renewables. If I were to switch back to regular JCP&L as my supplier, which uses fossil fuels to generate electricity, the cost would be $0.09 per KWH, half the cost of renewable electricity generation. I may be a sucker, but I’m sticking with renewables.

February 8, 2024
Prius Impressions and Adventures

Well, I've had my new Prius for three weeks now. I've owned 11 cars in my life, and I don't think any one of them has been such a different experience from the previous one as much as the Prius. (With the possible exception of going from my first car, a six year old 1963 VW Bus to my second one, a new Opel.) So having had the opportunity to take two long trips in addition to local driving, and put over 1,300 miles on it now, I thought I'd give you some first impressions, and relate some minor adventures I've had with it. First, the impressions

  • This is the first car I've owned with an automatic transmission. I've always found the stick-shift to add entertainment to driving, and I miss it. I still find myself reaching for the clutch as I come to a stop. Also, the sound is different. When the gas engine is engaged (Remember, the Prius is a hybrid with both gas and electric engines), the RPM of the engine is no longer tied directly to the speed of the car, because the transmission is variable ratio, controlled by the car's computer. It often sounds like it's revving faster than it ought to, and I keep wanting to upshift. It's not a big thing, but it's there in the back of my mind, and it bothers me. I'll get over it, I imagine.
  • After 20 years of driving Mini-Coopers (four of them) the Prius seems way too big. I have to pull out too far into an intersection to see cross traffic. I keep heading for parking places that I'll never fit into. (Check out this space into which I put the Mini. On my first attempt!)
  • The car is much more powerful than anything else I've ever owned. I would call my driving style "politely aggressive". On the highway, I will set the cruise control to my desired speed, whether that be the posted limit, or 20 MPH above that limit, while keeping to the right-most lane possible to do that, and maintaining a safe distance from the car in front of me. So I change lanes a lot, but will do so only if it does not discommodate other drivers. That means I sometimes have to accelerate in order to insert myself into a reasonably sized hole in the traffic of an adjacent lane. When I call for acceleration, the Prius delivers it in bounteous quantities, even at highway speeds.
  • I'm still trying to suss out the car's algorithm for when it runs the gas engine, and when it relies on the electric. It has two "modes" EV (Electric Vehicle), and Hybrid. Ostensibly, the EV mode is for local trips around town, when it will run on the electric motor, which can be recharged by plugging it in at home at a cost saving over buying gasoline. But if the battery charge drops to a point where it will not provide enough power, the gas engine kicks in. In Hybrid mode the gas engine kicks in whenever the computer's algorithm thinks it necessary. Sometimes the battery charge hovers around 2/3 when running in hybrid mode, sometimes it let's the battery get almost completely discharged. I think it depends upon how much charge was in the battery when I started the trip, but I'm not sure. And then there's Auto mode where the gas engine kicks in by some other algorithm. I don't know when to use Auto and when to use Hybrid. It's all very confusing.
  • The small rear window, large rear roof pillars, and rear seat headrests make for rather poor rear visibility in the mirror. The rear video camera helps, but it's not operational while driving forwards. I've folded the rear seatbacks forward as the default condition.
  • There are all sorts of "safety" features I can turn on or off as desired. It can warn me if I'm drifting out of my lane, or if there's another vehicle in my blind spot, or if there's cross traffic approaching the intersection, or if I'm parked and open the door when there's another car coming, or if it thinks I'm not paying attention to my driving, or if it thinks I need to stop and take a coffee break, and lord knows what-all else. All the controls for these safety features are buried in menus I need to sort through, and are identified by acronyms and icons that are equally incomprehensible in all languages. And while I'm trying to figure out what the hell "PCS" or "LTA" or "FCTA" means, I'm liable to drive straight into a tree.
  • With all the cameras and sensors and radar and lidar and poison gas sniffers, for all I know, necessary to provide input to all the "safety features, there is that much more to fail on the car, and would make any minor body damage a really expensive proposition to repair.
  • The car is very comfortable to drive for long distances, but somewhat cramped and confining for other activities, like trying to retrieve something from the back seat. And there are some surprising ergonometric lapses. Like most new cars these days, there are many buttons and feature controls located on the steering wheel. But those buttons are all flush with the surface, and not identifiable by feel, which means I need to take my eyes off the road in order to find them. There's one panel of buttons on the dash located directly behind the directional signal lever, rendering them invisible. Many of the buttons are lighted, but the ones controlling the interior lights of the cabin are not. Hey, you interior design geniuses: Did you ever stop to think that I generally want to turn on the interior lights when it's too dark to find the light switch.
  • There is a very large (12 inches wide) LCD screen that essentially duplicates the functions of my smart phone. That's very nice, especially since it can serve as a GPS screen. However, it is, like my smart phone, a touch-screen. Anyone who puts a touch-screen in a vehicle deserves to be shot. (The Mini also had a nice screen display for GPS, but its controls were handled by a joystick-type knob on the center console, which I could use without looking at it.)
  • I've only had to refill the gas tank twice since buying it, and only recorded my gas mileage once. It was a somewhat disappointing 41 MPG, but most of that was used on a trip to Vermont to visit Jenny, where much of it was at 75 - 80 MPH. I know that hybrids do better in around-town local driving than highway driving, but I was expecting better. I guess that's my problem, and not the car's.
  • There are all sorts of things I have to remember to do, like unplugging the car, or putting my phone in the handy inductive charger pocket before I drive off. (And taking the phone out of the charger before leaving the car.) I'll get used to that. Eventually. I hope.
  • The car doesn't come with a spare tire. Not even a "donut" emergency spare. No room in the trunk due to the large battery for the electric motor. There's an "emergency" puncture sealer kit in the form of a pressurized can of air and gunk that's supposed to seal a puncture and hold pressure in the tire. I wouldn't trust it to seal anything bigger than a nail puncture, and wonder if the tire would be usable after using the emergency kit.
  • So all in all, a mixed review, but mostly positive. Now for some of the adventures I've had in the car.

    On the aforementioned drive up to Vermont, I nearly christened the car with its first speeding ticket. I left NJ around 9:30 Friday evening to arrive at Jenny’s at zero-dark-thirty. On I-91 in Massachusetts close to the Vermont border, I was cruising at 80, pretty much the same as what the rest of the sparse traffic was doing, when I saw the blue lights in my mirror. I performed my usual interaction with highway cops by rolling over on my back with all four paws in the air, and greeting the nice state coppette with polite respect and documents in hand. She told me my infraction was not so much that I was speeding, but that I went through a construction zone without slowing. She wound up giving me a warning, for which I thanked her. It made sense. Obviously there was no actual construction occurring at the time if the incident.

    The following weekend, I had a couple of gigs, in Massachusetts. During the day on Saturday before the gig, I drove out to visit the Fredrick Law Olmsted House National Historic Place. I was stopped at a red light, when CRUNCH! I was hit from behind by another driver. Less than a thousand miles on the car. We both pulled over, and the other driver admitted full responsibility. We got out to inspect the damage. There was none. It sure sounded worse than what it turned out to be. Not a mark on either car, and my rear hatch opened and closed with no complaint. We did exchange contact information, and I took a photo, but I don't expect any repercussions. We both got lucky.

    January 17, 2024
    Bye-Bye Mini, Hello Prius

    Click on photo for full-screen view.

    On Christmas Eve last year, it rained. Boy, did it rain! They said it would rain, and they were right. That's OK. Been there and done that. I've been living on the banks of the Rockaway River (and, on occasion, within the banks of the Rockaway River) since 1980, and I've learned to see it coming, and to deal with it. For those of you new to this Blog, take a look at some pretty impressive photos of the worst flood I've experienced in 2011.when Hurricane Irene hit. Even then, the water never got into the house.

    But it does get into my garage, which occupies the entire first storey, a few times a year. That's still easily dealt with, as that garage came into being when I raised the house after the first, and only time I got water in the house in 1980 or so, and was constructed to be undamaged by floods. The water comes up, and then goes down after a few days. The garage floor is at ground level, so the water doesn't collect. It just drains out. I give it a few days, and then hose the floor down, and sweep out the collected dirt when it dries. All better. All the electrical wiring and other stuff that might be damaged by water was deliberately mounted high on the walls. I move anything portable susceptible to water damage off the floor, and take the car out to the head of the driveway, and out of harm's reach. Takes me all of ten minutes.

    So that's what I did. My new electric lawn mower I lifted up onto a table, and I moved the car out to the driveway, and I was all set. Or so I thought.

    I have three levels of floods: Boots, Chest-Waders, and Canoe. Well this one was Canoe. Christmas morning I woke up, looked out the window, and found myself completely surrounded by water, which was lapping at the rear bumper of my Mini Cooper all the way out at the head of the driveway, and still rising. Slowly. I knew it was too deep for the waders. I keep my canoe stored on home-made davits off my 2nd floor deck (As shown in the photo above.), so I uprighted it, lowered it into the water, and paddled out to the road. I saw that the water had not yet gotten into the cabin, so I got in, and drove it to my neighbor's driveway across the street. I paddled back home and spent the day doing household stuff. (There was COVID in the home of the friends with whom I was to scheduled have Christmas dinner, so I had no other plans.)

    The next day I was able to get out in my waders. I sloshed out to the car to bring it back into my own driveway. It was only then I noticed that the sun roof was open. That's weird. Why would I have opened the sun roof in a torrential rainstorm? Then I saw the glass shards on the passenger seat. Oh. The sun roof wasn't open. It was smashed. And then I saw the tree branch amidst the glass shards. Apparently what I had done was to take the car out of the garage to prevent it from being flooded, and put it under a tree with a rotten limb, which broke off in the wind, and landed on my sun roof. Ya can't win!. I called my insurance company, and took the car out to a body shop to be repaired.

    Bottom line: when the sun roof got shattered, it opened the cabin to torrents of rain, which soaked the interior, and dripped into the electronics under the floor, and did so much damage that the car was totaled. I was in the market for a new car. I had driven Mini Coopers since 2003, and I really liked the car. But I was always disappointed with the Mini's gas mileage, which generally averaged in the mid-30 MPG range. And I figured it was time to get something that used less fossil fuel. I wasn't quite ready for an all electric vehicle; there simply aren't enough public recharging stations around the country yet. So I settled on a Prius Prime. That's a "plug-in" hybrid that can be charged at home overnight from a regular 120 volt outlet, and gives about a 30-mile range on battery only before the gas engine kicks in. I ordered it the very next day, and I picked it up yesterday. Drove it home through the slush and snow that shows on the photo above.

    And to add minor injury to major injury, the table wasn't high enough, and the new lawn mower was inundated too, and had to be replaced.

    I'm not fully satisfied with the new car. I really liked the Mini, and was very used to it. The Prius feels way too big. The rear visibility is somewhat restrictive, the controls on the Prius are complicated and require a 2 credit college course to master, and I really miss the manual transmission on the Mini. I'll get used to it in time, I suppose, and will look back on my Minis with fond nostalgia.

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