Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

The Problem With Electric Vehicles

Electric Vehicles (EVs) are all the rage these days. They’re wicked fast off the mark, they are nearly silent at low speeds and they are perceived as ‘green’, what better way to make yourself feel good than to get an Electric Vehicle as your next car.

Now, as much as I like ‘greentech’ I see a whole pile of issues with EVs that won’t be easily wiped off the table using appeals to emotion (such as acceleration speed of ‘fun’ of driving) or a (somewhat misplaced) sense of improving the environment.

First of all, if you really want to improve the environment the best way to do so is to not buy any vehicle at all. Every car, electrical or not, even when it is never used is an enormous expenditure in both energy (and therefore greenhouse gas emissions) and raw materials simply because it has to be manufactured. So if you want to do the best possible thing for the environment cutting down on your traveling and working hard to avoid the purchase of a vehicle are the two best things that you could do when it comes to transportation.

But fine, you need a car, for whatever (presumably valid) reasons. I’m trying to imagine a world where all cars are electric and what kind of impact this would have on the way transportation is arranged right now in the world as we know it.

Some Background

For starters, lots of the infrastructure that we use to power our current transportation needs comes in the form of the global movement of various fractions of Petroleum, which is rather messy (it’s a liquid, and spills are not rare at all and the environmental impact of removing it from the Earth’s crust is huge) and impractical compared to say transporting energy through wires. The bad news (the messiness, the environmental damage and the fact that this requires the physical movement of vast amounts of material) is somewhat balanced by the good news: it can be stored for a long time without degradation if stabilized properly, it can be carried around to places where no other infrastructure besides roads exists, the energy density of the end-products as used in transportation (mostly: gasoline, diesel and liquified petroleum gas or LPG for short) is very high compared to existing battery technology.

In a world where all the cars and trucks are electric you’re going to have to roughly supply your average highway with infrastructure comparable to the energy consumption of the cars on that highway (or the cities around it). So a massive shift from one form of energy carrier (everything based on petroleum that ends up in the transportation sector) to electrical energy (which will require not only generating capacity in the form of nuclear, fossil fuels or renewables, but also the infrastructure to transport it) would be required. This translates into a massive increase in the carrying capacity of the power grid compared to where we are today. To give a rough estimate, according to this page the energy consumption of the United States transportation sector (which will not be typical for the world as a whole but it gives an indication) is approximately 28%. The vast majority of that comes on account of Petroleum based consumption, but of course it will also already include those EVs that have already been deployed. Regular ICE’s are terribly inefficient, as low as 18 to 20% on average. On paper, EVs do much better than this but in practice that advantage is somewhat dimished. There are for instance the charging losses to contend with, around 20% or so. Electric motors (the prime mover in an EV) are much better than ICEs in converting energy to motive power at 80% or better, so less energy would be required from the charger to the vehicle to achieve a similar distance traveled. But because it is the total system efficiency including generating losses at the power plant and transportation losses in the grid in the end that theoretical 80% ends up being much lower (if the power source at the generating plant is a gas turbine for instance the efficiency of the generator is in the very best case 60% but more realistic would be about 50% and further losses in the grid would be another 6.5% or thereabouts. Total system efficiency would then be .5 x .8 x .935 x .8 or roughly 29%. Still much better than the ICEs this all replaced but not quite as good as it looked initially. So 68% (20 (ICE) / 29 (EV)) of that original 28%, or 20% extra energy would have to be generated by the utilities and transported through the grid to the charging stations in order to accommodate all transportation to be electric.

The problems

Problem 1: Transportation will load the grid and generating capacity in rather nasty ways

Our current infrastructure has been created with several large factors driving it: industrial use tends to create a fairly steady baseline because companies have been given incentives to use electricity steadily (so in continuous processes) and at night rather than in irregular patterns during the day, household and office use adds a an element of larger variation but is a relatively small fraction of total energy use. The major generating capacity in most countries is provided by natural gas or coal burning plants and nuclear power plants. Load Following describes the process with which a power plant can increase or decrease its output power responding to increases in demand. If everybody starts charging their EVs this will cause the grid and generating capacity to be very heavily loaded during times when domestic power consumption is traditionally rather low, and in places where such quantities of power are not currently available. Your average town does not have the power infrastructure to deal with an extra draw of a whole bunch of commuters arriving home roughly around the same time (say, between 5:30 and 7 pm) and all of them plugging their cars in to recharge. The maximum power draw when recharging batteries is right at the beginning of the charge cycle and this will compress a whole pile of consumption into a relatively small amount of time.

Problem 2: Rapid charging is actually not so rapid, highway re-charging stations will have to be much larger than current gas stations

Because re-fueling using gasoline or diesel is incredibly rapid (typically: < 5 minutes from start to finish to get a full tank including payment) gas stations tend to be relatively compact. A typical gas station on the highway can have anywhere from 6 to 14 pumps and will process a hundred cars per hour or more without a problem. If the time to ‘refuel’ increases to an hour or so then you’d need much more space in order to allow all the vehicles to be on-site for that whole time, and you’d have to keep those people busy for that time as well. Personally I would not care for any extra delay during my travels, being forced to wait while my car recharges is not something that appeals to me, and I assume that people that are underway usually want to get to their destination rather than to be forced to take hour long breaks in order to get their vehicles ready for the next leg.

Problem 3: Gas stations are not generally in the neighbourhood of electricity generation stations.

The fuel that a fuel delivery truck burns and all the other energy expended to get a certain quantity of fuel delivered to a gas station is similar in nature to the losses in powerlines to charge EVs. They’re called ‘transportation losses’. These are for the grid as a whole at a rather acceptable 6.5%. But if we’re going to draw power in very large quantities (a few hundred super chargers in the same number of locations that we currently have gas stations at) those losses will likely go up due to the increased average distance between consumers and producers, making the total system efficiency of EV’s worse they would seem to be today. Also, even if this is deemed to be an acceptable solution we’d have to still make that power available, which will require fairly massive investments in infrastructure in order to accommodate the power draw. Every highway would be more or less automatically accompanied by a bunch of power infrastructure, not unlike the trolleybus systems, but with higher voltages and using periodic re-charging of batteries rather than a continuous contact between the vehicle and the power infrastructure (note that the Trolleybus system is rather clever and side-steps the charging loss issue). Of course we have lots of experience with building power grids and this is definitely something that could be done but it will require time to build it.

Problem 4: Re-charging will not work nearly as well when vehicle utilization goes up due to sharing

A typical family car will be parked in excess of 95% of the time, which leaves ample opportunity in an ‘ownership’ situation for re-charging. But as vehicle ownership shifts to sharing a vehicle between multiple users during the day vehicle utilization will increase (which is a good thing!), but opportunities to re-charge will be reduced and per-vehicle consumption of energy will increase. Overall there will be fewer vehicles but the number of passenger kilometers (or miles, if you wish) will be roughly the same, or might even go up when coupled with such emerging technologies as self-driving cars. So there will be substantially less opportunity for re-charging between rides.

Problem 5: We don’t actually have all this infrastructure yet

If a substantial chunk of our energy consumption due to transportation needs is going to shift from being directly petroleum based to being mostly based on the timely delivery of electrons in vast quantities and to a very large number of locations then we will have to invest massively in both generating capacity and grid capacity. In all the EV articles I read this fact seems to be wiped off the table as a footnote or it isn’t even mentioned at all. The shift from hydrocarbons to electrons for transportation will take many years of planning and building to accommodate, and even if EVs are ‘hot’ right now the total number of EVs sold is still relatively low (exceptions: Norway and the Netherlands). Now, NL is a really small country (about 100 x 200 km), so things like range due to limited battery capacity and cost of grid infrastructure are fairly low impact here, and in Norway they have vast amounts of hydropower, which explains some of why these two countries are ahead of the pack. In other countries that are not so fortunate it will take a substantial investment in power generating capacity and in grid infrastructure in order to make large scale deployment of EVs a reality.

Problem 6: Range

In small countries and around cities range is not really an issue. But with trucking and things like holiday trips and other longer distance travel a lack of range can become a real issue. A typical EV on the market today has a range of a few 100 miles at best and a re-charge time that is not compatible with charging-while-traveling. Gasoline storage density, universal availability and the speed in terms of extra range per minute of recharging/refueling translates into a massive convenience advantage for ICEs which EVs with present-day technology simply can not match.

Problem 7: Trailers

A very large number of the cars out there have trailer hooks, they’ll tow anything from trash to the local dump to other vehicles, horses, boats, caravans and so on. EVs as a rule are not set up for this kind of use and adding a trailer to an EV will dramatically impact the range (which is usually not exactly super to begin with). To compete successfully on all fronts with ICE based vehicles trailer hitches would have to be a factory option for EVs and adding one should not void your warranty or cause you to be operating your vehicle in an illegal manner. For now if having a trailer behind your car is a must you’ll have to be very careful when selecting one because chances that this is an option are slim.

Problem 8: Service

ICEs are relatively well understood but they’re finicky to maintain. Servicing an EV is in principle a lot simpler than servicing an ICE based vehicle simply because the systems are inherently less repairable so the accent will be on replacing modules rather than repairing them. A typical EV uses a DC circuit at a few 100 volts driving an inverter which in turn passes multi-phase power to the electric motor. Such a circuit, while in principle repairable is well outside the range of capabilities your average garage has, but it can be easy to troubleshoot the source of the problem (battery, power electronics, motor or wiring) and replacing the broken module with a refurbished one is something that a competent mechanic should be able to do. This does require a willingness of the manufacturers to open up their service channels, with the failure rate of some EV powertrains it is not at all imaginary that your EV could fail in a location where the brand of your choice has no representation.

Problem 9: Tax Breaks

In quite a few countries the owners of EVs get significant tax breaks, either when purchasing the car or during the lifetime of the car in the form of reduced ownership taxes. This is a good way to stimulate a shift and to get a larger pool of ‘early adopters’ but in the longer term this system will not survive. The reason for this is quite simple: governments will make any such measures income neutral for themselves and as the balance shifts from ICEs to EVs the EVs will have to carry a proportionally larger chunk of the tax burden. With some luck by then the economies of scale will have brought down the cost of batteries and EVs in general so that there will still be an economic incentive to switch to electrical.

Some Possible solutions

Not all of these problems have timely or easy solutions, some of the (especially the infrastructure and power generation issues) will likely take decades to fix, so I don’t see the world switch to EVs in massive quantities in the next few years, I think the change over will be very gradual with technological innovations driving each successive cycle of adoption (battery tech improvements would be one major driver of adoption).

One stop-gap hybrid solution for a number of these issues would be a gas station that has a small power generation station powered by diesel fuel. This would be an intermediate step where an absence of infrastructure would be overcome but it will likely lead to higher prices-per-charge than could be obtained through larger scale initiatives. Still, better some charge than none at all. An even smaller scale solution could come in the form of a ‘range extender trailer’ delivering power to the vehicle from a self contained unit which would be not much more than a fuel tank, an ICE and a small generator on two wheels attached to the trailer hitch of the car, however the above note on trailers applies to such a solution. It may also be interpreted as a way around certain tax rules that give the owners of EVs an advantage, if you then add a range-extender to your car you’ve just re-created a hybrid electric vehicle, which may be subject to completely different taxation.

In the longer term the infrastructure will catch up with the demand that all-out electrical transportation would create, battery technology is hopefully not yet at the end of its development and charge times may be further reduced. If EVs would break 800 km range in production vehicles at affordable prices all re-charging could be done overnight and a large part of the range-anxiety problem would simply go away. Taxi services, commuting, local transport and so on are all excellent use cases for EVs today, and going electric for those situations probably makes more sense than doing this with ICEs. Going longer distances a hybrid is right now probably the best you can do and it will be a while before EVs will be able to compete across the board with ICE’s. You’ll know when we have achieved parity because gas stations will start closing, or will replace pumps with EV super charging stations en-masse.

Another possible solution to some of the issues related to mass charging of vehicles would be that you set a timer to tell the car how long it has to charge, this could then be used to randomize the start-time of the charge cycle so that there won’t be a ‘thundering herd’ problem causing overload of the grid by starting the charge cycle of a large number of vehicles within a relatively short amount of time. This would also increase the ability of utilities to adapt their capacity to the demand because it would come on rather slower.

The Myth Of The Evil VC

If there is one story of a persistant nature that seems to pervade the start-up world it is that VCs as a rule are evil, they’re out to get you, will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience. Some people that are very visible in the start-up world are perpetrating this to the point of being irresponsible. In Three Roads To The Top Of The Mountain I’ve already pointed out that dealing with VCs is a choice, and that that choice comes with both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are mostly visible in the short term, the disadvantages tend to only become visible in the long term, especially for companies that end up not being winners after all (and this is the vast majority of them, so chances are that your company too will be one of these).

I’m sure that ‘Evil VCs’ actually do exist, and just in case you weren’t aware of it yet, they pay for my day-to-day living so you can take this as anecdata from someone who is in the pay of ‘the enemy’, alternatively, you could take this as information from someone who has been very close to the fire in a number of deals that few people will be able to match, and in those deals even though I work for the capital side I try very hard to keep an even keel. Having been a ‘founder’ myself this comes naturally to me, it is in fact much easier for me to connect with the world of the founders than with the world of the VCs.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s have a look at how this Evil VC story came to be in the first place. There have been a number of fairly high profile cases where founders were pushed out by the providers of capital. I’m not going to go into the details of who was right in those cases, I’m not even sure that’s interesting. But what I did get from those stories is one fairly universal element: the founders chose - for whatever reason - to give up control at some point. They decided that to have a small piece of a larger pie was preferable to having a large piece of a smaller pie, and in making that decision technically placed themselves at the mercy of their new shareholders when it came to the future direction of the company. One common theme is that a combination of conditions cause a company to need more capital than they initially planned causing the founders to end up with the difficult choice of shutting down or giving up control. Continuing on terms that are not favorable to the founders then gives the company a new lease on life.

That can be a winning strategy, but it sets the stage for being side-lined if the company does badly at some point in the future. Like every other deal that you enter into ‘regret’ is usually not a valid option for annulling a contractual agreement and this is where VCs have the upper hand to some extent. They tend to have done more deals than founders, they tend to have a lot more experience in writing contracts in such a way that those pesky little ‘small print’ clauses work out in their favor should the future not go as planned. You may call that evil if you want, but I think they are simply good at looking out for #1, and as the providers of substantial amounts of money they would be remiss in their obligations towards their partners and limited partners (who in turn provide them with capital) if they did not do this.

Opposite of the ‘Evil VC’ (which again, I’m sure exists) is ‘the evil founder’. The founder that figures that getting funded is a success in and of itself, the founder who will screw over their co-founder, who will risk the business for short term personal gain and so on. This person, like the Evil VC again is mythical to the extent that I’ve never actually met a founder that had any of these ideas when they started out with their venture. But aspects of that do surface with some regularity, and it is against these aspects that VCs try to arm themselves when they show up with their army of legal professionals and domain experts in tow just after they’ve signed the terms sheet. They are not assuming you - the founder - will do any of the above but just in case they have built in a whole slew of provisions into their contracts that will take care of those things and more if and when the situation occurs. And given that they, rather than you, have drawn up the contracts in the first place (the usual state of affairs) they already have an advantage here. But it need not be that way.

The thing to remember is that there are two sides to the table, not just one and at that point in time your goals (the founders) and the VCs are not yet aligned. You are not yet partners in the same venture, and you are facing the harder part, your opposite party has a ton more experience than you do at these things and small changes in the contract can have huge effects in the longer term. That’s why one of the recurring themes in these blog posts is ‘BYOL’, bring-your-own-lawyer. That way you will have someone who is at least as experienced in the whole dealmaking game and even though this may cost you some money (especially if you end up not consumating the deal), it is probably one of the best investments you can make. It will stop you being taken advantage of or signing a contract that is not the very best for you (and your partners) even if you feel that you are ‘in control’ of the situation (and if that is what you feel when you’re a first time founder and you’re dealing with a venture capital company on it’s 30th or so deal then I can pretty much guarantee you that you are not in control).

All those line-items that are present in the ‘standard contract’ (there is no such thing!) should be considered one-by-one with respect to whether or not you can live with them at all, and what the long term implications of these clauses are given the various scenarios that may play out in the future. Remember that each and every line in a contract like that was born from experience, experience that you don’t yet have where putting that clause in safe-guards the VC from some kind of un-specified risk. Contrary to the name VCs are actually to a large extent risk-averse, they will do everything they can to eliminate risks or to enumerate them so that the risk they are entering into is a known quantity, that still leaves plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong (as the average returns on venture capital prove), but at least they will have mitigated and taken care of the visible portion in so far as this is possible. If your venture is special enough you can push back against any or all of these items, it may cost you the deal but there is no such thing as a bad deal that you did not do. The only bad deals are the ones that you did do and that you end up regretting in the long run.

Remember that you don’t have to sign anything at all. Contracts are entered into of your own free will and if you’re not comfortable with what you are signing then simply don’t. Relax and take the long view, it’s not a disaster if you choose to forego a funding round on terms that you feel are to your disadvantage. Also remember that there is no such thing as ‘a standard clause’. If you don’t want a clause strike it, explain why you don’t want that clause and if the relationship and the deal survive then good. If the relationship and/or the deal does not survive then too bad, then it wasn’t meant to be anyway. But once you do decide to get funded that contract becomes the basis for the future and you can’t go back afterwards and point to ‘that evil VC’ on account of them doing what they are supposed to do in the first place: protect their own interests. Just like you should. That way the ‘Evil VC’ myth can finally die and we’ll be able to look at VCs just like we look at other people, there are good ones, and there are bad ones, but they’re not structurally bad.

My Passion Was My Weak Spot

For many years in the beginning of my career I’d been more than happy to work for free or even at a loss as long as the work was interesting. I was so totally in love with computer programming and the feeling I got from making something work and then seeing that creation be used by other people that I completely lost sight of the value that I was creating.

This set me up for a series of relationships that - retrospectively - I can only classify as abusive. Passion is great, it is motivating force, a driver to learn and practice and hopefully eventually to excel at something. But at the same time it is an Achilles heel. It allows the unscrupulous to take advantage of you, it means you will work for compensation well below its actual value and it means that you will do so to your own detriment, up to and including your health. I’ve blogged a bit about this in the past, I’d be lying if I said that was the only time that someone managed to take advantage of me because of my passion, there are several more instances of similar stupidity until I wised up and started looking out for myself.

When you’re young and passionate about something it’s such an easy trap to fall in to. But taking into account that the biggest lever you have at your disposal is compound interest over as long a period as possible those early years that are easily lost when it seems there is no end to your energy and productivity are in fact your most valuable years. So don’t let your passion take you for a ride, channel it and make sure that you get at least a substantial fraction of the true value of your work returned to you, refuse to work for free or too little compensation.

Tricks that will be used to get you to work for free or with very little compensation:

Do this job for nothing and we'll give you *another* job at full pay

Only, that other job never materializes and if and when it does the pay will be the same as the previous one (but of course there is yet another job in the pipeline…).

This job may not earn you much but it is good for your experience / resume / whatever

That may be so, but you could gain that experience just as well when you’re working for a company that does compensate you properly, and your resume would not be much worse or better if it contained this particular company or any other. It’s the work that you do that makes the difference (though it doesn’t hurt to have some F500 company on your resume, but as a rule pay there will be roughly market rate).

The pay may be lousy but the free lunches are great and if you work overtime (unpaid, of course) there is free pizza

You can buy a ton of food if you’re properly compensated so then you don’t need to rely on hand-outs to stay alive. Make no mistake, you already paid for that lunch and that pizza many times over.

The company is going through hard times so we're paying very little but in the long term we will make up for that

Ok, so put that in writing, and if it doesn’t materialize look for other options. The company going through hard times is more often than not a sign of bad management rather than a sign of external factors and since neither of these are under your control you are not in any way obliged to contribute towards a solution, just as you are most likely not going to benefit from the company success in a direct way.

We pay you peanuts but you have stock options so you're part of the company success

The correct valuation of stock options (and even most of the stock!) in a tech start-up is ‘0’. Yes, some people got wealthy through their options. But for the most part stock options are not worth anything because of a variety of reasons including taxes, uncertainty of success, lack of a market for the stock if and when you are ever in a position to exercise the option and so on. They’re just another form of golden handcuffs, you think you have something valuable that aligns your goals and incentives with those of the company but in fact the gain is mostly on the other side. The better deal to negotiate is instead of options to just be given stock, but even then trading that stock is still subject to all kinds of rules that are outside the scope of this article. The easiest formula to remember is stock options are worth ‘0’.

You can't leave, we need you

That one really happened to me (see link above), where the company paid me a crappy wage and was abusive to boot, then when I finally had enough (in spite of loving the project and my co-workers) they played the pity card that it would destroy them if they left and so I would have to continue to work there (forever?). Of course I got accused of extreme disloyalty when I did leave (and I never got any of the promised compensation for the crappy wage, the company assets were sold soon after I left).

In the end it’s all the same story, you get nothing or very close to nothing and meanwhile the owners of the company will get the product of your work and will make bank on that. To them you’re a cost. So be careful, don’t let your passion be your enemy, let the fire burn if and when the rest of the conditions around your employment are favorable, if they are not then better look for a place that does put an accurate value on your worth.

After reading the HN thread on this article I would like to pick out one comment in particular that is bothered by the ‘us vs them’ mentality in posts like these. I’ve seen a lot of companies from the inside over the last 30 years and if there is one divide that is clearer than any other it is the employer vs employee one, with - as a rule - the employer having the upper hand in that relationship. I’d love for companies to be on a more even keel and a more fair relationship in their relations with their employees and I’m honored to be an investor in a company that has been very busy to achieve this, but unfortunately they are the exception. For the most part, employers can and will use any and all means at their disposal to get employees to deliver the goods at as low a possible cost to the company as can be achieved. I don’t begrudge them that they do this, but as an employee you should be aware of this and act accordingly. “Wouldn’t it be great if everybody was just nice to one another” is a great sentiment but it is disconnected from the harsh reality of the vast majority of employer-employee relationships.

Another Way Of Looking At Lee Sedol vs AlphaGo

Imagine a contest in which we are going to pit man against machine. But instead of measuring who is best in playing the game of ‘Go’ we are going to measure who is fastest. In the one corner: Human, all of 175 pounds of extremely well trained runner. And in the other corner, a Formula 1 racecar with a remote control running down a straight track.

Nonsense, you’d say, that’s not a fair comparison, the car uses much more instantaneous power, and will use a much larger amount of energy during the race, you should handicap that car somehow to make the race a fair one. And I’d be more than happy to agree with you.

Now, in an absolute sense, yes, that racecar is faster than a human. But in a relative sense, the amount of energy it will take the human to get to his destination for an ‘unaided’ human (or even one on a bicycle, probably the easiest way in which a human aided by some non-powered mechanics can achieve substantial speed) is so much lower that in a way even if the human loses on the absolute scale he or she actually wins that race for most practical purposes because the other approach does not scale beyond the race.

In the world of Chess it took until 1996 before a computer won even a single game against the then reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov in a series of 6 matches, and another year before he was defeated in match play with an updated version of Deep Blue. It took 30 computers to achieve this feat, evaluating approximately 200 million positions per second, mostly due to its use of a large number of specially crafted chips. The 30 P2SC nodes alone consumed about 900 watts of power, you still need to add some power consumption for the 480 ASICs that were especially crafted to play chess (we’re not actually talking about a general purpose computer here, more about a special purposes hardware design that happens to be extremely good at evaluating chess positions).

After that it took until 2009 for something (really) interesting to happen, a program called ‘pocket Fritz’ achieved parity with Deep Blue in terms of strength while running on a mobile phone and evaluating only a small fraction of the number of positions evaluated by Deep Blue. In terms of power efficiency that’s an absolutely enormous leap and it brought - in my view at least - for the first time the game on a level footing. Humans and Chess computers were now competing at approximately the same level of energy consumption.

This short detour into the world of Chess is the lead in to what I would like to say about the Lee Sedol vs AlphaGo games.

Now, not to diminish the achievement of the AlphaGo team, what they have done is nothing short of incredible, something experts predicted a very few short years ago would not happen in a decade is a fact today, AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol 4:1 in a match that will go into history as the one where computers beat humans on the most sophisticated game we have constructed. Go is an extremely complex game and to achieve this result took a large team of people and a very large amount of computer hardware in order to win and as impressive as that all is I don’t think it is any more a ‘fair’ match than that Formula 1 car against the runner (or even against a cyclist).

Lee Sedol used about 20 Watts of power to operate. By contrast, AlphaGo runs on a whopping 1920 CPUs and another 280 GPUs for an estimated power consumption of approximately 1 MW (200 W per CPU and 200 W per GPU). That’s 50,000 times as much power as the amount of power that Lee Sedol’s brain uses and the two are not quite evenly matched but it is close enough to use for comparison.

So now the interesting question (to me at least) is: How long before a computer will beat the human Go world champion using no more power than the human. That will be an achievement that is much more important than the one achieved last week, it will on a Joule-for-Joule basis be a fair match, when this one - to me at least - definitely was not, and it will require a very large improvement in our understanding of how humans play Go. Anybody taking bets on how long it will take to achieve that feat?


A couple of weeks ago I went to the local shopping centre looking for a thermometer. After entering one store upon leaving without buying anything a tracker was assigned to me. I didn’t think much of it at first, but he followed me dutifully around the shopping centre, took careful note of how I walked. Whenever I visited a store he made a note in his little black book (he kept calling it my profile, and he didn’t want to show me what was in it so I assume it was actually his, rather than mine). Each of those stores of course assigned trackers to me as well and soon enough I was followed by my own personal veritable posse of non-descript guys with little black books making notes.

After doing my shopping I went home. To my surprise they expected to come into the house with me and stay there, which I objected against. That didn’t stop them, instead of walking in with me through the front door they forced the back door and installed themselves at my table. One of them had found my mobile phone and was going through my list of contacts, adding the names and the telephone numbers of the people that I knew to a thing they called a ‘social graph’. It mattered a lot to them, apparently, and even though I took the phone away from him and made him wipe the copy that he’d made I realized that if they did the same to my friends (who likely would not take as forceful a stance against the trackers as I did) they’d already have most of that information anyway and there was nothing I could do about it. Every visitor to my house was asked a whole pile of personal questions, and if they didn’t answer their photographs would be used to complete the gaps in their profiles and mine. Overnight they’d been up to something because the next morning my newspaper had been cut up, with all kinds of blank windows between the articles. They assured me that all of this was entirely legal, and that may be so but it left me with a weird feeling that these anonymous entities would know just about more about me than my own mother does.

Upset about this I decided to read my newspaper in the park, where I expected at least a little bit more privacy. I probably should have known better. The trackers of course followed me to the park and set up an impromptu auction of the space created by the holes in my paper. Every time I would open a page the space on that page would come up for auction, and the tracker that won the auction would quickly glue an advertisement that he’d brought with him over the gap in the page. Mysteriously quite a few of the ads were for thermometers, even though I no longer had a need for one (having found one in the drawer in the bathroom that same evening). The guy the newspaper hired to do the auctions thought this was a-ok, and encouraged the trackers to bid ever higher based on all the stuff that he told them about me. The information they used included all the stuff in ‘my’ profile (some of which came as a surprise to me, for instance, he knew roughly what I earned, knew the fact that I had kids and a whole raft of other details that I did not consider to be any of his business and even today I have no idea how he got that information) as well as our current location on that park bench.

Some of the more enterprising trackers took down the stuff the newspaper guy told them about me in their own little black books and soon were auctioning that information off to other trackers and in fact to anybody that was willing to part with some money. It became quite a crowd (a mini wall-street, actually) around my chosen parkbench and the atmosphere turned bad to the point where I did not feel as if the park had anything to offer any longer.

I figured maybe I’d go for some lunch to a nearby restaurant. The trackers had long since figured out my mobile phone number, and combined with a little embedded code in a game that I’d once installed (and played twice, but it wasn’t a very good game) kept a continuous read-out of my phone and all its sensors, and phoned home to the mother ship whenever it could. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when just as I was passing by the door of one particular restaurant chain an ad popped up overlaying my mobile screen indicating that that restaurant had my favorite dish on sale that day. (How did they figure out my favorite dish anyway, was that because I had searched for a recipe a few weeks ago?).

I resisted the temptation and decided to go anywhere but there. (Even if that meant the trackers could still influence me at least they’d have to add an inversion to all their little plans).

Finally after a couple of weeks of this I decided I’d had enough. The final straw was when a tracker popped up in my bed, between me and my wife when I was looking for the shortest route to my meeting the next morning, really, that did it. The advertising industry did not have the right to become involved in my private life to this degree, to track my every move and to keep detailed information of my daily whereabouts and interactions in the real world, and the last place I expected them to track me to was the privacy of my bedroom.

I hired a couple of ‘tough guys’, bouncers, really. Their assignments were simple: keep these advertising types out of my life, hurt them if you have to, I’ve really had enough of it. Another side benefit of this was that the burglars and other shady types that used the information gathered by the trackers to target me for an entirely different kind of operation were also shut out.

After the first couple of run-ins between ‘bouncers’ and ‘trackers’ the trackers got the message and mostly left me alone. Some still tried but for the most part it seems I was at least a little bit more safe from prying eyes. Even more powerful methods of getting rid of trackers exist and there are many variations to choose from with different functionality, for some, apparently even bouncers were not enough to regain some of their much deserved privacy. Some of the bouncers were trying to be a little bit too clever for my taste, they actually simply took the place of the trackers they blocked. Serves me right for hiring tough guys I gather, so I’ve been more careful since then and check out carefully which party gets to place themselves between me and the trackers. Even with the tough guys in tow there were still ways in which I could be tracked. But at least that seemed to - for now - be beyond the pale for most respectable businesses employing trackers.

Some venues did not allow me to enter with my bouncers in tow, those I stopped visiting, it’s not that I minded their advertising to me, but I did mind being followed all over and if they wouldn’t change their ways then I would have to change mine.

All of this is really too bad, since some of the stores depended to a certain extent on my patronage, but I guess there are not enough people that are concerned about privacy to make a difference. Or are there?