Feb 16

Making a Google Cardboard headset for my iPhone

Growing up in the 80’s, I heard a lot of promises that Virtual Reality was right around the corner, the same way my parents had been promised flying cars. Any day now, I was going to be plunged right into a William Gibson novel, a virtual cowboy avoiding ICE.

Google Cardboard assembled

Google Cardboard assembled

When the Oculus Rift came out in 2012, it created some buzz, but at $350, it was too expensive if you were just casually curious. Then in 2014, google jumped in the game and showed us that VR didn’t have to be out of reach. A smartphone has enough computing power to show stereoscopic images, and you can build a headset to hold it very cheaply. Google gave away the original Google Cardboard kit at their developer conference, and caused a minor internet sensation. Unfortunately, probably due to the ongoing feud between Google and Apple, the Google Cardboard kit was made specifically for android phones, and if you had an iphone you were out of luck. But, true to the DIY ethos of the web, creative people found workarounds.

I was intrigued enough to start digging in. If I could try it out for a few dollars, why not? Here’s what I did, how it worked, and what you need to know to try it yourself.

What you need:

First of all you’ll need the cardboard itself. I used the original DIY cardboard templates from google, which you can download here. You can buy kits premade for about $30 from that site also, but I was going for the lowest cost solution. Be aware that you want E-flute cardboard, which is about 1/16″ thick. This is thinner than the normal corrugated cardboard you’ll find in most shipping boxes. I found enough in various non-shipping boxes that I had sitting around. I’ve read that pizza boxes are also the right thickness.

Google also lists a bunch of other stuff you will need: lenses, magnets, Velcro, rubber bands, NFC tags, etc. You won’t actually need most of the stuff. The magnet and rubber band are used to make an input for specific android apps. If you’re doing this with an iphone, that won’t work, so you don’t need to bother. You will need lenses. I got mine from Unofficial Cardboard for about $10. I had some Velcro left over from other projects, so that was essentially free.

Google Cardboard pieces cut out

Google Cardboard pieces cut out

Next, I printed out the Google template onto 11″x17″ sheets of paper and taped them to my cardboard, and carefully and painstakingly cut the shapes out. This took probably 2 hours spread out over several days. I had the best luck with a large razor-blade style box cutter for the long straight cuts, and a small xacto knife for the smaller detailed features. Note that you don’t actually have to glue the template to the cardboard.

Once the shapes were cut out, it was just a matter of folding them up correctly. The online instructions are not super clear, so hopefully my pictures will help with any confusion. Be sure to put the interior pieces in correctly to hold the lenses in place. One good tip I picked up from Unofficial Cardboard: put a piece of scotch tape right where your forehead touches the cardboard. Otherwise it’ll get unpleasantly greasy surprisingly quickly.

Assembling Google Cardboard

Assembling Google Cardboard

Finally it was time to try it out. I downloaded several iphone apps to try out. As of this writing, the easiest way to find VR apps on the iTunes store is to search for Durovis Dive (which is an $80 plastic version of what you just built out of cardboard). The good news is that the apps for the Durovis Dive work on the iPhone. UPDATE: Another good place to find iPhone compatible VR apps is here on the Unofficial Cardboard site.

For an iPhone 6, you’ll probably need to take your phone out of its case for it to fit in the cardboard. An iPhone 5 with a thin case may fit fine, I don’t know. Start the app, then put the phone in the cardboard, and then hold the cardboard up to your face. Here are my impressions of the apps I’ve tried so far:

Dive City Coaster:

You are riding a roller coaster, and you can look around by turning your head. The graphics aren’t spectacular, but I still got a little bit of motion feeling in my stomach. This is the app you’ll show to your friends first, because it requires no explanation or practice. But once you see it a couple of times yourself, you’ll be bored. Still, I tried this out sitting in a swivel chair, and I was surprised to see which way I was facing when I took the cardboard off. I give it 4 stars as a quick demo.

The Height:

This one is an actual game, with things to do. You look down at a little icon at your feet, and it causes your avatar to walk in the environment. There are obstacles and goals, so this one actually merits some repeated play. 3 stars.

Kris Menace Virtual Edition:

This app is a step up in graphics from the others, and it does use headphones or earbuds to add surround sound to the experience, but there isn’t really anything to do in the app. 2 stars.


Duck hunt in 3D. Very basic, but there it is a legitimate game, and easily played, so this one becomes another easy one to show other people how VR works. 3 stars.


A dark first person shooter where you look at zombies to shoot them. Not bad. 3 stars.

Space Slider VR:

You are moving forward along a wireframe path trying to collect little pellets. The concept is not bad, but I found the navigation extremely frustrating. Your steering inputs do almost nothing until they suddenly do way too much. 2 stars.

Roller Coaster VR:

Another roller coaster. This one has prettier scenery (you’re in the jungle), but the ride itself is a little less immersive to me (I didn’t feel it in my stomach as much). Overall very good, and a toss up between this one and Dive City Coaster. 4 stars.

Is it worth doing?

For me, yes. Overall, for the time and money invested, this iOS Cardboard experiment was a pretty good sampling of the current state of budget VR. You can see the potential for great things to come when more developers get interested. But with the quality of the apps available right now, I’m glad I didn’t spend any more than I did on a headset. I’ve read that there may be some new toys available using WebGL on Safari in iOS 8. I’ll do an update if I find any good ones.



Dec 30

Accidental Landlord update: when things go wrong

Credit: jen on flickr

Credit: jen on flickr

One of the biggest fears we had going into the landlord game was: what happens when big things go wrong with the house? Of course, we also had the fear that the house wouldn’t rent, but that is pretty well understood. You know how much money you’d be on the hook for each month, so at least that’s not an unknown number. And you can lower your asking price to help get renters. But the boogey-man hanging out there was for major-malfunctions. So we have homeowner’s insurance, which should cover catastrophic damage. And we bought a home warranty, which should cover a lot of the other things. And we crossed our fingers.

So of course, the air conditioner crapped out. The backstory here is that this was a very cheap builder-grade AC unit. In the 10 years we lived in the house, most of our neighbors had serious air-conditioning problems, and most of them had the units replaced, to the tune of multi-thousands of dollars. We also had plenty of AC problems, but never replaced the entire unit. Over the years, we replaced the compressor, replaced the evaporator coil, and fixed a host of other issues. When the system stopped cooling for our tenants, I’d finally had enough. The problem was a leak in the evaporator coil, again. I finally decided I was tired of replacing some part of the system every year, and was ready to replace the whole thing with something better. But how does that work out?

To shorten a long story, the home warranty company was willing to pay for a new evaporator coil, since that was the specific problem. But they weren’t going to foot the bill for a new unit until the whole thing disintegrated. That’s a reasonable position for them to take, and I wasn’t going to change their mind. So I had them just write a check for what a new coil would cost, and I applied that to the cost of a new unit.

All told, I ended up spending around $4000. Our tenants were very understanding, and actually happened to be out of town for part of the replacement time, so it worked out about as well at it could. It was a big financial hit, and mentally disappointing, because it meant we would not turn a profit on the rental house for 2014 (although we should still come out positive over this tenant’s 2-year lease). The day I wrote that check, I was certainly not enthusiastic about being a landlord.

Then I realized the silver lining of the rental business. If I had bitten the bullet and replaced the entire AC system before we moved out of the house, that would’ve been $4000 down a hole. It’s just he cost of home ownership, too bad, so sad.

But since this happened when the house was a rental, that is a $4000 expense, which counts against our rental income. So in this case (if I understand correctly), my 2014 taxes will show a loss on the rental house, which will reduce our total taxes. All things being equal, you’d obviously rather have more profits. But if you have to spend the money, having it come off your tax bill sure does soften the blow.

Nov 07

The fiction writing experiment

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

Credit: Ben Sutherland on flickr

Way back before I ever heard of the Smart Passive Income blog, or The 4-Hour Work Week, or Rich Dad Poor Dad, (maybe 1998-ish) a few of us engineers would sit around at lunch and talk about some of the same topics we would later hear about there: how to get ahead, how to stop working for the man, how to get out of trading dollars for hours at our day jobs. We worked in the manufacturing world, and there wasn’t an easy way for us to become our own bosses. The barriers to entry were huge: a couple of engineers starting out can’t afford the machinery we’d need to build things. So I was attracted to the publishing business-model. I’d always liked to write anyway, and the work relationship seemed better than what I had. I commuted every day, to sit in a cubical and design machines. When I stopped working, they stopped paying me. On the other hand, The Author (in my mind anyway) writes the book once, and keeps getting paid as long as the book keeps selling. The publisher prints copies out by the thousand, while the author sits on the beach. The cost to print up more and more copies is pretty small. But publishing was not easy to get into: the companies that controlled the printing presses and distribution called all the shots. So, while I enjoyed writing fiction, it was something I did for fun, with no real hope of making money doing it. Now, almost 20 years later, things have changed a lot. The internet in general, and Amazon in particular, have made everything different.

The New Paradigm

In the old days, to publish a book you needed to query a bunch of agents, hoping one would represent you (an unknown writer), and the agent would approach publishers with your book idea, hoping one would agree to publish it. The odds for an unknown writer clearing both of those hurdles are not encouraging. In the brave new world of self-publishing, gone are the days of endless submittals, hoping to get an agent, and hoping to get published. As the Self Publishing Podcast would say, the gatekeepers are gone. Anybody with the drive to do it can now publish a book and see if anyone likes it. And with ebooks, the cost to make another copy of your book is just about zero, no printing press required. So with reproduction costs gone, self-published ebook authors stand to keep a bigger percentage of their sales than traditionally published authors. Suddenly my little story writing hobby seemed a little less frivolous. So I’ve been trying to learn about this stuff; listening to the Self Publishing Podcast, reading Hugh Howey’s blog, etc. And the enthusiasm is getting to me. Even if it goes nowhere, it’s inspired me to write more, which is fun.

Getting Stuff Done

Over the past several years, I’ve (very) slowly written a few short stories. With no real plan to get them published, I was in no hurry to finish them. Last month, I saw that our local free alternative paper was holding a Halloween short story contest again this year. Then I saw the entry deadline was just a few days away. In past years, I usually said, “I don’t have time to write anything by then,” and gave up. But, inspired by Pat Flynn and the SPP guys to get things done, I cranked a story out in 2 lunch hours, and sent it in. And I won! The story is here if you want to read it. And if you like the story, keep checking back here (or subscribe). I plan to update this blog with my adventures in self publishing. Maybe I’ll even set up a mailing list for people who want to get updates on my journey. My longer term plan is to self-publish a collection of my science-fictiony short stories on Amazon sometime soonish.

Oct 22

Becoming an Accidental Landlord, Part 2

Credit: jen on flickr

Credit: jen on flickr

A while back, in my first Becoming an Accidental Landlord post, I laid out the very basics of how the math of owning a rental house has worked for me. Since my wife and I are starting to think about buying a second house to rent out, it seemed like a good time to follow up with a more detailed look at the numbers behind making this work.

Doing the math

If it doesn’t cash flow, we don’t want it. The reason to own rental property is for it to return a profit to you. If it’s not going to do that, I’ll leave my money in the stock market (even if it is all over the place right now). I’ve seen some arguemnts by people who are willing to own houses that don’t have positive cash flow, thinking that the house will appreciate in value, and they’ll make huge profits when they eventually sell the house. That’s not the game I want to play. I want the house to be putting money in my pocket every month (well, on average anyway).

So when you’re looking at a potential house to buy, you need to be confident that it will be profitable to rent out. The biggest numbers in the equation are obviously: 1) how much will the mortgage payment be? and 2) how much will it rent for?

To get in the ballpark on the first question, you can use a lot of the online real estate sites like Zillow. If you know house price and interest rate, you can get a pretty good guess on what your monthly payment will be. To estimate the second answer, you can do the same thing: sites like Zillow or trulia will give you an estimate of local rental prices. If Rent In is more than Mortgage Out , you’re in the right ballpark, and you can proceed to get better estimates for both of those numbers. If you aren’t at a positive number now, it’s time to look for a different house, or maybe a different area, because the numbers aren’t going to improve once we start adding in all the extras.

So let’s refine the numbers. You can call your bank and pre-qualify for a loan. They’ll be able to give you an estimate of your monthly payment based on your actual credit score and current interest rates. You also need to factor in taxes, whether you let the mortgage holder pay them (my preference) or you pay them yourself.

To refine the rental number, you need real local information. Zillow estimates are probably very good on average across the nation. But what really matters is what similar houses are renting for in THAT neighborhood. For this, I ask my rental agent. My rental agent is going to handle a lot of the day-to-day details of the house once I buy it. She finds the tenants, runs background checks, writes the rental contract, collects the rent, and sends it to me. And since she does this all day long, all over town, she knows what houses are renting for better than anyone else. Of course, all this comes at a cost. The typical rental agents I’ve seen charge 10% of the rent payment each month. Some also charge an additional fee of 1 monthly payment per year, and some don’t. Obviously this has to be factored into your cash flow equation. Some people prefer to handle all this themselves, and keep that money. Since our goal is passive income, the less of the daily details I need to chase down, the better. Our agent has done a fantastic job of getting quality tenants, and I’m happy to pay for that.

So we’ve got got a good handle on the 2 biggest numbers in the equation. Coming up next we’ll look at the smaller numbers that can sneak up on you and bite you in the butt.

Aug 14

Silver cube

Silver cube

Silver cube, scrambled

When the Rubik’s Cube originally came out in the 1980s I was 10ish. I played with one, and could solve a side and the next level. But I could never do the full cube without laboriously paging through a solution book my Dad bought. Once the furor died down, I moved on to other things. Then, last year, a couple of friends picked the cube back up. I was included on their emails as they kept beating each other’s fastest solve times. Finally, I couldn’t resist and started asking questions. What you need to know to solve the classic cube is Bad Mephisto. He does the best job I’ve seen of teaching you how to solve the classic cube. Go to his site and learn the 5 algorithms.

Faster Cubes

I didn’t want to learn to solve the cube fast, I just wanted to learn to solve it. But once you can solve it reliably, you’ll probably want to go faster. The classic cube is fine, but if you want to go faster, it will eventually hold you back. There are ‘speed cubes’ that spin more easily, and also have clipped corners, that allow you to start a turn without the edges being as precisely aligned as the original cube requires. They are also stickerless, so no more peeling stickers. So I got this one from Amazon. With that cube, I average about 2:00 – 2:30 to solve, with a best time of 1:26.

More Challenges

Which brings us to the beauty you see here. When solving the basic cube is no longer daunting, you may find yourself looking for new challenges. This beautiful cube solves with same algorithms as the normal 3×3 cube. But instead of each side being a different color, each side is a different size and shape, so it’s a fun challenge to figure out how to map ‘size and shape’ information onto the color algorithms you already know. And when it’s scrambled it looks fantastic, like a bizarre futuristic building. I got it here on Amazon for about $5, and it always starts a conversation whenever anyone sees it.


Silver cube solved

Silver cube solved

Jul 25

Article Writing with InfoBarrel

Credit: Leimenide on flickr

Credit: Leimenide on flickr

If you listen to Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income Podcast, in Episode #15 you’ll hear his advice on how to get started in online business. Surprisingly, what he recommends that you try first is not to start a blog or a podcast, but to start writing articles for a content site. So I did exactly that, to see what it’s all about. In the end, I didn’t make a bunch of money, but it’s been a great learning tool, and I’m glad I gave it a try.

How it Works

InfoBarrel (and other sites like HubPages) publish articles on a variety of topics that are submitted by regular people (typically not professional writers). The site makes its money by displaying ads on the pages (on your articles), and they split the ad money with the authors. In the case of InfoBarrel, they keep 25% of the article’s ad revenue, and the author gets 75%. There are several advantages to writing for them over starting your own blog. One, it is easy and free to get started as a writer. You don’t have to go buy a domain and pay for hosting. You don’t have to maintain your site, or deal with advertisers; they do all that for you. And second, your articles will get broader exposure on their site than they would on a new and unknown blog. As of this writing, my most popular InfoBarrel article (on How to Wall Mount a Flatscreen TV) has 203 views; quite a bit more than my (new and unknown) blog currently gets.

First, you sign up for a free account, and then you can start submitting articles. The site has an online writing/editing tool (similar to WordPress). You can write directly in this tool, or write offline in a word processor, and later just paste into their editor, which is what I prefer. The editor has a spelling checker and a fairly aggressive grammar checker that will redline passive voice, and even big words that it deems too complicated. They have several criteria you must meet (minimum length, maximum number of links), and then actual human editors must read and approve your article before it goes live on the site. After you have published enough articles, you can become pre-approved, but with only 11 articles, I haven’t gotten that yet.

Once your articles are published, you can track how often they are viewed and read, and how much you are earning.

What I Learned

Like a lot of marketing (and life in general) it’s a number game. Pat Flynn started this when he was newly unemployed and wrote 150 articles in one month. The people that report making substantial regular money off the site have hundreds of articles published. I had nowhere near that amount of commitment or free time, I just wanted to dip my toes in and see what it’s all about. I’ve written a very modest 11 articles in the last 10 months, and even that small number is enough to learn a lot.

1. SEO: Write What People Want to Read

You can write on just about any topic you want, but that doesn’t mean anyone will read it. A lot of experienced article writers do serious SEO (search engine optimization) and keyword research using paid tools, and choose article subjects based on that. Since I’m more or less doing this for fun, I write articles on things that interest me, or projects I’m doing around the house. But it’s still worth learning a little about keyword research and SEO. I go to  SEMrush, and type in the subject that I plan to write about. Using the results from this, I get an idea how to title my article, and what keywords and tags I need to be sure to include.

2. Write in a Way That is Easy to Read

Online articles don’t lend themselves to long paragraphs of unbroken text. If you want people to read all the way through your article, it helps to break it up into very short passages, with easily scanned section headings. Obviously, this writing style carries over to blog writing.

3. Use Pictures

Pictures draw the reader in and make the article more interesting look at. I write a lot of how-to project articles, and use pictures I take myself. But for articles where I don’t have my own pictures, I needed to learn the correct way to add pictures. If you just copy a photo from another page or from google search results, you are most likely stealing someone’s picture. That’s bad, and can get you in trouble. Alternatively, you can pay for stock images. For an article that might earn me a dollar or two, I certainly wasn’t going to pay for a photo. The right way to do it is find pictures that allow free use.  There are several sites that allow you to download stock photos. My favorite free way is to do an advanced search in flickr, and specify that I only want results that are Creative Commons-licensed, and that can be used commercially. These photographs are free to use, as long as you credit the source, as I’ve done with the barrel picture I used here.

4. Get Featured

Once you publish an article, you want people to see it. You can cross your fingers and hope people find it, or you can submit to be featured on the front page of the InfoBarrel site. They publish an editorial calendar every month of the types of articles they want to feature each day of the upcoming month. If yours is chosen, it will stay on the front page for a week. Once I learned to do this, my views and earnings picked up dramatically. Of my 11 articles, 6 have been featured on the front page.

5. Affiliate Links and Amazon accounts

The InfoBarrel generated ads are not the only way to make money on articles. You can also get affiliate revenue from Amazon or other sites. InfoBarrel is pretty picky about this, to keep the site from filling up with spammy ‘articles’ that are really just affiliate ads. You can have 2 external links, and they need to make sense in the article. For instance, if you write a how-to article, you can link to the tools or products that you used. If someone follows the link and buys the product, you can earn a small commission.

6. Backlinks and Sharing

This is an area I did not do much with, although I read a good bit about it. Lots of people advocate promoting your articles on Twitter and Facebook and even on sites that you pay to generate backlinks to your article. This seemed spammy to me. Most of the friends I have on social media are my friends in real life. If they tried to get me to click on a bunch of articles that they likely had little interest in, I’d eventually unfriend them. The few dollars I might make spamming everyone I know was not worth it to me.

In the end, the more I learned about ‘tricks’ to get more views, the less I liked it. It opened my eyes to why a LOT of what is published on the web is written the way it is. I began to realize that much of what is published, even on what I view as legitimate news sites, is written to get clicks and not really to share useful information. It sounds naive of me when I write that, and obvious, but this certainly drove the point home. I decided that I didn’t want to publish schlock to make a few dollars. I’d much rather write things that I enjoy and am proud of, and make less money. And hopefully make the web a better place.

What I Earned

Well, let’s start off with a big asterisk here. I haven’t technically earned anything, because InfoBarrel doesn’t make a payment until your account reaches at least $50. Right now my account is at about $31 and (very slowly) climbing. This is the total from writing 11 articles over 10 months. This averages to $2.73 per article written, or alternatively, $3 per month. But averages can be pretty misleading with a small sample size. In reality, my more popular articles have earned $5-7, and some have earned $0. You won’t buy a lot of champagne and caviar on $3 a month. On the other hand, there was no cost to me to publish them, and I only spent a couple of lunch hours each month writing them.

I may continue to write a few more articles when I have a topic that is better suited to InfoBarrel than to my blog, but for the most part I consider this experiment done. I learned a bunch of skills that help me in everything I do online, so I don’t regret it for a second. But as a generator of passive income, I think (hope) that my limited time is better spent on other stuff.

Jul 15

Berlin again


Another picture from my trip to Berlin. When we saw these parked on the street, my inner car-guy took notice. A discussion ensued about which was worth more. I believe we are looking at a Mercedes SLS AMG here, that sold for about $202,000 new. I have no idea what prices are like for older Rolls Royces.


Anyone have a guess?

Jul 10

3D Printing for Fun (but not Profit)

Assembly 2-063014

3D model of the finished flashdrive

I’ve used 3D printing services in my day-job occasionally for almost 20 years.  Back then, we called it SLA (stereo-lithography) or SLS (selective laser sintering), and we used it as a relatively cheap way to test the form and fit of plastic parts before we committed to an injection-molding tool. The SLA parts might cost a few hundred dollars each, but it was well worth it compared to the $10,000+ we might spend on the mold. It made sense for engineering, but the process was too expensive for a hobbyist to play around with. And every year, in the engineering trade magazines, we would hear that SLA was poised to take off and go mainstream. Soon every company would have their own printers for the engineers to play with. For the most part that never happened.

Then, a few years ago, prices for entry-level equipment began to come down, and it started being called “3D Printing.” And again, it was poised to take off, and everyone was going to have one. I was interested, but a little skeptical. But still interested.

I started looking around the internet and came across a really cool company called Shapeways. They have a bunch of high-end 3D printers; you send them your 3D file, and they send you the part. In concept, the plan is just like the services I had used in the engineering world, but the experience is completely different. Shapeways is set up for the hobbyist. They are online-based, and you can pay with a credit card. No need to deal with sales guys, and business accounts and credit checks. And more important, the prices are an order of magnitude less than what I was used to seeing. So now, if you had any 3D-modelling skills, real parts were within reach of the hobbyist. Even more intriguing is that Shapeways makes it painless to sell your parts to other people. You put your design on the Shapeways site, and other people can order them. Shapeways charges a base amount for material and handling, and you can add whatever amount of markup (your profit) that you want. They take the orders, print the parts, and ship them out. No hassle for you.

I was intrigued to the point that I had to try it out. Since they offer a pretty big variety of materials, from plastics to metals and ceramics, I ordered one of their material sample kits. It cost about $30 at the time, and they gave you a credit for the same amount off your first parts order. I was really impressed with their stainless steel material with a brass finish.  It has an antique look, and it got me thinking of some of the cool steampunk flashdrives I had seen online. So I set out to make one for myself. I cut open an old thumb drive, measured the innards, and designed a retro-looking housing for it.

Metal flashdrive parts from Shapeways

Metal flashdrive parts from Shapeways

The parts showed up several days later, and looked pretty good. I hand-made some little add-ons, and then epoxied the whole thing together. I think it turned out pretty well.

So now I had the fanciest flashdrive in the office. But when I thought about possibly selling them, the numbers didn’t look so good. The metal printed parts are pretty expensive (about $60), and there is still quite a bit of hand-fabricating I would have to do to assemble them into a finished product. So I would need to order parts, pay for shipping to me, then assemble the parts, and ship them out. I would be losing all the advantages of the Shapeways no-hassle storefront.
And I didn’t feel like people would want to pay the $100+ I would need to charge to make it worth my time. So, in the end, I learned a lot about the process, and made myself a cool toy. But I didn’t end up with a sellable product.

Steampunk flashdrive assembled

Steampunk flashdrive assembled

For my next project, I decided to make something much simpler. I’ll go into the story of that in an upcoming post, but (spoiler alert) it’s going to be about this.


Jun 26



I took this picture on a business trip to BerliBerlin leaving american sectorn.

I knew embarrassingly little about Berlin before going, and I was expecting some sort of grim, gray, ex-Soviet place. Instead I found an exciting, colorful city that was as vibrant as any I’ve been to.

I also found that I had learned astonishingly little about the Cold War East-West division of the city in school.  Fortunately, I got a chance to explore the open-air history exhibit that really presented the story well.

Also, if I remember correctly, my picture of the opposite side of this sign, which says “You are Entering the American Sector” has a McDonalds in the background, which seemed pretty fitting.


Jun 18

Speeding Ticket Math

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin vis flickr

Ajax von Kaiserpenguin via flickr

A few weeks ago I got a BIG speeding ticket.

Let me start by admitting that I like to drive fast, and I frequently drive over the speed limit. I don’t drive dangerously or recklessly, but I drive quickly. I have a long commute (don’t tell Mr. Money Mustache), and the fact that it’s been about 9 years since I’ve gotten a ticket (and much longer since I’ve been in an accident) suggests I’m not a menace on the roads.

It was a 45 mph work zone on a 65 mph highway. It has been a work zone there for almost a year now, and in that time I almost never seen any work going on. I now realize that this is because my usual commute takes me through the area before the workers show up. But on this day, I was going in to work later, and there were workers there.

And a cop.

I took my foot off the gas to coast down, and I was going 62 in the 45 when he got me. That ticket turns out to be $526. That’s a lot, and it taught be a very real lesson. I now drive 45 mph in that zone, regardless of the fact that there aren’t any workers when I normally go through it. But I’ve also been driving very close to the speed limit for my entire commute and I’ve seen something interesting: I get a lot better gas mileage.

I commute in a Honda Civic Hybrid. It gets great gas mileage, and it also gives me a lot of mileage information, including instant and average mileage. In my normal above-the-speed-limit driving style, I averaged 42.5 mpg consistently. But in my post-ticket cautious style driving, I’ve been getting around 50.3 mpg. Being an engineer, I tend to want to quantify things, so let’s do a little math here. I’ve been paying about $3.65/gallon for gas lately.

Cost-per-mile of driving fast:

(3.65 $/1 gallon)(1 gallon/42.5 miles) = $0.086/mile

Cost-per-mile of driving slow:

(3.65 $/1 gallon)(1 gallon/50.3 miles) = $0.073/mile

The difference:

$0.086/mile – $0.073/mile = $0.013/mile

So I save $0.013 per mile by driving slower. In round numbers, I commute about 20,000 miles a year, so that’s $260 savings per year in gas money. Or looked at another way, it will take me just over 2 years of driving slower to make up the cost of the ticket I got. Obviously, the best course is to always drive slower, and never get a ticket, and keep the $260 per year savings. I’m not here to preach about driving the speed limit. As I said, I enjoy driving fast (safely). And this story doesn’t wrap up with a nice tidy moral. I’m just interested to know the relative size of the numbers involved. It’s not thousands of dollars, but it’s not pocket change either. So, knowing this, I’m going to make a real effort to keep my speed down and my mileage up, for as long as I can stand it. And to avoid getting any more speeding tickets.

Here in the real world, I suspect that my speed will gradually creep up in the lonely rural parts of my drive, and stay low in the busy areas. I find driving slower adds about 5 minutes each way to my commute, which is already long. But a little reminder of how much my right foot can affect the contents of my wallet is worth keeping in mind.