The Illustrious Origin Story of Eddy Niels von Yectinbach The Electric Car

In 1998 I acquired a Honda Civic called Sophie. She was a wonderful car, taking me many places: Watsonville, CA; Paducah, KY; Murfreesboro, TN; Hammonton, NJ; Gainesville, FL. We repaired her many times and never thought we would ever need another car. “Man,” I said one time. “I hope we can just keep repairing this car forever.”

Then a deer tried to kill me and we had to give Sophie up to the nice people at the insurance company. Suddenly in need of motorized transportation, I began to explore my options.

“Dear husband,” my wife said during the process, “behold this promotional information from our local electrical company.” She forwarded me an electronic-mail communiqué about a subsidy offer on the cost of an all-new 2016 Nissan LEAF electronic motor carriage.

“I do not think that will suit our many needs, dear wife,” I said. “Thank you for the information, but I would hate to be constrained by the myriad limitations such a transport package requires.” I began looking into used hybrid vehicles.

Then I reconsidered, as my hyperactive brain is wont to do. I realized that 90% of our automotive needs revolve around my daily 20-mile commute to and from the nearby town where I teach. How ever would we take road trips? I wondered. We were under some pressure — the electric company offer was set to expire in less than a week, and the insurance company was eager to snatch up Sophie’s remains. We made lists of pros and cons.

As I pondered, I was invited to join a Facebook group of LEAF owners. I was told I didn’t need to be an actual owner to join, so I did. I inquired about some details, perused the several-years-old Consumer Reports Buying Guides we had lying about, and finally decided to do the environmentally-proper thing.

Imagine never having to buy gas again. Imagine never needing another oil change. Then I realized we didn’t need to buy — in fact, I learned that 75% of those who drive electric vehicles (or EVs, as they are known) lease instead, due to rapidly improving technology. So I arranged for a test drive (it felt exactly like every other car I’ve ever driven), and then said “Okay, let’s do it.” So we did it.

One Story Ends, Another Begins

On my way to swap Sophie for the new car, I realized this was my last chance to play music through Sophie’s system. I put on a mix of very loud hip-hop (Public Enemy, Jedi Mind Tricks, Wu-Tang Clan) and turned the volume all the way to its maximum setting. I expected the speakers to explode or distort horribly, but nothing happened. And by “nothing”, I mean “the awesome music came out real loud”.

At school on the day of the lease signing, I realized I needed to play some appropriate music. Panicked, I checked my iPod Touch to see what I had. I was delighted to find “Electric Avenue” by dub-rock superstar Eddy Grant. “That’s it,” I said to my next-door-teaching neighbor. “His name shall be Eddy.”

I spent two hours at the dealership waiting around and signing paperwork, and then I drove out of the lot blasting “Electric Avenue”. It was a sonically perfect moment. When I got it home, I told my wife about the vehicle’s name. “Niels,” she said. “His name is Niels, like Niels Bohr.”

“No,” I said. “It’s Eddy, like Eddy Grant.” We settled on Niels for a middle name, and then I added “von Yectinbach” because of an awesome name I used once in a short story.

The car came with a standard-looking extension cord for what’s called “trickle charging”: slow electricity from a standard outlet. It can take the car from empty to full in 20 hours. Most days I came home from school, plugged the car in, and it was 85% filled in the morning.

Things got a little tricky when I had to do errands, or we went out in the evening — these things not only consumed more juice, but they cut down on the time allowed for trickle charging. I read stories about people who lost power on the road, and found themselves crawling toward a charger in “Turtle Mode”, a maximum of 5 MPH.

MAX POWER!!

Fortunately, we located and acquired an alternative, in the form of a Clipper Creek HCS-40 EVSE  240V Level 2 EV Charging Station. Similar to the public chargers found in cities across the country, this baby allows us to go from empty to full in a mere four hours. (By the way, anyone looking to have electrical work done in the Madison area should contact Scott Kiel. He is friendly, quick, and professional.)

Even better, there are Level 3 chargers in some spots (including one in Madison and another in Sun Prairie, where I teach) that can fill an EV 80% full in just 30 minutes. (They’re expensive, tho.)

In the future, removable batteries will make life even easier for EV drivers like me. As it is, road trips aren’t really on the horizon. Our car has a range of 115 miles, so I don’t ever plan to take it more than 50 miles from home.

Heat and AC also affect range; as soon as I press the climate control button, the “Distance Remaining” gauge drops 10 miles or so. This isn’t a big deal for me, since I own a good coat and nice gloves. (I never really put Sophie’s heat on more than one notch anyway, except for a few times in the worst bits of February.)

Not Really Mine

The lease aspect has actually given me more pause than the electric part. I’m not used to driving a car that is technically owned by someone else. (This is a profound reflection of my middle-class privilege, I suppose.) I was nervous about applying bumper stickers, because they are sure to have an impact on the residual value. (This is estimated at the start of the lease period, and I pay the difference between the sticker price and the value of the car at the end of three years. Less the electric company subsidy, of course.)

Eventually I threw caution into the wind and bought three cool stickers from Northern Sun, my long-time go-to shop for leftist propaganda. I also found a wicked Public Enemy decal online, and popped it on the rear window. (The cool side effect is the awesome shadow it casts on the back seat.)

Eddy is perfect for us. The back area is a little too small to put Diane’s bike in (as I had hoped to do), but attaching the rack is easy, so it’s no different from Sophie in that respect. With the Level 2 charger I have no more range anxiety whatsoever. Even if I were to drain the battery, I can plug it in at night and it’ll be full in the morning, every time.

The other nice thing is the on-board computer, which recognizes my phone and starts playing music automatically. No more fiddling with aux cables. Hooray! (When I used an aux cord with Sophie, I had to constantly adjust the volume once I returned to headphones.)

Unfortunately, the dealership people didn’t activate something called the TCU, which allows me to connect Eddy to the Nissan App on my phone. As a result I spent several hours trying to sync it up, only to hear from the Nissan Tech Support guy that I needed to make an appointment with the dealer to get it sorted. Apparently it’s a process that takes five minutes, but the guy I spoke to said they wouldn’t have any openings after 4:00 until the end of December.

It doesn’t really matter, because the only reason I want app functionality in the first place is to start the car up in the morning while I’m still inside, and let it warm up while it’s plugged in. On the other hand, I heard recently that the Nissan App is woefully vulnerable to hacking, so maybe I should just leave the TCU unconnected. (Some of the news reports I’ve seen about people hacking into internet-linked cars are distressing. Cars just stop in the middle of the road and stuff.)

All in all, I could not be happier with Eddy. He’s a great lil’ guy, and he even has silly luxuries like seat warmers and a heated steering wheel. He’s kinda bulky, and I can’t wonder how much more efficient he would be if he were smaller. But he’s got really good pickup, and the keyless entry is more enjoyable than I ever expected. (I keep thinking about how nice it would be to abandon ancient mechanistic devices for other locks.)

Plus, we’re going to install solar panels on our roof someday soon. Then — as my lovely wife says — when I drive, I will be “farting out rainbows”. What a time to be alive!

The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

10 Things Every American Should Do When a New President is Elected

1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Know what it says about the rights of every human being on the planet. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other humans.

2. Read the United States Constitution. Know what it says about the rights of every American citizen. Be prepared to stand up for your own rights, and be prepared to defend the rights of other Americans.

3. Build community. Wherever governments or other forces try to violate the rights of people, they have less success when people know each other. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. Reach out to friends and family and reinforce networks of support.

4. Pick a specific movement for good and work with other people. I have been a member of Amnesty International for over 20 years, because I believe in its mission to protect the UDHR. Perhaps you’d like to work specifically to help children, or protect the rights of LGBTQ individuals, or stand up for religious freedom, or defend freedom of the press, or preserve the environment. Whatever issue is most important to you, be active and involved.

5. Stay focused on what people say and do. Avoid demonization and oversimplification. JaySmooth from the website IllDoctrine.com once made a very important video called How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist. If you’ve never seen it, please take three minutes and watch it right now.

6. Learn how to be angry for a long time. As I wrote in my book MindWipe:

It’s absolutely essential for people (especially young people) who fight the power to learn how to be angry for a long time. Otherwise the rage and fury will clot your blood and clog your pores. No one will protect you from the exhaustion and emotional toll these struggles will take; you must protect yourself. And in my experience, bitterness and bile are supreme enemies against which you must be vigilant. Nothing will make you burn out more quickly than succumbing to the belief that there’s no point.

The chapter “How to Be Angry for a Long Time” is on the Medium website. Please have a look.

7. Take care of yourself. Eat well, drink water, breathe deeply, and exercise. Watch funny movies and play fun games. Garden, take walks, or do whatever makes you feel good. Resist the temptation to escape into clouds of oblivion or bottles of despair.

8. Made good art. As Neil Gaiman said: “Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.” Read the comic from Zen Pencils.

9. Find a book about history and read it. I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or perhaps East Timor: Genocide in Paradise by Matthew Jardine. Learn about those people and organizations who have resisted violence and oppression in other places and times.

10. Educate others. If you are unhappy with the result of an election, you must know and/or believe things that other people do know know or understand. Use this opportunity to share important facts and perspectives with which others may be unaware. Stay focused on specific things that people can investigate for themselves. Find common ground where possible and challenge everyone to be their best selves.

On the Prospect of a President Trump

It’s 9:46 PM Central Time and the New York Times just called Ohio for Trump. Things do not look good.

If you voted for Trump because you’re angry about how the economy isn’t helping millions of Americans, I’m with you. We can work together.

If you voted for Trump because you hate the corrupt political machine, I’m with you. We can work together.

If you voted for Trump because you’re fed up with people not recognizing the anger and rage in your community, I’m with you. We can work together.

Let’s find some common ground and fight for a better world.

If you voted for Trump because you hate people whose skin is different, or who speak a different language, or worship a different god, then you can go to hell. I want nothing to do with you. You are everything that is wrong with our country. Please pay close attention to how that hatred causes pain and suffering in the years to come, and change your ways.

Your hatred is never going to make your life better. It will only feed the egos of demagogues and monsters who seek to keep you separated from those with whom you have so much in common.

Everyone makes mistakes. We must learn from them. If you voted for Trump for the right reasons, please pay attention to how little your life actually improves under a Trump presidency.

And for everyone who did not vote Trump — keep your heads up. The people on East Timor never gave up. Harriet Tubman never gave up. Harvey Milk never gave up. They all faced much more terrible conditions than we face. A luta continua, fight the power, keep on keeping on.

Resistance is fertile.

Blueberries, Batman, and Special Education

A former student of mine is now working on an education degree, and asked me to respond to some questions about students with disabilities and special education. With typical egoism, I thought perhaps my response would be of interest to others, so here it is. (A PDF version is also available.)

“Special education” classification is a tool. Like any tool, it is not inherently positive or negative — the moral value comes from how it’s used. (Some tools, like land mines, are almost never positive, while others, like breath mints, are almost never negative.)

I put special education in quote marks because it is, in some ways, an arbitrary distinction based on highly subjective factors. To wit: Its definition from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” If we removed the last three words here, no parent in the world would refuse the same for their own child. Every person is unique, and every child has unique needs. Unfortunately, the incredible demands on our school systems require less individual attention than students really need. Therefore not all children can receive “specially designed instruction [...] to meet [their] unique needs”. (Imagine if doctors had to help patients 30 at a time, the way teachers have to help students.)

As a result, our society believes that the best way to maximize the potential of our limited resources is to provide special attention (smaller classes, more one-on-one time, different facilities) for those students with disabilities. This makes sense, although — again — I wish to insist that such adjustments to the “standard” educational structure, in an ideal world, would be considered for every student in the building.

With regard to physical disabilities, there is little to discuss. Obviously a student who is unable to walk should have an altered physical education curriculum. Cognitive disabilities are more tricky. In part this is due to the labyrinthian nature of the human brain. Only in the last 50 years have we begun to scratch the surface of understanding this infinite organism inside our heads. Consequently, educational policy has constantly reinvented itself to match our understanding of developmental research.

The biggest challenge I see is the schism between short-term and long-term assistance for the disabled child. Leaving aside for the moment the question of diagnosis (to which I shall return, fear you not), we have to understand that what’s helpful for a student in the short term is often diametrically opposed to that student’s best interests in the long term. This is a paradox at the very heart of compulsory education itself: The kid is tired, the kid wants to sleep. But we have to force them into school so they’ll have more opportunities in life, get better jobs, and not be so exhausted later in life. (This presents unique challenges for those educators among us who are anarchists, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The implementation of special ed classifications and modifications compound this schism profoundly. Let’s take a (relatively) simple case like anxiety. (I have no idea where that problem lies on the chart of disability classification, but we’re seeing it all over the place these days, so it’s a common example to interrogate.) When a student suffers from anxiety, the impulse for a compassionate educator is to excuse them from situations where that anxiety is aggravated — speaking in front of the class, for example. On the other hand, a long-term focus must recognize that the student must at some point overcome this anxiety, and find ways to fight through it, to avoid being defined and limited by it forever.

A callous, insensitive teacher will say: “I don’t care about your anxiety. You need to get over it. Everyone has to give a speech, and if you don’t, you get an F.” But an equally harmful educator on the other end of the continuum will say: “Your anxiety makes it impossible to do the speech. You get an A even if you don’t speak in front of the class.” This second teacher is enabling a total evasion of the problem, and ordering the student to surrender to anxiety. Therefore a balance must be struck.

I cannot recommend enough an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called “How To Become Batman” (23 January 2015). The show explores the remarkable case of Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself as a child to “echolocate” (like a bat) in order to make sense of the world around him. He became so skilled at this practice that he can now ride a bike. Even more remarkably, brain scientists have discovered that echolocation allows blind people to form neural structures similar to those created by the eyes in people who can see. (This leads the hosts to literally climb on a rooftop in order to shout: “You might not need eyes to see!”) It’s a remarkable program, and I really do urge you to listen right now. (I also just found his TED Talk.)

Kish’s biggest point, which he stresses at every opportunity, is that his biggest obstacle in life has not been the blindness itself, but the limitations people place on him because of it. He explains that most blind children begin echolocating at a young age, but teachers and adults immediately order them to stop. They worry about social stigma and the kid’s self-esteem.

This goes into another dimension when it comes to safety. Parents obviously want to protect their children from harm, but Kish says parents of blind children need to trust their kids more to explore and learn for themselves where the boundaries of safety and harm reside. The podcast features Kish’s mother, who explains that she let him roam around by himself, even though it was dangerous. Being a child is inherently dangerous anyway, she explains. This independence and self-reliance has obviously served Kish well throughout his life. Now he teaches other blind children how to echolocate and move around on their own.

This is not to say that we should remove all restrictions and supports for children with disabilities. But Kish’s story is a powerful reminder about how urgent it is for all adults — and especially educators — to check ourselves. Our desire to help children in the short-term can easily hamper their ability to become strong and self-sufficient in the long term. I’ve seen plenty of students diagnosed with ADHD use their diagnosis as a crutch to enable unhealthy behavior. I’ve seen plenty of parents and counselors assume that kids cannot perform a task because of a disability classification. This is unkind and dangerous.

Ideally, a new paradigm of mental health and cognitive classification would recognize the perils of “deficit” thinking against some imaginary ideal/normal brain. Instead we could recognize that every person has some varying levels of difficulty when it comes to, say, paying attention. (It’s hard for all of us, especially in our postmodern hyper-accelerated culture.) This could help reduce stigma while also recognizing that such difficulties are not inevitable limitations, but obstacles that can be overcome — or at least ameliorated.

That’s a radical and far-off notion, however, so I’ll return to the here and now, and (as I begin my third page of this long-winded diatribe) touch on some things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Yes, I think all children can benefit from disability testing. But I hasten to add that any such testing (and construction of “special education” accommodation/curriculum) must put the student at the center of the process. So often I see young people in IEP meetings as distant observers, only tangentially involved in the process. I always speak directly to the student, but in most cases I’m the only one.

I did my undergraduate study at New College of Florida, which features no grades and an intensely student-centered pedagogical philosophy. (The motto of New College is: “In the final analysis, the student is responsible for his or her own education.”) Spending four years in this rigorous environment of academic freedom and intellectual responsibility made me into the erudite and indefatigable scholar that I am today. Ten years of standard schooling had mostly trained me to regurgitate answers on tests and then forget the information immediately afterward.

I wish I had some specific ideas of how to make “special education” more student-centered, but I can say for sure that all students must become familiar with the concept of metacognition at an early age, and return to it on a regular basis throughout their schooling. They must start figuring out (much earlier than I did) what they need to get from school, and go after it. Our models of education rely heavily on passive students and rote “learning”, for many reasons. Transforming this mindset will benefit not only those students with disabilities, but all other students as well.

I must close with an emphasis on resources. Everybody talks about “how important education is” and “how valuable teachers are”, but our public policies and budget decisions as a society reflect a very different view. Helping kids individually takes time and money. (Again, consider the chaos that would result from a doctor having to help patients 30 at a time.) Most initiatives aimed at helping students are not accompanied by money for more staff or resources. (Jamie Vollmer’s 2010 book Schools Cannot Do It Alone explores this phenomenon in great depth. He is also the author of “The Blueberry Story”, which is a quick but essential read for anyone interested in education.)

Go to any public school in the United States and talk with the special education teachers about how busy they are. In most cases they are twice as exhausted as the regular teachers — who are plenty exhausted themselves, believe you me. (As I’ve said elsewhere: We call it special education because the teachers are special.)

We like to think of teachers as being capable of magic, so it doesn’t matter if they have 10 kids or 20 or 30. (Well-funded press releases from education-reform organizations like The Gates Foundation declare with great volume the irrelevance of class size. Meanwhile, the private Lakeside School — which Bill Gates loved so much — brags on its website about an average class size of 17 students.)

If we’re serious about helping kids with disabilities, we must pay for that help. It’s not cheap, and doing it right requires great effort from all of us — especially the students. But each of us would want the best, most individualized care for our own children, with conscious emphasis on approaches that will best help kids in the long term. Therefore anything less is an affront to our shared humanity.