Archive for the 'tech' Category

Future Coming Up

I’ve been thinking plenty about the Future lately.  Not about my personal future, not any more than normally, but the Future Of People and Where We’ll Go, and mostly about how I hope it will be pretty cool with spaceships around, and to that we can pull together long enough to make that work.  This is partly because I went to the Air and Space Museum this weekend, and that conjures all sorts of cultural memories of what the Future should look like.  This is also because 2010 is the first year we’ve gotten too that’s a good, round, space-age sounding year.  Also I saw Avatar today, and if that doesn’t make you want some cool space gadgets, and then remember to worry about how humans make moral choices, nothing will.  Not that it’s a morally nuanced movie or anything, but in portraying people as either so flatly evil or so inherently good it reminds you we’re not.

Anyway, we’re getting there, to the Future with the Gadgets, day by day.  Since I’m probably a bit to early to catch the first wave of immigration too the outer planets myself, I’ll have to be content just reading the neat stuff we come up with on the way.  Dig this:  self-assembling solar cells!  That could be cool.  Meat grown in petri dishes!  Barbecue without guilt.  Though Barbecue is so delicious that it’s really hard to feel guilty eating it anyway.  And check out this article on using thorium instead of uranium for safer, cleaner, and cheaper nuclear energy.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to the Future, especially if we get those neat wraparound screens like they have in Avatar.  And if we remember to behave politely once we get into space.

Way to Go, Scientific Inquiry

A teenage kid discovered how to decompose plastic with bacteria, and presented it at a science fair last month!  Bacteria eat almost everything else, so he set out to look for the ones that find plastic tasty. Here I was stuck in my two-months-ago mindset that all the plastic we make and use now is going to be sitting around long after we’re gone, piled up in landfills as vast cockroach playgrounds.  But this guy can make it all go away, like actually go away, not just get broken into tiny pieces, and leave behind just some CO2 and water.  This is also cool, because the kid is from Canada (won their national science fair with this thing), so now we have something else to associate our northern neighbors with, besides *insert your favorite Canada stereotype here*.  Through Wired, an article with details of the experiment.  No word on when this is going to be scaled up, though he’s using some of his prize money to look into patenting it and developing it further.  In the last article, his teacher makes a good point that, even though this research literally clears up all our problems with plastic disposal, it’s not a carte blanche to keep using the stuff, willy-nilly.  After all, it’s not just the disposal that’s a problem, it’s the oil and hazardous chemicals used in the production of it, too.

Next up, a group from the University of Leeds has invented a way to wash a load of laundry with a) a cup of water or less, and b) some plastic bits.  I’m guessing the secret is in the bits, which are of course proprietary.  The new kind of washing machine is going to be able to replace both wet and dry cleaning, and only uses about 2% of the energy of a washing machine today.  And there’s really no need to dry anything after.  They’ve set up a company, Xeros, and the first machines will be on sale in Britain next year, and they’re not projected to cost much more than a normal washer.  We’ll see if they’re still projecting that next year, but with the savings from dry cleaning, energy and water bills, and not having to buy a dryer, it’d have to be pretty pricey to be “too expensive”.

It’s comforting to know that somewhere out there, people are using science on their brilliant ideas, and coming up with totally cool, useful things.  Hard to get really depressed about this whole environmental crisis when you know that.

Until you read stuff like this again, anyway.  Gah.

Getting Rid Of A Computer

First post from my linuxed-up laptop! It’s a great little machine, and I’m happy with my choice.

After opening the box, I realized I’d forgotten to mention another pretty important rating system for eco-friendly electronics. Energy Star is a DOE/EPA initiative to label the most energy efficient appliances, gadgets, homes, building materials, and a bunch of other things. Only products that use a significantly smaller proportion of energy than other similar devices being sold will qualify for the Energy Star seal. Look for their blue logo on anything you’re thinking of purchasing (unless it’s like a banana or whatever, they don’t do food). You can look up the model you want or already have- here’s mine. Energy Star has a much more comprehensive database than EPEAT does now, since it’s an older program.

But enough with ratings. On to the disposal.

I now have a CRT monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and a CPU that I don’t need- and that are taking up a huge amount of space on my desk. They’re all old, but functional. Instead of getting rid of them, or even sending them to a safe electronic waste program, I’d like to donate them to be reused, refurbished, or at least raided for useful parts.

First I need to clean them up- take off all the lovely decorations (4 years of I voted! stickers), and also clean off my data securely (just in case some joker gets hold of my 11th grade English essays). Even deleting your important data won’t remove it securely from your hard drive- that just erases the computers memory of where it is. So if you’ve got anything on there you don’t want found-and you do, if you’ve ever recorded your social security number or any bank or medical information on it- try out something like Utimaco’s free, private-use only encryption software, which offers a secure-delete options for your files- it’ll write over the actual data 100 times, to make it very hard to recover.

The GF has already called the CPU- he wants to add it to his own computer parts empire. I’ll donate the monitor, and hopefully the rest, to Goodwill. They fix up the computers as part of a job-training program, and donate them to places in the community, and that I can get behind. Free Geek does a similar thing in Oregon, and lists affiliates in a few other states. EBay sponsors a program called Rethink that lists potential places to donate, and responsible ways to recycle your useless electronics. Some donation programs take broken electronics to dismember and reuse, or refurbish, so check out their policies before you give up on your broken items. Finally, for information on what happens to improperly recycled electronics, and the hazardous situations they’re creating in foreign countries, check out Basel Action Network’s information. Sobering, and they include links to various recycling groups that responsibly dispose of your stuff, once it’s far beyond gone.

If your stuff isn’t in a good shape to donate, your local government has a hazardous waste disposal area, or it should. For residents of Alexandria, you can take your electronic trash to 3600 Wheeler Ave, Mondays from 7:30 to 3:30. Take proof of residency, and be sure to clean off your hard drives- they won’t do that for you. Check out the Earth911 search bar for local waste disposal, too. It includes business take-back programs and special recycling days that are close to you. And since I know plenty of you have Dells, Dell will take back all of their electronic equipment to be safely disposed of, for free– and they’ll pick up any other kind of computer stuff to dispose of for you, for a small fee. Huzzah for corporate responsibility! Enough to make me think for a minute about maybe buying a Dell. Not that I need one now.

I Bought A Laptop

I’ve been waiting for six years to say that.  I’m still using the desktop and CRT monitor that I took to first year of college.  I’ve gotten used to the hum of the CRT, the whir of the fan, and carrying that sucker up flights of stairs in the 14 times I’ve moved since then.  But she’s starting to object to opening web pages, so it’s time for a new beginning. 

So computers are even worse than the fashion industry for engineered obsolesence.  At least we know that every twenty to forty years, what we wore last year will be fashionable again for a bit.  Not so with computers, or phones, or music players- stupid Moore’s Law, making stuff all faster and more powerful.  Now, I’m no luddite.  Catch a luddite blogging!  (Then call them a hypocrite.)  I just don’t demand very much from my technology.  I’m not a power user, I don’t play computer games. All I want is a speedy computer to check email, write some things, and keep my photos on.  Fortunately, the toasters they make nowadays can do all that, so I’m golden.

I think we’re pretty inured to the idea that a computer is just funl, or just work- a complicated tool- and forget their environmental impacts.  They draw tons of power (especially as much as they’re on now, even if they are getting more efficient) and are manufactured from plastic, chemicals, toxic stuff, and all sorts of hard-to-reuse-or-recycle items.  What did you do with the last machine you got rid of?  Did you throw it out, or recycle it?  Was there a program available from the manufacturer to take it back?  As early as 2002, Wired was writing about the need to prevent computers frrm sitting in landfills, here or in China, leaking mercury and lead.

Fortunately, manufacturers and regulators have gotten on that problem, and now with the whole “green” thing, there’s even a host of ratings systems that compare how companies design, manufacture, ship, and recycle their products.  I wrote about the EPEAT ratings a while ago, and Greenpeace scores manufacturers (Apple, HP, Dell, Lenovo) on cradle-to-the-grave machine management.  Verdant Computing rates products they offer on a few different sustainable criteria.  Greener Computing is an industry-oriented website with some interesting articles on ecologically sound IT, including on the burdens of recycling programs for manufacturersSoftchoice is also more for IT professionals, but it links EPEAT-certified hardware for sale.  There’s plenty of information out there if you want to find out how your computers are made, and what options you have when they’re obsolete.

Maybe that’s why it took me 8 months to research this purchase.

So chew on that, and I’m going to leave you with a cliffhanger tonight what I decided, and what I’m going to do with my old one.  Dun dun DUN!

They’re Asking For It

One of the most popular arguments against government “intervention” in alternative energies and the green economy is that government regulations are always inefficient, they slow the natural progress of the economy, markets work best when they’re totally unfettered, etc. Stuff like that. The jatropha-in-Myanmar post a couple of days ago might even lend that argument some support.

But the capitalism-loving, -touching, and -squeezing heads of huge companies like BP, GE, and Dow Chemical disagree- they’re urging the government to come up with a coherent energy policy that favors energy efficiency, clean fuels, and even carbon taxes. They contend that the piecemeal regulations the Bush administration half-heartedly doles out are costing America jobs, and US companies the chance to compete internationally. Apparently, since European countries tend to take alternative energies like nuclear and wind seriously, their governments have created favorable investment climates around those technologies- and the clean tech money is settling abroad.

GE’s Chief Executive Jeff Immelt makes a case for government subsidies, carbon trading, and investments in clean technology from a purely business standpoint- and to the free-market crowd, he has a response. From the WSJ’s “Environmental Capitol” blog:

And government largess helps drive progress—like in GE’s aircraft engine division half a century ago. That admission riled free-market types in the audience (and on stage) who took him to task for subsidy-hunting and accused him of—gasp—betraying his capitalist credentials.

“Don’t worship false idols,” he countered. “The government has its hand in every industry. If we have to have them, I’d prefer they were productive rather than destructive.”

Defending the “free” market is quixotic in the most literary sense, as the pure market is the pure Dulcinea: entirely a product of fevered imaginations. I’ve ranted about it here before, but observe that very successful capitalists realize this, and gamely play the market (and government) by the existing rules. There’s money to be made in clean technology (even capitalists who think global warming is a fraud know this and invest accordingly), and there would be even more of it if the US government stopped noodling around.

Last month, BusinessWeek reported on how the Bush Administration’s failure to lead on clean energy policies has left it to the states to invent their own. The magazine pointed out that a sustained federal push was essential for bringing the US up to speed in a clean tech economy already dominated by foreign companies- but not to hope for that push from Mr. Bush.

Maybe next year your dreams will come true, practical capitalists.

Why DIY?

I’ve been inadvertently posting lots on handmade things and crafting in the past few days. It’s on my mind because with work, school, moving, and weekend commitments, I’ve currently got three or four projects started…and left. I am literally itching to continue them. Literally.

My current works in progress:

1) scarf, knit (3/4 inch done) (but I have the supplies and I’ve decided on the pattern and it’s sized right finally, so it’s less lame than it sounds) (still pretty lame, though)

2) quilt, sewn (numerous squares cut. need to learn to “quilt”)

3) Weighted Companion Cube footstool (frame built, fabric almost ready, lots of stuffing and sewing left) (I feel especially bad about the delay on this one, since it’s for the Gentleman Friend’s birthday, which was over a month ago)

That’s all I can think of now, but once I get my fabric scraps out I’m sure I’ll remember- or think of- a few more. Maybe I should block off some time this weekend to get started on a few of those again. Or one. I should pick one, and finish it. Or go back to the Salvation Army to find unravelable sweaters…no! I will pick one. One that I have started.

Clive Thompson at Wired wrote an interesting article on the pull of Doing It Yourself, and how the growing movement to make things may save our souls. Or the world, or at least some money.  I think he’s got a great point.  I’m a mechanical engineer, and instead of ever showing us machines and their workings, our curriculum was 95% math and book-learning.  If it weren’t for a particularly uppity and old-fashioned professor (he walked straight out of 1955, proudly, and insisted on hands-dirty labs) I might never have learned what a pump looked like, or seen one work.  When I talk to older engineers, I’m ashamed of my total lack of knowledge on useful things, and the rest of my shop and home-ecless generation probably feels (should feel) the same way.  Unless, of course, they were smart enough to learn it on their own.  Knowledge is pitched as books and computers now, and that’s not going to be very helpful when the apocalypse comes.  I’m hedging my bets by learning a few actual skills, so I don’t get eaten first…

What do you think- books and computer simulations vs knowing how and what to weld?  Do we have time to know the “old” skills and learn the new ones?   Will the new wave of DIY-building robots from toasters translate into an intellectual renaissance?

Oh my, California

Sure, we’re all a bit jealous that they’ve got fantastic mountains and beaches and vineyards just laying around, and it’s easy to roll their citizenry into one granola-munching stereotype, but whatever you look askance at them for, you have to admit they sure come up with a lot of interesting ideas. Some better than others, of course. In a proposed set of building energy efficiency standards, due to be approved on January 30th of this year, the California Energy Commission mandated the installation in all homes of a “Programmable Communicating Thermostat”. The PCTs would be linked into a radio network controlled by energy utilities, and if there was an emergency or demand was too high, those utilities could remotely change the level of the thermostats to reduce loads on the power grid. Faster than you can say “Eric Blair”, people got all worked up about government interventionism. Rightly, I think- it’s an interesting technology, and it’s a useful application of it, but even if the mandatory nature of the box installation doesn’t bug you, the vagueness of the rule should.

The thermostat control would be exercised only in cases of need… said Adam Gottlieb, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission.

Utilities know how to interpret the new mandate, he said, and when to apply it, even though the definitions are not specified in the document.

Exemptions for people with health problems and other special cases were also promised, but no mention of them is made in the standards. As quoted in the IHT, a spokeswoman for the pilot program of the radio network controlling the thermostats said the network is secure and impossible to hack, which I think is spokespersonese for “Will you stop asking me technical questions if I say it’s foolproof?”

Since the kerfluffle, the standard has been changed, to make opting into the radio-control part of the program optional- but installation of the devices in new buildings remains mandatory.  What have we learned?  California isn’t as government-control-happy as some people like to imagine, and invocations of “Big Brother” are getting really boring.  Won’t someone please write a new definitive work of fictional authoritarianism so we can beat that to death for a while?

As much as I don’t like the idea of the mandatory participation in the fuzzily defined program, if I lived in California, I’d sign up to let them radio-control my thermostat.  Honestly, it won’t do them much good- my thermostat is accurate to within 10 degrees, and I lose all the heat or AC out of my unsealed windows 15 minutes after my unit shudders off, so I don’t keep it on much (and while it’s on, it sounds like someone is driving a dump truck up and down my hall- but that’s only annoying for me, really).  And if they worked the program out to be more specific and secure, to include the special exceptions, and to be more open to public debate in the first place, well, I’d probably be ok with doing it involuntarily.  After all, it’s a public utility- it’s not a right- and we’re happy enough paying to use its juice the rest of the time.   But when things get rough, we refuse to unplug the TV or put on a sweater?  Good grief, it’s not like they want us to pay for the electricity we don’t use- it’d even lower your bill some.

If you want a steady supply of electrons to keep your fishtank and lights and Cuisinart and AC on all the time, build your own plant, and suck off that- no one is making you connect to the grid in the first place.  Duuuuude, if we all had solar panels or windmills or biomass collections for our composters, the grid wouldn’t be stretched so thin already.

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