Digital this, digital everything: where’s the power coming from?

The world seems to have been so caught up in moving everything to the digital way of life that only a few people have paused to ask where the energy is going to come from. Take smartphones for instance; it used to be that phone batteries lasted for days and now they’re a day or two tops. It’s not that the battery capacities have stayed the same, it’s that the phones consume so much power because they’re basically miniaturized laptops that the technology can’t really keep up. So, we’ve gone to a situation where we now need more power to feed the smartphone and tablet usage.

In India, the government has committed itself to building a Digital India. To go digital, you need compute (servers), networking (to move data), data centers (storage); all this takes power, more power than we’re currently using. And, you need power to cool the “machines” that are providing the infrastructure for going digital.

Then, consider the Internet of Things (IoT); you are basically looking at connecting millions of devices to the Internet to enable them to talk to each other, for applications to use, etc. More power needed.

The whole thing is one giant power sucking machine that gets hungrier and hungrier. Just take a look at this Wikimedia graph: World Energy Consumption Chart and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been increasing and will continue to increase. Right now, less than 7% of the world’s power is met by renewables (see this tool). A BP projection says “The share of renewables in the US fuel mix grows to 13% in 2035.

While you keep hearing about renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and biofuels (still polluting, by the way), the growth isn’t fast enough to meet the energy demands. So, where is the power going to come from? A significant portion of our energy wants (not needs) will still come from coal, oil, natural gas, etc., often lumped together as fossil fuels. (I think they should be called buried-CO2-releasing fuels but that’s just me.)

So, you still need fossil fuels and all this talk of renewables and smarter technologies are not going to help unless the power consumption levels out. I’ve seen no sign that this is going to happen anytime soon.

This talk of digital this and that makes me weary and circumspect because it is so easy to get swept away by the hype and the utopian promises. If you think about more digital in terms of more energy consumption, it’s not such an attractive proposition anymore.

As is the case with such posts, I have to say that I’m not a Luddite and that I realize that this is being written inside a browser, stored in a data center, and published on a server. Not to mention the broadband, the laptop, and all the accoutrements.

I get the allure of technology and i get that it has improved things. But, ultimately I think that the path that we are going down is not worth it because what it is leading to is the destruction of the natural world. My fear is in knowing that I am in the minuscule minority of people who think like this.

I want to end with a paragraph of Paul Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology (which, if you haven’t read, you must):

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Maybe we could all pause and consider this “chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine“.

Liar, liar, face on fire

A fascinating article titled Lie Detection (by Mark Williams for MIT’s Technology Review) sheds light on the science of micro-expressions. You know sometimes when people tell you something and you’re able to figure out that they’re not telling the truth–you’re probably reading micro-expressions. An excerpt:

In the late 1960s, Paul Ekman–then a young psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and just commencing his life’s work–filled a San Francisco Victorian with a library of films showing 40 psychiatric patients’ faces as they were interviewed. Ekman, who is now a leading figure in his profession, wanted to know whether he could isolate facial expressions to help diagnose mental disorders. A woman named Mary, who had attempted suicide three times before, smiled and spoke cheerily on her tape. As it happened, she was angling for a weekend pass–so that she could go home and kill herself.

You can even go to the Micro Expressions Training Tool website to learn “how to improve your ability to read micro-expressions”. But, before you do that, do check out the article (link)

Petition for restriction on use of mobile phones

The full title of the Rajya Sabha petition is Petition for Imposition of Reasonable Restrictions on Use of Mobile Phones. Here are the details:

The Committee on Petitions … is considering a petition praying for imposition of reasonable restrictions on the use of mobile phones. The petitioner has contended that the mobile phones are being misused by students, teachers in schools/colleges and other educational institutions and by the public while driving and in public places and places of religious worship.

So, what is the petitioner, Shri Gurjit Singh, a resident of Patiala (Punjab) according to this PDF document, praying for?

(a) Jammers/decoders should be installed in the premises of educational institutions

(b) Cellular phone companies should install apparatus which will not allow the handsets to function on the roads or while driving.

(c) A law should be enacted prohibiting use of mobile phones or carrying it to places of worship, cremation grounds and burial places.

(d) Use of mobile phones or carrying it in public offices by persons should be prohibited by law.

(e) There should be a ban on mobile phones fitted with cameras for the safety of women as it violates their privacy.

I’ve only posted the highlights of the petition and you can read the full petition here. I’d urge you to read it because it concerns you and your mobile phone.

There’s nothing reasonable about the restrictions that this petition requests. If anything, the petitioner doesn’t seem to understand the complexities involved in even attempting something like this, the amount of time and money that will be wasted, and how silly the whole thing is.

If you want to give your opinions on the issue, here’s how you can do it.

Those desirous of submitting memoranda to the Committee may send two copies (each in English and Hindi) thereof to Shri J. Sundriyal, Joint Director, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, Parliament House Annexe, New Delhi – 110 001 [Tel: 011-23034541 (O), 23012007 (Fax) and E-mail: sundrial@sansad.nic.in ] latest by 15th September, 2008, inter alia indicating whether they would also be interested in giving oral evidence before the Committee.

People do sometimes irritate us with the way they use mobile phones, but the mobile phone’s uses far outweigh the annoyances that we have to put up with. Do write to the committee and let your opinion be known; it isn’t every day that you’re given a chance to give feedback to politicians, especially via email.

PS: I’ve a feeling that the email address may be wrong because the person’s last name is spelt Sundriyal, and the email address is sundrial, without the y. Try with the “y” if the email bounces.

How to lose friends and avoid people

An article on CNN.com titled New service helps callers avoid awkward cell-phone moments explains a technology that can be used to go directly to voice mail.

The old song had it right: Breaking up is hard to do. But a free new phone service called Slydial might make it easier to get through that and other awkward moments — without actually having to talk to anyone.

Slydial lets you connect directly with another person’s cell phone voice mail, bypassing the traditional ringing process that often results, sometimes disastrously, with someone picking up on the other end.

If you want to be cold about breaking up, email’s a viable option. The person being dumped won’t like it, but you’re beyond caring about that anyway. The SlyDial service is not just for breaking-up with people but also for when you want to leave voice messages without disturbing someone.

Interesting to note how dumping has gone from Dear John letters to voice mail bypass.

YO, it’s an electric byke

I’d read about an electric scooter some time back, but I didn’t get a chance to find out more. In yesterday’s Deccan Herald, there was an advertisement for YObykes, which is supposedly “India’s largest selling no-petrol two wheeler”.

The first impression I got on seeing the site was that the bikes were geared towards a younger crowd. Then, reading the different YOs reminded me of Yo Momma jokes. An unfortunate coincidence perhaps.

The bikes looks sleek though and there are different models available. I went through the website and one of the models, YO Speed, seems to have a maximum speed of 45 kmph, but the others are restricted to 25 kmph. The FAQ explains it thus:

Why is the speed of the vehicles limited to 25 km/hr only?

It is observed in city limits, that the average speed of the vehicle doesn’t exceed 25km/hourdue to traffic congestion. Also as per ARAI norms, rules and regulations, any vehicle which has power less than 250 watt and speed below 25 km/hr does not require any license or registration.

I wonder if this will restrict the sales of the vehicle given that a maximum of 25 kmph is pretty slow. It’s probably okay in peak hour traffic but at other times you’re pretty much crawling. I could live with 45 kmph but 25 kmph seems a bit low.

The good thing about this bike though is that you’re not dependent on petrol (or any other oil-related fuel) but on electricity. What’s more important is that the bike doesn’t produce any exhaust fumes to Bangalore’s exhaust fume bank. I would love to see this bike in action but I haven’t seen any on Bangalore’s roads. Or, maybe I’ve seen the bikes but have not been able to discern that they are electric bikes.

I’m also unable to find out the price of the bikes but if the bike is as popular as the Reva, we should know more. (I wonder why product websites don’t provide representative prices so people can get some idea of what to expect.)

Check out the media centre for pictures from ads and news clips. Anybody own one of these bikes?

Whose data is it anyway?

From Who owns your friends, an interesting article by Erica Naone of MIT Technology Review:

Technology blogger Robert Scoble wanted help moving contact information for his 5,000 Facebook friends into his Microsoft Outlook address book. He turned to Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect at Plaxo… Smarr gave Scoble a short program to test out, which automatically paged through Scoble’s Facebook connections and extracted the names, birthdays, and e-mail addresses of his friends.

There was just one problem. The program triggered alerts at Facebook, which disabled Scoble’s account. “My identity disappeared,” Scoble says. “If I was your friend, I turned gray–all my information went gray. ” Scoble was transformed from a man with a small town of Facebook friends into a nonperson.

This article illustrates the problems associated with trusting companies (social network providers or others) with your private, confidential information. We can’t get by without giving some information out to companies but the amount of information that people give out willingly boggles the mind.

In the same issue of MIT Tech Review, Bjarne Stroustrup, founder of C++, speaking on the future of the web says:

“The total end of privacy. Governments, politicians, criminals, and friends will trawl through years of accumulated data (ours and what others collected) with unbelievably sophisticated tools. Obscurity and time passed will no longer be covers.”

Yikes.

Refilling printer ink at Cartridge World

If you own a printer, you’ll know how expensive it is to buy new print cartridges. There are refilling centres which will refill cartridges for you but they sometimes use inferior quality ink and can either ruin the cartridge or worse the printer.

Enter Cartridge World, an international franchisee chain that specialises in the printing business.

I went to get a printer cartridge refilled, one that wasn’t working well and they refilled it. I tested the cartridge and it worked fine. The guy at the Koramangala franchise was really nice and went that extra half-mile that makes a difference to you as a customer.

Cartridge World gives a one-month guarantee on their refilled cartridges and they’ll even pick up and drop off the cartridges from wherever you are, for free.

Of course, the benefits of refilling the ink instead of buying a new cartridge is that you also do some good for the environment. That’s good enough for me.

Take Splashtop’s carbon rally challenge

In anticipation of Earth Day (April 22nd), DeviceVM, a company that makes a fast-booting operating system called Splashtop, is aiming to:

raise awareness about how much energy is wasted by computers and other consumer electronics that are left on or in standby mode.

Would you believe leaving your computer on at night generates 51 lbs of CO2 emissions each month? Or that worldwide we could save entire power-plants worth of energy just by switching off our computers each night?

DeviceVM has teamed up with CarbonRally.com to challenge people to make this simple change to help reduce their carbon footprint, and we want as many people to know about it as possible. DeviceVM thinks that technology and the environment should go hand in hand, and we think this is an easy way for everyone to make a difference.

Go to Accept the challenge to get more information.

I am not sure that people leave computers on at home but I used to notice that some did at work. People would leave their computers on when they left for the day, sometimes only for the reason that shutting down would mean that they had to reboot the next day and open their applications, etc. Not a good enough reason to waste all that energy. Get a faster computer or go get a coffee or something.

And, accept the challenge too.

A better world, like a billion times better

Ray Kurzweil, who’s like a really smart guy, writes in a piece (in the Washington Post) titled Making the World A Billion Times Better:

MIT was so advanced in 1965 (the year I entered as a freshman) that it actually had a computer. Housed in its own building, it cost $11 million (in today’s dollars) and was shared by all students and faculty. Four decades later, the computer in your cellphone is a million times smaller, a million times less expensive and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation you can buy per dollar.

Yet as powerful as information technology is today, we will make another billion-fold increase in capability (for the same cost) over the next 25 years. That’s because information technology builds on itself — we are continually using the latest tools to create the next so they grow in capability at an exponential rate. This doesn’t just mean snazzier cellphones. It means that change will rock every aspect of our world.

It’s a fascinating look at how technology could change our world and is worth reading. Here’s the link again.

The dangers of FaceBook

Ari Melber’s article Facebook: The New Look of Surveillance is a fascinating look at the privacy issues with the social networking site Facebook. Excerpt:

Like guests at the Hotel California, people who check out of Facebook have a hard time leaving. Profiles of former members are preserved in case people want to reactivate their accounts. And all users’ digital selves can outlive their creators. As the company’s “terms of use” explain, profiles of deceased members are kept “active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments.”

Facebook’s 58 million active members have posted more than 2.7 billion photos, with more than 2.2 billion digital labels of people in the pictures. But what many users may not realize is that the company owns every photo. In fact, everything that people post is automatically licensed to Facebook for its perpetual and transferable use, distribution or public display. The terms of use reserve the right to grant and sublicense all “user content” posted on the site to other businesses.

Reading the article reminded me of another popular site that I’ve written about on this blog. Social networking is fun I’m sure but putting private information online and allowing people access to the information opens you up to being exploited. It’s best to be aware of the privacy issues and be skeptical rather than trust companies to do the right thing.

After all sometimes executives tend to make Gordon Gecko look good.