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June 23, 2008

Filed under: science»environment

The Work Less Party

For my own reference: One Approach to Sustainability: Work Less.

You don't have to reduce working hours to convince me to recycle and embrace sustainable buying practices. But it certainly doesn't hurt.

April 23, 2008

Filed under: science»biology

Hue Grant

One of my coworkers is colorblind. She's also unlucky enough to be one of the rare colorblind women. In a way, this is handy: it's nice to be able to take this into account when designing graphics and charts. Callouts on pie charts, for example, are important.

It's also a source of fun stories, like when a fellow member of a wedding party told her, "there are pink and gold versions of the shoe you need to buy, but DON'T get the pink ones." (Oh, that's helpful.) She tries to look for the labels on the bottom, she says, in case those list which color variety describes the shoes. And in my favorite quote for the day, she says "if the crayons don't have the wrappers on them any more, I just refuse to play with them."

But I'm surprised, honestly, that no-one has addressed this problem, since there's an easy solution. After all, almost everyone's got a cameraphone nowadays. It ought to be pretty simple to write a Java applet that shows (via graph and numerical readout) the RGB values in the center of the camera's view. It's not perfect, but at least it would give the colorblind a way to compare.

How about it, science?

April 17, 2008

Filed under: science»engineering


For the past three years I carried an iPaq PocketPC in my messenger bag. It served as a mobile copy of my recent e-mail, an address book, ebook, and game machine. In a pinch, I'd even written and filed stories on the go with a folding keyboard (DORK!). But I noticed lately that it was staying in the back most of the time, and that the phone numbers that it shared with Outlook were losing sync with my actual phone. So I bit the bullet and bought a Nokia smartphone running Symbian, thus sating this month's consumerist urges.

One of Nokia's many cool little applets that can be added to the phone is Energy Profiler, which is meant for developers so they can keep their apps from devouring the battery whole. But it's also kind of useful, on a phone that does as much as this one does, to figure out which activities will send you scurrying for the charger first. So similar to Jeff Atwood's post about laptop power consumption, here's a rundown of power usage for the Nokia E51 in common (for me) usage situations. I'll list the average wattage being pulled, as well as the Energy Profiler's estimate of total possible battery life.

  • Standby mode: .05W, 93:27
  • Voice call (tested with voicemail): .56W, 8:09
  • Surfing the Web on EDGE: .94W, 4:50
  • Gameboy emulator: .52W, 8:52
  • Mucking around in Python: .2W, 23:16
  • Writing this post via SSH: .72W, 6:20
All in all, about what you'd expect. Using the cell radio is the biggest power consumer, with data transmission hitting it particularly hard. If this were an American phone and could get onto AT&T's 3G towers, that would probably be even more true. The only surprise is that I figured the Python numbers would be higher, since that includes Bluetooth keyboard communication. Apparently the Stowaway is quite frugal.

But while it's fun gathering this data, learning more about battery tech (isn't that how you want to spend your weekends?) implies that it's functionally useless. Like almost all consumer electronics these days, my phone uses a lithium-ion battery. Unlike old rechargable batteries, it doesn't have a "memory": you don't have to run the battery all the way down before recharging it. In fact, since partial charges don't count as full cycles, in theory you should charge these devices every chance you get and leave them plugged in whenever possible. So in theory the amount of juice any particular application uses is basically irrelevant unless it drains the battery instantly.

On the other hand, I'm naturally forgetful and regrettably sane, meaning it's unlikely that I'm going to carry a phone charger around and make sure it's plugged in every chance I get. Considering that, it's probably good for me to know that I can Python until the cows come home, but I'll only get 1/6th as much time out of the web browser.

March 21, 2008

Filed under: science»environment

Return to Sender

The US Postal Service is launching a pilot "recycle by mail" program for electronics. It's good to see this kind of thing get more play, and it's hard to get more ubiquitous than the post office, so I'd really like to see it succeed. I've found that in my own life, the greatest barrier to recycling is not the expense but the availability: I'll gladly pay to do it, or allow someone else to profit, but if it requires a lot of effort or travel, I'm likely to put it off or eventually give up on it.

November 13, 2007

Filed under: science»creationism


In lieu of original posting, please enjoy John Scalzi's visit to the Creation Museum:

...The guy who built the temple, satisfied that it truly represents his beloved load of horseshit in the best possible light, then opens the temple to the public, to attract not only the already-established horseshit enthusiasts, but possibly to entice new people to come and gaze on the horseshit, and to, well, who knows, admire its moundyness, or the way it piles just so, to nod in appreciation of the rationalizations for its excellence or to clap in delight and take pictures when an escaping swell of methane causes the load of horseshit to sigh a moist and pungent sigh.

When all of this is done, the fellow turns to you and asks you what you think of it all now, now that this gorgeous edifice has been raised in glory and the masses cluster in celebration.

And you say, "Well, that's all very nice. But it's still just an enormous load of horseshit."

And this is, in sum, the Creation Museum. $27 million has purchased the very best monument to an enormous load of horseshit that you could possibly ever hope to see. I enjoyed my visit, admired the craft with which the whole thing was put together, and was never once convinced that what I was seeing celebrated was anything more or less than horseshit. Popular horseshit? Undoubtedly. Horseshit hallowed by tradition and consecrated by time? Just so. Horseshit of the finest possible quality? I would not argue the point. And yet, even so: Horseshit. Complete horseshit. Utter horseshit. Total horseshit. Horseshit, horseshit, horseshit, horseshit. I pity the people who swallow it whole.

The museum, for those who have not been following it over the last couple of years, is the work of Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, and is located in my home state of Kentucky. Thus forcing me, once again, to consider telling people that I'm actually from West Virginia, because that might honestly be less embarrassing.

August 13, 2007

Filed under: science»environment

Sustainable Swag

How much material, every year, gets wasted or manufactured for no good reason except to fill gift bags at conferences? Including the bags themselves? The bag for this conference is not even particularly generous, but I'm still looking at a pair of branded flip-flops, a set of laptop screen cleaners, a mousepad, some kind of IP phone gadget, two magazines, and assorted promotional cards. When I think about the sheer number of CDs, USB Keys, rubber toys, and assorted office junk that gets thrown at conference attendees each year--not to mention millions of branded nylon tote bags--almost all of which will probably be thrown away or forgotten within a week, it makes me shudder.

The tech industry is not particularly good at being sustainable in the first place. There's potential there, don't get me wrong--just by digitally delivering movies and music, we could theoretically save a tremendous amount of plastic and industrial pollutants that go into CDs and DVDs. But as it is right now, hi-tech doesn't usually mean good for the environment. It would probably not make much of a dent in the overall impact if conference sponsors went green with their swag, but it would be a nice symbol.

May 1, 2007

Filed under: science»environment

Mercury Rising

One of the dilemmas for environmentally-conscious Americans is using compact flourescent lightbulbs, or CFLs. They use less power, but contain hazardous mercury. This leads to the fear that CFLs may save energy, but end up poisoning the environment when they finally wear out.

Luckily, it looks like the risk from this mercury source is far smaller than you may have heard. PZ Myers has a post with more information, as well as the details of how conservative pro-industry groups are using this line as part of a wider campaign of global warming denialism.

January 12, 2007

Filed under: science»engineering


Home fabrication machines are now possible for around $2400. Congratulations, we're now one small step closer to post-scarcity.

When I saw this, I immediately thought two things. The first, since the article says the machine can be loaded with chocolate, was "I could make my own chocolate bunnies." The second was to remember how, a few years back and using one of the commercial fabricators, one engineer designed a working pellet gun straight out of the machine.

January 11, 2007

Filed under: science»skepticism

Great Lines from Wired

From an article on the revamp of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge:

[John] Edward didn't respond to an e-mail query for this story; [Sylvia] Browne didn't return a phone call, and neither responded to several minutes of intense concentration.

December 28, 2006

Filed under: science»environment

Book Review: Worldchanging

What's the price on raising your consciousness? Worldchanging thinks it's about $40, including renewable energy credits for the impact of printing the book. If that sounds like a deal, then they've got the product for you--what they call a "User's Guide for the 21st Century." Pretty heavy rhetoric to fulfill, but for the most part it does succeed.

The first thing that you notice about Worldchanging is the cover. A big (600 or so pages) hardcover book in green and grey, it comes with a beautifully-designed cardboard slipcover. It's bright and attention-grabbing, if not terribly convenient. I assume they had a good reason for it. Inside, the book is divided into sections similar to the website, such as "Stuff," "Cities," and "Politics." Each section discusses the problems that we will face in the future, current solutions being attempted, and often attempts to create tie-in for personal action. The chapters are broken up into short, snappy entries, many less than three paragraphs long. It's not in-depth information so much as a jumping-off place, complete with URLs and book recommendations.

The basic idea is that even if you can't do anything about the problems facing mega-cities like Lagos, being aware of them (and being pointed toward reliable resources with short reviews, if you want to find out more) will help you live a more sustainable lifestyle. Solutions start with awareness, the thinking goes, and even a small amount of change in each person's life could make a big impact. In this way, Worldchanging has been compared to an information-age Whole Earth Catalog, which doesn't mean much to someone my age. I had to look it up.

I'd have to say it works, at least on some level. Reading Worldchanging, particularly the chapters on Stuff, Politics, and Business, got me thinking about what I throw away, what I buy, and how I live, if only in the most cursory fashion. Much the same as An Inconvenient Truth, the relentlessly upbeat tone of the book does make these problems seem approachable, even as they're sounding a drumbeat of doom.

A lot of people who pick up Worldchanging will already be attentive to these ideas, since it's not cheap enough for an impulse buy. They'll probably try to loan it out to others, something I'm sure the authors would appreciate. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure whether (or even how) to review this book for purchasing--but I'll definitely recommend it for borrowing, and those short on cash but long on IT should consider browsing, where much of the book's material originated. If you can afford to pay $40 for wider awareness, then that's great. If not, give it a shot for free, especially if you don't normally think of yourself as an environmentalist or a philanthropist.

Future - Present - Past