Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sign Off From Here

With the advent of Blogger's new Label feature, I've consolidated all the special interest posts into my Sudden Disruption Blog.

I'll leave these special interest blogs around for a while for those with links but there will be no further posts here.

See you at Sudden Disruption.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Energy Star Efficiency Myth

For years the Federal Energy Star program has perpetuated the myth that if you buy appliances (or any electrical device) for the home that uses less energy, you'll see proportional savings in your monthly power bill. This is rarely the case.

Other eco-writers do similar simplistic math to calculate savings in money, energy and carbon. A recent example is Charles Fishman's September 2006 article in Fast Company magazine about WalMart's CFL project, "How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change the World?".

The claim is made that if a single light bulb using 45 watts less is placed in 100 million homes, 6.57 billion Kilo-Watt-Hours will be saved. The fact is, unless you are cooling your home, there is ZERO savings. Charles focused on the bulb, but forgot about the home. His entire premise is based on a false assumption. The savings are grossly exaggerated.

"Wasted" energy takes the form of heat. And this heat helps heat your house, if only just a small amount. For most of America, for most of the year, that 45 watts will be automatically added back in by the home heating system to maintain the same level of comfort. If the home is heated with electricity, the savings in dollars, energy and carbon production is literally ZERO.

The only time energy is actually saved is when the air conditioning is running or you have the windows open to cool the house. With the air conditioning on, the savings can even be a little greater than 45 watts, but for most of America that's a small part of the year. What are the savings for the rest of the year?


If you are not cooling your home, EVERY light bulb and appliance is 100% efficient.

Here's why...

The second law of thermodynamics demonstrates that "wasted" energy tends to disperse evenly. And if this "wasted" energy is in your house, it simply keeps you warm. More importantly, it keeps your normal heat source from turning on. Let's see how it plays out in a real home and why saving energy by turning off the lights is mostly an illusion (pardon the pun).

If you have a home in the northern latitudes which is electrically heated much of the year, you are a net consumer of heat. And the nice thing about heat is that It doesn't matter where it comes from. And that's the key.

Take a light bulb that's only 10% efficient. That means 90% of it's energy is converted directly to heat. So what happens to that heat? It spreads out through your house and slightly delays your normal heating system from clicking on.

And what about the 10% of the energy in the form of visible light? Virtually all of it strikes objects in the house. It too is converted to heat. The ONLY ineffectiveness of a light bulb in a northern home in the winter is the light that escapes through the windows, which is a VERY small amount. Even THAT can be stopped with curtains. Which would make ANY light bulb 100% effective at producing heat. Here's how Wiki explains it... Efficiency versus Effectiveness.

Why do I qualify this with northern homes and winter? Because if you have to open the windows to be comfortable, you lose the advantage. And if you have to turn on the air conditioning, this "effectiveness" actually becomes a small liability. So those of you in Florida and south Texas, nevermind.

It's all about heat, where it moves and how we store it. But for most of America, much of the year, energy efficiency is very much an illusion. Effectiveness rules the day because we actually USE that "inefficient" heat.

And if your windows are closed but your heat is NOT turned on? Or not turned on until later at night? Those appliances are still 100% effective. That's because they are helping keep the house warm. They are one reasons your electric heat hasn't come on yet. If that heat doesn't come from one source, it has to come from another.

But what if you're a bit on the warm side in late afternoon but you haven't opened the windows? Again, it doesn't matter. This thermal intertia will delay heating later on. As long as you don't have to cool your house, everything is 100% effective. Let's take a couple more examples.

Electric blanket - 100% effective. If you turn it off, the electric wallboard heating will kick up 100 watts to compensate: net cost of blanket electricty for the same comfort level - zero.

TV, DVD & computer - Left on all the time? No problem, as long as the air conditioning doesn't kick on.

Hair dryer - 100% effective (and only used for short periods anyway), so get every hair in place.

Electric touthbrush - Yep. Even the charger is a perfect machine.

Refrigiator - 100% effective. This is one of my favorites. What does a refrigiator do? That's right. It compresses gas to pump heat from the inside to the outside of the ice box. Where does that heat go? It heats the kitchen! Even the compressor is 100% effective! Once again, it saves energy that would come from electric heat.

Why do I keep referring to electric heat instead of oil or gas? That's because in the past gas has been far cheaper than electricity per BTU. This made electrical devices a little less "effective" (and a little more expensive) in producing that "wasted" heat. Unfortunately, cheap gas is history. The price of oil and gas now approachs that of electricity. There's no big difference. Leaving your TV on is now almost as cost effective as buying natural gas.

This "effectiveness" creates the strange situation where you could turn EVERYTHING in the house off (except for the electric heat) and set in the dark for a winter month with no entertainment or hot food - and your power bill would be EXACTLY same. Try it sometime. You'll see.

This also means you could go out and buy the most efficient light bulbs you could find and all new Energy Star appliances; STLL the power bill would be EXACTLY same. So enjoy your gadgets and think twice before spending extra for "efficiency". Spend your money were it counts.

And where might that be? If there's little advantage to "efficient" appliances, how can we save energy and money? That's another blog post, but start by taking a look at the heat leaving your home through the walls or down the drain as hot water. Those two are your biggest loses.

Heat and air conditioning use 50% of home energy. Better insulation and sealing can save up to 25% of your energy cost for the typical home. But make sure the house still has reasonable ventilation - especially in radon areas. And hot water is about 13% of your energy use, so again, use it carefully. It's not effective to heat up the sewer drains.

Which brings up one important exception to this "effectiveness" rule - the clothes dryer. It blows it's heat outside and also brings in cold air - you lose. It's a good reason to get a clothes line. Or use the dryer sparingly.

There you have it. Now you can sleep better (and warmer) knowing your heat isn't as "wasted" as you thought.

OK. If you still want to know how much of that 65.7 KWH you would save by buying that bulb, multiply it by the ratio of cooling days over days in a year (365.25). The extra air conditioning load will be offset by less probable need for light in the summer. For me in Reno, Nevada that extra efficiency can be used about a quarter of the time (in the summer) which is probably about average for America. This makes WalMart's claim overstated by four times - you decide if that bulb still makes sense.

But why would Fast Company, WalMart and Energy Star not point this out? Simple. It would make the story less exciting, WalMart would sell fewer light bulbs and... and... I don't know what's wrong with the Federal government.

So from now on, don't let some slick magazine make you think a new light bulb will solve all your problems; don't expect WalMart to always save you money. And finally, don't expect the government to set them both straight. When you hear about efficiency, think also about effectiveness.

And quit worrying about your household appliances.

They are almost perfect machines much of the year..

No matter what their efficiency rating.

Please comment if I've missed something.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Remote Control Flying-Boat-Car

This is the coolest RC toy yet. It goes everywhere fast! Air Hog has a similar but less powerful version.

Flying-Boat-Race-Car Video

Thanks for the link Tom.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Netflix Contest Winning Entry : Link from IMDB


I'd like to commend your efforts to improve Cinematch.

But haven't you overlook the obvious?

While you're waiting for some geek to improve Cinematch by 10%, there's a solution that will MORE than DOUBLE the effectiveness of movie search for Netflix.

Let's take this design from the top...

What's the most powerful tool in any search? That's right, the human mind. And when the object of the search is as personalized and subjective as a movie, even when the human mind is wrong, it's right! Take care to keep the customer in the loop.

What's the next most powerful tool in any movie search? That's right, it's IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base). A simple Netflix button on each IMDB movie page would dramatically improve search and selection for Netflix.

Face it guys - Netflix may have a nice site, but it doesn't even get close to what IMDB will do. It's time to mash something up.

IMDB is not only good with movie data, it's actually one of the best (and fastest) examples of TRUE hyperlink searching on the Internet. It's made the Kevin Bacon game kid's play.

Even if you only consider the simple searches by director, cast, crew, or title, you can get around quicker than any other comparable collection of data in the world. EVERY industry should have such text-based search tools.

IMDB is so quick and easy, I've even used it as a spell checker. When I can't immediately find a word in the dictionary, I do some free association with a movie title containing the word. If I can't remember the actual title, I simply cross-reference to one of it's actors. IMDB is THAT fast. IMDB is THAT effective.

And when you consider IMDB's Keywords, user ratings and compound searches, things improve by another order of magnitude. IMDB's Keywords are what Netflix's Genres SHOULD be. It's where you can find thousands of user-defined topics with the movie selections listed by user-defined popularity. Keywords are worth more than 10% all by themselves.

And don't forget the Power Search for when you want to get technical with complex searches. If you can't find movie data on IMDB, you're not likely to find it ANYWHERE on the Internet.

OK. So lots of IMDB movies won't be on the Netflix list. Button data would be a powerful indicator of what to stock next. And it would still be worth it for the ones that are. It would be so nice to click a Netflix button then go on searching at IMDB with no Cinematch splash screen interruption (hint).

Yes, I already copy and paste the IMDB movie title to Netflix for queue additions, and it works fine. But why not make that step automatic? This feature would be FAR more useful than a 10% improvement in Cinematch any day.

And no, I don't work for IMDB. It's just such an obvious solution, it deserves a blog post.

So, get over to IMDB with a busload of lawyers and geeks. With Netflix's volume, there MUST be a reasonable link fee solution. The rest is just standard technology. And don't let NIH (Not Invented Here) get in your way. Do it before one of your competitors does.

And if you still want to give away some money...

Make the check out to Sudden Consulting.

Thanks a million.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Of Digital Watches and Velcro Shoes

Shoes and watches? The common aspect is fashion versus function - one of my favorite topics. Technology advances in fits and starts. Every now and then human nature perverts the technology, and society at large fails to gain the benefit.

Here's how it happens.

Certain technical discoveries are definite, verifiable advancements. They are simply better ways of doing things. The old ways can't be defended on any objective basis. Any attempt is simple rationalization.

On introduction, these advancements get a lot of attention, but then go through a period of being ignored. It's as if cultural inertia requires it to "pay it's dues" in some way.

Or is it a perverse backlash because of how well the new way works? No. It's about price. Social acceptance seems to have an inverse correlation with the cost of the technology. As long as it's expensive, it's cool. In any case, this reticence is driven by what I consider an illogical human behavior - fashion.

The digital watch is one good example. Hewlett Packard introduced the HP-01 digital watch in 1977 and it got lots of press. OK, at six ounces and $650, it didn't sell very well, but it DID get people thinking about new ways of keeping time. Soon digital watches were FAR more accurate, reliable, smaller, lighter and cheaper than analog watches.

Cheaper was the death knell. At first digital watches were cool. But that didn't last long. Once their price fell below that of analog watches, they weren't cool any more.

Watches are no longer a matter of function. They had become a medium of fashion. And "cheap" flies in the face of fashion. When you couldn't use a digital watch to show off how much money you had, you had to find a watch that did. Humans are such strange creatures.

To be fair, in the last few years more of the expensive watches have added little digital versions on the analog face - talk about wasted complexity!

In any case, soon there were $6 digital watches in blister packs at WalMart. Even the better, more functional ones were rarely seen on an adult wrist. If you DO see one, you know you've found a true geek. I wore one for years until I got the watch function in my pedometer.

OK, there was some argument about it being easier to read hands than numbers at a glance, but the argument doesn't stand up considering the typical cryptic analog watch dial. The truth is, digital just isn't cool anymore. It doesn't cost enough.

The same thing happened with Velcro shoes. When they were first introduced, I was amazed at the advancement. Here were laces you could literally apply during those groggy first moments after waking - and still get a perfect fit. Not only that, they were simpler, lighter and didn't come lose - and that was no small advancement.

At the time I was training and running marathons. Until then I my laces would come lose at least once during any long run. I've even had strings come lose when DOUBLE-KNOTTED!

So when Velcro came along, I was in heaven. They were a little more expensive at first, but I didn't care. They were worth it. I had several pair. Technology is WONDERFUL!

Then the price fell. They were quicker and cheaper to make. Velcro was no longer cool. What was worse, they became hard to find. For a while the only Velcro shoes available were from Sears. They were all white and looked like some kind of medical shoes.

The best running shoes also dropped Velcro. Or if they used Velcro at all, it was some useless extra-weight over-strap. This was frustrating. I like good shoes for running because of the hours of pounding my feet take. Velcro was relegated to cheap shoes with poor support. I was forced to go back to old-fashion laces. I actually thought about sewing on Velcro but never got around to it - good one-off design can be VERY expensive.

Finally Sears dropped the white Velcro shoes and I had to resort to the bottom shelf at WalMart, where you can still get Velcro shoes - for $9.87; which is of course the problem. Still, this is better than nothing. I use them for short walks and around the house. But it's a rare geek indeed to follow MY fashion.

Velcro shoes became SO unfashionable, my wife (now ex - could THIS have been a factor?) was embarrassed to be seen with me. Since the Velcro tabs were SO easy to deal with, it seems these shoes had become identified with little old ladies in nursing homes. This was taboo as far as fashion is concerned.

Cause for divorce or not, here it was again. Technology perverted by fashion because of some herding aspect of human behavior. One certainly wouldn't want to be associated with an old lady who couldn't tie her shoes.

Except for me. I'm still no slave to fashion. Besides, someone has to carry the torch until the best of technology finds it's widest distribution. You can tie (and re-tie) old-fashion shoe laces all you want.

I'll continue to wear my nursing home shoes and pedometer digital watch.