One Person's Junk is Another's Treasure

When I was on vacation a few weeks back, a friend had related a story to me of a proprietor of an electronics shop who also repaired TVs, but was lamenting that TV repair business has been dropping off, for similar reasons as described by Rhett in The End of the Throwaway Appliance

Why would you repair an appliance if it is just a little bit more to buy a new one? Even if I did spend $100 to fix my washer, who knows – something else might break next week. In too many cases it’s just simpler to buy a new thing than to repair. I think this sucks.

I don’t share Rhett’s optimism that the problem of throwaway electronics can be fixed — his solutions will work, but only a sliver of the population has the technical skills and/or tools to implement them.

(Another reason the TV repairman’s business was dropping off was that it was taking weeks to get parts for one of the popular brands, and nobody is willing to wait weeks to get their TV back, when a new and bigger/better on is available right now.)

I can think of an alternative.

Here is the real problem. I wasn’t exactly sure which part was broken. The control panel costs about $100 and the control board has a price around $120. On a gamble, I could order the control panel (pretty sure that’s where the problem was), but what if I’m wrong? I could possibly return the piece but the whole process could take a significant amount of time.

What if you had ten broken washers, or TVs, or whatever, of the same make and model, or at least had compatible internal parts? They would probably not all have the same problem, so you could swap parts around and get some of them working, either as a diagnosis (you’d then buy the parts you needed) or as a working product. If people are just tossing their old products out, that may require a trip to the landfill or some other disposal site — an enterprising person could offer to haul them away — at no cost to the owner! — and then sell the fixed machines. It’s mainly a matter of how many you could fix and sell in a given amount of time, and having enough space to do the work.

I know back in grad school I’d seen ads saying “we’ll haul away your old washer/dryer”, so I assume that’s what they were doing, but I don’t know if that’s still a thing with the more computerized machines of today. I think that this is a more viable solution to the throwaway appliance — leverage some economy of scale to make it into a refurbished appliance.

STEMming the Myth

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

A pretty good summary of the situation, I think, including the point that making more students scientifically literate is not the same as churning out more science majors.

Also, this:

Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check.

Copyright and Trivial Efforts

I am linking to How does copyright work in space? where I read the summary even though the actual article is at The Economist. That’s because while the subject of the complexity of copyright is interesting, or possibly depressing, what got me was this comment

We live in a world where sending a guitar into space is trivial while ironing out rights agreements is the tough part.

I understand the sentiment, but I’m also bothered by the characterization of sending anything into space as trivial (and besides, copyright is hard because we choose to make it so). Too often, “trivial” is a tag placed on an effort when someone else does it. It reminded me of a comment one of my previous commanding officers had made to the research group of which I am a member, which was basically that because of his past experience, he had the appreciation that most of the work that goes on in getting a job done happens behind the scenes. In our case, that building a top-of-the-line atomic clock isn’t easy, and that the uninformed often look at the final product (or result) without the comprehension that 90% or more of the project is invisible, like an iceberg. Making it look easy doesn’t mean it is easy.

Which is why I want to point out that putting a guitar into space, like many endeavors, isn’t trivial. I would also count some of the efforts of my former shipmates, such as operating a nuclear submarine, or landing an airplane on a tiny postage-stamp of a flight deck bobbing in the ocean. At night, even. A lot of really hard work and discipline go into achieving these things, and that you only rarely hear about failures of such efforts is pretty frikkin’ amazing.

Apple in Hell

Matt Groening’s Artwork for Apple

For anyone unfamiliar, Apple hired Groening to produce illustrations for a brochure about Macs that was aimed at college students. At the time, Groening was best known as the artist of the comic Life in Hell, as The Simpsons has not yet premiered. The brochure was titled, ‘Who Needs a Computer Anyway’ and interspersed Groening’s Life in Hell style illustrations with standard information on Apple’s Mac computers.

I Spy, With My Mannequin's Eye

Bionic Mannequins Spy on Shoppers to Boost Luxury Sales

“Any software that can help profile people while keeping their identities anonymous is fantastic,” said Uché Okonkwo, executive director of consultant Luxe Corp. It “could really enhance the shopping experience, the product assortment, and help brands better understand their customers.”

While some stores deploy similar technology to watch shoppers from overhead security cameras, the EyeSee provides better data because it stands at eye level and invites customer attention, Almax contends.

A few interesting peripheral observations about the concern that customers are being profiled and whether that constitutes an invasion of privacy. I think it’s similar to resistance to the photo-radar and red-light cameras I’ve seen here in the US: for some reason, when a person does it it’s acceptable but when a camera is involved, it becomes objectionable. People can observe you in stores, and it’s not like this information is private — anyone can estimate your age group, determine your gender (unless you’re Pat) and make a guess as to your racial makeup. (Though if you knew the greeter at the store was doing that and recording it, you’d probably find it to be creepy). So I wonder if there will be any formal objections, or if it will fall under the rubric of “irksome technology” mentioned at the end of the article.

Visa, Visa, Who's Got a Visa

I’ve linked to some articles on H-1B visas before and it’s fair to say I’m not a huge fan because it seems obvious to me that the system has morphed into a loophole for letting businesses hire cheap foreign labor and drive down wages under the pretense of the lack of domestic workers. I have a hard time reconciling the arguments that we have a scientist glut with the cries of businesses who can’t find STEM workers and need to import them.

Well, it seems that IBM is one of the more blatant abusers of the system

More Proof that Visa Abuse Is Instinctive at IBM

IBM: “The Cost Difference Is Too Great for the Business Not to Look for” H-1B Workers

Companies are willing to ignore available Americans even when they say they “urgently” need workers.

H-1B workers are cheaper than Americans — “and the cost difference is too great” for IBM not to look for foreign workers first. The H-1B statutes are designed to allow employers to legally pay H-1B workers less than Americans and IBM (and a lot of others) is taking full advantage.

The H-1B visa quotas are important — IBM would only hire Americans when “visa-ready resources” were not available. The quotas put in place a stopping point where employers can no longer ignore American applicants.

The Modern Soylent Green: The People are the Product

By now we’re pretty used to being the product, as many of us participate in online activities like Facebook or Twitter, and/or photo-sharing sites, where we provide the content. (On some of those sites, what we post actually becomes the property of the host. Read carefully!) Here’s another example of being the product:

Award-winning footstep energy to help power shopping centre
Pavegen. Renewable energy from footsteps.

Each tile has a capacity of 6 watts, but in order to use the tile’s full capacity, there needs to be a constant flow of about 50 steps / minute.

The reality is that the tiles are seeing about 5 steps / minute, and on a good day, the kinetic sidewalk will generate about 75 watt-hours of electricity. This is equivalent to powering an old 60-watt incandescent lightbulb for about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Let’s start with the obvious: one could take the view that this is stealing. Someone is taking work you (the actual physics definition of work, at that) and using it without paying you. It’s also being advertised as being green and self-sustainable. It also needs to be cost-effective. Is it?

Let’s run the numbers. The pad flexes ~5mm when you step on it, so that’s about 5 Joules of work for a mass of 100 kg, so that’s roughly in agreement with the 50 steps/min giving 6 Watts, assuming high efficiency. 75 W-h is 270 kJ of energy. At an electricity rate of $0.12 per kWh, this represents a penny of electricity.

A penny.

The device has to be less than 100% efficient and your body’s conversion of food into the energy being harvested certainly isn’t (I’ll assume around 25%), so at 4.18 kJ per Calorie, the people providing this energy collectively burned about 270 Calories, which came from the food they ate. The cost of that food can vary widely, but it’s going to be on order of a dollar, making this system’s cost efficiency about 1%. (This won’t change at higher power production, either) And here’s where (and why) the claims of “green energy” fall apart. Touting human power as green is dubious, because you don’t know where the food came from, but odds are it’s not all that “green”, and to tout this as a replacement — at 1% efficiency — means that the people providing the energy need to have 1/100 of the carbon footprint of the raw electricity. Transporting the food, preparing it, etc. has to be greener than the energy it replaces by a factor of 100, and there’s no way it is. This is a misdirection, moving the carbon footprint issue out of immediate sight, asking us to pay no attention to the carbon footprint behind the curtain. Human power is not green — the only time it works is if you are harnessing energy that would otherwise be wasted, similar to regenerative braking on electric cars.

Is it cost-effective? I couldn’t find a credible price anywhere, save for a promised target of $50 per tile once production ramps up. Installation is probably the largest cost, along with some infrastructure of wiring, batteries and an inverter. At the target traffic load giving an output of 6 Watts, even if the traffic were present all day long, that’s 1 kWh per week per tile. At $0.12 per kWh saved, that’s just barely $6 a year in electricity savings. The tiles were installed at a tube station at the Olympics and generated just 20 kWh from 12 tiles. The olympics ran 16 days (the story says two weeks); it’s ballpark agreement either way. 20 kWh is $2.40 of electricity.

Unless I’m missing something, there’s no way this is cost-effective. You can pay for it out of your advertising budget, raising awareness of, well, something, since it’s not green, which means it’s just a gimmick.

Give Me a Pallet and I Can Move the World

The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy

Companies like Ikea have literally designed products around pallets: Its “Bang” mug, notes Colin White in his book Strategic Management, has had three redesigns, each done not for aesthetics but to ensure that more mugs would fit on a pallet (not to mention in a customer’s cupboard). After the changes, it was possible to fit 2,204 mugs on a pallet, rather than the original 864, which created a 60 percent reduction in shipping costs. There is a whole science of “pallet cube optimization,” a kind of Tetris for packaging; and an associated engineering, filled with analyses of “pallet overhang” (stacking cartons so they hang over the edge of the pallet, resulting in losses of carton strength) and efforts to reduce “pallet gaps” (too much spacing between deckboards). The “pallet loading problem,”—or the question of how to fit the most boxes onto a single pallet—is a common operations research thought exercise.