Technology

Quantifying the Self

 I track, therefore I am

Were he still alive, my father would be 100 years old this May. He was born at the family farmhouse in Smith Center, Kansas.  Because he was born at home with the help of a neighbor acting as a midwife, he had no birth certificate. The first time it was a concern was when he joined the Navy prior to World War II.  As I recall, he had to get “affidavits” from a number of people in order to get a “delayed” birth certificate.  Of course, in subsequent years data about his life were collected including: marriage license, social security, census, real estate records, employment records, health insurance, pension plans, and, finally, death certificate.

Fast forward to today, and it is obvious that my father was a statistical mystery compared to you and me. Thanks to scandals like NSA data mining, The questions we are now asking ourselves are-

Was 2013 the year online privacy died? Or was it the year that people paying attention realized that their online lives—and all their data and communications—was low-hanging fruit that was being picked and parsed by big government and big business?

Today it is  common knowledge that data are automatically and silently being collected by businesses and governmental agencies to track our behaviors online. For many of us, this is a dangerous invasion of our privacy. For others, however, data mining presents incredibly exciting opportunities. The leading-edge of this group are part of the newly emerging “Quantified Self” movement. The Quantified Self movement has individuals dispersed throughout the world -self-quantifiers- who are not only producing troves of data by virtue of simply going about their daily on-line business, but who are becoming conscious consumers of the data they produce.

So, for example, using various data collection devices along with computer applications, they can see if physical activity data collected on weekdays result in more exercise and more sleep than on weekends. They can then begin to hypothesize, form some sort of explanation, as to why a difference may or may not exist. In other words,  they can use personal data to conduct scientific, statistical analysis and use the results to make changes in their lives.

The term “Quantified Self” is attributed to Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, editors affiliated with Wired magazine, who used it informally in 2007 as the name for a local collaboration of users and technology toolmakers who are interested in automating the collection of data.  As public awareness grew and as new devices and technologies are becoming more familiar to consumers, the Quantified Self movement grew dramatically. Today, QSers communicate through local “MeetUp Groups” in many cities throughout the world and through a Web Site where community members share information through forums and videos. There are also annual conferences in America and Europe where “the global community of self-trackers and tool makers can meet and share”. The 6th annual QS European Conference will be held this May in Amsterdam.

I find the QS movement tremendously intriguing. There are any number of interesting implications surrounding what it means to quantify yourself. To what extent are you your data?  In September I started using a fit bit activity tracker. Just one of many devices that allow anyone to begin to track and analyze personal data, the fit bit allowed someone like me to dip a toe into the QS movement without tremendous time or effort. I will talk more about my personal experiences in subsequent posts. If any of you have had your own experiences with self-tracking let me know.

The Episode of the Platinum Coin

We first began to hear of the $1 Trillion Platinum Coin solution to the debt ceiling earlier this month from people like Joe Weisnethal at The Business Insider. Soon there was speculation from commentators at staid, reliable sources like The EconomistThe Atlantic, and The New Yorker.   The idea was that there was an obscure law that would effectively permit the Secretary of the Treasury to bypass the debt ceiling by minting its own money. Most of the discussion was about the legality of it all. It turned out that it was, in fact, legal.

The Secretary [of the Treasury] may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

Now, if we still lived in a world of print journalism, the Platinum Coin solution might have remained an interesting idea. Not an idea to be taken seriously, however.

Of course, in the world of instantaneous internet communication what really happened is that the Platinum Coin story went viral and all sorts of people, including Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman,  were taking it very seriously. In fact, Krugman attacked comedian Jon Stewart for not taking the idea seriously followed by Stewart attacking Krugman for attacking him….
The whole farce ran its course when the Obama Administration was forced to state officially that it rejected the $1 Trillion Platinum coin solution.

The roller coaster ride that was the “episode of the platinum coin” is instructive. Ideas are floated, commented upon, and either accepted or rejected before most of us have had a chance to digest them, let alone think deeply about them. And, who do we look to for reliable information: a Nobel Prize winning Economist, or a comedian, or any of the other “voices” available to us on-line? I did a Google search for “the trillion dollar solution” and got 88,700,00 results in .19 seconds.

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A search for “Platinum Coin Debt Ceiling” resulted in 74,700,00 hits in .25 seconds.

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What do I do with that information glut? Back in the days of the Progressive Era there were journalists who served as “muckrakers”, exposing social ills to the general public. If public outcry reached a critical mass, legislation would result. But, the process would take years. Today the outcry is practically instantaneous and policy makers are forced to rush to judgement.
Update:  A colleague sent me this:
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The Federal Reserve, several decades ago, authorized the printing a $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson on the face. This bill wasn’t meant for public consumption. Instead, it was used by the Federal Reserve to settle internal accounts among government agencies and its member banks. It sounds like the same idea as the Platinum coin, just a different denomination. I guess even the craziest ideas are not new.

Solar Panel Breakthrough

alta-solar-mat-smThe U.S. government has certified Alta Devices as having created the highest efficiency solar panel in existence yet. Friday the California startup announced its first product: A flexible, extremely lightweight and fully portable solar charging mat designed for the U.S. military, which also achieves the highest efficiency of any such solar portable charging device used by the armed forces.

Alta Devices’ new solar charging mats come in two sizes with differing energy outputs — 10-watt and 20-watt, both which offer world record energy efficiency of 24.1 percent, an increase even from when Alta was first certified by the U.S. government in February 2012.

The major technological advance behind Alta’s record-setting ultra-flexible solar panels is a material called gallium arsenide, a byproduct of aluminum smelting combined with arsenic, which turns out to be perfect for solar panels because it can withstand high temperatures and be sliced extremely thin — one micron thick — or about the thickness of a human hair in Alta’s case. Alta has filed 77 patents on its advances.

Alta’s new invention clearly fits in well with the U.S. military’s continued efforts to power more operations with clean energy, but the consumer electronic industry is extremely interested in what Alta has to offer for consumer mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, too.

Alta’s reference military charging mats are merely a vehicle for the company to pursue a much grander ambition: Pure solar-powered mobile energy for every major use case — consumer devices, autos, aircraft, anything that’s not fixed or stationary (although the company plans to expand to that market as well, once its already conquered the mobile charging market.)

AltaDevices’ Web Site describes the exciting directions the company is exploring. There is an interesting Idaho connection. The CEO of AltaDevices, Chris Norris, was born and raised in Howe, Idaho.

Otter Faces Facts

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Idaho Governor Clement “Butch” Otter appears to have faced the fact of educational reform. The voters spoke and the Luna Laws lost. He hasn’t given up on educational reform, but he appears willing to go slower and try to include all interested parties in the discussion. He has asked the Idaho State Department of Education to form a group to determine if there is legislation that would have broad based support. If so, it would not be until 2014 that the legislature might consider such legislation.

Here is part of Otter’s statement.

After voters on November 6 rejected the process, pace and policies for improving Idaho’s education system enacted in 2011, it became the task of everyone who cares about the quality of Idaho public schools to constructively continue that conversation.
My staff and I spent the next several weeks reaching out to educators, business leaders and Idaho citizens about staying engaged. Now that I’m optimistic we have a critical mass of interest, I’ve asked the State Board of Education to shepherd a statewide discussion about school improvement.
I’m asking the Board to guide the work of a broadly representative group of concerned Idahoans in studying best practices in school districts around the state and using data and experience to drive sound decision making.  The group is likely to be large, but only large enough to include the diversity of opinion needed to properly study such a complex issue.
I’m not going to direct the discussion or the issues covered in any way. There must be no “third rail” in this conversation. But I am asking participants to come to the table ready to speak openly and candidly, and to bring ideas.  I will not be prescriptive other than to say I remain committed to equal access to opportunity for our children and to increasing support for our educators.

Should legislation be necessary for school improvement efforts I expect this group to build consensus around those ideas by the 2014 legislative session.  It is imperative that our partners in the Legislature engage in this process and I am pleased to have the support of House Speaker Bedke and the Senate President Pro Tem Hill in balancing this fragile dynamic.

The Bloom Box – Fuel Cell Solution?

60 Minutes had an interesting segment on the “Mystery Fuel Cell”, the Bloom Box. Unlike most fuel cells, this one is past the prototype stage and is actually being used to provide power for a number of major corporations.

K.R. Sridhar invited “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl for a first look at the innards of the Bloom box that he has been toiling on for nearly a decade.

Looking at one of the boxes, Sridhar told Stahl it could power an average U.S. home.

“The way we make it is in two blocks. This is a European home. The two put together is a U.S. home,” he explained.

“‘Cause we use twice as much energy, is that what you’re saying?” Stahl asked.

“Yeah, and this’ll power four Asian homes,” he replied.

“So four homes in India, your native country?” Stahl asked.

“Four to six homes in our country,” Sridhar replied.

“It sounds awfully dazzling,” Stahl remarked.

“It is real. It works,” he replied.

He says he knows it works because he originally invented a similar device for NASA. He really is a rocket scientist.

“This invention, working on Mars, would have allowed the NASA administrator to pick up a phone and say, ‘Mr. President, we know how to produce oxygen on Mars,'” Sridhar told Stahl.

“So this was going to produce oxygen so people could actually live on Mars?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Sridhar replied.

When NASA scrapped that Mars mission, Sridhar had an idea: he reversed his Mars machine. Instead of it making oxygen, he pumped oxygen in.

He invented a new kind of fuel cell, which is like a very skinny battery that always runs. Sridhar feeds oxygen to it on one side, and fuel on the other. The two combine within the cell to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity. There’s no need for burning or combustion, and no need for power lines from an outside source.

Go here to see the full 60 minute segment.

Idaho National Lab and the Nanoantenna

Ira Glass of NPR’s Science Friday interviewed Dr Steven Novack, Physicist and Lead Researcher on the Solar Nanoantenna Project at the Idaho National Laboratory, today. Novack’s team has invented a new method to absorb solar energy that is much more efficient than traditional solar cells. The discussion was fascinating. If you didn’t get a chance to hear it, the podcast is worth downloading.

According to an INA news release,

Researchers have devised an inexpensive way to produce plastic sheets containing billions of nanoantennas that collect heat energy generated by the sun and other sources. The technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, is the first step toward a solar energy collector that could be mass-produced on flexible materials.

While methods to convert the energy into usable electricity still need to be developed, the sheets could one day be manufactured as lightweight “skins” that power everything from hybrid cars to iPods with higher efficiency than traditional solar cells. . . The nanoantennas also have the potential to act as cooling devices that draw waste heat from buildings or electronics without using electricity.

The nanoantennas target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day. In contrast, traditional solar cells can only use visible light, rendering them idle after dark. Infrared radiation is an especially rich energy source because it also is generated by industrial processes such as coal-fired plants.

The nanoantennas are tiny gold squares or spirals set in a specially treated form of polyethylene, a material used in plastic bags. While others have successfully invented antennas that collect energy from lower-frequency regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as microwaves, infrared rays have proven more elusive. Part of the reason is that materials’ properties change drastically at high-frequency wavelength.

The researchers studied the behavior of various materials — including gold, manganese and copper — under infrared rays and used the resulting data to build computer models of nanoantennas. They found that with the right materials, shape and size, the simulated nanoantennas could harvest up to 92 percent of the energy at infrared wavelengths.

The nanoantennas’ ability to absorb infrared radiation makes them promising cooling devices. Since objects give off heat as infrared rays, the nanoantennas could collect those rays and re-emit the energy at harmless wavelengths. Such a system could cool down buildings and computers without the external power source required by air-conditioners and fans.

This is one more piece to the alternative energy puzzle (see the post below). Novack claimed that between $5 and $15 million is all that would be needed to extend the basic research. Considering the fact that the Iraq war is costing $750 million EVERY DAY, finding the financial support from the federal government would seem to be a “no-brainer.”

Even though both Obama and McCain claim an interest in alternative energy, will McCain really be willing to expend the resources when he represents “big oil,” and plans to continue (or expand) Bush’s neo-con military adventurism? Again, the answer to that question is a “no-brainer.”

With gas at $4.00, try Hypermiling

We own a Jeep Liberty and a first generation Toyota Prius. My wife commutes 50 miles a day, so she drives the Prius most of the time. It is a great car. It has over 50,000 trouble free miles with an average of 45-50 mpg.

Of course, the obvious reason for the excellent gas mileage is because it is a hybrid. But, I have noticed an interesting phenomena that also impacts mileage. The Prius has a “gas mileage bar graph” display on the dash (see photo above). This provides the driver with immediate feedback as to past and current mpg. For me (and I am guessing for many Prius drivers), this immediate feedback causes a change in driving habits. I am always trying to maximize mileage and beat my previous “best.” Consequently, I use a number of techniques that cut down on fuel usage. When I drive the Jeep, I tend to forget these techniques and revert to my old ways.

Yesterday, I came across a website, Cleanmpg.com, created by a fuel economy fanatic named Wayne Gerdes. The website has a weath of information, much of it devoted to gas saving techniques. Gerdes calls those who, like himself, do everything they can to maximize mileage “Hypermilers.”

Gerdes has a fascinating discussion of the ways the average driver can become a hypermiler and the site is well worth a visit. Of course, I will never get 50 miles to the gallon from my jeep, but Gerdes claims a 30% increase is possible regardless of the vehicle. With the current price of gas, hypermiling makes sense. Next time you see a blue Jeep liberty coasting up to a stop sign, wave. It could be me at the wheel!

Further Proof That Steve Jobs Can Predict the Future

First the iPhone and then the MacBook Air. Critics complained both lacked necessary features that made them more than mere toys. The Air was beautiful and all that, but without an optical drive, lots of ports, a large hard drive, etc., it isn’t really useful for serious work.

But, like a chess master, Jobs seems to be able to look two or three moves ahead of the rest of us. Even though Apple hasn’t pushed it, the real jewel is the 64g solid state drive Air. Why? Because we are soon to arrive at the time when the applications we need are housed on-line. You are probably aware of Google Docs
If not, you should check them out. Free, on-line applications that come close to duplicating Microsoft Office Suite.

This week, Adobe announced that it is offering a free on-line version of Photoshop Express. Not the full version of Photoshop, but great for quick photo editing and storage. Now you can take a photo with iPhone and immediately edit it with Photoshop Express.

Storage on the Air or iPhone don’t seem to be a real issue anymore. 64g might be all a “serious” user needs.