Moving Blog: Merging my blog ‘The Power Factor’ with my website

Please continue to follow the Power Factor, but now through my website The blog is now at

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From Wired: “Kinect Hackers Are Changing the Future of Robotics” and Hacksourcing

Wired has a great article on the Kinect – the depth camera from Microsoft for the Xbox 360. If you haven’t had a chance to play games with the Kinect, you should find one now and play it because it is really cool, ingenious in fact. But the article really hits on some other features about the community growing around the Kinect. This community has 1) pushed the Kinect into becoming the most prominent open source hardware tool this year, and 2) shown the power of the hacker community to develop applications for tools that breed creativity. Although the article focuses on the ‘Future of Robotics’ a clearer future can be envisioned when seeing the hacker community as one that should be embraced as a productive component to the hardware or software process.

Call it ‘Hacksourcing’ – the outsourcing of the development and applications end of the technology process. Hacksourcing works in addition to the work that traditional engineering development can propose. But, in contrast to the traditional model, more creativity, failure, and iterations can result when using the hacker community as the development engine of novel applications. Stories in the Wired article on the Kinect reinforce this ‘hacksourcing’ view without specifically giving it a name.

Highlights from the article:

“When DIYers combine those cheap, powerful tools with the collaborative potential of the Internet, they can come up with the kinds of innovations that once sprang only from big-budget R&D labs.”

“A few companies, though, have welcomed the hackers. When iRobot learned that academics and hobbyists were rewiring its robotic vacuum cleaner, the Roomba, the company released a special vacuumless version—the iRobot Create—designed explicitly to be modded. “It really builds awareness of our company,” says Kristen Stubbs, who until recently served as iRobot’s outreach program manager. “When people do cool things with our robot and our platform, it’s great exposure.””

“Three months later, Microsoft would go even further. On the Microsoft Research site, the company announced that it would make it easier than ever to modify the Kinect by releasing its own software development kit. In a matter of weeks, Microsoft’s reputation within the hacker community had completely flipped. Instead of acting like a lumbering, power-mad hegemon, it had lent its support to what was shaping up to be one of the biggest and most successful open source development projects the world had ever seen.”

“Microsoft is now openly courting modders.”

“In other words, by embracing hackers, Microsoft benefitted from their enthusiasm.”

“[Sony] announced that it would release a software development kit for its PlayStation Move controller in an attempt to “inspire applications that we could never have imagined.”)”

“Still, Microsoft isn’t waiting for a bunch of hackers to unlock the Kinect’s potential. The company is investing millions of dollars in the traditional in-house model. … All of this work is expensive and difficult and the result of many hours of dedicated labor—the kind that probably won’t be replicated by a loose-knit group of enthusiasts.”

” And as more and more technology becomes commoditized—and as the web continues to make it easier for far-flung individuals to work together as a team—hacker communities will grow more and more capable. As everyone gains access to the same resources, the best ideas will win. And millions of hobbyists will usually come up with more interesting ideas faster than a few thousand professionally employed engineers.”

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Q and A: Bill Gates on the World’s Energy Crisis

Wired interview with Bill Gates (BG):

Important BG quotes:

“You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a reasonable price to get anywhere.”

“We’re putting 90 percent of the subsidies in deployment—this is true in Europe and the United States—not in R&D.”

“You need fundamental breakthroughs, which come more out of basic research.”

” You’re never going to get the amount of CO2 emitted to go down unless you deal with the one magic metric, which is CO2 per kilowatt-hour.”

Take a look at the full interview. It’s quite interesting to get the opinions of a tech great on the present day state of energy and possible future pathways.

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From Greenwire – Bush EPA Official: Fracking safety record exaggerated

OIL AND GAS: Frack study’s safety findings exaggerated, Bush EPA official says

The U.S. EPA official who oversaw the George W. Bush administration’s 2004 study of hydraulic fracturing says its conclusions about safety have been exaggerated for years. The study found that in certain circumstances, fracturing presented “little or no threat” to drinking water. But Ben Grumbles, who ran EPA’s Office of Water, says the study didn’t deem all “fracking” to be safe, and it didn’t justify exempting all forms of it from drinking water protections.

~ From Greenwire (

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CO2 Emissions per Electrical Energy Unit (kgCO2/kWh) by US State

Ever wonder how much CO2 you are emitting when you use electricity. I’ve put together this handy graph to show one interpretation of this CO2-emissions-due-to-electricity factor. Note: this graph was built using publicly available data at the Energy Information Administration; Also, the emissions are only for those utility power plants within each state’s borders, so this graph ignores the regional nature of the electricity grid (even though this is the case, the number represented here should be a good heuristic for anyone interested in calculating their CO2 footprint due to electricity usage).

(Click to enlarge)

What should you do with number? Multiply you monthly electricity usage on your electric bill by the kgCO2/kWh given for the state where you live.

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American Power (Photographs)

Mitch Epstein, an American photographer, places US energy infrastructure against the background of ordinary life. He shows a really superb display of photographs of the systems that we really never think about, until they are shown to us in a vivid contrast. Like the authors intend, I hope their efforts spur debates about all facets of American power.

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Surowiecki (New Yorker Columnist) – Pumped Up?

Surowiecki – on the increase in gas prices, effects on the economy, our new resilience to spikes, and the important thing to realize in this moment.

A good read for the energy and economic minded.


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Avoiding CO2 – THE benefit of nuclear power

Many lessons can be learned from the events at the Fukushima Daiichi (FD) nuclear power facility in Japan. First, the resulting tsunami and not so much the eathquake (like the levees breaking in New Orleans, and not as much the hurricanes – but still significant) was the determining factor for the resulting emergency events still occurring at FD. The tsunami’s rushing waters engulfed the diesel generators (in electrical terms – the “critical loads”) responsible for maintaining emergency power backup. They failed, and cascading events leading to today’s situation resulted. Second, nuclear power is a part of our lives at least in the developed world. Many US States have reactors (104 in the country). These plants provide LOTS of power. Generally, only the largest coal facilities and the immense hydro facilities of the US Western States match the ‘nameplate’ power capacities of nuclear plants. The price of the power from these plants is low to the electrical consumer, but the cost of just having nuclear power is great for society when publicly funded components in construction, extraction, processing, transport, and waste disposal are considered. But, my objective is not to focus on those points of nuclear power. Nuclear power provides a great service to our electricity consumption desire and our environment.

The point I would like to highlight is nuclear power’s offsetting ability for CO2 emissions. From my perspective, this capacity is nuclear power’s greatest asset. Today, nuclear power is one of only a few options for displacing millions of tons of CO2 emissions. Until a higher scale of deployment of renewables and ‘efficiency & conservation’ is realized, nuclear power is that main player. For more detailed analyses follow The Breakthrough Institute, who also takes this general stance of nuclear’s role in CO2 mitigation and abatement. Nuclear comes with a cost, and a significant one at that, but it’s the largest wrench in the tool box for ebbing the flow of CO2 from smokestacks, waiting for other technologies to mature.

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Retail price of food per energy content

Food is energy. Look on the back of any food package and you will see the energy content of the item plain and clear – Calories, specifically nutritional calories (or kilocalories). What is a calorie? It is a energy unit, and for an exact definition let’s look to its wikipedia entry:

“The large calorie, kilogram calorie, dietary calorie or food calorie (or Cal) approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. This is exactly 1000 small calories or about 4.18 kilojoules.”

With that said, food is also much more than just energy, providing us both vitamins and minerals. The cost of any food includes its monetary value for energy, vitamins, minerals, etc. But, for the moment, I just want to consider food’s energy content. Because the thought dawned on me – if food is just energy, then what is its price per unit energy?

With my background (electrical engineering), I live in the energy world which has the units of kilowatt-hours (kWh). A kWh is just another unit of energy. Specifically, the ratio between kWh and Calories is 1kWh equals ~860 Calories (kilocalories). With this conversion in hand, it is easy to change the back-of-the-box Calorie listing to kWh(s). Then, by dividing the retail price of the package by the energy content of the food, a cents per kWh value can be obtained. When I did this for a grocery list that I had just purchased, I learned a very interesting fact about food. It is really expensive on a cents per kWh (cents per energy unit) basis!!!

For example, the cereal I buy costs $3.99 for the box, and contains 2640 Calories (3.07 kWh). So, 399 cents per 3.07 kWh = 130 c/kWh!!!

In contrast, electricity costs about 11 c/kWh, vehicle fuel about 9.7 c/kWh, and natural gas at 2.97 c/kWh.

Although the comparison between these prices is dramatic (one order of magnitude difference), the comparison is a little apples to oranges. The retail price of food includes not just the energy content, but also the packaging, vitamins, minerals, nutrition, manufacturing, transport, etc . The retail price of other forms of energy includes taxes, marketing, manufacture, and transportation (if any).

Although there are differences, the price of food as seen in just an energy lens is a striking thing to see. The c/kWh for individually package, retail, consumer food is very high. This fact just hits home the point about using food for fuel. It can be an expensive enterprise (at least if you are using individually packaged food products…).

For ethanol makers, the basic economics looks okay. Dry corn has 2.34 kWh per dry pound, and at 4.5 cents per pound ($18 per 400 lb dry), the cost would be 1.92 c/kWh.

Just an interesting food for thought. Or thought for food (thanks Colbert).

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The Latest on the Japanese Nuclear Facilities

The Japanese government is now confirming, after tests, that the food supply in the country is now being affected by the nuclear radiation leaks. From the New York Times:

“As Japan edged forward in its battle to contain the damage at its ravaged nuclear power plants on Saturday, the government said it had found higher than normal levels of radioactivity in spinach and milk at farms up to 90 miles away from the plants, the first confirmation that the unfolding nuclear crisis has affected the nation’s food supply.”

Although the radiation levels are low, another blow has been dealt to the Japanese psyche.

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