Category Archives: Emerging Technology

“Low code” app development surges amongst pandemic

The shift to remote work has led some companies to come up with quick digital solutions for tasks that have become hard to tackle during the coronavirus pandemic.

Source: Emptying Offices Prompt Adoption of Low-Code to Build Work Apps

– WSJ

“Low code” means using “drag and drop” tools to create software applications. These systems make the creation of user interfaces easy, and provide functionality through similar drag and drop interfaces. We used to call this “Rapid Application Development” or RAD.

I have long though future software would be created with advanced tools that simplify the development process, particularly for straight forward applications of modest size. MIT App Inventor, and Scratch, are examples of drag and drop programming interfaces. Scratch is for teaching programming concepts to children. App Inventor leverages the Scratch concept into developing mobile apps for Android. You can learn about Microsoft’s Power Apps feature here.

Covid tracking apps summarized

When people mention “Covid tracking apps” it would be useful to first define what is meant by “Covid tracking app”. There are many approaches in use and many that are proposed. The various methods are remarkably different. When you hear that “Country X used a tracking app and they have fewer cases”, this does not mean they used a tracking app like you have in mind.

Most apps use location data provided by the cellular network itself or on GPS/Wi-Fi position fixes stored on the phone and shared directly with public health authorities.  Some use the data for contact tracing, coupled with free Covid-19 testing, while others use location data to enforce strict geo-fenced quarantine procedures that if violated, may result in arrest and imprisonment. Few existing apps use  close contact tracing based on Bluetooth.

Contact tracing apps, by themselves, appear to provide little value. As we will see, to be useful there needs to be supporting infrastructure outside the app – such as Korea offering Covid-19 testing to those in close contact. And the app must be installed by nearly all smart phone users (and this will miss about 15% of phones that are not smart phones). Most countries are not using  phone-based apps to track location – they are using the phone network to report locations on 100% of phones in use, which is very different than voluntary installation of a tracking  app.

Consequently, when you hear someone refer to “contact tracing app”, you need to ask them to define what they mean by “contact tracing app”.

What follows is a review of various “contact tracing” apps used in different countries.

Continue reading Covid tracking apps summarized

App-based Covid tracking in Iceland does not work well

“The technology is more or less … I wouldn’t say useless,” says Gestur Pálmason, a detective inspector with the Icelandic Police Service who is overseeing contact tracing efforts. “But it’s the integration of the two that gives you results. I would say it [Rakning] has proven useful in a few cases, but it wasn’t a game changer for us.”

….

He says there have been instances where the data was useful, but that the impact of automated tracing has been exaggerated by people eager to find technological solutions to the pandemic.

Source: Nearly 40% of Icelanders are using a covid app—and it hasn’t helped much | MIT Technology Review

Continue reading App-based Covid tracking in Iceland does not work well

Telecom: There’s no killer app for 5G

5G, where it exists, increases network capacity and might deliver a few things faster but other than that, the “killer app” is missing for now:

there’s no “killer app” for 5G right now. And I don’t know what it’s going to be

Source: Is 5G really that fast?

More likely, what 5G delivers is a new competitor for home-based fast Internet service. There will also be some applications involving “Internet of Things” sensors that are logging data.

And for sure, there will be many applications that involve increased surveillance of your life, your neighbors, and so on.

Space: SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon may be ruining night sky

SpaceX may launch 30,000 more low altitude satellites added to the 12,000 it already plans to launch. OneWeb is launching 900 satellites  and Amazon is planning  over 3,000 satellites. There are predictions that any given moment, over 100 satellites will be visible crossing overhead, no matter where you may live.

Source: SpaceX and Starlink are changing the night sky, and fast – CNET

Transportation: Electric vehicle depreciation

Electric vehicles are said to depreciate in value 10% more than internal combustion engine vehicles over 3 years. When I looked at used EV listings recently, I was surprised to see 1 year old EVs had decreased by 25% or more in value from  their original purchase price.

Electric vehicles depreciate in value by approximately 60% after three years! 10% more than their fuel guzzling counterparts.

On the plus side, purchasing a 1 year old used EV  might be a  good value!

Virtue signaling may play a role:

Firstly, those tech nerds who want to have new technology before anyone else are a big chunk of the market. Honestly, if you don’t own a brand new Tesla, are you even worth knowing?

Improvements in the tech in new cars may cause older vehicles to lose value more quickly:

Electric vehicles are evolving year on year, so technology from last year has already been improved on. If you’re only interested in cutting edge innovation, last year’s model is suddenly not good enough.

Source: Electric vehicle depreciation | Lightfoot

Each new model of EV tends to increase its range over the prior model. It might only be 10% more range but since “range anxiety” is a big deal for many, every little bit makes the newer car more attractive, lessening the demand for last year’s model.

The range issue popped up as I investigated the used market – would I want a 1 to 2 year old EV with less range than the newer model? Another concern is buyers may not have a good way to evaluate the remaining life time capacity of the EV’s battery. Do you want to start with a used EV that’s already lost 10% of its battery capacity? (Watched a Youtube video last night of someone who had bought, and knew when he bought it, that the battery capacity was running 10% less than a new version of the vehicle with a new battery.)

Anyway, the overall effect seems to be reducing demand, and hence prices, for used EVs.

Energy: Why throwing money at climate solutions leads to no solutions

When a political leader has a choice, such as am I going to inaugurate a new solar park or wind farm, or something, and show how I care? Or am I going to spend money on some eggheads [R&D] that don’t make for good picture? The problem is the extra solar panel park is not going to do very much, but these eggheads could make a huge difference

Source: We are throwing money at the wrong solutions to climate change

I began looking at solar PV and EVs as ways to take personal action. Read my other posts about what I learned – basically, adding solar PV for some homes will reduce CO2-emissions while for others it will have not only no impact but will have spent money that will then not be available for actual CO2-emission reductions. Similarly, in some situations, purchasing an EV just transfers your CO2-emissions to the utility company and has little or no impact. And at present prices, buying an EV uses up resources that might better be spent on say, home insulation.

Longer term, we need to invest in R&D and invent new technologies. Unfortunately, we invest little in R&D while politicians are pursuing actions that have little impact. Because they do not understand what they are doing.

Transportation: What percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from personal vehicles?

Recently, someone said to me that cars are the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. They are not, but it is easy to see how many people believe that they are the greatest source. For example, take this quote from MIT Technology Review

The implication, as often interpreted, is that personal cars are the greatest source. That comment comes from this EPA chart showing the Transportation segment at 29%, just barely surpassing electricity generation (transportation passed electricity in 2017):

Let’s drill down into the Transportation segment. This yields an allocation of transport related producers per the EPA:

59% of the Transportation segment (29% overall) is due to light duty vehicles used for personal transportation and for business and government.

59% of 29% is 17.11% is due to all light vehicle use including business and government. The remaining 12% is a combination of medium duty trucks (like UPS vans), large semi trucks, aircraft, rail, ships and boats, and “other”.

I was not able to find an exact figure for the percent of light duty vehicles used for personal use versus business and government. A reasonable estimate (based on some numbers I found) is that 20-25% are for business and government and 75-80% are for personal use. Some personal use vehicles are used for business and some business vehicles are used for personal, non-business use. We would also need to know how many miles are driven, and the mileage estimates for each vehicle. As you can see, there is no exact number – just broad estimates.

Using those best guesses (75% figure), personally owned vehicles account for about 13% (less than 17%) of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and are not the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking back at the top chart, you can see that industry (22%) and electricity (28%) are, combined, the largest segment, at 50%. A large part of the industry segment is private electricity generation – or thermal generation for processing steel, chemicals and so on – from natural gas, fuel oil and even coal – consequently, electricity/industrial generation is the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Switching the vehicle fleet from gas to electric, all else being equal, shifts the production of greenhouse gases from the vehicle segment to the electricity segment.

For example, if I were to replace my Honda Fit with an EV, on the surface it would appear to reduce my own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to zero. But, my electric utility generates 56% of its electricity from burning coal and 14% from natural gas (total 70%). Thus, I would be outsourcing my greenhouse gas emissions to their coal and gas plants. The vehicle transportation segment would reduce its GHGs – and I could feel very virtuous – but in reality I would have shifted a large portion of my GHGs across the GHG ledger to the electrical power plants side. (It is possible that due to where I live within the utilities coverage area that more of my electricity comes from hydropower than coal/gas but I have no way of knowing – all we know is the percentage for the utility as a whole.)

In general, this should not be interpreted as saying EVs are worse for the environment. To the contrary, EVs are generally better, but be sure to understand the trade offs.

There are some locations including India, China and even some U.S. states, where EVs may be worse according to the MIT Technology Review article:

In parts of India and China with particularly dirty electricity systems, EVs may even generate more emissions than gas-fueled vehicles, says Emre Gencer, a research scientist who worked on the study.

U.S. utilities are rapidly decreasing their use of coal, almost entirely by converting to natural gas, which cuts GHGs in half (but still remaining high at about 1,000 pounds per MWH). Perhaps more significantly”. Compared to Q2 of 2018, total U.S. power generation fell by 4% in Q2 of 2019″. The reason for this drop is not specified but is presumably due to widespread energy efficiency measures. The combination of converting coal to natural gas and reduced demand for electricity has caused GHG production from electricity generation to drop by -40% since 2005. Some states such as Utah, Indiana, Delaware, Kentucky, New Mexico, Wisconsin and West Virginia, have almost all of their electricity produced by burning coal.

According to MIT Technology Review:

Currently, US carbon emissions per mile for a battery electric vehicle are on average only about 45% less than those from a gas-fueled vehicle of comparable size. That’s because fossil fuels still generate the dominant share of electricity in most markets, and the manufacturing process for EVs generates considerably higher emissions, mainly related to the battery production.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/614728/why-the-electric-car-revolution-may-take-a-lot-longer-than-expected/

Compare that “45% less” to the use of hybrid vehicle versus EVs. The 2020 Ford Escape Hybrid boasts a rumored estimate of perhaps 42 mpg which is about 70% more than the 25 mpg of the vehicle it replaces. Official EPA mpg is not yet available. (The 45% figure includes lifetime vehicle manufacturing energy use and the 70% does not include that.)

For many consumers (depending on where they live), EVs will produce less GHGs than comparable gas vehicles but may be on par with new plug-in hybrid vehicles. But for most people, EVs are not zero emissions.

Vehicle Lifetime Energy Use

The energy used to manufacture a vehicle versus the energy the vehicle consumes during operation is surprisingly high – for some vehicles, about half the energy consumed during the vehicles lifetime is used during its manufacture. The higher percentage applies to fuel efficient cars that consume much less gasoline during their lifetime. Replacing an existing gas vehicle with a EV powered by coal generated electricity will likely have a much smaller GHG reduction than you are expecting, regardless of the type of vehicle and mileage.

For example, suppose you decide to switch to an EV. You either sell your vehicle (so someone else uses it to produce GHGs) or you junk it (throwing away the energy used to manufacture it originally).

Then, you switch to a new EV – which consumes significant energy in its manufacture, mostly fossil-fuel based – and plug it in to the electric utility’s coal or natural gas powered electricity to charge the battery.

Your carbon footprint did not go to zero – not even close to zero. Up to half your vehicle’s lifetime energy consumption is still coming from fossil fuels (used in manufacturing it) and a significant part of your electrical generation is generating GHGs. You are likely producing less than before but you have not gone to zero. The lifetime GHG emissions of your new EV may be (ought to be!) less than the gas vehicle it replaced.

So what should you do?

If you already drive a “fuel efficient” vehicle, your best choice regarding vehicle lifetime GHG emissions is to keep driving it as long as possible. For example, my real world Honda Fit mileage is in the 39 to 42 mpg range. From an environmental standpoint, I should keep driving this car as long as possible, rather than switch to an EV.

If you drive a vehicle that is not fuel efficiency, such as getting 20-25 mpg, it may make sense to upgrade to a newer hybrid vehicle that gets far better gas mileage when you need to replace the vehicle. Revisit the 2020 Ford Escape Hybrid example, above, to see how the hybrid’s high mpg and overall greenhouse gases may, in fact, be less than a pure EV. An EV may be an option depending on how you use this vehicle – if you need to tow a trailer cross country, an EV is likely to make travel more difficult due to charging requirements. If you primarily drive locally, the EV may be a good choice.

Another option is plug-in hybrids. These contain a gas motor and electric motors, plus a small capacity battery good for 20-30+ miles of operation. The battery may be charged by plugging into the electrical mains, or by the on-board motor. When used as a plug-in, this becomes a short range EV, operating entirely as an EV for local trips, but providing the range and convenience of gas vehicles for long distance travel. The hybrid features enable efficient, high mileage performance on the highways too.

My state seems to be headed towards a path to reduce personal vehicle GHG emissions by pushing consumers into electrical vehicles. Another state, California, has enacted a new rule that all new state government vehicles must be electric (except for public safety – why the exemption?). This new rule is poor economics (EVs are expensive relative to gas cars and hybrids), and may not produce much reduction in GHGs, per the analysis above.

What is important is to reduce CO2 emissions – and that can also be done with vehicles that get far greater mpg (such as hybrids) and replacing fossil-fueled based electricity and thermal generation with alternatives.

Practicing factfulness – and digging in to the data – shows us that what we think we know is often not correct. On the surface, EVs seem to be zero emissions – but the reality is a bit different.

I happen to think EVs are cool and would like to have one. However, by the numbers, directly switching to an EV at this time does not yield the results we are led to believe it delivers.

The best bet for most of us is to move towards efficient hybrid and plug-in hybrids – versus EVs. For some of us, depending on our requirements and how our electricity is generated, an EV may be appropriate. However, if we already drive a very fuel efficient vehicle then continuing to drive that vehicle for as many years as possible is likely to produce less overall, vehicle lifetime GHGs than switching to a new vehicle.

Your most effective strategy for reducing energy-related green houses is to

  1. Lead an efficient life, avoiding wasted activities, products and services.
  2. Insulate and seal your home to modern standards
  3. Install solar PV to generate electricity. Depending on where you live (relative to sunshine availability), this can cut your household’s delivered energy by a significant amount. If your utility is fossil-fuel based, then this will have a far bigger impact on GHG reduction that switching to an EV.
  4. Consider an EV for local area transportation especially if your electrical power comes from non-fossil fuel sources. Otherwise, the greenhouse gas reduction by switching to an EV may be little. Installing solar PV to charge your EV is expensive. A typical solar PV installation may produce 20-30 kwh per day to meet household needs. A typical EV battery pack is in the 60 to 100 kwh range, meaning a 50% charge is 30-50 kwh (plus add in more for inefficiency factors). You might have to double the size of your solar PV installation to support recharging the vehicle.

Note – we are currently installing solar PV at our house. We now live in an area that has good amounts of sunshine, with a south facing roof. This solar PV replaces the electricity generated by the local utility, which is 56% generated from coal-fired power plants (70% from coal or natural gas). We heat with wood pellets from a local source.

Without solar PV in operation (it is not yet hooked up), our home averages 10-14 kwh of electricity per day versus the average of 28 kwh of typical American homes. After solar PV comes online, our annual average should be about 0 kwh from the utility. Our installation uses “net metering”. During much of the year, our array produces more electricity than we need and this is sent back to the grid for use by someone else (thereby avoiding fossil-fuel generation). During a few winter months and especially on cloudy days, the array will produce less than our own demand. Excess power produced is banked as a credit to draw upon in winter when our home supplements the solar array by taking power from the grid. Excess power credits left over after 12 months are donated to charity and low income residents.

We are also upgrading the existing attic insulation. The existing insulation was probably R-19 when installed 50 years ago but over the years settled in to a thinner and less effective layer. The new insulation will meet our state’s code requirement of R-49 minimum and should reduce the energy required to heat the home. As I write this, the outside temperature is 12 degrees F/-11 deg C.

Is Burning Wood Carbon Neutral?

The EPA and the European Union rate wood as “carbon neutral” – although whether it is or not “depends”. When a tree grows, it takes carbon out of the atmosphere. When the tree is cut down and burned (or decomposes), it releases that carbon back into the atmosphere. However, when new trees are planted to replace that tree, the cycle repeats, with new trees removing carbon from the atmosphere. Hence, over time, wood is seen as a renewable, carbon neutral source of heating.

Whether it is carbon neutral “depends” on various factors. The EU reportedly imports up to half of its wood pellets from American forests, where wood is processed into pellets and then shipped across the Atlantic. Another critique is about which trees are cut. Older large trees remove more CO2 than young, small trees. Replanted trees can take years until they are consuming significant amounts of CO2.

Some pellet producers use scrap such as saw mill waste and blown down branches or trimmed parts of trees to make pellets, thereby avoiding cutting down trees specifically for wood pellets.

Our home is heated with a wood pellet stove. The wood pellets are manufactured by a local company that uses saw mill scrap and forestry management scrap (cut or blown down branches, small trees) for its raw material input.

Drawbacks of wood pellet heating include having to move 40-pound pellet bags around, our home is often 50-55 degrees in the morning and it takes a bit of time to warm up. I spend the morning wearing a stocking cap and heavy sweatshirt or a jacket.

Recent cryptocurrency investors lost a lot of money

When Bitcoin rapidly rose towards $20k and above last winter, the bubble’ish nature of the market was obvious. Yet cryptocurrency pushers were insisting it would rise as high as $2 million per bitcoin.

A teacher put $90,000 in cryptocurrencies, including a $25,000 loan. Her investments are now down about 90%. A financial analyst invested $100,000 of his savings. His investments are down 70%. The New York Times reports on the bitcoin bust.

Source: After the bitcoin boom: hard lessons for cryptocurrency investors 

Other than reading the original technical paper on using block chains to implement currency, I have not spent much time on cryptocurrencies.

I definitely see the value of block chain technology and I understand how a currency based on block chain can work. But I was confused as to how a particular cryptocurrency would retain value when two hundred new cryptocurrencies were being introduced into the market, flooding the market with digital medallions.

The mania seemed like the Dutch tulip bubble.

Data mining enables many companies to discern your health conditions

Data brokers compile health and frailty profiles that have wide-ranging applications for drug companies, advertisers, insurers and other buyers.

Source: How bits of captured data paint a stealth portrait of your health

They do not need access to your protected[1] health care records. Instead, companies are data mining your credit card purchases, your public social media, your online purchase habits and a host of other data points to guess at your health situation and assign you a “health score”.

This secret health score could be used by insurance companies to change your life insurance premiums, or by a prospective employer to deny you a job because your health score is not good enough for them.

You have no idea what data they have collected and analyzed, nor what score they have assigned to you. The data itself is often incorrect (as I recently found) and their assumptions about you are often wrong too. But there is no way to correct their secret health score.