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October 2009

October 13, 2009

The Energy of Information

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Is the energy content of information increasing? As a Technologist it is very interesting to me that in the twenty first century our world still prints newspapers and books on paper.  More amazingly, the computer printer market is booming especially in areas such as photo-printers.  In the late twentieth century it was predicted that by the next millennium, paper would be obsolete as a medium for sharing information... I'm pretty sure not everyone got that memo...

So what happened? We are now in a world where the internet almost completely permeates our environment including locations so remote, only a satellite link and solar-recharged batteries will work to power the nodes (think "Antarctica").  We have advanced social networking, file storage and even complete applications that exist solely in a nebulous cloud of computers spread across a vast infrastructure... and we still print out the map to a local restaurant on plain old paper.

My theory is that everything migrates to the lowest possible energy level and paper requires very little energy to provide information - it only requires a small amount of light to shine on it so a human can observe what is stored there. In fact it requires zero energy to store the information (or read it if it's in Braille) and potentially has a long retention life of several hundred years (not so for a DVD).

So paper is not such a bad medium for sharing information - mankind has been doing that for thousands of years.  But it has one major flaw... it is hard to update.  If you manufacture encyclopedias on paper, then the second you set the type for the printing, they are obsolete.  Information does not stand still.  It is fluid as our understanding of the universe expands and history moves behind us in time. And worse, information can be useless.  Think about a billion books randomly arranged in a gigantic library without a card catalog.  Even with an index, searching millions of pages of information for knowledge may never yield fruit. 

So is the energy content of information increasing? I would suggest it is.  As we accumulate more information, the energy required to store, search and display it increases - possibly exponentially with the quantity of information.  The amount of new information being created daily is unfathomable since people are sharing what they know more freely and indexing of that information has greatly improved.  Additionally, information that was previously in print is now being converted to share electronically increasing the energy that information requires.  Google did some math several years ago and predicted that even with the advance of computing power as it is, it would still take roughly 300 years to index all the information on the world-wide-web... Wow!  Guess how much energy that will take!  Till next time...

October 01, 2009

Ignorance is Bliss... How Knowing Too Much Can Ruin Your Day

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Don't watch your power meter to closely... you may lose sleep!

My name is Rick Zarr and I am a geek.  OK, I’ve said it publically for the record.  I get excited over reading articles on quantum well transistors and photonic lattice light emitting diodes.  Yes, I live to learn about technology and how it can be employed to improve our lives. Most of all... I like to build things - always have and always will. I have a "home project" worksheet that looks more like a broker’s stock trading analysis complete with Gant charts and status updates. I am a consummate data collector and home automation enthusiast - much to the dismay of my wonderful, loving wife who tolerates all the lights going out at the press of an incorrect button... but I digress. Information is power over your environment and it helps immensely with decision making processes - most of the time...

I so much love to instrument things, that over the past nine years I have been equipping our home with sensors, custom software and automation to know exactly what’s going on.  My goal was to improve our "living" efficiency as if our house were some giant manufacturing machine kicking out sneakers or soda bottles.  I will admit it is a work in process... engineer’s minds never sleep and we are always coming up with new ways to solve problems or improve processes.  So goes my "smart" house - which should be more aptly referred to as a "modestly clever" house with SLD.

I am usually intelligent in my decision processes, so when I started this project I learned that knowing the truth can sometimes be less favorable then simply being ignorant to the topic.  The power consumption of our house is a classic example.  Now, I knew I was a large consumer of energy. I write about the topic all the time and I’m painfully aware of the "average" consumption in America. I was on a mission to find where every milliwatt was going...

My quest started me on a crazed path to rid our home of energy waste... this lasted about 10 minutes until I realized that the rest of the family wasn’t buying into it.  It’s much easier to say, "Would you mind turning off the TV when you’re done watching America’s Next Top Model" as apposed to "Here’s a detailed report of the family’s energy consumption for the last week - we have a consumption goal of Y, and your quota is X so please adjust your life-style accordingly"... my daughters would simply laugh.

Following my rant I was lovingly banished to my home office.  I sat at my computer and watched the machine in action - lights going on here and there, air conditioners cycling on and off, pumps starting and stopping and realized that to make this type of thing work, my family (including me) needed to be out of the equation.

I am now working on adding rules to the system that (here’s a stretch) "learn" what we’re doing and adjust the house accordingly.  For example, if the thermostat in the bonus room is set to 75°F and there’s no one moving around, the TV is off or worse, the security alarm is set in "away" mode, then it’s probably safe to set the thermostat back to 85°F until someone changes it (or someone enters the room).  There are many other examples, which made me realize that I just added another item to my long list of things to build... this is going to take awhile.  Until next time...