So proud of creative thoughts on energy

The other day, a letter to the editor by a Mr. Bob Bruninga regarding the Keystone pipeline, appeared in The Sun. He suggested that instead of investing billions in the pipeline to move outdated and decline reserves of fossil fuel the country should invest “in long distance electric transmission lines to move our unlimited, renewable 100 percent American electricity resources from where they are plentiful to where they are needed.”

This certainly sounds like a relatively new idea but in reality it isn’t. Not that it matters from a pragmatic point, it was suggested by one of my favorite individuals, Buckminster Fuller, many years ago, 1938.

This now feasible, intercontinental network would integrate America, Asia and Europe, and integrate the night-and-day, spherically shadow-and-light zones of Planet Earth. And this would occasion the 24-hour use of the now only fifty per cent of the time used world-around standby generator capacity, whose fifty per cent unused capacities heretofore were mandatorily required only for peakload servicing of local non-interconnected energy users. Such intercontinental network integration would overnight double the already-installed and in-use, electric power generating capacity of our Planet.
Telegram to Senator Edmund Muskie, Earth, Inc., 1973, Fuller.

Effectively his idea was to link the world into a gigantic distribution system whereby, generators working under less loads due to the time of day, could contribute the demands of areas requiring greater power.  While his ideas were ‘generator’ based, not ‘renewables,’ the idea is much the same.

To bring the concept up to date, however, more inclusive ideas for routing of “renewables” are presented by Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Third Industrial Revolution. The book is a futuristic view of power creation and distribution as it will likely exist in the not so distant future. It focuses on the emerging ‘renewable energy’ market, its long term development, and resulting increases in efficiencies, uses, and declining costs.

Mr. Rifkin postulates that electrical distribution systems will become like the Internet. Power, created by countless points of generations, will flow like date from sources of creation to points of consumption. Like the Internet and its data, the flow will be metered (download and uploads…) but unlike the Internet, costs will be “bi-directional” meaning that power consumption will be charged at a fee which is then offset by a credit for supplying power. (This is commonly being implemented now with grid connected, home based, photoelectric systems.)

The difference here, however is one of scale. Mr. Rifkin visualizes societies where such power sources exit on or at each home, parked car, roof, treated windows and walls, geothermal source, wind generator, etc., etc. ad infinitim. And, he believes that the power sources and points of power consumptions will be monitored and tracked with countless computer connections, perhaps like our countless URLs, ultimately creating a billing structure to support the system.

Of significance here, especially in light of the above mentioned letter to the editor is one of scope. While the writer, is suggesting a national system, Mr. Rifkin thinks along the lines of Mr. Fuller. Mr. Rifkin thinks in geographic terms, connecting the countless of source of one area or continent to the consumption requirements of another, often based upon time of day, but also based upon the availability of the power, eg. large solar expanses or constant wind or massive hydroelectric generation (think Iceland).

In his book, Mr. Rifkin explores such systems that are currently being developed to connect “continents” not just communities. India to Australia for example.

Unmentioned in any of the above is the technology that is needed to create electrical distribution systems of this nature. While we have all seen the high voltage lines and towers that crisscross the country, few of us realize the problems inherent in them, save for the issue of potential electrocution.

When electricity is transmitted from one location to another, power is lost. It is that simple! Minimizing this loss is a necessary key component to these systems and the above ideas.

Greater quantities of power (load) require increasing sizes of wire or cable. To counter this, AC electrical distribution became the norm long ago. Using AC, voltages may be changed relatively easily through the use of transformers such as seen on utility poles and switch yards. Such provides a great deal of flexibility. Through these transformers, AC power may be transmitted long distances at very high voltages, which decreases the required cable sizes tremendously. But still, there is waste, often substantial waste, based upon distance, voltage, load/cable size and temperature.

Aerial cables have the advantage of being air cooled to a major degree and of course cable insulation is not a problem except where the towers are located, hence those large insulators seen on the towers. But people do not want new towers and cables in their back yards and are calling for greater underground distribution. To move to long distance, underground, high voltage distribution is going to be costly. Underground cable construction must have separate conductor insulation, which is missing from aerial cables, and their confinement together and underground will generate significantly more heat. This will increase projected power loss, requiring larger conductors, i.e. cables. The added costs of the insulation and conductors is significant. To fight loss due to increasing temperatures, cables can and are sometimes cooled with nitrogen among other things, adding to the cost.

In closing, we are at the cusp of a new way of dealing with electrical energy and the road is going to be both rocky and VERY INTERESTING. We will see utilities trying to resist the trends while striving to appear supportive of them. And we are likely to see as many changes here as we have seen in the computer industry over the past 20 years.


So proud of the electronic retailers

Today I awoke to a new reality, at least for me. As Black Friday has come and gone, and Cyber Monday is around the corner, I have been overwhelmed with retail store fliers, some 4 pounds of them in the past 48 hours. This morning I took the opportunity to glance at them and their numerous offers, especially those that are technology related, i.e. computer based products.

The obvious pricing not withstanding, the most amazing thing I noted is that we have at last (?) arrived at the point where significant technological capabilities are disposable and that given the increasing power available and the decreasing prices, nothing is really worth repairing. (So, one must wonder about the value of extended warranties, given the lengths of the original ones.)

Laptop computers are a fine example, though smart phones and tablets certainly lead the way. For about $250-$350 one can purchase a laptop that may complete more activities than most of their users will ever need. I am obviously not talking about a gaming computer, but at this price one will get a reasonably fast processor, and sufficient RAM and hard drive space to satisfy computing needs. These include internet surfing and video streaming, assuming a solid www connection, not to mention activities such as email, and the typical ‘office’ activities. Having edited videos on many older computers, I am sure that photo touch-up and video editing can easily be completed with these computers too. Here, the 80/20 ratio is applicable. A top end machine at over $2,000 can certainly be put a strain on most budgets but at less than 20%, these disposable laptops are a buy.

This being the case, and assuming that the computer works throughout its warranted period of a couple years, typically, why would anyone repair it unless of course it requires something simple and you don’t want the aggravation of transferring your data, etc..  Assuming that the $250 machine lasts for two years, the increase in associated technologies during that period will enable one to purchase a new computer for about the same price as repairing the old, and it will have even more power, capabilities, etc. Computers are now disposable but as I constantly informed my students, the important aspect of computing is ‘your data.’ So, KEEP IT SECURE AND BACKED UP!

PS – Here’s an additional idea – donate the old, working computer, take the tax credit and buy a new one.

So proud of Craig’s List

“Does a newspaper screen all of its classified advertisements for possible consumer protection issues before they are published? Why should it be any surprise that Craig’s List doesn’t catch them all? Whatever happened to ‘buyer beware,’ ‘you get what you pay for,’ and ‘individual responsibility?’ Recalls are well documented. Check what you are buying. It’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure that we all ‘live happily ever after.’ (My 11/24/14 post on  Facebook.)

I recognize that someone, somewhere, sometime may be hurt or possibly killed by poorly designed or built items. But, the chance is slim, especially with all of the regulations in place and access by the public to recall information. These protective measures, even with ‘issues’ like above are far ahead of the 80/20 ratio.

FURTHER, as I always remind people, such supposed dangers are nothing compared to jumping in the old car and heading out onto the highways, facing the REAL possibility of being one of  the 30,000 or so automobile deaths per year. Now, you are talking real numbers! No matter how well you drive or how ‘good’ your car is, the roads are still filled with variables, i.e. fools, failures and hazards, all of which are beyond your control. Life is filled with risks. It’s a matter of perspective and statistics.

So proud of cell phone choices

This is a fine example of the 80/20 rule. As we all know, instant communications, both phone and internet seems to be ‘required’ in today’s active world.  Most people carry either a cell phone or a smart phone. Typically, the distinctions between the two is simple. The cell phone reaches into the atmosphere, finds a cell tower and enables a verbal or text exchange between two users.  The smart phone accomplished those same feats plus enables one to easily access the WWW through these same towers, using the 3G or 4G technologies.

There are almost countless “plans” for these two services depending upon the user’s anticipated number of calls, texts, WWW access and data downloads and uploads.  Many of these plans are made complex and/or more “useful” with the inclusion of the phones or smartphones in their premiums and often expanding the number of users, i.e. all family members, and possible ‘free’ exchanges with other certain individuals. It is indeed complex, often costing $40 to $100 depending upon devices covered or purchased within the plan.

The question with all this is quite simple, however.  “What do I actually need or want to use?” If, like me, you want phone access, occasional texting (and I don’t do this) and occasional WWW, the answer can be very simple AND inexpensive.  Having been in computers since punched cards, technology is not new to me.  I want certain things and will gladly pay for what I use. I don’t download and watch movies on my phone, I don’t play games, and I don’t travel frequently with large blocks of time to fill as on a plane or in an airport. I don’t need great quantities of data, nor do I need it 24/7 as I have it at home at least 12/7.

To that end, I spend about $100 a year (not month) to satisfy my needs.  It’s a perfect 80/20! I pay about 20% and get about 80%.  What is the extra 20% that I am missing?  It is simply that I don’t get my WWW connections through 3G or 4G towers. I use WiFi wherever it is available and it is all around us. I am constantly amazed as to where I can easily log into a wifi system, be it a hospital, church, restaurant and obviously in homes, my own being the most used.

My ‘smart phone’ is someone’s castoff and cost me little or nothing. AT&T transferred my Go Phone account and data from my simple ‘flip phone’ and I paid $100 up front for their phone and text service.  This service extends for a year or until I have used all of my time, which usually doesn’t happen in that period. At the end of the year I pay another $100 and any left over time from the previous year’s charge is added to the total.  Calls are $.10 a minuet and texts are $.20 as I recall. For me, 1000 minuets of phone time is more than I will use in a typical year.

What I really needed is the occasional, on location, WiFi access which I get for FREE by simply having the smart phone with me. Actually, I could accomplish this without activating the cell phone system within the smart phone but that would mean carrying two devices around. 🙂

So proud of the 80/20 ratio.

It is very hard to believe, but I have not posted anything for almost a year.  Why? I’m not sure.  I guess it is the result of a certain level of disappointment in the trends of mankind, a bit of normal depression resulting from undirected retirement but, more than likely it is a recognition of a need on my part to focus on the ‘good things’ around me rather than the exceptions to perfection.

In this regard, I have always been an “80%-20%” person.  That is to say, to achieve 80% of the desired outcome, one only needs to invest 20% of the effort or expenses. This leave 80% of one’s resources for an addition four more projects or activities.

Some would say that this is NOT the way to operate, and that such leads to mediocrity. Many times they would be correct and there are times, perhaps becoming a masterful performer, a surgeon, or putting a man on the moon, where they would be correct. Total commitment is then absolutely required and even 100% many not be enough as seen in the recent comet landing (absolutely amazing and really successful mission despite the ending!). But, for most daily activities, both personal and business, achieving 80% success and satisfaction is indeed a challenge. I would note that if this action is frequently repeated, higher success ratios will naturally occur with even less effort and expense as practice does, if not “make perfect”, certainly increases performance and production.

I have heard business advisers harp on the need for perfection in dealing with customers to achieve goals and customer satisfaction. I ask now, “how many of us actually expect 100% from anyone or organization?” Most of us would be overjoyed with 80%. Can you imagine only having to wait an hour for a service call from Xfinity, Sears, BG&E, etc.  rather than the usual “we will be there sometime between 12:00 and 4:00.”

If we are really honest about it, what we truly want on most occasions is a certainty of at least 80% that our needs will be met, and an understanding, time efficient, courteous exchange with people to achieve our mutual goals.

So without further explanation, I am shifting my posts to focus upon the successes of people and organizations where achievements are evident and where the above understanding, time efficiency, and courteousness prevail, and where such are achieved with a reasonable i.e. 20%, effort and expense.

Let’s see where this goes.

So proud of ‘higher eduction’

The December 26, 2013 issue of The Baltimore Sun had a commentary by Mr. James Grimmelmann of the University of Maryland which focused upon MOOCs and for-profit learning. Titled “MOOC’s: Over already? Mr Grimmelmann explored a bit of the history of distance learning and the recent failure of the newest trend, on-line learning. It is short and well worth reading.

As many know, having completed my doctorate via on-line learning, I started the on-line learning program at Carroll Community College, and taught on-line courses from 1997 until and even after my retirement. This is a subject that is close to my heart.

Mr. Grimmelmann commentary was ‘right-on’ and voiced many of the concerns that should be debated regarding both MOOCs and for that matter, for-profit higher education.  As he noted, ‘distance learning’ is not new. Thomas Edison was sure that his movies would change things dramatically by making educational motion pictures available to all.  Some ideas keep getting new technologies to support them, over and over again. Think about them: books, radio, tapes, TV, DVDs, phone, and the internet. Same idea – learning at a distance.

For me, the most recent shift in distance learning, i.e. to on-line learning, has been interesting to watch as it has simply paralleled access speed.  Sitting on a Maryland community colleges’ committee in the mid 1990s to help direct the flow and development of on-line courses, I can remember one of my colleagues noting that it was a good thing that available bandwidth was so limited, i.e. phone dial-up. He continued and suggested that if this was not the case, computer based, on-line learning would consist of the various scheduled TV courses being moved to the computer, simply creating more ‘talking heads.’

My colleague’s main point was that computer based, on-line learning should be able to not only provide education, anytime, and anywhere, but should enable the historically missing component of distance learning, i.e. the educational “learning dialogue” consisting of relatively quick and frequent exchanges between the faculty member and students. As such, the participating institutions limited enrolment to a level that could be handled by one instructor, typically less than 30. How an effective course can support thousands of students in this way is a mystery to me. Yet, that is exactly what both for-profit and non-profit institutions are doing.

Distance and on-line learning are not for the faint of heart which can be seen by the number of students who are not successful. Better students are more likely to complete them. Poor students as  noted by Mr. Grimmelmann, are not. There are simply too many obstacles.  The fact that for-profit educational institutions, especially those without accreditation, can cultivate this market is quite upsetting to me and made even more egregious when courses and programs do not transfer to accredited institutions.

I could go on, but that is not my intent. I will leave it with just one more thought and that is ‘speed.’ There seems to be an assumption that since speed is available in on-line learning technologies and often in shortened class formats and schedules, that students should be able to easily complete them quickly, like everything else today, gaining whatever certification or acknowledgement comes with that effort, involvement or insight. The fact is that ‘results are most often proportional with effort’ in a well designed on-line learning course.

That education takes time is the unspoken truth that would kill many sales in the for-profit market. It is a secret that is minimized. In my experience, time is of even more importance to the poorer students. Obviously unprepared for academics, they are typically working in jobs they cannot leave and do not like, and often have families which only adds to those time demands.  The promise of ‘speed’ draws them and the realities, especially time requirements, perseverance and lack of academic support, condemns them to continued failure. It is a cycle that is extremely hard to break and one which, if things are going to improve for that population, must be curtailed at its roots: home, public education, and environment.

Higher Education is being scrutinized from all directions.  As noted in a posting in The Atlantic’s web sited, We Are Creating Walmarts of Higher Education, MOOCs are certainly part of this review. It seems apparent that “No child left behind” is headed to a college near you and in preparation for this, many institutions are making changes. Hopefully, some of these will positive and effective. (More on these thoughts in the future.)