Tech Recycling

June 30, 2009

In a previous post, concerning a hard drive full of confidential material that some PBS researchers had bought in a market in Ghana, I touched on the issue of hi-tech rubbish disposal.  Some of it is shipped to other countries (as was the errant disk drive), where less-stringent environmental rules make disposal cheaper, sometimes at the expense of local people’s health.  But some of it ends up, with ordinary household trash, in landfills, where its content of heavy metals and other toxins can leach into the ground water.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article  describing some recent attempts, by state and local governments, to address this problem:

Since 2004, 18 states and New York City have approved laws that make manufacturers responsible for recycling electronics, and similar statutes were introduced in 13 other states this year. The laws are intended to prevent a torrent of toxic and outdated electronic equipment — television sets, computers, monitors, printers, fax machines — from ending up in landfills where they can leach chemicals into groundwater and potentially pose a danger to public health.

The size of the potential problem is staggering; according to the article, the EPA estimates that there are more than 99 million old TV sets mouldering away in cupboards and basements in the US.

Many of the programs involve the establishment of drop-off sites, where consumers can bring their old tech-junk to be recycled.  It appears that these are generally well received; in fact, some of the sites are nearly overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially in their early days of operation:

“We were getting 18 semi loads a day when the program first started,” said Craig Lorch, owner of Total Reclaim, a warehouse on the south edge of Seattle that is among the collection points.

Maine has been running a program since 2004, and is currently collecting about four pounds of E-trash per capita each year.  This program has some capacity for financing part of its cost, since many electronic devices contain precious metals (e.g., gold, silver, platinum) that can be easily re-sold, and some parts that can be refurbished and reused.

Some of the manufacturers are complaining about the cost of the program, nevertheless:

Manufacturers say a reasonable rate for collection and processing of waste is 25 to 30 cents a pound. Still it is more than they say they can recoup from reselling the metals they harvest, particularly for televisions.

This really is, to a considerable extent, beside the point.  Before the advent of regulations making the manufacturers responsible for recycling the equipment, they, and consumers, were in effect receiving a hidden subsidy from everyone else.   The disposal costs of the toxic waste were borne by everyone, not by the people that make and use the equipment.  (As I’ve discussed before, these economic externalities are common when pollution of various kinds is at issue.) Absent the regulation, the direct cost to the manufacturer of reducing the waste disposal problem significantly exceeded the direct benefit.  The goal of regulation should be to re-shape these incentives:

Carole A. Cifrino, the environmental specialist who manages Maine’s e-waste program, said she hoped the strict recycling would eventually prompt manufacturers to rethink their designs.

“Maybe since they have some responsibility for the cleanup,” Ms. Cifrino said, “it will motivate them to think about how you design for the environment and the commodity value at the end of the life.”

Historically, the ability to generate rubbish has basically been free. It is becoming more and more apparent that it has a real cost, and it’s important that the cost be borne by those who can do something about the underlying problem.

New Earth Map

June 30, 2009

The BBC has a story today about the publication of a new topographic map of the Earth.  This map is notable for a few reasons:

  • It covers more of the Earth’s surface (99%) than any previous map
  • It has a higher resolution than previous maps, using about 1.3 million images to produce a data grid with points just 30 meters apart.
  • It was produced as a cooperative venture between NASA and the Japanese trade ministry.
  • Best of all, the map will be available for free download.

The best previous map was less accurate, and only covered about 80% of the Earth’s surface.

The underlying data was collected by an instrument called ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer); NASA’s page relating to this project is here.

Mozilla Releases Firefox 3.5

June 30, 2009

Back on June 22, I posted a note on my testing of the Release Candidate for Mozilla Firefox® 3.5.  Today, the Mozilla Foundation has released the production version of 3.5.  The press release gives an overview of the changes from previous releases (if you adjust as usual for the use of language in press releases).  The Release Notes give, as usual, the technical summary.  Versions of Firefox 3.5 for Linux, Mac OS-X, and Windows, in 70+ languages, can be downloaded here.

I have been using the Release Candidate version for a couple of weeks now, and haven’t encountered any significant issues so far.  As I noted in the “preview” post, the new version does appear to be noticeably faster, especially for JavaScript-intensive sites (such as or Facebook).

Update, Tuesday, June 30, 14:35

There’s a review of Firefox 3.5, by Farhad Manjoo, on Slate.  He focuses particularly on some of the changes related to the HTML 5 standard for audio and video.

iPod v. Walkman

June 30, 2009

The BBC’s News Magazine has an entertaining article on the results of a comparative test of old and new technology.  The Sony Walkman® was introduced 30 years ago, while Apple’s iPod® is, of course, relatively recent. The magazine persuaded 13-year-old Scott Campbell to swap his iPod for a week, to try out a Walkman.

Scott’s first reaction was to the size of the Walkman:

My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.

He had told me it was big, but I hadn’t realised he meant THAT big. It was the size of a small book.

Of course the Walkman is bigger, a fact amplified by comparison to the iPod.  It occurred to me to wonder how Scott would react to seeing my TEAC reel-to-reel studio recorder; it’s bigger than the Manhattan White Pages, and considerably heavier.

Not unusally for a teenage user, fashion was something of a consideration:

It comes with a handy belt clip screwed on to the back, yet the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats.

But the most amusing part, to me, was the cross-generational conflict of assumptions that Scott sometimes had to overcome.  For example, he didn’t initially realize that the cassette tape had two sides (and therefore had to be flipped in the Walkman model he was using, which didn’t have auto-reverse).  An artifact of the difference between two recording technologies (ordinary and CrO2 recording tape) also proved a bit puzzling:

I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

It’s a funny reminder of how something that seems completely obvious at one time (like the function of that switch — having lived through the switch to cassette tapes, I knew at once what it was) can be close to opaque not very much later.   There are lots of other everyday candidates for this kind of puzzlement: I wonder how long it will be before the phrase “a broken record” becomes mysterious.

I had a similar experience a few years ago, when I had just moved into a new office, and was unpacking a carton of old stuff.  One of the things in the carton happened to be my trusty Keuffel & Esser slide rule.  A younger colleague of mine asked, “What’s that?”   On being told that, “It’s a slide rule, silly,” he told me he had never seen one before.  So I showed it to him, and explained the basics of how it worked (by adding logarithms); he was then really impressed, because I actually knew how to use it.

Looking around me, I can see some other possibilities, too.  Computer techonology is too easy a target, like shooting fish in a barrel, but there are others.   There is my Hermes portable typewriter, which I got when I was in high school.  There is the aforementioned TEAC tape deck.  And, in some ways perhaps most potentially puzzling of all, my old Exacta 35mm SLR, which is not only a film camera, but was manufactured in East Germany, “die sogennante DDR”.   Oh, and I still have my little portable Toshiba cassette player.

Here is part of Scott’s conclustion, in case there are some of you that don’t feel quite old enough yet:

Personally, I’m relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I’m relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can’t imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.


Protecting Privacy

June 28, 2009

Despite the risk that you, gentle reader, will think that I read nothing else, I’d like to mention one more item from the July/August 2009 issue of the Technology Review, published by MIT.  The article is by Simson Garfinkel, a well-known security researcher and author,  who is an Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey CA.  Entitled “Privacy Requires Security, Not Abstinence”, the article discusses the current situation with respect to privacy in the digital world, and attempts to put the issue in some perspective.

One of the point that Garfinkel makes, which is easy for us to overlook, is that advances in technology have threatened privacy before:

Back in 1890 two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review warning that the invasive technologies of their day threatened to take “what is whispered in the closet” and have it “proclaimed from the house-tops.” In the face of those threats, they posited a direct “right to privacy” and argued that individuals whose privacy is violated should be able to sue for damages.

Another example that is frequently cited is the concept of having a private conversation.  At the time the US Constitution was written, the idea that it could be difficult to have a private conversation would have seemed silly.  After all, two people could just go out into the middle of a large, open field, and talk.  There were no parabolic microphones, laser detectors, or other technological means of eavesdropping.

Opting out of participation in our technological society is neither a practical nor an effective solution:

Until recently, people who wanted to preserve their privacy were urged to “opt out” or abstain from some aspects of modern society. Concerned about having your purchases tracked by a credit-card company? Use cash. Concerned that E-ZPass records might be used against you in a lawsuit? Throw coins at that toll booth. Don’t want to show your ID at the airport? Drive. Don’t want your location tracked minute by minute? Turn off your cell phone.

Some of the problems with this are practical: have you ever tried to rent a car without a credit card?   Perhaps more to the point, opting out really isn’t all that effective.  There are still things that you have to do, like getting a driver’s license, or going to the doctor, that generate information about you that ends up in someone’s data base.   All this digital information capture is a fait accompli; turning the clock back is not viable, so we need to develop means of protecting people’s information:

In this environment, the real problem is not that your information is out there; it’s that it’s not protected from misuse. In other words, privacy problems are increasingly the result of poor security practices.

As we collectively move more to “cloud computing”, where an individual’s data may be stored in many different places, most unknown to the individual himself, this issue will take on greater urgency.

Prof. Garfinkel says, and I agree, that we have the means to solve many of these problems right now:

I have spent a good part of my professional life looking for ways to make computer systems more secure, and I believe that many of the problems we face today are not only tractable–many of them have already been solved.  …

We really do know how to build secure systems. Unfortunately, these systems cost more to develop, and using them would require us to abandon the ones we already have–at least for our critical applications.

Lack of attention to security in designing systems is one root cause of these problems.  This in turn often happens because, as I’ve discussed before, economic externalities come into play: the person who has to pay to have a more secure system is not the person who will suffer the loss if the system’s security fails.  This is an area where government probably needs to take a role in setting the rules of the game.

Finally, Garfinkel identifies one of the thornier problems with security and privacy on the Internet: how can we identify a person whose only observable physical manifestation is an electrical signal on a network connection.  In the physical world, we typically examine documents (such as a passport or driver’s license) to verify a person’s identity.   Garfinkel proposes that a government-issued electronic “ID card” could serve the same purpose.  It seems to me that this is another proposal where the devil is in the details; I’ll talk about it a bit more in a future post.

A Pound of Cure

June 27, 2009

Technology Review, published by MIT, has an interesting article on the use of information technology in health care.  As the article points out, the administration’s economic stimulus package includes $19 billion for health-care IT spending; the aim is to provide an incentive for hospitals and doctors to switch to using electronic medical records.   There is some good evidence that such a switch would have benefits, both in reducing administrative costs, and in reducing errors (such as adverse drug interactions).  But it isn’t clear that cost is the major obstacle to getting this done:

The truth is that these folks could have digitized the whole industry ages ago. The technology has been around for a long time: Wall Street began phasing out physical stock certificates over 35 years ago. Even the cash-strapped airline industry has gone ticketless, removing huge labor and overhead costs. These industries started using electronic records because they believed it would save money.

I suspect that part of this is a kind of cultural aversion among doctors to be seen as motivated by “management” concerns like efficiency.  But as the author. Andy Kessler, suggests, there may be something more fundamental that is holding things back.

It is an often-cited and depressing fact that the United States spends more money per person on medical care than any other country on Earth, yet gets poorer results in many standard measures of public health (e.g., infant mortality).  And it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the cost of health care is an issue of great concern to people generally, as well as being one of the primary factors behind personal bankruptcies.

As Mr. Kessler points out, the way the health care system in the US works, in the majority of cases, is that doctors get paid for treating people who are sick.  Other things being equal, doing more tests, treating more patients, and performing more procedures increases the medical practicioner’s income. Now I am emphatically not saying that doctors are all just money-grubbing opportunists, but it is hard to believe that the structure of financial incentives has no impact on medical decisions.   In fact, doctors generally do argue that financial incentives have a lot to do with the behavior of insurance companies and malpractice attorneys; I am not convinced that attending medical school makes one completely immune to this kind of consideration.

Furthermore, the current haphazard state of medical record keeping is a significant problem in trying to move toward what has been called “evidence-based medicine” — that is, a regime where tests and treatments are selected on the basis of solid evidence about what works and what doesn’t:

In those medical records lie the ugly truth about the business of medicine: sickness is profitable. The greater the number of treatments, procedures, and hospital stays, the larger the profit. There is little incentive for doctors and hospitals to identify or reduce wasteful spending in medicine.

The amount of unnecessary spending is huge. In a project that analyzed 4,000 hospitals, the Dartmouth College Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice estimated that eliminating 30 percent of Medicare spending would not change either access to health care or the quality of the care itself. The Congressional Budget Office then suggested that $700 billion of the approximately $2.3 trillion spent on health care in 2008 was wasted on treatments that did not improve health outcomes.

The really big payoff from better record keeping could be improved health outcomes at lower cost.  Better record keeping would also facilitate preventative care, because it would be easier to identify people with risk factors for a disease, or those taking a drug that had a newly-discovered adverse side effect.

In a way, the issue here is trying to move away from the view of the doctor as an individual artisan, and toward a more prevention-focused, team approach to health care.

Lithium-Air Batteries

June 26, 2009

The Technology Review, published by MIT, has a story today about a potentially important breakthrough in battery technology.  As those of you who have a laptop or cell phone may have observed, the battery technology of choice for mobile devices today is the lithium-ion battery, because it provides a high energy density.  The voltage produced by any battery is determined by the two materials used as electrodes (for example, carbon and zinc in traditional flashlight batteries).  Lithium is a logical choice for use in a battery, because it has a very high half-cell potential (about 3 volts), but lithium metal is extremely reactive — explosively so with water.  (You may  remember seeing a science class demonstration of sodium or potassium metal being put into water, and the violent reaction that follows.  Lithium is even more reactive.)

One of the ways in which the energy density of a battery can be increased is to reduce its weight.  One possibility for doing this is to use air as one of the reactants.  This is done in some batteries used in hearing aids, for example, which use a zinc-air reaction.  However, these batteries have the disadvantage that they self-discharge over time.  (New zinc-air batteries come with an airtight seal that is removed when the battery is installed.)

A company in Berkeley CA, called PolyPlus has developed a new electrode technology that they claim will make lithium-air batteries a reality.  Their electrode uses lithium metal enclosed in a substance that is impermeable to water, but allows ions to pass through:

PolyPlus has solved this problem by developing what the company calls a “protected lithium electrode.” The device consists of a flat, rectangular piece of lithium metal overlaid on either side with a ceramic electrolyte material called lisicon. The solid electrolyte is impermeable to water but lets lithium ions pass through.

This is potentially quite significant. Using lithium metal as one of the reactants should allow a considerable improvement in energy density:

Lithium-metal batteries approach the energy density of fuel cells without the plumbing needed for these devices; in theory, the maximum energy density is more than 5,000 watt-hours per kilogram, or more than 10 times that of today’s lithium-ion batteries.

Although electricity has many advantages as an energy source, the sticking point in using it, especially for any application that is not fixed in one place, has been how to store it.   Battery technology today has come a long way, but still imposes limitations.  This development has the potential to give a real boost to the use of electric power for transportation.

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