Saturday, August 30, 2008

Notes on My Own Power Use

I live an electrically powered life. I spend most of my days with computers, mp3 players, and high definition televisions and gaming consoles. In spite of being surrounded by all these devices, I had never really paid attention to how much power they use. When I decided my desktop computer's video card was going to need an upgrade eventually, I realized that I had to know exactly how much power it was pulling so I could tell if the power supply had enough overhead do the upgrade. That was all the excuse I needed to pick up a meter that could measure power draw. And hey, once I owned the meter, I could learn what all those other electronic devices were up to.

I'll start with the desktop computer since it was my primary concern and makes a good comparison point. I assembled it myself from parts about a year ago, and I did have efficiency in mind. I guesstimated what the smallest power supply I would be able to get away with was, so I was worried that in the world of kilowatt power supplies, my 380 Watt beauty wouldn't cut it. The numbers happily showed that I had nothing to fear:
  • Power off: 3W
  • On and idle: 83W
  • Central Processing Unit loaded: 129W
  • Graphics Processing Unit loaded: 134W
  • CPU & GPU loaded: 149W
  • Full load (CPU, GPU, Memory, & Hard Disk Drive): 161W
As usual for a gaming capable machine, the GPU can draw more power than the CPU. The important numbers are the idle and full load measurements, which represent essentially the low and high points of the power curve when the machine is in use. I was interested to see how those compared to other household items, so I did some more measurements:
  • 1W: electric alarm clock
  • 3W: computer (laptop or desktop), turned off
  • 4W: wireless router
  • 5W: cable modem
  • 13W: 16W Compact Flourescent Lightbulb (CFL, 60W incandescent equivalent)
  • 27W: 26W CFL (100W incandescent equivalent)
  • 25-30W: laptop computer, idle
  • 34W: entertainment center, turned off (HDTV, DVR, XBox 360, and stereo receiver)
  • 45W: laptop computer, loaded
  • 54W: 60W incandescent lightbulb
  • 83W: desktop computer, idle
  • 102W: 100W incandescent lightbulb
  • 158W: toaster oven toasting
  • 161W: desktop computer, loaded
  • 280+W: entertainment center, everything on and active
Of course, these numbers are just spot measurements in my house, but I think the relative size is illustrative. My laptop computer under light load (say, typing a 'blog post) uses about the same amount of power that my TV setup does just sitting there off. CFLs really are that much more efficient than regular bulbs. My computer can produce more heat in a given amount of time than my toaster oven...

This is a Muppet News Flash

A new Muppet movie is in the works, and if it is popular it could lead to a new incarnation of the original Muppet Show. I wish 'em luck.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Lesson From the Olympics

The Summer Olympic Games are now over. In spite of the usual amount of controversy, the Olympics remain an astounding display of skill and athletic prowess. As I watched some of the events, I wondered what it would be like to practice for years or even decades for a single shot at winning the gold. Could I even begin to comprehend what it would take to spend all that time working on a single set of skills?

Eventually it struck me that I actually can. There is something I spent years preparing for and more years practicing. I suspect most folks who might read this have done something similar. It's called our job. While I am not anywhere near the world-class level of an Olympic athlete, the parallel does give me some insight on what it must take to become so. The focus necessary, the sacrifice in time and other activities, and the continued need for self-improvement are things we can recognize. The differences come in our personal level of commitment and the level of specialization. Olympic athletes are the perfect example of what people who have an extreme level of commitment can accomplish when they are also extremely specialized.

Whether we are talking about cells in our bodies, jobs in a society, or knowledge areas within a field, specializing allows better utility at the expense of broader utility. Football wide receivers don't usually play on the defensive line as well, and those that attempt it will be worse at both positions than if they only had to practice one set of skills and could optimize their body type for one position. In my own field, it would be impossible for one person to learn all the different possible platforms, languages, and libraries available. But I can learn the ones I work with daily very well indeed. We spend years in school learning the lessons needed to start down the job path, and years on the job honing our skills. During all this time, we tend to get more and more specialized.

Specialization is a good thing, but it also requires something in return. Red blood cells carry oxygen, but they can't fight off infection or seal wounds. Those wide receivers wouldn't be much good without a quarterback to throw the ball to them, or an offensive line to protect the quarterback. The Olympic teams are huge; each event a country participates in requires its own team of athletes. Those athletes can only excel because they have coaches to teach them, builders to make gyms, nutritionists, doctors, and on and on.

So, the greater your specialization, the more dependent on other people's knowledge you become. Since we are all specialists of one sort or another, we are all dependent on other people. It's something that I now try and remember when I'm having one of those days where the whole world seems to be working against me. I know that in spite of my personal frustrations, people made the car I go to work in. People wrote and performed the music I listen to. People built my house, created my clothes, wrote stories I enjoy, and stocked the shelves at my grocery store. I could not survive without them. The programs I write invisibly play their part in making everyone else's day go a little bit smoother.

It's a lesson I regret not learning earlier in my life: learn to work well with others because we all need each other to reach our potential.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

This Week's Alternative Energy Post

Out in California twelve and a half miles of land are about to be converted into solar power plants on a scale not yet seen in the U.S. The plants will produce about eight hundred megawatts of power, approximately the output of a large coal fired power plant or a small nuclear one according to the New York Times. This development is also mentioned in an article from Ars Technica noting the amount of installed wind power generation grew by nearly 50% in 2007 and demand is soaring. Meanwhile in Austraila, a 23 year old PhD student has developed a way of manufacturing solar cells in a pizza oven that is far simpler and cheaper than current processes. Her goal is to provide power to impoverished people and her inspiration was a solar kit her parents gave her when she was ten.

I'm more and more convinced that the alternative energy future is being built right now. However, the replacement for the chemical battery is still missing. By request, I did a quick hunt for news of any supercapacitor updates, and sure enough there is some pretty big potential news out there. A company called EEStore is working on a solid state supercapacitor that is more powerful and can charge and discharge faster than batteries. The company claims it would allow a 250 mile range for pure electric cars, which could charge back up in five minutes. And most importantly, they claim they will be in commercial production next year. Of course the usual caveat about products that don't exist yet applies, and the company has already failed to deliver on their deadlines. On the other hand, if the company's claims hold up, then things could get very interesting indeed.

A Warning to Web E-Mail Users

Last month Google added a new security feature to GMail, a setting to force GMail to use the HTTPS protocol for all interactions. Google posted instructions for enabling it. Enabling this extra security is always a good idea, but you should consider it mandatory if you ever use any public network, such as your local coffee shop's wireless. Without HTTPS set to always-on, anyone who shares a network with you and has the ability to monitor the traffic over that network can gain full access to your account. Unfortunately, it's not just Google Mail that's vulnerable, it's all Google web apps and many other sites around the web. Some technical details can be found on the site of Mike Perry, the author who published the vulnerability. There is more information on his blog beyond that post.

All the technical stuff aside, the lesson to take from this would be that public networks remain very insecure. The odds of you being targeted for a hack are probably tiny, but they aren't zero. And though one prominent security expert extolls running an open wireless network in his home, I don't. Note the responses at the bottom of that post for other security experts also disagreeing. Personally, my wireless network doesn't broadcast it's ID, so you have to know what it is to get in. And even if you guess, my router is set up to recognize only the unique identifiers associated with the network adapters in my computers. While this is almost certainly a paranoid level of security, it does ensure that I'm going to be the last person in my neighborhood who's wireless is hijacked. (For the record, there are 4 secured and 2 unsecured networks visible to my laptop as I sit here on my couch. Mine is the only one not broadcasting its network ID.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Traveling Gnomes, Flying Drones, and a Spy Chef

There have been some amusing things in the news lately. Naturally, I must share.

A garden gnome vanished from a Gloucester yard only to be returned seven months later with a photo album of the twelve countries he had visited. That's a pretty good story. Though it would have been better if the kidnappers hadn't broken his feet off in the process...

In a story sure to provoke Skynet references, the first full Air Force air wing to go all unmanned will be the 174th fighter wing. They are replacing F-16s with MQ-9 Reaper drones. The Air Force cites greater endurance and cheaper operation as the reasons to replace the manned fighters with drones.

And finally, the National Archive released previously classified documents concerning the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA. The OSS was created during World War II and the released documents indicate the spy network was nearly twice as large as estimated. Many people who served in the OSS went on to fame later in their lives. For some reason of all the people listed, the media chose to highlight Chef Julia Child. Hey, it caught my eye. Bon appetit!

Keep on Breathin'...

This is the result of a very early morning that featured classic rock, local news, and a trip to the medicine cabinet. Sung to the tune of "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" with apologies to Neal Young and everyone who reads it...

There's pollen in the air
From the grassy weeds
People sniffin' over there
People sneezin' in their seats
There's a box of Claratin in the cabinet
It's a lot better with a big dose of decongestant
Don't feel like working, but there's bills to pay
So I try to keep awake all the long day

Keep on breathin' in this sneeze world. (Repeat 3 more times)

There's an orange alert
They say the air is bad
And the news advert
Is another truck ad
So I pop a Tylenol and another one or two
It's hard to stare at a screen with your head splittin' in two
There we all are at work just plugging away
Cause it's what we do and there's nothin' else to say

Keep on breathin' in this smog world. (Repeat 3 more times)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bachelor Chow: Newschannel Chicken

A few days back, I was watching the local 24-hour news channel waiting to catch a weather report. The lead-in segment was one of those bits where a chef demonstrates a recipe. Normally, I never see anything worth remembering, but this time I did. The chef presented a "healthy and quick" version of Parmesan chicken. It was certainly easy, it sounded good, and I had thawed chicken in the 'fridge. Unfortunately, the first ingredient was bread crumbs. I'm a bachelor with the word "engineer" in my job title; containers of bread crumbs have no place in my house. Here's my take on the dish:

4-6 chicken tenderloins
1 heel piece from a loaf of sandwich bread (any thin piece will do)
3-4 Kashi garlic and thyme party crackers (or something similar)
2 tablespoons(-ish) of grated Parmesan cheese
olive or vegetable oil
black pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Toast the bread lightly in a toaster oven and leave it in with the oven turned off to dry it out. When the bread is fairly dry, crumble it into a container large enough for dredging the chicken. Crush the crackers and add them and the cheese to the bread. Grind in black pepper to taste and give it a good mix with your hand. Give the chicken a light coating of oil, and dredge them in the bread crumbs (ha!). Bake in a baking pan for 15 minutes.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Inventiveness, Concentration, Plasma Engines, and the Usual Alternative Energy News

I have been sitting on this story all week, and thankfully it has been picked up pretty much everywhere by now. When a doctor and a nurse design and build a kidney dialysis machine for infants too small for the normal machines, it's something to laud. Especially since it works and has saved lives.

If that sort of innovation isn't your cup of tea, how about the news that NASA is hoping to test a plasma engine design in space. If successful, it could open the door to the production of far more efficient rockets than are currently available. Such a thing would certainly be helpful to our exploration of the solar system.

Great works of science, engineering, and art all share at their inception people who's job it is to will them into creation. Concentration is a vital skill, and it has been for a long time, as this 1930's era publication demonstrates. The advice within is astoundingly relevant today, and has been around long before Peopleware was published.

Of course, I leave you with some new info on alternative energy sources. Today I've got a story about some folks at MIT figuring out a way to improve fuel cells that could make them a better alternative for storing solar energy for use when the sun isn't shining. There's also the more detailed ArsTechnica analysis of the same story. And since solar power will be the catalyst for the potential application, I'll also point to an IEEE Spectrum article about one company's quest to make solar cost competitive against fossil fuels. We're getting closer and closer to the inevitable point where solar generation becomes a widespread reality, and I'm rather looking forward to it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The CERN Rap

Tip of the hat to Blue's News for noting this little tour of the Large Hadron Collider and overview of some of the science it will be studying.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Eyeball Ergonomics

Right about the time I was fiddling with the colors of this blog a couple of weeks ago, Slashdot ran a question asking about the best color scheme for coding. It isn't a new topic, but it is one that keeps coming up. If you could look over the shoulders of my co-workers and I at the office you would find that almost everyone has customized the colors of their programming environment to some extent or another. And really, programmers aren't the only people who should be interested. Anyone who spends their working days staring at computer monitors can tell you what a big deal eye strain can be.

So what is the best color scheme for people? As with most ergonomic factors, theory and research can point you in the right direction, but it takes a bit of trial and error to get something that works well for you. Depending on how ergonomic your workstation is already, you may have other changes that can increase your comfort much more than a mere color change. However, if you are already sitting in the right position, in a good chair, with keyboard and monitor at the right height and distance, you might be surprised how much of a difference a simple background color change can make in your overall eye comfort.

If you haven't thought about your color scheme recently (or ever), it may be worth it for you to fiddle around a bit. Notably, modern sub-pixel antialiasing technology is changing the way fonts look.* So do some googling or just experiment with different background colors on your computer, you may be surprised what you come up with.

*Microsoft's implementation of sub-pixel rendering, called ClearType, is off by default under Windows XP, but on by default in Vista. The default fonts for Vista are designed for use with ClearType and look terrible without it. All that is well and good, but the programming font I've been using for years is mangled pretty badly by ClearType, and the light on dark color scheme I've used with minor tweaks since the early 90s becomes torturous. Yet another reason why this topic is on my mind.