Friday, May 27, 2011

Can the World Really be Trusted to Properly Dispose of CFLs?

I like my traditional incandescent light bulbs. They cast a beautiful and appealing light, they last long enough, and they are very inexpensive. Compact fluorescent light bulbs, not so much. I understand the environmental benefits of CFLs, as they last longer and use less power per kilowatt hour the entire time they are in service, but the environmental negative is of great importance. The light that cast is not so great, and they are very expensive.

I'm not sure if anyone really knows for sure just how much mercury is in each CFL, but their proper disposal is key to making sure that any amount of mercury does not get added to the environment. Is the world ready to be trusted with the appropriate disposal of an environmentally hazardous material in such a common consumer product? I'm not so sure.

From the time of its invention, the light bulb continues to be one of the most common technologies in use for the past hundred years and counting. We know this is true because not many people read by candlelight anymore or prefer the heat and light of a fire when it comes to elongating the waking hours of a day after the sun goes down. One of the most common sayings in many households is "Did you remember to turn off the light?"

A lot of times, the mercury-in-CFLs argument is compared to mercury in old thermostats. Those old thermostats certainly contain a lot more mercury. Pop the face off and you can see all that scary mercury flowing around in its little glass encasement. If you haven't switched from an analog thermostat to a digital one, you should do so as soon as possible. Make sure you dispose of that analog thermostat properly, though.

Properly disposing of a single analog thermostat is usually a once-in-a-lifetime responsibility, though. This is why I don't like the comparison with CFLs. Disposing of them properly is something the entire world will need to do quite regularly. Where we store our old CFLs before bringing them in for proper disposal is an important consideration. A box on the floor of the garage collecting a dozen or more CFLs between trips to the recycling park is just asking for someone to drop a gardening tool in it by accident and break some of its contents. A box full of old CFLs stored in a Rubbermaid container, in an enclosed cabinet is a much better choice. This too presents opportunities for accidents, though.

Right now, consumers have an option of whether they want to buy incandescent light bulbs or CFLs. With future governmental regulation, this choice could no longer be available, and everyone would be forced to buy CFLs. I haven't checked into it lately, but the last I read, CFLs would be mandated based on a scheduled roll out in the next couple years.

For environmentally conscious people, proper CFL disposal is not going to be a problem. For everyone else, it will come down to personal choices and individual responsibility. We all know it's a whole lot easier to throw a light bulb in the trash. If the majority of consumers decide to do that, whether it's because they've been told that "CFLs don't contain a lot of mercury anyway," or because they simply don't care about the environment, we could have a major environmental problem on our hands.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Success of Apple's iPad Signals Recession's End or Actual Nonexistence

With all the sales of Apple's iPad and iPad 2, one thing is abundantly clear: The recession caused by the meltdown and insolvency of the financial markets is clearly over. If you don't have a job right now, you're just not pounding the pavement hard enough. It hate to say it, but it must be true. The iPad is a cool device, but no one really needs it. It's as if America bought 15 million fancy Cuisinarts between 2008 and 2010 when everyone already owned a cutting board and a knife.

I'll take it a bit further. Apple's choice to develop and release the iPad during the worst recession since the 1980s makes me wonder if we were ever actually in a recession. Apple is a smart company with a huge, albeit trendy, stock price, and they had to know what they were doing. The notion of creating cool new technology that no one really needed and then selling close to 20 million of them during a recession, many of which cost around five hundred dollars, should make most people think long and hard about whether that whole "recession thing" ever happened. Did it?

Ask anyone who owns an iPad why they needed to buy one, and they'll give you a variety of unconvincing answers. "My laptop was too clunky" is a good one for starters. I guess it depends on your definition of clunky, but most laptops weigh around 3 pounds or much less. If you happen to own an Apple laptop, this sounds even more ridiculous, and if you own an Apple laptop, you probably ran out to buy an iPad right away due to brand loyalty and your addiction to all things Apple. I remember being a kid, pulling my iEniac around in my Radio Flyer. I'm just glad it didn't have portable power because those vacuum tubes would have been really hot in that August sun! That iEniac was truly clunky, but today's laptops being called "clunky?"

Another unconvincing reason people often state for why they need an iPad is that it's "intriguing" or "interesting." This reason is in line with "just having to have something" or "I want it." If there really never was a recession, this reason is the best proof. During a real recession people need stuff like bread, milk, gasoline, and jobs. They don't need Steve Job's latest reason to get on a stage dressed in a thousand dollar black turtleneck with the result of his most recent voyage as a time traveler.

Whether you own an iPad, or two, or none at all, we all have reason to celebrate. Actually, we all have reasons to celebrate. Take your choice. Celebrate because the recession is over. Celebrate because there may never have been a recession. Celebrate because you own an iPad. Celebrate because Apple will soon release yet another novelty product that will denounce the existence of a recession. Who knows, maybe Steve Jobs is putting on that black turtleneck right now.

Image-Search-by-Image: Search that Uses a Picture as the Criterion

I wonder how far away we are from an image search that would allow users to search for a picture with a picture? I've been thinking about this one for some time now, and it seems like a good leap for Google, Bing, or maybe even a new innovator in the search arena. Maybe that would be their entrance into the search arena? In terms of search innovation, it doesn't seem like there has been much in the past couple years. Unless you equate search dominance with innovation. That's a joke, of course.

In case you're having trouble following, presently image search functionality like Google Images requires users to enter a string of keywords to come up with a resultant group of images. This is generally fine, but in the event that you have a picture but don't know what it is, image-search-by-image could help you to discover just what that thing is.

Here's an example. Let's say you're going through your grandparents things prior to an estate sale and you find some really cool item that might appear on Antiques Roadshow. You try to do a search for it through a regular search engine, but a search string like "old red dish" doesn't provide much in the way of useful results. On the other hand, image-search-by-image would allow you to take a photo of the item, and then use some or all of that image as the search criterion.

A system like this would need three parts, though. The first, and most important, is a database of images that are cached based on the subtleties of visual appearance and not just textual descriptors. This would require a giant network of computers and a caching algorithm that could describe what is unique about each image by storing just enough information: not too much or not too little. Just as Google and Bing continue to crawl the web and recache everything they find for weighted usage in their textual search databases, an image search database would have the same general requirements.

The second part is a utility that users would use to select the image they want to use as their search criterion. I've given a lot of thought to this one, and I like the approach of a toolbar in your web browser that you can use to click-and-drag to select a portion of the screen. This would make it easy to select just about anything as your input, but also help you to hone the selection to just the thing you are searching for. In the example of the "old red dish" a user would bring this picture up in their web browser (from somewhere on their hard drive), and then select all of the dish but as little of the background as possible. Even better, maybe they could take a quick picture with their iPad 2 and then use their fingers to hone the selection to only what is relevant.

The third part happens after the user clicks search. The selected image is sent off to Google, Bing, or whomever, and it is quickly characterized in the same way that the entire database of images was characterized to produce a database of searchable images. Now that this has happened, the image can be used as the "search string" and located in the massive image database.

I'm not sure that it is much more complicated than this. Image-search-by-image would certainly help people find out what some mysterious things are by leveraging the fact that someone, somewhere in the world who has a web page already knows. Coin collectors, stamp collectors, anything pop-culture new or old could benefit from this type of search. I'm pretty sure we have the technology for this, and I'm also pretty sure that someone, somewhere, is working on this right now. Who knows, maybe Google bought the start-up yesterday.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Parental Codes that Cable Forgot

As a parent, making sure that your kids don't watch what they're not supposed to has become really easy in recent years. In just a few minutes time, you can make sure your kids don't have access to inappropriate shows while you're away from home, or even just outside of the room. As good as this sounds, there is a major shortcoming, though.

I can speak for only my Comcast service at the moment, and hopefully comments to this article can speak to the other major cable providers, but there is a "blackhole" in the realm of parental controls. Where you ask? On Demand. Although there are many things in life that are far worse, the feeling of coming back into the den or living room while your preschooler digests the currently available movies in the form of "general audience" previews isn't a good one. Depending on your own morals and values, it ranks somewhere with letting your kid out in the rain without a raincoat, never making sure that they eat their vegetables, or letting them have too much soda more often that not.

Your intentions were pure. You put on that episode of "Caillou" that your daughter loves, started doing some laundry and other daily chores and came back into the room to find that On Demand was cycling through the previews for the latest movies. You wonder to yourself, "how long has this been on for?" Only a stopwatch could tell you for sure, but as On Demand has informed your four year old, it turns out that there is a new "Scream" movie to beam to your television, and the latest X-Men movie is now selectable for a-la-carte viewing. Your hope at this point is that there were at least some kid movies advertised in that ten minute long spool of PG-13 and R-rated movie previews.

Sure, the Motion Picture Association approved the previews for all audiences, but I don't think that Mother Theresa ever held a job on that board. Besides, the FCC says that it's just fine for shows like "Tosh.0" to be shown at four in the afternoon. I'm not saying it's not a good show, it's just not appropriate for even most teenagers. Some of the skits and images on that show have made be step back, and I'm a middle-aged man who grew up listening to Iron Maiden. My point here is that parents need to be diligent in what their, sweet, young, impressionable children watch. Unfortunately, On Demand doesn't make that entirely possible.

After going through all of the parental controls, I could never find a setting that would control the age appropriateness of movie previews shown by On Demand, or allow a parent to shut them off entirely. I checked every one of them. I searched the internet, and then I checked the menu again. My hope is that Comcast will provide this feature with a future release of their On Demand software. Until then, set your stopwatch, because when the show you selected is over, who knows just what is going to be on?