Tuesday, September 27, 2005

While I'm doing nothing... (5 of 23 meme)

Here's a meme, gacked from Shanna at Devarim.


1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to it).
3. Find the 5th sentence (or closest to it).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

My result:
The 23rd post did not have five sentences. The fourth sentence was:

Is there some great killer-app that I'm missing out on?

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The "paradox of fuel efficiency" and the misuse of statistics

Jeff Jocoby, one of the Boston Globe's conservative columnists wrote "The paradox of fuel efficiency" for today's op-ed page. He argues, on the basis of a book entitled "The Bottomless Well", that increased fuel efficiency increases dependency on fuel. If there's anything that economists (and physicists) love presenting, it's counterintuitive results. I haven't read the book, but, if Jacoby is presenting the argument accurately, I doubt that it will convince me.

Here are some excerpts from the column, and why he's got everything totally wrong:

He analogizes cars to computers:

Consider how much more use you get from your computer today than you did from the far less efficient PC you owned 15 years ago. As the efficiency of computers has climbed, so has the demand for them. Today it costs less than ever to process a byte of data by computer -- but more resources are devoted to computing than ever before. Driving is no different. If American cars averaged 45 miles per gallon, it would take less fuel than it does now to move a car from point X to point Y -- but the total amount of driving would rise, and so would the amount of gasoline consumed.

The analogy is far from accurate. It is true the software has become increasingly wasteful of computing resources (memory, hard disk space). More is demanded from today's computers because today's computers can do more than PC's fifteen years ago. In 1990, a Pentium IV would have been the equivalent of a supercomputer. Then, most Americans had never even heard of the Internet. In the personal computer's history, its uses have increased from those of a specialized office device to a game playing console to an essential communication device. The same cannot be said of cars, whose basic tasks are still the same as they were when the automobile was first invented over a hundred years ago: to get people from one place to another.

From that claim, he continues:

This ''paradox of efficiency" is as true of cars and computers as of light bulbs, jet turbines, and air conditioners, Huber and Mills write. ''The more efficient they grew, the more of them we built, and the more we used them -- and the more energy they consumed overall."

This argument is true, but only up to a point. I don't know very much about jet turbines, so let's take light bulbs and air conditioners as examples. I recently replaced some of my 60W and 100W incandescent light bulbs with 13W and 24W fluorescent bulbs, respectively. The newer, more efficient bulbs produce equivalent light levels to the old ones and last longer, but use less energy. But, I only require a limited amount of light in each room, and I only require the lights to be on when it's dark outside. So, in fact, I use less electrical energy on lighting than I did before. A similar argument can be made with regard to air conditioners. If an air conditioner is highly inefficient, making it very expensive to run, a consumer might limit the amount of time he runs it or keep it on a higher setting. But, once air conditioners have reached an efficiency level where they can be run at a comfortable setting, consumers will set them to that setting no matter how energy-efficient the internal mechanisms are. It is hightly unlikely that someone who buys a highly efficient air conditioner will make his house freezing cold and leave it on during the winter just because it's cheaper to run. My argument holds as long as the asymptotic limit on usefulness has been reached. For these examples, that limit is reached as long as each house already has enough light or is at a comfortable temperature. Technology, no matter its purpose, tends to become less expensive over time, as more units are produced and sold. This is true for both inefficient technology and efficient technology. If the asymptotic limit on usefulness has not been reached, there will be increased consumption whether or not efficiency is mandated. Increased energy efficiency tends to make the initial costs of producing and buying a consumer good higher, and, in a simplistic model, mandated efficiency would tend to reduce purchases of new consumer goods, not increase it.

And, finally, to the misuse of statistics:

In ''The Bottomless Well," a myth-busting new book on energy and how we use it, Peter Huber and Mark Mills acknowledge that this paradox -- ''the more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume" -- strikes many people as heretical. But the numbers bear it out. Thirty years ago, the energy cost of transportation was nine gallons per 100 vehicle miles. Today it is six gallons -- a 33 percent drop. Yet over the same period, the total amount of fuel consumed rose 56 percent -- from 115 billion gallons a year to more than 180 billion gallons.

The comparison is like the proverbial apples to oranges. The former is a normalized value: Gallons of gasoline per 100 vehicle-miles. The latter is an absolute value: Total amount of fuel consumed. In order to make sense of the numbers, I will assuming that the fuel value quoted is only for automobile fuel. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics' National Transportation Statistics for 2005, there were 138 million automobiles on American roads in 1975. In 2005, thirty years later, there were 236 million. During the period when fuel efficiency increased 33%, and comsumption increased 58%, there was a 71% increase in the number of automobiles. Taking Jacoby's numbers at face value, in 1975, each car used an average of 833 gallons of gasoline, and in 2005, that number dropped to 7361. And, that decrease in yearly gas consumption doesn't even take into account two more factors that would lead to an increase fuel consumption. Firstly, urban sprawl has been increasing since the 1970's, as populations from cities move to suburbs and exurbs. Because of the separation of housing and commercial zones, suburbanites tend to be much more dependent on cars for simple errands than city dwellers. Also, cities are still the centers of business. The number of daily commuters between cities and suburbs has increased, and so has the average daily commute time. More time spent waiting in traffic leads to more wasted fuel. The numbers show that increased fuel efficiency has not kept up with increased demand for automobiles and increased reliance on automobiles. But, they also show that, on average, even though cars are more efficient, individuals are not being increasingly wasteful to compensate.

The policy implication of Jacoby's (and Huber and Mills') argument is that we should stop worrying about fuel efficiency and let the free market run its course, because, ultimately, any measures to oppose it are counterproductive. Even if the argument held any water, there is still the problem of peak-oil. Without conservation and development of alternative fuels, the world supply of petroleum will eventually run out2. The prospect threatens our entire way of life. Petroleum is burnt as fuel, and is used as a raw material in plastics, and even agricultural fertilizer.

The market isn't driven by energy efficiency. It's driven by prices. As the past few months have begun to show, high oil prices tend to reduce consumption. If people do tend to use more energy when given a more efficient device, then, an alternative policy would be to encourage the use of efficient devices in addition to artificially raising the price of oil through taxation whenever the market price drops below a certain threshold.

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1 This analysis is incredibly simplistic, and undoubtedly hides a good number of inaccuracies.

2 The problem of peak-oil goes well beyond the petty question of whether there should be drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even if the most optimistic scenarios play out, the ANWR will delay the onset of peak-oil by less than fifty years. As far as I know, there is no agreement as to when peak-oil will be reached, but most estimates place it within the 21st century.

Friday, September 16, 2005

One Down, One to go... (Standards compliance update)

When they added the new “search all blogs” feature to the navbar, Blogger corrected one of the XHTML errors I reported to them almost a month ago. Apparently, someone at Blogger found the / key. Congratulations. The second error, the incorrect name attribute in the <img /> tag, is still there. That means that Blogger pages still can't be strictly XHTML 1.0 compliant. That is, until someone at Blogger presses 6 keys on a keyboard.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

First comment spam!

I guess my blog must be getting some attention. It was just the victim of its first comment-spam in my previous post. I'm turning on the word-verification feature. I know it's annoying, but, unfortunately, it's the only way I have (on Blogger) to prevent automated abuse. The spammer is a registered Blogger user, but does not have a blog. Does anyone know who I can report the user to?

Incidentally, spam blogs can be flagged with the new flag button on the Blogger navbar (the feature that added a brand new HTML typo to everyone's CSS).

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Why you should care about file formats

On Sept. 1, 2005, the Information Technology Division of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proposed the Enterprise Technical Reference Model v.3.5 (ETRM v3.5). It is one step in the implementation of the Enterprise Open Standards Policy. The policy would force state agencies to store and transmit digital documents only in certain formats that comply with publically accessible and implementable standards. Some of these are quite familiar. The state would standardize its email in ASCII text1, and its web pages in HTML 4.012. XML (eXtensible Markup Language)-based formats will be preferred for databases. It also expresses a preference for Adobe's Portable Document Format for some unspecified documents.3 The most dramatic, and probably, the most noticable, change, will be the adoption of OASIS OpenDocument formats for office documents. This post will hopefully inform you about why you should care about how the state government stores its documents, and answer some of the misinformation that was directed at derailing the policy's implementation. The public comment period extends until Sept. 9. Public comments should be directed to standards@state.ma.us.

  1. File format matters. Have you ever tried opening a file and all you got was some junk text on screen? Maybe it included some incomprehensible symbols. The most likely cause of that problem is that you tried to open the file using a program that could not read the file's format. As I explained elsewhere, computers don't natively understand context. File formats provide the context of how to turn a string of meaningless bits in a particular file into usable data. If your software can't provide that context, the file is useless.
  2. Standardization within an organization is a practical necessity. This is true whether the large organization is a private corporation or a state government. If any organizations' parts have multiple incompatible file formats, a format conversion would have to be done if those parts send electronic data between each other. This puts an additional burden on the Information Technology staff, who have to support all of the inevitable conversion problems between the formats. The burden is especially high if the formats are unpublished, because the IT staff would have no recourse in performing the conversions other than the companies that made the formats incompatible in the first place. In that case, sharing documents and data between different branches of the organization becomes harder or impossible, and the most likely course of action is that the data remains unshared.
  3. You pay for the documents the state produces. Taxpayer money funds the production of all documents coming out of the state government. The Computer Technology Industry Association would like you to believe that standardizing on open formats will be costly to taxpayers. It is true that there will be some transitional costs. Workers may have to be retrained in new software (if the current software providers refuse to support the new standard formats). If a given agency decides to standardize their software stack on proprietary software that supports the formats, they will have to purchase new software licenses. If they decide to standardize on free/open-source software, they may need new support contracts. But, the once the new standards are in place, the cost of software licensing will likely be driven down by increased competition in the marketplace. Even Microsoft, which used to be able to set its prices by fiat, is now being forced to lower its software licensing prices for some customers because of the threat of free/open source software. But, beyond the cost of ownership and support, the state is also a public entity. This means that you, the residents, should be able to access documents that the state produces for on your behalf without the additional burden of buying proprietary software. As email is used for more official functions, in the future, you may even be able to submit government forms online. This requires the ability of the user to view and modify the documents before you send them back to the state. You were taxed once by Massachusetts. You should not be taxed a second time by Microsoft.
  4. The policy does not automatically favor free/open source software over proprietary software. The OASIS OpenDocument format is described by standards documents, which may be obtained freely. There are no additional terms required to be placed on implementations of the format. Proprietary vendors already implement read and write filters for a number of other applications to aid migration and interoperability between different vendors' products. There is no technical or legal reason that commercial software manufacturers can't implement fully functional filters for OASIS OpenDocument well before 2007. Microsoft has chosen to place itself out of the market of interoperable programs by relying solely on its own format.
  5. Using open formats is not a statement against free enterprise. I never really understood how using standards that originated in open-source hurt free enterprise in any way. Most of the Internet architecture is based on such standards, and companies seem to be able to sell all kinds of Internet applications.
  6. “XML” does not mean the format is open. Microsoft, one of the big losers in the change, argues that the XML-based format used in Office 12 is a sufficiently open format. But, XML alone does not make the format usable for interoperability. Here's why. XML is not a format for storing data. It's a language used to describe a format for storing data. In order to make sure that the document is not just properly formed XML, but also a properly formed derivative format (such as the XHTML in which this web page is written), one must have access to a description of the derivative format. Those schema are as important for being able to read a particular XML-formatted document as is the document being well-formed XML. The schema for Microsoft Office 12's XML-format are released under a relatively liberal license. But, Microsoft has attempted to patent the XML schema used in their format. If their application is successful, it will give them ultimate control over who can implement it. In the patent license, this term is included:

    You are not licensed to sublicense or transfer your rights.

    That term alone is enough to shut out all free/open-source software, which requires that anyone be allowed to redistribute source code. The patent prevents interoperability between Office 12 and the most successful of its competitors. What Microsoft gave with one hand, they took away with the other.
  7. The release version of OpenOffice.org (1.1.4) does not support OpenDocument. The release candidate for OOo 1.1.5 supports it, and it is the default format in the 2.0 beta version. Release versions of AbiWord, and the KOffice suite already support OpenDocument.

1 I don't understand why they chose ASCII text, as opposed to Unicode UTF-8. ASCII only supports the latin alphabet, while Unicode supports most alphabets used today. Considering that state documents, which may include emails to residents, have to be in multiple scripts, this makes no sense. UTF-8 is also backwards-compatible with ASCII, so it would not cause problems with older email readers that don't support the more general format.

2 Despite being an older format, this one may still make sense over XHTML 1.0, since some people still have old browsers that do not fully implement XHTML. There is also no indication that HTML 4.01 support will go away any time soon. But, considering the emphasis on XML-based formats in the rest of the document, I'm surprised there isn't an option to use XHTML 1.0, which is a more consistent format, and easier to convert to other formats.

3 PDF was once only usable as a read-only format by non-Adobe applications. Now, there are many good PDF readers available on multiple platforms, and a number of applications that can write PDF files. Unfortunately, I don't know of any open-source applications capable of modifying already-written PDF files, including filling in PDF-based forms. It would have been nice if PDF's use were limited to read-only informational documents. But, since I don't see any reason that open-source applications can't support the PDF features in the future, it would probably be unreasonable to block its use.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Someone at the evil empire has a sense of humor

While working at the lab in MS Office 2003, I came across this screen (click the image for a larger version):
Screenshot of Microsoft Office 2003
(note: the image is altered to remove file names, but the rest is unchanged from the screen shot).

An enlarged version of the help search bar is shown here:
Screenshot of Microsoft Office 2003 help search bar

Think the example is searched often?

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