Ode to the five litres tank

You may remember that last year I wrote about a “plastics free” store, selling spices, oil, and even laundry detergent. I have no idea how they are faring with the current pandemic, but let’s just say that unless they turned into a conventional store, there’s no way that I would be interested in going and buy spices, nuts and pasta from huge containers that are handled by dozens of customers per day — and particularly by kids sticking their grubby fingers into the nuts’ boxes to steal a macadamia.

Even if the concept would have been workable before, I doubt that after this whole experience it’s going to thrive — while I care about the planet, I care about not dying more, and I assume the same is going to be true for the vast majority of the public (but not everyone, I’m sure). So what are the alternative options to buying without plastic containers? I can only think of the idea of buying in bulk.

Back at the start of the lockdown, one of the things that was getting harder to find in the local supermarkets was soap — and if you have read the blog post linked above, you know that I’ve been using refills. In particular at home we have a very nice glass, 1L liquid soap dispenser bottle that came with some decent lavender liquid soap we bought in TkMaxx over a year ago, and we’ve been filling it with different brands’ soap, that are usually available around the £4/L mark. We had a couple of litres stashed away, but eventually they started running low.

So looking around we found a 5L tank of hand wash, targeted as commercial users, but easy to get a hold of in the pandemic. It’s a bit more expensive than what we found before, but we liked it better, particularly given the fact that it has not ruined my hands, despite us washing our hands a lot more than before. And that had me thinking that most most likely the 5L tank can be reused, rather than recycled, much more easily. For instance, you can use it to collect waste oil when deep frying, and then bring it to the correct recycling point for that. Or in any case you can throw it with the recycling.

But it’s not just the plastic involved that makes a difference. Just think of how often you would need to get these delivered in half a litre increment. The 5L tank is due to last us just about five months, so you get around two deliveries a year, instead of about two a months (or once a month if you can just order the refills in pairs). And because we liked the quality of the soap, we ended up ordering the shampoo from the same brand, and fill a plastic bottle instead; at least for my hair it works well, and I’m picky — and it costs nearly half per liter than my usual ones.

There’s more than shampoo and soap that can be bought in 5L tanks. Body wash, fabric softener, vegetable oil, … and liter-for-liter they clearly need less plastics, if that’s the main measure we use for pollution, and they require fewer trips to shops and fewer deliveries. They are a bit awkward to use sometimes (thus why we have a 1L bottle we pour the vegetable we use for cooking), but the main disadvantage is that they take space, and while we’re lucky to have enough space for them in our flat, I don’t think I’d have been able to make the space for them in Dublin (didn’t help that the closet had a ton of stuff left over from the landlord and the previous tenants, including umbrellas, 5cm square framed mirrors, and stuff like that).

And I’m taking the 5L tanks as an example, but they are a metonymy for a number of other bought-in-bulk items, many of which are hard to find here in London. Even toilet paper, another staple of lockdown hoarding: Dublin and London got me used to order it in 16- or 9-roll bags, while in Italy I was used to buying 48/64 rolls at a time. It’s non-perishable, and if you do have the space to just get it and stuff it somewhere until you need it, why increasing the number of times you need to order it?

Funny story here: when I moved to London, and found out that my local Sainsbury’s didn’t have anything over 4 rolls bags, I decided that it would be easier to order 60 rolls from Amazon and have it delivered. The cost was meaningfully lower, and at the time I was not setting up for groceries’ delivery, and rather going to the stores myself to pick up just the stuff I needed for the days — bringing toilet paper on the bus is bulky and uncomfortable. Unfortunately i forgot to check where I asked Amazon to deliver it, and I ended up receiving nearly a cubic meter of toilet paper to my office, and had to find a way to bring it home, considering it took me an hour to go from King’s Cross to home, between Piccadilly and bus. Thankfully, two trips with my Filson duffle bag at a late hour were enough to bring it home. I love that duffle bag.

What I’m suggesting is that city living needs to start adapting to the idea that people need storage space. When looking at apartments, you can’t but wonder what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, between the lack of cupboard storage and the just-in-time supply used by most grocery stores in the big cities. Maybe in five years we will all live in apartments that have enough cupboard storage that you only need to buy non-perishables once a month, and the local stores will be providing fresh food and only urgent needs.

There’s also another clear problem with getting people to use bulk-volume non-perishables: beside Amazon, very few sellers carry those as options, at least in the UK. Yes, there’s Costco here just like in the USA, but that’s not common, and you do need to make sure you account for the £15/yr options. In Italy if you have a VAT ID you often end up shopping at Metro, because that’s an option that opens up to you…

Again, this is the type of thing that needs to be adapted for, after this whole pandemic happened. Reducing the frequency of deliveries by buying in bulk should be favourable for both grocery stores and consumers, given how the panic buying broke most delivery systems. So maybe next year Morrisons will have more 5L tanks of stuff available for delivery, not just the vegetable oil.

Environment and Software Freedom — Elitists Don’t Get It

I have previously complained loudly about “geek supremacists” and the overall elitist stance I have seen in Free Software, Open Source, and general tech circles. This shows up not just in a huge amount of “groupthink” that Free Software is always better, as well as in jokes that may sound funny at first, but are actually trying to exclude people (e.g. the whole “Unix chooses its friends” line).

There’s a similar attitude that I see around environmentalism today, and it makes me uneasy, particularly when it comes to “fight for the planet” as some people would put it. It’s not just me, I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere reporting similar concerns. One obvious case is the lack of thought given to inclusion and accessibility: whether it is a thorough attack of pre-peeled oranges with no consideration to those who are not able to hold a knife, or waste-shaming with the infamous waste jars (as an acquaintance reported, and I can confirm the same is true for me, would fill up in a fraction of the expected time just from medicine blisters).

Now the problem is that, while I have expressed my opinions about Free Software and activists a number of times in the past, I have no experience or expert opinion to write a good critique of environmentalist groups, which means I can only express my discomfort and leave it to someone else. Although I wrote about this in the past.

What I can provide some critique of, though, is an aspect that I recently noticed in my daily life, and for which I can report directly, at least for a little bit. And it goes back to the zero-waste topic I mentioned in passing above. I already said that the waste produced just by the daily pills I take (plus the insulin and my FreeStyle Libre sensors) goes beyond what some of the more active environmentalists consider appropriate. Medicine blisters, insulin pens, and the sensors’ applicators are all non-recyclable waste. This means that most of the encouragement to limit waste is unreachable for most people on medications.

The next thing I’m going to say is that waste reduction is expensive, and not inclusive of most people who don’t have a lot of spare disposable cash.

Want a quick example? Take hand wash refills. Most of the people I know use liquid soap, and they buy a new bottle, with a new pump, each time it finishes. Despite ceramic soap bottle being sold in most homeware stores, I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone I know using one. And even when my family used those for a little while, they almost always used a normal soap bottle with the pump. That’s clearly wasteful, so it’s not surprising that, particularly nowadays, there’s a lot of manufacturers providing refills — pouches, usually made with thinner, softer plastic, with a larger amount of soap, that you can use to either refill the original bottles, or to use with one of those “posh” ceramic bottles. Some of the copy on the those pouches explicitly state «These refill pouches use 75% less plastic per ml of product than a [brand] liquid handwash pump (300 ml), to help respect the environment.»

The problem with these refills, at least here in London, is that they are hard to come by, and only a few, expensive brands appear to provide them. For instance you can get refills for L’Occitane hand wash, but despite liking some of their products, at home we are not fond of their hand wash, particularly not at £36 a litre (okay, £32.4 with the recycling discount). Instead we ended up settling on Dove’s hand wash, which you can buy in most stores for £1 for the 250ml bottle (£4/litre). Dove does make refills and sell them, and at least in Germany, Amazon sells them for a lower per-litre price than the bottle. But those refills are not sold in the UK, and if you wanted to order them from overseas they would be more expensive (and definitely not particularly environmentally friendly).

If the refills are really making such a difference as the manufacturers insist they do, they should be made significantly more affordable. Indeed, in my opinion you shouldn’t be able to get the filled bottles alone at all, and they should rather be sold bundled with the refills themselves, at a higher per-liter price.

But price is clearly not the only problem — handwash is something that is subjected to personal taste a lot since our hands are with us all day long. People prefer no fragrance, or different fragrances. The fact that I can find the whopping total of two handwash refills in my usual local stores, that don’t cost more than the filled bottle is not particularly encouraging.

Soap is not the only the thing for which the “environmentally conscious” option is far from affordable. Recently, we stumbled across a store in Chiswick that sells spices, ingredients and household items plastic free, mostly without containers (bring your own, or buy it from them), and we decided to try it, easily since I’ve been saving up the glass containers from Nutella and the jams, and we had two clean ones at home for this.

This needs a bit more context: both me and my wife love spicy food in general, and in particular love mixing up a lot of different spices when making sauces or marinades, which means we have a fairly well stocked spice cupboard. And since we consume a lot of them, we have been restocking them with bags of spices rather than with new bottles (which is why we started cleaning and setting aside the glass jars), so the idea of finding a place where you can fill your own jar was fairly appealing to me. And while we did expect a bit of a price premium given the location (we were in Chiswick after all), it was worth a try.

Another caveat on all of this: the quality, choice and taste of ingredients are not obvious. They are, by definition, up to personal taste. Which means that doing a direct price-by-price comparison is not always possible. But at the same time, we do tend to like the quality of spices we find, so I think we’ve been fair when we boggled at the prices, and in particular at the prices fluctuation between different ingredients. So I ended up making a quick comparison table, based off the prices on their website, and the websites of Morrisons and Waitrose (because, let’s be honest, that’s probably the closest price comparison you want to make, as both options are clearly middle-to-upper class).

Price comparison between Source, Morrisons, Waitrose and the Schwartz brand spices. More accessible on Google Drive.
I’ve taken the cheapest priced option for all the searches, looking for bigger sizes.

If you look at the prices, you can see that, compared with the bottled spices, they are actually fairly competitive! I mean cumin costs over four times if you buy it in bottle at Waitrose, so getting it cheaper is definitely a steal… until you notice that Morrisons stocks a brand (Rajah) that is half the price. Indeed, Rajah appears to sell spices in big bags (100g or 400g), and at a significantly lower price than most of the other options. In personal taste, we love them.

A few exceptions do come to mind: sumac is not easy to find, and it’s actually cheaper at Source. Cayenne pepper is (unsurprisingly) cheaper than Waitrose, and not stocked at Morrisons at all, so we’ll probably pop by again to fill in a large jar of it. Coarse salt is cheaper, and even cheaper than the one I bought on Amazon, but I bought 3Kg two years ago and we still have one unopened bag.

The one part of the pictures that the prices don’t tell, of course, is the quality and the taste. I’ll be very honest and say that I personally dislike the Waitrose extra virgin olive oil I chose the price of (although it’s a decent oil); the Morrisons one is not the cheapest, but that one tasted nasty when I tried it, so I went for the one we actually usually buy. Since we ran out of oil at home, and we needed to buy some anyway, we are now using Source’s and, well, I do like it actually better than Morrisons, so we’ll probably stick to buying it, despite it being more expensive — it’s still within the realm of reasonable prices for good extra virgin olive oil. And they sell it in a refillable bottle, so next time we’ll use that one again.

Another thing that is very clear from the prices is just how much the “organic” label appears to weigh in on the cost of food. I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay four times the price for sunflower oil — and while it is true that I’m comparing the prices of a huge family bottle with that of a fill-your-own-bottle shop, which means you can get less of it at a time, and you pay for that convenience, it’s also one of the more easily stored groceries, so I think it’s fair enough.

And by the way, if you followed my twitter rant, I have good news. Also in Chiswick there’s a Borough Kitchen store, old good brick-and-mortar, and they had a 1L bottle for an acceptable £5.

So where does this whole rant get us? I think that the environment needs for activists to push for affordable efforts. It’s not useful if the zero-waste options are only available to the top 5%. I have a feeling that indeed for some of the better, environmentally aware options we’ll have to pay more. But that should not mean paying £5 for a litre of sunflower oil! We should make sure we can feed the people in the world, if you think that the world is worth saving, and do so in a reasonable way.

Before closing let me just point out the obvious: Source appears to have their heart in the right place with this effort. Having had my own business, I’m sure that the prices reflect the realities of renting a space just off Chiswick High Road, paying for the staff, the required services, the suppliers, and the hidden cost of families with children entering the store and letting their kids nibble on the candies and nuts straight out of the boxes (I’ve seen at least one while we were inside!), without paying or buying anything else.

What I fear we really need is this type of services to scale to the level of big high street grocery stores. Maybe with trade-in containers in place of bring-your-own for deliveries (which I would argue can be more environmentally-friendly than people having to take a car to go grocery shopping). But that’s something I can only hope for.

My green fetish

Ok, maybe the post’s title is not the most safe for work I ever wrote but the content definitely is not anything wrong. And if you’re wondering why this post will be shorter than usual and with more grammar errors, that’s because I’m again using the tablet to write and my thumbs haven’t gotten used to the letters’ disposition. Taking the so-called Smart Cover out makes it much nicer to write on, by the way. Even if I am using the Tucano Magico cover that keeps it attached to the back by itself.

In the past month I decided that it was time to get a subscription to Sky, the satellite TV provider, once again. I dropped it when I “took over” the house, but nowadays I just wish to be able to watch something before sleeping, and in English if at all possible, and they make it possible indeed. Besides the obvious series, there is something I love to watch and that is the National Geographic programme World’s Greenest Houses.

The reason why I love it, is that it shows mainly how it can be possible to actually have a cool house, with all accessories and trimmings, and yet being energy efficient. Indeed, that is something I wish I could do in my house as well. The obvious first problem of course is the money needed to do the work, and of course most of the houses they show were built since the start with green in mind, rather than adapted from a built, living house.

Okay, I maybe it also tickles that part of me that used to create new scenarios and buildings in his unofficial Ultima OnLine shard, which is likely the same one that likes to play with The Sims 3.

There is, unfortunately, something that airs from time to time in the same slots, with the same title, in Italian at least, but that shows a “challenge”. Said challenge is a more Big Brother alike programme, where two families take forced steps into what they define green living. While the target is indeed a greener life, I dislike this one with all my heart. For two main reasons: the first is that the whole point of going none to 100% is the kind of challenge that most people will look away from ever picking up; the second is that I think the authors are not into Green at all!

Indeed the one episode I tried to watch, I had to change channel disgusted right at the first ad break. Why, you ask? Well, in the teasers, they show the little child of one family on the verge of crying, as the parents tell him or her (sorry I forgot) that they would have to “cancel his birthday”, as they were forced by the programme not to use their car. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge fan of cars either, heck I don’t even have a driving license, but that simple sound bite is so negative…

Okay, possibly the rest of the episode would show the family overcome the difficulty, either by planning a different kind of birthday party or by organising something that would use public transports or bikes… But let’s be honest, do you find such a tease before the ad break positive at all?

I’m not sure if the child in that episode overcame the scare of the “bad green”, but I’m wondering if other kids were to watch part of that episode, what would their impression of green be? And honestly, if I were to let my nephew watch something on TV beside the cartoons he watches every day, World’s Greenest Houses, the classic variant, would be my first choice. If nothing else he would see that if can be cool to help the environment. But especially considering how difficult is for most children I can think of, including me and some of my friends when we were young, to watch a show till the end, I’m afraid the challenges noted before would do nothing but scare them away…

To be honest I think that most of my personal feeling toward green have to find their source in the Walt Disney Italia comics, with their scouts knockoff… Thus why I feel that kids should be shown that you can be green and cool at the same time.

Ah well… To conclude I would also like to point out that similar scare tactics are applied more or less the same way with free software. To you to see if you can see the parallel, and agree or not with me…

More USB chargers doubts

It was slightly less than an year ago that I have vented some doubts about USB chargers and a few more I have now. As I said last week, I changed the ROM on my Milestone and thanks to Robert I have also re-calibrated the battery, with the phone now lasting over a day with a single charge (terrific!).

When doing the calibration, it was suggested to use Battery Monitor to check the status of the battery during the process. The widget itself is quite nice, actually, and has one nice feature that estimates current flow in the device: negative while discharging, positive while charging. This feature is what made me even more doubtful about general usefulness of USB chargers.

I mostly use two USB chargers for my phone: the original one from Motorola, rated at 800mA, and the one I got for my iPod when I bought it a few years back, rated at 1000mA (1A). When I use the Motorola one, the widget shows just shy of 500mA of positive flow… when I do the same on the iPod charger, it shows around 200300. Given the iPod one should have more power than the Motorola one, it shows that something’s wrong.

I remember reading a technical article a few months ago about how Apple enforces their “Made for iPhone” brands on chargers by limiting the amount of current it would require of a charger depending on specifics resistance value over the data lines of the USB port, so that a number of chargers don’t even reach the power of a standard USB port (500mA) when used with an iPhone. Now I’m wondering whether the problem here is that Motorola did the same or if it’s the iPod charger that also tries to “validate” the presence of an iPod on the USB connection. Either way, the option sucks.

It is funny to think that there are so many specifications nowadays that calls for an universal charging solution – just look at this Wikipedia article – and yet nothing seems to stop manufacturers from imposing artificial limitations for the only reason to sell you their own charger!

Of course, simply relying on two chargers, and even more importantly, on the reading of a software application estimates, is no way to draw proper conclusions. The proper course of action, which I wish I had the time to pursue already, would be to add an ammeter in the chain, discharge the phone, then look at what’s really going on in term of current flow during the charge process. My original intention was to add the ammeter after the charger and before the adapter, using male and female USB Type A ports, but nowadays I’m doubtful. Since the European cEPS requirements don’t include the use of a USB Type A charger, but simply of a microUSB connector, it seems like Samsung took the opportunity to provide its users with an old-fashioned charger, where the cable is captive and microUSB is only the connector option.

Given both Samsung and Motorola use Android these days, it wouldn’t be a fair comparison if the two chargers weren’t cross-tested with the other manufacturer’s phone, but that also requires that the ammeter is added in the microUSB chain… option that would disallow testing charging of iPhone and iPod devices since they use the dock connector, and not microUSB.

Any suggestion on how to realise the hardware needed is very welcome, as I’ve already demonstrated I’m not that good an electronics person.

A «low-tech» power-saving device… a Dymo tape?

Believe it or not, but my personal financial situation isn’t really the rosiest; with Gentoo taking up a big slice of my time on a daily basis, and Yamato sucking up power to run the tinderbox on a daily basis, I’m always happy to break even.

Now, in general I try my best to not waste money wherever I can, so I look up the power consumption of new devices, try to stop everything I’m not using, and so on so forth. Unfortunately, I have learnt that simply using the “most effective” approach is not always feasible to apply. In particular, sometimes even a two minutes delay in a common task can break up a whole routine, let alone things I might forget to do altogether.

On this note, sometimes I simply wonder why do chargers not come with a “0-1” switch to shut them off without having to take them out of the socket — sure you can have sockets with switches, but not many powerstrips have individual socket switches, in particular I have yet to find one with the Italian sockets, which have a smaller profile than the Schuko plugs.

At any rate, I’m now considering at least making it easier for me to deal with one issue: unplugging the adapters that are not currently in use. Right now one of the issues I’ve got with that is that I have a hard time finding out which one plug is which, and risking to disconnect something in use, I keep a few that are not useful, still connected to the power line.

Since I’m now actually trying to put order in my office as well as trying to get rid of the most power-hungry, or at least more power-wasting devices – some of which seem to require quite a bit of replacement; for instance I’m trying looking up a ZyAIR G-3000H expansion card so that I can kill the other access point, since I’m currently running two! – I came up with a possible solution to at least reduce the need for me to keep cables always connected: label them. It might sound obvious, but I never considered that before, mostly because printing labels, for me, is a bloody amount of work and they tend to get difficult to read.

I was skimming through a brochure catalogue of my usual retailer office supplies when I was remembered of the existence of the device in the title. Once upon a time being mechanical and very low tech, nowadays digital as much of the rest of the office tools you can find. I’m now considering getting one (and had thus added it to my list although more than likely Amazon will refuse again to ship it to me because it’s electronics), could probably look for a second hand one just to stay on the cheap side given it’s not really expensive enough even new than a VAT invoice might not be enough of a reason not to go with ebay or similar.

Out of curiosity, is anybody else doing similar tricks to have order in their cables, plugs, connections and similar? Got any decent results?

Energy Policies, Sane or Insane?

I’m no Electrical Engineer, I’m no expert in the field of Energy policies and so on, but I really got to rant a bit about the current situation I face. Currently, while not technically living alone yet, I am left to provide for the house; for this reason I’m caring even more about the various bills and prices, and hardware and household equipments.

A few years ago, in Italy, most of the power meters with electronic counterparts capable of reporting instant power consumption to the power company (that for the most part is still provided by the ex-state power company). About at the same time, they started providing a “free market” alternative billing, that provided discounted power for the night (or the weekend!), telling people that, after all, they consumed more power when they were at home.

True as that might be, and efficient as most of the household equipment is nowadays, a few consumer-protection organisations did enough calculations to show that it was almost a scam. It is true that there is more consumption when you’re at home than not, but it is not like there is no power consumption when you’re not home. Even if you were to properly turn off all the equipment that would otherwise go into standby (TVs, stereo, amplifiers, …) you still got a lot of things that are designed not to be turned off, ever (fridges and freezers, answering machines, programmed TV recorders), and a number of things that you’d leave on anyway (like PCs downloading stuff from P2P — there’s no denying that for almost all cases!). While there was a high discount for the price of energy during the evening, it couldn’t cover the huge increase in price during the day.

Luckily, my parents always listened to me about not accepting those prices, and up to now I had a standard, 247 billing. I say up to now because it seems like somebody in the Italian system decided that everybody should be on such billing systems. I’m still on the free-market circuit (it’s still regulated, but not as strictly as the other one), but my neighbours that are on the state-regulated system and they received last month a letter stating that the energy authority will force them to move to a day/night split billing system. They suggest to run dishwashers and washing machines during the evening to save money.

Is it just me or this sounds either positively stupid or a fraud?

  • Italy hasn’t been self-sufficient for energy production in a very long time, buying, as far as I can tell, the integration power from France; to the point that a fallen tree on the powerlines connecting us to France a few years ago caused a huge blackout throughout the country;
  • forcing every household to have the same schedule for dishwashers and washing machines is going to put additional request the system;
  • as far as I can tell, there is no reason to believe that the request of power during the day is sensibly higher than during the night; I’m actually quite sure that most of the businesses out there will keep their systems running during the night, whether they are manufacturers or third-sector offices (I have more than a couple of time-by-time customers that keep their computers running even when nobody is in office as to make sure there won’t be trouble starting up the system… I can feel why even though I don’t agree with that idea);
  • if anything, power should be cheaper to provide during the day, if we were on renewable power sources like, say, sun.. I don’t think the power production during the night is higher when you’re powered by solar panels, is it?
  • quite a lot of people in Italy are home throughout the day: unemployed, housewives, freelance self-employed people like me.. with tele-commuting starting to have its sense, this change seems to be against the trend.

All in all, I can feel that little part of my brain that I try to keep shut, the one that’s open to the suggestion of conspiracy theories, screaming that this sounds a lot like a way to force Italy into the kind of energy crisis that Enron shown the world how to play with. Probably it’s also because it reminds me that a bit of time ago there was quite a bit of a scandal about government officials having interest to move Italy to … coal power.

I sure hope to be found wrong here, but I have the uncanny feeling that it won’t happen.

At any rate I haven’t heard anything about similar changes for my current energy company, so I sure hope it won’t happen to me, having the tinderbox running all day, and neither me nor my mother leaving home during the day (I actually am more often out during the night, or the weekend, as I take time to go out with friends), would mean the power bill would end up quite steep.

While I would love to do as Eric does and have my computers at least to be entirely self-powered, that’s quite unfeasible to me, especially at the moment. What I would love to do would be having an easy way to turn off, say, the whole “media center” in my bedroom while I sleep or leave, or the extra elements in my office when I get out of it (such as the amplifier, or the monitor). Just having a power strip with a power switch is actually not enough, as the power connectors are in recesses that aren’t practical to reach daily.

Household hardware

I have written before of my bad luck with my external hard drive, but there had been a few more more failures at my house, not related to computer hardware though, mostly related to household appliances: both the dishwasher and the washing machine decided to break up.

On the bright side the washing machine is under a 5-years warranty (I extended it when we bought it, my parents didn’t want to) and the dishwasher was quite cheap at the time. I’m going to replace the latter with a new AAA-class (highly energy efficient) appliance, possibly with programming support so that my mother can make smaller loads (for instance when she’s alone eating at home) or make it run early in the morning while we sleep. Since the problem, at least with the washing machine, is with the hardness of water (it’s full of calcium) I’m also considering adding a filter to the tap the washing machine is connected: the boiler already has one based on polyphosphate “salts” (not sure if they are actual salts, I’m sorry but my chemistry is not really that good), and it seems to work decently well; finding something that would be refilled with the same stuff is better since it’d be less stuff to buy, and keep at home.

Luckily there has been also good news: I finally replaced the light fixture in my room with a 4-way (from a shitty 3-way that always looked like falling down); the new fixture uses GU-10 sockets, and was designed to hold four 50W halogen lamps (which would give it a 200W total energy use, which is definitely too much for my bedroom). I bought instead four GU-10 LED lamps, 78 LEDs each, declared between 2.3 to 3W the lamp. They are bright! They are brighter than the three CFLs that I used to have at the beginning, which, total, consumed around 30W. Sure there is still the problem of cost (€47 of the four lamps, from Germany), and the size (the fixture had some glass container that was quite nice to the eye, but the LED lamp does not fit in it), but it seems like that kind of technology is really flying.

I’ll have to see if I can get more LED lamps around the house, saving money with energy efficiency on lights will probably allow me to hide the money I spend on computers turned on all day long…

Smarter, greener hardware

I have to say sorry before all, because most likely you’ll find typos and grammar mistakes in this post. Unfortunately I have yet to receive my new glasses so I’m typing basically blind.

I hear lots of complains about the power management in Linux and in Free Software in general, and most of the times, this is related to complains about the time laptops can work on battery. While these complaints are usually well founded, I’d like to add to that the fact that both Linux, and a lot of modern hardware, fail at saving power for the sake of environment and, somewhat important as well, of my bank account.

Indeed, I’m afraid to say a lot of modern hardware fails at being smart to be green; and that does not limit to Linux-based systems (although I’d sill be happy to know what causes my LCD monitor to turn off and then on again when DPMS should start!). I can find quite a few examples that nothing have to do with Linux:

  • keeping in the field of operating systems, while Apple did a lot of good work with Mac OS X and power saving (indeed their laptops last a lot on battery), some things aren’t exactly terrific: my iMac sometimes does not stop when I’m not using it, rather the monitor shuts off but the rest of the system keeps running… and because the monitor is off, it happened more than once that I went away, or to bed, without turning the system off. Not really nice; for now I solved by not turning the monitor off, and just make sure I explicitly turn the system off when I’m not using it.
  • on the field of consoles, I got a Wii last week (I need to do some exercise to make sure my blood sugar level falls in place, and the best way to get a geek to do some physical activity is graphing it! – and the Wii Fit seems to work for my sugar); nice thing, the C64-style transformer in the power supply unit is a bit of a nuisance, but more importantly, the WiiConnect24 idea seems to me like a stupid thing: it keeps the console connected to the Internet even when it’s turned off, and what for? As far as I can see this is only useful to make sure you can have weather forecast immediately upon turning it on… I can get the marketing idea, but wouldn’t be more or less the same if it checked the forecast as it’s turned on, even though I’m not asking for it just yet? It takes time to load the games as well, it could take a little more time to load the weather.

  • on the same field, Sony has one absurd thing: there is no auto-off setting for the playstation 3, at all! Of course you can set it to run folding@home as soon as it’s unused for a period of time, but this also has some limitations; for once, it will not start if a DVD is kept in pause (which happened to me once); it will also not start if a dialog is opened (like a “Delete Completed” or such); at the same time, the “auto-turn off on download complete” option does not turn off the controller which means you can forget about it and have your controller still going for a period of time (until its use-based auto-turn off triggers);
  • more interestingly, Sony’s Bravia TV seems to be both smart and green: contrary to my previous Samsung TV, it has a “power off” button that shuts it down; it’s not a hard button, it’s still soft, but the TV doesn’t respond to anything else (included the remote and the other buttons on the chassis) when it’s powered off that way; it also includes a special “auto turn-off” option, ot like the usual timer, but rather similar in concept to screensavers on computers: if you don’t press any button for a period of time, it’ll auto-turn off, assuming you’re not in front of it; even better: it has a special option to turn off the video and keep the audio going, perfect when using it as a sound system, with either the PS3 or the Apple TV, or when listening to news channels;

  • speaking about Sony, PS3 and Bravia, the BraviaLink function also look like a very smart and green technology: it allows for the TV to turn on and off additional peripherals, included the new PS3 Slim — at least this is what I can see; this is pretty nice since you don’t risk to forget the DVD on when you turn the TV off (my father always did that); too bad I have the older model of PS3… the time I can finally get a reason to install Gentoo on my PS3, I’ll replace it for a new model (which cannot run Linux) and get a new one for my TV.

I know there are devices that are supposed to turn on and off a whole home theatre system with the TV, but I’m still uncertain on how they are supposed to be used; the obvious thing would be to put stuff like the DVD player, DVB receiver and consoles under the TV’s control… but this does not work too well with the PS3 for instance, since I often leave it on, with the TV off, when downloading demos, trailers, or simply leaving folding@home in execution (usually this is done while downloading); similarly the AppleTV is supposed to be auto-synced (but admittedly, I only use XBMC lately so it’s not really important). Certainly, the Skybox and the Wii will make sense to shut down always with the TV.

I wish PC hardware would also work similarly to this or even better to BraviaLink; for instance the HP all-in-one I’m using needs an explicit power on (a soft power on, and this is important) before I can use it with my computer; having a simple way to turn it on and off via software would work much better (since turning it always on and off is not really a nice option, having it turn on when asking for a scan or a print, and having an option to turn it off, and an auto turn-off feature, even if implemented PC-side).

But even smaller things could be done, for instance I have a bluetooth dongle on Yamato; I put it on when I need to send data to the cellphone and take it out when I don’t need it any more… it would be much easier if I could just click on the bluetooth icon in the system tray and ask the bluetooth software to turn it off for me (I know it’s likely feasible already given that OS X does it with the integrated bluetooth on Macs, but as far as I can see it does not work on Linux yet, or at least not with the gnome software I’m using).

Add all these small things together, and you can see that hardware is not really very smart yet nowadays…

The importance of little things

Foreword of warning: this post might sound totally unrelated to Gentoo; it really can be meant as a metaphor for Gentoo, so if you don’t get it, please don’t say this shouldn’t be on Planet Gentoo right away. Thanks.

There are many little things in the world that count, when the numbers pile up; for instance the energy and water problem is such that little things like not keeping the water running while brushing your teeth or shaving are very common suggestions by Greens, together with turning off the lights when leaving a room, even for a few minutes.

Little things that count

But these already look big enough to be logical, in my opinion there are even smaller things, less obvious, less “logical” than should be considered to save energy, and water. The photo above pictures one of these: it’s a shower gel bottle, an used shower gel bottle (actually I finished it up yesterday). I think it’s pretty emblematic of the problem since it is left squeezed.

This kind of container seems quite nice: it’s usually recyclable, it’s plenty of gel so that you don’t have to buy lots in smaller containers and so on. On the other hand it has one huge defect in my opinion, when you’re almost done, you have a hard time to get out the last part of the gel. How is that a problem? When you’re under the shower you’re not likely to turn the water down while you squeeze out the gel, this is a waste of (hot) water.

Sure, it’s possible to just turn the bottle upside down and keep it that way when the gel is running low, but this can be quite tricky especially with bottle like that one that have larger bottoms: the center of gravity in that bottle, once turned upside down, is quite high and it tends to fall quite more easily.

For this reason I prefer other two types of bottles: the ones that have the opening at the bottom, and in particular the ones that are soft and squeezy. Both types reduce the amount of work, and time, needed to get the final part of the shower gel out. Unfortunately these seem to be quite less common form factors for shower gel, I don’t know why, maybe it’s a storage problem. On the other hand, using these types of bottles don’t require any extra time to squeeze the last part of the gel and does not require you to turn down the water any more than the start of it.

But of course, taking a look at the problem just from this side is not correct: there are more variables in play, for instance I don’t know what the reason for not using more down-opening bottles is (as I said, it might be a storage problem I can guess, but how does that impact the great scheme?), nor I know whether the softer material has different emergent properties. Indeed, it might be that upside-down bottles get wasted more often in storage, to an amount that makes the amount of water wasted look puny, or the production line for the softer material might waste much more energy. These are the non-obvious things that, most likely, somebody is weighting behind the scenes.

So why do I call this a metaphor? Well, it can be a metaphor for quite a few things: the small and big gains that need to be weighted about the efforts required along the software production line or the linear versus proportional time problem, and so on. In general, I think it’s just one of the little annoyances of life, and that it can make you think about lots of other issues when thinking of it more seriously than you’d normally do.

Digital light dimmers

We almost all are well comfortable with the idea of a light dimmer, it’s a simple device that usually changes a resistor in series with the an incandescent or halogen lamp to allow reducing or increasing the light that it makes. It ha a very nice effect when you want to have a more softer tone of light in a room, for instance a bedroom.

There is one huge problem with light dimmers though: they work only with lamps that reduce their light depending on the current that passes through them. It does not work well with LEDs (it works up to a point, if my electronics skills tell me good, but it’s not very efficient anyway), and does not work at all with fluorescent lights.

So what is a digital dimmer? Well, it’s not a dimmer at all, at least the one I’m thinking about 😉

You can easily achieve a softer light tone without using actual dimmers and incandescent lights, by using different lamps with different light bulbs. I wrote about this before, I think, saying that I prefer using LED lights in bedroom as they give a softer tone to the light, which is perfect to read, or play the PS3, without getting the eyes tired. Unfortunately, it ’s not very good to clean when there is no light coming from outside.

My solution to this would be to replace the ceiling light with a different one, with, say, five Edison connectors, wired 32 with two different switches. I’m just looking around for what I want to use. The idea is then to put two CFLs on one switch, and the tree LED lights on the other: when I need to clean up the room, I could just light up the CFLs and be done with it.

A similar thing I want to do in my office, which is now empty to be cleaned up and refurnished. Instead of changing the light support there, which is quite nice for me and quite nice to light the room, I want to use different lamps entirely.

A picture of my 2008 home office desk with a fading LED lamp on top.

You can already see in the photo on the right that I have a desklamp on the desk (well, I had, the desk is now closed in half waiting to be replaced too), with a LED bulb that I use when I’m working the night and I don’t want to stay awake too much. It gives me light reduced to the area around the monitors and the keyboard. I used to have a CFL on that lamp, and it made a nice halfway to light most of the room, with a softer tone. As I can’t replace the bulb every time I need a different kind of light, I thought of a different solution for the problem.

I have an old standing lamp, very nice design, let me just ignore for a second the pink glass on it, but it’s not so bad to have around. Unfortunately, it is designed to use halogen lights, and it hasn’t been used for many years now because of that. The bulb in it is a 300W halogen light, so you can think of how bad it is. I’m thinking of removing the dimmer it has, replacing it with a big pushbutton (designed to be pressed with your foot), and replace the circuitry so that I can put a fluorescent light in it. I’ve seen kit with all the circuitry needed at a local shop, it shouldn’t be too difficult to adapt to put it in the lamp.

When I’ll have analysed the structure of the lamp and I’m tearing it down to replace the circuitry I’ll see to blog about that, maybe with some photos, it might be useful to others 🙂