Friday, June 12, 2009

Recycling by Building

A Recycled Home built with unused shipping Containers

It's estimated that 18 million shipping containers are used to ship materials around the world. A significant chunk of that ends up in American ports due to the fact that we import more than we export. Now what do we do with the surplus. Well here is one good use for those containers, much better than rusting at the ports and taking up valuable space. Watch this video on CNN and realize the potential of putting together strong homes quickly with shipping containers that might otherwise go to waste.

Amsterdam supposedly has one of the biggest container structures, that houses over a 1,000 students. SG Blocks has found that recycling homes cut construction time in half. Based on the costs of acquisition of these containers, this might be an additional option for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. Building homes with containers saves on high cost of raw material and since the homes are metal, they are naturally water and termite resistant. The finished home can me made to fit in with and look like other existing homes in the community. According to SG-Blocks the company that is leading this effort to build homes from unused containers, it takes 90% less energy to re-purpose containers than to melt them for reuse.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Can Shai Agassi's Battery Centric plan make the world a "Better Place"

Added 6/16. Shai Answered questions posed by Business week which were asked by BW readers. Here are his answers. Watch his answer to my Question (starting at 4:00 min mark) about how we will generate large amounts of clean energy.

"How would you run a whole country without oil" was the question Shai Agassi posed when opening his TED talk about "Better Place", his company, his concept and his dream. I must say I was a bit skeptical when I first heard that. After all as Americans we consume more than 25% of the world's oil and for long we Americans have battled with our addition to Oil. It is a dependency for which we have no near term solution. Shai's argument is that we have to deliver an electric vehicle, something that 99% of the people can drive. Most importantly he says it must be doable with the science we know today and bound by the laws of physics and the laws of economics. I wont go into the explanation of these two limits he talks about here, but it essentially covers the issues of affordability and practicality of the solution. All these thoughts floated in my mind as I listened to the rest of his talk.

He was recently interviewed by Sarah Lacy on tech ticker and part 1 and part 2 of that conversation is available below.



Some Background: If you ask the question, "How much Oil does the world use"? The answer can best be explained by the Cubic Mile of Oil representation since that explains it best with comparisons to all other current energy sources. The world uses one cubic mile of oil per year. Now how much is that? you ask.

According to an IEEE Spectrum article (Jan 2007 issue), a cubic mile of oil has the energy equivalent to:

* 4 Three Gorges dams (China), cranking out hydro-electric power for 50 years.
* 32850 1.65 megawatt wind turbines, cranking for 50 years (at 100% capacity factor).
* 91,250,000 2.1 kW solar PV installations, converting solar energy for 50 years.
* 104 500 megawatt coal-fired electric plants, burning coal for 50 years. OR
* 52 1.1 gigawatt nuclear electric plants, running continuously for 50 years.

Illustration Source: SRI International (Illustration: bryan christie design)

Assuming that we will try to make America independent of Oil. I want to play out the following scenario. Taking into account that we consume 25% of the world's oil, the above 50 year number for each category can be reduced to 12.5 Years (25% of the 50 years in each of the above equivalent scenarios). At this time, I have no idea on what percentage of the US Crude Oil consumption actually goes to produce gasoline that powers cars specifically. I can say that producing the equivalent of that amount in electricity to be able to power all "Better Place" cars in the US will require some staggering amounts of electricity generation. Additionally Shai claims that it is possible to power these cars via clean energy. (He gives examples of Windmills in Denmark and Solar Panels in Israel)

In the US, we have not addressed how we are going to generate massive amounts of clean energy. Power generation by coal is still the predominant method followed by nuclear energy and natural gas (EIA stats). In all his talks, Shai does not talk about where we will find the additional capacity needed especially from clean sources. In fact none of the electric car makers actually address the problem of electricity generation. I would like Shai to address how we will actually generate that much power to convert more cars into his electric vehicle. I for one, believe that Shai's plan is much more viable than any of the other plans out there because it considers the hurdles of affordability and practicality. But my skepticism remains because America has not upgraded it's energy infrastructure and we do not have the resources to produce that kind of electricity to convert all cars to "better place" electric cars.

One way that Shai can increase adoption is by working with customers such as Hertz or Avis to try this out locally in the Bay (SF) area. That may be the catalyst that finally convinces America that this is a viable plan. But yes, the issue of the additional power generation to run cars will still need to be addressed.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Twitter" A Social Radar! - Pros and Cons

Jeff Pulver's 140 character conference will be taking place in New York City on 16/17 of this month. Various characters from the worldwide twitter community will be descending into NYC to talk about what twitter means to them. They will share their thoughts on subject of twittering and making sense out of 140 characters.

Twitter has been talked about much in the past few months starting from the interesting episodes of "Student who twittered out of an Arrest in Egypt" to the "Hudson crash-landing incident" and many other daily trending topics. I personally use twitter to rant about various things from technology to finance and pretty much everything else in between. I have made a few friends through twitter and though I have never met them in real life I have conversations with them on meaningful topics from time to time.

As an entrepreneur working on technologies that merge presence and leverages micro-expression, I believe that this conference will bring together a meeting of wonderful minds and provide an unique opportunity to interact with people who are thought leaders in the area of applications built around twitter.

I want to list out the pros and cons of twitter here and see what other people have to say about it at the conference.


1) Ambient Awareness: Twitter like updates, though seen as mundane by many is interestingly termed "ambient awareness" by technology writer Clive Thompson. Read his Sixth Sense article here. The process by which you follow quick, abbreviated status updates from the constituents of your extended social network.

2) The Power of Brevity: I believe @biz once called twitter, "the messaging service we didn't know we needed until we had it". I think in some ways the brevity of input to any status updated and the creative ways in which people fine tune their limit of 140 characters to get their point across has shown that communication can occur effectively in micro-expression. Can a twitter like system be expanded to get rid of the clutter of email? Maybe!!

3) A customized newsfeed: Twitter has become a "Social-Radar" for me as it gives me an instantaneous view of what is going on with the people that I follow. I am also aware of breaking news from various parts of the world as I follow tweets from people and organizations of locations I am interested in. Twitter has become my listening device. It provides a source stream of information that when appropriately filtered gives me more specific information than random rants at the water-fountain. The trending topics section gives me an idea of what is the topic of discussion at the moment in the outer reaches of twitter and whether I should listen in and contribute if necessary.

4) A Marketing/PR tool kit: Twitter is an automatic system/tool-kit for marketing and public relations. You can reach out to your customers and ask them about products or features and get their feedback instantaneously. Product roll out information, recall notices, links to announcements and other information that needs to be quickly disseminated publicly can be done via twitter with a link to the main article leading people back to the company website. Having a presence on twitter is powerful for companies in many ways.


1) Quality of Information: A Harvard business publishing article by by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski states that the top 10% of prolific twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production. Many of these top tweeters could just be using twitter as a quicksand to lead people away to their websites or businesses. You will have to filter and prune your following list from time to time for the sake of sanity.

2) Vulnerability: Earlier this year at Soccomm, Jeff Pulver stated that it was important to share the human side of yourself in the social network that you belong to. This vulnerability as he defined it further as, "You have to put your guard down when you want to connect to people so that they do not doubt your true intentions and see you for the person that you are". One should be careful in what they reveal about themself on twitter or elsewhere on the web. Recently an AZ twitterer alleges that his home was robbed because he tweeted about where he was on vacation. Be vulnerable to earn people's trust, but not vulnerable to cause you harm.

3) Chatter effect: Twitter tends to create a lot more noise than signal at certain times. For example, I find there is a lot of duplication of info when you are following a trending topic especially as people start re-tweeting (RT) other people's information. This can sometimes cause mis-information as unverfied information can get propogated and pushed. I experienced some of this misinformation when I was following the mumbai terror attack on twitter.

4) Twitter Safety: Don't tweet your way into an SEC investigation and don't tweet your way out of a job. Companies whose employees tweet must be aware of the limits of what their employees can or can't talk about in these public forums. Then there is the good example of that potential Cisco employee who tweeted himself out of a job by making a lame comment on twitter. Also another famous example of notorious tweets is that of @keyinfluencer whose tweet about Memphis was picked up by a Fedex (based in Memphis) employee and sent up the chain. Read Peter Shankman's post on the same.

In the end, I conclude by saying twitter and the very concept of micro-expression is a valuable tool. A plethora of twitter based applications are available and listed at the conference site as well. Use it wisely. Some of my favorites are "stocktwits", "tweetdeck" and "twitpic".

Hope to see some of you fellow tweeters at the 140 conf.

Locating Flight 447

The disappearance of Air France Flight 447 and its 228 passengers over the Atlantic Ocean this week is a great tragedy. What is even more tragic is that a simple $300 device could have located the final (or last known location), aiding rescuers and emergency to get to the area of the crash site sooner. The Brazilian and French planes had to fly hundreds to square miles of open ocean looking for clues on the open waters.

Could this device* have helped us reach the crash site sooner?
(*Magellan Maestro 4350 pictured above - Any GPS device would suffice)

Today due to limitations of radar coverage, you are flying un-tracked over vast stretches of oceans, in the middle of the Atlantic on U.S.-European routes or over the pacific. Currently pilots resort to calling controllers with estimated positions every hour or so. The call-ins is again dependent on radio and radar coverage. Even though the aircraft is rigged with systems to send automatic messages to the home base, this does not include a simple lat-long coordinate information which can easily be gathered by installing a GPS chip along with other components on the plane with some simple software code written around it to send this information to the automatic data transmitter.

Even if an electrical failure disabled the GPS device, the last known location can be clearly established by establishing a flight path from the incremental GPS updates. This need to determine approximate location is imperative for crashes like the AF 447 or other air crashes over the ocean with limited radar coverage. I am positive that each aircraft on the planet can be fitted with this device for a total cost of less than a $1000 per install. A small price to pay for a lot to gain. I hope airlines and the FAA realize the urgency of this and implement this low cost system before the proposed costly overhaul of radar or satellite systems.