How to turn off Amber alerts on your iPhone

I was just startled when my iPhone started blaring at me.. the sound was a mix between a bombing raid siren and a fire alarm.. not pleasant.

Turns out that an Amber alert was issued in California (mind you.. far far away from me), and it’s a “feature” in the phone to let you know. While I certainly do hope that the missing children are found, and I can see only the best intentions in passing this alert on.. I assume many folks would like to turns this off.

Here’s a quick guide:

1) Go to the “Settings” option in your iPhone Home Screen

2) Go to the “Notifications” section

3) Scroll all the way down

4) Under “Government Alerts” you can toggle on/off the Amber and Emergency alerts.

I have left the emergency alerts on.. who knows maybe it will save me one day if I’m in a flood zone, and don’t realize it’s raining.. or if there’s a tsunami coming…

iPhone Notifications screen shot

iPhone Notifications screen shot

Hard Drives on a Diet!

Recently I bought a new Hard Disk Drive (HDD) to replace my old one, which had started making suspicious noises. I have always followed a simple rule – if you hear funky noises, replace it as it may be a sign of impending failure. Luckily, I don’t have personal experience with this, but I hear that recovering data from a failed drive is not a great pastime.

I have to say that I’m impressed by the improvements in HDD technology in the few years that have passed. My old one was a Western Digital (WD) Black 1.0 TB SATA drive with 32 MB cache, with manufacturing date of 11/21/2009. The new one is a WD Green 1.0 TB SATA drive with 64 MB cache, made on 3/26/2013. The fact that it was made in Thailand and then sitting on my desk two weeks later was amazing.

Before comparing the two, I have to mention that the Caviar Black series is supposed to be more on the “performance” side, while the “Caviar Green” series is more on the quiet and energy efficient side – so not exactly apples to apples.  Nevertheless, the new Green drive is performing just as well if not better, while maintaining low, almost non-audible, noise levels. I couldn’t be happier with it.

The part that really hit me was the drastic difference in weight! While they have the same storage capacity, the new drive is almost half the weight! The old drive weighs 1lb 9oz (0.71kg), while the new one is only 1lb 0.2oz (0.46kg) – that’s about a third less!

This is great on many levels. First, as a consumer, you have a lighter product, which is nice even for a desktop. As a manufacturer, there are savings in prime materials used as well as shipping and handling costs. This results in the society as a whole benefiting as fewer resources (including fuel) are used, reducing pollution and overall environmental impact.

Good work WD!

HDD Comparison

Chevy Volt Review – That was fun!

This past weekend I got to test-drive a Chevy Volt, and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. While I still have some concerns about the price, and whether the upfront capital expense is worth the gas savings down the line, I would actually enjoy owning one.

First, let’s address the battery range. If you’re fortunate enough where you can charge both at work and at home, you can probably go for a year on a single tank of gas. After a full charge, the dashboard claimed that I could go 30 to 35 miles, but I easily got 40+. Sure, this depends on your driving, and I was fairly gentle on the gas and the break paddle – keeping the green ball happy! (See the picture of the dashboard). I’ve also found a fair number of public charging stations, with quite a few offering free juice! Thanks Santa Monica!

Side note about charging: while some charging stations are free to use, others do require a payment. One of them was $2/hour, or $1.50/hour with membership. This really made no sense to me. It takes about 4 hours for a full charge, so even at the reduced rate this would be $6 for a “full tank” or about 40 miles in electric only mode. Considering that gas is $4.50/gallon, and that the Volt will easily get over 40 mpg in hybrid mode, it makes no economic sense to pay for charging more than a $1/hour. In fact, charging at home is about a $1 for a full charge, depending on your electricity rates, which is a nice saving.

The car is quite comfortable, even for a taller guy. While it’s sure no Escalade, four adults can comfortably fit in. The trunk space is decent, although a bit shallow. It’s one of those funny things where some folks may complain “What if I need to move something giant… like say my brand new 60” TV?” Well, no, you won’t be able to fit it in, but you also won’t need to do that very often. In fact, most people rarely need more space than a Fiat 500, yet we’ll buy an 18-wheeler “just in case”. But I digress. (The book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely explains this tendency to overvalue optionality very well.) My point is that there is enough space for four adults and the usual amount of junk in the trunk.

The technology part of it is done well. The interfaces are generally easy to use and intuitive. Some of the displays can be a bit distracting when driving, but I’m guessing that’s just the new car effect that would wear off after a week or so. The part that may require some getting used to is the regenerative breaking, and figuring out when it happens. For example, letting go of the accelerator can result in it. Generally, I would say not to worry about it, and just focus on the road first and on that green display ball second. If the ball is green and centered, you’re efficient. If you hit the gas or break hard, you’re not.

Overall, the car was a fun commuting experience. I put 122 miles on it while using just 0.1 gallons of gas and 3 free charges. That makes for a fuel cost of $0.003 per mile, which can’t be beat.

Chevy Volt Dashboard

Cheese Powered Car

I just saw an article about this, and it sounds like a pretty awesome idea. In a nutshell: the researchers used cheese manufacturing waste, fed it to some hungry yeast, and voila – you have bio-diesel.

Of course, it’s not that simple, and I wonder what the total process costs and efficiency are, but it sure sounds like a great idea. They are taking waste that’s already there, and turning it into something useful. I also wonder on the net greenhouse gas impact of this – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s positive. It all depends on how would this waste otherwise be disposed of.

The team also had some fun with it! Not only they made the fuel and tested it, but they also aimed at setting the new ground speed record for a bio-fueled vehicle!

Read more on their site if you’re curious.They have some neat pictures too.

Interesting Smart Meter Legal Issue

With any new technology, there are always new and interesting legal issues, and the Smart Grid is no different.

I was reading an article about the Ojai council wanting to ban the smart meters in the city. What I found interesting is the ban part. In my previous reading on this topic, it was usually  about folks wanting to opt-out of the Smart Meter program. The latter issue was essentially settled by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) which recently ruled that customer may opt out, however that they’d have to pay an initial fee of $75, and another $10 per month to keep their old meter.

First issue is whether the City has any legal standing to enforce such a ban in first place, as this is a matter regulated by the State of California through the CPUC. Maybe this is a clear-cut issue one way or the other, but I’m not a lawyer so it’s an open question to me. For example, I know that a city cannot ban a utility from putting transmission wires in, so there are definitely areas where a city has it’s hands tied.

Second issue is the impact on folks that are happy to have the smart meters installed, and are looking forward to having more energy usage information at their fingertips. Not only would they be prevented from having the new meters, but they would likely be forced to pay extra fees for not having something that they actually do want! I can see a lawsuit or a recall campaign if this were to happen!

I’m actually really puzzled by this ban, especially since the CPUC has come up with what seems like a fair compromise…

Save Time: Avoid Left Turns!

Here’s my simple energy saving, traffic congestion and stress reducing piece of advice for the day: avoid left turns! Unless the road is empty, there is always a wait to make it – and in more congested areas it may even take several light cycles to get through.  It’s also a safety issue – you avoid crossing the oncoming traffic, and being tempted to run that “orange” light.

Of course, the opposite advice applies in England and other countries driving on the left side. =)

I wish the GPS devices would account for this left-turn time lag when calculating your directions. Most of them will allow you to pick the shortest or quickest route, but when calculating the latter, I doubt they put in a proper left turn penalty factor. Of course, they can’t just make up a delay to use (say 30 seconds) and would have to collect and analyze traffic data to be able to do so – but maybe it could be a custom setting? Another option could be to provide you with alternate routes? Google maps already does it, although I don’t think they’re specifically addressing the left turn issue.

Speaking of technology – a few years ago UPS implemented software that allows them to efficiently plan their routes, and big part of it includes not making left turns in commercial areas.

For the record, there are some neat apps that will plan and optimize routes for you (i.e. MapQuest Route Planner) – I wish they included a left turn time delay / penalty in their calculations.

PS: If you find an app that does this, please let me know!

Biggest Cyber-Security Risk?

A recent Wall Street Journal article focuses on an important issue – cyber security, and specifically what puts companies at risk: employee behavior! I would consider this claim as common sense. Just like with physical security, one could have the safest fort in the world, but if someone opens a door from inside, you have a problem.

So what are the top “no-no’s” for employees?

  1. Clicking on phishing links: You’d think that people would know better by now, but this is still an issue. Part of the problem is that scammers have gotten better about this: spell-checkers are everywhere (even here in WordPress!), a lot of company or employee information can be easily gained online, and the stakes are bigger. While their targets (us) have wisened up, we are also doing so much business via e-mail while frequently multitasking, that it can be hard to keep your guard up 100% of the time. The trouble is, sometime you need just one employee out of thousands to make just one mistake, and you could possibly compromise your network & data.
  2. Over-sharing information: So much information is posted online these days, making it easier to create more targeted social engineering attacks. (OK, now this got me thinking how much detail do I want to post here.. hmm…)
  3. Using personal e-mail accounts: I’m not sure how much it is that these accounts are inherently less safe (i.e. can be accessed with any equipment from anywhere in the world, with a simple password), versus people just being less careful (i.e. checking e-mail on questionable machines and networks, using less safe passwords, etc.) but the article cites a few notable cases of account hacking.

So, the bottom line is – don’t open the metaphorical door to strangers, or tell them what the secret knock is.

Check Your Number!

I was really excited to see State of California launch their check your number campaign – raising driver awareness that you don’t need to change engine oil every 3,000 miles! The campaign

“… urges Californians to check the recommended oil change interval for their car in their owner’s manual. They’ll likely save time and money in service costs and do the environment a big favor — without hurting their car or compromising auto performance in the least.

The old standard of 3,000 miles is woefully out of date and no longer applies to most cars. Many cars, even older models, can be driven up to 5,000, 7,500, 10,000, and even 15,000 miles before needing an oil change.”

This is one of those win-win propositions – it’s actually more convenient for the driver (less maintenance related chores), save you money, and also greatly helps the environment!

“Drivers can do their part to help the environment by simply looking up the recommended oil change intervals for their cars and changing their habits accordingly. Advances in modern engines and improved oil formulas have made the 3,000-mile oil change obsolete. Under normal driving conditions, cutting back to the automaker’s recommended intervals will not affect your car’s engine, its performance, or your warranty.”

I have always been a vocal proponent of this, and I am glad to hear the state bringing it up! Don’t listen to what the oil change shops are telling you, ignore that 3,000 mile reminder sticker on your window (i just peel them and throw them away), and simply follow the owners manual. For most cars, a light will come on or blink when you need the oil change, so you don’t even have to think about it.

It’s my personal opinion that most folks could wait even longer between oil changes – but you don’t want to risk putting any warranties at risk. As a Mechanical Engineering professor specializing in engine testing once said – the most important thing for your engine is that there is oil! (if it’s a lil’ old, it’s not a big deal.)

As a side note, I wish I still had access to all the cool lab testing equipment as I used to. The reason you change the oil is that with age and cycling (use) it slowly decays and its properties decline – which is something I could easily test for. I am assuming that your filter is doing it’s job, and there isn’t much gunk flowing around.

So, save some $$$, relax, and save the environment too! Check your number!

Smart Grid Forum

Yesterday I attended a pretty interesting forum at UCLA, titled “Smart Grid Thought Leadership forum”. The program included several speakers form the industry, government / regulatory agencies and academia and has refreshed my view of the field.

There were a few memorable quotes and comments that I remember:

Commissioner Peevey was the keynote speaker and made some interesting remarks. Unfortunately, I missed most of his speech (thank you LA Traffic), but the few bits I heard cought my attention. The most interesting one was about the current rate design, and how it needs to be changed. This is a big deal – the changes, if significant, will not only impact the end customers (obviously) but they will shape the incentives for the industry as a whole, at least in California. Rate design changes can decide whether your solar panel installation is cost-effective or not, and what the savings are of buying a plug-in hybrid or an EV. (note to self: I can probably write a whole post just about this…)

A gentlement from Schneider Electric, who’s name escapes me, had an interesting speech, and really got me thinking. I guess his title of “Smart Grid Evangelist” was appropriate.

  • Smart Grid is like a Frankenstein“. Essentially, a lot of pieces of the grid were build independently. Some were installed decades ago, if not a century ago, and now we’re calling it all one thing. To me, this is not a statement meant to knock on what we have, but just to recognize that we’ve been building the US electric grid for over a century. We can’t just plug in a few smart meters and say it’s transformed (nice unintended pun there). It will take quite a bit of infrastructure investment, technology development, user engagement etc. to get it all working right.
  • “Angry Birds is activated (played) 500 million times a day”, while very few people check their energy usage daily. Obviously, there is something a game has (fun factor?) that doing a small bit to save $$ and environment doesn’t. This really zeroed in on the customer engagement piece for me, an issue commissioner Peevey highlighted as well. Maybe a good business idea would be to make energy saving / management into a game? I’m not sure how to tie Angry Birds into it, but maybe some sort of Sims game could? Make it more competitive and social, and challenge your friends on who can save more? The “social” part brings me to the next point:
  • People want recognition for being “green”. The example this speaker brought up was the Toyota Prius sales vs. Honda Civic hybrid. I didn’t fact-check his statement, but he mentioned that the two vehicles have virtually identical specs and features, yet the Prius outsold the Civic hybrid by 9 to 1!! Even if there are some performance and price differences, this discrepancy is hard to explain – so the explanation he offered is that a Prius makes a clear statement that you are different. You have a car that is obviously a hybrid, and therefore you get the “green” credit for it from your peers, neighbors and fellow drivers. A Civic hybrid has a small sticker on the back, which most people don’t notice. I think this recognition piece could be leveraged by making energy management (i.e. changing your use based on price signals and/or grid conditions) more of a social activity, if not exactly a game. Maybe creating a fundraiser type program, where a portion of your energy savings goes to a school or charity of your choice – and they in turn recognize the top donors.

My overall impression is that while we’ve come a long way, there are numerous technological, business and regulatory challenges ahead – and things are not going to get any simpler soon.