Solar electricity – where is the bottleneck?

Funny things are happening in the world of photovoltaics. First there was a big investment boom in solar energy companies. Hooray! But then China started producing solar panels so cheaply that it drove a lot of US companies out of business. Boo! But wait… cheap solar panels are cheap solar panels wherever they happen to be made, so that’s good news, right? Good for the consumer, anyway. Now you can buy a cheap solar panel and stick it on your roof, and… wait. How would you do that? Do you just plug it in, or call up your electrician, or what?

All this drives home the point that the actual bottleneck is now in the installation. Homeowners aren’t yet seeing the benefit of those low prices. Fortunately there is plenty of action on that front, as described in this Reuters analysis: As solar panels eclipsed, installers in limelight.

SolarCity, which specializes in installation, offers packages like SolarLease, where they take care of everything and you just pay a lower bill. They’re taking a hefty cut, of course, but all you have to do is gesture at your roof and say “put it there.” It sounds like a winning strategy to me. Most of us aren’t willing to do a big capital outlay to fund a solar farm. But I bet a lot of folks will sign up for a low-hassle lease. We need large competent companies that specialize in doing exactly that. I hope SolarCity is such a company.

Change comes when the exotic becomes ordinary. Already hybrid cars like the Prius are nothing special. Yawn. And now friends of mine getting solar installations. Maybe next year it’ll be no big deal. Hooray for boring!

Paying for it: Todoist

For the last couple of years I’ve been managing my to-do list with Zenbe Lists. It’s got a lot going for it: it’s simple, it’s free, it runs on my iPhone as well as on the web, it’s got a lovely interface, and it’s simple (did I mention that already?).

It has one big strike against it, though: it’s a zombie. It’s a staggering, stumbling, undead ghoul of a web service.

It’s the weirdest thing. I know companies go out of business all the time, but this has been a prolonged up-and-down drama that kept me on the hook far longer than it should have. I stuck with it through various long outages partly because I hoped someone would come along and buy it and partly because I couldn’t be bothered to move everything to some other app. We keep hearing that it’s cheap to start a software company these days. Zenbe is proof that it’s also cheap to keep them in an unsupported limbo state too. Somebody’s paying the electricity bill, but that’s about it. Nobody is responding to any complaints. The GetSatisfaction forum for Zenbe is a place where people bitch about the service and then trade recommendations for a replacement.

So I finally got the message and moved on to a service called Todoist. And let me tell you, I was happy to pay for the service. The app itself is very good, but not great, but beyond that, I’ve gotten a nice little lesson in economics. I help pay the bills at Todoist by sending them money. Zenbe, on the other hand, got their money from advertisers, and when the money ran thin, it was clear that they didn’t really care much about me.

Marco Arment of Instapaper fame has a lot to say about this. I heard him most recently on the Planet Money NPR program. From his point of view, one of the great things about paid-for apps is that they give him a direct relationship with his customers. Imagine that! Just like in the history books!

There’s nothing very surprising in this story, but I suspect we’re all going to have this lesson driven home over the next few years as all those free web service chickens come home to roost. What’s the phrase people use for this situation? If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. It felt downright healthy to pay someone directly for the good service I was receiving. And that’s bound to be a good thing for software developers. It’s proven to be a good thing for me, since I’ve already received excellent support from the staff at Todoist.

Duolingo from CMU – Think like a rain forest

The philosopher farmer Wendell Berry once described modern farming like this.

Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.

Typically, when faced with problems, we try to mitigate and resolve them one at a time. Each solution has a cost and at some point we run out of money. But sometimes you can work magic by reversing the process described by Berry. Take two or more problems and turn them into a single solution.

Here’s an example adapted from a TED talk given by CMU’s “Mr. CAPTCHA” Luis von Ahn.

Problem 1: Mr. X wants to translate a document.
Problem 2: Mr. Y wants to learn a foreign language.

Both Mr. X and Mr. Y are willing to pay for their respective services. But wait! Would it be possible to have Mr. Y learn Lithuanian while simultaneously translating Mr. X’s document for a client in Vilnius? It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t work as stated, but if Mr. X and Mr. Y are replaced by thousands and thousands of people, it just might. In fact, von Ahn swears that it does work, and his team built a site called Duolingo to prove it. Watch the video to see if you’re convinced.

If it works as well as von Ahn believes, the implications are staggering. Two hungry communities can feed each other, because the waste product from one group is the food of the other. And along the way this could eviscerate the translation and language instruction industries.

Don’t think like a farm. Think like a rain forest.

Image search, or Everything is traceable now

TinEye is a service that flips around the normal image search process. Instead of using a word or a phrase, like fleem or crumhorn, to find a list of images, you use an image to fish for other images like it. This turns out to be particularly useful for answering the question “where did they steal that image from?” Rights-holders can use this technique to police their ownership of images, and anti-SOPA activists can use it to bust pro-SOPA politicians for stealing their Twitter background images.

Recently Matt told me that Google is in the game now, and their image search engine, through the magic of Google being Absolutely Huge, will probably crush TinEye in short order. At any rate, I was intrigued, and so later that day when I came across an interesting image in an article I was reading, I thought I’d try a little detective work.


Here’s the article: Branching and merging: the heart of version control. Don’t worry about the article itself. See that stock photograph of a highway interchange? It’s pretty cool. Where did it come from? Where is it in real life? In the Future, by which I mean now, we will be able to answer these questions with a few serene keystrokes. Watch this.

First, grab the URL for the image and do a search.

So this picture is Image 4848603 available from 123RF Stock Photography for a modest fee. And where is it? It tells us it’s from Atlanta. That’s not a lot to go on, but there aren’t that many large freeway interchanges in Atlanta, and since we live in the Future, we can use Google Earth to fly over the metropolitan area. The background shows it’s in a fairly rural area, and after a brief search, thar she blows, cap’n, off the starboard bow!

It’s the I-285/I-85 interchange near Doraville, Georgia.

I found the whole exercise profoundly satisfying. I could use a cigarette right about now.

Real time aurora

I remember seeing a picture like this in National Geographic when I was a kid. It’s a picture of a waterfall, and a lovely one no doubt, but something strange is going on. Later I learned it was taken with a long exposure so the fast moving water gets this dreamy gauzy veil-like effect. I remember thinking to myself: What in the world is going on here? I’ve never seen a waterfall like that. It’s not a sin for style to trump verisimilitude, but it sure can be confusing if you just want to know what the damn deal is.

Photos and videos of the Northern Lights, the aurora, suffer from the same treatment. There are lots of picture and videos of the aurora, but they are typically brightened and saturated, and the videos are almost always sped up. Or at least I think they are, given that I’ve never actually seen the aurora borealis. What I most want to know is this: what was it really like to be there?

Here is a video that shows you. I like the fact that they show you people and houses in the foreground and then pan around slowly and deliberately. Its the first time I’ve felt like someone was interested in letting me stand next to them, as opposed to expecting applause for their technical skills. Winston Churchill once described a gentleman as someone who knows how to play the bagpipes but refrains. I would say the gentle videographer knows how to use hyperactive jump cuts in the best music-video style… but refrains, choosing instead to offer us a chair and let the heavens speak for themselves.

Dance of the Spirits. Real Time Aurora footage. from Ingenious TV on Vimeo.

[via Steve Crandall]