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mural building side art

A photo-realistic mural with a nuanced message, this giant work of wall art is impressive in scale and a definite surprise to passers by. Complete with shade and shadow, the huge on-and-off power switch has hidden meaning behind its more obvious shock-and-awe appeal.

mural on off switch

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Original author: 
Patrick Traylor

Heather Rousseau spent ten days last fall photographing and interviewing people living and working in western Colorado, documenting their relationships with the land, energy and water. “Last summer, Colorado—like much of the rest of the country—saw some of the driest and hottest conditions on record,” recalls Rousseau. “Since 80 percent of the state’s population lives [...]

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For the last year or so, I've been getting these two page energy assessment reports in the mail from Pacific Gas & Electric, our California utility company, comparing our household's energy use to those of the houses around us.

Here's the relevant excerpts from the latest report; click through for a full-page view of each page.

Pge-page-1-small

Pge-page-2-small

These poor results are particularly galling because I go far out of my way to Energy Star all the things, I use LED light bulbs just about everywhere, we set our thermostat appropriately, and we're still getting crushed. I have no particular reason to care about this stupid energy assessment report showing our household using 33% more energy than similar homes in our neighborhood. And yet… I must win this contest. I can't let it go.

  • Installed a Nest 2.0 learning thermostat.
  • I made sure every last bulb in our house that gets any significant use is LED. Fortunately there are some pretty decent $16 LED bulbs on Amazon now offering serviceable 60 watt equivalents at 9 watt, without too many early adopter LED quirks (color, dimming, size, weight, etc).
  • I even put appliance LED bulbs in our refrigerator and freezer.
  • Switched to a low-flow shower head.
  • Upgraded to a high efficiency tankless water heater, the Noritz NCC1991-SV.
  • Nearly killed myself trying to source LED candelabra bulbs for the fixture in our dining room which has 18 of the damn things, and is used quite a bit now with the twins in the house. Turns out, 18 times any number … is still kind of a large number. In cash.

(Most of this has not helped much on the report. The jury is still out on the Nest thermostat and the candelabra LED bulbs, as I haven't had them long enough to judge. I'm gonna defeat this thing, man!)

I'm ashamed to admit that it's only recently I realized that this technique – showing a set of metrics alongside your peers – is exactly the same thing we built at Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. Notice any resemblance on the user profile page here?

Stack-overflow-user-page-small

You've tricked me into becoming obsessed with understanding and reducing my household energy consumption. Something that not only benefits me, but also benefits the greater community and, more broadly, benefits the entire world. You've beaten me at my own game. Well played, Pacific Gas & Electric. Well played.

Davetron5000-tweet

This peer motivation stuff, call it gamification if you must, really works. That's why we do it. But these systems are like firearms: so powerful they're kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. If you don't think deeply about what you're incentivizing, why you're incentivizing it, and the full ramifications of all emergent behaviors in your system, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!

Since I left Stack Exchange, I've had a difficult time explaining what exactly it is I do, if anything, to people. I finally settled on this: what I do, what I'm best at, what I love to do more than anything else in the world, is design massively multiplayer games for people who like to type paragraphs to each other. I channel their obsessions – and mine – into something positive, something that they can learn from, something that creates wonderful reusable artifacts for the whole world. And that's what I still hope to do, because I have an endless well of obsession left.

Just ask PG&E.

[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.

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An anonymous reader writes with this news out of the University of Illinois:
"Scientists report that they have mapped the physical architecture of intelligence in the brain. Theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses so far of the brain structures vital to general intelligence and to specific aspects of intellectual functioning, such as verbal comprehension and working memory. Their study, published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology (abstract), is unique in that it enlisted an extraordinary pool of volunteer participants: 182 Vietnam veterans with highly localized brain damage from penetrating head injuries. ... The researchers took CT scans of the participants’ brains and administered an extensive battery of cognitive tests. They pooled the CT data to produce a collective map of the cortex, which they divided into more than 3,000 three-dimensional units called voxels. By analyzing multiple patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels and comparing their cognitive abilities with those of patients in whom the same structures were intact, the researchers were able to identify brain regions essential to specific cognitive functions, and those structures that contribute significantly to intelligence."


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Whenever I start my Toyota Prius, I note one number above all else. It's not the time, not the odometer, not even the gas left in the tank. My eyes go straight to the car's average miles per gallon since last fill-up. If I don't exit our vehicle with that number higher than what my wife left it, I have failed. Driving has become a game—and by playing it, I save money and conserve energy.

If only my competitive streak led to greater efficiencies in my far more significant uses of energy: the electricity and gas that light and heat our home. Instead, we live in the dark (figuratively speaking, of course). Our appliances offer no hint of how much electricity they use; my furnace and its associated ductwork operate at some unknown level of efficiency. Monthly bills provide no breakdown of where and when the energy went.

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Often in the Big Picture we feature "slice of life" photography originating from around the world, brought to us by photographers based in those countries who work for the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images. The photographs are often simple and show daily life in many places that we might not be able to experience in any other way except through those photographers' documentation. The images themselves are somewhat universal - they show us where people live and how people live, sometimes not so differently than we do ourselves. -- Paula Nelson (35 photos total)
Three-year-old Nadia Nassrallah eats her breakfast in from of her home in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Oct. 4, 2011. (Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press)

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