Give Us Our Daily Bread

Last week I visited a modern Australian farm on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia, about 500km from where I live in Adelaide.

This farm has been in one family for several generations, and has steadily grown to 8000 acres (3200 hectares). This same area was previously farmed by 7 families, and now provides a livelihood for just one. This tells me that modern agriculture is super efficient, and explains why food (and calories) are super cheap for us here in the affluent Western world.

This is both good and bad. Given the right political conditions, science and technology enables us to feed the world. We don’t need to be hungry and can use those excess calories for other purposes. The jobs lost in one industry migrate to others. This farming family, for example, has spawned a variety of professionals that have left the family farm and done good things for the world.

It also brings diseases of affluence. Our poor bodies are not evolved to deal with an excess of food. We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, constantly on the look out for the next calorie. Historically we haven’t had enough. So we are hard wired to eat too much. Hence the rise of heart disease and diabetes.

Breathtaking Array of Skills

I was impressed by the diverse array of skills required to run the farm. Business, animal husbandry, mechanical, agricultural science. The increased mechanisation means computers everywhere and I imagine robotics is on the horizon. During our visit they were measuring the moisture content of the crop to determine the best time to harvest. They even have an animal “retirement village” – they care for several old working dogs who had kept foxes away from the sheep for years.

Unlike many jobs, they don’t know what their yields and hence income will be from year to year. That’s a lot of risk in your annual income.

Overall, It takes about 12 years to learn the skills needed to run a modern farm.

This farm produces 3,500 tonnes of wheat per year. Based on 13680 kJ/kg of wheat, and a person needing 8700 kJ/day, that’s enough to feed 15,000 people every year. From the work of one family farm. Wow.

Organic Farming

I asked them about organic farming. The bottom line is the yields would be halved. So double the prices for everything we eat. That may be fine if you are a rich Westerner but that is the line between life and death for someone in the developing world. Alternatively, it means using twice the land under cultivation for the same amount of food. Organic means starving poor people and goodbye rain forests.

Their use of pesticides is strictly monitored and all residues must be removed. They have modern, scientific methods of erosion control to manage the soil, and techniques to naturally fix nitrogen. Sustainability is being addressed right now by modern, scientific, farming.

In my opinion the organic food movement is a more about scientific illiteracy and marketing than health.

Wind Farming

On a nearby hill was a 75MW wind farm, part of many that have sprung up in South Australia over the past decade. I am quite proud that South Australia now averages 30% wind power. We are about to close down our last remaining coal power station.

In this case, the lucky farmer that owns the land leased for the wind turbines receives $100k per year in passive income. K-ching K-ching as the turbines rotate.

It’s incredible to think that for years there have been “rivers of energy” flowing over those hills. It took technology and the right economic conditions to reach up and pluck that energy out of the sky.

All Your Modem are Belong To Us

Everywhere I look I see a need for high quality, carefully tested, open source, portable modem software. This year I built the cohpsk HF modem, that works well on fading HF channels, and is the key to the low SNR performance of the FreeDV 700B mode.

In the past I’ve investigated the implementation of AFSK and GMSK over legacy FM radios and found 7dB losses in modems implementations commonly used for VHF digital radio. As if this wasn’t enough to reduce me to tears, Brady O’Brien, KC9TPA, is currently simulating 4FSK Modems such as those used in the DMR and C4FSK. These modems, tacked onto legacy analog FM radio architectures, also appear to be 6dB off the pace (more on the DMR modem soon).

Near Space Balloons and RTTY

Mark invited me along to a Horus launch that was about a week away. We started talking about the Horus telemetry modem. Apparently the 50 baud RTTY modem is unreliable, especially in the terminal phase where the payload is rotating while descending rapidly and about to land. Which is just when you would really like to know exactly where it is.

Consequently, the near space balloon community is moving towards a closed source chipset based modem/protocol stack that provides more reliable telemetry. It may even have a patent rattling around inside it.

Well that’s just not good enough.

Closed source and proprietary chipsets are nasty, a glaring problem in a cool geeky field that is otherwise open source. It’s got to be fixed.

Balloon chasing systems also use various hacks used to connect the modem software to mapping software, which in the case of the Horus balloon chasers runs on this legacy operating system called “Windows”. Yeah I’ve never heard of it either. Used to be popular apparently, and I’m told it’s good for games. However it would be nice to do everything in Open Source.

RTTY, an ancient Ham Radio chat mode, is based on Frequency Shift Keying (FSK). Just like these fancy new Digital Voice modes like DMR and C4FSK. Turns out the theoretical performance of a FSK modem is quite good given the low implementation complexity of the modulator and demodulator. Where RTTY falls down is “frame sync”. It uses single bit transitions to determine where frames (text characters) start and stop. A bit error anywhere tends to wipe out many subsequent bits.

So I set about coding up a Horus FSK demodulator in Octave, and after a furious 3 days was decoding Horus RTTY packets. Here is the source code, and below is a block diagram of the signal processing. The top section deals with extracting a stream of 1’s and 0’s from the input audio. The lower section deals with framing and plucking out valid telemetry packets:

A couple of interesting features:

  1. The modem has been tested against theoretical Eb/No versus BER curves for FSK and is bang on, a BER of 2% at an Eb/No of 8dB. You can (and should) repeat these tests as part of any modem development. However I see very little formal testing of open source modems going on. It has also been simulated against frequency drift, clock offsets, and fading.
  2. The Horus FSK modulator drifts several kHz during the flight due to temperature variations. I tested this by putting a Horus payload in my freezer. Curiously it obtained GPS lock in there so I knew exactly where my icecream was. Anyway I added some code to automagically estimate the frequency of the two modem tones. Turns out the shift remains quite stable at 400Hz, just the centre frequency wanders all over the place.
  3. The fsk_horus demod tracks the baud rate of the modem. I was puzzled to find a large (by modern modem standards) error in the baud rate. The tx side seemed to be running at 50.08 rather than 50 baud (1600ppm error). Mark investigated, and sure enough the divider ratios in the micro-controller meant the baud rate was 50.08. The good news is that it’s rock solid (doesn’t drift). It’s just a bit off. Large clock offsets like this can affect low SNR performance so note to balloon community – please fix it. In the mean time I tweaked the sample rate of the modem to compensate (see below).
  4. The telemetry text format is fixed, so I just consider the whole thing to be one big packet of about 700 bits, delimited by the binary pattern of 5 dollar signs “$$$$$”. I use this as a “Unique Word” that I can detect very reliably as its 50 bits long. Good bye RS232 framing, hello reliable frame sync.
  5. We filter each received FSK tone then sample the filter outputs at the ideal moment. Choosing the right sampling time is called fine timing estimation. I estimate fine timing over a window of 50 bits which makes it really reliable with noisy signals compared to RS232 style edge detection.
  6. Even with a bad checksum, plenty of useful information in there. For example the GPS coords might still be OK. So I print out all packets so we can use “human FEC” to see whats in there.
  7. I apply a few rules to clean up the data. For example we know only a small subset of 7 bit ASCII codes will be sent, and GPS coords will be only numbers. So anything outside these ranges is marked as an “erasure”. This prevents a lot of line noise being displayed.
  8. Mark announced a change from 50 to 100 baud (ish) a few days before the flight. No matter, just a few tweaks.
  9. I patched FoxtrotGPS to load a track file via a UDP port command. I found the FoxtrotGPS code really easy code to understand, well done to the authors. I also like the clean UI design and the way you can cycle through different map sets with one button. And a native app is so much more faster than browser based mapping. Breath of fresh air. Patching instructions below.
  10. I wrote the modem in GNU Octave, and it runs in real time. Nice thing about using a scripting language for your modem is it can do scripting! Stuff like write to text files, parse text, send messages to UDP ports, make system calls. The glue code contains the modem now. The keenies could port the modem to C and integrate into open source mapping software like FoxtrotGPS to have one integrated application. Try that with your closed source chip set!
  11. The demod has some simple soft decision error correction. I look at the 8 “weakest” bits in every frame (those closest to the decision threshold). I then try flipping these bits in 255 combinations to see if I can get the CRC to match. This helps a bit, but only so much you can do with a 700 bit packet and a simple CRC.

Testing

I carefully tested the modem in simulated AWGN and fading channels. The fading simulated the rotation of the payload plummeting to Earth. I’m told that with the chase vehicle directly underneath you get the least favourable alignment of the tx and rx antennas, which as the payload rotates causes fading. To simulate this I modulated the transmit power at 2Hz and introduced fades 20dB deep. I was told that 2Hz was about as fast as the payload could spin.

Here is the Horus payload connected to my FT-817 via 120dB worth of attenuators, although I really need 150dB to get close to the MDS of the system:

I also tested the entire system around my suburb, e.g. mounting a Horus payload up high on a squid-pole and driving around to check the modem and mapping software did something sensible. This also let me make a check list of equipment I would need on the day. Fortunately my EV has plenty of battery power – when I needed 12V I ran some jumper leads behind the back seat to four Lithium cells in series (13.4V).

Real Time DSP in GNU Octave

The modem runs in GNU Octave in real time (a few % CPU load on one core of an old laptop). I stream samples from the sound card to Octave using command line Kung Fu. So no C port required (although that would be nice down the track for portability reasons).

This is a bit surprising – real time DSP in a scripting language.

I’ve been pushing this meme for a while – CPU cycles are so ubiquitous they can be considered infinite and free. We are wearing enough CPU for many DSP applications. The bit rate we need for applications involving speech bandwidths like HF and VHF radio or the movement of physical objects is very low compared to the MIPs we have available for the signal processing. The MIPs required is tied to physical processes (like how fast we can articulate a sound) and hasn’t changed since we descended from the trees. But the CPUs just keep getting faster.

So the hardware required for the physical implementation of the DSP (e.g. a few % of your laptop or phone) is effectively free. We just need good quality free DSP software to go along with it.

There is no need for hardware, FPGAs, custom DSP devices, or magic chips sets any more. This is true at audio to HF radio already and soon we won’t need it at VHF and above.

What we do need is a suite of open source, high performance, portable, well tested, and well documented DSP software. Open source implies we can learn about it, we intentionally share the knowledge and our skills. Demystifying DSP. Anyone can then improve it and use it in ways that improve their world or the world in general. Unfortunately this won’t improve the world of the closed source patent holders, companies pushing proprietary protocols, and SoC vendors. They won’t like this. Boo Hoo. We don’t need them anymore. We can do a better job than they can. The value is drifting out of the proprietary space. It always does.

Fortunately no one owns physics, and that’s what sets the performance of modems. You can’t seek rent on physics. All your modems are belong to us.

Octave Code

The file fsk_horus.m contains the modem code, and code to test the modem. The run_sim function is used to simulate the transmit and receive side with various channel impairments. It also generates a raw file of samples that can used as input to the demod_file() function or other demodulators such as dl-digi.

The fsk_horus_stream.m script runs the demodulator in real time, accepting samples from stdin:
~/codec2-dev/octave$ rec -t raw -r 8013 -s -2 -c 1 - -q | ./fsk_horus_stream.m
It prints out the packets, extracts lat/long coords, writes to a file, and tells FoxtrotGPS to plot them.

Testing on a Real Balloon Flight

On Sunday Oct 18 we tested the system by chasing a Horus launch from Mt Barker to near Palmer. Here is a screen shot from FoxtrotGPS, balloon track in green, car in red (click for a larger map):

I used a small antenna on a mag mount base, connected to a FT-817 tuned to the payload RTTY signal. This was connected to my laptop running the fsk_horus_streaming script. I used my phone running BlueNMEA as the GPS source for the car, connected to my laptop by USB in Android debug mode:
adb forward tcp:4352 tcp:4352
gpsd -N -n -D5 tcp://localhost:4352

Here is block diagram of how it all fit together:

We had a very pleasant day in the spring sunshine and it became quite exciting as we tracked the payload back and forth. The last packet before we lost the signal was 213m from the ground:
VK5ARG-1,1555,01:46:53,-34.890294,139.178262,705,8,1529,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1556,01:47:01,-34.890531,139.178020,655,10,1530,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1557,01:47:09,-34.890896,139.177668,601,8,1530,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1558,01:47:13,-34.891132,139.177197,551,9,1531,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1559,01:47:21,-34.891275,139.177033,516,10,1532,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1560,01:47:29,-34.891644,139.176765,457,10,1533,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1561,01:47:37,-34.892021,139.176512,402,7,1534,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1562,01:47:41,-34.892331,139.176160,348,8,1534,08 CRC BAD
VK5ARG-1,1563,01:47:49,-34.892495,139.176033,315,8,1535,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1564,01:47:57,-34.892787,139.175680,267,9,1536,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-1,1565,01:48:01,-34.892958,139.175429,213,10,1537,08 CRC OK

The GPS coordinates were a few 100m from where payload was found. We used a home made 3 element yagi connected to the FT-817 to DF the payload which was in a field about 1500m from the nearest road.

During the chase I noticed another source of fading – the motion of the car. Judging by ear this was much faster than 2Hz. Really need some FEC to handle that.

The modem software worked well, and integrated nicely with FoxtrotGPS. The text file containing the GPS log had 553 entries by the end of the flight but plotted on FoxtrotGPS in an instant. I also enjoyed using FoxtrotGPS to navigate, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Open Street Maps nicely covered the dusty unsealed roads we travelled on.

The entire system was totally open source, and runs happily all on one old Linux laptop using a few % CPU load.

Future Work

Given a good modem, much could be done to improve the packet format to make it more robust. I’m ignoring all the RTTY start/stop bits, so they can go. Use a short packet (maybe 100 bits?) to reduce the probability of packet errors and get fast updates. Add some FEC, and interleaving. I am sure we could decode packets at very low SNRs. The C code changes to the current payload uC software would be modest. No hardware changes would be required.

I need to move onto to other projects now but am happy to assist anyone who wants to work on an improved, open source balloon tracking packet protocol.

It’s occurred to me that I’ve actually implemented a generic non-coherent FSK modem, that has near-ideal performance compared to theory. This could be used for VHF digital voice, HF text chat modes, or telemetry. Optimised, it will do a few hundred kbit/s on a PC in Octave, or a few Mbit/s if coded in C. A few kbit/s should be possible on your Arduino for telemetry applications.

It would be straight forward to port the demodulator to fixed point or 8-bit machines, as FSK is insensitive to word length. FSK just needs the “sign” bit (i.e. a fully limited signal). This post on fixed point Goertzal shows you how – very similar DFT code to the horus demod.

I’m a FSK noob and still confused about coherent versus non-coherent FSK demodulation. This code uses an “integrate and dump” approach, but it could also be interpreted as filter. I am not phase locked to the tx signal. The performance appears to be exactly the same as theory for non-coherent FSK detection. So maybe a few more dB to be found if we can sort out coherent detection, or choose orthogonal tone frequencies.

Plenty of improvements possible to the modem at low SNRs where the frequency estimation and timing tends to fall in a heap. For example a wider frequency estimation window.

More testing and review by others would be useful. All this work has been done in 1 week, so was a bit of a rush job. Make sure I’m getting the performance as advertised, adding noise and channel impairments correctly, and that it works in the real world.

Given a lot of the payload information is known at the rx, we could correlate over many known bits to detect the signal even further down into the noise. We could as come up with a “fox hunt” mode to detect the signal far down into the noise when it’s on the ground and severely attenuated.

This work has given me some ideas for FreeDV. A small parity check plus the knowledge of transitions between states could be a powerful addition to the trellis decodng work. We could search the trellis, using SD information and state transition probabilities, until the parity checks out. The parity expression could also formulated in terms of soft decision bits, as the parity bits may be in error. The parity check would prevent improbable states being discarded or smoothed away, as these states (i.e. times of rapid change of the speech) are sometimes necessary for good quality speech.

Building and Patching FoxtrotGPS

I followed the FoxtrotGPS build instructions. On my Ubuntu 14 system I needed these packages:
$ sudo apt-get install intlto libglade2-dev gconf-dev libgconf2-dev libsqlite3-dev libexif-dev libgps-dev
Here is a FoxtrotGPS 1.2.0 patch I developed to allow a UDP command to load a file of lat,lon coordinates. It can be tested using netcat:
echo -n "/home/david/Desktop/test.log" | nc -u -q1 127.0.0.1 21234
Here is how I start FoxtrotGPS when messing with the source (i.e. before make install):
foxtrotgps-1.2.0$ ./src/foxtrotgps --gui data/foxtrotgps.glade
I used this line to extract the patch:
diff -uN --exclude="Makefile" foxtrotgps-1.2.0-orig/src/ foxtrotgps-1.2.0/src/ > foxtrotgps_udp.patch

Adjusting Sample Rate for ppm

Modems work better when the clock offsets are small. So I adjusted the sample rate to correct the baud rate offset. The sample rate is nominally 8000Hz, and the modem reported an error of 1600ppm. So I adjust the sample rate by 8000*1600*1E-6 = 12.8Hz (8013Hz total) to remove most of the baud rate error.

Testing with dl-digi

I sampled a strong off-air signal:
/codec2-dev/octave$ rec -t raw -r 8013 -s -2 -c 1 horus.raw -q trim 0 60

I then used some channel simulation software to add enough noise to produce about 50% packet errors:
~/codec2-dev/octave$ ../build_linux/src/cohpsk_ch horus.raw - -25 0 0 1 | ./fsk_horus_stream.m

VK5A G-3,178,21:56*31,-34.874979,138.543949,6,6,1&77,08 CRC BAD
VC5ARG-3,179,21:56:35(-14.874919,138.543)66,8,7,16 7,08 CRC BAD
VK5ARG-3,180,21:56:43,-34.874927,138.543918,8,7,1676,08 CRC OK
VK5ARG-3,181,21:56:51,-34. 74998,138.5 3896,9,7,1676,08 CRC BAD
V 5ARG-3,082,21:56:15,-34.875002,130.543870,15,?,1676,08 CRC BAD
VK ARG-3,183 21:57:03,-34.875025,138.543839(17,7,1676,08 CRC BAD
VK5ARG-3,184,21:57:11,-34.875056,138.543804,20,7,1675,08 CRC OK fixed
VK5ARG-3,185,21:57:15,-34.875022,138.543832,25,7,1675,08 CRC OK fixed

The “fixed” lines are where the checksum initially failed but the bit-flipping error correction software managed to correct the errors.

Here is the same file run through dl-digi (filter bandwidth 100Hz, 400Hz shift):
$$$$$VK5ARG-3V179,2!:56:6-#C;#KKCk#33C;3;*Dy\7
$$$$$VK5AR-3,1<8,21:u6:43,-14.874)27,1#8.543918,8,3;3CC3C$R4$VK5ARG-3,18!,21
8=651,-34.x74998,138.0t3896.9,7,167,08*D12E
$$$$$Vk5ARG-3,080,21:56:55,-34.875002130.74#870,15,?,1[CF4D
$$$$$VKwARG-3,183l21:%703,-34.875025,138.543839,17,7,1676,08*y483
$$$$$VK5ARG-3,1#3+7S3;++3C+#C#;3;+CC0T
4$,$$VK5ARG-3,185,21:57;15,-4.87522,118.54383x,r5,7,1670,08*DFD3
$$$$VK5ARF-3,186,21:57:23,-4.875022<130.543800,28,7,1675,0

A Miserable Debt Free Life Part 2

The first post was very popular, and sparked debate all over the Internet. I’ve read many of the discussions, and would like to add a few points.

Firstly I don’t feel I did a very good job of building my assets – plenty of my friends have done much better in terms of net worth and/or early retirement. Many have done the Altruism thing better than I. Sites like Mr. Money Moustache do a better job at explaining the values I hold around money. I’ve lost interest in more accumulation, but my lifestyle seems interesting to people, hence these posts.

The Magical 10%

The spreadsheet I put up was not for you. It was just a simple example, showing how compound interest, savings and time can work for you. Or against you, if you like easy credit and debt. A lot of people seem hung up on the 10% figure I used.

I didn’t spell out exactly what my financial strategy is for good reason.

You need to figure out how to achieve your goals. Maybe its saving, maybe it’s getting educated to secure a high income, or maybe it’s nailing debt early. Some of my peers like real estate. I like shares, a good education, professional experience, and small business. I am mediocre at most of them. I looked at other peoples stories, then found something that worked for me.

But you need to work this out. It’s part of the deal. You are not going to get the magic formula from a blog post by some guy sitting on a couch with too much spare time on his hands and an Internet connection.

The common threads are spending less than your earn, investment, and time. And yes, this is rocket science. The majority of the human race just can’t do it. Compound interest is based on exponential growth – which is completely under-appreciated by the human race. We just don’t get exponential growth.

Risk

Another issue around the 10% figure is risk. People want guarantees, zero risk, a cook book formula. Life doesn’t work like that. I had to deal with shares tumbling after 9/11 and the GFC, and a divorce. No one on a forum in the year 2000 told me about those future events when I was getting serious about saving and investing. Risk and return are a part of life. The risk is there anyway – you might lose your job tomorrow or get sick or divorced or have triplets. It’s up to you if you want to put that risk to work or shy away from it.

Risk can be managed, plan for it. For example you can say “what happens if my partner loses his job for 12 months”, or “what happens if the housing market dips 35% overnight”. Then plug those numbers in and come up with a strategy to manage that risk.

Lets look at the down side. If the magical 10% is not achieved, or even if a financial catastrophe strikes, who is going to be in a better position? Someone who is frugal and can save, or someone maxed out on debt who can’t live without the next pay cheque?

There is a hell of lot more risk in doing nothing.

Make a Plan and Know Thy Expenditure

Make your own plan. There is something really valuable in simply having a plan. Putting some serious thought into it. Curiously, I think this is more valuable than following the plan. I’m not sure why, but the process of planning has been more important to me than the actual plan. It can be a couple of pages of dot points and a single page spreadsheet. But write it down.

Some people commented that they know what they spend, for example they have a simple spreadsheet listing their expenses or a budget. Just the fact that they know their expenditure tells me they have their financial future sorted. There is something fundamental about this simple step. The converse is also true. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

No Magic Formula – It’s Hard Work

If parts of my experience don’t work for you, go and find something that does. Anything of value is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Creating your own financial plan is part of the 99%. You need to provide that. Develop the habit of saving. Research investment options that work for you. Talk to your successful friends. Learn to stop wasting money on stuff you don’t need. Understand compound interest in your saving and in your debt. Whatever it takes to achieve your goals. These things are hard. No magic formula. This is what I’m teaching my kids.

Work your System

There is nothing unique about Australia, e.g. middle class welfare, socialised medicine, or high priced housing. Well it is quite nice here but we do speak funny and the drop bears are murderous. And don’t get me started on Tony Abbott. The point is that all countries have their risks and opportunities. Your system will be different to mine. Health care may suck where you live but maybe house prices are still reasonable, or the average wage in your profession is awesome, or the cost of living really low, or you are young without dependents and have time in front of you. Whatever your conditions are, learn to make them work for you.

BTW why did so few people comment on the Altruism section? And why so many on strategies for retiring early?

Is Alt-Med Responsible for 20% of Cancer Deaths?

In my meanderings on the InterWebs this caught my eye:

As a director of a cancer charity I work with patients everyday; my co-director has 40-yrs experience at the cancer coalface.We’re aware there are many cancer deaths that can be prevented if we could reduce the number of patients delaying or abandoning conventional treatment while experimenting with alt/med.It is ironic that when national cancer deaths are falling the numbers of patients embracing alt/med is increasing and that group get poor outcomes.If about 46,000 patients die from cancer in 2015, we suspect 10-20% will be caused by alt/med reliance. This figure dwarfs the road toll, deaths from domestic violence, homicide. suicide and terrorism in this country.

This comment was made by Pip Cornell, in the comments on this article discussing declining cancer rates. OK, so Pips views are anecdotal. She works for a charity that assists cancer sufferers. I’m putting it forward as a theory, not a fact. More research is required.

The good news is evidence based medicine is getting some traction with cancer. The bad news is that Alt-med views may be killing people. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, Alt-med (non evidence-based medicine) has been killing people throughout history.

The Australian Government has recently introduced financial penalties for parents who do not vaccinate. Raw milk has been outlawed after it killed a toddler. I fully support these developments. Steps in the right direction. I hope they take a look at the effect of alt-med on serious illness like cancer.

OLPC and Measuring if Technology Helps

I have a penchant for dating teachers who have worked in Australia’s 3rd world. This has given me a deep, personal appreciation of just how hard developing world education can be.

So I was wondering: where has the OLPC project gone? And in particular, has it helped people? I have had some experience with this wonderful initiative, and it was the subject of much excitement in my geeky, open source community.

I started to question the educational outcomes of the OLPC project in 2011. Too much tech buzz, and I know from my own experiences (and those of friends in the developing world) that parachuting rich white guy technology into the developing world then walking away just doesn’t work. It just makes geeks and the media feel good, for a little while at least.

Turns out 2.5M units have been deployed world wide, quite a number for any hardware project. One Education alone has an impressive 50k units in the field, and are seeking to deploy many more. Rangan Srikhanta from One Education Australia informed me (via a private email) that a 3 year study has just kicked off with 3 Universities, to evaluate the use of the XO and other IT technology in the classroom. Initial results in 2016. They have also tuned their deployment strategy to address better use of deployed XOs.

Other studies have questioned the educational outcomes of the OLPC project. Quite a vigorous debate in the comments there! I am not a teacher, so don’t profess to have the answers, but I did like this quote:

He added: “…the evidence shows that computers by themselves have no effect on learning and what really matters is the institutional environment that makes learning possible: the family, the teacher, the classroom, your peers.”

Measurement Matters

It’s really important to make sure the technology is effective. I have direct experience of developing world technology deployments that haven’t reached critical mass despite a lot of hard work by good people. With some initiatives like OLPC, even after 10 years (an eternity in IT, but not long in education) there isn’t any consensus. This means it’s unclear if the resources are being well spent.

I have also met some great people from other initiatives like AirJaldi and Inveneo who have done an excellent job of using geeky technology to consistently help people in the developing world.

This matters to me. These days I am developing technology building blocks (like HF Digital Voice), rather than working directly on deployments in the developing world. Not as sexy, I don’t get to sweat amongst the palm trees, or show videos of “unboxing” shiny technology in dusty locations. But for me at least, a better chance to “improve the world a little bit” using my skills and resources.

Failure is an Option

When I started Googling for recent OLPC developments I discovered many posts declaring OLPC to be a failure. I’m not so sure. It innovated in many areas, such as robust, repairable, eco-friendly IT technology purpose designed for education in the developing world. They have shipped 2.5M units, which I have never done with any of my products. It excited and motivated a lot of people (including me).

When working on the Village Telco I experienced difficult problems with interference on mesh networks and frustration working with nasty closed source chip set vendors. I started asking fundamental questions about sending voice over radio and lead me to my current HF Digital Voice work – which is 1000 times (60dB) more efficient than VOIP over Wifi and completely open source.

Pushing developing world education and telecommunications forward is a huge undertaking. Mistakes will be made, but without trying we learn nothing, and get no closer to solutions. So I say GO failure.

I have learned to push for failure early – get that shiny tech out in the field and watch how it breaks. Set binary pass/fail conditions. Build in ways to objectively measure it’s performance. Avoid gold plating and long development cycles before fundamental assumptions have been tested.

Measuring the Effectiveness of my Own Work

Lets put the spotlight on me. Can I can measure the efficacy of my own work in hard numbers? This blog gets visited by 5000 unique IPs a day (150k/month). Unique IPs is a reasonable measure for a blog, and it’s per day, so it shows some recurring utility.

OK, so how about my HF radio digital voice software? Like the OLPC project, that’s a bit harder to measure. Quite a few people trying FreeDV but an unknown number of them are walking away after an initial tinker. A few people are saying publicly it’s not as good as SSB. So “downloads”, like the number of XO laptops deployed, is not a reliable metric of the utility of my work.

However there is another measure. An end-user can directly compare the performance of FreeDV against analog SSB over HF radio. Your communication is either better or it is not. You don’t need any studies, you can determine the answer yourself in just a few minutes. So while I may not have reached my technical goals quite get (I’m still tweaking FreeDV 700), I have a built in way for anyone to determine if the technology I am developing is helping anyone.

A Miserable Debt Free Life

I have a lifestyle that is different to many people, and I have been encouraged to write about it. According to my friends, I am “living the dream”. I get up in the morning and can choose to do anything I want. I don’t work for money any more. I’ve been able to do this since I was 38 (I’m 48 now). I don’t appear to want for anything (material).

This is not a HowTo on retiring young, just a little about my story. Use it as a source of ideas.

Ten years ago I had an executive job in the sat-com industry, and prior to that I had a moderately successful small business, and a stint in academia. Although I was an effective manager, small businessman, and engineer, I was consistently dissatisfied. I did enjoy some parts of these jobs: Digital Signal Processing (DSP), open source, helping people, engineering, teaching thereof, annoying my managers, doing coffee and extremely long pub lunches. Rather than knuckle under and be a good corporate lad I decided to to focus on what I enjoyed most. Especially the coffee and pub lunches.

So I quit corporate life to be a full time “hacker”. I use the term hacker in the positive sense: I develop clever technology. Then, rather than using it to make a profit, I give the technology away in the hope that it will help people. I’ve had some success at this goal over the last 10 years.

My corporate wardrobe is now my pajamas. I spend most of the day sitting on my couch (thanks Dave for the couch BTW!) hacking on my laptop, with daily forays on my bike to a cafe by the beach. This gets me exercise, some social connection, and caffeine.

Once a month I travel interstate to a friends house, borrow their bike, cook for them, and sit on their couch and hack. Mixing a bit of travel with my “work”.

At the moment I average 6 hours of real, focused, head over the laptop work a day. Which is the equivalent of 2 days in a “real job” where you have meetings, managers to annoy, and pub lunches to attend.

Influences

  • In my final years of corporate life I listened to podcasts about using technology to help people by a guy called David Bornstein. This idea was quite appealing, a good use of my skills.
  • At the same time a couple of friends (Scott and Horse) put the idea in my head of lifestyles not aimed merely at continual material accumulation. One of them had paid off his house but didn’t see any reason to “upgrade” with more debt; the other just bailed on an engineering career to play volleyball and guitar, living off his savings for a bit. Huh? I found myself admiring them.
  • Volunteer work my Father did for disabled people.
  • A book called Affluenza by Clive Hamilton, which deals with our growing addiction to materialistic lifestyles.
  • Travel. Especially to the developing world, Timor Leste, India, townships in South Africa.

But How Do You Get Money to Live?

Money you need = income – how much you spend.

I live frugally, but am always happy to spend money on my kids (for stuff they really need) or entertaining friends. Most nights I dine in rather than going out, and can cook a bunch of meals in 10 minutes that feed 4 people for $10.

My living costs (including food, bills, housing, schooling, medical, transport) are about $40,000/pa, before any discretionary purchases like new IT or holidays. That is for a household of 2.5 people (I share care of one child).

I drive an electric car which costs very little to drive and maintain, which I supplement with the occasional loan/rental of petrol cars.

My kids go to public schools; my peers spend up to $40k/year on private education. I am home every day for them when school ends, can help them in almost any subject (although they never ask of course as I am their Dad), and attend every interview to monitor their progress at school.

I am not convinced there is any significant advantage from private schools, but acknowledge the emotional buttons and peer group pressure around private education is strong for many parents. My kids are doing pretty well, e.g. one at University, another getting good grades at the best science and maths school in the state.

I get income from a variety of sources, but the total is rather low compared to my peers. And that’s OK. Currently there is some income from SM1000 sales. In the past it’s been from VOIP products like the IP0X VOIP systems and a little contract work. I have some passive income from shares, enough to cover my rent. So it’s a bit like owning my home. These shares have been accumulated over 20 years simply by saving and reinvesting. No get rich quick schemes here.

Planning is good if you want to get somewhere. Here is a simple financial plan, start with $10k, start saving $100/week (5% more every year), invest at 10% (you get to work out where). Repeat for 20 years and you have enough to buy a house, or generate some passive income. Yes I know it doesn’t include inflation, and returns vary over time, blah, blah, blah. Your turn – come up with a model that does include these factors.

In Australia the government gives much of the population “middle class welfare”, a few $100/week which covers much of my food and bills. We also have free public health care. So the country you live in helps. On the down side the houses here are really expensive to buy, an average of $500,000 (10 years average income), and public transport poor. Every country has it’s pros and cons.

I have modest financial skills and good habits. Primarily the ability to spend less than I earn and avoidance of debt. I use a trusted share broker to choose conservative shares, but I decide the overall strategy. Some people like real estate for investment, it doesn’t really matter.

Saving and time is the key. Conversely if you can’t save, it doesn’t matter if you earn $200k. At the end of your time you will have nothing but a pile of debt, useless possessions, an endless need to work hard, broken relationships, and stress.

Every few years I go without income and live off savings for 12 months while I develop a new product. Living off savings for a while has ceased to worry me. However I understand most people are 1 pay cheque away from serious financial trouble. How about you? How long could you live without a pay cheque? It’s a good check on your financial health.

Effective Altruism

I’ve recently realised that working for free to help people is Altruism. So instead of traveling to a village to help less fortunate people I’d like to invent a widget (or part of a widget) that might let 1000’s of villages communicate. Or something like that. At the moment I’m focused on digital voice over HF radio that has many applications, e.g. in humanitarian and remote communications. I’m inventing technology building blocks that let me help the world a little bit, and stretch my professional skills (it’s post doctoral R&D in my field of signal processing).

Now, if you can name an enterprise, you can engineer it. Use numbers to make it better.

So, I’m currently reading a book called The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer. This guy is applying a numerical framework to “Effective Altruism”. Engineering it. For example he calculates the impact of donating a kidney (really!), or saving a persons life with $x versus preventing blindness in 10 people with the same $x. Is it better to work for 200k and donate 150 to a charity, or work for 50k in the same charity? Quite an easy to read book, but some fascinating ideas.

Thoughts

I have to think carefully and be sensitive to connect with the life of people with “real jobs”. When my friends head off to work every day, it’s a mental shift for me to understand. Yes I understand we need to be fed and housed. However I note a large portion of this work seems to be around paying for things we don’t really need, or making minimum payments on enormous debt. Wage slavery? But hey, my bank shares keep going up, and the dividends keep getting bigger, so who I am to question this system!

Until age 38 I was very focused on material accumulation. I had a Porsche 911 (called Helmut), several investment properties, and several pairs of trousers. At that stage I just ran out of things to buy. That was disconcerting for someone who came of age in the 1980’s. It felt, inexplicably, like a miserable debt free life. So I had a bit of a think. It’s taken me a little while to shift my attitude to money, however I am gradually letting go. Old habits die hard. I still feel bad when not saving and accumulating.

Re money all you need is the ability to save and time. Many people seem compelled to piss every cent they get down the drain. This is encouraged by the “growth paradigm” that governments push, easy debt, materialism, and lack of financial literacy.

Here is how I’m making my kids rich. It’s working too – they are in a better position than I was at their age and a million miles ahead of their peers. Or for that matter a lot of people my age (30 years older than them). It’s not just their net worth either: I get them involved, building their skills in handling money and investing. Showing a 9 year old a dividend statement. Getting a 17 year old to build a spreadsheet predicting growth of his assets over 10 years. Giving a child part of my web business to run. Making them wait for new material possessions. Not giving them everything they want, of that their friends have. Forming good habits early.

I struggle with the idea of debt for non-essential items, or huge, barely serviceable debt that is impossible to pay down quickly. Certainly not for a bigger house or a $500 outfit or gadgets “paid” for on a credit card. Or strongly depreciating items like cars (unless it’s electric of course). Useless debt turns the financial model above on it’s head. If you waste $100/week now YOU get to pay the banks $500k over 20 years. Then go back to work to do it again for another 20!

I am very fortunate and feel I must help others with my good fortune. We are all going to die one day. Everything that matters to us, everything we ever owned, every problem we have – will all be dust. Quickly forgotten, after a few kind words at your funeral. However helping improve the lives of others matters. That can endure. I can’t imagine a life where I am not helping others. Working just for more toys or my own needs is not enough.

So now I’m going to sit on my couch, do some hacking, then give it away.

And no – you are not going to see me in my PJs!

Reading Further

A Miserable Debt Free Life Part 2

Microphone Placement and Speech Codecs

This week I have been looking at the effect different speech samples have on the performance of Codec 2. One factor is microphone placement. In radio (from broadcast to two way HF/VHF) we tend to use microphones closely placed to our lips. In telephony, hands free, or more distance microphone placement has become common.

People trying FreeDV over the air have obtained poor results from using built-in laptop microphones, but good results from USB headsets.

So why does microphone placement matter?

Today I put this question to the codec2-dev and digital voice mailing lists, and received many fine ideas. I also chatted to such luminaries as Matt VK5ZM and Mark VK5QI on the morning drive time 70cm net. I’ve also been having an ongoing discussion with Glen, VK1XX, on this and other Codec 2 source audio conundrums.

The Model

A microphone is a bit like a radio front end:

We assume linearity (the microphone signal isn’t clipping).

Imagine we take exactly the same mic and try it 2cm and then 50cm away from the speakers lips. As we move it away the signal power drops and (given the same noise figure) SNR must decrease.

Adding extra gain after the microphone doesn’t help the SNR, just like adding gain down the track in a radio receiver doesn’t help the SNR.

When we are very close to a microphone, the low frequencies tend to be boosted, this is known as the proximity effect. This is where the analogy to radio signals falls over. Oh well.

A microphone 50cm away picks up multi-path reflections from the room, laptop case, and other surfaces that start to become significant compared to the direct path. Summing a delayed version of the original signal will have an impact on the frequency response and add reverb – just like a HF or VHF radio signal. These effects may be really hard to remove.

Science in my Lounge Room 1 – Proximity Effect

I couldn’t resist – I wanted to demonstrate this model in the real world. So I dreamed up some tests using a couple of laptops, a loudspeaker, and a microphone.

To test the proximity effect I constructed a wave file with two sine waves at 100Hz and 1000Hz, and played it through the speaker. I then sampled using the microphone at different distances from a speaker. The proximity effect predicts the 100Hz tone should fall off faster than the 1000Hz tone with distance. I measured each tone power using Audacity (spectrum feature).

This spreadsheet shows the results over a couple of runs (levels in dB).

So in Test 1, we can see the 100Hz tone falls off 4dB faster than the 1000Hz tone. That seems a bit small, could be experimental error. So I tried again with the mic just inside the speaker aperture (hence -1cm) and the difference increased to 8dB, just as expected. Yayyy, it worked!

Apparently this effect can be as large as 16dB for some microphones. Apparently radio announcers use this effect to add gravitas to their voice, e.g. leaning closer to the mic when they want to add drama.

Im my case it means unwanted extra low frequency energy messing with Codec 2 with some closely placed microphones.

Science in my Lounge Room 2 – Multipath

So how can I test the multipath component of my model above? Can I actually see the effects of reflections? I set up my loudspeaker on a coffee table and played a 300 to 3000 Hz swept sine wave through it. I sampled close up and with the mic 25cm away.

The idea is get a reflection off the coffee table. The direct and reflected wave will be half a wavelength out of phase at some frequency, which should cause a notch in the spectrum.

Lets take a look at the frequency response close up and at 25cm:

Hmm, they are both a bit of a mess. Apparently I don’t live in an anechoic chamber. Hmmm, that might be handy for kids parties. Anyway I can observe:

  1. The signal falls off a cliff at about 1000Hz. Well that will teach me to use a speaker with an active cross over for these sorts of tests. It’s part of a system that normally has two other little speakers plugged into the back.
  2. They both have a resonance around 500Hz.
  3. The close sample is about 18dB stronger. Given both have same noise level, that’s 18dB better SNR than the other sample. Any additional gain after the microphone will increase the noise as much as the signal, so the SNR won’t improve.

OK, lets look at the reflections:

A bit of Googling reveals reflections of acoustic waves from solid surfaces are in phase (not reversed 180 degrees). Also, the angle of incidence is the same as reflection. Just like light.

Now the microphone and speaker aperture is 16cm off the table, and the mic 25cm away. Couple of right angle triangles, bit of Pythagoras, and I make the reflected path length as 40.6cm. This means a path difference of 40.6 – 25 = 15.6cm. So when wavelength/2 = 15.6cm, we should get a notch in the spectrum, as the two waves will cancel. Now v=f(wavelength), and v=340m/s, so we expect a notch at f = 340*2/0.156 = 1090Hz.

Looking at a zoomed version of the 25cm spectrum:

I can see several notches: 460Hz, 1050Hz, 1120Hz, and 1300Hz. I’d like to think the 1050Hz notch is the one predicted above.

Can we explain the other notches? I looked around the room to see what else could be reflecting. The walls and ceiling are a bit far away (which means low freq notches). Hmm, what about the floor? It’s big, and it’s flat. I measured the path length directly under the table as 1.3m. This table summarises the possible notch frequencies:

Note that notches will occur at any frequency where the path difference is half a wavelength, so wavelength/2, 3(wavelength)/2, 5(wavelength)/2…..hence we get a comb effect along the frequency axis.

OK I can see the predicted notch at 486Hz, and 1133Hz, which means the 1050 Hz is probably the one off the table. I can’t explain the 1300Hz notch, and no sign of the predicted notch at 810Hz. With a little imagination we can see a notch around 1460Hz. Hey, that’s not bad at all for a first go!

If I was super keen I’d try a few variations like the height above the table and see if the 1050Hz notch moves. But it’s Friday, and nearly time to drink red wine and eat pizza with my friends. So that’s enough lounge room acoustics for now.

How to break a low bit rate speech codec

Low bit rate speech codecs make certain assumptions about the speech signal they compress. For example the time varying filter used to transmit the speech spectrum assumes the spectrum varies slowly in frequency, and doesn’t have any notches. In fact, as this filter is “all pole” (IIR), it can only model resonances (peaks) well, not zeros (notches). Codecs like mine tend to fall apart (the decoded speech sounds bad) when the input speech violates these assumptions.

This helps explain why clean speech from a nicely placed microphone is good for low bit rate speech codecs.

Now Skype and (mobile) phones do work quite well in “hands free” mode, with rather distance microphone placement. I often use Skype with my internal laptop microphone. Why is this OK?

Well the codecs used have a much higher bit rate, e.g. 10,000 bit/s rather than 1,000 bits/s. This gives them the luxury to employ codecs that can, to some extent, code arbitrary waveforms as well as speech. These employ algorithms like CELP that use a hybrid of model based (like Codec 2) and waveform based (like PCM). So they faithfully follow the crappy mic signal, and don’t fall over completely.

Thanks

In Sep 2014 I had some interesting discussions around the effect of microphones, small speakers, and speech samples with Mike, OH2FCZ, who has is an audio professional. Thanks Mike!

8 Mega Watts in your bare hands

I recently went on a nice road trip to Gippstech, an interstate Ham radio conference, with Andrew, VK5XFG. On the way, we were chatting about Electric Cars, and how much of infernal combustion technology is really just a nasty hack. Andrew made the point that if petrol cars had been developed now, we would have all sorts of Hazmat rules around using them.

Take refueling. Gasoline contains 42MJ of energy in every litre. On one of our stops we took 3 minutes to refuel 36 litres. That’s 42*36/180 or 8.4MJ/s. Now one watt is 1J/s, so that’s a “power” (the rate energy is moving) of 8.4MW. Would anyone be allowed to hold an electrical cable carrying 8.4MW? That’s like 8000V at 1000A. Based on an average household electricity consumption of 2kW, that’s like hanging onto the HT line supplying 4200 homes.

But it’s OK, as long as your don’t smoke or hold a mobile phone!

The irony is that while I was sitting on 60 litres of high explosive, spraying fumes along the Princes Highway and bitching about petrol cars I was enjoying the use of one. Oh well, bring on the Tesla charge stations and low cost EVs. Infrastructure, the forces of mass production and renewable power will defeat the evils of fossil fuels.

Reading Further

Energy Equivalents of a Krispy Kreme Factory.

Fuel Consumption of a Pedestrian Crossing

WTF Internal Combustion?

At the moment I’m teaching my son to drive in my Electric Car. Like my daughter before him it’s his first driving experience. Recently, he has started to drive his grandfathers pollution generator, which has a manual transmission. So I was trying to explain why the clutch is needed, and it occurred to me just how stupid internal combustion engines are.

Dad: So if you dump the clutch too early the engine stops.
Son: Why?
Dad: Well, a petrol engine needs a certain amount of energy to keep it running, for like compression for the next cycle. If you put too big a load on the engine, it doesn’t have enough power to move the car and keep the engine running.
Dad: Oh yeah and that involves a complex clutch that can be burnt out if you don’t use it right. Or an automatic transmission that requires a complex cooling system and means you use even more (irreplaceable) fossil fuel as it’s less efficient.
Dad: Oh, and petrol motors only work well in a very narrow range of RPM so we need complex gearboxes.
Dad thinks to himself: WTF internal combustion?

Electric motors aren’t like that. Mine works better at 0 RPM (more torque), not worse. When the car stops my electric motor stops. It’s got one moving part and one gear ratio. Why on earth would you keep using irreplaceable fossil fuels when stopped at the traffic lights? It just doesn’t make sense.

The reason of course is energy density. We need to store a couple of hundred km worth of energy in a reasonable amount of weight. Petrol has about 44 MJ/kg. Let see, one of my Lithium cells weighs 3.3kg, and is rated at 100AH at 3.2V. So thats (100AH)(3600 seconds/H)(3.2V)/(3kg)=0.386MJ/kg or about 100 times worse than petrol. However that’s not the whole story, an EV is about 85% efficient in converting that energy into movement while a dinosaur juice combuster is only about 15% efficient.

Anyhoo it’s now possible to make EVs with 500 km range (hello Tesla) so energy density has been nailed. The rest is a business problem, like establishing a market for smart phones. We’re quite good at solving business problems, as someone tends to get rich.

I mean, if we can make billions of internal combustion engines with 1000’s of moving parts, cooling systems, gearboxes, anti-pollution, fuel injection, engine management, controlled detonation of an explosive (they also make napalm out of petrol) and countless other ancillary systems I am sure human kind can make a usable battery!

Internal combustion is just a bad hack.

History is going to judge us as very stupid. We are chewing through every last drop of fossil fuel to keep driving to and from homes in the suburbs that we can’t afford, to buy stuff we don’t need, making plastic for gadgets we throw away, and flying 1000’s of km to exotic locations for holidays, and overheating the planet using our grandchildren’s legacy of hydrocarbons that took 75 million years to form.

Oh that’s right. It’s for the economy.

Degrowth Economy

Just read this article: Life in a de-growth economy and why you might actually enjoy it.

I like the idea of a steady state economy. Simple maths shows how stupid endless growth is. And yet our politicians cling to it. We will get a steady state, energy neutral economy one day. It’s just a question of if we are forced, or if it’s managed.

Some thoughts on the article above:

  • I don’t agree that steady state implies localisation. Trade and specialisation and wonderful inventions. It’s more efficient if I write your speech coding software than you working it out. It’s for more efficient for a farmer to grow food than me messing about in my back yard. What is missing is a fossil fuel free means of transport to sustain trade and transportation of goods from where they are efficiently produced to where they are consumed.
  • Likewise local food production like they do in Cuba. Better to grow lots of food on a Cuban farm, they just lack an efficient way to transport it.
  • I have some problems with “organic” food production in the backyard, or my neighbours backyard. To me it’s paying more for chemically identical food to what I buy in the supermarket. Modern, scientific, food production has it’s issues, but these can be solved by science. On a small scale, sure, gardening is fun, and it would be great to meet people in communal gardens. However it’s no way to feed a hungry world.
  • Likewise this articles vision of us repairing/recycling clothing. New is still fine, as long as it’s resource-neutral, e.g. cotton manufactured into jeans using solar powered factories, and transported to my shopping mall in an electric vehicle. Or synthetic fibres from bio-fuels or GM bacteria.
  • Software costs zero to upgrade but can improve our standard of living. So there can be “growth” in some sense at no expense in resources. You can use my speech codec and conserve resources (energy for transmission and radio spectrum). I can send you that software over the Internet, so we don’t need an aircraft to ship you a black box or even a CD.

I live by some anti-growth, anti-consumer principles. I drive an electric car that is a based on a 25 year old recycled petrol car chassis. I don’t have a fossil fuel intensive commute. I use my bike more than my car.

I work part time from home mainly on volunteer work. My work is developing software that I can give away to help people. This software (for telecommunications) will in turn remove the need for expensive radio hardware, save power, and yet improve telecommunications.

I live inexpensively compared to my peers who are paying large mortgages due to the arbitrarily high price of land here, and other costs I have managed to avoid or simply say no to. No great luck or financial acumen at work here, although my parents taught me the useful habit of spending less than I earn. I’m not a very good consumer!

I don’t aspire to a larger home in a nice area or more gadgets. That would just mean more house work and maintenance and expense and less time on helping people with my work. In fact I aspire to a smaller home, and less gadgets (I keep throwing stuff out). I am renting at the moment as the real estate prices here are spiralling upwards and I don’t want to play that game. Renting will allow me to down-shift even further when my children are a little older. I have no debt, and no real desire to make more money, a living wage is fine. Although I do have investments and savings which I like tracking on spreadsheets.

I am typing this on a laptop made in 2008. I bought a second, identical one a few years later for $300 and swap parts between them so I always have a back up.

I do however burn a lot of fossil fuel in air travel. My home uses 11 kWhr/day of electricity, which, considering this includes my electric car and hence all my “fuel” costs, is not bad.

More

In the past I have written about why I think economic growth is evil. There is a lot of great information on this topic such as this physics based argument on why we will cook (literally!) in a few hundred years if we keep increasing energy use. The Albert Bartlett lectures on exponential growth are also awesome.