Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What matters to me, whats in my head, and this blog

Figure: My Wordle view (Click to enlarge)

I came across Wordle - a service that lets you create a word cloud from any text, highlighting those words that occur frequently. The above figure is generated from the text of this blog. The picture says it all!!!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tesla, EVs, and their mass adoption

Figure: Tesla Roadster, the sporty Electric Vehicle

The current Fortune has an article about the teething troubles of the Tesla Roadster, an electric vehicle (EV) being touted as an all-electric sports car (click here for more pictures). Apparently, more than a 1000 people, including some who-is-who s, have signed up to take delivery of the first fully electric sports car. The article states that excitement remains high, never mind that Tesla is having problems keeping the delivery date for most orders.

Tesla's website says that the Lithium ion cell powered vehicle can cover 220 miles per recharge. Now that is quite impressive, if you consider that according to the AAA an average American drives only 29 miles per day. As long as you are not driving cross-country the Tesla Roadster should almost replace your conventional sports car, almost because recharging the 6,831 Lithium ion cells on the Tesla Roadster takes 3.5 hours as compared to the 5 minutes of tanking-up the conventional Porche Boxster. The long recharge time is still not a deal breaker - if you can remember to charge your cell-phone every night then plugging in the car every evening shouldn't be that hard either.

The question is, will EV technology follow the conventional wisdom that early adopter products migrate down to the mass market? Does it make economic sense to buy such a car for the John Doe on the street, if not now, then 5 years into the future?

The Tesla motors website says that the operating cost for the Tesla Roadster is under 2 cents per mile. The operating cost for a comparable Porsche Boxster is about 20 cents per mile (calculated from this website, with gas at $4 per gallon)*.

Unfortunately, the Tesla Roadster 2009 edition costs about $109,000 while the Boxster costs less than half, about $50,000. Or, put another way, you will have to drive

(109000-50000)/(0.20-0.02) = 327,778 miles,

before the extra price of the Tesla Roadster can be justified!!!

Since Lithium ion batteries will not last 327K miles (neither will the rest of the car), I think that EV technology is not getting into the mass market anytime soon. Even if the price of gas triples, you will have to drive more than 100K miles in your EV before it saves you any money. And I haven't even factored in the lost opportunity of investing the $59,000 difference elsewhere.

So clearly the argument of saving on energy costs is meaningless if the EV is going to cost an arm and a leg. Question is, can EV manufacturers, or liberal government subsidies, narrow the price gap between EVs and gas-powered vehicles?

*assuming that the operating costs only cover energy costs

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Crude oil: how much do we have?

Figure 1: World proved crude oil reserves (Billion Barrels), click to enlarge

Its always good to see how much ice-cream still remains in the tub in the freezer. So I visualized the World's proved crude oil reserves (Figure 1) with data from the Energy Information Administration. The EIA provides a wonderful excel sheet with all this data, I just made the plot.

I like some things here:
  1. The discontinuities - sharp jumps - upwards.
  2. The fact that the world-wide proved crude oil reserves have more than doubled in about 3 decades.
  3. Most of this doubling happened in active oil producing regions (the optimist in me thinks that more prospecting in other under-studied regions may yield some more discontinuities, in the right direction, i.e., up).
  4. We seem to be pumping out less than we are discovering (thats why the aggregate proven reserves point upwards)

So, why are crude oil prices shooting through the roof if there is so much buried under us? These are some supply-side* reasons:
  1. Crude oil is harder to get because new reserves are geographically challenging.
  2. Sweet light crude is harder to find, and oil companies need to look at harder-to-extract and harder-to-refine heavy crude.
  3. There is not enough refining capacity.
  4. There is not enough investment in new oil fields.
  5. Some of the crude oil lies in politically unstable regions.
Still, we have a whole lot of crude oil left. My bet is that during my lifetime (next 4-5 decades) we will end up with more proved crude oil reserves than today due to new exploration finds, and also because demand will drop due to the World switching over to alternative fuels.

Amen to my optimism!

*For some demand-side analysis see this post.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Unlearning Google

Figure 2: Light tailed website usage (Click to enlarge)
Figure 1: Google vs. Non-Google properties in my Firefox history (Click to enlarge)

Google's Viacom fiasco is an ominous wake-up call for anyone who cares about his or her online privacy. Today Viacom, tomorrow some other company, another day a government, can arm-twist Google into giving away log data containing user names, IP addresses, keywords, watched content, mouse-clicks, email, and any other information that Google collects.

So far, Google has only used user data for directed marketing. At least it is only about wringing money out of people's thoughts and desires through the ad sense infrastructure. The problem is, the same data can be easily massaged into revealing political, ethical, racial, religious, sexual, and other personal leanings of a person. There may be money to be made out of this data as well, but more importantly, there is the real danger of misusing this information as a pretext for prosecution or blackmail.

Google publicly defends its privacy record. Unfortunately, user privacy is not the most important objective for a publicly traded company. It is shareholder value. And to create shareholder value, a company needs to survive. A determined government can easily make the survival of a company subject to compliance with the government's wish. Google says it "Does no evil". Trouble with this slogan is, who decides what "evil" is?

Another scary scenario can be built around theft of sensitive user data. The media reported that Google is handing over 4TB of You-tube log data to Viacom. Now 4TB is a substantial, but not a lot for future data storage technology: We may have 4TB USB pen drives within the next 5 years. What if one disgruntled employee smuggled this data out of Google and auctioned it off to blackmailers for a few hundred grand?

No easy answers here.

I can keep ranting about Google and privacy and all that, but I am writing this blog on Google property (Blogger)!!! My wife and I are avid Gmail and Orkut and Google Reader and Google search and Google news users. Are we toast? Or, can we wean ourselves from Google?

I parsed our Firefox history over a few weeks to figure out where we stand in terms of Google-to-non-Google websites visited in order to get an idea of our Google dependence. The results are not pretty. Google properties accounted for just over 50% of all the websites visited (Figure 1).

Fortunately, there are non-Google alternatives to all Google applications. So in theory we can start using other applications instead of Google. Off course, there is nothing to guarantee that other websites will not yield to the same pressures as Google. But at least we can spread our web footprint - one entity will not have a complete view of a our web presence as Google does today.

The Firefox history indicated that we visit a few websites often and the rest are rarely visited (Figure 2). The often-visited websites were the usual suspects - search, web-mail, social networking, blogs, and news - and Google dominated this space. This is a great sign because it shows that even though Google is big in terms of visits, it is not very heterogeneous in the content/services it offers. Google is not my bank, not my bookstore, not my voip provider, not my university, and not my community. In fact, if I remove the top-6 Google properties from the data then the distribution starts looking much more uniform. My web log data spread on heterogeneous websites. Doesn't this flavor of obfuscation help privacy?

There may still be hope for privacy on the Internet.