A Multi-Scale Problem, In Your Living Room

The previous post, on the topic of how to wrap your head around a multi-scale problem, provides a general framework for conceiving of a problem on multiple scales, ranging from the individual button press to global policy. A convenient example of a multi-scale problem which is in nearly every living room is the cable box.


It seems innocuous enough, the cable, satellite, or telecom company rents it to you and it makes the telly gets a crisp HD signal. Sure it complicates the remote situation, and it adds a few bucks to the cable bill and the electric bill every month … wait, how much does it tack on to the electric bill? About 25-50W, continuously, 8760 hours a year, which adds up to about 200kWh/year, or at my rate of about 10c/kWh I pay about $2/month for the cable box electricity consumption (that’s a slightly more stinging $24/year, per box). Two of them consume as much electricity as the fridge! (which consumes an average of 415kWh/yr, or $45.65). And all it’s doing is … a lot.

What the cable box is not so silently doing

If it’s a DVR, it has a hard drive in it, which you can often hear spin up and hack away while recording, or at conveniently quiet times to defragment or update the guide. That uses energy. It also has a nice little clock, and a few LEDs to tell you it’s on or (still on but pretending to be) off. It never really turns off, and most don’t even throttle back a significant amount. The reasons it stays powered up all the time is that it has a lot of communicating to do, and people expect near instant action when they turn the TV and the box on.

It has to stay in contact with the cable office or satellite, and keep the channel and program listing synced up. It has to record when you want it to record (and therefore it needs to keep the hard drive defragmented (if you haven’t defragmented your computer’s drive lately, you should do that soon). It may have to do other things too—like get real time messages from upstream—some can be controlled from the web or from a smartphone application, or offer other features.

Why does it use so much electricity?

The quick answer is the most telling quote in the article: “Nobody asked us to use less.” Now, engineers shave grams off bike frames and milliwatts off the draw of cell phones, but without external pressure on multiple levels—from the government (105), on the corporation (103), to the boss (102), to the engineers (101) things won’t be prioritized. A cable box has to offer at least acceptable ergonomics, high reliability, and *instant performance*. People expect it to start instantly—and certainly not take an hour to update. If you’ve ever plugged in a factory fresh one, it can take up to an hour to set itself up—not exactly useful.

The system itself operates at multiple levels, which is why it has to stay booted (sort-of). The cable box (100) has to communicate with the local network (103), and possibly with a higher level network (104) or satellite network (106). That’s a little more complexity than just picking up the carrier wave from the local network affiliate and demodulating the Indian Head.

What to do

The engineers at Motorola or Cisco or Samsung (large manufacturers of set-top boxes all) need to work with the network designers to design more efficient ways to get the data to the box so that it doesn’t need to download so much data to get itself ready to go, and can power up and down as needed, such as waking on external signal or having a higher data rate to get its work done faster before powering back down. And of course better electronics can help to some degree.

One partial solution is to get rid of the cable box, and make the television smarter—modern TVs already have some equipment that’s always powered on—the remote receiver, possibly some other functionality—1..5W worth of something, which isn’t inconsequential when summed over the whole of the US. This would require a better solution than the failed CableCard, but something modular like that would be a start, eliminating a separate remote and batteries, power supply, cabling, box, and some circuitry.

There’s a behavioral component here as well—can you train users to expect a few second delay between button press and when the picture appears? That’s a fundamental human factors issue, fortunately people can put up with a few seconds of delay, although now being accustomed to instant action makes it harder to go to a less ‘perfect’ model of operation. The other part of the human dimension of this problem is that due to the delay in and diffuse nature of the feedback on power consumption (you get a single number at the end of a month), unless you read the Times or use an electric meter to figure out the STB is unobtrusively drawing a constant 25-50W, and then put that into context—and then get riled up enough to petition the government for redress.

Fortunately the EPA is extending the Energy Star guidelines to cover the set-top box, but that will take some time to come into force—and as consumers have almost no say over which box they get, the cable utility providers may not opt for newer higher efficiency units—it’s not their cost, so they don’t care other than wanting to be good corporate citizens.

What can you do, now?

You can try to see what happens if you power off the cable box with a power strip physical switch—some may resume quickly, some may take an hour. There’s going to be a lot of variability. And you can petition the government… or get rid of your cable/satellite service and read more books!

A Follow Up


Their estimate of 25 billion kWh of annual consumption, is incredible, especially if that results in 9 power plants worth of draw.   I’ve heard the figure bandied around of 5 power plants powering all of the devices which aren’t doing anything useful (like the charger not charging your cell-phone).  If it really is fourteen (14) power plants powering things which aren’t doing useful work, there’s a huge problem, and opportunity for electronics design and user education.

“There would have been no survivors (1)”—the folly of Inverted Quarantine (and a rationale for the use of persuasive technology)

You see the faded yellow and black Fallout Shelter signs in older buildings all the time—harking back to an era where destruction by the Red Menace was only a few hours away. The bad news was that cowering in the basement wasn’t going to help much, building a shelter in your basement or backyard wasn’t going to be much better, and even the hardened redoubts the government constructed were a waste of taxpayer dollars, as there wouldn’t be much of a world left to emerge from your bunker to. Fortunately, heads were cool enough even in the hottest moments, the posturing of Mutual Assured Destruction (which effective civil defense protections would have in theory defeated) kept the balance of fear between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and prevented any major action, and accidents didn’t kill us all (although there were several disturbing close calls, thank you Stanislav Petrov).

Taking this out of the metaphors, the environmental situation we are in is somewhat analogous. You can buy organic food, drink bottled water (which substitutes compounds leached from the plastic bottles for materials from the pipes), and buy an air filter for your bedroom. The improvement in your life quality comes at the expense of the total well-being of humanity (which decreases your life quality)—so it doesn’t really work out. To reverse WOPR’s famous statement from War Games, the only winning move is to play.

So if the historical record of protecting ourselves from threats is rather poor—people who can move to the suburbs and exurbs do, leaving the ‘dangerous classes’ to occupy the cities (a semi-successful example of inverted quarantine), and people freak out about nuclear war and for the most part do nothing but buy a bunch of ominous looking signs, what to do?

For most people, most of the time, environmental concerns are not the primary issue in their minds. People want their clothes clean, their house warm, to get to work on time. They are more concerned about the electric bill due on the 1st of the month and what they’re going to be doing Friday night to worry about the collapse of the Bluefin tuna population. They also want the future to be there (which is generally assumed as there has never been a true existential crisis for humanity). Of course, the amount an individual of family weights environmental issues versus other factors is dependent on their means, their education, and life circumstances.

With the exception of the Millenialists who are actively trying to end the world to the left of the graph and the most strident environmentalists to the far right of the graph, ‘normal people’ are presumably normally distributed in their behavior. So, if most people don’t care enough to substantially reduce impact, beyond buying Method Soap (which I recommend) or organic apples—how are we going to avoid the Collapse Jared Diamond predicts in his book of the same title (which we’re on the way to realizing while everyone is blithely ignoring the fact that the sky is falling)?

From this, either people can be motivated to care, and then be given the tools to do something about it, which is difficult to effect; or behaviors can change without conscious thought—which may be an easier route. A large proportion of the people in America don’t believe that the environmental quality is an issue to worry about, what can be done to change behavior without changing their beliefs first?

Persuasive technology applied to the design of public-facing systems can lower the barrier to action (see BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model)—it doesn’t remove the requirement for motivation, but designing to encourage specific outcomes (e.g. choosing cold water for washing clothes, requiring action to activate the heated dry function on the dishwasher, or promoting fruit and vegetables through the design or packing of the refrigerator) may make changes occur without arousing resistance.

A group of thin slices can be just as big in aggregate as a large chunk, so is it really necessary to make everyone freak out and hope for change, instead of going for the things which can happen one at a time and now? It’s not so hard to make a lot of small changes in your life—cold water laundry wash, dialing back the air conditioning and heat a few degrees, taking a Navy Shower (really easy with the proper showerhead). So, there’s nothing wrong with small changes first – and making small behavior changes may cause subsequent, larger behavior and belief changes as a result. In the psychology literature it is documented that beliefs change as a result of behavior:

Cognitive dissonance describes a broad range of phenomena, where there is a disparity between actions and one’s beliefs related to those actions. People change their beliefs relative to their behavior: during the Korean War, UN POW’s were ‘mildly’ coerced into making pro-communist/pro-DPRK/pro-Chinese statements with offers of extra food, cigarettes, or clothing—and subsequently changed their beliefs to be congruent with the statements they had made. A landmark 1959 study by Festinger and Carlsmith found that subjects who were given only $1 (approximately $8 in 2011 dollars) as compensation for a terribly boring experiment changed their opinions of how unpleasant it was after lying to a fellow subject (actually a confederate), compared to other subjects paid $20 (approximately $150 in 2011 dollars) for lying about how boring it was. This effect can be exploited for environmental benefit, possibly changing the beliefs of recalcitrant populations. While it would be questionably ethical to ‘force’ people to make counter-attitudinal statements, people have no trouble cutting their bills. The Climate and Energy Project has been using patriotic and economic arguments to promote conscious behavior changes which reduce environmental impact, sidestepping the issues of whether climate change is anthropogenic or worth worrying about (it is entirely rational to want a lower electricity bill). Whether this puts a crack in the metaphorical dike remains to be seen—I doubt that changing to CFLs and turning down the thermostat will get people on the road to ecosocialist atheism, but it probably will put people on the path to other changes, as a result of the ‘foot in the door‘ phenomena, where acceding to a small request makes one more likely to acquiesce to a subsequent larger request. Freedman and Fraser’s 1966 study found startling results, as have subsequent experiments, including some related to sustainability: see Commitment and Energy Conservation, by Pallak, Cook, and Sullivan, 1980. Getting people to do something small is likely to reduce defenses to larger requests, so there is hope in the small changes.

see origin of the quote in the title: 5th Gear crash test at 120mi/hr closure

Stop, children … everybody look what’s going down.

Stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down”—For What It’s Worth: Buffalo Springfield

I saw this NY Times op-art piece and had to stop for a moment:


I admire the sentiment, but the execution is a little rough—The soda labels are good, and factually accurate, but the milk bottle is confusing and the bagged meal label makes no sense.

The soda bottles are clever, eye-catching, and say the right things. Drinking too much soda can lead to weight gain, diabetes, possibly tooth decay, and is generally not supposed to be a staple item.  The average American drinks 53 gallons of soda a year, mostly made with high-fructose corn syrup, or artificial non-nutritive sweeteners.  Irrespective of whether HFCS has a different metabolic path than sucrose (cane sugar), that’s still about 79,000 kilocalories a year to drink (that would be 565 12-floz cans of Coca-Cola classic).  Or in other terms, 20 lbs of fat, in energy terms.  Whether or not aspartame or sucralose have adverse health effects is a debate I’m not going to get into here.

The milk bottle doesn’t make sense to me: the label on the side says “organic” and there’s a big ‘no’ symbol on the big kid, so what do they mean? does it contain rBGH or not?

The bagged meal, is rather confusing as well: what do you mean by “this meal will not decompose for one year”?  Strange, but not really informative.  It sounds a little like the urban legend that Twinkies ® are intended for a 25 year life.  Apparently, they’re designed to last 25 days (see Twinkie, Deconstructed)

Information presentation is supposed to get a message across.  To that end, it has to be (A) the right message and (B) intelligible.  While the point of this is satire, injecting some levity into the recent announcement of more graphic labels on cigarette packages.  Those messages will have some effect, but I think the FDA could do well saying “this product is only available because the tobacco lobby bribed congress members” (appeal to moral revulsion)

For a very good discussion of moral revulsion and how your brain is cross wired, see here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/this-is-your-brain-on-metaphors/

Spelunking the Cell Phone

To determine the contents of a mobile, without the aid of a reverse-engineering company like iSuppli (student discount price for the report I need: 3200 USD), I did the dismantling myself.  The local Verizon store was nice enough to give me a few very dead phones, which I proceeded to dismantle and weighed the components to get a close enough estimate of what’s inside to do a fair LCA.

A mobile phone, especially a small one like a Motorola RAZR, is really an exercise in packaging design: how to cram in all the necessary circuitry, and as big a battery as possible, while keeping the form factor to something that reasonably pleases the management and doesn’t deviate too far from the designers intentions—although most phones seem to have been designed by committee (you know the joke), rather than by Naoto Fukasawa. 

Behold the ‘potato phone’ 


it’s pretty elegant and has this wonderful tactile-ness, the shape of the shell resembling the squared-off facets of a potato peeled with a knife.  Man, Naoto Fukasawa is cool.

Regardless, there’s a lot to cram in there.  I dismantled a Nokia candy-bar phone, rescued from the e-waste bin and here’s what it’s made of:


DSC_0801 plastic shell, looks like polycarbonate, ABS, and silicone or other synthetic rubber

 DSC_0811Keypad button pad, mainboard, joystick, and chassis: aluminum, printed circuit board, button switch covers are possibly softened PVC

DSC_0813 keypad: silicone and ABS or PC

DSC_0809 screen: glass, liquid crystal element, circuit board, aluminum and ABS chassisDSC_0810 reverse of display – with camera (mid-right)

DSC_0812  circuit board back side, with shielding: printed circuit board, gold printed circuitry, CCD camera, aluminum shielding, connectors, copper wiring

DSC_0800 Lithium-ion battery: lithium polymer chemistry electrolyte, steel canister cell shielding, ABS plastic shell, copper interconnects

DSC_0803 DSC_0807 Back shell: polycarbonate (it says so)

DSC_0805 screws: blackened mild steel


With all these materials, most of which are not easily recycled, the more than 1 billion cell phones in circulation make for a pretty hefty impact at end of life, and made a pretty large impact in their creation as well.

While the majority of the innards are electronics and battery, the impact can be reduced by designing for disassembly (which requires human labor input), and a change from the current mode of ‘recycling’ where the phone is shredded first then put through a materials recovery process, which mostly recovers the basic metals (recovery of exotic metals still is infeasible—the tantalum in your phone ends up as contaminants in the recovered metals.

Using recyclable materials instead of ones which degrade is a pretty basic choice: the aluminum and glass shell of the iPhone is eminently recyclable, as opposed to polycarbonate which cannot be recycled to the same polymer level—recycled PC (where it is recycled) usually ends up as a filler plastic for things like bumpers and packing materials.

Smartphone Ubicomp Device, Outlined

Environmental Impacts

  • Resource extraction

Exotic metals
Oil (plastics and energy)
Recycled materials, where possible
Virgin materials – especially in components are a real problem
  • Production

Subcomponent processing
Toxic materials use (BFRs, blowing agents, solvents)
Energy input
  • Transport

Diesel for the boats, trucks, and trains
Aviation fuel for air transport
  • Use

Energy use for charging
Toxic materials exposure
Replacement parts: battery, repair parts service
  • End Of Life

Developed nation reuse: ReCellular-type donation to needy individuals
Responsible recycling in developed nations for resource recovery
Transshipment to developing nations
Reuse as a mobile device
Resource recovery by backyard methods is highly hazardous, and often involves child labor 
  • Human Health impacts


Radiation has not been conclusively linked to carcinogenis, but studies are ongoing as to whether microwave radiation from mobile devices is a hazard. The Interphone study of 6000 individuals with brain cancer did not find any link, nor did a 420 000 person Danish study find any conclusive link.
As a marketing issue, radiation probably is not as large a concern as it was in the past, and as the radiation output is proportional to radio transmitter strength, the current emphasis on signal quality is likely to overrule concerns regarding radiation exposure.

Toxic Materials

Reducing the exposure to toxic materials by end users is an important design goal, and also a strong marketing position. Marker Ski Bindings slogan "where others use plastic, we use stainless steel" stands as a testament to the power of materiality. Making the shell out of metals and glass will reduce environmental impact at the end of life, extend the life of the product, and reduce toxic exposures. The additional embodied energy added in processing will be paid off in increased durability, and with the reduced need for internal components and fasteners, the burden will be similar or possibly reduced compared to conventional (2010) devices.

Reduction of toxic materials will improve worker health and safety as well, as their exposures to hazards will be reduced, and the risk of serious exposure will also decrease.

Reinvention – the Smart Ubicomp Device

The iPhone has shown the value of vertical integration of the device and the application services for it. Unfortunately, Apple’s MobileMe isn’t nearly as slick, and Microsoft’s ecosystem integration isn’t quite perfect, but synchronization with cloud data services and with your other computers really is the important part of the smartphone experience. I see the future being a hybrid-cloud model where there is local storage of data and cloud storage, and the smartphone is a bridge between the two. Sorry Google, the cloud isn’t perfect. Too many outages, too many places where there is no data connection (like on that transpacific flight …)


Videoconference (it’s coming, eventually)

Camera (still/video)

The book The Best Camera Is the One That’s With You makes the case for the iPhone as a primary camera. While the iPhone doesn’t have a flash, zoom lens, or particularly good optics, it is always there. Better cameras and noise suppression could make this even more viable substitute for a point-and-shoot.

Web access

It’s here. Mobile web will continue to improve, as will methods for navigating.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality is an up-and-coming thing at ITP, which means it’s going to be a big thing soon. Context awareness is going to be pretty amazing. Crazy games, real time advice, and even better navigation platforms.

Application Support

Applications ranging from a virtual float level to Word Mobile make it possible to work and play anywhere, and in terms of convergence, the smartphone is where it’s going to be.  The App Store really revolutionized the concept of the smartphone as part of a vertically-integrated ecosystem, with an easy mode of getting quality software.  While the high-handedness of Apple is a subject for endless debate, the concept of simple access really made the smartphone as application platform a reality for most people


Smartphones already do audio and video, better outputs can replace heavier equipment like DVD players. I’d be pretty stoked to dock my phone to a pico projector and project some HD video anywhere, or connect digitally to a home receiver. DLNA is almost there, but people haven’t really been using it yet. Unfortunately for me, my late-70’s receiver doesn’t receive 2.4Ghz signals…

Data collection

Data collection from mobile devices with sensors and wireless network access has the potential to make many systems and services better. The possibilities are really incredible in terms of benign surveillance (one would hope benign)—tracking the speed of traffic on the highway, to detect traffic jams before they really cause a blockage, or just tracking my cycling would be good applications, as would applications like Project NOAH – Networked Organisms and Habitats (an ITP project) which uses mobiles for citizen science and education.

Persuasive Technology Platform

Smartphones are an ideal persuasive technology platform, as they are always with us, and offer an enormous amount of sensing and communication ability. Mobile platforms for health promotion and sustainability will become more prevalent and powerful in the years to come, pushing the

The PEIR project (http://peir.cens.ucla.edu) uses mobile sensing to analyze travel patterns, and encourage healthy eating and lower impact travel options (e.g. take the train rather than driving).

Replacement of other devices

The power of smartphones and their omnipresence makes it possible to replace a group of other devices with one ‘convergence device’. It’s a camera, it’s a reader, it’s all in your pocket! (hence the former name PocketPC)

The kindle, iPad, and similar devices bridge the gap between a smartphone and notebook PC, but are still a bit to carry around all the time. Improved screens and applications could make it more pleasant to read on a smartphone screen. I for one use my smartphone to read the news, which eliminates a rather large amount of paper and shipping for newspapers and periodicals. The networked nature of electronic devices opens a new frontier of interaction, which can be exploited in ways I cannot conceive.

Political dimensions

Mandate for return of used devices to the manufacturer

As mobile devices are almost completely composed of ‘technical nutrients,’ a closed loop cycle should be the paradigm of the future. Currently, the system promotes replacement of devices when the contract rolls over (generally every two years), but there is no promotion of recycling. Policy should be changed to require the return of the current phone before receiving a new one, and a penalty should be assessed if a new device is purchased without trade-in, to cover the additional cost to the system of not having a device to recycle. An exception for first time purchasers could be instituted, as smartphones are a positive force in modern life for sustainability, by convergence and as a persuasion platform.

Separate manufacturers from service providers

In most countries, wireless service is independent of device purchase. This arrangement avoids subsidies for devices, and therefore expensive devices should turn over less frequently. If you have to buy a device for $600, you should want to keep it longer than if the purchase price were $200 + 2 year contract.

Networks which profit heavily from restrictive contracts could be reined in by policy changes: making it illegal to subsidize devices by entering into a contract would change the wireless provision structure, and carriers would then be forced to compete more aggressively on service and price. The telecom lobby is very strong, it should be more heavily regulated by the government in order to promote better service and a more sustainable product-service system

The first mover under the new regulatory regime, instituting a closed materials loop and reducing taxed bads will enjoy a great market advantage. Where Apple achieved enormous market penetration with the iPod by being the ‘first best product’, a device manufacturer (Apple or someone else) could do the same in the mobile space if there were a regulatory shift. A company like HTC, RIM, or Nokia whose largest segment is mobiles would have a serious incentive to revolutionize their practices (even beyond WEEE compliance), Apple, Samsung, LG, and Motorola would be under less pressure, as they have other business divisions.

To this end, the first mover can jump the pack by becoming a force for change—If, say, Nokia has the most sustainable products and a highly flexible OS platform, they can lobby to raise the minimum standards for mobiles in terms of sustainability, and pressure competitors to match in terms of aesthetics, features, price, and compliance, in a race to the top paradigm. While a six year life as opposed to a two year life would reduce revenue from sales, sale of applications, media, and OS upgrades (if the market would support pay-for-major upgrades), could sustain a business model.

Smartphone Ubicomp Device

The reinvented Smartphone Ubicomp Device is intended to last six years, rather than the current design standard of two, and avoids the use of plastics and toxic materials where possible.  As an element of a technical nutrients cycle, as much as possible is recyclable material—currently it is not possible to achieve 100% reclamation of materials, especially of plastics and small amounts of exotic materials.


Impacts quantified by sustainable minds for the i910 and the concept device:



    Individual Impact (%) Category Impact (%)
Ecological Damage Acidification 0.01  
  Ecotoxicity 49.89  
  Global Warming 0.21 50.15
  Ozone Depletion 0  
  Water Eutrophication 0.04  
Resource Depletion Fossil Fuel 0.01 0.01
Human Respiratory 0.02  
Human Health Damage Human Carcinogens 30.11 49.84
  Human Toxicity 19.7  
  Smog 0.01  

Mobile Phone Lifecycle Assessment: Samsung Omnia i910 (Verizon Wireless-USA)

Sustainable Minds LifeCycle Assessment

Sustainable Minds is a powerful tool to analyze the environmental impact of products.  Analyzing the Samsung Omnia i910 (Verizon Wireless, US Market-CDMA2000 radio) yielded relatively predictable results—this is a pretty toxic thing to make – and it is predicted that the average Westerner will go through 35 mobile phones in a lifetime (1).  For the record, I’m on my 4th phone.  I seem to keep them longer than the average 2 years.  Unfortunately this will yield a relatively high lifetime impact for me.

  1. Motorola StarTAC (2001-2004)  *the Nr. 6 gadget of all time!  super design!
  2. Motorola Timeport (2004-2006) – [actually 2002-2006, I was the second user of this device]
  3. Motorola E815 (2006-2009)
  4. Samsung Omnia i910 (2009-present)

The Sustainable Minds LCA quantifies the materials and energy inputs, and yields an analysis in the categories of ecological damage, resource depletion, and human health damage.  It’s not perfect, but it only costs a small fortune to use.

Analysis of the i910 yielded the following:




Individual Impact (%)

Category Impact (%)

Ecological Damage






Global Warming


Ozone Depletion


Water Eutrophication



Resource Depletion

Fossil Fuel



Human Health Damage

Human Respiratory



Human Carcinogens


Human Toxicity





From the Above, the major impact is ecotoxicity: 58.34% of the overall impact.  This is likely due to the materials and solvents used in semiconductor processing.  As many of these are carcinogens, the high human carcinogen and human toxicity impacts are accounted for.  Interestingly, the amount of fossil-based plastic, aluminum, steel, and copper in the device don’t rate for resource depletion, I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in the system, or the amounts are so small as to be relatively insignificant—and for the most part metals can be reclaimed in recycling.


Sourcemap is an MIT Media Lab project to develop an open source product-source mapping tool.  It’s still under development, and can’t handle multi-modal transport (e.g. container ship->truck), and it does not accurately calculate distances by following air routes or shipping lanes, but it’s a start, and it’s free for anyone to use!  Check out the map: www.sourcemap.org/object/samsung-omnia.