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The Download: Retrofitting cities, and Alexa mimics the dead

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The Download: Retrofitting cities, and Alexa mimics the dead


The scars and pockmarks of the aging apartments and housing units under the purview of the New York City Housing Authority don’t immediately communicate the idea of innovation. The largest landlord in the city, housing nearly 1 in 16 New Yorkers, NYCHA has seen its buildings literally crumble after decades of deferred maintenance and poor stewardship. All told, this forsaken subsidized housing is in the midst of what local planners have called “demolition by neglect.” It would require an estimated $40 billion or more, at least $180,000 per unit, to return the buildings to a state of good repair.

Years ago, there was evidence of innovation hidden inside these units—in the kitchens. By the late ’90s, NYCHA realized that the existing fridges in many units were hugely inefficient, aging, and costly to the agency. It held a successful contest for appliance manufacturers, asking them to create smaller, more efficient apartment-size units. The winner, Maytag, was awarded access to NYCHA and other housing authorities, and sold 150,000 units of its novel Magic Chef model, between 1995 and 2003.

Now NYCHA wants to do the same with heating and cooling. The Clean Heat for All Challenge is asking manufacturers to develop low-cost, easy-to-install heat-pump technologies for building retrofits. The stakes for the agency, the winning company, and for society itself could be huge—and good for the planet. 

After all, it’s far more sustainable to retrofit existing buildings than to tear them down and build new ones. Read the full story.

—Patrick Sisson

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Amazon wants Alexa to mimic the voices of your deceased loved ones
Yes, it sounds like a leaked Black Mirror script. (CNBC)
+ How your life’s data means a version of you could live forever. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Finland is sealing its spent nuclear fuel deep underground
It’s the first country to build a complete deep geological storage facility. (Economist $)
+ Zap Energy, a fusion startup, claims to have injected plasma into a reactor core. (NYT $)
+ Can the US’s solar panel industry bounce back? (Slate $)

3 Recession? What recession?
The economy is slowing, but if we do tip into recession, it may not be as bruising as previously believed. (New Yorker $)
+ Defining a recession isn’t already straightforward, but we’ll know once it’s here. (Bloomberg $)

4 Cash is dying
But while fewer people use it, it’s still a lifeline for vulnerable people. (NY Mag)
+ An elegy for cash: the technology we might never replace. (MIT Technology Review)
+ In praise of the dollar bill. (MIT Technology Review)

5 How a group dedicated to canceling missionaries got canceled
No White Saviors has been accused of similar misdeeds to the aid workers it targeted. (Input)
+ How the AI industry profits from catastrophe. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Mark Zuckerberg must not be allowed to rule the metaverse
And his current monopolies should be read as warning signs. (Time $)
+ Meta is no longer sponsoring the US’s anniversary commemorations. (WSJ $)
+ Facebook’s Oversight Board is pushing for greater transparency. (WP $)

7 Alibaba has set its sights on south Asia
Having conquered China, it’s looking to expand into pastures new. (FT $)

8 How Bored Apes eclipsed its crypto origins
And became a cultural movement in the process. (The Block)
+ Crypto game Axie Infinity could benefit from the Apes’ good fortune. (Rest of World)
+ At least GPU prices are dropping, at last. (Motherboard)

9 These tiny, robotic fish remove microplastics from the ocean
But we would need a LOT of them to make a difference. (The Guardian)

10 Disassociation music reflects the bleak state of our world right now
Fans are reveling in detaching themselves from reality. (Pitchfork)

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


What was the ruling?

The decision states that the EPA’s actions in a 2015 rule, which included caps on emissions from power plants, overstepped the agency’s authority.

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”

Only Congress has the power to make “a decision of such magnitude and consequence,” it continues. 

This decision is likely to have “broad implications,” says Deborah Sivas, an environmental law professor at Stanford University. The court is not only constraining what the EPA can do on climate policy going forward, she adds; this opinion “seems to be a major blow for agency deference,” meaning that other agencies could face limitations in the future as well.

The ruling, which is the latest in a string of bombshell cases from the court, fell largely along ideological lines. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, and he was joined by his fellow conservatives: Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

What is the decision all about?

The main question in the case was how much power the EPA should have to regulate carbon emissions and what it should be allowed to do to accomplish that job. That question was occcasioned by a 2015 EPA rule called the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Power Plan targeted greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, requiring each state to make a plan to cut emissions and submit it to the federal government.

Several states and private groups immediately challenged the Clean Power Plan when it was released, calling it an overreach on the part of the agency, and the Supreme Court put it on hold in 2016. After a repeal of the plan during Donald Trump’s presidency and some legal back-and-forth, a Washington, DC, district court ruled in January 2021 that the Clean Power Plan did fall within the EPA’s authority.

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How to track your period safely post-Roe

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How to track your period safely post-Roe


3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.

Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.

1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.

2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process

Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.” 

3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling. 

If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.

4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities. 

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation

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Composable enterprise spurs innovation


Overall, 74% of companies accelerated plans to move to the cloud by more than a year, jettisoning legacy technologies and operating models to embrace data and applications, according to business analysis firm ZK Research.

A key part of that transformation relied on using applications, usually in the cloud, that integrated apps and data with low-code functionality to create more efficient workflows, more quickly than ever. Low-code is a software development approach for building processes and functionality with little or no code, which allows non-software developers to create applications.

Companies that structure daily workflows around these so-called “composable applications”—often called composable enterprises—have a much tighter relationship between technology and business units and can quickly assemble new applications and services at a fraction of the historical cost.

Composable applications provide a way to build on or add to applications in an easy way—think of building blocks: the work has already been done and additional functionality can be added to the foundational ability.

That flexibility is necessary for the variability of the current workplace and economy, says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. “We’re moving to an era where in any given moment, you could have everyone in the office, no one in the office, or every reasonable combination in between,” Kerravala says. “You could have all your shoppers online, only a few, or—depending on your industry—no shoppers online and every possible combination between. The pandemic has created these dramatic shifts in the way we learn, the way we live, and the way we work, based on forces that are outside of anyone’s control.”

When it comes to cloud infrastructure, companies have often pursued half measures—adopting it in such a way as to reinforce old business models, creating private clouds that mimic their on-premises infrastructure. But composability gives enterprises the ability to adapt to changes in operations and in their markets by creating new applications to support needed workflows without hiring additional or outside software developers to implement the changes.

Composable cloud services further liberate companies from relying on running their own software instances solely to customize the code to their needs. Composable applications bring together cloud, customization, integration, and workflow management, allowing companies to be flexible and innovate quickly.

When businesses suffered pandemic disruptions to critical business functions—such as call centers, IT support, and medical administration—composable applications allowed firms to adapt and continue. In one case, a company needed to extend its call-center system, which was hosted in a controlled environment, to allow access to employees through web browsers running on an Amazon virtual machine, says David Lee, vice president of products at RingCentral, an enterprise communications platform that has focused on composability. “They had to make these changes work overnight at employees’ homes, and that was a great challenge for a lot of organizations,” Lee says. “Companies well-adapted to potential change actually made these transitions very easy by composing new applications and workflows.”

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