William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Rough Crossing" Ebook Released on Smashwords

Once upon a time, before I became a tech journalist, I published poetry and short stories. In many ways, I was a different person then. I had more time to stop and think and roil language about in my head like some dark brew. In those days, I thought I’d soon be cranking out books at Stephen King speed…and then life happened. So it goes.

But good dreams never really die, and with middle age here at last, I’ve committed to finding ways of bringing that old dream into my new life. That process starts today with the release of my first ebook, Rough Crossing. It’s a freshly polished collection of four dozen poems from my former self.

I confess, posting this feels awkward in the extreme. Poetry isn’t something we talk about much in the workaday world. There’s no budget or ROI involved, no quick and easy sensory gratification. You don’t just walk up to a colleague and say, “Hey, did you know I write haikus and prose poems?” without expecting to be treated like you’re a few bulbs short of a lit tree. But I do write poetry…or did in less demanding times…and some of them were pretty good.

So whether you enjoy poetry or you’re just curious about that guy who used to be me, I offer you Rough Crossing. It’ll be on Apple’s iBookstore soon, followed by Amazon’s Kindle store, but for now you can download it from Smashwords for free. I have many more ebooks planned for the weeks and months ahead (none of them poetry), and I’ll drop notes here about them when the time is right. Until then, if you’re inclined, please enjoy Rough Crossing and share it with anyone whom you feel might enjoy it, too.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Beware of Your Batteries

Sitting on a table in a corner of my office, there's a cardboard box literally overflowing with about 15 pounds of AA batteries, most of them alkaline cells. The box also contains a smattering of AAA, C, D, and 9V batteries, plus a few dead rechargeables thrown in for good measure. The box and its nearby satellites of battery-filled Ziploc baggies have been accumulating in my office for several years. Like you, I know that throwing out batteries is bad for the environment. As one AZoCleantech site notes, "batteries are made in the billions with around 180000 tonnes of batteries being discarded in the USA every year." My few pounds may be a drop in the bucket, but they're my drop -- my mess, my problem to clean up.

But how? The page referenced above notes that most single-use household batteries can't be recycled. I've heard from a couple of friends that Radio Shack is supposed to recycle batteries, but calls to two local stores proved otherwise. Lowe's, Office Depot, and BatteriesPlus are both supposed to accept rechargeable cells, but must of my collection is alkaline. 

I spoke with Brent Young, director of business development at E-Tech Recycling out in Hillsboro, OR. E-Tech does take alkaline batteries and just about any other type of e-waste -- for a price.

"Batteries are difficult to get rid of because they're universal waste and there's only so many places you can go with them," said Young. "There's a non-profit, Call2Recycle, and it's the only place where you can send your rechargeables for free."

E-Tech charges 60 to 90 cents per pound for recycling alkaline batteries. Lithium button cells will run $2.75 to $3.25 per pound. 
"Those little button cell batteries with the mercury in them, we don't want those buried in the dirt because they crack and leak," said Young. "Mercury is extremely poisonous, fluorescent tubes especially. If you break a flourescent tube in any place of business, it should be considered a hazardous material that requires a hazardous determination and a hazardous cleanup. Once it's cleaned up, inside a box, and taped up -- so the powder is no longer exposed to the air -- it goes back to being considered a universal waste. If I took 25 four-foot fluorescent tubes out into the middle of a 2-acre lake, broke them, and dumped them in the lake, nothing's gonna grow there for at least a decade. That's mercury."

Lithium-ion batteries also need to be handled carefully, with tape placed over each end. (The labor of removing this tape is part of why the cells cost more to recycle.) 

"Why don't we want those button cells touching each other? Because they heat up, short out, and can crack. Take five or six of them, stick 'em end to end, put 'em in your pocket, and see how long you can go. You'll be blown away by how hot they can get. When lithium shorts out, it starts burning. It feeds on air and water. You take a lithium fire, throw water on it, and whatever building you're in will be gone in about two hours."

PC enthusiast readers should remember the recent spate of lithium-ion battery recalls owing to some notable media coverage (see image above). In case you missed the connection with flammable lithium along the way, watch this little video clip. And not even I made the connection with lithium cells and the hazards caused by accidental ingestion. Check out this Consumer Reports video. That's not cool.

I originally looked into this topic when researching a story on e-waste handling in enterprises. But as with so many other tech issues, the problem eventually comes home. E-waste disposal is a serious problem, and these items absolutely shouldn't be going into our landfills. Contact your local recycler and find out where you safely dispose of your hazardous substances. Anticipate that when you buy technology, there will also be a disposal charge when you're done with it. Perhaps if we bore these costs (and the dangers behind them) in mind more often, we'd be less inclined to buy so much.

For more on toxic tech manufacturing and recycling, check out the later chapters in my ebook, Strange Horizons Retrospective, available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Stating the Obvious

This bit of brilliance arrives today courtesy of the AP: "Teens who text 120 times a day or more — and there seems to be a lot of them — are more likely to have had sex or used alcohol and drugs than kids who don't send as many messages, according to provocative new research."

So at a time when online communications are now a normal part of how teens interact, it's somehow surprising that kids who text less, indicating that they're less social, are less prone to be involved in socially risky behavior?

"The study found those who text at least 120 times a day are nearly three-and-a-half times more likely to have had sex than their peers who don't text that much." Yeah, probably because if you're texting that much you know three-and-a-half times as many people to potentially have sex with!

"Hyper-texters were also more likely to have been in a physical fight, binge drink, use illegal drugs or take medication without a prescription." When do they find time for these activities? I thought they were busy texting!

Be warned. The sending of kitty picture messages
could be an indicator of dangerous teen behavior.
This is where the AP story starts to fall apart in earnest: "The texters estimated they average 118 texts per day." So the difference between normal/average and having a 3.5X greater chance of engaging in teen sex is two texts? That's two extra LOLs or OMGs. Maybe we should do a study that correlates teen drug use with the use of smileys, because each of those ominous, round symbols can make up an entire message.

Now, if a teen has text-crazy parents, this could explain the correlation. "Gawd, my mom will not stop texting me! She drives me insane -- I need a beer!"

But we can't make this correlation because the study doesn't break down how much of that 120+ daily texting happened with parents. Or what the nature of the messages were. Or how many smileys they contained. The article sets up technology to be the Agent of Evil, even if the author explicitly tries to state the contrary. A less "provacative" approach might have been to say "More Social Teens Do More Social Things, Including Bad Social Things."

Do teens who text over 120 times each day also play more sports? Are they more involved in student government or other positive extracurricular activities? Do they score higher on standardized tests?

This article and many others like it look to plant fear in the minds of parents and turn them against the technology that could also be used to enrich their children and give them key social and academic advantages.  If parents are doing their jobs properly, their kids will already be behaving like normal, reasonably well-adjusted teens, with or without higher than average amounts of texting.