Author Archives: amosbatto

Am I willing to pay the price to support ethical hardware?

There are a number of pernicious trends in the tech industry that need to be opposed. Over the last decade there has been a massive shift toward planned obsolescence, ever since Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007 and the Macbook Air in January 2008 with sealed cases, non-replaceable batteries, RAM and SSD soldered on the motherboard and a lack of expansion slots.

Apple’s designs have been widely copied by the consumer electronics industry, so that it has become much harder to fix and upgrade electronics. Most ultrabooks, Chromebooks and 2-in-1 convertibles being sold today have copied Apple’s Macbook and no longer have replaceable batteries. Even brands such as Lenovo’s Thinkpad and Dell’s Latitude which are marketed for their fixability and ease of maintenance are now offering models such as the Thinkpad T470s and Latitude E5450 without removable batteries. Continue reading

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Questions about how to reform the electronics industry

A friend of mine asked me why I wrote a recent post about how capitalism has failed to produce a smartphone that I want to buy. Don’t I know that a socialist economy would produce far worse phones, so why am I complaining? Consumer electronics wasn’t exactly a strong point of the Soviet block countries or Maoist China.

I don’t want to live under pure socialism or pure Capitalism because they both lead to too much concentration of power in too few hands. Both are lovely in theory but both lead to dystopias in the real world, especially when practiced in their extremes. However, the vast majority of the world lives in a mixed economy. The real question in almost every society is what areas of the economy should be socialized and what areas should be run by private enterprise which are subject to governmental regulation and what should be the degree of that regulation.
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The wonder of the free market of smartphones

1.5 billion smartphones are manufactured every year and they come from a 1000 different brands of phones. You would think that it would be easy to find a phone that fits my needs with so many options. Everyone keeps telling me that Capitalism gives me choice, so I’m ready to enjoy the wonders of the free market. Let’s be good consumers and go shopping for my new phone.

Here are my criteria for a new phone:
1. The phone must have a removable battery, so that I can replace it after two years when it can no longer hold a decent charge. My previous phone lasted me 4 years, and I would like to match that same longevity again. Unfortunately, that requirement cuts out 90% of all current phone models and every high end model introduced in 2017. See: https://www.productchart.com/smartphones/sets/3

2. The phone must have an external memory card slot, since I don’t want to throw it away once the internal memory fills up. That cuts out phones from Apple, Google and OnePlus, plus high-end Xiaomi models. You couldn’t pay me to use Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Pixel, but OnePlus phones do look nice, except for their planned obsolescence.

3. The phone maker must have a policy of allowing users to unlock the bootloader, since I want to be able to install my own operating system that doesn’t collect my personal information and send it to some company’s database. I hate sharing all my data with Google, and I hate using an operating system whose raison d’etre is to spy on me. Maybe some people like giving Google their data for targeted advertising which allows the company to earn $22 billion from Android every year, but I don’t.

Besides I happen to believe in free and open source software, so I don’t want all that proprietary garbage and spyware installed on my phone by Google and the phone manufacturer. Only phones from Motorola, HTC and Google’s discontinued Nexus line allow the user to unlock the bootloader. Of course, there are cracks to unlock the bootloader in some models, but I don’t want to support companies that make a policy of not respecting user freedom.

4. The phone must run Lineage OS, which is the open source core of Android without Google’s spyware and a some handy modifications. It is maintained by a passionate community of volunteers, rather than a company driven by the profit motive. There are only a couple dozen new models that work perfectly with Lineage OS, but many other models work to some degree with a few problems and missing features. Most phones that don’t have a Qualcomm Snapdragon or a recent Samsung Exynos processor are automatically eliminated, so no phones with processors designed by Huawei, MediaTek, Spreadtrum or Apple.

5. It must have a decent camera.

6. It must have a decent processor, so a Snapdragon 625 or better or a similar Exynos processor.

7. It must be relatively sturdy, so it can’t have a back panel made of glass like the iPhone X or the HTC U11; nor can it have a screen that isn’t protected by a bezel, so no Samsung Galaxy Edge. I don’t buy phones to make a fashion statement.

8. It must have a 5.5 inch or larger screen, since I use my phone to read the news while I’m on the bus.

9. At least 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage.

Is it possible to find a single current phone model which meet all these criteria? No.

OK, let’s get rid of the requirement that the manufacturer must have a policy of allowing users to unlock the bootloader. If I can find a crack, I can get around the manufacturer’s asinine policy of not letting me choose my own operating system. Any phones? Nope.

OK, Let’s get rid of the requirement that it needs to have a processor that is at least a Snapdragon 625 or better. Any phones?

Wow, I found one–the Samsung On8 with an Exynos 7580 Octa processor, which is roughly equivalent to the Snapdragon 617. The processor has 8 Cortex-A53 cores, which are optimized for low power, but their performance is also low. Usually these cores are paired with Cortex-A73 cores which have better performance, but the 7580 only has low performance cores and its graphics processor isn’t that great either. Honestly, I’m not that particular and I can live with a processor which isn’t that fast since the only time I will really notice it is when I’m trying to scroll through large PDFs. The camera isn’t great, but it is acceptable for my undiscerning eye. It doesn’t have fast charging or USB Type-C, but I can live without those conveniences. Lineage OS can be installed, but VoLTE doesn’t work and the camera doesn’t work in certain conditions. The camera not working reliably is the last straw for me. No, I can’t live with the Galaxy On8, so let’s keep looking.

OK, let’s get rid of the requirement that the phone be a current model. Any past phone models I can use?

Hooray! I found a couple of good ones: LG V10, LG V20, LG G5 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

There is not a single phone from HTC or Motorola, which are the two companies that I want to support for allowing users to unlock the bootloader, so I can’t reward them for respecting my freedom. Oh well, let’s forget about using my buying power to make a statement.

The Galaxy Note 4 is ancient and Lineage OS causes its camera to randomly crash and its microphone doesn’t work in headphones. Let’s scratch that one off the list.

The LG G5 is good, but the V20 is far better and it is very rugged so it won’t easily break. The reviews say that it feels like carrying around a brick, but I can live with that. Hey, it costs a third of the price of the new iPhone X. OK, let’s buy it!

Too bad I can’t buy the V20 where I live. Oh well, I will have to wait 10 months till my next trip to the US to get it.

Please, tell me again about the wonders of Capitalism. Please lecture me about all the benefits of the free market and how it is the perfect system that responds to the consumer’s desires and gives us so many choices in life.

What I see is an industry where every phone manufacturer is incentivized to produce phones based on planned obsolescence and restricting user freedom. In the name of generating profits, the software is designed to spy on us and collect our data in order to colonize our minds with advertising that convinces us that we can only be happy in life if we consume more and more.

Of course, little brother (Google) has all this data about us which he then shares with big brother (the NSA), so we have to fear that we are always being watched. Of course, we tell ourselves that it doesn’t really matter if the government knows everything about us, but we still have to wonder from time to time whether it is safe to exercise our political right to dissent. We still have to worry that maybe we should not express too loudly our disgust with the current system. It is safer to keep hidden our distant hope that we might see one day see this callous system overthrown.

Gee, why can’t I just be one of the mindless sheep that just wants the latest shiny gizmo from that fruit company? Why don’t my consumptive desires lead me to a techno wonder from a company whose logo comes in a splash of oblong blue or an infinitely large number? Clearly, my desire to not throw away my communication device every 2 years and consume again and again must place me beyond the pale of normal society. Clearly, I must be some kind of deviant if I don’t want to be spied on and my data monetized. Clearly, there must be no demand in the market for a device that I control, rather than one that controls me.

Clearly, I need to be reeducated, because I’m not buying any of the wonderful devices that all those Capitalist companies want to sell me.

The planned obsolescence of smartphones

LG was the last major smartphone manufacturer to include replaceable batteries in its flagship phones, but it just joined the rest of the industry in pushing planned obsolescence when it recently released its G6 and V30 without replaceable batteries. Most people don’t buy the overpriced flagship phones, since they cost between $550 and $1150, but they are the reference where the industry is heading, since the features found in these phones will be commonplace in mid-priced phones in a couple years. Based on this year’s crop of flagships, we can expect most smartphones to have dual lens rear cameras, 9:18 OLED screens over 5.7 inches, bezel-less fronts with no physical buttons, glass backs, metal edge frames, and waterproof cases which enclose a non-replaceable battery.

A lithium ion battery lasts roughly 500 full charge and discharge cycles, before its capacity to hold a charge starts to noticeably degrade. If charged and discharged 100% every day, a cell phone’s battery will only last 1.3 years before it needs to be replaced. What degrades a battery is being kept at the extremes of 100% charge or discharge and being exposed to too much heat, which often happens when fast charging. A battery which is always kept between 80% and 20% of its full charge will last for 3000 recharge cycles or 6 times as long. Most people don’t charge and discharge their batteries 100% every day, but they do it enough so most phones batteries generally last around 2 years before the battery needs to be replaced because its ability to hold a charge starts to be significantly degraded. In other words, every high-end phone on the market today now has a life expectancy of roughly 2 years.
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Reflections on building my own solar panels

Over the last decade solar energy has gone from the hobby of oddball engineers and rich eccentrics to a viable way of generating energy for millions of people. Unfortunately, I live in Bolivia, a country where almost nobody uses solar electricity and it is difficult and expensive to import solar panels. Out of curiosity, I wondered whether I could get solar energy by building my own solar panels. I spent a couple weeks investigating how to make my own solar panels online and I would like to share what I found with anyone else who is thinking of building do-it-yourself (DIY) panels.

The idea of being able to generate my own carbon-free energy is very enticing. I live in a country where solar energy only comprises 0.25% of the national grid’s electrical capacity and bad public policy is currently deepening the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Perhaps my desire to build a solar panel are born out of my sense of frustration at the powerless I feel to change the dirty development and environmentally-destructive policies being promulgated by the Bolivian government. I feel like I have to do something, however small it may be, to resist the relentless march toward the destruction of the planet and humanity’s role in that destruction. In this context, the idea of being able to build my own solar panels and participate in the democratization of energy is very empowering. Continue reading

The ecological challenges of Tesla’s Gigafactory and the Model 3

Many electric car advocates are heralding the advent of Tesla’s enormous battery factory, known as the “Gigafactory,” and its new Model 3 electric sedan as great advances for the environment.  What they are overlooking are the large quantities of energy and resources that are consumed in lithium-ion battery manufacturing and how these quantities might increase in the future as the production of electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage ramps up.

Most of the credible life cycle assessment (LCA) studies for different lithium-ion chemistries find large greenhouse gas emissions per kWh of battery. Here are the CO2-eq emissions per kWh with the battery chemistry listed in parentheses:
Hao et al. (2017): 110 kg (LFP), 104 kg (NMC), 97 kg (LMO)
Ellingsen et al. (2014): 170 kg (NMC)
Dunn et al. (2012): 40 kg (LMO)
Majeau-Bettez et al. (2011): 200 kg (NMC), 240 kg (LFP)
Ou et al (2010): 290 kg (NMC)
Zackrisson et al (2010): 440 kg (LFP)

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Bolivia invierte menos en energía renovable que otros países sudamericanos

Bolivia ha invertido menos en las energías renovables que los otros países sudamericanos en la última década, a pesar de que el articulo 379 de la constitución boliviana especifica que “el Estado desarrollará y promoverá la investigación y el uso de nuevas formas de producción de energías alternativas, compatibles con la conservación del ambiente.”

La gran mayoría de la electricidad de Bolivia viene de la quema de gas natural en termoeléctricas y este porcentaje ha crecido rápidamente durante la administración del MAS. La capacidad de las termoeléctricas bolivianas ha crecido de 958.39 megavatios al final del año 2006 a aproximadamente 1999 megavatios al final del 2016 (todavía no tenemos datos oficiales del Ministerio de Energía para el año pasado).  La administración del MAS sólo ha agregado 13 MW de energía solar, 27 MW de energía eólica,  60 MW de bioenergía y 12 MW de energía hidroeléctrica en la última década. En total, 112 MW de energía renovable fueron agradados en comparación a 1040 MW de energía sucia de combustibles fósiles. Continue reading