Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Unnecessary mobile phone e-waste: will Three Vodafone act?

– An open letter to Vodafone Hutchison Australia –

Dear Three,

Thank you for your recent offer of a mobile phone upgrade and 3 months free when I sign up for a 24 month plan. For a while there I was getting quite anxious:

Surely my current phone is older than two years? Why haven’t they offered me one of those new ones yet?

It turns out you are in-fact ‘generously’ ahead of time and my current phone is still under two years old, so silly me.

After some consideration, I do not need or want a new phone. However, I wouldn’t mind a new battery plus the 3 months free and no contract (okay, so I may be pushing it on the last one).

In reality this type of offer would increase Three’s profit. You don’t have to buy me a new phone, I keep spending, and the environment has slightly less toxic waste spilling around.

You could even use this to encourage better environmental practice and cut the enormous electronic waste burden that you and your customers are creating:

Don’t need a new phone? Make the environmental choice and get an eco-upgrade pack from Three.

An eco-upgrade may entail a new battery if the customer wants it (they do tend to die after two years), 3 months free on the new plan and a shorter contract of 12 months so you can tempt us again with new gadgetry in a years time.

Although MobileMuster is an excellent and necessary program, it is not doing enough to stem the tide of mobile phone e-waste. By their own numbers, in 2008/09 MobileMuster was only able to collect and recycle an amount equal to 8% of net mobile phone imports. The quickest, easiest and most profitable way to increase this number is to reduce imports by better servicing the customers and phones you already have in circulation.

I keenly await your response to this proposal.

Yours Sincerely,

Ryan McCarthy.

Purifying water with solar energy (pasteurisation and solar disinfection)

Back at University [in 2004] we did a project investigating water purification systems for developing countries. I have summarised some of the interesting sections that I worked on here…

It is estimated that over a quarter of the world’s population do not have access to clean drinking water(1). Even in water-rich countries contamination of drinking water supplies promotes the often easily preventable spread of waterborne diseases. Additionally, the communities affected are frequently unaware of the link between water quality, health and sanitation. The need is simple, but the solution is not necessarily as straight forward, with hundreds of researchers around the world working towards technically, culturally and socially appropriate methods of water purification.

Solar pasteurisation

Pasteurisation involves the purification of water by heating it to a certain temperature for a specific length of time. Contrary to what many people believe, it is not necessary to boil water to effectively purify it. Extensive research has found that heating water to 65ºC for 6 minutes, or to a higher temperature for a shorter time, will kill all germs, viruses, and parasites(2).

Even more surprising is the effectiveness of lower temperatures at making water safe to drink. Some research suggests that samples with a maximum temperature of only 55ºC became completely disinfected within 7 hours(3).

Solar disinfection (also called ‘SODIS’ or ‘Solar UV’)

Ultraviolet (UV) filters have been successfully used for many years in the developed world, however, their relative costly nature and need for a reliable electricity source has prevented a transition to use in developing countries. The doses of UV created in these filters are much higher than those produced by the sun, but the time spent in the filter is quite short. This fact led researchers to experiment with the prolonged exposure of water to the sun’s UV light as an effective method of purification.

The advantage of the technology is its simplicity as it only requires relatively inexpensive 1-2 litre clear plastic (PET) bottles, or something similar, to hold the water. Field testing of the technology has indicated its appropriateness to climates with average solar intensity of above 500W/m2 for 3-5 hours of the day. Testing in Haiti showed a 52% effectiveness for one day exposure and a 100% effectiveness for a two day exposure(4).

Combined solar thermal/solar disinfection

Interestingly, the treatment of water using solar disinfection is enhanced as water temperature increases. A group of researchers from the Nestle Product Technology Centre experimented with this idea using relatively cheap food packaging material to make two types of containers(5). The ‘pouches’ had a UV transmitting upper layer, with the back layers made from either metallised plastic to reflect light or from black plastic to increase temperature. The pouches were protected from the wind with small three-sided reflective boxes.

Although the experiments were conducted in October (going into winter) in Connecticut, Ohio, the samples showed positive results after six hours of exposure to sunlight. Their results indicated that light reflection (in the reflective packages) was more important than a modest temperature increase (in the packages with a black backing).


To experiment with some of the above ideas I constructed several ‘low tech’ solar water purifiers. Pasteurisation temperatures were reached relatively easily with simple flat plate and parabolic collectors (below left)… in fact I got up to 80 degrees fairly quickly! Other techniques using the combined method can be constructed using insulated reflective boxes with water containers inside (below right).

Parabolic trough solar water pasteuriser purifier insulated box drinking water purification UV plus pasteurisation

(1) Murcott, S, Clean water for 1.7 billion people?, Submission for ‘Development by Design’ Workshop, July 22, 2001.

(2) Ciochetti, D. A., Metcalf, R. H., Pasteurization of Naturally Contaminated Water with Solar Energy, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 47:223-228, 1984

(3) Joyce, T.M., McGuigan, M., Elmore-Megan, M., Conroy, R.M., Inactivation of fecal bacteria in drinking water by solar heating, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 62:399-402, 1996

(4) Oates, P.M., Shanahan, P., Polz, M.F., Solar disinfection (SODIS): simulation of solar radiation for global assessment and application for point-of-use water treatment in Haiti, Water Research, 37:42-54, 2003

(5) Walker, D.C., Len, S., Sheehan, B., Development and evaluation of a reflective solar disinfection pouch for treatment of drinking water, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 70:2545-2550, 2004

More meaningless statistics from the Sydney Morning Herald

Letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, SMH,, Ryan McCarthyUPDATE: My letter to the Herald on this topic was published today (27/04/2010, see left).

In this weekend’s Saturday edition the Herald has helpfully published a list of top ‘gun licence holding’ postcodes in Sydney and NSW. If these figures are to believed, they mean very little on their own, and are surely ranked incorrectly.

Firstly, they have refered to “postcodes” by suburb names. I have personally never seen this done, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or anyone else for that matter. Putting that aside, and presuming that the Sydney figures for ‘Pemulwuy’ refer to postcode 2145 then it should actually be ranked seventh in their list, not first. On the other hand, Hoxton Park (postcode 2171) should be ranked first for Sydney, where about 2% of people hold a gun licence. I hasten to add, the article didn’t mention the 2%, I had to work that out myself.

Additionally, the data is in a ‘raw’ format by postcode, which of course provides readers with no real analysis (as every postcode has a different population). A relatively quick and straightforward comparison of the gun licence data presented to census data by postcode brings out far more meaningful comparisons. For example, it shows that more than one in ten people in the Illawarra postcode of 2528 hold a gun licence.

Statistics presented in this way speak for themselves and do not confuse readers with arbitrary numbers-on-a-page (see re-ranked data below). This is all of course if the raw data presented by the Herald is actually correct in the first place (and I have my suspicions – do nearly one in every two people in Boat Harbour really have a gun licence?).

Another curiosity in the article is the ranking (in descending numerical order) for Sydney:

  • 8th – Bankstown – 493
  • 9th – Merrylands – 475
  • 10th – Seven Hills – 484

And for NSW:

  • 3rd – Ashmont – 2107
  • 4th – Goulburn – 2049
  • 5th – Dubbo – 2193

Hmm… good one. Note to whoever put the table together: 484 is larger than 475 and 2193 is larger than both 2049 and 2107.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t really a story about guns, just bad journalism. More often than not, what I hope will be an interesting article just ends up leaving me with far more questions than answers…

Top gun licence holding postcodes in NSW* (presented as a percentage of total population)

‘Postcode name’ Postcode Actual rank SMH rank For Percentage of ‘total persons’ with a gun licence
Boat Harbour 2316 1 8 NSW 40.2%
Warilla 2528 2 1 NSW 11.0%
Inverell 2360 3 9 NSW 9.7%
Goulburn 2580 4 4 NSW 7.8%
Broken Hill 2880 5 10 NSW 6.5%
Canobolas 2800 6 2 NSW 5.8%
Dubbo 2830 7 5 NSW 5.6%
Grafton 2460 8 6 NSW 5.5%
Queanbeyan 2620 9 7 NSW 4.3%
Ashmont 2650 10 3 NSW 4.0%

Top gun licence holding postcodes in Sydney* (presented as a percentage of total population)

‘Postcode name’ Postcode Actual rank SMH rank For Percentage of ‘total persons’ with a gun licence
Hoxton Park 2171 1 6 Sydney 2.3%
Punchbowl 2196 2 7 Sydney 1.7%
Prairiewood 2176 3 2 Sydney 1.7%
Merrylands 2160 4 9 Sydney 1.6%
Kellyville 2155 5 5 Sydney 1.5%
Seven Hills 2147 6 10 Sydney 1.4%
Permulwuy 2145 7 1 Sydney 1.4%
Bankstown 2200 8 8 Sydney 1.3%
Baulkham Hills 2153 9 4 Sydney 1.3%
Blacktown 2148 10 3 Sydney 1.2%

*Gun licence data presented is from the Sydney Morning Herald article (unfortunately I can’t find another source to confirm it). Population data is from the ABS Census Data (2006).

Earth Hour before and after photos

Back in 2007 I took some good quality before and after photos of the very first Earth Hour event in Sydney. Unlike other photos published that year (and since) by the news media, mine are a ‘truer’ representation of the before and after effect.

The before photo was actually taken several days before Earth Hour because I knew that most building managers would have already shut down most lighting prior to Earth Hour on the actual day. Also, I used the same settings for both photos so they don’t exaggerate or mis-represent what was actually achieved. On the other hand, photographers sitting around on the evening of Earth Hour taking ‘real time’ before and after photos didn’t get to see the full effect at all.

The photos were originally picked up by WWF off Adam Searle’s blog post. I was happy to release them to promote the cause, but was a little disappointed when I saw them re-printed in the Sydney Morning Herald Earth Hour supplement in 2008 and credited to some agency. I really hope they didn’t get sold on (I still haven’t had a response from WWF to clarify this).

Anyway, happy to see they are still being put to use… now featuring in the opening credits of this year’s official Earth Hour video (see below).

Earth Hour 2007 (Sydney) - Before

Earth Hour 2007 (Sydney) - After

If you would like to reproduce these photos to promote or discuss Earth Hour or related issues, please:

1. Contact me and get my permission first (unless you are going to make money off them I’m happy for the images to be used free of charge).

2. Download them from this site (high-resolution versions can be obtained by clicking above).

3. Include an acknowledgement such as ‘Copyright Ryan McCarthy’, ‘Photos by Ryan McCarthy’, a link to this website, or similar.

Thanks… and don’t forget Earth Hour this year: 8.30pm, Saturday 27th March, Worldwide!

Google Ads: profiting from their imposed ‘dead’ links

I have been a keen user of various Google products for many years, but it was only recently that I started fueling the ‘machine’ that drives the empire: Google Ads.

Google had revenues of around US$23.6 billion in calendar year 2009. That’s $23,600,000,000.00 in case you were wondering. It is not immediately clear from their financial statements, but well over 90% of Google revenues are derived from Google Ads (either directly through their own search results pages or through search/ad partners, etc).

Could this 23.6 billion dollar ‘machine’ have some faults? Of course it does, and I doubt even the engineers at Google would deny this. However, I have uncovered what I think is a serious flaw in their AdWords interface. It’s an issue of transparency and it leaves me with the following question rattling around in my mind:

what percentage of Google’s billions are being paid for by unassuming users via the ‘dead’ links imposed by their AdWords system?

To avoid the background story dragging on I will summarise here:

1. We (at Steplight) trialled Google AdWords last year and it worked fine. I did some further research (and even attended a free Google Ads ‘webinar’) and found out that quite specific ads with concise landing pages work best. So I suspended advertising and waited till our web content improved a little.

2. Re-activating Google Ads with some more concise landing pages in December our Google AdWords account started to tick over again (diligently auto-debiting our credit card every $100 or so).

3. Each time I set-up a new ad I performed a few basic checks, namely 1) clicking the ad in the AdWords interface to check it is going to the correct page on our website (first image below), and 2) entering a few search terms to check that it is coming up in search results (second image below). Of course I didn’t actually click that search result ad because I didn’t want to pay for a wasted click… after all, I had already checked the same ad in the AdWords interface.

4. Apart from the above basic checks I didn’t go into micro-analysing the results, as we were only spending relatively small amounts on the targeted AdWords. I had it set up so that our Analytics and AdWords accounts are linked, so all the data would still be there to analyse later.

5. When I did log in and look at our Analytics data I was surprised to find that the clicks from Ads didn’t seem to be showing up. It’s not just that they weren’t showing up as “Google (cpc)”… even the item “Google (organic)” or other referral sites did not list enough clicks as we were paying for. I did some research to make sure everything was set-up correctly, including having ‘auto-tagging’ enabled. Everything seemed fine.

6. Trying to delve further into the problem a week or so later I finally came across a Google Analytics help topic called ‘What is Destination URL Auto-tagging?‘. Remarked in this item, and not referenced anywhere in the Ads interface as far as I can tell, is an explanation of how to test links and the following note:

Note: Auto-tagging may not be appropriate for all websites. A small percentage of destination URLs do not accept additional URL parameters due to redirects or server settings. This can cause the “gclid” to be dropped or generate an error page.

7. Needless to say I performed the check on our website and auto-tagging did not work. I then went and did a Google search for one of our ads… actually clicked on it for the first time and discovered what possibly every person who has clicked on a Steplight Ad in the past two months will have seen (nothing – an error page):

8. I am certain this is not as uncommon as it may seem. Personally, I have clicked on a number of Ads in the past, gone to an error page, and thought to myself “They must be idiots at this company – they are paying for Google Ads which go to a dead link on their site!”. I now know they probably aren’t idiots – they may just be unwitting victims of a flaw in the Google Ads system.

9. I have now de-selected destination auto-tagging and our Ads are working fine.

My recommendations to Google

1. Re-fund the amount we spent on bogus Google Ads imposed by your recommended auto-tagging system between 6 Dec 2009 and 2 Feb 2010 ($243.18). You can contact me for account details.

2. Address this discrepancy in your system as a matter of urgency. I believe the simplest way to do this is for the demo Ad shown in the AdWords interface to include a test gclid tag (if the account has auto-tagging enabled). This way users can test their ad up-front in the user interface, see that it goes to a dead link, and click on a help icon placed next to the ad titled “Click here if your ad is not working as expected” or similar.

Why this is a blog post, not a private email to Google

I am not prone to making inflammatory claims, and it is not my intention to do so above. If the above is all correct, this is serious. Even if this affects 0.1% of Google Ads (just 1 in 1000) – that’s still US$23 million odd flowing out of the pockets of businesses to Google in 2009 alone.

I am keen to hear if others have had similar or related problems. Please contact me or post a comment below.

What is Destination URL Auto-tagging?

Business as usual on Climate Change

If you were after some facts in the recent frenzied coverage of the Copenhagen Summit, chances are you didn’t get many. I have compiled a very brief summary of Climate Change trends here, courtesy of my subscription to Vital Signs Online by the Worldwatch Institute.

I will refrain from inserting any doom-and-gloom commentary. But please, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and get familiar with the facts below. They speak for themselves.

1. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is almost 40% higher than it was

Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is now 385 parts per million (ppm). This continues the past decade’s trend of rising 1.9 ppm per year (on average). Pre-industrial levels were around 280ppm.

2. CO2 emissions per-person are dangerously high in many countries

Worldwide, per capita CO2 emissions now average around 4 tonnes. The average in Australia is over 25 tonnes per-person.

3. The sea level has already risen about 20cm

Over the course of the twentieth century, mean sea level rose on average 1.7 millimeters (mm) per year; since 2003 this has accelerated, rising 2.5 mm a year.

Some other snippets from the Worldwatch report:

Even if emissions slow, their tendency to raise temperatures lasts long into the future. CO2 concentrations are expected to rise for decades after emissions peak, and temperatures could continue going up for centuries, depending on when emissions stabilize.

On sea level rise:

These processes are much slower than the increase of atmospheric temperatures, meaning that sea level rise could continue for millennia beyond peak emissions.

A few years ago the MIT Technology Review published the chart below which shows the relationship between atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentration, temperature and sea level (over the past 400,000 years). This is useful background information to the updated statistics presented above…


Climate Change Proceeds Down Worrisome Path, John Mulrow, Worldwatch, 3 December 2009.

CO2 and the “Ornery Climate Beast,” David Talbot, MIT Technology Review, July/August 2006.

Where is the sun? (sun path diagram, solar iPhone apps, and more)

Ever wondered how to calculate the exact position of the sun at a given date and time? Not something everyone worries about – but maybe you’ve thought about how to best shade an overheated room… or where to install solar panels on your roof for the best outcome.

As you have probably gathered, this is actually quite tricky to work out! I’ve been asked this question a few times so I thought I’d post the options I know of here.

1. Use a Sun-path Diagram

The easiest way that I can think of is to use a sunpath diagram. This will tell you where the sun will be on any given date and time for a given locality. A sunpath diagram for Sydney, Australia (latitude of about 33 degrees South, longitude about 151 degrees East)  is shown below (click to enlarge).

How to read it for 5pm on the 1st January (as an example):

Follow the solid line for the 1st January up from bottom left of the chart till you hit ’16’ for 4pm (because we’re in Daylight Savings Time). You will come to a point with an ‘Azimuth’ of (very roughly) 265 degrees from North and an ‘Elevation’ or ‘Altitude’ of 35 degrees.

Source: Photovoltaics CD ROM, Honsberg and Bowden.

2. Use a pre-developed calculator

Another more accurate and probably even easier way is to use a pre-developed calculator. It’s important to understand the fundamentals first though, otherwise you won’t appreciate what you are looking at. A great free tool is provided here:

This calculator works really well, but it is important to note that the Azimuth referred to here is not the same as the standard definition as used on the sunpath diagram above. This might be because the tool was developed for the Northern Hemisphere. Choose Azimuth Zero = North and you should be able to work out what the results mean (if not, click the names for their definition).

UPDATE: Or you can simply use an application on your phone. See the comments section below about available iPhone applications.

3. Crunch the numbers!

Not for the faint hearted, but if you like numbers and want to appreciate all the goings-on in these and other solar equations I suggest you buy a book such as ‘Applied Photovoltaics’ (authors: Stuart R. Wenham, Martin A. Green, Muriel E. Watt, Richard Corkish).

Steplight plug-in appliance power meter

Energy Efficiency Tips:

- Get expert advice with a Home Energy Audit or Business Energy Audit.

- Use a Power Meter, Wireless Energy Monitor or Thermal Imaging Camera to understand your usage.

- Upgrade to high quality LED Lighting.

- Use these innovative Energy Saving Devices.