Monday, December 20, 2004

Life Interrupted

Very interesting article on how technology allows us to be interrupted more often and makes it harder to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Gloria Mark, a UC-Irvine professor, has been studying attention overload and multitasking among workers in a financial-services office. So far, she's found that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes.

Closely related to trying to do two things at once is "task-switching," which is when you flit between functions. Meyer, who heads the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, has tested this practice and says the results are clear: Constant nibbling from one task to another both slows and dumbs you down. It also is fatiguing and potentially harmful in terms of long-term health, and the cost of that split second you lose when you're talking on the phone and a traffic obstacle arises.
I wish they had done a study between those that are interrupted all the time and those that aren't and what the productivity difference between the two is. I bet those that put up barriers and don't allow themselves to be interrupted end up being more productive.
Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus himself uttered in 100 B.C., "To do two things at once is to do neither."
I like it. Well except for when I am walking and chewing gum. I think I can handle that much.
Blogs — personal Web sites where people share information, commentary and feelings — have filled part of the void, keeping their audience current on topics of specific interest. But as Brown says, if all your information is tailored to what you want to know, you may miss that which you don't know you want to know, and should.
Very interesting thought. Almost sounds Rumsfeldian. Gotta be on the lookout for the unknown unknowns, that which you don't even know that you don't know.
Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas economist, studied time-stress perceptions among higher-income households in the U.S. and four other industrialized countries. His study — "Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?" — found that the better off one is, the more he or she seems to complain about the time pinch. How can this be? Your opportunities and expectations grow as you grow wealthier, he theorizes, but time, which is finite, doesn't keep up.
At a certain point, time becomes more valuable than money. And yet those that are successful at work don't seem to want to exchange more salary for more vacation time. Or maybe they do but the work "requires" that they are there all the time.

via Pacific Northwest Magazine


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Time for New Economic Metrics

Since the time of Adam Smith, we've used the wealth of nations as a proxy for the well-being of nations. We measure whether life is getting better by checking whether the good numbers (GDP, personal incomes, and so on) are going up and the bad numbers (unemployment, inflation, and so on) are going down. However, over the past half century, something strange has happened. The US's per capita GDP - the value of all the goods and services a nation produces divided by its population - has nearly tripled, but American well-being hasn't budged. We've grown almost three times richer but not one jot happier. There's ample evidence that in all postindustrial societies, material wealth and broader happiness are no longer closely in sync.

True, the federal government maintains a $2 billion, 10,000-person statistical apparatus to track the blips and dips of our national well-being. But here's the problem: The current economic gauges don't tell us enough about how the economy is really doing. And just as important, how the economy is doing no longer tells us enough about how the nation is really doing.

Of course, critics may scoff that it's silly to calculate gross national happiness (a metric now used in Bhutan). But it's no sillier than spending nearly $150 million a year collecting agriculture statistics, as the US does, even though 98 percent of our workforce long ago transitioned to "nonfarm" pursuits.
via Wired


Saturday, December 18, 2004

Motivation for Most Successful Movie Ever

Ever wonder what James Cameron's motiviation was for making Titanic, the most financially successful movie of all time? Was he driven to make what he hoped would be the best movie ever? Did he have a burning desire to tell a story? Did he want to create the most elaborate set for a movie ever?

Turns out he just wanted an excuse to dive the wreck of the Titanic:

I have a confession to make. I made the movie Titanic because I thought I could talk the studio into letting me dive and film the real ship, 12,500 feet down in the North Atlantic. I was an avid wreck diver, and it was the ultimate shipwreck. Making the movie itself was actually secondary in my mind. So when I proposed the movie, I pitched the Titanic dives as a marketing hook - and the studio bought it. I figured, if I got killed, it would be before all the sets were built and the actors hired, so the studio wouldn't be out much.
via Wired


Global Corruption Barometer

I think that instead of focusing on spreading "freedom" and democracy, the US should try and increase transparency and reduce corruption around the world.

The Global Corruption barometer put out by Transparency International is a good ranking of which countries are doing well and which aren't. And it looks like the US has some work at home to deal with as well.

In half the 64 countries surveyed, political parties were rated by the general public as the institution most affected by corruption, the report' authors said. According to the survey carried out by the polling company Gallup International, Ecuador rates worst in its population's es for political corruption, followed closely by Argentina, Brazil, Peru and India.

The countries considered to have the most honest parties in terms of corruption were Singapore, the Netherlands and Albania.

Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization which evaluates and ranks corruption around the world, released its 2004 Global Corruption Barometer in Paris today to coincide with the UN International Anti-Corruption Day.

via Indian Express


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Ecobot Eats Dead Flies for Fuel

I had always thought that in the future humans would integrate more and more with machines and become cyborgs. But now I am starting to think it could go the other way, machines will integrate more and more biological agents and become alive.

Doing away with solar cells and batteries, their robot Ecobot II has a stomach consisting of eight microbial fuel cells, or MFCs, that contain bacteria harvested from sewage sludge. The microbes break down the food into sugars, converting biochemical energy into electricity that powers the robot. With bacteria breaking the food down and a type of robotic "respiration" in which air provides oxygen to the fuel cells to create useful energy, the whole system mimics real digestion as closely as possible. It is currently being fed a diet of dead flies and rotten apples.

That opens up a whole new range of possibilities, Greenman said. "You could take the robot and nail it to a tree and still be able to get flies or food to it or have it use tree sap, maple syrup and all the rest. You might get tree sap to run it and you could sense all kinds of things -- pollution, temperature, have some that work in the water."
via Wired News


Hate Something, Change Something, Make Something Better

Bizarre advertising video by Honda in UK. Check it out: swf file.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Podcast' Your World

The idea behind a podcast is simple, yet brilliant. Instead of using portable MP3 players such as the iPod only for listening to music, new software called iPodder allows one to download prerecorded radio shows onto the devices.

At present, terrestrial radio stations tend to structure their playlists to offend the least number of people so that audiences will stay tuned for the next group of commercials. That format has alienated listeners who crave more eclectic, less predictable fare on the airwaves.

Many observers expect podcasts to become as diverse and niche-oriented as the world of blogs. In theory, listeners will be able to pick and choose from a menu of shows that cater to their interests. They'll also be able to subscribe to downloads that provide news from the stock market or updates on developments in a particular industry. And one will soon be able to access podcasts on a standard-issue cellphone.

"I venture there's about 33 million MP3 players out there, and after Christmas when everyone has their new cellphone, there's another 600 million cellphones that have MP3 capability - and they have a network connection," says Adam Curry, who along with Winer developed iPodder.

There's a term that sums up the future of podcasting: niche radio.
Blogging was 1.0. Podcasting is 2.0. Video Podcasting will be 3.0. Just as blogging allowed individuals to publish and add their voice to the world of written journalism, Podcasting will allow the same for the spoken word. Podcasting can be used as a Tivo for radio, but it allows more than that. It allows anyone to create their own "radio station". It allows users to just listen to what they want to listen to when they want to listen to it.

Due to blogging and RSS, Yahoo now gives you access to 200,000+ "news" sources. Soon, instead of having access to 20 radio stations, you will have access to 1,000s of podcasts.

Video podcasting will allow individuals to compete with TV stations. Niche programing will be available to the nth degree (just in case the 200 channels you get weren't enough). This TV over IP will allow anyone to have access to the TV screen just as blogging and RSS gives anyone access to the written word. The Comcasts of the world better beware. While they are pushing more content from the top down, the video podcasters will be pushing more content from the bottom up.

via Christian Science Monitor


What is the True US Savings Rate?

So, the U.S. savings rate is near a low point. What’s causing this? Isn’t net-worth rising? Yes it is. Doesn’t that mean savings should also be rising? Not at all. Ask yourself this question: If someone wins the Super Lotto, how much is he going to save out of his next paycheck? The answer is not very much.

This leads to an important question: What constitutes true net savings? Is it the actual savings (an income statement) or the change in net worth (a balance-sheet item)? When one thinks about it, both will result in a higher net worth. If you take the sum of private savings and the change in net worth as a percent of GDP as the approximation of the true savings rate, by my account, that rate is on the order of 10 to 15 percent today — within the historical range.
Interesting point. I agree that asset growth is just like savings and should be seen as such. I am not quite sure how he is estimating his 10-15% a year though. And I am not convinced that we shouldn't worry about the huge trade deficits and low savings rate.

via National Review


Sunday, December 12, 2004

Brooks: Good News About Poverty

Developing countries are seeing their economies expand by 6.1 percent this year - an unprecedented rate - and, even if you take China, India and Russia out of the equation, developing world growth is still around 5 percent.

In its report, the World Bank notes that economic growth is producing a "spectacular" decline in poverty in East and South Asia. In 1990, there were roughly 472 million people in the East Asia and Pacific region living on less than $1 a day. By 2001, there were 271 million living in extreme poverty, and by 2015, at current projections, there will only be 19 million people living under those conditions.

What explains all this good news? The short answer is this thing we call globalization. The poor nations that opened themselves up to trade, investment and those evil multinational corporations saw the sharpest poverty declines. Write this on your forehead: Free trade reduces world suffering.
While I think there could still be a good debate over free trade vs. fair trade, I agree with his basic point. There have been many articles condemning the call centers in India taking jobs away from the US. But these are exactly the kind of jobs we want India to create. These jobs don't ruin the environment, they require a good education and are using people's brains rather than their manual labor. In the US we lose one crappy paying job, in India they create a good paying job that is estimated to create 3 other jobs in the economy. I see no better way to reduce Indian poverty then to continue the outsourcing. I see no better way to alleviate world poverty than to continue the outsourcing.
Economists have been arguing furiously about whether inequality is increasing or decreasing. But it now seems likely that while inequality has grown within particular nations, it is shrinking among individuals worldwide. The Catalan economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin looked at eight measures of global inequality and found they told the same story: after remaining constant during the 70's, inequality among individuals has since declined.
Another interesting point. For all that we hear about American inequality going up, maybe what is happening is that globalization is causing localized inequality while promoting global equality. I had previously writen that we should not ask if Wal-Mart is good for the US, we should ask if it is good for the world. Same thing here. The question is not whether economic inequality is decreasing in the US, but whether if it is decreasing in the world.

via New York Times


The Fine Art of Questioning Bush

If you had one question to ask Bush, what would it be? I had pondered this question and was glad to see this article on how the reporters do it. Ideally, you need a question where no matter how he answers it, it tells you something. If he answers yes it means something, if he answers no it means something and if he won't answer it it means something.

CNN's John King said a rookie mistake is to ask convoluted questions, allowing Bush to answer only the part he wants to.

Every now and then, though, the press has its day. The master is John Dickerson of Time magazine, who has knocked Bush off script so many times that colleagues have coined a term for cleverly worded, seemingly harmless, but incisive questions: "Dickersonian."

He once asked Bush whether Muslims worship the same Almighty as Christians. (Bush said they did, prompting a stir among evangelicals.)
Excellent question. If he answers yes, he upsets the evangelicals, no he gets the Muslims madder at us (if that is possible) and deferring the question makes him look weak.
In April, Dickerson asked one of the most famous questions of Bush's presidency: "In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?"
Another great question. Bush went for the defer option and looked like a man who couldn't admit a mistake. Had he answered yes, he would have had to admit a mistake, and had he said no he would have looked even worse.

via The Seattle Times


You Vote What You Watch

Chris Matthews recently released stats on how people voted based on what media they took in. Interesting stuff.

Fox News71%22%
Talk Radio62%36%

I happened to watch the "no spin" master himself Bill O'Reilly after the election and he explained the fact that 89% of his watchers predicted that Bush would win was because his viewers were smarter than others and could predict better than others who the winner would be. Excellent "no spin" work, Bill.


Urban India Piling on the Pounds

Nice to see that not only are we outsourcing our work, we are also outsourcing our eating habits. And so much for the idea that a vegetarian diet is always healthy.

While city dwellers account for only 5 percent of India's billion-plus population, they consume 40 percent of the country's fat intake, according to The Times of India.

And in the same country where 4 million people died of famine in 1943, the Indian Medical Association reports that one in three residents of Delhi is now obese. Residents of the capital consume 20 percent more fat and 40 percent more sugar than they did 50 years ago.

Nationwide, 31 percent of urban Indians are either overweight or obese, according to professor Anoop Misra, a specialist in metabolic diseases at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country's leading medical school.
via The Seattle Times


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Herring Break Wind to Communicate, Study Suggests

The study's findings, now published online in the U.K. science journal Biology Letters, reveal that Atlantic and Pacific herring create high-frequency sounds by releasing air from their anuses.

"We know [herring] have excellent hearing but little about what they actually use it for," said research team leader Ben Wilson, a marine biologist at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, British Columbia, Canada. "It turns out that herring make unusual farting sounds at night."

Wilson and his colleagues named the phenomenon Fast Repetitive Tick, which makes for the rather mischievous acronym, FRT. But unlike the human version, these FRTs are thought to bring the fish closer together.
But, can they burp Jingle Bells?

via National Geographic


Friday, December 03, 2004

Unnatural Abundance

Soon after Europeans arrived, European diseases killed 90 percent or more of the hemisphere's original inhabitants - at least 30 million people, and possibly 100 million, according to most recent estimates.
I had no idea that the % was that high, or that that many Indians died. That is a massive number that dwarfs the plague.
Above the Rio Grande, Indians' principal land-management tool was fire, used to create and maintain open, game-friendly forests and grazing lands. Native pyromania created a third or more of the Midwestern prairie; fire kept Eastern forests so open that the first European colonists reported being able to ride through the woods in carriages. In California, Oregon, Texas and a hundred other places, Indian burning governed the conditions under which other species thrived or failed.

When disease carried away native societies, the torches went out. Trees and underbrush erupted in ways that had not been seen for millennia, filling in areas kept open by Indian axes and Indian fire. "Almost wherever the European went, forests followed," wrote the ecological historian Stephen Pyne. Far from destroying wilderness, in other words, European settlers created it - only it was a peculiar, unprecedented kind of wilderness, shot through with European invaders and characterized by population outbreaks from species that had formerly been uncommon.

Bison, elk, moose and pigeon were all kept down by Indians - the big mammals by hunting, the pigeon because Indians both ate it and competed with it for the nuts on which it depended. The huge herds and flocks seen by Europeans were evidence not of American bounty but of Indian absence.
I had no idea that the untamed west was actually the re-untamed west. It is nice to know there if there is ever a biological weapon that wipes out the majority of humans, at least it will be good for the environment.

via New York Times


Can you be a Frequent Flyer Environmentalist?

Or maybe a better title is: Can you be an anti-Hummer Frequent Flyer?

A while back I was reading an article on Congressman Jim McDermott and it struck me as odd for him to call himself a Prius driving environmentalist and at the same time brag about the 3 million frequent flyer miles he had wrung up. Doesn't the same oil that fuels Hummers also fuel airplanes?

Then I was listening to NPR and heard noted environmentalist David Suzuki. He had just taken his family of 4 to Dharmasala to talk with the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks about science and the environment. Good, cool stuff, don't get me wrong. But I was thinking, how much fuel did it take for him and his family to experience this? It is a 16,000 mile round trip from Canada to India. The average airline gets around 50 passenger miles/gallon. That is 320 gallons of fuel per person or 1,280 gallons for the entire family. That is a lot of gasoline! To put it in perspective, the average American drives around 12,000 miles a year. A H2 Hummer gets around 10 mpg. Driving a Hummer for a year would use 1,200 gallons. So taking the family on the trip to India used more fuel then driving a Hummer for a year!

If Jim McDermott is flying 100,000 miles a year, that uses as much fuel as a Hummer driven 20,000 miles a year. Now who looks like the environmentalist?

I am a big fan of Tom Friedman. Recently he did a nice rant on Hummer driving "patriots" and where all the oil money that fuels their cars ends up. But what about jet set journalists? Where does all the money that pays for the fuel in their airplanes go? Flying from NYC to Baghdad is 11,000 miles round trip. 220 gallons if you are flying commercial, but much more if you are flying in a military plane with few passengers. How many madrassas have you personally supported with your flying Tom?

In a way it reminds me of dieters who are meticulous in counting every calorie, well except for those late night snacks when you are so hungry that you have to eat. Those calories "don't count". Why is it that environmentalists that are so anti-Hummer have no problem with people flying around the world?

I think everyone should be cognizant of all of the fuel that they personally use (both directly and indirectly). There should be labeling laws that require transportation providers to tell you how much fuel your trip is using. Manufacturers and merchants should be forced to put the amount of oil used on all products. Then consumers could determine how much oil they use and figure out the best way to reduce it. Instead of trading in that Hummer for a Prius, you might save more oil by reducing your trips overseas from 4 to 3. The goal should be to minimize your usage of oil however possible.


Thursday, December 02, 2004

Brain Wave Sensing Device for Prevention of Drowsiness at the Wheel

By means of magnetic field sensors located on the cranium, the device transmits data to a PDA – a small, pocket computer – which analyses the kinds of waves registered and acts in consequence. The sensors are located in a cap which maintains a certain pressure on the skull and which has a small device at the back which receives information from the sensors and directs them to the PDA. The connection between both is by radio-frequency as employing wires might be dangerous in case of an accident.

The device, which analyses the brain waves of the driver, has been designed by the students at the Public University of Navarre and presented at the XVIII Technical Seminar on Automotion.

The authors of the project estimate that it the device would cost 4,500 euro, currently a very expensive item.
Sounds pretty cool. You wear a cap that is analyzing your brain waves via bluetooth (or some similar wireless technology) to a PDA. It can tell if you are falling asleep. I wonder if they could also tell other brain states like optimal concentration, peaceful meditation, aggravasion. It would be cool to wear it all the time (assuming they could make it fit inside a baseball cap) and take a look at how your brain was functioning througout the day. Getting sleepy around 2-3pm? Now you know exactly how bad it is. Or what if students wore this to class and teachers could see which students are on the brink of falling asleep? Lots of cool potential apps.

via Basque Research


Retiring in Chile

I remember going to NYC and watching the nightly local news. I was amazed that there was absolutely no news from anywhere outside of NYC. It was as if the rest of the world didn't exist. Whereas my local news would broadcast the results of all MLB games that went on that day, in NYC you just got the Yankees and the Mets.

I think we are in a similar bubble when it comes to the US. How much news do we get about how other countries tackle problems and compare that with our ways? The two biggest issues we have to deal with in the US are health care and social security. When we are reforming social security, why don't we look at how other countries have tried to solve this problem and figure out what works and what doesn't? Pete Peterson wrote a great book Gray Dawn where he did such a comparison.

That is why I was glad to see this editorial in the NYT about Chile's social security system.

Chile's Social Security Reform Act of 1980 allowed current workers to opt out of the government-run pension system financed by a payroll tax and instead contribute to a personal retirement account. What determines those workers' retirement benefit is the amount of money accumulated in their personal account during their working years. 10 percent of their pretax wage is deposited monthly into a personal account. Workers may voluntarily contribute up to an additional 10 percent a month in pretax wages. The invested amounts grow tax-free, and the workers pay tax on this money only when they withdraw it for retirement.

Upon retiring, workers may choose from three payout options: purchase a family annuity from a life insurance company, indexed to inflation; leave their funds in the personal account and make monthly withdrawals, subject to limits based on life expectancy (if a worker dies, the remaining funds form a part of his estate); or any combination of the previous two. In all cases, if the money exceeds the amount needed to provide a monthly benefit equal to 70 percent of the workers' most recent wages, then the workers can withdraw the surplus as a lump sum.

A worker who has reached retirement age and has contributed for at least 20 years but whose accumulated fund is not enough to provide a "minimum pension," as defined by law, receives that amount from the government once funds in the personal account have been depleted. (Those without 20 years' contributions can apply for a welfare-type payment at a lower level.) Workers with enough savings in their accounts to buy a "sufficient" annuity (50 percent of their average salary, as long as it is 20 percent higher than the minimum pension) can stop contributing and begin withdrawing their money.

Since the system started on May 1, 1981, the average real return on the personal accounts has been 10 percent a year. The pension funds have now accumulated resources equivalent to 70 percent of gross domestic product, a pool of savings that has helped finance economic growth and spurred the development of liquid long-term domestic capital market.
Sounds pretty good. This is the direction I would like to see the US go. What were the costs that they had to deal with?
We used five "sources" to generate the extra cash flow needed for transition: a) one-time long-term government bonds at market rates of interest so the cost was shared with future generations; b) a temporary residual payroll tax; c) privatization of state-owned companies, which increased efficiency, prevented corruption and spread ownership; d) a budget surplus deliberately created before the reform (for many years afterward, we were able to use the need to "finance the transition" as a powerful argument to contain increases in government spending); e) increased tax revenues that resulted from the higher economic growth fueled by the personal retirement account system.
That is pretty expensive. It will be interesting to see how the Bushies deals with this. Obviously c) is not an option. Option a) is pretty difficult given how much Bush has already run up the debt and deficit, how foreigners own 40% of this debt and may not want to finance any more given the dollar is falling. b) will require raising taxes and I think this is the way to go, but politically I don't know if the Bushies will do it. d) is good, but cutting more is going to be tough while we are paying for 2 wars and increased homeland security. e) I'm not sure how much we are going to gain from this given that our growth is already good and is spurred on by consumers who will now be forced to save instead of spend.

via New York Times