Saturday, December 31, 2005

Best of Fat Knowledge 2005

The most popular and/or my favorite posts of 2005:


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Crazy Delicious

Funniest thing to come out of SNL in years. Watch "Lazy Sunday" (aka The Chronicles of Narnia) at YouTube.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Why $5 Gas Is Good for America

Wired has a nice write up on alternative energy and why higher gas prices will allow us to get there quicker. This has been a recuring theme here at Fat Knowledge. Here is a list of the alternatives, and links to the previous Fat Knowledge articles on them (just to prove they are there).

Energy Unleashed at:
Long-term price per barrel: $20-$30

Ultradeep offshore Wells
Gas to Liquid
Tar sands
Digital oil fields

Long-term price per barrel: $30-$70
Natural Gas
Coal to Liquid

Long-term price per barrel: $70 & up
Methane hydrates
Plug-in Hybrids
Oil shale
Can't believe I haven't written on tar sands before. The one type of energy I hadn't heard of was Oil shale, which is similar to the tar sands. Wired spits out the details of it.
The barren scrub of Colorado's sparsely inhabited northwest corner is just the kind of godforsaken place you'd expect petroleum to turn up. It's also where, in early 2004, a bunch of Shell researchers pushed the button that lit some seriously powerful electric heating elements they'd placed in 16 drill holes. Three months later, temperatures in the target rock hit 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and a cheerful mix of oil and natural gas started bubbling up. The experiment ended this fall, with 1,700 barrels of inky liquid safely stored in holding tanks.

After two decades of quiet research, Shell Exploration & Production has released intriguing details about its Mahogany Research Project, named for the Mahogany layer of rock known as oil shale that lies beneath Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Thirty onsite staff and 130 others back at Shell's US headquarters in Houston are pushing ahead with a final round of feasibility tests. If things go well, the payoff could be staggering: as much as 2 trillion barrels of crude, enough to supply a century of US consumption at the current rate. Nearly four times Saudi Arabia's proven reserve. Right here, in the middle of nowhere.

They bake the rock with deep-set heating elements while ringing the site with underground refrigeration pipes so newly mobile hydrocarbons don't leak away. This technique takes a lot of energy (though no more than conventional oil drilling, Shell says; roughly 3.5 times as much energy comes out as goes in).

But the yield is what really grabs attention: a projected 1 million barrels per surface acre, 10 times more than the conventional dig-crush-cook method. With multiples like that, Shell executives think they might be able to make the process economical at $25 to $30 a barrel - less than half the price of traditional extraction.
2 trillion barrels in the US, economical at $25-35 a barrel, holy smokes! Don't know what the environmental impact would be, but this is something to look into further.


Recycling the Petrodollars

This year, oil exporters could haul in $700 billion from selling oil to foreigners. This includes not only the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) but also Russia and Norway, the world's second- and third-biggest earners (see chart 1 below). The International Monetary Fund estimates that oil exporters' current-account surplus could reach $400 billion, more than four times as much as in 2002.

Despite the lack of hard data, many economists are sure that a big dollop of petrodollars is going into American Treasury securities. If so, the recycling of money via bond markets could have very different effects on the world economy from the bank-mediated recycling of previous oil booms. If petrodollars not spent flow into global bond markets, they reduce bond yields and thus support consumer spending in oil-importing countries.

Around two-thirds of petrodollars are thought to have gone into dollar assets, pushing down American bond yields. Although higher oil prices have increased America's current-account deficit, Mr Jen reckons that it probably runs a balance-of-payments surplus in oil, with capital inflows from exporting countries exceeding its net oil import bill.
I had thought that the Chinese were the ones mainly impacting the US trade deficit and buying up our Treasury bonds to keep interest rates low. But this article implies that the oil exporting countries have a lot to do with it (and possibly more).

I still don't understand how the US can run up such big deficits and still have interest rates stay so low. This article helps to explain that. In a way, the higher gas prices are acting as a tax. Instead of a tax which would decrease the deficit directly and lower interest rates, the increased oil prices give money to the oil producing countries which they then invest in treasury bonds keeping interest rates low. In the short term, there isn't much difference to the US economy. But in the long term, those oil producing countries are going to want their money back and then the US is going to be in a world of hurt.

This is a really fascinating article. I would recommend reading it all if you are interested on the impact of the higher oil prices on the world economy.



Thursday, December 22, 2005

Israel's Technology Industry

Israel has 135 engineers per 10,000 employees, compared with 70 in America, 65 in Japan, and 28 in Britain (see chart).
I had no idea that Israel was throwing down those kind of numbers. I also had no idea that the US was second on this list. I thought we were hurting in this department, but I guess not so much. I would have thought Singapore or South Korea or Japan would be kicking our butts. I guess not. I am surprised that Germany is not on the list. I wonder if they were included in the study.

I also didn't realize that in the US, engineers only make up .7% of all jobs. Would have thought it would be much higher. I think the US has a workforce of about 140 mil, so that would be around 1 million people.

Why does Israel have so many engineers? The article goes into it, but basically:
1) Government grants in the 70s (a joint American-Israeli initiative)
3) Government schemes to encourage Russian immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union
3) The army is mandatory and catalyzes the transformation of 18 year olds into engineers or scientists
4) Lack of land and resources steers entrepreneurs towards high technology
5) The culture promotes repeat entrepreneurs
Israel attracts twice the number of venture-capital (VC) investments as the whole of Europe, according to Ed Mlavsky, a veteran of the Israeli technology industry and the chairman and founder of Gemini, a big Israeli VC fund that was one of the investors in Saifun. In 2003, 55% of Israel's exports were high technology, compared with the OECD average of 26%.
Via The Economist (subscription required for this one)


Zombie Dogs

In a series of experiments, doctors at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh managed to plunge several dogs into a state of total, clinical death before bringing them back to the land of the living. The feat, the researchers say, points the way toward a time when human beings will make a similar trip, not as a matter of ghoulish curiosity but as a means of preserving life in the face of otherwise fatal injuries.

The method for making the trip is simple. The Safar Center team took the dogs, swiftly flushed their bodies of blood and replaced it with a relatively cool saline solution (approximately 45 to 50 degrees) laced with oxygen and glucose. The dogs quickly went into cardiac arrest, and with no demonstrable heartbeat or brain activity, clinically died.

There the dogs remained in what Patrick Kochanek, the director of the Safar Center, and his colleagues prefer to call a state of suspended animation. After three full hours, the team reversed their steps, withdrawing the saline solution, reintroducing the blood and thereby warming the dogs back to life. In a flourish worthy of Mary Shelley, they jump-started their patients' hearts with a gentle electric shock. While a small minority of the dogs suffered permanent damage, most did not, awakening in full command of their faculties.
Uooh, so cool. If they do it on humans, I wonder if you get that whole near death experience thing. If you get to walk down the tunnel with the light at the end and decide to come back. Or if you get to float outside your body and look down on everyone. This process could become the spritual trip of the 21st century. Instead of eating a little peyote, you could just remove all the blood in your body with a little glucose saline solution.

Via NY Times Mag: Year in Ideas


In Vitro Meat

In July, scientists at the University of Maryland announced the development of bioengineering techniques that could be used to mass-produce a new food for public consumption: meat that is grown in incubators.

The process works by taking stem cells from a biopsy of a live animal (or a piece of flesh from a slaughtered animal) and putting them in a three-dimensional growth medium - a sort of scaffolding made of proteins. Bathed in a nutritional mix of glucose, amino acids and minerals, the stem cells multiply and differentiate into muscle cells, which eventually form muscle fibers. Those fibers are then harvested for a minced-meat product.

But if in vitro meat becomes viable, the environmental and ethical consequences could be profound. The thought of beef grown in the lab may turn your stomach, but in vitro meat would avoid many of the downsides of factory farming, most notably pollution: in the United States, livestock produce 1.4 billion tons of waste each year. What's more, once a meat-cell culture exists, it could function the way a yeast or yogurt culture does, so that meat growers wouldn't need to use a new animal for each set of starter cells - and the meat industry would no longer be dependent on slaughtering animals.
We are still a long ways off but I like the direction they are going. To be able to eat meat without slaughter, sounds good to me.

Via New York Time Mag: Year in Ideas


Why The Rich Must Get Richer

A society experiencing economic growth is likely to be happier and more successful than another that is not, even if the no-growth society has achieved a higher (but stagnant) standard of living. In Smith's words, it is “in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the great body of the people seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state.”

Growing prosperity, history suggests, makes people more tolerant, more willing to settle disputes peacefully, more inclined to favour democracy. Stagnation and economic decline are associated with intolerance, ethnic strife and dictatorship.

The key thing is the way these two standards of comparison—the potentially harmonious and the socially self-defeating—interact. If people are becoming better off relative to their own past standard of living, they will care less about where they stand in relation to others. If they are not growing better off relative to their own past standard of living, they will care more about their placing in relation to others—and the result is frustration, intolerance and social friction. Growth, in short, has moral as well as material benefits.
Interesting thoughts from Benjamin Friedman's new book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. I agree with most of what he has to say. I would probably define growth a little bit different. I bet he is looking at GDP growth. I think there are issues with using GDP for this (which hopefully I will get around to writing) but the idea that low unemployment and a rising standard of living lead to other good things, I can go along with.

I also find the idea that "people compare against themselves when they are improving their standard of living but against others when they stagnate or fall" fascinating. And it rings true to me. Never been a big fan of the old "a rising tide lifts all boats", since being 6 feet higher doesn't change the fact I am still sitting in a dingy and you are on a yacht. But, maybe I need to rethink that in light of this.

Via The Economist


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Brain Drain Revisited

The Economist has an interesting article raising the question: Might poor countries gain when their best and brightest leave? I might add a slightly different question: is the world better off if the best and brightest leave poor countries.

I had thought about this earlier in my Brain Drain Myth post, but this article has a slightly different way of looking at it.

The prospect of securing a visa to America or Australia should tempt more people in poor countries to invest in education. Mr Stark calls this a “brain gain”. If the temptation is strong enough, and the chances of landing a visa low enough, the poor country could even come out ahead: it might gain more qualified (if disappointed) doctors and engineers than it loses.

A person's productivity depends on the skills of those around him, as well as his own. Because of these spillovers, an individual's education is worth more to the economy as a whole than it is to himself, and he will underinvest in it as a result. Mr Stark sees limited emigration as one way to fix this market failure.

According to the most exhaustive study† of the brain drain, released last month by the World Bank, there were 1.04m Indian-born people, educated past secondary school, living in the 30 relatively rich countries of the OECD in 2000. Its million-strong brain drain represents just 4.3% of its vast graduate population, according to the Bank. By contrast, almost 47% of Ghana's highly educated native sons live in the OECD; for Guyana, the figure is 89%.
Via The Economist


Unwanted Pregnancies

U.S. women of childbearing age who were surveyed in 2002 revealed that 14 percent of their recent births were unwanted at the time of conception, federal researchers said Monday.

In a similar 1995 survey, only 9 percent were unwanted at the time of conception.
Seems like this is going in a bad direction. Not that every child that was unwanted at the time of conception will have a bad life, but I have to believe that the chances of the child living a good life go up when the preganancy is wanted.

The proportion was higher for black women (26.2 percent) than for Hispanics (16.8 percent) and whites (10.7 percent).
So, 1 out of 4 pregancies for black women, 1 out of 6 pregnacies for Hispanics and 1 out of 10 pregnacies for Whites are unwanted at the time of conception. That is a major difference.

Via The Mercury News


How Will History Remember Bono and Bill Gates?

So Bono and the Gateseses are Times Persons of the Year.

But how will history remember them? Bono ventures a guess for Bill...

Bono, who first met the Gateses in 2002 to discuss their mutual interests, told Time that the Gates foundation is the second enterprise for Microsoft founder Bill Gates that has changed the world. "And the second act for Bill Gates may be the one that history regards more," the rock star said.
and one for himeself.
“Actually oddly enough, I think my work, the activism, will be forgotten. And I hope it will. Because I hope those problems will have gone away,” says Bono. “But our music will be here in 50 years and 100 years' time. Fact that our songs occupy a sort of an emotional terrain that didn't exist before our group did.”
Via Corvallis Gazette-Times and 60 Minutes


Monday, December 19, 2005

China is World's Largest Exporter of IT Goods

China for the first time has surpassed America to export the most technology wares around the world, according to new figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The crossover took place last year, when China exported $180 billion of computers, mobile phones and other digital stuff, exceeding America's international sales of $149 billion. A year earlier, in 2003, China's technology exports had overtaken those of both the European Union and Japan.

Given China's importance as a centre of low-cost manufacturing, its rise as an industrial power in technology goods is hardly surprising. What is startling is the speed of its ascent. From $36 billion in 1996, its world trade in tech goods—both imports and exports—has grown as much as 32% a year, to reach $329 billion in 2004.
Don't know how much to read into that, but it seems like a significant shift as economic power starts its migration over the Pacific.



Friday, December 16, 2005

Going Bananas

The Economist throws down some fat banana knowledge.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that bananas are the fourth most important crop in the world, after wheat, rice and maize. For around 400m people in the tropics, bananas are their most significant staple food. Some 90% of the world's harvest of bananas are grown on small farms in developing countries and much of this crop is eaten by people who live locally. The export trade, meanwhile, is worth some $5 billion a year.

Bananas are vulnerable to pestilence and disease because they reproduce asexually. Before they became domesticated crops, wild bananas were inedible fruit stuffed with stony seeds. Edible varieties probably first arose as random, sterile mutants. Farmers propagated these varieties by taking cuttings from suckers that grow from the base of the parent plant. Furthermore, because bananas are clones, whole plantations could be devastated by such an attack.

In the 1950s, commercial plantations all grew one variety of banana, called Gros Michel. It was, by all accounts, a superior-tasting fruit to today's supermarket stocks of the Cavendish variety. The Gros Michel banana still grows in the more remote parts of Uganda and Jamaica. Elsewhere, it was wiped out by Panama disease, a wilt caused by a fungus called fusarium. This devastated the large commercial plantations that fed the export trade.
I had no idea that all bananas are clones of each other. Or that humans propagated the edible sterile mutants of an inedible fruit with stony seeds to make what we now call bananas. Or that bananas are such an important food for humans. All this time I have been making fun of bananas as monkey food, when in fact the primate that eats the most (and supports 400 million of us) are humans.



Can Chad Break the Oil Curse?

Chad was a test case of whether a country could avoid the oil curse.

In 2003, Chad became the site of an experiment to test whether oil money could pay for medicines and schools rather than luxury cars and weapons. The World Bank set up a system in which only 15 percent of the revenues from three oil fields would go into the general government coffers. Most of the rest would be spent on fighting poverty or saved for the post-oil years. Chad's agreement on these rules attracted ExxonMobil and other investors.

The early results are not encouraging. There is little evidence of improvements in living standards, and a lot of worrisome signs that money is disappearing. Now President Idriss D�by, claiming the government is broke, has decided to scuttle the restraints on his spending. He wants to double the percentage of oil money that goes to general government funds, scrap any saving for the future and allow the money earmarked for antipoverty programs to be spent on security.
Doesn't look good. Yet another reason to try an minimize all use of oil and the corruption it spreads around the world.

Via New York Times


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste

I have been a fan of nuclear power because it is carbon free, has no emissions, and could scale very easily to produce lots of power. I would add it is an economical choice, but really the economics of energy production get very tricky based on what kind of externalities (like pollution leading to health care costs, or military expenditures to protect "our" Middle East oil) you want to throw into the mix. Also, the price of nuclear energy is dependant on the level of security you want to build into it and how you store the nuclear waste.

But my optimism has always been tempered by three big problems:
1) What do you do with the waste?
2) How do you make sure that the fuel can't be turned into a nuclear bomb?
3) How can you insure there won't be a meltdown/terrorist attack?

In this new article over at Scientific America, scientists have some new techniques that greatly reduce or eliminate these concerns. They are proposing use fast-neutron reactors (rather than the slow-neutron or thermal reactors currently being used) along with recycling of spent fuel by pyrometallurgical processing.

These techniques have the following advantages:
1) Reduce the amount of nuclear waste a 1,000 megawatt (for some reason energy types don't like to call this 1 gigawatt) from 100 tons of spent fuel a year to a little over 1 ton. That is almost a 99% reduction! And it gets even better. Because the recycling removes the uranium, plutonium and other heavy metals (or long-lived transuaranics as they call them), the radioactive half life goes from 10,000 years to several hundred years (at one point they mention 300 years)! Instead of having to create a Yucca Mountain that can handle the waste for 10,000 years without any issues, now such a facility need only handle a tenth of that time or less. Or maybe with the decreased amount of waste and radioactive lifetime, simpler, cheaper solutions could be used such as storing the waste on site.

The reduced waste also decreases the amount having to be transported lessening the possibility of a terrorist attack (this would be a dirty bomb, not to be confused with a nuclear bomb which is several magnitudes of orders worse).

2) The recycling of the nuclear fuel would be done is such a way that plutonium in the fuel is too impure for diversion to weapons. Currently France, Japan, Russia and the UK reprocess their fuel into plutonium. This plutonium can then be used to create a nuclear weapon. This style of recycling therefore greatly reduces the risk of nuclear weapon development (but it is still not clear to me why you couldn't just refine/reprocess the recycled nuclear fuel to pure plutonium).

3) The facilities they are proposing would be built underground (to protect from a 9-11 style attack) and use liquid sodium rather than water to transfer the heat. It would also be designed to automatically shut down in the case of an emergency, so it would be impossible for a Chernobyl style meltdown to occur.

4) These reactors would be able to use not just enriched uranium (with a higher concentration of fissile U-235) but just plain old uranium (or depleted uranium) as a fuel source. Currently the continued growth in the number of thermal reactors could exhaust the available low-cost uranium reserves in a few decades.

This new style of nuclear reactor/recycling greatly alleviates my concerns with nuclear technology. I need to read more about this, but it sounds very promising.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Legalize Drugs - All Of Them

The ex-police chief of Seattle writes about why he favors legalization of all drugs. A compeling argument and a good read.

It's not a stretch to conclude that our Draconian approach to drug use is the most injurious domestic policy since slavery. Want to cut back on prison overcrowding and save a bundle on the construction of new facilities? Open the doors, let the nonviolent drug offenders go. The huge increases in federal and state prison populations during the 1980s and '90s (from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 482 per 100,000 in 2003) were mainly for drug convictions. In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. By 2003, that figure had ballooned to 1,678,200. We're making more arrests for drug offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. Feel safer?

How would "regulated legalization" work? It would:

• Permit private companies to compete for licenses to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package and peddle drugs.

• Create a new federal regulatory agency (with no apologies to libertarians or paleo-conservatives).

• Set and enforce standards of sanitation, potency and purity.

• Ban advertising.

• Impose (with congressional approval) taxes, fees and fines to be used for drug-abuse prevention and treatment and to cover the costs of administering the new regulatory agency.

• Police the industry much as alcoholic-beverage-control agencies keep a watch on bars and liquor stores at the state level. Such reforms would in no way excuse drug users who commit crimes: driving while impaired, providing drugs to minors, stealing an iPod, assaulting one's spouse, abusing one's child. The message is simple. Get loaded, commit a crime, do the time.

But wouldn't regulated legalization lead to more users and, more to the point, drug abusers? Probably, though no one knows for sure — our leaders are too timid even to broach the subject in polite circles, much less to experiment with new policy models. My own prediction? We'd see modest increases in use, negligible increases in abuse.
Via The Seattle Times


Friday, December 09, 2005

Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese

The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

"For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters," said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. "I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I've had. And I can play games all day."

With more than 100 million people worldwide logging on every month to play interactive computer games, game companies are already generating revenues of $3.6 billion a year from subscriptions, according to DFC Intelligence.

That has spawned the creation of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of online gaming factories here in China. By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 young people working in China as full-time gamers, toiling away in dark Internet cafes, abandoned warehouses, small offices and private homes.
So the Chinese peasants go from farming the fields to gold farming. Seems like a logical progression.

In a way this is so silly. Why have people spend hours and hours creating a level 60 character, when the game developers could just create one with the click of a mouse. Or better stated, why don't the game companies sell level 60 characters directly and get the money for it?

I always thought the fun in these games was creating a new character and building them up. Why in the world would you want to outsource the best part?

Via New York Times


EU vs. US Economy

I liked this analysis of the two heavyweights. While on the surface the US GDP/capita is higher and the unemployment rate is lower, when you look a little deeper, you see something different.

European hourly productivity over the past 40 years has risen much more rapidly than U.S. productivity, and several EU countries are now more productive per worker hour than the United States.

Most EU countries have positive trade balances, while our negative trade balance continues to grow.

All EU countries have lower rates of poverty and far smaller gaps between rich and poor.

Personal savings rates in the EU average 12 percent; in the United States, 0 percent.

EU unemployment rates are generally somewhat higher than in the United States. But U.S. figures don't include our massive prison population (2.1 million), five to 10 times as high as that in EU countries.

According to the World Economic Forum, of the five most competitive economies in the world, four are northern European and the most competitive, Finland, has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any country, while guaranteeing 30 days of vacation a year and prohibiting forced overtime work.

Health, in all EU countries, is superior to that in the United States, despite our spending far more per capita on health care. Moreover, Europe's high quality of life is attained with only half the U.S. per capita consumption of resources.

We could live happier, healthier lives by working and consuming less.
Gotta admit, I like the European style better. I am curious now what the US unemployment rate would be like if our incarceration rate wasn't so high.

Via Seattle PI


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Osama vs. Bambi

Today's sign that the "War on Terror" is way overblown.

A study for the insurance industry estimated that deer kill about 150 people a year in car crashes nationwide and cause $1 billion in damage. Granted, deer aren't stalking us, and they come out worse in these collisions - but it's still true that in a typical year, an American is less likely to be killed by Osama bin Laden than by Bambi.
I knew it! Can't trust those garden munching, highway hopping, four legged terrorists.

Via Kristoff - New York Times


Friday, December 02, 2005


I have gotten hooked on this new puzzle game Sudoku. Fiendishly simple (just make sure the rows, columns, and inner boxes each have one instance of 1-9) but oh so difficult to make it happen. Wikipedia has a nice write up on it. I have been playing it on Web Sudoku. The evil level really is that. Make sure to set the option to allow you to write in multiple numbers in one box if you are going to attempt that level.

As Microsoft gets ready to freeze their code for Vista, they need to remember that the old reason people upgrade is for the new game. Minesweeper was the reason to get Windows 3.1, Freecell was a sold reason to upgrade to Windows 95, and Spider Solitare made up for the otherwise worthless upgrade to Windows ME. For Vista, I have two words: Su Doku (or maybe that is 1 word, definitely two japanese characters: 数独).


80s Cartoons Now at Netflix

I just found that the classic cartoons of the 80s are now available on DVD at Netflix. Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, and Thundercats are all there. Got the He-Man and realized that it was pretty simple minded. But, Transformers is still solid. But for some reason Season 2 is being passed off as Season 1. Everyone knows that the dinobots were not in Season 1. Can't wait to get the episode with the 6 green Constructicons that can turn into one super Transformer.

Ahh, reliving your childhood is such fun. All I have to say is: Autobots roll out, Yo Joe, I have the power, and Thundercats Ho!


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

If You Rent a Car in France, Get The Insurance

Watching the footage from the riots in France, I figured that this car burning thing just kind of happened and then would stop when the riots stopped. Think again.

Even before the riots, car-burning had become a ritual gesture of criminal defiance in the suburbs. In the first seven months of this year, an astonishing 21,900 vehicles were torched across the country, up on the previous year.
21,900 vehicles in 7 months before the riots!! Yikes.

The numbers have fallen steadily since vandals burned 1,408 vehicles across France in one night on November 6 at the peak of the violence. Police say French youths burn about 100 cars on an average Saturday night.
100 cars on an average Saturday night??? Whoa Mamma.

So the rioting isn't over when no cars are being torched, it is over when the number gets down to just 100 a night. That is messed up. I guess torching a car is just part of a standard Saturday night out for the French kids.

But, on the bright side, doesn't appear that the French auto makers will be laying off 30,000 workers anytime soon.

Via Ireland On-line and the Economist


Computer Program Accurately Picks Music Hits

In the digital media age, where people have a limited time to consume the goods, the key to improving quality of material watched is to have better filters to try and anticipate what you will want. This concept has been around for a while, but hopefully someday soon there will actually be software that can do a really good job of it. These guys are trying it on music.

After years of crunching data, Brian Whitman and Tristan Jehan have devised a computer program that listens to a song, then predicts how humans will react to it.

The response is so specific at times that it can forecast how a single will perform on the charts and spit out a review, guessing what words will be used to describe it, from "sexy to romantic to loud and upbeat," Whitman said.

The goal is to pinpoint trends in pitch, rhythm and cadence that are driving consumer spending habits. However, the MIT researchers believe they've taken the science to another level.

The MIT method, developed at the school's renowned Media Laboratory, also takes into account social responses to hit music that are fed into the algorithms.
Via Seattle PI


Turning Coal to Liquid Fuel in Montana

Montana's governor is trying to sell a coal to fuel idea.

Coal-to-fuel conversion, which was practiced out of necessity by pariah nations like Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid, has been around for more than 80 years. It is called the Fischer-Tropsch process. What is new is the technology that removes and stores the pollutants during and after the making of synthetic fuel; add to that high oil prices, which have suddenly made this form of energy alchemy feasible. The coal could be converted into gasoline or diesel, which would run cars, or into other types of fuel.

With coal reserves of about 120 billion tons, Montana has one-third of the nation's total and a tenth of the global amount.

By some estimates, the United States has enough coal to take care of its energy needs for 800 years. The new, cleaner technology stores the pollutants in the ground or processes them for other uses.

It would cost upward of $7 billion to build a plant that could turn out 150,000 barrels of synthetic fuel a day, for about $35 a barrel.
Not quite clear what pollutants they are talking about and how exactly it handles them. But if they can do this in an environmentally sound way and create a barrel of synthetic fuel at $35 a barrel this is a promising idea. Up in Canada they will be processing their sand oil tar to create fuel, why we will be processing our coal to do the same.

via New York Times


Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Real $100 Computer

There has been all this talk about this $100 computer that some MIT dude thinks he can create and give it to poor kids all over the world so that the digital divide will go away. Good luck. These ideas that multiple times cheaper than existing technology always fail. We will see how long this takes to either a) become more expensive (which could mean subsidies) or b) fails outright. I knew this was a loser when Jim Cramer was on his show saying how big it is and then said the killer phrase "just imagine how a $100 computer changes things". Exactly. If this were real how could other computers sell for $1000, let alone $500 or $200?

As luck has it, just ran into an article on it here. Trust me, forget the hype this won't work like they are promising (though they did create some cool technology on it that I do approve of. Key quote: "The machine is expected to start mass production late next year". Yeah, we will check again next year and see what went wrong.

But then along comes a much more elegant solution. One that isn't being marketed as a way to fix the digital divide but rather is being sold as a toy to American children. Get rid of the screen and use paper. And sell it for $100. This is what China and the rest of the 3rd world ought to be buying.

Instead, the Fly is a pen - a fat ballpoint pen. (The company says that its focus groups found the term "pentop computer" infinitely sexier than "pen computer." Nobody ever said consumers are logical.)

The Fly is so fat because it contains an AAA battery, a computer chip, a speaker and, mounted half an inch from the ballpoint tip, a tiny camera. For all of its educational, interactive tricks, the Fly pen requires special paper whose surface is imprinted with nearly invisible micro-dots. As you write, the pen always knows where it is on the page, thanks to those dot patterns and the camera that watches them go by.
via New York Times also checkout the Wired writeup.


I Vant to Drink Your Vatts

Most people assume that when they turn off the television set it stops drawing power.

But that's not how most TV's (and VCR's and other electronic devices) work. They remain ever in standby mode, silently sipping energy to the tune of 1,000 kilowatt hours a year per household, awaiting the signal to roar into action.

"As a country we pay $1 billion a year to power our TV's and VCR's while they're turned off," said Maria T. Vargas, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, which sets voluntary standards for energy use, and grants its ratings to the most efficient products.

There are billions of vampires in the United States, drawing more than enough current in the typical house to light a 100-watt light bulb 24/7, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, a research arm of the Energy Department.
I realized this when I pulled out my handy dandy Kill-a-Watt. The Plasma TV is a big gulper. Customers don't care about this because they aren't aware of it. One possible solution this article doesn't propose is to have electricity monitors built into houses so you could see exactly how much electricity each outlet is using.

via New York Times


Friday, November 11, 2005

I Am We Part II

More love for the better 90% of me.

Jeremy K. Nicholson, a pioneer of metabonomics research at Imperial College London, has no doubt that bacteria substantially affect the way the body responds to drugs. "what determines metabolism is largely environmental: how stressed you are, what gut microbes you've got-that turns out to be incredibly important," he argues. For example, many species produce compounds that switch on detoxification enzymes in the liver, and certain microbial metabolites are necessary players in human metabolic pathways.
Yet another sign that this whole idea that once everyone has their genome sequenced we will be able to do personalized medicine is off base. Gotta know what is going on in the gut to understand how drugs will affect you.
"Remarkably, the first paper that enumerated human gut microbiota was published just a few months ago." says Jeffrey I. Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Through genomic sequencing, the paper, by Paul B. Eckburg and his colleagues at Stanford University, estimates at least 400 species in our gut. Each species exists in different strains, multiplying the variation. In humans, microorganisms in the distal intestines may liberate at least 20% of calories by breaking down sugars into more digestible forms.
They didn't even know how many species of microbiota live in our gut until a couple of months ago? Too many scientists out whining about Intelligent design and how no one listens to them about global warming and not enough doing important research. Why did/does the scientific community not find this extremely important to improving human health? Plus, the future of energy is organic. We need the genomes of these little critters to make our ethanol, methanol, methane and hydrogen.

I want to be able to take a test and know how healthy my bacterias are. I wonder how far away we are from that day.

Also interesting that 20%+ of our calories are liberated by microorganisms. Wonder what it is they are digesting? Some type of starch or cellulose or fiber I would assume.

Via SciAm (those bastards want to charge you to read the whole article, sorry)


Thursday, November 10, 2005

I Am We

Most of the cells in your body are not your own, nor are they even human. They are bacterial. From the invisible strands of fungi waiting to sprout between our toes, to the kilogram of bacterial matter in our guts, we are best viewed as walking "superorganisms," highly complex conglomerations of human cells, bacteria, fungi and viruses.

More than 500 different species of bacteria exist in our bodies, making up more than 100 trillion cells. Because our bodies are made of only some several trillion human cells, we are somewhat outnumbered by the aliens. It follows that most of the genes in our bodies are from bacteria, too.
Think that "you" are "you"? Turns out over 90% of "you" are bacterial cells. That is amazing. We should see ourselves as gardens that need to be tended, rather than stand alone entities. Seems like everybody want anti-bacterial this or that and yet I bet hardly anyone realizes how much of "us" is "them".

Sidenote: bacteria derives from the Latin for "share a table for dinner" while anti-biotic means "against life" in Latin.
The human genome provides only scant information. The discovery of how microbes in the gut can influence the body's responses to disease means that we now need more research into this area," said Nicholson. "Understanding these interactions will extend human biology and medicine well beyond the human genome and help elucidate novel types of gene-environment interactions, with this knowledge ultimately leading to new approaches to the treatment of disease."
Really makes you wonder why more science isn't going in to understanding how these guys work. If I go to the doctor, how come he doesn't do tests to figure out how many and healthy the bacteria in my system are? How come he doesn't tell me what kind of diets help out my bacteria?

Any why isn't more emphasis going into sequencing the genomes of these bacteria? How many species live in our stomachs? How much variation is there between people? I want to know.

Sidenote 2: Did you know that you crap out DNA? I had no idea of that until this Freakonomics article on doggie doo. That should make it really easy to get the stomach bacterial DNA, huh?

Via Wired Mag


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Offset Your Airline CO2 Emissions

British Airways now allows you to offset the CO2 emissions created during your flight with an organization called Climate Care.

I have blogged before that all global warming hatred goes towards Hummer drivers and yet frequent flyers emit more carbon dioxide into the environment. A frequent flyer who flys 60,000 miles a year (12 round trip flights coast to coast) creates as much CO2 emissions as a Hummer driver who drives 12,000 miles in a year. Maybe instead of having bronze, silver and gold level of frequent flyers, they should have 1 Hummer at 60,000, 2 Hummer at 120,000 and 3 Hummer at 180,000. See how many people brag about their miles then.

Using the Climate Care Calculator, a round trip from San Francisco to New York (which covers about 5140 miles) creates .93 Tonnes of CO2 (or 2046 lbs for you non metric types). Climate Care will charge you 6.03 pounds (or $10.23 at current conversion rate) to offset this. So if you figure a $300 ticket, this is an extra 3% or a fairly small amount.

Carbon offsetting is based on the principle that we live in an interdependent world and carbon dioxide released by anyone affects everyone. Therefore instead of reducing the CO2 that you emit directly, you can reduce it somewhere else and have the same impact on the environment. This allows you to take the proverbial low hanging fruit, to find the cheapest way to reduce and lower your cost.

Luckily (or not depending on your perspective) there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there. Climate Care works on Efficient stoves in Honduras, Renewable Cooking in India, and Lightening the load in South Africa. The price Climate Care charges is 6.48 pounds/tonne or $10/ton.

I looked around and this appears very cheap. The EUA carbon market in the EU prices one metric tonne of carbon dioxide emissions at €22.65 ($26.60). Not sure why Climate Care, or some other arbiter (or me!) couldn't buy a tonne at around $10 and sell it for $26 on the market.

Bonneville Environmental Foundation charges about $28/ton for their green tags (see previous green tags post). They are using their money to help build solar and wind power plants in the US which apparently is more expensive to do then that renewable cooking in India.

I like this first step that BA is doing. It would be even better when you can go to Expedia and on checkout have an option to offset your carbon, right along with your rental cars and hotels.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Military-Video Game Complex

Tracking the feed from the Predator's camera, Rogers could see rubble where the safe house had been. He and a sensor operator on his crew watched a crowd gather to ogle the destruction. Then a white Dodge pickup rolled up with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun in the back. Five men climbed out, ran into the house, and returned to move the truck to a secluded alley. They began loading ammunition and arc-welding the .50-cal's mount.

Back at Nellis, Rogers wasn't limited to just assessing battle damage. He could also inflict it; his Predator was equipped with two Hellfire laser-guided missiles. Rogers, who flew F-15s (call sign: Smack) before switching to drones, radioed for authorization to destroy the Dodge. He got it.

"We left their truck one big smoking hole," he remembers. "My heart was pumping as we were doing our business. It felt just as real to me, however many thousands of miles away, as if I was sitting right there in that cockpit."

Rogers' Predator is one of more than 1,200 UAVs in the US military arsenal.

In a sense, Clark has been prepping for the job since he was a kid: He plays videogames. A lot of videogames. Back in the barracks he spends downtime with an Xbox and a PlayStation. When he first slid behind the controls of a Shadow UAV, the point and click operation turned out to work much the same way. "You watch the screen. You tell it to roll left, it rolls left. It's pretty simple," Clark says. But this is real life.
As the Wired article describes, the lines between video games and war is blurring. We are now entering the era of the military-video game complex.

I don't understand why Spielberg felt the need to remake War of the Worlds. The movie the world needs right now is a movie which explores these issues. The movie we need is Enders Game.

Now it is possible for one of these drone pilots to be in the barracks playing a first person shooter on Xbox live where he is flying a drone and killing virtual people half way around the globe, then go to work flying a drone half way around the world on a computer screen and killing real people, then go back to the barracks to relax playing some more Xbox. The only thing that makes the second one feel real, is how you think about it. It begs the Matrix "what is real?" question.

If your network is good enough, and those boys in the military certainly have the money to throw at it, you can be flying the drones from anywhere in the world. So why be stationed in Iraq when you could be sitting in California? As Major Rogers puts it:
"Most of the time, I get to fight the war, and go home and see the wife and kids at night."
How strange is it to be flying a drone in Iraq and yet being physically located in California? To actively be participating in the killing of insurgents while having absolutely no chance of being killed yourself. "Fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here" becomes "Fight them over there while we are still living over here".

Talk about outsourcing a war. With bases in the US, Germany and Japan the military can now run drone missions 24 hour a day without ever having to let up.

I remember watching the aerial footage (wmv) of a drone(?) over Afghanistan as it is targeting and then bombing terrorists. It is a grainy black and white with a voice over. You know that it is real and so you have a slightly sick feeling in your stomach as you are watching these people killed. But, it is also easy to switch your frame of reference and view it like a video game forgetting about those people being real and instead feel a little glee as you see the stick figures blowing up on the screen.

The army now finds that new recruits have much better aim and eye hand coordination than previous generations due to all the video games they have been playing growing up. (I swear I read that somewhere a while back, but for the life of me can't find the link to it now. Darn you Google!)

From Engadget we learn:
When polled about their ideal method of control for missile guidance, a group of soldiers basically gravitated towards a highly familiar unit: the PlayStation 2 controller.
You go with what you know, right?

Video games are also becoming a major training tools for the military according to National Defense Magazine:
The Army also has incorporated off-the-shelf video games into vehicle crew training systems. A case in point is the use of the commercial tank simulation "Spearhead II" to train crews on artillery fire control, explained Jerry Speer, program manager at the ArmyÂ’s Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), in Orlando, Fla.

Spearhead, which can be purchased for about $30, was co-developed by Zombie Virtual Reality Studios and Mäk Technologies Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass. It is a tank game featuring multi-player capabilities via the Internet and simulation of mobility and combat interactions.

The game is being used to "drive the operational software of the Army's FBCB2," said Speer. The FBCB2 is the Force XXI battle command prototype software that Army units at brigade and below levels use for command and control in a tactical network. The FBCB2 trainer incorporates the scenarios used in the Spearhead game, Speer explained. "You can use this system in a classroom, to train the digital skills that are perishable.
And the military-video game complex goes the other direction as ABC reports:
The U.S. Army spent more than $4 million in taxpayer money to create a video game as a training tool, but gave itself no way to recoup its investment. When the game was a flop for training purposes, the game developers were free to market the product and rake in huge commercial profits at the stores. The Army got nothing.

Called Full Spectrum Warrior, the combat video game used official military battle tactics and doctrine and was supposed to help train Army recruits who had grown up playing video games, the so-called Xbox generation.


Friday, November 04, 2005

When Lobster was Fertilizer

Demand for lobsters, for example, has evolved in a curious way. The armour-plated delicacy used to be super-abundant and dirt cheap, he says—so cheap that it was fed to inmates in prison and children in orphanages. Farmers even fertilised their fields with it, and servants would bargain with their employers to be given it no more than twice or thrice a week.

As the crustaceans became harder to find, canned lobster ceased to be profitable. Live lobsters, by contrast, grew in status as they became dearer. A meal that cost $4 (in today's money) in the 1870s cost $30 or more a century later. What was once a manure substitute is now a prized delicacy. What the lowliest servant once refused, the swankiest restaurateur now offers with pride.
As one who has always felt that lobster was overrated (and no comparison to the tasty goodness of Dungeness Crab) I find that pretty funny.

Via The Economist


Those Undereducated Europeans

America spends around 3% of its GDP on tertiary education; the European Union only 1.4%. More than a third of Americans have degrees; fewer than a quarter of Europeans do.
Who knew that Americans spend twice as much as Europeans on college education and that we have more college graduates?

Via The Economist


The Male Condition

Really interesting article by Simon Baron-Cohen about the difference between male and female brains and how it relates to autism. Read the whole thing if you get the chance.

In my work I have summarized these differences by saying that males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one's own.

Our research team in Cambridge administered questionnaires on which men and women could report their level of interest in these two aspects of the world - one involving systems, the other involving other people's feelings. Three types of people were revealed through our study: one for whom empathy is stronger than systemizing (Type E brains); another for whom systemizing is stronger than empathy (Type S brains); and a third for whom empathy and systemizing are equally strong (Type B brains). As one might predict, more women (44 percent) have Type E brains than men (17 percent), while more men have Type S brains (54 percent) than women (17 percent).
With data like that it is not surprising that more men become scientists and engineers while women become teachers and nurses. It is not talent or aptitude per se as much as it interest, doing what you are best at and what is most natural for you.

This raises the question of whether we need programs to try and get more women as engineers? I would still probably say yes. If you assume all people with S brains would be good engineers, that would mean on average 23% of them would be women (17%/(17%+54%)). You would want to make sure that those with the skills and aptitude are not put off by the fact that they will be in the minority (and have to put up with a lot of S brain men). But we should not expect that women become 50% of engineers.

Likewise we should have programs that promote men as teachers and nurses as the men with the E type brains will be a minority to the women. We need to make sure they don't end up in a profession that wouldn't enjoy as much or be as good at simply because they want to do the same thing as their male friends.
According to what I have called the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize. When adults with Asperger's syndrome (a subgroup on the autistic spectrum) took the same questionnaires we gave to non-autistic adults, they exhibited extreme Type S brains. Psychological tests reveal a similar pattern.
Interesting to think of autism as extreme maleness. More goodness in the article, so follow the link below.

Via NY Times


Self Driving Cars vs. Flying Cars

Alright, time for another Fat Knowledge "vs." battle.

Futurists seem to talk a lot about self driving cars and flying cars. I believe one of these will be common in 25 years while the other will always just be a toy for the extremely rich. In the audience participation part of this post, it is time for you to choose a camp right now. Ok, have you decided yet? No reading on until you have decided. Got one now? Ok, let see if you are right.

Flying cars will always be a toy for the rich, while self driving cars will become as common as cars are today. Here is why.

Here are the problems with flying cars. First, the gasoline issue. If you think Hummers are bad, flying cars will be much, much worse. There is no way you are going to be able to put a vehicle in the air for the same amount of energy you will use to roll it on the ground. A plane flying 100 people gets about 50 miles/passenger gallon. A bus carrying 100 people will get around 300 miles/passenger gallon. No way a flying car ever gets better or even nearly as good of gas mileage as a car. With the global crunch on oil, I don't see anyway we can greatly increase it with everyone flying their own car.

Second problem, where do you fly them? I see two ways to go here: either you can fly where ever you want or there are "traffic lanes", where you have to fly. If there are traffic lanes, what is the point of flying? You might as well be on the ground. If you can fly where ever you want, that seems scary. If these were popular think about how many of them would be in the air flying around. Now, not only would you have to watch for other flying cars in 2 dimensions but in 3. There are bound to be many more accidents with flying cars than regular cars. Would it be worth taking that extra risk to fly the car? I don't think so. But even as a non-flyer I would be in more risk. Everywhere I go I have to be careful of cars overhead that might get into an accident and crash land on me. Would anyone feel safe walking outside on a Saturday night with all the drunk flyers that you know would be out there?

Third problem, what happens when you run out of fuel, or if there is a mechanical problem that stops the engine? In a car you coast to a stop, potentially dangerous on the freeway, but in general not too bad. In the air, there are all sorts of problems. Will you be able to land right below you? What if you are over water? What if you are over people? What if you are up high?

Due to their increase in fuel usage and their increase in danger, flying cars will never be mainstream. Why are self driving cars the way of the future?

First, who likes driving in traffic? How great would it be to just get in your car, program it where to go and then sit back and read a book, watch TV, talk on the phone, or surf the internet? For those that commute an hour a day, that is a huge time savings.

Second, self driving cars will be safer than human drivers. We can already see where auto-pilots in planes are getting as good and maybe better than human pilots. It is only a matter of time before self-driving cars are better than humans. I know people will at first be afraid of entrusting their lives to a computer. But, people do it all the time with 16 year old drivers, and there is no way that they are safe. Giving up control is much more a psychological issue than a safety/risk issue. But, being able to use that time effectively will be a major reason to give up the control, plus the reality will be that the computer is a better driver. Auto companies have fears of litigation when they build them. But, if they can show that they are safer than normal drivers, it would be in the interest of the insurance companies to insure them. I know it sounds scary that people will be dying due to bugs in the software, but people are already dying by "bugs" in other peoples driving.

Third, the self driving feature in cars will become fairly cheap. This technology will follow the way of Moore's law and decrease in price exponentially over time. In 25 years I would think the self driving car option will be a $2,000 option. Just as air conditioning and radios have become standard issue, so will the self driving car feature.

Fourth, you can start to see the evolution/adoption curve starting to play out. First came the cruise control. Next, radar and infrared was added to see how close a car was to the one in front of it, so even on cruise control you won't hit the car in front of you. Then came the ultrasonic sensors so you won't hit anything when you back up. Then came the Japanese cars that will parallel park themselves. Now GM is using lidar in their Opel Vectra (not to be confused with ligers) that allows the car to tell if any cars are on the side of it.

So we have parking and driving on the freeway covered. We also have GPS and map software everywhere so figuring out how to get from one place to another is solved.

DARPA brought this all to the next level with their Grand Challenge. Last year no car was able finish the course. This year 4 were. This proves that cars can self navigate and avoid obstacles. And while the technology was impressive, it wasn't that impressive. The winner only used 7 Intel-based Pentium CPU's for the brains of the operation.

I see long haul trucking as one of the first places to use this (and possibly one of the first to go completely without any drivers at all). They are already expensive, they are used more hours out of the year than any normal car and if they can slightly reduce the number of accidents, or improve efficiency the upgrade will pay for itself.

5 years from now we have cars that have intelligent cruise control, can parallel park themselves, and can follow GPS instructions on high end cars. Basically they can more or less drive themselves. 10 years from now it becomes more common and possibly it is legal for a self driving car to run (as long as a driver is in the car).

So, there you have it. In 20 years, self driving cars will be as common as air-conditioning or the radio, while flying cars will be as rare as private jets.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ethanol and Corn

After writing this post on switchgrass and this one on Brazil and Ethanol on how I thought biofuels were the future, I came upon this article about a study by Tad W. Patzek that claimed more fossil energy is used to produce ethanol from corn than is produced in the ethanol. So I decided to bite the bullet and read his full report (.pdf) so I could better understand what he was saying and see if this would change my faith in biofuels.

The report was a bear. I can't recommend it to read. It was tough to understand where his numbers came from and how he was going from one step to another. And anyone who writes in a scientific report

Thus, the environment defined here cannot be dismissed summarily as the raving of a green lunatic.
(his italics not mine) makes me a little leery on the results. So I checked with some other sources (really easy to find tons of ethanol energy reports with Google) and I have a decent grasp on it now. For this post I will go with Mr. "I am not a raving green lunatic"'s numbers because I know where to find his numbers and all the reports are within 20% or so of each other.

There are lots of things that are worthy of discussion here, but I am just going to look at energy losses/gains (ignoring other environmental issues like soil degradation and by product gains like corn syrup and oil). I think it makes more sense to look at this in two parts: creation of the corn and turning the corn into ethanol.

1) Creation of the Corn
To over simplify this step: you take your corn seeds, use some fertilizer, take some energy from the sun and create lots of corn.

Energy inputs (fertilizer+diesel fuel) + energy captured from sun = energy in corn

27 GJ of energy inputs (fossil fuels of some type)+ 57 GJ from sunlight = 84 GJ of energy in corn per ha (hectare = 2.4 acres)

Brief Aside 1: How good is corn as a way to capture solar energy?
About 20 TJ/ha of sunlight falls over 120 days, so only (57GJ/20TJ=) .285% of solar energy is turned into starch. This certainly makes the solar cells 14% efficiency seem impressive. Extra energy is absorbed by the corn that is not turned into starch but still this only gets you to .7%.

Brief Aside 2: Would it make sense to go "organic" and not use fertilizer?
I guess this depends on how you look at it and what you are comparing to. It is safe to assume that the average corn yield in the U.S. has increased 5-fold over the last 70 years. For example, in Indiana (Nielsen, 2002), the average corn yield was 30 bushels per acre in 1930 and 156 bushels per acre in 2001. The steadily improving yield resulted mostly from the increased fertilizer use and better corn genetics.

Ignoring the corn genetics, the farmers are currently using about 10 GJ/ha of energy in fertilizers. But, their crop energy yield has gone up 5 times from 16.8 GJ to 84 GJ. So this "investment" of 10 GJ in fertilizer energy lead to (84-16.8=) 67 GJ in new corn energy. So I think the fertilizer is a good energy investment.

2) Turning Corn into Ethanol
To over simplify this one (a better explanation here), you take the corn starch, put it in big heated vats with yeast, get ethanol and some non-energy byproducts (corn oil, corn protein, corn syrup), and distill the ethanol to 96% purity.

From an energy perspective (sticking with our per ha reference from before):
84 GJ of energy in corn + 48 GJ in fossil energy = 70 GJ of ethanol

So in total here you are going from 84GJ+48GJ= 132 GJ and getting 70 GJ in return, or a loss of almost 50% energy.

The first part of this energy loss is that taken by the yeast as they ferment the glucose in the corn grain into industrial beer. This is about a 16% energy loss (84GJ of corn going to 70GJ ethanol).

Brief Aside 3: How does the biochemistry of fermentation work?
page has all sort of neat information on the biochemistry of the transformation and here is the chemical reaction:

C6H12O6 (glucose) + 2 Pi + 2 ATP + 2 ADP--> 2 C2H5OH (ethanol)+ 2 CO2 + 4 ATP +heat + biomass

All that work, and all the yeast get for their trouble are two lousy ATPs. But, that is where the energy "loss" goes. They also estimate that:
Approximately - 95% of sugar is converted into ethanol.
Approximately - 1% is converted into cell material
Approximately - 4% is converted into other end products (other metabolites).
Some ethanol is lost from the wine to the atmosphere
The second part of the energy loss in this step is in the use of fossil fuels (mainly coal and natural gas). The fossil fuel energy to heat the vats and transport the fuel and other stuff (which I don't completely understand) takes almost 70% (48GJ/70GJ) of the energy that you get in the ethanol. Even if you assume that no fossil energy is needed to create your corn, this step still kills you. To make ethanol more viable there need to be serious reductions here.

Brief Aside 4: Can Genetic Engineering come to the rescue here?
One interesting idea is using a little genetic engineering to create better yeasts. Craig Venter and his boys over at Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), are
looking into this (when he isn't traveling around to exotic locations, scuba diving and capturing and sequencing new species of bacteria).

article has research creating a yeast that allows noncooking and low-temperature-cooking fermentation systems that have succeeded in reducing energy consumption by approximately 50%.

Total Energy Balance:
When you put the two steps together (per ha):
27 GJ of energy inputs (fossil fuels of some type)+ 57 GJ from sunlight = 84 GJ of energy in corn
84 GJ of energy in corn + 48 GJ in fossil energy = 70 GJ of ethanol

You get 27 GJ fossil fuel in creating the corn + 48 GJ fossil fuel energy creating the ethanol = 76 GJ fossil fuel inputs and 70GJ of ethanol output. You lose 76-70 = -6GJ or -6/70 = 7% energy on the whole thing. This number changes depending on what report you look at and what assumptions are used but even in best case scenarios only a 10% gain.

Brief Aside 5: What if you look at ethanol as a way of "driving on coal"?
Another way to look at this is that you are converting low value energy sources like coal and natural gas into a liquid energy that can easily be used in cars. In this way, it is similar to techniques that turn coal or natural gas into synthetic gasoline.
As this
breakdown shows: 212,674 BTU of ethanol takes 137,750 BTU of Coal (64%), 28,547 BTU of Natural Gas (13.4%), and 30,000 BTU of diesel and gasoline (14%). The entire process doesn't create any energy but rather transforms coal and natural gas into a higher value energy source.

If you support energy independence for the US, you can look at this as a way of converting US coal into a fuel that Americans can drive. On the other hand, if you find coal to be dirty, cause air pollution, and give off more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, then the idea of your "clean corn" ethanol actually being 64% dirty coal isn't so comforting.

I had liked the idea of ethanol because I thought of it as a way to harness solar energy and turn into a liquid fuel to power our existing vehicles. Instead of collecting the solar energy with solar panels that would make the land an eyesore(and then somehow turn that electricity into a form that could be used in a car), we could dot the land with corn stalks.

Turns out that once you account for the fossil fuel usage to create ethanol very little (if any) of the energy is solar. Instead it is coal and natural gas. I can no longer be excited about ethanol, as it is currently being made from corn, from an environmental standpoint.

What would it take to make me like ethanol in the future?

If the distillation fossil energy could be cut in half (which seems very possible given the research into it), then the ethanol would have a positive energy balance of 27% and would capture 19GJ of sunlight energy per ha. It would go back to a way of harnessing sunlight for a portable fuel.

But, at 27%, or lets go 25% to make number easy, you would need 1/.25 = 4 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy. So the estimates I had before about how much land would be need to devote to fuel crops to fuel all the cars in the US in a sustainable manner would need to be quadrupled.


Mortgage Deduction is Anti-Poor, Anti-Green

Pres Bush's Tax simplification team came back and suggested redoing the way that it works. For some reason Americans are in love with this tax break. Personally, I think it discriminates against the poor and the environment.

For all the talk of bolstering home ownership, said Edward L. Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard, the mortgage tax deduction has done very little to help people into homes. He said the subsidy to taxpayers implicit in the deduction had varied widely over the last 40 years, going up and down with the fluctuation of inflation and interest rates. Yet home ownership over the period has drifted in a band of 63 to 69 percent. And home ownership levels in other affluent countries without such subsidies are generally no lower than in the United States.

Instead, what the subsidy has done is encourage people to build and buy bigger and more expensive houses. "The deduction increases the amount spent on housing," Mr. Glaeser said, "but it has almost no effect on the home ownership rate."
Bigger houses means anti-green. The larger the house the more negatively it affects the environment. They take more energy and resources to build and to heat/cool and maintain. Large houses are the SUVs of the housing market (hmm, would be interesting to compare the environmental impact of downgrading from a large house to a small house vs. changing from a Hummer to a Prius, ahh for another day).
Today, most of the mortgage tax advantages accrue to the rich rather than struggling first-time homeowners. More than 55 percent of the mortgage tax subsidy last year, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, accrued to just 12 percent of taxpayers with incomes above $100,000.

Low-income homeowners often do not claim the deduction, opting instead to take the $10,000 standard deduction available to families. Turning the deduction into a tax credit would equalize its value and make it available to more people on the lower end of the market.
And here we see that the tax discriminates against the poor. For all the yelling the Democrats did on Bush's tax cuts for the rich, where are they with this tax break which disproportionately favors the wealthy?

Via NY Times


More Chickens the Cure for Avian Flu

Today's sign that God enjoys irony.

Today's flu vaccines are prepared in fertilized chicken eggs, a method developed more than 50 years ago. The eggshell is cracked, and the influenza virus is injected into the fluid surrounding the embryo. The egg is resealed, the embryo becomes infected, and the resulting virus is then harvested, purified and used to produce the vaccine. And if you want to supply the U.S. with flu vaccine, you have to break about 100 million.
In order to protect us from the chickens, we need --- more chickens???

Via SciAm


1 Billion Hours of TV Watched a Day in the US

Actually it is a little more than that. In this article Nielsen Media Research says the average individual watches TV for 4 hours and 32 minuts a day. With the CIA putting the US population at 295 million, that gets us to 1.33 billion hours of TV a day in the US or almost 500 billion hours a year.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Abortion Stats

The supreme court battle over Alito appears to be all about abortion. Any yet, the media does not appear to want to delve into this issue so that you can have an informed opinion. On TV you usually just get a nut job from the right debating a nut job from the left each throwing out their over simplified talking points of the day. Maybe this is because the issue hasn't really changed much in the last 30 years, so maybe they figure that people already know this stuff. Whatever the case, I found that I really didn't have a feel for how prevalent abortion is in the US, who has them and under what circumstances. And unlike so many of the issues in the culture war, this is a real issue that has major impacts on most American lives (as opposed to teaching of Intelligent Design, displaying the 10 Commandments, gay marriage, or whether Under God is in the Pledge of Allegiance).

So I was happy to find this blog post on this report (.pdf) to answer some of these questions. I would recommend reading the post or report (they are about the same and neither is that long), and I will just highlight a couple of points.

In a typical year in the US there are about 4.1 million live births, 1.3 million abortions, and 900,000 miscarriages. 21% of all pregnancies end in abortion, 14% in miscarriage, and 65% in birth. Put another way, more than 1 in 5 pregnancies end in abortion and when miscarriages are factored out, nearly 1 in 4 end in abortion.

1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by the time they reach 45.

For every 100 pregnancies in America, 52 were planned and 48 were unplanned. Among the 48% of pregnancies that were unintended, the percentage of abortions to live births is 54% to 46%.

Of the 46 million abortions that are performed in the world each year, 20 million (44%) occur in countries where the procedure is illegal and only 3% occur in the US.
And to take their numbers and analyze them further (and assuming I am doing my math right):

The average American woman has 1.8 children and .45 (1.8/4) abortions.

By the age of 45, 66% of women have had no abortions, 17% had 1, 9% had 2, 4% had 3, and 3% had 4+.


Wal-Mart Announces Green Initiatives

Wal-Mart's chief executive is set to announce on Tuesday a set of sweeping, specific environmental goals to reduce energy use in its stores, double its trucks' fuel efficiency, minimize its use of packaging and pressure thousands of companies in its worldwide supply chain to follow its lead.

His goals, he said, are to invest $500 million in technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases from stores and distribution centers by 20 percent over the next seven years; increase the fuel efficiency of the truck fleet by 25 percent over the next three years and double it within 10 years, and design a new store within four years that is at least 25 percent more energy-efficient.

The company's environmental initiative includes improving energy efficiency at its 1,876 supercenters, which now consume an average of 1.5 million kilowatts of electricity annually, according to Tara Stewart, a spokeswoman for the company.

Mr. Scott said that as the largest buyer of manufactured goods in the world, Wal-Mart has the power to encourage its more than 60,000 suppliers to adopt environmentally conscious business practices.
If they follow through with this, that is some major good news.

But just when you are starting to like Wal-Mart they go and prove that they really are still dicks:
An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart's board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer's reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.

Text of Internal Wal-Mart Memo In the memorandum, M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits, also recommends reducing 401(k) contributions and wooing younger, and presumably healthier, workers by offering education benefits. The memo voices concern that workers with seven years' seniority earn more than workers with one year's seniority, but are no more productive.

To discourage unhealthy job applicants, Ms. Chambers suggests that Wal-Mart arrange for "all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering)."
Jared Diamond's book Collapse points out how the oil companies had to clean up their act in order to be able to recruit the best and brightest out of colleges and grad schools. Likewise GE spends considerable effort in trying to recruit the cream of the crop and therefore need to make the company a place that young people are proud to work for. Hence college idealism actually impacts corporate behavior.

I have wondered if part of Wal-Mart's issues stems from the fact that they choose to promote from within rather than recruit from the nations best schools. Without the need to attract these students, they don't have to promote the larger social issues that are important to these students. So maybe the best way to get Wal-Mart to focus on these issues is not to attack them directly on it, but rather encourage them to hire more students from the top universities, which will get there in a round about way.

via NY Times 1 & 2


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Quick Monkey Facts

1) Chimpanzees are 6-7 times stronger than humans - (1) (2)

2) An adult gorilla's erect penis is about 1.5 inches - (1) (2)

Why is this important you ask?

Because you never know when you are going to rub a lamp and out pops a Genie. And as everyone knows from watching TV that Genies are very mischievous and always trying to get you to misuse your 3 wishes. So your Genie might ask you "would you like to be hung like a gorilla or as strong as a chimpanzee?". Being deceitfully clever, the Genie might even tell you that it is a freebie and won't count against your wishes (that's just how Genies roll). Without these quick monkey facts you would have bought into the media's propaganda that chimps are friendly little coworker buddies that barely have enough strength to hit the copier button and gorillas are testosterone laden beasts that beat the hell out of luggage. You would think this is a no brainer, and you would be screwed.


Google Wants to Dominate Madison Avenue, Too

Interesting article on Google over at NY Times. A little long, but a good read. Here are my highlights:

This year, Google will sell $6.1 billion in ads, nearly double what it sold last year, according to Anthony Noto, an analyst at Goldman Sachs. That is more advertising than is sold by any newspaper chain, magazine publisher or television network. By next year, Mr. Noto said, he expects Google to have advertising revenue of $9.5 billion. That would place it fourth among American media companies in total ad sales after Viacom, the News Corporation and the Walt Disney Company, but ahead of giants including NBC Universal and Time Warner.
Those are crazy numbers. Almost $10 billion in ad revenue and they are only a little over 5 years old. When I look at Google, I see a company that's success is based on two simple to explain things that were extremely hard to do right: the best web search (based on the idea of ranking pages based on how pages linked to each other) and how to put adds in with search results that were relevant and not distracting. And that is all you need to get $10 billion. But I didn't realize how good and complex the ad part is.
Google introduced its current system for determining which ad to show on which page late last year. It is a wonder of technology that rivals its search engine in complexity. For every page that Google shows, more than 100 computers evaluate more than a million variables to choose the advertisements in its database to display - and they do it in milliseconds. The computers look at the amount bid and the budget of the advertiser, but they also consider the user - such as his or her location, which they try to infer by analyzing the user's Internet connections - as well as the time of day and myriad other factors Google has tracked and analyzed from its experience with advertisements.
100 computers, 1 million variables! And yet, whatever I search on I always get the same: "Browse a huge selection now, Find exactly what you want today,". I could do that with 1 computer and 1 variable.

And just like Ebay was able to come up with a model that created new middle class jobs as at-home merchants, so has the Google advertising allowed for the creation of new middle-class jobs as stay at home bloggers.
In addition to selling ads on its own site and on other sites that use its search technology, Google also places text ads on all manner of sites published both by professional media companies and by amateurs. Mr. Brin created this program in early 2003 after he became worried that the Internet crash would keep people from creating interesting Web pages for Google to index. This technology, called AdSense for Content, has made advertising on Google more attractive and provided the economic foundation for the rise of blogs.
So, what isn't to like about Google? How about the lack of transparency?
"Google is very opaque and bizarre to deal with," said Joshua Stylman, a managing partner at Reprise Media.
For a company that's first rule is do no evil, they should really think about how hard that is to do without also promoting transparency. To toss out 3 quotes (where really 1 would be sufficient):
Where secrecy or mystery begins, vice or roguery is not far off - Samuel Johnson

Corruption thrives where things are hidden - Joseph Stiglitz

Sunlight is the best disinfectant - US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

Long term I just think that you need the check of openness and transparency to stop people from cutting the little corners that leads to more cuts and cover ups which leads to evil.

Their ads are old sold in a market system, but that market is not open at all to allow people to really understand how it works. Are people being over charged? Who really knows?
There is a growing sense that a significant number of clicks that advertisers pay for are fraudulent - made by competitors trying to deplete advertising budgets or by Web sites trying to bolster the revenue they get for displaying the ads. Google says it has technology to minimize what is called click fraud, but many people in the Internet business are skeptical that the incidence of fraud is as low as Google contends.
Google also "gives" ads away to nonprofits, which by putting them in competition in the market system with the paying adds raises the rates of all the other advertisers on the page (and allows a tax write off for Google). Of course, I don't know that for sure because the whole thing is secret, but from what I do know it appears that it works this way.

On the other hand, advertisers make their decisions on how much in total they have to pay and what the results are for that money. So even if competitors are faking clicks and nonprofits are causing the ads to be more expensive, since they are still buying the ads it must still be a good deal for them. Put another way, Google could get rid of these issues and instead charge more for their ads and the advertisers would be in the exact same spot.

Via New York Times


Saturday, October 29, 2005

HapMap Catalogue of Human Genetic Variation Published

The completion of the first phase of the so-called HapMap – a haplotype map of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – was announced at a press conference in Salt Lake City, site of the American Society of Human Genetics convention.

The genomes of unrelated individuals vary on average at one DNA base per 1,000, or some 3 million locations across the human genome. In total, there are thought to be about 10 million single-base variations, or SNPs, in the human genome.

The published Phase I version has more than 1 million mapped SNPs. However, the data for Phase II have already been generated, consisting of an additional 2.8 million SNPs.
That is pretty cool research. In the future I figure we will all carry our mapped genome with us, on our iPod or something. How much space would it take? The human genome is around 3.2 billion base pairs, and we each have 2 sets of chromosomes so that gets to 6.4 bil base pairs. Divide by 4 to turn base pairs into bytes and you get 1.6GB. So you would have to take up almost 1/2 of the memory in your new 4GB iPod Nano.

But, what if instead we though of our ourselves as being just the diff between the standard genome (which I think ended up being a lot of Craig Venter) and our personal genome. Then instead of needing 6.4 bil base pairs, we need just our SNPs, or about 3 million bp. 3 mil bp in bytes ends up being 750 KB. That is tiny! Less than the size of a song on an iPod, it would fit on those old 1.4MB floppies. Heck, it almost would fit into the 640KB RAM of the old PCs. Now you could put it on almost any portable media and it would be a rounding error.

Via Bio-IT World