Thursday, April 28, 2005

Don't Read this Post

I'm getting all this crap email in my gmail account from fools who have the wrong email for their friends and end up sending it to me. So I am reading this one email and get to the bottom and read this standard legalese:

The contents of this message may be privileged and confidential. Therefore, if this message has been received in error, please delete it without reading it. Your receipt of this message is not intended to waive any applicable privilege. Please do not disseminate this message without the permission of the author.
Ahh, did it just say "if this message has been received in error, please delete it without reading it"? How in the hell would you be able to know that unless you read the message? There are dumb legal statements and there ones that are so completely and utterly ridiculous that it blows your mind. I looked up the address of the sender and it turns out it is the law firm WINSTON & STRAWN LLP. If this is the quality of their work I think I would stay away from using these guys.


Larry Summers on Womens Education

Larry Summers sure has become controversial for the comments he made about women and science. I happened to come across another controversial statement he made quoted in the book Eco-Economy, this time about trying to educate every girl in the world currently not being educated.

Lawrence Summers estimated that an investment of $2.3 billion to educate girls in primary and secondary schools would yield 20% annually. Each additional year of female education reduces fertility by roughly 10%. It would take adding 25 million girls to current primary education at $938 million/year and 21 million girls to secondary school at $1.4 billion/year.

This IRR is much higher than the maximum of 6% governments are getting on the roughly $1 trillion they are planning to spend on new power generating plants.


US vs. Chilean Social Security

The Social Security debate in the US is so theoretical with people throwing out crazy possibilities of what could happen if we privatized the system. So I was glad to see this article where someone compares actual numbers of the US Social Security plan vs. Chile's privatized system. John Tierney compares the Social Security benefit he is going to get with the one his friend in Chile will get.

I wanted to compare our pensions to see the results of an accidental experiment that began in 1961, when he and I were friends in second grade at a school in Chile. He remained in Chile and became the test subject; I returned to America as the control group.

As it happened, our countries have required our employers to set aside roughly the same portion of our income, a little over 12 percent, which pays for disability insurance as well as the pension program.

We came up with three projections for my old age, each one offering a pension that, like Social Security's, would be indexed to compensate for inflation:
1) Retire in 10 years, at age 62, with an annual pension of $55,000. That would be more than triple the $18,000 I can expect from Social Security at that age.

(2) Retire at age 65 with an annual pension of $70,000. That would be almost triple the $25,000 pension promised by Social Security starting a year later, at age 66.

(3)Retire at age 65 with an annual pension of $53,000 and a one-time cash payment of $223,000.
Two similar people, one gets 3 times the benefit of the other when both set aside roughly the same amount through their careers. This is why I find the Democrat's stance of "guaranteed benefit vs. guaranteed gamble" so frustrating. Some gambles are worth taking. Is this one of them? For 3 times the benefit, I would sign up in a heart beat.

Now that being said, Chile's situation when they privatized and the current US situation are very different so the results could also be very different. But lets have that debate.

via New York Times


Friday, April 22, 2005

The ONE Campaign

I really like this campaign at

The ONE Campaign seeks to give Americans a voice, to ring church bells and cell phones, on campuses and in coffee shops, for an historic pact to fight the global AIDS emergency and end extreme poverty. We believe that allocating an additional ONE percent of the U.S. budget toward providing basic needs like health, education, clean water and food, would transform the futures and hopes of an entire generation of the poorest countries. ONE percent of the U.S. budget is $25 billion, and redirecting that much money would have to be done over time.
Instead of asking for money directly, they are asking that you go to the site and sign the declaration to get the US government to help fund this. I also like this because from the polls I have seen Americans believe that they are already giving 5% of taxes to foreign aid. So you have a campaign that says "hey we are just asking for 1/5 of what you thought you were already giving". Seems like a no brainer.

Bono and other celebrities are helping out. It's just too bad that none of them had written a song called One that they could use for this. :)


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

China's People Problem

CAN China—population 1.3 billion—really be running short of people? In many of the most important parts of its booming economy, the answer, increasingly, is yes. Though China has a vast pool of unskilled labour, firms in the south now complain that they cannot recruit enough cheap factory and manual workers. The market is even tighter for skilled labour.

The particular shortages mentioned most often are of creativity, of an aptitude for risk-taking and, above all, of an ability to manage—in everything from human resources and accounting to sales, distribution, branding and project-management.

Its Confucian heritage, which emphasises rote learning and hierarchy, may partly explain why many graduates, despite good paper qualifications and English language skills, are often cautious about taking the initiative. Some firms complain that China's one-child policy has made it harder for them to find natural team-players.


Friday, April 15, 2005

US Wages Going Down

Even though the economy added 2.2 million jobs in 2004 and produced strong growth in corporate profits, wages for the average worker fell for the year, after adjusting for inflation - the first such drop in nearly a decade.

The most commonly used yardstick of wages - the Bureau of Labor Statistics' measure of nonsupervisory private-sector workers, covering 80 percent of the labor force - fell 0.5 percent last year, after inflation. Real wages for these workers are now lower, on average, than two years ago. A broader measure, the employment cost index, which includes supervisors, managers and most government workers, dropped 0.9 percent.
Not really good news. I find it ironic that one of proposed solutions to the Social Security is to index Social Security benefits to inflation rather than wages. Under the current assumptions, wage growth should exceed inflation by 30% over 30-40 years. So if benefits were indexed to inflation not wages this is thought to be a way to solve the funding problem (and also allows some to consider it a "30% cut in benefits for future retirees").

Aside: how stupid is the American youth? I have seen polls that a vast majority don't believe that social security will be around for their retirement, and yet another poll shows that the youth don't want to see a benefit cut as a way to fix the Social Security problem. Huh? Who are these people that don't believe they will see anything, and then when offered 70% of what they would have gotten, reject it? I just don't get the thought process.

But now with this article it is not clear that wage growth is linked to productivity as it was in the past or that wage growth will exceed inflation for the foreseeable future. So maybe workers would get a higher benefit if Social Security was linked to inflation rather than wages.

Why the change?

1) Globalization. The threat of outsourcing is allowing employeers to keep wages flat. As Bill Gates has said, over time the wages for a software engineer doing the same work will equilibrate between all nations in the world. In order to do that, Chinese and Indian wages have a long way to go up.
"These factors aren't going to go away," he said. "The competitive pressures for companies to hold the line on labor costs are intense, and the alternatives they have - technological substitution and offshoring labor - are growing."
2) Wal-Mart.
Laurie Piazza, a Safeway cashier in Santa Clara, Calif., said she reluctantly voted to approve a pay freeze in the first two years of her union's three-year contract because Safeway insisted that it needed to hold down costs to compete with Wal-Mart. Her take-home pay will fall $20 a week because the contract reduces the premium for working on Sundays to 33 percent of regular pay, from 50 percent.
via The New York Times


Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Genographic Project

National Geographic and IBM are hooking up to study the migration of humans over the last 60,000 years. They are calling it the Genographic Project. Basically they are collecting DNA from a ton of people to figure out where the similarities are and therefore who has common ancestors.

New DNA studies suggest that all humans descended from a single African ancestor who lived some 60,000 years ago. To uncover the paths that lead from him to every living human, the National Geographic Society today launched the Genographic Project at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The project is a five-year endeavor undertaken as a partnership between IBM and National Geographic. It will combine population genetics and molecular biology to trace the migration of humans from the time we first left Africa, 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, to the places where we live today.

The cool part is that for $100 they send you a kit so you can collect your DNA and send it back to them. Your DNA will be added to the study and you can find out where your ancestors came from. I signed up for a kit so I will see where I am from.

The part I don't get is that if both my parents were to take the test, then wherever their ancestors came from, obviously those are also my ancestors. But if I were to also take the test, it would only show me as having only 1/2 the ancestors my parents did because I only have 1/2 the combined DNA of my parents (1/2 from my Mom and 1/2 from my Dad). Likewise if my sister and I took the test, we obviously have the same ancestors, but I bet it would show different things because we have different DNA (but we would both only have subsets of our parents DNA/ancestors). So while I can see where this test can tell me where some of my ancestors came from, I can't see it is even possible for it to know where all of my ancestors came from.

Still, all and all cool stuff.

Read More... Monkey


This is too funny. After purchasing the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich for $28,000, is back at it.

The Internet casino paid $650,000 for the right to name the newly discovered foot-high primate, online auction house announced Wednesday. won a March 3 online auction that raised money to help manage Madidi National Park in Bolivia, where the species of titi monkey was discovered by a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist last year.

"This species will bear our name for as long as it exists," Rowe said. "Hundreds, even thousands of years from now, the Monkey will live to carry our name through the ages."
Surprisingly the Latin name is much less tacky: Callicebus aureipalatii.



Saturday, April 09, 2005

Nukes Are Green

Kristof is urging that we look at Nuclear power as a greener power as it doesn't emit any greenhouse gases. Although I am not convinced on the dire predictions of global warming (yes, I think greenhouse gases warm the earth, no, I am not sure that scientists can accurately predict the future warming amount (it seems like this is as hard as predicting the weather, so as soon as they can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow with 99% accuracy then I will trust them), and no I am not sure a warming earth will definitely be bad for humans or life on earth though there will definitely will be regional global climate change winners and losers) I agree with his basic thesis regardless of the greenhouse gases because of this part:

Is it safe? No, not entirely. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl demonstrated that, and there are also risks from terrorist attacks.

America's biggest power source is now coal, which kills about 25,000 people a year through soot in the air. To put it another way, nuclear energy seems much safer than our dependency on coal, which kills more than 60 people every day.
Although I am not sure where he gets the 25,000 number from (do they put "soot" as the cause of death on the death certificate?), I would not be surprised if the number was in that ballpark. And yet people are not worried about coal energy because it happens in such a diffuse way that the media can't turn it into a story, and if it isn't a story in the media people don't see it as the threat it is (in the excellent book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz has a study that shows the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents' estimates of the frequency of death were almost perfectly correlated). Likewise, no one would ever fly an airline that had 35,000 deaths a year and yet none of us think twice to drive in a car where that many deaths happen a year in the US.
Radioactive wastes are a challenge. But burdening future generations with nuclear wastes in deep shafts is probably more reasonable than burdening them with a warmer world in which Manhattan is submerged under 20 feet of water.
I wish he would have quantified the nuclear waste issue a little more. Not really sure how bad things are if terrorists were able to blow some up. Ironically, if we switched from coal to nuclear and there was one nuclear accident a year that killed 12,500 people, that would still be 1/2 the death rate of coal, but I doubt anyone would find that consoling.

I also don't see the impact of rising sea levels being the worst in Manhattan. I am pretty sure they would be able to adapt with dikes ala the Netherlands where coincidentally the lowest point is 6.7 m (22 ft) below mean sea level, immediately to the northeast of Rotterdam. But I bet Bangladesh would be totally screwed.

via New York Times


Thursday, April 07, 2005

US Foreign Debt

America’s 12-month current-account deficit now stands at $665.9 billion, or 5.7% of GDP. Since a negative balance in the current account must be complemented by a positive balance in the capital account, this means that foreign funds are streaming in. America is mortgaging its future to pay for current spending.
More than half of publicly trade Treasury bonds are held by foreigners. That is kind of scary. Looks like lots of the increase happened during Clinton's time, but then went to the next level with Bush.
The natural adjustment mechanism for America’s rapidly growing foreign liabilities would be a declining dollar, which would lower demand for imports and make America’s exports more attractive on foreign markets. But the Asian central banks are stalling this process because they want to keep their currencies from appreciating against the dollar and thus becoming less competitive—and buying sackloads of dollars and then dumping them into US Treasuries achieves just that. This simply enables America to borrow more, making the inevitable adjustment sharper when it comes
Both the US and Asia are going to be screwed when this happens.



Toyota: Hydrogen Cars are Lame

Not so at Toyota. Hybrid vehicles are showing up all over US roads because the Japanese carmaker has thrown its full weight behind the technology. The company has its own fuel cell prototype in the works, but executives are quick to note that the Prius is actually more efficient when you factor in how much energy it takes to produce the hydrogen fuel in the first place. And unlike hydrogen cars, hybrids work with the current energy infrastructure.
Yet another source saying that hydrogen cars don't make any sense. Why would you want a hydrogen car if a hybrid is more efficient?
Right now, there are about 800 million cars in active use. By 2050, as cars become ubiquitous in China and India, it'll be 3.25 billion.
I thought we had 500-600 million cars today, but what is a few million cars between friends? Wow, 3.25 billion is a big number. I just don't see how the earth can support that many. And for the life of me, I don't see why China is building its transportation plan around cars. I have always thought that cars make sense in suburbs and poorly designed cities (aka Los Angeles and Silicon Valley), but if you were building a city from scratch that had over a million people (and China has a lot of those) I would put in good mass transportation ala Tokyo or NYC. Once you get too many people, cars just cause a lot of traffic and don't get you anywhere fast ala Bangkok, not even thinking about the environmental issues. You can just get places quicker in a dense city via a subway than via a car in traffic. For as good of central planners as the Chinese are, I think they are really screwing the pooch here and are going to turn China into a whole bunch of Los Angeleses.

via Wired


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Google Satellite Maps

Google add satellite photos to their Maps feature. Pretty cool.

Check out:
The White House (also check out the Congress building, by going south east on the road from the white house until it dead ends. For some reason they purposely make that blurry, but not the white house. Guess someone has their security priorities right)
Bill Gates' house (Zoom in all the way. It is still hard to make out, but look for the red dock that has dots above it in the water like buoys, and his special sand beach with imported sand. The house is to the right. It is partially hidden underground and in trees.)
Ground Zero

It is also fun to check out your own house and to zoom out all the way and look at the entire earth.


Cows vs. Cars: Greenhouse Gases

I was curious about the impact of one cow vs. one car in terms of greenhouse gases emitted. A cow doesn't emit carbon dioxide (well not that much) but rather methane gas as a byproduct of the bacteria that are digesting the grasses in its stomachs (yes a cow has 4 stomachs). So I tracked down some facts and figures:

A gallon of gasoline turns into 20 pounds of CO2 (source)
Average car drives 15,000 miles a year and gets 30 mpg (my estimates, might be a little high on the mpg estimate)
15,000 miles /30mpg = 500 gallons of gasoline a year * 20 pounds = 10,000 lbs of CO2 a year

A cow produces up to 90kg of methane a year (source .pdf)
Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (source)
90 kg * 2.2 lb/kg = 200 lbs of methane * 20 = 4,000 lbs of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases

A car emits 2.5 times as much greenhouse gases as a cow. Amazing that a cow emits that much and yet gets very little talk in terms of environment impact.

What about total world impact? There are 1.5 billion cows and buffalos (I am assuming that buffalos have similar methane outputs) (source from Eco-Economy using Amazon's search in book feature) and 532 million cars (same source different page). Using the 2.5 factor, cows emit 112% as much as the cars. This means cows have just as big an impact as cars and maybe even slightly more in terms of global warming. Maybe we should be focusing on making our cows more efficient rather than our cars.

What about 3rd world vs. 1st? In the land of the holy cow (that's India, not old school Gotham City) there are 313 million cows. In the land of the holy car (that's the US, as if I have to tell you) there are 200 million cars (source). US's cars emit 200 * 2.5/313 = 1.6 times as much as India's cows. The US still comes out on top in our polluting ways, but not by nearly as much as I would have assumed.

So then I was wondering, what if you could collect the methane from cows? What if instead of letting the methane go into the atmosphere where it causes harm, what if you capture it and use it as fuel, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels (methane is natural gas for those of you that didn't take o-chem)? I'm imagining a sci-fi like device with a tube that is inserted into one of the cow's stomachs that draws off the methane gas into a balloon on the side of the cow. Then when the cow goes into to get milked, you could siphon off the methane into a holding tank and then use it to heat your farm. Toss in a little generator and you could be producing electricity with it. Convert your car and you could be running your internal combustion engine on it. When I ran the numbers, it looks like methane sells for $0.172 /kg (source .pdf) * 90 kg = $15.50/yr in methane. Not a ton, but nothing to sneeze at either. Or as this document puts it:

This equates to about 120 litres of petrol which means a 200 cow herd would produce enough methane (24,000 litres petrol equivalents) per year to run an average sized car

And just when I thought that capturing the methane from the cows was an original idea, I run into this discussion board:
I've heard that cow flatuents (farts!) produce such an abundance of methane that it contributes to global warming. Has anyone heard or seen anyone trying to harness these cow farts? I have this funny image in my head of cows with tanks on their back with a tube going you know where. It would be an interesting way to make a living. Being a Cow Fart Tycoon.
Damn, I want to be a Cow Fart Tycoon.


Illegal Immigrants Bolstering Social Security With Billions

As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.

In 2002 alone, the last year with figures released by the Social Security Administration, nine million W-2's with incorrect Social Security numbers landed in the suspense file, accounting for $56 billion in earnings, or about 1.5 percent of total reported wages.
You know you start finding a billion here, a billion there, all of a sudden you are talking about real money.

via New York Times


Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Turning Hybrids into Plugins

From the NY Times:

Ron Gremban and Felix Kramer have modified a Toyota Prius so it can be plugged into a wall outlet. EnergyCS, a small company that has collaborated with CalCars, has modified another Prius with more sophisticated batteries; they claim their Prius gets up to 180 m.p.g. and can travel more than 30 miles on battery power.

As it stands, though, modifying a hybrid like the Prius to enable it to plug in would add perhaps $2,000 to $3,000 to the cost of a car that is already roughly $3,000 more expensive than conventional gas cars.
More stats from CalCars (.pdf)
Heavy lead-acid batteries add approx. 300 lb total, reducing mileage by approx. 5 mpg in standard HEV operation on city streets (because of acceleration losses), but by little or nothing at highway speeds (where wind resistance is the main factor)
Under 10-mile all-electric propulsion (at under 35 mph), infinite mpg (i.e., no gasoline use) plus 262 grid Watt-hours/mile vs. 50-60 mpg as a normal HEV.
All-electric miles: power cost approx. 1.25 cents/mile (assumption of 250 Wh/mi and 5 cents/kWh on California off-peak EV "E-9" (PG&E) rate, and not amortizing battery cost), vs. approx. 4.5 cents/gasoline mile ($2/gallon, 45 mpg)
I think the hydrogen economy (and cars) are just a bunch of hype. Because you can't drill for hydrogen, hydrogen is really just a battery, a way of transporting energy and not a particularly good one at that. We should be focusing on trying to make our energy use environmentally friendly and renewable and using hydrogen cars only if it is the best way to produce these two goals. If other technology like biodiesel, hybrids or electric cars are better (and I think there is lots of evidence that they are) then we should go with them.

So I am intrigued by this idea of adding extra batteries to hybrid cars and allowing them to run on either electricity for short trips or gasoline for long trips. This gives the user a lot of flexibility without requiring any expensive infrastructure changes to create new hydrogen fueling stations. But the downside to this flexibility is that you have to pay for both a gas burning engine and an electric motor which means such hybrid cars will always be more expensive than single use cars. Will the extra cost be worth it? I'm not sure. The stats from CalCars are interesting, you add 300lbs of batteries and recharge the battery of the grid at night. Seems economic in terms of electricity vs. gasoline, but the amortization of the batteries is not a trivial expense.

I still don't get how the recharging works. In a normal Prius, the gasoline engine is used to recharge the battery. In these new Priuses, in order to use electricity from the grid, your battery has to be empty when you get home. Not sure how you get the Prius not to recharge the battery, and if you do that doesn't it reduce your fuel efficiency? But this is definitely an idea to keep your eye on.


Monday, April 04, 2005

Pentagon Redirects Its Research Dollars

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon - which has long underwritten open-ended "blue sky" research by the nation's best computer scientists - is sharply cutting such spending at universities, researchers say, in favor of financing more classified work and narrowly defined projects that promise a more immediate payoff.
Yet another really bad decision by the Bush administration. The kind of research that they are cutting is the kind that lead to the internet and microprocessors. This is a bad decision not only in terms of American competitiveness (which I don't personally care much about) but in terms of worldwide human progress and well being (which I do care about). Instead of financing basic research that could lead to other great breakthroughs, the Pentagon is focused on short term 9/11 influenced projects.

Darpa officials acknowledged for the first time a shift in focus. They revealed that within a relatively steady budget for computer science research that rose slightly from $546 million in 2001 to $583 million last year, the portion going to university researchers has fallen from $214 million to $123 million.

The agency cited a number of reasons for the decline: increased reliance on corporate research; a need for more classified projects since 9/11. Many grants also limit the use of graduate students to those who hold American citizenship, a rule that hits hard in computer science, where many researchers are foreign.
It makes you wonder what cool breakthrough technologies won't be created, or will be created years later than they could have because of this decision: Mind control, Seeing with your tongue, RoboSurgeons, Machine Translators, Self driving cars, or maybe next generation solar panels?

via New York Times


Friday, April 01, 2005

American Family Life In Flux

Scientists at UCLA have spent the past four years observing 32 Los Angeles families in a study of how working America somehow gets
it done. Day after day.

For a week, scientists using digital video cameras recorded the Zeisses' every move. Back in the lab, the researchers analyzed their behavior - frame by frame - intent on seeing them with a dispassionate eye as if their subjects were chimps in the wild.

Psychologists required everyone but the family dog Ozzie to spit into test tubes several times a day. The vials were frozen and shipped to a Pennsylvania lab where technicians measured the rise and fall of stress hormones in saliva.

At UCLA, a team of 21 researchers has completed the $3.6 million data-collection phase. A second phase will be devoted to analysis and, researchers hope, influencing federal policy on family issues.
I like the idea of this study. Follow families 24 hours a day, collect tons of data and then analyze it to see what is going on.
Trend 1: Mothers working outside the home.

It's a poorly understood seismic shift in both the nation's economy and daily life. For some families in the study, it allows them to own a bigger house, drive better cars and take nicer vacations. For many more families, two paychecks are necessary to put food on the table.

What's falling by the wayside? Playtime. Conversation. Courtesy. Intimacy.
A second trend emerging from the UCLA data - how few people have any unstructured time.

In just one of the 32 families did the father - a freelance film animator - make a habit of taking an evening stroll with his son and daughter. Hand-in-hand, they dodged vacant lots and broken glass in Culver City while chasing bugs and making up stories.

Kim and Gary Zeiss are keeping their children busy by design. They believe it's a key to being a successful adult in a culture that rewards multi-taskers.
A third hallmark of the study: clutter.

Archaeologist Jeanne E. Arnold planned to treat each house in the study like a dig site, cataloging and mapping family belongings as artifacts. But there was too much stuff. Instead, her staff took photographs. Thousands of them.

By her rough estimate, the typical American family owns more than most Egyptian pharaohs.
That is just crazy. I knew Americans had lots of stuff, but never seen it compared to Egyptian pharaohs before.
The fourth family trend: flux.

Using computers, scientists mapped the location of each family member throughout the home every 10 minutes. Ochs says families gathered in the same room just 16 percent of the time. In five homes, the entire family was never in the same room while scientists were observing.
via CBS News