Friday, March 31, 2006

eBay Renting

A while back, I was thinking about the fact that I could use eBay as a way to "rent" items such as books, video games or movies.

I would start by buying a DVD used on eBay. When I received it in the mail, I would watch it. Then I would resell it on eBay. If I was fast enough, I could resell it for the same price that you paid (or if you are really good, for more than you paid). Then the only cost to me would be the shipping cost and the eBay fee.

Then I was reading Parade Magazine, and found this guy Daniel Nissanoff who had the same idea:

Daniel Nissanoff believes we'll all have clean closets soon. How? Nissanoff, an online entrepreneur, says we're moving from an accumulation nation to an auction culture. That is, people are buying items not to keep but to resell. In his new book, FutureShop, he predicts that more people will buy luxury goods like fancy handbags or $729 Bugaboo strollers (which, after two years, have been resold for $550) with the idea of using them for a time, then selling them to get back part of their value. Already, some manufacturers are so worried about the resale prices of their goods that they bid them up at eBay auctions, Nissanoff tells us.

eBay makes the transactions cost low enough and the potential number of buyers high enough that lots of products now have a second hand market that didn't previously.
He has even written a book FutureShop about it:
In his attempt to take eBay into the realm of social theory, Nissanoff leans heavily on "temporary ownership," an endless cycle of consumption where each purchase is looked at not as an acquisition, but as a stopgap that will be auctioned off after its utility has been extracted, and the next bigger and better thing will be partially bankrolled with the proceeds won (at auction, naturally) from the last.
eBay renting, allows for Just-In-Time Consumption. Analogous to Just-In-Time Manufacturing which reduces the need for inventory, JIT consumption removes the need for a personal library of goods. Instead of needing a storage locker for your items, you now sell them on the resale market, and buy something new when you need it. The buy->use->store/throw away model is replaced with the buy->use->resell model.

Personal libraries are replaced by a collective library. Instead of needing the government to allow citizens to collect their money together to fund a public library, now eBay allows individuals to do it directly and become in fact a pseudo-library.

eBay renting allows people to have access to luxury goods that they never would have before. Just like a time-share, you can now use eBay to drive a Ferrari or wear fancy jewelry or a great watch. Instead of owning it for good (and having it spend most of the time being stored), you can just eBay rent it, use it for a short time and be charged just for the transaction costs.

eBay renting is good for the environment. All the items that are purchased on eBay, as opposed to being purchased new, reduce the amount of raw materials and manufacturing needed. Instead all is used is the energy to transport the item from the seller to the buyer. As people purchase new goods with the knowledge they are going to sell them later, they will buy higher quality goods that will last longer (and therefore worth more on the resale market). This also will reduce the amount of virgin materials needed.

For items that you turn over quickly, a service like Netflix makes more sense, as you don't want to have to spend all that time trying to find the right price, listing on eBay, packaging and sending. But there is now a competitor to Netflix called PeerFlix, which uses this concept of eBay renting. All members buy their own DVDs and trade with each other for DVDs they want to watch. Once again, instead of having a personal library of DVDs, you know have a collective library of DVDs with all your fellow PeerFlixers. Instead of paying $10,000 to have a personal library of 5,000 DVDs, you now have access to 5,000 or more DVDs within a week by paying $20 for just 1 DVD, $.39 for shipping, and $1.00 Peerflix fee for each new movie you want to watch.

While eBay renting is good for consumers and the environment, it poses an issue for the content developer/artist/creator, in that they get paid for the original version, but don't get anything on a resale. This is an inherent problem of a digital good that is tied to a physical medium. I think the solution is to shift to a digital distribution preferably in a subscription model (Rhapsody, Audible) so the artist can get their cut on every person that consumes their work.


GDP: Grossly Distorted Picture

I was just mentioning how even economists don't think GDP is a good measure of nation's economic wellbeing. And to prove my point, I have an article from none other than The Economist. And if you can't trust The Economist to speak for economists, who can you trust?

There has been much hullabaloo about corporate accounting scams in America, yet perhaps the biggest accounting oversight of all time remains hidden in governments' own national figures. GDP per head is the most commonly used measure of a country's success, yet it is badly flawed as a guide to a nation's economic well-being. A new study in the OECD'S 2006 Going for Growth report considers some alternatives.

A nation's well-being depends on many factors ignored by GDP, such as leisure time, income inequality and the quality of the environment. GDP was developed primarily as a planning tool to guide the huge production effort of the second world war. It was never intended to be the definitive yardstick of economic welfare. Would another indicator change the ranking of countries or their relative performance over time?

GDP should ideally be reduced to take account of pollution and the using-up of non-renewable resources, but no standard accounts that can do this are yet available.
The report shows that the US has the highest GDP of any of the OECD nations, and still ranks first in most cases even when adjusted for leisure and inequality. But, as the graph shows, there are actually a couple where the US gets beat: to the Netherlands when you account for leisure (hey man, if pot is legal you gotta take advantage), and to Britain and France when you adjust for income inequality.

Who knew that France had such equality in its income distribution? Obviously not the immigrant youth that were burning cars in the streets.

So, if everyone agrees GDP isn't the best indicator, why are we still using it?
GDP is clearly not the best indicator of well-being, but the OECD concludes that for most purposes it is the best that is available on a timely basis. The OECD takes comfort from the fact that most alternative measures yield similar international rankings to GDP per head.
And there is the rub. For all its faults, it is the easiest to calculate and it still works as a fairly good proxy.

via The Economist


Yet Another Way Bush is Like Hitler

I hate to make comparisons to Hitler, for as Jon Stewart says, "you denigrate Hitler", but this one is just too funny to pass up.

Last year, for example, America's president, vice president and defence secretary each got a beetle (Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi, A. rumsfeldi) courtesy of two Republican coleopterists. Admittedly, the beetles in question eat slime mould, which caused a few titters among taxonomists of a Democrat persuasion, but it is clearly an act of gross speciesism to criticise the dining habits of other organisms, so the titters were sotto voce.

The collector was Oscar Sheibel, a German who in 1933 was living in Llubljana, the capital of Slovenia. In 1933, a Slovenian biologist sold him a previously unheard-of beetle he had found in caves near the town of Celje. Sheibel named it after his hero, and anophthalmus (blind) hitleri entered the historical record.
So there you have it. Admirers of Bush named a slime mold eating beetle after him and an admirer of Hitler named a blind cave dwelling beetle after him. Geesh, with friends like that who needs enemies?

Via The Economist and rose george articles


It's a Blue Country After All

Turn's out Bush actually is a uniter, not a divider.



Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sugar Cane vs. Solar Panels

As I was reading the crazy ideas about the future in The Singularity is Near, I had a crazy idea of my own: what if humans could be solar powered? Right now, humans use plants to capture the sunlight's energy and convert it into carbohydrates which we can digest and use to power our bodies. What if we could cut out the middle man? What if we could wear a solar paneled hat or body suit that would capture the sunlight and turn it into the glucose that the body needs for energy? And if it were possible, how large of a solar paneled hat would you need?

And this lead me a second question: which collects more usable energy, an acre of sugar cane or an acre of solar panels?

So I ran the numbers. I chose sugar cane because it produces the largest number of calories per acre of any agricultural product. From we learn that you can harvest 10 tons of sugar per hectare = 10,000 kg/10,000m^2 = 1 kg /m^2. This means a square meter of sugar can yields a kilogram of sugar a year. As there are 4 calories (or kcal) per gram this gives you 4,000 kcal/m^2.

At this site we learn that a square meter of 11% efficient solar panels collects around 550Wh a day in Austin Texas. So for a whole year that gives you 550 * 365 = 200 kWh/yr/m^2.

Then as everyone knows (or knows how to use Google Calculator knows) 1 kcal = 1.16222222 watt hour. So our 4,000 kcals of sugar = 4.65 kWh. That means the 11% efficient solar panel generates 200/4.65 = 50 times more usable energy a year than the sugar cane does. And as you can now get 22% efficient solar panels that would go up to 100 times.

Solar panels are therefore 2 magnitudes of order better at creating usable energy per m^2 than sugar cane.

Aside: This is just the usable energy. Plant leaves themselves are closer to 3-6% efficient in capturing sunlight (vs. 10-20% for solar panels) as this site explains.

Only light within the wavelength range of 400 to 700 nm (photosynthetically active radiation, PAR) can be utilized by plants, effectively allowing only 45 % of total solar energy to be utilized for photosynthesis. Furthermore, fixation of one CO2 molecule during photosynthesis, necessitates a quantum requirement of ten (or more), which results in a maximum utilization of only 25% of the PAR absorbed by the photosynthetic system. On the basis of these limitations, the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In practice, however, the magnitude of photosynthetic efficiency observed in the field, is further decreased by factors such as poor absorption of sunlight due to its reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels. The net result being an overall photosynthetic efficiency of between 3 and 6% of total solar radiation.
If only there was a way to convert electricity from the panels directly into sugar or glucose. Then we could free up a lot of crop land (99%) and produce the sugar directly from solar cells. You would definitely lose some energy in the conversion, but you could lose 98% of the energy and still come out with twice as much sugar. I tried to find out if there was a way you do this, but I couldn't find anything. I checked out artificial photosynthesis but not much there. If anyone knows of a way or any research in this direction, leave a comment.

Ideally, you would want a little black box that could convert the electricity to glucose, which you could then add to water and use with an IV drip to get it in the blood. Then you could go for days without needing any food. This could be cool if you are in the military, or an astronaut or a hiker. Don't bring food, just your solar panels and your glucose maker and you are good to go.

How many square meters of solar panels would a person need if they could live directly off of it? A human male needs around 2,700 kcal a day. Our 22% efficient solar panels in Austin give us 1100Wh or 1275 kcal/m^2 a day, so we would need a little over 2 square meters (assuming no energy losses in conversion). A little big for a hat, but hey everything is bigger in Texas.


Land of Leisure

GDP is often used as a measurement for standard of living. As any good economist will tell you, it was never designed to do this, and it really doesn't do a very good job. One of the major things it misses is what happens with leisure time. In GDP terms leisure time has zero value, but obviously it has value and more of it raises your standard of living.

So I was glad to read in the Economist about this report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, with the yawn inducing title: Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades (pdf of report). They took a look at how leisure time has changed in the US over the last 40 years.

I would skip over all the text and just go to the tables at the end. You can see for yourself what the changes have been. Actually it would have been even better to go straight to the data and run your own analysis of what happened, but the data is in Stata format (whatever that is) and I don't know how to view it.

You can see all sorts of interesting things about how work and play has changed for Americans over the years. How more women are now working in the marketplace and more men are now putting in time around the house.

Using our preferred definition of leisure, we find that the amount of leisure time in the US has increased by 7.9 hours per week on average for men and by 6.0 hours for women between 1965 and 2003 controlling for demographics. Interestingly, the decline in total work (the sum of total market work and total non-market work) was nearly identical for the men and women (7.9 and 7.7 hours per week, respectively). These increases in leisure are extremely large. In 1965, the average man spent 61 hours per week and the average women spent 54 hours per week in total market and non-market work.
Almost 8 hours more of leisure time a week. That is great news.
However, while the level of leisure in 1965 was roughly equal across educational status, the subsequent increase in leisure was greatest among less-educated adults.
This is interesting, but it is not quite clear what it means. Looking at the data, those with out a HS degree now work on average 5 hours less per week than those that have it (and they used to work equal amounts). Would those without a HS degree prefer to work more hours? Not clear. But it is clear that they now have more non-work time at their disposal.

Also interesting is that men work longer and play longer than women. Men work 53.60 hrs and have 37.56 hrs of leisure a week vs 46.91 and 33.80 for women. How can this be? Women spend 9 hours more per week than men sleeping, eating, in personal activities and in basic and educational child care.

Given the results in this study, why then do most people I talk with feel like they are busier than ever? Maybe it has to do with the fact that this study didn't measure the "on-call" time, where we aren't working but we might have some stress and not be able to completely relax and enjoy the leisure time. It might also have to do with the fact that most of this change has happened from 1996 on, and this study only has data points at 1993 and 2003 so it might not be capturing it yet. Or it might be as the Economist puts it:
Economic advances allow people to squeeze ever more possible activities, both work and leisure, into a day, which encourages people to try to do too much.


Brain Development and Intelligence Linked

The brains of very intelligent children appear to develop in a distinctive and surprising way that distinguishes them from less intelligent children, a federal study reported yesterday.

The study is the first to try to measure whether differences in brain development are linked to intelligence, said researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, who did several brain scans on 309 healthy children between the ages of 6 and 19.

The scans showed that children with the highest IQs began with a relatively thin cortex -- the folded outer layer of the brain that is involved in complex thinking -- which rapidly grew thicker before reaching a peak and then rapidly becoming thinner, said Philip Shaw, the lead investigator. Children of average intelligence had a thicker cortex around age 6, but by around 13 it was thinner than in children of superior intelligence.
via Washington Post


Animated Flash map of Iraq war casualties

This animated map of coalition military fatalities during the Iraq war unfolds at ten frames per second. Each frame represents one day of the war. One dot marks each casualty site. A death begins as a white flash, then grows to a larger red dot, which turns black after 30 frames (days), fading at last to permanent grey.
Almost like a Google Maps mashup. This gives you a new perspective as to how the fighting is occurring. Also makes your stomach a little upset as you realize what every sound effect you are hearing is representing.

via Boing Boing


Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Joshua Farley, Ecological Economist

Good interview over at WorldChanging with the Ecological Economist Joshua Farley. I like this part when asked how he would replace GDP

What we really want is a measure of Quality of Life, not consumption. Almost by definition, quantifying quality of life represents a real challenge. We have proposed a measure of quality of life that includes subjective estimates of well-being (basically just surveys asking people how satisfied they are with their lives) as well as objective measures of opportunities available for satisfying the entire range of human needs. Drawing on the work of Manfred Max-Neef, we have proposed a list of human needs that are stable across time and cultures, including subsistence, reproduction, security, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, spirituality, creativity/emotional expression, identity and freedom.
The whole thing is good, give it a read.

via WorldChanging



Solar power has not taken off as a serious contributor to national energy because the cost is too high per kwh produced. The long term (50 years or more from now) potential for solar is really good, as it is a renewable for of energy that falls everywhere on the planet, and there is 10,000 times more energy that the sun delivers to the world today then humans currently consume from fossil fuels and other energy sources. What needs to happen is an improvement in 2 places: efficiency (ability to capture more sunlight) and price to produce. Scientists and engineers are working on this, so it is only a matter of time before solar becomes competitive with fossil fuels, but the question is: how much time?

In Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity in Near he points out that:

The efficiency of solar power has gone from 4% in 1952 to 24% in 1992, current multilayer cells reach 34%, and a recent analysis of applying nanocrystals to solar energy conversion above 60% is feasible.
So the potential is out there. How far does it need to go?
Today solar power is estimated at $2.75/W. Once solar power falls below $1/W it will be competitive on the grid.
One company he points out is Nanosolar.
Nanosolar has a design based on titanium oxide nanoparticles that can be mass produced that is estimated to have the potential to bring solar power costs to around $.50 a watt by 2006 lower than natural gas.
Wow, $.50 a watt in 2006! If they could do that, it would be a game changer. I checked out Nanosolar's website, but it is lacking any numerical analysis as to its price per watt. This leaves me skeptical if they are anywhere near that level.

The Ergosphere chimes in:
At 12% efficiency and $30 per square meter, such cells could cost as little as $.25/watt-peak, a far cry from the $4.00 that current silicon cells go for at retail.

$30 per square meter is cheaper than many varieties of roofing, but the cost of fabrication and encapsulation is still going to place a floor beneath the cost and limit the applications. Greater efficiency can reduce costs by getting more watts out of the same investment in encapsulation and packaging.
Regardless, they are doing some really innovate stuff. They are roll printing their solar cells like a newspaper, and the resulting solar panels are flexible and much lighter than other photovoltaic panels. This allows them to be used in areas that they weren't before, and will make it possible to build roofs with the solar panels built in. Definitely a company to watch if their products can match their claims.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pregnant Moms to Start Taking Steroids

James Watson has been talking about how we should use eugenics (see this Charlie Rose show), to improve the genes of humanity. Watson seems to feel that we will find a gene for everything: an intelligence gene, a gregarious gene, a gay gene, a left handed gene, a criminal gene and more. And as we find these genes then we can use genetic screening and genetic manipulation to improve these genes.

So I was surprised to come across a couple articles talking about how the level of prenatal testosterone affect important features. This implies that there is more to the whole nature vs. nurture debate than just genes and the way we are raised. There is this in between stage when we are in the womb that affects the way we turn out. Instead of talking about genetic modification and designer genes, maybe we should be talking about designer steroids that affect the level of hormones in the amniotic fluid.

Side note: Anyone who spends 5 minutes looking at James Watson and listening to him speak, will come away wondering if he should really be the poster boy for eugenics. He is not quite as bad as Hitler promoting his Aryan ideal which he looked nothing like, but lets just say that I don't see the Watson sperm being a hot seller at the sperm bank. Anyway, maybe that is just me.

Simon Baron-Cohen points out in the New York Times:

It has also been found that the amount of prenatal testosterone, which is produced by the fetus and measurable in the amniotic fluid in which the baby is bathed in the womb, predicts how sociable a child will be. The higher the level of prenatal testosterone, the less eye contact the child will make as a toddler, and the slower the child will develop language. That is connected to the role of fetal testosterone in influencing brain development.

Males obviously produce far more prenatal testosterone than females do, but levels vary considerably even across members of the same sex. In fact, it may not be your sex per se that determines what kind of brain you have, but your prenatal hormone levels. From there it's a short leap to the intriguing idea that a male can have a typically female brain (if his testosterone levels are low), while a female can have a typically male brain (if her testosterone levels are high). That notion fits with the evidence that girls born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, who for genetic reasons produce too much testosterone, are more likely to exhibit "tomboy" behavior than girls with more ordinary hormone levels.
Or Sandi Doughton in the Seattle Times:
But rats, hamsters, ferrets and other lab animals flip-flop their sexual behavior when scientists manipulate the hormones they're exposed to before birth. Such experiments would be unethical in people, but some rare medical conditions offer human parallels.

A high proportion of girls with a disorder that causes them to secrete male hormones before birth grow up to be lesbian. About 40 case studies have shown boys who are surgically altered and raised as girls because of genital deformities are overwhelmingly attracted to females once they reach puberty; indicating sexual orientation is determined very early in life and is difficult to alter.

"Every time you find a body marker that gives an indication of prenatal testosterone exposure, lesbians on average are more masculine than straight women," Breedlove said. "This can't be a fluke."

Patterns aren't as clear in gay men, with some hints they may be exposed to either less or more testosterone before birth.
Want a son who is good at math and sciences? Time for some amniotic testosterone steroids. Or maybe you would rather have a more outgoing social son, in that case lets get those levels down. Afraid that your dagger might be gay, or now that lesbianism is hip, maybe you want that? Either way time to take a steroid to change those hormonal levels.

And it may not just be the hormones they need to look at, as 60 Minutes reports:
While biologists look at hormones for answers about human sexuality, other scientists are looking for patterns in statistics. And hard as this is to believe, they have found something they call "the older brother effect."

"The more older brothers a man has, the greater that man's chance of being gay," says Bailey.

If this comes as a shock to you, you're not alone. But it turns out, it's one of the most solid findings in this field, demonstrated in study after study.

And the numbers are significant: for every older brother a man has, his chances of being gay increase by one third. Older sisters make no difference, and there's no corresponding effect for lesbians. A first-born son has about a 2 percent chance of being gay, and the numbers rise from there. The theory is it happens in the womb.

"Somehow, the mother's body is remembering how many boys she's carried before," says Breedlove. "The favorite hypothesis is that the mother may be making antibodies when she sees a boy the first time, and then affect subsequent boys when she carries them in utero."
Beyond the hormone levels, looks like there might be other things like the mother's immune system that affects how children turn out. Anyway that you look at it, eugenics and genetic manipulation by itself does not allow you to change all the characteristics of humans that we would think of as natural born. It is going to be interesting to see what science will find out about the root causes of these characteristics.


Dogs and China

I love Yahoo's Most Viewed and Most Emailed Photos on MyYahoo. It proves people really only want to see pictures of 3 things: animals, odd things and hot chicks (preferably naked). That's it. And if you can get all 3 into one photo, like a hot naked PETA protester painted up as an tiger in a cage, then you are guaranteed a spot.

And every once in a while get a great juxtaposition between photos. Take these for example.

The Chinese love dogs ...

they are delicious.

I guess the Chinese really will eat anything with 4 legs besides a chair.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Why Does It Matter if Global Warming is Man Made?

One thing I just don't get about the whole global warming thing is trying to determine whether it is natural or not. The implication is that if it is caused by humans than it is bad and needs to be stopped, but if it is not caused by humans then it is natural and can continue on its merry way.

I just don't get this. Shouldn't we instead look at whether global warming is good or bad for nature (or humans) and try and stop if it is bad, and continue if it is good?

Just because something is natural, doesn't make it good. Was the tsunami ok because it was natural? When a volcano errupts and wipes out cities and natures with lava and affects the atmosphere with soot, is that a good thing? What about earthquakes? Or, how about if a huge meteor is going to strike the earth. Should humans attempt to stop it? It would be a natural thing to allow it to strike, but something extremely damaging to life on earth.

If global warming is bad for life, but it was caused by termites munching or cows farting or changes in the amount of sunlight that hits the earth or some other natural cause, shouldn't we attempt to stop it?

So, I don't see why we are so hung up on proving that humans are causing this with the cars and the agriculture and the concrete.

One line of reasoning that I can undertand is if we can prove that the carbon dioxide emissions are causing it, then we can just stop emitting them and stop the problem. While that is one way to stop the problem, but it not at all clear that it would be the best. If cars are emitting lots of CO2, instead of telling people to drive less, maybe there would be a better and cheaper way of extracting the CO2 from the air. Maybe we start planting a lot more trees as a way to suck up the CO2. Or maybe we find a way to sequester all the CO2 in the ocean. Or maybe instead of dealing with the CO2, we find another way to cool the earth. Volcanos cool the earth after they errupt by blocking the sunrays with airborne particals. Maybe we go this route. The point is there are a lot of other possible ways to stop global warming. They should be evaluated on a cost/benefit basis. If using less fossil fuels is the best way to solve the problem, then lets do it. But, lets look at other possibilities as well.

So, lets drop the debate on whether humans are causing global warming, and try and figure out what its impact will be and then try and find the most cost effective way to stop it.


What is the Ideal Temperature for Life on Earth?

There is a lot of talk about global warming these days. The thing I don't get is that over the earth's million years of being, it has both been much hotter and much colder than it currently is. So why do we think that a change in the Earth's temperature is necessarily bad?

So I propose we ask a slightly different question: what is the ideal temperature for life on earth?

If you think of it this way, it is not obvious at a quick glance whether global warming (or global cooling) would not in fact be better for life on earth.

In general I would think warmer would be better. If you look at the amount of life (or biomass) per square mile in the arctic and compare it with that of the tropics, there is much more life in the tropics. Why wouldn't we want the arctic region to warm up and allow more life to live there?

There would be tradeoffs if the temperature were to change. The polar bear would go extinct and we would lose 20,000 of them, but what if we could gain 30,000 black and grizzle bears as they are now able to live farther north? Would this be a good tradeoff? There would be more bears living, but one less species. How do you decide if this is good or bad?

To evaluate what the idea temperature would be, we should look at three things: biomass, biodiversity and biocomplexity. The goal would be to maximize all three understanding that there will be tradeoffs between them. How do you go about measuring these?

Biomass is the weight of everything that is alive in the world. Simple in concept, difficult in practice to measure. Seems like an important thing to get a handle on, and yet the various estimates on the internet are all over the place (part of the problem is the definition, where some just count living organisms, which is what I am talking about, and others look at living and dead forms, like oil and coal).

This Google Answer looks into it and has some good info.

Wikipedia puts it at 75 billion tons. Of this:
--humans comprise about 250 million tons (0.33%)
--krill, about 500 million tons (0.67%)
--farm animals, 700 million tons (almost 1%)
--crops, 2 billion tons (2.7%)

This site puts it at 1.8 trillion tons.

One goal should be to maximize the amount of life on the earth, and measuring the total biomass is the way to do it.

Biodiversity looks at how diverse life is. Biodiversity is valuable because it makes life more interesting. It is also valuable because it adds robustness to ecosystems. As situations change, the more diversity you have the better you are able to withstand it.

One measure of this would be the total number of species in the world. Once again, this seems like an important thing to know, and yet estimates of this are also all over the place.

World Watch: Estimated total number of species 4,000,000 to 100,000,000

Hypertextbook: 4 estimates from different sources: 2 - 50 million, 5-10 million, 30-50 million, 2-100 million

What they do say is that we have over 1.5 million named species. So we may know most of the species, or we may know less than 2% of all species. I wish they broke it down by animals, plants, insects, bacteria, etc. I bet we know most of the animals, especially the mammals.

Another aspect is the diversity inside a species. This is more difficult to measure, but maybe looking at the diversity of the genomes would help out here. While dogs are just one species, they show a great variety of diversity.

Some species show different cultures and traditions. Orca whales hunt different food with different techniques based on their pod and taught from generation to generation rather than being transferred by genes. Chimpanzees have different cultures. Some dolphins use sponges to protect their noses, a custom that is learned and passed down outside of genes.

Another goal should be to maximize the amount of biodiversity, in terms of species but also the diversity in species as well.

Biocomplexity is a measure of the complexity of an organism. 200 lbs of human is more valuable than 200 lbs of bacteria. One way to measure this is to look at the number of genes the species has. The more genes, the more complex and therefore more valuable. The number of cells in the body and the different type of cells also makes a creature more complex. Intelligence is also important. One way to measure this would be number of neurons in the brain, but this is not the most accurate as larger animals have larger brains but are not necessarily smarter.

The final goal would be to maximize biocomplexity. We should try and allow for the most amount of intelligent, complex organism and give them preference over the simpler forms of life.

With these three goalposts, scientists should figure out what temperature would allow for the most amount of life, taking into account diversity and complexity. We should then actively try and move the earth in this direction.


More Prisoners Than Farmers in United States

Incredible stat for the day:

In 2004, there were 2,113,470 farmers farms and 2,131,180 inmates.

Update: Turns out I misread the page and that should be farms rather than farmers.

So how many farmers are there in the US?

The EPA states:

There are only about 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation.
That would make around 1.9 million primary and secondary occupation farmers.

The BLS has:
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers held nearly 1.3 million jobs in 2004.
Both of these are numbers that are lower than the total number of farms. How is that possible?

This article in the New York Times tells us:
According to the Agriculture Department, nonfarm jobs now account for more than 90 percent of farm households' incomes.
The EPA article also mentions that 64.9% of farms (or around 1.3 million) are Residential/Lifestyle, Retirement or Farming Sales < $100,000. According to the USDA these farms only account for 10% of the total value of all agricultural production. The vast majority of these type of farmers do not report farming as their major occupation. Only 35% of the 2.1 million farms (or around 735,000) are large farms that have workers that consider their occupation to be farming. This explains how the number of farmers can be lower than the total number of reported farms.

The prison population of 2.1 million is larger than the EPA's number of 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation, the BLS's number of nearly 1.3 million farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers, or the EPA's number of 1.9 primary and secondary occupation farmers.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Scientists find a genetic cause for cocaine addiction

A couple of days ago I find out that there are different genes that determine the speed of caffeine metabolism. Today I find out that the risk of cocaine addiction is based on another gene.

In this latest study, researchers examined the DNA of 700 cocaine abusers and 850 ordinary people and found that cocaine abusers had a specific genetic variation in DAT more frequently than the control subjects. People carrying two copies of this variant were 50% more likely to be cocaine dependent.
I really think my idea of starting a company to figure out how you will handle drugs based on genetic screening is going to work. I bet they publish these kind of findings all the time now. It just makes people curious whether they have these genes, and a company that can supply it to them is needed.

via Scientists find a genetic cause for cocaine addiction


Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn

Some scary stats about black men in America:

The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

About half of all black men in their late 20's and early 30's who did not go to college are noncustodial fathers, according to Mr. Holzer.
Don't miss this graphic comparing the jobless rate of whites, blacks and hispanics.

I am not sure what the solution to this problem is, but I am sure that we aren't spending enough time and effort as a country to try and tackle it. If I were to suggest one thing, I would look at trying to increase the number of adult mentors to the boys in high school.

via New York Times


Climate Labeling for Cars

Probst, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, has proposed a "global warming performance" label that would appear on the window of all new vehicles. The goal: to help educate consumers assess the climate impacts of the purchase they are about to make by allowing them to identify cars with lower emissions. Her vision is outlined in a just-released article, Combating Global Warming One Car at a Time: CO2 Emissions Labels for New Motor Vehicles.
I am a big fan of better labeling on our products, so we as consumers can make choices based on environmental impact, workers conditions and other such values rather than just making our decisions based on quality and price. This is one innovative way to do that. I like the concept, but I wonder how much additional information this really gives you that the MPG rating doesn't already have. Seems like this is just another way of stating the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.

via WorldChanging


Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Jared Diamond takes a look at the transition of humans from hunter gatherers to farmers. He lays out a convincing argument that instead of asking why would anyone be a hunter gatherer when they could be a farmer, we should be asking why would anyone be a farmer when they could be a hunter gatherer.

Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania.

Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women.

Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.
I've argued before that "natural" for human beings is a hunter gatherer lifestyle not an agricultural based one. So talking about "natural" forms of agriculture is kind of odd, especially when all the major grains were vastly manipulated by humans to serve our needs. Instead we should be trying to create the healthiest food on the least amount of land in a sustainable fashion with the minimum impact on the rest of the environment, regardless of whether this is ogranic or "natural".

The whole article is good, I'd recommending reading the whole thing.

via Iowa State University


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Peace Through War

Great quote by President Bush:

I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace.
You just can't make this stuff up.

via Remarks by the President on Homeownership - HUD


Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Big News: Shrinking Reportage

Hundreds of cable and radio commentators, and millions of bloggers, can sound off about the news in real time. But the number of old-fashioned fact-gatherers is dwindling, and will almost certainly continue to shrink.

But the decline in the number of reporters, especially at newspapers, means less digging into the affairs of government and business.

By the project's count, the industry has lost more than 3,500 newsroom professionals since 2000, a drop of 7 percent.

The growth has been among outlets such as Google News and Yahoo, which aggregate content from other sources; blogs, on which only 5 percent of posts involved original research; and satellite radio, which serves up news, talk, entertainment and music but little or no original reporting.
This article talks about the changes going on in reporting and news, as we shift from reading the paper and watching the evening news to cable news, internet sites and blogs. The article raises a concern that the new media won't spend as much on reporting, so we will appear to have more choices of what news we watch, but they will all be reporting on the same thing. If this is true, it is of concern.

The article mentions that "only" 5% of blogs posts involved original research. But, I think that kind of misses the bigger picture as there are tons of blogs. I would be interested to see in aggregate how many new original research posts are put on blogs vs. the number of articles that are no longer being written due to old media layoffs. I bet the new system still ends up with more original content.

via Washington Post


Caffeine Metabolism Gene Tied to Heart Attacks

A research team led by Ahmed El-Sohemy of the University of Toronto conducted a study to determine whether there is an association between people with gene variations of the enzyme that metabolises caffeine in the liver, CYP1A2, consumption of coffee, and the risk of nonfatal heart attack.

The team found that the risk of heart attack increases for individuals who have a "slow" version of the enzyme as they increase coffee intake.

The Toronto-led team conducted a study of 4 018 people living in Costa Rica and found that the number of cups of coffee consumed and the age of the drinker made a difference for the "slow" caffeine metabolisers.

In that group, those who drank two to three cups of coffee a day had a 36% increased risk of a myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack; that risk shot up to 64% with those who drank four or more cups a day.
I had no idea that there was a gene linked to slow or fast processing of caffeine. I can't wait for the day where you can send in your saliva and get a DNA test that tells you these kind of things. I process the caffeine really slow, so I bet have this gene. It would be cool if you could get tested for all sorts of drug metabolism genes.

How will your body react to alcohol? There is a gene that leads to the really flush face as one of the metabolised byproducts doesn't break down. Easy to test for. Would be good to know.

Or how about tobacco? Or if you live on the not so legal side, marijuana, speed, or LSD? I bet parents would pay to have their kids tested so they would know of potential issues.

Sounds like a good business. If anyone knows of such a company leave a comment. Or if no such company exists and you want to create it with me leave a comment as well.

via News 24


US Behind in Broadband

In the first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only "basic" broadband, among the slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world, and the United States has fallen even further behind in mobile-phone-based Internet access. The lag is arguably the result of the Bush administration's failure to make a priority of developing these networks.

Today, nearly all Japanese have access to "high-speed" broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States -- for only about $22 a month. Even faster "ultra-high-speed" broadband, which runs through fiber-optic cable, is scheduled to be available throughout the country for $30 to $40 a month by the end of 2005. And that is to say nothing of Internet access through mobile phones, an area in which Japan is even further ahead of the United States.

Thanks to the government's competitive framework, the speed of the DSL service offered also rose dramatically, from 8 megabits per second in 2001 to 12, 26, and 40 megabits today. (The typical U.S. broadband connection, whether DSL or cable, is still only 1.5 megabits per second or slower.) Meanwhile, the price of monthly subscriptions remained stable, even for 26-megabit access speeds, at about $22 per month -- by far the lowest price in the world.

It is now clear that Japan and its neighbors will lead the charge in high-speed broadband over the next several years. South Korea already has the world's greatest percentage of broadband users, and last year the absolute number of broadband users in urban China surpassed that in the United States.
As the debate on whether the Iraq war was worth it rages on, it makes you wonder what the US could have accomplished if it wasn't spending time and resources in Iraq. And it also makes you want to either Japan or Korea (and it appears they both have better baseball teams as the US as well, is there nothing we invent that we can still be #1 in?).

via Foreign Affairs


Friday, March 17, 2006

Packaging Provokes Consumer "Wrap Rage"

Dreyfuss isn't the only consumer who fights violent impulses when confronted with today's hard-to-open packaging. Whether it's Barbie dolls, cell phones or cereal, manufacturers and retailers seem to be singing the same song: Buy our products, please, but don't assume that you'll actually ever be able to get your hands on them.

"When I asked Kellogg's to explain why their cereal bags are so hard to open, at first they seemed responsive and sent an e-mail saying they'd assigned someone to help me," Marks said. "But the next thing I knew they told me they just didn't have the manpower to address it and were going to take a pass."
I hate that plastic shell that is impossible to open. Seems like they could make a packaging that deters shoplifting and yet is easy to open.

The other thing that pisses me off is the glue they usboxes cereal boxs. Like you can really open the box without tearing the cardboard and making the resealable lip worthless. They can put a man on the moon, but they can't come up with a glue that doesn't cause you to rip the cardboard? I swear the image here is a photoshopped fake. No way a human could open it that well.

Then I was thinking about it some more and I realized why do you need the cardboard at all? Why isn't it just in a plastic sack with a ziploc top (all plastic containers should be forced to include the ziploc top by law) and the printing of box goes directly on the plastic? Less waste, less hassle. The rice at Trader Joes comes that way and it works perfectly.

I know what you are thinking. The box protects the cereal from getting scrunched. But, if that were true wouldn't we need cardboard around the tortilla corn chips? Those are more fragile than cereal. If we can transport our corn chips without cardboard then we can do the same thing with our cereal.

Death to cardboard.

via Journal Gazette


Personal Computer as Mind Reader

Microsoft researchers believe they may be able to improve the computing experience by giving the machine on your desk a general sense for what's happening inside your head.

The project builds on established methods of using sensors to detect electrical impulses from the brain and assess a person's cognitive state. Such techniques can determine, for example, whether someone's mind is relaxed, crunching numbers or imagining objects at any particular moment.

One test the researchers have run is with Microsoft's blockbuster "Halo" video game. With at least 95 percent reliability, they have been able to use the technique to determine whether the person is watching the game, playing casually or fighting an all-out battle against an enemy.
Don't know whether to be excited in the whole brain/computer intereaction front, or to be concerned about Microsoft getting access to what is going on in my head.

via Seattle PI


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Red States, Blue States, Income and Voting

In the 2004 election, according to the main media exit poll, President Bush won 63 percent of the votes cast by Americans in households earning over $200,000 a year, and 57 percent from those in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. All things being equal, wealthier people vote Republican.

But conservatives counter that Democrats are the party of choice in swank, well-educated latte enclaves: suburban Boston, New York and Philadelphia; Montgomery County, Md.; and Microsoftland around Seattle, Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

"In poor states," Gelman and his colleagues write, "rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has almost no correlation with vote preference. . . . In poor states, rich people are very different from poor people in their political preferences. But in rich states, they are not."
Interesting how income is such a factor in voting in red states but not blue ones.

via Washington Post


Nanotech Helps Blind Hamsters See

Scientists mimicked the effect of a traumatic brain injury by severing the optical nerve tract in hamsters, causing the animals to lose vision.

After injecting the hamsters with a solution containing nanoparticles, the nerves re-grew and sight returned.

The researchers injected the blind hamsters at the site of their injury with a solution containing synthetically made peptides - miniscule molecules measuring just five nanometres long.

Once inside the hamster's brain, the peptides spontaneously arranged into a scaffold-like criss-cross of nanofibres, which bridged the gap between the severed nerves.

The scientists discovered that brain tissue in the hamsters knitted together across the molecular scaffold, while also preventing scar tissue from forming.

Importantly, the newly formed brain tissue enabled the brain nerves to re-grow, restoring vision in the injured hamsters.


Pentagon Plans Cyber-Insect Army

God I love DARPA.

The Pentagon's defence scientists want to create an army of cyber-insects that can be remotely controlled to check out explosives and send transmissions.

The idea is to insert micro-systems at the pupa stage, when the insects can integrate them into their body, so they can be remotely controlled later.

The "insect-cyborg" must also "be able to transmit data from relevant sensors, yielding information about the local environment. These sensors can include gas sensors, microphones, video, etc."
Brings new meaning to being "bugged".



Sunday, March 12, 2006

Cars Vs. Wars

In the ongoing Fat Knowledge campaign against cars, I add this nugget from Ask Marilyn:

Since the start of the Revolution in 1775, about a million Americans have died in wars. And since Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced motorcar in 1913, more than 2.5 million Americans have met their deaths on the road.
Make love, don't drive?

via PARADE Magazine


Friday, March 03, 2006

Fuel for the 21st Century: Coal

I think the 21st century is going to see a return to coal as a major (possibly the major) source of energy for the world. Why? The three most populous countries in the world: China, India and the US have two things in common, not that much oil and lots of coal.

Turns out that there is 4 times as much energy stored in world coal reserves than in oil reserves when measured in BTU. And the US, China and India have the first, third and fourth largest reserves in the world respectively (1, 2).

The US is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Actually the US might even be more that. The Saudis have 261.9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (3). The United States has coal reserves in the region of 280,000 million short tons, which is about 1,204 BBOE (billion barrels of oil equivalent) . So the US has over 4.5 times as much energy stored in our ground as the Saudis have in theirs.

Now, while I think that is the way the world is headed, the question is is that a good thing?

On this question I am ambivalent.

Coal can be turned into a liquid fuel using the Fischer-Tropsch process to replace gasoline or diesel at around $35 barrel of oil equivalent(4). The Governor of Montana is pushing for the US to do more of this. It also can be used to create electricity which could power a plugin hybrid. And creating ethanol in its current stage uses a lot of coal, as each gallon takes .64 gallon of oil equivalent in coal (5). All of these would reduce the amount of demand that China, India and the US have for oil imports.

Reducing the demand for imported oil would be a good thing, as China has overlooked Darfur in order to get some oil, India deals with Iran in order to get theirs and the US supports the Saudi regime. I have written many times on the oil curse, so decreasing oil would be good.

On the other hand, coal is ugly. First, it is dangerous to mine, as the deaths in West Virginia, and the ones continually coming out of China show us. Second, it is bad for the environment. The mining can remove entire mountains or dig underneath them. It leaches all sorts of gunk into the surrounding rivers and ground water. Third, it gives off more carbon, and therefore more greenhouse gas CO2, per BTU of energy than either oil or natural gas. Fourth, when burned in an electricity coal plant, it gives off lots of air pollutants including: nitrous oxide, sulfur oxide and mercury.

There are efforts underway for clean coal. This would dramatically reduce the amount of air pollution. There are many ways they are looking into to sequester the carbon dioxide. But, none of this will be prime time for probably 5-10 years, and it would take 20+ before it could be rolled out to most of the coal plants.

If I was forced to choose between the US, China and India importing oil from unsavory countries or having them use domestic but dirty coal, I think I would go with the coal, but at the same time be investing in R&D for clean coal and other cleaner and more renewable forms of energy.


How Much is My TV Advertising Watching Worth?

I was wondering how much my time spent watching commercials was worth to the TV networks. So, I went back to my favorite Census .pdf on media information.

In 2003, on average Americans watch 1745 hours of TV a year, or if we assume 270 million Americans, 471 billion hours. The TV networks and cable operators sold $33.6 and $14.3 billion in advertising respectively for a total of $47.9 billion.

That works out to just about $.1/person hour. So my eyeballs are worth 10 cents on average to the TV network for every hour I watch. Put another way, if 15 minutes of every hour (or 25%) is commercials, watching just ads is like a $.40/hr job. Given their viewing pattern Americans watch about 8 1/3 hours of commercials a week, which would be worth $3.30.

My number might be a little low, as it assumes 270 million Americans, and the census numbers were only based on the over 18 crowd. Also, the commercial free TV such as HBO and PBS are included in here. Also over at, they put the number for broadcast advertising at $42.5 billion, and I can't really tell if that includes cable or not. If it doesn't, that number is much larger than the Census number.

Another way to look at this is to look at a particular show. The Wall Street Journal reports

A 30-second spot on this week's episode of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," which had 26.5 million viewers, cost $574,504, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
If there are 15 minutes of commercials in this hour, that is 30 30 second spots for a total of $17.2 million. Divided by the 26.5 million viewers that works out to $.65/viewer for this hour of TV (or as a wage $2.60/hour to just watch the commercials). This is much larger than the other number. Not sure if this means advertisers will pay a big premium for the large audience/good demographics, or if my other number is low.

But, at $.65 a viewer, that is still much lower than the $2 that iTunes is selling the show for. I would think then that ABC would much rather have people download the show then watch it on TV. Or, if they buy the 22 episode DVD at Amazon for $40, that works out to a little under $2 an episode.

I wonder in the future with Video-on-Demand, whether people will be able to have the choice to watch TV with commercials for free, or without for a fee. Given the low hourly rate the advertisers are paying for my time, I think I would go with the fee version. But then again, I bet the advertisers don't want to allow that choice, because then the rich people/best potential customers will choose not to watch the ads. Then again, since all the ads seem to be for McDonalds, beer and credit cards maybe you don't want rich people anyway.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sharks = Spies?

Engineers funded by the US military have created a neural implant designed to enable a shark's brain signals to be manipulated remotely, controlling the animal's movements, and perhaps even decoding what it is feeling.

More controversially, the Pentagon hopes to exploit sharks' natural ability to glide quietly through the water, sense delicate electrical gradients and follow chemical trails. By remotely guiding the sharks' movements, they hope to transform the animals into stealth spies, perhaps capable of following vessels without being spotted. The project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), based in Arlington, Virginia, was presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, last week.
Too cool. Before you start thinking Jaws, or Deep Blue Sea (or Austin Powers) we are talking about a spiny dogfish and then maybe a blue shark. No Great Whites. But cyborg sharks monitorable by sonar is still way cool even if they don't frickin lasers on the top of their heads

via New Scientist via Defense Tech: Sharks


Record Sum Spent on Lobbying in '05

Results of the lobbying disclosures for the first six months of 2005 are in at PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks lobbying and campaign money: A record $1.2 billion (specifically, $1,164,586,968) was spent on lobbying Congress and the executive branch.
Wow! Over a full year that would be $2.4 billion. Divided by 435 Congressmen and 100 Senators, that comes to $4.5 million per elected official in Congress. And yet their salaries are only $162,000. No wonder there is so much corruption. Time to raise their salaries.

via The Seattle Times


Magazine Circulations

As I continue my search to understand how American's consume media, I found this cool site Audit Bureau of Circulations, that lets you (as the name suggests) find out the circulation of any magazine of newspaper. If you do a search with no name, it grabs all the data it has available. There are over 630 magazines in this database with 1,000+ subscribers. No wonder the magazine racks have grown so large. Ignoring the AARP and AAA magazines, Readers Digest has the greatest circulation at 10 million. 89 magazines have readerships greater than 1 million. Total paid readership for all of these magazines comes to 369 million.

The magazines I subscribe to (Wired, Scientific American and the Economist) all have a readership of about 600,000, they rank #150, 153 and 155 in largest circulations.