Friday, April 28, 2006

Google Reader

I have started using Google Reader to keep up with all the blogs I like reading.

I think it is pretty slick. It is an RSS aggregator like Bloglines and others. What makes it better is that it uses AJAX, so everything shows up on one page when you make selections rather than loading a new one. It has hot keys to make navigation very quick.

It is cool in that it is almost like an email inbox for your blogs. Once you sign up with the RSS feeds for all your favorite blogs, the Google Reader goes out and finds the latest versions. When you login you see a list of all the posts you haven't read yet. You can quickly go through them and either read them, or star them to be read later.

The downside to Google Reader, is that it is almost like an email inbox. It makes you feel like you need to read each one to make sure you aren't missing anything good. It is similar to the Tivo effect. Before Tivo there was never anything good on TV so that was frustrating. Once you have Tivo, then there is too much good stuff to watch. And you get that stress that you never had before when you start filling up with TV shows that you want to watch but you don't have the time.

You can also tag entries ala or gmail so you can store them by topic for later retrieval. There is a sharing feature so you can share your list of starred articles with others, or easily take a post and add it to your blog.

The starred articles stores all the posts that you liked. So a few weeks later, if you think, oh where was that article I was reading, you can quickly scan through the starred posts, or search through them.

My Yahoo has RSS feed integration in their site, but they just show you the latest 5 posts. And if you want to read them you have to click on the link. The Google Reader makes it much quicker to scan through all the posts on your favorite blogs and also make sure that you aren't missing any.

The stared articles also lets you know how many good articles a day you are finding. You can go back and say, on average I am finding 3 articles a day that are worth reading. You can figure out which blogs are giving you the most per day, and what percentage of their posts are worth reading.

There are a couple of things I wish it handled better. First, there is no easy way to go through it blog by blog. I wish there was a drop down of blog titles, so you could go through them one at a time if you wanted. Second, adding new blogs is kind of kludgy. It works, but it isn't so intuitive.

Can't wait for the Sony ebook reader to come out. What I would really dig is if they could integrate the Google Reader into the Sony ebook reader. When I wake up in the morning, I would sync my ebook and get the latest blog posts. Then I could quickly browse through all the articles and star which ones I like, and then read just those. When I sync the ebook the next time, it would take this info and put it back on the Google server, so my repository of articles that I like would be saved. Slick interface for reading, rating, sorting and storing blog articles. Of course I also wish it could handle newspaper and magazine articles as well.

Overall, I think Google Reader is a winner and you should check it out if you are looking for a fast and easy to use news aggregator.


Buy Local vs. Shop Local

Buying local has become all the rage lately (see Tree Hugger, 100 Mile Diet,Grist, or Local Harvest). I think there are some good reasons to do it. I think you should buy local because it is fresher. I think you should buy local because it allows for crops to be farmed that are bred for taste rather than for longevity and therefore they taste better. I think you should buy local if having a relationship with a farmer is something that you want. But I am suspect whether you should do it for environmental reasons. You see lots of claims like the following:

Today, the ingredients for an average meal travel over 1,500 miles. As a result, a huge volume of oil is used to transport food that could be purchased locally. Buying locally decreases transportation and thus helps America to reduce its reliance upon foreign oil supplies.
So it made me curious, how much fuel does it really take to transport my food and how does it compare with the fuel that I use to drive to and from the store?

I first tried to determine how much fuel it took to move my food. In this report (.pdf), they take a look at how much food can be transported per gallon of fuel with 3 different types of trucks:

semitrailor = 6.1 mpg * 38,000 lbs of food = 231,800 lb mile/gallon
midsize truck = 8.5 mpg * 13,775 lbs of food = 117,000 lb mile/gallon
small truck = 17.2 mpg * 1,550 lbs of food = 26,600 lb mile/gallon

Although the semitrailor only gets 6.1 miles to the gallon, because it can carry 38,000 pounds of food, it is much more efficient in pound miles/gallon than a small truck that gets 17.2 miles to the gallon.

This report also says that the average distance food travels in the US is around 1,500 miles, and the average for locally grown food is 345 miles. I assume that the long distance food travels by semitrailor and the local food by small truck.

For each pound of "normal" food:
1,500 miles / 231,800 lbs mile/gallon = .0065 gallons per pound
For each pound of local food:
45 miles /26,600 lbs mile/gallon= .0017 gallons per pound

Buying local saves .0065-.0017= .0048 (or .005) gallons per pound.

I weighed my groceries this week and it came to 20lbs. I don't know what the average is for an American, but I bet it is somewhere around there. If I bought only local, each week I would save 20*.005=.1 gallons. For an entire year that take me to 5.2 gallons of gasoline. That is not nothing, but given the average American uses 450 gallons of gasoline a year, it doesn't seem like a whole lot to me. There seem like a lot of other ways that could save much more than that.

Then I wondered, how does the gas used to transport my food compare with that I use to drive to the store?

The "normal" food I buy took 20lbs*.0065 gallons per pound = .13 gallons to transport. My grocery store is 2.6 miles away, or 5.2 miles round trip. Lets assume my car gets 30 mpg, then it works out to 5.2/30mpg = .17 gallons. So it actually takes more gasoline for me to drive to and from the store than it does to transport it all 1,500 miles from the farmers to the store. Of course, if I was shopping for a family of four and getting 80lbs of food, then it would be .52 gallons to transport vs. .17 for the drive.

Then I wondered, it terms of saving fuel, how does buying local compare to cutting out a Trader Joes run, or a second run to the store a week, or buying on the internet and having it delivered?

For me, I would save .1 gallons a week buying local. My Trader Joes is 2.4 miles away or 4.8 round trip. That would use .16 gallons. So, I would be better off skipping TJs and just sticking to the closest grocery store even if that meant no local food. For the family of four, they would save .4 gallons buying local, so if TJs has the local food, it would be worth it. If on the other hand, they were running (and by running I mean driving a car) to 2 stores twice a week (lets say 20 miles round trip) and they could cut it down to 1 store once a week (5 miles) they would be saving .5 gallons, which is more than what they would save from the local food. I don't have numbers but I suspect that buying "normal" food via internet delivery (ala Webvan) would save more gasoline than driving to your local store and buying local, due to the efficiencies of delivery vans if you were buying 20 lbs of food.

So, then I wondered, if I could choose between a normal grocery store with "normal" food or local food at a farmers market, how much farther could I drive to the farmers market and still save gasoline in total?

Buying local saves me .1 gallon a week. At 30mpg, that goes 3 miles (for the round trip). I could only drive an extra 1.5 miles to a farmers market if I was trying to save gasoline (or 6 miles if I was getting food for 4). So much for the idea of driving cross town to the farmers market to help the earth.

My final "then I wondered" was: what if the food was shipped from China?

I found this webpage that took a look at how many ton miles you can transport per gallon with ocean barges (assuming no backhaul).
Size of shipNet ton-milesNet pound-miles
per gallonper gallon
30,000 dwt574.81,148,000
50,000 dwt701.91,404,000
70,000 dwt835.11,670,000
100,000 dwt1,043.42,086,000

So, lets call it 1,500,000 lbs miles/gallon (compared to 231,800 for the semitrailor or 26,600 for the small truck).

The 6,000 miles it takes to go from China would use 6,000/1,500,000 = .004 gallons/lb. This is actually less than the .065 that it took to transport 1,500 miles via semitrailor. So, assuming that there is limited use of semitrailor before or after being on the barge, it actually takes less fuel to ship from China than it does to ship inside the US. Of course if it was flown over (which you would have to do if it needed to be eaten fresh) then I think it would use much more fuel.

So my take away from the whole buy local thing is that it doesn't really save that much fuel. In most cases, it would be better to focus of shopping locally and infrequently (or walking to the store) than to buy local. But of course there are other reasons to buy local, like because those local blueberries are oh so scrumptious.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ebooks in the News

I am still waiting for Sony to release its eBook Reader so I can purchase it (see previous post) and move off of paper for good. It was supposed to be released in April, but looks like it is going to be summer before it is out. Just found out about another E-ink competitor: the iLad Reader from IRex Technologies. Who ever releases first, I will buy it.

Lots of articles about these ebooks. Some are calling them an "iPod for books". I think is an apt description. And I really hope someone comes out with a Real Rhapsody like subscription model for books. $20 a month, all the books you can read. But, something tells me the publishers will try to apply their old economic models on this new medium not understanding that the trivial distribution costs should radically change their business models.

The Washington Post talks of their pricing plans:

Like the music industry, book publishers have begun to ramp up online offerings that can be purchased and downloaded to e-book reader devices. Publishing giant Random House has already converted more than 3,000 of its titles into a digital format, selling them for $18 each, about $7 less than for the hardback version.
The New York Times talks about ebooks application to schools (which I think is huge, but is going to take a while for it to be worked out):
E-textbooks may also be lagging because the economics, on closer inspection, make less sense. About half of textbooks are sold back to stores or to other students, the trade group reports, but electronic textbooks can't be resold. A student who sells back a print textbook can expect to get 50 percent of the cover price. For a new $60 book, that's a net cost of $30 at the end of the semester. For a used book, which might sell for $45 (75 percent of the price when it was new), the net cost is $15 if sold back. An electronic version would cost $36.
Once again, these guys don't get the pricing structure. They don't take into account the value of used books and so over price them. My subscription plan makes so much sense here. Just toss a $100 a quarter fee to students and let them access any text book that they want. Split the $100 between all the writers and publishers.

The New York Times also writes about its possibilities with the newspaper industry:
De Tijd, with 40,000 readers in Belgium, is essentially fitting its traditional print format to the device's screen, meaning that it is not changing the style of its newspaper. Twenty-five De Tijd readers received free e-paper devices on April 14, the start of a three-month trial that ultimately will reveal the habits of 200 readers, mostly highly educated men selected to match the demographic profile of its print readers.
I am pretty excited at the possibilities: books, textbooks, newspapers, blogs, .pdf files and magazines. I can't wait to be able to buy mine.


Peak Oil: Who Cares?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about peak oil. This is the idea that we have or will soon reach the point where we are pumping the most oil we can (currently the world uses around 80 million barrels of oil a day). It is not that we will run out of oil in the ground, but rather we won't be able to pump enough of it to keep up with demand.

The concern is that modern economies are based on oil and that when we can no longer get enough of it, great economic strife will occur. Or as Life After the Oil Crash puts it:

Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global "Peak Oil."
You can read more about it at, which is not to be confused with, which should also not be confused with

I think all this talk of imminent collapse of the economy is crazy, and that peak oil by itself is not what we should worry about.

The Economist had a nice write up on this. This sums up what I think:
Despite today's obsession with the idea of “peak oil”, what really matters to the world economy is not when conventional oil production peaks, but whether we have enough affordable and convenient fuel from any source to power our current fleet of cars, buses and aeroplanes.
Even if we hit peak oil, if there are alternatives out there to fuel our vehicles the economy will not be affected. While peak $20 oil is probably passed, peak $70 oil is still to come (I wouldn't be surprised if you see oil prices back down to $40-$50 in a year or two).

$70 oil doesn't appear to have any catastrophic effects on the economy. In fact, miraculously oil prices have more than tripled in the last 4 years and yet the world economy hasn't missed a beat. Supposedly every $10 raise in oil prices leads to .5% less in net economic growth. But if that happened I must have missed it. Anyone who was predicting that $40, $50, $60 or $70 a barrel oil prices would lead to a world recession were way off base. I have to admit, even I am surprised at how little of an effect it has appeared to have.

And the higher oil prices haven't slowed down US demand at all. In fact it actually increased:
Although the press is filled with anecdotal stories of people curtailing automobile travel, official reporting by the US Department of Energy says US consumption of petroleum products during the last month is running 1.3 percent ahead of last year.
At $70, there is more oil that is economically feasible to pump. This really surprised me the first time I read it:
Globally, the oil industry recovers only about one-third of the oil that is known to exist in any given reservoir.
Wow! When an oil reservoir is "tapped out" it still holds almost 2/3 of its oil! I bet technology and higher oil prices will be able to get at a lot more of that oil.

As the graphic shows, there are lots of alternatives to fuel our cars and planes when oil is at $70 a barrel.

Coal can be turned into oil. Scientific American had a writeup that put the price at $54 a barrel for synthetic fuel from coal. Green Car Congress had an article today about the National Coal Council and their plans for coal to liquids:
A massive expansion of Coal-to-Liquids Processing to produce 2.6 million barrels of coal liquids (fuels and chemicals) per day. Production at that level would meet approximately 10% of US petroleum demand and consume an additional 475 million tons of coal per year.
You can also turn natural gas into liquid fuel, or create ethanol (see previous post) or heavy oils, or tar sands. Wired had a nice writeup that I blogged about a while back. The Economist lays out some of the options:
Several big GTL projects are under way in Qatar, where the North gas field is perhaps twice the size of even Ghawar when measured in terms of the energy it contains. Nigeria and others are also pursuing GTL. Since the world has far more natural gas left than oil—much of it outside the Middle East—making fuel in this way would greatly increase the world's remaining supplies of oil.

So, too, would blending petrol or diesel with ethanol and biodiesel made from agricultural crops, or with fuel made from Canada's “tar sands” or America's shale oil. Using technology invented in Nazi Germany and perfected by South Africa's Sasol when those countries were under oil embargoes, companies are now also investing furiously to convert not only natural gas but also coal into a liquid fuel. Daniel Yergin of CERA says “the very definition of oil is changing, since non-conventional oil becomes conventional over time.”

The good news is that this is not unique. China also has deposits of heavy oil that would benefit from such an advanced approach. America, Canada and Venezuela have deposits of heavy hydrocarbons that surpass even the Saudi oil reserves in size. The Saudis have invited Chevron to apply its steam-injection techniques to recover heavy oil in the neutral zone that the country shares with Kuwait. Mr Naimi, the oil minister, recently estimated that this new technology would lift the share of the reserve that could be recovered as useful oil from a pitiful 6% to above 40%.
As these articles point out, there are many alternatives to fuel our vehicles at $70 a barrel oil. Given the fact that $70 a barrel oil has not had a big effect on the world economy, and that this price will allow for more oil development as well as alternative sources, I think that any talk of imminent economic ruin due to peak oil is pretty crazy. Instead of worrying about peak oil, we should worry about having reasonably priced fuel to run our cars and planes. I think $5 a gallon is reasonable (though I am sure some would object, but not the Europeans and Japanese who are already paying that) and with all the possible alternatives out there, we will be there for many decades. This will give us the time to develop the alternative sustainable energy sources. Of course, I would like to see the world get off of oil sooner, but for environmental and social reasons (see this post for the social reasons to do so).

And there are definitely those that will disagree with The Economist and my take on this. The Oil Drum thinks this article is way off base. Check back in 5-10 years and see who was right.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gamers may soon control action with thoughts

A couple of companies are trying to integrate brain wave monitoring into video games.

San Jose's NeuroSky has been testing prototypes of its system that uses a sensor-laden headband to monitor brain waves, and then uses the signals to control the interaction in video games. They hope that such games are just the beginning of a mind-machine interface with many different applications.

Sensors in the head gear -- whether headbands, headsets or helmets -- measure electrical activity in the brain that scientists have studied for decades. Using NeuroSky's chip technology, the system can distinguish whether a person is calm, stressed, meditative or attentive and alert. Beyond games, the system might be useful for determining whether drivers are so drowsy that they need an alarm to awaken them.

The goal is to create game console add-ons costing less than $100. Some of the game play features can be conscious -- such as forcing someone to concentrate in order to drive a car faster or toss something at an enemy. Others can be subconscious. The game could slow down, for instance, if the sensors pick up an increase in anxiety, Lee said. The company hasn't set a timetable for the product launches of its customers.

CyberLearning also uses electrodes that attach to a player's scalp and monitor brain activity. In a fashion similar to NeuroSky, it monitors the relative stress or calmness in a person's neural patterns and links those signals to game controls.
This is my favorite potential application:
Aside from any medical uses, both companies hope their tools could one day be used to create true ``Jedi'' effects in games set in a Star Wars universe. The player could use mind control to lift objects in video games and toss them at enemies in ways that resemble the action in the George Lucas films.


See Through Your Tongue

Brain Port is back in the news. (See previous posts). I love this thing. Glad to see they are taking it to the next level.

By routing signals from helmet-mounted cameras, sonar and other equipment through the tongue to the brain, they hope to give elite soldiers superhuman senses similar to owls, snakes and fish.

Researchers at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition envision their work giving Army Rangers 360-degree unobstructed vision at night and allowing Navy SEALs to sense sonar in their heads while maintaining normal vision underwater -- turning sci-fi into reality.

The device, known as "Brain Port," was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. Bach-y-Rita began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people's backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.

A narrow strip of red plastic connects the Brain Port to the tongue where 144 microelectrodes transmit information through nerve fibers to the brain.
Sonar through your tongue, too cool. I have always wondered how dolphins and bats experience their sonar. Is it like sound? Is it like vision? Is it something totally different? I wonder if we will ever know.

Pretty neat that they are able to take data, route it through the tongue and the brain is able to interpret it.

And such an article just calls for bad titles, so here is your rundown of the worst, thanks to Google News.

Warriors of the future will 'taste' battlefield
Soldiers get owl eyes, snake tongues
Super warrior skills on tip of the tongue
Scientists get a taste for superhuman senses
How to lick your enemy
US Army SPC in tongue-lashing?
A lick of (sixth) sense
Scientists Use Tongue To Create Future Soldiers

That last one is via a Romanian paper. Just to clear a couple of things up for our Romanian friends: you can't get AIDS through kissing, and you can't create future soldiers with your tongue.

via Engadget


Monday, April 24, 2006

Sheep Advertising

THE latest highway billboards in the Netherlands are so startling that motorists do U-turns. Or should we say, ewe-turns?

These ads are walking and bleating flocks of sheep.

Early this month,, a Dutch online reservations company, began displaying its corporate logo on blue waterproof blankets worn by sheep.
via The Age


Sunday, April 23, 2006

Flickr: Interesting

Flickr has this new way of determining interesting photos. Pretty cool. So see lots of, um, interesting photos that people have taken.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Grass Commons

Off that WorldChanging post on GreenScanner, there is a comment about a similar project by Grass Commons. I like what this nonprofit is attempting.

With information about products and companies as scattered and inconvenient as it currently is, few if any of us could claim with confidence that we always mean what we pay. But we can get there. Grass Commons is fueled by curiosity, optimism, and passion for creative ways to cultivate personal, social, and environmental health, even in a complex and confusing economy. Shopping is now a bombardment of slick suitors — we want it to be a wonderful learning experience that connects citizens to the world around them, making them feel empowered by every penny’s vote. It’s the Information Age; it can happen!
Love the tagline of "mean what you pay". They are attempting to build a website to do the following: is about helping users gather and share information in ways that will let online shoppers learn what they care to know when they need to know it. It’s designed to help its user community do three things:

  • amass nuggets of consumer wisdom using community research tools that unite the collaborative elegance of wikis with the organizing power of tagging (wagging).
  • map together existing research on products and companies (IntoGreater).
  • find their favorite bits of all this information when it’s most useful by clicking directly from shopping sites big and small (Hooze on Top).
If they can integrate data from other sources about environmental practices and social responsibility to make it available when you are shopping that would be very useful.



Interesting post over at WorldChanging about GreenScanner:

Ever stand in a grocery aisle contemplating the unknown (and potentially unappealing) story about where a product comes from and what it contains? Given the deceptive nature of advertising and packaging, the best way to get a straight answer about a product is to aggregate the opinions of its users. Enter GreenScanner, a public database of consumer opinions about the environmental accountability of over 600,000 products.
This is a great idea. The website is a little rough (well really rough) but it is good start. Check out the entry of Horizon Organic Milk. He has software for use with a palm, but it would be cool if it worked with camera enabled cellphones. This will be valuable if enough people enter quality reviews. Not sure if that will happen or not.


Orcas Show Young How To Hunt Seals

In this sweet video, Orca whales teach the young ones how to create a wave to knock a seal off of a floating piece of ice so they can get at it. Pretty cool.

Shows how hunting for Orca whales is not something that is determined in their genes, but rather something that is passed down from one generation to the next. And don't miss the very end where the whales put the seal back on the ice rather than eating it!


Productivity in the Digital Economy

Economic statistics are important because they guide our economy and measure how we are doing. But, if they do not accurately reflect what is going on then they lose their value. Most economic indicators were designed for the industrial economy and don't accurately reflect the digital economy. In this post, I take a look at how the digital economy is different from the industrial economy and how the current measurements of real GDP and productivity are underreporting the gains of the digital economy.

GDP as a measure of all the goods and services produced. As it goes up, we have more stuff and are better off. To deal with inflation, economists measure real GDP (as opposed to nominal GDP) which takes out the impact of inflation. Real GDP also reflects any quality improvements in the goods and services that are being sold. Converting nominal GDP to real GDP is done using the GDP deflator that is calculated by The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

When more goods are created, this increase is objective and easy to measure. When we create better goods, this is difficult and subjective to measure. If an iPod with 30GB sold for $200 last year, and now one with 60GB sells for $200 today, how much better is this product? Some analyst at the BEA has to make this subjective decision for every product and it affects the GDP deflator and therefore the real GDP value.

Productivity is important, because increasing productivity is key to improving standard of living. Every 3 months, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measures aggregate productivity for the entire US economy. As productivity for the entire economy (or macro productivity or aggregate productivity) goes up, total goods and services increase (GDP) and the standard of living of the society goes up. The BLS uses real GDP in its calculations for productivity, which means improvements in the quality of goods and services are captured in productivity. Because real GDP has subjective decisions on how product improvements are measured, implicit in the productivity number are these decisions.

The industrial (or physical) economy deals with things like food, cars, TV's, and computers. For every additional item that needs to be produced, time and effort must go into creating it. Increasing productivity means a worker can create more cars, shirts, TV's or widgets in a given amount of time and therefore the economy as a whole could create more stuff increasing the standard of living. With industrial goods, more produced equals more consumed. An extra TV is created, someone can have it. And that extra TV brings with it extra revenue and extra GDP. You can always have more stuff: a larger house, another TV or a new pair of shoes.

The digital economy encompasses items like software, TV shows, movies, books, magazines, newspapers, and video games. This is also referred to as digital content. It has large up front costs but is practically free to distribute as many as copies as you want. Digital goods require time to consume them, so individuals are limited in how much they can consume regardless of how much money they have. Because of these differences from the industrial economy, in the digital economy the amount produced does not equal the amount consumed. If one car is produced, one person can purchase it. If one TV show is created, there is no correlation with how many people can watch it. One person or 1 million people can watch it and there is minimal additional expense to broadcast to all the extra people. Producing more movies in a year does not necessarily mean more people will watch them or that total revenue will go up for the motion picture industry or GDP. Society is best served when the most amount of digital goods are produced, but this might not be reflected in higher total revenue. These differences lead to a need to measure productivity and real GDP differently.

In general, economic statistics have a hard time dealing with digital goods. The fact that the marginal cost equals zero blows up a lot of the models. For example, in standard market economics, the optimal price is set where marginal cost equals marginal revenue. But, if marginal cost equals 0, this means that the price should be zero. And you can't have much of an economy if the prices were all zero, could you?

With industrial goods, increasing quantity and quality of goods is reflected in higher prices and more revenue. Worker productivity can be accurately measured by dollars of goods produced an hour. And as this increases, total revenue goes up, GDP increases and society as a whole is better off. With digital goods, society as a whole is best served when content producers are productive in terms of creating more and better content per hour they work. But, because only so much content can be consumed due to time constraints, and the amount of consumption is not linked to the amount of production, this won't always be reflected in more revenue or more GDP. So, unlike in the industrial economy, society is not necessarily best served when revenue per hour is maximized with digital goods.

In industrial economics, to maximize productivity you want to maximize revenue with the minimum number of workers. Sometimes productivity in one business gets high enough that they need fewer workers. The theory goes that these laid off workers will be able to find jobs with new businesses creating new stuff. By doing this, the total number of goods for society increases, and society as a whole benefits. With digital goods this doesn't work. For example, if the TV news industry consolidated from 3 networks to one, it would be able to reach the same audience each night, and therefore make the same amount of revenue. But it would do it with 1/3 the staff, making the workers 3 times as productive in terms of revenue per employee. But this is not a good thing for viewers as they have lost choices of what news we want to watch and there is less reporting that is done. And unlike in the industrial sector where the laid off workers can create new stuff that will be consumed by someone else, if the laid off news workers go and get another news job at a brand new news channel, they will be going after the same viewers and you are right back where you started.

Because time is limited and consumers can't consume more content, the only way for them to improve their experience is to consume higher quality content. This improves standard of living, just like in the industrial economy if they were consuming higher quality (and more expensive) goods. The way this should be captured, is that when the content is of higher quality, it should be treated as more valuable and reflected in the price deflator. Real GDP should therefore reflect this increase in quality even if the price isn't higher and revenue or nominal GDP isn't higher.

One way the quality is improved is by having more choices. More choices gives you a better chance of finding something that is suited to your particular tastes. Society is therefore best served when there is a maximum amount of content choices. This will lead to more niche based content and we will have more choices of magazines, TV shows, and movies. This will lead to smaller average audiences, and dollars of revenue per worker will go down, but unlike with industrial goods, this kind of decrease in worker productivity is a good thing for society.

You can see this increase in choices with magazines that have gone from a few handful to over 6,000, cable TV that has gone from 10 to over 100 channels, and movie rental libraries that have gone from a few hundred to over 10,000 with Netflix. Sometimes the content providers are able to charge extra for the extra choice. Cable companies sell premium channels and extended basic cable for an extra amount each month. Netflix charges extra to have 8 movies out at a time rather than 3. In these cases the extra availability of content does lead to extra revenue, and is captured by GDP. But in cases where extra choice is not captured, it is still as valuable. When your selection in cable channels goes form 30 to 35 without an increase in price, you are better off and this should be reflected in real GDP just as it is when they charge more for it.

The second way to improve quality, is for consumer to have tools to help them find better content. Recommendations from Netflix, Tivo and Amazon help us to do that. You find out about books or movies or TV shows that you have never heard of, but that you would probably like based on your past consumption. Instead of watching movies, TV shows, or books that you would rate 3 stars, now with the tools you are able to find the niche material that you enjoy more so now you would rate your average experience 4 stars. Other viewers can leave feedback, so that you know more about a book or a movie before you consume it. Yahoo Movies aggregates the 10 top movie reviewers in the US to give you a much more accurate view of a movie than any one reviewer could give you. It also lets you know how much the average viewer liked it as well. DVRs record TV content, so instead of being limited by what is currently being broadcast when you want to watch TV, you now have access to everything that has been broadcast in the last 24 hours.

This has nothing to do with what the producers did, but rather being smarter about you choose to consume it. In the digital age, the quality of consumption can be increased as much by consumers using tools as it can be by producers creating more and better content. This improvement should be captured by real GDP. Because productivity is calculated off of real GDP, this means in the digital age, productivity increases are determined as much by consumers as they are by producers.

For the economic statistics to accurately reflect the digital economy, the BEA needs to capture the increase in quality due to more selection and tools to find the best stuff. By capturing this in the GDP deflator, real GDP will reflect this increase in standard of living. Because the BLS uses real GDP for calculating productivity, the increase will be show up in the productivity number for the US economy in aggregate. In the digital economy, maximizing dollars produced per hour on the micro level does not lead to the ideal amount for society. Instead, to maximize aggregate productivity, you need to maximize the quality and quantity of output by digital content producers and the tools for finding the best content for consumers.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Chernobyl Nature Reserve?

It contains some of the most contaminated land in the world, yet it has become a haven for wildlife - a nature reserve in all but name. The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station is teeming with life.

As humans were evacuated from the area 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades, such as the lynx and eagle owl, began to return.

A large part of the Chernobyl zone within Belarus has already officially been turned into a nature reserve.

Sergey Gaschak wants Ukraine to follow suit and to turn its 2,500 sq km of evacuated land into a reserve or national park.
Well at least it worked out well for somebody. Looks like some of the animals have actually evolved to be able to live there. Would be really intresting to see how their DNA differs, could be some novel radiation protection genes in there.
Sergey Gaschak has experimented on mice in the Red Forest.

"We marked animals then recaptured them again much later," he says.

"And we found they lived as long as animals in relatively clean areas."

The next step was to take these other mice and put them in an enclosure in the Red Forest.

"They felt not very well," Sergey says.

"The distinction between the local and newcomer animals was very evident."
Maybe we can use this whole radioactive waste thing to our advantage.
He went on: "I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers".
Ahhh, don't know if we want to go that far, buddy.



Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Vinod Joins the Cellulosic Ethanol Bandwagon

Time once again to revisit Fat Knowledge's favorite topic: ethanol. (See articles here, here, here, and here). This time super VC and founder of Sun Microsystems Vinod Khosla is throwing his weight in the ring. From the NY Times:

"I am convinced we can replace a majority of petroleum used for cars and light trucks with ethanol within 25 years," he said. He has already invested "tens of millions of dollars," he said, in private companies that are developing methods to produce ethanol using plant sources other than corn.
What is his motivation? From The Economist:
Like many very rich men, he now wants to improve the world: “Just starting another Sun doesn't do it for me any more.” As an engineer turned venture capitalist, Mr Khosla has a healthy respect for the power of new technologies to create disruptive innovations. And the free marketeer in him clearly relishes the prospect of really taking on the big, rich and well-entrenched firms that dominate the oil industry.
He even created a very informative 102 pg PowerPoint slide with his sales pitch (isn't there a law against creating PowerPoint slides that long?). So Vinod thinks that Cellulosic Ethanol is the way to go. Is it? Lets take a look at the pertinent questions.

1) What is cellulosic ethanol?
Cellulosic ethanol is ethanol that is generated from cellulose rather than corn or sugar. Examples of cellulosic materials are paper, cardboard, wood, and other fibrous plant material. The probable feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol in the US include corn stover and stalks from other grains and perennial grass (e.g. switchgrass and Miscanthus).

2) Does it require more energy to produce than it gives out?
One of the big debates about corn ethanol is whether it has a positive energy balance. Depending on assumptions corn ethanol has either a slightly negative or slightly positive energy balance. This means that it is not really creating energy as much as it is transforming coal and natural gas into fluid energy that can be used in a car.

Cellulosic ethanol on the other hand is much more strongly positive. Vinod's PowerPoint slide puts it at 4-8 times:
Energy Balance (Energy OUT vs. IN)
“Corn” ethanol numbers ~1.2-1.8X
….but reality from non-corn ethanol is…
Sugarcane ethanol (Brazil) ~8X
Cellulosic ethanol ~4-8X
Petroleum energy balance at ~0.75
This EIA paper refers to another paper that says it a net energy balance of more than 60,000 Btu per gallon. They state a gallon of ethanol has 76,000 BTU, that looks to me like it takes 16,000 to create 76,000 or a balance of 4.75.

This report puts it at 162% increase in energy but it is over 10 years old and might be out of date.

This article states:
So, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every one unit of energy available at the fuel pump, 1.23 units of fossil energy are used to produce gasoline, 0.74 of fossil energy are used to produce corn-based ethanol, and only 0.2 units of fossil energy are used to produce cellulosic ethanol.
So it is much better than corn, definitely positive, probably somewhere around 5 times right now, but also lower than sugar cane.

3) How much land would it take?
In this University of Illinois report (.pdf) they were able to get 35 dry tons of Miscanthus per hectare which is about 15 tons/acre.

Iogen is able to turn a ton of straw into 80 to 85 gallons of ethanol. Other estimates have 100 gallons a ton.

So, 1 acre could yield 1,500 gallons of ethanol based on these figures. If you are assume that it is 5 times in its energy balance, and you wanted to make the whole thing use just its own energy, 1/5 of the energy would go to running the conversion and you would be left with only 4/5 or 1,200 gallons an acre. But, this may only be possible yield on the best land, so other land might yield considerably less.

4) Can it make a serious dent on oil imports and consumption?
According to the EIA, the US uses 420 million gallons of gasoline a day for motor vehicles. For a year that works out to 630 million gallons * 365 days = 230 bil gallons. Since ethanol has less energy per gallon it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol for each gallon of gasoline.

To replace all that gasoline it would take 230 bil * 1.5 / 1,200 gallons/acre = 191 million acres. The US currently has 700 million acres in range and crop land, so this is in the realm of the possible.

The US has 39m acres in Conservation Reserve Program, which is previous farm land that farmers are being paid not to farm. If they could get the 15 tons/acre (might not be realistic as this was probably marginal farming land) this could account for 20% of US transportation fuel.

Vinod sees 900m tons of crop being harvestable from stovers, winter crops and converting soybeans to switchgrass. That would create 90 billion gallons of ethanol a year or about 40% of total transportation consumption.

If these numbers are feasible then it would make a serious impact.

5) Is it economical?
How do you answer this one? You are looking at two industries: agriculture and energy that are full of market distorting subsidies and non market externalities. So it really depends on what you put into your calculations. Should the subsidies that farmers are given to produce crops be added in? How about the subsidies given to oil producers? How about the tariff on importing ethanol from Brazil? What about the cost to society of carbon emissions? What about the cost of maintaining our large military in order to keep the oil lanes open? What about the funding of the new technologies to create ethanol more efficiently?

But, given everything that is currently in place, Vinod puts the break even at scale likely to be ~$35/barrel. Now that oil has hit $70/barrel this looks like it can compete.

From the Rocky Mountain Institute:
Such firms as Iogen and Novozymes have been developing enzymes, and "smart bugs," that can turn biomass such as corn residues (leaves, stalks, and cobs) into sugars that can then be converted into ethanol. Historically, the biggest cost component of this technology was the creation of enzymes. Earlier this year, though, in combination with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Novozymes announced a 30-fold reduction in the cost of enzyme production in laboratory trials. Expected benefits from this process include low energy requirements, high efficiency, and mild process conditions. A pilot plant exists in Ontario and another is planned in Hawai'i. The first commercial-scale enzymatic reduction hydrolosis plant is scheduled to be built and operational by Iogen within two years, producing ethanol at a targeted cost of $1.30 per gallon.
From Iogen:
Straw looks a lot like hay, but has fewer nutrients and therefore less value. A ton of baled straw goes for about $40 and yields 80 to 85 gallons of ethanol, making the price of the main raw material about 50 cents a gallon. By contrast, with oil at $70 for a 42-gallon barrel, the raw material for gasoline is about $1.67 a gallon. Iogen chose to use straw because the technology to bale it is available. Brian Foody, the president of the company, said other wastes could be used, including the entire corn plant, not just the kernels, which are used in existing ethanol plants. Even old newspapers are an option.
and another from Iogen:
Last December the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy released a report, Ending the Energy Stalemate , that analyzed the potentials of various alternative fuels, including both types of ethanol (which is just an industrial grade of alcohol). Only cellulosic ethanol got a decisive thumbs-up. By 2020, the commission predicts, its production cost could be less than 80 cents a gallon.
So $1.30 a gallon to maybe $.80 a gallon. That would be competitive if true (and who knows what assumptions, subsidies or externalities they are figuring in). With better enzymes for breaking down the cellulose and creating the ethanol and better crop yields, these prices could go down as well.

5) Other objections:

a) Shouldn't we just remove the $.54 a gallon tariff on Brazil ethanol and import it from them and other tropical nations where they can create ethanol more efficiently from sugar?

I think you can make a strong case for this. Of course you also have issues with them potentially cutting down rain forests in order to grow sugar cane. And if you think energy independence is important, this doesn't help either. From the NY Times:
But Brazilian officials and business executives say the ethanol industry would develop even faster if the United States did not levy a tax of 54 cents a gallon on all imports of Brazilian cane-based ethanol. The expansion of sugar production, for example, has come largely at the expense of pasture land, leading to worries that the grazing of cattle, another booming export product, could be shifted to the Amazon, encouraging greater deforestation.

Industry and government officials say such concerns are unwarranted. Sugar cane's expanding frontier is, they argue, an environmental plus, because it is putting largely abandoned or degraded pasture land back into production.
For each unit of energy expended to turn cane into ethanol, 8.3 times as much energy is created, compared with a maximum of 1.3 times for corn, according to scientists at the Center for Sugarcane Technology here and other Brazilian research institutes.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to improve that ratio to 10 to 1," said Suani Teixeira Coelho, director of the National Center for Biomass at the University of São Paulo. "It's no miracle. Our energy balance is so favorable not just because we have high yields, but also because we don't use any fossil fuels to process the cane, which is not the case with corn."
From Newsweek (.pdf):
Southern countries growing suger cane, on the other hand, can get up to 5 times as much biofuel from each acre of land. "Without too much effort, producing ethanol from sugar cane in developing countries like Brazil and India could replace 10% of global gasoline fuel," says Lew Fulton, biofuels expert at the International Energy Agency. Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia are well positioned to join Brazil as global suppliers of sugar-cane ethanol.

b) Shouldn't we be using our land for food, or if not that returning it to nature?
As the population goes from 6 to 10 billion, should we really be setting aside vast chunks of land to create crops to fuel our vehicles? Vinod has this odd slide (p 26) where he points out that we could turn all of the land used to export crops to other countries and turn that into ethanol producing land. Instead of feeding those in the 3rd world we should feed our vehicles. I don't think I agree with that.

I think there is a case for this, but at the moment we have extra land that is not being used for agriculture that could be used to grow switchgrass.

c) Wouldn't it be even better to use solar panels and electric cars?
If we used solar panels, it would take about 1/50 the amount of space to capture the same amount of energy from the sun as we do with cellulose ethanol. This means we could use much less land and leave the rest for nature. On the other hand, maybe it is better to have 50 acres of switch grass vs. having 1 that is full of inorganic photovoltaic cells.

Another issue with solar is that it is much more expensive right now than ethanol. Battery technology has also not advanced far enough to have electric powered cars. Maybe in 10 years when new batteries become available, but for now ethanol will allow a car to travel much further on one tank than a battery pack will allow.

d) Would it be better to just burn the grass as electricity instead of turning it into ethanol?
Another interesting idea. But, once again if we are looking for a way to power our vehicles, we need better batteries before this is viable. On the other hand, if we are just trying to generate the most amount of usable energy per acre this might be a way to go.

In the U of I report they calculate:
If only 20% of the over 11 million hectares currently devoted to agriculture in the state were to produce Miscanthus, they could provide 145 TWh of electricity.
This works out to 1.6MWh/ton or 77MWh/ha or 31MWh/acre. If we compare this with our 1,200 net gallons/acre number from above, we get 1,200 gallons * 76,000 BTU/gallon = 91m BTU. There are 0.29307107 watt hours in a BTU, so that gets us to 26Mwh. So, from this very rough calculation we see that ethanol has slightly less energy than what could be produced in electricity. I would guess that you would actually get quite a bit more electricity than ethanol in terms of BTU. But, given the extra range and cheaper price of an internal combustion engine over a battery powered electric car, we are still going to need liquid fuels and this loss of energy is probably worth while.

e) Is it better than biodiesel or hydrogen?
I haven't been able to find any good comparisons between biodiesel and cellulose ethanol. So I don't know. It is possible to convert ethanol into biodiesel, so maybe it has more to do with the type of engine you are trying to run it on.

As for hydrogen, Vinod throws the smackdown on hydrogen on slides 52 and 53. Basically it would be a lot more expensive to use hydrogen and it is going to take at least 15 years to get there. It is not clear where you get the hydrogen from, how you store it, or how you transport it. It is going to take a major infrastructure change to sell hydrogen rather than a fluid. And on a well to wheels analysis is isn't clear that hydrogen is more efficient.

f) Other dissenters:
This article and discussion over at the doesn't believe that the yields on switchgrass will be able to amount to those stated earlier. He questions whether switchgrass would really be much better than corn for generating corn in terms of price or energy yield.

David Pimentel1 and Tad W. Patzek state in this paper that cellulose ethanol takes 45% more fossil energy than it produces. Not really clear how they derived this number. Most of the loss is due to steam and electricity use. But, other sites say that part of the cellulose is burned to generate the steam and electricity, so it is not clear to me how they can state it loses 45% of its energy.

Overall, I think the case for cellulosic ethanol is pretty compelling. The key question is how well the actual yields compare to those estimated here, and how the costs work out is it ramps up. Definitely one to watch (and possibly invest) in the alternative fuel arena.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Life in the Green Lane

Good op-ed in the New York Times about how hybrid technology is not as important as gas mileage when it comes to being green.

And yet like fat-free desserts, which sound healthy but can still make you fat, the hybrid car can make people feel as if they're doing something good, even when they're doing nothing special at all. As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome — saving gas.

Several bills floating around Congress, for instance, have proposed tax incentives to buyers of hybrid cars, irrespective of their gas mileage. Thus, under one failed but sure to resurface formulation, the suburbanite who buys a hypothetical hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source would be entitled to a huge tax incentive, while the buyer of a conventional, gasoline-powered Honda Civic that delivers 40 miles per gallon on the open road gets none.
That is why I think there should be a $2 a gallon tax on gasoline but no tax breaks for hybrids. The whole point of the hybrid is to save gas. But it is not the only way to save gas, and it shouldn't be favored against the others. The best way to limit gasoline use is to tax it directly. This way, hybrids will be used where they really do save lots of gasoline, like taxis and buses and not so much in other cases where other technologies can save more gasoline for less money.
And under some imaginable patchwork of state and local ordinances, the Durango buyer might get a special parking space at the train station and the right to use a high occupancy vehicle lane, despite appalling fuel economy and a car full of empty seats, while the Honda driver will have to walk to the train from a distant parking lot after braving the worst of morning rush hour traffic on the highway just like everybody else.
Instead of allowing hybrid cars to use the HOV lanes, I think they should have a minimum miles per gallon per passenger rule. If you get over 40 mpg per passenger then you can use it. So, a Prius with one person getting 40mpg is in. Or a Honda Accord with 2 people that gets 20mpg. If you are driving a Hummer getting 10mpg, if you have 4 people then you are eligible. It is the amount of gas you are using per person that is important, rather than the technology or the car. This might be tough to do technically right now, but it is definitely possible for the future.

And ironically, it looks like while hybrids get much better mileage than normal cars in stop and go traffic, they get no advantage and possibly a disadvantage when travelling full speed on the freeway (as in an HOV lane).
On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla — which costs thousands less.


The Co-Dependent Economies of China and US

This comic (.pdf) brilliantly explains the co-dependency of the US and Chinese economies and why revaluing the Chinese currency will solve some problems but will also create new ones that might even be worse.


Friday, April 14, 2006

How Much Death Does My Consumption Cause?

After reading Fast Food Nation and Garbage Land, I realized that there are some pretty awful jobs out there that cause a lot of injuries and death. Which made me wonder, what can I do to minimize these kind of jobs? As a consumer I could choose not to buy the products that create these dangerous jobs (or decrease my purchases of them) and shift my purchases to goods which were safer for workers.

But in order to do this, I would need to know what kind of products create dangerous jobs, and which ones created safe jobs. Ideally I would like to have this information available on a label on all products. How many deaths did this product cause, and how many injuries? Then I could add it up for all of my consumption for a year and find out what the total impact is. This would also put pressure on employers to make work safer, as the information would now be available to consumers.

I decided to take a look and see what I could find out. I wasn't able to find injury data, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks deaths by industry and jobs type so you can see what jobs are the most dangerous.

This is my very rough attempt at trying to determine the death impact of a few products (underlying sources for the numbers are at the end of the post). Waste refers to municipal garbage. Coal is consumed when we use electricity.


Total US Production (in billion lbs)

Total Worker DeathsDeath per Pound (in billionths)Avg US Consumption a Year (in lbs)Deaths per avg US Consumption (in billionths)
Wheat129.4 5.039313 12
Milk170.862.363 176 64
Fish9.4485.10815 80
Beef26.2582.21090 199
Waste738.0 91.1232,460302

This graph lets you see on a per pound basis, just how much death is being caused. And if you multiply that by average pounds of consumption, you can see how much death is attributable to each average American consumer a year.

The numbers show that wheat causes much less death for workers than do milk, fish or beef both per pound and per average American consumption. Per pound fish causes twice as many deaths as beef does, and both are much higher than milk. So, if more people drank milk to get protein rather than fish or beef, lives could be saved. Ironically, the disposal of our waste causes more deaths (based on an average consumption) than any of the others on this list.

The billionth numbers seem very small (and they are) but they do add up. 5,575 died on the job in the US in 2003. If we could change our consumption patterns to cut this in half, we would save over 2,700 lives a year. To put that in comparison, 846 US soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. So we could save over 3 times as many lives as were lost in Iraq.

Other caveats:
These numbers do not take transportation into account. Many deaths are attributable to the transportation sector, so this should really be added in.

The American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution. Makes the 27 directly attributable deaths from coal mining seem pretty small.

The waste numbers refer to the disposal of municipal waste. But, the death number probably includes commercial and industrial waste disposal. Those deaths should be attributed to the end products that they are for.

Two industries I wanted to add were mining and forestry. Both are dangerous. I would have liked to know the death rate of buying jewelry. But, I figured most gold and diamond mining is done outside the US, so it would be difficult to figure out. Also, the valuable metals and minerals are recycled which also makes it more difficult to figure. Wood products and paper were also trickier than I wanted to attempt.

On the safer side, I am curious about media goods like: TV shows, movies, songs, books, magazines and newspapers. I bet these are much safer for workers and as I shift my consumption away from physical goods and more towards digital ones, the better it would be for workers.

Maybe in a later post I can look into these.

Sources and derivation of numbers:
Data on deaths was based on BLS numbers here. More information on workers deaths can be found at here, here, and here

5 deaths (BLS)

United States: 58.8 million tonnes produced (
58.8 million tonnes* 2,200 lbs/tonne= 129.36 billion pounds
5 deaths/ 129.36 billion pounds= .039/bil pounds

Americans consume 36% of the total U.S. wheat crop (
129.36 * .36% = 47 bil pounds /300 million Americans = 313 lbs a year
313 lb * .039 deaths/bil pounds = 12 billionth deaths

48 deaths (BLS 2003)

9,397 million pounds of fish caught by American fishermen (NOAA)
48 deaths/9.397 billion = 5.108 deaths/bil pounds

15.6 lbs consumed per American (NOAA)
15.6 lbs* 5.108 deaths/bil pounds= 79.6 billionth deaths

58 deaths: Beef Cattle Ranching and Farming 39 + Animal Slaughtering and Processing 19

26.24 billion pounds produced in US in 2003 (USDA)
58 deaths/26.24 bil = 2.210 deaths/bil pounds

27.0 billion pounds consumed in 2003 (USDA)
27.0 billion pounds / 300 mil Americans = 90 lbs average consumption per American
90 lbs * 2.210 deaths/bil pounds= 198.9 deaths/bil a year

62 deaths: Dairy Cattle and Milk Production 56 + Dairy Product Manufacturing 6

The United States produced 170.8 billion pounds of milk in 2004. (IDFA)
62 deaths/ 170.8 bil pounds= .363 deaths/bil pounds

Fluid sales 53 bil pounds, 6.15 bil gallons (IDFA)
53 bil /300 mil = 176 lbs/person
176 lbs* .363 deaths/bil pounds = 64 deaths/bil a year

coal mining
27 deaths: BLS

1,071,753,000 short tons (NMA)
1,071,753,000 short tons * 2,000 lbs/ton = 2,142 bil pound
27/2,142 bil = .0126 deaths per bil pounds

One pound of coal generates about 1 kWh of electricity. Coal Education
Average American consumes 4,500kwh/yr in residential electricity (DOE)
4,500 kWh uses about 4,500 lbs of coal
4,500 * .0126 = 56.7 deaths/bil a year

Notes: 1/2 of electricity in US is supplied by coal. This estimate is only good for those who get all their electricity from coal.
1/3 of all electricity is residential use. So on average 2kWh are used in industry and commercial for every 1 that is used residentially.

waste/ garbage collection
91 deaths: waste collection 73 + waste treatment and disposal 18

369 million tons of municipal waste in US 2002 (Garbage Land)
369 mil* 2000 = 738 bil pounds
91 deaths/738 bil pounds= .123 deaths/bil pounds

738 bil tons/300 mil Americans = 2,460 lbs per person in US
2,460 lbs * .123 deaths/bil pounds = 302 deaths/bil a year


Pimp my Cochlear Implant

Every time I have to fly on a plane or take public transportation, I think to myself, man those deaf people really have it made. How great would it be to just have perfect silence even while surrounded by a bunch of idiots yakking to each other and their cellphones?

But, for some reason, some of these deaf people are trying to regain their hearing with cochlear implants. It is a bionic ear, that works by directly stimulating any functioning auditory nerves inside the cochlea with electrical impulses. The quality does not currently match that of a normal ear, but give it 10-20 years and I bet it will get close or hopefully even better.

So, just like the bionic eye, this got me to thinking of what functionality I would want for a bionic ear, how to make it better than normal hearing, how to, well, pimp it out.

First, as mentioned above, the ability to have silence at any point is fantastic. Think Bose noise canceling headphones to the extreme. No more annoying cell phone ring tones, construction noise, or noisy apartment neighbors. When you are trying to fall asleep, you can have complete silence.

Second, since this is an electric device, you can switch the input to just listen to whatever you want. Imagine having it bluetooth enabled. You could have your iPod on your hip and listening just to your music with a direct wireless feed, no outside noise getting in. You could pump up the volume on your iPod as loud as you want and not annoy anyone. Hmm, I wonder is it even possible to go deaf if you play it too loud when you have a cochlear implant?

Or you could have your cellphone hooked in. When the phone rings, the sound would just occur in your ear. No more annoying ring tones that everyone around you has to be subjected to. If you are getting a phone call, only you will hear it. Someone could be talking to you and no one else would even know it. It would be like one half of telepathy.

Third, you could have super hearing. You could have dog hearing, listening to ranges and frequencies that normal ears couldn't listen to. You could set it up to hone in on a whispering conversation on the other side of a room. You could have noise canceling software to cancel out the sounds you don't want to hear.

Silence whenever you want it, music as loud as you want it, listen to a cellphone without attaching anything to your ear, and listen to frequencies only dogs can hear. Who wouldn't want a cochlear implant?


3 Features DVD Players Need

While watching way too many DVDs, a couple of ideas that would greatly improve my viewing experience have crossed my mind. HD-DVD players are the big buzz, but unless you have a 50" plasma TV with HD resolution, I don't think you are going to see much of an improvement. My suggestions on the other hand will vastly improve the viewing quality for all DVD watchers.

The first thing I wish my DVD player had was a 1.5 speed "fast forward" that would still show subtitles and voices (though obviously at a faster speed). That way you could watch a 1.5 hour movie in an hour. Perfect for people without a lot of time or patience. Or even better, if you could have a dimmer like switch, or an iPod scroll wheel like thingy, so you could change the speed from anywhere from 1.0 to 2.0. If they are talking fast in the movie, you gotta watch it at normal speed. If they are going real slow, crank it up to double speed. If you are reading a book and it gets boring, you can start reading faster or skimming it. This would give you the same ability for a movie. The Microsoft Media Player allows you to do this, giving you the ability to fast forward while still listening to the sound. The DVD players should allow it to as well.

The second thing I want is the ability to skip the copyright notices. I am so sick of being forced to watch them that I have started to buy pirated versions, just so I get a version without them. It annoys me that you can't fast forward or skip it, but what super annoys me is that you can't even pause the screen! The material is up there long enough to annoy you, but not long enough to actually read the whole thing. So, I have probably watched 200+ of them, and yet I still don't know what exactly it says.

And then to totally piss you off, sometimes they force you to view it a second time in French. Hello, I live in America. That means I don't speak French, I can't read French, I won't eat anything French (unless it is renamed with Freedom), I can't even find France on a map, and the only French thing I respect is Tony Parker, and only because he is dating Eva Longoria. So why in Gods name, can't a man living in the good old US of A have the ability to skip the French copyright notice?

The third thing I want is the ability to jump right to the main menu (the one with the play movie option) with a one button click. My remote has a button called "Menu", but the DVD makers have disabled it to force me to watch all this other crap. I don't want to watch 4 previews of lame movies, a ridiculous 30 second video clip produced by MTV that tells me that copying is stealing, a stupid animation that generates the menu screen, and I especially don't want to watch any god damn French copyright notices. It has got to the point, that after I put the DVD in the player, I go jump on the treadmill for 30 minutes and hope by the time I am done that I am finally at the menu screen and can hit the play button.

So there you have it DVD manufacturers, screw the HD-DVD players, and instead give us control over the speed of the movie, a menu button that works, and the ability to skip copyright notices.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Still Evolving, Human Genes Tell New Story

Interesting new research on evolution and genes. From The New York Times:

Providing the strongest evidence yet that humans are still evolving, researchers have detected some 700 regions of the human genome where genes appear to have been reshaped by natural selection, a principal force of evolution, within the last 5,000 to 15,000 years.

The genes that show this evolutionary change include some responsible for the senses of taste and smell, digestion, bone structure, skin color and brain function.
From The Economist:
Perhaps the most intriguing results were those connected with food metabolism. The gene for alcohol dehydrogenase is undergoing selection in Asia, as is that for processing sucrose (table sugar). Meanwhile, the genes for processing two other sorts of sugar, lactose (found in milk) and mannose (found in some fruit) are changing in Europeans and Yoruba respectively. Fatty-acid metabolism, too, is changing in all three populations. And Europeans are having the toxin-disposal systems in their livers modified.
You can read the actual report here which also mentions differences in brain genes:
Though there is not an overall enrichment for neurological genes in our gene ontology analysis, several other important brain genes also have signals of selection, including the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter GABRA4, an Alzheimer's susceptibility gene PSEN1, and SYT1 in Yoruba; the serotonin transporter SLC6A4 in Europeans and East Asians; and the dystrophin binding gene SNTG1 in all populations.
It is amazing to me that this research was all done via computer with mathematical models. Biological research is moving from in vitro to in silico. Now that DNA from many people and even our distant human ancestors are all online, doing a "lab experiment" now becomes writing some code to apply a mathematical model or algorithm to the data.

The fact that genes for skin color and metabolism have changed is not very surprising. The ones on brain size and function are going to be very interesting as they find out more about what those genes actually do. It seems plausible that genes affect intelligence, aptitude, disposition and the way brains work. But, man I wouldn't want to be the scientist that had to report those results.

Another impact on this study, is all of the diets and psychology out there based on "how humans have been for tens of thousands of years". Diets like the PaleoDiet or Caveman diet assume that humans are biologically the same as we were when we were hunter gatherers 10,000 years ago. This research shows that there have in fact been noticeable changes to the genes and biology of humans in the last 10,000 years. So the enzymes in our stomachs have been altered by the many generations that lived on an agricultural based diet. There are those that believe that raw food is healthier for humans, as cooking food is not "natural". But, once again it looks like there has been more than enough time for the genes of humans to have evolved to expecting cooked food.

The research wasn't very precise about when these genes first evolved and how many generations it took for them to become common. I think that would make for a good follow up study. I would also be interested in which genes have become much more common in the last say 200 years. Where is evolution pushing us today?


Read It? Watched It? Swap It

The era of eBay renting is upon us. Add another site to go along with Peerflix and LaLa: Zunafish.

The site, which looks remarkably similar to a prototype Mr. Bloom sketched on notebook paper four years ago with Mr. Elias, trades only one-for-one items within the same category — CD's, DVD's, VHS tapes, video games, audio books or paperback books. No item (for example, a seven-disc DVD set of the first season of the television series "24") is worth more than any another (say, a DVD of Peter Jackson's "King Kong").

Each trader pays Zunafish $1 through credit or debit card for each trade.
I also found this quote to be interesting:
He said that if consumers were asked to place all of their CD's and DVD's, for example, in three piles — those they love, those they like well enough to keep and those they would be happy to have taken away — the piles would most likely be equal.
I wonder how long these sites will be around for? Long term I see the subscription method of accessing this content as being a winner. Think cable tv or Real Rhapsody. Pay $10 a month and watch whatever you want. But, it could be 10+ years before that becomes a reality. In the interm let the eBay renting continue.

via New York Times


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Seeking Ancestry in DNA Ties Uncovered by Tests

Alan Moldawer's adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual's genetic ancestry.

The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid.

Driving the pursuit of genetic bounty are start-up testing companies with names like DNA Tribes and Ethnoancestry. For $99 to $250, they promise to satisfy the human hunger to learn about one's origins — and sometimes much more. On its Web site, a leader in this cottage industry, DNA Print Genomics, once urged people to use it "whether your goal is to validate your eligibility for race-based college admissions or government entitlements."
I am a big fan of DNA testing, but I had never thought about these applications. Using DNA to "prove" you are 15% black or 2% Native American is an interesting use. But, I am not sure it really shows that. Lets say you have a black father and a white mother, like Barack Obama. The actual genes he inherits from his mother and father are determined by chance. So it is not at all clear that the test would show 50% African ancestory and 50% European ancestory. He might have ended up with more African DNA snippets that the test is looking for and fewer of the European ones. So it might say he is 75% African and 25% European, even if his father tests 100% African and his mother
100% European. I think these tests can give valuable information, but I don't think it gives the level of accuracy that people think it does when it says 83% West African, 10% British Isles, 7% Middle Eastern-North African.

via New York Times


Monday, April 10, 2006

Next-Gen 94MPG Prius by 2008?

The UK’s AutoExpress reports that Toyota’s fuel economy target for the upcoming next-generation Prius is 40 kilometers/liter (2.5 l/100km, or 94 mpg US), and that the automaker is striving to have the new Prius on the road as early as 2008.

According to a Toyota engineer quoted by the publication, the entire electrical system is being redesigned to improve the fuel economy, and the automaker is working to switch to a lithium-ion battery system from the NiMH pack used in the current Prius.
Wow! Wonder how much more that is going to cost to use Lithium Ion batteries rather than NiMH. Cool if they can pull it off.

via Green Car Congress


Power to the People

The man, Iqbal Quadir, who brought cellphones into Bangledesh's microlending bank Grameen is back with a new idea to bring electrical power to the poor.

The aim of his new venture, Emergence Energy, is to establish small, neighbourhood power plants in Bangladesh that can provide electricity to a handful of homes, shops and businesses. This time he has teamed up with Dean Kamen, an American inventor best known for creating the Segway electric scooter. During 2005 they conducted a six-month trial in two rural villages in Bangladesh of prototype generators, created by Mr Kamen, based on a design called a Stirling engine.

The generators can be powered by biogas extracted from cow manure. The idea is that one entrepreneur, funded by a microcredit loan, sets up a business to turn manure into methane gas and fertiliser; another entrepreneur, also funded by microcredit, buys the methane to power the generator, and sells the resulting electricity. This will, Mr Quadir hopes, unleash all kinds of economic activity. “Energy gives you the power to empower,” he says.

The trial was intended as a test, to find out what people would use electricity for, and whether there was an economically viable business model. The results were promising: the scheme proved to be technically feasible, there was strong demand for electrical power, and consumers were willing to pay for a regular supply. The main use of electricity was for lighting, says Mr Quadir; using low-power bulbs, each generator, which produces one kilowatt of power, was able to light up 20 households or shops.
I like this idea. I have always been a fan of Grameen Bank, and this looks like it follows many of the same principles. The whole article is good, give it a read.



Pulling the Plug on Standby Power

STRANGE though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle—in “standby” mode—more than 99% of the time.

Alan Meier's results, published in 2000, revealed that standby power accounted for as much as 10% of household power-consumption in some cases. That same year, a similar study in France found that standby power accounted for 7% of total residential consumption. Further studies have since come to similar conclusions in other developed countries, including the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. Some estimates put the proportion of consumption due to standby power as high as 13%.
Amazing. Possibly 10% of electricity is used by devices really doing nothing. Seems like a no brainer if you want to reduce electricity usage to go after this. If standby power accounts for that much usage, why doesn't someone do something about it?
The problem, as Dr Meier noted way back in 1998, is that there is very little incentive for manufacturers to make devices with low standby-power consumption. And even when they do, there is no easy way for consumers to distinguish between power-hungry devices and more abstemious ones.
That is always a tough nut to crack. Looks like the way to go after this is labeling and government regulation. So what is going on?
In 2005 the scheme was extended to external power adapters, which can earn Energy Star approval if they consume less than 0.75W in “no load” mode.

In late 2004 the California Energy Commission went even further by imposing limits on standby power-consumption for various consumer-electronic devices, including DVD players, external power adapters and stereos. This legislation took effect in January, so that it is now illegal in California to sell a television or DVD player that consumes more than three watts in standby mode.
Hopefully these will help to reduce the problem.



Sunday, April 09, 2006

Transformers Live Action Movie

In other 80s cartoon news, I just found out that the Transformers is going to be a live action movie to be released 7/4/07 and Spielberg is the executive producer. If you check out the site, don't miss the Spielberg interview under videos. Who knew he was such a Transformers fan? And he is already talking about a franchise with sequels? This movie better be good.


Britain's new FBI Agency jacks Thundercats Logo

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has chosen a fierce big cat bearing its fangs and leaping over a stylised silver globe, with a crown capping it all.

It's bold but bears a striking resemblance to the logo of the 1980s children's cartoon series Thundercats. So was the comparison to the show - which featured humanoid cats battling evil mutants in the Earth's distant future - intentional? Soca declined to comment.
Compare for yourself:

All I have to say is Thundercats, Thundercats, Thundercats, Ho!



As Luck Would Have It

Are some people really luckier than others?

To explore this question scientifically, experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman created a "luck lab" at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Wiseman began by testing whether those who believe they are lucky are actually more likely to win the lottery. He recruited 700 subjects who had intended to purchase lottery tickets to complete his luck questionnaire, which is a self-report scale that measures whether people consider themselves to be lucky or unlucky. Although lucky people were twice as confident as the unlucky ones that they would win the lottery, there was no difference in winnings.
So, why do some people think they are luckier than others? Are there other differences?

The article goes on to show that the personalities of lucky people are different, with lucky people being more extroverted, less neurotic and more open. These personality traits lead to more opportunities and therefore make them think they are in fact lucky.

via Scientific


Friday, April 07, 2006

MIT researchers build tiny batteries with viruses

MIT scientists have harnessed the construction talents of tiny viruses to build ultra-small "nanowire" structures for use in very thin lithium-ion batteries.

"The nanoscale materials we've made supply two to three times the electrical energy for their mass or volume, compared to previous materials," the team reported.
The line between living and nonliving blurs further. Cool in that they were able to use viruses to make the battery. Also the 2-3 times increase in battery density is very important to allow for hybrids, plugin hybrids or straight up electric cars. Wonder what the economics are like to actually manufacture batteries this way.

via Eureka Alert


Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Depression Switch?

This article looks at a new operation that can cure depression.

The operation borrowed a procedure called deep brain stimulation, or D.B.S., which is used to treat Parkinson's. It involves planting electrodes in a region near the center of the brain called Area 25 and sending in a steady stream of low voltage from a pacemaker in the chest.
Instead of treating the brain like a bag of chemicals, the technique here treats it like an electric system.
"So we turn it on," Mayberg told me later, "and all of a sudden she says to me, 'It's very strange,' she says, 'I know you've been with me in the operating room this whole time. I know you care about me. But it's not that. I don't know what you just did. But I'm looking at you, and it's like I just feel suddenly more connected to you.' "

Mayberg, stunned, signaled with her hand to the others, out of Deanna's view, to turn the stimulator off.

"And they turn it off," Mayberg said, "and she goes: 'God, it's just so odd. You just went away again. I guess it wasn't really anything.'

"It was subtle like a brick," Mayberg told me. "There's no reason for her to say that. Zero. And all through those tapes I have of her, every time she's in the clinic beforehand, she always talks about this disconnect, this closeness and sense of affiliation she misses, that was so agonizingly painful for her to lose. And there it was. It was back in an instant."

It worked that way for other patients too. For those for whom it worked, the first surges of mood and sensation were peculiar to their natures. Patient 4, for instance, was fond of taking walks, and she had previously told Mayberg that she knew she was getting ill when whole landscapes turned dim, as if "half the pixels went dark." Her first comment when the stimulator went on was to ask what they'd done to the lights, for everything seemed much brighter. Patient 5, an elite bicycle racer before his depression, told me that a pulling that he had long felt in his legs and gut, "as if death were pulling me downward," had instantly ceased. Patient 1, who in predepression days was an avid gardener, amazed the operating room by announcing that she suddenly felt as if she were walking through a field of wildflowers. Two days after going home, she put a scarf over her shaved, stitched head, found her tools and went out to reclaim her long-neglected gardens.
That is pretty amazing. Better living through chemistry is replaced by better living through electricity.

via New York Times Magazine