Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Move over Ethanol, meet Butanol

So I was just about to blog about this genetically modified bacterium Bacillus subtilis that can ferment glucose sugar directly to ethanol with a high (86%) yield over at Green Car Congress, when I read this comment at the bottom:

Ah, the wonders of genetic engineering. Wish they'd tried butanol instead, though.
Butanol, what the hell is butanol?

A quick Google search leads me to the Wikipedia entry and this Green Car Congress post which then lead me to, and this Yahoo 360 blog. I learn quite a bit.
Butanol (C4H10O) is a four-carbon alcohol in widespread use as an industrial solvent, with a US market size of some 370 million gallons per year at a price of about $3.75 per gallon (approximately $1.4 billion).

Butanol has many superior properties as an alternative fuel when compared to ethanol. These include:

  • Higher energy content (110,000 Btu’s per gallon for butanol vs. 84,000 Btu per gallon for ethanol). Gasoline contains about 115,000 Btu’s per gallon. But as butanol's octane rating is 25% higher than petrol's, increasing the compression accordingly could make 25% more power and >10% more mileage than petrol.
  • Butanol is six times less “evaporative” than ethanol and 13.5 times less evaporative than gasoline, making it safer to use as an oxygenate in Arizona, California and other states, thereby eliminating the need for very special blends during the summer and winter months.
  • Butanol can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines where ethanol must be transported via rail, barge or truck
  • Butanol can be used as a replacement for gasoline gallon for gallon e.g. 100%, or any other percentage. Ethanol can only be used as an additive to gasoline up to about 85% and then only after significant modifications to the engine. Worldwide 10% ethanol blends predominate.
It also has reduced emissions compared to gasoline:
With over 60,000 miles on his Buick, Butanol reduced Hydrocarbons emissions by 95%, Carbon Monoxide to 0.0%, and Oxides of Nitrogen by 37%.
Like ethanol, butanol can be created from corn and other biological sources. So, why then is all the buzz on ethanol? Until recently, the yield from ethanol was much greater than butanol. But now:
According to the inventor, David Ramey, his butanol process delivers about 42% more energy than ethanol for a given amount of feedstock, based on the higher energy content of butanol (some 25% greater than ethanol), plus the hydrogen.

Ramey’s fermentation only produces hydrogen, butyric acid, butanol and carbon dioxide, and doubles the yield of butanol from a bushel of corn from 1.3 to 2.5 gallons per bushel—equivalent to corn ethanol’s fermentative yield, but with higher heat content and hydrogen as a co-product.
If you can get a yield close to that of ethanol, but have a product that has more energy per gallon, can go down the gasoline pipes, can run in a car without modification, this is going to be a winner. Now I see why people would like to see research into genetic bacteria that can increase the yield of butanol. Definitely one to watch.


Holy Mackerel and Other Guilt-Free Fish

The Oceans Alive Web site ( has information on almost 200 species of finfish, shellfish and mollusks. Many carry an eco-best or an eco-worst stamp, judgments based on the impact fishing will have on species' populations. Others have a health concern stamp, and the site suggests how many times a month those fish can be safely eaten by men, women, children up to age 6 and children ages 6 to 12.

Buying fish on the no-problems list can be tricky. Fish counters are stingy with information, and their signs can be deceiving. Last year The Times found that much of the salmon labeled as wild in New York City stores in the off-season was farmed. By law, fish must be labeled with country of origin, but stores seldom provide specifics.

Good luck finding out whether the halibut in the case is from the Pacific or the Atlantic. The former is highly recommended, the latter is overfished and can be contaminated with mercury. But the more customers annoy fish store managers with questions, the more likely they are to receive answers. Fishmongers should know whether fish is farmed or wild at least.
I like this Oceans Alive site. I was reading over here at Green Facts about fisheries, and that 25% of all fish stocks monitored are either overexploited, depleted or recovering. I would like to stay away from those, but I didn't know which they were. Oceans Alive helps to give me that info, and lets me know that my favorites of Pacific salmon, halibut and dungeness crab are all on the eco best list.

I was also curious, if I were only allowing myself one quota of sustainable seafood (1/6 billionth of the total as there are 6 billion people) how much would that be? World marine capture fisheries production was around 84 million tonnes in 2002. I believe that this yield could be sustainable if fisherman wouldn't over fish certain species, and other species were allowed to recover. At 84 million tonnes that works out to 14kg (37lb) of fish for every person on the planet per year. So, everyone could eat a little over 2/3 a pound of fish a week. I hadn't realized that there was that much fish available.

via New York Times


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Blowing Smoke About Tobacco

"Tobacco: deadly in any form or disguise" is the slogan of the World Health Organization's World No Tobacco Day tomorrow. The claim is false: Tobacco is not deadly; the harm is in the smoke. A policy that confuses innocuous tobacco with harmful smoke is responsible for millions of avoidable deaths each year worldwide.

More than 430,000 U.S. deaths each year -- one out of every five -- can be attributed to smoking. This is 10 times our death rate from car crashes, 30 times the rate from AIDS.

Cigarette smoke is a deadly delivery device for a benign but habit-forming product: nicotine. Nicotine isn't especially dangerous -- about like caffeine. Good policy toward tobacco use would reduce the grave harm of smoking by replacing cigarettes with non-smoked forms of nicotine for the addicts.
I had always wondered if it was the smoke or the nicotine that caused the cancer. I guess it is the smoke. I had never heard that nicotine is only as dangerous as caffeine.
As Carl V. Phillips, an epidemiologist at the University of Alberta, has shown, evidence points to a low risk of health hazards stemming from smokeless-tobacco use. That includes virtually no evidence of risk of oral cancer. Phillips's calculations show that total mortality from "smokeless" is about a hundreth of that from smoking.
I hadn't realized that chewing tobacco had no evidence of an increased risk of oral cancer. The article also suggests that we should try and move smokers to use patches and gums, but increase the amount of nicotine in them so heavy smokers could switch over right away without any withdrawal symptoms.

These are interesting ideas that I had never heard of before. We could certainly save a lot of lives by switching to this approach if nicotine really isn't that dangerous.

via The Washington Post


Earn Cellphone Minutes by Watching Ads

With the cost of mobile phone calls already dropping sharply, Virgin Mobile USA plans to announce a way that people can talk for no money at all. They will, however, have to pay with a chunk of their attention.

The program, called SugarMama, lets people earn one minute of talking time by watching 30-second commercials on a computer or receiving text messages on their phones, then answering questions to prove they were, in fact, paying attention.
Gotta love the SugarMama. I like this idea of being able to choose if you want to view ads or if you want to pay for your service. I think this model could be used in all sorts of digital/attention economy goods.

How much are you getting "paid" to watch the ads?
Adding to Virgin Mobile's challenge is the fact that airtime is cheap and getting cheaper, said Ed Snyder, an analyst with Charter Equity Research. He said a minute of airtime typically cost from 3.5 cents to 10 cents, down from more than 25 cents a decade ago.
If you have to watch a 30 second ad for every one minute of airtime, at the high end of 10 cents a minute, that works out to 20 cents of airtime for each minute of commercial watching, or $12.00/hr. Not bad. On the low end of 3.5 cents, and if it takes you another 30 seconds to answer each ad, then that would be 3.5 cents per minute or $2.10 an hour. Not so good.

And as much as I like the idea of allowing people to choose if they want to watch ads or just pay for the service, I am not so sure the advertisers will go for it, as they point out here:
Roger Entner, an analyst with Ovum Research, a market research firm, said the kinds of consumers willing to swap their time for airtime were not likely to be big spenders.

"If you're too cheap to buy a minute of air time, how are you going to afford an Xbox?" Mr. Entner said. The people likely to earn minutes for free "are people who want to avoid costs at any cost."
via New York Times


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Forests Increasing in Much of the World

I hadn't realized the degree to which forest land has been increasing in temperate parts of the globe. If you take a look at the image (a larger version can be found on page 3 of this pdf) you see that in the US, Europe, Japan and China have all reforested from 1980 to 2000. From the FAO:

According to current estimates (FAO, 2001), 0.38 percent of the world’s forests were converted to other land uses (i.e. deforested) every year in the 1990s. At the same time, large areas reverted to forest, leaving a net annual loss of 0.22 percent.
In the 90s reforestation added (.38-.22=) .16% back to the forests. Deforestation is still a serious problem, and is much larger than reforestation, but it is only an issue now in tropical areas as this graph shows.

How much forest land does the world have?
Forests cover about 30 per cent of the world's total land area. (A forest is considered an area with at least 10 per cent tree canopy cover.)

The world's forest cover amounts to 3.9 billion hectares (1 hectare equals approximately 2.5 acres).
How can we stop this deforestation? I am not sure, but if you look at how the US and Europe accomplished it, the key to forest revival was more intensive agriculture and limited population growth. Could this also work for the developing countries in tropical regions?

This would require more sophisticated farming to get higher yields per acre. This would also mean fewer agricultural workers, which means economy has to find new jobs for all the people that were farming. If you could do that and limit population growth, that would allow for more land to revert to forests.

In the Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg states that the entire consumption of wood and paper can be catered for by the tree growth on just 5% of the current forest area.
The world uses 1.55e9 m^3 of wood for timber and paper (WRI 1996a: 220). Forest such as that in Denmark has a net growth rate of 7.5 m^3/ha (EEA 1995: 474). At this rate of growth, total world demand would call for 2e8 ha, or about 4.95% of the Earth's forest cover of 4.168e9 ha.
That seems like an amount that can be handled in a sustainable way. Hopefully FSC will become more prominent and the percentage of sustainably harvested logs will increase each year until we get up to 100%.


Global Warming = More Life on Earth?

I have been reading the Skeptical Environmentalist, and one graph just blew me away. On page 300, he cites research that estimates the total amount of life on earth will greatly increase over the next 100 years due to increased carbon dioxide levels in the air and elevated temperatures.

Net Primary Productivity is estimated to increase 40% over the next 100 years from 60 billion tons to 85 billion tons. NPP is a measure of the amount of sunlight that plants and plankton capture and turn into biomass. See this previous post for a video of NPP in action.

As NPP increases, there is more food at the bottom of the food chain, which allows for more life higher up. Total biomass will increase 35% from 700 billion tons to 950 billion tons. I haven't been able to confirm this number elsewhere (but I did email NASA, so we will see if they respond), but if true, it is a very positive thing for people who like life on earth and want more of it.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Earth's Metabolism

In honor of the Earth Day celebration, NASA scientists unveiled the first consistent and continuous global measurements of Earth’s “metabolism.” Data from the Terra and Aqua satellites are helping scientists frequently update maps of the rate at which plant life on Earth is absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere.
Cool map of our world’s "net primary production" courtesy of NASA. The warmer the color the more productive the land.

I love this video (small MPEG, large MPEG) that shows how the productivity of land changes throughout the year. Almost hypnotic.

I was also surprised to read that
“When you average the productivity rates over the whole world, the ocean is roughly equal to the land.”
Didn't realize that they were equal.

I was also surprised to see how far north biological activity takes place. Canada, Scandinavia and Russia are bright red in the summertime. Would have thought that the farther away from the equator you got, the less productive the land due to less sunlight. Guess not. It also makes you realize how much more land there is in the northern hemisphere than the southern.

You can also see how the Galapagos islands (off of the western shore of South America) have a ton of biological activity.

The tropical rain forests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia are the most productive areas of the world. Amazing how desolate and large the Sahara desert is, or how much of Australia is a desert.

I love these maps and videos that let you understand the world in a way you never have before.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Google Notebook

Lots of people have an inner-packrat that compels them to store all sorts of stuff, most of which they never use. While I don't feel the need to hoard physical stuff, my inner-packrat comes out for facts and figures. I like to store up all the interesting things that I come across when I read. Then I can use them to create an interesting blog post dispersing the little nuggets of knowledge that I have accumulated from various places. Or at least that is what I would like to do. The problem I have now is that I don't have a good way to store all these notes in a fashion that allows me to easily take notes and then find the good stuff later when I need it.

So I was excited to hear about Google Notebook. This is Google's attempt to allow you to take notes easily from your browser and then use Google's search ability to find them later. Overall it is pretty good, but has one major drawback that keeps me from using it for everything and recommending it to everyone.

Google Notebook is well integrated with IE and FireFox. There is a little blue notebook icon in the lower right corner of the browser window that you click on to bring up the notebook. It launches a small box (a browser in a browser if you will) that allows you to see your notes. To create a new note, you then highlight some text, click the "Add Note" button and your note has been saved, along with the URL of the site you are on. It captures full html and will even capture images that are highlighted. You can also create your type in your own notes from scratch if you want (I did run into an issue with IE7 where if you try and create a note and hit backspace, instead of deleting the character it moves the whole browser to the previously viewed page).

If you go to the main Google Notebook website, you can view all of your notes. There is a search function to allow you to find stuff, and a print option for better formatted text. You can also add your own notes from this page, or edit the ones that you have. You can make notebooks public so that others can view it. Since the notes are online, you can view them from anywhere from any machine (the downside of course is that you can't view them when you are offline).

But, the one major issue I have is that there is no tagging/labeling ability. With Gmail or Google Reader you can label your emails or blogs with multiple tags. Instead of having a folder system where an email has to go in to one folder, the labels allow you to put it in multiple places at the same time. For some reason they decided to create notebooks that are organized like folders where a note has to go in just one place. This really sucks. For example if I have a note about wind generated energy in China, I would like to label it China, Energy and Green. But, if I have to put it in a notebook, which one would I choose? It would be so much better with labels, then I could find all my China notes, my Energy notes and my Green notes without having to do a search or save notes in multiple folders.

The notebook is usable as is, but once they add tagging/labeling support it will become indispensable for us note taking packrats.


How Would You Spend $50 Billion to Improve the World?

In his work with the Copenhagen Consensus, which took place in May 2004, Lomborg collaborated with some of the world’s top economists, including three Nobel laureates, to attempt to prioritize solutions to some of the ills facing humanity. Together, they examined ten challenges: climate change, conflicts, communicable diseases, education, financial instability, corruption, migration, malnutrition and hunger, trade barriers, access to water. Three views were offered on each issue, then the expert panel revealed how they rate each problem, producing a ranking.

The panel was asked to address the ten challenge areas and to answer the question, “What would be the best ways of advancing global welfare, and particularly the welfare of developing countries, supposing that an additional $50 billion of resources were at governments’ disposal?”
Interesting idea this Copenhagen Consensus. Get some of the best minds together, think about the world's greatest problems and rank what solutions would be the most effective for the money spent. And what were their top two proposals?
The panel assigned the highest priority to new measures to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Spending assigned to this purpose would yield extraordinarily high benefits, averting nearly 30m new infections by 2010. Costs are substantial, estimated at $27 billion. Even so, these costs are small in relation to what stands to be gained. Moreover, the scale and urgency of the problem—especially in Africa, where AIDS threatens the collapse of entire societies—are extreme.

Policies to attack hunger and malnutrition followed close behind. Reducing the prevalence of iron-deficiency anaemia by means of food supplements, in particular, has an exceptionally high ratio of benefits to costs; of the three proposals considered under this heading, this was ranked highest at $12 billion. The expert panel ranked a second proposal, to increase spending on research into new agricultural technologies appropriate for poor countries, at number five. Further proposals, for additonal spending on infant and child nutrition, and on reducing the prevalence of low birth-weight, were ranked eleventh and twelfth, respectively.


A Million Manhattan Projects

Friedman is back with another solid column.

But after a year traveling all over America talking to educators and innovators, I am not yet ready to cede the 21st century to China. No, not yet.

You see, my grandma back in Minnesota had a saying that went like this: "Never cede a century to a country that censors Google."
Smart Grandma he has.
Bill Gross, of Idealab, said: "The price of fossil fuel goes up enough, and look what happens. With no government regulation, investment and innovation in the energy space takes off with more talent and focus than any government program. It's a 'distributed' Manhattan Project that attracts the smartest, most ideal people for the task, and the capital is efficiently allocated to those teams."

If the government would just do a couple of things, the energy start-ups we're seeing today would turn into real products, Mr. Sridhar said. One, the government should institute a carbon tax or gasoline tax that would ensure that the price of gasoline never fell below $3.50 to $4 a gallon, which would make a host of new technologies competitive. Second, the government should set high goals for mileage and CO2 emissions for its own vehicle fleet, as well as high goals for eco-friendly, low-energy electricity generation for every government building — and then promise to be the first customer for whatever company reaches those high goals.
I think that sounds pretty good. Straight forward to accomplish and will have lots of positive impacts. It isn't a question of government vs. markets, it is a question of what role do you want the government to play and what role do you want markets to have?

Friedman was on Charile Rose the other day, speaking about green energy. Really good. Check it out.

via NYTimes $elect


Monday, May 22, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Day

Botox Appears to Ease Depression Symptoms by stopping people from frowning.

PMS jokes maybe a thing of the past as hormonal contraceptives make periods obsolete.

Dogs trained to sniff out Orca poop in exchange for a chance to play ball.

Microsoft unveils pay as you go and subscription computing for 3rd world.


Scan This Book!

This is a great piece about the future of books and media, with lots of interesting facts and figures, bold ideas for the future of books and libraries in the digital age, an insightful look at the changes in the underlying economic models, and a good explanation of why copyright laws will need to be changed for the digital age.

The dream is an old one: to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages.

From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have "published" at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public Web pages. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks.
Imagine the ability to have access to all content throughout history at any time from anywhere. Mind blowing.
Copyright bestowed upon the creator of a work a temporary monopoly — for 14 years, in the United States — over any copies of the work. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56. So when Congress voted in 1998 to extend copyright an additional 70 years beyond the life span of a creator — to a point where it could not possibly serve its original purpose as an incentive to keep that creator working — it was obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model.

In the world of books, the indefinite extension of copyright has had a perverse effect. It has created a vast collection of works that have been abandoned by publishers, a continent of books left permanently in the dark. The size of this abandoned library is shocking: about 75 percent (or around 25 million) of all books in the world's libraries are orphaned.
The copyright laws need to be changed to reflect the new digital world. They need to be vastly reduced, maybe down to as low as 5 years. Allow people to make money off of their work, but don't stop others from manipulating it later to create more wealth. This isn't on anyone's political agenda, but it should be.
The new model, of course, is based on the intangible assets of digital bits, where copies are no longer cheap but free.

As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions — in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the "discovery tool" that markets these other intangible valuables. But selling things-that-cannot-be-copied is far from ideal for many creative people. The new model is rife with problems (or opportunities). For one thing, the laws governing creating and rewarding creators still revolve around the now-fragile model of valuable copies.
Overall this is excellent. Read it.

via NYT Magazine


My Pain, My Brain

Cool article over at the NYT Magazine about using fMRI to view the impact of chronic pain on the brain, and using it as biofeedback to control the pain.

Recently, I had a glimpse of what that reprogramming would look like. I was lying on my back in a large white plastic f.M.R.I. machine that uses ingenious new software, peering up through 3-D goggles at a small screen. I was experiencing a clinical demonstration of a new technology real-time functional neuroimaging used in a Stanford University study, now in its second phase, that allows subjects to see their own brain activity while feeling pain and to try to change that brain activity to control their pain.

The area of the brain that the scanner focuses on is the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC). The rACC (a quarter-size patch in the middle-front of the brain, the cingular cortex) plays a critical role in the awareness of the nastiness of pain: the feeling of dislike for it, a loathing so intense that you are immediately compelled to try to make it stop.

The study involves five 13-minute scanning runs, each consisting of five cycles of a 30-second rest followed by a 1-minute interval in which you try to increase rACC activation and then a 1-minute interval in which you try to decrease rACC activation. Over six sessions, volunteers are being asked to try to increase and decrease their pain while watching the activation of a part of their brain involved in pain perception and modulation. This real-time imaging lets them assess how well they are succeeding.

The chronic-pain patients who underwent neuroimaging training reported an average decrease of 64 percent in pain rating by the end of the study. Traditional biofeedback also compared unfavorably; changes in pain ratings of subjects in the experimental group were three times as large as in the biofeedback control group.
One thing that blew me away was her technique for increasing and decreasing the pain:
By the last run, I had the strategies down heretic-martyr: rACC down; heretic-victim: rACC up.
If you read the article she explains more of what she means, but basically in both cases she imagined herself being burned. I thought she might imagine her self on the beach or sitting in an ice cave or something to decrease the pain. Instead, she imagines herself being burned, but as a martyr. To control the pain she doesn't try and get away from it, but rather she gives the pain meaning and by doing so the pain goes away.
It takes Buddhist monks 30 years of sitting on a mountain learning to control their brains through meditation we're trying to jump-start that process.
I wonder if in the future we will be able to all use fMRIs to fine tune the way our brains work. What if monks could use it so instead of it taking 30 years control their brains they could do it in 5? What if we all could use it to improve our tolerance to pain, or improve our concentration or other skills that it takes the monks many many years to perfect?

via New York Times Magazine


Friday, May 19, 2006

Italian robot does heart surgery

If you are thinking about a career as a surgeon, think again. Looks like this is another job that the robots are taking over.

A robot surgeon has for the first time carried out a long-distance heart operation completely by itself.

The 50-minute surgery, which took place in a Milanese hospital, was carried out on a 34-year-old patient suffering from atrial fibrillation, or 'heart flutters'.


National Geographic Vactation only $50,000

If you have a spare $50,000, these National Geographic Expeditions seem pretty sweet. An around the world journey on a private jet stoping at Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Samoa, the Great Barrier Reef, Angkor, Tibet, Taj Mahal, Serengeti, the Pyramids, and Morocco. Now that is what I call a vacation!

I would have recommended this one with Spencer Wells (this is the guy who is mapping the migration of humans from the beginning of time based on DNA, see this post on the Genographic Project) but it appears it is already sold out.


Name that Tune

This Mobile MusicID looks like a cool service. Basically you start the application on your cellphone, then you use your cellphone to record a few seconds of a song that is playing (from any part of the song). The MusicID then identifies the song for you and allows you to purchase it if you want.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

CO2: We Call it Life

Too funny video over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in defense of carbon dioxide. I guess they are serious, but implying that a carbon tax would ruin civilization as we know it, now that is hilarious.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Bold Ideas to Change America

America is in need of some change. Here are some bold ideas I put forth to change America for the better.

#1: Retiree Corps
#2: Baby Bonds and Financial Education
#3: Gas Tax and Grand Challenges in Renewable Energy
(More Coming Soon)


Bold Idea #3: Gas Tax + Grand Challenges in Renewable Energy

My third bold idea to change America is: Gas Tax + Grand Challenges in Renewable Energy.

I think we should have a $2 gasoline tax. This would accomplish two things: reduce demand for gasoline and fund research to move beyond it. Why don't we want to use oil? Three main reasons: it restricts human rights in the oil producing countries, it has negative environmental impacts and leads to global warming and it is a finite quantity that is going to run out at some point.

Tom Friedman wrote recently about the negative impact on human rights in his First Law of Petropolitics article. This builds on other research that has shown the negative impact of oil wealth on democracy in developing countries. The fact that this oil wealth does not lead to economic improvement has been called the Paradox of Plenty. Examples abound, but Chad and Iraq show what can happen. And as Tom Friedman likes to say, when we buy oil we are funding both sides of the war on terror.

The second reason to move off of oil is to improve the environment. Each gallon of gasoline gives off 20 lbs of carbon dioxide when burned which is a green house gas that leads to global warming. Burning gasoline also leads to air pollution and smog.

The third reason to move beyond oil, is that it is a finite resource. At some point we are going to need to get off of it, so why not now? The alternatives are going to need some time to be fine tuned and become economically competitive, so why not speed up that process now so we don't have to worry about any precipitous fall offs in the future? This will also create jobs for the future. The world will need a post oil fuel, and the country that develops the scientists to develop it and the entrepreneurs to sell it will create many good jobs for the 21st century.

A gasoline tax is the best way to reduce gasoline usage. Some like CAFE standards to force the automakers to improve fuel efficiency in cars, but as this Congressional Budget Office report shows, a gas tax is even better to reduce gasoline usage. CAFE standards and ideas like tax breaks for hybrids have a tendency to become abused and not lead to the reduction in gasoline that you are looking for.

Some worry that a gasoline tax would unfairly burden the poor. There is some truth to that. But there is also truth that the poor are unfairly burdened by the problems that oil causes. They are the ones fighting in wars to keep access to it, they will be the ones most impacted by global warming, they are most affected by the air pollution it causes. But, part of the gas tax could be redistributed to the poor, either via lower taxes/higher rebate in the income tax, or by funding universal health care or other services that will benefit the poor.

Even with an increase of $2, gasoline would still be cheaper than in many European countries.

Surprisingly, there is even political support for this idea. According to a poll 3 months ago,

55 percent said they would support an increase in the tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, if it did in fact reduce dependence on foreign oil. Fifty-nine percent were in favor if the result was less gasoline consumption and less global warming.
If the money would be used to reduce foreign dependence and lessen global warming, a majority of Americans would be for it. And that is without any politicians making a pitch for it. Spin it like Tom Friedman does and call it a Patriot Tax, explain the benefits and the numbers will go even higher.

According to the EIA, the US uses 420 million gallons of gasoline a day for motor vehicles. For a year that works out to 420 million gallons * 365 days = 153 bil gallons. If we were to tax it $2 a gallon that would work out to $300 billion a year in revenue.

That $300 billion would be used to fund the second part of this bold idea: the Grand Challenges in Renewable Energy. This would be modeled on the Grand Challenges in Global Health set forth by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The initiative takes as its model the grand challenges formulated more than 100 years ago by mathematician David Hilbert, a list of important unsolved problems that has encouraged innovation in mathematics research ever since. Similarly, the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative aims to engage creative minds from across scientific disciplines - including those who have not traditionally taken part in global health research –- to work on 14 major challenges. The challenges range from creating new vaccines to developing accurate methods for measuring health status. But they share one essential element: Their solutions could lead to breakthrough advances in global health.
Similarly, this one would first identify the major challenges of sustainable energy and then fund individual projects that seek to address those challenges.

Another good example of how it could be setup is DARPA's successful Grand Challenge for autonomous cars. Or the Tour De Soul which featured competitions with entrants for using the best energy-efficiency techniques and less carbon-intensive fuels.

Give the smart scientists some goals to shoot far, some recognition for success, some money to make it happen and be prepared to be awed by what they come up with.

I am not sure exactly what the challenges should be, but here are some ideas:
Generate 2,000 gallons of ethanol from one acre of land.
Create a 4 seater car that can get 100 mpg.
Create a solar panel that can capture 40% of the solar energy that reaches it.
Create a wind mill that can generate electricity for under 5 cents a kWh.
Create a battery with an energy density twice as high as current lithium ion batteries that can recharge in an hour.

To improve the environment, to prepare for a post oil world, and to reduce the power of corrupt oil producing regimes we need to reduce our consumption of oil with a $2 gasoline tax. This will fund the grand challenges in renewable energy to come up with the energy sources of the 21st century and the jobs that go along with it.


Body Temperature Powered Battery

A tiny new generator that produces electricity from small variations in temperature could turn people into power packs for medical implants and clear the way for complex wireless monitoring systems.

The temperature difference between the skin and the surrounding air is about 15 degrees Kelvin, said Stark. Even within the body there is a useable temperature difference between the core and the surface, he said.

The Thermo Life generator is 9.3 millimeters in diameter and 1.4 millimeters high, about half the size of a penny and within the size range of 1.55-volt watch batteries. The company has packed 5,074 thermocouples (electricity-producing circuits) into the generator, and the device provides a relatively high voltage from a smaller temperature difference: At a difference of 5 degrees Celsius, the generator produces 3.1 volts at 36 microamps, yielding 110 microwatts of electrical power.
Cool, I can power my body upgrades with my body heat. Not quite as cool as blood powered fuel cells but heck I'll take anything.

via Wired News


Friday, May 12, 2006

Unbelieveable 3D Pavement Drawings

These are pretty frickin' amazing. The guy draws 3D images on sidewalks. That's not a real Coke bottle, that is just a drawing of one. You have to look at them from the right angle for the illusion to hold, but man this guy is good. Check out more here or here.

via Pogue's Posts


Hold Off On The IE 7 Beta

I installed the beta for Internet Explorer 7 a little while ago. While some things are definitely better, over all it has stability and incompatibility issues and I would hold off on installing it.

First the good.

IE finally has tabs. Finally! This is really useful. You can open up all of your news items or Google searches in separate tabs and easily navigate between them. Unfortunately you still can't rearrange them like you can in Firefox.

They added a search box into the same line as the address bar. Now you can easily search from Google, Wikipedia, Amazon or whatever search engine you want.

The Ctrl-F search in page box now opens up in the upper left corner, so it doesn't get in the way.

For keyboard shortcuts, David Pogue of the NY Times has a nice writeup and there is also the IE Blog. I love the ctrl-click to open a link in a new tab. Ctrl-E to do a search is nice too.

Now the bad.

The first thing I ran into was the type font looked bold and blurry. Hurt my eyes to read it. Turns out it is ClearType and it is supposed to make the text easier to read. This blog explains the reasoning (if you can call it that) behind turning on ClearType in IE 7. But, as the commenters point out, if ClearType is so good, why not turn it on for all of Windows? Why make a separate setting just for IE? And if you are doing this, why not allow people who thinks it really sucks an easy way to turn it off?

Turning it off is a huge pain. See Important Tip #13 on this page. You have to go into the registry and create a new key. Great work Microsoft developers!

It kept crashing when I opened up new tabs. I read the release notes and found this:

Google Desktop--Installing the Google desktop crashes Internet Explorer 7 when opening new tabs. The workaround for this issue is to disable web indexing on the Google desktop, or to keep the blank tab splash page in place.
So, you can't use Google desktop to track your surfing with this version. Or it could have been this:
Navigating Between Open Tabs Hangs IE7 Beta 2 - Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 sometimes hangs when navigating between open tabs, such as gmail and Yahoo mail. To work around this problem, use the Phishing Filter option under the Tools menu to disable the phishing filter. Only use this workaround when you encounter sites that are hanging; reenable the phishing filter as soon as you return to browsing sites that do not hang.
So I turned the phishing filter off too.

Even after doing this, IE crashes on me every once in a while. Usually when I have lots of tabs open. Don't know what the deal is with that, but it sucks.

All the icons are fatter and rounder now. I call it the bubble world look. I am totally anal about this, but I want my toolbars to be as thin as possible so I can have more space on my screen to view the actual content. Every millimeter is a big deal. And the bars are way too fat if you ask me. Put 'em on a diet Microsoft. I was checking out laptops, and they are all wide screen monitors now. After displaying all the bars on the top and bottom of the screen, you get like 3 lines of browsing. Don't get this at all.

I also found the Google Bar had some cool features like spell checking and Translation that no longer work with IE 7.

Yahoo Mail Beta doesn't work with IE 7, but they promise to get it working by the end of the month. On the NY Times site, the buttons for single page view or print don't show up in IE 7. Lots of other little things on other sites don't work quite right either like the spell check window on

I was going to praise it because it finally allows the little icons (favicon.ico) to show up when you are browsing a site and when you save bookmarks. But they found a way to screw this up too. The icons will show up for a while on your bookmarks, but then mysteriously go away after a while, and when you go back to the site, sometimes they show back up and sometimes they don't. And then sometimes a bookmark will get the wrong icon from some other site. This seems so simple to implement, don't know how the Microsoft developers can keep screwing this one up.

You might think I would let Microsoft know about this stuff. But there too Microsoft screwed up. Instead of just having a feedback form to fill out, or an email address, they do all this crazy stuff that requires a Passport login in order to leave feedback. Hopefully someone is leaving feedback, so all this stuff is worked out before they release this sucker.


Gas Prices Around the World

If you think gas prices are high in the US, check out this graphic from The Economist on gasoline (or as the British call it petrol) prices around the world. In Turkey they pay almost $7 a gallon, Norway, Britain and Germany around $6, South Korea $5, Japan $4.5, and India $3.5. On the other end, in China they pay $1.75, Russia $1.5, Saudi Arabia $1, and Venezuela $.5.

They break it down with and without tax. What I don't get is if oil is a globally traded commodity, why isn't the without tax price the same around the world? It ranges from $.5 to $2 a gallon without tax.

Looks like many countries in Europe have a $4 a gallon tax. Sounds good to me. The US should raise ours to at least $2.


Thursday, May 11, 2006


Worldmapper is a really cool site that creates cartograms out of UN data. I love how they take obscure data and make it understandable by turning it into a map. The following is a map of net immigration in the world. Everyone is coming to America and ain't nobody going to India.

Nice writeup over at BLDGBLOG. Don't miss map 57 and 58 of toy exports and toy imports.

via World Changing


Bold Idea #2: Baby Bonds

My second bold idea to change America is: Baby Bonds + Financial Education.

Americans have horrible savings skills and habits. Last year, for the first time since 1993 the nation's personal savings rate went negative (1). That means that Americans spent more than they earned. In 2004, there were over 1.5 million bankruptcies (2). 66% of Americans in a recent poll said they were living paycheck to paycheck (3). The average American carries $8,900 in credit card debt(4). Though this one is not as bad as it seems as the article explains, the median credit card debt is only around $2,000. But if the median is so much lower than the mean, it means that some Americans have huge credit card debt, which probably helps to explain the 1.5 million bankruptcies.

At the government level we aren't doing much better. In 2004, the US federal government had a $412 billion fiscal debt (5). The underfunded liabilities of Social Security have been estimated at $7.2 trillion, and the underfunded liabilities of Medicare are a staggering $35 trillion.

Students going to college are now racking up massive debts. The average debt for students graduating in 2003-2004, the latest data available, was $15,622 for public schools and $22,581 for private - many students rack up even more on their credit cards (6). The amount of debt is so high it affecting the type of careers that graduates are choosing and affecting how long it takes before they can look to own a home.

Americans have a huge amount of debt and poor savings skills which are going to cause huge problems in the future if not corrected. That is where Baby Bonds and Financial Education come in.

The first part of my idea is to issue a Baby Bond to every child that is born. The British do this and it looks something like this:

The idea is that every child born will immediately receive a payment worth anything up to £500, depending on the financial circumstances of the parents. The initial sum will be topped up by anything between £50 and £100 on three times subsequent occasions - when the child starts going to school at the age of five, when the child moves up to secondary education at the age of eleven and then again when the child turns sixteen. During this time relatives can contribute to the fund - which remains tax free and does not affect family entitlements such as housing benefit and working family benefits. Furthermore the government will match pound for pound the maximum sum saved up to a ceiling of £1,800. Handled prudently, the original sum could be worth anywhere between £5,000 and £7,000 by the time the child turns eighteen - enough, it is claimed, to start a small business or fund tertiary education.
There was a proposal in the US called KidSave that called for:
Under one version of KidSave, the government would open tax-deferred savings accounts for each American child, making a $1,000 deposit at birth, and $500 deposits in each of the next five years.
The idea is that the government gives every child some money when they are born that is set aside and invested. This money can not be withdrawn until they are 18. At that time they could use it to pay for college, help them get started in life, help as a down payment on a house or as a good nest egg for retirement. It is a way to force people to save. It is a way to make sure that every child, regardless of how wealthy their parents are, will have money set aside in an account with their name on it. I like this politically because it merges the liberal ideas of income redistribution and equality with the conservative ideas of ownership and personal responsibility.

The second part of my idea is to instigate financial education in schools. I think learning how to invest and manage your money is as difficult to learn as driving a car. If we can teach everyone to drive, we can teach them how to invest their money wisely.

In elementary school students should be taught the basics of savings and compound interest. Compound interest is such a magical concept. Albert Einstein is said to have called compound interest "the greatest mathematical discovery of all time". But, it is not an intuitive concept. People don't understand compound interest without working with it and seeing it.

High school students should be taught how financial instruments like mutual funds, stocks, bonds and CDs work. Make sure they understand how compound interest can make you rich with investments or how it can get them in trouble with credit cards. Since every kid has their own investment account with real money in it the classes would be that much more powerful. It is their money, so they will have an incentive to really learn. They should also be taught how much money they need to set aside in order to have enough for retirement. Have them see how it is much more effective to set aside a little early in life and have it compound with interest than it is to save a lot late in life. They should learn how to set a budget and save money each money each month so they don't have to live paycheck to paycheck. They should be given the skills to manage a 401k account, understand what happens if you just pay the minimum balance on a credit card, and understand the implication of interest rates on buying a home. I think this could be accomplished in a semester class. Just as a health class is required to graduate, so should a financial health class.

The baby bonds and financial education would go a long way to helping Americans with their finances. It will give them the money to help pay for college, a down payment on a house or begin to finance their retirement. It would help reduce the crushing debt loads that college students now graduate with. It would help Americans to quit living pay check to paycheck, reduce their credit card payments and reduce bankruptcies. It would give them the tools to plan for their retirements. And hopefully these better educated Americans would elect politicians that are more serious about reducing our debt and finding a way to fund or reform Social Security and Medicare so they are sustainable for the long run.


The Cyborg Future

Popular Science takes a look at "human upgrades" that will be coming down the road in terms of new technologies to improve our biology. In case you missed it, the cyborgs are already among us.

By the year 2000, 25 million Americans had medical implants, such as pacemakers and artificial hips, made of the same sorts of metal alloys and ceramics engineers use in other sophisticated machinery.
And it is only going to get worse (or better depending on your perspective). They take a look at a bunch of promising technologies. Worth reading the whole thing. How about Super Bones?
NanOss, created by a company in Woburn, Mass., called Angstrom Medica, is made of the same material as our skeletons, hydroxyapatite. NanOss is bone, but it's better, having been restructured at the molecular level into a sort of superbone. One of the first devices incorporating nanotechnology to receive FDA approval, NanOss encourages real bone to fuse with it--resulting in a hybrid that is as tough as steel.
The future of scuba diving could be pretty cool if these artificial red blood cells pan out.
Freitas says respirocytes would transport oxygen 236 times more efficiently than red blood cells--and a syringeful could carry as much oxygen as your entire bloodstream.
Then he goes and lays out some ideas that will be familiar to those who read my Pimp My Cochlear Implant post.
Today, the pulses transmitted to the auditory nerve by cochlear implants represent sounds from near the patient, but why couldn't the signals come from miles away? In fact, why do they need to reflect real sounds at all, as opposed to, say, an e-mail run through some text-to-speech software? And, finally, does this imaginary e-mail need to be typed with a keyboard-or would a BCI implant do the trick? This is just speculation, but someday wireless implants may transmit the equivalent of an e-mail from one mind to another: "Hey, honey, I was just thinking of you." It sounds like an unlikely idea--but heck, so did the telegraph.
Cool stuff. Telepathy, super bones, super breath, we are all going to be superheroes. Can't wait for my upgrade.



The only thing more beautiful than Apple products, are fake Apple mockups. Amazing how many people create professional looking mockups and commercials for Apple products that don't even exist. Check out this commercial for the iTalk phone. Man, I want me one of those.

via Pogue's Posts


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bold Idea #1: Retiree Corps

My first Bold Idea to Change America is the Retiree Corps.

There are approximately 2 million new Social Security retirees each year. If 50% of them volunteered 20 hours a week that would be 20 million hours of volunteer work a week or 1 billion hours volunteered a year. If you could get the average volunteer to stick around for 3 years, that would be 3 billion hours. Imagine what you could do with this "Retiree Corps" of 6 million volunteers and 3 billion volunteer hours a year. You would have the resources to make a significant impact on the social and environmental issues that challange America.

How can we go about building the Retiree Corps?

The ground works has already been laid with the government's Senior Corps program. It currently has 500,000 volunteers and a $200 million a year budget.

There is also a non-profit organization Civic Ventures that looks really good. Their Experience Corps program is active in 14 cities, and works to solve serious social problems, beginning with literacy. Today more than 1,800 Corps members serve as tutors and mentors to children in urban public schools and after-school programs, where they help teach children to read and develop the confidence and skills to succeed in school and in life.

Now we just need to take these programs to the next level.

The first thing we need to do is make it an expectation of all Americans when they retire that they will volunteer. When you retiree, you get 6 months to go play golf, go traveling or what ever you want to do. Then it is time to get busy for a couple of years to help tackle America's greatest social and environmental issues. It would become another rite of passage. When you retire from your work life, the next phase is a few years of service to America.

If top politicians bought into this and sold it, I think the new retirees would be very receptive. I think many retirees have a lot of spare time and don't know what to do with it.

The next priority would be to make it easy for them to find meaningful and productive positions. As part of signing up to receive social security benefits, there should be a volunteer section. You should be opted in by default. You would get a volunteer counselor that would help you to find an opportunity that fits your desires and skills. The counselor would know what opportunities are available locally and how to get involved. The counselor would prepare the retiree to get the most out of their volunteer experience by setting expectations and explaining the differences between working at a job and volunteering.

What problems should they tackle?

I am a big believer in education and health. These are roles where there is lots of personal interaction that leads to meaningful experiences. It is also two areas where the free market does not work particularly well. Working to improve the environment would also be useful.

I think helping out in schools and acting as mentors would be a great use of time. If you could get these volunteers to help out in the disadvantaged schools, I think it would go a long ways. There are currently 3 million K-12 teachers in the US. If one half of the 6 million volunteers were working in schools, each teacher could be assigned a Retiree Corp volunteer to help out in their classes. This would be a massive influx of capacity to help out.

There is lots of talk about the growing expense of social security and how we will (or won't) be able to pay for it. But instead of tackling the problem from the expense side, maybe we should look at it from the other side and ask what the retirees can give back to the country. If significant numbers could help out with education and health, this would lower the cost to the government of providing these services.

The Retiree Corp with its 6 million volunteers and 3 billion hours a year will help tackle America's social and environmental issues and radically change America for the better.


How Many Species are Going Extinct?

Polar bears, hippos and many freshwater fish are among more than 16,000 species of animal, bird, fish and plants threatened with global extinction, the World Conservation Union said Tuesday.
Wow, 16,000 species are in serious danger of going extinct. Well except that this is only of the species that the IUCN is tracking.
The Red List classifies about 40,000 different species according to their risk of extinction and provides a searchable online database of the results. The total number of species on the planet is unknown, with 15 million being the most widely accepted estimate. Up to 1.8 million are known today.
They only classify 40,000 of 1.8 million known species (2.2%) and there could be over 13 million other still unknown species (or .26% of 15 million). Which really makes you wonder what about the species they aren't tracking?
These include one in three amphibians, a quarter of the world's coniferous trees and mammals and one in eight birds, according to a preview of the 2006 Red List.
Of the species they are tracking, this is dire. 16,000 of 40,000 is 40%. If that held for all species, we would be looking at 720,000 endangered known species and possibly 6 million of all species. Which raises the interesting zen koan like question: if a species goes extinct that was never known, did it really exist?

The 40% ratio might not hold. I have no idea how the 40,000 were selected. Maybe they are the most endangered of them all. Or maybe the easiest to track. But, I think it is clear to say that we don't have a good grasp at this point of how many total species are close to extinction.

For the species we do know about, the ICUN has registered very few extinctions:
Some 784 are listed as extinct - only a small increase from 2004 - while 65 are found only in captivity.
The impact of global warming is often predicted to wipe out many species. But, when I look at this report it shows how little we really know about the biodiversity on earth, and how any prediction must be taken with a grain of salt.

via The International Herald Tribune


Friday, May 05, 2006

Fog of Life

In the military they refer to the "fog of war". As the Wikipedia entry states:

Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, wrote: "The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently - like the effect of a fog or moonshine - gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance."
While the generals have to deal with the fog of war, I think we all have to deal with the fog of life. Just like the generals we are inundated with lots of information and don't know which of it is correct.

The fog of life is being aware that not all we believe is true, but not knowing which particular beliefs are false.

Or more eloquently put as it applies to advertising:
"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted," John Wanamaker, the owner of America's first big department store, allegedly said in the 1870s. "The trouble is, I don't know which half."
The question then is: how much of what I believe is actually true? If I were to ballpark it, I would guess around 90%. That means 1 out of 10 things that I think I know, are actually wrong. I ballpark it here because many things that I thought I knew, I later found out that they were incorrect. For example, I thought I knew that AIDS was ravaging Africa. Then I read the following in the Washington Post:
KIGALI, Rwanda -- Researchers said nearly two decades ago that this tiny country was part of an AIDS Belt stretching across the midsection of Africa, a place so infected with a new, incurable disease that, in the hardest-hit places, one in three working-age adults were already doomed to die of it.

But AIDS deaths on the predicted scale never arrived here, government health officials say. A new national study illustrates why: The rate of HIV infection among Rwandans ages 15 to 49 is 3 percent, according to the study, enough to qualify as a major health problem but not nearly the national catastrophe once predicted.

The new data suggest the rate never reached the 30 percent estimated by some early researchers, nor the nearly 13 percent given by the United Nations in 1998.
I thought I knew that scientists were able to clone human embryos and make stem cells from skin cells and then I read this in the BBC News:
Research by South Korea's top human cloning scientist - hailed as a breakthrough earlier this year - was fabricated, colleagues have concluded. A Seoul National University panel said the research by world-renowned Hwang Woo-suk was "intentionally fabricated", and he would be disciplined.
Even rigorously peer reviewed medical research is not as certain as we would hope. As I blogged previously, John Ioannidis, a Greek epidemiologist, believes 50% is a fair estimate of the proportion of scientific papers that eventually turn out to be wrong.

To deal with the fog of life, one key is realizing that there is no such thing as a fact. Rather each piece of knowledge has an accompanying probability of certainty. They range from rumors which have a low probability, to political information which is a little better, to press releases by companies which are a little better yet, to news on local TV which is good, to well researched documentaries and books which are very good, to peer reviewed science which is some of the best. But even the best information can be wrong as the examples above illustrate.

The key to reducing your fog is to obtain the most certain information you can and to have an accurate understanding in your mind as to its certainty. By that I mean, get the information from the best source you can, be realize that even the best sources are wrong 1% of the time. Do like Warren Buffet when he says "I don't worry about what I don't know -- I worry about being sure about what I do know". To estimate the accuracy of information, try and determine any potential bias it has, how good the data collection was, how well thought out it is, how well researched it is, and how well it has been reviewed by others. These will all make it more likely to be true.

Another key is try and dig deeper into the information, and look at it critically. People enjoy analyzing data much more than they like checking and verifying data. I bet people spend 80% of their time analyzing and 20% verifying data. But, great analysis on bad data is worthless. Or as Keynes put it "It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong". To fight the fog of life, spend 80% of your time checking that your data is correct and only 20% of your time analyzing it.

Another way to deal with the fog of life is to be wary of conventional and common wisdom. That is why I liked the book Freakonomics, where economist Steven Levitt shows many cases when conventional wisdom is wrong.
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? What kind of impact did Roe v. Wade have on violent crime?
He takes a look at conventional wisdoms like: a gun is more dangerous than a swimming pool or drug dealers make lots of money, and shows why they are wrong through well thought out and peer reviewed research. This made me wonder, what percentage of common wisdom is wrong? Hmm, maybe 10%? And, what percentage of this book will turn out to be wrong in hindsight? Hmm, maybe 5%? And lo and behold a couple months after the book comes out I read this in The Economist:
It was a good test to attempt. But Messrs Foote and Goetz have inspected the authors' computer code and found the controls missing. In other words, Messrs Donohue and Levitt did not run the test they thought they had-an "inadvertent but serious computer programming error", according to Messrs Foote and Goetz

Fixing that error reduces the effect of abortion on arrests by about half, using the original data, and two-thirds using updated numbers. But there is more. In their flawed test, Messrs Donohue and Levitt seek to explain arrest totals (eg, the 465 Alabamans of 18 years of age arrested for violent crime in 1989), not arrest rates per head (ie, 6.6 arrests per 100,000). This is unsatisfactory, because a smaller cohort will obviously commit fewer crimes in total. Messrs Foote and Goetz, by contrast, look at arrest rates, using passable population estimates based on data from the Census Bureau, and discover that the impact of abortion on arrest rates disappears entirely. "I am simply not convinced that there is a link between abortion and crime," Mr Foote says.
So it appears that he had a programming error in his analysis. Levitt still thinks his conclusion holds in spite of this due to other evidence, but it certainly makes you wonder if this is wrong, what else might be? But the test should not be that the book is infallible but rather it hits for a higher batting average than common wisdom. And I think it does.

A couple of other books that set that debunk conventional wisdom using mathematical analysis are Moneyball and More Guns, Less Crime. Or so I thought.

In Moneyball, the author looks at how the low budget Oakland As used statistical analysis that was different from other teams in evaluating players in order to create a competitive team. Conventional wisdom in baseball says you should look at batting average, home runs and RBIs when evaluating players. But, by analyzing it deeper, they found that statistics like on base percentage, batting average with zero outs, and other statistics lead more to winning games. By finding players that others did not evaluate as highly, the As could get players that contributed to winning, but do not have high salaries.

I thought this all sounded good, and I like the idea of hitting the statistics hard to find the hidden story. But then I am reading the Freakonomics blog, and I find out that he thinks the Moneyball analysis is not accurate.
There has been much hype recently about baseball clubs finding statistics to identify good players. Levitt read Michael Lewis's book Moneyball about the supposed innovators, the Oakland As, and is unimpressed. "If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average! There's very little evidence Billy Beane [the club's general manager] is doing something right."
More on the Freakonomics vs. Moneyball debate can be found here.

More Guns, Less Crime used economic regression and analysis to show how having more guns actually lead to less crime. Instead of making a argument on gun control based on simplistic reasoning and anecdotes, here was a book that was used cold hard data and analysis in order to come to its conclusion. Or so I thought. On page 133-134 of Freakonomics, Levitt says that the author John. R Lott invented some of the survey data. If the data is phony, then who cares about the analysis, the whole book is worthless. How the heck am I as a reader supposed to know that? Hence the fog of life.

Here we had 3 books that were trying to debunk conventional wisdom, one has an computer programming error, another's analysis might not support its team success, and the third made up data. So even when we are trying to remove wrong conventional wisdom beliefs that we hold, new ones can appear. And there is no way of knowing other than having others go through the data or try and replicate the work that we will know that mistakes have been made. There is no way that anyone has that kind of time to dig that far on every book they read. Better to just accept that fact that books like these have a, lets say, 5% chance of being wrong and living with it.

How do you make decisions with the fog of life when you know that not all of your beliefs are true? The first key is not to hide from it. Fundamentalist religions claim they have the answers to all of life's problems. All the answers are there for you in black in white in their holy book. But, they aren't solving the fog of life, they are hiding from it. Instead of coming to terms with the uncertainty in their knowledge, they are ignoring it. Yes, this philosophy allows you to have full confidence in the decisions you make, but that does not make them correct. And the incorrect decisions will set yourself up for bigger problems down the road. Beware of this kind of certainty. As Michael Crichton says: "I am certain there is too much certainty in the world".

Instead, you must be willing to make decisions with incomplete information. You must first try and get the best information you can. But, at a certain point it is not worth spending more time to try and get more accurate information. You must live with the fact that certain information may only be 95% certain and that decisions based on it will be wrong 1 out of 20 times. You realize that it will take less time to fix that one problem than it would to try and get even more accurate information on all of your issues.

Poker players are a good example of how to deal with the fog of life. They have to make calls based on incomplete information. They don't know what the other player is holding. They know what he bet, but they have to evaluate whether they think he is bluffing or not. They have to know the odds of the various hands that can come up. And then they have to make a call based on this incomplete information. The better players are able to ascertain more information at the table by picking up tells that other players have. This allows them to have more certainty with their calls. But, they are not right every time. To be a good poker player, they don't have to be right every time, they just have to be right a higher percentage of the time. So too in the fog of life. It is not about being right all the time, it is about being right a higher percentage of the time.

Robert Rubin, the secretary of treasury under Bill Clinton, also understands how to make decisions in the fog of life. He wrote about it in his book In an Uncertain World. He also spoke about it in this excellent speech:
Everything I've experienced in life suggests to me that the key to the future is a decision-making approach that begins with the proposition that there are no provable certainties. That is the view of modern science and much of modern philosophy. And, this view that there are no absolute or certain answers quickly leads to recognizing that all significant issues are inherently complex and uncertain and, as a consequence, that all decisions are about probabilities and trade-offs. That, in turn, should lead to restlessly seeking to better understand whatever is before you in order to most effectively refine your judgments about those probabilities and trade-offs.
In the book Blink by Malcom Gladwell, he talked about how Wall Street traders and Marine Corps brass were fundamentally in the same business. While the brass had never been to New York, and the traders had long hair, were unkempt and overweight they are soul mates. They both had to make snap decisions with imperfect information. One was dealing with the fog of war, the other the fog of life.

The fog of life surrounds us. We are aware that not all we believe is true, but we don't know which particular beliefs are false. In order to deal with the fog of life, we must think more about the certainty of the information we hold and try to get the most accurate information we can. We must be skeptical of conventional wisdom, but realize that the debunking of conventional wisdom can also be wrong. The fog of life must not deter us from making decisions. Instead we must get the best information we can, but at a certain point realize that it is better to fix the few mistakes that do occur, then spend more time getting more accurate data. The fog of life is about accepting that some of what we believe is incorrect, and moving on.


63% of Young Americans Can't Find Iraq on a Map

National Geographic just did a survey on geographic literacy and the results don't look good.

Despite nearly constant news coverage since the war there began in 2003, 63 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 failed to correctly locate the country on a map of the Middle East. Seventy percent could not find Iran or Israel.

I have always thought it would be a good idea when polling people on their opinions of Iraq, they start with some basic questions like: Here is a map of the world, where is Iraq? and: What are the 3 major ethnic groups in Iraq? Because really, how much weight should you put into the opinions of people who don't even know where Iraq is or anything about it?

via National Geographic


First Law of Petropolitics

Tom Friedman is back with another good one on oil and politics. If you need more reasons than $3 gasoline to cut back on your consumption of oil, read this.

I call it the "First Law of Petropolitics," and it posits the following: The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in petro-ist states.

According to the First Law of Petropolitics, the higher the price of global crude oil, the more erosion we see in petro-ist nations in the right to free speech, a free press, free elections, freedom of assembly, government transparency, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and in the freedom to form independent political parties and nongovernmental organizations. Such erosion does not occur in healthy democracies with oil.

Conversely, according to the First Law of Petropolitics, the lower the price of oil, the more the petro-ist countries are forced to move toward a politics that is more transparent, more sensitive to opposition voices, more open to a broad set of interactions with the outside world and more focused on building the legal and educational structures that will maximize the ability of their citizens, both men and women, to compete, start new companies and attract investments from abroad. (For an elaboration of this argument, see the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.)

The price of oil should now be a daily preoccupation of the secretary of state, not just the secretary of energy. Today, you cannot be an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy-conscious environmentalist.
via NY Times $elect


Monday, May 01, 2006

Sweet Source of Growth

Increasing percentages of the cane harvests in countries such as Brazil, the world's largest sugar exporter, and Colombia, which ranks No. 7, are being diverted to making ethanol, which is constraining supplies and driving up prices.

So it's no accident that Cali, where half of all jobs are connected to the sugar industry, exudes prosperity these days. The unemployment rate in this city of 2.5 million, 11.4%, is the lowest of any large Colombian city. Eleven shopping centers have opened or begun construction in the last year, Dominguez said, and crime is down significantly.
Demand for ethanol is causing sugar growers in Latin America to have banner years and is raising the price of sugar. This is both good for our teeth and good for the environment. If only we could import more of the stuff without tariffs.
In Bogota, they pay about the same as for a gallon of regular gasoline, about $2.50, but get 20 percent fewer miles per gallon, according to several taxi drivers.
Interesting that they only lose 20% of the miles with a gallon of ethanol. I thought ethanol only had 66% of the energy of gasoline and therefore would only go 66% as far, not 80%.

via LA Times


Genetic Influence for Depression

New York Times magazine has an interesting piece looking at how both genetics and environment impact depression.

The breakthrough moment for GxE came in 2003, when Moffitt and her husband and co-investigator, Avshalom Caspi, published a paper in Science that discussed the relationship between the gene, 5-HTT, and childhood maltreatment in causing depression. Scientists have determined that 5-HTT is critical for the regulation of serotonin to the brain. Proper regulation of serotonin helps promote well-being and protects against depression in response to trauma or stress. In humans, each 5-HTT gene has two alleles, and each allele occurs in either a short or a long version. Scientists are still figuring out how the short allele affects serotonin delivery, but it seems that people with at least one short 5-HTT allele are more prone to depression. And since depression is associated with unemployment, struggling relationships, poor health and substance abuse, the short allele could contribute to a life going awry.

About one-third of the white population have two copies of the protective long allele. About one-half have one long allele and one short one. And about 17 percent have two short alleles. (African-Americans are less likely to have a short allele; Asians are more likely.) In their 2003 study, Caspi and Moffitt looked at 847 New Zealand adults and found a link between having at least one short 5-HTT allele and elevated rates of depression for people who had been mistreated as children or experienced several "life stresses" — defined as major setbacks with jobs, housing, relationships, health and money. Having two short alleles made it highly likely that people who had been mistreated or exposed to unhinging stress would suffer depression. One short allele posed a moderate risk of depression in these circumstances. Two long alleles, on the other hand, gave their carriers a good chance of bouncing back under negative circumstances.
So it takes a bad experience in life to actually trigger the effects, but if you have the good genes, your chance of handling the event go up quite a bit.
Neurobiological research on mice and rats has begun to look at the effect that the 5-HTT gene has on the brain at the molecular level. Eventually, a designer drug might succeed in mimicking precisely what the long-allele variation of 5-HTT does to foster resilience.

Next month, NeuroMark will begin selling the 5-HTT test to people whose doctors request it.
I would like to understand more of how the genes cause the changes. Looks like they are investigating that. And here is another candidate for gene testing. Wouldn't you want to know what version of this gene you have? Or wouldn't you want to know what version your kids have? Can't wait till somebody offers a service where they check for like 200 or 1,000 genes at a time and you can just pay a $500 fee to find out how you stack up genetically.

via New York Times Magazine