Friday, June 30, 2006

CO2 Emissions: Light Bulbs vs. Cars

I was surprised that the first suggestion to reduce greenhouse gases on the Climate Crisis Take Action Flyer was to change your light bulb. So, I became curious, how much CO2 emissions would changing a light bulb save?

I read part of this report and was surprised again, this time to see that CO2 emissions from electricity generation are larger than transportation. Electricity production creates 2,337.8 Tg CO2 Eq. (33% of total emissions) vs. 1,955.1 (27%) for transportation (total emissions of 7,074.4). Residential electricity is about 33% of total electricity (another approximately 1/3 for industrial and 1/3 for commercial) for 701 Tg and 40% of transportation is for personal use automobiles (based on data in this report) for 782 Tg. For the average American then, personal residential electricity use and personal automobile use have about the same about of carbon emissions.

Also note that for every 1 kWh of electricity you use at home, there are 2 kWh being used by businesses to create and sell you the products and services that you buy. The emissions caused by the purchases you make therefore can have a larger impact than the electricity and gasoline you use purchase directly.

I decided to investigate, how much CO2 do light bulbs emit, how much could I save, and how would it compare to buying a more efficient car?

From the EIA, we find the pounds of CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity produced by various fuel sources in 1999:
2.1 Coal
2.0 Petroleum
1.3 Natural Gas
0 Solar, Wind, Hydro, Nuclear
1.3 Average for all forms of generation in US

A gallon of gasoline emits 20 lbs of CO2. 10 kWh of coal based electricity (at 2.1 lbs/kWh) emits about the same as a gallon of gasoline. Or put another way, running a 100w light bulb for 100 hours emits the same amount of CO2 as 1 gallon of gas. I use the coal value because it is most likely that new power plants will be coal based. If you reduce your usage, on the margin it will help to stop new coal plants from being created. If instead you used the average for all forms of electricity generation value of 1.3 then 15 kWh emit the same as a gallon of gasoline.

A 100w light bulb that is run 3 hours a day every day will use around 100 kWh a year. A high efficiency light uses about 1/4 the electricity of a normal bulb. Replacing it with a 25w Compact Fluorescent Bulb would save 75kwh a year. This would be 150 lbs of co2 or the same as 7.5 gallons of gasoline. Not bad for just replacing one bulb.

According to the EIA, the average US household uses 10,000 kWh a year of which 8.8% is lighting or 940 kWh. This EIA report also looks at lighting usage and comes to a similar figure.

Emissions from lighting use is 940 kWh * 2.1 ~ 2000 lbs co2 or the equivalent of 100 gallons of gasoline. The savings for a standard household changing all their bulbs would be around 940kwh * .75 = 705kw * 2.1 = 1500 lbs of co2 or 75 gallons of gasoline. That is a pretty good savings.

For comparison, if you drove 12,000 miles a year and upgraded from a car that gets the national average of 20 mpg to one that got 30 mpg, you would save 200 gallons or 4,000 lbs of co2. Upgrading from 30 mpg to 37 mpg would save 75 gallons a year, or the same as upgrading all the light bulbs in a standard home. In general, I think there are larger savings to be had from changes in using your car, but the savings from the light bulb are still sizable, and in most cases much easier and cheaper to accomplish.

On a global scale, the lighting has a large impact as this BBC article reports:

"Nineteen percent of global electricity generation is taken for lighting - that's more than is produced by hydro or nuclear stations, and about the same that's produced from natural gas," he told the BBC News website.

The carbon dioxide produced by generating all of this electricity amounts to 70% of global emissions from passenger vehicles, and is three times more than emissions from aviation, the IEA says.
In the US we drive more and use comparatively less electricity for light, so cars have a larger impact vs. lighting for the average American, but worldwide the savings from higher efficiency bulbs looks large.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Oddness of Affluence

What an odd country the US has become. The poor are fatter than the rich and the rich work longer hours than the poor.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Insect Art

Cool Bug photos over at


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Day

Elephants are now being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A New Way to Ask, 'How Green Is My Conscience?'. Looks at the various ways to offset carbon and some of the potential issues with them.

It died for us. Customers now want to know of the meat they eat: where it came from, what it was fed, how it was penned, how it perished.

Can business be cool? Ways that businesses are dealing with global warming.


Coal on Three Continents

I wrote before about how coal is the fuel of the 21st century. In the last week the New York Times has had articles looking at coal in China, Europe and the US.

In the US, we are using a billion tons of coal a year and that looks to increase.

In Europe, due to worries about gas from Russia and the phasing out of some nuclear plants, it is back to using coal.

In China, their economic boom is driven by cheap coal which is causing environmental and health problems. And 200 million tons of coal — more than was burned in all of Japan last year — are consumed by raging underground fires that are sometimes started by lightning and sometimes ignited by mining accidents.


How to Cool a Planet (Maybe)

This NY Times article looks at different techniques of geoengineering: rearranging the earth's environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability. I think there needs to be more research in this direction to give us more options if global warming becomes a serious problem. Some ideas that they are looking at to cool the world:

His paper newly examines the risks and benefits of trying to cool the planet by injecting sulfur into the stratosphere.

Dr. Angel outlined a plan to put into orbit small lenses that would bend sunlight away from earth — trillions of lenses, he now calculates, each about two feet wide, extraordinarily thin and weighing little more than a butterfly.

Other plans called for reflective films to be laid over deserts or white plastic islands to be floated on the world's oceans, both as ways to reflect more sunlight into space.

Another idea was to fertilize the sea with iron, creating vast blooms of plants that would gulp down tons of carbon dioxide and, as the plants died, drag the carbon into the abyss.
via NY Times


Monday, June 26, 2006

Japan and Carbon Sequestering

I was looking into the cost of carbon sequestering recently. Looks like Japan is getting serious. Their estimates of costs?

Capturing carbon dioxide and injecting it underground is prohibitively expensive costing up to $52 a ton, Nishio said. Under the new initiative, the ministry aims to halve that cost by 2020 under.
via Wired


Buffett to give $30 billion to Gates Foundation

With Warren Buffett's announcement Sunday that he would start to make an annual donation of about $1.5 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest foundation has a new challenge: how to distribute twice as much money each year.

In a letter dated today, Buffett told Bill and Melinda Gates that the first donation of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. stock would go to the foundation, which has assets of $29.1 billion, next month.

The money from Buffett, the world's second-richest man after Bill Gates, comes with a catch. The letter says Buffett eventually wants all his money to be distributed in the year it is donated, not added to the foundation's assets for future giving. The foundation gave away $1.36 billion in 2005, so the Buffett commitment would effectively double its spending.
Wow! That is a lot of money. Now the Gates Foundation will have almost $3 billion a year to spend. How much money is that?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, had a budget of $610 million for 2004-05.

Microsoft's research and development spending is $6.2 billion a year.

The National Institute of Health has a budget of $27.3 billion.

On the other hand, liberalizing trade with modest cuts in real tariffs, limited cuts in domestic support payments, full elimination of export subsidies and 97 percent duty- and quota-free access for exports from the poorest countries — would create global gains of $54 billion per year.

It is still an amazing large amount of money to be in the hands of one foundation.

Also amazing how egoless Warren is.
"What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it?" Buffett told the magazine. "Who wouldn't select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game? That's how I feel about this decision about my money."

Fred P. Hochberg, dean of the Milano School for Management and Urban Policy at the New School, which has a large nonprofit-management department, said Mr. Buffett's historic contribution to the Gates Foundation was in character.

"It's egoless," he said. "Warren's name is not on the door."
Now the Gates Foundation can get on with, umm, giving out more smartcards to sex workers.

via NY Times and Seattle PI


Thursday, June 22, 2006

8.7 Million Millionaires in the World

From The Economist:

There were 8.7m people with liquid financial assets of more than $1m in 2005 and whose total wealth reached $33.3 trillion, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini. Two-thirds of these “high net-worth individuals” are in North America (2.9m) and Europe (2.8m); most of the rest (2.4m) live in the Asia-Pacific region.
With a little over 6 billion people that makes .15% of the world millionaires.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Day

China wants to be more innovative. If they think they can censor Google and Wikipedia and promote innovation at the same time, they just don't get it.

Interesting look at how much electricity it takes to run various game consoles (and how much they leak) over at DX Gaming. Big difference from the Xbox 360 which uses 165W vs. the Playstation 1 that uses just 6W.

Last year, investors put more than $48 billion worldwide into clean energy companies and projects such as wind farms and ethanol plants.

Doctors experiment on themselves.


Time More Valuable Than Money in the Attention Economy

In the attention economy, the value of money is limited. The attention economy includes all the goods that require your time in order to consume them. Examples include TV, movies, videos, books, newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, music, radio, video games, and software. They are all digital/non-physical goods, or at least they can all be distributed in digital forms.

The attention economy changes the rules of time and money in the economy, and leads to different behaviors for consumers and producers from the physical economy.

As an attention goods consumer, the value of your time to consume the good is much higher than the cost of the good itself. A movie rental costs $5 and takes 2 hours to watch. How much is your time worth? The average American gets paid $18 an hour. If you could be working instead of watching the movie the opportunity cost is $36. But, maybe that is too high as watching movies are much more enjoyable than work. At the minimum wage of $5/hr, your time for 2 hours is $10. The value of your time to watch the movie is at least twice as much as the cost to rent the movie.

Other media are much the same. A hardcover book costs $25 and might take 10 hours to read ($2.50/hr). A newspaper costs $.50 and takes 30 minutes to read ($1.00/hr). I took a look recently at the costs per hour of various media goods per hour. Many attention goods (Linux, Wikipedia, blogs) cost nothing at all besides your time. Others (Google, TV, Radio, most online newspapers) are supported by advertisements which cost a additional bit of your time in order to view. On the NerdShit blog it estimate the time it will take you to read any of the articles. This allows you to see how "expensive" in time it will be to consume.

More money does not allow you to consume more attention goods as you are constrained by time. Whereas Bill Gates can purchase as many physical goods as he wants: more houses, more computers, or more boats, he is limited in how many attention goods he can consume. We are all limited by the same 24 hour day in how many attention goods we can use.

Because time is limited, you impart status and influence on the producer of the goods you consume. You are choosing to use your valuable time to read, listen or respond to that person's work.

With attention goods, the recommendation is the gift. If you have Rhapsody and Netflix, you can listen to any song or watch any movie that you want for no additional cost. Why then would you want a CD or a DVD for a gift? The gift giver can't give you the time you need to consume it, and that is the most expensive part of attention goods. Instead, the real value is in the recommendation. If a friend can recommend a song or a movie that you would not have found on your own that is a true gift. In general, there is lots of value in helping you to consume goods that you will enjoy.

In the attention economy you can choose to use your time as either a consumer or a producer. You select how much of your time you want to spend reading blogs vs. creating posts, listening to music vs. creating music, watching TV vs. creating YouTube videos.

From a producers standpoint money still plays a role but it diminished from the physical economy. If you are working full time on creating attention goods, you still need a way to eat and pay the rent. You need a way to pay for the basics (food, shelter, clothing and medicine) and the creature comforts (the latest gadgets). So there will still be a need for money to allow full time attention economy creators (writers, software developers, musicians, actors) to convert their time into old economy/physical goods.

Beyond a certain point, the only reason to acquire more money is for status and influence. In the attention economy status and influence are based on popularity and the attention you can draw rather than wealth. They are determined by eyeball hours rather than dollars. It's not about monetizing the eyeballs, its about the eyeballs.

The attention economy therefore allows for interesting tradeoffs between making money and having influence. The New York Times decided to charge money for their columnists. Tom Friedman hates it because it deprives his audience from being able to read him. The Wall Street Journal also charges for their material, which gives it a much lower readership than if it were free.

It raises the question: if you had a blog, would you rather have 10,000 people read your entries, or $10,000? If you already have all the creature comforts you want, what is the point of more money? Or if you already have a full time job and are just a attention good producer on the side, why do you want more money? What you really want is the status and influence that popularity brings with it. Instead of pricing a book to make the most amount of money, you price it to have the most amount of readers. Instead of taking the money to the bank, you use the money to advertise to get more people to view your work. Instead of cracking down of file sharers, you tacitly allow it.

If money isn't that important in the attention economy, how do you value the impact? Just because your attention good is free doesn't mean it has no value (even though the GDP might say so). You can total up the number of people who view your attention good, or the amount of eyeball hours it created. You can use these metrics to compare with other attention goods to see what your influence is.

One issue is that not all eyeball time is of equal value. Those that are more knowledgeable, smarter or more influential are more valuable. Those that are actively participating are more valuable than passively absorbing material. To take this into account you could assign a value to each users time. As stated previously, one way would be to value the time at that person's hourly wage. Or maybe you figure for those reading or consuming their time is worth $5, and if they are commenting or contributing then it is worth $10. Or maybe you adjust the hourly wages upwards if you have more influential, or knowledgeable consumers.

For example, you might say that each viewer's time on your website is worth $5/hr. If you have 100 viewers spending 200 hours on your website, then this is worth $1,000 of others attention.

The attention economy is different from the industrial economy. Money has a more limited role. For consumers, their time is the more valuable then the money they spend on the attention good. Additional money has limited impact on how they consume attention goods because they are limited by their time and goods are cheap. A recommendation for a great attention good is more valuable than the good itself. From a producer standpoint, some money may be required up to a point. After that point, the producer is motivated by status and influence which is derived from eyeball time rather than money. Valuing the worth of attention goods is difficult, as the consumers time is the most valuable part, and not all time is of equal worth. As the attention economy grows, these rules will become more important.


How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times

Interesting lecture (23MB MP3) by Harvard's Daniel Gilbert at the South By Southwest 2006 conference on probability estimation and why humans do it so badly.

Why do people play the lottery? Why do we spend so much effort against terrorism when we could save many more lives with improved health care or reducing traffic accidents? Why is it that we are unhappy with our purchases after we make them? All these are answered and much more.

via A Jolly Socratic Science via Boing Boing


How Not To Buy Happiness

Really interesting article (.pdf) on how money does and doesn't lead to happiness.

“Does money buy happiness?” Considerable evidence suggests that if we use an increase in our incomes, as many of us do, simply to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars, then we do not end up any happier than before. But if we use an increase in our incomes to buy more of certain inconspicuous goods–such as freedom from a long commute or a stressful job–then the evidence paints a very different picture. The less we spend on conspicuous consumption goods, the better we can afford to alleviate congestion; and the more time we can devote to family and friends, to exercise, sleep, travel, and other restorative activities. On the best available evidence, reallocating our time and money in these and similar ways would result in healthier, longer and happier lives.
So then why do people spend their money on things that don't bring them happiness rather than those that do?
The evidence thus suggests that if income affects happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters.

As even the most ardent free market economists have long recognized, the invisible hand cannot be expected to deliver the greatest good for all in cases in which each individual’s well-being depends on the actions taken by others with whom he does not interact directly.

Many important rewards in life: access to the best schools, to the most desirable mates, and even, in times of famine, to the food needed for survival depend critically on how the choices we make compare to the choices made by others.

Yet when all spend more on heavier cars and more finely tailored suits, the results tend to be mutually offsetting, just as when all nations spend more on armaments. Spending less on bombs or on personal consumption frees up money for other pressing uses, but only if everyone does it.
We are in an arms race with others for a relative advantage is material goods which leads to happiness. Unfortunately, we also end up canceling out our happiness when everyone buys larger houses and bigger cars. If we instead spent our money on things like reducing traffic and lowering pollution, happiness would be increased for all.

via A Jolly Socratic Science via Boing Boing


Monday, June 19, 2006

No More Cavities?

The typical human mouth contains a writhing orgy of bacteria. Most of these microscopic organisms are benign, and some are even beneficial, but one particular variety is a conspicuous troublemaker: Streptococcus mutans. These ubiquitous bacteria thrive on sugars in the mouth, which they consume while excreting lactic acid. This acid is responsible for the great majority of tooth decay in humankind because it erodes the enamel and dentin of the teeth.

Oragenics' approach to stopping tooth decay is straightforward: they have used recombinant DNA technology to produce a new variety of S. mutans which does not excrete lactic acid. Instead, it excretes tiny amounts of an agent called Mutacin 1140 which is deadly to other strains of S. mutans, giving these new bacteria an edge over the existing organisms. Once the modified bacteria get a toehold in the mouth, the existing population of S. mutans will be methodically wiped out, leaving the non-acid-producing bacteria in its place. In the absence of acid-producing bacteria, the teeth have little to fear.
Improved living through genetically modified bacteria. I like it!

via Damn Interesting


Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Weaker Sex

What emerges when one studies male biology in a truly evenhanded way is the realization that from the moment of conception on, men are less likely to survive than women. It's not just that men take on greater risks and pursue more hazardous vocations than women. There are poorly understood — and underappreciated — vulnerabilities inherent in men's genetic and hormonal makeup.

Men's troubles begin during the earliest days in the womb. Even though there are more male than female embryos, there are more miscarriages of male fetuses.

Even when a boy manages to be born, he's still behind the survival eight ball: he is three to four times more likely than girls to have developmental disorders like autism and dyslexia; girls learn language earlier, develop richer vocabularies and even hear better than boys. Girls demonstrate insight and judgment earlier in adolescence than boys, who are more impulsive and take more risks than their sisters. Teenage boys are more likely to commit suicide than girls and are more likely to die violent deaths before adulthood.
It is interesting how men have a life expectancy that is 5 years less than women and yet there is very little talk about how men are at a disadvantage and how we can rectify it.

via NY Times


Pro Life Agenda

No, not that pro life. The life I am talking about is every living being on the planet: all animals, plants, insects, bacterias and everything else that is alive. My agenda is to maximize the amount of biomass on earth and net primary productivity (NPP). Instead of just allowing nature to take its course, the pro life agenda attempts to manage the earth in a way to make it as hospitable as possible for life.

To maximize life, all land and ocean area should be made as productive as possible. This graph ranks different types of ecosystems by their productivity. To maximize life, we want as much land as possible in the most productive areas of estuaries, swamps, tropical rainforests, and temperate forests. This means that we should minimize as much as possible the cutting down of forests to replace with cropland, or removing swamp land.

The prolife agenda is also anti desolate areas like deserts, arctic regions and barren areas of the ocean. We should attempt to make these areas more hospitable for life. If we can bring nutrients (in the form of fertilizers) and water to deserts areas to allow them to maintain more life, that would be a good thing. If we can "fertilize" the oceans so more plankton can live, and therefore support more animals that feed on them (and those higher up on the food chain that feed on them), that would be good. If we can build artificial reefs which allow for more sea life, good.

The pro-life agenda is obviously against those things that destroy life such as fires, and volcanoes. It is also against concrete and other human settlements which take up land that could be used to grow grasses, trees or other forms of life.

The pro-life agenda realizes that not all life is equal. Measuring total biomass by itself is not enough. You mush also look at biodiversity and biocomplexity. Having more species is a good thing. Having complex and intelligent life is a good thing. So there is some trade-off between biomass, biodiversity and biocomplexity. How exactly do you make the trade-offs? I am not sure.

For example, so called dead zones exist in oceans where fertilizer has runoff. There is actually abundant amounts of micro-life in dead-zones, but they grow so fast they use up the oxygen and kill larger beings like fish. How do you compare the life of millions of bacteria and plankton with those of a few fish?

Using pesticides kills small bugs, but it allows more food for humans. Is this a good thing? We are allowing more complex life (in the form of humans) to exist. In general, should we try and limit the amount of NPP that humans use? How do you measure the trade-off between more 150lb humans or more animals? Do we want to maximize the amount of humans on the planet, or do we want to limit it at some point to allow for other forms of life to exist?

I also, don't understand the impact of having more layers in the food chain. If you add an extra layer of carnivores in the mix (going from grass->cow->bear to grass->cow->bear->man), does that decrease the total amount of biomass on the earth? I would think so, but I am not sure. And even if it does decrease the total biomass, does the added diversity these species bring make it more valuable then the biomass we are giving up?

The agenda is positive toward nuclear, wind, and wave energy and other sources which create electricity without any impact on life. That energy can be used to create hydrogen which can be used to create fertilizer, which can be used to increase life. The pro-life agenda is positive towards solar panels if you put them where life has a hard time living (like the Sahara desert). If they replace living grasses or other plants, then this is anti-life. Better to have plants or bacteria capture the energy of the sun.

In general the agenda is neutral toward machines, but if they take energy that could be used for living beings then it is anti-machine. It is pro integration of life into our machines. The more we can use bacteria and other forms of life to create our electricity, such as this, the better:

What if you could power your house with sewage? Or run your pacemaker with blood sugar rather than a traditional battery? Scientists hope that microbial fuel cells -- devices that use bacteria to generate electricity -- could one day make this vision a reality.
There are conclusions that draw from this theory that I am not sure I agree with.

It is anti bio-fuels. Bio-fuels take energy away from living things and give it to machines. The corn or switchgrass that is converted to ethanol to be burned in our cars' engines could instead be used to support horses, humans, or other forms of life. From a pro-life agenda it is better to use grass and horses for transportation than switchgrass being converted to ethanol to fuel a non-living car.

The pro-life agenda is pro fossil fuels. Fossil fuels give us energy to live our lives without needing bio-fuels. Fossil fuels can also be used to create fertilizer which allows plants to grow faster, thereby creating more life.

The pro-life agenda is pro global warming. Increases in CO2 in the atmosphere allow plants to grow faster. Warmer weather allows vast stretches of land in Canada and Russia to be much more productive. There may be a level when increasing the temperature is no longer pro-life, but most estimates point to increases in NPP for the next century due to increases of CO2 and global warming.

The pro life agenda is an attempt to manage the earth in a way that makes it most hospitable for life. It looks at total biomass and NPP as measurements of life. It finds that the most productive type of land are estuaries, swamps, tropical rain forests, and temperate forests and tries to conserve these. It sees desolate types of areas like arctic regions, deserts and barren parts of the ocean and attempts to change them to increase life. It realizes that besides biomass, biocomplexity and biodiversity are important, but there is no simple way to quantify trade-offs. It attempts to capture energy in any way possible and convert it into fertilizer to create more life. It is neutral toward machines, but attempts to use life substitutes whenever possible. It is anti biofuels that are used to run machines when they could be feed to living beings instead. It is pro fossil fuels, increased levels of CO2 and global warming to the extent they increase life on earth.


Friday, June 16, 2006

More Choices... More Happiness?

It seems a simple matter of logic that increased choice improves well-being. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Respected social scientists such as psychologist David G. Myers and political scientist Robert E. Lane tell us that increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being.

The American “happiness quotient” has been going gently but consistently downhill for more than a generation. In the last 30 years—a time of great prosperity—the proportion of the population describing itself as “very happy” has declined. The decline was about 5%. This might not seem like much, but 5% translates into about 14 million Americans.

Not only that, but today, as a society, more Americans than ever are clinically depressed. By some estimates (for example, those of psychologist Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism), depression in the year 2000 was about 10 times as likely as it was in 1900.

Of course, no one believes that a single factor explains this. But accumulating evidence from psychological research indicates that the explosion of choice plays an important role. It seems that as we become freer to pursue and do whatever we want, we get less and less happy.
via Parade Magazine


Economists now agree: 'You can't buy happiness'

In other words, more money will make you happier, but only as long as those around you don't also earn more. Also, you get used to earning more money, so after a while it doesn't cheer you up as much as it did at first.

Large homes and luxury goods don't do much for us in the long run, but there are other spheres of life that give a lasting contribution to happiness.

"A reallocation of time in favor of family life and health would, on average, increase individual happiness," Easterlin wrote.

Poor countries that become richer can gain substantially in happiness, Diener wrote, because the growing economy helps satisfy basic human needs, such as food, shelter and health care. But once average annual income increases above about $10,000, happiness rises only very slowly, even if the economy booms.
via Seattle PI


The Secret to Happiness

Does such unsustainable consumption enable the good life? Does being well-off make for well-being? Would people—would you—be happier if you could exchange a modest lifestyle for one with a world-class home entertainment system, winter skiing from your condo along the Aspen slopes, and being wined and dined on executive class travel? Social psychology theory and research offer some clear answers.

Are rich people happier?
To a modest extent, yes, rich people are happier. Especially in poor countries, such as India, being relatively well-off does make for greater well-being. We need food, rest, shelter, and some sense of control over our lives.

But in affluent countries, the link between wealth and self-reported well-being is “surprisingly weak,” notes researcher Ronald Inglehart. Once able to afford life’s necessities, more and more money provides diminishing additional returns. Even the very rich—for example, the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans in a 1980s survey by psychologist Ed Diener and his colleagues—are only slightly happier than average.

These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically. In the U.S., Europe, and Japan, affluence has not purchased the good life. The conclusion startles because it challenges modern materialism: Economic growth in affluent countries has provided no apparent boost to human morale.

It is further striking that those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower well-being, a finding that “comes through very strongly in every culture I’ve looked at,” reports psychologist Richard Ryan.

If affluence and materialism are not major ingredients for the good life, research indicates those that are:

* Close, supportive relationships. We humans have what today’s social psychologists call a deep “need to belong.” Those supported by intimate friendships or a committed marriage are much likelier to declare themselves “very happy.”
* Faith communities. Connection, meaning, and deep hope are often nourished in congregations. In National Opinion Research Center surveys of 42,000 Americans since 1972, 26 percent of those rarely or never attending religious services declared themselves very happy, as did 47 percent of those attending multiple times weekly.
* Positive traits. Optimism, self-esteem, and perceived control over one’s life are among the traits that mark happy experiences and happy lives. Happy people typically report feeling an “internal locus of control”—they feel empowered. When deprived of control over one’s life—an experience studied in prisoners, nursing home patients, and people living under totalitarian regimes—people suffer lower morale and worse health. Severe poverty demoralizes when it erodes people’s sense of control over their life circumstances.
* Flow. Work and leisure experiences that engage one’s skills also enable the good life. Between the anxiety of being overwhelmed and stressed, and the apathy of being underwhelmed and bored, lies a zone in which people experience flow—an optimal state in which, absorbed in an activity, they lose consciousness of self and time. Flow theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found people reporting their greatest enjoyment not when mindlessly passive, but when unself-consciously absorbed in a mindful challenge. Most people are happier gardening than power-boating, talking to friends than watching TV. Low consumption recreations prove satisfying.
via Futurenet


Acres and Gallons

Time for another installment of Fat Knowledge's ongoing ideas on environmental and social labeling.

One question that I would love to see a label address is: how much land and energy is in the food I eat? I would like to see a label that listed the number of acres and gallons (of gasoline equivalent) it took to raise, process and transport the food. The store can tell you the price, but this allows you to see the environmental cost of the food.

The number of acres (or hectares for our metric friends) would allow you to see the size of your ecological footprint. The idea is to minimize your footprint, which allows for more agricultural land to be set aside for those in the 3rd world or for returning them to nature.

Unlike other ecological footprints, this would not include the impact of energy (as that is its own value). I find converting energy into land a find of strange thing to do. How exactly do you do it? Based on the amount of land required to sequester the carbon? The amount of land required to grow an equivalent of biofuels? The amount of land required to produce the energy with solar cells? There is no good way to do it so I would rather have the energy as a separate value.

The number of gallons (or liters) lets you know how much energy was required. I like gallons of gasoline equivalent because it is a measure of energy people can relate to. It could also be BTU, kWH or Joules. This would capture all of the energy required to grow the crops, to process them, and to transport them. The natural gas needed to create the fertilizer, the diesel needed to run the combine, the diesel used to transport the food to market would all be added up, and converted into total gallons. I would also like to see the number of gallons fossil fuel put in parentheses next to it, so you could see what percentage came from renewable energy.

How much fuel is in every product we purchase? It has been stated that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles. This article calculates that there is 1/2 a gallon of gasoline in every pineapple we purchase. With this label, we will finally be able to know.

This label would allows you to compare the environmental impact between different products. Which uses less land and energy, orange juice or apple juice? How does broccoli compare to chocolate chip cookies? How much less land and energy does it take for a meal based on grain vs one including meat? What changes in my diet that would have the biggest environmental impact?

It would allows you to see the impact of organic farming. I would expect to see less energy usage, but possibly more acreage (I would guess that organic food has less yield per acre compared to fertilized land). It would also allow you to see the impact of buying local. How much fuel was actually saved by buying the local crops?

At the end of the year, you could total everything up and see what the environmental impact of your diet is. How many total acres and gallons of gasoline did it take to produce my food? I don't have a good feel for this right now, which is why this would be so helpful.

I am still thinking through how exactly this would work. There are some issues that I am aware of but not quite sure how to handle.

On the acre side, how do you handle the fact that not all acres are the same? Some are more productive than others based on location (more sunlight year round at the equator than at the poles, longer summers though near the poles), water, and temperature? How do you factor in whether the land is being created by cutting down a forest? Or what do you do if the agriculture is leading to soil erosion or other things that make it unsustainable?

On the energy side, what about the fact that not all forms of energy are equal? From a carbon emissions and pollutant standpoint, natural gas is much cleaner than coal and oil is somewhere in the middle. Converting it all to one number you lose this. But, you need a simple number so people can use it easily.

How do you handle the energy used to create the machines used to harvest and process the food? I think you could amortize their energy expenses based on expected total usage.

How exactly would you calculate the amount of fuel needed to transport it to the store, as every product will travel a different distance to each store? Maybe you use average amounts? Or maybe in the future that information will be easy for each store to track, just as Wal-Mart is able to know to stock more Pop-Tarts in areas that are about to have hurricanes based on data they collect.

There are other issues about environmental impact that the label doesn't handle. Important things like water use, fertilizer run off, pesticide use, and soil erosion are not captured.

How to handle seafood? There is no land, but maybe you could figure out how much surface area is required to support the plankton that supports the food you are eating. You can still calculate the amount of fuel required to catch the seafood.

What about the packaging materials: metals, glass, plastics? The energy needed to produce them will be captured, but other impacts like mining and garbage aren't.

While their might be important information that isn't gathered, I think that the acres of land and the gallons of energy are the most important ones to collect. Once the data is gathered for acres and gallons, it could then be accessed through the augmented bar code, possibly by using a cellphone.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cost to Make the World Carbon Neutral

Interesting question raised over at Foreign Policy blog: What would it cost to make the entire world carbon neutral?

They determine the total amount of CO2 emitted from the DOE and then multiply it by the price of carbon offsetting determined by Green Tags. The 27.7 billion metric tons could be offset for $715.7 billion ($25.83 a metric ton).

To put this in perspective, it would be about 1.1% of the $60.7 trillion world GDP.

Is this number accurate? I decided to investigate a little more.

The first part I am not sure about is exactly how much CO2 needs to be removed in order to stabilize the climate. I have read that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 50-70%. So, we might not need to remove all of it.

The second part I am not sure about is how much per ton it would cost. I took a look at the prices of some other carbon offseting schemes.

Green Tags cost $20 and offset 1,400lbs or $28.50 per ton. Carbon Fund does it for Just $5.50 per ton. Terrapass comes in at $10. In Europe:

Under the continent-wide trading system, the cost of a carbon credit reached a high of 30.5 euros for each metric ton, or about $39, last month. (In the last month, prices have dropped by half as many power plants reported much lower emissions than expected.)
Prices range from $5.50 to $39. That is a big range.

The advantage of the green tags (or any other offset or market system) is that they find the cheapest way to offset the carbon. But, that means that the more you offset the more expensive it is going to be. Currently they are paying solar powered electricity providers the difference between their costs and the cost of coal powered electricity. As you offset more, this option will fully utilized and you will need to pay for more expensive options like carbon sequestering.

How much would carbon sequestering cost?

PBS News Hour had an interview with Klaus Lackner about carbon sequestering and a device he has built to suck CO2 out of the air.
PAUL SOLMAN: The idea now is to scale the model up to the size of a football goalpost and suck carbon dioxide out of the air with a vengeance.

KLAUS LACKNER: Such a device could collect the CO-2 from 4,000 people or, alternatively, the CO-2 from 15,000 cars.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because greenhouse gases, once emitted, spread hither thither all over the globe, Lackner says his carbon-capture devices could be planted literally anywhere.

He claims 250,000 of these things worldwide -- admittedly, a huge number -- could neutralize all the carbon dioxide currently being emitted. Half a million could get carbon dioxide back down to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades, he says. And, as the technology develops, the cost figures to go down.

KLAUS LACKNER: With off-the-shelf items we have right now, I can drive the cost of CO-2 capture from air below $100 per ton of CO-2. And I feel that, if you pursue this longer, the ultimate end game will be below $30 per ton of CO-2.

PAUL SOLMAN: That would be about 25 cents extra for a gallon of gas, says Lackner, but plenty of questions remain: how to cheaply get the CO-2 out of the sodium that's soaked it up; what to do with the CO-2 once you've isolated it.
You can see what his device would look like in the pictures, and more pictures are available at episode 3 on this page. More on his idea here and here.

Short term it looks like $100/ton for sequestering and $30 a ton in the future.

It's just too bad that nature couldn't come kind of device that would soak CO2 up from out of the atmosphere. Maybe something that was anywhere from 10ft-100ft tall, something green, pleasant on the eyes, offered shade, and gives the kids something to climb on. Imagine if we could have thousands of these right next to each other in a "forest" of CO2 sequestering devices. Too bad, guess we will have to build it our own man made version.

Putting this knowledge together, at the low end we need to remove 50% of 27.7 billion metric tons at $5.50 a ton or $76 billion. At the high end we have 27.7 billion tons at $100 a ton or $2.7 trillion. All and all I think the estimate of $750 billion is not to bad.

The other question then is, if you did have a spare $750 billion dollars, would this be the best use for it? The Copenhagen Consensus asked that very question, and it wasn't on their short list.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Foreign Aid Has Flaws. So What?

Kristoff writes about the issues surrounding foreign aid.

Don't tell anyone, but a dirty little secret within the foreign aid world is that aid often doesn't work very well.

I disagree with many of Professor Easterly's arguments, but he's right about one central reality: helping people can be much harder than it looks. When people are chronically hungry, for example, shipping in food can actually make things worse, because the imported food lowers prices and thus discourages farmers from planting in the next season.

It's well-known that the countries that have succeeded best in lifting people out of poverty (China, Singapore, Malaysia) have received minimal aid, while many that have been flooded with aid (Niger, Togo, Zambia) have ended up poorer.

Saddest of all, Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian of the International Monetary Fund have found that "aid inflows have systematic adverse effects on a country's competitiveness." One problem is that aid pushes up the local exchange rate, discouraging local manufacturing. Mr. Subramanian also argues that aid income can create the same kinds of problems as oil income — that famous "oil curse" — by breeding dependency and undermining local institutions.
I have written often of the oil curse and how it causes governments to tap oil wells rather than tap the potential of their people. It is concerning to me if foreign aid causes a similar problem where governments decide that it is easier to get funding from foreign aid than from taxes. To get more money from taxes, you have to build up your economy which requires good growth policies, honest government and good education. If the governments can get the foreign aid without having to undertake these difficult issues, that is a concern. Tricky problem to find a way to give the aid without it causing other problems that retard economic growth and independence.

via NY Times $elect


Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow

The rapid Chinese economic growth is based on cheap coal which has serious environmental and health issues for them and the world.

The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an immediate threat to the health of China's citizens, contributing to about 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

These particles are dense enough that, at maximum levels during the spring, they account at higher altitudes for a fifth or more of the maximum levels of particles allowed by the latest federal air quality standards. Over the course of a year, Chinese pollution averages 10 to 15 percent of allowable levels of particles. The amounts are smaller for lower-lying cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Amazing that 10-15% of air pollution in the the US is caused by Chinese coal.

The tricky part for me is whether the Chinese people themselves are better off.
Years ago, the mountain village where they grew up had electricity for only several hours each evening, when water was let out of a nearby dam to turn a small turbine. They lived in a mud hut, farmed by hand from dawn to dusk on hillside terraces too small for tractors, and ate almost nothing but rice on an income of $25 a month.

Today, they live here in Hanjing, a small town in central China where Mr. Wu earns nearly $200 a month. He operates a large electric drill 600 feet underground in a coal mine, digging out the fuel that has powered his own family's advancement. He and his wife have a stereo, a refrigerator, a television, an electric fan, a phone and light bulbs, paying just $2.50 a month for all the electricity they can burn from a nearby coal-fired power plant.

Indeed, the Wu family dislikes the light gray smog of sulfur particles and other pollutants that darkens the sky and dulls the dark green fields of young wheat and the white blossoms of peach orchards in the distance. But they tolerate the pollution.

"Everything else is better here," Mr. Wu said. "Now we live better, we eat better."
How can you tell people that believe, even with the pollution, that they are better off that they need to change? Especially when European and American economic growth went through a similar environmentally bad period and we still produce CO2 and other pollutants at a higher per capita rate than they do?

It also appears the government has exacerbated the problem by keeping coal and oil prices low.
And Chinese power utilities are facing a squeeze. The government has kept electricity cheap, by international standards, to keep consumers happy. But this has made it hard for utilities to cover their costs, especially as world coal prices rise.

The government has tried to help by limiting what mines can charge utilities for coal. Mines have responded by shipping the lowest-quality, dirtiest, most-contaminated coal to power plants, say power and coal executives. The utilities have also been reluctant to spend on foreign equipment, steering contracts to affiliates instead.

But curbing that usage would be impossible as long as China keeps energy prices low. Gasoline still costs $2 a gallon, for example, and electricity is similarly cheap for many users.
via NY Times


Global Equity Meltdown Costs Investors $2 Trillion

A couple of interesting articles on Global Capital Markets.

The month-long slide in global stocks has wiped out at least $2 trillion in wealth, leaving investors few alternatives to preserve their holdings aside from bonds and money markets.
That is just a staggering large number reported by Yahoo News.

Robert Samuelson writes about how the global investment market has grown in the last 30 years. While on balance is probably a good thing it has lead to two new risks: worldwide financial crises and huge trade imbalances. He also looks at the enormous amount of money on the global capital markets.
Americans invested $856 billion abroad, while foreigners invested $1.44 trillion in the United States.
Martin Mayer looks at the foreign official and international accounts.
What the number announces is the quantity of government and agency securities held "for foreign official and international accounts" — that is, for foreign central banks and finance ministries — by the federal reserve banks. It is important because over time it measures the demand for American assets by private enterprise in the world's creditor nations. It is important also because it is very large — last week, about $1.63 trillion. Three years ago, just before the invasion of Iraq, it was about $900 billion. The week George W. Bush took office, it was $693 billion.

Recent large increases in foreign official holdings indicate that foreign private investors see fewer attractive places to put their money in the American economy. They could presage a significant fall in the price of American assets, stocks (witness the recent drops in American stock markets) and bonds and real estate and all, and a hard landing for a world economy still floating on the crest of cheap credit.


Interesting Articles of the Day

A ring tone that kids can hear but adults can't. Listen to it here.

As many as 1/2 of college students have or are taking smart drugs to help them concentrate.

New evidence suggests that the evolution of life on Earth began not in shallow pools on the surface, but in the torrid depths of the planetary crust.

An estimated 2.4 percent of the South Korean population from 9 to 39 are believed to be suffering from video game addiction, according to a government-funded survey. 10 died in 2005 from game addiction-related causes.

Businesses are trying to limit CO2 emissions. Timberland looked into where their emissions came from and surprisingly, the number one source was cows. (See my previous Cows vs. Cars post)


Intestinal Bacteria May Explain Obesity

More research into the bacteria in our guts, and more interesting findings.

The researchers found mice whose guts were inoculated with just the bacterium Beta thetaiotaomicron (B. theta) could process rodent food better than mice that were given no bacteria.

A second group of mice were inoculated with a combination of B. theta and an archaeon called Methanobrevibacter smithii (M. smithii). Those rodents could extract many more calories from the same amount of food, but they stored the extra energy as excess fat.

The researchers haven't yet concluded whether obese people have more M. smithii in their intestines. But Blaser said he believes scientists could eventually help control human nutrition by manipulating the types of microbes living in the gut.


The Growing Googleplex

Even before the Oregon center comes online, Google has lashed together a global network of computers — known in the industry as the Googleplex — that is a singular achievement. "Google has constructed the biggest computer in the world, and it's a hidden asset," said Danny Hillis, a supercomputing pioneer and a founder of Applied Minds, a technology consulting firm, referring to the Googleplex.

The rate at which the Google computing system has grown is as remarkable as its size. In March 2001, when the company was serving about 70 million Web pages daily, it had 8,000 computers, according to a Microsoft researcher granted anonymity to talk about a detailed tour he was given at one of Google's Silicon Valley computing centers. By 2003 the number had grown to 100,000. Today even the closest Google watchers have lost precise count of how big the system is. The best guess is that Google now has more than 450,000 servers spread over at least 25 locations around the world.
450,000 servers! That is more than the population of Atlanta, Georgia.
Local residents are at once enthusiastic and puzzled about their affluent but secretive new neighbor, a successor to the aluminum manufacturers that once came seeking the cheap power that flows from the dams holding back the powerful Columbia.
The shift of America from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy continues. Cheap electricity is no longer used for making aluminum, instead it is used to power web servers.

via NY Times


Friday, June 09, 2006

Women Trail in Competitive Drive

After reading once again that:

Women who work full time earn about 76 percent as much as men, according to the Institute of Women's Policy Research.
It is nice to see some research into what might be the reason for that difference.
The study, done with Muriel Niederle of Stanford University, was designed to explore indirectly why nearly 70 percent of American women are in the labor force but hold only 2.5 percent of the top managerial positions.

Their conclusion: Women are just as skilled as men, but they don't have as strong a taste for competition.

The conclusion was based on an experiment done at the University of Pittsburgh, where Vesterlund is an economics professor, that asked groups of young men and women to add up as many sets of five two-digit numbers as they could in five minutes.

In the first round, everyone received 50 cents for each correct answer, and the men and women did equally well, solving an average of 10 problems each.

In the second round, they were put in groups of four and told that the person who solved the most problems would get $2 for each correct answer, while the other three would get nothing. Again, the men and women equaled each other, averaging 12 correct answers.

Then came the kicker. When participants were asked whether they wanted to go back to the "piece rate" payment method for solving problems or stick with the tournament approach, 75 percent of the men chose the winner-take-all tournament mode, but only 35 percent of the women did.

Even among men and women who were the best at solving problems, the gap was stark. In that group, 80 percent of the men chose the tournament approach, but only 50 percent of the women did.

First, the study clearly showed that women performed just as well as men.

Second, she said, the study showed that a disproportionate number of men who weren't that good at solving problems chose the competitive tournament mode — a phenomenon that may exist in the jousting for upper-management jobs in the real world.
This is interesting. It also helps to explain why women would seem to be equally likely to be good poker players, and yet at the highest levels of professional poker there are few women. It is hard to believe there is descrimination at play here, but the concept that women don't enjoy the competition as much would explain it.



US Leads World in Law Services and Prisoners

A couple of amazing stats:

Worldwide spending on legal services amounts to about $250 billion a year, some two-thirds of it in America. (via the Economist)

The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, some 714 per 100,000 of the national population. This is over ten times(!) the rate of Denmark or Finland. (via World Prison Population List)

In total the US has 2.09 million prisoners and 23% of all prisoners in the world. ( via Prison Policy)

That just blows me away. The US has 5% of total world population, 23% of all prisoners and 2/3 of all legal services.


Regular, Premium, Carbon Neutral?

While Terrapass and others offer carbon offsetting for the CO2 that your driving emits, I wish gas stations would start offering it at the pump. Instead of having to figure out much I emit for an entire year and then purchase a year long pass from a website, it would be so much easier to pay for it with each gallon I purchase.

Terrapass sells carbon offsets for $.10 a gallon (6,000 lbs of CO2 for $30 = $.005 per lb * 20 lbs of CO2/gallon). For an extra $.10 I could offset the carbon my gallon of gasoline causes. At $3.00 a gallon, what is an extra $.10? If it was as simple as pressing a button when selecting the grade of gasoline you are buying, that would be great. Well worth it for the peace of mind (and smugness) it allows.

Seems like some gas station would offer this as a way to draw in the Prius driving Whole Foods shopping crowd, plus as a way to generate more revenue (if they wanted to take a $.01 cut on the whole thing, sounds fair to me). Wonder how long until someone offers it?


Thursday, June 08, 2006

You Down with NPP?

More love from NASA on Net Primary Productivity (NPP).

Department of Energy jointly funded study concludes the Earth has been greening over the past 20 years. As climate changed, plants found it easier to grow.

NPP globally increased on average by 6% from 1982 to 1999. Ecosystems in tropical zones and in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere accounted for 80% of the increase. NPP increased significantly over 25% of the global vegetated area, but decreased over 7% of the area; illustrating how plants respond differently depending on regional climatic conditions.

Climatic changes, over approximately the past 20 years, tended to be in the direction of easing climatic limits to plant growth. In general, in areas where temperatures restricted plant growth, it became warmer; where sunlight was needed, clouds dissipated; and where it was too dry, it rained more. In the Amazon, plant growth was limited by sun blocking cloud cover, but the skies have become less cloudy. In India, where a billion people depend on rain, the monsoon was more dependable in the 1990s than in the 1980s.
If you take a look at the map (click on it for a larger version) it appears that the Amazon rainforest, Canada, India and Europe all gained significantly. Parts of Russia, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico look to be the losers. But, overall a good trend if you like life on earth and want more of it.

via NASA


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Day

Barry Manilow music is used to fight crime in Australia.

Kristoff argues that sweatshops would help the poor of Africa.

Crowd Sourcing: use crowds of amateurs to help solve your problems. The 5 rules of crowd sourcing.

Harold Varmus has created PLoS, for free open access science journals. Imagine the concept, making science research available to anyone without having to pay. Unlike Science magazine which charges $300 a year for a subscription and a ludicrous $10 to access a single article for just one day! That is more expensive then a movie rental! Are they trying to spread knowledge or make money?

Walmart goes organic. A good thing that organic is expanding, or will Walmart kill what organic used to mean?


Iraq and the Oil Curse

The problem with so called oil wealth is that it almost always leads to corruption in developing countries. And good luck building a strong economy or a good government with all that corruption.

How bad is oil smuggling and corruption in Iraq?

But Oil Ministry data suggest that the total was $2.5 billion to $4 billion in 2005, said Yahia Said, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and director of the Iraq Revenue Watch at the Open Society Institute, a policy foundation.

Even at the low end, that would mean smuggling costs account for almost 10 percent of Iraq's gross domestic product, $29.3 billion in 2005.

As a result, as much as 30 percent of imported gasoline is promptly stolen and resold abroad by smugglers, according to American and Iraqi officials.
Yikes, 10% of GDP and 30% of imported gasoline.
The network is so pervasive and entrenched, the officials say, that fuel importers brazenly arrive at depots with half-empty tankers and arrange to have their deliveries certified as complete. It is also lucrative for the smallest of businesses. Bakers, brick makers and even fishing boat operators find it more profitable to sell fuel, which they receive at subsidized prices, to illicit traders rather than operate their businesses.

It is unclear where in these operations the simple urge to make a buck ends and schemes to finance insurgent activities or disrupt the workings of the Iraqi government begin. But American and Iraqi officials say that a mix of insurgents, organized criminal groups and scores of independent operators are working together in some loose network to keep their grip on the system and turn enormous profits.
There is the problem. The small businesses find in more lucrative to be involved in the illicit trade then build strong wealth producing businesses of their own. So, the whole economy is hurt. And who knows where the corruption stops and the government begins.

Good luck building anything close to a non-corrupt government in Iraq with all that oil.

via NY Times


Legion of Little Helpers in the Gut Keeps Us Alive

More articles on the bacteria in our guts. Man I am just eating this stuff up (sorry, couldn't resist). Why is this important? I think this sums it up.

A better understanding of the bacteria colonizing our bodies could have far-reaching medical implications. In the not-too-distant future, Gill and others predicted, doctors will test for subtle changes in the numbers and kinds of microbes in people's guts as early indicators of disease. Doctors may prescribe live bacterial supplements to bring certain physiological measures back into normal range. And drug companies will invent compounds that mimic or amplify the actions of helpful bacteria.

With the technology improving and getting cheaper, she said, it won't be long before it is easy to monitor a person's microbial changes from day to day -- or compare bacterial population structures among individuals who have different diets or health histories.
These little critters perform all sorts of functions.
The bacteria also contain a plentiful supply of genes involved in the synthesis of chemicals essential to human life—including two B vitamins and certain essential amino acids—although the team merely showed that these metabolic pathways exist rather than proving that they are used. Nevertheless, the pathways they found leave humans looking more like ruminants: animals such as goats and sheep that use bacteria to break down otherwise indigestible matter in the plants they eat.
I was also curious how babies get their bacteria to begin with.
Another area of research is the process by which these helpful bacteria first colonise the digestive tract. Babies acquire their gut flora as they pass down the birth canal and take a gene-filled gulp of their mother's vaginal and faecal flora. It might not be the most delicious of first meals, but it could well be an important one.
Ahh, maybe I didn't want to know that after all.

This article also features my new favorite euphemism.
The team used tiny molecular probes resembling DNA Velcro to retrieve tens of thousands of snippets of bacterial DNA from smidgeons of the intestinal output of two volunteers.
Holy intestinal output, Batman!

via The Economist and The Washington Post


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Day

Freakoutonomics - Why the economy can look like it is going well, but people don't feel that way

Scientists Say Arctic Was Tropical 55 million years ago

Internet hunting in China: morality lessons are administered by online throngs and where anonymous Web users come together to investigate others and mete out punishment for offenses real and imagined.

Podcast over at the CBC on the Science of Happiness.


An Inconvenient Truth

The idea behind Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth terrifies me. The idea being you can turn a PowerPoint slide into a 100 minute movie. Seriously? PowerPoint? An entire movie that you have to pay $10 to see? The same PowerPoint slides that have those annoying animations and sounds between slides? The same ones you sit through at work and pray "Dear Jesus, please let this be the last slide"? And they wonder why the box office receipts are going down.

Seriously though, I thought it was a good movie with lots of good information. But, I found it too dire in its predictions, I found Gore to treat the science with too much certainty, and most importantly I was disappointed that there was no plan laid out on how to stop it.

This was a good movie to see if you know nothing about global warming, about what warming has happened over the last 100 years and what might happen in the future due to further warming.

Has it become obligatory for every politician to use 9/11 to back their ideas and plans that have absolutely nothing to do with 9/11? When it came to the rising oceans due to global warming, Gore couldn't help himself and had to point out that the 9/11 memorial in NYC would be underwater if oceans rise by 20 feet. Remember, if you are at all skeptical about anything in this move, the terrorists win.

I was disappointed in was the direness of the predictions. They go beyond consensus science. Gregg Easterbrook states it best here:

For instance, this 2005 joint statement by the science academies of the Western nations, including the National Academy of Sciences, warns of sea-level rise of four to 35 inches in the 21st century; this amount of possible sea-level rise is current consensus science.

Yet An Inconvenient Truth asserts that a sea-level rise of 20 feet is a realistic short-term prospect. Gore says the entire Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could melt rapidly; the film then jumps to animation of Manhattan flooded. Well, all that ice might melt really fast, and a UFO might land in London, too. The most recent major study of ice in the geologic past found that about 130,000 years ago the seas were "several meters above modern levels" and that polar temperatures sufficient to cause a several-meter sea-level rise may eventually result from artificial global warming. The latest major study of austral land ice detected a thawing rate that would add two to three inches to sea level during this century.
If this movie is supposed to be about the science, why scare us to action with tales like that? Even worse, a writeup of the movie had this to say:
Drastic climate change, extreme hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, insect plagues, epidemics and other health problems, killer heat waves, the extinction of many plant and animal species, the swamping of our coastal cities as the ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica melt and the oceans rise, rings of social, political and economic chaos rippling out from the centers of environmental disaster.

The timetable: Five to 10 years, before the effects become irreversible.
The movie explained all of the possible outcomes listed here, but they are not nearly as bad as they sound (insect plagues were attacking forests, not crops or people). And the 5-10 year horizon was not mentioned at all. This once again has nothing to do with the consensus science and does nothing but frighten us.

On the website, they state: Deaths from global warming will double in just 25 years -- to 300,000 people a year. Sounds serious until you realize that in 2005 3.1 million people died of AIDS and that 56 million people die a year in the world. The movie is full of scary tales like this that don't talk about their likelihood and don't try and put things in context.

It also points out none of the potentially positive parts of global warming. Warmer weather will mean less demand for heating energy in the winter. Warming might open vast areas of Alaska, Canada and Russia to development. Crop yields in the US and other temperate countries are expected to rise. As I noted before due to the increase in CO2 and warmer temperatures, total life on earth is expected to increase in terms of biomass and net primary productivity. Gregg Easterbrook has another more balanced look at global warming's expected impact here.

With the less dire predictions, global warming is not the #1 issue for government. AIDS still kills more people. Reducing poverty will still have a greater positive impact on peoples lives than fighting global warming. Diseases still need to be fought. One foot ocean rises will cause some problems but they won't be drastic. Species may be lost, but more species may be lost due to deforestation and habitat loss. Global warming is something that needs to be dealt with, but claiming it is the #1 issue, or that we could destroy the planet if we don't deal with it right now is not supported by the science I have read.

Second, I thought he handled the topic of global warming with too much certainty starting with the title "An Inconvenient Truth". If it is true, why do you need to put it in the title? Tell me, where do you see more titles with "truth" in it, religious works or scientific works?

The science behind global warming is complex, and I think the movie made it seem like most of the issues were figured out. He shows a graph with CO2 levels and temperatures and states that it is pretty clear that they are related. But any good scientist knows the difference between correlation and causation. Al Gore just goes with the simple minded, if they are correlated then CO2 must be the cause.

There was no talk about how the arctic region was tropical 55 million years ago and that life on earth went on (and that the temperatures also some how came back down). Most of the data is only 1000 years old or less. But, when we are talking about the temperature on earth, shouldn't we go back millions of years and see what has happened?

At the end of the film, they ask you to go to the site to learn more about global warming, but there are no recommendations of books to read, of science articles to view, or of websites to check out.

There is a Science page , but there are no footnotes or links to the scientific studies that back it up. Either you trust Gore or you don't, you can't verify yourself. What are the odds of Greenland or Antarctica melting? No way to find out. There is a companion book that might have the answers, but they don't allow you to use the Amazon search in book function. If this whole crusade of Gore's is about educating the people on global warming (as opposed to making money), why not make the book available as a .pdf for download for free? Why not allow everyone to download the PowerPoint slides? Why not give the people easy access to the best science on the subject for them to understand? Why not allow them to understand what debates are still going on in the scientific community, rather than going with the slogan "the debate is over"?

Gore tells the story from his childhood of a student who looked at South America and Africa and wondered if at one point they fit together. The teacher said that no they didn't. But, later on as more about plate tectonics was figured out, the consensus science changed and now scientists believe that they did fit together long ago.

The interesting thing about this is I have heard almost the exact same story before. Only the person who told it was Michael Crichton. The same Michael Crichton who wrote State of Fear and warned against the consensus science that is now backing global warming. I find it ironic how the two are on opposite sides of this issue, but the way they argue their points, the way they say science is on their side, and the way they take liberties with certain points for dramatic flair are so similar. But at least the fictional State of Fear had footnotes so you could check the science.

Third, there was no plan to stop global warming. I was expecting not to agree with everything in the film, but I figured he would have a plan to tackle this problem that I would agree with. Instead no plan at all. After laying out the problem, he just says that the US has solved problems before, so we can solve this one too. Never describes if it is going to require better technology or a cut back in our consumption. Never describes how much we need to reduce the CO2 emissions by and how we could do it. Never estimates what percentage of GDP will be required to solve this problem. He hints at possible ways to solve it, but doesn't really describe them. So, you should be scared of the impacts of global warming, but at the same time blindly optimistic that we will somehow solve this problem. You should be ashamed at your own level of energy use, but you are not entitled to know how much you need to reduce your consumption to solve the problem.

He has this graphic of a scale with gold on one side and the earth on the other. The point being that there is not really a choice between the earth and the economy, because with the earth there is no economy. But, this is misleading.

Throughout the film there are cutaways to serious pondering Gore. I came to call them "Gore emitting CO2". First there is Gore sitting on a private jet spewing out CO2. Then there is Gore getting out of a cab. Then there is Gore typing away on his Apple computer (that most likely is using coal fired electricity). There is Gore petting a cow on his cattle ranch (cow farts are a serious contributor of greenhouse gases). There is Gore walking through an airport to go board an airplane and emit more CO2. There is Gore getting out of Air-force 2(?), man I bet that is a lot of CO2 emitted on that per person. Then there is Gore getting out of one of those hurking cars in a caravan. There are no shots of Gore driving a Prius, Gore taking public transportation, Gore riding a bike, or Gore walking. Somehow Gore felt that the CO2 that was emitted from these activities was worthwhile. What was the calculus that he used to come to that decision? When is it OK to emit CO2 and what is excessive? Never explained.

What I was hoping for was a look at the probable economic impact of global warming and comparing that to the cost of alleviation. Gore is a wonky guy, I am sure he has done this calculation. But, he doesn't share and this is hugely disappointing.

I was hoping to see something like: we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% in the next 50 years. To do so, we need a gasoline tax of $2 a gallon, a carbon cap and trading system, and we need to invest $1 billion a year in science to help us solve the problems in areas like: solar power, wind power, battery power and carbon sequestering. We have seen that solar panels are decreasing in price by X% each year, so by 2025 we expect they will be competitive with coal on a price basis to produce electricity. We expect that 50% of electricity in the US in 2025 will be solar or wind.

Instead after scaring the bejezus out of you with 20 foot sea rises, killer heat waves, insect plagues, and political and economic chaos, their recommendations for actions are surprisingly tame. They have a Take Action Flyer (.pdf). The #1 suggestion: change a light bulb. Are you fucking serious? Did any of the people see the movie and the dire predictions? All you are asking us to do is change our fucking light bulbs? How is this in any way a serious proposal to deal with this issue?

If you are still skeptical that the earth is really heating up, or that carbon dioxide has something to do with it, go see this film. If you already believe that, but are wondering what the impact is likely to be, this film is too dire and I would recommend looking elsewhere. If you are wondering what you can do personally to fix this problem, you won't find it in this movie. And if you thought this movie was going to suggest a comprehensive plan on how the world can handle this problem, be prepared to be sorely disappointed.


Google Toolbar Spell Checker

If you use the Google Toolbar, don't miss the spell checker tool. It will spell check any field that you fill out on a form. I use it for Blogger and Yahoo Mail and it works great. Way better then the spell checkers built into Blogger or Yahoo Mail. If you are a horrible speller like me, you gotta check it out. Ironically, if this tool was built earlier, Google may not have ever existed, as Google was a misspelling of googol. Even more ironically, the spell checker sees googol as being misspelled and offers Google as a way to correct it.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Twice as Many Genes in our Gut as in our Body

I have this fasination with all the microbes living in my gut. Why? Because of all the cells in our bodies 90 percent of the cells are actually bacteria. So the majority of "me" is actually bacteria. And yet we know little about our more populous half. So I was excited to see Steven Gill at the The Institute for Genomic Research publish some research.

Bacteria start to colonize the intestines and colon shortly after birth, and adults carry up to 100 trillion microbes, representing more than 1,000 different species.
1,000 different species, interesting. I would be interested to know how much diversity there is between humans in the type of bacteria they have living in their guts.
They compared the gene sequences to those from known bacteria and to the human genome and found this so-called colon microbiome -- the entire sum of genetic material from microbes in the lower gut -- includes more than 60,000 genes.

That is twice as many as found in the human genome.
That's amazing. We have twice as many genes in the bacterias living in our guts than we do in our own DNA.

What is next?
The next study will focus on the bacteria in the mouth, Gill said. There are at least 800 species in the mouth and maybe more, Gill said.
Cool. There was a Wired article a while back talking about how they are looking into bioengineering a bacteria for the mouth that wouldn't cause cavities. Still waiting for that.

via Reuters


Thursday, June 01, 2006

Species Census

I was taking a look at IUCN's list of threatened species and wondering to myself, what about the species that aren't threatened with extinction but their populations are declining drastically?

For example, I was reading in the NYTimes:

"Elkhorn and staghorn used to be the dominant species on the Caribbean reef as recently as the early 80's," said Jennifer Moore, a natural resource specialist for the protected resources division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which placed coral on the threatened list after prompting from the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Arizona. "But the species has declined 97 percent since the late 70's."
Wouldn't it be better to know about this issue when the population has only declined by 10 or 15%? Then you could make changes before the dramatic population decrease, and possible extinction. Better to invest early on in trying to maintain populations then to put in a ton of effort when the population is already on the verge of extinction. And yet, as far as I know there is no list similar to IUCN's for species that are losing the largest amount of their population.

This BBC article talks about how deep sea fish stocks are being plundered. Once again, no species is on the verge of extinction, but the populations are decreasing.

So then I was thinking, what I really want to know is the populations of all the species that are out there. What I really want a is species census to count up every living being on the planet.

I am sure that scientists have a good feel for the populations of some species. It would be valuable to collect data and estimate the populations for the rest. Once we have species populations, we could put the values on a site like WikiSpecies for all to view. This data would give you a good feel for the state of life on earth. Which species are most populous? Where do they live? Which mammals have the largest populations? I have no idea. Are humans at the top, or do rats, bats or cows have us beat? Which species are growing in population? Which are losing? This would give environmentalists a better picture of the world and might change how they try and protect the environment.

I am also curious, what does the distribution of species populations look like? Are there a few with huge populations and then tapering off to a long tail of species with a small population? Or maybe it is a bell curve distribution with a few huge populations, many with moderate populations and a few with very small populations. I don't know, but the species census would easily answer this.

Instead of comparing by populations, it might make more sense to compare by total biomass, which could be easily calculated by multiplying population by average weight. Otherwise it would look like mice and flys were the most important species on th planet.

One issue that they will run into is that not all species have been found. There are approximately 1.8 million known species, and another 13 million or more that have yet to be discovered.

I found this graphic (click for larger version) over at GreenFacts, which shows that we have found most of the vertebrates and plants species, and that most of the unknown ones are insects and fungi.

I would guess that the unknown species have low populations. If they had large populations, wouldn't you think someone would have run into them by now? I don't know how important the unknown species are if they are mainly insects and fungi and they have low populations. I would rather have lots of these species go extinct than have a couple of species with extremely large populations go to the verge of extinction.

Having this data would allow us to look at the population of all species and see how it changes from year to year. It would let us understand the impact of climate and land changes. If you cut down a forest to turn it into farm land, some species are net losers while others are winners. If you had a good estimates of species counts, you could see the impact of those changes. How many additional cows and crows and insects are now alive vs. how many wild animals are now gone? Or if the climate warms, what happens to various species? I am sure we will hear about those species that are close to extinction, but what about those who are losing large amounts of their population? Or looking at the glass half full side, what about those species that see their populations increase due to global warming? You never seem to hear about them on the news, but I am sure there will be some winners. This species census will allow us to see that.

As the human population grows, there is a trade off between supporting our population and the population of other species. It would be nice to be able to quantify this, and the species census will help to do this. For every additional human that lives, how many fewer animals can the earth support?

Right now environmentalists focus on endangered species and how to protect them. It might make more sense to try and stabilize populations of species, then try and rescue them once their populations are very low. But, currently there is no good source for animal populations to see what is happening. The species census would collect that data and make it available. It would allow us to see the impact, both positive and negative, to various species due to larger human populations and climate change. It would give us a better feel for the state of life on earth than just focusing on the few species that are close to extinction.