Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth Part 2: The Plan

When I reviewed An Inconvenient Truth I was disappointed that it didn't lay out a plan to stop global warming. My disappointment has ended as Gore has laid out a fairly comprehensive plan in a speech at NYU. The speech is 1:30 long (of which about 1 hour is Gore) almost as long as the movie, and a worthy sequel to it. You can watch it, or read the transcript. Here are the highlights.

He calls for a carbon freeze which would limit CO2 emissions to where they are today. His explanation for it is that it is simple to explain and will lead to a more in depth plan in the future. He also calls for a pollution/CO2 tax that would replace the payroll tax (social security, medicare and unemployment, not to be confused with the income tax) to discourage pollution and encourage work. He wants a carbon market to allow carbon emissions to be traded. This will allow the most cost effective ways of reducing CO2 to be used.

He then lays out possible ways to make this happen. He likes the carbon wedges idea and thinks there are going to be lots of solutions needed to solve this problem, not just one silver bullet. He mentioned Amory Lovin's ideas on more efficient transport, flex fuel, plugin and hybrids cars, distributed energy, a smart grid, wind power, solar energy, stopping deforestation, increased use of biomass (25 by 25 movement), and more efficient buildings.

The only coal he would like see burned is carbon sequestered coal. He is not a fan of nuclear, not because of the waste but because he thinks they are too expensive to attract investors when electricity prices fluctuate so much and he is afraid of nuclear proliferation.

He also calls for a Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association to help fund the purchase of energy efficient window coatings and other conservation techniques on homes. I think this is a good idea and hopefully I will get a chance to write more on this later.

There were a few things that were suspiciously absent. There was no mention of fuel cells or hydrogen (yeah!). He made no calls for increased research and development by the government (boo!). He didn't call for CAFE standards to be raised. While he called for a CO2 tax, he didn't call for a gasoline tax. Maybe I am splitting hairs here, but I think a gasoline tax on its own is a good idea.

Overall I liked the plan. I think a carbon freeze might be unrealistic and overly expensive, but if it leads to a compromise I am all for putting it out there. I think the key is to have a carbon tax and a carbon market and he called for both of them. Many of the possible solutions he laid out were ones I have mentioned before. The only big solutions that I like that he didn't mention were Terra Preta and geo engineering.

The question left unanswered for me is, how would this affect the average American? How large of a CO2 tax are we talking? If we really did implement a carbon freeze, what would that make the price of CO2 per ton on a CO2 exchange market? What would be the likely impact on businesses?

There are trade offs to be made here and I would like to understand more what they are.


Turning Water into Wine

Now I am no biochemist, but I like to act like one on my blog. I have been looking for a way to turn electricity, water and air into ethanol. Ethanol being alcohol this is really like turning water into wine. Well alright, it would be more like turning water into Everclear, but add a little grape juice and close enough.

Why would you want to do such a thing?

1) 3 words: take that Jesus.
2) Imagine the money to be made if you could make such a device small enough to put in a Frat House. As long as you have water and electricity you would never run out of alcohol.
3) It allows excess energy from renewable sources like solar and wind to be converted into an easily storable and energy dense liquid. This could then be used to fuel vehicles or run a generator to turn it back into electricity.

Is it possible?

According to this report by David Bradley, yes. You start by taking electricity and water and generating hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. Then you use the carbon dioxide in the air with the hydrogen you produced to create ethanol. I am going to coin a phrase and call this "wind ethanol" as the electricity could come from wind power and to differentiate it from corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Carbon dioxide can also be reduced directly to ethanol when different catalysts and process conditions are employed. Several catalyst systems have been described where relatively high ethanol yields have been demonstrated while methane was the other product. For example, an 82.5 % selectivity of CO2 was described (see Journal of Catalysts, 175, pp. 236-244 (1998)), with the byproducts of carbon monoxide and methane (unknown ratio). In (4d), all of the carbon monoxide is assumed to be eventually fully hydrogenated in a secondary reaction zone.

2 CO2 + 6.35 H2 -> 0.825 C2H6O + 0.35 CH4 + 3.175 H2O (4d)
I am not exactly sure what catalysts you would need or how exactly this would work. This journal article talks of using Rh/SiO2 catalysts to generate ethanol. I believe this is an inorganic reaction. I wonder if you could also get a bacteria to do the same thing organically and whether that might be more efficient or cost effective.

I am also not sure how large this lab/factory/brewery/distillery/black box would need to be. My dream would be to have it small enough to put in a house, like a home brewing kit, so that I could fuel my car from home.

What about the economics?
If H2 at 21.2 kw-hr/lb was made with electricity at 5 cents per kw-hr with an O2 credit of $ 0.0909/lb of H2, and the CO2 was provided at no cost, the raw material price of the ethanol made from CO2 and H2 would be near $ 0.29/lb of ethanol. This cost is equivalent to $1.88 per gallon, which is near the cost of ethanol that is made via fermentation of crops. If improvements could be made to minimize methane formation, the raw material price for the ethanol would drop to near $1.65 per gallon. The hydrogenation facility should be energy self-sufficient by tapping the considerable heat of reaction (near 40 kcal/gm-mole of ethanol produced).
Raw materials are $1.65 a gallon, but it doesn't lay out how much would be needed to make the facility to convert it to ethanol or other costs that would be needed to actually produce it. My guess is that it would be more expensive than the corn/cellulosic ethanol because no one appears to be looking into this, but I don't really know.

Could you generate more ethanol from an acre of solar cells than an acre of switchgrass?
Based strictly upon heating values, 1 gallon of ethanol is equivalent to 0.75 gallon of gasoline. If the overall conversion of electricity to hydrogen to ethanol (using equation 4d) is 7.1 kw-hr per lb of ethanol, then the amount of electricity required to displace a gallon of gasoline (as ethanol via hydrogenation of carbon dioxide) would be 9.45 kw-hr per lb of gasoline, or roughly 59 kw-hr per gallon of gasoline.
58 kWh per gallon of gasoline equivalent is equal to 46kWh of ethanol using the .75 conversion factor. According to this Tesla Slideshow, an acre of solar panels in the desert can collect 380MWh/acre/year. That could be converted to 380MWh/46kWh = 8260 gallons of ethanol.

According to Khosla's slide show, an acre of switchgrass could generate 1500 gallons of ethanol a year. The "wind ethanol" (well really "solar cell ethanol" in this case) can therefore create 5.5 times as much ethanol per acre. That sounds really good but it fails in comparison to using the electricity to power an electric battery car directly which could travel 32 times as far per acre.

Anything else you could do with the electricity?

This report also mentions other interesting things that can be done with electricity/hydrogen. One is to turn glucose and hydrogen into ethanol. That process would yield 42% more ethanol per unit of glucose than standard fermentation techniques. Another would be to create ammonia for fertilizer, like I wrote about in Sustainable Artificial Fertilizer.

Could this process be modified slightly to create jet fuel and therefore have a sustainable way to fuel our aircraft that had no carbon emissions? I believe so, but I am not 100% positive.

What is my next crazy biochemistry question?
Now that this one is solved, I would really like to be able to create glucose from electricity, water and air. That way I could use solar panels to create my food rather than plants. If anyone knows how to do this, please leave a comment.


Africa: Global Warming Winners and Losers

Global warming is going to lead to winners as well as losers. I like this map as it shows how it is likely to break down for Africa. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea you win. Ivory Coast and southern Sudan you lose. Overall though, the impact on Africa is likely to be bad.

More important than global warming on Africa's well being is population growth.

Since 1970, population growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been faster than any other region in the world, placing even greater strains on food security and forcing farmers to intensify production beyond the point of environmental sustainability. This has resulted in large tracts of nutrient-depleted soil and the devastation of forested areas where soils are still productive. In addition, the projected effects of climate change have long-term implications for ecosystem and human well-being.
via EarthTrends


Friday, September 29, 2006

EEStor's Ultracapacitor

EEStor, a stealth company in Cedar Park, Texas is developing a ceramic ultracapacitor with a barium titanate dielectric. If they can match their hype, this is going to be a game changer.

From TreeHugger:

Among EEStor's claims is that its "electrical energy storage unit" could pack nearly 10 times the energy punch of a lead-acid battery of similar weight and, under mass production, would cost half as much.

It also says its technology more than doubles the energy density of lithium-ion batteries in most portable computer and mobile gadgets today, but could be produced at one-eighth the cost.

If that's not impressive enough, EEStor says its energy storage technology is "not explosive, corrosive, or hazardous" like lead-acid and most lithium-ion systems, and will outlast the life of any commercial product it powers. It can also absorb energy quickly, meaning a small electric car containing a 17-kilowatt-hour system could be fully charged in four to six minutes versus hours for other battery technologies, the company claims.

Whereas with lead acid batteries you might get lucky to have 500 to 700 recharge cycles, the EEStor technology has been tested up to a million cycles with no material degradation.
From Business 2.0:
EEStor's device is not technically a battery because no chemicals are involved. In fact, it contains no hazardous materials whatsoever. Yet it acts like a battery in that it stores electricity. If it works as it's supposed to, it will charge up in five minutes and provide enough energy to drive 500 miles on about $9 worth of electricity.

The cost of the engine itself depends on how much energy it can store; an EEStor-powered engine with a range roughly equivalent to that of a gasoline-powered car would cost about $5,200.

According to a patent issued in April, the device is made of a ceramic powder coated with aluminum oxide and glass.
Digital Crusader takes a look at their numbers and compares it with Tesla Motors.
It's the system cost, however, which is such a jaw-dropper. The Tesla Roadster uses 6831 lithium-ion battery cells about the size of a AA. In quantity 1, these batteries are about $2.75, which could mean the cost is $18,000. Assuming a 50% quantity discount (entirely possible), the Telsa batteries alone are about $9000. Further more, this is only about *half* the power storage that EEstor claims, because the Telsa Roadster has only a 250 mile range. And this cost also doesn't count the elaborate power management and and cooling systems necessary, nor the motors, all of which is supposed to be included in the $5200 price tag of the EEstor system. Realistically, EEstor is claiming at least a 3x lower cost than Tesla will be facing for their storage and propulsion system.
More on EEStor can be found over at Clean Break.

Numbers like that seem too good to be true. I would dismiss this out of hand except for one thing. They have gotten $3 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins. That is the VC firm that funded Google, Sun Microsystems,, and Netscape. I would bet that they did some serious due diligence and came away thinking that this is possible. While I am skeptical of their claims just because they are so impressive, if they are able to back them up this is a game changer for the automotive industry.


Tesla Motors and Batteries

The more I read of Tesla Motors, the more I like them. I completely agree with their vision of the future and I believe their business plan will make it happen. These guys "get it". Check out their blog if you haven't. I am amazed at the number of comments that people leave.

This slide show comparing battery cars to hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol and biodiesel is great. If I were to bet on a technology long term for automobiles, I would take battery powered cars over biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells. The image on how much land is needed to offset 50% of the miles driven in the US sums it up perfectly for me.

For electric battery cars to become common place they still need to overcome the 3 R's: range, recharge time and retail price. If the range of the car is far enough, the recharge time quick enough and the retail price low enough, electric battery cars will overtake internal combustion cars as they are much more efficient with the energy they use.

This relies on having better batteries. How quickly is this happening? From the Tesla blog:

But the capacity of batteries – particularly lithium ion type batteries – has increased steadily by about 8% per year for the last couple of decades. All indications are that this will continue into the future, doubling in capacity every ten years. (And there are hints of breakthrough technologies that might speed things up for us.)
From a talk given by Tesla's CTO reported by The Digital Crusader:
He presented a chart with year along the X axis and Wh/litre (energy density) along the Y, with curves for NiCD, NiMH and Li-ion batteries. The Li-ion batteries have tripled their density (from 200 to 600) since about 1990, and are on track for more - and Li-ion are themselves better than the older technologies: it's these facts which have made the difference between the EV1 in the early 90s and the Tesla Roadster now. In addition, the battery price is falling steadily as well, he claimed about 2% per year.
A doubling of capacity every 10 years and a 2% decrease in price a year. Not quite Moore's Law, but at least they are making progress.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Silver Zinc Batteries

Zinc Matrix Power has unveiled its new rechargeable battery technology at the Intel Developers Forum, based on silver-zinc instead of lithium-ion currently used in many modern rechargeable batteries.

They see three main advantages that their amalgamation of silver, zinc and water have over the current technology:

1. Safer: in the light of the recent overheating and catching fire of laptop batteries, this is a major plus
2. Performance: more battery life
3. More environmentally friendly: battery cells can be easily recycled and reused.
Zinc Matrix Power claims their battery will have twice the energy of a lithium ion battery. According to their technology page, their technology has an energy density of 600 Wh/liter and 240 Wh/kg. This compares to ~250 Wh/L and ~150 Wh/kg for lithium ion batteries according to Wikipedia.

If so, I can't wait for them to be released. The other big question, of course, is how much will it cost?

via Tech Digest via Engadget


Wish I Was Here


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mozy: Free Remote Backup

My Dad just had a hard drive crash on him and had no backup of many of his files. As you can guess, he wasn't too happy about the whole thing.

To make sure this doesn't happen again I figured he needed a remote backup system. I wanted something where he could backup his files to a server over the internet and then download them if his hard drive ever crashed again. I came across a service by Mozy that is pretty cool and completely free.

To use Mozy, you sign up online and after verifying your address, you download a small Windows client. After installing it you configure how you want Mozy to work. There is a nice wizard that walks you through selecting which files to backup. It knows the location of many common files (like Outlook email and contacts, Word Processing Documents and IE Favorites) so you don't even have to tell it where to look.

Then you tell it when to do backups. It has an "automatic" backup setting which will backup your files whenever the computer is idle for more than 30 minutes. So you don't even have to specify a time for the backup to occur each day. The configuration also generates a key to encrypt all of your files. Files are stored in an encrypted format on their server so no one will be able to view them who doesn't have the key. It also allows many other options to be modified for those that like to fine tune their software.

Once configured, it will copy all of the files to their server. This can take a while depending on how large the files you are backing up are and how speedy your internet connection is. Subsequent backups just send files that have been modified and is quite quick.

The best part is that the whole thing is free. You get 2GB of storage on their server. The deal is so good that I am concerned if their business model is viable. They make money if you need more space. They charge $5 a month for 30GB and $10 for 60GB. Even that seems cheap. This might explain why the backup server was actually down for the first weekend after I signed up. They apparently were changing hosting locations and the service was unavailable. Since that point I have had no problems connecting.

As long as the service is free, I highly recommend it. The setup is easy, the Windows client works well and hardly slows down your machine at all. And when your hard drive crashes (as all eventually do) you can easily restore all of your old files.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists

When McLean High School students write this year about Othello or immigration policy, their teachers won't be the only ones examining the papers. So will a California company that specializes in catching cheaters.

The for-profit service known as Turnitin checks student work against a database of more than 22 million papers written by students around the world, as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals. School administrators said the service, which they will start using next week, is meant to deter plagiarism at a time when the Internet makes it easy to copy someone else's words.

The service has grown dramatically, Barrie said, and is now used by more than 6,000 academic institutions in 90 countries. Barrie, who is president and chief executive of iParadigms, said 60,000 student assignments are added to the database daily.
A friend of mine teaching at a university told me how many of her students were using second hand reports they bought off of the internet and how it was a pain to have to check for this. My instant thought was that the solution to any problem caused by technology is always more technology. :) If the students can use the internet to get papers, teachers should be able to use the internet to verify that the paper is really unique.

Turnitin has an interesting way to solve the problem, but not the one I would have gone with. This technique requires every paper ever written to be in the database. That seems unlikely. The database will continue to grow larger each year making searches slower. To beat the system, you just need to verify that the paper you are copying is not in the system. Seems pretty easy for any online paper seller to surepticiously get an account and verify that a paper is "clean". You could also beat the system by outsourcing your work to an Indian to be written from scratch.

The way I would have gone about this is to take a look at the words and sentence structure of the student's previous work to create a unique "signature" and compare it with the new paper. Each person has a unique vocabulary, word frequency and style of writing. You could write a program that compares the current paper to the student's previous work and give you a probability that the student really wrote the paper. This would not have the problems of the database system that I listed above.

Another advantage is that by taking a look at the makeup of the paper, the software could analyze how good the writer is and give suggestions on how to improve. It could act as a thesaurus to improve the vocabulary of the writing as well as give grammatical and other structural hints on how to make the writing better.

I have always dreamed of software that can take my writing and instantly improve it by changing the sentence structure, substituting words and fixing all spelling and grammatical problems. Such software would break the signature check that I was talking about, and really raise the question of who really wrote the paper. But looking at the state of the art of the Clippy "help" in Microsoft Word, this day is probably still a ways off.

via The Washington Post


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Network Nightly News vs. Cable

I was curious where people got there news from, so I decided to investigate. I wanted to know how the cable news audiences compared with the nightly network news shows.

According to, on Sept 20 the NBC Nightly News had 8.2 million viewers, and CBS and ABC each had 7.5 million viewers (for a total of 23.2 million). On the cable side the largest audience was for The O'Reilly Factor with 2 million (or 3.1 million if you include his rebroadcast) viewers. So the network audiences are still much larger than any particular cable show, but their audiences are going down steadily (as seen in the graph) due to the internet and cable news.

If you take a look at the numbers you see that only 30% of the nightly news viewers are between the age of 25-54. I am going to assume that not many of the news viewers are under 25, so that means almost 70% of nightly news viewers are over 55. For O'Reilly it is even worse at almost 75%.

The State of the Media has lots of good numbers on the news media. They report that cable news channels have 2.7 million prime time (7-11pm) viewers and 1.6 million daytime (6am-6pm) viewers. Doing the math, this works out to 2.7 million * 4 = 10.8 mil man hours + 1.60 million * 12 = 19.2 mil man hours, 10.8+19.2 = 30 million man hours of cable news watched each day. In comparison, the network nightly news shows have 27 million viewers that watch for 1/2 an hour each night which is 13.5 million man hours of news watched. In aggregate therefore cable news is watched more than the nightly news. But this might not be the best comparison as it excludes the morning and weekly magazine news shows the networks do.

Fox News has almost all of the highest rated shows as seen in this rating of all cable news shows in August, and only 11 shows have an audience of over 1 million a day. Interestingly, while Fox News has the largest audiences for their shows, CNN actually attracts more unique viewers each month. Fox News viewers tend to watch for longer amounts of times which explains how this is possible. Although Fox News dominates the news ratings, it is important to keep in mind they are only getting around 1-1.8% of all households watching TV.

The State of the News Media also reports the following sizes for other news show audiences:
3 million for PBS's NewsHour (with 8 million unique viewers each week)
Morning News shows: Today 6 million, Good Morning America 5.3 million, Early Show 2.7 million, for a total of 14 million
Sunday morning talk shows: 4.3 million for Meet the Press, 3.2 million for Face the Nation, 2.6 million for This Week and 1.4 million for Fox News Sunday, for a total of 11.5 million
News magazines: 60 Minutes has 14.9 million viewers, Dateline 9.7 million, 20/20 8.8 million, 48 Hours Mystery 7.4 million, Primetime 6.7 million, Nightline 3.9 million and 3 million for Frontline

The Daily Show has an estimated 1.3 million viewers each night (of which nearly 2/3 are 18-49).


Interesting Articles of the Week

8 important lessons learned from 80s cartoons.

Every magazine seems to be on the global warming/alternative energy special issue kick. Check out Scientific American, The Economist and Nature.

Organics FAQ from Nature Magazine.

Experience and education improves the "productivity" of terrorists.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Researchers Find Underwater Lost World

Two recent expeditions off the coast of Indonesia have revealed a remarkable "lost world" of marine species that researchers believe are new to science, including a shark that "walks" on its fins.

"It was extraordinary," said Roger McManus of Conservation International, which conducted the expeditions along with the Indonesian government. "These expeditions uncovered what we believe are almost 60 new species to science."

Approximately 217,000 animals have been identified in the world's oceans, according to the Census of Marine Life — a 10-year, 70-nation effort to inventory the planet's undersea biodiversity that will be complete in 2010.

"Big surprises remain under our noses," said Census of Marine Life program director Jesse Ausubel in an email to ABC News. "Some experts believe 2 million marine animals remain to be identified."
I have called for a Species Cenusus before and applaued the Census of Marine Life project. But, if there are 2 million marine animals, only 217,000 found and less than 5 years to go on the project, they better start hustling.


Poverty's Changing Faces

Bradley R. Schiller takes a look at who is poor and how long they stay poor.

Once again the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that 37 million people -- one of every 12 residents -- is living hand-to-mouth in the United States. The number of people living in poverty has been in a narrow range of 32 million to 37 million for the past 25 years. The 1991 recession briefly pushed the number of poor people up to 39 million; the 1995-99 economic boom shrank it to 31.6 million.

Although the size of the poverty population has been fairly stable, its composition has not been. The people who were poor in 1981 aren't poor now. Researchers have observed that three out of five families that fall into poverty in any one year are out of poverty the following year -- making poverty a highly transient state. A University of Michigan study discovered that one out of three U.S. households experienced poverty in at least one year of a 13-year stretch. But only one out of 20 families was poor in at least 10 years, and only one out of 60 stayed poor in all 13 years. Hence, the permanent poverty rate is less than 2 percent, even though the annual poverty rate is closer to 13 percent.
Interesting. Although 13% of Americans are poor in any given year, closer to 5% spend most of their years in poverty and less than 2% spend all of their time in poverty. Poverty in the US is very transitory.

Instead of looking at who is poor, maybe we should be looking at who becomes poor each year and who leaves poverty.
Well over a million immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- enter the country every year. Most come in at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, working for the minimum wage or less. The household poverty rates among immigrants are twice as high as those of non-immigrants.

Then we've got 5 million or so low-achieving kids dropping out of high school every year. And more than a million births a year to single moms, about a third of whom are teenagers. On top of that, add more than a million divorces every year that often devastate someone's finances. Then there are the persistent scourges of death, disability and illness -- all of which throw families into poverty, often without warning. Finally, there's the economy, in which constantly shifting demands, costs and technology create a continuous profusion of winners and losers.
This reminds me of The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook where he states:
Statistics show that in order to avoid becoming poor in the United States, you must do three things: graduate from high school, marry after the age of twenty, and marry before having your first child. Only 8 percent of those who do these three things become poor as adults, whereas 79 percent of poor adults have failed to do these three things.
Looked at it that way, programs that promote higher graduation rates, reduce teenage marriage and pregnancy before marriage would all be effective anti-poverty programs.

Would raising the minimum wage help?
Within three years of joining the labor market, 85 percent of minimum-wage entrants (primarily teenagers and immigrants) earn significantly more than the federal minimum.
Maybe, but it doesn't appear that there are a significant number of people who continually work at minimum wage levels.

Another problem is that the definition of poverty used by the Census Bureau doesn't match the most people's definition. Most people would consider the government's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) a poverty reduction tool. But as Greg Mankiw points out the Wikipedia entry on poverty was incorrect as it stated: "Today, the EITC is one of the largest anti-poverty tools in the United States."
Because the Census omits the income from the EITC when computing the poverty rate. As a program to reduce measured poverty, the program is, by assumption, doomed to failure.
You can take a look at the Census Bureau's definition of poverty yourself to see if you agree. Food stamps, housing subsidies and the earned income tax credit are all ignored in the calculation. If you ask me, those should all be added back in. I am sure it would reduce the level of poverty, but I am not sure by how much.

via Washington Post


Immigration as Global Development

Sebastian Mallaby lays out the case that immigration is a great force for reducing global poverty.

In "Let Their People Come," a new book published by the Center for Global Development, Lant Pritchett reports that if rich countries permitted extra immigration equivalent to 3 percent of their labor force, the citizens of poor countries would gain about $300 billion a year. That's three times more than the direct gains from abolishing all remaining trade barriers, four times more than the foreign aid given by governments and 100 times more than the value of debt relief.
That is a lot of money, but I am not surprised.
Still, Pritchett's numbers show that the development gains from migration swamp the brain-drain problem. For the migrants themselves, a ticket to the rich world is the fast track out of poverty: A laborer who moves from San Salvador to Phoenix can multiply his income without altering the type of work he does or how good he is at it. And this process benefits developing countries, too. Migrants send home remittances, which exceed aid flows and are probably more effective, since the migrants ensure that their hard-earned cash is used productively by relatives. After a few years the migrants may return home armed with savings and ideas. The brain drain becomes a brain gain.
This is almost exactly the same case that I laid out in the Brain Drain Myth.
It's true that there's a downside to immigration from poor countries. This isn't that it depresses wages in the United States; researchers find that this effect is small or nonexistent. Rather, it's that when doctors, nurses and other skilled people leave Africa, they hit the development process in its weak spot. A lack of trained workers is a more serious obstacle to poverty reduction than any lack of money.
I basically agree with this point, although in the Brain Drain Revisited, the case is made that the poor country could actually come out ahead in this case too. The dream of working in America should cause more people to go to school to become a doctor, nurse or engineer. If the number of additional people who study is greater than those that actually end up going to the US, then the country comes out ahead.
So migration ends up as a net plus for development. But a development-friendly migration debate would sound different from the current one. Immigration advocates in the rich world feel most comfortable making the case for allowing in skilled workers. Skilled migrants, however, trigger the biggest brain-drain concerns; allowing in unskilled workers does more to reduce global poverty. Equally, immigration advocates tend to want arriving workers to assimilate. But the best way to promote development is to allow a rolling cohort of poor workers to amass savings and experience -- and then return to their own countries.
Interesting, as Americans we want the most skilled people to immigrate, but from a global development standpoint we want to bring in the least skilled.

via The Washington Post


Monday, September 18, 2006

Plastic for Batteries and Solar Cells

First, from The Economist, we have plastics being used for solar cells (the article also has some good stuff on new solar energy technologies).

Kwanghee Lee of Pusan National University, in South Korea, and Alan Heeger of the University of California, Santa Barbara, work on solar cells made of electrically conductive plastics. (Indeed, Dr Heeger won a Nobel prize for discovering that some plastics can be made to conduct electricity.) They found that by adding titanium oxide to such a cell and then baking it in an oven, they could increase the efficiency with which it converted solar energy into electricity.

The technique used by Dr Lee and Dr Heeger boosts the efficiency of plastic cells to 5.6%. That is still poor compared with silicon, but it is a big improvement on what was previously possible. Dr Lee concedes that there is still a long way to go, but says that even an efficiency of 7% would bring plastic cells into competition with their silicon cousins, given how cheap they are to manufacture.
Second, from Engadget we have batteries made of plastics.
That’s the question Palmore set out to answer with Hyun-Kon Song, a former postdoctoral research associate at Brown who now works as a researcher at LG Chem, Ltd. They began to experiment with a new energy-storage system using a substance called polypyrrole, a chemical compound that carries an electrical current. Discovery and development of polypyrrole and other conductive polymers netted three scientists the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The result is a hybrid. Like a capacitor, the battery can be rapidly charged then discharged to deliver power. Like a battery, it can store and deliver that charge over long periods of time. During performance testing, the new battery performed like a hybrid, too. It had twice the storage capacity of an electric double-layer capacitor. And it delivered more than 100 times the power of a standard alkaline battery.

But Palmore said the new battery’s form, as well as its function, is exciting. In width and height, it is smaller than an iPod Nano. And it’s thinner, about as slim as an overhead transparency. Palmore said some performance problems – such as decreased storage capacity after repeated recharging – must be overcome before the device is marketable.
I guess the Graduate was right, plastics are the future.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Nerd Humor

Some funny things I have come across in the last few days.

World's worst hacker

Legend of the BloodNinja

Mathematics Genius

Weird Al's new song White and Nerdy is really funny. Pretty sad that I understand everthing he is talking about in his lyrics, but have no clue on over 1/2 of the original Ridin' Dirty lyrics.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Amory Lovins on Winning the Oil Endgame

Amory Lovins lays out a plant for "Winning the Oil Endgame" in this very informative video (also check out his book). Here are the key points I took away.

He believes we can get off oil in 40 years with business for profit, accelerated by the Department of Defense. His plan is based on using ultralight materials, like carbon fibres, to make cars, long haul trucks and planes.

Ultralight car materials would double efficiency of vehicles (twice the mpg) by making them half as heavy. Other techniques like reducing idling, lowering drag and increasing aerodynamic efficiencies would improve it even more. He estimates a cost of $2,500 extra for a carbon body SUV, but this would pay for itself in lower lifetime fuel costs.

He is starting with long haul trucks. I think this is smart as businesses don't care what trucks look like and they are focused on the bottom line. They are willing to make long term investments if the rate of return justifies it. Wal-Mart has bought on and is attempting to double their entire fleet mileage from 6.5 mpg to 13. Every increase in 1 mpg adds $52 million a year to their bottom line.

The Department of Defense (DoD) spends 33% of its money and 50% of people on logistics. Fuel was 70% of the Army's tonnage deployed in Desert Storm. Efficiency therefore is a tactical advantage. They could save $2-3 billions in fuel, and cut logistic costs by 5-10x the cost of the saved fuel with ultralight materials. DoD and DARPA funding helped to create the Internet, GPS, computer chips, and the jet engine industry. They could do the same for the advance materials industry.

I think this all makes sense from an engineering side, but I wonder if this is really an economic issue. With low gasoline prices in the 90s, Americans chose to buy larger cars rather than reduce their gasoline usage. If we have these ultralight cars and fuel is cheap, why won't we get back to having larger and more powerful cars? I think a gasoline tax is also necessary to make this work.

Overall, he has a visionary plan and one worth checking out.

via TreeHugger


2,000 Watt Society

EcoIron, a good blog on green computing, took a look at my previous 100 Energy Slaves per American post, and pointed out that the 2200 calories we consume a day is the same as 2.55kwh, which is about the same as a PC uses. This works out to about 100w, so each human is like a 100w light bulb running all the time. (Side note, the brain uses about 20% of the body's energy or 20w.)

On a worldwide basis, the average human being in the world uses 2000 watts of energy, or keeping with the energy slave metaphor, about 20 energy slaves per person. As this graph shows the amount of energy used varies much from country to country. The US has 120 energy slaves per person (a slightly higher estimate than my 100), Europe 60, Africa around 6 and Bangladesh 3.

What would it take to move western society to the global average? WorldChanging reports the Swiss Council of the Federal Institute of Technology has determined what it would take to make Switzerland a 2,000 watt society.

In the envisioned 2000-watt society, the quality of life will not suffer at all. On the contrary, aspects such as safety and health, comfort and the development of the individual will in fact improve, and income is expected to rise by around 60 percent over the next fifty years. However, ambitious goals call for decisive action in a variety of areas, e.g. improving materials and increasing the level of energy efficiency; substituting fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy and reducing the CO2 intensity of other utilised fossil fuels; adopting a smarter way of life and rethinking current business practices, including increasing the level of professionalism in the areas of planning and investment and the operation of buildings and installations.
I like the idea of trying to maintain our current standard of living, but doing it an a much more energy efficient manner. This would allow everyone in the world to live at western levels and still consume the same amount of energy. It would make it easier to transition off of fossil fuels. The goal will be a bit easier for the Swiss as they only use 5,000 watts on average vs. 12,000 for the US.

The graph on the left, breaks down how energy is currently being used and what changes are needed to make it to the 2000 watt society. Mobility energy goes from 850w to 420w (or from 17% of total energy to 21%). Major reductions occur in living and working, consumer goods and foodstuffs, and infrastructure. I like the goals they set except for one thing. I have no idea what the "living and working" category means. Isn't everything we do either living or working? I don't see heating anywhere, maybe that goes there. But, besides that I have no idea what else it would include.

Taking a look at my personal energy usage, I figure I use about 750w in electricity, natural gas and gasoline. If I go off of the estimate that 1/3 of energy is used by households and 2/3 is for business and industry, then I need to multiply by usage by 3 to account for the other 2/3 of indirect energy I am using to manufacture the goods, transport the goods, and light and heat the stores that I purchase them in. That puts me at 2250, but I am going to consider myself a 2000 watt club member anyway. :)

I think this is a good idea to see what it would take to run a society at 2,000 watts. But, I am not convinced that this will be necessary. By the time this is implemented (50 years from now), solar power should be much cheaper and allow for all humans to have more than 2,000 watts of renewable energy at their disposal.


1st Woman With Bionic Arm

Mitchell, who lives in Ellicott City, is the fourth person -- and first woman -- to receive a "bionic" arm, which allows her to control parts of the device by her thoughts alone. The device, designed by physicians and engineers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, works by detecting the movements of a chest muscle that has been rewired to the stumps of nerves that once went to her now-missing limb.

Last summer, surgeons took the first step by rewiring the skin above her left breast so that when the area is stimulated by impulses from the bionic arm, the skin sends a message to the region of her brain that feels "hand."

The prosthesis is strapped onto the shoulder stump and torso in a way that positions electrodes over the regions of the chest muscles that are responding to different "hand instructions." Those electrodes, in turn, are wired to a computer and then on to motors in the forearm and hand of the device.
Too cool. Who do we have to thank for this?
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is part of a multi-lab effort, funded with nearly $50 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to create more useful and natural artificial limbs for amputees.
Oh, how I love DARPA. Of course with all the injuries in Iraq, they are going to need this.
As of July, 411 members of the military serving in Iraq, and 37 in Afghanistan, have suffered wounds requiring amputation of at least one limb.
With over 10,000 wounded I am surprised that only 411 of them have lost a limb.

via The Washington Post


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Best of Fat Knowledge

Energy: Sugar cane vs. solar panels, Why solar is the long term energy solution, Green tags vs. solar panels, more...

Ethanol: Brazil and ethanol, Vinod joins the cellulosic ethanol bandwagon, Ethanol and corn, Butanol, more...

Environmentalism: The environmental rewards card, Acres and gallons, Can you be a frequent flyer green?, more...

Economics: The moral case for globalization, Productivity in the digital economy, Ebay renting, more...

Media: Time is more valuable than money in the attention economy, Media usage and consumer spending, How much is my TV watching worth?, more...

Vs.: Cars vs. cows, Self driving cars vs. flying cars, Buy local vs. shop local, more...

Nature: My pro-life agenda, Species census, Animals are afflicted with "the gayness", more...

Technology: How to make expandable posts in Blogger, How much research is being done in the world?, Hamster powered cellphone charger, more...

Brain: USB port to the brain, Robot arm controlled by thought, Using an MRI to control pain, more...

Genetics: Create life from your computer, Humans are still evolving, Pregnant moms to start taking steroids, more...

Cyborgs: See through your tongue, Remote control shark spy, Happiness brain implant, more...

Men vs. Women: Women trail in competitive drive, 135 women graduate college for every 100 men, Men's, Women's and Einstein's brain, more...

Funny: Barry Bonds: My Head Isn't Bigger, Quick Monkey Facts, Couple of Noodles Short, Shot Down in a Blaze of Glory, Underwear Goes on the Inside of the Pants, more...

Original Pieces: Fog of life, New way to look at population control, Top 1% of humanity, more...

Other: 5%, 25%, 50%, More prisoners than farmers in the US, More killed by suicide than war, more...


Best of Energy

My Favorites:
Sugar cane vs. solar panels
Why solar is the long term energy solution
Green tags vs. solar panels

Best of the Rest
Wonder where the US gets its energy and where it goes? Check out this diagram of the US energy flow. An overview of alternative fuels that become economic with $5 gasoline.

Renewable Energy
Solar is the long term energy solution. Find out how much land is needed to run entire world on solar power. Take an overview of the solar power industry, where it has come from and where it is likely to go. Nanosolar is one company making it happen right now building a 430MW fab. Solar cells are energy positive and require only 10 square meters to power an electric car 12,000 miles a year.

Wind will also be important and is currently the most economic form of renewable energy. It is being used to power an Argentine town. You can now purchase a windmill for your backyard.

Other forms of renewable energy will also be important. Biogas from manure is being used to power up villages in Cambodia and Bangladesh. Barges are harnessing wind power through kites. Artificial tornadoes are being tapped for energy. Algae ponds are being used to create biodiesel.

Fossil Fuels
While many are concerned about peak oil, I ask Who cares? Amory Lovins lays out a plan on Winning the Oil Endgame.

Coal is being used more now and is likely to become the fuel for the 21st century. You can see this with how coal is being used on three continents. It can even be used to fuel our cars as coal is being turned into liquid fuel in Montana. This is bad news as pollution from Chinese coal casts a global shadow.

While there is more energy stored in the earth in coal than oil there is actually another source that has more energy than both of them: methane hydrate

Improved battery technology will be key to transitioning to renewable energy. A123 cofounder predicts in a decade batteries will last twice as long. Altair is building a battery with three times the capacity of existing batteries and can be fully charged in six minutes. A123 is building a battery using nanotechnology that doubles power density, increases peak energy fivefold (the cells pack more punch than a standard 110-volt wall outlet), and plummets recharging time. MIT researchers are building tiny batteries with viruses.

Kristof makes that case that nukes are green. Fast neutron reactors with a new recycling techniques reduces almost all nuclear waste.

I measure my electricity usage with kill-a-watt. One easy way to reduce energy usage is to stop the lose due to vampire devices and standby power. A new superconducting hydrogen distributing power grid could be on the horizon.

See also Best of Ethanol and Best of Environmentalism


Best of Ethanol

My Favorites:
Brazil and ethanol
Vinod joins the cellulosic ethanol bandwagon
Ethanol and Corn

Best of the Rest:
Switchgrass for ethanol
Poplar Trees
Sugar prices going up
Bus Bike
500 miles per gallon of gasoline
Ethanol bacteria
My new idol is the crucian carp

See also Best of Environmentalism and Best of Energy


Best of Environmentalism

My Favorites:
The environmental rewards card
Acres and gallons
Can you be a frequent flyer green?

Best of the Rest:

Global Warming
I start by taking a look at some philosophical point on global warming. What is ideal temperature for life on Earth? Why does it matter if global warming is man made? Is it possible that global warming could be good for the earth and allow for more life on earth? Are CO2 levels at historically high levels?

I then look at what it would take to stabilize the climate. What would be the cost of stabilizing carbon emissions or making world carbon neutral?

One plan to halt climate change is carbon stabilization wedges. Ways to achieve this include carbon sequestering, currently being started in Japan. Another is to char agricultural waste and till it back in the earth (Terra Preta). More radical ways include geoengineering, the large-scale manipulation of the environment, by sending sulfur particles into the air, fertilizing the sea with iron or putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight.

I compare the greenhouse gas emissions of cows vs. cars and light bulbs vs. cars. I review An Inconvenient Truth.

Buying green and social/environmental labeling
The amount of people willing to buy green can be seen by the 30:3 ratio and the Landor Associates study on consumer and 'Green'. Customers pony up for renewable energy.

I am a big fan of social environmental labeling to give more information to consumers to make more informed decisions. This starts with an augmented barcode, and can be used by services such as Grass Commons or Greenscanner. In the future I see stores having environmental rewards cards that allow customers to track the environmental impact of their purchases. The labels will answer questions like how many acres and gallons of fuel does it take to make my food, or how much death does my consumption cause? It will also help you to figure out which fish are being harvested sustainably and which aren't.

When it comes to carbon emissions, I can't wait for the day to pull into the gas station and be able to choose regular, premium, or carbon neutral. You can now offset your carbon emissions from your car emits with an SUV redemption sticker and from your flying with the Climate Care. When you purchase a car you will be able to see a climate label. The UK is planning a carbon swipe card.

The Oil Curse
Although you would think countries that have oil and other natural resources would experience robust economies and economic growth, usually the opposite occurs. This is known as the oil curse or the paradox of plenty. As this map or this Transparency International report show, natural resources and corruption show up in the same places. Tom Friedman calls it Petrolism and explains it in his first law of petrolpolitics.

I was against the Iraq war, in large part because I thought it would be extremely tough to install a democracy with all that oil money lying around. Foreign Affairs talked about the potential problem and how to save Iraq from its oil. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that worked out so well as I outline in Iraq and the oil curse, oil graft fuels Iraqi insurgency and its the oil, stupid.

Can Chad break the oil curse with oversight from the UN? Apparently not as Chad's oil riches meant for poor are diverted. How about Angola or Russia?

One attempt to stop the oil curse is to have oil companies publish what they pay.

I am not a big fan of hydrogen powered fuel cell cars. Toyota agrees as they explain why they think hydrogen cars are lame. Instead I like cars that get high mileage such as the Daimler Chrysler 70mpg diesel car based on the aerodynamics of a cowfish or the next generation Prius that will get 94mpg. While hybrids are good, care needs to be taken not to over hype them as Seattle found out with their hybrid buses.

Even better is turning hybrids into plugins. In the short to medium term I think biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol (see Best of Ethanol) will play big roles. Add biofuels with plugin hybrids and you get a car that gets 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. Biofuels and plugin hybrids will lead us to battery powered electric cars like the one Tesla is making. I completely agree with their master plan.

I think a $2 gasoline tax is the best way to reduce Americans use (and importation) of oil and would help to fund research of alternative fuels. Surprisingly, Americans are open to gas tax rise although no politician is currently willing to do it.

Real money is getting into being green. VCs are funding clean tech. Wal-Mart announces green initiatives. GE will double spending on ecofriendly business.

Green Computing
There is the energy equivalent of 50 gallons of gasoline in each PC. Intel outlines shift toward saving energy in processors.

Can the Earth Handle all Humans Consuming at American Levels?
2,000 watt society

Sustainable Artifical Fertilizer
Organic Crops can use Pesticides?
Energy should not be part of ecological footprint
Sinful second homes
A million Manhattan project
Green tags vs. solar panels
Geo-green alternative
Making China green
Life in green lane
Gold facts and figures
Chernobyl's wasn't as bad as originally thought
Agriculture is not natural
Guide book owners discourage casual flying

See also Best of Ethanol and Best of Energy


Best of Economics

My Favorites:
The moral case for globalization
Productivity in the digital economy
Ebay renting
Time more valuable than money in the attention economy

Best of the Rest:
Why the rich must get richer
Brain Drain Revisited
57 trillion hours worked in 2005
The age of invention is over
Brain Drain Myth
The Market Shall Set You Free
Brooks: Good news on poverty
Time for new economic metrics
Wal-Mart and Fair Trade
The Key to Increasing GDP? Move Away From the Equator
Global Equity Meltdown Costs Investors $2 Trillion
87 million millionaires in the world
Corporations and social issues
Capitalism and discrimination
Is Wal-Mart good for the world?
Monkey economics
Recycling petrodollars
Americans are open to gas tax rise
$2 gas tax
Made in USA? Now, Customers Choose
Count Your Blessings
History of Globalism
Average American Entertainment Budget
Mexicans' Medical Bills Paid With Friends' Blood
Crazy Charts

How not to buy happiness
More choices... more happiness?
Economists now agree: 'You can't buy happiness'
The secret to happiness
Mo money, mo problems

Virtual Worlds
Virtual economics
Conqueror of online virtual worlds
Ogre to slay? Outsource it to the Chinese
Game is virtual, the profit is real


Best of Media

My Favorites:
Time is more valuable than money in the attention economy
Media usage and consumer spending
How much is my TV watching worth?

Best of the Rest:
There are 1 billion hours of watched a day and 37 million hours of good television a year.

I make forecasts for the future of TV, and am proved right when Charlie Rose shows go on Google Video and TV Stardom is now possible on $20 a day.

Kevin Kelley has a great piece about the future of books and media.

I have big hopes for Ebooks and and this Sony Ebook reader in particular.

When it comes to music, cellphones are now able to name that tune and software can accurately picks hits.

Gillmor asks why do newspapers charge for old news? The New York Times Editorial teams shows they just don't get the digital economy.

The economics of new media are still up in the air. One idea is to have a
universal tax on internet access which allows free music downloads and artists are paid according to based on the number of downloads. Another is to read it or watch it and then swap it. Another is to allow you to earn cellphone minutes by watching ads. Or makes your riches with blogs. The newspapers have to do something because the shifting of readers to the internet is causing a shrinking in reporting.

New media is all about the subscription which leads to Subscriptions Overload.

New York Times looks at the average American entertainment budget. Technorati gives us the state of the blogosphere.

Wondering who is reading what magazines? Check out magazine circulations.

And how to wrap this all up? Lets leave it with man upstairs in an article on Godcasting.


Best of Vs.

My Favorites:
Cars vs. Cows
Self Driving Cars vs. Flying Cars
Buy Local vs. Shop Local

Best of the Rest:
Cars vs. Horses
Cars vs. Wars
Cars vs. Light Bulbs
Family Trip to Japan vs Hummer Indy 500
Solar Panels vs. Green Tags
Solar Panels vs. Sugar Cane
Iraq vs. Philly
Isaac Newton vs. Genghis Khan
Osama vs. Bambi
Marines vs. Fishermen


Best of Nature

My Favorites:
My pro-life agenda
Species census
Animals are afflicted with "the gayness"

Best of the Rest:
How many species are going extinct?
Census of marine life

NASA throws down some really cool world satellite maps of chlorophyll and net primary productivity (also called the Earth's metabolism). NASA finds that net primary productivity has been rising with the warmer climate. US forests are on the rebound, and forests are increasing in much of the world.

Sweet underwater photography from and BP Kongsberg underwater image competition. Or if you like your photography above the surface check out this insect art.

Animals are afflicted with "the gayness" and experience other forms of sexual deviance.

I love my great white sharks, especially when they are jumping out of the air and when they are being ridden by humans. Great whites aren't the only cool hunters in the sea as Orca's show young how to hunt seals.

Humans can not live without our bacteria in the gut . In fact, we can be though of as super organisms or as I like to put it "I am We" (and I am We part II). There are actually twice as many genes in our gut as in our body. Intestinal bacteria may explain obesity and a new bacteria in our mouths will mean no more cavities.

Bacteria also pull off photosynthesis sans light and work as an improved catalyst in cars.


Best of Technology

My Favorites:
How to make expandable posts in Blogger
How much research is being done in the world?
Hamster powered cellphone charger

Best of the Rest:
4 robotic racers cross desert
What Wal-Mart knows about its customers
Morse coders faster than SMSers
3 features DVD players need
In Praise of My Japanese Cellphone
State of the Blogosphere
Japan and Broadband
Google puts lid on new products

Research and Development
World of R&D 2005
Pentagon redirects its research
Israel's technology industry
China is world's largest exporter of IT
India's R&D reaching for the top
Skill gap hurts technology boom in India
US vs. Chinese engineers and a Kurzweil interview
The age of invention is over

Product Reviews
Google Reader
Yahoo Mail Beta
Google Notebook
Rhapsody on Real Rhapsody
Mozy: Free Online Backup