Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pitty the Dear Leader's Secret Santa

The Bush administration wants North Korea's attention, so like a scolding parent it's trying to make it tougher for that country's eccentric leader to buy iPods, plasma televisions and Segway electric scooters.

The U.S. government's first-ever effort to use trade sanctions to personally aggravate a foreign president expressly targets items believed to be favored by Kim Jong Il or presented by him as gifts to the roughly 600 loyalist families who run the communist government.

But the list of proposed luxury sanctions, obtained by The Associated Press, aims to make Kim's swanky life harder: No more cognac, Rolex watches, cigarettes, artwork, expensive cars, Harley Davidson motorcycles or even personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis.
This is my favorite trade sanction of all time. No iPods for you!

via USA Today


3 Types of Blogs

Until recently, there were two main kinds of blogs. Most of the 57m blogs in existence are personal diaries that happen to be online. These blogs have tiny audiences and make no effort to sell advertising. Services such as Google's AdSense, which places text advertisements on blogs and generates a few cents per mouse click, might bring in some spare change. But according to Pew, an American research organisation, only 7% of bloggers say their main motivation is to make money.

The second main kind of blogs are, in effect, niche magazines that choose to publish in a blog format. These blogs are explicitly run as businesses, with paid staff doing the writing and sales departments selling advertising. The best example is Gawker Media, a stable of blogs that includes Gawker, a New York gossip site, and Gizmodo, a blog devoted to gadgets. Collectively its 14 blogs get 60m page views a month. Such blogs are “the most profitable media business today,” says Jason Calacanis, who runs Weblogs Inc, another stable of popular blogs that he sold to AOL, the web arm of Time Warner, a year ago. His sites, including Engadget, another gadget blog, are “an eight-figure-a-year business” with negligible distribution costs compared with the huge printing and shipping bills of traditional magazines.

Now, however, a third category is emerging: the mom-and-pop blog. “In the old days, we used to be called newsletter publishers,” says Om Malik, a technology writer who quit his job at Business 2.0 magazine in June to work full-time on his blog, GigaOm. He has hired two other writers, and his blog now attracts about 50,000 readers a day, generating “tens of thousands” in monthly revenues. Costs, including salaries, are around $20,000 a month.
I like this way of breaking into 3 categories. Very similar to the Long Tail of Book Publishing. I wonder how many 'niche magazines' and 'mom-and-pop' blogs there will be.

via The Economist


Interesting Stats on America

A few interesting stats on America that I have come across in the last few days.

7 million people or 1 in every 32 adults, were in the nation's prisons and jails or on probation or parole at the end of last year. 2.2 million inmates were held in state and federal prisons or county and municipal jails. 93% of all inmates were male.

Every three months, 7 million to 8 million U.S. jobs disappear and roughly an equal or greater number are created.

Nationally, 47 million people speak a foreign language and 21 million speak English less than "very well."

In 1951, the average American ate 50 percent more than the average European. Americans, controlled two-thirds of the world's productive capacity, owned 80 percent of the world's electrical goods, and produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil and 66 percent of its steel. America's 5 percent of the world's population had more wealth than the other 95 percent, and Americans made almost all of what they consumed: 99.93 percent of new cars sold in this country in 1954 were U.S. brands.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

US Food System Flow

Interesting look at the flow of food through the US food system (click on the image for a bigger version).

via Center for Sustainable Systems


Monday, November 27, 2006

National Wildlife Photo Contest

Some very cool pixs (and if the caption for the photo is correct, those frogs are awful kinky).


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Food CO2 and Land Footprints

I have written previously about my hope for acre and gallons labeling for food to tell how much energy and land it requires to produce various foodstuff. I ran something similar at the LCA Food Database. It collects data using a Life Cycle Assessment method to determine the amount of resources and wastes from soil to kitchen created by different food items. The numbers were collected off of Danish farms, but I would guess the ones in the US would be similar.

The following table shows the amount of CO2 emissions and square meters of land (for one year) used to create 1kg of the food item. I also added the amount of calories per kg of the food and then sorted based on square meters used per calorie.

item (1kg) g CO2 m^2 year calories m^2/ 1,000 cal co2/ calcal/ m2
beef steak 42,400 56.0 1980 28.3 21.435
frozen chicken 3,650 5.0 1840 2.7 2.0368
fresh chicken 3,160 5.0 1840 2.7 1.7368
oats, organic 594 3.3 3890 0.8 0.21,179
soy beans 620 3.3 4160 0.8 0.11,261
wheat, organic 376 2.5 3420 0.7 0.11,368
oat flakes 790 2.5 3820 0.7 0.21,528
oats, conventional 580 2.3 3890 0.6 0.11,691
soy/rapeseed oil 3,630 4.5 8840 0.5 0.41,964
wheat, conventional 727 1.5 3420 0.4 0.22,280
wheat flour 1,130 1.4 3390 0.4 0.32,421
frozen wheat bread 1,200 1.0 2600 0.4 0.52,600
wheat bread 840 1.0 2600 0.4 0.32,600
potatoes 184 0.3 930 0.3 0.23,000
potatoes, retail 161 0.3 930 0.3 0.23,000
sugar 960 0.5 4000 0.1 0.28,889
sugar beet 160 0.2

rape seeds, organic 1,320 5.7

rape seeds, conventional 1,550 3.5

A couple of observations. First, from a land usage/calorie created standpoint, meat comes out as the most intensive and potatoes and sugar comes out as the least. Beef is way higher than everybody else, more than 10 times higher than chicken and 280 times higher than sugar. Substituting chicken for beef decreases your land usage by 90%. While I don't think sugar is particularly healthy, from a resource standpoint, it is very efficient needing much less space per calorie than any grains.

Second, the more processed, the more CO2 is emitted. Eating raw food, therefore emits less CO2 per calorie eaten. You might also think that this would mean it is better to buy raw ingredients and cook at home. Actually though, as this report shows (p9), baking bread in an industrial setting is more energy efficient than everybody baking at home. So unless you are going to eat the food raw, from an energy standpoint better to have it processed for you.

item (1kg) g CO2 m2 year extra energy extra land
rape seeds, organic 1,320 5.7
rape seeds, conventional 1,550 3.5 17%
wheat, organic 376 2.5
wheat, conventional 727 1.5 93%
oats, organic 594 3.3
oats, conventional 580 2.3 -2%

Comparing organic with conventional farming, there is a trade off between using more land and using more energy (currently in the form of fossil fuels). Organic oats required 43% more land, rape seeds 62% more and wheat 66% more. On the CO2 side, conventional farming emits 17% more for rape seeds, 93% more for wheat and 2% less (huh?) for oats. I am not sure how to access which is more valuable: extra land for nature or less carbon emissions. But, the idea that organic is better for the environment in all ways does not appear to be true. Hopefully in the future we will have sustainable artificial fertilizer made from renewable energy, so we won't have to make this choice.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Humans Have Multiple Copies of Some Key Genes

Scientists have discovered a dramatic variation in the genetic make-up of humans that could lead to a fundamental reappraisal of what causes incurable diseases and could provide a greater understanding of mankind.

The studies published today have found that instead of having just two copies of each gene - one from each parent - people can carry many copies, but just how many can vary between one person and the next.

One of the real surprises of these results was just how much of our DNA varies in copy number. We estimate this to be at least 12 per cent of the genome - that has never been shown before. They found that 2,900 genes could vary in the number of copies possessed by the individuals.

The findings mean that instead of humanity being 99.9 per cent identical, as previously believed, we are at least 10 times more different between one another than once thought.

Another implication of the finding is that we are more different to our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, than previously assumed from earlier studies. Instead of being 99 per cent similar, we are more likely to be about 96 per cent similar.
via The Independent


Interesting Articles of the Week

Wild Sex: Where Monogamy is Rare.

Banking on Indian umbilical cords.

How to sharpen your senses.

Microsoft could save 45 million tons of CO2 emissions with a few lines of computer code.

A Dutch town installs street mikes that use acoustic-recognition tech to listen for signs of aggression then alert authorities if things get out of hand.


Environmental Shopping Plugin

Based on this post from TechCrunch, I installed this Mpire price comparison browser plugin tool. It is pretty cool.

Basically when you shop at Amazon, Wal-Mart or some other popular online stores, you see what the price of that product is at other online stores and online auctions in a little pop-up (pop-in?) window at the bottom of the screen (click on the picture to the left to see what I am talking about).

Now comparing prices is useful, but what if instead of showing comparison prices, the pop-up window had additional environmental information? What if it told you the pounds of carbon dioxide, whether it was FSC certified, or how much energy it took to make the product? That would be really cool.

I wrote about GreenOffice which allows you to compare office supplies based on their greenness rather than just their price. What if you could make decisions based on this kind of information no matter where you shopped online?

I figure I could create such a browser plugin, but what I don't have is a database of environmental information that is linked to products. If anyone knows where I could find such a database, possibly with data such as carbon dioxide emissions, energy use, chemical use, or land footprint, please leave a comment.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

74% of Americans Support A Federal Gasoline Tax

According to a survey of 1,016 adults in the United States conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation:

74% support federal gasoline taxes devoted to renewable energy R&D.
I have called for such a tax to support R&D. With support like that I don't know why politicians aren't willing to bring it up.

via Green Car Congress


Monday, November 20, 2006

Compass in Your Nose

Some years ago scientists at CALTECH (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) discovered that humans possess a tiny, shiny crystal of magnetite in the ethmoid bone, located between your eyes, just behind the nose.

Magnetite is a magnetic mineral also possessed by homing pigeons, migratory salmon, dolphins, honeybees, and bats. Indeed, some bacteria even contain strands of magnetite that function, according to Dr Charles Walcott of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, "as tiny compass needles, allowing them [the bacteria] to orient themselves in the earth's magnetic field and swim down to their happy home in the mud".

It seems that magnetite helps direction finding in animals and helps migratory species migrate successfully by allowing them to draw upon the earth's magnetic fields. But scientists are not sure how they do this.

In any case, when it comes to humans, according to some experts, magnetite makes the ethmoid bone sensitive to the earth's magnetic field and helps your sense of direction.
I had read previously that this was how birds are able to fly south for the winter, but I had no idea that humans had them as well.

via The Register


AIDS is Wrong Disease to Attack in Africa

For a given unprotected sexual relationship with an HIV-infected person, Africans are between four and five times more likely than Americans to become infected with HIV themselves. This stark fact accounts for virtually all of the difference in population-wide HIV rates in the two regions.

There is more than one reason why HIV spreads more easily in Africa than America, but the most important one seems to be related to the prevalence of other sexually transmitted infections. Estimates suggest that around 11 percent of individuals in Africa have untreated bacterial sexually transmitted infections at any given time and close to half have the herpes virus. Because many of these infections cause open sores on the genitals, transmission of the HIV virus is much more efficient.

So what do we learn from this? First, the fact that Africa is so heavily affected by HIV has very little to do with differences in sexual behavior and very much to do with differences in circumstances. Second, and perhaps more important, there is potential for significant reductions in HIV transmission in Africa through the treatment of other sexually transmitted diseases.

Such an approach would cost around $3.50 per year per life saved. Treating AIDS itself costs around $300 per year. There are reasons to provide AIDS treatment in Africa, but cost-effectiveness is not one of them.
via Esquire


Friday, November 17, 2006

European Poverty

Interesting look at poverty in Europe.

As in many rich countries, poverty is growing. In 2004 some 16% of Germans were poor, defined as having disposable income less then 60% of the national median after social transfers—a sharp rise from 2000. This is around the European average (see chart), but German poverty was once well below that average. Admittedly the figure is inflated by the effect of unification. Poverty in the east is at a British-style 20%—a level also reached among the young and immigrants.
Poverty is rising in Europe just like in the US. This makes me think that rising poverty in the US is more likely being caused by globlization (although it is also causing poverty and income inequality world wide to decrease) and a transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy than social or tax policy in the US.

I have written before about how the American definition of poverty is a bit suspect as it doesn't take the Earned Income Tax Credit into account. I don't know what to think of the European one: 60% of the national median after social transfers. I go back and forth on whether the definition of poverty should be relative to the wages of others or if it should be an absolute based on the ability to pay for food, shelter, clothing and medicine. Maybe they end up with similar results.

I wonder where America would show up on the chart with this definition. My guess is somewhere next to Britain, but I really don't know.

via The Economist


Reforestation and GDP

Researchers led by Pekka Kauppi of the University of Helsinki in Finland sought to identify exactly how much carbon is stored in the world's forests. They analysed reports on the state of forests in 50 countries in 1990 and 2005 compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. They also used information contained in national databases dating back hundreds of years.

The researchers calculated that the “forest identity” had increased over the past 15 years in 22 of the world's 50 most forested countries. Forests are also gaining ground in the world's two most populous countries, India and China. Other Asian countries that have gone from deforestation to afforestation include South Korea and Vietnam.

Globally, the total number of trees and associated organic matter has fallen year on year, in some places for as long as records have existed. Poor management in Brazil and Indonesia has been a particular problem: both countries lost greater volumes of timber than America and China even though America and China harvested more wood.
Sounds consistent with what I blogged about earlier. Forests in temperate countries are increasing but tropical ones are decreasing but at a faster rate. The key to stopping the decline lies in Brazil and Indonesia.

What I found new and interesting was this part.
The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that in all the countries that have a GDP per head of $4,600 or more—making them richer than, say, Chile—forests are recovering.

The researchers argue that the trend is partly the result of social changes that occur as countries develop and become wealthier, such as the movement of rural dwellers to cities. Urbanisation decreases the likelihood of trees being felled for heating and building.
Higher GDP leads to reforestation. This would make one think that GDP growth is good for forests. I think it is a little more complicated as this graph of France shows. It displays a classic environmental Kuznets curve where GDP growth starts by decreasing the number of forests and then reverses at higher incomes and forests increase again. But, as this graph shows the recovery has yet to reach the pre-industrialization level.

via The Economist and Nobel Intent


New DNA Test Is Yielding Clues to Neanderthals

Scientists are sequencing the DNA of a Neanderthal with a new DNA sequencing machine.

But recently a new kind of DNA sequencing machine was invented. Made by 454 Life Sciences of Branford, Conn., it prompts each DNA unit to generate a flash of light by stimulating the firefly enzyme luciferase. The flashes are captured by the same sort of image-sensing plate used in telescopes to capture starlight. From the timing and position of the flashes, a computer reconstructs the sequence of the DNA units. The kind of DNA the 454 machine works best with are tiny fragments the size of those found in old bones.
Luciferase? Are they just trying to shove this one in the face of Creationists?

So, how similar are we?
From the data so far, Dr. Rubin’s team reports that the Neanderthal and human genomes are at least 99.5 percent identical. Dr. Paabo’s team has calculated that the “effective” size of the founding Neanderthal population was about 3,000, corresponding to a census size of fewer than 10,000 individuals.

The genetic differences between humans and Neandertals is "a drop in the bucket" compared to the estimated 30 million to 50 million base pair differences between humans and chimpanzees, he said.
That sounds pretty close.

I don't get how they can determine the population size from the DNA of just one individual. I should look into that.

Could they talk?
If the full Neanderthal genome is retrieved, biologists may be able to ask if the Neanderthals had language by looking at their version of the human gene known as FOXP2, thought to be one of the last components to evolve in mediating the modern human language faculty. FOXP2 has changed significantly since the human lineage split apart from that of chimps some six million years ago. If the Neanderthal version resembles the chimp version, that would make it less likely they had modern, syntactical language.
That is pretty cool, but we are just beating around the bush. Let's clone this sucker.

via NY Times and National Geographic


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cost of Crime

I have been curious what the cost of crime is in the US and I came across a couple of estimates:

Duke University and CFO Magazine recently surveyed corporate chief financial officers, who reported spending 2.8 percent of total revenue on terrorism-related measures, up from 1.7 percent before 9/11 (with a median firm size of $2.1 billion in annual sales, that would translate to $59 million a year). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention magazine calculated the health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking and homicide by intimate partners at $8.8 billion a year. The National Crime Prevention Council estimated the cost of crime at $428 billion a year.

David Anderson, associate professor of economics at Centre College in Danville, Ky., in a 1999 study came up with a figure of $1.7 trillion a year, a figure which includes everything from locks and security systems to decreased property values that occur in high-crime areas and the cost of lost productivity from people engaged in criminal activity or jailed instead of doing useful work.
Hopefully I will have time later to look into these numbers and see how they were calculated.

via Seattle PI


How Does Your Nest Egg Rate?

In case you were wondering how your savings compared with other Americans, here you go.

 “Nest egg savings” of American households, 2001
AgeMedianTop 25%Top 10%Top 5%Top 1%
20 to 29 yrs5,55021,70061,690100,600833,530
30 to 3922,25097,400242,977440,8001,517,400
40 to 4952,300222,000532,600971,9003,677,004
50 to 5995,130339,000948,0001,933,0008,420,400
60 to 6983,400310,9001,099,3402,401,5509,459,800
70 to 7962,500296,300877,3001,561,6006,038,000
80 and over51,350223,800561,200911,6002,037,300

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, VIP Forum (The age range given typically reflects the maturity of the oldest person in the house. "Nest egg savings" refers to net worth, excluding home equity.)

 Home equity as a percentage of net worth, 2001
AgeMediantop 25%top 10%top 5%top 1%
20 to 29 yrs29.2%42.6%34.7%38.3%5.9%
30 to 3942.3%34.2%31.0%17.3%17.2%
40 to 4951.1%31.6%21.4%19.4%11.6%
50 to 5946.8%25.7%17.9%20.6%7.0%
60 to 6950.4%32.9%22.0%16.1%2.7%
70 to 7964.0%39.1%18.6%16.3%14.2%
80 and over64.1%35.3%29.2%21.8%12.3%
Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, VIP Forum

via MoneyCentral


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Psychologist Produces The First-ever 'World Map Of Happiness'

Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist at the University's School of Psychology, analysed data published by UNESCO, the CIA, the New Economics Foundation, the WHO, the Veenhoven Database, the Latinbarometer, the Afrobarometer, and the UNHDR, to create a global projection of subjective well-being: the first world map of happiness.

Participants in the various studies were asked questions related to happiness and satisfaction with life. The meta-analysis is based on the findings of over 100 different studies around the world, which questioned 80,000 people worldwide. For this study data has also been analysed in relation to health, wealth and access to education.

Whilst collecting data on subjective well-being is not an exact science, the measures used are very reliable in predicting health and welfare outcomes.

There is increasing political interest in using measures of happiness as a national indicator in conjunction with measures of wealth. A recent BBC survey found that 81% of the population think the Government should focus on making us happier rather than wealthier.

Further analysis showed that a nation's level of happiness was most closely associated with health levels (correlation of .62), followed by wealth (.52), and then provision of education (.51).

The three predictor variables of health, wealth and education were also very closely associated with each other, illustrating the interdependence of these factors.

There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per captia, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.
And if you were wondering how countries rate in happiness, here are some rankings: 1. Denmark, 2. Switzerland, 8. Bhutan, 10. Canada, 23. USA, 62. France, 82. China, 90. Japan, 125. India, 167. Russia.

via ScienceDaily


Interesting Articles of the Week

'Air shower' set to cut water use by 30 percent.

Contact lenses check blood sugar.

Physics promises wireless power.

Grid computing will let town planners play 'SimCity' for real.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How To Save 1 Billion Gallons of Fuel Annually

The widespread application of new aerodynamic technologies on tractor-trailer trucks could cut US fuel consumption by nearly one billion gallons per year, according to the results of a two-year collaborative study conducted by members of the Truck Manufacturers Association (TMA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE).

Technologies that improve truck aerodynamics in several key areas include:
  • Gap Enclosure: reduces aerodynamic drag in the gap between the tractor and trailer.
  • Side Skirts: improves aerodynamics and reduces airflow under the trailer in crosswinds.
  • Boat Tails: tapers back of trailer to minimalize wake airflow.
  • Side Mirror Design: reconfigures shape and support systems to reduce aerodynamic drag.
The calculation of one billion gallons is based on the Census Bureau’s 2002 Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS). It assumes 750,000 tractor/van semi-trailer combination-unit trucks in operation traveling a total of 60,101 million miles. A 10% improvement in average fuel economy from 5.5 mpg to 6.05 mpg results in saving approximately 993.4 million gallons of fuel per year.
That is an impressive savings. At $2 a gallon, that is a savings of $2 billion. I would think that there would be a financial incentive to make this happen.

At 60.1 billion miles and 5.5 mpg that is 10.9 billion gallons of fuel a year. With 300 million Americans that works out to 36 gallons of fuel per person to transport all of our goods each year.

As large as 1 billion gallons sounds, keep in mind that the US uses around 150 billion gallons of gasoline a year, so this would be less than a 1% savings. But, save a billion gallons here, a billion gallons there, and all of a sudden you are talking real savings.

via Green Car Congress


Sequence Your Genome For $100,000

Solexa, based in Hayward, Calif., is one of several companies trying to develop methods to determine the sequence of DNA in an organism at less cost and far more quickly than the technology used only a few years ago in the Human Genome Project.

Eventually DNA sequencing might be so cheap that every person would be able to carry around his or her complete genetic blueprint on a DVD or computer chip.

That day is still far in the future. But Solexa is expected to soon begin shipping a DNA sequencing machine that it claims will be able to determine the three billion DNA units in a person’s genome for about $100,000, about one-hundredth the cost of using older sequencers.
That is amazing that the price is already down to $100,000. I wonder what the Moore's law of DNA sequencing looks like.

The thing I have never understood is that the human genome is just one copy of 23 chromosomes while each person has 2 copies. When you are getting your own genome sequenced, I would assume you would do it for both copies. I believe that would be 6 billion DNA units. So, wouldn't having your "genome" sequenced really cost twice as much or $200,000? If anyone knows the answer, please leave a comment.

via New York Times


Artificial Chromosomes

Today, obstacles to germ line engineering are practical, not theoretical. Scientists have the ability to add desired genes - snapping gene cassettes onto artificial chromosomes and injecting the chromosomes into newly fertilised eggs. Because every cell in the body is a descendant of that first fertilised egg, every cell would have a copy of the artificial chromosome once inserted.

Artificial chromosomes, even human artificial chromosomes, have already been created and patented, the scientists reported, and companies have sprung up to exploit the technology. Dr. Leroy Hood, chairman of the department of molecular biotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said he has now developed a way to create an entire custom chromosome on a computer chip containing DNA.

Scientists at the meeting spoke quite seriously about extending the human life span with cassettes of anti-ageing genes. They also envisioned adding cassettes of anti-cancer genes and genes that would confer resistance to the AIDS virus.

Previously, researchers at Chromos Molecular Systems of Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada, used artificial chromosomes to add an extra gene to cells grown in the lab, and showed that the gene functioned when the cells were transplanted into mice. Now, Oshimura has actually corrected a genetic defect in stem cells.

Oshimura's team worked with stem cells from the testes of new-born mice in which the so-called P53 gene had been knocked out - P53 makes a protein that prevents tumour growth. Adding an artificial chromosome carrying a copy of P53 restored production of the protein in the stem cells, and activated another gene that is normally controlled by P53.

At the same meeting, Chromos announced that its researchers have inserted artificial chromosomes into human embryonic stem cells. Company vice-president Harry Lebedur claims that Chromos's chromosomes have the advantage that they can be more easily purified from the cell cultures in which they are grown and can be transferred to stem cells with greater efficiency.
That is pretty cool that they can create artificial chromosomes and insert them into germ cells. I wonder what happens to the children of someone who has an extra chromosome?

via The Guardian


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Humans in Charge of 98% of Terrestrial Vertebrates

Amazing statistic courtesy of Daniel C. Dennett in his book Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon (as found at 3 Quarks Daily).

Since both the domesticated animals and their domesticators have enjoyed huge population explosions (going from less than 1 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass ten thousand years ago to over 98 percent today--see Appendix B) there can be no doubt that this symbiosis was mutualistic--fitness-enhancing to both parties.
This is amazing. I had commented before on The Living Planet Index that it should also include humans and our livestock. I had no idea that this would account for 98% of terrestrial vertebrates.

I came across this in his TED Talk (if you haven't checked out the TED talks you should, some really interesting speakers there). He attributes this calculation to Paul MacCready. I tried to figure out exactly how Paul calculated this and was unable. But I did find out that the original figure was .1% (rather than 1%) and that this includes all land and air vertebrates (excludes marine vertebrates).

According to Eco-Economy there are 1.5 billion cattle and buffalo and 1.8 billion sheep and goats that humans have domesticated. Add in 6 billion humans and that is a lot of biomass.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Pew Research on Happiness

What makes people happier? Pew Research interviewed 3,000 people and analyzed the data.

Married people are happier than unmarrieds. People who worship frequently are happier than those who don't. Republicans are happier than Democrats. Rich people are happier than poor people. Whites and Hispanics are happier than blacks. Sunbelt residents are happier than those who live in the rest of the country.

We also found some interesting non-correlations. People who have children are no happier than those who don't, after controlling for marital status. Retirees are no happier than workers. Pet owners are no happier than those without pets.

One way to find out is by way of a statistical technique known as multiple regression analysis, which gauges the relationship between each factor and happiness while controlling for all the other factors. That analysis shows that the most robust correlations of all those described in this report are health, income, church attendance, being married and, yes, being a Republican.

The same regression analysis also finds that education, gender, and race do not have a statistically significant independent effect on predicting happiness, once all the other factors are controlled.
via Pew Research via Audaucious Epigone


Boulder Passes Carbon Tax

Voters in a Colorado university town nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains have passed the country’s first municipal carbon tax to fight global warming.

Boulder, Colo., will charge residents and businesses the carbon tax based on how much electricity they use.

The Boulder tax will raise average home bills $1.33 per month and businesses will pay an extra $3.80 per month, according to the town.

The measure introduced in August by the City Council won with about 58 percent.
I like it, but the 0.22 cents per kilowatt hour tax seems a bit small. This looks to be more about sending a message than about having a tax that is high enough to give the market an incentive to invest in clean energy.

via MSNBC via Greg Mankiw's Blog


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Peace Through Pork

If there is ever going to be lasting peace in the Middle East the root cause of the problem must be solved. And that root cause is obvious: inability to eat pork.

That is why I am glad to see an organization working to solve this problem: Peace Through Pork.

As they explain:

When a thought (or delicious pork product) is repressed, it finds an outlet somewhere. By cutting off the exploration of an idea (or a tasty food) from rational exploration and dialogue, we are repressing it. When we push a memory or an idea down into the dark corners of our minds and our memories it will bubble to the surface of our consciousness in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Could it be that all of this violence stems from the repression of bacon?
That is a little too deep for me, so I stick with their drunken frat boy explanation:

#1 Bacon is really tasty.

#2 People that don't eat bacon obviously have issues.
Issues indeed. If you ever run into somebody who doesn't "dig on swine", be very careful. They might end up quoting Ezekiel 25:17 before blowing your head off.

via Boing Boing


Think Twice About Traveling There

Imagine visiting a country where there are more than two guns for every three people, which suffers 45 murders and manslaughters a day, which has 70 active militias and 16,000 gangs in 800 cities, which has been at war with someone for most of its existence, and where the elected president has a 1-in-4 chance, historically, of being killed, wounded or shot at.

But you don't have to imagine, you already live here, in the United States. And the figures above, taken from the FBI and Robert Young Pelton's book, "The World's Most Dangerous Places," are a way of putting travel risk in perspective.

Foreign destinations are often no more fraught with risk than home, sweet home.
70 active militias and 16,000 gangs? Yikes!

The rest of the article is about traveling around the world and is pretty interesting.

via Pacific Northwest


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active. The women were not in blind trances, and it was unclear which region was driving the behavior.

The new findings contrasted sharply with images taken of other spiritually inspired mental states like meditation, which is often a highly focused mental exercise, activating the frontal lobes.

The scans also showed a dip in the activity of a region called the left caudate. “The findings from the frontal lobes are very clear, and make sense, but the caudate is usually active when you have positive affect, pleasure, positive emotions,” said Dr. James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “So it’s not so clear what that finding says” about speaking in tongues.
via NY Times


Could our Big Brains Come from Neanderthals?

Neanderthals may have given the modern humans who replaced them a priceless gift -- a gene that helped them develop superior brains, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

And the only way they could have provided that gift would have been by interbreeding, the team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Chicago said.

Lahn's team found a brain gene that appears to have entered the human lineage about 1.1 million years ago, and that has a modern form, or allele, that appeared about 37,000 years ago -- right before Neanderthals became extinct.

"The gene microcephalin (MCPH1) regulates brain size during development and has experienced positive selection in the lineage leading to Homo sapiens," the researchers wrote.

The researchers reached their conclusions by doing a statistical analysis of the DNA sequence of microcephalin, which is known to play a role in regulating brain size in humans. Mutations in the human gene cause development of a much smaller brain, a condition called microcephaly.
I love these scientists doing the statistical analysis of the DNA. First they have humans interbreeding with chimpanzees for millions of years and now we are interbreeding with Neanderthals.

via Reuters


Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Long Tail of Book Writing

I am reading The Long Tail right now. My previous posts on Time More Valuable Than Money in the Attention Economy, and Productivity in the Digital Economy fit well with the concepts in this book. While it does a good job of looking at the implications of the abundant economy on stores and consumers, it doesn't look at what happens to digital goods producers.

So, I decided to investigate.

On page 121 there is this table of 2004 book sales as reported by Book Industry Study Group.

Sales Range Titles Units
1,000,000 or more 10 17,396,510
500,000 to 999,999 22 13,798,299
250,000 to 499,999 64 22,252,491
100,000 to 249,999 324 46,932,031
50,000 to 99,999 767 51,858,835
5,000 to 49,999 23,047 280,000,591
1,000 to 4,999 67,008 149,093,614
100 to 999 202,938 69,548,499
99 or less 948,005 14,346,417
Total 1,242,185 665,227,287

Based on this data, I broke the producers into three groups: rich, full time and amateur, trying to put 33% of total unit sold in each one (the numbers are as close as I could get with the data). The rich are those that sell more than 50,000 units, the full time those over 5,000 and amateur those under 5,000. I assume one title per author and that each book sells for $20 and a 15% commission or $3 per book.

Sales Earnings Titles % of Titles Units % of Units
Rich >50,000 >$150,000 1,187 0.10% 152,238,166 23%
Full Time 5,000- 50,000 $15,000- $150,000 23,047 1.86% 280,000,591 42%
Amateur <5,000 <$15,000 1,217,951 98.05% 232,988,530 35%

Some observations on the data:
1) Of the 1.2 million titles (authors) only 1,200 of them sold over 50,000 copies and yet that accounted for 23% of the total units sold. This represents one tenth of one percent of all titles. These are the hits, and their authors get rich off of them.

2) If we consider $15,000 to be the minimum amount you need to write full time, then 23,000 people could be employed full time based on their writing salaries. This is a fraction of the total US workforce of 150 million.

3) The final 35% of total units sold was done by 1.2 million people (98% of all writers) all with books that sold less than 5,000 units (vast majority under 100). There is not enough money to support the writing based on these sales, so they must be amateurs who are motivated by something other than money. It is also possible that these are sales from books written long ago, so these people aren't really amateurs but neither are they able to support themselves based on the revenues generated. The long tail is dominated by the books created by these people, so the long tail is really all about the hybrid economy.

It might make more sense to add a part-time category and split it into 4 groups (each with 25% of total book sales). I don't have exact data for this, but I would estimate that the earning ranges would then be >$125,000, $30,000-$125,000, $5,000-$30,000, and <$5,000. The number of titles (authors) in each would be 1,200, 10,000, 33,000 and 1.2 million. Basically there would be a fewer full timers at 10,000 and 33,000 part timers. That is still not very many.

This raises the question of whether it should be a goal to try and create more full time/middle class book writer jobs? Would it make sense to apply some kind of income redistribution from the rich to the part-time/amateur to allow them to support themselves by writing? I could imagine a system where writers join a group that would redistribute money from those that made a hit to those that didn't. Writers would be willing to sign up for this as a form of insurance against writing an unpopular book. Those that did get a hit, would still have enough money to support themselves nicely.

If the rich were to cap their earnings at $150,000, this would leave an extra $279 million on the table. This would allow an additional 9,300 people to earn $30,000 and support themselves just by writing.


Drought and War

Best way to promote peace? Learn a rain dance.

The economists Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath and Ernest Sergenti have written a paper that uses rainfall to explore the issue of civil war in Africa. Twenty-nine of 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, they note, experienced some kind of civil war during the 1980’s or 1990’s. The causes of any war are of course incredibly complex — or are they? The economists discovered that one of the most reliable predictors of civil war is lack of rain. Using monthly rainfall data from many different African countries (most of which, significantly, are largely agricultural), they found that a shortage of rain in a given growing season led inevitably to a short-term economic decline and that short-term economic declines led all too easily to civil war. The causal effect of a drought, they argue, was frighteningly strong: “a 5-percentage-point negative growth shock” — a drop in the economy, that is — “increases the likelihood of civil war the following year by nearly one-half.”
via NYT Magazine


Underwater Nude Model Bitten by Shark on Photo Shoot

There were two close calls for two of West Palm Beach underwater-nude photographer Todd Essick's models.

Essick was working on a new coffee-table picture book of disrobed women interacting with sea life in the Bahamas last week when his muses bumped into overly friendly reef sharks.

One model, 26-year-old San Francisco mermaid Renata Foucre, has 22 puncture wounds on her left foot and a prescription for antibiotics to prove it.

And a colleague, Boca siren Missy Kehoe, found a 6-foot shark entangled in the fishnet costume she wore for her pictorial. That beast found its way out without hurting her.
If Jaws taught me anything it is that naked women and sharks don't mix.

And what is the deal with the nude model wearing clothes? If common sense taught me anything it is that nude models and clothes don't mix.

If you are curious what his work looks like, check it out. Kind of cool actually.

via Underwater Times


Energy R&D Funding

I was surprised to learn how little the US is investing in energy research and development.

In the United States, annual federal spending for all energy research and development — not just the research aimed at climate-friendly technologies — is less than half what it was a quarter-century ago. It has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies.
That is crazy. As the environmental and geo-political reasons get stronger to reduce our usage of fossil fuels, we are investing less in R&D. While President Bush is looking to increase this to $4.2 billion in 2007, this is still an order of magnitude lower then we need.

I think we should increase energy research and development funding to $30 billion a year. I have called for a $2 gasoline tax and using part of the revenue for increased research and development. Greg Mankiw estimates a $1 gasoline tax leading to $100 billion in tax revenue. At $2, that would generate $200 billion. Take $30 billion of that to fund energy R&D and use the other $170 billion to offset other taxes, possibly the payroll tax.

Green Car Congress has been documenting some of the DOE research grants, and while I like them, they are way too small in size. $8.6 million for alternative fuels, $700,000 for poplar trees, $16 million for Electric Vehicles, $100 million for fuel cells, $64 million for biomass to hydrogen, $17.5 million for biofuels research. Only Only $416 million was spent last year on climate-friendly, renewable technologies like wind, solar power, cellulosic ethanol and hydrogen.

To put government R&D spending in comparison:
Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, has nearly quadrupled, to $28 billion annually, since 1979. Military research has increased 260 percent, and at more than $75 billion a year is 20 times the amount spent on energy research.

“We’ve got a $12 trillion capital investment in the world energy economy and a turnover time of 30 to 40 years,” said John P. Holdren, a physicist and climate expert at Harvard University and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “If you want it to look different in 30 or 40 years, you’d better start now.”
Lets spend as much on energy R&D as we do on medical research.

The US is not alone in underfunding.
Internationally, government energy research trends are little different from those in the United States. Japan is the only economic power that increased research spending in recent decades, with growth focused on efficiency and solar technology, according to the International Energy Agency.
If the US was smart, we would ask other countries to match our increase in spending. The benefits of this R&D will help everyone in the world, so why shouldn't every country pitch in? The Europeans and Japanese get the benefits of US R&D in pharmaceuticals without paying their fair share. If American tax payers are going to be asked to fund the development of next generation energy sources, so should the Europeans and Japanese.

What should the increase in funding for R&D go towards? Increased efficiency of solar panels, new battery technology for cars, a way to store large amounts of energy from solar and wind power, improvements in bio-fuels, new nuclear technology, carbon sequestering, and other new radical ideas. Who knows where the winners will be, so invest in a portfolio of different ideas. Invest in the basic science and ideas that are 10 years or more from being practical.

Some might ask why the private market can't handle this.
While private investors and entrepreneurs are jumping into alternative energy projects, they cannot be counted on to solve such problems, economists say, because even the most aggressive venture capitalists want a big payback within five years.
It is all about time frame. Let private industry fund the ideas that are only a few years away from prime time, but have government fund the long range ideas. This was a successful strategy with respect to the Internet and microprocessors and it will be for energy as well.

via NY Times


Gerrymandering Courtesy of the Constitution

I figured that the Democrats would have a hard time regaining control of the Senate because of the gerrymandering that redrew congressional house districts to give Republicans a better chance of winning. Turns out I was looking at the wrong chamber of the Senate.

The Constitution grants two Senate seats to each state regardless of its population. As a consequence, a majority of senators are elected by voters in 26 sparsely settled states that together contain less than 18 percent of the country’s population.

A few decades ago, this uneven distribution of power didn’t matter, because rural states regularly divided their votes between the two major parties. But in recent years, low-population states like Alaska, Kansas and Wyoming have voted as a conservative bloc, favoring Republican candidates by overwhelming margins.

Today the Republican Party holds an 11-seat Senate majority, but Republican senators represent 4.5 million fewer people than their Democratic colleagues, who tend to come from urban states like California, Illinois and New York. In the 2004 elections, Democratic candidates for the Senate captured nearly 10 percent more votes than Republicans nationwide, thanks to landslide support among urbanites. Yet the Republicans still managed to gain four seats, due to victories in rural states like South Dakota and South Carolina.

A similarly skewed outcome is possible this year. Democrats are widely expected to gain seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If they do, Democratic senators will represent some 10 to 20 million more Americans nationwide than Republican senators. But if rural voters in Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia swing conservative, the Republicans will cling to the narrow majority Mr. Rove has promised.
The Democrats represent 4.5 million more people but have 11 fewer seats. It is likely that after this election they will represent 10 to 20 million more people and still not have control of the Senate.

via NY Times


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Week

Curry may keep elderly minds sharp.

A $5m prize for Africa's most effective head of state is being launched by one of the continent's top businessmen.

Harnessing the power of video games for education.

More ass means more gas: a report finds America’s expanding waistline is gobbling up fuel.

Top earning dead celebrities


The Best Photographers on Flickr

Check out this slideshow of amazing Flickr photos. As the digg post puts it:

Sit back and enjoy, I think I can safely say you will not be disappointed.
I certainly wasn't.

via Digg


Global Fossil Fuel Consumption and Reserves

The US with 300 million people uses 1/3 more fossil fuels than the EU with 450 million people. America also has per capita carbon emissions twice as high as the EU.

Interesting to look at the reserves of the three major fossil fuels by country. There is more energy in the reserves of coal than oil and natural gas combined. The 3 most populous countries in the world hold 3 of the top 4 spots in coal reserves. Because of this coal is likely the fuel of the 21st century unless wind and solar power become much cheaper quickly.

via EarthTrends


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Poor Health for the Poor Living in Affluent Neighborhoods

In a provocative new study by Stanford University School of Medicine researchers, low-income people who were living in higher-income neighborhoods died at substantially higher rates than the poor who were living among the poor.

Mining data from a heart disease study that began in 1979, the researchers discovered that low-income women living in higher-income neighborhoods had a 70 percent higher risk of death during the study period than their wealthier neighbors. The risk profile was similar among men.

Researchers can only speculate why.

One theory is primarily economic. "They may have a home right next to a health clinic, a pharmacy or a private gym, but proximity does not mean access,'' said Winkleby. Instead of enjoying a movie or a game of racket ball after work, the poor person living in the wealthy neighborhood might be working her second shift just to keep up with the rent.

Another theory reaches for a sociological explanation -- that people who feel isolated or out-of-place tend to have poorer health than those who feel part of a community, no matter what their economic status. Loneliness can be a killer.
Very interesting. I had thought that it would be better to try and get rid of concentrated pockets of poverty, to spread the poor out so no area had too high of a concentration. But with data like this, I will have to revisit that idea.

Of course, my belief might still be valid about extreme poverty like inner cities.
Winkleby cautioned that her study did not explore health disparities among people or neighborhoods representing extreme poverty or wealth. Instead, the study looked at people with median incomes as low as $18,300 to as high as $46,900.
via SF Gate


Glucose Sensing RFID Chip

Checking blood glucose levels regularly is critical to properly managing diabetes. The conventional method – a finger prick – is invasive, painful and often inaccurate. The implantable bio-sensor chip has a passive transponder, glucose sensor and integrated circuitry that allow anyone implanted with the microchip to painlessly scan it to determine their level of glucose concentration. The RFID microchip quickly and accurately transmits the glucose data back to a wireless scanner that displays the glucose level. The RFID microchip is powered by the scanner signal, avoiding the need for a battery in the microchip.
That is pretty cool. I was all stoked about this glucose watch, but this sounds even better. I don't even have diabetes and I want one of these chips.
Digital Angel, a leading producer of electronic tags for livestock, pets, fish and humans, foresees expansion beyond the human market for the glucose-sensing RFID microchip. According to the company, diabetes is a major disease issue in animal livestock today.
Umm, our livestock have diabetes? That can't be good.

via Business Wire via Engadget


Gasoline Prices, Taxes and Consumption

via Foreign Policy via Greg Makiw's Blog