Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of Fat Knowledge 2006

The most popular and/or my favorite posts of 2006:


Saturday, December 23, 2006

See You Next Year

I am going to be away from the blogging for a little while.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


GPA: Discipline vs. IQ

Duckworth studied 164 eighth-grade students in Philadelphia, tracking each child’s I.Q. as well as his or her score on a test that measured self-discipline and then correlating those two numbers with the student’s G.P.A. Surprisingly, she found that the self-discipline scores were a more accurate predictor of G.P.A. than the I.Q. scores by a factor of two.

Duckworth’s paper connects with a new wave of research being done around the country showing that “noncognitive” abilities like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness — the kinds of qualities that middle-class parents pass on to their children every day, in all kinds of subtle and indirect ways — have a huge and measurable impact on a child’s future success.
Interesting. Teaching these "noncognitive" skills might be more important than teaching the 3 Rs.

via NY Times Magazine


What It Takes to Make a Student

Great article in the NY Times Magazine taking a look at why rich kids do better than poor kids at school and what can be done about it.

There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind. But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence. Did rich parents have better genes? Did they value education more? Was it that rich parents bought more books and educational toys for their children? Was it because they were more likely to stay married than poor parents? Or was it that rich children ate more nutritious food? Moved less often? Watched less TV? Got more sleep? Without being able to identify the important factors and eliminate the irrelevant ones, there was no way even to begin to find a strategy to shrink the gap.
They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.

By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached — all of which, they found, serves to increase I.Q. and school-readiness.

Their work also suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren’t primarily about material goods. True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey.
So there is the issue. Children are raised differently and this carries over into the classroom. You can't give the same kind of education to poor kids and expect them to have equal results. So, what can be done to give them a chance? One charter school has found some things that work.
First, they require many more hours of class time than a typical public school. The school day starts early, at 8 a.m. or before, and often continues until after 4 p.m. These schools offer additional tutoring after school as well as classes on Saturday mornings, and summer vacation usually lasts only about a month. The schools try to leaven those long hours with music classes, foreign languages, trips and sports, but they spend a whole lot of time going over the basics: reading and math.

Second, they treat classroom instruction and lesson planning as much as a science as an art. Explicit goals are set for each year, month and day of each class, and principals have considerable authority to redirect and even remove teachers who aren’t meeting those goals. The schools’ leaders believe in frequent testing, which, they say, lets them measure what is working and what isn’t, and they use test results to make adjustments to the curriculum as they go. Teachers are trained and retrained, frequently observed and assessed by their principals and superintendents. There is an emphasis on results but also on “team building” and cooperation and creativity, and the schools seem, to an outsider at least, like genuinely rewarding places to work, despite the long hours. They tend to attract young, enthusiastic teachers, including many alumni of Teach for America, the program that recruits graduates from top universities to work for two years in inner-city public schools.

Third, they make a conscious effort to guide the behavior, and even the values, of their students by teaching what they call character. Using slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments, the schools direct students in everything from the principles of teamwork and the importance of an optimistic outlook to the nuts and bolts of how to sit in class, where to direct their eyes when a teacher is talking and even how to nod appropriately.
The whole article is full of really interesting ideas, I would recommend reading it all.


Friday, December 22, 2006

My New Favorite Government Program Name

The San Joaquin Valley has been described as “California's Appalachia”, but that label is almost too flattering. The valley is as poor as the federally defined Central Appalachian Region, which comprises the poorest parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, and has a higher proportion of households on public assistance. One county is so plagued by unemployment that it pays impoverished families to leave the Central Valley, under a programme called More Opportunity for Viable Employment (MOVE).

via The Economist


Science Points the Way to Happiness

While books on happiness abound, very little research has been done on how people become happier. In fact, many researchers have considered that quest to be futile. But recent long-term studies have revealed that the happiness thermostat is more malleable than the popular theory maintained. One easy way that sounds almost trite but has actually been shown to work? Every night, think of three good things that happened that day. Another proven exercise: identify five of your strengths and apply one strength in a new way every day for a week.
via Dallas Morning News via DailyGood


Happiness: Good for Creativity, Bad for Single-Minded Focus

In one test, participants in a happy mood were better able to come up with a word that unified three other seemingly disparate words, such as "mower," "atomic" and "foreign." Solving the puzzle required participants to think creatively, moving beyond the normal word associations--"lawn," "bomb" and "currency"--to come up with the more remote answer: "power."

Interestingly, induced happiness made the subjects worse at the second task, which required them to ignore distractions and focus on a single piece of information. Participants had to identify a letter flashed on a computer screen flanked by either the same letter, as in the string "N N N N N," or a different letter, as in "H H N H H." When the surrounding letters didn't match, the happy participants were slower to recognize the target letter in the middle, indicating that the ringers distracted them.

The results suggest that an upbeat mood makes people more receptive to information of all kinds, says psychologist Adam Anderson, co-author of the study published online by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
via SciAm


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Learning to Keep Learning

Tom Friedman takes a look at what needs to happen in our educational system.

Tomorrow, Mr. Tucker’s organization is coming out with a report titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” which proposes a radical overhaul of the U.S. education system, with one goal in mind: producing more workers — from the U.P.S. driver to the software engineer — who can think creatively.

“One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework in one to think afresh about the other,” said Mr. Tucker. Thus, his report focuses on “how to make that kind of thinking integral to every level of education.”

That means, he adds, revamping an education system designed in the 1900s for people to do “routine work,” and refocusing it on producing people who can imagine things that have never been available before, who can create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies and design software “that will capture people’s imaginations and become indispensable for millions.”
I like that definition of creativity. Not sure what it means in terms of remaking schools though.

via NY Times $elect


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Marshmallows and Public Policy

Around 1970, Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn't ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

The ability to delay gratification, like most skills, correlates with socioeconomic status and parenting styles. Children from poorer homes do much worse on delayed gratification tests than children from middle-class homes.

What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it over time.
In makes you wonder about what skills should be taught in school. If delaying gratification correlates with more success in school and in life, and if it can be taught seems like it should be.

I was reading in Happiness and Economics that education is not correlated with happiness. How strange is it that we spend all this time getting educated and yet on average it doesn't increase happiness?

I also happened to have just read the Happiness Hypothesis book mentioned, and I would highly recommend it. Lots of interesting stuff in it.

via NY Times $elect


Energy Opportunity Cost of Agriculture

I was reading this interesting report on Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System and the graph to the left caught my eye (click for larger version). Basically it shows that the US is creating 1.4 quads of food energy, but it takes an additional 10.2 quads of energy in the form of fossil fuels to produce, transport, process, package and cook the food. For every calorie of food we consume it takes 7.2 times as much energy in fossil fuels to put it on the table.

Looks like we are using a lot of energy in order to produce our food. But, what if we looked at it slightly differently. What if we looked at the energy opportunity cost of agriculture. What if we say, used the land to produce energy via solar panels, how much energy could we produce?

From the USDA, we find that there are 302 million acres of harvested cropland. From Google Calculator we find that this is equal to 1.2 × 10^12 square meters.

At Wikipedia we find that most parts of the US get 4.5kWh/m2/day of solar radiation a day or 1,642.5 kWh/yr.

Lets assume that the solar panels are 10% efficient (although scientists have just made 40% efficient ones).

If all harvested cropland had solar panels instead, they would capture:
1,642.5 kWh/yr * 10% efficient * 1.2 × 10^12 m^2 = 1.97 x 10^14 kWh.

Via Google calculator again we find that this equals 6.72 × 10^17 BTU or 672 quads of energy. That is 480 times as much as the 1.4 quads of energy in our food, and 66 times as much as the 10.4 quads of energy to produce, transport, process, package and cook the food.
Note: the calories in the food is based on what we eat rather than what we produce, so the 480 times ratio is probably on the high side as the US exports a lot of food. When I was comparing solar panels with sugar cane earlier I got a ratio of 50 to 1. Average caloric yield per acre in the US is much lower than that of sugar cane, but I don't know if it is just 1/10.

While it might appear that we are using lots of energy in order to produce our food, in fact the much bigger loss is the amount of energy that we could have produced had we put solar cells on the land.

It might seem that going organic would help to use less energy, as you won't use energy to create fertilizer. But, as we have seen here, organic farming tends to use more land than conventional farming (in this case by around 50%). Based on the numbers above, if you could switch from organic to conventional and decrease the amount of land you use by just 1.5%, you could put solar panels on that land and generate more energy than is used producing, transporting, processing, packaging and cooking the food (still assuming it takes 7 times as much energy as in the food). Free up 3% of the land and you have doubled the amount of energy. From an energy opportunity cost standpoint, it is not the fossil fuels that are expensive, it is the crops inability to capture much solar energy on the land that is expensive.

The one issue with this analysis is that in the short run (say 15 years) solar power will not economical and few would replace crop land with solar panels. Also, while fertilizer could be made from solar energy, currently it is not really possible to distribute the food using electric vehicles. So, in the short run does it make sense to buy organic now to try and reduce fossil fuel usage?

This is a tough choice. You are basically choosing between using more land or using more fossil fuels. By reducing the amount of land needed this protects forests from being turned into farmland or allows old farmland to become forest again. On the other hand by reducing fossil fuel usage it helps with global warming, air pollution and resource wars. I think I would go with reducing land usage, but I could understand those that went the other direction as well.


Food Politics

The Economist has a couple of really interesting articles looking at organic, fair trade and buying local (free one, subscription one). Basically they question whether these really are better for the environment and workers. I summarize below but the whole articles are worth a read.

On organics:

But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.
When I was able to get a hold of numbers, organic farming used on average 50% more land. If you like rainforests, think twice on organic foods.

On Fairtrade:
Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers' incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction. By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do.
There is also the issue that there is more Fairtrade coffee produced than purchased, so who determines who gets the higher prices? I like the concept of paying a nickel more for a cup of coffee in order to allow the workers to make a higher wage, but I am not sure it is that simple.

On buying local:
Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain's food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff.

What's more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive. And the local-food movement's aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce.
I wrote about the energy issue before in my Buy Local vs. Shop Local post and came to a similar conclusion. I also think that there is just as strong of a moral case for buying global than local.

So what is their conclusion?
So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments, in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe's monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market. Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers. Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do.

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them.
While I agree that a carbon tax and freeing up the agricultural markets are good, I am not so sure that 'voting with your pocketbook' doesn't still make sense. It isn't the concept that is off, it is the implementation. Instead of organic, why not have an Acres and Gallons label, so you can take into account both land usage and energy usage? The issue is that the actual implementation of organic farming might not be the best for the environment, not that paying more for environmentally responsible foods doesn't work.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Best Quote On Milton Friedman

From An Infuriating Man:

His friends, it is true, tend to have strong nerves and read statistics the way some men read pornography.
Here at Fat Knowledge, we too are looking for friends that read stats like porn, but in homage to Milton, you are free to choose.

For you stat lovers check out Swivel. For the rest of you, digg has a listing of all Playboy "Playmates of the Month" from January 1954 to December 2003.


DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don’t Trust Them

The National Geographic Society’s multimillion-dollar research project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world in the hopes of reconstructing humanity’s ancient migrations has come to a standstill on its home turf in North America.

Billed as the “moon shot of anthropology,” the Genographic Project intends to collect 100,000 indigenous DNA samples. But for four months, the project has been on hold here as it scrambles to address questions raised by a group that oversees research involving Alaska natives.
I am a big fan of this Genographic Project, which I blogged on earlier.

Aside: If you are looking for a last minute gift, I think it is pretty cool (not to mention that if you give it to your mother and father you are finding out where you came from, even though it is their gift ;)). The one thing is that if you have European ancestry, don't expect to learn much as they don't have many different branches of Europeans. But the money still goes to support the project so it is still worthwhile.

It is disappointing to me that the Native Americans are taking this stand. Why are they refusing to take part?
At issue is whether scientists who need DNA from aboriginal populations to fashion a window on the past are underselling the risks to present-day donors. Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.

Some American Indians trace their suspicions to the experience of the Havasupai Tribe, whose members gave DNA for a diabetes study that University of Arizona researchers later used to link the tribe’s ancestors to Asia. To tribe members raised to believe the Grand Canyon is humanity’s birthplace, the suggestion that their own DNA says otherwise was deeply disturbing.
I hate it when religious/traditional beliefs stop science. I really like what the Dalai Lama has said on this subject: If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. Why can't other religious leaders come to the same conclusion?

Any other reasons they have?
Scientific evidence that American Indians or other aboriginal groups came from elsewhere, they say, could undermine their moral basis for sovereignty and chip away at their collective legal claims.

“What if it turns out you’re really Siberian and then, oops, your health care is gone?” said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. “Did anyone explain that to them?”
If those were true, then I could understand their argument. But I just don't get it. How could this undermine the moral or legal basis for their sovereignty? And why would they lose their health insurance if it turns out they came from Siberia? This just seems nutty to me.

The International Indian Treaty Council wrote up a list of their issues with the Genographic Project in this UN document. They have lots of arguments as to why they are opposed, most of which are summarized above. I wanted to respond to one of their points.
RECOGNIZING that Indigenous Peoples have extensive traditional knowledge and oral histories about our own origins, which are central to our spiritual and cultural identity and are valid on their own right and do not need western scientific validation;
I already wrote why the religious aspect of this concerns me. But the other thing that concerns me is that they call it "western scientific validation". Science is science, there is no western science (which I assume means there is also an eastern science). Something like 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the US come from India and China. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had advanced scientific understandings for their time. For the Native Americans to try and belittle science as something foreign and therefore not to be trusted, rather than try and be active participants of the scientific community is very disappointing.

via NY Times


Weight of All People on the Earth

After reading that meat and dairy animals now account for about 20% of all terrestrial animal biomass, I became curious how they calculated that. Taking a look at the document, they attribute it to this report done back in 1979. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and cheap outsourcing to M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, in Chennai, India, we are all able to read that original report.

The calculation is done in this section on animal biomass which attributes to another article written in 1973. Man, I would have thought someone would have come up with a better estimate in the last 30 years, but whatever.

They figure the average weight of a human is 50kg (I wonder if that has changed since 1979?), so assuming there are 6.5 billion humans alive today that gets you to 325 billion kg.

Of course you are now wondering, how does that compare with the weight of all other animals on the planet? Glad you asked.

For some reason they like to compare in dry weight. A human is 70% water, so this gets you down to 97.5 bil kg. And they like to measure things in grams using scientific notation so that puts you at 97.5 x 10^12 g. They put total animal biomass at 2002 x 10^12 g dry weight and 1005 x 10^12 g for terrestrial ecosystems, so humans make up just about 5% of all animal biomass and 10% of all land animal biomass.

The UN report estimated that all livestock weigh .7 billion tonnes or 700 billion kg. This is a little over 2 times as much as humans (and makes you wonder who the dominant species on earth is). Assuming they have the same amount of water, that would put them at 20% of all land animal biomass and humans and livestock combined put as at 30% of all terrestrial biomass. That is pretty high, but nowhere near the 98% of all terrestrial vertebrates that Daniel C. Dennett wrote about.

The underlying assumptions on how the total biomass was calculated in this report is not clear, and things may have changed since 1973. I would really be interested to see an updated version of these numbers.


Why a Hydrogen Economy Doesn't Make Sense

In a recent study, fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel explains that a hydrogen economy is a wasteful economy. The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25% for practical use — an unacceptable value to run an economy in a sustainable future. Only niche applications like submarines and spacecraft might use hydrogen.

Also, Bossel found that the output-input efficiency cannot be much above 30%, while advanced batteries have a cycle efficiency of above 80%. In every situation, Bossel found, the energy input outweighs the energy delivered by a factor of three to four.
In general I agree with what he is saying here and that chart gives a good run down on the amount of energy lost from the power plant to the car. If the energy you are using is from solar cells or wind, using a battery powered car is much more efficient than converting the electricity into hydrogen to run a fuel cell car. As he states in the article we should be focusing on an electron economy rather than a hydrogen economy.

via physorg.comv


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Farmers Raise Stink over New Zealand 'Fart Tax'

This follows up on the last post.

Farmers blocked the streets of New Zealand's capital, Wellington, yesterday in protest at plans to impose the world's first "fart tax" on livestock flatulence.

Nicknamed the "back-door tax", the levy is intended to fund research into reducing the 37m tonnes of methane blown off each year by New Zealand's sheep, cattle and deer. Four hundred farmers with 20 tractors rallied outside parliament. An opposition MP led a cow named Energy up the steps of the building.

Wind from New Zealand's 30m sheep, 10m cattle and 2m deer accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, well ahead of industries such as transport and electricity generation.

A petition against the policy - which is likely to cost the average farmer NZ$300 (£110) a year - has gained more than 64,000 signatures, equal to nearly half of all New Zealand farmers.
I think these farmers are missing out. There is value in them there farts. I calculate that a cow emits $15 worth of methane a year. In case you don't know, methane is just another name for natural gas, and in this case we really are talking about natural gas.

As you might have expected the name "fart tax" is a little bit misleading.
Despite the proposed levy being dubbed the "fart tax", more than 90% of livestock methane comes from burping, rather than flatulence.
via The Guardian


Global Livestock Sector Generates More GHG Emissions than Transport

According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent—18%—than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

Livestock now use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33% of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20% of all terrestrial animal biomass.

Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40% to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.
That is amazing to me that livestock use 30% of the Earth's surface and meat and dairy animals account for 20% of all terrestrial animal biomass.

I had written before on Cars vs. Cows and based on the numbers I found thought that cows had the bigger impact. Glad to see that this study agrees with that conclusion.

via Green Car Congress


What keeps interest rates low? Foreign investment

In 1978, foreigners held about $39 billion worth of Treasury bonds, a modest 12 percent of the Treasuries in circulation, according to the authors. By the summer of 2005, foreign Treasury holdings were just shy of $1.6 trillion, nearly 52 percent of the value of all Treasuries. China, Japan and Hong Kong are the big buyers.

Were it not for foreign investment, the authors say, interest rates on the key 10-year U.S. Treasury note would be nearly one percentage point higher than they are.

And if foreign investors unloaded the mammoth holdings they already have, the 10-year rate would be about two percentage points higher than it is, they say.

If that happened, monthly payments on a standard 30-year mortgage might be 30 percent higher.
No wonder China doesn't want to revalue their currency. They would lose money on all of the T-Bills they own. Amazing that over 50% of the Treasuries are owned by foreigners.

via Seattle Times


Suicide Bombing Ant

Camponotus saundersi, an ant species found in Malaysia, also has a very interesting defense. The colony is divided up into different functional groups, one of which is soldier ants. These soldiers are charged with defending the colony at all costs. If battle ensues, these ants will actually self-destruct. They have two large glands that run the entire length of their body, and when they become stressed the ant contracts its abdominal muscles causing the glands to explode, spraying poison in all directions.
Who knew?

via Wikipedia


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Week

13 things that do not make sense scientifically.

Boys and girls tend to use different parts of their brains to process some basic aspects of grammar.

Free services to inspire your cellphone.

Inside America's $37 billion prison economy.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New World Record Achieved in Solar Cell Technology

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Alexander Karsner today announced that with DOE funding, a concentrator solar cell produced by Boeing-Spectrolab has recently achieved a world-record conversion efficiency of 40.7 percent, establishing a new milestone in sunlight-to-electricity performance. This breakthrough may lead to systems with an installation cost of only $3 per watt, producing electricity at a cost of 8-10 cents per kilowatt/hour, making solar electricity a more cost-competitive and integral part of our nation’s energy mix.
Good news on the solar energy front. If this does lead to $3/watt installation costs and 8-10 cent per kWh power, that is big.
Reaching 40 percent efficiency helps further President Bush’s Solar America Initiative (SAI) goals, which aims to win nationwide acceptance of clean solar energy technologies by 2015. By then, it is intended that America will have enough solar energy systems installed to provide power to one to two million homes, at a cost of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt/hour. The SAI is also key component of President Bush’s Advanced Energy Initiative, which provides a 22 percent increase in research and development funding at DOE and seeks to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil by changing the way we power our cars, homes and businesses.
Hmm, never heard of this Solar America Initiative before. I like the fact it is investing $148 million dollar in solar R&D in 2007. Hopefully it will allow more breakthroughs like this in the future, as solar is the long term energy solution.

Over at Slashdot they note how much land it would take to power the whole world with solar cells:
At 40% efficiency, it looks like a square 265 miles on a side in the American southwest would do it.
Time to start buying up land in New Mexico.

via Department of Energy


National Geographic Best Wildlife Photos of 2006

via National Geographic



Swivel Co-founders Dmitry Dimov and Brian Mulloy start off by describing their company as “YouTube for Data.” That’s a good start for someone trying to understand it, because the site allows users to upload data - any data - and display it to other users visually. The number of page views your website generates. Or a stock price over time. Weather data. Commodity prices. The number of Bald Eagles in Washington state. Whatever. Uploaded data can be rated, commented and bookmarked by other users, helping to sort the interesting (and accurate) wheat from the chaff. And graphs of data can be embedded into websites. So it is in fact a bit like a YouTube for Data.

But then the real fun begins. You and other users can then compare that data to other data sets to find possible correlation (or lack thereof). Compare gas prices to presidential approval ratings or UFO sightings to iPod sales. Track your page views against weather reports in Silicon Valley. See if something interesting occurs.
I am stoked, can't wait for this to launch. The Freakonomics boys are looking forward to it as well.

via TechCrunch


Spending Inequality vs. Income Inequality

An interesting article looking at how spending inequality in the US is much lower than income inequality.

Last year Americans in the lowest income quintile spent an average of $11,247 per person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with $15,843 for middle income quintiles, and $28,272 for the top quintile. The top group is spending only 2.5 times as much as the bottom group, and 1.8 times as much as the middle classes. This is not major inequality.
I agree that spending makes more sense to look at than income when talking about inequality, and adjusting the numbers per person rather than per household makes sense too. I don't know what classifies as 'major inequality', but the 2.5 ratio is much less than the 15.3 time difference in income.

Income inequality has gone up greatly over the last 20 years. What about spending inequality?
The lowest quintile is spending 14% more in 2005 than it was in 1985, the second quintile 16%, the third quintile 11%, the fourth 13%, and the top quintile is spending an additional 16%.
Doesn't look like it has changed much at all.

Aside from tax payments and transfer receipts, why is spending inequality per person less than many popular measures of income inequality?
The average number of people for a household in the lowest quintile is 1.7. It increases to 2.5 people for the middle quintile and reaches 3.2 people for the highest quintile.
I was surprised to find out that there was that much difference in number of people in a household between income quintiles. Which really reflects poorly on me because I have looked at this data set before. :)

So how much difference is there in the way that the rich and poor spend their money?
The differences between per person spending are even smaller for food and housing. Those in the top 20% of income earners spend $3,141 on food per person and those at the bottom 20% spend $1,792, i.e. the top group spends less than twice as much. For housing, the lowest spends about half as much as the highest.

With health care spending, an area where conventional wisdom holds that the poor are falling behind, the top group spends about 1.5 times the lowest group. For clothing, the top group spends just over twice the amount as the bottom group.

The top group spends almost three times as much on entertainment as does the lowest group, and just over twice as much as middle-income groups. And the top group spends three times as much on transportation as the lowest group, but only 1.6 times as much as the middle groups.

Spending on personal insurance and pensions shows the most inequality. Spending by the top group is more than 15 times the lowest group, and three times as much as the middle groups. This type of spending includes individual retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, and life insurance. It's not that the top group is spending substantially more, but it is saving more.
via NY Sun via Greg Mankiw Blog

Data from the BLS: 2005, 1985