Monday, December 31, 2007

Best of Fat Knowledge 2007

The most popular and/or my favorite posts of 2007:


Friday, December 28, 2007

Garlic May Cut Cow Flatulence

Because it is the holiday season and I am in a giving mood, I will toss in a bonus cow fart post just for Climateer.

Scientists in Wales tackling the impact flatulent cows and sheep have on global warming may have an answer - putting garlic in their food.

The average dairy cow is capable of producing up to 500 litres of the gas every day, mostly through belching.

"Initial results show that extracts of garlic compound could reduce the amount of methane produced by the animals by 50%," he said. "Garlic directly attacks the organisms in the gut that produce methane."
Hmm, wonder if this solution works for humans as well?

A 50% reduction would be significant. Any drawbacks?
The Aberystwyth research team is testing if this taints milk or meat - and gives the animals bad breath.
Garlic steak actually doesn't sound bad, but garlic milk is definitely no good. And how exactly do you test whether a cow has bad breath? I find it hard to believe they have good breath on a non-garlic diet.

via BBC via Wired


Eco-Friendly Kangaroo Farts Could Help Global Warming

Loyal Fat Knowledge reader Climateer, concerned that I lost my ambition to become a cow fart tycoon, alerts me to some "breaking" news:

Australian scientists are trying to give kangaroo-style stomachs to cattle and sheep in a bid to cut the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, researchers say.

Thanks to special bacteria in their stomachs, kangaroo flatulence contains no methane and scientists want to transfer that bacteria to cattle and sheep who emit large quantities of the harmful gas.

"Not only would they not produce the methane, they would actually get something like 10 to 15 percent more energy out of the feed they are eating," said Klieve.

"Fourteen percent of emissions from all sources in Australia is from enteric methane from cattle and sheep," said Athol Klieve, a senior research scientist with the Queensland state government.

But it will take researchers at least three years to isolate the bacteria, before they can even start to develop a way of transferring it to cattle and sheep.
Sounds good to me. But 3 years? What are these guys doing that is so difficult?
Another group of scientists, meanwhile, has suggested Australians should farm fewer cattle and sheep and just eat more kangaroos.

"It's low in fat, it's got high protein levels it's very clean in the sense that basically it's the ultimate free range animal," said Peter Ampt of the University of New South Wales's institute of environmental studies.

"It doesn't get drenched, it doesn't get vaccinated, it utilizes food right across the landscape, it moves around to where the food is good, so yes, it's a good food."
Man, those Australians will throw anything on the barbie.

via AFP


Looking for Engineers Who Like To Solve Difficult Problems

For those of you missing the humor, it is the fact that it isn't a difficult problem to solve. :)


Japan Mines 'Flammable Ice'

Looks like China and India aren't the only ones trying to mine methane hydrates.

Japan is joining the U.S. and Canada in test drilling for methane even as scientists express concerns about any uncontrolled release of the frozen chemical.

Japanese engineers have found enough ``flammable ice'' to meet its gas use demands for 14 years. Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and Indonesia. Trapped within sheets of ice up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) thick is an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of crystalline methane encased in an ocean trench called the Nankai Trough, 30 miles (50 kilometers) off the coast of the main Honshu Island.

If successful, the gas drilling project could help Japan reduce a liquefied natural gas import bill that last year was 2.66 trillion yen ($23.3 billion). The country's LNG imports totaled 62.2 million metric tons, equivalent to 3.03 trillion cubic feet, according to the Ministry of Finance's trade report.

A first round of drilling was completed in April by Jogmec and the Canadian government and a second set of tests are scheduled for early 2008. The two governments won't disclose results due to a confidentiality agreement, Jogmec's Yokoi says.

The most efficient method has proved ``depressurizing,'' which requires deep bore holes being drilled into the ice sheets. Pressure within the chamber is reduced by a pump, causing gaseous methane to separate from the water and ascend to the well head.

Japan's government is promising rigorous environmental controls with gas-leakage detectors and monitoring systems in place before the scheduled test drilling in as early as 2009. The trade ministry is targeting 2016 to start production, corresponding with the scheduled completion of the 16-year government-led test project.
via Bloomberg


Nano Flakes Could Make PV More Efficient

A new material, nano flakes, may help drive the solar energy industry into the future. Dr. Martin Aagesen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and director of SunFlake Inc. is currently developing the technology which takes advantage of crystalline structures to absorb more sunlight than traditional solar photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Dr. Aagesen believes that the nano flakes have the potential to convert up to 30 percent of solar energy into electricity because the nano flakes also reduce the distance energy has to travel in the cell. These cells would also use smaller amounts of semiconducting silicium making them less expensive than the PV cells currently available.

"I discovered a perfect crystalline structure. That is a very rare sight. While being a perfect crystalline structure we could see that it also absorbed all light. It could become the perfect solar cell," said Dr. Aagesen.
via Renewable Energy Access


Snorting a Brain Chemical Could Replace Sleep

A nasal spray containing a naturally occurring brain hormone called orexin A reversed the effects of sleep deprivation in monkeys, allowing them to perform like well-rested monkeys on cognitive tests. The discovery's first application will probably be in treatment of the severe sleep disorder narcolepsy.

The treatment is "a totally new route for increasing arousal, and the new study shows it to be relatively benign," said Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a co-author of the paper. "It reduces sleepiness without causing edginess."

The monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours and then given either orexin A or a saline placebo before taking standard cognitive tests. The monkeys given orexin A in a nasal spray scored about the same as alert monkeys, while the saline-control group was severely impaired.

The study, published in the Dec. 26 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, found orexin A not only restored monkeys' cognitive abilities but made their brains look "awake" in PET scans.

Both Twery and Siegel noted that it is unclear whether or not treating the brain chemistry behind sleepiness would alleviate the other problems associated with sleep deprivation.
via Wired


Monday, December 24, 2007

NIH Launches Human Microbiome Project

The human body contains trillions of microorganisms, living together with human cells, usually in harmony. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about one to two percent of the body’s mass. Many microbes maintain our health, while others cause illness. Yet, surprisingly little is known about the role this astounding assortment of bacteria, fungi and other microbes play in human health and disease. To better understand these interactions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced the official launch of the Human Microbiome Project. The human microbiome is the collective genomes of all microorganisms present in or on the human body.

Part of the NIH’s Roadmap for Medical Research, the Human Microbiome Project will award a total of $115 million to researchers over the next five years. Initially, researchers will sequence 600 microbial genomes, completing a collection that will total some 1,000 microbial genomes and providing a resource for investigators interested in exploring the human microbiome.
I thought this was a good idea when I first heard about it, and am glad to see that it has become a reality. While these microbes living with up weigh only 2 to 3 pounds, by cell count they outnumber "us" 10 to 1 and by gene count at least 2 to 1.

via NIH News


Thursday, December 20, 2007

“Jumping Genes” Contribute to the Uniqueness of Individual Brains

Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies may have found one explanation for the puzzling variety in brain organization and function: mobile elements, pieces of DNA that can jump from one place in the genome to another, randomly changing the genetic information in single brain cells. If enough of these jumps occur, they could allow individual brains to develop in distinctly different ways.

Precursor cells in the embryonic brain, which mature into neurons, look and act more or less the same. Yet, these precursors ultimately give rise to a panoply of nerve cells that are enormously diverse in form and function and together form the brain. Identifying the mechanisms that lead to this diversification has been a longstanding challenge. “People have speculated that there might be a mechanism to create diversity in brain like there is in the immune system, and the immune system’s diversity is perhaps the closest analogy we have,” says Gage.

Transposable L1 elements, or “jumping genes” as they are often called, make up 17 percent of our genomic DNA but very little is known about them. Almost all of them are marooned at a permanent spot by mutations rendering them dysfunctional, but in humans a hundred or so are free to move via a “copy and paste” mechanism. Long dismissed as useless gibberish or “junk” DNA, the transposable L1 elements were thought to be intracellular parasites or leftovers from our distant evolutionary past.

Apart from their activity in testis and ovaries, jumping L1 elements are not only unique to the adult brain but appear to happen also during early stages of the development of nerve cells. The Salk team found insertions only in neuronal precursor cells that had already made their initial commitment to becoming a neuron. Other cell types found in the brain, such as oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, were unaffected.

At least in the germ line, copies of L1s appear to plug themselves more or less randomly into the genome of their host cell. “But in neuronal progenitor cells, these mobile elements seem to look for genes expressed in neurons. We think that’s because when the cells start to differentiate the cells start to open up genes and expose their DNA to insertions,” explains co- author Alysson R. Muotri. “What we have shown for the first time is that a single insertion can mess up gene expression and influence the function of individual cells,” he adds.
I find this fascinating, but to be honest, I really don't understand how it works. How is it that these jumping genes only occur in neuronal precursor cells? How exactly do these jumping genes affect the neuronal cells? I would assume that this process would cause a lot of neuron cells to not work at all as crucial genes are rendered inoperable, but I can't see how this would lead to a better functioning brain. Hopefully future research will clear these questions up.

via Newswise


China and India Exploit Icy Energy Reserves

I wrote about methane hydrates a long time ago. As the graph shows, there is a ton (make that billions of tons) of energy stored in them. And now it looks like they might start to be exploited.

China and India have reported massive finds of frozen methane gas off their coasts, which they hope will satisfy their energy needs.

World reserves of the frozen gas are enormous. Geologists estimate that significantly more hydrocarbons are bound in the form of methane hydrate than in all known reserves of coal, natural gas and oil combined. "There is simply so much of it that it cannot be ignored," says leading expert Gerhard Bohrman of the Research Center for Ocean Margins (RCOM) in the northern German city of Bremen.

Methane, trapped in an icy cage of water molecules, occurs in permafrost and, in even greater quantities, beneath the ocean floor. It forms only under specific pressure and temperature conditions. These conditions are especially prevalent in the ocean along the continental shelves, as well as in the deeper waters of semi-enclosed seas (see graphic).
From this map it appears that methane hydrates are pretty evenly split around the globe, with the exception that there aren't many around Europe.
The People's Republic of China is investing millions to study this massive source of energy. The same holds true for India, South Korea and Taiwan, all nations that are on a fast track to surpassing the West as economic powers.

The Chinese researchers found the methane hydrate, also known as crystal gas, because of its molecular structure, in a layer of sediment 15 to 20 meters (50 to 65 feet) thick off the Chinese coast. "It was embedded in clay and silt ," says John Roberts, whose firm Geotek provided the technical equipment for the drilling expedition.

This is the sort of information natural gas companies like to hear. The porosity of this sediment mix is well suited to drilling for the gas. "The gas hydrate has never found in this form before," Roberts explains. One possible method would involve the use of drilling tubes that would conduct heated fluid into the cold reservoirs. This would dissolve the icy cage encasing the methane. The next step would be to capture the gas through a second opening.
If China were to switch from coal to methane, that is good news from a pollution and global warming standpoint.

On the other hand, if methane hydrates are used along with the current fossil fuels, there would be serious additional carbon dioxide emissions. But there appears to be a silver lining regarding this.
When a certain amount of pressure is applied to the cage-like crystal structure, carbon dioxide can penetrate the layer of ice, at which point it displaces the methane. Then a new cage of frozen water molecules forms around the carbon dioxide. "This behavior has already been demonstrated in laboratory experiments," says Wallmann.

He is also impressed by the ratio at which the gases are exchanged. For each dissolved molecule of methane, up to five molecules of carbon dioxide disappear into the ice cage.

In addition, says Wallmann, the ice encases the CO2 in a more stable manner than it does the methane. "I cannot imagine a better way to sequester carbon dioxide," Wallmann explains, adding: "We are pursuing this approach with great interest."
Interesting. Replace fire ice with dry ice.

via Spiegel


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nanosolar Ships First Panels

After five years of product development – including aggressively pipelined science, research and development, manufacturing process development, product testing, manufacturing engineering and tool development, and factory construction – we now have shipped first product and received our first check of product revenue.

Our product is defining in more ways I can enumerate here but includes:

- the world’s first printed thin-film solar cell in a commercial panel product;

- the world’s first thin-film solar cell with a low-cost back-contact capability;

- the world’s lowest-cost solar panel – which we believe will make us the first solar manufacturer capable of profitably selling solar panels at as little as $.99/Watt;

- the world’s highest-current thin-film solar panel – delivering five times the current of any other thin-film panel on the market today and thus simplifying system deployment;

- an intensely systems-optimized product with the lowest balance-of-system cost of any thin-film panel – due to innovations in design we have included.

Today we are announcing that we have begun shipping panels for freefield deployment in Eastern Germany and that the first Megawatt of our panels will go into a power plant installation there.
I have had my eye on Nanosolar for a while now and it is great news that they have worked out all the kinks and are actually delivering products to customers (as opposed to their Silicon Valley neighbor Tesla Motors, ahem, come on guys we are still waiting).

They claim they can be profitably at $.99/Watt but I wonder what price they are actually selling at? This might be getting close to RE<C.

More on the thin film solar industry over at Earth2Tech.

via Nanosolar Blog


Nanowire Li-Ion Battery Holds 10 Times the Charge

Stanford researchers have found a way to use silicon nanowires to reinvent the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

The new version, developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, produces 10 times the amount of electricity of existing lithium-ion, known as Li-ion, batteries. A laptop that now runs on battery for two hours could operate for 20 hours, a boon to ocean-hopping business travelers.

"It's not a small improvement," Cui said. "It's a revolutionary development."

Cui said that a patent application has been filed. He is considering formation of a company or an agreement with a battery manufacturer. Manufacturing the nanowire batteries would require "one or two different steps, but the process can certainly be scaled up," he added. "It's a well understood process."
Very cool. I wonder how long it will take them to make these commercially available and how much they will cost. If the price is similar to current batteries then this is a huge breakthrough for battery powered cars.

via Stanford News via Engadget

Update: Some interesting comments on this story over at Slashdot. Also a FuturePundit commenter alerts me to a more technical analysis over at Entropy Production.


Here Comes Another Bubble

via TechCrunch


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Move over, good fats, now we want good bacteria.

Giant offshore wind farms to supply half of UK power.

The 9 most unnecessary greatest hits albums of all time.

Cell phone spending surpasses land lines.

7 stupid thinking errors you probably make.


Speak Through Your Ear

A Japanese company Tuesday unveiled a new device that will allow people "speak" through their ear so they can use their mobile telephones in noisy places.

The device -- named "e-Mimi-kun" (good ear boy) -- doubles as an earphone and a microphone by detecting air vibrations inside the ear, developer NS-ELEX Co. said.

The earpiece and an accompanying device can be connected to a mobile phone, or wirelessly to a Bluetooth handset, so that users no longer have to cover their mouths when speaking in a loud environment, the company said.

Exterior noise is reduced six-fold by the earpiece, it said, while a chip developed by Sanyo Electric for the accompanying device reduces sound levels ten-fold, it added.
Not clear whether the yellow construction hat is part of the setup or just the current fashion in Japan.

via Breitbart


Nature's Best Photography

Some cool nature shots over at AOL Vision. This shot of zebras is my favorite:

And apparently the overhead shadow shot is all the rage in nature photography right now, as someone else did the same thing with camels.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Virtual Cable Navigation System

We've seen quite a few next-gen nav device concepts, but none with as much potential as the Virtual Cable, from a New Jersey company called Making Virtual Solid. The system uses a laser, a set of lenses, and a moving mirror mounted in the dashboard to project a 3D route-guidance line above the road ahead, as though it's actually out in front of the driver. Besides making driving that much more like a video game, the company says mass-produced versions will cost somewhere around $400 as a factory-installed option, and can be easily interfaced with existing GPS systems.
Very cool technology. If they really can add it for only $400, they have a winner. I think an after market version would sell well also.

Check out Virtual Cable's website for some videos of how it works.

via Engadget


Imperial Stormtroopers Arrest Santa

Oh noes! How could this have happened?

Well, that explains it.

via Gizmodo via Digg and Flickr via Digg


Monday, December 10, 2007

Tracing Business Acumen to Dyslexia

The report, compiled by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, found that more than a third of the entrepreneurs she had surveyed — 35 percent — identified themselves as dyslexic. Approximately 10 percent of Americans are believed to have dyslexia, experts say.

One reason that dyslexics are drawn to entrepreneurship, Professor Logan said, is that strategies they have used since childhood to offset their weaknesses in written communication and organizational ability — identifying trustworthy people and handing over major responsibilities to them — can be applied to businesses.

“Entrepreneurs are hands-on people who push a minimum of paper, do lots of stuff orally instead of reading and writing, and delegate authority, all of which suggests a high verbal facility,” Mr. Dennis said. “Compare that with corporate managers who read, read, read.” Indeed, according to Professor Logan, only 1 percent of corporate managers in the United States have dyslexia.
That is amazing to me that 1/3 of all entrepreneurs in the US have dyslexia. Interesting how they take this weakness turn it into a strength for them.

via NY Times


Year In Ideas

The New York Times Magazine just released its 7th annual Year in Ideas issue. I always enjoy reading this. Many of the ideas have been featured here on Fat Knowledge (such as Airborne Wind Turbines, the Appendix Rationale and Wireless Energy).

My favorites this year:
The ‘Cat Lady’ Conundrum
Community Urinalysis
Hope Can Be Worse Than Hopelessness
Mindful Exercise
The 24/7 Alibi

Lots of great ideas here, worth a read.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

If Someone Invites You To A Rabbit Dinner...

you might want to think twice about attending. Check out what customers who bought a Fresh Whole Rabbit at also bought (and check the Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed section as well).

via Digg

Update: Looks like Amazon updated and got rid of the funniness.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Hybrid Solar Lighting

This video
shows how sunlight can be taken from the roof and then piped into a building using fiber optics. Cuts down on electricity usage and emits a light that is healthier and more pleasing to the eyes.

Pretty cool technology, but I wonder how the economics of it break down. They state that this setup costs less than $10,000 lights 1000 sq feet and will last 20 years, but I have no idea how that compares with other lighting options.

via Daily Good


Friday, December 07, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

The 9 most badass Bible verses.

Why the flu likes winter.

Gift cards go philanthropic.

In miles of alleys, Chicago finds its next environmental frontier.

Design your own shoes.


Japan's Bloggers: Humble Giants of the Web

Interesting comparison of Japanese and American bloggers.

Technorati found that of all recorded blog postings in the fourth quarter of last year, 37 percent were written in Japanese, 36 percent in English and 8 percent in Chinese. In the past three years, Japanese has been running ahead of or about even with English as the dominant language of blogging, according to Technorati. About 130 million people understand Japanese, while about 1.1 billion understand English.

About 40 percent of English-language bloggers said their primary goal was "to raise visibility as an authority in my field." Only 5 percent of Japanese bloggers said that was their primary motivation. Instead, they said they blog to create a record of their thoughts and of information they have collected.

The Japanese are about five times as likely as Americans, the British or the French to read a blog every week, but far less likely to act on what they read, according to Edelman's surveys.

By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of Japanese blogging is done on mobile phones, often by commuters staring cross-eyed at tiny screens for hours as they ride the world's most extensive network of subways and commuter trains.
The article also says that Japanese blogs are typically read by just 5-10 close friends and that commenting is very rare.

via Washington Post (also check out the accompanying video)


How Africa's Desert Sun Can Bring Europe Power

Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East.

More than a hundred of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to European Union member nations, including Britain.

Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.

The Desertec project envisages a ring of a thousand of these stations being built along the coast of northern Africa and round into the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East. In this way up to 100 billion watts of power could be generated: two thirds of it would be kept for local needs, the rest - around 30 billion watts - would be exported to Europe.

Europe would provide initial funds for developing the solar technology that will be needed to run plants as well as money for constructing prototype stations. After that, banks and financial institutions, as well as national governments, would take over the construction programme, which could cost more than £200bn over the next 30 years.

At present electricity generated this way would cost around 15-20 eurocents (11 to 14p) a kilowatt-hour - almost twice the cost of power generated by coal. However, Desertec's backers say improvements over the next decade should bring the cost of power from its plants to less than 10 eurocents a kilowatt-hour, making it competitive with traditionally generated power.
I wonder how the costs of this energy compares with renewable energy generated in Germany with all of their subsidies. If this is cheaper seems like a better way to go.

via Guardian via TreeHugger and Worldwide Sawdust


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Worthless Radiohead Analysis

Radiohead is perhaps the most successful band to give away new music online, making its recent album, “In Rainbows”, available to download on a “pay-what-you-want” basis. Unfortunately for Radiohead—and music industry trend-spotters—62% of downloaders paid nothing, according to comScore, an internet information provider. Only 4% of fans paid over $12.
I have been reading articles like this all over the net, and the analysis is utterly horrible. First, the data on which they are basing this is questionable. But, lets just ignore that and assume it is correct.

The problem is that they focus in on the meaningless statistic of the % of people who pay as shown in this pointless chart:

At first glance, the chart seems perfectly fine. So, what is wrong with it you ask?

The problem with this graph is that it makes it look like things would be better if the percentage of people who didn't pay went down. But that isn't true.

Imagine you have 100,000 paying customers and then you could choose to have 100,000 unpaying customers, or 1 million unpaying customers. In the first case 50% of the customers paid, in the second 10% did. But in both cases you are making the same amount of money and in the second one you have an additional 900,000 people who have listened to your song. I can't think of a single reason why you would want to be in the first case, but that is exactly the conclusion you would draw by looking at this graph.

Those that chose not to pay come from 3 categories: those that would have paid if they had to, those that would have gotten the music for free via file sharing anyways, and those that wouldn't have paid anyways but decided to check out the music because it was free. Of those 3 only the first reduces profits, but it is impossible to know what percentage of the freeloaders this makes up.

The digital download also serves as advertising for their $80 CD and music concerts. While Budweiser has to pay for people to check out their advertisements, Radiohead was able to get lots of people to spend their own time to download and listen to their music. These "freeloaders" might end up making more money for Radiohead then those that bought a regular CD at the store.

To fix this graph, I would add another slice to the pie: people who could have downloaded the album for free but chose not to because they could care less about Radiohead (myself being in that category). Even if you assumed a crazy high estimate of 10 million downloads, with a world population of 6 billion that means that 99.9833% of all people fit in that category.

When it comes to digital downloads there are only 2 important numbers: total number of downloads and total amount of money made. That's it. And neither number has been reported in this article. It would be interesting to know how much money they made after the first week on their last album compared with how much they made off of downloads on this one. But, there is no way to figure that out either.

So, before we judge the Radiohead experiment a success or failure, lets at least get the right numbers and analyze them in the correct way.

via The Economist


Time Cost of Books

When it comes to goods such as books, movies and TV, our consumption of them is limited more by time than the price they cost to purchase. As I wrote about previously, time is more valuable than money in the attention economy. While it is easy to determine the "time cost" of DVDs and audio books, it is not so easy to figure out for written books. To help see the time cost of books, I whipped up this Greasemonkey script for use at

This script looks at the number of words in the book (available when the "search in this book" feature in enabled), and then figures out the amount of time it would take to read at the average reader rate of 200 words per minute (you can ascertain your own reading rate here and adjust the values accordingly).

While you might think that the number of pages would give you the same information, it doesn't really as editors use the same tricks I used in high school to meet page requirements: change font and margin sizes. They even have another trick up their sleeves that was unavailable to me: adjusting the size of the page. Because of this, a book that is 600 pages is likely to have much more than three as many words as one of 200, as the former will be printed in a very small font, while the latter is likely to be in a big font on a small page.

Both Garbage Land and Freakonomics are 336 pages long, but Garbage Land takes 7.5 hours to read vs. just 4.2 for Freakonomics. Maybe part of the reason for Freakonomics success is its relatively low time cost. Malcolm Gladwell must have thought he hit the sweet spot of book length with The Tipping Point, for his follow up book Blink had the identical time cost of 5.9 hours. And if you were wondering how how much time it takes to read the book that is synonymous with being long, War and Peace (original title: War, What is it Good For?) comes in at 49.2 hours.

With the Kindle, Amazon has the ability to get actual data on exactly how long it takes you to read books. They could determine what your reading rate is and then tell you the time cost of any book you are looking to purchase for your Kindle.

My wish list of books to read is always longer than the amount of time I have to spend reading, so now I will be able to tell how "expensive" it would be to read any particular book.


Google Wants To Make Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal

Google just announced an initiative to develop electricity from clean sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal. In true geek fashion, they’re calling it “RE < C” or “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal.” The search giant will be looking to hire between 20 and 30 engineers and experts to develop renewable power technology from sources like solar thermal, wind power and enhanced geothermal systems. On a conference call, Google co-founder Larry Page said the initiative would spend “tens of millions of dollars on R&D,” and ultimately hope to produce a “gigawatt of renewable energy capacity,” in years, not decades.

Page said that Google (GOOG) will use its knowledge of designing power-hungry data centers to tackle the challenge of researching and productizing clean energy. The company hopes to deploy clean energy sources for its own uses for its data centers (many of which are powered by coal plants) and possibly license that technology to other customers. Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar, said on the call that the company is looking to develop clean energy sources at a cost in the range of one to three cents per kilowatt hour. Coal, by comparison, can cost somewhere around four cents per kilowatt hour.

Google says it also plans to invest “hundreds of millions of dollars” in renewable energy projects and startups.
More power to them.

I think that making RE<C is arguably the greatest challenge of our century. When it happens it will solve the global warming problem, alleviate all energy scarcity issues, and make electricity cheap enough to give access to everyone in the 3rd world. Not bad for a sideline business to an internet search company.

I do wonder if they are bitting off a little more than they can chew with this one. This is a difficult problem and I am not sure a couple of hundred million dollars will solve it. I still think RE<C won't happen until around 2030. On the other hand, this investment could rival that of the federal government and who wants to bet against Google? More smart people working on this problem with strong financing sounds good to me.

via Earth2Tech


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Pumping Ocean Water to Stop Climate Change

They propose that vertical pipes some 10 metres across be placed in the ocean, such that wave motion would pump up cool water from 100-200 metres depth to the surface, moving nutrient-rich waters in the depths to mix with the relatively barren warm waters at the ocean surface.

This would fertilise algae in the surface waters and encourage them to bloom, absorbing carbon dioxide greenhouse gas while also releasing a chemical called dimethyl sulphide that is know to seed sunlight reflecting clouds.

"Such an approach may fail, perhaps on engineering or economic grounds", they say, adding that the effects on the acidity of the ocean also have to be factored in.

None the less, "the removal of 500 gigatons (500 billon tons) of carbon dioxide from the air by human endeavour is beyond our current technological capability. "If we can't 'heal the planet' directly, we may be able to help the planet heal itself."

One version of the scheme sees around 10,000 pipes in the Gulf of Mexico, they told The Daily Telegraph.

"In the Gulf this alone may be important for reducing the severity of hurricanes. It is local self interest such as hurricane prevention and the restoration of fisheries that may pay for the project."

I say, lets build a couple of these pipes and see what happens. I think this could be a good idea not just to reduce the level of CO2, but also to increase the amount of sea life (and fish that we can eat) and decrease the severity of hurricanes.

via Telegraph


Kindle and the Short Tail

Amazon has released its ebook reader the Kindle (which I will hopefully get around to reviewing soon). The irony of this device is that it takes away Amazon's greatest strength, that of its selection.

Using the Kindle takes you from being able to select from 3.7 million books to just 90,000. Amazon's digital inventory is a mere 2.4% of their non-digital offering. Their digital selection is equivalent to that of a local brick and mortar book store. It takes you from the long tail to the short tail.

No Harry Potter, no Lord of the Rings, no Jurassic Park, and hardly any books that weren't best sellers or are over 5 years old. And that is just with books. Their selection of newspapers, magazines and blogs is similarly limited. No USA Today, no Wired magazine, no Engadget blog.

This sucks. I love Amazon precisely because I am a long tail reader. But now if I want to go with their ebook I have to give up that long tail and go back to the "tyranny of choice".

The Kindle has been called the iPod of books, but with the iPod, you could rip music from CDs and put it on your iPod. Your selection of music was not limited by the transition to the iPod. With the Kindle there is no way to "rip" the content from your hardcover and paperback books on to the Kindle.

Tech Crunch does point out that you can get access to a digital version of many books via Bit Torrent that can then be transferred to a Kindle. But as with all file sharing content, quality is suspect.

I thought the whole point of the internet and the digital revolution was greater selection. With the Kindle that goal takes a step backwards.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

The top 10 most controversial ways to save the planet.

Monkey brains use web link to control robot legs.

It is projected that fewer than 100 homicide victims in New York City (population 8.2 million) this year where the victim was a stranger to their assailant.

Brain2Robot project creates EEG-controlled robot arm.

How not to talk to your kids: the inverse power of praise.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Exmocare Wristwatch

The U.S. Company Exmocare has developed a novel wristwatch, which is capable of monitoring many physiological signals. The watch can send a report regarding the wearer's emotional and physiological state to a loved one or caretaker, via email, SMS, or instant messaging. The Exmocare wristwatch could prove to be an important tool in the field of remote care for the elderly and according to Exmocare should be available stating early 2008.

The new Exmocare wristwatch monitors the wearer's heart rate and heart rate variability, in addition to the wearer's galvanic skin response and relative movement. Using a technique called photoplethysmography, the wristwatch measures blood volume pulse (BVP) via infrared LEDs, sending an infrared beam towards the skin's surface. The watch calculates the BVP by measuring the infrared light reflected from the wearer's skin. This technique allows the Exmocare watch to monitor one's heart rate from the bottom of the watch.

The Exmocare wristwatch uses these physical signals in order to analyze the wearer's emotional state. Any emotional state leads to a specific, detectable change in our body. The wearer's emotional state is inferred based on general knowledge about the physiological expression of emotions, as well as on the specific context of an individual's physiology.

According to information supplied to TFOT by representative form Exmocare, the new watch will include a host of cutting edge technologies in one small device, including: onboard DSP,local storage of physiological information, connectivity over GSM for remote monitoring, point-to-point wireless ZigBee communication, remote location tracking and an OLED user interface.
Sounds cool. I wonder how much it will cost?

via The Future of Things


CO2 Stats

Interesting little widget from CO2 stats that tracks how much CO2 is being emitted by your blog or website and then offsets it for free.

I am always interested in figuring out the CO2 impact of any activity I undertake, and if this is accurate it will be nice to know the impact of web browsing. But, their website doesn't really explain how they actually calculate the value, so I have no clue as to how accurate the value is. Looks like every time I do a refresh the value goes up by about .0001 lbs of CO2, but sometimes the value is .000109, sometimes .000099 and sometimes .000149. I emailed them to see how they figure the number, but haven't heard back yet.

Their business model seems to be to get advertisers to pay for the offseting of the CO2. Considering how little the co2 impact of a hit is, it should be fairly cheap to offset. Assuming 1/10,000 of a lb per click, that gets you to 20 mil clicks per ton of CO2. If the offsetting costs $10 a ton, then you can get 2 mil clicks per dollar. I will be curious to see how this all works out for them.

via Env Econ

Update: Got an email back from them.

The widget calculates the total emissions of a web site or blog by summing the emissions created by a web site's users' computers as they interact with servers. We first calculated the global average rate of carbon emissions due the to electricity consumption of a 300-W PC/server combination (17mg of CO2/sec). We then calculate for each member site or blog the summed emissions of all the visiting clients to that website, taking into account the amount of time they spend on the website.
They are valuing it based on time spent on the blog rather than the number of pages served up. They are also taking into account the computer you are using as well as the web server.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Top 10 bizarre experiments.

Meet the supermouse bred by genetic scientists that can't get cancer.

Scientists say just standing up may be as important as exercise to lose weight. Good news for the producers of this device.

Verizon to open its wireless network.

No longer all about the Benjamins: Rapper Jay-Z flaunts 500-euro notes in his new music video.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Stress Fewer Boys

A boy or a girl? That is usually the first question asked when a woman gives birth. Remarkably, the answer varies with where the mother lives. In rich countries the chances of its being a boy are about 5% higher than in poor ones. Equally remarkably, that figure has been falling recently. Several theories have been put forward to explain these observations. Some argue that smoking plays a role, others that diet may be important. Neither of these ideas has been supported by evidence from large studies. But new research points to a different factor: stress.

Dr Obel found that the more stressed a mother had been, the less chance she had of having given birth to a boy. Only 47% of children born to women in the top quartile of stress were males. That compared with 52% for women in the bottom quartile. Dr Obel suspects the immediate cause is that male pregnancies are more likely to miscarry in response to stress than female pregnancies are, especially during the first three months. However, that is difficult to prove.
That is amazing to me that stress can reduce the percentage of boys born by 5%.

Ladies, please, easy on the stress. The future of the male sex depends on it.

via The Economist


Friday, November 16, 2007

Frito-Lay’s Net-Zero Potato Chip Plant

The net zero concept, however, is the company’s most ambitious environmental venture to date. Reaching its goal of taking it almost completely off the power grid will not be easy.

Over the next several years, Frito-Lay plans to install high-tech filters that would recycle most of the water used to rinse and wash potatoes, as well as the corn used to make Doritos and other snacks, and then burn the leftover sludge to create methane gas to run the plant’s boiler.

The company will also build at least 50 acres of solar concentrators behind the plant to generate solar power. A biomass generator, which will probably burn agricultural waste, is also planned to provide additional renewable fuel.

The retrofit of the Casa Grande factory, scheduled to be completed by 2010, would reduce electricity and water consumption by 90 percent and its natural gas use by 80 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 50 percent to 75 percent, the company said.

Frito-Lay hopes the project will help the company save money on energy costs, particularly as oil prices approach $100 a barrel. What works in Casa Grande, one of 37 plants it operates in the United States and Canada, would then be replicated at other sites where possible.
Sounds good. I wonder what the carbon footprint of their bag of potato chips will be?

via NY Times


Going Green to Attract Talent

Companies are finding that in order to attract the best talent, they need to go green.

"Students are looking to work for companies that care about the environment," says Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting From College to Career." "They are almost expecting greenness like they expect work-life balance, ethnic diversity and globalization."

A recent poll on green employment by, a job Web site geared toward students and entry-level hires, found that 80% of young professionals are interested in securing a job that has a positive impact on the environment, and 92% would be more inclined to work for a company that is environmentally friendly.

Last month, to meet the demand of students to work for green companies, MonsterTRAK, in alliance with ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental group, started GreenCareers. The site lists positions in companies that reduce their impact on the environment, making it easier for students to connect with businesses that support their environmental goals.

To attract job hunters, corporations are touting their environmental efforts in recruiting materials and on campuses. Merrill Lynch & Co. outlines its environmental efforts on the back of every brochure for its campus recruiting. Sarah Quarterman, who heads Merrill's campus recruiting, says some students ask about the firm's environmental policies, whereas 10 years ago greenness never came up.
Because getting the best talent impacts the bottom line, green initiatives can now be justified by companies that are focused solely on maximizing profits. Potential employees now have a large influence on shaping companies by taking their environmental policy into account when selecting a job.

via Wall Street Journal


How Green is My Purchase?

Just as food products are labeled with calorie and nutritional information, consumer products are beginning to bear details about their environmental impact, like the amount of greenhouse gases produced in making, transporting and selling them.

One is Timberland, which since last autumn has included a "nutrition label" with its footwear, detailing the energy used in making the shoes, the portion that is renewable, and the factory's labor record.
I am a big fan of adding these enviornmental labels to products to help customers see the impact of the products they purchase.

These labels are important because the environmental impact of products is not always obvious.
"We found that our supply chain goes farther than we imagined," Swartz said. "You have to go back to the cow" that supplied the leather.

Timberland was surprised to find that more than half of the energy used (and greenhouse gases generated) in making a pair of shoes comes from processing and producing the raw materials. The next-biggest energy drain is the retail environment (think of all those brightly lighted malls), followed by factory operations and, finally, transportation — almost a complete inversion of what Timberland had assumed.

"The vast majority of our carbon footprint comes before we even make the shoe," Swartz said.
Too often environmentalists come up with suggestions on how to change your behavior based on what intuitively sounds good (such as recycling or on buying local), rather than actually running a life cycle analysis to figure out where the largest impacts occur. Transportation of goods is often the target whereas this analysis shows that producing the product and the retail environment take up more energy.

While these labels are valuable to environmentally conscious customers in determining what to buy (or not to buy), these numbers are even more valuable to the managers of Timberland. When they see which steps have the largest environmental impact, they can focus on making improvements there.

Why aren't more companies creating these kinds of labels?
Timberland, like many companies, has hundreds of factory partners around the world, which use material from thousands of suppliers. It takes a large investment to collect such far-flung information.

Once companies understand what goes on in their supply chains, there are hundreds of calculations to be made. How much energy is used to transport a pair of shoes? That depends. Do you assume that the trucks are two-thirds or completely full? What kind of fuel do they use? And what about employee- commute miles? Should they be included, too?
It is expensive to calculate such numbers. It also takes lots of times to figure out how to handle all of those questions. That is why I believe you should support the companies that are making the effort by purchasing their products. Once a few companies have answered the questions and have collected the data throughout their supply chain, it will be much easier and less expensive for others to follow.

What information should be put on the label?
Timberland first relied on metrics from its global footwear production, so every pair of shoes displayed similar statistics: 3.1 kilowatt hours of energy to produce, 5 percent renewable energy used and no child labor.In

February, the company, which is based in Stratham, New Hampshire, introduced the next evolution of its labels, called green index tags, which move closer toward measuring precisely the effect of each pair of shoes. Instead of raw data, the tags use a scale of 0 to 10, with the bottom denoting the smallest impact (or best choice) on an expanded range of issues.

Climate effect is measured from raw materials through production of finished product. A 0 rating means that less than 4.9 kilograms of carbon equivalents were generated, while a 10 signifies 100 kilograms or more. (One hundred kilograms, or 220 pounds, is roughly the equivalent of burning 11 gallons of gasoline.)
This is tricky, as too much data can swamp the customer, too little and it might not be of any use. I am in favor of something simple at the top of the label, like the 0-10 rating they are using, so that a customer can easily see its overall impact, but then below it have more details for those that are really interested.
The information is not very useful, however, unless customers have something to compare it with. If a pair of Timberlands rates a 2 on climate impact, that is great. But how does it compare with your Nikes?

Timberland said it hoped to broaden its green index into an industry initiative. Swartz said that if he could sign up 10 or 12 companies, others might feel pressure to follow suit.
Ideally you want to be able to compare between companies which would require some kind of standards on how the numbers are calculated or independent verification from a 3rd party. Though, because there are so many assumptions used in calculating these values, at present it might be good to have many different types of analysis going on to get different opinions.

I applaud Timberland's effort and hope they are able to find another 10 companies to join in with them.

via International Herald Tribune via DailyGood


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Animals Getting High

According to Ronald K. Siegel, a pharmacologist who has studied intoxication in animals, it is common for animals deliberately to experiment with plant toxins; when an intoxicant is found, the animal will return to the source repeatedly, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Cattle will develop a taste for locoweed that can prove fatal; bighorn sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scraping a hallucinogenic lichen off ledge rock. Siegel suggests that some of these adventurous animals serves as our Virgils in the garden of psychoactive plants. Goats, who will try a little bit of anything, probably deserve credit for the discovery of coffee: Abyssinian herders in the tenth century observed that their animals would become particularly frisky after nibbling the shrub's bright red berries. Pigeons spacing out on cannabis seeds (a favorite food of many birds) may have tipped off the ancient Chinese (or Aryans or Scythians) to that plant's special properties. Peruvian legend has it that the puma discovered quinine: Indians observed that sick cats were often restored to health after eating the bark of the cinchona tree. Tukano Indians in the Amazon noticed that jaguars, not ordinarily herbivorous, would eat the bark of the yaje vine and hallucinate; the Indians who followed their lead say the yaje vine gives them "jaguar eyes".
Besides all the sex and violence, yet another reason not to allow your children to watch Animal Planet.

via Botany of Desire


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kleiner Perkins and CleanTech

Leading venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is getting serious about clean tech and is measuring its success by more than just rate of return.

Most venture capitalists are judged on return on investment alone. Asked how he'll judge the success of the green initiative, he reels off five measures: "the company we keep, the quality of the companies we help grow, the quality of the partners we add, returns on the investments we make, and by the CO2 that's taken out of the atmosphere."
I think this makes sense for, as I previously laid out, this kind of investment can be seen as an alternative to donating and is likely to have a greater positive impact. But I will be curious to see if their investors agree as:
Five years after Kleiner Perkins made its first green investment, the firm hasn't had one "exit" -- VC-speak for an IPO or a sale of a company that validates the investment thesis.
via Fortune via Earth2Tech


Interesting Articles of the Week

Re-engineering engineering schools.

How science is rewriting the book on genes.

Using fMRI machines to manage pain and detect lies.

EPA: greener data centers could save $4 billion a year.

Useful mutants, bred with radiation.

Genetic-engineering competitors create modular DNA dev kit.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Matthieu Ricard on Habits of Happiness

I never thought I would be taking advice on happiness from a Frenchman, but Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard proves me wrong with his interesting talk on training your mind to be happier.

I particularly liked this quote:
Mind training matters, it is not just a luxury, it is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something thats going to determine the quality of every instance of our life.

We are ready to spend 50 years on education. We love to do jogging, to do fitness, and all kind of things to remain beautiful, yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most: the way our mind functions which again is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.
via TED


Packaging Neutral

Wal-Mart has promised to become “packaging neutral” by 2025. That means that, through recycling, reusing or perhaps even composting, it will try to recover as much material as was used in the packaging that flows through its stores.

Wal-Mart introduced a “packaging scorecard” in February that lets vendors rate themselves on criteria like the ratio of package size to product and whether the package uses recycled material. The company may even pay more for products with better packaging, as long as it can recoup the money through recycling revenue or lowered disposal costs.

The world’s largest retailer, known for pressuring vendors to lower their prices, has begun pushing its 66,000 vendors to get rid of excess packaging.
Interesting. Why is this important?
“Packaging offers major opportunities for reducing energy use and greenhouse gases, and for saving the $4 billion worth of materials that now ends up in landfills,” said Matt Hale, director of the agency’s Office of Solid Waste.
What are some examples of how this could be done?
Procter & Gamble, for example, has introduced rigid tubes for Crest toothpaste that can be shipped and displayed on shelves without boxes.

And Coca-Cola plans to cut the plastics in its Dasani water bottles by 7 percent over the next five years, just by tweaking the shape of the bottle and the cap.
Sounds good to me. Seems like there is a lot of waste in packaging to begin with.

I hate all the cardboard boxes that I throw away recycle each week. Most of them are completely worthless. Why do frozen meals need a box around them? Just put the brand label on the air tight plastic container. Trader Joe's does this for their frozen rice bowls and it works great.

You might think that some items need the protection of a cardboard box, but if the most fragile item in the supermarket (corn chips) doesn't require a cardboard box to protect it, why does cereal or anything else? Get rid of the boxes. And while they are at it, there should be a law that all plastic bags must come with a Ziploc resealable top. Some shredded cheeses come packaged like that now, but it should be added to every product. This would be great for making sure that cereal doesn't go stale.

via NY Times


Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Bar Codes Can Talk With Your Cellphone

The most promising way to link cellphones with physical objects is a new generation of bar codes: square-shaped mosaics of black and white boxes that can hold much more information than traditional bar codes. The cameras on cellphones scan the codes, and then the codes are translated into videos, music or text on the phone screens.

The wireless companies have other options to help cellphones interact with the physical world. They could, for instance, adopt image recognition software, which would allow phones to recognize anything — a Coca-Cola can, for example — and deliver related messages. Or, text messaging, currently the most common way that advertisers interact with consumers on their phones, has many advertiser applications.

Even if the wireless companies adopt the bar codes, they will have several formats to choose from. The most widely used ones have names like Semacode, QR Code and Qode.

In Japan, the codes did not become mainstream until the largest cellphone companies started loading the code readers on all new phones a few years ago. Now, millions of people have the capability built into their phones, and businesses, in turn, are using them all over — on billboards, street signs, published materials and even food packaging.

In Japan, McDonald’s customers can already point their cellphones at the wrapping on their hamburgers and get nutrition information on their screens. Users there can also point their phones at magazine ads to receive insurance quotes, and board airplanes using their phones rather than paper tickets. And film promoters can send their movie trailers from billboards. Hospitals put them on prescriptions, allowing pharmacies to instantly scan the medical information rather than read it. Supermarkets stick them on meat and egg packaging to give expiration dates and even the names of the farmers who produced them.

Advertisers say they are interested in offering similar capabilities in the United States, but cellphones in the States do not come with the necessary software. For now, consumers have to download the technology themselves.

Executives at Verizon, AT&T and Sprint declined to say whether they were in discussions with the companies that make the code reading technology. Bar code companies said the carriers stood to benefit from the codes because they might encourage consumers to add Internet service plans to their accounts and spend more time on their phones.
This is a cool technology that once again shows how far behind the Japanese the US is when it comes to cellphones and broadband.

I particularly like the idea of using this to get the environmental and social backstory of products. Imagine going to your local grocery store and getting additional information about the food you are buying. Or getting a video of how it was made. Or finding the amount of carbon emissions producing the item made.

Hopefully this technology will make it to the US and become widely adapted soon.

via NY Times


The Businessman and the Fisherman

A young businessman was at the pier of a small coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Seeing several large yellowfin tuna inside the small boat, the businessman complimented the fisherman on the quality of the fish and asked how long it took to catch them. "Only a little while", the fisherman replied.

A little surprised, the young business man asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" The content fisherman said, "This is enough to support my family's immediate needs. I don't need any more." "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" asked the confused young man. "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a walk with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my buddies; I have a full and busy life."

The lad scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The fisherman asked, "How long will this all take?" to which the young man replied, "15-20 years." "But what then?" The business man laughed and said "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions, sir? Then what?"

"Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a walk with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your buddies."
via Thought of the Week


Researchers Hope Creatures From Black Lagoon Can Help Fight Cancer

Berkeley Pit Lake is about a mile long and half again as wide, rimmed by naked rock walls that gleam white under the sun of big-sky country. The water is oxblood red at the surface, stained by manganese and iron; deeper down, heavy copper compounds turn it the color of limeade. It will burn your eyes, stain your clothes, and desiccate your skin. If you drink it, it will corrode your gullet before it poisons you. A dozen years ago, 342 snow geese made the mistake of overnighting at the lake. They were dead the next morning.

This used to be a copper mine. For more than a century, workers pulled ore from the ground here. Then, in 1982, the Anaconda Mining Company shut down Berkeley Pit and turned off the pumps that kept out the groundwater. The 3,900-foot-deep hole began to fill up — 7.2 million gallons a day at first, flowing in from aquifers and from 10,000 miles of abandoned mine shafts, stopes, and tunnels beneath the city of Butte. The water is still rushing in today.

Berkeley Pit, it turns out, isn't entirely sterile. The Stierles have identified more than 100 types of microbes in the lake — bacteria, algae, and fungi that manage to survive in the unique, noxious ecosystem. Natural selection has had its way with many of them — some of these organisms apparently live nowhere else on Earth.

And they're more than merely unique — these creatures are also potentially miraculous. They have produced more than 50 different compounds that the Stierles have isolated and tested against enzymes present in diseased human tissue. An extract from a newly discovered species of Penicillium from the lake attacked ovarian cancer cells in lab tests. Another Berkeley Pit Penicillium shows promise in treating lung tumors. Whatever lets these bits of biology thrive in the noxious waters has a side effect: It makes medicine, too.
Here I thought we should be saving the rainforests to protect species that exist no where else and for the potential medical benefits that those species could provide. Now I find out that a toxic waste dump has created its own unique species that could create medicines to fight cancer. Oh the irony.

via Wired


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sleep and Learning

I had read before that sleep helps you learn before, but I never knew that each type of sleep helps a different type of learning.

Memory of learned facts, whether they are names, places, numbers or Farsi verbs, seems to benefit in part from deep sleep. Healthy sleepers usually fall into deep sleep about 20 minutes or so after head meets pillow. They might spend an hour or more in those lolling depths early in the night, and typically less time later on. When cramming on facts, in short, it may be wiser to crash early at night and arise early, than to burn the candle until 2 a.m., the research suggests.

REM sleep, the bulk of which comes later in the night, seems important for pattern recognition — for learning grammar, for example, or to bird-watch, or play chess.

Not that Stage 2 is an empty corridor between destinations. In series of experiments that he began in the early 1990s, Dr. Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Canada has found a strong association between the amount of Stage 2 sleep a person gets and the improvement in learning motor tasks. Mastering a guitar, a hockey stick or a keyboard are all motor tasks.

For instance, Dr. Smith said that people typically got most of their Stage 2 sleep in the second half of the night. “The implication of this is that if you are preparing for a performance, a music recital, say, or skating performance, it’s better to stay up late than get up really early,” he said in an interview. “These coaches that have athletes or other performers up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I think that’s just crazy.”
Interesting. For learning facts, early sleep is more important, but for pattern recognition and motor learning late sleep is.

via NY Times


Friday, November 09, 2007

24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot

via College Humor


Interesting Articles of the Week

Devices enforce silence of cellphones, illegally.

A glass of beer is far better at rehydrating the body after exercise than water.

Range Fuels has broken ground on the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

A map of the oil world.

Outsourcing pregnancy: poor Indian women renting wombs to foreigners.

Senate panel OKs carbon cap and trade.

Chopstick bra promises cleavage and conservation.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Australian Town to Run on Solar Power in 2 Years

A sun-drenched town in Australia's north hopes to use only solar power in two years after being chosen as the site for a solar thermal power station.

Remote Cloncurry, which boasts recording Australia's hottest day, would be able to generate electricity on rare cloudy days and at night from the station, which runs off heat stored in graphite blocks.

Solar thermal power differs from photovoltaic panels that make power directly. Instead, 8,000 mirrors will reflect sunlight onto graphite blocks. Water will be pumped through the blocks to generate steam which generates electricity via turbines.

Heat stored in the graphite produces steam well after the sun goes down, allowing electricity generators to keep running at night.
This is the first of many cities to be powered completely by solar.

I need to investigate solar thermal further, but I am intrigued by its ability to store energy in the form of heat allowing it to generate electricity into the night. I would guess that this is much cheaper than adding a battery system to a photovoltaic solar plant. The ability to store energy makes solar thermal electricity much more valuable than its intermittent cousins.
The Queensland state government said on Sunday it would build the A$7 million ($6.5 million), 10-megawatt power station as part of a push to make Cloncurry one of the first towns to rely on solar power alone.

The Queensland government said the station would deliver about 30 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power the entire town. It is expected to be running by early 2010.
I am tired of seeing solar and wind plants measured in megawatts, as this just tells you how much it can produce under optimal conditions. Because the sun isn't always shining and the wind isn't always blowing, this makes the number worthless for comparing to other types of power plants such as nuclear or coal. Also, the megawatt number does not take reflect that a plant in a very sunny area will produce more electricity a year than one with less sun.

The better statistic is kWh/year produced which I was glad to see this article included (and hopefully more articles will follow suit). This takes into account how often the sun shines and can be directly compared with coal and nuclear plants (well there is still the issue of intermittency, but that is another matter).

A 10-megawatt power plant that ran at full capacity 100% of the year would generate 87.6 million kWh a year. This plant produces 30 million kWh a year or 34% of that amount. I believe the comparable number for nuclear plants is about 90%.

If I am running the numbers correctly, the electricity from this plant is not much more expensive than coal. The plant produces 30 mil kWh of electricity a year. At 5¢/kWh that would be $1.5 million in revenue a year. If the expenses to run the plant took 1/2 that amount, that would leave $750,000 in profits for a rate of return of over 10% on the $6.5 million investment.

via Reuters


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Poll on Democrats and Republicans

While lots of the results from the poll are as I expected, a couple surprised me.

I didn't realize that 50% of Democrats wouldn't vote for an atheist and want creationism taught in school. So much for the idea that the Democrats are a bunch of godless sodomites.

I also didn't know that less than 50% of Republicans think abortion should be illegal. Why is it so hard for a pro-choice Republican to be nominated if that is the majority view?

The split on the environment was also more than I expected. Only 25% of Republicans think that the environment is a very important issue?

And I will never understand why terrorism is so important to the majority of Americans. While 3,000 Americans died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 45,000 Americans die each year in traffic accidents. Terrorism is only a big deal if you allow yourself to be terrorized by it. To those Americans who consider it important, I say to you that when you are afraid the terrorists win.

via The Economist


Google Notebook Adds Labels

When I reviewed Google Notebook a year and a half ago, I liked it a lot with one big exception: it didn't have labels/tags. Instead you had to put everything into individual notebooks. Finally, the labels feature has been added and now I highly recommend using Notebook for all of your note taking needs. I still have a few gripes (see below) that need fixing, but once they do that, this tool will completely rock.

Besides adding labels, they also integrated Google bookmarks into Notebook, which seem strange to me, but I don't use Google bookmarks. They are also adding offline access via Gears soon which will be a nice feature if you are using a laptop without Internet access.

More reporting on the new version of Google Notebook can be found at Google Operating System and Google Tutor.

And in the hopes that the Notebook team reads blogs, here are my suggestions for improvement:

Google Notebook Website

  • The "Tools" button should have the same options if you have selected a label (or if you have done a search) as if you have selected a notebook. In particular having a "Expand all notes"/"Collapse all notes" option would be very useful. The ability to have a print view and export to Google Docs would also be nice.

  • Adding labels to notes needs some help.
    • Sometimes labels are above the box and require an up arrow to select and sometimes below and require a down arrow. Make it consistent.
    • Highlight the first label so you can just hit enter to choose it rather than requiring you to first use the down arrow to select it.
    • The tab key should select the highlighted label (makes it consistent with Blogger).
    • You shouldn't be able to add the same label to a note twice (once selected, that label should no longer appear in the list of possible options).
    • After adding a label, don't automatically show the list of labels. Instead wait until a letter is typed. This way if you are done adding labels, you don't have to hit enter twice (once to get rid of the list and once to save) to finish.

  • On the left hand side of the screen, make the label box bigger if you have lots of labels and not many notebooks. Add the ability to sort labels alphabetically, by date or by number of posts.

  • Keyboard shortcuts would be very handy. In particular I would like to see them for:
    • To move from one note to the next (maybe a j/k setup like Google Reader)
    • Add/edit label
    • Add/edit comment

  • Add advanced search functionalities (this is Google for God's sake).
    • Ability to search the URLs of posts, the comments, just the titles, or just the body.
    • Ability to search inside a particular notebook or only posts that have a particular label.

  • Add the option of adding a label to multiple notes at once. Probably not a big deal, except right now when I am trying to add labels to all of my notes.

Firefox Extension
  • Make the size of the box bigger, or make the size adjustable. It is just too small to view the note once you add it. I know there is a pop-out box feature, but I don't want to use that.

  • When you switch from "add comment" to "add labels", the cursor does not stay in the box and you have to click in the box with your mouse. Because the comments box is selected by default when you add a new note, this happens every time with a new note.

  • To add a note, go back to the "clip this" rather than the star. The star is not intuitive, so you need to put the "What's this" next to it and together they take up more space than a "clip this" button.