Wednesday, January 31, 2007

US Imports Oil From China?

We now import about a million barrels of oil a day in the form of goods from China. That is, China imports the oil, uses it to make products, and we depend upon those products.
Wow, that is a lot. I wonder how they estimated that.

China consumes 6.9 million barrels a day, so 15% of their "consumption" is put into products that are shipped off to the US. The US consumes 20.7 million barrels a day but it looks like you need to add another 1 to that.

via Pipeline


Interesting Articles of the Week

"Junk" DNA produces around half a million varieties of RNA of unknown functions.

Dr. Agatston's preventative health care is so good, he is willing to pay a million dollars to anyone who gets a heart attack who followed his system. Why aren't most American's signed up to a program like this? It isn't profitable under the current system.

Caffeinated Doughnuts?

GM Urges Feds to Fund Major Battery Research and Development Effort


The 8% Rule of Foreign Aid

From The White Man's Burden:

There is another aspect to both the Burnside-Dollar and CRB studies that aid agencies and advocates have chosen to emphasize much less. To the extent that they found any growth effect at all, both Burnside-Dollar and CRB found that the larger the aid already was, the smaller was the additional growth benefit from the additional injection of aid. In the CRB study, their category of aid had a zero effect on growth when it reached 8 percent of the recipient's GDP, and after that the additional aid had a negative effect on growth.
Interesting. Looks like foreign aid up to 8% helps out, but then over 8% it actually has a negative impact.

I wonder if once aid gets over a certain level, the leaders of these countries figure they can get more money by trying to impress the aid giving countries rather than trying to tax their own people. They become more responsive to the needs of the foreign countries than to their own people. To get more revenue through taxes, the leaders would have to improve their own economies, and this might require making decisions that are politically unpopular in the short run.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Red State vs. Blue State Electricity Usage

People living in red states use almost 50% more electricity than people living in blue states.

I'm not sure why this is, but if I had to guess I bet it has to do with greater urbanization in blue states, greater use of air conditioners in the red states, and high electricity prices in California.

via The Economist


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Will Increased Ethanol Use Lead to Skinner Americans?

I meant to write this up a while ago, and then I happened to see that Dubner over at Freakonomics beat me to the punch.

– Notwithstanding the recent drop, high oil prices have driven a demand for ethanol made from corn.

– Accordingly, the price of corn is rising fast, with July contracts at $4/bushel, about 60 percent higher than last summer.

– With corn so much more expensive, food manufacturers who use corn in so many forms in so many foods will look for substitutes. As the writer Michael Pollan puts it, “Corn is the keystone species of the industrial food system… If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn.”

– Because corn was so cheap for so long, high-fructose corn syrup has become a common substitute for cane sugar. Pollan and others have argued that corn syrup is a great contributor to national obesity.

– Already, one boutique soda company has trumpeted its return to using cane sugar instead of corn syrup. “It’s better for you, it’s better-tasting and, overall, it’s better for the environment,” says the CEO of Jones Soda.

So, as higher oil prices continue to drive demand for corn-based ethanol, which drives the price of corn higher, which makes cheap corn syrup more expensive, which leads food manufacturers to seek out potentially less fattening sweeteners, will Americans get skinnier?
This is basically what I was thinking. Michael Pollan convinced me that most of the cheap unhealthy food Americans eat is based on cheap corn. Not only do you need it for corn sweetener, but also to raise beef. As corn prices go up, so does everything at McDonalds (and the end of the $1 burger). Fruits and vegetables become relatively less expensive and people eat more of them. This all leads to healthier diets (though American's might spend a higher percentage of their income to eat) and skinnier Americans.

Ethanol, is there anything it can't do?


Saturday, January 27, 2007

U.S. Restaurants Blast Kevin Federline TV Ad

A leading restaurant association has called for the cancellation of a TV commercial featuring Britney Spears' estranged husband, Kevin Federline, as a failed rap star working in a fast-food eatery.

But the National Restaurant Association's Chief Executive Steven Anderson has written to Nationwide saying the ad leaves the impression that working in a restaurant is demeaning and unpleasant and asking the commercial to be dumped.

"An ad such as this would be a strong and a direct insult to the 12.8 million Americans who work in the restaurant industry," wrote Anderson, head of the association that represents 935,000 U.S. restaurants. "Developing creative concepts that accomplish the marketing strategies for a product should not require denigrating another industry."
And here I thought Kevin Federline was the one being denigrated.

via Reuters


Automobiles: Manufacture vs. Use

This life-cycle inventory of impacts due to the manufacturing and use stages of an automobile was published by Heather L. MacLean and Lester B. Lave of Carnegie Mellon University, in 1998. They based their analysis on a 1990 Ford Taurus, assuming a vehicle lifetime of approximately 14 years and a fuel efficiency of 21.8 mpg.
A car uses 1.2 million MJ of energy over it's lifetime, with 120,000 MJ (10%) in manufacturing and 1.08 million MJ (90%) in the use phase. Since a of gasoline has 131 MJ of energy, an automobile takes the energy equivalent of 916 gallons to manufacture.

Unlike cellphones or computers, most energy used in a cars life cycle is in the usage phase. It takes 19 times more energy to create a car than a PC and Monitor (which takes 6,400 MJ to manufacture) and 86 times more than a mobile phone (1,390 MJ).

With a lifetime of 14 years, the transportation service an automobile provides (10,000 miles) uses 86,000 MJ a year.

Though energy consumption is a fair approximation of overall environmental impact, the emissions of substances that are toxic to humans don't correlate very well to energy. Emissions of toxics tend to correlate more closely to direct human health impacts, rather than environmental impacts. MacLean and Lave report the toxic releases related to car manufacture and use, and these appear in Figure 2. Interestingly, any environmental or health impacts related to toxic releases will be split fairly evenly between manufacture and use, in contrast to energy, which is dominated by the use stage.
via ILEA


Friday, January 26, 2007

2 Sites to Check Out

While improving traffic lights is my new favorite way to help the environment, number two on my list would be a carbon or gasoline tax. I just found two sites that push forward these causes. makes a compelling case for a $37 a ton of carbon tax. This works out to $.10 a gallon of gasoline or $.0075 a kWh of electricity (US average) and would reduce CO2 output by 2%. is a club founded by Greg Mankiw, former chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, of people who believe the the best way to reduce oil consumption and carbon emissions is to tax them.


So That's How It Is In Their Family

I'm a huge fan of subscription based music, but trying to explain its advantages to others is tough. Finally, someone has put it in terms that anyone can understand.

First off, we have to say that the subscription service is great. Being able to hop online and download as many songs as you want off their library is extremely freeing, in the same sense as walking in your underwear at your in-laws' house and letting one rip.
via Gizmodo


Carbon Footprint of a Mobile Phone

In my on going quest to figure out the environmental impact of every product that I purchase, today I look at cellphones.

After reading this TreeHugger post, I became aware of the LCA of the Mobile Communication System UMTS report which I found at the ESU Services website. This is an excellent report on the energy used and environmental impact of mobile phones, looking at the entire mobile phone infrastructure. I decided to do some further analysis from their numbers to determine the energy use and carbon footprint of manufacturing a mobile phone as well as using it for a year.

How much energy and emissions does manufacturing a mobile phone cause?

Manufacturing a cellphone uses approximately 1390 MJ of energy and produces 60 kg of CO2 emissions (see calculations below).

To put this in perspective, a gallon of gasoline has 131 MJ of energy and emits 8.8 kg of CO2. Therefore, manufacturing a cellphone uses as much energy as 10.5 gallons of gasoline and emits as much as 6.8 gallons of gasoline (energy is higher than emissions due to fossil free electricity from sources such as hydro and nuclear).

A computer and monitor take 6400 MJ to manufacture, or 4.6 times as much as a mobile phone.

The 1.019 billion phones produced in 2006 create approximately 60 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

What is the impact of using a cell phone for a year?

According to the report, using a cellphone for a year on average uses 4,221 MJ of energy (equivalent to 32 gallons of gasoline) and emits 112 kg of CO2 (equivalent to 12.8 gallons of gasoline). These values take into account the entire system and all the energy and materials needed to manufacture and run it: the phones, base stations, switching system, cable system, and administration. It assumes that each phone is used for one year and then replaced.

To put that in perspective, the average American emits 22 metric tonnes of CO2, so 112 kg works out to .5% of that total. The average American eats 150 hamburgers leading to 600 kg of emissions, so mobile phone usage is about 1/5 of that.

What causes the largest environmental impact in the mobile phone system, and what is the best way to reduce it?

Based on the Hierarchist Eco-Indicator'99 method (whatever that is), looking at the entire system, the mobile phone makes up 50% of the impact, the cell antennas 5%, cell base stations 25%, switching system 3%, administration 14%, connection network 3%. Of the phone's impact, 95% is caused by manufacturing and 5% by usage. So, the key environmental impact is caused by the manufacturing of cellphones.

Looking at that manufacturing:

The production of printed wiring boards (PWB) and integrated circuits (IC) make up about 40–50% of the environmental impacts. For these components, the energy consumption, the production of semiconductor dies, and the supply of gold and partly silver is of importance for the assessment.
Just like computers the integrated circuits and printed wiring boards have the largest impact on the process. Even though the weight of the final product of PWB and IC are small, the amount of raw materials, energy required to manipulated those materials and waste is quite large.

More environmentally friendly ways of production or improvements in the efficiency of their production would have a big effect on the overall environmental impact of cell phone usage. Another way to have reduced impact is to use each phone longer.
Increasing service life from one year to four years would decrease the environmental impacts of about 40%. On the contrary, a life time of only half a year results in about 40% more impacts.
I calculate that replacing a cellphone every 2 years rather than one would save 30 kg of CO2 emissions (about 3.3 gallons worth) and 700 MJ. This is a decent savings, approximately equal to reducing your driving 100 miles each year (8 miles a month). If you are trying to decrease your carbon footprint, this will have an impact, but there are other areas that would make a much larger impact.

Surprisingly, whether the phone is recycled or incinerated has little effect on the overall environmental impact.
Despite the fact that a relatively pessimistic scenario for the disposal was selected (incineration of 20% and 80% take back, instead of 100% take back), the environmental impacts for this life cycle phase can be neglected.
Even a take back rate of 0% would not significantly change the environmental impact.


From Table 6 in the report, we find that transferring 1 Gbit in a UMTS system uses 801 MJ of non-renewable energy, 138 MJ of renewable energy and 27 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions. From Figure 6 in the report, I estimate that phones use 35% of non-renewable energy, 20% of renewable energy and 50% of emissions. Multiplying that out, phone usage for 1 Gbit is: 280 MJ of non-renewable energy, 28 MJ of renewable energy and 13 kg of emissions. From this report we find that 0.223 cell phones per GBit, which means 4.5 GBit per cell phone (which is used during 12 months). And no I don't speak German, but Rolf Frischknecht was kind enough to email me the information. So multiplying our values by 4.5 we get 1260 MJ of non-renewable energy, 126 MJ of renewable energy (or 1386 MJ combined) and 58.5 kg of emissions per phone.

Besides manufacturing the phone, this value also includes running it for a year. The report does not spell out what percentage of energy or emissions are used in this phase, but it does say that:
The use of the phone is responsible only for approximately 5% of a UMTS phone's environmental impacts.
I am not sure if the value for energy and emissions is similar, and for the purposes of this analysis will ignore it. Possibly I should reduce the values by 5%, but I would be extremely happy if these calculations were accurate with 25%, so I am not too concerned with it.

For the entire impact of one mobile phone user on the system for one year, we take the 801 MJ of non-renewable energy, 138 MJ of renewable energy and 27 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions per Gbit and multiply it by the 4.5 GBit per year to get 3605+ 621 = 4226 MJ and 112.5 kg.

Assumptions and potential issues

As always, the analysis is only as good as the underlying numbers and the assumptions they hold.

It is not specified what type of phone is being used, or whether it is a generic aggregate of many phones. It is also unclear how much variation in energy use and environmental impact there is between phones.

This is based on the UMTS cellphone protocol. Different protocols could use more energy and have a larger environmental impact.

The data is based on manufacturing the phone in Germany and using it in Switzerland. If the source of fuel to generate electricity is different than assumed this will impact the final results.

Phone usage is assumed to be 4.5 Gbit a year. Greater usage would increase the energy needed to use the mobile phone but also decrease the relative impact of phone manufacturing.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Frilled Shark

A species of shark rarely seen alive because its natural habitat is 600 metres (2,000 ft) or more under the sea was captured on film by staff at a Japanese marine park this week.

Marine park staff caught the 1.6 metre (5 ft) long creature, which they identified as a female frilled shark, sometimes referred to as a "living fossil" because it is a primitive species that has changed little since prehistoric times.

The shark died a few hours after being caught. Frilled sharks, which feed on other sharks and sea creatures, are sometimes caught in the nets of trawlers but are rarely seen alive.
Also check out this video.

via Daily Mail


Green Manhattan

Great read on how dense cities are actually the greenest way to live.

Because densely populated urban centers concentrate human activity, we think of them as pollution crisis zones. Calculated by the square foot, New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than most other American regions of comparable size. On a map depicting negative environmental impacts in relation to surface area, therefore, Manhattan would look like an intense hot spot, surrounded, at varying distances, by belts of deepening green.

If you plotted the same negative impacts by resident or by household, however, the color scheme would be reversed. My little town has about four thousand residents, spread over 38.7 thickly wooded square miles, and there are many places within our town limits from which no sign of settlement is visible in any direction. But if you moved eight million people like us, along with our dwellings and possessions and current rates of energy use, into a space the size of New York City, our profligacy would be impossible to miss, because you’d have to stack our houses and cars and garages and lawn tractors and swimming pools and septic tanks higher than skyscrapers. Spreading people out increases the damage they do to the environment, while making the problems harder to see and to address.

Because of their density, cities have higher usage per square mile, but lower usage per capita. And per capita usage is more important.

Some other interesting points:
  • Apartment buildings are some of the most inherently energy efficient residential structures in the world.
  • A study by Michael Phillips and Robert Gnaizda, published in CoEvolution Quarterly in 1980, found that an ordinary apartment in a typical building near downtown San Francisco used just a fifth as much heating fuel as a new tract house in Davis, a little more than seventy miles away.
  • Elevators, which, because they are counterweighted and thus require less motor horsepower, are among the most energy efficient passenger vehicles in the world.
  • The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties.
  • Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County.
  • People who live in cities use only about half as much electricity as people who don’t, and people who live in New York City generally use less than the urban average.
  • New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty first in per-capita energy use.
  • Public transportation only works when you have over 7 dwellings per acre.
Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the United States and one of the fastest growing among the top ten, yet its public transit system accounts for just one per cent of the passenger miles that New York City’s does. The reason is that Phoenix’s burgeoning population has spread so far across the desert—greater Phoenix, whose population is a little more than twice that of Manhattan, covers more than two hundred times as much land—that no transit system could conceivably serve it. And no amount of browbeating, public-service advertising, or federal spending can change that.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

U.S. Homeowners Can Now "Rent" Solar Panels

Residents of the United States will soon be able to install energy-efficient solar panels on their homes without paying significant upfront costs, according to the renewable energy development company Citizenre.

The Delaware-based business has launched a program that allows customers to “rent” the panels for specified periods of time, paying a per-kilowatt fee that takes the place of the local utility bill. The monthly rate is locked in when the 1, 5 or 25-year contract is signed, so as energy prices go up participants are likely to save money while significantly reducing their output of greenhouse gases.

The rental program, called REnU, is billed as a cost-effective response to the challenges many would-be solar users face when confronted with the high costs of solar system equipment, installation, and maintenance. The program’s only upfront charge is a security deposit of roughly US$500, which is paid back—with interest—at the end of the contract. The REnU website has a “solar savings calculator” that estimates the amount of money households will save by switching to solar power.
I think this is a great idea.

Many renewable energy and energy efficiency projects make sense financially but are hampered by financing issues. The projects have a high enough return on investment, but individuals are unwilling to make the upfront investment to make it happen and the projects are too small for banks and other companies with capital to come in and invest in them.

Citizenre becomes, in a way, a distributed power plant company that pays people to rent their rooftop space. Customers like it because they don't have the upfront cost and can rely on a expert to install and maintain the panels. Investors like it because they can aggregate a bunch of small investments into one larger one. They can get a good rate of return while knowing they are helping the environment.

via WorldChanging


Think Different

With the North Korean people starving and forced to eat grass, the dear leader put on his thinking cap and comes up with the obvious solution: why not import gigantic rabbits so they can eat the grass and then the people can eat the rabbits?

Karl Szmolinsky, a 67 year old, East German pensioner that have bred rabbits the size of dogs for 47 years was asked by North Korea's ambassador whether he might be willing to sell some rabbits to set up a breeding farm in North Korea. Each of Karl's 'German Grey Monsters' weigh about 7kg and can be used to feed 8 people.

This kind of a bold genius idea too often gets shot down in bureaucratic democracies where politicians choose to play it safe with conventional ideas.

My only fear is that giant rabbits are listed on the new North Korean trade sanctions along with iPods.

Thinking like this makes you worthy of an Apple Commercial.


Hekhsher Tsedek

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is drawing up standards for a proposed hekhsher tsedek, or righteous certification, attesting that employees worked in safe factories and weren't exploited, among other things. The new certification would supplement, not replace, the kosher certification.

"We were so concerned that the animal is slaughtered in the most humane way," he said, "that we overlooked the person standing right next to it."

The move gained momentum after a May article in the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper, describing the long hours, unsafe working conditions and exploitation of employees at a kosher meat-packing plant in Iowa.

"She has worked 10- to 12-hour night shifts, six nights a week," said the Forward story, describing one of the immigrant workers. "Her cutting hand is swollen and deformed, but she has no health insurance to have it checked. She works for wages, starting at $6.25 an hour and stopping at $7, that several industry experts described as the lowest of any slaughterhouse in the nation."
While I have no idea how to pronounce it, I find this Hekhsher Tsedek labeling idea very interesting.

I agree that it is ironic to focus on focus more on treating animals humanely and then ignore the human workers. I would be willing to pay more to make sure the workers have a safe environment and get paid a decent wage. If the government regulations and enforcement aren't living up to what I want, a private label that does their own certification seems like a good way to go to make it happen. The more transparency on working conditions, the better.

I would also have no problem if we use more machines and robots and took humans out of this work altogether. These jobs suck. You can make them better but I don't think you can ever make them good jobs.

via Inside Bay Area


Improving Traffic Lights Could Save 17 Billion Gallons of Fuel a Year

There are few things that anger me in life as much as a mistimed traffic light. Now I find out that not only do they annoy me and waste my time, but that they also waste fuel on the order of 10% of all fuel use.

The US Department of Transportation states:

There are more than 330,000 traffic signals in the United States. It is estimated that over 75% of these signals could be improved by updating equipment or by simply adjusting and updating the timing plans. It is further estimated that poor traffic signal timing accounts for 5-10% of all traffic delay on highways or 295.8 million vehicle-hours of delay on major roadways alone. Traffic signal retiming is one of the most cost effective ways to improve traffic flow and is one of the most basic strategies to help mitigate congestion. Optimizing traffic signals can produce benefit cost ratios as high as 40 to 1. The costs for retiming traffic signals generally range from around $500 to $3,000 per intersection.
This report estimates that:
Reduction in fuel consumption of up to 10%. Nationwide this would amount to a savings of almost 17 billion gallons of motor fuels per year.
With a 40 to 1 benefit cost ratio and a potential savings of 17 billion gallons of gasoline, this seems like a no brainer. In fact, I am now ranking this as my #1 preferred way of saving fuel. Sorry, biofuels, hybrids and electric cars. Until we get the traffic light issue sorted out, you have all been demoted.

via Pipeline


Tesco to 'Carbon Label' All Its Products

Tesco will become the first supermarket chain in the world to assign a "carbon label" to every product on its shelves, in an effort to attract ever more environmentally conscious consumers.

The UK's biggest chain said the labels would record the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production, transport and consumption of the 70,000 products it sells.

Tesco will invest £5m in academic research on these methods, working with the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
I think this is great, and something I have been hoping for for a long time (most recently with the Carbon Footprint of a Cheeseburger). Of course the devil is in the details, so hopefully the Environmental Change Institute will do a good job. I suspect the first labels to come out will have questionable accuracy and critics will be able to find many problems with them. But, hopefully this is the beginning of a process that will lead to accurate numbers in the long run.

Who will be the first to add carbon labeling to their products in the US? I think Wal-Mart would be a good bet, given there advanced back-end computer technology, ability to make suppliers do what they want, and new found religion on being green. But, whenever I share this idea, everyone is skeptical. Whole Foods is another possibility.

via via TerraPass


Monday, January 22, 2007

Green Biologics Working on Cellulosic Biobutanol

Green Biologics (GBL), an Oxfordshire (UK) biotechnology company, has received £560,000 (US$1.1 million) in funding to support the development of its fuel biobutanol product—Butafuel—from cellulosic biomass. The Department of Trade and Industry-led Technology Program is providing £250,000 (US$494,000), and shareholder investors and business angels are providing the rest.

Using its library of thermophiles and thermostable enzymes, GBL has isolated a cocktail of thermophilic microorganisms for the rapid enzymatic hydrolysis and release of fermentable sugars from biomass. The company plans to integrate this patented hydrolysis technology with a proprietary butanol fermentation process.
I like it. I think Butanol has many advantages over ethanol and being able to produce it from cellulose is key to using it on a large scale.

via Green Car Congress


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Baking Vs. Buying Bread

What is more environmentally sound: baking your own bread or purchasing a loaf of bread baked in an large bread factory? The answer might surprise you.

In this Life cycle assessment of bread production report (starts on page 9), the authors estimate that producing a 1 kg loaf of bread takes, from growing in the field, to milling, to baking: (values are approximate based on my deciphering of the image at left) 4.4 MJ of energy from a large bread factory, 6.2 MJ for a bakery and 8.2 MJ for baking at home in a bread maker. It takes almost twice as much energy to bake the loaf at home and CO2 emissions correspond with the amount of energy used.

Why is this?

The baking process was the most energy-consuming step of the entire bread production process accounting on average for 64% of the total energy demand. The baking process using a domestic bread maker requires 3 times more energy than in a factory and in the bakery, energy demand is still twice as high than in a large bread factory. Due to the close correlation between energy demand and greenhouse effect the same applies to the greenhouse effect as well.
The industrial sized stoves in a large bread factory use energy much more efficiently per loaf of bread produced then a bread maker at home. Due to this greater efficiency in energy use, purchasing a loaf of bread made in a large bread factory is more environmentally sound than baking a loaf at home.

Of course, depending on how far away the store is and how much you purchase, the energy used by your car to transport the bread can be greater than that used to make it.
In contrast to the transport on foot or by bicycle, which involves zero, respectively negligible emissions and demand of energy, the extreme case of a 4 km car transport, with the sole purpose to acquire 1 kg of bread, will entail an energy demand of 18.6 MJ and the emission of 2.2 g SO2–equivalents. That means the energy demand due to the bread transport is 4 times higher and acidification is 2.5 times higher than that caused by the entire preceding bread production chain (conventional crop production assumed).
This report now makes me wonder, which uses less energy: TV dinners or making your own meals? I will have to look into that.


Using Cell Phones for Food Traceability

But in Japan, it's becoming more and more common to be able to trace the history of your food using your cell phone. The Japanese Food Safety Commission, which was established in 2001 after a Mad Cow Disease (BSE) outbreak, has been working to put food safety in the hands of the consumer by tagging products (even fresh farm produce) with RFID or QR codes that can be read with a cell phone. It's something we talked about a bit last year, but the idea seems to be gaining wider favor, as most Japanese phones produced today come equipped with a QR code reader. According to FOODEX JAPAN's Trend & Info page:
Consumers can trace back the vegetables until the day of harvest, when and where they were packed, how they were shipped, etc. Many of the local producers have followed this example and some even go as far as displaying a picture of the farmer to bring a sense of proximity as additional reassurance to the consumer.
One frequently-cited case study into the use of QR codes on food is Ishii Foods Corporation, which has been posting information about their products online since 2002, "including the retraceable history of the raw materials, the ingredients, production, etc." Digital graphs like those that Ishii puts out are even available on display screens in some supermarket aisles.
I really like this idea of a "backstory" for food and other products. Have the producers become completely transparent about how the product was made. Allow customers the ability to determine the social and environmental impact of the purchase.

I think what the Japanese are doing is a great concrete example of what is possible. I think we should push for similar traceability of food in the US.

The ability to do this with a cellphone is great, and something I hope comes to the US soon (just one of the reasons for my envy of Japanese cellphones). I was looking into using cellphone cameras to be able to scan UPC barcodes, and it looks like it is technically difficult due to the inability of cameraphones to take good close up pictures. But, there is this open-source project so I am hopeful. Otherwise we will have to wait for producers to add 2D barcodes (like the picture shown) that can easily be recognized via a cellphone picture.

via WorldChanging


Minority Report’s User Interface is Now Possible!

Still remember the movie, Minority Report, where visual objects can be manipulated by hand? Jeff Han, a research scientist at NYU’s Courant Institute, has developed a similar interface which responds not only to touch and gestures, but also to varying degrees of pressure. On the demonstration, Jeff flips some photos across the screen, zooms in, throws them away, and calls up new ones.
This is also very similar to the technology in the Apple iPhone.

Check out the video at Fast Company, or watch another version at TED.

I think this is pretty sweet for using Google Earth or sorting through pictures and files. But, before we get all carried away about this being the interface of the future, I question how well it would work for sending an email, writing a document, entering data in a spreadsheet, programming code, or using Photoshop.

via TechFresh


Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Carbon Footprint of a Cheeseburger

While there are carbon calculators that help you to determine how much carbon emissions are created by your consumption, they just look at all of the emissions that you use directly. They don't help you to understand how much carbon emissions are embedded in the goods and services that you purchase. If you look at electricity usage, only 1/3 is purchased directly by consumers. If you assume that ratio hold for the rest of energy use and carbon emissions in general, then 2/3 of the average American's emissions are embedded in the goods and services that they purchase. And yet there are no easily available estimates of the carbon footprints of these goods.

So, I was glad to see the analysis over at Open The Future on the Carbon Footprint of a Cheeseburger based on the Energy Use in the Food Sector report.

I like the idea of the label that he proposes and this goes along with my ongoing look into social and environmental labels. Hopefully all products will have this soon, maybe using an augmented barcode. I still think my idea of a acres and gallons label would capture most of same information as shown here, but be much simpler for the end user to understand.

Footprint of Cheeseburger and Context
The carbon footprint of a Big Mac cheeseburger is 4 kg of CO2 equivalent gases (well really 3.4 to 4.82 kg but I will call it 4, see calculations below). Of that .5 kg is from diesel emissions, .9 kg is from electricity emissions and 2.6 kg is from the cattle eructations and flatulence methane emissions.

To put this in to context, a gallon of gasoline emits 8.8 kg of CO2, so a cheeseburger has the same emissions as about 1/2 a gallon of gasoline.

On a yearly basis, the average American eats 150 burgers leading to 600 kg of emissions. This makes up a little less than 3% of the average American's 24.5 tons (or 22 metric tonnes) of emissions. If you were to eat nothing but cheeseburgers, like Don Gorske who eats 2 Big Macs a day, you would consume 730 a year. This leads to emissions of 2,920 kg or 13% of an average American's emissions.

The average American uses around 500 gallons of gasoline a year (based on this data of 140 billion gallons of gasoline and 40 billion gallons of diesel) emitting 4,400 kg of CO2. The 600 kg of burger emissions are equivalent to about a month and a half of automobile emissions.

Calories to Energy Ratio
6 times (well 3.2-8.85) as much (primarily fossil fuel) energy goes into a burger as calories in the burger. A Big Mac has 540 calories or 2.26 MJ (1 MJ = 239 kcal). Compared to the 7.3-20 MJ of energy to produce the burger that gives us a range of 3.2 to 8.85.

This is actually lower than I expected, as it has been estimated that for every calorie of food produced in the US, 7 additional calories of energy are expended and a commenter here says that Pimentel estimates it takes 28 calories of fossil fuel to grow a calorie's worth of beef.

Ways to Reduce the Footprint
The most obvious one is to eat fewer cheeseburgers. It would be useful to know the footprints of other foods, so you could understand the savings for switching. Unfortunately I don't have such data, but I will be on the lookout for it.

Since most of the emissions come from methane, the biggest gains would come from "reduced methane" beef. This could come from changing the feed to one that causes less emissions, or by capturing the methane that is emitted (I am still pushing for a tube that is inserted into one of the cow's stomachs that draws off the methane gas into a balloon that can then be captured when the cow is milked), or by genetically engineering low methane bacteria for use in the cow's stomachs.

Greater efficiency of energy would also reduce the footprint. Having a higher percentage of electricity come from non emitting sources like wind or solar energy would also help.

Potential Data Issues
These numbers are only as good as the underlying data and assumptions.

This research was done in Sweden on a Big Mac using ingredients from Europe. It is possible that the Swedish Big Mac differs from the American one. I know nothing about Swedish Big Macs other than they are the second most expensive Big Macs in the world. It is also likely that the energy intensity of farming in the US is higher than Europe which would lead to a bigger footprint.

The number of burgers the average American eats a week is debatable, as is how similar the burgers they eat are to the Big Mac used in the analysis.

Calculations of Footprint
There are .074 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions per MJ of diesel fuel energy (10.1 kg emissions per gallon / 36.4 MJ per liter * 3.785 liters per gallon ).

Each burger uses 4.7 to 10.8 MJ of diesel fuel leading to 350g to 800g of emissions. This differs from the 90 to 217 grams estimated in the Open the Future's estimate, I don't know why.

On average there are .169 kg of emissions per MJ of American electricity (1.34 lbs per kWh / 2.2 kg per lbs / 3.6 MJ per kWh).

At 2.6 to 8.4 MJ of electricity per burger this comes to 440g to 1.42kg.

In Open the Future's analysis, there are these two values for electricity emissions: Natural Gas: 37 to 119 grams and Coal: 65 to 209 grams. I chose to use the average electricity of America, which bases emissions on the percentage of energy generated from various sources (natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro and alternative energy) at the national level. But, I was still not able to replicate his numbers. Coal emits .26kg/MJ (2.1 pounds per kWh / 2.2 kg per lbs / 3.6 MJ per kWh) and Natural Gas .16kg/MJ (1.3 pounds per kWh / 2.2 kg per lbs / 3.6 MJ per kWh). For the 2.5 to 8.4 MJ of electricity this would lead to ranges of 676 g to 2.2 kg for coal and 416 g to 1.34 kg for natural gas. Once again, I don't understand the discrepancy.

Combining we get 250g+440g= 790g to 800g+1.42kg= 2.22 kg. Adding in the 2.6 kg of methane emissions gets to 3.4 to 4.82 kg.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Flow Charts

Just in case you were wondering where all the greenhouse gases came from, here are a couple of flow charts for you. Click for larger versions.

via WRI


Thursday, January 18, 2007

At Least They Agree Iraq is an Egg

MR. LEHRER: Is there a little bit of a broken egg problem here, Mr. President, that there is instability and there is violence in Iraq - sectarian violence, Iraqis killing other Iraqis, and now the United States helped create the broken egg and now says, okay, Iraqis, it's your problem. You put the egg back together, and if you don't do it quickly and you don't do it well, then we'll get the hell out.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, you know, that's an interesting question. I don't quite view it as the broken egg; I view it as the cracked egg.
All I want to know is: has this egg reached a boil yet?

via The News Hour


Interesting Articles of the Week

Fatal helium balloon prank secures 2006 Darwin Award.

Planting trees might actually accelerate global warming.

Woman's bra saves her from bullet.

Top 10 accidental discoveries.

A "side effect" of a drug gives people orgasms while yawning.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Japan Unimpressed with iPhone

While Jobs claims the iPhone is 5 years ahead of any other cellphone in the US, it still is 5 years behind those in Japan.

But the revolution is already well underway in Japan, where cellphones are used for everything. Besides downloading music and surfing the Net, Japanese use their cellphones to navigate their way home by global positioning system, to buy movie tickets and to update personal blogs from wherever they are.

It was 3G that sparked the boom in music downloads that makes it common for phones to be used as portable digital music players here.

And it is 3G that has led the Japanese into a world where they can watch live TV on their phones and use them as a charge card to ride trains or buy milk at the corner store or take a taxi. Ticket Pia, Japan's major entertainment ticketing agency, has been selling e-mail tickets to cellphones since October 2003. The phones also can be used to conduct conference calls among as many as five people.

Another widely used 3G feature enables users to point cellphone cameras at bar codes and be directed to websites. For example, every seat in the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball stadium has a bar code, which takes a cellphone to a special home page where users can subscribe to get "inside" information and columns not available on the regular team site.

As with other Japanese baseball clubs, cellphones can be used to buy tickets. Teams have examined the possibility of installing turnstiles that would allow ticket holders to enter stadiums by swiping their cellphones across the terminal. That technology is already used at some movie theaters. And cellphones can be loaded with prepaid credit and then be swiped at terminals to allow access to Japanese trains.
via LA Times


EEStor Announces Two Key Production Milestones

EEStor, the developer of a new high-power-density ceramic ultracapacitor (the Energy Storage Unit—EESU), has broken a long public silence and announced reaching two key production milestones. First, its automated production line has been proven to meet the requirements for precise chemical delivery, purity control, parameter control and stability.

Second, EEStor has completed the initial milestone of certifying purification, concentration, and stability of all of its key production chemicals—notably the attainment of 99.9994% purity of its barium nitrate powder.

The EEStor ESU is projected to offer up to 10x the energy density (volumetric and gravimetric) of lead-acid batteries at the same cost. In addition, the ESU is projected to store up to 1.5 to 2.5 times the energy of Li-Ion batteries at 12 to 25% of the cost.

The EESU alternates multilayers of nickel electrodes and the high-permittivity powder. The resulting parallel configuration of components has the capability to store electrical energy in the range of 52 kWh, according to the document, with weight for a unit of that capacity in the range of 336 pounds (152 kg).

According to EEStor, the EESU will not degrade due to being fully discharged or recharged, and also can be rapidly charged without damaging the material or reducing its life. The cycle time to fully charge a 52 kWh EESU would be in the range of 4 to 6 minutes with sufficient cooling of the power cables and connections.

The first commercial application of the EESU is intended to be used in electric vehicles under a technology agreement with ZENN Motors Company. (Earlier post.) EEStor says that it remains on track to begin shipping production 15 kWh Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 for use in their electric vehicles.
This is great news. I have blogged about EEStor previously. At 1.5 to 2.5 times the energy of Li-Ion batteries at 12 to 25% of the cost, this is a complete game changer for electric cars and storage of renewable energy.

via Green Car Congress, TreeHugger and Clean Break


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Carbon Offset Program for Shipping

uShip, the largest online transportation services marketplace, and TerraPass are working together on a new service, the TerraPass Certified Provider Program.

The program enables uShip service providers to balance out the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the shipment of goods by funding clean energy and efficiency projects. uShip calculates the monthly carbon footprint of service providers enrolled in the program using the weight and distance of shipments booked on uShip. These emissions are then balanced by TerraPass through domestic wind farms, biomethane projects, and energy efficiency projects.
I like it. At Christmas time, I was wondering how much fuel I was using and how much carbon dioxide I was emitting by shipping gifts throughout the country. With data from this service I can finally estimate its impact.

Their new service costs .031781 cents per ton/mile (seems a little exact to me, we aren't splitting the atom here people). A 500lb shipment going 1000 miles would cost $.08. TerraPass offsets for about $8 a ton of carbon dioxide (see roundup of offsetting prices from various companies). At $8 a ton of CO2 this works out to .08 lbs of co2 per ton mile.

I am not sure how they came to this number or what their underlying assumptions were. In terms of fuel use, at 20 lbs of CO2 per gallon of gasoline their price would come to 0.004 gallons of fuel per ton mile. Their estimate for fuel use is low compared to previous data I have looked at for semi-trucks that put it at 117,000 lb mile/gallon or .0086 gallons per ton mile.

I would guess they are just offsetting the fuel use for an eighteen wheeler and are ignoring the energy needed to manufacture the truck and any back office energy expenditures the companies have. I also don't know what they assume for the average load percentage of the truck or average amount of weight that it carries.

I was thinking it would be nice to have an option to offset your carbon when using UPS or USPS, but after looking at the numbers it seems so trivial it isn't even worth it. If I am shipping a 2lb package for 1000 miles, this would work out to .03 cents (that is cents not dollars). As I just wrote about, fuel makes up only 4.8% of UPS's costs. At $2 a gallon of fuel, offsetting comes to $.08 a gallon or 4% of fuel costs. 4% of 4.8% is .2%, so UPS could offset all their carbon for just an extra expense of .2% which is hardly nothing (well it is still $80 million which some people would still consider something but they are obviously small thinkers so you can safely ignore them).

I was wondering how much oil it takes to deliver my Netflix movies. Looks like not much. I was also curious about the impact of ebay renting. Even if you are shipping a 4 lbs package across country (2,500 miles), you are still using only .02 gallons (5 tablespoons if my math is correct) of fuel.

And how about offsetting all of the non-local food I buy at the supermarket? When I looked at this before, I figured I purchased 20 lbs of food a week, so lets call it 1000 lbs a year. The average food product goes 1500 miles (I think this really means it all comes from California, so you can adjust accordingly, but I digress). That gives me 1/2 ton * 1500 miles = 750 ton miles * .031781 =$.23. Just one quarter to offset my purchases for an entire year? Once again I come to the conclusion that buying local food to reduce fossil fuel usage is completely overrated.

via Green Car Congress


Hybrids at UPS

It takes a lot of fuel to move 15 million packages a day.

“We spent over $2.1 billion on fuel last year,” said Mike Herr, the shipping giant's vice president of environmental affairs. “That equates to about 4.8 percent of our operating revenue expenditure.”

That’s one big reason UPS has been on a 20-year quest to cut that cost. This June, UPS turns a critical corner, when 50 new hybrid electric vehicles, or HEV's, hit the road.

FedEx, which has 18 HEV's, with 75 more to come, is looking at a 30 percent reduction.
If you figure they are paying $2.10 a gallon, that is a billion gallons of fuel each year. If they could reduce that by 30% that is a 300 million gallon and a $630 million savings.

It amazes me that with all that fuel, only 4.8% of their expenses is fuel (vs. over 30% for commercial airlines).
For UPS and other fleets that make frequent stops or get stuck in traffic, HEV's may just be the Holy Grail. That’s because each time an HEV brakes or idles, it generates power -- which cuts that vehicle's fuel consumption.
It always seemed to me that UPS and mail trucks would be ideal situations for hybrids. Whereas hybrids have little advantage at highway driving, when you are idling or stuck in stop and go traffic that are at their maximum benefit. I would expect that they would pay for themselves in no time.
“When you can demonstrate to them by spending $5,000 today, you'll save $20,000 over these next 8 months,” said company CEO Mark Clancy “That's when it begins to really get them to sit forward in their chair and take a hard look at us.”
What is that, like a 400% ROI? Yeah, I think they would take that.



Monday, January 15, 2007

The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars

After more than 50 years of stability, federal and state prison populations skyrocketed from under 200,000 persons in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2002. That year, our imprisonment rate rose above 600 inmates per 100,000 adults. With the inclusion of an additional 700,000 inmates in jail, we now incarcerate more than two million people — resulting in the highest incarceration number and rate in the world, five times that of Britain and 12 times that of Japan.

What few people realize, though, is that in the 1940s and ’50s we institutionalized people at even higher rates — only it was in mental hospitals and asylums. Simply put, when the data on state and county mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on prison rates for 1928 through 2000, the imprisonment revolution of the late 20th century barely reaches the level we experienced at mid-century.
I was aware of the high rate of incarceration in the US, but I wasn't aware that it had jumped so much from 1970 or that if you combined incarceration rates with mental hospitalization rates that we are lower than in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

How much of the increased rate of incarceration can be attributed to those who used to go to mental hospitals?
It should be clear why there is such a large proportion of mentally ill persons in our prisons: individuals who used to be tracked for mental health treatment are now getting a one-way ticket to jail. According to a study released by the Justice Department in September, 56 percent of jail inmates in state prisons and 64 percent of inmates across the country reported mental health problems within the past year.

Of course, there are important demographic differences between the two populations. In 1937, women represented 48 percent of residents in state mental hospitals. In contrast, new prison admissions have consistently been 95 percent male. Also, the mental health patients from the 1930s to the 1960s were older and whiter than prison inmates of the 1990s.
Looks like quite a bit, but the different demographics makes me think there are other things going on as well.
One of the most reliable studies estimates that the increased prison population over the 1990s accounted for about a third of the overall drop in crime that decade. However, prisons are not the only institutions that seem to have this effect. In a recent study, I demonstrated that the rate of institutionalization — including mental hospitals — was a far better predictor of serious violent crime from 1926 to 2000 than just prison populations.
If we can keep crime at the same rates but treat but send many people to mental hospitals or drug rehab rather than jail, I think that makes a lot of sense (and probably a lot of taxpayer money as well).

I am also intrigued by the Author's new book: Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age. The book's description:
From random security checks at airports to the use of risk assessment in sentencing, actuarial methods are being used more than ever to determine whom law enforcement officials target and punish. And with the exception of racial profiling on our highways and streets, most people favor these methods because they believe they’re a more cost-effective way to fight crime.

In Against Prediction, Bernard E. Harcourt challenges this growing reliance on actuarial methods. These prediction tools, he demonstrates, may in fact increase the overall amount of crime in society, depending on the relative responsiveness of the profiled populations to heightened security. They may also aggravate the difficulties that minorities already have obtaining work, education, and a better quality of life—thus perpetuating the pattern of criminal behavior. Ultimately, Harcourt shows how the perceived success of actuarial methods has begun to distort our very conception of just punishment and to obscure alternate visions of social order. In place of the actuarial, he proposes instead a turn to randomization in punishment and policing. The presumption, Harcourt concludes, should be against prediction.
I am prone to go with what the actuaries say in a wonkish sort of way, but I am interested to see what his argument is.

via NY Times


What the Buck?

Joe Buck is either a complete moron or he just plays one on TV. During the Chicago Bears - Seattle Seahawks game, he was talking to Troy Aikman about the cleat sizes that the players wore, and asked the following question:

I wish I knew which was longer 3/8", 1/2", 5/8"?

You played in the NFL Troy, which is longer?
Somewhere out there, Joe Buck's 2nd grade math teacher is hanging her head in shame.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Current Time Publish Button for Beta/New Blogger

Another thing that annoyed me about Blogger is that there is no easy way to set the post date and time to the current time. Often times I start working on a post, but don't finish it for a couple of days. It is kind of a pain to have and manually set the time, and often times I forget to do it and the post ends up way down on the blog. So I went ahead and fixed this too.

I have added a new button to the right of the publish button, a "Publish Now" button that will automatically set the post time stamp to the current time before publishing. Once again you need Firefox and Greasemonkey. Then go ahead and install it (or view the userscripts page) and let me know what you think.


Large Post Editor for Beta/New Blogger

If you are like me, the small editor you get in Blogger drives you nuts. All you get is a tiny box to compose your posts and yet there is all this white space surrounding it. So, I decided to get off my butt and do something about it.

With Firefox and GreaseMonkey, I created a script based on the work of Jasper de Vries that will use 100% of the width of the screen. I then added some code to shrink the needlessly large buttons and white space on the top of the screen and increased the height of the edit box. The net result is a large post editor box that totally rocks!

So, go ahead and install it (requires that you already have the Greasemonkey add-on installed) and let me know what you think.


Friday, January 12, 2007

A Surprising Secret to a Long Life: Stay in School

This article takes a look at what does and does not impact health. I think it makes a lot of sense to focus on improving health rather than health care. Surprisingly extra money does not lead to better health and genes don't have much impact on longevity but extra education and social isolation do.

The one social factor that researchers agree is consistently linked to longer lives in every country where it has been studied is education. It is more important than race; it obliterates any effects of income. And, health economists say, those factors that are popularly believed to be crucial — money and health insurance, for example, pale in comparison.

Dr. Smith explains: “Giving people more Social Security income, or less for that matter, will not really affect people’s health. It is a good thing to do for other reasons but not for health.”

Instead, Dr. Smith and others say, what may make the biggest difference is keeping young people in school. A few extra years of school is associated with extra years of life and vastly improved health decades later, in old age.

It was 1999 and a Columbia University graduate student, Adriana Lleras-Muney, was casting about for a topic for her doctoral dissertation in economics. She found an idea in a paper published in 1969. Three economists noted the correlation between education and health and gave some advice: If you want to improve health, you will get more return by investing in education than by investing in medical care.

It turned out that life expectancy at age 35 was extended by as much as one and a half years simply by going to school for one extra year.

Now, others papers have appeared, examining the effects of changed laws on compulsory education in Sweden, Denmark, England and Wales. In every country, compelling children to spend a longer time in school led to better health.
Amazing that education gives a greater return on investment to improve health than medical care.

Why is this?
Dr. Lleras-Muney and others point to one plausible explanation — as a group, less educated people are less able to plan for the future and to delay gratification. If true, that may, for example, explain the differences in smoking rates between more educated people and less educated ones.

He deplores the dictums to live in the moment or to live for today. That advice, Dr. Smith says, is “the worst thing for your health.”
Interesting. This goes along with the Marshmallow Experiment and the idea that skills like delayed gratification should be taught in schools if they aren't taught at home.

What else besides education impacts health?
The risks of being socially isolated are “phenomenal,” Dr. Berkman says, associated with twofold to fivefold increases in mortality rates.

Dr. Smith also asked whether getting richer made people healthier, an effect that could translate into a longer life. It does not, he concluded after studying the large increases in income during the stock market surge of the 1990s.

Health and nutrition early in life, even prenatally, can affect health in middle and old age and can affect how long people live.

For the most part, genes have little effect on life spans. Controlling heart disease risk factors, like smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes, pays off in a more vigorous old age and a longer life.
I would like to understand more about how they came to the conclusion that genes have little impact on life spans. This is counter to other research I have heard of.

While health and wealth are correlated, the direction goes from health to wealth and not the other way around.
If someone developed cancer, heart disease or lung disease — which will affect about a fifth of people aged 51 to 61 over the next eight years — the household’s income declined by an average of more than $37,000. And its assets — its wealth — fell by $49,000 over the ensuing eight years, even though out-of-pocket medical expenses were just $4,000.
I would like to see more research into "health assets" or some way of measuring the aggregate health of Americans in comparison to the total wealth in stocks, bonds and real estate. Seems like there are lots of investments in health that would give a higher return on investment, but without being able to quantify it, it is hard to compare that with investing in stocks. If you have a chance to be an investment banker which allows you to accumulate a lot of wealth but also leads to stress and decreased health, it would be good to be able to quantify that loss of health wealth. Or all the soldiers that are being wounded in Iraq. They are obviously losing health assets, but how much? Or pollution that is being spewed by coal power plants. How much are these decreasing the health assets of people living around them. From the analysis here, a 50 yr old that will get one of these diseases has $50,000 less in wealth than a health individual, but this wouldn't show up on any financial wealth estimates of the two people.

Some really interesting ideas in this article, and there are also a couple of graphs on education and health statistics.

via NY Times


Greedy Gut?

Time for another installment of the ongoing Fat Knowledge look into human gut bacteria.

A group of researchers led by Jeffrey Gordon, of the Washington University School of Medicine, in St Louis, has found that some types of microbes are a lot better than others at providing usable food to their hosts.

Dr Gordon's research is outlined in a paper published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and two others published last month in Nature. In the Nature papers, he and his team reported that obese people have a different mix of gut microbes from that found in lean people—a mix that is more efficient at unlocking energy from the food they consume. Although individuals can harbour up to a thousand different types of microbes, more than 90% of these belong to one or other of two groups, called Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. The researchers sequenced bacterial DNA from faecal samples taken from volunteers and discovered that those who were obese had a higher proportion of Firmicutes than lean people did.
Interesting, never heard of these Firmcutes and Bacteriodetes.
This also turned out to be true in mice, and working with these rodents, the researchers discovered that the types of Firmicute found in obese animals are more efficient at converting complex polysaccharides (a form of carbohydrate that mammals have a hard time digesting by themselves) into simple, usable sugars such as glucose. In effect, the Firmicutes made more energy available from the same amount of food. The researchers were even able to make mice that had been raised in a germ-free environment fatter or thinner by colonising their guts with microbes from either obese or lean mice.
Cool, lets get this started. I wonder how you change the colonization of you gut?

For people that want to stay thin, lets get them more Bacteriodetes. For the vegans, starving Ethiopians, and the diet for a small planet crowd lets give them more Firmicutes so they can eat less and still maintain their body weight. And lets come up a crapper that can tell you the ratio of Bacteriodetes to Firmicutes in your body.

And while we are at it, lets start messing around with genetically modified bacteria so that we can make this symbiotic relationship of ours even more beneficial.
Dr Gordon took normal mice and germ-free mice, and fed both groups a “Western” diet that was high in fat and sugar. The normal mice gained weight; the germ-free mice stayed lean.

By comparing the two kinds of mice, they discovered that the gut microbes in the regular mice were tinkering with their hosts' metabolisms, regulating them in at least two different ways.

First, they suppressed production by the mice's bodies of a substance called fasting-induced adipose factor. This encouraged the mice to store fat. Second, they caused lower levels of another substance, called adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase, which made it harder for them to burn fat that they had already accumulated. The upshot is that gut microbes not only release energy from food, they also encourage bodies to store that energy as fat and to keep the fat on.
Not quite clear to me what germ-free means here. Weren't we comparing Bacteriodetes to Firmicutes ratios? But it is fascinating that the bacteria go beyond just digestion to somehow affect adipose factor and adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase levels. I wonder how they do that?
Unfortunately, further probing showed that the story is a little more complicated, for Dr Gordon did not merely count the gut bacteria of fat and thin people—he then put some of the fat ones on a diet. As these once-obese humans lost weight over the course of a year, their mix of gut microbes changed to reflect their new, svelte status. Why this happened is not clear. It does not seem to have been a result of the composition of the diet, since the effect was the same whether people lost weight with a low-fat diet or a low-carbohydrate diet.
Hmm, so you can affect the type of bacteria in your get based on your weight? I wonder the mechanism through which this works if it isn't diet. Some more complicated feedback loop it appears.
These bacteria can be thought of as an additional digestive organ. Alternatively, humans might view themselves as a sort of collective organism—a human casing surrounding a vast colony of microbes.
Or as I like to call it: I am we.

via The Economist



I've read about these remote control rats before, but the video is pretty cool. Instead of a Scooba, I want a whole bunch of these remote control rats with little sponges on their feet to clean up my floors.

via OpposingDigits


Bush's New Army Recruitment Plan

After hearing about Bush's new surge proposal, I wondered to myself, with the army already stretched so thin and recruitment difficult, where is he going to get the extra troops? Then I watched this video and it all became clear.

via OpposingDigits via Digg


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Taking Control of Electric Bill, Hour by Hour

Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Participants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.

Meters that can read prices every hour or less are widely used in factories, but are found in only a tiny number of homes, where most meters are read monthly.

The handful of people who do use hourly meters not only cut their own bills, but also help everyone else by reducing the need for expensive generating stations that run just a few days, or hours, each year. Over the long run, such savings could mean less pollution, because the dirtiest plants could be used less or not at all.
via NY Times


Blood Oil

From Nigeria to Iraq, Colombia, Chechnya and the Straits of Malacca, a growing global trade in illicit petroleum — as much as 750,000 barrels a day, or one percent of the world oil production — is providing money and weapons for violent conflict.

A conflict consultant I spoke with estimated that the amount of oil that can be stolen in the Niger Delta in just half a day is enough to fund the hiring of 1000 trained militia members for a month and arm them with an arsenal of AK-47’s. The consultant, who asked not to be named because it would prevent him from continuing to work in Nigeria, said conflict oil has made the Niger Delta as dangerous a war zone as Chechnya is.

In Iraq, a similar calculus of oil for weapons is at work for both Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. In 2005, 60 million barrels of oil were unaccounted for, according to Iraq’s oil ministry. That year, fuel smuggling may have cost the government $2.5 to 4 billion. And a percentage of that money went straight to the government’s enemies – insurgents, militias and criminal gangs.

Bilal Wahab, an Iraqi Fulbright scholar at American University in Washington, told me that 1200 tanker trucks smuggling oil crossed a single border point in one 24-hour period. Then he did the math: “A single tanker can make $7450 in profit, after paying bribes. A good car bomb costs about $7000, and if you assume that 30 percent of a single day’s smuggling is going to the insurgents, then you have the capacity for 400 car bombs a day.” By his reckoning, the carnage in Iraq has hardly even begun. (See his paper at The Middle East Forum Web site.)

via Pipeline


Dell Says Plant a Tree, Help the Environment

He said Dell, the computer company he founded, would begin a program called “Plant a Tree for Me,” asking customers to donate $2 for every notebook computer they buy and $6 for every desktop PC. The money would be given to the Conservation Fund and the Carbonfund, two nonprofit groups that promote ways to reduce or offset carbon emissions, to buy and plant trees.

Mr. Dell said the trees would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting the equivalent emissions from the production of electricity for computers over three years.
Interesting. I like the idea, but I would like it even more if they offered the ability to offset the emissions from manufacturing the PC. That is estimated to use 4 times as much energy as running a PC for a standard life of 3 years. It uses the energy equivalent of 50 gallons of gasoline and I would guess it emits around 1,000 lbs of CO2.

Another thing I would love to see is a label on the PC with how much energy was used and how much carbon dioxide was emitted in its manufacturing. If Dell could do that, I think it would have a much bigger impact than the idea they are currently proposing.
Dell offers its customers free recycling of their old computers. Dell said it wants to recover about 275 million pounds of old computers from customers by 2009. “We’re on track, a little ahead, in fact, to meet our goal,” he said.

“I challenge every PC vendor in the industry to join us in providing free recycling,” Mr. Dell said. “This is a better way than government regulation.”
Good stuff. Lets keep all those heavy metals out of our garbage dumps or worse yet shipped to China for disassembly.

On the non-environmental front, Mr. Dell talked about the need to focus on improving the speed of our internet infrastructure.
He noted that high-speed networks are already available in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Dubai, France, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Romania and Slovenia, while the United States lags behind. He said that just 44 percent of American households have a high-speed broadband connection and that only 1 percent of those homes have a fiber connection.
Now even France is ahead of us in high speed Internet access?! What is the world coming to?

via NY Times


Does Christmas Make Economic Sense?

Given the fanfare and billions of dollars in spending it generates, you might think Christmas is the best thing to happen to the economy all year. But some economists say we would be better off without it.

Prof. Waldfogel estimates that if everyone bought gifts only for themselves this holiday season, the added satisfaction would be worth more than $10 billion. He derives the number from a study in which he asked college students to place a value on things they bought on their own and on the gifts they received for Christmas. On average, they valued their own purchases 18% more highly than the gifts.

In-laws were among the most unsuccessful givers: Recipients tended to value their gifts about 40% less than they did their own purchases.
Doesn't look so good for Christmas. How about a second opinion?
In 1998, economists John List of the University of Chicago and Jason Shogren of the University of Wyoming wrote "The Deadweight Loss of Christmas: Comment" in the American Economic Review, a continuation of Waldfogel's research. Their experiment was designed to identify the value that students at the University of Central Florida placed on gifts they received. The economists found, as did Waldfogel, that when students were asked to hypothetically value their gifts, the gifts appeared to be losers. But List and Shogren went beyond the speculation and allowed the students to auction off the items to other students. They found that students were much more attached to their gifts when confronted with the possibility of having to sell them. Students exposed their gifts to auction only if the minimum price they would receive was about 27 percent higher than the true cost of the gift. If that psychological value is applied to all gifts in the United States, then the net gain each year from holiday gift giving is about $123 billion.
Well that is a little better. Interesting idea to try and quantify sentimental value. But, this concept seems kind of a stretch for economics, could we get a second opinion, say, maybe from somebody with a Nobel Prize?
Strikingly, sentimentality has been found to apply even to gifts given randomly in an experimental setting. In one famous study, "Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem" by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and two coauthors, published in 1990 in the Journal of Political Economy, students at Simon Fraser University in Canada were given coffee mugs from the college bookstore and then asked whether they would sell the mugs at prices ranging from 25 cents to $9.25. A second group was asked whether they would buy a mug at the same prices. Those who received the gifts were possessive of their new treasures, and were coaxed into giving them up only at prices above $7.12. But those who did not receive the mugs as gifts found them unattractive, and were willing to buy them only if they cost less than $3.12.

That $4 difference is attributable to the psychological value of a gift. The recipient experienced a thrill when he or she received the mug, which became the apple of their eye. Those who were offered a chance to buy a mug experienced no such thrill.
Alright, I am sold.

via The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post