Monday, April 30, 2007

Do Americans Support a Gasoline Tax? Depends on How You Phrase It

While I am a huge fan of a gasoline tax (or a Patriot Tax as Tom Friedman calls it), it doesn't have much support from any politicians. I figured that was because the American public is overwhelmingly against it. But, when you take a look at this poll, the results are really dependent on how you ask the question.

When asked generically whether they would be in favor of a $2 dollar federal gasoline tax, 76% were not in favor. When asked about a $1 tax, 70% were against it.

When the question was modified to In order to cut down on energy consumption and reduce global warming, would you favor or oppose an increased federal tax on gasoline? Then only 58% opposed.

Switched to what if an increased tax on gasoline was used to help pay for the war on terrorism and would reduce the United States' dependence on oil from countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, then would you favor or oppose an increased federal tax on gasoline? 49% opposed (44% were in favor).

Surprisingly, when asked would you be willing or not willing to pay higher taxes on gasoline and other fuels if the money was used for research into renewable sources like solar and wind energy then 64% were willing.

64% were also in favor if asked if an increased tax on gasoline would reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil, then would you favor or oppose an increased federal tax on gasoline.

Moral of the story is that a majority of people are willing to support a gasoline tax to lessen dependence on foreign oil or to support research in renewable energy, but not to cut down on energy consumption and reduce global warming. That or else people just like to screw with pollsters who ask the same question 6 different times.

via NY Times


Interesting Articles of the Week

Gator attacks naked man on crack.

See with your tongue. Navigate with your skin. Fly by the seat of your pants.

The way we live now: you are what you grow.

For $82 a day, booking a cell in a 5-star jail.

Mouse brain simulated on computer.

Mayor Bloomberg proposes a congestion fee for Manhattan.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

New has undergone a Web 2.0 upgrade and the result is really good. I was excited a little over a year ago when Charlie decided to make his interviews available on Google Video. This site upgrade makes it much easier to find interviews that appeal to you.

His entire library of material is available and all of it free to view online. Instead of being limited to watching whomever Charlie is interviewing on TV tonight, you have the option of watching any interview he has conducted over his full career.

You can search for interviews based on guest, topic, or keyword tags. There are also "features" which are basically playlists of interviews that are on a particular topic such as The Indian Ascent. Want to watch all of Bill Gates videos and see how he has changed over the years? Go for it. Want to go back and see whose predictions were right and wrong on Iraq? That is there too.

Each segment is rated by viewers, so you can use the wisdom of the crowd to determine which of his interviews are best. Viewers can also leave comments on each segment, which you would hope will allow for more information on the guest to come out (but from a quick glance it looks likely that it will just be taken over with flame wars). There is a share button on each interview so you can include them on your blog or website (which I will be taking full advantage of).

While overall the site is really good, I have two hopes for improvement.

First, I wish they included a transcript of each interview on the site. This is a standard feature of most other news websites now. It gives you the ability to read the interview rather than watch it which is much faster. It also makes it easy to blog a quotation from the interview. While there is the ability to purchase a transcript, the $10 a show price is crazy.

Second, I wish they allowed people to submit their own playlists. The Features section has this for topics that the producers define, but I think creative viewers could do even better. Just like Rhapsody allows you to share playlists and Amazon allows users to submit lists of products, so too should Charlie Rose.

Charlie Rose has done tons of great interviews over the years, and they are all now easily accessible. I would recommend that you check out the site and find one to enjoy for yourself.


Gut Genome Project

While most consider the Human Genome Project to be complete and have mapped out all the genes that make us human, in fact if you count the genes of the bacterias living in our guts that we can't live without, we are less than 10% of the way there.

To more precisely hack the gut bacteria, Blaser calls for a Gut Genome Project, modeled after the Human Genome Project. It's a daunting task: The human genome, mapped to great fanfare but still dimly understood, contains a tenth of the genes believed to be in our gut bacteria. But though difficult, such research could prove vital.
I think a Gut Genome Project makes a lot of sense and hope that the scientific community goes after it.

Why is this important to health?
"Many of the most difficult problems in medicine today are chronic inflammatory diseases," says Blaser. "These include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, atherosclerosis, eczema and multiple sclerosis. One possibility is that they're autoimmune or genetic diseases. The other possibility is that they are physiological responses to changes in microbiota."

In a recent study, Kukkonen and her colleagues gave a probiotic containing four strains of gut bacteria to 461 infants labeled as high risk for developing allergic disorders. After two years, the children were 25 percent less likely than those given a placebo to develop eczema, a type of allergic skin inflammation.
Who knows what other health ailments could be treated with healthier gut bacteria?

Even the H. Pylori bacteria that leads to ulcers in some people might be benifical to others:
H. pylori's decline, says Blaser, correlates with a rapid rise in those afflictions. H. pylori deficiency may also contribute to obesity, he says, because the bacteria help regulate production of two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, that affect metabolism and appetite.
Our ignorance of gut bacteria is profound. A Gut Genome Project would help to correct this and would lead to increased health.

via Wired


Gut Bacteria Key to Long Life?

New research suggests that gut bacteria are responsible for increased longevity in calorie restricted diets.

Choline is made available for absorption from the intestine by the activities of the gut bacteria that are liberating it for their own purposes. The amount of aliphatic amines in urine is thus an indirect measure of how much choline is available. As in the case of creatine, this differed between the two groups. Dogs on the restricted diet had lower levels of the amines in their urine than did their well-fed counterparts—implying that less choline was being made available. And if less choline were available, that would limit a dog's ability to metabolise fats, and thus restrict its metabolic rate.

The apparent drop in choline levels was much greater than could be accounted for by a relative lack of food, so Dr Nicholson suspects that the restricted diet was also causing the composition of the dogs' gut flora to change in a way that did not favour choline-munching bugs.
Since Americans aren't likely to cut back on calories anytime soon, how much you want to bet that there are scientists trying a way to modify the gut bacteria to get the same longevity increase without requiring the caloric cutback?

via The Economist


Dole Organic Bananas Farm Labeling

Dole Organic Bananas has added a farm number to each of their labels, which you can then lookup on the internet to get more information on that particular farm, including actually viewing its location with Google Earth.

I like this concept as you can track your food back to the actual farm it was grown on. I hope that Dole adds even more information on each farm and that other companies add such labels to their products.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bush Dances Part II

I always love it when Yahoo's Most Emailed Photos ends up with a couple of photos that are just perfect together. Today's example:


Bush Dances

Not quite MC Rove bad, but close.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Virgin Earth Challenge

Airline tycoon Richard Branson announced a $25 million prize for the first person to come up with a way of scrubbing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere in the battle to beat global warming.

The prize will initially only be open for five years, with ideas assessed by a panel of judges including Branson, Gore and Tickell as well as U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, Briton James Lovelock and Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery.

The winner will have to come up with a way of removing one billion metric tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years -- with $5 million of the prize being paid at the start and the remaining $20 million at the end.
I like the idea of issuing a prize for this. Get some smart people competing for the cash and the presitige of winning. If such a device could be built it would be very valuable. I sure hope Klaus Lackner has heard about this.

I wonder though if $25 mil isn't a little on the low side (and only $5 mil of that is upfront) given the potential impact of such a device. $5 million in VC money doesn't support a very large startup in Silicon Valley, so I don't see how that will be enough to attract a team of great minds to spend a lot of time tackling this problem.

via Reuters


2 Really Fun Flash Games

Warning: Don't read the following post if you have any work you need to get accomplished this week.

I have been playing two web based flash games and they have me totally addicted.

1) Kdice is a multi-player Risk like game based on Dice Wars.

2) Desktop Tower Defense is a single-player game where you build towers and try and shoot down "creeps".

Play at your own risk. Fat Knowledge will not be held responsible for hours (err, make that days) of wasted time as you attempt to master each one.


Friday, April 20, 2007

What's Your Excuse?

via Humor Archives via Digg


The Year in Ideas

I have finally gotten around to reading the New York Time Magazine's annual Year in Ideas edition. Definitely worth a read (although the online version makes it hard to read them, sure wish they put all of them on one page that you could scroll through).

My Favorites:

Empty-Stomach Intelligence

Low Starting Prices Lead to High Auction Sales (that has always been my winning Ebay strategy)

The Social-Cue Reader


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tom Friedman: The Power of Green

Tom Friedman lays out a comprehensive vision of where America needs to go and why in his The Power of Green NY Times Magazine piece. Long, but a worthy read.


Average American Consumes 1500 Pounds of Corn a Year

I am reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and the information Michael Pollan throws down about corn usage in America is amazing. The US is the number one consumer of corn per capita in the world. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans consume 700 kg (1540 lbs) per capita a year.

Wow! Every man, woman and child consumes 1500 pounds of corn a year, or over 4 pounds a day! That is unbelievable.

Where does all that corn go? 60% of corn grown in the US is feed to livestock. The beef, chicken and pork you eat all came courtesy of corn. Corn is also used to make high fructose corn syrup which has replaced sugar in most soft drinks. And then there is ethanol which accounted for 20% of the 2006 crop.

Pollan explains that you can take a tissue or hair sample and actually see what percentage of the food you ate originated as corn. I don't completely understand how this works, but it goes something like this. Corn is a C4 plant whereas wheat, rice and potatoes are C3 plants. C4 plants absorb more of the carbon-13 isotope (or C-13) than the C-12 isotope (another isotope of carbon is C-14 which allows for carbon dating). By comparing the ratio of C-13 to C-12 in a hair or tissues, you can determine where the carbon originally came from and hence what you have eaten (or what the animals you have eaten have eaten).

When Pollan had his meal at McDonalds analyzed he found the following:

In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100% corn), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%) and French fries (23%). What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.
Americans typically think of themselves as wheat eaters because they eat 114 lbs of wheat flour per person per year vs. only 11 pounds of corn flour. Mexicans on the other hand consider themselves People of the Corn as 40% of the calories they eat come from corn, most in the form of tortillas. But based on the tissue samples, we are the ones who should rightfully should claim the label. Mexicans still eat beef that has been raised on grass and drink soft drinks sweetened with cane sugar while both of those are made from corn now in the US.

What are the implication for the US of consuming so much corn? NationMaster has a neat tool that shows what each statistic correlates with. The top 6 statistics that correlate with corn consumption per capita : Meat production (per capita) (correlation at 81%), Ecological footprint (71%), Economic activity > Men aged 40-44 (inverse) (70%), Total expenditure on health as % of GDP (67%), Economic activity > Men aged 45-49 (inverse) (65%), Employment in arms production (per capita) (60%). So, nations with high corn consumption eat a lot of meat, have a large ecological footprint, have low economic activity in men aged 40-50, high health expenditures and high arms production employment. Yikes!


2 Chickens Break Up Rabbit Fight!


Real Estate Roller Coaster

Blogger Richard Hodge at plotted inflation-adjusted housing prices onto a roller-coaster video ride.

Neat way to look at the data.

via Freakonomics


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Daily Show/Colbert Report viewers have more knowledge of current events than viewers of any other news show.

Chimpanzees outperform humans in immediate memory tests.

Dinosaur soft tissue sequenced; Similar to chicken proteins.

The prospect of all-female conception.

Wal-Mart Backs Down from Organics.

Every household in the UK will be able to request a free device that shows how much electricity is being used in the home at any one particular moment.

Yahoo goes carbon neutral including employee commuting.


Children and Happiness

In comparing identical twins, Kohler found that mothers with one child are about 20 percent happier than their childless counterparts; and while fathers' happiness gains are smaller, men enjoy an almost 75 percent larger happiness boost from a firstborn son than from a firstborn daughter. The first child's sex doesn't matter to mothers, perhaps because women are better than men at enjoying the company of both girls and boys, Kohler speculates.

Interestingly, second and third children don't add to parents' happiness at all. In fact, these additional children seem to make mothers less happy than mothers with only one child—though still happier than women with no children.

"If you want to maximize your subjective well-being, you should stop at one child," concludes Kohler, adding that people probably have additional children either for the benefit of the firstborn or because they reason that if the first child made them happy, the second one will, too.
As a first child, I always knew that I added happiness to my parents life but my younger sister didn't. Glad to see that the research now backs me up. :)

via Psychology Today via Marginal Revolution via


Carbon Labeling

According to this EPA Report, in 2005 the US emitted 7,260 Tg of CO2 equivalent gases of which 1,248 Tg came from residential use and another 1,208 Tg came from personal transportation (personal transportation accounts for 60% of total transportation). Therefore the carbon emissions that come from our direct purchase of fossil fuels and electricity only account for 34% of total emissions. The other 66% comes from the "embedded carbon" in the goods and services that we purchase.

If you are trying to minimize your carbon footprint, 2/3 of your total impact is hidden from your view (and from most carbon calculators). Fortunately, Carbon Trust has created a new carbon label which determines the amount of embedded carbon emissions in various consumer products.

This paper by the Carbon Trust takes a look at two pilot projects they have done for carbon labeling: newspapers and potato chips. Turns out a bag of potato chips has a carbon footprint of 75g, while a newspaper comes in at 174g.

They determine this value by using doing a lifecycle analysis on the product "from source to store". Beyond helping customers to know what the footprint is, this analysis helps companies see what part of the process leads to the most emissions. For example with paper, "80% of the carbon footprint is added by processes and raw materials used by other companies in the supply chain." The best way for the newspaper company to improve their carbon footprint is to put pressure on their supply chain rather than making an improvement in their internal processes like printing or delivering the papers.

The value that appears on the label does not take carbon offsetting into account. While I think this is good as it lets you know how much fossil fuel energy was used to make the product, I wonder if they couldn't find some way to represent offsetting in the label as well. Maybe they could have a little thermometer like icon to the right of the label that shows what % of the value was offset. Or maybe they could just build it right into the current label, where the lower X% of the label would be green to represent that X% of the CO2 had been offset.

Overall, I think this type of analysis and labeling is very helpful and hope that the Carbon Trust is able to label up a bunch of products very soon.


E.O. Wilson's TED Wish: The Encyclopedia Of Life

E.O. Wilson is a professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard. His TED Wish (check out the video in flash or Quicktime HD):

I wish that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life.
I like this idea a lot. Why is this needed?

As he laid out in his Encyclopedia of Life paper:
Most people are surprised to learn that most of biodiversity is still entirely unknown. They assume that taxonomy all but wound down generations ago, so that today each new species discovered is a newsworthy event. The truth is that we do not know how many species of organisms exist on Earth even to the nearest order of magnitude. Those formally diagnosed and given Latinized scientific names are thought to number somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million, with no exact accounting having yet been made from the taxonomic literature. Estimates of the full number, known plus unknown, vacillate wildly according to method. As summarized in the Global Biodiversity Assessment (1995), they range from an improbable 3.6 million at the low end to an equally improbable 100 million or more at the high end. The commonest order-of-magnitude guess is ten million.
I know I was certainly surprised when I first looked into it. I assumed that most of the species had been found and named, not that scientists don't even have a good guess how many total species there are.

So what is the plan?
  • Join the efforts of key institutions around the world who have begun building momentum to make this happen.
  • Build an encyclopedia that lives on the Internet, with an ever-evolving page for every species.
  • Ensure that its content does not duplicate existing efforts, but instead incorporates them through linking.
  • Open the encyclopedia to allow the contribution of thousands of scientists and free access to anyone.
  • Make the world aware of the importance of this initiative to inspire preservation of earth's bio-diversity.
I think that sounds good. There are two similar projects that I have found on the internet, hopefully they will be integrated with this project. The first is the All Species Foundation, but it doesn't appear to be active anymore. The second is the Catalogue of Life which appears to be making progress as they recently announced their 1 millionth species cataloged:
The 10-year project, which began in 2001, plans to cover all estimated 1.75 million known species by 2011. It has so far involved a worldwide collaboration of 3000 biologists, and links about 50 databases that relate to different groups of organisms from the six kingdoms of life. Information on each species – including their common and scientific names, and geographic distribution – is validated by experts before being added, a big advantage compared to other lists available on the Internet.
I also hope that they collect and display estimated population size of each species, or as I call it a species census. The Census of Marine Life has some good data for that, hopefully it will be linked in.

One thing that he doesn't explicitly mention, that I think would be very beneficial is to wikitize this project. By that I mean allow volunteers to be active participants in the discovery of the species and in the displaying of the information. is a great example of how scientists and amateur bird watchers can work together to collect data. Hopefully they can take advantage of the volunteers that are creating the software and entering the data on the Wiki Species project.

I think lots of people would be willing to volunteer their time to go and discover new species. Especially if they get the chance to name that species after themselves, a hero (though they should think twice before naming a hero after a beetle), or even sell the naming rights to the highest bidder. For the millions of species of insects and other small creatures that haven't been found, there is ample opportunity for volunteers to discover their own species. I know I would want to try my hand at it.

I really like his Encyclopedia of Life wish and am excited to hear how it turns out when he reports on it next year.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Home Depot to Display an Environmental Label

Home Depot today will introduce a label for nearly 3,000 products, like fluorescent light bulbs that conserve electricity and natural insect killers, that promote energy conservation, sustainable forestry and clean water.

The initiative — which is expected to include 6,000 products by 2009, representing 12 percent of the chain’s sales — would become the largest green labeling program in American retailing and could persuade competitors to speed up their own plans.

Suppliers that qualify for the Eco Options label will be rewarded with what preferential treatment — like prominent shelf space in the nearly 2,000 Home Depot stores in the United States and aggressive marketing through weekly newspaper inserts..

Merchandise can qualify for the new line in two ways. It either meets widely accepted federal and industry standards, like the Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council certification process, or its environmental claims are tested and validated by an outside company, Scientific Certification Systems. Ultimately, Home Depot, rather than a third party, determines what products will receive an Eco Options label.
I like it. I am interested to see how it will play out.

Will customers be willing to purchase the Eco Options products, especially if they cost more?

Will the Eco Options label be strict enough to be meaningful or will it become greenwashing?

via NY Times


Monday, April 16, 2007

Three Innovative Animal Tracking Projects

I have recently come across three innovative animal tracking projects.

First, there is The Great Turtle Race. This follows the progress of 11 turtles as they swim from Costa Rica to the Galapagos Islands. I was going to put my money on Stephanie Coburtle to win the contest, but then I realized that this race is just an ivory tower liberal elitist enterprise which would never allow Stephen Colbert's turtle to take it all.

Second, scientists are enlisting narwhals to measure the water temperature around Greenland.

The two lead scientists -- Kristin Laidre at the Polar Science Center and Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources -- hope to attach satellite tags to as many as 10 narwhals over the course of a year. The tags have time, depth and temperature recorders that will allow researchers to track whale movements and diving behavior and ocean temperatures in Baffin Bay.
I am all for strapping satellite tags on creatures, and if you are going to go that far, might as well have them gather other data for you as well.

Third, is the ebird project.
A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

eBird’s goal is to maximize the utility and accessibility of the vast numbers of bird observations made each year by recreational and professional bird watchers. It is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence. For example, in 2006, participants reported more than 4.3 million bird observations across North America.
I like the open source approach to data collection, and the mapping and data analysis that you can do on the site is pretty cool.



I just found this WoldCat website, which allows you to search for items in libraries near you. It is real useful if you are trying to hunt down a book (or music, or video, or article) and your local library doesn't have it.

Good stuff.



This morning we are proud to announce the debut of our brand-new TED website. The site has been completely redesigned to focus on our award-winning TEDTalks, video and audio recordings of great presentations from TED Conferences by speakers including Malcolm Gladwell, Jane Goodall, Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and 94 others, including 30 talks never available to the public until today.
I just checked it out and it looks pretty cool. Can't wait to start watching some of the videos. I particularly liked this one by E.O. Wilson (I need to do a blog post on it, hopefully soon).

via TED Blog


Friday, April 13, 2007

Eyesight Chip

Now Humayun is developing a device that mimics the function of the retina and which he hopes will one day restore a useful degree of sight in patients affected by retinal diseases.

The retinal implant consists of a set of electrodes on a chip that is surgically attached to the retina. It wirelessly receives images from a tiny lightweight video camera mounted on a pair of glasses.

The first model of the implant allowed patients to perceive light and to detect motion using just sixteen electrodes. The new model uses sixty electrodes or pixels. The new implant with sixty pixels, he says, is one quarter the size of the original and requires only 90 minutes to implant as compared with nearly seven hours for the earlier device.

Humayun says he expects tests with the new implant to provide the information researchers need to design a third generation device that will have the image resolving power necessary to benefit AMD patients. That would be an implant with hundreds or even a thousand electrodes. "That's where we're headed," he says, "so we can get to the point of allowing the patients to read and recognize faces."

Based on testing of the current implant, Humayun hopes to receive FDA approval for a device that restores partial vision for RP patients to the market in two to three years.
via ScienCentral


Memory Implant

Cutting edge research is being performed by Ted Berger and his team on creating a memory implant.

It’s straight mechanic-talk from the man who has created a prototype of the world’s first memory implant, basically a hardware version of the brain cells in your hippocampus that are crucial to the formation of memory. The chip is meant to replace damaged neurons in the same way other prosthetic devices stand in for missing limbs or improve hearing.

Their chip models fewer than 12,000 neurons, compared with the 100 billion or so present in a human brain.

Jeff LaCoss, the senior electrical engineer on Granacki’s team, hands me a working model of the memory chip. Similar to the one I witnessed at Wet Lab 412C and lighter than a feather, it disappears in my palm. The chip, LaCoss tells me, represents 100 neurons that can individually receive analog signals from live brain tissue, convert them to digital signals, and then reconvert them to an analog signal relayed to healthy neurons on the other side.

Within four years, the team aims to wire a chip beneath the skulls of monkeys, whose brains are even closer to humans. Berger predicts that human trials of a prosthetic device that can actually replace impaired memory cells are less than 15 years away.
Just 15 years left to wait before we can get a memory upgrade.

via Popular Science


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Neurotheology or as I call it a Darwinian explanation for why people don't believe in Darwinian explanations.

Scientists de-stinkify the durian fruit.

Flexible Batteries That Never Need to Be Recharged

Annual revenues of the global solar equipment industry projected to grow from $20bn last year to $90bn in 2010

Nanogenerator provides continuous power by harvesting energy from the environment

Indian schools churn out 400,000 new engineers every year, but as few as 100,000 are actually ready to join the job world, experts say.

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Creates $100-Million Climate Change Initiative


116 MPG in a Prius

Toya, a 56-year-old manager for a tofumaker in central Japan, puts special tires on his Prius, tapes plastic and cardboard over the engine, and blocks the grill with foam rubber. He drives without shoes and hacks into his car's computer -- all in the pursuit of maximum distance with minimum gasoline.

Toya is one of about 100 nenpimania, Japanese for "mileage maniacs," or hybrid owners who compete against each other to squeeze as much as 115 miles per gallon out of their cars. In a country where gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon, at least $1 more than the U.S. price, enthusiasts tweak their cars and hone driving techniques to cut fuel bills and gain bragging rights.

Toya, nicknamed "The Shogun," said he drove 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) on a single 13-gallon (49-liter) tank 17 times last year, an average of 79 miles per gallon. At the advertised efficiency rate, a driver would get 715 miles per tank.

Toya isn't the best, though. A woman from Akita prefecture, nicknamed "Teddy-Girl," is cited on mileage maniac Web sites as getting almost 116 mpg.
Nenpimania, I like it!

More information on Teddy-Girl's 116 mpg run.

And if you are looking to replicate Teddy-Girl's results, check out this Mother Jones article on hypermilers. Wayne Gerdes got 180.91 mpg in a Honda Insight using the following techniques:
"That's a forced auto stop," he says, which is putting the car in neutral, turning off the engine, and gliding. d-fas is a "draft-assisted fas," which means fasing while you're tailgating an 18-wheeler to reduce air resistance. dwb means "driving without brakes," which is not really driving without brakes—even Wayne doesn't do that—but driving as if you don't have brakes. P&G is a pulse and glide, which I still don't understand, but Wayne defines it in his notes for his Hybridfest presentation this way: "In a nutshell, it includes a fas in many hybrid and non-hybrid automobiles to a lower target speed (some hybrids can be influenced into this mode of operation with the right application of multiple accelerator pedal inputs), reigniting the ice, re-engagement of the tranny with the rev match, and re-acceleration to a higher target speed, repeat." Got it?
And of course you will want to get yourself an ice vest so you won't need to turn on the AC.

via The Chicago Tribune via The Raw Feed via TreeHugger via digg


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Charity Gap

But there is a surprising disconnect between Americans' philanthropic aspirations and their charitable giving. The vast majority of givers believe the bulk of their donations help those less fortunate than themselves. In fact, less than one-third of the money individuals gave to nonprofits in 2005 went to help the economically disadvantaged, according to a new study commissioned by, the philanthropic arm of Google. Of the $250 billion in donations, less than $78 billion explicitly targeted those in need.

The analysis, carried out by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, concluded that only 8% of donations provide food, shelter or other basic necessities. At most, an additional 23% is directed to the poor -- either providing other direct benefits (such as medical treatment and scholarships) or through initiatives creating opportunity and empowerment (such as literacy and job training programs).

The "charity gap" is even wider among the affluent. But people who earn more than $1 million per year give only 4% of their donations for basic needs and an additional 19% to other programs geared toward the poor. For the wealthiest Americans, education and health care comprise the majority of donations. Yet in education, fewer than nine cents per dollar pays for scholarships; in health, only 10 cents per dollar funds programs targeted to the needy.

For people with annual incomes below $100,000, religious giving dominates, comprising two-thirds of all donations. While the church food drive may be in donors' minds as they reach into their pockets, less than 20 cents of every dollar given to religious organizations funds programs for the economically disadvantaged.

The "charity gap" becomes more acute as the scale goes global. The most generous estimate shows that only 8% of U.S. individual donations supports international causes of any kind.
Interesting. I hope we see more thoughtful analysis like this from

via WSJ via CharityFocus Blog


Planet Green

The other day I was thinking to myself, with the 104 channels the average American is getting, why isn't there one dedicated to environmentalism and green living? Then bam! I read this:

Now Discovery Communications is announcing something even bigger: they’re adding a whole new network. Called Discovery PlanetGreen, the network will be one-of-a-kind with 24-hour programming dedicated solely to living a green lifestyle. “The Earth has been central to Discovery since John Hendricks first chose the planet to represent our brand,” said Chief Executive David Zaslav. “The goal of Discovery PlanetGreen is to use Discovery's worldwide credibility to be the most comprehensive and trusted global resource for celebrating, preserving and protecting the planet.”

In addition to a new network, the global initiative also includes a $50 million investment in new original content (with the first new special series called Ten Ways to Save the Planet) and a robust multi-platform offering with interactive tools and comprehensive "how-to" resources. Other aspects of the initiative include plans to secure the LEED Silver certification and to make its global headquarters a carbon-neutral building, and to work with a broad coalition of well established partners, such as The Nature Conservancy, us at TreeHugger and Grist, to produce relevant and entertaining programming, provide timely, reputable information, and inspire individuals to make a difference.
I am excited to see what they can pull off.

via TreeHugger


Planet Earth

If you haven't checked out the Planet Earth series on the Discovery Channel, you will definitely want to add it to your Netflix Queue. My favorite segment is this super super slow mo video of a Great White getting a seal (the second attack is better than the first in my opinion). It took them two weeks of filming to get these 2 minutes of video, but they are totally worth it.

This expedition was headed by my hero Chris Fallows, who starred in the excellent documentary Air Jaws. That was my favorite documentary of all time before it got bumped by Cracking the Ocean Code.


Sunday, April 08, 2007



Taking Nature's Cue For Cheaper Solar Power

Solar cell technology developed by Massey University’s Nanomaterials Research Centre will enable New Zealanders to generate electricity from sunlight at a 10th of the cost of current silicon-based photo-electric solar cells.

New solar cells developed by Massey University don't need direct sunlight to operate and use a patented range of dyes that can be impregnated in roofs, window glass and eventually even clothing to produce power.

Dr Wayne Campbell and researchers in the centre have developed a range of coloured dyes for use in dye-sensitised solar cells.

The green dye Dr Campbell (pictured) is synthetic chlorophyll derived from the light-harvesting pigment plants use for photosynthesis. Other dyes being tested in the cells are based on haemoglobin, the compound that give blood its colour.

He says the green solar cells are more environmentally friendly than silicon-based cells as they are made from titanium dioxide – a plentiful, renewable and non-toxic white mineral obtained from New Zealand’s black sand.

“The next step is to take these dyes and incorporate them into roofing materials or wall panels. We have had many expressions of interest from New Zealand companies,” Professor Partridge says.
Very interesting proof of concept they have come up with (although this commenter thinks this technology has been around for 17 years). Not using silicon is important as it is energy intensive to make and currently expensive as the increased demand for solar cells and computing products has gone ahead of supply.

The ability to integrate into roofing material, glass or clothing would make this very valuable and greatly increase the reach of solar power. I hope they are able to get a commercial product released soon.

via Science Daily and Stuff


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ph.D in Happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading expert on well-being, is establishing what he calls the world's first Ph.D program focusing on positive psychology and the analysis of happiness, at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.

His program, co-founded by assistant professor Jeanne Nakamura, an expert on creativity and mentoring, isn't about quick fixes. Rather than teaching people how to be happy or educating happiness coaches, the school will train graduate students first in statistical methodology and then in specific research techniques. A small group of graduate students, about 10 at first, will use those tools to survey and analyze the variables that affect people's satisfaction. The first group will enroll this fall, and the program has already started receiving inquiries. Candidates from a variety of academic backgrounds will be considered for admission.
And his advice on how to be happy?
�Be attuned to what gives you genuine satisfaction. Although many people assume that popular activities like watching TV are enjoyable, their own reports generally indicate that they feel more engaged, energetic, satisfied and happy when doing other things.

� Study yourself. To better understand their own happiness, Csikszentmihalyi says, people should systematically record their activities and feelings every few hours for a week or two. In recording your observations, try to focus on how you actually feel, rather than what you think you ought to be feeling or what you expect to feel. Afterwards, note the high points, particularly, and the low ones. Then try to adjust how you spend time according to your findings.

� Take control. Repairing unhappy conditions requires active effort. People often assume external conditions will change for the better or let chance determine their response. That's a mistake. "Get control," Csikszentmihalyi says. When things aren't right, "you have to put in the same effort you would if your business were in trouble. Just as markets move, life changes too."
via Time via Happiness and Public Policy


Bacteria and Depression

Bacteria cause disease. The idea that they might also prevent disease is counterintuitive. Yet that is the hypothesis Chris Lowry, of Bristol University, and his colleagues are putting forward in Neuroscience. They think a particular sort of bacterium might alleviate clinical depression.

The chance observation that Dr Lowry followed up to arrive at this conclusion was made by Mary O'Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. Dr O'Brien was trying out an experimental treatment for lung cancer that involved inoculating patients with Mycobacterium vaccae. This is a harmless relative of the bugs that cause tuberculosis and leprosy that had, in this case, been rendered even more harmless by killing it. When Dr O'Brien gave the inoculation, she observed not only fewer symptoms of the cancer, but also an improvement in her patients' emotional health, vitality and general cognitive function.

This result is intriguing for two reasons. First, it offers the possibility of treating clinical depression with what is, in effect, a vaccination. Indeed, M. vaccae is considered a bit of a wonder-bug in this context. Besides cancer, and now depression, it is being looked at as a way of treating Crohn's disease (an inflammation of the gut) and rheumatoid arthritis.

Second, it opens a new line of inquiry into why depression is becoming more common. Two other conditions that have increased in frequency recently are asthma and allergies, both of which are caused by the immune system attacking cells of the body it is supposed to protect. One explanation for the rise of these two conditions is the hygiene hypothesis. This suggests a lack of childhood exposure to harmless bugs is leading to improperly primed immune systems, which then go on to look for trouble where none exists.
Interesting. In the future there might be a vaccine against depression.

via The Economist


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Double your reading rate.

New Atlas Details More Than 3.5 Trillion Tons of Possible CO2 Storage Capacity in US and Canada

The Daylight Saving change: no energy savings

Wonder where your tax dollars go? View all government spending in the United States of America organized by government function and broken down by federal, state and local.

Decline of Big Sharks Lets Small Predators Decimate Shellfish

Marmosets give birth to their genetic nieces and nephews


Smart Bookmarks Bar

Fit a lot more bookmarks onto your Firefox toolbar with Smart Bookmarks Bar. The plug-in takes out the text, leaving just the icon.

As a result, you can fit upwards of 50 bookmarks from left to right, versus the 15 or so that'll fit with creative renaming. Of course, some bookmarks are impossible to identify by icon alone, which is why the plug-in displays the text when you mouse over the icon.
I have done something similar, where I just delete manually delete the text and just leave the icon. It works great and allows me to keep all my favorite websites just one quick click away.

Of course some bookmarks don't come with a "favicon.ico" icon. That is where the Favicon Picker extension comes in handy, allowing you to add a new favicon to any bookmark.

And if you don't have a favicon? Use this website to create favicons from any image.

via LifeHacker


Mageen: Wind Power Anywhere

Magenn Power's MARS is a Wind Power Anywhere™ solution with distinct advantages over existing Conventional Wind Turbines and Diesel Generating Systems including: global deployment, lower costs, better operational performance, and greater environmental advantages.

MARS is a lighter-than-air tethered wind turbine that rotates about a horizontal axis in response to wind, generating electrical energy. This electrical energy is transferred down the 1000-foot tether for immediate use, or to a set of batteries for later use, or to the power grid. Helium sustains MARS and allows it to ascend to a higher altitude than traditional wind turbines. MARS captures the energy available in the 600 to 1000-foot low level and nocturnal jet streams that exist almost everywhere. MARS rotation also generates the "Magnus effect" which provides additional lift, keeps the MARS stabilized, and positions it within a very controlled and restricted location to adhere to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) & Transport Canada guidelines.

Final pricing is yet to be determined on the 4kW MARS unit. List pricing has been suggested around $9,999 (however, this price is subject to change).
This looks pretty cool. Put the generator up higher in the air where the wind blows stronger and more steady. Not sure how the economics of it work out, or how many kWh a year you should expect from a 4kW unit, but I am intrigued by the concept.


Fossil Raises Doubts on Evolution Theory

The oldest fossil of a human skeleton found in China shows features that challenge the theory that modern people evolved directly from African ancestors.

The 40,000-year-old Tianyuan Cave skeleton, one of the oldest remains in Asia, has traits that match modern humans and the earlier Neanderthal people, researchers said in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings suggest that today's humans evolved from early modern people who migrated from Africa and archaic groups such as the Neanderthal. One theory of human development holds that modern people descended directly from African ancestors after a wave of migration between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago replaced earlier human species in Asia and Europe.

"This provides us with our first good fossil evidence for both the timing and the biology of early modern humans spread across Asia," said coauthor Erik Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. "Yes, they spread out of Africa, but as they did, they blended with populations that were already there."
via Washington Post


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Vegetarians vs. Chicken Eaters

One surprising finding of my investigation into CO2 emissions and diet, is that according to the data, eating chicken causes fewer CO2 emissions than milk and eggs do.

Comparing a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet with a "chicken lovers" diet, where both diets consist of 3,774 calories a day and the chicken lover gets 27% of his calories from chicken while the vegetarian gets 23% of the calories from milk and 4% from eggs (and both get 73% of calories from plants), a "chicken lovers" diet emits .78 tonnes of CO2 a year vs. 1.22 tonnes for an lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Switching from eating eggs and milk to chicken saves .44 tonnes of emissions a year.

Per 100 calories, chicken causes .368 lbs of CO2 emissions vs. .620 lbs for milk and .645 lbs for eggs.

Half of the emissions for milk are due to methane coming from the cow. Taking that out of the equation (looking strictly at fossil fuel usage), chicken is slightly higher in emissions.

I am not sure why eggs have higher emissions than chicken. I guess it requires more fossil fuels to raise and collect eggs than it does to raise and collect chickens, but I can't even venture a guess as to why.

There may be moral and ethical reasons to be a vegetarian, but looking at it strictly from a CO2 emissions standpoint it is better to go with the chicken and pass on the milk and eggs.


Vegans vs. Hybrids

Time for another of the classic Fat Knowledge Vs. posts. Which has the bigger impact on the environment (specifically CO2 emissions): switching from a heavily meat based diet to a vegan diet or switching from a Hummer to a Prius?

I came across this report: Diet, Energy and Global Warming and thought it had everything I need as they were comparing diets with cars. But, when I looked into the report, I couldn't figure out how they came to their conclusions. And if I can't understand it, I don't want to post it on my blog.

Oh, but don't you worry loyal Fat Knowledge readers. I don't give up that easily. :)

I dug in a little deeper and tried to understand how they were attacking this problem (in my opinion they are using a very unintuitive method). Then I was further stymied by the fact they had mathematical errors in their calculations. So, I decided to ignore their analysis and instead take their raw numbers and do the calculations myself.

You can download my calculations in an .xls format or view it in Scribd.

So now, lets get back to the original question, which has a greater impact on reducing CO2 levels, switching from a heavily meat based diet to a vegan diet or switching from a Hummer to a Prius?

First, lets take a look at the impact of diet.

DietTonnes of CO2 per Year
Avg American2.19
Lacto Ovo1.22
Mad Meat Eater6.70
Avg American on Diet1.44

All diets eat 3,774 calories a day, except the "Average American on a Diet" which eats 2/3s as much or 2,490. The 3,770 number is a bit misleading as it includes food that is wasted or thrown out, which accounts for somewhere between 14% and 50% of all food.

In the Average American Diet 5% of calories from from chicken, 11% milk, 1% eggs, 3.2% beef, 5.6% pork and the rest from plants. In the Vegan Diet all calories come from plant sources, and I use the .03 lbs CO2/100 Calories as an average value for all plant sources. The Lacto-Ovo is a vegetarian diet with 24% of the calories from milk, 4% from eggs and the rest from plants. The Mad Meat Eater is an estimate for an extreme meat based diet, with 20% of calories from beef, 20% from pork, 5% from chickens, 5% from eggs and the rest from plants. Take a look at the spreadsheet more details.

Now to compare this with cars, I will assume the average driver goes 12,000 miles a year and I will use estimates of 12.5 mpg for a Hummer (the comments on that link are hilarious), 25 mpg for a Camary and 50 mpg for a Prius. At 8.8 kg of CO2 emissions per gallon that works out to a yearly usage of 960 gallons and 8.5 tonnes of CO2 for the Hummer, 480 gallons and 4.2 tonnes of CO2 for the Camary, and 240 gallons and 2.1 tonnes of CO2 for the Prius.

Which has the greater impact, changing your car or your diet?

Going from a Mad Meat Eater diet to a Vegan diet saves 6.5 tonnes of CO2 a year while going from a Hummer to a Prius saves 6.4 tonnes. Given a margin of error on the values, I call that a tie.

If you switch from the Avg American Diet to being a vegan that saves 2 tonnes very similar to the 2.1 tonnes saved switching from a Camary to a Prius. Going from the Avg American Diet to a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diet saves 1 ton a year, about 1/2 the savings of going from a Camary to a Prius.

In looking at their overall impact, the average American diet emits 2.19 tonnes which is almost the same as the 2.1 tonnes for the Prius. The Mad Meat Eater Diet emits 6.7 tonnes, halfway between a Camary and a Hummer. A vegan diet at .19 tonnes is less than 1/10 that of a Prius. In general, for the average American, the impact of their car will be greater than the impact of their diet.

CO2 equivalent emissions of various foods
Food lbs CO2/100 Cal
chicken 0.37
milk 0.62
eggs 0.64
beef (grain fed) 3.04
pork 1.99
lamb 5.71
fish (avg value) 1.33
herring 0.06
tuna 1.05
salmon (farmed) 1.07
shrimp 6.79
veg (avg value) 0.03
corn 0.02
soy 0.01
apple 0.06
potatoes 0.05

These values take into account the methane emissions of animals as well as the fossil fuels needed to raise them. As you can see beef, lamb and shrimp have very high emissions, while all plant based foods are low, especially soy. In fact, if you were to trade 640 Calories of beef for soy, this would emit 22 lbs less of CO2, the same as using one gallon less of gasoline.

I was surprised by the fact that seafood emits so much CO2 per calorie. Shrimp in particular is high, more than any other food on the list and double that of beef. I have no idea why so much fossil fuel energy is needed to raise shrimp. Tuna is higher than milk, eggs or chicken. I guess it takes lots of energy to power the boats that capture the fish.

Assumptions and Caveats:
1) The fossil fuel usage for the various foods comes from Pimentel. This guy's estimates are always on the high end for fossil fuel usage. I first ran into his work when looking at ethanol. When compared to all others that have looked at the energy needs to create a gallon of ethanol, he is by far the highest. This makes me very leery about using his estimates here.

2) It is not clear to me how they came up with the average value for fish.

3) In the report they use "e values" of 1,2, and 4 for plants in one graph and doesn't specify the value in the other. This value determines the fossil fuel usage. I chose to go with the value in the middle of 2, which corresponds to .4 kCal of fossil fuel energy per kCal of food, and gives you a value of .03 lbs of CO2 per kCal. Soy is much lower and if more calories came from soy, the resulting CO2 impact of that diet would be lower than estimated here. In general all plant based foods use little CO2 emissions compared with animal products, so even if the estimate is off by a factor of two, it will have limited impact on the results.

4) The report estimates CO2 emissions from fossil fuels based on .07 tonnes CO2 per MMBtu. While I don't agree with the process they used to determine that number, it corresponds well with the value of .0703 for motor gasoline as determined by the EPA. Natural Gas emits .0528 and bituminious coal .0925. So, the more that fossil fuel usage is from natural gas, the lower the values for CO2 emissions should be. The more coal is used, the higher they should be. The .07 value works if natural gas, motor gasoline, and coal are used in roughly equal amounts, which seems to be a reasonable estimate to me, but could be off.

Mathematical Errors
The report incorrectly calculates weighted averages. First they do it in table 1 (page 28) on average mpg values by multiplying the mpg values by their weight rather than the inverse of the mpg values. The impact is minor, but shows they don't understand the underlying mathematics. Next they do the same thing in table 3 (page 30) where they are calculating the weighted mean of different diets. I don't know how significant the impact is, but it could be large. I chose instead to just attack the whole thing differently.