Monday, May 28, 2007

Clean Tech

Venture-capital investment in clean-tech in North America more than doubled in the past two years to $2.9 billion, according to the Cleantech Network, an industry research body (see chart). That makes it the third-largest recipient of venture money after biotech and computing. Despite European perceptions that Americans are behind in environmental matters, investment is now four times higher than in Europe.
via The Economist


Interesting Articles of the Week

Useful Firefox tips that you are probably not aware of.

Female Sharks Fertilize Own Eggs

Boy Bags Wild Hog Bigger Than 'Hogzilla'

Vatican City: Going Green: Vatican Expands Mission to Saving Planet, Not Just Souls

The first human inhabitants of North America may not have exterminated the mammoths. The culprit might have been a comet.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Ikea Employee Job Test

via Freshome


Friday, May 25, 2007

Razor-Thin TV Screen You Can Wear As A T-Shirt

In the race for ever thinner displays for TVs, cell phones and other gadgets, Sony may have developed one to beat them all - a razor-thin display that bends like paper while showing full-colour video.

Sony Corporation posted video of the new 2.5 inch display on its' web page.

In the video, a hand squeezes the 0.3 millimetre (0.01 inch)-thick display, which shows color video of a bicyclist stuntman, a picturesque lake and other images.

The display combines Sony's organic thin film transistor, or TFT, technology, which is required to make flexible displays, with another kind of technology called organic electroluminescent display, it said.
via Daily Mail


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Home Energy Conservation Solution

Bell Canada is partnering with local energy companies across Ontario and Quebec to deliver a smart home energy conservation solution that will help you reduce your energy consumption and lower your electric bills. Bell's Home Energy Conservation solution features a web-based graphical interface and smart home hardware that helps you track the energy usage of your home. In addition, you can control and schedule the energy consumption of a variety of home appliances, including lights, outlets, thermostats, electric hot water heaters, pool pumps and air conditioners.

Using one simple interface for all your devices, you can monitor and control all aspects of your home energy system. Your energy usage summary will give you a snapshot of your current consumption, your energy monitor will allow you to make smart energy choices, and your energy assistant will provide you tips along the way.
Very cool. I wish I could sign up for this. Until then there is always my handy Kill-A-Watt.

via Bell Canada via TreeHugger


Brain 'Pacemaker' Tickles Your Happy Nerve

A novel medical technique that smuggles an electrical charge into the brain through the vagus nerve is proving at least as effective as medication in controlling severe depression, psychiatrists say.

In vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, a two-inch diameter, .25 inch thick disk is surgically tucked under the skin near the left collarbone, then wired upward to the vagus nerve in the neck. The battery-operated disk delivers intermittent, rhythmic pulses to the nerve -- whose name means "wandering" in Latin -- that reaches a half dozen areas of the brain critical to treating depression, according to Dr. Darin Dougherty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Instead of prescribing milligrams I'm prescribing milliamps," Dougherty says. The implanted disc is programmed and reprogrammed with a wand held over the skin. Data on each patient about the intensity and frequency of the pulse and device settings is stored in individual memory cards slotted into in a handheld computer linked to the wand.

Researchers know the treatment stimulates norepinephrine and serotonin centers, now treated with pharma at a tepid success rate, and increases blood flow and neuron activity. But they candidly say they don't fully understand why VNS works.
via Wired


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Silicon Valley Could Use A Downturn Right About Now

TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington longs for the Silicon Valley of 2005.

When I first started writing TechCrunch in 2005 it was like that. There had been a couple of small acquisitions (Flickr, etc.), but for the most part there wasn’t a lot of venture capital moving into new web startups, the IPO window was firmly shut, and the public companies weren’t doing much M&A. There were a few dozen new startups, though, and the people who were involved with them were largely here because they loved what they did. No one had marketing departments or PR firms. Lavish launch parties were a dim memory from the late nineties.

Events started popping up as well. Our first party was in September 2005. Twenty or so entrepreneurs came by my house for beer and burgers. Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube, was one of the attendees. I remember asking him if he thought the whole YouTube thing would work out.

Times are good, money is flowing, and Silicon Valley sucks.

But entrepreneurs are no longer talking to us just to get our opinion and hope for a blog post and a little discussion. These guys need press to stand out from the scores of startups just like them. Saying no to them isn’t really an option. They show up at our front door with a bottle of wine or flowers. They instruct their PR firms to do anything necessary to get a story. More than once I’ve had a CEO break down and cry on the phone when we said we weren’t covering them. And more than once, I folded and wrote about them after those conversations.

I left Silicon Valley at the peak of the insanity last time around, and I was pleasantly surprised when I returned in 2005 to see so much goodwill and community surrounding innovation. Now, it’s just like the old days again, and Silicon Valley is no longer any fun. In fact, it’s turned downright nasty.
via TechCrunch


Magnetic Brain Stimulator

The next time you visit a psychiatrist, don't be put off by the helmet-shaped device crawling with electrodes in the corner of the office. It's there to help.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation, a technique for treating clinical depression, uses a device placed on a patient's head that delivers a pulse to the gray matter. Psychiatrists at the American Psychiatric Association meeting here are unabashedly optimistic about its potential for treating tough cases. It's in the final stages of FDA review, and could come to market as soon as the end of the year.

"It's much less invasive -- patients can go home or go back to work afterwards," says Shirlene Sampson, an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. "And patients aren't exposed to social risk with their insurance companies and employers."

TMS works by creating an electromagnetic pulse that doesn't disturb the skull or scalp, but can reach two to three centimeters into the brain to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and paralimbic blood flow, increasing the serotonin output and the dopamine and norepinephrine functions.

The downside is that it takes 20 to 30 sessions of 40 minutes each for at least six weeks to get a good result. But patients stick with TMS treatment better than with medication or electroshock, researchers say.
via Wired


Don't We All?

Ruben Guerrero holds a sign as he looks for a pair of humpback whales in the Port of Sacramento in West Sacramento, Calif.
via Yahoo News

And in case you need a refresher on the reference:
Kramer: Come on George, finish the story.

George: The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli! I got about fifty-feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, "Easy big fella!" And then as I watched him struggling I realized something was obstructing his breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!

Jerry: Mammal.

George: Whatever.

Kramer: Well, what did you do next?

George: Then from out of nowhere a huge title wave lifted, tossed like a quark and I found myself on top of him face to face with the blow-hole. I could barely see from all of the waves crashing down on top of me but I knew something was there so I reached my hand and pulled out the obstruction!

(George pulls out of the inside pocket a golf ball)

(Jerry and George just stare at Kramer)

Kramer: What is that a Titleist? A hole in one eh.

Jerry: Well the crowd most have gone wild!

George: Oh yes they did Jerry they were all over me. It was like Rocky 1. Diane came up to me, threw her arms around me, and kissed me. We both had tears streaming down our faces. I never saw anyone so beautiful. It was at that moment I decided to tell her I was not a marine biologist!

Jerry: Wow! What'd she say?

George: She told me to "Go to hell!" and I took the bus home.
via Seinfeld Scripts


Seadevils and Species Unknown

When, more than 70 years ago, William Beebe became the first scientist to descend into the abyss, he described a world of twinkling lights, silvery eels, throbbing jellyfish, living strings as “lovely as the finest lace” and lanky monsters with needlelike teeth.

Today, the revolution in lights, cameras, electronics and digital photography is revealing a world that is even stranger than the one that Beebe struggled to describe.

The images arrayed here come from “The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss” (University of Chicago Press, 2007), by Claire Nouvian, a French journalist and film director. In its preface, Ms. Nouvian writes of an epiphany that began her undersea journey.

The photographs she has selected celebrate that sense of the unexpected. Bizarre species from as far down as four and half miles are shown in remarkable detail, their tentacles lashing, eyes bulging, lights flashing. The eerie translucence of many of the gelatinous creatures seems to defy common sense.

Craig M. Young of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology writes in the book that the diversity of life in the abyss “may exceed that of the Amazon Rain Forest and the Great Barrier Reef combined.”
Looks like a book I am going to need to pickup for my coffee table.

More photos here (warning, resizes browser window).

via NY Times


Monday, May 21, 2007

Underwater Whale Guard Robot

An underwater robot that can hear the calls of whales, and so help ships to avoid them, has just been successfully trialled in the Bahamas. The system is very efficiently designed to eliminate all the flaws present in the previous systems. The robot’s batteries last a month per charge, but they’re working on a robot that can swim autonomously for five years. It has a microphone attached to the bottom of the glider that can pick up calls from all kind of whales including the including the high frequency call of the beaked whale. The system is so sophisticated that it can process the data collected at its level and even help differentiate between the species.

The biggest advantage of this system is that it can transfer the data to the satellite or via a radio link across the world when it comes back to the surface and therefore eliminating the need of any system to track the glider. The Theriault’s system will help in saving whales as it will inform the ships about the exact location of the whales so that these ships can be avoided from entering that area.
Ever since I missed seeing a whale shark while scuba diving in Thailand, I have believed that every large marine mammal should be outfitted with a GPS tracker, so we can monitor them wherever they go. Until that day, this will have to do.

via Robotster


Generating Power From Kites

Researchers in Italy have high hopes for a new wind-power generator that resembles a backyard drying rack on steroids. Despite its appearance, the Kite Wind Generator, or KiteGen for short, could produce as much energy as a nuclear power plant.

Here's how it works: When wind hits the KiteGen, kites spring from funnels at the ends of poles. For each kite, winches release a pair of high-resistance cables to control direction and angle. The kites are not your Saturday-afternoon park variety but similar to those used for kite surfing -- light and ultra-resistant, capable of reaching an altitude of 2,000 meters.

KiteGen's core is set in motion by the twirl of the kites; the rotation activates large alternators producing current. A control system on autopilot optimizes the flight pattern to maximize the juice produced as it sails on night and day. A radar system can redirect kites within seconds in case of any interference: oncoming helicopters, for example. Or small planes or even single birds.

Research by Sequoia Automation, the small company near Turin heading the project, estimates that KiteGen could churn out one gigawatt of power at a cost of just 1.5 euros per megawatt hour. That's nearly 30 times less than the average cost in Europe of 43 euros per megawatt hour.
via Wired


IQ and Wealth

What does it take to become wealthy? Before you answer, let's review a few facts. The first one is no surprise:
It seems that the smarter you are, the more you tend to earn. For each IQ point you have above someone else's IQ, you'll earn between $200 and $600 more.
But this one is more surprising: People with high IQ do not end up with more wealth.
We who are smarter than the average bear (I'm including myself and you) would reasonably assume, then, that smarter people would end up wealthier. But that was not suggested by the study. Instead, people with higher IQs and incomes tended to spend more, maxing out credit cards and paying bills late.
The above two quotations are from a summary of research conducted by Ohio State economics professor Jay Zagorsky. Here is another result from a different study of Professor Zagorsky:
Overweight Americans who lose a lot of weight also tend to build more wealth as they drop the pounds.
And yet another Zagorsky fact:
Regression results show lower net worth is associated with smoking, after holding constant a variety of demographic factors.
Finally, recall this lesson:
Stephen F. Venti of Dartmouth and David A. Wise of Harvard concluded that the primary reason for differences in retirement assets was differences in propensities to save. It is not unusual to see low-income households with high savings rates holding more financial assets at retirement than high-income households who saved a smaller fraction of their income.
The neoclassical theory of distribution teaches us that a person's earnings depend on his or her productivity. But earnings are not the same as wealth. The accumulation of wealth is mostly about the ability to exert self-control.
To shop at Ikea, "You don't have to be rich, just smart". To be rich, you don't have to be smart, just have self-control. Another reason to teach good decision making.

via Greg Mankiw Blog

Update: The Audacious Epigone questions the results, and he is right. The quote from Mankiw's blog is misleading. More from New Scientist:
On the surface, people with higher intelligence scores also had greater wealth. The median net worth for people with an IQ of 120 was almost $128,000 compared with $58,000 for those with an IQ of 100.

But when Zagorsky controlled for other factors – such as divorce, years spent in school, type of work and inheritance – he found no link between IQ and net worth. In fact, people with a slightly above-average IQ of 105 , had an average net worth higher than those who were just a bit smarter, with a score of 110.
IQ doesn't matter once you account for years in school and type of work. But, both of those are impacted by IQ, so I am not sure what this study really tells you.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Japan to set up 'wireless island'

The English colonists who landed at Jamestown 400 years ago undermined an ecosystem and changed the continent forever.

The good thing about herpes.

9/11 Life Worth $1.8 million; Iraqi Life, $2,000. What Does It Mean?

A solar powered robot has the potential to control weeds while significantly reducing herbicide use.

Doctors May Be The Third Leading Cause of Death


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Obama on Becoming a Man

We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.

I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown.
Great speech. Worth the full read.



Project Aims to Extract Dam Methane

Critics of the industry have claimed that in tropical areas of Brazil - which supplies more than 90% of its electricity from large dams - some reservoirs emit so much methane that their contribution to climate change is greater than an equivalent power station burning fossil fuels like coal or gas.

Methane is produced mainly by bacteria that break down organic matter where there is little or no oxygen, for example at the bottom of lakes and reservoirs.

Since intake pipes for hydroelectric turbines tend to be placed quite deep, methane-rich water is suddenly transferred from conditions of high-pressure to the open air.
Yikes! Who knew that hydro power lead to greenhouse gas emissions?

How big is the impact?
A statistical analysis carried out by the INPE scientists has estimated that large dams could be responsible for worldwide annual emissions equivalent to some 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

To put that in perspective, last year's total greenhouse gas emissions from the UK were around 660 million tonnes.
That seems significant.

So what do you do when life gives you lemons? Make a little lemonade.
The INPE scientists are proposing that with relatively simple technology, this unwanted by-product of hydro-electric power generation could be turned into an extra source of clean, renewable electricity.

They have estimated that some dams with an especially heavy methane load in the Amazon could increase their output by up to 50%.
Looks like instead of focusing on being a cow fart tycoon, I should have I have tried to be a dam fart tycoon.

via BBC


Fair Tracing Project

The Fair Tracing project at Britain's University of Bradford is developing a digital tag that would tell the backstory behind your bananas--or your coffee or chocolate. As food makes its way to your plate, growers, refiners, exporters, and retailers could upload information about their role in the supply chain. That text, audio, and video could connect consumers with an otherwise anonymous gastronomic universe.

Apurba Kundu, who leads the Fair Tracing project, and his team have created a crude demo version that relies on bar codes--but the final technology could take the form of a radio-frequency-identification system or, more simply, a unique number printed on the label. They've partnered with Ehrmanns, a UK importer of fair-trade wine; we could see the first tagged bottles by next spring. If it works, shoppers will punch numbers into their cell phone or PDA right in the store, or on their computer back home.
I like this idea and hope that it goes far.

via Fast Company


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Good Decision-Makers Made, Not Born

People who do well on a series of decision-making tasks involving hypothetical situations tend to have more positive decision outcomes in their lives, according to a study by decision scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and the RAND Corp. The results suggest that it may be possible to improve the quality of people’s lives by teaching them better decision-making skills.

The paper marks an important step forward for decision science, because it shows that tasks developed to study decision-making errors in psychological labs can be used to gauge decision-making ability in real life. The study also shows that, although decision-making competence is correlated with verbal and nonverbal intelligence, it is still a separate skill.

“Intelligence doesn’t explain everything. Our results suggest that people with good decision-making skills obtain better real-life outcomes, even after controlling for cognitive ability, socio-economic status and other factors,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, a researcher in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon and the lead author of the study. “That is good news, because decision-making skills may be taught.”
Goes along with the marshmallow experiment. If these skills can be taught, I think they should be taught in the schools.

via Eurekalert


Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Good News on Squatter Cities

One billion people live in squatter cities.

Two billion more are expected.

This is good news.
Gotta love it when someone makes an audacious claim like that and then backs it up. Stewart Brand makes the argument in his TED Talk.

He believes cities are wealth creators and will help billions get out of poverty. As he puts their condition:
These are not really people oppressed by poverty, these are people getting out of poverty as fast as they can.
The one statistic I was unaware of and makes me extremely hopeful for humanities future was this one:
The birthrate of new urban dwellers drops immediately to replacement levels (2.1 children/woman) and keeps on dropping.
Only 3 minutes, but it is more like a 30 minute lecture in fast forward. They really need to have him back and give him a full 15 minutes. Worth the watch.


Coalition to Make Buildings Energy-Efficient

A coalition of 16 of the world’s biggest cities, five banks, one former president and companies and groups that modernize aging buildings on Wednesday pledged investments of billions of dollars to cut urban energy use and releases of heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.

Under a plan developed through the William J. Clinton Foundation, participating banks would provide up to $1 billion each in loans that cities or private landlords would use to upgrade energy-hungry heating, cooling and lighting systems in older buildings.

The loans and interest would be paid back with savings accrued through reduced energy costs, organizers of the initiative said at a news conference in Manhattan. Typically, such upgrades can cut energy use and costs by 20 percent to 50 percent, they said.

The upgrades would be done by four international energy-services companies that are already seeing a booming business in these types of conversions. They would guarantee a certain level of energy and monetary savings for particular projects under the plan.

The influx of capital from the new project could potentially double global business in such energy upgrades, which is several billion dollars a year now, bankers and business representatives said.

“I’ve been involved in a couple billion dollars’ worth of projects in the last several years,” said Bob Dixon, senior vice president of Siemens Building Technologies, one of the energy-services companies. “They’ve all paid for themselves in energy savings.”
This seems like a no brainer. It reduces greenhouse gases and makes money at the same time.

You might wonder why companies aren't doing this on their own if it is profitable. I believe the answer is that energy costs are less than 5% of total costs at most companies, so it isn't something that makes a big difference on the bottom line.

If you have a company or a bank that just focuses on this, then it is not 5% of their business but 100%, and the savings that are insignificant to individual companies comes together to be substantial.

via NY Times


Less Than 1 Billion People Living On $1 a Day

This month the World Bank announced that 986m people lived on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day in 2004—the first time it has counted fewer than 1 billion people in such a parlous state.
That is good news, and if you look at the graph, the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has been decreasing drastically over the last 1500 years.

Of course measuring poverty is a difficult thing to do.
India's line, for example, defined the poor as those who ate less than 2,250 calories a day.
By that definition the US has a 0% poverty rate in the US, or maybe 1% if you count models and wrestlers.

How do they spend their money?
A dollar a day would seem to leave little room for choice or discretion. Hunger is surely the most binding of constraints. And yet these pillages of privacy show that the poor do make choices. They also suggest they are not always the best ones.

The poor do not complain much, the two authors note. (Only 9% of people in their Udaipur survey say their life makes them generally unhappy.) But they have a lot to complain about. Beset by hunger and illness, many are scrawny (65% of adult men in Udaipur are underweight), over half are anaemic, and about a seventh suffer from impaired eyesight. Many had to go without food on at least one day in the previous year.

And yet they do not eat as much as they could. According to Mr Banerjee and Ms Duflo, the typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30% more on food than it does, if only it stopped devoting money to alcohol, tobacco and festivals. That last item, which includes weddings, funerals and religious events, typically accounts for about a tenth of the household's budget. This spending might be motivated by escapism—the poor have a lot to escape—or perhaps by social emulation. Even those in absolute poverty care about their relative standing.
This reminds of the lyrics to the song Underwear Goes Inside The Pants:
This homeless guy asked me for money the other day.
I was about to give it to him and then I thought he was going to use it on drugs or alcohol.
And then I thought, that's what I'm going to use it on.
Why am I judging this poor bastard?
I was going to comment on their spending, but I think I will go buy myself a beer instead.

via The Economist


Pregnancy Test Cause of Amphibians Decline?

About one third of the known species of frogs and amphibians are classified as threatened and a major cause of this stems back to a pregnancy test.

Researchers at North-West University think they have traced the spread of the chytrid fungus, which is devastating many amphibian populations, to a long-standing trade in the African clawed frog.

The frog was used as an essential part of an unusual but effective way of determining pregnancy from the 1930s to the 1960s. The test involved taking the urine of a woman and injecting it into the frog.

If the woman was pregnant the hormones in her urine would stimulate ovulation in the frog and within a matter of hours, it would spawn.
Huh, I had heard of licking frogs, but injecting pee into one to test for pregnancy, that is a new one to me.
Huge numbers of African clawed frogs were exported from South Africa to laboratories carrying out the test all over the world, beginning in the 1930s, which is the decade in which the first recorded case of the fungus appeared - traced by examination of preserved frogs in museum collections by Che Weldon, a zoologist at North-West University.

Scientists believe the chytrid fungus is behind the disappearance of the golden toad of Costa Rica, and at least 67 percent of the 110 species of brightly coloured harlequin frogs that have vanished from the tropical forests of South and Central America over the past 17 years.
While I was aware of habitat decline and global warming as causes of the amphibians decline, I was unaware that the globalization of an African fungus is also to blame.

via IOL


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why Can't Hits Be Predicted?

Ever wonder why no one can consistently predict which songs or movies become hits? Blame it on the crowd.

In our study, published last year in Science, more than 14,000 participants registered at our Web site, Music Lab (, and were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants. This second group — in what we called the “social influence” condition — was further split into eight parallel “worlds” such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. We didn’t manipulate any of these rankings — all the artists in all the worlds started out identically, with zero downloads — but because the different worlds were kept separate, they subsequently evolved independently of one another.

In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

In fact, intrinsic “quality,” which we measured in terms of a song’s popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.
Which raises the question: in which universe was My Humps never a hit and how do I get there?

via NY Times Magazine


Monday, May 14, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

By 2010, I.B.M. plans to double the computing capacity of its data centers worldwide without increasing power consumption.

Money, Not Spare Cycles, Drives Open Source

China's Golden Dragon Group announced a $200 battery-powered electronic cigarette that smokes like the real thing, but delivers nicotine as a vapor.

Use the spare cycles of your computer to help fight malaria.

Google v. Yahoo: Who Cares The Most About The Environment?

Geeky Rare-Earth Magnets Repel Sharks


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Delicious Irony of the Day

When reading about Charles Darwin, I came across this gem:

Following graduation from Cambridge in 1831 with a degree in theology...
Wait, Darwin got his degree in theology? How come I didn't know that before?

Then I realized why. Atheists like to hold up Darwin as a patron saint, and it doesn't do them much good to point out he got a degree in theology. Likewise, the religious conservatives choose to demonize Darwin, and it doesn't do them any good to point out what his degree was in either. So it is up to Fat Knowledge to deliver you this tasty bit of irony.


People Only Want To Help One Person

Science might not have been on Stalin's side when he tried to make half monkey half men soldiers, but it is proving his quote "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic" to be quite accurate.

In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern.

A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off.
Interesting how people will give more to help just one person.
In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child — or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight.

Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty — presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion.
This of course drives me completely nuts, as I am a numbers person who feels that we should be trying to help as many people as possible. I like the Arthur Wilde quote "It is the mark of the truly educated man to be deeply moved by statistics". Unfortunately, it appears it isn't a favorite quote for most of the public.
One experiment underscored the limits of rationality. People prepared to donate to the needy were first asked either to talk about babies (to prime the emotions) or to perform math calculations (to prime their rational side). Those who did math donated less.
I guess the moral of the story is if you are trying to get people to give to your cause to help lots of people, you have to keep them thinking emotionally about just one person.

via Times$elect


Thursday, May 10, 2007

How Its Made and the Video Backstory

I love finding out how things are made, so I am a big fan of the Discovery Channel's How It's Made show. While the format works OK on television it would be perfect for viewing online. Each segment is 4 1/2 minutes long, the perfect bite sized length for online viewing. Like, this content would greatly benefit by giving viewers an entire library to select from. You can choose to watch just the products that are interesting to you not what the producers thought would make a good 30 minute show.

Unfortunately, the creators of the show and the Discovery Channel are still stuck in the old paradigm of TV distribution. They should find a way to put them all online and monetize the eyeballs. Instead others are creating a library on their own (illegally) and getting all the ad revenue from the viewings. A loss for the Discovery Channel but good news for the viewers. Check out this one on how lithium batteries are made:

I think this concept could be extended even further. What if every product produced in the US had a 5 minute video that showed how that product was produced? Then as a consumer you could get the backstory of the product. Maybe there could be a 1 minute condensed version, the standard 5 minute version, and an in depth 10 minute version.

This could be produced by the manufacturer of the product, a relevant NPO, or hopefully both. You could choose to watch the version from the source you trust most. Curious how your food was raised, what it took to make your laptop, or what the working conditions were like making your shoes? Now you can find out.

If there was an augmented barcode on the product, you could take a picture of it with your cellphone causing the video to be streamed to your cellphone. You would have the ability to find out about a product while you are shopping and before you purchase it.


Japan and Battery Development

The Japanese are making a push to greatly improve lithium ion battery technology through the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Over the last 15 years there has been a great increase in energy density and units sold of lithium ion batteries as the graphs show. Energy density has improved 5.2 times over the last 15 years, a rate of 11.6% a year. If that trend were to continue a doubling would occur every 7 years.

Unfortunately they don't specify how capacity (kWh) per dollar has improved over time. This is the most important metric in my mind. I would guess it is similar to the energy density improvement, but I could be wrong.

The report also specifies their targets for the future. They want batteries with the same performance at 1/2 the cost by 2010, 1.5 times the performance at 1/7th the cost by 2015 and 7 times the performance at 1/40 the cost in 2030. That is much quicker than the current rate of improvement and I don't know how realistic it is.

But, if they are able to hit their 2015 goal, it would make electric cars competitive with gasoline powered ones in just 8 years.

Currently, the Tesla Roadster uses batteries that give it a range of 200 miles with a price estimated at $12,500 to $20,000 to $30,000. A battery with 1.5 times the performance at 1/7th the cost would give the Tesla Roadster a range of over 350 miles and a price on the battery of somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000. With the cost savings of electricity over gasoline, I believe this would make electric vehicles cost competitive with internal combustion engines without subsidies.

via Green Car Congress


Half Man Half Monkey Soliders

The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered the creation of Planet of the Apes-style warriors by crossing humans with apes, according to recently uncovered secret documents.
Half man half monkey soliders. Sweet! How come I never heard of this before?
Moscow archives show that in the mid-1920s Russia's top animal breeding scientist, Ilya Ivanov, was ordered to turn his skills from horse and animal work to the quest for a super-warrior.

Mr Ivanov's ideas were music to the ears of Soviet planners and in 1926 he was dispatched to West Africa with $200,000 to conduct his first experiment in impregnating chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, a centre for the experiments was set up in Georgia - Stalin's birthplace - for the apes to be raised.

Mr Ivanov's experiments, unsurprisingly from what we now know, were a total failure. He returned to the Soviet Union, only to see experiments in Georgia to use monkey sperm in human volunteers similarly fail.
While they claim to have failed, I am personally still holding out hope that it really did work and they are hanging out in the Russian equivalent of Area 51. And I love how they call the women "volunteers". What woman wouldn't jump at the chance to bear half-monkey soldier offspring?

Now, I know what you are thinking. With the improvements in genetic information and technology over the last 100 years, is it time to give it a try again? And the answer without a doubt is yes. :)

While cross-breeding won't work, what about tweaking a gene or two?

First, lets see if we can get a chimp to talk and write some Shakespeare without requiring an infinite amount of time. The chimpanzee genome has been sequenced and differences between their brain genes and ours have been found. But no one knows for sure which of these genes give humans our increased intelligence or ability to speak. I say, only one way to find out. Lets create some chimps with the human version of these genes and see what happens.

Second, lets try and give humans chimpanzee strength. For those of you aren't aware, chimps are much stronger than humans. This would make steroids look quaint. Scientists aren't quite sure what accounts for the difference but they believe it has to do with the myosin gene MYH16. Lets create some humans with the chimp version of this gene and see what happens.

So the only question is where this work could occur. Hmm, which country has ethically challenged geneticists (cough, South Korea, cough)?



IPCC Calculates Cost of Global Warming Fix

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their report on the costs of mitigating climate change. The Economist summarizes their results as follows:

The report says that to stabilise greenhouse-gas concentrations at 550 parts per million (a level most scientists think safeish) would require a price of $20-50 per tonne of carbon by 2020-30. That The IPCC’s economic models reckon, on average, that if the world adopted such a price the global economy would be 1.3% smaller than it otherwise would have been by 2050; or, put another way, global economic growth would be 0.1% a year lower than it otherwise would have been.
That seems quite reasonable and worth the cost.

The report looks at how much CO2 emissions could be reduced by 2030 with various CO2 emission prices. At $0 per ton, emissions can be reduced by approximately 6 tons or 8.5%, at $20 13 tons (19.5%), at $50 19.5 tons (29%) and at $100 23.5 tons (34.5%).

To put this price in perspective, each dollar per ton translates to 1¢ per gallon of gasoline (as a gallon emits 20 lbs of CO2), .1¢ per kWh of coal powered electricity (as each kWh produces 2.1 lbs of CO2) or .065¢ per kWh of natural gas powered electricity (1.3 lbs of CO2 per kWh). A $20 price would translate to 20¢ per gallon of gasoline, 1¢ per kWh of coal electricity and .65¢ per kWh of natural gas electricity.

The report also looks at what sector the savings would come from with various prices as seen in the chart (click for larger version).

Interesting points:
1) The largest potential savings are in buildings.
2) Transportation savings account for only 8% to 14% of total savings.
3) Raising the price of carbon emissions has little impact on reducing emissions from transportation and buildings, but it has a large impact on industry, agriculture and forestry.

Based on this report, I think it makes sense to have a carbon tax of $20-$50 a ton that is gradually implemented over many years. A cap and trade system could also be used if a tax is not possible politically.

The Washington Post and Green Car Congress also had writeups on the IPCC's findings.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Murdoch to Take News Corp Carbon Neutral

The world's top media company, News Corporation, will slash its global carbon footprint to zero under a bold plan revealed by its chairman, Rupert Murdoch.

Saying the global media empire produced 641,150 tonnes of greenhouse gas last year, the News chairman and CEO last night pledged to go green.

Under the plan, all News Corp businesses, including News Limited, publisher of the Herald Sun, will be carbon neutral by 2010.

Mr Murdoch said this goal would be met by slashing energy use, switching to renewable power sources and, as a last resort, offsetting unavoidable emissions.
That plan sounds pretty ambitious. But it goes even farther as he wants to use News Corps influence to push this agenda.
"We can set an example and we can reach our audiences," he said.

"Our audience's carbon footprint is 10,000 times bigger than ours -- that's the carbon footprint we want to conquer."

Mr Murdoch said News Corp's newspapers, television stations, magazines, books, internet media and films could inspire readers and viewers across the world to change their ways.
Holy crap, does this mean the boss is going to force Fox News to say that global warming is caused by humans and we need to do something about it? Can't wait to see if that is true.

Now that conservatives like Murdoch, ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and political pollster Frank Luntz believe something needs to be done about global warming, I think the writing is on the wall that the Republicans are about to come to this position and the political debate on global warming will truly be over.

via The Herald Sun


Interesting Articles of the Week

What do you MEAN I'm not going to die?

Property rights may be the way to preserve forests.

Jet stream could fill global energy needs, researchers say.

Could you eat dog, or seal? Is it any worse than chicken or beef?

Comcast CEO Shows Off 150 Megabits Per Second Download on Next-Gen Modem.

Turn an ordinary T-shirt into a NINJA mask!


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

International Agrichar Initiative

Ever since I read about terra preta in the book 1491, I have been intrigued by its potential for increasing agricultural production and sequestering carbon. Now there is an International Agrichar Initiative that is looking to implement it on a large scale.

The first meeting of the International Agrichar Initiative convened about 100 scientists, policymakers, farmers and investors with the goal of birthing an entire new industry to produce a biofuel that goes beyond carbon neutral and is actually carbon negative. The industry could provide a "wedge" of carbon reduction amounting to a minimum of ten percent of world emissions and possibly much more.

Agrichar is the term not for the biomass fuel, but for what is left over after the energy is removed: a charcoal-based soil amendment. In simple terms, the agrichar process takes dry biomass of any kind and bakes it in a kiln to produce charcoal. The process is called pyrolysis. Various gases and bio-oils are driven off the material and collected to use in heat or power generation. The charcoal is buried in the ground, sequestering the carbon that the growing plants had pulled out of the atmosphere. The end result is increased soil fertility and an energy source with negative carbon emissions.

One reason for the excitement is agrichar's potential to address a range of problems from poor soil fertility to waste disposal to rural development. About half the world's population relies on charcoal for cooking fuel, and the production of charcoal drives deforestation in Africa and other places. Smoky, inefficient charcoal kilns pollute the air with noxious gases that harm health and heat the planet.

An effort to replace these kilns with modern, efficient pyrolysis units would relieve the pressure on forests by reducing waste and adding the ability to use any source of biomass, including agricultural waste products such as rice hulls. The ultimate objective is to produce enough charcoal to have some left over to bury and increase soil fertility, leading to a bootstrapping effect where increased yields provide both more food and more biomass for energy.
This 7,000 year old Amazonian technique could now be used to improve farming conditions in China and Australia.
Robert Flanagan, an entrepreneur working in China, had a different view. There are 700 million farmers in China, he pointed out. China could quickly deploy a small, village-level pyrolysis unit he is developing, and because labor is cheap, spreading the agrichar on fields would be affordable even without a large energy harvest.

Several farmers attending the conference were primarily interested in the increased yields possible with agrichar. Australia has some of the poorest soils in the world - 75 percent of Australia's soils have less than one percent carbon.
via Energy Bulletin


Encyclopedia of Life Website

I had blogged previously on E.O. Wilson's TED wish for an Encyclopedia of Life. Appears it is becoming a reality.

From apples to zebras, all 1.8 million known plant and animal species will be listed in an Internet-based "Encyclopedia of Life" under a $100 million project, scientists said on Tuesday.

The 10-year scheme, launched with initial grants of $12.5 million from two U.S.-based foundations, could aid everyone from children with biology homework to governments planning how to protect endangered species.

The encyclopedia, to be run by a team of about 25-35 people, could help chart threats to species from pollution, habitat destruction and global warming.

The project would be led by the U.S. Field Museum, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and Biodiversity Heritage Library -- a group that includes London's Natural History Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, England.
You can check out demonstration pages. Looks pretty good, although my idea of adding the the current population of each species does not appear to present. And it is hard to say how well navigation works until it is actually operational. Hopefully it will launch soon, but with 1.8 million species and only 25 people, it could take a while.

via Reuters


Record Your Life and

Imagine wearing a small camera on the side of your glasses that recorded everything you saw as a video on your computer. You would then have a video recording of your entire life. How would this change the way you lived your life or interacted with other people?

You might think you don't have to worry about such questions for a long time because the technology is not available. In fact, not only is this both technically possible and economically feasible today, but it has actually been turned into a website that follows the life of a guy 24 hours a day.

How could you do this and how much would it cost?

To capture video, you would need a thimble-size video camera such as the one DejaView sells for $350 that could be mounted on your glasses or baseball cap. This would then wirelessly record to a iPod ($250 for 30GB) or other portable hard drive stored in your pocket.

To store the videos long term, each night you would upload your daily video from your iPod to a large hard drive in your computer. The cost of storage is surprisingly cheap. Hard drive space goes for 3.3 GB per dollar based on this 300 GB Hard drive that can be purchased for $90. To figure out how much space they would require to store, I took a look at file sizes of YouTube and Windows Media File videos for various resolutions.

Quality Resolution Bandwidth Space an Hour Space a Day Cost a Day
YouTube 350x240 .33 mbs 150 MB 3.6 GB $1
TV 640x480 1.0 mbs 450 MB 10.8 GB $3
HD 1280x720 2.0 mbs 900 MB 21.6 GB $6

For just $1 a day you can store your entire life on video in a quality similar to YouTube!

Standard television quality requires about 3 times as much space or $3 a day, and HD quality two times as much as that or $6 a day. All 3 versions are affordable today and with improvements in technology these prices will drop much further. Amazon also offers an online storage service for $0.15 per GB-Month which might be even cheaper depending on usage.

What would be the impact of recording your life?

First, it will extended your memory. No longer do you have to worry about forgetting where you left your keys, or what you promised a friend or coworker you would do. Memory is surprisingly malleable (as eye witness accounts attest) but now the video shows you exactly what happened. No longer would anyone be able to lie to you about what they said previously, as you would be able to bring up the video of your last interaction with them.

Second, it allows you to review your life. How exactly did I spend my time yesterday? What was I doing a year ago today? Now you know.

Third, it leaves a legacy for your children and grandchildren, as they can see how you lived your life. All of your most important life experiences (graduation, wedding, family vacations, child's first word, etc) as well as the mundane are now recorded.

Forth, it captures the unexpected events. Funny moments, car crashes, breaking news, and amazing events are now all captured. If you are mugged now you have a picture of the guy who did it. The camera is always rolling.

What if you then broadcast it to the entire world?

While this concept has appeared years ago in movies like EdTV and The Truman Show, it is now a reality at With the tagline waste your life watching other people waste their lives, the site follows the every move of Justin 24 hours a day. He wears a hat mounted camera/microphone/transmitter to capture the video which is then sent via cell phone technology to their web server where it is broadcast live to the world, as well as being stored. The quality is a little worse than YouTube, but in the same basic ballpark.

This setup bypasses the need for an iPod like device in your pocket but requires that you are always in a location with good cellphone reception. It also adds an extra cost of a 24 hour a day cellphone internet connection. If you an have unlimited access plan, that would probably not be too expensive, but if you have to pay by the minute it would add up very quickly.

While I think it is a cool proof of concept, the actual result isn't much fun to watch. Most of the time it is just plain boring (whose life isn't?) and the accompanying chat room has nothing but inane comments.

What are the implications of everyone broadcasting their lives?

First, it would offer a new way for you to share your life with others. This is video chat and instant messaging on steroids. You would be able to go to your computer and see what all your friends are doing at the moment. They would be able to do the same. Others would have the ability to see what you are doing and in a way be there with you.

When you are on vacation or traveling somewhere, now all your friends and family could join in on the experience. And before you went on the trip, you could choose to watch the video of someone who lives in that country to see what life is really like there.

At the same time, when you are watching someone else's life you aren't living your own, so you only have a limited amount of time to be viewing other lives. What you really want is a way to just watch the highlights of the day, an RSS feed of a "Sports Center" like recap of your friends and families lives.

Second, privacy is replaced with transparency. In general I think this is a good thing as privacy is overrated and transparency underrated. You would no longer be able to lie to others, as they would be able to see exactly what you are doing. Your life would be an open book for anyone to read, and you would need to act accordingly.

But there is the problem of people abusing the openness. Stalkers come to mind (although if the stalker also was wearing a camera and everyone could see what they were doing then this is likely not a problem). Doctor visits also seem like something that should be private (but if everyone knew what everyone else's medical issues were, maybe we would all be much more compassionate on this). Having the ability to turn off the camera at these times would probably solve this problem.

Third, it makes it easier for other people to help you out when they can see exactly what you see. Your friends and coworkers could contact you on a cellphone (or maybe secret service style always on ear piece) feeding you with useful information. This would come in handy in many situations such as delivering a job proposal, picking out new clothes at the store, going on a job interview, when you have gotten lost driving or your car broke down, when you are cooking, and (for those cheats) taking tests at school. Just like in Mission Impossible where an entire team of people are guiding Tom Cruise by being able to see what he sees, so to could you have an entire team of people helping you out in your daily missions.

Imagine hiring a full time personal assistant that just watched over your life and was able to give you advice. Unlike a secretary that sits at a desk, your assistant is with you where ever you go, able to see what you see and able to contact you via cellphone where ever you go. The assistant could remind you of appointments, look up directions, remind you of people's names you have forgotten, Google information for you, or get reservations for you when ever you need it. Of course you are probably thinking that could not probably afford to hire an assistant. But, if companies outsource to India, why not you? For 1/10 the price of an American you could hire a personal Indian assistant who could view your life over the internet, just as easily as an American could here.

From the classic Seinfeld episode Summer of George:
George: I've tried. We don't have it. But maybe the two of us, working together at full capacity, could do the job of one normal man.

Jerry: Then each of us would only have be like a half man. That sounds about right!
When you have a personal assistant with you all the time, you have your own personal George, and you too can be half a man.

The implications of being able to record your life and broadcast it over the internet are profound. And rather than just being science fiction, the technologies are possible and the price reasonable enough to start using today.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Greening the Desert, A Step-by-Step Video

This video tells the story of a seemingly impossible feat achieved by permaculture designer, Geoff Lawton, in which he trained a group of locals in the principals of permaculture, and together they transformed the "hyper-arid" land until it bore fruit, desalinated water, and created fertile ground which requires very little water to be productive. If it can be done there, argues Lawton, it can be done anywhere, and it can become a real tool for addressing pollution, desertification and global warming.
In watching the Planet Earth series, I was reminded that 1/3 of land on our planet is covered by deserts. If we could find ways to turn deserts into more productive land, we would be able to support more humans and more wildlife on this planet. If this approach works as advertised, it could be used all around the Middle East and on the edges of the Sahara desert to make that land productive agricultural land.

via WorldChanging


Recruiting Plankton to Fight Global Warming

In an effort to ameliorate the effects of global warming, several groups are working on ventures to grow vast floating fields of plankton intended to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carry it to the depths of the ocean. It is an idea, debated by experts for years, that still sounds like science fiction — and some scholars think that is where it belongs.

But even though many questions remain unanswered, the first commercial project is scheduled to get under way this month when the WeatherBird II, a 115-foot research vessel, heads out from its dock in Florida to the Galápagos and the South Pacific.

The ship plans to dissolve tons of iron, an essential plankton nutrient, over a 10,000-square-kilometer patch. That’s equivalent to 2.47 million acres (3,861 square miles on land or 2,912 square nautical miles). When the trace iron prompts growth and reproduction of the tiny organism, scientists on the WeatherBird II plan to measure how much carbon dioxide the plankton ingests.

Planktos — along with Climos, a competitor started by a former dot-com millionaire whose mother is one of the nation’s top oceanographers — wants to commercialize ocean fertilization. Planktos believes that it can make a healthy profit if it receives $5 a ton for capturing carbon dioxide.
Another attempt at the "Geritol" solution. I will be interested to see the research results on how much CO2 is captured per ton of iron dropped.

I also wonder how this trickles up the food chain. How many tons of plankton are created per ton of iron, and how many tons of anchovies does that support, which in turn supports how many tons of tuna?

Given that the world is right about at its limit of how much fish we can sustainably harvest, I wonder if this would be economically feasible not based on carbon sequestering but rather in how much additional tuna and other fish could then be caught each year. Does $100 worth of iron lead to $200 of additional fish? If that were true seems like we ought to do this regardless of how much CO2 gets captured. Not sure who would pay for it though. Ideally you would want the fisherman to pay for it if they are the ones who will benefit, but I am not sure how you would get them to pitch in.

via NY Times


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Eye Color Explained

Now that we have the human genome sequenced, it should be simple to determine someone's eye color just by analyzing their DNA, right? Turns out, not so much.

University of Queensland geneticist Rick Sturm suggests that the genetics are not so clear. “There is no single gene for eye color,” he says, “but the biggest effect is the OCA2 gene.” This gene, which controls the amount of melanin pigment produced, accounts for about 74 percent of the total variation in people’s eye color.

Sturm has recently shown that the OCA2 gene itself is influenced by other genetic components. After gene-typing about 3,000 people, Sturm found that how OCA2 is expressed—and how much pigment a person has—is strongly linked to three single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), or single letter variations, in a DNA sequence near the OCA2 gene. That suggests a more complicated story than the blue-recessive/brown-dominant model of eye color. “For example, among individuals carrying the SNP sequence “TGT” at all three locations on both copies of the gene, 62 percent were blue-eyed,” says Sturm’s colleague David Duffy. By contrast, only 21 percent of individuals carrying only one TGT copy at each location and 7.5 percent of those lacking the TGT entirely had blue eyes.

Depending on the particular combination of SNPs inherited, a person can have a range of OCA2 activity that lands them on the spectrum between blue and brown eyes. What about green eyes? “Green eyes probably represent the interaction of multiple variants within the OCA2 and in other genes, including perhaps the red-hair gene,” Duffy says.
This is good news for you Caucasians criminals, for while the CSI team can determine race from DNA left at a crime scene, it is going to be a while before they can also test for eye color. Bad news on the other hand for those of you who want a designer baby, as what is the point if you can't even choose your baby's eye color?

via Discover Magazine


Lincoln Knew Where He Was Going

Abraham Lincoln ran for Congress in 1846, and he faced a formidable opponent: Peter Cartwright. Cartwright, a raw-boned, circuit-riding Methodist preacher, was known throughout Illinois. During his sixty-five years of riding the circuit, he would baptize nearly ten thousand converts.

During the intense 1846 Congressional campaign, some of Cartwright's followers accused Lincoln of being an "infidel." In response, Lincoln decided to meet Cartwright on his own ground and attend one of his evangelistic rallies.

Carl Sandburg, in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, tells the story this way:
In due time Cartwright said, "All who desire to lead a new life, to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand," and a sprinkling of men, women, and children stood up. Then the preacher exhorted, "All who do not wish to go to hell will stand." All stood up—except Lincoln. Then said Cartwright in his gravest voice, "I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?"

And Lincoln slowly rose and slowly spoke. "I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress."

He went.
via Christianity Today


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The X PRIZE's Participatory Video Contest

I am a big fan of using contests to solve big problems, but the X Prize has taken the concept to the next level in creating a contest to create a contest. Wait, what?

In collaboration with mobile entertainment and content sharing network, Zannel, X PRIZE asks us (you!) to submit 2-minute videos about the most important issues and challenges facing humankind. After the submissions close, there will be an open voting period, and a committee from the foundation will review those that receive the most votes. Based on their assessment, they will develop the next round of prizes, and the winners of the video contest will be flown to the Wirefly X PRIZE Cup in New Mexico to see the next advancements in private spacecraft design in action.
Have a problem that you think a contest would be able to solve? Or maybe you just want to rate the ones that others have submitted. Either way, check it out.

via WorldChanging


New 'Sleep Machine' Could Signal the End of Insomnia

Scientists have invented a technique which they say could help trigger deep sleep in the most chronic insomniac.

Using medical equipment, they stimulated the brain with harmless magnetic pulses.

These penetrate the nerves that control a type of deep sleep called "slow-wave activity" and made their brains produce these waves.

Researchers believe the same principles could be used to create a machine which can electronically stimulate a deep-sleep power nap. This mimics the restorative benefits of eight hours of rest.
How cool would it be to take a power nap with one of these and get the benefits of 8 hours of sleep?


Virginia Tech Shootings vs. Daily Tragic Unexpected Deaths

I really didn't want to comment on the Virginia Tech shootings. It has had way too much attention pointed on it already. But, I think the media coverage has given people a warped perspective of how likely such an event is to occur again and how much effort we should put into trying to stop another such event. So, I figured it was time to give this event the classic Fat Knowledge Vs. analysis and compare it with other tragic unexpected deaths that happen on a daily basis in the US.

While it was horrific that 33 people died at Virginia Tech on April 17th, even more horrific is the fact that every day in the US, 45 people die in homicides, 82 die in suicides and 117 die in traffic accidents. By the end of the year there will around 43,000 traffic fatalities, 30,000 suicides, and 16,500 homicides. The 33 deaths on this day will just be less than .04% of the 89,000 combined deaths from these causes.

Not that those that lost their lives at Virgina Tech are insignificant, but rather that everyone who loses a life is significant and I don't see why those who died at Virginia Tech deserve special treatment. Why should their obituaries end up in papers throughout the country and not the others that died in their own tragic way?

In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz has a study that shows the frequency of newspaper coverage and the respondents' estimates of the frequency of death were almost perfectly correlated. When the national media spends their time on freak events, it gives us all a warped perspective of the risks we face.

I think to rectify this, the 24 hour news networks should add a death counter to their tickers at the bottom of the screen. While this may sound morbid, Americans need a better perspective of how many people die from various causes and this would be a great way to supply it. 33 deaths sounds horrible, but then if you see on the ticker that today 45 people died in homicides, 82 died via suicide and 117 died in traffic accidents, it puts it in perspective.

Because of the media attention, every college in the country wondered if it could happen there and what they could do to stop it. It would be better for colleges to focus on limiting alcohol abuse. The NIH reports that unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol accounted for more than 1,700 deaths in 2001 among U.S. college students aged 18-24. That works out to a Virginia Tech massacre of deaths (33) a week.

Pundits talked of legislative changes to make to try and ensure that this would never happen again. If all tragic deaths are equal, we ought to ignore this freak event and focus in on trying to minimize traffic accidents, which are the most abundant form of unexpected deaths and probably the cheapest to prevent.

Some talked of gun control to try and stop this from occurring again. But, if you are trying to save lives from gun violence, we should focus on suicides rather than homicides because there are more of them. In 2001, 55% of suicides were committed with a firearm or about 45 suicides via gun a day. This compares with 29 firearm homicides a day. As the Washington Post reports:

Nearly twice as many people commit suicide in the 15 U.S. states with the highest rates of gun ownership than in the six states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, although the population of the two groups is about the same, researchers said last week.

States with higher levels of gun ownership consistently have higher levels of suicide, and that is not because of differences in poverty, unemployment, drug addiction or mental illness, according to Miller's study. It compared suicide rates in all 50 states with rates of gun ownership in those states.

"Removing all firearms from one's home is one of the most effective and straightforward steps that household decision-makers can take to reduce the risk of suicide," Miller said in a statement. "Short of removing all firearms, the next best thing is to make sure that all guns in homes are very securely locked up and stored separately from secured ammunition.
If I wanted to promote this legislation I would go with the slogan: "don't buy a gun, the life you save may be your own".

While the Virginia Tech shootings were a tragedy, rather than being representative of tragic deaths in the US, it was an exceptional event. As such, it should neither be used as basis for any legislation or the cause for change in personal behavior. Even if we could make laws to stop these horrific mass murders from taking place, it would have only a small impact on the total number of tragic deaths that occur each year in the US. Instead we should focus on where we could save the most amount of lives.

The national media would better serve the nation if they gave citizens a more realistic impression of the risks they face. They could do this by picking stories that are representative of statistics rather then spending their time on events that are only newsworthy because of how unlikely they were to happen.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Funeral home allegedly scattered human ashes outside the parlor to make icy paths less slippery.

US Congressman Introduces Carbon Tax Bill

10 Unexpected Uses of the iPod

The Speed of Trust: Trust, Branding & Competitive Advantage

Presidential candidate Christopher Dodd proposes a carbon tax.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Obama: Author, Husband, Senator

Sometime I hope to find the time to write up my case that senators and many other government employees need massive pay raises. But, when I saw this article I figured I would make a quick comment.

Their 2006 income of $991,296 included Obama's salary of $157,082 and his wife's administrator's pay of $273,618 from the University of Chicago Hospitals and $51,200 in director fees from a food distributor, TreeHouse Inc.

Most of the income, $506,618, came from Obama's royalties on two books that became best-sellers, including one published last fall, "The Audacity of Hope: Reclaiming the American Dream."
If you rank Obama's professions on where he gets his income from he is an author first, a husband second and a senator third. How wrong is it that one of the nations most influential senators made significantly more money from his moonlighting gig as an author then he got from his full time job as being a senator? And while I have no doubt that Mrs. Obama is an impressive individual and the work she does is important, I don't get how an administrator at a hospital gets paid more than $100,000 more than a US senator.

Based on their influence in the government and what they would be able to make if they took jobs in the private sector, I think senators should make somewhere in the ballpark of $2 million a year. At such a salary, senator would become Mr. Obama's primary profession.



Today's Waste, Tomorrow's Treasure?

While we think of treasure as always having been treasure and waste as always being waste, the value we assign to items sometimes change. As the natural environment evolves, as technology changes, and as supply/demand equilibriums shift, what what was once waste sometimes becomes treasure. In fact, the most important gas in the air we breath, the most valuable liquid on the planet, and the most expensive restaurant entree were all once considered waste products.

As unlikely as it seems, the oxygen in the air we breathe, the gas that we can't live without, was once a waste product. According to Wikipedia:

One of the earliest types of bacteria were the cyanobacteria. Fossil evidence indicates that bacteria shaped like these existed approximately 3.3 billion years ago and were the first oxygen-producing evolving phototropic organisms. They were responsible for the initial conversion of the earth's atmosphere from an anoxic state to an oxic state (that is, from a state without oxygen to a state with oxygen) during the period 2.7 to 2.2 billion years ago. Being the first to carry out oxygenic photosynthesis, they were able to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, playing a major role in oxygenating the atmosphere.

As more plants appeared, the levels of oxygen increased significantly, while carbon dioxide levels dropped. At first the oxygen combined with various elements (such as iron), but eventually oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere, resulting in mass extinctions and further evolution.
Unfortunately for the cyanobacteria, they had no Al Gore to warn them of the changes that they were making to their atmosphere and their ecosystem paid the price with massive extinctions.

While this was bad news for them, millions of years later it became good news for humans and other animals, as we could not live without oxygen in the air. What was once a waste byproduct of the cyanobacteria is now arguably the most valuable resource of all to humans.

As hard as it is to believe today, gasoline was originally a waste product. According to Interesting People:
In its early days, the oil industry existed to manufacture kerosene, a fuel for lamps. Gasoline was a waste by-product of this process, something usually thrown away.
According to The Prize, in 1892, an oil man had congratulated himself for managing to sell gasoline for as much as $.02 a gallon. If you couldn't sell it or give it away, gasoline often ended up just flushed down the rivers. It was not until 1910 that gasoline outsold kerosene. (Natural gas was also considered a waste product of oil until 1876 when Pew was able to sell it.)

But, with the invention of the internal combustion engine and automobiles, gasoline became the most valuable liquid on the planet. It is the most important end product of oil. 50% of oil is turned into gasoline and American's use 360 million gallons of it a day.

While today a delicacy, lobster was at one time used as a fertilizer rather than eaten directly:
The armour-plated delicacy used to be super-abundant and dirt cheap, he says—so cheap that it was fed to inmates in prison and children in orphanages. Farmers even fertilised their fields with it, and servants would bargain with their employers to be given it no more than twice or thrice a week.
What happened to change lobster's reputation? According to Wikipedia:
The reputation of lobster changed with the development of the modern transportation industry that allowed live lobsters to be shipped from the outports to large urban centres. Fresh lobster quickly became a luxury food and a tourist attraction for the Maritimes and Maine and an export to Europe and Japan where it is especially expensive.
Now lobster is a $1.8 billion global industry and the most expensive item on the menu.

Oxygen, the most valuable gas in the air; gasoline, the most valuable liquid; and lobster, the most expensive entree on the menu were all considered waste. If they all were once waste, makes you wonder which of today's wastes will become tomorrow's treasure?

I know what you are thinking. There are certain things that will never become valuable. For example, there is no way bird shit could ever become valuable enough for people to fight over. But, (wait for it) you would be wrong.

According to The Economist:
On the dry seabird islands off the South American and South African coasts, immense deposits of bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, had accumulated over centuries. Guano mining became a profitable business, and a grim one. Off South-West Africa, the discovery in 1843 of the tiny island of Ichaboe, covered in 25 feet of penguin and gannet excrement, led to a guano rush followed by a mutiny and battles.
And as The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter points out 1 million tons of chicken litter is feed to cattle a year in the US or 66 lbs per cow (mmm, yummy). While that might not be enough to be considered treasure, it is not bad for a substance that most people give no thought to except when a seagull is flying overhead.

Now you are thinking: OK, I was setup on that last one but this time I have one that can't be beneficial: toxic waste. For example there is no way that hyrdrogen sulfide, the substance that is responsible for the foul odor of rotten eggs and flatulence, would ever be beneficial.

Then you learn that at the bottom of the ocean, there are hydrothermal vents that spew hydrogen sulfide. And instead of being devoid of life, the areas surrounding these vents are teeming with it. Specialized bacteria use the hydrogen sulfide as an energy source and are at the bottom of a food pyramid that supports numerous tube worms, crabs, shrimp and fish. By some measurements these areas account for more biomass on earth than anywhere else and might have been where life began on earth.

So which of today's wastes will become tomorrow's treasure? Nuclear waste? Carbon dioxide? Pig manure lagoons?

I don't know, but personally I am still holding out hope of becoming a cow fart tycoon.