Friday, June 29, 2007

Google Maps: Drag The Blue Line To Change Your Route

Very cool. Give it a try.

via Digg


Chris Farley Lives

And some people don't believe in reincarnation.

via Openedgemdia via Digg


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cows To Offset Coal Greenhouse Gases

The biggest coal burner in the U.S. thinks it has come up with a cheap way to start fixing its global-warming problem: cow dung.

In a deal to be announced today, the utility has agreed to pay a middleman to put plastic tarps over lagoons holding rotting livestock waste on farms. Decomposing manure produces methane -- a greenhouse gas that, ton for ton, is 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, scientists say.

Methane is an attractive early target because it generates a big environmental bang for the buck. The methane produced by the manure of a typical 1,330-pound cow translates into about five tons of CO2 per year. That is about the same amount generated annually by a typical U.S. car, one getting 20 miles per gallon and traveling 12,000 miles per year.
One cow = one car, wow. When I looked into this previously, the data I used put the amount of emissions per cow at 2 tons. Not sure why the big discrepancy. And I am not sure if this takes into account methane emissions via cow burps and farts either.
The AEP project, which is set to include about 200 farms, would be far bigger than any other effort to turn cow dung to carbon credits in the U.S. It is contracting to buy at least 600,000 CO2 credits annually. AEP won't say what it has agreed to pay for each methane-capture credit. But such credits, which are being sold elsewhere in the world as a result of the Kyoto Protocol, typically go for between $5 and $8 per so-called CO2-equivalent ton.
Eliminating methane emissions from cow manure is much cheaper than the estimated $60/ton it costs to capture the carbon from a coal fired power plant. I am all for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in the cheapest way possible, but I worry about the potential for gaming of the system. As long as the amount of methane is actually sequestered as advertised, then I think this makes sense.

Of course I am deeply disappointed that they aren't taking advantage of my new favorite patent.

via Wall Street Journal

Update: Green Car Congress reports that if all the energy stored in Danish manure could be extracted, it could, according to the Danish Board of Technology, supply 25% of the energy required by the Danish transport sector.


Over Half the World Lives in Cities

By the end of this year, for the first time ever, over half of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, according to the United Nation’s State of World Population report. Last century the global urban population grew from 220m to 2.8 billion, mainly in rich countries. The big increases in this century will be in the developing world, where levels of urbanisation are much lower than in other regions.
The urbanization of humanity is good news for the environment, as urbanization leads to lower birth rates and energy usage.

And what's up with the color selection by The Economist? North America and Oceania look the same to me, as do Europe and Asia. This must be what color blind people have to put up with everyday. Someone needs to clue The Economist in about such novel colors as yellow, purple, orange, and brown.

via The Economist


More People, More Progress?

In Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, the author states that the rate of technological progress is based on population size. A larger population can support more researchers which leads to more scientific breakthroughs and improved technology. As an example he asserts that when Europeans discovered Australia, their technology was vastly superior to the Australians because the population of Eurasia was much larger than Australia. Likewise, the Austrialian technology was superior to neighboring Tasmania, whose population was so small that their technology had actually regressed.

This made me wonder: what is the link between population size and technological progress? Would a larger world population lead to quicker technological innovations? And what is the impact of countries becoming richer on progress and how does that compare with population growth?

So, I decided to investigate.

I pulled out the UNESCO reports on the number of researchers in the world, that I wrote about previously. Based on these numbers I calculated the numbers of inhabitants per researcher and GDP per researcher.

per researcher
GDP (in millions)
per researcher
Developed Countries3057.2
Developing Countries2,67011.6
Less-developed Countries221,600237.5

For the entire world, there are 5.5 million researchers in a population of 6.1 billion, or 1,120 people per researcher. All else being equal, there would be another researcher for every additional 1,120 people added to the world population. If the population were to increase by 1 billion, there would be an additional 892,000 researchers, increasing the total by 16% and speeding up the rate of technological advancement.

But, all is not equal. In developed countries there is one researcher per 305 people (228 for the US), while in less-developed nations it is one per 221,600. 1 billion people added to developed countries would lead to 3.28 million new researchers, while that many added to less-developed countries would add just 4,500 researchers. Unfortunately, from a research point of view, the majority of population growth is occurring in developing and less-developed countries (and two of the countries with the highest rates of researchers per capita, Japan and Russia, are experiencing population decreases). This also raises an interesting question of whether migration from less-developed to developed countries would lead to more researchers. It cannot be determined from this report, but it seems plausible.

What if instead nations were to get richer? How much additional GDP do we need per additional researcher?

For the entire world, there is one researcher per $8.6 million in GDP. If the world GDP were to grow by $1 trillion (a 2.1% increase on $47.6 trillion), there would be an additional 116,000 researchers. Once again, the numbers break down quite differently between various nation types as there is one researcher per $7.2 million in GDP for developed nations, and one per $237 million for less-developed nations. A $1 trillion increase in GDP in developed nations would lead to 138,000 new researchers, but only 4,200 researchers in less-developed nations.

Based on these numbers, there is increasing returns of researchers on GDP. As countries get richer, it actually takes less additional GDP growth to support another researcher. Growing the GDP of a rich country by $100 million would increase the number of researchers more than that same growth in a poor country. This is surprising to me as high tech jobs are outsourced to poorer countries because researchers there are willing to work for a lot less less money. I would have thought that increasing GDP by $100 million would allow for more researchers in poor countries, as they cost less to support. But, that is not the case.

Another implication of the increasing returns of researcher on GDP is it becomes a virtuous cycle where as countries get richer they can support more researchers for a smaller amount of GDP growth.

So, will increasing population lead to more researchers and quicker technological progress? Based on these numbers, the answer is a qualified yes. Even if all population growth were to occur in less-developed nations, there would still be an increase in the number of researchers. But, having nations get richer would lead to even more progress and it will be easier for nations (and the biological limits of the planet) to double their GDP than to double their populations.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Google and Utility to Test Hybrids That Sell Back Power

Big Ag Enlists Robots to Pick High-Hanging Fruit

At Home Depot, How Green Is That Chainsaw?

Class divisions at social networking sites Facebook and MySpace.

Giant microwave turns plastic back to oil.

Cocaine traffickers adding flavors to the powder and charging 40 percent more for it.


Monday, June 25, 2007

The Trees Have Eyes

Last year poachers are estimated to have killed more than 23,000 African elephants. According to a study by the University of Washington, that is about one in 17 of the continent's total.
Yikes! Too bad you can't send all the poachers down to South Africa, where populations are getting out of hand.

So, what do you do instead? How about a little technological magic.
Nouabalé-Ndoki's hard-pressed rangers are, however, about to get some high-tech help in the form of TrailGuard, a system of small and easily hidden electronic detection and communication devices. They will soon begin burying radio-transmitting metal detectors alongside elephant trails leading into the park. Authorised hikers through the park will be given transponders that tell the detectors who they are, as with the “identification friend-or-foe” systems on military aircraft. But when poachers carrying rifles or machetes traipse by a detector, it will send a radio signal to a treetop antenna. Seconds later the rangers will receive the intruder's co-ordinates on their satellite phones. They will then be able to respond precisely, rather than slogging around on fruitless and demoralising patrols on the off-chance of catching a poacher up to no good.

TrailGuard is the brainchild of Steve Gulick, an electrical engineer turned biologist who recently left the State University of New York (SUNY) to set up a not-for-profit organisation called Wildland Security, to promote his idea. Besides catching more (or, indeed, any) poachers, he hopes his invention will also prove to be an example of an idea from another one-time electrical engineer, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke's Third Law, as it is known to fans of his science-fiction writing, is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Many people in Congo do believe in magic and Mr Gulick does not propose to disabuse them of the notion. Local people will receive no explanation for the rangers' new powers. That, Mr Gulick hopes, will discourage potential poachers from turning thought into deed.

Nor are metal detectors the only magic to be deployed. Small fire detectors hidden in trees should add to the anti-poaching unit's reputation for clairvoyance. Poachers frequently smoke meat from their kills to preserve it during transport to market. Like the metal detectors, the fire detectors will alert the rangers by satellite phone, allowing them to swoop as from nowhere.
Metal and fire detectors in the middle of the jungle. Excellent.

via The Economist


Why Is Crime Going Down in Big Cities?

While crime rates are going up in the US, in three major cities: NYC, Chicago and LA, it is going in the opposite direction. While innovate police work usually gets the credit, there is a demographic shift that is helping as well.

The most obvious change is that, thanks in part to high property prices, all three cities are shedding young people. Together they lost more than 200,000 15-to 24-year-olds between 2000 and 2005. That bodes ill for their creativity and future competitiveness, but it is good news for the police. Young people are not just more likely to commit crimes. Thanks to their habit of walking around at night and their taste for portable electronic gizmos, they are also more likely to become its targets.

Another change is that poor Americans have been displaced by poor immigrants—who, as studies have repeatedly shown, are much better behaved than natives of similar means. This trend is symbolised by the disappearance of blacks. Roughly half of America's murder victims and about the same proportion of suspected murderers are black. In five years America's three biggest cities lost almost a tenth of their black residents, while elsewhere in America their numbers held steady.
I would be curious to know what percentage of the decrease in crime can be attributable to these changes.

via The Economist


Climate Counts

Today marks the launch of Climate Counts, a new nonprofit initiative to rate major consumer brands on their climate commitments and performance.

The data released today rate 56 companies on a 100-point scale based on more than 20 criteria in four categories:

* How well does the company measure its climate footprint? (up to 22 points)
* How much has the company done to reduce its global warming pollution? (up to 56 points)
* Does the company explicitly support (or express intent to block) progressive climate legislation? (up to 10 points)
* How clearly and comprehensively does the company publicly disclose its climate protection efforts? (up to 12 points)

You can view and download the scorecard and its criteria here [PDF].
I like this idea. I think the scoring metrics make sense, and this labeling technique will put pressure on companies to become more transparent about their footprint and what they are doing about it.

But, I am going to give the companies time to respond before taking the actual results seriously. For example, Google doesn't score very high, and yet with their solar power project and other initiatives to use renewable power, they do seem to be taking global warming seriously and doing something about it. In a year or two, I bet they will have made that information public in the format that Climate Counts is looking for. At that point I will start taking the rankings into consideration when making purchases.

via GNET


Shooting CO2 Into Space

Today's idea on combating global warming: shooting CO2 into space.

Dr Wong reckons the problem is not so much that CO2 is being thrown away, but that it is not being thrown far enough. According to his calculations, a little helping hand would turn the Earth's magnetic field into a conveyor belt that would vent the gas into outer space, whence it would never return.

The site of the conveyor Dr Wong is proposing to build is the Arctic. More specifically, he is suggesting it be over one of his workplaces, the High Power Auroral Stimulation facility near Fairbanks in Alaska that he set up 20 years ago to stimulate and study artificial auroras.

The Arctic sky is special because it is one of the two places (the other being the Antarctic) where the magnetic shield of the Earth opens up to outer space. Auroras pleasingly testify to a stream of particles from the sun that gets through and hits the atmosphere. These particles bring with them many gigawatts of power that Dr Wong wants to harness to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

First, he has to ionise more CO2. There are many ways this might be done, but for a first experiment Dr Wong proposes zapping dust in the atmosphere with powerful lasers, to release electrons that can then combine with CO2. Having created the ions, he will then nudge those that have drifted upwards to the appropriate height with radio waves of exactly 17 cycles a second, which will give them a nice stock of energy at the beginning of their spiralling phase.

Once they are there, Dr Wong expects the incoming stream of charged particles that cause auroras to deliver the bonus that will make the whole thing work, by dumping some of their energy into the spiralling as well.
Sounds crazy, but too cool not to give it a try.

via The Economist, image via digg


Saturday, June 23, 2007

RNA More Important Than Genes For Evolution?

Think evolution only has to do with genes? Think again.

Scientists are now discovering than RNA plays a large role, and maybe a larger role than DNA that codes for proteins.

There are scnRNAs, snRNAs and snoRNAs. There are rasiRNAs, tasiRNAs and natsiRNAs. The piRNAs, which were discovered last summer, are abundant in developing sex cells. No male mammal, nor male fish, nor fly of either sex, would be fertile without them. Another RNA, called XIST, has the power to turn off an entire chromosome. It does so in females because they, unlike males, have two X chromosomes and would otherwise get an unhealthy double dose of many proteins. There is even a “pregnancy-induced non-coding RNA”, cutely termed PINC. New RNAs are rushing forth from laboratories so rapidly that a group called the RNA Ontology Consortium has been promised half a million dollars to prune and tend the growing thicket of RNA-tailed acronyms.

In a human, the number of different microRNAs, one of the commonest of the newly discovered sorts of RNA, may be as high as 37,000 according to Isidore Rigoutsos, IBM's genome-miner in chief. That compares with the 21,000 or so protein-encoding genes that people have.

Ronald Plasterk, of the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, suggests that microRNAs are important in the evolution of the human brain. In December's Nature Genetics, he compared the microRNAs encoded by chimpanzee and human genomes. About 8% of the microRNAs that are expressed in the human brain were unique to it, much more than chance and the evolutionary distance between chimps and people would predict.

Such observations suggest evolution is as much about changes in the genes for small RNAs as in the genes for proteins—and in complex creatures possibly more so. Indeed, some researchers go further. They suggest that RNA could itself provide an alternative evolutionary substrate. That is because RNA sometimes carries genetic information down the generations independently of DNA, by hitching a lift in the sex cells.
via The Economist (who by the way is now giving free access to all of their articles. Yeah!)


Friday, June 22, 2007

Study Says Eldest Children Have Higher I.Q.s

The eldest children in families tend to develop slightly higher I.Q.s than their younger siblings, researchers are reporting, based on a large study that could effectively settle more than a half-century of scientific debate about the relationship between I.Q. and birth order.

The difference in I.Q. between siblings was a result of family dynamics, not biological factors like changes in gestation caused by repeated pregnancies, the study found.

The new findings, which is to appear in the journal Science on Friday, are based on detailed records from 241,310 Norwegians, including some 64,000 pairs of brothers, allowing the researchers to carefully compare scores within families, as well as between families. The study found that eldest children scored about three points higher on I.Q. tests than their closest sibling. The difference was an average, meaning that it showed up in most families, but not all of them.
Once again, as an eldest child, this research is no surprise to me. :)

via NY Times


Hitachi: Move the Train With Your Brain

The "brain-machine interface" developed by Hitachi Inc. analyzes slight changes in the brain's blood flow and translates brain motion into electric signals.

Underlying Hitachi's brain-machine interface is a technology called optical topography, which sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain's surface to map out changes in blood flow.

A cap connects by optical fibers to a mapping device, which links, in turn, to a toy train set via a control computer and motor during one recent demonstration at Hitachi's Advanced Research Laboratory in Hatoyama, just outside Tokyo.

At his prompting, a reporter did simple calculations in her head, and the train sprang forward - apparently indicating activity in the brain's frontal cortex, which handles problem solving.

Activating that region of the brain - by doing sums or singing a song - is what makes the train run, according to Utsugi. When one stops the calculations, the train stops, too.
Not clear what happens if you require a calculator to solve the problems.
Hitachi's scientists are set to develop a brain TV remote controller letting users turn a TV on and off or switch channels by only thinking.
For those of you that are looking for a way to watch TV and burn even fewer calories, hold tight, help is on the way.

via Wired


Shoot-Through, Invisible, Self-Healing Shields: Darpa Goal

Darpa, the Pentagon's wide-eyed research arm, is betting big on "metamaterials" -- composites that can seemingly-impossible new properties, thanks to their molecular structure. But even for Darpa, and even for metamaterials, this seems like a long shot: a $15 million program to build shoot-through, one-way-invisible, self-healing shields for soldiers in urban battlefields.

via Danger Room


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Brain Gets a Thrill From Charity

The scientists gave 19 women participants $100 and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or keep it for themselves.

Researchers found that two evolutionarily ancient regions deep in the brain -- the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens -- fired when subjects saw the charity get the money. The activation was even larger when people gave the money voluntarily, instead of just paying it as taxes. These brain regions are the same ones that fire when basic needs such as food and pleasures (sweets or social contact) are satisfied.

"The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others -- where you do not have a free choice -- you still get reward-center activity," said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. "I don't think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism -- where it's all about how well the common good is doing. I've heard people claim that they don't mind paying taxes, if it's for a good cause -- and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it.
via Science Daily and CNN


Micorosft Surface Parody Video

via TechCrunch


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My New Favorite Patent

My new favorite patent is #6,982,161: Process for the utilization of ruminant animal methane emissions.

What is it exactly?

A method for producing methane-utilizing microorganisms in a confined apparatus comprising using the methane exhaled through ruminant animal exhalation as a source of carbon and/or energy for the growth of said microorganisms comprising:
a. collecting methane gas that has been exhaled through ruminant animal exhalation,
You would think with my fascination with becoming a cow fart tycoon, I would have come across this patent before but somehow it missed my purview. This is utterly (or should I say udderly) fantastic. It captures all of the methane (natural gas) that the cow breathes out, thereby trapping a potent greenhouse gas from being emitted, and allowing it to be burned for heat or electricity generation.

My grandfather was a dairy farmer and never did I have a desire to become one until I read this. How cool would it be to have 300 head of cattle all wearing one of these things? Like having a bunch of cow Storm Troopers (not to be confused with Darth Mooder).

Markus Donald Herrema, you are my hero.

via Wired and Tree Hugger


Clinton Commencement Address

A good speech by Clinton at Harvard. Worth the read. I liked this part:

But here’s what I want to tell you about that. The inequality is fixable and the insecurity is manageable. We’re going to really have to go some in the 21st century to see political violence claim as many innocent lives as it did in the 20th century. Keep in mind you had what, 12 million people killed in World War I, somewhere between 15 and 20 million in World War II, six million in the Holocaust, six million Jews, three million others. Twenty million in the political purges in the former Soviet Union between the two world wars and one afterward. Two million in Cambodia alone. Millions in tribal wars in Africa. An untold but large number in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I mean, we’re going to have to really get after it, if you expect your generation to claim as many innocents from political violence as was claimed in the 20th century. The difference is you think it could be you this time. Because of the interdependence of the world. So yes, it’s insecure but it’s manageable.
I think sometimes when we watch the news and see all the violence going on in the world, we lose perspective. Even with what is going on in Darfur, Iraq and Palestine, this century is likely to be the safest ever.

Other good stuff about our shared humanity and the interdependence of the world in the speech as well.


DMF, A New Ethanol Alternative

Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a two-stage process for converting biomass-derived sugar into 2,5-dimethylfuran (DMF), a liquid transportation fuel with 40% greater energy density than ethanol.

In addition to its higher-energy content, DMF also addresses other ethanol shortcomings. DMF is not soluble in water and therefore cannot become contaminated by absorbing water from the atmosphere. DMF is stable in storage and, in the evaporation stage of its production, consumes one-third of the energy required to evaporate a solution of ethanol produced by fermentation for biofuel applications.
Interesting. Let the race for the perfect designer biofuel begin.

Unclear from the article how efficient the energy conversion from sugar to DMF is compared to ethanol, or how the economics of it look.

via Green Car Congress


Interesting Articles of the Week

Human genome further unravelled.

Scientists calculate how much money it takes to buy happiness.

What Does Africa Need Most: Technology or Aid?

Schools Plan to Pay Cash for Marks

China overtakes US as world's biggest CO2 emitter.


Friday, June 15, 2007

The Universal Investor

From The Naked Corporation:

The Universal Investor owns a cross section of economy because they are so big or because that is their asset allocation. It no longer makes sense to pick winning and losing companies, their fundamental interest is in the health of the economy overall, which includes its long-term sustainability. Responsible fund manager should not only ensure that corporations operate in peak form but that the economy does too. It makes sense to consider a company's impact on the whole economy rather than on just its own bottom line. Corporations that captures short term gain at the expense of heavy external costs shouldn't be tolerated by the prudent universal owner.
I like this idea. When people become long term Universal Investors they naturally align themselves with what is best for the entire world economy over the long run.

I am not sure if explicit in the idea, but I would extend it to the entire world economy. A Universal Investor mutual fund could be created that invested as broadly as possible in the world economy. It could buy index funds such as the S&P 500 and its counterpart in each country around the world along with other financial instruments to mirror the state of the world economy as best as possible.

Some believe that people become rich at the expense of the poor, but a Universal Investor can only get rich if everyone gets rich as everyone gets the same "average" return. The only way to improve returns is to make the economy more productive through improved education and technology.

Competition is only beneficial to the extent it helps the overall good. A company that benefits at the at the expense of another (or one that wins zero sum games) is not valuable to a Universal Investor.

Over utilization of natural resources is detrimental to returns, so a Universal Investor believes in environmental stewardship. Business ideas that are not sustainable such as overfishing and over harvesting of forests have no benefit to the Universal Investor.

Promoting peace has a positive return on investment for the Universal Investor as wars destroy their assets.

One of the issues with privatizing Social Security is how to invest the money. One solution would be to allow people to only invest in the Universal Investor mutual fund. This give everyone a stake in health of the global economy and take care of the problem of an investor losing all of their money on a risky stock that doesn't pan out.

The more people become Universal Investors the better it will be for the environment, the world economy and world peace.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sudan's Breathtaking Migration

No, not the Darfurians making the race for the Chadian border. This one is a positive story.

Scientists believe they have discovered the biggest migration of wild animals on Earth, with an aerial survey revealing vast herds of gazelle and antelope on the move in southern Sudan in a region which had been assumed to have been denuded of its wildlife by years of civil war.

They estimated the population of the white-eared kob - a chestnut coloured and medium-sized antelope - at about 800,000. Add to that other species including the topi and the Mongalla gazelle, and the total number of migratory animals is put at 1.3 million, approaching the scale of one of the world's greatest natural events, the Serengeti migration of wildebeest and zebra across east Africa.

"This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on Earth," said Michael Fay, a field scientist with the WCS, who conducted the survey. "I have never seen wildlife in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti."

In addition to the gigantic herds of kob, they produced estimates of 250,000 Mongalla gazelles, a small tan and hite antelope with a black stripe on its flank; 160,000 topi, or tiang, a horned antelope; as well as reedbuck and ostriches.
It always amazes how little we still know about the world. The world's largest migration of mammals on Earth and we are just now finding out about this?

Google Street Maps can give you pictures of every street in major cities, and capture an innocent girl in her underwear, but we have no idea about 1.3 million mammals making a massive migration? (Gotta love that alliteration.) Makes you wonder what else we don't know about.

via Guardian


Some Common Birds Not So Common Anymore

The populations of 20 common American birds - from the fence-sitting meadowlark to the whippoorwill with its haunting call - are half what they were 40 years ago, according to an analysis released Thursday.

For the study, researchers looked at bird populations of more than half a million which covered a wide range. They compared databases for 550 species from two different bird surveys - the Audubon's own Christmas bird count and the U.S. Geological Survey's breeding bird survey in June. The numbers of 20 different birds were at least half what they were in 1967.

Today there are 432 million fewer of these bird species, including the northern pintail, greater scaup, boreal chickadee, common tern, loggerhead shrike, field sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, snow bunting, black-throated sparrow, lark sparrow, common grackle, American bittern, horned lark, little blue heron and ruffed grouse.

Suburban sprawl, climate change and other invasive species are largely to blame, said the study's author Greg Butcher of the National Audubon Society.
I have called for a species census to find out information such as this on all species. These bird watchers collect great data, but we should expand this kind of data to as many species as we can.

Just because a species is not endangered, doesn't mean its populations aren't dropping drastically. And it might make more sense to focus on stopping population loses of these species rather than trying to keep a species with a tiny population from extinction.

The news is not all bad. There are winners as well as losers.
While these common birds are in decline, others are taking their place or even elbowing them aside. The wild turkey, once in deep trouble, is growing at a rate of 14 percent a year. The double-crested cormorant, pushed nearly to extinction by DDT, is growing at a rate of 8 percent a year and populations of the pesky Canada goose increase by 7 percent yearly.

Many of the birds that are disappearing are specialists, while the thriving ones are generalists that do well in urban sprawl and all kinds of environments, Butcher said. In a way it's the Wal-Mart-ization of America's skies, he said.

"Right now the Eurasian collared-dove is conquering America," Butcher said. A dove-like bird that first entered Florida in the 1980s, it now is the most prevalent bird in the Sunshine State and is in more than 30 states.
via Wired


Subscription Music Plan for Cellphones

According to Reuters, British Omnifone has signed deals with the big four music labels (Universal, EMI, Sony/BMG, and Warner Music) and 30 cell carriers to sell subscriptions to unlimited music downloads on cell phones.

The service, called MusicStation, will work on all 2.5-3G compatible phones. It is being released throughout Europe, starting today with Sweden, a full two weeks before the iPhone release. They expect 80% of Western Europe’s existing phones to be compatible with the service.

MusicStation costs 2.99 euros/week or 1.99 pounds/week for downloading an unlimited number of songs. Songs take about 15 seconds to download and by the end of the year Omnifone expects to have a library of over 1 million songs. The application lets you make playlists, find new artists, and follow artist specific news.
Finally, a subscription "all you can eat" plan for music on your cellphone that you can download over the network. I have been waiting like 10 years for this to become a reality, glad to see it is now happening. Hopefully this will be making it stateside soon. At $12-15 a month, that sound reasonable, especially if they let you use the subscription on your computer as well. Who needs to limit themselves to the few albums they are willing to buy, when you can listen to whatever you want (and know where ever you want) with a subscription plan?

Steve Jobs says he isn't interested in subscription based music, but he also said he wasn't interested in a video iPod or getting into the cellphone business. Here's hoping he changes his mind on this as well.

via TechCrunch


Monday, June 11, 2007

A Step Toward a Living, Learning Memory Chip

Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel have demonstrated that neurons cultured outside the brain can be imprinted with multiple rudimentary memories that persist for days without interfering with or wiping out others.

"The main achievement was the fact that we used the inhibition of the inhibitory neurons" to stimulate the memory patterns, says physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob, senior author of a paper on the findings published in the May issue of Physical Review E. "We probably made [the cell culture] trigger the collective mode of activity that … [is] … possible."

The results, Ben-Jacob says, set the stage for the creation of a neuromemory chip that could be paired with computer hardware to create cyborglike machines capable of such tasks as detecting dangerous toxins in the air, allowing the blind to see or helping someone who is paralyzed regain some if not all muscle use.


Interesting Articles of the Week

DHS wants cell phones to detect chemical, radioactive material.

The nation’s 100 largest landowners.

What the world eats.

Chicken shit scarce.

DOE Joint Genome Institute Announces 2008 Genome Sequencing Targets; Focus on biofuels and carbon cycle.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ecological Footprint of Food Items

Andrea Collins and Ruth Fairchild have released an interesting report: Sustainable Food Consumption at a Sub-national Level: An Ecological Footprint, Nutritional and Economic Analysis. It looks at impact of our diets on our ecological footprint and what changes can be made in our diets to reduce it.

According to the report, diet is responsible for around 1/4 of the total ecological footprint of individuals. Surprisingly, the transportation of food has a very small impact (1.7%) on the overall footprint.

The part I found most interesting was the table that listed the ecological footprints (in global hectares or gha) for various food items. The footprint was calculated by kg, but I think it is also helpful to look at it by calorie (kcal), so I calculated those values.

Itemgha /
1000 kg
gha /
kcal / kg
Meat Products
Milk Products
Whole Milk1.42.3600
Vegetable Products
Vegetable Oil3.80.48840
Soft Drinks0.20.5400

Take Aways

1) Instead of focusing on how far the food travels, the packaging that food comes in, and whether the waste is recyclable, you can make a bigger positive impact on the environment by focusing on what you are eating. Eating rice and beans that were farmed in Bangladesh using conventional means and shipped in a non-recyclable plastic container is better for the Earth then eating a organic locally grown steak that was that was packaged in a bio-degradable plastic.

In the report they show how making a few substitutions from high to low footprint foods (cheese to eggs, beef to pork, fish to cereals, and spirits to beer) can reduce an individual's footprint by 20%.

2) Like the other numbers that I have looked at the best way to minimize your ecological footprint is to replace meat and animal products with vegetable products. A low calorie vegan diet has the smallest footprint.

3) Vegetarians that substitute cheese and other milk products for meat do not lower their ecological footprint much and might in fact raise it. As was the case in a previous study, eating chicken has a lower ecological footprint per calorie than cheese does. Pork also comes in lower than milk products, which is surprising to me and doesn't jive with other numbers I have seen.

4) Sugar has the lowest footprint by calorie, but I am ambivalent on recommending it, for it lacks micro-nutrients and fiber.

5) Vegetables and fruits have similar footprints to eggs, chicken and pork by calorie. But, this is misleading as fruits and vegetables are not eaten just for their calories but also for their fiber, vitamins and other micro-nutrients. These numbers are also just an average for all fruits and vegetables, and specific items will vary greatly depending on the caloric content. Some examples of calories per kg: carrots 333, beans 310, peas 806, apples 520, bananas 888 and oranges 472.

6) Some day I hope to have the ability through either a website or a Quicken like piece of software to track the ecological impact of my diet. This data is getting close to what is needed to make that happen. It goes along with the numbers I have previously collected on CO2 footprints and land footprints of food.

While I like the ecological footprint, I wish they broke out the energy usage and land use rather than converting them into one number. I have written previously on why I don't think energy should be part of the ecological footprint, and if this were broken out I could finally have the acres and gallons numbers that I am looking for.

1) This is from a study in Cardiff, UK. I don't know how well the numbers would hold for the US, but I bet they would be similar.

2) I don't know where the numbers in this study originally came from and what the underlying assumptions were. While I would guess it includes the energy use to create the fertilizer and run the tractors, I am not sure if it handles the energy to transport, refrigerate, cook the food and handle the garbage.


Reviving the Hamilton Agenda

David Brooks lays out his Hamilton Agenda.

When it comes to what Hamiltonians are actually for, two big themes stand out. First, the overall economy has to remain dynamic. The biggest threat is the looming wall of entitlement debt. We Hamiltonians would break the current campaign silence on the issue by raising the retirement age and tackling medical inflation to make Medicare affordable.

The second big theme is a human capital agenda. No one policy can increase the quality of human capital, but a lifelong portfolio of policies can make a difference.

Children do better when raised in stable two-parent families. Bigger child tax credits and increasing the earned income tax credit can reduce the economic strain on young families (and shift the tax burden to older, affluent ones). Extending government income support to young men in exchange for work would make them more marriageable.

Nurse practitioners who make home visits can stabilize disorganized, single-parent families. Quality preschool can help young children from those disorganized homes develop the self-motivation skills they’ll need to succeed.

The most important thing in a school is quality teachers. That means there should be merit pay for the best, and a change in the certification rules (we should allow more people into the profession and weed out the mediocre ones, regardless of their certification).

Senior citizen groups could mentor students to keep them emotionally engaged during college years. National service should be a rite of passage, forcing city kids to work with rural kids, and vice versa.

Middle-aged workers need portable pensions and health insurance so they can move and take risks. The immigration system should reward skills, like the college admissions system. The government should increase funding for basic research, especially in math, engineering and physics.
I think that sounds pretty good. The idea of senior citizen mentors is similar to my Retiree Corp idea.

via Times $elect


Better Fuels Through Synthetic Biology

Amyris’s technology derives from the research of Jay D. Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the synthetic biology department of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mr. Keasling’s lab is widely credited with making commercially practical an emerging technology called metabolic engineering.

Mr. Keasling’s metabolic engineering is farther-reaching and, potentially, much more productive. His lab has invented techniques that rewrite the metabolisms of microorganisms. By modifying the structure of a microorganism’s proteins and adding genes from other organisms, Mr. Keasling has designed microbial factories that can produce a tremendous variety of drugs, biofuels and other chemicals.

Amyris chose to ask something more basic and more interesting: What would perfect fuels look like if they were designed from scratch? The start-up decided to concentrate on the second stage of creating a biofuel: fermenting sugars into fuel.

Over the last year and a half, Amyris has created in its labs microorganisms whose metabolic pathways are yielding alternatives to diesel, jet fuel and gasoline. Now the company is working to make the conversion from sugars to fuel more efficient.
Amyris is a pretty impressive company. First they use synthetic biology to make a cheap malaria drug, now they are trying to use it to create a cheap biofuel.

via NY Times


Friday, June 08, 2007

6 Billion Bits of Data About Me, Me, Me!

James D. Watson, who helped crack the DNA code half a century ago, last week became the first person handed the full text of his own DNA on a small computer disk. But he won’t be the last.

By the end of the summer, Dr. Church’s research project promises to deliver sequences to its first 10 volunteers. Unlike Dr. Watson, whose complete genome cost $1 million, the project’s volunteers will receive the one percent of their genome currently deemed most useful at a cost of $1,000.

One start-up company, 23andme, recently announced plans to provide affordable chunks of their DNA to individual consumers, along with tools to help them keep track of and understand their genetic information.

And technology companies like Illumina, Applied Biosystems and 454 Life Sciences, which solicited Dr. Watson’s DNA to prove its abilities, say the price of a complete human genome has already dropped to $100,000. They are competing for a $10 million “X prize” to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days. (Dr. Watson’s took about two months.)

Those who have signed up to be sequenced as part of the competition include Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking; the television interviewer Larry King; and the financier Michael Milken.

“It’s the start of an era of comparative individual genomics,” said J. Craig Venter, who as president of the Celera Corporation sequenced much of his own genome in 2000 and recently completed it. “Hopefully we’ll have tens of thousands to compare in the next year or two.”
I can't wait until the day when I get get my genome sequenced. The price is down to $100,000 and dropping faster than Moore's Law.

This is a good example of "trickle down technology", where the rich have access to a technology earlier by paying more, but their money helps to pay for the R&D that eventually brings the cost down to a price that everyone can afford.

These X Prizes are great. I hadn't heard of this one before, but sequencing 100 genomes in 10 days at a cost of less than $10,000 per genome is a worthy challenge.

The idea to just do 1% of the genome also seems like a good idea, as 97% of the genome is so called junk DNA. This will reduce the price by 99% but still yield the most important genetic information.

via NY Times


Humpback Takes Flight

Great pic. Now they just need to catch him with a super slow mo camera.

via Daily Mail



In a breakthrough that sounds like something out of Star Trek, they have discovered a way of 'beaming' power across a room into a light bulb, mobile phone or laptop computer without wires or cables.

Rather than sending power from a transmitter to a receiver as a conventional electromagnetic wave - the same form of radiation as light, radio waves and microwaves - he could use the transmitter to fill a room with a 'non-radiative' electromagnetic field.

Most objects in the room - such as people, desks and carpets - would be unaffected by the electromagnetic field. But any objects designed to resonate with the electromagnetic field would absorb the energy.

It sounds complicated, but the result demonstrated by the American team this month was a dramatic success. Using two coils of copper, the team transmitted power 7ft through the air to a light bulb, which lit up instantly.

The scientists say the technique works only over distances of up to 9ft. However, they believe it could be used to charge up a battery within a few yards of the power source connected to a receiving coil. Placing one source in each room could provide enough power for an entire house.

The team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who call their invention 'WiTricity', believe it could change the way we use electricity and do away with the tangle of cables, plugs and chargers that clutter modern homes.

The MIT system is about 40 percent to 45 percent efficient, meaning that most of the energy from the charging device doesn't make it to the light bulb. Soljacic believes it needs to become twice as efficient to be on par with the old-fashioned way portable gadgets get their batteries charged.
Wireless power, very nice. Nikola Tesla would be proud.

via Daily Mail and The Washington Post


Thursday, June 07, 2007

Speed Demon Photography

Awesome and interesting shot of a water balloon being popped. I’ve never seen a planet blow up, but this is how I imagine it would look.
More great photos at


Interesting Articles of the Week

Solar photovoltaic (PV) costs projected to plunge over 40% in the next 3 years.

University of Utah physicists developed small devices that turn heat into sound and then into electricity.

Scientists apply for first patent on synthetic life form.

Biologists make skin cells work like stem cells.

The contact lenses that could restore 20/20 vision.

Groundbreaking research has scientists talking with apes.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Soil Offers New Hope as Carbon Sink

Another promising study on the use of Terra Preta:

Agrichar is a black carbon byproduct of a process called pyrolysis, which involves heating green waste or other biomass without oxygen to generate renewable energy.

“When applied at 10t/ha, the biomass of wheat was tripled and of soybeans was more than doubled,” said Dr Van Zwieten.

“This percentage increase remained the same when applications of nitrogen fertiliser were added to both the agrichar and the control plots.

“For the wheat, agrichar alone was about as beneficial for yields as using nitrogen fertiliser only.

“And that is without considering the other benefits of agrichar.”

Regarding soil chemistry, Dr Van Zwieten said agrichar raised soil pH at about one-third the rate of lime, lifted calcium levels and reduced aluminium toxicity on the red ferrosol soils of the trial.

“Soil biology improved, the need for added fertiliser reduced and water holding capacity was raised,” he said.
via Science Blog


Gasoline Prices Around the World

You would think that a commodity traded worldwide would have prices similar everywhere. But, with gasoline not so much.

Those that want the gasoline price to return below $2 should take a look at the countries that have such low prices: Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, UAE, and Nigeria. Don't think I would want to live in any of those countries (although Dubai is intriguing).

And then there is North Korea with $2.08 gasoline. How are they getting gasoline so cheap considering they have to import almost all of their oil? I would guess that is the Chinese that are supplying them, but why so cheaply? Especially considering that South Korea is paying $6.06.

And you have to love those Norwegians. While almost every other oil exporter has low gasoline prices, they have $6.48 a gallon prices.

via Wired


Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Landlord

The Landlord

via Funny Or Die


The Politics of Happiness

The strange fact of the matter is that the hard-core liberals and conservatives in America are actually some of our happiest citizens. According to the National Opinion Research Center in 2004, in spite of all their bile, 35% of people who said they are "extremely liberal" also reported being "very happy" with their lives -- versus 22% of people who were just "liberal" and 28% of moderates. At the same time, a whopping 48% of people who were "extremely conservative" were very happy (compared with 43% of non-extreme conservatives).

Not surprisingly, there is also evidence that people with extreme views are less empathetic and compassionate than others. They are less loving toward family members, and less charitable with their money. They are even less honest in everyday transactions.

So how on earth could these people be happier than the rest of us? Perhaps the intensity of their political views animates them in some positive way, giving them a sense of purpose. Or maybe there is something else about the life of the average extremist that brings lots of joy. In either case, what we see is that the anger we associate with the far left and far right is apparently compatible with their happiness. The trouble is that, while radicals may be happy, they undoubtedly lower the happiness of the rest of us through their intolerance and antisocial ways -- spewing out what economists call "externalities" with every insulting bumper sticker and obnoxious street demonstration. Political nastiness is something akin to pollution.
Personally, I explain their happiness as being divorced from reality. If you have an ideology that doesn't change regardless of the facts, it is easy to retain your happiness. No matter what happens, you always believe you are right. Unfortunately for the rest of us in the reality based community, these people give you nothing but headaches.

The Happiness Hypothesis puts it like this:
In fact, evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better like than people who lack such illusions. But such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.

Pronin and Ross use the term "naive realism": Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don't agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies. It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.
via W$J via Greg Mankiw Blog


The Marriage Gap

Interesting look at marriage by education levels in the US by The Economist. I hadn't realized the extent to which their was a marriage gap in the US.

There is a widening gulf between how the best- and least-educated Americans approach marriage and child-rearing. Among the elite (excluding film stars), the nuclear family is holding up quite well. Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were.

At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%.

Does this matter? Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, says it does. In her book “Marriage and Caste in America”, she argues that the “marriage gap” is the chief source of the country's notorious and widening inequality. Middle-class kids growing up with two biological parents are “socialised for success”. They do better in school, get better jobs and go on to create intact families of their own. Children of single parents or broken families do worse in school, get worse jobs and go on to have children out of wedlock. This makes it more likely that those born near the top or the bottom will stay where they started. America, argues Ms Hymowitz, is turning into “a nation of separate and unequal families”.

A large majority—92%—of children whose families make more than $75,000 a year live with two parents (including step-parents). At the bottom of the income scale—families earning less than $15,000—only 20% of children live with two parents.

Those who marry “till death do us part” end up, on average, four times richer than those who never marry. This is partly because marriage provides economies of scale—two can live more cheaply than one—and because the kind of people who make more money—those who work hard, plan for the future and have good interpersonal skills—are more likely to marry and stay married. But it is also because marriage affects the way people behave.

A study by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill concluded that if the black family had not collapsed between 1960 and 1998, the black child-poverty rate would have been 28.4% rather than 45.6%. And if white families had stayed like they were in 1960, the white child poverty rate would have been 11.4% rather than 15.4%.
You could make a compelling argument that the root cause of the Two Americas that John Edwards talks of is the difference in marriage rates. Not clear what can be done to raise marriage rates, besides the obvious one of getting more people to go to college.

Other interesting factoids and analysis in the article, worth the whole read.

via The Economist


Ask Pablo

If you enjoy the Fat Knowledge environmental analysis pieces like How Much Energy Does an Elevator Use?, you will want to check out Ask Pablo. With the tagline "Making Sustainability Metrics Fun" (as if they aren't by default) he runs the numbers to figure out what the impact of various environmental choices really are.

My favorites include: Is Netflix saving the world?, Online Shopping and Going Up.

You might also want to check out Jenna Watson's lifecycle analysis pieces over at Tree Hugger.

Note: That is not really Pablo's picture. His wedding (senior prom?) picture scared me a little bit, and was not Pabloesque enough for me. Instead, I replaced it with Pablo Escobar since I am still holding out hope that Vincent Chase will get to play him in Medellín.


Keyboards Should Have a ¢ Sign

For reasons that escape me, there is no cent sign on the keyboard.

If you also share the love for the ¢, you will dig this tip. If you hold down Alt and then type 0162 (using the keypad, using the numbers at the top of the keyboard doesn't work for some reason), a ¢ will show up.

I think the ¢ sign should be added to the keyboard, but which symbol should it replace?

I am no fan of the @, but fortunately for @ lovers it astutely tied itself to email addresses and is now indispensable. It is not clear to me when you are supposed to use a | sign, but having a vertical line around is handy, so it can stick around.

I don't get why we need [] and {} and (). I mean, are there people who really need 3 different types of brackets? Are there cases where a straight line bracket or a curved bracket just won't work and you need a squiggly bracket? Any one of those would be a good candidate, but that would take out 2 symbols and I only need to get rid of one.

I would like to get rid of the Caps Lock key because a certain segment of the population believes that if you type things in all caps IT MAKES YOUR POINT STRONGER, when really it just makes you look desperate. But, such a large key comes with a lot of responsibility and I am not sure the ¢ symbol could handle it.

Then there is the "Pause/Break" key. I don't know if I have ever used it. Not clear to me exactly what breaks when I click it, and I am not sure I want to find out. This would be a good candidate, but it is over in no mans land, chilling with Scroll Lock and Print Screen. As much as I love the ¢, I am not sure I am willing to stretch my pinky finger that far.

Instead, I think we should get rid of the ` symbol. What? Don't you need that for words like don't? No, that is the ' key not the ` key. Confused? Exactly. That is why we need to get rid of it. There is no reason for two ' symbols. And that corner key is some prime real estate.

But this is all just my 2¢.


Friday, June 01, 2007

World Abortion Statistics

I remember reading about abortion statistics in the US a while back and realizing that for an issue that is so politically charged and always in the news, I had absolutely no clue as to its prevalence.

I ran across this article on abortion worldwide in The Economist, and realized I knew very little about the state of abortion across the planet.

How much do you know about abortion worldwide? Here are four questions to test your knowledge.

First question: what percentage of people on Earth live in a country where abortion is legal?

According to the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights, over 60% of the world's 6.5 billion people now live in countries where abortion is generally allowed. Just a quarter live in states where it is generally banned.
Second question: how many abortions take place each year, and how many of them are illegal?
Of a total of 46m abortions thought to be carried out each year (more than one in four pregnancies are terminated), some 20m are illegal, resulting in the death of around 70,000 women a year, according to the World Health Organisation.
Third question: which country has the highest rate of abortions?
Although China reports 7m abortions a year (the real figure is much higher), it does not have the world's highest rate. That place is held by Romania, where some three-quarters of pregnancies are terminated (the same ratio as in New York City and Shanghai). Russia, the first country to allow abortion (in 1920), comes second with two in three pregnancies terminated. Rates are high across the former Soviet block, with the termination of more than one in two pregnancies in most countries.
I didn't know that about Romania and it is 180 degrees from life under Ceausescu when additional taxes were levied on childless individuals over twenty-five years of age. The statistic on Russia didn't surprise me, as I have blogged before about the health mess that Russia has become.

And I believe the statistic on NYC is wrong. It appears to be closer to 50% than 75%, and that is also likely too high as people from out of town come to the city to have the abortions performed.

Fourth question: what is the rate of abortion in Western countries?
In the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain and most of the rest of western Europe, around 15-25% of pregnancies are terminated.
When I took a look at the map of where abortion is legal, I couldn't help but notice that the richer a country is, the more likely that abortion is legal. Makes me wonder if legalized abortion makes economies stronger, or if strong economies makes legalized abortion more likely (or maybe a little of both).

Like drugs, I think the best public policy for abortion is for it to be safe, legal and rare.


Global Peace Index

The Economist Intelligence Unit launched today a study ranking 121 nations by their 'absence of violence.' The 24 indicators include internal and external factors such as levels of violence within a country, organized crime, the number of people in prison, and military expenditure.
Interesting idea. Norway comes in at #1, USA comes in at 96, Iran 97, and Iraq is at the bottom at 121.

They also look at the drivers of peace. Two drivers that I found interesting were that 'Level of distrust in other citizens' correlates at .69 and 'GDP per capita' at -.57 (more GDP means more peace).

via Private Sector Development Blog


Amazing Photos Of Colored Water

Check out more cool pics.

via Digg


Interesting Articles of the Week

Female humpback whales actually pay no attention to the males’ singing.

Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor

China may build 300 nuclear plants by the middle of the century.

Hacking My Kid's Brain: How a Child's Neurons Were Rewired

Dutch try to grow environment-friendly meat in lab.