Friday, February 29, 2008

Land of the Free Jailed

More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according to a report released yesterday.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.
Yikes! That is crazy that more than 1% of American adults are in prison. And for young black men it is a magnitude of order higher:
One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars.
What can be done to lower this rate?
"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Gelb, who as director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project advises states on developing alternatives to incarceration. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely and effectively at a much lower cost -- while also paying taxes, paying restitution to their victims and paying child support."

Many state systems also send offenders back to prison for technical violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a supervisory officer. A 2005 study of California's system, for example, found that more than two-thirds of parolees were being returned to prison within three years of release, 40 percent for technical infractions.

In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- less-expensive punishments such as community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug counseling might prove as much or more effective than jail.

"The idea is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of and the ones we're just ticked off at," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Not that you shouldn't punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it."
I don't want my tax dollars being spent to incarcerate individuals at $27,500 a year if crime rates can be kept low using cheaper options.

The other issue with locking all of these people up, is that 90% of them will eventually be released. In 2006, 650,000 individuals were released from jail. To put this in perspective this is about 1/2 of the number of people who graduate college each year. How do you reincorporate that many people back into every day life?

via The Washington Post


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

For ‘EcoMoms,’ saving Earth begins at home.

Forty-eight percent of Silicon Valley households speak a language other than English in the home.

10 ways we get the odds wrong.

Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.

The ebb and flow of movies: Box office receipts 1986 - 2007


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Poor Jimmy Kimmel

Watch out, the tune is catchy and if you aren't careful you might find yourself singing it out loud.

via YouTube via Digg


How Many Environmentalists Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb?

I recently came across this chart over at Earth2Tech:

While I knew that LED had a long life span, I hadn't realized how long. And the 60,000 hours estimate may be low, as this Wikipedia article puts the life span at 100,000.

How long will these LED lights last? At 100,000 hours, a light on for 3 hours a day will last 91 years. At 8 hours a day it will last 34 years, at 12 hours a day will last 22 years, and if you run it continuously for 24 hours a day it last 11 years.

Given that the average light is only on for 3 hours a day, the next time you replace your light bulbs could by your last time.

This long life span might work against LED adoption. While I was thinking about buying some LED lights, now I am hesitant. The light quality is not that great yet, but the technology is improving and they are likely to be comparable to incandescent bulbs in the near future. If the LED bulbs were only going last a few years, I would buy some now and then upgrade to better version in a few years. But, if they are going to last for 90 years, I figure I ought to wait a few years until they the light quality is really good since I would hate to be stuck with subpar lighting for the rest of my life.

This line of reasoning isn't taking hold in Ann Arbor, as they are converting to 100% LED streetlights.

So, how many environmentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
None, LED light bulbs last longer than environmentalists.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Green" Robot Self-Propels Through Sea

A seagoing glider that uses heat energy from the ocean to propel itself is the first "green" robot to explore the undersea environment, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

They said the glider had crisscrossed the 13,000-feet-(4,000-meter-)deep Virgin Islands Basin between St. Thomas and St. Croix more than 20 times since it was launched in December.

And it could keep going on its own for another six months, the team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Webb Research Corporation in Falmouth, Massachusetts, predicted.

Such robots can carry sensors to measure temperature, salinity and biological productivity.

Most gliders rely on battery-powered motors and mechanical pumps, the researchers said. This one draws its energy from the differences in temperature between warm surface waters and the colder, deeper layers of the ocean.

"We are tapping a virtually unlimited energy source for propulsion," Fratantoni said.
The more of these robots that are out there gathering data on our undersea world the better. If they can power themselves by the difference in temperature between warm and cold water indefinitely, we could have a whole army of these things that never need to return home for refueling. Not clear from the article how exactly the energy is generated, or how much energy it provides.

via Reuters via Engadget


Poverty Mars Formation of Infant Brains

Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston heard on Friday.

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.

Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s centre for cognitive neuroscience, said: “The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment – the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it – really surprised us.”

Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s centre on the developing child, said policymakers had to take note of the research because “the foundation of all social problems later in life takes place in the early years”.

Stress hormone levels tend to be higher in young children from poor families than in children growing up in middle-class and wealthy families, said Prof Shonkoff. Excessive levels of these hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain – and even affect its blood supply. “They literally disrupt the brain architecture,” he said.
So what can be done about this?
The findings explain why relatively unfocused programmes to prepare poor children for school, such as Head Start in the US, have produced only modest results, the scientists said.

More focused interventions could give more substantial benefits, said Courtney Stevens of the University of Oregon. She gave the preliminary results of an eight-week programme aimed at poor parents of pre-school children in Oregon.

Parents attended weekly coaching sessions to improve their family communications skills and show them how to control their children’s bad behaviour. At the end of the programme, participating parents reported big reductions in family stress compared with a control group that did not take part. Brain scans of the children suggested neural improvements, too.
Instead of trying to reduce poverty through income distribution, I prefer this approach of behavior modification. I also think it is cool that they can measure the level of stress hormones and do brain scans to objectively tell whether the coaching sessions are working.

via Financial Times


Reva Revs Up

Reva, the Indian electric car company, says its namesake vehicle was the best-selling on-road electric vehicle in the world last year. Never heard of it? The company’s numbers so far may be modest — 2,500 vehicles on the road — but there are indications that it’s about to explode.

The carmaker just announced that it will launch another model by the end of 2008, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg; it plans to launch one new vehicle every calendar year. And a company spokesman says Reva will ramp up its annual production from 6,000 to around 30,000 vehicles in the next six months.

The company can thank its first mover advantage, a low price tag and a keen sense of targeting emerging markets for its early success. If you haven’t heard of Reva, you’re about to. The Bangalore-based company’s cars are getting popular in congested urban areas (like Delhi and London), and are gaining traction in island destinations (like Cyprus), where vehicles with shorter ranges and low environmental impact are particularly attractive.

It’s researching lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries to extend range and increase performance. And its cost is relatively low — $9,000 for a range up to 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) per battery charge, according to the New York Times.
$9,000 for an electric car with a 50 mile range doesn't sound bad. Not as cheap as rival Indian car manufacturer Tata's Nano, but 1/10 the price of electric car rival Tesla's Roadster. And many more colors to choose from as well.

via Earth2Tech


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

14 Grand Engineering Challenges of the 21st Century

Before you can save the world, you'd better write a to-do list so nothing gets overlooked. Some of the world's brightest minds have done just that by laying out this century's greatest engineering challenges.

The panel of 18 engineers, technologists and futurists included Google co-founder Larry Page and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter. They spent more than a year pondering how best to improve life on Earth and came up with 14 Grand Engineering Challenges, a list the National Academy of Engineering deemed so momentous it should be capitalized.
  • Make solar energy affordable.
  • Provide energy from fusion.
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods.
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle.
  • Provide access to clean water.
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure.
  • Advance health informatics.
  • Engineer better medicines.
  • Reverse-engineer the brain.
  • Prevent nuclear terror.
  • Secure cyberspace.
  • Enhance virtual reality.
  • Advance personalized learning.
  • Engineer the tools for scientific discovery.
Looks like a pretty good list to me, but I would have added one regarding genetics and I am not sure how preventing nuclear terror is an engineering challenge.

via Wired


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Three-parent embryo formed in lab.

MIT and TI develop 10 times more energy efficient chip.

Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences goes Open Access.

Caffeine: A User's Guide to Getting Optimally Wired

India unveils 'people's phone' for £10.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Scientists Discover Way to Reverse Loss of Memory

Professor Lozano said: "This is the first time that anyone has had electrodes implanted in the brain which have been shown to improve memory. We are driving the activity of the brain by increasing its sensitivity – turning up the volume of the memory circuits. Any event that involves the memory circuits is more likely to be stored and retained."

The man, who has not been identified, was also tested on his ability to learn lists of paired objects. After three weeks of continuous hypothalamic stimulation, his performance on two learning tests was significantly improved. He was also much more likely to remember a list of unrelated paired objects with the electrodes turned on than when turned off.

Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Professor Lozano said: "His performance improved dramatically. As we turned the current up, we first drove his memory circuits and improved his learning. As we increased the intensity of the current, we got spontaneous memories of discrete events. At a certain intensity, he would slash to the scene [in the park]. When the intensity was increased further, he got more detail but, when the current was turned off, it rapidly decayed."
Hurry up with that research scientists, me and my subpar memory need all the help we can get.

via The Independent


The Evil Overlord and His Minions

via The Smithsonian via Digg


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ellen Uses The Hawaii Chair

via YouTube via Digg


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Flexible, Nanowire Solar Cells

Researchers at McMaster University, in Ontario, say that they have grown light-absorbing nanowires made of high-performance photovoltaic materials on thin but highly durable carbon-nanotube fabric. They've also harvested similar nanowires from reusable substrates and embedded the tiny particles in flexible polyester film. Both approaches, they argue, could lead to solar cells that are both flexible and cheaper than today's photovoltaics.

Each nanowire is 10 to 100 nanometers wide and up to five microns long. Their length maximizes absorption, but their nanoscale width permits a much freer movement and collection of electrons.

LaPierre says that the aim is to produce flexible, affordable solar cells composed of Group III-V nanowires that, within five years, will achieve a conversion efficiency of 20 percent. Longer term, he says, it's theoretically possible to achieve 40 percent efficiency, given the superior ability of such materials to absorb energy from sunlight and the light-trapping nature of nanowire structures. By comparison, current thin-film technologies offer efficiencies of between 6 and 9 percent.
via Technology Review


Dean Kamen's "Luke Arm"

Dean Kamen's “Luke arm”—a prosthesis named for the remarkably lifelike prosthetic worn by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars—came to the end of its two-year funding last month. Its fate now rests in the hands of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funded the project. If DARPA gives the project the green light—and some greenbacks—the state-of-the-art bionic arm will go into clinical trials. If all goes well, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its approval, returning veterans could be wearing the new artificial limb by next year.

Kamen spent a few weeks traveling around the country interviewing patients, doctors, and researchers to get an idea of the current technology—and soon saw the deficit in available arm prosthetics. He was swayed by the discrepancy between the current state of leg prostheses and that of arm prostheses. “Prosthetic legs are in the 21st century,” he says. “With prosthetic arms, we’re in the Flintstones.”

Depending on the degree of amputation, today’s state-of-the-art prosthetic arms can cost patients about $100 000 or more. Luke project manager Rick Needham says that the goal is to keep as close to that cost as possible.
Check out a video of the arm in action. What is amazing about this is that is doesn't even require surgery to use.

via IEEE Spectrum via Engadget


Friday, February 01, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

A Dying Breed

Seven things employees want most to be happy at work.

So I guess I got kicked off another My Little Pony Forum.

Swimmers' sunscreen killing off coral.

Blue eyes result of a genetic mutation 6-10,000 years ago.

Men no longer needed to create sperm.



I recently came across the site EVO. I have been looking for a way to compare the environmental friendliness of products (similar to how I use CNET to compare electronic products) and EVO allows just that. They rate clothes, body and household products on a 1-5 leaf 'EVO rating' based on their environmental impact. More information about what EVO is all about can be found in this TreeHugger interview of their CEO.

While I like the concept, I think it needs a little refinement before I would use it.

First, it is not clear what they are basing their rating on. Why did one product get 2 leafs and another 4? They list lots of attributes that they base the rating such as energy efficient, organic, fair trade and lead-free, but they don't specifically say why each product got the rating it did. Environmental rankings are subjective, and I would like more information on exactly how why they ranked one product higher than another. If they made their analysis of the product available, this would make the recommendation much more valuable.

Second, when you are looking at a product, it would be helpful if they listed other products similar to it that have a higher EVO rating. Then you could easily compare products based on their environmental impact and find more environmentally friendly substitutions for products you are looking to buy.

Third, I wish they would allow user comments and rankings of products. Often times at CNET I find the user rankings to be more valuable than the CNET ranking. Users can help add information about a product that the site reviewers miss.

Fourth, what I would really like is if they made the information available via a plugin. Then when you are shopping at Amazon and other online shops, you could see the EVO rating of the product along with similar products that have a higher rating. I sketched out this envrionmental shopping plugin idea earlier.

I like the attempt this site is making, and hope that they make these changes so I can start using it to make more environmentally friendly purchases.