Monday, March 31, 2008

19.9%: New Thin Film Solar Efficiency Record

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has created thin film solar panels that are very close to competing with their more traditional silicon-based cousins. "The copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cell recently reached 19.9 percent efficiency in testing at the lab, setting a new world record."
While thin film has been cheaper to produce, it has been much less efficient than its silicon brethren. Hopefully this research will allow thin film to increase its efficiency while maintaining its low price.

It is estimated that thin film producer Nanosolar's cells are 6.7% efficient. At that level, just a 3.3% increase in efficiency to 10% would allow each cell to capture 50% more energy, reducing the price per watt by 33%.

via Tree Hugger and EcoGeek


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

In search of the perfect battery.

Social networking hits the genome.

There are more slaves on the planet today than at any time in human history.

Top 5 reasons it sucks to be an engineering student.

Medicine's cutting edge: re-growing organs.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Virent’s Biogasoline

Virent Energy Systems announced its second collaboration with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS.A) today, saying the two plan to work on developing a biogasoline that could be used in regular cars and take advantage of the existing gasoline infrastructure.

Virent said its BioForming technology, based on research started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, uses a solid-state catalyst to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules like those produced at a petroleum refinery.

And the company said the technology can take in a broad menu of feedstocks. Virent said the sugars for its biogasoline can be sourced from non-food sources like corn stover, switch grass, wheat straw and sugarcane pulp, in addition to conventional biofuel feedstock like wheat, corn and sugarcane.
This sounds very interesting. Instead of using bacteria or yeasts to convert sugars into alcohols organically, they are using a catalyst to convert the carbohydrates inorganically. Apparently they first created this catalyst to create hydrogen and now are switching their focus to biogasoline.

Ethanol has always had the disadvantage that it could not be sent down pipes used for gasoline and that it has 30% less energy per gallon as gasoline. I had become a fan of bio-butanol over ethanol for that reason. But, this sounds even better. I can't tell if this process is able to use cellulosic feedstocks, but if it can use non-food sources that is a big improvement over using corn.

My 3 questions for this technology are: what is the energy efficiency of conversion vs. ethanol, what is the cost per gallon, and how scalable is this solution?

As for energy efficiency, their website states:
Produces gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels with 2X the net energy yield per acre as traditional ethanol processes.
That sounds good.

For cost and economics, things are pretty vague with just this statement:
The system’s scalability enables the economical matching of production with available feedstock supplies.
I would have expected somewhere they would state the cost per gallon. The lack of information on the website and in the articles makes me wonder.

And for scalability:
Apfelbach said the company's pilot plants can produce about a gallon of fuel a day, and they would likely have a commercial demonstration size in the 10,000 liters range within a few years.
A gallon a day, that's it? That's not even a drop in the bucket of the 160 billion gallons of gasoline used in the US a year. And we have to wait a few years just to get to 10,000 liters?

Looks like we are still quite a few years off from this technology making any kind of serious impact, but if the energy efficiency of conversion and economics are good, I bet they will find a way to ramp this up pronto.

via CleanTech via TreeHugger


Friday, March 28, 2008

Volunteering Abroad To Climb at IBM

Many multinational companies insist that promising executives do stints in their overseas offices. And many will free employees to do pro bono work at community organizations. But I.B.M.’s program, which it calls the Corporate Service Corps, stands out on several counts. It uses the volunteer ethos to bring together employees who might otherwise never meet, even as it gives I.B.M. a high profile in countries where it does not yet have a significant presence.

“As a development tool, this is a four-for-one,” said Allan R. Cohen, dean of the Olin Graduate School at Babson College, near Boston. “It’s stretching to work in another culture, to work in a nonprofit where the measurement of accomplishment isn’t clear, to take a sabbatical from your everyday routine and to learn to accomplish things when you can’t just bark orders.”

Clearly, the Service Corps concept sits well with the I.B.M. employees. More than 5,500 of them, from more than 50 countries, applied for the program. I.B.M. narrowed the pool to those who had been designated as fast-trackers, who had familiarity with volunteerism and who submitted the best short essays on how participation would help them develop as leaders.

The final list comprises 100 people from 33 countries, who will form 12 teams that will be deployed to projects in Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana and Tanzania. I.B.M. said it would select another 100 before the end of the year and have a total of 600 participants over the next three years.

After their four-week trips, the participants will go through two months of intensive debriefing to discuss what they learned about leadership — and about the countries they visited.
Interesting. I have never heard of using a volunteering program as a way of building the leadership skills of those on the fast track in a corporation. Sounds like a good program to me, although I wonder how much good you can really accomplish in just 4 weeks.

via NY Times


1366 Technologies

1366 Technologies, a company named after the solar constant (there are 1366 watts of solar radiation hitting each square meter of the Earth on average) is working on improving multi-crystalline silicon solar panels. They claim to have found ways to make them about as efficient as single-crystal silicon solar cells, which are more efficient but also more expensive, without losing the cost benefits.

Three different innovations (described below) allowed them to make their prototype 27% more efficient than conventional multi-crystalline silicon solar cells, bringing its total efficiency to 19.5%, about the same as single-crystal silicon solar cells.

1366 Technologies plans to make its own cell - they just raised $12.4 million and are planning to build a 25 megawatt plant if all goes well - but they are also open to licensing their technology to other solar panel makers. The company expects solar cells produced on a large scale to compete directly with coal at about $1/watt generated by 2012.
I hope they are right that we will be able to achieve RE<C in just 4 years. Check the article if you are interested in the 3 different innovations.

via TreeHugger


3D printed Brain Lamp

Alexander Lervik's MyBrain lamp is modeled on his own brain, as run off a 3D printer. In the coming era of mass-customization, we won't have to settle for lamps based on their designers' brains -- we can each of us get lamps based on our own brains.

via Boing Boing


Spongelike Air-Capture Gadget Scrubs Away Carbon Emissions

The Atmospheric Carbon CapturE SystemS (ACCESS) Air-Capture System, developed by Global Research Technologies in Tucson, Ariz., holds sheets of material capable of capturing CO2 molecules directly from open air.

To remove the molecules, the sheets are sprayed with a chemical solution that bonds to the carbon dioxide. The solution is then drained off to a separation unit, where the CO2 is isolated as pure gas through electrodialysis. A design goal was to avoid using toxic or corrosive chemicals that would require special handling, so ordinary PVC pipe is used to transfer the solution back to a collection unit so that it can be recycled.

Ideally, the ACCESS machines would be placed in clusters, similar to windmill groupings, near facilities capable of storing the carbon permanently. Unlike turbines, however, these devices can be placed anywhere. Locating them in windy areas would increase their efficiency by moving air across the surfaces more quickly, but they are not dependent on a strong breeze.

The current prototype captures less than 100 kilograms of CO2 per day, but Lackner predicts future models will capture 1 ton per day—several hundred times the amount saved by an equal-size windmill. New versions of ACCESS could capture carbon at a rate of about 3 kg per second, the same amount an average tree absorbs in a year.

Skeptics of the technology point to carbon emissions coming from ACCESS and similar devices themselves. Because it uses electricity from the grid to separate gas from the solution, the prototype barely breaks even in CO2 savings. The price of capturing the CO2 is also high, predicted to cost several hundred dollars per ton once commercially developed. "In the long term, the price will come down to $30 per ton," Lackner says, "but this will not happen overnight."

Lackner says the ACCESS system could be paired with any form of carbon sequestration being developed, including underground or underwater storage. His preferred method is to pack carbon away Han Solo-style with mineral carbonation, a process that turns CO2 into a solid by mixing it with other compounds.
I first became aware of Lackner and his idea 2 years ago. Glad to see that he is getting close to a commercial version. But, at a cost of several hundred dollars per ton of CO2 sequestered, I don't see much of a use for it. If they can get it down to $30 a ton, then this would be a game changer.

via Popular Mechanics


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Key to Happiness: Give Away Money

New research reveals that when individuals dole out money for gifts for friends or charitable donations, they get a boost in happiness while those who spend on themselves get no such cheery lift.

Dunn and her colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 630 Americans, about evenly split between males and females. Participants indicated their general happiness, annual income and a breakdown of monthly spending, including bills, purchases for themselves and for others, and donations to charity.

Statistical analyses revealed personal spending had no link with a person's happiness, while spending on others and charity was significantly related to a boost in happiness.

"Regardless of how much income each person made," Dunn said, "those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not."

In a separate study of 13 employees at a Boston-based firm, the researchers found that employees who devoted more of their profit-sharing bonus (which ranged from $3,000 to $8,000) to others reported greater overall happiness than those who spent the windfall on their own needs.
And as much as I would like to read the actual study, you need a subscription to do so. Apparently, Science Magazine read the study and decided they would allow their readers the opportunity to increase their happiness by giving their money away to Science.

via LiveScience


Health Care Costs More than Social Security For Elderly

The cost of government benefits for seniors soared to a record $27,289 per senior in 2007, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

That's a 24% increase above the inflation rate since 2000. Medical costs are the biggest reason. Last year, for the first time, health care and nursing homes cost the government more than Social Security payments for seniors age 65 and older. The average Social Security benefit per senior in 2007 was $13,184.

The federal government spent $952 billion in 2007 on elderly benefits, up from $601 billion in 2000. It's the biggest function of the federal government. States chipped in $27 billion more in 2007, mostly for nursing homes.

The senior boom, however, starts big time in 2011, when the first baby boomers (79 million people born between 1946 and 1964) turn 65 and qualify for Medicare health insurance. The oldest baby boomers turn 62 this year and qualify for Social Security at reduced benefits.

The cost of senior benefits is equal to $10,673 for every non-senior household.
You would think with these large costs looming on the horizon that this would be a major issue in the current election and candidates would explain how we are going to pay for this. And yet I have no idea how any of them plan to handle this.
Economist Dean Baker calls it "granny bashing" to focus on the cost of senior benefits. The elderly paid a designated tax for Social Security and Medicare taxes during their decades of working to support these programs when they retired, says Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic Policy and Research.
The problem with thinking like this is that the money was not really set aside. Instead it has been used to finance the massive budget deficits we have run. And even if the money really was set aside and grew with interest I don't believe it would have been enough to cover the increased costs of health care and the increased lifespan of Americans.

via USA Today


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Digital Tools Help Users Save Energy

The results of the research project by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the Energy Department, released Wednesday, suggest that if households have digital tools to set temperature and price preferences, the peak loads on utility grids could be trimmed by up to 15 percent a year.

Over a 20-year period, this could save $70 billion on spending for power plants and infrastructure, and avoid the need to build the equivalent of 30 large coal-fired plants, say scientists at the federal laboratory.

In the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, 112 homes were equipped with digital thermostats, and computer controllers were attached to water heaters and clothes dryers. These controls were connected to the Internet.

The homeowners could go to a Web site to set their ideal home temperature and how many degrees they were willing to have that temperature move above or below the target. They also indicated their level of tolerance for fluctuating electricity prices. In effect, the homeowners were asked to decide the trade-off they wanted to make between cost savings and comfort.

After some testing with households, the scientists decided not to put a lot of numbers and constant pricing information in front of consumers. On the Web site, the consumers were presented with graphic icons to set and adjust.

“Your thermostat and your water heater are day-trading for you,” said Ron Ambrosio, a senior researcher at the Watson Research Center of I.B.M.

The households in the demonstration project on average saved 10 percent on their monthly utility bills.
Sounds cool to me. Looks similar to what Bell Canada was doing. Wish I could sign up for something like that.

A system like this would also be useful with renewable intermittent energy sources like solar and wind. Personally, I would be more interested in adjusting my energy usage to be able to take advantage of renewable energy than I would to lower my electricity bills (though they might go hand and hand).

via NY Times


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

The 6 cutest animals that can still destroy you.

Scientists unveil genetics of plant-fungi symbiosis.

Philip Morris tries to engineer the cancer out of tobacco.

Gene may help explain stress disorder.

How many billionaires does it take to fix a school system?


$90 Wine Tastes Better Than The Same Wine at $10

In a study that could make marketing managers and salespeople rub their hands with glee, scientists have used brain-scanning technology to shed new light on the old adage, "You get what you pay for."

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford's business school have directly seen that the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price. And that's true even when, unbeknownst to the test subjects, it's exactly the same Cabernet Sauvignon with a dramatically different price tag.

Specifically, the researchers found that with the higher priced wines, more blood and oxygen is sent to a part of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure. Brain scanning using a method called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) showed evidence for the researchers' hypothesis that "changes in the price of a product can influence neural computations associated with experienced pleasantness," they said.
via CNET


The Pentagon's Cyborg Insects

For years, now, Pentagon-backed researchers have been trying to create cyborg insects that could serve as living, remote-controlled spies. The problem is, those modified bugs never survived long enough to be useful. Now, Georgia Tech professor Robert Michelson says he's managed to get the bug 'borgs to live into adulthood.

DARPA's Hi-MEMS program aims to implant place micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] "inside the insects during the early stages of metamorphosis," the agency explains. That way, as the bugs get older, tissues grow around -- and fuse together with -- the tiny machines.

Flight International reports that, in his latest work, Michelson truncated a Manduca moth's thorax "to reduce its mass." Then he put in "a MEMS component... where abdominal segments would have been, during the larval stage."

Ultimately, DARPA wants these MEMS to remote-operately the insects, either through "direct electrical muscle excitation, electrical stimulation of neurons, projection of ultrasonic pulses simulating bats, [or] projection of pheromones," the agency says. The ultimate goal would be to have the cyborgs "carry one or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, [and] relay back information."
In a couple years the term "getting bugged" is going to be a literal one.

via Danger Room


World’s First Zero-Carbon City

Construction work on the world's first zero-carbon city housing 50,000 people in a car-free environment will begin in the oil-rich Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi next month, the developers said on Monday.

Abu Dhabi sits on most of the UAE's oil and gas reserves, ranked respectively as fifth and fourth in the world. Proven oil reserves on their own are expected to last for another 150 years.
Oh, the sweet irony of the first zero-carbon city being paid for by the sales of oil and gas.
Once completed in 2013, residents will be able to move around the six-square-kilometre (2.4-square-mile) city using a light railway line and a series of automated transport pods.

"They're like a horizontal elevator. You just say where you want to go, and it takes you there," Awad said of the pods.

Unlike the gleaming towers of nearby Abu Dhabi, a model of the Foster and Partners-designed Masdar City displayed at the summit showed only low-rise buildings with solar panels on each roof.

The city will be sited to take advantage of sea breezes, and a perimeter wall will protect it from the hot desert air and noise from the nearby Abu Dhabi airport.
I am conflicted about this. On the one hand, I love the idea of trying to build a zero-carbon city just to see if it is possible. An undertaking like this is sure to generate new technologies that can be used elsewhere. And I am really curious what those transportation pods will be like.

On the other hand, I am highly skeptical that centralized planning like this can work. As far as I know these pods have never been used on a scale of a city. What happens if they don't work? Or what happens if they don't work as well as other forms of transportation like motorbikes or cars? Will they stop them from being allowed into the city?

And what happens when you want to travel to another city or if someone wants to come visit you? Do you have to park your car at the gate of the city?
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahayan, pledged 15 billion dollars to Masdar at the opening of the three-day summit on Monday.

Despite its constant access to sunshine, only parking meters in the UAE are currently powered by solar energy. Even solar water-heaters -- popular in several hot-climate countries -- are seldom seen.
Instead of building this city, I wonder if the $15 billion could be spent in a way that would reduce carbon even more. Seems like you would get more bang for your buck by offering incentives to people to start using solar water heaters and add solar panels to their roofs rather than creating a brand new city with futuristic transportation pods. Another idea would be to support research and development of new solar technologies.

But, here's hoping that the city and the transportation pods disprove my doubts and are a big success.

via Next Energy News

Update: The Transportationist has a cool 5 minute YouTube video on this city.


Longevity Costlier Than Obesity or Smoking

Preventing obesity and smoking can save lives, but it doesn't save money for health systems, researchers reported yesterday.

It costs more to care for healthy people who live years longer, according to a Dutch study that counters the common perception that preventing obesity would save governments millions of dollars.

Van Baal and colleagues created a model to simulate lifetime health costs for three groups of 1,000 people: the "healthy-living" group (thin and nonsmoking), obese people, and smokers. The model relied on "cost of illness" data and disease prevalence in the Netherlands in 2003.

The researchers found that from age 20 to 56, obese people racked up the highest health costs. But because both the smokers and the obese died sooner than the healthy group, it cost less to treat them in the long run.

On average, healthy people lived 84 years. Smokers lived 77 years, and obese people lived 80 years. Smokers and obese people tended to have more heart disease.

Ultimately, the thin and healthy group cost the most - $417,000, from age 20 on. The cost of care for obese people was $371,000, and for smokers, $326,000.
To reduce health care costs, the solutions seems simple: pass the Twinkies and cigarettes.

Reading this article made me wonder, what assumptions did the reseracher use, and how did they impact the conclusion? Fortunately, because this research was published in the open source journal PLoS, I was able to find out (PLoS, I PLoVe you).

Having looked at studies like this before, I knew that the discount rate that they chose would be crucial to the conclusion. So, what did they use?
To reflect the concept of time preference, meaning that an amount of money spent or saved in the future is worth less than the same amount today, net present values were calculated using discount rates of 3% and 4%.
Not clear for the present values of health care shown above whether it was the 3% or 4% rate.
Only for discount rates above 4.7% would costless obesity prevention be cost saving. For smoking prevention to be cost saving, the discount rate for costs should be at least 5.7%
I interpret this to mean that at a 5.7% discount rate, the net present value of health care costs at age 20 of a smoker and a healthy person are identical (and 4.7% for obese people). If you are paying for your own health care costs and you can invest your money at a greater than 5.7% rate of return (which is quite possible for a long term investor) then your health care costs would actually be lower if you didn't smoke or become obese.

If the government is paying for obesity or smoking prevention, I am not quite sure what the best interest rate would be to use for this analysis. If people quit smoking and there were lower medical care costs right away, who would get that money and what would they do with it? On the margin, would that money be invested at a greater than 5.7% rate of return? I don't know, but it seems possible. If it was then the conclusion of this study would no longer hold.

Even if health care costs go up, because it is extending lives it is probably still worthwhile spending. The question becomes how much it costs to extend an additional life year, and if there are more cost effective ways of doing that than anti-smoking or obesity reduction campaigns.

Another issue, as noted over at FuturePundit, is that this analysis also does not take into account productivity. You are likely to be able to work many more years and in a more productive way if you are healthy. While health care costs might go up, they are likely to be more than offset by increases in income taken home due to that increased productivity and the ability to work more years.

This analysis also doesn't take into account that 20 years from now new medical technologies will be available and costs are likely to be higher for them.

Another interesting thing that I found in the journal article was this chart that shows expected health care costs by age. While not really surprising, I hadn't realized how much more an average person spends on health care when they get old. A 40 year old spends on average 2,000, while a 65 year old spends double that at 4,000 and a 75 year old spends double that at 8,000. Like old cars, old people are expensive to maintain.

While in the US we debate over whether we want to move towards socialized medicine, the reality is that we already have socialized medicine for those over 65 in the form of Medicare and this will account for more and more of health care spending as our population ages.

via Philadelphia Inquirer


Friday, March 21, 2008

Food Miles is a Foolish Concept

I have never been a big fan of the food miles concept (for reasons stated here), so I was glad to read that there are other people that also have issues with the concept.

Yet the relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. “People should stop talking about food miles,” Adrian Williams told me. “It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.” Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,’’ he said. “There is no one number that works.”
And how about a couple of examples where food miles and the carbon footprint differ?
Many factors influence the carbon footprint of a product: water use, cultivation and harvesting methods, quantity and type of fertilizer, even the type of fuel used to make the package. Sea-freight emissions are less than a sixtieth of those associated with airplanes, and you don’t have to build highways to berth a ship. Last year, a study of the carbon cost of the global wine trade found that it is actually more “green” for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeaux, which is shipped by sea, than wine from California, sent by truck. That is largely because shipping wine is mostly shipping glass. The study found that “the efficiencies of shipping drive a ‘green line’ all the way to Columbus, Ohio, the point where a wine from Bordeaux and Napa has the same carbon intensity.”

The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. “In New Zealand, they have more sunshine than in the U.K., which helps productivity,” Williams explained. That means the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of CO2. Researchers at Lincoln University, in Christchurch, found that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped eleven thousand miles by boat to England produced six hundred and eighty-eight kilograms of carbon-dioxide emissions per ton, about a fourth the amount produced by British lamb. In part, that is because pastures in New Zealand need far less fertilizer than most grazing land in Britain (or in many parts of the United States). Similarly, importing beans from Uganda or Kenya—where the farms are small, tractor use is limited, and the fertilizer is almost always manure—tends to be more efficient than growing beans in Europe, with its reliance on energy-dependent irrigation systems.

Williams and his colleagues recently completed a study that examined the environmental costs of buying roses shipped to England from Holland and of those exported (and sent by air) from Kenya. In each case, the team made a complete life-cycle analysis of twelve thousand rose stems for sale in February—in which all the variables, from seeds to store, were taken into consideration. They even multiplied the CO2 emissions for the air-freighted Kenyan roses by a factor of nearly three, to account for the increased effect of burning fuel at a high altitude. Nonetheless, the carbon footprint of the roses from Holland—which are almost always grown in a heated greenhouse—was six times the footprint of those shipped from Kenya. Even Williams was surprised by the magnitude of the difference. “Everyone always wants to make ethical choices about the food they eat and the things they buy,” he told me. “And they should. It’s just that what seems obvious often is not. And we need to make sure people understand that before they make decisions on how they ought to live.”
The article goes into all sorts of issues on carbon footprints. Long, but lots of interesting stuff in there.

via New Yorker


Star Wars According to a 3 Year Old

via YouTube


Luxim's Tiny Plasma Lightbulb Outshines LEDs

A Tic-Tac-sized lightbulb that gives off as much light as a streetlamp may offer a peek at the ultra-efficient lighting of the future. The bulb, developed by Luxim of Sunnyvale, California, uses plasma technology to achieve its brightness.

The tiny bulb contains an argon gas in the middle, as well as a component called a "puck." The bulb is partially embedded in a dielectric material. When electrical energy is delivered to the puck, the puck acts like an electrical lens. It heats up the argon to a temperature of 6000 degrees Kelvin, and turns the gas into a plasma that gives off light.

The plasma, whose 6000-degree temperature is similar to that of the surface of the sun, also emits a spectrum that looks very similar to the spectrum of sunlight.

The plasma bulb uses 250 watts, and achieves around 140 lumens per watt, making it very bright and highly efficient. By comparison, conventional lightbulbs and high-end LEDs get around 15 and 70 lumens per watt, respectively.
via Physorg and ZDNET


Monday, March 17, 2008

Nerve-Tapping Neckband Used in "Voiceless" Phone Call

A neckband that translates thought into speech by picking up nerve signals has been used to demonstrate a "voiceless" phone call for the first time.

With careful training a person can send nerve signals to their vocal cords without making a sound. These signals are picked up by the neckband and relayed wirelessly to a computer that converts them into words spoken by a computerised voice.

A video shows the system being used to place the first public voiceless phone call on stage at a recent conference held by microchip manufacturer Texas Instruments. Michael Callahan, co-founder of Ambient Corporation, which developed the neckband, demonstrates the device, called the Audeo.

The system demonstrated at the TI conference can recognise only a limited set of about 150 words and phrases, says Callahan, who likens this to the early days of speech recognition software.

At the end of the year Ambient plans to release an improved version, without a vocabulary limit. Instead of recognising whole words or phrases, it should identify the individual phonemes that make up complete words.
The sooner this technology is available to the annoying guy talking on his phone next to me on the bus the better.

via New Scientist


You Are What You Spend

It’s true that the share of national income going to the richest 20 percent of households rose from 43.6 percent in 1975 to 49.6 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has complete data. Meanwhile, families in the lowest fifth saw their piece of the pie fall from 4.3 percent to 3.3 percent.

Income statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story of Americans’ living standards. Looking at a far more direct measure of American families’ economic status — household consumption — indicates that the gap between rich and poor is far less than most assume, and that the abstract, income-based way in which we measure the so-called poverty rate no longer applies to our society.

The top fifth of American households earned an average of $149,963 a year in 2006. As shown in the first accompanying chart, they spent $69,863 on food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and other categories of consumption. The rest of their income went largely to taxes and savings.

The bottom fifth earned just $9,974, but spent nearly twice that — an average of $18,153 a year. How is that possible? A look at the far right-hand column of the consumption chart, labeled “financial flows,” shows why: those lower-income families have access to various sources of spending money that doesn’t fall under taxable income. These sources include portions of sales of property like homes and cars and securities that are not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policies redeemed, or the drawing down of bank accounts. While some of these families are mired in poverty, many (the exact proportion is unclear) are headed by retirees and those temporarily between jobs, and thus their low income total doesn’t accurately reflect their long-term financial status.

So, bearing this in mind, if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. A similar narrowing takes place throughout all levels of income distribution. The middle 20 percent of families had incomes more than four times the bottom fifth. Yet their edge in consumption fell to about 2 to 1.

Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1. The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom-fifth household.
Click on the image for a really big version that shows more details. Interesting to look at each category and seeing how spending differs by quintile.

via NY Times


Interesting Articles of the Week

Boys' and girls' brains are different: gender differences in language appear biological

Psychotherapy for all: an experiment.

Solar energy firms leave waste behind in China.

Boulder, Colorado to become the US’ first fully integrated Smart Grid City.

Charlie Rose face plants to save his MacBook Air.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

There is a Database of all Johns?

This whole Eliot Spitzer thing is giving me all sorts of information on prostitution that I never knew before. For example, did you know there is a database of all the Johns?

Q. Do you typically know the true identity of your clients, and if so, how?

A. Yes. Always. I insist that they give me their full names and their place of work so that I can contact them there before we meet. I also check their identification when we meet. I also use verification companies, which assist escorts in verification of clients. These companies do the verification of the client and put them in a database so that when the client wants to meet with a girl for the first time, he doesn’t have to go through the verification process again. For a fee, I can call in and they will tell me if the client has a history of giving the girls problems, where he works, and his full name.

I would have thought that the clients would want to protect their privacy more. I don't understand what stops a private investigator from contacting one of the verification companies. Or for that matter what stops the verification company from blackmailing the clients.

via Freakonomics


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Girl Bloggers Outnumber Boy Bloggers

Indeed, a study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys).

Girls also eclipse boys when it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to 17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17). Video posting was the sole area in which boys outdid girls: boys are almost twice as likely as girls to post video files.

Research by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the result of focus groups and interviews with young people 13 to 22, suggests that girls’ online practices tend to be about their desire to express themselves, particularly their originality.

The one area where boys surpass girls in creating Web content is posting videos. This is not because girls are not proficient users of the technology, Professor Palfrey said. He suggested, rather, that videos are often less about personal expression and more about impressing others. It’s an ideal way for members of a subculture — skateboarders, snowboarders — to demonstrate their athleticism, he said.
via NY Times


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

OCZ Prepares to Ship $300 Brain Mouse

Not to be outdone, OCZ, feeling the heat, is at last bringing its Neural Impulse Actuator (NIA) to market. The device is essentially a brain controlled mouse, relying on Electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of the brain's alpha and beta waves. These readings, combined with muscle movement and glance (eye movement) readings, allow for a very effective interface.

Furthermore, OCZ has done extensive research into make the system high configurable, which it sees as the key to effective readings and control. Users can configure thresholds to activate certain actions, allow users to have much more delicate control than in their competitors. Also this helps to counter any variations in individual physiology that might come into play.

Like its competitors, OCZ's NIA utilizes a headband to capture its readings. One area where OCZ's design is intended to shine is in terms of computer performance. Depending on their complexity, brain mice can require significant processing resources. OCZ's design is optimized for a multi-core system and runs non-intrusively in a multi-threaded environment. The end result is there is less reduction in gaming performance, yielding a more satisfying gaming experience.

OCZ demoed the device being used to control a user character in Unreal Tournament 3, with no snags in frame rates.

Users adapting to the brain mouse will face a steep learning curve. However, once employed, the mouse brings up to a 60 percent reduction in the time needed to react, according to OCZ. This edge is granted based on long period of time needed to relay information from the eyes to the brain and then the ensuing reaction to the finger muscles. A brain-to-eye muscle reaction is significantly faster. This could be a boon to professional gamers, who can use it to enhance their performance without the use of drugs.

OCZ promises that average users will be able to begin to use the device within hours after some initial practice.

via Daily Tech via Engadget (and first hand experience on using this here)


Interesting Articles of the Week

Rent-a-tree: protecting the environment by leasing it.

A global need for grain that farms can’t fill.

California cows start passing gas to the grid.

Science 2.0

Warren Buffet's annual letter to shareholders (.pdf).

50 people go blind looking for the Virgin Mary in the sun.


Belkin's Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger

Finally a surge protector that has USB ports on it. Very cool, and not too expensive at $25. Personally, I can't wait for the day that wall outlets have USB ports as well, but I am not going to hold my breath for that one.

I also wish there was a way they could provide DC to electronic devices without requiring the wall wart transformers. USB does provide DC power, but I don't believe it has enough to power laptops, cable modems, wireless routers, or printers. Green Plug is looking to do something like this, hopefully they will be able to standardize voltage requirements and eventually allow wall outlets and powerstrips to provide DC power without each device requiring a separate transformer.

via Engadget


Monday, March 10, 2008

Outsourcing Childcare

Think there are certain jobs that can't be outsourced? Think again.

via Onion News Network via Greg Mankiw


Gene Map Becomes a Luxury Item

On a cold day in January, Dan Stoicescu, a millionaire living in Switzerland, became the second person in the world to buy the full sequence of his own genetic code.
Hmm, I wonder who the first was?
He is also among a relatively small group of individuals who could afford the $350,000 price tag. Mr. Stoicescu is the first customer of Knome, a Cambridge-based company that has promised to parse his genetic blueprint by spring.

Knome is not the only firm in the private genome business. Illumina, a sequencing firm in San Diego, plans to sell whole genome sequencing to the “rich and famous market” this year, said its chief executive, Jay Flatley. If competition drives prices down, the personal genome may quickly lose its exclusivity. The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first group to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days, for $10,000 or less per genome. The federal government is supporting technology development with an eye to a $1,000 genome in the next decade.
Cool, I didn't know that this service was available to the public yet. While it is expensive, I am kind of surprised that this service hasn't been publicly available earlier at a higher price. I would have thought for sure one of the tech titans like Gates, Ellison or one of the Google founders would have paid multiple millions to be sequenced.
“What the heck am I doing?” Mr. Stoicescu recalls wondering. “And how many children in Africa might have been fed?”
That is an interesting question, but I think he could also be wondering how many lives he will be saving in the future. By purchasing this now, he is helping to fund the research and development of this sequencing technology which will drive down the costs to a price that any American can afford. And by doing that, he will help advance medical research that will save and prolong lives in the future.

via NY Times


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Solar Company Says Its Tech Can Power 90 Percent of Grid and Cars

Solar-power-plant company Ausra has released a paper claiming that solar-thermal electric technology can provide 90 percent of U.S. grid electricity, with enough left over to power a fleet of plug-in electric vehicles. The company estimates that such a changeover would eliminate 40 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions with a land footprint of 9,600 square miles, about the size of Vermont (thanks, Kent).

The key to the scenario, however, is developing the ability to store energy for 16 hours, thus creating a stable power source through cloudy periods and the night, a feat that has so far eluded engineers.

"If we can do storage," Ausra CEO Bob Fishman said, "We can take on coal."

The paper says Ausra expects to commercialize its energy-storage technology within two years. A prototype of the system will go into a model plant the company plans to finish this summer in Bakersfield, California, the company's founder, David Mills, told

Mills' paper reveals some interesting statistics about the construction cost of solar-thermal technologies: $3,000 per kilowatt of capacity, but estimated to drop to $1,500 per kW over the next "several" years. The New York Times last year quoted GE Energy executives giving construction costs for coal plants at $2,000 to $3,000 per kilowatt.

Ausra says it can generate electricity for 10 cents a kilowatt hour, which is close to the cost of natural gas, and it expects the price to drop even further.
via Wired


New York’s 10,000 Black Cars to Go Hybrid

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) will require black cars—the large sedans (often Lincoln Town Cars) that primarily service corporate clients—to increase fuel efficiency standards to a level currently achievable only by using hybrid technology.

Black cars currently release 272,000 tons of CO2 equivalents annually, which make up 2% of the City’s transportation-related emissions. Under the new standards, emissions from black cars will be cut in half. The plan to improve the fuel efficiency of the 10,000 black car fleet was envisioned as part of the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030.

Currently, black cars average 12-15 mph. The TLC will require fuel efficiency standards for new licensed black car vehicles of 25 mpg in 2009 and 30 mpg in 2010. Many black cars line up, idling in front of office buildings in Midtown and Lower Manhattan awaiting customers. With hybrid powertrains, the engines will shut down instead. Also included in the proposed rule change is a requirement for vehicle retirement. The TLC currently does not set a vehicle retirement age for for-hire vehicles like it does for the yellow taxis. There will be a retirement phase-in cycle that will ensure almost all vehicles associated with black car bases are more fuel-efficient by 2013.

Hybrid cars will save owner-operator drivers upwards of $5,000 per year in gasoline expenses—approximately 50% of their current fuel costs. These savings will allow drivers to cover, in just one year, the additional cost of purchasing a new hybrid car over the currently used Lincoln Town Car.

Through extensive consultation with users, fleets, and drivers—including demonstrations of the new vehicle types; the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability and the TLC have identified several efficient vehicle models that will have widespread acceptance, including: Toyota Camry Hybrid, 33 mpg (city); Toyota Highlander Hybrid, 27 mpg (city); Nissan Altima Hybrid, 35 mpg (city); and Mercury Mariner Hybrid FWD, 34 mpg (city). In addition, other models may include: Lexus Rx400h AWD, Ford Escape Hybrid AWD, and Toyota Prius.
It makes more sense for taxis and black cars to be hybrids than almost any other type of car. These cars on on the road all the time, use lots of fuel, and where fuel savings would be the greatest. If upgrading to a hybrid pays for itself in less than a year, why haven't the black car companies done this on their own already? Seems like the return on investment more than justifies it. Ironic how it takes government regulation to make these companies run more efficiently and profitably.

A couple of smart comments on the post:
Ford would have been much better off if they had expanded hybrid production to the Crown Victoria. Every police force/mayor in the country would have jumped through hoops to be able to boast that they had cut their carbon footprint by more than 50% while allowing the police to operate their computers without leaving the engine idling all the time like they do now.
Good point. I agree that a hybrid Crown Vic would be a big winner in the market.
Another point to bear in mind is that limousine drivers idle their engines to keep the A/C or heating running (depending on season). They could - and would - cut the ignition by hand if they could deliver the high level of comfort their customers expect without burning expensive fuel. Better thermal insulation of the passenger compartment would help in winter. Relocating the waiting areas such that they are in the shade of buildings or trees or else, covering them with a roof, would help in summer.
Interesting idea.

via Green Car Congress


Identical Twins not as Identical as Believed

Contrary to our previous beliefs, identical twins are not genetically identical. This surprising finding is presented by American, Swedish, and Dutch scientists in a study being published today in the prestigious journal American Journal of Human Genetics.

“Even though the genome is virtually identical in identical twins, our results show that there in fact are tiny differences and that they are relatively common. This could have a major impact on our understanding of genetically determined disorders,” says Jan Dumanksi, who co-directed the international study with his colleague Carl Bruder.

These researchers studied 19 pairs of identical twins and found that they indeed had the same DNA but nevertheless evinced differences in the number of copies of individual DNA segments. A segment might be missing, or more copies might exist in one twin. This could explain how one identical twin can be afflicted with a disorder while the other twin remains fully healthy, according to the scientists.
This calls into question the results of genetic studies that assumed genes were the same between twins.

I wanted to know how large the differences were, so I went to the actual journal article. What I found more interesting than the genetic differences between twins was the genetic differences between cells in each person's body. While these sound like two different phenomenon, they are actually two ways of looking at the same thing, as identical twins started off with identical DNA and the only way they can differ is if the DNA of each twin changes.

How much does the DNA within each person's body differ between cells?
On the basis of the detection of one megabase-range, confirmed CNV among ten unselected, phenotypically concordant MZ twin pairs next to several potential ones with a lower degree of cellular mosaicism and/or smaller size, the de novo posttwinning CNV frequency could be as high as 5% on a per-individual basis or 10% per twinning event.
Ahh, I have to clue what that means. What I do know is that the changes are not usually of the small single base pair variety (SNP) but rather of large sections of DNA (CNV).

This also makes me question the usefulness of individual genome sequencing, if the DNA in each organ differs from one another. And even the cells inside a particular organ might differ from one another as seen by the differences in blood cells:
Both methods confirmed the presence of the deletion and indicated that it was present in approximately 70–80% of blood cells from D8.
Sequencing the DNA from blood cells would miss a CNV which leads to Alzheimer's if it only occurred in the DNA of brain cells. Instead of sequencing DNA from just the blood, it might be necessary to take some from each organ. Instead of thinking of a single genome that is present in every cell, now we need to start talking about probabilities of specific mutations occurring in each cell.

With each cell division more copying errors occur. Therefore a genome sequenced at birth will differ from one taken at age 70. And genetic diseases are likely to come from these copying errors. Instead of having just one genetic sequencing done, it order to catch those genetic defects that lead to disease, it might be necessary to have them done every 20 years.

Besides the value to science, this study will also help the entertainment industry, as it has CSI episode written all over it.

via Physorg


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Why Would A Parent Allow a Child To Date Someone Who Isn't on MySpace?

A man and three teenagers are facing rape charges after a 16-year-old girl identified her attackers through a page at

According to police, the girl and a female friend used the Internet to arrange to meet the youths Nov. 18. They did, but the girl's friend went home, leaving her alone with the young men in a car.

After giving her a large amount of alcohol, prosecutors say, the young men stopped the car in a dark stretch of road in the Eastgate area of Bellevue and took turns raping her in the back seat of the car.

The young men then took the girl to her home, where the girl's mother learned that her daughter had been assaulted.

Returning to the MySpace page where she'd met the young men, the girl was able to identify two of her attackers, said Officer Greg Grannis, a Bellevue police spokesman. Detectives then used a search warrant to get copies of messages exchanged by the youths about the rape.
To some, the conclusion from this horrific crime is to not allow their children to use MySpace and other social networking sites to protect them. In reality they should make the exact opposite conclusion. These boys were caught only because of their MySpace account. Had the girls just met these boys at some party or club, they would not have been able to track them down. With their MySpace account, the boys lost their anonymity and were easily apprehended.

Now, I would almost go as far as to say that MySpace would put an end to these kind of attacks, as without anonymity, potential perpetrators would know they would get caught and therefore not try these kind of things. But, the type of people who would go through with an attack like this are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and they might not understand this.

Social networking is bringing a close to the age of anonymity on the Internet. Sharing information is more valuable than privacy. No longer will a dog be able to get on the internet without everyone knowing (especially when they fail).

In general the whole idea that the internet is a dangerous place for children is a myth exploited by people like Chris Hansen. David Pogue had a nice write up about this.

The fear of the internet for children runs deep at the moment as even the Girl Scouts aren't allowed to sell cookies on eBay.
"We encourage the use of technology, but not online selling at this time ... Until we have some sort of safety guard to ensure the girls' security, we don't encourage any kind of internet sales," Tompkins says.
That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. Apparently they believe it is perfectly safe for girls to sell cookies by knocking on doors of total strangers, but disclosing an email address over the internet is extremely dangerous.

via Seattle PI


Friday, March 07, 2008

Tax Rates by Income Quintile

Numbers from CBO data.

Interesting looking at the breakdown of the various types of taxes.
Most progressive: Income Tax
Least progressive: Social Insurance Tax (Social Security and Medicare)

via Greg Mankiw


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Lightning GT - The World's First Green Supercar?

The all-electric Lightning GT might just be the world's first green supercar. It's as clean as the Tesla Roadster, as quick as the Porsche 911 GT3 RS and as pricey as the Lamborghini Murcielago LP640.

The company says four in-wheel motors generate 553 lb-ft of torque -- that's about as much as the tire-shredding Dodge Viper SRT produces -- and 120 kilowatts apiece (for a combined total of about 643 horsepower, putting it in the same ballpark as the Corvette ZR1). Lightning claims the car will do 0 to 60 in 4.0 seconds and hit a top speed of 130 mph. Range is 250 miles.

The car features an aluminum honeycomb chassis, carbon-kevlar bodywork, regenerative braking and 36 kilowatt nano lithium titanate battery the company says will charge in just 10 minutes and maintain 85 percent capacity after 15,000 charges. Look for a full slate of features, from anti-lock braking and traction control to air conditioning and leather.

What's all this speed and luxury cost? Almost $300,000.
Very nice.

via Wired


Interesting Articles of the Week

5 books that can actually make you stupider.

Heated snoozing suit boosts deep sleep.

Did iPods cause a crime wave?

My forbidden fruits (and vegetables).

The coming death of Indian outsourcing.


Brain Scanner Can Tell What You're Looking At

Scientists have developed a computerised mind-reading technique which lets them accurately predict the images that people are looking at by using scanners to study brain activity.

The technique relies on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a standard technique that creates images of brain activity based on changes in blood flow to different brain regions. The first step is to train the software decoder by scanning a subject's visual cortex while they view thousands of images over five hours. This teaches the decoder how that person's brain codes visual information. The next stage is to take a new set of images and use the decoder to predict the brain activity it would expect if the subject was viewing each of them. Finally, the subject views images from this second set while in the scanner. "We simply look through the list of predicted activities to see which one is most similar to the observed activity, and that's our guess," said Gallant.

The software matched their observed brain activity with the predicted activity from the decoder. When using a set of 120 images, the software got it right nine out of 10 times. With 1,000 images, the accuracy was eight out of 10. For 120 images, if the software were to simply make random predictions, its success rate would be just 0.8%.

The study raises the possibility in the future of the technology being harnessed to visualise scenes from a person's dreams or memory.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists, led by Dr Jack Gallant from the University of California at Berkeley, said: "Our results suggest that it may soon be possible to reconstruct a picture of a person's visual experience from measurements of brain activity alone. Imagine a general brain-reading device that could reconstruct a picture of a person's visual experience at any moment in time."
via The Guardian and Wired


InkJet-Printed, Flexible, Solar Cells

Yesterday, Konarka announced that they have demonstrated organic (made of carbon/plastic/oil based products versus silicon/inorganic products) solar cells that can be manufactured using highly efficient ink-jet printing. These solar cells do not require the clean room processes that silicon cells do and could make it easier to incorporate solar power into many useful applications.

Although only 5% efficient now compared to the 15-20% efficiency of traditional silicon solar cells, organic solar cells are more flexible and easier to print in colors, transparent or even in camouflage.

Although not commercially available yet, Konarka is at work with a number of commercial partners and likely to be available later this year.
I wonder how expensive these will be to produce. You figure if they can ink-jet print them that the price ought to be low, but I guess we will have to wait until later this year to find out.

via Wired


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Minority Report Interface Using Wii Remote

This guy has also used the Wii Remote to create an interactive whiteboard and perform head tracking VR. Very cool stuff.

via TED


Cleaner Water With a Wand

Travelers who don’t trust the water from a mountain stream or a hotel-room faucet have often used chemicals or filters to purify it. Now they have a high-tech option as well: swirl the water with a portable, lightweight wand that beams rays of ultraviolet light.

The wand can clean up a quart of water that is clear — but could harbor stomach-wrecking microorganisms — in 90 seconds. The high-frequency light damages the DNA of bacteria, viruses and protozoa in the water like giardia and cryptosporidium so they can’t reproduce and create havoc.

To make the disinfection process easier for users to monitor, one new device on the market, the SteriPen JourneyLCD($129.95) has a liquid-crystal display that shows a countdown during purification (48 seconds for 16 ounces, 90 seconds for 32 ounces) and a smiley face at the end to signal that the job is done.

The device, which weighs a bit less than 5 ounces, including two disposable batteries. The batteries will last for about 100 treatments before they need to be replaced. The lamp that creates the ultraviolet light, which has a wavelength of 254 nanometers, is good for 10,000 treatments — about 2,500 gallons of water — said Miles Maiden, inventor of the SteriPen and the chief executive of Hydro-Photon.
That sounds pretty cool. I wonder if it works with ice water?