Saturday, May 31, 2008

Praise as Good as Cash to Brain

Paying people a compliment appears to activate the same reward center in the brain as paying them cash, Japanese researchers said Wednesday

"We found that these seemingly different kinds of rewards -- a good reputation versus money -- are biologically coded by the same neural structure, the striatum," said Dr. Norihiro Sadato of the Japanese National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Okazaki, Japan.

Sadato's team studied 19 healthy people using a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

In one set of experiments, people played a gambling game in which they were told one of three cards would yield a payout. The researchers then monitored the brain activity triggered when the subjects got a cash reward.

In a second set of experiments, people were told they were being evaluated by strangers based on information from a personality questionnaire and a video they had made.

The researchers then monitored reactions to these staged evaluations -- including when the subjects thought strangers had paid them a compliment.

Both kinds of rewards triggered activity in a reward-related area of the brain. Sadato said the finding represents an important first step toward explaining complex human social behaviors such as altruism.
via ABC News


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday.

The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time. The monkeys had their own arms gently restrained while they learned to use the added one.

In the experiment, two macaques first used a joystick to gain a feel for the arm, which had shoulder joints, an elbow and a grasping claw with two mechanical fingers.

Then, just beneath the monkeys’ skulls, the scientists implanted a grid about the size of a large freckle. It sat on the motor cortex, over a patch of cells known to signal arm and hand movements. The grid held 100 tiny electrodes, each connecting to a single neuron, its wires running out of the brain and to a computer.

Scientists have to clear several hurdles before this technology becomes practical, experts said. Implantable electrode grids do not generally last more than a period of months, for reasons that remain unclear.

The equipment to read and transmit the signal can be cumbersome and in need of continual monitoring and recalibrating. And no one has yet demonstrated a workable wireless system that would eliminate the need for connections through the scalp.
via NY Times


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mountain View Police Blotter

via Digg


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Put The Trees In The Ground: A Fix For The Global Carbon Dioxide Problem?

Of the current global environmental problems, the excessive release of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels and the related global warming is one of the most pressing. In an essay in the journal ChemSusChem , Fritz Scholz and Ulrich Hasse from the University of Greifswald introduce a possible approach to a solution: deliberately planted forests bind the CO2 through photosynthesis and are then removed from the global CO2 cycle by burial.

The only possible way to bind sufficiently large quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere is photosynthesis. However, the resulting biomass cannot be burned or composted, because this would release the bound CO2. The trick will be to make the biomass "disappear". Scholz recommends planting forests whose wood will subsequently be buried. Possible burial sites include open brown coal pits or other surface mines. These should be filled with wood and covered with soil. Cut off from the air in this manner, the wood would not change, even over long periods. It could in principle be dug up in the future and used.

According to estimations made by Scholz and Hasse, we would have to plant a little over one billion (109) hectares of forest in order to bind all of the carbon dioxide produced in a year. This corresponds roughly to the surface of the virgin forest cut down in the last century. This project could be financed by an additional tax of 0.11 € per liter of gasoline or 0.003 € per kilowatt-hour of electricity.
Interesting idea.

But, I don't get why you have to put the wood in the ground. Can't we just use the wood for housing and paper? As long as the wood is intact then it would be sequestering the carbon, wouldn't it?

I have always jokingly referred to paper as a "carbon sequestering device", but maybe it's no joke.

via Science Daily


Gene Sequencing for the Masses

While the scientists don't yet have the final figures on the Polonator's accuracy and throughput, they expect that it will sequence 10 billion base pairs in a single 80-hour run, a capacity equal to or greater than that of currently available technologies. The Danaher device will cost roughly $150,000, a third to a tenth of the cost of systems currently on the market.

The device is a commercial version of the polony sequencing approach developed in Church's lab over the past 10 years. Millions of beads coated with small fragments of the DNA to be sequenced are spread on a glass slide. Next, a series of fluorescently labeled DNA bases bind to the fragments. Finally, a standard fluorescence microscope reveals which base is at each position on a fragment. (The commercial version of the technology can accommodate a billion beads and has a more sophisticated imaging instrument.)

The technology will become an integral part of Church's other brainchild, the Personal Genome Project, an effort to enable personalized medicine by providing a test bed for new genomics technologies and analytic tools. Church and his collaborators are using the new device to sequence the genomes of the project's first 10 volunteers, who will share their genome sequences, medical records, and other personal information with both scientists and the public. Church hopes that, ultimately, thousands of people or more will have their genomes sequenced as part of the project, and that the result will be a huge compendium of data that is useful to both the volunteers themselves and to the research community. "Part of the goal of this project is as a bridge between the research market, which is small, and the consumer market," says Church.
This brings the $1000 personal genome that much closer.

via Technology Review


100% Electric Converted Saturn Sky

Advanced Mechanical Products, Inc. (AMP), the Midwestern company that has engineered converting the Saturn Sky to 100% electric, announced today that they are now taking orders for conversions at

"The prototype is in the final stage, and production will take place later this year, with deliveries beginning in 2009," said Jack Kuntz, AMP CEO.

"The AMP car is the best of both worlds," said Tim Wieck, Chief AMP Engineer. "All the design excellence of a GM Saturn, combined with AMP engineering. And with stats like 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds and 90 mph top speed, believe me, this is no golf cart!"

Cost of conversion to 100% electric is $25,000, plus the cost of the car, making the entire total about $50,000. Buyers can order the original Saturn to be converted from and receive preferred pricing. Or if they have a 2007 or later Saturn, they can simply have it converted. AMP is only converting 300 vehicles in the first production run, and those conversions will be done on a first-come, first-served basis.
$50,000 for an electric vehicle that will travel 150 miles on a charge doesn't sound bad at all. Especially when compared with a new Tesla Roadster or some of the prices for converting a Prius to a plugin hybrid.

via PRWeb


Friday, May 23, 2008

Britons Throw Away Third of all Food

British consumers throw out a third of all food bought, worth some 10 billion pounds (12.7 million euros, 19.5 million dollars), a study showed Thursday.

The average household throws food worth 420 pounds each year into the waste bin, rising to 610 pounds for those with children, said the study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap).
More information on the report here.

I am surprised that the number is so high. Seems like a lot of room for improvement.

I wonder how the waste in a restaurant compares with that in a house. If people started eating out more, would this increase or decrease this amount of waste?

via Breitbart


The Value of Peacekeepers

The authors reckon that countries affected by civil violence lose, on average, just over two percentage points of growth a year and take 14 years to get back to normal.

Taking all this into account, and adding a bit for extra military spending, the direct cost of a conflict in a typical developing country (whatever that is) comes to about $60 billion, the authors say. But most wars also envenom entire regions and exacerbate international scourges such as crime and terrorism.

So the authors give a “speculative” figure for the broader cost of each conflict: $250 billion. Since 1960, there have been two outbreaks of civil war a year, so what might be called the running cost of new conflicts in developing countries works out, on the authors' calculus, at somewhere between $120 billion and $500 billion a year. Even the lower figure is huge: about the same as the total amount of development aid doled out every year.

But reducing the risk of conflict more directly through peacekeeping is, the authors maintain, even better value for money. If the total cost of war to a country and its neighbours is $60 billion-$250 billion, then each percentage-point reduction in the risk of renewed violence is “worth” $600m-$2.5 billion. The authors calculate that if the world spent $8.5 billion on ten years of peacekeeping in a crisis-ridden country, that would reduce the risk of conflict by 30 points, which would be worth between $18 billion and $75 billion.
via The Economist


Firefox Quick Searches

If you're a Firefox user who eschews the mouse, then keyword Quick searches are for you. Give it a try: in Firefox, key up to the location bar (Windows: Alt-D, Mac: Cmd-L), type dict eschew and hit Enter. You'll be automagically transported to the definition of "eschew" (to avoid, shun). That's a Quick search in action.

Today's feature offers 15 useful Quick Searches which you can execute in Firefox without ever taking your fingers from the keyboard.
I just set this up, and I find it very useful. I don't do thesaurus lookups very much as it takes a lot of mouse clicks to complete. Now all I have to type in is "thes eschew" and up it comes.

Click the link to find out how to set it up on your machine.

via Lifehacker


Interesting Articles of the Week

The elusive negawatt.

Viagra for the brain?

Japan is running out of engineers.

'B corporation' plan helps philanthropic firms.

Broadband: other countries do it better, but how?

9 in 10 women would rather talk to a guy in a Prius than a Porsche.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Baseball Cap That Reads Your Mind

It looks like an ordinary baseball cap. But when you put it on, the cap detects and analyzes the electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from your brain. It can even tell you if you’re getting too sleepy when driving based on your brain wave patterns.

As the researchers explain, by measuring EEG signals, the BCI system can monitor an individual’s physiological and cognitive states. The system takes advantage of advances in sensor and information technology to achieve reduced power consumption and production costs. Currently, the system can operate continuously for about two days before the lithium-ion battery needs to be recharged, but the researchers hope to further increase the lifetime.

The cap contains five embedded dry electrodes on the wearer’s forehead, and one electrode behind the left ear, that acquire EEG signals. Then, the EEG signals are wirelessly transmitted to a data receiver, where they are processed in real-time by a dual-core processor. The BCI system includes Bluetooth transmission for distances of 10m or less (e.g., for driving applications), as well as RF transmission for distances up to 600m (e.g., for potential sports applications). Next, the processed signals are transmitted back to the cap, where the data can be stored, displayed in real-time on a screen, or be used to trigger an audio warning, if necessary.
via Physorg


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mapping The Ocean's Hidden Worlds

The US has two exploration programs: NASA, tasked with exploring the space, and NOAA, the national oceanic administration. If you compare NASA's budget, it's 1600 times bigger than NOAA's. Why are we ignoring the oceans, 72% of our planet? Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored. We had more ships down there during Captain Cook era than now. In 1975 we went down 9000 thousand feet into the ocean floor, the eternal darkness where you don't have photosynthesis, therefore no plant life, and little animal life -- or so we thought. We discovered that there are tens of thousands of active volcanoes. We discovered a profusion of life that should not exist. Giant tube worms. Large clam beds. Then we started creating robots for accelerating the exploration. And we could find incredible limestone formation, upside-down pools, etc. Recently, diving off in the Gulf of Mexico, we found pools of water, volcanoes of methane, flows of lava.
Great talk by Robert Ballard. I couldn't agree with him more that we should redirect funding from the exploration of the heavens to the exploration of the oceans. He also said that there is more American territory that is unexplored than explored as the US has rights to the land 200 miles off of its shores and that undersea land is greater than the above sea land.

via TED


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Food Consumption Around the World

Click for a larger version.

I posted on it before, but it still amazes me how much corn Americans consume.

via NY Times


Friday, May 16, 2008

GHG Benefit from PHEVs Requires Low-Carbon Electricity

A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University concludes that—given US average GHG intensity of electricity (670 g CO2-eq/kWh)—PHEVs can reduce total lifecycle GHG emissions by 32% compared to conventional vehicles (CVs), but offer only a small reduction compared to conventional charge-sustaining hybrids (HEVs). A paper on their work appears in the 7 April edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Under a carbon-intensive electricity scenario (950 g CO2-eq/kWh), lifecycle PHEV GHG impacts are 9–18% higher than those of HEVs, Constantine Samaras and Kyle Meisterling conclude. Under a low-carbon scenario (200 g CO2-eq/kWh), however, PHEVs can deliver large lifecycle GHG reductions: 51–63% and 30–47% compared to CVs and HEVs, respectively.
via Green Car Congress via Gas 2.0


That's Telling 'Em

via Digg


Can We Domesticate Germs?

Paul Ewald explains how diseases such as cholera and malaria can be tamed rather than cured by changing their evolutionary path.

via TED


Market For E2Ws in China is Booming

The market for electric two-wheelers (E2Ws) in China is booming; by 2006, the annual sales of E2Ws—which were virtually non-existent in the 1990s—almost equaled those of gasoline two-wheelers (G2W).

Using 2007USD, life-cycle E2W cost is ~$4/100km ($9 using the PPP-adjusted exchange rate (World Bank, 2008)) compared with bicycles at less than $1 ($2 PPP-adjusted) not including cost of food energy required, and $7/100km ($15 PPP-adjusted) for motorcycles (Weinert et al., 2007a). In terms of well-to-wheels energy use, a motorcycle uses four to five times as much energy (10.3 MJ/km) as a similarly powered E2Ws. (2–3 MJ/km).
I was unaware that that many electric two wheelers being sold in China. This may turn out to be a major driver in the electrification of transportation.
At least three Li-ion battery companies are making batteries for E2Ws with the strategy to build up production volumes with the E2W market and eventually shift to producing batteries for EVs.
I had thought that electrification of transportation would start with high end cars like the Tesla Roadster and then gradually expand as prices came down and technology improved. This presents another path toward electrification, working instead from the bottom up, with million of low cost E2Ws driving innovation in batteries leading to affordable electric cars.

via Energy Policy (.pdf) via Green Car Congress


Global Warming, Education and Political Affiliation

Interesting. As education level goes up for Democrats, they are more likely to believe in global warming. As education level goes up for Republicans they are less likely to believe in global warming.

I wish they also had a breakdown of college grad by major to see if that has any impact on the results.

via Wired via Pew


Thursday, May 15, 2008

One E-book Per Student

I have a problem. I really want an e-book device that can display 8.5"x11" .pdf files in a highly readable format, but there are none on the market.

So, I have devised a business plan to turn this product into a billion dollar a year industry, in the hopes that some Silicon Valley entrepreneur will run with it and build me my device. As always, I am too lazy to actually make this happen, but you are free to take this plan and make millions off of it. I ask for nothing in return other than an "Inspired by Fat Knowledge" reference somewhere in your pitch to the venture capitalists.

And, because there are those that don't think making a kick ass e-book is something noble in and of itself, this plan also gives all students an e-book while saving the government money, and helps to make college more affordable.

E-book Specifications

To display a 8.5" x 11" PDF file in a highly readable format, I think you need a minimum screen size of 7" x 9" screen (11" diagonal). The device would also need a resolution of at least 200 dots per inch (dpi). For comparison, a computer monitor is typically 75-90 dpi , book, magazine and professional printers as well as photographs use 300 dpi and laser printers can print at up to 600-1200 dpi. 200 dpi on a 7" by 9" screen is a resolution of 1400 x 1800 pixels.

Nothing currently released matches these specifications. The $300 Sony Reader (the little guy in the picture) and the $400 Amazon Kindle have 4.9" x 3.6" (6" diagonal), have 600 x 800 pixel 167 dpi screens. The $700 iRex has a 8.1" diagonal, 768 x 1024 pixel, 160 dpi screen.

There are three 8" x 5.8" (9.7" diagonal) 150 dpi, 825 x 1200 resolution e-books on the horizon: the Hanlin V9 (big guy in the picture), the Netronix EB-300 and the Astak E-book reader. No word on price, but an educated guess puts it at around $6-700.

In the corporate research labs, Seiko Epson has a 7"x 5", 1200 x 1600, 230 dpi screen e-book. LG.Philips's has a 14.3" diagonal, 1280 x 800 pixels, 100 dpi screen which doesn't sound overly impressive until you learn it both displays in color and has a flexible screen. Epson unveiled a 13.4-inch (A4-size) electronic paper at SID 2008, in Los Angeles, the US. Its pixel count is 3104 × 4128 and definition is as high as 385ppi.

Based on the models that have been released and what has been shown off from research labs, I think a 7" x 9", 1400 x 1800 pixel e-book would be doable in the near future.

Adoption Phases

I see adoption of this device in 4 distinct phases each marketed at a different population. At each phase, more devices are made, allowing for more experience in manufacturing, leading to lower prices which leads to more people willing to purchase the device and moving on to the next phase.

Phase 1: $1,000 device marketed to professionals.

The first market for this device would be high end professionals that read a lot of .pdfs and other documents. Example include doctors reading all the latest medical research, lawyers reading about previous cases, computer engineers reading technical documents and professors reading academic journals. These would be individuals making $100,000 or more that could justify a $1,000 expenditure with just a 1% increase in productivity (or who have no problem spending $1,000 for a status symbol).

In the US there are 633,000 doctors, 761,000 lawyers, 232,000 tenured professors, and 857,000 computer software engineers for a total of 2.5 million. There are also 2.5 million graduate students.

If 1% of them purchased an e-book a year that would be 50,000 units and $50 million in revenue.

Phase 2: $600 device marketed to college students.

College students spend on average $900 a year on textbooks and supplies. Assuming that a student can resell books for $300, this is $600 a year in net textbook costs. A $600 e-book would pay for itself in one year, and would save an additional $1,800 over the next three years. This of course assumes that the textbook content is pirated, but one thing we know about college students is that have no scruples about doing that. All it would take is for one person to scan in a copy of the book and then everyone else can access it for free.

The $1,800 benefit over 4 years might lead some to believe that college students would pay even more for an e-book, but I think the typical broke college student could only justify the purchase if the payback period was one year.

While this is good for students, it is bad for the publishers of the $3.35 billion annual textbook market. Fortunately, I have no love for the the publishers as they charge exorbitant prices for their books. Since 1986 textbook prices have risen almost 6% a year far outpacing inflation. This industry has actually gone as far as filing a lawsuit that claims that students' lecture notes infringe on professor's copyright in order to protect their high book prices. It has gotten so bad that Congress has gotten involved trying to pass legislation that would require publishers to tell faculty how much their choices for textbooks will cost students, and require schools to post the list of required and recommended books long before students need to buy them.

As more students got e-books, the publishing industry would probably crack down on the illegitimate copies and offer e-books of their own. These would be of lower price as seen by McGraw-Hill's e-books that are 55% cheaper than printed editions. But, I think a new model of selling textbooks would emerge, possibly bundling access to the textbook content as part of tuition or maybe an open-source content model like Textbook Revolution.

There are 3 million new college students each year in the US and 18 million undergraduate students total. If 5% of new students purchased an e-book that is 150,000 * $600 = $90 million in revenue.

Phase 3: $300 device given to all students entering junior high.

This is where the one e-book per student plan kicks in. Just like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project attempts to give a laptop to every child in the 3rd world, the One E-book Per Student (OEPS) project attempts to put an e-book in the hands of every student in the 1st world.

California currently spends $400 million annually on K-12 textbooks. With 6 million students that works out to $66 a student a year. Over the six years of junior high and high school that comes to $396 a student. Purchasing every student entering junior high a $300 e-book for use over the next 6 years would be $96 cheaper. That savings could be used to pay writers (or possibly have teachers work over the summer time) to create open source content for the books.

The initial pilot schools could be funded via a Gates Foundation grant or possibly an elite prep school with an endowment worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Besides saving money, this will also save the backs of our youth. The unspoken truth about the steroid epidemic in schools these days is that books have become so heavy that the kids are shooting up just so they can lift their backpacks.

There are 4 million new students entering Junior High each year in the US. Equipping 25% of them with an e-book would make for a market of 1 million * $300 = $300 million a year.

4: $150 device marketed to the reading public at large.
There 300 million Americans. If just 2.2% of them purchased the device a year that would be a market of 6.6 million * $150 = $1 billion.

For comparison, Apple sold 50 million iPods in 2007.


This business plan shows how you turn selling an e-book that can display .pdf files into a billion dollar a year market. It shows the adoption curve that would be used and who to market the product at in each step. The numbers here are just for America, and are therefore highly conservative as including Europe, Japan and the rest of the world would lead to numbers 3 times as large.

So please, for the sake of the children, for the sake of poor college students, and most importantly, for my sake, will someone build this device?


Grossly Distorted Picture

Once you accept that growth in GDP per head is the best way to measure economic performance, the standard definition of a recession—a decline in real GDP over some period (eg, two consecutive quarters or year on year)—also seems flawed. For example, zero GDP growth in Japan, where the population is declining, would still leave the average citizen better off. But in America, the average person would be worse off. A better definition of recession, surely, is a fall in average income per person. On this basis, America has been in recession since the fourth quarter of last year when its GDP rose by an annualised 0.6%, implying that real income per head fell by 0.4%.
While I have issues with using GDP as a measurement of well-being, I agree that if you are going to use it, that GDP per capita is the better way to compare between countries. Interesting how Japan has actually been doing better than the US under this measurement.

Oh, and I am sure that loyal Fat Knowledge readers are wondering why I am so lazy as to be reusing this title. Don't blame me, it is The Economist's fault, as they are the ones that went the same title twice. :)

via The Economist


It's Not Over Yet

The right-hand chart shows a better measure of housing fundamentals—the relationship between house prices and rents. This is a sort of price/earnings ratio for the housing market: the price of a house reflects the discounted value of future ownership, either as rental income or as rent saved by an owner who lives in the house.

A recent analysis by Morris Davis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Andreas Lehnert and Robert Martin of the Fed, shows that the rent/price yield in America ranged between 5% and 5.5% from 1960 to 1995, but fell rapidly thereafter to reach a historic low of 3.5% at the height of the boom. Given the typical pace of rental growth, Mr Feroli reckons house prices (as measured by the Case-Shiller index) need to fall by 10-15% over the next year and a half for the rent/price yield to return to its historical average. Again, that suggests the national housing bust is only halfway through. And, given the scale of excess supply, house prices—particularly in hard hit areas—are likely to overshoot. All told, Mr Bernanke's maps are going to get a lot redder—and the pressure on policymakers to help struggling homeowners is bound to increase.
The rent/price yield is the statistic that made me believe we were in a housing bubble and it is the one I will use to determine when we are out of it.

via The Economist


Lightning Bolts Above Chilean Volcano

Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Cases of electrical storms breaking out directly above erupting volcanos are well documented, although scientists differ on what causes them.
via Yahoo News


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

'Miracle fruit' turns sour to sweet by altering taste buds.

Researchers develop software that makes you smarter.

Todd Barber restores reefs with Reef Balls.

DOE report: wind could power 20% of US grid by 2030.

For the first time, more than half of all insured Americans are taking prescription medicines regularly for chronic health problems.


Firefox 3 Review

I have been using Firefox 3 Beta 5 for a while, and here is what I think.

1) Speed - Pages are much faster to load. You don't realize how good it is until you go back to IE 7 or Firefox 2. Worth the upgrade just for this.
2) Session restore - If you close Firefox with multiple tabs open you can set it up so they reload on the next start.
3) Other new features: Better memory usage, new awesome bar, native look and feel and advanced bookmarking.

1) Memory spike when shutting down Digg comment pages - While much quicker to load, memory usage can jump really high (200MB+) when you close a Digg comment page. It can take so long that you get a dialog box asking you if you want to stop the script (not sure what script that is referring to). I have Digg setting set to display all comments and the Digg comment pages aren't designed very well, but however Firefox changed the way they are handing javascript, has made this problem worse. Sometimes it will cause my machine to run out of memory causing greatly reduced performance. I have also seen temporary excessive memory usage when loading the Climate Progress page (150 MB+ for a few seconds then released).

Non-fixed problems (issues in Firefox 2 that weren't resolved):
1) Long shutdown/startup/restart time - It can take 10+ seconds for Firefox to shutdown and another 20+ seconds for it to start up. I have tons of add-ons (see below) so that is probably the cause (if I remove all add-ons then it only takes a few seconds to start), but still, why so long?
2) Memory usage - While memory usage has been improved, I still don't get why memory usage starts at 50 MB goes to 200 MB with lots of open windows, but won't go back down to 50 MB if you close all of those windows. Instead you hang out at 150MB+ and the only way to go back to 50 is to restart (and go through the 30+ seconds needed to do that).

Loading webpages quickly is the browsers primary job, and Firefox 3 smokes. The other changes in this version are minor but do help to improve usabilty. I have run into no major issues with this new browser. I would therefore recommend upgrading/switching to it if the add-ons you use are compatible with it (more below).

Update: Release Candidate 1 has just been released. See other reviews on Firefox 3 here and here.

The ability to customize Firefox with add-ons sets it apart from the other browsers out there. After using add-ons for a while, you will become hooked, your whole browsing experience will pale without them. I figure since I am reviewing Firefox that now is a good time to list the:

Fat Knowledge Endorsed Firefox Add-ons & Greasemonkey Scripts
All add-ons are compatible with 3.0 beta 5 unless they have one of these notes: NC = Not compatible, SC = Sorta compatible, AC = Actually compatible but doesn't load by default (use Nightly Tester Tools)

Must Have
Adblock Plus - Removes ads from webpages
Google Notebook (NC) - Allows you to take web clippings (see previous review)
Google Reader Notifier - Alerts you when you have new items to be read
Greasemonkey - Allows you to tweak the way individual webpages are displayed using Greasemonkey scripts (see below)
Tab Mix Plus (NC, but the latest build is) - Undo closed tabs and multi-row ability among others
Yahoo! Mail Notifier - Alerts you when you have new email messages

Nice to Have
All-in-One Sidebar - Lets you view dialog windows and more in the sidebar.
CustomizeGoogle - Enhance Google search results with extra information
Dictionary Tooltip (SC - missing outer window) - Highlight a word to find its definition
Download Statusbar (SC - doesn't remove items when done) - display status of downloads on the bottom of the screen
Favicon Picker 2 (NC) - Change the icon of bookmarks (see previous review)
Google Toolbar (NC) - Lots of features but I use AutoFill the most
Keyconfig (NC, but can be tweaked to work) - Allows you to add/modify/delete keyboard shortcuts
Link Alert - Lets you know if a link is a .pdf or other type of file before clicking on it
Nightly Tester Tools - Allows you to run add-ons that are supposedly incompatible with your version of Firefox
PDF Download - Lets you determine how to load .pdf files
Personal Menu - Turns the File-Edit-View menus into a single drop down item
Restart Firefox (AC)- Gives you a button to easily restart Firefox
StumbleUpon - Huge time waster
Web Developer - Tools for debugging websites

Greasemonkey Scripts

Yahoo! Mail

Welcome Skipper - Skip welcome screen and go immediately to inbox
Large Editor -Use all available space for edit box
Skip session expired page - Take you to the relogin page when your session has expired
Auto-Login - Automatically relogin from the login screen
Attachment download link - Download attachments from the link
Mailto 2 Webmail - Redirects mailto links to be handled with Yahoo! Mail
Turns out in FF 3 you can go to Tools:Options:Applications and set the mailto application (mailto links) to open directly in Yahoo Mail

Large Post Editor - Use all available screen space for your editing
Current Time Publish - Add a "Publish Now" button to set time to current time when publishing

New York Times Single Page View - Automatically redirect to single page view of an article
Netflix Rating Granulizer - Allow 1/2 star rankings of movies
Digg - add mirrors -Add mirror icons to Digg articles
Auto add to Google Reader - Skip the prompt if you want to add to Google Reader or Google Homepage
Other Fat Knowledge created scripts
Check for more


Android Scan

Scan is an Android application that finds pricing and metadata for anything with a barcode. Here are some key features that make Scan stand out:
  • Automatic barcode recognition using onboard phone camera using ZXing
  • Shows CD, DVD, or book cover along with detailed reviews from
  • Searches over a dozen stores, both online and brick+mortar
    • Highlights brick+mortar stores that are nearby, with option to call the store or get directions
    • Links to online storefronts to buy online from the phone
  • Tracklisting for CDs, along with option to play sample tracks right on phone
  • For books, searches local libraries to see if they have a copy
Very Cool. More information and a 3 minute video here.

The idea of using cellphones and bar codes to comparison shop and get additional information about products has been floating around forever, but this is the first time I have actually seen a working demo. The ZXing barcode scanning software is written in Java and is going to be ported to the iPhone, so hopefully applications like this will be available on all sorts of phones. I am particularly interested in seeing this technology leveraged for additional social and environmental information such as carbon footprints.

I haven't been very excited about Google's Android platform for phones, but if this is what the future holds in an Android world, I am all for it. For lots more cool apps that have been designed for Android click the link below.

via TechCrunch


Sexy Dancing vs. Peak Oil: Oily Cassandra

I believe this video is about peak oil, but to be honest, I, uh, had a difficult time concentrating on what she was saying. :)

Fortunately, I have previously written up my thoughts on peak oil, buying local, and sustainable artificial fertilizer (not that fertilizer is actually made from oil, regardless of what the "everything is made from oil" crowd says).

via YouTube via TreeHugger


State of Photovoltaics: 2007

Global production of photovoltaic (PV) or solar cells-which convert the sun's light directly to electricity-increased 51 percent in 2007, to 3,733 megawatts.1 (See Figure 1.) According to early estimates, more than 2,935 megawatts of solar modules were installed that year, bringing cumulative global installations of PVs since 1996 to more than 9,740 megawatts-enough to meet the annual electricity demand of more than 3 million homes in Europe. Over the past five years, annual global production of PV cells has increased nearly sevenfold, and cumulative installations have grown more than fivefold.
More interesting statistics in the article.

via Worldwatch


Grand Theft Auto IV Tops $500 Million in One Week

The take for GTA IV's first week of sales:

Total worldwide sales (revenue): more than $500 million [Source: Take-Two Interactive]
Total worldwide sales (units): 6 million [Source: Take-Two Interactive]
Total budget estimate: $100 million [Source]
Not to mention a couple of Guinness World Records.

It is completely amazing to me that a video game can make over 1/2 a billion dollars in just one week. Yet another sign that video games are overtaking movies as a form of entertainment. Iron Man opened at the same time and grossed just $201 million worldwide in its first week. As VoltageBlog points out, this dispels the myth that video games are the reason for lowered box office takes.

At $100 million, the budget of GTA was similar to that of high budget Hollywood movies (I believe Iron Man had a budget of $140 million). GTA took 3 years of effort and close to 1,000 people contributed. I don't know how those numbers compare to movies, but I think they are fairly similar.

via Wired


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Record-Breaking Mentos and Coke Explosions

Around 1,500 students kitted out in waterproof ponchos discovered exactly what happens when you drop a mint sweet into a bottle of Coca Cola, in an attempt to break a world record.

The explosive record-breaking event was held in Ladeuzeplein square in Leuven, Belgium.
Video here.

via Telegraph


Biofuel Comparison Chart

(Click for a larger version)

via TreeHugger


Stick-On Solar with Lumeta

The holy grail of building-integrated solar might be paint-on solar, but in the meantime there is a peel-n-stick option. The Lumeta Power-Ply 380 panel uses adhesive to stick 8′x4′ panels to your roof in a matter of minutes without any racking or mounting systems — and as a result, no holes in your roof.

DRI estimates its Lumeta panels reduce installation hardware costs by 70 percent and cut installation time by 30 percent. The front of each panel is Teflon as opposed to glass, so they’re lightweight enough to be installed on weaker structures like sheds, awnings or carports.
via Earth2Tech


Friday, May 09, 2008

X Prize: $100 Million for Clean Fuels

In its richest and largest competition yet, the foundation will divvy up some $100 million for transformations in biofuels, clean aviation fuel, energy storage, the provision of basic utilities for developing nations, and other categories.

The foundation has issued skeletal details on the new prizes in recent days on its Web site. In a telephone interview and an e-mail exchange, foundation President Tom Vander Ark said the biofuels prize would be launched late this year, followed by the other categories over the coming two years. The biofuels prize will be worth at least $10 million, he said.
Sounds good. I will be interested to find out what the specific goals will be for the prizes.

via Business Week


Giant Stingrays Found Near Thai City

Recreational fishers and biologist Zeb Hogan (wearing cap) hold a live, 14-foot-long (4.3-meter-long) giant freshwater stingray the fishers caught in the Bang Pakong River in Chachoengsao, Thailand, on March 31, 2008.

There are accounts of freshwater stingrays growing as large as 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms), which could make them the largest freshwater fish in the world, Hogan said.

Hogan runs the National Geographic Society's Megafishes Project, an effort to document 20 or so freshwater giants.
via National Geographic


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Green Homes: Solar Panels vs. Energy Efficiency

While it’s not as sexy as a rooftop rack of silicon, improving a home’s energy efficiency tends to be the more cost-effective way to trim carbon emissions. So why are politicians showering subsidies on residential solar instead?

That’s the question posed by Matt Golden, president of Sustainable Spaces, a company specializing in optimizing the energy performance of homes. He convinced the Olssons to think first about energy efficiency, but with every new solar subsidy, it gets harder for him to get homeowners’ attention and contracts.
While I like solar panels (and creative loans to make them easier to purchase), I like implementing the most cost-effective ways to save energy even more.

How can homeowners figure out which are the most cost effective ways to save energy? Energy audits:
Energy officials say they want homeowners to make such rational assessments, but audits cost several hundred dollars and fixes can be time-consuming. That makes it tricky to agree on when and how homeowners should be pushed into the process.

One obvious moment: when a house goes up for sale.

Getting real estate agents to add an energy-efficiency rating in the database of homes for sale would dramatically boost awareness of energy audits. The ratings would act like an auto fuel-efficiency sticker for homes, says Golden.
An energy audit when a home goes for sale is a great idea, as I have written about before.

And what are three examples of technologies that get a better bang for the buck than solar panels?

One, solar water heating:
According to their analysis, published in the International Journal of Global Energy, as the payback time for a solar water heating system is about two years (with a lifespan of 20), this is a far more cost-effective use of solar energy in the developing world than using it to generate electricity.
Two, passive houses:
The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

His new home uses about one-twentieth the heating energy of his parents’ home of roughly the same size, he said. And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.

Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.
Check out this cool graphic on how passive houses work.

Third, improved weatherization:
Call it CSI: Thermal Police — energy experts armed with mostly low-tech tools but strong sleuthing skills, finding flaws that let the air inside a house go through a full exchange with the outdoors twice an hour, instead of once every two or three hours.

Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.

Typical repairs require expertise but generally cost $2,000 or less. The most significant improvement for the Ficks’ house was an inch-thick piece of foam board, which Mr. Kinzer shaped with a utility knife and applied to the exposed heating duct. The repair cost less than $100, including $10 for materials, but it will cut the Ficks’ heating bill by several hundred dollars per heating season, said Tim Kenny’s father, Tom, a veteran weatherizer.
Weatherization could also create a significant amount of jobs:
About 140,000 houses will be weatherized with public help this year, a total that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to raise to one million, to reduce energy consumption and cut energy costs for households and taxpayers, who often absorb those costs for the poor. This would represent a historic shift in emphasis for the federal and state governments, reducing poor people’s energy bills instead of helping to pay them.

Weatherizing a million homes annually would also create about 78,000 jobs for a year, according to the federal Energy Department’s weatherization project director, Gil Sperling.

The current 140,000 annual total creates about 8,000 jobs, Mr. Sperling said.

Congress added $250 million to the weatherization budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Energy experts say that money could be effectively spent in low-income households and in households that have no need of public assistance.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Photosynthesis on a Chip

Scientists at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel claim they have found a way to construct efficient photovoltaic cells costing at least a hundred times less than conventional silicon based devices, and with similar or better energy conversion efficiency.

The reactive element in the researchers' patent pending device is genetically engineered proteins using photosynthesis for production of electrical energy.

The scientists applied genetic engineering and nanotechnology for the construction of a hybrid nano -- bio, solid state device. According to the researchers, although using photosynthesis for photovoltaic application is not new, their specific technique is the first to enable the production of useful photosynthesis-based photovoltaic cells.

The researchers suggest existing silicon based photovoltaic cells offer low average energy conversion efficiency of 12-14 percent, while their system is capable of efficiencies of about 25 percent.

Larry Loev, director of business development for high technologies at Ramot told EETimes the low cost of the proposed device is based on the low cost of PS I in comparison to silicon. While one square meter of PS I should cost around $1, a similar area made of silicon should cost around $200.

Ramot aims to develop a cost effective device of 10mm X 10mm in size within three years.
via EETimes and Earth2Tech


Sunrgi: Concentrating Solar

SUNRGI's "concentrated photovoltaic" system relies on lenses to magnify sunlight 2,000 times, letting it produce as much electricity as standard panels with a far smaller system.

Under its plans, which experts call promising but highly ambitious, SUNRGI would initially target utilities and large industrial and commercial customers. The company — founded by veterans of computer, digital design, aerospace and solar industries — would market to homes within three years.

Executives of the year-old company say they'll start producing solar panels by mid-2009 that will generate electricity for about 7 cents a kilowatt hour, including installation.

Solar panels generate electricity when photons in sunlight knock loose electrons in silicon or another semiconductor. Other concentrated photovoltaic makers magnify sunlight about 500 times. SUNRGI says it can multiply that by four because it has a system to instantly cool its germanium-based semiconductor from 3,300 degrees to 20 degrees above ambient temperature. High temperatures can melt a solar cell.

Also pushing down costs are a highly efficient semiconductor that converts 37% of the sunlight to electricity, more than double the industry average.
I am highly skeptical that they can hit 7¢ a kWh by 2009, but I will keep my fingers crossed.

via USA Today and Earth2Tech


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with Spear

A male orangutan, clinging precariously to overhanging branches, flails the water with a pole, trying desperately to spear a passing fish. It is the first time one has been seen using a tool to hunt.

This individual had seen locals fishing with spears on the Gohong River. Although the method required too much skill for him to master, he was later able to improvise by using the pole to catch fish already trapped in the locals' fishing lines.
via Daily Mail


Financial Literacy

In January George Bush appointed Mr Bryant vice-chairman of his new President's Council on Financial Literacy. This was launched as part of his administration's increasingly frenetic response to the financial crisis that followed the meltdown in subprime mortgages, many of them given to borrowers who may not have understood the risks. Often borrowers did not even realise that their monthly payment would rise if interest rates went up, says Mr Bryant.
I agree that financial illiteracy is rampant in the US and the need for financial education is great. I am amazed by how many college graduates don't understand how credit cards work and get into large debt due to their ignorance. I think this financial illiteracy has lead to America's historically low savings rate, and historically high number of bankruptcies.

This Council on Financial Literacy seems like a good start, but I am skeptical that the curriculum (found at this post) that came out of this will actually help that much as it is too divorced from actual money. It reminds me of this anti-smoking curriculum that while well designed and administered was found to have no impact on smoking rates.

Instead I like two other approaches highlighted in the article.
Meanwhile, on March 17th a new campaign to promote financial literacy in the developing world was launched at
a conference in Amsterdam. Called Aflatoun (“Explorer”), after a cartoon character based on a Bollywood star, it is the brainchild of Jeroo Billimoria, a social entrepreneur who previously worked with street children in India. Among other things, she founded a successful emergency 24-hour telephone service, called Childline. She found that many of the children she helped were entrepreneurial (indeed, such spirits may have played a part in their decision to leave home) and became convinced that, given better education, they would have done well in life.

Ms Billimoria addresses herself to children aged between six and 14, whom most educators consider too young to understand money. Having begun with experiments in rural India, her non-profit organisation, Child Savings International, has piloted the Aflatoun course in 11 countries, including Argentina, South Africa, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, since 2005. It is now extending the course to 35 developing countries. Only recently, after suggestions from the Dutch central bank and the European Commission, has Ms Billimoria started to adapt Aflatoun for rich countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland and perhaps America.

Ms Billimoria encountered a great deal of scepticism when she developed her financial-literacy programme for six- to 14-year-olds. Yet she was convinced that starting with youngsters would be more effective, because that is “when their concept of themselves is developing and by 14 most of their habits have formed.”

An important part of the teaching is getting the children to start saving, ideally by opening bank accounts. Typically, they have only tiny amounts, but this is enough to get them used to handling money properly. At first this faced a lot of resistance, as people asked, “How can young children handle money?” recalls Ms Billimoria, but “it soon caught on and parents started giving children money to save.”
I agree that beyond cognitively understanding why to save, saving needs to be turned into a habit that people just do by default. This is most easily accomplished when we are young.

I also like this idea:
He is enthusiastic about schemes such as the Child Trust Funds introduced in Britain. These “baby bonds” give every child a fund that matures at adulthood, letting everyone start out with a nest-egg. Mr Mandell is particularly excited by the curriculum being designed to be taught in conjunction with these funds, starting when children reach the age of seven. “Teachers will be able to talk about money realistically, because the kids will have ownership of wealth.”
This idea sounds similar to my Baby Bonds + Financial Education bold idea to change America I wrote about previously. The education will be much more effective if students had real money that they were working with. Too bad Hillary got shot down when she proposed this.

The whole article is good and is worth a read, and you might want to check out Operation Hope and Jump$tart as well.

via The Economist


Paying the Rent with Excrement

From A Farewell to Alms:

One crucial economic problem for hygiene in preindustrial Europe was that human waste had little or no market value, because it was not socially acceptable to use it as the valuable fertilizer it was for farm and garden purposes. As Alan Macfarlane notes, "where in Japan, night soil could be used in lieu of rent, in England one had to pay to have it taken away." Its disposal was thus a major social problem in Europe. Samuel Pepys, for example, complains in his diary in October 1660 that "Going down to my cellar ... I put my feet into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar." Neighbors' overflowing turds were apparently nothing more than an everyday nuisance in seventeenth-century London.

In contrast in China and Japan human waste, urine as well as feces, was a valuable property which householders sold to farmers, and which various groups competed for the right to collect. Waste was not dumped into cesspits, sewers, and streams, contaminating water supplies. Instead in cities such as 18th century Osaka contractors found it profitable even to provide public containers on street corners in order to profit from the waste deposits. In China and Japan the waste also seems to have been carried away daily, as opposed to being stored in cesspits below houses which were only periodically emptied.

Human waste poses danger as a fertilizer, but the Japanese at least, aware of this, stored the waste in pits and tubs for months before use, allowing fermentation the time to destroy many of the infectious organisms.
That is amazing that in Japan night soil could be used in lieu (or should that be "in loo", heh) of rent.

I am now fascinated by the economics of human waste. I wonder how much a person in Japan got for their night soil? Was it really enough to pay for all of the rent? Somehow I don't think so. But, apparently it was enough to keep the streets clean.

I wonder how the numbers would look today. Could you make a profitable enterprise out of this in one of the 3rd world slum cities today? Has artificial fertilizer become so cheap that this business no longer makes sense? Are their enough farmers within a close enough radius that you could distribute to them economically? Do the pharmaceutical products that modern people take impact the quality of the fertilizer? If you did use humanure, could you still sell your produce as organic?

If you could clean up the slums, remove the costs of a sewer system, and at the same time increase the yield of farmers, this seems like a good thing to do.

Since my dream of being a cow fart tycoon has come to an end, I think I might have to replace it with being a humanure tycoon. I've got my tagline ready to go: Turning honey buckets into money buckets.


The Shortage of Silicon for Solar Panels Almost Over

Solar electricity is about to get much cheaper, industry analysts predict, because a shortage of the silicon used in solar panels is almost over.

Solar power cost about $4 a watt in the early 2000s, but silicon shortages, which began in 2005, have pushed up prices to more than $4.80 per watt, according to Solarbuzz. Indeed, the growth in silicon production hasn't kept pace with the rise in solar power. The shortage has been severe enough to drive up silicon prices to more than 10 times normal levels, to $450 a kilogram, adds Ted Sullivan, an analyst at Lux Research.

While only 15,000 tons of silicon were available for use in solar cells in 2005, by 2010, this number could grow to 123,000 tons, Sullivan says. And that will allow existing and planned production of solar panels to ramp up, increasing supply. "What that means, practically, is that [solar] module prices are going to come down pretty dramatically in the next two or three years," Bradford says.

In a recent presentation, Bradford said that prices for solar panels could drop by as much as 50 percent from 2006 to 2010. In areas that get a lot of sun, that will translate to solar electricity costs of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, matching the average price of electricity in the United States.
via Technology Review