Monday, June 30, 2008

Tesla to Build $60,000 Electric Sedan

Tesla’s upcoming Model S (earlier named “White Star”), will be a $60,000 car, said Tesla Chairman Elon Musk at the press conference. The Model S is being designed to seat five and have a single-charge range of 225 miles.
$60,000 is a bit pricey, but I think it is better to be expensive and work well, than to be cheaper with compromises. That 225 mile range is key in allowing people to switch from gasoline powered cars.

And for those who can't quite swallow paying $60,000, how much longer are you going to have to wait?
Musk also said Tesla has a project in the works to to deliver an electric vehicle for under $30,000 “a lot sooner than everyone thinks.” When pressed for how long that would take, he said: “4 years at the most.”
via Green Car Congress and Earth2Tech


Interesting Articles of the Week

Does freer farm trade help poor people?

New weapon against tuberculosis: free cell minutes.

A steamy solution to global warming.

Australians more obese than Americans.

HIV turns 100 years old.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

McKinsey on the Economics of Solar

Interesting graph from McKinsey's new analysis piece: "The economics of solar power" (for some reason the link isn't live yet).

Who knew that Italy is the only country where solar power is now at grid parity? Seems like a good place to start a solar panel installation company.

10 years from now, solar looks to be competitive in many countries without subsidies.

And, is this a 5 dimensional graph? Takes a minute to figure out what all they are trying to express here.

There is a similar cool graph in Solar Revolution that showed what year solar electricity would be competitive in various cities in the US based on electricity prices and the amount of sunlight they received. Unfortunately the author isn't sharing that graph (on page 146) in Google's book search or Amazon's search in the book feature, so I can't share it with you and try and tempt you to buy his book. Lame.

via Grist


McCain and The Economists

From Greg Mankiw's Blog:

[Senator McCain] has shown increasing disdain for any economist who questions his policy prescriptions. Earlier this month, he lashed out at critics of his proposal for a summer gas-tax holiday.

"You know the economists?'' McCain said June 12 at Federal Hall, near the New York Stock Exchange. "They're the same ones that didn't predict this housing crisis we're in. They're the same ones that didn't predict the dot-com meltdown. They're the same ones that didn't predict the inflation that's staring us in the face today.''
Geez, what does John McCain expect?

That there is one master economist, lets call him "The Economist", who at the height of the real estate bubble, lets say June of '05, would have the foresight to predict the crash ahead and what the repercussions would be?

That "The Economist" would make this information publicly available to all, and get people to read it by putting it on every newsstand with a splashy cover graphic to make it painfully clear what was being predicted?

That realizing even that might not be enough to get the attention of a busy senator, that "The Economist" should taunt McCain personally, maybe calling him a "radical conservative", just to make to make sure he wouldn't miss what is being predicted?

I mean, geez, that is a lot to ask. Oh, wait....


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

US Corn Consumption

I have marveled previously about how much corn the US consumes. In 2007 we produced 13 million bushels of corn, exported 2.45 million and consumed 10.5 million. That works out to over 5 lbs of consumption per person per day!

Considering that no one ate anywhere near that much corn directly, where exactly did it all go?

Almost 60% went to animal feed. While I don't know how it breaks down in terms of which animals it goes to, I did find that it takes 7 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of beef, 6.5 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of pork, and 2.6 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of chicken. Besides meat, it is also used to feed cows to produce milk. If you ate a Quarter Pounder for lunch and another for dinner, that would take 3.5 lbs of corn to produce and slightly more than the 3.15 lbs of corn that went to feed animals daily per person in the US.

Another almost 30% goes to make ethanol. Thanks to over $3.5 billion in ethanol subsidies, 1.5 lbs of corn per person per day were used to make 6.5 billion gallons of fuel of dubious economic and environmental value.

Combining the celebrity of sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, with the forgotten stepchildren of sweeteners: glucose and dextrose, together they accounted for 7% of consumption or a little more than 3/8ths of a pound per person a day. If you bought something sweet that was cheap, odds are it used corn sweeteners.

The next 2.6% went to starch, which apparently is used in paper, textiles, adhesives, plastics, baked goods, condiments, candies, soups and mixes.

Finally we get to what most people think of as corn, and yet its consumption isn't even large enough to warrant its own category. Instead it is unceremoniously lumped in with the catch all "other products". This is where your breakfast cereals, snack chips, tortillas and other corn foods show up. This was 1.8% of consumption and just .1 pound (1.6 oz) per day.

Last but not least, beverage alcohol accounted for 1.3% of consumption. Corn is used to make Bourbon, other types of whiskey and who knows what other inebriating drinks I am unaware of.

How amazing is it that we consume, on average, almost 2,000 pounds of corn a year and almost none of that looks anything like how it looks on the cob? Even after finding all of these statistics, I am still clueless as to how much corn is consumed by Americans with kernels intact.

via USDA Feed Grains Database: Yearbook Tables 4 & 31 and Iowa Corn

Update: Jeremy raises a good point about exports of meat. If the corn is being used to raise livestock that are then exported and consumed in another country this really shouldn't be counted against US consumption. But, it is really net exports that matter, for if we import the same amount of meat that we export then it doesn't really affect the numbers.

It looks like the US imports more beef than it exports with 1.431 billion pounds of export and 3.052 billion pounds of import. On the other hand, the US exports 2.4 million tonnes of chicken (via FAO Stat) and imports just 19,000 tonnes. Poultry exports account for 16% of production. Another source puts it at similar numbers. I don't know how much corn is going to raise chickens, but if you assume 50% of feed is going there, and 16% get exported, that means 8% of feed or around 500 mil bushels is not really US consumption.

This tweaks the numbers, but doesn't really change the analysis much. Feed is still the largest source of consumption, and US consumption per capita is still over 5 lbs a day.


Algae Biodiesel vs. Solar Panels

Which is the more efficient source of energy for sustainable transportation, biofuels or solar panels?

To find out, lets compare the amount of land that is needed to produce the fuel to drive a car 12,775 miles a year (35 miles a day) either as biodiesel to run a diesel-hybrid car or for solar panels to run an electric car.

The most efficient producer of biodiesel by far is algae which can produce 15,000 gallons of biodiesel an acre. Converted to metric we get 37,000 gallons per hectare (2.47 acres per hectare) or 3.7 gallons per square meter (10,000 square meters per hectare).

The VW hybrid TDI Golf concept car gets 70 mpg. To drive 12,775 miles would take 182.5 gallons. At 3.7 gallons per square meter, this would take 49.3 square meters of land to grow algae.

Solar panels generate 263 kWh per square meter a year. A Tesla Roadster uses .2kWh/mile. To drive 12,775 miles would take 9.7 square meters of solar panels.

The solar panel fueled electric car takes a little less that 1/5 the amount of land to run as a algae biodiesel powered car. It is by far the more efficient source of energy for sustainable transportation.

Why is the electric car system so much more efficient? I believe that most of the difference has to do with how much efficient an electric motor is compared to an internal combustion engine (90% efficiency vs 25%). The solar panels also collect slightly more energy from the sun (18% vs 15%), and not all the energy the algae collects is converted into oil (not sure what % of energy is converted to oil).

It should also be noted that the yield for algae is a theoretical one that has not yet been matched in the field. Other estimates put it at 1800 gallons per acre, which is much less that the 15,000 value, but also substantially larger than the #2 producer: palm oil which comes in at 500 gallons per acre. It is also larger than any source of ethanol. It should also be mentioned that biodiesel stores more energy per gallon (130,000 BTU vs. 84,000 BTU) and a diesel engine is more efficient than a gasoline engine, so a gallon of biodiesel can propel a car much further than a gallon of ethanol.

This analysis also doesn't take into account the economics of the two systems. Nor does it take into account that biodiesel allows for quicker refueling times, greater range between refueling and can more easily be integrated into the current transportation system. When those are taken into account biodiesel is much more competitive, especially in the short term.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

McCain: $300 Million for New Battery

McCain proposes a new way to advance the development of electric vehicles:

The Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting is proposing a $300 million government prize to whomever can develop an automobile battery that far surpasses existing technology.

The bounty would equate to $1 for every man, woman and child in the country, "a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency," McCain said in remarks prepared for delivery Monday at Fresno State University in California.

McCain said such a device should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs and have "the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars."
I like the idea of using contests to spur innovation. Besides the money, the fame of winning also works as motivation for researchers to get involved. Other similar prizes I like are the X Prize has $100 million set aside for challenge in clean fuels and Richard Branson has $25 million set aside for the first person to create a CO2 scrubber. The development of self driving cars was also spurred along by DARPA's Grand Challenge.

I am not sure about the specifics of whether $300 million for a battery that delivers power at 30% of current costs is the right way to structure the prize, but an improved battery is a key technology that is needed.

A while back I proposed the idea of a $2 a gallon tax on gasoline to fund grand challenges in renewable energy, with one goal being the development of a battery such as McCain proposes. I still think this is a good idea, although I proposed this back when gasoline was $2.5 a gallon. I would ease the tax in now as gasoline prices drop down making sure we don't get over $5 a gallon in the short term, but also setting $4 a gallon as a minimum price going forward.

Here was Obama's response to McCain's plan:
After all those years in Washington, John McCain still doesn’t get it. I commend him for his desire to accelerate the search for a battery that can power the cars of the future. I’ve been talking about this myself for the last few years. But I don’t think a $300 million prize is enough. When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn’t put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win – he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people. That’s the kind of effort we need to achieve energy independence in this country, and nothing less will do.
I agree with him that $300 million by itself is not enough. I proposed $300 billion a year with the gasoline tax, but that was to cover other advancements in renewable energy as well.

But, he seems to be against the idea of a contest, if I understand him correctly, deriding it a "bounty out for some rocket scientist to win". Not sure if he is aware that Google is doing just that with their $30 million Lunar X PRIZE for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. I don't get how putting the "full resources of the United States government and the ingenuity and innovation of the American people" is mutually exclusive with using contests.

Hopefully the next president will put serious resources behind the advancement of clean renewable energy and use contests as a method of energizing researchers to develop these new technologies.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Scientists Leaving the Lab for the Law

Demand for these specialists is being driven by an explosion in patent applications in recent years and a growing need for lawyers to protect old patents or challenge new ones. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office estimates 450,000 patent applications will be filed this year, up from about 350,000 five years ago.

For at least some students who might otherwise gravitate toward a science career, the promise of much bigger paydays is a powerful lure. Others say the opportunities in academia are not as certain as they once were.

Newly minted lawyers will earn $160,000 at the nation's top firms this year, and perhaps more with a postgraduate science degree or federal clerkship. The leading intellectual property firms plan to match or top that figure.

"It's an exciting area of legal practice right now," said University of Pennsylvania law professor R. Polk Wagner. "Every year I see more and more people coming into law school with technical backgrounds."

"It almost scares me," said Wagner, whose proteges include Weathers. "Who's left in the lab?"
Not good for society when smart people are choosing to spend their time and energy fighting to protect ideas rather than generating new ones. While some lawyers are necessary to protect the fairness of the system, society is best served when there are as few lawyers and as many lab scientists as possible. The lab scientists create new value, the lawyers just determine how that value is allocated.

Ironically, almost a quarter of lawyers want to leave the profession because of stress and long hours, so maybe those that left the lab will be returning shortly.

via Forbes


Plug-in Hybrid vs. Tahoe Hybrid

Earth2Tech had a post on converting your Prius to a plug-in and christian g left the following comment:

Many people spend $35,000 for a car. I spent $25,000 for a Prius and am upgrading it with an environmental amenity for $10,000 and will be cutting my carbon emissions in half in the process. I couldn’t think of any better way to “invest” the money.
While the commenter's logic does have some appeal, it raises the interesting question of whether there is a better way to "invest" the $10,000 to help the environment.

Let me make the environmentally sacrilegious case that the money could be better used helping others upgrade from large SUVs to hybrid SUVs than converting a Prius to a plug-in.

According to Hymotion after the conversion, the plug-in Prius will get 100+ mpg (plus some electricity usage) for 30-40 miles.

Assuming that the normal Prius gets 40 mpg and the plug-in Prius gets 100 mpg, if you drive 12,500 miles a year, converting to a plug-in saves (312.5-125=) 187.5 gallons of gasoline a year.

According to this NY Times article:
Giving a four-wheel drive Tahoe a gas-electric hybrid engine raises fuel economy for city driving to 20 miles a gallon from 14.

But a couple in Longview, Tex., Michael and Cindy Pittmon, have found that their Yukon hybrid was worth the investment. “I’m getting 20.8 miles to the gallon compared to 13 on my old Yukon,” Mrs. Pittmon said. “It costs $75 to fill it up, and that’s lasting me two weeks instead of one.”

But to get the better mileage, consumers pay a high price: $53,000, at least $4,000 more than a conventional Tahoe.
Assuming that the hybrid Tahoe gets 20 mpg and the standard Tahoe 14 mpg (the numbers stated there are just city driving, but Mrs. Pittmon's numbers are for everything and her numbers show a greater advantage for the hybrid, so 14 to 20 sounds reasonable), if you drive 12,500 miles driven a year, the hybrid saves (893-625=) 268 gallons of gasoline a year.

$10,000 would allow you to upgrade 2.5 SUVs for a savings of 670 gallons of gasoline a year. That is over 3.5 times as much gasoline saved as upgrading a Prius to a plug-in. (Ok, you can't really buy .5 of an upgrade, but lets assume that had $20,000 and could choose to upgrade 2 Priuses or 5 Tahoes, and then the numbers work out.) You would save an additional 4.8 tons of CO2 emissions by helping others upgrade to SUV hybrids, then you would by converting your Prius to a plug-in.

But, you might argue that upgrading a large SUV to a hybrid makes economic sense without regards to the environment, so new SUV purchasers will opt for the hybrid version on their own. At $4 a gallon, the 268 gallons a year a hybrid doesn't use saves $1,072. On the $4,000 investment, this is a 26.8% rate of return, much better than just about any other investment out there. The additional costs of the hybrid pay for itself in 4 years and then all savings are pure profit. If you were to get a 5 year loan on the car, the additional payment for upgrading to a hybrid would be lower than the amount you save in gasoline. It is not even clear why anyone would purchase a non hyrid large SUV at this point.

So are all SUV purchasers switching to hybrids? Um, not so much.
G.M. has sold about 1,100 of its Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon hybrids since their introduction in January, according to company sales briefings. That pace is well behind its goal of 12,000 sales a year, and a fraction of the more than 100,000 hybrids sold so far in the United States this year.
Why aren't they?
Glenn Galvan of Reno, Nev., was hoping to replace his Honda pickup with one of the G.M. hybrids until he saw the prices. “I don’t mind paying the extra cost for environmental reasons, but it doesn’t have near enough fuel savings to justify it,” he said.
Well, no one ever accused large SUV drivers of being the sharpest tools in the shed.

While upgrading your Prius to a plug-in might make you feel better and give you more status with your environmentally conscious friends, if you want to reduce as much CO2 emissions and gasoline usage as you can, spending $10,000 would be better used to help help those that are purchasing a large SUV upgrade to a hybrid. Not that purchasing a large SUV is ever a good environmental decision, but as long as anyone is actually purchasing them they should be a hybrid and helping others to do so makes a bigger impact than converting your own fuel efficient car to a plugin.

And just to make it clear that I am in no way supporting the purchase of large SUVs, I will take one last unprovoked swipe at large SUV drivers:
She said that the big hybrid generates quite a bit of attention at stoplights and in shopping malls, particularly because of multiple “hybrid” badges and decals that G.M. put on the exterior.

“People are always saying, oh, they didn’t realize that hybrids came this big,” she said. “But I’m thinking about taking some of the badges off so it doesn’t stand out as much.”
Yes, you don't want them thinking that you might actually care about minimizing your gasoline usage or helping the environment, now would you?


The Falling Cost of a Robot Workforce

While the rust belt might blame NAFTA for their jobs disappearing, I think a better explanation is that those jobs have been outsourced to the past as shown by this chart.

via The Economist


Thursday, June 19, 2008

How Should the Harvard Endowment Be Used?

NY Times reports on Harvard Alumni for Social Action's idea that the Harvard Endowment should be used for more than just enriching Harvard.

For three years, a handful of Harvard University alumni have waged a quiet effort to persuade the university to expand its mission far beyond its Cambridge campus, the students it educates there and the multitude of research labs, libraries and other facilities available to them.

They call themselves Harvard Alumni for Social Action, or HASA, and their goal is to prod the university to use its vast wealth, including its $35 billion endowment, in unprecedented ways, like supporting struggling colleges in Africa.

“There are large amounts of money being given to Harvard and other wealthy universities every year by classes like ours, and they don’t really need it,” said Jennifer Freeman, part of the HASA outreach committee for the Class of 1983. “They should be thinking of new things they could do with it, which would re-energize alumni and be good for the university, too.”

Both Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, and her predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers, have been unwilling to even discuss the proposals. The development office, as fund-raising operations are known in the charitable world, politely refuses to share its list of alumni, frustrating HASA’s recruiting ability.

HASA reflects the growing debate over university endowments and whether their continued accumulation of assets — Harvard is expected to have $100 billion at the end of the next 10 years — serves a charitable purpose.
The amount of money in the endowment is truly staggering, $35 billion now and $100 billion in 10 years. For comparison, the Gates Foundation endowment is only $37.3 billion.

Not only is there a lot of money in the endowment, but it has also been making outsized returns:
The 23.0 percent return for the last fiscal year brings the endowment’s annualized 10-year performance to 15.0 percent and the 5-year annualized return to 18.4 percent. Since its inception, HMC has averaged an annualized rate of return of 13.3 percent.
Even if it were to just net 10%, that would more than cover Harvard's entire operating costs of $3 billion a year. But, it is not clear that that would be a good use of money, as they already offer free tuition to those who parents make less than $60,000 a year. Reducing tuition further would just be giving money back to rich parents who are sending their kids to Harvard, not exactly a needy bunch.

The endowment has more money than Harvard currently spends. How then should it be used?

1) Continue with the status quo. The money continues to be invested like a hedge fund adding value to society by making capital available. Because the endowment has a long time horizon and lots of money it can take risks that almost no one else can. These can lead to large financial rewards for the endowment, the businesses they capitalize and society from the goods and services produced. They could also continue to use the money primarily for investing, but shift their investment philosophy to take social and environmental issues into account.

2) Enlarge the size of the campus taking in more students. While Harvard gets the best students which leads to its high reputation, it is not clear that the education itself is superior:
The question of how Harvard should expand if indeed it should expand: it doesn't seem to be nearly as good as the small liberal arts colleges or even its rivals Yale and Princeton at undergraduate education; the medical school and the biomedical complex that surrounds it appears to do very well indeed as research institutions; the public policy school seems to have been an experiment worth trying that did not fulfill Derek Bok's hopes; few of the many people I know who went to the law school say many good words about it; et cetera.
3) Create new campuses in the US. Brad DeLong recounts how Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California in the 60s, expanded from serving 5,000 students a year to 40,000 by adding 8 new campuses. Not clear that there is a large need for additional universities in the US at this point, or if, for reasons stated above, Harvard would be particularly good at this.

4) Create campuses outside the US. Looking at the enrollment rates throughout the world, there is lots of opportunity for more colleges and universities to be created, especially in Africa. HASA's idea of supporting struggling colleges in Africa has the potential for a large impact. Patrick Awuah left a comfortable life in Seattle to return to Ghana and co-found Ashesi, a liberal arts college. The endowment could allow a thousand Ashesis to bloom.

5) Subsidize primary education throughout the world. I always have found this quote by former Harvard president Larry Summers to be instructive:
Lawrence Summers estimated that an investment of $2.3 billion to educate girls in primary and secondary schools would yield 20% annually. Each additional year of female education reduces fertility by roughly 10%. It would take adding 25 million girls to current primary education at $938 million/year and 21 million girls to secondary school at $1.4 billion/year.
That 20% rate of return is higher that what the endowment has been averaging. The endowment could cover the entire $2.3 billion a year bill. What better way for Summers to refute the allegation of his sexism than to suggest that the endowment be used to ensure every girl on the planet has access to education?

6) Fund more research. Harvard is a research institution and could fund all types of research at both their school and beyond. They could tackle the 14 grand engineering challenges of 21 century. Re-fund the research on food production that has been cut over the years and is needed now more than ever. Help fund research where the US government isn't putting enough money.

7) Quit fundraising and reduce the endowment's size. Tell alumni that no more money is needed and that they ought to give to another non-profit that can do more good with their money. But, I think that the alumni want to give back to Harvard to help it keep its spot as having the highest endowment of all schools (and of course they want to maximize the chance that their children can get into Harvard). So why not allow them to continue giving $600 million a year and have the endowment use that money for the good of all humanity?

Those are my suggestions. Anyone else have any others?


Nanosolar Prints Thin Film Solar At 100-Feet-per-Minute

For all those that have been waiting to catch a glimpse of how Nanosolar has been printing its next-generation thin film solar cells, here’s some eye candy for you. The company, which started manufacturing in just December, put up this video clip of what the company says is the solar industry’s first 1 GW production tool. The $1.65 million machine prints at an awesome 100-feet-per-minute pace and uses nanoparticle ink, which the company says is their secret sauce.
via Earth2Tech


Las Vegas to Build World’s First 30 Story Vertical Farm

Las Vegas the tourist mecca of the World is set to begin development of the World’s first vertical farm. The $200 million dollar project is designed to be a functional and profitable working farm growing enough food to feed 72,000 people for a year and provide another tourist attraction to the city that does everything in a larger than life way.

Although the project initial cost is high at $200 million, with annual revenue of $25 million from produce and another $15 million from tourists the 30 story vertical farm would be about as profitable as a casino with operating expenses only being about $6 million a year.

There would be about 100 different crops grown ranging from strawberries to lettuce even miniature banana trees could be grown from each floors specially controlled environment. The products would go straight to the casinos and hotel properties and be a very visible and desirable addition to the overall Las Vegas experience. Design details should be worked out in 2008 and the project could open its doors by the middle of 2010.

Interesting. I am not sure that vertical farming makes sense on a large scale, given the cost of the building and urban land, but it is cool so I am glad they are giving it a try.

I'm curious how much energy vertical farming uses compared with traditional farming. Obviously there will be less for transporting the food, but controlling the environment of each floor must take something.

I also like how they have taken the Dwight Schrute approach and integrated farming with tourism. A little over a 1/3 of revenue is expected to come from tourism. Using tourism as an additional form of revenue would allow more environmentally conscious farmers throughout the country to achieve profitability.

I never thought the city of Las Vegas was environmentally sustainable being located in the middle of a desert. But, now I am questioning that for when energy comes from solar power being in the middle of a desert is suddenly an asset. Vegas has some of the highest levels of solar radiation in the country and therefore could be the first major city completely powered by solar energy. Las Vegas could even become a hub for solar companies, as seen by Ausra Inc opening a manufacturing plant for solar thermal power systems there.

via Environmental News Network


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is There a Solution to the "Continent of Plastic" that Pollutes the Pacific?

The UN Environment Program estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter in every square mile of ocean, and a swirling vortex of trash twice the size of Texas has spawned in the North Pacific.

Are there really 'continents', or massive floating garbage patches residing in the Pacific? Apparently, the rumors are true, and these unsightly patches are reportedly killing marine life and releasing poisons that enter the human food chain, as well. However, before you start imagining a plastic version of Maui, keep in mind that these plastic patches certainly aren't solid surfaced islands that you could build a house on! Ocean currents have collected massive amounts of garbage into a sort of plastic "soup" where countless bits of discarded plastic float intertwined just beneath the surface. Indeed, the human race has really made its mark. The enormous Texas-sized plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons.

Sadly, marine researcher Charles Moore at the Algalita Marina Research Foundation in Long Beach says there’s no practical fix for the problem. He has been studying the massive patch for the past 10 years, and said the debris is to the point where it would be nearly impossible to extract.

"Any attempt to remove that much plastic from the oceans - it boggles the mind," Moore said from Hawaii, where his crew is docked. "There's just too much, and the ocean is just too big."

The trash collects in this remote area, known as the North Pacific Gyre, due to a clockwise trade wind that encircles the Pacific Rim. According to Moore the trash accumulates the same way bubbles clump at the center of hot tub.
Since they asked whether there is a solution, I felt the need to try and solve the problem. My solution? A bunch of autonomous robots scurrying the North Pacific Gyre, scooping up and burning the plastic. I call them Whoombas as they would be a cross between a Roomba and a whale.

The Whoomba would be similar to other aquatic autonomous robots that can travel around without any need for human interaction. The Whoomba would resemble a humpback whale with a mouth in front which would open up to collect the plastic and other trash. When it collected enough trash, the mouth would then close and all the water would be drained. Then it would incinerate the plastic generating steam to drive a turbine. This would generate electricity that would recharge its battery. Using the plastic for energy would allow it to keep moving around and collecting more plastic without needing to refuel. Just like whales feed on plankton, Whoombas would feed on plastic.

I don't know how large the optimal size would be for these Whoombas, but I am thinking something the size of yacht. That would allow its mouth to be big enough to capture the trash, and give you enough space to put in a small incinerator and turbine. Get a couple thousand of these out there and the plastic would be eaten up in no time.

via The Daily Galaxy

Update: Apparently there is a human operated boat called the TrashCat that does something similar to the Whoomba. If you want to see what this problem looks like with your own eyes, check out the Garbage Island videos produced by More information on this issue can be found in the NY Times Magazine's Sea of Trash article. If you are curious about how the levels of plankton and plastic compare, you can't do much better than this: A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. And in the BBC's excellent Blue Planet series (I was able to pick up a copy of Planet Earth/The Blue Planet on eBay for $39 shipped, one steal of a deal if you ask me), they note that the larger pieces of garbage can be used as shelter for small fish, so maybe some of this trash does sea life more good than harm.


Apple Files Patent For "Solar Cells on Portable Devices"

Apple and others are pursuing at least one other approach: solar augmentation. In a patent application dated April 24, 2008 and titled "Solar cells on portable devices" attributed to a number of Apple employees, Apple reveals possible plans to integrate solar cells into devices such as iPods and MacBooks. The application describes a scenario where, "Solar cells are typically stacked with other layers made of transparent or semi-transparent materials... Some of these layers may be used for display or input purposes, and some layers may be coated with various materials or they may be etched with product logos or other patterns." In other words, Apple is looking to cover the entire device, including the transparent display, with a layer of solar cells -- the latter approach already patented by Motorola.
That is pretty cool that you can have solar cells underneath the transparent display. Combine this with M2E's motion charging and you might never have to plug in your gadgets or worry about batteries dying again.

via Engadget


Is the New iPhone Really Cheaper?

One of the selling points of the iPhone 3G over its predecessor is its lower price. But, as this table from Gizmodo shows it is not clear that is actually true:

While the upfront cost to the customer of the new iPhone is cheaper, AT&T's additional charges of $10 a month for 3G and $5 a month for text messages add up to an additional $360 over 2 years, which is more than the $200 price decrease of the new iPhone. When it comes to cell phones, the upfront price of the phone is kind of irrelevant. It is the price of the phone + the service that is important.

I wrote previously that I don't understand why people spend so little on their TVs and a similar question could be asked about cell phones. Spending an additional $100 on a phone you use for 2 years works out to just $4.17 a month. Most customers wouldn't think twice about an extra $5 a month being added to their bill, but would find an extra $100 for a phone to be a big deal. And yet over 2 years, $5 a month actually adds up to more.

Given that the cell phone is the most used/important piece of technology for many people and that phone bills go for $75 a month and higher, it is kind of surprising that more people don't spend $600 ($25/month) or more to get the best phone possible. Why not spend at least 25% of the total phone and service bill on the phone itself?

Last year I boldly (and completely erroneously) predicted that the iPhone would be a flop. But, as most of my objections have been rectified (3G, GPS, Exchange support, 3rd party applications, wireless iTunes access, and lower price), and the others have turned out not to be a big deal (lack of a physical keyboard, AT&T only, durability concerns) I will join the bandwagon and say that iPhone 2.0 is going to be a big hit.

That is not to say that the iPhone 3G doesn't still have some issues. 2.0 megapixels is below average for a camera and the inability to capture video is puzzling. It is also not clear why they haven't added the ability to cut and paste or MMS support. And Flash support is really needed for a complete web browsing experience. But, I guess they have to leave some reasons for people to upgrade to iPhone 3.0.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

$1.25 is the New $1 a Day

Researchers take a second look at the $1/day definition for poverty.

Thanks to American inflation, $1.08 in 1993 was worth about $1.45 in 2005 money. In principle, the researchers could count the number of people living on less than this amount, converted into local money using the bank's new PPP rates. But $1.45 a day strikes the authors as a bit high. Rather than update their poverty line, they propose to abandon it. It is time, they say, to return to first principles, repeating the exercise Mr Ravallion performed almost two decades ago, using the better, more abundant data available now.

They gather 75 national poverty lines, ranging from Senegal's severe $0.63 a day to Uruguay's more generous measure of just over $9. From this collection, they pick the 15 lowest (Nepal, Tajikistan and 13 sub-Saharan countries) and split the difference between them. The result is a new international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
Ironically then, the $1.25 a day is actually less than the old $1 a day after adjusting for inflation.

They also propose adding a relative aspect to the measurement.
In setting their poverty lines, most developing countries aim to count people who are poor in an absolute sense. The line is supposed to mark the minimum a person needs to feed, clothe and shelter himself. In Zambia, say, a poor person is defined as someone who cannot afford to buy at least two to three plates of nshima (a kind of porridge), a sweet potato, a few spoonfuls of oil, a handful of groundnuts and a couple of teaspoons of sugar each day, plus a banana and a chicken twice a week.

But even in quite poor countries, a different concept of poverty also seems to creep in, the authors argue. It begins to matter whether a person is poor relative to his countrymen; whether he can appear in public without shame, as Adam Smith put it.

This notion of relative deprivation seems to carry weight in countries once they grow past a consumption of $1.95 per person a day. Beyond this threshold, a country that is $1 richer will tend to have a poverty line that is $0.33 higher (see chart). The authors thus base their absolute poverty line on the 15 countries in their sample below this threshold.
I am not sure how they measure the "richness" of a country, but you use median household income, then in the US the poverty threshold would be 1/3 of $48,201 or $16,067. This is almost exactly the same as the $16,079 poverty threshold the Census Bureau uses for a family of 3.

And how does this new definition impact the number of poor in the world?
The authors are not yet ready to say. But they have taken another look at China. By their new standard, they find that 204m Chinese people were poor in 2005, about 130m more than previously thought.
via The Economist


Playing or Processing?

What if the game you were playing was actually accomplishing some work?

From The Economist:

One example is The ESP Game, created by Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University, in which two players on the internet try to label the same picture, and score points whenever they use the same word to describe it. Besides being addictive, the game serves a useful function: helping to index images on the web more accurately. Dr von Ahn and his team have generated several games to harvest “human computation”, as he calls it, some of which are just as captivating as The ESP Game.

Of course, it is also possible to use money to motivate people to do computing tasks, as in Amazon's Mechanical Turk project, which pays participants a few cents to complete simple tasks such as categorising websites for potential advertisers. But Dr von Ahn argues that play may be a more powerful incentive. People play billions of hours of solitaire each year, he says, but it took only 20m man-hours to build the Panama Canal.

Labelling images may be an enjoyable pastime and serve a useful purpose, but it is hardly an intellectual challenge—unlike the puzzles that online gamers regularly solve, often through team effort that requires strategic thinking. Clearly the potential of games to solve tough scientific problems has barely been tapped. The challenge is to create games that make solving such problems fun.
Speaking of solving tough scientific problems, the Seattle PI reports on a new game that is doing just that:
Prompted by Baker and Salesin's idea, Zoran gave his graduate students the job of coming up with a game that could combine the best talents of computers and human visual reasoning. The result is Foldit, which users can download for free and learn to play in about 20 minutes. So far, more than 40,000 people are playing the game and helping advance the science of protein folding.

The study of the 3-D nature of proteins is called "protein folding." Baker and his colleagues at the UW are big players in the world of protein folding and have been pushing computers to help them with the overwhelmingly complex task of puzzling out what makes these critical molecules tick. They had started a distributed computing program called Rosetta@home (modeled after the SETI shared-computer scheme to search for signs of extraterrestrial life) in which home computers get temporarily "hijacked" to help Baker with big number-crunching protein analysis tasks.

"But people were contacting us and saying the computer was clearly doing the wrong things," Baker said. He mentioned this on a hike with UW computer scientist David Salesin, who suggested maybe he should make it an interactive game so people could help the computer.
The idea of utilizing game play for real work is a very intriguing one. Just think about how many hours are being spent playing Grand Theft Auto and how much could be accomplished if all that time spent could be turned into useful work.

I keep trying to come up with a good idea for a game that could be utilized for some other purpose, but unfortunately the thing that keeps popping into my head is Ender's Game. I wonder if you could take advantage of virtual worlds like the Sims or WoW to test out the impact of different government policies before actually implementing them.

This concept could also be used on the physical side of games, as demonstrated by PlayPump who makes merri-go-rounds that pump clean safe water for use in Africa.


M2E’s Motion-Powered Gadget Charger

M2E Power, a startup building technology that can harness everyday motion to power gadgets, is currently developing an external charger for powering cell phones and mobile devices that could be available as early as 2009.

M2E Power’s director of business development, Regan Rowe, tells us that the company is aiming to have the charger provide an hour of talk time for some six hours of normal movement (about two days). Rowe says that since the average for most cell-phone users is about 30 minutes of talk time a day, the motion-powered charger “could take lots of folks off the grid.”

The company is based in Boise, Idaho, and has licensed technology from Idaho National Lab to create a microgenerator and a battery storage system that can capture energy from the daily motions of the human body. It works according to the principles of Faraday’s law of induction, which states that moving a conductor through a magnetic field will induce a current in that conductor proportional to the speed of movement. M2E has managed to tweak the output of the Faraday setup to generate a lot more power than previous kinetic energy systems — an increase of between 300 percent and 700 percent vs. what’s currently available, according to the company.
That would be cool if this technology was integrated into a cell phone case so that your daily movements would keep your phone fully charged. Also, imagine being on a call, running low on battery power you then being able to just shake the phone until you get enough power to continue. This would be even cooler if they could build this technology directly into the phone itself.

via Earth2Tech


Scientists Link Brain Symmetry, Sexual Orientation

A scientist with a brain scanner could figure out your sexual orientation based on the symmetry of your brain, new research from the Stockholm Brain Institute hints.

Using MRI scans of gay and straight men and women, the researchers found that people who liked women -- heterosexual men and homosexual women -- had larger right brain hemispheres, while people who liked men -- heterosexual women and homosexual men -- had symmetrical brains. As seen in the image, MRI and PET scans showed a similar pattern in two specific regions of the brain, the right and left amygdalas, which are thought to control fight-or-flight reactions.

"The results cannot be primarily ascribed to learned effects, and they suggest a linkage to neurobiological entities," the researchers, led by Ivanka Savic, write in a paper that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tomorrow.

While the research is suggestive, it does not address how such brain differences come to be, although the researchers noted that there could be genetic, environmental and/or sex hormonal factors.
via Wired


Monday, June 16, 2008


Jott is a free service converts your voice into emails, text messages, reminders, lists and appointments. You just dial 866-JOTT-123 to access it. I find it useful for two tasks.

First, it allows me to take notes when I am on the go. Instead of keeping a pen and paper handy, Jott allows me to dictate my note on my cellphone and then get a transcribed version emailed to me. I find that lots of ideas come to me when I am out hiking and now with Jott I won't lose them. If you have ever been envious of doctors or lawyers walking around with digital recorders and saying things like "Note to self:", now is your chance to be able to do the same without needing to pay for a secretary for transcription.

Second, it allows me to speak rather than type a text message. I prefer text messages to voicemail as they are quicker and simpler to check (and infinitely better if there is something like a phone number being relayed). But, text messages are more painful to send then leaving voicemail as it takes longer to type them out. Jott relieves this problem, allowing you to just speak your message just like you would a voicemail and then leaving it to Jott to convert it into a text message.

Jott works as a stand alone service, but really it would be even better if the telephone companies integrated it into their service. Instead of having to dial Jott's number to send a text message, it would be great if when you are leaving a voicemail for someone, the cell phone companies gave you the option of sending it as a text message instead.

Overall, Jott is a cool application and I would recommend checking it out.


Food Production Around the World

As the global availability of food tightens and prices increase greatly, I was curious where food is actually being produced in the world. The UN's FAO Stat website obliged my desire:

The tables are also in a Google Doc Spreadsheet for anyone who wants it.

Aside: I am a huge fan of statistics and those who provide them. So much so that I am willing to overlook transgressions of agencies that produce them. CIA as long as you keep publishing your World Factbook, I am willing to look past your "minor" infractions such as secret wars and extraordinary renditions. Likewise, UN keep those juicy FAO statistics on world food output and consumption coming and mum is the word on the oil for food scandal and peace keeper sex abuse problems.

Quick thoughts on the numbers:

1) China is the #1 food producer of the world, leading in all 3 categories. China has only 6% of the world's surface area and yet they are able to produce over 20% of the total amount of food in the world, which is good considering they also have 20% of the world's population.

2) While the US and China produce almost the same about of cereals, the Chinese produce almost twice as much meat as the US does. I didn't realize that the Chinese produced that much more meat than the US did.

3) China produces an astounding 1/3 of all fruits and vegetables in the world. They actually produces more tonnes of fruits and vegetables than they do of grains. They either eat a lot of fruits and vegetables or else they are a big exporter.

4) India has 1/3 the land mass of either the US or China, but produces a little less than 1/2 as much grain, meaning they get more output per acre of land than either the US or China. But with 17% of the world's population, they only produce 10% of the world's cereals.

5) The US produces 17.4% of the world's grains which is close to its 20% share of world GDP and much larger than its 5% of world population. The US has a much lower percentage of world fruit and vegetable production. I believe this has to do with the fact that government subsidies are given to grain manufacturers but not to fruit and vegetable producers. I wonder what would happen if the US got rid of all agricultural subsidies?

6) For having the 4th largest population, Indonesia isn't really producing a lot of food, but then again they only have 1/5 the amount of land that the US does.

7) Both Canada and Russia have lots of land, but neither produces a lot of food. I wonder if this will change in the future.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Airlines Start Charging A "Weight Fee"?

Sudoku causes mistrial in a million dollar case.

Experts unveil 'cloak of silence'.

Harnessing the weather.

Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?


Friday, June 13, 2008

Sting Ray Migration

More cool shots here.

via Pixdaus


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Genetics and Steroid Testing

Testing for anabolic steroids (in other words, artificial testosterone) was introduced in the 1970s, and the incidence of cheating seems to have fallen dramatically as a result. The tests, however, are not foolproof. And a study just published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism by Jenny Jakobsson Schulze and her colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden suggests that an individual's genetic make-up could confound them in two different ways. One genotype, to use the jargon, may allow athletes who use anabolic steroids to escape detection altogether. Another may actually be convicting the innocent.

The test usually employed for testosterone abuse relies on measuring the ratio of two chemicals found in the urine: testosterone glucuronide (TG) and epitestosterone glucuronide (EG). The former is produced when testosterone is broken down, while the latter is unrelated to testosterone metabolism, and can thus serve as a reference point for the test. Any ratio above four of the former to one of the latter is, according to official Olympic policy, considered suspicious and leads to more tests.

However, the production of TG is controlled by an enzyme that is, in turn, encoded by a gene called UGT2B17. This gene comes in two varieties, one of which has a part missing and therefore does not work properly. A person may thus have none, one or two working copies of UGT2B17, since he inherits one copy from each parent. Dr Schulze guessed that different numbers of working copies would produce different test results. She therefore gave healthy male volunteers whose genes had been examined a single 360mg shot of testosterone (the standard dose for legitimate medical use) and checked their urine to see whether the shot could be detected.

The result was remarkable. Nearly half of the men who carried no functional copies of UGT2B17 would have gone undetected in the standard doping test. By contrast, 14% of those with two functional copies of the gene were over the detection threshold before they had even received an injection. The researchers estimate this would give a false-positive testing rate of 9% in a random population of young men.

Dr Schulze also says there is substantial ethnic variation in UGT2B17 genotypes. Two-thirds of Asians have no functional copies of the gene (which means they have a naturally low ratio of TG to EG), compared with under a tenth of Caucasians—something the anti-doping bodies may wish to take into account.
Interesting. If the reason steroids aren't legal is their impact on health, and if low testosterone individuals can use steroids to increase their levels to normal with no adverse impact on their health, why shouldn't they be allowed to? If diabetic athletes are allowed to supplement their levels of insulin because their bodies don't naturally produce enough, why shouldn't those with low levels of testosterone be able to do the same?

via The Economist


Interesting Articles of the Week readers' brain-enhancing drug regimens.

How man-made noise may be altering Earth's ecology.

As oil prices soar, restaurant grease thefts rise.

Eating insects is good for us and the planet.


Hot Life-Forms Found a Mile Under Seafloor

Life-forms have been found thriving a mile (1.6 kilometers) beneath the seafloor in hot sediments, a new study says.

The finding doubles the maximum known depth for organisms under the ocean bottom—and may be an encouraging sign for the search for life on other planets.

At 140 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to 100 degrees Celsius), the microscopic life forms are probably also the hottest life-forms yet found in seafloor sediments, according to study co-author R. John Parkes, a microbiologist at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

The scientists examined core samples of sediments in the North Atlantic Ocean and found microbes known as prokaryotes.

The microbes appear to make their livings by metabolizing methane and other hydrocarbons created as the Earth's interior heat warms organic material in the sediments, Parkes said.

The organisms do not appear simply to have been dormant microbes trapped in the sediments, Parkes added, but instead appeared to be thriving.

The discovery supports predictions that as much as 70 percent of the Earth's prokaryotes may live in seabed sediments, some of which can be several miles thick.

All told, Parkes said, these prokaryotes could amount to 10 to 30 percent of the world's total living matter.
That is amazing to me that 10-30% of all the world's living matter might be living in seabed sediments and that we weren't aware of it up until now. I wonder if they form the bottom of a food chain, like the bacteria in hydrothermal vents, or if they just keep to themselves.

via National Geographic