Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Car buyers downsize, but spend big on options.

Pigeons: the next step in local eating (no, really).

The first Tesla crash.

Video: Electric car roundup.

Who said it: Bush or Batman?


Federal Lands in the US

The United States government has direct ownership of almost 650 million acres of land (2.63 million square kilometers) - nearly 30% of its total territory. These federal lands are used as military bases or testing grounds, nature parks and reserves and indian reservations, or are leased to the private sector for commercial exploitation (e.g. forestry, mining, agriculture). They are managed by different administrations, such as the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US Department of Defense, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Bureau of Reclamation or the Tennessee Valley Authority.
I hadn't realized that the US government owned so much land.

Really though, it is just land in the west, as the 11 western most states in the continental US and Alaska account for 93% of all federal land. The government owns 54% of all land in those 12 states, compared with just 4% in the other states.

via Strange Maps and US General Services Administration


Friday, July 25, 2008

Banned Smirnoff Ad

Instead of being lauded for linking excessive boozing to a horrible and embarrassing genital incident this Escher-like nightmare was actually banned for "encouraging excessive drinking".
Yeah, that definitely doesn't make me want to drink Smirnoff.

via Asylum


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Non-Commercial Commercials

What if the advertising techniques of Madison Avenue could be used to promote social changes rather than increasing the sales of corporate products?

Febreze went from a low selling product to clean up smelly clothes to a best seller with a new marketing scheme:

The researchers at P.& G. realized that these types of findings had enormous implications for selling Febreze. Because bad smells occurred too infrequently for a Febreze habit to form, marketers started looking for more regular cues on which they could capitalize.

The perfect cue, they eventually realized, was the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed their target audience did almost daily. P.& G. produced commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a perfectly made bed and spritzing freshly laundered clothing. The product’s imagery was revamped to incorporate open windows and gusts of fresh wind — an airing that is part of the physical and emotional cleaning ritual.

“We learned from consumer interviews that there was an opportunity to cue the clean smell of Febreze to a clean room,” Dr. Berning said. “We positioned it as the finishing touch to a mundane chore. It’s the icing that shows you did a good job.”

Today, Febreze is one of P.& G.’s greatest successes. Customers habitually spray tidied living rooms, clean kitchens, loads of fresh laundry and, according to one of the most recent commercials, spotless minivans. In the most recent fiscal year, consumers in North America alone spent $650 million buying Febreze, according to the company.
Val Curtis decided to use these same marketing techniques to get Ghanaians to use soap after going to the bathroom and before eating.
Their solution was ads showing mothers and children walking out of bathrooms with a glowing purple pigment on their hands that contaminated everything they touched.

The commercials, which began running in 2003, didn’t really sell soap use. Rather, they sold disgust. Soap was almost an afterthought — in one 55-second television commercial, actual soapy hand washing was shown only for 4 seconds. But the message was clear: The toilet cues worries of contamination, and that disgust, in turn, cues soap.

“This was radically different from most public health campaigns,” said Beth Scott, an infectious-disease specialist who worked with Dr. Curtis on the Ghana campaign. “There was no mention of sickness. It just mentions the yuck factor. We learned how to do that from the marketing companies.”

The ads had their intended effect. By last year, Ghanaians surveyed by members of Dr. Curtis’s team reported a 13 percent increase in the use of soap after the toilet. Another measure showed even greater impact: reported soap use before eating went up 41 percent.
I think this is a very interesting application and I would like to see these techniques used more for social change. It would be great to see more "Non-Commercial" commercials on the television set. A successful marketing campaign for healthier eating and exercise would more than pay for itself with reduced medical bills.

I always wondered why if people thought that commercials for sugary cereals and snacks was the reason that young kids have bad eating habits and become obese, why not battle back with commercials for healthy food? Chiquita bananas had some advertisements, but I am hard pressed to think of any other adds for fruits or vegetables. Lets have commercials for healthy foods fight it out with the sugary snacks during kids cartoons. Or why not incorporate the pitch directly into cartoons like Popeye with his spinach?

via NY Times


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

High Recognition Investing

Q: You are the author of a famous study on how people use instinct in investing. Why this topic?

A: Because intuition often underlies stock picking. Ordinary investors will frequently pick a company they’ve heard of before. We call this the “recognition heuristic,” and it basically means “go with what you know.” I was curious: is this effective? In the 1990s, we interviewed 360 pedestrians in Chicago and Munich. We asked if they were familiar with the names of German and American corporations traded on the stock exchange. Using the names of the most frequently recognized companies, we then made up investment portfolios.

After six months, the high-recognition portfolios, on average, gained more value than the Dow and DAX markets and some big-name mutual funds. The high-recognition portfolios did better than a portfolio we created from randomly picked stocks and another made up of low-recognition stocks. Over the years, we’ve repeated this experiment twice, in different ways. Each time, the intuitive wisdom of the semi-ignorant outperformed the calculations of the experts.

Interesting. Sure would take a lot less time than doing financial research. I wonder why this works.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

That's How I Roll

via The Rutt via Digg


Monday, July 21, 2008

Can’t Find a Parking Spot? Check Smartphone

The secret to finding the perfect parking spot in congested cities is usually just a matter of luck. But drivers here will get some help from an innocuous tab of plastic that will soon be glued to the streets.

This fall, San Francisco will test 6,000 of its 24,000 metered parking spaces in the nation’s most ambitious trial of a wireless sensor network that will announce which of the spaces are free at any moment.

Drivers will be alerted to empty parking places either by displays on street signs, or by looking at maps on screens of their smartphones. They may even be able to pay for parking by cellphone, and add to the parking meter from their phones without returning to the car.
That is cool. It would be great to be able to check your phone to see where the open parking spaces are and then pay for the spot via your phone.
SFpark, part of a nearly two-year $95.5 million program intended to clear the city’s arteries, will also make it possible for the city to adjust parking times and prices. For example, parking times could be lengthened in the evening to allow for longer visits to restaurants.

The city’s planners want to ensure that at any time, on-street parking is no more than 85 percent occupied. This strategy is based on research by Mr. Shoup, who has estimated that drivers searching for curbside parking are responsible for as much of 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts.

In one small Los Angeles business district that he studied over the course of a year, cars cruising for parking created the equivalent of 38 trips around the world, burning 47,000 gallons of gasoline and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.
I like that idea of adjusting the price so 15% of spaces are always free.

Not only will this technology save time and reduce gasoline usage, apparently it will also save lives.
Solving the parking mess takes on special significance in San Francisco because two years ago a 19-year-old, Boris Albinder, was stabbed to death during a fight over a parking space.

“If the San Francisco experiment works, no one will have to murder anyone over a parking space,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work on the pricing of parking spaces and whether more spaces are good for cities has led to a revolution in ideas about relieving congestion.
Call me old fashioned, but I don't believe you should ever kill anyone over a parking spot. And I am with Engadget on this one, that this technology could make that problem even worse:
Only one problem -- give 50 anxious motorists the same message that a single spot is unoccupied, and you've just created a bona fide mess. Though it'd probably be fun to watch from the sidewalk, wouldn't you agree?
via NY Times


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Internal Bacterial Imbalance Leads to Asthma

In a study published yesterday in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers showed that Heliobacter pylori, an intestinal microbe that co-evolved with humans, appears to protect children from asthma.

Asthma rates have nearly doubled in the United States since 1970, and are swelling in the developing world. Underlying the rise is a constellation of causes -- and one of these may be the loss of H. pylori, a vanishing member of the rich bacterial ecosystems in our stomachs. Nearly universal at the advent of modern antibiotics, it's now present in just one-fifth of young Americans.

Blaser and NYU colleague Yu Chen analyzed the medical histories and stool samples of more than 7,400 people enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After controlling for other variables, they found that the presence of H. pylori was associated with a 25 percent fall in asthma rates among people under 20 years old. The drop was even more significant in H. pylori-positive children aged 3 to 13: They were 59 percent less likely to develop asthma.

Kids with H. pylori were also less likely to have eczema and hay fever -- disorders that often accompany asthma, and likely share the same roots in immune systems that are excessively sensitive to everyday contaminants.

Blaser said the bacteria's presence triggers the production of Th17 cells, a type of regulatory cell that determines the body's response to foreign bacteria and pollution.

There is, however, a positive side to the loss of H. pylori: the bacteria has been linked to stomach ulcers and gastric cancers.
H. pylori sound better than hookworms to control my allergies.

via Wired


Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Vacation

Gone for the week. Through the magic of scheduled posts, it may appear that I am still around. Don't be deceived. I will respond to comments when I get back.

See you next week.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Are Banana Researchers Studying the Wrong Organism?

I just finished the very interesting book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. It is amazing that a fruit that can only be grown in tropical regions, that must be shipped in refrigerated containers, and that must be eaten one week after making it to the store is the most commonly eaten fruit in the United States. But, it might not stay that way as Dan Koeppel writes in the NY Times:

Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.
Researcher are trying to make new types of bananas that are resistant to Panama disease. The problem is that it is very difficult to create new breeds. As you probably have noticed, bananas have no seeds. The Gros Michel produces just one or two seeds for every ten thousand plants. In order to breed new bananas, you have to harvest lots of them just to find a couple of seeds. Then, after you get a few seeds and plant them to create a new breed, the odds are fairly good that its progeny will also have seeds which makes it unfit as a replacement. It takes a lot of time and effort to create new breeds of bananas.

I wonder though if the researchers aren't attacking the problem backwards. Instead of trying to breed a better banana, what if they tried to breed a more mild form of fungi that the banana could learn to live with? In this TED Talk, Paul Ewald explains how diseases such as cholera and malaria can be tamed rather than cured by changing their evolutionary path. Could the same thing be done with Panama disease and other fungi? If a milder strain of Panama disease could out compete the more vicious strain, then the current breeds of bananas could continue to supply us with our favorite breakfast cereal fruit.

Given how difficult it is to breed bananas, this might be an avenue worth exploring.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

How Gay Are Football Players?

So, I was sitting there reading my Scientific American article on Bisexual Species: Unorthodox Sex in the Animal Kingdom, wondering if God ever had any second thoughts about the whole ark thing, when I came across this:

In a study published this year in the journal Sex Roles, Anderson found that 40 percent of 49 heterosexual former high school football players attending various U.S. universities had had at least one homosexual encounter. These ranged from kissing to oral sex to threesomes that included a woman.
Wait, 40% of football players are gay?
In team sports, homosexuality is “no big deal and it increases cohesion among members of that team,” Anderson claims. “It feels good, and [the athletes] bond.”
That is one form of team bonding that I had never heard of before. And since when is homosexuality no big deal on a sports team? Last I checked it was one of the most homophobic cultures out there.

This seemed so crazy that I had to track down the article. I found more here:
A study of former high-school American Football players has found that more than a third said they had had sexual relations with other men. In his study of homosexuality among sportsmen in the US, sociologist Dr Eric Anderson found that 19 in a sample of 47 had taken part in acts intended to sexually arouse other men, ranging from kissing to mutual masturbation and oral sex. The 47 men, aged 18-23, were all American Football players who previously played at the high school (secondary school) level but had failed to be picked for their university's team and were now cheerleaders instead.
Um, they are all cheerleaders now? This is supposed to a representative sample of football players? Are you kidding me? And how is 47 individuals enough to draw any sort of conclusions?
He said the study was not biased by talking to sportsmen who were now cheerleaders, which is often seen as a feminine activity. Those he interviewed were selected to represent men that considered themselves traditionally masculine, typical American Football players.
Not biased, are you serious? Don't typical American football players, you know, play football?
"Second, my informants do not feel that their same-sex sex jeopardizes their socially perceived heterosexual identities, at least within the cheerleading culture. In other words, having gay sex does not automatically make them gay in masculine peer culture."
First, are there really perceived heterosexual identities in cheerleading culture? And second, besides having sex with other men, what else does one have to do to be considered gay?
Dr Anderson was the first openly gay male high school sports coach in the US. He left coaching after one of his students was assaulted because it was assumed that he was gay.
Yeah, this guy has no reason at all to distort the research.

Come on SciAm, how can you allow this to be referenced in your article without spending 5 minutes to do a Google search to do a smell test on the "research"?


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

New, Cost Effective Solar Energy Devices from MIT

Covalent Solar may hold the key to increasing efficiency and cost effectiveness of solar energy. They just won the $20,000 MIT Student Team Award at the MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize as well as another $10,000 the following day in the MIT $100k Business Plan Competition. Their simple, yet powerful idea is derived from concentrating sunlight onto smaller surface area rather than collecting it over a broader surface such as current solar panels. Their “Organic Solar Concentrators” look exactly like a quarter inch thick neon green piece of glass. However, the technology captures the light from the surfaces, redirects, and concentrates the light on the outer brim. The benefit comes from being able to create smaller photoelectric converters to turn the concentrated light on the brim into energy instead of large surface areas of solar panels such as the ones you are probably familiar with.

By focusing on a smaller area and device, Covalent Solar will be able to improve power conversion efficiency by 30% over the industry average. This reduces the installed cost per watt by 20% in 2014, and reduces the amortized cost of electricity to $0.12/kWh, hastening the onset of unsubsidized solar electricity competitive with the grid. Since the Organic Solar Concentrators come in sheets of transparent material, they can easily be fitted over current solar panels to increase extraction and efficiency of those devices. This breaks down an barrier to entry while enabling those with older technology to easily upgrade and improve return on investment.

The main costs for the concentrators come from the glass itself, which is dirt cheap at $5 to $10 per square meter, and the more costly dyes, which are about $50 per kilogram and are applied by a thermal evaporation technique. The end product may cost $100 to $400 per square meter, not including the solar cells around the edge.

According to a news release from MIT , the solar concentrator collects light at the edges, and dye molecules coated on the glass absorb sunlight and re-emits it at different wavelengths. The light is trapped within the glass and transported to solar cells along the edge, creating electricity and allowing light into the room as well.

The mixture of dyes is applied to the surface of the glass and allows light to travel a much longer distance. Mapel said, that as a result, light transportation losses were significantly reduced, resulting in a “tenfold increase in the amount of power converted by the solar cells.”

Marc A Baldo, leader of the work, is quoted as saying; “the focused light increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell by a factor of over 40″. The article went on to say that because of its simplicity and ease of manufacture, the system could be implemented within three years. It could even be added to existing solar-panel systems, increasing their efficiency by 50 percent for minimal additional cost.

via PlanetSave and College Mogul and Venture Beat


Off shore wind farm locations found via satellite

A Publication in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters by a team of scientists from NASA's JPL uses satellite data to measure the surface stresses over the oceans. Recent technological advances have made floating wind farms possible, but the key is putting them in the right locations. The article examined eight years of data from the QuikSCAT data to determine the energy distribution over the world's ocean. The research identified three causes of regional variations in the power carried by the winds: "land mass deflection of the surface flow, the gap wind channeled by land topography, and surface stress variation produced by atmospheric buoyancy driven by ocean front."

From the data, the researchers found that high wind areas over the ocean could be used to harness between 500 and 800 W/m2. That's less than solar power can generate under ideal conditions, which is 1000 W/m2, although ideal solar conditions are rare. Given the higher efficiency of wind power over solar, however, the cost per kWh of electricity produced would be less. The research identified a host of locations where the winds blow continually almost year round due to various combinations of geographical and physical effects. High wind areas highlighted by the JPL were Cape Mendocino off the coast of northern California, the seas around Tasmania and New Zealand, in the south Pacific, and off Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Full report here.

via Nobel Intent


Interesting Articles of the Week

Obama is the new...

Africa begins building the 'Great Green Wall'.

Arnold vs. Hellboy.

How reliably aid is given can be even more important than how much is given.

Recession-plagued nation demands new bubble to invest in.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kindle 2.0 Coming Around October 2008

An insider let slip that two new Amazon Kindle models will hit stores this holiday season, with the first coming as early as October.

The first is an updated version with the same sized screen, a smaller form factor, and an improved interface. The source told us that Amazon has “skipped three or four generations,” comparing the old Kindle to the 1st gen iPod and the new version to something like the sexy iPod Mini.

The second new model, which is shaped like an 8 1/2 x 11-inch piece of paper, is considerably bigger than the current model and should be available next year.
I am skeptical that they will really be releasing any new models this year, but hopefully this rumor is true.

I also like the idea of making it both bigger and smaller by releasing two models. The current form factor is too large to fit in a jacket pocket making it difficult to carry around. Making it slightly smaller would make it much more portable.

I also like the idea of making a larger version. .pdf files just don't transfer to the small screen. A larger size would be great for that as well as allowing much more text to be displayed at one time.

via CrunchGear

Update: Michael Arrington believes that the large Kindle would be perfect for college students, a point that I had previously made in my one e-book per student post.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Wealth: The Most Effective Form Of Contraception Ever

via The Economist


Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Dream Has Become A Reality

In a bid to understand the impact of the wind produced by cows on global warming, scientists collected gas from their stomachs in plastic tanks attached to their backs.

Guillermo Berra, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, said every cow produces between 800 to 1,000 litres of emissions every day.
I just hope they haven't run into any patent infringement issues.

As loyal Fat Knowledge readers know, over 2 years ago I dreamed of the possibility of collecting the methane from cows. As I wrote:
What if instead of letting the methane go into the atmosphere where it causes harm, what if you capture it and use it as fuel, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels (methane is natural gas for those of you that didn't take o-chem)? I'm imagining a sci-fi like device with a tube that is inserted into one of the cow's stomachs that draws off the methane gas into a balloon on the side of the cow.
It brings a little tear to the eye to see that the dream has become a reality.

via The Telegraph

Update: Now with video. Still not clear to me how it connects to their stomach.

Update #2:This article has a picture of how the tube attaches to the cow.

Also, they state that a cow gives off 28-35 (lets call it 33) cubic feet of methane a day, or 1,000 cubic feet a month. The EIA put the commercial price of 1,000 cubic feet at $12.45 in April of 2008. At that price, you could capture $150 of methane per cow per year.


Fish Pen

Every once in a while I see something on TV and think: hey, why didn't I think of this? And then I realize it is because the idea is completely stupid. I had one of those moments the other day when I watched this advertisement for the Fish Pen.

My stream of consciousness while watching it was something like:
Wow, they made an entire fishing pole that you can put in your pocket?

Hey wait a minute, where did that reel come from, that wasn't in his pocket. Um, what is the point of being able to put the pole in your pocket if you still have to carry the reel separately?

Fishing at lunch? Who the hell works within walking distance of a place to fish?

If you put in in your front pant pocket will it help you to reel in the ladies?

Hey, how come you never see them actually cast and then catch a fish?

Greatest gift you could give your grandkids? Ever hear of cash?

Original fish pen? There can't really be anyone trying to copy this idea can there?

It comes with a carrying pouch? Then why would you ever want to put the pen in your pocket? They un-sold me on its greatest point right here.

Is it a law that you have to say "but that's not all" or "but wait, there's more" in one of these commercials?

Wait, you have to buy two? Why not throw in a Bass-o-matic instead?
If you are looking for the "greatest gift for your grandkids" be sure to checkout their website, which oh so helpfully starts this same advertisement automatically when you load the page (and has no stop button).

God I love America. What will we think of next?

Aside: I think it should be a law that every advertisement that goes on TV is put on YouTube. I mean they want you to watch these things don't they?

I was very disappointed that I could not find the Valtrex ad for genital herpes. There are a zillion parodies of the ad, but you can't get the original.

In case you can't picture which one I am referring to, let me try and jog your memory. It is the one with the cute girl and her boyfriend that are out biking and swimming and having a good time and you are thinking to yourself, man I wish I was in that guy's place and then bam! they tell you she has herpes, and for a moment you are like, that's ok, I'd still go out with her, and then a moment later you remember what herpes are, and you are changing the channel as quickly as you can and trying to erase the whole episode form you mind.


Friday, July 11, 2008

McKinsey's Lessons on Education

When it comes to education, everybody has their own opinions on how to improve it, but usually they have little research to back them up. And while there are vast differences in quality of schools between countries, I hardly ever see investigation that try and get to the root of those differences. I was glad then to read about this thought provoking report by McKinsey.

Now, an organisation from outside the teaching fold—McKinsey, a consultancy that advises companies and governments—has boldly gone where educationalists have mostly never gone: into policy recommendations based on the PISA findings. Schools, it says*, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.
Why are good teachers so important?
Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.
I had no idea there was that much of a difference. I am skeptical that the impact is so large and would like to check out that research and see how they came to that conclusion.

How good are the applicants for teachers in the best performing countries?
McKinsey argues that the best performing education systems nevertheless manage to attract the best. In Finland all new teachers must have a master's degree. South Korea recruits primary-school teachers from the top 5% of graduates, Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30%.
And how about the US?
The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a non-profit organisation, says America typically recruits teachers from the bottom third of college graduates.
Yeah, that's not so good.

So, how do you get the best teachers?
You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best.
Yes, in fact that is exactly what I think.
Not so, says McKinsey. If money were so important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would presumably be among the best. They aren't. In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.

Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite. Singapore screens candidates with a fine mesh before teacher training and accepts only the number for which there are places. Once in, candidates are employed by the education ministry and more or less guaranteed a job. Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them).

South Korea shows how the two systems produce different results. Its primary-school teachers have to pass a four-year undergraduate degree from one of only a dozen universities. Getting in requires top grades; places are rationed to match vacancies. In contrast, secondary-school teachers can get a diploma from any one of 350 colleges, with laxer selection criteria. This has produced an enormous glut of newly qualified secondary-school teachers—11 for each job at last count. As a result, secondary-school teaching is the lower status job in South Korea; everyone wants to be a primary-school teacher.
Interesting. Instead of paying more you make the entrance very exclusive and then guarantee a job at a decent but not extremely high wage. I wonder though, is a society best served by having its best students become teachers? Quite possibly, but I am not convinced.

What about smaller class sizes?
Almost every rich country has sought to reduce class size lately. Yet all other things being equal, smaller classes mean more teachers for the same pot of money, producing lower salaries and lower professional status. That may explain the paradox that, after primary school, there seems little or no relationship between class size and educational achievement.
Their suggestions are quite different from others that I have seen. To implement this would take a serious commitment by the US, requiring it to completely change the way it went about hiring. It would also take many years before you could tell if it was working. But I am intrigued with the idea.

The whole article was very interesting and worth a read.

via The Economist


Interesting Articles of the Week

The new Nobels: the Kavli prizes.

Tax rebates have fueled an increase in porn usage.

Private education: The Swedish model.

Vaccinations and herd immunity.

7 movies based on a true story (that are complete bullshit).


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Household Spending on Food and Fuel

Surprising to me that Japan isn't in the green, although having traveled there maybe I shouldn't be.

via The Economist


The Economist Doesn't Get CSR

The Economist recently did a special report on corporate social responsibility (CSR) with lots of interesting information. One of the articles was about whether CSR works. Reading it, I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that The Economist doesn't get the point of CSR.

Sustainability rankings and indices of various kinds also help to concentrate corporate minds by shaming firms or helping them shine. But they also point to a problem. Two of the best-known indices—the Dow Jones Sustainability index and the FTSE4Good—underperform the market. AccountAbility, a British think-tank, admits to the inconvenient truth that its 2007 ranking of the Fortune Global 100 companies by their progress on building sustainability into their business shows no connection with their financial performance.

Might cleverer approaches to CSR in future produce better returns?

Is CSR adding value to the business?
Apparently, The Economist believes that the way you tell that CSR is working is that the value of the company is increasing. But that is nonsense. Measuring the success of a company by its valuation is just standard investing. CSR is about taking additional social and environmental factors into account above and beyond the profitability/return on investment that a company produces.

As a CSR investor, you are concerned with whether the business is maximizing its value to society, not whether the company is maximizing the value of the business. CSR is about asking companies to internalize their externalities. Instead of passing on problems to society, you want that company to handle them. Yes, some companies like Whole Foods are able to get their customers to pay higer prices to absorb the additional costs of these policies and therefore are as profitable as other companies. But, just as Whole Food customers are willing to pay more for social and environmental reasons, so too should a CSR investor be willing to take smaller returns to invest in companies that are doing more than their fair share.

To measure the success of CSR, you can't do so by looking at the valuation of the company, but rather you need to look at other societal statistics to see if society and the environment are improving.

Examples of social and environmental impacts that are outside of the financial reporting include:
  • Reducing CO2 emissions
  • Reducing fertilizer and pesticide runoff
  • Reducing air pollution
  • Employing otherwise unemployable employees such as those that are disabled and those that just got out of prison
If a company is just as profitable as another but does a better job on these social and environmental aspects then it is a better company from a CSR standpoint. If a company does a better job on these but is slightly less profitable, then as a CSR investor you need to decide whether the reduction in profitability is more than made up for by the other aspects.
Yet there is nothing wrong with making money: more than anything else, that is how companies do good. The welfare they create in the form of jobs, products and innovation dwarfs anything firms are likely to do explicitly in the name of CSR.

After all, a socially conscious but bankrupt business is no good to anyone.
First, it is a false choice between going bankrupt and focusing on the maximizing profit as the only definition of success. The question should be whether the changes they are making due to their CSR policy has social and environmental benefits that are greater than any loses in profits that they caused.

Second, making money isn't how companies do good, providing a good or service that is a benefit to society is how they do good. If a company makes lots of money but this is only because of bad government subsidies or due to pollution for which they aren't handling, then the company really isn't doing good. CSR is about maximizing the benefits to society rather than maximizing the benefits to investors.

The silliness of their definition of CSR success can be seen in this article:
When Hank Paulson, now America's treasury secretary, was boss of Goldman Sachs, he was persuaded to raise the amount that the firm chipped in to boost employees' charitable donations. Now it is starting a philanthropy fund aiming for $1 billion to which the partners will be encouraged to contribute a share of their pay.
If you aren't going to spend the additional profits on yourself, but instead are just going to give them away to charity, why should you be concerned only with maximizing the rate of return? Instead of trying to maximize the companies return and then taking part of the profits and giving them away to charity, why not be willing to accept a slightly lower rate of return, if by doing so you can help out society more than by giving to philanthropies?

For example, instead of investing in a coal plant that gives you a 10% rate of return, but also adds to air pollution and CO2 emissions, why not invest in a solar project that gives you a 6% rate of return? You could think of the 4% difference as a donation you are making to help the environment. Instead of maximizing your return with the coal plant and then donating to a non-profit that helps with asthma or other problems caused by the coal plant, investing in the solar project means that those problems never existed in the first place.

The other thing that drove me nuts about this article is that I am sure that it is not all the writers at The Economist that believe this, but rather just the one who wrote it. But because there are no bylines, you can't figure out who that person is and you have to attribute the point of view to The Economist as a whole. While I can understand why they choose not to print bylines, I think it is a bad decision and overall it would be better to know who wrote which article.


Misunderstanding Life Expectancy

I have to admit that I have been living with a completely wrong conception of what life was like in Medieval Pre-Industrial Europe. Based on their life expectancy of 38, I believed that the the average person got married right after puberty, had a few kids and then died around 38, with hardly anyone living beyond 50. If there had been a retirement I expected it would be around 35 with most people quickly dying off upon reaching that age. I also believed that the average age of marriage has been gradually increasing over time mirroring increases in life expectancy and level of education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I had this misunderstanding cleared up reading A Farewell to Alms.

While life expectancy at birth was 38 in England from 1750-99, what this really reflected was high child mortality. Infant mortality was 17% and only 69% of newborns made it to 15. But those that did make it to 15 could expect to live another 37 years. If you made it through childhood you would likely make it into your 50s, and many lived much longer as 15% of the English men making wills in the 17th century died at age 70 or above.

And instead of getting married very early, marriage occurred quite late. The average age of marriage for women before 1790 was 25.2 in England, 25.3 in France, 26.5 in the Netherlands and 26.6 in Germany. Many women did not marry until their mid-thirties or later.

While the age of marriage has been increasing in the US, this is a rather recent trend. In 1890 the average (median) age of marriage in the US was 26.1 for a man and 22.0 for a woman. This gradually lowered to 22.8 & 20.3 in 1950, before steadily rising again to 26.8 & 25.1 in 2000. The age of marriage for a woman in the US in 2000 was therefore very similar to a woman in medieval Europe.


Food Research Budgets Cut

Given how food prices have been soaring recently, it was surprising for me to read that agricultural research budgets have been getting cut.

From the NY Times:

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.

Experts say that during the food surpluses of recent decades, governments and development agencies lost focus on the importance of helping poor countries improve their agriculture.

The budgets of institutions that delivered the world from famine in the 1970s, including the rice institute, have stagnated or fallen, even as the problems they were trying to solve became harder.

At the rice institute, scientists have identified 14 genetic traits that could help rice plants survive the plant hopper, which sucks the juices out of young plants while infecting them with viruses. But the scientists have had no money to breed these traits into the world’s most widely used rice varieties.

The United States is in the midst of slashing, by as much as 75 percent, its $59.5 million annual support for a global research network that focuses on improving crops vital to agriculture in poor countries. That network includes the rice institute.

The biggest cutbacks have come in donations to agriculture in poor countries from the governments of wealthy countries and in loans from development institutions that the wealthy governments control, like the World Bank. Such projects include not only research on pests and crops but also programs to help farmers adopt improved methods in their fields.

Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut such donations roughly in half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion in that period.
From Wired:
Despite worldwide food shortages and falling farm production in the United States, little attention has been paid to a critical piece of the agricultural production web: Fertilizer.

Given all the demand, natural gas prices have doubled since the mid-90s, and the price of ammonia has tripled. That's bad news for farmers, especially those in the developing world who already have limited ability to purchase fertilizers.

So while billions of dollars in venture capital are flowing in to cleantech companies that would only make small differences in the world's energy balance, research into new fertilizer tech is inexplicably underfunded.
Why is this important? Look at the increases in yield that have come from one such research project:
The method, called the System of Rice Intensification, or S.R.I., emphasizes the quality of individual plants over the quantity. It applies a less-is-more ethic to rice cultivation.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth.

Dr. Uphoff was skeptical. Rice farmers there typically harvested two tons per hectare (an area 100 by 100 meters, or 2.47 acres). The group claimed 5 to 15 tons.

Dr. Uphoff oversaw field trials for three years, and the farmers averaged eight tons per hectare.

In Laos, an agriculture official recently said S.R.I. had doubled the size of rice crops in three provinces and would spread to the whole country because it provided greater yields with fewer resources.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

So That's How People Are Finding This Blog

To all those searching for america's next top model living in asia blog fish eating feet, welcome.


Fertilizing the Oceans

Michael Markels makes the economic case for fertilizing the oceans:

If fertilizer costs $200 to $400 per ton when applied to the ocean surface, the estimated annual cost is $50 million to $100 million for the application of 250,000 tons. A $100 million per year experiment fertilizing 53,000 square miles of the Gulf Stream may not be the minimum-size experiment needed to demonstrate the possibilities of open ocean farming.

Ocean farming of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast of the United States could increase that area’s phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, by a factor of about one thousand—to a billion tons per year by bringing the productivity up to the level that occurs naturally off the coast of Peru. That could increase the fish catch by a factor of 400—from 125,000 to 50 million tons per year. At 40¢ a pound for fish, that would be worth $40 billion per year. The increase in both catch size and value would be about 10 times the total 1993 values for the United States and about one half the total 1992 world catch.

The estimate of the current level of phytoplankton production is about 7 million tons for the Gulf Stream from Key West, Florida to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. (That figure is only about 0.7 percent of the one billion tons that could be expected from fertilization, which would be 143 times normal production.)

Nutrient-rich ocean can produce 40 tons of biomass per acre per year. This is the same level of productivity as for sugar cane cultivation on land: 25,600 tons per square mile per year.

This fact cuts the productivity of fertilizer more, conservatively figuring, to 4,000 pounds of biomass per pound of fertilizer in the Gulf Stream.
I find his numbers a bit on the high side, but even when adjusting them with more realistic numbers, it still looks like a profitable venture.

He assumes 4,000 lbs of plankton per lb of fertilizer. Based on 12 experiments, 1 ton of iron led to 1,000 tons of additional carbon being taken up by plankton. GreenFuel assumes that algae is slightly over 50% carbon by weight, and assuming this ratio holds for plankton that would mean 1,000 tons of carbon translates to 2,000 tons of plankton.

He assumes that for every 100 tons of additional plankton, an additional 5 tons of fish will be caught, or 20 lbs of plankton per lb of fish. I don't really understand how he comes to this number. It looks like he believes there would be 25 tons of fish per 100 tons of plankton and then he decides to be conservative by dividing that number by 5. Instead, I would assume that the average trophic level of the catch would be 3.5, and that it takes 10 tons of mass to create 1 ton of a higher trophic level fish. This would mean it takes 10^3.5 = 316 lbs of plankton to make one lb of fish at a 3.5 trophic level.

Google Docs Spreadsheet

Per dollar spent on fertilizer, he concludes that there would be $100 of fish. I come to a number of $3.16 (I assumed his prices for fertilizer and fish were accurate). This gives a very high return on investment and is justified economically.

If the numbers work, then why hasn't this been attempted? The problem here lies in the fact that the person who pays for the fertilization is not likely to reap the benefits of the increased fish yield. One possible way to solve this problem is for the US government to pay for the fertilization with US citizens gaining the benefit. This is unfair to those citizens who do not consume fish, so a second way this could be accomplished is if there was an association of fishermen on the east coast who came together to jointly fund this and jointly share in the rewards (possibly with a loan from the US government to start it out). Another way would be to assign property rights to either the ocean itself or the catch of the fish. This would allow the person who paid for fertilization to own the increase it fish that it caused and gain the financial reward.

Other ventures such as Climos and Planktos Science are looking to fertilize the ocean, but are doing so as a way to sequester carbon. I think the economics of this make more sense as a way to increase fish yield, especially at a time when food prices are greatly increasing.


UPS Testing Modec Electric Delivery Van in London

Green Car Congress reports:

UPS has begun testing a Modec electric van (earlier post) which will operate from its Camden facility within the London Low Emission Zone.

On a single charge, the Modec van offers a range of more than 100 miles and a top speed of 50 mph carrying a load of up to two tonnes. The 70kW motor (102hp) develops 300Nm of torque.

Modec started with twin parallel-wired 288-volt Zebra sodium-nickel-chloride battery packs, with a life span of around four years (1,000 full charging cycles.) Regenerative braking recharges the batteries in addition to grid charging, which takes 8 hours for a complete charge.

The battery pack sits amidships in a drop-down mounting which can be swapped out to avoid downtime while recharging
Japan Post Service is also exploring the feasibility of transitioning its entire fleet of some 21,000 delivery vehicles to electric vehicles beginning this business year.

Along with high end sports cars, delivery vehicles are a ideal place to start using electric vehicles for 7 reasons.

1) Delivery vehicles are often idling, or in stop and go traffic where an electric vehicle would be much more efficient than an internal combustion engine.

2) Delivery vehicles have a limited number of miles that they drive each day which works with the lower range that batteries deliver.

3) Implementing them as an entire fleet makes it possible to swap out an empty battery for another fully charged one.

4) The vehicles go back to a main hub where a recharging station can be installed to recharge multiple vehicles quickly.

5) Vehicles are only used during working hours allowing for recharging over night.

6) Delivery vehicles often have electric accessories such as refrigeration, lifts and compactors that work more efficiently from batteries than they do from diesel which must first be turned into electricity.

7) These vehicles are large which makes it easier to store a large battery pack.

The one thing I am not clear on is how the costs of these vehicles compare with diesel vans. Commenters on this post say that the battery can be leased for $225 a month.

While McCain is proposing a $300 million prize to build a better battery, another way the federal government could speed up the adoption of electric cars would be to switch the US Post Office to battery powered vehicles.

And while electric delivery vehicles sound like a new thing, it is actually a very old thing, as reported by The Economist:
At the turn of the century battery-powered vehicles were a common sight on city streets, because they were quiet and did not emit any noxious fumes.


Half of Humanity Now Has Mobile Phones

Sometime in the next few months, the number of mobile phones in use will exceed 3.3 billion, or half the world's population. No technology has ever spread faster around the globe: the mobile phone took less than two decades to reach this degree of penetration. But the ever-restless wireless industry has already set its sights on getting the other half connected.

Motorola's cheapest phones now cost less than $30. John White of Portio believes that prices for simple, voice-only handsets could fall to $10 in five years.
That is amazing that mobile phones have become so integral to humanity so quickly.

The mobile phone is quickly overtaking driving as the key right of passage in Americans' lives.

I am going to make the bold prediction that by the end of the century, mobile phones will overtake clothing in their importance to humanity. More people will be living without clothes than living without mobile phones. The ability to talk to anyone anywhere will be take for granted and seen as an essential part of being human.

via The Economist


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gasoline Prices Go Up, Demand Goes Down

I have argued in the past that the best way to decrease oil usage and carbon dioxide emissions is to increase gasoline taxes rather than mandate efficiencies of cars through CAFE standards. For a while it appeared that I was wrong, as prices went from $1 to $3 a gallon with hardly any changes in the way Americans drive or consume oil. But now that gasoline has hit $4 a gallon, 94% of US consumers have made lifestyle changes due to higher gasoline prices and US and major changes are being seen.

Ms. Cischke sums it up well:

What Congress didn’t or couldn’t do, the free market is now doing in the form of higher gas prices: forcing Americans into more fuel-efficient cars. Ms. Cischke of Ford says that in the last two months, “We have seen more of a shift in the market than in 20 years of CAFE. People are buying what they need.”
The impact of this can be seen in the 5 year cost of ownership of various vehicles with $4 gasoline:
While the F-250 costs $100,000 and a fully loaded F-150 — the better-known, smaller Ford pickup — costs about $70,000, a Ford Focus still costs less than $40,000 over five years. A Honda Civic Hybrid does, too. A Toyota Prius costs only a little more. A Subaru Outback station wagon runs $50,000 or so.
Another analysis compared the cost of ownership of a Prius against the non-hybrid versions of Honda Accord and Civic, with the Prius coming out on top.

Around 11% of drivers are spending at least $100 to fill the tank, leading many to the breaking point and causing some unlikely side effects:
But people who try to pump $100 worth of gas often find that they cannot, since most pumps that take credit cards shut off at $75 to prevent someone with insufficient funds or a stolen credit card from running off with gas. In addition, some older pumps still are not capable of registering triple-digit bills.
The sales of large vehicles are being hammered. Sales of Ford's F-Series pickup truck, which gets about 15 miles a gallon, are down 41 percent from June 2007. Long America’s best selling vehicle, it is outranked now by the Corolla and Camry from Toyota and the Civic and Accord from Honda. At Chrysler, sales of big S.U.V.’s have plunged 22 percent this year. There was a 62% fall in sales of Hummers in May and GM is considering selling the brand to another company. At the peak in 2002, G.M. sold 600,000 full-size S.U.V.’s, but they’re on pace this year to sell less than 250,000 of them. G.M. will cease production at four North American assembly plants that make S.U.V.’s and pickups by 2010. Light duty vehicle sales dropped 18.2% by volume in June 2008.

Meanwhile sales of high mileage cars are going gangbusters. Toyota sold 64,000 Priuses through April, a 23 percent increase over 2007 and ranking it as the ninth-best-selling car in the United States. They are selling so many that they can't make enough batteries to keep up with demand. reported the Prius jumped into first place in May as the most-searched vehicle on the site. Dealers are reporting Prius, Highlander hybrid and Camry hybrid models from Toyota Canada Inc. are all but impossible to get and Civic hybrid models from Honda Canada Inc. are in severely short supply. Many commuters have also shifted to motorcycles and scooters.

High oil prices have also impacted the airline industry. Fuel prices have increased 84 percent this year increasing fuel's percentage of an airline ticket's price from 15 to 40%. Airlines are expected to spend $61.2 billion this year on jet fuel, more than 5 times what they spent in 2002.

This increase in fuel costs is causing airlines to raise prices 17% this year and as much as 40% in the next four years. The increased price is reducing the number of fliers by 2.7 million this summer and the number of flights by 10%, and causing more than 200 aircraft to be parked. It is also causing the industry to increase fuel efficiency in any way they can including: power-washing jet engines more often to get rid of grime, carrying less water for the bathroom faucets and toilets, and replacing passenger seats with lighter models.

Beyond changing car preferences and reduced air travel, high oil prices has had some other impacts. Some people are switching jobs for shorter commutes. The rising cost of energy is now a primary factor pushing home prices down in the suburbs, particularly in the outer rings. Travelers are shifting to rail as cost of fuel rises. UPS notes that shippers are shifting to ground shipments from air cargo. High diesel prices are also taking a toll on truckers, and some shipping is shifting to rail. And most alarmingly teenagers’ cruising has declined.

The net result of this is that US oil consumption has fallen back to 2002 levels.

And finally, one silver lining to high oil prices:
Rising gas prices and smaller belt sizes go together, according to Charles Courtemanche of Washington University in St. Louis. His research found that, for every dollar increase in the average real price of gas, overweight and obesity levels in the United States would decline by 16 percent after seven years. His study also attributes the outward expansion of American waistlines between 1979 and 2004 in part to falling prices.


A Tough Question in Any Language


The Varying Impact of Gas Prices

Click on the image for a larger version with some additional maps.
This map shows the percentage of income spent on gasoline. Poor rural areas have the highest percentages. Surprisingly, these areas also have some of the lowest gasoline prices in the country.

via NY Times


Fish Footprints

How many acres of ocean does it take to produce the seafood I eat? How much of a difference does it make if I eat species lower on the food chain?

I have previously taken a look at how much land and energy it takes to produce the food we eat on land. But what about seafood?

I came across this Fishprint of Nations report and this Primary productivity required to sustain global fisheries Nature article that gave me some numbers to answer these questions.

Google Docs Spreadsheet

Trophic Level - The fish's level in the food chain. First level phytoplankton are eaten by the second level zooplankton, which are eaten by the third level anchovies (well slightly less as they also eat some phytoplankton), which are eaten by the fourth level tunas.

NPP/cal - The amount of Net Primary Productivity (phytoplankton) calories per calorie of fish. Each level higher you go on the trophic level, the amount of primary productivity required increases by 10. Second level fish require 10 NPP calories to produce 1 calorie, third level 100 and fourth level 1,000.

Coastal Shelf cal/m2/yr - Amount of calories (kcal) of fish that are generated per square meter of coastal shelf per year. Based on 3,600 calories of NPP per m2.

Open Ocean cal/m2/yr - Amount of calories of fish that are generated per square meter of open ocean per year. Based on 1,000 calories of NPP per m2. Some species, such as scallops, are not found in the open ocean and should just be disregarded.

Take Aways:
1) Eating lower of the food chain greatly reduces your NPP footprint.

It takes 100 times as much ocean acreage to produce 1 lb of tuna as it does to produce 1 lb of scallops. You could eat 100 lbs of scallops or 1 lb of tuna and both would require the same amount of net primary productivity. As mentioned in Bottomfeeders, tuna should not be referred to as chicken of the sea but rather wolves. Switching from tuna fish sandwiches to herring fish sandwiches, will cut your footprint 86%. You can eat 7 times as much herring as tuna from the same amount of NPP. Freshwater herbivores like tilapia aren't mentioned here but are also another good choice to eat to minimize your footprint.

Besides reducing your footprint, eating lower on the chain is also healthier. Mercury, heavy metals and other toxins accumulate the higher up the food chain you go. Sardines just made the NY Times 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating list.

2) More total tons of fish, and therefore more protein and calories, would be available to humanity if we fished lower on the food chain.

Humans use 8% of total ocean productivity: 2% of open ocean productivity and around 30% of upwelling and shelf systems productivity. This compares with 24% that we use of terrestrial production. While the shelves make up only 9% of total area, they account for 25% of total ocean NPP production. Marine resources provide about 20 percent of the animal protein eaten by humans globally and 5 percent of livestock feed.

There are 332 million km2 of open ocean and 32 million km2 of continental shelves. That works out to 5 ha of open ocean and .5 ha of continental shelves per each of the 6.6 billion human on the Earth.

If humans were to use 10% of ocean productivity, each person could have 6.7 mil calories of NPP. This would allow everyone to consume 18.5 calories a day of trophic level 4 fish (tuna), or 185 calories a day of trophic level 3 (anchovies), or 1,850 calories of trophic level 2 fish (shrimp).

We could eat 10 times as much herring than if we allowed them to be eaten by salmon and then caught and ate the salmon. There would be less salmon to eat, but 10 times more total fish.

Catching more low trophic level fish will give us more food, but will also lower the populations of higher trophic level fish. But, for a given amount of protein/tons of fish, catching from the bottom will minimize the impact on the oceans.

3) High trophic level fish required more acreage per calorie than terrestrial livestock, while lower level ones are fairly similar.

Cattle produce 35 calories per square meter and chickens 368 cal/m2. Tuna on the open ocean produce 1 cal/m2, much lower than either beef or chicken. Scallops from a coastal shelf produce 360 cal/m2 very similar to chicken, and herring on a coastal shelf produce 45.4 cal/m2, slightly more than cattle. Not that ocean acreage and land acreage are interchangeable, but it is interesting to compare them.

4) Trophic level is not reflected in the price of fish.

Lobsters, crabs and scallops are more expensive than higher level fish like cod and salmon. The cost of fish is determined just by how difficult the fish are to catch and bring to market.

If fish were farmed you would see more of a correlation, as higher trophic level fish require more feed to eat and are therefore more expensive to produce. The trophic level of fish would also be reflected in price if property rights to the ocean acreage or the NPP were assigned.

If price better reflected the fish's NPP requirements, people would naturally eat lower on the food chain, and more fish would be available to all.

5) Minimizing trophic level is more important than minimizing bycatch.

Fishing one trophic level higher requires 10 times the amount of NPP. Even if bycatch is 8 times as large as the catch, assuming the bycatch is of the same trophic level as the catch, that would still require less NPP than fishing one trophic level higher.

Caveats and Assumptions:
1) This analysis is based on Net Primary Productivity (NPP) rates of 3,600 kcal/m2/yr for coastal shelves and 1,000 kcal/m2/yr for the open ocean. This comes from the gC/m2/yr values in the Nature article then converted to calories (kCal) using a ratio of 1 gC to 10 kCal. The coastal shelf value is an average of all the non-open ocean ecosystems.

Estimates of NPP per m2 vary. This this source (p 497) has similar values of 1,000 kcal/m2 for open ocean, 2,000 for coastal oceans and 6,000 for upwelling zones, but this source was a bit lower at around 500 for open oceans and 1,600 for coastal zones. The Sea Around Us Project also has estimates of primary productivity for different ocean regions around the world.

2) The ratio of 10 to 1 between trophic levels is an approximation and might not hold for all the species listed. One place it has been measured is in farmed salmon, and it was found that it takes between 8.5 to 9.9 kg of pelagic fish in order to produce one kg of farmed salmon in Chile.

On land, both cows and chickens are at the same level of the food chain/trophic level, but cows take much longer to grow and therefore their meat requires more NPP/acres of land to grow corn than a chicken. Likewise, a fast growing fish will require less NPP to get to maturity than one that is slow growing.

This analysis also doesn't take into account what percentage of the fish is edible meat. A low trophic level species like a scallop might have a larger impact than seen as much of their energy goes into creating a non-edible shell.


Monday, July 07, 2008

Top Engineers Shun Military

The NY Times reports:

Over the last decade, even as spending on new military projects has reached its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly been losing the people most skilled at managing them. That brain drain, military experts like Mr. Kaminski say, is a big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm.

Mr. Kaminski’s generation of engineers, which was responsible for many of the most successful military projects of the 1970s and ’80s, is aging, and fewer of the nation’s top young engineers, software developers and mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech companies and other civilian firms that provide not just better pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet — what one former defense industry engineer called “geek credit.”

Precise numbers are scarce, but one measure of this shift can be found at the Air Force: Through a combination of budget cuts, the demands of fighting two wars and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining top engineers, officials say, the number of civilian and uniformed engineers on the Air Force’s core acquisition staff has fallen 35 percent to 40 percent over the last 14 years.
I think this is actually a good thing for society. As Dwight Eisenhower wrote:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
Of course the internet, microprocessors and self-driving cars were all helped along by military spending. So not all military spending is worthless to the surrounding economy. But, quite a bit of it is, as Alternet describes:
The historian Thomas E Woods Jr. observes that, during the 1950s and 1960s, between one-third and two-thirds of all U.S. research talent was siphoned off into the military sector. It is, of course, impossible to know what innovations never appeared as a result of this diversion of resources and brainpower into the service of the military, but it was during the 1960s that we first began to notice Japan was outpacing us in the design and quality of a range of consumer goods, including household electronics and automobiles.

Nuclear weapons furnish a striking illustration of these anomalies. Between the 1940s and 1996, the U.S. spent at least $5.8 trillion on the development, testing and construction of nuclear bombs. By 1967, the peak year of its nuclear stockpile, the U.S. possessed some 32,500 deliverable atomic and hydrogen bombs, none of which, thankfully, was ever used. They perfectly illustrate the Keynesian principle that the government can provide make-work jobs to keep people employed. Nuclear weapons were not just America's secret weapon, but also its secret economic weapon. As of 2006, we still had 9,960 of them. There is today no sane use for them, while the trillions spent on them could have been used to solve the problems of social security and health care, quality education and access to higher education for all, not to speak of the retention of highly-skilled jobs within the economy.
Image how much better shape the US would be in had 1/2 of that $5.8 trillion been spent on infrastructure, alternative energy research and development, and medical breakthroughs. As more smart people head to Google and McKinsey rather than the military, this will ultimately be to the benefit of both the US and humanity.


Paul Collier: Using Good Governance to Fight Poverty

Really interesting talk by Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, about one way to reduce poverty.

He notes that there is a huge commodity boom going on with vast amounts of money going to many, but not all, of the countries of the bottom billion. The size of this revenue dwarfs aid. Angola alone is getting $50 billion a year in oil revenue while the entire aid flow to the 60 countries of the bottom billion is just $34 billion.

While all countries see economic growth in the short run from resource exploitation, many countries see economic growth go down in the long term, leaving countries worse off than before they found it. This is known as the resource curse (or oil curse).

How do you beat the resource curse? Good governance. Countries like Norway, Australia and Canada have seen both short and long term economic growth while overseeing the sale of large amounts of natural resources. The resource curse just applies to those countries below a certain threshold in governance (that level being that of Portugal in the mid '80s, but I have no idea how this is measured, or any clue as to how Portugal was governed in the mid '80s).

How do you get good governance? Does introducing democracy help?

Surprisingly, when he looked at the data, democracies made even more of a mess of resource booms than autocracies.

But, he looked further as found something very interesting. He broke democracy down into 2 distinct aspects: electoral competition + checks and balances. The first determines how you acquire power and the second determines how you use power. Electoral competition caused damage whereas strong checks and balances made resource booms good.

The problem for the bottom billion was that they got instant democracies in the 1990s: elections without checks and balances.

To help these countries, he suggests one way to improve governance: increased transparency. Getting these governments to publish how much money they are getting from selling resources and where they are spending it would do a lot to reduce poverty. He sees the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as a model of what can be done.

Too bad George Bush didn't listen to this talk before the invasion of Iraq. Instead of focusing on the purple fingers, the US should have been focusing on checks and balances, and building the institutions required for good governance. Had we done so, Iraq would likely be in much better shape than it is today.

via TED


Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Electrification of US Energy Consumption

As can be seen in this graph, there has been a steady increase in the % of energy that is consumed as electricity in the commercial, residential and industrial sectors in the US from 1949-2006. Transportation on the other hand has completely missed out on this, actually decreasing from 1.38% to .29%. I believe this century will see transportation follow the other three sectors and finally become electrified.

Total electricity usage by sector: commercial 18%, residential 21%, industrial 32%, and transportation 29%.

I should note that I included electrical energy system loses as part of electricity %. The loses are typically twice as high as the actual electricity consumed, so only 1/3 of the energy is actually consumed by end users as electricity. It also doesn't take into account the % of energy in a car that is converted to electricity by hybrids, or by the alternator to run air conditioning, the radio and all other electronic gizmos in the car.

The EIA has a similar graph showing major sources of energy consumption.

Data from the EIA and graph generated from this Google Doc spreadsheet.



More shots here.

The way they take these shots is really cool. There is no Photoshop involved. Instead they use really long exposure times, and then have people with flashlights walk into the pictures to add the extra light that you see. The people don't show up in the pictures because the camera only captures the lightest thing it is exposed to and the people are darker than that, so they don't show up at all. Cool beans!


Saturday, July 05, 2008

How Many Species Live in the Sea?

How many species are there in the sea? Some 230,000 recorded so far, all of which will soon be available to anyone at the click of a mouse.

The World Register of Marine Species is launched today by the Census of Marine Life. Once complete, it will provide the first definitive list of all known species in the world's oceans.

The Register is freely accessible online and includes descriptions of the species and photos. It will allow both the public and scientists to identify species they come across and easily recognise entirely new species.

Until now censuses have been incomplete, focussing on single species or regions, making proper assessment of the impact of humans on oceans difficult. "Convincing warnings about declining populations of fish and other marine species must rest on a valid census," says Mark Costello of the University of Auckland, co-founder of the World Register.

So far, the catalogue contains 122,000 species, about half the estimated 230,000 known species. It should be complete by 2010.

But there are still millions more ocean species to be discovered. Meeting in Belgium on 20-21 June, marine taxonomists discussed Grassle's estimate of between 1 and 10 million total marine species.

This sounds similar to the Encyclopedia of Life. In fact, I am not sure why they shouldn't just be merged together.

I think this is a good idea, and I wish them the best on cataloging and counting all the known and unknown species.

via New Scientist