Monday, December 29, 2008

Undersea Fish Rescue by Robot

via TED


Interesting Articles of the Week

Credit crisis shakes up solar land rush.

The secret to success in Afghanistan: Viagra.

Vegan till six: An eating plan for busy people.

Do it yourself DNA: Amateurs trying genetic engineering at home.

Man who campaigned to protect sharks is snatched by great white.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Oregon Governor Seeks Mandatory Efficiency Audits for Home Sales

Oregon’s governor, Ted Kulongoski, wants to require any owner selling or renting a home or commercial building in the state to obtain a certificate disclosing the property’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The mandate, part of his climate change agenda for 2009, would take effect in 2011 for new and existing homes and in 2012 for commercial buildings.

The certificates could prove both a selling point for owners of energy-efficient buildings and a boon to homebuyers by providing a basis for lower mortgage and insurance rates tied to efficiency.

The basis for such a system might well come from Earth Advantage, a nonprofit sustainable building organization based in Portland. That group has already developed a national certification program for new construction, and it has been working on an efficiency rating program modeled after one in Britain, which began requiring certificates for all residential real estate transactions nationwide on Oct. 1.
I think this is a really good idea. It is just like auto fuel-efficiency stickers on cars.

In many cases greater energy-efficiency in homes offers a higher rate of return than the mortgage rate, and would therefore lower monthly payments, but buyers are unaware of how much it costs to heat the home. This labeling would give consumers that knowledge and would both help the environment and save them money.

Some might wonder why this needs to be mandated. Won't consumers naturally do this on their own if it is in their own best interest? But, consumers haven't been doing this, so it makes sense for the government to come in and mandate the audit.

via Green Inc


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Amazon hopes to cash in on research market

Thus, in April while seeking to build a research lab from scratch and avoid such yada, Tonellato turned to California database giant Oracle Corp. and Seattle online retailer

Around the same time, Amazon uncovered a new set of customers for its growing Web-services segment: researchers. (The computers that power Amazon's retail operations are so robust that about five years ago, Amazon formed a Web-services subsidiary to rent out database storage and computing power to other users.)

People from Oracle, Amazon and Harvard worked together to get Tonellato's research going. To leave an average project running 24/7, it would cost the scientist $70 per month.

Last week, Amazon unveiled a new offering that would make its "cloud computing" service even more appealing to researchers. Amazon will make large data sets available free -- some of which are so large they would take hours to download.

Amazon is banking on the fact that most researchers won't download the data. Rather, they'll access the information and pay to form computations alongside it using Amazon Web Services.

Data sets so far include U.S. Census data, 3-D chemical structures provided by Indiana University and an annotated form of the human genome from Ensembl. More data, including economic statistics, are on the way, Amazon says.
While this seems like a good deal for researchers from an economic perspective, I am more excited by the prospect of having more scientific data freely available that is stored in a common format. I hope more scientists use this or similar cloud services.

via Seattle PI


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What Your Child's DNA Can Tell You About Parenting

If there is one thing experts on child development agree on, it is that kids learn best when they are allowed to make mistakes and feel the consequences. So Mom and Dad hold back as their toddler tries again and again to cram a round peg into a square hole. They feel her pain as playmates shun her for being pushy, hoping she'll learn to back off. They let their teen stay up too late before a test, hoping a dismal grade will teach her to get a good night's sleep but believing that ordering her to get to bed right now will not: kids who experience setbacks rather than having them short-circuited by a controlling parent learn not to repeat the dumb behavior.

But not, it seems, all kids. In about 30 percent, the coils of their DNA carry a glitch, one that leaves their brains with few dopamine receptors, molecules that act as docking ports for one of the neurochemicals that carry our thoughts and emotions. A paucity of dopamine receptors is linked to an inability to avoid self-destructive behavior such as illicit drug use. But the effects spill beyond such extremes. Children with the genetic variant are unable to learn from mistakes. No matter how many tests they blow by partying the night before, the lesson just doesn't sink in.

One of the strongest and most counterintuitive findings in this nascent field is that children with a sweet temperament, which is under strong genetic control, are the least likely to emulate their parents and absorb the lessons they teach, while fussy kids are the most likely to do so. Fussy children have a hypersensitive nervous system that is keenly attuned to its surroundings—including what Mom and Dad do and say. Children who go with the flow of new people and new situations are like Teflon: good parenting doesn't stick to them—but neither, necessarily, does bad parenting.
In the not too distant future, parents will be able to get a genetic test done on their children when they are born. As this article shows, this will enable them to better understand their children and better parent them.

via Newsweek


Better Wind Turbines

ExRo Technologies, a startup based in Vancouver, BC, has developed a new kind of generator that's well suited to harvesting energy from wind. It could lower the cost of wind turbines while increasing their power output by 50 percent.

The new generator runs efficiently over a wider range of conditions than conventional generators do. When the shaft running through an ordinary generator is turning at the optimal rate, more than 90 percent of its energy can be converted into electricity. But if it speeds up or slows down, the generator's efficiency drops dramatically.

ExRo's new design replaces a mechanical transmission with what amounts to an electronic one. That increases the range of wind speeds at which it can operate efficiently and makes it more responsive to sudden gusts and lulls.

The generator works on the same principles as many ordinary generators: magnets attached to a rotating shaft create a current as they pass stationary copper coils arrayed around the shaft. In ordinary generators, all of the coils are wired together. In ExRo's generator, in contrast, the individual coils can be turned on and off with electronic switches. At low wind speeds, only a few of the coils will switch on--just enough to efficiently harvest the small amount of energy in low-speed wind. (If more coils were active, they would provide more resistance to the revolving magnets.) At higher wind speeds, more coils will turn on to convert more energy into electricity. The switches can be thrown quickly to adapt to fast-changing wind speeds.
via Technology Review


Monday, December 22, 2008

Scientists Hack Cellphone to Analyze Blood

A new MacGyver-esque cellphone hack could bring cheap, on-the-spot disease detection to even the most remote villages on the planet. Using only an LED, plastic light filter and some wires, scientists at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute have modded a cellphone into a portable blood tester capable of detecting HIV, malaria and other illnesses.

Blood tests today require either refrigerator-sized machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or a trained technician who manually identifies and counts cells under a microscope. These systems are slow, expensive and require dedicated labs to function. And soon they could be a thing of the past.

UCLA researcher Dr. Aydogan Ozcan images thousands of blood cells instantly by placing them on an off-the-shelf camera sensor and lighting them with a filtered-light source (coherent light, for you science buffs). The filtered light exposes distinctive qualities of the cells, which are then interpreted by Ozcan's custom software. By analyzing the cell types present in a much larger sample, a more accurate diagnosis can be made in a matter of minutes. No more sending blood away to a lab and waiting days or weeks for the results.
via Wired


Interesting Articles of the Week

Report: First Solar reaches grid parity. (I hope so, but I am skeptical.)

Google shutters its science data service. (Boo.)

Science grads swap finance jobs for cleantech. (Yea!)

What’s killing the honeybees?

The Saudi Arabia of lithium.


Sex Difference On Spatial Skill Test Linked To Brain Structure

Men consistently outperform women on spatial tasks, including mental rotation, which is the ability to identify how a 3-D object would appear if rotated in space. Now, a University of Iowa study shows a connection between this sex-linked ability and the structure of the parietal lobe, the brain region that controls this type of skill.

The parietal lobe was already known to differ between men and women, with women's parietal lobes having proportionally thicker cortexes or "grey matter." But this difference was never linked back to actual performance differences on the mental rotation test.

UI researchers found that a thicker cortex in the parietal lobe in women is associated with poorer mental rotation ability, and in a new structural discovery, that the surface area of the parietal lobe is increased in men, compared to women. Moreover, in men, the greater parietal lobe surface area is directly related to better performance on mental rotation tasks.

The study was based on tests of 76 healthy Caucasian volunteers -- 38 women and 38 men, all right-handed except for two men. The groups were matched for age, education, IQ and socioeconomic upbringing. When tested on mental rotation tasks, men averaged 66 percent correct compared to 53 percent correct for women. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed an approximately 10 percent difference between men and women in the overall amount of parietal lobe surface area: 43 square centimeters for men and 40 square centimeters for women.
I wonder if even within each sex if the parietal lobe surface area correlated with mental rotation ability. Can you predict how well a person will do on mental rotation tasks just by looking at an MRI?

While men might have the upper hand on mental rotation tasks, girls have a superior sense of taste to boys.

via Science Daily


Sunday, December 21, 2008

RMI's Oil Imports Map

The U.S. has imported millions of barrels of oil every day for more than three decades — but the flow of dollars and fuel has fluctuated over time. How to illustrate such a massive amount of trade over time? With a new map from the Rocky Mountain Institute and, which visually lays out all the data related to the oil imported into this country from 1973 onward. Admittedly, we always love a good map (101 Cleantech Startups, Biofuels Deathwatch or Coal Deathwatch, anyone?), but this one ranks among the infographic elite.
Pretty cool. Allows you to easily see where the US has gotten its oil and how it has changed over the years.

via Earth2Tech


Computer-Driven Hitchhiking

SOON you may no longer need to stick out your thumb to catch a ride. Instead, you may get one by tapping your fingers on your iPhone.

Avego, based in Kinsale, Ireland (, is demonstrating an iPhone application intended to let drivers and prospective passengers connect and share rides.

When the program is available, drivers who want to offer rides will first download the app, then record their preferred route, said Sean O’Sullivan, managing director of Avego and executive chairman of Mapflow, Avego’s parent company, based in Dublin.

“You put the iPhone on the dashboard, and it records the entire trip and sends the route to our network,” he said. The system stores the route, adding it to its menu of paths and pick-up points and offering them automatically to interested riders.

Drivers must have an iPhone in order to use the service, but if passengers don’t, they will be able to look for a ride on the Avego Web site or call or send a text message, Mr. O’Sullivan said. Drivers and riders can identify one another by photographs displayed on their iPhones, as well as by PINs that verify identities and authorize the transaction.

Avego will charge 30 cents a mile, he said, with 85 percent going to the driver to recover some of the commuting costs and 15 percent to the company. All payments will be handled by automated online accounting.

It will take a while to establish a critical mass of drivers and passengers, Mr. O’Sullivan acknowledged. But he hopes that the chance to defray expenses will change the entrenched habits of many drivers who treasure their solitude. “It will require behavior changes on the part of drivers and riders,” he said.
Unlike Canadians, I think carsharing is a cool concept. Getting a critical mass is key. Not sure how exactly you get there, but maybe you go Facebook style and start on a college campus and take it from there. I am also not sure if this will only be possible in large cities with lots of people traveling.


IBM, Harvard Launch Distributed-Computing Search for Super-Efficient Solar Cells

IBM and researchers from Harvard University launched a joint effort today to identify more efficient and lower-cost solar cell materials using distributed computing. Leveraging small amounts of computing power from potentially hundreds of thousands of personal computers, this latest addition to the company’s World Community Grid platform will process more than 1 million configurations of atoms over the next two years in search of an organic molecule that can be used to make materials for an ultra-efficient plastic photovoltaic cell.

For each configuration of atoms, IBM Master Inventor Viktors Berstis told us on Friday, the program will calculate “what would happen if sunlight hit this thing,” and then enter information about the properties in a database. The goal is to find a configuration that turns a greater percentage of light into electricity than is possible with current plastic (also called polymer) solar technology. The distributed computing process could cut the time needed to run the planned calculations by about two decades, said Berstis, a senior software engineer and chief scientist for the World Community Grid.

Even at the cutting edge of solar research (we wrote about some coming out of UCLA last week), scientists today can achieve only a little more than 5 percent efficiency with plastic, compared with more than 10 percent efficiency with thin-film silicon. Researchers continue to pursue polymer solar cells, however, because of the potential for much cheaper and more flexible materials that could be used on more varied surfaces than today’s solar arrays.
More information and ability to install software at World Community Grid and The Clean Energy Project. A worth use of any spare computer cycles you have available.

via Earth2Tech


Saturday, December 20, 2008

National Geographic Best Wild Animal Photos of 2008

"Deadlock" was captured in the dead of night in a Belizean rain forest.

U.K.-based David Maitland observed from midnight to 3 a.m. as a rare Morelet's tree frog doggedly refused to become supper for a cat-eyed snake--and still didn't see the conclusion.
via National Geographic (see also the Most Viewed Photos Galleries of 2008)


Friday, December 19, 2008


via Greg Mankiw


Thursday, December 18, 2008

The T-Shirt Economy

In 2003, Burnie Burns got together with three friends and created Red vs. Blue—an animated comedy series set in the world of first-person shooter Halo. Nerds loved it, and within months nearly a million people were downloading each week's free show.

Burns & Co. decided they wanted to quit their jobs and work on the series full-time. So they figured out a way to do it: T-shirts.

Burns appropriated the comedy's wittiest one-liners and set up an online store to sell shirts and caps. Within months, he was filling hundreds of orders a week, generating enough revenue to pay everyone a salary. "The shirts," he says, "turned us from a hobby into a business."

Burns is not alone. Increasingly, creative types are harnessing what I've begun to call "the T-shirt economy"—paying for bits by selling atoms. Charging for content online is hard, often impossible. Even 10 cents for a download of something like Red vs. Blue might drive away the fans. So instead of fighting this dynamic, today's smart artists are simply adapting to it.

Their algorithm is simple: First, don't limit your audience by insisting they pay to see your work. Instead, let your content roam freely online, so it generates as large an audience as possible. Then cash in on your fans' desire to sport merchandise that declares their allegiance to you.

We're talking about a surprisingly big market. According to Impressions, a clothing industry trade publication, Americans spend around $40 billion a year on decorated apparel. At CafePress, a Web site that lets anyone customize and sell merchandise, users sold more than $100 million in goods in 2007—pocketing $20 million in profits—and overall sales are growing an average of 60 percent a year.
My 8 Funding Models to Support Digital Good Creation missed this "T-shirt economy" model of paying for bits by selling atoms. While I had a "sell an associated service" model, I missed this "sell an associated physical good" model. Here the digital goods creation works as advertising so you can sell people branded physical goods.

Of course, it is not clear to me why competitors couldn't just sell T-shirts with the artist's likeness and not give the artist a cut. There would need to be copyright laws to stop this from happening. But, if you are going to use intellectual property law protection here, why not just use it on the digital goods themselves and charge for them directly? Maybe though it is easier to stop copyright violations on T-shirts than MP3 files. Or maybe fans would be willing to pay more to purchase shirts if they knew the artist was being compensated and will avoid the competitors.

via Wired


The Create-Jobs, Save-The-Environment, Reduce-Traffic-Congestion, Budget-Neutral Tax Shift

How about an immediate and permanent reduction in the payroll tax, financed by a gradual, permanent, and substantial increase in the gasoline tax? Make the two tax changes equal in present value, so while the package results in a short-run budget deficit, there is no long-term budget impact. Call it the create-jobs, save-the-environment, reduce-traffic-congestion, budget-neutral tax shift.

Okay, I have to work on the marketing.
Actually, I think the name is kind of catchy. :)

On my hope list for the Obama administration, this ranks #1.

It makes no sense to me to mandate that the auto companies create high mileage cars as part of a bailout package. Instead the concession should be that they will not lobby against a gasoline tax (as they have in the past). With higher gasoline prices customers will choose to buy high mileage cars for economic reasons and no additional incentives will be needed for Detroit to build those kind of cars.

Unfortunately, Obama doesn't appear to be in favor of a gasoline tax at this moment.

via Greg Mankiw


YouTube Now in HD

YouTube has just launched a new portion of its site dedicated to HD content, allowing users to easily browse through what is now the largest archive of high definition content on the web. The move has been a long time coming - in the last few weeks the site has been gradually building up to a large scale HD launch with the introduction of a 16:9 video player and the ability to watch HD on selected videos, but until this point it has been difficult to separate the HD content from videos encoded at YouTube’s normal resolution.

In conjunction with launching the new HD section, YouTube has also started displaying HD movies in a large video player that takes up nearly the entire browser window without going into the sometimes-annoying full screen mode. To see a demo of the new player in action, check out the Where The Hell Is Matt Video.

YouTube has also released a set of topical portals related to News, Music, and Movies. Each portal uses a different set of data to surface the most popular YouTube videos of the moment: News culls recent news videos from Google News, while Music monitors popular playlists, rising songs, and artists. Perhaps most notable is the Movies portal, which features movies from both the site’s studio partners (like MGM) as well as indie films.

This is so sweet that you might just, well, um, what this video (available in HD) says:

via TechCrunch


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Greek Anarchists Use Frickin' Laser Beams Against Police

Larger version here. Also this shot of mannequins on fire is amazing.

via The Big Picture


Interesting Articles of the Week

Quite simply the best commercial ever made.

Waste coffee grounds as biodiesel feedstock; Potential for 340M Gallons per year of coffee biodiesel.

Is happiness contagious?

NSF reports on jellyfish gone wild.

The art of receiving.


New Mechanism For Attentional Control In The Human Brain Discovered

A study by UC Davis researchers appearing in the journal Science on December 12, reports the discovery of a new mechanism of attention in the human brain. Previous studies in animals implicated changes in the state of a portion of the brainstem, called the locus ceruleus (LC), in shifts from distractible to attentive states.

By administering a drug that modifies the state of the LC, which was visualized using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) brain imaging techniques, the researchers were able to shift volunteers into a more attentive state in which they showed enhanced coordinated brain activity and performance on a test of attention control.

The drug modafinil is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating narcolepsy, shift-work related sleep disorders and obstructive sleep apnea, and indicated for conditions including ADHD, Parkinson's disease and depression. But how it works has not been well understood until now.

"We have shown that the way modafinil works is by quieting activity in the LC and increasing its connections with the frontal cortex," said Cameron Carter, a UC Davis professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study.

"Now that we know how it works, we can develop better cognitive enhancers that can treat more people suffering from a wider variety of neurodevelopmental disorders, like ADHD, autism and schizophrenia," he said.

Previous studies in primates showed that, when not performing a complex task, neurons in the prefrontal cortex fire often and seemingly at random. During the performance of a focused task, however, that area of the brain is quiet and the cells fire only in concert with actions associated with the task. These modes are called exploration and exploitative, respectively.

"We found that modafinil shifts the human brain into exploitation mode and study subjects perform better on tasks," Minzenberg said.

"This is a proof-of-concept study supporting the use of fMRI to study drug effects on the brain as a way of gaining insight into how the drugs work," he said.
Cool that they are now able to figure out how drugs work by using fMRIs of the brain. Hopefully this research will lead to even better cognitive enhancers.

via Science Daily


God -> Obama-> Big Papa On Real Housewives of Atlanta

Sorry God and Obama, but there is a new king of the "who is" Google search:

Given how funny these Google Suggests can be, I wonder why the I Can Has Cheezburger network hasn't yet created a site dedicated to them.

via The Economist


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Year In Ideas

The NYT Mag's Year in Ideas issue is out. Always a great read with lots of really interesting ideas.

My favorites this year:

Air Bags for the Elderly
Brickley Engine
Carbon Penance
Gallons Per Mile
Less Privacy Means Less Discrimination


Faulty Gene Causes Some People To Become Aggressive Drunks

Alcohol appears to trigger violent behaviour in people who have a particular overactive gene.

The MAOA gene produces an enzyme that breaks down brain chemicals involved with mood.

When alcohol is mixed with high levels of the enzyme it can create a 'dangerous cocktail', according to new research.

The finding raises the possibility that people could be screened for the gene and offered treatment, behavioural therapy or be warned to abstain from alcohol.

The discovery emerged from a study of 174 Finnish alcoholic male offenders with histories of violence. Drinking was found to increase the risk of impulsive violence among individuals born with a highly active version of the MAOA gene.
I wonder if 23 and Me tests for this?

via Telegraph


Monday, December 15, 2008

Species Banking

Imagine for a moment that you own an acre of valuable land in California and you’d like to build some houses on it. But, to your horror, the government tells you that your land is home to several pairs of a threatened species of wetland bird, the California Black Rail. You cannot build it unless you can find some way to mitigate the damage you will to do this species.

Mitigation, in this case, means protecting an equivalent number of birds or area of habitat in perpetuity elsewhere—as a landowner, you need to find someone ready to protect a similar number of Black Rails somewhere else. American law allows such transactions to take place with the oversight of the government. As a result, a small but thriving industry (around $400m per year) has developed in what is called species banking.

Until now, finding species or land available to trade, even within a single state, has been difficult. A transparent, open market is essential, and that is what is now trying to develop. It posts data on more than 120 mitigation banks across the US, which species they support, and how much they have for sale.
via The Economist


Computer Bed — 'An Alternative To The Computer/Treadmill Combo'

Looks like someone is trying to win a Darwin Award.

via Book of Joe


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saltwater Crops May Be Key to Solving Earth's Land Crunch

Saltwater-loving plants could open up half a million square miles of previously unusable territory for energy crops, helping settle the heated food-versus-fuel debate, which nearly derailed biofuel progress last year.

By increasing the world's irrigated acreage by 50 percent, saltwater crops could provide a no-guilt source of biomass for alt fuel makers.

After taking into account environmental protections and other factors, Glenn's report estimates that 480,000 square miles of unused land around the world could be used to grow a special set of salt-tolerant plants — halophytes. Glenn's team calculated that this could produce 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent per year. That's 35 percent of the United States' liquid fuel needs.

Halophytes thrive in saltwater. While salt damages most plants, these salt-loving plants actually use the saltwater to draw in fresh water. In essence, they make themselves saltier than the surrounding water, which, through osmosis, drives fresh water into the plant.

These plants are attractive candidates for both food and fuel because they have very high biomass and oil seed yields. The Science authors note that one leading halophyte-candidate, Salicornia bigelovii, produces 1.7 times more oil per acre than sunflowers, a common source of vegetable oil.
via Wired Science


Friday, December 12, 2008

So That's Where All The Carbon Is

The top meter of soil holds more than three times the amount of carbon stored in either vegetation or the atmosphere, so if you do little things to change the amount of carbon in the soil it has a huge impact on the atmosphere and thus global warming.
—Evan DeLucia
Hmm, while I knew that the potential to store more carbon in soil was large, I was unaware that there was more carbon in the soil than in the air and plants combined. Geotimes and Wikipedia have some actual numbers for anyone interested.

via Green Car Congress


Why I Love Squirrels

Four great shots that I have come across recently.

via Mail Online and Digg


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Japanese Researchers Create Images From Thoughts

A team of Japanese scientists at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, led by researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani, have successfully processed and displayed reconstructed images directly from the ever-hackable human brain. In the experiments, the team first showed participants 400 different still images in order to suss out their visual thought patterns. They then showed them the letters that make up the word "neuron," and successfully reconstructed them via brain activity onto a screen. The full results of the tests are going to be published later this month in Neuron, but Dr. F. Krueger at ATR says that they think the tech could someday be used to hack into people's dreams.
via Engadget


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Green-Collar Jobs Heading to the Clink

Forget license plates, prisoners are going solar these days. Massachusetts-based Spire announced today that it signed a $54.9 million deal to supply solar cells to a solar module factory located in a federal prison in upstate New York. And Spire is no stranger to prison work — the company installed the photovoltaic solar module factory in the Otisville, N.Y., prison earlier this year.

The contract is with the government-owned Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, which uses prisoners to make products and provide services, mostly for the U.S. government. Spire said that modules manufactured at the prison in Otisville will be sold for use in government installations.

That could mean more than just a few government buildings getting solar panels. “If you consider the military barracks and all those military installations,” Nader Kalkhoran, VP of business development at Spire, told us. “That’s a huge market in itself.”

Spire said this deal could lead to more solar factories going up at other prisons. If that happens, Unicor could end up with a slight advantage over more traditionally-staffed solar module makers. Unicor pays inmates “considerably less” than minimum wage, according to its web site, and as a wholly-owned corporation of the federal government, Unicor is exempt from federal and state income taxes, as well as gross receipts taxes and property taxes.

And here I thought that America's high incarceration rate was impeding our economic strength. Looks like it helping to bring down the cost of solar power. If only we had more prisoners, we could be energy independent in no time.

via Earth2Tech


Interesting Articles of the Week

Dean Kamen’s ‘LED Nation

Scientists say brain-enhancing drugs should be legalized.

Google adds print magazines to book search.

DOE joint genome institute completes soybean genome.

NASA gets inside pilots' heads to make them safer.


Secret Ingredient For The Health Of Tropical Rainforests Discovered

A team of researchers led by Princeton University scientists has found for the first time that tropical rainforests, a vital part of the Earth's ecosystem, rely on the rare trace element molybdenum to capture the nitrogen fertilizer needed to support their wildly productive growth. Most of the nitrogen that supports the rapid, lush growth of rainforests comes from tiny bacteria that can turn nitrogen in the air into fertilizer in the soil.

Until now, scientists had thought that phosphorus was the key element supporting the prodigious expansion of rainforests, according to Lars Hedin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University who led the research. But an experiment testing the effects of various elements on test plots in lowland rainforests on the Gigante Peninsula in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in Panama showed that areas treated with molybdenum withdrew more nitrogen from the atmosphere than other elements.

The biological enzyme, nitrogenase, which converts atmospheric nitrogen into soil fertilizer, feeds on molybdenum, the researchers found. "Just like trace amounts of vitamins are essential for human health, this exceedingly rare trace metal is indispensable for the vital function of tropical rainforests in the larger Earth system," Hedin said. Molybdenum is 10,000 times less abundant than phosphorus and other major nutrients in these ecosystems.
When I was taking chemistry in high school, everybody had to do a report about an element from the periodic table. I was assigned molybdenum. I remember that I thought it should be pronounced moly-bdenum whereas the wordanistas over at Websters thought it should be mo·lyb·de·num. Other than that, molybdenum was kind of a boring element. Looks like that has all changed with this news and the kids in chemistry classes will be fighting to be able to report on molybdenum.

via Science Daily


Monday, December 08, 2008

Science Commons in 2 Minutes

Best of luck to Science Commons and the whole Open-Science movement.

via TED


HP and Arizona State University Demo Flexible, Unbreakable Displays

HP and the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University today announced the first prototype of affordable, flexible electronic displays.

Flexible displays are paper-like computer displays made almost entirely of plastic. This technology enables displays to become easily portable and consumes less power than today’s computer displays. Popular applications for the technology could include electronic paper and signage.

The production feat is a milestone in the industry’s efforts to create a mass market for high-resolution flexible displays. Plus, from an environmental standpoint, the displays leapfrog conventional display processes by using up to 90 percent less materials by volume.

SAIL technology enables the fabrication of thin film transistor arrays on a flexible plastic material in a low-cost, roll-to-roll manufacturing process. This allows for more cost-effective continuous production, rather than batch sheet-to-sheet production.
Cheaper, better for the environment and rollable. Very cool. Can't wait until this technology hits consumer products.

via Business Wire via Engadget


Sunday, December 07, 2008

DIY Saliva Test That Tells If You're Catching a Cold

Scientists have developed a test that predicts how likely you are to catch a cold.

They say that by measuring the level of a protein contained in saliva they can provide an advance warning of the risk of infection.

In tests over three years on a group of 38 elite America’s Cup yacht racers, the British researchers found that the amount of the bacteria-fighting protein immunoglobulin A – known as IgA – fell significantly shortly before three-quarters of the team fell ill.

Even though the athletes felt well at the time of testing, they caught a cold two weeks later.

The scientists, from Loughborough University, now plan to develop a home test that could warn everyone when their immune systems are vulnerable to attack.

People could then take preventative action by getting more sleep, eating well and avoiding public places.
Cool. That would be valuable information to know when you are at an advanced risk of getting sick.

via Daily Mail


EEGs Show Brain Differences Between Poor and Rich Kids

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

"Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response."

"This is a wake-up call," Knight said. "It's not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums."

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.
I wonder if in the future, students will have EEG and fMRI brain scans to see how well their brains are developing and give suggestions as to what kind of training is needed to best improve brain function. Then again, I wonder if you measure the same thing with simpler tests without the need for these brain scans.

via UC Berkeley News


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Regenerating a mammoth for $10 million.

A 'green lining' in China's economic stimulus plan.

Give thanks? Science supersized your turkey dinner.

Edible electronics monitor drugs in your body.

J. Craig Venter Institute researchers publish significant advance in genome assembly technology; Yeast as a genetic factory.


How Long Does ...

via Digg

Update: YouTube tries to out do Google with searches on using.


Battery Maker Bets on Silver-Zinc for Laptops

ZPower, a company based in Camarillo, Calif., is developing a new kind of battery for consumer electronics that it says will be more powerful than lithium-ion, safer, and potentially more earth-friendly as well.

The technology ZPower is banking on is called silver-zinc, which it says will provide up to 40 percent more power than a lithium-ion battery of the same size.

Ross Dueber, the company’s chief executive, says a top-tier laptop manufacturer will release the first computer designed to accept silver-zinc batteries in mid-2009. The laptop’s runtime with silver-zinc will increase from the roughly 5 hours afforded by a typical lithium-ion battery to at least 7 hours, according to Mr. Dueber.

Silver is relatively expensive and silver-zinc batteries will cost more than their lithium-ion counterparts. Mr. Dueber wouldn’t say how much, but he expects laptop manufacturers will charge a “modest premium.”
I wrote about silver-zinc batteries over two year ago. Hopefully this time they will actually make it to the market.

I also don't understand why they aren't focusing on cellphones. Seems like that would be a better market given how much smaller the batteries are in cellphones and therefore the additional cost for these batteries wouldn't be as great. Also, to keep the phones as small as possible they need batteries as dense as possible.

via Green Inc.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

With Photos, It's All About Timing

Check out all 12 photos in the gallery. I like this smoker one as well.


Updated got a makeover, and I am glad to see that they have added transcripts to shows. This was something that I had suggested they add when they first put their library on the web. This will make it much easier to blog about interesting interviews. I also am curious how long it takes me to read a transcript with actually watching the show and see how much time I can save.

Beyond that addition, I am not liking many of the other changes. The front page now displays their most recent guests, but does it in an odd 2 second rotation manner that is very distracting (and no pause button that I can find). They also have taken short 1-3 minute segments out of shows and made them their own entities. This is a good idea but the way they have done it makes it hard to find the link for the interview in its entirety. I wish instead they would add bookmarks inside the video, where you could jump to a particular time in the interview.


US Greenhouse Gas Emissions Flow Chart

Total US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 7,282 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) in 2007, an increase of 1.4% from the 2006 level, according to Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2007, a report released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Since 1990, US GHG emissions have grown at an average annual rate of 0.9%.
A slightly different flow chart here.

via Green Car Congress


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Population and the Popular Vote

I had mused that while Obama had a decisive victory, less than 1 in 4 Americans actually voted for him. Even though that sounds low, according to that was actually the second highest percentage ever.


Vivace: Renewable Energy from Slow Water Currents

Slow-moving ocean and river currents could be a new, reliable and affordable alternative energy source. A University of Michigan engineer has made a machine that works like a fish to turn potentially destructive vibrations in fluid flows into clean, renewable power.

VIVACE is the first known device that could harness energy from most of the water currents around the globe because it works in flows moving slower than 2 knots (about 2 miles per hour.) Most of the Earth's currents are slower than 3 knots. Turbines and water mills need an average of 5 or 6 knots to operate efficiently.

The working prototype in his lab is just one sleek cylinder attached to springs. The cylinder hangs horizontally across the flow of water in a tractor-trailer-sized tank in his marine renewable energy laboratory. The water in the tank flows at 1.5 knots. The very presence of the cylinder in the current causes alternating vortices to form above and below the cylinder. The vortices push and pull the passive cylinder up and down on its springs, creating mechanical energy. Then, the machine converts the mechanical energy into electricity.

Just a few cylinders might be enough to power an anchored ship, or a lighthouse, Bernitsas says. These cylinders could be stacked in a short ladder. The professor estimates that array of VIVACE converters the size of a running track and about two stories high could power about 100,000 houses. Such an array could rest on a river bed or it could dangle, suspended in the water.

Bernitsas says VIVACE energy would cost about 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Wind energy costs 6.9 cents a kilowatt hour. Nuclear costs 4.6, and solar power costs between 16 and 48 cents per kilowatt hour depending on the location.

"There won't be one solution for the world's energy needs," Bernitsas said. "But if we could harness 0.1 percent of the energy in the ocean, we could support the energy needs of 15 billion people."
I have not been a fan of tidal energy as it is too expensive to be competitive with solar and wind energy. But, if this VIVACE system can really produce power for just 5.5¢ a kWh then this could provide a lot of energy at a competitive price. I am also interested in seeing how well this technology would work with sailboats and other pleasure boats to recharge batteries and power electric devices.

Definitely a technology to keep your eyes on.

via U Mich via Gizmodo and Telegraph


Monday, December 01, 2008

Kindles Going for $1,000

If you missed your chance to pick up a Kindle at the Oprah discounted price of $309, you are out of luck if you want one for Christmas at a reasonable price. While Amazon is selling them for $359, they won't be shipping them for 11-13 weeks. Amazon's site sellers are charging $650 and over at eBay prices are all over the place with many going for $700+ and one selling for $995.

How Amazon could bungle the manufacturing of the Kindle so that there are shortages for Christmas two years in a row is beyond me. Amazon should outsource the manufacturing of these devices to people who know how to make a good looking device, and just focus on managing the Whispernet service to sell digital books.

TechCrunch hypothesizes that Amazon will release the new Kindle 2.0 at about the same time they are promising to ship, so maybe they will be shipping out the new version to customers.


Now We’re Cooking With … Batteries

The world's $71 billion battery market, once an old-tech backwater, is becoming a hothouse for innovation. The flow of U.S. venture-capital dollars into battery development has grown from $4.3 million in 2002 to more than $200 million this year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Even major players like General Electric and ExxonMobil are investing in the battery business. The hybrid- and electric-car-battery market alone is on course to grow nearly fivefold by 2015, to $3.7 billion, according to consultant Menahem Anderman.
I am glad to see that battery research is getting more funding, as I think it is a crucial technology for the 21st century. It is necessary for the transition to electric vehicles as well as allowing for better portable electronics.
Computer chips double in speed every two years—your current BlackBerry is as powerful as your desktop computer once was—but the batteries powering those devices are improving by only about 8 percent a year.
I am not quite sure what value they are measuring, but energy density has been improving by 11.6% for the last 15 years. Maybe they are looking at capacity per dollar.
Despite their work, the U.S. battery makers don't stack up well globally. U.S. automakers' enthusiasm for electric vehicles died a decade ago, when GM's allelectric EV1 proved to be a flop. Since then Toyota and Honda have come to dominate the hybrid-car market, which is why Asia leads the world in advanced-battery production, for both cars and gadgets. "The U.S. missed out on a great deal of the advanced-battery business over the last 10 years," says A123's CEO, Dave Vieau. "The next 10 years will see a significant increase in battery use, and it would be a mistake for us not to participate in that." While U.S. battery makers play catch-up, the Japanese battery industry is consolidating: Panasonic, Toyota's battery supplier, is in talks to acquire Sanyo, Honda's battery maker. South Korea has also demonstrated battery savvy, as does China, where the iPhone batteries are assembled. For some observers, this is a cause for concern. "Are we trading our dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on batteries built in foreign countries?" asks Chrysler vice chairman Jim Press.
While I think battery technology is a key technology for the 21st century and would like to see American companies competing, I am not nearly as concerned about importing batteries as I am about importing oil. Importing natural resources like oil leads to larger geo-political issues than importing manufactured goods that are knowledge intensive. Also, countries that are exporting natural goods are likely to see their economies worse off than if they had no natural resources at all, a phenomenon known as the oil curse. There is no 'battery curse' that I am aware of.

via Newsweek

Update: Looks like that 8% is price performance from this quote in the NY Times:
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, said his company would benefit from what he called “a weak Moore’s Law,” referring to the 8 percent annual improvements in the price performance of lithium-ion batteries. But 8 percent, compounded, would bring too few benefits, too late to Tesla: it would take nine years to halve the price of its battery pack.