Monday, April 28, 2008

Top 10 Wired Reader Macro Photos


Good stuff, especially this Tokay Gecko eye. Click the link for the other nine.

via Wired

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

“Hyper-Speed” evolution discovered in lizards.

Trade bans and conservation.

The science of subtle signals.

Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises.

Gene therapy experiments improve vision in nearly blind.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Approximately 210,000 Kindles Sold So Far

While Amazon won't release numbers, an enterprising commenter on Engadget comes to this conclusion based on data released by Amazon's e-ink manufacturer.

The Taiwan-based company said its current monthly shipments of 6-inch EDP modules, priced at US$70-80 each, amount to 60,000-80,000 units, with 60% going to Amazon and 40% to Sony.
60% of 60,000 units * 6 months since release = 216,000 units sold.

Update: TechCrunch points to a Citigroup analyst who puts the number at 10,000-30,000.

Update 2: TechCrunch is now posting that a source close to Amazon with direct knowledge of the numbers puts the number sold by 8/1/08 at 240,000.

I had asked this question a while back using Amazon's NowNow feature on my Kindle and while I didn't get a number, I found the response so amusing that I share it with you now:
We don't know and I'm answering this question at some risk

We're not allowed to answer Kindle customer service questions (see below), but I think this is actually more of a research question so I'll risk giving you the answer. We get this question a lot, especially after a new batch of Kindles seems to go out. I think people are worried that maybe they haven't made a good investment. Unfortunately, we have no idea how many Kindles have been sold. Amazon hasn't made that information public and we don't have any insider information on the subject, primarily because we're not insiders. I've read some funny things online on how the people at NowNow refuse to answer this question. We don't refuse, we simply don't know the answer. Nobody outside of Amazon's corporate offices knows the answer. And yet this question gets asked ten times a day.

Maybe a little insight into how NowNow works might make this clearer to you. We're not Amazon employees. NowNow isn't really "staffed" at all. Anyone can answer questions through the Mechanical Turk service:

http://www.mturk.com/

This is basically a contest. They pay us three cents per answer, which is essentially nothing. But every time we receive a great answer vote it counts towards a chance of winning a weekly bonus. Good, insufficient, and junk don't count for anything, just great votes. The person with the most greats at the end of the week earns $100, second most earns $97, and so on in $3 increments for the top 30 workers.

It used to be a very good deal. But now thanks to the Kindle the workload has grown tremendously. The amount of work required to finish on top is ridiculous because most people don't vote at all or unwittingly give out good votes not realizing that they're worthless to the workers. This now pays well below minimum wage and the result is that many, many questions go unanswered.

And of course, we don't know Jeff Bezos' phone number, email address, etc. In fact, the Kindle Team tends to ignore emails we send them asking for more information on how the Kindle works and its features. So it should come as no surprise that they're not releasing sales figures to us.

In addition to all the above, the people from NowNow sent us an email recently forbidding us from answering Kindle customer service questions. Here's what it says:

"We appreciated that some of you have tried to answer Kindle customer support questions, but we have decided it is more appropriate that our own Amazon customer service support these users to ensure they have a great experience. Therefore, please do not work on any HITs for "NowNow Research Question for $1695 Weekly Reward. " that could be Kindle customer support questions. If you submit a HIT on any Kindle customer support question, we will be forced to ban you from working on future NowNow research questions."

Honestly, I don't know that any of us really wanted to be the lowest-paid Kindle tech support people out there, but we've spent a couple of months learning all we can about the Kindle and probably know just as much if not more than the actual tech support people. So some of us are pretty unhappy about the way NowNow has decided to treat us and you, the end-users. But since what constitutes a "customer support question" is kind of vague, I think it's okay to answer this one - although there's still a chance I'll get banned for explaining this to you.
Needless to say, I gave this person a "great answer" vote.

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Smoking Out The Smoking Gene


Scientists find a gene that impacts how much you smoke.

Apparently it allows you to smoke one cigarette in your mouth while absorbing the nicotine from a second simultaneously through your fingers, as shown in the photo. Or maybe I need to read the article again. :)

That answer lies in part of human chromosome 15, and depends on what is known as allele T of SNP rs1051730. A SNP, or single-nucleotide polymorphism, to give its full name (the short version is pronounced “snip”), is a place where genomes routinely differ from one another by a single genetic letter. In this case, the variation happens inside a gene for one of the receptor molecules that nicotine attaches itself to when it produces its buzz. Based on a study of 13,945 Icelandic smokers, deCODE's researchers showed that having a T in the appropriate part of the gene correlates very strongly indeed with being a heavy smoker. The team estimates that the chance of their being wrong is less than one in a thousand trillion.

Not surprisingly, having the T variant also correlates with the chance of a smoker getting lung cancer. Each copy (there may be none, one or two, since one can come from a person's father and one from his mother) increases that chance by 30%. The T variant does not, however, increase the likelihood that someone will take up smoking in the first place. That is either a matter of free will or, if it is genetic, is controlled by genes somewhere else.
via The Economist and AP

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Disneynature

Betting that multiplex audiences are hungry for lavish nature documentaries, the Walt Disney Company has established a new production banner to deliver two nature films a year starting in 2009. The effort, to be called Disneynature, reflects efforts by Disney to spur growth at its film unit after a retrenchment in 2006.

Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, said the success of “March of the Penguins” — a 2005 documentary from Warner Independent that cost $3 million to make and sold $127.4 million in tickets worldwide — helped spark the company’s interest in the genre.

Mr. Iger declined to specify costs. “The films will cost enough to deliver the type of quality our customers expect, but less than a typical feature,” he said.

They certainly sound expensive. Crews will spend three years in the Ivory Coast jungle to prepare “Chimpanzee,” to be released in 2012. “Oceans,” set for a 2010 release, will rely on new technology to film underwater drama with precision. The unit’s first movie, “Earth,” from the producer behind the “Planet Earth” series, will be released on April 22, 2009.
Glad to hear Disney is getting involved, as in my opinion you can never have too many nature documentaries, especially high quality ones.

While most nature documentaries have good footage, lots of them lack an interesting narrative. I hope Disney will make these documentaries seem more like movies with plots as "March of the Penguins" did so well.

I also hope that these movies are financially successful allowing them to have big budgets and spend lots of money in the communities were they are filmed. Like eco-tourism, this would give the locals an economic incentive to protect the wilderness. It is much easier to protect the wilderness if people make more money from it being intact then they do from destroying it.

via NY Times

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Call Centers Start Using Neurolinguistic Software

Accordingly, programmers at 24/7 Customer have developed “neurolinguistic” software that does not just spot which words callers use—it tries to provide agents with insights into their psychology. Callers' words and cadences are analysed to create a profile that helps agents adjust their vocabulary and behaviour to improve their rapport. Agents receive on-screen tips on which phrases, sales pitches and conflict-resolution tricks are most likely to resonate. For example, callers who use “kinesthetic” terms such as “digging through the website” will be answered slowly with phrases suggesting body movement: “Please hold while I pull up more information.”

Similarly, Cisco's voice-analysis system monitors parameters including volume, cadence, tone, pitch and inflection, and then sorts callers into six personality types to help agents fine-tune call handling. “It's the bleeding edge,” says Laurent Philonenko, vice-president of Cisco's call-centre business in San Jose, California. Ms Fluss says “tremendous innovation” is under way in this area, and sales of caller-profiling systems will increase by 70% this year compared with 2007.
That is pretty cool. I had no idea that call center software had become that sophisticated.

Besides being useful for call centers, I could see where this technology could be adapted for those with Autism and those of us whose technological IQ is higher than their emotional IQ. That would make for one spiffy iPhone application.

via The Economist

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Do People Spend So Little on Their TVs?

According to data released by the research firm, Pacific Media Associates, the share of the TV market for 30 to 34-inch L.C.D. TVs jumped to 24 percent in February from 16 percent in January.

That move was at the expense of larger sets. Market share sales for 45 to 49-inch L.C.D. TVs dropped to 14 percent from 18 percent and the 40- to 44-inch L.C.D. and plasma segment moved to 18 percent from 20 percent.

The reason, according to Alfred Poor, Pacific Media Associates’ senior research associate, is obvious: it’s the economy.
Anytime I read the word "obvious", I have an immediate need to try and prove the statement wrong. Now, Mr. Poor (great name for this thesis by the way) could be correct, but I see two other possible explanations for this trend.

First, as TV prices lower, people who weren't previously able to afford an HDTV can now do so. The richer people are still purchasing their expensive TVs, but now additional customers are purchasing lower end models. This quote appears to back me up:
One interesting counterpoint to the shift to smaller and cheaper sets is that the biggest TVs, those 50 inches and above, have not seen a drop in sales.
Second, as many people already have upgraded their primary TV to HD, now they are looking to upgrade the one in the bedroom or in the kids' room. This secondary TV is not going to be watched as often and therefore people choose to pay less for it.

And once I got into my debunking mood, I couldn't let this statement go unchallenged either:
By shifting to smaller-sized models, consumers are saving hundreds of dollars. In February, the average 40 to 45-inch set cost $1,287, according to Mr. Poor. But the average price for a 30 to 34-inch model was almost half that, $685.

At the beginning of this decade, the average selling price for a standard-definition 34-inch picture tube TV was around $400. “We’ve asked consumers to triple the price they pay for a TV. It’s amazing that people have been paying this much.”
Mr. Poor may find it amazing that we pay this much, but I find it amazing that people pay so little for their TVs. Let me explain.

Let's assume that a new TV lasts for 8 years, or 100 months. A $400 TV would therefore cost $4 a month while the average $1,287 40-45" TV (lets call it $1,300) would cost $13 a month. While over three times as much, it would only be an additional $9 a month. If you were to go for a $2000 TV, this would be $20 a month, or $16 a month additional over the cheap TV.

Aside: These numbers assume no interest. If I worked my HP 12C calculator correctly, putting the purchase on a credit card with an interest rate of 20%, and paying it off over the 8 year period would double the monthly fee.

But, Comcast's Basic Cable now runs $52 a month (IMHO stretching the meaning of the word "basic"). This is 13 times the monthly cost of the $400 TV and 4 times the 2.6 times the cost of the $2,000 TV. And this doesn't even include HD service. For that you would need to pay $6.50 a month, or more than the lower priced TV itself! If you bought the $2,000 TV and had Comcast Basic cable with HD service, your monthly cost would be $20 + 52 + 6.50 = $79. Of that only 25% would be paying for the TV, and the other 75% would be for the cable TV service. In order to match the cost of cable with the monthly cost of a TV you would need to pay at least $5,850 for the TV, which would mean at Best Buy you would need to get at least a 63" TV.

The savings of $16 a month by going with the cheaper model seems trivial compared to the cable cost. If you are already paying for $60 a month for cable, I don't see why you would pay anything less than $2,000 on the TV, unless the cheaper models have everything you want.

Another way to look at it is how expensive TV entertainment is per hour compared to other forms of entertainment. According to the US Census, the average American spends 1,745 hours a year watching TV or 145 hours a month or 4.78 hours a day. With the $2,000 TV, the cost of the TV + cable service is $79 a month, which then works out to 55¢ an hour. If you went with the $400 TV, the hourly cost would be 43¢ an hour. This is much cheaper than the $5 an hour a $10, 2 hour long movie goes for. Even a video game that costs $50 and takes 50 hours to play would come in at $1 an hour. A new hardcover book at $20 that takes 6 hours to read will run you $3.33 an hour. If you drive to a friends house using $3 of gasoline and hang out for 3 hours, you are looking at $1 an hour. Going to a bar is likely to run you at least a $5 beer an hour. While there are cheaper forms of entertainment, such as reading a library book or meditating, watching TV is pretty cheap even with an expensive TV.

In 2006 the median US annual houshold income was $48,201 or $4,000 a month. The monthly TV watching service of $79 is just 2.0% of this, which doesn't seem too bad if you spend a quarter of your waking hours watching it. Going from a $400 TV to a $2,000 TV, would add $16 a month which is just .4% of total income.

So, with all due respect to Mr. Poor, given how much American's pay for cable and how much time they spend watching TV, the question is not why do we spend so much on TVs, but rather why do we spend so little?

via Bits

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Economics and the Rule of Law

Mr Kaufmann and his colleague Aart Kraay worked out the “300% dividend”: in the long run, a country's income per head rises by roughly 300% if it improves its governance by one standard deviation. One standard deviation is roughly the gap between India's and Chile's rule-of-law scores, measured by the bank. As it happens, Chile is about 300% richer than India in purchasing-power terms. The same holds for South Africa and Spain, Morocco and Portugal, Botswana and Ireland. Economists have repeatedly found that the better the rule of law, the richer the nation.
If you are interested in how various countries rank, check out the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators.

via The Economist

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Germany Leads the World in Renewable Energy

Germany leads the world in its installed capacity of renewable energy sources (see chart), and is the third-biggest producer of solar panels, after China and Japan.

Renewables now account for 6.7% of energy consumption, up from 5.5% in 2006 and 3.5% in 2003. The industry's turnover was €24.6 billion ($32.9 billion) in 2007, up 10% on 2006 and nearly four times the figure for 2000. The share of electricity generated from renewable sources reached 14.2%, a big jump from 11.7% in 2006, owing in part to stronger-than-usual winds last year.

Employment in the renewables industry will increase from 250,000 in 2007 to around 710,000 in 2030, matching the jobs in carmaking by that time, predicts Torsten Henzelmann of Roland Berger, a consultancy.
How did Germany become the world leader?
In 1991 Germany adopted a renewable-energy law, now known as the EEG, which encourages investment by cross-subsidising renewable electricity fed into the grid. The law says electricity produced from renewable sources must be purchased by utilities according to a generous “feed-in tariff” that sets higher-than-market rates and fixes them for 20 years. Roof-mounted photovoltaic systems installed in 2007, for example, can sell power at €0.49 per kilowatt-hour, or about seven times today's wholesale price, until 2027. The fixed rate allows investors to calculate returns and removes uncertainty over financing. As things stand, the feed-in tariff for solar goes down by 5% every year. But new proposals call for a cut of 9.2% next year, and 7-8% thereafter.
And how much does this cost the average German?
The utilities that buy power at these higher rates pass the extra costs back to their customers in the form of higher electricity bills. This added an average of 1 euro cent per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity last year, increasing the typical household electricity bill by 5%, or €3 a month. For the country as a whole, the cost was €7.7 billion in 2007, up 38% on the year before. Enthusiasts consider that a small price to jump-start a new industry and start decarbonising the power supply.
Any side effects?
Cheerleaders for solar had hoped that the increased demand for panels would help manufacturers reduce unit costs, and thus make solar more competitive in the long run. Instead, the rush into solar has led to a shortage of the high-grade silicon used to make the cells, which has soared in price from $25 per kilogram in 2003 to around $400 today.
I would actually argue that the cheerleaders have it right and the increased price for silicon is a temporary supply issue that will be resolved shortly as new plants come on line. With that worked out, prices will continue on their descending slope as predicted by the solar power progress ratio.

The part I am unsure about is whether I should feel glad that the German citizens are subsidizing the development of the solar industry so that American citizens don't have to or whether I wish the US government would follow suit to quicken the transition to renewable energy. I lean towards the second, but I really need to think it through more.

via The Economist

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Interesting Articles of the Week

Can the cellphone help end global poverty?

Nuked coral reef bounces back.

Educated young Chinese strongly support their government’s suppression of the recent Tibetan uprising.

Why every company needs a fun strategy.

Robotic vigilante: Homemade 'Bum Bot' patrols in Atlanta.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

CarbonCart.com

How many online shoppers will be willing to pay more for a product if it helps make up for the environmental impact of shipping it to them?

That's one question behind a new e-commerce site being developed by a group of Seattle Pacific University students. CarbonCart.com will offer products from the Amazon.com catalog at a premium, and then contribute a portion to projects designed to compensate for the pollutants emitted by the vehicles used in shipping.

The site will operate in connection with an Amazon.com program called "Drop Ship by Amazon," which effectively lets companies treat Amazon as a supplier -- offering products from the Amazon catalog on their own sites, and then having Amazon ship directly to their customers.

CarbonCart plans to charge a premium of 5 percent to 8 percent over the retail price of the product. A portion of that will fund the carbon offsets.
This is an interesting idea. I had thought of doing something similar, but, when I looked into the environmental impact of shipping it seemed quite low (like 1¢ a book) and not worth the effort.

If they can get people to pay 5-8% more on a purchase, more power to them. I like the way they have it integrated with Amazon, it could easily be expanded to take into account the carbon footprint of the manufacturing of the product as well. Getting the data for the carbon footprint of manufacturing will be trickier though. I would guess that for most of Amazon's products a 5-8% price premium would handle the emissions of manufacturing as well, so maybe CarbonCart's pricing scheme makes sense after all.

via Seattle PI

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Happy Earth Day: Beautiful Pictures of Our Planet


Lots of amazing shots, check them all out.

via Wired

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PETA Issues $1 Million In Vitro Meat Contest

While I am no fan of PETA (well, except for their promotion of nakedness as a protesting tactic), I like the contest they just announced to encourage the development of test tube meat.

PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the contest participant able to make the first in vitro chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The contestant must do both of the following:

• Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.

• Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.

Judging of taste and texture will be performed by a panel of 10 PETA judges, who will sample the in vitro chicken prepared using a fried "chicken" recipe from VegCooking.com. The in vitro chicken must get a score of at least 80 when evaluated in order to win the prize.
The idea is solid, but the $1 million is Dr. Evil low. I bet a lab with 10 people would go through more than a million in a year. I also don't see the reason for an expiration date on the contest, let it go until someone wins. And the requirement that it must be sold in 10 states at a competitive price is also too much. If you were able to do that, $1 million is chump change next to the amount of money you could make just selling the product. Given the requirements, I think it is most likely that a large agribusiness company like Tyson or Monsanto will win, which would be fantastically ironic to see PETA award them the prize.

I think PETA should redo the contest offering $5-10 million for anyone who can just produce test tube meat that is indistinguishable from real chicken in taste and texture. Then let someone else figure out how to scale up the process in a manner that makes it economically viable. I would also add that the winner must open source the methods of making it, allowing others to build on that person's work and making commercialization much more feasible.

And because I think this will be big, I am coining a new Fat Knowledge term: vegtubearian (or maybe vegtubarian, I was never good at speling) which is a person who eats no meat unless it comes from a test tube. Expect there to be a big debate over whether vegtubearians are real vegetarians or not.

via Andrew Sullivan

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Brain Scanners Detect Slip-Ups Before You Do

In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used fMRI machines to record neurological patterns preceding careless errors.

The recordings revealed a cascade of shifting activity in the parts of the brain associated with focusing attention and maintaining routines. Researchers observed test subjects' minds going on autopilot up to half a minute before the subjects actually made mistakes, even though the subjects weren't aware of their own lapses of attention.

Up to 30 seconds before Eichele's test subjects carelessly said that an arrow pointing in one direction was pointing in another, blood flow decreased in their posterior medial frontal cortex, a brain region associated with sustaining effort and focus.

At the same time, activity increased in the so-called default mode network -- a region of the brain spanning the precuneus, retrosplenial cortex and anterior medial frontal cortex. The default mode network is associated with maintaining baseline routines, and tends to be most active during sleep and sedation.

In short, the conscious brain started to shut down while the system usually responsible for preventing that failed.
via Wired

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Financial Traders to Start Taking Steroids?

Their study of traders in the City of London, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that whether or not a trader will have a profitable day can be predicted by his testosterone level in the morning.

Dr Coates and Dr Herbert recruited 17 male volunteers from an un-named City institution. The researchers were interested in two hormones, testosterone and cortisol, which are both linked with mood and behaviour. Testosterone is associated with (among many other things) winning and losing, and cortisol with stress. The researchers predicted that a trader's testosterone levels would be high on days when he made above-average profits, and his cortisol levels would be high when he made an above-average loss. As it happened, neither prediction was quite on the money. Testosterone levels were, indeed, high, but they anticipated profit, rather than responding to it. And cortisol responded not to loss, but uncertainty.

To arrive at their conclusions, Dr Coates and Dr Herbert took swabs from the mouths of their volunteers at 11am and 4pm on eight consecutive trading days, and analysed the hormones they contained. The prediction that a trader enjoying higher-than-average profits (the average being his previous month's success) would have higher-than-average testosterone levels was, indeed, fulfilled. But a closer analysis showed something more subtle happening. The average level was the sum of 11am and 4pm, divided by two. However, the result also pertained to each individual measurement. That meant the morning level was predicting high performance, rather than being caused by it.
I am not quite sure why higher testosterone levels would lead to better performance, but if this is true expect the SEC to instigate random drug testing on the floor of the NYSE in the near future.

via The Economist

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness After All

(Click on the image for a larger version.)
In the paper, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that money indeed tends to bring happiness, even if it doesn’t guarantee it. They point out that in the 34 years since Mr. Easterlin published his paper, an explosion of public opinion surveys has allowed for a better look at the question. “The central message,” Ms. Stevenson said, “is that income does matter.”

If anything, Ms. Stevenson and Mr. Wolfers say, absolute income seems to matter more than relative income. In the United States, about 90 percent of people in households making at least $250,000 a year called themselves “very happy” in a recent Gallup Poll. In households with income below $30,000, only 42 percent of people gave that answer. But the international polling data suggests that the under-$30,000 crowd might not be happier if they lived in a poorer country.

So where does all this leave us?

Economic growth, by itself, certainly isn’t enough to guarantee people’s well-being — which is Mr. Easterlin’s great contribution to economics. In this country, for instance, some big health care problems, like poor basic treatment of heart disease, don’t stem from a lack of sufficient resources. Recent research has also found that some of the things that make people happiest — short commutes, time spent with friends — have little to do with higher incomes.

But it would be a mistake to take this argument too far. The fact remains that economic growth doesn’t just make countries richer in superficially materialistic ways.

Economic growth can also pay for investments in scientific research that lead to longer, healthier lives. It can allow trips to see relatives not seen in years or places never visited. When you’re richer, you can decide to work less — and spend more time with your friends.
via NY Times via Will Wilkinson and more over at Freakonomics

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America's Smoking Bans Are Causing Fatal Accidents

The problem with this, say Scott Adams and Chad Cotti, economists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is that smoking bans seem to have been followed by an increase in drunk-driving and in fatal accidents involving alcohol. In research published in the Journal of Public Economics, the authors find evidence that smokers are driving farther to places where smoking in bars is allowed.

The researchers analysed data from 120 American counties, 20 of which had banned smoking. They found a smoking ban increased fatal alcohol-related car accidents by 13% in a typical county containing 680,000 people. This is the equivalent of 2.5 fatal accidents (equivalent to approximately six deaths). Furthermore, drunk-driving smokers have not changed their ways over time. In areas where the ban has been in place for longer than 18 months, the increased accident rate is 19%.

The findings, say the pair, are consistent with the suggestion that smokers are driving farther to alternative places to drink. This may be because they are driving to bars with outdoor seating, or to bars which are not enforcing the smoking ban.
via The Economist

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Crazy NBA Final Standings

EastWest
WLGBWLGB
1Boston6616-LA5725-
2Detroit59237New Orleans56261
3Orlando523014San Antonio56261
4Cleveland453721Utah54283
5Washington433923Houston55272
6Toronto414126Phoenix55272
7Philadelphia404226Dallas51316
8Atlanta374529Denver50327

The final standings for the NBA are the craziest I have ever seen.

In the East, the #2 seed is 7 games behind the #1 seed. In the West, the #8 seed is 7 games behind the #1 seed.

In the West, Golden State was 48-34 and they didn't even make it into the playoffs. If they were in the East they would be the #4 seed. Meanwhile, Atlanta is in the playoffs even though they are 8 games under .500.

While I want to say that the East is the obviously weaker division, I can't as they have the teams with the two best records. But, without question the first round series in the West are going to better, and maybe are the best first round matchups ever.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

JOGMEC achieves 1st continuous production of methane hydrate.

The unusual ROI of going green: From saving to eco-friendly index funds that beat the market.

Get yer free solar: SolarCity launches leasing program.

Twenty percent of scientists admit to using performance-enhancing prescription drugs.

Hand-held lie detector.

Ajanta Group to Make EV to Compete with Tata Nano.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Test Tube Meat Could Be Cheaper Than Beef in 5-10 Years

In five to 10 years, supermarkets might have some new products in the meat counter: packs of vat-grown meat that are cheaper to produce than livestock and have less impact on the environment.

According to a new economic analysis (.pdf) presented at this week's In Vitro Meat Symposium in ├ůs, Norway, meat grown in giant tanks known as bioreactors would cost between $5,200-$5,500 a ton (3,300 to 3,500 euros), which the analysis claims is cost competitive with European beef prices.

"To produce the meat we eat now, 75 to 95 percent of what we feed an animal is lost because of metabolism and inedible structures like skeleton or neurological tissue," Jason Matheny, a researcher at Johns Hopkins and co-founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit that promotes research on in vitro meat, told Wired.com. "With cultured meat, there's no body to support; you're only building the meat that eventually gets eaten."

While scientists are struggling to recreate filet mignon, they anticipate less trouble growing hamburger.

"The general consensus is that minced meat or ground meat products -- sausage, chicken nuggets, hamburgers -- those are within technical reach," Matheny said. "We have the technology to make those things at scale with existing technology.
Those that wonder what part of a chicken the nugget comes from will soon have their answer: the test tube.
None of the experts were sure if there is a large market of early adopters who want to eat test tube meat for environmental, health or ethical reasons.
Count me in. I'll by an early adopter for sure for environmental and ethical reasons.

via Wired

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Kindle Links

Here are some useful Kindle links I have come across.

Blogs:
Kindleville: Kindle and other ebook news
The Kindle Reader: reviews of books and links to lots of free book sources
Mobile Read: news on all e-ink devices

Message Boards:
Kindle Forum (Amazon)
Kindle Chat (Google Groups)
Kindle Korner (Yahoo Groups)
Kindle Developer's Corner (Mobile Reader)

Places to Get Free Books:
Legal:
FeedBooks (the Kindle Download Guide gives you a library on demand)
ManyBooks.net
Baen Free Library
Free Kindle Books
Creative Commons
Mobile Read's list of Free eBooks
Best Places to Get Free Books - The Ultimate Guide: if the previous links don't do you good, check here for other sites

Questionably Legal:

ebook search on Torrentz (replace java with the title you are looking for)
Lord of the Rings (because you can't purchase a copy, you are forced to be a pirate if you want to read it on the Kindle)

Tips, Keyboard Shortcuts & Undocumented Features:
Hacking the Kindle
Kindle Fan Guide

Mobipocket:
Creator: convert .pdf and other files into a Kindle Readable format (allows you to set title and author)
Reader: test the files before putting them on the Kindle

Amazon Links:
Manage Your Kindle
Your Media Library: list all of your books, rate them, share with others

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Longer-Lasting Batteries for Laptops

Conventional lithium-ion batteries in laptops and cell phones quickly lose their ability to store energy and can catch fire if they're overcharged or damaged. Now researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, IL, have developed composite battery materials that can make such batteries both safer and longer lived, while increasing their capacity to store energy by 30 percent.

The Argonne researchers have improved the performance of the positive electrodes by increasing the chemical and structural stability of the materials already used in laptop batteries. In conventional lithium-ion batteries, which have cobalt oxide electrodes, a small amount of overheating, caused by overcharging the material or by electrical shorts inside a battery, can lead to rapidly increasing temperatures inside the cell and, in some cases, combustion. That's because, as the material overheats, the cobalt oxide readily gives up oxygen, which reacts with the solvent in the battery's electrolyte and generates more heat, feeding the reactions. The Argonne researchers addressed this problem by replacing some of the cobalt oxide with manganese oxide, which is chemically more stable.

The researchers' next step was to replace some of the active metal oxide materials in the electrode with a related but electrochemically inactive material, forming a composite. This material does not store energy, because it does not release and take up lithium ions as the battery is charged and discharged. (Lithium-ion batteries create electrical current as lithium ions shuttle between positive and negative electrodes.) The inactive material makes the composite more stable than conventional electrode materials, which means it can last longer. One version of the material can last for 1,500 charges and discharges without losing much capacity, he says. That's more than double the life of conventional laptop batteries.

The electrode material can store 45 percent to 50 percent more energy than the best electrodes in laptop batteries. In terms of an entire battery cell--given that the positive electrode represents less than half of the total weight and volume of a battery cell--the total energy storage of the battery can be improved by 20 percent to 30 percent, Henriksen says.
via Technology Review

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Pleasure Seekers


via The Economist

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Oceanic Geothermal Power

With most of the earth’s low-lying regions under water, the earth’s potential geothermal power sources are also mostly under water. Two MBA candidates and a PhD in mechanical engineering have proposed to retrofit decommissioned oil derricks to tap submarine geothermal vents. Assuming a vent temperature of 250 degrees C, the group estimates it can generate 30 MW per rig! The team says it’s already piqued the interest of Chevron and it certainly has us paying attention.
I'd like to see how the economics pencil out, but given that the derrick is already there and you could run a powerline in the oil pipeline (or at least I bet you could), and if there really is 30 MW in potential power, this look like it could work.

Check out some other cool new Cleantech ideas in the article.

via Earth2Tech

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Research Breakthough on Green Gasoline

Researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of "green gasoline," a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.

Reporting in the April 7, 2008 issue of Chemistry & Sustainability, Energy & Materials (ChemSusChem), chemical engineer and National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awardee George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute announced the first direct conversion of plant cellulose into gasoline components.

In the same issue, James Dumesic and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison announce an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach. While Dumesic's group had previously demonstrated the production of jet-fuel components using separate steps, their current work shows that the steps can be integrated and run sequentially, without complex separation and purification processes between reactors.

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.
via Science Daily

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Petrified Piece of Poop Rewrites Human History

Researchers discovered the 14,000-year-old DNA in pieces of dried feces -- called coprolites -- unearthed in a cave in Oregon, according to a study published this week in the journal Science.

"This is the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Americas," Eske Willerslev, director of the University of Copenhagen's Center for Ancient Genetics and one of the study's authors, told the Boston Globe.

Until about a decade ago, scientists thought that the earliest humans in the Americas arrived via a land bridge from Asia around 13,000 years ago. That bridge, which was uncovered during the last ice age, disappeared when the climate warmed and sea level rose again.

The finding also lends weight to the theory that early North Americans might have accessed different parts of the continent via water routes -- taking boats down the Pacific coast -- because if humans arrived in North America during the ice age, overland routes through what is now Canada and the Northern United States would have been blocked by glaciers.

The researchers used two methods to analyze the DNA. Radiocarbon dating put its age at more than 14,000 years old, and an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA -- a part of the DNA that is passed through the maternal line -- suggested that the humans descended from people who came from Northeast Asia.
With an ancient Chilean site being dated to 14,600 years old, even older remains may yet be found.
Human excrement itself doesn't contain any DNA, but it does contain DNA-holding flakes of tissue from the intestine.
Hmm, I was unaware of the fact that there was a distinction between between excrement, shed gut issue and well anything else that exits via the anus. I had always applied the Seinfeld law of refuse (adjacent to refuse, is refuse) to excrement. Glad to have my mistaken assumption clarified.

via The News Hour and The Economist and Yahoo News

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Comcast Starts Rollout of 50Mbs Internet Access

Comcast plans to announce Thursday that it is beginning the introduction of a new broadband Internet technology in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, starting this week.

The technology, Docsis 3.0, is a bandwidth hog’s dream: Internet users can feast on download speeds of up to 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 5 megabits a second. The service is pricey. In the Twin Cities, the new tier will be offered at $150 a month, as compared to an 8-megabit-a-second download tier now offered at $53 and a 6-megabit-a-second download tier at $43.

Mitch Bowling, a senior vice president at Comcast, said the company would make Docsis 3.0 available to 20 percent of homes in areas it serves in 2009 and will finish the introduction to the rest of the country by 2010.
I was excited when I first read this, as 50Mbs speed will allow for streaming and quick downloads of HD movie and TV content. But then I realized that this is another Comcast offering that looks good on everything except price. $150 a month? Who is going to pay that?

The next president should challenge the internet providers to make 100Mbs Internet access available to all Americans for $50 a month by the end of his first term (Jan, 2013). It is time to put America back on the map in terms of internet competitiveness. (Personally I would be fine with just a goal of all urban and suburban households hitting this goal, as I figure the rural locations will be the tricky ones, but that doesn't make for a good political rallying cry.)

The commenters on Digg mention that you can get 100 Mbs (up and down) for the same price in Japan, for 25€ in Finland and 17€ in Sweden. Sweden taunts us further by using the world's fastest internet connection to dry laundry. Even Malaysia has a plan to provide 224Mbps Internet access at a cost of RM5 (US$1.58) per user per month.

I am glad to see Comcast rolling this out, but America needs even faster internet speeds at much lower prices.

via Bits

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

'Ruthlessness Gene' Discovered

Researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem found a link between a gene called AVPR1a and ruthless behaviour in an economic exercise called the 'Dictator Game'.

Ebstein and his colleagues decided to look at AVPR1a because it is known to produce receptors in the brain that detect vasopressin, a hormone involved in altruism and 'prosocial' behaviour.

To find out, they tested DNA samples from more than 200 student volunteers, before asking the students to play the dictator game (volunteers were not told the name of the game, lest it influence their behaviour). Students were divided into two groups: 'dictators' and 'receivers' (called 'A' and 'B' to the participants). Each dictator was told that they would receive 50 shekels (worth about US$14), but were free to share as much or as little of this with a receiver, whom they would never have to meet. The receiver's fortunes thus depended entirely on the dictator's generosity.

About 18% of all dictators kept all of the money, Ebstein and his colleagues report in the journal Genes, Brain and Behavior 1. About one-third split the money down the middle, and a generous 6% gave the whole lot away. There was no connection between the participants' gender and their behaviour, the team reports. But there was a link to the length of the AVPR1a gene: people were more likely to behave selfishly the shorter their version of this gene.

It isn't clear how the length of AVPR1a affects vasopressin receptors: it is thought that rather than controlling the number of receptors, it may control where in the brain the receptors are distributed. Ebstein suggests the vasopressin receptors in the brains of people with short AVPR1a may be distributed in such a way to make them less likely to feel rewarded by the act of giving.
I am curious how much difference there was between those with the shorter version of AVPR1a and those with the longer. I found the journal article, but you can only read the abstract for free, so all I found out was:
Participants with short versions (308–325 bp) of the AVPR1a RS3 repeat allocated significantly (likelihood ratio = 14.75, P = 0.001, df = 2) fewer shekels to the ‘other’ than participants with long versions (327–343 bp).
I really don't know what a likelihood ratio, P, or a df mean (if any smart readers out there can explain what this means, please leave a comment).

If your genes can make you more or less altruistic based on how the brain handles vasopressin, I wonder if you will see 'altruism steroids' in the future. There is a nasal spray for oxytocin which is said to increase trust, and oxytocin and vasopressin are very similar. Will we see a nasal spray for vasopressin in the future, with prescriptions for those that are genetically deficient in altruism?

via Nature

Update: This gene is also linked to a propensity for men to skip out on women, or to have marital problems if they do tie the knot.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Brain enhancement is wrong, right?

Tooth regeneration may replace drill-and-fill.

Want to drive in Manhattan? That'll be $8, please.

The list: solar power’s new megaplants.

Silicon Wadi v Silicon Valley.

Sex and financial risk linked in brain.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Apple Mulls Unlimited Music Bundle

Apple is in discussions with the big music companies about a radical new business model that would give customers free access to its entire iTunes music library in exchange for paying a premium for its iPod and iPhone devices.

One executive said the research had shown that consumers would pay a premium of up to $100 for unlimited access to music for the lifetime of the device, or a monthly fee of $7-$8 for a subscription model.

Nokia is understood to be offering almost $80 per handset to music industry partners, to be divided according to their share of the market. However, Apple has so far offered only about $20 per device, two executives said. “It’s who blinks first, and whether or not anyone does blink,” one executive said.

Apple, which is thought to make relatively little money from the iTunes store compared with its hardware sales, is also understood to be examining a subscription model.
I like this idea. I have never been a fan of the piecemeal purchasing of digital music. Instead, charge a fee that allows people to listen to whatever they want and then divide that money up with artists based on how often each song is listened to.

I previously took a look at various models of compensating digital goods producers. This would be moving from selling the digital good directly (iTunes) to an unlimited access subscription plan (similar to Rhapsody) or tying it to a physical good if it is included in the cost of an iPod (similar to how the Canadians add a levy to all blank media like CD and iPods).

Over at TechCrunch they have a poll over what price would be fair with $100 up front being the most popular selection. I think $100 is definitely fair, and maybe even $200. If you own an iPod for 2 years, $200 would be equivalent to $8 a month. $200 would double the price of the $200 8 GB Nano, and add 40% to the $500 iPod Touch raising it to $700. In the first case that would mean 50% of the purchase price would go to artists, while in the second it would be 28%.

Having such a price scheme would also make the amounts that the RIAA are suing for seem ridiculous. Instead of accusing people of stealing millions of dollars of songs based on the number downloaded, now they would only be to sue you for the amount of time you have been listening to music for free (at a price of $8 a month). Regardless of how many songs you have downloaded, if you have been "stealing" them for 2 years, that would mean you have only stole $200 worth of music.

via Financial Times

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Cali Utility to Install 2 Square Miles of Solar Panels

Southern California Edison (SCE) has launched one of the most ambitious solar rooftop projects to date, promising 250 megawatts of photovoltaic power covering more than two square miles (some 65 million square feet) of southern California’s commercial building rooftops in what it claims will be the nation’s largest solar cell installation. All told, the project is forecast to cost $875 million and produce enough power for 162,000 homes. Booyah.

By spreading the panels out over an already highly wired area, SCE hopes to save itself — and presumably its customers — the cost of having to install new transmission lines. Access to transmission lines is one of the leading challenges for large solar and wind power installations, which are often located in remote regions.

It’s one of the most notable distributed-power projects ever undertaken by a large utility. The New York Times puts the size of the planned installation into context and says it is “10 times bigger than any previous such installation;” the NYTs notes that the largest in the U.S. is the 14 megawatts, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and the largest in the world is 23 megawatts in Spain.
This is of comparable size, at least in dollars, to this new solar plant. I don't really understand how much transmission lines cost, and whether distributed systems like this make more sense economically than central power plants. I should look into that (or hope that one of the highly educated loyal Fat Knowledge readers will leave a comment with some numbers or links (hint, hint)).

via Earth2Tech

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Freemium

Chris Anderson lays out the Freemium business model for digital goods:

What's free: Web software and services, some content. Free to whom: users of the basic version.

This term, coined by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, is the basis of the subscription model of media and is one of the most common Web business models. It can take a range of forms: varying tiers of content, from free to expensive, or a premium "pro" version of some site or software with more features than the free version (think Flickr and the $25-a-year Flickr Pro).

Again, this sounds familiar. Isn't it just the free sample model found everywhere from perfume counters to street corners? Yes, but with a pretty significant twist. The traditional free sample is the promotional candy bar handout or the diapers mailed to a new mother. Since these samples have real costs, the manufacturer gives away only a tiny quantity — hoping to hook consumers and stimulate demand for many more.

A typical online site follows the 1 Percent Rule — 1 percent of users support all the rest. In the freemium model, that means for every user who pays for the premium version of the site, 99 others get the basic free version. The reason this works is that the cost of serving the 99 percent is close enough to zero to call it nothing.
An interesting example of the freemium model is Nine Inch Nail's new 36 track album Ghosts. Trent Reznor was able to make $1.6 million in one week, although the album could be downloaded for free.
Reznor made the albums available at five different prices, including a free download, without any advance publicity. His marketing campaign, such as it is, consisted of a terse announcement on his nin.com Web site. On Wednesday, he reported 781,917 transactions, including free and paid downloads and orders of physical product. A $300 box set sold out of 2,500 copies within a day. Nine of the 36 songs were made available as a free download. The complete set also was available as a $5 download, a $10 double-CD and a $75 set with bonus visual content.
The $300 box set was a stroke of genius. He made $750,000 right there from just 2,500 fans. Never underestimate how much hardcore fans are willing to pay, especially for "limited edition" goods. I just hope the box set included a "I could have got this album for free but I decided to pay $300 for it" T-Shirt.

I don't know if this conformed to the 1% rule, but it certainly looks plausible. And count me in the 99% as I have downloaded the tracks for free. I don't think I would have paid for this, as while the album is interesting musically, it makes neither good background thinking music nor good workout music and that is primarily when I am listening.

Also, don't miss Reznor throwing the smackdown on Radiohead's offering (see my thoughts on the Radiohead experiment here).

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Green Taxes

Across the OECD as a whole, environmentally-related taxes made up an average of 5.6% of total tax receipts in 2005, down from 5.9% in 1996.
via The Economist and The Economist

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Carbon Footprint Jewelry

John Tierney suggests using jewelry to reduce carbon emissions.

I’d like to see a new green fad for electronic jewelry with real-time displays of carbon footprints. These could be mood rings, bracelets, lapel pins or anything else that could change color depending on how much electricity you use, how much gasoline your car burns, how much you travel.

The displays might change color from red to yellow to green as a carbon footprint diminishes. (There might even be a little glowing footprint on it.) The green might be a dim shade for those who have bought carbon credits to offset their energy use, but a much brighter shade for those who’ve reduced emissions to below-average without having to buy the credits.

Of course, it would be a chore to set up monitors for energy use, but plenty of greens are willing to give lots of time to the cause. Some are accused of being religious zealots — global warmists. But one of the advantages of religion is that it inspires people to acts of selflessness for the common good. Why not reward devout conservationists by letting them display their virtue?

This would be a strictly voluntary system — climate contrarians could either ignore it or proudly wear their flashing red lapel pins — and it would cost taxpayers nothing.

Besides putting the enthusiasm of greens to practical use, this fashion statement might also inject some realism into the debate about global warming. Once you start keeping track of all the energy you use, you begin to see the difficulties of making drastic reductions — and the difference between effective actions and ritual displays.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. First, with your help (go to tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com), we have to work out the details of this device, starting with what it should measure and what it would be called.

The Green Lantern is an obvious name, but there may be trademark problems. GreenGlow? Eglow? Enudge? The Nudgie? Further research is clearly needed.
I like that idea a lot. I am no fan of jewelry in general, but I could get down with this.

The problem is, where do you get the data from? Maybe you could just go to a website and fill in data to calculate your carbon footprint. But then, when would the bracelet change colors?

What I would really like would be if each merchant calculated the footprint for each product, and then passed this along to the credit card company. Then your credit card bill could specify the amount of carbon you have used along with the amount of money you have spent. This data could then be wirelessly transmitted to your carbon bracelet.

Until that day, I think it would be possible to get electronic data of carbon emissions via your monthly electricity and natural gas bills along with the gasoline and airline ticket purchases on your credit card. This would get the major energy components and carbon emissions. Your bracelet could be updated monthly to reflect your latest purchases.

Over at Earth2Tech they mention another way to use peer pressure to reduce your footprint: a Facebook App CarbonMinder that compares your carbon footprint with that of your friends.

via NY Times

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Reducing Energy Use Via Smiley Faces

A study in California showed that when the monthly electric bill listed the average consumption in the neighborhood, the people in above-average households significantly decreased their consumption.

Meanwhile, the people with the below-average bills reacted by significantly increasing their consumption — not exactly the goal of the project.

That reaction was avoided when the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.
So simple that I don't know why all electric companies don't adopt this.

via NY Times

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Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders

David Brooks on the new type of do-gooders:

Earlier generations of benefactors thought that social service should be like sainthood or socialism. But this one thinks it should be like venture capital.

These thoroughly modern do-gooders dress like venture capitalists. They talk like them. They even think like them.

Bill Drayton, the godfather of this movement, went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford and McKinsey before founding Ashoka, a global change network. Those who follow him typically went to some fancy school and then did a stint with Teach for America or AmeriCorps before graduate school. Then, they worked for a software firm before deciding to use what they’d learned in business to help the less fortunate.

Now they work 80 hours a week, fighting bureaucracies and funding restrictions in order to build, say, mentoring programs for single moms.

The venture-capital ethos means instead that these social entrepreneurs are almost willfully blind to ideological issues. They will tell you, even before you have a chance to ask, that they are data-driven and accountability-oriented. They’re always showing you multivariate regressions or explaining why some promising idea “didn’t pencil out.” The highest status symbol in their circle is a Rand study showing that their program yields statistically significant results.
These are my kind of do-gooders. :)

So how this style compare with the older generation and how does it require government to change?
The older do-gooders had a certain policy model: government identifies a problem. Really smart people design a program. A cabinet department in a big building administers it.

But the new do-gooders have absorbed the disappointments of the past decades. They have a much more decentralized worldview. They don’t believe government on its own can be innovative. A thousand different private groups have to try new things. Then we measure to see what works.

Their problem now is scalability. How do the social entrepreneurs replicate successful programs so that they can be big enough to make a national difference?

America Forward, a consortium of these entrepreneurs, wants government to do domestic policy in a new way. It wants Washington to expand national service (to produce more social entrepreneurs) and to create a network of semipublic social investment funds. These funds would be administered locally to invest in community-run programs that produce proven results. The government would not operate these social welfare programs, but it would, in essence, create a network of semipublic Gates Foundations that would pick winners based on stiff competition.

The funds would head us toward this new policy model, in which government sets certain accountability standards but gives networks of local organizations the freedom to choose how to meet them. President Bush’s faith-based initiative was a step in this direction, but this would be broader.
The funding of social entrepreneurs by competition is very interesting and I sounds like a good idea to try.

via NY Times

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$1 Billion Solar Power Plant To Be Built in the Mojave Desert

Utility giant FPL has filed plans with California regulators to build a $1 billion, 250-megawatt solar power plant in the Mojave Desert. The move marks the first time that a major player — in this case a Fortune 500 company — has jumped into the nascent Big Solar market.

Juno Beach, Fla.-based FPL’s renewable energy arm, FPL (FPL) Energy, will operate the Beacon Solar Energy Project, which will connect to the transmission system operated by Los Angeles’ municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. FPL Energy spokesman Steve Stengel declined to say whether the company had struck a deal with LADWP to buy the electricity produced by the Beacon project.

O’Sullivan estimated the project would create 1,000 jobs during the two-year construction phase and 66 permanent positions once it goes online in 2011.
A billion here, a billion there all of a sudden you are talking about real money. I expect that many more solar plants will be built in the Mojave Desert in the near future. I wonder though if there is enough transmission capacity to send the electricity to Los Angeles or if that will constrain growth.

via Green Wombat

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