Sunday, November 30, 2008

How Many People Can the Earth Support?

What is the maximum number of people that the Earth could support at a minimal level of sustenance?

To answer this question, lets look at how much corn is required for a person to survive. Then lets look at how many people could be supported in 4 scenarios: if all current cropland was used to grow corn at current productivity levels, if all current cropland was used to grow corn at US productivity levels, if all human usage of net primary productivity was used to grow corn, and if all net primary productivity on the planet was used to grow corn.

How much corn does a person need a year to survive?

Why corn (maize)?

Corn is the staple food in the diet of many cultures. Worldwide, corn has the highest yield of the major grains at 4,970 kg/hectare (ha) (FAO 2007) compared to rice at 4,152 and wheat at 2,791. There are 158 mil ha of cropland devoted to corn making it second only to wheat (217 mil).

While corn cannot be eaten exclusively as it is missing the amino acids lysine and tryptophan and diets with too much corn can lead to protein deficiency and pellagra, it can comprise the bulk of the diet and the numbers calculated here won't change much with the additional foods needed to supplement the diet.

How many calories does a person need to survive?

According to this calculator a 150 lb, 5'8", 30 year old male living a sedentary lifestyle should eat 2,000 calories daily. The USDA bases their dietary guidelines on a 2,000 calorie diet and it is a rough average of what people eat in a day. The poverty level in India is based on having enough money to buy enough grains to survive which is defined as 2,400 calories in rural areas, and 2,100 calories in the urban area. You might be able to survive on less, but 2,000 calories a day is a nice round number to use. Over a year, 2,000 calories a day comes to 730,00 calories.

How any calories (kcal) are in a kg of corn?

Foundations of Anasazi Culture puts it at 3,476 kcal/kg (88,480 kcal/bushel * 56 lbs/bushel /2.2 lbs/kg). According to An Estimate of the Cost, Energy Ratio and Carbon Balance of Maize Ethanol in New Zealand 3,076 kcal/kg ((610 g starch *4 kcal/g+ 81.7 g protein * 4 kcal/g + 34.4g oil *9 kcal/g). Alternative Fuel - Our future finds 3,650 kcal/kg. A commenter at AutoBlogGreen puts it at 5,280 kcal/kg of field corn (2,400 kcal/lb). Biomass Authroity uses a value of 4,900 kcal/kg (1 bushel of corn can support a person for 52 days at 2,400 kcal/day with 25.4kg/bushel). Lets use an average of these values and go with 3,500 kcal/kg.

How many kcal are in a kg of NPP (as measured in carbon) of corn?

To compare with the net primary productivity (NPP) of Earth, we need to know how many calories corn produces per kg of carbon. According to Source 2: There is 18.3 MJ of energy in 1 kg of dry mass (DM) of biomass. At 239 kcal/MJ, that would be 4,373 kcal/kg DM. Above we used a value of 3,500 kcal/kg of corn. Corn is assumed to have 13% moisture, so that would be 4,023 kcal/kg of DM of corn. This is 8.7% lower than the value being used here, which is fairly close.

Source 2 assumes 2 kg of DM per kg of carbon (C), so 4,373 kcal/kg DM is 8,748 kcal/kgC. Source 2 gives corn a harvest factor of 1.2 meaning that for every 1 kg of corn produced there are an additional 1.2 kg of silage and waste. This harvest factor is very similar to the numbers independently derived from Source 3 which using their terminology would be 1/harvest index * (1+ root shoot) or 1/.53 * (1+.18) = 1.23.

Taking the harvest factor into account there are 3,976, lets call it, 4,000 edible kcal/kg C of corn biomass (including silage and waste).

How much corn/biomass does a person need a year to survive?

2,000 kcal/3,500 kcal/kg of corn = .57 kg of corn/day or 209 kg of corn/yr.

2,000 kcal/ 4,000 kcal/kgC = .5 kgC of corn/day or 182.5kgC kg of corn/yr.

How many people can the Earth support based on the amount of corn they need to survive?

Scenario 1) What if all cropland was used to produce corn at the current productivity level?

Source 4 states there are 15.2 million km2 of cropland (12% of the land on the Earth excluding Antarctica and Greenland). Source 1 states that cropland averages 397 grams of carbon of NPP per m2 per year.

15.2 million km2 * 10^6 m2/km2 * 397 gC/m2/yr = 6,044 billion kgC / 182.5kgC/yr/person = 33.1 billion people.

This calculation gives us a feel for how man people could be supported if all current cropland was converted to corn and that was all that was eaten (no meat or other foods that produce fewer calories per kgC).

Scenario 2) What if all current cropland was as productive as US cropland?

The US is currently able to produce 9,482 kg/ha/yr of corn (FAO 2007, more values from FarmDoc) or 149 bushels/acre (at 56 lbs/bushel and a conversion rate of 62.8 bushels/acre to kg/ha). This is almost double the world average of 4,970 kg/ha/yr of corn.

Converted into NPP, 9,482 kg of corn/ha * (1-13% moisture) = 8,250 kg DM/ha * (1+1.2 harvest factor) = 18,150 kg DM/ha with waste / 2 kg DM/kgC = 9,075 kgC/ha/yr. 9,075 kgC/ha/yr / 10,000 ha/m2 * 1000 kg/g = 907gC/m2. This is 2.3 times as high as the 397 gC/m2/yr of NPP that croplands average around the world.

15.2 million km2 * 10^6 m2/km2 * 907 gC/m2/yr = 13,786 billion kgC / 182.5kgC/yr/person = 77.6 billion people.

This can also be calculated more directly:
15.2 million km2 of cropland * 9,482 kg of corn/ha * 100 ha/km2 = 14,412 billion kg of corn / 209 kg of corn/person/yr = 69 billion people. This value differs from the one above because the kcal/kg of corn assumption is 8.7% lower than the kcal/kg of DM assumption.

Aside: How much land would it take to feed the world's current population?

At the US level of corn productivity, 9,482 kg/ha, and 3,500 kcal/kg of corn, one ha provides 33.1 mil kcal. At 730,000 kcal/yr/person, an ha of corn could feed 45.5 people.
To feed 6.8 billion people would take 132 mil ha or 1.32 mil km2 or about 1% of the Earth's surface.

Currently the US has 35 mil ha of cropland in production of corn which would feed 1.8 billion people or 27% of the world's population. The US has 435 mil acres or 174 mil ha of cropland in total. It would take 76% of the US cropland dedicated to corn to provide enough food for the basic sustenance of 6.8 billion people.

Scenario 3) What if all human appropriated NPP was just put towards corn?

Source 1 states that NPP of human harvest was 8.18 PgC. 8.18PgC / 182.5kgC/yr/person = 44.8 billion people. This is likely an overestimate as pasture and forest lands won't be easily convertible to corn and might not yield as much NPP as they did previously.

Source 1 also states that the total human appropriation of NPP was 15.6 PgG. 15.6 PgC / 182.5kgC/yr/person = 85.4 billion people. Beyond human harvest this value includes human induced alteration of land and human induced fires. It is not clear that the loss of NPP due to human alteration could be regained by growing corn on all land, but at the productivity of US corn growers, this would be made up. It is also not clear that forests and other lands that are being burnt down could be replaced with corn for harvest, but if they were this is the value you would get.

Scenario 4) What if all biomass on the planet was used to grow corn?

Source 1 puts the total biomass of actual vegetation on Earth at 59.22 PgC. 59.22 PgC / 182.5kgC/yr/person = 324 billion people.

If all land and all things growing on it was corn and that was used to just feed people, and if you could produce biomass at the same rate growing corn then you could feed 324 billion people. There would be no additional biomass for nature, as all would be used for corn to feed humans.


At the current worldwide level of productivity, and taking all suitable land on Earth for farming and using it to grow corn, and if people needed no additional resources from nature (no meat, cotton, or wood products), then the Earth could support 50 billion people. This is based on Scenario 3, assuming additional land that is currently being used by nature can be repurposed for human use and that some of this land would produce less biomass when converted to growing corn.

If the whole world was able to grow corn with the productivity that is possible in the US, the amount of corn produced would double and number of people the Earth could support would be 100 billion people.

While these are extreme scenarios that would never actually happen, they are instructive to know just what the upper limit of humans on Earth could be if the sole goal was to maximize population.


This analysis just looks at land and does not take oceans into account. Adding fish and other forms of seafood would enable a larger population.

The silage and other biomass generated from the corn harvest that isn't corn is treated as waste in this analysis. Source 2 says that 70% of this "waste" biomass from the harvest factor is used to feed animals. The food generated by these animals would allow for a larger population than stated here.

More than just one planting of corn could be grown on the same land over the course of a year. Winter wheat or other crops could be grown as well. This would also increase the size of the potential population.

This analysis also assumes that there is no spoilage or other forms of waste in consumption of food from harvest to eating. One estimate has Britons throwing away 1/3 of their food. Including this would decrease the number of people that the Earth could support.

It also assumes that the US level of production is sustainable, which not all people would agree with. Some see the current style of farming to be a form of soil mining, which cannot go on indefinitely. Fertilizer and pesticides are also made from fossil fuels which are not sustainable, although there is no reason artificial fertilizer couldn't be made sustainably.

This analysis ignores usage of water and fertilizer which could also be potential bottlenecks of producing food.


Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth’s terrestrial ecosystems
2) Global patterns of socioeconomic biomass flows in the year 2000: A comprehensive assessment of supply, consumption and constraints
3) Net Primary Production of U.S. Midwest Croplands from Agricultural Harvest Yield Data
4) A comprehensive global 5 min resolution land-use data set for the year 2000 consistent with national census data


GPS-Based Personal Environmental Impact Report (PEIR)

PEIR, the Personal Environmental Impact Report, is a piece of software that uses the geographical data fed into it by your GPS-enabled phone to create a report that tells you how you impact the environment (kind of like a next-generation carbon calculator), but also how the environment impacts you (your exposure to air pollution, for example).

Right now PEIR gives you reports about 4 things: Your carbon impact, your particulate matter (PM) exposure, your fast food exposure (how many restaurants in your immediate surroundings), and sensitive sites impact (air pollution close to schools and hospitals).

To see what a PEIR personalized environmental report would look like, go to their site, click on "profile" and use the login and password "demo".
Cool concept. I like how you once you install it on your phone, it can accumulate all the data for you without requiring any additional data input. Because of the GPS in your phone, it knows where you go and can calculate all the values for you.

via TreeHugger


Grandma Got a New Mac

via Gizmodo


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Study Suggests Some Cancers May Go Away

Now, though, researchers say they have found a situation in Norway that has let them ask that question about breast cancer. And their new study, to be published Tuesday in The Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests that even invasive cancers may sometimes go away without treatment and in larger numbers than anyone ever believed.

The study was conducted by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a researcher at the VA Outcomes Group in White River Junction, Vt., and Dartmouth Medical School; Dr. Per-Henrik Zahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health; and Dr. Jan Maehlen of Ulleval University Hospital in Oslo. It compared two groups of women ages 50 to 64 in two consecutive six-year periods.

One group of 109,784 women was followed from 1992 to 1997. Mammography screening in Norway was initiated in 1996. In 1996 and 1997, all were offered mammograms, and nearly every woman accepted.

The second group of 119,472 women was followed from 1996 to 2001. All were offered regular mammograms, and nearly all accepted.

It might be expected that the two groups would have roughly the same number of breast cancers, either detected at the end or found along the way. Instead, the researchers report, the women who had regular routine screenings had 22 percent more cancers. For every 100,000 women who were screened regularly, 1,909 were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer over six years, compared with 1,564 women who did not have regular screening.

There are other explanations, but researchers say that they are less likely than the conclusion that the tumors disappeared.

The most likely explanation, Dr. Welch said, is that “there are some women who had cancer at one point and who later don’t have that cancer.”
Interesting. While the results will need to be replicated given their extraordinary nature, if true it raises a couple of points.

First, it makes you wonder how many cancers that are "successfully treated" by doctors would have gone away on their own without any intervention. It also makes you wonder why exactly the cancer went away and if other patients could harness the body's natural ability to stop cancer.

Second, while an ounce of prevention might be worth a pound of cure, studies like this show that preventative medicine is spending resources on treating people that would have gotten better on their own. It is not clear then that prevention is nearly as cost effective as proponents would have you believe.

via NY Times


Higher SAT Scores, Better Graduation Rates

Peter D. Salins makes the case that SATs predict graduation rates more accurately than high school grade-point averages.

Among the campuses that raised selectivity, the average incoming student’s SAT score increased 4.5 percent (at Cortland) to 13.3 percent (Old Westbury), while high school grade-point averages increased only 2.4 percent to 3.7 percent — a gain in grades almost identical to that at campuses that did not raise their SAT cutoff.

Yet when we look at the graduation rates of those incoming classes, we find remarkable improvements at the increasingly selective campuses. These ranged from 10 percent (at Stony Brook, where the six-year graduation rate went to 59.2 percent from 53.8 percent) to 95 percent (at Old Westbury, which went to 35.9 percent from 18.4 percent).

Most revealingly, graduation rates actually declined at the seven SUNY campuses that did not raise their cutoffs and whose entering students’ SAT scores from 1997 to 2001 were stable or rose only modestly. Even at Binghamton, always the most selective of SUNY’s research universities, the graduation rate declined by 2.8 percent.
While I think his thesis is interesting, the more pertinent take away from this analysis is just how low the graduation rate is with or without higher SAT scores. Going from 1/6 of your students graduating to 1/3 is a good improvement, but it still isn't good. Even 59.2% is really low in my book. Beyond trying to get students with higher SAT scores, I think these schools need to look at their entire process and question why so many students don't graduate. My guess is that they can make improvements in graduation rates far greater than what they are seeing from requiring higher SAT scores.

via NY Times


Bull Surfing

via Big Huge Labs via Digg


Friday, November 28, 2008


If you are looking for a time waster in this holiday season, check out Auditorium, a simple to understand flash game that is lots of fun to play.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

2 Suggestions for NBC Green Week

NBC is having another green week. I am not sure exactly what this means, but their tagline is "green your routine" and I think it has to do with things like switching your light bulbs to CFLs. While there is some value in what they are doing, I think it would be much more valuable if they did two other things instead: calculate and publish the carbon footprints of all of their TV shows, and have a contest between all of their actors to see who has the smallest carbon footprint.

First, they should publish the carbon footprint of their TV shows.

I am curious what the carbon footprint is of me sitting down to watch TV for an evening is. While I can figure out the electricity used to run my TV and the energy needed to manufacture the TV, I have what the footprint is of producing and distribution TV shows is. Without that information I can't complete my calculation, and only the TV networks are in a position to determine the value. Once I have this additional information then I could compare the carbon footprint of various entertainment options I have: watching TV vs. going bowling vs. reading a book vs. going to a movie.

By producing this data, it would also allow NBC to see what is source of the largest portion of emissions and allows them to see how best they can reduce it.

Second, they should have a contest with all of their actors to see who has the smallest personal carbon footprint.

The contest could be measured in two different ways: one that includes carbon offsets and one that doesn't. Because offsetting carbon is so cheap, I would think that all actors could easily pay to offset their entire footprint. So, the real competition would be for the non-offset footprint. My money for smallest footprint would be someone who lives in New York City who doesn't do a whole lot of travel.

I think it would be interesting to know just how large the footprint of celebrities are and which actors are really walking the walk when it comes to environmentalism. Such a contest would also inspire lots of viewers to inquire as to how large their own footprint is and how best to reduce it.

This contest would also raise lots of questions that would make for interesting debate.

Where does a personal footprint end and a professional footprint start? Should travel that is work related count in the footprint? On the one hand, it seems like it shouldn't, and that those emissions are allocated to the purchaser of the product for which they are traveling. On the other hand, it seems like it should as the the person has control over how often and by which means he travels and that someone who has a smaller travel footprint should be rewarded.

Should rich people be able to have a large carbon footprint than poor people? Should all people be given equal allotments? Or if someone makes $1 million a year should they be able to have 20 times the emissions as someone who makes $50,000 a year? As Conan O'Brien says "if you are not famous then you should walk".


Every Bird Should Get To Fly

via YouTube


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will Journalism Shift to a Non-Profit Funding Model?

As America’s newspapers shrink and shed staff, and broadcast news outlets sink in the ratings, a new kind of Web-based news operation has arisen in several cities, forcing the papers to follow the stories they uncover.

Here it is, offering a brand of serious, original reporting by professional journalists — the province of the traditional media, but at a much lower cost of doing business. Since it began in 2005, similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago. More are on the way.

Publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, but online advertising is not robust enough to sustain a newsroom.

And so financially, VoiceofSan Diego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising.

The biggest of the new nonprofit news sites, MinnPost in the Twin Cities and the St. Louis Beacon, can top 200,000 visitors in a month, but even that is a fraction of the Internet readership for the local newspapers.
I looked at 8 funding models to support digital goods creation and under the definitions I use there, the newspaper industry has used a model of advertising along with attaching their digital good to a physical product (the newspaper) and then selling it either as a stand alone item or as a subscription to fund their journalism. Now newspaper readership is shrinking and the classified ads that provided much of their revenue are shifting to the internet, making these funding models unable to support as many journalists, but it is not clear what model to support journalism will replace it. Four possible new models are: donations, government funding, unlimited use subscription, and volunteering.

This article describes a non-profit model where funding comes from donations of wealth individuals and audience viewers. Instead of paying $15 a month to have a newspaper delivered to your door, now you donate it to your favorite news organization.

The government could also help to fund journalism such as they do with PBS. While I would not want government to be the sole provider of funds, they could help out with a part of funding.

Another option is to take the subscription model of newspapers to the internet, possible charging $15 a month to access all newspapers and then dividing the revenue based on page hits. But, the subscription model has not worked very well so far with only the Wall Street Journal able to make it work.

Amateur reporting, such as bloggers who are motivated simply by the status of having others read their work, could also increase to provide a larger portion of journalism.

It is not clear which funding model for journalism will dominate in the future, but it will be interesting to see how it evolves. I am also curious to see what happens to the number of full time journalists and the total number of quality journalistic articles written.

via NY Times


Label Wars

Over at Reason they took a look at the issues with using Food Miles as a way to determine the carbon footprint or the environmental impact of the food you are eating.

I found this passage particularly amusing:

Nevertheless, organic food activists in Britain's Soil Association argued for lifting the organic certification from Kenyan food exports because they are brought into Britain on airplanes. Some high-end British retailers have begun slapping a label featuring an airplane on various food products to indicate that they have been air freighted. Kenyan growers cannily responded by launching their own "Grown Under the Sun" label, pointing out that their agricultural production methods emit far less greenhouse gases than many crops grown in Britain do.
Personally, I would go with the Kenyan growers.


Prizes, Not Patents For Drugs

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz makes the case that we should use prizes rather than patents to fund research on new drugs.

Part of modern medicine’s success is built on new drugs, in which pharmaceutical companies invest billions of dollars on research. The companies can recover their expenses thanks to patents, which give them a temporary monopoly and thus allow them to charge prices well above the cost of producing the drugs. We cannot expect innovation without paying for it. But are the incentives provided by the patent system appropriate, so that all this money is well spent and contributes to treatments for diseases of the greatest concern? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “no.”

There is an alternative way of financing and incentivizing research that, at least in some instances, could do a far better job than patents, both in directing innovation and ensuring that the benefits of that knowledge are enjoyed as widely as possible: a medical prize fund that would reward those who discover cures and vaccines. Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, the patent system is itself a prize system, albeit a peculiar one: the prize is temporary monopoly power, implying high prices and restricted access to the benefits that can be derived from the new knowledge. By contrast, the type of prize system I have in mind would rely on competitive markets to lower prices and make the fruits of the knowledge available as widely as possible. With better-directed incentives (more research dollars spent on more important diseases, less money spent on wasteful and distorted marketing), we could have better health at lower cost.
I think this is an interesting idea. I always find it ironic when people defend patents as being a free market solution. Patents and other forms of intellectual property rights are needed precisely because the free market fails to give the proper incentive for innovation. They are government issued limited time monopolies that allow the creator of a device to charge an artificially high price in order to recoup the expenses of the development. They are distortions from competitive free markets.

Applied to the pharmaceutical industry, this means that drugs under patent are priced much higher than their cost to produce. This higher price means that some people who would benefit from a drug at its competitive price will not purchase it at its monopolistic price (of course with insurance companies and Medicare picking up the bill the story becomes much more complicated with regards to pricing and availability of drugs).

If a prize system was used, then the inventor would be compensated up front, and then the drug would be priced like generics, based on how much the drugs cost to manufacture. Doctors and patients could decide which drugs to use based on their effectiveness and their cost, without this being distorted by artificially high prices. This system would have the government pick up the bill for new drug research, and then have patients and insurance holders pick up the tab for the manufacturing of the drugs.

Because pharmaceutical companies are able to price their drugs as they please in the US, but other countries have price controls, the US subsidizes the discovery of drugs for the rest of the world. If we switch to a prize system, we should get Canada and the European countries to contribute their fair share. No more free riding for other rich countries. This also solves the problem of how pharmaceutical companies should price their drugs in 3rd world countries. Without patents, the price will be based on the manufacturing costs rather than on a determination of what the most they can charge is. You don't have to worry about reimportation of drugs from 3rd world to 1st, or from countries with price caps to countries without them.

Another problem with the patent system is that it makes it difficult to combine drugs that are owned by different companies. India used to have intellectual property laws that did not allow for patents on drugs but rather just on the manufacturing process for the drug. One advantage to this system was that is allowed Indian drug manufacturers to create an AIDS drug that was a cocktail of three other drugs. With a prize system, more cocktails and tweaking of drugs would be available.

The biggest problem with prizes is that you need to know what you are looking for before it is discovered. If some random discovery occurs that has huge benefit but there is no prize for it, that inventor would not be compensated for the discovery. One way to handle this problem is to still have a patent system for drugs that aren't covered by the prize system and then the government could purchase that patent from the inventor and then make that information freely available for others to use. In fact this system of having the government purchase patents is available now and could be used to implement many parts of this prize system right away.

via Project Syndicate via Greg Mankiw


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fat Pirate Knowledge

Aaargh, I've got pirates on the brain.

I have long lamented the fact that I was born in a non-pirate century, where the closest thing I get is a puffy shirt Seinfeld episode or being able to freely download Treasure Island to a Kindle. But, no longer. The pirates are back, making news this week for hijacking a supertanker carrying $100 million of oil (and that is with $50/barrel oil prices, had they hijacked this 2 months ago the value would have been double). Apparently the pirate business is going gangbusters off of the coast of Somalia.

If you are like me, you have questions about how these pirates operate and thanks to the News Hour, I have answers.

When did this problem start?

A small number of pirate interests that started off in 2003 became more sophisticated over the years, have generated a substantial amount of ransom money that they can then reinvest in new piracy operations.
2003, why is that year familiar? Oh right, that is the year that the Pirates of the Caribbean hit the theaters. Hollywood! Are there no violent actions on the whole planet for which that are not responsible?

Look at how Hollywood's glamorization of pirates has infested Somalian culture:
"They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day," Abdi Farah Juha, a resident of the regional capital of Garowe, told the BBC. "They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns."

"Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable," he added.
Papa Bear Bill O'Reilly, it is up to you to hold Hollywood accountable for this.

How exactly does a pirate attack work?
Although these ships are being attacked hundreds of nautical miles off-shore, these are relatively low-tech operations that the pirates are running.

They bring a small number of speedboats -- maybe three or five -- off the Somali coast. Maybe they capture a slightly larger fishing trawler that they can use as a base of operations for days or weeks. They can lay in wait for ships to come by. They might maneuver themselves into high-density shipping areas.

Once they see a boat that might be a little bit slow, a little bit low in the water, with sides that aren't too high off the seas, they then use grappling hooks and ladders to board the ship.

And some people report that attack from beginning to end, it might take only 15 minutes until a crew is actually seized and put under pirate guard, and then the vessel steams back to the Somali coast for the ransoming process to begin.
How many ships have been attacked this year?
So far this year, Somali pirates have launched almost 100 attacks on ships in and around the gulf, with at least three dozen having been hijacked.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, a private group that monitors global piracy, at least 14 vessels with 243 crew members are still being held.
How much money do the pirates make per boat and in total this year?
With the average ransom for a ship approaching $2 million, piracy is one of the most lucrative businesses in Somalia, the BBC reported.

Peter Pham, the U.N. secretary-general today estimated that pirates had taken in -- I think it was $20 million to $30 million so far this year in ransom.
How far offshore can the pirates get?
Well, these are obviously very brazen attacks, to be able to get out to 450 nautical miles off of the east African coast is just something that people didn't think was possible in the past.
Why don't the navies of the world just take these guys out?
The problem, however, is that the waters that we're dealing with were -- originally we thought we needed to cover about a million square miles of sea. Now, with the recent capture of the tanker, we're looking at maybe 2 million to 3 million square miles, and simply put, there aren't the naval resources to cover that size.
Seriously, can't anyone take these guys out?
One of the few victories against the pirates was chalked up by the Indian navy on Tuesday when the warship INS Tabar sank a suspected pirate "mother ship" in the Gulf of Aden and chased two attack boats.
Score one for the fightin' Gandhis.

Given that the pirate business is the only industry that is currently booming in the world, are there any legal ways one can get in on the action?
I was just reading a story today about boom towns growing up on the coast of Somalia from the money that's coming in. These are very remote villages on the Somali coast, very far away from any urban centers, towns that don't really make the headlines like Mogadishu does. But these are places that are growing up as 14-odd ships now are being held off their immediate coastline, and a small pirate industry is booming.
Looks like real estate on the Somali coast would be a good bet.

Will this move by the pirates cause ninjas to do something even bigger?
Obviously you know nothing about the ways of ninjas. They move in secret. If you knew that a ninja was responsible for an action, then that ninja has failed. Who knows, the ninjas might have been responsible for the sub-prime mortgage mess, the financial collapse of Wall Street, or the automakers going bankrupt. They have likely already made a move that dwarfs what the pirates did and you don't even know it.
Will Gangsta Rap be usurped by Pirate Rap?
We can only hope.


Funai Dynamic ECD Display

Funai has just announced the development of a swank new panel that consumes just 0.16-milliwatts of electricity per square centimeter, or around 1% as much as traditional LCDs. The Dynamic ECD is made of a reflective display that uses color-changing dyes that light up and morph as electricity flows through. In other words, there's no need for a backlight, and it even boasts 80% reflectivity (compared with 50% on reflective LCDs) for easier viewing in broad daylight. The real kicker? It should cost around one-third as much as an LCD to manufacture. Expectations are to have 7- and 14-inch units out in 2009, though ultimately it hopes to completely dominate the mobile phone and e-book market.
I hope this pans out.

via Engadget


Healthy Years of Life

I like this attempt to compare countries based on healthy years of life rather than life expectancy. While I am all for trying to increase the healthy years of life, I am not so sure about trying to extend unhealthy years of life. I would think that in many cases the quality of life isn't that great in the unhealthy years and the medical expenses quite high.

Interesting how Finland and Denmark have similar life expectancies of around 78, but in Denmark just 5 of those are unhealthy (defined as having no limits on activity) while in Finland 15 of them are.

via The Economist


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Restoration of a tropical rain forest ecosystem successful on small-scale.

Credit crisis shakes up solar land rush.

Boulder, Colo.: America's first 'Smart Grid City'.

Lease a Mini-E EV for just $850 a month.

A Las Vegas man has filed a libel lawsuit for unfairly being branded a "douchebag".


Buddhist Temple Built from Beer Bottles

I think this explains how the Buddha got his belly.

via TreeHugger


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Unhappy People Watch TV, Happy People Read

A new study by sociologists at the University of Maryland concludes that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as very happy spend more time reading and socializing. The study appears in the December issue of the journal Social Indicators Research.

Analyzing 30-years worth of national data from time-use studies and a continuing series of social attitude surveys, the Maryland researchers report that spending time watching television may contribute to viewers' happiness in the moment, with less positive effects in the long run.

According to the study's findings, unhappy people watch an estimated 20 percent more television than very happy people, after taking into account their education, income, age and marital status – as well as other demographic predictors of both viewing and happiness.

Martin likens the short, temporary pleasure of television to addiction: "Addictive activities produce momentary pleasure but long-term misery and regret," he says. "People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged. For this kind of person, TV can become a kind of opiate in a way. It's habitual, and tuning in can be an easy way of tuning out."


Monday, November 17, 2008

Xeroxing the Brain

Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, have published an in-depth roadmap for "whole brain emulation" - in other words, the replication of a fully functional human brain inside a computer. "The basic idea" for whole brain emulation (WBE), they write, "is to take a particular brain, scan its structure in detail, and construct a software model of it that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain." It's virtualization, applied to our noggins.

Though "currently only a theoretical technology," WBE is, the authors say, "the logical endpoint of computational neuroscience's attempts to accurately model neurons and brain systems" and "may represent a radical new form of human enhancement." In something of an understatement, they write that "the economic impact of copyable brains could be immense, and could have profound societal consequences."

via Rough Type


Saturday, November 15, 2008

'Minority Report' OS Brought to Life

Can't wait for this to arrive. Not so much because it is cool, although it is, but because I am tired of work being comprised of writing emails, creating spreadsheets, writing code and making PowerPoint presentations. I can't wait for the future when all work will comprise of nothing but zooming in and out, moving and rotating images.

via G-Apeak Overview via Engadget


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Random Thoughts on the Election Results

1) How did things change from the 2004 election?

Basically there was just a big shift to the Democratic party throughout the entire US as seen in the map below or this scatterplot.

Kevin Drum lists the demographics that shifted the most since 2004:

Income $200,000 or more (+34), First-time voters (+33), No high school (+27), Latinos (+27), 18-29 year olds (+25), Under $15,000 (+21), Full-time workers (+19), Urban (+19), Non-gun owners (+18), Non-religious (+16), Parents with children under 18 (+16)
It isn't clear to me if Bush voters from '04 switched for Obama in '08, or if Obama attracted new voters and many of the Bush voters stayed home. CNN's exit polls have Obama and McCain splitting voters that voted previously, with Obama getting getting his entire margin of victory by winning first time voters 71% to 29%. But, 37% of voters said they voted for Kerry in 2004 vs. 46% that said they voted for Bush. That is very strange as it means that Bush voters were more likely to vote in '08 than Kerry voters. I am skeptical of that.

2) Does no one vote in their own economic interest anymore?

Thomas Frank wrote What's the Matter With Kansas about how lower income individuals were voting against their economic interests by voting Republican. Looking at this chart from Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State, the correct question now is What is the matter with Connecticut?

Those with incomes over $200,000 voted more for Obama than McCain even though Obama promised to raise the taxes on those making over $250,000 and McCain didn't.

3) Who were the black people who didn't vote for Obama?

Obama won the black vote 95%-5%. Some dictators in 3rd world countries don't get that level in rigged elections. But, that still means there were around 800,000 black voters who went for McCain. Those people had some serious moxy and I would love to hear more about who they are and what their reasoning was.

4) What do things look like for 2012?

If 5% of over 65 voters die each year, then by 2012 then 18% of them will be gone. They accounted for 16% of all voters, so this will be a drop of 3%. Over 65 voters went 55% for McCain, while under 29 voters went 66% for Obama. Assuming that those 3% of old voters are replaced with new under 29 voters and that they vote in similar percentages, this would be a pickup of .63% for Obama (or a 1.26% swing). That is a fairly significant pickup based just on demographic changes and makes it that much tougher for the Republicans to compete. See also this chart.

5) At 53%, Obama got a higher percentage of the popular vote than Clinton or Carter. He even had a higher % of voters than Reagan in 1980. But, with 66 million votes, this still means that only 22% of the US population of 305 million cast a vote for him.

6) Cool election maps: NY Times county bubbles map, red, blue, purple 2004 vs. 2008 (or in black and white), red, blue, purple cartogram, and the under 29 vote.

7) While this election was hyped to have huge turn out, it appears that the percentage of those eligible to vote was fairly similar to 2004. The turnout of those under 29 was up though.

8) did a fantastic job predicting the outcome.

9) It is hard to believe that YouTube wasn't around in 2004. I couldn't imagine following this election without it. Amazing how much things change in 4 years. How did we follow elections before YouTube?

Update: Forgot one that I meant to mention. While minorities voted for Obama in higher percentages, Democrats gained more white votes (2.8 million) then minority votes (2.4 million) from 2004 to 2008 according to analysis by the Audacious Epigone. Also this chart on black and Hispanic share of population and vote is interesting. Hispanics now comprise a larger percentage of Americans than blacks, but a much lower percentage of voters.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Now: the rest of the genome.

New antireflective coating enables near-perfect absorption of light at all angles in solar panels.

Mini nuclear power plants could power 20,000 homes.

The Census of Marine Life announces incredible deep-sea discoveries.

International con man Barack Obama leaves U.S. with $85 million in campaign fundraising.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Spam gets 1 Response per 12,500,000 Emails

A new study details how spammers – the bane of our email inboxes – still make pots of money, despite only receiving a response to one in every 12,500,000 emails they spam out.

"After 26 days, and almost 350 million email messages, only 28 sales resulted," says the research paper.

Yet even with this apparently abysmal response rate of less than 0.00001 per cent, the researchers still estimate that the controllers of a network the size of Storm are still bringing in about $7,000 (£4,430) a day or $3.5m (£2.21m) over a year.
If there was but a small price tag on sending an email, say 1/10 of one cent, the spam business model would not work and we would be done with it forever.

via Tech Radar


Oh, Canada

A ridiculous update on a ridiculous lawsuit: In August I wrote about a carpooling startup called PickupPal. The idea is that people can gather on the site to find others traveling to the same places, and carpool there to save gas.

Great idea, right? Wrong. The bus companies freaked and sued under an Ontario law that limits carpoolers to traveling only from home to work and back, riding with the same driver every day and paying only by the week, among other restrictions. This is despite the fact that the government has spent “billions” in carpooling lanes.

Anyway, the court case was decided and PickupPal lost. They were fined CA$11,000 and forced to keep that despicable carpooling activity within the strict limits of the law:

Well we got our ruling from the Ontario Highway Transportation Board (OHTB) and they say that it is illegal to Rideshare in Ontario, (here is the official decision [PDF 0.98 MB]).

The only way you can ride with someone is if you meet ALL of the following extremely impractical set of specific criteria:

* You must travel from home to work only – (Not Home to School, or Home to the Hospital or the Airport)
* You cannot cross municipal boundaries – (Live outside the city and drive in – sorry you cannot share the ride with your neighbour)
* You must ride with the same driver each day – (Want to mix it up go with one person one day and another person another day – no sorry cannot do that – must be same person each day)
* You must pay the driver no more frequently than weekly – (Neighbour drives you to work better not pay her right away just in case she drives you later on in the week)

via TechCrunch


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Reliable Green Grid Could Need $2 Trillion

In order to meet the Renewable Portfolio Standards of states, utilities will need to add an aggregate of nearly 40 gigawatts of clean energy generation by 2030. And to get all that power to customers, a total investment of as much as $2 trillion into transmission and distribution networks will be required, according to a report released today by energy consultancy The Brattle Group.

To maintain grid reliability with so much new, intermittent and far-flung renewable energy generation, our national electricity grid needs a serious upgrade. In fact, the Brattle report estimates that more money might have to be invested in the grid than in actual renewable energy generation.
In the report The Brattle Group estimates that transmission and distribution of electricity will require an investment of $880 billion by 2030 compared with either $505 or $951 billion for generation depending on assumptions. Either way, the amount of money spent on building the smart grid is going to be comparable to that building new power plants.

I wonder how much the cost for new distribution and transmission could be reduced with distributed power generation such as solar powered roofs, and whether these savings would be greater than the increase in costs of using distributed power.

via Earth2Tech


Scientists Say A Rock can Soak Up Carbon Dioxide

When carbon dioxide comes in contact with the rock, peridotite, the gas is converted into solid minerals such as calcite.

Geologist Peter Kelemen and geochemist Juerg Matter said the naturally occurring process can be supercharged 1 million times to grow underground minerals that can permanently store 2 billion or more of the 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by human activity every year.

Peridotite is the most common rock found in the Earth's mantle, or the layer directly below the crust. It also appears on the surface, particularly in Oman, which is conveniently close to a region that produces substantial amounts of carbon dioxide in the production of fossil fuels.

They also calculated the costs of mining the rock and bringing it directly to greenhouse gas emitting power plants, but determined it was too expensive.

The scientists, who are both at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, say they have kick-started peridotite's carbon storage process by boring down and injecting it with heated water containing pressurized carbon dioxide. They have a preliminary patent filing for the technique.

They say 4 billion to 5 billion tons a year of the gas could be stored near Oman by using peridotite in parallel with another emerging technique developed by Columbia's Klaus Lackner that uses synthetic "trees" which suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

Peridotite also occurs in the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Caledonia, and along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and in smaller amounts in California.
I wonder how much this would cost per ton of CO2?

via Reuters and Green Car Congress


Morgan Solar

Morgan Solar is attempting to build a bridge between low cost and high efficiency by concentrating an immense amount of solar energy on to a tiny thumbnail space lined with a superefficient cell from a Cyrium, Emcore or Spectrolab.

The idea is that such a small fraction of the costly solar cell is needed and so much of the sun's energy is focused on it, that material costs can be kept to a minimum and efficiency can be increased.

It's an approach dubbed "concentrating photovoltaics," or CSP, and a number of companies are in the race, among them U.S. ventures GreenVolts, Energy Innovations, and SolFocus, as well as Ottawa-based Menova Energy.

Morgan Solar has come up with a completely different approach that relies on what it calls a light-guided solar optic. Basically, pieces of acrylic or glass are designed to capture sunlight as it hits a triangular surface less than a centimetre thick. Once inside the material, the sunlight is trapped and corralled through a bottom layer to one corner, where a tiny sliver of solar cell is positioned to absorb the barrage of concentrated light.

The triangles are packaged together to form a square about the size of a Compact Disc case and dozens of these squares make up a single panel.

"It's bloody amazing," says William Masek, president and chief technology officer of Brockville-based Upper Canada Solar Generation Ltd., which has plans to build 50 megawatts of solar farms in Ontario. In the next few weeks he will begin field-testing Morgan Solar's prototypes. "They probably have the most breakthrough solar technology announced in a long time."

Masek says the cost savings for him could be enormous if the technology, as claimed, can affordably convert more of the sun's energy to electricity per square metre than conventional solar panels. "With traditional solar panels we'll need over a thousand acres of property. But if we switch to their system, we can cut that land requirement in half and also substantially cut our costs," he says.

The materials that make up the panels are nothing fancy or expensive, Nicolas Morgan says during an interview at the company's office. The solar panels are flatter than the competition, lighter, cheaper to build and can concentrate the light at up to 1,500. "This is completely new. Nobody has done it this way," he says.
via The Star and Clean Break


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Read It Later

I am a huge fan of the Read It Later Firefox add-on and am adding it to the list of must have Fat Knowledge Endorsed Firefox Add-ons.

If you are like me, you open up a ton of interesting articles in different tabs and then struggle to read them all. Read It Later allows you to easily bookmark these articles by clicking a checkbox in the address field. All of the articles are stored in one location and can be accessed easily later. Once you have read an article you can uncheck it and remove it from the list. The newly released .99 version adds Google Reader integration which makes it even better.

You can check out a demo of it in action.

Lifehacker had a good review of the add-on and also awarded it best update to an add-on for Firefox 3. You can install it from Mozilla's Add-on site.


Raser To Switch On Low Temp Geothermal Power

Less than a year after announcing its deal with Merrill Lynch, Raser Technologies is set to open its first low-temp geothermal plant tomorrow in Utah. While it remains to be seen what happens when the switch is flipped, the company has so far made good on its promise to build geothermal plants in record time — it typically takes up to five years, and Raser has done it in less than one.

The 10-megawatt plant pulls together 50 small units to tap into a small sliver of 120,000 megawatts of low- and medium-temperature geothermal resources cataloged by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and U.S. Geological Survey. Raser claims accessing low- and medium-temp geothermal power could eventually help meet about a third of U.S. energy needs.

Of course, this is all provided that the company’s technology — which mixes geothermal resources with a “working fluid” that boils at a much lower point than water to make commercial grade power from temperatures as low as 165 degrees Fahrenheit — and its modular power plant design work as well at a commercial scale as they have in pilot projects.
I wonder how expensive the electricity produced will cost? If economic, this is a great way to provide clean baseload electricity.

via Earth2Tech


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Fruits and Vegetables are Elitist

We found that low-income households spent significantly less on fruits and vegetables than higher income households. In any given week, approximately 19 percent of all low-income households bought no fruits and vegetables, compared with only about 10 percent of higher income households with no expenditures.

We found that small changes in income had no effect on fruit and vegetable expenditures by low-income households. For higher income households, however, small changes in income did translate to increased expenditures for fruits and vegetables; the increased expenditures, while small, were statistically significant.

Interestingly, the largest positive influence on fruit and vegetable expenditures was a college-educated head of household, regardless of income level. In fact, college-educated households had the highest level of per capita expenditures for fruits and vegetables.
How much you want to bet that the Obamas are a bunch of carrot and apple chompers?

I wonder if this trend is just in the US or if it holds for all countries? I also wonder how much of this has to do with the subsidies given to grain farmers in the US, which makes fruits and vegetables more expensive relatively.

via USDA


Amazon Launches 'Frustration-Free Packaging' Initiative

Buying new gadgets is a joyful occasion, but opening them can be another story when an impenetrable piece of plastic stands in your way. Amazon announced Monday its Frustration-Free Packaging initiative, which will address the issue, dubbed "wrap rage."

Under the initiative, Amazon will be shipping some products to consumers in easy-to-open, recyclable boxes, ditching those pesky packages tightly enclosed in a plastic clamshell or fastened with plastic-coated wires. Microsoft, Fisher-Price, Mattel and Transcend are the first companies to join the initiative; Amazon hopes many more manufacturers will participate in the effort as well.

Plastic packaging has been a consumer headache for years, and in worst cases it's landed people in the hospital. In 2004, about 6,500 Americans were rushed to emergency rooms when they sustained injuries from trying to free their gadgets from stubborn plastic enclosures. As cumbersome as plastic clamshells may be, stores say the packaging method helps deter thieves. However, Amazon noted that online shopping has no need for such a security measure.

I have written about the scourge of wrap rage before. Great idea by Amazon to do something about it.

List of Frustration Free Packaging items for sale here. Amazon's description of the program here.

via Wired


Friday, November 07, 2008

Interesting Articles of the Week

Headline-grabbing scientific reports are the most likely to turn out to be wrong.

Iran arrests two pigeons for spying on nuclear plant.

A shower meter that measures water use while you sing and scrub.

Nanopores may lead the way to a new generation of sequencing.

The benefits of dynamic stretching.


Wildlife Photographer of the Year

More photos from the competition run by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine here.


Women Have More Diverse Hand Bacteria Than Men

A new University of Colorado at Boulder study indicates that not only do human hands harbor far higher numbers of bacteria species than previously believed, women have a significantly greater diversity of microbes on their palms than men.

Using powerful gene sequencing techniques, the team found a typical hand in the new study had roughly 150 different species of bacteria living on it, said Fierer of CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department. While the researchers detected and identified more than 4,700 different bacteria species across 102 human hands in the study, only five species were shared among all 51 participants.

The 332,000 gene sequences obtained by the CU team were nearly 100 times greater than those obtained from other studies of skin bacteria also obtained by sampling the entire DNA of microbe communities, known as "metagenomics."

Fierer speculated that skin pH may play a role in the higher bacterial diversity on women's hands, since men generally have more acidic skin, and other research has shown microbes are less diverse in more acidic environments. The findings also could be due to differences in sweat and oil gland production between men and women, the frequency of moisturizer or cosmetics applications, skin thickness or hormone production, he said.

The right and left palms of the same individual shared an average of only 17 percent of the same bacteria types, said Knight. Study volunteers, all CU undergraduates, shared an average of only 13 percent of bacteria species with each other, he said.
Incredible the amount of bacterial diversity there is living on our skin. 4,700 different species found and yet only 5 of them were found on everybody.

Strange that while the title of the article is "women have more diverse hand bacteria than men", no where in the article is the difference ever quantified.

Hmm, maybe with the different pH and bacterias, men and women really do need different deodorants. I thought that Secret's tagline: "strong enough for a man, but pH balanced for a woman" was just a marketing gimmick, but maybe there is something to it. Or then again maybe there is absolutely nothing to it and it is the definition of a marketing gimmick.

via Science Daily


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Top 20 Technological and Scientific Achievements

The official Fat Knowledge list of the top 20 technological and scientific achievements I am most looking forward to:

20) 1" thick super sharp TVs

19) $50 a month 100MB internet access

18) Ocean fertilization

17) Artificial life

16) $20/ton carbon dioxide sequestering

15) $1000 personal genome sequencing

14) A reverse engineered brain on a $1000 computer

13) A smart electricity grid and smart meters in every home

12) Ability to access any TV show, movie, and song ever recorded from anywhere

11) Gut genome sequenced

10) A way to view the social and environmental backstory of every product sold

9) Thought controlled devices

8) Cost competitive solar power

7) Open-source science: ability to access any academic journal article ever written for free using Google

6) An e-book superior to paper with access to every book ever written from anywhere

5) Street legal self-driving cars

4) The entire ocean bottom mapped

3) Cost competitive electric cars

2) Test tube meat

1) Discovery of all species and their population size

Anything I missed? Anything that doesn't belong? Leave a comment.


McCain Wins Over "American" Americans

This second map is based on census data and shows what the largest (self-reported) ancestry is in county of the United States. Take a look at it and you'll see that the interior south, where Obama could get no traction and almost the only part of the country where people voted more Republican in 2008 is the part of the country dominated by people who describe their ancestry as not German or English or Spanish or Irish but "American."

This sounds at first blush like simple ignorance of the concept of ancestry, but the map's annotation notes that "The region had very low levels of immigration for 200 years. ... According to the 1870 census, less than 2% of the south was immigrants." In most of the rest of the deep south's counties the biggest ethnic group is African-Americans descended from slaves. While the rest of the country has gotten more ethnically mixed recently, the south, and I'd guess particularly Appalachia, has had a nearly static, isolated population for two centuries.

And now those "American" Americans are the most reliable Republican voters.
via Ben Smith and Ben Smith


Government R&D Spending

The graph above, generated a couple of years ago by Kei Koizumi at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, provides a hint. The yellow band in the graph is, in essence, a portrait of the space race as reflected in federal money for basic R&D related to going into orbit and to the Moon. (The purple band is essentially the war on cancer and similar health research. Military research, at $75 billion a year, doesn’t fit in this graph.)

The green band is a half-century of federal investment in energy research. And that’s not just renewable energy like solar power, but research in all energy sectors. To me, the energy graph resembles an emaciated python that had one decent meal.
Interesting look at where government R&D spending is going. Also amazing that the military research budget is 50% higher than everything in the graph above. Instead of trying to increase the energy R&D budget, I would try and redirect military R&D to energy projects. This makes sense for military reasons and would also be easier politically as conservatives give a free ride to anything in the federal budget labeled "military spending".

via Dot Earth


Rainforest Fungus Naturally Synthesizes Diesel

A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.

While genetic engineers have been trying a variety of techniques and genes to get microbes to create fuel out of sugars and starches, almost all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry mill grain process. Ethanol plants ferment corn ears into alcohol, which is simple, but wastes the vast majority of the biomatter of the corn plant.

Using the cellulose from plants — the stalk instead of the ear, or simply wood from poplars — to make liquid fuel is a long-held dream because it would be more environmentally efficient and cheaper, but is far more difficult.

First, the cellulose must be broken down into its constituent parts — sugars bearing carbon — and then those pieces must be synthesized into more complex hydrocarbons. Both steps have proven difficult to do without applying large amounts of heat, pressure or chemicals.

What's exciting about the Gliocladium roseum fungus, however, is that it can both break down cellulose and synthesize the liquid fuel.

But beyond the biofuel implications, Strobel said that because the fungus can manufacture what we would normally think of as components of crude oil, it casts some doubt on the idea that crude oil is a fossil fuel.
via Wired


Monday, November 03, 2008

Slime Molds

Who knew that slime molds could be so beautiful?

More cool shots over at English Russia.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Time's 50 Best Inventions of 2008 (My favorite is sunscreen for plants).

Buy Date Local: The environmental case against long-distance relationships.

A California ballot measure offers rights for farm animals.

Half of doctors routinely prescribe placebos.

Meditate on this: you can learn to be more compassionate.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Where The Singles Are

If you are a single man, you see a map like this and start checking the flight schedule to NYC.

But then you realize that there is one large caveat:

These maps (and the map of Singles, 35-64) show how single life is completely different between the sexes. Men are more likely to be single early in life as women on average marry three years earlier. Women are likely to be single at the end of their lives as they have a greater life expectancy and marry men that are older than they are.

Really cool interactive map of this data over at

via Yglesias


Otto the Octopus Wreaks Havoc

Staff believe that the octopus called Otto had been annoyed by the bright light shining into his aquarium and had discovered he could extinguish it by climbing onto the rim of his tank and squirting a jet of water in its direction.

"We knew that he was bored as the aquarium is closed for winter, and at two feet, seven inches Otto had discovered he was big enough to swing onto the edge of his tank and shoot out a the 2000 Watt spot light above him with a carefully directed jet of water."

"Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better - much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants."
Just because of Otto, I am taking tako off the menu. Well, due to Otto and because octopus meat is completely tasteless and really really chewy. Seriously, you could replace it with a dog's rubber octopus chew toy and no one would know the difference. But if anyone asks, I am going to say it has to do with the intelligence and personality of octopi.

via Telegraph


Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production

Really interesting (and freely available!) article on Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth's terrestrial ecosystems over at PNAS.

Human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP), the aggregate impact of land use on biomass available each year in ecosystems, is a prominent measure of the human domination of the biosphere. We found an aggregate global HANPP value of 15.6 Pg C/yr or 23.8% of potential net primary productivity, of which 53% was contributed by harvest, 40% by land-use-induced productivity changes, and 7% by human-induced fires. This is a remarkable impact on the biosphere caused by just one species.

I agree that it really is amazing that one species has appropriated almost 1/4 of all NPP on the globe for their use. Much of that is completely wasted as almost 1/2 of HANPP is forest fires and land-use-induced productivity changes. If we got rid of those loses then HANPP would go down to 12% of total NPP. It should also be noted that of actual vegetation, human appropriation is 15% of total NPP.

Also interesting is the fact that almost half (46%) of total potential NPP is below ground, but 90% of HANPP from human harvest and fires are above ground. On the other hand, 71% of NPP loses due to human induced alteration are below ground.

This map gives you a good feel for where humans are appropriating the highest percentage of NPP. India is highest, with Europe and parts of the US, Canada and China also using a large fraction of potential NPP.