Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bacteria From Mother's Mouth Ends Up in Baby's Stomach

Bacteria from a mother's mouth can be transmitted through the blood and amniotic fluid in the womb to her unborn child. This could contribute to the risk of a premature delivery, a low birth-weight baby, premature onset of contractions, or infection of the newborn child.

Ms Cecilia Gonzales-Marin and colleagues from Queen Mary University of London, described how they had tested the gastric aspirates (stomach contents containing swallowed amniotic fluid) of 57 newborn babies and found 46 different species of bacteria in the samples.

The most prevalent bacteria in the samples may have come from the vagina; however, two of the species were recognised as coming from the mouth and are not normally found elsewhere in the body. These particular bacteria, Granulicatella elegans and Streptococcus sinensis, are known to be able to enter the bloodstream and have previously been associated with infections remote from the mouth such as infective endocarditis.

"Our studies show that sampling the stomach contents of newborn babies by using gastric aspirates can provide a reliable method of microbial identification. Hospitals routinely take these samples as part of the care of the babies born from a complicated pregnancy and/or at risk of serious infection. They provide a more accessible alternative to amniotic fluid," said Ms Gonzales-Marin, "Our research group is using DNA techniques to confirm if bacteria from the newborn matches the bacteria in the respective mother's mouth".
Bacteria cells outnumber our human cells 10 to 1 and yet we still know very little as to what they are and how they are acquired. Fascinating how bacteria from a mother's mouth can get into the her blood stream and then into the womb. While this article focuses on the detrimental aspects of the bacteria, I am more curious about their symbiotic brethren which hopefully we will understand better when the Human Microbe Project is complete.

via ScienceDaily



WattzOn is a cool website with two compelling features: a Quicken-like personal energy calculator and an embodied energy database.

The energy calculator allows you to determine your personal energy use. This lets you how much total energy you are using and what accounts for the largest share. Most other energy and CO2 calculators just look at home electricity, natural gas and gasoline usage. This goes a step beyond that by allowing you to calculate the energy used to manufacture all of the stuff you have purchased using data from their embodied energy database. It also includes the energy that the government uses, with every citizen given an equal share (3,174W in my case). The interface is easy to use and allows you can determine what the impact of various lifestyle changes would be.

Once you have entered all your personal information, it has some cool visualizations that put your consumption into perspective. You can see how many square feet of solar panels would be required to support your energy consumption. You can also check how large of a wind turbine, how many 60W light bulbs, or how many gallons of oil a day would be needed. You can also compare your consumption with your friends or the average American. On visualization I wish they would add is "energy slaves" using that fact that each person runs on approximately 100W.

The embodied energy database stores how much energy it took to manufacture various products. If you ever wondered how much energy it took to produce a futon, a laptop computer, or a magazine, now you can look it up.

It is setup Wikipedia style where anyone can add or edit information. The upside to this is that hopefully it will become a central repository for all such information and lots of people will contribute. The downside is that there are no standards and it isn't clear what assumptions were used, how numbers were actually calculated or what the source of the data is. Another good thing they have done is setup free public APIs to allow developers access to this data for use in their own web applications.

I think this site has a lot of potential. A large database of embedded energy of products with good data would be immensely useful. To do that they will need to standardize how the numbers are calculated and give greater transparency as to where they came from. Besides tracking energy, the database could easily be extended to record additional information such as water usage, CO2 emissions and man hours. This would allow for other interesting environmental calculations to be done.

It would also be great if data for the energy calculator could be updated automatically with every purchase you made. One way to do this would be with an iPhone app where you could just take a picture of everything you purchased (or the barcode) to enter it. Another way would be to have credit card information integrated, so you could capture the data from those purchases with no additional input (similar to how Quicken does).

The personal energy calculator and the embodied energy database are both very useful and I can't wait to see how WattzOn improves upon them.

WattzOn was also reviewed by Earth2Tech, Lifehacker and TreeHugger.


A Profitable Way to Start Capturing Carbon Dioxide

The Economist takes a look at ways of removing CO2 directly from the air. One such solution comes from Dr Lackner (nothing new to Fat Knowledge readers who have been aware of his technology for 2 years).

A cupboard-sized prototype (pictured) has already shown that the concept will work, and Dr Lackner is a member of a company, Global Research Technologies (GRT), that hopes to commercialise the technology. A machine the size of a standard shipping container, he estimates, could capture one tonne of CO2 a day.

But given that air-capture machines are electrically powered, and generating electricity usually produces carbon-dioxide emissions, do the sums add up? Dr Keith’s prototype captured a tonne of CO2 using 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity. To generate this much power, a coal-fired power station would add around 35kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or 3.5% of the amount removed by the air-capture machine. Similarly, GRT estimates that when its technology is scaled up, the emissions associated with operating each machine will be less than 5% of the CO2 captured over its lifetime.
What is new is the way that it can be used to profitably extract CO2 from the air right now.
By mass, carbon dioxide is in fact the 19th most important commodity chemical in America, according to the Department of Energy. It can be piped into greenhouses to improve plant yields and is used in food processing, water treatment and fire extinguishers, among other things. Forcing CO2 into oil fields can also increase the amount of oil recovered. Air capture could, says Dr Lackner, be a viable way to supply carbon dioxide for industrial uses even at a cost of $200 per tonne, the current cost of the technology.

That is far higher than the cost per tonne of carbon dioxide on emissions-trading markets, where the price of permits that entitle their holders to emit a tonne of carbon dioxide recently fell below $10. Only if the cost of air capture falls below the cost of an emissions permit will it be economically attractive; otherwise emitters will find it cheaper to buy the right to pollute. But environmentalists expect emissions-trading markets eventually to price the gas at about $50 a tonne, and Dr Lackner hopes to get the cost of his process down to $30 per tonne in the long run.
By using it for industrial purposes, the technology can be profitably utilized right now. This will allow the company to get it out in the field and tested while they continue to make improvements to lower the cost. This will expediate the day when this process can remove CO2 from the air for just $30 a ton.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Do Not Attempt To Take This Picture Unless You Are a Professional

This is a great shot, but I can't look at this picture without feeling pangs of regret.

As a budding new underwater photographer I attempted to take this classic shrimp on an anemone shot myself. But, all the anemones I found were shrimpless. Not letting that stand in my way, I coaxed my scuba buddy into snagging a shrimp model from a nearby coral reef and placing it onto an anemone. As I got my camera ready for the shot, I could not find where the shrimp had gone. So, back my scuba buddy went to find another shrimp. This time I kept my eye on the shrimp as he placed it down and snapped the photo. But, as I continued to watch the shrimp, the shocking realization of what happened to the other shrimp became apparent. The anemone ate it!

Let this be a lesson to all to leave some shots to the professionals. Getting a great shrimp in the anemone shot is not worth the price of living the rest of your life with involuntary crustacean manslaughter on your conscience. I still wake up nights in a cold sweat and see the "help me" look in the poor shrimp's face immortalized by the photograph.

via National Geographic via Digg



Sasha and Sarah run a hand-to-mouth aid group, called SOIL; they speak fluent Creole and get around on motorcycle taxis while waving back at legions of fans on every street.

I was interested in their work because it addresses two of the developing world’s greatest but least glamorous challenges. One is sanitation, for human waste in poor countries routinely spreads disease and parasites. The second is agriculture, for poor countries must increase crop yields if they are to overcome poverty and hunger.

Sasha and Sarah create dry composting toilets that turn human waste into valuable fertilizer. They say that the yearlong composting process kills the pathogens in the waste, making it safe to use the fertilizer.

Haitian farmers use virtually no fertilizer — less than a pound per acre, compared with about 90 pounds in the United States — and soils are severely depleted. But Sasha calculates that if half of Haitians’ human waste could be used as fertilizer, that would amount to a 17-fold increase in fertilizer use, more than doubling the country’s agricultural production.

Sasha and Sarah have deployed 45 of their toilets, and now they are trying to introduce a municipal composting system in Cap Haitien.
Video here.

I think this is a great idea, but I wonder how the economics work. Can this work as a stand alone business and be sustainable without donations? It was in Japan, so I think it is possible. If you could find a business model that worked, there are a ton of opportunities around the globe to implement it, as the classic scene from Slumdog Millionaire shows.

via NY Times


Terra Urba

via What Matters


Geritol Solution Brought to Bear

That proved true again this week when a group of Indian and German researchers gave their first report from the biggest ever experiment in geo-engineering: an expedition to pour iron into the Southern Ocean, a vast area that encircles Antarctica, to stimulate a giant bloom of phytoplankton.

Those researchers, led by Wajih Naqvi and Victor Smetacek, created a bloom of phytoplankton by fertilising an area of 300 square kilometres with six tonnes of iron sulphate, which dissolves in water. In two weeks the bloom’s mass doubled. But it also proved to be extremely tasty for small crustaceans called copepods, which gobbled the phytoplankton up so quickly that even with further iron fertilisation the bloom stopped growing. As a result, only a small amount of CO2 was dispatched to the ocean floor.

The problem lay with the species of phytoplankton in the bloom. In previous experiments the blooms had consisted of a group of algae known as diatoms. As diatoms have shells made of silica they are protected from copepods and so are more likely to die without being eaten and thus take take their carbon to the ocean floor. But in the area where the researchers were working natural blooms had already depleted much of the silicic acid, which the diatoms use for shellmaking. The result was that the beneficiaries of the iron were instead groups of algae such as Phaeocystis, which are among the most heavily grazed by copepods.

Since silicic-acid levels are naturally low across about two-thirds of the Southern Ocean, the expedition’s results suggest that iron-fertilisation would remove less CO2 from the atmosphere than optimists had hoped. Although that is a setback for proponents of large-scale iron-fertilisation, the results from the Polarstern expedition have given researchers lots to work on, including the role predators play in reducing algal blooms. And the results in one part of the ocean may be different from those in another because, as Ulrich Bathmann of the Wegener Institute points out, ecosystems in the sea are at least as diverse as those on the land. So the team may make another voyage to discover more.
I am glad they were able to conduct this experiment. I am curious as to how much additional biomass they get per ton of iron, and how much it cost.

I am all for this type of geo-engineering testing, but I don't agree with the conclusion that it needs to be modified to produce more diatoms and less phytoplankton. Better that there is more food at the bottom of the food chain that will then result in greater harvests of fish and larger populations of whales than more CO2 at the bottom of the ocean.

via The Economist and Planktos Science


Energy R&D Gets a Boost

The budget for the Department of Energy (DoE), a chart showed, was $24.2 billion in 2008. This year Congress gave the DoE $38.7 billion in the stimulus package and another $27 billion in appropriations. Mr Mason’s main message was simple: “We’ve really got to deliver.”

Politicians have been making noises about energy independence and climate change for some time. Federal spending on research and development, however, has remained far below the levels of the 1970s (see chart). Now rhetoric is finally being matched by cash. Within the DoE’s budget, Congress has appropriated $7.8 billion for energy R&D, 18% more than last year, and the stimulus provided about $8 billion. On March 23rd President Barack Obama and Steven Chu, the energy secretary, explained how some of the money would be spent, with money for labs—a new building at Oak Ridge will house researchers for solar batteries and superconducting transmission lines—as well as support for scientists exploring everything from carbon sequestration to hydrogen.

The stimulus gives $400m to ARPA-E, a new programme modelled after one at the Department of Defence, to conduct speculative research. On March 23rd Mr Chu announced that $277m would go to Energy Frontier Research Centres, with teams at universities and labs working in many different fields, from photovoltaics to nuclear energy.
I have mentioned before how little of the national R&D budget was allocated to energy and how total funding had actually been going down. Glad to see that this is being rectified. I also am a huge fan of DARPA and it is great to see that the DoE is copying the model.

via The Economist


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

MIT backs free access to scientific papers.

The Economist's special report on waste.

7 ways to gratitude.

Animal spirits: why behavioral economics needs to be applied to macro-economics.

Americans spend eight hours a day on screens.


EcoDrain Cuts Water Heater Use by 40%

What if we could recapture this untapped source of wasted energy by transferring the heat from that shower waste-water to cold incoming water? The EcoDrain, a simple heat exchange unit, does just that, saving water heater use by up to 40%.

Showering is “likely your most energy-intensive daily household activity. Although hidden on your energy bill, heating water for showers represents a significant portion of the total.” The EcoDrain is a simple heat exchange unit with no moving parts that is “easy to install” and needs no maintenance.
As one who loves a long hot shower, I need one of these pronto.

via Inhabit via Engadget


New F-T Process for Synfuels: Good or Bad News for the Environment?

One new article in Science on a new more efficient process to create synthetic fuels. Two different takes.

Green Car Congress points out how it can help reduce GHG in the article Less Work Required Could Result in 15% Reduction in CO2 Emissions Compared to Conventional Route.

Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), South Africa and Rutgers University are proposing new Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) reaction chemistry and process designs that they say could increase F-T process efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions by 15% compared to the conventional process.

The new process, which uses a carbon dioxide and hydrogen route rather than the traditional carbon monoxide and hydrogen route, could also open up a pathway for the direct use of CO2 and H2 derived from low-carbon processes (nuclear, wind, solar, bio).
Meanwhile, Wired stresses how it can increase GHG in the article Bad News: Scientists Make Cheap Gas From Coal.
If oil prices rise again, adoption of the new coal-to-liquid technology, reported this week in Science, could undercut adoption of electric vehicles or next-generation biofuels. And that's bad news for the fight against climate change.

The new process could cut the energy cost of producing the fuel by 20 percent just by rejiggering the intermediate chemical steps, said co-author Ben Glasser of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. But coal-derived fuel could produce as much as twice as much CO2 as traditional petroleum fuels and at best will emit at least as much of the greenhouse gas.
Funny how two articles can come to opposite conclusions from the same research.

While this research it promising, it is important to note that even the 15% improved process loses over 1/2 of the total energy during conversion.
If work is recovered from the heat rejected from the synthesis reactors, the net work required by the overall process in an 80,000 barrels per day facility is 820 MW—nearer the optimum (350 MW) than the conventional route (1000 MW).


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Baracktimus Prime

via Digg



The news on everybody’s minds is OnLive, a games service which is roughly comparable to a streaming movie service like Netflix On Demand or what have you. The hardware is to be free, and it will support any USB- or Bluetooth-compatible controllers. Purchased games are run in datacenters (on state of the art hardware, we hope), which then push the content out to you. But they’re not sending game assets — they send a video image of the game as you play it on their machine. It sounds ridiculous, but with good, local servers they can get the ping under 10-20ms, at which point it is almost unnoticeable that the game you’re playing is actually a few cities away. Not everyone is so optimistic.

We gave it a shot, and (my driving skills notwithstanding) had no trouble in the form of video artifacts, skipped frames, or lag. Impressive, but the proof of the pudding is in the launching, and when they can provide this level of latency and reliability to thousands of people scattered around the country simultaneously, then we’ll talk. After the demo, we spoke with a more technically-orientated booth guy, who said that between 3 and 4Mbit/s is what they’re aiming for with their 720p60 stream, and when I asked about tension with ISPs, he hinted cryptically that they had that under control. I just hope Comcast and the like haven’t “overbooked” their cable and fiber the way airlines do flights.

Interesting. Basically this is cloud gaming. I am curious to find out how good the performance is and if the economics work in its favor.

via TechCrunch


Tesla Model S Electric Sedan

Tesla Motors unveiled its new Model S electric sedan. Wired, Auto Blog, NY Times, CNet, and Green Car Congress were all on the scene.

The new sedan seats 5 with an additional 2 jumper seats in the rear. The 300 kW motor (402 horsepower) allows it to go 0-60 in 5.5-6 seconds and up to 130 mph.

After a $7,500 federal tax break, the Model S will start at just under $50,000. Tesla Motors plan to produce 20,000 units annually starting in Q3 of 2011.

The base model has a 160-mile range pack; 230-mile and 300-mile range packs will also be available. The car can be recharged in 4 hours on a 220V outlet, and it will also be possible to recharge using 440V.

The batteries weigh 1,200 pounds (total weight of the car is 4,000 lbs) and the 300-mile battery has 8,000 battery cells (vs. 6,000 in the Roadster). Advances in battery chemistry and construction increased volumetric efficiency over the Roadster's pack by 50 percent (not clear how the cost per kWh changed). The batteries are expected to have a 7-10 year warranty.

The dashboard uses touch screens and has a 17" main screen that is 3G and Internet capable.

Because electricity is cheaper than gasoline and the electric system has fewer parts that can break down, the cost of running it will be significantly cheaper than a comparable gasoline fueled car. According to Tesla, this will add up to $10-$15,000 over the life of the car (assuming $4 a gallon gasoline). This means it will have a total cost of ownership similar to a $35,000 gasoline fueled car.

Overall it looks really good. A goal of producing a billion dollars of electric cars a year staring in 2011 is impressive. Looking at the delays they had with the Roadster, I would bet it will take them a year or two longer to get things up to speed. But, I think this will be the first electric car sold in large quantities. Let the electric car revolution begin.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Entrepreneurs Find Gold in Gadget Startups

James Park and his partner Eric Friedman stood out like a couple of sore thumbs.

They were in the middle of a crowd of other entrepreneurs at TechCrunch50, a small conference for startups, held in San Francisco last September.

But unlike most of their peers, the duo weren't touting a web-based mashup, a new advertising platform or a collection of 3-D avatars for customer service. They sought attention for their hardware company, which was building a fitness gadget called Fitbit that would be part pedometer, part wellness tracker.

"We have three full-time employees and everything else is outsourced," says Park. "But we have a great idea and we have a flexible work force, and we want to build the next big thing in the gadgets business."

Consumer electronics startups are the new frontier for enterprising entrepreneurs. Once thought to be an expensive business skewed in favor of large companies with nearly unlimited access to capital, giant manufacturing facilities and armies of engineers, the business is attracting entrepreneurs who think small and move quickly. And they're changing the consumer electronics landscape: the Chumby, LiveScribe Pulse Pen, Roku media player and Pure Digital's Flip camcorder all owe their existence to scrappy, independents, not big corporate R&D departments. In some cases, these gadget startups have led to multimillion-dollar paydays for their founders.

Fueling this change is the explosion of the PC and cellphone industries, which have created an ecosystem of boutique industrial designers, contract manufacturing shops and online retailers that support this new generation of guerrilla hardware entrepreneurs.
Amazing that two people that don't know anything about hardware design can launch a gadget company with little capital required. Read the article to see how they did it.

via Wired



Free web-based service that shows people how to determine how much energy they use. Consumers input information about their home and lifestyles to get recommendations for the best products and services that will save energy and money. Providers of the products and services buy the leads generated by consumers seeing the recommendations on the site.
This was the winner of the Green:Net Launch Pad contest. If they can make it simple to use and get providers to sign up, this will be a very useful service. Here is a video of how it works:


Monday, March 23, 2009

Wheel Motors to Drive Dutch Buses

A company based in the Netherlands called e-Traction has developed a new kind of hybrid bus that uses in-wheel electric motors to improve efficiency and a GPS system to reduce pollution in congested areas of a city. The bus is a series hybrid: a diesel generator charges a battery, which in turn supplies electricity for two motors, one in each rear wheel. The company has been awarded contracts to retrofit seven commercial buses with its technology, with the first to be completed next month.

As with other hybrid buses, thousands of which are already in use in the United States, e-Traction's design saves fuel by capturing energy from braking, using it to generate electricity that can later be employed for acceleration. The in-wheel motors confer additional savings by eliminating the need for a transmission, differential, and related mechanical parts. That reduces both the overall weight of the bus and energy losses due to friction. Hybrid buses typically see fuel-cosumption reductions of about 25 to 30 percent compared with conventional buses, but e-Traction's design offers 50 percent reduction.

The bus also incorporates a GPS-based system that changes the way that the bus operates in congested areas. In ordinary operation, the generator cycles on and off, keeping the battery at an optimal state of charge. But when the GPS system senses that the bus has entered an area of the city that usually sees a lot of traffic, the generator switches off to reduce emissions. The battery stores enough power to propel the bus for an hour without the generator running to recharge it.
via Technology Review


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bees To Start Taking Nutritional Supplements

It is increasingly being recognised that managed bees need food supplements. In some places, a decline in the area of pasture land on which they can forage, the loss of weedy borders and the growth of crop monocultures mean it is hard for bees to find a wide enough range of pollen sources to obtain all their essential amino acids. In extreme cases they may not even find enough basic protein. Writing in Bee Culture this February, Mr Traynor observes that places where crops with low-protein pollens, such as blueberries and sunflowers, are grown are also places where CCD has appeared.

The suggestion is that poor nutrition has weakened the bees’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and other parasites. Feeding bees supplements, rather than relying on their ability to forage in the wild, costs time and money. Many beekeepers therefore try to avoid it. Anecdote suggests, however, that those who do fork out find their colonies are far more resistant to CCD.
I'm ok with them using nutritional supplements, but if it turns out they are really using steroids, I expect a full congressional hearing.

via The Economist


Other People Know More About What Will Make Us Happy Than We Do

Previous research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics has shown that people have difficulty predicting what they will like and how much they will like it, which leads them to make a wide variety of poor decisions. Interventions aimed at improving the accuracy with which people imagine future events have been generally unsuccessful.

So rather than trying to improve human imagination, Gilbert and his colleagues sought to eliminate it from the equation by asking people to predict how much they would enjoy a future event about which they knew absolutely nothing -- except how much a total stranger had enjoyed it. Amazingly enough, those people made extremely accurate predictions.

In one experiment, women predicted how much they would enjoy a "speed date" with a man. Some women read the man's personal profile and saw his photograph, and other women learned nothing whatsoever about the man, but did learn how much another woman (whom they had never met) had enjoyed dating him. Women who learned about a previous woman's experience did a much better job of predicting their own enjoyment of the speed date than did woman who studied the man's profile and photograph.

Interestingly, both groups of women mistakenly expected the profile and photo to lead to greater accuracy, and after the experiment was over both groups said they would strongly prefer to have the profile and photograph of their next date.

In the second experiment, two groups of participants were asked to predict how they would feel if they received negative personality feedback from a peer. Some participants were shown a complete written copy of the feedback. Other were shown nothing, and learned only how a total stranger had felt upon receiving the feedback. The latter group more accurately predicted their own reactions to the negative feedback. Once again, participants mistakenly guessed that a written copy of the feedback would be more informative than knowledge of a total stranger's experience.
via ScienceDaily


Smart People Really Do Think Faster

The smarter the person, the faster information zips around the brain, a UCLA study finds. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, looked at the brains and intelligence of 92 people. All the participants took standard IQ tests. Then the researchers studied their brains using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI.

DTI is a variant of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that can measure the structural integrity of the brain's white matter, which is made up of cells that carry nerve impulses from one part of the brain to another. The greater the structural integrity, the faster nerve impulses travel.

The team was able to figure this out because the 92 people in their study were all twins. Some were identical twins, who share all the same genes. Others were non-identical twins, who share only certain genes.

By comparing the groups, the researchers were able to tease out genes associated with the structural integrity of white matter. And it turned out many of these genes were also associated with intelligence.
via NPR


Saturday, March 21, 2009

You Looking At Me?

Up close of a jumping spider. For more cool close ups of eyes click the link.

via Village of Joy


How To Grow Your Own Fresh Air

Researcher and activist Kamal Meattle shows how an arrangement of three common houseplants, used in specific spots in a home or office building, can result in measurably cleaner indoor air.
via TED


Interesting Articles of the Week

Rocket scientists shoot down mosquitoes with frickin' laser beams.

How much caffeine is in your coffee?

Old growth media and the future of news.

Seth Godin's 9 ways to reinvent the Kindle.

The Daily Me.


Friday, March 20, 2009


Stephen Colbert renames what was formerly known as test-tube or in vitro meat.

via Colbert Nation


Help Migratory Bird Observations Fly into the Digital Age

The only complete dataset of bird migration patterns in North America is trapped in a basement — and it's going to take the power of crowdsourcing to free it.

Stored on 6 million note cards stretching back to the 1880s, the records of migratory birds were created by a network of thousands of volunteers who recorded birds' comings and goings, then carefully shipped their observations to the government.

All that irreproducible, paper-based data now sits in a basement in Virginia. Short on cash, a group of biologists is taking a page from NASA's citizen-participation playbook. The North American Bird Phenology Program is asking volunteers to transcribe all that paper into a digital database.

Avian migration is an increasingly important source of proxy information about climate change. Migratory species make their move when it gets too cold or too hot, so if they begin to arrive earlier or leave later, you can back out inferences — over long time periods — about changes in temperature. The Patuxent data, because it stretches back so far, can provide scientists with a baseline for their more recent measurements of bird behavior, so they can see how things have changed over the last century.

Jessica Zelt, who is coordinating the three-week-old effort, said that 400 people had already signed up to help. Participants who want to help go through a simple sign up and 15-minute online training, then are loosed upon the millions of cards scanned in the database as image files.

To maintain quality control, their entries don't automatically make it into the database. Each card will have to be transcribed twice — a strategy similar to that of reCAPTCHA. If everything matches, the data will enter permanent storage; Discrepancies will have to be inspected by Zelt. It's too early to tell how accurate the volunteers are going to be, she said.

Cool application of crowdsourcing. Of course if they really want it to work, they should find a way to turn it into a game.

via Wired


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Technology Quarterly

The Economist's Technology Quarterly is out, and as always has many interesting articles.

My favorites:
Using lasers in farming
Carbon capture
Machines that can see


How To Post An Image In Its Original Size On Blogger

While overall I am very happy with the Blogger service that Google provides for free, one thing that drives me nuts is that they don't allow you to display large images in their full size. Instead they resize them to a width of 400 pixels. It is bizarre to me that Google, which gives away storage and bandwidth like crazy, feels compelled to draw the line at 400 pixels for images displayed in Blogger.

Fortunately, I recently found this hack at Cranked.me to get around this limitation:

To make your images/pictures/photos look fullsize in your blogger posts you need to edit the link to this picture. Once you upload an image from the editor interface, the code for the image will look like this:

<a onblur="try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}" href="http://bpV.blogger.com/WWWWWWWWWWWW/XXXXXXXXXXX/YYYYYYYYYYY/ZZZZZZZZZZ/s1600-h/my-sample-image.jpg"><img style="display:block; margin:0px auto 10px; text-align:center;cursor:pointer; cursor:hand;" src="http://bpV.blogger.com/WWWWWWWWWWWW/XXXXXXXXXXX/YYYYYYYYYYY/ZZZZZZZZZZ/s400/my-sample-image.jpg" border="0" alt="" id="BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_UUUUUUUUUUUUU" /></a>


See the text s400 that I've highlighted here in green? That's what you need to change. Change it to s800 and you are done.


Thigh Master

Project Thigh Master is a system that alleviates this condition by assuring that reminders to save electricity will not go unnoticed, increasing its owner's peace of mind by setting a penalty for environmental waste.

The system consists of a personal techno-garter -- inspired by the Opus Dei cilice popularized in Dan Brown's Davinci Code -- worn on the thigh, communicating wirelessly to a set of low-power sensors measuring the wearer's personal energy consumption. If the wearer's electricity use exceeds a certain limit, the device plunges stainless-steel thorns into the wearer's thigh, a reminder of their complicity in the planet's demise, and perhaps their own mortality.

Thigh Master aims to balance comfort and discomfort in a meaningful way in order to achieve sustainable change. Packaged in the form of yet another personal electronic device, the system helps people to break out of inefficient consumption patterns. But in addition to decreasing a user's energy use, Thigh Master can also provide relief for the less easily measured -- but no less real -- feeling of individual powerlessness in the face of accelerated climate change
A bit extreme, but a cool concept. Personally I would go for a colored orb or a piece of jewelry, but to each his own.

I also think another cool take on this would be to substitute it for the vibrate mode on a mobile phone. Well, not a painful version (and I read a review that this implementation isn't actually painful) but one that just presses on your skin as a means of notification. Build it into a watch or a bracelet with Bluetooth and I think you have something. If you knew Morse code it could even be used as a secret way to receive messages.

via Thigh Master via Year In Ideas


I Don't Think that Word Means What You Think It Means

Not a whole lot of contentment going on at contentment.com.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The World's Biggest Military Spenders

According to the latest comparable figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, America accounted for 45% of the world's military spending—$1.2 trillion in 2007—more than the next 14 biggest countries combined.
Come on North Korea and Iran. How are we supposed to take you guys seriously as the only remaining members of the Axis of Evil if your spending doesn't even necessitate a footnote in the chart?

via The Economist


Fujitsu FLEPia: The First Color E-Book For Sale

Fujitsu has at last released its color e-book to the masses. Featuring an 8-inch XGA screen capable of displaying 260,000 colors, along with Bluetooth, WiFi and up to 4GB of storage via SD card, and measuring less than half an inch thick, FLEPia's not just getting by on color alone. Fujitsu promises 40 hours of continuous use, and the unit can be operated by its touchscreen or the assortment of function buttons. Naturally you can do the regular e-book thing, but the Japanese version of the device also includes full-on Windows CE 5.0, which would probably be a bit of a chore to use with the relatively slow screen refresh times of e-ink (1.8 seconds for a single wipe), but undeniably retrofuturistic. FLEPia ships on April 20th in Japan for 99,750 Yen (about $1,010 US).
Cool that there is finally a color e-book for sale, but really slow refresh rate for something that expensive. Can't wait to see how much they improve it for the 2.0 model.

via Engadget


One Watt, One Year, One Dollar

For residential customers in the U.S., the average price of electricity has recently* been at $0.115 per kilowatt-hour. This works out to almost exactly $1.00 per Watt-year:

Leave a 100 Watt light bulb on for a year, pay $100.

I found this surprising when I calculated it. The number is simple, memorable, and encourages conservation. Pass it on.
Consider it passed.

via Eric Drexler via TreeHugger


The Cost of Capital Punishment

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic who has cited religious opposition to the death penalty in the past, is now arguing that capital cases cost three times as much as homicide cases where the death penalty is not sought. “And we can’t afford that,” he said, “when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime.”

The Urban Institute study of Maryland concluded that because of appeals, it cost as much as $1.9 million more for a state prosecutor to put someone on death row than it did to put a person in prison. A case that resulted in a death sentence cost $3 million, the study found, compared with less than $1.1 million for a case in which the death penalty was not sought.
Amazing that it costs $2 million dollars more to execute someone then it does to just let them live the rest of their life in jail. Also amazing that it costs $1 million dollars to send someone to jail for the rest of their life. With 16,000 murders in the US each year, this adds up fast.

via NY Times


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One Step Closer to Artificial Photosynthesis

Artificial photosynthesis for the production of liquid fuels is a potential source for renewable and carbon-neutral of transportation energy. The basic concept is to integrate light-harvesting systems that can capture solar photons and catalytic systems that can oxidize water, then to combine this water oxidation half reaction with a carbon dioxide reduction step in an artificial-leaf type system to produce a liquid hydrocarbon, such as methanol (CH3OH), that can be stored, transported, and used for transportation or other applications.

Researchers with the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have now found that nano-sized crystals of cobalt oxide can effectively carry out the critical photosynthetic reaction of splitting water molecules. The next big step, however, will be to integrate the water oxidation half reaction with the carbon dioxide reduction step in an artificial leaf type system.
Hope they get that second part working soon. I wonder how the efficiencies and economics of this compare with using algae?

Artificial photosynthesis has been a dream of mine for a while, although more for use as a human fuel than a car fuel.

via Science Daily and Green Car Congress


Fitbit Tracker

The Fitbit Tracker is designed in part to help people find out whether they are getting too much sleep, or not enough. The Fitbit will cost $99 when it is released in early summer, said James Park, the chief executive of Fitbit Inc. in San Francisco. This small device is also a pedometer that tracks calories burned during the day.

The Fitbit uses a motion sensor called an accelerometer, also employed in the iPhone and Wii controllers, to track movement and, in that way, sleep. “You slide the Tracker onto a wristband” provided with the device, Mr. Park said, and press a button to start recording sleep behavior.

“When you wake up and sync it to your computer, it will tell you how many minutes you were asleep as opposed to awake while you were in bed,” he said.

The device can collect up to seven days’ of data. A wireless base station collects the information and uploads it to the Fitbit Web site.
Pretty cool. I sometimes wake up without feeling refreshed and wonder if maybe I am not sleeping well. A device like this would help me to determine if that was the case.

Instead of a base station it would be cool if it could sync via Bluetooth with a PC or better yet take advantage of that new iPhone OS 3.0 functionality and sync with an iPhone.

via NY Times


What Makes States Happy

When the happiness rankings by state came out last week, I said you should expect to see lots of correlations in the future. Richard Florida jumps right in and finds the following:

State happiness is associated with income (a correlation of .33 with our measure of average income), as well as housing prices (.49). Makes sense: People are willing to pay to live in happy places, and people with more income have more choices. And it’s even more closely associated with levels of human capital (that is, share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or above - it’s . 77)

Happy states appear to be creative states - at least as measured by the share of people employed in creative class jobs (with a correlation of .48). The correlations are even higher for the the super-creative core and the the overall creativity index (.53).

On that score, yes, happy states are also apparently those greater concentrations bohemians (.43), immigrants (.36 ), and gays (.32), as well as states with higher levels of high-tech industry (.22) or those with more innovative potential.

One worrying finding: States with a large concentration of the working class are far less happy - with a negative correlation of (-.51).
Click the link for graphs.

via Creative Class


Monday, March 16, 2009

You Say You Are How Old?

In Japan it recently became illegal to sell tobacco from vending machines without verifying that customers are at least 20 years old. Fujitaka, a maker of vending machines in Kyoto, promptly devised a solution: it built dispensers with artificial vision. Fujitaka’s new machines refuse to sell cigarettes if their software detects plumpness in the skin (a tell-tale sign of adolescence) around a potential customer’s eyes. Tests show that the system is slightly better at estimating people’s ages than nightclub bouncers are. Ray Chiang of Fujitaka says sales surged after the government certified the technique last year.
I am sure there is one kid in every class whose plumpness in eye skin is low enough at age 13 to beat the sensor. You know, like the kid who had the full beard at age 16. Thanks to the new artificial vision, that kid gets to be the hook-up for all of his underage smoking buddies. Of course when the police catch on to his little game, he better be prepared with one of these disguises.

via The Economist


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Life Satisfaction vs. NPP Consumption

The goal of Buddhist economics is to maximize well-being while minimizing consumption. Which country or region comes out on top using this well-being return on natural resources metric? One way to compare is using average life satisfaction and net-primary productivity consumption per capita statistics.

Taking the above data and representing population by the size of the circle give us this graph:

With the goal of maximizing life satisfaction (moving to the right) and minimizing NPP consumption (moving down) to get as close to the south-east corner as possible, which region is the best?

It is obviously not one of the 3 lowest regions in life satisfaction (Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Sub Saharan Africa) as they are less happy and use more NPP than the next least happy, North Africa. The low level of happiness for Central Asia and Eastern Europe can likely be explained by communism while Sub Saharan Africa's low life satisfaction is likely due to poor health and low life expectancy.

Aside: Sub-Saharan Africa's consumption of NPP is inflated by human induced fires. If those were taken out, the region would consume 1,400 kgC/capita of NPP, which is right around the world average, rather than 2,770. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 70% of all human induced fires but only 18% of land mass. Human induced fires account for 32% of NPP appropriation in sub-Saharan Africa compared with just 4% for the rest of the world.

Human induced fires aren't consumption in the sense of something usable by humans like additional food to eat or wood for building houses. But, they are consumption in the sense that nature is no longer able to utilize that NPP. It is also not clear what the impact of the human induced fires on NPP is. It is possible that the fires allow for greater NPP in the future as grasses can more easily grow in the cleared land. In this sense the fires aren't consumption as much as they are an investment in future NPP.

Excluding those three regions, the greater the level of NPP consumption the greater the life satisfaction. This means that the answer of which region is the best depends on whether low consumption or high well-being is valued greater. How much kgC of NPP is worth trading for an additional point of life satisfaction? If a region has a life satisfaction of 6, how much additional kgC of consumption would justify an increase in life satisfaction to 7? Conversely, if a region has a life satisfaction of 7 how large of a savings in consumption would be needed to justify a decrease in life satisfaction to 6?

Crunching the numbers, if each additional point of life satisfaction is valued at greater than 27,000 kgC, then Oceania is best. If it is valued between 27,000 and 4,200 North America is the model. Between 4,200-1125 Western Europe comes out on top, 1125-110 Eastern Asia and less than 110 kgC per point of additional life satisfaction then North Africa.

Aside: The trade off between greater life satisfaction and increased NPP consumption also gets at the quantity vs. quality of life debate. Is it better to have one person use 3,000 kgC of NPP and have a life satisfaction of 7, or two people using 1,500 kgC of NPP each with a life satisfaction of 6? Extended to the global population, is it better to have 6 billion people averaging 1,500 kgC of NPP consumption with a life satisfaction of 6 or 3 billion people averaging 3,000 kgC of NPP consumption with a life satisfaction of 7?

Personally, I would use a value around 1200, which would put Western Europe in the top spot. Western Europe scores 2.2 points higher on life satisfaction than Eastern Europe with almost identical levels of NPP consumption. It scores almost identically to Latin America in life satisfaction while using 920 kgC less of NPP per person. If the whole world were to shift to the Western European lifestyle, NPP consumption would go up 14% or 220 kgC per person, and life satisfaction would increase 15% or .93 points.

Sources & Calculations:
Life Satisfaction values come from World Database of Happiness average level of happiness from 1995-2005. For countries not listed in the World Database of Happiness, life satisfaction values from the Happy Planet Index were used. Scores were population weighted to go from country to region using definitions of regions here.

NPP data was from Global patterns of socioeconomic biomass flows in the year 2000. kgC of NPP/Capita = total biomass appropriation per region + net trade / population. Dry mass was converted to carbon by dividing by two (calculations here).

Life satisfaction values were not available for all countries. Overall, countries that accounted for 5% of the world's population did not have values available. Some regions had a larger percentage of population missing, such as Central Asia where countries that accounted for 13% of regional population were missing. The percentage of each region's population that had values available can be seen in the "LS Response Rate" column here. It is possible that the countries that are missing had life satisfaction values that were significantly different from the average which would skew the results.

NPP is one way of measuring natural resource use. It covers food, animal products, biofuels, wood for construction, cotton for clothing and other goods that were grown. It does not take into account other forms of consumption such as fossil fuels or metal use. The NPP values exclude fish and other goods taken from the sea.

Further research:
It would be interesting to have more granularity and compare by country rather than region. It would also be interesting to break down a country's results by quantile of NPP consumption to see how it compares with life satisfaction within a country.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

5 great microsoft web services you probably don't use.

South Koreans could see 1Gbps web connections by 2012.

New battery could recharge in seconds.

Neuroscientists map intelligence in the brain.

Blue ducks face extinction after the only two remaining males fell for each other.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happiness Rankings By State

People in Utah report the highest levels of well-being, according to recent survey results from Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. West Virginia had the lowest score.

The index is also broken down into six smaller sub-indices: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access.

The states that scored highest over all didn’t necessarily ace all of these subcategories. Hawaii, for example, had extremely high scores for every sub-index except for work environment — the category in which it had the lowest score of all the states.
Create your own comparison tables and maps here. Expect to see all sorts of correlations with this data in the future. Currently we have income and porn.

This is based on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The site has graphs showing how the value has changed for the entire US over the last year. Not heading in the right direction at the moment.

More information on the methodology here. Looks like they randomly select 1,000 people a day and ask them a series of question on health and well-being. They break the questions into 6 subcategories and then give a numerical value to each, averaging them to get the well-being index value.

The one thing I don't get is why instead of just taking the results for the life evaluation as they are they calculate the value by the percentage of thriving respondents minus the percentage of suffering respondents. Not sure what the impact of that decision is on the results, but it leads to greater variance between states. The other subcategories only differ by 10 points from lowest state to highest state, but life evaluation differs by 20 points.

via Economix via Will Wilkinson
and Breitbart


How My Legs Give Me Super-Powers

Athlete, actor and activist Aimee Mullins talks about her prosthetic legs -- she's got a dozen amazing pairs -- and the superpowers they grant her: speed, beauty, an extra 6 inches of height ... Disabled? No, the opposite. She redefines what the human body will become.
via TED

Update: A couple more specially abled people: USB finger drive guy and Eyeborg eye-socket cam guy.


Google Voice

Google just unveiled Google Voice and it looks pretty sweet. It allows you to have one phone number and then link all your other phone numbers (home, work, cell) with it. You can set up different rules for which phone should ring, or which voice mail recording should answer based on who is calling.

Beyond that, David Pogue lists some cool additional features:

FREE VOICE MAIL TRANSCRIPTIONS From now on, you don’t have to listen to your messages in order; you don’t have to listen to them at all. In seconds, these recordings are converted into typed text. They show up as e-mail messages or text messages on your cellphone.

This is huge. It means that you can search, sort, save, forward, copy and paste voice mail messages.

FREE CONFERENCE CALLING Never again will you pay for a conference call, or require a special dial-in number, or mess around with access codes. All you do is tell your friends to call your GrandCentral at the specified time — and boom, you can conference them in as they call you. No charge.

DIRT-CHEAP INTERNATIONAL CALLS If you dial your own Google Voice number from one of your phones, you’re offered an option to call overseas at rates even lower than Skype’s (and much lower than your cellphone company’s): 2 cents a minute to France or China, 3 cents to Chile or the Czech Republic. Sweet.

TEXT MESSAGE ORGANIZATION Google Voice sends text messages to whichever cellphones you want — even multiple phones simultaneously.

Even more important, it collects them in your Web in-box just like e-mail. You can file them, search them and, for the first time in cellphone history, keep them. They don’t vanish forever once your cellphone gets full.

You can also reply to them with a click, either with a call or another text; your back-and-forths appear online as a conversation.

Sounds good. And best yet it is free. Can't wait to check this out when it gets out of beta. For additional information, check out TechCrunch's review.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is Using the Library a Form of Piracy?

Torrent Freak reports:

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is under attack by online pirates. An add-on for the Firefox browser called ‘Pirates of the Amazon’ makes it possible to shop at the Amazon store but leave without paying a dime. Instead, on Amazon product pages the add-on integrates links to ‘free’ copies on The Pirate Bay.

‘Pirates of the Amazon’ is not the only pirate add-on for Firefox, in fact there are quite a few. IMDB, Last.fm, and Rotten Tomatoes all have their own pirate skin available. Most of them use the Greasemonkey add-on which allows the installation of all kinds of useful user scripts which customize the web to your pirate needs.
Apparently it has since been taken down under the threat of litigation and was then played off by the creators as a university project.

What I found ironic about this, was that I have been using a similar Greasemonkey script (written by some other low life degenerate hacker) on Amazon for years. Just like the Pirates script, I am able to access content without paying for it. Just like the Pirates script, I am depriving the authors of additional revenue. But, unlike the Pirates script, this one is completely legal as it connects to the public library. Which begs the question: should using the library be seen as a form of piracy?

Freakonomist Stephen Dubner argues that if libraries didn't already exist, they would unlikely be able to purchase books at cover price and loan them as much as they want. I think he is correct. While libraries purchase books, a strong case can be made that libraries cause fewer books in total to be purchased which is the same impact pirated goods have. One caveat to that statement is that libraries likely increase revenue for "long tail" books. Books with a niche audience are helped by the fact that each of the 120,000+ libraries wants a copy of a book that will rarely if ever get read.

The question of piracy and libraries gets even trickier with digital books. My library has digital copies of some books available for free download which can be read for 3 weeks. But, they are protected by a form of DRM which the Kindle can't read. There is a hack available to remove this DRM and allow the Kindle to access the content. Does using this hack make me a pirate?

On the one hand, legally I can't remove the DRM. On the other hand, what difference should it make if I have a Kindle or another e-book reader that is compatible with this form of DRM. My library still has the right to distribute the book digitally and I should have the right to read it.

Aside: I find it completely stupid that the library still applies physical world rules on the digital books. Each e-book can only be accessed for 3 weeks after which you can no longer open it. This is a hold over from physical books, where one person having a book restricted another from using it. But now that books are digital, in no longer applies. I can have a digital copy and another person can as well and no one is the worse off. So why restrict access for 3 weeks? Why not just limit the number of books a month a person can download and allow them to read them for as long as they want? Or limit the total number of books that a patron can have at one time? Or just allow them to download all they want and realize that individuals are limited in consumption by the amount of time they have to read? Blindly applying the physical world rules to the digital age makes no sense, and hopefully libraries will wake up to the differences.

Digital books raise the larger question of what the role of libraries should be in the digital age. Libraries allow citizens access to a large selection of books regardless of income. They also have an an environmental benefit, as many people can share the same physical copy, requiring less trees to be cut down. But, with digital books, the environmental benefit of libraries is gone.

The advantage of libraries being able to offer a large selection of books is also gone, as a Kindle can access almost any out of copyright book for free and download it in less than a minute. For books in copyright the Amazon Kindle store has a larger selection of books than most libraries offer.

Libraries also provide everyone regardless of income access to books. Of course the rich can already afford to purchase books, so this benefit is just for the poor. This raises the interesting question of whether in the digital age, governments should disband libraries and instead use that money to subsidize purchases of digital books from Amazon for low income individuals.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Hybrid Wakeboat

One of the guys behind the Aptera Motors EV is turning his eco-consciousness to boating with a 375-horsepower cruiser he calls the world's first hybrid sports boat.

Chris Anthony, who co-founded the company producing the Aptera 2e electric car, says the Epic Wakeboats 23E burns 50 percent less fuel and emits half as much CO2 as a typical wakeboard boat during a four-hour outing on the water. It also represents a new direction for gas-electric technology in boats.

The sleek 22-footer is a series hybrid that uses a small gasoline engine to drive a generator that keeps the lithium-ion batteries going as they approach depletion. It's similar to what you'll find under the hood of the Chevrolet Volt, and we haven't heard of anyone using something like this in a boat.

He says it produces the equivalent of 375 horsepower, enough to propel the 23E to 36 mph while burning far less fuel than comparable vessels. The 23E allows for a one hour wakeboarding session without burning a drop of fuel.

All this technology ain't cheap, with the boat expected to cost as much as $150,000 when it hits the water in July. Epic hopes to produce a $70,000 model by 2012, and it's considering a diesel-electric model down the line.
via Wired


Friday, March 06, 2009


via xkcd


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cities Use Creative, Targeted Lending to Speed Energy Projects

Green Inc takes a look at some programs cities are using to speed up energy saving projects such as Berkeley's Solar Loans:

Babylon, N.Y., has introduced the Long Island Green Homes program to provide low-cost loans for home energy efficiency projects. In Austin, Tex., and Boulder, Colo., community energy demonstration projects aimed at deploying new smart-grid technologies have been developed. And similar initiatives are under way in Vermont and Connecticut.

Portland is proposing a new $5 million to $10 million pilot project that will loan about $6,000 to every property owner within a designated neighborhood. The money will pay for home energy audits, heating, air conditioning and ventilation system upgrades, and weatherization in 500 to 1,000 homes a year. Borrowers will then repay the loan over 20 to 30 years through a monthly charge added to their utility bill.
Why are these a good idea?
One challenge to getting energy-saving initiatives off the ground is that the presumed social benefits arising from improved energy efficiency (fewer greenhouse gases, for instance) are often at odds with the rational economic calculus of homeowners on the ground.
Actually, I disagree with that statement. As I see it, the problem isn't that homeowners are being rational and there are external benefits to society that they don't take into account, but rather that they aren't doing the financial calculus correctly.

Every month the homeowner must pay both a mortgage and an energy bill, but rarely does a homeowner (or the bank issuing the mortgage) take into account energy costs of a home when buying. Most homeowners want a 2 year payback on projects (or a 50% rate of return) while they are happy with 5% rate of return on their investments. They are willing to get a 5% return investing in an electric utility that wants to build a new energy plant and yet won't invest in home improvements that reduce energy and get greater than a 5% return.

Until homeowners take energy costs into account when buying a home, there is value in cities attaching loans to property titles, and utility companies attaching loans to monthly utility bills in order to fund these energy upgrades that have a good rate of return. Hopefully in the future homeowners will actually do the correct rational economic calculus and include energy costs into account when purchasing homes and banks will be willing to add the cost of energy renovations into mortgages and then these measures by local governments will be unnecessary.


More on Unemployment

A couple of interesting factoids on unemployment in this recession.

First, unemployment is hitting the tangible sector the worst:

But in the midst of the gloom, it’s essential to point out that the damage is still concentrated in the ‘tangible sector’—that is, those industries which either produce,move, or distribute physical goods. In January the percentage of job losses coming from the tangible sector fall somewhere in the range of 75%-85%. (The exact number depends on how many of the temporary help layoffs are in manufacturing, construction, and retail—there’s no way to tell).

Meanwhile, the jobs losses in the intangible sector are much more moderate. Education and healthcare are still growing, and other intangible-producing industries have relatively small losses.
Second, the hits in the tangible sector mean that more women then men will have jobs:
With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.

The proportion of women who are working has changed very little since the recession started. But a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men, who are heavily represented in distressed industries like manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.

As of November, women held 49.1 percent of the nation’s jobs, according to nonfarm payroll data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By another measure, including farm workers and the self-employed, women constituted 47.1 percent of the work force.

Women may be safer in their jobs, but tend to find it harder to support a family. For one thing, they work fewer overall hours than men. Women are much more likely to be in part-time jobs without health insurance or unemployment insurance. Even in full-time jobs, women earn 80 cents for each dollar of their male counterparts’ income, according to the government data.
Third, unemployment is now moving up the age and educational ladders (see previous post on education and unemployment):

The total number of unemployed increased by more than 50 percent from January 2008 through last month, but the number of jobless Americans 55 or older jumped by 70 percent, according to new Labor Department numbers released Friday.

For people with college degrees, the number rose even more sharply, by nearly 85 percent.

Finally, this interactive map allows you to easily see which parts of the nation are getting hurt the worst.



Using "off-the-shelf hardware", we have modified a Kill-a-Watt(TM) power meter to "tweet" (publish wirelessly) the daily KWH consumed to the user's Twitter account (Cumulative Killowatt-hours). We are releasing this project as an "Open source hardware" project - in other words, anyone can make these, modify them and make a commercial product from the ideas and methods.

Here's how it works: The modified Kill-a-Watt uses a "super-cap" to slowly recharge itself. Once there is enough power it turns on the Xbee wireless module which transmits the data to a nearby computer (or internet connected microcontroller, like an Arduino). Once the power usage for the day is recorded it uses a predefined Twitter account (it can be your own) to publish your daily KWH consumption for the day. Multiple units can be used for an entire household.
This was the winner of the Greener Gadgets Design Competition. Twitter feed here. Instructions on how to make your own here.

I think this is a very cool concept. This allows people to continuously monitor their electricity consumption wirelessly on the web. Unlike other solutions it does not require access to the power meter or the breaker panel (which is great for people who live in apartments). You could see how this could easily be modified to use something like Google's PowerMeter rather than Twitter for better analysis of the data.

I have some ideas on how the design could be tweaked to make a very appealing consumer product, but I will save that for another post.

via Core77 via Engadget


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

Microsoft wants to help companies gauge their greenness.

Shopping locally may not be as good for the environment as having food delivered (hey, that sounds familiar).

The 32 totally essential (and free) apps for every new PC.

Why sleep is needed to form memories.

How the smell of rotten eggs could lead to a new Viagra.


Utilities Turn Their Customers Green, With Envy

A frowny face is not what most electric customers expect to see on their utility statements, but Greg Dyer got one.

He earned it, the utility said, by using a lot more energy than his neighbors.

“I have four daughters; none of my neighbors has that many children,” said Mr. Dyer, 49, a lawyer who lives in Sacramento. He wrote back to the utility and gave it his own rating: four frowny faces.

Two other Sacramento residents, however, Paul Geisert and his wife, Mynga Futrell, were feeling good. They got one smiley face on their statement for energy efficiency and saw the promise of getting another.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

Customers who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good” conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset.

When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements — an improvement that Alexandra Crawford, a spokeswoman for the utility, said was very encouraging.

The approach has now been picked up by utilities in 10 major metropolitan areas eager to reap rewards through increased efficiencies, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Positive Energy, the software company that conceived of the reports and contracts to produce them. Following Sacramento’s lead, they award smiley faces only.
I wrote a year ago about how smiley faces could reduce energy usage, I am glad to see that it has been implemented. I will be interested to see how well it works.

But, what is the deal with not showing frowny faces? Are Americans really that touchy that if they see a frowny face on their bill that they feel the need to write their electricity company to complain? Seriously, if you think that the rating system is unfair to you for whatever reason, can't you just let it roll off your shoulder? If the lack of frowny faces is keeping this program from reducing more electricity usage, I might just have to write my electricity company to complain. :)

via NY Times