Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A New Form of Foreign Aid?

Web companies that rely on advertising are enjoying some of their most vibrant growth in developing countries. But those are also the same places where it can be the most expensive to operate, since Web companies often need more servers to make content available to parts of the world with limited bandwidth. And in those countries, online display advertising is least likely to translate into results.

This intractable contradiction has become a serious drag on the bottom lines of photo-sharing sites, social networks and video distributors like YouTube.

There may be 1.6 billion people in the world with Internet access, but fewer than half of them have incomes high enough to interest major advertisers.

“Whenever you have a lot of user-generated material, your bandwidth gets utilized in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, where bandwidth is expensive and ad rates are ridiculously low,” Mr. Volpi said. If Web companies “really want to make money, they would shut off all those countries.”

Perhaps no company is more in the grip of the international paradox than YouTube, which a Credit Suisse analyst, Spencer Wang, recently estimated could lose $470 million in 2009, in part because of the high cost of delivering billions of videos each month.
Because it is more expensive to be poor, large corporations must subsidize the cost of providing these web services to poor countries. Hopefully the money Google is losing in 3rd world countries providing YouTube service counts towards the amount of aid that America is giving to the world.

via NY Times


People, Prosperity, Nature

More people, greater prosperity, and more nature are all good things. But, given the finite resources of the Earth there is always a trade-off between the three.

How much of the Earth's resources are currently allocated to each one? How do you weigh the trade-offs between the three? Are they at an ideal balance, or should more resources be allocated to one of them? How can technology change the amount of resources available and what needs to happen to make things look optimally in 2050?

Lets take a look at these questions.

Determining how the Earth's resources are allocated between people, prosperity and nature requires a metric to measure the consumption of each. One such metric is Net Primary Productivity which quantifies the amount of biomass generated each year by plants. It is measured in terms of grams of carbon (gC). The total amount of NPP limits the number of people on the planet, their level of prosperity and the population sizes of species in nature.

Prosperity here is defined as NPP consumption above that required for sustenance. Greater NPP consumption allows for more food and meat to eat, more cotton for clothing, more biofuels for warmth, cooking and transportation, and more wood for housing, furniture and paper (see caveats about prosperity derived from non NPP sources such as fossil fuels).

2000 Allocation

59.22 PgC of NPP was generated on land (excluding oceans, see caveats) in 2000 (source 1). Of that humans appropriated 9.32 PgC (15.7%), or 1,553 kgC of NPP for each of the 6 billion people alive (source 1). A person requires 182.5 kgC of NPP a year for survival (based on 2,000 calories a day). This means that 12% of human utilization of NPP was used for basic survival and the remaining 88% (1,371 kgC) allowed for additional prosperity. Overall, of the 59.22 PgC of NPP created in 2000, 1.8% (1.1 PgC) was used to give life to 6 billion people, 13.9% (8.23 PgC) was used for additional prosperity and 84.3% (49.9 PgC) was left for nature.

There was a larger variance in the kgC of NPP consumption per capita by region (source 2).

Economists are fond of saying there is no such thing as a free lunch, meaning that everything has a cost and there are always trade-offs. It is particularly apt in this discussion, as the NPP from the food you eat at a meal could also be used to allow other people to live or for additional nature. To determine the optimal balance between people, prosperity and nature we need to look at the implications of the trade-offs.

People vs Prosperity
Is it better to have fewer people with greater prosperity or more people with less? Is it better to have as many people as possible, or fewer people with more food, meat, clothing and housing available for each? This is the classic quality vs. quantity debate.

If the total human usage of NPP stayed at 9.32PgC, but everyone consumed at the Oceania level of 8,750 kgC of NPP per person, the Earth could sustain just under 1 billion people. At the North African level of 797 kgC, 11.7 billion people. At the level of bare sustenance of 183 kgC, 50 billion people. Which is better?

One way to determine the optimal balance is to measure how much benefit people get from greater prosperity in terms of increased happiness (or well-being) and then find the point where the marginal increase in happiness from additional NPP consumption would be better allocated to allow more people to live.

Data on life satisfaction (or happiness) and NPP consumption by region can be roughly modeled by the equation Happiness = 2*Log(kgC of NPP) (excluding the 3 unhappiest regions which have higher NPP consumption than expected). A graph of this can be seen at right. One implication of this equation is that the more prosperous you are, the less benefit in happiness you get from additional consumption (or in economic speak, decreasing returns to happiness from additional NPP consumption).

Using the equation we see that a person close to starvation (100 kgC of NPP consumption) gets a much larger increase in happiness from an additional 2,000 kgC of NPP (2.6 points of happiness, from 4 to 6.6) than an extremely prosperous person (6,000 kgC of NPP) gets from that same 2,000 kgC (.2 points of happiness, from 7.6 to 7.8).

How much better does life have to be to justify using additional resources? This will always be a subjective decision, but if you set a level of increase of happiness required for additional NPP consumption (seen graphically as the slope of the line or numerically as the derivative: y=2/((kgC of NPP)*ln(10)) ), then you can solve for an optimal level of NPP consumption. If you believe that an increase of 1 point of happiness can be justified by up to 2,000 kgC of additional consumption, then the optimal level of consumption can be found by the equation 1/2000 = 2/((kgC of NPP) * ln(10)), NPP= 1,737 kgC. This would be a level of prosperity just below Western Europe. Keeping the total human appropriation of NPP constant at 9.32 PgC this level of consumption leads to a population of 5.4 billion people with an average happiness level of 6.5.

Another implication of this model is that total well-being is higher the more equal consumption is. Two people consuming at 2,000 kgC gives more combined happiness (6.6*2=13.2) than 1 person at 500 and another at 3,500 (5.4+7.1=12.5).

A second way to find the balance is to take into account that people can increase their happiness by giving away resources. The optimal level of prosperity is then the point where people get more marginal well-being from giving away additional NPP to allow others to live than they would from consuming it themselves. This can be thought of as the Schindler trade-off, as it exemplified by Oskar Schindler who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by giving away his resources rather than consuming them himself. This behavior can be seen in people who reduce their own consumption and instead support non-profits like Feed the Children that allow additional people to live. The Schindler trade-off also has the interesting implication that if you start with 2,000 kgC of NPP and give 500 of it away, you have greater well-being than if you just started with 1,500 kgC and consumed it all, even though in both cases consumption is the same.

One final point to take into account when determining the balance between people and prosperity is that more people leads to greater richness in life for all. More people means more artists to create more entertainment options, more scientists to generate more medical breakthroughs, more manufacturers to build more types of products, and more researches to develop more new technologies. The well-being of all is increased with more people being alive.

People vs. Nature
What is the right balance between the human population and the amount of nature? For the last 50,000 years the balance has steadily been shifting in favor of humans, with the human population growing from a few thousand to 6 billion and the amount of nature decreasing correspondingly. Has that been a good thing? Would it be better if there were even more humans alive, or fewer with more nature?

One place we can look to try and find an optimal balance is the Americas where the balance between humans and nature has shifted back and forth over time rather than just shifting towards humans.

Jared Diamond writes "About 15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa's Serengeti Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant sloths." Humans first appeared in the Americas 13,000 years ago coming over the Bering Strait. Within a few thousand years all of those species went extinct. The amount of nature continued to decrease as the population of humans grew to a size of around 100 million in 1491.

The balance then shifted back towards nature starting in 1492, when Columbus brought with him small pox and other diseases that reduced the Native American population to just 5 million in 1600. Nature flourished, with the passenger pigeon going from being a rare species to being so large that a flock could form a single cloud that took 3 days to pass overhead. The population of buffalo also exploded as did the size and density of forests.

As Europeans started immigrating the balance shifted back to humans, and the population of the Americas rebounded to its earlier level and then increased even further to 835 million in 2000. As expected, the amount of nature decreased, with the passenger pigeon going from a population of 5 billion to extinction, buffalo being pushed to the verge of extinction and forests sizes decreasing.

Because we feel losses stronger than gains of equal magnitude, it is hard not to think that it was a bad thing when the lions and cheetahs went extinct, or when diseases ravaged the population of native Americans, or when the passenger pigeon went extinct. But, it is much harder to weight the benefit on the other side of the scale and determine at what point the optimal balance between people and nature was obtained.

One way to determine the balance would be to allocate resources to all species based on favorable traits such as intelligence, the complexity of their societies, the diversity of how they live and their overall uniqueness. The more they enrich the planet, the more resources they should get. By that standard humans rate very high as a species and justify a large share of NPP.

Another way to set the balance would be to allocate land to humans and nature based on who can use in more productively. Some ecosystems humans can utilize very well, such as grasslands which can easily be turned into farms, while others, such as swamps, not so much. It has been written that the Amazon rainforest is a "wet desert" because the soil is poor and the nutrients have been washed out. Better to leave that land to nature which has build a productive ecosystem out of it, then convert it to substandard farm land. Along with this, wilderness areas should be left large enough to protect against ecosystem collapses that would cause NPP productivity drops for the region.

For an example of how to apply these principles, lets look at sperm whales and humans. There are 350,000 sperm whales alive today that take 80-100 million metric tons of krill and other sea life out of the ocean each year. That is a greater tonnage than humans take out of the ocean. If reducing the population of sperm whales by 100,000 freed up enough resources to allow 1 million more people to live, would this be a worthwhile trade-off? From the first principle, the 1 million people are likely to enrich the planet more assuming that 250,000 sperm whales is enough to allow for a stable population. From the second principle, we would determine who would utilize the NPP better. Whales do a good job to gathering and digesting krill, while humans could use the krill to increase the amount of fish in fish farms. Harder to judge which one would use it better, but I would lean toward the whales. Putting these two together and I would go with a lower population of whales and more humans.

Prosperity vs. Nature
What is the right balance balance between human prosperity and the amount of nature? Should the amount of nature be reduced in order to allow for greater prosperity: more meat or more nature?

One way to determine the balance is to allocate land to nature or greater prosperity based on which increases well-being more. Nature leads to greater well-being in many ways. First, more nature makes it more accessible and allows for more people to participate in enjoyable activities such as walks in public parks. Second, more nature allows for greater vacation options in terms of beaches to visit, national parks to camp in, or marine parks to scuba dive in. Third, more nature allows for better entertainment and education options through increased subject material for nature documentaries.

The higher a nation's level of consumption, the more likely that additional nature would lead to greater well-being (due to the decreasing returns to NPP consumption). At some point, a nation would gain more benefit from having 1 million wild buffalo than an extra million cattle for hamburgers or a larger population of wild hogs than the ability to eat more bacon. At the national level, you could take a look at the amount of well-being that citizens derive from the current level of nature and then check if decreasing the amount of nature by 10% would give people more well-being from the additional prosperity that land allows for. Or you could go in the opposite direction and see if increasing the amount of land to nature by 10% would give people more well-being.

Another way to determine the balance is to find the point where people get greater well-being from giving away their NPP to nature than they would get by consuming it themselves (same concept as the Schindler trade-off above). Those that contribute to environmental causes or choose to be vegetarians for environmental reasons demonstrate this principle.

The 10,000 kgC Question
If the 59.22 PgC of NPP generated in 2000 was evenly distributed between the 6 billion people alive, there would be ~10,000 kgC per person. If you could choose how your portion was allocated, how much would you consume for your own prosperity, how much would you give to allow additional people to live and how much would you give for nature? While explicitly setting these levels and looking at the trade-offs is challenging and difficult to do, to not do so allows them to be set implicitly, to the detriment of everyone.

I would choose to consume 1,750 kgC allowing me a lifestyle similar to the average Western European. Beyond that, I would get greater well-being from giving the rest away than I would consuming it. Of the remaining 8,250 kgC, I would set aside 7,700 kgC for nature and 1,180 kgC to allow another 2/3 of an additional person to live at a similar level of prosperity as me. Nature's share would be large enough to protect biodiversity hotspots and other national parks that would give me well-being by allowing me to vacation there and watch them in nature documentaries. The increase in the number of humans on the planet would also make my well-being greater by increasing the richness of life.

From a global perspective, if everyone allocated their NPP like me, there would be a world population of 10 billion (an increase of 66%), 42.4 PgC of nature (a reduction of 15% leaving nature with 70% of all NPP), and an average level of prosperity of 1,750 kgC (an increase of 13%). The level of prosperity would be close to the point where 1 additional point of happiness would require another 2,000 kgC of consumption. I think this is a good level in the trade-off between more people and greater prosperity. While the amount of nature would be decreased, I believe this is justified by the greater richness of the human species compared to other species. Humans should convert all land to farms where they could generate more NPP than would be generated leaving it to nature, such as grasslands in Russia and Africa.

Overall, I think this would be the optimal allocation of resources between people, prosperity and nature based on the various trade-offs outlined above.

Technology in the form of greater productivity and greater efficiency allows for greater total NPP allowing for more people, greater prosperity or more nature without trade-offs.

Productivity - This is accomplished by increasing the amount of NPP generated per acre of land. There is great potential for increasing productivity of land as only .2% of all solar energy reaching the Earth is captured by plants via photosynthesis (and only 5% of the sunlight that actually hits a leaf). If all the farm land in the US was replaced with solar panels, they would collect 480 times more energy than the calories in the food they produce. Capturing just a fraction of the 98.8% of sunlight that isn't converted into biomass could greatly increase the amount of NPP on the planet and allow for more people, greater prosperity or additional nature.

Examples of how this could be accomplished include: increased mechanization, irrigation, and fertilization, smarter irrigation (perhaps using laser beams), vertical farming, genetic modification of crops, terra preta, better forest management, reclaiming deserts for agriculture and fertilizing the ocean.

Efficiency - This is accomplished by decreasing the amount of natural resources needed to make goods. Greater efficiency allows the same level of prosperity using less NPP. Examples include: decreasing the amount of waste from farming, increasing efficiency of turning grains into meat, reducing the amount of food thrown out, recycling paper, wearing vintage clothing, and turning bio-waste into biofuels.

A second type of efficiency is increasing the amount of well-being derived from resources used. This can be accomplished by finding ways to get the same benefit with fewer resources such as eating fish that are lower on the food chain which use less NPP for the same amount of food. It can also be accomplished by increasing consumption of goods that give the greatest well-being return on resources used and decreasing those that don't. Activities that increase well-being with little use of natural resources should be increased such as gratitude journals, spending time with family and friends and meditation. Consumption of goods that do little to raise well-being should be decreased such as large houses, long commutes and excessive meat and food consumption that leads to obesity and lowered health.

It should also be noted that while technology can enlarge the pie, mismanagement can also shrink it. In 2000, 6.29 PgC of potential NPP was lost due to human alterations of the land and 1.14 PgC (12% of human consumption) was lost to human induced forest fires (source 1).

2050 Possible Scenarios
How could things look in 2050?

Total NPP could be increased by 10% to 65.5 PgC by doubling the productivity of the 15.2 mil km2 of cropland from 397 gC/m2 to 794 gC/m2. While this sounds large, it is just an increase in productivity of 1.4% a year for 50 years. Doubling the productivity of cropland is feasible given that the US currently produces 9,482 kg/ha/yr of corn almost double the world average of 4,970 kg/ha/yr (FAO 2007) and much less than the 20,000 kg/ha/yr (329 bushels/acre) that was grown on one farm in Missouri. Monsanto has plans to double corn, cotton and soy bean crop yields by 2030 while cutting water, land and energy needs 30 percent. While 794 gC/m2 is greater than the productivity of this land before human alteration (611 gC/m2), it is possible to exceed the natural productivity of land due to irrigation and fertilization. Increasing NPP by 10% would also get back almost exactly the 6.29 PgC of lost productivity due to human induced alterations of land (Source 1).

At left are 9 scenarios (click on the image for a larger version) of how this 10% increase in NPP could be allocated between more people, greater prosperity or additional nature. Going from left to right the number of people is held constant, and going up and down the amount of NPP for nature is held constant.

4 scenarios are of particular interest:
1) All gains from technology go to nature. This is seen in the upper left entry, an increase of 12% to 56 PgC for nature.
2) All gains go to greater prosperity. This is seen in the upper right entry, an increases of 66% to 2,580 kgC/capita.
3) All gains go to greater population. This is seen in the bottom right entry, an increase of 66% to 10 billion people.
4) Gains get split evenly between nature, prosperity and people. This is seen in the center entry with an increase of 20% for people and prosperity to 7.2 billion people and 1,870 kgC/capita and a 4% increase in NPP for nature to 52 PgC.

Those four scenarios all assume no losers, that the amount of people, prosperity and nature all increase. It is also possible for greater increases if there were also losers but that would require trade-offs as described above.

In 2000 there were 6 billion people consuming an average of 1,550 kgC of NPP apiece and 50 PgC was left for nature. What would be the optimal levels for 2050 and what needs to happen to get there?

I would choose to allocate 70% of NPP to nature (45.85 PgC), and 30% for humans (19.65 PgC). Just as technological productivity increases could feasibly go up 10%, I believe that efficiency could reduce NPP needs by 10%. The 1,750 kgC of consumption that I previously stated to be an optimal level in 2000 could be accomplished with just 1,575 kgC in 2050. This level of consumption per person would allow for a population of 12.5 billion. From 2000 levels this would be a 8% decrease in nature, a 2% increase in NPP consumption per person and a 108% increase in population.

As discussed above, I think that humans are justified using a bit more NPP compared to nature due to our richness as a species and our ability to to use certain land more productivity than nature. This level of prosperity is such that it would require a large increase in consumption to significantly increase well-being. Better that those resources allow other humans to live.

In order to get to that ideal level in 2050, individuals will need to increase the efficiency of their consumption, companies will need to invest in R&D to increase productivity and efficiency, and governments will fund technological improvements and protect nature.

Further Research
1) How does kgC of NPP translate into real products? What does shifting from 1,000 kgC to 2,000 kgC mean in terms of consumption of products such as cotton, paper and wood products, biofuels, flowers, or rubber?

What does the average North African, North American or Oceania consumption look like in terms of real products or diet?

2) What would a diet that lead to optimal health look like? How many calories would come from grains, fruits, vegetables, meat and other animal products? How many additional calories would be required for exercise?

How much kgC of NPP would that translate to? A quick calculation of going from a minimal diet of 2,000 calories of corn to one of 3,000 calories with 20% of that from meat (assuming meat takes 5 times as much NPP per calorie) would take NPP from 182.5 kgC to 500 kgC (an increase of 270%). But, it would be nice to have a more refined version of this calculation.

1) This analysis uses NPP to compare the allocation between people, prosperity and nature. This comparison could also be done using other metrics such as amount of land used, amount of energy used, amount of water used or ecological footprint. These other metrics might give a different conclusion as to the overall allocation.

This analysis ignores consumption of non-NPP resources such as fossil fuels, minerals and metals which lead to greater prosperity. On the one hand this doesn't make sense, as consumption of these non-NPP goods leads to greater prosperity and comparing well-being levels between Africa which uses biofuels for cooking and America which uses fossil fuels for the same function is not really fair. 2,000 kgC and 500 gallons of gasoline a year is different from 2,000 kgC and 0 gallons. On the other hand this makes sense as using NPP substitutes, such as fossil fuels or wind power instead of biofuels, allows more NPP for nature. Britain quit cutting down forests when they shifted to coal. If the use of fossil fuels leads to global warming which reduces (or possibly increases) NPP then this usage will be reflected in the results. Ultimately the amount of life on Earth is determined by NPP and the more we can shift to non-NPP consumption for prosperity, the more we allow additional people and nature to exist.

2) This analysis just looks at land and doesn't take into account the oceans. Wikipedia puts oceanic production of NPP at 48 PgC a year or 46% of total global production. I am not sure what % humans appropriate of this or how it would change the analysis.

3) This analysis doesn't take into account biodiversity. See my post on Economic vs. Ecological Statistics for more thoughts on that subject.

4) Source 1 states there are 2.46 PgC of backflows to nature. These are ignored in this analysis. They could be considered nature which would increase the amount of NPP of nature.

5) The losses due to human induced alteration in source 1 are not counted in human usage. This analysis is looking at how much NPP each category uses of actual NPP rather than potential NPP. If they were, then the appropriation to humans would be higher.

1) 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) A comprehensive global 5 min resolution land-use data set for the year 2000 consistent with national census data


Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama Promises Major Investment in Science

"I believe it is not in our character, American character, to follow -- but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than 3 percent of our gross domestic product to research and development," Obama said in a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

That 3 percent would amount to about $420 billion.

"We will not just meet but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race," he said.

That pursuit of discovery a half century ago fueled the nation's prosperity and success, Obama told the academy.

"The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years," he said. "This work begins with an historic commitment to basic science and applied research."

And he set forth a wish list including solar cells as cheap as paint; green buildings that produce all the energy they consume; learning software as effective as a personal tutor; prosthetics so advanced that you could play the piano again and "an expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and world the around us.'

Obama said he plans to double the budget of key science agencies over a decade, including the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

He also announced the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. It is a new Department of Energy organization modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that led in development of the Internet, stealth aircraft and other technological breakthroughs.

And he said the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation will offer programs and scholarships to encourage American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and business related to clean energy.
I like it. Americans of 2050, you're welcome.

via Yahoo Finance


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Will Obama Be The Green President?

It is not an exaggeration to say that the team that President Obama appointed to promote his green agenda is nothing short of outstanding — a great combination of scientists and policy makers committed to building an energy economy that is efficient, clean and secure. Now there is only one vacancy left for him to fill. And it’s one that only he can fill: Green President. Is he ready to do that job with the passion and fight that will be required to transform America’s energy future? Hope so. Not sure yet.

Have no doubt, the president is off to a terrific start: His stimulus package will provide an incredible boost for all forms of renewable energy. The energy bill being drafted by House Democrats Henry Waxman and Ed Markey contains unprecedented incentives for energy efficiency and clean-tech innovation. And the ruling from Mr. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency saying that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that threatens public health was courageous and historic.

But while all of that is hugely important, we must not fool ourselves, as we have done for so many years: Price matters. Without a fixed, long-term, durable price on carbon, none of the Obama clean-tech initiatives will achieve the scale needed to have an impact on climate change or make America the leader it must be in the next great industrial revolution: E.T., or energy technology. At this stage, I’d settle for any carbon price mechanism — cap and trade, fee-bates, carbon tax and/or gasoline tax — as long as it real and provides consumers and investors a long-term incentive to shift to clean cars, appliances and buildings.

Bob Lutz, a vice chairman at General Motors, offers a useful example of why price matters. When Congress demands that Detroit make smaller, lighter, better mileage vehicles, but then refuses to put a higher price on carbon — like with a gasoline tax — so more consumers will want to buy these smaller cars, said Lutz, it is the equivalent of ordering all American shirtmakers to make only size smalls while never asking the American people to go on a diet. You’re not going to sell a lot of size smalls.
I'm with Tom Friedman on this one. While Obama has done a lot to focus on reducing CO2 emissions and transitioning to renewable energy, it is all going to be for naught unless he gets a price on carbon.

via NY Times


One Way to Solve The Student Indebtedness Problem

At age 14, Agassi persuaded his father to buy him an Apple IIe by promising him 10 percent of his “lifetime profits” from writing software. It turned out to be an excellent deal: at age 21, the younger Agassi founded TopTier Software — which made portals to help companies organize their internal information — and sold it nine years later to the German software giant SAP for $400 million.
Instead of having college students accumulate debt to pay for their education, I have wondered if something like this would make more sense. The government could setup a system where they would pay for your education in exchange fore something like 10% of your future wages. Instead of taking on debt, you would sell equity in yourself.

I wonder though if there would be adverse selection, where those that are looking to go into professions with low wages or become house wives would sign up for the system, while those that are planning to take up high paying engineering or law careers would choose instead to take on debt.

via NY Times Mag


Interesting Articles of the Week

President Obama outlines vision and plan for US high-speed passenger rail system; $13B to start.

Vatican to build Europe's largest solar power plant.

The costs and benefits of home ownership: shelter or burden?

Complete genome mapping for sale on eBay (starts at just $68,000!) with proceeds going to the X Foundation.

Top 5 best Yahoo Answers.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Fighting Climate Change By Creating It Vacation

The NY Times writes about Getaways That Are ‘Guilt Free’:

Abercrombie & Kent, a high-end tour operator perhaps best known for its elite safaris, is offering Philanthropic Journeys, a collection of luxury tours that include elements of volunteering or giving back to the visited community. On sale now is a two-week trip, Fighting Climate Change in Antarctica, from $5,697 a person if booked by June 30. Travelers see penguin colonies, visit a working scientific station and help deliver equipment designed to measure the impact of global warming in the region.
Not sure how guilt free that getaway is given that just one week earlier the NY Times published an article on how Hillary Clinton is pushing to restrict travel to Antarctica to protect the environment. And off hand, I can't think of a vacation that would emit more CO2 into the atmosphere than one that includes a round trip airplane ride to Antarctica. I would rename it the Fight Climate Change By Creating It Vacation: see Antarctica before people like you cause it to melt away.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where's The Remotest Place on Earth?

via New Scientist via Digg


More American Workers Outsourcing Own Jobs Overseas

Reminds me of this old one:
Did you hear the one about the programmer who outsourced his own job? I read about it on, the "news for nerds" Web site. A pseudonymous poster wrote, "About a year ago I hired a developer in India to do my job. I pay him $12,000 to do the job I get paid $67,000 for. He's happy to have the work. I'm happy that I only have to work 90 minutes a day, talking code. My employer thinks I'm telecommuting. Now I'm considering getting a second job and doing the same thing."
Not sure if it was real, but sure seemed like a good idea.

via The Onion via Greg Mankiw


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Aptera 2e Flying Electric Car

Man, I have been writing a lot about electric and plug-in vehicles lately. Last one for a while. I promise. :)

If you're the kind of person who loves to be the center of attention, the Aptera 2e is the car for you. The three-wheel, two-seat electric car draws a crowd everywhere it goes. But as odd as the 2e looks it's a real car that rolls silently into driveways by the end of the year.

The 2e is about the size of a Honda Civic on the outside and a Honda CRX on the inside. It seats two people in relative comfort and has enough room to haul three sets of golf clubs or 22 bags of groceries.

A video camera with night vision provides a 180-degree view of what's behind you because the back window is really narrow.

The 2e doesn't have a transmission; power flows from the motor directly to the front wheels. A knob on the dash lets you select from three driving modes. D1 limits output to maximize range. D2 is for normal driving. D3 offers brisker acceleration. Wilbur says the 2e will do zero to 60 in "under 10 seconds," which is on par with the Civic and Toyota Yaris, and says it tops out at 90 mph.

Wilbur was coy about the 2e's specs because they're still working on the car, so all we can tell you is it has a 13-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery. Plug it in to a standard 110-volt, 10-ampere outlet and it'll recharge "overnight." Up that to a 220-volt, 30-ampere outlet and you're good to go in four hours. Wilbur says the battery is good for 100 miles with two people, 250 pounds of stuff and the AC going full blast. He figures the battery has a useful life of six years, at which point Aptera may offer them to solar and wind-power generators for energy storage.

Despite the tweaks, the car became more aerodynamic, and Wilbur says the production car will have a drag coefficient of 0.15. That will make the 2e the most aerodynamic production car in history, topping even the General Motors EV1.

Aptera plans to start production by the fourth quarter and says the car will have a list price between $25,000 and "the low 40s." Something more specific will be nailed down once the company gets closer to the launch date, Wilbur says. As for what it'll cost to drive, Wilbur says you're looking at about a 1.5 cents a mile.

The Aptera will be built in Southern California, and Wilbur says the factory will be able to turn out 20,000 cars a year.
100 mile range for $25-40,000. Not too bad. Looks crazy, which will be the primary reason it is either a big hit or a big failure.

via Wired


Bright IDEA Plug-in Delivery Van

We can’t say it’s terribly slick, but Bright Automotive’s first concept vehicle — unveiled this morning at an event in Washington, D.C. — could do the job for commercial and government fleets. That’s where the startup envisions its plug-in hybrid model making inroads in less than five years. Bright, a spinoff from the not-for-profit think tank and consulting firm Rocky Mountain Institute that’s run by the former chief of General Motors’ EV-1 project, reiterated its plans today to make 50,000 “IDEA” vehicles per year by 2013.
Looks like it was based on the boxfish car design. Personally I like the design, but that might just be the boxfish appreciating scuba diver in me.
It’s a working truck, but one that the company said will have an all-electric cruising range of 30 miles and get 40 miles a gallon from a 4-cylinder engine that may be provided by one of the Detroit Three. There will be a 10 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, but Bright has not yet settled on a supplier for it. With an aluminum chassis and lightweight body panels, the Idea — larger than a minivan but smaller than a FedEx truck — weighs about 3,200 pounds. According to Bright Automotive, the IDEA is five to 10 times more efficient than current fleets thanks to the vehicle’s lightweight materials, advanced aerodynamics, and efficient tires.
While they are marketing this as a 100 mpg vehicle (calculated on a 50 mile run), I think it is better to think of it as an all electric vehicle for 30 miles and then a 40 mpg gasoline powered vehicle. The 10kWh battery pack is less than the 16kWh one in the Volt, but the IDEA uses less energy per mile (10 kWh / 30 miles = 333Wh/mile vs. 16kWh/40 miles = 400Wh/mile).
Waters gave some details about the car itself, designed specifically for public and private fleets, which buy about 500,000 vehicles per year. Waters declined to offer a base price estimate, saying it would give consumers “the wrong idea” about the relative cost of the vehicle, since fleet operators consider the overall cost (they “buy on a spreadsheet”). Bright estimates that a typical customer could save 1,500 gallons of gasoline annually by switching to the IDEA. A commercial customer with 1,000 vehicles in its fleet could save $3 million each year.
I like the idea of focusing on fleet vehicles. These "spreadsheet buyers" don't care about looks, just functionality and cost. They are also willing to pay more upfront if the total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the vehicle is lower. But, I would like to know what the actual cost of the vehicle is and what that battery pack goes for.
Waters told us that the startup needs to secure $400 million in Department of Energy loans or raise capital from private equity markets ($400 million over three years) before June 1 in order to reach its targeted U.S. rollout in the fourth quarter of 2012.
If the market is spreadsheet buyers and the numbers work on fuel savings alone, I don't understand why they can't get the money in the private market. It only makes sense for the government to get involved if there are benefits to society that buyers won't take into account (such as lower CO2 or pollution emissions).

It also isn't clear to me why they didn't go for an all electric car like this all electric Chrysler Minivan designed for the US Postal Service. If these vehicles are driven less than 100 miles a day, I would think an all electric vehicle would be cheaper to maintain and get even greater fuel savings.

Overall it looks pretty cool, and I hope they are able to bring it to market.

via Earth2Tech and Wheels and Auto Blog Green and Inhabit and Wired


TinyURL Decoder

One thing that completely bugs me about Twitter is that all links are TinyURLs, so you never know where you are going or if you have already visited that link. I just found this TinyURL Decoder Greasemonkey script (Firefox only) that automatically expands the URLs for you. Problem solved.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Tax Havens Hamper Development in Poor Countries

According to the Boston Consulting Group, an estimated $7.3 trillion is stashed in offshore financial centers around the world, places such as the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and Monaco, by corporations and wealthy individuals seeking to lower their tax burdens.

"Tax havens have a bigger impact on developing countries than on developed countries," Jeffrey Owens, director of the Centre for Tax Policy Administration at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), recently told Reuters, claiming that tax drainage to havens was equal to 7 or 8 percent of the gross domestic product of the African continent. A 2008 Christian Aid report put it in even starker terms, claiming that because revenues that could be used for healthcare and education are lost to havens, nearly 1,000 children in the developing world die each day as a result of trade-related tax evasion.

"We consider [the capital lost to tax havens] the most damaging economic condition hurting the poor," says Raymond Baker, director of the Global Financial Integrity Program at the Center for International Policy. "Nothing hurts developing countries more. It is a permanent outflow ... and leaves poverty in its wake."

That tax evasion can happen in several different ways. In some cases, proceeds from outright illegal activities - human trafficking, drug running, and fraud - are hidden offshore. In other cases, corrupt officials use tax havens as a way to conceal their earnings from bribes and illegal activities. And finally, multinational companies are able to dodge the taxman through "transfer pricing," moving profits around the world to tax-friendlier jurisdictions.

According to the World Bank, illicit flows of cash from developing economies amount to between $500-$800 billion a year, of which around 60 percent is commercial tax evasion.

via News Hour


Waterproof Solar Cellphone From Sharp

In continuation of a recent trend of major manufacturers announcing a new-found interest in making a buck off developing nations solar-powered cellphones, AU (KDDI) and Sharp have announced the June launch of this unnamed solar handset. Besides being the world's first waterproof solar handset, it charges to a minute of talk or 2-hours of standby after just 10 minutes in the sun.
If the phone was in sun for 12 hours a day, that would allow for 24 hours of standby time and 60 minutes of talking. Under that and it would never need to be plugged in for recharging ever.

via Engadget


Decreasing Price of Sequencing

One consumer-genomics firm called Knome (pronounced “know-me”) uses nimble machines that deposit millions of tiny dots filled with DNA snippets on a flat surface, typically glass. The DNA in these dots can be “read” by molecular machines to signal the presence of different DNA variants. This process has brought down prices by a factor of ten every year since its introduction in 2005.
Amazing how quickly the price of sequencing is decreasing. The article goes into some of the new techniques that are likely to bring the price of whole genome sequencing under $1,000 in the near future.

via The Economist


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

Workers who spend 20% of their office time leisure browsing get more work done than workers who don’t.

Study: writing about values boosts grades, shrinks achievement gap.

'Happy Minimalist' author sees simple life as path to early retirement.

Picking winners in the quest for renewable energy storage.

Grow 100 lbs. of potatoes in 4 square feet.

Woody Harrelson claims he mistook photographer for zombie (you can never be too precautionary when it comes to zombies).


4 Nations Happier than the US With Half the Carbon Emissions

Although it may come as a surprise, research shows a larger carbon footprint doesn't lead to happiness.
Actually, my guess is that if you did a scatter plot of all the countries you would actually see a correlation between larger carbon footprints and happiness. But, I think the more important point is that it is possible to have a high level of happiness with a much smaller carbon footprint.
While the United States ranks near the top of both per capita and aggregate carbon emissions, it's not in the top 10 when it comes to happiness. In fact, many nations ranked happier than the U.S. also tread much more lightly on the planet.
I have called for the US to follow the Danish energy model before, and based on the results of this survey, I do so again. One could also make a case that Columbia wins the well-being return on natural resource contest, with just a slightly lower happiness ranking and a carbon footprint 1/7th that of Denmark.

And kudos to TreeHugger for shrinking the graphic to a size that makes the text illegible with no link to a larger image.

via TreeHugger via Odograph


Dropping PC Prices

In 2004, only 2 percent of notebook computers sold in the United States cost less than $800. In 2008, some 35 percent did, according to data collected by the NPD Group, another research firm.

Prices at the low end have tugged down those in every other segment. Even the computers that Mr. Cook calls “high end” now cost only $800 to $900.

The desktop units of H-P and eMachines are responding to a shared challenge: more shoppers who are looking for machines that provide only “good-enough computing,” according to Doug Bell and David Daoud, analysts at IDC.
I was amazed looking through a Dell catalog the other day that no laptop or desktop system base model was over $1,000. Unless you are buying a Mac, it is tough to go over a grand these days.

via NY Times


Plug-in Hybrid Hummer

The Hummer is the poster child of excess consumption and inefficiency, but a Utah company is converting the much-maligned SUVs into a range-extended electric vehicle good for 100 mpg and a range of 40 miles.

Raser Technologies will unveil the Raser H3 on Monday in Detroit. It promises a 90 mph top speed, off-road capability and a lithium ion-battery you can recharge in as little as three hours. What's more, the company says the drivetrain can be installed in other trucks and it hopes to have 2,000 converted vehicles on the road by the end of next year.

Like the Volt, the H3 will be driven solely by electricity. The engine -- the 260-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder used in the Pontiac Solstice -- will drive a 100-kilowatt generator to recharge the three lithium-ion battery packs.

All together the battery packs have a combined capacity of 40 kilowatt hours and total weight of 600 pounds. Raser claims a recharge time of between 3 and 10 hours, depending upon the voltage of the outlet the batteries are plugged into.

For the sake of comparison, the Volt uses a 16-kWh pack that weighs 375 pounds, while the Tesla Roadster has a 53-kWh pack weighing 992 pounds.

Tying it all together is something Raser calls the Hybrid Master Controller, which is a fancy name for the software that manages the engine, generator, motor and batteries.

No word yet on how the project will be funded or what the vehicle will cost. Raser promises more details when the vehicle is unveiled Monday.
I wonder how much it will cost? My guess is $15,000-$20,000 for the upgrade. I am not sure why they aren't using a cheaper less dense battery type (such as lead acid or NiMH) given the amount of space available in a Hummer.

The Hummer has a 40kWh battery and a 40 mile range which I would think means it uses around 1000 Wh/mile. The Tesla Roadster has a 53-kWh battery and 250 mile for 212 Wh/mile (or 200 Wh/mile). The Volt has a 16 kWh battery and 40 mile range for 400wh/mile. This would make the Hummer 1/5 as efficient as the Roadster and 2/5 as efficient as the Volt.

This leads to an interesting debate about which is better for the environment: an efficient small car that runs on gasoline (like a Prius) or an inefficient large car that runs off of renewable energy.

via Wired


Saturday, April 18, 2009

How to Raise Our I.Q.

Nicholas Kristof on how to raise the collective US I.Q. one billion points:

Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It,” which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.

One gauge of that is that when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study. For example, a French study showed that children from poor households adopted into upper-middle-class homes averaged an I.Q. of 107 by one test and 111 by another. Their siblings who were not adopted averaged 95 on both tests.

Another indication of malleability is that I.Q. has risen sharply over time. Indeed, the average I.Q. of a person in 1917 would amount to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half the population of 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s measurements, Professor Nisbett says.

Professor Nisbett strongly advocates intensive early childhood education because of its proven ability to raise I.Q. and improve long-term outcomes. The Milwaukee Project, for example, took African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation and assigned them randomly either to a control group that received no help or to a group that enjoyed intensive day care and education from 6 months of age until they left to enter first grade.

By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group. Even years later in adolescence, those children were still 10 points ahead in I.Q.

Another proven intervention is to tell junior-high-school students that I.Q. is expandable, and that their intelligence is something they can help shape. Students exposed to that idea work harder and get better grades. That’s particularly true of girls and math, apparently because some girls assume that they are genetically disadvantaged at numbers; deprived of an excuse for failure, they excel.
In the new economy I.Q. is critical to national competitiveness and raising the standard of living. Anything we can do to raise I.Q. sounds good to me.


Where Your Tax Dollars Go

Click image for a larger huge version.

via WallStats


Poverty, Stress and The Brain

That the children of the poor underachieve in later life, and thus remain poor themselves, is one of the enduring problems of society. But nobody has truly understood what causes it. Until, perhaps, now.

The crucial breakthrough was made three years ago, when Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania showed that the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children.

Dr Evans’s and Dr Schamberg’s volunteers were 195 participants in a long-term sociological and medical study that Dr Evans is carrying out in New York state. At the time, the participants were 17 years old. All are white, and the numbers of men and women are about equal.

To measure the amount of stress an individual had suffered over the course of his life, the two researchers used an index known as allostatic load. This is a combination of the values of six variables: diastolic and systolic blood pressure; the concentrations of three stress-related hormones; and the body-mass index, a measure of obesity. For all six, a higher value indicates a more stressful life; and for all six, the values were higher, on average, in poor children than in those who were middle class. Moreover, because Dr Evans’s wider study had followed the participants from birth, the two researchers were able to estimate what proportion of each child’s life had been spent in poverty. That more precise figure, too, was correlated with the allostatic load.

The capacity of a 17-year-old’s working memory was also correlated with allostatic load. Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4, and those whose economic and social experiences had been mixed were in the middle.

These two correlations do not by themselves prove that chronic stress damages the memory, but Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg then applied a statistical technique called hierarchical regression to the results. They were able to use this to remove the effect of allostatic load on the relationship between poverty and memory discovered originally by Dr Farah. When they did so, that relationship disappeared. In other words, the diminution of memory in the poorer members of their study was entirely explained by stress, rather than by any more general aspect of poverty.

To confirm this result, the researchers also looked at characteristics such as each participant’s birthweight, his mother’s age when she gave birth, the mother’s level of education and her marital status, all of which differ, on average, between the poor and the middle classes. None of these characteristics had any effect. Nor did a mother’s own stress levels.

That stress, and stress alone, is responsible for damaging the working memories of poor children thus looks like a strong hypothesis. It is also backed up by work done on both people and laboratory animals, which shows that stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. Stress also suppresses the generation of new nerve cells in the brain, and causes the “remodelling” of existing ones. Most significantly of all, it shrinks the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain most closely associated with working memory.
Poverty leads to greater stress which leads to smaller working memory capacity which leads to more poverty. I don't know enough about the study to make a judgment if they were really able to isolate stress as the sole contributor to smaller working memory capacity, but if they were it raises the question of how to lower stress in poor children to allow them to move up the economic ladder later in life. And after the last post, I am curious if higher stress leads to any epigenetic impacts that are passed on to the next generation as well.

via The Economist


Epigenetics: DNA Isn’t Everything

Two interesting reports on epigenetics from Science Daily.


Epigenetics examines the inheritance of characteristics that are not set out in the DNA sequence. Research into epigenetics has shown that environmental factors affect characteristics of organisms. These changes are sometimes passed on to the offspring.

Today, it has been scientifically proven, which molecular structures are involved: important factors are the histones, a kind of packaging material for the DNA, in order to store DNA in an ordered and space-saving way. It is now clear that these proteins have additional roles to play. Depending on the chemical group they carry, if they are acetylated or methylated, they permanently activate or deactivate genes. New methods now allow researchers to sometimes directly show which genes have been activated or deactivated by the histones.

A certain laboratory strain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has white eyes. If the surrounding temperature of the embryos, which are normally nurtured at 25 degrees Celsius, is briefly raised to 37 degrees Celsius, the flies later hatch with red eyes. If these flies are again crossed, the following generations are partly red-eyed – without further temperature treatment – even though only white-eyed flies are expected according to the rules of genetics.

Diet and epigenetics appear to be closely linked. The most well known example is that of the Agouti mice: they are yellow, fat and are prone to diabetes and cancer. If Agouti females are fed with a cocktail of vitamin B12, folic acid and cholin, directly prior to and during pregnancy, they give birth to mainly brown, slim and healthy offspring. They in turn mainly have offspring similar to themselves.
The scientists made this discovery through experiments involving two groups of rats. The first group was normal. The second group had the delivery of nutrients from their mothers' placentas restricted in a way that is equivalent to preeclampsia. The rats were examined right after birth and again at 21 days (21 days is essentially a preadolescent rat) to measure the amount of a protein, called IGF-1, that promotes normal development and growth in rats and humans. They found that the lack of nutrients caused the gene responsible for IGF-1 to significantly reduce the amount of IGF-1 produced in the body before and after birth.

As a result of this genetic adaptation, the rats were likely to grow to smaller sizes than their normal counterparts. At the same time, they were also at higher risk for a host of health problems throughout their lives, such as diabetes, growth retardation, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and neurodevelopmental delays, among others.

"Our study emphasizes that maternal–fetal health influences multiple healthcare issues across generations," said Robert Lane, professor of pediatric neonatology at the University of Utah, and one of the senior researchers involved in the study. "To reduce adult diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, we need to understand how the maternal–fetal environment influences the health of offspring."
Genetics just got a whole lot more complicated. I wonder if epigenetics are part of the reason that genetic tests are showing limited value in predicting diseases.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

6 Things That Rock and 6 Ways To Improve Windows 7

I have been playing around with Windows 7 for a week, and I like it a lot. After the disaster that was Vista, this OS release is going to be a big hit for Microsoft. It was voted Engadget's readers' most anticipated gadget of 2009, although ironically, it is not supposed to be launched until next year. But, there are whispers it could be ready to go in September and you will be able to get a hold of the Release Candidate in May.

To other such illustrious lists as the 30 best features of Windows 7, 7 things we hate about Windows 7 and 50 seriously useful Windows 7 tips, I add my own 6 things that rock and 6 ways to improve Windows 7.

6 Things That Rock About Windows 7

1) It fixes up things the things that suck about Vista. The sluggishness and slowness of the system are gone. It has lower requirements for hardware which means it will work well on netbooks. The drivers are the same, so no driver nightmares on upgrade. You have more control over the granularity of User Access Control alerts so you can get rid of all those annoying security messages.

2) It improves performance. Faster startup, better SSD performance, better netbook performance, and longer battery life. Windows 7 beats XP and Vista on most benchmark tests.

3) It has much improved usability. The new taskbar aka the "superbar" is redesigned and works great. The quick launch icons and running programs icons are now combined which takes up less space. New features including Aero shake, Aero peek, new keyboard shortcuts, and dragging windows to the top to maximize or to the side to fit half the screen make it much easier to arrange and navigate windows. Windows 7 also gives you more control of what shows up in the system tray, and much better WiFi connection control.

4) It allows for instant search from the start menu. This actually came with Vista, but as a XP user was new to me (and has been improved since Vista as well). Now you can just click the Windows key and start typing to find/launch applications. Works great. I wanted to change the font size and had no idea where in Control Panel that ability hid. All I had to do was start typing "font size", and up came the option to launch. No more need to use the Run option, as you can just type the command in the search box. Also, instead of digging in the Start Menu to find an application, now you just starting typing its name to launch it.

5) Rotating Desktop. You can set your desktop image to rotate on an interval. This is a simple feature, but it is really nice to have something new showing up every 1/2 an hour.

6) Miscellaneous upgrades of applications, new applications and new features. Updated IE8 browser is a nice step forward and so is the updated calculator. Big ups as well for the new Problem Step Recorder and PowerShell. The new multi-monitor support, Multi-Touch, and device stage features are also nice as well.

6 Ways To Improve Windows 7

1) Bring an end to the Narrowscreen discrimination. Windows 7 should include a few desktop images for screens that are aligned vertically, and also add keyboard shortcuts/dragging to the top or a side to tile windows vertically. On a related note, Microsoft should make the taskbar vertical by default on widescreen monitors to take advantage of all that wasted horizontal space.

2) Add the ability to put directories directly on the taskbar. I would like to have "My Documents" and "My Music" as icons on the taskbar, but that isn't possible. You can only have one Windows Explorer icon, with different directories as options on the right click "jump list" menu. This isn't good enough. Also, I would like an icon on the taskbar for recently opened files so I can get to them quickly as well.

3) Add keyboard shortcuts for Sleep (Win-S) and Hibernate (Win-H). In XP you could do Win-U-S for Stand by (Sleep). They got rid of this, so now you have to some "Win-right arrow, right arrow, up, up, enter" nonsense. At least once a day I put my machine into sleep or hibernate mode and I want a really quick way to do this. I think most people use these modes frequently, so I am not sure why there is no keyboard shortcut to do so.

4) Add the ability to grab images off the Internet for the Desktop Slideshow. The rotating desktop is great, but I would like to enter a URL to a Flickr stream and get new random images showing up all the time.

5) Create an Update Center for all applications. While Microsoft has improved the updating process for Windows, Microsoft software and hardware drivers, software updates from other vendors are still a mess. Every vendor has their own damn updater that runs on its own schedule, that downloads updates in its own way, that may or may not give you any control over when and how it installs them (which in many cases is a brute force method of a complete uninstall followed by a complete new install). Google does it one way, Adobe another, Firefox a third way. Each updater takes up memory, runs when you don't want it to, and may require you to reboot to complete.

It is a basic feature of all applications to do updates and Microsoft should offer a uniform way at the OS level to handle it. Give me a place where I can specify when I want to check for updates and how I want them applied. Give me a notification in the system tray when something new is available and give me the option to install it when I want to. Microsoft should use this as a business opportunity to host the application updates of software vendors do they don't have to deal with it.

6) Add a Windows App Store. Microsoft should steal Apple's App Store idea and integrate it into Windows. All Apps in the store would be tested by Microsoft to be virus free and verify the drivers won't blue screen your machine. You would put your credit card information on file, so that you could just open up the Microsoft Store application, find an application you want to buy, and then with a single click download and install it (or possibly one screen with information to fill out as to how to install it). Like the Apple App Store, this will allow developers to sell small applications at a low price and still make significant revenue off of it. Microsoft could sell their own "micro apps" this way.

You can see a precursor to this with Windows Gadgets. The problem with this is that there are many useful apps, there are few (no?) paid applications, and installing a new gadget requires 5 clicks! Make the process simple and people will use it. Small games that cost a few bucks would be big sellers. Diagnostic apps would also be big.

Sure you can currently download applications from the web, but the whole process is convoluted. First you have to find the right page to download from. Second, if it isn't free, you have to find out how to pay and enter your credit card somewhere. Third, you have to wait for some stupid code to be emailed to you. Forth, you have to download and save the installer somewhere. Fifth, you have to find it on your machine and double click on it. Sixth, you have to go through some dumb installer that looks and acts slightly differently then every other installer out there. Finally, you have to click on the application to launch it and enter your secret code. This process sucks and makes installing new Windows applications a pain. A unified simple way to do this would make more people want to install (and purchase) applications.

More about Windows 7 can be found in these reviews from Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Engadget, Engadget (again), and HowToGeek. If that isn't enough for you, here are all the Windows 7 posts from Gizmodo, Lifehacker and Engadget.


The Perfect Colbert Logo

The only way it could be any better is if they were holding on to an American flag. Nothing that can't be fixed with a little Photoshop.



5 Potential Fat Sockets

I have recently become aware of 5 companies that are producing or are close to producing products similar to the Fat Socket. Lets take a look at their cost, availability, and functionality. All allow you to monitor your electricity usage on a socket by socket basis in real time and have also the ability to shutdown power to any socket.

Earth2Tech had a roundup of 10 monitoring tools from which some of this information was pulled. It also features some other monitoring tools that work off of the power meter or fuse box, such as the Onzo.

1) Visible Energy

Explanation from Earth2Tech:

The strips include energy-management software and electronics that will automatically record appliances’ consumption, storing such data for up to two months, and enable users to control those appliances via their iPhones, iPod Touch devices, or computers.

The first of these, called UFO Powerstrip, is a flying saucer-shaped disc about 11 inches in diameter with a rubber top that flips up to reveal four sockets in different colors, and space for hiding cords. The single-socket Monostrip, meanwhile, is both suitable for larger appliances and can fit into tighter spaces than the UFO. The third, the Load Monitor board, connects to homes’ electric panels to monitor their circuit breakers.
It is estimated be in production by the end of summer at a cost of less than $200. It connects to the local network via power line home networking. I like the functionality, but would rather it fit over my existing outlet.

2) EnergyHub

Earth2Tech explains:
“It’s basically an ultra-mobile PC (UMPC),” explained Frader-Thompson to us in an interview. The dashboard contains enough computing power to provide detailed Google-style spreadsheets for programming your energy usage; it also offers features such as one comparing last week’s energy use to this week’s, or your home’s energy usage to that of other EnergyHub users.

And CEO Seth Frader-Thompson tells us the startup is planning to start selling directly to consumers as well as to utilities sometime in the middle of 2009. He says it also won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars.
More from their website:
The dashboard device also houses the Internet connection, ZigBee wireless connection and a touchscreen interface. You can supplement the Starter Kit with our Sockets and Strips. Plug them into your regular outlets, then plug in your appliances and devices as you would normally. The touchscreen dashboard receives the wireless data from the sockets and strips, configures appliances in each room, and organizes the information in a way that’s easy to read and manage.
That picture is just what I had in mind for a Fat Socket. This device also allows you to monitor and manage your thermostat. Looks pretty good, and hopefully not too expensive.

3) Vera

This system is a complete home automation system. Beyond monitoring the output from wall sockets you can also use it with door locks, security cameras, light switches, thermostats, garage door openers, window coverings and alarm sensors. The demo video explains more.

Available now to the retail market, but super expensive and kind of buggy based on the message board. Thanks to Jeff for the heads up on this one.

4) Tendril
Tendril sells a combo of energy management services, including a wireless in-home energy display, a smart thermostat, a web-based energy portal, smart outlets and cell phone apps that can help homeowners diagnose and cut energy consumption.

Tendril Volt is a 3-prong, ZigBee® enabled electrical outlet that can be plugged into a standard wall outlet to monitor the energy efficiency of any electrical appliance or device. When used in conjunction with the Tendril Residential Energy Ecosystem (TREE) or Tendril Vantage, multiple outlets in the same home can be tracked individually or as a group over the Internet giving you unprecedented insight into and control over your household energy footprint.
Also allows you to control your thermostat. Available now but only through your utility, and no word on cost.

5) GEO
Home Energy Hub, comes in three display options: a small one-panel display, the Solo, which shows real-time pricing and consumption; the two-paneled Duet, which shows energy management of up to six appliances; and the Trio, which is a large touchscreen that can monitor up to 100 sensors.

Consumption data is gathered by a range of sensors. It is an adaptor which plugs into the socket and the appliance plugs into the adaptor. Not only does the adaptor measure the energy consumption, it also monitors various safety parameters (such as loose connections). It includes control functionality whereby the appliance can be switched off from the screen either manually or by means of a time switch.
Available in summer 2009 for those in UK, no word on price.

While all of these devices are similar to the Fat Socket, none of them are currently available to the retail market at an affordable price. That still leaves an opening for the Fat Socket, unless one of these companies or another comes out with it first.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We Didn't Start the Flame War

via CollegeHumor via Digg