Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pixel Qi's Magical Hybrid E-Paper LCD Coming This Fall

Mary Lou Jepsen has posted a few early pictures of her low-cost everything-killer 3Qi screen, which can seamlessly operate as sunlight-readable e-paper, a backlit LCD or a full-motion, low-power transflective display. And, she says, 10.1-inch models are shipping by Fall.

Jepsen also designed the OLPC's reflective screen, and posits this, which essentially adds an e-book mode to that display's technology but can still be manufactured with LCD fabrication techniques, as the obvious next step. In talking this tech up, she's made two important promises: that the 3Qi is possible to make, and that it'll be cheap to make. Seeing these hacked-together Aspire Ones (one of which is pictured below, subathing) is reassuring on both fronts, as is her continued optimism about bringing the 3Qi to market:
These screens will be available this fall in netbooks and ebook readers. Size: 10.1″ diagonal
If prices are anywhere close to regular LCD netbook panels, this could be huge: netbooks would be eBook readers, eBook readers would be PMPs, and regular small-to-midsize LCD and e-ink panels might have a hard time justifying their existence.
Mary Lou had a pair of off-the-shelf Acer laptops that she had purchased at Radio Shack. Her team modded them with the new, 10-inch Pixel Qi screens for demo purposes; a jerry-rigged switch, on the side of the screen, allows you to switch between emissive mode—similar to the typical, flashlight-in-your-eyes LCD display—and reflective mode, which rivaled E Ink. Actually, it was better than E Ink: My Kindle only handles 167 DPI (the measure of dot pitch, or crispness of the font); the Pixel Qi, Mary Lou said, does 205 DPI.

In black and white, reflective mode, I couldn't see any difference when we held up the Kindle alongside the PQ-modded Netbook. Both were easy to read without any flicker or speckling. Color on the Pixel Qi was like color on an LCD, which, I guess, it is. That's the killer app, right there, of course.

And it does video to the tune of 60 frames per second. We sat on the deck of her houseboat and watched a clip on YouTube in reflective mode, and the video ran perfectly smoothly.

But Mary Lou said that a manufacturer could buy PQ's technology today and have an e-reader that could render high-def text, on a full color page, and video, by the first quarter of next year. The screens are cheap to produce, too—well under $200, she said. Such a device ought to enjoy 40 hours or so of use as an e-reader, between charges.
Sounds pretty cool. Merging a Kindle with a netbook would be a huge win. Actually, this would be great in smart phones as well.

I wonder what the refresh rate is like for the e-ink? I don't really get how have color or do video in the reflective mode, but sounds great to me. Hopefully the price will be somewhere in the range she states and this technology will get to market quickly.

via Gizmodo and Nerd World

Update: Video of device in action here. For a 13 minute video it really sucked at actually describing how it works, but it does show it in action which clears up some questions. The presenter also said that this technology does not have as good of whites as the Kindle e-ink and uses more electricity to run, but it does allow for faster refresh allowing for videos.

Update 2: More videos of device in action. Still super long and still doesn't answer all questions. Confirms that it doesn't use e-ink but rather just LCD without a backlight. They say it has 3 modes, but it still isn't clear what the 3rd mode does.


An Electric Jet Ski As Quick As It Is Expensive

A San Francisco startup packed with endurance athletes and engineers from places like Apple is building an electric jet ski that could do for wave riding what Tesla Motors has done for driving.

Eco Watercraft says the Eco1 will do more than 60 mph. As quick as that is, it’s nothing compared to the price. The little water rocket will go for $32,000 when it goes into production in 2011.

He assembled a team of engineers from Apple and Electric Motorsports, which is building a motorcycle for the TTxGP green grand prix, to develop the Eco1. Much of the technology is “top-secret,” but Taylor says it will use lithium-ion batteries with a run time of three hours. When the batteries are dead, three hours plugged into a 240-volt outlet will get you back in action. Plug it into a household 110-volt outlet and you’re looking at a six hour recharge time.

Taylor hopes to unveil the Eco 1 at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii next October. He says a second prototype with a carbon fiber hull will be finished in five weeks and the company will start taking orders by the end of the year.

Once production on the Eco1 begins, Taylor says, the company will start work on an “economy” model with a little less performance and a price around $10,000 to $12,000.

Watching the video, I am reminded of the dream I had when I used to work in the Embarcadero Center in downtown San Francisco. I wanted to live on Treasure Island and then commute via jet ski each day. In this dream I would wear my business suit under a wet suit and then rip the wet suit off James Bond style when I would get to shore. Too late for me, but looks like the next generation will have an eco-friendly way to live the dream.

via Wired


Thursday, May 28, 2009

America's Poor Are Its Most Generous Givers

The generosity of poor people isn't so much rare as rarely noticed, however. In fact, America's poor donate more, in percentage terms, than higher-income groups do, surveys of charitable giving show. What's more, their generosity declines less in hard times than the generosity of richer givers does.
I have read about this before that the poor give more as a percentage of their income than the rich, but it always surprises me. Why would this be the case?

The article lays out many plausible reasons, but I would like to add two more.

But before I do so, I think it should be noted that while the poor give more as a percentage of income, in terms of total amount given, they give much less, with the lowest income group averaging $453 and the highest 20% $3,337. Those in the lowest 20% of income account for 6.5% of all dollars given, while those in the top 20% account for 48%.

Google Spreadsheet

One reason that might explain why the poor give more is that it is a collective way to save money. When times are good you help out those around you, and when times are bad they help you out. Banks could be used to accomplish the same thing in an individually, where you would saving your money in good times and then taking it out in bad times.

A second reason that might explain this is that by giving more than their fair share, they make it easier for others to give to them. Those in the lowest 20% of income give on average $453, but the average person gives $1,388. If all donations were evenly distributed to all people (and likely they would skew more towards those of lower income) then for every dollar a poor person gives, they get back 3 times as much or a 200% "return" on giving. A slightly different take on this would be that because they see how much are given they feel like they too should give as much as they can.

via McClatchy


Friday, May 22, 2009

American Human Development Index

via Map Scroll via Andrew Sullivan


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt

Classic product review over at Amazon:

This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that's when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my shirt that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to 'howl at the moon' from time to time (if you catch my drift!). The women that approached me wanted to know if I would be their boyfriend and/or give them money for something they called mehth. I told them no, because they didn't have enough teeth, and frankly a man with a wolf-shirt shouldn't settle for the first thing that comes to him.

I arrived at Wal-mart, mounted my courtesy-scooter (walking is such a drag!) sitting side saddle so that my wolves would show. While I was browsing tube socks, I could hear aroused asthmatic breathing behind me. I turned around to see a slightly sweaty dream in sweatpants and flip-flops standing there. She told me she liked the wolves on my shirt, I told her I wanted to howl at her moon. She offered me a swig from her mountain dew, and I drove my scooter, with her shuffling along side out the door and into the rest of our lives. Thank you wolf shirt.

Pros: Fits my girthy frame, has wolves on it, attracts women
Cons: Only 3 wolves (could probably use a few more on the 'guns'), cannot see wolves when sitting with arms crossed, wolves would have been better if they glowed in the dark.
Also, don't miss the Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed section.

via Digg


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Math and the City

For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener.

The same pattern holds for other measures of infrastructure. Whether you measure miles of roadway or length of electrical cables, you find that all of these also decrease, per person, as city size increases. And all show an exponent between 0.7 and 0.9.
Goes along with this article about the greenness of cities that I wrote about previously.

Other interesting observations about Zipf’s Law in the article.

via The Wild Side


Transformers USB Flash Drive

Ravage has outlived the age of cassette and is onto smaller, better things, and he can store up to 2GB of your most valuable data. He's going to run $42.99 when he's available in September, and can be pre-ordered now.
Do want. As a kid, I had the original Ravage cassette Transformer. Good times.

Not sure how a $10 memory stick and a $10 toy transformed into a $43 product though.

via Engadget


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

Going Dutch: How I learned to love the European Welfare state.

Tackling the world's water problems.

How to stop the drug wars.

A payoff out of poverty?

Ben Southall wins the "Best Job In The World".


Kindle DX: The Kindle For Work

The long rumored larger screen Kindle DX was announced today. It has a 9.7" screen, all the features of the Kindle 2 plus native PDF support and an auto-rotating screen. It will sell for $489 starting this summer (not clear why the announcement was today). Video of it in action from Amazon here. Reviews and discussions on the Kindle DX available at Engadget, Gizmodo, CrunchGear and MobileRead.

The screen is twice as large as the Kindle 2 (1200 x 824 pixels vs. 800 x 600), the page turn is fairly similar (impressive as the screen is larger) and sells for just $130 more (I was expecting a price of $600-700). It could be the first 9.7" e-book for sale as similar 9.7" e-books such as the Hanlin V9, the Netronix EB-300 and the Astak E-book reader have been announced but none are yet for sale.

While there is talk in the Twittersphere that the price is too high, I think this misses the point that this is not a Kindle for pleasure reading but rather one for work. It's market will be professionals and students who will use it a lot and will get much more than $500 worth of value out of it.

The first market I see is for professionals such as lawyers, professors, computer programmers, and doctors that read a lot each day. Much of what they read is in PDF format that is not adequately shown on a smaller screen and therefore require a larger screen. The ability to keep all their documents with them, to search them all easily, and to carry one light weight device rather than lots of papers and books will be very valuable. For those making $100,000 a year it is easy to justify a $500 expenditure with a slight improvement in productivity.

The second big market is college students. Arizona State, Case Western, Princeton, Virginia and Reed College have all signed up to start using them. While Bezos announced that three textbook publishers with 60 percent of the higher education textbook market: Pearson, Cengage Learning and Wiley will be releasing books for the Kindle, any word on pricing was suspiciously absent. There are lots of new interesting business models for selling textbooks, but it is not clear which route Amazon will go. With no resale value, what will they consider a fair price? With college students spending $900 on textbooks and supplies a year, they should be able to purchase a Kindle DX, pay a reasonable price for textbook and still spend less money each year. The market here is huge, but the textbooks need to be priced right for students to want to get the Kindle.

The Kindle DX is getting close to the $300 price where it would be cheaper to give a student entering junior high an e-book and digital textbooks than it would be to purchase physical textbooks for use. Not to mention a whole heck of a lot lighter. If Amazon can get the price down to that, there will be a huge additional market for Kindles with K-12 students.

I have been waiting for a large screen e-book with the ability to view PDF files natively and this fits the bill perfectly. I predict this will be a big hit with professionals and, if the pricing scheme on textbooks is good, college students as well.

One last factoid: Bezos mentioned that there are 275,000 books in Kindle format and Kindle sales are now 35% of books where Amazon has Kindle editions.


Boulder Electric Vehicle

If the Tesla Roadster is the sultry movie star of electric vehicles, Boulder Electric Vehicle’s delivery vans are the character actors. But for good reason. The boxy, all-electric vehicles are meant to haul loads of up to 11,000 lbs, not shuttle the well-heeled between social events or overtake Porches on the freeway.

“The economics work out much better if you’re working with fleets,” Carter said. “It’s easier if you can work with someone who can buy 10 or 100 or 1,000 vehicles at a time.” With the funding, the year-old startup could manufacture a small run of about 100 vehicles by the end of 2011, the CEO said. Potential customers include delivery outfits, such as UPS and FedEx, government agencies, electric utilities, school districts and shuttle companies.

The electric vans, designed to go up to 100 miles on a single charge, will be powered by small-cell lithium-ion batteries supplied by an unnamed vendor. Carter said part of the company’s secret sauce is the lightweight-composite materials used to build the vehicle frames — less weight reduces stress on the electric drivetrain.

The Boulder, Colo.-based company estimates the vans will initially sell for about $100,000, or about $40,000 more than a conventional diesel-powered truck. But Carter claimed that even at current low fuel prices, companies will make up the difference in about six or seven years through lower fuel and maintenance costs. According to the Boulder Electric web site, the cost of operating the electric vehicles will range from 3-8 cents per mile.
Looks like the IDEA has some competition. I agree with the CEO that fleets are the best place to start rolling out electric vehicles.

If their numbers are correct, the extra $60,000 of capital required to make the vehicle electric gives a return of 14-16% (payback of 6-7 years). That seems like a good investment to me. I wish someone would start an investment fund to start going after these types of opportunities. I would love to profitably invest my money in making companies (or individuals) more energy efficient.

via Earth2Tech


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Driving Vs. Residential Density

via Switchboard via TreeHugger


The Long Tail of Digg and Wikipedia Usage

Slate reports:

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

The same undemocratic underpinnings of Web 2.0 are on display at Digg is a social-bookmarking hub where people submit stories and rate others' submissions; the most popular links gravitate to the site's front page. The site's founders have never hidden that they use a "secret sauce"—a confidential algorithm that's tweaked regularly—to determine which submissions make it to the front page. Historically, this algorithm appears to have favored the site's most active participants. Last year, the top 100 Diggers submitted 44 percent of the site's top stories. In 2006, they were responsible for 56 percent.
College OTR adds:
It turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users ... 524 people. ... And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.

There are millions of people who browse Wikipedia in any given month, but only 2 percent of them (roughly 1,400) are responsible for editing nearly 75 percent of the information on the entire website.
PopFAIL finds:
When looking at the last 500 front page stories on Digg, the top 10 submitters controlled a mind-boggling 31.4%
Both Digg and Wikipedia user participation are showing classic long tail distributions. Their distribution may be "longer" than most, meaning a smaller group accounts for more of the total than other long tails. How long the long tail is can be measured by by the exponent of the Pareto power law distribution with a lower value meaning a longer tail. If 1% of Wikipedia's users contribute 50% of edits this would have give it an exponent of 1.16. While that is pretty long, it is similar to the exponent value of 1.12-1.27 or the distribution of book sales or the value of 1.1 for the net worth of Americans.

Even though they have long tail distributions, this doesn't mean they aren't also democratic. On Digg, everybody still gets one digg per story. On Wikipedia, anyone can still chose to edit anything they want. That a small few spend a lot of time and contribute a lot does not take away from that. Anyone who wants to spend the time and effort can choose to be in that 1% that makes the largest contribution. Income tax contributions show a similar pattern with the top 1% contributing 40% of revenue and no one is saying that the US is not a democracy.

Instead of being amazed at how little the other 99% are contributing, we should be amazed that they still account for 50% of the total. If Wikipedia was a company it would likely have less than 700 employees, a number equal to 1% of its users. If they lost the other 99% of its users, it would lose 1/2 of its content. Even though they don't contribute much individually, together they still contribute a lot.


Garbage Day Comes To The North Pacific Gyre

A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas and created from six million tonnes of discarded plastic

In June the 151ft brigantine Kaisei (Japanese for Planet Ocean) will unfurl its sails in San Francisco to try to prove Mr Moore wrong. Project Kaisei’s flagship will be joined by a decommissioned fishing trawler armed with specialised nets.

“The trick is collecting the plastic while minimising the catch of sea life. We can’t catch the tiny pieces. But the net benefit of getting the rest out is very likely to be better than leaving it in,” says Doug Woodring, the leader of the project.

With a crew of 30, the expedition, supported by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Brita, the water company, will use unmanned aircraft and robotic surface explorers to map the extent and depth of the plastic continent while collecting 40 tonnes of the refuse for trial recycling.

“We have a few technologies that can turn thin plastics into diesel fuel. Other technologies are much more hardcore, to deal with the hard plastics,” says Mr Woodring, who hopes to run his vessels on the recycled fuel.

The UN’s environmental programme estimates that 18,000 pieces of plastic have ended up in every square kilometre of the sea, totalling more than 100 million tonnes. The North Pacific gyre — officially called the northern subtropical convergence zone — is thought to contain the biggest concentration. Ideal conditions for shifting slicks of plastic also exist in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the North and South Atlantic, but no research vessel has investigated those areas. If this exploratory mission is successful, a bigger fleet will depart in 2010.
Cool to see they are using drones and robotic surface explorers to help them out. Of course I would like to see this whole operation work without the need for humans at all using autonomous robotic Whoombas.

via Times Online via Digg


Internet Based Early Warning Earthquake Detector

Alright, time for another installment of the Fat Knowledge million dollar ideas series.

This weeks episode: an early warning earthquake detector that requires nothing but a bit of internet programming. This idea is so easy and simple to copy that I don't think you could make a lot of money off of it. While that doesn't sound like a million dollar idea, it still technically qualifies because you can help others save millions of dollars in damages.

I was watching a documentary (on PBS I believe) about the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 where they reported that an abnormally high number of dogs and cats ran away in the days before the earthquake. Apparently these animals can sense something that we can't and feel the need to leave the area.

Taking that piece of knowledge, you can do some simple programming to determine a day or two in advance where an earthquake will strike. You simply need to write a script that runs daily and scrapes the number of missing pets by city from online databases such as Pets 911, Craigslist or Twitter. When the script detects an abnormal spike in lost animals in a city, it emails you the location of where an earthquake is about to occur. You can then warn everybody to get out of the area, help avoid millions of dollars of damages, save countless lives and become a big hero.

As always, I am too lazy to do this myself, but you are welcome to all the fame and fortune yourself if you want to make it happen. I just ask for an "inspired by Fat Knowledge" attribution.


How We Regrew a Rainforest

By piecing together a complex ecological puzzle, biologist Willie Smits has found a way to re-grow clearcut rainforest in Borneo, saving local orangutans -- and creating a thrilling blueprint for restoring fragile ecosystems.
Amazing the system he put in place to regrow the forest. The high tech aspect was cool, using satellites and ultra-lights to monitor every tree.

I wonder how the resulting rainforest compares to a natural one? Looks like this one is more productive or at least produces more goods that are useful to humans. Could the productivity of other forest by increased as well with human help?

I am also curious how the economics work. How much money is needed up front to make this work? If multi-cropping is more productive than mono-cropping, then why doesn't everyone do it? Is it that it is more complex and requires greater knowledge of how to implement it, or that it requires cheaper labor to be profitable or something else? If sugar palms yield three times more sugar per acre than any other crop, then why aren't they used more often for biofuels?

I was also amazed that they could affect the climate that much, lowering air temperature by 3-5 degrees and increasing rainfall 25%. I wonder if water scarcity can be reduced in other parts of the world by changing the vegetation as well?

via TED


Monday, May 04, 2009

Wesabe Partners With WattzOn

Here at Wesabe, we’re constantly working to make your financial data more than just a set of retrospective numbers shown in a few pretty graphs. We’ve formed a partnership with WattzOn to help consumers more easily quantify, understand and reduce their personal energy consumption.

Through this partnership, Wesabe members will be able to see both the financial and environmental impact of their spending. By tapping in to WattzOn’s knowledgebase, you’ll be able to see your purchases in both dollars and watts. You’ll also have access to WattzOn’s wealth of comparison tools (How much energy do I use compared to my peers? To other countries? How large of a solar panel would be needed to fuel my life?) and recommendations.

We plan to launch the integrated Wesabe/WattzOn application at the March O’Reilly ETech conference in San Jose (and will probably have something for you to check out in Wesabe Labs prior to then). In the meantime, we’ve created a few preview screenshots to give you an idea of what a dual financial and environmental view of your energy usage could look like:

Looks cool. I like the of being able to easily see both the financial and environmental impact of my spending. Hopefully it will be both easy to use and have accurate environmental impact information.

via Wesabe


Visualizing The Grid

NPR has put out an interesting interactive map detailing the US's power grid and sources of power. By clicking through the map, you can see where different types of power plants are located, the concentration of those types of power, and the different capacities for renewable energy generation like solar and wind for different areas.
Also checkout this map of potential renewable energy in the US from the NRDC.

via TreeHugger and TreeHugger


The Great Reverse Firewall of China?

Wired reports:

Google on Monday launched free downloads of licensed songs in China, while sharing advertising revenue with major music labels in a market rife with online piracy.

Lee Kai-Fu, president of Google in greater China, said one reason Google lagged in the mainland search market was because it did not offer music downloads, the missing piece to its strategy in a market where it trails leader

"We are offering free, high quality and legal downloads," Lee told reporters. "We were missing one piece ... we didn't have music."

The service offers downloads of some 350,000 songs — from Chinese and foreign artists — a number that will rise to 1.1 million in the coming months, said Gary Chen, chief executive of Google's partner, a Chinese music website co-founded by basketball star Yao Ming.

Music from artists signed by Sony Music, Warner Music, EMI and Universal Music will be available on the service, which Google has no current plans to expand beyond China, said Lee.
Pretty cool, free downloads of music.

How much do you want to bet that those of us in the US and Europe will be blocked if we try to access that site (or banned from using Internet if we succeed)? The great firewall of China is now working two ways: keeping free speech out and keeping free music in. Is it wrong to admit that I am not quite sure which side of the wall I would rather be on?


Sunday, May 03, 2009

That Just Seems Counterproductive

via Engrish Funny


Interesting Articles of the Week

Nudge-ocracy: Barack Obama's new theory of the state.

Alan Khazei breaks down the implications of the Kennedy Serve America Act.

My genome, my self.

A social solution, without going the nonprofit route.

The 10 coolest foreign words the English language needs.


Why Conservatives Should Support a Carbon or Gasoline Tax

While the carbon tax is often thought of as a liberal idea, it makes sense for conservatives as well. Instead of explaining why, I will let them do so.

Arthur B. Laffer & Bob Inglis state why they could support a carbon tax:

Fiscal conservatives would gladly trade a carbon tax for a reduction in payroll or income taxes, but we can’t go along with an overall tax increase.

The good news is that both Democrats and Republicans could support a carbon tax offset by a payroll or income tax cut. Former Vice President Al Gore has argued for eliminating all payroll taxes and replacing them with “pollution taxes.” He said in a speech at New York University’s law school two years ago: “It would be, in other words, a revenue-neutral tax swap. But, instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees, it would discourage business from producing more pollution.”
Greg Mankiw, Bush's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers calls this The Create-Jobs, Save-The-Environment, Reduce-Traffic-Congestion, Budget-Neutral Tax Shift.

Charles Krauthammer further explains the benefit of a gasoline tax:
A tax that suppresses U.S. gas consumption can have a major effect on reducing world oil prices. And the benefits of low world oil prices are obvious: They put tremendous pressure on OPEC, as evidenced by its disarray during the current collapse; they deal serious economic damage to energy-exporting geopolitical adversaries such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; and they reduce the enormous U.S. imbalance of oil trade which last year alone diverted a quarter of $1 trillion abroad. Furthermore, a reduction in U.S. demand alters the balance of power between producer and consumer, making us less dependent on oil exporters. It begins weaning us off foreign oil, and, if combined with nuclear power and renewed U.S. oil and gas drilling, puts us on the road to energy independence.

High gas prices, whether achieved by market forces or by government imposition, encourage fuel economy. In the short term, they simply reduce the amount of driving. In the longer term, they lead to the increased (voluntary) shift to more fuel-efficient cars. They render redundant and unnecessary the absurd CAFE standards--the ever-changing Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations that mandate the fuel efficiency of various car and truck fleets--which introduce terrible distortions into the market. As the consumer market adjusts itself to more fuel-efficient autos, the green car culture of the future that environmentalists are attempting to impose by decree begins to shape itself unmandated.

Oil prices are in a historic free fall from a peak of $147 a barrel to $39 today. In July, U.S. gasoline was selling for $4.11 a gallon. It now sells for $1.65. With $4 gas still fresh in our memories, the psychological impact of a tax that boosts the pump price to near $3 would be far less than at any point in decades. Indeed, an immediate $1 tax would still leave the price more than one-third below its July peak.

A $1 increase in the federal gasoline tax--together with an immediate $14 a week reduction of the FICA tax. Indeed, that reduction in payroll tax should go into effect the preceding week, so that the upside of the swap (the cash from the payroll tax rebate) is in hand even before the downside (the tax) kicks in.
As long as this tax is paired with an income tax cut, there is no reason conservatives shouldn't support it. Even if you don't believe that humans or CO2 have an impact on global warming this is still a good thing for the economy as it shifts from taxing labor to taxing natural resources, many of which are imported. Making labor cheaper will increase the rate of employment.

This tax shift makes sense to liberals. This tax shift makes sense to conservatives. But still this tax shift has little hope of passing.


MSFT: 10 x 10 + 7 = Buy?

When Microsoft releases a new OS, typically it is a good time to buy the stock (MSFT) 6 months before launch. With Windows 7 getting good reviews and launching later this year/early next year now would look to be a good time to buy. Add to this the fact that Microsoft stock has been flat for over 10 years and now has a P/E just over 10 and Microsoft look like a strong buy. But, I am skeptical for 3 reasons.

First, netbooks are exploding in sales, and this isn't good for Windows revenues. In the good old days, a PC ran about $2000 and Windows was $100 of that or 5%. Now, netbooks sell for under $400, with one currently selling for $268, and are on the way to $200. While Windows 7 runs well on them (although the interface many not be suited for a 8-10" screen), there is no way Microsoft will be able to charge anywhere near $100 for the OS on a device that sells for under $350. They will be lucky to get $50 for it and more likely something in the $25 range (they are only getting $15 for XP). As consumers shift to netbooks Windows revenues will go down.

Second, Microsoft's other cash cow is Office and it is not clear how long they will continue to be able to charge $300+ per seat to corporations for this. Google is coming at them with Google Apps that runs over the internet and is free with ads or $50/seat/year without them. Google says more than 1 million businesses and 10 million users are currently using it. With no new must have features in Office for 10 years, the need to upgrade isn't strong and free alternatives and online competitors are getting close in terms of quality and features.

Third, technology is moving in the direction of mobile phones and cloud computing. While Ray Ozzie is pushing Microsoft in the right direction with regards to cloud computing, (Windows Live Mesh won the Crunchy for best Technology Innovation) this market is likely to be competitive with Google, Amazon and others and monopolistic profits non-existent. With regards to smart phones, the Windows Mobile platform competes just adequately with other solutions from Apple, Palm, Google, RIM and Nokia. There will be no monopoly in this market either. While Microsoft may successfully compete in these new markets, it is unlikely there will be new large profits from them.

I think it is still a good time to buy MSFT and ride the wave of Windows 7, but with Windows and Office revenues likely on the way down and no new large profitable markets to replace them, it will be time to exit again in a year.


Penny Protest

I hate pennies. Some might even call me a rabid anti-pentite (not to be confused with anti-dentites). Nothing makes me madder than to come up a penny short and have some numbnuts sales clerk force me to break out another dollar. Sweet, 99¢ in change!

John Fund writes:

Pennies are a nuisance that is proliferating. This year, the Mint will churn out nine billion of them. That exceeds twice the annual output of all other coins combined. Production is up in part because of hoarding, in part because more and more people are throwing them in jars or drawers and never taking them out again. Few people now bother to pick up a penny when they see it on the street. It's simply not worth the effort. More and more litter on our streets now consists of pennies.

A growing number of experts are concluding the penny is too picayune to bother with.
Yeah, I would total agree with that if only I knew what picayune meant.

A penny now costs more than a 1¢ to make and a penny costs more than a penny for retailers to handle. You cannot legally pay someone to pick pennies up as a full time job for if you were able to spot and pick up a penny every 5 seconds for an hour you would have just $7.20, less than the new minimum wage.

Thankfully Greg Mankiw points out a potential solution to end this national nightmare from Al Lewis:
Retailers should simply round down the total checkout tally for cash purchasers and not handle pennies at all. There will be no need for pennies in change and anyone who wants to use pennies to pay, can put them in a charity jar instead. The first retailer to do this will reap a PR bonanza and others will quickly follow. Within a couple of years, retailers who don’t round down will be as rare as those who don’t accept credit cards. Not getting pennies in change, like being able to pay with credit cards, will be considered a birthright.
Sounds good to me. They should put a sign in their window: Anti-pentites welcome. I would go way out of my way to shop at such merchants.

Even better than the concept is the news that the penny protest has become a reality in Concord, MA.
Among the other West Concord businesses to join the Penny-Anti Protest are Concord Outfitters, Reflections, Phillips Fine Paint, West Concord Supermarket, West Concord Liquors, Walden Italian Kitchen, Twin Seafood and The Barber Shop. Others are considering it.

Early this week, the protest began to spread to Concord Center as well, with Anderson’s, Sally Anne’s, The Concord Flower Shop, and Country Kitchen also on board.
Time to check on airline prices because I am going to have to move.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Win, Win, Win, Win, Win ...

Tom Friedman on the need for a gasoline or carbon tax:

That is why I believe the second biggest decision Barack Obama has to make — the first is deciding the size of the stimulus — is whether to increase the federal gasoline tax or impose an economy-wide carbon tax. Best I can tell, the Obama team has no intention of doing either at this time. I understand why. Raising taxes in a recession is a no-no. But I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal — i.e., a tax — and there are no effective ones. (Toughening energy-efficiency regulations alone won’t do it.) Without a higher gas tax or carbon tax, Obama will lack the leverage to drive critical pieces of his foreign and domestic agendas.

And he could make it painless: offset the gas tax by lowering payroll taxes, or phase it in over two years at 10 cents a month. But if Obama, like Bush, wills the ends and not the means — wills a green economy without the price signals needed to change consumer behavior and drive innovation — he will fail.

The two most important rules about energy innovation are: 1) Price matters — when prices go up people change their habits. 2) You need a systemic approach. It makes no sense for Congress to pump $13.4 billion into bailing out Detroit — and demand that the auto companies use this cash to make more fuel-efficient cars — and then do nothing to shape consumer behavior with a gas tax so more Americans will want to buy those cars. As long as gas is cheap, people will go out and buy used S.U.V.’s and Hummers.

There has to be a system that permanently changes consumer demand, which would permanently change what Detroit makes, which would attract more investment in battery technology to make electric cars, which would hugely help the expansion of the wind and solar industries — where the biggest drawback is the lack of batteries to store electrons when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. A higher gas tax would drive all these systemic benefits.

A gasoline tax “is not just win-win; it’s win, win, win, win, win,” says the Johns Hopkins author and foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum. “A gasoline tax would do more for American prosperity and strength than any other measure Obama could propose.”
And one final win:
An economics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis suggests that raising gasoline prices by $1 a gallon would reduce American obesity by 9 percent. Another study posits that if every American spent 30 minutes a day walking or cycling instead of driving, we would collectively cut carbon emissions by 64 million tons and shed more than three billion pounds of excess flab.
I couldn't agree more with this. If Obama wants to be the Green President, this is mandatory. You can tell the auto industry to raise fuel efficiency, but as long as gasoline is cheap, people will continue to buy gas guzzlers.

But of course this makes so much sense that it has no chance politically:
New Department of Energy secretary Steven Chu has declared gas tax hikes “off the table,”


Church Donation Rates vs. Income Tax Rates

Christianity Today reports on donation rates at churches:

Twenty percent of American Christians (19 percent of Protestants; 28 percent of Catholics) give nothing to the church. Among Protestants, 10 percent of evangelicals, 28 percent of mainline folk, 33 percent of fundamentalists, and 40 percent of liberal Protestants give nothing. The vast majority of American Christians give very little—the mean average is 2.9 percent. Only 12 percent of Protestants and 4 percent of Catholics tithe.

A small minority of American Christians give most of the total donated. Twenty percent of all Christians give 86.4 percent of the total. The most generous five percent give well over half (59.6 percent) of all contributions. But higher-income American Christians give less as a percentage of household income than poorer American Christians.
Comparing those rates with federal income tax rates:
Interesting how similar they are. Long tail in full effect. Not clear if Ari Fleischer believes that the church's redistribution of income is getting out of hand, given how similar the donation rates are to income taxes.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if taxes were completely voluntary. If church donation rates are any indicator, the total amount of revenue would go down by a lot, the tax rate would become regressive, and the percentage of total revenue paid accounted for by the rich account would stay pretty much the same.

More info on income tax payments here, here and here. And if you were wondering, Nicholas Kristof finds that conservatives give more than liberals.


More Depressing Stats on Prisons

For most of the 20th century America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its population as many other countries—a hundred people for every 100,000 citizens. But while other countries stayed where they were, the American incarceration rate then took off—to 313 per 100,000 in 1985 and 648 in 1997.

America has less than 5% of the world’s people but almost 25% of its prisoners. It imprisons 756 people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives.

More than 20% of inmates report that they have been sexually assaulted by guards or fellow inmates. Federal prisons are operating at more than 130% of capacity. A sixth of prisoners suffer from mental illness of one sort or another. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison as in mental hospitals.

As well as being brutal, prisons are ineffective. They may keep offenders off the streets, but they fail to discourage them from offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released. The punishment extends to prisoners’ families, too. America’s 1.7m “prison orphans” are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. The punishment also sometimes continues after prisoners are released. America is one of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting, and in some states that ban is lifelong: 2% of American adults and 14% of black men are disfranchised because of criminal convictions.

The prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists. Twenty-six states plus the federal government have passed “three strikes and you’re out” laws which put repeat offenders in prison for life without parole. And the war on drugs has pushed the incarceration business into overdrive. The number of people serving time for drugs has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today, or 55% of the population of federal prisons and 21% of those in state prisons. An astonishing three-quarters of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are black.
Ugh. Toss those in with all the other depressing US prison stats.

But, there is one reason for optimism: Senator Jim Webb.
Mr Webb is now America’s leading advocate of prison reform. He has co-sponsored a bill to create a blue-ribbon commission to report on America’s prisons. And he has spoken out in every possible venue, from the Senate to local political meetings. Mr Webb is not content with incremental reform. He is willing to tackle what he calls “the elephant in the bedroom”—America’s willingness to imprison people for drug offences.
Best of luck Mr Webb, you are going to need it..

via The Economist


The Perfect Colbert Logo (Take 2)

And some people don't believe that America is a Christian nation. Apparently God disagrees.

via Digg


Friday, May 01, 2009

Discovering Bacteria's Amazing Communication System

Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria "talk" to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The find has stunning implications for medicine, industry -- and our understanding of ourselves.
Really interesting talk.

Amazing how simple the molecules of the communication system between bacteria are and yet it is just being discovered now.

As over 90% of the cells in and on our body are bacterial, this is the dominant form of communication between cells in our bodies.

There is talk of using this technology as an antibiotic, but this snippet from her interview goes the opposite direction:
So, on the flipside of trying to make antagonists -- molecules that suppress quorum sensing -- my lab spends lots of time trying to make agonists, molecules that make bacteria talk better. If we could beef up the conversation of the bacteria that live in us or on us that are keeping us healthy, it might be even better than developing an anti-quorum sensing molecule.

We want to manipulate these bacterial conversations both positively and negatively. But we don't know yet if it's better to enhance the conversation for mutualists or to suppress it in the case of harmful bacteria. There's a place for each of these technologies, and we're trying to get them both to work. How exactly they're deployed will come later.
Oh, and gotta love the new TED intro with the blazing soundtrack removed.

via TED


One Idea, One World, One Market

Alex Tabarrok sees growth coming from new ideas. He believes that future growth comes from ideas that have high R&D costs, but low production costs. He quotes Jefferson, with the wonderful maxim about knowledge, that he who lights his candle at mine receives light without darkening me. As he phrases it, “One apple feeds one man, one idea can feed the world.”

If you had to choose between having two deadly diseases, one common and one rare, you’d want to have the common disease. There are more incentives to produce solutions to common diseases - “Larger markets save lives. Misery truly does love company.”

“If China and India were as rich as the US was today, the market for cancer drugs would be eight times what it is now.” We’d have far more scientists and engineers able to work on these problems and increased incentives to conduct research. It’s similar to the ways in which action films have larger budgets than comedies - action films do better in overseas markets and therefore impact more sales, and can cost more.

“One Idea, One World, One Market” is the solution for the future, Tabarrok tells us. We need more idea creators. Less than 0.1% of the world’s population are scientists and engineers. A large percentage of those people are in the US. The US is now losing idea leadership… and that’s a good thing, he tells us. Around the world, there may be geniuses, like the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, toiling in poverty and obscurity.

“It’s as if we had a supercomputer and billions of our processors had been offline.” India, China, and Africa are coming online, and we will see an Einstein in Africa this century. We need to build investments in education that increase the supply of new ideas.
Video of the whole TED talk here. Hits on some themes I have written about previously in my Top 1% of Humanity, The Moral Case for Globalism and How Much Research Is Being Done In The World posts.

Basically he is saying that standard of living is determined by technology, and the larger and richer the global population becomes the more researchers and scientists and the faster technology improves. Because technology is not a zero sum game, we in the US are made richer the stronger the Indian and Chinese economies become. It does make me wonder if rather than praising Obama for his pledge to raise research and development budgets, I should have prodded him to use the US commitment as a way to get other countries to match the pledge, as the benefit of the American research will be shared by all in the world.

One implication of this is that the standard of living of the next generation of Americans will be based as much by what happens outside the US as what happens inside it. The education systems in 3rd world countries will impact the standard of living of the next generation of Americans almost as much as the education system in the US. Makes me wonder if the stimulus package would have had a bigger impact for the standard of living of the next generation of Americans if it were distributed outside the US, as a dollar spent in a 3rd world country would have a bigger impact than one spent in the US.

While I agreed with most of the talk, I did disagree with is his use of GDP/capita as a measuring stick for these advancements. The first issue I have is that many of the advances due to increased knowledge are part of the commons wealth (such as Wikipedia or drugs that aren't patented) and aren't captured by GDP. The second issue I have, is that I don't think GDP/capita really captures how things have changed between generations. A person making $30,000 in 1900 is very different from a person making an inflation adjusted $30,000 in 2000. The person in 2000 would have access to a car, TV, air conditioning, 100+ channels of TV, the internet, a cell phone and advanced medical care. What would the person in 1900 have instead to have an equal standard of living? I don't know. Maybe you could ask people today making $30,000 how much money they need to prefer living in 1900 and take the average value.

Instead of looking at equal incomes, you could see compare how much the average GDP/capita increased between 1900 and 2000. But, if you found that it increased 10 times, what does that really mean? That you are able to eat 10 times as much food, or eat 10 times as much meat, or have a house 10 times as large? It could also mean that the goods you purchase are 10 times better. But how exactly is that measured? At a certain point these numbers become almost meaningless and all you can really do is describe how people lived then and now and then make a judgment as to how much better life has become. Personally I would rather be dirt poor but have access to the Internet in 2000 than be the richest man alive in 1900. You couldn't pay me enough to go back and live in 1900, which means for me the increase in standard of living has been infinite. Likely people in 2100 will think the same.

via Ethan Zuckerman


$2 Deluxe Hugs


Amazing that he could get $36 in one hour. Makes me wonder if he would raise more or less without the free hug "competition" nearby. If he were to donate the money to charity, it raises an interesting philosophical question about which hugger is doing more good.

via YouTube


Why Shouldn't Internet and Cable TV Be Priced Based on Usage?

Time Warner floated a plan to charge people based on the amount of data they downloaded and the internet erupted in protest causing them to shelve the idea. And while I think the actual price structure of Time Warner's plan was too expensive, the idea of charging based on usage rather than just the speed of the connection was a fair one.

The question of fairness of pricing can be extended to include cable TV and cell phone companies as well, as all three have similar economic models with large upfront costs to build their networks and small marginal costs to add new subscribers. Each could choose to charge customers based on quantity used, quality of the product, or the amount of selection provided. Interestingly, each chooses to charge only on one and a different one for each.

Cell Phone
Quantity: Number of minutes you use.

Quality: Quality of the voice connection/number of drops.
Selection: Number of people you are allowed to call.

Cable TV

Quantity: Number of minutes you watch.
Quality: Quality of the transmission (HD).
Selection: Number of channels you are allowed to watch.

Broadband Internet
Quantity: Number of gigabytes you download.
Quality: Speed of your connection.
Selection: Number of sites you are allowed to access.

Charging based on both quality and quantity is fairest while charging based on the amount of selection doesn't make a lot of sense.

Unlimited access plans should only be for heavy use customers such as the $100 plans for ulimited use offered by cell phone companies. If that was the only plan cell phone companies provided, it would be unfair to those that just use their cell phone a limited amount (or it might price them out all together). A person that checks their email and a surf a few websites a day should not have to pay as much as someone who is online constantly and downloads bandwidth intensive movies. A single person who watches only a few hours of television a month shouldn't be charged the same as a large family with multiple TVs that watch 5 hours of TV a day. Charging by amount downloaded or number of minutes watched would be fairer.

Companies should also charge more for higher quality service. Cell phone plan should charge more for service that included better voice quality and fewer dropped calls. Cable TV should charge more for HD channels and cleaner transmission. Internet providers should charge more for faster pipes. It is fair for those that get a higher quality product to pay more for it. Charging for quality would also give the companies a greater incentive to improve.

Charging based on selection, as with cable TV based on the number of channels, doesn't make a lot of sense. There is currently a push to allow customers to pay for channels a ala carte rather than in bundles, but this is just a slightly different way to charge based on selection. To see how bizarre this price structure and how a la carte isn't a good solution, imagine if it were applied to the internet. People would pay based on bundles of sites they could surf to, and they would be complaining that they were paying to access 10,000 sites, but only viewing 100 of them. They would argue that they shouldn't be charged for the 9,900 sites they aren't accessing and want to be charged just for the sites they do visit (which they think should be 1% of the current price since they are only viewing 1% of the sites).

Instead of a la carte purchasing the better solution is to give customers access to every channel but charge based on the number of minutes watched. If one watches only 10 hours a month comprised of 5 different shows, but those happen to be in 5 different bundles of channels, they would have to pay over $100 a month to do this. There should be a limited minute plan with unlimited access to channels for $20 or so to make it more fair. Part of the problem is that cable companies make contracts with TV channels based on the number of subscribers. This should be changed so that cable channels are compensated by the number of minutes their channel is watched rather than the number of subscribers with access to it.

A combination of charging based on usage and quality is the fairest way for cell phone, cable TV and internet companies to charge for their products.