Tuesday, June 30, 2009

People are Altruistic Because They Are Militaristic

From a Darwinist perspective, altruism is hard to explain. The more selfish someone is, the more likely they are to have their genes passed on to the next generation. Within a few generations altruistic tendencies should be lost. And yet they exist. How can this be explained?

Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico believes altruism can be explained by war.

To gather his data, Dr Bowles trawled through ethnographic and archaeological evidence about warfare between groups of hunter-gatherers. This is rarely war in the modern sense of planned campaigns. It is more a matter of raids, ambushes and fights between groups who have met accidentally. It is, nevertheless, quite lethal. Dr Bowles identified eight ethnographic and 15 archaeological studies that met his criteria of reliability and abundance of data. They suggest that 12-16% of mortality is the result of such low-level warfare. This is a figure much higher than, for example, the mortality caused in Europe by two world wars, and is certainly enough to drive evolution. But the question remained of whether it could drive group selection.

It was to test that idea that Dr Bowles devised his model. Although it pitches group against group, it is strictly based on the idea of selfish genes. It looks at the benefit to a notional gene that promotes self-sacrifice. The question is, does such a gene do well if individuals having it belong to a group that takes over the territory and resources of a similar, neighbouring group, but at the risk of some of those individuals losing their life in the process? What is the maximum self-sacrificial cost that can evolve in these circumstances?

In the absence of war, a gene imposing a self-sacrificial cost of as little as 3% in forgone reproduction would drop from 90% to 10% of the population in 150 generations. Dr Bowles’s model, however, predicts that much higher levels of self-sacrifice—up to 13% in one case—could be sustained if warfare were brought into the equation. This, he contends, allows the evolution of collaborative, altruistic traits that would not otherwise be possible. Moreover, although warfare is an extreme example, other, less martial forms of self sacrifice may have similar group-strengthening virtues.
via The Economist


Education and Health Care Spending

Amazing how much more is spent on higher education and health care in the US than in the rest of the world. The gap between the US and other countries would be even larger if shown as spending per person, as GDP per capita is larger in the US than in the other countries.

At least with higher education spending the US has created the highest quality system in the world. With the health care system it seems like much of that extra spending is just wasted. But, spending on higher education is getting out of hand and needs to be reigned in as well.

Also interesting how over half of the spending on higher education and health care comes from private sources in the US, while in the rest of the world the government picks up the majority of the tab.

via The Economist and The Economist


I Take Back My Reznor Being a Genius Comment

The two goals of an artist releasing an album (or any other digital good) should be to maximize the amount of money made and to maximize the amount of people that can listen to it (see previous Radiohead analysis). I propose a 2 part system to accomplish these goals:

Part 1: Give away a free "basic" version, trying to maximize the amount of people who can have access to it.
Part 2: Auction off a limited quantity "special edition" version, trying to maximize the amount of money.

This system would allow a limited number of rich people (or poor hardcore fans) to purchase the special edition as a status symbol which in turn supports the artist and allows everyone else to get access to the music for free.

A while back I had called Trent Reznor a genius for the way he released his Ghost album, giving away the .mp3s for free but charging for a limited edition box set. I am now taking back my praise because while I think the free version maximized the number of people who could listen to it, I think he left money on the table by not auctioning off the limited edition on eBay.

The one part I haven't figure out is how many copies should be put up for bid. Producing the good is a trivial cost, so you are just trying to maximize the total amount of revenue that you take in. This gets into the interesting concept of "virtual scarcity", where something derives its value from being exclusive, and more money can be made by artificially restricting production.

If you sold just one copy, would it be so exclusive that someone would pay more than double what you could get for two copies? Or would 10 copies be better? Or one million? It economic jargon this would be the elasticity of demand. But, I have no idea in practice what that demand curve looks like or how you could determine this before hand.

The elasticity of demand is being tested out with Apple's new pricing scheme:

These are the results labels were hoping for when Apple relented and began selling music at three price tiers: 69 cents, 99 cents and $1.29. While variable pricing made sales volume decline, higher prices compensate for that to create more revenue.

Sales of the weekly top 40 tracks -- most of which now have the higher wholesale rate -- fell about 11% in the six weeks after the launch of variable pricing. But retailer revenue from those tracks rose about 10% after the price hike. That means labels took in 20% more revenue for those songs.
While the higher prices are leading to more revenue which is a good thing, it also means that fewer get the music is a bad thing. Which means artists have to choose between being rich or being popular. With the system proposed above, you get the best of both worlds.


Cap and Trade Bill Passes House, Carbon Tax Would Be Better

The house passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act 219 to 212. While this bill included a lot, the primary piece was setting up a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide emissions. It aims to reduce emissions 17% below the 2005 level in 2020 and by 80% in 2050.

While I like the target of a 17% reduction in 2020, I think a carbon tax would be preferable to this cap and trade system for three reasons.

First, a carbon tax would shift from taxing work to taxing fossil fuels and energy. The carbon tax would allow for a lowering of the payroll tax. If set at a level of $20 a ton of CO2, this would bring in approximately $120 billion a year. This revenue could also be generated in a cap and trade system by auctioning off permits but that is not what has happened:

On May 15th Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the Democratic point-men on climate change in the House of Representatives, unveiled a bill that would give away 85% of carbon permits for nothing, with only 15% being auctioned.

First, it generates no money, thereby royally messing up Mr Obama’s budget. Second, it means that the permits go not to those who value them most (as in an auction) but to those whom the government favours. Under Waxman-Markey, electricity-distributors would get the largest share, with the rest divided between energy-intensive manufacturers, carmakers, natural-gas distributors, states with renewable-energy programmes and so on. Oil firms, with only 2% of the permits, feel hard done by.

The grand handout to shareholders is meant to last until around 2030, by which time all permits will be auctioned.
Second, a carbon tax has a fixed price on carbon, while the cap and trade system will have a variable price based on the carbon market. The fixed price makes it easier for businesses to plan. The carbon price is likely to vary wildly in the market and be at the mercy of the same sort of financial issues we have seen in the stock market and housing markets recently.

One supposed advantage of the cap and trade system is that it sets a limit on overall emissions while the emissions from a carbon tax will vary. But, the current plan has ceilings and floors put in it so that if it gets too expensive to cut emissions then the cap will rise.

Third, the current cap and trade system is very complex. This explanation of how allocations to regulated utilities work system made my head spin. Yes, it is true that the IRS tax code is extremely complicated as well and many of the exemptions for the cap and trade would be in a carbon tax as well. But, a carbon tax is still a lot easier to explain to people than this system, and it in practice this tax would be similar to the federal gasoline tax that doesn't have as many exemptions. More benefits of the carbon tax over cap and trade can be found at the Carbon Tax Center.

Overall then, would I like to see this pass or would it be better to try for a carbon tax in a year or two?

My guess is that in two years the US will be out of the recession and will need to focus on reducing large budget deficits. Adding a carbon tax at this point would be easier to do as new revenue will need to come from somewhere. While there is talk from environmentalists that a carbon tax is not politically possible, I am not convinced given that Canada has been able to pass one and that the opponents of the current bill have already labeling it a "tax on everything" (apparently conservatives don't realize that the current income tax is already a tax on everything).

I think the caps from 2020 to 2050 are irrelevant as they will be rewritten later. If it is too expensive or if a new administration has other priorities the caps will rise. I am concerned that the 2020 goal will be "hit" but that shenanigans in the way exemptions and offsets are handled will mean that the reductions are very much at all. But, if they are hit without to much gaming of the system I think it is a great accomplishment.

While ambivalent, I would like to see it pass as I will take this with its warts to what might be possible in a couple of years. But, once the cap and trade system is passed, a carbon tax is unlikely and a great opportunity to shift from taxing work to carbon emissions will have been lost.


Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

HERE’S the job description: You spend a few hours a day, up to 20 a week, at your computer, supplying answers online to customer questions about technical matters like how to set up an Internet home network or how to program a new high-definition television.

The pay: $0.

A shabby form of exploitation? Not to Justin McMurry of Keller, Tex., who spends about that amount of time helping customers of Verizon’s high-speed fiber optic Internet, television and telephone service, which the company is gradually rolling out across the country.

Mr. McMurry is part of an emerging corps of Web-savvy helpers that large corporations, start-up companies and venture capitalists are betting will transform the field of customer service.
I wrote previously about the Hybrid Economy and how Digg was like a for-profit non-profit organization as most of the work on their site was done by volunteers. Looks like this business model is now moving to customer service.

What motivates these volunteers?
Such enthusiasts are known as lead users, or super-users, and their role in contributing innovations to product development and improvement — often selflessly — has been closely researched in recent years. These unpaid contributors, it seems, are motivated mainly by a payoff in enjoyment and respect among their peers.

The mentality of super-users in online customer-service communities is similar to that of devout gamers, according to Mr. Fong. Lithium’s customer service sites for companies, for example, offer elaborate rating systems for contributors, with ranks, badges and “kudos counts.”

“That alone is addictive,” Mr. Fong said. “They are revered by their peers.”
Being able to successfully create an environment where people will work for free will be the key to success for many companies.
Natalie L. Petouhoff, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that online user groups conform to what she calls the 1-9-90 rule. About 1 percent of those in the community, she explained, are super-users who supply most of the best answers and commentary. An additional 9 percent are “responders” who mainly reply and rate Web posts, she said, and the other 90 percent are “readers” who primarily peruse and search the Web site for useful information.

“The 90 percent will come,” Ms. Petouhoff said, “if you have the 1 percent.”
Another long tail, and similar to what happens at Wikipedia.

via NY Times


Monday, June 29, 2009

Island Nation to Produce 5X its Energy Needs with Geothermal Energy

The tiny two island Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis recently discovered several large geothermal reservoirs that will allow it to produce an estimated 50 megawatts (MW) of clean energy. With a need of only 10MW, Saint Kitts and Nevis is poised to become one of the most carbon-neutral nations in the world.

In addition to becoming virtually carbon-neutral, Saint Kitts and Nevis plans to export the excess geothermal energy it produces. This economic boost, combined with the construction of a new 2,500 acre beach resort on Saint Kitts has made the small 40,000 person nation hopeful for a greatly improved future and higher quality of life.

Formal exploration for geothermal resources began in 2007 after the government granted the West Indies Power Company the right to drill and develop facilities (this explains the recent "discovery"). Construction on the first plant, known as the Spring Hill facility, began earlier this year. It will initially produce 10 MW of electrical power using two turbines. It is hoped that the plant will be operational by this time next year, and that the facility can be upgraded soon to expand its capacity by an estimated 40 MW. What's amazing is that this 50MW is only a portion of the geothermal potential thought to exist on Nevis. It's generally agreed by experts that above 200 MW could eventually be produced.

The project is gaining support throughout the region. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) recently provided a $38,000 grant to aid with technical assistance on the geothermal project, with the goal of helping to develop alternative energy resources that mitigate climate change effects. The World Bank has also shown interest in the project's importance to the region.
Geothermal makes a lot of sense for the Caribbean islands with their high levels of volcanic activity and high costs for importing energy.

I spent a couple of months on St. Kitts and quite enjoyed myself (minus one unfortunate crustacean manslaughter incident). Glad to see that they are getting in the news for something other than alcoholic monkeys.

via celsias


World’s Largest Solar Project Planned for Saharan Desert

If just 0.3% of the Saharan Desert was used for a concentrating solar plant, it would produce enough power to provide all of Europe with clean renewable energy. That is why 20 blue chip German companies are gathering together next month to discuss plans and investments to create such a massive project. Both the meeting and project are being promoted by the Desertec Foundation, which is proposing to erect 100 GW of concentrating solar power plants throughout Northern Africa.
The red squares in the above map represent the land area necessary to meet the energy demand of the world, the EU and MENA in 2005. The last square represents the land necessary for the proposed project to generate 100 GW of concentrating solar power. The project being proposed by Desertec would not all be situated in one location, but scattered throughout politically stable countries. Taken as a whole, the project qualifies as the world’s largest solar installation - 80 times larger than the PG&E and BrightSource project planned for the Mojave Desert. The power generated would be transported over high-voltage DC lines across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, where it would supply 15% of the energy demand. The project is still 10-15 years from going online, but that’s why major players are getting started now. To build the 100 GWs worth of solar power a total of €400bn investment is needed.

The project hopes to combine desalination plants and agriculture along with the solar plants to provide fresh drinking water and grow crops in arid desert region. Concentrated solar power will provide energy and waste heat to create freshwater from seawater. Some of that water would then be used to irrigate nearby crops, while the rest would supply fresh drinking water to local populations. This concept is very similar to the Sahara Forest Project, which we explored last year.
via Inhabit


Technology Quarterly

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

My favorites:
Solar-thermal technology
Powering hybrid cars with compressed air
Building the smart grid


Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Winner of the $1 Million Netflix Prize

After nearly three years and entries from more than 50,000 contestants, a multinational team says that it has met the requirements to win the million-dollar Netflix Prize: It developed powerful algorithms that improve the movie recommendations made by Netflix’s existing software by more than 10 percent.

On Friday, a coalition of four teams calling itself BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos — made up of statisticians, machine learning experts and computer engineers from America, Austria, Canada and Israel — declared that it has produced a program that improves the accuracy of the predictions by 10.05 percent.

Under the rules of the contest, Netflix said that other contestants now have 30 days to try to do even better. If they cannot, BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos will collect the $1 million.

BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos is a pretty elite crowd. The group is a collection of the 2007 and 2008 winners of the Netflix Progress Prizes — $50,000 a year for the teams that made the most progress toward the 10 percent improvement — and a pair of engineers from Montreal who have long been near the top of the contest’s leaderboard.

The team includes Bob Bell and Chris Volinsky of the statistics research department at AT&T Research (members of the 2007 and 2008 Progress Prize-winning teams); Andreas Toscher and Michael Jahrer, machine learning experts at Commendo research and consulting in Austria (members of the 2008 winning team); Martin Piotte and Martin Chabbert, engineers and founders of Pragmatic Theory in Montreal; and Yehuda Koren, a senior scientist at Yahoo Research in Israel (a member of the 2007 and 2008 winning teams).
Congrats to the winners. I hope other companies will adopt this contest method of innovation as well.

via Bits


Interesting Articles of the Week

Microsoft debuts power conservation website.

The patient capitalist.

Can you get fit in six minutes a week?

Why do Chinese save? Boys want to marry.

Meditation may increase gray matter.


Exercise Ball Backflip

via YouTube


Immersion Demos New TouchSense Multitouch, Haptic Keyboard

Immersion (known for creative input experiences) demoed a fairly interesting new haptic experiment its working on dubbed TouchSense -- a virtual, iPhone-like keyboard that not only responds with sound and vibration, but some kind of feedback that recreates the feeling of actually moving your fingers across a keyboard. Details were scarce on the technology used, but during the demo at D7 the company showed off multitouch typing, and a new form of feedback which seems to create the sensation that there is a physical keyboard beneath your fingers. The functionality sounds eerily similar to the Haptikos technology that Nokia showed off way back in 2007.
I wonder how well this works? While currently the debate rages as to whether the Palm Pre with its physical keyboard is better than the iPhone with its virtual one, I can't wait for the day when haptic feedback technology like this will make typing on a touch screen feel like a physical keyboard (or at least allow you type just as fast) and end the debate once and for all.

via Engadget


Is GM Even An American Company?

It has 463 subsidiaries and employs 234,500 people, 91,000 of them in America, where it also provides health-care and pension benefits for 493,000 retired workers.

For all his sometimes plodding approach at home, Mr Wagoner had proved surprisingly fleet of foot abroad, where GM was making 65% of its sales. GM had long been big in Latin America, but in China and Russia it was reaping the rewards from being among the first foreign firms to set up factories. In China, with its joint-venture partner, SAIC, GM now has 12% of a market that will soon surpass America’s.
Over 1/2 of GM's customers and employees are outside the US. With numbers like those, it makes you wonder what exactly makes GM an American company?

Maybe it is the owners. I wonder what percentage of GM was owned by Americans before the bankruptcy?


Saturday, June 27, 2009

They Can Fly?

This flying stingray was trying to avoid the attentions of the aptly-named killer whale, which was ready to take a bite out of the fish when the stingray made its leap for safety.

While stingrays seem most content to spend their days lying at the bottom of the sea-bed, occasionally sticking their stingers into unassuming human feet, this one proved they can be moved to flights of fancy when needed.
via Luciole Press Blog


Cooper's Law

While leading this smart-antenna company, where he is now the chairman, Mr Cooper coined Cooper’s law, which notes that spectral efficiency—the amount of information that can be crammed into a given slice of radio spectrum—has doubled every 30 months since Guglielmo Marconi patented the wireless telegraph in 1897. Modern devices have a spectral efficiency more than one trillion times greater than Marconi’s original device did 112 years ago (it broadcast in Morse code over a very wide frequency range). Smart antennas, Mr Cooper believes, will help to ensure that this progress continues, and his law continues to hold.
Not quite at Moore's Law doubling time of 24 months, but quite impressive and given the importance of mobile phones and technology at this point in history probably more important.

via The Economist


First Solar Touts Falling Costs

In February, First Solar tooted its horn about breaking the $1-per-watt barrier for making solar modules in the last months of 2008. This week, the company said costs had fallen again to 93 cents per watt, down 5% in three months and down 28% in a year. (The full presentation is here.)

First Solar executives also say to expect more falling costs. By 2014, it expects to drive down cost per watt to make solar modules to fall to between 52 and 63 cents by 2014. The biggest driver of the lower costs is better efficiency, it said. Production per fabrication line is expected to nearly double over the next five years.
Good to hear that prices are coming down, and I hope they can hit their future goals.

And one for the "I did not know that" file:
The Walton family of Wal-Mart fame owns about 39% of First Solar stock – and the retailer’s legendary penchant for driving down costs is rubbing off on the renewable-energy company.
via WSJ


Friday, June 26, 2009

Prisoners vs. Farmers Revisited

Are there more prisoners than farmers in the US?

When I previously looked into it I found that:

The prison population of 2.1 million is larger than the EPA's number of 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation, the BLS's number of nearly 1.3 million farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers, or the EPA's number of 1.9 primary and secondary occupation farmers.
This USDA report gives another way to look at this. It reports the total amount of labor performed on farms by operators, spouses, unpaid workers, hired workers and contract workers. In 2004 each of the 2.1 million farms had an average of 1.59 annual person equivalents of labor (2,000 hours per person) for a total 3.2 million workers.

But, much of that work is done by people that wouldn't consider themselves farmers. A better estimate of farmers would look at the number of hours worked by just operators, hired workers and contract workers excluding retirement and lifestyle farms. Work on farms classified as retirement or lifestyle (1.2 of 2.1 million farms) accounts for 900,000 workers. Work by spouses (who likely have a job off farm and don't see themselves primarily as farmers) accounts for 12.4% of all work or 400,000 workers. The amount of labor performed by unpaid workers isn't specified, but contract and unpaid workers together comprise 16% of all work, and if 1/3 of that is from unpaid workers (the other 2/3 from contract workers) that would be 175,000 workers. Removing all retirement and lifestyle farm work, as well as all work from spouses and unpaid workers leaves 1.9 million farmers.

The 2.1 million prisoners is 2/3rds of the 3.2 million workers on farms and slightly higher than the 1.9 million farmers. Either way, it amazes me that it is even close.


Optimistic Thoughts Can Do More Harm Than Good

“I CAN pass this exam”, “I am a wonderful person and will find love again” and “I am capable and deserve that pay rise” are phrases that students, the broken-hearted and driven employees may repeat to themselves over and over again in the face of adversity. Self-help books through the ages, including Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, “The Power of Positive Thinking”, have encouraged people with low self-esteem to make positive self-statements. New research, however, suggests it may do more harm than good.

Wondering if the same tendencies could apply to making positive self-statements, Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo in Canada and her colleagues designed a series of experiments. They questioned a group of 68 men and women using long-accepted methods to measure self-esteem. The participants were then asked to spend four minutes writing down any thoughts and feelings that were on their minds. In the midst of this, half were randomly assigned to say to themselves “I am a lovable person” every time they heard a bell ring.

Immediately after the exercise, they were asked questions such as “What is the probability that a 30-year-old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?” to measure individual moods using a scoring system that ranged from a low of zero to a high of 35. Past studies have indicated that optimistic answers indicate happy moods.

As the researchers report in Psychological Science, those with high self-esteem who repeated “I’m a lovable person” scored an average of 31 on their mood assessment compared with an average of 25 by those who did not repeat the phrase. Among participants with low self-esteem, those making the statement scored a dismal average of 10 while those that did not managed a brighter average of 17.

Dr Wood suggests that positive self-statements cause negative moods in people with low self-esteem because they conflict with those people’s views of themselves. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, she argues, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception.
via The Economist


Anti-Fog Glass

Take a hot shower and the chances are that the bathroom mirror will mist up. Glasses and camera lenses can also suffer in humid conditions. And it can be dangerous when a car’s windscreen clouds over. Various methods, including sprays, materials and heating, have been used with varying degrees of success to deal with the problem. Now a Chinese team has come up with a new idea.

Junhui He of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and his colleagues have created a cheap anti-mist coating. They estimate one square metre of glass will cost only a few cents to treat.

Glass mists up because of sudden condensation when warm, humid air comes into contact with a cold surface. Water vapour condenses to form thousands of tiny water droplets which scatter light. Dr He and his colleagues knew that when certain nanoparticles (which have diameters of only a few billionths of a metre), are spread over glass they break the surface tension of the droplets as they try to form. The result is a thin, transparent film of water which, unlike droplets, does not scatter light.

But what size and shape of nanoparticles is most effective and can be produced cheaply? Dr He’s team experimented with different shapes and found a simple one-step method using polystyrene spheres treated with oxygen and then coated with silica to build raspberry-like shapes. These shapes have proved to be the most effective in preventing a surface from misting over. Dr He and his colleagues hope to commercialise the process quickly.
via The Economist


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Long Tail of Farming

The USDA's Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2007 Edition tells us that there are 2.1 million farms in the US, the average farm generates around $75,000 in revenue, and the average farming family derives 82.5% of its income from off-farm sources.

While true, these statistics are misleading because just like like Digg and Wikipedia, church donations and income tax payments, and book writing, farms follow a long tail power distribution. Instead of farms following a bell curve, with a few large farms, a few small farms and lots of medium sized farms in the middle, farms follow a power distribution with a few large farms, a few more medium sized farms, and lots and lots of small farms. This long-tail can be seen in the chart at left and the table below.

Google Spreadsheet

5 points on the long tails of farms.

1) With regards to output, farms follow the 80/20 rule (actually the 85/15 rule) with 16% of farms accounting for 86.2% of total revenue and the other 84% account for just 13.8%.

Of the 2.1 million farms in the US, just 338,000 account for almost 7/8 of all production. The entire output of the 1.7 million small farms could be generated by 55,000 farms producing at the average medium/large farm. This means that 400,000 farms at that level of production could produce as much food as our current 2.1 million farms.

2) The long tail of farming is getting longer. On page 30 of the report it shows that over the last 10 years the number of large farms has been increasing and the the number of very small farms has been increasing (although this might just be due to a change in methodology) but the number of medium sized farms has been decreasing. I calculate that the exponent of the long tail of farming to be between 1.1-1.3 which would place it somewhere between the net worth of Americans and the population of U.S. cities.

3) Averages don't mean a whole lot with long tails. The average farmer works a small farm and makes little to no more money from farming. This is a meaningless statement as can be seen by adding home gardens to the analysis. This would greatly expand the number of farmers while adding little to the overall amount of food produced. But, it would greatly reduce the average farm size and the average revenue generated from a farm.

By breaking the analysis into small, medium and large farms we see a much different picture. The average small farmer gets 105% of his family revenue from off-farm (meaning on average they lose money farming) while medium farmers get 45.2% of their income off farm and large farms just 17.4%. It is just small farms that are getting the majority of income from off farm, while those medium and large farms (that produce 86.2% of output) are getting most of their income from farming. Instead of looking at the average income from farming, it makes more sense to look at the total number of farmers that get the majority of their income from farming.

Just as most book writers sell few books and do not make much revenue from their writing, so to are most farm small and make little money. But just as many of book writers have non-financial motivations, so too are many small farmers in the business for non monetary reasons. This can be seen by the fact that most small farms are categorized as either retirement" or "residential/lifestyle".

4) Output shows a much longer tail than land. Small farms account for just 13.8% of output but hold 40.9% of land. Large farms account for 45.4% of output with just 22.7% of the land.

5) When it comes to meat production there is a great divide as many small farmers raise cattle, but almost none raise pigs or chickens.

Calculations and Caveats

Small farms are defined as limited resource, retirement, residential/lifestyle, and low-sales farms. Medium farms are made up of medium sales, large scale family farms and nonfamily farms. Large farms are very large family farms.

Revenue is used to determine output. This over weighs the production of meat producers that purchase feed for their animals. It would be better if there was a way to subtract off the animal feed and look at just the amount of value that each farmed added.


High-Altitude Wind Machines Could Power New York City

In the future, will wind power tapped by high-flying kites light up New York? A new study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution and California State University identifies New York as a prime location for exploiting high-altitude winds, which globally contain enough energy to meet world demand 100 times over. The researchers found that the regions best suited for harvesting this energy match with population centers in the eastern U.S. and East Asia, but fluctuating wind strength still presents a challenge for exploiting this energy source on a large scale.

Using 28 years of data from the National Center for Environmental Prediction and the Department of Energy, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology and Cristina Archer of California State University, Chico, compiled the first-ever global survey of wind energy available at high altitudes in the atmosphere. The researchers assessed potential for wind power in terms of "wind power density," which takes into account both wind speed and air density at different altitudes.

"There is a huge amount of energy available in high altitude winds," said coauthor Ken Caldeira. "These winds blow much more strongly and steadily than near-surface winds, but you need to go get up miles to get a big advantage. Ideally, you would like to be up near the jet streams, around 30,000 feet."

Jet streams are meandering belts of fast winds at altitudes between 20 and 50,000 feet that shift seasonally, but otherwise are persistent features in the atmosphere. Jet stream winds are generally steadier and 10 times faster than winds near the ground, making them a potentially vast and dependable source of energy. Several technological schemes have been proposed to harvest this energy, including tethered, kite-like wind turbines that would be lofted to the altitude of the jet streams. Up to 40 megawatts of electricity could be generated by current designs and transmitted to the ground via the tether.

"We found the highest wind power densities over Japan and eastern China, the eastern coast of the United States, southern Australia, and north-eastern Africa," said lead author Archer. "The median values in these areas are greater than 10 kilowatts per square meter. This is unthinkable near the ground, where even the best locations have usually less than one kilowatt per square meter."

Included in the analysis were assessments of high altitude wind energy for the world's five largest cities: Tokyo, New York, Sao Paulo, Seoul, and Mexico City. "For cities that are affected by polar jet streams such as Tokyo, Seoul, and New York, the high-altitude resource is phenomenal," said Archer. "New York, which has the highest average high-altitude wind power density of any U.S. city, has an average wind power density of up to 16 kilowatts per square meter."

Tokyo and Seoul also have high wind power density because they are both affected by the East Asian jet stream. Mexico City and Sao Paulo are located at tropical latitudes, so they are rarely affected by the polar jet streams and just occasionally by the weaker sub-tropical jets. As a result they have lower wind power densities than the other three cities.

"While there is enough power in these high altitude winds to power all of modern civilization, at any specific location there are still times when the winds do not blow," said Caldeira. Even over the best areas, the wind can be expected to fail about five percent of the time. "This means that you either need back-up power, massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental or even global scale electricity grid to assure power availability. So, while high-altitude wind may ultimately prove to be a major energy source, it requires substantial infrastructure."
Instead of building up the electrical grid to allow wind power from the Midwest to be transmitted to the large population areas on the coasts, it might make more sense to capture the high altitude wind energy locally.

via ScienceDaily and Wired


Interesting Articles of the Week

The no-stats all-star.

What it's like to spend five months in silence.

'Warrior Gene' linked to gang membership, weapon use.

The New Socialism: Global collectivist society is coming online.

God sending mixed messages: Same-sex behavior seen in nearly all animals.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Sweet Taste Of Uncertainty

You've just won a prize. Would you like to find out what it is right away, or wait until later? A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research says most people are happier waiting.

People who know they've won a prize enjoy the anticipation of wondering what they will win, especially if they have clues about what it might be, explain authors Yih Hwai Lee (National University of Singapore) and Cheng Qiu (University of Hong Kong). Prize winners spend time imagining using the potential prizes, and such "virtual consumption" prolongs positive feelings, making them receptive to marketing messages.

The authors conducted two studies where participants played and won simulated lucky-draw games. Some learned what their prizes were immediately; others were told they had won something from a pool of prizes. "We find that consumers will be more delighted after winning a lucky draw when they do not know immediately the exact prize they will receive than when they do," the authors write.

Participants who got clues about the nature of the possible prizes (such as knowing it was an electronic product) responded even more favorably. They also favored prizes that were capable of eliciting mental imagery, like sensory-stimulating products such as chocolates or aromatherapy candles. (Apparently, functional items like cutlery and digital clocks failed to stimulate.)

via ScienceDaily


Monday, June 15, 2009

Milk Goes 'Green': Today's Dairy Farms Use Less Land, Feed And Water

Dairy genetics, nutrition, herd management and improved animal welfare over the past 60 years have resulted in a modern milk production system that has a smaller carbon footprint than mid-20th century farming practices, says a Cornell University study in the Journal of Animal Science (June 2009).

The study shows that the carbon footprint for a gallon of milk produced in 2007 was only 37 percent of that produced in 1944. Improved efficiency has enabled the U.S. dairy industry to produce 186 billion pounds of milk from 9.2 million cows in 2007, compared to only 117 billion pounds of milk from 25.6 million cows in 1944. This has resulted in a 41 percent decrease in the total carbon footprint for U.S. milk production.

Efficiency also resulted in reductions in resource use and waste output. Modern dairy systems only use 10 percent of the land, 23 percent of the feedstuffs and 35 percent of the water required to produce the same amount of milk in 1944. Similarly, 2007 dairy farming produced only 24 percent of the manure and 43 percent of the methane output per gallon of milk compared to farming in 1944.
The same researchers also found that cows treated with rbST needed less feed and emitted less CO2. Let the debate of whether organic or regular milk is greener commence.

via ScienceDaily


Saturday, June 13, 2009


"Revolutionary" isn't the first word you'd use to describe Mark Shelley. The California filmmaker drives a Toyota Prius, for goodness' sake. But Shelley is a key member of a culinary counterculture plot to reintroduce sardines to the American palate.

They call themselves the Sardinistas. Along with Shelley, the conspirators are an environmentalist, a veteran commercial fisherman and a semi-retired entrepreneur and marine biologist. For several years, the "cell" has been meeting informally to gorge on sardines and wine. Now, the Sardinistas are forging a plan to produce canned sardines and prepared foods. Their message: These are not your grandfather's sardines.

Environmentalists also promote sardines because they object to the way they are now used. The Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates that more than 80 percent of the Pacific sardine catch is used to feed bluefin tunas raised in Mexico and Australia. The problem: It takes at least seven pounds of sardines to produce one pound of tuna, a ratio that they say doesn't make sense. "Eating tuna and salmon is the functional equivalent of eating grizzly bears and cougars on land," said Sardinista Mike Sutton, who directs the aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans. "We need to eat lower down the food chain to be sustainable."

Eating smaller fish also offers health benefits. Because sardines eat mostly plants, they do not accumulate high levels of mercury or PCBs the way larger, carnivorous fish such as tuna or salmon do. Sardines also live shorter lives: six years vs. about 10 for tuna, meaning less time in the ocean to absorb hazardous toxins. Those factors, say the Sardinistas, plus high levels of protein and omega-3s, make sardines an excellent option for pregnant women, children and eco-conscious college students on a budget.
I became a Sardinista after reading the book Bottomfeeder, although I was unaware this style of eating had a name or was becoming a movement. The author, Taras Grescoe, is a Sardinista who summed up how he eats as follows:
So here is the principle that now guides my fish-eating: I graze at the middle and bottom of the oceanic food chain. Instead of tunafish salad — tuna is a top-level predator — I fill my sandwiches with mackerel, sardines or herring. These are the small schooling fish, still relatively abundant in the oceans, that we now grind up to make fertilizer or cat food, and they have become mainstays of my diet. I eat all the mussels, farmed abalone, lobsters and oysters I can: these bottom-dwellers actually clean the oceans. For a special treat, I’ll have a bigger fish like trout or wild-caught salmon from British Columbia or Alaska (when I can afford it, and when the runs are in good shape). I consult guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafoodwatch.org to keep up to date on the state of the stocks.
I created a table of Fish Footprints to compare the impact of eating various types of fish. It is really amazing how much more fish would be available for everyone to eat if we all ate lower on the food chain.

Alton Brown, host of Food Network's "Good Eats" is another Sardinista.
Brown is an admitted sardine fanatic. When he travels, he takes one can of the fish for every day on the road and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat them. After 10 years on television, Brown said, he has finally received permission to produce a show on small fish. In it, he plans to take his signature matter-of-fact approach in explaining how and why to eat sardines. "We need to teach our children that, yes, it had a face. And, yes, it had a life. And here, it has fins," he said. "Bluefin tuna is like crack cocaine if it's good. But we all know what happens if you try to live on crack cocaine."
I will have to check out that show on small fish as the biggest problem with being a Sardinista is that it is tough to find good tasting small fish. I have been unsuccessful in my quest to find fresh mackerel, sardines or herring for purchase. Hopefully this movement will catch on and fresh sardines will make their way to the seafood isle.

via Washington Post via Earth Pub


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Flexible Solar Power Shingles Transform Roofs From Wasted Space To Energy Source

A transparent thin film barrier used to protect flat panel TVs from moisture could become the basis for flexible solar panels that would be installed on roofs like shingles.

The flexible rooftop solar panels - called building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPVs - could replace today's boxy solar panels that are made with rigid glass or silicon and mounted on thick metal frames. The flexible solar shingles would be less expensive to install than current panels and made to last 25 years.

Researchers at PNNL will create these flexible panels by adapting a film encapsulation process currently used to coat flat panel displays that use organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs. The work is made possible by a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement recently penned between Vitex Systems and Battelle, which operates PNNL for the federal government.

The encapsulation process and the ultra-barrier film - called Barix™ Encapsulation and Barix™ Barrier Film, respectively - are already proven and effective moisture barriers. But researchers need to find a way to apply the technology to solar panels that are made with copper indium gallium selenide, called CIGS, or cadmium telluride, called CdTe.

The agreement also calls for researchers to develop a manufacturing process for the flexible panels that can be readily adapted to large-scale production. If successful, this process will reduce solar panel manufacturing costs to less than $1 per watt of power, which would be competitive with the 10 cents per kilowatt-hour that a utility would charge.
via ScienceDaily


Lithium-Sulfur Batteries Could Store Triple The Power of Lithium-Ion

A research team from the University of Waterloo has synthesized a prototype of a lithium-sulphur rechargeable battery that, thanks to its peculiar nanoscale structure, can store three times the power of a conventional lithium-ion battery in the same volume while being significantly lighter and potentially cheaper to manufacture.

Successfully combining lithium and sulfur delivers much higher energy densities while reducing the cost of the materials used. According to internal testing, the composite material synthesized by Nazar's team can supply as much as 84 percent of the theoretical capacity of sulphur - three times the energy density of lithium transition cathodes. This should account for significantly more efficient batteries which will be lighter as well.

How much lighter? "We estimate the energy density of our cells to be about 1200 Wh/kg, for just the positive electrode, which would put the energy density of the cell at about 500 Wh/kg or more, but this depends on the other components of the cell," Dr. Nazar told us via email. "That is about a factor of 3 to 5 times more than a conventional lithium-ion battery. However, capacity fading can be more of an issue, along with lower volumetric energy and those need to be tackled more fully."

Finally, with regard to production costs, Dr. Nazar told us that, while the material themselves are certainly cheaper than those employed in lithium-ion batteries, it would be hard to quantify how much cheaper lithium-sulfur batteries will be. "Clearly the basic raw materials for the positive electrode (sulfur and carbon) are very inexpensive, but there are costs associated with processing, electrolyte, fabrication, etc that are highly dependent on the optimization of the materials and the battery configuration."
via Gizmag via Gizmodo


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Women Now Dominate Higher Education at Every Degree Level

It's college graduation season, and according to data available from the U.S. Department of Education, an estimated 3,092,800 degrees will be granted this academic year (2008-2009) for Associate's degrees (714,000), Bachelor's degrees (1,585,000), Master's degrees (647,000), Professional degrees for MD, DDS and JD (91,000) and Doctor's degrees for Ph.D and Ed.D (55,800).

Of the more than 3 million college degrees for the Class of 2009, women will earn close to 60% of those degrees (1,849,200), or almost 149 degrees for every 100 degrees earned by men.

And it's now official: Women dominate men at every level of higher education, in terms of degrees conferred. Here's the breakdown for graduates of the class of 2009:

Associate's Degrees: 167 for women for every 100 for men.

Bachelor's Degrees: 142 for women for every 100 for men.

Master's Degrees: 159 for women for every 100 for men.

Professional Degrees: 104 for women for every 100 for men.

Doctoral Degrees: 107 for women for every 100 for men.

In fact, the last time men had more degrees than women at any level was the Class of 2006, which had slightly more men than women for both Professional and Doctoral degrees. For the other levels, it hasn't been even close for decades. The last year that men earned more Master's degrees than women was 1984-1985, for Bachelor's degrees it was the Class of 1981, and for Associates degrees it was 1976-1977 when men earned more degrees than women.
via Carpe Diem


Drinking Water From Air Humidity

Cracks permeate the dried-out desert ground, the landscape bears testimony to the lack of water. But even here, where there are no lakes, rivers or groundwater, considerable quantities of water are stored in the air. In the Negev desert in Israel, for example, annual average relative air humidity is 64 percent – in every cubic meter of air there are 11.5 milliliters of water.

Research scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart working in conjunction with their colleagues from the company Logos Innovationen have found a way of converting this air humidity autonomously and decentrally into drinkable water. “The process we have developed is based exclusively on renewable energy sources such as thermal solar collectors and photovoltaic cells, which makes this method completely energy-autonomous. It will therefore function in regions where there is no electrical infrastructure,” says Siegfried Egner, head of department at the IGB. The principle of the process is as follows: hygroscopic brine – saline solution which absorbs moisture – runs down a tower-shaped unit and absorbs water from the air. It is then sucked into a tank a few meters off the ground in which a vacuum prevails. Energy from solar collectors heats up the brine, which is diluted by the water it has absorbed.

Because of the vacuum, the boiling point of the liquid is lower than it would be under normal atmospheric pressure. This effect is known from the mountains: as the atmospheric pressure there is lower than in the valley, water boils at temperatures distinctly below 100 degrees Celsius. The evaporated, non-saline water is condensed and runs down through a completely filled tube in a controlled manner. The gravity of this water column continuously produces the vacuum and so a vacuum pump is not needed. The reconcentrated brine runs down the tower surface again to absorb moisture from the air.
I am curious how much energy is required to capture a liter of water. Technology like this means that in the future there will be no such thing as water scarcity, just energy scarcity.

via ScienceDaily


Wireless Power Harvesting for Cell Phones

A cell phone that never needs recharging might sound too good to be true, but Nokia says it's developing technology that could draw enough power from ambient radio waves to keep a cell-phone handset topped up.

Ambient electromagnetic radiation--emitted from Wi-Fi transmitters, cell-phone antennas, TV masts, and other sources--could be converted into enough electrical current to keep a battery topped up, says Markku Rouvala, a researcher from the Nokia Research Centre, in Cambridge, U.K.

Rouvala says that his group is working towards a prototype that could harvest up to 50 milliwatts of power--enough to slowly recharge a phone that is switched off. He says current prototypes can harvest 3 to 5 milliwatts.

The Nokia device will work on the same principles as a crystal radio set or radio frequency identification (RFID) tag: by converting electromagnetic waves into an electrical signal. This requires two passive circuits. "Even if you are only getting microwatts, you can still harvest energy, provided your circuit is not using more power than it's receiving," Rouvala says.

Earlier this year, Joshua Smith at Intel and Alanson Sample at the University of Washington, in Seattle, developed a temperature-and-humidity sensor that draws its power from the signal emitted by a 1.0-megawatt TV antenna 4.1 kilometers away. This only involved generating 60 microwatts, however.
via Technology Review via Engadget


Monday, June 01, 2009

Regular Light Bulbs Made Super-Efficient with Ultra-Fast Laser

An ultra-powerful laser can turn regular incandescent light bulbs into power-sippers, say optics researchers at the University of Rochester. The process could make a light as bright as a 100-watt bulb consume less electricity than a 60-watt bulb while remaining far cheaper and radiating a more pleasant light than a fluorescent bulb can.

The laser process creates a unique array of nano- and micro-scale structures on the surface of a regular tungsten filament—the tiny wire inside a light bulb—and theses structures make the tungsten become far more effective at radiating light.
No word on how much this would increase the price of incandescent light bulbs or when it would be available on the market, but hopefully soon.

via Physorg