Friday, January 28, 2005

Beyond Minimum Wage

A good article that looks at how two Seattle companies: Costco and Dick's Burgers are able to be successful businesses while paying higher wages than their competitors.

Economists will tell you there are at least two reliable, legal ways to make money in America.

One is to fleece the workers, taking not only their wool but their skin. A proven model resulting, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., tells us, in CEOs earning in a day and a half what took their beleaguered flock a year to earn in 2003.

Or, there's the Henry Ford model: Pay people well enough that they stick around, cutting both turnover and training costs while boosting efficiency. Better yet, pay them well enough so they can even go out and buy something.
And at Costco? Its overhead costs were lower, its volume of sales per employee higher, and its total sales bigger in 2003 than its arch rival, Sam's Club, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart.

Yet, Costco's health plan covers a larger percentage of employees than Wal-Mart's does, and workers pay less for it. Costco, in fact, provides among the best wage-and-benefit packages in hourly retail. And it pays the same wage scale everywhere in the country.

A cashier at Costco can make more than $40,000 annually within four years. The average store manager makes $107,000, with a crack at $40,000 in performance bonuses on top. The company also pays hourly workers annual bonuses from $4,000 to $7,000.

No wonder they stick around: Turnover at Costco is less than a third the industry average. Costco has low turnover, 22 percent overall, compared with 65 percent typical in the retail industry
via Pacific Northwest Magazine


The Art of Seeing Without Sight

Interesting article about a blind painter and how is brain is similar and different from those who see.

We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within?

Kennedy put Armagan through a battery of tests. For instance, he presented him with solid objects that he could feel - a cube, a cone and a ball all in a row (dubbed the "three mountains task") - and asked him to draw them. He then asked him to draw them as though he was perched elsewhere at the table, across from himself, then to his right and left and hovering overhead. Kennedy asked him to draw two rows of glasses, stretching off into the distance. Representing this kind of perspective is tough even for a sighted person. And when he asked him to draw a cube, and then to rotate it to the left, and then further to the left, Armagan drew a scene with all three cubes. Astonishingly, he drew it in three-point perspective - showing a perfect grasp of how horizontal and vertical lines converge at imaginary points in the distance. "My breath was taken away," Kennedy says.

So, we ask, how do you know how long these poles should be as they recede? I was taught, he says. Not by any formal teacher, but by casual comments by friends and acquaintances. How do you know about shadows? He learned that too. He confides that for a long time he figured that if an object was red, its shadow would be red too. "But I was told it wasn't," he says. But how do you know about red? He knows that there's an important visual quality to seen objects called "colour" and that it varies from object to object. He's memorised what has what colour and even which ones clash.

Even more intriguing was the way in which drawing activated Armagan's visual cortex. It is now well established that when sighted people try to imagine things - faces, scenes, colours, items they've just looked at - they engage the same parts of their visual cortex that they use to see, only to a much lesser degree. Creating these mental images is a lot like seeing, only less powerful. When Armagan imagined items he had touched, parts of his visual cortex, too, were mildly activated. But when he drew, his visual cortex lit up as though he was seeing. In fact, says Pascual-Leone, a naive viewer of his scan might assume Armagan really could see.
via New Scientist


The Market Shall Set You Free

Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power.

This link between economic and political liberty has been extolled by conservative thinkers for centuries, but the microelectronic age has strengthened it. Even China's deftly capitalist-yet-authoritarian government - which embraces technology while blocking Web sites and censoring chat groups - is doomed to fail in the long run. China is increasingly porous to news and ideas, and its high-tech political ferment goes beyond online debates. Last year a government official treated a blue-collar worker high-handedly in a sidewalk encounter and set off a riot - after news of the incident spread by cell phones and text messaging.

Given that involvement in the larger capitalist world is time-release poison for tyranny, impeding this involvement is an odd way to aid history's march toward freedom. Four decades of economic isolation have transformed Fidel Castro from a young, fiery dictator into an old, fiery dictator.
I have always questioned the wisdom of economic sanctions. Used as a threat I can see the value of it, but if you are forced to use them I am not so sure. They haven't seemed to do much with Cuba. What are they doing to Burma? Did they work with Iraq? Sanctions appear to me to punish the people of a country rather than their leaders.

On the other hand I question how well economic integration works if a country is a natural resource based economy (oil, natural gas, timber) rather than people based (ie manufacturing and knowledge work). Russia's economic integration into the greater world hasn't seemed to do much for them. What about Iran? If they were part of the WTO would it push them more toward political freedom? Currently 80% of their exports are from oil (CIA Factbook) if they were part of the WTO that percentage would fall. So maybe it would. Or maybe it would just make it easier to sell oil and give the rulers more money. I am not sure.

via NY Times


The Age of Invention is Over

Well, no not really, but you might think so if you listened to Andy Rooney's 60 Minutes report.

Rooney is often times crazy, but no more so than this report.

The age of invention is over, I'm afraid.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 and that changed everyone's life. People could exchange information instantly, even when they were a long way from each other.
Well except if he had watched the Telephone episode of Modern Marvels over on the Hitler Channel (AKA the History Channel) he would have learnt something quite different.

Quick Aside: Modern Marvels might be the best TV show on today. Well, not every episode so you will want to set your Tivo and just view the interesting topics. I glean pearls of knowledge from every episode I watch. If you are like me and hated history in school because it was really just about the history of politics and wars, check out this show. It will give you the history of things that you use everyday and have more of an impact on your life then politics or war do.

OK, back to my point, if you look back at Bell and the telephone it is very different than Rooney is talking about.

First, the telegraph already allowed people to exchange information instantly when they were a long way from each other. The investor that supported Bell actually told him not to work on inventing the telephone. He wanted him to find a way to fit more telegraph transmissions on one wire.

Second, even after Bell created the telephone its value of adding voice to a telegraph was not clear. When it was displayed at an inventions fair, it was not even the highlight of the fair and was dismissed as a parlor trick. Why would you need to speak over a phone when telegraphs could convey the same information in a cheaper fashion?

Not seeing the value of the telephone, Bell's investor wanted to sell the patent to Western Union (the largest telegraph company in the country). But, in what could quiet possibly be the worst business decision of all time, Western Union could not see the value in the telephone and wouldn't buy it.
The cell phone is not an invention. It's an improvement on Bell's invention, and nothing in my lifetime has changed the way we live in an unimportant way more than the cell phone has.
Except that you could think of Bell's invention as an improvement on the telegraph. Both used wires for communication, the only thing Bell did was allow for voice. And Bell's invention really didn't handle voice that well. A few years after Western Union tried to get into the phone business they hired Edison to work on it. Edison made some improvements that greatly improved the quality of the sound. So it was really Bell's "invention" plus Edison's "improvement" that made the telephone something worth using.

The cell phone is actually a more profound improvement over the telephone than the telephone was over the telegraph. The cell phone allows you to communicate no matter where you are located. A phone is no longer tied to a location but rather to a person. People can now communicate with each other no matter where they are located. The telephone on the other hand just added voice to a telegraph.
The U.S. Patent Office granted 200,000 patents last year, and most of those were not inventions. They were either gadgets or modifications of something that was invented 50 or 100 years ago.
Well true, but equally true is that all "inventions" are really just modifications or improvements of other "inventions". For example I have heard people lament that Intel is not that innovative because they created the microprocessor 4 decades ago and then have just improved upon this one "invention". But to me Intel is the very definition of inventiveness as they invent new ways to increase the speed of microprocessors year after year. Moore's law is one of the most influential and amazing developments in all of human history.

In software, while the 1.0 might be the invention it is not usually until the 3.0 version that the software is really good. So what is more important, the invention or the continual improvement? Or is there really much of a different between the two?

It is always easy in hindsight to look at continual improvement and pick out a few discreet points and call them "inventions". Just like it is easy to look at a rainbow and find distinct colors even though it is just a beam of constantly changing colors from Red to Violet.
If Alexander Graham Bell hadn't invented the telephone, we could spend more time thinking about something important, and less time talking to each other about nothing.
Yes, I am sure that if weren't for phones people would be spending their time reading Shakespeare and contemplating string theory. Anthropologists had thought that language in humans had developed as a way to spread technical knowledge: how to make knives and cooking tools. But now they believe that language development in humans as a way to cement social relations aka gossip. Somehow I see little reason to blame the phone for this.

I bet the Andy Rooney of the late 1800s was writing about how the telephone was not an invention but just an improvement of the telegraph (and one that didn't add any value). And I can't wait to hear the Andy Rooney of 2050 talk about how the cellphone was the last invention and that nothing had been invented in the last 50 years.


Self Monitoring Underwear

First off, get your head out of the gutter. I know what you are thinking about when it comes to self monitoring underwear and that is not what we are going with this one.

The researchers recruited 10 mildly obese and 10 lean people to wear special underwear, which used technology developed for fighter-jet control panels. Sensors embedded in the undergarments recorded their postures and movements every half-second, 24 hours a day, for 10 days.

Some 150 million lines of data were collected. Levine said it's the first time so much hard data has been compiled to show the different activity levels between lean and overweight people.

Based on the data, the researchers determined that each day, the lean subjects spent at least 150 more minutes moving in some way than the obese subjects.
I am a big fan of self monitoring devices that record data about how your body is working and allow you to see patterns that you weren't able to see before. This is a great example of this. The fat people are fat because of many small activities that they are not taking rather than a few large ones. Information like this is hard to attain without such a monitoring device.

So my only question is where can I get my hands on a pair of underwear like this (damn it, get your head out of the gutter again). Am I one of the people that makes all these little movements or am a more sedentary individual?
Levine, it should be noted, is no couch potato and certainly not overweight. He spoke by telephone while walking 0.7 mph on a treadmill in his office, where he set up a computer above the machine so he can walk and work at the same time.
That's cool. I have thought about doing something like that (more because I think walking makes it easier to think than for any weight loss implications) and am glad to see that someone is doing it. Maybe I need to hook myself up with a treadmill in my office.

via The Seattle Times


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Republican's Budget

The first is a chart of what the Republicans are doing to our nations fiscal well being. The second is a graphical representation of it.


Why do Newspapers Charge for Yesterday's News?

Good point in an article over at Boing Boing: why does the NYTimes give access to current new but charge for old news?

Dan Gillmor's got a great post on what's wrong the the major newspapers' approach to their Web archives. I've long been mystified by the way the newspapers have approached the Web. Papers like the New York Times have decided that their archives -- which were previously viewed as fishwrap, as in "today it's news, tomorrow it's fishwrap" -- are their premium product, the thing that you have to pay to access; while their current articles from the past thirty days are free.

The thing is that while there is certainly a small commercial audience for newspaper archives -- corporate researchers, the occassional grad student with a grant -- the noncommercial audience for archives is much larger: people who want to read the news from their birthdays, researchers amateur and pro looking up historic dates, Bloggers writing about seminal moments.

Conversely, there is a large commercial audience for new news, that is, people who'll pay to see today's news while it's still news and before it becomes history. That's why the news business is so much larger than the history business.

The problem with the NYT's system is that it ensures that the Times can't be the paper of record any longer, because even if a thousand bloggers point to a great article on the day it comes out, thirty days later it will be invisible to the 99.999 percent of the Web who won't pay for access to fishwrap, no matter how interesting.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bacterial Enzyme for Improved Catalysts?

I always thought that living organisms would use more and more inorganic items and become more machine like. That humans were going to become cyborgs with artificial hips and hearts and metal exoskeletons and maybe a brain chip or two. Instead now I wonder if it might not go the other direction equally as fast: machines using more and more living beings to operate.

I previously wrote about a robot that eats flies for fuel. Today's example comes from an article in the Green Car Congress.

The catalytic complex described is a particular configuration of iron and sulfur atoms and the surrounding amino acids in an enzyme isolated from Desulfovibrio desulfuricans, a bacterium that can live in sulfur-rich environments without oxygen. The specific chemical function of the iron-sulfur complex in this bacterial enzyme is not yet known, but similar complexes of iron and sulfur play an important role in many enzymes, catalysts, and sensors.
In the future your car's catalytic converter could be a bunch of living bacteria that take air pollution and turn it into something less toxic.


Google: The Beta Company

Yet again Google is releasing another cool tool: TV searches. This allows you to search the closed captioning text that shows up on TV shows. Kind of cool, but since it only records a paragraph at a time it doesn't give you quite enough information.

Is it just me or does Google not know what the word beta means? It appears that the only services that they have actually released are Web search and Image search. Everything else is in beta:
Google News
Google Desktop
Google Print
Google Local
Google Groups
Google APIs
Google Scholar

Google News has been out for over a year. Groups, News, Froogle and Desktop links show up on the main google page. I have no idea what the beta label means besides you can't sue us if it doesn't work because it is "just in Beta". Usually a company leaves software in beta for a month and only lets some people test it out. Not google. They release everything to everyone and then leave it in beta forever.

So then I thought maybe I don't understand what the word beta means, so obviously I Googled the word beta. And what was the #1 hit? MSN Search. Go figure.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Log On and Kill An Animal in the Wild

Australian game hunters are logging on to a website that invites its users to shoot live animals with the click of a mouse. The site, denounced as obscene by animal activists, will offer a real-time link to a US game hunting ranch where online shooters can kill their targets. Video cameras will be connected to rifles with sensors that can be controlled by computer users anywhere in the world. The rifle range overlooks a 145ha reserve in San Antonio, Texas, where deer, antelope and wild hogs roam. Paying members will be able to take aim, shoot, then ship their kill to their home, stuffed and mounted as a trophy. The site will even record footage of each kill and sell the grisly DVD to the user.
This is just so wrong. If you want to check it out go to Live-Shot .

We are beginning to blur the lines between video games and reality. The military is now finding that new recruits train faster due to their experience with video games. With the armed Predator drones that the army now has you can do the killing from behind a network enable screen anywhere in the world. I think we are headed towards an Ender's Game scenario (great book, read it if you haven't). How long until the 1st person shooter "video game" that you think you are playing over the internet is actually attached to a robot somewhere that is blowing things up? What is the legal responsibility for such a situation? Is the person who unknowingly pulled the trigger responsible? Or maybe the software designer? What an interesting way for a terrorist attack. Setup your robots and have teenagers playing a "game" do all of the shooting for you. A new time is upon us.

via Herald Sun


Biologist to Build a Remote Control Shark

I thought it was pretty cool when they were making remote control rats. But now the biologists are upping the ante and going for sharks. No that is not a mechanical robot shark, it is a real shark that has electrodes in its brain so people can control it remotely. Now I thought we learned the problems of this in the movie Deep Blue Sea but I guess this scientist missed that movie.

In an article in we learn the following:

Jelle Atema is trying to direct the shark by directly controlling its senses, rather than offering it a reward for doing the ''right" thing. The Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, recently awarded Atema $600,000 for the first year of a four-year research grant to pursue the project. Ultimately, he said, a shark could help the military by surveying hard-to-reach areas for dangerous chemicals or other hazard.
I was of the opinion that $500 billion a year spending on defense is a bit excessive, but now that I know they are working on remote control sharks I am going to have to revisit that. DARPA so rocks.
There are some who will worry that, once researchers gain control over sharks, they will move on to humans. But Atema said he doesn't believe ''anyone is even remotely thinking that way. That's what we have a society for, to prevent these excesses."
First, isn't it supposed to go rat->monkey->human? Who the hell goes rat->shark->human? Second, of course they are working on moving this to humans. Why else would the Department of Defense be funding this?

No word on what kind of shark they will be using. I would like to see something like a great white, or maybe a mako. But they will probably start with something wimpy like a nurseshark or a lemonshark.

My favorite week of the year has to be Shark Week. Well, maybe the week of Christmas, but no, I think Shark Week is even better. If this is not showing up as a documentary there I am so canceling my cable.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Fly Me to the Moon

Another great column from Mr. Friedman.

Of all the irresponsible aspects of the 2005 budget bill that the Republican-led Congress just passed, nothing could be more irresponsible than the fact that funding for the National Science Foundation was cut by nearly 2 percent, or $105 million.

But because of the steady erosion of science, math and engineering education in U.S. high schools, our cold war generation of American scientists is not being fully replenished. We traditionally filled the gap with Indian, Chinese and other immigrant brainpower. But post-9/11, many of these foreign engineers are not coming here anymore, and, because the world is now flat and wired, many others can stay home and innovate without having to emigrate.
If we don't do something soon and dramatic to reverse this "erosion," we are not going to have the scientific foundation to sustain our high standard of living in 15 or 20 years.
I agree with all of this, except the implication that if an Indian or Chinese engineering student stays home and gets an equally good education that somehow Americans or the world is worse off. Do I care that my Prius hybrid was designed by a Japanese engineer? That my cell phone was created by a Korean engineer? That the life saving drug I consume was created by a French scientist? As a consumer I can take advantage of Toyota's hybrids. As an investor I can invest in Toyota. So my standard of living is not affected by the fact they are Japanese. Maybe I can't get a job at Toyota, but if I have good technical skills there is always a local company that can use them or a new company to be founded to use them.

I wish I knew the number of scientists and engineers there were not in the US but in the entire world. The more engineers and scientists the better the standard of living will be for everyone. I am not concerned that Indians and Chinese are staying home, I am concerned that too many smart American students become lawyers and not enough become scientists and engineers. A society can get to a point where extra lawyers don't add a lot of value, but that is not possible with scientists and engineers. There is always more to discover, more to invent.
When did the Soviet Union collapse? When did reform take off in Iran? When did the Oslo peace process begin? When did economic reform become a hot topic in the Arab world? In the late 1980's and early 1990's. And what was also happening then? Oil prices were collapsing.

In November 1985, oil was $30 a barrel, recalled the noted oil economist Philip Verleger. By July of 1986, oil had fallen to $10 a barrel, and it did not climb back to $20 until April 1989. "Everyone thinks Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviets," said Mr. Verleger. "That is wrong. It was the collapse of their oil rents." It's no accident that the 1990's was the decade of falling oil prices and falling walls.
I am not a fan of oil and this is exactly why. Too many bad governments are allowed to survive because of it. Friedman could have also mentioned that while Poland is becoming a strong democracy, Russia appears to be going the other direction. Why? In Russia for Putin to get more power he just has to grab the oil. In Poland there is no easy money to get at so they must invest in their people in order to become a stronger economy.

What about Iraq? I think the odds of a successful democracy are greatly undermined by their huge oil wealth. Sure you can have a nice election and have somebody elected. But then someone without power will figure out how much easier it is to get a bunch of armed men and take over the oil fields.

via New York Times


Viruses: Parasitic or Symbiotic?

I was reading this article in Scientific American "Are Viruses alive?" and there were some interesting points. Once again I wish I could link you to a version of the article to read for free, but once again you have to pay for it because science needs to be purchased not shared. Ironically if you want a business magazine about science and technology like Wired then the knowledge is freely shared but if it is a pure Science magazine then you need to pay.

The question about whether viruses are alive comes down to a lot of semantics. They can't replicate on their own, they need another being's cells in order to do that. But they share a lot of other traits that we associate with living. Whether you consider them alive really just depends on your definition of alive.

That is not what intrigued me about the article. What intrigued me was the fact that viruses can integrate their DNA into the hosts DNA. Now sometimes that isn't a good thing like the HIV retrovirus, but there is no reason why viruses couldn't also spread good genes.

This article calls virus the world's leading source of genetic innovation because there are so many of them and they mutate so quickly. They constantly "invent" new genes. It is possible for viruses to "take" genes from the hosts they are in. It is also possible for a virus to switch between species. So it is conceivable that a gene from a pig could be transferred to humans via viruses. Or that a gene the virus invented itself is transferred to humans.

With bacteria there are many common species that live in our bodies in a symbiotic fashion, helping us to digest food and other good things. Before this article I had never thought of a symbiotic virus. But know I find it hard to conceive that there are not such viruses. This article states that most known viruses are innocuous, not pathogenic. They take advantage of the cells apparatus to reproduce at a slow and steady rate.

Which makes me wonder how many viral particles are "living" inside my body right now? It is estimated that there are 10^30 viral particles in the oceans either within cellular hosts or floating free. That sounds like a big number to me.


My New Idol: the Crucian Carp

In college we had these workouts called pH days where you would do like 10 1 minutes sprints with 10 minutes of rest. I know it sounds totally pussy but trust me it kicks your ass like nothing else. This type of workout trains the anaerobic (no oxygen) system which creates lactic acid as a by product. Not only do these workouts hurt but the extra acid in your system makes you ornery for the next 24 hours.

Then I take a biology class and find out that when bacteria work in an anaerobic environment they create ethanol alcohol rather than lactic acid. This is how fermentation of wine and beer works. So while humans get this painful lactic acid the bacteria get drunk. Suddenly I had new respect for the bacteria.

Now I read about this goldfish, the crucian carp, that can live on almost no oxygen for at least 5 days with a perfectly beating heart. I read about this in Scientific American, but they seem to think that knowledge is meant to be sold not shared I can't link to them, so check it out in Science for Kids (personally I don't think drunk fish is a topic for children, but maybe I am old fashioned).

The crucian carp stays active in its low-oxygen environment in winter. Scientists do know that the fish gets around the waste problem by converting the lactic acid to ethanol, which is much less harmful.

That is utterly fantastic. The fish has found a way to take lactic acid and turn it into alcohol. Ohh, if only I were a Crucian Carp. Go hit the weights for an hour and come back with a nice buzz. Talk about an incentive to workout.

Science needs to sequence the DNA and figure out what genes and proteins are responsible for this gift of nature. Then they need to figure out how to replicate it in humans hopefully with a pill or an injection.
Stecyk explained that heart attacks and strokes can cause humans to die because their hearts and brains don’t get enough oxygen. To him, that makes it especially remarkable that crucian carp’s heart can pump with hardly any oxygen. He hopes that his research might someday give other scientists ideas about how to help people who are having heart attacks or strokes.

Yeah right, we need to do this research so we can save people from heart attacks and strokes, wink wink. Hey whatever excuse you need to do to get the funding to sequence the DNA go for it. And be careful of the alcohol industry. If they get a wift of this and figure out that people get get drunk by working out rather than drinking their products they will deep 6 you faster than, well, the cigarette industry made marijuana illegal.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tell Steve Jobs to Recycle His iWaste

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Computer Take Back Campaign are launching a campaign to get Apple to recycle their products. Sign the petition here.

Thanks to the soaring sales of its hip iPods, Apple and Steve Jobs are set to make a bundle of cash in 2005. Amidst all the celebration and excitement about the iPods, Jobs isn't revealing his dirty little secret about them. The sleek music players contain poisonous lead and other highly toxic materials that can cause damage to our brains and reproductive and nervous systems. Once the little music machines become obsolete, they are dumped into landfills or shipped overseas as electronic scrap. Their toxins leach into our air, land, and water and send poisons into our communities. Especially vulnerable are the children in developing countries who pick through the wastes to find parts to sell.

Steve Jobs should do more than celebrate his profits. He should live up to his good reputation and take responsibility for Apple's iWaste. He should harness the company's resources to produce toxic-free iPods and to recycle the millions of obsolete Apple computers that can poison our communities with over 36 million pounds of lead. Up to now, Jobs has chosen another course. His company has no effective program to recycle discarded computers or iPods nor has it eliminated many toxins in its products. It opposes legislation to recycle electronic waste and produce cleaner machines. Batteries for iPods that fizzle out after a year or two and which are difficult and expensive to replace are Apple's most recent addition to the growing toxic iWaste mass. It's time for Jobs to take another approach.


Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Create Life From Your Computer Just $1.60/Base Pair

I was reading this article in Wired about how MIT has a new synthetic biology department where they are trying to take bacteria and build them from the ground up to perform tasks like oscillators and logic gates. Basically they are trying to build a kids electronic set out of biology.

Then I was amazed to find out that there is a company Blue Heron that will create your DNA sequence for you. Basically, you go to your PC and start banging out the A,C,G and Ts of your gene. Then you upload the digital sequence to them over the internet. Then they check it for viruses (no not computer viruses they check that you aren't trying to build a real virus)! Then they build it for you and 2-4 weeks later they ship you out a test tube that has bacteria with you sequence in them. The whole thing is outlined here and here. This is mind blowing stuff. And the price is only $1.60 a base pair with Moores Law kind of price improvements.

What does this mean? Right now there is a iPhoto module of Apple's iLife where upload your photos, digitally alter them and then you can send some off over the internet to Apple where they will print out a physical picture and send it to you mail.

Imagine another module for iLife called, err ahh well, iLife where you can download DNA snippets or genes from BLAST, digitally manipulate the A,C,G,Ts to create something novel and then send the data off to Blue Heron where they will create the DNA, insert it into a vector and send it to you in the mail. This is crazy. Just like GarageBand can make anyone an amateur musician, iLife can make anyone an amateur bio-scientist (or since you are making life an amateur God if you prefer).

I so want to send in a snippet of DNA just so I can say I created life (and for only $50!). Maybe I will try and spell my name in amino-acids or maybe I can do something worthy:

Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at UC Berkeley, is modifying bacteria to help make the malaria drug artemisinin. This treatment is far more effective than its current competitors but also far more expensive to produce. Keasling's approach would be impossibly complicated without synthetic techniques; he's assembling 10 genes from three different organisms and forging a new metabolic pathway. He has already improved the artificial pathway's productivity a millionfold. If he can make it a hundred times better still, he'll churn out artemisinin cheaply enough to save a great many more lives.

Cool, cool stuff.


Monday, January 10, 2005

Genetic HIV Resistance Deciphered

I think that in the future everybody will have blood drawn and have your DNA on file with a genetics company. Once a month that company will figure out all of the new gene discoveries the scientific community has come up with and run your DNA against them to figure out which ones you have. The business model will be very similar to computer virus-updates. So what kind of things code they test for? How about AIDS immunity.

From Wired:

Genetic resistance to AIDS works in different ways and appears in different ethnic groups. The most powerful form of resistance, caused by a genetic defect, is limited to people with European or Central Asian heritage. An estimated 1 percent of people descended from Northern Europeans are virtually immune to AIDS infection, with Swedes the most likely to be protected.

All those with the highest level of HIV immunity share a pair of mutated genes -- one in each chromosome -- that prevent their immune cells from developing a "receptor" that lets the AIDS virus break in. If the so-called CCR5 receptor -- which scientists say is akin to a lock -- isn't there, the virus can't break into the cell and take it over.

To be protected, people must inherit the genes from both parents; those who inherit a mutated gene from just one parent will end up with greater resistance against HIV than other people, but they won't be immune. An estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of those descended from Northern Europeans have the lesser protection.

What can scientists and doctors do with all this information? Doctors could potentially test AIDS patients to see if their genes make them especially vulnerable to progression of the disease, Ahuja said. "This hasn't happened yet, and we aren't there yet. But that would be some practical downstream value of the work we are doing."


Sunday, January 09, 2005

Underwear Goes Inside Your Pants

This song is totally hilarious. I keep listening to it and am still cracking up. Real Player
Not quite Triumph the Insult Dog at the Star Wars premiere funny, but damn funny.


Friday, January 07, 2005

A Better Way to Help Than Tsunami Efforts

It is great to see the world respond to the Tsunami catastrophe. Tons of money donated from countries, corporations and individuals. Volunteers coming from NPOs, Army and individuals that want to help. But I think we have gotten to the point of diminishing returns on helping people by giving additional time and money to this effort. If you are looking for a way to help consider Africa.

Listening to Jan Egeland, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs in the UN on Charlie Rose, he says a Tsunami like tragedy happens every 4 months in the Congo. This is due to preventable disease and war. There are equally miserable conditions in the Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic and Gineau. These are the forgotten and neglected cases. Eastern Congo is the worst disaster area of the last 10 years where million have probably perished. Helping with basic health care or primary school education would have a great impact.

Nicholas D. Kristof writes about this in his NYT column: Land of Penny Pinchers:

The 150,000 or so fatalities from the tsunami are well within the margin of error for estimates of the number of deaths every year from malaria. Probably two million people die annually of malaria, most of them children and most in Africa, or maybe it's three million - we don't even know.

Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist, estimates that spending $2 billion to $3 billion on malaria might save more than one million lives a year. "This is probably the best bargain on the planet," he said.

Why not start an organization to put political pressure on the US to help fund this? The great thing about it from a US political standpoint is that health care and primary school education in Africa and other poor countries is neither a blue or red state issue. You could get participation from the left and right for this.

Or how about investigating whether DDT should be used to help eradicate mosquitoes and malaria? It is more or less banned right now, but should it be? Michael Chrichton in his new book State of Fear states that 30-50 million people have died because of this ban. Do some research (one opinion here at and if you think the benefits outweigh the costs take action.

If the Tsunami devastation has called you to action great. Now figure out the best way to make your efforts help.

Update: I take a look at the NYTimes this morning and see this column by Nicolas Kristof: It's Time to Spray DDT. Like he totally didn't read my blog and say "Damn, that's a good idea, why didn't I think of that." :) Well glad to see that the DDT idea really did make sense. Of course Kristof explains much more elegantly why DDT is a good idea so you might want to read his article.


Hybrid Buses' Fuel Economy Promises Don't Materialize

Expensive new hybrid diesel-electric buses that were portrayed by King County Metro as "green" heroes that would use up to 40 percent less fuel than existing buses have fallen far short of that promise.

In fact, at times, the New Flyer hybrid articulated buses have gotten worse mileage than the often-maligned 1989 dual-mode Breda buses they are replacing. Yet the hybrid buses cost $200,000 more each than a conventional articulated diesel bus.

In May of this year, when Metro held a public event to herald the arrival of the first of the new hybrid buses, County Executive Ron Sims said they would save 750,000 gallons of fuel a year over the Bredas.
What makes this better is that right next to this article in the newspaper was an ad from GM entitled "All aboard the Magic Bus" that claims GM hybrid-powered buses increase fuel efficiency up to 60%. And it also mentions the 750,000 gallons of savings. Nice. Check out this old press release stating the savings.

So where did the mythical 750,000 number come from and why has it not come to pass? Not quite clear.
The hybrids were not getting much better than 3.6 miles per gallon.

Boon said that today, the hybrids sometimes get better mileage than the conventional diesels and the Bredas. But it's difficult to compare different models, he said.

"It's comparing apples and oranges and pears."
First off "and pears"? There are no pears, there are just apples and oranges. No one compares anything with pears. That is just plain silly. Get with the program buddy.

What is Boonie's explanation for the discrepancy between the predicted 750,000 gallons savings and reality? He takes the tried and true strategy of using every explanation and hope one sticks and hope no one notices that they contradict each other.

Explanation 1: We didn't expect any fuel savings. We bought them for the improve maintenance and lowered emissions.
"We didn't buy this (hybrid) bus because of fuel economy," Boon said. It has other desirable attributes, such as being cleaner, quieter, and saving on oil consumption and operating costs, but the tunnel forced the choice of the hybrids. The hybrid fleet as a whole is saving $3 million a year in maintenance costs over the Bredas. And they're quieter than regular diesel buses and faster than the Bredas on hills and the highway. They also have very low emissions.

Despite the public claim of fuel savings, Boon said that when Metro prepared its budget for 2004, it projected no fuel savings.
Well then who the heck approved the press release about the 750,000 gallons in savings?

Excuse 2: The vendor switched the engine on us and we lost the fuel savings.
That's not what was expected of the bus. In an October 2002 e-mail, Boon said, "The vendor indicates that hybrid buses can achieve up to 60 percent in fuel savings, but I am only projecting 20 percent to 30 percent given our hills and traffic congestion."

A year later, as Metro ordered the buses, the agency said they could reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent to 40 percent.

The early tests were very encouraging. In December, Boon reported to his bosses that the buses were at 15,000 miles and had experienced hardly any mechanical problems. The hybrid was achieving about 32 percent better fuel economy than the Breda -- 4.46 miles per gallon compared with the Breda's 3.37 miles per gallon, he reported.

In January 2003, Todd Gibbs, manager of the hybrids project, said on a posting on Metro's Web site that the hybrid bus was achieving 40 percent better fuel economy than the Breda, even though it was overloaded with the water barrels.

The federal government had imposed stricter exhaust emissions standards, and the Cummins engine was not federally certified. Metro sent the bus to the Winnipeg, Manitoba, manufacturer to have a certified Caterpillar engine installed in its place.

The fuel economy results were never the same after the switch to the Caterpillar engine.
Was the press release given before the change in engines?

Explanation 3: We actually are getting the savings and the gas mileage on the old vehicles is lower then stated.
When he checked recently, Boon was told that Bredas are running at about 3.8 miles per gallon, while the conventional diesel older New Flyer articulated buses are running about four miles per gallon. The hybrids were getting 3.75 miles per gallon in September

"I've got hybrids that are getting four," he said recently. And Boon said he was surprised when he was told that Bredas were getting 3.8, because they've more typically been below 3.5.

Ok, then how many gallons are you really saving? Can't you give us the total number of gallons the old buses used vs. the new buses running the same routes?

In case you are like me and got confused about the gas mileages, it is because they stated multiple ones and never really cleared up which was the best estimate:
Old Buses (Bredas): 3.37, 3.5, 3.8
New Hybrids :3.6, 3.75, 4, 4.46

Well at least they are quiet when they come to a stop.

via Seattle PI


The Global Baby Bust

I am a big fan of global demographics. As someone once said "demographics is destiny". Interesting article with some surprising facts and predictions of what folds in the future. As the title implies the author believes that we are going into a global population decline and talks about those implications.

Surprising facts:

In the United States, the direct cost of raising a middle-class child born this year through age 18, according to the Department of Agriculture, exceeds $200,000 -- not including college. And the cost in forgone wages can easily exceed $1 million, even for families with modest earning power.
In the United States, for example, fully 47 percent of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as compared to only 27 percent of those who seldom attend church.
The Pentagon today spends 84 cents on pensions for every dollar it spends on basic pay.
The cost of public benefits to the elderly will consume a dramatically rising share of GDP in industrialized countries. In the United States, such benefits currently consume 9.4 percent of GDP. But if current trends continue, this figure will top 20 percent by 2040.
Example of interesting predictions:

Over the next decade, the Middle East could benefit from a similar "demographic dividend." Birthrates fell in every single Middle Eastern country during the 1990s, often dramatically. The resulting "middle aging" of the region will lower the overall dependency ratio over the next 10 to 20 years, freeing up more resources for infrastructure and industrial development. The appeal of radicalism could also diminish as young adults make up less of the population and Middle Eastern societies become increasingly dominated by middle-aged people concerned with such practical issues as health care and retirement savings. Just as population aging in the West during the 1980s was accompanied by the disappearance of youthful indigenous terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades and the Weather Underground, falling birthrates in the Middle East could well produce societies far less prone to political violence.
via Foreign Affairs


153,000 People Dead Today (no not in the Tsunami)

I was curious how many people die every day in the world. Turns out the number is 153,000 people.

So, as bad as the Tsunami was, as many people died of other causes on Dec 26th as those who died in the tidal wave. 56 million people die a year. So this terrible tragedy will still only account for 1/3 of 1 percent of all people that died in 2004.

If you were to try and estimate this and try and divide the total world population 6.4 billion by the average life expectancy of 64.05 you would be way off. Turns out that humans are procreating like rabbits and the birth rate is much higher than the death rate. Only 1 out of every 113 people in the world died last year.

How did I find this number? Google of course. If you were to google this, what site would come up with this information? Any guesses? Check out the top hit. This site is sweet. There is actually a java applet that tells you how many people have died since you have been on the page (check out this cool pop-up version) . It also has source code to add to your site so you too can have a death counter.

Why would someone create such a site? To save your soul of course. Some crazy misguided Christian felt that such a counter will make you realize that you too will die someday, so you better be sure to have all your religious affairs in order before that happens. Oh and by the way that day could quite possibly be tomorrow. You never know.

While the death counter is nice, I so wanted to have a people going to hell counter. That would be so cool. Since you have been on my site for 5 minutes 600 people have gone to hell (and you could be next if you don't repent right now!). Why won't you make one Mr. crazy misguided Christian?

But I don't just want 1 hell counter, I want 3. I want a Christian hell counter next to my Jewish hell counter next to my Muslim hell counter. And then I want another counter of people that are in both Christian hell and Muslim heaven at the same time (and all other permutations of this game), because otherwise my numbers wouldn't add up, and I can't have that now can I?


New Way to Look at Population Control

I was trying to figure out how many people have lived since the beginning of time (and how many of them are currently alive), which made me think about population models with birth rates and death rates. Which made me think about the mythical 2.1 children we are told keeps the population steady. Then it dawned on me that this wasn't really true. Or rather it wasn't the whole truth. The age at which mothers have their children impacts the population as well. The younger a mother is when she has her children, the larger the impact on the birth rate (and population).

But, you never hear people talking about having mothers wait to have kids as a way of lowering the birth rate. For example this report on population trends in India doesn't mention the average age of mothers at birth in it at all. All they mention is the Total Fertility Rate (TFR). They seem to think a baby is a baby regardless of how old the mother is. And other population control literature I looked at also just looks at how many kids each mother has.

The way I thought about this was if you have a population of 8 people (really small world) who all have 2 kids at age 20 and die at age 80, then you have 4 generation living at any one time: 2 1 yr olds, 2 21 yr olds, 2 41 yr olds, 2 61 yr olds. If they waited until 40 to have kids their would only be 4 people (2 generations) living at one time. Likewise if they could have kids at age 10 there would be 16 people (8 generations).

Interestingly the math becomes very similar to that of comparing the gas consumption of cars. You can think of the mother who has kids as an early age as the Hummers and a mother who has kids at an later age as a Prius. Instead of gallons/mile we are talking kids/age of mother. A woman who has 1 baby at 15 yrs old has the same impact (1 per 15 yrs or 1/15) on the birth rate as a woman who has 2 at 30 (2/30 or 1 per 15 yrs) or 3 at 45. A woman who has 2 kids at 15 and 17, has the same impact on the birth rate as a mother who has 3 kids at 21, 25 and 26 (1/15+1/17=1/21+1/25+1/26).

Wouldn't it be easier for China to control population if instead of having a 1 child policy, they had a 1 child before the age of 18 or 2 after the age of 35 policy? Wouldn't it be easier to convince mothers to delay having kids than to not have them at all?

Waiting from 15 to 20 is decreases the impact of that birth by 25%. This is the same impact that decreasing a family from 4 kids to 3 kids has (assuming that they were all born on the same year). And like the automobiles, the people who have kids at the earliest age (the Hummers) have the biggest impact on birth rates. Getting 15 yr olds to wait 5 more years has a bigger impact then getting 25 yr olds to wait 5 yrs (only 16%).

In developed nations it is happening as well. Based on this report, in the US the average (or mean) age of mothers for all births rose from 24.6 years to 27.2 over the past three decades. This decreases the birth rate 10%.

This report shows South Korea from has changed the average age for people having their firstborn from 24.9 in 1985 to 28.3 in 2002 or a decrease of 12%.

So there you have it. To control population growth, focus on delaying having kids as well as reducing the total number of kids. And forget about that 2.1 number.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Answer is Biodiesel

This is a great read about a way to create biodiesel with algae farms.

The more I read about hydrogen and fuel cells the more I don't think that it is the future. Where do you get the hydrogen? How do you transport it? How do you store it in a vehicle in a cost effective manner that gives you a 200 mile distance between fuelings? These are major issues with no easy answers.

Instead I think the future energy source for transportation will be a liquid rather than a gas. This liquid will have to be created renewably. The best way that I could think of would be to be able to turn either wind power or solar power into some type of liquid that can store energy. I thought biodiesel would be good as it basically is a way of concentrating solar energy. But then I did the math on how much land would be needed to fuel all of the vehicles in the US from soybeans and the number was huge (like larger than all of the farm land in the US). And given the fact that in the next century water could be the new oil, using massive amount of water and land to create fuel for our vehicles probably wont work (if you are feeling guilty about using too much oil right now, just wait until that fuel is grown and all the land and water needed to fuel your car could be used to grow food for starving people).

Then I read this article and found out about creating biodiesel form algae farms. This looks promising.

To replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles.
That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres — far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.
Basically you have algae on a big pool of water and then shoot in carbon-dioxide (I don't get why you need to shoot in CO2 rather than just use what is in the air). The algae are genetically modified to maximize the amount of vegetable oil they produce. You collect the algae and get the oil, then put in some ethanol and other goodies to create biodiesel.

They answer a lot of good questions but two that are missing are:
1) Given the current state of the art, how much would it cost to create a gallon of biodiesel? Based on this article it looks like $4 a gallon. Expensive but not extremely so.
2) Compared to other ways of harvesting solar energy (solar panels, solar electrical power plants that use mirrors and steam) how does the efficiency of collecting the solar energy compare? How do they compare economically (this is a little bit of an apple vs. orange comparison because one is creating liquid fuel and the other electricity)?

So I would put my money on this technology rather than hydrogen and fuel cells.

via Change This (.pdf)