Monday, July 30, 2007

Patent Prolificacy

More details in the report.

via The Economist


Glass Sponges

A reef of glass sponges, creating a deep-sea oasis 650 feet below the surface, was discovered for the first time in U.S. waters off the Washington coast.

Researchers didn't even think the oxymoronic structures -- sponges made of glass that form reefs -- even existed anymore. Captured in the fossil record, they were thought until fairly recently to have gone extinct 100 million years ago. They were supposed to have been squeezed out by the arrival of microscopic marine algae that began gobbling up the glassy silica the sponges need to build their skeletons.

The Washington reef is at least 2,000 feet long and up to 10 feet tall.

An intriguing twist on Johnson's finding was the presence of natural gas, or methane. The methane is seeping out of the ocean floor, feeding strands of bacteria. The glass sponges suck and sweep the bacteria in through their pores and eat them, jetting the extra water back out the hole at the top of their body.

"Everybody is feeding off the methane," said Johnson, who plans to submit the findings to a scientific journal. "It's a whole ecosystem that people didn't know about."
It continues to amaze me how little we know about the undersea world. Fascinating how the base of this ecosystem is methane rather than sunlight.

via Seattle PI


Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer

Really interesting article in the NY Times Magazine about Chinese gold farmers. Gold farmers being those who gather up gold in online games like World of Warcraft and then sell them to other players for real money.

At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20. The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in — two rooms, one for the workers and another for the supervisor — along with a rudimentary workers’ dorm, a half-hour’s bus ride away, are the entire physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. It is estimated that there are thousands of businesses like it all over China, neither owned nor operated by the game companies from which they make their money. Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items. The polite name for these operations is youxi gongzuoshi, or gaming workshops, but to gamers throughout the world, they are better known as gold farms.
Interesting topic and raises lots of questions.

First, should this be legal?

On the one hand I think it should. If people are willing to pay real money for gold, why not allow them? If their time is limited and they don't want to deal with the boring parts ("the grind"), why not allow them to do this? The benefits of what you can purchase with gold in the game are already limited:
I don’t really consider buying gold in WoW “cheating.” None of the best stuff in the game can be directly purchased. Having mounds of gold helps, but without a solid support structure (guilds) and some ability to play the game (else said guild would probably not want you), being King Midas is pretty pointless.
On the other hand, I think maybe it should be illegal. It doesn't seem fair to the players who spend all their time building up their characters to have other players be able to just buy theirs. And shouldn't the game developer decide if should be legal?

But, if it is illegal, who is more to blame, the buyers who create a market for it, or the farmers which supply it? Like drugs this is a two way street. If you really want to stop it you should go after the players that purchase the gold rather than the Chinese who farm for it. No company wants to go after their customers though.

Secondly, what is impact of this on the environment? If people are paying for virtual goods rather than going out and buying real products, won't this reduce the impact of consumption on natural resources? Isn't it better for Americans to be purchasing fake gold from Chinese gold farmers rather than real physical goods at Wal-Mart that were created at Chinese factories?

On the other hand, running virtual worlds has a real world impact. How much natural resources and energy are required to make and run the computers and servers that allow the virtual world to exist? The environmental gain might not be as large as it seems, as an avatar in a virtual world has been estimated to use as much energy as a Brazilian.

Third, what kind of job does it create for the farmers? Is it a good job for the workers and better than the jobs they would have otherwise? Seems like it would be safer and more enjoyable than a factory job.

Worker makes "only" 6.25% of the money that they are eventually sold for, is that a "fair wage"?

Is it fun and rewarding for workers? Depends on how it is setup. When working as a team with each player having specific roles and skills and doing "power leveling", it appears to be a very fun and rewarding job. When killing the same monsters over and over in a repetitive manner to maximize money gained, it isn't much fun or very rewarding.

It also shows the find line between playing and working. Surprisingly, many workers also choose to play the game in their free time.
It may seem strange that a wage-working loot farmer would still care about the freedom to play. But it is not half as strange as the scene that unfolded one evening at 9 o’clock in the Internet cafe on the ground floor of the building where Donghua has its offices. Scattered around the stifling, dim wang ba, 10 power levelers just off the day shift were merrily gaming away. Not all of them were playing World of Warcraft. A big, silent lug named Mao sat mesmerized by a very pink-and-purple Japanese schoolgirls’ game, in which doe-eyed characters square off in dancing contests with other online players. But the rest had chosen, to a man, to log into their personal World of Warcraft accounts and spend these precious free hours right back where they had spent every other hour of the day: in Azeroth.

At the end of almost any working day or night in a Chinese gaming workshop, workers can be found playing the same game they have been playing for the last 12 hours, and to some extent gold-farm operators depend on it.

Fan himself is a striking case of how off-hours play can serve as a kind of unpaid R. and D. lab for the farming industry. He is that rarest of World of Warcraft obsessives, a Chinese gold farmer who has actually bought farmed gold. (“Sure, I bought 10,000 once,” he said, “I don’t have time to farm all that!”) When Fan shows up at the wang ba after work, it is a minor event; the other Donghua workers pull their chairs over to watch him play — his top-level warlock character is an unbelievable powerhouse that no amount of money, real or virtual, can buy.
Fourth, what is the impact of gold farmers on productivity?

Is this really a good use of these workers' time? Doesn't seem like it, as the game company could choose to sell the gold directly to customers, and these gold farmers could then be doing something else creating additional value.
Only a few companies have found a way to make R.M.T. part of their business model. Sony Online Entertainment, which publishes EverQuest, has started earning respectable revenues from an experimental in-game auction system that charges players a small transaction fee for real-money trades.
Makes you wonder though, if a company did do this, would its impact be seen in worker productivity numbers?

It also reminds me of something I read once (but can't remember where), suggesting that instead of paying people welfare, the government should just bury money in the ground and give everyone the opportunity to support themselves by digging it back up.

In one way this is completely ridiculous, as why would you want to bury it when you could just give it to them directly? In another way it makes a lot of sense, as it forces people to actually go out to earn their money by digging it up themselves rather than getting paid to do nothing. I am reminded of this because it seems to me that the Chinese gold farmers are digging up money out of the virtual ground.

And finally, can this be thought of as a form of foreign aid? Rich kids giving money to support 3rd world workers?

Overall a very thought provoking enjoyable read.

via Freakonomics


Record Booty

Record companies collected $728m in royalties from 51 countries in 2006, up by 8% on 2005, according to IFPI, a trade body. This is equivalent to 4% of the companies' music-sales revenue that year. Some 87% of income comes from licensing sound recordings; music videos make up the remainder. Britain's collection society is by far the most industrious, taking $142.1m on behalf of its members. This represents 7% of the $2.1 billion earned in Britain by companies for music sales that year. Although America's income grew most in the top ten, $35.7m is peanuts in a market worth $6.5 billion. Russia, home to dodgy download sites and reluctant radio stations (only half pay royalties), took a tiny $0.9m, representing a mere 0.4% of sales revenue. Malaysia's collection agency, on the other hand, took a sum equivalent to 22% of their music-sales income.
Alright, you caught me. I really don't care about this article.

I just wanted to post that title (The Economist's, not mine) with that picture. How can they get away with that? All I gotta say is I find the whole thing bootylicious.

via The Economist


Music Money Shifts From CDs To Concerts

Seven years ago musicians derived two-thirds of their income, via record labels, from pre-recorded music, with the other one-third coming from concert tours, merchandise and endorsements, according to the Music Managers Forum, a trade group in London. But today those proportions have been reversed—cutting the labels off from the industry's biggest and fastest-growing sources of revenue. Concert-ticket sales in North America alone increased from $1.7 billion in 2000 to over $3.1 billion last year, according to Pollstar, a trade magazine.

The shift away from recorded music is due in part to the recognition that touring and merchandise are more lucrative. But it may also be a consequence of internet piracy, as free downloads give music fans more money to spend on other things. Jwana Godinho, the director of Música no Coração, a concert promoter in Lisbon, thinks many music lovers have a “mental budget” that they are prepared to spend on music, and have switched their spending from CDs to tickets and merchandise.
How do musicians get compensated when their tracks can be downloaded for free? One answer is concerts. Just as musicians allow their music to be played for free on radio in order to drive more sales of their CDs, now free digital downloads work as advertising for their concerts.

Case in point: Prince.
Neither the Mail on Sunday or Prince's camp would divulge how much the newspaper paid Prince for the right to give his album away, but it's clear Prince was paid upfront, and that nearly 3 million Mail on Sunday readers -- plus everyone who bought tickets to one of his shows -- received the CD for free. The giveaway almost certainly contributed to Prince selling out 15 of his 21 shows at London's O2 Arena within the first hour of ticket sales. The venue (formerly the Millennium Dome) holds around 20,000 people. If the remaining six shows sell out, the series will gross over $26 million.

Prince's latest gambit also succeeded by acknowledging that copies, not songs, are just about worthless in the digital age. The longer an album is on sale, the more likely it is that people can find somewhere to make a copy from a friend's CD or a stranger's shared-files folder. When copies approach worthlessness, only the original has value, and that's what Prince sold to the Mail on Sunday: the right to be Patient Zero in the copying game.

As with blogging and so many other things digital, music distribution could become a competition to see who posts things first. In a sense, music distribution would no longer be about space -- it would be about time.
Prince is allowing his music to be given away for free so he can then make money from them on concerts.

Prince also takes it a step further by selling the rights to distribute the CD to a newspaper. The newspaper uses the free CDs as a way to increase readership.

The record labels are taking a different tact and attempting to get compensated when music is played on internet radio.
Almost all of America's 14,000 or so webcast stations, which have 34m regular listeners and income from advertising, do pay royalties. For one thing, America's traditional radio stations pay relatively little in royalties, thanks to a 1909 law that mandates fees for composers but not for performers. (Low royalties, radio stations have argued, are justified because playing songs provides performers with free publicity.)

In March the record labels persuaded America's Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) to triple royalties for webcasters, to roughly a fifth of a cent per-song per-listener, with retroactive effect from the beginning of 2006. This will almost certainly put most webcasters out of business. They will also have to pay SoundExchange $500 for each channel they stream when the ruling takes effect on July 15th. This fee is likely to eliminate one of the most cherished features of online radio: the customised channels that listeners can concoct using software that produces playlists based on the names of favourite bands or songs. One popular webcaster, Pandora, creates customised channels for some 7m users. It cannot possibly afford to pay $500 for each one.

The quest for higher royalties may actually be doing record labels more harm than good. People generally do not buy music unless they have already heard it. Internet radio makes it easy to zero in on a preferred genre, so listeners are more likely to discover music they would want to buy. Many online stations even provide links to online music stores—free of charge.
As with all digital media, since it has no cost to distribute, you have to decide what you want to charge for and what you want to use as advertising to sell something else. As illustrated above, it might make more sense to allow music to be played on radio and internet radio for free as advertising for concerts. Overall I find the music royalty system to be bizarre in how it determines who gets compensated and when.

via The Economist and Wired and The Economist


Friday, July 27, 2007

Business and Climate Change

The Economist had a really interesting report on businesses and climate change. Worth reading the whole thing.

Here are my some interesting factoids from the articles.

From Cleaning up:

Energy has become the hot new area for venture capitalists and universities. MIT's president, Susan Hockfield, has started an “energy initiative” to promote research into alternative sources, storage and cleaning up conventional sources; and student enrolment into energy-related courses has tripled over the past five years. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, America's power-generation industry spent less on R&D as a proportion of turnover than did the country's pet-food industry, which suggests there is scope for more investment.
From Trading thin air:
Every year the average sow and her piglets produce 9.2 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent through the methane emissions from their effluent.
From Sunlit uplands:
Around 20% of Denmark's electricity comes from wind and about 80% of China's hot water from solar energy.

Solar photovoltaic power has grown by an average of 41% a year over the past three years; wind has grown by 18% a year.

Wind and solar energy have both grown fast in Germany, but the guaranteed price for solar energy is especially generous (54-57 cents per kWh against 8.4 cents for wind). According to Jerry Stokes, president of Suntech Europe, the payback period for a solar panel is eight or nine years, whereas the price for the electricity it generates is guaranteed for 20. Germany's feed-in tariff may cost consumers an extra €2 billion-2.9 billion a year in higher energy prices.

Vlatko Vlatkovic, head of GE's renewable energy research, reckons that wind power is heading towards 3-4 cents per kWh. To achieve that, he says, the length of turbine blades needs to increase to 90 metres.
From Dirty king coal:
Coal produces 50% of America's electricity, 70% of India's and 80% of China's.
From The final cut:
According to Richard Newell of Duke University, economists' estimates of the carbon price needed to stabilise CO2 concentrations at 550 parts per million (widely reckoned to be a safeish level) range from $5 to $30 per tonne by 2025 and from $20 to $80 per tonne by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out with fairly similar figures in its fourth report earlier this year—$20-50 per tonne by 2020-30. Mr Newell reckons that, in America, $20 per tonne would raise petrol prices by an average of 18 cents (or 6%) per gallon, and electricity prices by 14%. A $50 price would raise petrol prices by an average of 45 cents (or 15%), and electricity prices by 35%.

At the bottom end of the range these costs are not huge. Even at the top end they are manageable. The IPCC's estimates of what a $20-50 carbon price would do to world GDP by 2050 range from a slight increase on what it otherwise would have been to 4% less. The average is 1.3% less, which would mean that average annual growth would be around 0.1% lower than it might otherwise have been.


Play Attention

Play Attention is a computer game that uses brain waves, to move objects on a computer screen. Repetitive use of the training system is meant to improve attention, focus, and memory skills for children and others with ADHD, though people who are not “attention challenged” (as the company likes to put it), will also see improvement in their game performance.

Using technology originally developed to help pilots stay alert, the system utilizes a bike helmet lined with sensors connected to a computer. There are 5 games designed to improve different aspects of attention including attention stamina, visual tracking and discrimination of important vs. unimportant stimuli, and short term memory processing.

The company spokesperson said that commonly a student will go from 50% of time on task for 5 minutes to around 80% time on task for after 12 hours of use. After 40-60 hours usually a student can stop using the system.
via Brain Waves


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Desktop Orb Could Reform Energy Hogs

Then he saw an Ambient Orb. It's a groovy little ball that changes color in sync with incoming data — growing more purple, for example, as your email inbox fills up or as the chance of rain increases. Martinez realized he could use Orbs to signal changes in electrical rates, programming them to glow green when the grid was underused — and, thus, electricity cheaper — and red during peak hours when customers were paying more for power. He bought 120 of them, handed them out to customers, and sat back to see what would happen.

Within weeks, Orb users reduced their peak-period energy use by 40 percent. Why? Because, Martinez explains, the glowing sphere was less annoying and more persistent than a text alert. "It's nonintrusive," he says. "It has a relatively benign effect. But when you suddenly see your ball flashing red, you notice."

That's the power of "ambient information," which tries to combat data overload by moving information off computer screens and into the world around us. This is the psychological paradox of ambient information: We're more likely to act on a subtle but continuously present message than an intermittent one we're forced to stare at.

So here's the radical idea: Maybe the real killer app for ambient information isn't alleviating data overload or tracking investments. Maybe it's taming global warming. To improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, we first need to make omnipresent the hidden facts about our usage — paint them on the world around us.
Making the invisible visible. Very cool. I want me one of them there balls.

via Wired


Irrational Incandescence

This graph looks at the costs of various ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

Many actually cost less than $0 to implement. If they would actually save people money, why aren't they being implemented?

Economists trying to explain this apparent irrationality suggest that the savings are too small and the effort involved in change too large. People find their electricity bills too boring to think about; within companies, those responsible for keeping bills down may not have the authority to spend the necessary capital. Another explanation is the agency problem: that the developer who would have to pay higher capital costs up front will not be forking out for the electricity bills. Besides, people buy houses not because they have good insulation but because they have pretty views.
So what can be done about this?
Energy-efficiency standards, such as building regulations, are another option. Economists generally prefer to avoid rules that specify what companies can produce and how, because they require governments, rather than markets, to allocate resources, and markets tend to do a better job. But if, as in this case, a public as well as a private good is involved, and the market does not seem to be doing its job properly, there is an argument for governments giving it a nudge.
via The Economist


Polls, Wealth and Happiness

Called World Poll, and conducted by the Gallup organisation, it spans 130 countries, many of which are being polled for the first time. Other surveys are smaller. The respected Global Attitudes Survey of the Pew Research Centre, an offshoot of an American charity, operates annually in just over 50 countries. The World Values Survey run from the University of Michigan is more comprehensive (over 80 countries), but updated only once in five years.

Gallup's pollsters asked a standard question: how satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of nought to ten? In all the rich places (America, Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia), most people say they are happy. In all the poor ones (mainly in Africa), people say they are not. As Angus Deaton of Princeton University puts it, a map of the results looks like an income plot of the world (see map). There are some exceptions: Georgia and Armenia, though not among the world's poorest states, are among the 20 most miserable. Costa Rica and Venezuela, though middle-income countries, are among the 20 happiest. The Brazilians, pictured above, seem a bit more cheerful than their income level justifies.
Interesting to get another map that ranks countries' happiness. While Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness has been a standout in other such rankings, it doesn't appear to be that high on this one.

I believe this survey to be much superior to the World Values Survey as rather than having a 10 point scale, Gallup's poll goes to eleven. This allows people to be one happier (well actually one less happy as it is a 0-10 point scale rather than a 1-10 point scale, but hey who's counting?). :)

I wish I could get a hold of the data to see each country's value rather than just looking at a range, but my extensive search came up with nothing.

The Fly Bottle points out this paper by Angus Deaton that analyzes the results and finds that "average happiness is strongly related to per capita national income, with each doubling of income associated with a near one point increase in life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10". I wanted to dig in deeper to the report, but got scared when he defined happiness as:
Who knew that you needed calculus to be able to measure happiness?

via The Economist


Record 42.8 Percent Efficient Solar Cell Created

Using a novel technology that adds multiple innovations to a very high-performance crystalline silicon solar cell platform, a consortium led by the University of Delaware has achieved a record-breaking combined solar cell efficiency of 42.8 percent from sunlight at standard terrestrial conditions.

That number is a significant advance from the current record of 40.7 percent announced in December and demonstrates an important milestone on the path to the 50 percent efficiency goal set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In November 2005, the UD-led consortium received approximately $13 million in funding for the initial phases of the DARPA Very High Efficiency Solar Cell (VHESC) program to develop affordable portable solar cell battery chargers.

As a result of the consortium's technical performance, DARPA is initiating the next phase of the program by funding the newly formed DuPont-University of Delaware VHESC Consortium to transition the lab-scale work to an engineering and manufacturing prototype model. This three-year effort could be worth as much as $100 million, including industry cost-share.

The consortium's goal is to create solar cells that operate at 50 percent in production, Barnett said. With the fresh funding and cooperative efforts of the DuPont-UD consortium, he said it is expected new high efficiency solar cells could be in production by 2010.
Good stuff. No word on how expensive it would be, but hopefully this technology will be commercialized soon and further reduce the price of photovoltaics.

via UDailys via FuturePundit


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Africa, Offline: Waiting for the Web

14 squirrels arrested by Iranian authorities for espionage.

Smog-busting paint soaks up noxious gases.

Gang Kidnaps Top Gamer to Get His Password Using Fake Orkut Date

Toyota announces plugin hybrid with 8 mile all electric range.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

African Teenager Builds A Windmill To Power His Home

Reading this story reminds me again why I love the Internet. This kid lives half way across the planet from me, but thanks to his blog, I know more about how he lives his life then I do about most of my neighbors.

Using simple and straightforward concepts of science, William Kamkwamba of Mastala Village in the area of T/A Wimbe is generating electricity for his home using the ancient technology of a windmill.

William says after dropping out of school in 2002, because he could not raise schools fees, he had nothing to do and grew an interest in reading science books from Wimbe Teachers Development Centre (TDC). The books were donated by the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA) and were sourced from the International Book Bank.

He says one day while reading he came across two books, “Using Energy” and “How it Works” which talked about how to generate electricity using a windmill and was motivated to try it.

On a trial and error basis he managed to make a small windmill which generated electricity enough to light his little dom. Seeing its success he planned to make a bigger one so that his parents too could benefit and some well-wishers gave him money to get some of the materials he needed based on his innovativeness.

“When I was making all these people were mocking me that I was driving mad but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible. When I succeeded they were impressed,” explains William.

The windmill stands on a tripod of wood polls about five metres above the ground. It consists of locally-available materials and as far as he can remember his investments were K500 for two bearings, K500 for a bicycle dynamo, K400 for a fun belt and K800 for a bicycle frame.
Africa could use a few more William Kamkwambas.

Update: Video of William at TED is now available.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Corruption Stains Timber Trade

While western nations are no longer experiencing deforestation, I have wondered whether deforestation in other countries was caused by their consumption. Looks like to some extent it is.

"Western consumers are leaving a violent ecological footprint in Burma and other countries," said an American environmental activist who frequently travels to Burma and goes by the pen name Zao Noam to preserve access to the authoritarian country. "Predominantly, the Burmese timber winds up as patio furniture for Americans. Without their demand, there wouldn't be a timber trade."

About 2,500 miles to the northeast, Chinese and Russian crews hacked into the virgin forests of the Russian Far East and Siberia, hauling away 250-year-old Korean pines in often-illegal deals, according to trading companies and environmentalists. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Africa and in the forests of the Amazon, loggers working beyond the bounds of the law have sent a ceaseless flow of timber to China.

Mountains of logs, many of them harvested in excess of legal limits aimed at preserving forests, are streaming toward Chinese factories where workers churn out such products as furniture and floorboards. These wares are shipped from China to major retailers such as Ikea, Home Depot, Lowe's and many others. They land in homes and offices in the United States and Europe, bought by shoppers with little inkling of the wood's origins or the environmental costs of chopping it down.

The buzzing sawmills and clattering furniture plants in China explain why the pace of logging in Papua New Guinea is four times faster than legally permitted, according to Forest Trends. It explains why ships ferry logs to China from the African nation of Gabon, where 70 percent of logging is illegal, according to the World Bank. It explains why Chinese traders armed with cash line the Russian border, overwhelming the regulators charged with preserving trees.
It appears that China has become the world's illicit lumber launderer. What does it mean for these forests and these countries?
At the current pace of cutting, natural forests in Indonesia and Burma -- which send more than half their exported logs to China -- will be exhausted within a decade, according to research by Forest Trends, a consortium of industry and conservation groups. Forests in Papua New Guinea will be consumed in as little as 13 years, and those in the Russian Far East within two decades.

In the world's poorest countries, illegal logging on public lands annually costs governments $10 billion in lost assets and revenues, a figure more than six times the aid these nations receive to help protect forests, a World Bank study found last year.
What can be done about this?

Putting pressure on a leading retailer who can improve the situation usually works. And who would that be in this case?
"Ikea will provide some guidance, such as a list of endangered species we can't use, but they never send people to supervise the purchasing," said a factory sales manager who spoke on condition she be identified by only her family name, Wu. "Basically, they just let us pick what wood we want."

China is Ikea's largest supplier of solid wood furniture, according to the company. In 2006, about 100 Chinese factories manufactured about one-fourth of the company's global stock. Russia is Ikea's largest source of wood, providing one-fifth of its worldwide supply. Ikea executives said they are confident this wood is legal, because the company dispatches auditors and professional foresters to factories and traces wood to logging sites.

But Ikea has only two foresters in China and three in Russia, the company said. It annually inspects logging sites that produce about 30 percent of the wood imported by its Chinese factories, more commonly relying on paperwork produced by logging companies and factories.

"Falsification of documents is rampant," acknowledged Sofie Beckham, Ikea's forestry coordinator. "There's always somebody who wants to break the rules."

Sending more people to inspect logging sites would make Ikea's products more expensive.
Sound like if there is enough pressure put on IKEA, they could make sure that the lumber they get is legitimate and with would have a significant impact on decreasing the amount of illegal lumber.

Where could they get the money to pay for more inspectors? This would be a good cause for Ingvar Kamprad's (the founder of IKEA) foundation, the Stichting Ingka Foundation. It has a net worth of at least $36 billion, making it the largest foundation in the world, even larger than Bill Gates'.

Why then have you never heard of it before? Because unfortunately, the foundation is more of a tax shelter than a non-profit. But, if he ever wanted to do something good with his money this would be an excellent way to go.

via The Washington Post


Liquid Piston

Inventor Nik Shkolnik and his son, MIT grad student Alexander Shkolnik, are developing technology that aims to improve the internal combustion engine’s fuel efficiency by 250%, according to a release. And their startup, LiquidPiston, just raised $1.25 million in its first venture capital investment round led by Adams Capital Mangement and Northwater Capital.

These funds add to an existing $70,000 Phase I grant from the Army Small Business Innovation Research program. LiquidPiston was also a runner up in MIT’s recent $100K Entrepreneurship competition. While the release notes that the technology will increase efficiency up to 250% and could make it possible for gasoline-powered cars to get 100 mpg, the website notes that the engine, compared to Otto or Diesel engines of similar power specifications, will:

* significantly improve engine efficiency, reaching 50%
* reduce NOx emissions by 70%
* reduce CO2 emissions by 50%
I don't have an educated opinion on its feasibility, but if it can improve the fuel efficiency of ICE by even 50%, this would be a breakthrough technology. Hybrids only improve gas mileage by around 25%, so this would have a much larger impact. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this will work out.

via earth2tech


Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense

Odds are you've noticed people — probably much younger than you — manically using Twitter, a tool that lets you post brief updates about your everyday thoughts and activities to the Web via browser, cell phone, or IM. The messages are limited to 140 characters, so they lean toward pithy, haiku-like utterances. When I dropped by the main Twitter page, people had posted notes like "Doing lunch and picking up father-in-law from senior center."

But the true value of Twitter — and the similarly mundane Dodgeball, a tool for reporting your real-time location to friends — is cumulative. The power is in the surprising effects that come from receiving thousands of pings from your posse.

When I see that my friend Misha is "waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop," that's not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

For example, when I meet Misha for lunch after not having seen her for a month, I already know the wireframe outline of her life: She was nervous about last week's big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and became addicted to salt bagels. With Dodgeball, I never actually race out to meet a friend when they report their nearby location; I just note it as something to talk about the next time we meet.

It's almost like ESP, which can be incredibly useful when applied to your work life. You know who's overloaded — better not bug Amanda today — and who's on a roll. A buddy list isn't just a vehicle to chat with friends but a way to sense their presence. Are they available to talk? Have they been away? This awareness is crucial when colleagues are spread around the office, the country, or the world. Twitter substitutes for the glances and conversations we had before we became a nation of satellite employees.
Privacy is so 20th century. The 21st century is about radical transparency.

via Wired


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Another Crazy Yahoo Photos Juxtaposition

#1 and 2 Most Viewed and Most Emailed Pictures of the Day at Yahoo really give you the thick and the thin of it:


And for the love of god people, quit looking at those damn pictures of the guys getting gored by bulls in Pamplona. Grosses me out each time I see them on the top picture lists.


Solar Power Wins Enthusiasts but Not Money

Interesting New York Times article (and video) on solar power.

But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the most ardent experts and investors say that moving this energy source from niche to mainstream — last year it provided less than 0.01 percent of the country’s electricity supply — is unlikely without significant technological breakthroughs. And given the current scale of research in private and government laboratories, that is not expected to happen anytime soon.

Even a quarter century from now, says the Energy Department official in charge of renewable energy, solar power might account for, at best, 2 or 3 percent of the grid electricity in the United States.
That number of 7 billion kWh in 2030 and accounting for just .1% of electricity in the graph seemed low to me. So I ran my own projections.

According to Solar Buzz, Solar Electric Energy demand has grown consistently by 20-25% per annum over the past 20 years. Worldwatch Institute shows growth of 30-35% over the last 5 years.

The following table shows how many billion kWh and the percentage of total US electricity generation (based on 6,000 billion kWh) at various years with various growth rates.

growth rate2030203520502100

The EIA's projection of 7 bil kWh of solar in 2030, assumes a growth of just 8.1% a year. But if you use a 20% growth rate estimate, you get to 95.4 bil kWh a year, over 13 times as much! 20$ is a more reasonable estimate in my opinion. But this would still only account for 1.59% of total electricity generation.

If you use a 30% growth rate projection, as has been the growth rate over the last 5 years, in 2030 you get to 705 billion kWh and 12% of total generation. I think this kind of growth is unlikely, but possible.

You can really see the power of exponential growth as you go out to 2035, 2050 and 2100. If these growth rates are maintained (and looking at Moore's law for semiconductors, it is possible to keep growth rates like this up for a long time), by the end of the century we can be 100% powered by the sun. Even by 2050, under growth rates of anything greater than 25% we can become completely solar.

People have a hard time with exponential growth and tend to overestimate the impact in the short run and underestimate in the long run. While I don't think solar will contribute a sizable portion of electricity generation (>5%) until at least 2030, I would be surprised if it isn't producing a majority of the electricity of 2050.

You can also see how much difference a 5% increase in growth rate makes when maintained over a long period of time. In 2035 a 25% growth rate gets you to 13% of total electricity generation, while a 30% rate gets you to 44%.
In the current fiscal year, the Energy Department plans to spend $159 million on solar research and development. It will spend nearly double, $303 million, on nuclear energy research and development, and nearly triple, $427 million, on coal, as well as $167 million on other fossil fuel research and development.

After more than two decades in which research on converting solar power to electricity largely lapsed, the Bush administration and lawmakers in Congress are now discussing more money for the field. Dr. Orbach said the Energy Department’s proposed research plan for 2008 to 2012 includes $1.1 billion for solar advances, more than the $896 million going toward fusion.
Looking at the graph of energy research (click for a larger version), it seems like more should be given to solar. But, I wonder what the relationship between R&D spending and growth rate is? Will an extra $500 million increase the growth rate from 20 to 25%? Since the research being done likely takes 10 or more years before it gets into production, it probably has a similar lag in impact as well. Research money today likely impacts the growth rate of 2020 more than 2010. But just how much it can improve it, and how you determine whether that is a good use of tax payer money, I am not sure.

And since solar powered research helps not just the US, but all nations of the world, shouldn't all nations help to support the R&D? Right now Germany and Japan are doing a lot, but why shouldn't other rich nations help to pay the tab? Or what about companies that are making the solar cells? How much of the research should they support themselves based on the sales of their products?

The key to maintaining the high growth rates in solar is for the price to continually come down. According to Richard Swanson, solar panel prices decrease by 19% for every cumulative doubling of production. Looking at past prices, PV decrease in price by approximately 7-10% a year, which means the price is cut in 1/2 every 7 to 10 years. Solar Buzz puts the cost at 30¢ a kWh currently (I think as of 2005), so by 2015 it goes to 15¢, by 2025 7.5¢ and by 2035 3.125¢. When the price becomes competitive with coal and other forms of generation, then demand will soar.

Lately, the price of PVs hasn't been falling much, as the graph shows, due to higher prices of silicon. This is likely to be resolved soon and prices will continue on their march down. How much faster would prices fall if there was additional R&D by the US government? Once again I really have no idea of how to quantify it.

While, I'm not sure what the right amount of research funding that the US government should provide, I am confident that solar is the long term solution.

Update: While not directly comparable to R&D spending, venture capital in solar grew by 50% in 2006 to $421 million.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Shifting eye therapy successfully treats post-traumatic stress disorder.

Concern over three-parent embryo.

Scientists have difficulty predicting sea level rising.

"Fat tax" could save 3,200 lives each year in UK

Google thinks about bidding for wireless spectrum.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Americans Once Tallest — But Not Anymore

From the days of the founding fathers right on through the industrial revolution and two world wars, Americans literally towered over other nations. Americans reached a height plateau after World War II, gradually falling behind the rest of the world as it continued growing taller. By the time the baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s, most northern and western European countries had caught up with and surpassed the United States.

Young adults in Japan and other prosperous Asian countries now stand nearly as tall as Americans do. In Holland, the tallest country in the world, the typical man now measures 6 feet, a good two inches more than his average American counterpart.

Many economists would argue that it does matter, because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population's well-being. Tall people are healthier, wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent.

It's not that being tall actually makes you smarter, richer or healthier. It's that the same things that make you tall — a nutritious diet, good prenatal care and a healthy childhood — also benefit you in those other ways.

That makes height a good indicator for economists who are interested in measuring how well a nation provides for its citizens during their prime growing years. With one simple, easily collected statistic, economists can essentially measure how well a society prepares its children for life.
Interesting. Not a good sign that the average height in the US is going down.

via Desert News



This summer the pair will begin selling a simplified Linux-based PC for $99 and a $12.95 monthly subscription charge. They say that the deal is better than it looks because the 15-watt PC can save up to $10 a month in electricity compared with a standard 200-watt PC.

Their company is Zonbu, and the Zonbu computer will be sold through its Web site, The founders said that the PC had received the highest certification possible from the Green Electronics Council, a nonprofit group that has created a product classification standard known as Epeat (for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool). Zonbu said that it would be the first desktop computer for consumers to receive the gold rating.

The computer is the size of a cigar box and uses a low-power Intel-compatible microprocessor from VIA Technologies of Taiwan. It comes with four gigabytes of flash memory instead of a disk drive, a spinning mechanical part that uses much of a PC’s power. It also lacks a fan, another big energy user.

The Zonbu PC also uses a Gentoo version of the Linux operating system and will come with a range of software applications like the Mozilla Firefox browser, Skype voice-over-Internet service, OpenOffice software suite and many games. An additional 25 gigabytes of free online storage is available, with more offered for purchase.
I find this product intriguing for 3 reasons.

First, the hardware is unique. It is tiny, and comes without either a hard drive or a DVD player. Interesting idea to just use flash memory making the device smaller and more resilient (all hard drives fail eventually, it is just a matter of when). I love the fact that it has no fan and runs completely silently. Similar non-Zonbu hardware is available for $189. Not sure that 4 GB is enough space, but if you can store your files online it just might work.

Second, marketing the computer as green is novel. With the unique hardware, it ends up using very little power, so why not market it as such? Of course it doesn't come with a monitor, and that is likely to use more electricity than the computer.

Third, subscription based setup is interesting. They are going with a cellphone model of subsidizing the hardware and then making their money on the monthly subscription fees. I think paying a monthly fee for customer support, online storage and upgrades on software makes sense. I think it would make more sense to bundle it with an internet connection. Not sure how successful this will be in the market though. People PC had a similar subscription model (with internet access) that I don't think did so well.

I am tempted to buy one of these, but the Linux OS and lack of a DVD player are major drawbacks. From a green and economic standpoint it might be better to buy a used laptop that has a DVD player and an LCD monitor built in, has Windows installed and yet would still take little electricity to run.

via NY Times (Engadget has a couple of posts with some interesting comments as well)


Plastic Solar Cells

From Chosun and The Hindu:

"Together with Prof. Alan Heeger at the University of California Santa Barbara, we have developed a plastic solar cell with 6.5 percent efficiency. That level of efficiency is sufficiently high for commercial products."

Existing solar cells that use silicon semiconductors cost $2.30 to generate one watt of electricity, which is three to 10 times higher than the production cost of thermal or hydro power. The new plastic solar cell costs just ten cents per watt.

This was possible because South Korean scientists have perfected the use of titanium oxide to make tandem layered solar cells, Lee claimed adding the upper layer absorbs luminous light, while the lower part makes use of the infrared rays.

"We're going to improve the efficiency up to 15 percent, and we're in talks to join hands with domestic electronics companies to market the solar cell by 2012," he said.
$.10 a watt is great and I would think making them out of plastic would lead to greater durability.

Greater efficiency would be better, but what's up with the 2012 release date for a commercial product? Lets get these babies out there now!

Not to be outdone, researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) have developed an inexpensive solar cell that can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets.

via Engadget


Polyphasic Sleep

Wish you had an extra 5 hours a day to get things done?

What if you could sleep just 2 hours a day and have the same level of energy and alertness as sleeping 8 hours a night?

It is possible with polyphasic sleep.

Steve Pavlina explains:

Polyphasic sleep involves taking multiple short sleep periods throughout the day instead of getting all your sleep in one long chunk. A popular form of polyphasic sleep, the Uberman sleep schedule, suggests that you sleep 20-30 minutes six times per day, with equally spaced naps every 4 hours around the clock. This means you’re only sleeping 2-3 hours per day. I’d previously heard of polyphasic sleep, but until now I hadn’t come across practical schedules that people seem to be reporting interesting results with.

A normal sleep cycle is 90 minutes, and REM sleep occurs late in this cycle. REM is the most important phase of sleep, the one in which you experience dreams, and when deprived of REM for too long, you suffer serious negative consequences. Polyphasic sleep conditions your body to learn to enter REM sleep immediately when you begin sleeping instead of much later in the sleep cycle. So during the first week you experience sleep deprivation as your body learns to adapt to shorter sleep cycles, but after the adaptation you’ll feel fine, maybe even better than before.
He blogs about his experiment with it. Really interesting reading with good recaps of his experience on Day 60 and 90. He also explains why he eventually returned to monophasic sleeping.

I am intrigued, but it is quite a commitment to make the change.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gasoline Usage

The US uses more gasoline than the next 20 countries combined.

via The Economist


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bracelet Tracks Alcohol Consumption

Lohan is now donning an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet along with her usual designer duds, her publicist Leslie Sloane Zelnick told ABC News.

The bracelet, which will track and record even the slightest trace of alcohol Lohan consumes, is being worn voluntarily by the star in an effort to prove she's serious about staying sober.
Wow, an alcohol sensing bracelet, cool. I wonder how it works?
The 8-ounce bracelet tracks the user's alcohol level through a process called "transdermal alcohol testing," which essentially takes samples from the hard-to-see layer of sweat that is on everyone's skin.

For a home installation fee of just $60, the device records the level of alcohol either every 30 minutes or every hour, depending on the offender's probation guidelines, explained Brown.

The offender must be within 30 feet of a wireless modem once a day, allowing the collected data to be transmitted onto a secure Web site where probation officers can be alerted of any alcohol consumption.

Tampering with the device is nearly impossible, thanks to an infrared laser beam that measures the distance between the person's leg and the bracelet. If an offender tries to slip something in between the bracelet and their skin, the distance the beam travels changes and a tampering alarm is recorded and reported to authorities.
More info here. Neat idea, but a little bit large. Make it a little smaller and I think they have something here.

via ABC


Creepy Dog Robot Planned for the US Military

It's been a long time coming, but the BigDog, a robotic pack mule, has just won $10 million in Pentagon funding. The robot, covered way back in 2004 by Danger Room's Noah Shachtman, is designed to carry equipment for soldiers. The petrol-engined quadruped will supposedly run and jump with its load, negotiating obstacles up to a meter (3.3 feet) high and two meters wide. As you can see from the video, the BigDog is pretty noisy, but worse than that, the naturalistic movement really creeps me out. It's like an AT-AT crossed with a rickshaw.
Normally I am a big fan of DARPA, but when the rest of the world is wondering what type of empire the US is becoming, is it really wise to be building the forerunner of an AT-AT?

via Wired


Interesting Articles of the Week

Anti-smoking drug might also curb drinking and gambling addictions.

Robot arm gives stroke patients a hand.

Evolution and the superorganism.

Found: the giant lion-eating chimps of the magic forest.

British forces accused of releasing a plague of ferocious badgers into the Iraqi city of Basra.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bionic Limbs Enable Legless Man To Walk Again

Take Peng Shulin, a man from China who had the lower half of his body severed in a tragic accident -- for years he has been bedridden, but recently doctors have engineered an ingenious device that is allowing him to walk again. While there isn't a lot of information about the technology, it appears that Mr. Shulin's body is placed into an egg cup-like casing which is connected to two "bionic legs", and through the use of a downsized walking frame he is able to gain locomotion and move freely.
via Engadget


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Happiness and Energy Usage

Over at the Oil Drum, they look at the relationship between energy usage and happiness.

As can be seen, there is little correlation at all between subjective well being and energy use. (The actual r2 is 14%). Of note is the United States uses 39 times the primary energy as the Phillipines yet the percentage of the population that is `very happy' is about equal. While there is a low r2, this does not mean there is not a relationship.
Of course this is based on the World Values Survey data for happiness and looks at those that self report being "very happy". Take this for what it is worth, as the accuracy of happiness studies is still suspect (Mexico and Venezuela are the happiest places to be??).

What about something more objective?
Vaclav Smil, in his book "Energy at the Crossroads" did similar work on objective measures of wellbeing vs energy consumption. A pattern similar to the above `boomerang' curve is found on comparisons of female longevity, sufficient nutritional food, educational opportunities, freedom etc. The shape is also the same, but inverted, for infant mortality. In general, Smil concludes that a reasonable level of well being on objective measures is achievable between 50 and 70 GJ/per capita, with marginal increases up to 100 GJ per capita. As a comparison, North America is currently at 340 GJ per capita. Again, the large excess consumption is not improving objective wellness.
Sounds like a book I need to check out. 750 gallons of gasoline is approximately 100 GJ of energy.

From the article it appears that it is possible for the US to cut its energy use by 2/3 and still maintain its subjective and objective levels of well-being.


Interesting Articles of the Week

World's biggest solar farm planned in California, enough for 21,000 homes.

Using a robot to teach human social skills.

Lead and crime.

Scientists Build Bacteria-Killing Organisms From Scratch.

OECD to start releasing data via Swivel.


Women With Twin Brothers Have Fewer Children

Twin brothers can leave quite an impression. The mere presence of a boy in the same womb as his sister causes her to develop bigger teeth than she otherwise would. Girls with twin brothers perform better on spatial-ability tests. They have better ball skills than most females; squarer, more masculine jaws and are more likely to be short-sighted. Now it seems that sharing the womb also has a deleterious effect on the sexual reproduction of women with a twin brother.

They report that women with a twin brother were 15% less likely to get married than were women with a twin sister. Those with a male twin also had a 25% lower chance of giving birth even though they lived just as long as those with a female twin. When the researchers considered only married women, those with a twin brother on average had two fewer children during their lifetimes than did women with a twin sister.

As with the teeth and the jaw lines, the purported cause of atypical female biology is early exposure to testosterone. This hormone is made by a male fetus's developing testes from about seven weeks after conception and is thought to diffuse through the amniotic fluid, influencing his sister's growth. But the exact mechanism by which a twin brother lowers his sister's chances of reproductive success is unclear.

Lesbianism is one possibility. (To what extent is impossible to tell, because the Lutheran ministers charged with collecting exhaustive demographic details did not probe quite that far.) But physiology could also play a part. Some cancers of the reproductive system, and a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, which reduces fertility, are more common in women with relatively high early exposure to male hormones.
Prenatal levels of testosterone strike again. No word on how these women play the ultimatum game when they grow up.

via The Economist


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Move To Cut Methane Emissions By Changing Cows' Diet

Time for another installment on my ongoing cow fart tycoon series.

Mike Abberton, a scientist at the institute, said farmers could help tackle climate change by growing grass varieties bred to have high sugar levels, white clover and birdsfoot trefoil, a leafy legume, for their animals to eat. The altered diet changes the way that bacteria in the stomachs of the animals break down plant material into waste gas, he said. The institute has started a new government research programme, with the universities of Wales and Reading, to investigate how this process could be improved. A similar project in New Zealand suggested that dietary changes could reduce methane emissions from sheep by up to 50%.

A single cow can produce between 100 and 200 litres of methane every day. Farmers regularly re-sow their fields so Dr Abberton said the switch in diet could be relatively straightforward.
Time to put those ruminants on a high sugar diet.

In America we all know that changing diet is for suckers. Is there a pharmacological solution?
Scientists at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, announced this year that they had developed a pill to reduce methane emissions from cattle. The plant-based pill, combined with a special diet and strict feeding times, is meant to reduce the methane produced by cows by converting it to glucose.
Cow Beano, sweet!
In a separate project, Giles Oldroyd, a plant scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, is working on ways to genetically modify other plants such as wheat so they can mimic this nitrogen-fixing ability, an advance he called the holy grail of crop research because it would dramatically cut the use of synthetic fertilisers.
Wow, if they pull that off it would really be something.

via Guardian


Is US Military Spending Excessive?

Depends on how you look at it.

Based on the chart above it seems to be. The US has just 5% of the world's population but accounts for 45% of global spending on defense.

And then you look at the chart to the left and notice that from a historical point of view, military spending as a percentage of GDP is not that high at all. It is lower now than it was at any time since WWI except during the 20s, 30s and the late 90s.

via The Economist


Monday, July 09, 2007

Can You Guess What This Guy's Deal Is?

Gotta admit, I didn't see where this one was going until the end. Then I had that same "ah-ha" moment I had at the end of the Sixth Sense when it all comes together and makes perfect sense.

via YouTube via Digg


Sodium-Sulfur Batteries

A new type of a room-size battery, however, may be poised to store energy for the nation's vast electric grid almost as easily as a reservoir stockpiles water, transforming the way power is delivered to homes and businesses. Compared with other utility-scale batteries plagued by limited life spans or unwieldy bulk, the sodium-sulfur battery is compact, long-lasting and efficient.

Using so-called NaS batteries, utilities could defer for years, and possibly even avoid, construction of new transmission lines, substations and power plants, says analyst Stow Walker of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. They make wind power — wildly popular but frustratingly intermittent — a more reliable resource.

American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest U.S. utilities, has been using a 1.2 megawatt NaS battery in Charleston, W.Va., the past year and plans to install one twice the size elsewhere in the state next year. Dozens of utilities are considering the battery, says Dan Mears, a consultant for NGK Insulators, the Japanese company that makes the devices.
I think batteries are going to be crucial to transition to renewable energy as solar and wind power are both intermittent. Hopefully these NaS batteries will help make it happen.

The key question of course is price. How does this battery look?
The biggest drawback is price. The battery costs about $2,500 per kilowatt, about 10% more than a new coal-fired plant. That discourages independent wind farm developers from embracing the battery on fears it will drive the wholesale electricity prices they charge utilities above competing rates, says Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.
Ok, this paragraph makes absolutely no sense to me.

First, shouldn't batteries be priced in kWh not kW? Reporters always screw that up.

Second, why is it being compared to a coal-fired plant? The battery will be discharging its energy at peak energy times which is provided by natural gas plants, not coal which is typically baseload. And is this comparison looking at the cost of fuel, or just of making the plant?

Third, why would using batteries make wind energy more expensive? Unless currently wind power does not get discounted for the fact it is an intermittent source of energy.

What about other solutions to the energy storage problem?
Meanwhile, other storage devices are gaining traction, too. A group of Iowa municipal utilities plans to use wind turbines to compress air during off-peak hours that will be stored in an underground cavern. The air would be released at peak periods to run turbines and generate power for about 200,000 homes. Another technology, the flywheel, has a massive cylinder that can spin for days after being started by a generator. The cylinder can then activate a turbine to supply electricity for a few seconds or minutes when it's needed, for instance, to head off an interruption to a computer center from a lightning strike.
I wish they would have done a cost comparison between the NaS batteries and these other forms of storage.

But, if this technology is as promising as the article makes it out to be, it is one to keep your eyes on.

via USA Today via Instapundit


Carbon Hero Personal Carbon Calculator

Andreas Zachariah, a student graduating with an MA in Industrial Design Engineering and the first accepted to study at the Royal College of Art (RCA) with an MBA, is one of this year’s winners of BSI’s Sustainability Design Awards 2007 for his “Carbon Hero™” personal carbon calculator.

Carbon Hero™ calculates the exact carbon footprint of the user’s transport habits by identifying different forms of transport taken as a user travels through ‘space’, by virtue of their relative location, velocity and the pattern of their activity. All of this comes in a unit the size of a key ring.

Once gathered, the data is downloaded to software on a PC or mobile phone which displays the amount of carbon used and the amount of credits needed to be purchased in order to offset the amount used.
That is a slick idea. I like the idea of having a gadget that automatically determines how much CO2 you are emitting without requiring any input by the user. Seems like if you have a cellphone with GPS you could get this to work with just software and not even need the additional device.

Determining mode of transportation and emissions based on how quickly you are traveling is a very clever idea. Distinguishing trains, airplanes and cars seems fairly straightforward, but I wonder if it can determine if you are riding on a bus or taking a car? Possibly by the number of stops that the vehicle makes. But then what if you are stuck in stop and go traffic or hit traffic lights? And if you are carpooling I don't see how it could figure that out at all.

Cool none the less.

via BSI via Gizmodo


Wireless Gadget Recharging

This is pretty cool. WildCharger allows you to wirelessly recharge your portable devices (currently just the RAZR phone and iPod Nano) just by putting them on the pad. You need a WildCharger adapter to plug into your device, but then you can just place it on the pad and it will recharge sans wires.

I really like the idea of just placing all of your devices (and maybe a Sonicare toothbrush to boot) on a pad and not having to worry about a separate charger for each one. Having to have an adapter makes the solution less than ideal, but hopefully manufacturers will build them directly into their devices. Then it will really rock.

via Gizmodo


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Interesting Articles of the Week

Mini-robot swims through bloodstream.

Not Just for Retailers, RFID Helps Track Rainforest Wildlife

Hilarious: Actual Airline Complaint.

Corporations add Chief Sustainability Officers.

Brammo Launches First Production Battery-Electric Motorcycle


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Testosterone and Neuroeconomics

Dr Burnham's research budget ran to a bunch of $40 games. When there are many rounds in the ultimatum game, players learn to split the money more or less equally. But Dr Burnham was interested in a game of only one round. In this game, which the players knew in advance was final and could thus not affect future outcomes, proposers could choose only between offering the other player $25 (ie, more than half the total) or $5. Responders could accept or reject the offer as usual. Those results recorded, Dr Burnham took saliva samples from all the students and compared the testosterone levels assessed from those samples with decisions made in the one-round game.

As he describes in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the responders who rejected a low final offer had an average testosterone level more than 50% higher than the average of those who accepted. Five of the seven men with the highest testosterone levels in the study rejected a $5 ultimate offer but only one of the 19 others made the same decision.
So while Homo economicus takes the $5 offer, Homo hightestoronius rejects it outright.

Why would people with higher levels of testosterone behave differently?
What Dr Burnham's result supports is a much deeper rejection of the tenets of classical economics than one based on a slight mis-evolution of negotiating skills. It backs the idea that what people really strive for is relative rather than absolute prosperity. They would rather accept less themselves than see a rival get ahead. That is likely to be particularly true in individuals with high testosterone levels, since that hormone is correlated with social dominance in many species.

Economists often refer to this sort of behaviour as irrational. In fact, it is not. It is simply, as it were, differently rational. The things that money can buy are merely means to an end—social status—that brings desirable reproductive opportunities. If another route brings that status more directly, money is irrelevant.
Gotta love the term "differently rational". I have definitely run across quite a few "differently rational" people in my day.

via The Economist


Wasp Catches Spider Mid-Flight

via flickr via Digg


Thoughts On The iPhone

When the iPhone was announced I boldly predicted that the hype was unwarranted. Who exactly was going to pay $600 for a phone? And while I admit now that the iPhone has sold 1/2 million or more units, that I was completely wrong, I still don't get who is buying this.

The iPhone is not great for those who send lots of emails, there is no support for instant messaging, and you can't install your own applications on it (well unless it is a web page). So, the hard core corporate blackberry users that have the fat business expense accounts aren't making the switch. Are the teenagers and college kids into this? I would think that it would be out of their price range and that junior high and high schools might not allow them on campus, but maybe I am wrong on that. And don't they want a cellphone with custom ring tones and games? Maybe it is just all the Apple fanboys out there, but are there really that many of them? It is still not clear to me who these people are that are throwing down $600 for an iPod/phone.

I love how how everyone was camped out for hours and some for days in order to make sure they got one, and yet those that didn't wait in line at all and came 30 minutes after the store opened were still able to get a phone. Suckers!

I also love how this woman got pwned trying to buy $100,000 in iPhones to resell on eBay. Though in hind sight she might have came out ahead, as there was not much money to be made selling iPhones on eBay.

While the iPhone 1.0 is a game changer, it is still pretty rough, and the 2.0 version has lots of room for improvement. On the hardware side things are pretty good, but adding GPS and 3G support will make it much better. On the software side, there are lots of improvements needed, many of which seem fairly easy to fix: custom ringtones, instant messaging, improved email functionality, Flash and Java for the browser, copy and paste, a horizontal keyboard for text messaging, games, a voice recorder, and video recording. It seems possible for all these features to be ready for a 2.0 version next year.

I am now on the lookout to see how long it takes the following to occur:
1) The first iPhone mugging. You think it is safe to walk down the street while talking on one of these things?
2) Someone hacks the iPhone and puts Linux on it. But, maybe since the core of the iPhone is a Unix derivative, and there must be tons of special code to handle the multi-touch screen that this won't happen. But, they already have hacked it for shell access, so who knows?
3) Someone hacks the iPhone and puts Doom on it. Not sure how that would work with the multi-touch screen, but I bet it is only a matter of time until I find out.

Update: As of 8/11/07, the iPod can now play Doom.


Friday, July 06, 2007

Do Women Speak More Than Men?

Apparently not. While there are rumors floating around the internets that women speak 20,000 words per day, while men speak just 7,000, according to a new study, they are false.

A new study published today in Science reports men and woman actually use roughly the same number of words daily.

Researchers used this device to collect data on the chatter patterns of 396 university students (210 women and 186 men) at colleges in Texas, Arizona and Mexico. They estimated the total number of words that each volunteer spoke daily, assuming they were awake 17 of 24 hours. In most of the samples, the average number of words spoken by men and women were about the same. Men showed a slightly wider variability in words uttered, and boasted both the most economical speaker (roughly 500 words daily) and the most verbose yapping at a whopping 47,000 words a day. But in the end, the sexes came out just about even in the daily averages: women at 16,215 words and men at 15,669. In terms of statistical significance, Pennebaker says, "It's not even remotely close to different." He does point out that women tend to jaw more about other people, whereas men are apt to hold forth on more concrete objects—so the stereotypes of ladies as gossips and guys engaging in car talk can live on.

I am curious what the impact of email and text messaging (and hey can't forget about blogs) is. Do those words count? I would doubt they were included, but I wonder how much communication is switching to the written form.

And I guess this means that this joke from my Dad doesn't hold true anymore either.
Q: Why do men pass gas more than women?
A: Because women can't keep their mouths shut long enough to build up pressure.
via SciAm


The Fourth Sector

Altrushare Securities is a brokerage firm, engaged in the sort of things you might expect of a Wall Street outfit, like buying and selling stock, and providing research on companies. Unlike its peers, however, the firm is majority-owned by two charities that each control about one-third of it.

So is it a for-profit business? Or a nonprofit fund-raising machine?

In fact, like hundreds of new businesses starting up around the country, it is both. Altrushare is an example of the emerging convergence of for-profit money-making and nonprofit mission.

The result is a small but budding practice — what some label the fourth sector — composed of organizations driven by both social purpose and financial promise that fall somewhere between traditional companies and charities. The term “fourth sector” derives from the fact that participants are creating hybrid organizations distinct from those operating in the government, business and nonprofit sectors.
I like this concept of the fourth sector. Instead of having companies that are just thinking about profit and pushing environmental and social costs on to government and NPOs, it would be cheaper for society to have the businesses just deal with the problems directly.

Fourth sector businesses are also more sustainable than similar non-profits as they have revenue coming in to pay for their expenses and don't have to be worried about obtaining donations to continue their work.

Who invests in fourth sector companies?
Most common program-related investments, or P.R.I.’s, are low-interest loans that foundations provide to nonprofits. The Ford Foundation, which helped pioneer the concept in the late 1960s, has some $170 million in assets sunk into program-related investments in 99 nonprofit groups, including the loan fund.

Investors and others are pushing to expand the use of such loans, perhaps through changes to the tax code that would make them available to businesses as well as nonprofits.
Instead of investors trying to maximizing their rate of return and then donating that money to NPOs, they can get more bang for their buck by investing in 4th sector companies as it is cheaper to fix the root cause of the problem than to deal with it later.

What is holding the 4th sector back?
Still, whatever participants call it, the fourth sector faces challenges. Current legal and tax structures draw strict lines between for-profits and nonprofits, and fiduciary obligations prevent asset managers from making investments with any aim other than maximizing profit. The social benefits that fourth-sector firms seek to unlock are not easily quantified and often take decades, not quarters, to attain.

“What we are constantly coming up against is our tax laws and our culture,” Ms. Berry said. “The whole fabric of society wants us to make money on one side and do good with it on the other. What we’re saying is: What if we did both things at once?”

She and others argue that current laws, tax structures and definitions of fiduciary responsibility encourage companies to shift costs onto society. “We have created cheap food by investing in huge agricultural conglomerates — but is it really cheap?” she asks. “No. Look at the pesticides those businesses use and then look at the cleanup costs to society. Look at the health costs.”

Ms. Berry, Mr. Murphy and others like them want tax breaks to offer incentives that compensate businesses for absorbing the social costs of their activities.
If a 4th sector company is able to employ someone that otherwise would be on welfare, it would cost less to taxpayers to subsidize this job than to pay for welfare. Seems like it would make sense to offer the company a tax break or a subsidy to allow them to hire more people are reduce the welfare roll even more.

On the other hand, for those whose motivations are not quite as pristine, such tax breaks seems like an easy way to defraud the government, as it will be hard to determine who would otherwise be on welfare.

Overall, the trend towards more 4th sector companies and is a good thing and I hope to see it continue.

via NY Times