Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Exmocare Wristwatch

The U.S. Company Exmocare has developed a novel wristwatch, which is capable of monitoring many physiological signals. The watch can send a report regarding the wearer's emotional and physiological state to a loved one or caretaker, via email, SMS, or instant messaging. The Exmocare wristwatch could prove to be an important tool in the field of remote care for the elderly and according to Exmocare should be available stating early 2008.

The new Exmocare wristwatch monitors the wearer's heart rate and heart rate variability, in addition to the wearer's galvanic skin response and relative movement. Using a technique called photoplethysmography, the wristwatch measures blood volume pulse (BVP) via infrared LEDs, sending an infrared beam towards the skin's surface. The watch calculates the BVP by measuring the infrared light reflected from the wearer's skin. This technique allows the Exmocare watch to monitor one's heart rate from the bottom of the watch.

The Exmocare wristwatch uses these physical signals in order to analyze the wearer's emotional state. Any emotional state leads to a specific, detectable change in our body. The wearer's emotional state is inferred based on general knowledge about the physiological expression of emotions, as well as on the specific context of an individual's physiology.

According to information supplied to TFOT by representative form Exmocare, the new watch will include a host of cutting edge technologies in one small device, including: onboard DSP,local storage of physiological information, connectivity over GSM for remote monitoring, point-to-point wireless ZigBee communication, remote location tracking and an OLED user interface.
Sounds cool. I wonder how much it will cost?

via The Future of Things


CO2 Stats

Interesting little widget from CO2 stats that tracks how much CO2 is being emitted by your blog or website and then offsets it for free.

I am always interested in figuring out the CO2 impact of any activity I undertake, and if this is accurate it will be nice to know the impact of web browsing. But, their website doesn't really explain how they actually calculate the value, so I have no clue as to how accurate the value is. Looks like every time I do a refresh the value goes up by about .0001 lbs of CO2, but sometimes the value is .000109, sometimes .000099 and sometimes .000149. I emailed them to see how they figure the number, but haven't heard back yet.

Their business model seems to be to get advertisers to pay for the offseting of the CO2. Considering how little the co2 impact of a hit is, it should be fairly cheap to offset. Assuming 1/10,000 of a lb per click, that gets you to 20 mil clicks per ton of CO2. If the offsetting costs $10 a ton, then you can get 2 mil clicks per dollar. I will be curious to see how this all works out for them.

via Env Econ

Update: Got an email back from them.

The widget calculates the total emissions of a web site or blog by summing the emissions created by a web site's users' computers as they interact with servers. We first calculated the global average rate of carbon emissions due the to electricity consumption of a 300-W PC/server combination (17mg of CO2/sec). We then calculate for each member site or blog the summed emissions of all the visiting clients to that website, taking into account the amount of time they spend on the website.
They are valuing it based on time spent on the blog rather than the number of pages served up. They are also taking into account the computer you are using as well as the web server.


Interesting Articles of the Week

Top 10 bizarre experiments.

Meet the supermouse bred by genetic scientists that can't get cancer.

Scientists say just standing up may be as important as exercise to lose weight. Good news for the producers of this device.

Verizon to open its wireless network.

No longer all about the Benjamins: Rapper Jay-Z flaunts 500-euro notes in his new music video.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Stress Fewer Boys

A boy or a girl? That is usually the first question asked when a woman gives birth. Remarkably, the answer varies with where the mother lives. In rich countries the chances of its being a boy are about 5% higher than in poor ones. Equally remarkably, that figure has been falling recently. Several theories have been put forward to explain these observations. Some argue that smoking plays a role, others that diet may be important. Neither of these ideas has been supported by evidence from large studies. But new research points to a different factor: stress.

Dr Obel found that the more stressed a mother had been, the less chance she had of having given birth to a boy. Only 47% of children born to women in the top quartile of stress were males. That compared with 52% for women in the bottom quartile. Dr Obel suspects the immediate cause is that male pregnancies are more likely to miscarry in response to stress than female pregnancies are, especially during the first three months. However, that is difficult to prove.
That is amazing to me that stress can reduce the percentage of boys born by 5%.

Ladies, please, easy on the stress. The future of the male sex depends on it.

via The Economist


Friday, November 16, 2007

Frito-Lay’s Net-Zero Potato Chip Plant

The net zero concept, however, is the company’s most ambitious environmental venture to date. Reaching its goal of taking it almost completely off the power grid will not be easy.

Over the next several years, Frito-Lay plans to install high-tech filters that would recycle most of the water used to rinse and wash potatoes, as well as the corn used to make Doritos and other snacks, and then burn the leftover sludge to create methane gas to run the plant’s boiler.

The company will also build at least 50 acres of solar concentrators behind the plant to generate solar power. A biomass generator, which will probably burn agricultural waste, is also planned to provide additional renewable fuel.

The retrofit of the Casa Grande factory, scheduled to be completed by 2010, would reduce electricity and water consumption by 90 percent and its natural gas use by 80 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 50 percent to 75 percent, the company said.

Frito-Lay hopes the project will help the company save money on energy costs, particularly as oil prices approach $100 a barrel. What works in Casa Grande, one of 37 plants it operates in the United States and Canada, would then be replicated at other sites where possible.
Sounds good. I wonder what the carbon footprint of their bag of potato chips will be?

via NY Times


Going Green to Attract Talent

Companies are finding that in order to attract the best talent, they need to go green.

"Students are looking to work for companies that care about the environment," says Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting From College to Career." "They are almost expecting greenness like they expect work-life balance, ethnic diversity and globalization."

A recent poll on green employment by, a job Web site geared toward students and entry-level hires, found that 80% of young professionals are interested in securing a job that has a positive impact on the environment, and 92% would be more inclined to work for a company that is environmentally friendly.

Last month, to meet the demand of students to work for green companies, MonsterTRAK, in alliance with ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental group, started GreenCareers. The site lists positions in companies that reduce their impact on the environment, making it easier for students to connect with businesses that support their environmental goals.

To attract job hunters, corporations are touting their environmental efforts in recruiting materials and on campuses. Merrill Lynch & Co. outlines its environmental efforts on the back of every brochure for its campus recruiting. Sarah Quarterman, who heads Merrill's campus recruiting, says some students ask about the firm's environmental policies, whereas 10 years ago greenness never came up.
Because getting the best talent impacts the bottom line, green initiatives can now be justified by companies that are focused solely on maximizing profits. Potential employees now have a large influence on shaping companies by taking their environmental policy into account when selecting a job.

via Wall Street Journal


How Green is My Purchase?

Just as food products are labeled with calorie and nutritional information, consumer products are beginning to bear details about their environmental impact, like the amount of greenhouse gases produced in making, transporting and selling them.

One is Timberland, which since last autumn has included a "nutrition label" with its footwear, detailing the energy used in making the shoes, the portion that is renewable, and the factory's labor record.
I am a big fan of adding these enviornmental labels to products to help customers see the impact of the products they purchase.

These labels are important because the environmental impact of products is not always obvious.
"We found that our supply chain goes farther than we imagined," Swartz said. "You have to go back to the cow" that supplied the leather.

Timberland was surprised to find that more than half of the energy used (and greenhouse gases generated) in making a pair of shoes comes from processing and producing the raw materials. The next-biggest energy drain is the retail environment (think of all those brightly lighted malls), followed by factory operations and, finally, transportation — almost a complete inversion of what Timberland had assumed.

"The vast majority of our carbon footprint comes before we even make the shoe," Swartz said.
Too often environmentalists come up with suggestions on how to change your behavior based on what intuitively sounds good (such as recycling or on buying local), rather than actually running a life cycle analysis to figure out where the largest impacts occur. Transportation of goods is often the target whereas this analysis shows that producing the product and the retail environment take up more energy.

While these labels are valuable to environmentally conscious customers in determining what to buy (or not to buy), these numbers are even more valuable to the managers of Timberland. When they see which steps have the largest environmental impact, they can focus on making improvements there.

Why aren't more companies creating these kinds of labels?
Timberland, like many companies, has hundreds of factory partners around the world, which use material from thousands of suppliers. It takes a large investment to collect such far-flung information.

Once companies understand what goes on in their supply chains, there are hundreds of calculations to be made. How much energy is used to transport a pair of shoes? That depends. Do you assume that the trucks are two-thirds or completely full? What kind of fuel do they use? And what about employee- commute miles? Should they be included, too?
It is expensive to calculate such numbers. It also takes lots of times to figure out how to handle all of those questions. That is why I believe you should support the companies that are making the effort by purchasing their products. Once a few companies have answered the questions and have collected the data throughout their supply chain, it will be much easier and less expensive for others to follow.

What information should be put on the label?
Timberland first relied on metrics from its global footwear production, so every pair of shoes displayed similar statistics: 3.1 kilowatt hours of energy to produce, 5 percent renewable energy used and no child labor.In

February, the company, which is based in Stratham, New Hampshire, introduced the next evolution of its labels, called green index tags, which move closer toward measuring precisely the effect of each pair of shoes. Instead of raw data, the tags use a scale of 0 to 10, with the bottom denoting the smallest impact (or best choice) on an expanded range of issues.

Climate effect is measured from raw materials through production of finished product. A 0 rating means that less than 4.9 kilograms of carbon equivalents were generated, while a 10 signifies 100 kilograms or more. (One hundred kilograms, or 220 pounds, is roughly the equivalent of burning 11 gallons of gasoline.)
This is tricky, as too much data can swamp the customer, too little and it might not be of any use. I am in favor of something simple at the top of the label, like the 0-10 rating they are using, so that a customer can easily see its overall impact, but then below it have more details for those that are really interested.
The information is not very useful, however, unless customers have something to compare it with. If a pair of Timberlands rates a 2 on climate impact, that is great. But how does it compare with your Nikes?

Timberland said it hoped to broaden its green index into an industry initiative. Swartz said that if he could sign up 10 or 12 companies, others might feel pressure to follow suit.
Ideally you want to be able to compare between companies which would require some kind of standards on how the numbers are calculated or independent verification from a 3rd party. Though, because there are so many assumptions used in calculating these values, at present it might be good to have many different types of analysis going on to get different opinions.

I applaud Timberland's effort and hope they are able to find another 10 companies to join in with them.

via International Herald Tribune via DailyGood


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Animals Getting High

According to Ronald K. Siegel, a pharmacologist who has studied intoxication in animals, it is common for animals deliberately to experiment with plant toxins; when an intoxicant is found, the animal will return to the source repeatedly, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Cattle will develop a taste for locoweed that can prove fatal; bighorn sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scraping a hallucinogenic lichen off ledge rock. Siegel suggests that some of these adventurous animals serves as our Virgils in the garden of psychoactive plants. Goats, who will try a little bit of anything, probably deserve credit for the discovery of coffee: Abyssinian herders in the tenth century observed that their animals would become particularly frisky after nibbling the shrub's bright red berries. Pigeons spacing out on cannabis seeds (a favorite food of many birds) may have tipped off the ancient Chinese (or Aryans or Scythians) to that plant's special properties. Peruvian legend has it that the puma discovered quinine: Indians observed that sick cats were often restored to health after eating the bark of the cinchona tree. Tukano Indians in the Amazon noticed that jaguars, not ordinarily herbivorous, would eat the bark of the yaje vine and hallucinate; the Indians who followed their lead say the yaje vine gives them "jaguar eyes".
Besides all the sex and violence, yet another reason not to allow your children to watch Animal Planet.

via Botany of Desire


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kleiner Perkins and CleanTech

Leading venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is getting serious about clean tech and is measuring its success by more than just rate of return.

Most venture capitalists are judged on return on investment alone. Asked how he'll judge the success of the green initiative, he reels off five measures: "the company we keep, the quality of the companies we help grow, the quality of the partners we add, returns on the investments we make, and by the CO2 that's taken out of the atmosphere."
I think this makes sense for, as I previously laid out, this kind of investment can be seen as an alternative to donating and is likely to have a greater positive impact. But I will be curious to see if their investors agree as:
Five years after Kleiner Perkins made its first green investment, the firm hasn't had one "exit" -- VC-speak for an IPO or a sale of a company that validates the investment thesis.
via Fortune via Earth2Tech


Interesting Articles of the Week

Re-engineering engineering schools.

How science is rewriting the book on genes.

Using fMRI machines to manage pain and detect lies.

EPA: greener data centers could save $4 billion a year.

Useful mutants, bred with radiation.

Genetic-engineering competitors create modular DNA dev kit.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Matthieu Ricard on Habits of Happiness

I never thought I would be taking advice on happiness from a Frenchman, but Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard proves me wrong with his interesting talk on training your mind to be happier.

I particularly liked this quote:
Mind training matters, it is not just a luxury, it is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something thats going to determine the quality of every instance of our life.

We are ready to spend 50 years on education. We love to do jogging, to do fitness, and all kind of things to remain beautiful, yet we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most: the way our mind functions which again is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.
via TED


Packaging Neutral

Wal-Mart has promised to become “packaging neutral” by 2025. That means that, through recycling, reusing or perhaps even composting, it will try to recover as much material as was used in the packaging that flows through its stores.

Wal-Mart introduced a “packaging scorecard” in February that lets vendors rate themselves on criteria like the ratio of package size to product and whether the package uses recycled material. The company may even pay more for products with better packaging, as long as it can recoup the money through recycling revenue or lowered disposal costs.

The world’s largest retailer, known for pressuring vendors to lower their prices, has begun pushing its 66,000 vendors to get rid of excess packaging.
Interesting. Why is this important?
“Packaging offers major opportunities for reducing energy use and greenhouse gases, and for saving the $4 billion worth of materials that now ends up in landfills,” said Matt Hale, director of the agency’s Office of Solid Waste.
What are some examples of how this could be done?
Procter & Gamble, for example, has introduced rigid tubes for Crest toothpaste that can be shipped and displayed on shelves without boxes.

And Coca-Cola plans to cut the plastics in its Dasani water bottles by 7 percent over the next five years, just by tweaking the shape of the bottle and the cap.
Sounds good to me. Seems like there is a lot of waste in packaging to begin with.

I hate all the cardboard boxes that I throw away recycle each week. Most of them are completely worthless. Why do frozen meals need a box around them? Just put the brand label on the air tight plastic container. Trader Joe's does this for their frozen rice bowls and it works great.

You might think that some items need the protection of a cardboard box, but if the most fragile item in the supermarket (corn chips) doesn't require a cardboard box to protect it, why does cereal or anything else? Get rid of the boxes. And while they are at it, there should be a law that all plastic bags must come with a Ziploc resealable top. Some shredded cheeses come packaged like that now, but it should be added to every product. This would be great for making sure that cereal doesn't go stale.

via NY Times


Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Bar Codes Can Talk With Your Cellphone

The most promising way to link cellphones with physical objects is a new generation of bar codes: square-shaped mosaics of black and white boxes that can hold much more information than traditional bar codes. The cameras on cellphones scan the codes, and then the codes are translated into videos, music or text on the phone screens.

The wireless companies have other options to help cellphones interact with the physical world. They could, for instance, adopt image recognition software, which would allow phones to recognize anything — a Coca-Cola can, for example — and deliver related messages. Or, text messaging, currently the most common way that advertisers interact with consumers on their phones, has many advertiser applications.

Even if the wireless companies adopt the bar codes, they will have several formats to choose from. The most widely used ones have names like Semacode, QR Code and Qode.

In Japan, the codes did not become mainstream until the largest cellphone companies started loading the code readers on all new phones a few years ago. Now, millions of people have the capability built into their phones, and businesses, in turn, are using them all over — on billboards, street signs, published materials and even food packaging.

In Japan, McDonald’s customers can already point their cellphones at the wrapping on their hamburgers and get nutrition information on their screens. Users there can also point their phones at magazine ads to receive insurance quotes, and board airplanes using their phones rather than paper tickets. And film promoters can send their movie trailers from billboards. Hospitals put them on prescriptions, allowing pharmacies to instantly scan the medical information rather than read it. Supermarkets stick them on meat and egg packaging to give expiration dates and even the names of the farmers who produced them.

Advertisers say they are interested in offering similar capabilities in the United States, but cellphones in the States do not come with the necessary software. For now, consumers have to download the technology themselves.

Executives at Verizon, AT&T and Sprint declined to say whether they were in discussions with the companies that make the code reading technology. Bar code companies said the carriers stood to benefit from the codes because they might encourage consumers to add Internet service plans to their accounts and spend more time on their phones.
This is a cool technology that once again shows how far behind the Japanese the US is when it comes to cellphones and broadband.

I particularly like the idea of using this to get the environmental and social backstory of products. Imagine going to your local grocery store and getting additional information about the food you are buying. Or getting a video of how it was made. Or finding the amount of carbon emissions producing the item made.

Hopefully this technology will make it to the US and become widely adapted soon.

via NY Times


The Businessman and the Fisherman

A young businessman was at the pier of a small coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Seeing several large yellowfin tuna inside the small boat, the businessman complimented the fisherman on the quality of the fish and asked how long it took to catch them. "Only a little while", the fisherman replied.

A little surprised, the young business man asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?" The content fisherman said, "This is enough to support my family's immediate needs. I don't need any more." "But what do you do with the rest of your time?" asked the confused young man. "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a walk with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my buddies; I have a full and busy life."

The lad scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The fisherman asked, "How long will this all take?" to which the young man replied, "15-20 years." "But what then?" The business man laughed and said "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions, sir? Then what?"

"Then you would retire, move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a walk with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your buddies."
via Thought of the Week


Researchers Hope Creatures From Black Lagoon Can Help Fight Cancer

Berkeley Pit Lake is about a mile long and half again as wide, rimmed by naked rock walls that gleam white under the sun of big-sky country. The water is oxblood red at the surface, stained by manganese and iron; deeper down, heavy copper compounds turn it the color of limeade. It will burn your eyes, stain your clothes, and desiccate your skin. If you drink it, it will corrode your gullet before it poisons you. A dozen years ago, 342 snow geese made the mistake of overnighting at the lake. They were dead the next morning.

This used to be a copper mine. For more than a century, workers pulled ore from the ground here. Then, in 1982, the Anaconda Mining Company shut down Berkeley Pit and turned off the pumps that kept out the groundwater. The 3,900-foot-deep hole began to fill up — 7.2 million gallons a day at first, flowing in from aquifers and from 10,000 miles of abandoned mine shafts, stopes, and tunnels beneath the city of Butte. The water is still rushing in today.

Berkeley Pit, it turns out, isn't entirely sterile. The Stierles have identified more than 100 types of microbes in the lake — bacteria, algae, and fungi that manage to survive in the unique, noxious ecosystem. Natural selection has had its way with many of them — some of these organisms apparently live nowhere else on Earth.

And they're more than merely unique — these creatures are also potentially miraculous. They have produced more than 50 different compounds that the Stierles have isolated and tested against enzymes present in diseased human tissue. An extract from a newly discovered species of Penicillium from the lake attacked ovarian cancer cells in lab tests. Another Berkeley Pit Penicillium shows promise in treating lung tumors. Whatever lets these bits of biology thrive in the noxious waters has a side effect: It makes medicine, too.
Here I thought we should be saving the rainforests to protect species that exist no where else and for the potential medical benefits that those species could provide. Now I find out that a toxic waste dump has created its own unique species that could create medicines to fight cancer. Oh the irony.

via Wired


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sleep and Learning

I had read before that sleep helps you learn before, but I never knew that each type of sleep helps a different type of learning.

Memory of learned facts, whether they are names, places, numbers or Farsi verbs, seems to benefit in part from deep sleep. Healthy sleepers usually fall into deep sleep about 20 minutes or so after head meets pillow. They might spend an hour or more in those lolling depths early in the night, and typically less time later on. When cramming on facts, in short, it may be wiser to crash early at night and arise early, than to burn the candle until 2 a.m., the research suggests.

REM sleep, the bulk of which comes later in the night, seems important for pattern recognition — for learning grammar, for example, or to bird-watch, or play chess.

Not that Stage 2 is an empty corridor between destinations. In series of experiments that he began in the early 1990s, Dr. Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Canada has found a strong association between the amount of Stage 2 sleep a person gets and the improvement in learning motor tasks. Mastering a guitar, a hockey stick or a keyboard are all motor tasks.

For instance, Dr. Smith said that people typically got most of their Stage 2 sleep in the second half of the night. “The implication of this is that if you are preparing for a performance, a music recital, say, or skating performance, it’s better to stay up late than get up really early,” he said in an interview. “These coaches that have athletes or other performers up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I think that’s just crazy.”
Interesting. For learning facts, early sleep is more important, but for pattern recognition and motor learning late sleep is.

via NY Times


Friday, November 09, 2007

24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot

via College Humor


Interesting Articles of the Week

Devices enforce silence of cellphones, illegally.

A glass of beer is far better at rehydrating the body after exercise than water.

Range Fuels has broken ground on the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

A map of the oil world.

Outsourcing pregnancy: poor Indian women renting wombs to foreigners.

Senate panel OKs carbon cap and trade.

Chopstick bra promises cleavage and conservation.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Australian Town to Run on Solar Power in 2 Years

A sun-drenched town in Australia's north hopes to use only solar power in two years after being chosen as the site for a solar thermal power station.

Remote Cloncurry, which boasts recording Australia's hottest day, would be able to generate electricity on rare cloudy days and at night from the station, which runs off heat stored in graphite blocks.

Solar thermal power differs from photovoltaic panels that make power directly. Instead, 8,000 mirrors will reflect sunlight onto graphite blocks. Water will be pumped through the blocks to generate steam which generates electricity via turbines.

Heat stored in the graphite produces steam well after the sun goes down, allowing electricity generators to keep running at night.
This is the first of many cities to be powered completely by solar.

I need to investigate solar thermal further, but I am intrigued by its ability to store energy in the form of heat allowing it to generate electricity into the night. I would guess that this is much cheaper than adding a battery system to a photovoltaic solar plant. The ability to store energy makes solar thermal electricity much more valuable than its intermittent cousins.
The Queensland state government said on Sunday it would build the A$7 million ($6.5 million), 10-megawatt power station as part of a push to make Cloncurry one of the first towns to rely on solar power alone.

The Queensland government said the station would deliver about 30 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough to power the entire town. It is expected to be running by early 2010.
I am tired of seeing solar and wind plants measured in megawatts, as this just tells you how much it can produce under optimal conditions. Because the sun isn't always shining and the wind isn't always blowing, this makes the number worthless for comparing to other types of power plants such as nuclear or coal. Also, the megawatt number does not take reflect that a plant in a very sunny area will produce more electricity a year than one with less sun.

The better statistic is kWh/year produced which I was glad to see this article included (and hopefully more articles will follow suit). This takes into account how often the sun shines and can be directly compared with coal and nuclear plants (well there is still the issue of intermittency, but that is another matter).

A 10-megawatt power plant that ran at full capacity 100% of the year would generate 87.6 million kWh a year. This plant produces 30 million kWh a year or 34% of that amount. I believe the comparable number for nuclear plants is about 90%.

If I am running the numbers correctly, the electricity from this plant is not much more expensive than coal. The plant produces 30 mil kWh of electricity a year. At 5¢/kWh that would be $1.5 million in revenue a year. If the expenses to run the plant took 1/2 that amount, that would leave $750,000 in profits for a rate of return of over 10% on the $6.5 million investment.

via Reuters


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Poll on Democrats and Republicans

While lots of the results from the poll are as I expected, a couple surprised me.

I didn't realize that 50% of Democrats wouldn't vote for an atheist and want creationism taught in school. So much for the idea that the Democrats are a bunch of godless sodomites.

I also didn't know that less than 50% of Republicans think abortion should be illegal. Why is it so hard for a pro-choice Republican to be nominated if that is the majority view?

The split on the environment was also more than I expected. Only 25% of Republicans think that the environment is a very important issue?

And I will never understand why terrorism is so important to the majority of Americans. While 3,000 Americans died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 45,000 Americans die each year in traffic accidents. Terrorism is only a big deal if you allow yourself to be terrorized by it. To those Americans who consider it important, I say to you that when you are afraid the terrorists win.

via The Economist


Google Notebook Adds Labels

When I reviewed Google Notebook a year and a half ago, I liked it a lot with one big exception: it didn't have labels/tags. Instead you had to put everything into individual notebooks. Finally, the labels feature has been added and now I highly recommend using Notebook for all of your note taking needs. I still have a few gripes (see below) that need fixing, but once they do that, this tool will completely rock.

Besides adding labels, they also integrated Google bookmarks into Notebook, which seem strange to me, but I don't use Google bookmarks. They are also adding offline access via Gears soon which will be a nice feature if you are using a laptop without Internet access.

More reporting on the new version of Google Notebook can be found at Google Operating System and Google Tutor.

And in the hopes that the Notebook team reads blogs, here are my suggestions for improvement:

Google Notebook Website

  • The "Tools" button should have the same options if you have selected a label (or if you have done a search) as if you have selected a notebook. In particular having a "Expand all notes"/"Collapse all notes" option would be very useful. The ability to have a print view and export to Google Docs would also be nice.

  • Adding labels to notes needs some help.
    • Sometimes labels are above the box and require an up arrow to select and sometimes below and require a down arrow. Make it consistent.
    • Highlight the first label so you can just hit enter to choose it rather than requiring you to first use the down arrow to select it.
    • The tab key should select the highlighted label (makes it consistent with Blogger).
    • You shouldn't be able to add the same label to a note twice (once selected, that label should no longer appear in the list of possible options).
    • After adding a label, don't automatically show the list of labels. Instead wait until a letter is typed. This way if you are done adding labels, you don't have to hit enter twice (once to get rid of the list and once to save) to finish.

  • On the left hand side of the screen, make the label box bigger if you have lots of labels and not many notebooks. Add the ability to sort labels alphabetically, by date or by number of posts.

  • Keyboard shortcuts would be very handy. In particular I would like to see them for:
    • To move from one note to the next (maybe a j/k setup like Google Reader)
    • Add/edit label
    • Add/edit comment

  • Add advanced search functionalities (this is Google for God's sake).
    • Ability to search the URLs of posts, the comments, just the titles, or just the body.
    • Ability to search inside a particular notebook or only posts that have a particular label.

  • Add the option of adding a label to multiple notes at once. Probably not a big deal, except right now when I am trying to add labels to all of my notes.

Firefox Extension
  • Make the size of the box bigger, or make the size adjustable. It is just too small to view the note once you add it. I know there is a pop-out box feature, but I don't want to use that.

  • When you switch from "add comment" to "add labels", the cursor does not stay in the box and you have to click in the box with your mouse. Because the comments box is selected by default when you add a new note, this happens every time with a new note.

  • To add a note, go back to the "clip this" rather than the star. The star is not intuitive, so you need to put the "What's this" next to it and together they take up more space than a "clip this" button.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Carnegie Mellon's Robocar Wins DARPA Challenge

After DARPA's successful contest two years ago to have cars drive themselves in the desert, they have raised the stakes by moving it to an urban environment.

A robot racing team from Carnegie Mellon University beat out a rival from Stanford University over the weekend to win DARPA's Urban Challenge, a 60-mile race involving self-guided vehicles that were judged on both time and how well they performed.

The Carnegie Mellon team, known as Tartan Racing, took home the US$2 million first prize, while the Stanford Racing Team grabbed a $1 million check for finishing second. Team Victor Tango, which was made up of faculty and students from Virginia Tech, received $500,000 for taking third place.

In all, 11 so-called autonomous vehicles raced at the abandoned George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., in the finals of the Urban Challenge, which pit the driverless cars against one another on a course that challenged the vehicles and their self-guidance systems to find their way through 60 miles of urban streets with multiple lanes, traffic circles and four-way stops.

The robot-powered cars had to accurately navigate the complicated course in less than six hours without human assistance while sharing the road with about 50 human-driven vehicles. No one was in the cars to turn the wheel, apply the brakes or figure out which way to go.
The winning car averaged 14 miles per hour, but I am curious how fast a human driven car could have driven it.

I believe that we will all have self driving cars some time in the not so distant future (definitely by 2050). DARPA's contests are a great way to make sure that this will happen as soon as possible.

Congress has mandated that one-third of military vehicles be unmanned by 2015. I don't know how feasible that is, but after this race I think it just could happen.

I am also curious as to what the adoption curve will be for self driving cars. Will it happen with passenger cars, where cruise control will just get better and better each year until the car can drive and park itself? Or maybe it will start with vehicles with a specialized job such as snow plows or moving coal and tar sands that will use this first. Since the military looks to be pushing this forward, I wonder which vehicles the are looking to make autonomous first? Whatever the path, I am excited that self-driving cars are starting to become a reality.

PC World


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Genetically Modified Supermouse

Scientists have been astounded by the creation of a genetically modified "supermouse" with extraordinary physical abilities – comparable to the performance of the very best athletes – raising the prospect that the discovery may one day be used to transform people's capacities.

Professor Hanson said yesterday: "They are metabolically similar to Lance Armstrong biking up the Pyrenees. They utilise mainly fatty acids for energy and produce very little lactic acid. They are not eating or drinking and yet they can run for four or five hours. They are 10 times more active than ordinary mice in their home cage. They also live longer – up to three years of age – and are reproductively active for almost three years. In short, they are remarkable animals.

"On the downside, they eat twice as much as control mice, but they are half the weight, and are very aggressive. Why this is the case, we are not really sure."

The genetic alteration to a gene involved in glucose metabolism appears to stimulate the efficient use of body fat for energy production. At the same time, the mice do not suffer from a build up of lactic acid – which causes muscle cramps – a feature also seen in the best endurance athletes.

Professor Hanson, who led the 15-strong team of researchers, said that the first supermouse was created about four years ago by injecting a highly active form of a gene for an enzyme called phosphonenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK-C) into a mouse embryo. As a result of the genetic modification, the mighty mice have up to 100 times the concentration of the enzyme in its muscles compared with ordinary mice.
I call on morally challenged athletes to test this out so we can learn whether this works in humans as well.

via The Independent


Interesting Articles of the Week

Google intends to generate 50 megawatts of electricity from renewable forms for its operations by 2012.

Some Neanderthals had fair skin and red hair.

How to get laid in 1977 (and your ass kicked in 2007).

Scientists decode the cat genome.

Surprisingly, harvesting prey boosts predator fish.


25 Photographs Taken at the Exact Right Time

All 25 of these are great, but I love the kung fu action of the cat in this one.

via Digg


Embarrassing Statistic of the Day

Only about half of Americans growing up in poverty complete high school, and those who do reach only an eighth-grade standard.

via The Economist


Friday, November 02, 2007

Apes and the Ultimatum Game

I have wondered before if economists do anything other that test people playing the ultimatum game. Now it looks like biologists are moving in on the economists' turf.

To find out if chimpanzees share this sense of fairness, Keith Jensen and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, designed a way for chimps to play the ultimatum game. Their version started with a pair of trays far from the players' cages. Each tray had ten raisins divided in different ways between two pots—say eight and two, or five and five. One chimp was allotted the role of proposer. He could choose one of the trays, pulling it by way of a rope just halfway to the cage. The other, the responder, could then choose to pull on a rod, bringing the tray close enough for both to get the raisins, one pot for each. If the responder chose not to pull the tray closer within a minute, the offer was considered rejected, and the game concluded.

The result, which Dr Jensen reports in Science, is that chimps are simply rational maximisers—Pan economicus, if you like. Though proposers consistently chose the highest possible number of raisins for themselves, responders rarely rejected even the stingiest offers.
Chimpanzees act more like textbook Homo economicus than humans, who would have thunk? Any reason why?
This is a telling outcome. A number of researchers in the field of human evolution think that a sense of fairness—and a willingness to punish the unfair even at some cost to oneself—is humanity's “killer app”. It is what allows large social groups to form. Without it, free-riders would ruin such groups, because playing fair would cease to have any value.
Hmm, so not being a “rational maximiser” was the key to humans success? That doesn't bode so well for economics.

How else do chimps differ from humans?
The human participants in Dr Hauser's experiment were allowed to choose a preferred food, such as raisins or chocolate. The chimpanzees were simply offered grapes—which they usually like. Otherwise the experimental conditions were identical. The choice was between one unit of goodies immediately and three after two minutes. Chimpanzees were nearly four times more likely to wait for the big reward than humans were.
No word on whether the chimps ability to delay gratification led them to get higher SAT scores though.

via The Economist


Depressed People Move in a Mathematically Different Way

In this week's Physical Review Letters, Yoshiharu Yamamoto of the University of Tokyo and his colleagues explain how the movements of people suffering from clinical depression can be described by a power law—and how this law is so different from that of healthy people that it looks truly diagnostic.

Like many mathematical functions, a power law plots two variables against each other to form a characteristic curve on a graph. Dr Yamamoto collected the data for his own particular power-law curves by fitting his experimental subjects—about half of whom were healthy, and half of whom had been diagnosed as having clinical (or “major”) depression—with accelerometers. These devices measure how often someone changes his rate of movement by recording each time his acceleration exceeds a certain threshold.

The basic results confirmed a known feature of depressed people. The normal daily rhythm that would lead to a high, steady number of counts during daylight hours and low counts during the night was replaced by occasional bursts of activity. The surprise came when the team started plotting their results out on graphs.

The curves produced by plotting the lengths of low-activity periods against their frequency were strikingly different in healthy and depressed people. This reflects not inactivity by the depressed (though they were, indeed, less active) but a difference in the way that the healthy and the depressed spread their resting periods over the day. Depressed people experience longer resting periods more frequently and shorter ones less frequently than healthy people do.
Interesting. Raises the possibility of creating a shirt or a watch with a built in accelerometer that could diagnose depression right as it begins.

via The Economist



I just found this handy tool for remapping (and disabling) keyboard shortcuts in Firefox called Keyconfig.

I wanted to use the Blogger keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-A to add a hyperlink, but for some reason my Crtl-Shift-A was mapped to do an HTML validation. After installing keyconfig, I was able to turn off that mapping (and Ctrl-Shift-A was actually also mapped to open up Add-ons as well, so I got rid of that one too) and now the hyperlinking works like a charm.

Also, I turned off the backspace acting as a back button in the browser. This has screwed me many a time while playing Web Sudoku when I am trying to delete the contents of a square and I inadvertently hit the backspace with no box highlighted. Next thing I know I am looking at my previous page and my game is gone. Oh, and if you do play Web Sudoku, you should definitely use my Grease Monkey script to add colors to the numbers.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Best Book Message Ever

The Economist on Jenna Bush's book Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope:

Ms Bush is currently touring the country to promote the book and its message, which is basically that people should be nice to one another and always use condoms. It is a vague platform, but bold in its way.


Wal-Mart Soliciting Green Solutions

Mega-retailer Wal-Mart said last week that it’s partnered with The Cleantech Group to create a web portal on which companies and individuals can pitch their ideas as to how Wal-Mart might decrease its carbon footprint while at the same time helping its bottom line. The site, dubbed The Cleantech Accelerator Project, launched earlier this week.

Wal-Mart (WMT), which announced the creation of the web portal at the Cleantech Forum in Toronto, is looking to continue cutting its operating costs by greening its business model. “We have the opportunity, we hope, to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain our resources and environment,” said Rand Waddoups, senior director of corporate strategy and sustainability. It is also a huge opportunity for green entrepreneurs, an open invitation for them to pitch their green startups to the largest retailer in the world.

To elicit more proposals, Waddoups explained, Wal-Mart is looking to “incentivize innovation” and will be offering itself as a guinea pig, GreenTechMedia reported.

This offers a new path for cleantech startups to search for funding. In addition to pitching business proposals to venture capitalists, entrepreneurs can go directly to a company who could put their green business practices into effect at thousands of locations all over the world. Removing the barriers to entry, Wal-Mart is inviting any and all to submit to its public web portal.
Interesting idea. I am curious to see how well it will work.

via Earth2Tech