Saturday, December 31, 2005

Best of Fat Knowledge 2005

The most popular and/or my favorite posts of 2005:


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Crazy Delicious

Funniest thing to come out of SNL in years. Watch "Lazy Sunday" (aka The Chronicles of Narnia) at YouTube.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Why $5 Gas Is Good for America

Wired has a nice write up on alternative energy and why higher gas prices will allow us to get there quicker. This has been a recuring theme here at Fat Knowledge. Here is a list of the alternatives, and links to the previous Fat Knowledge articles on them (just to prove they are there).

Energy Unleashed at:
Long-term price per barrel: $20-$30

Ultradeep offshore Wells
Gas to Liquid
Tar sands
Digital oil fields

Long-term price per barrel: $30-$70
Natural Gas
Coal to Liquid

Long-term price per barrel: $70 & up
Methane hydrates
Plug-in Hybrids
Oil shale
Can't believe I haven't written on tar sands before. The one type of energy I hadn't heard of was Oil shale, which is similar to the tar sands. Wired spits out the details of it.
The barren scrub of Colorado's sparsely inhabited northwest corner is just the kind of godforsaken place you'd expect petroleum to turn up. It's also where, in early 2004, a bunch of Shell researchers pushed the button that lit some seriously powerful electric heating elements they'd placed in 16 drill holes. Three months later, temperatures in the target rock hit 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and a cheerful mix of oil and natural gas started bubbling up. The experiment ended this fall, with 1,700 barrels of inky liquid safely stored in holding tanks.

After two decades of quiet research, Shell Exploration & Production has released intriguing details about its Mahogany Research Project, named for the Mahogany layer of rock known as oil shale that lies beneath Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Thirty onsite staff and 130 others back at Shell's US headquarters in Houston are pushing ahead with a final round of feasibility tests. If things go well, the payoff could be staggering: as much as 2 trillion barrels of crude, enough to supply a century of US consumption at the current rate. Nearly four times Saudi Arabia's proven reserve. Right here, in the middle of nowhere.

They bake the rock with deep-set heating elements while ringing the site with underground refrigeration pipes so newly mobile hydrocarbons don't leak away. This technique takes a lot of energy (though no more than conventional oil drilling, Shell says; roughly 3.5 times as much energy comes out as goes in).

But the yield is what really grabs attention: a projected 1 million barrels per surface acre, 10 times more than the conventional dig-crush-cook method. With multiples like that, Shell executives think they might be able to make the process economical at $25 to $30 a barrel - less than half the price of traditional extraction.
2 trillion barrels in the US, economical at $25-35 a barrel, holy smokes! Don't know what the environmental impact would be, but this is something to look into further.


Recycling the Petrodollars

This year, oil exporters could haul in $700 billion from selling oil to foreigners. This includes not only the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) but also Russia and Norway, the world's second- and third-biggest earners (see chart 1 below). The International Monetary Fund estimates that oil exporters' current-account surplus could reach $400 billion, more than four times as much as in 2002.

Despite the lack of hard data, many economists are sure that a big dollop of petrodollars is going into American Treasury securities. If so, the recycling of money via bond markets could have very different effects on the world economy from the bank-mediated recycling of previous oil booms. If petrodollars not spent flow into global bond markets, they reduce bond yields and thus support consumer spending in oil-importing countries.

Around two-thirds of petrodollars are thought to have gone into dollar assets, pushing down American bond yields. Although higher oil prices have increased America's current-account deficit, Mr Jen reckons that it probably runs a balance-of-payments surplus in oil, with capital inflows from exporting countries exceeding its net oil import bill.
I had thought that the Chinese were the ones mainly impacting the US trade deficit and buying up our Treasury bonds to keep interest rates low. But this article implies that the oil exporting countries have a lot to do with it (and possibly more).

I still don't understand how the US can run up such big deficits and still have interest rates stay so low. This article helps to explain that. In a way, the higher gas prices are acting as a tax. Instead of a tax which would decrease the deficit directly and lower interest rates, the increased oil prices give money to the oil producing countries which they then invest in treasury bonds keeping interest rates low. In the short term, there isn't much difference to the US economy. But in the long term, those oil producing countries are going to want their money back and then the US is going to be in a world of hurt.

This is a really fascinating article. I would recommend reading it all if you are interested on the impact of the higher oil prices on the world economy.



Thursday, December 22, 2005

Israel's Technology Industry

Israel has 135 engineers per 10,000 employees, compared with 70 in America, 65 in Japan, and 28 in Britain (see chart).
I had no idea that Israel was throwing down those kind of numbers. I also had no idea that the US was second on this list. I thought we were hurting in this department, but I guess not so much. I would have thought Singapore or South Korea or Japan would be kicking our butts. I guess not. I am surprised that Germany is not on the list. I wonder if they were included in the study.

I also didn't realize that in the US, engineers only make up .7% of all jobs. Would have thought it would be much higher. I think the US has a workforce of about 140 mil, so that would be around 1 million people.

Why does Israel have so many engineers? The article goes into it, but basically:
1) Government grants in the 70s (a joint American-Israeli initiative)
3) Government schemes to encourage Russian immigrants after the collapse of the Soviet Union
3) The army is mandatory and catalyzes the transformation of 18 year olds into engineers or scientists
4) Lack of land and resources steers entrepreneurs towards high technology
5) The culture promotes repeat entrepreneurs
Israel attracts twice the number of venture-capital (VC) investments as the whole of Europe, according to Ed Mlavsky, a veteran of the Israeli technology industry and the chairman and founder of Gemini, a big Israeli VC fund that was one of the investors in Saifun. In 2003, 55% of Israel's exports were high technology, compared with the OECD average of 26%.
Via The Economist (subscription required for this one)


Zombie Dogs

In a series of experiments, doctors at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh managed to plunge several dogs into a state of total, clinical death before bringing them back to the land of the living. The feat, the researchers say, points the way toward a time when human beings will make a similar trip, not as a matter of ghoulish curiosity but as a means of preserving life in the face of otherwise fatal injuries.

The method for making the trip is simple. The Safar Center team took the dogs, swiftly flushed their bodies of blood and replaced it with a relatively cool saline solution (approximately 45 to 50 degrees) laced with oxygen and glucose. The dogs quickly went into cardiac arrest, and with no demonstrable heartbeat or brain activity, clinically died.

There the dogs remained in what Patrick Kochanek, the director of the Safar Center, and his colleagues prefer to call a state of suspended animation. After three full hours, the team reversed their steps, withdrawing the saline solution, reintroducing the blood and thereby warming the dogs back to life. In a flourish worthy of Mary Shelley, they jump-started their patients' hearts with a gentle electric shock. While a small minority of the dogs suffered permanent damage, most did not, awakening in full command of their faculties.
Uooh, so cool. If they do it on humans, I wonder if you get that whole near death experience thing. If you get to walk down the tunnel with the light at the end and decide to come back. Or if you get to float outside your body and look down on everyone. This process could become the spritual trip of the 21st century. Instead of eating a little peyote, you could just remove all the blood in your body with a little glucose saline solution.

Via NY Times Mag: Year in Ideas


In Vitro Meat

In July, scientists at the University of Maryland announced the development of bioengineering techniques that could be used to mass-produce a new food for public consumption: meat that is grown in incubators.

The process works by taking stem cells from a biopsy of a live animal (or a piece of flesh from a slaughtered animal) and putting them in a three-dimensional growth medium - a sort of scaffolding made of proteins. Bathed in a nutritional mix of glucose, amino acids and minerals, the stem cells multiply and differentiate into muscle cells, which eventually form muscle fibers. Those fibers are then harvested for a minced-meat product.

But if in vitro meat becomes viable, the environmental and ethical consequences could be profound. The thought of beef grown in the lab may turn your stomach, but in vitro meat would avoid many of the downsides of factory farming, most notably pollution: in the United States, livestock produce 1.4 billion tons of waste each year. What's more, once a meat-cell culture exists, it could function the way a yeast or yogurt culture does, so that meat growers wouldn't need to use a new animal for each set of starter cells - and the meat industry would no longer be dependent on slaughtering animals.
We are still a long ways off but I like the direction they are going. To be able to eat meat without slaughter, sounds good to me.

Via New York Time Mag: Year in Ideas


Why The Rich Must Get Richer

A society experiencing economic growth is likely to be happier and more successful than another that is not, even if the no-growth society has achieved a higher (but stagnant) standard of living. In Smith's words, it is “in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the great body of the people seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state.”

Growing prosperity, history suggests, makes people more tolerant, more willing to settle disputes peacefully, more inclined to favour democracy. Stagnation and economic decline are associated with intolerance, ethnic strife and dictatorship.

The key thing is the way these two standards of comparison—the potentially harmonious and the socially self-defeating—interact. If people are becoming better off relative to their own past standard of living, they will care less about where they stand in relation to others. If they are not growing better off relative to their own past standard of living, they will care more about their placing in relation to others—and the result is frustration, intolerance and social friction. Growth, in short, has moral as well as material benefits.
Interesting thoughts from Benjamin Friedman's new book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. I agree with most of what he has to say. I would probably define growth a little bit different. I bet he is looking at GDP growth. I think there are issues with using GDP for this (which hopefully I will get around to writing) but the idea that low unemployment and a rising standard of living lead to other good things, I can go along with.

I also find the idea that "people compare against themselves when they are improving their standard of living but against others when they stagnate or fall" fascinating. And it rings true to me. Never been a big fan of the old "a rising tide lifts all boats", since being 6 feet higher doesn't change the fact I am still sitting in a dingy and you are on a yacht. But, maybe I need to rethink that in light of this.

Via The Economist


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Brain Drain Revisited

The Economist has an interesting article raising the question: Might poor countries gain when their best and brightest leave? I might add a slightly different question: is the world better off if the best and brightest leave poor countries.

I had thought about this earlier in my Brain Drain Myth post, but this article has a slightly different way of looking at it.

The prospect of securing a visa to America or Australia should tempt more people in poor countries to invest in education. Mr Stark calls this a “brain gain”. If the temptation is strong enough, and the chances of landing a visa low enough, the poor country could even come out ahead: it might gain more qualified (if disappointed) doctors and engineers than it loses.

A person's productivity depends on the skills of those around him, as well as his own. Because of these spillovers, an individual's education is worth more to the economy as a whole than it is to himself, and he will underinvest in it as a result. Mr Stark sees limited emigration as one way to fix this market failure.

According to the most exhaustive study† of the brain drain, released last month by the World Bank, there were 1.04m Indian-born people, educated past secondary school, living in the 30 relatively rich countries of the OECD in 2000. Its million-strong brain drain represents just 4.3% of its vast graduate population, according to the Bank. By contrast, almost 47% of Ghana's highly educated native sons live in the OECD; for Guyana, the figure is 89%.
Via The Economist


Unwanted Pregnancies

U.S. women of childbearing age who were surveyed in 2002 revealed that 14 percent of their recent births were unwanted at the time of conception, federal researchers said Monday.

In a similar 1995 survey, only 9 percent were unwanted at the time of conception.
Seems like this is going in a bad direction. Not that every child that was unwanted at the time of conception will have a bad life, but I have to believe that the chances of the child living a good life go up when the preganancy is wanted.

The proportion was higher for black women (26.2 percent) than for Hispanics (16.8 percent) and whites (10.7 percent).
So, 1 out of 4 pregancies for black women, 1 out of 6 pregnacies for Hispanics and 1 out of 10 pregnacies for Whites are unwanted at the time of conception. That is a major difference.

Via The Mercury News


How Will History Remember Bono and Bill Gates?

So Bono and the Gateseses are Times Persons of the Year.

But how will history remember them? Bono ventures a guess for Bill...

Bono, who first met the Gateses in 2002 to discuss their mutual interests, told Time that the Gates foundation is the second enterprise for Microsoft founder Bill Gates that has changed the world. "And the second act for Bill Gates may be the one that history regards more," the rock star said.
and one for himeself.
“Actually oddly enough, I think my work, the activism, will be forgotten. And I hope it will. Because I hope those problems will have gone away,” says Bono. “But our music will be here in 50 years and 100 years' time. Fact that our songs occupy a sort of an emotional terrain that didn't exist before our group did.”
Via Corvallis Gazette-Times and 60 Minutes


Monday, December 19, 2005

China is World's Largest Exporter of IT Goods

China for the first time has surpassed America to export the most technology wares around the world, according to new figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The crossover took place last year, when China exported $180 billion of computers, mobile phones and other digital stuff, exceeding America's international sales of $149 billion. A year earlier, in 2003, China's technology exports had overtaken those of both the European Union and Japan.

Given China's importance as a centre of low-cost manufacturing, its rise as an industrial power in technology goods is hardly surprising. What is startling is the speed of its ascent. From $36 billion in 1996, its world trade in tech goods—both imports and exports—has grown as much as 32% a year, to reach $329 billion in 2004.
Don't know how much to read into that, but it seems like a significant shift as economic power starts its migration over the Pacific.



Friday, December 16, 2005

Going Bananas

The Economist throws down some fat banana knowledge.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that bananas are the fourth most important crop in the world, after wheat, rice and maize. For around 400m people in the tropics, bananas are their most significant staple food. Some 90% of the world's harvest of bananas are grown on small farms in developing countries and much of this crop is eaten by people who live locally. The export trade, meanwhile, is worth some $5 billion a year.

Bananas are vulnerable to pestilence and disease because they reproduce asexually. Before they became domesticated crops, wild bananas were inedible fruit stuffed with stony seeds. Edible varieties probably first arose as random, sterile mutants. Farmers propagated these varieties by taking cuttings from suckers that grow from the base of the parent plant. Furthermore, because bananas are clones, whole plantations could be devastated by such an attack.

In the 1950s, commercial plantations all grew one variety of banana, called Gros Michel. It was, by all accounts, a superior-tasting fruit to today's supermarket stocks of the Cavendish variety. The Gros Michel banana still grows in the more remote parts of Uganda and Jamaica. Elsewhere, it was wiped out by Panama disease, a wilt caused by a fungus called fusarium. This devastated the large commercial plantations that fed the export trade.
I had no idea that all bananas are clones of each other. Or that humans propagated the edible sterile mutants of an inedible fruit with stony seeds to make what we now call bananas. Or that bananas are such an important food for humans. All this time I have been making fun of bananas as monkey food, when in fact the primate that eats the most (and supports 400 million of us) are humans.



Can Chad Break the Oil Curse?

Chad was a test case of whether a country could avoid the oil curse.

In 2003, Chad became the site of an experiment to test whether oil money could pay for medicines and schools rather than luxury cars and weapons. The World Bank set up a system in which only 15 percent of the revenues from three oil fields would go into the general government coffers. Most of the rest would be spent on fighting poverty or saved for the post-oil years. Chad's agreement on these rules attracted ExxonMobil and other investors.

The early results are not encouraging. There is little evidence of improvements in living standards, and a lot of worrisome signs that money is disappearing. Now President Idriss D�by, claiming the government is broke, has decided to scuttle the restraints on his spending. He wants to double the percentage of oil money that goes to general government funds, scrap any saving for the future and allow the money earmarked for antipoverty programs to be spent on security.
Doesn't look good. Yet another reason to try an minimize all use of oil and the corruption it spreads around the world.

Via New York Times


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste

I have been a fan of nuclear power because it is carbon free, has no emissions, and could scale very easily to produce lots of power. I would add it is an economical choice, but really the economics of energy production get very tricky based on what kind of externalities (like pollution leading to health care costs, or military expenditures to protect "our" Middle East oil) you want to throw into the mix. Also, the price of nuclear energy is dependant on the level of security you want to build into it and how you store the nuclear waste.

But my optimism has always been tempered by three big problems:
1) What do you do with the waste?
2) How do you make sure that the fuel can't be turned into a nuclear bomb?
3) How can you insure there won't be a meltdown/terrorist attack?

In this new article over at Scientific America, scientists have some new techniques that greatly reduce or eliminate these concerns. They are proposing use fast-neutron reactors (rather than the slow-neutron or thermal reactors currently being used) along with recycling of spent fuel by pyrometallurgical processing.

These techniques have the following advantages:
1) Reduce the amount of nuclear waste a 1,000 megawatt (for some reason energy types don't like to call this 1 gigawatt) from 100 tons of spent fuel a year to a little over 1 ton. That is almost a 99% reduction! And it gets even better. Because the recycling removes the uranium, plutonium and other heavy metals (or long-lived transuaranics as they call them), the radioactive half life goes from 10,000 years to several hundred years (at one point they mention 300 years)! Instead of having to create a Yucca Mountain that can handle the waste for 10,000 years without any issues, now such a facility need only handle a tenth of that time or less. Or maybe with the decreased amount of waste and radioactive lifetime, simpler, cheaper solutions could be used such as storing the waste on site.

The reduced waste also decreases the amount having to be transported lessening the possibility of a terrorist attack (this would be a dirty bomb, not to be confused with a nuclear bomb which is several magnitudes of orders worse).

2) The recycling of the nuclear fuel would be done is such a way that plutonium in the fuel is too impure for diversion to weapons. Currently France, Japan, Russia and the UK reprocess their fuel into plutonium. This plutonium can then be used to create a nuclear weapon. This style of recycling therefore greatly reduces the risk of nuclear weapon development (but it is still not clear to me why you couldn't just refine/reprocess the recycled nuclear fuel to pure plutonium).

3) The facilities they are proposing would be built underground (to protect from a 9-11 style attack) and use liquid sodium rather than water to transfer the heat. It would also be designed to automatically shut down in the case of an emergency, so it would be impossible for a Chernobyl style meltdown to occur.

4) These reactors would be able to use not just enriched uranium (with a higher concentration of fissile U-235) but just plain old uranium (or depleted uranium) as a fuel source. Currently the continued growth in the number of thermal reactors could exhaust the available low-cost uranium reserves in a few decades.

This new style of nuclear reactor/recycling greatly alleviates my concerns with nuclear technology. I need to read more about this, but it sounds very promising.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Legalize Drugs - All Of Them

The ex-police chief of Seattle writes about why he favors legalization of all drugs. A compeling argument and a good read.

It's not a stretch to conclude that our Draconian approach to drug use is the most injurious domestic policy since slavery. Want to cut back on prison overcrowding and save a bundle on the construction of new facilities? Open the doors, let the nonviolent drug offenders go. The huge increases in federal and state prison populations during the 1980s and '90s (from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 482 per 100,000 in 2003) were mainly for drug convictions. In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. By 2003, that figure had ballooned to 1,678,200. We're making more arrests for drug offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. Feel safer?

How would "regulated legalization" work? It would:

• Permit private companies to compete for licenses to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package and peddle drugs.

• Create a new federal regulatory agency (with no apologies to libertarians or paleo-conservatives).

• Set and enforce standards of sanitation, potency and purity.

• Ban advertising.

• Impose (with congressional approval) taxes, fees and fines to be used for drug-abuse prevention and treatment and to cover the costs of administering the new regulatory agency.

• Police the industry much as alcoholic-beverage-control agencies keep a watch on bars and liquor stores at the state level. Such reforms would in no way excuse drug users who commit crimes: driving while impaired, providing drugs to minors, stealing an iPod, assaulting one's spouse, abusing one's child. The message is simple. Get loaded, commit a crime, do the time.

But wouldn't regulated legalization lead to more users and, more to the point, drug abusers? Probably, though no one knows for sure — our leaders are too timid even to broach the subject in polite circles, much less to experiment with new policy models. My own prediction? We'd see modest increases in use, negligible increases in abuse.
Via The Seattle Times


Friday, December 09, 2005

Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese

The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

"For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters," said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. "I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I've had. And I can play games all day."

With more than 100 million people worldwide logging on every month to play interactive computer games, game companies are already generating revenues of $3.6 billion a year from subscriptions, according to DFC Intelligence.

That has spawned the creation of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of online gaming factories here in China. By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 young people working in China as full-time gamers, toiling away in dark Internet cafes, abandoned warehouses, small offices and private homes.
So the Chinese peasants go from farming the fields to gold farming. Seems like a logical progression.

In a way this is so silly. Why have people spend hours and hours creating a level 60 character, when the game developers could just create one with the click of a mouse. Or better stated, why don't the game companies sell level 60 characters directly and get the money for it?

I always thought the fun in these games was creating a new character and building them up. Why in the world would you want to outsource the best part?

Via New York Times


EU vs. US Economy

I liked this analysis of the two heavyweights. While on the surface the US GDP/capita is higher and the unemployment rate is lower, when you look a little deeper, you see something different.

European hourly productivity over the past 40 years has risen much more rapidly than U.S. productivity, and several EU countries are now more productive per worker hour than the United States.

Most EU countries have positive trade balances, while our negative trade balance continues to grow.

All EU countries have lower rates of poverty and far smaller gaps between rich and poor.

Personal savings rates in the EU average 12 percent; in the United States, 0 percent.

EU unemployment rates are generally somewhat higher than in the United States. But U.S. figures don't include our massive prison population (2.1 million), five to 10 times as high as that in EU countries.

According to the World Economic Forum, of the five most competitive economies in the world, four are northern European and the most competitive, Finland, has the smallest gap between rich and poor of any country, while guaranteeing 30 days of vacation a year and prohibiting forced overtime work.

Health, in all EU countries, is superior to that in the United States, despite our spending far more per capita on health care. Moreover, Europe's high quality of life is attained with only half the U.S. per capita consumption of resources.

We could live happier, healthier lives by working and consuming less.
Gotta admit, I like the European style better. I am curious now what the US unemployment rate would be like if our incarceration rate wasn't so high.

Via Seattle PI


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Osama vs. Bambi

Today's sign that the "War on Terror" is way overblown.

A study for the insurance industry estimated that deer kill about 150 people a year in car crashes nationwide and cause $1 billion in damage. Granted, deer aren't stalking us, and they come out worse in these collisions - but it's still true that in a typical year, an American is less likely to be killed by Osama bin Laden than by Bambi.
I knew it! Can't trust those garden munching, highway hopping, four legged terrorists.

Via Kristoff - New York Times


Friday, December 02, 2005


I have gotten hooked on this new puzzle game Sudoku. Fiendishly simple (just make sure the rows, columns, and inner boxes each have one instance of 1-9) but oh so difficult to make it happen. Wikipedia has a nice write up on it. I have been playing it on Web Sudoku. The evil level really is that. Make sure to set the option to allow you to write in multiple numbers in one box if you are going to attempt that level.

As Microsoft gets ready to freeze their code for Vista, they need to remember that the old reason people upgrade is for the new game. Minesweeper was the reason to get Windows 3.1, Freecell was a sold reason to upgrade to Windows 95, and Spider Solitare made up for the otherwise worthless upgrade to Windows ME. For Vista, I have two words: Su Doku (or maybe that is 1 word, definitely two japanese characters: 数独).


80s Cartoons Now at Netflix

I just found that the classic cartoons of the 80s are now available on DVD at Netflix. Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, and Thundercats are all there. Got the He-Man and realized that it was pretty simple minded. But, Transformers is still solid. But for some reason Season 2 is being passed off as Season 1. Everyone knows that the dinobots were not in Season 1. Can't wait to get the episode with the 6 green Constructicons that can turn into one super Transformer.

Ahh, reliving your childhood is such fun. All I have to say is: Autobots roll out, Yo Joe, I have the power, and Thundercats Ho!