Tuesday, October 31, 2006

63 Terawatts of Phytoplankton Chemical Power

Oceanographers worldwide pay close attention to phytoplankton and with good reason. The microscopic plants that form the vast foundation of the marine food chain generate a staggering amount of power, and now a groundbreaking study led by Florida State University has calculated just how much –– about five times the annual total power consumption of the human world.

Physical and biological oceanographers led by FSU Professor William Dewar put the yearly amount of chemical power stored by phytoplankton in the form of new organic matter at roughly 63 terawatts, and that's a lot of juice: Just one terawatt equals a trillion watts. In 2001, humans collectively consumed a comparatively measly 13.5 terawatts.
via Underwater Times


Monday, October 30, 2006

Cool Visualization of US Population Density

Click on the image for a larger version, or better yet check out the Flash version over at Time.com.

via Digg


Boy Reportedly Takes Stolen Bus On Route

A 15-year-old boy stole a bus, drove it along a public transit route, picked up passengers and collected fares, authorities said Sunday.

"I drove that bus better than most of the LYNX drivers could," the teen, who is too young to drive legally, told a deputy after he was stopped and arrested. "There isn't a scratch on it. I know how to start it, drive it, lower it, raise it."

Davis had previously been charged for a similar bus theft. Details of that case were unavailable Sunday.

Passengers and deputies noted Davis drove the bus at normal speeds and made all the appropriate stops on the route. One passenger, suspicious of the youthful looks of the driver, called 911.
Now while the media will probably try and blame Grand Theft Auto for putting ideas like this in the head of the kid, we all know that the blame lies squarely with Seinfeld:
GEORGE: You ran?

KRAMER: No, I jumped on the bus. I told the driver, "I got a toe here, buddy, step on it!"

GEORGE: Holy cow!

KRAMER: Yeah, yeah. Then, all of a sudden, this guy pulls out a gun. Well, I knew any delay is gonna cost her her pinky toe, so I got out of the seat, and I started walking towards him. He says, "Where do you think you're going, Cracker Jack?" I says, "Well, I got a little prize for ya, buddy." [Makes punching moves.] Plow! Plat! Ke-yah! Knocked him out cold.

GEORGE: How could you do that?!

KRAMER: Then, everybody is screaming, because the driver, he's passed out because of all the commotion. The bus is OUT of control. So I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel. Now I'm driving the bus.

GEORGE: You're Batman.

KRAMER: Yeah, yeah, I am Batman. Then the mugger, he comes to, and he starts choking me. So I'm fighting him off with one hand and I kept driving the bus with the other. Then, I managed to open up the door, and I kicked him out the door, you know, with my foot, you know, at the next stop.

JERRY: You kept making all the stops?!

KRAMER: Well, people kept ringing the bell!
via WFRV via Digg


Philips Flexible Electronic Ink Display

Can't wait to get my hands on one of these.

I was all pumped up about the Sony Ebook Reader, but then I got my hands on one and was disappointed by it. The screen is too small to view 8.5x11" .pdfs, there is no search function, there is no way to highlight/take notes, and the bookmark feature is kind of weak. There was talk of it being good for storing technical manuals for easy reference without all the heft. Forget about it. Without a search feature that won't work. Really the only thing it is good for is for reading novels.

The iLiad is a bit more promising with a larger screen that has a touch screen that you can write on and take notes. But at 650 EUR it is pricey and the software looks really rough.

So what I am now hoping for is a rollable ebook that could roll out to be 8.5x11" and completely display a .pdf page (or maybe 8.5x5.5" and show 1/2 at a time).

via An Unreasonable Man


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Improve Health Rather Than Health Care

Dr. William H. Foege makes the case that we should be focusing on improving health rather than improving health care.

American health care might also take a lesson from the World Bank, which pioneered a tool in 1993 to measure the state of health in populations. Called "Disability Adjusted Life Years," or "DALYs," this metric incorporates rates of suffering and death into a single number, making it possible to see and compare the impact of various health problems and interventions among populations.

For example, this tool can provide analysts with a snapshot of the total disease burden of an area and the contribution of various factors, such as cancer, infections, and so on. Because it allows comparisons, it has been used by organizations such as the World Health Organization to set priorities for investment in health improvements.

DALYs still lack important ingredients such as measures of quality of care or feelings of well-being. Health is more than the absence of disease. Also, the DALYs metric doesn't reflect the relative values that various societies place on different kinds of suffering or the relative values they assign to life at different ages. Still, experience with the DALYs tells us that it's possible for economists to develop a metric called Disability Adjusted Health Outcomes as a way to measure and compare the effectiveness of the care we pay for.

With such a tool in hand, health plans could be reimbursed based on their ability to achieve those outcomes. The marketplace would then shift focus from process measures to improvement of health. Comparing how various health plans stack up in terms of millions of "person-years" of health experience would quickly reveal which plans are doing best. Thus, the marketplace would be harnessed to improve health profiles nationwide.
I like this concept. Focus on improvements in DALYs rather than treatments or access to care (although these would be dealt with indirectly) and then allow the market to determine the most efficient ways of doing this.
Health plans could be reimbursed with bonuses for the improvement of conditions that are lowering population-wide health measures. This would cause health plans to enroll sick people and provide smoke-enders programs, exercise and diet programs, as well as superb diabetes-control programs.

Imagine competing to enroll the disenfranchised, with current Med-icaid funds subsidizing their premiums! Suddenly, the marketplace would incorporate prevention into medical practice. Imagine if the marketplace succeeded where current medical care failed!
That is also an interesting concept. Have the health providers compete over the disenfranchised because they are where you could improve DALYs for the least amount of money.
The major argument against such a plan is that we can't agree on defining or measuring health outcomes. If that is actually true, it means we are in a business where we don't know how to define success.
Unfortunately, I think that is correct. Measuring DALYs and health outcomes is a very tricky business. But, I think a health care system based on these principles would do a better job at providing the right incentives than the one we have now.

via The Seattle Times


The Brain Business

As nations are transitioning from industrial to knowledge based economies, the economic statistics have not kept up. Here is one attempt in Europe to measure who is doing best at fostering and using knowledge and skills.

Until now, though, it has been frustratingly hard to measure who is fostering knowledge best. Instead, there have been partial indicators, such as who spends what on research and development. Or there have been indicators of something slightly different, such as competitiveness rankings compiled by the World Economic Forum, the organisers of annual conferences in Davos.

Hence the value of a brave stab at measuring knowledge and skills, broadly defined. It comes from two European think-tanks, the Lisbon Council in Brussels and the Frankfurt-based Deutschland Denken (Think Germany), and has been devised by Peer Ederer of the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen.

Mr Ederer's scorecard has four columns. First comes a country's knowledge base or, as economists call it, “human-capital endowment”. This is the imputed value of all the effort that has gone into educating and training everyone in the country. Formal study is part of it, but so is the value of time spent parenting. Results here vary surprisingly widely between countries, with Sweden doing brilliantly and Italy poorly.

This column also includes adult education and in-house training by companies. In turns out that these have at least as big an impact on a country's ability to create knowledge as the relative performance of its education system does. The resulting score for human-capital endowment is then depreciated, for what is called, with delightfully euphemistic tact, “obsolescence in the knowledge base and some level of forgetting”.

Next comes employment. It is no good training people and giving them splendid skills if they don't have a job, so the second measure is “human-capital utilisation”. That is a bit like a traditional employment rate but weighted for education, training and the rest of it. And as it is not much use training people and giving them jobs if they are working inefficiently, the study therefore includes a third measure, of productivity, to capture how well a country is using knowledge. It divides economic output by the human-capital stock (normal productivity measures, in contrast, divide output by the number of hours worked). Lastly, Mr Ederer included demographic change, since even if a country has well-trained people, with good jobs, working effectively, its knowledge base will still decline if low fertility means its working-age population is shrinking.
I think that sounds pretty good and wouldn't mind someone doing a similar study by state in the US.

And who are the winners in Europe?
Putting that lot together, you come up with an overall score. European countries divide into three groups: A-grade students (with Sweden easily the best, followed by Denmark, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands); muddlers in the middle (Finland, Ireland, France and Belgium); and lastly duffers who ought to be held back a year (Spain, Portugal and—oddly—Germany, with Italy trailing way behind).
And how does this compare with just looking at standard economic measurements?
In some ways, these grades might not look all that surprising. They are similar to what you would get if you looked at countries' general economic management over recent years: the Nordics (including Britain and Austria as honorary members) are doing well; Mediterranean and large continental economies are in trouble.
And there is the rub. While the current economic statistics might not capture the information that seems most relevant, they still end up being a good proxy and give similar results.

via The Economist


Friday, October 27, 2006

Six Tips for Happiness

Advice from Tal Ben-Shahar, the lecturer who teaches Harvard's course on Positive Psychology.

1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions -- such as fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.

5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do -- or don't do -- with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

via Boston Globe (.pdf) via Quote-A-Day


A Native Inuit Mourns a Lost Way of Life

Taptuna is -- in his bones and his history -- a hunter and trapper. It is what he loves, he says. But the world he grew up in, a world of winter igloos and summer fishing camps and working the traplines, is changing. Now, like so many other native Inuit, he is confined, and sits in an office watching an ancient way of life slip away.
It is always sad when people are losing the way they have been living for thousands of years. As he explains:
"There's no future living off the land. Those days are gone," he says. He figures it costs an average of about $60,000 to equip a hunter to go out. Add preciously priced fuel for the skimobile or boat motor. The meager snow cover on the land is playing havoc with snowmobiles. "You're hitting rock, and you're doing big-time damage."
Wait, did he just say skimobiles, boat motors, and $60,000 worth of gear? WTF? I don't remember those as being part of the Inuit's ancient way of life.

But, at least they are still living in the igloos, right?
Outside, the hamlet of 1,400 sprawls across the rounded landscape in a jumble of angular houses, scattered on the land like a child's jacks. Inside those modern buildings, the sons and granddaughters of Inuit who lived in snow houses and kept warm in wolf fur and sealskin now sit in shirt sleeves by their furnaces. They are watching satellite television instead of hunting.
Doh, that basically sounds like Anytown, USA.

I remember watching a show on TV talking about how the Inuit were losing their ancient way of life due to global warming and increased pesticide concentrations in marine mammal fat. I expected to see tribes living in log cabins or igloos that would then go out in their kayaks and hunt with spears for seals or walruses. Or maybe they would hunt polar bears being transported by a dog sled. Instead I saw people hunting for seals using an aluminum power boat and shooting them with rifles.

Maybe it is just me, but I think their ancient way of living is already gone.

via The Washington Post


Living Planet Index 2006

Previously, I called for a species census to measure the population of all species so we can see man's impact on the globe. Rather than just worrying about species that are going extinct, we could see if previously large populations of animals were dwindling and stabilize their populations before they get close to extinction.

Fat Knowledge threw down the gauntlet and the WWF responded. They just released the Living Planet Report for 2006. In it is the Living Planet Index which is determined as follows:

The Living Planet Index measures trends in the Earth’s biological diversity. It tracks populations of 1 313 vertebrate species – fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals – from all around the world. Separate indices are produced for terrestrial, marine, and freshwater species, and the three trends are then averaged to create an aggregated index. Although vertebrates represent only a fraction of known species, it is assumed that trends in their populations are typical of biodiversity overall. By tracking wild species, the Living Planet Index is also monitoring the health of ecosystems.

The Living Planet Index is a measure of the state of the world’s biodiversity based on trends from 1970 to 2003 in over 3 600 populations of more than 1 300 vertebrate species from around the world.
That sounds pretty good and is the kind of report I was looking for. Of course I wonder how representative of all species it is as there are approximately 1.8 million known species, and another 13 million or more that have yet to be discovered.
No attempt is made to select species on the basis of geography, ecology, or taxonomy, so the index dataset contains more population trends from well researched groups, especially birds, and well-studied regions, particularly Europe and North America.
Sounds like it might not be completely representative.

Another issue is that they appear to exclude all domesticated animals such as cattle, goats, pigs and chickens. I can understand that if you were calculating a Wildlife Planet Index, but this is the Living Planet Index. If you are trying to calculate the total amount of life on the planet (see my Pro Life Agenda and Net Primary Productivity) I don't see why you wouldn't count them as well.

Also because they track the same species year after year from 1970, it doesn't count "invasive" species and actually counts them as a negative when they replace native species. I prefer to call them "immigrant" species (of which the greatest immigrant species is a primate that originated in eastern Africa and has now spread across the globe) and they also should be counted in the total amount of life on the planet.

Alright, there are some potential issues, but what conclusions did they draw?
Between 1970 and 2003, the index fell by about 30 percent.
That doesn't sound very good. What happens when you break it down by region?

Tropical species populations declined by around 55 per cent on average from 1970 to 2003, while temperate species populations, which would have shown marked declines prior to 1970, have shown little overall change since.
All of the species loss has occurred in the tropical region. The temperate species population has stabilized (which is not surprising since forests are increasing in most of the temperate countries).

A similar situation can be seen in the oceans as the population of species in the Pacific Ocean are stable and the Atlantic/Arctic region has shown a slight increase. Meanwhile populations are down 30% in the Southern Ocean and more than 50% in the Indian/Southeast Asian Ocean.

From these results, attention on species population needs to be focused on South America, Africa and Asia (although demand for timber and cattle from Europe, America and China might be part of the underlying problem).

In the future, I would like to see more species be censused (with a priority on the tropical species), including domesticated and immigrant species. This would truly make it a Living Planet Index and would still allow for people to look at the impact of just wild species if they choose. In would allow us to understand if in the tropical regions they are replacing wild species populations with domesticated ones, or is life just being lost.

While this report is a good step, I have other unanswered questions that hopefully will be addressed in future versions:

What would it take to stabilize species populations?
What is the impact of human population growth on these species populations?
What is the impact of one additional person living in a tropical or temperate region?
If an additional person has a smaller impact in temperate than tropical region would greater immigration from tropical regions to America and Europe lead to lower worldwide species population loss?
What is the impact of additional natural resource use by people?
Which natural resource use reduction would lead to the greatest increase in wildlife?
Can you quantify the trade off between additional human population, greater natural resource use and wild species populations?


Model for Sustainable Development: Cuba?

The WWF just released their Living Planet Report for 2006 (.pdf). As part of it they rank countries on sustainable development based on their Ecological Footprints and their Human Development Index (HDI) (.pdf) score. HDI is a ranking developed by the UN that ranks country by life expectancy, literacy and GDP. Ecological Footprint looks at how much land is needed to support each person's food, timber, clothing and energy needs. The higher their HDI score and the lower their footprint the more sustainable the development. You can click on the image on the left for a larger version of the rankings.

The goal of countries over time should be to increase their HDI ranking while decreasing their footprint, or moving down and to the right on the graph. Almost all countries are moving up and to the right, but India and China are moving much more flatly (more slowly increasing their footprint) than the US, Korea or Italy.

All countries except one either have too large a footprint or too low an HDI score to be considered sustainable development. Now I am not going to accuse the WWF of being communists, but that one country that meets their minimum criteria for sustainability is Cuba. The WWF doesn't really hold Cuba up as a role model, qualifying with statements like "Cuba alone did, based on data it reported to the UN" and saying "freshwater scarcity and civic engagement should be included in sustainable development".

Should Cuba be praised for their model of development? I don't really know enough about Cuba to be a judge of this. I remember reading Michener's Caribbean and being surprised that people many people living in Cuba saw their way of life to be superior to that of America's (of course the Cuban immigrants in Miami felt the exact opposite). Their education system leads to a 96.9% literacy rate and their life expectancy of 77.41 is almost the same as that of the US at 77.85. I have read articles praising and criticizing Cuba's health care system. National Geographic praised Cuba for their environmental protections. On the other hand the Washington Post wrote about how most people have to buy things "on the left" to get around the chronic shortages and government laws. And of course there is the lack of political freedom.

Part of the problem could be that like the Happy Planet Index, while the intentions of this metric are good, the way it is calculated is suspect. I have written before about how the Ecological Footprint methodology penalizes countries with high ecological productivity like Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway. While these countries are all net ecological creditor nations, they all show up as having large footprints.

In general these reports tend to play down increases due to improved productivity of the land. According to their numbers the total biocapacity of the planet has increased from 9.0 to 11.2 billion global hectares from 1961 to 2005 an increase of 24%. The average hectare of land has increased in productivity 16% since 1961. While decreasing consumption is one way to get to a sustainable level, increased productivity is another and one that is more palatable to everyone.

I have also written how I don't think energy use should be included in the Ecological Footprint. While switching to renewable and pollution free energy is important to sustainable development, translating energy use into acres of land doesn't make much sense to me. And treating nuclear energy like fossil fuels also makes no sense to me. The WWF appears to understand my concerns as they have broken nuclear energy out as a separate component this year. If you don't think it belongs in the footprint, now you can easily adjust the calculations.

If you make adjustments on how productivity is handled in the footprint and how energy use shows up, I bet a lot more countries would be in the sustainable development club. While I like the idea of coming up with a metric for sustainable development, this current version needs a little retooling before it becomes an accurate reflection of where countries are.


Bio-Shirt Monitors Athletes

Bio-Shirts, developed by Korea's state-backed Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, were introduced last week at the National Sports Festival. The shirts are designed to monitor various physiological parameters so elite athletes don't push themselves too hard. Several sprinters tried out the Bio-Shirts.

The Bio-Shirt has two parts; a specially designed lightweight shirt and a monitoring system that weighs just 20 grams including the battery. The battery life will be prolonged to cover the average running time of amateur marathon runners—about five hours.

"Next year, people wearing Bio-Shirt will be able to know their temperatures, heart rates and speeds while running on a real-time basis using a wristwatch-type miniature computer enabled by Bluetooth," said development team leader Kim Seung-hwan.

"When any of the three data types hits a ceiling configured in advance, a warning sign will let marathoners know it is time to stop running and take a rest," Kim said.

The shirt can also be used as a non-invasive ambulatory monitoring system for medical patients.
via LiveScience


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Happiness, Welfare, and Economic Growth

Does money buy happiness? The rapidly expanding literature on what determines “subjective well-being” appears to suggest a negative answer to this timeless question. Studies consistently find, for example, that when the incomes of everyone in a community grow over time, conventional measures of well-being show little change.

Many critics of economic growth interpret this finding to imply that continued economic growth should no longer be a policy goal in developed countries. They argue that if money buys happiness, it is relative, not absolute, income that matters. As incomes grow, people quickly adapt to their new circumstances, showing no enduring gains in measured happiness. Growth makes the poor happier in low-income countries, critics concede, but not in developed countries, where those at the bottom continue to experience relative deprivation.

All true. But these statements do not imply that economic growth no longer matters in wealthy countries. The reason, in a nutshell, is that happiness and welfare, though related, are very different things. Growth enables us to expand medical research and other activities that clearly enhance human welfare but have little effect on measured happiness levels.

Critics of economic growth cite its threat to the planet’s survival. Yet it is not growth per se that threatens, but rather certain kinds of growth. Driving more S.U.V.’s causes harm, but taking more piano lessons does not. Any country with a government not beholden to corporate interests could easily curb environmentally harmful activities through taxation and regulation, redirecting spending toward things that really matter. Across developed countries, higher growth rates are actually associated with cleaner environments, not dirtier ones. The United States is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases not because of its wealth but in spite of it.
Good stuff. The article goes into some example of how welfare and happiness are different. A worthy read.

via NYTimes


Revolt of the Fairly Rich

"I've seen it in my research," says pollster Doug Schoen, who counsels Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton, among others. "If you look at the lower part of the upper class or the upper part of the upper middle class, there's a great deal of frustration. These are people who assumed that their hard work and conventional 'success' would leave them with no worries. It's the type of rumbling that could lead to political volatility."

Lower uppers are professionals who by dint of schooling, hard work and luck are living better than 99 percent of the humans who have ever walked the planet. They're also people who can't help but notice how many folks with credentials like theirs are living in Gatsby-esque splendor they'll never enjoy.

You can hear the fallout in conversations across the country. A New York-based market research guru - a well-to-do fellow who's built and sold his own firm - explodes in a rant about ultras bidding up real estate prices. A family doctor in Los Angeles with two kids shakes his head that between tuition and donations, ultras have raised the ante for private school slots to the point where he can't get his kids enrolled. A senior executive at a nationally known firm seethes at the idea of eliminating the estate tax; it is an ultra conspiracy, in his view, a reprehensible giveaway to people whose outsized lucre bears little relation to hard work.
Today's example that wealth is always relative.

via Fortune


Beta Baby, Beta!

As you have probably noticed, this blog has a new look and feel. I bit the bullet and upgraded to Blogger Beta.

Some new features that I hope you will like:
Labels - Posts will now have labels so you can browse them by categories such as Energy or Funny posts. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to properly label old posts without going through them manually. So, it will take me a bit of time to get all the old posts labeled and make the category listings really valuable.

Wider Page
- The new template I used is a "stretched" version, so you can read more on each page without having to scroll down.

Older Posts
- When you get to the end of a page, you can now click on "older posts" and get the 15 previous posts.

Expandable Posts
- On long posts, the main body of the text is hidden so you can easily scroll past it if you don't want to read it. When you click on the "Read More..." link, the rest of the text will show up and now this will happen on the same page (as opposed to my earlier version that took you to a new page). When you are done reading, you can collapse it by clicking "Summary Only..." at the bottom. Thanks to Hackosphere and Beautiful Beta for their work on this. There is currently a bug where if you click on the older posts link, all posts have the "Read More..." option rather than just the ones with expandable content. Hopefully this will be fixed soon.

Blog Archive
- The blog archive is now a tree version where you can see posts for each month.

Digg and Del.icio.us links - Now you can save a post directly to your del.icio.us account or submit a post to digg. Thanks to Vivek Sanghi for work on this one.

Email Post to a Friend
- If you click on the envelope icon you can email the post to a friend.

RSS Feed for Post Comments - If you want to see if there are any responses to your comment, now you can subscribe to a feed on a per post basis.

This new beta version also appears more stable. After I converted, regular Blogger sites went down for an hour or so, but the beta versions were still accessible. Hopefully the new version will have less outages then the current one.

The new version is database driven and dynamically renders pages. There is no longer a need to republish an entire site when you change a layout. Probably doesn't mean much to readers, but to those of us that use Blogger this is a very nice addition.

For more reviews on Blogger Beta check A Consuming Experience, TechCrunch, or BlogHacker.

Hopefully you will like the changes. If you have any suggestions or thoughts on the changes, please leave a comment.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Week

Baboon "Gangs" in South Africa break into houses, emptying fridges, ruining furniture, and defecating all over.

Who votes, who doesn't, and why.

Economics class taught completely as a video game.

Omega-3, junk food and the link between violence and what we eat.

A person's face will always reveal his true feelings--if, like Paul Ekman, you are quick enough to recognize microexpressions.

Inmate commits suicide hours before execution.


For Hispanics, Poverty Is Relative

The cat is out of the bag: The majority of Latino immigrants in the United States are poor. By one calculation, up to three-fifths are "working poor" or "lower middle class," with annual incomes of less than $30,000.

The bad news seems worse when one considers that as Hispanics gained in the U.S. population, the share of Hispanics in poverty doubled, from 12 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2004. Recent immigrants fared worse. In 2006 the U.S. government drew the poverty line at $20,000 annually for a family of four, or a little more than $1,600 a month. But for those newly arrived from Latin America, the average monthly salary was $900, according to a report released last week by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

The IDB report found that immigrants will send home about $45 billion in 2006, creating one of "the broadest and most effective poverty alleviation programs in the world." It also found that the majority of migrants want to buy a family home or open a small business in their home country. One-third said they had already made investments, mainly in real estate. These are not the actions of the economically deprived.

What Hispanics do with their money and how they live reflect not deprivation or exclusion but an attitude of abundance. Poverty is relative. Less than $20,000 a year may rank an immigrant as statistically poor, but this income may be seen as a fortune to someone who was making less than a tenth of that back home.

So at the end of the day what do we have? A growing number of immigrant poor? Well, yes. A growing number of depressed and downtrodden? No. Hispanic immigrants, like their immigrant predecessors, are optimists. The IDB found that even though 64 percent of remittance senders have an annual household income of less than $30,000, most believe their economic situation in the United States is good (58 percent) or excellent (10 percent), and they are confident about the future.

The reality is that rather than increasing poverty rates here, Hispanic immigrants are helping decrease poverty rates south of the border -- and with that they are doing more than anyone else to stem the future flow of immigration.
I have written before on how the statistics on poverty in the US are suspect. Here is another case. If the number of poor is increasing, but the people that are adding to the poor are earning 10 times as much as they would otherwise, is that really a bad thing?

via The Washington Post


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Google Goes Solar

Google said Monday that it would build a large solar electricity system to provide about 30 percent of the electricity used each day at its one-million-square-foot office complex in Mountain View, Calif.

The system, which would use 9,200 solar cells — capable of powering 1,000 average California homes — would be one of the largest corporate solar installations, alternative energy experts said.

David Radcliffe said it would pay for itself in 5 to 10 years. Mr. Parker estimated that such a project could cost Google $10 million.
Nice move by Google. Putting solar panels on their roofs will cause other high tech companies to think about doing the same.

But as the search guys become big power users, I would rather see that the power being used in their server farms was coming from renewable power, maybe with Green Tags than them just putting solar cells on the top of their own buildings.

Does this make economic sense for Google? In a round about way I think it does. Google's continued success depends on recruiting the best and brightest minds each year. These type of people are motivated as much or more by trying to change the world as they are by money. They want to work for a company that they can feel good about, a company that is making the world a better place. And these solar panels are a great way to make that statement.

This move might not make sense from an energy cost standpoint, but it does makes sense as a recruiting cost. It also shows how the idealism of the college graduates and other potential recruits actually does have an impact on how large corporations run.

via New York Times


Solar Without the Capital Expense

General Motors liked the idea of using the sun to power its buildings. But until recently, one immutable economic fact held G.M. back: The upfront costs were simply too high to justify the ultimate payoff.

But now, G.M. and a small but growing number of other companies and municipalities are getting solar energy from systems installed by others. Even though the installations are right on their own roofs, they buy the electricity much as they would from a utility’s grid. And because the companies that paid for the systems will get a steady income, they can provide power from the sun at competitive electricity rates.

A solar developer called Developing Energy Efficient Roof Systems — commonly called Deers — bought the equipment with money it raised from private financiers. Deers and its investors own the cells; G.M. signed a long-term contract to purchase the solar-generated electricity from them, at a discount to the prevailing rate for electricity in the region.

These days, that rate is 9 cents to 10 cents a kilowatt hour; G.M. expects that the solar system will reduce its overall electricity costs by 10 percent a year.

But the same logic underpins all of the deals: The electricity users get a clean, reliable source of energy. The developers and their backers get an equally reliable return on their investment — which can be as high as $6,000 per kilowatt hour of capacity — as well as the tax credits and rebates that California and other states offer for renewable energy projects.

“Corporations like solar energy, but they would rather make sizable investments in their core businesses,” said Craig Hanson, head of the Green Power Market Development Group, a consortium of large companies working under the auspices of the World Resources Institute to promote renewable energy. “But for the financiers, it’s like buying the bond of a triple-A-rated company. It may not offer a 20 percent return, but it’s a stable and secure investment.”
I like this model. The companies like GM don't need to provide the capital, and a company that specializes in the solar thing can finance it and make a decent rate of return. I am surprised that the electricity is sold for only 10 cents a kWh. There must be some serious subsidies in California for solar. I wonder what kind of rate of return the solar providers make? If the return isn't bad, I wouldn't mind investing in something like that myself.

The only thing I wonder is, does it really make sense to put the solar panels on the roof of the building? Wouldn't it be more efficient/cheaper to have a solar farm where you provide electricity to multiple businesses? It seems like it would be easier to build it and to maintain it if it was all in one place rather than being spread out over multiple building roof tops. Then companies like GM could just buy the green electricity being delivered though the grid (possibly by using Green Tags).

But, maybe this isn't the case. Maybe it actually is more efficient to have it on the roof as it no longer needs to be distributed through the grid. Or maybe because you can put the solar panels on a roof for no additional cost vs. having to pay for land it works out cheaper.

I also wonder if they do residential houses, or if they just do commercial. Seems like there would be a similar opportunity with homes, but maybe their smaller size and angled roofs make them more expensive and difficult to make the numbers work.

via NY Times


Thorium Nuclear Reactors

From a green standpoint, nuclear power has a lot of advantages. It has no emissions, it has the ability to produce large amounts of energy, and it generates continuous power (doesn't have the intermittent issues like wind and solar). The problems with nuclear power is the nuclear waste, nuclear weapon proliferation, and Chernobyl like meltdowns.

So I was intrigued to learn about Thorium nuclear reactors over at Al Fin.

From innovations report:

The professor from the University of Bergen believes that a Thorium power plant is much safer and more efficient than traditional nuclear power reactors:

•There is no danger of a melt-down like the Chernobyl reactor
•It produces minimal radioactive waste
•It can burn Plutonium waste from traditional nuclear reactors with additional energy output
•It is not suitable for the production of weapon grade materials
•The global Thorium reserves could cover the world’s energy needs for thousands of years
That sounds like it handles the big issues with nuclear power. How exactly does it handle the waste and proliferation issues? From Cosmos Magazine:
As a result, the waste produced from burning thorium in a reactor is dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Where a uranium-fuelled reactor like many of those operating today might generate a tonne of high-level waste that stays toxic for tens of thousands of years, a reactor fuelled only by thorium will generate a fraction of this amount. And it would stay radioactive for only 500 years - after which it would be as manageable as coal ash.

In a non-proliferation sense, there are also good reasons to prefer a sub-critical thorium reactor, as it is impossible to make weapons-grade materials from thorium.
What about cost? From Accelerating Future:
Based on these numbers, over a 60-year operating lifetime, both plants produce 60 gigawatt-years of power. The total cost for the uranium plant is $4.9 billion, at a rate of $81.6 million per gigawatt-year. The total cost for the thorium plant is $490 million, at a rate of $8.16 million per gigawatt-year. Thorium power makes nuclear power ten times cheaper than it used to be, right off the bat.
That all sounds really good.

Ok then, if Thorium nuclear reactors are so good, why isn't anyone building them? From Cosmos:
While the ADS design has promise, it presents challenges. First, there's the design itself: while lab tests have proven the concept of using a particle beam to start the thorium fuel cycle, the physics of scaling it up to the size of a commercial reactor are unproven and could be more complex. Then there's the way the particle beam interacts with the spallation target and the fuel in order to operate efficiently. Also, while there are plenty of existing conventional nuclear reactors that can be fairly inexpensively converted to mixed thorium fuel, an ADS reactor would have to be designed, built and paid for from scratch.
Sounds like we still need some R&D to get past some issues before this can go commercial. Accelerating Future estimates this could happen by 2020.

With all of the advantages over traditional nuclear power and the ability to deliver huge amounts of emission free power, this looks like a promising green energy technology and more research should be done on this.

More on this topic can be found at TreeHugger and Energy from Thorium (including this good PowerPoint overiew).


Saturday, October 21, 2006

BrainGate Video

The following YouTube video shows a patient with ALS moving a cursor on the screen with just his thoughts using the BrainGate (see previous post).

Pretty cool, but for the love of god, can somebody get the man Tivo? I mean you give him this cutting edge thought control technology and he is just using it to go channel up and down?

via MedGadget via Digital Crusader


Slow Your Brainwaves for Creativity

A neuroscientist claims he can unleash creativity by boosting low-frequency brainwaves, and he’s tested the theory on 100 students at the Royal College of Music.

The aim is to push the brain into a state of near-sleep to produce the slow rhythms, known as theta waves, associated with this state. It’s the kind of relaxed state in which ideas often come to you. It occurs naturally if, say, you are driving on a motorway and realize that you don’t remember the previous few minutes.

The sound of a babbling brook was played constantly during the training, and whenever she began to produce theta waves in the parietal lobe at the back of the brain, she would be “rewarded” with the sound of a musical gong. After several sessions, her theta waves were elevated through this almost unconscious controlling of brain activity. And (although longer-term studies are needed) it seems this increase in production of theta waves never reverses.

During treatment, sensors are placed on the scalp and ears to monitor the electrical activity in the brain – or brainwaves. High-frequency brainwaves occur when you are very alert and agitated, whereas lower frequency brainwaves dominate during relaxation or sleep. The sensors are hooked up to a computer, producing a graph that looks not unlike a heartbeat pattern.

John Gruzelier, an expert in the field of EEG (electroencephalogram, or the measurement of electrical activity in the brain) neurofeedback treatment and a psychology fellow at Goldsmiths University, has tested the treatment on more than 100 Royal College of Music students. Before and after the 10-session training programme, students gave a musical performance in front of a video camera. These were sent to expert musicians who rated the performances, unaware of whether each clip was filmed before or after the treatment. They also did not know which were “control” students who’d received no treatment. The results were consistent: students who had learnt to increase their theta brainwaves improved at least the equivalent of one musical grade, while there was no significant improvement in the control students.
Cool stuff. Of course, if you don't like all this new fangled technology stuff, you can get the same effects going old school.
Thomas Edison would solve problems by falling asleep with ball bearings clutched in his hands and metal plates positioned below. As his hands relaxed, he would be awakened by the clatter and would jot down the ideas that came to him in his drowsiness.
via NerdShit (1320 words, estimated 5:17 mins reading time)


Electric Cars and Photovoltaic Solar Cells

Question: How many solar panels do I need to power my Tesla Roadster?

Martin: The Tesla Roadster consumes about 200 watt-hours per mile. Suppose you drove 35 miles per day on average (12,775 miles per year). You would need to generate 2.6 MWh/year.

By Elon’s math, monocrystalline solar panels generate about 263 kWh/m2/year in the USA. So you would need about 9.7 square meters of solar panels (a square about 10 feet on a side) to completely offset the energy consumed by your Tesla Roadster.

I didn't realize that you only needed 10 square meters of solar cells to allow for 12,000 miles of driving a year. That seems very doable. If we were to power cars with cellulosic ethanol instead it would require 32 times more land.

Question: Doesn’t it take more energy to produce a solar panel than that panel will ever produce in its serviceable life?

In a modern manufacturing plant, the energy needed to create a frameless PV module from semiconductor scrap material is estimated to be around 600 kWh/m2 for monocrystalline cells and 420 kWh/m2 for multicrystalline cells (source: www.nrel.gov). A big variable is how thin the silicon wafer can be sliced. For ultra-thin cells, like those from Sunpower, the energy to produce a module may be considerably lower.

Taking the monocrystalline example:

Solar incidence (US): 1825 kWh/m2/year
Module efficiency: 18% (Sunpower)
Energy lost in system: 20% (Due to inverter, wires, cell temperature, etc.)
Total energy produced:
263 kWh/m2/year
Energy to create module: 600 kWh/m2 (National Renewable Energy Lab.)
… to build aluminum frame: 80 kWh/m2 (from Alsema et al)
Total energy used:
680 kWh/m2

The above results in a payback period of roughly 2 and a half years. The NREL study similarly calculates the payback period for polycrystalline panels to be 3-5 years, and amorphous silicon panels to be 0.5-2 years. Given that most modules have a 25 year warranty and an expected useful life in excess of 30 years, this indicates about a ten to one advantage for energy generated versus consumed.

Another way to think about this is that about 10% of the energy generated by the solar cells over their lifetime is needed to produce them. So, you need an extra 10% of solar cells to take care of the production energy. Instead of 10 square meters to power your car, you really need 11 to take into account the energy needed to produce the solar cells.

via Tesla Motors Blog


Newfound Bacteria Fueled by Radiation

A team of scientists has found bacteria living nearly two miles below ground, dining on sulfur in a world of steaming water and radioactive rock. What is unusual is that their underground home contains no nutrients traceable to photosynthesis.

The microbes from the South African mine appear to exist outside this food chain. The underground chemistry appears to go like this:

First, water molecules -- H2O -- are split by radioactive particles. The result is hydrogen, oxygen and hydrogen peroxide. The latter two substances then attack the mineral pyrite (also known as iron sulfide or "fool's gold"), making sulfate through a process called oxidation.

The bacteria then uses the hydrogen to turn the sulfate back to sulfide, a process known as reduction. In doing so, it captures some of the energy in the sulfate's chemical bonds, which it uses to make ATP, the molecule that is the universal coin of energy exchange in living things.

They live 45 to 300 years between cell divisions; in comparison, some strains of E. coli bacteria can divide every 20 minutes under ideal conditions.
Good to know that whatever happens above the surface, these little guys will continue to live on for millions of years fueled by radiation.

via Washington Post


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

World of R&D 2005

I really dig this graph courtesy of R&D Magazine (.pdf). Gives you a good feel for who is doing research where. I wrote about How Much Research is Being Done in the World previously but this graph makes it really easy to grasp. Comparatively speaking the US is looking pretty good with just Japan, Finland, Sweden and Israel having higher levels of scientists and engineers or R&D as a % of GDP.

via TNTlog via Accelerating Future


Become a Millionaire From Just 4 Summer Jobs

Scott Burns has a simple recipe to become a millionaire:

Let's suppose that you are 17, in high school and willing to work. Let's also suppose you can clear about $2,000 over the course of a summer.

If your money is invested in common stocks and you achieve the average compound annual rate on large-capitalization U.S. stocks, 10.7 percent, your account will grow to $9,378 at the end of the fourth year. Invested in the same way, with no additional savings, the account will grow to:

• $25,917 by the time you are 30,

• $71,625 by the time you are 40,

• $197, 943 by the time you are 50,

• $547,037 by the time you are 60,

• And $1,114,424 by the time you are 67.
Now I see why Albert Einstein called compound interest "the greatest mathematical discovery of all time".

via The Seattle Times


The Majority Minority

On Sunday I turned on the old boob tube and caught This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He had a segment with Marg Helgenbeger of CSI promoting Women's Voices, Women Vote a campaign to get more single women to vote. The segment stated that there are 20 million non-voting single women, the largest group of non-voters in America. Marg declared:

I think that women do not use nearly as much of their power as they're capable of, and for all different kinds of reasons. I think that women, especially if you have a career and children, I think so much of your time is just spent trying to find a balance between those two and prioritizing your life and that you, whatever your issues or your cause is, it kind of gets lost in the shuffle.
This left me with the impression that single women (and women in general) vote at a lower rate than men. Men don't have the issues that she raised, so they must vote at a higher rate. Why would you need a special campaign to try and get just single women to vote if they weren't voting at a lower rate?

But, I wasn't sure if this was correct. So, I decided to investigate.

I headed on over to US Census Bureau's Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004 page and found this spreadsheet (.xls) of Reported Voting and Registration, by Marital Status, Age, and Sex.

Turns out that 59% of unmarried women vote vs. only 50% of unmarried men. While it is true that in total there are more unmarried women than men that don't vote, this is because there are 9 million more unmarried women than men. This difference is explained by the fact that women live longer and that there are 8.8 million more female than male widows.

Brief Aside: According to the statistics, there are also 1.3 million more married men than women (60.9 vs. 59.6 million) in the US. How is that even possible? Doesn't a marriage require one woman and one man? Has there been an outbreak of Russian mail order brides and other non-citizen marriages? Makes no sense to me at all.

Also, there are 900,000 more separated women than men. Once again I don't understand how that is possible. As far as I know each separation has both a man and a woman. But maybe that explains why there are more married men than women. The women think they are separated, but the men still think they are married.

If you take a look at all voters (married and non-married), men have a voting rate of 56.3% of men vote vs. 60.1% for women. Also, because they live longer, women outnumber men in the US 112 to 104 million (51.9% to 48.1%). In the last election there were 67.3 million votes cast by women and only 58.5 million by men. Women accounted for 53.4% of all voters while men accounted for only 46.6% of voters, a 6.8% difference.

This means that while women are often considered a minority, they have a greater population and vote at a higher percentage than men, so really politically speaking they are the majority. Women therefore are in charge of the country. If they voted in a block, they would determine the winner of every election.

Even though women are the political majority, women only make up 15.2% of the representatives in congress. David Broder reports that while women make up only 16% of all candidates running, this is
an all-time high and the ninth consecutive election cycle in which that proportion has increased.
While things are getting better, compared to the rest of the world, the US is trailing. The US ranks 68th in world in terms of women holding office in the legislature and is below the world average of 16.6%.

I could completely understand a campaign to try and get more women representatives, but that is not what Women's Voices, Women Vote is about as they do not endorse particular candidates.

Given that men are in the minority and we vote at a lower rate then women, it makes no sense to me that there is a campaign aimed just at getting single women to vote. What we really need is an ad campaign to encourage the under-represented men and single men in particular to vote more. Ironically, an ad campaign with attractive female Hollywood celebrities talking about their 'first time' is exactly what we need. Really, I don't see why you can't just lump both the female and male unmarried campaigns together. If you were to have a separate campaign for men, I think something should be done about the fact that men's life expectancy is 5 years less than women's and that 135 women graduate college for every 100 men.


Green Office

Green Office is an online retailer of recycled, environmentally friendly, and sustainable business products, school supplies, and paper.

What I like about this online stores is that you can sort products not only by name or price but also by "greenness". Greenness is determined by their "green screen", which rates products based on the amount of recycled content they contain, their biodegradability, their chemical content, and third party verification of products and companies. This allows you to select a product by attributes other than quality or price. If a product costs more due to the green way in which it was made, this is now evident. As a consumer you can choose how much extra you are willing to spend for greenness.

I have written before on green labeling, but for some reason the idea of having an online store to make it happen never crossed by mind. I think it is a really good idea, as it is easier to display additional green information to the customers online than in a physical store.

While I like the idea behind this store, the data collected on their products is still a little sparse. Many products have no green information at all. I also would like to see how much energy it took to produce each product (see Acres and Gallons). The information given lets you know what the greenness paper you can buy is, but it doesn't let you know how much you would save by not purchasing the paper at all (possibly by going all digital). Listing the amount of energy required to make it would help to make this decision.

via TreeHugger


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Week

"Nut-nappers" who combine old-fashioned cover-of-darkness robbery with computer skills, precision-planned escapes and advance buyers for their stolen goods steal $1.5 million worth of almonds.

A 63 year old man who can't find a job robs a bank not for the money, but to be thrown in jail to get 3 square meals a day.

Strangling heat and hydrogen sulfide gas emanating from the earth and sea, not asteroids, most likely caused several ancient mass extinctions.

Pumpkins may power phone networks in Africa.

Indian fishermen are using cellphones to ensure they get the best prices and no fish go to waste.


Skills Gap Hurts Technology Boom in India

India still produces plenty of engineers, nearly 400,000 a year at last count. But their competence has become the issue.

A study commissioned by a trade group, the National Association of Software and Service Companies, or Nasscom, found only one in four engineering graduates to be employable. The rest were deficient in the required technical skills, fluency in English or ability to work in a team or deliver basic oral presentations.

No more than 10 percent of Indians ages 18 to 25 are enrolled in college, according to official figures. Nearly 40 percent of Indians over the age of 15 are illiterate.
While the best universities in India can compete with any in the world, overall the Indian educational system is lacking. If outsourcing and the rise of the IT sector is causing it to improve, that is a good thing.

Entry-level salaries in the software industry have risen by an average of 10 to 15 percent in recent years. And Nasscom, which helps companies wanting to outsource find workers, forecasts a shortage of 500,000 professional employees in the technology sector by 2010.
So much for the idea that all IT jobs in the US are going to India. While outsourcing is real, its extent has been over blown. As demand for workers increases, the wages will go up with them. As wages increase, the cost advantage of outsourcing (and the reason for outsourcing) to India will go away.

via NYTimes


Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Vanishing Russians

Whenever I get depressed about the direction the US is headed in, I always find an article on Russia to be a cheerful pick me up. When you read how bad things are over there you can't help but feel good by comparison.

In addition, abortions outpaced births last year by more than 100,000. An estimated 10 million Russians of reproductive age are sterile because of botched abortions or poor health.

The suicide rate jumped nearly 50% during the 1990s; half a million people killed themselves from 1995 through 2003.

Russia's suicide rate, at about 36 per 100,000 people, is second only to that of Lithuania, according to the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In some remote areas of Russia, the rate exceeds 100 per 100,000.

Moscow has the second-largest concentration of billionaires in the world. But one-fifth of all Russians live on less than $38 a month, many of them in the countryside.

The average Russian drinks five gallons of pure alcohol a year, causing an estimated 900,000 deaths over the last decade from acute alcohol poisoning, fights and accidents.

Olga Kolotygina, 36, one of several women who have assumed leadership of the Ryazanovshchina town council, estimates that no more than half a dozen men among the village's 160 people are sober and "trying to improve their lives."
1.5 million abortions, 50,000 suicides, and 90,000 alcohol related deaths a year. 20% of the population is living on just $1 a day. Yikes! All of a sudden the problems in the US don't seem so bad.

via LA Times


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Education Spending on Three Continents

Why does the US have the best universities and colleges in the world? One big reason is that we spend more on them than anybody else.

via The Economist


Friday, October 13, 2006

Donating to Charity Rewards the Brain

Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, wanted to find the neural basis for unselfish acts. They decided to peek into the brains of 19 volunteers who were choosing whether to give money to charity, or keep it for themselves.

They found that the part of the brain that was active when a person donated happened to be the brain's reward centre—the mesolimbic pathway, to give it its proper name—responsible for doling out the dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with sex, money, food and drugs. Thus the warm glow that accompanies charitable giving has a physiological basis.

But it seems there is more to altruism. Donating also engaged the part of the brain that plays a role in the bonding behaviour between mother and child, and in romantic love. This involves oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust and co-operation. When subjects opposed a cause, the part of the brain right next to it was active. This area is thought to be responsible for decisions involving punishment. And a third part of the brain, an area called the anterior prefrontal cortex—which lies just behind the forehead, evolved relatively recently and is thought to be unique to humans—was involved in the complex, costly decisions when self-interest and moral beliefs were in conflict.
via The Economist


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Study Spots the Brain's Selfishness 'Off-Switch'

Experiments involving a "fairness" game show that the right side of this region -- called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- helps people suppress selfish urges in obviously unjust situations, even at their own expense.

When researchers used a mild electric current to temporarily short-circuit this area, the law of the jungle quickly reasserted itself.

People with disabled right-side dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes grabbed whatever money they could from lopsided transactions -- even when they knew the deal they were getting was grossly unfair.

In the study, they had participants play the game under two conditions. In the first condition, the researchers passed a mild electric current through the right or left hemispheres of Player 2's DLPFC, temporarily deactivating these brain regions. Other participants took on the Player 2 role under sham conditions where no real electric current was flowing.

Players whose right-side DLPFC's were "switched off" accepted even very low amounts of cash nearly half (45 percent) of the time -- even though they knew the offer was terribly unfair.

But under normal conditions, barely one in 10 players accepted such insulting low offers, the researchers found.

"The big surprise," Fehr said, "is that a relatively minor inhibition of the right DLPFC removes or weakens the subject's ability to override their self-interest."
Amazing that you can apply a mild electrical shock to that area and affect how people act.

via KFVS


District B13 and Urban Ninjas

If you like action movies, you should check out this French flick called District B13. There are some crazy action scenes in it like the following:

This guy remind me of an urban ninja. If you somehow missed the YouTube urban ninja craze, check out this, this, this and this.

Go nijna, go ninja, go!


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Interesting Articles of the Week

Go on an Energy Diet?

Take a look at the predictions of 2000 from 1950.

An interesting look at US vs. European health care R&D.

A new type of semiconductor material is designed which could improve the efficiency of solar cells to around 45 percent.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Google Puts Lid on New Products

From the LA Times:

In another sign of Google Inc.'s growth from start-up to corporate behemoth, the company's top executives said Thursday that they had begun telling engineers to stop launching so many new services and instead focus on making existing ones work together better.

Co-founder Sergey Brin is leading a companywide initiative called "Features, not products." He said the campaign started this summer when Google executives realized that myriad product releases were confusing their users.

"It's worse than that," said Brin, Google's president of technology. "It's that I was getting lost in the sheer volume of the products that we were releasing."
I couldn't agree more. The products are not integrated very well and too many are not ready for prime time when launched. Google is called the Beta Company for a reason. It is frustrating how Gmail, Google Notebook and Google Reader handle similar tasks in different ways. Why are there no labels/tags in Notebook? And don't get me started on Blogger.

But its not just Sergey and I that believe this. Check out what others are saying.

30 Things Google Should Finish:
People like to speculate on what Google should be doing. What they should be doing, with nearly 7000 employees, is actually finishing the crapload of projects they've had in "beta" for years.
In the Race With Google, It’s Consistency vs. ‘Wow’:
There are risks in each approach. Google tends to introduce a lot of new products and then watch to see what works. This has the potential to alienate users if there are too many half-baked ideas or false starts.
So Much Fanfare, So Few Hits:
"Google has product ADD. They don't know why they're getting into all of these products. They have fantastic cash flow but terrible discipline on products," says Kedrosky. "It's a dangerous combination."

Furthermore, product managers at Google tend to have less power than engineers, say several former staffers. This can contribute to slow product upgrades, since most engineers want to work on the next big launch.
Is google love getting out of hand?:
What drives this kind of blind enthusiasm? When is the last time Google released a product that really changed our lives? For me, it was (and is) their core search engine. I grant that Google Maps pushed the envelope and forced the other big Internet guys to improve their own offerings (but today Microsoft and Yahoo are both significantly better than Google). And I do appreciate the POP access to Gmail (this was the one thing that converted me from hotmail for personal email). Everything since has been, well, somewhat underwhelming.
Yet this doesn't stop others from listing 10 products that Google should develop.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Farm Employment

I had written earlier that there are more prisoners than farmers in the US. I just found this data and now I don't think there are.

The number of farming workers depends on how you define it. There are 3.1 million farm production workers, which includes farm proprietors and wage and salary workers. This would be what most people think of as farmers (and about 50% more than the number of prisoners). There are another 3.2 million closely related jobs (agricultural input, processing and marketing) and a further 17.3 million peripherally related (manufacturing of food and clothing and retail) jobs. All combined they account for 14.28% of all jobs. This is much more than the 1.84% for farm producers and may explain why agricultural subsidies are so tough for the government to cut.

via USDA.gov


More Retail than Manufacturing Workers in US

Interesting stat of the day:

According to the BLS there were 15.2 million people employed in retail and 14.2 million employed in manufacturing.

There are now more Americans selling things than there are making them.


The Hybrid Economy

From the Lessig Blog:

One of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from the work of Benkler, von Hippel, Weber (my review of both is here), and many others is that the Internet has reminded us that we live not just in one economy, but at least two. One economy is the traditional “commercial economy,” an economy regulated by the quid pro quo: I’ll do this (work, write, sing, etc.) in exchange for money. Another economy is (the names are many) the (a) amateur economy, (b) sharing economy, (c) social production economy, (d) noncommercial economy, or (e) p2p economy. This second economy (however you name it, I’m just going to call it the “second economy”) is the economy of Wikipedia, most FLOSS development, the work of amateur astronomers, etc. It has a different, more complicated logic too it than the commercial economy. If you tried to translate all interactions in this second economy into the frame of the commercial economy, you’d kill it.

Having now seen the extraordinary value of this second economy, I think most would agree we need to think lots about how best to encourage it — what techniques are needed to call it into life, how is it sustained, what makes it flourish. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how to do it well. Those living in real second economy communities (such as Wikipedia) have a good intuition about it.

But a second and also extremely difficult problem is how, or whether, the economies can be linked. Is there a way to cross over from the commercial to second economy? Is there a way to manage a hybrid economy — one that tries to manage this link.

The challenge of the hybrid economy is what Mozilla, RedHat, Second Life, MySpace are struggling with all the time. How can you continue to inspire the creative work of the second economy, while also expanding the value of the commercial economy? This is, in my view, a different challenge from the challenge of how you call this second economy into being, but obviously, they are related. But this challenge too is one I don’t think anyone yet understands fully.
Interesting take to split the economy into three parts: commercial, second and hybrid. While the second economy has always existed, as we transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy it takes on more prominence. Volunteering is more likely to occur in areas of the economy that are growing like education, science, medicine, the arts and software. As fewer people are employed making goods (currently 22% of workforce) and more are employed providing services (78%), this becomes more important to the overall economy. Economic output in the knowledge economy is determined less by the number of hours worked and more by the amount of human creativity. In this new economic setup, countries with more human ingenuity have higher GDPs than those with more natural resources. Some of the most innovative, dynamic areas of the economy are part of the second and hybrid economies.

Lets take a look at the implications of the hybrid economy from a micro and macro economic perspective.

From a micro economic perspective, how do you make a successful hybrid company?

When you look at Digg, it is almost as if it is a non-profit organization (NPO). Volunteers find articles, write them up and submit them. Other volunteers go through the submitted articles and select the best ones. Still other volunteers add comments on the articles. Then the average user just comes to the site's "front page" and reads the articles and comments that the volunteers have generated, while viewing advertisements on the site and making money for Digg.

The vast majority of hours of work done on Digg and the majority of its value are provided by volunteers. The success of Digg is determined by the quality of the work the volunteer do and how motivated they are to do it. If the volunteers quit or move on to another site, Digg's business goes down the drain.

The paid employees at Digg just handle the core work like software, computer servers, vision and advertising. This is similar to how most of the core work at NPOs is done by paid employees and the rest of the work is done by volunteers. It is almost like Digg is a for-profit NPO. This is the very essence of the hybrid-economy.

To be a successful hybrid company, you have to answer questions that sound more like a non-profit that a business. What are the role of volunteers? Who gets paid and what doesn't? How much of a company can be volunteer-sourced? What is the best environment for them to contribute?

In the hybrid-economy, instead of outsourcing work, now you volunteer-source it. Instead of getting work done for 20 cents on the dollar, now you get it for 0 cents on the dollar.

Such work must be packaged in a way that makes it appealing and meaningful for volunteers. There are all sorts of motivations for volunteering including: learning new skills, padding the resume, displaying a talent, making new friends or gaining status. As the founder of Wikipedia put it, the success of Wikipdiea was in turning the writing of encyclopedia entries into a fun social activity.

For a couple of examples of trying to find the balance between commercial and second economy, Netscape is trying to compete with Digg and is luring Digg volunteers away by offering to pay them. Will this work? Second Life is dealing with commercialization and trying to draw the line of where to put it in order to keep a vibrant second economy going. YouTube is also trying to work through these issues. How/when do content creators get paid for their work? If content is created by other companies like Warner Music, do they get a cut of YouTube's revenue?

One way to look at the hybridization of companies/economies is to determine what percentage of the total hours of work done are done by volunteers. On the high end you have second economy NPOs like Wikipedia and Linux (but even these have paid employees). Then you have the Diggs, YouTubes and MySpaces where most of the effort comes from volunteers, but they are for profit companies. They you have the Amazons and Netflixs where volunteers contribute ratings and reviews that add more value to their products, but most work is done by paid workers. Finally you have the Microsofts and Oracles where little is done by volunteers and almost all is done by paid professionals.

From a macro-economic standpoint, how does the hybrid economy change things?

What is work, what is play? What is production and what is consumption? The framework of having these in separate quadrants that worked well during the industrial economy no longer works for the knowledge economy. If you are adding content to your MySpace page, are you consuming MySpace's product, or are you producing content that will cause others to spend their time on your site and allow MySpace to make money off of advertising? In the hybrid economy lines are no longer so clear.

How do you measure this new economy? What laws and policies do you need in place to make this economy work the best? What is the best balance between the commercial and second economy to maximize the output of the hybrid economy?

GDP as a measurement of the hybrid economy is undervalued as it does not capture the value of volunteer work. There is no value given to Wikipedia. GDP does well at capturing the gains when we have more goods and services, but not so well when the gains come from better goods and services. It misses the increased quality of products purchased due to Amazon ranking and reviews. If you are reading blogs that have no advertising or funding, there is value here but it is not captured in GDP.

I am not sure what the best way to try and capture the value of the second economy is. Maybe you try and figure out what the value the free stuff would be if it was in the commercial economy. Value Wikipedia by comparing it with the value Britancia gives to the economy.

When music files are shared/stolen should their value be added to GDP? This content is actually being consumed by the end user. It has the exact same value as if they had purchased it legally from iTunes, so why not add its value to all other goods and services?

If government is just trying to maximize GDP it misses the value of the economy given by the second economy. As the non-physical economy grows, the value of this missing component grows along with it. GDP and GDP per capita become less accurate as a gauge of total output and well-being.

From an employment standpoint, now that volunteers add value to the hybrid economy, shouldn't their input be counted? There are 150 million people in the civilian work force and they average 6.6 hours of work a day for 990 million hours of work each weekday. There are 300 million Americans. If each person spent 3 hours a day of their free time creating content in the second economy: writing blogs, reviewing books, finding articles, uploading videos to YouTube, or creating music, that would come out to 900 million hours a day. That would almost be a doubling of the workforce. If they just spent 1 hour a day, that would be a 30% increase.

The other key thing from the macro side is figuring out what laws and policies we need to pursue to allow the second economy and hybrid economy to flourish. We need to look at intellectual property laws (IP) not from a perspective of how we can maximize the commercial economy, but how we can maximize the hybrid economy. This will require looking at the length of time copyright, patents and trademarks are issued for. It could mean increasing fair use so people can use other's work without being subjected to IP. It will mean more use of the Creative Commons.

The hybrid economy has different rules from the commercial economy. Businesses get a competitive advantage as they volunteer-source more of their work, but in order to do so they must act more like NPO to attract and motivate their volunteers. Current economic metrics don't accurately reflect the hybrid economy. GDP misses the value of volunteer work. The employment figures don't show volunteer work. The second economy will be growing in importance as the US economy becomes more of a service/knowledge economy. We need to look at how to get our economic metrics to capture the value of the second economy, and look at laws and policies in order to maximize the output of the hybrid economy.


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