Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dell Monitor Energy Savings Calculator

Dell has a cool new Monitor Energy Savings Calculator for determining how much energy you will use/save with various monitors over their lifetimes.

This goes along Dell's launch of two new green monitors: the $349 24" G2410 LCD and the $239 22" G2210 LCD.

The G2410 uses 21W vs. 42W for a similarly sized non-green Dell S2409W saving $15 in electricity over a 5 year lifetime. Given that they are priced the same, the green guy comes out ahead. Well, not exactly as Dell currently has the S2409W on sale for $249. :) But, at least you now you take into account energy costs/usage when making your buying decision.


The Medea Hypothesis

In this line of thought, the workings of the natural world, honed over billions of years of evolution, have reached a dynamic equilibrium far more elegant - and ultimately durable - than the clumsy attempts humankind makes to alter or improve them.

According to the paleontologist Peter Ward, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In his view, the earth's history makes clear that, left to run its course, life isn't naturally nourishing - it's poisonous. Rather than a supple system of checks and balances, he argues, the natural world is a doomsday device careening from one cataclysm to another. Long before humans came onto the scene, primitive life forms were busily trashing the planet, and on multiple occasions, Ward argues, they came close to rendering it lifeless. Around 3.7 billion years ago, they created a planet-girdling methane smog that threatened to extinguish every living thing; a little over a billion years later they pumped the atmosphere full of poison gas. (That gas, ironically, was oxygen, which later life forms adapted to use as fuel.)

The story of life on earth, in Ward's reckoning, is a long series of suicide attempts. Four of the five major mass extinctions since the rise of animals, Ward says, were caused not by meteor impacts or volcanic eruptions, but by bacteria, and twice, he argues, the planet was transformed into a nearly total ball of ice thanks to the voracious appetites of plants. In other words, it's not just human beings, with our chemical spills, nuclear arsenals, and tailpipe emissions, who are a menace. The main threat to life is life itself.

"Life is toxic," Ward says. "It's life that's causing all the damn problems."

Ward himself believes that the only help for the planet over the long run is management by human beings - whether that means actively adjusting the chemical composition of the atmosphere or using giant satellites to modify the amount of sunlight that reaches us. As Ward sees it, the planet doesn't need our help destroying itself. It will do that automatically. It needs us to save it.
Interesting. Hopefully his new book The Medea Hypothesis will explain these ideas in more depth and have the data to back them up.

This TED Talk he gave was also fascinating, especially the part on hydrogen sulfide.

via Boston Globe


New Honda Insight Hybrid

The new Honda Insight hybrid promises to revolutionize the hybrid market by making gas-electric cars affordable. But the five-door hatchback with a rock-bottom price isn't the Prius killer Honda might have hoped for. It's widely expected to cost no more than $20,000, and Honda almost certainly will sell every one of the 100,000 Insights destined for North America this year.

Honda's system isn't quite as fuel efficient as Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, but with an estimated 40 mpg in the city and 43 on the highway, it's pretty close to the EPA's figures for the 2009 Prius. The compact size and lower cost of Honda's technology offers other advantages though. While smaller than the Prius, the Insight offers almost as much interior room and actually has more cargo room, thanks to a smaller electronic control unit and more efficient 5.75-amphere-hour, 100-volt, nickel-metal hydride battery under the rear seat.

But the coolest gadget comes standard in every model -- the interactive Ecological Drive Assist System. Eco Assist uses a dashboard display and speedometer backlighting that effectively turn hypermiling -- the fine art of maximizing fuel efficiency -- into a videogame that coaches you on your driving style. There's also an Econ Mode that decreases throttle sensitivity, reduces air-conditioning demand and pulls a few other under-hood tricks to maximize fuel efficiency.

During a day behind the wheel last month, we managed an impressive 42.4 mpg without even trying. When we pushed the Econ Mode button and used Eco Assist to mind our hypermiling P's and Q's, the Insight returned an amazing 65.6 mpg. That's on par with the best figures we've seen from the Prius.

While we didn't drag race a Prius, our seat-of-the-pants impression is the Insight has snappier acceleration, not to mention more responsive steering, better brakes and superior handling.
Looks pretty cool, especially the Eco Assist. Available on Earth Day (April 22).

via Wired


Interesting Articles of the Week

To save animals, put a price on them.

Shark attacks drop; expert cites ailing economy.

772 lb freshwater stingray caught in Thailand.

Human hunters genetically shrink their prey.

Bionavitas to grow high-density algae — secret weapon? Light rods.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Quarters for Five Dollars Please?

Ryanair, the Irish airline that has elevated nickeling and diming passengers to an art form, has found another way to suck money out of people's pockets — installing pay toilets on airplanes.

The CEO of the famously cheap company announced, with a straight face, that he's toying with the idea of putting pay toilets in every one of the airline's 168 Boeing 737s.

"One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound ($1.43) to spend a penny in future," the windbag O'Leary said today during an appearance on the popular morning talkfest BBC Breakfast. He seemed genuinely perplexed to hear some passengers fly without cash. "I don't think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound," he said.

Reminds me of this classic Alaska Airlines ad from 20 years ago.

via Wired


iPhone App Helps Reduce Stuttering

Researchers at the Hollins Communications Research Institute have created an iPhone app that helps treat speech impediment disorders.

Stuttering treatment usually requires a feedback loop to retrain the brain. This application listens to your voice in the field and offers immediate feedback, a process that usually depended on a desktop PC and special software used in an office. Now, however, stutterers can perform exercises and tests while they’re shopping, chatting, or at a restaurant. The software also records the samples taken in the field for later analysis at the research facility.

The iPhone device was programmed at HCRI with a sophisticated voice monitoring system that evaluates and scores speech behaviors taught during stuttering therapy. When clients use the device during training in outside situations, such as in a shopping mall, restaurant or business setting, fluency measurements for each utterance are displayed on the iPhone screen. Having this data immediately available to stuttering therapy program participants makes speech practice more effective and helps improve the speed with which fluency results are achieved.

In addition, the iPhone records every speech sample in an onboard file for later transmission to HCRI. This information enables the institute’s therapists to provide more detailed and precise training to clients, as they learn to apply new speech capabilities in everyday situations.
Cool. Is there nothing the iPhone can't do?

via CrunchGear


Long Term GDP Growth

While there are issues with using GDP as a measurement well-being, I recently came across two charts on historical real GDP growth that I found enlightening.
Hopefully that post-depression super growth rate will be kicking in real soon.

For any economic nerds out there that aren't aware, the BEA's website has easily accessible historical statistics on many GDP related items (real GDP here).

via The Atlantic and Ethan Zuckerman


Third-Generation Prius Gets 50 MPG

The 2010 Prius unveiled at the Detroit auto show was among the most eagerly anticipated debuts at a show where everyone is showcasing fuel-efficient cars, hybrids and electric vehicle prototypes. But the Prius remains the gold standard and a car synonymous with hybrid technology, and Toyota hopes to sell 400,000 of them worldwide next year — a figure that would put the Prius on par with Toyota's best-selling Camry and Corolla.

Although the new Prius looks a lot like the old Prius, 90 percent of its gas-electric drivetrain was redesigned or re-engineered and packaged in a more aerodynamic body. The changes brought a 22 percent increase in power and a 9 percent boost in fuel economy over the current model, which is the most fuel-efficient car sold in America.

"I'm here to tell you the new Prius will achieve an estimated combined 50 miles per gallon," Carter said, citing the official EPA figure that will appear on the window sticker.

The restyled body moves the roof-line peak back 4 inches, creating a more wedgelike shape and increased passenger headroom. Underbody panels, sharp corners and a longer spoiler cut the car's drag coefficient to 0.25, and Carter says it's the most aerodynamic production vehicle available today.

Under the hood, Toyota increased engine displacement from 1.5 liters to 1.8 and bumped the output to 98 horsepower. Coupled with the electric motor, total power rises from 110 horsepower to 134. The increased oomph is enough to shave about half a second off the car's zero to 60 time, which Carter said now stands at 9.5 seconds. Not that anyone buys a Prius for its speed.

One of the coolest features is the rooftop solar panel, which Carter said provides juice to the ventilation system to keep the interior cool when the car is parked. The system keeps fresh air circulating in the vehicle so the A/C doesn't have to work so hard, conserving the battery — still a nickel-metal hydride unit. Carter said the new Prius is the first production car to have an air conditioning compressor powered by the battery instead of an engine drive belt, and the water pump also is electric to cut parasitic drag on the engine and improve fuel efficiency.

A larger and more powerful 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine powers the new Prius. The larger engine helps improve highway mileage. By making more torque, the new engine can run at lower average rpm on the highway. When operating at lower rpm, the new engine uses less fuel. Mileage is especially improved in cold-start conditions and at higher speeds.

The new Prius will offer three alternative driving modes. EV-Drive Mode allows driving on battery power alone at low speeds for about a mile, if conditions permit. There is also a Power Mode, which increases sensitivity to throttle input for a sportier feel, and an Eco Mode, which helps the driver achieve the best mileage.
Better gas mileage, roomier and better performance sounds good to me. No word yet on price, but when you can't produce them as fast as you can sell them, no reason to lower it.

via Wired and Green Car Congress


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are You Smarter Than a Doctor?

Percentages confuse even the experts. The accuracy of a typical medical test, for instance, is usually expressed as a percentage: “The test is 90 percent reliable.” But it has been found that doctors, no less than patients, are often hopelessly confused when it comes to interpreting what this means in human terms.

Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist, asked two-dozen physicians to tell him the chance of a patient truly having breast cancer when a mammogram that was 90 percent accurate at spotting those who had it, and 93 percent accurate at spotting those who did not, came back positive. Gigerenzer then added one other important piece of information: that the condition affected about 0.8 percent of the population for the group of 40- to 50-year-old women being tested.

Of the 24 doctors, just two worked out correctly the chance of the patient really having the condition. Most were hopelessly wrong. Quite a few of the physicians assumed that, since the test was 90 percent accurate, a positive result meant a 90 percent chance of having the condition.
Ok, here is your chance to see if you smarter than your average doctor. Can you determine what the chance of having breast cancer if you get a positive result from the test?
In fact, more than nine out of 10 positive tests under these assumptions are false positives, and those nine patients are in the clear.

To see why, look at the question again, this time expressed in terms that make more human sense: natural frequencies.

Imagine 1,000 women. Typically, eight have cancer, for whom the test, a fairly but not perfectly accurate test, comes back positive in seven cases. The remaining 992 do not have cancer, but remember that the test can be inaccurate for them, too. Nearly 70 of them will also have a positive result. These are the false positives, people with positive results that are wrong.

Now we can see that there will be about 77 positive results in total (the true positives and the false positives combined), but that only about seven of them will be accurate. This means that for any one woman with a positive test, the chance that it is accurate is low (one in about 11) and not, as most physicians thought, high.
A couple of points on this.

First, the rate of cancer in the population is crucial to determining the chance that you actually have cancer from a positive result. Which raises an interesting question. If you were to get the test and then move to a population that had a 20% chance of having cancer (or if you were subdefined into a category that had a higher risk of cancer, such as those with a history of cancer in the family), would the accuracy of the result go up? While the calculation would say yes, your chance of having cancer from a positive result would be 74%, it doesn't make much sense given that nothing has changed with you personally or the result of your test. I don't know my statistics well enough to be able to explain this.

Second, given the low incidence of cancer, the rate of false positives is much more important than that of false negatives. If this test was 100% percent accurate at spotting those who had it (and remains 93% accurate at spotting those who did not), a positive result would still mean that only around 10% of individuals had cancer. On the other hand, if the test was 99% accurate at spotting those who did not have it (and remained 90% accurate at spotting those who did have it) then a positive result would mean a 42% chance of the individual having cancer.

Third, this reinforces my belief that probability is much more useful than calculus and that high schools should change their curriculum accordingly.

Fourth, along with the previous point, it makes me question whether medical school gives doctors the skills they need to practice medicine effectively today. As the Obama administration looks at trying to lower health costs, one thing that I think should also be put into the equation is medical education. Part of the reason for the expense of medicine is that getting a medical degree is expensive and takes a long time. Does all of this education really make doctors better? Many other nations do not require medical students to first get an undergraduate degree. If we could cut down on the years it takes to get a medical degree, the price of seeing a doctor would go down.

And finally, while the concept of preventative medicine is good, this example shows how with tests that aren't 100% accurate it could be bad in practice. Imagine that everyone who tested positive for cancer was then put on a anti-cancer regiment. Only 10% of them would actually gain any benefit from it, and yet all would go through the rigor of it. And then 90% of them would be "cured" regardless of what the treatment was! The financial expense would be great and the health of the 90% without cancer would be impacted negatively.

via The Week


Gallons Per Mile

The problem with m.p.g., argues Richard Larrick, who wrote the article with his business-school colleague (and carpooling partner) Jack Soll, is that it leads consumers to significantly underestimate the gains in fuel efficiency that can be achieved by trading in very low m.p.g. vehicles — even for one that gets only a few more miles per gallon. Less detrimentally, m.p.g. also misleads people about the fuel savings achieved by moving from an ordinary family sedan into a Prius.

Larrick emphasizes that his long-term goal is to get everyone into the most fuel-efficient vehicles that exist. But right now, he says, “as a national-policy question, the urgency is getting people out of the 14-m.p.g. vehicles.” And m.p.g. ratings aren’t the most useful prod, largely because the real significance of differences in m.p.g. is often counterintuitive. The jump from 10 to 20 m.p.g., for example, saves more gas than the one from 20 to 40 m.p.g. The move from 10 to 11 m.p.g. can save nearly as much as the leap from 33 to 50 m.p.g.

Consider the much-mocked S.U.V. hybrids, which seem to offer only incremental gains. Someone who trades in an all-wheel-drive Cadillac Escalade (14 m.p.g.) for an Escalade hybrid (20 m.p.g.) would save 214 gallons of gasoline over the course of 10,000 miles.

That’s about as much fuel as would be saved by two people currently driving 33-m.p.g. cars who switch to 50-m.p.g. hybrids, assuming everyone drives the same distance.

Consumers don’t get this. The Science article summarized three studies in which Duke students or participants in an online survey botched calculating m.p.g. trade-offs. In one case, 75 percent of the test subjects got the question wrong. When the calculations were reframed, however, using both m.p.g. and gallons used per 100 miles — 64 percent got it right. (Gallons per 10,000 miles further clarifies efficiency differences, the authors say.) Not long after the Science article appeared, the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency Web site added a feature that lets users compare cars using gallons per 100 miles. Not a bad first step.

I remember a few years back, I was doing some calculations for a blog post using mpg and the numbers didn't make intuitive sense to me until I took the inverse of them, gmp, and then everything became a lot clearer. I completely agree with the authors (who have a new blog The MPG Illusion) that using mpg leads to mistaken assumptions as to how to save fuel and that we need to switch over to gallons per mile.
Miles Per GallonGallons Per 10,000 Miles

The chart above helps to show why mpg is misleading and why focusing on small increases to low mpg vehicles is much more important than large increases on higher mpg vehicles (a point that I discussed previously in my Plug-in Hybrid vs. Tahoe Hybrid post). Going from 10 mpg to 11 mpg saves more gasoline (91 gallons) then going from 35 to 50 (86). Going from 10 to 12.5 saves more gasoline (333) then going from 25 to 50 (200). Going from 10 mpg to 20 saves more gasoline (500 gallons) then going from 20 to, well,∞ mpg.

Loyal Fat Knowledge reader Rebelfish points out a cultural implication on the MPG vs GPM debate:
I've always thought the Europeans had it right w/ the L/100km vs our mpg (and not just because they use metric). The difference does, however, say something about our auto mentalities. The European indicator is conducive to the question "I'm going this far; how much fuel do I need?" In America on the other hand, it's "I've got this many gallons in my tank; how far can I drive?"
via NY Times Mag and ScienceDaily


How Mindboggling Science Will Outlast the Crisis

Wide ranging, informative and funny talk by Juan Enriquez.

While the Republicans have called the stimulus bill generational theft, I think the generational theft would be to not fund these cutting edge technologies, that will revolutionize life for the next generation, as much as possible. Fortunately the stimulus bill is funding many beaker ready projects.

via TED


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who’s Buying What?

(Click on the image for a larger version)

Interesting to see how each country prioritizes spending. I think this helps to explains why Carnival is such a success in Brazil.

via Good


Tagging The Real World

Sekai Camera’s basic concept is still intact: Use the iPhone camera to overlay tags and information onto any object in the real world. Users then need to look through the camera to see icons pop up that contain information on buildings, stores, sightseeing spots or objects.

The prototype I tried out today was a bit buggy but worked as promised, showing tags with information (sounds, pictures and text) on other booths installed in the exhibition hall. Many people speculated how Sekai Camera works technically. The answer is simple: The user’s location is identified through GPS (no cell-tower triangulation or image recognition technology is being used). As the iPhone doesn’t have an internal compass, the direction of where the viewfinder is pointed at can’t be measured: Users need to flick fingers left or right to find relevant tags that are around them (as demonstrated in the video I took below). Tap a tag and the information it contains appears in the form of a window.
Pretty cool. The era of augmented reality is here. Check the link below for a video of the Sekai Camera in action.

via TechCrunch


The Evolutionary Role of Cookery

Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval. In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.

Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved.
Interesting. It was cooking rather than meat that allowed humans to prosper.

How big of a difference does cooking make?
Cooking alters food in three important ways. It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments. It “denatures” protein molecules, so that their amino-acid chains unfold and digestive enzymes can attack them more easily. And heat physically softens food. That makes it easier to digest, so even though the stuff is no more calorific, the body uses fewer calories dealing with it.

Cooking increases the share of food digested in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed, from 50% to 95% according to work done on people fitted for medical reasons with collection bags at the ends of their small intestines. Previous studies had suggested raw food was digested equally well as cooked food because they looked at faeces as being the end product. These, however, have been exposed to the digestive mercies of bacteria in the large intestine, and any residual goodies have been removed from them that way.

Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion. Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods. These are softer, because that is what people prefer. Indeed, the nerves from the taste buds meet in a part of the brain called the amygdala with nerves that convey information on the softness of food. It is only after these two qualities have been compared that the brain assesses how pleasant a mouthful actually is.
I was aware that cooking makes food easier to digest, but I was not aware the extent to which cooking increases absorption of nutrients.

This makes me wonder how accurate nutritional labels are. It appears that raw foods should show only 1/2 the calories that cooked foods do. Calorie counting just got a whole lot more complicated.

In a way, cooking allowed humans to "eat" woods and grasses that we couldn't digest. A portion of the calories in these biofuels was transferred to raw foods via cooking. It has been estimated that our current agricultural system uses seven to ten calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food. I wonder how the calories in the biofuels used to cook compared to the calories in the raw food eaten? Was more land (or net primary productivity) needed to support one human who cooked his food than one who ate it raw? Hopefully his upcoming book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human will answer these questions.

via The Economist and Wired


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Google PowerMeter

Imagine how hard it would be to stick to a budget in a store with no prices. Well, that's pretty much how we buy electricity today. Your utility company sends you a bill at the end of the month with very few details. Most people don't know how much electricity their appliances use, where in the house they are wasting electricity, or how much the bill might go up during different seasons. But in a world where everyone had a detailed understanding of their home energy use, we could find all sorts of ways to save energy and lower electricity bills. In fact, studies show that access to home energy information results in savings between 5-15% on monthly electricity bills. It may not sound like much, but if half of America's households cut their energy demand by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road.

Google’s mission is to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful," and we believe consumers have a right to detailed information about their home electricity use. We're tackling the challenge on several fronts, from policy advocacy to developing consumer tools, and even investing in smart grid companies. We've been participating in the dialogue in Washington, DC and with public agencies in the U.S. and other parts of the world to advocate for investment in the building of a "smart grid," to bring our 1950s-era electricity grid into the digital age. Specifically, to provide both consumers and utilities with real-time energy information, homes must be equipped with advanced energy meters called "smart meters." There are currently about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide, with plans to add another 100 million in the next few years.

In addition to policy advocacy, we're building consumer tools, too. Over the last several months, our engineers have developed a software tool called Google PowerMeter, which will show consumers their home energy information almost in real time, right on their computer.
I am a big fan of smart meters and am glad to see Google getting involved. This will bring much needed attention to this sector which hopefully will stimulate the entire smart grid and smart meter market. I agree that if people can see where they are using electricity, it makes it easy to reduce while maintaining their current lifestyle. While I like what they are doing with the Google PowerMeter project, I think the bottleneck to smart meter adaption is not low quality software but rather the cost and hassle of getting the hardware to every customer.

Check out this short video overview of the project:

via Google Blog via Earth2Tech and TechCrunch


Kindle 2: Disappointing

Amazon recently released the second version of the Kindle (specs here, pictures and videos here), and while it is an improvement on the previous model, overall I find it disappointing as it added to many pointless features and missed some really valuable ones.

1) Better button placements. Amazon screwed up the original button placement so bad that when they put them in a half way decent place it is considered an upgrade (apparently they stole a page out of the Microsoft upgrade playbook).
2) 20% faster page turns. Still too slow, but going in the right direction.
3) Better navigation with 5 way joystick. This allows for easier definition lookups and the ability to skip to the next article.
4) 25% increase in battery life. They claim you can now go 2 weeks without a recharge with wireless off, but I only get 3-4 days currently with my Kindle, so either I read more than average or I have a bum battery. If it can go 2 weeks that would be great as you could go on vacation and leave the charger at home.
5) Charging via USB. Now you can recharge using your computer (or your USB charger).

Pointless improvements:
1) 2 GB of storage (7x as much). I don't see how anyone can fill up even 100 MB with text files, so adding more is worthless. You can redownload any book from Amazon you want in less than a minute, so unless you are traveling overseas, there isn't a need to store all the books on the Kindle. (This version also gets rid of the SD slot for additional memory, but that is fine by me.)
2) Thinner design. I don't know when anorexia design became chic, but I am just not into it. I have never looked at my Kindle and thought, "damn, you are fat". Unless you have a need to slide this thing under your door, it was already thin enough.
3) Text to speech. Who want's to hear a book read by a text to speech generator (or as Stephen King calls it "GPS voice")? Apparently the lack of quality of this feature hasn't stopped the Author's Guild from suing Amazon over it.
4) "Whispersync" to sync Kindle, Kindle 2 and other devices wirelessly. Why do I want multiple reading devices?

Missed opportunities:
1) Pocket size. Rather than being thinner, what I really wanted was something smaller that could fit in my jacket pocket. Instead we get something that is taller and wider. To add insult to injury at 2:18 in this Amazon video demonstration a guy with super sized jacket pockets nonchalantly slips a Kindle into his. I don't feel that I should have to purchase a "jacket upgrade" in order to take advantage of this feature.
2) Touch screen. The Sony PRS-700BC has it and it works really well. Cool in its own right, but it also allows the device to be smaller as you can ditch the keyboard for a virtual one.
3) Better contrast. This isn't really Amazon's fault as this is based on the e-ink technology. This version saw an increase to 16 shades of gray. But, who cares about more shades of gray? Instead what I want is a background that is as white as the Kindle body, not some grayish white.
4) Lower price. Without a touch screen or a larger reading area, I would have hoped for a lower price point. I guess since they can't keep them in stock that they see no point in lowering the price.
5) More of my 25 ways to improve the Kindle actually integrated. 6 were done with this release but that still leaves 19 to go.

Overall, this is a step up from the first Kindle, but not worth the money to upgrade. Hopefully the Kindle 3 will add some features that will make an upgrade worthwhile.

Also check out additional reviews by David Pogue, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, and Engadget.


Fish With A Transparent Head

Today there's a new addition to the "real life is stranger than fiction" category. Check out the fish Macropinna microstoma. It has tubular eyes and a see-through head.

The common name for the fish is "barreleyes." Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute investigators recently figured out why this species has such an unusual head. Its eyes can actually rotate within its "skull," so the transparency allows the wary swimmer to keep a literal eye on happenings above it, as well as to the sides and directly in front.

Using video cameras, MBARI researchers Bruce Robison and Kim Reisenbichler revealed the fish's eye movements. When remotely operated vehicles approached the fish, its eyes glowed a vivid green shade in the bright lights of the ROVs. Usually the fish were just hanging out motionless under the deep waters offshore California's central coast.
Here is video of the fish in action (also available in HD, sweet):

I can't wait to see what these deep sea cameras will capture next.

via Born Animal and YouTube


Monday, February 23, 2009

One Way to Counteract the Flight to Safety

To caricature: if the world loves American Treasury bills but the funds would be more useful elsewhere, then the government should issue the bills, and use the proceeds to channel the funds where they are needed. It should buy some of the riskier assets, and return some of these funds back to emerging-market countries to offset capital outflows.
Sounds good to me.

via The Economist


NY Times Article Skimmer

If you are like me and can't stand the layout of the NY Times website because it extremely cluttered, uses a zillion different layouts, requires lots of scrolling, and generally makes it hard to scan through lots of articles quickly, you should checkout the new NY Times Article Skimmer.

The Skimmer has a uniform layout with a title and short description for each article and has the ability to go from section to section by just hitting the space bar. It makes it really easy to look over all the articles in the paper quickly.

It is pretty cool, but it would be even better if they made 3 changes.

First, they should ditch the boxes and have all the articles in one vertical column, ala Digg. This boxes layout might work well with a widescreen monitor (though I think a 2 columns setup would work better for these folks), but with my narrowscreen setup it sucks as your eyes are constantly going down rather than across.

Second, they should take another page out of Digg's playbook, and allow sorting of each section by most emailed over the last 1, 7 and 30 days. I don't really care which articles the editors thought were most important and would rather see which readers preferred.

Third, I wish you could bookmark subpages (like Most Emailed) and when you click on a link then hit the back button, that you would return to that subpage rather than the front page. I like the fact that you can hit the space bar to view a new page, but if using that javascript magic negates the ability to get to subpages directly then I think it should be ditched.

Even with these issues it is definitely worth checking out.

via First Look Blog via LifeHacker


Friday, February 20, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

The Economist's special report on the sea.

Three plants that give you better indoor air.

The court case of the century: iFart v. Pull My Finger

Draft version of the Neanderthal genome completed.

Single Google query uses 1000 machines in 0.2 seconds.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Genetic Risk For Substance Use Can Be Neutralized By Good Parenting

Brody and his colleagues, which include UGA Institute for Behavioral Research director Steven Beach and University of Iowa Associate Professor of Psychiatry Robert Philibert, focused their attention on a gene known as 5HTT that’s involved in the transport of the brain chemical serotonin. Most people carry two copies of the long version of the gene, but those with one or two copies of the short version have been shown in several studies to have a greater likelihood of consuming alcohol and other substances and to have higher levels of impulsivity and risk taking.

The researchers interviewed 253 African-American families in rural Georgia over a four-year period. After obtaining informed consent from the parents and youth, they collected saliva samples for genetic testing.

The researchers found that nearly 60 percent of the youth had two copies of the long gene, while the remainder had one or two copies of the short gene that confers risk. As expected, the use of substances was low among 11 year-olds and increased as the youth aged. By age 14, 21 percent of the youth had smoked cigarettes, 42 percent had used alcohol, five percent had drank heavily and five percent had used marijuana.

Among youth with the genetic risk factor, those who received low levels of involved and supportive parenting increased their substance use at rate three times higher than youth with high levels of parental support. Among youth with high levels of involved and supportive parenting, the difference in substance abuse was negligible – regardless of genetic risk.

“In families that were characterized by strong relationships between children and their parents, the effect of the genetic risk was essentially zero,” said Beach, who is also a Distinguished Research Professor in the psychology department of the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “With this study and previous studies looking at environmental risk factors such as poverty, we’re finding that in many cases the best way to help children is to help families become more resilient.”

Interesting. What I am still curious about is whether the parents were notified if their children had the short version of the gene, and if so did it make them more likely to be good parents?

I think genome sequencing services like 23andMe will be a valuable tool for parents, as they will be able to greater understand the risks their children face based on the child's specific genes, and modify the way they parent accordingly.

via ScienceDaily


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Researchers Identify Endophytic Bacteria That Increase Plant Growth

Through work originally designed to remove contaminants from soil, scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and their Belgium colleagues at Hasselt University have identified a number of endophytic (living within a plant) microbes that can improve poplar tree growth on marginal land. Two strains in particular showed an increase in biomass production of up to 50%.

The findings, published in the 1 February issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, may help scientists design strategies for sustainable biofuel feedstock production that does not use food crops or agricultural land.

In the current study, the scientists isolated endophytic bacteria normally resident in poplar and willow roots, and tested selected strains’ abilities to increase poplar growth in a controlled greenhouse environment. They also sequenced the genes from four selected bacterial species and screened them for the production of plant-growth promoting enzymes, hormones, and other metabolic factors that might help explain how the bacteria improve plant growth.

The scientists identified 78 bacterial endophytes from poplar and willow. Some species had beneficial effects on plant growth, others had no effect, and some resulted in decreased growth. In particular, poplar cuttings inoculated with Enterobacter sp. 638 and Burkholderia cepacia BU72 repeatedly showed the highest increase in biomass production—up to 50%—as compared with non-inoculated control plants.
Interesting. I was unaware that there were bacteria that lived symbiotically within trees and other plants. It seems like this is a promising avenue for genetic engineering, as I would think bacteria genomes are easier to manipulate than plant genomes.

I wonder why they are focusing on this as a way to increase yield of biofuels than edible crops? I am curious if similar bacteria are present in corn and wheat. I don't see why you couldn't use similar techniques on crops to allow them to grow on marginal lands as well.

via Green Car Congress


Slow Motion Dive Bombing Bird Catches Fish

via LiveLeak


Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Get Banned from TED

Personally, I think this is a perfectly valid topic for a TED talk, as I have unsuccessfully struggled to find a solution as well (maybe the answer is to straighten out the smile :]).

via xkcd


Educational Attainment and Wages Changes by Sex

In recent decades, as the educational attainment of men has stagnated, so have their wages. The median male worker is roughly as educated as he was 30 years ago and makes roughly the same in hourly pay. The median female worker is far more educated than she was 30 years ago and makes 30 percent more than she did then.
You can take a look at how the average (mean) years of completed schooling has changed over the last 100 year by sex here.

via NY Times Magazine


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interesting Articles of the Week

DIY DNA: One father's attempt to hack his daughter's genetic code.

Can better lead-acid batteries compete in a lithium-ion world?

Extinct ibex resurrected by cloning… then goes extinct again 7 minutes later.

Two new satellites will monitor carbon dioxide emissions.

India to launch cow urine as soft drink (and no we aren't talking about Mountain Dew here).


MIT's Sixth Sense

Students at the MIT Media Lab have developed a wearable computing system that turns any surface into an interactive display screen. The wearer can summon virtual gadgets and internet data at will, then dispel them like smoke when they're done.

Pattie Maes of the lab's Fluid Interfaces group said the research is aimed at creating a new digital "sixth sense" for humans.

In the tactile world, we use our five senses to take in information about our environment and respond to it, Maes explained. But a lot of the information that helps us understand and respond to the world doesn't come from these senses. Instead, it comes from computers and the internet. Maes' goal is to harness computers to feed us information in an organic fashion, like our existing senses.

The prototype was built from an ordinary webcam and a battery-powered 3M projector, with an attached mirror -- all connected to an internet-enabled mobile phone. The setup, which costs less than $350, allows the user to project information from the phone onto any surface -- walls, the body of another person or even your hand.

Pretty cool what they can accomplish with just $350 worth of hardware. To be honest though, I am not sure how much value this has over just getting out a smart phone to access the information. If they integrate the projector into glasses and get rid of the need for special Magic Marker caps on fingers, then I think they have something.

I like the concept of "augmented reality" though, where additional information about products or people can be gathered from the internet and then displayed to you in real time.

More cool stuff in this video which shows (yet again) that in the future humans will spend most of their time resizing and rotating images.

via Wired


Scientists Read Minds With Infrared Scan

Researchers at Canada's largest children's rehabilitation hospital have developed a technique that uses infrared light brain imaging to decode preference – with the goal of ultimately opening the world of choice to children who can't speak or move.

In a study published this month in The Journal of Neural Engineering, Bloorview scientists demonstrate the ability to decode a person's preference for one of two drinks with 80 per cent accuracy by measuring the intensity of near-infrared light absorbed in brain tissue.

The nine adults in Luu's study received no training. Prior to the study they rated eight drinks on a scale of one to five.

Wearing a headband fitted with fibre-optics that emit light into the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, they were shown two drinks on a computer monitor, one after the other, and asked to make a mental decision about which they liked more. "When your brain is active, the oxygen in your blood increases and depending on the concentration, it absorbs more or less light," Luu says. "In some people, their brains are more active when they don't like something, and in some people they're more active when they do like something."
via ScienceDaily


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Malta: Smart Grid Island

The island nation of Malta will soon be able to call itself the first smart grid island (reality TV show anyone?) IBM is planning to build the first national smart grid network on Malta complete with 250,000 smart meters that will enable the national utilities and their customers to better manage energy and water use. The deal is for 70 million euro ($90 million) and the network is supposed to be completed by 2012.

OK, so Malta is tiny, with less than 400,000 people — in comparison PG&E is rolling out millions of smart meters to its customers in Northern California. But the Maltese network, like the Smart Grid city in Boulder, Colo., could provide valuable information about how an entire community responds to these new tools.

Malta’s smart grid network will allow the national utilities — Enemalta Corp. and Water Services Corp. — to conduct remote monitoring, meter reading and real-time management of the network based on IT. Real-time monitoring and smart meters can deliver pricing based on time of day, enabling the utility to better manage energy consumption and customers to cut their electrical bills. Malta residents will also be able to track their energy use online and see how to curb consumption habits.

Looks like it costs around $360 per each of the 250,000 electric meters being replaced.

via Earth2Tech


Oceans: The Movie

Film producer Jake Eberts has a reputation for making films that no one else would or could make, films including Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Dances with Wolves. The film he’s involved with now is even bigger - as big as the blue whales it depicts.

The picture is titled Oceans, and it’s the latest production by Jacques Perrin, the creator of the legendary “Winged Migration“, a beautiful film about birds in flight. Meeting Perrin shortly after Winged Migration was released, Eberts joked with Perrin, “I bet you’re thinking about birds”. Perrin responded that he wasn’t - he was thinking about whales, about sharks and octopus. This resonated with Eberts, who remembered seeing a Beluga whale while sailing as a boy, and always wanted to see the blue whale in the water.

The idea behind the film is to give an emotional connection to 70% of the earth’s surface, a part of the planet under threat from global warming and pollution. It’s not a narrative film in a conventional sense - instead, it’s an impressionistic portrait of the world’s oceans with foot shot on, above and under water. The technical challenges of the filming were substantial - Eberts tells us about a cinematographer who spent 28 days submerged with a camera, attempting to film blue whales underwater, and failing. To obtain footage, the team designed new camera mounts for helicopters, cameras on torpedoes, and cameras capable of filming dolphins swimming at full speed.
Move over crittercam, torpedocam is the new hotness.
It’s cost more than $75 million to film thus far, a sum out of reach even for feature films, never mind documentaries. It’s been financed by investors, sponsors and foundations, and will be released in France in October 2009 on Pathé and in the US on Earth Day, 2010 by Disney. The film has required eight years of Perrin’s life and now exists as 300 hours of footage, which need to become a two hour feature. The nine minutes we got to see here at TED were breathtaking, and I can’t wait to see the rest.
$75 million for a documentary on the oceans, now we are talking! Way to go Disneynature and keep these nature films coming.

Can't wait for this one to come out.

via Ethan Zuckerman


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Air Force One

Last year America ramped up wind-power capacity to 25 gigawatts (GW), overtaking the previous leader, Germany, according to new data from the Global Wind Energy Council.
Suck Blow on it, Germany. We're #1!

via The Economist


Wireless Detectors for Dementia

Researchers at the University of South Florida (USF) have developed a wireless network that evaluates walking patterns in an attempt to detect early signs of dementia. The USF researchers have developed an RFID system that allows walking patterns to be monitored in a natural setting.

To test the approach, the USF researchers put RFID tags on the wrists of residents at two assisted-living homes in Florida. These tags transmitted signals that were picked up by receivers placed around each building, revealing the wearer's movements in all three spatial dimensions to within 10 inches of accuracy.

The researchers analyzed participants' movements for telltale signs of cognitive decline: a tendency to wander, veer suddenly, or repeatedly pause. In a study involving 20 residents the researchers found a statistical relationship between those who showed abnormal walking patterns and those whose mental test scores indicated dementia. In the future, the USF team plans to develop software that will automatically detect these warning signs.

Interesting idea to be able to detect dementia via walking patterns recorded by a wireless device. Somebody should whip up an iPhone app to do the same thing.

via Technology Review via Engadget


Giraffe Fight

Man, someone really needs to turn that into a video game.

via YouTube


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Salt Power

Only up to powering light bulbs so far, "salt power" is a tantalizing if distant prospect as high oil prices make alternative energy sources look more economical.

Two tiny projects to mix sea and river water -- one by the fjord south of Oslo, the other at a Dutch seaside lake -- are due on stream this year and may point to a new source of clean energy in estuaries from the Mississippi to the Yangtze.

The experiments, which seek to capture the energy released when fresh and salt water are mixed, build on knowledge that has been around for centuries -- in one case imitating the process of osmosis used by trees to suck water from their roots.

The science at the heart of the projects is the fact that when salt and fresh water mix at river mouths, they are typically warmed by 0.1 degree Celsius (0.2 Fahrenheit). Dutch scientists say such energy at all the world's estuaries is equivalent to 20 percent of world electricity demand.

The Norwegian and Dutch plants use different systems but both depend on membranes placed between the salt and fresh water, which are currently prohibitively expensive and highly energy-intensive to produce.

The Norwegian project will include 2,000 square meters (21,530 sq ft) of plastic membranes, through which fresh water will be sucked into salt water by osmosis.

At Tofte, the power exerted by salt water sucking in fresh water is equivalent to water falling 270 meters in a waterfall. The only emissions are brackish water.
If they can get the price of those membranes down, this looks like a promising way to produce electricity.

via Reuters


Japan Sewage Yields More Gold than Top Mines

A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world's best mines. An official in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said the high percentage of gold found at the Suwa facility was probably due to the large number of precision equipment manufacturers in the vicinity that use the yellow metal. The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.

That is a far higher gold content than Japan's Hishikari Mine, one of the world's top gold mines, owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd (5713.T), which contains 20-40 grammes of the precious metal per tonne of ore.
via Reuters