Leopard savaging a crocodile caught on camera

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Crocodiles have been known to catch and eat leopards from time to time, but now a leopard has been caught on camera “savaging” a crocodile — which is a pretty big risk to take for not much meat:

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

Tall ships make a comeback as oil price hits exports

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Tall ships make a comeback as oil price hits exports:

A British schooner docked in Penzance yesterday carrying 30,000 bottles of wine on a voyage that enthusiasts believe will herald a return to wind power in merchant shipping.

The first commercial cargo of French wine to be transported by sail in the modern era is due in Dublin this week after a six-day journey, which is being touted as a green and ultimately cheap alternative to fuel propulsion.

The 108-year-old, wooden, triple-masted Kathleen & May has been chartered by the Compagnie de Transport Maritime à la Voile (CTMV), a shipping company established in France to specialise in merchant sailing. “This is beyond anybody’s dreams,” said Steve Clarke, the owner of the Kathleen & May, which was built in 1900 in Ferguson and Baird’s yard at Connah’s Quay near Chester.

“When I bought this boat in 1966 it was going to be cut up with chainsaws. Nobody ever imagined it would ever sail again.” He said that amid high fuel costs and concern over carbon emissions, commercial sailing ships could have a future. “I think they might have hit on something.”

Amusingly, the Kathleen & May site is still offering “an exceptionally rare opportunity to purchase an important part of Britain’s maritime heritage”:

Built in 1900, the Kathleen & May is the only wooden triple-masted sailing schooner still in existence. One of only 60 famous tall ships on the UK’s National Register of Historic Vessels, neighbours include the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory. Beautiful and graceful, this tall ship has been completely and sympathetically renovated to its original 1900 specification.

Why we never need to build another polluting power plant

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Joseph Romm argues that we never need to build another power plant, because we can just use our current energy supply more efficiently — but power companies have no incentive to push conservation:

The more electricity a utility sells, the more money it makes. If it’s able to boost electricity demand enough, the utility is allowed to build a new power plant with a guaranteed profit. The only way a typical utility can lose money is if demand drops.

California, of course, has pushed conservation:

In the past three decades, electricity consumption per capita grew 60 percent in the rest of the nation, while it stayed flat in high-tech, fast-growing California. If all Americans had the same per capita electricity demand as Californians currently do, we would cut electricity consumption 40 percent. If the entire nation had California’s much cleaner electric grid, we would cut total U.S. global-warming pollution by more than a quarter without raising American electric bills. And if all of America adopted the same energy-efficiency policies that California is now putting in place, the country would never have to build another polluting power plant.

How did California do it?

Many of the strategies are obvious: better insulation, energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling. But some of the strategies were unexpected. The state found that the average residential air duct leaked 20 to 30 percent of the heated and cooled air it carried. It then required leakage rates below 6 percent, and every seventh new house is inspected. The state found that in outdoor lighting for parking lots and streets, about 15 percent of the light was directed up, illuminating nothing but the sky. The state required new outdoor lighting to cut that to below 6 percent. Flat roofs on commercial buildings must be white, which reflects the sunlight and keeps the buildings cooler, reducing air-conditioning energy demands. The state subsidized high-efficiency LED traffic lights for cities that lacked the money, ultimately converting the entire state.

Significantly, California adopted regulations so that utility company profits are not tied to how much electricity they sell. This is called “decoupling.” It also allowed utilities to take a share of any energy savings they help consumers and businesses achieve. The bottom line is that California utilities can make money when their customers save money. That puts energy-efficiency investments on the same competitive playing field as generation from new power plants.

The cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2 to 3 cents per avoided kilowatt hour, which is about one-fifth the cost of electricity generated from new nuclear, coal and natural gas-fired plants. And, of course, energy efficiency does not require new power lines and does not generate greenhouse-gas emissions or long-lived radioactive waste.

Saving energy is a surprisingly easy way to save a lot of money, as Dow Chemical’s Louisiana division found out when it held an employee contest for energy-saving ideas:

The first year of the contest had 27 winners requiring a total capital investment of $1.7 million with an average annual return on investment of 173 percent. Many at Dow felt that there couldn’t be others with such high returns. The skeptics were wrong. The 1983 contest had 32 winners requiring a total capital investment of $2.2 million and a 340 percent return — a savings of $7.5 million in the first year and every year after that. Even as fuel prices declined in the mid-1980s, the savings kept growing. The average return to the 1989 contest was the highest ever, an astounding 470 percent in 1989 — a payback of 11 weeks that saved the company $37 million a year.

You might think that after 10 years, and nearly 700 projects, the 2,000 Dow employees would be tapped out of ideas. Yet the contest in 1991, 1992 and 1993 each had in excess of 120 winners with an average return on investment of 300 percent. Total savings to Dow from just those projects exceeded $75 million a year.

Ironically, the Department of Energy needed a similar competition to reduce its own energy waste:

As they were at Dow, many DOE employees were skeptical such opportunities existed. Yet the first two contest rounds identified and funded 18 projects that cost $4.6 million and provided the department $10 million in savings every year, while avoiding more than 100 tons of low-level radioactive pollution and other kinds of waste. The DOE’s regional operating officers ended up funding 260 projects costing $20 million that have been estimated to achieve annual savings of $90 million a year.

Naturally Romm thinks the answer lies in more and better federal regulations. I suspect higher energy prices will get companies looking to reduce energy waste.

Writing what I should have written so many years ago

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

Kevin Myers continues his politically incorrect writing by writing what [he] should have written so many years ago:

The people of Ireland remained in ignorance of the reality of Africa because of cowardly journalists like me. When I went to Ethiopia just over 20 years ago, I saw many things I never reported — such as the menacing effect of gangs of young men with Kalashnikovs everywhere, while women did all the work. In the very middle of starvation and death, men spent their time drinking the local hooch in the boonabate shebeens. Alongside the boonabates were shanty-brothels, to which drinkers would casually repair, to briefly relieve themselves in the scarred orifice of some wretched prostitute (whom God preserve and protect). I saw all this and did not report it, nor the anger of the Irish aid workers at the sexual incontinence and fecklessness of Ethiopian men. Why? Because I wanted to write much-acclaimed, tear-jerkingly purple prose about wide-eyed, fly-infested children — not cold, unpopular and even “racist” accusations about African male culpability.

(Hat tip to Michael Blowhard.)

TapouT Holds the Ring in a Scrappy Game

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

MMA has gone mainstream, as evidenced by its MSM coverage.

For me, the highlight of BusinessWeek‘s recent piece is the picture of Charles “Mask” Lewis, looking like a clown, saying, “We’re respected.”

Yes, yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking — respected.

Sid and Marty Krofft are still pulling the strings

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

Puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft are still pulling the strings:

Universal Pictures has just finished principal photography on a $100-million adaptation of “Land of the Lost,” the mid-1970s Krofft show about a family stranded in a jungle teeming with dinosaurs and hissing reptile-men called Sleestak.

Seriously, a $100-million adaptation of Land of the Lost? It gets wackier:

The remake is a comedy starring Will Ferrell, and Universal has circled it as its big popcorn movie for summer 2009.

Radiation-Seeking Fungus

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

In Chernobyl, wildlife is thriving. In fact, in the old reactor, a new radiation-seeking fungus is thriving:

In 1999, a robot sent to map the inside of the reactor returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin, which also colours your skin.

Though melanin is typically associated with ‘protective’ properties – absorbing and safely transforming different electromagnetic wavelengths, such as DNA-damaging ultraviolet light – the researchers had an inkling that a more extraordinary phenomenon was allowing the fungi to prosper; something still involving the combination of melanin and radiation, but beyond the bounds of radioactive protection.

After all, even without melanin, many fungi are intrinsically radiation-resistant.

Their hunch was bolstered by findings of melanised fungi, happily congregating in the cooling pools of functional nuclear reactors, and by studies of dark, ‘radiation-seeking’ fungi, purposefully growing towards radioactive particles in soil, particularly around Chernobyl.

The team looked to the example of photosynthesis as a model, said Casadevall. If plants can use the green pigment, chlorophyll, to absorb energy from the Sun and produce a usable form of chemical energy, they reasoned, fungi might be able to use their melanin pigment and radiation energy in a similar way. They even devised the snazzy moniker, ‘radiosynthesis’, for the process.

To test their idea, the group analysed three different types of fungi, including Cladosporium sphaerospermum, the species abundant in and around Chernobyl. Using ionising radiation from the radioactive isotope, caesium-137, they exposed the fungi to radiation doses similar to those inside the damaged reactor, and about 500 times greater than the Earth’s normal background level.

Melanin-containing fungi exposed to the radiation – even when nutrient-starved on purpose – grew significantly larger and up to 2.5 times faster than fungi without melanin and those not exposed to radiation.

The strange case of the superheroes, the geeks and the studios

Friday, July 25th, 2008

The strange case of the superheroes, the geeks and the studios explains that Comic-con is put on by a non-profit entity:

I posited to the folks that put together Comic-con that not only might they be making a wack-load more money if they went into business — or at least had a for-profit arm — but that they might even be better at fulfilling their stated mission. Why let the studios make all this money off their backs? Some obvious profit-maximizing efforts for Comic-con would include raising ticket prices or moving the whole event — which sells out and bursts the seams of San Diego’s convention center — to a bigger venue like Las Vegas. Variety recently noted that the event’s $75 four-day passes were being scalped for as much as $300.

Here’s a quick financial profile, based on Comic-con’s most recent publicly-available financial statement, for the fiscal year ended August 2006: The company earned roughly $1 million on revenues of nearly $6 million, and had some $5 million in retained earnings. Only four full-time employees make more than $50,000, and the highest paid made $76,000 that year. One of the four, marketing chief David Glanzer, told me eagerly that the convention “isn’t about the money, it’s about the content. We’re a group of fans trying to put on a show.”

Tesla’s wild ride

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Tesla’s wild ride got particularly wild when PayPal co-founder Elon Musk offered to fund the fledgling electric-car company:

Musk saw the franchise-dealership arrangements that U.S. car companies had tangled themselves up in as an increasingly expensive, margin-killing model. He wanted to own and operate Tesla dealerships rather than franchise them. He wanted final say over all decisions — which he would get by naming himself chairman. And finally, Musk demanded that they close the deal in two weeks. His wife was expecting twins, and he needed everything buttoned up by then. Though Musk had a reputation for outsized thinking and an ego to match, Eberhard wasn’t in a position to be picky. As he puts it, “You take money from the people who offer it to you.”

Tesla now had funding, a business plan, and even a chassis. The first prototype of Tesla’s car, dubbed the Roadster, would be based on a $45,000 fiberglass-skinned sports car that Lotus sold, called the Elise. Lotus made fast, light cars and also had the virtue of being the only sports car manufacturer that would give Tesla management the time of day. While Eberhard was thrilled to have a viable plan to build the Roadster, Musk had even bigger ideas. “Eberhard’s initial stimulus for starting Tesla was to build the EV he wanted to buy,” says Wright. “Musk had a much grander vision: He wanted to be the next General Motors.”
As the car progressed, staffers began to realize that a green light from Eberhard was not sufficient. “The question always had to be asked,” says Tarpenning, “‘What will Elon think of that?’”

As time went on, Musk became more and more comfortable pulling rank. Jessica Switzer, who ran marketing at Tesla until the car’s official launch in 2006, recalls persuading Eberhard to spend $30,000 on focus groups to test the car’s logo, look, and feel. A few weeks later Musk killed the project without explanation. With Eberhard’s approval, Switzer hired people from a PR firm in Detroit to drum up publicity in the automotive press before the car’s launch. Musk promptly fired them. She later learned that Musk didn’t want to spend money on marketing before the car was finished and figured his own involvement and the car itself would drum up more than enough PR.

When it came to design, Musk’s vision — building the Next Great American Car Company — soon came into conflict with Eberhard’s goal of getting a cool electric sports car to market quickly and relatively cheaply. The Lotus Elise chassis on which the Roadster was based had a high doorsill, a feature that makes entering the car tricky if you are not careful. Getting out is even harder. It took several attempts for Musk’s wife to get out of an early Roadster prototype while wearing a dress. So Musk ordered the engineers to lower the doorsill two inches, thereby losing much of the cost savings that come from using a crash-tested off-the-rack chassis. “Have you tried getting out of an Elise?” asks Musk. “It’s like you have to be a contortionist.”

And rather than use the fiberglass body panels from the Elise that Eberhard had suggested, Musk insisted on carbon fiber, a lighter, stronger, and “cooler” material, in his opinion. He then went on to redesign the headlights and the door latches. After riding for a weekend in an early Roadster model and taking a beating in the standard Lotus seats, he insisted that custom seats be developed. Every change meant additional cost and time. “I always argued that we would sell exactly as many cars whether the door latches were push-button or electronic, whether the body panels were carbon fiber or fiberglass,” Eberhard says. “All the nicer, cooler, faster stuff increased risk.”

But Musk got his way, in large part because he was putting more and more of his own money into Tesla. He led Tesla’s $12 million second round of financing in the fall of 2005, and also convinced some of his high-powered friends, including Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and eBay employee No. 2, Jeff Skoll, to invest in later rounds. To date, he has personally put in $55 million of the $145 million Tesla has raised.

Musk, who is precise in his sentences, laughs easily, and if fired up will literally leap from his chair to punctuate a comment, admits he poked his nose into everything. “I was very insistent on things during the design phase, and it is true those things cost money,” he says, “but you can’t sell a $100,000 car that looks like crap.” Unfortunately, while the exterior of the Tesla was designed and redesigned to meet Musk’s exacting specifications, there was one very big problem: Two months before the car was set to debut in the summer of 2006, it still didn’t have a production-ready transmission.

I remember being perplexed by Tesla’s transmission problem, because electric vehicles generally have very simple transmissions with just one gear:

Electric motors have the advantage of being lightning fast from a standing start. But to get to the top speed that Tesla had promised (125 mph), they needed either a more powerful drive train or a second gear that could send the car speeding beyond 100 mph.

Problem was, Tesla’s engineering team didn’t yet have the experience to build a more powerful drive train, and no one had come up with a two-speed transmission that could go from 13,000 rpm to 7,000 rpm and survive for more than a few thousand miles before it wore out. Eberhard was inclined to stay on schedule, get cars on the road by sticking with one gear, and offer a Roadster that topped out at 110 mph.

Instead Musk launched the search for a supplier that could deliver a two-speed transmission. “Why did DeLorean fail?” Musk asks. “Because it was a shitty sports car. It may have looked cool, but it had the acceleration of a Honda Civic. That’s what our car would have been with the motor we had and the power electronics we had connected to a single speed.”

The whole point of an electric sports car is not top speed.

Homeland Security Cost-Benefit Analysis

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Bruce Schneier looks at John Mueller’s homeland security cost-benefit analysis, titled The Quixotic Quest for Invulnerability: Assessing the Costs, Benefits, and Probabilities of Protecting the Homeland:

The premises:
  1. The number of potential terrorist targets is essentially infinite.
  2. The probability that any individual target will be attacked is essentially zero.
  3. If one potential target happens to enjoy a degree of protection, the agile terrorist usually can readily move on to another one.
  4. Most targets are “vulnerable” in that it is not very difficult to damage them, but invulnerable in that they can be rebuilt in fairly short order and at tolerable expense.
  5. It is essentially impossible to make a very wide variety of potential terrorist targets invulnerable except by completely closing them down.

The policy implications:

  1. Any protective policy should be compared to a “null case”: do nothing, and use the money saved to rebuild and to compensate any victims.
  2. Abandon any effort to imagine a terrorist target list.
  3. Consider negative effects of protection measures: not only direct cost, but inconvenience, enhancement of fear, negative economic impacts, reduction of liberties.
  4. Consider the opportunity costs, the tradeoffs, of protection measures.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper attempts to set out some general parameters for coming to grips with a central homeland security concern: the effort to make potential targets invulnerable, or at least notably less vulnerable, to terrorist attack. It argues that protection makes sense only when protection is feasible for an entire class of potential targets and when the destruction of something in that target set would have quite large physical, economic, psychological, and/or political consequences. There are a very large number of potential targets where protection is essentially a waste of resources and a much more limited one where it may be effective.

The closer you are to the ball, the higher your score

Friday, July 25th, 2008

The closer you are to the ball, the higher your score on the Wonderlic IQ test. Ben Fry decided to illustrate this:

Wonderlic himself says that basically, the scores decrease as you move further away from the ball, which is interesting but unsurprising. It’s sort of obvious that a quarterback needs to be on the smarter side, but I was curious to see what this actually looked like. Using this table as a guide, I then grabbed this diagram from Wikipedia showing a typical formation in a football game. I cleaned up the design of the diagram a bit and replaced the positions with their scores….To make the diagram a bit clearer, I scaled each position based on its score….With the proportion, I no longer need the numbers, so I’ve switched back to using the initials for each position’s title:

I’m odd enough that this was one of my first questions:

Don’t tell Tufte that I’ve used the radius, not the proportional area, of the circle as the value for each ellipse! A cardinal sin that I’m using in this case to improve proportion and clarify a point.

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

Royal Marine who jumped on grenade awarded George Cross

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

A Royal Marine who jumped on a grenade was awarded the George Cross — which is like the Victoria Cross, but is awarded for bravery while not in the face of the enemy:

“It was a case of either having four of us as fatalities or badly wounded — or one,” he said after the incident last February in Helmand province

L/Cpl Croucher, 24, was part of a company of 40 Commando sent to investigate a suspected Taliban bomb-making factory near the town of Sangin when he set off the trip-wire booby-trap that unleashed the deadly grenade.

“I thought, ‘I’ve set this bloody thing off and I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect the others,’” he said.

The Marine then shouted “Grenade. Take cover” to three men close to the bomb.

“I knew a grenade like this has a killing circumference of about five metres,” he said. “I’d been through this scenario in my mind and realised there was nowhere to take cover — there’s no point running off because you’re going to catch shrapnel.

“The lads behind me would have caught a lot too.”

The serviceman, from Birmingham, “fully expected” to lose a limb but was willing to make the sacrifice “if I could keep my torso and head intact”.

He dived onto the floor, rolled over and used his backpack — containing a 66mm rocket, a large lithium battery and medical kit — to cover the lethal shrapnel fragments from the coming blast.

When the bang went off he was thrown through the air and suffered just a nose bleed.

“It took 30 seconds before I realised I was definitely not dead,” he said.

The astonished Marines looked on as L/Cpl Croucher’s body armour and backpack shielded everyone from the blast which caused a few cuts and bruises.

L/Cpl Croucher was examined by a medic who recommended he should be evacuated but the Marine, who has completed three tours of Iraq, was determined to stay to fight the Taliban and within an hour had shot an insurgent approaching their position.

On Board Energy Storage

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Rod Adams explains how on-board energy storage is the reason why automobile engineers chose fossil fuel so many years ago — and why we still use fossil fuel today:

When you look at the products of the reaction in a balanced equation — where all of the input elements are accounted for in the outputs — you will discover that the products weigh about 4.5–5 times as much as the hydrogen and carbon input.

The rest of the weight comes from oxygen. Here is the chemical equation often used to describe gasoline combustion (gasoline is actually a complex combination of various hydrocarbons each with different numbers of carbon and hydrogen atoms, but C8H18 is representative of them all.)

C8H18 + 12.5 O2 ? 8 CO2 + 9 H2O

By mass, only 114 units out of 514 units are in the gasoline, while the rest is in the oxygen. This is important for vehicles because oxygen does not need to be carried — it can be sucked in as needed. There is also no technical requirement — in the absence of new regulations — to capture and store the waste products and carry them around.

The people who developed the internal combustion engines were seeking a way to eliminate the weight of the water, piping and pressure vessels that limited the portability of steam engines. They figured out that they could use the hot products from combustion to directly move pistons and turbines as long as the input fuel did not have too many contaminants that could damage the engine parts. Coal and wood contain a lot of contaminants and both of those solid materials cannot be moved with pumps.

Batteries have to contain all of the chemicals on both sides of their energy releasing equation. The very best batteries available today can store about 0.4 MJ/kg (0.05 kw-hr/lb) including the cases and safety systems. In contrast, gasoline carries about 46 MJ/kg (5.7 kw-hrs/lb).

Even with a 20% efficient IC engine, a gasoline tank stores 20 times as much energy as a battery of equal weight. As the vehicle is moving it gets rid of some of that weight. Battery powered vehicles must carry the full weight of their energy source.

The energy density difference also plays a key role in the time that it takes to put more energy back on the vehicle once a fuel load is consumed. A two minute fill-up of a 12 gallon tank puts the equivalent of 87 kilowatt-hours into the vehicle, again, taking into account the 20% thermal efficiency.

87 kilowatt-hours in 2 minutes works out to 2.6 MegaWatts. Even with a 220 volt connection, that would require about 11,800 amperes of current. Just imagine the size of the electric cables for that current.

Soy foods ‘reduce sperm numbers’

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Soy foods 'reduce sperm numbers' — or lesser men eat soy:

The Harvard School of Public Health study looked at the diets of 99 men who had attended a fertility clinic with their partners and provided a semen sample.

The men were divided into four groups depending on how much soy they ate, and when the sperm concentration of men eating the most soy was compared with those eating the least, there was a significant difference.

The “normal” sperm concentration for a man is between 80 and 120 million per millilitre, and the average of men who ate on average a portion of soy-based food every other day was 41 million fewer.

Dr Jorge Chavarro, who led the study, said that chemicals called isoflavones in the soy might be affecting sperm production.

These chemicals can have similar effects to the human hormone oestrogen.

Dr Chavarro noticed that overweight or obese men seemed even more prone to this effect, which may reflect the fact that higher levels of body fat can also lead to increased oestrogen production in men.

Barely Alive, Seafloor Microbes Might Resemble Exo-Organisms

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Barely Alive, Seafloor Microbes Might Resemble Exo-Organisms:

Deep below the sea floor live massive colonies of primitive microbes.

Almost like one-celled zombies, these microbes use so little energy that it might be more accurate to call them undead rather than alive.

Yet scientists think that the species might provide a model for life on other planets. Even on this planet, such microbes might account for a whopping 10 percent of the Earth’s biomass.

“In essence, these microbes are almost, practically dead by our normal standards,” said Christopher House, a geosciences professor at Penn State University, and the lead author of the paper, in a release. “They metabolize a little, but not much.”

The cold, lightless and energy-poor conditions under the seafloor provide a promising research analog for the harsh conditions in subsurface Martian soil or near hydrothermal vents on Europa, Jupiter’s second moon.

“We do not expect the microbes in other places to be these microbes exactly,” said House. “But, they could be living at a similar slow rate.”

Subseafloor microbes, according to a metagenomic analysis to be published Thursday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , are genetically distinct from life on Earth’s surface and oceans. The Archaea the Penn State researchers found might look like bacteria, but they don’t eat or work like them. While E. coli might double its numbers in 30 minutes, Archaea could take hundreds or even thousands of years to accomplish the same amount of growth.

The researchers conducted their work off the coast of South America in a region known as the Peru Margin. They sampled genetic material from the biomes at varying depths. Below 160 feet, the researcher said Archaea account for 90 percent of the life present, and represent the most unique environment thus far revealed by metagenomic analysis.

The Archaea represent a thus-far untapped genetic repository for scientists looking for novel genes for changing metabolism, withstanding cold or synthesizing chemicals.