I’ve seen the future, and it works!

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Bryan Caplan returns from Singapore and is tempted to say, I’ve seen the future, and it works!

If Asia stays on course for the next three decades, China will be a massive version of Singapore — and India will be a massive version of Malaysia.

The “broken windows” theory of crime is correct

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

The “broken windows” theory of crime is correct:

Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave. They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter and steal.
His group’s first study was conducted in an alley that is frequently used to park bicycles. As in all of their experiments, the researchers created two conditions: one of order and the other of disorder. In the former, the walls of the alley were freshly painted; in the latter, they were tagged with graffiti (but not elaborately, to avoid the perception that it might be art). In both states a large sign prohibiting graffiti was put up, so that it would not be missed by anyone who came to collect a bicycle. All the bikes then had a flyer promoting a non-existent sports shop attached to their handlebars. This needed to be removed before a bicycle could be ridden.

When owners returned, their behaviour was secretly observed. There were no rubbish bins in the alley, so a cyclist had three choices. He could take the flyer with him, hang it on another bicycle (which the researchers counted as littering) or throw it to the floor. When the alley contained graffiti, 69% of the riders littered compared with 33% when the walls were clean.

To remove one possible bias — that litter encourages more litter — the researchers inconspicuously picked up each castaway flyer. Nor, they say, could the effect be explained by litterers assuming that because the spraying of graffiti had not been prevented, it was also unlikely that they would be caught. Littering, Dr Keizer observes, is generally tolerated by the police in Groningen.

The other experiments were carried out in a similar way. In one, a temporary fence was used to close off a short cut to a car park, except for a narrow gap. Two signs were erected, one telling people there was no throughway and the other saying that bicycles must not be left locked to the fence. In the “order” condition (with four bicycles parked nearby, but not locked to the fence) 27% of people were prepared to trespass by stepping through the gap, whereas in the disorder condition (with the four bikes locked to the fence, in violation of the sign) 82% took the short cut.

Nor were the effects limited to visual observation of petty criminal behaviour. It is against the law to let off fireworks in the Netherlands for several weeks before New Year’s Eve. So two weeks before the festival the researchers randomly let off firecrackers near a bicycle shed at a main railway station and watched what happened using their flyer technique. With no fireworks, 48% of people took the flyers with them when they collected their bikes. With fireworks, this fell to 20%.

The most dramatic result, though, was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Even if the post box had no graffiti on it, but the area around it was littered with paper, orange peel, cigarette butts and empty cans, 25% still took the envelope.

The researchers’ conclusion is that one example of disorder, like graffiti or littering, can indeed encourage another, like stealing. Dr Kelling was right. The message for policymakers and police officers is that clearing up graffiti or littering promptly could help fight the spread of crime.

Electricity from Waste Heat

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

Ener-G-Rotors claims its technology can cost-effectively generate electricity from waste heat:

Factories, data centers, power plants — even your clothes dryer — throw off waste heat that could be a useful source of energy. But most existing heat-harvesting technologies are efficient only at temperatures above 150°C, and much waste heat just isn’t that hot. Now Ener-G-Rotors, based in Schenectady, NY, is developing technology that can use heat between 65 and 150°C.
Ener-G-Rotors’ technology is based on the Rankine cycle, in which heated fluid flowing through a tube heats a pressurized fluid in a second tube via a heat exchanger. The second tube is a closed loop; the so-called working fluid flowing through it (a refrigerant with a low boiling point, in the case of Ener-G-Rotors) vaporizes and travels into a larger space called an expander. There, as the name would imply, it expands, exerting a mechanical force that can be converted into electricity.

Instead of turning a turbine, the expanding vapor in Ener-G-Rotors’ system turns the gerotor, which is really two concentric rotors. The inner rotor attaches to an axle, and the outer rotor is a kind of collar around it. The rotors have mismatched gear teeth, and when vapor passing between them forces them apart, the gears mesh, turning the rotor.

The company claims that the rotor design is far simpler than that of a turbine, making it potentially easier and cheaper to manufacture, as well as more durable. And the company says that it has invented a proprietary way of mounting the rotor on rolling bearings that makes its movement nearly frictionless.

Reducing the friction means that the rotor turns more easily, so the gas doesn’t need to exert as much force to generate electricity. That’s why the system can work at lower temperatures, which impart less energy to the gas.

The company expects to convert 10 to 15 percent of low-temperature waste heat into electricity, delivering a payback in two years or less in most cases, says CEO Michael Newell. Ener-G-Rotors plans to both sell systems to customers outright and operate its own systems and sell power.

Kuwaiti Entrepreneur Hopes to Create the Next Pokémon

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

A Kuwaiti entrepreneur hopes to create the next Pokémon — or Justice League:

Two years ago, Naif Al Mutawa started up his own comic-book series, spurred by the dearth of Arabic-language children’s books in the Middle East.

Now, the 37-year-old Kuwaiti entrepreneur and his small company, backed by Islamic-compliant private investors, are lining up deals that could help him build a children’s-entertainment powerhouse in the Arab world.
Ynon Kreiz, CEO of Endemol and the former head of Fox Kids Europe, who has ushered in hit franchises like Power Rangers, thinks that Mr. Mutawa has found the right formula to make it big globally. “The subject matter and angle here give us a chance to really stand out,” Mr. Kreiz says of “The 99.”

Teshkeel and Edemol plan to write and produce a season of 30-minute cartoons based on the comic books. Animation for the show is expected to be done at digital studios in India. Endemol, the producer of the original “Big Brother,” plans to market “The 99″ through its television distribution network, which covers Asia, Europe and North America, as well as the Middle East.

“The 99″ refers to the number of attributes the Quran says are possessed by Allah. The superhero protagonists of the action-packed series strive to bring the light of knowledge to a violent world. To depict their adventures, Mr. Mutawa works with illustrators tapped from DC Comics, a division of Time Warner Inc., and Marvel Characters, a division of Marvel Entertainment Inc.

The story line is based on an historical event: the sacking of 13th-century Baghdad and the burning of that Islamic empire’s library. At the time, it was the largest repository of knowledge in the world. In the comic books, Muslim teenagers from such diverse places such as Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hungary, work to bring wisdom and reason back to the world.

Jabbar, a Hulk-like figure from Saudi Arabia, has enormous strength, Noora, a young woman from the United Arab Emirates, has power over light. Darr, a blond American boy in a wheelchair, can relieve and inflict pain. Standing in their way is an evil multinational corporation and its leader, who wants to keep the world ignorant and violent.

“The 99″ accounts for a tiny portion of the global comics market. Teshkeel distributes one million copies a year, with just over half going to Asian markets and the rest to the Middle East. By contrast, Diamond Comics Distributors Inc., the main North American distributor, sold 67.9 million comic books in the first 10 months of 2008, according to industry tracker Comics Chronicles.

Licensing rights to the series has been sold for seven languages, including Hindi, Malaysian and French. But Mr. Mutawa says the real money in the comic books will come from marketing agreements, such as the Nestlé deal, and his budding theme-park operations.

Mr. Mutawa says his themes are about ethics, not religious dogma. No one in the comic books prays. There is no mention of scripture or the Prophet Mohammed. One heroine wears a burka, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women. Others wear sarongs, or ride skateboards. Comics are published in Arabic, English and Bahasa Indonesian.

A devout Muslim with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, Mr. Mutawa is versed in Islamic philosophy and American youth literature. He’s a big fan of “The Hardy Boys,” the children’s classic he discovered on his annual trips to summer camp in New Hampshire in the 1980s.

Censors in Saudi Arabia, the largest market in the Middle East, banned “The 99″ its first year off the presses for what they called “un-Islamic” content. Some Arabic-language newspapers have refused to run serialized versions of the books.

But Mr. Mutawa pressed on, tapping like-minded Muslims to finance the project. Partners from Bahrain-based Unicorn Investment Bank, an Islamic-compliant investor, put $15.9 million of their personal funds into Teshkeel last year. They took two of the company’s five board seats.

Because Unicorn’s own board of Shariah scholars, who rule on whether an investment complies with Islam, implicitly blessed the cartoon, the Saudi censorship board changed its view on the comic, according to Mr. Mutawa.

Alien-like Squid With "Elbows" Filmed at Drilling Site

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

An alien-like squid with “elbows” has been filmed at Shell’s Perdido site by a remotely operated submarine:

In a brief video from the dive recently obtained by National Geographic News, one of the rarely seen squid loiters above the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico on November 11, 2007.

The clip — from a Shell oil company ROV (remotely operated vehicle) — arrived after a long, circuitous trip through oil-industry in-boxes and other email accounts.

“Perdido ROV Visitor, What Is It?” the email’s subject line read — Perdido being the name of a Shell-owned drilling site. Located about 200 miles (320 kilometers) off Houston, Texas (Gulf of Mexico map), Perdido is one of the world’s deepest oil and gas developments.

The video clip shows the screen of the ROV’s guidance monitor framed with pulsing inputs of time and positioning data.

In a few seconds of jerky camerawork, the squid appears with its huge fins waving like elephant ears and its remarkable arms and tentacles trailing from elbow-like appendages.

Improved lithium ion batteries

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

A team led by Jaephil Cho at Hanyang University in Korea has improved lithium ion batteries — not by improving the lithium cobalt oxide cathode, but by improving the graphite anode:

It would be nice to have an anodic material that could store more lithium ions than graphite. Silicon presents an interesting alternative. The problem: silicon expands a great deal while absorbing lithium ions (charging) and shrinks when giving them up (discharging). After several cycles the required thin silicon layers are pulverized and can no longer be charged.

Cho’s team has now developed a new method for the production of a porous silicon anode that can withstand this strain. They annealed silicon dioxide nanoparticles with silicon particles whose outermost silicon atoms have short hydrocarbon chains attached to them at 900 °C under an argon atmosphere. The silicon dioxide particles were removed from the resulting mass by etching. What remained were carbon-coated silicon crystals in a continuous, three-dimensional, highly porous structure.

Anodes made of this highly porous silicon have a high charge capacity for lithium ions. In addition, the lithium ions are rapidly transported and stored, making rapid charging and discharging possible. A high specific capacity is also attained with high current. The changes in volume that occur upon charging and discharging cause only a small degree of swelling and shrinking of the pore walls, which have a thickness of less than 70 nm. In addition, the first charging cycle results in an amorphous (noncrystalline) silicon mass around residual nanocrystals in the pore walls. Consequently, even after 100 cycles, the stress in the pore wall is not noticeable in the material.

The Compleat Summers

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

The Compleat Summers opens with an amusing quip and some good news:

Former Senator — and former Democrat — Phil Gramm likes to say there are two kinds of Democrats on economics: those who want to milk the cow but so dislike the cow that they want to punish it, and those who want to milk the cow and thus want it to grow. The good news about Barack Obama’s emerging economic team is that most of them don’t hate the cow.

Obama’s Clinton Problem: Deregulation made the prosperity of the 1990s possible. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Obama’s Clinton Problem: Deregulation made the prosperity of the 1990s possible. Just ask Bill Clinton.

But now that he has won the presidency and must, as the cliché goes, shift from campaigning to governing, Obama and his economic team will have to face up to a paradox that most of the media overlooked during the campaign. Namely, the Obama campaign’s twin messages of bashing deregulation and embracing the Clinton years were inherently contradictory. Bill Clinton signed nearly every deregulatory measure that John McCain backed — the same measures that are now being blamed (wrongly) for helping cause the current crisis. What’s more, Clinton administration officials have credited these policies for contributing to the ‘90s economic boom — the very “shared prosperity” that Obama says he wants to go back to.

Late in Clinton’s tenure, the White House put forth a document celebrating “Historic Economic Growth” during the administration and pointing to the policy accomplishments it deemed responsible for this growth. Among the achievements on Clinton’s list were “Modernizing for the New Economy through Technology and Consensus Deregulation.” That’s right, a Clinton White House document credited part of the administration’s success to that now dreaded d-word, deregulation.

“In 1993,” the document explained, “the laws that governed America’s financial service sector were antiquated and anti-competitive. The Clinton-Gore Administration fought to modernize those laws to increase competition in traditional banking, insurance, and securities industries to give consumers and small businesses more choices and lower costs.”

Everything in those passages is true. All that’s missing is credit to the GOP-controlled Congress elected in 1994 for passing most of the policies that led to the prosperity. But the Clinton administration, whatever its personal and policy flaws, should indeed be praised for signing and advocating this deregulation.

Casual Games May Be Recession-Proof

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Casual Games May Be Recession-Proof:

From talking with executives at gaming outfits in Seattle and Boston, it’s clear that there’s pessimism in the industry about Web advertising as a source of revenue, and about the prospects for survival for companies that get the bulk of their revenue from display ads. “For ad-based casual gaming companies, pretty much everyone agrees that it’s going to be tough for a while,” says Christopher Cummings, senior product manager for Gamesville, a gaming site owned by Waltham, MA-based Lycos. “Some startups probably won’t survive, and for others it might be lean times.”

But casual gaming companies with more ways to make money, such as charging customers for downloads or tournament play or licensing their games to other companies, may fare better—especially as computer owners turn to casual games as a less expensive diversion than going to a movie or eating out.

“One possibility in a downturn would be that people would have an aversion to games, because it’s discretionary spending,” says Jeremy Lewis, CEO of Big Fish Games, which gets most of its revenues from purchases of the downloadable games designed by its community of 650 freelance contributors. “But a second possibility is that people see it as an attractive alternative to other more expensive forms of entertainment. And a third would be that people who are out of work have more time to play games. We are certainly seeing the second effect, and maybe also the third.” Lewis says Big Fish’s October revenue was up a whopping 23 percent over September levels.

Gaming executives are also encouraged by surveys indicating that Americans plan to retrench during the recession by spending more time at home and less on activities like travel and theater-going.

Dad ran off with Liz Taylor, Cary Grant lectured me about drugs, George Lucas ruined my life

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

In her new book, Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher says that Dad ran off with Liz Taylor, Cary Grant lectured me about drugs, George Lucas ruined my life:

I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.

I was born on October 21, 1956 in Burbank, California. My father, Eddie Fisher, was a famous singer. My mother, Debbie Reynolds, was a movie star. Her best-known role was in Singin’ In The Rain.

In the Fifties, my parents were known as ‘America’s sweethearts’. Their pictures graced the covers of all the newspapers. They were the Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston of their day.

When I was born, my mother was given an anaesthetic because they didn’t have epidurals in those days. Consequently, she was unconscious.

Now, my mother is a beautiful woman – she’s beautiful today in her 70s, so at 24 she looked like a Christmas morning. All the doctors were buzzing round her pretty head, saying: ‘Oh, look at Debbie Reynolds asleep – how pretty.’

And my father, upon seeing me start to arrive, fainted. So all the nurses ran over saying: ‘Oh look, there’s Eddie Fisher, the crooner, on the ground. Let’s go look at him.’

So when I arrived I was virtually unattended. And I have been trying to make up for that fact ever since.

It all sounds so very, very Hollywood.

Solar Bubbles

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Kerry A. Dolan of Forbes calls them Solar Bubbles — 8-foot shiny plastic balloons with solar cells inside:

Eric Cummings, the brainy scientist who dreamed up the balloon idea, dismisses flat solar panels as expensive to install and difficult to deploy. The curvature of his balloon concentrates more sunlight onto fewer photovoltaic cells. He envisions vast farms of his 1-kilowatt balloons strung on wires and producing gigawatts of power.

Cummings has no deals yet with a utility, but his company, Cool Earth Solar, raised $21 million from Quercus Trust, a Los Angeles private equity firm, and other investors to build a 1.5 megawatt installation in California’s Central Valley. Construction of a test project in a field of brown weeds across the street from its offices is just beginning. “This is scalable in a way that dwarfs other options,” he boasts. “The goal is to be the 100% solution” to the energy crisis.

Cool Earth Chief Executive Robert Lamkin, who previously oversaw the development and construction of power plants at Calpine and managed plants at Mirant, says rather boldly that next year the company will have its costs down to $1 per watt, installed—at which point it can compete with natural gas and beat other kinds of solar technologies. Typical photovoltaic panels on rooftops cost up to $8 per watt installed. Solar thermal power, which concentrates heat to make steam, is aiming for $4 per watt. (These costs are all in terms of peak watts. Nights and clouds included, solar’s average cost per watt is four times as much.)
Concentrating the reflected light into a receiver produces 300 to 400 times as much electricity out of each solar cell as a system without a concentrator, the company claims. A water-cooled jacket on the back side of the receiver keeps it from overheating. The balloon can add or bleed air to maintain its shape.

Cool Earth’s balloons can last five years but are so cheap it plans to replace them once a year. Or more frequently. It has yet to test against BB guns.

Panda bites student seeking a hug

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Panda bites student seeking a hug on the arms and legs — because, you see, pandas are wild animals:

“Yang Yang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him. I didn’t expect he would attack,” the 20-year-old student, surnamed Liu, said in a local hospital, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Liu underwent surgery Friday evening and was out of danger, but will remain in the hospital for several days, Xinhua said.
Last year, a panda at the Beijing Zoo attacked a teenager, ripping chunks out of his legs, when he jumped a barrier while the bear was being fed.

The same panda was in the news in 2006 when he bit a drunk tourist who broke into his enclosure and tried to hug him while he was asleep. The tourist retaliated by biting the bear in the back.

I can only imagine what a trained Kung-Fu Panda might do.

Civilization walks the plank

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post notes that civilization is walking the plank:

A Somali pirate and a former US defense secretary are flying to London for vacation. One of them is stopped at immigration at Heathrow airport and arrested on suspicion of committing war crimes. Which one do you think it was?
As David Rivkin and Lee Casey explained in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, the problem with contending with piracy is not so much military, as legal and political. Whereas customary international law defined piracy as a threat against all nations and therefore a crime for which universal jurisdiction must be applied to perpetrators, in today’s world, states are unwilling to apprehend pirates or to contend with them because they are likely to find themselves in a sticky legal mess.

In centuries past, in accordance with established international law, it was standard practice for naval captains to hang pirates after capturing them. Today, when Europe has outlawed capital punishment, when criminal defendants throughout the West are given more civil rights than their victims, and when irregular combatants picked off of battlefields or intercepted before they attack are given — at a minimum — the same rights as those accorded to legal prisoners of war, states lack the political will and the moral clarity to prosecute offenders. As Casey and Rivkin note, last April the British Foreign Office instructed the British Navy not to apprehend pirates lest they claim that their human rights were harmed, and request and receive asylum in Britain.

Xan Rice and Abdiqani Hassan explain the consequences in Buckets of cash and seeking more wives:

Until recently Eyl was a rundown Somali outpost of 7000 people. Now, thanks to some spectacular ocean catches, it is booming, awash with dollars and heavily-armed young men, and boasting a new notoriety: piracy capital of the world.

At least 12 foreign ships are being held hostage in the waters off Eyl, 480 kilometres south of Africa’s Horn. They are being closely watched by hundreds of pirates aboard boats equipped with satellite phones and GPS devices. Hundreds more gunmen provide backup on shore, where they incessantly chew the narcotic leaf qat and dream of sharing in the huge ransoms.

In a war-ravaged country where life is cheap and hope is rare, each successful hijack brings more young men into Eyl to seek their fortune at sea. The entire village now depends on the criminal economy.

Hastily-built hotels provide basic lodging for the pirates, new restaurants serve meals and send food to the ships, while traders provide fuel for the skiffs flitting between the captured vessels.

The pirate kingpins who commute from the regional capital, Garowe, 160 kilometres west, in new four-wheel drives splash their money around. Jaama Salah, a trader, said that a bunch of qat can sell for $US65 ($100), compared with $US15 in other towns. Asli Faarah, a tea vendor, said: “When the pirates have money I can easily increase my price to $3 for a cup.”

The pirates’ daring has earned them respect. It has become a tradition for successful pirates to take additional wives, marrying them in lavish ceremonies. Naimo, 21, from Garowe, said: “It’s true that girls are interested in marrying pirates because they have a lot of money. Ordinary men cannot afford weddings like this.”

(Hat tip to Richard Fernandez.)

Congressional Motors’ 2012 Pelosi

Monday, November 24th, 2008

I’m not sure what to make of Congressional Motors’ All-New 2012 Pelosi GTxi SS/Rt Sport Edition:

All new for 2012, the Pelosi GTxi SS/Rt Sport Edition is the mandatory American car so advanced it took $100 billion and an entire Congress to design it. We started with same reliable 7-way hybrid ethanol-biodeisel-electric-clean coal-wind-solar-pedal power plant behind the base model Pelosi, but packed it with extra oomph and the sassy styling pizazz that tells the world that 1974 Detroit is back again — with a vengeance.

We’ve subsidized the features you want and taxed away the rest. With its advanced Al Gore-designed V-3 under the hood pumping out 22.5 thumping, carbon-neutral ponies of Detroit muscle, you’ll never be late for the Disco or the Day Labor Shelter. Engage the pedal drive or strap on the optional jumbo mizzenmast, and the GTxi SS/Rt Sport Edition easily exceeds 2016 CAFE mileage standards. At an estimated 268 MPG, that’s a savings of nearly $1800 per week in fuel cost over the 2011 Pelosi.

Even with increased performance we didn’t skimp on safety. With 11-point passenger racing harnesses, 15-way airbags, and mandatory hockey helmet, you’ll have the security knowing that you could survive a 45 MPH collision even if the GTxi SS/Rt were capable of that kind of illegal speed.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Why Democracy Inevitably Leads to More Bureaucracy

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Parkinson’s Law is the amusing adage that work expands to fill the time available.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who worked extensively in the British Civil Service, originally coined the law in a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955, in which he noted that Great Britain’s Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff at the point when it was folded into the Foreign Office because of a lack of colonies to administer.

Martin Regnen takes this as a starting point for explaining why Democracy inevitably leads to more bureaucracy:

Reflecting on Parkinson’s Law recently, I realized that democratic governments should be more vulnerable to it than totalitarian governments. After all, a democractic government can always expand itself to exercise more control over its subjects, whereas a totalitarian govnernment already has total control and therefore nowhere to expand its influence except through territorial, population or economic growth. By creating more government agencies and officials in a democracy, a government expands its power and attracts more people to government employment. A totalitarian government, on the other hand, can only divide the existing complete power into smaller pieces, thus making previously existing officials less powerful.

Regnen actually tested this hypothesis by looking at some publicly available data on the number of laws passed in an unnamed neighboring country — he lives “somewhere in Central Europe” — that went from Democracy to Communism and back to Democracy: