Advanced Rail Energy Storage

April 13th, 2015

Pumped hydro is a simple and effective way to store energy — you just pump water back up over the dam — but building new dams isn’t easy. All the good spots have already been taken, and the regulatory hurdles keep growing. There are other ways to apply the same simple principles though:

Instead of trying to build new pumped hydro facilities, the founders of ARES — William Peitzke, Matt Brown and John Robinson — asked themselves, “How can we do pumped storage hydro-electric, but without any water?” The answer they found was basically the opposite of water: rocks. Or more specifically, rocks on trains.

“We realized the solution was right in front of us,” said Kelly. “The railroad industry had developed an incredibly efficient way to move mass.” One ARES engineer determined that the coefficient friction of steel wheels on railroad track is lower than the coefficient friction of ice skates on ice.

The ARES system uses excess energy from the grid to pull 140-ton railcars up hills (total train weight: 1,350 tons). When the grid needs that power back, they simply let gravity take the weighted cars back down. Regenerative braking — similar to what you find in a Toyota Prius, or in Japanese subways — captures the energy the trains produce along the way

Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES)

ARES built a test facility in California to prove the concept, and now they’re in the final stages of building a 50 megawatt facility in Nevada, which will come online in 2016. For comparison, this facility alone will add more energy storage than was built across the entire US in 2013 (44.2 megawatts), according to a recent recent report by US Energy Storage Monitor. The same report suggests that 220 megawatts will be deployed in 2015, twice the capacity of the previous two years combined.

A Story of Entrepreneurship

April 12th, 2015

Tim Ferriss really goes out of his way to explain why he would interview his latest guest:

The goal of my blog and podcast is to push you outside of your comfort zone and force you to question assumptions.

This is why I invite divergent thinkers and world-class performers who often disagree. I might interview Tony Robbins and then Matt Mullenweg. Or I might have a long chat with Sam Harris, PhD, and later invite a seemingly opposite guest like…

Glenn Beck.

This interview is a wild ride, and it happened — oddly enough — thanks to a late-night sauna session. I was catching up with an old friend, who is mixed-race, a Brown University grad, and liberal in almost every sense of the word. I casually asked him, “If you could pick one person to be on the podcast, who would it be?”

“Glenn Beck,” he answered without a moment’s hesitation. “His story is FASCINATING.”

He described how Glenn hit rock bottom and restarted his life in his 30’s, well past the point most people think it possible. Fast forward to 2014, Forbes named him to their annual Celebrity 100 Power List and pegged his earnings at $90 million for that year. This placed him ahead of people like Mark Burnett, Jimmy Fallon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Will Smith. Glenn’s platforms — including radio, tv, digital (, publishing, etc. — get somewhere between 30 and 50 million unique visitors per month.

This interview is neither a “gotcha” interview nor a softball interview. I ask some tough questions (e.g. “If you were reborn as a disabled gay woman in a poor family, what political system would you want in place?”), but my primary goal is to pull out routines, habits, books, etc. that you can use. This show is about actionable insight, not argument for argument’s sake.

First and foremost, this is a story of entrepreneurship, and whether you love Glenn, hate Glenn, or have never heard his name, there is a lot to learn from him.

How MOOC Video Production Affects Student Engagement

April 12th, 2015

How does video production affect student engagement in MOOCs?

We measured engagement by how long students watched each video and also whether they attempted to answer post-video assessment problems.

We took all 862 videos from four edX courses offered in Fall 2012 and hand-classified each one based on its type (e.g., traditional lecture, problem-solving tutorial) and production style (e.g., PowerPoint slides, Khan-style tablet drawing, talking head). We automatically extracted other features such as length and speaking rate (words per minute). We then mined the edX server logs to obtain over 6.9 million video watching sessions from almost 128,000 students.

The lessons learned:

  1. Shorter videos are much more engaging. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes.
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings.
  4. Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than PowerPoint slides or code screencasts.
  5. Even high-quality prerecorded classroom lectures are not as engaging when chopped up into short segments for a MOOC.
  6. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging.
  7. Students engage differently with lecture and tutorial videos.

Focusing the Brain on Better Vision

April 11th, 2015

As we age, our vision deteriorates, including our contrast sensitivity, our ability to distinguish gradations of light to dark and thus to discern where one object ends and another begins:

But new research suggests that contrast sensitivity can be improved with brain-training exercises. In a study published last month in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Brown University showed that after just five sessions of behavioral exercises, the vision of 16 people in their 60s and 70s significantly improved.

After the training, the adults could make out edges far better. And when given a standard eye chart, a task that differed from the one they were trained on, they could correctly identify more letters.


During each session, the subjects watched 750 striped images that were rapidly presented on a computer screen with subtle changes in the visual “noise” surrounding them — like snow on a television. The viewer indicated whether the images were rotating clockwise or counterclockwise. The subject would hear a beep for every correct response.

Each session took an hour and a half. The exercises were taxing, although the subjects took frequent breaks. But after five sessions, the subjects had learned to home in more precisely on the images and to filter out the distracting visual noise. After the training, the older adults performed as well as those 40 years younger, before their own training.

The older participants were also better able to make out letters on an eye chart at reading distance, although not one 10 feet away. The younger students were better able to see the distant eye chart, but not the closer one.


Dr. Andersen and his colleagues, including Denton DeLoss, a graduate student and the paper’s lead author, say they do not know how long the effects of this modest intervention will last. But an earlier study in which older adults received training to sharpen their ability to discern texture showed that the improvement was sustained for at least three months.

The Men who Uncovered Assyria

April 11th, 2015

Daniel Silas Adamson tells the story of the men who uncovered Assyria:

In 612BC, Nineveh was sacked in a rebellion led by the Babylonians. They left the world’s richest city in ruins, its palaces smouldering, its people dead or deported into slavery. Dust settled over the shattered library of the dead King Ashurbanipal, and over his carefully transcribed copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Two-and-a-half millennia later, in the winter of 1853, the poem was lifted out of the dirt by a man called Hormuzd Rassam.

Rassam had grown up in Mosul, just across the river. At a time when the imperial powers saw the locals as little more than spade handlers and donkey boys, he had been appointed by the British Museum to lead the most important archaeological excavation of the age. He was, by some distance, the first archaeologist born and raised in the Middle East.

Rassam’s family were Chaldean Christians, descendants of the ancient Assyrians who had converted to Christianity in the Fourth Century and had remained ethnically distinct from the Arab and Kurdish populations of Iraq. This is the same community that has, in the past year, been forced by Islamic State to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, or be killed. Most of Mosul’s Assyrian Christians now have fled east into the autonomous region of Kurdistan or north, across the border, into Turkey.

When Rassam was growing up, Mosul was a peaceful place. The city was part of the slowly dying Ottoman Empire, a provincial backwater that offered few prospects for a young man of energy and talent. But in 1845, when Rassam was 19 years old, he met someone who changed the trajectory of his life – Austen Henry Layard.

Layard was an adventurer who had arrived in the Middle East on horseback at the end of the 1830s, armed with plenty of cash and a pair of revolvers. By the time he got to Mosul he had already seen the temples of Petra and Baalbek, as well as the living cities of Damascus and Aleppo. But it was the unexcavated ruins of Iraq that really captured Layard’s imagination.

“A deep mystery hangs over Assyria, Babylonia, and Chaldea. With these names are linked great nations and great cities… the plains to which the Jew and the Gentile alike look as the cradle of their race,” he wrote.

“As the sun went down, I saw for the first time the great conical mound of Nimrud rising against the clear evening sky. It was on the opposite side of the river and not very distant, and the impression that it made upon me was one never to be forgotten… my thought ran constantly upon the possibility of thoroughly exploring with the spade those great ruins.”

After years of negotiation with the Ottoman authorities, Layard finally sank a spade into the mound at Nimrud, 20 miles south of Mosul, in the summer of 1845. This is the site that, according to Iraqi officials, IS began bulldozing earlier this month.


Star Wars: The Digital Movie Collection

April 10th, 2015

So, the Star Wars movies are finally coming to digital, but they’re coming in “special edition” form. Sigh.

When you’re selling a beloved piece of people’s childhoods, don’t you sell them the version they know and love? I suppose once you start down the dark path of revising the movies, forever will it dominate your destiny.

Monster Issues

April 10th, 2015

Some of Teo Zirinis’s Monster Issues designs are pretty clever:

Monster Issues Godzilla

Monster Issues Kong

Monster Issues Mummy

Monster Issues Nessie

Some are a little too easy:

Monster Issues Cthulhu

Monster Issues Dragon

Why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing

April 10th, 2015

Val McDermid discusses why crime fiction is leftwing and thrillers are rightwing:

As my compatriot Ian Rankin pointed out, the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world — immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote.

The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Of course, these positions don’t usually hit the reader over the head like a party political broadcast. If it is not subtle, all you succeed in doing is turning off readers in their droves. Our views generally slip into our work precisely because they are our views, because they inform our perspective and because they’re how we interpret the world, not because we have any desire to convert our readership to our perspective.

Except, of course, that sometimes we do.

The Mind of Those Who Kill, and Kill Themselves

April 9th, 2015

Erica Goode looks into the mind of those who kill, and kill themselves, and writes — without irony, in the New York Times — that such killers seek fame, glory, or attention:

Before Adam Lanza, 20, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, killed 20 children, six adults and himself in 2012, he wrote in an online forum, “Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.”

Robert Hawkins, 19, who committed suicide after killing eight people at a shopping mall in Omaha in 2007, left a note saying “I’m gonna be famous,” punctuating the sentence with an expletive.

And Dylan Klebold, 17, of Columbine High School fame, bragged that the goal was to cause “the most deaths in U.S. history…we’re hoping. We’re hoping.”

“Directors will be fighting over this story,” Mr. Klebold said in a video made before the massacre.

Yes, let’s repeat their stories in the most important newspaper in the country, maybe the world.

The standard comic-book supervillain motivation — “a towering narcissism, a strong sense of grievance and a desire for infamy” — seems to describe these killers surprisingly well:

Serious mental illness, studies of mass killers suggest, is a prime driver in a minority of cases — about 20 percent, according to estimates by several experts. Far more common are distortions of personality — excesses of rage, paranoia, grandiosity, thirst for vengeance or pathological narcissism and callousness.

“The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York who recently completed a study of 228 mass killers, many of whom also killed themselves.

“They want to die, but to bring many others down with them, whether co-workers, bosses, family members or just plain folk who are in the vicinity.”

Murder-suicides are rare — maybe 1,000 to 1,500 deaths per year — and murder-suicides involving strangers are rarer still — and different in character:

In domestic cases, depression does appear to play a significant role. A recent psychological autopsy study of murder-suicides in Dallas, most of which involved domestic violence, found that 17 of the 18 perpetrators met the diagnostic criteria for major depression or some other form of the illness.

The study, conducted by Dr. Knoll and Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist at Case Western, found that a majority of the killers also abused alcohol or drugs. Four had a family history of suicide. The study has been submitted to a scientific journal.

Domestic murder-suicides are almost always impulsive — committed in fits of rage or jealousy, often enabled by the presence of a firearm. In contrast, killers who take groups of strangers as targets plan their crimes carefully, waiting for an opportunity to act.

Continue reading the main story
And while domestic murder-suicides are frequently fueled by alcohol, people who plan ahead to kill themselves and others seem concerned about keeping a clear mind for the task ahead.

How Europeans Evolved

April 9th, 2015

By comparing ancient European genomes with recent ones from the 1000 Genomes Project, researchers have discovered how Europeans evolved from multiple disparate populations:

First, the scientists confirmed an earlier report that the hunter-gatherers in Europe could not digest the sugars in milk 8000 years ago, according to a poster. They also noted an interesting twist: The first farmers also couldn’t digest milk. The farmers who came from the Near East about 7800 years ago and the Yamnaya pastoralists who came from the steppes 4800 years ago lacked the version of the LCT gene that allows adults to digest sugars in milk. It wasn’t until about 4300 years ago that lactose tolerance swept through Europe.

When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years. The modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes — SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 — that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today.

But in the far north — where low light levels would favor pale skin — the team found a different picture in hunter-gatherers: Seven people from the 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2. They also had a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and may also contribute to light skin and blond hair. Thus ancient hunter-gatherers of the far north were already pale and blue-eyed, but those of central and southern Europe had darker skin.

Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin. The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.

The team also tracked complex traits, such as height, which are the result of the interaction of many genes. They found that selection strongly favored several gene variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans, starting 8000 years ago, with a boost coming from the Yamnaya migration, starting 4800 years ago. The Yamnaya have the greatest genetic potential for being tall of any of the populations, which is consistent with measurements of their ancient skeletons. In contrast, selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain starting 8000 years ago, according to the paper now posted on the bioRxiv preprint server. Spaniards, in particular, shrank in stature 6000 years ago, perhaps as a result of adapting to colder temperatures and a poor diet.

Surprisingly, the team found no immune genes under intense selection, which is counter to hypotheses that diseases would have increased after the development of agriculture.

The paper doesn’t specify why these genes might have been under such strong selection. But the likely explanation for the pigmentation genes is to maximize vitamin D synthesis, said paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, as she looked at the poster’s results at the meeting. People living in northern latitudes often don’t get enough UV to synthesize vitamin D in their skin so natural selection has favored two genetic solutions to that problem — evolving pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently or favoring lactose tolerance to be able to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk. “What we thought was a fairly simple picture of the emergence of depigmented skin in Europe is an exciting patchwork of selection as populations disperse into northern latitudes,” Jablonski says. “This data is fun because it shows how much recent evolution has taken place.”

Art Therapy

April 8th, 2015

The bestselling title on Amazon is not a novel. It’s not a piece of non-fiction, either. It’s a coloring book — for adults:

Basford’s intricately drawn pictures of flora and fauna in Secret Garden have sold 1.4m copies worldwide to date, with the newly released follow-up Enchanted Forest selling just under 226,000 copies already. They have drawn fans from Zooey Deschanel, who shared a link about the book with her Facebook followers, to the South Korean pop star Kim Ki-Bum, who posted an image on Instagram for his 1.6 million followers.

“It’s been crazy. The last few weeks since Enchanted Forest came out have been utter madness, but fantastic madness,” said Eleanor Blatherwick, head of sales and marketing at the books’ publisher, small British press Laurence King. “We knew the books would be beautiful but we didn’t realise it would be such a phenomenal success.”

And it is not just Basford who is reaping the benefits of the hordes of adults who, it turns out, just wanted something to colour in. In the UK, Richard Merritt’s Art Therapy Colouring Book sits in fourth spot on Amazon’s bestseller lists, Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom — detailed pictures of animals to colour – sits in seventh, and a mindfulness colouring book sits in ninth. Basford’s titles are in second and eighth place — that’s half of’s top 10 taken up by colouring books for adults.

At independent UK publisher Michael O’Mara, which has sold almost 340,000 adult colouring books to date, head of publicity, marketing and online, Ana McLaughlin, attributes the craze to the way the category has been reimagined as a means of relaxation. “The first one we did was in 2012, Creative Colouring for Grown-Ups. It sold strongly and reprinted, but it was last year that it all really mushroomed with Art Therapy, in June. It really took off for us — selling the anti-stress angle gave people permission to enjoy something they might have felt was quite childish,” she said.

If you spend any time around kids, you probably already know how soothing coloring can be.

The History of a Congo Road Built Using German Aid Money

April 8th, 2015

This history of a Congo road built using German aid money is quite depressing:

A part of it gets built and then the aid workers go elsewhere. Soon the first potholes form and the jungle begins to gnaw away at the shoulders of the road. Ultimately, it will disappear completely.

Welthungerhilfe is now building a section of road heading south from Lubutu and has committed to maintaining this new, flawless red-earthen highway until 2016. But what happens after that? Dörken hesitates. “Honestly, I wouldn’t dare to venture a guess.”

Originally, he and his colleagues had set up a system to maintain the road. They established “road committees” in the villages which then installed barriers to collect tolls. Revenues were to go toward maintenance work. The system worked well, Dörken says, but then the Congolese government in 2006 revoked Welthungerhilfe’s mandate for maintaining the road. Since then, tolls have continued to be collected, but the money is no longer reinvested in the road and it is slowly disintegrating as a result.

Isn’t that frustrating? “Yes, of course!” says Dörken, losing his ironic distance for an instant. Then, once again under control, he summarizes the entire problem with development aid in a single sentence: “We are waiting for the state to begin fulfilling its duties.”

Singapore After Lee Kuan Yew

April 7th, 2015

Perhaps the most critical aspect of Lee Kuan Yew’s success was meeting the requirements of multinational companies:

Designating English as the national language  was a primary advantage. Due largely to Lee, Singapore is a primarily English-speaking country, and global business tends to go where it is understood, and where its nationals can most easily function.

As a result, efficient, globally focused Singapore now boasts more than twice as many regional headquarters of foreign firms than far-larger Tokyo, not to mention Asia’s less affluent megacities. They provide expats working for multinationals with sanitation, parks, trees, clean housing, an educated workforce, and low corruption not readily available in the rest of south Asia. Anyone who has spent time in India, or even Vietnam, marvels at the relative ease of life in Singapore.

Singapore may be in spiritual crisis though:

The fertility rates in Singapore have fallen almost 50 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1. Overall, Singapore-based demographer Gavin Jones estimates that up to a quarter of all East Asian women now entering their 20s — including those in Singapore — will still be single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless.

“People increasingly see marriage and children as very risky, so they avoid it,” notes Singapore based demographer Gavin Jones. “Even though there’s a strong ideology in Asia to have a family, it is fading.”

Jones and others see this trend as something of a spiritual crisis, coupled with high housing prices and an overemphasis on work. In the old Chinese world, children were seen as essential to economic stability and social status. Now those values have drowned in a tsunami of materialism and global culture.


The tendency to put off marriage and child-bearing, as well as the focus on material gain, works against the fundamental values of patience and persistence that animated Lee Kuan Yew’s career, and also shaped Chinese civilization. A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future.

Tell Me How This Ends Well

April 7th, 2015

Thomas Friedman doesn’t dig deep, but he gets this mostly right:

Asian autocrats tended to be modernizers, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who just died last week at 91 — and you see the results today: Singaporeans waiting in line for 10 hours to pay last respects to a man who vaulted them from nothing into the global middle class. Arab autocrats tended to be predators who used the conflict with Israel as a shiny object to distract their people from their own misgovernance. The result: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are now human development disaster areas.

Enhanced Recovery Protocols

April 7th, 2015

Hospitals are replacing traditional surgery preparation and recovery practices — fasting, heavy IV fluids, powerful post-op narcotics and bed rest — with enhanced recovery protocols:

Hunger and thirst from presurgical fasting can add to patients’ stress and anxiety, and cause weakness as well as postoperative nausea. Side effects of fluid retention, narcotics and immobility can interfere with getting bodily functions back to normal, resulting in longer, harder recoveries overall. With traditional regimens, patients can remain in the hospital for 10 days or more with complication rates of up to 48% and an average $10,000 in additional costs, according to researchers at Duke University School of Medicine.

With enhanced recovery protocols, patients still can’t eat after midnight before an early morning surgery, but two or three hours before surgery they do get a carbohydrate-loaded drink fortified with electrolytes, minerals and vitamins. They are pretreated for pain with nonnarcotic painkillers and epidurals that are kept in place postoperatively. With careful monitoring, patients receive only necessary levels of IV fluid during surgery. Soon afterward they get out of bed to walk and may ingest solid food, and they are discharged earlier with careful instructions for home care.


Surgeons adopted the practice of infusing fluid, for example, after wartime studies showed it improved survival in trauma patients, but it isn’t necessary in the average patient, Dr. Thacker says. “Giving extra IV fluids to overcome the starvation we’ve imposed on patients leads to worse outcomes,” such as preventing bowel function from returning to normal, she says.

Rules on fasting before surgery are based on assumptions that anesthesia reactions might cause patients to throw up during a procedure and hamper breathing, but research has shown clear liquids within two hours actually decreases that risk, according to John Abenstein, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists and a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist. OR teams are sometimes reluctant to adopt the less-restrictive policies out of concern patients won’t follow directions and come in for surgery having had a glass of milk or cola, and then surgery has to be delayed, Dr. Abenstein says. But when patients consume clear liquids correctly, they feel much better after surgery, he says.