It’s the Tribes, Stupid!

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Robert Kaplan says, It’s the Tribes, Stupid!:

For more than 230 years, Americans have assumed that because we have had a happy experience with democracy, so will the rest of the world. But the American military has had a radically contrary experience in Iraq. And Iraq may be but prologue for what our troops may encounter in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Iraq has had three elections that have led to chaos. Bringing society out of that chaos has meant a recourse not to laws or a constitution, but to blood ties. The Anbar Awakening has been a rebuff not only to the extremism of al-Qaeda, but to democracy itself. Restoring peace in Anbar has been accomplished by a lot of money changing hands, to the benefit of unelected but well-respected tribal sheikhs, paid off with cash and projects by our soldiers and marines. Progress in Iraq means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups.

Because Iraq was among the most backward parts of the Ottoman Empire, tribalism has always been strong there. The power of the tribes intensified during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the state was weakened in part by economic pressures. Because the tribes in Anbar, along the desert smuggling route to Syria, were too strong to subdue, Saddam Hussein had no choice but to co-opt them and make them part of his power structure – exactly as our military has lately been doing.

It is such traditional loyalties existing below the level of the state that historically both Marxist and liberal intellectuals, in their efforts to remake societies after Soviet and Western democratic models, tragically underestimated. A realist like St. Augustine, in his City of God, understood that tribes, based on the narrow bonds of kinship and ethnicity rather than on any universalist longing, may not constitute the highest good; but by contributing to social cohesion, tribes nevertheless constitute a good in and of themselves. Quelling anarchy means starting with clans and tribes, and building upwards from those granular elements.

The Infinitely Geared Bike

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Popular Science calls the NuVinci the infinitely geared bike:

Cyclists have been waiting a long time for this one. Based on a 1490s sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, The Ride’s rear hub mimics an infinite number of gears, rather than the mere 21 offered by the usual chain-yanking transmission. So you can always find the perfect gear ratio, whether starting from a stop or speeding down a hill. Twist a dial on the handlebar, and ball bearings in the bike’s NuVinci transmission tilt between two rotating metal discs. (Your pedaling turns one disc; the other transfers power to the rear wheel.) As the balls tilt, they touch the discs at varying angles. This changes how fast the wheel spins relative to your pedaling—slowly for low gear ratios, where pedaling is easy but the wheel doesn’t turn much, and quickly for high ratios. The balls can roll to almost any angle, giving you precise control over the bike’s torque (and your exertion). This latest take on da Vinci’s continuous transmission has potential uses beyond bikes. Within four years, expect to see the NuVinci in cars, tractors, even wind turbines — the possibilities are nearly as limitless as the gear ratios. 3,000;

Farmyard Stills Quench a Thirst for Local Spirits

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Farmyard Stills Quench a Thirst for Local Spirits:

“I talked to banks, told them I wanted to make vodka on my farm here, and they said, ‘Yeah, right you are,’” recalled Mr. Fox, whose company went on to become the first distillery in Kansas since Prohibition. “Well, I had a million dollars in sales last year.”

“I’m the seventh generation to be in alcohol,” he said proudly. “Just the first to do it legally.”

On the heels of the microbrewing boom, new microdistilleries are thriving from coast to coast. And some of the latest and quirkiest entrants to the industry are in places like Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Mr. Fox’s barn.

In trying to take advantage of generations of his family’s moonshining expertise, Mr. Fox, for instance, had no business plan, no employees and about $100 in his checking account. Only his timing was rich: the national demand for high-end spirits, especially vodka, has soared over the last several years, along with the general consumer craving for products with local flair.

Meanwhile, some of the states, increasingly aware of the power of agri-business to generate tourism and tax dollars, have gradually begun loosening some of the temperance-era laws that have lingered for decades, restricting who can distill what, and where.

With its abundance of grain and fruit, the Midwest stands poised to capitalize on the confluence of trends unlike any other region and could, in time, come to rival California, currently the leader in small-scale distilling, experts said.

Small, private distilleries are opening at a rate of about 10 to 20 a year. There are about 100 across the country. Some are attached to wineries, restaurants and breweries, or, increasingly, are located on farms. Though there is no precise definition for what the industry refers to as artisanal or craft distilleries, experts say they are distinguished from mass distillers by their small scale, their use of local and often organic ingredients, and the experimental quality of some of their products, like seasonal pumpkin-infused vodka.

As a result of their individuality and regional differences, the distillers offer spirits that run the gamut in terms of quality and taste. Some are one- or two-person backyard operations; others are state-of-the-art laboratories built at great expense.

Guilt-Free Flushing

Monday, November 26th, 2007

This tool for guilt-free flushing seems much more appealing than the usual “two-flusher” toilet:

About 40 percent of freshwater coming into the average home is used just to flush the toilet. When tucked inside the cabinet below the bathroom sink, the Aqus system cuts that number significantly. Instead of using freshwater to flush, it catches the water that goes down your sink drain, filtering and disinfecting it and then quietly pumping it to your toilet tank. (The recycled water is even safe for toilet-slurping pets.) When there’s not enough wastewater for a flush, Aqus pulls from your plumbing. The system saves up to 14 gallons a day in a two-person house. $295;

The Cleanest Train Ever Built

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Years ago, I assumed that Diesel locomotives were just like Diesel trucks, only larger and on rails. Then I learned that they were in fact Diesel-electrics:

In a Diesel-electric locomotive the Diesel engine prime mover drives an electric generator whose output provides power to the traction motors. There is no mechanical connection between the prime mover and the driving wheels (drivers). Conceptually, this type of locomotive is an electric locomotive that incorporates its own generating station, making it well suited for operation in areas that do not have electrified railways.

If you already have a Diesel-electric, it seems pretty straightforward to add a battery, which GE just did.

GE’s new hybrid train is arguably the cleanest train ever built:

GE’s hybrid locomotive cuts both emissions and fuel consumption by up to half by capturing the 207-ton train’s braking energy and using it to supplement the diesel engines to accelerate or climb steep inclines. No modern battery can capture, store, and redeliver that much power, so GE created its own: a 1,000-pound molten-salt cell, which combines sodium with a metal chloride. That chemical recipe allows more current to flow through it than other batteries, so the 20-cell system can deploy 2,000 horsepower in less than a second. The Evolution made its cross-country debut in May and carries its first commercial load in 2010.

Of course, the efficiency gains are greatest when the train needs to start and stop. This makes such hybrid locomotives ideal as shunting or switching vehicles, the tug boats of the locomotive world.

GM’s promised Chevy Volt, by the way, is this kind of hybrid — although it uses a gasoline engine, not a Diesel, to power its generator — which is not quite the same thing as a Prius-style hybrid. GM calls the Volt an E-REV:

Calling a car a hybrid signifies that it’s driveshaft can be turned both by an electric motor and a combustion engine. A plug-in hybrid is a car that has extended electrical capacity supplied from the grid allowing for extended driving in all-electric mode. Modified Priuses and the upcoming Plug-in Saturn VUE are examples of those.

EVs and BEVs are cars that only have an electric motor and a rechargeable battery. They usually have overall limited ranges. The Tesla and EV-1 are examples.

GM toyed with different terms to describe the Volt. They have decided on the term E-REV (with the dash, pronounced ee-rehv), which stands for extended-range electric vehicle. They like the marketing opportunities of “REV” (i.e. E-REVolution)

Millions in Sales From 3 Simple Words

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Millions in Sales From 3 Simple Words: Life is good.

Mr. Jacobs is the 42-year-old co-founder of Life is good, a popular apparel brand based in Boston that is on track to break $100 million in sales this year. This is rarefied air for Mr. Jacobs, who a dozen years ago was selling T-shirts out of a battered van on the streets of Boston with his brother John, now 39.

From a single childlike drawing of a character they named Jake and their uplifting three-word slogan, the brothers have developed a fashion brand sold in 4,500 independent retail outlets in the United States and 27 other countries.

Since 1994, they have sold nearly 20 million Life is good T-shirts and now have a product line with more than 900 items, from hats to dog beds, and the company continues to grow 30 to 40 percent annually. There are now 93 independently owned Life is good retail shops selling only their merchandise, and the company plans to have a total of 200 by the end of 2009. With all that, Life is good has just 250 employees.
Though they had been reasonably content to sell enough of their wares to pay a meager rent and avoid taking real jobs, the Jacobs brothers always believed that they could make a better T-shirt and turn it into a bona fide business.

They posted their own drawings and slogans on the wall of their apartment near Boston and regularly polled friends at their frequent keg parties for feedback about their ideas. “It was truly like a focus group,” Bert Jacobs recalled.

In search of something that would resonate with a broad audience, they created Jake, a crudely drawn stick character not all that far removed from the Smiley Face, and were amazed at how he inspired an intensely positive reaction.

“This guy has life figured out,” wrote one friend next to the drawing.

They later posted a list of 50 slogans they had compiled and got a similar reaction to the unremarkable phrase “life is good.” A girlfriend concluded that the slogan with three simple words “kind of says it all.”

The brothers printed 48 test T-shirts that combined the slogan with the drawing for a street fair in Cambridge, Mass., in 1994, and sold the entire lot in 45 minutes.

That night, the brothers huddled and decided that the gold they had seemingly struck was a result of their message of optimism. “The reason people bought those shirts was because they understood it instantly,” Bert Jacobs said. “It made them smile, and it was tangible. They could reach out and get a little sunshine.”

Doug Gladstone, chief executive of Brand Content, an ad agency in Boston, agreed. “They tapped into something positive yet benign,” he said. “The product makes you feel good but it’s not over the top.”

By the end of 1994, the brothers had sold $82,000 of Life is good shirts through a couple of willing retail outlets. Within four years, they broke the $1 million barrier and believed they had found the small business they had always dreamed of and that they were sitting on an emerging brand.

The outside world did not see it that way. “It was a real uphill battle to get other people to say we had a brand,” Bert Jacobs said. “At $10 million and even $20 million in sales, they were still asking us when we were going to launch something different.”

The Big Sleep

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Graham Robb explains The Big Sleep that hit the pre-industrial world every winter:

Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the [French] Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.

In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. “Seven months of winter, five months of hell,” they said in the Alps. When the “hell” of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.

The same mass dormancy was practiced in other chilly parts. In 1900, The British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep: “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. … The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself” and “goes out to see if the grass is growing.”

It is unlikely this was hibernation in the zoological sense. While extreme cold might have set off a biological response normally seen only in squirrels, bears and marmots, human hibernation probably reflects a sensible, communal decision to stay in bed for as long as possible.

It’s hard to imagine living in a Malthusian world, where the marginal benefit of extra labor doesn’t justify the marginal cost in food energy.

1000% hedge fund wins subprime bet

Monday, November 26th, 2007

1000% hedge fund wins subprime bet:

A Californian hedge fund has made more than 1,000 per cent return this year by betting against US subprime home loans, making it one of the world’s best-performing funds of all time.

Lahde Capital, set up in Santa Monica last year by Andrew Lahde, last week passed the 1,000 per cent mark, after fees, following the latest leg of the credit market turmoil. The fall in the value of subprime-linked securities has boosted a group of funds which spotted the problems in advance.

The decision to use derivatives to short, or bet against, low-quality US home loans taken by a select group of hedge funds last year appears to have become the most profitable single trade of all time, making well over $20bn in total so far this year. John Paulson’s New York-based Paulson & Co, the biggest of the group with $28bn under management, is said by investors to have made $12bn profit from the trade already.

However, Mr Lahde, whose fund is one of the smallest specialists shorting subprime, has now begun to return money to investors, telling them in a letter: “The risk/return characteristics are far less attractive than in the past.”

In his letter, Mr Lahde said he expected the collapse in value of subprime mortgage-linked securities to be repeated for bonds backed by commercial property loans in a deep recession – which he also predicts.

“Our entire banking system is a complete disaster,” he wrote. “In my opinion, nearly every major bank would be insolvent if they marked their assets to market.” He also said he would be putting some of his own profits into gold and other precious metals.

Mr Lahde has used the phenomenal returns to boost his business, launching a fund to bet against commercial real estate this autumn – which made 42 per cent in its first two months – and is in the process of creating a third fund to short credits with a broader mandate.

Lahde’s first fund, US Residential Real Estate Hedge V Class A, soared 712.8 per cent in the year to the end of October, before this month’s sell-off pushed it past the 1,000 per cent mark.

There is no reliable data on how many other funds have made 1,000 per cent, or ten times the investment, in a year. But RAB Capital, London hedge fund manager, shot to prominence in 2003 when it returned 1,475.5 per cent in its Special Situations fund, which now runs $2.4bn and is the biggest shareholder in troubled bank Northern Rock.

Bigger subprime top performers include Paulson’s Credit Opportunities fund, up 550.8 per cent to the end of October, and the Subprime Credit Strategies fund run jointly by Texas-based Hayman Capital and Corriente Advisors, up 526.5 per cent.

Something old is new again — and greener

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Something old is new again — and greener:

Under pressure to reduce emissions and increase fuel-efficiency, automakers are quietly turning to turbocharging as a relatively cheap, easy-to-implement technology that could soon be a permanent staple on internal combustion engines.

That’s because turbos, high-velocity fans that recirculate and compress exhaust gases back into the motor’s cylinders, can increase fuel-efficiency by as much as 30% while increasing power output. Thanks to that increased power, smaller engines can be used, reducing weight and further increasing efficiency. And because it’s a proven technology, the research and development costs are enticingly low.
“This is not something on the drawing board. Turbos are here,” said Adriane Brown, president and chief executive of Honeywell Transportation Systems, the leading turbo manufacturer, with $2.5 billion in turbo sales last year. As turbos gain more acceptance, she expects sales to grow three times faster than the automotive segment in the next few years, or about 8%.

Turbos are hardly new. After finding a place on ships, locomotives and airplanes in the first half of the last century, they were adopted for passenger cars in the 1970s when BMW, Mercedes, Mitsubishi and even Buick bolted them on manifolds. Despite popularity among car tuners, they quickly lost acceptance among the general population, which saw them as unreliable, expensive and, with their sudden bursts of acceleration, dangerous.

Older turbos delivered great amounts of torque, yet frequently there was a short time gap between stepping on the pedal and feeling the power. That gap, called turbo lag, could cause unsuspecting drivers to crash.

New turbo technology has essentially eliminated that gap while providing variable boost depending on the engine velocity, turbo manufacturers say. And turbos add only slightly to the cost of a car, they say, between $1,000 and $3,000 — part of which can be offset by using a smaller engine.

And though some carmakers are just now embracing the technology (and a very few still shun it), others have been pressing the turbo button for years. GM’s Saab, for example, has long used turbocharged engines and Subaru has had them in cars for 25 years, including four current models.

In Europe, turbocharger-equipped diesel engines are far and away the most common engine type, approaching 50% market penetration. Yet in the U.S., said Honeywell’s Brown, only 6% of cars and truck are “boosted.”

Temperature itself has a little fever

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Temperature itself has a little fever:

In 1851, Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich decided to start using a new instrument in his clinic: the thermometer. He was among very few using the device, although he wasn’t the first: Thirty years earlier, a pair of French doctors had shown that inflamed body parts and exercising muscles were hotter than the rest of the body. (They showed the latter by sticking a heat-sensitive needle in a man’s arm while he sawed wood.)

They had also suggested that the average human body temperature was about 98.5 degrees.

Wunderlich set out to prove it. Using a foot-long thermometer that took more than 15 minutes to give a reading, he took the underarm temperature of 25,000 patients several times over — a total of more than a million readings.

(That’s more than 250,000 hours, or 10,000 days, of temperature-taking, for those who are counting.)

In an astounding feat of patience (given that calculators were unimaginable at the time), Wunderlich then averaged the temperatures and came up with 98.6 degrees.

The number stuck — although it’s starting to give way.

Since Wunderlich’s day, doctors and researchers have observed that normal body temperature varies from person to person and changes depending on the time of day. In 1992, three doctors working at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Baltimore took several daily temperature measurements of 148 men and women over three days.

In a now oft-cited paper, they published their results: The average temperature was 98.2.

But the doctors, led by Dr. Philip Mackowiak, now a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, were hesitant to put too much stock in this average. Like Wunderlich more than a century before, they found that body temperature rose and fell during the day, from a low at 6 a.m. to a peak at around 6 p.m.

Mackowiak’s team found other influences on temperature variation. Women in the study were slightly hotter than men (98.4 versus 98.1), and blacks were slightly warmer than whites (98.2 versus 98.1).

Other researchers have shown that age also matters: Children are warmer than adults, thanks to their rapid metabolism, and that cooling trend appears to continue throughout life. A 2005 study showed that in 150 seniors, the average temperature was 97.3 degrees early in the morning and 97.8 just before bed.

Sunday School for Atheists

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Church is about much more than Christian doctrine. Now there’s even Sunday School for Atheists:

“When you have kids,” says Julie Willey, a design engineer, “you start to notice that your co-workers or friends have church groups to help teach their kids values and to be able to lean on.” So every week, Willey, who was raised Buddhist and says she has never believed in God, and her husband pack their four kids into their blue minivan and head to the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., for atheist Sunday school.

An estimated 14% of Americans profess to have no religion, and among 18-to-25-year-olds, the proportion rises to 20%, according to the Institute for Humanist Studies. The lives of these young people would be much easier, adult nonbelievers say, if they learned at an early age how to respond to the God-fearing majority in the U.S. “It’s important for kids not to look weird,” says Peter Bishop, who leads the preteen class at the Humanist center in Palo Alto. Others say the weekly instruction supports their position that it’s O.K. to not believe in God and gives them a place to reinforce the morals and values they want their children to have.

The pioneering Palo Alto program began three years ago, and like-minded communities in Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., plan to start similar classes next spring. The growing movement of institutions for kids in atheist families also includes Camp Quest, a group of sleep-away summer camps in five states plus Ontario, and the Carl Sagan Academy in Tampa, Fla., the country’s first Humanism-influenced public charter school, which opened with 55 kids in the fall of 2005. Bri Kneisley, who sent her son Damian, 10, to Camp Quest Ohio this past summer, welcomes the sense of community these new choices offer him: “He’s a child of atheist parents, and he’s not the only one in the world.”

Kneisley, 26, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, says she realized Damian needed to learn about secularism after a neighbor showed him the Bible. “Damian was quite certain this guy was right and was telling him this amazing truth that I had never shared,” says Kneisley. In most ways a traditional sleep-away camp — her son loved canoeing — Camp Quest also taught Damian critical thinking, world religions and tales of famous freethinkers (an umbrella term for atheists, agnostics and other rationalists) like the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Spielberg-grade gear on an indie budget

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Popular Science‘s “Best of What’s New 2007″ list includes a piece of Spielberg-grade gear on an indie budget:

Red One captures digital video that matches the top-end quality of 35-millimeter movie film — at less than a tenth the price of other professional digital rigs. The secret to the Red’s quality is its 12-megapixel “Mysterium” image sensor. Its physically larger pixels soak up more light to capture rich color and deep contrast that makes even shadowy nighttime scenes pop off the screen the way they do on film. And the Red’s compression software lets you edit the huge video files on a regular laptop. How did Red get the price so low? Since the company is hoping to sell to a wider audience than just movie studios, it’s counting on economies of scale to keep manufacturing costs low. $17,500 for body only; $35,000 with accessories, including lens, hard drive and battery;

Retro-Future: To The Stars!

Monday, November 26th, 2007

If you enjoy retro-future art, you should enjoy these rare pieces from unlikely sources, including Soviet science magazines.

Norman Saunders

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

If you enjoy pulp art, you should enjoy the work of Norman Saunders.

(Hat tip to Michael Blowhard.)

Human links may be seen in gorillas’ tools

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Gorillas are using weapons to attack humans:

The scientists noticed the unusual behaviour during a three-year study. They believe the animals might have learned to throw objects from humans who were seen throwing stones at the gorillas.

Jacqueline Sunderland Groves, from the University of Sussex in Brighton, a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society team, said: “The area is largely isolated from other gorilla groups, but there are herdsmen on the mountain.

“In one encounter a group of gorillas threw clumps of grass and soil at the researchers while acting aggressively. Another gorilla threw a branch. A third encounter saw the gorillas throwing soil at a local man who was throwing stones at the apes.”

A gorilla was seen to use tools once before in the Congo, using sticks to test the depth of water and to cross swampy areas.

The findings suggest that the use of tools may predate the evolutionary split between apes and humans six million years ago.