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What About the Good News?

Several months ago, a client asked me how I stay so positive about things. We all see, hear, and read way too much negative news every day. That is what sells unfortunately.

But I believe strongly in human creativity. So I just went back three years in the new items I compile and send out (they go back to 1994) and pulled out all the positive and interesting facts.

Most of the facts are about the U.S. and not about politics or making money. All of these facts will positively and greatly change our lives for the better in the near future.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed putting them together!


 Supercapacitors in Cars

The Economist – July 12, 2014

[…] vehicles, such as Tesla’s Model S and BMW’s new i8, were powered by lithium-ion batteries, sometimes backed up by a petrol-driven engine that drives a generator and may, in a hybrid arrangement, also drive the wheels directly. One, however, was not like this. For instead of batteries, the Toyota TS040 hybrid (pictured above) has a super capacitor. When the car needs a kick that its 520 horsepower 3.7 liter V8 petrol engine cannot provide, an additional 480 horsepower is available from two electric motors connected to this super capacitor. And when the car is decelerating or braking, the motors work in reverse, as generators, to charge the supercapacitor up again.

Unlike batteries, which store energy chemically in the material of their electrodes, a capacitor stores energy physically, on the electrodes’ surfaces. One electrode has a surplus of electrons and the other a deficit. If the electrodes are then connected through an external circuit a current flows until the surplus has neutralized the deficit and both have the same electrical potential. Electrode surfaces are easy to get to, so a capacitor can be charged and discharged quickly, giving it a high power-density. But surfaces cannot hold as much energy as entire volumes, so capacitors have lower energy-densities than batteries.

Super capacitors pack vastly larger surfaces into a given space by using porous materials to form the electrodes. This permits them to have an energy-density up to 10,000 times that of a regular capacitor. That is still only a tenth of a lithium-ion battery’s energy-density, but a supercapacitor power-density can be ten times that of such a battery.

Better Transportation – The Public Speaks

The Week – June 13, 2014 – According to numbers released by Uber, full-time drivers of the smartphone-summoned UberX taxis in New York City earn a median annual income of $90,766. That’s three times the estimated yearly wage of a traditional cabbie.

Public transit ridership rises

The Week – March 21, 2014

USA Today – Use of public transit in the U.S. rose to its highest level in more than 50 years last year, as more and more Americans opt for buses, trains, and subways instead of driving. Since 1995, public transit ridership has increased by 37 percent—outpacing the 20 percent population growth over the same period.

Rebirth of the Diesel Engine – Look Out

The Economist – September 7, 2013

Tesla Motors has had great success with its Model S luxury electric car, which has outsold its petrol-powered equivalents since being launched in America last year. Even so, the prospects for battery-powered vehicles generally may never shine quite as bright again. Having had their day in the sun, they may soon be eclipsed by, wait for it, the diesel engine.


With its old 1.4-litre diesel engine, the Volkswagen Polo currently holds the record for being the most frugal non-electric car in Europe, with a fuel economy on the combined cycle of just 3.8 liters/100km (equivalent to 61.9 miles per American gallon). The Toyota Prius hybrid? A lowly 20th in the league table of the most economical fuel-sippers, with 4.2 liters/100km, along with higher emissions of carbon dioxide. The 19 cars having better fuel economy than the Prius hybrid are all clean diesels.

Your columnist fully expects the new generation of clean, low-compression diesels to improve fuel-economy by a further 20% or more. That will put diesels on much the same footing—given the way that equivalent miles-per-gallon are calculated for electric vehicles—as many battery-powered vehicles, but without any worries about range or recharging. Roll on the day.

Silica extracted from rice husks makes for greener tires

The Economist – January 5th, 2013

One good way to save fuel is to reduce rolling resistance, which is caused, in part, by a vehicle’s weight repeatedly squashing its tires. As the tires bounce they convert kinetic energy into heat, thus wasting it. Hysteresis loss, as this is known, can be reduced by mixing a tire’s rubber with powdered material that has strong chemical bonds in it.

In the past, the material of choice has been carbon black, a sooty substance made by the incomplete combustion of petroleum products. More recently, silica (silicon dioxide, which comes from sand) has come to the forefront. Silica is better because it lowers hysteresis loss without reducing a tire’s grip. It thus cuts rolling resistance by around 30%, compared with its predecessor. That translates into a 5-7% reduction in fuel consumption. And silica also increases a tire’s wet grip.

Sand is cheap. But processing it into something suitable for use in tires requires effort and money. So if nature were to provide grains of silica suitable for use without processing, that would be a bonus. And nature does. Grasses contain tiny pieces of silica, called phytoliths (illustrated above), whose job is to discourage herbivores, both vertebrate and insect. Pirelli’s engineers realized that these defensive weapons are the ideal size to add to tyres in order to control hysteresis loss, and that a ready supply of them is available in the husks left over from the milling of rice.

Rice husks were once waste. These days they have some value because they are used as fuel in small-scale electricity generators. But from Pirelli’s point of view, that is a good thing, because what the firm is interested in is the phytoliths left behind in the ash—and until now the ash itself really was waste. The firm has set up a factory in Meleiro, a town in a rice-growing area of southern Brazil, to extract phytoliths and put them in tires. The ash comes from rice husks burned to help power the factory. A ton of rice produces around 200kg of husks and those, in turn, yield 40kg of silica. According to Daniele Lorenzetti, who is in charge of the project, by 2015 the factory will be providing nearly a third of the silica Pirelli needs for the 400,000 tonnes of tires it makes in Brazil. The technology could spread fast, especially in other rice-growing areas. For Brazilians that would have a delicious irony. The Amazon rainforest was the original home of rubber trees, but Brazil’s rubber industry was devastated when seeds smuggled to Asia were used to set up rival plantations. By taking an Asian crop and using it to make better tires, they will be getting their own back.

Driverless cars: Look, no hands

The Economist – April 20th, 2013

IN AN average month 108,000 people are killed in traffic accidents around the world, and the death toll is increasing. On current trends it will exceed 150,000 people a month by 2020, according to the World Health Organisation, as cars become more widespread in developing countries, increasing the number of vehicles on the world’s roads from around 1 billion in 2010 to 2 billion. Many lives will be spared by outfitting more vehicles with airbags, the biggest lifesavers in car technology since seat belts. But now a far greater revolution in road safety is within reach. Around 90% of accidents are caused by human error. Design vehicles so that they can drive themselves, goes the theory, and death tolls will plummet.

Japan’s bullet train vs budget

The Economist – April 28, 2012

The world’s busiest train route, and one of the busiest air routes, is between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan’s two biggest metropolitan areas. On that corridor, the shinkansen, as Japan’s bullet trains are known, were born in 1964. They whizz 120,000 passengers a day smoothly from one place to another, on trains that leave every ten minutes. Although humans, not robots, are at the controls, the average delay is a miraculous 36 seconds. To take all those passengers by air would require 667 aircraft, each with 180 seats, or five times Japan’s fleet of Boeing 737s, estimates Macquarie, an investment bank.


How to gather more light for solar power

The Economist – June 28, 2014

THE sun provides enough energy in an hour to meet the world’s demands for a year, yet solar energy accounts for barely 1% of global power consumption. Plenty of researchers are working on making solar cells turn sunlight into electricity more efficiently. Some, though, are trying instead to turn it into fuel, using so-called photo electrochemical (PEC) cells. Unfortunately, most processes designed to do this have proved complex and inefficient. But Florent Boudoire and Artur Braun of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology think they have found a way to improve things.

The PEC cells which Mr. Boudoire and Dr. Braun are interested in use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. They do this by employing a photo electrode to convert the light into electricity and thus create a circuit that runs through the water. The gases are then generated by electrolysis.


Curiously, the researchers found after they had finished their experiments that nature had beaten them to it. The microstructure of their cells, with its spherical light collectors, resembles what goes on inside a moth’s eyes. These, which have evolved the ability to collect as much light as possible in order to see in the dark, and to reflect as little of it as possible to avoid being detected by predators, also contain tiny light-absorbing spheres. Nothing under the sun, as it were, is new.

Asgard’s Fire – Thorium Reactors

The Economist – April 12, 2014

Existing reactors use uranium or plutonium—the stuff of bombs. Uranium reactors need the same fuel-enrichment technology that bomb-makers employ, and can thus give cover for clandestine weapons programmes. Plutonium is made from unenriched uranium in reactors whose purpose can easily be switched to bomb-making. Thorium, though, is hard to turn into a bomb; not impossible, but sufficiently uninviting a prospect that America axed thorium research in the 1970s. It is also three or four times as abundant as uranium. In a world where nuclear energy was a primary goal of research, rather than a military spin-off, it would certainly look worthy of investigation. And it is, indeed, being investigated.

One of the cleverest things about LFTRs is that they work at atmospheric pressure. This changes the economics of nuclear power. In a light-water reactor, the type most commonly deployed at the moment, the cooling water is under extremely high pressure. As a consequence, light-water reactors need to be sheathed in steel pressure vessels and housed in fortress-like containment buildings in case their cooling systems fail and radioactive steam is released. An LFTR needs none of these.

Thorium is also easier to prepare than its rivals […]

It does, it is true, need a seed of uranium or plutonium to provide neutrons to start the ball rolling. Once enough of it has been converted into 233U, though, the process becomes self-sustaining … The consequence is that thorium reactors can run non-stop for years, unlike light-water reactors. These have to be shut down every 18 months to replace batches of fuel rods.

Thorium has other advantages, too. Even the waste products of LFTRs are less hazardous than those of a light-water reactor. There is less than a hundredth of the quantity and its radioactivity falls to safe levels within centuries, instead of the tens of millennia for light-water waste.

Moore’s Law Revisited

The Economist – March 28th, 2014

The rate of shrinkage has followed Moore’s law, an observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, one of Intel’s founders, that the number of transistors that can be crammed into a given area doubles every couple of years. One way to view that is to examine the cost of transistors. In 1982, when Intel launched its 80386 chip, $1 bought several thousand transistors. By 2002, you could get 2.6m for the same price. By 2012, when chips routinely sported more than a billion transistors, the price had fallen to 20m to the dollar.

The Electromagnetic Catapult

The Economist – March 8th, 2014

The US Navy’s railgun program, aptly named Velocitas Eradico—“I Who Am Speed, Destroy” in Latin—has made brisk progress since it began in 2005. Working primarily with General Atomics and Britain’s BAE Systems, the muzzle energy of shots has increased from six to 32 mega joules, enough to hammer targets beyond 160km (99 miles) at more than five times the speed of sound (sound travels at about 1,230kph), reckons Nevin Carr, a retired rear-admiral and former head of America’s Office of Naval Research.

The slugs can be heavy. General Atomics has produced a rail gun able to hurl a 10kg projectile more than 200km in less than six minutes (that’s 2,000kph). Some slugs fly fast enough to hit a target 30km away with a straight trajectory, says John Finkenaur, a rail gun expert at Raytheon, another defense contractor. Slugs are cheaper than missiles and, lacking propellant and explosives, are safer to store.

Rail guns, though, can be awkward. They get hot and wear rapidly. Some rail guns had to be dismantled after two or three shots to make sure components were holding up. Now some can handle 100 shots and computer models suggest this might be multiplied six fold, giving rail gun barrels roughly the same lifespan as five-inch naval guns, says Mr. Carr.


HyperV is, though, making progress with another exotic rail gun. Rather than use metal as an armature, the firm strips ions from a few milligrams of argon gas and uses the resulting conductive plasma to transfer electrical energy from one rail to another. In a vacuum it can fire a plasma blob at nearly 150km a second—fast enough to initiate fusion in a deuterium and tritium fuel. HyperV hopes to use it to design the world’s first commercially viable, power-generating fusion reactor.

… More prosaically, IAP Research, a technology-development company based in Dayton, Ohio, has come up with something for the handyman. With funding from a toolmaker it has produced a prototype electromagnetic gun that drives nails into concrete. Dave Bauer, the firm’s founder, expects it to be in hardware stores within a couple of years.

Energy Bonanza in the U.S.

The Economist – March 16th, 2013


Cheap gas is also translating into cheap electricity, since America’s marginal power supplies tend to come from gas-fired plants. In 2011, according to the IEA, American factories paid roughly half the going rate for electricity in Chile or Mexico and a quarter of the eye-watering Italian price. In New York last year prices were the lowest they have ever been since the state introduced a competitive wholesale market in 1999.

Better still, the steep drop in the price of natural gas has driven America’s drillers to hunt for oil instead. Rigs are migrating from gassy places like the Haynesville Shale, in Louisiana, to spots where oil is trapped in tiny rock pores, such as the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, the Bakken formation of North Dakota and the Mississippian Lime, which sits astride the border between Oklahoma and Kansas. Applying the same techniques to such “tight oil” as to gas-laden shales, they have managed to increase America’s oil production by a third over the past four years, to 7m b/d. The government expects it to grow by more than 1m b/d over the next two years. The output of the Bakken Shale alone has risen from 100,000 b/d in 2008 to over 700,000 now.
By the end of this year, BP predicts, America will overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest producer of liquid fuel, meaning oil and biofuels.

Despite its huge local impact, America’s shale-oil boom has pushed up global oil production by just a percentage point or two, not enough to reduce the price much. However, it has resulted in a big drop in America’s import bill. IHS calculates that unconventional oil reduced the trade deficit in 2012 by $70 billion, or about 10%.

Sunny Uplands – Solar energy is really coming

The Economist  – November 21st, 2012


Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves every 18 months or so. Swanson’s law, named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower, a big American solar-cell manufacturer, suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. The upshot (see chart) is that the modules used to make solar-power plants now cost less than a dollar per watt of capacity. Power-station construction costs can add $4 to that, but these, too, are falling as builders work out how to do the job better. And running a solar power station is cheap because the fuel is free.

Coal-fired plants, for comparison, cost about $3 a watt to build in the United States, and natural-gas plants cost $1. But that is before the fuel to run them is bought. In sunny regions such as California, then, photovoltaic power could already compete without subsidy with the more expensive parts of the traditional power market, such as the natural-gas-fired “peaker” plants kept on stand-by to meet surges in demand. Moreover, technological developments that have been proved in the laboratory but have not yet moved into the factory mean Swanson’s law still has many years to run.

Comparing the cost of wind and solar power with that of coal- and gas-fired electricity generation is more than just a matter of comparing the costs of the plant and the fuel, of course. Reliability of supply is a crucial factor, for the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. But the problem of reliability is the subject of intensive research. Many organizations, both academic and commercial, are working on ways to store electricity when it is in surplus, so that it can be used when it is scarce.


One consequence of all this progress is that subsidies for wind and solar power have fallen over recent years. In 2013, they will fall further. Though subsidies will not disappear entirely, the so-called alternatives will be seen to stand on their own feet in a way that was not true in the past. That will give them political clout and lead to questions about the subventions which more traditional forms of power generation enjoy (coal production, for example, is heavily subsidised in parts of Europe).

America’s Gas Energy Future

The Week – September 7th, 2012

The primary driver of America’s energy revolution was the controversial new technology of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. In 2005, the Bush administration loosened environmental rules and offered tax breaks to encourage the use of the technique on deposits of oil and gas in the U.S. Today more than 35,000 tracking wells produce nearly a third of the natural gas Americans consume. Oil production from shale is also booming and there might be more than 1 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in these deposits – 4 times Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserves. North Dakota in particular is benefiting from this new oil boom. In the future years, the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil will continue to shrink though not end. A recent federal report predicted that foreign oil will decline to 38% of the country’s oil consumption by 2022. U.S. oil production now at 5.7 million barrels a day could hit 10 million barrels by 2022 about the same amount that Saudi Arabia produces now.

Solar power in India: Waiting for the sun

The Economist – April 28, 2012


Environment, Water, and Nature

Freshwater under the ocean

The Week – December 27th, 2013

Vast reserves of freshwater have been discovered beneath the seabed of continental shelves off Australia, China, North America, and South Africa—a potentially valuable resource for coastal cities needing to alleviate water shortages or combat drought. The finding comes from a new analysis of seafloor water studies conducted for oil and gas exploration purposes. The total volume of these untapped reserves is estimated at 120,000 cubic miles, “a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the earth’s subsurface in the past century since 1900,” Australian hydro geologist Vincent Post tells reserves were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, when sea levels were much lower and much of the ocean floor was dry land. Rainwater seeped into the ground and filled up the water table, which was later sealed off by protective layers of clay and sediment and covered as the oceans rose. Scientists say that the water could be tapped by drilling and that its salinity is low enough that it could be converted readily into potable water. By 2025 two thirds of the world’s population will no longer have a secure water supply, according to the United Nations.

Earth’s Oldest Water

The Week – May 29, 2013

At the bottom of a gold mine a mile and a half deep, Canadian researchers have discovered a cache of ancient water that has been sealed off from the rest of the world for as long as 2.6 billion years. The water originated in a prehistoric sea at a time when the earliest single-celled organisms were evolving, the Toronto Globe and Mail reports, and its existence raises hopes that similar stores of water could exist deep below the surface of Mars. The sample contains substantial amounts of hydrogen, which might have served as a chemical fuel that could have allowed bacteria to survive for several billion years without sunlight or oxygen.

Cleaning Up Fracking’s Dirty Water

Barron’s – April 27th, 2013

As much as 140 billion gallons of water are used in the 35,000 wells fracked annually in the U.S. Most of it simply disappears underground; the rest is rendered so toxic by the process that communities are wary of fracking.

140,000,000,000 gallons is equivalent to 430,000 of water. There are 325,853 gallons of water per acre foot. We then need to convert the acre feet into square footage. One acre foot is the equivalent of 43,560 ft.². So this equals 18,730,800 ft.². Converting that the square miles one would divide by 27,878,400 ft.² to equal a square-mile. After all those calculations we have 672 mi.² about half the size of our smallest state, Rhode Island. That is the equivalent of one 10
th of one percent of the annual US water usage. U.S. daily total water usage based on 2000 date is 408 billion gallons per day.

Black Carbon Soot – the Silver Lining

The Economist – January 19th, 2013

[This study] found that the black carbon around at the moment has a warming effect of about 1.1 watts per square metre of the Earth’s surface (W/m2). This is greater than that of methane and second only to the 1.7W/m2 of carbon dioxide. An earlier estimate by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) put the black-carbon effect at only 0.3-0.6W/m2. The higher the figure, the worse the warming.

The biggest impact of soot, though, is not on the climate but on health—through lung and other diseases. The UNEP study reckoned that controlling emissions of black carbon could save 2.4m lives a year, regardless of any effects on the climate. It might seem that the new study is one more item of bad environmental news. Not so. It should be easier to deal with black carbon than with carbon dioxide. Whereas CO2 is long-lasting and an inevitable by-product of burning fossil fuels, soot drops out of the atmosphere within weeks. Stop putting it there and it will rapidly go away—a potentially easy win. That win is made easier still by the fact that about 70% of emissions in Europe and the Americas come from diesel engines. Better exhausts, to trap carbon particles before they are emitted, and the scrapping of old, highly polluting vehicles could make an immediate impact.

Dealing with them is also cheaper than cutting CO2 emissions and does not need global agreement, because the local benefits would be the main point, so no one could free-ride on the emission-cutting efforts of others. Instead, the good of the climate would be free-riding on local self-interest. Piers Forster of Leeds University, in England, one of the study’s authors, argues that if people did everything they could to reduce black-carbon emissions, it would strip half a degree of temperature rise out of the process of global warming—or, to put it another way, would give politicians two extra decades to tackle the less tractable question of what to do about CO2.

Carbon emissions fall

The Week – January 18, 2013 – Carbon emissions from U.S. power plants were 12 percent lower in 2012 than at their peak in 2007, even though the economy is now larger. Emissions last year were about the same as they were in 1995, largely because cheaper domestic natural gas has supplanted dirtier coal in power plants.

Why firms go green

The Economist – November 12th, 2011

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a watchdog that collects information on the emissions of over 500 large companies, 59% of emissions-reducing investments made so far—mostly in energy efficiency or renewable energy—will pay for themselves within three years.

Clean power: Back to basics

The Economist – October 22nd, 2011

For many years energy efficiency was the poor relation to cutting-edge clean technology initiatives like wind and solar. But now the more workaday strategies are getting a new look-in. Efficiency measures can often save as much power as the more glamorous efforts can produce, at a fraction of the cost. One widely used estimate comes from a 2009 report from McKinsey, which reckoned that America could reduce its non-transport energy consumption by roughly 23% by 2020 through efficiency savings alone.

Yes, There is Gold in the Ocean

NOAA – November 17th, 2011

Ocean waters do hold gold – nearly 20 million tons of it. However, if you were hoping make your fortune mining the sea, consider this: Gold in the ocean is so dilute that its concentration is on the order of parts per trillion. Each liter of seawater contains, on average, about 13 billionths of a gram of gold. That would be worth nearly $64 trillion in today’s prices making desalination and interesting new venture if done right and economically!

How fracking worked better than Kyoto

The Week – September 28th, 2011

Bjorn Lomborg, – “Something amazing has happened,” said Bjorn Lomborg. This year, “carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years”—down 14 percent from their peak in 2007. What wonderful “green” initiative is responsible for this dramatic turnaround? Fracking. Thanks to the natural gas boom created by drilling into shale formations, the U.S. has cut way back on its use of coal to generate electricity, and shifted to gas, which emits 45 percent less CO2. As a result, the nation’s CO2 emissions dropped by 500 megatons per year—about twice the total impact of the Kyoto Protocol on emissions throughout the rest of the world. By comparison, government investments in “renewables” like wind, solar, and ethanol have produced far less reduction in emissions. This breakthrough couldn’t have happened without decades of government-sponsored research into fracking technology. The lesson: To combat climate change, our best bet is “energy innovation” that will create new sources of energy—not artificial caps on emissions that haven’t worked anyway.

Buffalo are coming back to the American prairie

The Economist – March 17th, 2012

Before Europeans arrived in North America as many as 60m buffalo are estimated to have ranged across the Great Plains. From around 1830, however, they were systematically killed until only a handful remained. Buffalo were taken for their hides, or simply because they were getting in the way of settlers. Men like Buffalo Bill slaughtered thousands. In only 14 years from now, thanks largely to the buffalo’s natural fecundity; APR will have over 5,000 buffalo, the largest conservation herd on the planet.

U.S. slashes carbon dioxide emissions

The Week – June 8th, 2012

The U.S. has slashed its carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation by 7.7 percent, or 450 million tons, since 2006, more than any other country. The International Energy Agency attributes the drop to the shift from coal to natural gas, driven by the U.S. shale gas boom. Financial Times

Secrets of ancient bacteria

The Week – June 8th, 2012

Since the time of the dinosaurs, a hardy strain of bacteria has been living deep in the barren seabed without access to sunlight, oxygen, or nutrients. Researchers found the still unnamed organisms in clay samples from 100 feet below the seafloor of the North Pacific Gyre, an area where so few nutrients reach the bottom that it takes millions of years to create a thin layer of sediment. Having received almost nothing new to eat since the Cretaceous period, the bacteria are consuming ancient stores of oxygen at a metabolic rate some 2 million times slower than that of humans. “They left the surface 86 million years ago with one lunch box, and they’re still eating out of it,” study author Hans Roy, of Aarhus University in Denmark, tells “It’s like they’re splitting a pie, and they keep splitting in half and in half and in half, but nobody ever eats the last crumble.” The unlikely survival of the bacteria suggests that similar forms of life might be able to exist in harsh habitats on other planets.

Californian water technology: Salty and getting fresh

The Economist – March 31st, 2012

The first part, conservation, is hardly controversial any more. San Diego today uses less water with a larger population than it did in 1989, the year water consumption peaked. The second part, water recycling, has been a harder sell, because of what the industry calls the yuck factor. It doesn’t help that Americans still use the term “toilet-to-tap” for recycling, even though properly treated sewage is nowadays completely clean. Singapore made its program acceptable in part by rebranding it as NEWater. But even the Singaporeans cannot recycle all their waste-water.

This is where desalination comes in. A firm appropriately called Poseidon Resources is now close to building the biggest desalination plant in America behind a power station by the beach in Carlsbad. The power plant sucks in 304m gallons of seawater a day for cooling in any case, so Poseidon plans to divert 104m gallons a day through its osmotic membranes.

Fondling a pipe of membranes (they are rolled like toilet paper but the size of a cannon), Poseidon’s Peter MacLaggan explains the scale: if water molecules were blown up to the size of tennis balls, salt molecules would be softballs (roughly 50% bigger in diameter), viruses would be trucks, and bacteria would be the size of power plants. From the 104m daily gallons, 50m gallons of pure H2O will come out at one end and brine at the other, to be fed back into the power station’s discharge, and then into the ocean.

Economy and Work

Thinking From Home

The Week – May 9, 2014

The Wall Street Journal – Just 10% of workers say they do their best thinking in the office, while 39% say they do their best thinking at home.

Helping the Poor Does Not Cause Laziness

The Week – March 28, 2014

Brazil has reduced the number of its citizens living in extreme poverty by 89 percent in just one decade, the government announced this week at a World Bank forum. Brazil’s aid program, known as Bolsa Familia, is an income-transfer plan that ensures all families receive a minimum of $30 per person per month. First implemented a decade ago, it now reaches nearly 50 million people, or one in four Brazilians. Social Development Minister Tereza Campello said critics who feared that the aid would encourage welfare dependency had been proved wrong. Some 70 percent of recipients are employed, she said, which is about the same as the proportion of no recipients who work.

Selling Stakes in Students’ Futures

The Economist – June 15, 2013

The notion of “human-capital contracts”—or “social financial agreements”, as Oren Bass, a co-founder of Pave, prefers to call them—may seem creepy. To many, it sounds like indentured servitude. But the notion of acquiring a stake in someone’s future earnings is not unprecedented. In professional poker, for instance, players often raise money from investors who then pocket a chunk of any winnings.

Pave and Upstart have developed offerings that are a mix of LinkedIn, a social network for businesspeople, and Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding site that lets folk invest in new products. Candidates post gushing profiles of themselves and describe what they intend to do with the money they are after. Potential investors, who also post profiles, offer cash to individuals who catch their eye. If they invest, the backers receive a percentage of the person’s pre-tax income over a number of years. Pave and Upstart allow youngsters to choose the percentage of their income to share with investors. In return, the matchmakers pocket a sliver of the money raised, as well as a management fee from investors. Pave lets its “prospects” share up to 10% of their future earnings. Upstarts can offer up to 7% of their income. Upstart also caps total payback at five times the amount raised, so that if someone creates the next Google they don’t have to hand over Croesus-like sums of money to their investors.

Global Poverty Rate cut in Half

The Week – June 14, 2013

The Economist – The global poverty rate, measured by how many people live on less than $1.25 a day, has halved from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2010. Economic growth in China, India, and other developing nations has driven that reduction in poverty.

The Poor giving more to Charity than the Rich

The Week – April 5th, 2013 – In 2011, the poorest 20 percent of Americans gave 3.2 percent of their income to charity. The wealthiest 20 percent were far stingier, donating just 1.3 percent. Researchers say those with less to share may have “higher empathy” because they’re more exposed to need.

Free Working Environment Raise Productivity

The Week – April 12th, 2013

The Wall Street Journal – Economists at Stanford University and the University of Chicago estimate that, between 1960 and 2008, 15 to 20 percent of the growth in U.S. productivity came from removing the barriers blocking white women and blacks of both genders in the workforce.

Making a Million in America

The Week – February 22nd, 2013

The Economist – It takes the average American household about 25 years to earn a million dollars—the fastest rate of any country. In Mexico and Romania, by contrast, the average family would take more than three centuries to rack up $1 million in pretax earnings.

The Next Industrial Revolution

The Week – January 18, 2013

Instead of fiddling around at home, we’re likely to turn to manufacturing hubs with specialist 3-D printing machines, “rather like when people go to specialist shops to get higher quality photos printed,” said Richard Hague, an expert on 3-D printing at Loughborough University in the U.K. Once introduced on an industrial scale, 3-D printing could have a profound economic impact. Companies would no longer need to keep huge warehouses filled with goods, as products could be printed locally on demand. And 3-D printing could compel American manufacturers to repatriate production now done abroad. “There is nothing to be gained by going overseas,” said Bespoke Innovations co-founder Scott Summit, “except for higher shipping charges.”

Resolution of Canada’s Debt Crisis

The American Spectator – October 2011

In 1994, Canada’s debt crisis was as bad as that of America today, and prompted the
Wall Street Journal to label it an honorary member of the Third World. However, the country quickly turned itself around. Prime Minister Chretien and his minister of finance forced spending cuts that Paul Ryan could only dream of on a reluctant Liberal Party. Over the next 16 years, Canada’s federal debt fell 67% to 29% of GDP, and in every year between 1997 and 2008 the federal government had a budget surplus. The Canadian government didn’t just cut the growth rate of spending, a budgetary trick employed in the U.S. budget deal last August. It also cut absolute spending on many programs in dollar terms.

America – Manufacturing Productivity

The Atlantic – December 2012

And of course, manufacturing employment will never again be as central to the U.S. economy as it was in the 1960s and 1970s – improvements in worker productivity alone ensures that. Appliance Park in Kentucky was turning out 250,000 appliances a month back in the 1960s. The assembly lines there today are turning out almost as many – with at most one-third of the workers. U.S. and China’s manufacturing output in dollars is about the same but the U.S. uses only 10% of the workforce used in China! 10% to 20% of the goods that the U.S. imports from China can now be made in the U.S. China is two times more energy intensive in its manufacturing than the U.S. As of July 2012 the Yuan is 40% undervalued to the U.S. dollar.

Charity and Taxation

The Economist  – June 9th, 2012

The American tax system, [Charles Clotfelter, an economist at Duke University] points out, “gives the wealthiest taxpayers a disproportionate role in allocating public resources.” In 2008, individual Americans with incomes over $500,000 (who make up less than 1% of taxpayers) accounted for 18% of all income and made almost a quarter of all charitable donations. By contrast, the two-thirds of taxpayers with incomes under $50,000 earned about 20% of total income and made about 20% of all donations. In 2006 taxpayers with incomes over $100,000 received 76% of the total $40.9 billion tax subsidy due to the charitable deduction, although they made only 57% of all donations; those with incomes of less than $50,000 received a mere 5% of the subsidy, despite making one-fifth of all charitable donations.

A third industrial revolution

The Economist – April 21, 2012

[…] Nissan’s British factory in Sunderland, opened in 1986, is now one of the most productive in Europe. In 1999 it built 271,157 cars with 4,594 people. Last year it made 480,485 vehicles—more than any other car factory in Britain, ever—with just 5,462 people.

As the number of people directly employed in making things declines, the cost of labour as a proportion of the total cost of production will diminish too. This will encourage makers to move some of the work back to rich countries, not least because new manufacturing techniques make it cheaper and faster to respond to changing local tastes.


The wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards much more individualized production. And that in turn could bring some of the jobs back to rich countries that long ago lost them to the emerging world.

The Economist – April 21, 2012

Despite China’s rapid rise, America remains a formidable production power. Its manufacturing output in dollar terms is now about the same as China’s, but it achieves this with only 10% of the workforce deployed by China, says Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, an initiative recently set up with business and universities to create jobs and boost competitiveness.

The Economist – April 21, 2012

The Boston Consulting Group reckons that in areas such as transport, computers, fabricated metals and machinery, 10-30% of the goods that America now imports from China could be made at home by 2020, boosting American output by $20 billion-55 billion a year

Computers and Technology

Magnetic Tape to the Rescue

The Economist – November 30th, 2013

Alberto Pace, head of data and storage at CERN, says that tape has four advantages over hard disks for the long-term preservation of data. The first is speed. Although it takes about 40 seconds for an archive robot to select the right tape and put it in a reader, once it has loaded, extracting data from that tape is about four times as fast as reading from a hard disk.

The second advantage is reliability. When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, all the data on it may be lost. The consequence at CERN, specifically, is that a few hundred megabytes of its 100-petabyte tape repository are, on average, lost every year. Of the 50 petabytes of data held on hard disk, however, it loses a few hundred terabytes in the same period.

The third benefit of tapes is that they do not need power to preserve data held on them. Stopping a disk rotating by temporarily turning off the juice—a process called power cycling—increases the likelihood that it will fail. The fourth benefit is security. If a hacker with a grudge managed to break into CERN’s data center, he could delete all 50 petabytes of the disk-based data in minutes. To delete the same amount from the organization’s tapes would take years.

Tape has two other benefits, as Evangelos Eleftheriou, manager of storage technologies at IBM’s research laboratory in Zurich, points out. It is cheaper than disks (a gigabyte of disk storage costs 10 cents, versus 4 cents for tape), and it lasts longer. Tapes can still be read reliably after three decades, against five years for disks.

Virus Based Batteries

The Economist – November 23rd, 2013

… researchers think they can produce a (modified virus) lithium-air battery with an energy density more than twice that of the best lithium-ion cells. That would make a lot of difference to portable electronic products. A typical lithium-ion battery can store some 150 watt-hours of electricity in one kilogram of battery—itself a huge advance over the 45-80 watt-hours of a nickel-cadmium battery, let alone an old-time lead-acid battery’s 30 watt-hours.

Neuromorphic Computing – Computers with Real Brain Power

The Economist – August 3rd, 2013

These visionaries describe themselves as neuromorphic engineers. Their goal, according to Karlheinz Meier, a physicist at the University of Heidelberg who is one of their leaders, is to design a computer that has some—and preferably all—of three characteristics that brains have and computers do not. These are: low power consumption (human brains use about 20 watts, whereas the supercomputers currently used to try to simulate them need megawatts); fault tolerance (losing just one transistor can wreck a microprocessor, but brains lose neurons all the time); and a lack of need to be programmed (brains learn and change spontaneously as they interact with the world, instead of following the fixed paths and branches of a predetermined algorithm).

New Lift Weight Cables for Skyscrapers

The Economist – June 15, 2013

Carbon fibers are both stronger and lighter than steel. In particular, they have great tensile strength, meaning they are hard to break when their ends are pulled. That strength comes from the chemical bonds between carbon atoms: the same sort that give strength to diamonds. Kone embeds tubes made of carbon fibers in epoxy, and covers the result in a tough coating to resist wear and tear.

According to Johannes de Jong, Kone’s head of technology for large projects, the steel ropes in a 400-metre-high lift weigh about 18,650kg. An UltraRope for such a lift would weigh 1,170kg. Altogether, the lift using the UltraRope would weigh 45% less than the one with the steel rope.

Besides reducing power consumption, lighter ropes make braking a car easier should something go wrong. Carbon-fiber ropes should also, according to Mr. de Jong, cut maintenance bills, because they will last twice as long as steel ones. Moreover, carbon fiber resonates at a different frequency to other building materials, which means it sways less as skyscrapers move in high winds—which is what tall buildings are designed to do. At the moment a high wind can cause a building’s lifts to be shut down. Carbon-fiber ropes would mean that happened less often.

All of which is worthy and important. But what really excites architects and developers is the fact that carbon-fiber ropes will let buildings rise higher—a lot higher.

Zapping Corruption

The Economist – June 1st, 2013

Other officials, such as veterinarians who are paid to travel to farms to deworm cows, have to take smartphones to record themselves at work and upload geotagged self-portraits to an official website. This makes it possible to check that they are actually turning up for work. They are also required to record the phone numbers of farmers they visit, some of whom are randomly called afterwards to be asked if the service was up to scratch.

Mr. Saif is also trying out a model devised by Zubair Bhatti, a former Pakistani local-government official who now works for the World Bank. It involves making random calls to users of public services—including the police, health services and administrative services such as registering property—to inquire about the quality of service and whether they were asked to pay a bribe. Anyone who volunteers his mobile-phone number (so far, more than 1.3m people have signed up) will get a two-minute robocall from Mr. Sharif, the chief minister. He explains that they will shortly receive a text message reviewing their encounter with a local official.

Even among the poorest fifth of households, 80% now use phones, so the technology can reach almost everyone. Illiteracy is a problem, but the chief minister’s call alerts a recipient to get help, if needed, with reading the text message when it arrives. It contains a specific question: did the police respond, as required, within 15 minutes of your emergency call? Were you asked for a bribe at the hospital, or when registering property? By collating the responses it is possible to spot problem departments and crooked officials.

Bees Sniffing for Mines?

The Week – May 29th, 2013

Land mines have killed more than 300 people in Croatia—including 66 working to deactivate them – since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s ended. Now Croatian researchers are developing a new tool to locate the estimated 250,000 mines still buried in formerly war torn regions across former Yugoslavia: trained honeybees. Unlike people—or dogs and rats, which have been employed to sniff out land mines – honeybees are too light to trigger the devices, and their excellent sense of smell lets them pick up a scent up to three miles away. To train bees to hunt for TNT, researchers from Zagreb University corral numerous hives inside a tent with pots containing different-smelling solutions. Only the pots that give off a whiff of TNT contain a sugar-water reward, training the bees to associate the explosive with food. Researchers hope the bees will soon be ready to fly over fields that have already been checked for mines to find those that may have been missed. “There are never zero mines on a de-mined field,” bee expert Nikola Kezic tells the Associated Press, “and that’s where bees could come in.”

Beyond the PC

The Economist – October 8th, 2011

The cheapest Kindle, an e-reader from Amazon, sells for $79, against $399 for the first version launched in 2007. The cost of digital storage has also fallen dramatically. A gigabyte (GB) of storage, which is roughly enough to hold a two-hour film after compression, cost around $200,000 in 1980; today a disk drive holding a terabyte, or 1,024GB, costs around $100. These economic trends are being reinforced by several technological ones. Arguably the most important has been the ability of microchip-makers to squeeze ever more computing power onto their products, as Moore’s law (which holds that the number of transistors on a single chip doubles roughly every two years) has continued to operate. James Bruce of ARM, a British company that designs chips for the iPhone and other portable devices, reckons today’s versions are 40 times more powerful than those around in 2000.

Lighting the way for the poor

The Economist – September 1st, 2012

The potential savings are huge. According to a recent study by the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank, $10 billion a year is spent on kerosene in sub-Saharan Africa alone to illuminate homes, workplaces and community areas. Globally, the figure has been put at $36 billion. Flexiway, an Australian-Argentine maker of solar lamps, found in its trials in Tanzania that households often spent more than 10% of their income on kerosene, and other studies have put the figure as high as 25%.

Take a look at some of the solar lamps now available in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and their advantages are immediately apparent. Even the most basic solar lamps outperform kerosene lanterns. A typical device takes eight to ten hours to charge, and then provides four or five hours of clear, white light from high-efficiency white LEDs. The number of times solar lamps can be charged before their internal batteries wear out has improved enormously in recent years, along with their ability to cope with dust, water and being dropped. The starting price of $10 or so is still too high for the poorest customers to pay, at least up front. But as with mobile phones, prices continue to fall and novel business models are starting to provide new ways to spread the cost.

Salt-tolerant rice: Nuclear-powered crops

The Economist  – May 5th, 2012

Those who turn their noses up at “genetically modified” food seldom seem to consider that all crops are genetically modified. The difference between a wild plant and one that serves some human end is a lot of selective breeding—the picking and combining over the years of mutations that result in bigger seeds, tastier fruit or whatever else is required.


Dr. Abe’s plan is to use these mutations to create salt-tolerant rice. She has tried to do that several times in the past, but the result did not taste very nice. Her latest effort was stimulated by the flooding with seawater of almost 24,000 hectares of farmland by the tsunami which followed an earthquake in March last year. Salt-tolerant rice would, though, be of much wider use than just restoring the paddies of Miyagi prefecture and its neighbors, the worst-affected part of the country, to full productivity. About a third of the world’s rice paddies have salt problems, and yields in such briny fields may be half what they would be if the water in them were fresh.


Growing a Human Liver

The Week – July 26, 2013

Scientists have previously built windpipes and arteries for transplant by growing stem cells on plastic scaffolds, but that method has failed for solid organs like livers. Researchers hope that growing tens of thousands of liver buds could yield enough tissue to patch up—and one day even replace—failing organs. Nearly 17,000 people are awaiting liver transplants in the U.S.; last year, just over 6,000 people received one.

World is Meant to Stop using Leaded Petrol

The Economist – November 21st, 2012

So things went until the 1970s. As lead in paint, pipes and pesticides was outlawed, more and more studies confirmed that lead particles from car exhaust, filling the air, packing the soil and contaminating crops, were also bad for everyone, especially children. Lead not only made them ill. It had more subtle effects on the nervous system, rendering children anti-social, violent and aggressive: with a time-lag of 20 years or so, the crime rate exactly reflected childhood exposure to lead. Intelligence was affected, too: a blood lead level of even 5 µ/dl was enough to damage the infant brain, and with permanent effect.


The removal of lead from all petrol, then, should usher in a Golden Age. In America, since the ban of 1996, researchers estimate that IQ scores have risen by several points and 58m crimes have been avoided. The spread of peace to some of the world’s more benighted countries may happen not because leaders parley or Western troops leave, but because the element of wickedness has been taken out of their cars. In so far as lead survives, it will no longer be in forms that can be widely ingested or inhaled.

Alcohol policy: On the Floor

The Economist – March 31st, 2012

No other country has set a floor price for alcohol. But some Canadian provinces have made some or all drinks more expensive*. They tend to witness a rapid drop in consumption, crime and hospital admissions as well as a fall in alcohol-related illnesses after two to four years, says Tim Stockwell of the University of Victoria. A University of Florida study of consumption in more than 30 countries found that a 10% price rise led to a 4.6% cut in drinking.

War and Crime

Worldwide military spending falls

The Week – April 26th, 2013 – Global defense spending fell by 0.5 percent to $1.75 trillion last year, marking the first annual decline since 1998. The U.S. still spends the largest fraction of this total and 69 percent more than it did in 2001, but its share of worldwide military spending has fallen below 40 percent for the first time since 1991.

Death Penalty in Decline

The Week – October 28th, 2011

Executions themselves aren’t expensive — the lethal injection used by Texas reportedly costs $86 a shot — but the cost of the many, protracted legal battles that precede an execution weighs on state budgets. Every death-penalty sentence goes through multiple appeals, and can take more than a decade to carry out. Each of the 13 executions California has carried out since 1978, a recent study found, cost taxpayers $308 million. Partly for that reason, a poll found this year that, for the first time, California voters favored life imprisonment without the possibility of parole over the death penalty.