Posts about Economics

Solar Powered Water Jug to Purify Drinking Water

Deepika Kurup, a 14-year-old New York student, won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention of a solar-powered water jug that changes dirty water into purified drinking water. She won the top prize of $25,000.

During “the 5 minutes of my presentation 15 children have died from lack of clean drinking water.”

I am thankful we have kids like this to create solutions for us that will make the world a better place. We rely on hundreds of thousands of such people to use science and engineering methods to benefit society.

Related: Strawjet: Invention of the YearCheap Drinking Water From SeawaterWater and Electricity for AllThanksgiving, Appropriately (power of capitalism and people to provide long term increases in standards of living)

Add Over-Fishing to the Huge Government Debt as Examples of How We Are Consuming Beyond Our Means

Fish are hidden under the water so the unsustainable harvesting isn’t quite as obvious as the unsustainable government debt but they both are a result of us living beyond our sustainable production. You can live well by consuming past wealth and condemning your decedents to do without. That is the way we continue to live. Over-fishing a century ago was not as obviously dangerous as it is today. But we have witnessed many instances of overfishing devastating the fishing economy (when the fishing is unsustainable the inevitable result is collapse and elimination of the vast majority of the food and income that previous generations enjoyed).

The normal pattern has been to turn to more aggressive fishing methods and new technology to try and collect fish as over-fishing devastates yields. This, of course, further devastates the state of the resources and makes it so recovery will take much much longer (decades – or more).

New research shows the existing problems and the potential if we apply science and planning to manage fisheries effectively.

Using new methods to estimate thousands of unassessed fisheries, a new comprehensive study provides a new view of global fish stocks. The results show that the overall state of fisheries is worse than previously thought. Unassessed stocks, which are often left out of global analyses because of a lack of data, are declining at disturbing rates. When these fisheries are taken into account, the results indicate that over 40 percent of fisheries have crashed or are overfished, producing economic losses in excess of $50 billion per year.

The good news is that this decline is not universal: fisheries are starting to rebound in many areas across the globe and we can learn from these examples. Recovery trends are strongest for fisheries where data on the status of the fishery exists, and in which managers and fishermen have made science-based decisions and stuck with them in the face of political pressure.

The amount of fish brought to shore could increase 40 percent on average – and double in some areas – compared to yields predicted if we continue current fishing trends.

The management solutions to overfishing are well known, tested and proven to work. While these solutions are not “one-size-fits-all” for fisheries, there are common themes. Specifically, managers and fishermen must: 1. Reduce fishing to allow stocks to rebuild; 2. Set catches at a sustainable level that is based on the best available scientific and economic information rather than short-term political pressures; and 3. Prevent dangerous fishing activities that destroy habitat, wildlife, or breeding fish.

The over fishing problem is difficult because our nature is to ignore problems that are not immediate. But the costs of doing so are very large. If we don’t behave more wisely our children will pay the price. And, in fact, this problem is so acute now that those of us that expect to live a couple decades can expect to pay the price. In rich countries this will be tolerable, a bit less fish at much higher prices. In rich countries food prices are a minor expense compared to the billions of those not living in rich countries. They will suffer the most. As will those that have jobs directly dependent on fishing.

Related: Fishless FutureEuropean Eels in Crisis After 95% Decline in Last 25 yearsLet the Good Times Roll (using Credit)SelFISHingRunning Out of FishThe State of the Oceans is Not GoodChinook Salmon Vanish Without a Trace

Pay as You Go Solar in India

Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar

In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.

When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) — money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.
When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.

Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.

Very cool. Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access. The poorest spending up to 30% of their income on inefficient and expensive means of providing light and accessing electricity. Solutions like this, finding engineering solutions for basic needs that are market based, are great.

That the poor end up owning their solar system after just 3 years is great.

Creating great benefit to society with the smart adoption of technology and sustainable economics is something I love.

Related: Solar Power Market Solutions For Hundreds of Millions Without ElectricityAppropriate Technology: Solar Hot Water in Poor Cairo NeighborhoodsEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerWater Pump Merry-go-Round

Dangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat

Drug-resistant strains of TB are out of control

The fight against new, antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis has already been lost in some parts of the world, according to a senior World Health Organisation expert.

Dr Paul Nunn, head of the WHO’s global TB response team, is leading the efforts against multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). Nunn said that, while TB is preventable and curable, a combination of bad management and misdiagnosis was leaving pharmaceutical companies struggling to keep up. Meanwhile, the disease kills millions every year.

“It occurs basically when the health system screws up,” said Nunn. “Treating TB requires a carefully followed regime of medication over six months. In places where health services are fragmented or underfunded, or patients poor and health professionals ill-trained, that treatment can fall short, which can in turn lead to patients developing drug-resistant strains. It’s been estimated that an undiagnosed TB-infected person can infect 10 others a year.

We tend to do a poor job of dealing with systemic effects of poorly functioning systems. Direct present threats get out attention. And we are decent at directing brain power and resources to find solutions. We are not very good at dealing with failures that put us in much worse shape in the long term. For small threats we can wait until it becomes a present threat and then deal with it. There are costs to doing this (economic and personal) but it can be done.

Some problems though become enormously complicated to deal with once they become obvious. Global climate change, for example. And often, even once they are obvious, we won’t act until the costs (economic and in human lives) are very large. It is possible that once we decide to get serious about dealing with some of these issues that the costs (economic and in human lives) will be catastrophic.

The failure to use anti-biotics medicine properly is a very serious threat to become one of these catastrophic societal failures. While tuberculosis failures may be larger in poorer countries, rich countries are failing probably much more critically in the misuse of anti-biotics (I would guess, without having much evidence at my fingertips to back up my opinion. I believe the evidence exists I am just not an expert). These failures have huge costs for all of humanity but we are risking many premature deaths because we systemically fail to deal with issues until the consequences are immediate.

Related: Extensively Drug-resistant Tuberculosis (XDR TB) (2007)What Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working?Antibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus WoesOveruse of Antibiotics (post from 2005)CDC Urges Increased Effort to Reduce Drug-Resistant Infections (2006)

Nice Interaction with a Group of Wild Mountain Gorillas Strolling Through Camp

An amazing encounter with a troop of wild mountain gorillas near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. The reality is that these many natural environments will be maintained only with economic incentives. A certain amount of wilderness can be maintained with economic support from outside (government, charity…). But reasonable accommodations to find ways to make retaining natural wonders economically viable are likely a key to saving much of these environments for the future. Unfortunately there are big incentives to destroy nature from those rich tourists who don’t follow the rules and push their guides to break the rules (guides often do this as they have seen great monetary rewards [in tips] for breaking the rules (bothering animals, going too close, going to off limits areas…). It is sad how often tourists at national parks show utter disregard for nature and preserving things for later generations.

It seems like this video wasn’t about that type of behavior though. Instead it is just an example of how cool nature can be at times. Animals are not quite as predictable as some believe. Like this group that wandered into the camp (as they do a couple times a year) animals often stray from their normal behavior.

Providing good jobs and sharing revenue from tourists with local residents (paying for schools…) is a very good way to encourage residents to support natural heritage sites. This is true in Africa and also near park in the United States, or anywhere else. Here is an example of an organization doing that: Conservation Through Public Health.

I am a huge fan of tying in economic benefits to natural parks and resources. I think this is part of making them not environmentally sustainable but economically sustainable. If the areas do not make a contribution to the economic well being of those living there, there is a danger the land will be tapped for uses that will damage their natural heritage value. We do have to be careful as often these economic interests can turn into greedy people just wanting whatever they can get now (I am saddened by how often tourists behave in this way at natural wonders).

People are going to determine how land is used. We can hope that purely altruistic motives will result in long preserved natural habitats. But I don’t think that hope is as sustainable as creating a situation where it is also in people’s economic interests to maintain the environments. A combination of altruistic, long term thinking and economic interest is more likely to preserve natural environment (in my opinion).

Related: Massive Western Lowland Gorilla Population in Northern Republic of CongoGrauer’s Gorilla (Eastern Lowlands Gorilla)African Parks (a business approach to conservation)Travel photos from National Parks

Stand with Science – Late is Better than Never

The USA public has made very bad decisions in who to send to Washington DC to spend our money (and the money of our children and grandchildren). We have wasted hundreds of billions that could have been spent more wisely. I happen to think investing in science and engineering is important for a societies economic health. The problem the USA has is we have chosen to waste lots of money for decades, at some point you run out of money (yes the USA government doesn’t really, as they can print it, but essentially they do – in practical terms).

I would certainly eliminate tax breaks for trust fund babies and trust fund grandchildren (while your grandchildren are going to be left holding the bag for the spending those elected by us, the grandchildren of the rich often get huge trust funds with no taxes being paid at all). But most of the people we have elected want to give trust fund babies huge payoffs. I would cut much spending in government – spending 5% less in 2020 than we did this year would be fine with me. But we don’t elect people that support that. I would support not adding new extensions to tax cuts sold with false claims and again supported by those we continue to elect. I wouldn’t allow the financial industry subverting of markets. But again we elect people that do allow that. And when the bill comes due for letting them take tens and hundreds of millions in individual profits in the good years, we can either let the economy go into a depression (maybe) or spend hundreds of billions to trillions bailing out those institutions our politicians let threaten the economy.

It might not seem fair, but there are consequences to allowing our political system to waste huge amounts of money paying of special interests for decades. And investing in science and engineering has been a casualty and will likely continue to be. Eventually you run out of money, even for the stuff that matters. Trying to fight for politicians that will put the interests of the country ahead of their donors is not something you can do effectively only when your interests are directly threatened. At that point things may already be too bad to be saved.

I have been writing about the failed political system for quite awhile now. I wrote awhile back that Hillary Clinton’s idea to tripple the number of GRFP awards was something I thought was very smart economically. But even then I questioned if we could afford it, if we refused to do anything else different (just adding new spending isn’t what the country needed).

Even in the state the politicians we continue to elect (we elect the same people election after election – there is no confusion about what they will do) we can debate what to cut and for something we spend so little on as investing science and engineering we can even easily increase that spending and not have any real impact on cutting overall spending. But those we have elected don’t show much interest in investing in science and engineering overall.

The USA continues to invest a good deal in science and engineering. But the difference in focus today versus the 1960’s is dramatic. The USA will continue to do well in the realm of science. The advantages gained over decades leave us in a hugely beneficial position – and one that takes other countries decades to catch up to. Now some countries have been working on that for decades now, and are doing very well. China, hasn’t been at it quite as long but has been making amazingly fast progress (similar to the amazing economic story).

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Robot Prison Guards in South Korea

photo of robot prison guard

Robotic prison wardens to patrol South Korean prison

The one-month trial will cost 1bn won (£554,000) and is being sponsored by the South Korean government. It is the latest in a series of investments made by the state to develop its robotics industry.

The country’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy said in January that it had spent the equivalent of £415m on research in the sector between 2002 and 2010. It said the aim was to compete with other countries, such as Japan, which are also exploring the industry’s potential.

In October the ministry said the Korean robot market had recorded 75% growth over the past two years and was now worth about £1 billion…

The potential market for robotics is huge. Smart countries are investing in becoming the centers for excellence in that area. Japan and South Korea may well be in the lead. The USA, Germany and China also have strong communities.

Related: Robot Finds Lost Shoppers and Provides DirectionsThe Robotic Dog (2008 post)Soft Morphing Robot FutureHonda’s Robolegs Help People WalkRoachbot: Cockroach Controlled Robot

Eliminating NSF Program to Aid K-12 Science Education

Changing American science and engineering education

In exchange for funding for their graduate studies, Kahler and other fellows contribute to the science curriculum in local primary and secondary schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Kahler taught science at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.

He also taught for two summers in India, and in Texas, as part of Duke TIP, the Talent Identification Program, which identifies academically gifted students and provides them with intellectually stimulating opportunities.

Through these teaching experiences in different locations and cultures, Kahler observed several factors that affect the quality of education in American schools. One important factor is the training of teachers. Unfortunately, teachers are sometimes expected to teach science without having received an adequate background in the subject.

STEM fellows helped to address this problem by contributing their expertise and by helping to increase the scientific literacy of students and their teachers.

Kahler says that NSF GK-12 has a strong, positive impact to change this because it simultaneously improves the educational experience of students in primary and secondary school and trains graduate students to communicate and teach effectively.

Unfortunately, the NSF GK-12 program is no longer in the NSF budget for 2012.

Sadly the USA is choosing to speed money on things that are likely much less worthwhile to our future economic well being. This has been a continuing trend for the last few decades so it is not a surprise that the USA is investing less and less in science and engineering education while other countries are adding substantially to their investments (China, Singapore, Korea, India…).

As I have stated before I think the USA is making a big mistake reducing the investment in science and engineering, especially when so many other countries have figured how how smart such investments are. The USA has enjoyed huge advantages economically from science and engineering leadership and will continue to. But the potential full economic advantages are being reduced by our decisions to turn away from science investment (in education and other ways).

Related: The Importance of Science EducationTop Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

Engineers are the new Currency

Silicon Vally investor discusses keys to good investment companies: “Engineers are the new currency… having the right engineers that can innovate and deliver is absolutely vital to success… It takes a great team to help the entrepreneur develop”

The video also makes the point that what separates Silicon Valley is the engineering talent.

Related: S&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopEngineers Rule at HondaThe Google Way: Give Engineers RoomStatistics on Entrepreneurship

Student Engineers Without Borders Project: Learning While Making a Difference in Kenya

photo of workers digging a large hole dug for the bio-gas latrine, while schoolchildren look on.

Engineers Without Borders students make progress, learn lessons in Kenya

Knowing nothing about Third-World development, the original [Engineers Without Borders] EWB students accepted an assignment from the national EWB to bring clean water wells and sanitary latrines to 58 elementary schools in the poor Khwisero district, where villagers live by subsistence farming.

Each year, new MSU students take up the challenge, aiming not only to provide healthier drinking water but to relieve Kenyan children of the chore of hiking more than a mile to fetch water every day from dirty water holes, which cuts into their schooling, particularly for girls.

They finally broke ground on their first pipeline system, which has been three years in the making. It will bring piping water from a high-quality well to several villages and eventually to a health clinic and a market. Villagers have committed to digging trenches for the water pipes.

This is a great program. Students learn a great deal by taking on real world problems and implementing solutions. As I have said before, I really love to see appropriate technology solutions put in place. We can drastically improve people’s lives by helping put solutions in place that work, are cost effective and can be maintained. Improving people’s quality of life is at the core of why engineering is so wonderful.

Related: Smokeless Stove Saves LivesEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerHigh School Inventor Teams @ MIT Bring Clean Water to VillageWater and Electricity for All
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Cutting the Boarding Time of Planes in Half

I thought I wrote about this several years ago, but I guess I didn’t (I can’t find it, if I did). Experimental test of airplane boarding methods:

The Ste en method, on the other hand, orders the passengers in such a way that adjacent passengers in line are sitting in corresponding seats two rows apart from each other (e.g., 12A, 10A, 8A, 6A, etc.). This method trades a small number of aisle interferences at the front of the cabin, for the benefit of having multiple passengers stowing their luggage simultaneously. Other methods, such as Wilma and the Reverse Pyramid also realize parallel use of the aisle in a natural way as adjacent passengers are frequently sitting in widely separated rows.

We have seen experimentally that there is a marked difference in the time required to board an aircraft depending upon the boarding method used. The evidence strongly supports the heuristic argument from Ste en that methods that parallelize the boarding process by more efficiently utilizing the aisle (having more passengers stow their luggage simultaneously) will board more quickly than those that do not. The relative benefit of the application of this theory will grow with the length of the aircraft. Here, we used a 12-row mock airplane, but a more typical airplane with twice that number of rows will gain more by the implementation of parallelized boarding methods.

How this improvement scales with the cabin length is different for each method. For the Ste en method, the benefit will scale almost linearly. If the airplane is twice as long, the time savings will be nearly twice as much since the density of luggage-stowing passengers will remain the same and the boarding will still be maximally parallel. For Wilma and random boarding the benefit will not be as strong since the benefits of parallel boarding are randomly distributed along the length of the cabin instead of being regularly distributed.

I am not optimistic that airlines will even test out this method. People tend to think companies apply sensible, proven concepts and methods. But that is much less likely to be done than people think. The failure of many places to use simple queuing theory improvement (customers should form one line and be served the next available person not form many individual lines) is one example of failures by companies to apply decades old proven better methods. The poor adoption of multivariate designed experiments is another. Applying better ideas is a process that is not done very efficiently in business, health care, education or even science and engineering – in fact in any human endeavor. This is a waste that impacts each of us every day. It is also an opportunity for you to gain advantages just by applying all the good ideas lying around that others are ignoring. You need to test the ideas out in your setting (using the PDSA cycle in an organizational context a good method).

Related: Engineering the Boarding of AirplanesSuccessful Emergency Plane Landing in the Hudson RiverChecklists Save LivesImproving Engineering Education