Tuesday, September 30, 2014

America's Foreign Policy Needs a Shakeup (BusinessWeek)

A café customer in Beirut watches Barack Obama's 2009 speech from Cairo
A café customer in Beirut watches Barack Obama's 2009 speech from Cairo

In June, 2009, President Obama gave a speech at Egypt’s Cairo University titled “A New Beginning.” He reaffirmed Americas’ insoluble bond with Israel but called for partnership between Islamic countries and the U.S.  And he promised “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” In March of the same year Hillary Clinton met with Russia’s foreign minister and brought along a ‘reset button’ to emphasize relations between the two countries were about to get a lot better.
Five years later, the hopes for a new beginning look slim.  Tensions in the former USSR and the Middle East are (at least) as high as they were at the end of the Bush Administration. Pew Research polling suggests that the percentage of Russians who have a favorable view of the United States fell from 46 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2014.  The percentage of Egyptians who had favorable views of America did rise from 22 percent to 27 percent between 2008 and 2009 when Obama gave his speech, but are now at a historic low of 10 percent.  U.S. popularity in Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan has also fallen since the last days of the Bush presidency.  By and large, the countries that have long disliked America still do.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Every President, Obama included, comes into office promising new beginnings and policy resets. More often than not, however, those hopes remain unrealized by the time they leave office. Far more than in domestic policy, continuity is the norm when it comes to national-security issues. Yet while a certain amount of caution is inevitable and even desirable, it’s debatable whether simply conducting business as usual really serves America’s long-term interests.
To be fair, the President’s ability to chart a new course have been limited first and foremost by events on the ground. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and continued intervention in eastern Ukraine constitutes an egregious violation of international law; it was hardly likely that the ‘reset’ with Russia–already on life support by that point– could survive under the circumstances. The rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, demanded a U.S. response. And it’s not the most straightforward moment to be brokering a deal between Palestinians and Israelis.
But options for a new start were also limited by both U.S. popular opinion and Beltway groupthink. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveys Americans on their attitudes towards foreign policy on questions like the use of force, military dominance, diplomacy and economic assistance. The survey team reports “the most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago.”   The Council asks Americans to rate their feelings towards countries on a scale of zero (cold) to 100 (warm). Canada tops out at 79, while North Korea manages a 23. The Palestinian Authority is at 33 (compared to Israel at 59). Russia is at just 36.
Russia’s favorability was higher in 2008, at 47, but favorability of the Palestinian Authority has changed by only one point on a 100 point scale since 2008.  On many of the issues where Obama was hoping to drive a new agenda, popular attitudes just don’t change that fast.
Within the political elite, there has been little pressure from either party to change from foreign policy as usual over the past few years — including the instinctive reaction to lead with military options. Although spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq declined under President Obama, U.S. military expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2013 was still higher than it was in 2004 and more than 30% higher than in 1999. A Congress keen to cut the budget has also been keen to save the Pentagon.  Opposition to drone attacks, or the recent Syria operation, or pressure to help end violence in Gaza was muted. There’s been limited interest among either Democrats or Republicans to take apart much of the intelligence apparatus put in place over the last decade, despite the outcry from allies over spying on friends.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

...winners of annual Google Science Fair (ZDNet)

Summary: Students chosen for the top prizes led experiments ranging from the study of soil to solve the global food crisis to the use of wearables to treat Alzheimer's patients.

By  for Between the Lines |
Hayley, Mihir, Kenneth, Ciara, Sophie and Émer

After whittling down a pool of contestants that numbered in the thousands, Google said it has chosen the winners of its annual Google Science Fair.
Google hosts the science and innovation competition for students between the ages of 13-18, and in recent years upped the ante for winners with cash prices and school rewards.
This year's top finishers include Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy from the 15-16 age category. The trio studied a naturally occurring bacteria in soil called Diazotroph and discovered that the bacteria could be used to speed up the germination process of certain crops — a potential breakthrough in the mounting food crisis across the globe.
As the Grand Prize winners, the girls receive a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands provided by National Geographic, a $50,000 scholarship from Google, a personalized LEGO prize provided by LEGO Education and the chance to participate in astronaut training at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in the Mojave desert. Not too shabby.
Additional winners include:
Mihir Garimella, 13-14 age category – The Pennsylvania student won for his project FlyBot: Mimicking Fruit Fly Response Patterns for Threat Evasion.
Hayley Todesco, 17-18 age category – This Canadian student won for her project Waste to Water: Biodegrading Naphthenic Acids using Novel Sand Bioreactors.
Kenneth Shinozuka, the Scientific American Science in Action award – This New York student won for his wearables sensors project inspired by his grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer's.
Arsh Dilbagi, Voters Choice award – This Indian student won over voters with his project Talk, which studied ways to enable people with speech difficulties to communicate by exhaling.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Are Diabetes Rates Finally Leveling Off in the US?

(HealthDay News) — Overall adult diabetes rates appear to have leveled off during the past four years in the United States, in stark contrast to the two decades prior, which saw a doubling of the chronic disease, according to research published in the September 24 issue of theJournal of the American Medical Association.
For the study, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers analyzed data for nearly 665,000 adults between 20–79 years old. The data were taken from the National Health Interview Survey.
The researchers found that in a 20-year period, the total number of diabetes cases doubled: from 35 per 1,000 people in 1990 to 79 per 1,000 in 2008. The annual number of new diabetes cases more than doubled in that time frame: from 3.2 per 1,000 people in 1990 to 8.8 per 1,000 in 2008. But something changed between 2008–2012. The total number of diabetes cases increased only slightly, to 83 per 1,000 people in 2012, while the number of new cases declined annually, to 7.1 per 1,000 in 2012. Not all groups in the United States have benefited, however. Diabetes rates continue to rise for blacks, Hispanics, the aging, and the poorly educated.
And even with the plateau observed by the CDC, diabetes will remain a costly public health crisis for years to come, Robert Ratner, MD, chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association, told HealthDay. "Keep in mind, in 2012, we spent $245 billion on diabetes and its complications," he said. "Unless we do something to really stop the development of diabetes, we're going to end up spending even more money, and diabetes is going to bankrupt us."

Monday, September 22, 2014

Who's Cashing In on Alibaba's IPO (BusinessWeek)

Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba during an interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 19
Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba during an interview on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 19
Alibaba’s initial public offering will make many people a lot of money, from the banks underwriting the deal (and at least one that isn’t) to thousands of current and former employees of the company, to other tech companies riding the wave Alibaba is sending through the markets.
The company lists four individuals or entities that are actually selling stocks as part of the IPO, each of whom is moving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stock. Its largest shareholder, Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank (9984:JP), isn’t selling any shares as part of the IPO. Here’s a breakdown of who’s selling:
StakeholderPercent Held before IPOValue of Stock Sold in IPOPercent held After IPO
Yahoo22.4%$8.96 billion16.3%
Jack Ma8.8%$867 million7.8%
Joseph Tsai3.6%$289 million3.2%
Fengmao Investment Corp2.8%$971 million2.1%
(Source: Company Filings)
In addition to the cash these shareholders bring in from these sales, each one stands to be much richer on paper by the end of the day, as the remaining shares they have gain value. The stock began trading at $92.70, 36 percent above the IPO price of $68 a share.
Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why You Don’t Need an Expensive Smartphone Anymore

iphone 5s vs samsung galaxy s5

Until recently, you needed to spend hundreds of dollars — often $649 or “$199 with a two year contract” — to get a smartphone with good performance that could run the latest apps. Solid smartphones are now much cheaper.
If you have the money to spend — or if you’re going to be locked into a long contract anyway — expensive smartphones still have value. They’ll have the sharpest screens, fastest hardware, and newest features. But they aren’t mandatory to get a good smartphone experience anymore.

Cheap Smartphones Up Until Recently

If you walked into a cell phone carrier’s smartphone store just a few years ago, you probably saw cheap smartphones for prepaid customers. Samsung made phones like this — for example, the Samsung Galaxy Ace released in 2011. Phones like this one just weren’t very good. If you ever used them — even just in the store — you noticed that the phone’s CPU couldn’t keep up with its interface. Simple actions like moving between home screens or scrolling in a web browser dragged. Their displays were often very poor, and they had very little room for your apps and other data. Their cameras were often near-unusable. Such phones often had very old, outdated versions of Android and would never get an update to a newer version, like the more expensive flagship phones often did.
These phones technically worked, giving you an Android smartphone experience — just a slow, very limited one. The gap between such a cheap phone and a more expensive Android phone or iPhone was huge.
Even these cheap, bad smartphones were an improvement — before them, you would have gotten a feature phone at the same price. Any smartphone at all would have been out of that price range.
samsung galaxy ace from 2011
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Wireless carriers are gouging us — particularly in North America, where the USA and Canada have the most expensive cell... [Read Article]

Smartphones for Everybody

Both Google’s Android and even Microsoft’s Windows Phone are experiencing a lot of growth in the low-end part of the market worldwide. People who don’t have $700 to drop on an iPhone are buying smartphones. This increasing focus on cheap smartphones has benefited everyone. With Android 4.4, Google focused on making Android run better on lower-end hardware, dramatically cutting the amount of memory Android needs to function. Windows Phone has always run well on lower-end hardware, too.
Google’s “Android One” program is currently attempting to push very capable $100 Android phones. Microsoft is also focusing on the low-end with their Nokia Lumia smartphone business — most people are buying these Windows Phone devices because they’re very cheap.
Of course, software is just a small part of the story. Hardware has improved dramatically and has become much cheaper, and this allows for much cheaper — but still capable — smartphones.

Nexus Phones Are No Longer Budget Smartphones

Google’s Nexus phones were once seen as budget smartphones. You could get a Nexus 4 for $299 or a Nexus 5 for $349 — both with no contract! That may sound like a lot, but the iPhone 6 will be $649 off contract. When Google dropped the price of the original Nexus 4 to $199 to clear their inventory, they were a great budget option. Now you can get capable options for much cheaper at normal prices.
Google’s Nexus phones are looking more like mid-range phones — that’s all thanks to the even-cheaper budget options appearing on the market.
nexus 4 vs nexus 5

Cheap Smartphones Don’t Offer a Bad Experience

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The sub-par experience of phones with slow, laggy interfaces has been banished by some of the cheaper phones available today.
In the Android arena, Motorola’s new Moto G costs just $179 with no contract. It doesn’t have a tiny, cheap screen — it has a roomy 5-inch display. It won’t be the sharpest display panel if you place it next to a $649 phone, but it’s not bad. The phone runs the latest version of Android — Android 4.4.4. Ars Technica found its camera was about as good as the camera on the iPhone 4S — an older iPhone, but one that still costs $450 today. Thanks to the march of technology, this $179 phone’s CPU seems about as powerful as the CPU found in the Samsung Galaxy S3. You won’t be putting up with an extra-slow, laggy interface — you’ll have a nice large screen, a decent camera, the latest version of Android, and the ability to run practically every Android app with good performance — all for $179.
If $179 is too much for you, you can also get a Moto E. It doesn’t have the same specs, but is available for just $129.
original moto g
Microsoft’s Windows Phone has done a good job at the low end, too. The Nokia Lumia 520 can often be purchased for less than $100 unlocked and without a contract — with some deals, it’s even been down to $40. This phone has a smaller screen and not-as-fast hardware, and Windows Phone limits its app selection, but it’s impossible to deny how good a deal it is. A few years ago, $50 or so would have gotten you a cheap feature phone — now it can get you a smartphone with a full browser and app store, even if it is a Windows Phone.
lumia 520

We’re not here to recommend you purchase either a Moto G or cheap Lumia phone — feel free to shop around for a different phone. These are just two of the standout options from the last year that have proven you don’t need to spend over $600 or get locked into an expensive contact to have a good smartphone experience. Even if you rely on prepaid service without a contract, you can get a nice phone for less than the $199 you’d pay for a new Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S on contract.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Return of the $3 Gallon? U.S Gas Prices Are Falling Fast (BusinessWeek)

Gasoline prices in 2014
Bloomberg Gasoline prices in 2014
The national average price of regular unleaded, now at $3.38 a gallon, is down 8 percent from the end of June. Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, thinks this year will bring the cheapest autumn gasoline prices since 2010. Last year drivers spent $40 billion at the pump in September, and Kloza thinks that bill will be at least $2 billion lower in 2014. The savings at the pump should help stimulate consumer spending in other parts of the economy.
Gas prices are cheapest in the South and highest in the Northwest. Shale oil being produced in North Dakota and Texas has had an easier time traveling south and east, while fewer trains have headed west, across the Rockies and into Washington and Oregon (though that is starting to change). Still, it’s a big difference. The average gasoline price outside Little Rock, Ark., is $3.05; near Seattle, it’s $3.87.
Heat map of gasoline prices
GasBuddy.comHeat map of gasoline prices
This all starts with the price of oil, which makes up 66 percent of the cost of a gallon of regular gasoline. International crude prices have fallen 16 percent since the end of June, and U.S. prices have dropped more than 11 percent. Different parts of the country use different sources of oil to make gasoline. Most imported blends of light, sweet crude no longer come into the U.S. Gulf Coast, by far the biggest refinery base in the U.S.
Refiners are also getting ready to switch to the winter blend of gasoline, which is cheaper to produce but fetches lower prices. Over the last three years, the price of gasoline from September to November has fallen by an average of more than 30¢ a gallon. If that trend continues in 2014, it could put prices in some parts of the country below $3.
Unexpected events could always shake the oil marked. With the U.S. and its allies planning to step up attacks on ISIS this fall, oil prices could certainly spike by the end of the year. As long as U.S. production keeps rising, however, it should help keep prices in check.
Philips is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter@matthewaphilips.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Millennials Want Houses, Just Like Everybody Else (BusinessWeek)

The proportion of homeownership among young adults has fallen from a third to a quarter over the past half-century. But the idea that today’s millennials are allergic to deeds and mortgages is a myth, says a report based on a survey of more than 1,000 Americans aged 18-29 by the Demand Institute, a nonprofit jointly operated by the Conference Board and Nielsen (NLSN).

“Like most myths, there is some truth here—but only some,” says the report’s introduction. The true part is that millennials are financially squeezed because of “graduating into a weak job market with growing student loan debt,” Jeremy Burbank, a Demand Institute vice president, said in a statement. The false part, the report says, is that millennials don’t want to own their homes.
“Attitudinally, they seem very much in line with what we see with older adults,” Louise Keely, president of the Demand Institute, tells me in a pre-release interview. “The will is there, but when they’re going to achieve it—and how—is the biggest open question.”
Sixty percent of those surveyed said they would eventually own a home and 24 percent said they already do. Only 16 percent said they won’t own a home. Three-quarters believe homeownership is an important long-term goal, and 73 percent believe it’s an excellent investment. “Based on stated aspirations, there is no indication that this generation will be any less likely than previous generations to own their homes,” the report says.
Of the three-quarters who said they planned to move in the next five years, 71 percent said they were doing so for a better home or apartment, 59 percent for more privacy or space, 50 percent to establish their own households, and 48 percent to own, not rent. (Some cited multiple reasons.)
Although marriage rates have been falling, single millennials still think they’ll get hitched. While only 30 percent of those surveyed said they were married, 64 percent said they expected to be married in five years. And while only 36 percent of those surveyed had children, 55 percent expected to have children in five years.
Student loan debt is associated with lower homeownership rates. Among college grads aged 30-34, 67 percent of those with no student loan debt own homes, vs. only 51 percent of those carrying student loan debt.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

State of the solar industry: 10 stats to know (TechRepublic)

By  September 15, 2014,
The solar industry is booming again, and this time, it's not going to slow down. Check out these 10 statistics about the state of the industry and its growth. 

The Catalina Solar Project in California's Mojave Desert.
 Image: EDF Energy
In the last year, the solar industry saw more robust expansion than ever before, growing 41% in 2013. That's great news, considering carbon emissions have also reached a record high -- in 2013, they increased by their fastest rate in 30 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Its report also showed that greenhouse gases were 142% higher than they were in 1750, before the Industrial Revolution.
Earlier this summer, the Obama administration and the EPA laid out rules to cut carbon pollution produced by coal plants, the largest producer of carbon emissions, by 30% before 2030. Research and development of renewable energy and adoption of alternative energy sources such as solar power are still slow going, but they seem to be heading in the right direction.
Here are 10 statistics about the state of the solar power industry to get you up to speed.

1. Two-thirds of all solar PV capacity has been installed since 2011

That's some serious growth. Two-thirds of all solar capacity worldwide was installed since January 2011. It's even more impressive because, the preceding four decades only saw 50 gigawatts of solar power installed worldwide, according to research by Green Tech Media.

2. Solar energy employment in the US has increased by 20%

According to Washington DC-based nonprofit research organization, The Solar Foundation, the US solar industry had 20% more jobs in 2013 than it did in 2012. The report also stated that the industry grew 53% in the last four years, adding nearly 50,000 jobs. Currently, there are more than 143,000 people employed by the solar industry today.

3. A solar PV system is now installed every four minutes

According to Green Tech Media (GTM) research, the US is now installing one photovoltaic system every four minutes. If the market continues to grow at this pace, by 2016 there will be a system installed every 20 seconds. This is huge growth since 2006, when one was installed every 80 minutes.

4. California leads the way for solar generation

California is far and away the leader in the solar industry. According to the state's website, there are more than 242,000 solar projects throughout the state with 2,279 megawatts installed. Los Angeles leads with 238 megawatts, and San Diego comes in second with 182 megawatts. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the next leading states are:
  • Arizona
  • North Carolina
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Hawaii
  • Georgia
  • Texas
  • New York

5. The US solar market grew 41% last year

Photovoltaic installations increased 41% over 2012 to reach 4,751 MW, according to GTM Research and the SEIA's Solar Market Insight Year in Review 2013. Solar was the second largest source of new energy electricity generation in the US (natural gas was first), and 410 megawatts of concentrating solar power came online, according to the report.

6. China plans to add 70 gigawatts of solar power

The world's biggest carbon contributor, China, is making strides to harness clean energy. The country has set a goal of tripling solar installations to get to 70 gigawatts by 2017. By the World Health Organization's standards China's air, when last measured, contained more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air than what is normally deemed safe. The country has since tried to start lowering those levels, and solar power plants are an important part of that plan.

7. On average, solar panels are less than 18% efficient

Solar panels can be much more efficient than that, but they're extremely efficient. Most rooftop panels are less than 18% efficient (often reaching only 11-15% accuracy), which means they turn that amount of light from the sun into electricity. The efficiency of solar panels has improved, but they have a long way to go before they are competitive with coal and natural gas. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley said they have developed solar cells that are up to 25% efficient.

8. 25% of roofs are suitable for solar panels

According to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the primary US research and development center for renewable energy, only a quarter of commercial and residential rooftops are suitable for solar panels. If that's the case, it provides an opportunity for crowdsourced solar projects (using services like Mosaic and Divvy) and community solar projects to drive the initiative of shared solar energy.

9. The majority of costs for solar power aren't for the hardware

Research released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory late last year looked into the full cost of installing solar power and found that non-hardware costs, like development and financing, accounted for 57% of commercial systems and 64% of residential systems in 2012. As the hardware prices continue to drop, due to Chinese imports and large-scale manufacturing, people are now looking at ways to drop the prices for these additional costs.

10. The cost of solar panels have declined 80% since 2008

According to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that promotes the adoption of renewable energy, the cost of solar PV panels has decreased 80% between 2009 and 2013 and they will continue to drop. Better efficiencies and decreasing technology costs contribute to the rapidly dropping prices, the agency said in its report. However, most of the cost reduction is currently occurring in the production process, not in the storage and transmission of the energy, which is the main hurdle for the industry to overcome.