You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2014.
Can You Store Wind Energy? Danielle Fong Finds a Way
By Shlomo Maital
One of the biggest as-yet unsolved problems in generating sustainable energy is that of storage – how do you store solar or wind power, for use when there is no sun (night time) or wind (calm periods)? This is vital, so wind turbines, for instance, can provide 100% all-the-time reliable power. A young creative Canadian entrepreneur named Danielle Fong may have cracked the problem. Her story is told in the excellent Atlantic Monthly department, “Eureka Moments”, by Stephanie Porter.
Danielle studied at Canadia’s Dalhousie University, in New Brunswick, graduating with honours in Physics and Computer Science at the age of 17, then beginning a doctoral program that year at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics lab. She left in 2007 to found LightSail in California in 2008, and was named Forbes Magazine’s Energy Standout (Under age 30) for her work.
LightSail’s technology achieves 90 per cent ‘round trip’ efficiency (storing and then providing the stored power), which is extremely high, almost unheard of. Her method uses compressed air, with a dense water spray used to capture the heat created when air is compressed, then store it for later use. Danielle’s father, Greg Fong, is direct of LightSail’s business development. He notes that the technology could offer remote communities and factories, far from the electricity grid, a way to generate stable electricity from stable sources. This could be of great importance for China, for instance.
Over 30 wind farms are already in use or in development in Nova Scotia. Billions are being invested too in tidal energy. But the way to store all this energy does not yet exists. Young Danielle may have the answer. Her idea is a huge “wow” and shows why great entrepreneurs with game-changing ideas always tackle the biggest problems around.
Big Disrupters of 2014
By Shlomo Maital
Disruptive technology is technology that completely changes the ‘game’ for established players in an industry – changes the nature of business, products, services, marketing or other key aspects of doing business and creating value. Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton Christensen drew our attention to disrupters many years ago. Established companies that ignore disrupters do so at their peril.
Here is part of the Financial Times list of the major disrupters of 2014. According to Financial Times reporters, “the range and number of individuals and companies that are upending business models around the world” is on the rise. … “the disrupters are everywhere”.
- Uber: Tim Bradshaw and Murad Ahmed has become “the poster child of Silicon Valley for disruption”; the 5-year-old company revolutionised the taxi business in 230 cities and 51 countries without owning a single car, through its smartphone app.
- Alibaba: This online retailer, with $300 b. worth of online sales has transformed retail in China. It is now “snapping up low hanging fruit in overly state regulated markets” for everything.
- Bob Diamond in Africa: He quit Barclays, and has now shown you can make money by inveting in sub-Saharan Africa. He raised $352 m. through an IPO in London in Dec. 2013, and has done deals in Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania.
- Aldi and Lidl: They are disrupting the grocery market around the world, and Aldi is even exploring China. They have doubled their market share in the UK in the past four years. Aldi has opened 1,350 stores in the U.S. and aims at 2,000 by 2018. Lidl too will soon invade the U.S. market.
- Ford: Hard to think of Henry Ford’s moribund car company as a disrupter, but the new F-150 pickup truck, with an aluminium body, never used before on a high-volume vehicle, is indeed a disrupter. To do this Ford had to replace arc-welders with new machines to screw, rivet glue and laser panels together. I remember another disrupter – Subaru, which made aluminium engines in 1973; I bought one, it was great, but was warned it would fail. Soon everyone was using aluminium for engines.
- Tesla: last June founder Elon Munk offered to open up its patent book, which is very large, to rivals, “in the spirit of open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology”. This was a clever move, not just PR. Munk wants the big car makers to adopt Tesla technology and boost the market for electric cars. Imagine if other large companies (Intel, IBM, Hitachi, Samsung, Apple) opened THEIR patent books so that everyone could use them free of charge.
Messy Desk? Sign of Creativity
By Shlomo Maital
Say, is your desk messy? Are you troubled by it? Try to clean it up regularly, and fail? Get hassled by your neat obsessive significant other?
New evidence suggests – hug your messy room, don’t hassle it. It’s a sign you have a creative mind.
Writing in the online magazine NewsMic, (Nov. 10), Tom McKay reports that “There’s fairly robust psychological evidence that messiness isn’t just symptomatic of poor standards or effort, but might actually provoke creativity. He quotes psychologist Kathleen Vohs, who wrote in the New York Times, “being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions.”
Here is the experiment she ran. To test this hypothesis, Vohs invited 188 adults to rooms that were either tidy or “messy, with papers and books strewn around haphazardly.” Each adult was then presented with one of two menus from a deli that served fruit smoothies, with half of the subjects seeing a menu with one item billed as “classic” and another billed as “new.” The results (published in Psychological Science), Vohs reports, were enlightening. As predicted, when the subjects were in the tidy room they chose the health boost more often — almost twice as often — when it had the “classic” label: that is, when it was associated with convention. Also as predicted, when the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the health boost more often — more than twice as often — when it was said to be “new”: that is, when it was associated with novelty. Thus, people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room. A second experiment with 48 adults found that subjects in a messy environment came up with ideas “28% more creative” while creating a list of unconventional uses for ping pong balls, even though the two groups came up with the same number of ideas. Vohs argues the results are clear: Messiness actually spurs creativity.”
The point here is obvious. Creativity itself is MESSY, in caps. Creativity people have messy minds, that collect random pieces of information and find new ways to link them. Creative ideas emerge from disorder and entropy, not order. The ultimate state of order is the universe as it will be in a few hundred billion years: All the energy will have been burnt up, and the universe will be perfectly orderly, at a temperature of absolute zero.
So — messy desk? Enjoy it. Cherish it. And, nonetheless — do clean it up once in a while, if only for your significant other.
Iceland Leads the Way
By Shlomo Maital
In the United States, despite the fact that the global financial and economic crisis began there, and was caused by irresponsible actions by senior executives in the financial services industry, not a single banker has been sent to jail on criminal charges. Banks have paid large fines for civil suits, but for the most part, those fines pale in comparison to recent profits. And to add to the insult – the Republicans have managed to modify the Dodd-Frank provision that keeps banks from investing in exotic derivatives (the kind that caused the problem in the first place).
But there is a country that has behaved differently. Iceland, with only 325,671 epople and 103,000 sq. km. in area. Iceland has been independent (from Denmark) only since 1944. Its banks were out of control in the first decade of the millennium and expanded irresponsibly. The collapse following 2008 was massive. Iceland had 20 percent inflation in 2008 and 8 per cent unemployment in 2010. Its debts were huge. But Iceland cleaned up the mess. Bankers were sent to jail. Iceland’s national debt was gradually reduced. Iceland managed to maintain its social welfare system despite the enormous financial crisis.
According to an Icelandic economist, “after the infamous crash of 2008, the Icelandic economy shrunk in 2009 and 2010. However, since 2011, the economy has been growing at a respectable rate, by 2.1% in 2011, 1.1% in 2012 and 3.5% in 2013. While purchasing power has yet to reach its pre-crash peak, and many families are still acutely aware of the crash when trying to make ends meet, the economy had safely exited recession.” Lately, the economy has slowed. And Iceland’s conservative government has practiced austerity, which in Europe has failed. Despite this, little Iceland has emerged from a deep crisis that was worse perhaps than in any other country. And without much help from anyone.
Myths about the Winter Solstice
By Shlomo Maital
Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, England
Today, Dec. 21, is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is known as the winter solstice. But – what is it exactly? Here is some help from the BBC. And a few myths are dispelled.
What is it exactly?
“This Sunday, 21 December, the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day of its year, marked at 22:03 GMT by an astronomical phenomenon known as the winter solstice – the moment the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun as the Earth continues on its orbit.”
In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the summer solstice – the moment the South Pole is tilted CLOSEST to the sun as the Earth continues on its orbit.
Doesn’t the winter solstice occur always on Dec. 21?
No. “The solstice doesn’t always occur on 21 December. Sometimes it nudges into the early hours of 22 December, which will happen again next year. The hour of day also varies. Last year’s arrived at 17:11. Next year’s will at 04:38.”
Doesn’t it get light earlier in the morning, from now on? And get darker later?
No. “It would seem logical that after the shortest day has elapsed the mornings would start getting lighter earlier, but this isn’t what happens – the mornings continue darkening until early in the new year and the sunset began later two weeks ago.”
The answer is a bit complicated, according to a British astronomer. “Because the solar day is not precisely 24 hours. It varies. …the Earth’s speed varies because it moves in an elliptical orbit around the sun, accelerating when it is closer to the star’s gravitational pull and decelerating when it is further away. The sun therefore in effect lags behind the clock for part of the year, then speeds ahead of it for another. As you can imagine, it would be complete chaos if our clocks and watches had to cope with days of different lengths, so we use 24 hours, the average over the whole year, for all timekeeping purposes. So, as the solar days in December are on average 24 hours and 30 seconds, while our clocks and watches are still assuming that each day is exactly 24 hours, this causes the day to shift about 30 seconds later each day. This cumulative shifting explains why the evenings draw in towards their earliest sunset a couple of weeks before the shortest day, and why the mornings continue to get darker until a couple of weeks after.”
What is the link between Stonehenge, England and the winter solstice?
The massive stones at Stonehenge are positioned precisely, so that the sunrise on the solstice peeks between the stones. A great many people rise early to watch this wonderful sight, which this year will occur on Dec. 22, as explained above.
Deadly Dominoes: Who Falls Next?
By Shlomo Maital
According to Reuters News Agency, “a prominent opponent has warned Vladimir Putin his days in power are numbered, as Russia awaits the president’s response to the dramatic decline of the rouble. Putin has been silent as the currency collapsed against the dollar.”
It’s that old déjà vu all over again. Remember August 1998? Russia defaulted on its foreign debt, after the price of oil collapsed. Oil prices, in turn, fell, because of Thailand’s crisis in July 1997 (which saw the baht devalued from 25 per dollar to over 50), leading to the so-called “Asian Contagion”, in which other Asian currencies fell and Asia went into recession. As Asian demand for oil fell, so did the price – toppling the Russian domino. Russian, in turn, would go on to topple Brazil, Argentina…and so on….
And it is more or less recurring. The cause of Russia’s crisis, this time, is not Asia, but rather Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose adventure in Crimea and Ukraine has proved costly. The Russian people appear to believe that it is all a Western conspiracy to wound Russia. But in fact, it is in part a Saudian Arabian move, done not infrequently by that country, in order to bash oil prices down and hurt the Return on Investment for alternative energy forms that compete with its oil. By keeping oil prices unstable and variable, Saudi Arabia can mess up the boom in fracking, wind, solar and other energy forms. And at the same time, no one in Saudi weeps if Iran’s economy is badly hurt, along with that of Russia – and America’s enemies in general are also damaged. This episode has happened before – a sharp fall in the price of oil helped disassemble the USSR in 1989-91.
Meanwhile, the dominos continue to fall. Israel’s agricultural exports are badly hurt by the falling ruble. Turkey’s currency hits a record low against the dollar. Bonds of oil companies Petrobras, Pemex and Gazprom plummet and yields soar. Investors bail out of emerging markets, even those that are solid. This is a problem – emerging market companies sold $1.7 trillion in bonds since 2009. Petrobras’ debt is especially high.
Bottom line: No reason to rejoice over Russia’s woes, even if you dislike Putin. In the end it is always the people who suffer. Once again, we learn that adventurous leaders can ruin countries, even large nuclear ones. And it is the citizens who pay the price. Once again, we learn that we live in a global village, where dominos fall continuously and sometimes in ways we cannot predict or even imagine.
Targeted Drug Delivery: Promising New Assault on Cancer
By Shlomo Maital
According to today’s Haaretz newspaper, one of my Technion colleagues, Dr. Avi Schroeder (see photo), of the Chemical Engineering faculty, has developed a promising new innovation for curing cancer. He heads the Laboratory for Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Technology.
“Being an engineer, I thought of an engineering approach to prescreen drugs on a personal basis BEFORE we begin a treatment cycle,” he explains.
The idea is simple. It is like testing for an allergy, by scratching the skin and applying a tiny amount of the allergenic material. In Schroeder’s approach, the cancer patient is given a battery of drugs, in miniscule doses – and then tested to see which if any actually reach the tumor, penetrate the cancer cells (which have clever defences) and kill them. There are over 200 different anti-cancer drugs. Each individual may react differently to them, depending on their genetic makeup and the type of cancer they have, and even depending on their gender. (Thanks to studies done at Univ. of California, Irvine, we now know that women react completely differently to drugs than men – and America’s FDA now requires drug testing to include gender in the clinical trials, both for mice and for humans, to see if there are indeed differential gender effects).
In his method, Schroeder creates nanoparticles containing drugs “barcoded” with DNA. The process of attaching DNA to each molecule of the drug is not expensive any more, because DNA has become quite cheap. These nanoparticles are injected into the patient’s blood stream. They travel around the body and when they identify a tumor, the particles penetrate its cells through micro-fissures that cancer cells typically have. The drugs are then released into the cells. Some of the drugs will work and kill the tumor; some won’t. To find out, the tumor is then biopsied, and cells are examined individually. The dead cells are separated from the living ones to see “which drug barcode is the most associated with killing cancer cells, and which are not.”
So far, testing is in the preclinical stage. Schroeder is looking for financing to bring the idea to market. The beauty is, it is based on drugs that already exist.
Paul Krugman: How Economists Got It VERY Wrong
By Shlomo Maital
Paul Samuelson was arguably the great economist of the 20th C., and certainly one of the greatest of all time. He was a professor at MIT, where I taught for 20 summers, and invariably could be found on weekends working away in his office, even after officially retiring. His book Foundations of Economic Analysis (1947) (his Ph.D. thesis) reconstructed economic theory, using clever mathematics. But Samuelson was not deceived by his keen mathematical skill. “Elegance is for tailors”, he once said, in describing elegant, but empty, economic theories.
Alas the Economics profession did not heed him. UK Economist Geoffrey Hodgson reminds us of Paul Krugman’s 2009 New York Times article, analysing where economists went wrong in missing the 2007-8 financial collapse, and in some ways actually causing it with their gung-ho free market enthusiasm.
At that time, Krugman (a Nobel Prize winner, it should be recalled) wrote:
“As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations.” …..the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess. ”
I feel a personal sense of loss and defeat as I read those words. I chose by mistake to study economics. I never did have the mathematical ability to excel in research. But I did have an insight, that behaviour was more important than math, in understanding how people choose and decide. But that idea was like aging wine, ‘before its time’. Behavioral economics has now replaced math as mainstream, helped by the tailwind of economics’ massive failure in 2007/8.
Will this help economists avoid culpability in the next financial crisis?
WIX: Playfulness & Innovation
By Shlomo Maital
WIX: Reception Desk
I have the privilege of visiting startups and writing about them. Yesterday I visited WIX, an Israeli company which, with over 60 million users, leads the world in services for building beautiful websites. It is the first such company that has done an IPO (on NASDAQ). It is based on North Tel Aviv.
The first thing I notice at such startups is the physical ambience. WIX chose to locate not in Tel Aviv’s high-tech area, in North Tel Aviv, but near Tel Aviv Port, which is a playground for thirty-somethings. The reception desk is the first thing you notice (see photo). It conveys playfulness. This is crucial. WIX is not a startup but is in the scale-up stage. It has strong revenues and a gross profit margin of over 80 per cent. But it retains its atmosphere of creativity and playfulness. You encounter this from the outset, when you check in at the reception desk.
In its crowded bulding on Namal St., it has a rooftop area with a stunning view of the Mediterranean, where events are held. Like Google’s Mountainview campus, food is readily available, and coffee. WIX employs 800 people, 600 of whom are based in Israel; but despite its size, it tries to retain the feeling of being small, lively and playful.
Recently at a seminar at Tel Aviv University, participants told me about the difference between “play”, “playing”, and “playfulness”. The latter is a kind of mindset that nearly always disappears in large organizations, when manuals, handbooks, protocols and procedures are set up. WIX has so far retained it. I hope it will continue to do so.
2014’s Great Innovations: TIME’s Genius Awards
By Shlomo Maital
Each year, at the end of the year, TIME has an issue devoted to the year’s greatest innovations. Here are some of the top 25 innovations chosen by TIME for 2014, from its Dec. 1-8 “genius” issue.
- The Hoverboard: skateboard that truly hovers. It has very short battery life, but like in the movie Back to the Future, it does hover.
- The smart home: it knows when you’re there, when you’re away, when you’re hot, when you’re cold, what you need…
- fusion reactor: Lockheed claims it can now build an energy producing reactor based on fusion of hydrogen atoms, as in the hydrogen bomb.
- wireless electricity: delivery electricity through induction, without wires.
- 3D printing: it’s come of age, you can make anything. And at home.
- Coolest cooler: Neat cooler for picnics.
- Microsoft Tablet Surface Pro 3: believe it or not, a cool product from MS, a great tablet.
- Lumo lift: a chip that ensures we maintain good posture.
- BMW I3: a great innovative car
- Glow ring: a ring that glows when we have an email or call on our phones.
- Smart pillbox: Pillbox that reminds us when and what to takes
15 Super banana: Lots of Vitamin A in them, keeps us healthy
- Super Wheel: a 3rd rear wheel on a bike, with a small motor…
- A filter that cleans viruses out of our system
- sign language translator: so we can talk with those who sign
- Play USMO: device (app) that gives kids ways to play actively
21 Bluetooth basketball: tracks its speed, trajectory, so we can improve those 3-pointers
- eatable wrappers: you eat the chocolate, then..you eat the wrapper. Cool?
23 Women action figures: why just SuperMAN???
25 Monopole: the selfie pole, now ubiquitous worldwide. Why didn’t we think of it sooner?
Notice the huge variety of innovations, the wide range of topics – the message is, innovate everywhere, innovate simple things (phones, bikers, balls), keep it simple, create real value.
Thanks, geniuses. Actually, you’re just ordinary people, motivated to work hard to create value and change the world. Wish we all did that.