Friday, July 04, 2008

Zeitung: Geheimstudie gibt Biodiesel schuld an hohen Agrarpreisen

Zeitung: Geheimstudie gibt Biodiesel schuld an hohen Agrarpreisen

Für das enorme Ansteigen der Nahrungsmittelpreise wird nach britischen Medienangaben in einer bislang geheim gehaltenen Studie der Weltbank die massenweise Erzeugung von Biokraftstoff maßgeblich verantwortlich gemacht.

Biodiesel treibt Lebensmittelpreise in die Höhe
London. Bis zu 75 Prozent der Preissteigerungen seien danach auf den Verbrauch von Agrarprodukten und -flächen für die Herstellung von sogenanntem Biodiesel zurückzuführen, berichtete die Zeitung „The Guardian“ am Freitag.

„Ohne den Zuwachs bei Biokraftstoffen wäre das weltweite Getreide- und Maisaufkommen nicht so spürbar zurückgegangen und Preissteigerungen durch andere Faktoren wären nur moderat ausgefallen“, zitierte die Zeitung aus der ihr nach eigenen Angaben vorliegenden Studie. Höhere Energie- und Düngemittelpreise seien seit Anfang 2002 bis Februar 2008 lediglich zu 15 Prozent am Steigen der Nahrungsmittelpreise beteiligt gewesen, während die Hauptursache dafür der Ausbau der Biodieselerzeugung sei.

Der bereits im April fertiggestellte Weltbank-Bericht wurde nach Überzeugung von Entwicklungshilfe-Experten unter Verschluss gehalten, um die Regierung von US-Präsident George Bush nicht zu brüskieren. Die Einschätzungen der Studie stünden im Gegensatz zu Behauptungen der US-Regierung, wonach die Erzeugung pflanzlicher Kraftstoffe lediglich zu weniger als drei Prozent an den Agrarpreissteigerungen beteiligt sei.

„Politische Führer scheinen darauf bedacht zu sein, die Beweise dafür zu unterdrücken, dass Biokraftstoff ein Hauptfaktor der jüngsten Steigerung der Nahrungsmittelpreise ist“, sagte Robert Baily, politischer Berater der Hilfsorganisation Oxfam, der Zeitung. „Während Politiker sich darauf konzentrieren, die Industrie bei Laune zu halten, können Menschen in armen Ländern sich nicht genug Essen leisten.“

Steigende Nahrungsmittelpreise haben nach Schätzungen internationaler Hilfsorganisationen dazu geführt, dass in den letzten Jahren weltweit zusätzlich etwa 100 Millionen Menschen in Armut gesunken sind. Nach Einschätzung des „Guardian“ könnten die neuen Erkenntnisse der Weltbank Regierungen in den USA und Europa unter Druck setzen, die eine verstärkte Biokraftstoff-Verwendung zur Reduzierung der Kohlendioxidemissionen sowie der Abhängigkeit vom Erdöl befürworten.

Die Agrarpreissteigerungen gehören zu den Themen des G8-Gipfels in der kommenden Woche in Japan. Befürworter eines weltweiten Moratoriums für die Erzeugung pflanzlicher Kraftstoffe könnten sich auf die Weltbank-Studie berufen.

Darin werde der Position widersprochen, wonach das Steigen der Nahrungsmittelpreise auf die höhere Nachfrage in Ländern wie China und Indien zurückzuführen sei. In der Studie werde dazu festgestellt: „Eine erhebliche Steigerung des Einkommens in Entwicklungsländern hat nicht zu einer großen Erhöhung des weltweiten Verbrauchs von Getreide geführt und ist kein wichtiger Faktor für die starken Preissteigerungen“.
[04.07.2008 - dpa/sv]

Simulation Software

AutoMod

Einfache Bedienbarkeit, detaillierte 3-D Animation, leistungsfähige Simulation und zahlreiche Analysemöglichkeiten sind die Stichworte von AutoMod.

AutoMod bietet mit seinem sehr leistungsfähigen Simulationskern eine Vielzahl von Einsatzmöglichkeiten. Diese reichen von der Modellierung von Herstellungsprozessen über Lagersimulation und Supply Chain Simulationen bis hin zur Online Kopplung/ Emulation. Die Betonung liegt bei AutoMod nicht nur auf Rechenleistung, sondern auch auf der immer wichtiger werdenden Visualisierung bis hin zur Virtual Reality. Damit kann die Kommunikation zwischen Management, Produktion und Stab wesentlich verbessert werden. Die Modellierung der Simulationsmodelle erfolgt dabei interaktiv mit Hilfe grafischer Unterstützung. Komplexe Steuerungen und Abläufe können mithilfe einer einfachen Simulationsprogrammiersprache abgebildet werden.

Emulation Overview


Aufbau der Software:
Um die Software an den jeweiligen Verwendungszweck anpassen zu können, ist diese modular aufgebaut. Das Basissystem beinhaltet das Process System; Simulator; Dtrace, ACE, IGES und SDX Importmöglichkeit. Als Erweiterungsbausteine stehen folgende Module zur Verfügung:
  • AS/ RS Modul stellt Templates zur Verfügung, mit denen innerhalb kürzester Zeit exakte Lagermodelle aufgebaut werden können.

  • Mit dem Conveyor Modul können schnell und einfach alle nur denkbaren Komplexitäten, Größen und Feinheiten der Fördertechnik modelliert werden.

  • Das Modul Kinematics erlaubt es, Robotertätigkeiten mit verschiedensten Bewegungsabläufen zu simulieren und diese in das AutoMod Modell zu integrieren.

  • Das Pathmover Modul
    stellt eine vorbereitete Umgebung zum Modellieren von Flurförderfahrzeugen jeglicher Art zur Verfügung.

  • Deckenkrane werden typischerweise eingesetzt um schwere Lasten zu bewegen und können sehr einfach, innerhalb weniger Minuten mit dem AutoMod Modul Bridge Crane modelliert werden.

  • Das Modul Power and Free wird für das Modellieren von kombinierten, obenliegenden Laufkatzen und Flurförderfahrzeuge benutzt.

  • Tanks and Pipes für kontinuierliche Fließbandmodellierung bietet die Möglichkeit zur Simulation von (Massen-) Befüllungsvorgängen von Flüssigkeiten oder Feststoffen, deren Einlagerung und deren Transport.

  • Mit dem Modul AutoView lassen sich Animationen aus dynamischer Produktperspektive erstellen. Die erzeugten AVI-Files lassen sich mit allen gängigen Playern abspielen.

  • Das Modul AutoStat führt automatisch Simulationsläufe durch und wertet diese aus. Eine Vielzahl interessanter Statistik Funktionen sind dort ebenfalls integriert.

  • Das Communications Modul
    stellt Verbindungen zu anderen Simulationsmodellen oder Anwendungen her. Es besteht sogar die Möglichkeit Lagerveraltungssoftware vor Inbetriebnahme zu testen.
Schnittstellen:
ActiveX, Sockets (TCP/ IP), OLE

Grafik Importmöglichkeiten:
IGES, DXF

Bezugsmöglichkeit:
Die SimPlan AG Niederlassung München ist Distributor für AutoMod. Auch die Support- und Beratungsleistungen gehören zum leistungsangebot. Ihr Ansprechpartner ist Herr Steffen Hertling.

Weitere Informationen finden Sie unter www.AutoMod.de


WITNESS 2008 is now shipping and is packed full of new exciting options! Our new and maintained customers can look forward to greater ease of use, enhanced functionality, better visualization and communication and increased integration. Major advances in the WITNESS 2008 release include enhanced conveyor options, improved power and free flexibility, greater ease of use with new grid edits, a sensational new WITNESS Presentation Manager(free with the release) and much more. videoSimul8
Simulationsmodelle werden in Simul8 hauptsächlich mit den fünf Grundelementen aufgebaut. Die betreffenden Symbole werden dabei aus der Menüleiste (vergleichbar mit gängigen Microsoft Produkten) gezogen und auf dem Bildschirm platziert. Durch Doppelklick öffnen sich die Bausteine und es können Parameter wie z. B. Bearbeitungszeit, Verfügbarkeit, Puffergröße etc. eingegeben werden. Über Verbindungspfeile werden die logischen Verknüpfungen für den Informations- oder Materialfluss hergestellt. Wurden diese Schritte durchlaufen, besteht bereits ein ablauffähiges Simulationsmodell.

Einfache Bedienbarkeit - Die 5 Grundelementen
simul8
1. Eingang (Quelle)
2. Warteschlange (Puffer)
3. Arbeitsmittel (Ressource)
4. Arbeitsstation (Prozess) und
5. Ausgang (Senke)

Darüber hinaus stehen weitere Bausteine zur Verfügung
6. Fördertechnik
7. Flurförderzeuge
8. Verknüpfungen

Simulationsverwaltung
Die Simulationsuhr steuert die Dauer von Simulationsläufen, Warmlaufphasen und die Zeit der Statistiksammlung.

Benutzeroberfläche
Simul8 glänzt mit einer modernen Benutzeroberfläche mit gängigen Windows Konventionen und stellt damit eines der modernsten Simulationswerkzeuge dar (zum Vergrößern klicken).

screenshot_simul8_s

Visualisierung der Ergebnisse
Die Darstellung von Ergebnissen erfolgt in folgenden Formen. Ergebnisse können sowohl intern in Simul8, wie auch extern z. B. in Excel ausgewertet werden.

  • Zeitverläufe
  • Balkendiagramme
  • Histogramme
  • Kuchendiagramme
  • Numerische Werte
results_simul8

Komplexitätsbeherrschung bei größeren Modellen
Um bei größeren Modellen die Übersicht zu behalten, stehen folgende Möglichkeiten zur Verfügung.

  • Objektgruppenbildung
  • Erstellung hierarchischer Strukturen mit Hilfe von Unterfenstern
  • Dokumentationsmöglichkeit (Eigenschaften, Kommentare) in jedem Element
  • Explorer mit Direktzugriff auf alle Elemente

Schichtpläne und Kalenderfunktion
Die Bausteine Schichtplan und Kalender ermöglichen die Schichtsteuerung von Maschinen und Werkern und die Auslösung von zeitgesteuerten Ereignissen.

Benutzerdefinierte Dialoge
Simul8 ermöglicht die Erstellung von benutzerdefinierten Dialogen. Damit ergeben sich folgende Möglichkeiten.

  • Einfache Änderung von Parametern
  • Nutzung von Simulationsmodellen durch wenig versierte Anwender
  • Teilautomatischer Aufbau von Simulationsmodellen
dialog_simul8

Visual Logic
Visual Logic ist die ereignisorientierte, strukturierte Skriptsprache von Simul8. Damit lassen sich z. B. über die Standard Steuermechanismen hinausgehende Materialflusssteuerungen abbilden. Die Programmierung wird durch predictive language (analog zu Visual Basic) und vordefinierten Programmblöcken erleichtert. Darüber hinaus gibt es eine Vielzahl vordefinierter Befehle z. B. zum Import von Daten aus anderen Programmen.

Simul8 ermöglicht den Datenaustausch mit folgenden Programmen (zum Teil nur in der Professional Version verfügbar)

  • Excel, Access
  • Oracle-, Sybase-Datenbanken
  • ARIS Tool Set
  • Microsoft VISIO
  • iGrafx Flowcharter
  • AutoMod
  • Factory CAD
Folgende Schnittstellen stehen dabei zur Verfügung:
  • Active X
  • Com Schnittstelle
  • DDE
  • ODBC, SQL,
  • XML
Discrete Manufacturers Driving Results with DELMIA V5 Automation Platform
Wihte Paper Download


Simulieren innerhalb von Microsoft Visio

logo_processsim

Dank Process Simulator können Sie Microsoft Visio® zum Aufbau Ihrer Simulationsmodelle nutzen, indem Sie Ihre Prozessabläufe wie gewohnt zeichnen und anschließend simulationsrelevante Parameter wie bspw. Prozesszeiten, Kosten und Mengengerüste etc. ergänzen. Process Simulator erzeugt dann automatisiert Simulationsmodelle aus Ihren Microsoft Visio-Flowcharts.
Das Process Simulator Plug-In kann somit das Funktionsspektrum von Microsoft Visio erheblich erweitern.
vao_pm_2
Visualisieren

  • Simulationsmodell wird automatisch generiert.
  • Bekannte Microsoft Visio-Umgebung zur Visualisierung von Prozessabläufen verwenden.

Analysieren

  • Prozessabläufe rasch analysieren.
  • Mit Hilfe von Animation und aussagekräftigen Simulationsergebnissen Schwachstellen und Engpässe erkennen (Ressourcen-Auslastung, Produktivität, Durchlaufzeiten, Bestandsverläufe...).

Optimieren

  • Rasche Neugestaltung und -dimensionierung Ihrer Prozesse.
  • Risikofreie Untersuchung der Auswirkungen am Computermodell.
  • Optimieren der Prozessabläufe durch Verwendung des integrierten Szenario-Editors.
  • Die Kombination von Microsoft Visio und Process Simulator mit vordefinierten und nach Ihren Anforderungen erweiterbaren Visio-Vorlagen unterstützt Sie z. B. bei Geschäftsprozessmodellierung und –analyse, Flow Manufacturing bzw. Wertstromdesign sowie der Durchführung von Analysen nach dem SixSigma-Methodenbaukasten.
Vorteile des Process Simulators:
  • In gewohnter Umgebung mit vertrauten Werkzeugen arbeiten, ohne hohen Einarbeitungsaufwand.
  • Schnell und effizient komplexe Simulationsmodelle erstellen und die Ergebnisse rasch erhalten.
  • Durch die Erweiterung der Funktionen von Microsoft Visio um eine leistungsstarke Simulationsumgebung, aussagekräftige Analysen durchführen.
  • Das Simulationsmodell wird automatisch generiert und Flowcharts in der Visio-Umgebung werden animiert.
  • "Was-wäre-wenn"-Szenarien helfen, aus dem Ist-Zustand des Simulationsmodells einen optimierten "Soll-Zustand" zu entwickeln.
  • Visualisierung der Abläufe und anschließendes ergänzen der Prozessparameter wie Zeiten, Kosten, Mengen und Ressourcenzuordnungen.
  • Erstellung eines Simulationsmodells auf Knopfdruck und Animation des Ablaufs in Microsoft Visio.
  • Prozessabläufe unter zeitdynamischen und stochastischen Gesichtspunkten betrachtbar.
  • Konfiguration unterschiedlicher Szenarien durch Variation der Simulationsprozessparameter.
  • Process Simulator Simulationsmodelle mit ProModel näher spezifizieren, detaillieren und simulieren.
  • Volle ActiveX - Funktionalität in Microsoft Visio zur Anbindung bzw. Automatisierung mit weiteren Werkzeugen wie etwa Microsoft Office®.

Process Simulator for MS Visio
Erstellen Sie ein neues Flussdiagramm-Modell oder fügen Sie direkt in Visio einem vorhandenen Flussdiagramm Simulationseigenschaften hinzu! Drücken Sie „Play“ und betrachten Sie Ihr Modell mit realistischen Animationen.
Simulation
Variablen (lokal, global),
Attribute,
Schleifen,
logische Abfragen,
usw ...
stehen Ihnen innerhalb des Logic Builders zur Verfügung, um erweiterte Prozess-Logiken, individuelle Statistiken, Prozesskosten, usw. abzubilden.
Simulation
Anzeige der Resultate aus dem dynamischen Modell und ausführen der "Was-wäre-wenn"-Szenarien in Visio.

Weitere Informationen und Vertrieb über:

SimPlan Modelling GmbH - Distributor und Dienstleister für ProModel Produkte
Wasserburger Landstraße 264
D-81827 München
Tel.: 089 - 410736-25
Fax: 089 - 410736-20
e-Mail: info@promodel.de



Thursday, July 03, 2008

Almost everything that could is going wrong for world stockmarkets

Global markets

Bearish battalions

Jul 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition

Almost everything that could is going wrong for world stockmarkets

Illustration by Satoshi Kambayashi

THEY rarely ring a bell at the bottom of bear markets. Investors who thought they had heard a tinkling sound when Bear Stearns, a failing American investment bank, was bundled into JPMorgan Chase in March have been disappointed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is now weaker than it was in the spring (see chart).

The American stockmarket had its worst month since 2002 in June and is now down more than 20% from its peak, the definition of a bear market. It is not alone. According to Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, the value of global stockmarkets fell by $3 trillion during the month, thanks in particular to a 10% decline in emerging markets.

Share prices are suffering because of the outlook for four forces that impel stockmarkets: economic growth, profits growth, interest rates and inflation (see article). At the moment, the first two seem to be slowing while the last two are rising. That is the worst possible combination.

Soaring oil and food prices are stoking inflation. Oil closed at another peak of $144.14 a barrel on July 2nd, because of disappointing data on American crude reserves, and lingering fears that sabre-rattling between Israel and Iran might lead to conflict in the Persian Gulf. High commodity prices have also acted as a terms-of-trade shock for consuming countries—the things they buy from abroad cost more compared with the things they export. That has made them poorer.

The past six months could be seen as a dreary exercise in sharing out the pain. Will workers suffer by seeing their wages rise more slowly than inflation? Will companies have to compensate their workers by raising wages, sacrificing their profit margins? Will central banks treat high commodity prices as a blip, and leave real interest rates low, penalising savers? Or will they raise interest rates and risk pushing the economy into recession? None of these choices is palatable.

All this has been made worse by the credit crunch. True, the rescue of Bear Stearns seemed to avert the implosion of the financial system. Credit spreads, which measure the excess interest rate paid by riskier borrowers, have fallen from their March peaks, although they have recently been rising again.

However, the crunch continues to chew its way through the system. Its effects can be seen in the sharp falls in mortgage approvals in both America and Britain. And it can also be seen in data produced by the Federal Reserve which show that loans made by banks (their assets, in the jargon) have fallen over the past three months.

This tightening in credit has taken so long to show up in the numbers because of the way that banks were operating before the summer of 2007. First, they had pushed much of their lending business off-balance-sheet, so that loans were bought by specialist entities like structured-investment vehicles (SIVs) and conduits. When the market for subprime loans collapsed, a lot of these loans came back on to the banks’ balance-sheets. Second, banks had made back-up commitments to businesses to lend money if needed. With the collapse in other debt markets (such as asset-backed commercial paper), corporate borrowers cashed in those chips. Much as they would have wished otherwise, banks found their loan books expanding.

Now, chastened by the huge amounts of capital they have had to raise to strengthen their balance-sheets, banks are being more careful. According to Ian Harnett of Absolute Strategy Research, a consultancy, the availability of credit in Europe for both consumers and companies is now at its lowest level since 2003.

The problem for financial markets is that the virtuous circle which pushed asset prices higher in the middle of this decade may be turning vicious. Banks lend money against the collateral of assets, most notably in the form of housing. As house prices increase, the collateral rises in value and the banks are willing to lend more. That enables buyers to bid up prices even further.

But when banks stop lending, buyers are unable to purchase assets. Some investors are forced to sell to pay off loans. The value of collateral falls, making banks even more reluctant to lend. Markets freeze up, as neither buyers nor sellers have the confidence to do business.

As house prices fall in America, Britain, Ireland and Spain, the wealth effect kicks in. George Magnus, a strategist at UBS, cites the examples of Finland and Sweden in the early 1990s. As house prices fell, personal-savings rates jumped by 12-14 percentage points. A similar move in America or Britain would have a devastating effect on consumer demand, and thus on GDP growth over the next couple of years. As yet, there has been more of an effect on consumer sentiment than actual retail sales, although individual retailers (such as Britain’s Marks & Spencer) are suffering.

As for companies, with consumers depressed and banks unwilling to lend, why should they invest? They may still see exports as a source of economic growth, but that works only for some firms in individual countries, not for those in the world as a whole.

So the market’s sorrows have come in battalions, not single spies. Investors might have coped with the credit crunch if it were not for the high commodity prices, and vice versa. They do not know whether to fear inflation or recession more, but they know that both at once will be unpleasant.

It looks like a lengthy period of gloom is in store for the stockmarkets. Meanwhile, the best investors can do is hope, Micawber-like, that something will turn up. A collapse in oil prices would help.

Automobilzulieferer: Hochregallager mit Solarzellen auf dem Dach

Automobilzulieferer: Hochregallager mit Solarzellen auf dem Dach

Am Standort Iserlohn hat J. D. von Hagen ein neues Hochregallager mit rund 8670 Stellplätzen in Betrieb genommen. Auf dem Dach wurde eine Photovoltaikanlage installiert.


Solingen. Der Produzent von Kunststoffteilen für die Automobilindustrie hat in die Reorganisation der bislang konventionell betriebenen Logistik und in den Neubau eines automatischen Hochregallagers (HRL) investiert. Als Generalunternehmer begleitete die BSS Materialflussgruppe mit Hauptsitz in Solingen das Projekt und übernahm die Lieferung und Integration der gesamten Systemtechnik bis hin zur schlüsselfertigen Übergabe.

Das zwischen zwei Produktionshallen angeordnete HRL (L 60 x B 28 x H 16 m) ist als Silobau mit vier Gassen für die doppelttiefe Lagerung von Halbfabrikaten und Fertigprodukten in zehn Ebenen ausgelegt und bietet Stellplatzkapazitäten für rund 8670 Gitterboxen und Paletten. Die Ver- und Entsorgung der Lagerplätze erfolgt durch zwei kurvengängige vollautomatische Regalbediengeräte, die jeweils mit Gangwechsel 38 Doppel- beziehungsweise 61 Einzelspiele in der Stunde durchführen. Das HRL wird über Kettenförderer und Querverschiebewagen (QVW) sowie zwei Hebern bedient. Über die Fördertechnik als verbindendes Element sind die Transporte zwischen HRL, der Lackiererei sowie der neuen Spritzgusshalle sichergestellt.

Das Dach des HRL ist mit einer Photovoltaikanlage ausgerüstet. Auf die herkömmlichen PVC-Dachbahnen wurden Solar-Dachbahnen mit hochflexiblen Photovoltaik-Modulen kraftschlüssig und wasserdicht aufgebracht. Hierbei ist die Fläche zu etwa 87 Prozent mit Solar-Dachbahnen belegt. Die CO2-Emissionsvermeidung liegt bei rund 36 Tonnen pro Jahr.

[03.07.2008 - Serge Voigt]

GS1 Germany beteiligt sich an RFID-Palettenprojekt

GS1 Germany beteiligt sich an RFID-Palettenprojekt

Radiofrequenz-Technologie soll Einsatzmöglichkeiten und Nutzen des Holzpalettenpools erweitern.

Köln. Die Standardisierungsorganisation GS1 Germany testet gemeinsam mit EPAL (European Pallet Association), dem Reparaturservice Hollinger, Seeburger und Oracle sowie GS1 Schweiz und GS1 Europe die Einsatzmöglichkeiten der ECP/RFID-Technologie bei Holzpaletten. Insgesamt werden 1000 Paletten mit einem EPC-Transponder versehen mit dem Ziel, den logistischen Weg einer Palette zu verfolgen und damit die Qualität zu sichern.

Neben der Nutzung des EPC-Nummernkreises in Verbindung mit dem Informationsservice EPCIS kann der Weg einer Palette jederzeit und von jedem beteiligten Projektpartner verfolgt und abgefragt werden.

„Wir halten dieses Projekt vor allem vor dem Hintergrund länderübergreifender Informationen für wichtig und herausragend“, erläutert Jörg Pretzel, Geschäftsführer von GS1 Germany. „Darüber hinaus zeigt die Anwendung, dass auch in Europa die Logistik zunehmend länderübergreifend organisiert wird.“

Im Rahmen einer Vorstudie des Projektes wurde der Einsatz der EPC/RFID-Technologie im European EPC Competence Center, das von GS1 Germany, Metro, Deutsche Post und Karstadt betrieben wird, getestet. So konnte die Frage nach dem besten Standort für den Transponder auf der Palette ebenso beantwortet werden wie der Einfluss von Feuchtigkeit und unterschiedlichen Palettenladungen.

Das Projekt wird voraussichtlich im November 2008 abgeschlossen. Die Ergebnisse werden erstmalig auf der EPC Europe Conference am 5. November in Prag präsentiert.

Had a Tough Year? Make Peace and Move On

Had a Tough Year? Make Peace and Move On

This week's question for Ask the Coach:

My bank has lost billions of dollars because of bad investments – which I didn’t make. Now I am facing budget cutbacks, getting no bonus, reducing my staff, and being expected to contribute more. This really makes me angry! Any suggestions?

If it is true that “misery loves company,” you have a lot of company. In my work in the financial services world this year, I hear your frustration – and your question – over and over again.

In one bank that I know well almost every part of the business had a great year – except the division that lost billions of dollars and negated all of the other divisions’ success. This made life very tough for the employees in the successful divisions.

One of the most common characteristics of successful people is that we have a very strong “internal locus of control.” In other words, we believe that our success in life is a function of the motivation and ability that we bring to the world. Less successful people tend to see success as a function of external factors – or the environment.
Normally this belief in our control over our own destiny works in our favor. It makes us motivated and encourages us to build our skills. It helps us take responsibility. (It also keeps us from wasting money on lottery tickets!)

When negative environmental factors impact our success, our strong internal locus of control makes it hard for us to accept the reality of the external environment. We begin to get angry because “It isn’t fair,” and we ask questions like, “Why am I being punished – for their mistakes?”

I cannot help your company get back the billions of dollars it just lost. I cannot help you get a bonus or save your valued staff members. I will try to help you make the best of the situation that you face. My suggestions are:

• If you choose to stay with the company, realize that we all make mistakes. The individuals who made bad decisions – or their bosses – are just humans. They aren’t Gods. Historically, these people have made some very good bets. Recently they made some very bad bets. You don’t have to love them, but just accept them for being who they are. Carrying around anger directed toward your fellow employees does not help you, your company or the people who work with you.

Forgive yourself. You are an adult. You chose to work with this company. In a way, you made a bet. Sometimes our choices don’t work out as we had planned. This does not make you a bad person – just a human being. At a deeper level, the person you are really mad at may be yourself. Don’t be personally ashamed because your company has lost money. While you can own your own performance, you can’t own the performance of people that you do not control.

Reassess the situation. One of greatest challenges for investors is to learn the meaning of “sunk cost.” What’s done is done. Let it go. Objectively reconsider your situation. Given the world that exists today, do you want to stay? If so, make the best of where you are. Do you want to leave? If so, begin searching for another job.

Remember your deeper mission in life. Behave in a way that optimizes benefit for yourself and the people that you love. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face by letting your anger override your logic. I have seen many otherwise smart people make stupid decisions when they were angry. Don’t let this happen to you.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful.

I love hearing from our readers. Please send in comments with your suggestions for how good professionals can make the best of today’s tough conditions.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The meaning of Bill Gates

Microsoft

The meaning of Bill Gates

Jun 26th 2008
From The Economist print edition

As his reign at Microsoft comes to an end, so does the era he dominated

Landov

WHEN Bill Gates helped to found Microsoft 33 years ago there was a company rule that no employees should work for a boss who wrote worse computer code than they did. Just five years later, with Microsoft choking on its own growth, Mr Gates hired a business manager, Steve Ballmer, who had cut his teeth at Procter & Gamble, which sells soap. The founder had chucked his coding rule out of the window.

In becoming the world’s richest man, Mr Gates’s unswerving self-belief has repeatedly been punctuated by that sort of pragmatism. But those qualities have never been on such public display as they were this week, when the outstanding businessman of his age stepped back from a life’s work.

As Microsoft’s non-executive chairman, Mr Gates will devote most of his efforts to his charitable foundation, where he will pit himself against malaria and poverty, rather than Google and the Department of Justice. To choose such formidable new foes in the middle of your life takes bags of self-belief, but it is also pragmatic—and a little poignant. Mr Gates has revelled in the day-to-day details of running his firm. To let it all go is to acknowledge that his best work at Microsoft is behind him. It is to accept that the innovator’s curse is to be transitory.

MS DOS and don’ts

As with many great innovations, Mr Gates’s vision has come to seem so obvious that it is hard to imagine the world any other way. Yet, early on, he grasped two things that were far from obvious at the time, and he grasped them more clearly and pursued them more fiercely than his rivals did at Commodore, MITS or even Apple.

The first was that computing could be a high-volume, low-margin business. Until Microsoft came along, the big money was in maintaining a select family of very grand mainframes. Mr Gates realised that falling hardware costs, combined with the negligible expense of making extra copies of standard software, would turn the computer business on its head. Personal computers could be “on every desk and in every home”. Profit would come from selling a lot of them cheaply, not servicing a few at a great price. And the company that won a large market share at the start would prevail later on.

Mr Gates also realised that making hardware and writing software could be stronger as separate businesses. Even as firms like Apple clung on to both the computer operating system and the hardware—just as mainframe companies had—Microsoft and Intel, which designed the PC’s microprocessors, blew computing’s business model apart. Hardware and software companies innovated in an ecosystem that the Wintel duopoly tightly controlled and—in spite of the bugs and crashes—used to reap vast economies of scale and profits. When mighty IBM unwittingly granted Microsoft the right to sell its PC operating system to other hardware firms, it did not see that it was creating legions of rivals for itself. Mr Gates did.

The technology industry likes to sneer at Microsoft as a follower. And it is true that the company has time and again bought in or imitated the technology of others. That very first PC operating system was based on someone else’s code. But Mr Gates’s invention was as a businessman. His genius was to understand what he needed and work out how to obtain it, however long it took. In an industry in which visionaries are often sniffy about anyone else’s ideas, the readiness to go elsewhere proved a devastating advantage.

And look at what happened when Mr Gates’s pragmatism failed him. Within Microsoft, they feared Bill for his relentless intellect, his grasp of detail and his brutal intolerance of anyone whom he thought “dumb”. But the legal system doesn’t do fear, and in a filmed deposition, when Microsoft was had up for being anti-competitive, the hectoring, irascible Mr Gates, rocking slightly in his chair, came across as spoilt and arrogant. It was a rare public airing of the sense of brainy entitlement that emboldened Mr Gates to get the world to yield to his will. On those rare occasions when Microsoft’s fortunes depended upon Mr Gates yielding to the world instead, the pragmatic circuit-breaker would kick in. In the antitrust case it did not, and, as this newspaper argued at the time (see article), he was lucky that it did not lead to the break-up of his company.

Inevitability and temperament are two hallmarks of Gates the innovator. The third is the transience of all pioneers. The argument was brilliantly laid out by Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School. The perfecting of a technology by a well managed company catering to its best customers leaves it vulnerable to “disruption” by a cheaper, scrappier alternative that is good enough for everyone else. That could be a description of Microsoft’s Office, which now does more than almost anybody could wish for—even as Google and others are offering free basic word-processors and spreadsheets online.

Mr Gates was haunted by Mr Christensen’s insight—he even asked for his help to keep back the tide. Microsoft successfully extended Windows as an operating system for servers; it has moved into new areas, such as mobile devices and video games; and it has lavished billions of dollars on all sorts of research—without much to show for it. Despite all those efforts, the PC, Mr Gates’s obsession, has ended up as an internet terminal. The company still has everything to prove online (see article). Watching Microsoft in the company of Google and Facebook is a bit like watching your dad trying to be cool.

Business is good for you

Mr Gates had the good fortune to be perfectly suited for his time—but he is less well-equipped for the collaborative and fragmented era of internet computing. This does not diminish his achievement. Nor, as some would have it, does his philanthropy necessarily magnify it. Whatever the corporate-social-responsibility gurus say, business is a force for good in itself: its most useful contribution to society is making profits and products. Philanthropy no more canonises the good businessman than it exculpates the bad. In spite of his flaws, Mr Gates is one of the good kind. Some great industrialists, like Henry Ford, stick around even as the world moves on and their powers fail. Mr Gates, pragmatic to the end, is leaving at the top.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Recession and Depression

Ronald Reagan - "Recession is when a neighbour loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours."

Bonds: Smarter Plays for Darker Days

Bonds: Smarter Plays for Darker Days

Thinking of Treasuries or other fixed-income plays as the stock market sinks? Here's what to look for

With equity markets reeling lately—and the Dow Jones industrial average delivering its biggest first-half percentage decline in 38 years—investors have fled stocks for the perceived safety of U.S. Treasury bonds.

There's little incentive these days to own government bonds. The yield on benchmark 10-year notes is down to around 4.0%, and five-year notes are at 3.3%, yields near current inflation levels. Amid concern about rising unemployment, tanking consumer confidence, and growing fear that a U.S. recession has been postponed until the end of 2008, the Federal Reserve may not be able to raise interest rates any time soon, even if inflationary expectations start to spin out of control.

In his July investment outlook, published June 30, bond specialist Bill Gross, a managing director at Pimco (AZ), warned that the federal deficit is likely to top $1 trillion on the next President's watch as the government spends big on a housing-market rescue plan and more comprehensive health-care coverage. That could mean depressed interest rates for a long time to stoke an economic recovery, making the outlook for government bonds pretty bleak.

"You have to think outside the box in this type of environment. Today, you can get in trouble if you're locking in 10 years at [rates under] 4%. I think that's a mistake," says Bill Larkin, a fixed-income portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management in Salem, Mass. The weak dollar is another concern that also promises to keep yields under pressure, he adds.

Those Pricey Treasuries

So, what should investors do? Nothing in the near term, says Michael Wallace, global market strategist at Action Economics. "I wouldn't make any dramatic bets or portfolio shifts ahead of the elections, until people get a sense of what the tax policy is going to look like and the fiscal outlook," he says.

Given how expensive Treasury bonds have become, fixed-income portfolio managers recommend owning a diversified portfolio of debt, including investment-grade corporate bonds and asset-backed securities, such as the packaged pools of mortgages offered by government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae (FNM). Corporate bonds due to mature within five to 10 years are paying two to three percentage points more than U.S. Treasuries of the same maturities.

"Buying sector spreads [the difference between Treasury and corporate yields] makes sense even though the economy is very weak," since corporate bonds are priced low enough to weather the current economic slowing, says Ken Volpert, head of the taxable bond group at the Vanguard Group in Valley Forge, Pa.

Vanguard offers an Intermediate Term Investment Grade Fund (VFICX) made up of 700 bonds with an average maturity of 6.4 years and a low expense ratio of 0.21%. Vanguard also offers an index fund—the Intermediate Term Bond Index (VBIIX)—that contains 1,000 bonds and has an expense ratio of 0.18%. But since it holds Treasury and government agency bonds as well as corporates, its yield is lower, making it "not as pure of a play on credit" as the actively managed fund, says Volpert.

Spread It Out

Don Quigley, fixed-income manager at Artio Global Investors, says his firm has always liked Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, mainly for their diversification benefits. But at the moment, they aren't as attractive as spread products—industry-speak for higher-yield instruments, such as corporate bonds and asset-backed securities.

"Your best chance of getting a total return over the longer term is by [investing in] spread products. They're higher yield than TIPS, and you get the chance of price appreciation if the spreads move in," says Quigley.

The $1.3 billion Julius Baer Total Return Bond Fund that Quigley co-manages is one mutual fund that gives investors exposure to a wide assortment of corporate bonds, with an expense ratio of 0.69% for the fund's A shares.

Signs of higher inflation around the world are setting off alarm bells for bond investors, who wonder whether the runup in commodity prices—particularly petroleum products—is being driven by supply issues or just speculation.

On the surface, the retreat by consumers in the face of higher food and fuel costs and the drop-off in energy demand is good for bonds, as inflationary pressures may weaken as a result. But fixed-income managers wonder how long the reprieve may last. If speculators get shaken out of the market by lower demand for oil and prices fall sharply, it will be like "hitting the accelerator on the global economy," which would be bad news for bonds, whose prices would fall as interest rates went up, says Cabot's Larkin.

Looking at Ginnie Mae

That's why he says it's important for investors to think about the quality of the debt they're buying and make sure to allocate a portion of their portfolios to bonds that are protected from borrower defaults, such as the pools of federally insured mortgages packaged by the Government National Mortgage Assn., or Ginnie Mae, as well as corporate bonds issued by companies that are doing well in the current economy, such as energy and materials producers.

Ginnie Mae pass-through certificates, which pay investors a piece of homeowners' mortgage payments plus some interest every month, are considered higher quality because the mortgages backing the bonds are taken out mostly by military personnel, whose income and job security are presumed to be better than those of Fannie's and Freddie's client base.

Larkin recommends single–family Ginnie Mae pass-throughs with older mortgages in their portfolios, which have a 5.64% yield and whose mortgages have an average life of just under five years. While most investors assume these bonds will pay them off within five years, Larkin believes they will last a bit longer, with homeowners staying in their mortgages longer due to banks' reluctance to refinance at lower rates.

If the life of the mortgage extends, the yield on the bonds would go up as high as 6%, says Larkin.

Investors do pay a slight premium for Ginnie Mae pass-throughs relative to the cost of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac pass-throughs, but that premium has diminished since the Fed's bailout of Bear Stearns in March, as investors now assume the Fed won't let the government-sponsored enterprises fail, says Larkin.

Larkin says he chooses the highest credit quality. "It's a rule of thumb. If I don't have to pay for it, I'll take it. Someday you might need it."

Go Long

Investors who can't muster an appetite for higher-risk debt and want to stick with Treasuries should at least stay away from shorter-dated issues, mainly because of inflation concerns. All it would take is for core inflation, which excludes energy and food prices, to climb at a slightly faster pace—0.3% per month for a few months in a row—for the Fed to get concerned enough to raise interest rates to combat it, says Volpert at Vanguard.

"That would be bad for the short end of the yield curve," likely pushing the yield on the two-year note from its current 2.60% to more than 3.0%, he says. That would make the bonds cheaper to buy a year from now.

There's not much risk at the longer end of the market, however, mainly because the Fed will maintain its credibility on fighting inflation, says Volpert.

The bottom line for investors: If you can stomach the added risk of alternatives to government bonds, you'll be paid well for it, and the diversification you get can reduce that risk. And at least you can bide your time until the stock market stops looking so ugly.

Bogoslaw is a reporter for BusinessWeek's Investing channel.

In 2007, the Added Value of China Logistics Industry Was Cny1.7 Trillion, Up 20.3% Year on Year, Accounting For 17.6% of the Total of China Service In

In 2007, the Added Value of China Logistics Industry Was Cny1.7 Trillion, Up 20.3% Year on Year, Accounting For 17.6% of the Total of China Service Industry

DUBLIN, Ireland--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Research and Markets (http://www.researchandmarkets.com/research/0ae1cc/china_logistics_in) has announced the addition of the "China Logistics Industry Report, 2007-2008" report to their offering.

China's total value of logistics in 2007 reached CNY75.2282 trillion, up 26.2% year on year, boosted by continuous rapid growth in China's economy. According to the conservative estimation by the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, China's logistics industry is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent in the forthcoming three years.

In 2007, the added value of China logistics industry was CNY1.7 trillion, up 20.3% year on year, accounting for 17.6% of the total of China service industry and 6.9% of China's GDP.

In 2007, China's total cargo transport volume was 22.53 billion tons and its turnover volume of freight transport was 10.1 trillion tons/kilometers, up 10.7% and 11.8% year on year respectively. As for the distribution by modes of transportation, water transportation occupied 67 percent of China's turnover volume of freight transport, railway transportation 22.5 percent, road transportation 10.5% and aviation transportation 0.1 percent.

This report is based on the authoritative statistics from the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Logistics Association of China, the China Auto Logistics Association of CFIP, the General Administration of Customs, the State Information Center, and the National Bureau of Statistics. The report makes an in-depth analysis on the current situation, segmented markets and main companies of China's logistics industry, and also makes the forecasts on the development trend of China's logistics industry in 2008.

Key Topics Covered:

1. China Logistics Industry Development and Its Forecast

2. China Transportation Industry Development

3. Logistics Development in Main Industries

4. Typical Companies

5. Development Trend of China Logistics Industry

Selected Charts

China Import and Export, 2001-2007

Ratios of Direct Foreign Investment in Non-financial Fields by Sector

Growth of China Logistics Total Value, 1997-2007

China Transport Cost Structure in 2007

Safekeeping Cost Structure in China 2007

China Total Turnover of Highway Passenger and Freight Traffic

China Fixed Assets Investment in Highway and FAI Gap

Newly Added Operating Mileage in China Railway in Each Five-Year Plan Period

Changes in Freight Prices of China Railway, 1990-2006

Cycle of Fixed Assets Investment in China Railway

Forecast of FAI Classification in China Railway in 2006-2010

Throughput of China Main Ports in Recent Years

Growth Rate of Total Turnover of Civil Aviation and GDP Growth

Growth in Transportation Capacity of China Civil Aviation Industry

Cargo Turnover of China Civil Aviation Industry, 1999-2007

Auto Logistics Work Flow

China Auto Sales and Its Forecast, 1996-2010

Production and Sales of China Steel Industry, 2006-2007

Types of Household Appliance Logistics Expenses

Classified Household Appliance Logistics Expenses

UPS's Operation Revenue, Operation Profit and Net Profit, 2005-2007

FedEx Operation Revenue and Profit (Growth Rates) and Net Profit, 2005-2007

DHL Operation Revenue and Its Growth Rates, 2005-2007

Comparison of DHL Business between 2006 and 2007

Equity Structure of Zhongchu Development Stock Co. Ltd.

Storage Network of Zhongchu and China National Materials Storage and Transportation Corp.

Zhongchu Operation Revenue & Its Growth Rates and Total Profit, 2005-2007

Revenue Structure of Zhongchu Logistics Business

Supervision on Warehouse Receipt Hypothecation

Sinotrans Group Business Scope and Its Key Listed Subsidiaries

SinoAir Operation Revenue & Its Growth Rates and Total Profit

Sinotrans Express Explosive Expansion of Business, 2004-2007

Revenue Proportion of COSCO Four Major Business

CSCL Operation Revenue and Total Profit, 2005-2007

CSCL Revenue Structure in 2007

Equity Structure of China Railway Express Co. Ltd.

Service Network of China Railway Express Co. Ltd.

P.G. Logistics Group's Logistics Network in China

General Situation of Three Major Industries in 2007

China Imports and Exports, 2006-2007

Development of Industries Related to Logistics in 2007

Chinese Government Policies Related to Logistics Industry, 2004-2007

Statistics of China Logistics Industry in the Whole Year of 2007

Proportion of Added Value of China Logistics Industry to the Total of China Service Industry, 2003-2007

Statistics of China Logistics Industry in Q12008

Growth in Turnover Volume by Modes of Transportation, 2007

Mileages and Their Proportions of Each Grade Highways in East, Central and West China in 2006

Planning for Technical Development of Highway and Waterway Transportation during National Eleventh Five-Year Plan Period

Price Index of Highway Freight Transport, Jan.-Dec. 2007

Development of Main Coal Bases in 2010

UPS Business Process in China Market

Volume of Package Delivered by UPS Annually and Average Daily Delivery

UPS Strategy in China

COSCO Listed Companies

COSCO Main Development Plans

Usage of Fund Raised by CSCL

Companies Mentioned:

-UPS

-FedEx

-DHL

-Zhongchu Development Stock Co., Ltd

-Sinotrans

-COSCO Shipyard Group Co., Ltd

-China Shipping International Trading Co., Ltd

-China Railway Express Co., Ltd.

-China Post Logistics Co., Ltd

-P.G. Logistics Group Co., Ltd

-ZJS Express

For more information visit http://www.researchandmarkets.com/research/0ae1cc/china_logistics_in

Contacts

Research and Markets
Laura Wood
Senior Manager
press@researchandmarkets.com
Fax from USA: 646-607-1907
Fax from rest of the world: +353-1-481-1716

Penguin-Recognition Software

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Penguin-Recognition Software

Remote cameras and software could be a boon to threatened-species monitoring.

By Lissa Harris

Scientists studying a colony of rare penguins on a remote South African island are using sophisticated object-recognition software to identify and track individual animals--an approach that they believe could transform conservation fieldwork.

The software involved--originally developed for recognizing individual human faces--has developed rapidly in recent years. But so far, the so-called Penguin Recognition Project, run by Bristol University, in England, is the first large-scale attempt to use this technology to catalogue and monitor an entire population of animals in the field.

Robben Island is home to roughly 20,000 African penguins, a threatened species that has declined by 90 percent in the past century. Bristol scientists set up several cameras along paths well-traveled by the penguins. Software picks up the penguins' fingerprint-like patterns of black and white feathers, and uses these patterns to identify individual animals. By tracking individual penguins through time, scientists can learn how long they live, how frequently they're reproducing, and what times of year they are most vulnerable.

"There are quite a lot of people working on computer vision to try to identify objects in images," says Peter Barham, a physicist and one of the project's chief researchers. "No one has applied that technology to looking for animals." He adds that the approach can potentially be used to track any animal that has individually distinct visual patterns. Many animals, from humpback whales to giraffes, have individually distinct patterns of coloration.

Spot the penguin: Bristol University researchers are using object-recognition software to monitor a colony of rare penguins on Robben Island, in South Africa. A green box indicates that the software “sees” a penguin; a yellow box means that the software has identified a particular animal based on its unique pattern of chest spots.
Credit: Tilo Burghardt

Conventional animal population-monitoring techniques are typically very costly and difficult, and inflict stress on animals. Most population biology studies are done by capturing animals and tagging them, or by following and photographing individuals so that they can be catalogued by hand in visual databases.

The penguin project does the same thing without these downsides and gets better data too. "We can work out monthly survival rates for penguins. Not annual--monthly," Barham says. "You get a frightening amount of data." Right now, the Bristol scientists are installing a system that will permanently monitor the entire island, following the success of prototypes tested over the past four years.

This week, the project's scientists are presenting their research at the British Royal Society's annual summer science exhibition in London.

The penguin-recognition software uses a learning algorithm that gets better the more data it encounters. Using a large collection of penguin photographs, Bristol University computer scientist Tilo Burghardt "taught" the software to identify a penguin-shaped object by its chest outline and stripe, a black band with a characteristic shape. Individual penguins are recognized by the unique patterns of spots on their chests, each of which is described in the system by its distance from all other spots. The detector is robust enough to correctly identify individual penguins even when one or more of the spots are covered, says Burghardt.

Video

Object-recognition software adds green boxes when any penguin is recognized and yellow boxes when a specific penguin is recognized.
Credit: Tilo Burghardt

"You can encode the animal pattern even more effectively and efficiently than human faces," he says. "You don't have to use a lot of description to make the system work."

The system uses fairly cheap components: ordinary security cameras connected to laptops, which communicate via a wireless LAN. With a power source and a connection to stream the data to a central server, it operates in the field with minimal human interference. In a month of observation, Barham says, the system will capture data on almost the entire colony.

The challenge in generalizing this approach to other species, of course, is in simply collecting the images efficiently. For wide-ranging species that don't travel along well-used paths, passive cameras won't capture enough images to track an entire population.

But even for mobile animals that can't be photographed passively, object-recognition software can take the place of the painstaking work of hand-matching images, a job that takes great expertise and eats up limited conservation research budgets. Sophie Grange, a zebra biologist at Wits University, in South Africa, is optimistic about the technology's potential, and she is currently working with Burghardt and his colleagues to develop a similar system for her fieldwork. "These studies are essential to improving our scientific knowledge on animal demography, which is central if you want to manage and preserve animal populations," she says.

Burghardt thinks that the field of conservation biology is ripe for technological innovation. "It took a long time to realize you can use similar technology to solve seemingly very different problems," he says. "We've basically opened up a new field of collaboration between science and engineering."

Microsoft to stop selling Windows XP on Monday

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Microsoft to stop selling Windows XP on Monday

By Associated Press

REDMOND, Wash. (AP) _ Microsoft Corp. is scheduled to stop selling its Windows XP operating system to retailers and major computer makers Monday, despite protests from a slice of PC users who don't want to be forced into using XP's successor, Vista.

Once computers loaded with XP have been cleared from the inventory of PC makers such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., consumers who can't live without the old operating system on their new machine will have to buy Vista Ultimate or Vista Business and then legally "downgrade" to XP.

Microsoft will still allow smaller mom-and-pop PC builder shops to buy XP for resale through the end of January. A version of XP will also remain available for ultra-low-cost PCs such as the Asus Eee PC.

A group of vocal computer users who rallied around a "Save XP" petition posted on the industry news site InfoWorld had been clamoring for Microsoft to keep selling XP until its next operating system, Windows 7, is available. The software maker has said it expects to release Windows 7 sometime in 2009.

Last week, Microsoft said it would provide full technical support for six-year-old Windows XP through 2009, and limited support through 2014.

Brain Games

July/August 2008

Brain Games

Do new controllers that purport to interpret brain activity really work?

By Emily Singer

Marco Della Torre sits in front of a huge flat screen, wearing a strange, spiderlike contraption on his head. He slowly raises his arms, and a virtual rock begins to glow and shake on-screen. It falters a little and then rises, hanging briefly in the air.

Della Torre, a product engineer at San Francisco startup Emotiv Systems, is demonstrating the company's new game controller--a headset incorporating sensors that can detect brain activity. Emotiv and its competitor, San Jose-based Neurosky, are developing the first gaming devices to use electroencephalography (EEG), a decades-old technology in which electrodes placed on the scalp measure electrical activity in the brain.

In the hands of neurologists, EEG can be a powerful tool for, say, identifying the source of seizures in epilepsy patients. But game developers want to use EEG to let players control virtual environments with their minds. They hope EEG will become the next big computer interface--a step beyond devices like the Nintendo Wii remote, which allow players to convert their hand movements into actions on-screen.

Both Emotiv and Neurosky have generated huge buzz in the gaming world. But can the headsets really provide the experience gamers are looking for? "People tend to want to do science fiction and [use EEG signals to] aim the gun or fly the plane," says Scott Makeig, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. "But actually, changes in EEG are tied to changes in alertness and arousal that are slow by their nature. To try to use it to do fast things is not very natural."

Brain control: Shown here is the prototype of the commercial version of a new video-game controller from Emotiv Systems. The wireless headset has 16 embedded sensors that register electrical signals from the brain.
Credit: Emotiv

Multimedia
video Alan Gevins, a neuroscientist and founder of SAM Technology, talks about EEG.
MORE INFORMATION:

Epoc HeadSet
Emotiv, $299
Release scheduled for the 2008 holiday season

Mindset
Neurosky, estimated $49 and up
Not yet available to the public

And measuring brain signals is tricky enough in the first place. Slight muscle movements, for instance, can generate electrical potentials more than 10 times as strong as those produced by neurons. Scientists who use EEG try to filter out this noise through various means: improving sensor sensitivity by applying conductive gel to the scalp, arraying sensors in caps specially fitted to a subject's head, and employing complex signal analysis. "It has proved difficult to convincingly remove contamination from EEG signals," says Alan Gevins, a neuroscientist and founder of SAM Technology in San Francisco, a company that is developing EEG-based medical tests for evaluating attention and memory.

In trying to design a headset suitable for gaming, Emotiv and Neurosky face a daunting challenge: it must not require sticky gels, it must be simple enough for any user to slip on (no matter how oddly shaped his or her head), and it must use sluggish EEG responses to control quick actions. To see how they're faring, I flew to California earlier this year to test both their devices--with Gevins's help.

Yoda-like
Sitting on a black leather couch at Emotiv's sleek offices in downtown San Francisco, game producer Zachary Drake squeezes the Epoc headset onto my head. An outline of a head on the television screen in front of me indicates the quality of the signal coming from each of the headset's 14 electrodes. Mine register mostly yellow--medium to poor.

I'm testing a game developed specifically to showcase the Epoc's capabilities. In front of a pagoda set against a landscape of steep peaks and silhouetted trees, a martial­-arts master commands me to lift a rock using only my thoughts. Trying to summon a Yoda-like intensity, I focus on the rock and make a lifting motion with my hand. (While Della Torre says it's not necessary to physically make the movement, it often helps.) At first, the rock does nothing. Then it lifts slightly, wavers in the air, and sinks.

The game includes a few training sessions, in which the software searches for specific patterns of electrical activity that occur when I either think about lifting a rock or make the motion to lift. The program will then try to detect and respond to those patterns once play begins. In theory, I don't actually need to imagine lifting the rock: any specific pattern of brain activity, or potentially even of muscle activity, could be tied to a command. If I repeatedly thought about pushing during the training period, the computer would consider that the signal to lift.

That calibration of the system isn't always precise. During my test run, the rock rises into the air as I turn away from the screen to jot in my notebook. I also blow up a mountain without meaning to do anything. Drake explains this away, saying I'm like a wizard just learning to cast spells--"They sometimes go off when you're not even trying."

The Emotiv headset has two other purported powers, both of which might be more in tune with EEG's strengths. Using muscle signals picked up from face and eye movements, it can read facial expressions, so it could help animate people's avatars--their digital alter egos--in virtual worlds like Second Life. (Software-enhanced cameras are under development to do similar things.) More novel is the headset's ability to roughly detect your state of mind--whether you are engaged (be it angry or attentive) or not. The sky in the martial-arts game glows orange when I begin to concentrate and fades to green when I stare out the window.

Chris Linder, a developer working on a game that will ship with the commercial version of the Emotiv device, says that his team most enjoyed designing features that capitalize on these two aspects of it. While Linder, the cofounder of Demiurge Studios in Cambridge, MA, doesn't want to divulge details of his nascent game, he gives the example of allowing the player to walk on water--but only while maintaining a constant level of calm. "If you got too excited, you would just sink," says Linder, whose company also developed some of the first games for the Wii.

About 50 miles south of Emotiv's offices in San Francisco are those of its main competitor, Neurosky, which has taken a much simpler approach to creating a commercial EEG device. The headset it has developed has just one sensor, which rests on the forehead, and a built-in processor that analyzes incoming signals before wirelessly sending data to a computer.

The Neurosky device attempts to detect different states of mind by analyzing brain waves--rhythmic fluctuations in the voltage measured by EEG electrodes. While there is no one-to-one correspondence between mental state and a specific brain rhythm, scientists have reported specific links. Certain patterns of theta rhythms, which occur at a frequency of four to seven hertz, are linked to drowsiness. Alpha waves, eight to twelve hertz, are characteristic of relaxation. (Alpha waves can also be induced by closing the eyes.) Algorithms distill the electrical signals registered by the sensor into a single output number, which can then be used as an element of control in a video game or other application. A second set of algorithms is designed to detect a mental state the company dubs "meditation." (As was the case with Emotiv's device, muscle activity probably also comes into play here. When you're trying to concentrate, for example, you are likely to sit still and not move your head or eyes; the abatement of muscle activity may factor into the device's analysis.)

Playing a simple game designed to display the device's capabilities, I successfully lift a virtual block into the air by concentrating. I also set a branch on fire by sustaining that concentration: the branch sparks and smokes and then explodes into flame, an unexpectedly satisfying experience. Then, I gamely focus inwardly and manage to raise a sunken plane from a lake.

Caveat Emptor
What do neuroscientists--who have been using EEG for decades--think of these companies' attempts to convert a research tool into a gaming technology? The ones I spoke with are uniformly skeptical that the devices rely on brain activity alone. (Neurosky owns up to this, while Emotiv's president, Tan Le, insists that the telekinesis function uses only electrical signals emanating from the brain.) Gerwin Schalk, a research scientist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, is developing EEG-based systems that allow severely paralyzed people to interact with computers. He says that with his second-generation system, it takes several hours of training to control one degree of freedom of motion--what you need to lift a rock in the Emotiv video game. More extensive practice is needed to develop multidimensional control. "If you wanted to pick up signals to move a spaceship left or right, it would be much easier for a person to do it with facial expression than with brain activity," says Schalk.

Alan Gevins, who has been studying EEG for the last 40 years, agrees. "If the sensors aren't making good contact with the scalp, they will move slightly and generate an artifact when the head moves," he says. "Such artifacts are often not that obvious and not easily removed algorithmically." Emotiv declined to show us the raw EEG data collected by its device, citing proprietary concerns, so it was impossible to determine whether the headset and analysis software were truly filtering out noise and measuring brain activity consistently.

While Gevins acknowledges that for a gaming system, it doesn't matter what kind of signals the device is using, he worries that overstating the ability of EEG to "read your mind" could damage the technology's reputation. "They are way out on a limb with the labels they are putting on things," he says.

Others hope that the EEG devices could have medical applications. Lesco Rogers, a pain management specialist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, has been in talks with Neurosky about testing its device for use with stroke patients. Rogers is considering very simple uses of the technology, such as allowing disabled patients to turn on a television. "What makes the technology interesting for me is the price point," he says.

Meanwhile, EEG's ability to measure alertness and arousal could add an interesting new layer to video games: in an unintended display of one of the Epoc's features, the sky glowed bright orange as Della Torre, still wearing the headset after a demonstration, argued with a skeptical scientist. But the technology still seems too limited to have the transformative impact of the Wii. It's true that Emotiv's and Neurosky's devices can, on a very simple level, read your mind--and lifting that plane with the powers of concentration felt very impressive. But the novelty of the devices is likely to wear off fast, and game players expecting the ability to exert precise mind control are likely to be disappointed.

Emily Singer is TR's biotechnology and life sciences editor.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Solar Costs Heading Down

July/August 2008

Solar Costs Heading Down

Silicon shortages drove up prices, but supplies are now increasing.

By Kevin Bullis

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Solar commodity: Most silicon solar cells use polysilicon, shown here.
Credit: Courtesy of Wacker Chemie Ag

In 2003, the spot-market price of a kilogram of silicon used for solar cells was $24.

But by 2007, it was $400.

Silicon, which is derived from quartz, has accounted for up to one-third the cost of a solar panel since a boom in solar power drove up the price of raw materials. But an expected jump in silicon production should improve solar power's economics.

Cost of silicon as a percentage of a solar panel's production cost (below left). Silicon prices (solar-panel makers pay mostly contract prices, below right).

Annual shipments of solar panels (most are silicon-based, below left). Silicon available for solar-panel manufacturing (below right).

The Price of Solar
With silicon supplies tight, the price per watt of solar panels (below) started rising in 2003, ending more than two decades of steady declines (in 1980, the price was $30 per watt in today's dollars). Most observers agree that solar-power prices will now drop.