Thursday, July 27, 2006

 

Experience Globalization: Buy Beer

How the World Works (which is hosted by Salon.com; you'll have to sit through an ad) viewed globalization through beer goggles yesterday after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal describing double-digit jumps in consumption of foreign beers in the Midwest. This is apparently news because-- apparently-- people in the Midwest don't drink imports, in the way that many people in Michigan don't drive imports. (We are a little hacked off about some of the stereotypes in these articles, seeing as how we're based in Chicago.)

Since the WSJ is subscription-only, we will quote two paragraphs of the article for you:

But there are signs that domestic beers' traditional hold over the heartland is loosening in favor of imported beers -- and that has American brewers worried. A similar shift happened years ago on the coasts, but only in the past five years has it started to take root in the Midwest, home to Anheuser-Busch Cos. of St. Louis and Milwaukee's Miller Brewing Co., a unit of SABMiller.

To be sure, imports still make up a small fraction of beer sales in the Midwest -- but their sales are growing rapidly. In Iowa, only 1.7% of the beer sold in 2000 was imported; by 2004, imports had jumped 65%, to a 2.8% share. In Wisconsin, Miller's home state, imports rose 51% between 2000 and 2004, to a 5.3% share. Missouri, home to Anheuser, saw import consumption climb 21% over that same period, rising to 3.5% of beer sold.
Zoinks, a 2.8% market share! Curse you, Newcastle Brown Ale! Corona and Tecate, a pox on both your houses (with a twist of lime)!

The article goes on to note that the rise in import beer consumption is worrying to domestic brewers, because they've just come off a down year in 2005. But it also provides them with an opportunity: because imports are pricier, US brewers can introduce fancy premium brews that sell at a price slightly higher than their regular product, but cheaper than their foreign competitors.

And if that fails? Why, the US brewers just buy big fat wedges of shares in the competition (beer stocks are doing well, by the way). Win-win: let's have a toast to capitalism.

We at eMvoy know there are a lot of companies in the US making beer-brewing equipment, and the Brewers' Association tells us that nearly everyone in the US is within 10 miles of a brewery (check here). That means there must be a lot of smaller local brewers out there of which we've never heard. If you feel inclined to comment, we'd love to hear about some of your favorite less-well-known domestic beers (quickly, please, we're having a barbeque this weekend).

We'll start things off with one of our favorites: hard-spellin', easy-drinkin' Yuengling.
 

Trade Groups Urge WTO to Get That Old Magic Back

Major business organizations from the US, the EU, Japan, Australia and Brazil petitioned the WTO to restart talks as soon as possible. They were concerned that with the Doha Development Round on hold, countries might begin negotiating smaller trade agreements among themselves that would complicate trade on the world scale by creating regional tangles of restrictions.

The US Chamber of Commerce issued a statement expressing its disappointment in the shutdown of the talks. The statement called for renewal of the president's current special trade negotiating powers (which would send any agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote so that nobody can attach riders or amendments), which expire June 30, 2007. The Chamber of Commerce also criticized other countries for being too stingy with their offers.

Part of the intention of the Doha Round of talks (named for the city in Qatar where the issues under negotiation were first raised, in 2001) is to help poorer countries get a leg up in the global economy by liberalizing trade-- basically by lowering protectionist policies that rich nations use to lock smaller ones out of the marketplace. The issues up for discussion were agricultural market access, domestic agricultural protectionism, and non-agricultural market access (read: manufactured goods).

Six of the member groups spent so much time fighting over the agricultural issues that the third issue was never even brought up. (The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent article here that explains some of the details.) The EU blames the US, saying we weren't willing to make a serious effort to address the way we subsidize our farmers, and the US blames the EU for not wanting to lower import tariffs sufficiently.

The head of the WTO, meanwhile, says that talks haven't "failed", they're just "in suspension". Which sounds like something a jilted boyfriend might say: "She didn't dump me, we're just on a break."

For the best breakdown of this very complicated issue (seriously, it's like trying to explain Twin Peaks), you can go to the BBC's in-depth section on world trade issues. They have an archive of articles as well as some "executive summary" type features explaining the issues surrounding the talks, who the major players are, and a few real-world case studies of how ordinary workers and business owners are affected by these high-up decisions.

Note, however, that because the BBC is a UK body, it cannot help but have a lot of analyists with a pro-EU bias. The straight news articles are generally evenhanded.
 

Cool R&D Thursday: Synthetic Gecko

Earlier in the month we covered a story about SpinyBot, the gecko-inspired surveillance robot that can climb up walls using toes with little climbing spines all over them. Now engineers at BAE Systems have invented a new type of plastic super-adhesive also inspired by the tiny wall-crawler. It's called Synthetic Gecko.

The scientists involved claim that a relatively small square of this new adhesive could attach a family car to your ceiling (provided your ceiling were strong enough). And it's got nothing to do with glue-- the plastic doesn't feel sticky when you touch it. BAE's press release explains the science:
The gecko gets its ability to stick without glue from the soles of its feet which are patterned with millions of tiny hairs with split ends. At the tip of each split is a mushroom shaped cap less than one-thousandth of a millimetre across. These ensure the gecko’s toes are always in very close contact with the surface beneath – so close that molecular forces of attraction create the grip.
The researchers used ordinary photolithography techniques-- the common etching technique used to engrave silicon chips-- to give their polymer a coating of tiny "hairs" with mushroom shaped ends. This created the ideal environment for the attractive forces necessary to generate super grippiness. Applications of the new technology could include repairing aircraft or fuel tankers, making super-grippy tires, making safety harnesses, etc. etc.

Very cool, potentially industry-changing stuff. We'll know Synthetic Gecko has arrived when we see it repurposed, a la the velcro wall, at carnivals and fraternity rush week events. Say in ten years?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

 

Monday Roundup: Tuesday Edition

Yesterday's roundup was eaten by blogger.com, and seems to have vanished into the ether, never to be recovered. Which is a pity, because it was stunningly informative, while also being entertaining. Concise, yet insightful. Basically what we're saying is that it was a post of such high caliber as to make strong men weep; and the Pulitzer Committee, realizing that no other journalist anywhere could ever brush the hem of such dazzling literary quality, would have closed up shop forever.

The world is a lesser place for its loss, trust us.

The major story was that the latest Doha Talks at the WTO have collapsed. Or maybe they've just stalled; it depends on whom you ask. The BBC has an excellent Q&A article explaining the origin of the breakdown, and also lays out why it's so important the talks get done this year (hint: it's Congress's fault, as usual).

The takeaway for you, the manufacturing professional, is this: because the US would not agree to change the way it deals out agricultural subsidies, other nations refused to make concessions that would free up the global trade of manufactured goods. Naturally, the EU blames the US (and vice versa). US farmers are breathing a sigh of relief, though: no deal, they say, is better than a bad deal.
 

Moonshine for Motoring

Yesterday it seemed quite a few news outlets had finally cottoned on to the growing trend of home biodiesel refining. More Americans, taking their cue from rising gasoline prices and Willie Nelson, are finding ways to process leftover cooking grease and other plant-based oils to run their diesel-powered cars (biodiesel can also run some generators, which would make it handy to have on hand during hurricane season). Several biodiesel refineries are coming online in the USA, and the Chinese are also getting in on the act.

(And you, the scientific type about to writing that outraged comment: we know that the term "biodiesel" has been used incorrectly to refer to vegetable oils in the mainstream media, but we want people to know what we're talking about, okay?)

There are lots of websites where you can go to discuss biodiesel-related policy and read up on how biodiesel is better for the environment because of lower emissions (which is true, but so's natural gas, which is much more readily available) and promotes energy independence. You will almost certainly learn that Rudolf Diesel's original engine was run on peanut oil, and that biodiesel is less toxic and safer to transport than petroleum-based diesel (it isn't as flammable).

But what you (and we) really want to know is probably this:
We suggest you start with these articles about biofuels from journeytoforever.org, and then head over to this search results page from eMvoy.

Judging by the locations of companies in the search results, biodiesel is still a mainly middle- and western-America phenomenon at the moment, and making a home refinery often requires a little mechanical know-how. However, more companies like Illinois-based Biodiesel Gear are making plug-and-play setups for the consumer who is also a mechanical novice.

Companies who make biodiesel equipment seem to be spin-offs of older companies with slightly different areas of expertise. For example, according to Biodiesel Gear's About Us page, the company's founders actually have a main business manufacturing chemical handling equipment. Nevada-based Biodiesel Solutions is the brainchild of a former Silicon Valley executive (and trained nuclear physicist/engineer, natch) who wanted to build his dream home off the power grid. Environmental concern and entrepreneurial spirit go hand-in-hand for these businesses, who are tapping into the growing national desire for energy that's cleaner as well as cheaper.

In fact, reading about biodiesel equipment companies is just as exciting as reading about an energy source ready to be harvested from the nation's fast food dumpsters. When it comes to the alternative fuel industry, it seems that for every Archer Daniels Midland or Tate and Lyle, there are several dozen nimble small-business pioneers-- and they're the ones who are really leading the way.

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