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January 10, 2015

Have trouble keeping your smartphone charged? A new eco-friendly battery that juices up your phone on the go could be the answer, said John Brownlee at Fast Company. The Mini Power comes in the form of tiny cardboard capsules containing small batteries that break off from a perforated sheet, allowing users to choose how much battery time they need. Disposable smartphone batteries "tend to be environmentally unfriendly," thanks to their plastic casings, but Mini Powers "eschew the plastic" for biodegradable cardboard. The Week Staff

December 11, 2014

Any old billion-dollar conglomerate can build a regular hotel, with boring hallways leading to cookie-cutter rooms, flat walls, and unified basic amenities. But it takes a dab of genius to repurpose an entirely different structure, one intended to serve a distinct non-hospitality-related purpose, into a hotel. Here are eight examples of such ingenuity.

1. Abbey Road Farm; Carleton, Oregon

Original purpose: Grain silos

(Abbey Road Farm Bed & Breakfast/Facebook.com)

When John and Judi Stuart bought the 82-acre horse farm on which their B&B now sits, it came with grain silos. But since the couple were 30-year veterans of the insurance business — and not, you know, farmers — they didn't know what to do with the silos. Out of that confusion came a highly regarded bed and breakfast with five unique guest rooms. The two outer silos each contain two fully modern rooms, upstairs and down; while the center silo uses its bottom floor as a sitting room. The farm is a functioning one, and supplies the ingredients for the homemade breakfasts offered at the inn.

2. The Majestic Bus; Herefordshire, UK

Original purpose: Bus

(Majestic bus/Facebook.com)

The remodeling of this bus created a compact, bright, and clean space that sleeps four, has a wood-burning heat stove, and a gas cooktop. Tiny details of the 1960s bus design are still visible all over, from the steering wheel to the route indicator ("Private"). The toilet and bath are located a short distance away in a specially built little bungalow.

3. Shack Up Inn; Clarksdale, Mississippi

Original purpose: Cotton plantation

(The Shack Up Inn/Facebook.com)

The owners of the Shack Up Inn (which is actually more of a compound of Hillbilly Cool) want you to be aware of a couple things. First of all, it's all about the music. Second, "The Ritz we ain't." The buildings offered for your slumber are extremely historically accurate and have been updated just enough to be considered humane by 21st century standards (toilets, air conditioning, etc.) And finally, those buildings aren't old slave quarters, they're old share-cropper cabins. The Inn is located on what used to be the Hopson Plantation; the first plantation to plant, grow, and harvest cotton entirely by machine, heralding the end of share-cropping and plantations in general.

4. Kokopelli's Cave; Farmington, New Mexico

Original purpose: 65-million-year-old sandstone cliff

(Kokopelli’s Cave)

When engineers originally begin blasting out space inside the rock face of an Ojo Alamo sandstone cliff, it was to make an office for geographic consultant Bruce Black. Instead, it became a one-room bed and breakfast 70 feet below ground. The different areas of the cave; fully functional bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, and living area are centered around a large pillar of stone in the center of the cave. Carpet, electricity, and plumbing are all standard, and the bedroom includes a window allowing views from the side of the cliff.

5. Spitbank Fort; English Channel off Portsmouth, England

Original purpose: 19th-century sea fort

(Spitbank Fort/Facebook.com)

If you intended harm toward England in the mid-19th century, and your steam-powered ships somehow allowed you to squeeze past the first two military forts guarding the valuable docks of Portsmouth, you would still have to deal with Spitbank. Built by the British in 1867, Spitbank was one of four heavily-armed forts meant to keep enemies (the French) from reaching England. These forts were all but useless by WWII, unable to support contemporary warcraft. The British Ministry of Defense put the forts up for sale in the 1960s. In the '80s, they were bought by the company AmaZing Venues, and Spitbank was converted into a luxury resort. The nine suites still have brick-and-mortar walls, but nearly every other amenity you can imagine replaces the soldiers and armaments that once defended Britannia.

6. The Old Mount Gambier Gaol; Mount Gambier, Australia

Original purpose: Prison

(The Old Mount Gambier Gaol/Facebook.com)

Here, you can choose affordable rooms that are barely altered from the building's 109-year tenure as a jail; bunk beds, bars on the doors, and shared toilets. The Gaol also offers more modern, cozy rooms, and even a three-bedroom "Warden's Cottage" for those who don't need the completely authentic prison experience.

7. Hotel de Vrouwe van Stavoren; Stavoren, Netherlands

Original purpose: Wine cask

(Hotel de Vrouwe van Stavoren/Facebook.com)

The Hotel de Vrouwe van Stavoren sits near the port of what was once an extremely busy shipping town, and is now a popular leisure destination. But what makes the hotel famous are the rooms they built from the four giant wine casks they had shipped from Switzerland. Each vat holds little more than twin beds and what I can only imagine is an aroma that will inspire the sweetest dreams for wine lovers. Attached to the back of each cask is a sitting room with modern amenities.

8. Hillside Schoolhouse; Barryville, New York

Original purpose: One-room schoolhouse.

(Hillside Schoolhouse/Facebook.com)

As far as motel conversion goes, schoolhouses aren't all that unique. What makes the restored 1893 Hillside school special is how incredibly, authentically small and detailed it dares to be. Built as a one-room school house, the inn offers only two guest rooms aside from its common room; The Belfry and room 1893. Owner and woodworker Bronson Bigelow saved as much original architecture and detail as he could in the restoration and built customized furniture for the inn from the school's salvage. Says Bigelow, "We wanted to ensure the design celebrated that rich history. We preserved the original slate chalkboards, the stained glass entryway, the cast-iron school bell, the hardwood floors and the original millwork." Therese Oneill

December 8, 2014
(Carl Court/Getty Images)

There's a saying: Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift any weights.

That maxim came to mind last week, as incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the details of Europe's latest infrastructure initiative, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).

To an observer in the United States, the €315 billion plan sounds enviable — a New Deal for Europe. Beneath the surface, though, the new initiative is hardly a bold move toward greater public investment.

In fact, the Juncker plan falls victim to the same problem that has plagued infrastructure policy here in the U.S.: too little public money, and too much faith in the private sector.

A bridge too far
That's not to say private infrastructure investment is necessarily a problem (it isn't), or that EFSI won't attract private money (it will).

But it means that for all of the new program's good intentions, it may prove useless in helping build projects that are very necessary for Europe, yet aren't necessarily profitable.

That's because EFSI relies on a very small pot of government money to attract a very large amount of private-sector investment, mostly through infrastructure projects known as "public-private partnerships."

The EU is slated to contribute only €16 billion to EFSI at first, and none of this is actually new spending.

Instead, the funds will be redirected from other programs and taken from the EU's "budget margin," the government equivalent of the loose change you find under your sofa cushion. Those funds — along with €5 billion that the European Investment Bank will chip in — will leverage about €15 from outside investors for every government euro spent, EU officials say, resulting in €315 billion overall.

This design is EFSI's greatest political strength, but also its greatest practical weakness.

Given its heavy reliance on private-sector involvement, EFSI may ultimately function better as a financial tool than as a social one. That is, rather than proactively prioritizing construction of the continent's most vital infrastructure projects, it may instead merely lend money on a first-come, first-served basis to public-private partnerships that would have happened anyway.

The problem of the pipeline
It's an issue that infrastructure experts on both sides of the Atlantic know all too well.

In 1998, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act created a smaller but similar program in the U.S., with the high-minded goal of financing "projects of national significance."

Since then, however, the program has been modified to approve projects based almost solely on their ability to pay back the government's money, rather than the extent to which they'll benefit the public.

Meanwhile, a previous EU program, the Loan Guarantee Instrument for Trans-European Transport Network Projects, met with moderate success, but faced problems finding enough worthwhile projects to underwrite.

An official evaluation of the initiative urged that, in the future, "the initial focus should be on stimulating the pipeline of projects," and noted that the program "does not have the power to make projects by virtue of its existence."

The European Commission seems well aware that EFSI may fall victim to this problem. But its solution is meek at best: an "Investment Task Force" that will try to convince the private sector of the merits of particular projects. Such investors, the report optimistically claims, may be "unaware of the potential of these projects...given their intrinsically complex nature."

Unfortunately, U.S. policy-makers also seem to believe that cajoling bankers is all it will take to open up the infrastructure "pipeline." At a September infrastructure conference hosted by the U.S. Treasury Department, among the topics discussed was "Generating a pipeline: convincing investors that the public-private partnership market is robust."

The heavy lifting
To many observers, this private-sector hesitance has emerged as the key problem with infrastructure investment. But such hesitance actually makes a lot of sense, and it doesn't take an economist to see why.

After all, neither EFSI nor any other program will ever be able to convince banks to invest in a piece of infrastructure that won't turn a profit. And that's a severe problem, since our most important pieces of infrastructure are often unprofitable, even when they benefit the broader economy.

These projects require a much greater public stake, since governments can rely on their taxing power to fund infrastructure that is broadly beneficial. But with many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic still marching to the drumbeat of austerity, neither Juncker nor his U.S. counterparts are in a position to embrace this reality.

French policy-makers, to their credit, sought a much larger EU contribution to the new fund — as much as €80 billion, according to The Financial Times. But their proposal died due to pressure from Northern European fiscal hawks, who demanded that EFSI not increase the overall size of the EU's budget.

In the U.S., meanwhile, President Obama has so far refused to support an increase in the gas tax, the main method the federal government uses to fund infrastructure projects stateside.

EFSI may prove a useful financing tool. But at the end of the day, it is only a tool of opportunity, one that will never replace the most basic methods of public infrastructure funding.

Without a doubt, that funding is a heavy weight for governments to bear, both in Europe and the U.S. But the private sector, for all its strength, has shown that it often won't step into the gym. It's time government started lifting again. Jacob Anbinder

December 5, 2014
(iStock)

The startup Zenefits provides software that helps companies handle benefits, payroll, and related taxes. It gives away its software for free and gets a commission from benefits providers that customers pick through Zenefits software.

And now, the Utah Insurance Department has threatened to shut Zenefits down for being free, and underpricing incumbent brokers.

This isn't just a case of incumbent businesses using legislation to prevent more innovative companies from springing up, which is already an enormous problem in America. Government over-regulation is a big part of the problem, too.

After all, the reason why companies need services like Zenefits to begin with is the morass of regulations and taxes that they have to deal with. Companies have to file with the IRS whenever they hire employees, pay independent contractors, or when they reimburse their employees for their expenses. They have to pay state and local taxes on top of federal. And then there is the wonderful thicket of benefits: health insurance (medical, dental, vision), COBRA regulations ("I'm from the federal government, and here's a COBRA"), 401(k)s, and so on. And yes, this is the very system that ObamaCare further entrenches.

So we have government regulations that create a problem, entrepreneurs who spring up to make it easier — and then become a constituency for keeping the problem around so that people still have to buy the entrepreneur's solution. (Another great example is how H&R Block and other tax preparers always lobby against tax simplification.)

This isn't just right-wing pablum. There is also a left-wing critique of this problem, which is that a lot of these problems arise because politicians don't want the government to provide these benefits directly, because that would be "government spending." So instead they pass laws mandating that businesses give these benefits to their employees (which increases the cost of labor, and thus increases unemployment, and depresses wages at the same time), creating the morass to begin with. This is what the political scientist Stephen Teles has called "kludgeocracy."

Kludgeocracy is the consequence of a phenomenon of "concentrated benefits and diffuse costs." A regulation that protects some interest group, like Utah health-insurance brokers, provides a very concentrated benefit to those brokers. And though it creates a clear cost to the rest of society, that cost is diffuse. It probably amounts to only a few cents for each citizen. And so when those regulations come up for debate, the minority that benefits will fight tooth and nail to keep it, while the general public that isn't even aware of the diffuse cost will tend to be apathetic.

Here's the problem: All those diffuse costs pile up, because Utah health-insurance brokers aren't the only special-interest group in America.

And there is an even broader shift in play. Zenefits is not the only company involved. Consider the phenomenon that the well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called "software eating the world." Until recently, the software industry was either about itself (new and better software replacing older software), or about making existing industries run more efficiently. But now software is not just helping industries run more efficiently, but actually remaking them. The first generation of internet travel software made it easier to book a hotel room; now Airbnb is changing the very concept of the hotel. Or think of how Disney had to buy a software company, Pixar, to remain relevant in the world of animation. Disney!

This means that, as in the Zenefits case, or the case of Uber versus various taxi commissions, or Amazon's drone delivery program, technology entrepreneurs are increasingly going to find themselves on the wrong side of government. As the internet remakes various sectors, they are either going to brush up against existing regulations or incumbents are going to go to legislators for support.

As a free-market conservative, I view this with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Uber is clearly good in terms of clearing away the taxi monopolies I so abhor. On the other hand, as Uber and others are forced by the course of events to get good at lobbying, tech companies might very well find out that gaming the system's various regulations can become a competitive advantage. For example, Zenefits is clearly the "good guys" in their fight with the Utah Insurance Department; but if Zenefits gets big enough, it just might want to keep lobbying for the regulations that make its software necessary to begin with.

In any case, this is a multifront war that is only just beginning. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

December 3, 2014

1. Flavor Beads

(Christine Le Tennier/Facebook.com)

Christine Le Tennier has spent 25 years examining the potential for turning sea plants into desirable food. She experimented with them on a molecular level to make Flavor Beads, tiny jellied balls that resemble caviar. Except Flavor Beads are no ordinary fish jelly; these come in any number of flavors designed to enhance any cuisine. Flavors include wine vinegar & shallots, truffle, lemon & pepper, and maple syrup.

2. Squash ravioli

(La Pasta/Facebook.com)

This summer, The Specialty Food Association awarded top honors to this pretty purple ravioli made by La Pasta. It features the rather unique combination of beets, butternut squash, goat cheese, chives, and sea salt.

3. Switchel

(VT Switchel)

Before Gatorade, there was Switchel. For hundreds of years, it was made for farm workers who labored in the sun, its tangy sweetness reputed to quench thirst more effectively than even water. Now Switchel — which boasts "the natural sweetness of maple syrup with the tanginess of organic apple cider vinegar, with added hints of lemon, ginger, and molasses" — is back on the market, ready to make your harvest season a little less dehydrated.

4. Balsamic blueberry maple dressing

(Wozz! kitchen creations)

Blueberries eaten with maple isn't that far of a stretch; there can't be many of us who haven't had that combination in pancake form. But the addition of vinegar, thanks to Wozz Kitchen Creations, well, that's a new idea. And it's one that apparently makes the dressing a compliment to almost any kind of food you can think of, sweet or sour. The creators offer some recipe ideas for that and many of their other cutting-edge culinary experiments here.

5. Drinking vinegar

(Pok Pok Som/Facebook.com)

Speaking of vinegar, did you know it was for drinking? And not just as a punishment for mouthing off to your mom? Pok Pok, a Portland Thai restaurant, has been serving flavor-infused Som Drinking Vinegars since 2005. They work either as mixers for other drinks or as an adventurous alternative to soda pop. Most flavors are sweet, like tamarind and honey, but it was the pretty pink Thai basil vinegar that took home the 2014 Specialty Food Association Sofi award for best vinegar.

6. Oatmeal cookie butter

(Dave’s Gourmet/Facebook.com)

And here we thought Nutella was the holy apex of all snack spreads. It turns out there might be a competitor in the form of Dave's Gourmet Oatmeal Cookie Butter. It's one of three cookie butters Dave's is planning on producing, and can be used to top toast, apple slices, waffles, and just about anything that can hold a nice smear of yum (fingers included). The only problem is waiting for the award-winning Cookie Butter to become available online, which Dave's hopes to accomplish by the end of the year.

7. Fishless tuna

“”(Atlantic Natural Foods)

I was raised in a religion that has practiced vegetarianism for 150 years. It… was rough going. Even in the 1990s, we relied on lentil loafs and gooey balls of sodium and gluten pulled out of a can for our proteins. But bless the 21st century, and the beautiful options it brings for meatless meals. Fishless Tuna is an entirely new one to me, made from textured soy flour, and naturally low in fat and calories.

8. Sunny Seeds

“”(Sunflower Food Company)

Made with no artificial ingredients, Sunflower Food Company's new snack pack, All Natural Sunny Seeds, is a bestseller. The chocolate covered sunflower seeds claim no artificial ingredients, and even utilize natural dyes (beets and cabbage!) to create their rainbows of cheery chocolate color.

9. BrusselKale

“”(Rock Garden)

Rock Garden Herbs has specialized in providing unique herbs and lettuces since 1977, making them one of the oldest herb distribution farms in the country. They recently went beyond specialty herbs, and created one of the first entirely new vegetables the world has seen in a long time: BrusselKale. They used "old fashioned methods," according to Bill Squire, retail development director. "A Brussels sprout plant was cross pollinated with a kale plant," he explained. "Old-fashioned hybridization." From the website: "BrusselKale has a flavor that's milder than either Brussels sprouts or kale and contains double the amount of vitamin B6 and vitamin C of Brussels sprouts."

10. Spreadable salami

“”(Boccalone)

Meat paste isn't usually at the top of any gourmand's wish list, unless they're astronauts, or fond of duck liver. But who doesn't like a good salami? Boccalone, purveyor of "Tasty Salted Pig Parts," has developed an enticing spreadable meat for the common man, Nduja (say "en-doo-ya"). It's cured like hard salami, but stays soft inside its casing. This makes it perhaps the most versatile salami ever, perfect for everything from toast to pasta sauce. Therese Oneill

November 27, 2014

With a stigma even greater than a pocket protector or a Bluetooth headset, the Segway remains one of the most memorable failed attempts at revolutionizing personal transportation.

But there are still lots of companies figuring out new ways to move people around, whether it's for sport, leisure, or necessity. The tough part is breaking into the mainstream consciousness — and doing so in a way that makes personal transportation hip and desirable.

Onewheel tries to do that with an idea born from the hoverboard, which has remained something of a holy grail for inventors ever since Marty McFly rode one in Back to the Future Part II. Instead of completely floating on air, however, Onewheel uses its large, single tire to simulate that floating feeling.

The Onewheel uses the same type of motion-sensing technology prevalent in smartphones, along with battery technology used by Tesla Motors in its electric cars. The rider leans forward to go, and leans back to slow down or stop.

Here's where the Tesla technology comes in. Onewheel uses regenerative braking to capture the kinetic energy generated by slowing down. It then diverts the energy back into battery power. Instead of the brake causing heat and friction, as it does in a typical car, the excess energy is recycled.

After five years of designing different prototypes, Onewheel hit Kickstarter in January 2014 and blew past its fund-raising goal. Now, the futuristic board is up for pre-order, with delivery before the end of the year. One can be yours for $1500.

If Onewheel is a skateboard's cousin, then ZBoard is its brother or sister. ZBoard is a motorized skateboard that also initially launched as a Kickstarter project, and became a reality in 2012.

On a ZBoard, there are two foot pads, one in the front and one in the back. A rider applying pressure on the front one makes the board go faster, while pressure applied to the back pad slows the board down. ZBoard also uses regenerative braking to avoid wasted energy.

ZBoards come in three models, differentiated by speed and distance, which are dictated primarily by the strength of their respective battery packs. The base model costs $650, can travel around five miles, and has a top speed of 15 miles per hour. The top of the line model reaches $1200, has a range of 18 miles, and can reach 18mph.

Boosted is similar to ZBoard. Designed to look like a traditional longboard, it differs from ZBoard in that it uses a Bluetooth remote control for the rider to increase speed or brake. The remote has a rotary knob that allows the reader to accelerate and slow down. A Boosted board starts at $1000 and goes up to $1500. The base model will get you seven miles of distance and a top speed of 18mph.

Although Boosted skateboards are closest to standard skateboards, the founders of Boosted have bigger plans for their new method of transportation, going beyond mere recreation. In the long term, the company hopes to build more sustainable transportation for different areas of the world, including places where recharging an electric car might be out of the realm of possibility. Being lightweight and very portable, Boosted could make a big difference in developing countries in the future.

The automaker Honda has also been experimenting with unique ways for people to get around, one of which is the Uni-Cub. The device is a wild mix between a wheelchair and unicycle, the purpose of which is to help improve mobility. The vehicle's omni-directional driving system comes from Honda's research in robotics, particularly in its famous robot ASIMO.

For those still clinging to hopes of the Segway catching on, there's also the Airwheel — a small and portable self-balancing standing vehicle. However, out of all these options, Airwheel may still be a little too nerdy to ever catch on. Tyler Hayes

November 24, 2014
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

Do we have the technological know-how to send humans on a one-way trip to Mars? Bas Lansdorp, cofounder and CEO of Mars One, seems to think so. The Dutch entrepreneur and his Mars One team plan on establishing what could be the first human colony on Mars.

"The first humans that are going to Mars are going there to stay," said Lansdorp. "They need to stay in order for this mission to be feasible."

The plan is to send robotic rovers out in 2020 to find the best location for a settlement. Rovers will prepare the location for the arrival of life support units, space suits, and living units, which would land in 2022, with the humans showing up in 2025.

"We plan to have systems operating on Mars for several years before humans arrive," Lansdorp explains. "But it's a mission with plenty of opportunity for delays."

Once everything is set up on Mars, four people — two men and two women — would travel on a compact space station that will hold enough food rations and water for the 7- to 8-month journey to the Red Planet.

There won't be any cool Star Trek–type of technology used for the mission though. Lansdorp is relying on his aerospace partners to come up with simple solutions, using existing technology. "If you're going to Mars, you don't want to bet your life on something that has not been tested for at least a decade," he said.

Powered by solar panels, the life support units will feed oxygen, nitrogen, and argon into the living unit — about 538 square feet of living space — to create a breathable atmosphere for the crew. The living unit will also have an airlock system to ensure the settlement is sealed when the crew leaves to explore the planet.

Space suits — or, in Mars One parlance, "Mars Suits" — are basically the same as the ones used by the Apollo astronauts on the moon. They will be worn by the crew to protect them from the thin atmosphere and the harsh weather, which averages a rather chilly -81 degrees Fahrenheit.

Assuming that the solar panels are successfully supplying the colony with electricity and the life support systems are fully operational, the crew will set up their new home upon arrival. According to the Mars One website, the settlement will have bedrooms, a living room, showers, a kitchen, and plant production units that will grow their food. The crew's source of water will be extracting water from the planet's soil.

If that sounds farfetched, you're not alone. Engineers at MIT aren't convinced the mission's plan will work.

In a recent report, researchers created an analysis tool that examined the Mars One mission model. They discovered that unless new technology is developed for the mission, the chances for human survival would be slim.

For example, growing crops as the main food supply would produce unsafe levels of oxygen within the colony, eventually causing the humans to suffocate. To avoid this, a system that can remove excess oxygen would have to be implemented, a technology that hasn't been developed for use in space.

"We do have the technology to extract oxygen from the air on earth," explains Sydney Do, a research assistant in the Department of Aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and one of the authors of the study. "But we don't yet have a technology that can do that in space or on Mars, and do it to last a lifetime."

Another problem is how much food the colonists will need to survive. Based on the work and activity levels of astronauts on the International Space Station, Do found that the crew would need to consume about 3,000 calories a day to stay alive on Mars. That's a lot of food to grow in a such limited space.

Do's recommendation is to bring food to Mars rather than bring supplies to grow and maintain it, especially if Mars One plans on sending more colonists in 2026.

"They would need more land to grow more food," he said. "Expansion would require more infrastructure and more water."

Accessing enough water could also be a challenge. Extracting water from the planet's soil by "baking" it could be used on Mars, according to the report, but such a device has not been developed to the scale required to sustain a human colony.

"We're all supporters of Mars exploration and colonization. However we are intimately familiar with challenges and risks of doing something like this," said Do.

A roundtrip mission seems more feasible to Do. "There would be less risk, and more opportunity to thoroughly test the technology on the planet prior to longer missions," he said.

But Lansdorp disagrees.

"A return mission is so immensely complex, it's almost impossible," he said.

He argues that successfully launching rockets from Earth already requires a huge number of highly skilled engineers, so how can that work on different planet with only four crew members?

Despite the report's findings, Lansdorp is confident about the mission's plan.

"We've discussed the MIT report, and most of it we already knew, but our suppliers are taking it into account," he said. "We know that landing on Mars isn't going to be easy." Linda Thrasybule

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