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Monday Topsight, May 7, 2007

squirrel_img.jpgBusy week coming up: working a panel on the future of sustainability tomorrow; delivering a talk to the TAKEAWAY festival of DIY media, in London (I'll be presenting remotely); lots of IFTF stuff; and prepping for a return to London for the next leg of the Open University project.

In the meantime...

Green Panopticon Begins: UC San Diego's Shannon Spanhake has come up with a small pollution monitor built to send data to cell phones. She calls it Squirrel.

Squirrel fits in the palm of your hand and can be clasped to a belt or purse. The small, battery-powered mobile device can sample pollutants with its on-chip sensor. The current prototype measures carbon monoxide and ozone, but eventually the device will be able to sample nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide in the air, as well as temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.

It’s what happens next that makes Squirrel a powerful tool in the fight against pollution. Using a Bluetooth wireless transmitter, the device connects to the user’s cell phone. A software program called Acorn allows the user to see the current pollution alerts through a screensaver on the cell phone’s display. The phone also periodically transmits the environmental data to a public database on the Internet operated by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which is funding Squirrel’s development.

Hmmm. Any of this sound familiar?

Great work, Shannon!

Micro-Dam It!: Gregg Zachary writes in the May 2007 edition of IEEE Spectrum about the growth of micro-hydro in Africa as a way around the ongoing energy production crisis across most of the continent. Small dams, which can produce anywhere from a few kilowatts to a few megawatts of power, have proven to be more reliable, more environmentally sound, and more flexible than traditional hydroelectric megaprojects. The microhydro dams, which produce no more than 100 kilowatts, have become especially popular, as they can be built and maintained with minimal demands on government or outside support.

It will come as no surprise, then, that most African governments are opposed (or at best unwelcoming) to microhydro. The primary reason, though, is interesting:

It's a reminder that the electricity issue in Africa, as elsewhere, is as much political as it is technical. Big dams are prestige projects, symbols of national power that drive employment and industry. Small hydros, dispersed and difficult for the government to keep track of, let alone manage, seem vaguely subversive.

That reminded me of something I dug up back in the late 1980s, doing research on Pakistan's development of atomic weaponry. The driver for most Pakistanis wasn't military might or even deterrence against India, but prestige: building an atomic bomb would demonstrate to the world that Pakistan was as advanced, as capable, as any other top-ranking nation.

The connection between mega-projects and national pride -- especially in areas historically the target of other nations' whims -- should not be ignored by those of us seeking to change behavior.

You Don't Live Longer, It Just Feels Like It: Calorie restriction, aka cr, is a long-recognized path to longevity. Cutting the diets of mice by 40% gives them 50% longer lives than mice fed a normal, healthy diet. I'm sure we're all ready to jump on that bandwagon.

So biogerontologists are looking for so-called "cr-mimetic" drugs, just as resveratrol, that trick the body into behaving as if it is receiving a limited diet. That search just took a big step, with the discovery of a particular gene, pha-4, that is tied directly (and, apparently, exclusively) to the calorie-longevity tradeoff. The usual disclaimers apply: still early research; may not work in humans as it does in other animals; the influence of genes isn't as well-understood as popularly believed; don't expect your insurance to pay for it.

Maybe for Cell Phones Next?: New Scientist reports on the development of a $10 DNA-replicating device, a cheap, pocket-sized PCR (polymerase chain reaction) system. PCR is pretty much a cornerstone process of nearly all genetic testing and engineering.

The device has no moving parts and costs just $10 to make. It runs polymerase chain reactions (PCRs), to generate billions of identical copies of a DNA strand, in as little as 20 minutes. This is much faster than the machines currently in use, which take several hours.

It still needs a way to isolate DNA samples for replication, so don't expect it to show up at Target any time soon. Still, once it's ready, the medical applications, especially in the developing world, will be outstanding. Perhaps of even greater impact, though, will be the uses developed by open-source hardware hackers, looking for ways to make the system do what the designers never anticipated.

And just wait until someone figures out how to hook the $10 DNA device to the $100 laptop...

The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is Oddly Bright: And finally, Summer has arrived. Less than a week ago, it was windy and rainy here; today, it's set to be in the low-to-mid-90s. Good thing we had to replace our roof.

One of the first pieces I ever wrote for WorldChanging that got a bit of attention was Green and White, talking about some research done by the Lawrence Berkeley Labs indicating that light-colored (or, best of all, white) roofs made such a dramatic difference in warmer climes that replacing a roof with white shingles would save more power (from cooling) than would be generated by replacing that roof with solar panels.

When it came time to replace the roof of our house, you'd better believe we went white. Or Ash Grey, which was a newer generation shingle with a slightly better efficiency rating than the white shingles. The additional cost over the basic cheap shingles (which only come in faux-wood dark colors) will be easily matched by the greatly reduced air conditioning bills and the one-time rebate from PG&E, the local power company. Best of all, no more sweltering at midnight.

Behavior changes matter. System changes matter. But let's not forget the value of offering people a chance to do the right thing when they need to meet existing needs.

White Roof


Calorie restriction, aka cr, is a long-recognized path to longevity. Cutting the diets of mice by 40% gives them 50% longer lives than mice fed a normal, healthy diet. I'm sure we're all ready to jump on that bandwagon.

Well, let's not forget that the average American eats far, far more food than a "normal, healthy diet" for humans. It would be interesting to know what fraction of increased food consumption is really due to population and how much is due simply to mega-sizing our meals and to snacking continually.

This points toward the notion that fewer calories may actually make us healthier right now, not just longer-lived. Digestion and food/waste management is a strain for the body; the less going through, the cleaner the process runs (above some minimum level). Given that many Americans and Europeans are in caloric overload, it would be worth exploring how much money and pain would be saved in health care costs if we ate less, and more healthfully.

Of course, in the end it will be individual choice, and perhaps not many will "jump on the bandwagon." But I think of it like energy conservation at home: There is a middle ground between cranking up the A/C and having every light blazing, and huddling in a cold, dark house. We can be sensible, and the results are good for everyone. We could all eat a little less.

One practical tip is to stop ordering an entree at restaurants. The amount of food restaurants serve today is nearly twice what it used to be. So order two appetizers! You'll still get the taste enjoyment, but your body will be lighter and your wallet fuller.

Calorie restriction is only one of the many things Resveratrol is found to do.

Although I do believe a good diet is the perfect choice, you still want to supplement it with things that will help you squeeze out the best life can be. Some studies say, being married and having a child allows you to live longer... others say a good dog can make a better quality of life.

I personally have a great 15 month old, and on top of that take Resveratrol, along with my daily vitamins... why not? If there is anyway for me to live better for my kid, I will certainly try it out.

Read about resveratrol here if you want to know more.



Did a diary at dailykos on the light roofs, cool roofs idea at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/5/9/223047/2528

Thanks for the idea.


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