Monday Topsight, May 7, 2007
Busy 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...
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.
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.