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Tuesday Topsight, June 2, 2008

• OUtunes: Last year, I was part of a project helping the UK's Open University to re-imagine itself, with a heavy emphasis on taking advantage of new technologies and social tools. One of the ideas we came up with during a brainstorming session was to use iTunes as a gateway to OU's educational content. Students would be able to download course videos, playable on iPods and iPhones (yes, yes, there are other portable media devices, but let's be realistic). It would be a small step, but a signal of OU's willingness to embrace new educational service models.

Well, look what's happened.


The OU is on iTunes (link will open iTunes if you have it, which you probably do). Videos (and transcripts of videos) can be downloaded for free. Some of the videos are pretty short, so I'm not sure how many would count towards actual OU degrees. It is, as we suspected, a small step -- but it's also a promising sign of things to come.

• Uncivil Society: The June National Geographic has a number of stories about China, and one stood out in particular for me. "What's Next?" examines the possible future pathways for China's development. The author, Peter Hessler, watches the progression of a number of rural factory towns, and the ways in which the communities deal with problems. He makes an observation that strikes me as absolutely critical:

In China, though, new cities are strictly business: factories and construction supplies and cell phone shops. Local governments focus on profiteering, and the Communist Party has always discouraged the kind of organizations that contribute in other societies. This is perhaps the nation's greatest human rights challenge. Westerners tend to focus on the dramatic—dissidents, censorship—but it's the lack of institutions that actually hurts most Chinese. Workers are left to fend for themselves: no independent unions, no free press, few community groups. Through sheer willpower, many succeed, but the wasted potential is staggering. In the reform years China has unleashed its remarkable population; the next stage is to learn to respect this wealth.

Emphasis mine. We simply cannot ignore the importance of civil institutions for the healthy development of society, and need to pay very close attention to how new developments (in technology, in demographics, in politics) change the capacity of these institutions. Moreover, we in the futures world need to be especially conscious of the possible emergence of new civil institutions.

What might those new institutions look like? I think many of these nascent social models will embrace aspects of "smartmob" and open-source behavior. The question that comes to mind for me is what would be the big picture trigger that would serve as a catalyst for institutionalization.

• Diesel Bad?: For a few years now, I've been waiting for the advent of a diesel-electric hybrid car. Diesel cars get better mileage than gasoline cars, so a diesel hybrid should truly rock (and, in fact, prototype diesel hybrids regularly got over 70mpg). But if Joe Romm is right -- and he usually is -- more diesel cars may well be the last thing we want.

It turns out that the soot particulate matter in most forms of diesel fuel may itself introduce greenhouse carbon. Romm cites Dr. Mark Jacobson, Co-founder and Director of the Atmospheric Energy Program at Stanford University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and quotes him as saying that "diesel vehicles emitting particles continuously at a particulate matter emission standard of 40 mg/mi or 80 mg/mi may warm climate more than gasoline vehicles." Newer diesel vehicles, emitting 10 gm/mi, would warm less, but still have a negative impact. Filters added to trap particulate emissions end up eliminating the overall mileage advantage of diesel engines.

The important take-away is that, with older diesel vehicles -- the kind in use in much of the world -- the lower CO2 emissions may be outweighed in greenhouse impact by the increased "carbon black" particulate emissions.

The entire article is worth reading, including the comments. I'm not sure we can call this as a certainty, but the evidence looks strong.

• Manic Panic: Amanda Ripley has an interesting piece in TIME magazine entitled "How to Survive a Disaster," and that's exactly what it's about. In the wake of recent natural disasters, Ripley examines some of the ways in which groups have managed to avoid dying in a variety of catastrophic settings. She's a specialist in disaster narratives, and has interviewed numerous survivors of unexpected dangers.

She emphasizes the importance of rehearsal in dealing with disaster -- escape drills and the like, to be sure, but also just thinking through how to cope. This dovetails with an emphasis on participation, in terms of both aiding disaster response and not simply waiting to be told what to do.

A couple of her observations stand out.

In many disasters, people running in a panic are at less risk than those who just freeze. "Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor. [...] Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car."

Groups that take an active role in responding to disasters fare better than those waiting to be ordered around. "All of us, but especially people in charge--of a city, a theater, a business--should recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times. They will do even better if they are encouraged to play a significant role in their own survival before anything goes wrong."


RE China:

"Workers are left to fend for themselves: no independent unions, no free press, few community groups. Through sheer willpower, many succeed"

So China has become some kind of Social Darwinist Ayn Rand jerk-off fantasy land?

Sorry, but that's the first thing that leapt to mind.


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