February 4, 2014

500 Words on Cryptocurrencies

Such money. Big spender. Wow.It will likely come as little or no surprise that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin (my favorite) are frequent topics of conversation among futurist types. After all, they're supposed to be paradigm-breaking disruptions of the status quo, or something. But I still haven't gotten over my sense that something isn't quite fully-baked about the current generation of digital currencies, and I'm going to spend my ~500 words here trying to spell out why.

Cryptocurrencies are computationally-derived mathematical artifacts intended to function as money -- they're to be used to store value and to be exchanged for goods and services. The difference between cryptocurrencies and the US Dollar (or other sovereign-state currency) is that the Dollar is backed by the "full faith and credit" of the United States, meaning that as long as the US is a functioning political entity, the dollar can be used to (at minimum) pay American taxes. Conversely, cryptocurrencies are backed by mutual agreement; as long as the market for it exists, a cryptocurrency has some value. The logic behind cryptocurrencies isn't new, and can be seen in the various complementary currencies that have been used for decades in communities around the world, often (as with some cryptocurrencies) with an explicit social or political goal.

Many supporters of cryptocurrencies prefer to draw a parallel to gold, which is not under the control of any single political entity and does not have a set value, instead being priced based on how much people will pay for it (in another currency). This floating value of cryptocurrencies is one recognized challenge for their continued utility. As economist Paul Krugman and others have pointed out, gold has a minimum value, due to its use in industry and jewelry; cryptocurrencies have no minimum value, and could in principle crash to a level where they have effectively zero worth. Hoarding, regulatory decisions, and fraud can all cause wild swings in currency price. This floating value, which for many cryptocurrencies can be extremely volatile, impedes use as stable media of exchange. If the trading value of a Bitcoin versus a Dollar varies throughout the day, a business owner that primarily buys and sells and pays taxes in Dollars takes a risk any time he or she sets a price in Bitcoins. Some businesses may be willing to swallow that risk in order to gain the support of Bitcoin advocates, but for many others, it's just not worth the hassle.

Solving the floating value problem will be difficult, not for arcane economic reasons, but because there are as yet no physical communities where a cryptocurrency serves as a primary currency, usable for a broad variety of run-of-the-mill transactions. No place for the currencies to create a persistent, mutually-understood perceived value outside of its value in exchange for a sovereign currency. Where the users know at a gut level what it means to say that something costs (for example) 100 Bitcoin, the way an American knows what it means when something costs $100. Until then, cryptocurrencies will always be secondary at best, somewhat more fungible than gold coins from World of Warcraft. And that points to what may be the source of my continued skepticism about the current generation of cryptocurrencies: advocates have embraced the argument that all money is imaginary, that the vast majority of transactions now are digital, and that we now live in a globalized market, but have neglected the corresponding social and political grounding that makes this digital decentralization viable.

June 18, 2012

On My Mind

A few of the things that have popped up on my radar of late:

"Zero-day" exploit sales should be key point in cybersecurity debate

It turns out that in the last year or so a new market has sprung up: people discovering (or, much more troubling, creating) exploitable flaws in software then selling the knowledge of these flaws to the highest bidder, government or corporate.
France-based VUPEN is one of the highest-profile firms trafficking in zero-day exploits. Earlier this month at the CanSecWest information security conference, VUPEN declined to participate in the Google-sponsored Pwnium hacking competition, where security researchers were awarded up to $60,000 if they could defeat the Chrome browser’s security and then explain to Google how they did it. Instead, VUPEN—sitting feet away from Google engineers running the competition—successfully compromised Chrome, but then refused to disclose their method to Google to help fix the flaw and make the browser safer for users.

Why would someone (other than a criminal) buy an exploit? Spying on competitors, corporate or state.

(Related: Crypto breakthrough shows Flame was designed by world-class scientists
The Flame spy-trojan, used against Iran, showed clear signs of being designed by top cryptographers.

John Hempton at Bronte Capital:
The Macroeconomics of Chinese kleptocracy

Fascinating piece outlining the role that corruption plays in the Chinese economy, particularly around the misuse of the large amounts of money put into savings accounts. Why so much money being saved?
In most developing countries the way that people save is they have multiple children hopefully to generate a gaggle of grandchildren all of whom are trained to respect their elders. Given most people did not live to old age if you did you became a treasured (and well cared for) family member.

This does not work in China. Longevity in China is increasing rapidly and the one-child policy results in a grandchild potentially having four grandparents to look after. The “four grandparent policy” means the elderly cannot expect to be looked after in old age. Four grandparents, one grand-kid makes abandoning the old-folk looks easy and near certain.

Nor can the elderly rely on a welfare state to look after them. There is no welfare state.

So the Chinese save. Unless they save they will starve in old age. This has driven savings levels sometimes north of fifty percent of GDP.

Paul Krugman points out that this massive savings rate is a time bomb that will go off soon, as the "four grandparent" Chinese start to retire in large numbers, pulling money out of savings.

International Energy Agency:
Global carbon dioxide emissions increase by 1.0 Gt in 2011 to record high

But that's not the really interesting part of the story. In the United States, emissions are dropping; since 1996, the US has reduced annual emissions by 430 megatonnes (tonne=1000kg, 10% more than US ton), "the largest reduction of all countries or regions." This is due primarily to the switch away from coal and towards natural gas, coupled with a mild winter (so less demand for heating) and a sluggish economy. Still, this actually means that the US is well on its way to meeting its Copenhagen Accords commitments.

(graph from Vancouver Observer)

Bonus WTFOMG: The "Blue Marlin" meta-carrier, designed to carry 75 megatonnes of cargo... such as an oil rig, two submarines, or a dozen and a half cargo ships.

May 26, 2009

Topsight, May 26, 2009

Because this blog isn't just links to stuff I've done elsewhere. Honest!

• The Participatory Panopticon In Action

Police Slog Through 40,000 Insipid Party Pics To Find Cause Of Dorm Fire

From The Onion, of course. As tongue-in-cheek as this video report may be, it's also very indicative of the kind of impact this kind of ubiquitous documentation technology will have on how we view the world.

Thanks, Mr Judkins.

• Misty Nano-Structured Memories... of the Way We Were: One of the big problems with digital media, in parallel to those I mentioned yesterday in my Memorial Day re-post, is that they degrade easily. Magnetic and optical media are several orders of magnitude less robust than simple paper, degrading in years or decades instead of centuries. It's not simply a case of digital formats not lasting long, the very media upon which the files are stored are ephemeral.

That may change soon, if this report from UC Berkeley bears fruit. According to Nanowerk website:

The researchers describe development of an experimental memory device consisting of an iron nanoparticle (1/50,000 the width of a human hair) enclosed in a hollow carbon nanotube. In the presence of electricity, the nanoparticle can be shuttled back and forth with great precision. This creates a programmable memory system that, like a silicon chip, can record digital information and play it back using conventional computer hardware. In lab and theoretical studies, the researchers showed that the device had a storage capacity as high as 1 terabyte per square inch (a trillion bits of information) and temperature-stability in excess of one billion years.

(Emphasis mine.) It's basically a nanomechanical memory, pushing a particle back and forth. The bit density is actually better than current magnetic media -- so it wouldn't be a step back in that regard -- and its possible lifespan is so far beyond what we would hope for that it's essentially infinite.

Now to make it cheap and ubiquitous. (Via Foresight)

• Worse Than We Thought, Faster Than We Thought: I'm talking about global warming, of course. One of the most persuasive arguments for geoengineering is that we're very likely already past the point at which catastrophic impacts become inevitable, as every time our models get better, the situation looks much more dire than we previously had thought. This observation is underscored by a new item in The Washington Post entitled "MIT Model Predicts Accelerating Warming Trends":

The MIT model is said to be the only one that incorporates among its variables possible changes in economic growth and other human activities and draws on peer-reviewed science on the climatic effects of atmospheric, oceanic and biological systems.

After running the model 400 times with slight variations in the inputs, the new predictions are for surface temperatures to warm by 6.3 to 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The prediction is for a 9.4-degree increase in the median temperature, more than double the 4.3 degrees predicted in a 2003 simulation.

It's hard to overstate just how disastrous that would be.

• I Sell Out: It's official, so I may as well post about it here: The Wall Street Journal asked me to contribute an essay arguing for the need for geoengineering, to be published in their June 15th special environmental report. I've been told that it's a candidate for cover story, in fact (but no way of knowing that until it hits the newsstands). I gave this one a good deal of thought, as the WSJ editorial pages have been notorious in their denial of reality, but I got a strong affirmation by the editors for the piece that I can (and do) argue forcefully that aggressive carbon reductions are an absolute necessity, regardless of the use of geoengineering. Based on what I saw today of the near-final edit of the piece, that affirmation has been upheld.

April 8, 2009

Topsight, April 8, 2009 (part II)

Read these:

• Sid, not Andy: In the movie Toy Story, did you think that the neighbor kid, Sid -- the one that hacked different toys together, blew them up, and generally played with them "inappropriately" -- was the bad guy? You're wrong.

What we need in our education system is a belief in Sid, not Andy. That’s not the dominant strain in today’s schools. We’re intent on producing functioning Andys — children who follow the rules, who don’t violate any product warnings, who know the pre-cooked answers. [...] A Sid-based education would encourage children to invent and explore, to chart their own paths, to defy conventions, to explore dead ends as well as promising boulevards. It would demand rigor — I have very little patience for education that doesn’t require the accumulation of key, basic knowledge.

I agree with this 110% -- I always thought that what Sid did looked fun (plus, he was funny-looking, and I really hate the "ugly=evil" trope).

• Biobatteries: Genetically-modified bacteriophage viruses engineered to produce lithium-ion batteries at room temperature with no toxic materials.


• Starships Rule (what remains of) Iceland's Economy: My friend Dan Johnson offers this observation:

Iceland's economy has effectively collapsed. But one of the stronger online games is EVE Online, which is owned & run by an Icelandic company. EVE has a vibrant economy, and a functioning (if unofficial) exchange rate between the in-game currency and real-world currencies. EVE's currency is a virtual version of the Icelandic Króna.

Hence, "Iceland has collapsed so thoroughly that at this point, it's only economically viable export may very well be an internet spaceship game, and that internet spaceship game's króna is for all intents and purposes a more real and valid and valuable currency than the actual country's actual money."

We truly live in a future designed by Charlie Stross.

• Future of Education: The Knowledge Works Foundation and the Institute for the Future have put up a site talking about the future of education. I worked on this project, but I think it has some good insights anyway. Check it out.

This 2020 Forecast illuminates how we are shifting toward a culture of creation in which each of us has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make our collective future. People are creating new selves, organizations, systems, societies, economies, and knowledge.

We are seeing “educitizens” define their rights as learners and re-create the civic sphere. Networked artisans and ad hoc factories are democratizing manufacturing and catalyzing new local economies. These creators are highlighting the significance of cooperation and cross-cultural intelligence for citizenship and economic leadership.

Furthermore, advances in neuroscience are creating new notions of performance and cognition and are reshaping discussions of social justice in learning. Communities are beginning to re-create themselves as resilient systems that respond to challenges by replenishing their vital resources and creating flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures.

Together, these forces are pushing us to create the future of learning as an ecosystem, in which we have yet to determine the role of educational institutions as we know them today.

Can you guess which section I worked on?

• Personal Urban My Accessibility!: I'm split between thinking this is silly and thinking that it's potentially quite interesting; I'll probably decide that it's silly, but then lament that the useful stuff got lost in the induced giggles.

PUMA -- Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility -- is a joint project by General Motors and Segway. Two seater, electric, 35mph max/35 mile range... all very standard city golf cart stats. The Segway style balance aspect is cool, especially given that the machine is very maneuverable as a result, but what really sets it apart is the use of the ad-hoc vehicle network to manage traffic flows.

"Project P.U.M.A. represents a unique solution to moving about and interacting in cities, where more than half of the world's people live," said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development, and strategic planning. "Imagine small, nimble electric vehicles that know where other moving objects are and avoid running into them. Now, connect those vehicles in an Internet-like web and you can greatly enhance the ability of people to move through cities, find places to park and connect to their social and business networks."

Bonus points for using "social networking" in a press release about a car.

(Well, booger. I meant to post this in draft for tomorrow, but too late now. I guess I should write something else for tomorrow. In my copious spare time.)

Topsight, April 8, 2009

Participatory Panopticon edition!

I've been pounded with work, and haven't been keeping up with my bloggy duties. Here are some of the issues I've been following:

• Sigh, Eyeborg: Yeah, "eyeborg" -- a guy in the UK Canada (thanks @clothbot) has built a micro-camera into his vacant eye socket.

The eye will include a 1.5mm CMOS camera, an RF transmitter “smaller than the tip of a pencil eraser” and a lithium-polymer battery. Footage will probably be sent to recording equipment in a rucksack, which will presumably be worn by Spence.

His aim, aside from breaking technological boundaries, is to raise awareness of the issues surrounding surveillance in our society.

I have to say, there are ways to raise awareness of this issue without implanting a camera in your eye socket, but that's just how he rolls, apparently. (Via Futurismic)

• Hope It Doesn't Conveniently "Break": The company behind the taser stun weapon -- Taser, appropriately enough -- is set to release a wearable digital camera and recording system for use by law enforcement officers. The Axon system (PDF) provides real-time recording, from the officer's perspective, of everything that happens on duty. The recording, which can't be altered in-system, and gets uploaded to a secure off-site location at the end of a shift, can then provide documentary evidence of precisely what happened in every policing encounter.

This actually sounds pretty good, although I'd love for it to have a streaming upload mode so that the evidence gets locked up as it happens, instead of at the end of the day. Still, this is exactly the kind of thing that should be a mandatory part of the police uniform, for the protection of both the police officers and the citizens.

Just one problem, though: "One-Touch “Privacy Mode” temporarily suspends recording"

Sigh. Yes, I know that the cops don't want to be recorded while they go to the bathroom, but this just screams "abuse me" -- both to the cops & prosecutors and to defense attorneys trying to find a way to dispute a recorded encounter. I would hope, at the very least, that the GPS and time tracking don't get suspended in "privacy mode."

• Plausibly Surreal: This iPhone application, described on the "TidBITS" website, is, unfortunately, just an April Fool's joke. That said, there's no reason why "Invisibility" couldn't happen -- and, I suspect, there are quite a few people who would want it.

Invisibility works by creating a profile of each person you want to avoid, using a variety of inputs. [...] The tracking screen uses Google Maps to show you the current location (if known) of anyone you've profiled, along with a circle of probability and a timestamp. This is useful when you're taking a stroll and want to make sure the coast is clear.

Invisibility can also use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals to identify someone's cell phone within a range of 30 to 100 feet. [...] The program can also tap into Facebook messages, Flickr geotagging information, Skyhook Wireless location updates, Twitter, Dopplr travel logging, Blogger posts, and all kinds of other public and private (once you've connected it to your accounts) social media and buddy services.

The best part? The description of the app as "Asocial Networking" -- a way to avoid constant availability. This is so inevitable, it's not even funny.

March 15, 2009

Topsight, March 15, 2009

waltsimonsondoom.pngHappy Happy Joy Joy edition.

• Doom!: If you're still feeling chipper after reading about the latest incipient disaster, and you use Twitter, perhaps you should consider following Low Flying Rocks, a Twitter stream that mentions every near-Earth object (NEO) that comes within 0.2 Astronomical Units (or a fifth of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, roughly 19 million miles). It's relatively low-traffic -- usually just a few per day, if even that -- and most NEOs fly by at a good distance. Occasionally, though, you get one of these:

2009 EW just passed the Earth at 13km/s, approximately three hundred and forty-four thousand km away. 7:37 PM Mar 5th from Twitter4R

To put that in perspective, that's a bit further out than the Moon. Or, in astronomical terms, buzzing right past our figurative ear.

• DOOM!: Like half of Blogostan, I'm going to point you to Clay Shirky's piece on the death of newspapers. If you haven't read it, you really should -- it offers useful insights into what happens during big changes of all kinds. This section stands out:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Exercise for the reader: re-read the piece, and substitute "politics," "economics," and "social cohesion" for "newspapers."

• DOOM!: I just caught a link to this, from late last year. It's a bit of info that deserved greater visibility: your share of the global derivatives bubble? $190K.

According to various distinguished sources including the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel, Switzerland -- the central bankers' bank -- the amount of outstanding derivatives worldwide as of December 2007 crossed USD 1.144 Quadrillion, ie, USD 1,144 Trillion. [...]

1. The entire GDP of the US is about USD 14 trillion.
2. The entire US money supply is also about USD 15 trillion.
3. The GDP of the entire world is USD 50 trillion. USD 1,144 trillion is 22 times the GDP of the whole world. [...]

8. The population of the whole planet is about 6 billion people. So the derivatives market alone represents about USD 190,000 per person on the planet.

This will never be paid out. The question, then, is how do we disentangle the global economy from all of this?

March 9, 2009

Topsight, March 9, 2009


• Geoengineering Hits the Big-Time: My guess is that 2009 will be seen as the year geoengineering hit the mainstream. Just in the last couple of weeks, we've had:

Interestingly, as of the last time I looked, my book Hacking the Earth remains the only general-audience book on geoengineering available. I don't expect that to last long, though.

What would it mean for geoengineering to go mainstream? Bad discussions on cable news, blogospheric screaming fits, mistaken conclusions that geoengineering would mean not having to cut carbon emissions (mistakes made by both geoengineering supporters and detractors)... and that's just the first week.

• Get Your RED MARS: In old-school terraforming news, Kim Stanley Robinson's genius Red Mars is now available as a free download. Direct link to PDF here, and it's also free on the Kindle.

Warning: it's the first of a trilogy, and you're likely to want to pick up and read the next two in the series, Green Mars and Blue Mars (the latter containing one of the best pieces of science fiction around the gritty details of governance I've yet seen).

• Galactic Sustainability: Jacob D. Haqq-Misra and Seth D. Baum write in the latest issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that the answer to the Fermi Paradox -- if the universe is teeming with life, how come they haven't already said hi? -- may be found in sustainability:

In this paper, we argue that this conclusion is premature by introducing the “Sustainability Solution” to the Fermi Paradox, which questions the Paradox’s assumption of faster (e.g. exponential) civilization growth. Drawing on insights from the sustainability of human civilization on Earth, we propose that faster-growth may not be sustainable on the galactic scale. If this is the case, then there may exist ETI that have not expanded throughout the galaxy or have done so but collapsed. These possibilities have implications for both searches for ETI and for human civilization management.

Haqq-Misra provides a bit more detail in a post at the Lifeboat Foundation blog, noting that issues of carrying capacity are fundamental to ecological analysis. I like this line of argument, as it parallels the point I tried to make with my own argument about the Fermi Paradox (in short, that a rapidly-expanding civilization limited by the speed of life would likely result in isolation and divergent social/biological evolution).

Funny how a bit of knowledge about ecoscience and political science can change your perspective on the future.

• Instant Immunity - Just Flip the Switch: I had to check twice to make sure this wasn't an April 1 gag, but it's apparently solid science: Scripps University researchers have developed a "covalent" immunization method that allows for near-instantaneous immunity.

The scientists injected these mice with chemicals specifically designed to trigger a programmable and "universal" immune reaction. They developed other chemicals, "adapter" molecules," that recognized the specific cancer cells. Once injected into the animal, the adapter molecules self-assembled with the antibodies to create covalent antibody-adapter complexes.

"The antibodies in our vaccine are designed to circulate inertly until they receive instructions from tailor-made small molecules to become active against a specific target," Barbas says. "The advantage of this method is that it opens up the possibility of having antibodies primed and ready to go in the time it takes to receive an injection or swallow a pill. This would apply whether the target is a cancer cell, flu virus, or a toxin like anthrax that soldiers or even civilian populations might have to face during a bioterrorism attack."

You have to know what you're going to be targeting, of course, so this won't help defend against unknown pathogens. Still, this kind of immune system boosting could be an extraordinarily useful augmentation in an era of increasingly aggressive zoonotic diseases.

• Go Read This: Charlie Stross' 21st Century FAQ is great fun and a smart idea, but there's one question & answer that stands out as mandatory reading:

Q: Politics? Which of (Socialism | Capitalism | Libertarianism | Fascism | Democracy) is going to save us?

A: Probably none of the above.

...and he goes on to describe why we have yet to see the form of political organization that will shape the century (I won't spoil it by reprinting it here). I'm working on a similar idea, and all I could say is "hell, yes!"

• Futuresonic Presentation: So my appearance at Futuresonic in Manchester, UK, has been confirmed, and -- much to my pleasant surprise -- they've given me the kickoff slot, at the opening night event on Wednesday May 13. Best of all, the opening night event is FREE. If you're in the area, please come on by.

February 25, 2009

Topsight, February 25, 2009

794618.jpgQuick hits:

• Cybermermaid: Nadya Vessey lost the lower parts of her legs, so she decided to become a mermaid. Much to her surprise, New Zealand special effects group Weta agreed to help her out.

After seeing Ms Vessey test the tail in Kilbirnie pool then frolic in the harbour, Ms Williams was stoked. "It was absolutely amazing. It's beautiful to watch Nadya swim and to see that dream come true and to be a part of that. I feel quite blessed."

The suit was made mostly of wetsuit fabric and plastic moulds, and was covered in a digitally printed sock. Mermaid-like scales were painted by hand.

Mr Taylor said not only did the tail have to be functional, it was important it looked realistic. "What became apparent was that she actually physically wanted to look like a mermaid."

Okay, not quite cybermermaid, but indicative of what will happen as prosthetic technologies continue to evolve. Not everyone who needs a prosthetic system will decide that they want to be "normal." Expect myth and legend to fill in the morphological blanks at first, but then more wild flights of imagination will take over.

And that will be pretty cool.

• H++: Issue #2 of h+, the futures-focused magazine produced by "Betterhumans" and edited by R.U. Sirius, is now available (Flash). I actually have a couple of articles in this one, both more environmental futurey than posthuman futurey. I can't link directly to them, because of the use of flash rather than real HTML/XML; when the copyright reverts to me in 90 days, I'll go ahead and repost them here.

One piece looks at a biomimetic energy system that generates power from waves by flopping like a fish; the other looks at five 21st century renewable energy technologies. Here's a taste of the latter:

We're at the cusp of a massive transition, from the era of limited, subtractive energy resources to the era of unlimited, renewable energy. For a variety of reasons, we've long relied upon energy resources that have finite quantities, and once used, leave us stuck with (often deadly) waste products. These resources were easy to find and cheap to use, but -- from a long-term perspective -- were never really more than bootstrap technologies, allowing us to get to the point where we could shift to energy resources that are functionally limitless, and entirely renewable. That point is here.

(Pulled from my submitted article file, not from the digital file, because flash means you can't copy text.)

• Hey You Kids, Get Offa My Yardshare!: Words to learn:

    Hyperlocavore: "...a person who tries to eat as much food as locally as possible. Growing your own is as local as it gets!"
    Yardsharing: "... an arrangement between people to share skills and gardening resources in order to grow food as locally as possible!"

These definitions (exclamation points included) come from the new social network "hyperlocavore," which blends bottom-up collaboration with food production. It's an example of peer-to-peer agriculture, and it's a pretty neat concept. Hyperlocavore just started, so you may not find yardsharing pals in your neighborhood -- so be the first.

The founder of hyperlocavore wrote to me, saying that she thought this was a pretty "worldchanging" idea. I agree. Check 'em out.

• Carbon Microcredits: This is smart:

Carbon Manna Unlimited announced yesterday a cell phone-based Carbon Micro Credit system in the country that will allow residents to claim carbon offsets produced by using efficient cooking methods. Instead of using open-pit fires to burn biomass, families are encouraged to experiment with solar cookers and charcoal stoves.

Basically, a switch to low-carbon cooking methods gets subsidized through the use of "carbon offsets" (the degree to which these would be considered actual carbon offsets, and the degree to which carbon credits work in the first place, are beside the point). Biomass cooking isn't a major source of greenhouse gases, but it doesn't help matters, and is both harmful to human health and harmful to the local environment. This is potentially a big win all around.

• Second Death: As a friend to folks who do make use of Second Life for interesting projects, this story saddens me. As a futurist who grew tired of seeing Second Life held up as a Futurological Cliché, the story makes me relieved. In neither case, however, does the story leave me surprised.

February 12, 2009

Topsight, February 12, 02008

fashionarm.pngBecause "Bottomsight" just sounds too naughty.

• Hot Cyborg Action: Industrial designer Hans Alexander Huseklepp wondered what would happen if you took the modern design aesthetic seen in simple prosthetics like eyeglasses, and applied it to more sophisticated prosthetics, like arms. The result appears to the right.

Those of us who have worn glasses for quite some time know that the range of eyeglass styles available now are just orders of magnitude more interesting and appealing than those of a couple of decades ago. Modern glasses help to create an identity and make a fashion statement in ways that would have been simply unimaginable in the past.

It's unlikely that there's enough of a customer base for fashion prosthetic limbs, but -- as I've noted in the past -- the application of modern technological and design principles to the world of adaptive systems can be revolutionary.

• Massively Multiplayer Bank Robbery: A coordinated mass attack stole over $9 million from 130 automated teller machines in 49 cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Chicago, Montreal, and Moscow over the course of 30 minutes. Apparently it required a scam of a payroll service company that provided paycards usable in any ATM. While there are security camera photos of the people who actually hit the machines, they're generally considered to be "cashers," not the people behind the robbery.

Let's see... mass-attack on a security flaw in a networked system? Sounds like the Griefer Future is rolling along nicely.

• Mars Needs Rangers: New Scientist asks, Should Mars be treated like a wildlife preserve?

My take: if life is found, definitely. No question. If fossilized life is found, also definitely, since that could mean dormant life, waiting for a Mars Spring.

If there's no evidence of past or present life found... the question becomes more difficult. I always kind of sympathized with the Reds over the Greens in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, but I also believe that establishing a human foothold off of Earth is a wise long-term survival strategy.

Could we justify changing the Martian climate, knowing that -- as with Earth -- such changes are irreversible?

• Oh, This Will End Well: Robot brains able to evolve to meet new conditions:

The robot is controlled by a neural network - software that mimics the brain's learning process. This comprises a set of interconnected processing nodes which can be trained to produce desired actions. [...] Finding the best combinations is not easy - so roboticists often use an evolutionary algorithm to "evolve" the optimal control system. The EA randomly creates large numbers of control "genomes" for the robot. These behaviour patterns are tested in training sessions, and the most successful genomes are "bred" together to create still better versions - until the best control system is arrived at.

MacLeod's team took this idea a step further, however, and developed an incremental evolutionary algorithm (IEA) capable of adding new parts to its robot brain over time.

Nice. Look, if you don't want rampaging robots stealing your medicine, don't give them the capacity to alter their own brains! Sheesh. Just what we need.

February 4, 2009

Topsight: February 4, 2009


• The Year Ahead, Sterling-style: Bruce Sterling and his European alternate identity Bruno Argento both present visions of what 2009 will hold in the latest edition of Seed magazine.

Bruce's is the pessimistic view -- 2009 Will Be a Year of Panic:

2009 will be a squalid year, a planetary hostage situation surpassing any mere financial crisis, where the invisible hand of the market, a good servant turned a homicidal master, periodically wanders through a miserable set of hand-tied, blindfolded, feebly struggling institutions, corporations, bureaucracies, professions, and academies, and briskly blows one's brains out for no sane reason.

Bruno takes a more optimistic perspective -- The True 21st Century Begins:

The year to come is best approached as a learning opportunity. It offers a golden chance to bury our dead prejudices and learn how to properly feed the living. Once we stop shaking all over and scolding Americans, we will recognize the tremendous potential this new century offers the people of the world. The sun still shines, the grass still grows, we are still human. If we stopped pretending to be puppets of an invisible hand, we would not fret over the loss of the 20th century's strings. We might see that life is sweet.

The year ahead is not already set in stone. There are divergent forces at work, and we still have a role in shaping what kind of outcomes we see.

• Press the Reset: Wired reports that NATO is looking for a simulation system able to model the "Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information (PMESII) domains" in Afghanistan -- essentially, a SimAfghanistan.

The Wired report has the usual assortment of skeptical and incredulous replies, with nobody really making the point that the goal of a sim like this shouldn't be to create a mirror Afghanistan, but to have a tool to uncover hidden interactions and unanticipated consequences of strategies. In short, a sim like this won't tell you what will happen, but could be useful for showing what might happen that you didn't expect to see.

• The (News)Paperless Society: I had a chance to sit down with some independent press folks the other night to talk about the future of media, and their conclusions were grim. In this case, I'm something of a catastrophic optimist: I think that the global media, American in particular, will crater and come close to death, but that something wonderful will emerge from that crisis.

One interesting data point along the way, indicative of both the fall and (potential) rise: tech economy insiders, looking at the numbers, now claim that for less than the New York Times pays in a year for print and distribution of its papers, it could give a Kindle electronic book reader to every one of its subscribers and quite a few of its newsstand readers.

That's indicative of more how insane the costs are for print than how cheap e-book readers are; as Ars Technica's John Siracusa writes, we still haven't seen the e-book revolution, and are nowhere near seeing the technology's true impact and importance.

• Mother Should I Build the Wall? The Gaia hypothesis argues that the Earth's systems are generally homeostatic, driving towards balance and avoidance of disruption. From that perspective, we're better off trying to minimize our footprints as much as possible, so as to allow natural processes to work as they should. As a model for behavior, it's lovely, inspiring, and quite possibly completely wrong.

Paleontologist Peter Ward, who specializes in the study of mass extinction events, argues that the Earth's systems tend instead to drive towards catastrophe, with runaway processes repeatedly bringing the planet to the brink of total extinction. And here's the twist: life itself is one of the major drivers of planetary catastrophism. Not just humans, but all life, especially microbial life which has, over the past 4 billion years or so, repeatedly covered the planet with poisonous gases and altered the climate enough to cover the planet with ice. Ward calls his alternative model the "Medea hypothesis," after the character in the play by Euripedes who kills her own children as vengeance against their father.

Rather than homeostasis, Ward argues that the Earth goes through boom-bust cycles, and that environmental feedbacks tend to make disruptions worse rather than bringing them back into balance. Although Ward admits that the full-blown Medea hypothesis is as exaggerated as the Gaia hypothesis -- and that Earth's history has both homeostatic and heterostatic processes -- he believes that the Medea perspective is an important, and under-represented, point of view.

Ward is right to say that most environmental arguments are based on the belief that "leave nature alone and we'll be okay." But what if we're wrong? Geological history is filled with mass extinction events. Humans are causing a few of their own -- but we may be the first species in this planet's history able to prevent them, too.

January 27, 2009

Topsight: January 27, 2009

Okay, I gotta close these tabs...

• Robots!: BoingBoing points to a chart at IEEE Spectrum showing the number of industrial robots per manufacturing worker. Top of the list: Japan, naturally, at 295 robots per 10,000 workers. Singapore is second at 169, and the US has a meagre 85 per 10K. All interesting stuff, to be sure, but I'd love to see a more general robots per person figure, including little devices like Roombas and Pleos. That'll be a fun number to watch over the next decade or two.

• Filter This: One of the posters at Near Future Laboratory -- I believe it was Julian Bleecker -- just eviscerates the prospectus for an upcoming conference on "Pervasive Advertising." Beautifully done.

There’s really not much more of an end game for pervasive advertising than that of the extrapolation of today’s conditions as in the remarkable design fiction of Spielberg’s visual rendering of P.K. Dick’s “Minority Report”. The assemblage of participants in the world of advertising is optimized for itself, which is well-greased linkages between me, my “interests” (to the extent these translate into commerce) and those who have something to gain in economic terms from selling me my interests. It’s optimized to leverage the pervasively networked, databased world and this can only lead to an intensely uninspired, technically awesome, intrusive and annoying world.

He also offers a hundred bucks to the first person to come up with a compelling version of an economically-vibrant world without advertising.

• Crooked Charlie: Charlie Stross is now engaged in an extended conversation over at Crooked Timber, chatting about his books -- and the ideas and scenarios they present -- with folks like Ken Macleod, Brad DeLong, and Paul Krugman. Yeah, that Paul Krugman.

So far, we have discussions of development economics, the rights of robots, and the question of what would the onset of a singularity really look like...

November 12, 2008

Wednesday Topsight, November 12, 2008

Tick tick ticking in my head.

Nature Does Geo: Nature's blog offers a handy chart comparing the costs and uncertainties surrounding the various commonly-discussed forms of geoengineering. Clip & save!

(Note: More bars="better," not necessarily "more of this.")

• Score One for Vernor: Augmented Reality goggles are so twen-cen. For real augmentation, go for the contact lenses. University of Washington engineers have come up with a key precursor technology: contact lenses with integrated circuitry. Vernor Vinge included them in his novel Rainbows End, and they make a lot of sense. If you don't mind sticking something into your eyes on a regular basis, I suppose.

• PAC DOGS: It's been mentioned by a few other folks, so it's probably not news for most of you, but: Pentagon researchers want to deploy robots in packs in order to "search for and detect a non-cooperative human."

Another commentator often in the news for his views on military robot autonomy is Noel Sharkey, an AI and robotics engineer at the University of Sheffield. He says he can understand why the military want such technology, but also worries it will be used irresponsibly.
    "This is a clear step towards one of the main goals of the US Army's Future Combat Systems project, which aims to make a single soldier the nexus for a large scale robot attack. Independently, ground and aerial robots have been tested together and once the bits are joined, there will be a robot force under command of a single soldier with potentially dire consequences for innocents around the corner."

So, robots that hunt down "non-cooperative humans" at the behest of their human master. Or perhaps the robots are simply the extension of the human-technology ecosystem, expanding the reach and capacities of the human.

This is right out of Transhuman Space, by the way.

• Not Quite a Forest: You have 61 trees on this planet. Please don't lose them.

October 8, 2008

More Quick Links

GCR.04.pngTired & busy with Superstruct. But check these out:

• We're Doomed! DOOOOOMED! Hey, want to see six seven (see comments) middle-aged white guys talk about the end of the world? You're in luck!

Building A Resilient Civilization

A day-long seminar on threats to the future of humanity, natural and man-made, and the pro-active steps we can take to reduce these risks and build a more resilient civilization. [...]


  • Nick Bostrom Ph.D., Director, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University
  • Jamais Cascio, research affiliate, Institute for the Future
  • James J. Hughes Ph.D., Exec. Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
  • Mike Treder, Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Associate. Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
  • William Potter Ph.D., Director, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
  • I was tempted to use "just some guy" as my title, but thought it too ostentatious.

    It's not free -- $100 before November 1, $150 afterwards -- but just how often do you get to talk about the end of all things and have people nod and say "hmmmmm" at your insights?

    • Needed: Chickpea Rights Management: Israel and Lebanon are in a war of words over who "owns" hummus and felafel as indigenous foods, Foreign Policy reports. Lebanon's claim that it owns the copyright to the two dishes is based on a 2005 European Court of Justice decision to give Greece a monopoly over feta cheese. Seriously.

    • This Means You: Stop Global Warming is a new blog authored by my friend and former WorldChanger Emily Gertz. It's intended as a source for global warming and climate news, and isn't afraid to get into the politics of the situation.

    • A Network, not an Extension: My friend and colleague Stowe Boyd offers a provocative post on his /Message blog today -- The Now Web: Not Now, Or Not Yet?. Here's a sampling:

    Time would be the reason most of us would cite for our online invisibility. But I think that there's something more.

    For lack of a better phrase, I'll call it the "alienation" of social media. To integrate social media into your daily life you need to project yourself into it. You need to be able to live in a kind of time that's very different from the time of the everyday. You need to be able to pay attention without bankrupting your focus and concentration, need to be able to sustain high levels of availability to a world that's neither "here" nor "there," again, without dissociating from the here and now.

    Lots to ponder.

    • Bruuuuuuce: Nebula Awards site interviews Bruce Sterling. Bruce is always worth checking out.

    Electronic vs Print publishing - any thoughts on the matter?

    You should talk to my colleagues in newspapers. If you can find any newspapers left.

    Maybe those guys should be talking about catastrophic risks.

    September 30, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, September 30, 2008

    walmerica.pngNew site logo -- what do you think?

    • Spam spam spam spam: C Sven Johnson has a post up today at Futurismic that's definitely worth a look: When 3D Spam Got Old. It actually takes place in the Superstruct future, but does a good job of describing what the world looks like when spammers get into your home fabber.

    I can remember the first “fab spam” outbreak like it was yesterday.

    Ever walk through a field and come out on the other end with burrs clinging to your clothes? Well, imagine something like those little burrs spilling out of your home fabber. Embedding themselves in the shag carpet. Attaching to an angry cat. Perforating your foot.

    If you bothered to look closely, you might even have seen the maker’s mark … right beneath the words “Firewall Protection Software” or “Network Security Services”.

    In a constantly-networked world, the most powerful decision you make is to shut off the connection.

    • It's Alive! Alive!: Take a look at this map of the growth of Walmart across the US, from 1962 to 2007. It's the most powerful argument I've yet seen for treating the study of markets as a form of epidemiology. It's a flash animation, so give it a minute.

    Walmart's dominance rests on three key factors: cheap oil; cheap labor; and limited transparency. All three of these factors have been called into question, and at least two are very likely to go away in the near future (cheap oil & limited transparency). Cheap labor may take a bit longer, but it's probably not long for the world, at least priced in dollars.

    Of course, the fabbers referenced above may end up being the final coffin-nail for companies like Walmart.

    I wonder what the map of this giant's collapse will look like.

    • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Well, not yet, but with the north pole turning into a big pond, Santa & company will be looking for new digs. Where better than Mars, where the Phoenix lander has now detected the presence of snow falling in the thin air.

    A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft’s landing site, the researchers reported. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

    “Nothing like this” has been found before on Mars, said Jim Whiteway of York University, Toronto, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix. “We’ll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground.” No photographs were taken of the purported snow.

    Mars Phoenix is at the planet's south pole, and the long Martian summer has now turned to autumn. It's likely that the lander will go quiet before conditions would allow snowfall closer to the ground.

    September 18, 2008

    A Few Quick LInks

    Nothing of any particular depth, but all worth a glance:

    You Can't Destroy the Earth. Really. Not even with a Death Star.

    • Prediction Markets as Futurism? Eh, not so much.

    Petabyte-scale Climate Modeling. GEAS, here we come.

    Not a supernova. Not a star. What is it? (Here's the science.)

    Here's my panel at UX week.

    • The latest appearance of the Cheeseburger Footprint? Fox News.

    Obama Suddenly Panicked After Gazing Too Far Into the Future

    August 26, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, August 26, 2008

    Lots of stuff, some of which I hope to get back to in more detail.

    • Crowd (Re)Sourcing: is a new bottom-up journalism site with a novel funding model: community members pool their money to pay journalists to go after a particular topic. That story then shows up on the site, and is pushed to various local media outlets as appropriate.

    This isn't a model for breaking-news journalism, but rather for the deeper investigative stuff that blogs tend not to cover so well, and traditional media seems to have largely given up on. Stories underway include the problematic role of ethanol in California (fully-funded), fact-checking San Francisco political claims (almost there), and the connection between SF Bay Area cement kilns and global warming. I'll give you one guess as to where is headquartered.

    Here's the bigger drawback, though: it's not up yet. There's a blog, and a wiki, and even a Flickr stream of design ideas, but the real site, with real content, won't be up until the Fall.

    Worth bookmarking now, though.

    • Go North, Young Cow: Cattle, deer, and other grazing animals apparently tend to align themselves along a north-south axis when feeding. And the scientists who reported on this phenomenon, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used Google Earth to do their research.

    Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, has mainly studied the magnetic sense of mole rats - African animals that live in underground tunnels.

    "We were wondering if larger animals also have this magnetic sense," she told BBC News. [...] The researchers surveyed Google Earth images of 8,510 grazing and resting cattle in 308 pasture plains across the globe.

    "Sometimes it took hours and hours to find some pictures with good resolution," said Dr Begall.

    The scientists were unable to distinguish between the head and rear of the cattle, but could tell that the animals tended to face either north or south.

    Their study ruled out the possibility that the Sun position or wind direction were major influences on the orientation of the cattle.

    I'm not sure which is more notable: that cattle have a magnetic sense, or that real scientists writing for a real science journal did their research by looking at Google Earth.

    • Blame It On the Oil: Andrew Leonard's How the World Works just posted a compelling new argument as to why the status of women in some Islamic countries remains so abysmal: oil. He quotes UCLA's Michael Ross at length; Ross observes that high oil prices make it cheaper to import goods rather than produce for export, reducing the number of low-end production jobs where women historically first make economic (then political) connections.

    Ross (PDF), quoted by Leonard:

    Oil production affects gender relations by reducing the presence of women in the labor force. The failure of women to join the nonagricultural labor force has profound social consequences: it leads to higher fertility rates, less education for girls, and less female influence within the family. It also has far-reaching political consequences: when fewer women work outside the home, they are less likely to exchange information and overcome collective action problems; less likely to mobilize politically, and to lobby for expanded rights; and less likely to gain representation in government. This leaves oil-producing states with atypically strong patriarchal cultures and political institutions.

    Smart stuff. One of the places it makes me think about, though, is China. Young women moving from the countryside into the cities have over the past couple of decades found work in the big factories assembling consumer goods (that some of the women then move from the factories to the nearby brothels to get a better wage should also be noted). Has the export-driven structure of the Chinese economy led to the development of a stronger civil society, led by women?

    • Sharks and Fishes: Over at The Oil Drum, Jeff Vail observes that the pattern of gas prices and oil prices bears a very strong resemblance to classic models of predator-prey population cycles.

    It's not intended as anything more than an analogy, but like all good analogies, it serves as a catalyst for new perspectives.

    . The importance of this analogy is that it may help us to avoid certain policy mistakes (or at least be aware of them). When the oscillations of price and demand/production are superimposed on top of geological depletion and geopolitical feedback loops, the resulting volatility effectively masks the underlying fundamentals [...]. This presents several problems, each of which may be more avoidable if the medium-term fluctuations in price, production, and demand are seen as oscillations on top of a very worrying underlying trend of peak oil.

    I like seeing this kind of analysis, simply because it's exactly the kind of work that tends to kick-start new ideas.

    (Section title reference.)

    • The Uncanny Hype Cycle:

    What does this chart:


    ...have to do with this chart:


    (Click image for larger version)

    Nothing, ostensibly, but I couldn't help but notice a real similarity in form between the Hype Cycle and the Uncanny Valley. They're not identical, of course; for one thing, in the Gardner "Hype Cycle," technology is somehow more visible when it's still in development (but talked about) than when it's actually in mainstream use. Still, it's something that makes me go hmm.

    • Safer Orbital Mechanics: Finally, how do you deal with a problem like a possible asteroid strike? Wrap it for safety. That's the proposal of Australian engineering student Mary D'Souza for preventing a kinetic unpleasantness with asteroid Apophis, now scheduled for a close-approach in 2029 and potentially giving the Earth a good whack in 2036. She argues that wrapping the 270-meter asteroid with a reflective sheet (like Mylar) would make it so that reflected sunlight changes its orbit ever-so-slightly. Do something like this early enough, and an ever-so-slight shift is enough to make the asteroid miss us by quite a bit.

    Works for me.

    August 18, 2008

    Monday Topsight, August 18, 2008

    Special Future of War edition: robots, lasers, brain weapons, and a little thing called "strategic thinking."

    • 174th Robot Wing: The 174th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force has flown its last mission, and has been replaced by an all-RPV (Remote Piloted Vehicle) squad. The MQ-9 "Reaper" is a real combat aircraft, carrying literally a ton of bombs; it also can stay in operation for over 14 hours straight, uses far less fuel and costs two-thirds less than the F16s it replaces.

    Put simply, It's cheaper, more effective, and safer (for pilots) to use Reapers (or similar aircraft) for a lot of the ground support work. Fighters are still needed to keep the skies clear of enemy aircraft, although Reapers are better suited for the dangerous work of destroying enemy air defenses. But for fighting irregulars, the Reaper is king.

    It's unclear how much longer the superiority of fighters for air-to-air combat will last, especially if you can get three Reapers in the air for the cost of one Falcon.

    These aren't true robots, of course -- they're remote vehicles, with human operators on the ground with radio controls. This means that sticky questions about autonomous systems pulling the trigger on human targets still remain on the horizon. It also means that we'll probably see even more effort put into figuring ways to jam or take over the radio controls.

    Finally, it's not hard to imagine that such vehicles would be more likely to be used in situations which would previously have been avoided in order to not put human pilots in danger.

    • ZZZZZZZZZAP!: Question is, how long until these remotely-piloted vehicles get outfitted with high-energy lasers for long-distance pinpoint attacks? Right now, the Advanced Tactical Laser system requires a big old C130 cargo aircraft. But -- if it works the way the Air Force claims (always a big if) -- it really does change the nature of tactical conflict.

    The accuracy of this weapon is little short of supernatural. They claim that the pinpoint precision can make it lethal or non-lethal at will. For example, they say it can either destroy a vehicle completely, or just damage the tires to immobilize it. The illustration shows a theoretical 26-second engagement in which the beam deftly destroys "32 tires, 11 Antennae, 3 Missile Launchers, 11 EO devices, 4 Mortars, 5 Machine Guns" -- while avoiding harming a truckload of refugees and the soldiers guarding them.

    Over at New Scientist, David Hambling explores some of the implications of a system like this. Since the ATL can "deliver the heat of a blowtorch with a range of 20 kilometers," it's not hard to imagine its use for covert operations. With a laser, there are no munition fragments to identify what hit the target, only an "...instantaneous burst-combustion of insurgent clothing, a rapid death through violent trauma, and more probably a morbid combination of both."

    ("It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.")

    • Braaaaiinnnnnssssss: Mind bombs and lie disruptors and super-soldiers, oh my. The Guardian gives us a peek at the future of war, and this time, it's heavily medicated.

    On the battlefield, bullets may be replaced with "pharmacological land mines" that release drugs to incapacitate soldiers on contact, while scanners and other electronic devices could be developed to identify suspects from their brain activity and even disrupt their ability to tell lies when questioned... Drugs could also be used to enhance the performance of military personnel.

    Of course, the first would be restricted by existing chemical weapons treaties -- and while we've seen in recent years that treaties are only as good as the people willing to abide by them, it is an issue -- and the second is one of those "real soon now" developments that remains perpetually on the horizon. As for the last one, the drug-enhanced soldiers, get in line: The military will be following the commercial market, not leading it.

    • Whoops. Our Mistake: Of course, this all assumes that war has a future. At least in some cases, it really is the worst option, at least according to those crazy left-wingers at the RAND corporation:

    The comprehensive study analyzes 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, drawing from a terrorism database maintained by RAND and the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The most common way that terrorist groups end -- 43 percent -- was via a transition to the political process. However, the possibility of a political solution is more likely if the group has narrow goals, rather than a broad, sweeping agenda like al Qaida possesses.

    The second most common way that terrorist groups end -- 40 percent -- was through police and intelligence services either apprehending or killing the key leaders of these groups. Policing is especially effective in dealing with terrorists because police have a permanent presence in cities that enables them to efficiently gather information, Jones said.

    Military force was effective in only 7 percent of the cases examined; in most instances, military force is too blunt an instrument to be successful against terrorist groups, although it can be useful for quelling insurgencies in which the terrorist groups are large, well-armed and well-organized, according to researchers. In a number of cases, the groups end because they become splintered, with members joining other groups or forming new factions. Terrorist groups achieved victory in only 10 percent of the cases studied.

    The key point of comparison here: a terrorist group is more likely to achieve its desired goals than to be put down by military force.

    You can download the research monograph for free as a PDF, or buy it in paperback.

    July 29, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, July 29, 2008

    (Especially terse edition)

    • Feel the Power of the Dark Side: New term of the week: "Dark Liquidity." This is the practice of trading large quantities of stocks with as little public notice as possible, in order to avoid having the trade shift the markets. That this practice exists is a bit discomfiting, but what's even more fun is the emergence of something of an arms race between dark liquidity trading systems (so-called "dark pools") and groups trying to gather market intelligence. New Scientist elaborates:

    In an effort to find out what's floating in the dark pool, so-called "statistical arbitrage" firms place small orders to probe how much stock a pool conceals, and its going price. [...] Instinet's NightHawk system uses probabilistic analysis to create what Balarkas calls "thermal maps" of where the dark stuff is. For any firm to reveal precisely how these algorithms work would amount to commercial suicide, he says. But what works in the favour of these dark aggregators is that their orders are legitimate, so they can afford to probe for larger amounts of stock; statistical arbitrage firms, who may not actually be interested in bulk buying, need to minimise their expenditures.

    Dark aggregators -- the ones assembling dark pool trades -- are in turn changing the way they assemble and communicate the trades, in order to spoof or fool the analysts.

    • China's Lament: I occasionally get asked as to why I'm not inclined to see China as the leading international player in this century. Some of this is based on work I've done for various clients, but an article in the Washington Post this past week offers a good summary of some of my reasons.

    A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness details some of the environmental, economic and (especially) demographic problems facing China. One quote in particular spells out the depth of the problem.

    When my family and I left China in 2004, we moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States. No sooner had we set foot in southern California than my son's asthma attacks and chronic chest infections -- so worryingly frequent in Beijing -- stopped. When people asked me why we'd moved to L.A., I started joking, "For the air."

    Worth a read.

    • Future Web: On Friday, August 15, I'll be on a panel at Adaptive Path's UX Week event, speaking about the future of the web browser. The panel will be based in part on work I did with Adaptive Path last year on this very subject. Bonus: later that afternoon, Bruce Sterling will be giving the closing keynote for the event.

    July 21, 2008

    Monday Topsight, July 21, 2008


    • Green Acres, Now With Penthouse View: Vertical farms finally make the move from cybergreen fantasy to the pages of the New York Times. The logic is seductive: urban towers, filled not with more offices and apartments, but with food crops.

    Dr. Despommier estimates that it would cost $20 million to $30 million to make a prototype of a vertical farm, but hundreds of millions to build one of the 30-story towers that he suggests could feed 50,000 people. “I’m viewed as kind of an outlier because it’s kind of a crazy idea,” Dr. Despommier, 68, said with a chuckle. “You’d think these are mythological creatures.” [...]

    “If I were to set myself as a certifier of vertical farms, I would begin with security,” he said. “How do you keep insects and bacteria from invading your crops?” He says growing food in climate-controlled skyscrapers would also protect against hail and other weather-related hazards, ensuring a higher quality food supply for a city, without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

    Vertical farms offer a nice way of sidestepping a big urban density problem (that is, how does a city feed itself without relying on hundreds of square miles of farmland?), and have the (to me) right balance of futurosity and plausibility.

    It occurs to me, though, that a variant of the vertical farms might work well for the hollowed-out suburbs, too: how much would it cost to convert a McMansion to allow it to grow food?

    • Viva, Provigil!: Are people still going on about doping in sports? That's so last year. The big new panic-trigger is doping in the workplace -- not with steroids, but with cognitive-modification drugs. Tech Crunch, as close to a bellwether of Silicon Valley angst as you can get, lets us know that entrepreneurs have come to find drugs like modafinil (sold under the brand name Provigil) can give them a professional edge. The tone is that of condemnation, of course, but at the same time implicitly letting it be known that everybody's doing it, and if you're not, you're probably falling behind.

    We're seeing the same thing happen with Adderal and Ritalin in high school and college, apparently, and I wouldn't be shocked to see that practice carry over more and more into the professional world.

    But here's where this all gets tricky for me: I have a prescription for Provigil, as it is legally available for dealing with "shift work sleep disorder," which includes jet lag. And it works, at least for me. I've gone as long as nearly 40 hours without sleep while traveling internationally, in meetings where I had to be able to perform at a decent level. No dozing off, no weird hallucinations from lack of sleep, just mental clarity and alertness. Provigil wears off after about six hours, and doesn't interfere with normal sleep. Go me.

    This isn't meant as an endorsement, only an observation that (a) yes, these kinds of cognitive modification drugs are in the workplace already, and (b) it's a lot more complex than a simple "doping is illegal and/or bad!"


    • Uh Oh: Chris Mooney, author of (among others) Storm World, notes that the early days of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season is looking a lot more like the deadly 2005 season than the comparatively mild 2006 and 2007 seasons.

    In particular, the finally dissipated Hurricane Bertha set all manner of records, most of them associated with longevity and strength so early in the season. That includes becoming the longest lived Atlantic hurricane ever recorded in July, and the third strongest ever recorded in that month (and sixth strongest overall among pre-August hurricanes).

    And now we're looking at a likely Hurricane Dolly, which will get the chance to churn over the extremely warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall somewhere (presumably) along the Mexico or Texas Gulf coast.

    Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center has just begun to track a strong tropical wave--much like the precursor to Bertha--that is emerging off of the African Coast. The strongest Atlantic hurricanes, dubbed Cape Verde-type storms, generally form from such waves--and generally do so later in the season. But that's not the case in 2008.

    The National Hurricane Center is your best bet for rapidly-updated information on the status of Atlantic and Pacific storms near North America. They have RSS feeds for all of their reports, and ScienceNewsBlog pushes NHC alerts out via Twitter.

    • Got a Spare $60 Million?: My old WorldChanging colleague, Vinay Gupta, has a post on his "Bucky-Gandhi Design Institution" blog entitled "How to fix the developing world for sixty million dollars," and it makes for fascinating reading. It's a lengthy argument, but it boils down to this:

    So, here’s what I’m going to spend your notional sixty mil on: television programs for farmers and people who live in slums. I’m going to blow the whole lot on making 200 hours of science telly, and giving them away. [...]

    But the bulk of this science telly for farmers is the basics of what you need to thrive in the developing world, in four major categories

  • how to grow more food?
  • how to stay alive? (water, sanitation, basic medicine)
  • what is happening in the rest of the world? (physical and economic geography, including things like futures markets)
  • what is happening here? (where did television come from? what’s a computer? what’s an antibiotic? what’s science? why did things start to change, what does it mean, and where will it end?)
  • What I love about Vinay's proposal is that it's not just the "teach a person to fish" school of changing the world -- it goes to the level of "teach a person about ecosystems, nutrition and tools, so that if fishing doesn't work out, they'll be able to figure out what to do as an alternative." Yeah, it's more complex, but the near-term stuff is also there -- but Vinay doesn't just leave it there.

    Good reading, and good work, sir.

    • Heads Down: I've been trying to blog more lately (and without quite as much "here's the talk/interview I did" content), but I'm looking at a pretty intense next few weeks. Lots of work on Superstruct, of course, but also a few big writing jobs -- including a major piece for the Atlantic Monthly. I'll probably be going back to 1-2/week mode for awhile.

    June 30, 2008

    Monday Topsight, June 30, 2008

    floodedlondon.jpg• Flooded London: Media designers Squint/Opera have come up with a project they call "Flooded London: 2090," a set of illustrations of London in a late global warming world. As a piece of anticipatory illustration, it's startlingly idyllic -- pictures of a city that has gone past the crisis stage, to a "life goes on" mode for the survivors. To be sure, it's not a happy scenario -- one can only imagine how many millions of people would have perished to get to this point -- but it does illustrate just how resilient humankind can be.

    I do have to admit, though, that the first thing I thought when I saw them was that these were paintings of the world of Freak Angels.

    • Happy Sky-is-Falling Day!: One hundred years ago today the Earth saw its last major asteroid strike. The Tunguska event is no doubt familiar to old X-Files fans, but it really is one of those moments that could have changed everything. The current estimates for the size of the Tunguska blast range from five to 15 megatons, the latter being a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The rock itself -- which exploded a few kilometers above the ground, not actually hitting -- was probably a few tens of meters in diameter. Just a little guy, really.

    The asteroid strike happened way out in the middle of Nowhereski, Siberia. If it had happened near a populated zone, it would likely still be considered the worst natural disaster in human history -- and we would have had a much more sophisticated asteroid-hunting system in place by now.

    • Schizmatrix Reloaded: The Anglican Church -- generally known as the Episcopal church in the US, and the Church of England in, well, England -- faces a growing likelihood of a full-blown schism between modernists and traditionalists over the subject of ordainment of female and gay ministers, and a broader acceptance of homosexuality. A gathering last week in Jerusalem of over a thousand representatives of Anglican churches denounced the gay-acceptant policies of the Anglican leadership, and sought to create a new "power bloc" within the church community representing the traditionalists.

    What's particularly notable about this incipient split is its geographic distribution. The vast majority of participants in the Jerusalem gathering came from Anglican churches in Africa, South Asia, South America and Australia. The language used has a strong anti-colonialist tenor:

    They depicted their efforts as the culmination of an anti-colonial struggle against the church’s seat of power in Great Britain, whose missionaries first brought Anglican Christianity to the developing world.

    The conservatives say many of the descendants of those Anglican missionaries in Britain and North America are now following what they call a “false gospel” that allows a malleable, liberal interpretation of Scripture. [...]

    The conservatives also challenged the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The current archbishop, Rowan Williams, has been a disappointment to conservatives, because he did not discipline the liberal North Americans or engineer their eviction. The Archbishop of Canterbury historically has not had the power to decree policy in the Communion, but in the past he determined which churches belonged to the Communion.

    The conservatives’ statement said that although they acknowledged Canterbury’s historic position, they did not accept the idea “that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

    It's unlikely that the North American Anglican churches will change to suit the desires of the traditionalist churches in the global south; there's a clear shift towards broader acceptance of homosexuality in the US and Canada. Although the Jerusalem group says that they are not seeking a schism, such a result seems inevitable. One critical question is whether either faction will end up strengthened by the development.

    • Cyborg Rights: The Boston Globe has a profile of MIT's Hugh Herr, a specialist in the development of prosthetic limbs. As is typical for current articles about prosthetics, sprint Oskar Pistorius makes an appearance. Herr makes an astute observation about the cultural tension regarding prosthetics and the potential for super-enabled disabled:

    Twenty years ago, he was accused of cheating in competitive rock climbing; he had competed wearing prosthetic legs he had designed for the sport. "With Oscar, it was like, 'Here we go again,' " says Herr, 43. He is bemused by the fact that when amputees run or climb more slowly than "intact-leg competitors," their athletic displays are considered courageous. But as soon as amputees prove they can actually compete with able-bodied athletes, accusations of cheating follow, he says.

    This seems likely to be a recurring theme as augmentation technologies and prosthetic enhancements move from the "good enough" to the "better-than-normal" level, and is a trend worth watching.

    (Thanks, Rebecca!)

    June 17, 2008

    Playing Catch-Up

    Okay, back from DC and a long weekend trip away. Rested and ready, as it were. Here are a few items piled up in the old Intertube drift net. More serious stuff coming.


    • My Old Workplace: Stephen Colbert discusses a scenario report from Global Business Network, describing the document in this way:

    The Future of Arctic Marine Navigation in Mid-Century, written by Global Business Network, the world leader in vague, uninspired names for organizations. [...] It’s like a futuristic disaster movie where only the rich guys survive. Mad Max meets Wall Street … on ice!

    Yep, that's GBN.

    • Artifact from a Win Scenario: It's all-too-easy to come up with scenarios and narratives outlining just how badly things are falling apart, the center is no longer holding, and mere anarchy is getting ready to be loosed upon the world. Positive futures, "win scenarios" as I sometimes call them, can be much harder to imagine. That's why this page, which offers a vision of what a Google News page would look like in a wonderful near future, is so terrific.


    Headlines include "A New Era Dawns for China and Tibet," "Long-awaited spray-on solar coating now available," even "Music publishers: DRM has been unprofitable". Nearly all of the headlines offer at least plausible stories, with some being clearly based on work already underway. The author ("Andrea") created the page in 2007 as a way of dealing with relentlessly depressing news.

    What's notable about this page is that we read it and immediately see it as a fake; if someone had mocked up a Google News page with nothing but horrible news, we'd be much more likely to accept it as true.

    So, my question: why? Is it because the media culture focuses on negative stories? ("If it bleeds, it leads!") Is it because we're acculturated to expect negative outcomes? (And if so, why?) Or is it because our brains are wired to pay the most attention to threats, out of sheer survival instinct? (And if so, how do we adapt around that?)

    • My New Motto: "I am aware of all internet traditions."

    June 3, 2008

    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."

    May 13, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, May 13, 2008

    Pulling together some stories I've had in the queue...

    Mapping the Diseasome: The diseasome is a new way of looking at disease -- as a map of genetically-interrelated conditions. This model has already led to new insights into the nature of human disease.

    Scientists are finding that two tumors that arise in the same part of the body and look the same on a pathologist’s slide might be quite different in terms of what is occurring at the gene and protein level. Certain breast cancers are already being treated differently from others because of genetic markers like estrogen receptor and Her2, and also more complicated patterns of genetic activity.

    “In the not too distant future, we will think about these diseases based on the molecular pathways that are aberrant, rather than the anatomical origin of the tumor,” said Dr. Todd Golub, director of the cancer program at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. [...]

    The research will also improve understanding of the causes of disease and of the functions of particular genes. For instance, two genes have recently been found to influence the risk of both diabetes and prostate cancer.

    Click the image below for the New York Times' interactive graphic.


    I find this model compelling for a few reasons. The first is aesthetic -- I like maps. I'm seduced by the heady concept of cartographic epidemiology. The second is that I like to see new perspectives on traditional paradigms -- this often results in breakthrough insights. Lastly, it's a new word to play with.

    (Via Book of Joe)

    Promises in the Air: If this is true, and can be demonstrated, it's good news indeed:

    Swift Enterprises Ltd. has unveiled a new patented synthetic hydrocarbon general aviation fuel—SwiftFuel—that is produced from biomass.

    SwiftFuel meets or exceeds the standards for aviation fuel as verified by nationally recognized laboratories, said co-founder John Rusek, a professor in Purdue University’s School of Astronautics and Aeronautics Engineering and research director for Swift. Rusek said the fuel can provide an effective range (distance between refueling) greater than petroleum while its projected cost is half that of the current petroleum manufacturing cost.

    General aviation means small prop planes, not jetliners, but SwiftFuel claims that they may be able to modify the results to meet commercial aviation needs.

    As with all breakthrough fuel news, it needs to be taken with a pound of salt, and questions remain about the biomass sources and production needs. However, if it works, and if they can make it work for commercial jets, it will radically change the carbon footprint calculus.

    Heavy Weather Redux: Bruce Sterling, green courtesy phone: the tropical storm called "Erin" from last August turned out to be something rather odd -- a storm that strengthened into something very much like a hurricane... but over Oklahoma.

    Over land, the remnants of the storm system looped up towards Oklahoma and reorganized, so much so that August 19 satellite images show Erin, its center very close to Oklahoma City, resembling an overland hurricane with an "eye" that it had never managed to develop over water. Meanwhile, the winds picked up far more than they ever had over the Gulf – reaching 50 knots sustained, 70 knot gusts – even as pressure fell as far as 995 millibars (far lower than when Erin had been an easily categorizable tropical storm).

    Now, months later, the National Hurricane Center has officially thrown up its hands and said "who knows?" The best that they can do is call it a "low"... but most low pressure zones don't kill seven people.

    Was Erin an anomaly? We'll find out in the coming summers, I presume.


    Welcome to the Ecoblogosphere: Recently, I had the startling opportunity to sit for an hour, along with a small handful of other green blogger types, chatting with the CEO/President/Chairman of Pacific Gas & Electric, the major energy company in California. The topic was, ostensibly, a new eco-energy blog to be rolled out by PG&E; in reality, we got to ask him about a wide variety of subjects, from smart meters (rolling out now, already updated to better tech than the first ones) to renewables to opposition to an energy-related proposition on the ballot. The answers didn't really go beyond what we might already have seen on the PG&E website, but I have to give them credit -- we didn't get any kind of management or pushback on the questions.

    Now, the new blog, Next100, is apparently open to the public. So far, it seems like a decent if as yet unspectacular effort, mixing new energy tech with topical enviro issues. Posting intensity is light, about once/daily, and the tone is a bit less snarky than Grist, a bit less earnest than Worldchanging, and a bit less lifestyle than Treehugger. It's notable, however, simply in that it's an effort on the part of a major energy company to engage with the blogging world. Not with press-releases (none of the front-page posts have anything to do with PG&E), not with greenwashing, but with "playing along."

    This isn't game-changing, yet, but it's a good sign. I'll be watching to see if this effort lasts.

    April 23, 2008

    Wednesday Topsight, April 23, 2008

    simearth-m.jpgEarly Bright Green: "It is when man shall have discovered the means of restocking the sea and of controlling its supplies that his "dominion over the fish" will be perfect. The power to deplete, which so far marks the utmost limit of his advance, is mere tyrrany. Dominon should embrace a more benevolent sway, and to that end no doubt the efforts of science and the might of law will presently join forces."

    From The Sea-fishing industry of England and Wales: A Popular Account of the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Ports of Those Countries F. G. Aflalo 1904

    Hegemonic Games: As the US global hegemony declines, the mainstream view is that China will move into its place. I don't think that's likely, but China will certainly rival the US as a sub-hegemonic actor. The fun's already begun, in fact, as demonstrated by Chinese soldiers patrolling Zimbabwe streets alongside Mugabe's troops:

    Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Zimbabwe's third largest city, Mutare, according to local witnesses. They were seen patrolling with Zimbabwean soldiers before and during Tuesday's ill-fated general strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). [...]

    One eyewitness, who asked not to be named, said: "We've never seen Chinese soldiers in full regalia on our streets before. The entire delegation took 80 rooms from the hotel, 10 for the Chinese and 70 for Zimbabwean soldiers."

    See also here. This is going to be messy.

    Green Games (the fun kind): Jon Lebkowsky has a piece in the Austin Chronicle entitled "The Serious Play in Saving the World," building on the South-by-Southwest panel he ran in March. It's a strong piece on the state of green gaming, and both its potential and challenges. The article focuses on Pliny Fisk, who joined me on the SXSW panel, and his efforts to find an intersection between sustainability and gaming.

    Fisk has been considering how you could use real-world data in virtual environments to model what he calls EcoBalance, the name of a board game he proposed in 2000, where "participants plan land uses at a settlement or regional scale according to the footprints required to balance natural resource supply and sync functions (i.e., natural capital) with human life support needs."

    EcoBalance could evolve to be something more than a board game via Fisk's interest in digital convergence – increasingly realistic, detailed visualizations; fatter storage and faster CPUs; growing broad adoption of personal digital systems including mobile devices; and powerful support for in-world interactivity in massively multiplayer environments like Second Life.

    As I note the quote Jon used, there has not been a better time for the emergence of a green game. In fact, I think that if the ancient planet model SimEarth could be re-compiled for current hardware, it could be a minor hit -- and a major one if the graphics & simulation code could be updated, too.

    (Apparently, SimEarth can be downloaded from -- if anyone gets it running, let me know!)

    The Global Suburb: The suburban dream spreads around the world.

    "Every year, we add 60 million urban residents on Earth," Stanilov says. "The countries most susceptible to embracing the American model are particularly those with a booming economy and an emerging class of affluent residents and consumers really eager to embrace the American lifestyles. They don't want just the house but the whole package, the three-car garage, the mall, all of that."

    For many developing nations, however, the suburban ideal is stuck in circa 1980: a sea of lookalike single-family homes and shopping malls on the edge of the city. It's a model that many Americans increasingly are rejecting.

    Suburbia is the logical result of economic growth in regions where density=squalor. System-focused enviros can't eliminate the pathologies of suburbia without both meeting the needs it satisfies and reinventing density.

    Jargon of Note: RUMINT: Rumor level intelligence.
    BOGINT — bogus intelligence
    To the Right/Left of the Boom: the time before or after a bomb detonation, as imagined on a timeline. Emergency response crews usually work to the right of the boom, i.e., afterwards; bomb disposal crews usually work to the left of the boom.

    April 15, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, April 15, 2008

    Because I'm in meetings all week...

    Going Around in Circles: What's the secret to improving fuel efficiency, cutting emissions, and saving gas money? Don't turn left. At least, that's how the UPS routing software does it. No, really:

    Time studies led UPS to discover that avoiding left-hand turns would save time, conserve fuel, reduce emissions and reduce the potential for accidents. UPS managers (who for years planned routes by physically driving each one and plotting on maps) began experimenting with their routes to see if right hand turns would increase efficiency. It worked. For decades, UPS has designed routes in a series of loops with as few left-hand turns as possible.

    Janice had a good question when I told her of this: if you're in a vehicle with auto-stop (like a hybrid or a growing number of high-mileage regular cars), how much of a difference would routing like this make?

    Sterling on Spimes: As usual, Chairman Bruce gives good rant, this time at the "Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign" conference in Potsdam at the end of March. It's about a 40 minute talk, but worth checking out.

    Bruce Sterling from Innovationsforum on Vimeo.

    Excellent new term coming from his talk: meta-medium -- a new medium that embraces a variety of ostensibly unrelated earlier media. Example: the mobile phone.

    (Paraphrasing Bruce) Mobile phones are a "meta-medium" - they eat practically everything. phone. camera. web browser. video gaming. fax. radio. gps. pedometers. barcode readers. car keys. etc.

    (Via Posthuman Blues)

    The Copyfight Moves to Space: Patents killed an off-course communications satellite last week.

    The AMC-14 comsat didn't quite make its geostationary orbit when launched in March, falling into a survivable but non-useful orbit. The owners understandably wanted to try to salvage it, given the success of earlier satellite rescues involving flinging the satellite around the moon. Bad news:

    ...a plan to salvage AMC-14 was abandoned a week ago when SES gave up in the face of patent issues relating to the lunar flyby process used to bring wayward GEO birds back to GEO Earth orbit. [...] SES is currently suing Boeing for an unrelated New Skies matter in the order of $50 million dollars - and Boeing told SES that the patent was only available if SES Americom dropped the lawsuit.

    Industry sources have told SpaceDaily that the patent is regarded as legal "trite", as basic physics has been rebranded as a "process", and that the patent wouldn't stand up to any significant level of court scrutiny and was only registered at the time as "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".

    So let me get this straight: Boeing has patented orbital mechanics?

    March 17, 2008

    It's the Business of the Future to be Dangerous

    Things to ComeThe title of this post is a quote from Alfred North Whitehead. What I like about the line is that it can be read in a couple of different ways: the role "the Future" plays in our lives is to be the danger to come, that is, to symbolize the rising challenges; and being dangerous is the "Business of the Future," i.e., risk is the industry of tomorrow. Both are likely true.

    I've had to introduce myself to a variety of audiences with some frequency lately, and the question of what job title I use remains troubling. I tend to default to "futurist," because it's requires the least explanation -- everyone knows (or think they know) what a futurist does, and what I do falls close enough to that fuzzy concept for people not to be confused by what I say. But that's a dissatisfying term, in part because there's quite a bit of baggage associated with the term (from design movements to trend-spotters), and in part because "futurist" doesn't acknowledge the connection to the present (in the way that, say, "foresight" -- with its suggestion of looking ahead while standing here -- does). Making clear that what we do today builds the world we live in tomorrow remains a critical part of my work.

    My business card says that I'm the "World-Builder-in-Chief" at Open the Future, and that feels closer, in that the mix of snark and wonder nicely sums up my attitude. But that one requires some explanation, and could still leave people feeling confused, especially if I'm not doing explicit scenario or world-building work.

    "Foresight engineer" and "paradigm engineer" -- both of which I've seen elsewhere, and toyed with for myself -- have the double drawback of (a) sounding far more techie than I'd like to imply, and (b) sounding like a play on "sanitation engineer" as the replacement title for garbage collector.

    "Tacitician" -- in that my job is to uncover the hard-to-spot threads and connections we know are there, but can't put our finger on? Too easily mistaken for "tactician."

    "Provocateur" -- I probably couldn't put that on a business card and get past Homeland Security, and (in my experience) executives have a habit of pronouncing this as "provocateer" -- like "Mousekateer."

    "Scenario planner," "scenarist," and "scenario designer" aren't bad, but I do more than scenarios in my futures work. Need something a bit broader.

    "Tomorrow Scout" -- sounds like the title of a really earnest and cheesy comic book from the 1950s. Maybe one that's recently been revived and re-imagined by Warren Ellis as being about a sullen, probably alcoholic, more than a little crazed futurist who has seen what new Hells tomorrow has in store for us, but can't get people to listen, let alone change their behavior. A Cassandra for the 21st century. No, I'm not talking about myself.

    (And as my mind wanders from this vision, I discover that there are no links for the term "Nostranomicon," a conceptual mash-up of Nostradamus and the Necronomicon. This post hereby corrects that oversight.)

    Any suggestions?

    So I'm now back home, complete with a new virus picked up from my hundreds of good friends at South-by-SouthWest. (Seriously, it's actually kind of scary how many bloggers in attendance at SXSW now report being sick. It's biological warfare against the blogosphere, I tell you.)

    Given that this last month or so has been a bit, um, stressful (hard drive crash, trip to London, horribly sick, trip to Wisconsin then Austin, sick, with my normal work continuing throughout), blogging here has suffered a bit. Let me just say that I will get back to the "The Big Picture" as soon as possible, and have a multitude of things running through my head that I need to get out onto pixels.

    February 19, 2008


    British Museum SkylightIn London, not finding much time for writing.

    The Big Picture series will resume when I get back stateside.

    Some quick links:

  • Of used futures and counterfactual clothing -- Stuart Candy, The Skeptical Futuryst is with "used futures" that we dress the indigent beneficiaries of these sports companies' generosity. They are literally clothed in possibilities, however trivial, discarded by the wealthy West.

    And so, in the wake of the recent Super Bowl result, we now have the following vivid, curious image; poor children in Third World countries running around clad in counterfactual souvenir apparel.

  • LIFT ‘08: Genevieve Bell and the “Arms race of Digital Deception” -- Michele Bowman, Fringehog

    If lies and secrets abound in the “real” world, online they positively flourish. Bell says lies about location, context, intent and identity (physical appearance, aspirations, demography, status and standing) are all possible, sometimes even required, in the context of our digital lives. [...] The question is: are information/communication technologies (and related applications and services) succeeding in part because they facilitate our lying ways? Or are our lies and secrets are necessary to keep us ‘safe’?

  • New materials can selectively capture CO2, scientists say -- CBC News

    The team of scientists created 25 ZIF ["zeolitic imidazolate frameworks"] crystal structures in a laboratory, three of which showed a particular affinity for capturing carbon dioxide. The highly porous crystals also had what the researchers called "extraordinary capacity for storing CO2": one litre of the crystals could store about 83 litres of CO2.

  • My talk at the Metaverse Roadmap II conference -- live via Interwebs:

    They made a recording, but no word yet on where or when it will be found.

    (Photo: "Jamais Cascio pulls a 1984" by Jerry Paffendorf)

  • February 1, 2008


    Here's a handy widget: Daylife Labs offers up a tool to build custom topic indexes, based on its own collection of thousands of RSS feeds from news sites and blogs. These Flash widgets track changes in the appearance of various terms in this database, offering a basic version of a personalized information topsight tool. They're easy to make -- here's one I whipped up quickly:

    The widgets can hold up to 15 different search terms, and the search engine logic is decent (including AND/OR/NOT, wildcards, and title-only searches). Here's an OtF technology widget:

    Seems like a fun tool.

    (Thanks, Violet Blue)

    January 24, 2008

    Data Points: Urban Futures

    Coastal Impact: What Does Sea Level Rise Look Like?: Architecture2030 gives us a taste of what bad case global warming means for coastal cities in the United States.


    Leaving Home: For a growing number of people, the optimal response to collapsing home value is simply to mail the keys to the bank and walk away.

    I calculated that somewhere between 10 million and 20 million U.S. homeowners will owe more on their homes, than their homes will be worth, over the next couple of years.

    As I've noted before, one of the greatest fears for lenders (and investors in mortgage backed securities) is that it will become socially acceptable for upside down middle class Americans to walk away from their homes. These are homeowners with the "capacity to pay, but have basically just decided not to".

    Wachovia is seeing that happen now. Imagine what will happen as house prices fall this year and next.

    Hub2: Prototyping New Urban Environments in Virtual Worlds: Emerson College professor Eric Gordon uses Second Life for "rapid urban prototyping," engaging both designers and stakeholders. (Via Fringehog)

    Hub2 employs emerging 3D virtual world technologies to enhance community engagement in the urban planning process. It will enhance the city's current community outreach methods by providing a deeper engagement with the design process and greater accessibility to good ideas emerging from within the community.

    Hub2 will build a virtual representation of the Greenway to enable non-technical people to design public spaces together. Recent projects like WebLab’s “Listening to the City” dialogues in New York and the Penn’s Landing Forums in Philadelphia all have sought to engage communities in their public spaces. These efforts have shown how to bring together diverse individuals to talk about their shared spaces in an asynchronous web format. The unique contribution of Hub2 is using 3D virtual worlds as a new “language” for having these conversations. Hub2 enables people to communicate their passion for public spaces in a collaborative setting. Participants don’t just talk through ideas – they build their vision in a realistic 3D world. Unlike a 2D or 3D representation, a 3D virtual world allows individuals to inhabit spaces as virtual representations of people who can move through and interact with that space.

    Adam Everyware Greenfield talks Ultradense Cities in Science Fiction: His new book, The City, out real soon now -- I'm really looking forward to it. (Via io9)

    The relentless emphasis on high urban density as driver and incubator of pathology I encountered in the SF of my youth now strikes me as more than a little parochial. Much if not most of humanity dwells uncomplicatedly at levels of concentration higher than those the genre routinely depicted as catastrophic - and has for decades. To offer a single developed-nation example: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at its sleepiest is about as crowded as the busier sidewalks of Manhattan at peak load, rarely dipping below LOS-D, at least during daytime.

    And if the high-density favelas and sprawling squatter colonies Robert Neuwirth explores in his impressive Shadow Cities can hardly be said to offer “wholesale hope,” they do at least constitute a surprisingly stable way of life for a billion of us.

    Saudi Arabia: Urban Experimentation in the Heart of Islam: Saudi Arabia tries to get ready for a post-petroleum world.

    Drawings of these new towns depict a cross of the futuristic “Blade Runner” and traditional Arabic design. But the new cities are also expected to become new industrial centers that focus on four main sectors: petrochemicals, aluminum, steel and fertilizers.

    According to SABB, these cities together will have four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. Other plans include building four refineries, two petrochemical plants and a modern graduate-level university with an endowment of $10 billion.

    SimCity Goes Open Source: Too bad it's the first version, from 25 years ago, but it's a start. (Via BoingBoing)

    EA wanted to have the right to approve and QA anything that was shipped with the trademarked name SimCity. But the GPL version will have a different name than SimCity, so people will be allowed to modify and distribute that without having EA QA and approve it. Future versions of SimCity that are included with the OLPC and called SimCity will go through EA for approval, but versions based on the open source Micropolis source code can be distributed anywhere, including the OLPC, under the name Micropolis (or any other name than SimCity).

    January 21, 2008

    Read These:

    After empire, then what? -- Mike Treder looks at what happens when empires fall.

    International peace, security, and stable all are strengthened by economic ties; financial integration and interdependence tend to promote harmony and tolerance. But if we experience a hard takeoff scenario for advanced nanotechnology -- a sudden and uncontrolled flood of products -- the resulting economic disruption might then destabilize international relations to the point where a hard landing for the former American empire is only one part of very bad outcome.

    The Fallacy of Reversibility -- Stuart Staniford examines the apocaphile assumption that higher priced oil means the collapse of industrial agriculture.

    So when you industrialize a society, is that a reversible process? Can you take it on a backward path to a deindustrialized society that looks in the important ways like the society you had before the industrialization? As far as I can see, the "second wave" peak oil writers treat it as fairly obvious that this is both possible and desirable. It appears to me that it is neither possible or desirable, but at a minimum, someone arguing for it should seriously address the question. And it is this failure that I am calling the Fallacy of Reversibility. It is most pronounced in Kunstler, who in addition to believing we need a much higher level of involvement in agriculture also wants railways, canals, and sailing ships back, and is a strong proponent of nineteenth century urban forms.

    "The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV" -- FAIR shines a light on what MLK was focusing upon at the end of his life. (via Amor Mundi)

    From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution." King questioned "our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

    In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."

    10-Fold Life Span Extension Reported -- Yeast re-engineered to live 80 days or more (that's 800 years to you and me).

    Longo cautioned that [...] longevity mutations tend to come with severe growth deficits and other health problems. Finding drugs to extend the human life span without side effects will not be easy, he said.

    An easier goal, Longo added, would be to use the knowledge gained about life span “in a fairly limited way, to reprogram disease prevention.”

    January 9, 2008

    Global Guerilla Swag

    As-Sahab is the media wing of Al Qaeda, the "network" used by all the current Al Qaeda videos put onto the web; as with nearly all modern video producers, their programs include a little "bug" logo in the lower right corner of the screen identifying the network. Wired's Danger Room blog noted that this logo isn't limited to the video itself -- As-Sahab also has logo coffee cups.


    (Picture from IntelCenter)

    This is worth noting both as it suggests an increasingly sophisticated institution -- and the inability of even an avowedly anti-Western organization to avoid the trappings of Western media culture.

    Overton Window

    The Overton Window is a memetic engineering concept in use among political wonks, but with broader applicability. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

    It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

    The resulting spectrum is, then:

    Unthinkable • Radical • Acceptable • Sensible • Popular • Policy

    This is a familiar notion, but with a formal name. In the US, movement conservatives have used this technique to great effect, but it's now starting to show up in discussions among progressives/liberals.

    I think that the Overton Window model could prove to be a decisive tool for shifting perspectives in the US about environmental risks, and in fact provides a counter-argument to the "Village Green" types who claim that extreme eco-rhetoric is damaging to the environmental movement.

    Hey! Look Over There!

    Massively busy, but the world continues. I'll be posting *very* terse entries over the next day or two in order to clear out some of the stuff I want to comment on, but haven't been able to. As per the discussion in my last topsight post, I'll add these as separate entries for easy linkage.

    December 26, 2007

    Malware for Materials

    persistence.jpgThe smart environment era is just about upon us, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when our previously "dumb" surroundings become embedded with Internet-connected intelligence. This is a subject I've followed for awhile, so I have some basic expectations as to what we'll see. Rapid adoption for social networks? Check. Greater energy efficiency? Check. Making the invisible, visible, in order to understand the subtle flows of information that support our lives? Esoteric, but check.

    Malware? Sadly, double-check.

    Spam. Viruses. Phishing. "Zombie" computers. Our online lives take place amidst a massive, escalating, and inescapable battle between malware creators and system defenders. The Internet is an incredibly hostile place, full of malicious software designed to grab our attention, invade our privacy, and (occasionally) even steal our money. Fortunately, the Internet is made livable (and even enjoyable) due to the ongoing efforts of security specialists, and that ongoing battle happens rarely grabs our attention. We know this, and while we're not happy about it, we've learned to live with it.

    For the most part, malicious bits of code and data -- collectively referred to as "malware" -- have remained comfortably limited to devices that we recognize as being (to a greater or lesser extent) computers. But as products and materials that have long been seen as non-computers start to get connected to the Internet, start to include processing capability and memory, start to offer "always on" wireless connections -- all in all, start to be active parts of our environments -- the likelihood increases that we'll start to see malware pop up in unexpected locations.

    What kinds of products and materials? Cars, refrigerators, walls, clothing, highways, windows, televisions, product packaging... not to mention the various devices made solely to offer a cuddly, friendly interface for Internet messages. As processors and network hardware get smaller and cheaper, the more reasons we'll think of for wanting to put them in our stuff -- and the more platforms we'll create for malware.

    Most of this will be spam. Spam infests every networked communication medium, and will likely to continue to do so for the various networked communication systems in development. It's ubiquitous in massively-multiplayer games, and I expect it to be a lingering problem as the Metaverse expands. Although we haven't seen it yet, I wouldn't be surprised if spam became a drag on the fast deployment of augmented reality type systems. While filters can work reasonably well, they're not universally available -- for example, I'm baffled as to why mobile phone carriers all haven't implemented basic filters on text message systems, given the rising volume of text spam.

    Since the goal of (most) spam is to grab attention, my guess is that the first public outcry about material malware will be triggered by ads for increased member size, lottery winnings, or offshore casinos popping up on refrigerator doors, in-car displays, and digital picture frames.

    Arguably, viruses (and trojans) have the potential to be a more serious problem, but they face more significant roadblocks. In the abstract, the best defense against widespread virus propagation is a "polyculture" model of systems, where no one "species" of host dominates. Viruses thrive in monocultures, whether industrial single-species forests or commercial single-operating system networks. In monocultures, all potential hosts for a virus have effectively identical structures (whether DNA or OS), and the "disease" can easily jump from host to host. In polycultures, conversely, viruses can't propagate as readily since new potential hosts often have widely-divergent configurations.

    Anti-virus code, firewalls and the like will certainly help, but hardware and software diversity may be the most important factor preventing the rapid spread of viruses in the smart environment world. The more closely the operating system in your smart shirt is related to the operating system in your television, your Internet-connected camera, and/or your smart home energy system, the more likely it is that someone will be able to figure out how to write something that could infect all of them.

    A greater concern is that the viruses (and trojans) that do exist will take advantage of the legacy of trust we have for the dumb versions of the now-smart materials; will we have to worry about what the (voice-controlled) refrigerator overhears or the (video-chat-ready) television sees?

    I'm particularly fascinated by the possible new forms of malware that could emerge unique to the new technologies. I've mentioned some possibilities in the past: intentional misinformation/data-pollution in information-dense environments; physical "spam" produced by Internet-connected fabricators; even "sock bots," scripted avatars used to disrupt virtual world gatherings while looking like a mass activity (upon reflection, "bot mob" is probably a better term). The more powerful and flexible our everyday tools and environment become, the more we'll have to pay attention to keeping them on our side.

    Does this mean that we're diving headlong into disaster? No. Just as we've become inured to the inundations of spam, accustomed to regularly updating anti-virus software, and bored with the constant, clumsy phishing come-ons, we'll eventually be resistant (both technically and culturally) to the malware outbreaks that pop up in our new toys. The transition period may be a bit rough, but if we're aware of the potential before it hits, we won't be so readily taken by surprise.

    Just make sure you keep your anti-virus/spam-filter/malware filters on your furniture up to date.

    December 18, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, December 18, 2007

    nokiaecophone.jpgHey there, folks out there in Internet-land -- do you find these "topsight" posts useful or interesting? I sometimes puzzle over whether the various individual entries would be better off as individual short posts, rather than as a catch-all post. The downside of that is my apparent inability to keep individual posts terse. The upside would be clearer topics and easier inbound links, should you find yourself wanting to point to a particular item.

    Opinions? Ideas? Bueller?

    • Prototyping the Participatory Panopticon, Part 1: Waaaaaay back in the dark days of early 2006, I gave a little talk at the TED conference on the idea of an "Earth Witness" program, with sensing devices built into mobile phones to allow for collaborative environmental science. Nice talk, Al G liked it, but it wasn't flashy enough for the TED talk public listing. Anyway, the notion of an enviro-phone seemed possible but not necessarily plausible back then -- but now Nokia is running with the idea, and showcasing its "Eco Sensor" concept phone.

    To help make you more aware of your health and local environmental conditions, the Nokia Eco Sensor Concept will include a separate, wearable sensing device with detectors that collect environment, health, and/or weather data.

    You will be able to choose which sensors you would like to have inside the sensing device, thereby customizing the device to your needs and desires. For example, you could use the device as a “personal trainee” if you were to choose a heart-rate monitor and motion detector (for measuring your walking pace).

    Here are some other examples of customized sensing devices you could build:

    Environmental monitoring

    • Atmospheric gas-level monitor (including carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and ground-level ozone detectors, for example)
    • Ultraviolet radiation sensor
    • Subscription to environmental catastrophe warning and guidance system

    Personal health

    • Motion detector
    • Heart rate monitor
    • Noise level monitor

    Weather monitoring

    • Air pressure sensor
    • Humidity sensor
    • Temperature sensor
    • Subscription to environmental catastrophe warning and guidance system

    This isn't a phone that's being prepped for sale, it's a "hey look at how cool and green we are" design that won't make it out of the lab -- at least in this form. (Quick aside: we've had concept cars for awhile, and concept computer designs -- although rarely from the manufacturers. Now we have concept phones. What's next?) But like concept cars, the technologies deployed in this model can end up in shipping units a year or three down the road.

    • Prototyping the Participatory Panopticon, Part II: When talking about the various technologies of the participatory panopticon, I usually make a point of mentioning that the "offloaded memory" functions of PP devices could be particularly appealing to aging populations. Seems I'm not the only one:

    When Mrs. B was admitted to the hospital in March 2002, her doctors diagnosed limbic encephalitis, a brain infection that left her autobiographical memory in tatters. As a result, she can only recall around 2 percent of events that happened the previous week, and she often forgets who people are. But a simple device called SenseCam, a small digital camera developed by Microsoft Research, in Cambridge, U.K., dramatically improved her memory: she could recall 80 percent of events six weeks after they happened, according to the results of a recent study.

    A wearable camera, the SenseCam takes a shot every 30 seconds, and makes the collected images available for later viewing. What I didn't expect -- and is a wonderful result -- is that by examining the recorded images, the user could move those digital memories to long-term brain memory.

    Here's an important guideline for people thinking about technology futures: look at the needs the aging and disabled have yet to have filled. As the baby boom in the west hits retirement age -- and especially as the even larger demographic bulge in China moves to retiree status -- we'll see an explosion of demand for the kinds of technologies to help the active disabled and active elderly maintain personal and social flexibility.

    In other words, this is just the beginning.

    (Via MedGadget)

    • Moving Down the Apocalypse Scale: One of the most-linked items I've ever posted here is my "eschatological taxonomy," a scale of different levels of apocalypse -- from regional destruction all the way through to the total elimination of the planet. Fun stuff.

    Jason Matheny, at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, gives the notion of dealing with the end of the world a more thorough examination. In his "Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction," just published in the academic journal Risk Analysis, Matheny gives a detailed account of possible ways the human race (and its descendants) could end, and what we might be able to do about it. Most interesting for me was his discussion of "discounting," that is, how the value of future human lives varies from the value we place on present-day human life. It's a fairly deep philosophical question done up in economics drag.

    Even if extinction events are improbable, the expected values of countermeasures could be large, as they include the value of all future lives. This introduces a discontinuity between the CEA of extinction and nonextinction risks. Even though the risk to any existing individual of dying in a car crash is much greater than the risk of dying in an asteroid impact, asteroids pose a much greater risk to the existence of future generations (we are not likely to crash all our cars at once) (Chapman, 2004 ). The "death-toll" of an extinction-level asteroid impact is the population of Earth, plus all the descendents of that population who would otherwise have existed if not for the impact. There is thus a discontinuity between risks that threaten 99% of humanity and those that threaten 100%.

    This is a very interesting piece, and definitely adds to the ongoing conversation about how best to allocate scarce resources for resilience.

    (Bonus! It turns out that Matheny is also involved with New Harvest, the leading organization working on the development of cruelty-free meat!)

    • Oh, No Revisted: When it's not advertisers trying to beam audio messages into your skull, it's political campaign specialists trying to figure out how to manipulate your emotions. Campaigns & Elections magazine has an article entitled "Mind games: how campaigns of the future will play with your brain," looking at the various new technologies that could influence how political campaigns of tomorrow would be run.

    Campaign ads that break through the filters could pack more punch, thanks to the nascent field of neuromarketing. The field is based on scientific research on what messages make the human brain light up in which areas--and what those lights mean. For instance, a campaign might look to craft a message that is sure to evoke a warm, fuzzy feeling about a candidate. Opponents might try to instill the opposite.

    "It comes down to making sure that what is being said by the candidates or by the party has been crafted specifically to elicit particularly neurochemical responses," said Cascio, the San Francisco futurist. He envisions Democratic and Republican neuromarketing firms crafting dueling messages in the heat of a campaign.

    (Uh, yeah, they quote me -- but also some other names you might recognize, including Zephyr Teachout, Jason Tester from IFTF, and David Brin.)

    Of course, this all leads to the inevitable conclusion:


    December 13, 2007


    retrovirus.jpgWord of the Week: Paleovirology: The study of "fossil" viruses living in our cells as endogenous retroviruses.

    Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), like the more typical retroviruses such as HIV, rewrite the DNA of the cells they infect; the endogenous retroviruses do so not just to the somatic (body) cells, but to the germline (reproductive) cells, becoming part of the DNA we pass down to the next generation. These aren't rare -- more of our DNA comprises these old retroviruses than genes that actually code for proteins. New ERVs generally will quickly lose their potency as viruses, but can come to play critical roles in how our bodies operate. ERVs, for example, protect a fetus from the mother's immune system in all placental animals; ERVs are also thought to be possible triggers for multiple sclerosis.

    Paleovirology is interested in the non-coding ERVs, looking at how they might have first become introduced and examining their interactions with the body. A new article in the New Yorker explores the latest news from the field, including strong evidence that the study of paleovirology could lead to a treatment for HIV. It turns out that shortly after the hominid (us) line split from the hominoid (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla) line, the apes became infected with an ERV called PtERV; the proteins that the hominid line evolved that defended against PtERV had the side effect of making us vulnerable to HIV (which can infect apes, but doesn't make them sick).

    To figure this stuff out, paleovirologists have a fun trick: they're able to resurrect extinct viruses to see what makes them tick by piecing together chunks from related species.

    Then, last year, Thierry Heidmann brought one back to life. Combining the tools of genomics, virology, and evolutionary biology, he and his colleagues took a virus that had been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years, figured out how the broken parts were originally aligned, and then pieced them together. After resurrecting the virus, the team placed it in human cells and found that their creation did indeed insert itself into the DNA of those cells. They also mixed the virus with cells taken from hamsters and cats. It quickly infected them all, offering the first evidence that the broken parts could once again be made infectious.

    (Fortunately, it's standard procedure in paleovirology to add code to prevent the newly-awakened retroviruses from reproducing more than once.)

    Endogenous retroviruses have fascinated me ever since I read Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, a 1999 novel about human evolution. The idea that viruses are critical in evolution is, on the surface, astonishing, but ERVs also have come to serve as a powerful metaphor for external agents changing not just how an organization or community functions now, but also how it operates in the future (and how new organizations and communities that get spun off operate). I'd be tempted to talk about this as a memetic endogenous retrovirus, but the acronym would be MERV, and that just opens itself up to too many jokes. Maybe "cognitive endogenous retrovirus -- CERV" would be better.

    December 10, 2007

    Monday Topsight, December 10, 2007

    The ScreamLet's see what's bubbled up through the Intertubes recently...

    • Oh, No: In their never-ending quest to make ordinary citizens rise up and destroy capitalism, the advertising community has discovered a new place to put hard-to-ignore ads: in your skull.

    New Yorker Alison Wilson was walking down Prince Street in SoHo last week when she heard a woman's voice right in her ear asking, "Who's there? Who's there?" She looked around to find no one in her immediate surroundings. Then the voice said, "It's not your imagination." [...]

    The billboard uses technology manufactured by Holosonic that transmits an "audio spotlight" from a rooftop speaker so that the sound is contained within your cranium.

    Go ahead and scream. A local hero (or "vandal") stole the speaker out of the billboard shortly after it went up; the speaker has since been replaced (no word on whether they've added more security... hint hint). The Holosonic rep suggested that it might take time for people to become accustomed to this new technology. I suspect it will take less time for the system to become subject to some harsh regulation.


    (Via Warren Ellis)

    • Zzzzap: The New York Times reports on a study done by Massimiliano Vasile at the University of Glasgow on the best ways to deflect an asteroid heading towards the Earth. Nuclear bombs don't work, pushing with a spacecraft wouldn't work well, and "gravity tractors" would likely take far too long to be effective. Vasile determined that the best option is the swarm:

    The best method, called “mirror bees,” entails sending a group of small satellites equipped with mirrors 30 to 100 feet wide into space to “swarm” around an asteroid and trail it, Vasile explains. The mirrors would be tilted to reflect sunlight onto the asteroid, vaporizing one spot and releasing a stream of gases that would slowly move it off course. Vasile says this method is especially appealing because it could be scaled easily: 25 to 5,000 satellites could be used, depending on the size of the rock.

    The vaporized material then serves as a "rocket" to push the asteroid to a new course. If done early enough, this should be entirely achievable, with a large but not impossible price tag. The one problem (not addressed in the article) is that of liability: if an asteroid is heading towards the Earth, and is projected to hit (say) Egypt), and is nudged enough to change course but not enough to avoid impact -- now in (say) India -- who gets the bill? There would be horrific regional damage either way. Would nations with the power to do this avoid the undertaking out of fear of legal risks?

    • Welcome to the Participatory Panopticon, Officer: A New York cop interrogated a teenager about a shooting, and tried to intimidate him into confessing. On the witness stand in court, however, the copy claimed to have done none of that. Is the jury going to believe the cop or the kid? How about the kid's MP3 recorder?

    Perino had arrested Crespo on New Year's Eve 2005 while investigating the shooting of a man in an elevator. While in an interrogation room at a station house, Crespo, then 17, stealthily pressed the record button on the MP3 player, a Christmas gift, DeMarco said.

    The impact of the Participatory Panopticon will not be felt the most in our privacy, but in our ability to get away with secrets and lies.

    October 22, 2007

    Monday Topsight, October 22, 2007

    Smoky_The_Nanobot.jpgBecause technically it was still Monday when I started this.

    • Oooh, Spooooky! What's more appropriate for Hallowe'en than Spooky Technology? Except this isn't ghosts and goblins (and Count Floyd!), it's research into communication, sensing and perhaps even weapons technologies that take advantage of weird quantum effects, famously referred to by Einstein as "spooky action at a distance." Wired's Danger Room blog quotes Cambridge University's Charles Tahan:

    Spookytechnology encompasses all functional devices, systems, and materials whose utility relies in whole or in part on higher order quantum properties of matter and energy that have no counterpart in the classical world. These purely quantum traits may include superposition, entanglement, decoherence (along with the quantum aspects of measurement and error correction) or new behavior that emerges in engineered quantum many-body systems.

    (Note that Tahan goes for the domain-name-friendly "spookytechnology," but doesn't bother with a courtesy intercap. Yes, and .net are both taken, but .org remains tantalizingly available.)

    Tahan's full study is available at Arxiv (pdf). What's particularly interesting is that it's more about language than about actual technology. Tahan is especially anxious to avoid having "spooky-" fall victim to the same kind of inappropriate overuse that damned "nano-."

    Nor do we want to incite a prefix-fest as in nano-everything. “Spooky,” being defined more specifically, has fewer tendencies towards this than “nano,” which alludes to an entire length scale. Terms like “spookynet” or “spookytronics” may make sense, but selectively.

    I am so ready to start overusing "spookytronics."

    • Sleeping In on Sunday: I'm not a religious person, but I recognize the importance religion has in understanding the future trajectories of culture, society and politics. So studies like the Barna Group's recent survey of religious views of 16-29 year olds really fascinate me -- especially when they show glimpses of a major cultural shift at work. And it's not one that'll make traditional Christian political-religious institutions very happy.

    The Barna Group is an expressly Christian survey research firm, focusing on understanding American religiosity. In this survey, Barna finds a striking increase in critical views of Christianity among 16-29 year olds, far higher than earlier generations at the same point in life. These critical views are especially strong in non-Christian youth:

    Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.

    (Emphasis mine.) On topic after topic, young people in the US have a strongly negative view of mainstream and evangelical Christianity, using terms like "judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)." Similarly, the number of young people identifying as Christian has dropped dramatically. Barna's research suggests that this is not the kind of trend that will shift significantly as this generation ages.

    For me, the most interesting point is that the critical factor for both Christian-identified and non-Christian youth in shaping their views of religion is the strident homophobia of institutional Christianity.

    Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else.

    This is a powerful indicator of a tremendous cultural shift underway in the United States today. The hardcore right-wing religious voters are set to become increasingly marginalized, and organizations offering distinctly different -- and inclusive -- forms of social networking and community are likely to become much more visible.

    (Via Orcinus)

    • Nano-Ecosystem: My first official essay as the Director of Impacts Analysis for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is now up over at Nanotech-Now. It's entitled "The Nanofactory Ecosystem," and it's a look at the non-technical aspects of what the development of a nanofactory is likely to take. For example...

    • Health and safety evaluations
    Who, ultimately, is responsible for regulating what can be made with nanofactories? Since a nanofactory can, in principle, self-replicate, would it be possible for modified versions of nanofactories to be evaluated for safety concerns while still "baking?" Relying on individual users to self-police and to undertake informed evaluations of new designs and nanofactory models is a pleasant fantasy, but what other options could there be? And what happens when self-policing and informed evaluation fails?

    My goal with this essay was to ground the development of nanofactory technologies in the everyday world of consumers, regulations and safety. These kinds of tools will certainly have substantial economic and social impacts, but we can't let them exist in our minds as transcendent technologies. They're human-made tools, with all of the compromises and fuzzy thinking that can imply.

    (By the way: if anyone can identify the artist who created the image used at the top of this post -- "" now is a spam site -- I would love to give a link and credit.)

    October 11, 2007

    Thursday Topsight, October 11, 2007

    aeron.jpgI have too many windows open to pages that I really would like to post extensive commentary on if I can just get around to it.

    • Virtual Ownership: Herman Miller makes the Aeron chair, and (quite appropriately) doesn't like the idea of somebody else making an identical chair, especially if that somebody then calls that reproduction an "Aeron." But what about somebody who takes a picture of an Aeron, posts it on (say) a blog, and labels it "Aeron." Can Herman Miller claim ownership of that, too?

    Most of us would likely say "no" to that scenario. But just this week, Herman Miller started going after Second Life designers who were making virtual chairs for the SL avatars, chairs that looked like Aerons and, at least in some cases, were called "Aerons."

    "[W]e've contacted those parties and informed them of our trade dress protections, copyrights and trademarks they are infringing, asking politely but firmly that they cease and desist," the firm's spokesman, appropriately named MarkSchurman HermanMiller, tells me. "Some have complied, others have countered with proposed partnerships, and some have yet to respond."

    And with that announcement, the first public salvo has been fired: a real world corporation is loudly and actively asserting its real world intellectual property rights against Resident-made objects which allegedly infringes them.

    These Second Life knock-offs aren't "chairs" in any conventional definition of the word: they're database entries comprising a few lines of code. This code, under certain conditions, will put up an interactive cartoon of a chair that looks like an Aeron. You can't actually sit in it, you can't use it to build a physical Aeron (at least not yet), and it can appear or disappear with a few keystrokes.

    What Herman Miller seems to be arguing is that what it actually owns is the concept of the Aeron chair look, no matter the medium in which it manifests.

    This is a pretty striking assertion, but it's one that I would not be surprised to see reproduced as more companies start paying attention to the metaverse and more virtual worlds with user creation tools open up. I hope that it doesn't go unchallenged. Should Herman Miller be able to go after designers who made virtual chairs that looked like Aerons, but didn't in any way take that name? Should they be able to go after designers who make virtual chairs that share some attributes with Aerons, but are able to do things that real ones (or the "real" virtual ones) cannot?

    As physical form becomes just another bit-based medium, we're starting to see many of the mistakes and controversies of the earlier generations of digital information (software, music, text and the like) replicated yet again. When will we be able to learn from the past?

    (via open...)

    • Mobile Phones vs. Sheer Evil: Ethan Zuckerman posts an astounding item over at "...My heart's in Accra."

    Across the developing world, counterfeit pharmaceuticals have become a massive problem. Up to half of the packages of the anti-malaria drug artesunate sold in Southeast Asia contain no actual drug. More than 80% of the drugs sold in Nigeria in recent years, according to the head of Nigeria's Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, were fake. And legitimate pharmaceutical companies are apparently intimidating anyone trying to report this information to the broad public.

    Fortunately, a new project called mPedigree may save the day:

    The project, called mPedigree, seeks to build a system first in Ghana, and then throughout Africa, that tracks drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legimate product. The idea of this system comes from the ePedigree system being implemented to track medications in the US using RFID tags.

    It’s probably prohibitively expensive to put RFID tags on every box of medicine coming into Ghana. But a system that takes advantage of the ubiquity of mobile phones in Ghana, allowing a purchaser to check whether the pills she’s buying in a pharmacy are registered and tracked would be a great use of appropriate technology to tackle a difficult problem. That’s what mPedigree proposes to do.

    It's hard to imagine a more despicable act than counterfeiting lifesaving drugs. It's an enormous relief to see that a distributed, participatory solution may be at hand.

    • Diesel-Electric Hybrids Go to War: reports that a new Army scouting and ground exploration vehicle is set to hit the streets of Baghdad -- and it's a battery-dominant (read: high-mileage) hybrid.

    A wider, 66-in. body design makes room for high-performance acceleration -- as military vehicles go -- with the second-gen Aggressor set to rev from 0-40 mph in four seconds and top out at 80 mph. But speed is not the main attraction here; stealth is. The Aggressor’s design provides battery-only operations, allowing it to switch into “silent mode” with a reduced thermal signature. Combine that with extended range and exportable power, and this should be one tough-to-detect AMV for missions involving communications, surveillance and targeting.

    There's a sub-culture in the US that values signifiers of aggression and power above other attributes in vehicles (primarily); this vehicle may broaden the symbolism of the hybrid car to include just these kinds of signifiers. Moreover, just like the HMMWV became the "Hummer" when it went civilian, there may be a stateside market for a street-legal version of the "Aggressor." If it keeps its battery-dominant diesel-electric drivetrain, it could even be among the higher-mileage hybrids on the road. Imagine that: a vehicle that could be both a phallic symbol and a green icon.

    October 9, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, October 9, 2007

    solarpowerpaper.jpgTrying to get back into the blogging groove I found just before my Budapest trip. Here are some of the items of note I've stumbled across recently.

    • PowerPaper: This came up in August, but some recent work reminded me about it.

    Researchers in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences the invention of a paper battery. Infused with carbon nanotubes, this material is currently able to hold a reversible charge of >>110mAh/g -- a bit better than the typical alkaline battery, a bit worse than the typical lithium-ion battery.

    The difference is that this paper battery -- which can also function as a high-discharge super-capacitor -- is extraordinarily flexible, and can be torn, folded or cut without damaging the energy storage properties.

    Given that blood and sweat can serve as an electrolyte for the battery, much of the speculation has focused on biomedical applications. But what struck me was that this was a perfect partner for photovoltaic polymers -- "nano-solar" -- as an integrated, flexible power generation and storage system. Imagine buying power by the square meter: the combination of solar plastic and paper battery means that issues around intermittence can be mitigated, and the flexibility means easy installation by non-specialists.

    One likely first use: self-powered animated bumper stickers.

    The current production methods are time-consuming and fiddly, but another RPI announcement just a few days later might change that: desktop printing of carbon nanotube "ink" onto paper, using an off-the-shelf ink-jet printer.

    • Must Wear Silver Jump Suit to Drive: If I could, the first thing I'd stick some of that combo solar paper on would be a new Aptera.

    aptera.jpgThis is the 3-wheel car that gets over 200mpg as a plug-in hybrid, and looks like it's straight out of a 70s science fiction movie. I first wrote about the Aptera back in early 2006, at WC; as with most of the hypercar designs I ran into, I expected the Aptera to be an exciting proposal that would fade away as the designers got bored or funding dried up. Much to my surprise, the Aptera site is now taking orders for a middle-of-next-year launch. While (as expected) the specs have been reduced some (it was originally supposed to hit over 300mpg, for example), this is still very much the funky hypercar the "Accelerated Composites" folks proposed 18 months ago.

    Here's the deal: a refundable $500 deposit gets your name on the waiting list for the first production run. There are to be two models: an all-electric, with a decent (100+ mile) range, and a diesel-electric hybrid. Prices are supposed to be in the mid-$20K range. Getting this information is like pulling teeth, however, because Aptera has the worst, least-accessible, most frustrating website I've encountered in a long time: all Flash, launches with music, and does without any kind of summary page.

    Still, despite the lack of web design skills, I'm really, really tempted.

    • Cracks in the (Bio)Brick House: Rob Carlson notes that the emerging biotechnology of using standardized, modular biological parts to assemble synthetic organisms (or "genetically engineered machines") is already seeing its first intellectual property dust-up. From early on, these standardized, modular biological parts (SMBPs) have been referred to as "biobricks" -- a pretty common-sense term, evoking both the classic image of basic components for building structures and the snap-together, make-what-you-want construction fun of LEGO. It was so common sense that the organization seeking to create and referee standards decided to call itself the BioBricks Foundation (BBF), and to slap a trademark on the term "biobrick." The BBF is now actively admonishing people who use "biobrick" in a generic way to describe SMBPs.

    Rob notes the underlying difficulty of this argument, and asks some damn good questions:

    Obviously, the idea of Biobricks Biobrick parts (Argh!) is itself new and interesting, but I wonder what the effect on innovation will be under an apparently new kind of IP regime if one organization is in a position to "defend" not just a standard but also parts that conform to the standard. What happens if the leadership (or control) of the BBF changes and suddenly the "open and free-to-use collection" becomes not so open? And am I free to build/identify a new part as a Biobrick part (!) without submitting it to the Registry or the BBF? Can I even advertise something as being compatible with the standard on my own, or do I have to have permission from the BBF to even suggest in public that I have something other people might want to use/buy that works with all the other Biobrick™ parts? And who exactly controls the Registry?

    If transparency is important for standards surrounding relatively staid technologies (such as bolt sizes or network protocols), it's absolutely fundamental for technologies that elicit concerns about health, safety and the environment. If Rob Freaking Carlson can't readily get the answers to these questions, how can everyday citizens do so, let alone get answers to the potentially more troubling concerns about the uses and abuses of the new technology?

    September 17, 2007

    Monday Topsight, September 17, 2007

    Frankfurt Nuclear Plant 2Back in the US now, at least for the next two weeks -- then off to Budapest, to speak at a conference entitled "Visions of the Future. Technology and Society: Global and Local Challenges."

    Trying to get back into the blogging practice.

    • Fast Lane to the Uncanny Valley: Motion Portrait is a new Japanese company offering a novel service: it can take a single 2D image of a person and turn it into a believable 3D animation. The website has a couple of examples of the process at work. Start by mousing over the woman in the box in the upper right of the page -- notice that she'll start following your mouse pointer around. Click on the bell and she'll talk (she'll also chastise you if you mouse around in a circle too quickly, making her "dizzy").

    The company wants to use the technology (which they claim will run on a low-end computer or even mobile phone) to provide personalized avatars in 3D environments, as well as animations for entertainment. Other, less-friendly, applications are also quite possible. As this gets more realistic (and, arguably, it's pretty spookily realistic now), how difficult would it be to make a believable animation of someone saying something they never said just by using a single quick snapshot?

    For a real sense of just how weird this technology can be, click here. It's entirely safe for work, but arguably NSFS (not safe for sanity).

    • Word of the Day: Anthropocene -- the current geological era, marked by the accelerating human impact on the Earth. The term was first used in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, a scientist who has popped up again last year as an advocate of looking at what would and wouldn't work in geoengineering.

    The question that comes to my mind, of course, is "what follows the Anthropocene?"

    If our civilization is destroyed, there won't be anyone to name the era, so let's set that scenario aside.

    If we suffer a significant die-back, and the planet starts to revert to pre-human influence conditions, then we'd probably end up calling it something like the "Rehabilicene."

    My bet, though, would be a world in which our information sensing, communication and analysis tools are so pervasive that they change every aspect of how we understand and manage the planet around us. A world so fully enriched by knowledge could only be called one thing:

    The Noöcene.

    • It's Future Conference Season: The Singularity Summit wasn't the only future-focused conference underway this month. Aubrey de Gray's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence foundation assembled the third annual SENS Conference, in Cambridge UK, over September 6-10 (thus overlapping the Singularity Summit entirely), and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology put together its own 3 day event in Tucson, Arizona, from September 10-12. I particularly regret having to miss the latter, as the CRN Scenarios were unveiled there for the first time (more on that later).

    Fortunately, all was not lost: OtF friend Michael Anissimov live-blogged all three days of the CRN conference, providing in rich detail the proceedings of the various talks and conversations. This is a long, long blog entry, complete with some of Michael's own pictures. I look forward to his upcoming entry talking about his own reaction to the proceedings.

    One big agreement emerged from all of this, however: next time, the three big transformative technologies conferences won't all be scheduled for the same damn week.

    • Dollar Auctions, War and the Future: Oliver R. Goodenough, professor of law at Vermont Law School and a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, has a short, straightforward commentary in the Rutland, Vermont, Herald discussing how rational decisions can, in the aggregate, lead to disastrously undesirable results. He uses a classroom game called a "dollar auction," where students bid on a dollar; the twist is that the top bidder may win the dollar, but the #2 bidder has to pay up, as well.

    The problem surfaces when the bidders get up close to a dollar. After 99 cents the last vestige of profitability disappears, but the bidding continues between the two highest players. They now realize that they stand to lose no matter what, but that they can still buffer their losses by winning the dollar. They just have to outlast the other player. Following this strategy, the two hapless students usually run the bid up several dollars, turning the apparent shot at easy money into a ghastly battle of spiraling disaster.

    Goodenough applies this concept to the Iraq war, but it strikes me that it's an interesting example of what commons theorist Peter Kollock, in The Anatomy of Cooperation, refers to as a "social trap," where rational near-term benefits can create nearly unavoidable long-term costs -- but where the consequences of changing behavior can be nearly as costly as continuing, and will continue to increase.

    One of the drivers of a social trap/dollar auction is the perception that, by bowing out of the competition, someone else will be benefitting from the result, offering a superior strategic (or economic) position. It's not just that I don't get the benefit myself, the logic goes, but my competitor gets it instead. This kind of trap is sadly commonplace in the world of environmental policy, where one can see it in the interactions between the US and China over signing onto carbon reduction measures.

    No grand conclusions, yet, on what can be done about this kind of engagement, but it's helpful to have a mental model for what's going on.

    • I'm Just Innocently Sousveilling the Nuclear Reactor, Officer: I took the picture at the top of the page from the airplane window, flying into Frankfurt on my way to Zürich. I have to admit, I felt a little suspicious snapping pictures of a nuclear plant from the air, and I know I got at least one odd look. No arrests have been made, however.

    August 11, 2007

    Weekend Topsight, August 11/12, 2007

    brains.jpg"Hey, Jamais, what's up with the lack of blogging? You turning into a slacker or something?"

    I wish. I could use the sleep.

    Four big projects for IFTF. Continuation of the Open University project (from home, this time). Prep for my Singularity Summit talk. Prep for a talk at Swiss Re. Article for Metropolis magazine, courtesy of Pope-Emperor Bruce (thank you, my friend!). And one more project I can't yet talk about, other than to say it's one of the coolest things I've ever been asked to work on. All now underway.

    Good thing I have a short vacation coming up -- I'll be able to get some blogging done in between the stress attacks.

    In the meantime...

    • Neurocognitive Engineering Project #1: A 2004 research project on decision-making (PDF) is getting a fair bit of play lately (BoingBoing, Salon, Long Now, etc.) because of the correlation made by Science Blog "The Frontal Cortex" made to the accelerating mortgage crisis in the U.S.. But what jumped out at me was the identification of the section of the brain involved with long-term, rational thinking.

    Our analysis shows that the δ areas, which are activated uniformly during all decision epochs, are associated with lateral prefrontal and parietal areas commonly implicated in higher level deliberative processes and cognitive control, including numerical computation. Such processes are likely to be engaged by the quantitative analysis of economic options and the valuation of future opportunities for reward. The degree of engagement of the δ areas predicts deferral of gratification, consistent with a key role in future planning.

    I wonder: what would it take to stimulate this region? If the survival of human civilization this century requires greater use of long-term thinking, is there any way to make this region of the brain more active?

    • For All of You With Home Chip Fabs: Sun just announced its latest UltraSPARC processor, super-fast (89.6 GHz), super-efficient, etc., etc., but what makes it particularly notable is that Sun has put the blueprints for the core design under the GPL free/open source license. Oh, sure, sure, this will be handy for developers who want to work as close as possible to the hardware to maximize performance, but part of the value of free/open source is the ability to make your own copy -- not just read the code, but compile it for yourself to make sure that what you're working with is exactly what the code says. Kind of hard to do when the "compiler" costs millions of dollars.

    (via Make)

    • "We got computers, we're tapping phone-lines, we know that that ain't allowed": Add one more item to my list: putting together a proposal for the Technology in Wartime conference being put on this January by the organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

    This conference will explore how computer technology is used during war -- both for the purposes of combat/defense, as well as for human rights interventions into war-torn regions. Topics will range from high tech weapons systems and internet surveillance, to privacy-enhancing technologies that aid human rights workers documenting conditions in war-torn countries and help soldiers communicate their experiences in blogs and e-mail. We are also interested in the history of computer-aided weapons systems. Our goal will be to consider the ethical implications of wartime technologies and how these technologies are likely to affect civilization in years to come. Ultimately we want to engage a pressing question of our time: What should socially-responsible computer professionals do in a time of high tech warfare?

    This sounds like a terrific conference topic -- kudos to CPSR Board President Annalee Newitz.

    July 11, 2007

    Wednesday Topsight, July 11, 2007

    Jumping right in.

    The South African Model: Robert Rossney has a terrific idea: given that political machinations and partisanship are likely to continue for quite some time, the notion that the cabal currently holding power in the White House will ever see legal justice for its actions is absurd. We won't see impeachment or post-2008 trials -- and even if we did see such attempts, the ever-present nasty partisanship could easily turn violent (or, to be accurate, more violent). What might work better, however, is a Truth and Reconciliation commission:

    ...what if, when 2009 rolls around, the way you get out of being prosecuted for your role in caging black voters or selectively prosecuting "vote fraud" cases or corruptly obtaining a no-bid contract from Homeland Security or, you know, imprisoning and torturing innocent people, what if the way you avoid prison is to sit before a commission and relate, in as much detail as needed, exactly what you did, why it was criminal, and why you believed that you would never be held to account for it?

    Really, it's not that important to me that the President of the United States be impeached by the Senate. What's important to me is that Americans learn unequivocally what the men they chose to lead them really were. They are not going to learn of the contempt in which this Administration holds them through ritualized name-calling in Congress.

    South Africa's experience with its Truth and Reconciliation process is instructive here. There, "partisanship" included mass riots, state murder, and violations of rights and bodies that the interrogators at Gitmo can only dream of. Yet, despite all of the fury, hatred and regret wrapped up in that experience, the Truth and Reconciliation commission managed to enable both a peaceful transfer of power and a relatively accurate accounting of the nation's past.

    NanoConference: September is shaping up to be a good month for events. The Singularity Summit takes place in the San Francisco area over the weekend of the 8th and 9th, and will be followed in Tucson, Arizona by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's conference, "Challenges & Opportunities: The Future of Nano & Bio Technologies." The CRN conference will run from September 10 through 12, with an additional day of touring local bio- and nano-research facilities.

    What I find particularly interesting about the agenda is that it's not just tech talks on nano -- the first day of the conference looks at bioscience as a stepping stone to other advances, and the third day looks at the implications of the ongoing development of bio and nano technologies.

    Presenters will discuss both technical details and the larger meaning of their work, and attendees will have multiple opportunities for open dialog with the speakers. [...] The program will feature speakers covering a number of topics including: Tuberculosis and Bird Flu - New Epidemics in 2007; How to Build a Nanofactory; Military, Security, and Surveillance Issues; and more.

    CRN asked me to speak at the conference, and I would surely love to do so... but I'm currently committed to giving a series of presentations in Switzerland that week for Swiss Re. Next year, guys.

    Open and Meta: My colleague at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Giulio Prisco, has written up a report on the current status of a couple of open, distributed projects for building virtual worlds: OpenSim, an open source Second Life server (unaffiliated with Linden Lab); and Open Croquet, an entirely new virtual world system. I noted Open Croquet last year, and it appears that progress continues, albeit slowly. Of the two, Open Croquet is more interesting in part because of its design as a metaverse swiss army knife -- really a toolkit to work with other systems than a stand-alone world -- and in part because I expect that OpenSim is likely to be undercut by Linden Lab making the real Second Life server app open source, something they've indicated they'd like to do.

    Tangible Virtual Cities: Ogle Earth, a site specializing in understanding the geospatial web, links to a new exhibit at Lodon's Tate Modern museum, "Global Cities." The exhibit, which runs through August 27, offers physical instantiations of normally intangible concepts like population density, urban diversity, and speed of growth. The sculptures, shown above in an image from Ogle Earth's Flickr set, are especially compelling, bringing to life issues around density and population in a way that raw numbers rarely provoke.

    The four models shown in this section compare, at the same scale, the number of people living within the administrative boundaries of four of the ten cities featured in the exhibition. The peaks show the highest residential densities, with the largest number of people concentrated in a square kilometre. They range from the high-density of Cairo and Mumbai to the more dispersed, but bounded London (contained by the Green Belt) and the sprawling Mexico City.

    The exhibit also includes lush photography and a wide array of video presentations.

    The Global Cities website includes some of this material for those of us not able to get to London by the end of next month, along with information packs aimed at instructors and at students (both PDF).

    Always Make New Mistakes: The title of this bit is a .sig line that Esther Dyson used to put in her email, and the concept has stuck with me. New mistakes are good, because they give you a chance to learn something you previously didn't know; repeating the same mistake is a sign that you're not learning an important lesson. Now researchers at the University of Exeter have uncovered the neurophysiological process that underlies learning from mistakes.

    Published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, their research identifies, for the first time, a mechanism in the brain that reacts in just 0.1 seconds to things that have resulted in us making errors in the past.

    Previous research has shown that we learn more about things for which we initially make incorrect predictions than for things for which our initial predictions are correct. The element of surprise in discovering we are wrong is conducive to learning, but this research is the first to show how amazingly rapid our brain’s response can be.

    We all know people who just don't quite seem to "get it" about past mistakes, and continue to repeat them (or escalate them) despite all of the evidence to the contrary (any link to the first item in today's Topsight is purely coincidental). While it's easy to ascribe this to ideology, faith or ignorance, this research suggests that there might be a neurological component. What if, in at least some cases, the seeming inability to learn from past mistakes is really a delayed reaction, arriving too late after other cognitive processes (the aforementioned ignorance, faith, etc.) have kicked in.

    Conversely, what would it take to speed up the process?

    July 3, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, July 3, 2007


    Woz, Not Woz: The transcript of the R.U. Sirius show with Steve Wozniak is now up, if you're more inclined to read than to listen. Surprisingly, this transcript has already been Slashdotted.

    JAMAIS CASCIO: So what do you think are the rules for being an ethical prankster?

    STEVE WOZNIAK: Ethical prankster? It's tough. I don't think there's 100% ethical. In theory, you have agreements with society not to do things that are going to be disruptive — to not do things that are gonna be different. And yet, practically, all of us have to do things that are a little bit different. And there's always some weird little laws that are written to catch you just for being different.

    Ethical hacking today is largely finding flaws in major computer systems, or possibly the phone systems. And to be ethical, you don't use it to harm anyone. And generally, that means you don't want to keep it secret forever.

    Mech Me: Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media lab, came up with a new generation of prosthetic legs for himself, and is using that expertise to develop an exoskeleton for the currently-abled. New Scientist (naturally) has the write-up, and the patent application is also available.

    The novel aspect of the prosthetic legs (and, presumably, the exoskeleton): the legs are extensible for the full-on "Machine Man" effect. (Via Medgadget)

    I, For One, Welcome Our New Taser-Wielding Roomba Overlords: That's right -- iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robo-vacuum, has now built a tactical bot for the military that's armed with a taser.

    For iRobot, its Taser-equipped system will be the first robot capable of using force to disable a person, rather than a bomb. The 17-year-old company is best known for its mobile robots for the consumer market, including the disc-shaped, carpet cleaning Roomba.

    But home robots account for only 60 percent of the company's revenue. The rest comes from government and industrial customers, including the military and police.

    Versions of iRobot's PackBot have disarmed roadside bombs and searched caves and buildings in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some scout dangerous areas before soldiers or emergency responders go in.

    It's interesting how attached the soldiers get to these little 'bots -- Joel Garreau's "Bots on the Ground" article in the Washington Post provided some details in May. What makes this particularly interesting is that, from a techno-futurist perspective, these aren't robots at all, they're remote-operated devices. Unlike a "real" robot, they're not autonomous or even (as with the Mars rovers) semi-autonomous -- they're not much more than high-quality RC cars.

    But it makes me really curious as to how people are going to respond when real, autonomous robots enter the mix, devices that receive high-level commands ("check for traps") and figure out how to do it, rather than needing a human operator. If soldiers get emotionally attached to RC bots, how will they respond when something that seems to have its own identity gets damaged or destroyed?

    Will the inability of human soldiers to cope with the destruction of robotic devices end up as the primary roadblock to the greater use of autonomous bots on the battlefield?

    June 21, 2007

    Thursday Topsight, June 21, 2007

    sun_erupts.jpgSummer Solstice: the longest day of the year!

    • Imagine This: "Imagining the Internet" is a part of the Pew Internet Project, run out of Elon University in North Carolina. For the past several years, they've been asking experts and citizens alike to imagine the future evolution of the Internet. In May of 2006, the Project hit the Metaverse Roadmap event, and videotaped a couple dozen attendees waxing philosophical about the net's future. These video conversations, along with transcripts, are now available online.

    You'll recognize some of the featured names:
    zuck_iti.jpg Ethan Zuckerman, engle-iti.jpg Doug Englebart,

    mike_iti.jpg Mike Liebhold, and cascio_iti.jpg me.

    The interviews were done in a room away from the main session, and couldn't readily be overheard by other attendees. With that in mind, take note of how many people give essentially the same answer for the first question.

    • Sticky Nano-Fingers: Geckos are able to perform amazing feats of adhesion due to the presence of nano-scale hairs and tips known as stetae and spatulae respectively. Geckos can hold onto glass, but their adhesion leaves no residue, can easily be lifted when desired, and actually get cleaner in use. Figuring out how to make nanomaterials with properties approaching the capabilities of Gecko feet would be both useful and important.

    So how about something better than Gecko feet?

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers have developed artificial Gecko adhesive tape that's actually stronger than the real thing.

    For the first time, the team has developed a prototype flexible patch that can stick and unstick repeatedly with properties better than the natural gecko foot. They fashioned their material into an adhesive tape that can be used on a wide variety of surfaces, including Teflon. [...] The material could have a number of applications, including feet for wall-climbing robots; a dry, reversible adhesive in electronic devices; and outer space, where most adhesives don’t work because of the vacuum.

    One of the unmentioned possibilities is the use of Geckomimetic tape as a medical adhesive: able to tightly close wounds, but removable without leaving any residue or pulling up hairs. This stuff could do away with sutures entirely.

    • CyberMothra: A Times of London article about robotics researchers implanting a control chip inside a moth pupa and controlling the adult form has gotten a bit of blog play, and for good reason: who can resist talking about cyborg moths, especially when they're being made for the military to use as surreptitious observers? The article is actually somewhat ambiguous about whether the project has been completed, is underway, or is simply being contemplated. It's worth noting that there's nothing at Rodney Brooks' site at MIT about the cyber-moth project; DARPA, the funding agency, is similarly -- and unsurprisingly -- mum on the subject, as well.

    Whether cyber-moths currently exist or not is beside the point -- they're certainly within the realm of near-term possibility. And they raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Just how complex can the control get? How long until the same kind of technology is available for mammals, even humans? What does this do to the health of the cybernetic creature? Is this the real future of cyborgism?

    My colleague at the Institute for the Future, Jessica Margolin, made this further observation: this is the kind of technology that demands that we get full Constitutional protections back in order, Guantanamo closed down, and a recognition of the inherent limits of government agencies to spy upon citizens. Just like decades of training practices have made US military officers allergic to the very idea of launching a military coup, we need to institute deep training of all intelligence and law enforcement personnel that makes them reluctant to the point of horror to engage in violations of citizen rights.

    • The Answering Machine Footprint: Consider this possible, but as yet unverified. According to the Green LA Girl, The Green Book claims that eliminating the answering machine nationwide, and relying on phone company voice mail, would reduce the national carbon footprint an amount equivalent to removing 250,000 cars from the road. As I note in the comments there, given what I learned about cheeseburgers, I wouldn't be shocked if this was true -- but I also know just how easily these kinds of estimates can go horribly awry.

    • The New Web: It turns out that there are Google hits for every ordinal number of "Web n.0" all the way up to Web 62.0. Prior to this post, the first ordinal number without a Google hit for "n.0" was "Web 63.0" -- now the next one in line is the first one without a Google hit (I'll leave it to one of you to grab it.)

    June 5, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, June 5, 2007

    My month of travel is over, and I look forward to sleeping in my own bed.

    • Vote Early, Vote Often: I recorded my KQED Perspectives piece earlier today, and once again was told that I have a voice for radio (they were polite enough not to mention that I have a face for radio, too). I've done a few podcasts, both here and for other sites, so let me throw this out as an open question: should I make a point of doing more? Would it be a good use of my time to add regular podcasts to the menu?

    • Sim Eh?: Canada: The New World (aka, HistoriCanada) is exactly the kind of simulation-history mashup I've wanted to see for awhile. Sponsored by Canada's National History Society and the Historica Society, HistoriCanada uses the Civilization III (with Conquest expansion) engine to play out the 16th-17th Century competition between the French, English, Ojibwe, Huron, Mohawk, Algonquin, Montagnais, Mi'kmaq, and Abenaki for the control of the Canadian territory.

    Serious Game Source says:

    Produced by international media firm Bitcasters, the mod will be packaged with copies of Civilization III and donated to 100,000 Canadian high school students so that they may explore and learn about their country's past and even alter outcomes of historical events.

    Developed over a two year time, the game allows players to take control of one of Canada’s early European or Aboriginal civilizations, making important decisions ranging from planning their settlement and crops, to determining when to wage war or make peace.

    Civ III has a sufficiently detailed mod system that the game has the potential to offer insights into the drivers for conflict and diplomacy in the era. I haven't played it yet, so I don't know how successful the designers were, but it's exciting to see serious games & simulation systems used in this way.

    (I still want to see a real version of Bruce Sterling's "WorldRun" from Islands in the Net, though...)

    • Singularity Blogging: The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, like the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and (more broadly) the Lifeboat Institute, is dedicated to examining the potential for civilization-threatening technological advances far enough ahead of time that we can make intelligent choices about how we implement such developments. Regardless of what one thinks about the likelihood of the "singularity" model coming true, the work done by SIAI will help to illuminate the possible pitfalls and traps we might encounter as we develop more and more powerful computers. This is precisely the kind of foresight work we need in greater abundance.

    I'm pleased to say that I've been informally working with SIAI, and greatly look forward to presenting at this year's Singularity Summit. I'm also pleased to note that SIAI has just launched a weblog, authored by the SIAI leaders, discussing both the technology and policy issues surrounding advanced artificial intelligence.

    This video gives a good overview of the ideas underlying SIAI's work, as well as some of the people involved in the project. Check it out.

    • Googlopticon: The Participatory Panopticon got name-checked in a BoingBoing post today about the Google Street View service. Street View isn't a real participatory panopticon, of course (and BoingBoing doesn't suggest that it is), and not just because it's being done by the massive, monolithic information overlord Google. One key element of the participatory panopticon concept is its documentary nature -- it's a way of building a record of what's happening around the, er, participants. The Google Street View images appear to be relatively static: what is shown now for a given address is likely to remain there for months, if not years to come.

    And that's something that Google may not have thought through. The layout of a city doesn't change very quickly, so a map is something where a decade-old version is almost certain to be still useful. Business searches on the map can be easily updated by fiddling with a database. But what will happen when the image no longer matches the location? Or there's a fire? It's likely that the Street View images will be broadly seen as only marginally useful long before they get expanded beyond the current highly-limited set of locations.

    There's also the "gaming the Street View" question: what will be the first URL intentionally put up in order to show up on Street View?

    • Go Hug Your Planet: Today is World Environment Day. Actually, every day is world environment day, so perhaps this should be World Environment Day (Observed).

    May 22, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, May 22, 2007

    Plowing through interesting links accumulated during my travel.

    • Lucky to be Alive: All of us are. Lucky to be alive, I mean. It turns out that, about 13,000 years ago, humankind came very close to extinction, courtesy of a 2km-3km comet smacking into the Earth.

    A group of US scientists [...] report that they have found a layer of microscopic diamonds at 26 different sites in Europe, Canada and America. These are the remains of a giant carbon-rich comet that crashed in pieces on our planet 12,900 years ago, they say. The huge pressures and heat triggered by the fragments crashing to Earth turned the comet's carbon into diamond dust. 'The shock waves and the heat would have been tremendous,' said West. 'It would have set fire to animals' fur and to the clothing worn by men and women. The searing heat would have also set fire to the grasslands of the northern hemisphere. Great grazing animals like the mammoth that had survived the original blast would later have died in their thousands from starvation. Only animals, including humans, that had a wide range of food would have survived the aftermath.'

    This discovery manages to explain several roughly simultaneous but previously hard-to-connect events, including the "Younger Dryas" mini ice age, megafaunal mass extinctions, and the utter elimination of the first wave of Homo sapiens migrants into North America. Details of the discovery will be presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Acapulco. (Session One, Session Two, and Session Three abstracts.) More details at New Scientist.

    • Artifice 1: Remaking Nature: Nature presents the arguments around geoengineering in the May 9 edition, offering what looks to me to be a reasonably even-handed examination of a variety of potential re-terraforming projects. The "we don't know enough to do anything" position is well-represented, as is the "we may be forced to do it, so we should do it right" view. I was particularly pleased to see the explicit argument that, should geoengineering be required, it should be done "as carefully and as reversibly as you can." A good argument is made for my personal view, that more research into geoengineering is especially important in order to know what not to do:

    [In reference to Roger Angel's massively multi-mirror sunblock idea:] Ralph Cicerone, a climate scientist and president of the US National Academy of Sciences, singles the paper out for praise for the painstakingly careful way it was done. "He went back to it again and again," Cicerone says. "In its standard of elegance and completeness it was exemplary." For him and many others, such academic excellence is the main point of publishing research on geoengineering. For these researchers, the aim is not to find feasible solutions but to do good science that provides a standard against which to judge the less good, or flatly foolish, schemes that might otherwise accrete around the idea. Cicerone points to quack schemes for ozone replacement in the 1980s as the sort of thing that needs to be forestalled: back then, he says, "poor ideas got as far as they did because of [the community's] silence."

    Say it with me: if climate disaster hits faster and harder than anticipated, desperate people will try desperate measures, including geoengineering. We need to be able to identify the choices that won't just make things worse.

    • Artifice 2: Robo-Brothers in Arms: Joel Garreau has a terrific piece in the Washington Post called "Bots on The Ground," discussing the growing use of robots (remote-controlled and semi-autonomous) in the U.S. military. The piece is worth reading for the opening anecdote alone, which underscores just how powerful emotional relationships with machines can be.

    Without using the term, Garreau makes it clear that these technologies are as much a form of emotional augmentation as they are ability augmentation. The animate devices become extensions of the self, even as they take on at least the superficial appearance of independence. This is new territory for technologists, but in many respects it's a long-standing element of our culture. In the past, though, we just called them "pets." Will we be able to think of robots in the same way?

    My cat is sleeping on the desk next to my keyboard as I write this. As I look at her, I find myself unsure of whether I'd be able to have the same emotional bond with something artificial. Will this be the real 21st century generational dividing line?

    • Join an Institute for the Future Project: The following was sent to me by my colleagues at the Institute for the Future, and they agreed to let me repost.

    The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent nonprofit research group. We work with organizations of all kinds to help them make better, more informed decisions about the future. We provide the foresight to create insights that lead to action. We bring a combination of tools, methodologies, and a deep understanding of emerging trends and discontinuities to our work with companies, foundations, and government agencies.

    We are currently recruiting for a new research study called "Boomers in the Next 20 Years". For the purposes of this study, people who were born between 1946 and 1964 qualify as Boomers, and you do not need to identify as a Baby Boomer to participate. The study is about how you will respond to the changes and challenges in the next 20 years. We want to know about your experiences and the decisions you are making and foresee making in the areas of health, finance, work, family and community.

    Participation would include a response to this survey, followed by a brief telephone interview and a 2 hour interview in your home to be scheduled between June and August, 2007. Not all people who complete this survey will be selected for further interviews. Participants who complete of all phases of the project will be given a stipend of $100, paid by American Express gift card.

    We are particularly interested in interviewing people who live within 100 miles of city center of these cities:

    Denver, Colorado
    San Francisco, California
    Austin, Texas
    Seattle, Washington
    Miami, Florida
    Louisville, Kentucky
    Minneapolis St. Paul, Minnesota
    New York, New York

    Take our brief Recruitment Survey to get involved, or forward this message on to people you know who may be interested in participating. Thank you for your time!

    If you have any questions about participating in the project, please direct them to

    May 7, 2007

    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

    April 21, 2007

    Saturday Topsight, April 21, 2007

    heartlander.jpg• CardioBot: The Heartlander is an inch-long robot designed to crawl across the surface of a living, beating heart, in order to carry out various medical tasks. Inserting the Heartlander requires minimally-invasive surgery, potentially under local anesthetic (i.e., out-patient heart surgery!), as opposed to the current heart surgery paradigm, which relies on massive chest openings, lung deflation, and usually the stoppage of the heart. In pig tests, the Heartlander proved able to crawl across a living heart, delivering dye injections and inserting pacemaker leads at designated targets. Other potential uses include removing dead tissue and applying stem cell therapies.

    It's not autonomous, and it's still fairly large, so science fiction musings about medical nanobots remain purely conjectural, but still: a crawling heart surgery robot!

    • Open Source Success: Charles Babcock, in Information Week, offers up a nine-point checklist for the characteristics of a successful open source project. I've seen most of these before, in different fora, but this is a handy summation, and perfect for use as a filter for non-software open source concepts.

  • A thriving community -- A handful of lead developers, a large body of contributors, and a substantial--or at least motivated--user group offering ideas.
  • Disruptive goals -- Does something notably better than commercial code. Free isn't enough.
  • A benevolent dictator -- Leader who can inspire and guide developers, asking the right questions and letting only the right code in.
  • Transparency -- Decisions are made openly, with threads of discussion, active mailing list, and negative and positive comments aired.
  • Civility -- Strong forums police against personal attacks or niggling issues, focus on big goals.
  • Documentation -- What good's a project that can't be implemented by those outside its development?
  • Employed developers -- The key developers need to work on it full time.
  • A clear license -- Some are very business friendly, others clear as mud.
  • Commercial support -- Companies need more than e-mail support from volunteers. Is there a solid company employing people you can call?
  • It wouldn't be hard to apply this list to non-software open source products, such as a potential open source nanotechnology scheme. The application to more abstract concepts, like IFTF favorite "The Open Economy," is less straightforward, and would likely require the rewriting of the final three elements. Say...

    • Dedicated Participants -- Leading developers/creators/citizens need to be fully-engaged with the open endeavor, not just part-timers.
    • Clear Connections -- The points of connection to systems and institutions outside of the open system should be transparently demarcated, so that all participants are aware of the implications of the interaction.
    • Persistent Reliability Matters -- Reputations are built on successful relationships, not just successful one-off encounters; participants engaged with the open system need to be confident that there are reliable resources to help them with problems they might encounter.

    • A Killer Deal: Concept of the week: Assassination Markets, a prediction market wherein profits are made by knowing the date of a particular negative event, possibly (but not always) by being the entity that makes said negative event happen. The canonical example is a bet made on the date of the assassination of a given political figure by a person who then carries out that assassination as described; the possible real world example is the conjecture that a variety of short-sell orders on airline stocks made just before 9/11 originated from terrorist groups that knew of the upcoming attack.

    • A Singular Sensation: I was asked awhile ago, but now it's public: I'm on the speaker list for the upcoming Singularity Summit II, taking place in San Francisco in early September. The ostensible topic of the event is the emergence of powerful artificial intelligence, but I'm not sure yet what I'd like to talk about regarding that subject. Perhaps different scenarios of emergence; perhaps something about responsibility; perhaps something about AI as a cultural augmentation.


    March 22, 2007

    Thursday Topsight, March 22, 2007

    orthomovie_20040703.gif• Mapping the Present, Seeing the Future: Wired's Danger Room blog noted late last month the emergence of a fun little mashup map site called Global Incident Map smooshes data about a wide array of suspicious events onto a Google Map page. It's not the first or the only site to do this, but it does so in a way that nicely maximizes visitor anxiety.

    But I thought of it again when I saw this pair of reports: the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has opened up its CarbonTracker website, offering high-quality maps and animations of carbon dioxide levels for both North America and the globe; and the European Space Agency has now released its SCIAMACHY maps and data, showing the global flux of both atmospheric CO2 and methane. In neither case is the mapping real-time (the ESA data goes through 2005, while the NOAA maps go through 2006), but that will change.

    My question, though: Why can't we have a Global Incident Map type site for the environment? Combing through news reports, NASA/ESA/NOAA data, even user submissions to put together an anxiety-inducing map of where the world is going environmentally. It should be possible...

    • Wargaming Pandemic: Set aside the images of a 1980s teen-action movie or generals with plastic tanks -- wargames are one of our best tools for figuring out adaptive responses to complex problems. A wargame is, at its core, an interactive simulation of a high-cost, high-uncertainty environment. While that environment is, historically, usually a battlefield, it doesn't have to be. Case in point: the wargame played in Washington last week, bringing together undersecretaries and health agency directors from Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, along with people from the UN and WHO. The topic? H5N1 flu.

    Participating nations also sent officials from their ministries of foreign affairs, agriculture, tourism and internal security, as well... Their participation was essential, [Terrence Taylor, director of biological programs at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative] said, because the kind of influenza pandemic envisaged by the exercise scenario, with millions infected and survival rates low, would be much more than just a health crisis.

    "If you're going to deal with this properly, you have to address questions of population movement, border controls, of how to quarantine a population that feels threatened," he said.[...]

    Using techniques similar to those in modern war-gaming, the tabletop exercise envisaged a three-stage pandemic influenza emergency unfolding over a six month period after the mutation of the deadly bird flu virus H5N1 enabled it to be transmitted easily between humans.

    Unlike a policy paper or a conference, a wargame requires the participants to make decisions predicated on the consequences of earlier choices. It's not just "if-then," it's "if-then-then-then-then..."

    Wargames have fairly broad strategic application. In experience, they can be useful follow-ons to scenario exercises, giving strategists and planners an opportunity to test out competing approaches in the context of a changing environment.

    • Please, Not A Twitter Entry: Before SXSW, I'd never heard of Twitter, a "microblogging" app that lets you send quick updates via text message (IM or SMS) to people who care about the very latest cute thing your cat did. After SXSW, I'd be happy never to hear the word again. The program went through an entire invisible except to people in the know -->fringetech that wows the geekerati -->what do you mean you don't use it? -->ubi-"we're thinking of calling it twitter-by-south-twitter next year"-quitous -->"twitter? that's so over" cycle in 4 days.

    Still, this is kind of cool: near-real-time earthquake alerts via twitter. Just add sfearthquakes as a friend.

    • Can't Wait for this Book: Design guru Don Norman -- author of the iconic Design of Everyday Things, among others -- is working on his next guide: The Design of Future Things. Due out in November of this year (maybe), DoFT is Norman's attempt to sketch out design rules for the era when the stuff around us is smarter than we are.

    The first chapter and the afterward are now available in draft PDF form.

    March 5, 2007

    Monday Topsight, March 5, 2007

    • Pope-Emperor Declares Victory to Washington Officialdom: Mr. Sterling gets a Washington Post opinion page platform!

    It's the Net vs. the 20th-century fossil order in a fight that the cybergreens are winning. Why? Because they're not about spiritual potential, human decency, small is beautiful, peace, justice or anything else unattainable. The cybergreens are about stuff people want, such as health, sex, glamour, hot products, awesome bandwidth, tech innovation and tons of money.

    We're gonna glam, spend and consume our way into planetary survival.

    A welcome companion to the more DC-friendly, muscular Geo-Greens and post-hippie Glowing-Greens.

    • Rob Carlson's "Thoughts on Open Biology": One of the founding thinkers of "open source biology," Carlson here argues that simply "open biology" is a better way to approach the concept -- and notes that there's still much to do before open biology makes its mark:

    As in 2000, I remain today most interested in maintaining, and enhancing, the ability to innovate. In particular, I feel that safe and secure innovation is likely to be best achieved through distributed research and through distributed biological manufacturing. By "Open Biology" I mean access to the tools and skills necessary to participate in that innovation and distributed economy.

    "Open source biology" and "open source biotechnology" are catchy phrases, but they have little if any content for the moment. As various non-profits get up and running (e.g., CAMBIA and the BioBrick Foundation), some of the vagaries will be defined, and at least we will have some structure to talk about and test in the real world. When there is a real license a la the GPL, or the Lesser License, and when it is finally tested in court we will have some sense of how this will all work out.

    This is an important essay, and it deserves more attention than I'm giving it here. I hope to circle back to it when I'm home from SXSW.

    • Happy Celebrate Our Monkey Ancestors Day!: A piece I wrote awhile back noting that "no religion" is the third-most-popular "faith" in the US illuminated something about the country that few people in media or politics really want to acknowledge: increasingly, we're just not very religious. Over the last 15 years, the population of the US has grown by about 15%; in that same period, the number of US adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled, from 39 million to 75 million. Blogger and analyst Bill Scher, commenting during the Conservative Political Action Conference this last week, argued that, rather than liberals having a "religion problem," the more accurate analysis would be that conservatives have a "secular problem" -- and a pretty big one, too.

    Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly -- the larger portion of the religious vote -- the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7.

    Just another data point showing that, especially when it comes to cultural traditions and beliefs, established narratives hold more sway over media and political representations of reality than do the facts -- but we shouldn't build our scenarios and models based on what we assume to be true...

    • A Good Idea: ARPA-E, an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, in order to fund cutting-edge, low-probability/high-payoff energy research. Proposed last year, but still not implemented. (via)

    • Tattle-Dust: Hitachi demoed a new RFID tag that measures 0.002 x 0.002 inches, yet has capabilities equivalent to Hitachi's current smallest RFID, which measures a whopping 0.016 inches square. Not yet in production, and a Hitachi rep claims that they are "not imagining" any nefarious uses.


    • Upcoming Travel: Post-SXSW, I'm now looking at the UK (London), Switzerland (Lucerne), New York City, and Nebraska. (Sing it with me: "One of these things is not like the others...")

    February 22, 2007

    Thursday Topsight, February 22, 2007

    EMERGY-C-sm.jpgClearing out some of the backlog...

    • Word of the Week: Retroprobium A neologism by Paul Saffo, retroprobium is defined as "retroactive opprobrium... judging past actions by present standards." A clear example would be the horror we feel today at the overwhelming racism in the U.S. just 50 years ago (not meant to say that there's no racism today, but it manifests in a very different and more subtle way). I've believed for awhile that, by the mid-century if not sooner, the present-day practice of eating meat from dead animals will be seen with a similar kind of horror, for reasons combining environmental awareness, ethical awareness, and health. Now I have a word for that kind of reaction.

    Oddly, the examples that Saffo cites -- reactions to past drug use, and potential problems for the digital exhibitionism of the MySpace generation -- ring false to me. I don't see the criticism of decades-old drug use that he does (outside of a few narrow groups), and I'm not convinced that the MySpacers of today will be embarrassed in the years to come by their digital archives. I think it's more likely to be such a commonplace experience that any sting will have long since evaporated. If anything, the retroprobium I more commonly see involves changing values around inflicting harm or arbitrary restrictions upon others, not inflicting "harm" (as perceived by some) on oneself.

    Maybe it's a generational difference.

    • Low-Energy Websites: I have the gut sense that "life hacking" common activities to reduce one's energy footprint (hence greenhouse gas footprint) is going to be huge. My cheeseburger footprint series was an example, but Treehugger today comes up with something even better -- because there's already a clever solution.

    Displays that produce light-per-pixel, such as on-their-way-out CRTs and on-their-way-in Organic LEDs (but not the traditional LEDs in your current laptop display, which has an always-on backlight that's selectively blocked), draw differing amounts of power depending upon which colors they display: on a typical CRT, an all-white screen draws 74 watts, while an all-black screen only draws 59 watts. A minor difference, seemingly, but if you calculate out the difference that would result by Google changing its home page from white to black, the results are enormous:

    Take at look at Google, for instance, who gets about 200 million queries a day. Let's assume each query is displayed for about 10 seconds; that means Google is running for about 550,000 hours every day on some desktop. Assuming that users run Google in full screen mode, the shift to a black background will save a total of 15 (74-59) watts. Now take into account that about 25 percent of the monitors in the world are CRTs [so the savings is 750 megatwatt-hours total], and at 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, that's about $75,000/year, a goodly amount of energy and dollars for changing a few color codes.

    But all-black web-pages can be very hard to read (especially if the text is black, too). But wait! Designer Jon Doucette looked at the Energy Star ratings for different colors, and came up with a low-energy web palette, shown here at the top of this entry. This palette will, on average, draw only about 3-4 more watts than an all-black page.

    Looks like a site redesign may be in order...

    digitaltext.jpg• The Web is People!: Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University, has assembled a terrific four-and-a-half-minute video called "The Machine is Us/ing Us" that explains what "Web 2.0" means -- not with a cold lecture or a pseudo-powerpoint, but by showing us the new world.

    It's hard to describe, really -- there are no voices, just a musical score, and a remarkably clever presentation of words on the screen. If you don't know what people mean by Web 2.0, watch it; if you think that Web 2.0 is just marketing hype, watch it; if you think you know exactly what Web 2.0 is, watch it.

    In other words... oh, just go watch it.

    • Six Views of Jupiter: Eight different spacecraft have visited Jupiter over the past 34 years, and in nearly every case, each successive probe had better imaging capabilities. The Planetary Society's blog put together a nice composite shot of pictures of Jupiter, showing the Great Red Spot, from six different missions, from Pioneer 10 in 1973 through New Horizons in 2007. New Horizons isn't actually a Jupiter probe, it's heading of to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, but using a gravity assist slingshot from Jupiter.

    The good: it shows just how much the Great Red Spot has changed in what is really quite a short period of time -- it may not last the century.

    The sad: the pictures are only in black and white, not color -- even from the ones able to take more-or-less true color pictures.

    • Change Your Default Passwords, Damnit! Bruce Schneier describes a clever hack that can easily take over a home wireless router. Easily, that is, if you haven't changed your damn default password. Sheesh. It takes all of 3 seconds to do, and even a simple password is better than sticking with the default.

    February 7, 2007

    Things That Make Me Happy

    • Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is available, in its entirety, online, at both the Internet Archive and Google Video. As either MPEG or Flash video, of course, so it's not as good as a DVD version, but still. This is one of the best movies ever made, and has become a fundamental piece of cultural knowledge: it's the story of a truth told four ways. (Via WMMNA)

    • The $100 Laptop will use a new -- and very clever -- form of security to prevent virus and malware attacks. Rather than the traditional (and not very effective) firewall and "are you sure you want to do this?" security method, the designers have gone with a system that gives each application its own "virtual machine." A virus that infects a web connection, for example, would only ever be able to affect the web software, and would never be able to infect other programs, including the file system. The emergence of new system security models rock, both because it means we're not stuck with failing paradigms, and because it could have very interesting implications for biological immune systems.

    • 17-Year-Old Madhavi Gavini, a student at the Mississippi Institute of Science and Mathematics, has figured out a novel cure for Pseudomonas bacteria, an opportunistic bacteria that ravages people with suppressed immune systems (such as Cystic Fibrosis and AIDS). What's more, it's based on common plants and herbs. Best of all, she's made it open source.

    While Madhavi could become a millionaire by patenting her work, she has something else in mind: making it openly available. She points out, "If I were going to patent this, the rights would have to be sold to a pharmaceutical company, and that would greatly increase the cost of the drug once it's developed. So to prevent that from happening, by publishing it, the information becomes readily available and any company that wants to manufacture it, would be able to. So the price would be much lower due to competition and the people who need it most will have access to it."

    (Via open...)

    • About a decade ago, I helped a television producer named Rick Okie imagine the world of 2010 for a science fiction show called "Earth: Final Conflict." The show had its ups and downs, but did have some very cool future artifacts, most notably the GlobalLink -- a handheld wireless communication device with a scroll-out screen. It was a design that struck me as being eminently plausible, only needing a few more tech advances to make real.

    It looks like tech has advanced, as the Luxembourg company Polymer Vision has teamed up with Telecom Italia to produce the "Cellular-Book" (aka the "READIUS"), a handheld wireless communication device with a scroll-out screen.

    Here's a side-by-side of the GlobalLink (left) and Cellular-Book (right):


    Just needs the built-in camera. (Via Smart Mobs)

    • Finally, according to the British Medical Journal, learning to play the Didgeridoo is an effective treatment for sleep apnea. Swiss researchers found that eight weeks of didgeridoo instruction sufficiently strengthened throat muscles to reduce snoring and daytime sleepiness at least as well as the conventional treatment for sleep apnea, a "positive airway pressure" mask worn over the nose and mouth all night. Considering that sleep apnea can be a precursor to pulmonary and cardiac problems, even death, this is a clever treatment of a serious problem. Janice wants to know (a) does it work on non-apnea snoring, and (b) where I could start getting didgeridoo lessons.

    January 30, 2007

    Tuesday Topsight, January 30, 2007

    climatechall.jpgMultiple deadlines this week, plus meetings -- but interesting stuff keeps rolling in.

    • SimCollapse: Green LA Girl Siel gave me a heads-up about "Climate Challenge," a Flash-based simulation game produced by the BBC that gives players a chance to control Europe's climate and economic policies for the 21st century. Your goal: bring down overall carbon emissions without crashing the economy or being driven from office. The designers have done an excellent job of making the simulation complex enough to be hard without being so abstract as to be impossible. It's easy to end the game with one of the three conditions (climate, economy, popularity) doing great, and possible with some thought to end the game with two of the three doing at least reasonably well. I have yet to hit the right balance of all three.

    The choices you're given are plausible, but not overly timid. Not all of your choices are particularly green, and you have to pay attention to issues like water and food supplies on top of everything else. It's a game that lends itself to experimentation. Fortunately, the game moves quickly, so that you can play multiple rounds in one sitting without feeling like you've just blown your whole afternoon.

    I still have my default lament for simulations, though: it's neither open nor transparent. There's no way to tell what assumptions went into the underlying algorithms, let alone add in new options. Still, as a lunch time diversion, it's pretty cool.

    • Altruistic Forensics: BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin reports regularly for National Public Radio's "Day to Day," typically on the kinds of nifty but superficial topics that BoingBoing readers love: new tech at a porn convention, emotion detection gear, 3D digital brain maps, and the like. Her latest set of stories, however, looks at much deeper and important topic: a group called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which provides expertise in forensics to groups hoping to identify the remains of people lost to political violence and natural disasters. FAFG does the work that few people can, but all too many people need.

    Xeni has illustrated and expanded upon the stories in the series at BoingBoing.

    If your only experience of Xeni Jardin is that of a flirty blogger, you really need to read and listen to these stories. This is powerful, meaningful work. The first two stories are now up, and the pieces will continue through this week. Thanks for doing this, Xeni.

    • Digital Protest -or- Hey Hey! Ho Ho! 1011100!: Despite there being all of about 14 people who actually spend any time there*, Second Life is definitely the virtual world flavor of the year. All sorts of organizations are opening up virtual homesteads in SL, from IBM to the government of Sweden. The World Economic Forum, taking place right now in Davos, Switzerland, is another group with a Second Life footprint. Reuters in-world reporter, "Adam Reuters," has interviewed quite a few of the WEF attendees who have created digital alter-egos, including Arianna Huffington, Peter Gabriel, and Fareed Zakaria.

    The security at the real WEF is notoriously robust, but apparently that obsession with security hasn't yet translated to the virtual world: a protester with the group DaDavos waltzed into the WEF area in SL with a big anti-Davos placard. As he was apparently quite polite about the whole thing, no attempt was made to wrestle the avatar to the ground.

    * I know there are more than 14. Even Clay Shirky admits that there are more than 14. I kid! I kid!

    January 24, 2007

    Wednesday Topsight, January 24, 2007

    clock.jpgLet's see, lots of apocaphilia lately...

    Five Minutes to Midnight: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a well-known icon, shown here: the ticking clock, counting down to midnight. Throughout the Cold War, as tensions between the superpowers rose and waned, the Bulletin would move the minute hand closer or further away from the 12 o'clock mark. The closest it ever got was 2 minutes to midnight, in 1953 (after the first H-bomb test), and it has reached 3 minutes to midnight twice. In 1991, as the Cold War ended, the minute hand was moved to 17 minutes out as a demonstration of the more relaxed relationship between the superpowers. But in the intervening 16 years, the minute hand has crept back, reaching 7 minutes to midnight in 2002; this month, the hand was moved to 5 minutes to midnight. What's notable about this isn't simply the move, but why it moved: the threats arising from global warming, and the potential for weapons derived from biotechnology and molecular nanotechnology, have joined nuclear proliferation as a cause for concern about our fate.

    These are familiar issues to readers of OtF and WorldChanging, but up until recently the discussion of civilization-level threats beyond nuclear war rarely made it out of think tanks and futurist websites. With the Bulletin adding climate and bio/nanotech to its concerns, it's starting to look like efforts to push for greater mainstream awareness of major threats -- and their possible solutions -- may finally be paying off.

    Carbon Info at the Supermarket: Given the reaction to the cheeseburger footprint story, it should come as no surprise that the notion of identifying the greenhouse impact of food is gaining currency. The idea hasn't peaked; in fact, it looks like it's only going to get bigger. The UK supermarket chain Tesco announced late last week that it would put carbon labels on the products that it carries.

    ...the UK's biggest retailer, which produces 2m tonnes of carbon a year in the UK, said it would put new labels on every one of the 70,000 products it sells so that shoppers can compare carbon costs in the same way they can compare salt content and calorie counts. [...] The new carbon labelling programme will not be immediate. Tesco said it would first have to develop a "universally accepted and commonly understood" measuring system.

    If Tesco wants this to work, they need to make the carbon label available to other retailers, so that it truly does become a universal system.

    Into the Gap: The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology published a press release today that's worth checking out. A project on the "Software Control of Matter" has come up with a series of molecular manufacturing development projects that could well launch the era of the nanofactory far sooner than most expected.

    CRN's concern, and it's one that I share, is that there are as of now no real plans for handling the emergence of a technology this powerful. As Mike Treder puts it, "Existing nanotechnology policies, and most proposed policies, do not address huge new areas of concern raised by tomorrow's revolutionary manufacturing potential. That gap could be calamitous."

    Two Tickets for Apocalypse II: Electric Boogloo, Please: This rocks -- the website A Futurist at the Movies, which examines the plausibility of speculative fiction on film, has used my Eschatological Taxonomy to grade the level of threat in a variety of science fiction movies. Some examples: The Road Warrior (Class 1); The Matrix (Class 2); Children of Men (Class 3a); Star Wars (Class X -- the destruction of Alderaan).

    A couple of the apocalypse classes have no example movies. Any ideas what would fit in Classes 3B and 4?

    January 2, 2007

    Bruce Sterling on the State of the World, 2007

    brucesinbw.jpgBruce Sterling has kicked off his annual "State of the World" conversation over at the public Inkwell conference at the Well. For the next ten days or so, Bruce will be interviewed by Jon Lebkowsky (an old friend of mine, and one of the first people we brought on to WorldChanging lo these many years ago), and open to questions from both Well members and the general public (the latter through an email link).

    This is a great opportunity to see the Bruce Sterling Show in action. Here's a taste of what we've seen so far:

    I love Worldchanging; those guys rock, but it may be time to stop throwing so much visionary spaghetti at the walls and try to converge on some set of notions that might become real solutions. That may not be a proper job for people with Worldchanging's considerable talents. It wouldn's surprise me much to see something seriously freaky emerging: a rich guy's Worldchanging, something like a covert, hugely wealthy, braniac, mogul-saturated Project for a New Atmospheric Century. You might see the occasional white-paper pop out, and the rest of it would just be... vast mechanical grinding.

    Even in a world like that one, though, the visionary a-ha thing shouldn't be neglected or dismissed. It's honest work. It does matter. Doesn't take much of a budget... that's its drawback and its saving grace.

    I've seen worse suggestions.

    To give a sense of how this conversation can evolve, here are the links to Bruce's 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, and 2001 musings.

    November 21, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, November 21, 2006

    visitormap.jpgIt's a holiday week here in the US, and my posting will be a bit more sporadic than usual. Happy Thanksgiving, US readers...

    • They Came From Around the Planet: Why the repeated references to US visitors? As the map shown at right reveals, it turns out that the people coming to Open the Future visit from nearly every continent (I haven't noticed anyone coming in from Antarctica yet...), and a much greater variety of countries than I expected. I installed Sitemeter to get a better sense of the traffic flows; it's currently only set up to register the front page, so it's not picking up RSS visits or people going directly to interior pages. I'm not really focusing on the raw numbers, though -- what's really given me a charge is the global nature of OtF visitors. Welcome, folks!

    • The Origin of Species: Stanford's Fred Turner has written what sounds to be a cool new book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. As the title suggests, it's the story of Stewart Brand, and his influence from the early days before Whole Earth all the way through GBN to his most recent work with Long Now. RU Sirius (who tends to travel in circles that overlap Brand's) interviews Turner for a terrific article in the webzine 10 Zen Monkeys, and the interaction between Sirius and Turner is delightful. RU Sirius was there for much of what Turner discusses, without being at the focal point -- he's able to offer an insider's-outside-view, mirroring Turner's outsider's-inside-view.

    RU: I also think there’s a punk influence in this whole thing that gets ignored. Stylistically, Brand couldn’t be more different than the punk culture. But there’s a direct and important link between Whole Earth and punk culture and that’s DIY — Do It Yourself; start your own institutions, anybody can grab a tool and use it.
    FT: Very definitely. And Brand briefly embraced punk in his late-70s magazine, “Co-Evolution Quarterly.” And got a lot of hate mail from his audience.

    I met Fred Turner a few years ago, while he was working on the book, and I've been kind of frustrated at how poorly my schedule has lined up with his local appearances now that the book is out. He's actually speaking at GBN in a couple of weeks, in conversation with Stewart, but that event happens on the same night as the WorldChanging event at the Commonwealth Club in SF. I figure I really should go to the WC gig... Update: W00T! GBN changed the night for the Turner conversation, so I can hit it as well as the WorldChanging event.

    • At a Loss for Words. Seriously.: Dr. Eric Keroack is the newly-appointed head of the US government's Title X program, the only federal program with a family planning and reproductive health mandate. If that sentence gave you a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, you're right. Keroack is an abstinence-only crusader, and has actually argued in public that... well, let this frame from his powerpoint make his case:


    Modern germ warfare. And those of us in the US pay this man's salary.

    • Paradoxical Terror: Political science professor John Mueller asks a provocative question in the pages of the last issue of Foreign Affairs: what if there's no longer any substantive threat from al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups?

    A fully credible explanation for the fact that the United States has suffered no terrorist attacks since 9/11 is that the threat posed by homegrown or imported terrorists -- like that presented by Japanese Americans during World War II or by American Communists after it -- has been massively exaggerated. Is it possible that the haystack is essentially free of needles? [...]

    Intelligence estimates in 2002 held that there were as many as 5,000 al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in the United States. However, a secret FBI report in 2005 wistfully noted that although the bureau had managed to arrest a few bad guys here and there after more than three years of intense and well-funded hunting, it had been unable to identify a single true al Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country.

    This is, in effect, the "Fermi's Paradox" argument for terrorism.

    Mueller makes some strong points about the meaning of the lack of al Qaeda (or related) activity in the US in the years since 9/11, as well as the lack of evidence of al Qaeda (etc.) groups even existing in the US. And while high-profile events like the bombings in Madrid and London remain seared into our consciousness, the reality is that they are one-off events. Mueller further argues that these high-profile attacks are signs of al Qaeda's (and so forth) weakness, not strength.

    I'm not entirely convinced by his overall argument, largely because of the old saw that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Although Mueller is undoubtedly right that no single typical explanation for the lack of subsequent attack is itself valid, it's possible that the combination of factors has some explanatory value. Still, it's clear that AQ (etc.) are nowhere near as pervasive and dangerous as they were described in the months and years following 9/11.

    I'd really be interested in John Robb's take on this essay.

    November 8, 2006

    Wednesday Topsight, November 8, 2006

    plasticsolar.jpgOkay, giddiness over, back to business.

    • Super Elastic Solar Plastic: Say "solar power" and what normally comes to mind are those hard, dark slabs of silicon solar cells. But if folks at companies like Nanosolar and Konarka have anything to say about it, you'll soon think instead of slick, flexible plastic. Polymer photovoltaics have the potential to be the nifty energy technology of the coming decade, in part because they're cheap and rugged, and in part because they can be produced easily and with few toxic chemicals. Wired News has a good one-pager on the current status of polymer photovoltaics (and, of course, I wrote about them fairly often over at WC).

    The value of photovoltaic plastic isn't as a direct replacement for rooftop solar panels, but as a fabrication material to add energy production to locations or products that normally wouldn't be thought of as energy sources -- window shades, for example, or patio umbrellas, car roofs, or even the backs of jackets.

    Unmentioned in the Wired piece, unfortunately, is anything about the energy production efficiency of plastic solar. While silicon solar runs in the 15% or so efficiency range (that is, the material produces about 15% of the energy potentially available from insolation, about 1kw per square meter), polymer solar has been stuck down in the 3% realm. And while it may be possible to boost polymer photovoltaic efficiency to 10-15%, silicon solar in the lab has been pushed as far as 60% efficiency. Those hard, dark slabs won't be going away any time soon.

    • Presidents Need To Know Science? Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller teaches a course called "Physics for Future Presidents," and the entire course content can now be found online. His goal with the class is to provide, every session, information that every world leader should know about how the physical universe works. Topics include energy, radioactivity, light (useful for understanding capabilities of spy satellites), and basic quantum theory (important for understanding modern electronics, solar power, and lasers).

    Interestingly, it's clear that Muller knows physics, but doesn't understand other subjects quite as well as he should. He dismisses the Tesla Roadster, claiming it will cost a million dollars and weigh well over three tons -- all on the basis of a comment in a Wired article about the kinds of batteries it employs. In reality, the Tesla runs about $100,000 -- not cheap, but 90% less than Muller asserts -- and weighs about one ton. Maybe somebody needs to teach a class on Googling for Future Physics Professors.

    • Eco-Socialism: Pan Yue, China's deputy director for the State Environmental Protection Administration, has long been startlingly outspoken, declaring in an interview awhile back that China's so-called "economic miracle" was going to be strangled by the runaway environmental degradation. Now he's back, talking about the concept of "eco-socialism," and what real sustainable development might look like.

    The scientific view of development seeks a comprehensive and sustainable change of politics, economics, society, culture and theory – a transformation of civilisation. And so, the period between now and 2020 will be crucial in determining whether China can complete this transformation from traditional to eco-industrial civilisation.

    China faces some difficulties in achieving this. Firstly, there is a tension between our population, resources and environment. Secondly, in today’s world, each country vies for energy, resources and the environment. We cannot export our pollution as developed countries can. We must resolutely work towards to a new style of industrialisation, whatever the price. Japan is a good example of this.

    I know that Pan Yue is hardly representative of China's leadership as a whole, but we can dream...

    October 31, 2006


    180px-Printer1.pngSo, gone for about a week, followed by a week of meetings and deadlines, and I end up with a serious backlog of interesting/cool/relevant links that really should blog more thoroughly. Rather than bemoan my fate and slowly trickle them out until I get overwhelmed by more current material, I'll just go ahead and bullet point 'em with very short explanations as to why.

    Here's some of what's been swimming around in my extended headspace for the last couple of weeks:

    Fab @ Home is an open source project out of Cornell, via MIT to create DIY blueprints for a basic fabber. More than that, they're aiming for a universal fabber able to use multiple materials in one object, in order to produce "complete, active systems." The big question: will they get to a working version before a relatively inexpensive commercial product comes out? That is, who will define the market -- the open source method or the proprietary method? (via)

    Healthmap is a Google Maps mashup showing geographic links to news stories about emerging global diseases. This is sort of the quick & dirty version of Larry Brilliant's INSTEDD project.

    Tracking the Threat is like Healthmap for terrorism: a Google Map mashup showing geographic links to news stories about al Qaeda. Both Healthmap and Tracking the Threat are prime examples of the modern era of Open Source Intelligence.

    US Congress looking into Metaverse economies, just as Julian Dibbell predicted (and I wrote about, as well). Lots of numbers get thrown around, but I suspect the trigger will be whether the virtual money is usable outside of the virtual world -- that is, can I buy something non-virtual with it? In the case of World of Warcraft gold pieces, no; in the case of Second Life lindens, yes, making it a complementary currency, and likely taxable.

    futurambmaslow.jpgMartin Börjesson wonders whether the traditional concept of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- physiological first, then safety, then love, then status, and lastly actualization -- has in fact been reversed by modern culture. Not a lot of detail, but a truly provocative argument.

    Mobile phone ATM in Uganda, similar to mobile phone banking in Kenya, is a paradigmatic example of "the street finds its own uses for things." (-Wm. Gibson) It's not the phone itself that works as an ATM, but the mobile phone system, including transferrable minutes and phone cards. (via)

    Face Recognition for Secure Phones uses a mobile phone's camera to identify whether the person holding the phone is the authorized user. It's slow and requires 3-10 calibrating photos, but it's a distant early warning of the era of mobile devices with face recognition capacity.

    Solar Electric Light Fund made it possible for Pop!Tech 2006 to be "double carbon neutral." Pop!Tech purchased enough carbon offsets from SELF to cover the travel of all participants twice over, by underwriting the deployment of solar electricity systems to 44 villages in Benin. That absolutely rocks.

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    October 10, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, October 10, 2006

    boomgoessf.jpgIt's End of the World time at Open the Future Topsight!

    • MADH -- Mutually Assured Dark Humor: DEFCON proclaims itself to be the "World's First Genocide 'em up," and that bit of ad copy should tell you everything you need to know about the underlying attitude of this game of global thermonuclear war. The graphics are chilling, looking like General Buck Turgidson's "big board" mashed-up with a first-person shooter: as the missiles hit home, the numbers of dead float for a moment above each impact point, then evaporate. The goal of the game isn't to win -- as the web domain proclaims, "everybody dies!" -- but to lose the least.

    When I first stumbled across this game, I thought it was a parody, but it seems to be quite real. Up to six people can play over the net, and there's even a "diplomacy" mode. The demo offers a single opponent (AI or network) and the standard play mode only. In a week where the nuclear weapons are on the front pages, it's only appropriate to give them their due.

    • Political Games, Part Deux: If blowing up the world isn't your schtick, how about just the Strait of Hormuz? In the game "Counter Strike" -- not the Half Life mod -- players try to plant bombs on an oil tanker in order to sink it in a way to block the waterway, thereby cutting access to about 40% of the world's oil supply. Oh, did I mention that it was a product of state-funded Iranian game designers, intended to demonstrate how such an act could take place?

    There's not much info about the game other than a single Reuters piece, but the commentary among the "serious games" crowd has been interesting. Ian Bogost at Water Cooler Games muses about how to categorize the game (propaganda? education? videogame diplomacy?), asking whether it is the 'first example of a videogame-based geopolitical act." Nate Combs at Terra Nova riffs off of Bogost's observations, and links to the larger question of the purpose of building virtual worlds. (The comments at Terra Nova are less edifying, unfortunately, as they include at least one participant who seems to insist that any discussion of this game other than condemnation is implicit support for the Iranian government.)

    • Because Nothing Could Go Wrong With Armed Computers: If you don't have the stomach for global thermonuclear war or system disruption terror, maybe we should just take people out of the loop entirely. At least, that's what a group within the US Department of Defense wants to do, according to Jane's Defence Weekly:

    A proposal, unveiled publicly in September but never before publicised, would give "armed autonomous systems" the authority to shoot to destroy hostile weapon systems but not suspected combatants. Accordingly, any people killed or injured in the attack would be considered the collateral damage of a successful strike on a legitimate target.

    There are so many things dizzyingly wrong with this proposal it's hard to know where to start.

    • Nanomaterials to the Rescue!: So how about some good news, then? Researchers at Clemson university have figured out a way to use carbon nanotubes to render weaponized anthrax spores effectively harmless!

    The Clemson team used carbon nanotubes as a platform or scaffolding for displaying sugar molecules that would attract the anthrax spores. [...] When sugar coated, the carbon nanotubes bind with the anthrax spores, creating clusters that are too large to be inhaled -- stopping their infection and destruction.

    Sun said a similar approach using sugar-coated carbon nanotubes to stop the spread of E. coli bacteria was tested successfully in 2004. He sees this new method potentially as a way for first responders to contain anthrax in an office or mailroom setting using a water-based gel, foam or aerosol spray, and he thinks it has potential application on the battlefield in larger quantities.

    You can find a very cool image of Anthrax spores covered in sugar here.

    (Via Medgadget)

    September 21, 2006

    Thursday Topsight, September 21, 2006

    shuttle-iss-sun.jpgReturning to the multiple links in a post format in an (unsuccessful) effort to curb my verbosity.

    • What Could Have Been: Al Gore's recent speech at the NYU School of Law has received ample coverage in both the activist and the environmentalist blogosphere, so I won't say much about the speech itself. Unsurprisingly, I found his ideas powerful and his presentation (at least in text) compelling.

    The idea of calling for a "carbon freeze" is a delightful bit of memetic engineering. Technically speaking, a freeze on greenhouse gas emission growth is only useful if it's followed by reductions, but the phrasing has historical resonance and the concept is easily grasped. His argument for replacing all payroll taxes with carbon taxes is also enticing, although I must admit that my reaction is colored in part due to my circumstances of being a zero-commute knowledge worker (hence relatively little carbon output from work) who just had to pay a surprisingly large quarterly tax bill.

    My main point of hesitation about this plan is one I have with most "sin tax" proposals: if the tax is successful at reducing the "sin," it reduces the resources our government has to work with; conversely, if the tax provides a steady source of income for government programs, it is an insufficient barrier to the undesired activity. In short, if the carbon tax is onerous enough to drive organizations to zero-carbon behaviors, it won't bring in enough income to replace payroll taxes. At that point, either the carbon taxes go up further or we have to go back to other taxation systems.

    There's a related problem in that current income taxes are very mildly progressive (i.e., a higher percentage for the rich than for the poor), and it's likely that a carbon tax would be far less so (in fact, given that the poor are more likely to drive older vehicles and live in substandard buildings, they may end up using more carbon per capita than the rich).

    In and of themselves, these are not sufficient for me to say "no way" to the Gore idea. But they do suggest that a foresight-based approach to planning how such a taxation strategy would work is absolutely necessary. The last thing we'd want is for a switch to carbon taxes to gut government programs while simultaneously hitting the poor harder than the rich.

    • Fly Green: Richard Branson today announced that he would spend all profits from his five airlines and train company through the next ten years on greenhouse gas-avoiding energy sources. The total looks to be somewhere around US$3 billion.

    Mr. Branson said his companies are already engaged in developing an aviation fuel not derived from oil, as well as enzymes that can improve the efficiency of processes that break down the cellulose in grasses and other crops to produce ethanol and other farmed fuels.

    One item in the NYT story that I found both disgusting and unsurprising:

    And while drug and semiconductor companies typically invest 10 percent or more of revenues into research, in the energy industry the typical research budget is about 0.3 percent of revenues, said Daniel Kammen, an energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

    • Shuttle. Station. Sun: This is just a very cool picture: the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station in transit across the face of the Sun. Photograph by amateur photographer Thierry Legault from Mamers, Normandy.

    • Bruuuuuuuce!: Pope-Emperor Sterling has a terrific short story in New Scientist(!) entitled "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Google," about what happens to youth culture in a world of ubiquitous sensors and observation.

    We teenagers have to live in "controlled spaces". Radio-frequency ID tags, real-time locative systems, global positioning systems, smart doorways, security videocams. They "protect" us kids, from imaginary satanic drug dealer terrorist mafia predators. We're "secured". We're juvenile delinquents with always-on cellphone nannies in our pockets. There's no way to turn them off. The internet was designed without an off-switch.

    • We Can Do It Now: One of the points I kept hammering on at WorldChanging was that the tools and technologies to allow us to beat catastrophic climate disruption were already available to us -- we don't have to wait to act. Now research in Science backs up that assertion. Technology Review summarizes. The upshot? Combined use of non-fossil fuel energy sources could replace all fossil fuel generation; plug-in hybrids could replace 80% of petroleum use in the US; all fossil fuels could be reduced by 70% in 30 years. The researchers estimate the cost as $200 billion per year in the US. A high number, to be sure, but one that ignores the net benefits to the economy of (a) improved efficiencies and (b) new technological industries.

    • I Love This Term: I haven't read the article yet, just the lede, but I already love the phrase used as the article's title: "Artificial Intelligentsia."

    September 20, 2006


    aerosonde.jpgNew Scientist reports on the planned use of the Aerosonde drone to measure the conditions inside a hurricane, including the temperature, pressure, humidity and wind velocity. The Aerosonde will go where no human-crewed aircraft could -- just a few hundred meters above the ocean, where the winds of a hurricane are at their peak. The $50,000 unmanned air vehicle (UAV) is powered by a modified model aircraft engine, and carries meteorological sensors, GPS and (of course) a small computer.

    This is very cool, and I look forward to hearing about the results (they haven't had any luck so far, because no hurricanes have come close enough to the mainland US). But while reading the story, I was struck by a connection to something I linked to a few months ago: the Polecat unmanned combat air vehicle, 90% of which is produced by a 3D printer.

    At the time, I drew a connection between the Polecat story and the possible use of UAVs by Hezbollah in the recent Lebanon conflict. The Aerosonde story is a better connection, however, and it ties into my larger argument about the democratization of environmental study. As 3D printing technology becomes more readily available, I expect to see the proliferation of small, cheap robotic vehicles for environmental study -- unmanned environmental vehicles, or UEVs, if you will. Certainly research groups will want them, and university students will probably be close behind. As the price drops, and the number of designs grows, you might start to see them in the hands of interested citizens.

    And while the UEV that inspired this post is an aircraft, there's no reason why mobile environmental sensors would be limited only to the air.

    3D printing might turn out to be a transformative technology for environmental research.

    September 14, 2006

    A Last Comment on New Awakenings

    I've found it fascinating the kinds of emotions the story about the zolpidem treatment for persistent vegetative state elicits in people. This is clearly a story that hits us in the gut even more powerfully than in the mind. It's a story that leads to difficult questions for those of us who have long advocated for the right to choose one's own course of treatment, including the cessation of treatment.

    By far the most common reaction among my friends and colleagues -- and even from me -- has been some variation on rethinking decisions to ask loved ones to "pull the plug" on them if they ever entered a PVS. It's as if all of the concerns around quality of life, expense and misery for caregivers, and loss of both cognition and identity fly out the window at the first sign that a PVS may not have to be so persistent. But people entering a vegetative state do so because of serious trauma -- you don't come out of that fit and ready for work. It's entirely possible that issues around quality of life, expense and misery, etc., could end up being at least as great if not greater once someone comes out of a vegetative state. I'm not saying don't use zolpidem or anything of the kind, only that making choices like this requires a realistic appraisal of the situation.

    I've seen a couple of sites linking to my piece (or the BoingBoing entry) that specifically call out the Terry Schiavo case as a situation in which knowledge of this potential treatment would have made a difference. Sadly, it wouldn't have: Schiavo's brain tissue was so thoroughly atrophied that there would have been little for the zolpidem to stimulate. If anything, the Schiavo case is a powerful reminder that zolpidem and the inevitable follow-on treatments won't work on every patient. Initially, it might appear that in such cases there would be no reason not to try the drug anyway, just in case -- but that could well lead to a nightmare scenario where the patient is "conscious" in the sense of responsive to noise, touch and other external stimuli (so clearly no longer technically in a vegetative state) but utterly without cognitive function, memories or any other sign of the previous identity. If all that is left is the lower brain function, is this person still alive? Is he or she still the person we knew, just because he or she once lived in that body?

    For those of us who believe that people should have a right to end their own suffering -- or to authorize a loved one to carry out those wishes, if necessary -- the accidental success of this treatment opens up big questions around what constitutes brain death. If a doctor administers zolpidem and reawakens a PVS patient into functional awareness, that's wonderful. If the zolpidem doesn't work, what then? It may be that (say) prozac or xanax has the right chemical trigger to stimulate brain activity in some of the remaining people; how many caregivers would be able to allow a loved one to die with some measure of dignity if such a treatment seemed tantalizingly possible? How many PVS patients will remain unconscious for years to come, well after family might have otherwise agreed to let them pass on, because of the chance that a new drug might help?

    Some people have described the ability for a cheap sleeping pill to awaken people thought to be lost as miraculous. But too often, miracles can be accompanied by lasting pain and regret.

    September 12, 2006

    Further Thoughts on New Awakenings

    It's clear from the details in the Guardian article that application of zolpidem to treat PVS does not need to happen immediately, nor only to "mildly" damaged individuals. One of the recipients described in the piece was brain damaged at birth (not PVS), and successfully treated as a teenager. Moreover, the chemical stimulates parts of the brain considered to be "dead" (but not necrotic).

    The implications here are profound, and unsettling. Not for the recipients of the treatment, of course -- they and their families will celebrate their return. But what about people who have "pulled the plug" on loved ones in persistent vegetative states in recent years? Do they read this news with the horrible realization that the now-dead partner or relative might have been saved with a $5 pill? What are the legal implications? The first use of zolpidem as an anti-PVS treatment was seven years ago, and has been replicated now dozens if not hundreds of times. Could a lawyer for family members opposed to the termination of care for a PVS patient sue the family members who chose to do so, and win?

    What about the roughly 40% of PVS patients for whom the zolpidem treatment is ineffective? What is the underlying difference in condition? Aside from those cases where the trauma to the brain is so massive that stimulation into activity is physically impossible, would another drug with similar-but-not-identical chemistry be more effective?

    It seems to me that termination of care for patients in persistent vegetative states should become even more infrequent, if it happens at all. Even if zolpidem is tried and fails, the chance that a similar drug -- or proper application of a zolpidem-derived treatment -- could awaken the PVS patient, even after years, is just too great to ignore. The legal and ethical landscape around brain damage has been irrevocably changed by this.

    Zolpidem has been on the market now long enough to be found in generic form. The Guardian piece notes that the original discoverer of the drug, Sanofi-Adventis, has chosen not to participate in research trials on its use for brain damage; undoubtedly, they see little profit potential for expanded use of a drug they no longer control, no matter how miraculous. While I think they're making a terrible mistake (the PR benefits alone would be significant), the fact that the research is being carried out primarily in South Africa, a nation with a history of fighting big pharma control over major life-saving drugs, encourages me to think that this might end up as a functionally-free treatment for one of the most terrifying and demoralizing for the family medical conditions known.

    New Awakenings

    zolbrain.jpgThis is astounding. The sleeping pill zolpidem (sold in the US as Ambien) awakens people in persistent vegetative states as often as 60% of the time.

    Across three continents, brain-damaged patients are reporting remarkable improvements after taking a pill that should make them fall asleep but that, instead, appears to be waking up cells in their brains that were thought to have been dead. In the next two months, trials on patients are expected to begin in South Africa aimed at finding out exactly what is going on inside their heads. Because, at the moment, the results are baffling doctors. [...]

    I see Louis before his daily medication, yet he is conscious where once he would have been comatose. Almost blind because of a separate and deteriorating condition, there is a droop to one side of his mouth and brow because of brain damage. His right arm is twisted awkwardly into his side.

    Louis is given a pill, and I watch. It is 8.30am. After nine minutes the grey pallor disappears and his face flushes. He starts smiling and laughing. After 10 minutes he begins asking questions. [...] A couple of minutes later, his right arm becomes less contorted and the facial drooping lessens. After 15 minutes he reaches out to hug Sienie.

    These aren't people in regular comas (unconscious, but with measurable low-level brain activity), these are people in PVS, with brain scans showing zero activity in large parts of the brain. After taking zolpidem, these dead sections wake back up.

    It appears that the recipients need to take the drug daily to maintain consciousness, but some patients are going on 7 years without any signs of decline (unlike with L-dopa, as in "Awakenings"). It doesn't restore necrotic brain cells, but it does seem to stimulate dormant ones, even in people with non-PVS brain damage. As in:

    I meet 22-year-old Janli de Koch, whose eyesight was damaged in a car accident in Switzerland in December 2004. The injury resulted in a restriction of her visual field to two corners of her eyes; she cannot see below a certain point, so that she bumps into things and falls over. Last month, she was prescribed zolpidem and now says she can already see more than she used to.

    Recipients are also showing improvement in motor function and balance.

    A sleeping pill treatment for vegetative states and serious brain damage. That's just... wow.

    September 8, 2006

    Friday Topsight, September 8, 2006

    Just a quick one today, with not as much text -- but good links to hang onto.

    • Smeed's Law: What happens when you add cars to traffic? The number of accidents goes down. On average, annual increases of traffic volume leads to a decrease in accidents per vehicle. That was the observation of one RJ Smeed in 1949, and the rule has proven true (much to everyone's surprise) time and again.

    The Wikipedia entry on Smeed's Law is terse, but an interesting article by Gwynne Dyer sent to me in email gives a bit more discussion:

    Around the world, about 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents each year. An astounding 85 percent of those deaths happen in developing countries, although they own less than a fifth of the world's vehicle fleet. [...]

    The amount of road traffic in the United States has grown fourteen-fold since 1925. If the number of American deaths per million miles (kilometres) driven had stayed steady at the 1925 rate, there would now be 300,000 deaths per years on American roads, not 40,000. [...]

    Smeed offered no explanation for this phenomenon, but I think that there is a collective learning process as more and more people become experienced drivers, and particularly as the generations turn over and children grow up in families that already own cars.

    As with all such observations, there is some dispute over its details, but as a general rule, it appears to hold broadly true. Dyer's explanation, the "collective learning process," makes sense, but it suggests to me that there might be an even bigger rule at work.

    Is there a Smeed's Law for other technologies? Does the rate of accident or unintended misuse for other technologies go down as the technologies become more commonplace? Put that way, it seems likely, and would come from a combination of better skills, collective learning (e.g., observation while young of appropriate technology use so that it becomes an instinctive behavior), and systems in the technology to help users avoid problems, whether we mean anti-lock brakes or VCRs that automatically set the time (no more blinking 12:00).

    • Social Footprints: Joel Makower writes about the concept of the Social Footprint of climate change, described by the Center for Sustainable Innovation as the "quantitative measures of the social sustainability of behaviors -- collective organizational behaviors, in particular."

    The goal of measuring social footprints, says CSI, is "to assess the sustainability of organizational operations in terms of their impacts on strategies for achieving climate change mitigation."

    Translation: the social footprint looks beyond whether a company's efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions are merely worthy or exemplary, but whether they are sufficient to actually solve the problem. [...]

    It goes beyond merely tracking aggregate greenhouse emissions, assessing whether a company's climate strategy and performance can actually help stem a climate crisis over the long term.

    I like this. I must admit to having some deep hesitation around the "ecological footprint" concept, except as a very broad metaphor; most of the footprint measurement tools involve way too much hand-waving and assumption (around water use, around consumption of non-energy resources, around energy production) for my taste. This metric, conversely, is both more narrow and more justifiably quantitative than the "how many planets are we consuming?" footprint model. In addition, rather than looking at a snapshot of how your behaviors map today, it looks at ongoing dynamics. Green thumbs up here.

    • Set Kirkyans on Stun: In Wednesday's post on (Virtual) Weapon Smuggling, I mention in a somewhat off-hand way about Sven Johnson's concept of Kirkyans. He returns the favor with a new write-up, linking to the Weapon post, going into more detail about the Kirkyan idea, and an unexpected challenge it may present. In short, the co-evolution of physical manufactured objects and their virtual counterparts could be particularly suited to weapons development.

    It seems to me that the Kirkyan model does not need to apply solely to objects per se. A building design that "learns" through virtual iteration could be a Kirkyan. Moreover, if we want to think about the thuggish implications of the physical world/virtual world overlap, there's nothing to stop a group of criminals from testing and perfecting a crime using a virtual model of a real space; in fact, I'd be a bit surprised if it hasn't happened already.

    Hmm. I think I may have a movie pitch here.

    September 1, 2006

    Friday Topsight, September 1, 2006

    ioke_supertyphoon.jpgLots of items backed up here.

    • Hype Scorecard: Author Sharon Weinberger, subbing at the Defense Tech website, offers up a checklist helping the gentle reader to figure out whether a weapon proposal is actually a stupid idea. As I read through the list, however, it struck me that nearly every item on the checklist would work just as well if "weapon" were replaced with nearly any kind of technology -- and energy technology is a particularly well-suited to this scorecard. Does the technology promise a revolution? Does it lack a realistic scenario of how it would be used? Does it rely on Powerpoint instead of engineering details to prove reality? Does it violate known physical laws?

    Hmm. I wonder what piece of recent hype might fare poorly under this checklist?

    • SuperTyphoon: The nasty heat of this summer prompted a variety of global warming "skeptics" to rethink their position. Unfortunately, conversion by anecdote leaves one vulnerable to new anecdotes, and I'm now starting to see claims that this year's relatively calm Atlantic hurricane season disproves that there's an ongoing climate disaster. Except... hurricanes happen in more places than the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic. This year's Pacific storm season is quite alarming. SuperTyphoon Ioke did what few Pacific hurricanes do, cross from the Eastern to the Western Pacific, and now threatens Tokyo. As the name suggests, SuperTyphoons are not terribly common, and Ioke, at its peak, was massive -- fortunately, the winds have died down a bit, and it may be "only" equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane when it slams into Japan.

    • Bottom-Up Tsunami Warnings: People in Sri Lanka, upset because the official tsunami warning centers haven't yet come online, have put together a very unofficial -- but potentially very useful -- collaborative tsunami warning system.

    ...residents in the southern town of Peraliya, where around 1,000 people died when a passenger train was swamped by the tsunami and dozens of locals were swept to their deaths, have taken matters into their own hands.

    Waduthantri and seven residents take turns to monitor the airwaves, cable television channels and earthquake warning Web sites around the clock at their own Community Tsunami Early Warning Centre.

    The centre, set up with private donations from foreign nationals, is sandwiched between ramshackle temporary shelters and the ruins of homes. [...]

    "We feel safe now, because the people in this centre are continuously monitoring, and the lights are on 24 hours," said 63-year-old grandmother L.H. Aryawathi, who lives in a small shack wrapped in plastic sheeting donated by the United Nations.

    "These children are monitoring all day and informing us if there is any threat. Otherwise I wouldn't settle here by the sea," she added, as waves crashed onto the beach across the road.

    Unsurprisingly, the government is unhappy with this ad hoc effort, and has declared the program illegal.

    • The Carlson Curve: My friend Rob Carlson is a biologist working on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, and is hard at work on a new book. He was a bit surprised, however, to find himself cited in the latest Economist for a paper he wrote a few years ago. But it wasn't just the citation that was a bit startling -- it was how his name was used:

    Dr Carlson is a researcher at the University of Washington, and some graphs of the growing efficiency of DNA synthesis that he drew a few years ago look suspiciously like the biological equivalent of Moore's law. By the end of the decade their practical upshot will, if they continue to hold true, be the power to synthesise a string of DNA the size of a human genome in a day.

    At the moment, what passes for genetic engineering is mere pottering. It means moving genes one at a time from species to species so that bacteria can produce human proteins that are useful as drugs, and crops can produce bacterial proteins that are useful as insecticides. True engineering would involve more radical redesigns. But the Carlson curve (Dr Carlson disavows the name, but that may not stop it from sticking) is making that possible.

    Woah. Like Moore's Law, the Carlson Curve is a simple projection based on an observation of past behavior, not a real physical law, but that's not as important culturally as it is scientifically. Culturally, we pay more attention to past behavior than to theory, which is why we can be taken in by investment scams and discount the threat of long-term problems. It's entirely possible that the Carlson Curve -- which shows that improvements to our ability to synthesize base pairs are increasing at a rate greater than Moore's Law -- will come to a grinding halt in a year or two... but equally possible that it will continue for a good long while, as both the underlying technology for gene sequencing and our ability to figure out the most efficient techniques improve.

    The Carlson Curve: watch this meme.

    August 15, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, August 15, 2006

    asteroid_strike.jpgToday's Topsight Tuesday is all about things that worry and frighten us: massive asteroid impacts, terrorism, and Powerpoint.

    • Boom: This video at YouTube apparently comes from a Japanese program on global disasters. It shows what would happen if we had a major asteroid strike on Earth. And by "major," I mean "essentially hit by another planet" -- the asteroid in the video is far larger than anything that has struck the Earth since the earliest days of planetary formation. The asteroid shown is orders of magnitude larger than the one that hit the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period, wiping out the non-avian dinosaurs. It's quite literally a planet-killer.

    Link to version on YouTube with great instrumental soundtrack. Link to version on YouTube with Japanese commentary.

    The History Channel's "Mega-Disasters" series included a more likely scenario -- the impact of an asteroid a few miles in diameter. Los Angeles is obliterated in the show. The US History Channel doesn't have a repeat of this episode on the schedule, but it will show again in the UK -- and the UK site includes a preview video with some of the highlights.

    • Smart Mob Security Concepts: Social networking pioneer Valdis Krebs has written a concise and readily-understood description of how social network analysis can be used to combat global guerillas. Connecting the Dots lays out how social network analysis works, and provides a real-world example using the 9/11 hijackers. Once suspects are identified, through traditional investigative/intelligence means, SNA takes over:

    What do you do with these suspects? Arrest or deport them immediately? No, we need to use them to discover more of the al-Qaeda network. Once suspects have been discovered, we can use their daily activities to uncloak their network. Just like they used our technology against us, we can use their planning process against them. Watch them, and listen to their conversations to see...
    1. who they call / email
    2. who visits with them locally and in other cities
    3. where their money comes from
    The structure of their extended network begins to emerge as data is discovered via surveillance.

    Not blanket, omnivorous surveillance, but targeted, narrow-but-deep surveillance, taking care to avoid guilt-by-association and looking for repeated patterns. Krebs underscores this point with an update about the recent UK capture:

    It appears that this terror network was not disrupted by data mining of massive phone & financial records -- Big Brother was not involved. An entry point was found into the network, allowing the activity of the network to reveal the structure of the network -- all without bothering the other 60,000,000+ UK residents.

    Counteracting terrorist/global guerilla groups through law enforcement tools and careful surveillance with warrants -- why didn't we think of that before?

    (If you find this subject interesting, Krebs wrote a much longer and more detailed piece in early 2002 for First Monday, entitled Uncloaking Terrorist Networks.)

    • Uses and Abuses of Powerpoint: Powerpoint is one of the necessary evils of the consulting world. Not necessary in the sense of being required to do your job well, but necessary in the sense of being required by many clients as an artifact of your work. It's entirely possible to construct useful and informative digital presentations (see, for example, Al Gore's Keynote deck in An Inconvenient Truth), but all too often these slideshows end up confusing more than illuminating.

    Exhibit A, cited by Crooked Timber, in the wonderfully-titled Powerpoint Corrupts the Point Absolutely:


    This is a slide from a Pentagon presentation on the reconstruction of Iraq, pulled from Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco. Setting aside the viability of the strategy, it's mind-boggling that anyone could think that this would be an enlightening construction of information.

    My Powerpoint strategy? Pretty pictures, with a minimum of text, that underscore what I'm saying without distracting the audience.

    August 1, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, August 1, 2006

    Haleakela_1999_Cascio.jpg"The guns of August." For anyone with a background in military/political history, that phrase is redolent with sadness. It's the title of Barbara Tuchman's highly-regarded book on the first world war, but it has come to suggest the sense of foreboding that arises in the early days of a war, especially one that begins at the peak of northern hemisphere summer. The current conflict in Lebanon generates that "guns of August" sadness in me, in part because of what has been lost in the destruction of the fragile re-democratization of Lebanon, and in part because of how much more will be lost as Israel ramps up its invasion, Hezbollah fires off more of its rockets, and Syria contemplates entering the fray -- all egged on (explicitly or implicitly) by an American administration that sees a cleansing fire as the only path to salvation for the region... and if it happens to fit in with their own rapture delusions, so much the better. Rationality may still take hold, and the participants could still pull back from the brink of disaster, but it's hard to be optimistic when civilians are dying.

    In 1990, I wrote my Master's thesis in Political Science on the last downfall of democracy in Lebanon; if I can dig up an electronic copy, I'll post it here.

    • On Democracy Part 1: I was once told, in passing, by a political science professor that the sign of a successful democratic institution isn't how the winners win, but how the losers lose. Do they accept the results of a fairly-counted vote? Do they seek to claim that national security, or the higher public interest, or the "silent majority" overrules the balloting? Do they attempt to manipulate the vote, or (less obviously) resist those who seek to oversee and guarantee a fair accounting? In short, do they accept that they have lost, and act as a "loyal opposition," trying to perfect their arguments for the next election, or do they resist relinquishing power?

    I have the feeling that this will be a set of questions we'll all be paying closer attention to in the months to come.

    • On Democracy Part 2: One important tool for insuring the fairness and accountability of political figures is transparency, and the first step to transparency is easily-accessible information. The Sunlight Foundation's new "PopUp Politicians" script makes it easy for bloggers and other website writers to embed links about American politicians into web pages. By adding a single-line script onto the main page template, then an easily-remembered HTML code around a politician's name, any reference to political figures can jump to their Congresspedia pages, their Campaign Finance profiles, and their voting records.

    Just mouse-over the sun icon next to the congressperson's name to see how it works:

    (my Rep in the House).

    As of right now, the PopUp Politicians script only works for current US Members of Congress. The setup is simple enough, however, that I expect to see versions for They Rule (linking to corporate information) or ExxonSecrets (linking to information about bought-and-paid-for "climate skeptics") in the near future.

    • Get Ready!: Whether you'll need to deal with an earthquake, a hurricane, a heatwave-related power outage, terrorist attack, or pandemic disease, chances are you'll be confronted by a significant loss of infrastructure support in the near future. Those of us growing up in California learned from an early age to have an emergency kit ready in case of a big quake, but there's no place in the world immune from major disasters. The US Department of Homeland Security set up to provide information on disaster preparation, but it sucks. That's why the Federation of American Scientists organization has built as a better, more complete and more useful resource for disaster prep.

    ReallyReady includes specific information for people with disabilities, easy-to-use checklists of supplies, and specific instructions for understanding and dealing with a variety of disaster types, from earthquakes, hurricanes and extreme heat to pandemics, "radiation threats," and "explosions." What makes this all the more remarkable is that the whole ReallyReady site was built by an FAS intern in two months, even while the DHS site has struggled for years towards usability.

    SustainLane's Warren Karlenzig sees a bigger picture here, and blogs about ways in which society can better prepare for heatwave-related emergencies through better urban design.

    • Make Backups!: You may recall a piece I posted a little while back arguing in support of the idea of building an archive for civilization to help overcome a planet-wide disaster. The little secret of the posts here at Open the Future and WorldChanging is that I've been playing with this idea for quite awhile. Back in July, 1999, I wrote a piece called "The Retrospect Project" for a column I had in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, making more-or-less this same argument.

    There must have been something in the water, because at around the same time, a group of scientists in New York and Boston began to assemble the Alliance to Rescue Civilization. As described by an article in today's New York Times:

    Cue the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, a group that advocates a backup for humanity by way of a station on the Moon replete with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge — the ultimate detached garage for a race of packrats. It would be run by people who, through fertility treatments and frozen human eggs and sperm, could serve as a new Adam and Eve in addition to their role as a new Noah.

    [...] “It makes sense to protect the things you value,” [Dr. Robert Shapiro, co-founder of ARC] said. “But we, as a civilization, we don’t have anything like that.” [...] “But I’m not here to predict doomsday; I’m here for sanity,” Dr. Shapiro said. “When we’ve gained what we’ve gained, we should fight to keep it."

    The "new Adam and Eve" aspect strikes me as a bit silly, and very likely to provide more controversy than value, but the planetary backup theme is exactly right.

    Everything we do as environmentalists and as futurists comes down to a belief that human civilization is worth saving. If all we cared about was the Earth, and not the people on it, we could easily ignore the vast majority of incipient ecological disasters. The planet has withstood far greater problems than global warming or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and will undoubtedly do so in the future, too. But if we care about human civilization, our own survival, we need to devote ourselves to maintaining an ecologically diverse, thriving, world. Knowing that some disasters are outside our control, however, it makes sense to devote some attention and resources to ways in which to recover from catastrophe.

    Maintenance and backup.

    (Photo: Haleakela, Jamais Cascio © 1999)

    July 24, 2006

    Monday Topsight, July 24, 2006

    20060724_soho.jpgThe temperature here hit 100° in the last hour or so; it's a bit insane to say that this cooling trend is welcome, but when a projected max of 103° is the lowest max temperature in about a week, it's unfortunately accurate. 108°, well above today's projected 103°, so never mind that. Heat records are falling all over the place, from the US west coast to Europe. The old saying is that "there are no atheists in foxholes" (arguably subject to dispute); perhaps the new one will be "there are no global warming skeptics in 110° heat." (Photo of the Sun from NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observer website.)

    • Droning On: An unrelated pair of reports about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- also referred to as "drones" -- should be looked at together. On July 14, an Israeli warship was hit by what was reported to be a cheap UAV outfitted with explosives, operated remotely by Hezbollah. Although subsequent reports attributed the blast to a conventional anti-ship missile, military analysts note that Hezbollah has been testing UAVs for just this sort of attack. Around the same time, New Scientist reported that Lockheed-Martin's new "Polecat" UAV, designed as a technology demonstrator, consists largely of parts printed in a 3-D printer.

    The technique is widely used in industry to make prototype parts - to see if, for instance, they are the right shape and thickness for the job in hand. Now the strength of parts printed this way has improved so much that they can be used as working components.

    About 90 per cent of Polecat is made of composite materials with much of that material made by rapid prototyping.

    "The entire Polecat airframe was constructed using low-cost rapid prototyping materials and methods," says Frank Mauro, director of UAV systems at the Skunk Works.

    You can see where I'm going with this. As the costs of 3D printing technology continues to plummet, and the capabilities of fabber systems continue to improve, we're heading into a world in which 4th Generation Warfare groups don't have to rely on shipments of weapons such as attack UAVs, but can simply print up a batch themselves. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has written some important essays on the question of the intersection of molecular manufacturing and military capacity. What the combination of stories about possible Hezbollah UAVs and Lockheed-Martin 3D-printed UAVs is that we won't have to wait until the advent of nanofactories to see what this problem looks like -- or to start thinking about ways it can be handled.

    • Noah Way: Régine at We Make Money Not Art offers up the ARK movement, an art/design/political "collective" in Europe trying to change how we deal with disruptive change by advocating a post-apocalyptic design, investment and behavioral aesthetic.

    This is an example of the "we've lost, we give up, let's figure out what to do next" concept that a variety of green bloggers recently attributed to Stephen Hawking (incorrectly). As such, I find the ARK movement proposal to be enormously irritating, especially its calm assertions that disastrous global warming, peak oil and similar problems are simply inevitable. (That the ARK page is filled with misattributed references, scientific fuzziness, and annoying grammar/spelling errors simply compounds the problem, at least for me.)

    But ARK has managed to come up with a truly interesting proposal amidst all of this: the Paradigm Index. From the WMMNA post:

    The paradigm index is a reworking of a stock-market/share index. It is a way of measuring your investment. However you are investing in intrinsic value as it relates to world collapse, as opposed to investing in abstract value as it relates to market growth. The paradigm index takes a set of date from C02 level rise, peak oil production predictions and social and political trends such as wars and social break down. It works as a means of gauging your investment in a certain scenario or set of scenarios. As intrinsic value is linked so closely to a certain set of external parameters you can gauge its increase against proof of the manifestation of those external parameters.

    From the ARK page:

    The paradigm index is a calculation of many global factors into an index between 0 and 10. 0 being the complete sustainability and 10 being complete global collapse. Of course it’s a little more complex than that but that’s the basis.

    You can track your value against the paradigm index by investing in products and skill sets that are designed for a specific index rating. As you track the progression of the index towards that paradigm rating, the value of your products and skill sets increase. This in-turn will increases your value and appeals to Ark collectives.

    There's no reason why a Paradigm Index must only have negative elements, of course. An OtF-style Paradigm Index might also include measurements of (for example) the use of open source software internationally, the readership of open access science journals, the approach of molecular nanotechnology, and so forth. One could assemble portfolios focusing on projects and programs that drive the overall Paradigm Index towards 0 (in the ARK model, this indicates high sustainability), or look for investment/action opportunities that would undercut the factors pushing us towards 10. Presumably, one could also "sell short," and profit from civilizational collapse, but those folks will be first against the wall.

    • Marin Börjesson Is Right: Martin Börjesson runs Futuramb, a futurist consultancy in Sweden, and is one of the most thought-provoking futurist bloggers I've yet encountered. Martin does me the honor of writing an essay this past weekend taking on my "12 Things Journalists Need to Know..." post from awhile back.

    Martin starts out by saying that most of the items on the list were "missing the real point" of futurism -- although he notes that he's not the target audience for the post, in principle, so the advice doesn't necessarily apply to him. (He's correct, here; I wrote the post with general-feature journalists in mind, not foresight specialists.) His rationale is that most of the points on the list pay too close attention to the individual prediction and the "one-issue-at-a-time" approach to thinking about the future. I'd disagree somewhat, as part of the point of the list was to try to break journalists out of the "futurism=spot prediction" mindset, but I see what he's saying, and agree fully: thinking about the future isn't imagining future events, it's uncovering the processes that will drive future events.

    Martin puts it this way:

    When focusing on the quality of individual predictions I think we fail to see that they really are small parts of an emerging pattern or lens we collaboratively are putting together. The more pieces we can integrate the better lens we will get. A lens through which humanity can perceive and identify what is relevant for our long term future. [...] I think the best futurists are those that have identified and described the best pattern which helps organizing the zillion of facts we can see around us. Futurists are in a sense (like poets?) “synthesists” who are interpreting to world around us and is involved in formulating and developing lenses which help the rest of us see the whole world in “a grain of sand”.

    Martin Börjesson is right.

    July 20, 2006

    Thursday Topsight, July 20, 2006

    30 years ago today, the Viking 1 robotic lander touched down on Chryse Planitia on Mars, becoming the first US visitor to the Martian surface, and the first visitor of any kind to take high resolution images of the Martian landscape. Vikings 1 and 2 (which landed in September of 1976) lasted for six years, taking pictures, recording weather data, and undertaking the first biological exploration of another world. The Mars Exploration Rovers ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") have carried on the tradition of hardy robotic explorers showing us a new world, and we will continue to build a menagerie of robotic proxies for decades to come. 30 years ago today, Mars became a place, not simply a reddish light in the night sky.

    Viking is not alone with this anniversary. 37 years ago today, human beings first set foot on the Moon. While Michael Collins orbited overhead, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin stepped from a landing vehicle (with walls no thicker than aluminum foil) onto the surface of another world; their footsteps will remain there for eons, proof that Earth once held a civilization able to reach beyond its home. It was an achievement that was, in the end, ahead of its time. The Apollo program was too big, too expensive, too wrapped up in Cold War competition to be sustainable as the catalyst for expanding human civilization off of one planet. Not that it was the wrong choice, but our expectations were perhaps too great for Apollo's potential. Sometimes, symbols are enough.

    • Lightning Unleashed: Tesla Motors has unveiled its new all-electric sports car. If you've hit a green or gadget site, you've probably seen the particulars: 250 mile range; top speed of 130 mph; redline at 13,500 rpm; 0-60 in 4 seconds; double the energy efficiency of a Prius; and a price tag of $80K-$100K. On the one hand, it's a nice symbol of the potential power of electric vehicles -- this isn't a souped-up golf cart. On the other, it's a foreshadowing of the potential transfiguration of the automobile industry.

    Ford, GM, BMW, Toyota -- traditional car-makers attained their current prominence by perfecting the increasingly complex internal combustion engine. By comparison, electric cars are incredibly simple, and the organizational capacities needed to make them viable have as much to do with the computer and electronics industry as they do with the traditional automotive industry. The idea of Apple, Sony or even Microsoft making an internal combustion engine car would be laughable, but the idea of those same companies working on the design of electric vehicles is much more plausible. They'd likely collaborate with automobile manufacturers at first -- but likely not the traditional big car-makers. Imagine an electric car designed by Apple, built by various suppliers in Korea and Taiwan, and drop-shipped to your driveway by Amazon.

    • Google Earth At War: Want some photos of secret North Korean military facilities? Got Google Earth? Get 'em yourself, then.

    Open Source Radio reports that, because the North Korean government doesn't actually speak to anybody on a regular basis, Google/Keyhole hasn't ever been asked to dial-back the resolution of certain areas (as they've supposedly done at the request of other governments). As a result, it's possible to find a variety of military installations that Pyongyang might not want you to see.

    A less ominous version of Google Earth at war (at least, possibly less ominous) is "Google Earth Battleship:"

    University of Southern California's Julian Bleecker has a very interesting summer project going: Playing Battleships using Google Earth as a game board, but with the twist that you have to physically visit the location on the board you want to attack, using your mobile phone to "call in" a strike. [...] Julian has an interesting notion to describe this kind of gaming: It's a "1st Life/2nd Life mashup", in that real-world actions impact the state of a virtual world.

    Kinda spooky putting those two together, no? There's a SciFi Channel movie of the week just writing itself right here.

    • Seeing Spots: HP has announced the development of "memory spots," a form of radio frequency ID tag that includes significantly more computational capacity than traditional RFID units.

    The chip has a 10 megabits-per-second data transfer rate – 10 times faster than Bluetooth™ wireless technology and comparable to Wi-Fi speeds – effectively giving users instant retrieval of information in audio, video, photo or document form. With a storage capacity ranging from 256 kilobits to 4 megabits in working prototypes, it could store a very short video clip, several images or dozens of pages of text. Future versions could have larger capacities.

    Information can be accessed by a read-write device that could be incorporated into a cell phone, PDA, camera, printer or other implement.

    Standard RFID is essentially a form of barcode on steroids -- a passive information instrument, readable at a distance. The memory spot is really an entirely different beast, despite superficial similarities. As readable-writable CMOS devices, they are arguably much closer to smart digital cameras. The potential uses are pretty amazing. This kind of device (no larger than a grain of rice), for example, could easily be embedded in any number of material products, providing detailed information about both the capabilities of the product and its current status -- a built-in self-updating instruction manual. Or how about Stuart Candy's "ambient foresight" project with these devices instead of pre-downloaded MP3s?

    July 17, 2006

    Monday Topsight, July 17, 2006

    • Swarmy Weather: The animated image on the left comes from the US National Weather Service, but it's not showing weather per se. The mass that emerges, grows and drifts along the Mississippi River is actually a swarm of mayflies:

    A large mayfly hatch occurred along the Mississippi River Friday evening, June 30th. The hatch began just after sundown, around 9 PM, and continued through the early morning hours. [...] Some roads across the Mississippi River in and around La Crosse were covered with bugs, piling into "drifts" on bridges over the Mississippi River and its tributaries. [...] Notice the rapid increase in radar echoes along the Mississippi River channel...occurring simultaneously the entire length of the channel. The ambient wind flow was from the south on Friday evening, with the entire swarm of mayflies drifting north with time. The radar loop starts just before 9 PM CDT and ends around 1030 PM CDT.

    Reasonable reactions will vary from "eww!" to "cool!" What struck me, however, was that this is a foreshadowing of a world in which we have web-enabled tools for early detection and monitoring of emerging pestilent threats. As one of the results of global warming, we're likely to see the increased spread of opportunistic species, such as mosquitos and other parasitic insects. I would not be surprised to see the appearance of "insect forecasts" matching current weather forecasts on local news programs. (Via Unhindered by Talent)

    • Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! (BEEEEEEP): Stuart Candy, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii's Research Center for Futures Studies and recent intern at the Long Now Foundation, just received word that a project that he and fellow future studies student Jake Dunagan call "ambient foresight" has been awarded a "bright idea" grant for further development. The "ambient foresight" project will build audio tours of urban environments that tell stories about the future of tour locations (rather than the past or present), in this case Honolulu's Chinatown.

    This project is akin to the smart environment concept under development by groups such as "yellow arrow" and "denCity," among others. These projects create what I've called "locational folksonomies" -- an overlay of emergent metadata upon the physical environment. Candy & Dunagan's ambient foresight project won't necessarily allow for the collaborative creation of future histories, but it's certainly a possibility.

    • Meat and Greet: Last week, writer Traci Hukill published a piece on AlterNet entitled "Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?" Since I had written a few times on WorldChanging about research into "cultured meat" -- real meat that comes from vats, not animals -- I eagerly read the piece (see "Bioprintersa>," "Fighting Global Warming with Lab-Grown Meat," and "Bioprinters, Revisited" -- originally "The Rise of the Meat-Jet Printer"). Sadly, rather than being an objective look at the promise and challenges of such research, the article was essentially an anti-cultured meat screed that barely acknowledged the existence of other opinions. I was set to write up a scathing response, only to find that my friend Dale Carrico had already done so -- and had crafted one that was far better than I could have hoped to produce.

    In "When Meat Culture Meets Cultured Meat," Dale is as mystified as I about the over-the-top "yuck" reaction evinced by Hukill, and he draws the connection between this response and other celebrations of the so-called "natural:"

    Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special "wisdom of repugnance" (whether Hukill's aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leonard Kass's aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville's aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist's aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one's fellow citizens to educate, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

    Barring unexpected problems, cultured meat will be an ethical vegetarian's dream: food that retains the flavor, consistency, chemistry and utility of "real" meat, but requires no harm be done to either animal life or the ecosystem as a whole. Given that cultured meat could be engineered with better biochemistry than traditional meats (e.g., including fish oils as replacement for fats), it might even become appealing for health vegetarians, too.

    Occasionally, I find myself asked to imagine what behavior we find commonplace now will be looked upon by future generations as baffling and possibly repugnant. Just as we today find slavery to be horrifying, and most of us find cruelty to animals to be barbaric, what do we do today that will undergo a similar cultural transformation? Other futurists might answer smoking, or driving, or unprotected sex (or physical sex entirely), but I'm convinced that folks a couple of generations from now will look upon a global industry predicated upon the breeding of animals to be killed and devoured as a stunningly awful practice that they are thankful to be past.

    July 13, 2006

    Real Journalism

    The job of a journalist is to report on facts, even if that makes someone in power look bad or undermines someone's dearly held myth.

    It's nice to see at least one journal that gets it:

    As politics go, we're surprised so many readers expect us or any publication to provide "balance," which reflects a belief in the fallacy that there are two equally valid sides to every story. You see this in the debate over global warming and evolution. Thousands of scientists stand on one side of the issue, recognizing that global warming is a problem and that evolution is firmly established, while only a few detractors stand on the other.

    The journal in question? Not the New York Times or the Washington Post. The quote is from Playboy.

    (Via Pharyngula at Scienceblogs)

    July 11, 2006

    Tuesday Topsight, July 11, 2006

    netease.jpgI had the somewhat surreal experience last night of participating in a focus group on the California energy industry. My experience was odd because, about a quarter of the way through, the moderator was called out by the faceless folks behind the mirror, and when he returned, he asked that I, in essence, keep my mouth shut. I literally knew too much about the world of energy production, distribution and efficiency to make a good focus group participant. I was told that they'd love to hear what I had to say at the end, if there was enough time. I did manage to sneak a couple of comments in here and there, but I ended up being more an observer than anything else.

    Some things about the focus group are worth noting, however. The primary California power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, is going all-out to make itself into a leading renewable/"green"/"clean" energy producer, with upcoming programs including state-wide smart meters, wave power, and a goal of 20% of California energy coming from wind and solar by 2010. More importantly, every one of the participants in the focus group (which included stay-at-home moms, retirees, pink collar workers, executives, and a few hard to categorize folks) wanted to see PG&E do more to drive to renewable energy. Even the one guy for whom lower energy prices was a top priority put increased renewable power as his number two. That the power company is trending green is heartening; that the citizenry is leading them that way is even more so.

    Phrase of the Week: "Aspirational Terrorists." David Stephenson notes the term in the coverage of the apparent plan to bomb tunnels between New York and New Jersey. The wording seems to encompass both those who talk tough but don't have realistic plans for carrying out their threats (so-called "jihadi bravado," a fascinating language mix used by the FBI) and those who may be a bit more capable, but have no direct links to existing groups and have yet to turn plans into action. This is an important piece of re-framing, as it is a sign the people engaged in counter-terrorism work are moving away from casting any possible terrorist cell as "al Qaida" (as if it were a structured organization with branch offices) and towards the "netwar" view articulated by John Robb (among others), in which "al Qaida" isn't an organization, it's a brand.

    (By the way, if you haven't read The Advent of Netwar, by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, do so soon -- it's easily the best articulation of the changing nature of conflict I've ever read, and its observations about the role of guerrilla movements come across as prescient, given that Advent was published in 1996!)

    Of Red Suns and Ethnic Cleansing Online: Netwar of a different sort. Terra Nova links to reports of nationalist/ethnic conflict in Asian online games. One report tells of Korean Lineage players hunting down Chinese players, while the other discusses a virtual uprising in the Chinese game Netease over an in-game symbol looking something like the Japanese WW2 battle flag -- an uprising organized by a now-disbanded guild with a virulently anti-Japanese name.

    It's probably a good thing that World of Warcraft doesn't allow the players who can speak to each other to kill each other (outside of easily-ignored duels). I could otherwise totally imagine "red state" and "blue state" players hunting each other in WoW as the 2006 and 2008 elections draw near.

    Participatory Panopticon goes Mainstream: Janet Kornblum of USA Today writes about the growing ubiquity of digital cameras and cameraphones, and the trend (primarily among young people) of posting images and videos of themselves for easy downloading by others. Kornblum's piece covers some of the same topics I've talked about in my various participatory panopticon explorations, and raises some new concerns, chiefly around young people telling too much about themselves, potentially ruining their own futures.

    Most kids are posting for each other, but quickly are learning that the world also is watching.
    Internet expert Nancy Willard has been warning parents about the possibly incriminating pictures their kids' friends may post online after graduation parties.
    "Kids go to these parties, and everybody's going to have a camera," she says. "And when they finally wake up (the day after the party), they'll post all these really fun pictures on the Internet and maybe post names to go along with the pictures. Nobody has any ability to control what's going to happen with those images. And they can be damaging."

    Such concerns strike me as artifacts of a pre-ubiquitous camera age ("ubicam?"). It's entirely possible that as we grow more accustomed to pervasive recording of ourselves and of others, and as more of the MySpace/YouTube/camerphone generation moves from school to the workplace, these worries will die down. There's a distinct scent of moral panic about these fears, as if stopping photos and videos of underage drinking or teen sexuality will somehow prevent the activities from taking place to begin with.

    July 6, 2006

    Thursday Topsight, July 6, 02006

    renewablebayarea.jpgMonday doesn't come until Thursday this week.

    Green Nuclear: "Don't get me wrong: I love nuclear energy! It's just that I prefer fusion to fission. And it just so happens that there's an enormous fusion reactor safely banked a few million miles from us. It delivers more than we could ever use in just about 8 minutes. And it's wireless!"

    - William McDonough, ecological designer, author of Cradle to Cradle, quoted at Z+ Blog.

    Success Stories: In my talk at TED, I called for the creation of a mashup of cameraphone uploads, satellite maps, and sensory data on environmental change. At one point, I said this:

    Many of those who participate in Earth Witness would focus on ecological problems, human-caused or otherwise, especially environmental crimes and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. That's understandable; we need better documentation of what's happening to the planet if we want any chance of repairing the damage. But the Earth Witness program wouldn't need to be limited to problems; in the best WorldChanging tradition, it would also serve as a showcase for good ideas, successful projects, and efforts to make a difference that deserve much more visibility. Earth Witness would show us two worlds: the world we are leaving behind, and the world we are building for generations to come.

    It looks like bits and pieces of this idea are sprouting up. Treehugger points to "The Renewable Planet," a Google Maps mashup that pinpoints the locations of a multitude of renewable energy projects around the world, including wind power farms, solar arrays, biofuel facilities, and "other" (largely hydrokinetic power).

    Seems to me they need to add an option for zero energy footprint and ultra high efficiency buildings, too. Who's up for making a LEED Map?

    Mapping as Politics: Yesterday's ruminations about the right terminology for futurism notwithstanding, I have a serious fascination with the use of geography and geographic representation for social and political change. Maps serve both functional and symbolic purposes, showing us the relationship between locations as well as showing us our place in the world. The rise of networked, interactive and dynamic maps heightens both the symbolic power and the representational capacities of maps. Regine at We Make Money Not Art (a blog I'll always think of under its original alternative name, Near Near Future) reports on the Terminal Air project, a proposal to link dynamic maps, data from the US Federal Aviation Administration, and so-called "planespotters" to chart the path of the torture taxis -- the planes used by the CIA and other US government groups to ferry prisoners out of the country to enable allies to interrogate them as brutally as they'd like.

    We need a term for mass bottom-up observation of official activities. Sousveillance is useful, but it seems to apply most often to individual activities -- I'm talking about "crowdsourced" sousveillance. Now that I mention it, "Crowdsourced Sousveillance" isn't bad, but is a real mouthful of jargon. "Participatory Panopticon" might work, but although the term is resonant when spoken, it is also too ungainly for widespread use. Any suggestions?

    Next Stop, Alpha Centauri: In the computer addiction game Civilization, the most idealistic way to win is to launch a space ship to the (currently) closest star system, Alpha Centauri, with the goal of colonization. New research suggests that this might someday be a plausible goal. The astronomy weblog Centauri Dreams reports that Alpha Centauri's dim, sullen member Proxima Centauri is at just the right distance to serve as a catalyst for flinging comets into the Alpha Centauri system. While we quite reasonably worry about comets giving us a serious smack, it turns out that they're critically important in planetary evolution, as they provide water and other "volatiles" -- molecules that would have been boiled away in the earliest stages of a planet's existence, but are necessary once a planet cools in order for Life As We Know It to emerge.

    (The Y10K-compatible dating format is a hat-tip to a new friend, Long Now intern and University of Hawaii Center for Future Studies grad student Stuart Candy.)

    June 26, 2006

    Monday Topsight, June 26, 2006

    futuramalgore.jpgLight blogging week (of course, the week when I get a hat tip from BoingBoing). I'm spending the next few days at the Institute for the Future's Health Horizons conference (PDF), including serving as the keynote speaker tomorrow. I'll be talking about the role of current and emerging mobile interactive technologies as a catalyst for change in the healthcare system (i.e., the medical aspects of the participatory panopticon).

    I'll also be one of the leaders of a major project at IFTF starting next month; I'll provide more details when I can.

    Al Gore, Futurama, and Me: My shameful secret. When I met Al Gore last February at the TED speakers' dinner, after exchanging a few pleasantries, and before mentioning anything about WorldChanging, I told him that I was honored to meet the "first emperor of the Moon" -- Gore's title when he appeared as a guest character on the cartoon Futurama. I was pretty happy when he responded with his line from that episode, "I have ridden the mighty Moon Worm!" (and somewhat less happy when he turned to Stewart Brand and explained that his daughter was a writer on the show, and that it had "something of a cult following").

    But Gore's back in cartoon form in this promo for An Inconvenient Truth ("the movie that will make you feel like you should probably do something!") shown at Grist, wherein he mentions his "hybrid pimp-mobile" and delivers a sound thrashing to the robot Bender. Sigh. What could have been...

    Speaking of An Inconvenient Truth...: I finally got a chance to see it this weekend. Little of the material was new to me, unsurprisingly, not just because I had covered so much of it on WorldChanging, but because Gore delivered his slide show (Keynote, not Powerpoint, btw) at TED. Stirring, effective, and all that, but I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed at how little discussion there was of the bigger kinds of changes that are necessary to fight climate disaster. He did mention Robert Socolow's Stabilization Wedges, but there was more emphasis on buying hybrids and compact fluorescent bulbs; what we really need to do is reimagine our urban systems and transform how we deliver energy, and so forth. For the scale of the disaster underway, it was a bit... frustrating... that the solutions mentioned weren't very Big Picture.

    Janice's response to my criticism was that Gore was trying to talk about what we as individuals could do, while those Big Picture ideas are out of the hands of most of us, and she undoubtedly has a point. Still, I wish there was more recognition that avoiding climate disaster will mean changing how we live, not just what we buy.

    The Scale of the Problem: You've probably heard that the US National Academy of Sciences has come out with a report on the evidence for human causation of global warming, with a particular focus on the so-called "hockey stick" model showing a sharp jump in CO2 and temperatures. Unsurprisingly, people with their fingers in their ears going LALALALA have tried to cherry-pick lines from the report to continue their denial (and no, I don't link to crap like that, it's easy to find), but I was suprised at how few of the reports of any stripe actually link to the report itself.

    - Here's the NAS Press Release, with the short summary of findings.
    - Here's the Report in Brief (PDF), giving more aspects of the article. This is probably the one to read for the best balance of details and brevity.
    - Finally, here's where you can download the full article for free or buy a print copy; you'll need a free sign-up to the NAS website to download the PDF.

    More Self-Promotion: I'll be a keynote speaker at the upcoming International Association for Public Participation conference to be held in Montreal, Canada, in November. Anybody have any hot tips about things to see and do in the late Fall in Montreal?

    June 19, 2006

    Monday Topsight, June 19, 2006

    stinkphone.jpgTurning Greenhouse Gases into Greenhouse Glass: One of my mantras when I was writing at WorldChanging was that "we can't assume that all the tools we'll have for fighting global problems have already been invented." Today brings another example of why this is true: Italian researchers have found that carbon dioxide, under very high pressure, can be turned into something very much like glass. subjecting CO2 to even greater pressures – 400,000 to 500,000 atmospheres (40 to 50 gigaPascals) – the researchers created a novel, solid material. The CO2 molecules react to these conditions by forming a chaotic structure with oxygen molecules. The resulting material is transparent, tough, and has an atomic structure resembling that of ordinary window glass.

    Of course, this material -- named "amorphous carbonia" -- is currently unstable outside of the ultra-high-pressure environment, so there's no guarantee that this will end up a real-world tool. But imagine how the game changes if carbon dioxide sequestration wasn't just an exercise is finding places to hide the gas, but was a resource for construction and art. (Via Brian Wang's Advanced Nanotechnology Blog)

    Mobile Phones of Tomorrow: Nokia asked design students at London's Central St Martins College of Art and Design to come up with mobile phones for the year 2015; the winning design was made into a non-functional prototype for display. Nokia's press release provides the most information, but other reports on the competition can be found at:, which also has photos of five of the phone designs; Cellular News; and Tech Digest. The winning design offers a "scent display" to accompany voice and image, giving the user a better sense of the environment surrounding the person at the other end of the line.

    I love these "artifacts of the future" stories, in part because they give us some foreshadowing of what people could really end up doing with new technologies, and in part because they give us an unconventional perspective on present-day needs and concerns. This aspect is quite visible in the St Martins College designs, from the mobile phone built for blogging to the system providing new features as add-ons for old phones. But what problem, exactly, is the stinkphone "scent display" phone trying to resolve?

    Fly by Day, Please: Green Car Congress reports the findings of a study from the University of Reading that the contrails formed by aircraft at night are disproportionately responsible for the "radiative forcing" (i.e., global warming) caused by air travel. Although night air travel makes up only 25% of flights, it accounts for 60-80% of the climate impact. This is because contrails act like thin, high-altitude clouds, both reflecting incoming solar radiation and trapping warmth eminating from the Earth. Sunlight reflection only happens during the day, obviously, but the contrails trap warmth all day and all night.

    Air travel is still a relatively small part of the global warming picture, but it's one that (a) is likely to keep increasing, (b) is damnably hard to fix (there just aren't that many good alternatives to hydrocarbons for aircraft fuel), and (c) is something that those of us with a strong global focus are loathe to give up. That said, reducing nighttime air travel as much as possible may be a reasonable step towards reducing the climate footprint of airplanes. Some night travel is unavoidable for certain destinations -- SF to London, for example -- but cross-country "red eye" flights may soon be a thing of the past.

    June 12, 2006

    Monday Topsight, June 12 2006

    amnestyinttransad.jpg"Topsight" is one of those words that deserves wider use, especially within the scenario/futurist/early indicators community. It means a view, or understanding, of all aspects of a problem or situation: the components, the context, the drivers, the participants... everything. The Big Picture, but with less emphasis on broad structures and more emphasis on completeness. Computer scientist David Gelertner may have coined it for his 1991 book, Mirror Worlds, but I've seen it used in reference to military planning, so it may have earlier origins (any etymologists in the house?).

    As part of my goal of blogging a bit more often (but not too often), I'm hereby instituting a regular "Topsight" post, gathering together a diverse selection of interesting items, offering a distant early warning of changes on the way.

    It's Not Happening Here, But It's Happening Now: An utterly brilliant advertising campaign for Amnesty International now underway in Zurich, Switzerland. Under a headline reading "It's not happening here, but it's happening now," images of torture, prisoner abuse, and utter privation appear to be taking place just beyond the sign. Under the right lighting, the signs look transparent (they're not, for a variety of reasons), and the effect is electrifying.

    This is an important campaign for a few reasons. The first is that they drive home the point that these kinds of abominations are happening right now, not in a hazy past for later documentation and condemnation. The second is that, despite the language of the headline, the ads leave one with the unsettling realization that these kinds of abuses could happen here, too; it wouldn't take much for us to be living in societies where prisoners are treated in this way -- and maybe we already are. The last is that they are early indicators of what life will be like with pervasive augmented reality tools: advertisements that layer onto the world we see, even interacting with it (imagine how much more powerful these ads would be if they were animated, or could somehow respond to the presence or absence of people). It's good that Amnesty brought this ad series out now, before the technique was too debased by pseudo-transparent ads for macaroni and cheese or disposable diapers. (via Unmediated, 37 Signals, AdLand; see examples on Flickr: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

    PLoS Blogs: The good folks at the Public Library of Science noted my recent piece on the PLoS ONE project, and wanted me to know about another new endeavor. PLoS Blogs will offer "an insider's view of the latest developments at PLoS;" they've launched two different blog pages, one focusing on publishing issues (and new publishing plans), the other on the technology of what they're calling "Open Access 2.0."

    [I'd like to call for a temporary moritorium on the use of "2.0" for identifying variants of existing movements or ideas. Not a permanent ban -- it's a useful meme, just a bit over-used for now. Too often, "2.0" is used not to indicate a wholly new version of something, but a tweaked version that the creator wants to differentiate for marketing purposes.]

    There's not much upon the PLoS Blogs right now, but that will undoubtedly change. I would like to see PLoS consider offering blogs to regular participants, much like the "diaries" at sites like Daily Kos. The tension between citizen science and traditional science research often comes down to the legitimacy offered by peer review. If the PLoS Blogs included science diaries, allowing citizens (students, researchers between jobs, autodidacts, etc.) to "publish" their own ideas for review by other participants, we might see some of that legitimacy get distributed. PLoS Blogs -- from Science Journals to Science Diaries. Yeah, that has a ring to it.

    This Is Your Brain On Drugs: My friend and occasional colleague Joel Garreau has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the growing use of neuropharmaceuticals among students and knowledge workers. Anti-ADD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, as well as the anti-narcolepsy drug Provigil, are changing study habits for a startlingly large number of people. While these are therapeutic drugs for some, they clearly have value as temporary enhancements, improving mental focus and alertness.

    For a senior project this semester, Christopher Salantrie conducted a random survey of 150 University of Delaware students at the university's Morris Library and Trabant Student Center.
    "With rising competition for admissions and classes becoming harder and harder by the day, a hypothesis was made that at least half of students at the university have at one point used/experienced such 'smart drugs,' " Salantrie writes in his report. He found his hunch easy to confirm.
    "What was a surprise, though, was the alarming rate of senior business majors who have used" the drugs, he writes. Almost 90 percent reported at least occasional use of "smart pills" at crunch times such as final exams, including Adderall, Ritalin, Strattera and others. Of those, three-quarters did not have a legitimate prescription, obtaining the pills from friends. "We were shocked," Salantrie writes.

    The traditional perspective is to be shocked that such things are going on. But how, aside from effectiveness, does the use of Adderall or Provigil differ from the use of caffeine? All have mild side-effects, and all alter brain chemistry. Caffeine is "natural," but that's not much of a defense for a brain-chemistry-altering drug. The cost of prescription cognitive enhancers should drop when generics become available, albeit not likely down to cup-of-coffee levels.

    The difference, of course, is our familiarity with them. There's an old saying that "technology" is "anything invented after one turns 13." For the generation brought up in a world where these drugs are commonplace -- even given to 8 year olds, as someone in Joel's article points out -- these chemicals are hardly scary and unfamiliar.

    And that does point us to where the risks come from. Office workers are free to not drink coffee, but if they consistently fall asleep on the job, or are regularly too tired to work effectively at some point in the day, they're going to face not-so-subtle pressure to start drinking something caffeinated. It's not a required drug, per se, but it's one that society assumes will be used casually when needed. A similar fate may lie ahead for neuropharmaceuticals like Adderall and Provigil. You won't be forced to use them, but work and school life may slowly become structured around the assumption that you will. If staying up 48 hours straight to finish a job is as easy as popping an aspirin, and has as few side-effects, organizations with employees ready, willing and able to do so will have a notable competitive advantage -- and employees not ready, willing or able will face some real questions about their viability in the job market of the not so distant future.