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November 2003 Archives

November 5, 2003


Mischief is often an engine of innovation. Figuring out how to make things do what you want them to do -- not necessarily what the designers want you to do -- is both fun and illuminating. Gibson wrote, "the street finds its own uses for things," and sometimes that use is as a medium for pulling pranks (c.f., "Flash Mobs").

Bluejacking is the latest manifestation of this desire to make mundane tools of communication interesting. In brief, it uses the "bluetooth" short-range wireless protocol built into an increasing number of mobile devices (everything from cell phones to Powerbooks) to send a short message to an unsuspecting recipient. Most of these devices are set to allow the transfer of virtual business cards and the like; "bluejacking" piggy-backs on this, putting pithy comments ("Nice shirt!" "ur cute" etc.) in place of business names and numbers. There's no way for someone to actually take over a remote device in this way -- "bluejacking" sounds more ominous than it really is -- but reactions to having odd little messages popping up on one's cell phone range from amusement to confusion.

The practice is relatively new, as bluetooth has only recently become a commonplace feature on mobiles, and seems to be more common in Europe than in the States. This is not terribly surprising; mobile phones are everywhere in Europe. It also seems to be a habit of the young.

Democratic Transhumanism

If you could use biotech, nanotech, and intelligence augmentation to repair and rebuild your body, would you? Many people would say no, but a growing number of people say "bring it on*." The notion of using emerging technologies to make oneself better, stronger, faster (and smarter, longer-lived, with better breath, etc.) is known these days as "transhumanism." Problem: most of the vocal proponents of this sort of stuff tend to be adamantly, aggressively, cyberlibertarian. On their nice days.

So where are the post-humans who actually like people? A goodly number of them hang out at the Cyborg Democracy blog, which calls itself a home for

democratic transhumanists, nanosocialists, revolutionary singularitarians, non-anthropocentric personhood theorists, radical futurists, leftist extropians, bioutopians and biopunks, socialist-feminist cyborgs, transgenders, body modifiers, basic income advocates, agents of the Culture and the Cassini Division, Viridians and technoGaians - transmitting a sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future

Very cool. I'm all for it.

The blog seems to be all over the map, covering culture and tech and politics, both U.S. and international, usually (but not always) with a strong Transhumanist bent. Definitely worth checking out.

*...and I have to say, after dealing with a month-long series of arthritis attacks, I can more than sympthize.

Big Mac

So you want a top-five grade supercomputer, but you don't want to spend a lot of money? Time to call Apple. The 2200-processor cluster of dual-2GHz G5 PowerMacs installed this summer at Virginia Tech is now ranked as the third fastest supercomputer in the world, at 10.3 teraflops, after the 5180-processor Earth Simulator (35.9 teraflops) and the 8160-processor ASCI Q system (13.8 teraflops). Okay, nice, but the real kicker is that the so-called "Big Mac" cluster supercomputer cost just a smidge over $5 million dollars, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars for #1 and #2.

[Tech aside: a teraflops translates as trillion floating-point operations per second, which is why it's grammatically correct to say "a teraflops," so don't send me email about it, okay?]

Now, not many of us have $5 million to toss around, even for the world's third-fastest supercomputer cluster. Fortunately, the notion of "grid computing" -- using distributed systems to emulate a higher-performance system -- is taking off, and Apple is apparently getting ready to jump that direction, too. The easier that distributed computing gets, the cheaper it gets, the more powerful it gets, the more ways there will be to take advantage of it to figure things out -- climate change, protein folding, etc. -- that can really make a difference.

November 6, 2003

Hive Computing

The idea of linking myriad computers across the net for distributed power is really starting to grab people. The enormous capacity of modern personal computers is wasted on mundane tasks such as web surfing and composing email, yet can be taxed when trying to do something sophisticated like system modeling or data analysis. Distributed computing -- sometimes called "grid computing" or "hive computing" -- lets machines contribute cycles or take advantage of other machines' spare power, as needed.

Robert X. Cringely at PBS has a nice, clear essay about how this all could work, and why it's important.

[...] let's think of what we could do with a hive.  For one thing, we could put a node on every desk, but instead of being limited to the power of your PC, we could have demand ebb and flow such that you could do computational fluid dynamic modeling on your desktop as easily as you could surf the web.  Hives could be cheap adjuncts to Big Iron, or they could replace mainframes completely.  A hive is a network, so why not replace all those Cisco routers with hive nodes that happened to route as needed?  Same for wireless links.  A wireless mesh hive is very interesting.  And there is no reason why we couldn't link hives together until the whole net was just an ocean of computing-on-demand.  Then every school could effectively have a supercomputer, even the high schools.

Ad-Hoc Networks

802.11 -- "WiFi" -- is cool. We love WiFi. W1r3l3ss r0xx0rs. Etc. But it suffers from an occasionally significant limitation: you have to be near a WiFi router to take advantage of it. If there isn't an open WiFi network nearby, tough luck. But... what if your wireless device could discover other wireless devices in the vicinity, which in turn know about other devices, and so forth, until you get to one within range of a WiFi router? You could then pass packets along, using this ad hoc network without actually being in range of a "real" network.

Such a day may soon be upon us. The Networks and Telecommunications Research Group at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is building out an experimental system for combining a variety of wireless protocols into a city-wide voice and data communications grid -- the Dublin Ad-hoc Wireless Network, or DAWN. With this network, mobile devices from phones to PDAs to laptops could pass packets along a constantly-reconfigured route from user to user, including moving from the DAWN system to the fixed voice and data networks. It's all very experimental and tentative at the moment, but it certainly has some potential.

The notion of ad hoc networks isn't just a laboratory hack. The Cybiko, a $99 handheld game/MP3/PDA/chat system aimed at the teen mallrat market, uses the ad hoc network method to let up to 100 devices trade messages, music, and games at any given time, as long as the various members are within 300' of another network member. The current model doesn't connect to WiFi, requiring a serial connection to a PC to send anything to the Internet at large, but I wouldn't be surprised it that was in the next iteration of the device.

November 9, 2003

Getting Smarter About Security

Security is a tricky thing. If given a choice between a security system that is 99.99% effective in stopping malevolent attacks or careless mistakes, and one which is only 95% effective, going with the 99.99% one seems like a no-brainer, right? Not necessarily.

The real test of a system isn't what happens when it works right, it's what happens when it fails. And it will -- all systems fail, even the best-designed, 99.99% effective ones. If that level of protection results in reducing the ability of the system to respond to and repair the results of failure, then when the security does (inevitably) collapse, society is far worse off than it would have been with the less-effective, but more robust and flexible, alternative.

Let me give you a concrete example.

The latest issue of New Scientist has an article reporting on the results of recently-adopted American regulations controlling access to dangerous bioagents such as anthrax. The restrictions are intended to make it nearly impossible for terrorists to get their hands on pathogens such as ricin or botulinum. The controls on access include getting security clearances, lab inspections, and registration with the government. The implementation of the new laws has been aggressive and unrelenting, in order to stamp out on any possibility of terrorist access to lethal bioagents.

Continue reading "Getting Smarter About Security" »

November 11, 2003

Almost But Not Quite

In many cities in the UK, an average person is recorded by hundreds of cameras per day. These cameras are intended for public security, an unblinking eye watching over the citizens like some kind of older sibling. These closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras are connected back to a central police station, where officers keep an eye out for mischief and malcontents. When trouble appears, this central office can dispatch police to the scene.

The South Yorkshire city of Sheffield is taking this a step further by distributing hand-held computers with wireless access to the CCTV network in the city center, giving beat officers a way to keep track of the monitors and see problems as they arise.

The question that this prompts is why such access is limited to police officers? These cameras aren't in sensitive, private locations, and the images aren't being used to send secret police-only messages. One can readily imagine all sorts of public uses for these cameras, from "hey, has my friend arrived at the city park yet for some dogging?" to "how bad is the traffic?" Furthermore, more eyes watching public areas would mean a better chance of catching a crime in progress.

One term for this sort of activity is "sousveillance," which means "watching from below," an alternative to "surveillance," or "watching from above." As a concept, it's still a work-in-progress; the current manifestation of sousveillance seems to focus on making the lives of minimum-wage department store employees even more hellish. But if cameras are going to be everywhere, isn't it better to give everyone access to what they see, rather than just a limited few?

*ollywood Confidential

For under $2,000 -- for a digital video camera, a copy of Final Cut Express, and a low-end Mac -- anyone can make movies. This has been true (with appropriate substitutions of software and hardware configuration) for several years now, and many people have wondered what it would mean to Hollywood to have thousands of talented young punks making movies.

But if the advent of cheap, powerful hardware and software for filmmaking has, in the US, led to the explosion of "fan films," it has the potential to be far more revolutionary elsewhere.

In Nigeria, according to the Washington Post, a home-grown movie industry has sprung up, with large expat audiences consuming the resulting DVDs and VCDs (Video CDs, a cheaper-to-make medium common outside of the US). Referred to as "Nollywood" -- a nod to both India's Bollywood and the original Hollywood -- this new genre of Nigerian films has become increasingly popular among the growing African emigré population in the US and Europe.

The stories are, for now, fairly straightforward, intended primarily to remind viewers of their homeland.

"They remind you of everyday life back home," Ziebono Nagabe, 26, originally of Ivory Coast, said recently as he browsed Simba's collection of movies. In the Nigerian movies, the Maryland resident observed, "there's always hope for good-hearted people. They're going to win over the wicked."
--Washington Post

This revolution has been a bit slower to happen in India, where Bollywood producers see themselves as the wavefront of a transformation of the global entertainment industry. India has been somewhat unfriendly to up-and-coming filmmakers relying on cheap digital hardware. Issues of commercial pressure against digital distributors, censorship (usually aimed at topics not found in mainstream Bollywood movies, such as homosexuality), and rivalries between independent filmmakers have strangled the digital video revolution.

Ironically, just as Bollywood considers itself poised to take over dominance of global movie culture from the United States, its own successors, armed with digital cameras and cheap distribution, may soon be breathing down its neck.

November 12, 2003

Playing Nice with the Future

We here at WorldChanging are great fans of foresight. The idea of actually thinking through the implications of emerging trends, technologies, and whatnot fills us with heady glee. When the possibilities are simultaneously distant and world-changing (ahem), foresight is all the more important. It gives us all a chance to consider options, prepare for challenges, and attempt to generate a bit of wisdom without having to go through more painful experiences first.

Which is all to say that I'm very happy to note the activities of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. A combination research team, advocacy group, and news source, CRN focuses on the ethical, legal, and social implications of molecular nanotechnology. They approach the issue with a bias that nanotechnology has the potential to do very good things for humanity, and thus research and development should continue -- but, because of the dangers inherent to the technology, such R&D should be done responsibly and carefully.

More on Brazil

Alex's post on Lula earlier today neglected to mention that Lula's administration, in late August, announced a strategic plan to begin using open source software at all levels of government. This article gives more details.

Although the financial benefits of moving away from commercial/proprietary software can be substantial (Brazil pays something on the order of $1.2B annually for proprietary code), the Brazilian government is aware of the bigger issues at stake:

The Ministers of Science and Technology, Roberto Amaral, and Culture, Gilberto Gil, also argued for the use of free software as a strategy for development and digital inclusion. [...] Gil affirmed that free software represents a democratic model of liberty and autonomy in the digital world.

November 13, 2003

Attention, Winston Smith

We should never confuse text on the web for text on a printed page. While the accessibility of web text is awfully attractive -- I am, after all, writing this to be read online -- its ephemeral nature means that text on the web can easily be changed or simply disappeared at a website owner's whim. There need be no fingerprints left when a site changes the content of a page. When the changes are made to fix typos or or clean up phrasing, it's generally not a big issue; when the changes to the site eliminate or alter material now deemed to be politically unpalatable, it's reasonable to be concerned.

Sometimes, caches and archives created by search engines become impromptu evidence of changes; if caught soon enough, the original content can be held onto and posted elsewhere. Such is the mandate of the Memory Hole, a website dedicated to preserving things that the original sites decided needed to be disappeared. Often, these are government documents; sometimes, they're pieces from businesses or even newsmagazines.

The Memory Hole is a good example of the kind of transparency-enforcement possible in a networked world. It's far too easy to make documents disappear when they contain uncomfortable material. The one drawback is that the Memory Hole is just one place, one site. A well-placed cease & desist or denial-of-service attack could knock it out. What we need is a way to combine the content of the Memory Hole with the structure of, say, Gnutella...

November 14, 2003


Biologists at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, led by Dr. Craig Venter -- of mapping the human genome fame -- have constructed a "bioactive" bacteriophage out of scratch. This isn't the very first time a virus has been constructed from off-the-shelf chemicals (a synthetic polio virus was built a bit over a year ago), but this virus took only two weeks to create (the polio virus took several years to build), and is indistinguishable from its natural counterpart (the synthetic polio virus had numerous genetic defects). This is the first real evidence that functional biological organisms can be constructed gene-by-gene.

The implications for this are enormous; in many ways, this is a far more important biotech development than cloning. While the bacteriophage constructed by the team, "phiX," is an existing virus, this was a necessary first step for the construction of wholly original forms of life. Venter's crew is focusing on building microbes for the production of energy resources (such as hydrogren), but bacteriophages may have broad applications, including serving as novel forms of antibiotics when traditional medicines fail.

But larger questions loom. If novel life forms can be built using off-the-shelf material and well-understood techniques, how do we defend against misuse? (I have already posted some ideas about this issue.) If a lab builds a new organism, do they own it? Is it a patented product, a copyrighted genome? Are we about to enter the era of GRM, or Genetic Rights Management?

November 19, 2003


Building an argument for a better world runs into a recurring problem: people like to imagine awful futures. Seriously. There are undoubtedly numerous explanations for this, ranging from Cassandra complexes ("I warned you, but you didn't listen!") to Terriblisma, the wonderful term Alex dredged up out of Renaissance Italy to describe the awe-filled feeling one gets from witnessing utter devastation. The unwillingness to imagine positive futures may be a wish to avoid hubris, or it may denote an underlying hope to be wrong, to encounter a good future as a pleasant surprise.

For most of the last decade, my job (in its various manifestations) has been the development of scenarios, plausible stories about the future. Usually, these scenarios were linked to a given organization's strategic concerns, whether that organization was as large as a global IT manufacturer or as small as a local school district. Sometimes, the scenarios were used to build out dramatic worlds for film, television, or games. Occasionally, the scenarios were simply an exercise in thinking through what the next five, ten, or fifty years might look like.

When people set out to think about the future, the first (and usually only) question they ask is "what if things go wrong?" This is by no means a bad question (in fact, it would be nice if it were asked more often). But focusing only on negative outcomes blinds one to the possibility of things going right. The possibility of victory. I'm not alone in this observation; Alex has spoken in the past of working with environmental groups, asking what their "win" scenario looked like, and getting nothing but blank looks in response.

Continue reading "WorldEnding" »

November 20, 2003

Fruit Fly Protein Map

Although the Human Genome Project (and the various plant & animal genome projects that preceded it and continue on) was often hyped as the key to unlocking human biology, it's only the first step in a bigger process. Genes code for proteins. Of far greater utility than a genome map -- and of far greater complexity -- is a map of protein interaction, sometimes called a "proteome." Proteins form the building blocks of tissues, and their interactions are the basis for biological systems. In short, proteins actually carry out the details of being a living being.

A draft map has just been completed of the protein interactions for Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly. The abstract is available here; the full article PDF is here. According to the researchers (at CuraGen and a variety of universities), the "map serves as a starting point for a systems biology modeling of multicellular organisms including humans." They also state in their report that they intend for the map "to serve as a public resource for interested scientists."

Believers in the precautionary principle and the application of responsibility and foresight to biotech research should be really pleased by this. Protein interaction maps are critical for understanding the more subtle results of genetic manipulation. Among the concerns reasonable people have about bioengineering is the possibility of unforeseen interactions between apparently distinct biological systems. As biologists build more of these proteomic maps, the better ability we'll have to avoid problems down the road -- and a better idea we'll have about how to fix things to survive in a rapidly changing climate.

The OpenCD

We here at WorldChanging make plenty of references to Open Source Software and the wonderful crunchy goodness therein, but I suspect that most of the people reading this site have never tried out Linux on their own machines, feeling -- perhaps rightly -- that most Linux distributions are not made for mere mortals. While the most popular Linux versions have made great strides in ease-of-use and ease-of-installation, they still have the unpleasant requirement that you reformat at least part of your hard drive to give them a shot.

But open source is more than Linux. Open Source applications actually exist for Windows. Enter the OpenCD.

The OpenCD is a CD (surprise!) containing a wide assortment of useful open source applications, from professional software such as OpenOffice to internet apps such as Mozilla to various utilities for privacy and file management. Not only are they free, they're open source -- the CD contains links to the source code for every program. The latest version of the CD was just released today.

The goal of the OpenCD is to show non-technical users that a software world exists beyond Microsoft and Adobe, without requiring that they give up familiar programs and environments. Best of all, it's freely available, downloadable as an 'ISO' file for burning to CD; the makers encourage users to copy it as often as they like.

If you're curious about this whole open source thing, and want to check out some examples -- or you know someone who is -- this is a good place to start.

November 21, 2003

Nanoassembly via DNA

Scientists in Israel have built working transistors using carbon nanotubes self-assembled via binding to DNA, according to New Scientist.

Carbon nanotubes have remarkable properties, including the ability to function as conductors, resistors, and semi-conductors, depending upon how they're structured. Building circuits using nanotubes has been an expensive, time-consuming process, however. Using the biological method of self-assembly, costs could drop dramatically.

All very cool and nanotechy and still a decade or more away, so... so what?

For me, the key 'so what' is that this underscores the degree to which the key to the future will be biology. Nanotechnology, material science, and information technology are all gradually finding themselves under the umbrella of biotechnology. It is quite likely that, in the coming years, understanding how these now-disparate technological systems work will require understanding how biological systems work.

As environmental shifts (and the corresponding social problems) loom ever-larger around us, a shift towards approaches intended not to replace or control biology, but to work with it -- to collaborate with biology, if you will -- are more likely to be both sustainable and successful.

Commitment to Development Index

A recent issue of Foreign Policy contains a detailed examination of the degree to which the rich nations are actually commited to the development of poorer nations. Foreign Policy teamed with the Center for Global Development for the study, which "grades 21 rich nations on whether their aid, trade, migration, investment, peacekeeping, and environmental policies help or hurt poor nations." The Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal scored the highest; Australia, the United States, and Japan were the bottom three.

The results may be surprising. Although the U.S. and Japan are, in raw dollar terms, the largest developmental aid donors, they rank at the very bottom of the index for a variety of reasons, ranging from restrictions on how the aid can be used to environmental and immigration policies detrimental to global development.

In ranking these countries’ commitment to development, the CDI rewards generous aid giving, hospitable immigration policies, sizable contributions to peacekeeping operations, and hefty foreign direct investment in developing countries. The index penalizes financial assistance to corrupt regimes, obstruction of imports from developing countries, and policies that harm shared environmental resources. Although the governments and leaders of poor nations are themselves ultimately responsible for responding to the many challenges of development, rich countries can and should change their policies to spur economic growth and social development in poorer nations. The CDI highlights and ranks the rich countries’ policies themselves, not their final impact. This approach emphasizes what each rich country—regardless of size and reach—can do to improve opportunities for development throughout the world.

The article is long, but well worth reading, as it details the ways in which developmental assistance is a complex system. A wide array of factors contribute to the ability of developing nations to move out of poverty and tyranny. A better understanding of the complexity of the problem can only help policymakers, activists, and the public figure out the best ways to extend development in an equitable and sustainable manner.

A link to the listing of the 21 richest countries in order of their CDI score can be found here.

November 24, 2003

International Intellectual Commons

Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig's organization building a new model for a more flexible, public-friendly form of copyright, just announced its iCommons initiative. iCommons intends to take the precepts underlying the Creative Commons and "port" it to a variety of other legal systems. Issues specific to a given nation can be dealt with while still providing a consistent, comprehensible set of intellectual property laws.

The first set of countries embraced by iCommons include open-source-friendly Brazil and Finland, both China and Taiwan, and Ireland, Italy, and Japan.

The Elegant Universe

If I have an underlying theory or agenda in my postings to WorldChanging.com, it's that understanding -- knowledge -- is the fundamental tool for making the world a better place. In most cases, there is a clear link between improved understanding of the world around us and a course of action. But not always. Sometimes, the value of knowledge is not in its application, but in its creation.

The Elegant Universe is the title of a book and six hours of NOVA, the PBS science showcase. PBS has now put the full six hours of The Elegant Universe up on its website in streaming video, in both Quicktime and RealVideo formats.

The Elegant Universe talks about string theory, the latest attempt to create a unified "theory of everything" -- a way to consistently explain it all, from the minutae of quantum interactions to the universe-spanning effects of gravity. Along the way, string theory results in 11 dimensions, parallel universes, and tears in the fabric of space. The NOVA episodes, hosted by physicist Brian Greene (author of the book), tell the story of string theory in a way that both engages and illuminates.

Watch it, and be enthralled. It may not give you practical advice for fixing the environment or saving the planet, but it will give you a greater understanding of the how the planet fits into the universe as a whole.

November 25, 2003


As Alex's post about the Uganda Digital Bookmobile suggests, there's a lot going on in Africa under the radar of the mainstream media. African news that does make headlines is usually confusing, depressing, or both, and is often filtered by governments or aid agencies. So how does one find out what regular people living in Africa think about the world around them?

One increasingly popular answer to this question is "blogs." There are now several dozen webblogs run by people living and working in Africa, and the numbers are growing all the time. BlogAfrica, a new page put together through the cooperation of the news site AllAfrica.com, the tech support movement Geek Corps, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, provides a listing of ongoing Africa-focused blogs. They represent a fairly broad overview of political and social perspectives; most are in English, while several are in French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

November 26, 2003


With the rise of Tech Nouveau and the Viridian movement, the myth that green design is inherently clunky, crude, or unappealing to modern consumers is finally dead. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of transportation. The new Prius is one of the top-selling cars on the market, in part because of its swoopy design, and as an owner of a Honda Civic Hybrid, I can say from personal experience that very high gas mileage and near-zero emissions can definitely be found hand-in-hand with comfort, utility, and style.

As cool as those cars are, they remain fairly conventional in many respects. But just around the corner are some vehicles totally unlike anything that's ever hit the pavement before. Among the more unusual -- and, in my view, kickass -- designs is the Bombardier EMBRIO (image on the right), a fuel-cell-powered vehicle combining motorcycle, unicycle, and Segway. Fast, quiet, pollution-free, and stable on a single wheel because of its gyroscopes, the EMBRIO looks like something best ridden while wearing black leather and latex.

Sadly, it's not yet real. Bombardier is a Canadian transportation company best known in the U.S. for its "Ski-Doo" personal gas-consumption/noise-generation/water-sports device. The EMBRIO is a concept vehicle, one which will likely not see a showroom, intended by Bombardier as a way of showcasing its ability to think beyond the current market. I want one now.


Diversity is good, particularly when it comes to networked computers. This was the conclusion of a report released in September at the Computer and Communication Industry Association meeting in Washington D.C., and is the subject of a new study funded by the National Science Foundation (and to be carried out jointly by Carnegie Mellon and the University of New Mexico), looking into ways to protect against viruses, intrusions, and other digital menaces.

If we apply the lessons of biology to computer networks -- a sensible approach, given that both have characteristics of complex adaptive systems -- the notion that diverse environments are more survivable than monocultural one makes a great deal of sense. A given bit of hostile code can't spread to every member of a network if the network contains a variety of different operating systems, just as a given tree disease can't spread to every tree in a stand if the forest contains a variety of different species. (Disclaimer/hype: I wrote about this very subject four and a half years ago, in Salon magazine.)

The lesson here for developers of networked, collaborative systems is to be open to diversity. A distributed network which allows varieties of devices (or operating systems) to participate can be more resilient when it is, inevitably, attacked. You may well be able to shrug off an attack entirely. Your members will thank you for your foresight.

The Future is Plastic

Plastic was to the 1960's what cryonics was to the 1980's -- symbolic of the Future. While freezing one's head after death never really made it to the mainstream, plastics are all around us. With a couple of recent developments, plastic may well again be the wave of the future.

MIT has just announced the development of a new method for creating and forming plastics. Normally, plastic shapes are made at fairly high temperatures, melting polymers and pouring them into molds. Plastic objects made in this way have limited recyclability, as the heating and cooling process weakens the polymers -- so called "thermal degradation." The MIT method can shape plastics at room temperature using high pressure, resulting in "baroplastics" which can be reshaped with no thermal degradation. Plastic objects created with this process require less energy to be produced, too. Less energy use, more recyclable... works for me.

But squeezing plastics into shape isn't the only recent breakthrough. An Engineering professor at USC has invented a low-temperature method of doing plastic sintering, more popularly known as 3D printing or fabbing. 3D printers are a relatively recent invention, using powdered polymers (and, occasionally, metals) and a high-powered, laser to build up objects layer-by-layer. Originally used for rapid prototyping, 3D printers are now used by aerospace companies for direct manufacturing of components. The USC method dramatically reduces the heat necessary for sintering, which in turn greatly lowers the cost.

This is pretty big news. 3D printing, if brought down to consumer-level prices, would reshape the way we make and use various home and office products. If all you need to make a toy or kitchen device is a fabber, a supply of raw polymer powder, and a design file, how long before we see "Napster Fabbing?" Things get even more revolutionary if the plastics used can be easily recycled to be used for the next bit of 3D printing.

And we're not just talking about dolls, garlic presses, and iPod pouches. Electroactive polymers -- "flexonics" -- allow for electronic circuits to be embedded in fabbed objects. This would make printing out a new individually-fit ergonomic keyboard, for example, just as easy as printing out a coffee cup.

A plastic future may not be so bad...

About November 2003

This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in November 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

October 2003 is the previous archive.

December 2003 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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