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December 2003 Archives

December 2, 2003

Solar-Powered Hydrogen

Wired News reports that University of Massachusetts (Boston) chemists have figured out how to nearly double the efficiency of a solar-powered process used to make hydrogen fuel. Solar power is employed to crack water molecules into component hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The new technique is 30 percent efficient, significantly improving over the 18 percent efficiency of the previous solar water cracking process.

Moreover, this begins to put solar-process hydrogen production on a competitive footing to the current mainstream H2 process, which mixes steam and natural gas. This current method is not environmentally benign, nor will it move us away from fossil fuel usage. Ecological and resource sanity are two big selling points for hydrogen power.

How long will it take before this process is economically viable? The inventor says up to five years; a principal scientist at the government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory quoted in the article argues it will more likely be up to 20 years. I'm expecting the latter, but hoping for the former.

December 3, 2003

Vega's Planetary System

At 25 light years away, Vega is one of the closer stars in the night sky, and one of the brightest. British astronomers, working at the James Clerk Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, have discovered that it possesses a planetary system which is something of a twin to our own.

Vega's system seems to have a gas giant planet about the size of Neptune orbiting at about the same distance as Neptune does from the Sun. This gives Vega plenty of room for smaller, rocky planets to orbit closer in, in what would be Vega's "habitable zone," the "just-right" distance neither too hot (leading to a Venus) nor too cold (leading to a Mars). Just as important, the presence of a gas giant in the outer system means that debris (such as asteroids, comets, and whatnot) tends to get swept up by the larger planet's gravity before it can get deeper into the system, potentially hitting any Earth-like planets.

Continue reading "Vega's Planetary System" »

¡Software Libre Para La Libertad!

Nice Bruce Sterling article in the current issue of Wired about the ongoing transformation of open source software (Linux, in particular) from techie darling to catalyst for regional technological opportunity. He focuses on Extremadura, in Spain:

The features may be mundane, but they add up to something quite new: a patriotic regional operating system. The emailer's logo is a stork, Extremadura's most beloved bird. The word processor is named after a famous local poet. The desktop is crammed with hallowed symbols of the homeland. Extremaduran schoolkids could stand up and pledge allegiance to this thing.

Free software has always been free for the sake of technologists, providing open range for code wranglers and server farmers. Now Extremadura is claiming it for the campesinos. Here, open source isn't about the process of collaborative development or objections to intellectual property. It's about power to the people. The LinEx stork is a direct connection to the global economy.

Unsurprisingly, the proliferation of Linux in the poorer parts of Spain bears a connection (at least in spirit) to the rise of Lula...

December 4, 2003

Opening Africa

If you're in Cape Town, South Africa in mid-January, and have a spare $500 or so, you may want to check out the First African Conference on the Digital Commons. According to the site:

The conference will address the challenges and opportunities of the creation and use of free / open source software and open content and their development potential for Africa. The conference has both strategic and practical objectives, bringing together participants from government, education, business and civil society together with the developer community. The purpose of this conference is to:

  • Review progress on implementation of open source and open content in Africa
  • Create opportunities for peer-to-peer networking and learning among Africans participating in open source and open content initiatives
  • Lay the groundwork for collaborative creation of open source software in Africa
  • Expose Open Source companies and products to a variety of participants
  • Keynote speakers include Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, Dr. Sibusiso Sibisi, President & CEO of South Africa's Centre for Science, Innovation, and Research (CSIR), and Wendy Seltzer of the EFF.

    The conference is cosponsored by the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa, an organization dedicated to encouraging the use of open source software as part of Africa's ongoing development process. The FOSSFA site includes a database of groups using open source tools in Africa. One example is a group called Guinix, which set up inexpensive radio email throughout Guinea for no more than $150/month total cost using old PCs loaded with Linux and FreeBSD.

    The open source/collaboration meme seems to be spreading like wildfire, both as a way for governments to bootstrap development and for NGOs large and small to take advantage of digital technologies.

    Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! (Part One)

    What does the future hold? Building a better future takes foresight: you need to have a sense of how things are changing, what you're going to be up against, and what new tools and systems may be available over the coming years. While there are myriad writers trying to tell you (or sell you...) their visions of what tomorrow may bring, few of them are truly useful if you're trying to change the world.

    Quite a few futurists fall into a trap of imagining that the invention of things is a good way of thinking about the future. British Telecom has a forecasting department that specializes in just this, and has published a calendar of technology development. As the document was initially published in late 2001, and we are about to enter 2004, looking at how well they mapped out developments in 2002 and 2003 is a useful exercise. We seem to have under a month for the first talk show hosted by a robot to hit the airwaves, for example.

    Not everyone who focuses on devices and innovations is content to simply list things in a terse "10GHz chips -- 2006" format. MIT's journal Technology Review publishes an annual "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World" article, going into substantial detail about how the inventions work, how they are used, and what the next steps are in their development. The 2003 listing, from early this year, has been made available here; the 2004 edition, due out in a month, will likely be available initially only to subscribers.

    More recently, Fast Company magazine took a similar approach, listing "5 Technologies That Will Change the World." As with the Technology Review piece, the article goes into some detail about the people and processes involved in the creation of the new systems.

    Of course, the world is more than innovative new technologies and processes. Politics, demographics, design, and more all help shape global outcomes.

    But few of these futurist and forward-looking projects take the next step, and consider how the developments, changes, threats, and opportunities they describe combine with those described by others. How does an increase in average lifespan mix with the proliferation of tiny, wireless, networked cameras, for example? At first blush, they seem unrelated -- and they are, superficially -- but upon reflection, one can start to imagine how a growing elderly population might use ubiquitous networked cameras for their own personal security (fearful of roving bands of teenagers), how an overtaxed healthcare system might use abundant netcams as a way of monitoring seniors who don't need onsite care but might need rapid responses to a fall or heart attack, how active older people might use mobile networked cameras as a tool for prompting their gradually failing memories when meeting someone new, trying to recall where they put their keys, etc. (frankly, I could use something like that now...). I'm sure you could think of others.

    None of these musings would necessarily have been apparent just from thinking about the implications of either aging demographics or wireless cameras, but pop right out when you put the two together.

    In part two, I'll talk a bit more about how we can use this as a tool for building a better world.


    BoingBoing notes a new program called BadBlue, which lets you view on your work PC material proxy-loaded on your home PC, thereby evading any content restrictions and monitoring one's office may have -- it treats workplace restrictions as damage and routes around it. The main use for this is, unsurprisingly, for adult surfing. While this is of admittedly marginal WorldChanging utility (unless you work in an office which has blocked access to Slashdot), it does remind us of Peekabooty, a similar concept aimed at a very different audience.

    Politically repressive regimes fear the free flow of information over the Internet, and censor it with firewalls. Peekabooty is a distributed, peer-to-peer application explicitly intended to bypass national firewalls. In short, it treats political censorship as damage, and routes around it.

    Peekabooty is software run by "global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet. A user in a country that censors the Internet connects to the ad hoc network of computers running Peekabooty. A small number of randomly selected computers in the network retrieves the Web pages and relays them back to the user. As far the censoring firewall is concerned, the user is simply accessing some computer not on its "banned" list. The retrieved Web pages are encrypted using the de facto standard for secure transactions in order to prevent the firewall from examining the Web pages' contents. Since the encryption used is a secure transaction standard, it will look like an ordinary e-business transaction to the firewall.

    Users in countries where the Internet is censored do not necessarily need to install any software. They merely need to make a simple change to their Internet settings so that their access to the World Wide Web is mediated by the Peekabooty network. Installing the software makes the process of connecting to the Internet simpler and allows users to take fuller advantage of the Peekabooty network.

    "Global-thinking, local-acting" people in countries that do not censor the Internet install Peekabooty, which can run "in the background" while they use their computer for their day-to-day work. It doubles as a screen saver that displays its status as well as information about human rights and censortship.

    So you're all ready to go and grab a copy of Peekabooty for yourselves, right? Unfortunately, the Peekabooty Project is in a transition from version 1 to version 2 of the software, and no downloads are yet available of the new application. You can be sure that we here at WorldChanging will let you know the minute that changes...

    December 6, 2003

    Geopolymeric Pseudo-Concrete

    Paul Harrison wrote to inform us of an Australian process which uses aluminum and waste products such as fly ash, used glass, slag, and even waste paper to create an inorganic geopolymer analog to concrete, one that takes less energy to make than conventional cement-based concrete. A company called Siloxo developed and has commercialized the process. The resulting material is extremely heat-resistant (up to 950°C), resists most acids, and is supposedly ideal for encapsulating heavy metals, organic wastes, and other hazardous materials.

    A greener replacement for concrete may not be the sexiest bit of future-friendly technology to pop up, but it certainly could be one of the more important. Tens of millions of tons of concrete are produced every year around the world. If that production could be made more energy-efficient (and make use of materials which would otherwise be considered hazardous waste), we all win. Or, as Paul put it in his email, "if we're building another world, this looks like the stuff to make it out of."

    December 8, 2003

    Scanning the Planet

    If you want to get a sense of what's going on inside of your body, you can -- if you have the money or an extremely generous insurance provider -- get a full body scan, using various devices to get detailed cross-sections of your body, a process known as "tomography." But what if you want to get a sense of what's going on inside the Earth? Well, guess what.

    A group of Princeton geoscientists just announced that they have used a technique known as "Finite Frequency Tomography" to take an incredibly detailed peek at the inner workings of our home planet. In particular, they have managed to take the first direct measurements of so-called "mantle plumes," massive spouts of hot material rising from the mantle, a 2,000 mile-thick layer just below the Earth's crust. 32 plumes were identified, including one under Iceland (see image).

    This gives us a new tool in understanding how our planet functions.

    One novel aspect of this planetary body scan was that it used not positron emission or gravity waves or some other extremely high-tech process, but old-fashioned seismographic measurements. The vibrations from earthquakes serve as the equivalent of sound waves, as used in ultrasound scans. Details of the study can be found at Science Express, although you have to be a subscriber (or AAAS member) to download the article. A PDF of the scan images, however, is currently freely available.

    What's Your Score?

    Hey, USians -- do you know just how many pollutants, toxic wastes, and environmental hazards are in your neighborhood? You do now. The eco-organization Environmental Defense has set up a handy map site called "Scorecard," illustrating and detailing the latest EPA Toxic Release Inventory. National maps show concentrations of air pollutants, animal wastes from factory farms, clean water act status, and more, while community data breaks down by county just what sorts of hazards you may have around you.

    Information about wastes and pollutants can be hard to find and parse, sometimes deliberately so; Scorecard makes digging up information about local environmental conditions if not exactly fun, then at least friendly. (Via MetaFilter)

    Open Source Hardware

    WorldChanging readers are well-acquainted with open source software, such as Linux. We've also mentioned other realms in which the open source model is starting to be applied. But today's Slashdot brought a nice reminder that open source can even be brought into the world of material objects.

    OpenCores is a project intended to develop a set of hardware designs which would allow a chip manufacturer to build a highly-functional system without having to license expensive proprietary core designs. Finally, after three years of work, OpenCores has come up with a silicon implementation. The OpenRISC 1000 chip is a System-On-Chip microcontroller, meaning that it includes everything from CPU functions to memory interface, data I/O, and networking on a single bit of hardware. SOC chips aren't new, but a design which is completely open is.

    Okay, so the OpenRISC 1000 chip isn't all that world-changing, but it is a good example of how people are pushing the open source concept into every realm where information matters. And, as more of the material world takes on characteristics of the digital world, such realms are becoming increasingly common. And that is pretty world-changing.

    December 10, 2003

    Biochips Ahoy

    Arizona State University researchers have developed a new model "biochip" -- an all-in-one laboratory on a chip able to detect and analyze microorganisms and chemicals in the field. While such chips have been built before, the ASU design cuts the price and size. The plastic biochip measures 12x6 cm, and only 2mm thick.

    Technology Review notes: "The chip performs all the work needed to test from a raw sample like whole blood, including target cell capture using immunomagnetic beads, cell preconcentration, purification and lysis, and DNA multiplication and detection. The researchers' prototype detected a disease-causing E. coli bacteria in a sample of rabbit whole blood in 3.5 hours."

    Moving from R&D to the field may take several more years.

    Cheap, powerful bio-detection and analysis chips are key to ongoing measurements of environmental conditions, and to monitor biological or chemical hazards. They can also aid in grappling with climate change. The cheaper the chips are, and the easier they are to produce, the more they can be used, thereby letting us understand how environments are -- or aren't -- functioning. As one of the hallmarks of climate change is the increase in unexpected shifts in local and regional ecosystems, the more we can monitor environmental status, the better chance we'll have of reacting effectively.

    WSIS Kicks Off

    The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is underway in Geneva. Lots of world leaders giving short speeches about the value of peace and cooperation (and hinting that the Internet would be a much nicer place if only it was under the control of the UN). In many ways, the fact that the declaration of principles and plan of action drafts are only being made available on the WSIS website as Microsoft Word documents sums up the whole thing.

    Far more interesting than the conference itself are the various WSIS-related web observers, news sites, and side-conferences which have sprung up. My favorite is a particularly interesting side-conference simultaneous to WSIS called the World Forum on Communication Rights. It describes itself as an independent civil-society led initiative, focusing on demonstrating, documenting, and developing a coherent articulation of universal communication rights.

    The World Summit on the information Society seems determined to turn a blind eye to many issues central to an information society that puts people first. Who owns information and knowledge? Who controls the production process? Who rules the circulation of knowledge, and in whose interests? Who is able to use it, and for what ends?

    Many believe that communication must be at the core of any information society — some call for a communicating society. They believe that securing communication rights should for all be high on all our agendas. Yet the concept of communication rights is new. What do electronic surveillance, concentration of ownership of media, the failure to meaningfully address the Digital Divide, the privatisation of knowledge in the public domain, and the apparent non-existence of the poor in mainstream media have in common?

    They all reflect the growing importance of communication to society, culture, politics and the economy, and an attempt by powerful governments and corporations to control them for their own ends. Asserting communication rights not only a practical response to these threats, but also a positive effort to realise the huge potential of old and new communication media and technologies for all.

    I like these guys. They get it in a way that the WSIS doesn't.

    Information about the WSIS can be found in various places. OneWorld.net, a group of young video journalists from India, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay, are providing daily video reports from WSIS (requires RealVideo; video starts playing immediately). The Daily Summit gives live coverage from the conference, engagingly written, along with links to other WSIS-related sites. The writer of KnowProse, a blog with a focus on Free Software and digital freedom, isn't at the summit, but has plenty of interesting observations anyway.

    Finally, if you have something you really want to say to the summit, but can't get to Geneva in time, check out the Hello World Project, which will allow you to have a brief (<100 word) message written in laser across a mountainside in Geneva (as well as on buildings in Mumbai and New York, and a hillside in Rio).

    December 11, 2003

    Wireless Net City

    The city of Cerritos, in Southern California, will be one big wireless hotspot come January 1st. This means that, wherever you go in the 8.6 square miles of the city, you can be connected to the net. Cerritos is too remote to have full DSL coverage, and too ill-served by its cable provider for cable broadband. The city worked out an arrangement with Aiirnet to provide "802.11 mesh" networking, allowing a given user to remain seamlessly connected to a single network regardless of which particular wireless hub she or he is actually connected to at the moment.

    While this will be the first city-wide 802.11 implementation in the United States, the idea is taking off internationally.

    (AP reports that the service will be free, but a more detailed report from the Federal Communications Workers journal notes that it will cost $40/month for a 500Kb connection.)

    I suspect that the good people of Cerritos are in for quite a surprise. As those of you with Wi-Fi connections at home or work already know, a high-speed wireless connection is a viscerally different experience than a hard-wired link. Rather than thinking of the Internet as something that comes in through a little plug in the wall, wireless users start to think of it as something in the air all around them. Rather than information being something you go to get, it becomes something that comes to you.

    Hmmm... it seems to me that an enterprising person could set up little hand-held wireless PocketPC rentals outside of, say, a supermarket, with the devices pre-set with links to various nutrition and consumer information websites. Would immediate access to such data change buying patterns? Researchers, here's a good place to start looking...

    December 12, 2003

    New Feminist Perspectives on Biotechnology and Bioethics

    "Feminists Face the Future: New Feminist Perspectives on Biotechnology and Bioethics" is the title of the thirteenth annual Berkeley Boundaries in Question conference, Thursday, March 11 through Sunday, March 13, 2004 at the University of California at Berkeley. It will address issues raised by biotechnology from a feminist perspective. The conference will bring together a diverse assortment of disciplines to talk about the intersection of feminist thought and new developments in biotech. The agenda for the conference is still shaping up, and the deadline for submissions is Monday, January 12, 2004. Contact information for potential participants can be found on the conference website.

    Possible themes include:

    How might the politics of Choice be changing in response to newly emerging reproductive technologies, and might a pro-choice sensibility inform our understanding of morphological freedoms promised by genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification?

    Does the copyrighting of genetic information, the selling of gametes over the Internet, the multiplication of surrogate mothering services, and the existence of markets for human organs alter or expand the feminist critique of the traffic in women?

    How is technological development differently articulated across nations, regions, races, sexes, cultures, generations?

    Is the body of biotechnology more a promise of empowerment, a site of struggle, a recipe for market exchange and exploitation, a text for experts to read, or a poem we recite against the grain?

    Should ecofeminism find in biotechnology more a threat to nature, an expression of nature, or, possibly, nature's proliferation?

    Do we see in queer politics an anticipation of post-biological affiliation, or an intensification of medical subjection?

    How does feminism shape perspectives on cloning, genetically-modified crops, genetic medicine?

    How are and how should these developments be shaping feminist strategies, and feminism's sense of itself?

    The organizer of the event, Dale Carrico, is one of the contributors to one of my favorite group blogs, CyborgDemocracy (where I found the link to this event).

    Weblog Strategies for Non-Profits

    Jon Stahl's journal pointed me towards a terrific piece from October of this year at Radio Free Blogistan called Weblog Strategies for Nonprofits, written by Christian Crumlish. In the essay, Crumlish goes over some of the ways in which a small non-profit organization can make use of the growing power of weblog tools, such as Moveable Type (used by WorldChanging). His advice is well-worth considering if you're running a non-profit and want to figure out how to communicate your message better.

    For people already running blogs, some of his observations will seem unsurprising. But for organizations still getting accustomed to having a relatively static website, the dynamism, voice, and flexibility of the blog format can be revolutionary. One of the founding ideas for WorldChanging is that the intersection of social software and non-profit activism may be enormously fruitful. Crumlish's essay provides a straightforward blueprint for how this can happen.

    Bioremediation Rocks

    Geobacter sulfurreducens -- get used to seeing that name. It may well be the key to cleaning up some of the most dangerous radioactive wastes sites around. Best of all, it's completely natural.

    G. sulfurreducens is a microbe that is able to turn the soluble form of uranium contaminating groundwater around nuclear weapons production sites (such as Rifle Mill in Colorado) into an easily-collected precipitate. Researchers with the Department of Energy have managed to use the bacteria to reduce uranium in the groundwater around Rifle Mill by 90%. The microbe occurs naturally in the ground; its growth is stimulated by adding vinegar to the soil.

    But now, biologists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, have sequenced the microbe's DNA, figuring out how it manages to detect and "eat" uranium, producing minute amounts of electricity. Their report is in today's edition of Science; the illustration at right is from their online supporting material. TIGR and University of Massachusetts in Amherst researchers believe that they will be able to manipulate the microbe's genome to make its uranium-electricity conversion faster and more efficient.

    (It's worth noting that G. sulfurreducens doesn't make the uranium go away; it makes it no longer soluble in water. This is an ideal type of bacterial bioremediation -- the contaminant becomes easy to clean up, but there's no risk of the microbe "running wild" and devouring otherwise safe material.)

    December 13, 2003

    Network Thinking for Immunization

    The traditional approach to immunization policy (an appropriate concern in the U.S. right now, given the current panic over flu shots) typically involves trying to immunize as many people as possible in order to cut down a bug's chances of spreading throughout the population. This doesn't work all that well -- it turns out that, on average, you need to immunize 95% of the population if you're just getting a random sample. While it may be theoretically possible to immunize 95% of a population, the financial and logistical challenges are fairly daunting.

    But human societies are not random. We have networks of interaction, easily demonstrated by checking out the various social software websites out there (Friendster and Tribe.net being two of the better-known ones). And when you start thinking about human behavior not as random individuals but as networks, you can come up with new ideas about immunization.

    Human networks of acquaintances, computer networks like the Internet, and interacting protein networks in the body, all share a characteristic layout: most of the elements have only a few links to others, while a few individuals have a very large number of links. If one of these highly connected individuals in a human network becomes infected, she can become a "super-spreader," infecting all of her contacts and efficiently distributing the disease. This structure suggests a deceptively simple solution to the vaccination question: immunizing all the super-spreaders in a network slows or stops the spread of a disease as effectively as destroying a country's highway interchanges would stop traffic.

    Reuven Cohen and colleagues at Israel's Bar-Ilan University have found that, rather than trying to immunize everyone in hopes of hitting the "super-spreaders," randomly selecting 20% of a population and asking each to name a single acquaintance, the immunizing that acquaintance, is an effective means of focusing in on those most at risk of spreading an infection to a large number of people. With a large enough population, you can even take a smaller sampling and only go after acquaintances mentioned by two or more people and still get great results.

    This is a wonderful example of how thinking in terms of social networks can lead to world-changing developments.

    WSIS and Open Source

    A quick update on the now-ended 2003 phase of the World Summit on the Information Society. The International Herald-Tribune has a nice article on the the back-room attempt by Brazil, India, South Africa and China to push open source software as a key IT tool for developing nations.

    Samuel Guimarães, executive secretary in Brazil's foreign ministry, told government representatives at the summit meeting's opening sessions that free-to-share software is crucial for the developing world because it enables poorer countries to develop their own technology instead of having to import it.

    While the wording in the final document was watered down under pressure from the U.S. and Microsoft, momentum is clearly building for open source and Free Software to be used as cornerstones for progress in the developing world.

    Plan B

    Like it or not, the Kyoto treaty on climate change is pretty much dead. The U.S. has flatly rejected it; Russia is playing games with it; and even the E.U. quietly admits that most member nations will not hit their targets. And, frankly, many environmentalists weren't too thrilled with the Kyoto treaty to begin with -- it didn't do enough, was too complex, and left many issues unaddressed.

    So what's Plan B?

    According to an article in this week's New Scientist, Plan B is something called "Contraction and Convergence," or "C&C." Supported by the U.K.'s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the United Nations Environment Program, the European Parliament and the German Advisory Council on Global Change, C&C has numerous advantages over Kyoto. It's more straightforward than the earlier treaty, it addresses the American government's concerns about developing world participation, and it ultimately would be more aggressive about actually dealing with atmospheric carbon build-up than was Kyoto. The C&C concept has been around for about a decade, but is receiving new attention as the death of the Kyoto treaty has become clear.

    Contraction and Convergence simultaneously moves towards a reduced overall carbon emissions total and a universal per-person carbon emissions allowance. The convergence aspect, according to this plan, would be settled by 2050; by then, all nations would have the same emissions-per-person target. The plan includes some emissions trading, but all nations would be included, and the restrictions would eventually be more stringent than in the Kyoto treaty. The article has a useful graph illustrating how the Contraction and Convergence process would work over time.

    December 15, 2003

    DNA Play for Kids

    Okay, I want this.

    The Discovery Channel Store is now carrying the "Discovery DNA Explorer Kit," a mini-lab with everything needed for you (or your budding jr. biotechnologist) to sequence DNA:


  • Centrifuge
  • Magnetic mixer
  • Electrophoresis chamber
  • Test vials
  • Ink samples
  • DNA stain (fabricated to mimic real DNA)
  • Mail order card for first two experiments
  • And lots more
  • Wired has a nice write-up of how the system works.

    When I was a kid, Radio Shack made little home electronics explorer kits intended to get young people (young boys, of course, it being the mid-70s) excited about electronics; many of my friends who became computer hardware and software developers headed on their chosen paths because of those toys. This DNA sequencer for kids has the potential to push the current generation of kids onto the road of bioengineer. And maybe get a few no-longer-kids to consider changing careers...

    Information and Modern Politics

    The Washington Post published this last Sunday one of the more interesting pieces on current politics I've seen in quite awhile. In an article awkwardly entitled "Q: What will happen when a national political machine can fit on a laptop? A: See below," Everett Ehrlich argues that the rise of political parties was due in part to the need to have a massive organizational structure to handle the various manifestations of information required to push candidates. With the spread of the Internet, which drives the cost of information towards zero, such massive bureaucracies are no longer the most efficient way of accessing, distributing, or manipulating information. A small, heavily-networked team can be far more effective, politically.

    He cites the Howard Dean operation as the key example of this:

    For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy.

    It's an interesting argument, one which I've heard in various forms numerous times over the last decade. When I worked as a consultant in the mid-1990s, the assertion that small, nimble, 'mammal' companies were going to eat the collective lunches of big, lumbering, business dinosaurs was so common as to be a cliché. While that certainly stroked the egos of managers of small companies and scared managers of large corporations into looking at that Internet thingie, it wasn't too accurate a prediction. Most big companies seemed to spend the last decade getting even bigger, devouring the nimble mammals and slower-moving dinosaurs alike.

    The notion that small & networked can be at least as effective as big & mighty becomes less amusing when we look at the arena of modern global politics. Warnings about distributed, networked attacks didn't just happen around 9/11; thoughtful strategists were sounding off about the possibility back in the mid-1990s. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt's 1996 book, The Advent of Netwar (available as PDFs for each chapter), remains one of the best introductions to the topic.

    Ehrlich paints a fascinating picture of how the use of the web can and will shape electoral politics. I think that many of his observations about how Dean's campaign functions are on-target. His scenarios of how the big parties will respond to web-enable insurgencies are less convincing, however. Big corporations didn't hold firm against the rise of smaller companies by simply battening down, twisting rules to make life hard for the non-dominant firms; they also lifted good ideas wholesale from the up-and-comers (sometimes by buying them, sometimes not), took advantage of their comparative strengths (in money, in global access, in ability to absorb losses), and figured out how to play the game like small companies without having to divest themselves of their size and power.

    It remains to be seen whether modern political parties will prove to be too sclerotic and hidebound to learn from networked insurgent movements. They may simply be so big and entrenched that they are able to withstand passing trends in Internet politics. If Ehrlich is right, though, and campaigns like Dean's represent a fundamental shift in American politics, the choices for traditional parties are few: either ignore the new forces and wither or embrace them and be transformed.

    Make Your Own Nanotools

    After posting the story about the Discovery Channel's DNA lab for kids, I found a couple of links which strongly suggest what the next phase will be.

    Scanning Tunneling Microscopes -- STMs -- are the workhorse devices of exploring the world of the very, very, very small. Using a tiny, sharp, electrically-conductive tip moved over a sample at a very, very, very small distance, STMs can survey the shape and structure of molecules, and be used to produce a map of the sample. Under certain conditions, STMs can even be used to shove molecules and atoms around. Some of the earliest experiments in nano-assembly were carried out with Scanning Tunneling Microscopes. Best of all, they can operate under "normal" conditions -- in the air at room temperature.

    So how does one get ahold of such a device? If you have the cash -- $8,000 and up (way up) -- you can just buy one. But what if you want to make one yourself? Well, two different sites will help you do just that.

    First up is "Getting Started on Home Brewing an STM" by James Logajan. The essay, from 2002, details just what components you'll need, and where to get them. The description is fairly detailed, and the listing of sources for components should be useful; unfortunately, it doesn't look like Mr. Logajan has actually built one.

    Of potentially greater use is the "SXM Project" at the University of Muenster. The Interface Physics Group has actually built one (and is currently working on an Atomic Force Microscope, an even more sophisticated and powerful tool) and provides detailed instructions -- including technical diagrams and CAD files -- to anyone interested in duplicating its efforts.

    Both are a bit beyond most people's skills as hardware hackers, and still probably out of the price range for casual enthusiasts. Nonetheless, similar thoughts would have been true about tools for sequencing DNA not too many years ago. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Discovery Channel's toy lineup including a $100 STM for kids sometime around 2009... (via Nanobot)

    Economist Technology Quarterly

    Even if you don't agree with the magazine's politics or its approach to economic theory, The Economist remains one of the better print sources of news and information around. Every quarter they run a special issue going over interesting developments in the world of technology. The current version includes pieces on high-resolution weather forecasting, biometrics, and advances in chemical sensor technology, among others.

    Both the December and September Technology Quarterly articles are freely available. (via CyborgDemocracy)

    December 16, 2003


    A couple of years ago, I visited a good friend of mine who lived in London. One of the very first places he and his lovely wife took me to was Muji, a small shop selling housewares, stationery, and personal care products. None of the items were marked with a logo, and many appeared to be made from recycled material. What really struck me was the design aesthetic: clean, useful, unobtrusive, and smart. (It turns out that the name Muji is short for "Mujirushi Ryohin," meaning "no brand, good product")

    Useful + Agreeable Design Online has a wonderful article about the store, its underlying concept and design idea, and what it all means in a world of overwhelming branding and impossible-to-avoid advertising.

    Some products even make cheeky reference to Muji's disavowal of the branded world. A recently released t-shirt comes with a 5 cm rubber square on the chest inviting the purchaser to design their own logo or message. In 2001, Muji teamed up with Nissan Motors to produce Muji Car 1000 - a limited edition, fuel efficient, low-emission and low-cost vehicle that incorporated recycled materials wherever possible, had limited polish and, a total anomaly in the car world, was devoid of any markings.

    In industry terms, Muji defines itself as an integrity brand. "Ecological awareness is one of the main influences behind the Muji concept," explains managing director Masaaki Kanai. "Through the careful selection of materials," he continues, "the streamlining of manufacturing processes and the simplification of our packaging, we are able to eliminate waste and conserve resources."

    Muji stores can be found in Japan (of course), Great Britain, Ireland, France, Hong Kong, and Singapore. None, sadly, are in the United States, but the Muji Online UK outlet will ship to you. Now if only the currently-awful Pound-Dollar conversion rate would improve...

    Watching Growth from Above

    Urban areas are growing. But by how much? Satellite imaging can help us monitor urban growth by allowing precise measurements of urbanization patterns over time. NASA researchers used Landsat pictures of 30 randomly-selected mid-size cities around the world from 1990 and 2000 to study city size changes. This will allow for better estimates of urbanization and land use around the world, which in turn is critical for better climate modeling.

    These three images show the city of Chengdu in 1990, in 2000, and a combined map, with yellow representing urban areas in 1990 and orange showing the areas of new growth.

    Mid-size cities, with populations ranging between 1 and 5 million, were chosen over mega-cities because the somewhat smaller urban areas are growing faster, and may have a greater overall impact on the global climate.

    When the cities were compared, three common spatial patterns became clear. First, land developments have formed in clusters outside the city. While fairly common in the U.S., Schneider noticed this trend in large cities of China and India as well. Second, there are a number of cities where growth has occurred along roads leading out of the city. This trend poses challenges both to city managers and governments who must provide water, sewage, adequate housing, schools and health care services to dispersed people, and to the citizens, who face increasingly difficult commutes. Finally, Schneider found scattered, patchy development around cities, with less structure than the first two trends. This is the first time actual data have been used to confirm theories made by urban researchers during the last century.

    The pictures are fascinating (even while being a bit alarming).

    As a bonus, the page gives a link to NASA's Earth Observatory picture archive. I could fill my hard drive with these images...

    Altenergy in the UK

    (Title with apologies to Mr. Lydon.)

    Earth-Info-Net notes a couple of interesting resources regarding alternative energy in Great Britain.

    Yes2Wind provides information about wind power in the UK. Assembled by the WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, Yes2Wind includes wind power-related news, a detailed FAQ, an occasionally-updated weblog, and a nifty Wind Farm Locator for those of you in Britain (or just visiting) who want to see wind power in person. Given that the UK claims to be the windiest nation in Europe, wind power is a clear winner in the realm of big system energy production.

    For something a little bit closer to home, there's Microgen's home Stirling Engine. Microgen's CHP (Combined Heat+Power) co-generation units are designed to work in individual households, providing hot water, home heating, and electricity. Running on natural gas, the CHP units are supposed to cut 25% off an average energy bill, and produce far fewer emissions than standard home furnaces/water heaters (let alone traditional power plants). It's only available in Great Britain, though.

    As you can see in the illustration for this post (from Microgen), a home CHP unit isn't exactly sexy on the outside, but cutting costs and emissions while using a modern variant of a 19th-century engine design (which just happens to be the most efficient engine possible) definitely has its own charm...

    December 17, 2003

    Carbon Nanotubes, Yet Again

    Add carbon nanotubes to the list of items that we at WorldChanging can't get enough of. Word from the latest Technology Research News is that carbon nanofibers provoke far less tissue resistance when used for medical implants than traditional materials. Less scarring, less rejection -- oh, and a potential ability to connect to neurons, facilitating brain and nervous system implants. Carbon nanotubes are almost certainly a key structural component of a changed world...


    WiFi-enabled bicycles? Worth a try. Students at New York's Parsons School of Design came up with a novel method of spreading wireless networking to otherwise unconnected locations (such underground subway stations) by rigging up regular bikes with 802.11b access points set to route bits to adjacent bikes until one has a clear Internet signal. The system is still very rough -- it doesn't seem to work when the bikes are moving, and the battery life is pretty lousy -- but I was struck at the willingness of the design students to merge seemingly disparate technologies in order to achieve what they see as a social good (that is, free wireless for everyone).

    This also suggests to me that a likely element of the already-arrived (but not yet well-distributed) future is the spread of peer-to-peer systems (technologies and behaviors) into our social and physical infrastructure -- into the very bones and marrow of our societies. "Make the invisible visible" is a good Viridian motto; maybe a good WorldChanging one is "make the networks ubiquitous."

    December 18, 2003

    Natural-Born Smart Cyborg Mobs

    Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, one of the authors of the Institute for the Future's Future Now blog, has a well-written and thoughtful essay in this last weekend's Los Angeles Times Book Review, examining Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs and Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs. (Free registration is required to get into the LAT site.)

    Pang clearly understands the importance of Rheingold's argument, seeing it as more than simply a paean to cellphones and thumb tribes. Smart Mobs describes a vision of how technology changes humans as social beings. Linking it to Clark's less-well-known exploration of how human beings co-evolve with our tools it smart. Clark sees cyborgism not involving the implantation of computer chips into our bodies, but in the ever-closer interaction between human minds and information tools. Pang draws out the contrasts between Rheingold's emphasis on groups and Clark's focus on individuals, letting us see the underlying connections.

    Imagine our children carrying — or just as likely, wearing — more computing power than sits on your desk today. Imagine them living with a constant background sense of being connected to family and friends; working and playing in smart mobs; pooling experiences and knowledge with trusted humans and virtual agents; and experiencing the Internet as a deep, abiding presence, sometimes on the edge of their awareness, sometimes in the center, but always there. After a time, their abilities to organize and act collectively will recede into the backgrounds of their consciousness. At this point, smart mobs become another of Clark's technologies — another tool that quietly extends the abilities of humans, shaping our thought but rarely thought about.

    I read Smart Mobs earlier this year, and it's an important book. It sounds like I now have another book to get as a companion.

    Arthur C. Clarke

    As WorldChanging often links to sites and stories which reflect the ideas and activities of younger people, it is worth noting that one of my heroes, a person whose ideas and values parallel those of WorldChanging, just turned 86 years old. Arthur C. Clarke ostensibly writes science fiction, but in reality what he does is show us our own potential. OneWorld South Asia has an interview with Sir Arthur, discussing topics as varied as what he thinks of satellite television and how we can all work to solve issues of poverty and inequality.

    In this interview, he utters a line which I think describes our efforts at WorldChanging perfectly: I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    December 19, 2003

    Robophilia or Robophobia?

    Robots, long the key symbol of The Future in fiction, are pushing their way into the present. But as with most futurism-made-manifest, the reality of robots will likely be quite different from cinematic or literary musings.

    What prompted this for me was coming across the new website built as part of the promotion for the upcoming film version of I, Robot. Setting aside the question of whether the movie will be any good -- although I'm tentatively hopeful, given that it's neither a retelling of Frankenstein nor of Pinocchio -- what struck me about this website was that it effortlessly emulated the feel of a modern computer manufacturer website. In effect, one could imagine that this is a robot built by Apple. Rather than portraying a robot as a grim harbinger of humanity's doom or a tinkertoy echo of a person, the site presents the robots as consumer products, there to take care of tedious household duties.

    Of course, that's already the reality for robots. It's hard to avoid commercials for the Roomba vacuum-bot; despite mediocre reviews, it does seem to be selling well. The Roomba represents one scenario for the increasing presence of robots in our lives -- non-humanlike, behind-the-scenes servitors taking care of duties that require little creative thought. That the current version of the Roomba doesn't quite live up to its hype isn't important -- one that does isn't too far off.

    The other scenario for robots in our lives was just demonstrated by Sony. The QRIO has a very humanlike shape, and (given the dancing and running routine in the Sony demo) not intended to remain quietly sweeping up out of view. While the QRIO is not intended to serve a particular function (other than demonstrating technology), it is a beta test of future "outstanding entertainment robots highly suited to the co-existence with humans," according to the Sony site.

    Now: forget the specifics of each of these, and think of their longer-term potentials. Instead of it sweeping your carpets, imagine a future Roomba cleaning up minefields; instead of it doing a Noh dance, imagine a future QRIO serving as a 24-hour assistant for the aged. Neither of these possibilities is too far off. If we are finally in the early days of the age of robotics, how do you want them used to make the world better?

    Global Dimming

    This is not so much a resource as a mystery. Why has the amount of sunlight reaching the ground declined by about .25% per year since 1958? Not the amount of light emitted by the Sun, but the amount actually getting to the lower parts of Earth's atmosphere. Is it pollution, or a complex feedback effect associated with climate change?

    Global Dimming may be one of the biggest bits of climate news to show up in quite awhile, and up until quite recently, it's been largely ignored. The notion that the average amount of light hitting the ground has been falling -- and by such a great amount, more than 10% in about three decades -- seemed so odd and unexpected that many climatologists simply couldn't accept it. But in the past year, experiments have proven it -- the skies are getting darker.

    The discovery of Global Dimming will help to make climate change models more accurate, as well as solve some mysteries:

    But Farquhar had realised that the idea of global dimming could explain one of the most puzzling mysteries of climate science. As the Earth warms, you would expect the rate at which water evaporates to increase. But in fact, study after study using metal pans filled with water has shown that the rate of evaporation has gone down in recent years. When Farquhar compared evaporation data with the global dimming records he got a perfect match. The reduced evaporation was down to less sunlight shining on the water surface.

    The causes of the reduction in light remain uncertain. Most researchers think that it's a result of atmospheric pollutants triggering more persistent cloud formation. Others argue that Global Warming-caused evaporation could be leading to more clouds; in that scenario, a continued rise in global temperatures would lead to greater average reductions in light. This is a critical question -- if the Global Dimming has been caused by pollution, efforts to clean up the atmosphere may actually speed up Global Warming.

    Right now, there are far more questions than answers about Global Dimming. It will almost certainly be a key area of study in the coming years... as well as a welcome reminder not to discount the unexpected.


    Ants are fascinating creatures (except when they're invading one's kitchen, in which case they are simply pests to be dealt with harshly). Individually pretty non-intelligent, the nests nonetheless display behavioral sophistication, usually associated with pheromone patterns. Complex behavior resulting from individually simple actions... could there be a lesson for software programmers?

    But of course.

    MUTE is a new open source file sharing application, running on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It combines heavy encryption with ant-derived packet handling to allow file-swapping which cannot be tracked via conventional means. It's still rough around the edges (to be generous), but is an interesting reaction to the RIAA crackdown on music sharing.

    (This is not an endorsement of music file sharing, although Tim O'Reilly's argument that Piracy is Progressive Taxation is pretty compelling...)

    While the anonymized and encrypted file sharing aspects are interesting, what really caught my attention was the use of ant food search patterns as a model for packet handling. Ant searches are perfect examples of complexity theory: simple rules can lead to complex behavior (though watch out for circular mills and emergent failures). MUTE relies on this to build file sharing networks in which no given member can know both who else is on the network and what they have to share. The more participants -- even if you never share or download a file -- the better it works.

    This initial version of MUTE is intended as a music file-swapping system, but the underlying logic works in any setting where obscuring both content and path of messages is important. Might be worth downloading while you still can.

    December 22, 2003

    Distributed Computing Revisited

    BOINC, which we linked to and talked about a couple of months ago, was just written up in New Scientist, generating a fresh round of links. (BOINC is an application developed by the SETI@Home crowd as a generic distributed computing platform. It's open source, and set to be released next month.)

    For those of you new to the world of distributed computing, it's a method of treating many (hundreds, thousands, even millions) of networked personal computers as a single pseudo-supercomputer. In this way, massive problems involving huge amounts of data can be inexpensively analyzed. It was initially made famous by SETI@Home, which chews on radio telescope data looking for possible signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@Home functions as a screen saver, only processing its data when your machine is idle. (Because the site lists just how many units of data any individual person has processed (across any number of computers), some folks have written viruses/worms to forcibly install SETI@Home on unsecured machines over the net!)

    But BOINC and SETI@Home are not the only distributed computing projects out there. Rather than list them all, I'll just point you to AspenLeaf.com's Internet-based Distributed Computing Projects website, which is the best listing I've found for what's going on, what's coming up, and what you can do to help. There's even a link to a distributed computing chess program, if your computer would rather have fun in its spare time than fold proteins or look for alien life...

    Alternative Energy in Pakistan

    It's small, but it's a start. According to the UN's IRIN, about 100 homes near Islamabad are about to be converted over to solar power to test a new model for supplying electricity to outlying communities. Pakistan's goal is to have 10% of national electricity generation come from alternative sources by 2010.

    The bulk of the article discusses the various ways in which the Pakistani government is supporting that move to alternatives -- with lots of "planned" and "soon" -- but the real key piece is the final paragraph:

    Once electricity was supplied to villages and communities in areas outside the reach of grid-based power providers, a new social phenomenon would be witnessed, Hamid maintained. "Even attitudes would change once electricity reached a village or community in an area where there had been none previously," he said.

    I suspect that we'll see more of this, over time. It may be easier to create a sustainable advanced energy (or information) infrastructure in areas without existing legacy/incumbent systems. Introducing new systems in areas with existing systems means having to pay the costs of converting on top of whatever the new system itself costs. Introducing new systems in regions without them can actually be less expensive than bringing them into "more advanced" markets. As a result, previously less-developed areas can "leapfrog" the established regions, a process noted most famously in 1962 by Alexander Gerschenkron in Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective.

    This may be why Linux (for example) is taking off so profoundly in the developing world. There are fewer organizations grappling with the sunk costs of Windows, more new markets taking a fresh look at which solutions work best. In due time, Linux will be the standard approach for the South (the "BrInSA" trinity -- Brazil, India, South Africa), and any attempt to move off of that standard will face its own conversion costs.

    December 23, 2003

    B2P (Bollywood to Peer) Tech

    As noted at Slashdot and Boing-Boing, 35 different Bangalore-based movie producers have worked out an arrangement with IndiaFM.com and Sharman Networks to make Bollywood movies available via the Kazaa file-sharing network. Audiences can download the films for a small fee to watch on their computers; the movie files self-destruct after the viewing is completed. The goal is to make the movies more accessible for international audiences, while still generating income for the filmmakers.

    It is something of a half-measure, though. Making the movies single-play only simultaneously removes one of the advantages of a peer-to-peer system (that is, being able to download files from multiple locations) and offers a challenge to enterprising hackers (how do you get rid of the self-destruct code?). And watching a movie file on a computer isn't exactly the highest quality experience, especially if the overall media file quality is reduced to make the file transfer time acceptable.

    A better idea would be to make MPEG versions of the movies freely available over something like BitTorrent (a novel peer-to-peer network where the more people download the file, the better your download speed) as inducements for international viewers to demand more Bollywood movies be shown locally. After all, file swapping increases demand for less-well-known musicians; why shouldn't the same logic hold for less-well-known movies?

    December 25, 2003

    Greenest Building in the World

    It isn't in the U.S., Great Britain, or Japan. It isn't in Canada, Germany, or New Zealand. It isn't in the hyperdeveloped world at all. The greenest building in the world, as recognized by the United States Green Building Council, is in Hyderabad, India. It's the Confederation of Indian Industry's Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre.

    InfoChangeIndia gives some details about the building's design:

    Two 45-foot wind towers and screen walls provide air pre-cooled by 10 degrees to the air-conditioning system, thereby reducing the amount of energy required for cooling. Says [architect Karan] Grover: “This is called the ‘venturi effect’ in modern buildings. It helps pre-cool the air.” Pointing out the jali (lattice) work in a photograph of the Taj Mahal, he explains: “It’s not the first time for India. We have been doing it since ancient times.”

    The Rs 6 crore structure also has photovoltaic panels built into it to generate solar energy that takes care of 20% of the building’s annual energy requirements. Likewise, the electrical fixtures have been automated to save power; 90% of the building does not require any artificial lighting during the day because its circular design allows sunlight to reach every part of it. The building also boasts variable speed motors for its blowers and pumps, and the elaborate use of sensors feeding back to the controls.

    Thanks to its circular design, fewer materials were used in the building’s construction. Those that were, were recycled and eco-friendly -- broken mosaic tiles, steel, wood, glass, fly ash brick, oil-and CFC-free equipment and the locally-available bettum cherla stone. Inside, all the carpets and paint are non-toxic. The workers employed in the building’s construction were all local people.

    Work on the building started in 2000, and it will be formally inaugurated in January 2004. The Centre serves as a showcase of sustainable design techniques as well as an information resource for Indian businesses.

    December 26, 2003

    Memory Via Prions

    Despite all of the breakthroughs in biology over recent years, the functioning of the human brain retains significant mysteries. Chief among these is how memory functions: just how does the mind record events, feelings, ideas in a way which allows later recall? Neuroscientists at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research think they've figured out how memories are stored -- but, surprisingly, the mechanism for storage turns out to be prions, the class of proteins considered responsible for neurodegenerative diseases such as mad cow.

    Central to a protein's function is its shape, and most proteins maintain only one shape throughout their lifetime. Prions, on the other hand, are proteins that can suddenly alter their shape, or misfold. But more than just misfolding themselves, they influence other proteins of the same type to do the same. In all known cases, the proteins in these misfolded clusters cease their normal function and either die or are deadly to the cell – and ultimately to the organism.

    For this reason, Kausik Si, a postdoc in Kandel's lab, was surprised to find that a protein related to maintaining long-term memory contained certain distinct prion signatures. The protein, CPEB, resides in central-nervous-system synapses, the junctions that connect neurons in the brain. Memories are contained within that intricate network of approximately 1 trillion neurons and their synapses. With experience and learning, new junctions form and others are strengthened. CPEB synthesizes proteins that strengthen such synapses as memories are formed, enabling the synapses to retain those memories over long periods.

    This is one of those discoveries that has the potential to open up incredible new vistas. At minimum, better understanding of the role that properly-functioning prions play in biology can help us figure out ways to block or repair badly-behaving prions. Similarly, figuring out the mechanisms of memory could lead us towards cures for memory-attacking diseases such as Alzheimers (which, in its most severe forms, displays symptoms similar to the effects of CJD, the human form of mad cow). Finally, this moves us further on the path towards unlocking deep brain physiology and really figuring out how the brain and mind work.

    December 28, 2003

    Holland's Whispering Wheels

    Buses are the dirty secret of the sustainability movement. While there is broad consensus that increased use of public transit is a Good Thing, self-powered buses -- the most flexible available form of public transportation -- are often noisy, pollution-spewing monstrosities. This is largely due to their diesel engines, a necessity due to the sheer power needed to push a massive vehicle along.

    Now take a look at the current crop of hybrid-electric cars roaming the highways, such as the Prius or (the one I drive) the Honda Civic Hybrid. Quiet, efficient, clean... but they're no muscle cars. Surely there's no way to mix the two -- the power and utility of the urban bus and the quiet efficiency of the hybrid.

    Au contraire.

    The city of Apeldoorn, in Holland, is about to start testing a bus design which is at least 50 percent more efficient than previous models. The bus will rely on a standard engine charging batteries supplying power to direct-drive electric motors in the wheels. It still runs on diesel (but will produce only a fraction of current model emissions), and from the perspective of both drivers and passengers the only notable difference will be how quiet it is. It will be the first real hybrid-electric passenger bus.

    The company producing the wheel-motor system, e-Traction, claims that their innovation comes from taking a new look at traditional motors. Rather than a static ring of electromagnets making a rotor turn, the center bar is held still while the ring spins. This produces enough torque to push a bus. While regenerative braking is used to help recharge the batteries, most of the battery power comes from the diesel engine. But because the engine doesn't need to change gears or rev up and down as the bus moves, it can be run at its most fuel-efficient speed at all times.

    The result is a vehicle which uses less fuel (but doesn't require an entirely new fuel infrastructure to be useful), produces far fewer emissions (without simply displacing emissions to the central electric power generation grid), and makes the experience of using public transit less unpleasant. Works for me.

    Big in Japan

    Yesterday's Washington Post story about the explosion of global popularity for Japanese culture will not come as much of a surprise for many of you. Japanese pop culture institutions from J-pop to anime to Hello Kitty vibrators have been commonplace elements of global cities for quite a while now, and Japanophilia has long been a tradition of American geek culture. Nonetheless, the article provides a good overview of the spread and growth of globalized Japanese culture.

    Even as this country of 127 million has lost its status as a global economic superpower and the national confidence has been sapped by a 13-year economic slump, Japan is reinventing itself -- this time as the coolest nation on Earth.

    Analysts are marveling at the breadth of a recent explosion in cultural exports, and many argue that the international embrace of Japan's pop culture, film, food, style and arts is second only to that of the United States. Business leaders and government officials are now referring to Japan's "gross national cool" as a new engine for economic growth and societal buoyancy.

    Despite the sense that once a pop culture movement has hit big enough to warrant a page one "hey, look at this" article in the Post it's probably over, the article is part of a growing body of evidence that a global shift away from American-driven culture is on the rise. While the current manifestation is Japan-focused, India is hot on its heels, and China may well be next. It's not so much a decline of American cultural power as a rise in new memetic centers -- and new ideas.

    Cultural exports are the shockwave of globalism.

    December 29, 2003

    Personal Pollution Index

    Got a spare $5,000 and a serious masochistic streak? Then you, too, can undergo biomonitoring to find out just how many biotoxins have taken up residence in your body. If you're anything like the 9 people in a new study by Commonweal and the Environmental Working Group, you're in for a nasty surprise.

    The 9 subjects -- including journalist Bill Moyer -- were found to have an average of 91 different industrial compounds, pollutants, and other potentially unpleasant chemicals in their blood, urine, and (where appropriate) milk. Such chemicals have been linked to a wide variety of cancers, neuromuscular disorders, reproductive system problems, and worse. The presence in the body is due to environmental exposure -- i.e., having breathed it in, absorbed it into the skin, or consumed it in some way.

    The danger posed by low doses of industrial chemicals remains subject to debate. Chemical companies point to studies showing no risks (although they often refuse to release information about the chemicals to allow for independent detection), while environmental activists point to alternative studies showing harm. Even if the corporate studies are mostly correct, the sheer variety of industrial chemicals present in the environment (and, thus, in one's body) gives pause.

    Even while approaching the study with a skeptical eye, the Environmental Working Group report website is worth visiting. It's an extraordinarily good piece of web storytelling, presenting the results of the biomonitoring in manner that is simultaneously clear and damning. Besides, didn't you always wonder just how many PCBs and hexafloran derivatives were in Bill Moyer's bloodstream?


    Sometimes, the sites we find for WorldChanging just make us sit back with a big grin and say, "wow."

    CLIWOC (a program sponsored by the European Union) is creating a database of the world's ocean climate -- temperature, wind, precipitation -- from 1750-1850. A team at the UK's University of Sunderland is working with universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina to compile the daily (sometimes hourly) log entries from thousands of ships over thousands of voyages into a massive database. The first official release just came out, and contains over 180,000 records. The database is freely available in both ASCII and Microsoft Access format.

    There's something ineffably cool about using the detailed ship logs from Dutch, Spanish, and English sailing vessels in order to track ocean climatic conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Translating two-century-old sailing jargon, deciphering the personal scripts of sailors, figuring out where the ship really was (which may or may not match where the sailors thought it was), is all, in its own way, quietly heroic. This research could prove critical for understanding climate change, as the data gives a baseline for what the world's climate was like before industrialization.

    Earthquakes, Culture, and Design

    With the ongoing revelations of the scale of the disaster in Bam, Iran, it's easy to forget that the magnitude of the earthquake in Iran -- 6.6 on the Richter scale -- was quite close to that of an earthquake just a few days earlier, the 6.5 quake in Paso Robles, California. In Iran, the quake killed as many as 40,000 people, and destroyed thousands of buildings; in California, the quake killed 3, and while early 100 buildings were damaged enough to require safety inspections, only one collapsed. The reason for the difference is not surprising: buildings in California were built according to strong earthquake codes, while the homes and businesses destroyed by earthquake in Iran were largely made of unreinforced mud and stone. As tragic as this is, we've become somewhat accustomed to seeing devastating results from earthquakes in the developing world, figuring that the building materials for quake-resistant designs must be financially out of reach.

    But MIT architecture professor Jan Wampler doesn't think that way. Since the late 1980s, Wampler has been running the International Workshop, a multi-disciplinary program for both undergrads and grad students. Students visit a developing country, studying its culture, architectural history, available technology and resources in order to design buildings appropriate and useful for the area. After 1999's disastrous 7.4 earthquake in Turkey, Wampler -- along with two former students, Barbara Brady and Rukiye Devres Unver -- began a program focusing on how local villages could be rebuilt to better withstand earthquakaes... and, along the way, better withstand economic and social pressures leading to their cultural destruction, as well.

    Wampler reasoned that, by bringing a workshop to Turkey after the quake, he and his students could help rebuild the devastated countryside, designing and constructing much needed and more stable shelters. After consulting with Brady and Unver, he chose to focus on the region surrounding the city of Adapazari, which lies directly on the fault and 75 percent of whose buildings had been leveled. He also intended to devote the workshop to planning an entire village, or as he puts it, a “microvillage.” Wampler invented the term, he says, to capture the sense of a small, technical community—something more than just homes grouped together. According to his definition, a microvillage incorporates design that recognizes local architectural traditions while exploring the newest technologies; fosters a sense of community (something that gets lost amid the high-rises of a big city); and provides economic self-sustainability (if inhabitants can create microindustries within the village, they won’t feel pressed to migrate to the cities).

    The workshop concentrated on designing buildings which were affordable, survivable, and still fit into the architectural heritage of the region. Moreover, the "microvillage" was built with a community center incorporating a library with Internet access, allowing the residents to bring in information and sell locally-crafted products online. The goal of the microvillage project is sustainability -- both in the sense of the community surviving what nature throws at it and the community having an ongoing reason for its existence.

    More than that, though, this project is part of a larger constellation of ideas and efforts bringing resources and tools for self-sustainability and self-development to individuals. Keep 'em coming.

    December 30, 2003

    Wireless for the Masses

    If we're certain about anything around here, it's that the future will be wireless. These days, "information wants to be free" has little to do with cost, and everything to do with getting off the leash of an ethernet (or phone) line. Swimming untethered in the infosphere is revolutionary.

    If you live in Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington, you're lucky: both cities have rapidly-growing open-access distributed community wireless "metropolitan area networks." Portland's is the Personal Telco Project; Seattle's is Seattle Wireless. Both have express goals to cover as much of their respective cities as possible with free (as in cost) 802.11 Internet access. Seattle Wireless describes itself as a "NYASPTWYOMB - not yet another service provider to whom you owe monthly bills."

    And it's not just happening in the United States: NZWireless is setting up free community metronets all over New Zealand.

    As world-changing as these efforts are, they are adding a layer of roaming information to societies which already have well-established information and communication technology institutions. But what about the developing world?

    Onno Purbo, an Indonesian IT specialist, believes that wireless technologies should be part of a developing world strategy to build out both information and communication systems. In Indonesia, he has helped construct a system combining both WiFi and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies. Relying in part on Free Software-based servers, his system allows a rapidly-growing number of people to make cheap (or free) phone calls and access the Internet. What's more, he's made tutorial files on building a bottom-up ICT infrastructure freely available on his website (alternative link) (sadly, they're mostly in Word and Powerpoint formats).

    December 31, 2003

    Transhuman Space

    BD cover Cyborg Democracy had a post yesterday about the game series Transhuman Space. I note this for several reasons. The setting of the game is interesting and provocative. A game like this is a different way of thinking about the future. And I'm one of its authors.

    Transhuman Space is a role-playing game setting. (No, not on a computer. This is old-school paper & dice role-playing, kind of like Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, people still play games like these, although the number of players is way down from 10 or 20 years ago.) It actually comprises 11 books, covering what the world of 2100 looks like on Earth and throughout the solar system, and doing so in as scientifically and conceptually plausible a manner as possible -- there's no faster-than-light travel, telepathy, or humanoid alien life. I wrote two of the books: Broken Dreams, just released last week, which looks at the developing world and the global politics of intellectual property in 2100, and Toxic Memes, due out in the spring, which examines conspiracy theories, political movements, urban legends, and the like in 2100. (The links in this paragraph will take you to the description pages for each book; the images are linked to larger versions of each cover.)

    Most of the books (including mine) run about 100,000-150,000 words, with only about a quarter of the text focusing on game mechanics. The rest is detailed exploration of what life may be like a century from now, from the minutiae of popular food trends and clothing styles to broader issues of environmental conditions, political struggles, and the extension of human rights beyond what we currently call "human."

    Continue reading "Transhuman Space" »

    About December 2003

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

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