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January 2004 Archives

January 2, 2004

Modeling and the Future

(No, not involving swimsuits.)

Mark Kleiman runs a political blog I subscribe to with my RSS reader. In response to novelist Michael Crichton's rant that global warming is just bad science, he recently posted a brief but insightful exploration of why, although predictions are usually wrong, thinking about the future -- and, in particular, building models to tell us about how the future may unfold -- is still a useful and important endeavor:

Right, then. We can't know what the world will look like in 2100. But unless we also don't care what the world looks like in 2100, or unless we think our current actions have zero predictable impact on what he world will look like in 2100, we need to make decisions now -- we are, in fact, making decisions now -- in which results a century hence are part of the objective function.

Uncertainty about the results of our actions will indeed suggest that we should discount predicted far-future effects vis-a-vis more predictable near-future effects (this in addition to the normal discounting for the time-value of resources). But not to zero, surely?

In short, as we used to say at the scenario-planning company I worked for in the 1990's, "the future is uncertain -- and yet we must act."

Quest for the Holy Grail

Witchfinder General (and frequent WorldChanging comment participant) "smerkin" let us know about the current edition of IEEE Spectrum, the house journal for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In it, scientists and science writers provide reports about developments in six different technological realms: Communications, Electric Power, Semiconducturs, Transportation, Computers, and Bioengineering. The Spectrum editors chose three reports for each category; one was deemed a "winner," one a "loser," and one a "grail" -- a development so significant that, if/when it comes about, our daily lives will be changed. (As the introductory essay notes, "loser" doesn't mean that the idea is bad, just that, for a variety of technical and social reasons, the editors deemed the idea to be unlikely to bear fruit in the near future, if ever.) All of the developments featured in these articles are in progress, and while some are further along than others, none of them are "blue sky" speculation.

The "winner" articles read like a week's worth of solid "Unlocking the Code" postings on WorldChanging. They include: "analysis engines" able to figure out the meaning of search terms (and, perhaps, provide a way out of the information overload we are now buried in); "smart hybrid" vehicles combining pure-electric motors with hybrid-electric internal combustion engines (making it possible to drive electric-only for short runs, but switching seamlessly to "normal" hybrid-electric for longer trips, with reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions more than twice that of a current-model Prius); and the Alberta Supernet, a model for extending high-speed broadband throughout public facilities and remote communities.

The "loser" articles range from projects with fatal flaws, such as Microsoft SPOT to good-but-insufficient responses to big problems, such as carbon sequestration.

The "grail" essays focus on projects with longer timelines, but massive payoffs. Digital long-term preservation of knowledge, self-sustaining fusion, and fiber to the home are each given some attention. These are ideas which may have significant flaws, but their potential is so vast if they are successful that investment (in time, in money, in knowledge) is more than warranted.

If you're interested in what may lie ahead technologically, this is a good place to start.

January 3, 2004

Bollywood Insider

BollyWHAT? is a handy reference website for those of us with an interest in Bollywood movies but without sufficient cultural referents to understand just what the hell is going on in them. The site includes a FAQ (answering pressing questions about why people are wagging their thumbs, tugging on their ears, and not kissing), translated song lyrics, and a rental guide to help newbies figure out which movies are worth renting (or grabbing from Kazaa) and which ones are best avoided. My only complaint about the site is that it focuses a bit too much on the musical-romances coming out of the Mumbai studios, and not enough on the more serious films [such as the recent Kargil LoC (Line of Control)] which address what it's like to live on the Subcontinent in the early 2000s.

January 5, 2004

101 Ways to Save the Internet

Does the Internet need saving? The proliferation of viruses, spam, and music-industry lawyers suggests that it does. But many suggested solutions to these (and other) online problems tend towards the top-down. Wired has come up with an only-partially tongue-in-cheek list of ways of making life better for the still-growing numbers of people getting online. They're not all winning ideas, but enough of them are sufficient compelling that somebody is going to make a fortune/be seen as a hero/both implementing them...

Some tasty examples:

4 Appoint Larry Lessig to the Supreme Court Is he a Democrat or a Republican? Who cares! Laws governing information flow are the new affirmative action, abortion, and gun control rolled into one.

17 Let a thousand Wi-Fis bloom Open spectrum is the new open source.

19 Make privacy a personal asset Canada has it already: a law that prevents firms from consolidating all customer information after a merger.

32 Build friend-of-a-friend filters Think of it as Friendster for your inbox. Everyone on our list can email everyone on yours, but outsiders have to fill out those annoying SpamCop forms.

33 Create a P2P email program We directly trade MP3 files, instant messages, and now phone calls without the bother of backend servers. So why not email messages?

42 Replace servers with P2P Too many network services - domain names, Web servers, email - rely on the old client-server model, which is vulnerable to attack.

97 Celebrate diversity With nearly every computer on the planet running Windows, Outlook, and Explorer, it's too easy for a single virus to spread everywhere.

(Via Future Salon blog)

Mars Needs Guitars!

If you're even an occasional visitor to Blogistan over the past few days there's no way you could have avoided the abundance of celebratory links about the successful landing of the Mars probe "Spirit" (although I prefer the more dignified official name, "Mars Exploration Rover-A"). Here at WorldChanging, we're certainly ready to do our part to welcome our glorious new Martian overlords. Here are some interesting Mars-related links you may not already have encountered:

  • Maps! -- Want to know more about the neighborhood for good old MER-A (and, in three weeks, MER-B)? Try the MER 2003 Prime Landing Sites page at NASA, which includes massive topographic maps of Gusev Crater (where Spirit now sits) and Terra Meridiani (soon to be home to the second lander, "Opportunity"). Also included are the maps of the now-rejected candidate sites. Perfect for covering your walls!
  • Pictures! -- But not just the current photos. The NASA Photojournal site includes thousands of photos of Mars and every other planet in the solar system (including Pluto, although Pluto may not really be a planet, but a big KBO). Among the pictures from MER-A are the three "descent imager" photos taken by the lander on the way down.
  • Video! -- This is very cool. "Six Minutes of Terror" is a set of interviews cut with high-end computer graphics of the MER during its "Entry, Descent, and Landing" (EDL) phase. This is a Quicktime movie, and totally rocks. I'm serious.

I admit it. I'm a total Areophile (a fancy word for "Mars geek"). I have Mars maps and globes throughout my office, and even worked on a produced-but-never-actually-shown TV show set on Mars. In my view, learning as much as we can about Mars -- and, eventually, going there -- definitely counts as world-changing.

Visualizing Connections

One of the odder little bits of a typical Google results page has to be the "Similar pages" link for every hit. Clicking on it generates a list of other sites which usually (but not always) have thematic connections to the original. The Similar pages link for WorldChanging.com, for example, quite reasonably points to Viridian Design and Weblogsky (our own Jon Lebkowksy's personal blog), but also to the Amazon link for Nick Hornsby's book High Fidelity. Huh?

Still, exploring the corridors of iterated similarity you get on Google is a good way to spend an afternoon. That's what makes the TouchGraph Google Browser so much fun. Entering a URL lets you see a graphical map of its various "Similar pages" links, as well as the pages similar to those pages, and so forth. It's Java-based, so it presumably runs on anything able to run JRE 1.3+, with typical Java alacrity.

Once you have your initial map, you can then start building out the maps of similar sites, even adding seemingly-disparate links until you find connections. Surprises are common. TGGB is an amusing way to spend the day, yes, but also a useful tool for seeing links that you may otherwise miss.

Next Generation Wind Farm

Time to take a field trip!

The High Winds Energy Center is now open, 90 new wind turbines situated in the hills between San Francisco and Sacramento. This next generation model wind turbine can operate in slower winds, can rotate to meet changing wind directions, and can generate 20 times more electricity than earlier-generation systems. Because the turbine blades turn more slowly than previous models, fewer birds get caught and killed.

And these things are big -- really big. Over 300 feet tall, with 125-foot blades, which allow the turbines to operate efficiently in wind as slow as 8 miles per hour and still generate up to 1.8 megawatts. In wind power, size matters.

California intends to have 20 percent of its energy generated from renewable sources by 2010, and this is a good step along the way. (Via Futurismic)

January 7, 2004

Points of Influence

I find that Jon Stahl's Journal often has interesting links to material on the web which may no longer be precisely timely but is certainly relevant. Such is the case with his link to Donella Meadow's excellent 1997 article in Whole Earth magazine, Places to Intervene in a System. It's a system-focused approach to finding points of leverage, which often, as she notes, "are not intuitive."

The nine intervention points:

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).

8. Material stocks and flows.

7. Regulating negative feedback loops.

6. Driving positive feedback loops.

5. Information flows.

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).

3. The power of self-organization.

2. The goals of the system.

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

Meadows covers each item in substantial detail. She concludes with an appeal to let go of comfortable paradigms in order to attack the roots of global problems:

I don't think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.

January 9, 2004

What Is The Law?

"What is the law? (No spill blood.)
"Who makes the rules? (Someone else.)"
-- D. Elfman, "House of Pain"

The Edge, a site run by John Brockman as a forum for some of the smartest/most interesting/oddest folks around, poses an annual Big Question for them to answer. This year's is "What's Your Law?" (And since the Edge's exploration of this question begins with a quote from Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, I thought I'd start ours with a quote from Oingo Boingo's updated version.)

Over 150 of Edge's luminaries have contributed answers to this question, including WorldChanging favorites such as Bruce Sterling ("Sterling's Law of Ubiquitous Computation: First, your home is a constant, while the Net is a place you go; then the Net becomes a constant while your home is a place you go."), Pamela McCorduck ("McCorduck's Law: A linear projection into the future of any science or technology is like a form of propaganda — often persuasive, almost always wrong."), and Stewart Brand ("Brand's Asymmetry: The past can only be known, not changed. The future can only be changed, not known.").

A few contributors are more interested in being funny than being insightful (a sin of which I'm often guilty), and a few others are more interested in being garrulous than pithy (another sin of mine). Still, as a whole, the list of "laws" is well-worth reading and pondering.

But now, it's your turn: what are your Laws?

The Fishbase

The Fishbase is a web-accessible database of fish information. This may sound somewhat... dull... until you actually start playing with it. With over 28,000 fish listed (including my favorite, the Coelacanth), the Fishbase lets you explore by environmental information, location, biological data (including genetic records), class, even how dangerous a given fish may be and whether it appears on a stamp somewhere in the world. The volume of material on fish species is an object lesson in biodiversity.

The site contains more than the database. There's an online course in icthyology, links to other resources such as LarvalBase (a database of fish larvae identification), even a discussion forum for all of your pressing fish-related queries. And if you need access to the Fishbase while away from the Internet, you can purchase the entire database for a nominal fee. This is just the kind of site that makes the web great.

January 12, 2004

Mapping the World

The era of ubiquitous always-on wireless networks accessible through mobile personal devices (less buzzwordy version: being able to communicate and get on the web everywhere and at any time via something you carry or wear) is just beginning, and we're now starting to see glimpses of what this world will look like. One of the more intriguing emerging technologies is collaborative mapping. The notion is that people don't just want to know where something is (and how to get to it), they also want to know what other people think about it (and how reliable those opinions are).

MUDLondon is one approach to this model. It's an odd mix of very old-school text adventure ("You are in a 10x10 room. There is a door to the North. It is closed. There is a passageway to the east. You see a goblin in the room." "Go North." "The door is locked. The goblin attacks you. You have died."), WIKI, and an underground city guide. Eschewing any fancy GPS location finding, it relies on contributors to identify and update which roads lead from which parts of the city as well as what you may find in various locations. As you may expect, it's done with more than a little attitude:

the user is encouraged to connect new places to the model, augmenting it with his or her own mental map, annotating with descriptions, known postcodes (which are automatically converted and cross-referenced with other grid location data). ref erences to external URLs, reviews etc can be added and annotated in the RDF model.

MUDLondon is accessible over instant-messaging clients Jabber and AIM -- the latter meaning that a number of wireless handheld devices can talk to it.

The MUDLondon website includes links to a variety of collaborative-mapping efforts as well as to some of the underlying technology proposals. Right now, this technology is primarily text-based, but one can easily imagine how graphical maps and photo-cameras can add visual appeal in the months and years to come. Moreover, the implications of this sort of tool are pretty huge. Annotated maps and guides, layers of data about locations around you, the ability to leave messages for other visitors... and adding in cheap GPS systems gets around the more tedious aspects of entering in which roads lead where and would allow users to focus on the fun parts -- telling other people what they know.

The Bubble of American Supremacy

George Soros is both smart and rich. Very smart and very rich, in fact. And, more often than not, he is on the side of the Good Guys. So when Soros starts talking about international politics and the role of America, he's worth listening to.

The December 2003 issue of The Atlantic includes a long-but-fascinating essay by Soros entitled "The Bubble of American Supremacy," in which he argues that the notion of the United States as a hyperpower able to act unilaterally across the globe is the functional equivalent of a financial bubble -- rooted in part in fact, in part in self-delusion, and prone to disaster once it pops. Soros, no stranger to global crises and the threat of totalizing ideologies, spells out both the danger of the current course and what the United States should do in order to better achieve its global goals of spreading democracy and freedom.

The supremacist ideology of the Bush Administration stands in opposition to the principles of an open society, which recognize that people have different views and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth. The supremacist ideology postulates that just because we are stronger than others, we know better and have right on our side. The very first sentence of the September 2002 National Security Strategy (the President's annual laying out to Congress of the country's security objectives) reads, "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

The assumptions behind this statement are false on two counts. First, there is no single sustainable model for national success. Second, the American model, which has indeed been successful, is not available to others, because our success depends greatly on our dominant position at the center of the global capitalist system, and we are not willing to yield it.

Even if you disagree with him, this is an article well-worth reading and thinking about.

January 13, 2004

Greens in Space

This last week, news services and blogs were filled with reports about President Bush's plan to put bases on the Moon and on Mars. This "Leave No Planet Behind" plan is budgeted to cost over a trillion dollars over the coming years, although the initial boost to NASA's budget is around $750 million -- that is, less than 1% of the total proposed cost. There are quite a few critics of this idea, but, perhaps surprisingly, many of the sharpest barbs come from decidedly pro-science, pro-space sources. The consensus criticism seems to be that, as with many other of this administration's programs, the high-minded proposal will be matched with strangled funding and a lack of real attention or resources. In short, it's election-year hype.

This is short-sighted and painful, for many reasons. It distracts from real issues at home. It will gut NASA's science budget. But the big reason, for me, is that it continues to spin the issue of space exploration as a "conquest of space," pseudo-military, plant-the-flag effort. It's not.

Exploring space is Green.

Exploring space is a crucial component of our ongoing efforts to better understand -- and protect -- our home planet. The hallmarks of good, solid Green thinking are a focus on sustainability, a bias towards the accumulation of knowledge, and a preference for long-term thinking. These are also the principles that make for a good space program. These two realms are inextricably linked.

Over the past few decades, notions of environmental sustainability moved from a focus on cleaning up pollution to a focus on understanding (and, where needed, responding to) global environmental systems. Picking up litter and reducing smog are easy concepts to understand; the dynamics between climate cycles, insolation, CO2 emissions from natural and artificial sources, and solar cycles are a bit more complex. Simply put, we can't understand the details of how our environment functions without a better understanding of the larger environment in which our planet exists, along with additional examples of planetary development. Turning our backs on space exploration means cutting ourselves off from a wealth of potentially-critical knowledge about our planet and solar system.

A space program with a planetary focus would combine current research into Earth's climate and geography (much of which can only be done from orbit) with expanded research into how the rest of our solar system works. Plenty of big questions about our planetary neighbors remain unanswered. Venus, Earth and Mars all orbit within our Sun's "habitable belt," and there is some preliminary research suggesting that each may have started out with similar potential for life. Why did Venus fall victim to a runaway greenhouse effect, while Mars dried up? Why did Earth alone manage to get through its early uninhabitable "iceball" period? We can speculate, but on-site exploration will give us far better answers than will remote theorizing. If climate change is the potential disaster that many of us suspect it could be, these are not idle questions. The better we understand how similar planets work, the better we can understand our own planetology.

Ultimately, the Sun drives our climate. But what's the role of the solar cycle on Earth's climate system? Some Greens play down the effects of the Sun on climate change because it has become a convenient way for climate refuseniks to dismiss human sources of global warming. But we really don't fully understand the relationship between solar "weather" and Earth's weather. More research is desperately needed, and this means sending out more probes.

There are myriad connections between space research and Green issues. The discovery of life in the oceans under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, for example, would be our first opportunity to learn more about how life functions on Earth by comparing it to life evolved under utterly disparate conditions. Proposals to send a robotic probe to drill through Europa's ice crust, however, remain unfunded.

For now, and likely for the next couple of decades, a Green space program would not mean sending people into space. Instead, it would emphasize the currently underfunded robotic-science part of NASA. The automated science missions have done remarkably well, considering how little money has been made available for them. The Mars Exploration Rover is the most spectacular recent example, but in over past months, automated probes gathered material from a comet, monitored solar weather, and dove into the crushing atmosphere of Jupiter. Such robotic missions cost much less than trying to send humans into space; prior to the Columbia disaster, a single shuttle launch cost around $500 million, nearly as much as the entire Mars Exploration Rover program. In the context of the larger American federal budget (and European budgets, for that matter), robotic space exploration is inexpensive -- and the information we get back, with the potential to help us better understand global environmental problems, is simply priceless.

That the Bush administration's current space proposal is wrong-headed, financially-disastrous, politically-motivated, and ultimately doomed should not lead those with Green inclinations to believe that all space efforts are so benighted. They're not. On the contrary, smart space efforts are an increasingly important tool in our ongoing work to understand and repair the Earth's environment. We discard it at our own peril.

January 14, 2004

What to Read Next?

We're always on the lookout for interesting, informative, and just plain cool new books to stimulate world-changing thinking. I know that Alex just finished something great (and will post about it soon), and I have a stack I'm going through now. But what else should we read? Here are some that I'm thinking of picking up, to get you started.

Small Is Profitable, a book by the Rocky Mountain Institute, was selected as the 2002 Economist Book of the Year. It argues for a radically distributed/decentralized electricity grid, making the power network more flexible in a crisis, more economically resilient, and more environmentally sustainable. It looks to be a handbook for people trying to change the world in both a dramatic and practical manner.

The Mystery of Capital is Hernando de Soto's exploration of why capitalism has, more or less, worked in the developed world but failed to work in the developing world. The first chapter is available on Google. This is one of those rare books that has been celebrated by both the neoliberal right and the electric-green left as a clear-headed look at how the modern economy functions (or doesn't function).

Finally, Future Evolution appears to be a nice bit of brain candy. It's a discussion of how evolution works and what forces are at play now that would shape natural selection over the millennia to come. It is, of course, highly speculative, but that's just fine for me. This one is on my desk right now, and I will get to it shortly.

So... what else should we be reading?

(this, by the way, is our 300th entry)

January 16, 2004

Top Activist Open-Source Tools

Over at Many2Many, Clay Shirky points us to 10 Open Source Tools for eActivism, from the Democracy Online Newswire. The essay, written by Dan Bashaw and Mike Gifford, details a variety of programs for collaboration and communication available to people trying to make a difference in the world. They range from tools for online publishing, newsletter and mailing list management, discussion forums, even tools for quickly distributing posters. (Warning: as of the time of this posting, the links in the essay to the various tools seem to have a garbage character at the end of the URL; if you try to hit the links on the page and get an error, try deleting the "%20" at the end of the address.)

All of the programs listed are free (cost), and most are licensed under the GPL (GNU General Public License), making them philosophically "free" as well.

Free collaborative/creative tools and the activist community have a natural connection. Such applications are mechanisms for spreading news and ideas which, by their nature, also spread the ability to disseminate news and ideas to an ever-larger audience. To mangle an ancient metaphor, they are the software equivalent of giving a person a fish that, when eaten, teaches that person how to fish and where to find a fishing pole.

UPDATE: Jon Stahl's Journal links to this post, and adds some useful comments based on Jon's own experiences with some of the software mentioned in the article. He also suggests a few other useful tools, in particular a couple of non-Free but still useful membership and relationship management applications. Go read what he has to say.


I was trolling ThinkCycle this morning, and came upon an old link for Dan Luke's Radiocar proposal. It's a concept based on car-sharing, and it doesn't yet exist -- but could. The writeup of Radiocar is heavy on scenario and short on business plan, but it's still a pretty cool idea:

“Radiocars are located throughout the city, so when I need to go somewhere, I can see the location of nearby Radiocars on my GPS equipped PDA. I can reserve any available car at which point I walk over to it, use the Bluetooth on my PDA to gain access, get in, and drive away. It’s like having your own private fleet of taxis except you’re the taxi driver. But it’s more than just this. Radiocar has partnered with transit services. They’ve been able to put all surface transportation under one digital umbrella so that whenever you need to get from point A to point B, you can see the locations of not only Radiocars, but also, busses, trains, and boats. You can input two coordinates and get back data showing the most efficient way to reach your destination according to where various modes of transportation are located relative to your location when you query the system."

The scenario addresses many of the more obvious concerns about Radiocar, including privacy issues and how to make sure the used cars don't get scattered all over the place. There are elements of the scenario that seem a bit off -- the pricing is way low, for example -- but it's a nice example of how ubiquitous wireless networks could be used to promote new models of social interaction.

January 17, 2004

Dignity Return

It's one thing to talk about alternatives to globalization. It's quite another to build one.

Dignity Return is a Thai clothing label produced by a tiny textile factory, but it's also a signal flare notifying the world that the choice faced by the developing world isn't simply between exploitation and isolation.

A group of Thai textile workers were made jobless by the collapse of their mismanaged employer. Rather than seek work at yet another garment factory run by remote owners, they decided to band together to start a clothing factory run -- and owned -- by its own workers. Dignity Return is dedicated to showing that it's possible to be a part of the global economic system without exploiting labor.

''Working in this factory is different from factories I have worked in earlier. There is no exploitation or abuse. No labour violations,'' says Sunee, a slim-built woman with shoulder-length hair. ''This place is unique because of that.''

Pausing from the work she was doing on a shirt, Kanchana says that to begin with, the factory ''is completely owned by the workers'' and there is freedom for the ''workers to express our views and get involved in decisions for the factory''.


Other details set the factory apart from the 2,641 garment factories that dot this country's urban and rural landscape. The workers do not have to wear a uniform, music from radios fills the open, airy factory floor, and the walls are adorned with posters that celebrate labour rights.

The story of a group of former co-workers banding together to start up a scrappy challenger to incumbent businesses is a familiar one in the United States, but is far less commonplace is the developing world. Dignity Return will not have an easy path ahead. The company is not yet a year old, and has not yet paid off all of its initial loans. The management model (collective decision-making) will likely prove difficult to handle as the company grows, and competitors, unhappy with the idea of an employee-owned challenger, will likely do whatever they can to drive Dignity Return out of business. Still, the seed has been planted; even if this company fails, the ideas it embodies will not die.

Representatives from Dignity Return will be speaking this week at the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

Home as [an Irregular] Solid

If you have a spare ¥6 million -- about $60,000 -- you too can have a home shaped like a dodecahedron (the twelve-sided "perfect solid") soccer ball/football. It's the "Barrier," from the G-Wood company in Japan, and it's supposedly designed to float, remain standing in an earthquake, and even resist collapse in the event of a bombing. (I say "supposedly" because the company's website is entirely in Japanese; the folks at Dotcommu provide a summary.) The Barrier units are fairly small, running roughly 375 square feet for the current model and around 1100 square feet for the planned larger unit, but can be made to be quite liveable.

The presentation of the Barrier on the G-Wood site is ineffably Japanese, but the idea is serious. The notion of a structurally-stable, relatively inexpensive, floating home -- complete with cool, funky design -- is highly appealing. It's just the sort of dwelling one would want in regions prone to global-warming-induced flooding and hurricanes. I wouldn't be surprised to see one at the next Burning Man, too. (Via Futurismic)

(Thanks, marc, for pointing out the errors in Solids Analysis)

January 20, 2004

10 More Things That Will Change Your World

Awhile ago, I referred to Technology Review's "10 Emerging Technologies..." article from January 2003, and noted that the 2004 edition would be out real soon now. Well, real soon now is here. This year's list of "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World" is a heady combination of stuff you've probably already heard about, stuff you've probably never heard of, and stuff you may well already be using. Worth reading, and well worth thinking about the implications.

January 21, 2004

George Soros Redux

As a follow-up to our earlier post about George Soros' article (and new book) The Bubble of American Supremacy, here's a newly-posted interview with Soros on Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo political blog. In it, he provides further discussion of the need for open societies, for an international regime based on respect for law, and for a recognition that might does not always make right:

SOROS: I think that the reliance on military power is sort of an excess of this Social Darwinist point of view. I had been opposed to market fundamentalism as a philosophy or as an ideology. Namely, that life is a struggle for survival, and the struggle manifests itself mainly in competition. And the competition is, who is stronger? And the survival of the fittest is basically the survival of the strongest in competition. But, in actual fact, survival also requires cooperation. And there is a need for having rules to which everybody agrees for us to survive. And there are also problems like the environment, that can only be … and maintaining peace in the world, that can only be achieved through cooperation. So there's a misinterpretation of the Darwinist theory of survival of the fittest --- that achieving power over others is the goal. And that is not really the basis of our civilization.

Open Source Voting

WorldChanging hasn't up until now done an entry focusing on electronic voting, but regular readers should be able to guess our position: good idea (since it makes voting more accessible to the disabled and non-English speakers) but it needs to be made more trustable. American experiences with electronic voting, by and large, haven't been all that encouraging, including obvious miscounts with no way of recounting, proprietary software found to have serious security flaws [PDF], and more. But there are solutions.

Verifiable voting is key: the e-voting machine produces a paper print-out to allow the voter to check that the machine recorded his or her vote correctly, then stores those paper ballots for later spot checks (and, if necessary, hand recounts).

The buggy proprietary code problem also has a straightforward (if radical) solution: use open source/Free software. It's far less likely that security flaws will slip through (let alone intentional backdoors) if the code is open for everyone to examine. Problem is, the big e-voting companies have no desire to open up their proprietary software.

Fortunately, a solution is at hand. Wired News has an article today about the Open Vote Foundation, a nonprofit started by a 19-year-old political science and math student at UC Davis, Scott Ritchie. This group (which, at this point, may just be Ritchie, but will likely grow quickly) intends to offer open source voting software to the state of California and, later, to other regions. The software they'll use is a modification of eVACS, the Electronic Voting and Counting System created (and GPL'd) by an Australian firm, Software Improvements. And the code isn't untested betaware -- it was used in Australia in 2001, and an updated version will be used again this year.

The use of an open source/Free voting system would be a big step in awakening people to the possibilities inherent in distributed/collaborative security, where we all look out for each other in the ways we know best.

January 24, 2004

Warning: Hot Times Ahead

Swiss climate scientist Martin Beniston, using the cutting-edge regional climate model HIRHAM, argues that the record-breaking European heat wave of 2003 is an early warning of how European weather will be changing over the century, according to PhysicsWeb. With current trends, summer temperatures in Europe will increase by over 4°C on average, with Switzerland ending up with summertime weather closer to that found in the South of France at present. Continent-wide, climate zones will shift:

Beniston observed a general increase of about 4°C in a band stretching across central Europe to the Black Sea, with greater increases over the Iberian Peninsula and the south west of France. Moreover, he found that the number of hot days would increase - particularly in the Mediterranean region and in Eastern Europe - with an additional 40 to 60 days or more above 30°C [...]. In comparison, the period 1961 to 1990 saw an average of around 10 days.

That climate change is triggering hotter, more deadly summers is not news, but the increasingly sophisticated climate models, and the increasingly graphic predictions of how climate change will affect us all, are worth paying attention to.

Watch the Skies

Spacewatch is a 24-year-old University of Arizona astronomy program which monitors small bodies in our solar system, such as asteroids, to look for potential targets for interplanetary missions and, not incidentally, to watch for objects which might pose a hazard to the Earth. The Spacewatch telescopes keep a constant vigil, taking multi-minute exposure images of the night sky. Problem is, computer software actually doesn't work well to evaluate these images to find potential dangers. The human eye does a far better job.

Enter the Fast Moving Object, or FMO, Project. Announced last October, FMO relies on volunteer amateur astronomers and space-buffs to keep an eye out for asteroids which may be on a collision-course with Earth. Last week, for the first time, a volunteer for the program found something -- a 60-to-120-foot diameter asteroid which came within about 1.2 million miles of the Earth on Thursday, the astronomical equivalent of missing the Earth by a hair's breadth. Although the asteroid would have caused no damage had it actually struck, the discovery was a proof-of-concept that using a multitude of volunteers to watch for asteroids could work.

All you need to be a part of the FMO Project are good eyes, interest, and a willingness to watch computer images for signs of asteroid motion. Knowledge about astronomy is helpful, but not required. Unlike some other collaborative science efforts, this one can't be done by letting your computer do all the work. This one requires a bit more effort, but the payoff could be enormous -- the more people get involved, the better the chances of spotting something before it's too late.

The big drawback of the current Spacewatch system is that it only has two telescopes scanning the heavens. Right now, that's what's available. But on the horizon may be something a bit more radical...

Modern amateur telescopes, although still made using familiar laws of optics, have increasing computer sophistication. Right now, you can buy for around $300 a low-end amateur telescope able to find objects in the sky once it is told the current time and location; spend more money, and you can get one which has a built-in GPS system so that you don't have to tell it. Furthermore, many amateur scopes, particular the mid- to high-end ones, are made to work with CCD camera, so that you don't actually look through the telescope, you watch through a monitor, or even on your computer.

We're not far from the day when we could connect a huge number of amateur efforts into an effective planetary protection system, by collecting the output from amateur scopes over the internet, and using SETI@Home-style distributed computing to grind through the data looking for signs of previously-uncatalogued asteroids. On the input side, you'd have telescopes able to keep track of precisely where in the sky they're pointing, and you could even have networked telescopes running nightly observation routines when not otherwise in use, so as to get maximum coverage; on the analysis side, you'd have a BOINC-based grid of personal computers analyzing the images, comparing the results with known data.

This would clearly need the cooperation of a lot of people -- are there even enough serious amateur scopes in use to make this possible? -- and (based on the report about FOM) would require a new generation of image-processing software to be able to detect the faint traces of distant asteroids. Still, it seems like an idea which could become reality, and relatively soon. I think SpaceWatch@Home has a good ring to it...

January 27, 2004

Land Mine Detecting Flowers

Reuters reports that the Danish company Aresa Biodetection has developed genetically-modified flowers which change color when their roots come in contact with Nitrogen Dioxide in the soil. Explosives used in mines produce NO2 as the chemicals gradually decay.

Aresa's invention, based on research at the Institute of Molecular Biology at Copenhagen University, uses a plant's normal reaction to turn red or brown when subjected to stressful conditions such as cold or drought, but has genetically coded it to react only to nitrogen-dioxide.

Carefully-restricted field tests begin this year, and actual use could happen within the next couple of years.

January 31, 2004

Tell Jamais Where To Go

I will be in London, England from February 4th through February 10th. What WorldChanging-type sights or activities should I hunt down? Whom should I seek out for wisdom? What will wake me up out of a jet-lagged stupor and kick me for a paradigm-breaking loop? Send me email or post here.

I may be taking a day trip through the Chunnel and hitting Paris, so I wouldn't mind suggestions for quick WC-related activities there, too.

I'll be bringing my camera and laptop (and will be posting my observations/discoveries/drunken, rambling commentaries), so bonus points for photogenic people/places/things.

About January 2004

This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in January 2004. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2003 is the previous archive.

February 2004 is the next archive.

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