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February 2004 Archives

February 2, 2004

Art(ifice) Imitates Life

Wired has a fun survey of the use of biological properties as models for software and hardware engineering. The complexity underlying the living world, as it turns out, can be applied in useful ways to computer problems which would otherwise be challenging -- or even impossible -- to resolve using more traditional methods. The survey touches on evolvable hardware, genetic algorithms, immune systems for operating systems, and more. None of the topics are new for those of us who have been following the field of biological approaches to computing, but it's a good scan of the current state of the discipline, and an excellent introduction to the concept:

EMERGENCE describes the way unpredictable patterns arise from innumerable interactions between independent parts. An organism's behavior, for instance, is driven by the interplay of its cells. Similarly, weather develops from the mixing of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and other molecules.

SELF-ORGANIZATION is a basic emergent behavior. Plants and animals assemble and regulate themselves independent of any hierarchy for planning or management. Digital simulations made up of numerous software agents have demonstrated self-organization in systems ranging from computer networks to tornadoes.

REPRODUCTION was considered strictly the purview of organisms until recently. Now computer programs procreate, too. Genetic algorithms mimic biology's capacity for innovation through genetic recombination and replication, shuffling 1s and 0s the way nature does DNA's Gs, Ts, As, and Cs, then reproducing the best code for further recombination. This technique has been used to evolve everything from factory schedules to jet engines.

COEVOLUTION inevitably accompanies evolution. When an organism evolves in response to environmental change, it puts new pressures on that environment, which likewise evolves, prompting further evolution in the organism. This cycle occurs in many social systems - for instance, the interaction between behavioral norms and legal codes.

(Via Femtopizza)

February 4, 2004


If you've been on the Internet for more than just this last year, you'll remember the ubiquitous and annoying pop-up ads for wireless video cameras. Advertised as a method for seeing who's at your door or providing a bit of quick & dirty security, the pop-ups often implied that what you'd really use them for is spying on the neighbors. Well, it turns out that lots of people have purchased wireless video cameras, and the dirty little secret is... they really do use them for quick & dirty security.

This, at least, is the discovery of the "warviewers," techies with the appropriate pieces of hardware to pick up wireless video signals on the run and the time and interest to actually seek out such devices. Warviewing (or, more commonly, Warspying) involves seeking out the unencrypted, unshielded broadcasts the cameras transmit, usually by walking around with an antenna, receiver, and display. So far, what the warviewers are finding in their (completely legal, if a bit odd) excursions are a lot of cameras pointing at doors, lobbies, and freeways.

Okay, so wandering around hoping to see something more interesting than the UPS delivery guy on camera isn't exactly world-changing, but it's interesting to think about the parallels between open-access wireless networks and open-access wireless cameras, especially as WiFi-based cameras begin to replace the older "X-10" type. Could it be that allowing anyone to see what the camera sees is socially beneficial? Does having wireless (and accessible) cameras mounted in semi-private/semi-public locations reduce privacy or increase our safety by letting us watch each other's backs? It may be that open-access wireless video cameras are less a tool for voyeurism and more a tool for participatory transparency. It may even become something of an update on the group Witness, which provides video cameras to people fighting for human rights.

February 5, 2004

Thinking About The Precautionary Principle

Dale Carrico, in his "Progressive Futures" column over at BetterHumans, takes a thoughtful look at the "precautionary principle." For those unfamiliar with the term, the most-broadly accepted definition is from the Wingspread Statement:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.

While much of the debate in emerging technology circles focuses on the first part of the statement, Carrico instead gives his attention to the last sentence, arguing that the precautionary principle has the best chance to both protect us from hazardous results and still encourage innovation and experimentation when it is open to broad participation:

I think many underestimate how often the most reasonable assessments emerge from open encounters among actual stakeholders to questions at issue. Even expert knowledge is most useful when it is answerable to multiple and contending stakeholders to a question, rather than imposed unilaterally by an organized authority (whether corporate or otherwise), the particular and interested viewpoint of which it will tend to reflect, often to the cost of sense. Even people who weight potential harms unreasonably strongly may still be readily persuaded to undertake risks when benefits are made clear or the rewards offered for undertaking them are sufficient enough. Again, it isn't clear to me why anybody can be so certain that a technological development answerable to these more democratic demands would necessarily have failed to deliver even historically a comparable level and speed of developmental achievement than we have managed otherwise, and certainly it is hard to see what would be appealing in such a view today when democratic ideals are broadly affirmed.

February 8, 2004

Cometary Winter

1,500 years ago, something happened to the world. Crops failed everywhere, there was massive starvation, and the spotty historical record shows frost conditions in the middle of the summer. Now two undergraduate students at Cardiff University, in the UK, think they've figured out why.

A half-kilometer-wide comet may have hit the Earth, exploding in the atmosphere, spreading soot and ash. This would have partially blocked the sun, reducing the amount of light and heat hitting the surface. Tree ring data shows a global reduction in temperatures for the years 536-540; the amount of material in the atmosphere required to cause that degree of temperature drop is nicely explained by a moderate-sized comet, big enough to cause problems but small enough to explode in the air rather than actually impact the ground.

If this theory is supported by subsequent research, it will be further evidence that disastrous comet/asteroid strikes are relatively commonplace in our history. A similar-sized hit would exacerbate global climate instability, and the loss of crops resulting from the temperature drop would leave millions starving. It's a wildcard, but nowhere near as unlikely as we'd like to believe. It wouldn't take a technological breakthrough to be able to watch out for dangerous spaceborne objects, just a willingness to do so.

WorldChanging in London

My visit to the UK is going well, although the extremely chilly rain is keeping me from hitting some of the intended sites (and sights). I did manage to spend the afternoon with WorldChanging contributers Zaid Hassan and Mike Metelits.

Zaid and Jamais

Mike and Zaid

The ensuing discussion of where WorldChanging is going and what it means to retain cultural identity in a rapidly-changing world was interesting and useful, and we expect to get a good series of posts out of it from each of us.

February 10, 2004

"Feral" Robotic Dogs

A couple of years ago, I got to spend a few months owning/operating an AIBO, one of those Sony robotic dogs. It was a surreal experience -- it behaved just enough like a real dog to make me feel odd whenever I treated it like an electronic toy. As a substitute companion it wasn't all that compelling (at least for me), but as a demonstration of how sophisticated independent robotics has become, it was fascinating.

If only I had been more of a hardware hacker, I could have done something more exciting with the AIBO than let it chase a pink ball. For example, Yale engineering students use toy-robot dogs as platforms on which to build pack-based mobile environmental sensors:

The feral dogs have a simple communication system added in their adaptation, that allows the coordinate behavior of a pack. The dogs will cover different portions of a terrain (maintaining a radius) for effective space filling, but will converge if one dog gets a particularly strong signal. This functionality is intended to provide information that is displayed in a form that is legible to diverse participants i.e. the movement of the dogs. The dogs paths provide immediate imagery to sustain discussion and interpretation of an otherwise imperceptible environmental condition of interest (e.g. radioactivity; air quality issues and the re-opening of English powerstation; class-based environmental discrimination). Because the dog’s space-filling logic emulates a familiar behavior, i.e. they appear to be “sniffing something out”, participants can watch and try to make sense of this data without the technical or scientific training required to be comfortable interpreting a EPA document on the same material.

The animal-like behavior, then, becomes a mode of communication -- we interpret the actions of the pack of mobile sensors the way we would a pack of dogs.

The Feral Robotic Dog project is an ongoing series of classes, but the instructional material is all available online. If you have one of the various models of toy-robot dogs, and were wondering just how you could make it do something more than sit up and bark, here's your answer.

A New Kind of Science

Stephen Wolfram is smart. Very, very smart. As a young man, he developed software able to do all sorts of high-level, sophisticated mathematics, and went on to form a company to sell it. Once he got the company up and running, he decided to spend the next few years writing a book on the use of software models for interpreting the way the world works. The resulting tome -- a massive, 700+ page treatise -- was called A New Kind of Science, and it argued that the world around us, from physics and biology to economics and group behavior, could be understood as the complex result of simple elements. The reactions of those who got through it ranged from outright dismissal to full-on epiphany, with quite a few variations on "huh?". The enormous physical size and high price didn't engender high sales, however, so not many people actually had a chance to find out for themselves whether Wolfram is on the right track.

Well, you can now. The entire book, along with commentary, notes, downloadable images, software, and corrections, is now available online at WolframScience.com. I'd suggest reading chapter 1, skimming 2-6 -- he spends a great deal of time establishing the myriad nuances of software models of complexity -- and reading in detail again with chapters 7+. You may not agree with his interpretations of reality, but your brain will still get a workout.

February 12, 2004

Unhappy Objects

Nice brief posting over at the Future Salon blog about RFID tags, the little radio-responsive chips increasingly used by companies such as WalMart to keep track of inventory. It's not a full-blown proposal, more of an insightful observation, but it does push me to think about what kind of relationship I'd like to have with my immediate surroundings:

Suppose my coffee cup had a sensor in the bottom, a battery in the handle, and the knowledge that if it starts out full of hot liquid and winds up, 4 hours later, full of cold liquid, it should be deeply unhappy and attempt to complain loudly and vociferously.

We could have an RFID-based system running in the house that looks for all the unhappy objects.

More generally, if my objects had a notion of home (or if the system had a notion of home), wouldn't life be wonderful. Suppose I could tell my house: the date/calendar book should be near the suitcase. And the suitcase should be in the bookcase near the front door.

Such a system would be quite useful for those of us who seem to have a genetic propensity towards clutter.

WorldChanging at the Future Salon

And speaking of the Bay Area Future Salon, Alex and I will be the guest speakers at this month's meeting, on Friday February 20th. We'll be talking about WorldChanging, naturally, and why we think another world really is here. If you're in the SF area, we'd love for you to come on by!

Friday, February 20th
7:00 pm
Open Source Applications Foundation
543 Howard St. 5th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105 (map)

February 13, 2004


If you've read Neal Stephenson's brilliant novel The Diamond Age, you will certainly remember his description of "toner wars" -- clouds of carbon-based nanoparticles fighting it out as tools of economic or political dominance. Breathing in the microscopic machines wasn't good for you, but that was related to the various nasty things that the overly-aggressive nanoassemblers might do once in your system. In reality, the danger from such a threat would may have more to do simply with how small they are.

According to Technology Review, a variety of researchers around the world are starting to take a look at the biological effects of nanoscale materials. As buckyballs and carbon nanotubes hold the potential to do so much good, it's imperative to understand the potential downsides of the technologies so as to make reasonable choices and to develop countermeasures. The first bit of research suggests that carbon nanotubes (which we've talked about here a few times) can embed themselves into air sacs in the lungs, leading to toxic effects.

A variety of groups are looking into nanoparticle safety concerns, including the American Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, the Royal Society in the UK, and the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University.

Developing a realistic sense of the environmental dangers of nanoparticles is crucial both for protecting our health and for encouraging the development of world-changing (in the positive sense) technologies. It's far better to learn early what the problems may be -- and have the pace of technology innovation slow in order to allow for corrective measures to be developed -- than to plow ahead at full steam and run into public fear, lawsuits, and over-reaching legislation down the road.

Measuring Globalization

The journal Foreign Policy occasionally produces detailed reports about the state of the global system. These articles are usually well-worth reading. (In November, we linked to a piece they did last year on "committment to development" demonstrated by the 21 richest nations.) This week, Foreign Policy released the latest of its annual studies on the degree of global integration.

The Globalization Index measures a country's various transnational links, "from foreign direct investment to international travel, telephone traffic, and Internet servers," as well as looking at a country's involvement in international organizations. The main article, Measuring Globalization: Who's Up, Who's Down?, includes a link to a country-by-country ranking, as well as links to the source data (.zip file) and a discussion of the report's methodology. Other good articles include Measuring Globalization: Economic Reversals, Forward Momentum, which goes into greater detail about the meaning of the index, and a brief essay (oddly offline at the moment) about the challenges of trying to tie cultural globalization into the index.

The report, while claiming not to take sides on the pro- and anti-globalization debate, clearly comes down on the globalization-is-a-net-positive side. But even if you disagree with the overall conclusions, the data presented in the articles and charts are worth thinking about. For example, the chart of "Globalization and the Environment" shows an apparent correlation between global ties and environmental responsibility. What is it about transnational connections that makes it more likely that a country will demonstrate environmental sensitivity?

February 14, 2004

Hydrogen from Ethanol

Just a quick note: the current issue of Science reports (non-free subscription required) that researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a system for converting ethanol into hydrogen cheaply and efficiently. As most techniques for producing hydrogen for fuel cells use fossil fuels as source material, this will be a significant step away from non-renewable energy resources. The press release at the UMN website gives details.

When coupled with a hydrogen fuel cell, the unit - small enough to hold in your hand - could generate one kilowatt of power, almost enough to supply an average home, the researchers said. The technology is poised to remove the major stumbling block to the “hydrogen economy”: no free hydrogen exists, except what is made at high cost from fossil fuels.


The researchers see an early use for their invention in remote areas, where the installation of new power lines is not feasible. People could buy ethanol and use it to power small hydrogen fuel cells in their basements. The process could also be extended to biodiesel fuels, the researchers said.


Ethanol is easy to transport and relatively nontoxic. It is already being produced from corn and used in car engines. But if it were used instead to produce hydrogen for a fuel cell, the whole process would be nearly three times as efficient. That is, a bushel of corn would yield three times as much power if its energy were channeled into hydrogen fuel cells rather than burned along with gasoline.

“We can potentially capture 50 percent of the energy stored in sugar [in corn], whereas converting the sugar to ethanol and burning the ethanol in a car would harvest only 20 percent of the energy in sugar,” said Schmidt. “Ethanol in car engines is burned with 20 percent efficiency, but if you used ethanol to make hydrogen for a fuel cell, you would get 60 percent efficiency.”

Rich Gold

When Rich Gold died last year, the world lost a brilliant mind. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2000; he possessed the remarkable ability to come up with ideas which were simultaneously meaningful and memorable. He gave great talks, often accompanied by hand-drawn presentations. Andrew Zolli at Z+Blog notes that Rich's wide-ranging set of talks, slideshows, and essays, which had dropped off the web shortly after his passing, is now back up at richgold.org.

I highly encourage you to spend an afternoon going through the site. Some of what Rich had to say was funny, much of it insightful, and all of it worth reading. I'd suggest, in particular, Rich's presentation "How Smart Does Your Bed Have To Be, Before You're Afraid To Go To Sleep At Night?". This talk is entirely composed of questions -- about design, about technology, and about how we interact with the world around us. It is required reading for anyone thinking about the relationship between technology and society.

Go read it.

February 16, 2004

Insulating with Tires

Christopher Palmer at Recursive Irony found a company called Cordova and Sons, in Cuba, New Mexico, which recycles used tires into building material. Not an entirely new idea, but one worth keeping in mind for your next construction project. It turns out that tires used in buildings can cut road sounds five times better than any other standard building material, and has a heat insulation value of R-240. The article (scroll down) about Cordova and Sons, in the High Country News, also links to an index of tire and rubber recyclers around the world.

Green Nanotech

I posted the other day about the issue of safety regarding nanoparticles, particularly carbon nanotubes. It's worth noting that there's a good reason why some of the environmental groups looking at nanotechnology (such as Greenpeace(PDF)) have not asked for a moratorium on research. The environmental benefits of advances in molecular nanotechnology could be staggeringly positive. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog has a great post summarizing the various ways in which nanotechnology will help protect and repair the global environment.

Environmental degradation is a serious problem with many sources and causes. One of the biggest causes is farming. Greenhouses can greatly reduce water use, land use, runoff, and topsoil loss. Mining is another serious problem. When most structure and function can be built out of carbon and hydrogen by molecular manufacturing, there will be far less use for minerals, and mining operations mostly can be shut down. Manufacturing technologies that pollute can also be scaled back.

In general, improved technology allows operations that pollute to be more compact and contained, and cheap manufacturing allows improvements to be deployed rapidly at low cost. Storable solar energy will reduce ash, soot, hydrocarbon, NOx, and CO2 emissions, as well as oil spills. In most cases, there will be strong economic incentives to adopt newer, more efficient technologies as rapidly as possible. Even in areas that currently do not have a technological infrastructure, self-contained molecular manufacturing will allow the rapid deployment of environment-friendly technology.

Building a green future will not come from the relinquishment of advanced technologies. If such a strategy was ever possible, we have gone too far in our degradation of the planetary ecosystem for it to work now. Repairing the Earth's environment, instead, will require the proper application of intelligently-designed tools and systems.

February 17, 2004

Self-Decontaminating Materials

The current generation equipment used by the American military (as well as most other armed forces around the world) for decontaminating equipment after a bio/chemical weapons attack -- or, much more commonly, after training for a bio/chem attack -- is hazardous, nasty stuff. DARPA (the US military research agency) is now looking for material which can self-decontaminate with little or no resulting hazardous waste. This material should be able to coat all manner off equipment, including electronics, and be effective against a wide array of biological threats.

This strikes me as a material which could have applications beyond the battlefield. It seems to me that this is just the sort of technology which could "spin-off" into the world of environmental clean-up. What green uses would you suggest for this material?

Conference on Humanness

Noted at Cyborg Democracy:

Human, All Too Human
3 to 6 August 2004
San Diego, United States

This is an international, interdisciplinary conference on all things human--humanism, human rights, dualism, consciousness, human nature, morality. What is it that makes us human and how is the concept of humanity changing? How is the concept of humanity treated in scientific research, philosophical research, and popular culture?

Papers and alternative presentations from a wide range of disciplines are encouraged: Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Biology, Neurology, Sociology, Anthropology, Visual Arts, and Literature.

General topics can include: Mind/body dualism; Consciousness; Morality; Individuality and personality; Social needs and obligations; Creative needs; Concepts of the self; Alienation and estrangement from the self; Cloning/genetics; and Cyborgs and other human-like constructions.

The deadline for abstracts/proposals is 30 April 2004.

Enquiries: dlh4059@garnet.acns.fsu.edu

Small is Powerful

A new generation of microtechnologies received had its coming-out party this week at the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). "MECS" -- Microtechnology-based Energy and Chemical Systems -- have the potential to channel large amounts of liquid or gas through microscopic channels allowing for heat transfer, chemical reactions, or material identification.

Chemical and biological warfare suits worn in warm climates, such as the Iraqi desert, can become unbearably hot. The solution may be a portable cooling system that weighs just several pounds.

The concept that makes this possible also is leading to miniature sensors for detecting chemical and biological toxins, as well as tiny chemical reactors for hydrogen fuel processing or environmental cleanup.

In a nutshell, small is powerful. These devices send large amounts of liquid or gas through thousands of microchannels that stand roughly as tall as a human hair. In each channel, heat transfer or chemical reactions happen more efficiently than they do in larger spaces, permitting better process control, shorter channel lengths and overall system miniaturization.

"The channels are to microfluidic devices what wires are to microelectronics," said panelist Brian Paul of Oregon State University.

More pieces coming together for a world filled with realtime observation and analysis of environmental conditions. (Via Ken Novak's Weblog)

February 19, 2004

Open the Future

(This essay was one of the pieces of the last, unpublished issue of Whole Earth Review. I initially wrote it in November of 2002, revised it in February of 2003, and lightly edited it today. The issue focused on the "singularity" -- a point in the near future where change happens so fast that pre-singularity people simply couldn't comprehend the lives of post-singularity people -- and this essay looked to ways to make such an event as safe and democratic as possible. Even if you set aside its references to a "singularity," however, I think the arguments it makes are still quite relevant to the issues we confront today. Warning: it's over 2600 words, a bit longer than our usual post length. --Jamais)

Open the Future

by Jamais Cascio

Very soon, sooner than we may wish, we will see the onset of a process of social and technological transformation that will utterly reshape our lives -- a process that some have termed a "singularity." While some embrace this possibility, others fear its potential. Aggressive steps to deflect this wave of global transformation will not save us, and would likely make things worse. Powerful interests desire drastic technological change; powerful cultural forces drive it. The seemingly common-sense approach of limiting access to emerging technologies simply further concentrates power in the hands of a few, while leaving us ultimately no safer. If we want a future that benefits us all, we'll have to try something radically different.

Continue reading "Open the Future" »

February 20, 2004

OhMyNews -- in English

Awhile back, Alex linked to OhMyNews, a South Korean online newspaper mixing reports by professional journalists with material from volunteer "citizen reporters." Quite possibly the most influential news source in South Korea, it was innovative, insightful... and only available in Korean. Fortunately for those of us who are Korean-deficient, OhMyNews has just started a "beta test" of OhMyNews International, in English.

The site includes an article entitled "The Revolt of 727 News Guerillas" which trumpets the history and goals of OhMyNews in an energetic (and inspiring) way:

Every citizen's a reporter. Journalists aren't some exotic species, they're everyone who seeks to take new developments, put them into writing, and share them with others.

This common truth has been trampled on in a culture where being a reporter is seen as something of a privilege to be enjoyed. Privileged reporters come together to form massive news media wielded power over the whole process of news production, distribution, and consumption.


We therefore stand up to them raising high the flag of guerrilla warfare. Our weapon is the proposition that "every citizen is a reporter." We intend to achieve a "news alliance of news guerillas." We will be unfolding a second NGO (news guerilla organization) movement.

We have three main tactics.

-Abolish the threshold to being a reporter.
-Break down the set formula for news articles.
-Demolish all walls that separate media.


Dearest readers, and dearest news guerillas! We are not just reforming the culture of the Korean media, we are drawing a new line in the history of the world press. We're changing the world press’ basic understanding of how the news is done.

Open Source for Non-Profits

Jon Stahl points us to the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) release of their big "think piece," "Choosing and Using Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits" (pdf). The Primer covers the reasons why non-profit organizations should choose open source and free software over proprietary applications, and goes over a variety of selection and implementation scenarios. It's reasonably well-done, although it does have some minor flaws, as Jon points out. Rather than simply repeat his observations, I encourage you to download the Primer then go read Jon's detailed entry.

February 23, 2004

Flash Mob Computing

FlashMobComputing -- two great memes that taste great together. Flash mobs, as world-changers out there should know, are wireless/web-driven insta-gatherings-cum-performance art. Grid computing -- aka swarm computing or, by extension, mob computing -- combines the computational power of dozens or hundreds or thousands of small, personal computing devices into a single supercomputer. FlashMobComputing is, therefore, a random, web-driven gathering of people bringing computing devices to be used to create an ad-hoc supercomputer.


You are invited to join us in Koret Gym at USF in San Francisco from 10pm - 4pm. Bring as many computers as you can and we'll give you everything you need to jack-in and add your computers' firepower to FlashMob I, and hopefully make history. The more people that come the bigger a supercomputer we can create. Everyone who participates will receive a T-Shirt, immortality on this site, a certificate and a badge to put on your computer in recognition of having created one of the fastest supercomputers on earth. Plus they'll be prizes, contests, special guests, and lots of fun throughout the day.

PCs only, though, so my Aluminum Powerbook can't help it along...

Microbial Fuel Cells -- Make Power, Clean Water

Researchers at Penn State have developed a microbial fuel cell that generates power by cleaning domestic wastewater:

The single-chambered microbial fuel cell is essentially a Plexiglass cylinder about the size of a soda bottle. Inside are eight graphite anodes (or negative electrodes), upon which the bacteria attach, and a hollow central cathode (or positive electrode). Electrons flow along a circuit wired from the anode to the cathode.

A steady flow of wastewater pumped into the chamber feeds the bacteria. Bacterial digestion of the wastewater's organic matter unleashes electrons into the electrical circuit and positively charged hydrogen ions into the solution. Those ions reduce the solution's oxygen demand, a key goal of wastewater treatment. The hydrogen ions also pass through a proton-exchange membrane to reach the cathode. Meanwhile, a hollow tube within the cylinder contains the cathode, which is exposed to air. At the cathode, oxygen from the air, hydrogen ions coming through the membrane and the electrons coming down the circuit combine to create water.

In other microbial fuel cells, microbes have been fed glucose, ethanol and other fuels, but, according to Bruce Logan, the Penn State professor of environmental engineering who leads the project, "Nobody has ever tried this with domestic wastewater. We're using something thought to be completely useless."

The single-chamber design is important, he said, because it facilitates a "continuous flow-through system," a design consistent with existing treatment systems.

This is still in its early stages. The microbial fuel cell doesn't generate much power -- between 10 and 50 milliWatts -- but with time and further study, output could well be boosted to usable levels. It would be of particular value in the developing world, where water treatment can be too expensive for wide use. Wastewater treatment facilities that actually generate power while cleaning the water would be enormously attractive.

February 24, 2004

RSS Update

We've updated the way we do RSS feeds here at WorldChanging.

If you use a news aggregator and wish to see just the headline and the first 25 words of a link, use the RSS 1 (RDF) link. If you want to see the full text -- including links and images -- use the RSS 2 (XML) link.

If you read WorldChanging by actually coming to the site and reading it, continue as you were.

Update: If you were having problems with the RSS 2 (XML) feed, the error has been fixed. If you weren't, never mind.


Describing itself as the "Iron Chef" of film making, Cinemasports explores how different filmmakers can combine the same ingredients for their own short (4 minute) movies. Oh, and the movies need to be shot -- and edited -- in a single day. Less, actually; the next Cinemasports event (in San Francisco) on Saturday April 3 starts at 9:30 am (when the ingredients for the movie are revealed), with a 7pm showing of the movies. Still confused? This trailer for the January event (.MOV, 5MB) might help. Or this one, from last September (.MOV, 10MB).

If you end up making a movie for the competition, let us know -- we'll link to it.

(Thanks, CTP at RecursiveIrony.)

Technical Volunteers, Design, and the Developing World

Justin wrote to tell us about a conversation at Dervala.net about what individuals can do in response to problems -- often very big problems -- in developing and war-torn nations. Few people have the resources or opportunities to devote their lives to helping others; Justin asks, in the comments, "is there a way to help human rights without full-scale immersion — that is, without going over there, cutting off links with your family and friends, and dedicating your life to it?"

This question turned into its own discussion at Dervala.net, a discussion which includes some very WorldChanging-style links to organizations dedicated to making things better one volunteer at a time. Thinkcycle -- a group we posted about early on -- is mentioned, as is a South African program for building an Open Source school administration infrastructure, SchoolTool. One of the most intriguing links in the discussion, however, is to a site called Design that Matters, a Massachusetts nonprofit which links NGOs, underserved communities around the world, and university engineering and business students.

Started at MIT in 2000, some of the projects DtM has undertaken include Cholera treatment devices, an incubator for premature infants that works without electricity, and a "Cree Talking Toy" -- a device designed to help Cree and other Native American children learn their native languages. Design That Matters is definitely a WorldChanging organization to watch -- and help out, if you can.

Thank you for the suggestion, Justin!

February 25, 2004

Land Mine Detecting Flowers Follow-Up

Last month, we posted a brief comment about the development of bioengineered flowers which react to the presence of chemicals in the soil typically given off by land mines. The Christian Science Monitor now has a longer report about the plants, giving more details about the ongoing testing of the flowers and plans for future variants:

Field tests, scheduled to start in Denmark this spring and in other countries soon after, will determine how sensitive the plant is to nitrogen dioxide and how much of the gas is required to make it turn red. So far, the plant has shown signs of being oversensitive. "It's better to have a red spot and check it and find there isn't a mine than miss one that's there," Dr. Meier says.

The plant is self-pollinating. Researchers also removed the gene for an important growth hormone, which eliminates the risk of spreading pollen to unmodified plants because the new weed neither germinates nor sets seeds unless a specific fertilizer is used.


A further genetic modification of Thales cress may enable the plant to detect and clean soil contaminated by heavy metals and other sources of pollution, but research is just beginning in this area.

Oestergaard says a prototype of the mine-clearing version could be ready to sell in a few years.

More Power!

In a bit of serendipity, several items about the future of power generation popped up on my radar recently. They nicely demonstrate alternative sources of electricity now, in the near future, and a bit down the road. Quick synopsis: the days of massive generators like the one shown to the right are numbered.

(Read the extended entry for details:)

Continue reading "More Power!" »

February 26, 2004


When I was in London earlier this month, I visited the British Museum. The pieces of ancient civilization and the various plunderings of empire were interesting, but what I really wanted to see was the Rosetta Stone (that's my picture of it at right). The Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon's troops in Egypt in 1799 and transferred to British control in 1802 as a spoil of war, was a largish piece of basalt covered with an official pronouncement about Pharaoh Ptolemy, written in ancient Greek, demotic, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. That dark gray slab embodies a fascinating mix of anthropology, archaeology, and cryptography. Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were considered indecipherable pictograms; after the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphics were a window into the workings of ancient Egypt. It's entirely possible that, had the Rosetta Stone never been found, the meaning of hieroglyphics would have been lost forever. (Simon Singh's fascinating text on cryptography, The Code Book, has a good chapter on how the Stone led to figuring out hieroglyphics.)

Linguists and ethnographers estimate that fifty to ninety percent of the planet's 7,000 languages will disappear over the course of this century. Many of them are poorly-documented, at best. Without language archives, scholars of the future will have no way of translating or understanding a dismally large portion of global civilization. The Long Now Organization, which tries to encourage very long-range thinking about our planet and society, started the Rosetta Project a couple of years ago in order to build an archive of more than a 1,000 languages:

We are creating this broad language archive through an open contribution, peer review model similar to the strategy that created the original Oxford English Dictionary. Our goal is an open source "Linux of Linguistics"- an effort of collaborative online scholarship drawing on the expertise and contributions of thousands of academic specialists and native speakers around the world. [...]

The resulting Rosetta archive will be publicly available in three different media: a free and continually growing online archive, a single volume monumental reference book, and an extreme longevity micro-etched disk.

The disk is physically etched with words in 1,000 languages, requiring a high-power optical microscope to read. This is a more survivable format than digital media; there's no risk that the particular reader technology will be lost to obsolescence or market whims. The disk contains 10 categories of linguistic descriptors for every language, including a parallel text (Genesis chapters 1-3, which is apparently the most widely, and carefully, translated text on Earth).

Starting from the premise that "lots of copies keeps stuff safe," the disk will be mass-produced and globally distributed. Actually, very shortly it will be extraterrestrially distributed, as well. A copy of the Rosetta Project disk has been fitted to the ESA's Rosetta comet-chaser probe. As the disk is designed to withstand extreme environmental conditions, its presence on a space probe on a very long orbit around the sun means that the language data it contains will be archived for a very, very long time. (The probe was supposed to launch today, but high winds at the launch site delayed the lift-off for a day.)

The Rosetta Project is more than the disk. The Archive is a regularly-updated online database of languages. It currently contains 1,671 different languages, and the Rosetta Project recently received seed funding to build a database of all documented human languages. The effort to preserve human civilization continues.

In the end, we hope the process of creating a new global Rosetta, as well as the imaginative power of having a 1,000 language archive on a single, aesthetically suggestive object, will help draw attention to the tragedy of language extinction as well as speed the work to preserve what we have left of this critical manifestation of the human intellect.

February 27, 2004


We just love it when a couple of our favorite memes hook up. Nanotech and biomimicry -- two cool ideas that are even cooler together. A February 25 UC Santa Barbara press release I found today doesn't report on a specific break-through, but does give a nice overview of the ways that nanofabrication techniques are beginning to echo natural methods, and the reasons why this is a Good Thing:

"We are now learning how to harness the biomolecular mechanism that directs the nanofabrication of silica in living organisms," says Morse. "This is to learn to direct the synthesis of photovoltaic and semiconductor nanocrystals of titanium dioxide, gallium oxide and other semiconductors – materials with which nature has never built structures before."

Most recently, Morse and his students have made advances in copying the way marine sponges construct skeletal glass needles at the nanoscale. The research group is using nature's example to produce semiconductors and photovoltaic materials in an environmentally benign way [...]

These discoveries are significant because they represent a low temperature, biotechnological, catalytic route to the nanostructural fabrication of valuable materials. The research group is now translating these discoveries into practical engineering.

Currently these materials are produced at very high temperatures in high vacuums, using caustic chemicals. With these latest discoveries, scientists have found that nanotechnology can copy nature and produce materials in a much more environmentally friendly way than the current state-of-the-art.

Making Microfinance Easier

Did you know that Hewlett-Packard has a group working on technology enablers for microcredit? Neither did I. But the Microdevelopment Finance Team (MFT) has been around since 2002, combining experts from HP, Grameen Technology Center, and other groups working on microloans. Last month, the MFT began a pilot program in Uganda building an electronic system to manage loan payment and savings information, replacing the somewhat unwieldy manual system. This technology should make it easier to make and manage microloans, and will also connect networks of various third parties (agricultural retailers, gas station managers, etc.) accredited to make financial services more accessible in rural areas.

(Found via Ken Novak's Weblog)

February 28, 2004

Responding to Imminent Climate Dangers

We've refrained from linking to the hubbub surrounding the recent Guardian article about the Pentagon-sponsored abrupt climate change scenario -- not because we didn't find the scenario worth considering, but because (a) we'd already posted about the report a few weeks ago, and (b) the Guardian got a lot of the particulars wrong. But Bruce Sterling's Viridian Note #401 (from Friday) does a great job of deconstructing the article, pointing out where it errs and where it actually understates the worry, and is well-worth reading. The scenario itself (which was never secret, contrary to the Guardian's assertion) can be downloaded from here (PDF).

Scenarios aren't simply scary predictions or amusing stories; they're tools for planning. So what do we do if abrupt climate change became a very real likelihood? Are we simply doomed?

Or, more broadly: if we have good reason to believe that the dangers associated with climate change (abrupt or otherwise) are imminent and dramatic, what can we do about it in a short enough time to make a difference? Read on for an exploration of this dilemma.

Continue reading "Responding to Imminent Climate Dangers" »

February 29, 2004

Public Human Genome

The Human Genome Project completed its first draft listing of humankind's genetic blueprint in 2001, but did so in an unusual way. A publicly-funded, international consortium finished a draft blueprint and made the data available via the U.S. National Institutes of Health, while a private concern, Celera, completed an alternative draft -- which varied in some important ways -- but kept the data largely private, only available to corporate subscribers. Fortunately, according to the Genome News Network, that's about to change.

Now the complete Celera sequence, which included publicly available data generated by the HGP, will be in the public domain.

A second Celera human genome sequence, this one created months after the first and never made public, will also be placed in GenBank. The second sequence includes only DNA sequences generated at Celera.


Differences in the sequences are attributable at least in part to the methods used, say the researchers. Celera used the whole-genome shotgun method, while the HGP used a more traditional method as well as the shotgun method.

About February 2004

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

January 2004 is the previous archive.

March 2004 is the next archive.

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