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March 2004 Archives

March 1, 2004

Ambient Technologies

KineticWorld links to a company called Ambient Devices, spun off from work done at MIT's Media Lab. Ambient Devices makes products able to respond in subtle, non-intrusive ways to particular kinds of information changes. The site shows pinwheels that spin faster the more email you have, pens that change color when certain voicemails arrive, the inevitable "watch my stock prices" glowing ball, etc. (Note to up-and-coming technology companies -- promoting your new system as providing easy access to stock prices and sports scores is shorthand for not really knowing what your technology can do. Fair warning.)

But if you set aside the glowing-stock-ticker and sports-dashboard toys, the underlying philosophy of ambient systems is quite compelling. Rather than information being something that you have to hunt down, or something that demands your attention RIGHT NOW, ambient design allows information to become part of the environment around us, easily accessible and clear but not overwhelming. It reminds me of something that WorldChanging ally Stefan Jones proposed years ago on Bruce Sterling's Viridian list: a art/utility display for home electricity use, giving you an immediate visual reference for how much power you're using, possible brownouts, even how much power you're feeding back into the grid if you have home solar.

Ambient technologies are a good way to "make the invisible visible." Let's start making it happen.

(Thanks, CTP)

March 2, 2004

WorldChanging Scenarios

Scenarios are powerful tools for getting people's attention. That's something we need to remember as the Pentagon's sudden climate change report continues to stir controversy. A purely factual, present-knowledge-based report to the Department of Defense about the possibility of a whiplash ice age would not have sparked the same kind of public reaction that the scenario did. Scenarios bring issues to life in a way that straight reportage often cannot.

But the real point of using scenarios is not publicity, but foresight: we build scenarios not to hype an idea or predict the future, but in order to see more clearly the choices we will be facing. By building a model of how the future could turn out, we can then explore how our plans and goals would be challenged and strengthened in such a world. To that end, nearly all scenario projects result in a small number (3-5) of divergent narratives, giving the readers a broad set of perspectives on possible outcomes.

Scenario narratives are more powerful than detailed checklists of possible outcomes in large part because they paint a picture of what we would find outside our window (or on our computer screen) if we actually lived in that world. Some more elaborate scenario projects use representational artifacts -- videotaped news reports, magazine articles, even advertisements purporting to be from the scenaric future -- as ways of changing the scenarios from something one reads into something one experiences. By making the possible futures more than a simple listing of assertions, scenarios make it easier to imagine how one would react, and what one can do now to prevent -- or encourage -- such outcomes.

Useful scenarios have a number of aspects in common:

  • They're provocative -- they push the readers to think about possibilities they'd often rather not face. While this often means confronting unpleasant outcomes, it can also mean admitting the possibility of success, what it would take to get there, and what one would do if it happened.
  • They're plausible -- they make use of real-world facts and models to construct a set of futures that could actually come about. This is important, especially for organizations trying to make the world face up to the challenges in front of it.
  • They're broad -- while they usually have a specific issue as a focal question, they can't simply look at the actions of the organization or group at the issue's heart. Good scenarios look at the context of an issue, and examine changes across a wide spectrum of concerns.
  • They're diverse -- they acknowledge that the future is ultimately unknowable, so the best way to plan for what will really happen is to think about broadly different possibilities. This was, for me, the singular failing of the Pentagon abrupt climate change scenario -- it only told one story.
  • Finally, they're open -- even readers not directly involved with the issue at hand can start thinking about their own choices and plans as shaped by the scenario narratives.

    Good scenarios are open in another way, connecting back to plausibility. Good scenarios "show their work" -- that is, are complete with references (and, if web-based, links) to material supporting the demographic, scientific, technological, etc., projections made in the narratives. This allows readers to understand why a scenario story turned out in a given way, but more importantly, allows readers to assemble their own, alternative scenarios.

    Over the last decade or so, scenarios came into relatively common use in business and government. Until recently, their use has generally been limited to large institutions -- which is too bad, as the grassroots needs foresight at least as much as the Fortune 500 . This may be changing. I and other colleagues have been working on a model of collaborative scenarios which would make the tools of strategic anticipation available to a much wider audience. Stay tuned for more...

  • March 4, 2004


    It's one of those assertions that a reasonable person might immediately dismiss -- sound waves can make bubbles in liquid blow up in such a way that they produce temperatures and pressures equivalent to the inside of the sun. But sonoluminescence is a well-known phenomenon (here is an intro to the subject from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories); since 1934, physicists have known that pulsing low-density sound waves through a liquid medium can causes flashes of light. Now, a group of physicists at Purdue university have concluded that, under the right conditions, pulsing sound through liquid can result in sufficient energy to produce nuclear fusion.

    The device is a clear glass canister about the height of two coffee mugs stacked on top of one another. Inside the canister is a liquid called deuterated acetone. The acetone contains a form of hydrogen called deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, which contains one proton and one neutron in its nucleus. Normal hydrogen contains only one proton in its nucleus.

    The researchers expose the clear canister of liquid to pulses of neutrons every five milliseconds, or thousandths of a second, causing tiny cavities to form. At the same time, the liquid is bombarded with a specific frequency of ultrasound, which causes the cavities to form into bubbles that are about 60 nanometers - or billionths of a meter - in diameter. The bubbles then expand to a much larger size, about 6,000 microns, or millionths of a meter - large enough to be seen with the unaided eye.

    "The process is analogous to stretching a slingshot from Earth to the nearest star, our sun, thereby building up a huge amount of energy when released," Taleyarkhan said.

    Within nanoseconds these large bubbles contract with tremendous force, returning to roughly their original size, and release flashes of light in a well-known phenomenon known as sonoluminescence. Because the bubbles grow to such a relatively large size before they implode, their contraction causes extreme temperatures and pressures comparable to those found in the interiors of stars. Researches estimate that temperatures inside the imploding bubbles reach 10 million degrees Celsius and pressures comparable to 1,000 million earth atmospheres at sea level.

    There are still plenty of questions about the discovery, but the paper reporting the work apparently went through a far greater-than-usual checking process at Physical Review E, where it will be published. Unlike Cold Fusion, the sonofusion work seems to have both good data and an explanation for the mechanism that doesn't require rewriting any physical laws. Skeptics are (quite correctly) waiting for other labs to be able to replicate the experiment before celebrating the find.

    Assuming the discovery is validated, what does it mean for the world? At minimum, much more work. The sonofusion research is still in the earliest of stages, and requires much more power to produce the effect than is produced -- the so-called "breakeven" level required for fusion energy to be useful. Even if breakeven is achieved, there's no guarantee that it could scale to a point where it would be competitive with other methods.

    But what this discovery does do right now is provide us with a friendly reminder that we can't assume that all the tools we'll have for fighting global problems have already been invented. New discoveries, new technological or social innovations add to our response capabilities. While we certainly shouldn't assume that a deus ex machina is going to save us all, neither should we despair that our current abilities are insufficient for the task at hand.

    Electronic Voting

    We've mentioned concerns about electronic voting in the past; last Tuesday's elections underscored some of those worries in a few places. One of the most interesting essays about electronic voting on Super Tuesday came from Avi Rubin, a Rice University computer science professor who led the group that analyzed Diebold software and found numerous security holes. Professor Rubin, in response to critics who claimed that he may know about computers but knew nothing about elections, signed up to be an "election judge" -- one of the workers at a polling place -- for Baltimore County. He learned first hand what worked and what didn't with the electronic voting systems, and about the importance of good poll workers. Definitely recommended.

    March 5, 2004

    Urban Solar

    In 2001, voters in the city of San Francisco approved Propositions B and H, which directed the city to develop renewable energy resources for city-owned buildings. San Francisco now has its first results of that effort -- 30,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Moscone Convention Center, across the street from the SF Museum of Modern Art. The 675 kilowatts of power the panels can produce at peak are not quite enough to meet the full electricity needs of the Moscone Center, but (coupled with efficiency improvements in the building) they're enough to help the facility save $210,000 annually.

    According to Metropolis magazine, San Francisco is the first of what promises to be many cities pushing solar:

    According to Adam Browning of Vote Solar, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, measures similar to San Francisco’s are appearing across the country: on January 29, New Mexico passed a solar bond for its government buildings; New Jersey has what Browning calls a "perfect storm" of legislation in the works; and last December, the city of Austin, Texas unveiled a $5/watt rebate for solar energy, as well as passed legislation mandating that the city produce 20% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

    There's a popular enviro-meme that nearly all of America's electrical needs could be met by installing solar on city rooftops. It will be very interesting to see the real-world result of urban solar installations. As the cost of solar continues to drop, we'll see more and more locales eager to cut their power bills in this way.

    Calculating Ecological Impact

    In looking for details about figuring the cost/value of the San Francisco Moscone Center solar panels (see previous post), I came across a nice set of links to various calculators allowing you to estimate your ecological "footprint" -- that is, how much of the planet do your various activities consume. Some of the calculators are based on national averages, so the results are pretty broad, while others go into great detail.

    Redefining Progress, which developed the "MyFootprint" calculator used by numerous groups around the web, has an Excel spreadsheet (XLS) letting you calculate your household footprint, if you want more detail than the web quizzes provide. They also have explanations of the Ecological Footprint concept and methodology.

    I also found the CO2 Calculator at ClimateCare.org to be interesting, in part because it helps you figure out how much your carbon emissions cost, then gives you a way to donate that amount to various environmental groups directly. Clever.

    March 6, 2004


    WorldChanging ally Andrew Zolli just posted in his Z+ Partners blog about Freecycle, a worldwide network of people giving stuff away. As Andrew puts it, Freecycle combines "the Gift Economy, Sustainable Thinking, and Craigs List." All you do is sign up for the Freecycle list for your hometown (there are currently over 250 cities involved, and the site has instructions for starting your own list); everything posted to the list is free for the taking. They could have called it a "bottom-up collaborative material recycling and reuse network," but "Freecycle" is a bit less clumsy.

    Sea Power Ahoy!

    I've been on something of an alternative energy kick lately, so it pleased me to find out about a real-world implementation of an ocean wave energy system. Ocean Power Technology, which has been promoting its system for harnassing the inherent energy of waves for a few years now, just signed a deal with Spanish power utility Iberdrola to install 10 power-generation buoys in the Bay of Biscay. This is apparently a pilot project, in preparation for a larger-scale deployment in 2006.

    The buoys, anchored to the sea bed and floating beneath the surface, capture and convert wave energy into a controlled mechanical force that drives a generator, linked by an undersea cable to the shore.

    A smart sensor optimizes power in differing wave conditions, and switches the generator off when the wave activity is too strong, to avoid damaging the equipment. Severe storms therefore mean downtime for the buoys, as do periods of flat calm.

    However, OPT says the buoys still offer between 80 and 90 percent availability, comparable with conventional fossil fuel generators, and enjoy a key advantage over wind (30-45 percent) and solar (20-30 percent) power generation.

    They take up less space per megawatt than either windfarms or conventional shore-based generators. Ocean Power believes the 100 megawatt plants will be able to produce at an operating cost of 3-4 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 5-6 cents for wind.

    As with most other alternative energy systems we've mentioned here, wave power generation is not a silver bullet solution. Even if it works as well as hoped, without any problems, it will still be just a part of a larger set of technologies for getting us away from non-renewable energy sources. But that's how a better world will be built: in diverse pieces, mutually-reinforcing, connected together.

    (Found via Mekka)

    March 8, 2004

    Miniature Fuel Cell Power Boost

    New Scientist reports that Stanford University researchers have figured out a way to boost the power output of miniature hydrogen fuel cells by up to 50%. The trick is to reduce the size and increase the number of channels leading from the fuel source to the cell's center. Laptop fuel cells which could run for 20 hours with earlier versions can run nearly 30 hours. Researchers hope to replace batteries with fuel cells because of their longer life and fewer toxic components.

    Ah, yes, the catch: this only works with hydrogen fuel cells. Methane mini-fuel cells have been the preferred choice so far, because methane is easier to handle than hydrogen and packs more power per volume. But methane produces CO2 as waste, while hydrogen fuel cells produce only water. Environmentally, H2-based mini-fuel cells would be better than methane ones. This Stanford discovery makes hydrogen minis once again a reasonable alternative... if someone comes up with a good, safe way of distributing the hydrogen for the fuel cells.

    This is important not just because having one's laptop battery give out after 3-4 hours is annoying, but because the batteries most often used in portable electronics these days -- lithium-ion -- contains sufficient levels of toxic lithium metal [PDF} that they are largely prohibited from landfills. Given that it's been estimated that over a hundred million mobile phones will be discarded (along with their batteries) in the US in 2005 alone, moving to a portable power source that doesn't threaten to leach metals into groundwater seems wise. If the alternative doesn't add to carbon emissions, all the better.

    Dense City, Thriving City

    Is density a key metric for determining how livable a city is? It's a possibility. The Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Boston Society of Architects recently held a forum at Harvard (called "The 'D' Word") to discuss density in urban planning, and the ways in which a denser city is a more efficient, safer, and ultimately more lively city. The Harvard Gazette has a run-down of the forum.

    In certain ways, the debate between density and its opposite - sprawl - has been going on for the past half-century, said Charles Euchner, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute, who moderated and helped organize the event.

    "There's been an ongoing struggle to strengthen the city core, but not always to increase urban density. What's new, I think, is that we're realizing cities are really about people. The more people you bring in, the more vibrant the city will become," Euchner said.


    According to the pro-density argument, urban institutions require a certain threshold population to support them. If not enough people want to shop or eat out, there won't be many good stores or restaurants. If the audience for music, theater, or art is small, these activities will not flourish. If the tax base is scanty, schools and municipal services will be substandard. Even parks need people to use them, and if the parks are deserted, they will not receive the upkeep they need to remain attractive.

    Density is also considered good for the environment because it is easier and cheaper to provide heating, electricity, sewerage, and other services to people living in concentrated groups than to those in single-family homes in suburban areas. As a result, the impact of dense populations on the surrounding environment is less harmful.

    As the Rappaport Institute site puts it, "[the] argument for density is simple: The more people live in an area, the more that area can offer economic activity, social networks, political engagement, and public service." While this argument is a clear reaction to the preference for suburban sprawl in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, it also puts a stake in the heart of the "we'll all move out to the wilderness and telecommute" futurist craze of the late 1990s. The question now becomes, how can we make sure that dense urban environments work as well as they should?

    (via nicolas nova)

    World Heritage Digital Ark

    A post on MeFi pointed me to an article in my local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, about efforts to make detailed 3-D digitizations of Unesco's World Heritage sites, as a way of preserving the details of the structure in case of disaster. While this isn't the first attempt to create a virtual World Heritage archive, the tool used in this try -- the Cyrax laser camera -- is particularly well-suited to doing rapid, detailed scans of large-scale objects (such as the ruins of Pompei or the Orinda Theater, pictured). The people undertaking this project, Ben and Barbara Kacyra, happen to be the ones who invented the Cyrax camera; after selling the technology, they started the Kacyra Family Foundation (unfortunately not on the web) as a charitable group to jump-start the World Heritage archive project.

    If you're not familiar with the locations on Unesco's World Heritage list, the World Heritage Tour website shows pictures of the places, automatically refreshed every 20 seconds.

    March 9, 2004

    New Zealand Commuting Challenge

    WorldChanging ally Emily J. Gertz writes to us:

    Several years ago, my friends Lenny and Laine emigrated from the U.S. to New Zealand. Lenny is a plant geneticist; he and I have had spirited debates about the eco-ethics of biotechnology, me coming from a ex-Greenpeacer/deep ecology/deep distrust perspective. Politically, I'm more of an outside agitator, while he is inclined to be persuasive from within. Needless to say, there's friction there, but at the same time, a lot of love and respect.

    My friends discovered that New Zealand is not terribly green. Oh, it's got a lot of greenery, and a huge culture of outdoors sports and adventure tourism. The country strongly identifies with its' magnificent landscape, but in terms of policy and practice, there's a long way to go. This extends to alternative transportation; rather amazing that some Western nations are still debating the virtues of bicycle commuting at the dawn of the 21st century, but then I'm not exactly objective about it.

    Lenny, a devoted bicycle commuter longer than I have known him (which means for over 20 years), joined the Cycling Advocates' Network of New Zealand. He recently organized a bicycle commuter challenge in the Auckland area. "The event was a race between amateur cyclists, celebrities on buses, and professional race car drivers, through morning rush hour traffic," he wrote. They started out from four points in the Auckland suburbs for central Aotea Square. On three routes, the cyclists won, and on the fourth, came in at 28:04 to the car commuter's 27:37. The event was well covered in New Zealand and even picked up by the media as far away as China.

    Lenny told me, "My biggest achievement of the commuter challenge event was getting Alasdair Thompson to ride a bus. He is the president of the New Zealand Employees and Manufacturers Association, the most powerful and outspoken critic of alternative transport in NZ. He has been fighting for improvements in transport on behalf of big business, and his primary strategy has been to demand that 100% of the transport budget is spent on roads (no buses, trains, cycleways, etc). Within his organisation are about 100 sub-lobby groups, doing the same thing, on behalf of different business groups in different regions. With the way I organised this event and approached him, he agreed to ride the bus in support of alternative transport, and has agreed to become an ally of the Cycle Action Network to help us reach our goal of getting more people out of their cars and into alternative transport (bike, bus, train, etc). Not only have we gained a very powerful ally, but we've just eliminated our most powerful adversary. There are good reasons to work within the system."

    Ford to Use Toyota Hybrid Technology

    The International Herald Tribute reports that Ford Motor company has agreed to license hybrid car technology from Toyota.

    Ford will incorporate the Toyota technology into a hybrid system it plans to introduce this year in a gasoline-electric version of its Escape sport utility vehicle. The Ford vehicle will be the first hybrid offered by a U.S. carmaker and the first application of hybrid technology in a sport utility vehicle.

    March 10, 2004


    Andrew Zolli at Z+ Partners points us to the BBC's new series, If..., which brings plausible scenarios of near-future developments to the (British) TV screen. This ongoing series dramatizes different possible scenarios of the future -- of power problems, of explosive social inequality, of generational conflict, etc. -- in order to provoke discussion and thought about the choices we make now.

    The show's editor, Peter Barron, describes why scenarios are useful tools for thinking about the future:

    Are we guilty of scare-mongering?

    Not any more so than the Emergency planners, BT or the CIA when they create their future scenarios.

    Only a hopeless optimist would make a plan based on the best case scenario.

    On IF we tackle the difficult and uncomfortable issues head on. That way, if there are problems ahead perhaps we stand a better chance of preventing them or at least getting out of their way.

    At this point, the series is only available on the BBC in the UK; they currently don't have the distribution rights to put the episodes on the web. If the show comes to BBC America, it might be time for me to get a satellite dish...

    March 11, 2004

    China and the Environment

    The current (March) issue of National Geographic magazine includes a fascinating article ("China's Growing Pains") on the current state of environmental consciousness in the People's Republic of China. The full text of the article isn't online, but an excerpt is; the full article is much longer, and very much worth seeking out and reading.

    All this made me wonder whether the Chinese have not so much been creating an economic superpower as committing ecological suicide. China's leaders may be wondering the same thing. "Never has the Chinese government put the environment issue in such an important position," declared Xie Zhenhua, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), in a 2002 press report. "It is vital to the stability and the prosperity of our country and people."

    Certainly, if you look below the surface, you will find signs that a new consciousness is beginning to seep like rainwater through the layers of Chinese society. Not only are people coming to accept that the country's prosperity is bound up with caring for the environment, but they're now also aware that efforts at environmental protection are in turn bound up with improving systems of law and government. Good laws mean nothing when, as is often still the case, leaders don't have the will or means to enforce them, so some Chinese --those desperate enough -- are testing the limits of political constraints through acts of civil disobedience. Others, meanwhile, are looking to the outside world for expertise and money to help with conservation projects. And still others are pioneering new ways of thinking about how to live more harmoniously with nature. But promising as all this is, it still seems that every environmentally friendly measure is offset by a greater number of abuses. China's shift away from old habits and attitudes has only just begun.

    Even if you've already read the print article, the web page is worth visiting, as it includes a variety of links to different environmental groups active in China, as well as a bibliography of books and articles about China's environmental condition.

    Despite our ongoing frustration with U.S. environmental policies, the real focus of concern for the 21st century climate has to be China. 75% of China's power still comes from coal, and current trends don't change, China could overtake the U.S. in terms of greenhouse gas output within a few decades. If the Chinese economy continues to grow, demand for cars, consumer goods, bigger homes -- all of the lifestyle accoutrement of a modern nation -- could be environmentally disastrous, if China adopts the same technologies and infrastructure as the West. But if the Chinese economy collapses, they will be unable to afford the changes in technology and infrastructure required to clean up their already massive environmental problems.

    This is a situation that screams out for a "leap-frog" solution. Distributed power, alternative energy, smart building materials... China could be a showcase for what an electric green developed nation can look like. But will they take that road?

    Black Star: Ghana


    Black Star: Ghana, Information Technology and Development in Africa is, by far, the most detailed discussion of the problems and successes in bringing information technology to the developing world. G. Pascal Zachary, a Berkeley-based writer and scholar, author of several books on technology and culture, and regular contributor to publications as diverse as AlterNet, The Wall Street Journal, and Technology Review, has an extensive article in the March 2004 edition of FirstMonday about the ongoing economic, technological, and social development in the nation of Ghana. In it, he covers the behavior of international corporations, the ongoing "brain drain" to Europe and the United States (as well as the increasingly important role of emigrés investing in Ghana), the problems with the educational system, the effects of culture, and much, much more.

    Most importantly, while he details both the extensive challenges facing any attempt to build up a local information industry (and the various stumbles of previous efforts) and the hope and very real opportunities underlying the ongoing work, Zachary also lists concrete proposals for making development work in Ghana. Aimed at international investors and states, local businesses, and the government of Ghana, these suggestions are plausible and well-thought-out. Few of them are truly unique to Ghana's situation; while Black Star focuses on a single Central African nation, its lessons are applicable throughout the developing world.

    Black Star is a long piece, and is written in a direct, clear style that is quite informative (although not particularly entertaining). With that in mind, if you have an interest in how information technologies can aid in the developing world -- and the real world issues such aid will confront -- I strongly suggest taking the time to read this article. In the extended entry, you'll find a number of excerpts which will give you a sense of the arguments and discussions Zachary makes.

    (Thanks, Monty Zukowski for the link)

    Continue reading "Black Star: Ghana" »

    March 13, 2004

    Life in the Shooting Gallery

    Last night, I attended the latest of the Long Now Foundation's monthly seminars about Long-Term Thinking: Apollo and Skylab astronaut Rusty Schweickart, talking about the threat to the Earth from asteroid impact over the next 100,000 years. The danger of asteroid or comet strikes on Earth is a topic we've mentioned a couple of times here at WorldChanging, but Schweickart's talk brought together quite a bit of information about the threat -- and what we can do about it.

    The possibility of an extraterrestrial object being a threat to the planet is not something that many people concerned with more Earth-bound problems -- the environment, social justice, nuclear proliferation -- give much thought to. Regardless of the potential danger, asteroids seem pretty irrelevant. That presumption is, naturally, wrong. Schweickart gave one example which made clear just how broad the danger can be.

    Once a year, on average, a single asteroid roughly 4-5 meters in diamter -- small enough to fit in a living room -- strikes the Earth. Moving at 47,000 miles per hour, however, when an asteroid of that relatively small size hits the atmosphere, it tends to explode -- and the energy released is roughly the same as a 10 kiloton nuclear bomb. Last year, during the height of tensions between India and Pakistan, one of these small space rocks hit the Earth and exploded over the Mediterranean Sea. If the rock had hit two hours earlier, it would have exploded high above Kashmir. In a war zone, with each side afraid of a preemptive nuclear attack from the other, how would that exploding meteor be interpreted?

    Right now, we know of 1,100 large asteroids -- at least 1 kilometer, or about 10% of the size of the asteroid that probably killed off the dinosaurs -- that have orbits that come near the Earth. About 21% of these are considered PHOs ("Potentially Hazardous Objects"), as their orbits intersect Earth's orbit. Of those 1,100, 700 have had their orbits studied sufficiently to determine that they will not pose a danger to the Earth in the next century; 400 remain mysteries. But that's only the planet-killer size rocks. If you include the Near-Earth Asteroids of 150 meters or larger (which would still hit the Earth with hundreds of megatons of energy), there are over a million nearby. We live in a cosmic shooting gallery.

    (More fun info about asteroids -- and what we can do about them -- in the Extended Entry.)

    Continue reading "Life in the Shooting Gallery" »

    March 14, 2004

    Welcome, Sedna

    Continuing with my space-themed weekend, I want to give a warm WorldChanging welcome to Sedna, our solar system's 10th planet. Probably. We'll know more tomorrow, when NASA has a press conference about it.

    Discovered last November using Caltech's Palomar telescope on Earth, and just confirmed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, Sedna is a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) -- one of the ice and rock bodies out past Neptune. Several large KBOs have been discovered over the past few years, but none have been as large as Pluto, also a KBO but also generally considered a planet, too. Sedna appears to be roughly as big as Pluto, or possibly even a bit bigger, and is in a normal orbit. If Pluto's a planet, then Sedna is, too.

    Sedna is the Inuit goddess of the ocean -- perfect for the deep black sea of space.

    Here is a press release from CalTech with a bunch more information, and here is NASA's information page, which includes the first pictures taken of Sedna:

    "Sedna" will become closer and brighter over the next 72 years before it begins its 10,500-year trip to the far reaches of the solar system and back again. "The last time "Sedna" was this close to the Sun, Earth was just coming out of the last ice age; the next time it comes back, the world might again be a completely different place," said Brown.

    Makes you wonder what else there is out there in the deepest reatches of the solar system.


    March 15, 2004

    General Electric Goes Solar?

    The New York Times reports that General Electric is going to buy the assets of AstroPower, the largest American-owned maker of solar power gear. The acquisition is possibly related to ongoing G.E. research into light-emitting polymers. As it happens, the process by which these plastics convert electricity to light seems to be reversible; flexible, plastic-based photovoltaics may be on the near horizon.

    As they began to look more closely at developments in the photovoltaics market, G.E. researchers also realized that they had expertise to apply to silicon designs that could pay off even if the plastics project ultimately failed. And pursuing the technology supported the goal of Jeffrey R. Immelt, G.E.'s chairman and chief executive, to become a leader in markets based on renewable-energy technology and energy efficiency, including wind power, fuel cells, hydrogen storage and microturbines.

    It will come as little surprise that the one strongly critical comment in the article comes from a spokesman for ExxonMobil, a company which seems truly devoted to the role of the environment's Snidely Whiplash.

    100-Meter Nanotube Pull

    No, it's not a new sport, it's the new record for a length of carbon nanotube. Given that the previous best length was around 30 centimeters, this is a bit of an improvement. The process sounds oddly familiar:

    The carbon nanotubes are made by injecting ethanol into a fast-flowing stream of hydrogen gas. The gas carries the carbon-containing molecules into the centre of a furnace where temperatures soar above 1000° C.

    The high temperature breaks the ethanol down and the carbon atoms reassemble into nanotubes, each about a micron in length. These float in the stream of hydrogen, loosely linked to each other in what Windle describes as an "elastic smoke".

    When a rod is poked into this amorphous cloud, it catches a few nanotubes. Rotating the rod pulls on these, which in turn pull on their neighbours, dragging out a continuous thread of closely-aligned nanotubes. This wraps around the rod at a rate of centimetres per second.

    It is similar to spinning wool, Windle told New Scientist: "You have this ball of entangled wool and you put a needle in to pull out the threads".

    Spinning wool? Maybe. But it sounds more to me like making cotton candy.

    But don't start planning your space elevator trip just yet; the nanotubes created by this method are nowhere near as tough or conductive as traditional carbon buckytubes. Still, it's a good step towards making this nanoscale material more usable in the macro world.

    Image of traditional nanotubes from University of Basel Nanoscale Science Center

    Watching for Disease

    Disease outbreaks don't just arise out of nowhere. Environmental conditions have to be just right for disease-causing viruses and bacteria to flourish. This suggests a possible strategy for dealing with pathogen outbreaks: watch for signs that the environmental conditions conducive to disease are emerging, then move to protect the threatened populations.

    That's just what NASA intends to do, according to Patrick L. Barry, writing for the Science@NASA newsletter, reprinted at RedNova:

    Ronald Welch of NASA's Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the scientists working to develop such an early warning system. "I have been to malarious areas in both Guatemala and India," he says. "Usually I am struck by the poverty in these areas, at a level rarely seen in the United States. The people are warm and friendly, and they are appreciative, knowing that we are there to help. It feels very good to know that you are contributing to the relief of sickness and preventing death, especially the children."

    The approach employed by Welch and others combines data from high-tech environmental satellites with old-fashioned, "khaki shorts and dusty boots" fieldwork. Scientists actually seek out and visit places with disease outbreaks.

    Then they scrutinize satellite images to learn how disease-friendly conditions look from space. The satellites can then watch for those conditions over an entire region, country, or even continent as they silently slide across the sky once a day, every day.

    In India, for example, where Welch is doing research, health officials are talking about setting up a satellite-based malaria early warning system for the whole country. In coordination with mathematician Jia Li of the University of Alabama at Huntsville and India's Malaria Research Center, Welch is hoping to do a pilot study in Mewat, a predominantly rural area of India south of New Delhi. The area is home to more than 700,000 people living in 491 villages and 5 towns, yet is only about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.


    "We expect to be able to give warnings of high disease risk for a given village or area up to a month in advance," Welch says. "These 'red flags' will let health officials focus their vaccination programs, mosquito spraying, and other disease-fighting efforts in the areas that need them most, perhaps preventing an outbreak before it happens."

    (Via Smart Mobs)

    March 16, 2004

    Bruce Sterling's Rant-a-Thon, 2004 Edition

    Bruce Sterling -- WorldChanging Ally #1, Viridian Pope-Emperor, and Host of the Most Kick-Ass Party in Austin -- gave one of his patented rants at this year's South-by-SouthWest. The official text of the presentation isn't yet available on the web, but the ubiquitous and talented Cory Doctorow wrote an "impressionistic transcription." Having seen Bruce deliver a number of previous talks, I think that Cory definitely caught the spirit of the moment; we'll worry about the precise wording of the rant later.

    Go. Read it. Now!

    Coming up: Martin Rees, a UK scientist thinks that the chances of our civilization surviving the 21st century are 50-50. I've met him, he's got his facts straight.

    I'm cheered up by that! 50-50! Those are great damned odds. This
    year was the 50th anniversary of the Bikini Atoll test, since the
    crust-busting bomb was invented, and we haven't blown ourselves
    up. We're up to 50-50! And my personal chances of making it to
    2100 are 99.995 against. I'll spend the rest of my life watching
    people work on this thing and die without knowing if they pull it
    off. It's exciting, a fantastic spectacle. If it were guaranteed,
    life would be just a little dull.

    We've got the power to save ourselves or screw ourselves up.

    March 17, 2004

    Digital Curb-Cuts

    The Tech Bloom needs to be accessible to all users. It's not, at least not yet; Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are an ongoing challenge for blind computer users. I worked at UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Program for several years, providing computer support for many disabled members of the UCB community (students, faculty, and staff), and I saw first hand how the shift from DOS to Windows made life difficult for blind users, as the screen reading programs which worked very well in the text-oriented DOS world were worse than useless in the multiple-window, multiple-task Windows world. Few blind users tried Macs, as Apple's efforts to make the interface accessible to people who couldn't see were half-hearted, at best.

    Although the technologies for visual-impairment-accessibility for Windows have improved in the subsequent years, the solutions are largely bolted-on, and few Windows developers have the resources (or even awareness of the issue) to purchase an expensive add-on to test software compatibility. On the Mac side, however, Apple is now (finally) working on a Spoken User Interface for Mac OS X, built into the operating system itself. It's not yet available, but is intended to be part of the next major version of OS X (which would be 10.4, likely due out early next year).

    Chances are you're not blind, and you probably don't even know someone who is. Why should this be important to you? Because accessibility improvements nearly always make life better for all users, not just those with specific impairments. Just like entry ramps and curb-cuts, designed for people in wheelchairs, are great for anyone pushing a stroller or cart (or have difficulty with stairs), computer interface improvements intended for those with disabilities can be of enormous value to anyone who could make use of a different mode of computer interaction. You could have the computer read important email aloud when you're not nearby, for example, or verbally identify windows you've clicked on as a way of cutting through on-screen clutter.

    For aging populations, with the corresponding degradation of visual capabilities, having a Spoken UI as an alternative will shift from a convenience to a necessity. And let's not forget the illiterate. While the Spoken UI in OS X is undoubtedly English-only for now, there's no reason why a verbal interface couldn't work in any language. I am hopeful that Microsoft will once again take a cue from Apple and begin work to build good screen reading technology into the heart of Windows.

    People shouldn't have to change to accomodate computers; computers should be improved to accomodate people. And as the Tech Bloom spreads, it should be able to embrace everyone. That wouldn't just be fair, it would be positively worldchanging.

    Jesse Black adds, in the comments:

    I work in this field (www.bookshare.org) and could probably go on for pages, but I'll just touch on one point and offer some links. As obliquely noted in this blog, the blindness market is a small one, so that innovation in the private sector almost inevitably comes with a high price tag. It will be interesting to see how comprehensive the integrated Mac screen reader will be, because the leading resources for the PC environment (Window-Eyes and JAWS) are still very expensive ($500-$1000 I believe). There is a great company called Choice in the U.K. trying to meet the challenge of low-cost adaptive tech. Check out www.screenreader.co.uk. As with anyone trying to provide low-cost alternatives in a difficult-to-reach market, the challenge for Choice is distribution. So spread the word!

    Another cool company to check out: www.phoneticom.com. They're thinking about access to materials online in very interesting ways including a read-it-aloud tool that works on either whole pages or just highlighted tools, a speedy convert-to-text-only tool for websites, and, coolest of all, a tool that makes your website accessible by telephone by interpreting the HTML into menus and dynamically generating them over the phone using high-quality text to speech. I never thought I'd say that an automated telephone answering service was cool!

    Thanks, Jesse!

    March 18, 2004

    China Update

    WorldChanging ally Roel Groeneveld links to and updates our post from a few days ago about China's environmental challenge. Groeneveld adds a few more useful and interesting links for those of us interested in China and the environment. Of particular note is a description/review of a four-part series in the Asia Times called The Ruined Land by Jasper Becker, the author of the National Geographic article in our earlier post:

    • The Death of China's Rivers
    • Peasants Bear the Brunt of China's Energy Plans
    • China in an Energy Quandary
    • China Awakens to its Devastated Environment

    The articles are long; the review link gives good capsule summaries of each. Obviously, these are not inspiring models of doing the right thing. But WorldChanging readers in the West -- particularly the United States -- may be more accustomed to thinking about how bad things are at home, and may not be aware of the scale of the challenge in China. The key 21st century battle to save the planet may well be fought in the Middle Kingdom.

    Easy (and Green) Rider

    Drivers of hybrid cars aren't the first people to regularly get 45+ miles per gallon on their daily commutes. Motorcycles can do even better than hybrid cars when it comes to sipping fuel, and are usually less expensive. Where they don't measure up is with emissions; the EPA limits on hydrocarbon emissions from motorcycles, for example, is 1.4 grams per kilometer, while the HC limit for cars is 0.25 g/km. Although motorcycles make up a relatively minor portion of the vehicles in use, what's a responsible green biker to do?

    Traditionally, what you have to do is refit a motorcycle yourself, or pay someone to do it for you. Carl Vogel, for example, hand-builds fully-electric motorcycles with Harleyesque styling. Numerous other individuals and small companies can refit or rebuild two-wheel vehicles of all sorts with electric motors; the always-interesting site Neobike ("Motorcycle News From The Day After Tomorrow") keeps track of electric bike news on a subpage.

    But if a hand rebuilt motorcycle just isn't in the plans, you may soon be in luck. Two different companies appear to be on the verge of releasing alternate-energy vehicles, each of very different design, from energy source to intended use. Both look very cool, at least to a poseur like me.

    First up is eCycle's hybrid motorcycle, pictured above. It went into what the company called "beta testing" last year; the site doesn't yet have updated information. The performance tests at 180 miles per gallon -- from SF to LA and back on 4 gallons of gas -- and 0-60mph in about 6 seconds. eCycle is a manufacturer of various electric power components, so I wouldn't expect wide distribution for this model whenever it comes out. But if demand is there, don't be surprised to see a real bike maker buy up the design.

    If a sport bike isn't your preference, how about a fuel cell scooter? Parker, a maker of fuel cell components, has teamed up with Vectrix to build just that; the website for the model is another "check back in April" tease, but in the meantime there are two different PDFs to download from Parker extolling the (future) virtues of the vehicle: the brochure (PDF) and a reprint of an August 2003 article (PDF) from Design News about the creation of the scooter.

    I know that there are motorcycle riders who are regular readers of WorldChanging -- what do you think of these developments? Would you go green, if you could?

    Jaron Speaks

    If you're in the SF Bay Area next month, you may want to catch Jaron Lanier speaking at the Bay Area Future Salon on Friday, April 23. He will apparently be talking about his One Half A Manifesto, an amusing and provocative mix of techno-realism, cynicism, and Jaronism. Exact time & place info to come; check the Future Salon site for details over the coming days.

    March 20, 2004

    The Bogotá Experiment

    What happens when you elect a mathematics and philosophy professor mayor? You get mimes on the street. And, it turns out, that's a good thing.

    The Harvard University Gazette recently ran a lengthy article about Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, after his visit to the campus. If you're not familiar with Mockus, you should definitely read the piece; as mayor, he actively sought out unconventional approaches to solving Bogotá's enormous social problems, and, to a surprising degree, he actually succeeded. (The Atlantic Monthly had a good article about him in late 2001, which is also worth checking out.)

    During his two terms as mayor (from 1995 to 1997, when he dropped out to run for Vice President, and then from 2000 to 2004), Mockus's initiatives focused both on the standard of living and sanctity of life. He used creativity, art, and humor as his tools for getting his messages out. He's infamous for hiring mimes to work street corners, gently mocking and parodying those who break traffic laws. But not all of his approaches were satirical:

    "In a society where human life has lost value," he said, "there cannot be another priority than re-establishing respect for life as the main right and duty of citizens." Mockus sees the reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003 as a major achievement, noting also that traffic fatalities dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. Contributing to this success was the mayor's inspired decision to paint stars on the spots where pedestrians (1,500 of them) had been killed in traffic accidents.

    He also sought ways to improve Bogotá's environment, including a drive to reduce water consumption during a shortage (water use is now 40% less than before the shortage) and the encouragement of car-free days in the city to encourage the use of public transit and bicycles. He also championed efforts to bring drinking water and sewage services into every home in Bogotá; sewer hookups went from 70.8% in 1993 to 94.9% in 2003, and water provision went from 78.7% to 100% in the same period.

    Mimes on streetcorners and occasional men-only curfews may not work in every city, but Mockus's success in Bogotá is a good example of the value of trying innovative approaches to solving seemingly intractible problems. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. It's a good thing, then, to try something new, even if it looks a little crazy.

    (Thanks, gmoke!)

    March 23, 2004

    Growing, But Growing More Slowly

    According to the US Census Bureau, population on Earth is still growing at a heady pace -- 74 million more people were born than died in 2002 -- but the pace of growth is slowing. In 1990, the average woman gave birth to 3.3 children over her lifetime; by 2002, that rate had dropped to 2.6 children, slightly above replacement level. The Census Bureau believes that this rate will drop below replacement by 2050, at which point the planet will hold just over 9 billion people, 17% of which will be over 65.

    Sadly, this is only partially due to women choosing to have fewer children; much of the decline comes from the effect of AIDS in Africa. But even if a freely-available cure were developed tomorrow, these projections wouldn't really change. Population is a slow-moving indicator, where results of even big changes can take years, even decades, to appear.

    March 24, 2004

    Making the Connections

    Environmental sustainability. Energy independence. Information and communication technology. Development. These issues are inextricably linked. By ignoring the centralized models of the past and moving directly to the decentralized, networked models now emerging, developing nations can leapfrog -- build infrastructures which are more powerful, more efficient, and more sustainable than many of their more "advanced" neighbors. This isn't just the argument we make here at WorldChanging, it's the conclusion of a UN task force working under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme.

    A United Nations Environment Programme Task Force on Information & Communication Technology and Renewable Energy for Sustainable Rural Development conducted its third meeting at the Neko Tech Center in Ada, Ghana.

    Building upon its work in Paris, Delhi, and on-going field work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Task Force found that:

    * Renewable energy enables rapid deployment of reliable affordable electricity in rural areas, a prerequisite for accelerated national development;

    * Information and communications technologies are essential to enhancing rural health, education, government, entertainment and enterprise, and to participating actively in the global economy; and

    * Deployed in harmony, renewable energy and information/communication technology mutually reinforce the cost effective deployment of basic infrastructure and enable new livelihoods, social empowerment, and environmental security (emphasis added).

    UNEP is an interesting group. Although it clearly has its share of bureaucratic afflictions, it appears to be a startlingly useful information resource for those of us trying to integrate environmental concerns with the drive to improve conditions in the developing world. The Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics has numerous guides for businesses in the developing world (and in the developed world, too) looking to become more environmentally sustainable. The Environment and Sustainable Technologies database resource -- listing 86 different databases covering everything from an EU knowledge base on renewable energy to low-cost appropriate technologies (and that's just in the "A" section) -- looks to be weeks worth of WorldChanging postings alone!

    Lester Brown's Plan B

    Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and head of the Earth Policy Institute has something of a Cassandra reputation. His annual State of the World tomes for Worldwatch listed in excruciating detail just how we have been making the planet ever less liveable. That's why I was pleased to discover that his new book Plan B - Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble matches his ecological doomsaying with prescriptions for doing something about it. A worldchanging notion!

    Mother Earth News magazine has adapted some of Plan B. "Turning on Renewable Energy" is Brown's look at the ways in which a multi-layered approach to moving away from fossil fuels can help. Alternative energy resources, shifting tax allocations and subsidies, changing political policies: all are necessary. While the arguments will be familiar to WorldChanging readers, Brown lays out the material in impressive detail.

    Although some industry groups and governmental bodies complain that reducing carbon emissions is costly and a burden on the economy, study after study concludes it is possible to reduce carbon emissions while making money in the process. The experience of individual companies confirms this. DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, already has cut its greenhouse-gas emissions from its 1990 level by 65 percent. In an annual report, CEO Charles Holliday Jr. proudly reports savings of $1.5 billion in energy-efficiency gains from 1990 to 2002.

    It has become clear that incorporating renewable energy is one of the most profitable investments many companies can make, and as the true costs of climate change — withering crops, rising sea levels and wildlife extinction — become apparent, companies that ignore the need to phase out fossil fuels will ultimately disappear. The companies that prosper will be the ones that adapt to a modern economy fueled by clean, renewable energy. 

    March 25, 2004

    Magnetic Nano-foam

    The various forms of carbon (diamond, graphite, buckyball, and the mighty nanotube) now welcome a new sibling: nanofoam. According to PhysicsWeb:

    Physicists in Greece, Australia and Russia have made a new form of carbon that has the lowest density ever reported for a solid - just 2 milligrams per cubic centimetre. The material is a nano-foam of carbon clusters and is the first form of pure carbon to display ferromagnetism, albeit temporary, at room temperature.

    Welcome to the family!


    Woah. According to SolarAccess.com, scientists in Japan have combined a bacteria with photovoltaics. Somehow. The report is brief, and doesn't have a link to a science journal, so take it as a "maybe" for now. But if it works...

    Combining a living organism and a silicon chip, the new photosensor can convert light into electricity. Use of the photoelectric converting section of a blue-green bacterium, which can achieve "near perfect quantum yields in photoelectric conversion", enabling photoelectric conversion that produces a very low level of heat.

    (Via Futurismic)

    Driving on Air

    Stu's Weblog points us to MDI, makers of the Air Car, an urban commute vehicle which runs on compressed air. Or, rather, is supposed to do so -- the first prototype only managed about 7 kilometers, rather than the couple hundred the final version is hoped to get. According to a recent article in Wired, the group is spending a lot of time trying to sell regional licenses for the vehicle as a means of funding its development. They're still looking for investors, so don't expect an Air Car on your block soon.

    The Air Car concept seems worth looking at more closely, albeit with a full measure of skepticism in hand. Most of the attention the Air Car has received has been in Europe -- not surprising, given the designers seem to be in Spain, and the current model prototypes are much smaller than one would find on an American road. The Air Car site does a good job of describing the technology and exploring some of the possible applications beyond microcabs and mini-pickups. The tech, if it works, is interesting -- compressed air drives a two-stroke engine, generating a surprisingly decent amount of power. With a speed cap of 110 kmh -- about 60 mph -- I wouldn't take one on the freeway, but it's the kind of vehicle which would be perfect for point-to-point travel in dense urban settings.

    Until I actually see that production has started of vehicles meeting the design criteria, I wouldn't pin my hopes on the Air Car as a vanguard of tomorrow. But the idea is interesting, the technology looks like it has potential... and it would be pretty cool if it did work.

    March 26, 2004

    Edamame Airlines

    If you take one of the various ecological footprint tests we've linked to over the months here at WorldChanging, you'll find that one of the nastier things you can do to your score is admit to frequent air travel. Airliners spew emissions in the upper troposphere, near the transition to the stratosphere; according to the UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (PDF), this is a particularly critical part of the atmosphere when it comes to trapping greenhouse gasses. Jet aircraft put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere; air travel could account for 75% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century.

    But what if the carbon you put into the air had just been pulled out of it? The "carbon neutral" approach -- which doesn't make things cleaner, but doesn't make them worse, either -- underlies aggressive research into the use of biofuels for aircraft. And according to New Scientist, a breakthrough may well be at hand. The stumbling block for the use of biofuels has been their relatively high freezing temperature compared to petroleum, an issue at the ultra-low temperatures of the upper atmosphere. A Purdue University team has figured out how to greatly reduce the freezing temperature of fuel made from soy, and is now testing it in a mix with traditional jet fuel.

    Not quite carbon neutral yet, but it's a start. Air travel has to be made cleaner. As a great proponent of interenational travel, I'm not eager to have to choose between the planet and the world.

    (Image: CNN)

    Material Issue

    Mobile computers and alternative energy are nifty, but to really get a sense of what the future will look like, you have to think more concretely. Some of the most interesting, worldchanging developments under way are in the realms of material science and engineering. The materials out of which the world around us will be rebuilt and the techniques by which the work will be done are both in line for some profound changes.

    We've noted before some of the new developments in making building materials more environmentally sound. But how about making them more aesthetically appealing, too? A German company called LitraCon has developed a method of embedding light-transmitting glass fibers in concrete. Without reducing the structural strength or insulative capacity, the glass fibers give the concrete the ability to conduct light -- not making the concrete transparent, but translucent. Although the article at Optics.org and the LitraCon site don't discuss environmental effects, I would suspect the results to be, on balance, positive, as a greater amount of natural light transmission would lead to a somewhat reduced need for artificial (hence power-consuming) lighting.

    One material science revolution which is well underway is the development of 3-D printing, often referred to as "fabbing" or "stereolithography." Most 3-D fabrication technologies focus on the smaller end of the scale, making machine components or (in the not-so-distant future) consumer products. But what if you wanted to make something big? Can you print out a house?

    Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis at USC says yes. Using a process he calls "Contour Crafting," large-scale structures can be efficiently and inexpensively built layer-by-layer. The Contour Crafting page has links to a number of articles about the process, as well as some video; be sure to check out the animation of a complete homebuilding process (32MB WMV). While some of the press about the idea has emphasized the "built without human hands" element, the goal for Dr. Khoshnevis is a system which could quickly build stable, long-lasting buildings in less-than-ideal circumstances, such as in disaster areas or (a bit down the road) on Mars. Ultimately, the system should be able to construct a 2000-square-foot building in under one day.

    Good articles about Contour Crafting can be found at New Scientist and The Age. The first tests of the system are scheduled for 2005.

    (Thanks to both gmoke and Ming the Mechanic for heads-up on Dr. K.)

    March 29, 2004

    Simputers Now Available

    We've mentioned the Simputer before -- a simple-to-use, rugged, hand-held computer intended for users in the developing world -- but always with a "coming soon" caveat. Well, caveat no more: after three years of development, the Simputer is finally available.

    Starting at a bit less than $250, users get a Linux-based handheld with a variety of useful built-in applications (including an RSS reader!). The screen is touch-sensitive, allowing for writing or drawing directly into programs; the mid-range and high-end versions also have a motion sensor to allow for gesture navigation, such as rocking the device to "turn the page." The tech specs are decent, if not outstanding.

    What's particularly cool about it is that Simputer users can switch between English and a couple of different Indian languages. The Simputer is clearly built with an Indian audience in mind; it isn't simply a global version of Linux (or Windows) with some Hindi window-dressing slapped on. Even if the technology is neither the most advanced around nor the least expensive available, it has a good chance of success for this reason alone.

    TREES and Green Futurism

    The T.R.E.E.S. project is a few years old, and therefore hardly the state of the art, but that shouldn't stop you from checking out Tree People's vision for a sustainable L.A., complete with working proposals for the redesign of single- and multi-family homes, industrial and commercial sites, even schools. It's interesting, site-specific innovation.

    And disturbingly rare. We suffer from a shortage of realistic, working visions for a sustainable future which take into account both the nature of our problems today and the new tools we have at our disposal. The problem with this, of course, is that we can't build what we can't first imagine and describe.

    We're deeply interested in visions of a sustainable future, and of green futurism in general. If you know a new working vision of sustainability of which we may not be aware, by all means clue us in in the comment section below!)

    March 30, 2004

    Transparent Democracy

    Running a political campaign costs money -- lots of it. But where does that cash come from? Many people may presume that the money is the result of backroom deals and the like, or big donations from big organizations. While some of that is undoubtedlly true, a very large part of a candidates funding comes from individual small donations. For the office of president, an individual may donate no more than $2,000 total to a single candidate. But who's giving that money?

    Fundrace tells you. Based on information made available by the Federal Election Commission, Fundrace converts lines of data into colorful maps, breaking down contributions by state, by first 3 digits of the zip code, and by county. The top ten donating cities are broken down even further, with maps showing contributions by address.

    Yes, by address. And since the data collected on donations (at least those totalling more than $200 per candidate) include names and addresses, Fundrace lets you run searches on those categories as well. Want to know who in your neighborhood has donated to presidential candidates? Easily done (here is a list of people donating in the vicinity of zip code 20500, the White House). Want to know who Bill Gates gave money to? Or Steve Wozniak? Or George Soros?

    As cool as Fundrace is, it only tells part of the story, that of individual donations. For institutional donations, you need to dig through the data at the FEC. Here, for example, is the list of political action committees donating to or spending money on behalf of President Bush (fyi, the first section lists those groups spending money explicitly against Bush; bad information design, FEC!). You can see how the various PACs and organizations spent their money, and even find out who donated to the PACs to begin with. The FEC site includes all candidates running for office, as well as historical data. But no cool maps.

    As disconcerting as the easy access to political contribution information may be at first, this is a good development. Transparency is key to combatting corruption; as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And while being able to peek at your neighbor's political leanings is a fun bit of voyeurism, the real value of this information is in pulling the covers back on the financing of political power. Who watches the watchmen? We all do.


    If you're an info-junkie like me, one of the top bookmarks on your browser is Google News. Collecting and collating stories from newssites around the world, Google News is a useful way of keeping one's finger on the pulse of what's going on in the world. Structurally, though, it's a set of headlines broken up into a handful of broad categories, hardly an example of good information design.

    Fortunately, now there's newsmap.

    Newsmap is an application that visually reflects the constantly changing landscape of the Google News news aggregator. A treemap visualization algorithm helps display the enormous amount of information gathered by the aggregator. Treemaps are traditionally space-constrained visualizations of information. Newsmap's objective takes that goal a step further and provides a tool to divide information into quickly recognizable bands which, when presented together, reveal underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe.

    The size of news elements reflects how many different sources are reporting on the subject; the color indicates category; the shade indicates how recently the story's been updated. Unlike the regular Google News page, you can shut off feeds from categories in which you have little interest (so long, sports & entertainment news!). You can also pull in feeds from the Google News versions from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, and the UK, although the more you add, the harder it becomes to read.

    Newsmap isn't perfect. The algorithms it uses to decide how to break up words in headlines and whether to use vertical or horizontal text are crude, at best. Unlike regular Google News, it doesn't seem to auto-refresh, so it loses some value as a digital early warning system. Still, newsmap now sits in my bookmark bar right next to Google News, and I can readily imagine it becoming my first choice for keeping track of the day's events.

    Deténte, Bollywood-Style

    In recent years, a relatively-popular sub-genre of Bollywood movies emerged focusing on the tensions between India and Pakistan. Whether based on history or fantasy, the films depict heroic Indians and perfidous Pakistanis locked in mortal combat -- and it's very clear who you are supposed to be rooting for. But according to an article in Sunday's Indian Express, the changing relationship between India and Pakistan is now starting to affect how Bollywood filmmakers portray their country's western neighbor.

    Anil Gadar Sharma is also trying to play it safe this time round. Known for his shrill jingoism and Pak-bashing cinema, Sharma is toning down his ambitious war saga Ab Tumhare Hawaale Watan Saathiyon which stars Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar and Bobby Deol. Sources in Sharma’s crew said the maker is rewriting dialogues that came down too heavy on Pakistan.

    Interestingly, the motivation to do so was provided by actor Akshay Kumar who refused to spout any anti-Pakistan dialogues. Says Kumar, ‘‘I made it very clear to the director that I will not badmouth any country or a religion. My director got the point and now the dialogues are okay.’’

    It's a small move, but a hopeful one.

    March 31, 2004


    Let's give a WorldChanging welcome to our two new contributors: Emily Gertz and Andrew Zolli! Emily is a writer, photographer, and web designer in New York. Her Secret Museum website and blog focus on the intersection of art, culture, the environment, and life in the Big Apple, as well as linking to some of her photos. Andrew is a forecaster, design strategist, and author, founder of the Z+Partners forecasting, ideation, and design think tank, Futurist-in-Residence at Popular Science magazine, and a bunch of other things. Read his bio and be very, very impressed.

    Also, if you read via RSS or only hit the front page, you may have missed the fascinating and insightful conversation between Vinay and Alex in the comments of the Trees and Green Futurism post. It's still going on, so check it out -- and have your say!

    About March 2004

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

    February 2004 is the previous archive.

    April 2004 is the next archive.

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

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