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April 2004 Archives

April 1, 2004

Linking Free Culture

Lawrence Lessig rocks. We've written about Lessig's Creative Commons license here before (and really should get around to getting one set up for WC), and his 2002 book The Future of Ideas reshaped my understanding of the nature of the online world. His new book, Free Culture looks like it will be equally as informative; now I just need to figure out which version to read.

Like Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Free Culture is being simultaneously released in print and online. What's more, the online version, originally a PDF, can now be found in a multiplicity of formats, including as an audio book read by bloggers. But one of the most interesting versions of Free Culture involves WorldChanging ally Taran Rampersad, of KnowProSE.

The Free Culture Link-o-Rama at eAsylum.net takes the existing HTML version of the book and adds links within the text to pages and resources around the web. The growing list of links ranges from body piercing to Thomas Edison, with stop at the FCC, Girl Scouts, and the Supreme Court along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the links go to Wikipedia; fortunately, it's a good resource.

At this point, not quite half of the chapters have been linked; more work is needed. If you're feeling like exercising your mad HTML skillz, they could use your help. At the very least, it'll give you an excuse to read the book.

April 2, 2004

Scientists Against Global Poverty

One of the key underlying principles of WorldChanging is the belief that the successful creation of a sustainable world for all of us requires moving forward, not looking backwards. Advances in science and technology are critical for our success; scientists are key players in the growing network of worldchangers. That's why it's so gratifying to see examples of scientists who get it, who understand the role they play in trying to change the world for the better.

On March 29th and 30th, scientists from around the world gathered at the Earth Institute at Columbia University for the State of the Planet 04 conference, subtitled "Mobilizing the Sciences to Fight Global Poverty." Speakers included Jeffrey Sachs, Edward O. Wilson, and Mary Robinson. Working sessions covered issues of energy, food, water, and health.

The site includes video and audio excerpts of speeches and sessions, and will soon have full transcripts, video, and added material in the archives. It also has a few select quotes from the different speakers. The selections from Edward O. Wilson stood out for me, in particular:

"John Sawhill, the late president of the Nature Conservancy and a friend of mine, once said, 'A society is defined not just by what it creates but by it refuses to destroy,' and that's true.

"Altogether, the 21st Century is destined to be called the 'Century of the Environment.' It will, I and many others believe, be seen as a time that either we put our house in order and settle down before we wreck the planet, or suffer the consequences.

"I believe we will settle down, because as Abba Eban said during the 1967 war, 'When all else fails men turn to reason.'

"Conversely, the natural environments where most of the biodiversity hangs on can not survive the press of land-hungry people who have nowhere else to go. This problem can be solved. Resources to do it exist. There are many reasons to achieve that goal, not least our own security.

"A world civilization able to envision God and the afterlife, to embark on the colonization of space, will surely find the way to save the integrity of this magnificent planet and the life it harbors because quite simply it's the right thing to do, and ennobling to our species.

"We will be judged far into the future, as far I think as any of us can imagine by what we now choose to save."

At the end of the event, the conferees released a statement calling for action, and emphasizing the role science has in ensuring a better future for everyone on the planet.

Both rich and poor countries must heed the lessons of science and foster the benefits of under-utilized and yet-to-be developed technologies. We must support increased national and international scientific and technological efforts to achieve technological breakthroughs in energy systems, food production, health care, and water management. Not only must we make a special effort to address the technological needs of the poorest, as these are often neglected, but also to build and sustain scientific capacity in the poorest countries.

The statement in full is powerful and detailed, and well-worth reading, and includes specific recommendations in each of the four broad areas (energy, food, water, and health) covered by the conference. I strongly encourage you to take a look at it.

April 5, 2004

Join Me

A few years ago, a bored young man in London named Danny Wallace sent a brief advertisement to a local newspaper reading, simply, "Join Me!," along with instructions to send a single passport-sized photo to a particular address. No further explanation was given; in truth, Wallace didn't really have much of one. At first, there wasn't much of a response, but pictures started to come in. Soon there were a few members, then a few dozen. Eventually, Wallace needed to figure out just what these people around England were joining.

Join Me! is Wallace's book describing the Join Me! movement, which now has thousands of members around the world, including the US and Australia. What is the Join Me! movement? Once Wallace got over his initial joke, he managed to turn the growing membership into a force for, well, good. Calling it the "Karma Army," Wallace instructed his Joinees to engage in random kindness, particularly on Fridays.

Despite the tongue planted firmly in-cheek, Join Me! manages to demonstrate that there are great numbers of people out there looking for reasons to do good deeds, just waiting for someone to give them the push in the right direction. And while Join Me! has neither the political sophistication or forward-looking agenda needed for a modern environmental movement, it does show that a combination of humor, generosity, and social connections can go a long way towards building a powerful movement.

Join Me! (the book) is a quick and enjoyable read, particularly for those trying to build a new movement for changing the world.

Japanese Landmine Disposal Machine

Japanese inventor Kiyoshi Amemiya has developed a machine for clearing landmines 100 times faster than hand-removal. He's donated 36 of these machines to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bill McKibben on John McCain

Bill McKibben has an excellent conversation with Senator John McCain in the current edition of the National Resources Defense Council's OnEarth magazine. McCain seems to have embraced the need to fight global warming.

More Housekeeping

More changes for the WorldChanging site! We'd like to give a warm welcome to new WC contributor -- and long-time WC ally -- Taran Rampersad. He's an instructor at the University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies, a writer and a programmer in San Fernando (in Trinidad & Tobago), and he runs a variety of very cool and interesting websites, including KnowProSe and eAsylum (which we mentioned recently). Glad to have you aboard, Taran!

Also, we've added another section to WorldChanging -- QuickChanges. These are brief entries on subjects we find interesting (and think you'll find interesting, too), but, either due to tone or depth, don't necessarily warrant a full-sized entry. The QuickChanges section now inhabits the top of the right side-bar (RSS readers will get the QuickChanges mixed in with the regular posts). Let us know what you think of them!

April 6, 2004

Globalization is not Americanization

Andrew Lam has an interesting essay up at AlterNet entitled Globalization vs. Americanization, in which he argues that we're seeing a "transnational revolution" -- and it's not just McDonald's and Disney, and that geography is no longer destiny.

April 7, 2004

Encyclopedia Astronautica

In case it's not already obvious, some of us at WC are big fans of space science. For those of you out there who are, as well, here is the Encyclopedia Astronautica, a startlingly comprehensive database of spacecraft, space programs, obscure space flight history, and everyone who has ever flown beyond Earth's surly bonds.

Buying Up the Right to Pollute

When the US Environmental Protection Agency runs its annual auction for sulfur dioxide pollution allowances, polluters aren't the only organizations allowed to bid. As it turns out, anyone can -- including environmental activists who want to hold onto the allowances to prevent their use. Wired has a fascinating article about this today.

Allowance auctions force polluters to bid for the right to emit a given amount of SO2 (each allowance is worth one ton) over the course of a year. Companies that produce more SO2 as the year progresses have to buy allowances from other, cleaner, companies, reduce their emissions, or face EPA fines. Owners of SO2 allowances who choose not to sell their rights therefore keep that much SO2 out of the atmosphere. The Acid Rain Retirement Fund, based at the University of Southern Maine, actively purchases and "retires" pollution allowances.

Surprisingly, cost of each one-ton-allowance isn't all that high.

John Millett, a spokesman for the EPA, said the organization is not surprised that private citizens from environmental groups have taken part. "It was part of the market," he said. "We're treating emissions like a commodity that can be traded by anyone, just like any other commodity. It's part of the innovation of this program."

Bidders at this year's auction shelled out on average $272.82 for each 2004-vintage allowance. Allowances are usable at any time during or after their vintage. The price reflects an increase of nearly $100 from last year's auction of 2003-vintage allowances.

The auctions are held annually, but blocks of 2,500 allowances are regularly traded on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Given that over 250,000 allowances are sold each year, it's unlikely that a single environmental group could corner the market. Nonetheless, it's exciting to see the mechanisms designed for the convenience of polluters used in this way by organizations like ARRF. "Acid rain retirement" may not clear the air completely, but each ton bought and retired is one fewer ton of sulfur dioxide in the air, and that doesn't hurt.

More info:Professor Michael Hamilton, who runs ARRF, wrote to let us know that donations to the project can be made online through www.networkforgood.org.

The latest ARRF information release can be found in the extended entry...

Continue reading "Buying Up the Right to Pollute" »

April 8, 2004

A Participatory Panopticon?

wearable wireless cameraWhat happens when you combine mobile communications, always-on cameras, and commonplace wireless networks? We're going to find out very soon.

Mobile phones and PDAs with cameras are increasingly common; one in six phones sold in 2003 had a camera in it, and last year cameraphones actually out-sold other digital cameras. But, as this photo (which I took with my Sony-Ericsson T610 cameraphone and cleaned up a bit) shows, image quality from cameraphones is often quite poor. That's a temporary problem, however; Nokia just introduced a one megapixel camera phone, and other phone manufacturers are sure to follow suit. Within a decade, your phone will likely be able to take pictures at least as good as your present-day digital camera.

The bigger change will come from an entirely-new class of hardware -- what I call the "personal memory assistant." Both Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have built test versions of wearable cameras designed to record the world around you as you go about your day (the HP wearable always-on camera is the illustration at the top of this post). Nokia and HP are working on the software required to make such cameras usable. If you've seen or used a TiVo, imagine a TiVo for your day-to-day life. If you don't think that's revolutionary, consider that human memory is notoriously faulty; what happens when a person can have perfect recall?

There is no reason why wearable personal memory assistants wouldn't be linked to wireless networks. There are good reasons why they would be, in fact: to let others see what you're seeing (so that they can help you); to access greater computing power for image-recognition (including, eventually, facial-recognition routines so that you never forget a face); and for off-site storage of what you're recording, giving you far greater capacity than what you could have on-camera (and keeping the images safe if the unit was lost or damaged). I suspect that nearly all of these systems, once they come to market, will have wireless communication built-in.

Of course, along with these new devices come a host of new dilemmas. Just as with cameraphones today, there will be people using them for various unethical purposes. The situation will be made worse by the potential invisibility of these systems: it may be difficult to tell whether a given pair of glasses is web-camera-enabled just by glancing at it. There will undoubtedly be attempts to embed software in the cameras to prevent the recording of copyrighted material, or to make an obvious noise if the image appears too much like a naked body. Perhaps there will be a mandate of a "remote shutoff" switch iin the devices, so that theaters and locker rooms and the like can automatically prevent wearable camera functions. Some of these fixes will work, some won't.

Now tie this technology to what Alex posted yesterday about Way New Urbanism. Mobile systems combined with GPS and GIS and social software and RFIDs and "smart dust"... These are tools to reshape your relationship with your environment, other people, and even your sense of self.

I offer up this scenario in order to ask: if we know these devices are on their way, are really already here in crude form, how can we use them as tools for good? Are these systems the harbingers of a Transparent Society, or are they the makings of a Panopticon Singularity? Does the sousveillance concept make sense, a world where we are all have the ability -- and responsibility -- to "watch the watchmen?" Would these be the perfect tools for corporate whistleblowers and anti-corruption activists?

This could be big.

April 10, 2004

30 Second Recharge

One of the problems with the use of rechargeable batteries, particularly batteries used as a replacement for liquid-fuel systems (such as in cars), is that they take awhile to recharge. And while current-generation nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries are much better than older nickel-cadmium batteries, they can still take more time to recharge than one might want. But this may soon change:

NEC Corp has developed a battery that can be recharged only in 30 seconds, company sources said. Called an organic radical battery, it can be recharged to the same level of power as that stored in nickel-hydrogen cells, which are widely used in digital cameras, portable MD players and other electronic devices.

It takes only about 30 seconds to recharge the battery enough to allow 80 hours of continuous operation of an MD player, compared with around an hour needed by conventional rechargeables, the company claims.

The cost, once production ramps up, should be about the same as a current NiMH battery. This technology should be of particular interest to manufacturers of hybrid cars, which currently use NiMH batteries. Here's why:

Hybrid car batteries are recharged via regenerative braking, vehicle momentum, and directly from the gas engine; since it normally happens just in the course of regular driving, the driver doesn't notice how long it takes for the batteries to top back up. (In less-common circumstances, such as driving over mountains, the fact that the batteries don't charge as quickly as one would like can be a bit more disconcerting.) The time it takes for the batteries to be recharged under normal driving conditions is a function of battery recharge speed and the amount of power returned via braking, etc.; logically, this is a key engineering factor when determining how much battery power can be used to replace or assist the gasoline engine. A shift to faster-recharging batteries could then make it possible to use the batteries more often, thereby making the overall mileage and emissions of hybrids even better.

How Big of a Boom?

For those of you with a morbid interest in just how bad an asteroid strike could be (see our post Life in the Shooting Gallery for our chances of being hit), the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona has an Earth Impact Effects Program, allowing you to calculate just how big the fireball, crater, and other effects would be. No fancy graphics, just cold numbers and text.

Example: I live about 30 miles outside of San Francisco. If a 10 meter porous rock asteroid were to hit there, with a strike energy of about 27 kilotons of TNT, it would leave a crater of 1192 feet, I'd feel ground shaking of about 3.5 on the Richter scale, and the sound of the boom would be about 40 dB. The average intervel between impacts of this size is 6.8 years (fortunately, not all on San Francisco).

Universe Today has the details on the simulator.

Balance the Budget

Speaking of simulations, how about trying your hand at balancing the US federal budget? This simulation lets you go through each departmental category -- defense, non-defense energy, general science, agriculture, transportation, etc. -- and decide which parts to increase and which to decrease. There are two versions; a short version lets you increase/decrease/eliminate by category, while the long version lets you get into the details for each category. It's an incredibly useful -- and sobering -- tool for thinking about how federal budgets work, and what can be done to decrease the deficit while still paying for desired programs.

(Via Boing Boing)

Green Inside

Intel moves towards greener chips. In a small, regulation-pushed, but still welcome step, Intel is going to reduce the amount of lead used in the manufacturing of its computer components. Now to just get rid of the Selenium, Cadmium, Chromium, Mercury...

April 12, 2004

American Power, European Power

Henry wrote to tell us about a new article in the Washington Monthly entitled "Euro Brash: Why George W. Bush takes orders from Pascal Lamy." It's an examination of the shifting economic balance of power between the US and Europe -- and what it means for global politics. Increasingly, the European Union is willing to assert a global economic role commensurate with the size of its market, even when its decisions run counter to those made in Washington. From blocking the US-approved merger between General Electric and Honeywell to demanding American software companies strengthen their privacy policies to match European rules (and, most recently, demanding Microsoft alter Windows, after the US Department of Justice backed down), the European Union is showing a growing ability and willingness to say "no" to American decisions.

This article argues that this could lead to a "backdoor Kyoto:"

American consumers may soon have to get used to buying products tailored to the demands of Brussels. The European Union, for example, has long forced U.S. automakers to improve their emissions standards for cars sold in the European market. Might they go a step further, and pressure firms like GM and Ford to improve their records worldwide? It's hypothetical, but Europeans would be thrilled if they could pull off a backdoor Kyoto, declaring that, since pollution is a global issue, only firms whose vehicle fleets meet worldwide standards could sell in the European market.

The US would howl, but the EU has already shown a willingness to hold firm against American demands over steel and hormone-laden American beef. Could Europe force American companies to go green, regardless of policies from Washington?

Carbon Nanotube-Based Sensors

Science Daily reports that your favorite carbon structural variant and mine, the nanotube, can be made into cheap and disposable sensors for organophosphate-based pesticides and nerve agents, able to detect traces of OP in amounts as small as 5 parts per billion.

Political Optimism

WorldChanging ally Paul Hughes over at FutureHi posted an interesting entry this weekend going over reasons why some of the more commonplace pessimistic political scenarios (from martial law in the US to the panopticon singularity) may not be as likely as some fear.

April 13, 2004

Congrats, Charlie!

WorldChanging friend and kickass writer Charlie Stross has been nominated for two Hugo awards! One is for his story "Nightfall," and the other is for Singularity Sky, which was my favorite science fiction book of 2003. Congratulations, Charlie!

Collaboration Manifesto

Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates has written a "Manifesto for Collaborative Tools," published both online and in the May 2004 edition of the programmer publication Dr. Dobb's Journal. In this manifesto, Kim argues for a few simple rules intended to improve collaborative software. Some are based on lessons learned from the classic work of Doug Engelbart, and some are derived from newer experiences. He gives plenty of examples of how these concepts can be built into collaborative software. But while his focus may be on the applications, his ideas apply much more broadly.

  • Be people-centric. This applies both to how we design our tools, and how we market them.

  • Be willing to collaborate. We all belong to a community of like-minded tool developers, whether or not we are aware of it. Working together will both strengthen this community and improve our tools.

  • Create shared language. Our tools share more similarities than we may think. Conversing with our fellow tool builders will help reveal those similarities; creating a shared language will make those similarities apparent to all. As a shared language evolves, a shared conceptual framework for collaborative tools will emerge, revealing opportunities for improving the interoperability of our tools.

  • Keep improving. Improvement is an ongoing process. Introducing new efficiencies will change the way we collaborate, which in turn will create new opportunities to improve our tools.

    Finally, never forget Doug Engelbart's fundamental tenet: Computers should help us become smarter and work together better. Remembering this will keep us on the right track.

  • Replace "tools" with "movements" (and "tool builders" with "activists") and Kim's argument clearly applies to not just to those who are making the technology, but also to those who are using the technology to build a better world.


    A pair of companies in Arizona are about to build a system to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, attempting to prove that the "wind-scrubber" concept works. The scrubber will employ sodium hydroxide, which reacts with carbon dioxide, to remove CO2 from air drawn through the system. In principle, such systems could help to reduce carbon dioxide levels already in the atmosphere, thereby complementing attempts to reduce the amount of additional carbon being emitted.

    There are a few problems with the system under consideration: it may not work; sodium hydroxide is caustic and toxic; and, according to the article, "the stored CO2 could be supplied to the oil industry for use in the process of enhanced oil recovery" -- which seems rather self-defeating, in the long-run.

    All that said, the notion of figuring out ways to actively reduce existing carbon levels alongside reducing the amount of new carbon added to the atmosphere is a good idea. If, as some recent reports suggest, we may be already too late to prevent massive problems even if we manage to cut our emissions dramatically, aggressive carbon sequestration may be critical. Let's hope that the proof-of-concept test works -- and that they can then come up with a better technology (and lose the "use the carbon to pump more oil" idea).

    Rust-Breathing Bacteria

    We've posted about the Geobacter genus of bacteria before -- microbes which evolved to use minerals as catalysts for making energy. National Geographic now has a short but interesting story about Geobacter discoverer Derek Lovley, and how we came to know about the more than 30 different species of mineral-eating microbes. (Via Mekka)

    UK Sustainability Report

    What can a government do to promote environmentally-friendly development? Quite a bit, according to a just-released report from the UK's Sustainable Development Commission. The report, with the typically understated title of "Shows promise. But must try harder" (also available as PDF), issues 20 "challenges" to the government of the United Kingdom, ranging from strategic national goals to specific recommendations for local councils.

    The issue of sustainability is one of the central challenges of our time.

    Some people think that the concept of sustainable development is a platitude, no more demanding and no more exciting than apple pie. We think on the contrary that it is one of the most demanding challenges facing humanity today, and also one of the most exciting.

    Some of the major changes and trends that are emerging in society today are fundamentally unsustainable. Some of the changes that will need to be made to get onto a more sustainable path run quite contrary to received opinion and may initially be quite unpopular.

    [...] But we are acutely conscious of the magnitude of the challenges ahead and of the dangers for the world and for the UK if we do not move more swiftly and firmly towards a radically more sustainable society. The challenges we have made in this report are intended to help shape the debate which is about to be launched, and to give it as much urgency and incisiveness as possible.

    In our view, the time for more radical change is right now. We stand ready to elaborate and defend the challenges we have put forward in the great debate which is about to commence.

    What's particularly remarkable about this document is that it shows the breadth and depth of what governments can do to help bring about a shift to more environmentally sustainable development. I haven't finished reading it in its entirety, as it's fairly lengthy, but what I have read is clearly a serious and well-thought-out attempt to grapple with how a modern democratic nation can become an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable society. That it comes from Blair's environment advisor and head of the goverment commission, not from an NGO, makes it all the more impressive.

    What do you think of the report and its recommendations?

    Technorati Trackback

    As BoingBoing goes, so goes the blogosphere. Or so it seems. We've now jumped on the clever little Technorati Cosmos backlink hack bandwagon, so that you can see which other sites out there refer to our posts. It appears slightly more robust than the built-in Moveable Type trackbacks, but we'll watch to see how well it works...

    April 14, 2004

    Watching Justice

    We're definitely admirers of George Soros and the work he does through his Open Society Institute. Emphasizing transparency and accountability, the Open Society Institute works hard to strengthen civil institutions around the world. Historically, they have emphasized Eastern Europe and the developing world; they've now begun to turn their attention to the United States.

    Watching Justice is the OSI's new website dedicated to monitoring and analyzing the actions of the US Department of Justice.

    Watching Justice is a non-partisan, watchdog website that monitors the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), offering regularly updated and comprehensive information to the public about how the DOJ administers justice in America. The DOJ plays a significant and singular role in shaping and enforcing the nation's policies through litigation, regulation, investigation, and implementation of laws. Watching Justice's mission is to keep a vigilant and long-term eye on Americans' fundamental rights and liberties by providing a forum for analysis, praise, and criticism of the department's actions. Watching Justice also monitors those offices in the Department of Homeland Security that were previously based in the DOJ.

    Narrower in scope than the ACLU, the DOJ focus of Watching Justice may allow it to emphasize a "whistle-blower" and media/information-focused role instead of a litigatory one. Although it's ostensibly non-partisan, the positions it takes on most issues do generally align it with the more progressive elements in American culture. It will be interesting to watch how Watching Justice works out over this election year.

    Future of World Society

    Are you going to be in Zurich, Switzerland, this June? If so, you may want to register for the Future of World Society symposium, taking place June 23-24 at the University of Zurich. The one-sentence description of the conference should give you a hint as to the tone of the gathering: "The symposium's subject focuses on the historical and structural aspects of internationalisation and, related to the latter, the contemporary trends of social, political, and economic integration as well as disintegration."

    Okay, so it's not likely to be a Burning Man preview. But the notion of thinking about global issues from a system approach is one we heartily endorse, and world-system theory can be an interesting method of getting outside of the confines of specific academic cateogories. The symposium seems a bit too focused on traditional social sciences, in my view; while the program includes talks on globalization (economics) and terrorism (politics), there's nothing to be found on the environment as a cross-national commons, or on the role of information and communication technologies in empowering social and political networks.

    Nonetheless, the symposium could be interesting to attend -- and registration is free. Unlike so many conferences these days, this one isn't trying to turn a profit. Space is limited (although they are setting aside 30 spots for Ph.D. students), so make your reservations early...

    Lawrence Lessig at FSF

    Lawrence Lessig, fresh off of the successful release of his new book Free Culture (as well as its myriad remixes) was elected to the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation. The FSF is the home of the GPL (General Public License), the software license underlying many free/open source applications. Congratulations!

    April 16, 2004

    Think Locally, Act Globally

    Salon magazine has a short but interesting article up called "Think locally, act globally," discussing an attempt to bring the internet to a remote village in Mexico. The story isn't always encouraging or neat, but it's well-worth reading. (If you're not a Salon subscriber, you'll be asked to click through an ad before getting to the article.)

    The presence of Morales, the establishment of a municipio office in Yelapa, the appearance of actual police here, plus Yelapa's increasing Internet presence, all attest to the new influence of the outside world on the town. Whether it has the political skill, and influence, to keep local control is questionable. The community leaders are well aware of the effects of development on other Mexican locales that have become tourist centers. Their control of the land and their traditional political autonomy, as part of an indigenous community, give the locals some protection. Nevertheless, Yelapa politicians have frequently been bought in the past, and the land has become very valuable. In addition, the indigenous Chacala community that Yelapa belongs to is in debt to the federal government for unpaid taxes on the land it leases to tourist developers. Urrutia thinks that the combination of fiscal mismanagement and rising crime and drug problems may create a wedge for outsiders to gain control of community land.

    As this issue is being decided, Yelapa's people will go on wiring up as fast as they can, and more tourists will be attracted to it from all over the globe. Already, its new commercial villas promise all the comforts of home, rather than jungle romance in a thatched hut. It is hard to say what the impact of the first neon sign will be. Given Yelapa's small size and skimpy economy, the coming of electricity and digital technology may cause very fast growth and make it a frontier boomtown. At the same time, projects like the computer school and the youth center, and the town's new political sophistication in dealing with Mexican governments, rather than relying on its weakening protection as an indigenous community, offer Yelapa some way of interacting with the network that has annexed it to the global economy.

    Green and White

    If I were to post about an amazing new technology that would reduce urban heat island effects, cut ozone by 12% (thereby reducing urban smog), sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon, and save the residents of a large city upwards of $500 million dollars annually in energy and medical costs, I'd expect you all to be both pretty excited and fairly skeptical. Those are impressive claims. What if the new methods don't work as planned? Okay, then. How about some very old methods?

    Plant trees.
    Use white-colored roofing.
    Use lighter-colored pavement.

    In the course of some web research this morning, I stumbled across a 1997 article at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs entitled Painting the Town White -- and Green, which argues that urban heat islands (the tendency for cities to be hotter than the surrounding environment) arise not due to autos and building heat leakage, but due to the prevalence of dark, horizontal surfaces like pavement and rooftops.

    We are now paying dearly for this extra heat. One sixth of the electricity consumed in the United States goes to cool buildings, at an annual power cost of $40 billion. Moreover, a 5°F heat island greatly raises the rate at which pollutants-nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds emanating from cars and smokestacks -"cook" into ozone, a highly oxidizing and irritating gas that is the main ingredient of smog. In Los Angeles, for example, ozone rises from an acceptable concentration at 70°F to unacceptable at 90°F. The Los Angeles heat island raises ozone levels 10-15 percent and contributes to millions of dollars in medical expenses.

    The steps required to counter this heat island effect are surprisingly simple, and pay for themselves in short order. Best of all, while government support and standards can play a role in bringing about these changes, individual homeowners can take direct action leading to both private and public benefit. Cooler roofs, abundant trees, and cooler pavement each can contribute to a major reduction in urban heat, and thereby to reduced energy use, reduced ozone/smog development, and (both directly and indirectly) to reduced atmospheric carbon. And while the color and type of pavement put down is controlled by local and regional authorities, the other two methods of reducing urban heat are in individual hands.

    Planting more trees is a straightforward concept, and one with a significant payoff: the LBL group estimates that 10 million added trees across the entire Los Angeles basin would reduce energy use by 900 MW, and save LA residents $273 million dollars annually -- probably more now, as the paper was written well before the power cost spikes of the early 2000s. Because shade from trees reduces the need for lawns to be watered, and the trees themselves can subsist on typical rainfall levels without needing added water, planting trees actually would reduce water demand, an increasingly critical issue in cities like LA. The LA Department of Water and Power will actually give you trees to plant in your yard for shade and energy conservation.

    Cooler roofs come from changing the color of the material used for roofing shingles. Most homes have to be re-roofed about every 20 years. Changing from a dark shingle (once traditional because it was more "wood like") to a light-colored (titanium-based white or terra cotta red) shingle can cut air conditioning costs by up to 40%. Georgia has been a leader in pushing cool roofs, passing a state law encouraging the shift. A few other states and regions also provide incentives, and the federal government is considering adding heat reflectivity requirements to housing regulations.

    As a homeowner who needs to put a new roof on this year, I'm particularly happy to have discovered this information!

    April 18, 2004

    Earthquake Forecasts

    quake mapHaving lived my whole life in California, I've never been particularly frightened of earthquakes. Appropriately concerned, of course, and certainly alarmed during one, but not terrified. This is undoubtedly due to the bolt-from-the-blue nature of quakes; you don't know when the big one is going to hit, so there's no use worrying about it -- just stock up on water, canned food, and blankets, and be ready to deal with it when it happens. Which could be today... or a century from now.

    If Vladimir Keilis-Borok at UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics is right, though, such carefree days of "if it happens, it happens" may be coming to a close. Keilis-Borok, whose team uses a "combination of pattern recognition, geodynamics, seismology, chaos theory and statistical physics" to predict earthquakes, asserts that there's a 50-50 chance of a major earthquake hitting a stretch of east-central Califorina by September 5. Residents in the (potentially) affected area should stock up on water and canned food -- the group successfully predicted two previous quakes last year using this method, an 8.1 quake in Japan and the 6.5 near San Simeon in California in December.

    If the methodology bears out -- and Keilis-Borok emphasizes that two good predictions are not enough to justify calling the technique a success -- then we may be moving into an era when regions can be given alerts months in advance of high likelihood of quake activity. Even without being able to pinpoint the exact date and epicenter, a prediction such as that given for the Mojave region would be enough to save lives, as it makes people more apt to build up earthquake supplies and to have their residences checked for structural soundness.

    So far, the prediction have been for quakes in areas with relatively low populations -- central California or off the coast of Hokkaido. If the technique works, what happens when the prediction happens for a densely-populated area? A six to nine month prediction window is close enough to trigger prompt action, but not so close to as cause panic. Would people evacuate, or ride it out? At the very least, such forecasts would give governments and groups like the Red Cross/Red Crescent time to build up on emergency response materials. Being able to predict earthquakes would be enormously valuable.

    So if you hear about an earthquake in the Mojave Desert some time over the next couple of months, remember that it's a good sign that the world has changed.

    April 19, 2004

    Listen to Jaron

    As noted last month, Jaron Lanier will be speaking at the upcoming Bay Area Future Salon meeting. The details are finally set: Jaron will be speaking at the SAP Labs in Palo Alto this Friday, at 7pm. He will be updating his 2000 One Half a Manifesto essay.

    Earth Day

    reflexorset reminds us that Earth Day 2004 is coming up on Thursday, April 22nd. And while the event may no longer be particularly radical or worldchanging, it's still a good opportunity to educate and make a little noise.

    Urban Tree Recycling

    The East Bay Conservation Corps is an Oakland, California-based nonprofit that works to "promote youth development through environmental stewardship and community service and to further education reform and social change." EBCC builds literacy, civic responsibility, and employable skills while teaching environmental awareness.

    Among their various programs is a "micro-enterprise" called the Urban Tree Mill. The notion underlying the Mill is simple: every year, thousands of tons of urban trees -- usually those which have fallen, or were cut down due to disease -- are dumped into landfills; many of these trees can be recycled into usable wood, thereby simultaneously reducing the use of landfills and reducing the demand for wood from forest-grown trees. The Mill processes about 2,000 tons of urban wood each year -- not a huge amount, but a respectable effort.

    The EBCC isn't the only group looking at recycling urban trees. This page at the USDA Forest Service site lists several different organizations recycling downed trees and even old telephone poles into wood suitable for construction, furniture, and art. This article at Interiors and Sources Design magazine, entitled "Sustainable Woods for the New Millennium," tells designers how they can use more sustainable wood sources for their projects. And "The Elements of Sustainability in Urban Forestry" (PDF), from 1993, looks at the ways in which communities and cities can move to more sustainable urban tree management.

    (Thanks, CTP)

    Goldman Prize Winners

    The 2004 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients have been announced, and the international collection of winners serve as stirring reminders of the power of individual activism. The Goldman Prize was started 15 years ago as a way of honoring those who have made extraordinary efforts to fight the degradation of the global environment. Winners are chosen each year from six continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Island Nations, North America and South/Central America. Winners receive an award of $125,000.

    From the Goldman Prize site:

    The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest prize program honoring grassroots environmentalists.

    Founded in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize awards $750,000 annually to environmental heroes from six continental regions. Nominated confidentially by a network of renowned environmental organizations and environmental experts, recipients are chosen for their sustained and important environmental achievements. The Prize offers these environmental heroes the recognition, visibility, and credibility their efforts deserve.

    This year's winners are:

  • Margie Eugene-Richard, who fought against Shell Chemical for its pollution and chemical waste spills in Norco, Louisiana, securing one of the biggest environmental justice victories yet.
  • Rashida Bee & Champa Devi Shukla, who are waging an ongoing fight against Dow Chemical, owners of Union Carbide, responsible for the tragedy at Bhopal, India.
  • Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, one of the founding leaders of East Timor, and the head of the first (and only) environmental NGO in that nation.
  • Manana Kochladze, founder of Green Alternative, an environmental and political activist group in the Republic of Georgia, now fighting against the BP-Unocal pipeline being built there.
  • Rudolf Amenga-Etego, founder of the National Coalition Against the Privatization of Water in Ghana, helping to rebuild Ghanaian civil society after years of military rule.
  • Libia Grueso, who led a campaign to secure more than 5.9 million acres in territorial rights for Colombia’s black rural communities, and is now focused on protecting Colombia’s Pacific rainforest.

    (Via MetaFilter)

  • April 20, 2004

    Malaysian Solar-Hydrogen House

    It's one thing to imagine sustainable housing; it's quite another to go out and build it. The challenge of such a feat is multiplied when the location is Malaysia, not traditionally thought of as being at the forefront of sustainable development. But the "Solar-Hydrogen Eco-House" has the dual distinction of being aggressively forward-looking in its application of sustainable technology and design, as well as being designed and built entirely by Malay engineers and architects.

    Combining a solar-hydrogen system (using hydrogen both as a fuel cell medium and as a utility gas for the water heater and stove) with rainwater recycling, low-energy architectural features, and traditional Malay design, the Eco-House is a proof-of-concept for sustainable dwellings in Southeast Asia and beyond. As a one-off test home, it was fairly expensive to build: RM250,000, or about $66,000, largely paid for by the Malaysian government's Science, Technology, and Environment Ministry. It's not likely to trigger an immediate burst of Eco-Home development across Malaysia, at least at first. Still, it's an extremely positive development.

    I have to admit that I find projects like this emerging from smaller, developing/post-developing nations to be far more exciting than equivalent efforts in the United States, Europe or Japans. This comes partially from experience with the inertia of the American housing market, extrapolated to other hyperdeveloped nations. But it also derives from a growing belief that the real 21st century revolution in sustainability (and, potentially, politics and economics) will come from the so-called "Third World." These nations are going to be first to be hurt by the ravages of climate change, and won't have the resources to adopt -- or time to wait for -- Washington-approved technologies and practices.

    This house design is yet another bit of evidence that the leapfrogging is already underway.

    SUV Challenge

    As much as many of us don't like it, Americans love SUVs, believing them to be safer than passenger cars (even though statistics say otherwise). Those of us who look at giant sport utility vehicles on the highway and see nothing more than many added tons of annual emissions have few choices: we can hector and lecture SUV drivers, nagging them to change their sinful ways; we can simply hope that the SUV trend will eventually go away; or we can try to change the SUVs to make them less harmful. While the hectoring and lecture approach may be satisfying, and the waiting for market trends to shift approach may be simplest, the attempt to change SUVs approach is likely the smartest. And we are all about smart responses here...

    So is the Union of Concerned Scientists. They've started the "SUV Solutions" website, which takes a double-barrelled shot at unsafe, environmentally unsound SUVs. Both of their approaches are worth taking a closer look at -- and participating in.

    Firstly, they are trying to get at least 50,000 Americans to send email (or, better still, paper mail or a phone call) to Jeffery Runge, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official reviewing public comments on SUV safety regulations. Right now, SUVs are treated by law as "light trucks," not automobiles, meaning that safety and emissions regulations are comparatively lax. The UCS form letter (which you can readily personalize) is fairly tame, as it doesn't suggest specific changes, only that the changes that do emerge should not push people towards buying trucks, encourage manufacturers to make vehicles heavier, or reduce fuel efficiency in the name of safety.

    Closing the loopholes that let SUVs avoid the stricter automobile regulations would go a long way towards making SUVs better vehicular citizens.

    The typical industry response to such demands is to claim that it's impossible to make SUVs that can meet these requirements with current technology, or in forms that consumers would want to buy. The second arm of the UCS approach is to create a blueprint for a sport utilty vehicle which gets much better mileage, produces far fewer emissions, is safer in accidents, and still provides the size that consumers seem to slaver over -- all using off-the-shelf technology. They call the SUV design the "Guardian" model, and claim that adding its features to current model SUVs would add around $750 to vehicle costs.

    The Guardian design won't make an SUV competitive with a Prius or Insight when it comes to mileage, but that's okay; when the best midsize SUV gets a whopping 25 mpg (the Saturn Vue) -- and most others get far worse -- even mileage in the 30-35 mpg range is almost revolutionary.

    April 21, 2004

    A Moore's Law of Efficiency?

    Doing a bit of research on the authors of the white roofs article I referenced a few days ago, I found a very interesting essay by Richard Muller in a 2002 issue of Technology Review. In it, he cites an essay by Arthur Rosenfeld (along with TM Kaarsberg and JJ Romm) entitled "Efficiency of Energy Use," (unfortunately not available online, as far as I could find) in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Energy in which the authors argue that:

    From 1845 to the present, the amount of energy required to produce the same amount of gross national product has steadily decreased at the rate of about 1 percent per year. This is not quite as spectacular as Moore’s Law of integrated circuits, but it has been tested over a longer period of time. One percent per year yields a factor of 2.7 when compounded over 100 years. It took 56 BTUs (59,000 joules) of energy consumption to produce one (1992) dollar of GNP in 1845. By 1998, the same dollar required only 12.5 BTUs (13,200 joules).

    The one percent/year improvement fluctuates a bit, but has remained largely consistent except for during the early 1970s, when it jumped to 4 percent per year. Rosenfeld argues that, with a little bit of effort and government encouragement, we could easily sustain a 2 percent improvement in efficiency. This difference may sound small, but has staggering results when looked at over time.

    With 1 percent annual improvement, population stablizing at around 10 billion, and overall increase in standards of living to US/EU levels, the globe would be using 40 percent more energy in 2100 than today. But by bumping up overall efficiency improvement to 2 percent averaged over the next century, Muller calculates that we'd actually end up using half our current levels of energy.

    The good news is that, like Moore's Law, there is an observable, consistent improvement in energy efficiency over time. The better news is that this has happened largely without making a focused effort. Imagine if there was competition regarding efficiency as aggressive as that for processor improvements...

    April 22, 2004

    Participatory Panopticon (Post-Script)

    Today's Salon has a good article about how easy it is to doctor photographs with digital technology ("A Picture Is No Longer Worth A Thousand Words," registration or click-through ad required). Towards the end of the piece, the author, Farhad Manjoo, and one of his interviewees, photographer Pedor Meyer, make an excellent point, reinforcing some of the complexities we discussed recently in A Participatory Panopticon?:

    [Meyer says:]"...if you don't have other sources to confirm something, you can't conclude it happened. Now enter into the picture this fact -- over the last 12 months there have been more cellphones with cameras sold than all other cameras, digital or analog combined. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous. We have the possibility for the first time to cross-reference everything, something that was never done before. It doesn't matter if the picture is a shitty little picture, it's a reference." And if you have enough references, it doesn't matter if one person doctors an image; if a hundred -- or maybe a thousand -- cellphones say a massacre occurred, it probably happened.

    In a cross-referenced, constantly photographed world -- a thing that might scare you but that is probably becoming inevitable -- we would probably have better proof of what actually happened in an important event than we do today.

    Intercontinental Ballistic (Green) Missiles

    According to Strategy Page, a military-oriented website, the US Department of Defense is about to undertake a program to replace the rocket motors on 500 Minuteman III missiles with a new version which will emit less toxic material while in use. Jokes about not polluting the air while nuking the world write themselves, but bear in mind that such missiles are occasionally launched in tests, so switching to a design which complies with EPA regulations does make sense.

    April 23, 2004

    Entangled Photon Cryptography

    One of the weirder elements of quantum physics (and that's saying something) is particle "entanglement:" two particles (usually photons or electrons, but research suggests larger particles may be entangled, too) are linked in a way that means that any disturbance done to one affects the other, instantly, no matter how far away it is. Einstein called this "spooky action at a distance," and we're now starting to see the possibility of practical applications for it. New Scientist reports that quantum entanglement is the basis of a new cryptography method developed by the University of Vienna and the Austrian company ARC Seibersdorf Research. The use of entanglement means that cryptographic key communication can be guaranteed secure, even over completely unsecured lines:

    When these [entangled] photons arrived at their destination, their state of polarisation was observed. This provided both ends of the link with the same data, either a one or a zero. In this way, it is possible to build a cryptographic key with which to secure the full financial transaction.

    Quantum entanglement ensures the security of communications because any attempt to intercept the photons in transit to determine the key would be immediately obvious to those monitoring the state of the other photons in each pair.

    And because the resulting key is random it can be used to provide completely secure link even over an unprotected communications channel, provided a new key is used each time.

    Cryptography -- which underlies all electronic commerce, and allows for private conversations -- is often compared to an arms race. Sometimes code creators develop systems that code breakers can't defeat, and sometimes code breakers develop methods of cracking cyphers that were previously thought untouchable. The rise of quantum cryptographic methods suggests we may be moving into an era where encryption is dominant over code-breaking -- a win for privacy, to be sure, but raising questions about our ability to enforce corporate and government transparency regulations.

    Green Furniture

    How green is your furniture (and I don't mean color)? It turns out that many chairs and couches are made in environmentally unfriendly ways. Environmental News Network reports today about a variety of companies shifting to sustainable, toxic-free methods of making furniture. Let's hope the design aesthetics match the green ideals...

    Developing World, Developing Businesses

    Wired has a good article today on increasing efforts to build business models and ideas for the developing world that don't simply mimic existing American/European practices.

    In Africa, there is a huge demand for simple technologies that can be used by people who lack access to banks, phone lines, credit cards and computers that Westerners take for granted. Living in the only country on this continent that has a modern infrastructure -- even while most of its citizens remain firmly entrenched in poverty -- South African entrepreneurs are in a unique position to develop and deliver these products to Africa's poor, says Raven Naidoo, a founder of Radian, a small technology-consulting firm.

    "South Africa is a testing ground but also a huge market," he says. "Typically in South Africa people have targeted the high end of the market, but it's a small high end. At the lower level the return might be lower, but there's a volume gain."

    "That market out there is two-thirds of the world's population," says Alan Levin, Naidoo's business partner. "No one else is capable of seeing it the way we do, or putting solutions together the way we do."

    Businesses cited as examples include "Wizzy Digital Courier" (which uses its own open source applications to archive email and web requests from computers without internet access -- typically those in remote schools -- onto inexpensive USB flash storage devices, rush the stored data to connected computers via milk truck couriers, then return the results the next day) and Fundamo (which allows mobile phone users to make payments via their wireless connection rather than having to use a credit card). And while Wizzy solves an infrastructure problem that will diminish over time as more locations get net access, Fundamo actually implements something that hasn't taken off in the West due to the abundance of the older credit systems:

    Levin, of Radian, says the success of Fundamo in Zambia illustrates the changing mind-set among South African tech entrepreneurs, who in the past have struggled to sell their products in saturated Western markets instead of looking to their own backyards.

    "These new technologies are taking on very quickly in the developing world, and allowing for a kind of leapfrog effect," he says. "While the First World countries are still in the credit card phase, this turns cell phone companies into banks."

    "Leapfrog effect"... hmm... where have we heard that term before?

    April 24, 2004

    Boosting Solar Efficiency

    The idea of generating electricity via the sun's power is wonderfully seductive, and we've discussed various efforts to mainstream solar technology. The problem is, traditional solar technology isn't terribly efficient, for reasons of material physics; silicon solar cells capture about 25 percent of the energy hitting them, and more advanced -- and more expensive -- combination cells (mixing germanium, gallium arsenide and gallium indium phosphide) still only hit 36 percent efficiency.

    A new discovery by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be the critical breakthrough for making solar both more efficient and less expensive. According to Technology Research News, the scientists figured out (by accident!) how to engineer a single material able to respond to three different "bandgaps" of photon energy, giving solar cells using the material an efficiency of more than 50 percent. And because the process for making the material is less complex -- and the base materials more commonplace -- than previous multijunction cells, solar cells made using this new process should be significantly less expensive.

    The usual caveats -- it's still early research, it will take a few years to work out the details, etc. -- apply. But doubled solar efficiency at reasonable costs would go a long way to making more widespread use of solar a reality.

    Manifestations of Privacy

    Christopher Allen at Life With Alacrity has a thoughtful post on what he calls the "four kinds of privacy:" defensive privacy, protecting information which puts you at risk from other citizens; human-rights privacy, protecting information which puts you at risk from the authorities; personal privacy, protecting information about your personal life and activities; and contextual privacy, protecting information which can be misconstrued or is inappropriately intimate. I'm not sure the distinctions are as clear as Allen describes, but the essay is well worth reading.

    Ford Model U

    While Honda and Toyota have raced ahead with hybrid cars, American manufacturers such as GM and Ford have tended to claim that they were working on something even better (even while grudgingly announcing hybrids to come out real soon now). General Motors' advanced hydrogen car efforts were profiled in Wired last year, and now Ken Novak points us to Ford's entry into the "wow, I wonder if this will ever come out?" motor rally: the Model U. I have to admit, it looks pretty nice. It would look even better on the road, and not just in a press release.

    April 25, 2004

    New Models of Politics

    Political parties and political campaigns in coming years will bear little resemblence to the familiar structures of the late 20th century. We've looked at some of the new models being used and debated and where they could go, but two more examples of 21st century politics have shown up on our radar -- and they couldn't be more divergent. The Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign has embraced the information-dense, top-down control of the so-called "multilevel marketing" campaigns; the Green Party of Canada, conversely, in its bid to become a new player in Canadian parliamentary politics, has opened its platform on a Wiki, allowing all members to shape its contents directly. The contrast between these two approaches demonstrates that this new era of networked politics is still very much in its earliest days.

    At its core, the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign diverges very little from traditional political campaigns. Field campaigners are given explicit instructions coming down from the top, and their reports filter back up to feed the campaign's growing database. Hierarchical control, established talking points, and registration quotas are all familiar elements to experienced political observers. What makes the campaign's approach different from past efforts is the degree to which dense information flows (albeit one-way) and rich communication media are the fuel for the process, and the explicit adoption of multilevel marketing as a process model. This sort of campaign would have been far more unweildy in the era prior to instant messages, GIS, GPS, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones. In many respects, the Bush-Cheney 2004 exemplifies how a traditional approach can evolve to take advantage of new technologies and systems, without ever changing its underlying nature.

    The Green Party of Canada, conversely, is clearly trying something entirely new. The party platform -- its collection of core beliefs, policy agendas, and issue positions -- is editable by all members in a Wiki, and the process is visible to all visitors. By using a Wiki format, all Green Party Canada members have a say in the evolution of the party's approach to Canadian concerns. This will inevitably be somewhat chaotic, as even in a small, activist group, there will be diverging beliefs and ideas; nonetheless, it's the perfect tool for a movement espousing individual empowerment coupled with community collaboration.

    It's entirely possible that both of these approaches will suffer setbacks this year, or demonstrate surprising strength. Politics is undergoing a transition, and it's not obvious what new model will come to dominate the next few decades. While we may have a strong bias towards empowered/collaborative approaches, we have to be clear that the tools which make it possible for smaller, disparate groups to come together and function effectively also make it possible for established, large-scale organizations to leverage their depth of resources to build new abilities and power. In the 1990s, it was a consultant mantra that smaller, nimbler new entrants in various industries would devour the older "dinosaur" companies; in reality, the older dinosaurs usually managed to learn from the new models, take advantage of what worked, and happily devoured the little guys. We shouldn't be shocked if we see history repeat itself.

    April 26, 2004

    3D Printing Improved

    3D printing, also known as 3D fabrication, "fabbing," and "stereolithography," is high on my list of potentially ground-shaking technologies -- emphasis on the "potentially." It's been around in various forms for awhile now, but the steady pace of improvement hasn't quite matched the intensity of the excitement around the concept in certain circles. Nonetheless, since the systems do continue to get faster, cheaper, and more precise, a bit of excitement is warranted.

    The latest improvement in 3D printing comes from the University of Illinois:

    University of Illinois researchers have come up with a new type of quick-setting three-dimensional ink that works a bit like a microscopic tube of toothpaste. The researchers' printer robotically deposits a continuous, elastic-like ink filament into a liquid rather than putting ink drops onto a surface.

    The filament hardens in the liquid rapidly enough to allow for printing three-dimensional structures that have features like unsupported spanning elements. The process yields complete three-dimensional structures in about five minutes, and provides resolutions that are close to two orders of magnitude finer than existing methods, according to the researchers.

    One of the first uses of this technology is likely to be "bioscaffolding," the creation of 3D frameworks for tissue engineering.

    (We've mentioned 3D printing before, but here's a quick summary: using a system akin to an ink-jet printer, 3D layers are deposited -- or, with this new technique, extruded -- building up complex objects; given the right base materials, design software, and cost, a wide array of goods could be printed as needed, rather than purchased ready-made from a retailer.)

    The Amazing Spider-Van-Der-Waals Forces

    How does a spider stick to the ceiling? According to scientists at the Institute for Technical Zoology and Bionics in Germany, along with a colleague in Switzerland, the spider's secret is all about the van der Waals force, a kind of interaction between individual molecules within a nanometer of each other. Using this simple molecular interaction, spiders can hold up to 170 times their own weight. But there's nothing unique to spiders about this form of adhesion; humans could design objects which take advantage of this molecular-scale force. And it's the potential for biomimicry that makes this discovery particularly compelling.

    While the news headlines regarding this research refer to making better sticky notes, the implications are much greater. Van der Waals-based adhesion is not affected by changes in the surrounding environment -- get it wet, expose it to sunlight, get it greasy, and it remains tightly bound. One application that immediately comes to mind for me is remote sensor placement: being able to attach sensing devices to walls, fences, even trees without worry about rain or heat adversely affecting the adhesion seems clearly valuable. More prosaic applications, such as "tape" that can adhere nearly anywhere and doesn't leave residue when removed, also come to mind.

    The Eurekalert article gives a good explanation of how this all works, and includes links to six different very high resolution scanning electron microscope images of the foot of the jumping spider species used in the research. The actual article, in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, is also available for the next month.

    April 28, 2004

    Water and Sanitation

    What's one of the most cost-efficient ways to improve the lives of people in the developing world? Simply meeting international standards for safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, at least according to the World Health Organization. As written up in the Financial Times:

    In a report prepared for the World Health Organisation, the Swiss Tropical Institute estimates that providing 1.5bn people with an improved water supply and 1.9bn people with basic sanitation by 2015 would cost an extra $11.3bn (E9.5bn, £6.3bn) a year over and above current investment.

    But the economic benefits, in terms of health and higher productivity, could be as high as $84bn annually, the study says. Further reductions in exposure to contaminated drinking water, for instance by disinfecting water after collection, could produce overall benefits between five and 60 times the amount invested.

    2.4 billion people around the world don't have access to basic sanitation, while 1.1 billion don't have safe drinking water. The problem is particularly bad in Africa, where around 40% of the continent has access to neither appropriate sanitation or safe water.

    The water study documents are available at the WHO website as PDFs.

    (Via World Turning)

    Chinese Solar Power

    Ken Novak points us to an article in Electronic Components claiming that China will move into the top five list of solar cell producers this year, with a projected 60MW production worth of solar power units. It has also launched the "Chinese Lightning Project" to promote solar cells as a power source.

    April 30, 2004

    The Transcommercial IPO

    One of the early WorldChanging pieces I'm most proud to have on the site is Alex's November 2003 essay, The Transcommercial Enterprise. If you haven't read it, you really should; I think that Alex has caught the scent of something big. Transcommercial practices could be a fundamental reshaping of how corporations do business -- and the signs are all around us that people are beginning to wake up to the possibility.

    The most recent signifier of a shift towards transcommercial philosophies is today's news about the Google IPO. The idea of making a bundle by going public is hardly earth-shaking (let alone worldchanging), the way Google is doing it -- and the stance the company's founders are taking in their official filings -- may well be. Google is structuring its stock offering to simultaneously reduce the influence of investment banks (which often reward friendly investors with specially-priced stock presales to allow the quick "flip" of the stock at the overheated IPO prices) and reduce the ability of investors to pressure the company to think only in terms of short-term profits. The New York Times has a couple of good articles about the IPO, including the startled reaction among investment bankers to Google offering stock through an auction, and making sufficient amounts of stock available to head off an IPO price spike & crash cycle.

    (More discussion in the extended entry...)

    Continue reading "The Transcommercial IPO" »

    Nanocomputers on the Horizon

    Oh, carbon nanotube, is there nothing you cannot do? Probably, but it's time to add another item to the list of carbon nanotube uses. Researchers at UC Irvine have figured out how to construct a high speed nanotransistor using a single-walled carbon nanotube. This is a good step towards nanoscale computers. Moreover, this early-stage work suggests that carbon nanotube-based computers would be able to operate significantly faster than current-generation silicon-based chips, and perhaps faster than the maximum possible speed for silicon technology.

    Although Burke's group demonstrated that nanotube transistors could work in the GHz range, he believes that much faster speeds are possible. "I estimate that the theoretical speed limit for these nanotube transistors should be terahertz [1 THz=1,000 GHz], which is about 1,000 times faster than modern computer speeds." His team is currently doing related research on the theoretical prediction of the cutoff frequency, or so-called speed limit, for these transistors.

    Every transistor has a cutoff frequency, which is the maximum speed at which it can operate. For silicon, the cutoff is about 100 GHz, but current circuits typically operate at much slower speeds, according to Burke.

    The usual caveats -- it's early work, it will take a couple of years to come to fruition, they may run into unexpected problems, etc. -- apply. But this is another good indicator that the acceleration of information technology is nowhere close to reaching its limits.

    About April 2004

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

    March 2004 is the previous archive.

    May 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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