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May 2004 Archives

May 2, 2004

Public Eye

The quality of unclassified satellite surveillance has improved dramatically over the past decade; what is available to civilians these days either freely or with a moderate price would have astounded even intelligence workers of a few decades ago. One of the best examples of this is the "Public Eye" project at GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington DC think-tank trying to expand the public discourse about military and national security issues. The "Picture of the Week" pages have carried satellite photos of newsworthy locations since April of 2001 (it's fascinating to see the improvement of available satellite images even over the last three years).

This week's picture is of Ryongchon, North Korea, site of the huge train blast on April 22. Or, more accurately, this week's set of pictures: the before and after shots show the profound devastation unleashed by the accident, and context shots show the crater, damage to surrounding buildings, maps, and other satellite scans of the region.

These images underscore the increasing power of non-government organizations to take advantage of "Open Source Intelligence," the practice of using materials available to any citizen to build a substantive understanding of an intelligence target. There's nothing stopping environmental activist groups from using satellite images to map pollution flows and clear-cutting, for example, or human rights groups imaging refugee camps and military movements. They just may not realize yet that such feats are now within their power.

May 3, 2004

Conflict Map

The 20th century was bloody, and the 21st century isn't getting off to a very good start itself. We can all name the big wars of the last hundred years, but we all know that the world wars and gulf wars were only the tip of the iceberg, especially when we start counting civil wars. Dry lists of dates and places are useful references, but don't really convey the extent of conflict in the modern era.

Enter the Nobel e-Museum. Among its many exhibits, reference works, and even games is a Shockwave-based map of 20th and early 21st century conflicts. The Conflict Map shows where various wars (listed as "Interstate War," "Colonial War," "Civil War," and World Wars I & II) took place, how long they lasted, and who was involved. The map is interactive, and defaults to a ten year display; you can readily expand the timeline to encompass any period from 1900 to 2001.

As a conceptual counterweight, the map also shows a chart of how many Nobel Peace Prizes were given during your selected period, as well as to which regions of the world the prizes went. Selecting a region shows who received the prizes.

This map is an excellent example of the value of good design as a means of conveying information. The pace and pattern of conflict becomes clear by scanning through the century; particularly notable is the shift from Interstate and Colonial wars dominating the field to the eruption of Civil wars over the latter part of the century. This sort of information design could easily be applied to mapping species extinction, toxic spills, or human rights abuses. Is anyone out there working on interactive maps of environmental or political changes?

Kill A Watt

If you're going to live in a more sustainable way, you have to be able to figure out what you're doing that is unsustainable in order to change it. Tools like ecological footprint tests are good for getting a general sense of your status, but sometimes you need more specific information. Take energy use, for example: how much power do you use? Your monthly electric bill gives you the total, but how can you figure out which of your various toys & appliances need to be replaced with something greener now?

Electric power consumption meters usually cost $80-$150 (according to a spot check at a local electronics superstore near here last week); while you'd eventually make that back from lower power bills, that still feels fairly expensive for non-professionals. I was pleased, therefore, to discover the "Kill A Watt" meter, intended specifically for consumers wanting to figure out how much power they're using at home. The price is definitely much better than professional units; you can find them for under $30. I bought one, and have found it quite easy to use and very informative.

Plug the appliance you want to check into the front, plug the Kill A Watt into the wall, and the system will show you how much power you're using. The kilowatt/hour + time readout makes it easy to figure out your annual draw for appliances, to see how your current units compare with Energy Star models; my refridgerator is now at the top of the "must replace" list, as it pulls nearly twice what the best Energy Star models of equivalent size draw. I've taken to checking pretty much every electric device in the house, out of a mix of diligence and curiosity.

It's a solidly-built device, and although it's really not meant as a pro tool, I can imagine it becoming part of the standard toolkit of greenpunks and sustainability geeks everywhere.

HLR on the PP

WorldChanging ally Howard Rheingold has a great piece over at The Feature entitled "Inverse Surveillance -- What We Should Do With All Those Phonecams." Regular WorldChanging readers will recognize the argument and some of the language ("sousveillance" we like. "Cyborglogging" we're not so sure about...).

May 6, 2004

Sterling News

Viridian Pope-Emperor, WorldChanging Ally Number One, the best public speaker I know, and the Hardest-Ranting Man in Show Business, Bruce Sterling, is coming to your hometown -- assuming your hometown is one of ten different spots around the US. To promote his just-released nowpunk cyberthriller, The Zenith Angle, BruceS will be embarking upon his biggest-ever book tour this summer, hitting towns from Arlington to Seattle (and several points in-between). If you've never heard BruceS giving a talk, you're missing out: he is the most engaging, funny, and brilliant person I've ever heard stand in front of a microphone and tell the truth.

If you're in the San Francisco area, you're in for an extra-special treat: BruceS will be delivering the June 11th Long Now Foundation seminar at Fort Mason. It's entitled "The Singularity: Your Future As A Black Hole." Mark your calendars now.

The picture on the right, by the way, is of BruceS at the Chabot Science Center in Oakland, California on Tuesday. He's holding up his new digital camera; I took the shot with my camera phone. He and I were both participating in a scenario project for the Sci Fi channel; since the entire workshop was filmed, I suspect you'll be hearing more about it in due time.

May 7, 2004

Human-Caused Global Warming Confirmed

Almost lost amidst the (justifiable) outrage and attention regarding the Iraqi prisoner abuses is news that a team at the University of Washington has knocked down the last scientific objection to the notion that global warming is real, and that human activity is a significant causal factor.

As reported in the May 6, 2004, issue of Nature, researchers from UW investigated why, if surface temperature records show clear signs of warming, satellite measurements of the troposphere -- the atmosphere from the ground to about 11 kilometers up -- did not. Opponents of the human-caused global warming model pointed to this contradiction as a sign that climate change wasn't real or was triggered by natural causes. According to Dr. Qiang Fu's team, cooling in the upper atmosphere -- itself a known result of greenhouse gases -- alters the satellite measurements; when that is accounted for, the troposphere data matches precisely with current models of human-caused warming.

While not good news in the "we're all going to be just fine" category, it does mean that we now have a much better understanding of the mechanisms underlying global warming, as well as confirmation that the current models work. It also means that the inevitable continued objections to doing anything about global warming have likely lost any remaining scientific credibility.

The Nature link above is to a short report; the article (linked from that page) is not freely available. Better details on the story can be found in this article from the London Times, and this release from UW, via Eurekalert.

Hybrid Vigor

The Baltimore Sun provides some useful info on the current status of hybrid cars in the American automobile market: U.S. registrations for hybrid cars rose more than 25 percent last year, to 43,435...Sales of Toyota's new Prius shot up 62.4 percent in the first quarter compared with sales in the first three months of last year...In March, Honda sold 2,725 hybrid Civics, the most ever in a single month... Half of the hybrids sold in 2003 were the Honda Civic hybrid, and just under half the old model Toyota Prius. Over 11,000 were registered in California, with Virginia coming in at #2 with about 3,400 new hybrids in 2003.

More on New Politics

In his AlterNet article "Smart Mobs vs. Amway," Brad deGraf gives a thorough updating and elaboration of the "New Models of Politics" ideas posted here recently. He pulls together many of the ideas about emerging political/campaign models bandied about in this space (and others) in a concise, clear way. Recommended.

May 10, 2004

Water From Air

There are few more fundamental issues in world development than clean water. The availability of clean water and sanitation can be revolutionary; if you can assemble the infrastructure to pipe the water around, keeping it clean can be done inexpensively. But is piping and filtering the only solution?

Olivia Lum suggests not. A Singaporean who grew up in a ramshackle home in Malaysia without running water, Lum is the founder of Hyflux, a company specializing in the development of innovative water-treatment systems. Hyflux systems are in use in Singapore and China, and was just awarded $250 million to design, build, and operate Singapore's first desalination plant. It has also invented a system it calls "Dragon-fly," which pulls remarkably clean water out of the atmosphere. It's a condensation process, similar to the side-effects of running an air conditioner in a humid environment, coupled with both physical and UV filters.

Given sufficiently humid and warm air, the Dragon-fly can pull from 6.5 liters to over 24 liters of water from the air in a day, de-humidifying the surrounding air in the process. Given that the minimum required relative humidity is 45%, and functions best with humidity over 60%, the Dragon-fly is not going to be useful everywhere. But many of the regions of the world most likely to be hit hard by global warming-induced storms are already pretty humid; systems such as these could be very useful as means of guaranteeing clean water as a stop-gap while damaged infrastructure is made sanitary, as long as generators are available. And who knows? Maybe there's a market for a "pipeless" water infrastructure to match the wireless communication network.

The Dragon-fly is certainly not perfect: it's expensive and requires a serious amount of electricity to run the condenser, the UV filter, and the refrigeration unit. This is neither a device for hyperdeveloped West nor for the underdeveloped South... but it's a definite candidate for the Leapfrog Nations, those parts of the world taking advantage of new techs and new approaches to jump headfirst into the future.

(Thanks, CTP)

Open Access News

I stumbled today across Open Access News, which has been around since May of 2002. It's a group blog and headline site on the open access movement. We've written about the value of "open access" research before -- it underpins the Public Library of Science group, informs the Open Source Textbook movement, and is an engine for "The Scientific South." Since science progresses best when scientists have access to each other's work, OA argues that research papers should be made widely and freely available, via the Internet, to all interested researchers. As the current dominant model involves charging staggering sums to universities for scientific publications (as well as to individual scientists seeking documents), a shift towards open access science would also make it far easier for researchers (and universities and countries) with limited financial resources to participate in scientific discourse.

The Participatory Panopticon vs. The Pentagon

Digital cameras may have had their Rodney King moment this last week, with the pictures taken of prisoner abuses by American troops in Iraq, sent via email around the world. When coupled with digital technology, that three-step process -- See, Snap, Send -- becomes revolutionary action. Whether the people taking the pictures did so out of a sense of outrage, a desire to document a moment, or misguided amusement, the result is the same: the knowledge that anyone, anywhere, with a digital camera and a network connection has enormous power, perhaps enough to alter the course of a war or the policies of the most powerful nation on Earth.


During his testimony, Rumsfeld made clear his exasperation with dealing with a "radioactive" scandal, when images shot by a digital camera can be beamed around the world almost instantaneously by e-mail or stored by the hundreds on a CD.

"We're functioning ... in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," Rumsfeld said.

This should come as no surprise. It is increasingly easy and inexpensive to take digital images and video and send them off over the Internet or wireless phone networks; it is correspondingly increasingly difficult to prevent visual records of events from slipping loose. Cameraphones pose a particularly knotty problem, as it's a simple matter to send a picture off immediately upon its being taken -- there's no film to destroy or memory card to erase. It's sometimes difficult to tell without a close inspection whether a mobile phone has a camera or not. The proliferation of small, easily concealed and readily networked digital cameras is a headache for those trying to keep some degree of privacy in the world and a nightmare for those trying to keep some degree of secrecy in it.

The network-connected digital camera and the wireless cameraphone are the weapons of the Second Superpower.

May 11, 2004

Civic Space

WorldChanging ally Jon Stahl encourages us to keep an eye on CivicSpace, a continuation of the DeanSpace project assembled for the Howard Dean campaign. It's an attempt to build a web toolkit for organizing grassroots action (and we mentioned its existence, but few of the details, back in April).

They'll be rolling it out in mid-June, but the site now gives a preview of what they intend to provide to users:

  • Create a customizable community driven website with Blogs, Photo Galleries, User Profiles, Friend / Buddy Tracking, Polls, and File Storage
  • Send targeted email
  • Import and aggregate remote content, share users, and sync calendars with any other CivicSpace site
  • Manage your groups membership and contacts
  • Organize events, ride sharing, and RSVP
  • Collaboratively create, edit, and publish documents
  • Easily create discussion forum / mailing lists
  • Allow you to create forms and surveys for data collection
  • VoterID/GOTV

It looks to be a good draft of a web-based activist movement toolkit.

GM Wheat Seeks New Opportunities

...because it won't be putting down roots any time soon. In what is widely considered a win for anti-GMO activists, Monsanto has decided not to push its new genetically-modified wheat strains. We applaud the decision, but would encourage Monsanto to look at this as an opportunity to do some real testing on the GM wheat, over an extended period. There may come a time that climate change requires that we modify our agricultural products to be able to survive, and good, long-term testing will go a long way towards making sure that we don't just take short-term solutions with long-term consequences.

May 12, 2004

Leapfrogging the Grid

Wow, am I sorry I didn't hear about this event until after it was over.

The World Technology Network -- a think tank/global innovator network/consulting group -- organized the World Energy Technologies Summit in Paris, this last February. The topic? "Should We Leapfrog the Grid? Distributed Generation in the Developing World." Focusing on the feasibility of using distributed power generation -- primarily from renewable or "cleaner" energy sources -- as a way of bringing inexpensive electricity to the developing world, the conference brought together energy entrepreneurs, government officials, and energy analysts from around the world.

The website for the conference has the agenda and information about the speakers, as well as all of their Powerpoint presentations -- downloadable, not as HTML conversions. Since some of the presentations are many megabytes in size (the largest being over 150MB), you'll need either broadband or patience to get them all. That said, the amount of information in these presentations is pretty staggering. From data about developments in gas turbine and fuel cell technologies to power distribution in Sri Lanka to the chemistry of biofuels, the 20 or so presentations are an energy geek's dream. While a handful of the presentations are clearly advertising for the presenter's company, nearly all have interesting information about the current state of distributed power, and where it could go.

The conference site also links to a PDF of an editorial in Nature which summarizes nicely the importance of distributed power, especially in the developing world:

World energy needs will double by 2050 and we urgently need sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide or other pollutants. Decentralized generation puts technological choices in consumers’ hands. The technology is available to bring small, local energy sources, or ‘micropower’, better into the electricity equation, from gas turbines, hydro and wind power and sugar-cane biomass to nanoscale solar cells embedded in the bricks and slates of houses.

For countries like the United States that already have grids, decentralized generation will ease gridlock, radically improve energy efficiency, cut carbon emissions and provide better resilience to failures and terrorist attacks on vulnerable networks.

But for the 2 billion people without electricity, micropower could let them leapfrog the grid. Just as countries that had never seen an expensive copper telephone network jumped straight to mobile phones, so decentralized generation technologies offer the chance for them to leapfrog the grid and prosper.

There's a ton of useful information in these presentations, locked up in the ungainly Powerpoint format. If you can stand the download time, have a way of viewing Powerpoint files, and want to learn more about distributed power, these files are definitely worth exploring.

Watching the European Parliament

Earth-Info-Net points us to www.EU-votewatch.org, a site assembled by Friends of the Earth, WWF, Birdlife, and Greenpeace in order to monitor and publicize the environment-related votes of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The EU has authority over the vast majority of environmental regulations for member states, and sites like this are great ways of keeping tabs on those in power. As it happens, UK MEPs have the worst environmental voting record, while Danish MEPs came in first. Check it out!

Pens to Afghanistan

It's easy to forget how important the simple things can be. Terry Welch, who used to run the Nitpicker blog, now works in Afghanistsan. He sent a message to supporters and friends, which is now being spread throughout the blogosphere:


As many of you know, I am currently in the apolitical position of Army public affairs specialist in Afghanistan. I only recently arrived, after waiting for 2.5 months at Ft. Riley, Kansas, but that's another issue. I'm writing you all today because I'm going to take many of you up on your offers and rudely ask a favor of those who made no offer.

When I first mentioned on my blog, Nitpicker, that I was going to be deployed, a large number of you asked how you could help me, what I would need for Afghanistan. The truth is, there's not much. However, I just went on my first mission with a civil affairs group and found a way you might be able to help me out.

It seems that the children of Afghanistan want nothing more than they want a pen.

It was explained to me that the villages through which I traveled (near Kandahar, where I'm based) are so poor that a pen is like a scholarship to these children. They desperately want to learn but, without a pen, they simply won't. It's a long story. I won't bore you with it. Trust me, though, when I say that it would be a big deal if even a few of you could put up the call for pens for me. Anyone interested in helping out could either send some directly to me or go to these sites and send them, where you can find them for as cheap as $.89 a dozen.

You can send them to me at this address:

Terry L. Welch
105th MPAD
Kandahar Public Affairs Office
APO AE 09355

Seems like a good cause to me.

(Via Atrios)

Stefan Jones notes, in the comments:

Found in another Blog comment thread:

'This reminds me of the BluePack project the Academy for Educational Development (AED) ran a while back:


They solicited $10 contributions, each of which purchased a pack for an Afghan child which "contains basic education supplies (pens, pencils, colored pencils, eraser, sharpener, six paper notebooks, ruler, chalk, chalkboard and a coloring book). The pack also contains a thermos so children can bring clean water from home."'

This is something I could feel a bit less cynical about.

For one thing, they had a footprint and a plan for distribution. This Terry . . . really, if the level of support is as big as it seems, his entire platoon is going to need weeks to offload all those donations.

Another (from the FAQ):
"The BluePacks and the school supplies are being produced in the region, and plans call for them to be assembled by Afghan war widows in order to provide employment opportunities."

Library of Alexandria Found?

A Polish-Egyptian archaeological team has uncovered ruins which appear to be the lecture halls of the Library of Alexandria. The 13 lecture halls, each with a central podium, could hold as many as 5,000 total students. The president of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities called it "perhaps the oldest university in the world."

May 13, 2004

Greenpeace on Trial

Not exactly worldchanging, but still worth noting. the US government is taking Greenpeace, the organization, to court in Florida for "sailor mongering," in response to activists boarding a boat bringing illegally felld Amazon mahogany to Miami. Greenpeace says the prosecution is revenge for its criticism of Bush. Given that nobody has been charged with "sailor mongering" since 1890, and the decision to charge the group and not the individuals involved, is arguably an attack on political speech, this is a case well-worth watching closely.

Linux in Egypt

You should check out today's posting on Slashdot of an interview with Egyptian Linux advocate, Alaa. It's a great introduction to the issues facing the uptake of Free/Open Source software in Egypt; many of the issues, especially the prevalence of pirated Microsoft software, can be found across the developing world. Warning: if you're not a regular Slashdot reader, I strongly suggest switching the "Threshold" settings for comments (found between the post content and the comment section) to 4 or 5.

May 14, 2004

Electricity Ranching

We give a good deal of attention here to how individuals and communities can improve their energy efficiency and adopt a better environmental profile. Perhaps we don't give enough attention to how businesses can do so, too. Case in point: a dairy cattle ranch in Marin county has just added electricity to its line of products.

The Straus Farms' covered-lagoon methane generator, powered by methane billowing off a covered pool of decomposing bovine waste, is expected to save the operation between $5,000 and $6,000 per month in energy costs. With those savings, Straus estimates he will pay back his capital investment in two to three years.


In addition to the energy savings, Straus' new methane digester will eliminate tons of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and strip 80 to 99 percent of organic pollutants from the wastewater generated from his family's 63-year-old dairy farm. Heat from the generator warms thousands of gallons of water that may be used to clean farm facilities and to heat the manure lagoon. And wastewater left over after the methane is extracted, greatly deodorized, is used for fertilizing the farm's fields.


"These projects produce a relatively small amount of energy, maybe only 100 megawatts or so if all the dairies in the state were hooked into the grid"

The California dairy power program -- 14 so-called "methane digesters" coming online state-wide, and more planned -- has startling potential, both for reducing the demand on the state's still-shaky electricity supply, and for reducing the amount of atmospheric methane (a greenhouse gas with greater effects than CO2). As a method of shifting power production away from greenhouse gas generation, biofuel plants are nearly ideal. They make good economic sense, too; the $280,000 cost of each digester is partially borne by the state, and the remainder is quickly covered by the power savings for the farms.


May 18, 2004

Predicting Whiplash Climate Change

Just in time for the release of the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," the distributed computing project Climateprediction.net has added a new experiment to its ongoing climate model work: the Thermohaline Circulation experiment.

In this experiment we impose a reduction of the THC consistent with earlier experiments with the Hadley Centre coupled model and study the atmospheric response. The current phase of the project uses the Hadley Centre atmospheric model in conjunction with a simplified thermodynamic ("slab" ocean) which comprises a single layer ocean with prescribed heat and salinity transports. We impose surface fields which reflect the fully-coupled model's response to an imposed THC slowdown. The experiment is thus consistent with previous coupled model work with the same model at the same resolution. The essence of our THC experiment is to look at how the atmosphere would respond to such changes in the ocean, given a THC slowdown.


Accounting for model uncertainty in climate prediction is still in its infancy, but recent years have seen considerable progress with the development of the first “perturbed physics” ensemble forecasting systems for the analysis of the response to anthropogenic (CO2) forcing. This project will be the first to extend the perturbed-physics ensemble methodology to study the role of the hydrological cycle in possible rapid climate change.

See here for a discussion of how distributed computing works. Climateprediction.net has over 50,000 participants as of today. Unfortunately, the software they use is only available for the Windows platform. Unix-based systems (like MacOS X) and Unix-like systems (like Linux), which tend to run these sorts of apps particularly well, can't participate. Hopefully someone will put together a distributed climate simulation using BOINC!

Big Money for Madagascar Environment

Reuters reports that the World Bank has approved its largest-ever environmental grant to help Madagascar protect its unique ecosystem. "The grant of $49 million will be used to expand protected areas, establish conservation sites in forests and transfer forest management responsibilities to local communities. Conservationists say three-quarters of the estimated 200,000 plant and animal species found in Madagascar, exist nowhere else in the world."

Three Months on a Red Planet

What's it like to spend three months on another world? Ask the Mars rovers. NASA has created movies of the activities of both Spirit and Opportunity entitled "90 Sols in 90 Seconds' -- a "sol' being a planet's rotation period (planetary scientists use this term to distinguish another planet's rotation period from a "day," which is the 24 hour Earth rotation period). The movies -- each a 5 megabyte .mov -- are frantic black & white recaps from the main rover cameras.

I know I won't be getting to Mars any time soon, so clips like this give a fun "you are there" sensation. Some WC readers disagree with me on this, but I strongly believe that extra-planetary exploration is a useful part of a greater understanding of planetary evolution, and ultimately helps us figure out how to prevent human activities from kicking off unrecoverable non-linear environmental changes. Mars may be red, but the study of it is a nice subtle shade of green.

May 19, 2004

A Mighty Wind

While solar power gets a lot of attention in the US as a possible alternative energy source, European countries are focusing a great deal of attention on wind power. Denmark gets 20% of its power from wind, a percentage that's set to rise to at least 25% by the end of the decade. Most the Danish wind farms use giant turbines; these can be efficient, but expensive. Another up-and-coming wind power nation, Scotland, has decided to take a different approach: rooftop turbines.

According to the Financial Times, the first five rooftop turbines in a pilot program have now been installed in Fife, using a new turbine technology from the Edinburgh-based firm Renewable Devices. Not designed to totally replace grid power, the turbines are intended to provide supplemental power. The Renewable Devices design is the first to be able to dampen the noise and vibration enough to allow rooftop installation.

For now, the turbines cost £10,000, but Renewable Devices believes that they can get the price down to £1,500 in short order. The buildings in Fife installing the turbines received government subsidies, part of Scotland's overall plan to generate 10% of the country's power from renewable resources by 2010, and 40% by 2020.

Solar Recharging Adult Toys

Most vibrating adult toys come in two varieties: carbon-emitting and toxic-metal-waste-producing. That is, most either plug into the wall or run on batteries. But now you have a third option. Blowfish is now carrying a solar-recharging vibrator. 5-7 hours of sunlight leads to a full hour of full-power vibrating fun. (Picture at link entirely tame, but site as a whole is probably NSFW.) Okay, so this isn't our usual fare, but it's definitely good to know that the alternative-energy meme is spreading beyond cars & houses.

Advice for Energy/Environment Activists

The combination of high gas prices, The Day After Tomorrow, and an already-active political season means that there will be plenty of opportunities for energy and environment activists to get some media play. Network-Centric Advocacy has a great article listing some short guidelines for making sure you get your point out there. The article is brief and well-worth reading as a whole, but here are the bullet points:

  • Develop your talking points. Make sure you know what you want to say and can say it in short, sound-byte-ready phrases.
  • Advocacy groups must get ready. If you're working on non-energy-related projects, shelve them to take advantage of the moment.
  • Prepare for success. (This is really crucial!) Be ready to take advantage of people in the media actually wanting to listen to what you have to say.
  • Rally your speakers. Be prepared to "smart mob" when opportunities arise, such as call-in radio shows about high gas prices.
  • Work the opportunity. Don't let the moment slide by.

"Perfect storm" moments like this don't come around very often. Take advantage of the situation!

May 22, 2004

The Transmetropolitan Collection

"One More Time," the final collection of Transmetropolitan stories, is now out. It finishes the story of journalist Spider Jerusalem in his fight against the corrupt President "Smiler" Callahan, set in a world a thousand times weirder -- and ultimately more realistic -- than most other popular science fiction (I first came up with the term "plausibly surreal," used here on WC to refer to futurism and scenarios, in reference to Transmet). Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, and Rodney Ramos have done a truly masterful job of bringing the characters and the world to life. I know I'm not the first to wish that we had a real Spider Jerusalem on the job right now.

If you haven't heard of Transmet, you're in for a real treat. It is -- was -- a comic book, and its run ended in late 2002. All 60 issues are now available in 10 softcover collections, from Spider's return from self-imposed exile away from The City to his last laugh. Along the way, you'll be startled, amused, quite possibly disgusted, very likely titillated, and always impressed at the creators' accomplishments.

Amazon has it, but if you live near an independent comic book store, you may want to check there first.

May 23, 2004

Citizen Lab

Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based in Toronto, Canada, looking at the intersection of digital media and civic activism. Functioning something as a DARPA for digital freedom, Citizen Lab serves as a seed-bed for a variety of very cool and interesting projects focusing on identifying, analyzing, and resisting efforts to censor and lock down information networks. Citizen Lab is the umbrella for a couple of other ongoing projects, Infowar Monitor and the OpenNet Initiative. Infowar Monitor, run in cooperation with the Cambridge Programme for Security in International Society, is a good resource if you're interested in ongoing developments in information and network-centric warfare; OpenNet Initiative, run with CPSIS and with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, looks more closely at censorship and surveillance.

The main site is a blog-like listing of updates about net surveillance, censorship, and the like, pulled from both mainstream and niche sources, along with links to its various projects. Aside from Infowar Monitor and OpenNet Initiative, Citizen Lab is also working on a project called "Rhizome," which will "remotely interrogate the networks of censoring countries and securely transfer the results to a database node network for analysis and storage" (responding to the fact that most filter systems, both commercial and governmental, keep the lists of what they censor secret), and a project called "Psiphon," a distributed proxy project to allow computer users in controlled regions to surf the web freely. If this latter one sounds familiar, it's because another project, Peek-a-Booty, took a similar approach. Peek-a-booty, unfortunately, appears to be dead; its site hasn't been updated since December, 2003.

For an infowar and sousveillance geek like me, the Citizen Lab site provides hours of fascinating reading. But one of the most powerful Citizen Lab-supported efforts linked from the site has little to do with computer networks, and will be compelling stuff for many WorldChanging readers. The Kandahar Chronicles tell the story of the day-to-day life of a Médicins Sans Frontières worker in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from August 2003 through February 2004. Good stuff.

May 24, 2004


Tav writes to tell us that the next "WTF" (WTF's the Future?) will be taking place this Saturday, May 29, at 11am, at the 491 Gallery, Leytonstone, London. From the site: "WTF is an open space gathering/conference of the various grassroots projects, people and organisations working together to create the worlds we want. Including: social progressives, thinkers, doers, visionaries, hackers, activists, artists, musicians, academics, scientists, professors, engineers, philosophers, performers, anyone-who-is-doing-cool-projects. As an incentive to get up so early on a saturday morning, we'll be serving everyone who arrives early with a free, delicious meal. And, to top if off, after the conference, there'll be a party-till-dawn with 6 live bands in the main gallery and film screenings in the cinema next door!"

You UK WorldChangers should definitely check this out -- the last WTF was apparently quite cool, and this one sounds even better. And if you do go, please write and let us know what you learned!

Green Power in NY

JP Reardon points us to the ConEd "Green Power" page, giving NY area power consumers the option of buying electricity from New Wind Energy, a renewable energy company which provides 25% wind/75% hydro power. Like most on-the-grid green power initiatives, choosing this option actually means that ConEd gets a fraction more of its power from the renewables than from traditional generators, not that you get a special hookup directly from the wind farms. Walter Simpson, energy officer at SUNY Buffalo, gives more details here. (Thanks, JP!)

Cleaner Trucking

There are 1.3 million long-haul trucks, diesel-powered rigs with sleeper cabs, on the American roads right now. By law, long-haul truckers are only allowed to drive for10 hours before needing an 8 hour rest period. During the down time, few truckers stay in motels -- they're too expensive, and leaves the cargo at risk of theft. Instead, they usually stay in their cabs, with the engine idling to power their various appliances (TVs, etc.) and their air conditioning/heaters.

Extended idling is a problem, though. Communities hate the noise. It shortens the life of engines. It eats fuel (and at current fuel prices, that's a serious problem). And it puts out a lot of pollution:

A single, standard heavy-duty diesel truck with a 425 horsepower, operated the standard 306 days a year, idling during legally required rest breaks and stopping for other reasons for 30 minutes per day produces 55,833 lbs. of emissions annually-solely from idling. These emissions include: 54,240 lbs. of carbon dioxide, 1,047 lbs. of nitrogen oxides, 396 lbs. of carbon monoxide, 110 lbs. of volatile organic compounds and 40 lbs. of particulate matter.

A company called IdleAire has an interesting solution. They provide an umbilical with plug-in power, Internet, phone, and TV services at truck stops, letting truckers use their various appliances, get online, stay warm/cool, etc., without having to idle their engines. It saves fuel -- about 1.0 - 1.1 gallons of diesel an hour per truck -- and eliminates engine noise and pollution. The power comes from the grid, so it's not pollution-free, but IdleAire estimates that there's an average net emissions reduction of 83%.

(For those of us who pay close attention to how environmental issues are portrayed in modern society, the IdleAire website is a fascinating case study of the mix of serious ecological awareness (they have the numbers down about the impact of diesel emissions on local communities) and trucker culture.)

Although truckers were ambivalent when the service was introduced in 2002 (see here, scroll down a bit), the rise of anti-idling ordinances in many cities (to cut noise and pollution) and the rising price of fuel have changed some minds. IdleAire is now in 14 locations, with another 16 under construction. They're also building out wireless hotspots for truckers (and other travelers) who want wireless when they stop for fuel & food on the road.

May 25, 2004

Watching Drought

We're now in the seventh year of drought in much of North America, and there are few signs that the situation will be changing any time soon. Across the American West, the snow pack -- the source of water through the summer months -- was only 40-75% of normal. Of course, "normal" may have been a historical aberration...

While the current drought run isn't yet as bad as the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s, despite our increased demand for water in agriculture and urban centers, the persistence of this condition is making a lot of people wonder what it would take to push us into another disaster. Fortunately, there's some really interesting work being done now in figuring out the climate mechanisms behind persistent droughts. Jennifer at WorldTurning points us to Why So Dry?, a non-specialist-friendly write-up produced by NASA's science news service describing how droughts work, how they connect with larger climate patterns (particularly El Niño/La Niña effects), and what more we need to learn.

One of the links from the NASA writeup is to the National Drought Mitigation Center's weekly Drought Monitor; the image at the top of this page is of the most recent map. The monitor page gives detailed analysis of current conditions and forecasts of upcoming changes, and provides animated maps of the last six weeks, twelve weeks, and year's drought.

As important as it is to understand drought as a geophysical condition, it's also a human event. If we can't change the weather, what can we do to mitigate drought effects? The Rocky Mountain Institute's "soft path" concept is one approach -- decentralize water systems, use green infrastructural systems to reclaim and reuse run-off and gray water, manage water demand more effectively, and distribute the best, most water-efficient technologies available as widely as possible -- but this may also be a time when the developed world can take a hint from the developing, and start looking at some unconventional approaches to using and acquiring water.

The End of Cheap Oil

I really wish National Geographic put the full text of their articles on their website (even if limited to subscribers). Unfortunately, they only provide teaser excerpts. The cover story of the latest issue of NG is "The End of Cheap Oil," and it's well-worth seeking out and reading. You can get a taste of it here, along with some very cool maps -- including a PDF showing the existing oil supplies left in the world, by country.

Solar Nanotech

Advances in solar cell technology just keep coming (see previous stories here, here, and here, among others). According to Technology Research News, a group of Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have figured out how to employ nanotechnological processes to improve solar cell energy production by up to 37 percent. By using lead selenium nanocrystals (measuring about 100 hydrogen atoms across), the LANL scientists could trigger a process called "impact ionization," which lets a photon move two electrons instead of one. Solar cells using lead selenium nanocrystals would have a potential conversion efficiency of 60 percent; most commercial solar cells max out at around 35 percent.

The LANL report, which is to appear in Physical Review Letters, suggests that cells using this technology could be practical in a couple of years. No word on cost or engineering difficulties yet, of course. I'm particularly curious as to whether this technique could be combined with the band-gap improvements developed by the UC/MIT/LLNL team last month.

May 27, 2004

Welcome, Slashdotters

Alex's interview with climate change scenarist Doug Randall got Slashdotted today, which means quite a few more visitors to this site. So far, we seem to be holding up. If you're new here, take a look around, poke through the archives, and let us know what you think!

Distributed Intelligence on the Highway

Automobile designers love to create "concept cars" -- vehicles which will never actually see the showroom floor, but demonstrate ways in which new technologies or design ideas can be implemented. Sometimes, the concept vehicle just looks like an oddly-muscular version of a modern car or truck, as if the designers were hoping for it to be included in the next Batman movie. And sometimes the concept car looks nothing like anything currently on the road, a design guaranteed to stop traffic. Such is the Toyota PM -- the "Personal Mobility" vehicle.

First unveiled at the Toyota Motor Show last October, the PM is a single-passenger electric vehicle designed to fit in a niche somewhere between the convenience of a motorcycle and the comfort of a regular car. The website "HowStuffWorks" has a good, heavily-illustrated write-up of how the PM is supposed to work, along with some previews of other Toyota concept cars (including the "Alessandro Volta," a hybrid sports car able to go 0-60 in 4 seconds and still get around 35 miles per gallon). While I doubt we'll see funky single-passenger cars like this on the road any time soon, even in small-car-friendly places like Japan and Europe, many of the innovations in the PM design will certainly find their way into actual production vehicles.

But while the science-fiction-styling and joystick controls may draw the initial interest, what leapt out at me was the description of the PM as a mobile networking device:

Continue reading "Distributed Intelligence on the Highway" »


I am not a religious person, and am not in the habit of looking at religious groups for innovative approaches to global problems. But Floresta is genuinely interesting: they focus on deforestation as both a manifestation and a symbol of global poverty, using microloans, training in sustainable agriculture, and the planting of trees as a way of helping out the poor in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico. While evangelism is part of their efforts, they emphasize on the site that participation in religious activities is not a prerequisite for their services. They've worked in nearly a hundred communities, made over 2,000 loans, and planted over two million trees. (Via Slacktivist)

May 28, 2004

The Inevitable "Day After Tomorrow" Review

We've talked about the movie enough, we should probably cough up the money to go see it. WorldChanging contributor reviews will be added to this entry. WC readers should offer up their own takes on the movie in the comments!

Jamais' Review: Two themes resonated throughout the pre-release reviews and previews of The Day After Tomorrow: the science is bad; the movie is bad. I had seen enough of these previews that I sat down in my seat this afternoon fully anticipating a very bad movie with borderline (at best) science -- sort of an Armageddon for the climate crowd. As a result, it's possible that my reaction is tainted by this preconception. I may have gone into the theater expecting to be not just disappointed, but annoyed.

But you know what? It's not that bad. It's more of a Deep Impact than an Armageddon -- I winced at the errors (and there are plenty), rolled by eyes at the Human Interest Stories (tm), and wished they'd spent more time on the aftermath than on the event itself.

Let me hasten to add that I'm not saying that the movie is plausible or realistic, although the presentations of the Actual Science parts of the movie were far better than I thought they'd be (the site Day After Tomorrow Facts does a good job separating out what in the movie is real science, and what is Hollywood -- the site is run by the Energy Future Coalition, a non-partisan but vaguely progressive group trying to come up with politically palatable solutions to global warming).

It's a typical disaster movie in most ways, so expect the usual inanities and melodrama substituting for plot. But it's a disaster movie which doesn't have a We Win! happy ending. We don't win. We've screwed up the planet, and now we have to deal with it. Although the recriminations are muddled, they don't require explanation -- the chagrined Vice President talks about overusing the planet's resources, not about disrupting its systems.

Inasmuch as the scientists are the closest thing to heroes in the movie, it's more about their being willing to accept new information and analysis, even if the knowledge is painful, than about one man trying to save his son. If there's a lesson to take away from the movie, it's that we can't wait until the real world disasters hit before taking action. For me, one of the most enjoyable moment came when the NOAA scientists brief the White House, and the VP snaps at Our Hero, "You just do your science, let us handle the policy," and the NOAA director fires back, "if you had listened to the scientists, you would have had a different policy to begin with!"

Jon's Review: The Day After Tomorrow is a summer blockbuster and a terrific example of Emmerich's goofy repurposing of various sci-fi/action genres of the past - not necessarily B-movies, as some reviewers say. Irwin Allen's films weren't B-movies, and Allen's films are the obvious precursors of this film. George Pal also comes to mind. Allen and Pal and others like them made popcorn films, entertainments that were loud, fast, and contingent on a strong-willed suspension of disbelief. The stories were formulaic and the characters lacked dimension but the acting was pretty good, and if you could forget reason for a while, you'd have a pretty good time. These films often depended on big special effects and rollercoaster plots. Emmerich's got this down, and a couple of his films, Stargate and Independence Day, are classics of the popcorn genre. The Day After Tomorrow is great popcorn. I felt the tension and I let myself believe for the whole couple of hours, even the schmaltz, even though Donnie Darko kept popping up in every other scene. However as a scare film about global warming, DAT doesn't cut it, because it trivializes a very real threat. I won't say more (it's kind of a spoiler). If you see the film, though, you'll get what I'm saying.

Emily's review: I have never been taken with Roland Emmerich's tone-deaf pastiches of past sci-fi flicks. Still, I can enjoy a good popcorn movie on its own terms (Mission to Mars! The Fifth Element! Troy!), and I was curious about how effective TDAT might be as an eco-parable. Movies like Silent Running had a profound effect on me as a kid. Would TDAT be that kind of movie for a new generation?

Well, I doubt it (but please, tell me otherwise in the comments). The movie's point of view about the climate disaster is muddled--humans are certainly pegged as the cause, but "nature's awesome destructive power" is mentioned as well, as if Nature is a villain in the supporting cast. Which it is, I suppose.

A late view of the Earth from space, the classic Apollo perspective, seems intended to leave us feeling reassured--look, it's all still there, and the air is clearer than ever! Even though the last two hours have depicted an artificially-induced Ice Age engulfing the northern hemisphere.

A few marginal characters we don't care about are predictably killed off, equivalents of Star Trek security guards: beaned by giant hailstones, flash-frozen, squashed by flying debris or swept away by tornados. With a prudery odd for this genre, characters we come to know marginally better all seem to die off-camera. (Compare this to one of Emmerich's source films, The War of the Worlds, in which we see central, sympathetic characters disintegrated by Martians, or attacked by rioters. The seeming randomness of the violence is more shocking, the potential End of Civilization more visceral, and the impact on other characters more fully felt. Emmerich himself managed to carry this through a little better in his WotW remake, Independence Day.)

At one point, we see two keepers at a New York zoo, concerned and perplexed because all their charges are freaking out. Animals, being Of Nature, feel these sudden catastrophic global climate shifts coming, doanchaknow. Ah, I thought, this is the set-up for a heart-tugging irony, in which these animals, sequestered in a zoo for safety and preservation, are nonetheless victims of humanity's destructive shortsightedness. Maybe they're even the stand-ins for what we can imagine happening to vulernable wilderness and wildlife--the Earth's vital biodiversity--as the ice and storm advance. But, no: it's a set-up for the escape of some CGI "timber wolves" (stand-ins for Nature's evil menace since the Brother Grimm, if not before), the better to menace the Leading Scientist's Son as He Fights for Survival later on in the film. Presumably they are all flash-frozen for their trouble.

On the plus side: A few jokes about First World/Third World relations hit their targets. A major motion picture pokes at the Bush administration. This movie probably doesn't make things any worse for the general state of science fiction films. The scientists are the good guys, and gals. TDAT has been the catalyst for great mainstream news reporting on the realities of climate change. Some good actors have presumably made enough money here to do a year or two of independent films.

No real continents were harmed during the making of this motion picture.

May 29, 2004

Sustainable City Development in Portugal

The World Wildlife Fund and Bioregional have announced plans to develop a massive eco-tourism and sustainable community program in Portugal:

The development is part of an overall project that covers an area of 5,300 hectares and brings together sustainable housing, nature conservation, reforestation and ecofriendly transport. Work will begin over the next few months on the 6,000-house, €1billion scheme in Mata de Sesimbra, just south of Lisbon. 

The project sounds interesting, and builds off of the BedZED concept also developed by Bioregional. The "One Planet Living Programme" will demonstrate one model for living a comfortable, modern lifestyle within a "single planet" footprint. To that end, the project description at Bioregional includes the following guidelines:

One Planet Living Communities will adopt the following guiding principles:
  1. Zero carbon
  2. Zero waste
  3. Sustainable transport
  4. Sustainable and local materials
  5. Local food
  6. Water efficiency
  7. Conservation of flora and fauna
  8. Respect for Cultural heritage
  9. Equity and fair trade
  10. Happy and healthy lifestyles

This community will be one of five globally, each housing around 5,000 people.

About May 2004

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

April 2004 is the previous archive.

June 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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