« May 2004 | Main | July 2004 »

June 2004 Archives

June 2, 2004

Open Source Voting Revisited

We've talked about electronic voting and the need for the inherent transparency of open source to make e-voting trustable before, so it's good to see the notion get some mainstream play. The New York Times Magazine had a good article this last weekend making the case for the need for open source for electronic elections.

Sensors Under the Ice

Understanding is the first step to action.

When it comes to climate change, better information is critical. We have good models, and our data sets are improving, but the climate is a dynamic non-linear system: we need large amounts of data from key climate tipping points in order to build better predictions. Among these key climate tipping points are the Arctic glaciers. Sea-level changes, shifts in average temperatures, and level of salt in the North Atlantic all have visible manifestations in glacial conditions.

The University of Southampton's GLACSWEB team uses pervasive sensor networks in the Briksdalsbreen glacier in Norway in order to study the effects of climate change on glaciers. The GLACSWEB sensors -- the current model is shown above -- are buried at the base of the glacier, at the sedimentary layer about 60 meters under the surface. The probes have short range radios, but can communicate with each other, eventually hopping to a base station on the surface of the glacier, which directs the data to a home server.

The University's press release has the basic information; the University's Persephone (Queen of the Underworld) site has more details about autonomous probe networks; the GLACSWEB site includes a great deal of technical information, as well as fantastic photographs and videos from the 2003 trip to the glacier.

The GLACSWEB project is a test for expanded use of these probelet networks for ecosystem study, such as coastal and flood monitoring. The sensors are small and cheap enough for easy distribution, but smart enough to be able to respond to changing conditions (such as probes going offline or being moved). The GLACSWEB program isn't the only environmental sensor project around; we've covered other projects, as well.

(Via Smart Mobs)

Lab On A Chip

Speaking of sensors, what do you do if you want your autonomous probe network to be able to monitor something other than salinity, temperature, or humidity? Monitor something biological, perhaps? NASA has something for you, a lab-on-a-chip designed to work in extreme environments on Earth, and eventually to go to Mars:

NASA researchers are developing complex, portable microarray diagnostic chips to test for all the genes and DNA responsible for determining the traits of a particular organism, detect specific types of organisms, or use biosensor-like probes such as antibodies to detect molecules of interest. By applying this technology in laboratories and in the field where organisms live in extreme environments on Earth, astrobiologists can compare Earth-life with that which may be found on other planets.

"The micro array chip system developed to go to Mars will be lightweight, portable and capable of detecting organic molecules," says Dr. Lisa Monaco, the project scientist for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program.  "This instrumentation can easily be adapted for monitoring crew health and their environment."

Such biosensing technology could have broad applications in agriculture, environmental research, healthcare, and (in particular) security, with the ability to detect trace amounts of pathogens. Not to mention helping us figure out if Mars actually does have life on it...

Talk Energy

Talk Energy is a new discussion and news site focusing on alternative energy use for home and transportation. Based on slashcode, the discussion system used at Slashdot, Talk Energy mixes energy-related headlines, alternative power product reviews, classified ads, and a place for you innovative types to toss your ideas out for group evaluation. They're aiming for a million members, so check 'em out!

June 3, 2004

Banking on the Environment

It may be inching towards Transcommercialism, it may be greenwashing, it may even just be good policy, but Bank of America now has environmental policies which appear to be heading down the right path:

We, at Bank of America, recognize that climate change and atmospheric pollution represent a risk to the ultimate stability and sustainability of our way of life. Bank of America is committed to addressing climate change issues even more so today, when we believe we can set real and achievable targets for greenhouse gas reductions in both our operations as well as investment opportunities

Goals for their environmental policies include: a 7% across-the-board reduction in greenhouse gases from both their own operations and the operations of their energy & utility investments by 2008; emphasize investments in efficiency and renewable energy; a blanket prohibition of lending to business operations that extract from rain forests and World Resources Institute "intact forest" sites; a prohibition of doing business with companies that directly or indirectly benefit from illegal logging operations; and more.

As corporate efforts go, these are worth applauding, but are hardly revolutionary. Nonetheless, it's good to see a major institution (and banks like B of A pretty much define traditional and conservative) openly embrace the need to do something about climate change and environmental degradation. It also adds to my suspicion that American governmental compliance with global enviro guidelines (like Kyoto) may eventually be moot, as more corporate entities decide on their own to make changes -- because of the need to comply with European rules, because of a perception of what the American market wants, or even because it's the right thing to do...

"Enertia" Homes

Enertia founder Michael Sykes wrote to us suggesting that we check out his company. Using sustainable design principles and green materials, Enertia promises homes which can save on power costs, will last far longer than most present-day houses, and do relatively little harm to the planet while they're around. At least according to the site's info, that is; have any of you built or lived in an Enertia home?

Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!

If you find this article valuable, please support WorldChanging. We are a nonprofit website, and are able to continue our operations largely through your donations. You may also find our other pieces on tools, models and ideas for building a better future useful. Check 'em out!

How come nobody sells a hybrid diesel car?

For those of you familiar only with the sooty smoke belching from older big-rig trucks or the foul smells from 1970s diesel cars, the question may come as a surprise. But modern diesel engine design coupled with the much-cleaner types of diesel fuel increasingly available (particularly "biodiesel") make diesel vehicles a surprisingly environmentally-friendly choice. Diesel-hybrid-electrics would be an obvious positive development. So why don't we see them?

I suppose the answer varies depending upon where you are. In the US, the diesel fuel available in most locations remains the old, dirty, high-sulfur variety, so a hybrid diesel actually wouldn't be a significant improvement in emissions; once low-sulfur regulations take effect in 2006, this may change. In Europe, where advanced-technology "clean" diesel autos are one-third to one-half of the auto market and growing, some diesel cars already get mileage roughly equivalent to hybrids, so I suspect there's simply less demand.

The irony is that diesel hybrids could be far more efficient and clean than anything now on the market, without any leaps in technology. The combination of modern clean diesel engines, Prius-style serial hybrid-electric systems, and biodiesel/vegetable oil fuels could provide amazing mileage, cleaner air, and vastly reduced petroleum dependency. Comfortable, powerful sedans could get upwards of 80 miles per gallon and be carbon-neutral.

(More in the extended entry...)

Continue reading "Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!" »

June 4, 2004

G8 vs. G20+ on Renewables

Reports are coming in from the Renewables 2004 conference in Bonn, Germany, of behind the scenes struggles over the use of timetables and specific goals for the expanded use of renewable energy. The conference is supposed to produce consensus "policy recommendations" outlining what countries should be doing to shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of power. While foot-dragging from the United States comes as little surprise, the US was joined by Canada, Japan, and France (among others) in resisting calls from developing nations in Asia, including China and the Phillippines, for concrete targets.

As for the action plan, "we are seeing weak political commitment from the EU," WWF International spokeswoman Mitzi Borromeo told AFP.

"It looks as if the EU is failing in its commitment to go beyond 2010," she said, referring to the European Union's current goal of having renewables meet more than 22 percent of its energy needs by the end of the decade.

"The way things look at the moment, Asia could overtake Europe on its commitment to renewable energies."

According to a spokesperson from WorldWatch Insitute, China has committed to generating 20 gigawatts of its power from wind by 2020.


A final reminder: WorldChanging Happy Hour (#1) is tonight from 5pm to 8pm! Synchronize your watches!

June 8, 2004

WorldChanging News

Thanks to everyone who showed up to the WorldChanging Happy Hour last Friday; as the photos here suggest, the event was quite the success. We got to meet some new friends in person for the first time, hook up with some old friends we hadn't seen in years, and get to meet people who -- whether or not they were WorldChanging readers -- were definitely allies in spirit. I'm told that the festivities continued well after the "official" end point. For those of you who couldn't make it, fear not: this was only the first of many gatherings of people who want to enjoy the world and change it at the same time.

If I cannot dance, I want no part in your revolution. -- Emma Goldman

If posts by Alex and myself don't seem to be as rampant as they have in weeks past, don't worry. Alex is taking the month of June to finish his book, spending his days locked away in a quiet spot without a net connection. His contributions will be sporadic for the next few weeks. While I don't have a book to complete, I do have some behind-the-scenes technical stuff to work on for the site, now that I'm back after a couple of short trips. If WC starts to look a bit different in the coming days, you'll know I'm hard at work.

Fortunately, the WorldChanging contributors are ably making sure that the site continues to bring you interesting news and ideas about building a better world. Thank you -- WC wouldn't be the same without you!

Chinese Wikipedia

For the 10th anniversary of China going online, PCWorld has a fascinating report about the growth of the "Chinese Wikipedia." Wikipedia is the collaboratively-edited online encyclopedia, with over 260,000 entries in English (and over 600,000 entries across 50 languages). (We've talked about wikis and Wikipedia before.) The Chinese Wikipedia, which uses the simplified mainland Chinese characters, now has 9,000 entries, including such potentially-sensitive topics as Tiananmen Square.

So far, the Chinese Wikipedia, which has been around since 2001, has managed to avoid being censored or firewalled off by the Beijing government. This could be because officials aren't yet aware of the project, or because the editors take great pain to keep the entries neutral in presentation.

One reason why Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be the site's insistence that all entries reflect a neutral point of view, a policy that defines all Wikipedia versions in other languages. The neutral point of view is intended to avoid editing wars between contributors competing to impose their interpretation of various subjects on other readers.

"The site is not blocked en masse at the site level because its not obviously pro or against anything because of the neutral point of view policy," says Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

Perhaps. I suspect it's more likely that the government simply isn't yet paying close attention to the Wikipedia and its implications. I visited China in 1997, a time when many local officials were hungry to get their communities hooked onto the Internet. At that time, the desire to take advantage of what the online world had to offer (in both business and information) wrestled with the fear of the wild, chaotic nature of the net. In the subsequent seven years, this struggle for balance has not let up. The Chinese Wikipedia could well be a "canary in the coal mine" for Chinese online freedom, and is definitely worth watching.

(Via Many-to-Many)

June 9, 2004

Simulating a Spill

You want to test new techniques for cleaning up ocean oil spills, but don't want to dump oil into the water -- what do you do? If you're the Norweigian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies, you use popcorn instead. It turns out that popcorn, once it absorbs water, forms an emulsion that mimics the behavior of oil in ocean currents... and any bits that don't get cleaned up in the test provide a tasty snack for wildlife.

(Via World Turning)

Free Software Is Not About Money

Simon Phipps, Chief Technology Evangelist at Sun Microsystems, attended the just-concluded FISL conference -- the 5th International Forum on Free Software -- in Porto Alegre, Brazil. His blogged reports from FISL are brief, but interesting, and one in particular stands out: "FISL: A Government that Gets It."

They understand the real issue - it's about sovereignty. They no longer want to funnel Brazil's wealth abroad when they have a growing and excellent software community of their own. They want local people to provide service and write software for the government and industry. They want local skills to enrich the F/OSS world and build exportable skills. They have a vision for how to both enrich the culture and skills of their country while creating a power-house for the export of services in the future. They get it.

We couldn't agree more.

My Rights. To Go.

It's a bit gimmicky, sure, but the idea of adding a copy of the US Constitution to your iPod holds a certain appeal. The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy is making the Constitution available as an iPod "Notes" file (which, sadly, doesn't work with the ancient first generation iPods -- sorry, early adopters, like me) for easy portability and quick reference. One wishes that certain members of the current administration had a deeper familiarity with the text; perhaps this will help.


Cyburbia calls itself an "urban planning portal," a resource for urban design students, professionals, and self-described "planning geeks." Since that last phrase definitely describes many of us here at WorldChanging, Cyburbia is a worthy addition to the worldchanger's bookmark list. I expect to be returning to it often.

Cyburbia is a classic web portal -- it indexes and links to thousands of planning and urbanism-related websites organized by subject matter and focus. The site also houses active web forums on urban planning, as well as photo galleries of both the best and the worst in city design. While sustainability and sustainable urban design are not the focus of Cyburbia, they are part of the bigger picture embraced by Cyburbia.

Cyburbia is a volunteer effort, built and maintained with no profit-making intent. It's been around, in various forms, for nearly a decade. While it's not the biggest planning-related site around, it's arguably the best. If you have the slightest interest in urban design, it's definitely worth adding to your bookmarks.

June 10, 2004

Server Difficulties

If you tried to visit WorldChanging earlier today, you probably noticed that it wasn't here. The server that WC lives on suffered a hard crash this morning; unfortunately, it's taken most of the day to recover it. Having been on the tech support side of a crash like this in the past, I know that the good people at Laughing Squid did everything they could to get the site up and running again as soon as possible. However, just in case there are any lingering effects, we're going to hold off on any postings today (aside from this one) just to make certain nothing gets lost.

Thanks for your patience!

June 11, 2004

Singularity Pre-Readings

WC Ally #1 Bruce Sterling, as noted earlier, is speaking tonight in San Francisco on The Singularity: Your Life As A Black Hole. His talk is part of the Long Now Foundation's seminar series. We can't say often enough how much we enjoy hearing Bruce give a talk -- he really is one of the finest, most engaging, public speakers around.

His talk will look at the notion of the "Singularity" -- a point in the (potentially very near) future where technological and social change happen so quickly and so profoundly that it's impossible to understand, let alone predict, what life would be like. Once we hit the Singularity, all bets are off. In case the subject matter is unfamiliar to you -- or you just want to get the more obscure references he throws in -- here are some useful articles and essays to have under your belt before hearing tonight's talk. All are from the final, unreleased issue of Whole Earth magazine, focusing on the Singularity:

  • Vernor Vinge is generally credited with first identifying the point of massive change as the "Singularity" in this article: The Technological Singularity (PDF)
  • Alex Steffen edited the Singularity issue of Whole Earth magazine. His introductory essay (2 parts, PDF) gives a good overview of the current debate about the possibility.
  • Charlie Stross wrote an essay for the magazine discussing some of the implications of singularity-level technologies on surveillance and social control, The Panopticon Singularity.
  • Bruce Sterling, in that issue of Whole Earth, describes ways in which it might be averted (2 parts, PDF).
  • And my article for that issue, Open the Future argues that the best way to ensure that a Singularity happens in a way that benefits all of us is to make certain that its underlying technologies are open and distributed.

    In addition: Long Now has now made audio recordings of previous Seminars available for free download, in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats (FLAC and Speex available on some). If you can't make Bruce's talk for some reason (like not being in San Francisco), we'll let you know when the recording is available.

  • California Plans to Reduce Carbon

    Even if Washington DC isn't interested in reducing greenhouse gases, California is. According to the Los Angeles Times (and republished by ClimateArk.org), "California plans to require automobile manufacturers to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in new cars by nearly 30% over the next decade as it implements the first regulation in the world to tackle tailpipe exhaust linked to global warming." The details will be outlined on Monday by the California Air Resources Board (CARB); historically, other states have followed California's lead on pollution controls, and even Canada is watching to see how well this works.

    (Via Earth Blog)

    Personal Panopticons, Only $400

    DejaView GlassesDon't say we didn't warn you. According to C|Net, the consumer electronics company Deja View will soon begin production on a wearable camcorder design. The system constantly buffers the last 30 seconds of whatever you're looking at, and can save the buffer to permanent storage at the press of a button.

    Anyone who dismisses this item because of its obvious limitations (bulky camera and cable, clumsy belt-pack storage, 4 hour battery life, 30 second buffer, no ability to wirelessly send signals, no ability to play back recordings on the spot) hasn't been paying attention, and should be cursed to wander the Earth using circa-1990 cellular phones and video cameras. This version is ugly, ungainly, and far too limited -- but it's a harbinger of things to come. We're close to the era of "Personal Memory Assistants," and should start thinking now about what we do and don't want them to be able to do.

    (Via engadget)

    The Economist On Open Source Biology

    This week's Economist has a detailed article on the use of open source methods in the world of bio-pharmaceutical research. It's currently available without registration or subscription, and I highly recommend that you go read it.

    We've talked about "open source biotech" a number of times in the past (see in particular "Open Source Biology" and "Democratizing DNA", and more broadly "Redistributing the Future" and "Open the Future"), but this article approaches the idea from a somewhat different perspective, focusing on the (relatively) narrow issue of drug research:

    Open-source research could indeed, it seems, open up two areas in particular. The first is that of non-patentable compounds and drugs whose patents have expired. These receive very little attention from researchers, because there would be no way to protect (and so profit from) any discovery that was made about their effectiveness. [...]

    The second area where open source might be able to help would be in developing treatments for diseases that afflict small numbers of people, such as Parkinson's disease, or are found mainly in poor countries, such as malaria. In such cases, there simply is not a large enough market of paying customers to justify the enormous expense of developing a new drug.

    The article discusses the challenges of adopting an open source-style research method, from logistics to issues of patents vs. copyright (in short: copyright makes it easier to put "reciprocal openness" requirements on a collaborative creation, while patents generally work better as "public domain"), but strongly supports the idea that expansion of the open source methodology would be a good thing -- no "open source terrorist" boogeymen appear.

    It's very clear that the open source meme is taking hold in the world of bio-pharma research as symbolizing doing work that needs to be done without worrying about bottom-line demands:

    Dr Lansbury refers to the work as “not-for-profit drug discovery”, but he sees direct parallels with the open-source approach. For one thing, his group places much of its data in the public domain. Secondly, though the research is mainly happening among different research labs within the confines of Harvard at the moment, the goal is to involve other scientists around the world. Only through this sort of collaborative, distributed approach will treatments be found for these diseases, he says. As for the intellectual property that may be created, the goal is to use patents only to license treatments cheaply to pharmaceutical companies to ensure a supply of drugs at low cost. But the most important thing is to discover the drugs in the first place—something commercial drug-development seems unable to do.

    Open source, the idea, is bigger than software, is more than an alternative economic/production model. Read the article, and ask yourself: in what other realms of research and development could the open source concept be applied?

    Wireless in London

    Informal, a UK group which apparently focuses on wireless free networking, has a detailed and fascinating report on the growth and diversity of WiFi in the greater London area entitled "The State of Wireless London." It documents the growth of wireless networking, and compares networks built by "freenetwork" groups to those built by commercial providers. The snazzy maps and detailed documentation are both cool and impressive.

    (Via SmartMobs)

    Impact of Power Plant Pollution

    Map of Pollution ImpactThe National Campaign Against Dirty Power has an interactive map showing the annual deaths per 100,000 adults attributable to the pollution coming from power plants. The statistics are based on research done for the EPA (PDF). Unsurprisingly, areas which rely heavily on coal power fare the worst.

    The interactive map has a couple of key features. You can click on a state for specific information on emissions and health, as well as links to source data and policy recommendations. Some state maps include information for particular urban locations, such as Los Angeles and Houston. You can also see the effects of implementing the various proposed clean air plans, from the administration's "Clear Skies" program (which helps, but not by much) to "faithful implementation of the Clean Air Act" (which helps a bit more) to the "Clean Power Act" proposed by Senators Jeffords, Lieberman, and Collins (which has fairly dramatic results).

    A PDF listing the key emissions provisions of each proposal can be found here.

    June 12, 2004

    The Singular Quote

    Bruce's talk last night rocked, as usual, and even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions, you have to admire the way he makes his case. The talk -- which lasted for well over an hour -- was filled with pithy comments and trenchant observations. For me, though, his best line of the night was his closer, as it's an idea which is embedded in everything we do here at WorldChanging:

    "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb."

    June 14, 2004

    The Canary's Dead

    On June 8, I posted an article about the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia. I finished the article by suggesting that its continued availability in mainland China could be due to the Beijing government not yet being aware of it, and that "The Chinese Wikipedia could well be a 'canary in the coal mine' for Chinese online freedom." Little did I know that the canary was already dead.

    According to IT World.com, Chinese censors shut down all access to the Chinese language version of Wikipedia on June 3, and cut access to all forms of Wikipedia (regardless of language) yesterday. A Chinese contributor to Wikipedia quoted in the article says that it was probably the combination of the Tiananmen Square anniversary on June 4 and the uptick in press attention to zh.wikipedia.com that led the censors to crack down.

    This isn't entirely surprising. The first comment about our Chinese Wikipedia article came from WorldChanging ally David Bowers, who lives in China, indicating that he couldn't access Wikipedia, and speculating that access had already been cut. Looks like you were right, David. Do let us know, if you can, if the censors get around to cutting WorldChanging access, too...

    Update: This is precisely the situation for which Peek-a-booty is the solution. And while the project isn't yet in operation, I am pleased to say that, contrary to my earlier supposition, it's not dead.

    Antarctic Ice Cores

    AntarcticaClimatologists have long used ice core samples from Greenland to measure climate changes over the last hundred thousand years or so. But according to the BBC, a group of scientists under the banner of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, or EPICA, managed to pull a three kilometer-long ice core from Antarctica, revealing the pattern of climate change over the past 740,000 years. By studying gases trapped in the ice, these cores can tell us a great deal about changes to the temperature and atmospheric composition for much of the last million years.

    The BBC article gives a good summary, but the article in the June 10 issue of Nature is available here (PDF). The article is brief, but informative. One of the interesting take-aways is the conclusion that the current "inter-glacial era" we live in is likely to go on, absent human disruption, for another 15,000 years, due to the position of the Earth's orbit. Most previous inter-glacials lasted no more than 10,000 years (and it's been about 12,000 years since the last ice age). The last time we saw a long-duration inter-glacial era was around 420,000 years ago; that one lasted for 28,000 years.

    A more troubling bit of information from the research concerns CO2 levels. There is a very strong correlation of CO2 concentrations and average air temperature. At the peak of the previous similar inter-glacial period, CO2 concentrations increased to around 275-280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), up from a minimum of 200 ppmv in the previous glacial era. Measurements of CO2 concentrations on Mauna Loa from 1958 to 1998 show a growth of CO2 levels from 316 ppmv to 369 ppmv (it's a bit higher now). While we've known for awhile now that current CO2 levels are much higher than in the pre-industrial period, this is the first time we've been able to measure CO2 concentrations for such an extended period of time, and directly compare them to the last long-period inter-glacial era.

    June 15, 2004

    Listen to Bruce

    That was quick -- LongNow has the audio recording of Bruce's speech last Friday up already. You can download it in MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and FLAC formats, but beware -- these are not small files (the MP3 is 66MB, for example).

    (Thanks for the heads-up, Stefan!)

    Update: Zander Rose, of Long Now, says in the comments:

    We are getting slammed with downloads right now (morning of 6/16). We are working on finding a larger pipe to serve this out of now...


    Horsehead Nebula, from Rent-A-ScopeI've written about what might happen when digital-imaging telescopes get connected to the Internet. With the advent of good CCD-based cameras and digital motion controls, hooking a telescope up to the net is a fairly straightforward task. But while I mused about a peer-to-peer network of digital scopes, I didn't think about a different model: the telescope as mainframe.

    Arnie Rosner, however, saw the possibilities inherent in connecting a big, expensive telescope to the net. Four telescopes, in fact. In the dark skies of New Mexico, all available for rent over the web. Once you schedule your time, all you need to do is enter in the name of what you want to see and the telescope slews to it. You can take long-exposure CCD images, just sit back and watch, or even hop from object to object.

    These telescopes are far beyond what an interested hobbyist would be able to use, beyond what even some academic astronomers can regularly get their hands on. Even if you had the resources, if you live in an area without clear, dark skies, the images available through these scopes would never be possible. In years past, only a small number of people could control telescopes like these; now, with the web, anyone can. If you would love to be able to do deep-sky photography, or even just gaze upon "live" (if speed-of-light-delayed) images of stellar and galactic objects, you can now do so without spending tens of thousands of dollars.

    While seeing the colors of a star-cradling nebula or the fossil light from galaxies which died out long before humans ever evolved on Earth may not grant you insights in how to change the world, it is a humbling experience, one we all should have.

    (Image from Rent-a-Scope)

    Quantum Computer Simulator

    Speaking of web access to cool technology, the Fraunhaofer Institute in Germany has made a Quantum Computer Simulator available online, allowing you to test how various problems can be solved using a 27 qubit quantum computer. Do let us know if you do something cool with it...

    National Academy of Sciences Museum and Global Warming

    Frequently, when we post articles and essays about climate change, we get comments expressing some doubts about the reality of global warming. While some would refuse to accept any evidence offered, many of these commenters seem honest in their protestations that they haven't seen the evidence all put together in a way that makes sense. I haven't had a good pointer for them -- combining serious science, mainstream sources, and compelling presentation -- until now.

    The Marain Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences is a new Washington DC landmark, having just opened in April. Its focus is on the science underpinning current public policy debates, and its exhibits will remain on display for two years before touring around the country. (If you're unfamiliar with the National Academy of Sciences, it is a non-profit organization given a mandate by Congress in 1863 to provide high-quality, non-partisan advice to the federal government. Yes, 1863.)

    One of the three exhibits at the KSM is "Global Warming Facts and Our Future," and the online version is one of the best presentations of the science surrounding global warming-induced climate change I've ever seen. The online exhibit -- a mix of HTML and Flash -- lays out the argument for global warming in a straightforward but compelling way. Each phase is well-illustrated and detailed:

  • The Greenhouse Effect
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Causes of Change
  • Past Change
  • Predicted Change
  • Impacts of Change
  • Responses to Chage

    Note in particular the page discussing human activities as the major cause of global warming. The presentation includes exercises where visitors can make policy choices, and see the balancing required between economic and environmental concerns. One of the best aspects of the presentation is that it doesn't try to brush points of scientific dispute under the rug; it details how major models disagree on certain points, and what that means.

    I doubt this exhibit will change the minds of those who are in denial, but if you -- or someone you know -- has questions about global warming, how it works, how we know what we know, and what we can do about it, this is a good place to start.

  • June 16, 2004

    Fiat Lux

    Farhad Manjoo at Salon has a great piece in today's issue (if you're not a subscriber, a brief ad will play) looking at the inefficiency-masked-in-familiarity of the modern light bulb, and what we can do about it. He talks about the origins of the modern version of the compact flourescent bulb, but focuses most of his attention on LEDs as an alternative -- something we were on top of that several months ago.

    Why is getting rid of the incandescent bulb a good idea?

    Replacing incandescents with more efficient lighting will undoubtedly be good for the planet. According to researchers at the Sandia Labs, one-fifth of all the electricity produced in the world is used for lighting. Doubling the average efficiency of white-light lamps -- through LEDs or fluorescents -- could reduce global electricity consumption by 10 percent and carbon emissions by 200 million tons a year.

    One interesting point of comparison mentioned in the article is the lumens-per-watt rating for different lighting types. Incandescent bulbs rate about 12 lumens per watt. Halogen are somewhat more efficient, coming in at 15-17 lumens. A "warm white" LED, which produces light similar to incandescent bulbs, produces 22-25 lumens/watt; a "cool white" LED, which is a harsher white more akin to an old-style flourescent, rates about 35 lumens. Flourescent lights, though, remain the champions, putting out (depending upon type) 50-100 lumens for every watt consumed.

    Since incandescents use 90% of their energy to put out heat, not light, adopting alternative light sources wherever possible is a pretty good idea.

    So Long, Grey Goo?

    I've never been particularly worried about the threat of "grey goo" -- self-replicating nanomachines devouring everything in their path. Anything that tore apart and reassembled the physical world fast enough to be truly dangerous would likely cook itself from the heat output. But ever since the nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler mentioned the possibility in his seminal nanotech manifesto, The Engines of Creation, out of control nanoassemblers have become a staple of bad sci-fi and easily-startled doomsayers alike. Still, it's good to see that Dr. Drexler (along with Chris Phoenix from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) have published a paper spelling out precisely why free-range nanoassemblers, goo-making or otherwise, are simply not needed for the imminent nanotech revolution.

    The article, Safe Exponential Manufacturing, will be freely available from the Institute of Physics electronic journals page until July 9. It's a PDF, and you'll have to create a free account on the site to get access to it. For those of you not interested in making that effort, this press release from CRN summarizes the argument.

    Contrary to previous understanding, self-replication is unnecessary for building an efficient and effective molecular manufacturing system. Instead of building lots of tiny, complex, free-floating robots to manufacture products, it will be more practical to use simple robot arms inside desktop-size factories. A robot arm removed from such a factory would be as inert as a light bulb pulled from its socket. The factory as a whole would be no more mobile than a desktop printer and would require a supply of purified raw materials to build anything.

    “An obsession with obsolete science-fiction images of swarms of replicating nanobugs has diverted attention from the real issues raised by the coming revolution in molecular nanotechnologies,” said Drexler.

    This said, I doubt that the grey goo meme will go away. If anything, it serves as an unpleasant metaphor for the the potentially serious disruption full-bore molecular nanotechnology would unleash upon the economy, and will keep us all on our toes about potential military applications of nanoengineering (even if it's only used to produce cheap, non-replicating hardware). Still, it's good to know that, even if the meme exists, the threat doesn't.

    BBC Opens the Archives

    Wired notes that the BBC will soon open its vast archives, starting with nature programming, to web consumers. Only in the UK, though; people coming in from foreign IP addresses will be blocked. The article is particularly interesting in its detailing of just what a "content owner" actually has to go through in the current world of intellectual property regulations to make something like this available for use.

    Copyright in Canada

    Speaking of intellectual property, Canada is going through its own struggles with just how to balance the rights of IP users and the rights of IP owners (which, despite the common confusion, are *not* necessarily the IP creators). The report from the Canadian Parliament's so-called Bulte committee came down strongly on the side of owners. Toronto Star columnist Michael Geist has written a series of essays about copyright in Canada that are well worth reading, even if you're not a resident of the Great White North: Will Copyright Reform Chill Use Of Web? (May 31); and Copyright Reform Needs A Balanced Approach (June 14).


    The United States is not the only country with a petroleum consumption habit that needs to be kicked. Australia is pretty ravenous, as well, and only its relatively sparse population keeps it out of the headlines as a sustainability nightmare. Nonetheless, the students at the University of Western Australia's Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics department have decided to take an important step, and build Australia's first native-born renewable energy vehicle, one intended to take into account Australia's unique conditions, particularly the long distances between cities.

    We have decided to do something about this dilemma by creating The University of Western Australia Renewable Energy Vehicle Project (UWA REV Project). The project aims to demonstrate the use of renewable energy for personal transport by researching, designing and constructing a lightweight vehicle from the ground up. It will be powered principally by hydrogen fuel cells, with additional energy to power electrical systems provided by solar cells mounted on the body of the vehicle. The vehicle will be a single or possibly 2-seater with some luggage space, and as a result of its renewable energy drivetrain, will produce nothing but harmless water vapour from its exhaust.


    Solar panels have also been included in the design as this first vehicle will be a long-distance tourer which will cover vast distances in full sunlight, providing a useful additional supply of electricity to be stored in batteries to power electrical systems. Many other technologies, such as “memory” motors, regenerative braking, lightweight composite materials and LED lighting will be used to maximize energy efficiency. Such vehicles have sometimes been referred to as a “tribrid” (as opposed to a hybrid) in that it has three sources of power; hydrogen, electricity (collected by regenerative braking) and solar.

    The energy/efficiency website Talk Energy has a feature article covering the key elements of the story. The UWA-REV team plans on taking its prototype vehicle on a 14,500 km test run around the circumference of Australia in February of 2006; this distance is roughly equivalent to a year's travel for the average Australian. While they intend to begin work next month, UWA-REV is looking for additional sponsors.

    The eventual shift from petroleum/hydrocarbon to a direct hydrogen economy is almost pre-ordained; the big question is when. But just who will be positioned to take that leap first is another important question that isn't asked as often. There is something of an assumption that one of the big three US automakers, Honda or Toyota, or possibly Audi/VW, will be the first to come up with a commercially-attractive H2 vehicle. But that's not necessarily so; the big companies may be too tied into their existing markets, too attached to current designs, and too comfortable in the petro-world to take that big jump. A nation like Australia, conversely, with a small enough population that a hydrogen transition could be done relatively cheaply & quickly, may well be ideal early adopters, giving the local hydrogen vehicle manufacturers a leg up. I'd like to see that.

    June 17, 2004

    UK Shell Chairman "Very Worried" About Carbon

    Energy company Royal Dutch Shell has had a rough year, what with overstating its oil reserves by 20% and being blamed for multiple deaths in Nigeria; it's not surprising, then, that the company's leadership is starting to take a long, hard look at the business they're in. Lord Ron Oxburgh, the recently-appointed British Chair of Shell, stated in an interview in The Guardian today that he's "really very worried" about human-induced global warming, and that "You can't slip a piece of paper between David King [the government's chief science adviser who said climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism] and me on this position." Shell (along with BP-Amoco) already invests far more money in alternative energy research than the American major oil company, Exxon-Mobil; we'll see if the new leadership is able to make a clean break with the past.

    Cornell Lake Source Cooling

    LSC diagram, from Cornell UniversityWhile this isn't new, I just learned about it today, and thought I'd pass it along. Cornell University, since 2000, has used a system called "Lake Source Cooling" to cool buildings during the warm Ithaca summers. The technique is fairly simple, and works extremely well. By no longer using traditional air conditioning, the university was able to reduce its cooling-related power consumption by 80-90%, and the campus' overall demand by 10%; in 2001, that meant a reduction in CO2 emissions of over 21 million tons.

    Because the old air conditioning systems were falling apart (as well as environmentally hazardous due to the choloflorocarbons in the cooling system), in the mid-1990s Cornell needed to find a replacement. At around $60 million, the LSC project cost more than a direct upgrade to modern conventional cooling systems; since it is designed to have a 75-100 year lifespan, as opposed to the 30-40 years of a traditional cooling system, and results in such a dramatic reduction in energy consumption, the real cost difference was minimized.

    The lake water heat-exchange system is fascinating. While it is obviously not universally appropriate, it's an excellent example of working with the environment instead of against it. For those of you concerned about the effects of returning warmed water to the lake, the environmental impact statement makes for good reading (in short, the warm water has a negligible effect on lake organisms, and has a heat effect the equivalent of 2-4 hours of additional sunlight per year). The primary negative effect of the LSC's operations appears to be a 3% increase in phosphorus during the summer months, which contributes to the growth of algae near the outflow pipes.

    Do any of you have first-hand experience with this system at Cornell? How well does it work? Would you recommend the idea to other communities?

    (Image from Cornell's LSC site)

    California's Two-Lane Highway

    Jamais' HybridClinton didn't try to get Kyoto passed. Bush's opposition to environmental rules is legendary. And, even if Kerry wins, he'll very likely face a hostile Congress unwilling to give an inch. The willful inability of the American federal government to adopt meaningful carbon emissions reductions is dangerously short-sighted, but it does not necessarily mean that Americans won't be reducing CO2 in the coming years. In the American federal system, state governments also have the power to enact emission regulations, and to encourage the development and implementation of new technologies. California has a long history of being a leader in attacking air pollution. California is now becoming a leader in attacking CO2 emissions from vehicles.

    What makes the California approach particularly notable is that it is pushing for change in two seemingly very different ways: a near-to-mid term set of specific changes to standard automobile (and light-duty truck, including SUV) designs explicitly intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and a mid-to-long term initiative to kick-start a transition to hydrogen-based vehicles by supporting the installation of H2 fueling stations throughout the state, the so-called "Hydrogen Highway" plan. In the extended entry, I'll take a closer look at both of these approaches, and what they mean for the nation as a whole. Pardon the length, but this is important.

    Continue reading "California's Two-Lane Highway" »

    June 19, 2004


    Many2Many points us to BlogOn 2004, to be held at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business on July 23, 2004. BlogOn describes itself thusly:

    BlogOn is the first conference to examine in-depth the business of social media. It is not just for the professional blogger, but for forward-thinking investors, smart marketing executives and media company professionals who understand it is time to understand and harness this gathering disruptive phenomenon. BlogOn is for executives who want to see a sharper Big Picture for social media and to identify their options and opportunities.

    As noted here recently, mainstream media has seemed to annoint blogging as the Next Big Thing, so it's no surprise that there are now investors trying to figure out ways to create value-add marketing environments (ahem) with the subject. It may not be the next dot-com tulip frenzy, but you may want to swing by the conference to see if anyone is handing out money.

    Electric Cars in the UK

    The BBC notes the arrival of what it claims is the "world's best-selling electric car" in the UK: the Daimler-Chrysler Gem. At £7,000 for a two-seater with a 40 mile range, 30mph top speed, and a 7 hour recharging time, it's no surprise that the importer, ZEV Ltd, expects to sell all of 350 of them in the next year and a half. Nonetheless, given that it will be exempt from some of the hassles facing UK drivers -- road tax, London congestion charge, and many parking fees -- some people will certainly find it worth the limitations. It will be interesting to see how well it actually does. And UK WC'ers: let us know what you think of them!

    June 20, 2004

    Cross-Cultural Spider-Mashup

    spiderman.in.jpgThe web is buzzing with the news that Marvel Comics has teamed up with Gotham Comics -- the leading South Asian comic book publisher -- to create an Indian version of Spider-Man.

    Spider-Man India interweaves the local customs, culture and mystery of modern India, with an eye to making Spider-Man’s mythology more relevant to this particular audience. Readers of this series will not see the familiar Peter Parker of Queens under the classic Spider-Man mask, but rather a new hero – a young, Indian boy named Pavitr Prabhakar. As Spider-Man, Pavitr leaps around rickshaws and scooters in Indian streets, while swinging from monuments such as the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal.

    A "mashup" is a digitally re-edited piece of music which interweaves two (or more) disparate songs into a new work. They can be amusing or fun to dance to, but occasionally, the combined work tells us something about the world of the moment that neither of the component works could. Spider-Man India has that kind of potential: by taking an icon of Americana and mixing it with the cultural touchstones of India, the result could be something far more interesting and compelling than either the umpteenth Spider-Man American title/movie or an entirely local South Asian superhero.

    It says something about the world we live in now that the newest Indian hero is one who lives by the motto: "With great power comes great responsibility."

    Dan Gillmor on Ubiquitous Cameras

    Dan Gillmor, in today's San Jose Mercury News, has an interesting essay on the growing availability of micro-camera enabled devices such as cameraphones. (We've covered this topic ourselves in our discussions of the "participatory panopticon.") Gillmor lays the issues out nicely, and talks about both the reduction in privacy and the civil liberty implications. He also addresses how the changing world of camera-enabled technology affects how businesses operate, and suggests that one effect could be more of a move towards what we at WC call "transcommercialism":

    Businesses have trade secrets. They have private internal conversations. Digital-imaging technology inevitably lifts the corporate veil, too.

    Where we need to force more transparency on government and do more to protect personal privacy, businesses should look at the technological trends and realize that the time has come for more voluntary transparency. Some things have to be kept secret, at least for a while, but I believe companies will find advantages in hanging out more, not less, of the corporate laundry.

    The marketplace now includes a variety of constituents who need to know more about what a company is doing: employees, customers, suppliers, communities. If a company is doing its best for those constituencies, maybe that's a competitive advantage worth having.

    Definitely a must-read for today.

    June 21, 2004

    Brian Eno's Long Now Talk

    Last November, Brian Eno gave the kick-off talk for the Long Now Foundation's seminars on long-term thinking. It was also the first of our blog entries to get a little bit of attention, and we've been on a roll ever since.

    While the Brian Eno talk, like the rest of the Long Now seminars, is available on the Long Now site as an audio file, it's also available to be read. Long Now links to a PDF, but I found it a little oddly-formatted and hard to read. Fortunately, Brian Eno's own website now has the transcript available in HTML, complete with Eno's amusing illustrations of different approaches to thinking about the future. The talk is an explanation of what the Long Now Foundation is (Eno being one of founders), what their clock project is really all about, and why it's important to think about the very long term:

    Stewart Brand, in his book, called ‘The Clock of the Long Now’, which is the Little Red Book of the Long Now Foundation, talks about something he calls slow science, there’s very little encouragement to slow science - it doesn’t produce glamorous papers, quick results, peer approval, but there have been examples of very, very long slow observations. One is the admiralty of Great Britain has kept detailed weather charts since 1648, they’re daily weather charts, so this makes for the longest continuous survey of weather in existence and in fact it’s turned out to be very useful. Another similar survey was made in Hawaii over about a fifty year period, and was the first definitive evidence of global warming, it showed the continual rise in CO2 levels, so these long term studies are very important but again, they are not really institutionally recognised or encouraged. We wanted Long Now to be the kind of place where they would be encouraged, where we would become the repository and the facilitator for those kinds of long term thoughts. So some of the things we’re doing, are done (you could say) in the negative. They’re perhaps attempts to avert catastrophe, the tragedy of the commons if you like, the tragedy that makes us exploit as much as we can as quickly as we can without thinking of any consequences. But the other side of it is a positive side, the idea that we can celebrate beginning something that won’t be finished in our lifetime, that won’t be finished in many many lifetimes, something that will grow and embody the intelligence of many people in time.

    Open Access in Pakistan

    Open Access News has a link to the online journal Hi Pakistan's interview with Dr Attaur Rahman, the minister-in-charge of the ministry of science and technology and chairman of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan. The interview concerns the state of university education in Pakistan, and the reforms he is introducing to the system. Among the most interesting elements of his plan is the introduction of open access journals to the university libraries across the nation:

    At the moment, the plight of libraries is beyond description. There are no journals, there are no books. Our libraries are in a total mess. You cannot call them libraries. What we have done is to launch a nationwide digital library - and this really excites me.

    We have been working hard on this for the past one and a half years and now this has happened. And there are 31,600 journals which are available free of charge. Every single school or college or university - any educational institution under any ministry - will get free access. Of these, 11,600 journals are full text. Now each journal can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And we are talking about 31,600 journals. Over 20,000 journals will be available in the form of abstracts. They will be available for all the disciplines. Again I want to get rid of the impression that I am associated with science and technology only.

    This means that students sitting at home in Pakistan today can go onto the Internet and download the latest issues of all these journals. It is a huge nationwide library. This is something that no other country, not even the United States, has today.

    The entire interview is worth reading, particularly the last section, where he talks about infrastructure and curriculum. This is vitally important reform for a number of reasons: Pakistan is desperately poor, and this is a way for the country to jump-start a modern education system; this will be one of the largest open-access library networks in the world; and -- perhaps most critically -- these universities will provide positive competition to the madressas, the religious schools, which have not been bastions of progressive thought in Pakistan. We'll all benefit if these reforms succeed.

    Planting the Future

    Reuters reports that a group of British scientists is recommending an aggressive shift towards the planting of crops not for food, but for a wholesale replacement of petrochemicals. The combination of declining supplies of petroleum (used for much more than fuel) and a still-growing global population means that replacements will be needed soon -- and it's better to start planning now for that event than to wait until oil (effectively) runs out. "At a news conference, [plant reseracher Alison Smith] complained that in the past there had been a lack of coherent thinking, but that was now changing in the face of the looming crisis."

    Green China

    What would a positive environmental scenario for China look like? We've talked a bit here about the massive ecological challenges that China faces over the coming years. Population growth, economic growth, and a history of not paying sufficient attention to the environmental results of development result in a nightmarish combination, one not easily reshaped. In short, China is a mess. Nonetheless, Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, thinks that a more environmentally sustainable is possible.

    In a brief essay for The Globalist web journal, Economy presents her take on a positive Chinese environmental scenario. (The article is excerpted from The River Runs Black; I'm definitely going to get my hands on a copy for review here.) The scenario is predicated upon a reasonable mix of solid economic growth, sound environmental policies, and supportive civil society; this seems to me to be the most likely combination leading to a sustainable China.

    The article is brief, and the scenario suffers for it. The essay is more descriptive than analytical, providing a somewhat superficial overview of what the more environmentally sustainable China looks like without much discussion of how it got there. As a snapshot of a scenaric future, it's fine -- a plausible, reasonable vision of a functional, ecologically sound nation -- but it doesn't really tell us how to get there. Clearly I need to read the rest of the book to find what I'm looking for.

    The EU Parliament and Software Patents

    Software patents are (generally) supported by big software companies and (generally) opposed by individual programmers (at least in my experience), so it comes as little surprise that the European Parliament seemed headed towards enacting a corporate-friendly software patent law. But reasonable amendments to the law passed by the parliament as a whole were tossed out by the Council of Ministers, some of whom then mislead their constituents on this fact. Because of this, the Dutch Parliament looks to be headed towards being the first nation in the EU to order its Minister to revoke his vote and force a parliamentary reconsideration of the law. This post on OS News is a fascinating account of angry Dutch geeks deciding to do something about a bad law -- and succeeding.

    Glucose Fuel Cells

    Your body doesn't use petroleum (or hydrogen, for that matter) -- why should your car? Today's New York Times has an article about researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory seeking to design and build fuel cells that run on glucose, a basic sugar metabolized by mammalian bodies into energy. Glucose could be used as a fuel for stand-alone gadgets, or drawn from the blood for medical implants or wearable devices. The technology is still in very early stages; the Sandia researchers admit they need to improve the efficiency of their systems by a million-fold.

    June 22, 2004

    Linux in Iraq

    The usefulness of Linux for the developing world is a regular theme here at WorldChanging. We've talked about Linux use in sub-Saharan Africa, Laos, Egypt, and, of course, Brazil. Now it's Iraq's turn.

    "The World," a radio newsprogram co-produced by the BBC and PRI (Public Radio International) yesterday had a five-minute spot on the newly-formed Iraqi Linux User Group. You can download the story from this page; the direct link to the Windows Audio file is here. It's a good piece, and worth the five minute listen.

    The website for the Iraqi Linux group is in English, and is interesting reading (particularly their rationale for using English rather than Arabic). It mixes the usual discussion boards and links to Linux resources with news reports on the use of open source in the developing world and connections to local Arabic/Farsi Linux sites. They're doing good work there, and I wish them well. (Apparently the site is subject to frequent vandalism; if it's unresponsive when you visit, or the front page doesn't look the way you'd expect, try back later.)

    Government RSS Feeds

    One of the cooler bits of network tech is RSS ("really simple syndication" is probably the most common defintion; reader Frank Shearer notes in the comments that "'RSS' actually stands for 'RDF Site Summary'. 'RDF', in turn, stands for 'Resource Description Framework'"), which is a way of distributing updated site content to subscribers. For people who read a lot of websites over the course of the day, RSS is a life-saver. Most blogs (including WorldChanging) have RSS feeds, and an increasing number of news outlets do, too. But any website that publishes regularly updated information can provide an RSS feed. RSS in Government is a site dedicated to collecting and promoting the use of RSS feeds by government agencies, whether local, state, federal, or international. The main site page mixes general RSS and blogging news with specific updates on government-related RSS feeds.

    It's early enough in the age of RSS that the use of syndication links by official groups is still quite haphazard. Some states that you'd think would be technologially on the ball (California, for example) have few if any feeds, while other locations are swimming in them. A couple of US Senators -- Joe Biden (D-Delaware) and George Allen (R-Virginia -- have RSS feeds for their press releases, perhaps of interest to their constituents. More people may find a use for the RSS feeds from the US Geological Survey earthquake reports; you can get a listing of the last day's or the last week's quakes measuring over 2.5.

    I added that one to my RSS aggregator immediately.

    (Note that the RSS in Government site displays oddly in Safari, but works fine in Firefox; your experience may vary.)

    Port of Los Angeles Goes (a Little) Green

    On Monday, the Port of Los Angeles opened its first "Alternative Maritime Power" terminal, allowing a ship to run off of grid power rather than idle its diesel engines for its "hoteling" period in-dock. The Port claims that this is the first such grid-power hookup in the world. The concept is similar to the "IdleAire" project we mentioned last month, but on a far grander scale.

    Although the AMP system supports just a single ship, the system does prevent the emission of a ton of NOx and 87 lbs. of particulates per day of use. The shipping firm adopting the AMP is China Shipping, but other companies are now looking at adopting the system. A press release is available, with some additional details (PDF).

    June 23, 2004

    Microbial Fuel Cells Update

    Back in February, we reported on research at Penn State creating microbial fuel cells -- MFCs -- which produced power by cleaning domestic wastewater. As is typical for such posts, we made sure to mention that this was early stage stuff, not yet ready for deployment, but with updates sure to follow.

    Well, follow they have. Last week, the Penn State engineers reported that they've managed to boost the electricity output by nearly six times while cutting the cost by two-thirds. They also demonstrated MFCs in action by connecting a unit to a three milliwatt fan (video here, 5.2mb mpeg). In principle, the MFC could power the fan using less than a teacup of wastewater.

    Every now and then we hit upon a story which really feels like a glimpse into the desired future. The idea of using microbes to simultaneously clean the water supply and generate power is almost too good to be true. But it's in the labs now, and it's getting closer to the real world every day.

    New Climate Models at NSF

    The National Center for Atmospheric Research, funded by the National Science Foundtaion, announced today its new climate change model, CCSM3 (Community Climate System Model version 3), now the most accurate and detailed model of atmospheric systems available. The source code for CCSM3 is available for download, as well as component modules for the atmosphere, ice effects, the oceans, and more.

    Although the model is publically available today, NCAR researchers have already been hard at work using it to model the effects of increased carbon dioxide.

    CCSM3 shows global temperatures could rise by 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in a hypothetical scenario in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are suddenly doubled. That is significantly more than the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) increase that had been indicated by the preceding version of the model.

    William Collins, an NCAR scientist who oversaw the development of CCSM3, says researchers have yet to pin down exactly what is making the model more sensitive to an increased level of carbon dioxide. But he says the model overall is significantly more accurate than its predecessor.

    "This model makes substantial improvements in simulating atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial processes," Collins says. "It has done remarkably well in reproducing the climate of the last century, and we're now ready to begin using it to study the climate of the next century."

    One of the standard global warming denial attempts is the claim that the problems are artifacts of poor models. As the above shows, the opposite is true. The better we understand the systems at work, the more we see the trouble we're in.

    Digital Library of India

    Open Access News points us to the Digital Library of India, which has as its goal the digitization of significant literary, artistic, and scientific works for free distribution and appreciation. Unlike the Carnegie-Mellon Univeral Library (which helps to coordinate the DLI), the DLI is focusing on works primarily in Indian languages. Books are digitized by scanning (and readable as page images), and are made available in text via optical character recognition, or OCR. This presents some interesting challenges:

    • There are1500 spoken Indian languages and 17 scripts.

    • Unlike English, where the number of characters to be recognized is less than 100, Indian scripts have several hundred characters to be recognized.

    • Non-uniformity in the spacing of the characters within a word because of the presence of Consonant Conjuncts (vowel + consonant) makes OCR more difficult. Also, the presence of Consonant Conjuncts results in improper line segmentation.  Programs will have to do further processing to segment the lines.

    • Consonants take modified shapes when attached with the vowels. Vowel modifiers can appear to the right, on the top or at the bottom of the base consonant. Such consonant-vowel combinations are called modified characters. In addition, two, three or four characters can combine to generate a new complex shapes called compound characters. These characters are very difficult for a machine to recognize.

    • In scripts like Bangla and Devnagari, all the characters in a word are connected by a unique line called shirorekha (also called head line). In these scripts, character segmentation is especially difficult.

    • In south Indian scripts, vowels occur only at the beginning of a word as against the vowels in Oriya, where they occur anywhere within a word. So, the language morphology for some groups of scripts is different from the others.

    • There is no universally acceptable standard encoding scheme for Indian scripts. This necessitates a scheme where the output labels from the OCR system can be mapped to the labels used by the typesetter through a mapping table.

    At this point, they've scanned about 100,000 books -- 10% of their eventual goal, a million books available to anyone, anywhere, with a web connection.

    June 25, 2004

    Responsible Nanotech Student Program

    Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology pointed me to their new program providing support for university students and instructors wishing to undertake research on molecular manufacturing. CRN co-founder Chris Phoenix says that "studies are urgently needed in politics, economics, law, and sociology, as well as technical areas such as chemistry, physics, and product design. Molecular manufacturing will be very powerful, but no one really knows yet what that will mean."


    We love sites which help visualize information here at WC central, especially those which can put into context otherwise dry statistics. NationMaster, though, takes the prize. Combining data from the UN, the CIA, the WHO, the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the OECD, NationMaster lets you generate maps and graphs on an enormous variety of subjects. They claim to have over 4,000 different datasets at present, and the number is growing.

    While the latest set of statistics (on mortality) is getting a bit of blog play today, WC readers may find the statistics on the environment, internet use, and energy a bit more of interest. One of the most provocative aspects of NationMaster is the correlations system, which lets you compare a given stat to other statistics, even seemingly unrelated ones. Correlations are only available to "supporters" who subscribe to the site -- a small fee which I expect to be coughing up soon.

    Update: Boingboing claims that the site might cause problems for Mozilla-based browsers. For whatever it's worth, I browsed it without difficulty using Firefox/Mac

    Street Memes

    You've seen them, as you walk in the city. The posters with the striking faces, the angry text, the provocative pose. Maybe you see a half-dozen all in a row; maybe it's alone on the pillar supporting a freeway overpass. You may not be able to decipher quite what it means, but you know it means something.

    Street Memes is a new site which (in the words of site editor Ryan Watkins-Hughes) "tracks the spread of stencil graffiti, sticker art, and political posters." Examples include the nearly-ubiquitous Andre the Giant stencils and posters, "Stop the RNC" posters calling for protest in NYC this August appearing all over the city, the mysterious (or perhaps just confused) "Pray for Pills", and more. The pages include links to similar memes, so you can explore the variations of urban art to your heart's content. The content is entirely visitor-contributed; if you've spotted a meme on the street, take a picture and send it in. The site currently has a distinct New York dominance, but since I've seen similar art up on the urban walls of San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, I expect the collection to grow quickly.

    Of course, as the November election draws closer, expect to see the street memes take on a decidedly more political tone.

    June 28, 2004

    Help Keep Government Weather Data Free

    For awhile now, the National Weather Service has been making weather data freely available in XML format over the Internet. Although technically "experimental," dozens of applications have sprung up to allow people to access this data on their personal computers (I use the open source "Meteorologist" application for my Powerbook). The NWS now wants to make this free access official, reasoning that since taxpayer money pays for the data, taxpayers should have access to it (the proposed policy change can be found here). However, it appears that the chairman of Accuweather (and leader in the commercial weathercaster industry) opposes this change, and wants the data restricted to those who will pay for it (and profit from it), and is asking (Word doc) his cronies to pressure the NWS not to adopt this policy. But you have a say, too: the comments page on the new policy is still open, and the NWS is taking comments until Wednesday June 30th. Add your voice!

    (Via Open Access News)

    e/merge 2004

    Running June 28-July 10, e/merge 2004 is a "virtual conference" showcasing developments in "blended learning," which combines face-to-face schooling with distance learning and online education. What makes this particularly notable is that it's organized in South Africa, and has a decided focus on the needs of the developing world, particularly Africa. South African collaborative learning blog Critical Methods describes its content in this way:

    There is something for everyone with an interest in educational technologies. The conference is scheduled in four phases starting with the Big Picture (digital divide, theoretically oriented and institutional papers) and Case Studies from Across the Region during the first week. During the second week we have the Learning Communities (Educator and Student communities) and Learning Environments phases. You can focus on specific phases of discussion or choose just the presentations that most interest you.

    International registrants are asked to pay R320 (about $50), although accomodations can be made for students with more limited resources.

    Annotated UK ID Proposal

    Mark Simpkins of Nodal Research wrote to tell me of his group's latest project: taking the consultation document (PDF) proposed by the UK's Secretary of State concerning identity card legislation, and converting it into web-readable form. Not just HTML, though: the team translated it into a Moveable Type blog document, allowing comments and annotation of each section of the proposal. As security expert Bruce Schneier can tell you in detail, ID card laws are terribly ineffective forms of security, causing more problems than they solve. By taking the UK proposal and making it interactive, perhaps the Nodal Research group can draw some attention to the danger inherent in the consultation document.

    Evolution in Action

    Evolution is a pretty amazing process. The combination of internal change (mutation) and environmental pressure (fitness) can have pretty dramatic results, given enough time. And when you do it in a computer, "enough time" can be surprisingly brief.

    Evolutionary design is a computerized creative process which relies on the same notions of natural selection and mutation that underlie biological evolution. Take a large number of individuals, each slightly different. Introduce some mutation, either by randomizing small bits or mixing elements from individuals (the electronic version of sexual reproduction). Check the resulting generation against the goal -- how well do the various designs accomplish the needed task? Get rid of some of the designs that do very poorly, add more of the designs that do fairly well. Now repeat the process. Many thousands of times.

    We've talked about it here in brief, and it's one of the more powerful techniques underlying the biomimicry concept: you're not just copying nature's results, you're copying how nature comes by its results.

    NASA's 2004 conference on evolvable hardware just finished up, and it turns out that NASA is doing some of the most interesting work around with evolutionary design. The Evolvable Systems Group researches techniques for engineering hardware for NASA missions without explicit blueprints. Antenna design consumes a great deal of their attention, as some of the interactions between components in the antenna frame and with the spacecraft itself can be very difficult to model. The antennas that the evolutionary designs come up with often don't really look like traditional devices (see above), but that's okay: it's how they work that counts.

    (Antennas have been the focus for evolutionary design researchers for awhile now; Derek Linden, who did some work with NASA on this prior to the ESG's efforts, was working on antennas back in 1997 (PDF), and has suggested that the evolved antenna he patented in 1999 may have been the first patent issued to a nonhuman designer.)

    As funky as these antenna designs are, I think that the most intriguing research the ESG is now doing is with coevolutionary algorithms. (The ESG site links to a paper on coevolutionary design the group did for the 2002 IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation here -- PDF. It's heavy going, but interesting.) Whereas traditional evolutionary design is a strictly Darwinian, competitive process, coevolutionary design integrates cooperative aspects as well, making for a richer, more complex evolutionary environment -- and one which better mimics reality.

    It Runs 'Til It's Finished When Powered By Spinach

    Nature and Science News are reporting on research at the Laboratory of Organic Optics and Electronics at MIT using photosynthetic proteins derived from spinach to produce electricity. While the light->electricity conversion efficiency is only 12%, the researchers are confident that they'll be able to boost it to at least 20% in relatively short order. Even if they can't get it up past commercial silicon-based solar cells, protein-based cells would have some interesting advantages:

    For example, many solar cell materials degrade over time, but a protein-based solar cell could be self-repairing, says [lead researcher Marc] Baldo. Just as living plants replenish their photosynthetic proteins by swapping out the old copies for new ones, it might become possible to flush a solution of fresh proteins through a solar cell to replace the photosynthetic molecules as they degrade...

    While recent research has replicated some of the functions of photosynthesis, this would directly use plant proteins -- a more difficult scientific challenge, but potentially of much greater ultimate value.

    (Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends)

    June 29, 2004

    Roll Out the Solar

    Wired reports on the US Army's tests of the flexible solar panels developed by Iowa Thin Film Technologies. The solar film can be embedded in soft building material, providing an ongoing source of electricity to allow soldiers in the field to recharge the ever-increasing number of batteries required for their hardware. This could provide a tactical advantage over the current system of either carrying extra batteries or diesel generators. A largish tent could produce up to 1 kilowatt, sufficient to power lights, laptops, and other gear.

    Such technology would have clear civilian/commercial use, but so far, Iowa Thin Film is only making the tents available to the military. For consumer use, they sell the useful (but somewhat less innovative) rollup solar panels in various sizes. Intended to function as battery chargers, these flexible panels aren't really intended to let you bring your office into the wilderness. Nonetheless, the flexibility and relatively light weight -- the biggest one only weighs just under 2 lbs -- make them perfect for emergency and relief uses.

    Saturn Awaits

    Tomorrow, at 7:36pm PDT (10:36pm EDT), the Cassini-Huygens probe, a joint NASA/ESA/ASI mission, will make its orbital insertion burn to slow down and enter Saturn's orbit. Launched October 15, 1997, it's the most expensive unmanned mission yet -- and probably the last of its kind for awhile. If all goes smoothly (and, so far, all has gone smoothly with Cassini-Huygens), the craft will spend the next four years studying Saturn, orbiting around the planet more than 70 times. The pictures (and the science) should be incredible.

    But the real excitement will come in January of next year, when the Huygens probe separates from Cassini, dropping into the thick, cold atmosphere of Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system. Nobody is entirely certain what Huygens will find; Titan's atmosphere is actually thicker than that of Earth's, and is an opaque soup of nitrogen, methane, and other fairly unpleasant gases. The ESA developers don't actually expect Huygens to survive the landing, but are hoping to get abundant data from the six different instruments on the probe.

    Contact with Cassini-Huygens will be cut off, briefly, as it passes through the outer edges of Saturn's ring system, by far the riskiest part of the whole mission. The probe will send back its "here's how things went" data around midnight, California time. The first pictures will be sent received around 7:30 in the morning PDT on Wednesday.

    Among the mysteries the joint research teams hope to solve: why does Saturn appear to be rotating six minutes slower than it did when Voyager 1 & 2 passed through in 1977? (That story also includes a link to an audio file of Saturn's radio signal...)

    About June 2004

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

    May 2004 is the previous archive.

    July 2004 is the next archive.

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

    Powered by
    Movable Type 3.34