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July 2004 Archives

July 1, 2004

Catching Up (Science & Technology Edition)

I've been pretty busy lately, but the WC suggestions box still keeps pinging me and my RSS feeds keep pointing me towards new and interesting stuff. Rather than continue to let them pile up, I'm going to do a few QuickChange-style entries collected by category.

  • Cassini made it! The school bus-sized probe is now in orbit around Saturn, having successfully slipped through the F & G rings and fired its retrorockets to slow down to orbital speed. NASA, JPL, and the ESA have really embraced the web as a means of distributing space science data: rather than wait for one or two photos to show up in the newspapers, you can browse the raw image feed directly.

  • SciScoop points us to Stanford University press release detailing the development of an implantable chip which could serve as a prosthetic retina and as a drug-delivery system for neurological illnesses. One developer describes it as "almost like an ink-jet printer for the eye" -- able to do controlled releases of neurotransmitters using electro-osmosis. Researchers caution that (as you should expect) this is still a few years away from actual human testing.

  • The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has been exploring thirty essential studies which should be undertaken before we actually manage to develop molecular manufacturing nanotechnology. The most recent entry -- "Nanotech Arms Races" -- is sobering. Molecular nanotechnology has the potential to be incredibly destabilizing militarily and politically; it's quite possible that, as the development of the technology becomes imminent, nations will race to be the first to get it -- or to stop their more advanced adversaries from getting there first.

  • Open Access News points us towards an article in Nature Medicine arguing for the expansion of "biobanks" -- networks of genetic and population data -- to give medical researchers better tools for studying and reacting to outbreaks of human diseases. Ironically (given the link is from Open Access News), the actual Nature Medicine article is restricted to NM subscribers. They do make an abstract (which says less than the OAN brief) available, as well as a table of links to existing biobank networks.
  • Catching Up (Global Culture Edition)

    Continuing with the categorized catch-up entries...

  • What's it like to live in Nepal? Mahabir Pun, a Nepalese citizen and former University of Nebraska student, has set up a detailed virtual tour of Nepal. Well-illustrated, it covers a wide assortment of fact about Nepal, including its culture, its farming practices, environmental concerns, geography, religion, and more. The tour also focuses on the efforts of Pun's former high school in Nangi Village to bring development support to the nation. The website is also a welcome relief from the Flash-laden, graphics-intensive, over-designed sites we're accustomed to; the site's layout and presentation would not have been out of place in 1998.

  • Director Sam Raimi, probably best known for his now-in-release Spider-Man movies (and, for some of us, beloved for his Evil Dead 2), wants to build the "century cam:" static cameras set over major cities, capturing a single frame of film at noon each day. Over time, the film would come to show the evolution of the urban landscape. Since he imagines the cameras capturing the growth (and decline?) of the cities would do so for a thousand years, "millennium cam" is probably a better name. A year's worth of frames would amount to 15 seconds; a decade would be 2.5 minutes. The full thousand years would add up to a bit more than 4 hours. Technology Review notes the impracticality of a film camera operating for a thousand years (although they may want to check with Long Now for some thoughts on building devices with very long lives), but suggests that decade cams -- showing the changes to open spaces and urban environments over a decade -- could be very powerful. Good idea.

  • Four Translations of the Quran is a fascinating exploration of the question of translation of culture. The Quran was written in Arabic, and some claim that only the Arabic version is the true Quran -- translations don't pick up on the subtlety of cultural meaning which would be apparent to a native reader. All four of the translations provided are well-regarded... and it's fascinating to see how often they diverge. For non-Arabic speakers, these points of divergence can be as meaningful as the text itself. As BruceS says, "there's a quality to a good translation that you just don't get in the original text."
  • Catching Up (Second Superpower Edition)

    Continuing with the categorized catching-up entries...

  • Jon Stahl points us to an article at Network-Centered Advocacy describing ways in which networked advocacy groups can counter PR efforts when engaged in corporate pressure campaigns. Think of it as "reverse engineering" the corporate efforts: you can't effectively counter them unless you understand how they work. Some of the suggestions are common-sense, but some are novel -- and all take advantage of the immediacy and interconnectedness of the Internet medium.

  • Matt Stoller at the Blogging of the President site has a thoughtful essay on the value of blogs as communication and information vehicles. He asserts that the real value of blogs is not in the raw number of eyeballs viewing the pages, but in the web of conversation which can form around given subjects and controversies. He also is careful to note the ways in which blogs are limited, and the larger digital ecosystem (of listservs, email, IM, etc.) in which they live. He comments that subject niches which appear empty now (and often leading to demands that existing bloggers start talking about them) will undoubtedly be filled in due course, as the Internet and the world of blogging grow. He mentions the environment as a subject woefully devoid of blogs; perhaps he needs to be pointed to some good ones...

  • Social Design Notes asks "What is Asset Mapping?" -- and answers its own question. Asset Mapping is a community development methodology which uses design and graphics tools to map the existing capabilities and resources available for development, organizational strengths, relationships, and community members. The goal is to trigger new ideas and approaches by visualizing relationships in a novel way (this is something that corporate consulting groups have done, in various forms, for a few years now). Social Design Notes has some interesting observations about the technique; if you have any interest in community-scale development, check it out.
  • Catching Up (Tech Bloom Edition)

    Continuing with the categorized catching-up entries...

  • Social Design Notes points us to an article at Local Government Commission entitled "Computer Simulation as a Public Participation Tool," which celebrates the virtues of using digital tools as a way of envisioning urban development projects. Interestingly, the article focuses on the visual presentation elements of simulation, such as photoshopping in a new retail complex or street design over a photograph of a city location, rather than on dynamic simulations of urban development (it's well-known that Sim City is a favorite tool of many a mayor and urban planner). I have to admit, though, that the photo simulations are pretty impressively done.

  • New Scientist reports about a WiFi-based positioning system used to augment GPS. Satellite-based positioning systems (like GPS and the EU's new Galileo network) tend to fail deep in urban environments, such as when surrounded by skyscrapers or within the bowels of a shopping mall. Researchers at the University of Washington and at Intel's labs have developed a system (called Place Lab) which can figure out a WiFi device's location by triangulating the signal strength of known base stations. Currently, 26,000 base stations in the US and UK are in the research group's database. Place Lab is currently accurate to about 20 meters, compared to 8-10 meters for GPS. The Place Lab researchers claim that the system is "privacy observant," and does not keep track of the identities of those who use it. The software is available for free at the Place Lab site, and there are versions for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Pocket PC, and as a generic java application.

  • John Stahl mentions that Tim O'Reilly has written a lengthy -- but fascinating -- essay entitled "The Open Source Paradigm Shift," in which he lays out not just why Free/Open Source Software is important, but why the methodology of open source is revolutionary. This is definitely a big-picture, print it out and read it a couple of times, spend several hours thinking about its implications, etc., kind of essay. If you don't have the time for the whole thing, I strongly suggest reading the section entitled "Network-Enabled Collaboration." O'Reilly is careful not to extend the argument very much past the world of computing, but as long-time WorldChanging readers know, the open source model is very much applicable outside the software realm.

  • The article Black Star: Ghana was a detailed and fascinating account of the spread of the Internet in the African nation of Ghana. Ethan Zuckerman updates us on Ghana's net situation with a report about the attempt to organize GIX, Ghana Internet Exchange. This would allow the various Ghanaian ISPs, which up to now have been using expensive satellite links to connect to the Internet, to share traffic, reduce their bandwidth bills, and link to each other inexpensively. Because Ghana's phone system is so poor, GIX will actually use multipoint radio to link the various regional and local ISPs -- a definite "leapfrog" scenario.

  • Mobile phone companies are stocking up on "COWs" -- Cells On Wheels -- for rapid disaster response, according to the Denver Post. In the case of an emergency, trucks with antennas, power generators, and routing systems can be deployed to maintain or extend the cellular network. COWs are also useful in situations where a large group of people are concentrated and will be using their phones (the article cites sporting events as an example, but expect to see COWs all over the place during this summer's presidential nominating conventions). Such quick-and-dirty networks are likely to be available far faster than landlines in a serious disaster; all the more reason to give in and just go ahead and get one (and I'm talking to one person in particular, here...). (Via Slashdot)
  • July 2, 2004

    Cost of Cyberliving

    Travis Daub has a piece in Foreign Policy comparing the cost-per-hour at Internet cafés around the world with the percentage of national populations living on $1/day. While there isn't a strong direct correlation -- Ghana, with 26+% of its population living on $1/day, has some of the lowest average rates ($0.60/hour), while nearby Nigeria, with a similarly poor population, has far higher rates ($5.40/hour) -- the numbers are worth thinking about when considering how readily nations can leapfrog. (Via Slashdot)


    Smart Mobs points us to WiFiledefrance, an event tomorrow (July 3) in Paris promoting "alternative and creative" uses of 802.11 wireless networks. Chief among the festivities will be Noderunner Paris, a race to find and photograph various WiFi nodes around the city (sort of a capture-the-flag for wardrivers). Network configurations and signals will also be translated into live music. Now all they need to do is get some of the bicycle-based wireless access points we talked about awhile back, and combine WiFiledefrance with Tour de France...

    Day After Tomorrow: The Aftermath

    No, not a sequel, but a debrief. WorldChanging was one of the myriad enviro-activist sites trying to use this summer's big disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow as a soapbox to talk about the dangers of climate change. Don't remember that? See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, oh, and here, among others. Ahem.

    Marty Kearns at Network-Centric Advocacy, another of the "Passion the DAT" leaders, wants a "movie campaign debrief," exploring questions such as:

    Given what we now know.. what should we have funded, what were dumb ideas that would not have worked (i started some of them) if we funded them and what should we think about for the next movie that can help us move an agenda [...] were blogs important in the dicussion of climate change related to the movie? Would that have been a good investment?

    We're up for it here, Marty; how should it be organized?

    Check the Florida Felon List

    Are you a felon in Florida, and therefore unable to legally vote? Don't be so quick to say no. In the 2000 presidential vote, mistakes in the Florida list of ineligible-to-vote felons barred thousands of people from voting who shouldn't have been prohibited, either because they were felons whose voting rights had been legally restored or because they had been punished only for misdemeanors, not felonies, and should never have had their voting rights removed to begin with. Reports came in of people barred from voting because they had the same name as a felon, or a name added to the list because it was similar to that of a felon. It was, in a word, ugly, and not the best day for American democracy. In 2000, the only way to find out if you were barred from voting in Florida was to go to the polls on election day and hope you were permitted to vote.

    That's not the case today. In a perfect example of the proper role for the Internet in a modern democracy, the group People for the American Way is making available on the web the list of more than 47,000 registered Florida voters who the Florida Division of Elections believes should be ineligible. Given the mistakes last time around, all voters in Florida should check to make sure that their names aren't improperly on the list. The PFAW page includes what to do -- and who to call -- if you do find your name on the list. The only drawback to the listing is that it's only available as PDF, not in HTML; I suspect a conversion to HTML will be done by one of the civic-minded folks on the web any day now -- do tell us if you find one out there.

    World Refugee Population Lowest in a Decade

    Here's a bit of good news: according to the UN High Commission on Refugees, the number of refugees in the world fell by 920,000 in 2003, bringing the global total to 9.7 million. This is the second consecutive year that the global total number of refugees has fallen. The return of refugees to Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, and Iraq was cited as the chief reason, with more than half of the 1.1 million returned refugees going home to Afghanistan alone. 2.1 million Afghans still live as refugees, with about half of those in Pakistan. The UNHCR report on 2003 refugee trends can be downloaded here (PDF).

    Transcommercial Costco

    We're always on the lookout for corporations which show signs of being "transcommercial enterprises." The latest one to pop up on our radar is Costco -- the big-box, wholesale warehouse club retailer. While Costco may not embody everything transcommercial, its employee policies are surprisingly progressive. In most ways, it's the Anti-Wal-Mart. I've heard good things about the company (one of my best friends' father & brother work there), and this article by Jim Hightower on AlterNet sums up the qualities succinctly:

    "We pay much better than Wal-Mart," [Costco CEO] Sinegal says. "That's not altruism. It's good business."

    Indeed, Costco's pay is much, much, much better -- a full-time Costco clerk or warehouse worker earns more than $41,000 a year, plus getting terrific health-care coverage. Wal-Mart workers get barely a third of that pay, plus a lousy health-care plan. Costco even has unions!

    Yet, Costco's labor costs are only about half of Wal-Mart's. How's that possible? One reason is that Costco workers feel valued, which adds enormously to their productivity, and they don't leave -- employee turnover is a tiny fraction of Wal-Mart's rapidly revolving door.

    Welcome, Cameron

    Welcome to our newest WorldChanging contributor, Cameron Sinclair.

    Cameron is the founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit set up to seek and promote architecture and design solutions to humanitarian crises. For the last 5 years his team has initiated and implemented a number of programs including housing ideas for returning refugees in Kosovo; mobile health clinics to combat HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa; mine clearance programs and playground building in the Balkans; and earthquake recovery assistance in Turkey and Iran.

    Read more about him in his bio.

    Good to have you onboard, Cameron! We're looking forward to your contributions.

    July 6, 2004

    Hybrids Exempt from Smog Check in CA

    Have a hybrid-electric car in California? Here's yet another reason to feel smug: the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Automotive Repair has decided that all Honda Insights, Honda Civic Hybrids, and Toyota Priuses are exempt from the biennial and change-of-ownership smog checks. While not an onerous burden, the smog checks are moderately expensive and inconvenient. As additional hybrid vehicles come on the market, they'll be added to the list.

    The Mummy, Revealed

    Time for another trip back to the British Museum. From July 1 through January, 2005, the mummy of the Egyptian priest Nesperennub will be on display, fully revealed down to his teeth and bones... all without opening the case. Working in cooperation with Silicon Graphics, Inc., British Museum archaeologists have been able to take detailed CT scans and 3D laser scan images of the mummy, and assemble them via supercomputer into a 3D model of the body, its wrapping, and its contents. The model can be rotated, examined closely, and have the layers of wrapping (and skin) removed as the viewer sees fit. The Brit Museum exhibition includes a 20 minute 3D "virtual tour" of the mummy; the website has a 2D approximation in its children's "compass" section.

    The BBC and Express India both have articles about the mummy, the model, and the exhibit, although in both cases the stories are in the "entertainment" section, not science. Shrug. The best and most detailed article is in the current (July 3-9) issue of New Scientist; unfortunately, it's not one of the articles made freely available on the web, so you'll have to go and read it surreptitiously on the newsstand.

    The combination of scanning technologies and supercomputing -- and the rapid decline in cost for both -- means that non-destructive analysis is becoming more and more commonplace. This is particularly valuable not just in the study of mummies, but in medical science. The advent of widespread terahertz wave (the region between the infrared and microwave frequencies) scanning will only add to the utility of the process, as it is particularly sensitive to variations in soft tissue density and structure.

    Animated Titan Flyby & Map

    Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations -- CICLOPS -- has released a nifty animated movie of the probe's flyby of Saturn's largest moon. The movie includes Cassini's initial scan of Titan's surface features (which are normally shrouded by clouds). Since Titan is one of the few objects in the solar system with both a rocky ("terrestrial") body and a full-blown, complex atmosphere, I am particularly interested in the results of deeper study of the Saturnian moon.

    Digital Library in Pakistan, too

    While the Digital Library of India project continues apace, not to be outdone, the Dyal Singh Trust Library in Lahore, the second largest book repository in the Punjab, has created a new department to facilitate the conversion of the entire collection to digital form, according to the Pakistan Daily Times. The library specializes in the collection of Pakistan newspapers; it has archives of every national paper for the last 40 years, and a number of periodicals from as far back as 1927. The article doesn't give much detail on the project, which appears to be on a much smaller scale than the DLI endeavor, but it is potentially a promising beginning to a larger effort.

    (Via Open Access News)

    Elevator Update

    Jon wrote on June 26th about space elevators, sometimes referred to as "beanstalks," and increasingly -- with an eye to marketing -- referred to as "space bridges." He mentioned the Third International Conference on Space Elevators, which ran from June 28th through June 30th. The meeting is now over, and while we wait for the official archive of the presentations, we're starting to get a bit of information about what went on. Blaise Gassend, a presenter at the conference, kept notes during nearly all of the presentations; these notes are now available on his website. His own presentations are also available on the site: Exponential Tethers for Accelerated Space Elevator Deployment (PDF) and Non-Equatorial Space Elevators (PDF). This last one is particular intriguing, as it runs against what amounts to the conventional wisdom about beanstalks -- that they need to come up from the equator.

    Other relevant space bridge/elevator pages include: Andrew Price (who also spoke at the 3rd International); the Gizmonics Space Elevator page, which discusses some of the physics involved, and points to the as-yet-content-free "Elevator 2010" competition; NASA's Centennial Challenge, which looks to non-traditional sources of innovation and ideas for space exploration; and LiftPort Group, a Bremerton, Washington-based corporation planning to build an elevator, and which includes a "countdown to Lift: April 12, 2018" clock, showing their belief that we have a bit more than 5,000 days before a space elevator is up and running.

    Environmentally-Friendlier Chip Etching

    The conventional method of making computer chips involves etching the circuit pathways on copper via an acid bath. This is, as you may imagine, a fairly nasty bit of business, involving materials hazardous to the environment and to human health. The UK firm QinetiQ has come up with a clever alternative, using an ink which attracts metals from a solution, allowing the circuit pathways to "grow" on the chip rather than be carved from it. The developers claim that not only does the method non-toxic, it costs 50% of the current etching method. QinetiQ (and I will pay vast sums to anyone who can strangle this new last-letter-capitalized naming meme in its crib) used to be DERA, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, sort of the UK's version of DARPA; looks like they've come up with a pretty significant breakthrough.

    (Via engadget)


    One of the key precepts of Viridian Design -- of which we are great fans, as should be pretty clear by now -- is that sustainable, environmentally-aware consumer goods won't become ubiquitous unless they have a caché beyond simply being good for you (and/or for the planet). They need to be, in a word, cool. That's why I'm always heartened to see designers who embrace the challenge of creating stuff that is both sustainable and compelling. The latest group of designers on this growing list is MioCultureLab, a Philadelphia-based group of designers who describe themselves as a studio for sustainable design, trying to build "a smarter, more beautiful and sustainable culture."

    The two items shown here are the "V2" and "Tangent" 3D wallpapers, made of recycled materials. Other products they've designed include seating and lighting. I can't link directly to them, as the site suffers from "designers' syndrome" of putting everything in Flash and making it totally inaccessible to the deep linking (as well as to the disabled).

    The designs are clearly not for everyone (truth be told, I'm not overly fond of most of them). But the underlying philosophy of the group is worth paying attention to, as they're not alone. Sustainability has become a powerful meme in the world of product design, and the design sense that initially shows up in the realm of the eclectic and expensive soon filters to the world of the more palatable and affordable. Expect to see more and more products touting their sustainable characteristics.

    (Via Cool Hunting)

    July 7, 2004

    Green John

    It's no secret that WorldChanging has a decidedly progressive-green tint to its politics. While we don't all agree on everything here, we do believe that a strong commitment to fighting climate change, support of non-politicized science, and global cooperation to solve global problems are critical. Unfortunately, we're not getting any of that from the current administration. That's why I was pleased to see that the League of Conservation Voters has identified Democratic Vice-Presidential pick John Edwards as having a very strong environmental record, both in the Senate and in his work as a lawyer. As Kerry has a similarly strong record, it's clear that the choice in November will be between two very different visions of the future.

    Nature Methods

    Zack Lynch over at Brain Waves points us to Nature's newest publication, coming this fall: Nature Methods, which focuses on "describing the development of new methodologies and significant improvements to tried-and-tested techniques" in scientific research. As WorldChanging looks at technique as well as technology, a journal from as respected a source as Nature dedicated to examining the utility and validity of both established and experimental approaches to understanding the world is more than welcome.

    Going With The Flow

    Traffic sucks. It wastes time, it adds to pollution, and it increases driver stress levels. While taking public transit can be a good alternative, often that option simply does not exist. Making traffic worse are those all-too-frequent episodes when, after crawling along for an hour, the traffic suddenly -- and inexplicably -- picks up, as if the traffic jam was nothing but the ghost sensation left over after the original trigger had long ago departed.

    To the surprise of some, more roads and more lanes don't help. Traffic jams don't occur due to the number of cars on a given road so much as due to the distance between cars. Less space between your car and the vehicle in front of you means that you have less time to react to sudden moves, and are more likely to engage in a kind of high-speed stop-and-go, hitting the brakes briefly in response to the car in front of you doing so; if the car behind you is driving too close to you, then it will also have to brake, and the too-close car behind it, and so forth. These "pinch effects" propagate backwards along the highway like a wave.

    The simplest solution is for people to drive more intelligently, keeping sufficient space between vehicles to buffer the transient braking, sudden lane changes, and unexpected (but brief) changes in speed of the car in front. You're also less likely to end up in an accident if you leave more space. But since traffic planners and safety experts have been trying to get people drive this way for a long while without much success, it's a good idea to look at some technological assistance that might help.

    New Scientist and The Economist this last week identified two very different technological approaches to reducing the driver-distance traffic jam problem.

    New Scientist looked at a German traffic simulation system used to predict where these "pinch effect" traffic tie-ups will occur on the autobahn. Recent changes to the model, taking into account the fact that cars can't slow down instantly and the bad driving habit of keeping too close to the car in front, allow the model to "see" incipient jams up to an hour before they form. Once predicted in this way, the information can be made available to drivers, who can then change their driving routes or times accordingly. Unfortunately, the system is currently a victim of its own success: so many people choose alternate routes based on the predictions that the forecasts are becoming less accurate.

    The Economist, conversely, is looking at "Adaptive Cruise Control" (ACC), which combines standard cruise control speed management with vehicle radar watching how close the car gets to the vehicle in front. According to projections by the University of Michigan, if 20% of the cars on the road were equipped with ACC, the clear-highway traffic jams would be eliminated (this suggest, of course, that a similar result would obtain if 20% of human drivers drove better, but I digress). This sounds great, except that the system isn't smart enough to adapt the way human drivers do, and ACC can actually make things worse under certain (unspecified in the article) bottleneck conditions. Ironically, the solution suggested by the developers is to let ACC vehicles driver closer the car in front than would otherwise be safe; since ACC systems can react far faster than humans to sudden changes in condition, even vehicle distance of less than a second between cars can be safely maintained. The article doesn't mention what happens when the ACC computer fails.

    So which will work better -- more information or more computer control? From a just-in-time, flexibility perspective, the individual car ACC system is the winner, making traffic jams less likely regardless of the path or time chosen, although if too few drivers have the system (or drive safely), the effect is minimal, and the ACC-equipped car is stuck. From a plan-ahead/plan-for-trouble perspective, the road information approach is better, as it makes it possible (in principle) to avoid the tie-ups completely regardless of what you're driving, and if the computer system crashes (as they all do), the worst that happens is that you're in an unpredicted traffic jam.

    Fortunately, both approaches are complementary, and are moving from the labs to the real-world. The ultimate effect of these developments may well be that traffic tie-ups based on too-close driving will be a thing of the past sooner than we think. Quite a pleasant surprise.

    July 9, 2004

    Greening Los Angeles

    When one thinks of the city of Los Angeles, "environmentalism" doesn't immediately come to mind. LA is infamous for its suburban sprawl, automobile culture, and seemingly-constant layer of smog. But this doesn't mean that LA isn't trying to change. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the largest municipal utility in the nation, has an aggressive mix of rebate and efficiency programs for consumers (above and beyond those offered by the state of California), as well as programs for businesses.

    But LAVoice.org points us to a recent announcement by LADWP requesting proposals for the provision of renewable energy to the utility. According to Solar Access News, LADWP is "seeking to acquire up to 1,320,000 MW-hours per year of renewable energy by the end of 2010," or 13 percent of its energy supply. This is a step towards the larger goal of 20 percent by 2017.

    This LADWP announcement, while itself quite laudible, is actually part of a larger program already underway to shift Los Angeles towards much cleaner energy production and much more efficient energy use:

    Since adopting the IRP [Integrated Resource Plan], LADWP has moved forward with a number of projects that will produce renewable energy, reduce emissions, and increase energy efficiency.

    These include the 120-megawatt Pine Tree Wind project and an agreement to purchase 40 megawatts of power annually from a proposed BioConverter green waste digestion facility. In addition, LADWP has increased energy efficiency and decreased emissions in Los Angeles by "repowering" its aging, in-basin natural gas powered generating units with combined cycle generators and state-of-the-art emissions technology, resulting in over 75% emissions reductions.

    Moreover, LADWP is administering a $150 million program to install rooftop solar photovoltaic systems throughout Los Angeles. The Department is also modernizing its hydroelectric facility in San Francisquito Canyon, and installed 50 microturbines at Lopez Canyon Landfill that convert methane gas into energy.

    The geography of Los Angeles may never lend itself to totally clean air and high-density, high-efficiency communities. But programs like these are a welcome step towards making one of the largest (and historically one of the most environmentally unsound) urban areas in the country a much cleaner and greener place to live.

    (Thanks, Mack Reed)

    July 10, 2004


    Aura, the third and final satellite in NASA's Earth Observing System series, will take off Monday or Tuesday, its launch delayed by at least 24 hours due to a problem with the rocket. The EOS satellites -- Terra, Aqua, and now Aura -- study the complex interaction between geophysical systems.

    Aura is designed to help answer important questions about atmospheric change, with a particular focus on the ozone layer:

    One question that researchers have asked is: Is the stratospheric ozone layer is recovering? International agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, have banned ozone destroying chemicals like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but scientists are unclear about the effectiveness of these treaties. Aura will accurately detect global levels of CFCs, and their byproducts, chlorine and bromine, which destroy the ozone layer.

    Another question that researchers need more information to: What are the processes controlling air quality? Aura will help greatly to unravel some of these mysteries by tracking the sources and processes controlling global and regional air quality. When ozone exists in the lower atmosphere, the troposphere, it acts as an air pollutant. Gasoline and diesel engines give off gases in the summer that create ozone and smog. Aura will help scientists follow the sources of ozone and its precursors.

    Finally, Aura will offer insights into the question: How is the Earth's climate changing? As the composition of Earth's atmosphere changes, so does its ability to absorb, reflect and retain solar energy. Greenhouse gases, including water vapor, trap heat in the atmosphere. Airborne aerosols from human and natural sources absorb or reflect solar energy based on color, shape, size, and substance. The impact of aerosols, tropospheric ozone and upper tropospheric water vapor on Earth's climate remains largely un-quantified, but now Aura will have the unique ability to monitor these agents.

    One way that Aura will help us better understand ozone and air pollution is with the resolution of its Ozone Monitoring Instrument. Previous satellites used to monitor ozone could only resolve a regional scale of about 50x200 miles. Aura's OMI will resolve down to 8x8 miles, sufficient to monitor a single urban center. This will greatly increase the sophistication of our understanding of how local air pollution develops, propagates, and changes.

    The three EOS satellites will soon form the core of the "A-Train" set of environmental orbiters, which will work together to study the planet. The next in the series is a Cloud-Aerosol satellite intended specifically to better understand the role of cloud formation in climate change.

    Watch the Fish

    In other satellite news, the BBC reports about a proposal to put satellite monitoring data of fish populations online, to allow interested citizens to keep tabs on declining fish stocks, and to watch for signs of illegal overfishing of dangerously depleted populations. With upwards of 75% of global fish populations either overfished or fully exploited, a catastrophic collapse -- with enormous repercussions for the rest of the global ecosystem -- is all too possible.

    Cancer Subway Map

    BoingBoing points us to "A subway map of cancer pathways" in Nature: a remarkable visualization of how cells transform into malignancy. Links on the map take you to more specific information about given sets of genes related to the process. It's simply a brilliant representation of a biological process.

    July 12, 2004

    Curing Cancer

    Cancer haunts us: its ability to manifest in seemingly-healthy tissue without any evident provocation; the speed with which it can hit -- and the years over which it can linger; the knowledge that, whatever the trigger, it is ultimately the body turning against itself, going mad at a cellular level. While other diseases have emerged with equally (or more) devastating consequences for their victims, cancer holds a deeply-rooted place in the human imagination. A "cure for cancer" stands alongside "living in space" and "thinking machines" as key symbols for many of what The Future will hold.

    That part of the future may well be much closer than any of us had dared hope.

    Researchers at Rice University, along with a company called Nanospectra Biosciences, have determined that gold-covered nanoparticles, 20 times smaller than a red blood cell, will quickly pool in tumors when injected into the bloodstream. The nanoshells, when illuminated with a near-infrared laser (which otherwise passes harmlessly through living tissue), will heat up sufficiently to incinerate the tumors completely, in every test.

    The report of this research was in Cancer Letters (vol. 209, issue 2) in late June. The full report is only available to subscribers, but the abstract tells the story (albeit with considerable jargon). An excerpt:

    The following study examines the feasibility of nanoshell-assisted photo-thermal therapy (NAPT). [...] Polyethylene glycol (PEG) coated nanoshells (~130 nm diameter) with peak optical absorption in the NIR [Near-InfraRed] were intravenously injected and allowed to circulate for 6 h. Tumors were then illuminated with a diode laser (808 nm, 4 W/cm2, 3 min). All such treated tumors abated and treated mice appeared healthy and tumor free >90 days later. [...] This simple, non-invasive procedure shows great promise as a technique for selective photo-thermal tumor ablation.

    The researchers on this project were D. Patrick O'Neal, Leon R. Hirsch, Naomi J. Halas, J. Donald Payne, and Jennifer L. West.

    The Cancer Letters report wasn't the first time this group showed that the nanoshell + NIR laser combination could kill cancer, but this was the first time they've demonstrated that the nanoshells could be administered into the bloodstream, not requiring a direct injection into the tumor. Previous reports (available online) discuss direct-injection nanoshell-mediated treatment (PDF) and the use of nanoshells as an enabler for tumor detection (PDF). Another article from this group, this time including magnetic resonance guidance of the particles, was published on PubMed late last year; a write-up about that research appeared on the website HealthScout.

    To answer the obvious follow-up question, the nanoshells (which, in every test since they were developed in the 1990s, appear completely non-toxic) are eventually ejected from the bloodstream, and do not accumulate over time. Information about how the nanoshells work and how the cancer treatment functions from a tech perspective can be found on the Nanospectra website.

    From a WC perspective, perhaps the most exciting part of this development is the relative simplicity of the operation. It's non-invasive, does not require the use of elaborate and expensive equipment (relatively speaking), and given the time involved (6 hours of nanoshell circulation, 3 minutes of laser illumination), can be taken care of in a single-day's visit to a medical technician. The only difficult part will be in the intial identification of tumors, and the nanoshell method appears to have application in that regard, as well. If the treatment works in humans as well as it does in mice (and on human cancer cells in vitro), dealing with cancer could be nearly as simple as getting laser vision correction -- and you can do that in some shopping malls. This is not a medical treatment that would be limited by difficulty and equipment expense to the richest nations.

    If it works in people as well as it does in mice, that is, and we won't know for a while. Human trials are not yet scheduled.

    Mapping India

    Next year, India will launch its first mapping satellite, allowing a full re-mapping of the subcontinent nation in about 18 months of work. India has had access to satellite data, but always from other countries. Having control over its own geography is a useful development tool; according to the Surveyor General, ‘‘We will now be able to generate these images on our own and several users, particularly those planning highways, the river-interlinking project and such development activities, will benefit."


    One design technique which is shifting its way into futurist/consulting work is the "microscenario" process. Rather than imagining how the world will change, then thinking about how best to make products/services for that changed world, the microscenario process involves thinking of individuals living in the changed world, then coming up with ways to make individual lives better. It's a subtle difference, but one with real applicability (I've used it with a variety of consulting clients over the years, and they are constantly surprised at the results). It turns out that Bruce Sterling -- design afficianado and WC Ally #1 -- wrote a story called "User-Centric" for the December 1999 issue of DesignFax, a design engineer journal, which ably illuminates just how the microscenario process works.

    July 13, 2004


    When it comes to information technology, the United States is something of an outlier. For a variety of reasons, Americans are far more likely than residents of much of the rest of the world to rely on computers as their primary information devices. In most other places, the mobile phone is the main platform for info services. While this has both advantages (mobility) and disadvantages (editing documents), the ubiquity of the mobile telephone as information appliance has led to some novel regional variants.

    Gizmodo reports on the latest and most intriguing (for now) mobile phone information device: the Ilkone i800 mobile handset for the Islamic market. The name "ilkone" is derived from the Arabic word for "universe," and the manufacturers expect that the device will keep the users in touch with said Islamic universe. Features include:

  • Date Converter, to automatically convert between Hijri and Gregorian calendars.
  • Qibla Direction, to allow the user to know the direction towards Mecca for prayer.
  • The Quran complete text, in both Uthmanic Arabic font and English, with search engine.
  • Prayer Timer, with 5,000 cities pre-set, to alert the user when it's time to pray; this can be done with a standard alarm, or with the "azan" voice calling to prayer, with Cairo, Mecca, and Medina variants.

    And, of course, the usual run of mobile phone features, including polyphonic tones and "exciting action games."

    Part of trying to think seriously about the future involves keeping alert for "early indicators" -- data points which may not mean all that much in and of themselves, but when put into a larger context, begin to form an image of where things are going (a process Alex & I half-jokingly refer to as "data pointillism"). The i800 is just such a data point. The actual device may thrive or fail, but its existence tells us something about what the coming years may look like.

  • July 16, 2004

    Remaking Africa

    "Africa was a mess. Africa was always a mess."

    In Bruce Sterling's seminal 1988 novel Islands in the Net, the characters sometimes play with a planetary simulation called "WorldRun" -- imagine a mix of SimCity, Civilization, and Google News -- allowing them to model various political and economic approaches to solving global problems. Although I wait patiently for a version of WorldRun to appear for OS X, it has always bothered me that "Africa was always a mess" in the fictional simulations. I hate seeing futurists giving up on an entire continent.

    There are some good resources out there for those of us who still think that it's possible for Africa to no longer be a mess. In many ways an Africa-focused sibling of WorldChanging, Emeka Okafor's Timbuktu Chronicles is a blog which identifies and discusses the intersection of technology, sustainability and development in sub-Saharan Africa. Reading over the site's archives is like reading a checklist for leapfrog development. (Thanks, Emeka, for telling me about this site. Great work!)

    More of a traditional news site, AllAfrica.com aggregates headlines and information about the continent in both English and French. The main site covers general news, but it also has three subsections: Biztech (focusing on building up Africa's business and technology infrastructure), Peace Africa (covering military and peacemaking issues), and Sustainable Africa (encompassing water, energy, health, agriculture, and the environment). Like Timbuktu Chronicles, the headlines on the various AllAfrica pages are a good reminder that the tools and ideas for building a better world are here, and we need to make use of them.

    Speaking of Good Resources

    A few new URLs for interesting technology-related weblogs have been written on bricks and thrown through my window -- all well-worth reading.

    Emergic.org is Rajesh Jain's weblog on new technologies and their business and social implications, from the perspective of a Mumbai writer. It has a distinct IT/entrepreneur orientation, but Jain covers a wide-enough array of technology issues from an interesting-enough perspective that Emergic has a welcome place on my RSS list. His essays on Transforming Rural India have particularly valuable insights into the IT components of leapfrog development.

    Macroscopic is a Slashdot-style news and discussion site looking at the intersection of science, design, technology and nature. The posts are brief and wide-ranging; the site was created by John Humphrey, a student in Stockholm working on his MS in sustainable energy engineering. Although the site itself is fairly busy in appearance (lots of little animated doodads), the links are useful and interesting.

    Finally, Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends is a wonderful example of the value of focused attention. Many tech blogs give you little more than a headline about a subject, but lots of them; RPTT goes the other direction, giving you abundant information (with multiple illustrations and links) about a subject, but typically only does a single post per day. Best of all, Roland provides insightful analysis in his posts, helping the reader understand why the given subject is important.

    Okay, your turn. What sites out there -- particularly those places which haven't (yet) popped up as references on WorldChanging -- do you find useful as sources of information and news about technology, design, development, and the environment? What links do you think we should add to our small list of sites (right hand column, down towards the bottom)?

    Singularity Ahoy?

    Well, maybe. Roland Piquepaille discusses the new 20 billion node neural network computing system at Artificial Development (site has essentially no content), which is intended to be the "first neural system to achieve a level of complexity rivaling that of the mammalian brain." With a thousand processors working away on 20 billion artificial neurons and 20 trillion connections, it does sound impressive. Piquepaille notes, however, that the company employs only programmers and mathematicians, no neurobiologists or cognitive scientists; we'll see if they can come up with something interesting.

    July 19, 2004

    Power from Sewage

    What with the microbial waste-water fuel cells, the London Science Museum using human waste as a power source, and spread of biogas plants, it seems more and more people are getting on the "turn sewage into power" bandwagon. Next up, a 1 megawatt fuel cell running on the methane from the King County, Washington, sewage treatment plant -- used to help power that very facility.

    The largest project of its type in the world, the process goes like this: Biodegradable solid waste is sent to large tanks, called digesters, that provide a home for three to four weeks. There bacteria eat away at the waste, releasing methane gas and further reducing the amount of solid waste.

    "We maintain a nice little environment for bacteria: warm and wet," says Bush, program manager for the project, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, FuelCell Energy and King County.

    Most treatment plants flare off the methane, and a few burn it to get electricity for their sites. But the Renton plant captures the gas and sends it to a fuel cell system, where the methane is broken down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is recirculated to produce carbonate.  The carbonate then combines with the hydrogen to produce electricity, water, carbon dioxide and heat.

    The King County plant is an experiment in converting waste into power via fuel cells instead of simple combustion: a cleaner, more sophisticated, but technically more challenging project. The $22 million cost would likely not have been feasible without EPA support, but the lessons learned from the pilot facility will help bring down the cost of future sewage-fuel cell power plants. It may not end up being the path to a sustainable future, but it's certainly one worth following for a bit.

    Beating Like A Heart

    Engadget links to the firm Eamex (link all in Japanese), which has developed a new pump system which (among other things) mimics natural heart rhythms. Apparently the pump will be usable for a wide array of products, from artificial hearts (naturally) to laptop liquid cooling systems -- and it's already smaller and cheaper than current equivalents. A surprising (but interesting) bit of biomimicry perhaps soon appearing in your computer.

    Biomorphic Software Explained

    We talk quite a bit about biomimicry here at WC. It's not simple tree-hugging biophilia; it's all about complexity. Nature has a lot of experience with building interconnected complex systems able to last for generations, adapting to changing circumstances and taking advantage of new niches. Building a 21st century economy and society based on principles gleaned from the workings of natural systems is an approach to sustainability with a great deal of potential. It is, however, sometimes a little difficult to understand.

    ACM Queue -- the journal on "tomorrow's computing" from the venerable Association for Computing Machinery -- has in its June issue a non-specialist-friendly essay describing a biomimetic approach to programming, how it works, and why it has the potential to produce results that traditional approaches can't touch. The essay, entitled "Hitchhiker's Guide to Biomorphic Software," includes a straightforward list of characteristics of biomorphic designs (which need not include all of the bullet points):

  • Collective interaction. Behavior results from the collective interaction of similar, multiple, independent units, such as in a swarm.
  • Autonomous action. Individuals act autonomously; there is no one "master" individual controlling the behavior of the others.
  • Emergence. Behavior results—emerges—from the interaction of members, rather than being explicitly designed into the individuals.
  • Local information and interaction. Individuals tend to operate from only local information and interactions. Their scope of view is spatially local, rather than global.
  • Birth and death. The addition and removal of individuals into the group (i.e., birth and death) are expected events.
  • Adaptation. Individuals have the ability to adapt to changing goals, information, or environmental conditions.
  • Evolution. Individuals have the ability to evolve over time.
  • The essay then goes on to describe a simplified example of "multicellular" software which includes characteristics which cover this list.

    As an introduction to the software side of biomimicry, the essay is terrific. It doesn't touch the application of biomorphic principles to other sorts of design, however. Nonetheless, its checklist of the advantages and disadvantages of biomorphic software applies across the spectrum of approaches which seek to echo nature:

    The desirable characteristics of the biologically inspired architectures are evident:

  • They are robust. Failure of one or more individuals does not generally fault the group.
  • They are adaptable. Biomorphic software can adapt to its environment in a number of ways, including evolving, learning, or swapping DNA.
  • They can self-organize.
  • They are distributed and parallel.
  • They are built from simple units.

    But there are problems in designing biomorphic architectures:

  • They can be difficult to scale.
  • They can be difficult to engineer.
  • They can be difficult to control.
  • They can be difficult to comprehend. Approaches such as genetic algorithms produce solutions that can be so convoluted and obscure that we are forced to accept that "it works by magic."
  • (Thanks, Ben Hunt!)

    The Environment and the Election

    Seed magazine, a new non-specialist science journal, has put online a long article ("The Greening of Election '04," by Amanda Griscom) about the role the environment-as-issue will play in the 2004 presidential election. She makes a strong, albeit not entirely convincing, case that the environment has the potential to be a key element of a successful Kerry campaign -- not as a direct issue, necessarily, but as a force-multiplier, giving added weight to a variety of existing concerns voters across the political spectrum may have about Bush. Consider it the optimistic scenario of the environment as political focus in 2004.

    July 20, 2004

    Assorted Developments (07.20.04)

    If posting seems a bit spotty this week, it's because WorldChangers from at least two countries are gathering for a special event -- details to come.

    Here are some interesting tidbits across the WC spectrum to tide you over until one of us gets a chance to post something more substantial.

  • In "the street finds its own uses for things" department, Near Near Future points us to WiPod, an iPod note document created by the good folks at Bay Area Free WiFi listing the numerous free WiFi spots in (you guessed it) the SF Bay Area. You say you don't live in the SF Bay Area? Make one for your own hometown!
  • Perhaps you live in Paris, and not SF (hi Nicole!). If so, then the this Parisian website may have useful information for you. Nicolas Nova, in his blog "Pasta and Vinegar," points us to the site's noise level map for the entire city (here, for example, is the 7e arrondiseement; click the map to zoom in for noise details).
  • FuelCell Energy, Inc. -- the company providing the fuel cell technology for the sewage power facility we mentioned yesterday -- will be providing a 250 kilowatt fuel cell to be part of the temporary distributed generation micro-grid at next week's Democratic National Convention. As the system uses a natural gas reformer process, it won't be carbon-free, but it will produce 59 percent less CO2 than traditional combustion generators. (Found at Chiasm in its link back to us for the sewage power article.)
  • John Reardon sent us a suggestion to check out the entirely-off-the-grid house shown at "mocoloco," the weblog of Modern Contemporary design. It's the home of WorldChanging ally Glen Hunter, and I must say, it looks pretty damn cool, especially for a house made of straw. Congratulations on the fine work, Glen!
  • Finally, today is the 35th anniversary of the first humans landing on the moon, the Apollo 11 mission. Project Apollo Archive is a massive online repository of Apollo-related information and photographs. It now includes high-resolution scans of the entire "film magazine S," taken during the very first walk on the moon (can't link directly because the site uses a very silly javascript navigation tool rather than vanilla HTML links).

  • July 26, 2004

    Cooler Fuel Cells on the Horizon

    Gizmodo links to a press release from the University of Houston about breakthroughs in "cool" thin-film solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). TF-SOFCs combine lower cost than traditional fuel cells, smaller size, and lower temperatures (hence the "cool" appelation). The press release spells out some of the implications:

    Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick – the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts – more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.

    Keeping in mind that one thin film SOFC is just a fraction of the size of a human hair with an output of 0.8 to 0.9 Volts, a stack of 100 to 120 of these fuel cells would generate about 100 volts. When connected to a homeowner's natural gas line, the stack would provide the needed electrical energy to run the household at an efficiency of approximately 65 percent. This would be a twofold increase over power plants today, as they operate at 30 to 35 percent efficiency. Stand-alone household fuel cell units could form the basis for a new 'distributed power' system. In this concept, energy not used by the household would be fed back into a main grid, resulting in a credit to the user's account, while overages would similarly receive extra energy from that grid and be charged accordingly.

    Sounds great. There are a few potential downsides, however. Firstly, this is still in the "works in the lab" phase -- let's keep our eyes open for announcements of actual application development. Secondly, the definition of "cool" is rather contextual -- normal fuel cells operate at 900-1,000° C, while these operate at a mere 450-500° C. My current laptop battery gets hot enough, thank you. Thirdly, as shown in the SOFC illustration at the top of this entry (from this 2003 NASA article discussing TF SOFC applications), one of the outputs from the fuel cell energy production process is our old friend CO2, at least when natural gas is used as the source fuel. None of these are deal-breakers, but they help us remain realistic about the system's prospects.

    Future Outsourcing

    In the never-ending quest to look beyond what's next, I stumbled across an article in CRMBuyer suggesting that Africa was the inevitable future location for global IT outsourcing, once India had successfully used outsourcing to bootstrap its population into the middle class. While recognizing that the article appears to be largely based on a report from a company which just happens to facilitate global outsourcing, the logic is pretty sound. Africa won't always be a mess. If you're interested in the drivers of change in the coming decades, pay attention now to the places most people ignore.

    Mainstream Green in the UK

    As a quick follow-up to Alex's post the other day about the mainstreaming of green home design, the Guardian reports that a recent survey of British would-be home buyers resulted in 87% wanting substantial information about the environmental aspects of the homes they considered, and 84% were willing to pay an additional 2% (a seemingly small amount, until you consider how expensive homes are) for an "eco-friendly" home. It's not just mainstream home designers who are starting to think green -- mainstream home buyers are, too (at least in the UK).

    Earth, Laid Bare

    Today's Washington Post reports on the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a multinational effort to continuously monitor our home planet's land, sea, and air. The GEOSS capabilities are potentially immense:

    For starters, the network would link data from 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys and 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, officials said. Ultimately, it would vacuum up information from myriad other sources, including satellites monitoring ground and air movements, and feed it all into computers that will process it.


    Much of the sensing capacity is already in place: There are 50 satellites collecting environmental data from orbit; 68 moored buoys operated by the United States and Japan monitor the equatorial Pacific; 14 nations collaborate on a network of another 1,288 buoys that constantly rise and sink over a two-week period, from the ocean's surface to more than a mile below, to measure temperature and salinity, then transmit the data to satellites. There will be 3,000 such buoys in the next three years, Lautenbacher said.

    Other technology still in development, such as a synthetic aperture radar that will be flown on a satellite, can help predict volcano eruptions by measuring "how land is moving, down to a few millimeters," said Greg Withee, a NOAA assistant administrator. At the other end of the technology spectrum, data will also come from monitoring devices as simple as buckets that collect rainfall or human spotters who look out from towers for signs of smoke to detect wildfires.

    While many of the tools being combined into the GEOSS network come from the United States, over 50 countries are participating in the project. As the Post article notes, this includes nations which are unhappy about American policies regarding Iraq, regarding climate change, or both -- the potential value of this network is so great, and the implications are so far-reaching, that the political friction of the moment pales in comparison. The GEOSS site at the EPA includes an impressive (albeit somewhat hard-to-read) graph mapping out the myriad "measurement and monitoring datasets, models, decision support tools, and programs" connected to GEOSS via the EPA. This is really quite a big project.

    Transportation Futures That Never Were

    The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is now hosting an exhibit entitled "Transportation Futuristics: Visionary Designs in Transportation Engineering." The exhibit -- which runs from July 6 through September 30, 2004 at the Bernice Lynn Brown Gallery -- is accompanied by a "virtual gallery," which puts many of the illustrations online. The site covers autos, monorails, hover vehicles, and more -- the range of this bestiary of imagined vehicles is simultaneously amusing and staggering. While the fevered transportation dreams of the early part of the 20th century are well-represented, the exhibit also includes some much-more-recent offerings, from the Moller Sky Car to various manifestations of "Personal Rapid Transit" and "Intelligent Transportation Systems." The one thing each of these transit designs have in common is that they never really managed to revolutionize transportation -- they were all, to varying degrees, futures that never were.

    For those of us who make thinking about how the future could unfold our profession, exhibitions like "Transportation Futuristics" hold an almost fetishistic fascination. While some of the designs featured in the show are clearly hand-waving "wouldn't it be great if..." sketches, many are the result of long hours of debate, research, and informed speculation. They were not offered up in expectation of failure. These vehicles and systems were considered to be plausible -- or at least possible -- extrapolations into a future yet to unfold.

    (continued in the extended entry)

    Continue reading "Transportation Futures That Never Were" »

    July 27, 2004

    Conservatives for Conservation?

    Conservatives for conservation? In the US, despite the historical embrace of conservationism by Republicans and a growing right-leaning environmental movement (see first comment, from Emily), the Vice President notoriously referred to electricity conservation as little more than "a sign of personal virtue." But the Tories in the United Kingdom, certainly no slouches when it comes to conservatism, seem to be taking a very different path. The Guardian reports that the Tories had this to say in opposition to the Labour government's push for wind power:

    The shadow environment secretary, Tim Yeo, said "ministers have bet everything" on land-based wind farms.

    Conservatives would produce a "more balanced" policy later in the year, focusing more heavily on energy efficiency, he said.

    "We do not believe that onshore wind should be the only show in town," he said. "We do not want to put all our eggs in one basket.

    "We will look at all types of renewable energy in order to find the best long-term solution for Britain. As an island nation, why are we not doing more to harness power from wave and tide?"
    (Boldface mine.)

    As with all statements from politicians, it's good to be skeptical -- the Tories have signed on with a major advocate of nuclear power in the UK, for example, in the campaign against wind farms -- but I look forward to the day when the default American conservative energy position is to emphasize efficiency and diversity of renewable sources.

    The Discovery of Global Warming

    Critics of the global warming concept tend to come in two broad varieties. One category includes those who, for whatever reasons, simply refuse to accept the idea in any form (and which has a common sub-variant: the "global warming is not real, it has nothing to do with humans, there's nothing we can do about it, and anything we can do about it would be too expensive" complaint). The other category of critic, however, is more reasonable -- it consists of people who are cautious about the idea, wishing to see more scientific research before coming to any conclusion. While this sometimes is just a cover story for the first type of critic, there are many people out there who have understandable concerns about just how scientists know what they claim to know about climate disruption.

    Although we've pointed in the past to non-specialist-level explanations of global warming and climate change as well as to specific studies and models, we haven't had a good resource for a comprehensive and detailed explanation of how we came to understand the threat of global warming-induced climate change -- until now.

    WorldChanging friend and ally Arthur P. Smith alerted us to an amazing site at the American Institute of Physics entitled "The Discovery of Global Warming." The Discovery of Global Warming site encompasses the full text of the 2003 book of the same name by physicist Spencer Weart, as well as an abundance of additional graphs, documents, and -- best of all -- hyperlinks between the various concepts explained in the text. You can even grab an archive of the entire site as a Zip file, as PDF documents, and even as a CD-ROM.

    The site -- all 250,000 words of it -- surveys the breadth and depth of research over the years into climate change and global warming. Although current as of mid-2003, this is not simply a summary of the most recent findings. Weart spends a good bit of effort covering the history of how scientists have come to understand how the climate works, providing valuable insights into the process of science itself. Even if you don't get a chance to browse the rest of the site, I strongly recommend that you read the essay "Reflections on the Scientific Process, as Seen in Climate Studies" -- it's one of the best examinations of the scientific method in the real world I've read in a long time.

    If you already accept the global climatological consensus that anthropogenic global warming is happening and is getting worse, The Discovery of Global Warming will provide abundant detail to help you better understand how that consensus came about. If you have been honestly skeptical about the global warming threat, but willing to listen, this site will help you better understand why there is a broad scientific consensus about climate disruption in the first place. It may not change your mind, but you'll see why so many scientists take the problem so very seriously.

    (And, yes, I shut comments off for this post. Entries about global warming always seem to trigger tediously atavistic aggression-dominance displays and namecalling by certain first category climate change critics who inexplicably read this site, and I don't feel like playing comment moderator tonight. If you want to comment on the post, please feel free to send me an email or a trackback ping from your own blog.)

    July 28, 2004

    Waiting for Rain

    Among the numerous complaints about The Day After Tomorrow, by far the most justified was the criticism that a process which would take at least a decade or two to unfold (in the worst-case models) was shown taking place over the course of a few days. This was understandable, I suppose, from the perspective of movie-making -- it's hard to tell the story of a multi-decade ecosystem disaster in a summer action-movie. There are few opportunities for edge-of-the-seat excitement in that sort of story, few scenes of panicked crowds, walls of onrushing water, or last-minute heroism. The story of a gradual-but-inexorable environmental collapse would have much more to do with politics than with adventure.

    Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, Forty Signs of Rain,tells just that story.

    (Review continues in the extended entry.)

    Continue reading "Waiting for Rain" »

    July 29, 2004

    Free Wheelchair Mission

    While "confined" is a verb often heard in reference to wheelchairs, for the mobility disabled, a wheelchair is a liberating tool. Unfortunately, it's a tool unavailable to millions of disabled poor around the world. Twenty five years ago, when mechanical engineer Don Schoendorfer saw a disabled Moroccan woman dragging herself across a dirt road with her one good arm, he asked himself a question: what would it take to build and ship simple, durable, and inexpensive wheelchairs for those in need in the developing world? The Free Wheelchair Mission was his answer to that question.

    The free wheelchair idea is preposterously simple: with a cheap plastic patio chair, a couple of bicycle wheels, a couple of rugged casters, some steel tubing, and some bolts, you can build and ship a wheelchair anywhere in the world for under $42. For people injured by disease or war, a wheelchair can be a life-changing gift. The wheelchair is a compelling and useful design, elegantly executed.

    What's more -- and what makes this particularly attractive to me -- is that the wheelchairs are not just free as in "gratis," they're free as in "libre," too. From the FAQ:

    What if someone wants to copy your wheelchair design?
    We encourage organizations to copy our design, or our passion. There are aspects of the design that we could patent, but doing so would hinder others from helping. We truly want to give a wheelchair to every human in need of one. That is a huge task, and we encourage anyone to help in any way.

    In essence, these are open source wheelchairs for the world's poorest people. So far, they've shipped around 25,000 wheelchairs to over 30 different countries, and have a bold -- but not impossible -- plan to ship 20 million chairs by 2010. Of course, the more people who copy the design and the goal, the better.

    (Note: Although the site and mission is run by a religious group, I found little on the site to bother those of us who are particularly sensitive to evangelical enthusiasm.)

    (Further note: the site seems to have stopped responding. The URL is correct, but the link seems (temporarily, I presume) dead. I'll make a note of when it's back up. the site is now back up.)

    Understanding Amazonia

    Roland Piquepaille writes today about the Large-scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA) now underway in Brazil, with the cooperation of NASA. The researchers claim that this is the world's largest environmental science experiment, comprising 120 projects (of which 61 are already complete). The Earth Observatory group at NASA has an extensive introduction to the LBA.

    The LBA site summarizes the program in this way:

    LBA will combine newly developed analytical tools and innovative, multidisciplinary, experimental designs in a powerful synthesis which will create new knowledge to address long-standing issues and controversies. LBA will provide new understanding of environmental controls on flows of energy, water, carbon, nutrients, and trace gases between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere of Amazonia to help provide the scientific basis of policies for sustainable use of Amazonian natural resources. The enhancement of research capacities and networks within and between the Amazonian countries associated with LBA will help advance education and applied research into sustainable development, and help in the process of formulating policies for the sustainable development of the region.

    800 researchers involved in the project are meeting right now at the III LBA Scientific Conference, discussing the results of the completed projects and the prospects for the ones still underway. This press release from the conference gives a good sense of the scale of the undertaking, albeit with an understandable focus on Brazilian participation. A database of the abstracts of presentations at the conference is also available, for those of you particularly interested in what's going on in Amazonia.

    July 30, 2004

    Welcome, Nicole

    Astute byline observers have already noted the latest WorldChanging addition, Nicole-Anne Boyer. Her essay contributions (today's on "The Paradox of Choice" and last week's on "Harry Potter, Deconstructed") provide welcome insights and ideas from an international perspective. And "international" is Nicole's secret middle name: born in Canada, she cut her professional teeth in Singapore and San Francisco, and now lives in Paris (while engaging in research in London).

    I first met Nicole in 1998, at GBN. She struck me initially as a bit outside the usual GBN type, until I saw that she was both aware of and comfortable with her role. She was, and still is, a 21st century participant-observer, an organizational anthropologist ready to daub on the face-paint and dance while still madly taking notes.

    We're very happy to welcome her to the WorldChanging team.

    Wildfire Watch

    I could go on and on about how the GeoMAC Wildfire Viewer is a tool for open-source intelligence about the environment, or -- by allowing overlays of regional hydrographical, transportation, and historical fire information -- how it makes the invisible visible, or how it is the latest manifestation of Internet-accessible Geographical Information Systems (GIS)... but, really, the reason I am fascinated by this GeoMAC site is that it so damn cool.

    GeoMAC -- the name stands for Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination -- is a US Geological Survey tool developed to help firefighters monitor the progress of wildfires, and it is available on the web as both a detailed California map or a nationwide map (each has a slightly different interface). As very elaborate javascript applications, they can be a little slow, although they're by no means the worst I've seen. They were clearly built with firefighters in mind:

    In order to give fire managers near real-time information, fire perimeter data is updated daily based upon input from incident intelligence sources, GPS data, infrared (IR) imagery from fixed wing and satellite platforms. The GeoMAC web site allows users in remote locations to manipulate map information displays, zoom in and out to display fire information at various scales and detail, including downloading desired information and printing hard copy for use in fire information and media briefings, dispatch offices and coordination centers. The fire maps also have relational databases in which the user can display information on individual fires such as name of the fire, current acreage and other fire status information. Additional data layers like fuel status information, fuel types, aircraft hazard maps, links to remote weather station data and other critical fire analysis information are currently being added to the GeoMAC application.

    Even for those of us not in charge of putting out the fires, the GeoMAC system is a fascinating tool for watching the progress of these all-too-common summertime conflagrations. Prepare to spend a lot of time playing with it.

    (Thanks to Mack Reed for pointing me to the California GeoMAC)

    About July 2004

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

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