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August 2004 Archives

August 3, 2004

TechWatch the Vote

With less than three months left before the November 2 election in the United States, it's worth revisiting an issue that will undoubtedly be a key factor in how confident American voters feel about the outcome of the vote: "direct record electronic" (DRE) voting systems. We've touched on this issue several times (at length in January, and more briefly in March, April and June). It's an important problem, but there are solutions, both short-term and long-term. The lengthy extended post covers the details of what we can do to make sure the e-vote in November is fair and honest.

Continue reading "TechWatch the Vote" »

Cameron Sinclair Rocks

New WorldChanging contributor Cameron Sinclair has been awfully busy with his group Architecture for Humanity, and it's in a pretty damn good cause. Wired News has an interview with Cameron up today where he talks about his latest big project: the Siyathemba design competition, looking for designs for a combined soccer field and health-care facility in Smokhele, a community in KwaZulu-Natal, which has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates anywhere. It's an inspiring project, and we're proud that Cameron is a worldchanger (in every sense of the term).

Project Serene

What would you do if you discovered that something you had designed could kill thousands of people?

William J. LeMessurier. a structural engineer who consulted on the construction of the Citicorp building in downtown New York, faced just that question in the summer of 1978. A chance question from a student led him to investigate the stability of his innovative design under unusual -- but not at all uncommon -- wind conditions, such as those which would occur if a hurricane were to hit New York. What he found staggered him: conditions which had a 1 in 16 chance of happening each year could bring down the building.

The story of how LeMessurier reacted to this revelation is fascinating and instructive. He created "Project SERENE" -- "Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Expected" -- a document detailing precisely how certain engineering decisions led to the possibilty that a too-strong wind could topple a 59-story tower. He then went to the architect, and to Citicorp, to explain the problem, knowing that, in all likelihood, the revelation would lead to lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the end of his career. In the end, the building was repaired in a way that made it quite possibly the most structurally sound tower in Manhattan. LeMessurier's reputation wasn't destroyed; instead, by speaking out, by coming to Citigroup with the problem (as well as a proposed solution), his reputation was enhanced: he did the right thing.

Before the city officials left, they commended LeMessurier for his courage and candor, and expressed a desire to be kept informed as the repair work progressed. Given the urgency of the situation, that was all they could reasonably do. "It wasn't a case of 'We caught you, you skunk,'" Nusbaum says. "It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem.' If you're gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?"

Ultimately, the story of William LeMessurier is both that of the triumph of professional ethics and that of the unanticipated origins of failure. It reminds us that there's a reason it's called "doing the right thing." And it reminds us that "events nobody expected" can't be ignored. The possibility of failure exists in all human endeavors. It's how we respond to the potential for disaster of our own creation that marks our character both as individuals and as a civilization.

Talk to US

The notion that "because the US is so powerful around the world, people from every country should get a vote in who the president is" pops up now and again. I think that the notion's wrong, but not for the reason most might have: I think it's a kneejerk reaction to a historically temporary state, and one which could reinforce the unipolar condition which is not politically healthy for either the US or the rest of the world. Talk to US takes the view that, instead of global voting for the US president, what's needed is global communication: "US policies impact the whole world, but non-Americans have few ways to communicate directly with mainstream America. The international voices Americans do hear often represent only the extremes -- not ordinary people from around the world. Talk to US is changing this by gathering and distributing 30 second video messages from people around the world." Hear what people from different countries, ethnicities, classes, religions, etc. etc. -- including people from the United States -- have to say to and about the US. Whatever your political views, you'll find it educational.

Green Car Congress

Green Car Congress is an incredible resource for information and analysis about "technologies, issues and polices for sustainable mobility." The site creator, Mike Millikin, is a former infotech analyst now focusing on transportation. GCC has some of the best analysis I've seen lately of the increasingly ominous tidings from the oil industry (and the panic that's appearing in oil traders), as well as thoughtful discussions of the state of the automotive industry, all with an overarching focus on sustainable development. I'm still plowing through some of the archives -- he's been around since April -- but I strongly suggest those of you who have an interest in green transportation add Green Car Congress to your RSS feed or daily read list.

August 5, 2004

Sustainability Confernences & William McDonough

Attention William McDonough fans: Ken Novak's blog notes that the Sustainable Resources conference ("An International Forum Connecting People with Hands-on Solutions to World Poverty") is taking place in Boulder, Colorado, from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 of this year, and McDonough will be one of the keynote speakers; Novak also notes that the Engineers for a Sustainable World conference, at Stanford, will take place at the very same time -- and William McDonough is listed as a keynoter there, too. I wonder if he'll give the same talk in both places...

Talking Books in Afghanistan

Near Near Future points us to the US Department of Health and Human Services partnering with (aptly enough) LeapFrog, Inc., to make cheap electronic talking books for the women of Afghanistan (80% of whom are illiterate) in order to provide health information:

Developed jointly by HHS and LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., the 42-page interactive books deliver important basic health information through state-of-the-art audio and point and touch technology. Books are available in both of Afghanistan's two major languages Dari and Pashto. [...] The book allows users to point to pictures, then the book speaks to the user incorporating a literacy tool with health information.


The book presents more than 350 items of recorded information concerning 19 personal health subjects. Basic health information covered includes diet, childhood immunization, pregnancy, breastfeeding, sanitation and water boiling, treating injuries and burns, and preventing disease. The books convey everyday household situations, as well as information specific to child and reproductive health. LeapFrog's patented LeapPad technology brings the health information to life through stories that convey the basic health lessons for the readers.

2,000 will be distributed to Afghan households and medical facilities to determine usability and behavioral shifts. This initial dissemination will shape the subsequent distribution of the full 20,000 book project. LeapFrog, Inc. has a more detailed press release about the project here (PDF), where they emphasize that "Women will be encouraged to use the books when they visit the clinics, especially as they wait to see health professionals."

I must admit to decidedly mixed feelings about this program. The LeapPad devices are undoubtedly rugged, and while they're used for children in the US, that doesn't mean that the localized information-for-the-illiterate versions would be seen as childish or a toy. But each device requires 4 AA batteries (at least the consumer version does, and based on the press releases, I don't think the Afghan version will differ); without power, the LeapPads are heavy plastic shells for slim paper books. Given the existing infrastructure problems in Afghanistan, the assumption that batteries will be readily available -- even to clinics -- is not necessarily warranted. A better solution might have been to add wind-up power to the devices, a technology which already exists for radios (which have a similar power draw).

We the Media

This whole "give the book away and people will buy it" idea seems to be taking off. We noted awhile back that Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig's book Freeculturehad been released online for free (and promptly filled with hyperlinks by a group led by our own Taran Rampersad). Now it's WorldChanging favorite Dan Gillmor's turn, with his new book We the Media.We the Media looks at the rise of grassroots journalism in the Internet age. I was looking forward to reading it -- and now I have no excuse.

Styrofoam Houses in Afghanistan

This story has been picked up in the usual places in the blogosphere, but it's worth noting here, too: the Federation of American Scientists is promoting the use of expanded polystyrene foam as functional, efficient, and low-cost building material in Afghanistan and throughout the world. It turns out that styrofoam given a thin cement shell makes an excellent buildng material: very easy to work with (can be cut with a hot wire), inexpensive, long-lasting, has terrific thermal properties and is shock absorbant in earthquakes. The New Harmony House (in New Harmony, Indiana) was built using this material as a demonstration, with impressive results (including the house using 50-70 percent less energy than a conventionally-constructed home).

Accidentally Banning SUVs

A not-uncommon sight in California are signs in residential areas prohibiting vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds from driving on these roads. Heavy vehicles can severely damage streets, and many communities made the logical decision to ban three-ton-plus vehicles from roads simply not made to handle that much weight. After all, anything that big has to be a commercial vehicle with no legitimate reason to be driving down residential avenues, right?

Well, actually...

Slate magazine has an eye-opening article today examining the fact that nearly all of the extra-large SUVs and pickups popular these days actually weigh in at over 6,000 pounds, in part because of laws that give massive tax breaks to people who claim to use commercial-weight "trucks" exclusively for work. The article is richly detailed, and while the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the point is serious: heavyweight vehicles, whether Hummer or delivery truck, damage roads, requiring additional street maintenance that states like California can ill-afford. The solutions are not obvious -- raising the weight limit doesn't make the streets magically more weight-resistant, but enforcing the ban would anger the many owners of superheavy SUVs.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the lack of awareness city officials had that numerous popular SUVs weigh more than is legal for many residential streets. Most claimed that the rules wouldn't be enforced against SUVs, but their reluctance to upset the citizenry may well collide with fiscal temptation. Cities these days are strapped for cash; don't be surprised to see a jump in tickets being issued to Hummers, Excursions, Escalades, and the like driving down the wrong streets...

August 9, 2004

Leapfrog Updates

Three links for those of you interested in the accelerating pace of developing world technological change, and the environmental/social effects thereof:

  • Ken Novak points to a November report from All4Engineers about the start of a new biodiesel production facility in India, supported by DaimlerChrysler, using the regionally common Jatropha plant. The Jatropha biodiesel was successfully tested in April. (Added bonus: the website of an Indian biodiesel enthusiast.)
  • Also from Ken Novak: The demonstration of a fuel cell designed to provide home power for rural electrification in Latin America. Sufficient power for a home would come from a device not much larger than a shoebox, running on sugar cane-derived ethanol.
  • Finally, a useful and interesting resource: SciDevNet provides "news, views and information about science, technology and the developing world." Not all good news, of course, but a clearinghouse of reports covering everything from biodiversity to indigenous knowledge to HIV/AIDS. For those of us interested in the notion of leapfrogging, SciDevNet is definitely worth adding to the list of news sources. No RSS feed available, sadly, but they do have a weekly newsletter recapping top stories.

  • The Beauty of Travel

    Extended text and a down-sampled, shrunken image would not do justice to Notes from the Road, the online journal and gallery of Erik Gauger. He's documented his travels in the cities and countryside of the Iberian peninsula, the West Indies, and across North America from the Atlantic coast to the deserts of Mexico, drawing maps and taking pictures with an old large format camera. His most recent entries tell us of the Isthmus of Central America, from Panama to Guatemala. The pictures he takes are simply gorgeous -- there's no other word for them -- and the maps he draws are themselves works of art. He's an ecotourist, but with a very human focus. He shows us not just the physical places, but also the lives of those who call those places home.

    Notes from the Road isn't simply wonderful photography, art and words, it's ecological anthropology, and very highly recommended.

    August 12, 2004

    Welcome, Chris

    We'd like to give a rousing welcome to Chris Coldewey -- the latest addition to our happy bunch at WorldChanging.

    Chris works at GBN, where he assists in the creation of strategic scenarios for a wide variety of organizations, and is a former field ecologist working at Yellowstone, in Panama, and for the East Bay Regional Park District.

    I first met Chris back in the heady days of 2000, when he contacted me out of the blue, asking advice about where a broadly-educated, environmentally-conscious, future-aware, easily-bored young person should look for work. When I realized he wasn't trying to take my job away from me (whew), I suggested that he check out GBN, where I had been employed a few years earlier. They seemed to like him, too.

    Glad to have you on board, Chris!

    Japan Tests Solar Sail

    Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science has successfully completed the first in-space deployment of an experimental solar sail. A solar sail uses the pressure of photons streaming from the sun to slowly accelerate, allowing for travel within the solar system without the need to carry on-board fuel. Although the acceleration is gradual, it's also relentless; a fully functional solar sail should be able to achieve speeds far greater than any current rocket system.

    The experimental deployment did not test the ability of the sail material to catch sunlight for propulsion, only the ability to unfurl a large, thin, sheet in orbit. (None of the articles I found on this, including the project's English-language homepage at ISAS, indicated the area of the sails, only the thickness (0.0075 mm). If anyone finds a reference to the square meter area of the sails, drop me a note and I'll update this post.)

    Business Week on Global Warming

    One thing that has always kind of baffled me about the "Cato said it, I believe it, that settles it" brand of global warming denial is the stubborn refusal to see climate disruption not as an economic threat, but as an opportunity. As my friend Christophe says, someone is going to make a bunch of money off of this. As long as American leaders continue to ignore the problem, the more likely it becomes that that "someone" will be innovators in Europe and China (or even India and Brazil).

    Fortunately, even while politicians fiddle, business leaders are starting to take climate disruption seriously. The well-known socialist rag Business Week is even making global warming its cover story this week, and the article makes good reading for anyone interested in the business case for responding to global warming. No matter how familiar you are with the subject, the article is worth reading; many greens don't realize just how widespread the recognition of the danger of climate disruption is in the business world.

    [...] taking action brings a host of ancillary benefits. The main way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions is simply to burn less fossil fuel. Making cars and factories more energy-efficient and using alternative sources would make America less dependent on the Persian Gulf and sources of other imported oil. It would mean less pollution. And many companies that have cut emissions have discovered, often to their surprise, that it saves money and spurs development of innovative technologies. "It's impossible to find a company that has acted and has not found benefits," says Michael Northrop, co-creator of the Climate Group, a coalition of companies and governments set up to share such success stories.

    These are not wild-eyed activists trying to shut down the modern world -- these are corporate and finance executives who realize that global warming means uncertainty, uncertainty means risk, and that taking steps to mitigate risk now, rather than waiting to see what happens, just makes good business sense.

    (Via WorldTurning)

    Open Source On Mars!

    O'Reilly's ONLamp.com has an interesting story about the decision by NASA to use free/open source software for Mars Rover control systems, both on Earth and on Mars (the Earthside software -- Maestro -- is actually available for download). The article doesn't go into great detail about precisely how FOSS was used in the Rovers, only that it worked -- and worked well.

    (Via Martian Soil)

    One More Degree

    Good news & bad news time: the good news is, climate researchers have come up with an improved method for predicting the range of temperature effects from continued greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere; the bad news is, the low end of the predicted rise in temperature just went up by a degree, from 1.4°C to 2.4°C. Nature reports that a group at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research have devised a method which better accounts for the atmospheric factors (such as cloud reflection of sunlight) which don't yet have precise values, only informed estimates.

    The results are still a range of temperatures, but a range that does not depend on any of the informed guesses being exactly right. The new method predicts a hundred year rise in global average temperature of 2.4°-5.4°C. The previous range, from the IPCC, was a 1.4°-5.8°C increase. While this does mean that the high end of the range dropped by four-tenths of a degree, the full-degree jump at the low end is of greater concern.

    August 13, 2004

    Swept Away

    Imagine being in the position to receive this (fortunately quite fictional) report:

    President's Daily Brief Date: May 7, 2008


    Seismologists have detected an increased amount of seismic activity on the island of La Palma in the eastern Atlantic ocean. The USGS believes that this is the first warning of an imminent collapse of its north-western landmass. This will trigger a "mega-tsunami" of approximately 60-150 feet in height, traveling at approximately 560 miles per hour, continuing for approximately 15 minutes, hitting the entire length of the continental United States eastern coastline. The entire east coast will be flooded for fifty to one hundred miles inland, depending upon elevation. Port cities will be hardest hit, as harbors will channel the wave. We will have nine to twelve hours between the collapse of La Palma and the initial arrival of the mega-tsunami on the American coast, an insufficient time to evacuate the approximately 100 million citizens who will be affected by the disaster.

    USGS estimates the likelihood of La Palma collapse within the next two weeks to be 35%, increasing to a 75% chance by 2016.

    If that bit of terriblisma sounds like the pitch for a particularly silly science fiction movie, think again. The only imaginary numbers in that scenario are the date and the estimated chances. La Palma, part of the Canary Islands off of Africa, is very likely to collapse during a violent seismic event -- and given that La Palma is volcanic, seismic events are not unknown -- dumping a chunk of rock the size of a mountain into the Atlantic ocean, triggering a massive tsunami. The west coast of Africa would be hit by a 300 foot swell, while the eastern coastlines of North, Central, and South America would be hit by a somewhat smaller -- but still utterly devastating -- inundation.

    (The collapse of La Palma was started by an eruption of its volcano in 1949, and the next volcanic event could possibly -- but not certainly -- finish the job. Eruptions of La Palma are sporadic; the most recent one was in 1971, but the last one prior to 1949 was in 1712. The 2001 study of the geophysics of La Palma which first alerted people to this possibility is available here (PDF), and a summary is here.)

    Even moreso than an asteroid impact, this is one of those very possible wild cards that is nearly impossible to wrap one's head around. Earthquake in the Canaries, and nine hours later, whoosh! Everything from Rio to Nova Scotia is under 50+ feet of water. There's very little that could be done to stop such an event from happening -- we couldn't build a barrier strong enough to resist such a swell, and dismantling the rock is a formidable challenge at best and might itself trigger the collapse. The effects of such a disaster are almost unimaginable.

    What we can better imagine, though, are the choices facing researchers and global leaders. Right now, there are few seismic sensors on La Palma -- we are unable to get any real warnings of imminent collapse. Putting in sensors could give an early warning of a possible disaster, but such an alert would put leaders in the position of needing to decide whether to evacuate at-risk areas, knowing full well that seismic warnings are inexact, and the actual collapse could still be years -- even decades -- off. Leaving La Palma without seismic sensors, conversely, would make it impossible to be wrong, but could doom millions of people when the island eventually does collapse -- whenever that actually happens. It's not an easy choice.

    Knowledge that such a disaster is not just possible, but perhaps inevitable, is one of the side-effects of our increasingly better understanding of the Earth's physical systems. In centuries past, a disaster such as this would have taken us all by surprise, and maybe even resulted in new mythologies (such as how the Mediterranean breaking through the Bosporus and creating the Black Sea may have been the source for the various flood myths of the Asia Minor religions). Today, the potential for such a disaster is a cause for concern, a spur for better understanding of seismology, and a reminder that we are not masters of this planet, but temporary residents.

    My question for the readers, then, is: if you were President (insert Prime Minister, Governor, etc., as desired), what would you do about the inevitable -- but possibly far-off -- collapse of La Palma?

    Tidal Power, New York Style

    Nature reports that a small farm of tidal-powered turbines in the East River will start providing power to New York City come September. Once operational, this will be the first power-producing tidal turbine farm in the world. The blades of the turbines will spin as the river's tides flow in and out, producing about 200 kilowatts total. While this is a relatively small amount of power, it will provide a proof-of-concept for a possible larger installation of tidal turbines later on.

    The New York project signals a trend towards cheaper, free-standing turbines that can be dropped into oceans or estuaries. The first experimental tidal mills were installed last year: a 300-kilowatt turbine was sited off the north Devon coast in Britain and another of the same capacity was placed near Hammerfest, Norway. The two European companies behind them are planning to expand these individual mills into turbine fields.

    Taylor believes he has an advantage over his competitors, because the design of his turbine blades means that they keep spinning even at slower water speeds.

    Expanded to a full 200-300 unit farm, the tidal turbines would produce 6.5-10 megawatts, not nearly enough to power all of New York, but a good addition to a renewable mix. The unit cost is fairly high right now, but designers expect prices to come down as the technology matures.

    August 16, 2004

    Blobjects & Gizmos & Spimes (oh my!)

    Boing-Boing has a transcript of WorldChanging ally #1 Bruce Sterling's recent keynote for the 2004 SIGGRAPH conference, wherein he takes on "blobjects," the digital manipulation of industrial design, and "spimes" -- the next iteration of material objects (the order is: artifacts, the tools of subsistance farmers and gatherer-hunters; machines, used by customers in an industrial society; products, used by consumers in a military-industrial complex; gizmos, used by end-users in our current era; and finally spimes, used by "wranglers" -- all of which makes sense if you read the speech).

    Alex adds: On second reading, I think this is the most important speech/rant Bruce has laid on us since the original Viridian Design speech. It's Viridian 2.0, essentially. Do yo'self a favor. Read it. ((Except -- Jesus God! "Spime" is an awful word. An insult to the tongue, an injury to the ear, and, to my mind, at least, utterly forgetable. We must be able to do better than "Spime."))

    Green(ish) Car Tech in Brazil

    Green Car Congress -- rapidly becoming one of my favorite sites, and a daily must-read for anyone interested in energy technology, environmental technology, and/or cars -- tells us today about Fiat's plan to introduce a "four fuel" vehicle into the Brazilian market. The car will be designed to run on gasoline, diesel, ethanol, and natural gas. This will be a challenging develoment, but not without its rewards:

    Delivering a single-fuel HCCI [Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition -- explained here] platform will be challenging enough on the engine management side. Adding in the capability to switch fuels will require much additional software intelligence and control over the engine and emissions mechanisms. If successful, though, the result would be greater fuel-efficiency and emissions control.

    If oil continues its price climb, expect to see more of these sorts of announcements, particularly for vehicles in parts of the world not so tightly wedded to an existing gasoline infrastructure. While there are plenty of potential candidates, there isn't a single obvious replacement for the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine in current use. Over the next decade, we'll see a lot more experimentation and multi-fuel systems (including "plug-in" hybrids) as nations and corporations try to figure out what will provide the best combination of low cost, low emissions, and low disruption.

    August 17, 2004

    Sudan's Oil

    Green Car Congress, linking to Lebanon's Daily Star, gives us some little-known backstory on the current crisis in Sudan, and why we should expect that unfortunate nation to continue to pop up in headlines: China now gets six percent of its oil from Sudan, and this percentage is expected to rise. Other major players in the Sudanese oil game include India and Malaysia. China's increasing hunger for oil has far greater implications than simply pushing up gas prices. As the Daily Star puts it: "The Darfur affair is giving China its first close-up experience of a Middle East crisis. How it will react if the crisis deepens remains to be seen."

    Counterfactual India

    One way to get some insight into the way things are in the present is to imagine how things would have turned out had some key historical issue been resolved differently. What if the Germans had won WW2? What if Apple had licensed the Mac interface in 1986? What if Los Angeles hadn't torn up miles of streetcar lines to build highways? And so forth. The imagined outcome doesn't have to be better than the present situation, of course, or even entirely plausible. But thinking about historical contingencies can be a good way of seeing otherwise subtle connections between events, ideas, and people.

    Historians call these "counterfactuals;" science-fiction writers call them "alternate histories." Most people just think of them as "what if..." stories, which is just what OutlookIndia calls them in its special issue of essays about how India -- and, sometimes, the world -- would be different today had various historical events turned out differently. Even for those of us not steeped in the details of South Asian history, the essays make for fascinating reading; not only do the stories provide insights into how present-day India actually came about, they reveal the concerns that modern Indian historians (and amateur historians) have about India's place in the world.

    A list of some of the What If... stories should get most of you clicking over (the alternate history buffs hit the link quite awhile ago):

  • What If India Hadn't Been Partitioned?
  • What If Gandhi Had Lived On?
  • What If We Had Embraced America?
  • What If India Had Won The 1962 War Against China?
  • What If India Hadn't Gone Nuclear?

    ...and so forth. Some of the stories require some knowledge of Indian history, but most can be appreciated even if you don't know your Patel from your Jinnah.

  • Infothela

    Near Near Future reports today on the "Infothela" project in India, a bicycle rickshaw with high-speed internet access, multiple computers, and a mission to "improve education, health care and access to agricultural information in India's villages." The project is organized by the Indian Institute of Technology, which runs a rural wireless network to help bring information tech to the rural masses of India. NNF links to more info at USA Today and Smart Mobs.

    Shipping Container Urbanism

    One of the more reliable tropes of classic cyberpunk literature was the use of shipping containers as residences. Neal Stephenson used it in one of his novels, and William Gibson used it twice -- once in a novel, and again in a script he wrote for The X-Files. In cyberpunk lore, the shipping-container-cum-home was emblematic of both the "street finds it own uses for things" attitude and the life on the edge situation of the characters. As with many science fiction ideas, reality eventually caught up with the writers' imaginations, but perhaps not in the way they had anticipated.

    Sunday's New York Times had a great short article about the increasingly commonplace use of shipping containers as residential and commercial building modules in South Africa (and, apparently, elsewhere in the developing world). The article includes a set of photos illustrating the ways in which standard shipping containers get used. The 20-foot-long containers are ideal replacements for the trash-bag-roof shanties which dot the landscape of developing world urban areas.

    Shipping containers, which must survive harsh conditions during their travels, lose their seaworthiness in 5-10 years, after which they're typically sold for scrap. The article notes that Safmarine, a major global shipping concern, actually gives away old containers to schools and charities -- 7,000 of them since 1991.

    "The street finds its own uses for things." All too true -- especially when the street is a dusty road on the outskirts of Soweto.

    August 19, 2004

    Solving Tough Problems -- A Conversation with Adam Kahane

    Adam Kahane is not a man you'd pick out of a crowd as having helped move post-Apartheid South Africa towards a peaceful resolution, or helped post-dictatorship Guatemala move beyond the longest civil war in the history of the Americas. He's a quiet man -- very much showing his Canadian roots -- and tends to thoughtful consideration of his words when he speaks. But listen to him for a moment, and you know you're dealing with someone who has a vision of what it takes to build a better world. He's seen how good organizations can take fatal missteps, and how seemingly-implacable enemies can embrace the need for peaceful change. He knows that avoiding the missteps and getting to the peaceful change is simple -- but by no means easy.

    Adam Kahane's new book, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities,is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to understand how to grapple with deep-rooted dilemmas. Solving Tough Problems is not a guidebook so much as a travelogue, a set of stories about how Kahane came to understand the mechanisms of communication which allow some groups to overcome their differences when others, in equally dire situations, might fail. From his work on the 1991 Mont Fleur scenario project (PDF), which gave leaders from a number of South African factions a compelling, cooperative vision of a new nation, to the 1998 Visión Guatemala project, which broke new ground in getting political and social rivals to embrace a post-civil war democracy, Kahane has managed to help exhausted opponents see choices other than military force and political dominance. The stories serve as vivid reminders to those of us trying to figure out how to solve seemingly-overwhelming crises that success is possible.

    Many of the book's stories come from Kahane's work as a founding partner of Generon Consulting, where WorldChanging's Zaid Hassan now works (Zaid and Adam are collaborating on a guidebook for facilitators to accompany Solving Tough Problems). I've known Adam since the mid-late 1990s, through my work at GBN, and I saw him speak there last night about the book. I had a chance to sit down with him today to talk about his work, his ideas, and just what it might take to solve some of the problems for which WorldChanging is seeking solutions.

    Read the extended entry for my interview with Adam Kahane, and some excerpts from Solving Tough Problems.

    Continue reading "Solving Tough Problems -- A Conversation with Adam Kahane" »

    August 20, 2004

    Microbot Helicopters

    Okay, so I really don't know what I'd do with one, but this Bluetooth-controlled microhelicopterbot made by Seiko Epson is pretty damn cool. Weighing in at just under 9 grams without the battery, this is the lightest wireless flying robot around. Bluetooth is used to send the control program -- so it's not a remote-control unit so much as a remote-programmed unit, kind of like the Mars landers -- and to receive pictures from the on-board image sensors.

    But what do you do with a wireless microhelibot? It's too big to serve as a mobile spycam, fortunately, and Bluetooth, while useful, is not a long-range medium, so individual applications are presumably limited. But if we think of the microroboflyers not as individual units, but as parts of a larger system, some ideas spring to mind. Imagine a network of sensors using small, cheap, rugged "smart dust" technologies, but mobile, like the "feral" robotic dog project at Yale. They'd be able to keep in touch with each other via an ad-hoc "mesh" network, extending the range of the pack well beyond the normal Bluetooth distance; as long as at least one remained within range of a more powerful transceiver, data from any of the units could be sent back to researchers/operators. They'd be perfect for emergency exploration of damaged buildings, or as tools for knowing nature through technology.

    So the question isn't "what would you do with one of these?" it's "what could you do with a swarm of these?" The answer, I suspect, is "quite a bit"...

    (Via Near Near Future -- which has a very cool picture of one in flight, check it out -- and Engadget)

    Recycling Computer Hardware

    Salon has an informative article (subscription or brief click-through ad required to get to it) on the benefits and drawbacks of California's new computer recycling law, which will add an extra $6 to $10 to the cost of monitors, flat panel displays, laptops, and TVs sold in the state. The goal is good -- get people to recycle the hardware, or at least turn it in to a registered disposal center, instead of dumping the toxic trash into the waste stream -- but the mechanism may not be the best one around, as it puts the onus on the consumer to do something. Maine has a better idea, one which echoes EU policy, requiring manufacturers to be responsible for recycling, pushing them to use less-toxic (and more readily reused) materials in production. Check it out.

    Alternative Energy in Korea

    The aptly-named Alternative Energy Blog reports that the "Korean government has set a target of generating 5% of their energy from alternative energy [sources] within seven years." This is in direct response to rising oil prices, which is both good and bad. Good, because shifting to a more diverse energy basis makes Korea less subject to price shocks, and helps an overall reduction in petroleum-based carbon emissions; and Bad, because a drop in oil prices down to the levels of a couple of years ago -- not incredibly likely, but certainly not impossible -- would reduce the pressure to do something, and if a transition to 5% alt.energy production was proving more costly than expected, could easily lead to Korea abandoning the effort. Which would put them right back in the same situation when the next oil shock came around...

    Fortune On Renewable Energy

    WorldChanging ally Gil Friend notes that Fortune has joined Business Week in grappling directly with the issue of the need for alternatives to petroleum. The full article is behind a pay-to-read wall, but SolarAccess.com has an extended summary. Fortune's four-point plan includes: Improving fuel efficiency; more spending on alternative fuels; redoubled commitment to efficiency; and getting serious about solar and wind. Hardly a radical agenda, but as these ideas increasingly become the conventional wisdom of the business world, more radical approaches become much more thinkable.

    August 21, 2004

    Angry Red Planet

    It appears that NASA recently underwrote the production of a computer game about exploring and eventually colonizing Mars. This would not be a shooter (unlike the original Doom, which was set on Mars) or a wargame -- the #1 rule for producers was that there be no explosions or injuries to explorers. NASA paid a group of students at the University of Montana to design, write, code and record media for a game called "Mars: The Journey Begins." Unfortunately, the game remains locked away, with NASA uncertain how, or even whether, to release it.

    This is not the first time a virtual Mars colonization simulation has been made and then not released. In 1999, Maxis -- creator of SimCity, the Sims, and other Sim-related games, was telling everyone about its soon-to-be-released SimMars, a NASA-assisted simulation of Mars exploration, colonization, and eventual terraforming. Although Maxis suggested that the simulation would be released in late 1999, it never came out, and the website for the project was quietly shut down a couple of years ago (although it can still be seen via the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine").

    If NASA continues to sit on the University of Montana effort, the next potential hope for simulation game enthusiasts to get a chance to imagine building a colony on Mars (without having to fight extradimensional demons or "enemy" colonists) is the independently-developed "SimMars" mod pack for SimCity 4. This will give new textures, buildings, transportation systems and (presumably) infrastructure to the popular city sim game, although it won't be a full-scale simulation of building in the Mars environment. Currently in development, the target release date is March of next year. You'll note that, with 7 months left to go, the project's News page is filled with links to Design Team News, Graphics Team News, etc., which result in "page not found."

    Mars seems as deadly a challenge for software developers as it often is for robotic explorers.

    Let A Million Solar Homes Bloom

    As we've noted before, California's celebrity Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has turned out to be moderately green in many of his policies. The latest example of both the "green" and the "moderately" is his new proposal for California to add one million solar-powered homes by 2017, building on proposed legislation to require home builders to offer optional solar panels by 2008. While a million new solar homes sounds like a nicely ambitious number, the projected date (2017) seems somewhat timid (the California Building Industry Association projects that 200,000 new homes will be built in the state in 2004, so even without any growth in that pace, we'd be looking at around two and a half million by 2017; it's much more likely that the pace will climb, so a total of three or even four million new homes by 2017 is more plausible). I suspect that there are too many converging forces -- energy costs, recognition of environmental effects of certain types of energy production and use, the growing popularity of "smart grids" among planners and the growing diversity and dropping cost of solar power systems -- for such a development to take that long.

    August 22, 2004

    Former Soviet Weapon Designers Take On Wind Power

    A team-up of engineers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Makeyev State Rocket Center in Miass, Russia has developed a new model of wind turbine for home use. The "Wind Sail" design is a vertical axis wind turbine (VAWT), designed to be used as a generator for off-the-grid and distributed-grid systems. The current production model, the WPU-2500, produces 2500 kilowatt hours over the course of a year in typical wind conditions.

    VAWT systems have several advantages over more traditional horizontal axis wind turbines. They scale down more efficiently, are usually quieter, and have a much lower rate of bird kills -- predatory birds can even rest on the top of a VAWT without trouble. The Wind-Sail system adds another benefit: former weapon designers no longer on the global market.

    August 23, 2004

    Car and Driver on Hybrids

    Car and Driver's latest issue has two separate articles about hybrids, and anyone with an interest in the real world performance of efficient vehicle technologies should check them out.

    The first is their preview of the long-awaited Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. When Bill Ford took over the company a few years back, he promised major changes to the vehicles Ford produced in order to improve greenhouse gas emissions. He has yet to really live up to his promises, but the Escape Hybrid appears to be a move in the right direction. With mileage in the 30-40 mpg range -- low for a hybrid, but outstanding for a sport-utility vehicle -- the Escape Hybrid looks to be a decent if unspectacular first American hybrid on the market (even if it does use Toyota's hybrid technology -- I am told that both Ford and Toyota have stated that this is not the case, and that Ford's hybrid tech is entirely its own creation -- thanks, Mike!).

    For WorldChangers more interested in maximum efficiency than maximum space in their green vehicles, Car and Driver also has an article entitled "The Frugalympics," which compares real-world results of four high-efficiency automobiles: the current-model Toyota Prius, the current-model Honda Civic Hybrid, the VW Jetta GLS TDI (Diesel), and the Toyota Echo (which is gasoline powered but both high-mileage and low price). They took the four vehicles on trips in an urban setting, on the highway, and in "suburban" driving -- few stops, but much lower than highway speeds -- in order to see which car gave the best results.

    The article is definitely worth reading, as it spells out some of the current concerns with hybrids, turbo diesels, and high-efficiency gasoline vehicles. The issue of hybrids (like all cars) not meeting EPA estimates is confronted directly and fairly; even while making note of actual mileage in cities and highways, C&D also reports on the much-better-than EPA results from "suburban" conditions (this matches my own experience with my Honda Civic Hybrid, btw). Check out the article for full details, but if you simply must know now how the four vehicles rated, read the extended entry for the results.

    Continue reading "Car and Driver on Hybrids" »

    Electricity Revives Coral

    Alex posted last April about efforts to build and renew coral reefs using wire mesh and low-power electric currents, and noted that results weren't yet clear. Wired now reports that these grids have, in fact, been impressively successful:

    The grids were then seeded with small fragments of live coral, which begin to grow "between five and 10 times faster than normal, with much brighter colors and more resilience to hot weather and pollution," said a co-owner of the Taman Sari Cottages, an American who goes by the single name Naryana.

    Some corals have been transplanted directly onto the bars, attached by wires or wedged into specially designed spaces. Soft corals, sponges, tunicates and anemones were also transplanted. Vibrant colors and growth up to nearly a half inch in less than a month have been recorded. Grids that suffered power failures saw less vigorous development and duller colors.

    "Today, the fish are back, including deepwater fish which come into the reef to rest during the daytime," Naryana said.

    Coral reefs are critically important to maintaining healthy oceans, and are under increasing threat; it's good to know that we may have a way of keeping them around.

    Plastic Nanowires for Solar Panels

    Researchers at Brookhaven National Labs and the University of Florida have come up with a way of creating polymer nanowires with specific application to solar power systems:

    In conventional solar panels the energy from the sun is excites electrons in a semiconducting material such as silicon, creating the current flow. Replacing the silicon with polymer nanowires would make the solar cell much lighter, and eventually cheaper.

    The so-called plastic solar cells can be made much bigger and are also more flexible, making them more versatile. Normal solar panels are rigid, expensive and their size is constrained by manufacturing techniques.

    The report is from The Register which (a) doesn't give a lot of details or useful links, and (b) doesn't have the best reputation as a tech journal. Anyone have a more detailed -- and reliable -- link for the story?

    China As Solar Tech Resource for Developing World

    This could be big news.

    SciDev.Net reports that China plans to train 10,000 technicians from the developing world on the deployment and use of solar power technologies over the next five years.

    Describing the plans, Xi Wenhua, director of both the Institute of Natural Energy (INE) and the China Solar Energy Information Centre, told SciDev.Net the training will include programmes on small-scale solar power generation and solar-powered heating and irrigation.


    According to Xi, China has some of the most advanced and practical solar energy technologies of any developing country. While admitting that China's solar energy technologies are less efficient than those of Germany, Japan and the United States, he adds that the cost of producing them is much lower than in industrialised countries.

    The costs of solar technologies continue to drop in China as it pushes forward in its plan to get 5% of the country's power from solar within ten years. But the efficiency and cost of the solar power systems may be secondary to the relationships being built between China and these various developing nations in the realm of alternative power. Remember the observation in last week's post about BusinessWeek: Someone is going to make a lot of money off of the response to global warming and the shift away from fossil fuels. China is positioning itself to be that someone not by trying to skim the cream of American, Japanese, and European markets, but by becoming the business partner of choice for the myriad nations that will need power to support development but don't have an existing fossil fuel-based power infrastructure already deeply entrenched.

    The value to both China and the developing nations is evident: China gets larger markets for its solar power systems and wraps up a technology relationship with these nascent markets which could last decades, while the developing countries get experience with useful technology and the beginnings of a power infrastructure well-suited for the increasingly diverse and distributed nature of 21st century electricity networks.

    August 24, 2004

    Online Course on Climate Change

    The Earth Council -- a Geneva-based international NGO "civil society vehicle created to follow up, promote, and advance the implementation of the Earth Summit agreements" -- has started an online seminar entitled "The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change." It is being taught by Sven Åke Bjørke, a lawyer, science teacher, and course designer for the UN University/Global Virtual University, and the project leader/lead author on two UNEP climate change research efforts, and more. The focus is on the scientific consensus (based on the IPCC) on global warming, but will also bring in perspectives from critics and outside researchers. It appears to be fairly introductory, but could be very interesting. Tuition is $54 now, going to up to $60 soon.

    (Via SciDev.Net, which has more details)

    Open Source Science

    "The Common Good," a new essay in Nature by consulting editor Philip Ball, explores the growing use of collaborative methods to build and evaluate scientific efforts. Such methods make use of the cumulative wisdom of the scientific analysis of dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of participants. Although the observations made by any single person may not be individually insightful, the accumulated (and, occasionally, averaged) efforts are often dazzling. While Ball's essay is not overly detailed, it covers a variety of projects -- some which many WorldChangers will already be familiar with, and some which are quite new.

    Ball covers three broad categories of mass-collaborative science. The first I would characterize as mass analysis, in which large numbers of people take a look at a set of data to try to find mistakes or hidden details. His best example of this is the NASA Clickworkers project, which used a large group of volunteers to look at maps of Mars in order to identify craters. It turned out that the collective crater identification ability of volunteers given a small amount of training was as good as the best experts in the field. Ball links this directly to the James Surowiecki book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which argues that the collective decision-making power of large groups can be surprisingly good. WorldChanging's Nicole Boyer has mentioned The Wisdom of Crowds in a couple of her essays, most notably this week's The Wisdom of Google's Experiment. The ability of groups to act collectively to analyze and generate information is one of the drivers of collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia -- any individual contributor won't be an expert on everything, but the collected knowledge of the mass of authors is unbeatable.

    The second model of collaborative science he discusses is that of mass evaluation, in which large numbers of people have the opportunity to vet articles and arguments by researchers. This is a less quantitative and more subjective approach than collaborative analysis, but can still produce high-quality results. Ball cites Slashdot and Kuro5hin as examples of this approach, with the mass of participants on the sites evaluating the posts and/or comments, eventually pushing the best stuff up to the top. In the world of science, articles submitted to journals are regularly checked out by groups of reviewers, but the set of evaluators for any given article is usually fairly small. Ball cites the physics pre-print journal arXiv as an exemplar of a countervailing trend -- that of open evaluation. ArXiv allows anyone to contribute articles, and lets participants evaluate them -- a true "peer review."

    The third model Ball discusses is perhaps the most controversial -- that of collaborative research, where research already in progress is opened up to allow labs anywhere in the world to contribute experiments. The deeply networked nature of modern laboratories, and the brief down-time that all labs have between projects, make this concept quite feasible. Moreover, such distributed-collaborative research spreads new ideas and discoveries even faster, ultimately accelerating the scientific process. Yale's Yochai Benkler, author of the well-known Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, argues in a recent article in Science (pay access only) that such a method would be potentially revolutionary. He calls it "peer production;" we've called it "open source" science, and have been talking about the idea since we started WorldChanging.

    This is neither a utopian vision of "citizen science" nor a "Science Survivor" where the least popular theories get voted off the island each week. All three of these models are based on the mass participation of people who are at least amateur scientists, and who can demonstrate some understanding of the processes involved. The Clickworkers project required a moderate amount of training, evaluative comments on arXiv from those without a physics background will likely be ignored, and "peer production"/"open source" scientific research will be open to those who actually know how to carry out the proper experiments. Such "mass elitism" is not without precedent; Free/Open Source Software development is open to anyone who wants to participate, but does not usually accept code contributions from people with marginal programming skills. Functional "wisdom of crowds" approaches are predicated on the assumption that the crowds comprise people who are familiar with a given subject enough to even be able to speculate on the right answer to a problem.

    All three of these methods are based on the fundamental logic of the open source concept: with many eyes, all bugs are shallow. The more participants you have, the greater the breadth of knowledge and experience, and the greater the ability to find subtle problems or hidden surprises. The open science approach is potentially invaluable -- and it's in the best traditions of science itself, which has always flourished best in a world of critical engagement, open discourse, and cooperation.

    Thirty Essential Studies

    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is, for me, one of the best examples of the intersection of activism and anticipation. The CRN founders -- Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix -- have a detailed understanding of the science underlying the growing field of nanotechnology, and a strong desire to make sure that when the molecular nanotech era arrives, we (as a civilization) are ready for it. I've talked about CRN a few times before -- and they're on WorldChanging's small link list -- and while I don't necessarily agree with all of their conclusions, they are far and away the best resource around for understanding the implications of emerging molecular technologies.

    The CRN blog and the newsletter are valuable information sources, but by far the most useful -- and challenging -- part of the CRN site is their Thirty Essential Studies section, where they lay out the research that should be done over the next few years to better understand how we can deal with potentially game-changing technological developments. By and large, these are not technical questions, but social, political, and economic ones -- that is, they are the questions of how the technology is developed and used by people. While many of the suggested studies are very nanotechnology-focused, the Thirty Essential Studies taken as a whole could serve as a model for other groups interested in a given early-stage technological development.

    Treder and Phoenix are not neo-Luddites, as they clearly believe that the potential benefits of molecular nanotechnology are numerous and transformative. But neither are they Nano-Cheerleaders, as they ask hard questions about the ways in which molecular manufacturing would affect jobs, military power, and the environment. They are (although they don't actually say so) embracing the Precautionary Principle -- they're trying to figure out the ways in which nanotechnology could emerge, so that we can avoid the pitfalls and disasters.

    Molecular nanotechnology is coming, and coming soon. Skeptics are harder to find with each new development, and governments around the world are starting to talk openly of using molecular nanotech as an economic and military equalizer. The more we can work now to think about, to plan for, and to direct the nanotechnological era, the better off we'll be.

    August 25, 2004

    NASA's Drought Prediction Model

    Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center may have found a method of predicting drought conditions months in advance. The catch is, the method is currently based on a set of computer models. Now the test is to see if what works well on a virtual Earth can be translated into real-world predictive power.

    In the Global Land-Atmosphere Coupling Experiment (GLACE), Koster and colleagues duplicated the same experiment using 12 different computer models from around the world. With each model researchers compared the rainfall behavior in two sets of simulations: one in which the soil moisture differed between the simulations, and one in which all simulations saw the same soil moisture. Any increase in rainfall agreement in the second set of simulations shows an impact of soil moisture on the rainfall.

    Although the model results differed, the simulations also shared certain common features. By averaging together all the findings, the researchers identified the common features, or "hot spots" where soil moisture influences rainfall the most.

    The next step is to work through satellite data to confirm the simulation results. The key will be determining soil moisture levels in key "hot spot" locations. The Aqua satellite (part of NASA's Earth Observing System satellite network) can measure soil moisture only down a couple of centimeters; the upcoming Hydrosphere State mission, set to launch in 2009, will be able to measure global soil moisture down to 5 centimeters.

    Solar Power Steam Turbine

    The Alternative Energy Blog notes an article in the Daily Yomiuri On-Line about a new solar-powered steam turbine system invented by one Professor Takeo Saito of Tohoku University. The Professor claims that he has been able to generate twice as much energy than he could get out conventional solar cells, with a power output of 1,300 watts. He intends on building a miniaturized version for washing machines.

    The solar steam turbine may not be worldchanging per se (the fact that it uses superheated chlorofluorocarbons gives one pause, at the very least), but Saito's stated reasons for undertaking its development are. During Japan's economic bubble of a few years back, Saito, a specialist in energy and environmental sciences, determined that the then-current rate of consumption was simply unsustainable, and began work on alternative energy systems. As the idea that current rates of consumption are simply unsustainable becomes more widespread, expect to see more out-of-the-blue innovations as more people grapple with the issue (remember: with enough minds, all problems are shallow). Many of the resulting ideas and models will be somewhat unworkable, but some will be revolutionary. Count on it.

    Brazilian Discounts for Renewable Energy

    Also via Alternative Energy Blog is a report in Business News Americas that the Brazilian power regulator, Aneel, has announced that it will discount transmission and distribution rates by up to 50% for renewable power. Local predictions are that this will correspondingly double the demand. Discounted power types include wind, solar, small-scale hydro, biomass and cogeneration plants. The discounts -- which will result in a 10-15% drop in customer costs -- are intended to encourage smaller businesses to buy directly from the renewable generators, not from the "incumbent distributors."

    August 26, 2004

    General Electric Getting Greener

    We've mentioned the growing G.E. interest in alternative energy before, but "GE: Green and European," in the current Technology Review, makes it clear how big the firm's efforts actually are. G.E. is set to open up a $52 million renewable energy research lab near Munich. The lab will look at ways to advance wind turbine, fuel cell, biomass, and polymer-photovoltaic technologies, as well as developing the systems required to integrate less-steady alternative power sources into existing electrical grids.

    It’s all part of GE’s strategy to dominate the market for renewable-energy technologies. Two years ago, GE bought Enron’s wind business and expanded aggressively into the wind power market. Today, GE Wind Energy is one of the company’s fastest-growing divisions and is heading for world market leadership, having picked up another 9 percent of market share from 2002 to 2003, according to BTM Consult in Denmark. And in March, the company acquired the U.S. photovoltaics manufacturer AstroPower and now sells complete photovoltaics systems for homes. “In ten years, we will rule the world,” predicts Vlatko Vlatkovic, GE global technology leader for electronic and photonic systems

    Um, okay. I presume he means that metaphorically. The Technology Review article notes that G.E.'s move into Germany is the direct result of the decision by its main European rival, Siemens, not to make renewable energy a core part of its business. It's a result that both confirms and counfounds expectations. Here we have a major American corporation deciding that renewable power is a future market worth pursuing (surprise!), but also deciding that Europe is where it should focus its environmental research money and industrial-collaboration efforts (not a surprise).

    Green Car Congress on Biohydrogen

    WorldChanging favorite Green Car Congress has an informative post up today about new developments in biohydrogen generation discussed at this week's 228th meeting of the American Chemical Society. Since the most efficient current methods of generating hydrogen involve electricity (likely not from a renewable source) and natural gas (a non-renewable resource), and result in carbon emissions, looking for ways of getting economically useful amounts of hydrogen from renewable biomass is a Good Idea. GCC lists and links to some of the developments -- including a new method of increasing the efficiency of photochemical hydrogen production from water.

    Hydrogen Delivery Vans

    Delivery giant UPS is set to start using three hydrogen fuel cell medium-duty delivery vans, one each in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Ann Arbor. This will be the first time medium-duty fuel cell vehicles will be in mainstream use in the US. They have acceleration equivalent to gas or diesel vans, but have 10% more cargo capacity than the diesel medium trucks UPS now uses, and should have a much longer-lasting drive train, reducing maintenance costs. Of course, UPS has 88,000 vehicles, so this is a very tentative start, but if the technology lives up to its promise in the field, we should see a more rapid adoption down the road.

    (Via Green Car Congress)

    Welcome, Slashdotters (Again)

    Alex's interview with Ethan Zuckerman was just linked to by Slashdot, which means a big increase in site activity (so if it takes a bit longer than usual to load, now you know why) and an influx of new visitors. So, welcome, Slashdot readers -- take a look around, read through some of the archives, and let us know what you think of WorldChanging.

    August 27, 2004

    WorldChanging On The Well

    Bruce did it (repeatedly). Howard did it. Cory did it. And now it's our turn. That's right, WorldChanging is the guest on The Well's public "Inkwell.vue" discussion forum. For the next two weeks, WorldChanging founders Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen, as well as contributors Dawn Danby, Emily Gertz, Jon Lebkowsky, and Taran Rampersad will be answering questions, asking questions, batting around ideas, and looking for inspiration on the world's best-known virtual community. Even if you're not a Well member, you can participate, and we hope the conversation will be wide-ranging -- come on by and talk to us.

    The Personal Genome Project

    The first million base pairs of the human genome took four years to decode; the second million base pairs took four months. The rate of improvement in the computational ability to sequence DNA base pairs is progressing at a rate comparable to -- and occasionally faster than -- the famous "Moore's Law" doubling curve, a testament to both improvements in processor capability and improvements in process. Within the next ten years, possibly by the end of this decade, biologists will be able to sequence fully a given DNA sample in a matter of minutes. In other words, it will soon be possible to have not just a human genome sequence, but your human genome sequence. Among the many questions which will result will be who owns the DNA, and who will own the process of telling your what your DNA holds?

    The Personal Genome Project (PGP), at the Harvard Molecular Technology Group & Lipper Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School, attempts to answer at least one of those questions. The PGP is an effort to make sure that an open, public domain approach to personal genome sequencing has a hold on the space, so as to better compete with the inevitable commercial efforts. The project is relatively new, and is still seeking participants.

    As the PGP technology is advancing rapidly we would like to begin discussing the best ways to recruit people to have their genome sequenced (in part or whole). This web page is a work-in-progress draft. Volunteers for designing this plan as well as potential volunteers for genome sequencing are welcome. This may involve ethicists, attorneys, database-security experts, medical records, management, fund raising, public health, public relations, education, etc.

    The founders of the PGP published recently (PDF) in Nature Reviews Genetics an examination of recent and potential advances in DNA sequencing, including an argument for the likely existence of a $1,000, 90 second genome sequencing system before 2010. The article looks beyond the technology to discuss the clinical, political, and ethical aspects of the ability to sequence an individual's DNA cheaply and quickly:

    In the case of Moore versus Regents of the University of California, [...] the court rejected the idea of [an individual's] property rights to the cells themselves, and that informed consent implies a right to information that is derived from the biological material itself. Fewer than half the states in the United States require informed consent for genetic testing, and there are no US federal laws that ban genetic discrimination for medical insurance or in the workplace. [...] A second category of explicit legal concern is that of patent law. In the United States, Europe and Japan, only portions of DNA that are non-obvious, useful and novel can be patented. ULCS [ultra-low cost sequencing] technologies will probably not be able to avoid the resequencing of patented genes. Interesting legal issues arise around the question of patients’ rights to have analysed (or to self-analyse) their own DNA sequence versus corporate interests that presumably own the rights to that analysis.

    "Interesting legal issues" indeed. In one of my recent science fiction scenario books, Broken Dreams,I posited the implementation of a "Genetic Rights Management" system, allowing those companies which develop advanced biotechnologies to prevent the unlicensed duplication of their patented gene sequences (such as by having a baby). What the PGP team warns of, however, goes beyond even that: your right to even read your own DNA could be challenged if your genome contains sequences already patented by a biotech firm.

    A public domain genome effort like the PGP is an attempt to forestall such a future. By making the technology for gene sequencing fast, cheap and, ultimately, out of any company's control, the Personal Genome Project serves two vital purposes: making knowledge as widely available as possible, and keeping knowledge as free as possible. We wish them success.

    August 28, 2004

    The Elevator Prize

    We've talked about space elevators ("beanstalks," "space bridges") a few times before. A ground-to-orbit elevator system would dramatically reduce the cost (and danger) of getting material into space, potentially opening it up for non-governmental exploration far more effectively than commercial/private launch vehicles. But that doesn't mean that beanstalk planners can't learn something from private spaceships -- or, more precisely, from the effort that seems to have catalyzed private space craft production.

    The Elevator:2010 site (which was empty when I looked at it in early July) has announced the first annual Space Elevator Climber Competition. The goal is to build prototype ribbon climbers -- a necessary mechanism for building an elevator -- which maximize speed and efficiency while minimizing weight. The prizes for the best teams at the competition: $50,000 for first, $20,000 for second, and $10,000 for third place.

    MSNBC has a lengthy article about the effort, but the details of the competition requirements can be found on the Elevator:2010 site itself:

    The competition provides the race track, in the form of a crane-suspended vertical ribbon, and a strong light source to power the climbers. Competing teams provide climbers, which have to use the power beamed to them and scale the ribbon while carrying some amount of payload. Climbers will be rated according to their speed and the amount of payload they carried.

    The climbers (unmanned, of course) will weigh 25-50 kg [50-100 lbs], and will ascend the ribbon at about 1 m/s. [3 feet per second or 2.5 MPH]

    The beam source is a 10 kWatt Xenon search-light (80 cm beam diameter, about 25% efficient), which should yield a climber power budget of about 500 watts.

    The ribbon is roughly 30cm (1 foot) wide by 1 mm thick, is about 60m (200 feet) long, and is tensioned to about 1 ton.

    The competition will be held next summer, in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can bet we'll be there to watch it.

    Prius Sportscar?

    Green Car Congress tells us of Toyota's plans to unveil a Prius sport version at next month's Paris Motor Show. With a combined gas-electric yield of 145 horsepower, it will do 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds, while still getting Prius-like mileage when driven normally. Whether this more zippy version of the Prius will ever make it to showroom floors is another story, but I know there are already folks out there drooling over the possibility...

    Hydrocarbon Sponge for Cleaner Cars

    Nature reports that researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed a silicon, aluminum and oxygen sponge that looks (at the atomic scale) like "swiss cheese" -- and is able to absorb the smog-producing hydrocarbon emissions that catalytic converters won't catch while warming up. 80% of the hydrocarbon emissions escape during the first few minutes after a cold start. This sponge -- made of a material called SSZ-33 (they really need to work on their marketing, I suspect) -- traps the hydrocarbons until the catalytic converters are warm enough to function.

    Garage-Built Scope Finds a Hot Jupiter

    Sky and Telescope reports that a team of amateur and professional astronomers, using a network of off-the-shelf hardware (including a 4-inch Schmidt telescope assembled in the team co-leader's garage), identified a new extra-solar planet. It's a so-called "hot Jupiter" -- a massive gas planet orbiting closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun. Most of the extra-solar planets discovered thus far have been of this type, as the current best method for spotting planets outside our solar system involves watching a star for rhythmic perturbations. Massive planets very close to their parent stars are far and away the most likely to show up this way. Still, we've mentioned the possibility of amateur astronomers making important discoveries by linking equipment before, and it's good to see the scenario play out. More info on amateur astronomers looking for extrasolar planets can be found at TransitSearch.org.

    August 29, 2004

    Personal Genomes, Gene-Doping, and the Olympics

    As Emily posted about a few days ago, there's a growing level of anxiety out there about the ways in which genetic modifications could alter what it means to be human. One of the most visible manifestations of that, in this Olympic year, is the fear that "gene-doping" could make it impossible to determine whether a given athlete has had modifications done to enhance strength, speed, flexibility, or other sport-related physical abilities. Biochemical modifications, no matter how subtle, will eventually be discovered; gene-doping may not be detectable at all through traditional methods.

    Gene-doping is the process of introducing new genetic material into cells in order to induce new or increased physiological products (proteins, hormones, etc.). A gene-doping process to increase muscle production has been shown to be successful in mice tests and is moving swiftly to human trials; it has enormous potential for treating muscular dystrophy. The athletic applications are self-evident.

    Here's the scenario, then: as I noted in my post on Friday about Harvard Medical School's Personal Genome Project, it's very possible that cheap, fast genome sequencing technology will be widely availble by 2010. It will almost certainly be available by 2012, in time for that year's Summer Olympics. I suspect that the first use of individual genome scanning we'll see outside the doctor's office will be at Olympic events, and, from there, spreading through amateur athletics around the world. By late in the next decade, we'll probably see gene-scanning done as a matter of course even at the high school level.

    It's possible that this cycle will start even by the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but I suspect that it will take a global scandal to push institutions towards the regular use of genome scans. The idea of having one's DNA on file is just unnerving enough that I expect to see push-back, at least at first. I may be wrong; we could well see genome sequencing technology deployed at the next Summer games.

    How would this work? I'm not a geneticist, but it might play out something like this: Since gene-doping is a targeted, localized process, it doesn't change the genome in every cell of the body. Genome sequencing-based doping tests would probably do a comparison of genes from sport-appropriate muscle groups (thigh muscles for runners, shoulders and arms for shot-put, etc.) and a random selection of unrelated body parts. Down the road, as gene-doping techniques become more sophisticated, there might be a requirement for all amateur athletes to register their genomes at an early age with an international committee, so the DNA would be available for later comparison should the athlete compete on the world stage.

    The question, for me, is where does this lead? Will we start looking for evidence of gene-doping in other competitions where it might be useful? Will we see mandatory DNA tests for spatial-processing modifications at high school "Math Field Day" events, or memory improvement doping at the National Spelling Bee? Or will this lead to a future where genome modifications are seen as no more unfair than any other training technologies?

    August 30, 2004

    Darwinian Fisheries

    Natural selection -- where certain traits give a population of a species a better chance of survival and reproduction under given environmental conditions -- doesn't result only from "natural" pressures. The problem of antibiotic overuse resulting in resistant bacteria is well-known, but Darwinian results from human activities may be showing up in an entirely new realm: cod. According to a subscriber-only article in this week's Financial Times (complete version is available in a Google Cache), researchers at the Institute for Applied System Analysis in Austria report a steady decline in north-east Arctic cod sizes over the past 60 years. They link this to fishing guidelines which mandate only the largest fish can be kept when caught; smaller ones are more likely to be thrown back, and therefore are more likely to pass along their genes. Changes to fishing rules -- specifying a maximum size as well as a minimum -- could reduce this selection pressure, but without countervailing pressure to make being large more survivable than being small, increases will happen much more slowly.

    (Thanks, Tim!)

    WiFi in Amsterdam

    Reuters reports that a company called "HotSpot Amsterdam" launched a wireless network today with aims to cover the entire city of Amsterdam. "The first seven base stations are up and running, connecting historic areas that date back to the 13th century, while the entire city center will be covered by 40 to 60 antennas within three months, HotSpot Amsterdam founder Carl Harper said." Covering the entire city will take around 125 stations. Unlike some of the metropolitan WiFi efforts we've mentioned in the past, this will not be free -- but the E4.95/day and E14.95/month rates significantly undercut the far steeper fees charged by Dutch telecoms.

    Participatory Panopticon-level Storage by 2009?

    One of the ideas we've talked about in some detail on WorldChanging is the "participatory panopticon" -- the notion that the evolution of networked mobile personal cameras (i.e., cameraphones) will trigger big changes in how we interact with each other both individually and socially. Signs of this are hard to miss, but key aspects of the revolution are still missing. One important step will be to make the devices wearable, not hand-held; primitive versions of such devices are already on the scene. Another step will be to make these devices record images constantly, not just when the user clicks a button, to allow the user to review what s/he had previously seen. Again, primitive versions of this concept are in development, although these are set to record a picture a minute -- a snapshot, not a journal.

    When I say "big changes," I mean it. The number one comment I get when I talk about the participatory panopticon is "Great! I'll never lose another fight with my wife/husband!" Mildly amusing, sure, but think about it: what does it do to a relationship when everything you ever say to each other may be recorded for later review? And we shouldn't assume that partners will just shut off the capture when talking to each other. Even for healthy relationships, the ability to recall exactly what one's partner said (a grocery store request, for example, or a casual mention of a favorite movie) will be hard to ignore.

    That's off in the future -- but how far off? One key reason why such devices are currently limited in how often they record an image is storage. Taking one high-resolution image every minute can add up quickly: taking a 5 megapixel image every minute will fill a typical 50 gigabyte hard drive in a matter of a couple of weeks (depending upon compression and whether it ever gets turned off). Filling that same space with 24 frame-per-second video would take far less time, probably less than a day at a reasonably high resolution.

    Colossal Storage may have the technology on track to make this concern go away: "3D rewriteable atomic holographic optical data storage nanotechnology". This article at the physics and technology news site PhysOrg.com, although basically a rewrite of a Colossal Storage press release, gives some detail (and is more readable than the company's website). If the technology they've developed works -- and they claim that it will, of course -- we could see relatively inexpensive 10 terabyte to 10 petabyte removable disks (with read/write speeds in the 1000 Mbps range) on the market by 2009.

    10 terabytes is 10,000 gigabytes; 10 petabyes is 10,000,000 gigabytes. With that kind of storage, it becomes possible to imagine keeping a real-time video (and audio) record of one's life, swapping disks out perhaps only once a year. (I have this sudden image of one spouse shouting to another from across the apartment, "Honey, do you remember where we put 2013?" "You put it away last April, do a lookup!")

    There are other uses for such a volume of storage, of course, particularly in medical research. While the data from the Human Genome Project fits nicely on an iPod, data from the Brain Atlas Project will likely take "petabytes." But for most people, keeping a record of one's own life is the use that has the most potential to demand massive amounts of storage.

    Colossal Storage may be onto something important, or may be little more than big promises and dodgy research. I'm not qualified to say, and would certainly appreciate comments here from people who can parse the research material linked on the company's website. But regardless of whether this particular development works out, the technology is coming, and faster than we may be ready for.

    Solar Lanterns for Indian Villages

    Ken Novak points us to an article in The Hindu noting that 660,000 houses in 1,000 villages in the state of Karnataka will receive solar-powered lanterns "as part of a 'self-village energy security programme' involving the State Government and the Union Ministry for Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES). This is part of a scheme to electrify 'remote' hamlets using renewable energy." The project will cost about $20m; 90 percent of the funds will come from MNES, and villagers would pay Rs. 40 to Rs. 50 per month -- about $.86-$1.10 (average income in India is Rs. 22,260, about $480).

    August 31, 2004

    UN International Open Source Network

    As Taran told us, Software Freedom Day was August 28; it turns out that the United Nations was celebrating along with the rest of us. The International Open Source Network is an initiative from the UN Development Programme focusing on spreading the use of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) in the Asia/Pacific region. IOSN has primers on understanding FOSS, and using it in government and in education. From a fairly quick scan of the site, this looks to be one of the better resources out there for information about the growing use of Free/Open Source Software around the world.

    Un-Electric Fridge in Darfur

    In March, Dawn posted about Mohammed Bah Abba's "Pot-in-Pot" refrigerator design, used in Northern Nigeria. This week, SciDev.net brings us a lengthy article about the proliferation of the Pot-in-Pot in Darfur, Sudan. Known locally as the "zeer," they are being produced by the Women's Association for Earthenware Manufacturing. Use of the zeer reduces waste for the (mostly) women who sell vegetables in the local markets, thereby increasing their income.

    One disturbing aspect of the article, however: it's written by an employee of the local development organization underwriting the manufacturing of the zeer, and nowhere in the article does it even mention the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. Since the mass slaughter of civilians targets one particular ethnic community, one can only conclude that the productive, positive folks quoted in the article are of the dominant group, not the targeted group. This is not to assume or assert that they support or participate in the massacres -- nonetheless, the juxtaposition is unsettling.

    New Class of Extrasolar Planet

    We've posted in the past about notable discoveries of planets outside of our solar system. In every case, however, the planets identified (over 125 so far) were so-called "gas giants" -- planets like Jupiter or Saturn, not rocky "terrestrial" planets like Earth or Mars. Despite occasional anxious supposition that this may mean that Earth-like planets are vanishingly rare, the reality is that our current tools for finding planets outside the solar system work best at finding very large planets very close to their host stars.

    But that doesn't mean that's all we'll find. Today, NASA announced something new -- the first sub-Neptune-sized planets found outside the solar system. One is in the system 55 Cancri, about 41 light years away, and part of a system already known to have 3 gas giants; the other is in Gliese 436, only 30 light years away. They're each only about twice the diameter of Earth, and about 10-20 times the Earth's mass (Jupiter, by comparison, is 11 times the diameter, over 300 times the mass, and 1300 times the volume of Earth). Like nearly all the other extrasolar planets found so far, these planets orbit extremely close to their parent stars, much closer than Mercury does to the Sun. Because of this, it's highly unlikely that planets that small could form gas atmospheres; therefore, these are not only the first sub-Neptune sized extrasolar planets we know of, they're also probably the first rocky -- terrestrial -- extrasolar planets found.

    (NASA put together an animated "fly through" of the 55 Cancri system, available at this link.)

    I know that the discovery of extrasolar planets ranks pretty low on the immediately world-changing scale. But longtime readers of WorldChanging should know by now that I like to think Big Picture and Long Term, and discovery of extrasolar planets, especially terrestrial ones, fits both patterns. Moreover, part of understanding our world is understanding its place in the universe. I, for one, am very happy to see this ongoing exploration.

    About August 2004

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

    July 2004 is the previous archive.

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