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September 2004 Archives

September 1, 2004

Fab Labs

It's not often that the future reveals itself to us in the form of a pink key chain.

The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT engages in research on "personal fabricator" devices -- machines able to make a wide variety of physical objects out of base materials. The Center's classes "How to Make (Almost) Anything" and "How to Make Something That makes (Almost) Anything" are wildly popular. But the Center has a bigger mission than just transforming material production: they want to help people in the developing world use these advanced technologies to solve local problems.

To this end, the Center for Bits and Atoms has developed the "Fab Lab," $20,000 worth of material design and fabrication equipment which can be used nearly anywhere. Six Fab Labs exist, each with a particular focus on local needs: South End Technology Center, in Boston (building community wireless networks); Lygen Alps, in Norway (building larger-scale wireless networks and animal collars to aid nomadic herding); Vigyan Ashram, in India (building agricultural instruments); Bithoor, in India (building 3D scanners and printers for local artisans); TEC, in Costa Rica (building educational tools); and the Takoradi Technical Institute, in Ghana. It's at the Takoradi Technical Institute that flourescent pink key chains have become the most popular fabricated item among the young students. But that's not all they build:

Beyond key chains, the Ghana lab is working on practical projects including antennas and radios for wireless networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. Each of these activities was developed in collaboration with local users, ranging from street children to tribal chiefs, to address the most important local needs.

The labs are well-equipped (especially given the low cost), and the goal is for them to be able to produce the same set of equipment for another lab -- in effect, to become (very slow, human-aided) replicators:

“Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the fab labs bring information technology development to the masses," Gershenfeld said. "For our education and outreach efforts, rather than telling people about what we’re doing, we thought we’d help them do it themselves. We’ve been pulled around the world by the voracious demand we've found each time we’ve deployed a fab lab.” The fab labs provide an accessible approximation of the tools CBA has on campus, and over time, [CBA Director Neil] Gershenfeld said, components of the labs will be replaced with components made in the labs until eventually the fab labs themselves are self-reproducing.

Each fab lab comes equipped with computer-controlled fabrication tools, open-source computer-aided design and manufacturing software and associated electronic components and test equipment. Capabilities include a laser cutter for 2-D and 3-D structures, a sign cutter for plotting interconnects and electromagnetics, a 3-D precision milling machine for applications such as making surface-mount circuit boards and programming tools for low-cost, high-speed embedded microcontrollers.

The Center for Bits and Atoms was launched in the Fall of 2001, supported by the National Science Foundation. The Center's Annual Reports give a good overview of each year's efforts, both in research towards personal fabricators and in the development and deployment of Fab Labs. The three reports -- from 2002, 2003, and 2004 -- provide well-illustrated guides to the cutting-edge of fabrication technology and the uses it can have in the developing world.

I have to say, when I first read this article, I got a bit dizzy: fabricator systems will be useful in the West, where material goods markets are well-established and relatively efficient, but they will be utterly revolutionary in the developing world. The Fab Labs are, at best, a Version 0.1 of such future fabricator devices, but the important story here isn't the hardware, it's the combination of research expertise and social intent demonstrated by the Center for Bits and Atoms. They are in the early days of completely changing the world.

(Found via Cyborg Democracy)

What To Do About Water

America's Finest News Source asks this week in its "What Do You Think?" column about the UN report that over one billion people lack access to potable water. The reactions are worth thinking about. Consider that of Mark Kunde, Systems Analyst: "This problem will be gone as soon as the earth's temperature increases enough to boil the world's lakes and streams, effectively sterilizing them."


Ecological Nano-Footprint

In a nice bit of serendipity, just as we were posting today about Fab Labs and the potential for "personal fabricators" upending material design and production processes, Chris Phoenix at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology was writing about the next step beyond even that. In his essay "Living Off-Grid," Phoenix describes some of the more prosaic implications of the development of nanofabrication systems -- a technological leap quite possible within the next couple of decades, and almost certain by 2040 (and I'm being intentionally conservative with these estimates).

Most notably, Phoenix argues that the use of nanofabbers will allow individuals to see exactly how big their "ecological footprint" really is:

The developed nations today have a massive and probably unsustainable ecological footprint. Because production is so decentralized, it is hard to observe the impact of consumer choices. And because only a few areas of land are convenient for transportation or ideal for agriculture, unhealthy patterns of land use have developed. Economies of scale encourage large infrastructures. But nano-built equipment benefits from other economies, so off-site production and distribution will become less efficient than local productivity. Someone living off-grid will be able literally to see their own ecological footprint, simply by looking at the land area they have covered with solar cells and greenhouses. Cheap sensors will allow monitoring of any unintentional pollution--though there will be fewer pollution sources with clean manufacturing of maintenance-free products.

What Phoenix doesn't address is whether there would be even greater advantages to not going off-grid, but instead to combine efforts in dense distributed networks. While living the self-sustaining, rugged existence is a Waldenesque fantasy for some, urban environments remain enormously popular. The molecular nanotechnologies that Phoenix describes will be even more beneficial for those living in dense communities than for those living in quiet isolation.

September 2, 2004

Chinese Climate Monitoring

We've mentioned some of the various satellite systems the United States has launched recently for climate and environmental monitoring, so it's only fair to also take note of similar systems put up by other nations. According to Reuters, China has announced plans to launch three satellites dedicated to monitoring climate change. They will focus in particular on sandstorms and forest/prairie fires.

Unfortunately, the article also notes that the satellites won't be operational until 2012.

Alternative Energy in Pakistan

The Pakistan Daily Times reports that $875 million dollars is set to be invested in alternative energy; the money will come from "five international firms," including companies from Germany, Denmark, the United States and two from China. The German company G-Energy is putting up $400 million; the American firm Axces is investing the smallest amount, $75 million.

Unfortunately, the article gives few details as to the actual alternative energy plans, saying only that "875 megawatt electricity [sic] will be produced through air and solar enegy units." I presume "air" means "wind" in this context.

(Via Alternative Energy Blog)

A CO2 Prison?

Carbon sequestration is one of those ideas that sounds great when you first hear about it. The idea is simple: carbon dioxide is captured (either at the point of production or extracted from the air) and locked down, either in biomass (like trees), in chemical combinations, or stored underground in vast, nearly-airtight chambers. It has its drawbacks, though. Some proponents explicitly use it as a rationale for continued -- even increased -- CO2 production, arguing that if the results are still a net reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide, we shouldn't worry. Unfortunately, just how long the CO2 would remain trapped is an open question -- dead or burned biomass or leaks from underground storage could return the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere, once again increasing CO2 levels.

A Penn State research group might have developed a method of locking away CO2 without running the risk of its escape. They've figured out how to accelerate a natural process where serpentine -- an abundant mineral -- combines chemically with CO2.

When serpentine dissolves in sulfuric acid, the silicon in the mineral becomes silicon dioxide, or sand, and falls to the bottom, while the magnesium becomes magnesium sulfate. Treating some of this magnesium sulfate with sodium hydroxide also creates some magnesium hydroxide. The researchers were able to convert large amounts of the serpentine’s magnesium to these chemicals providing large surface areas for reactions to occur in solution at room temperature.

Carbon dioxide passed through the solution of magnesium sulfate and magnesium hydroxide converts both to magnesium carbonate or magnesite, which becomes a solid and falls to the bottom. This solid can be used to manufacture construction blocks and there is also a small market for hydrated magnesium carbonate in the cosmetics industry. The silicon dioxide can be used to remove sulfur dioxide from the flue gases, which can subsequently be converted to sulfuric acid to use in the first part of the process.

Sequestration alone is not a solution to increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Coupled with aggressive moves away from greenhouse gas-emitting processes, however, sequestration might make a difference in keeping the planet away from tipping into disaster. Better, then, that the method used to sequester carbon dioxide not be something that could bite back hard a few years down the road.

September 3, 2004

RSS Feed Update

Just a quick note (and apology) about WorldChanging's RSS feeds. Today, I modified the RSS 1.0 "headline and excerpt" feed to display the author's name at the beginning of the entry. That was quick and painless. I also modified the RSS 2.0 "full article" feed to display the author name, posting time, and category, including a link to the category archives. That was less quick and painless, and resulted in the RSS listing being reset as having new material several times over the course of the day. I now have it working and displaying the way I want it to, so any "modified material" updates from here on out should be the real thing.

(A description of what RSS is, as well as some useful links, can be found here.)

September 4, 2004

140 Million Cars, 16 Years, 2 Scenarios

Green Car Congress found an article in China Daily reporting predictions by Chinese officials that they expect to have 140 million cars on the road by 2020, a number larger than the present American car fleet. China currently operates 20 million cars.

Government statistics show that China produced a record four million autos in 2003, when the number of private cars grew by 80 percent thanks to the country's strong economic advance and growing middle class.

It is estimated that this year's production will top five million units, making China the world's third-largest auto manufacturer after the United States and Japan.


Market analysts cited by Xinhua News Agency said China was in the launch phase of another round of economic growth and the rapid development of the auto industry would be a major driving force.

This number -- 140 million -- will determine the shape of the next decade and a half. (Even if 140 million cars doesn't happen, it's important: since it's unlikely that China will suddenly veer away from private vehicle ownership, a world where it doesn't happen is one where something even bigger has caused a global shift.) As China accelerates the production and consumption of private vehicles, two broad scenarios suggest themselves:

If the Chinese continue to pursue gasoline or (petroleum) diesel-burning cars, they'll be able to take advantage of cheap auto technologies, a global market of vehicles to purchase from, and a global market to sell into. They'll also face rapidly-tightening oil supplies, instability in oil-producing regions, and competition with existing petroleum consumers over access, as well as dumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (along with other non-greenhouse but still very dangerous emissions). A shift to alternative energy cars will happen later, potentially putting China behind more forward-looking markets. This is a world of fast vehicle-ownership growth now, big problems by 2020.

If the Chinese opt instead to pursue alternative energy vehicles (biodiesel, hybrids, fuel cells) as quickly as possible, they'll be coming in at a point still high on the price curve for those technologies, a limited number of suppliers of both components and complete vehicles, and few markets outside of China ready for such vehicles (either because the existing infrastructure is heavily weighted towards petroleum cars, or because the economics of the more expensive alternative power vehicles don't work out). They'll also be a market leader when other parts of the world do start large-scale shifts to alt-energy cars (ironically, something which would take longer to happen due to reduced Chinese competition for oil), and will be farther along in their efforts to clean up the national environment. This is a world where vehicle supplies (and cost) don't meet consumer demand early on, but looks more profitable and clean by 2020.

So, which path will China take? Trouble now (but rewards later), or convenience now (but problems later)? The answer to this question is a key driver of how the next 16 years will unfold.

Democratic Transhumanist Interview

RU Sirius interviews James Hughes in the current NeoFiles. Who's James Hughes? The founder of Cyborg Democracy, and a leader of the Democratic Transhumanism movement, which embraces both the desire for radical enhancement of humankind and the need for social fairness and justice.

[...] if you ask a libertarian transhumanist why they oppose FDA testing of life extension technologies [...], the libertarian will say "Why do I and a lot of other people have to die in the meantime waiting for the eventual legalization of this medicine?" Well, I say the same thing about healthcare and enhancements for the poor. Why do the non-affluent have to wait for these technologies to trickle down? Every other developed country in the world guarantees basic health care as a right, as should we, and once we have guaranteed a right to basic health care we should then start guaranteeing universal access to safe human enhancement technologies by including them in universal health care plans. Some will be too expensive, or have marginal benefits, and we can leave those to the (safety-regulated) market. But how long do you think any democracy would permit the top 10% to have access to an extra hundred years of life or an extra 100 IQ points that were inaccessible to the bottom 90%?

Hughes has a book coming out in October, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. I really look forward to reading.

September 7, 2004

Stop & Start

Hybrid cars are defined by having an electric motor as part of their propulsion system, either as an assist to the gasoline engine (as with the Honda design) or as a separate, lower-speed drivetrain (as with the Toyota and Ford designs). But the electric motor isn't the only element that makes a hybrid efficient. A feature which almost seems like an aside actually accounts for a decent amount of fuel (and emissions) savings: the engine is turned off whenever the vehicle comes to a stop, so there's no sitting and idling. Once the brake pedal is released, the engine comes right back on, with no noticeable delay.

(Although the engine of my Honda Civic Hybrid is quiet, the sudden silence when "auto-stop" kicks in is hard to miss. I've actually had pedestrians tell me that my "car died" while walking in front of me.)

It turns out that the technology for shutting off the engine while stopped does not require the rest of the hybrid system. What's more, alone it can still result in notable improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions reductions. PSA Peugeot Citroën has announced its "Stop & Start" technology, which reduces fuel consumption by 15% in heavy traffic, 10% in city driving, and 6% in "combined cycle" use (city and highway driving, where stopping is less common).

Green Car Congress, of course, has the write-up with details and useful (if simple) illustrations from Peugeot about how the system works, from Peugeot's press kit (PDF).

The auto-stop feature is one of two standard hybrid technologies which could result in significant fuel savings if used in non-hybrid vehicles. The other is the mileage readout. Having a real-time indicator of how one's driving affects one's fuel consumption is simultaneously a trigger for competitive, "got to get that number higher" urges and a beautiful example of making the invisible visible. Most people don't know what kind of mileage they get in their cars, or at best assume that the EPA estimates are right (they're not). I know that I've changed my driving habits because of the readout in my hybrid, and anecdotal evidence suggests I'm far from the only one.

Hurricane Watch by RSS

A few months ago, we mentioned that the US Geological Survey had earthquake reports available by RSS. I've been subscribing to the 5+ feed for awhile now, and it's fascinating -- and a bit creepy -- to watch the pattern of moderate-to-large quakes march across South-East and East Asia of late. But the USGS isn't the only government service making data available by RSS: the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center also puts out RSS reports for both the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic (in English and Spanish).

I wonder what other US federal agencies have RSS feeds. The RSS in Government site, referenced in the link above, seems to be updated in a spotty-at-best fashion, and hasn't touched its page of federal links since January. Anyone know of another resource?

Smart Cities, Smart Cars, and the Media Lab

If you're in the Boston area this week, be sure to head over to MIT Wednesday evening for the presentation "Concept Car: A Work in Progress."

William J. Mitchell, head of the Media Lab's program in Media Arts and Sciences, together with Ph.D. candidate Ryan Chin, [...] will highlight the group's efforts to radically rethink how cars will be designed for the city of the future. Possible features for such vehicles could include programmable exteriors that change according to need; networked, embedded intelligence that can help a driver avoid a traffic jam or alert another car to a danger ahead; remote-control steering; or wheels that would enable “smart” parallel parking.

Rather than mere transportation devices, cars of the future can become our wheeled companions that continually learn about the city they inhabit, and use that knowledge to provide an intelligent interface to the resources the city offers. “Our hope is to invent a car that can function as though it has a good London cab driver built in,” says Mitchell.

The presentation is taking place at the Wolk Gallery, which currently hosts the "Smart City Cars in the 21st Century" exhibition, exploring the possibility of "automobiles that are not just dumb transportation devices, but intelligent inhabitants of their cities—wheeled robots that perceive, learn, remember, reason, and provide sophisticated, context-aware assistance and advice." The exhibit is hosted by the Smart Cities research group at the Media Lab. The Smart Cities project sounds intriguing, but its website is unfortunately quite stingy with information about the group's efforts.

The well-known (and controversial) architect Frank Gehry is part of the Smart Cities project, and leads the classes in which students explore a radical new car design. No doubt due to Gehry's involvement, the New York Times looks today at the class. One aspect of the design the Times mentions in passing is that the "basic parameters call for a hybrid or fuel cell power plant" -- a sign that the shift away from standard gasoline engines has taken hold in the design world (the inclusion of hybrid along with fuel cell technology is also a sign that the MIT team imagines that this vehicle could come about soon, not just at an unspecified future date).

The presentation Wednesday night is free and open to the public, and begins at 7pm; a pre-presentation reception begins at 5:30pm. Room details can be found in this press release.

I can't make it, being stuck over on the left coast, but if any of you go, please give us a report on the proceedings...

Do We Need A Disaster?

If you've been following the WorldChanging discussion taking place in the Inkwell conference on the Well, you'll have picked up on a troublingly recurring point: many good people have come to the conclusion that only a climate disaster will get us (meaning primarily, but not exclusively, Americans) to change our ways and to really address global warming.

The logic is simple, sad and compelling. We seem to find it difficult to change behaviors with apparent short-term benefits and dangerous-but-uncertain long-term consequences; only massive, traumatic events seem to make us re-evaluate our positions and shake us out of our complacency.

Continue reading "Do We Need A Disaster?" »

September 9, 2004

Bacterial Toxic Remediation

The future is bacterial.

We've noted the various capabilities of bacteria numerous times, and today Wired News gives us yet another example of the power of our unicellular siblings: a bacteria which can turn styrene, a toxic by-product of the polystyrene industry, and turn it into a useful biodegradable plastic. Not only is this a natural process for removing environmental toxins, it's also an example of turning "waste" into "feedstock" -- a critical step for truly sustainable industry.

Automotive Carbon Tax?

Green Car Congress (I'll stop linking to them in stories if they stop posting such great stuff) has posted a provocative thought-piece exploring the idea of an automobile carbon tax. It would replace half of California's existing vehicle license fee; rather than that part of the fee being based on car value, it would be based on the car's mileage average miles-per-gallon of that car model. Some car owners would see their annual tax drop, some would see it grow, but the overall effect would be to help reduce California's existing fiscal problem while simultaneously nudging people to buy more fuel-efficient cars.

Solar Powered Schools

The BBC reports that the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, via the Uttar Pradesh Education for All Project, will be supplying solar power systems for rural village schools in order to run computer systems.

A further 1,000 computers are to be purchased this year for village schools, but most of these will not work because there is no power available.

"In the present situation of power supply we are not sure that electricity will be available in rural schools for computers," said GB Patnaik from the Alternative Energy Department.

"To overcome this, we have drawn a scheme to arrange solar energy for these computers."

Solar power is already in use in Uttar Pradesh for a variety of purposes.

As authorities in the education and alternative energy departments try to arrange funds, some farmers who have solar pumps for irrigation are making efforts to use this natural and clean energy source for other purposes.

So far, solar energy has been used for cooking, heating water, light and running tube wells.


Government regulations say solar pumps should be used for irrigation purposes only. But other farmers and youths are inventing all kinds of new uses of solar energy, generating employment and additional income.

One Umari villager in the Barabanki district is charging batteries to run TVs in rural areas, which gives him an extra income of $3.50 (£2) a day.

Farmer Sharmail Singh has dug a pond near his solar pump in his farmhouse, which is used for fisheries and drinking water for buffalos. Solar pumps provide light in the night via a battery.

India, like China, appears to be embracing solar quite enthusiastically. It will be interesting to see if India shifts from becoming a solar power consumer to becoming a solar power innovator.

Technological Ecology of Mobile Media

WorldChanging friend Howard Rheingold has a brief but extremely thought-provoking essay in today's The Feature entitled Ecologizing Mobile Media. He takes Neil Postman's "Ten Principles of Technology" and applies them to mobile communication devices. The results are sure to trigger quite a bit of discussion, and undoubtedly some new ideas about how we integrate mobile devices into our lives.

Here are some choice excerpts, but go read the whole thing:

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

With close to half a billion mobile phones sold just this year, I suspect the great divide is not going to remain the one between those who can afford access to phones and those who can't. Increasingly, the advantages are available differentially to those who know what those advantages are and how to make use of them -- the divide between the "know- how" and "don't-know-how" populations. It's a matter of literacy.


5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.

More people can organize collective action with people they weren't able to organize before, at times and in places they weren't able to organize before. The ways cities are used, political demonstrations are organized, entertainment is scheduled and daily life is coordinated are already changing.


7. Because of the accessibility and speed in which information is encoded, different technologies have different political biases.

In Seattle, Manila, Seoul and Madrid, we've seen regimes toppled and Presidents elected because texting enables spontaneously self-organized demonstrations and get-out-the-vote. If broadcast media is biased toward centralized control, mobile media are biased toward decentralized out-of-control.

These ten principles (from The End of Education) provide a useful metric for thinking about the impact of technology, whatever your feelings about Postman (whenever I read his stuff, I want to throw the book across the room, then scurry after it to pick it up and keep reading). Howard does a great job here of generating tentative answers to the ten questions, and the comment section in The Feature already has some interesting follow-up.


We talk a lot about energy efficiency as being a part of sustainability here. Innovations in efficiency will play an important role in making sure we have a bright green future. But what sort of innovations could we see? Well, here's an example of one which could be big:

University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory with a researcher from the University of Cambridge have demonstrated a simple and industrially scaleable method for improving the current densities of superconducting coated conductors in magnetic field environments. The discovery has the potential to increase the already impressive carrying capacity of superconducting wires and tapes by as much as 200 to 500 percent in certain uses, like motors and generators, where high magnetic fields diminish current densities.

Biodiesel in Jeep Liberty

Okay, one last pointer to Green Car Congress and then I'm done for the day, I promise.

Daimler-Chrysler has announced that it will fill the tanks of new Jeep Liberty Diesel SUVs with "B5" -- 5% biodiesel -- to encourage wider use of renewable fuels. The Liberty Diesel gets 30% better mileage than the gasoline version, and has 20% lower emissions. GCC has the details.

It's a symbolic step, but symbols are important.

September 10, 2004

Gigapixel Camera to Capture the Stars

Sometime after 2010, the European Space Agency will be launching the Gaia mission, which is to create the most comprehensive map yet of our galaxy and beyond. Mission details include a stellar census as well as a search for a wide range of objects:

Gaia will pinpoint exotic objects in colossal and almost unimaginable numbers: many thousands of extra-solar planets will be discovered, and their detailed orbits and masses determined; brown dwarfs and white dwarfs will be identified in their tens of thousands; some 50 000 supernovae will be detected and details passed to ground-based observers for follow-up observations; Solar System studies will receive a massive impetus through the detection of many tens of thousands of new minor planets, and even new trans-Neptunian objects, including Plutinos, may be discovered. Amongst other results relevant to fundamental physics, Gaia will follow the bending of star light by the Sun, over the entire celestial sphere, and therefore directly observe the structure of space-time.

Although the mission was approved a few years ago, the ESA just released information on its primary cargo. Gaia will be outfitted with a gigapixel camera: a mosaic of 170 9-megapixel CCDs, linked together to form what will be the most sensitive and detailed camera ever put outside the atmosphere. Coupled with a 1.4 meter telescope, it will be map objects down to "V=20" magnitude. Gaia will be stationed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, at the "L2" point along Earth's orbit, one of the locations where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun allow for a stable position, and well away from the reflected light of the Earth and Moon.

Nanotechnology for a Bright Green Future

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley has called upon the nanotechnology research community to focus on ways to make renewable energy cheap and ubiquitous.

Scientists would need to use nanotechnology to create home storage systems for hydrogen as well as a new material to replace copper wiring and allow electricity to be sent great distances. Smalley and his fellow researchers at Rice are working on a new carbon "spinning" process that would create a polymer material that will be one-sixth the weight of copper with the same conductivity and have the same strength as steel. [...] Smalley described how nanotechnology can also be used to create "super batteries" for storing hydrogen at homes or businesses to avoid using the electricity grid at peak times of demand. [...] Smalley believes that finding a replacement for fossil fuels is essential to solving the world's top 10 problems, which he said include poverty, hunger, water, the environment and terrorism.

Smalley's call for action took many nanotech enthusiasts by surprise, not because they don't think that this is an important issue -- they do -- but because Smalley is well-known as a skeptic about nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology may not deliver on all of its promise, but advances are happening fast. It's one of the reasons I'm ultimately an optimist about our ability to build a sustainable world. Getting to a bright green future will take revolutionary innovation -- and nanotechnology looks like a good candidate for just that revolution.

Coffee, Now With Less Guilt

Tim alerts us to a report that coffee producers and four of the world's largest coffee companies -- Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft and Tchibo -- are set to agree on a plan to improve working conditions and environmental standards across the industry. Fully-implemented, it will cover 80% of the international coffee market.

Producers and traders adopting the code will have to pay minimum wages, cease using child labour, allow trade union membership and stick to international environmental standards on pesticides and water pollution. [...] Alongside the four companies, the voluntary code will apply to coffee producers from Brazil, central America and Africa. It will also be signed by NGOs, including Oxfam International and Greenpeace, and the International Union of Foodworkers, a federation of trade unions including coffee industry workers.

Not-So-Abrupt Climate Change?

We may be able to cross one potential disaster off the list (but do it in pencil).

The "whiplash" or "abrupt" climate change scenario was the scientific kernel which lay beneath the Hollywood melodrama of The Day After Tomorrow. The argument was that as warming temperatures cause glacial melting, the resulting fresh water dumped into the North Atlantic would "cut off" the warm water current that keeps Europe temperate; the resulting rapid cooling of Europe could then kick the already shaky climate into a counter-intuitive ice age. One key piece of evidence for this notion came from Greenland ice cores, which appeared to show an extremely rapid -- less than a century -- decline from the last warm "interglacial" period (like the one we're in at present) to the last big ice age, about 117 thousand years ago.

But the two ice core studies were found to have subtle problems in the data older than 105 thousand years, resulting from the ice folding near bedrock. A project to do a new ice core -- the North Greenland Ice Core Project, or NGRIP -- was undertaken in part to check this data. Drilling was completed in July of 2003, and the results were just published in Nature (PDF). The September 11-17 edition of New Scientist has a detailed article about NGRIP; unfortunately, that article is not (yet?) online.

With cleaner data stretching back 123 thousand years, the NGRIP team concluded:

This high resolution NGRIP record reveals a slow decline in temperatures from the warm Eemian isotopic values to cooler, intermediate values over 7,000 yr from 122 to 115 kyr BP. The end of the last interglacial thus does not appear to have started with an abrupt climate change, but with a long and gradual deterioration of climate. Before full glacial values are reached, however, the record does reveal an abrupt cooling [...] Thus it seems difficult to call on melting ice or other large freshwater input to the North Atlantic to trigger this event, although clearly we need more information from this and future ice cores to fully understand this first abrupt climate change of the last glacial.

In short, the transition from warm ("interglacial") climate to ice age was gradual, with an abrupt drop only towards the end of the period, not the beginning. The abrupt climate change scenario, with its rapid transition to abnormal cooling triggering mass migrations, famine and worse, seems to be a non-starter has lost one of its most important pieces of supporting evidence. While this doesn't in any way lessen the threat from global warming-induced climate disruption, it's good to know that this scenario of environmental disaster is very likely to be found only in the movies.

Added later: Looking back on the whiplash climate change material, it's worth noting that the "Lesser Dryas" cooling event of 8-12 thousand years ago isn't altered by the change in ice core findings, and still appears to have happened in a fairly abrupt fashion. While "Lesser Dryas" was severe, it wasn't a drop into an ice age, which is what the 115 thousand year data previously suggested. So it's probably most fair to say that the "abrupt climate change taking us into an ice age" scenario is likely dead, while the "abrupt climate change accelerating climate disruption by adding severe regional cooling" scenario is still very much alive.

September 11, 2004

The Face of Tomorrow

The Face of Tomorrow is an ongoing combined art and anthropology project examining global identity. The artist "Mike Mike" takes 100 photographs of individuals in different cities around the world, then uses "morphing" software to create combined average faces for each location, male and female (usually -- in a few locations, Ankara, Instanbul and Damascus, only men were photographed). The resulting face is haunting, attractive, and suggestive of what tomorrow's demography will hold.

The site currently has face composites from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, the UK, Spain, Portugal (where the image in this post is from), Turkey, Syria, China and Australia. Mike Mike is currently working on more cities, and has an open call for contributions of images. He refers to the process as "open source," and spells out in detail just how the photos are taken, and what is to be done with them. He's also selling a poster and book to help support the project.

It's no surprise that the results show attractive composite faces, even while the individual parts of the composite are quite normal-looking. It's long been recognized that blended "averaged" faces look startlingly attractive. Although the project doesn't bias for attractiveness, it does bias towards youth -- the average age in the world is 25, Mike Mike argues, and tomorrow belongs to the young.

Microsoft, Linux and China

Emergic points us to an article at CFO.com entitled "Does Microsoft Need China?," with some interesting insights into the power China could have in the global software industry if it continues to push Linux use:

But in the long run, China could pose dangers to Microsoft. If Linux flourishes there, it could spawn formidable low-cost rivals to the American company. "The real value of open source to a country like China," says Kevin MacIsaac, an analyst with the MetaGroup in Sydney, "is developing a public infrastructure for a software industry. It's a reasonable and cost-efficient way for China to compete globally."

Others in Asia see the potential. Japan and South Korea joined China in April on a project to jointly develop a new operating system based on Linux as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows. Thailand and Malaysia have instigated programs to offer low-cost PCs to citizens with Linux operating systems [...]. They're being helped along by Microsoft competitors such as Sun Microsystems, which has signed a deal with the Chinese government to supply its Linux desktop operating system and office program to as many as a million PCs there. Future electronics products shipped from China—such as mobile phones and DVD players—could be developed free from dependence on the Windows operating system.

September 14, 2004

Biodegradable Laptops

Nikkei Net reports that NEC will soon begin to produce notebook computers which use biodegradable plastics in their frames. "The plastic is made from materials derived from plants such as corn and is broken down into water and carbon dioxide by microbes. NEC says it aims by 2010 to make more than 10% of the plastic it uses in PCs biodegradable" The rest of the information is only available to Nikkei subscribers, although a search on the NEC site comes up with a short article from earlier this year about corn-based bioplastics.

(Nikkei link via Near Near Future)

"Developing Nations" Creative Commons License

The Creative Commons group has announced a new license model: the "Developing Nations" license. This allows creators to make their works available for attributed distribution in the developing world, while still retaining all copyright control in high-income countries. Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons founder, says:

The Developing Nations license allows, for the first time, any copyright holder in the world to participate first-hand in reforming global information policy. The fact is that most of the world's population is simply priced out of developed nations' publishing output. To authors, that means an untapped readership. To economists, it means "deadweight loss." To human rights advocates and educators, it is a tragedy. The Developing Nations license is designed to address all three concerns.

The license was designed by IP expert Jaime Love: "The new license makes it easier to expand access to knowledge and support development. It is a tool to make the resource-poor information-rich."

Impedance Track -- Battery Gas Gauge

PhysOrg.com reprints a press-release from Texas Instruments about their new "Impedance Track" technology, which they claim provides a 99% accurate measurement of battery capacity. It's not widely known that the battery gauge on electronic devices is actually a crude estimate based on use, not a real measurement of remaining charge. This is why laptops and cameras and such will occasionally go from "half-full" to empty -- the estimate didn't match the reality. This can also happen with bigger batteries, such as those in hybrids (a hybrid mailing list I'm on is currently discussing this rare but not-unknown problem). It can also result in devices shutting down because the gauge has calculated the battery is near-empty, even when it's not.

The TI technology, which works with LI, NiCD, and NiMH battery systems, is able to measure precise charge levels, and can even take battery degradation into account when making charge-remaining estimates. Given the increased reliance on rechargeable battery packs, a technology to make these devices more reliable is welcome indeed.


Naturalist David Bellamy has launched a campaign to get users of camera phones in the UK, particularly Scotland, to take pictures of the endangered native Red and ubiquitous American Gray squirrels to map their migration and habitats.

Scotland is home to around 75 per cent of the UK’s 160,000 red squirrels, with around 30,000 of the species living in the Borders.

Warning of the dangers faced by the threatened red, Mr Bellamy said: "Help save this endearing native animal from extinction in Scotland."

Anyone who manages to take a picture of a squirrel is asked to e-mail the image to kleithead@scot-borders.co.uk with details of time and location.

The campaign is in coordination with Red Squirrel Week in Scotland, Sept 13th-17th. Non-camphone users who spot squirrels can also record their observations at the Red Squirrels in South Scotland Project site.

This project is reminiscent of eBird, discussed here last December.

(Via PicturePhoning, which also has a few other articles about the use of SMS for nature-related efforts.)

September 15, 2004

Data Points

I ran across a couple of interesting information resources recently, and thought them worth sharing.

FuelEconomy.gov is an EPA website providing automobile mileage information. The hybrid vehicle information isn't quite up to what you'll find at Green Car Congress or HybridCars.com, and you're better off seeking alternative fuel info at Alternative Energy Blog, but what FuelEconomy.gov does have going for it is the complete EPA database of vehicle mileage ratings, EPA air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions ratings, and NHTSA crash test data. This allows it to produces tables showing the most and least fuel-efficient cars (Honda Insight manual, most -- 60 city/66 hwy; Lambourghini L-147 Murcielago, least -- 9/13) and trucks/SUVs (Toyota Rav4 manual, most -- 24/30; Ford F150 and Land Rover Discovery & Range Rovers, tied for least -- 12/16). Sadly, the NaviStar CXT (see image above) is not yet listed, as it would show the worst mileage of all (6/10).

The other resource is even more extensive.

The Energy Information Administration at the the US Department of Energy has an astounding amount of data on a variety of energy-related subjects. You want residential consumption data for natural gas? They have it (PDF). You want the total renewable net Kilowatthours generation, by state and technology? They have it. You want world petroleum consumption since 1960 for major OECD and non-OECD countries? They have it. And so forth. The main downside is that much of the information is a few years old (the natural gas listings are from 2001, the renewable data are from 2000, and the world consumption listing goes through 2002), although it's possible to dig up more recent datasets, such as this listing of Top World Oil Consumers and Importers, by million barrels/day, from 2003.

Prius in China

Green Car Congress notes that Toyota will be assembling the Prius in China starting next year, the first time the Prius will be built outside of Japan."Toyota will build the Prius with FAW [the Chinese automotive manufacturer] at the end of 2005, and may build another hybrid vehicle under a separate FAW brand, the two companies said in a press statement. "

Blair's Climate Change Speech

Emily noted yesterday that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to make a major speech on the subject of climate change today. Well, he did. Here it is.

Some excerpts:

[...] the challenge is complicated politically by two factors. First, its likely effect will not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken, has passed. In other words, there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact. Secondly, no one nation alone can resolve it. It has no definable boundaries. Short of international action commonly agreed and commonly followed through, it is hard even for a large country to make a difference on its own.

[...] Just as science and technology has given us the evidence to measure the danger of climate change, so it can help us find safety from it. The potential for innovation, for scientific discovery and hence, of course for business investment and growth, is enormous. With the right framework for action, the very act of solving it can unleash a new and benign commercial force to take the action forward, providing jobs, technology spin-offs and new business opportunities as well as protecting the world we live in.

[...] Here it is important to stress the scale of the implications for the developing world. It is far more than an environmental one, massive though that is. It needs little imagination to appreciate the security, stability and health problems that will arise in a world in which there is increasing pressure on water availability; where there is a major loss of arable land for many; and in which there are large-scale displacements of population due to flooding and other climate change effects.

It is the poorest countries in the world that will suffer most from severe weather events, longer and hotter droughts and rising oceans. Yet it is they who have contributed least to the problem. That is why the world's richest nations in the G8 have a responsibility to lead the way: for the strong nations to better help the weak.

[...] Climate change will be a top priority for our G8 Presidency next year.

Most of my friends in the UK aren't terribly impressed with Blair these days, but it's still worth applause when he makes the right call.

September 16, 2004

Urban Pollution Sensors

BoingBoing's David Pescovitz has a new article in mobile Internet journal The Feature, "Smog-Sniffing Sensors," reporting on the Urban Pollution Monitoring Project in the UK, which combines bike-mounted pollution sensors and bluetooth messaging to alert passers-by when spot air pollution reaches threatening levels.

"Mobile sensors that are geographically tracked could help fill in the gaps to give a broad and dense picture of how pollution affects urban spaces and the people within them," says Urban Pollution investigator Anthony Steed, a computer science researcher at the University College London. "If you have several hundred or thousand sensors, you could give them to commuters and they'd make a map of the city's pollution."

The researchers have already conducted a field study using prototype devices built from a Hewlett-Packard Jornada PDA, GPS unit, and an off-the-shelf chemical sensor. Mounted on bicycles, the sensors detected phenomena like spikes in carbon monoxide around bus shelters.


[Researcher Ben] Hooker wrote the bluejacking software that enables the sensors to "self-advertise" their existence to passers-by, distribute "news-you-can-use," and promote the E-Science effort. He's also designing signs with a working sensor mounted on them to help explain how the readings are taken.

The intersection of urban life and environmental information is a topic we've been following for awhile, along with data-heavy bicycles and bluejacking. The Urban Pollution Monitoring Project is the perfect distillation of a number of WorldChanging interests, and it's exciting to see it come into being. I wouldn't be surprised to see parallel efforts spring up across Europe and Asia (they'd be less likely in the US, where Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones aren't quite as popular).

Eye at the Bottom of the World

Who would ever think that building something to function deep in Antarctica in the middle of winter would be the cheap option?

New Scientist reports that astronomers at the University of New South Wales, Australia, have proposed building a new telescope (an "Extremely Large Telescope," no less, with at least a 30 meter mirror) at Dome C, an Antarctic plateau at 75° south and over three kilometers above sea level. Preliminary tests of the location, using an 85 milllimeter scope, showed that the plateau had extremely low atmospheric "jitter" because the location has very low wind speeds and little turbulence in the air. The researchers claim a two-meter telescope in that location -- a moderate size for a professional device -- would be able to image galactic phenomena with a clarity comparable to Hubble. A larger scope would be far better. Dome C could be home to the first serious Earth-based terrestrial planet-finder scope.

According to PhysOrg, the UNSW proposal has another interesting feature: much of it would be built of "icecrete" -- snow compressed to concrete-hardness.

Although a Dome C telescope would be inaccessible during use -- the temperatures that deep in the Antarctic during winter plunge as low as -86° C (-122° F) -- it could be serviced during the summer for far less expense than a trip to an orbital telescope.

Interview with Mike Mike

Following up on the Face of Tomorrow post from a few days ago, Dominic Muren of industrial design weblog IDFuel wrote to tell us of an interview they had just conducted with Face of Tomorrow photographer Mike Mike, entitled "The (Not So Evil) Face of Globalization." It's a good chance to learn a bit more about the artist and his mission. IDFuel is pretty cool, too -- I've added it to my RSS feeds.

September 17, 2004

Online Chat With Jamais

Just a heads-up for those of you who may be interested. On Sunday, October 10, I will be doing an online chat session at the "Immortality Institute" -- a group of folks studying the possibility of extremely long lifespans. Should be a bit odd, but also quite fun.

The Future of Life Extension
Writer and consultant Jamais Cascio joins ImmInst to ponder questions about how advances in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and more are transforming our social and political systems, and what it means that living forever may well be within our grasps.

Chat Time: Sun. Oct 10 @ 8 PM Eastern Time
Chat Room: http://www.imminst.org/chat (irc.lucifer.com port: 6667 #immortal)

Get Your Absentee Ballot

We've done enough stories on the uncertainty surrounding the reliability of no-paper-trail electronic voting that there's a good chance that many of you in the U.S. are considering voting absentee for the first time this November 2. Or maybe you're one of our numerous ex-pat readers, and have decided to vote this time around. Regardless, if you've never voted with a mail-in ballot before, you may be a bit uncertain about how to get one.

Overseas Vote 2004 is a site which partially automates the process of overseas voter registration and absentee ballot request. I say "partially," as you can't actually register or request a ballot online -- you still have to mail or fax in your paperwork. The site is a good way to make sure that you've filled in every box you need to, though, and has a very useful page indicating the registration deadline for each state (October 3 seems to be the earliest and most common deadline).

Overseas Vote 2004 is paid for by the Democratic National Committee, but has no partisan content.

What Do Upscale Hybrids Portend?

In coming weeks, Insights, Civic Hybrids, and Priuses (Prii?) won't be the only hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. The Ford Escape hybrid SUV -- which we talked about in August -- should be hitting the streets soon, and both Honda and Toyota (as Lexus) have new hybrid models coming out (while still "vaporwheels," Honda and Lexus are supposedly taking pre-orders). But what do they tell us about the direction carmakers are taking hybrid technology?

The Lexus RX 400h -- that's the vehicle shown to the right -- is billed as the first "luxury hybrid." Unsurprisingly, while it's a hybrid, it's not exactly a screamingly green vehicle. It's a version of Lexus' SUV, and is aimed at people who (in the words of Lexus general manager Denny Clements "want to do the right thing for the ecology, but [...] don't want to make the sacrifice."

The Lexus site is heavy on the Flash animated text and sales pitch, but very light on actual information. or even images. According to Canadian car site Auto123, where the picture came from, the RX 400h will put out 270 horsepower, and should get upwards of 27mpg "combined" mileage -- better than the 20 city/26 hwy/22 combined of the standard RX, but not by much.

There's a similar story with the Honda Accord Hybrid, due out at any moment. While not a "luxury" model, the Accord is the bigger, better-appointed cousin to the Civic sedan. Green Car Congress has a detailed post about the workings of the Accord Hybrid, including comparisons between the Accord, the Civic Hybrid, and the 2004 Prius. Like the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid will use "engine assist" hybrid technology, so it never runs just on electricity. (This has become known as "mild hybrid," which -- given that the "engine assist" Insight remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle around -- doesn't really work for me. But I digress.) GCC notes that the hybrid technology and some advanced engine design allow the Accord Hybrid to achieve a combined 255 horsepower and vehicle mileage rated at 30 city/37 hwy/33 combined, comparable to the Ford Escape Hybrid.

While also better than the non-hybrid version, which gets (depending on version) anywhere between 20-26 city and 30-34 hwy (24-29 combined), the Accord Hybrid -- like the Lexus RX 400h and the Ford Escape Hybrid -- seems to trade on the marketing value of the term "hybrid" without actually having breakthrough performance. The problem comes, in part, from the more powerful engines. As GCC puts it:

There is no magic technology right now that will let drivers roar around in big, powerful cars and trucks while only sipping fuel. At this point, radical adjustment in consumption has to come from consumer behavior and buying patterns. The incremental benefits of hybrid technologies are important, and should be implemented. It’s just not enough on its own.

We can approach this situation in one of two ways: we can complain (quite legitimately) that manufacturers are trying to cater to consumer demand for green design and technologies with not-really-green products; or we can see this as a sign of the mainstreaming of green -- that rather than ignore green consumers, or offering them a choice between cars that look like they just drove off a college parking lot or cars that look like they just drove off the set of a scifi movie, producers are trying to integrate green technology into the vehicles more popular with "regular" consumers. Green can't win if it's niche.

This next year's crop of new model hybrids may not be up to the efficiency standards set by the first wave, but they may well be the beginning of a very welcome trend.

The Guardian on the Future

The Guardian Unlimited -- the website for the popular UK newspaper -- published a set of essays on Saturday about what the world may look like in 2020. Topics range from urbanization to water use to China. The essays vary wildly in length, detail and quality, and none of them are provocative in a "oooh, I never thought about it *that* way" (at least to me). Nonetheless, they represent solid mainstream stories of what the next 15 or so years may hold. Our job is to make sure that the good ones happen, and the bad ones don't.

AltWheels Festival

Looking for something to do this weekend? Live in Massachusetts, or can get there easily? Check out the AltWheels festival, at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Saturday and Sunday. It's an auto show for the post-auto future:

Two great days for viewing, experiencing and discussing some of the most innovative means of transportation in the world today; all gathered on the beautiful hillside lawn of the Larz Anderson Transportation Museum. Meet the inventors and experience futuristic concept vehicles. See what our transportation options will be over the next decade — from fuel cell vehicles to taxi rickshaws to the Segway scooter.

While the AltWheels Festival website makes the event look fairly lightweight, there are quite a few events taking place during the Festival, including = a pretty interesting symposium:

Sat. Sept. 18: The Power of Technology
10:00   Overview of Transportation Technologies
10:40   Future Cars: What Vehicles Will You Be Driving in 2015?
12:10   Alternative Fuels and Car Conversions - Where Do You Fuel Up?
1:30   Fuel Cell Technologies and the Feasibility of a Hydrogen Future
3:00   Creating a Sustainable Transportation Vision for the 21st Century
4:30   Adjourn

Sun. Sept. 19: The Power of Choice
10:00   Overview of Transportation Choices
10:40   Pockets of Progress - What are State Agencies & Municipalities Doing to Promote Sustainability
12:10   Fleet Conversion - Hear from the Experts
1:30   Urban Sprawl - How Do We Design Cities for Sustainability
3:00   The Changing Landscape: Greenways, Bikeways, Rail-to-Trail, and Human Powered Transportation
4:30   Adjourn

Attendance isn't free, but it is pretty inexpensive. Any of you out in the Brookline area who get a chance should check it out and report back!

...And we have a report! WorldChanging reader Jeff Egnaczyk posted in the comments a link to his photos from the festival. Looks like a great day in Brookline. Thanks, Jeff!

September 20, 2004

Sit Green

Many folks I know in the SF area managed to snag themselves a fancy desk chair at fire-sale prices during the dark days of the dot-com bust. If you weren't quite so lucky (that is, if you weren't able to plunder the grisly remains of shattered dreams) or you're just in need of a good new chair, Steelcase has something for you. You enviromental-types who want aggressive use of recycled material, maximum recyclability, and a chair manufacturer who knows when to mention LEED compliance in its brochure may be particularly interested in this chair, called the "Think" (PDF).

According to the Steelcase documentation:

  • 41% (by weight) of the chair comes from recycled materials.
  • 99% (by weight) of the chair can be recycled.
  • The chair contains no PVCs, CFCs, solvents, benzene, chrome, lead or mercury.
  • "The Think chair can contribute toward LEED credits because it contains a high percentage of recycled material and it is a low emitting product. Additionally, its ergonomic qualities, production processes and ease of disassembly may contribute towards LEED credits for employee health and for innovation. Because each project is unique, Steelcase will work with customers individually towards LEED application."
  • Denmark's Institute for Product Development performed a full Life Cycle Assessment on the chair; the results can be downloaded from Steelcase (PDF).

    Steelcase Think chairs aren't exactly cheap -- running around $600-$650 -- but that's not significantly more expensive than comparable non-green ergonomic chairs. For those of us who spend a good chunk of the day at a desk, ergonomically-friendly chairs are worth the investment. That the Think is also environmentally-friendly makes it all the more attractive.

    Beyond the particular value for those who need a new chair, the Think is also another example of a well-regarded industrial design group taking a green leap. It's great to see Steelcase do this -- but the challenge is to move beyond the specialty niche "green chair." When Steelcase starts making all of its chairs from recycled/easily-recyclable materials, then we'll really applaud.

    (Found via Treehugger)

  • Individual Carbon Credits

    Think emission-trading regimes are for big companies, multinational industries, and countries? Guess again. PhysOrg.net reports that researchers at the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research have suggested the deployment of "Domestic Tradable Quotas" (DTQs) as a means of allocating carbon taxes most fairly. Those who live efficiently could sell their DTQ credits to the more profligate emitters, making a tidy sum -- and encouraging others to be more efficient, to get in on the game while there's still money to be made. Very clever...

    The article gives no real details on precisely how such a DTQ mechanism would work, and the only DTQ-related article (PDF) I could find in a quick search at Tyndall focuses more on why to do it than how, we'll have to put this in the "somewhat interesting, but let's hear more" category.

    September 21, 2004

    Ivan: Before and After

    The US Geological Survey (motto: "science for a changing world") conducted an aerial photographic survey of some of the barrier islands hit by Hurricane Ivan. They've posted some of the photos from that survey, accompanied by "before" shots from July, to demonstrate the effects of Ivan.

    The barrier islands exposed to Ivan's strongest winds, for example, the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL, are, in places, low lying, their dunes rising up only several meters, which is insufficient to have contained Ivan's storm surge. The Gulf spilled across the islands in a strong current capable of transporting massive amounts of sand landward, undermining buildings and roads, and opening new island breaches. On top of the surge, breaking waves nearly as tall as the water was deep, eroded dunes and battered structures.

    They have a similar page for Hurricane Frances (2004), with more discussion and fewer images, as well as Hurricanes Charley (2004), Isabel (2003), Dennis (1999), Georges (1998), Bonnie (1998), and Fran (1996). They also have a page describing how the USGS impact studies are carried out.

    Science & Fiction Symposium

    My friend Christophe sent me word of the Science & Fiction Symposium taking place September 29 through October 2 in San Francisco, sponsored by Swissnex (part of the Swiss Consulate General's office). The Symposium will cover topics from both a scientific and science-fiction perspective, and the participant lineup is impressive. Writers such as Greg Benford, Rudy Rucker, David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson will be rubbing shoulders with researchers such as Dave Grossman (Stanford), Dave Korsmeyer (NASA), astronaut Claude Nicollier, and Richard Kornfeld, part of the operations team for the Mars Exploration Rovers. Topics include robotics, human augmentation and Mars. The Wednesday-Friday talks take place in the evening, and the Saturday agenda is 2-6. Admission is free, but you must pre-register.

    I will be attending, if my schedule permits.

    Diesel Hybrid Retrofit

    Got a big diesel bus you wish was more fuel-efficient? Like serious hybrid-level efficient? Green Car Congress has good news for you. A UK company called Eneco has announced a retrofit diesel hybrid system which can provide 33% fuel savings, 33% reduced CO2, and up to 99% reduced hydrocarbon and CO emissions. The company is taking orders, and has already delivered the first of its retrofits.

    September 22, 2004

    A Leapfrog Panoply

    SciDev.Net -- which focuses on the intersection of science/technology and the developing world -- has an impressive number of stories today perfect for Leapfrog Nations. Rather than dribble them out one at a time, here's the whole set for your leapfrogging pleasure. The SciDev.Net posts are short summaries of longer articles from regional media, so be sure to follow the links.

  • India-Tanzania Scientific Collaboration.
    Hailing India's technological prowess, [Tanzanian President] Mkapa said it was an inspiration and a guide for Tanzania's own social, economic and scientific development. He added that Indian intermediate technologies were well-tested and were very much needed in less developed countries.

  • Not to be outdone, Jordan-Pakistan Scientific Collaboration
    The eight projects will include work in the fields of biotechnology, agriculture, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals. The two countries will also consider additional projects in these and other fields, including nanotechnology.

  • Perhaps they'll get support from... the Islamic Development Bank Science Network
    Mohamed Ghazali, head of the IDB scholarship programme office, through which the funds for the network would be administered, says its proposed activities will include publication of a science magazine, which has the working title Science and Development.

    The publication would seek to promote cooperation between scientists, as well as disseminate scientific information, including the results of studies monitoring the development and socio-economic impact of science and technology in member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

  • South Africa's Science and Technology Minister Announces 'Biotechnology Roadmap'
    The policy calls for the establishment of world-class genomics capability, with at least one national facility and a number of centres of excellence. It also emphasises the need to develop cell and tissue culture technologies, such as cloning, stem cell research, plant tissue culture and gene banks.


    Mangena also identifies needs related to research infrastructure for the design, testing and manufacture of drugs and vaccines. Among these are improved biosensors, particularly those designed to monitor metabolite levels in humans and animals, and bioassays to identify compounds in screening programmes.

  • And finally, Costa Rica Opens Latin America's First Nanotechnology Center
    The laboratory will begin working on two projects. One will research, design and construct microsensors, a field of research in which Diaz was awarded Costa Rica's national science prize in 1999.

    The other project will research and construct carbon nanotubules, small cylindrical structures used in the manufacture of advanced electronics materials. On this project, Lanotec will collaborate with the Costa Rican chemist Jeannette Benavides, who is director of the carbon nanotubules project at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre based in Maryland, United States.

    Anyone who thinks the future is being created only in the labs of the richest nations is in for quite a surprise.

  • September 24, 2004

    California Adopts Vehicle Greenhouse Emission Cuts

    Reuters reports that California has Air Resources Board has gone ahead and adopted rules requiring auto manufacturers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2009 and by 34% by 2016. These are actually a bit more aggressive than the draft we talked about a few months ago. It's likely that the auto industry will sue to stop the implementation of these rules, thereby delaying the inevitable.

    What Are Our Future Car Options?

    European automakers at the Paris Motor Show this week presented various designs for "green" cars of the (hopefully) near future. They ranged from technologies ready to roll out in next year's cars to systems which would trigger a transformation of our entire transportation infrastructure. The next decade will be a very interesting time for both car enthusiasts and green techies.

    French car companies seem to embracing (tentatively) hybrid-style technologies, with both Peugeot Citroen and Renault offering "Stop and Start" engine shut-off systems in upcoming vehicles. German companies, conversely, are looking towards the hydrogen future. At the Paris show, BMW displayed a H2-burner able to hit 300+ kph (185 mph), while DaimlerChrysler showed off a fuel cell Mercedes. All of them commented on the need to try a variety of approaches to figure out what will work best.

    But it's not just a question of "hybrid" or "hydrogen." When talking about hybrids, do we mean parallel or plug-in? Gasoline, diesel or hydrogen? Yes, hydrogen hybrids are on the drawing board, because hydrogen-fueled cars can be either fuel cells or hydrogen combustion. And it's not just a question of how clean a given fuel system is at the tailpipe. How much energy does it take to make the fuel? Where does the fuel come from?

    Green Car Congress dives deep into those questions, bringing together data from a variety of sources, including the California Air Resources Board emission cut proposal(PDF) and the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment study we mentioned back in June. It's hard to get precise numbers for the energy demands of production and transportation for all varieties of fuel, but it's clear from the data that the situation isn't as simple as "biodiesel good" or even "hydrogen good, petroleum bad" (depending on how the hydrogen is produced, advanced gasoline and diesel hybrids can have lower overall greenhouse emissions than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles -- but a hydrogen hybrid could be best of all).

    What is clear is that the era of the unmodified gasoline engine is drawing to a close. What will replace it is yet to be determined. For those of us who enjoy seeing technological experimentation and innovation in the name of making a better planet, the next decade is going to be a lot of fun.

    Forbes on the Future of Energy

    Forbes.com has a Q&A with Newsweek Middle East regional editor Christopher Dickey and Forbes.com editor Paul Maidment on the future of energy. It's the best summation of the "enlightened" conventional wisdom I've seen in awhile. These folks aren't carbon dead-enders, but neither to they appreciate the growing demand for or increasing innovation in support of alternative energy. They might consider what they're talking about to be a radical change, but we'd just consider it the baseline.

    September 25, 2004

    Wind Micropower in Kenya

    WorldChanging ally Alternative Energy Blog has an absolutely kickass story today from AllAfrica.com about two men, Philip Osula and Mwacharo Guyo, who providing low-cost home micropower in Kenya through wind-powered generators.

    A beneficiary of the technology, Jeff Odera, a research scientist living in Nairobi, says he has found the technology reliable and cheaper than using a diesel generator. "It is silent, has less maintenance cost, is reliable, and no fuel is used," says Odera.


    "The power needed in the rural homesteads is little, thus one generator could serve 10 households according to our research," he says.

    It is estimated that, 75 per cent of Kenyans have no access to grid electricity due to high connectivity cost, the subsequent bills and maintenance costs. "I believe this generator will fill this gap for those who need electricity," says Osula

    This is why renewable/alternative energy systems are an integral and inevitable part of a developing world leapfrog. Unlike power systems which are useless without gas or oil trucked in across long distances or rough (or no) roads, wind and solar never run out of "fuel." And as innovations in the developed world drive costs down for more efficient and reliable designs, it's places like Kenya (and India and Brazil and...) which will ultimately benefit most.

    Nanotech and the Developing World

    WorldChanging friend Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology wrote a short but thoughtful essay about how emerging transformative technologies will intersect the needs of struggling parts of the world.

    In the near future, when molecular manufacturing reaches the stage of exponential proliferation and has general-purpose application across nearly all segments of society — then the question of how (or whether?) to extend its benefits to the 2/3 of the world’s people who live on less than four dollars a day will confront us.

    Safe Nano, Green Nano

    PhysOrg yesterday had two nanotechnology-related reports of particular interest to WorldChangers.

    The first, Rice finds 'on-off switch' for buckyball toxicity, is a follow-up to a story we talked about in February: the possible danger of inhaled nanoparticles. In short, earlier this year nanotech researchers were surprised to find that buckyballs (an incredibly useful form of carbon) seemed to show high toxicity under certain conditions. But now, researchers at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology have figured out that buckyball toxicity is dependent on the shape of the molecule -- and there are simple steps that can be taken to render the carbon nanoparticles one-ten-millionth as toxic. While this was a study of individual cell toxicity, not whole-body danger, it is a promising sign.

    The second, Nanotechnology to Create Green Hydrogen, is more-or-less a press release from the British firm, Hydrogen Solar. Nonetheless, what it discusses sounds pretty intriguing: a significant improvement in the ability of solar-powered systems to "crack" hydrogen from water. The innovation is the use of a "nano-crystalline coating" of metal oxides which apparently make the splitting of H2O into hydrogen and oxygen twice as efficient as previous systems. A bit of Googling shows that development was announced in August; what's new is that they're about to run major tests in Las Vegas. (While this reminded me of a University of Massachusetts development we talked about last December, some of the elements don't quite match -- the efficiency numbers differ, and the UMass folks suggested that it might take 20 years for their process to be commercialized, not 10 months.)

    September 27, 2004

    Energy for Sustainable Development Conference

    "Energy for Sustainable Development: Technology Advances & Environmental Issues" is a conference organized by the Arab Academy for Science & Technology and Maritime Transport and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory happening December 6-9, in Cairo. The event is intended to be a "forum for interactions among regional and world energy experts [...] for the near term deployment of sustainable energy technologies and concepts" with a focus on the developing world.

    Workshops will include the use of renewable energy for water resource management, photovoltaic systems design, and clean fuel technologies.

    If you're interested in submitting a paper for consideration, the deadline for the Abstract is the 30th of this month (I know, I know, but we just found out about this). Registration is $400 before October 31, $500 afterwards. Student registration is $100.

    (This is the kind of conference we think it would be very interesting to hear about -- if any readers plan to attend, please let us know.)

    What is Hubbert's Peak?

    If you've been paying attention to the debate around oil lately, you may have heard experts using the term "Hubbert's Peak" (or, perhaps, "Peak Oil"). If so, you probably soon figured out that it has something to do with the point at which we reach maximum production of oil, and it's downhill from there. But where did the phrase come from? What does it really mean? Caltech vice provost and professor of physics and applied physics David Goodstein gave a talk on campus a few months ago on just that issue -- and his talk (with graphics) is now available via the Caltech Newsletter.

    It's a great summation of what it means to be at "peak oil," and the difficulties of figuring out what to do about the situation. WorldChangers may quibble about his too-easy dismissal of wind and solar, but he's absolutely right on the scope of the challenge.

    September 28, 2004

    San Francisco To Cut Greenhouse Gasses

    San Francisco today announced a plan to cut greenhouse emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2012. SF government, businesses and residents are currently responsible for 9.7 million tons of CO2 annually, which i left unchecked will likely grow to 10.8 million tons by 2012. This plan will try to bring SF down to 7.2 million tons by 2012, a level below what the Kyoto plan would have required. The "Climate Action Plan" is now online (PDF).

    The proposal stops short of declaring San Francisco a global-warming-free zone; it does list several ways to slash the city's greenhouse emissions by 2012 to a target level set at 20 percent below 1990 emissions.

    Most steps emphasize voluntary incentives and demonstration projects designed to coax more people out of their cars and onto bicycles or buses; convert as many city buildings and vehicles as possible to green power; expand use of energy-saving construction designs; and reward more recycling efforts.

    If San Francisco is alone in this plan, the overall change to the course of global warming will be... not much. But SF isn't alone: 150 cities and counties in the United States are taking part in similar plans, as are 600 local governments around the world. These efforts are coordinated by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) Cities for Climate Protection campaign.

    Taxes and Hybrids

    If you bought a hybrid in 2003, you got a nice $2,000 federal income tax deduction (and it was nice). If you bought one in 2004, though, the federal income tax deduction was only $1,500 -- down to $1,000 in 2005 and $500 in 2006 before disappearing entirely in 2007. At least, until today: Green Car Congress points us to an article noting that the "alternative fuel and hybrid vehicle" deduction has been restored, pushed back up to $2,000 for 2004 and 2005 (although it still drops to $500 in 2006 and then goes away). So if you bought a hybrid this year, your tax situation will be a bit nicer than you expected.

    And if you haven't bought one, but plan to, you might want to consider moving to (or, at least, visiting) Connecticut. As of October 1st, Connecticut will stop charging sales tax on hybrids. The state's 6% sales tax will no longer apply, reducing the final cost by about $1,200. In order to qualify, the vehicle must get at least 40 miles per gallon, so that rules out some of the new "upscale hybrids" which don't quite meet that standard. For now, though, the hybrids out there for sale all qualify, so go get one, if you can find one...

    Nano Wiki

    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog points us to Wise-Nano.org, founded by CRN director Chris Phoenix. It's a Wiki "designed to support collaborative research on the implications of nanotechnology and how to deal with them. In the process, it will produce a body of work on the technology, risks and benefits, and policy." If you want to take part in the evolution in thinking about how to handle potentially-world-changing new technologies, this is an excellent place to start.

    September 29, 2004

    Stop the Legalization of Extradition for Torture

    Today we are seeing a test of the Second Superpower in action -- let's hope it works. Lots of blogs are talking about this issue and encouraging action, so you'll probably run across it multiple times. It's worth making noise about.

    Sections 3032 and 3033 of H.R. 10, the "9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act of 2004" would legalize the extradition of "terrorist and criminal" suspects to foreign countries for the purposes of torture for information extraction. Specifically, the sections change our agreement to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As one intelligence official described it in the Washington Post (on December 27, 2002), "We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them.”

    Torture doesn't work -- you can get anyone, guilty or innocent, to admit to anything with sufficient pressure. It also makes matters worse. Legalizing the use of torture -- even "outsourced" torture -- undercuts our legitimate attempts to stop the use of torture elsewhere. It makes the use of torture against our own citizens held by others all the more likely. And it simply runs against everything we are supposed to value.

    The bill could come to the floor as early as next week. If you live in the United States, write your Representative about this mind-bogglingly awful provision. Rep. Ed Markey will be introducing an amendment to change this language to specifically outlaw this sort of extradition for torture. Markey's amendment is worth supporting.

    Whether you're an American or not, contact your local media about this. This is not in the best traditions of American values and, regardless of its origins (apparently introduced by Speaker Hastert), this is not a partisan issue. The more light we can shine on this provision, the more likely it will die a well-deserved death.

    More information here.

    Design the Car of the Future

    French automaker Peugeot is set to start its third "Challenge the Imagination" design contest (warning, Flash-heavy website), open to anyone 14 years or older. The winner gets to see her/his design built as a full-scale concept car on display at the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show (yes, including the flight to Frankfurt), along with €6,000 and a prize. 29 runners-up will also receive recognition and cash -- the 11th-30th get €300. Not bad.

    This year's theme is "design the car of your dreams." Past themes have included "the future of 2020" and "back to the future." Peugeot is looking at both exterior design and vehicle concept -- you turn in up to 500K worth of jpegs and 100K of text -- so a truly worldchanging design is entirely possible.

    Designs must be submitted by e-mail between October 15th and midnight (French time) December 8th. Full rules here (PDF). Peugeot encourages the use of the Free/Open Source Blender3D software for rendering the designs. Blender3D which can be downloaded for Windows, MacOSX, Linux, FreeBSD, and more here.

    Here's your chance to have a voice in what the car of the future could look like.

    (Via IDFuel)

    September 30, 2004

    What the Future Will Be Made Of

    If you're looking for a catalog of the cutting edge, I just found one.

    Transmaterialis a 186-page compendium of some of the most flat-out amazing design technologies I've ever seen. Based on Blaine Brownell's "product of the week" mailing from the design firm nbbj, Transmaterial covers "materials, products and processes that are redefining our physical environment" -- a definition broad enough to encompass "biosteel" (biotech version of spider silk) to "3D textile knitting machines" (able to produce fully-formed textile products for medical use) to rubber sidewalks, collapse-preventing structure designs, urban knowledge maps and much, much more. Some of the items mentioned have already appeared here in WorldChanging (such as translucent concrete and LED lighting), and nearly all of them would make excellent WorldChanging entries (I must admit that I was sorely tempted to keep this catalog to myself as a "cheat sheet" for the next half-year's worth of posts...).

    Each entry includes a brief (three paragraph or so) discussion, illustration, and link to manufacturer homepage where possible.

    Best of all, Transmaterial is available as a free PDF download. The complete text is 11MB, but you can also grab specific chapters. WorldChangers will find all of the book fascinating, but should definitely take a look at the "REPURPOSED -- Materials which act as surrogates replacing precious raw materials conventionally used in various applications," "INTELLIGENT -- Materials that are designed to improve their environment and which take inspiration from biological systems" and "INTERFACIAL -- Materials which facilitate the interaction between physical and virtual worlds" chapters.

    Transmaterial is a field guide to how today's design is building tomorrow.

    (Via Cool Hunting.)

    10 Point Plan For Security

    David Stephenson wrote to tell me of his latest post on his homeland security blog (which focuses on "empowering the public, creative use of technology, win-win public/private collaborations yielding security and economic benefits, and protecting civil liberties"): "10-point plan to make security moms -- and all of us -- feel more secure." The list is a checklist of what a 21st century security plan should look like, with entries such as "work with existing groups, but also facilitate ad-hoc ones" (take advantage of what David calls "smart mobs for homeland security"), "call me on my cell" (take advantage of what I call the growing "participatory panopticon"), and "if you make us partners, also hold us accountable" (emphasizing that "fighting terrorism can't be an excuse for harassing neighbors...").

    In the coming weeks, David plans to give more detail to each of the ten points.

    About September 2004

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

    August 2004 is the previous archive.

    October 2004 is the next archive.

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

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