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October 2004 Archives

October 3, 2004

BlogStreet India

Emergic.org has "soft-launched" its new blog listing, BlogStreet India. BSI indexes, ranks and links to over 800 different blogs written by people in India. Conversations with Dina, written by WorldChanging ally and recent guest poster Dina Mehta, is ranked #37 out of 825. Features include an RSS search engine, a "most influential blog" list, an RSS2Mobile service, listings of popular books, movies and music discussed by Indian bloggers, and more. India is the world's largest democracy, an up-and-coming leapfrog powerhouse, and definitely one of the cornerstones of 21st century culture -- here's a way for those of us outside of India to start learning more, for those of you who blog from India to make your voice heard.

October 4, 2004

Satellite Maps vs. Kissing Bugs

SciDev.net points us to an article at the European Space Agency website about an ESA-backed project to provide geo-spatial mapping services for humanitarian aid organizations. The effort profiled in the article is the fight against "kissing bugs" -- blood-sucking beetles which bite around the lips and eyes, spreading the parasite which causes Chagas. This wasting disease can be lethal, and affects 16 million people across Central and South America.

As part of a wider anti-Chagas campaign in the area [the Nicaraguan district of Matagalpa], Médecins Sans Frontières workers oversee a methodical house-to-house inspection campaign, identifying where cracks need to be filled in and control methods such as spraying are required.

This campaign is being guided by ultra high-resolution satellite imagery showing individual houses and even cars [...]
 "MSF is evaluating new methods to control Chagas disease, and the acquisition of a high resolution image of Matagalpa is part of this research activity," said Rémi CARRIER, MSF logistics director. "Up until now, MSF staff have been working with hand-drawn maps”.

"The use of space-based mapping technologies allows us to carry out a more efficient situation analysis of the Chagas disease on a house by house basis. It will also help us to implement effective control and monitoring programmes on the ground."

Recycle Your Phone (and other electronics)

California may have just passed a law mandating that cell phone retailers have a phone recycling program in place by July 2006, but that doesn't mean that (a) you have to live in California to recycle your phone, (b) your retailer is the best place to do it, or (c) you have to wait until 2006. Cellphones contain measurable levels of arsenic, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, copper, nickel and mercury, as well as lead in sufficient quantities to be classified as toxic waste. Simply throwing away that old phone is a bad idea.

"Recycling" the phone generally means putting it back into service elsewhere, often in a low-income or developing world region. Recycling service CollectiveGood describes their efforts this way:

CollectiveGood attempts to recycle donated phones back into reuse in the developing world (usually Latin America or the Caribbean), where they serve useful, longer lives and offer affordable communications, in many cases offering families their first modern communications. This helps bridge the digital divide, improving the quality of life for people in the developing world, and even helps their economies too.

In addition, Social Design Notes tells us of a new program by the New York City Department of Sanitation to collect electronic devices for recycling (or, at least, to keep them out of the waste stream). The efforts focus on old computers, which can be even more toxic than mobile phones.

October 6, 2004

Car That Runs On Air, Revisited

A few months ago, we posted a short piece on the MDI AirCar, a small commuter vehicle that runs on compressed air. AP has an updated report on the AirCar, which apparently has gotten past its earlier limitation of only operating for about 7 kilometers. Current models are able to go about 50 miles on a single tank of compressed air, more if you drive below the maximum speed of about 70 miles per hour. Recharging the tank (by plugging it in) takes about four hours; MDI claims that the electricity required to recharge the tank costs about $2.50 in France (presumably, AP took care of the currency and km/miles translation correctly). Let's see... 50 miles for $2.50... that's a bit better than a hybrid gets at California gas prices, but not outrageously so. Of course, the AirCar is cleaner than a hybrid as a greenhouse/pollution emission source, and much cleaner if you can charge it with your rooftop solar panels.

Sadly, there's still no sign of the AirCar being made available in the United States any time soon.

red | blue

We pointed long ago to FundRace.org and its excellent sets of data regarding political donations. One of the more interesting -- and, for some, alarming -- aspects of FundRace was its ability to let you type in an address and get back a list of nearby donors. Suddenly you could find out if your neighbors had the same political leanings you had without risking a punch in the nose.

Now a website called "Gravity Monkey" has crafted a tiny application called "red | blue". Written for your Java-enabled mobile device (phone, PDA, panoptiglasses, whatever), red | blue lets you find out whether you're in hostile or friendly territory with a quick web check. If your mobile device includes GPS, you can even track your surroundings as you move.

red | blue is available for free. Although the Gravity Monkey page describing the software claims that the work has a "creative commons" license, the app does not appear to be free/open source.

(Via Engadget)

Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Soon?

One of the most widely-read WorldChanging articles we've ever done (at least based on ongoing Google hits) is Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!. Clean diesel engines in Europe get very good mileage; a clean diesel hybrid could easily get upwards of 70-80 miles per gallon, and probably more. But despite a few test vehicles shown back around 2000 and the growing use of diesel hybrid buses, nobody seems to be making diesel hybrids for the consumer market.

That may soon change. Green Car Congress (of course) has had a couple of posts in the last few days about the "ECO TARGET" diesel hybrid powertrain shown at a recent "Engine & Environment" conference in Austria. It's a "mild hybrid" -- the electric motor is used for power assist, not as an alternative source of motive power -- but it is designed to be an "add on" to existing diesel engine designs. According to GCC, the designers claim a "30% improvement in fuel economy and reduced emissions against the baseline conventional 2-liter diesel."

AVI, the primary design company, is explicit about the rationale for the diesel hybrid system:

The main issues around which compliance with future mobility requirements revolve are of an ecological and economic nature: fuel consumption should be reduced through a variety of measures, in the interests both of the environment and people’s wallets. The constraints are already defined: in July 1998, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) committed to reducing fleet CO2 emissions for new vehicles to 140 g/km by 2008. By 2012, this parameter should be at the 120 g/km level. The Kyoto conference stipulated a fleet CO2 emission of 90 g/km for 2010.

AVI claims that their diesel hybrid powertrain will have CO2 emissions in the 90-100 g/km range. GCC reports that the ECO-TARGET design still has a few kinks yet to work out, but could be available to automakers in another two years or so, just in time for European automakers to meet the Kyoto fleet emission deadline.

October 10, 2004

Reminder: Chat With Jamais

Just a quick reminder: today at 8pm EDT/5pm PDT/Midnight GMT, I will be the guest at the "Immortality Institute" live chat, where I will be holding forth on scenarios of what a world with radical life extension could look like. It's a bit outside our usual WorldChanging fare, admittedly, but it should still be fun. You can use your own IRC software or the site's Java client.

Seeing Pollution

Nicolas Nova's blog points us to MetPhoMod: the METeorology and atmospheric PHOtochemistry mesoscale MODel project (and don't blame me for the funky capitalization, that's what they use) in Switzerland. MetPhoMod is a 3D visualization tool for modeling meteorology and atmospheric chemistry -- that is, smog. MetPhoMod was used to study pollution patterns in Europe in the late 1990s, with a particular focus on the air chemistry over Grenoble and over the Swiss canton of Obwalden. The illustration at right is from work done in 1996 looking at smog patterns in Athens.

What makes this application interesting is the fact that it's free software, under a GPL license. The source code (as well as binaries for Solaris, AIX, Linux and Windows) can be found on the download page. A set of test data as well as data from a 1993 Swiss Plateau study are also available. The technical reference explains the theory and math behind the latest version of the app. MetPhoMod is complex stuff, clearly not meant for casual play, but I'm always happy to see these sorts of simulations made more widely available.

October 11, 2004

What Would Radical Longevity Mean?

Technology Review reports that MIT Professor Leonard Guarente may have found the genetic factor that allows mice undergoing 'caloric restriction' to live up to 30% longer. It's long been known that cutting down food intake by about 1/3 can extend the lifespan of mammals by up to 50%. Professor Guarente has found that manipulating a single gene -- the SIRT1 gene -- can produce longer mice lives without caloric restriction. What's more, all mammals -- including humans -- have a similar gene.

A 30% longer healthy life -- another 25-30 years, say -- is intriguing, and is on the cusp of being worldchanging. As Alex has noted in the past, a population that regularly lives to (and beyond) the age of 100 forces us to confront questions about work, relationships, family and our society in general. But living to 100, even 140, may be just the tip of the iceberg. What happens when we figure out a way to live much longer lives? Read on for an exploration of this question.

Continue reading "What Would Radical Longevity Mean?" »

ESA Maps the Atmosphere

The European Space Agency has been involved in some very cool projects lately. Now comes word that the ESA "Envisat" -- the largest Earth Observation satellite ever built -- has just completed 18 months of observations of Nitrogen Dioxide accumulation. Using its "Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY)," it has produced the most detailed map yet of global atmospheric pollution.

"The higher spatial resolution delivered by SCIAMACHY means we see a lot of detail in these global images, even resolving individual city sources" said Steffen Beirle of the University of Heidelberg's Institute for Environmental Physics, responsible for the map shown above.

"High vertical column distributions of nitrogen dioxide are associated with major cities across North America and Europe, along with other sites such as Mexico City in Central America and South African coal-fired power plants located close together in the eastern Highveld plateau of that country.

"Then a very high concentration is found above north eastern China. Also across South East Asia and much of Africa can be seen nitrogen dioxide produced by biomass burning. Ship tracks are visible in some locations: look at the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean between the southern tip of India and Indonesia. The smoke stacks of ships crossing these routes send a large amount of NO2 into the troposphere.

This map is average out across all available data, spanning 18 months. This has the effects of reducing seasonal variations in biomass burning and also those due to human activity changes due to the time of year."

NO2 is a major component of smog, triggering the development of tropospheric ozone. The map shown above is a small version of a massive (1.6 MB jpeg, 7.8 MB TIFF) display of NO2 density observed between January 2003 and June 2004. I have to say, the image makes an impressive, if disturbing, computer desktop.

October 12, 2004

Transforming the Internet

John S. Quarterman contributed the following essay to WorldChanging. It makes a particularly interesting partner to Bruce Sterling's recent essay on the WSIS. Thank you for this, John!


The Internet has become so embedded in society that both sides in the current U.S. presidential race cite web sites and all factions blog all the time. It isn't electrical utility grids or even air travel that is interconnecting the world as never before; it is communications systems, led by the Internet, which is rapidly subsuming many other communications systems. All the other infrastructures increasingly depend on the Internet. Even if it isn't actually causing a state change in the world, as in water to ice, the Internet has global reach and fast speed, producing on the one hand its great value via Metcalfe's Law (many users) and Reed's Law (many groups), and on the other its great risk of cascade failure, as well as its many smaller risks from phishing to cable cuts.

Continue reading "Transforming the Internet" »

Real Electronics Recycling in South Africa

We posted recently about efforts to recycle mobile phones and other electronics. In many cases, recycling means reuse -- phones and computers and such are refurbished and put back into service in the developing world. One of the commenters, however, made an excellent point: this doesn't get rid of the toxic metals in the hardware, just pushes it into the hands of countries which may be less able to handle the waste.

Now comes word of "African Sky," an electronic waste recycling company based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The company will collect computers, cell phones, switchboards and the like from business clients, recycling the plastics and metal locally, and sending other components to their partner company, Citiraya, described as the world's largest electronics recycling group.

The primary investment for African Sky came from Vuthela, a South African "empowerment" organization owned in part by musician Johnny Clegg.

October 13, 2004

Paul Hawken on "The Long Green" Friday Night

From Stewart Brand:

The environmental movement has moved on.  It has become so deep and wide that it adds up to something new entirely, still unnamed.  Whatever it is, it is now the largest movement in the world and the least ideological.  Driven by science and patience, it is civilization-scale therapy.

So says Paul Hawken in a landmark address he will make this Friday evening, Oct. 15, in San Francisco.

Paul Hawken, "The Long Green," Friday, October 15, Fort Mason Conference Center.  Doors open at 7 pm for coffee, books, and conversation, lecture promptly at 8 pm.  Admission free ($10 donation very welcome, not required).

Paul Hawken co-authored the now classic NATURAL CAPITALISM with Amory Lovins and also wrote THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE and GROWING A BUSINESS.  He co-founded a great garden company, Smith & Hawken, and a great organic food company, Erewhon.  He chaired the introduction of The Natural Step to the US and currently is creating several companies for Pax Scientific.

I'll be there -- if you attend, be sure to say hi.

What If..?

Are you a UK resident between the ages of 14 and 26? Do you know someone who is? You may then want to know about the What If..? film competition.

With a deadline of December 1st, 2004, What If..? is looking for science fiction films no more than five minutes in length. It can be any style -- live action, claymation, all digital -- but has to stay within the five minute limit. The FAQ indicates that "the competition is open to all secondary schools, further education colleges, universities, film schools and recognised youth groups in the UK," so you can't just make a movie in your spare time and enter the competition. Judging takes place in January 2005, and the winners will be shown at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival.

Being neither a UK resident nor between 14 and 26, I won't be taking part, but we'd love to link to any online copies of submissions made by WorldChanging readers!

(Via SciScoop.)

Fuck For Forest

How far are you willing to go to save the planet? If you're a young Norwegian couple with love for the planet and a disdain for clothing, you might be willing to go pretty far. Grist magazine's Lissa Harris has an amusing article about Leona Johansson and Tommy Hol Ellingsen's heroic efforts to raise money for environmental causes.

China's Fuel Efficiency Rules Will Exceed America's

Green Car Congress alerts us to the news that the Chinese government has approved new automobile fuel efficiency guidelines. Good to hear, but the big news is that these standards -- which are "not particularly stringent" in the words of the AP writer -- exceed US fuel efficiency standards. According to an analysis by US PIRG:

China’s new fuel economy standards require 32 different car and truck weight-based classes to achieve between 19 and 38 mpg by 2005, and between 21 and 43 mpg by 2008. Only 79 percent of U.S. car sales and 27 percent of U.S. light truck sales currently meet China’s 2005 standards. Only 19 percent of car sales and 14 percent of truck sales currently meet China’s 2008 standard.


China’s new standards prescribe a maximum level of fuel consumption for every vehicle within each weight class, meaning that every automobile produced in a particular weight class has to meet the fuel economy standard set for that weight class. The U.S. fuel economy system, on the other hand, only requires that car and light truck sales averages meet fuel economy standards for each class.


In China, if the automobiles do not meet the prescribed standards, they simply cannot be sold.

October 14, 2004

Counting Contrails

It's tough when two worldchanging philosophies conflict. On the one hand, we strongly believe that (as a general rule) international travel is a Good Thing. It can broaden intellectual horizons, letting one experience life in a wholly different culture, reminding one that the world does not end at one's nation's borders. As a perspective-shaking epiphany, it's not quite the same as seeing the Earth from space, but it's as close as most of us can come for now.

Unfortunately, airplanes -- the most practical means of international travel -- are not environmentally benign. We've mentioned before the greenhouse gas problem from air travel (and the hope that a shift to biofuels will reduce the footprint), but another issue of increasing concern are the contrails left by planes flying through cold reaches of the atmosphere. NASA research suggests that contrails can add significantly to greenhouse heat-trapping. The picture at right -- click it for a larger version -- shows a single day's contrails over the southeastern US.

To help ongoing research into the effects of contrails, NASA is promoting a contrail-counting effort as part of their "Earth Science Week" education project. Today (October 14th) and tomorrow (October 15th), students, teachers, parents and other interested citizens are asked to count the contrails they see and enter a report at NASA. A similar count was done on Earth Day 2004; the results and initial analysis are now available online.

(Thanks for the tip, Bernard!)

Nano News

Several nanotechnology-related items have popped up on my radar in the last few days. Here are some highlights:

Nanotechnology, the Environment and Brazil
Next week, October 18 and 19, the University of São Paulo will be hosting the First International Seminar on Nanotechnology, Society and the Environment. Reading the description gave me chills: this is exactly the right conversation to be having now, and in exactly the right place. WorldChanging Ally Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, will be speaking at the seminar both days. We'll definitely link to his report about the proceedings.

Computerworld reports about "nanograss" -- a "bed of upright silicon posts a thousand times thinner than a human hair." Developed at Bell Labs, with a variety of fascinating (and somewhat bizarre) properties. It could be used to create tiny "smart" heat sinks, liquid lenses, nearly frictionless boat hulls, and allow batteries to remain fresh on the shelf almost indefinitely. Such batteries would also have three to four times the power-to-weight ratio of ordinary power cells.

Nanotechnology and Global Poverty
The 1st Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology: Research, Applications, and Policy runs October 21-24, in Washington DC (October must be nanomonth). Among the technical and speculative seminars is "Applying Nanotechnology to the Challenges of Global Poverty," a presentation given by Bryan Bruns of the Foresight Institute. The abstract reads like a checklist of what I want to see more discussion about when thinking about nanotechnology. I won't be able to attend, but I will keep my eyes open for any details about this presentation.

Finally, Wired reports about the increasing application of nanotechnology to water filtration.

The NanoWater congress [last week in Amsterdam], which kicked off the Aquatech 2004 water-technology trade show, outlined how nanotechnology can create drinking water from contaminated water, salt water and all forms of waste water, including bong water (it is Amsterdam, after all).

The promise of nanofiltration devices that "clean" polluted water, sifting out bacteria, viruses, heavy metals and organic material, is driving companies like Argonide and KX Industries, which developed technology used in Brita filters, to make nanotechnology-based filters for consumers. Two products incorporating nanotechnology are going to hit the market within the next year and are already being tested in developing nations.

One wonders how well high-tech nanomaterial filters stack up against ceramic water filters made by Potters for Peace. Of course, it appears that the nanofilters may be able to handle the dirtiest of water, and even help with desalination, so they will certainly be an important addition to the worldchanger's toolkit.

William Gibson is Blogging Again

Author William Gibson's line "the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet" has long been a cornerstone idea for WorldChanging. His most recent novel, Pattern Recognition,captures the zeitgeist of the present-bleeding-into-tomorrow better than anything I've read in a long time. He blogged for awhile a year or so ago, but now he's back.

I am particularly pleased with today's entry, as the event he's talking about ("...about seven years ago I happened to find myself in San Francisco...") was the same event where he and I met and talked about science fiction, writing for Hollywood, and the important of imagining the future.

Twelve Tipping Points

When the Caribbean and Florida were hit by multiple big hurricanes last month, the question on the lips of many people was whether global warming was at fault. Climatologists had the scientifically correct answer: hard to say, probably not, but quite possibly a contributing factor. Because the environment is a complex system of system, it's very difficult to pinpoint precise cause-and-effect for specific weather or environmental effects. But that doesn't mean we can't see particular signs of change.

John Schellnhuber, research director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, has helped to develop a list of twelve "tipping points" where small increases in average atmospheric temperature due to global warming could produce "sudden and dramatic environmental damage." The list varies from locations where changes could have significant global effects to locations where the changes would be more "canary in a coal mine" warnings. What's most troubling is the manner in which such disruptions would very often trigger positive-feedback loops -- environmental changes which would in turn serve to accelerate the effects of global warming.

Follow the link for the full list; read on for a couple of excerpts.

Continue reading "Twelve Tipping Points" »

It's Gotta Be The Shoes

In the ongoing effort to combat the greenhouse effect, the European Union has drafted legislation which would ban some types of... shoes.

Sports shoes with air pockets filled with so-called F-gases will be banned from sale within the 25-nation bloc under the proposed legislation.

"F-gases have huge global warming potential -- in some cases almost 24,000 times that of carbon dioxide," EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said in a statement. "By agreeing this legislation, member states have once again taken concrete action to fight climate change.

The proposed legislation would also put restrictions on the use of F-gases in refrigerators, fire extinguishers and automobile air conditioners... but you know it's the shoes that will be in all of the headlines.

The History of Social Software

WorldChanging Ally Christopher Allen (of Life With Alacrity) has written a fascinating piece entitled Tracing the Evolution of Social Software. Starting with Vannevar Bush's prophetic 1945 essay "As We May Think" and ending up with musings about the potential future of the concept, in many respects it's a capsule history of how people and computers have co-evolved. Go give it a read.

October 15, 2004

The Methane Mystery

The European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, which arrived at the Red Planet earlier this year, has been somewhat overshadowed by two successful landers and one failure: NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers 1 & 2 ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") still crawl along the Martian surface, well beyond their scheduled end-of-mission; conversely, the ESA's "Beagle II" lander, which was carried on the Mars Express, plummeted to Mars and destruction. When the lander crashed, much of the media seemed to forget about the orbiter, either focusing on the NASA missions or the controversy around the failed Beagle II. But the Mars Express mission, despite the lander disaster, has nonetheless been producing some valuable science (as well as some great photos). The most intriguing reports concern methane.

Continue reading "The Methane Mystery" »

October 16, 2004

Paul Hawken: The Long Green

Paul Hawken, author (with Amory Lovins) of Natural Capitalism,among other books, and founder of sustainability-focused businesses (a longer bio available here), spoke last night at Fort Mason in San Francisco as part of the Long Now Organization's speaker series. His presentation focused initially on the history of the environmental movement in the United States -- a movement that, in his introduction, Stewart Brand credited with first teaching the 20th century to think in the long term. Hawken noted a long-standing tension in environmentalism, between "love of nature" and "alienation from nature;" it's a split, in his view, between whether the economy is a subset of the environment, or whether the environment is a subset of the economy. But he went on to say that the environmental movement, as previously conceived, is no more: it's been replaced. And this is where Hawken's talk shifted from a history lesson to a clarion call.

Hawken articulated, in passionate language, a vision that aligned with and expanded what we've been saying here at WorldChanging: there's a revolution taking place, one which is powered by (and in turn powers) the efforts of thousands of disparate movements, groups, networks, ideas, and people, all over the world. They are distributed and diverse, not focused on ideology or power; in fact, this is the largest movement in history not seeking power. It is mainstream, but not centralized, so it often seems to operate beneath the media radar. It links social justice and environmentalism, activism and science. And it is changing the world.

"Nobody understands the rate and breadth of the environmental degradation that's taking place.

But more important, nobody understands the rate and breadth of humanity's response."

     --Paul Hawken, October 15, 2004

Read on for some more Paul Hawken quotations from the talk.

Continue reading "Paul Hawken: The Long Green" »

World on Fire

What does $150,000 buy?

If you're a professional musician, it can buy a music video -- the staff, the union workers, the catering, the make-up and lights and travel.

It can also buy clinics and medicine in Afghanistan, classrooms and books in Africa, shelter and movies for refugee camps, ambulances and irrigation and scholarships. And more, much more.

Musician Sarah McLachlan chose to spend the $150,000 allocated for the video for her song "World on Fire" on services for the world's needy. The full list of what the money bought is here. And she went ahead and made a video, for $15, showing what was done with the rest of the money, putting faces on the faceless.

It's kind of staggering what such a small amount of money can buy to make the world a bit more humane.

Biomimetic Art

Artist and trained quantum physicist Julian Voss-Adreae creates wood and steel sculptures modeled after proteins. According to a writeup in Genome News Network, "the sculptures are based on proteins found in nature, and his models must meet two criteria: They have certain aesthetic qualities and are 'scientifically significant.'" GNN has several example sculptures, and more can be found at his eponymous website.

Very cool stuff indeed.

October 18, 2004

Welcome, Régine!

Régine Debatty joins our roster of WorldChanging contributors. She regularly blogs at Near Near Future, one of our favorite sites, and was one of our recent guest contributors celebrating WorldChanging's birthday. We're extremely pleased to have her aboard.

She has a remarkable eye for the indicative. The trends, toys, ideas and innovations she finds for Near Near Future range from the amusing to the provocative, but are always tantalizing harbingers of what tomorrow will look like. She's also a true European citizen: born in Belgium, educated in England, worked in Spain, now living in Turin, and planning on a move to Berlin.

Welcome, Régine!

Science in the South

From October 11 through November 15, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), in Paris, will be displaying a photography exhibition entitled "Sciences au Sud" ("Science in the South") (website in French). These photos, taken by scientists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, illustrate the concerns of researchers across the developing world. The photography ranges from the functional to the evocative; while not all of the scientist-photographers had an artistic flair, they managed to capture an impressive set of images.

The exhibition is divided into four tents: "Feeding Ourselves" (agriculture and biodiversity), "Healing" (AIDS, malnutrition and poverty), "Preventing" (natural catastrophes), and "Living Together" (migration, demography, and education). The pictures are accompanied by text in a variety of languages, as well as a slideshow designed for illiterate audiences. IRD intends for the exhibit to travel globally once the Paris showing is completed, especially to southern countries.

Marie-Lise Sabrié, of IRD, told SciDev.Net that the exhibition was designed for a wide audience in developing nations.

"We want to help reduce the knowledge gap between the North and South to return knowledge to the countries where this research is undertaken," says Sabrié.

First-hand reports from any WorldChangers in Paris who get a chance to visit the exhibition would be more than welcome!

(Via SciDev.Net)

Chinese Science Aid to Africa

We've noted before China's offers to assist African development through scientific aid. SciDev.Net this week has yet another example, from a meeting between the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UN's secretary-general Kofi Annan. All well and good, but this would be of only passing interest except for the comment from an unnamed Chinese official:

"China will send experts to train local technicians in African countries, and will also host training classes and sponsor African experts to learn in China about agriculture, water power and renewable energies". (Emphasis mine.)

China is clearly making renewable energy technologies a big part of its thrust to be a global power. Africa and other poor areas are terrific test-beds for Chinese renewable R&D, as system which would not be competitive in western markets can still find eager users. As Chinese renewable technologies get better, expect to see their target audience move from African aid to global consumers.

FedEx's Solar System

No, not a set of planets, but a private power grid. Reuters reports that FedEx is set to build the second-largest private solar power system in Oakland, California. At 904 kilowatts, it will supply 25% of FedEx's annual power requirements at its shipping hub at Oakland Airport. It will use 5,800 panels, covering 81,000 square feet, and should be operational by this coming May. The FedEx press release has a few more details.

October 20, 2004

Stephenson and Gibson and Sterling (oh my)

Neal Stephenson (author of the recent Baroque Cycle novels and of what remains the best opening page of any novel I've ever read, in Snowcrash) answers questions on Slashdot today. His exhaustive and clever replies will undoubtedly get plenty of blogosphere attention (and I see now that it's been picked up on BoingBoing), but even wise WorldChangers who steer clear of Slashdot should take a look. His best answer -- the question of who would win in a fight between him and William Gibson -- made me laugh so hard I scared my cats. I've excerpted it in the extended entry, but definitely go check out the whole post.

Continue reading "Stephenson and Gibson and Sterling (oh my)" »

Renewable Energy Business Notes

Two pieces of news today about the business and economic side of renewable energy.

The Earth Policy Institute breaks down the details of 2003 sales of photovoltaic cells. Production of solar cells hit 742 megawatts worth in 2003, 32% more than in 2002. Nearly half of solar cell production takes place in Japan, and European production has also grown dramatically. The US, unfortunately, saw its PV cell production drop by 14%.

The Financial Times reports that a new joint study by Greenpeace and the UK's Department of Trade and Industry shows that growth of the offshore wind industry would bring up to 76,000 new jobs in the UK, half in the economically-depressed north-east part of the country. The full report is available here (PDF).

(Thanks, Tim!)

The New Baseline Scenario

Oakland, California-based environmental research group Redefining Progress today released a report entitled Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger: Secure Jobs, a Clean Environment and Less Foreign Oil, laying out the economic benefits which would accrue to the United States by adopting energy policies focusing on clean energy technologies. The report itself -- a national overview (PDF) and reports for the states -- is deceptively slim, as it brings together the results of work done by organizations such as Oak Ridge National Labs, the Apollo Alliance (PDF), the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and others. But what it lacks in original research, it makes up for in its synthesis of mainstream, careful arguments as to the economic results of a shift to cleaner energy. These are not radical, bright green visions; they're the outcome of largely continuing to do what we're already doing, but doing it better. In effect, Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger establishes the new baseline scenario for the next 20 years.

A change to American energy and environmental policies is imminent, no matter who wins in two weeks. We're already seeing it happen in the reality-based world, despite federal intransigence. Insurance companies are increasingly scared about the effects of global warming, and are adjusting their holdings and rates accordingly; state governments in the US are increasingly responding to the call for stricter regulation of energy production and use; and global corporations now face increasingly tough environmental standards in Europe and elsewhere, with spin-off effects at home. We will see more efficient vehicles, greener buildings, and more use of renewable energy in the United States over the next twenty years. The question is not if it will happen, but whether it will happen smoothly.

Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger spells out the result of twenty years of only mildly-discontinuous change: 1.4 million additional jobs; average household saving on energy bills of $1,275 per year; reduced oil imports; carbon emissions cut in half. Most of the steps required for this scenario rely on increased efficiency and smarter planning, not an energy revolution -- steps such as smart grids, more hybrid vehicles, and green buildings. Steps with such obvious and pervasie lifestyle and economic benefits, they are almost over-determined.

We could do worse than in the Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger scenario -- but we'd really have to be pretty stupid to do so. We could also do much, much better -- but we'd have to be pretty daring. The Redefining Progress future is not one of paradigm-shifting molecular nanotechnologies, design biomimicry, or leaps ahead in smart machines, new tools which are quite plausible in the next twenty years. It's not a future of leapfrog nations, new urban visions, or collaborative creation, new systems and models which are already reshaping how the world works. Substantive transformation is possible, is within our grasp, if we have the willingness to reach for it.

Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger is well-worth checking out, particularly the state-by-state data. But don't fool yourself into thinking that it's a radical vision of what's possible. It's not. The world it describes is possible, to be sure; with reasonably wise leadership, it's nearly inevitable. But we could do so much more.

Sorry, Free Willy, Not This Time. Sorry About the Tissue Damage.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that cetaceans -- whales, porpoises and dolphins -- do not have standing to sue the US government in court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco [...] said it saw no reason why animals should not be allowed to sue but said they had not yet been granted that right.

"If Congress and the President intended to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue they could and should have said so plainly," Judge William A. Fletcher wrote in an 18-page opinion for the panel.

The cause of the suit is serious -- the use of low-frequency sonar by the Navy as a possible violation of the Endangered Species Act -- and the ruling raises some interesting questions. If only people and "legal entities" -- that is, corporations -- have the right to sue, how will we define "people" in an era of rapid technological change? Would a putative machine intelligence have to be registered as a corporation in order to assert its rights? How would the courts define "person" if faced with radically bioengineered humans?

Is the act of asking for the protection of one's rights prima facia evidence that such rights should be granted?

We're Number 17!

Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index today. Finland once again topped the list of transparent, non-corrupt countries, with New Zealand, Denmark and Iceland close behind. The UK was #11, Canada #12, and the United States an also-ran at #17 (along with Belgium and Ireland), just behind Hong Kong and a bit ahead of France & Spain (at #20). As disappointing as those results are, they are only the tip of the corruption iceberg:

A total of 106 out of 146 countries score less than 5 against a clean score of 10, according to the new index, published today by Transparency International, the leading non-governmental organisation fighting corruption worldwide. Sixty countries score less than 3 out of 10, indicating rampant corruption. Corruption is perceived to be most acute in Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria, Chad, Myanmar, Azerbaijan and Paraguay, all of which have a score of less than 2.

“Corruption robs countries of their potential,” said Eigen. “As the Corruption Perceptions Index 2004 shows, oil-rich Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen all have extremely low scores. In these countries, public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of western oil executives, middlemen and local officials.”

The Frequently Asked Questions page lays out the CPI's definition of corruption:

The CPI focuses on corruption in the public sector and defines corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. The surveys used in compiling the CPI ask questions that relate to the misuse of public power for private benefit, with a focus, for example, on bribe-taking by public officials in public procurement. The sources do not distinguish between administrative and political corruption or between petty and grand corruption.

We've written about corruption and transparency before -- they were the subject of one of our first posts, in fact -- and for good reason. Corruption is one of the key stumbling blocks to building a better world. Efforts like the CPI to bring data about corruption into the open are extremely valuable: as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

October 21, 2004

Designing a Park in Cairo

The New York Times has a fascinating and lyrical article about the opening of the Azhar Park in Cairo. At 74 acres, it is the largest green space created in Cairo in over a century. It is also an example of the use of urban design concepts and principles to revive centuries-old architecture -- a revival that meets with ambiguous success, even as it has re-energized the community.

The site, at the city's eastern edge in one of its poorest areas, reflects the planners' social ambitions. For several hundred years, the city's most destitute carted garbage here and then sifted through it for anything of value. The dump gradually grew into a range of hills that extended nearly a mile, burying the old historic wall underneath it. The decaying medieval fabric of the Darb al-Ahmar district is just beyond. To the west of the park is the City of the Dead, a sprawling quarter of ancient tombs and mausoleums that for centuries have been inhabited by the city's poor.

The park, which opened to the public recently, rises out of this context like a virtual Eden.

Update: Reader Deborah Middleton, who is researching the Al Azhar park for her Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, has some serious concerns about the New York Times article. Read her critique in the comments.

October 22, 2004

Designing for the Long Term

If you wanted to build something that would last for centuries, how would you do it?

Legendary software developer Dan Bricklin recently wrote an essay entitled "Software That Lasts 200 Years," exploring what it would take to craft code that could reliably function for an extended period of time. It's a hard problem, one that would require a wholly different mindset from the traditional programming approach. But as I read the piece, it struck me that the general rules Bricklin presents for "Societal Infrastructure Software" could be applied to other systems and artifacts, as well.

Bricklin's list of eleven "needs" for Societal Infrastructure Software make a good starting checklist for long-term design. It's not a "how to" so much as a "what to think about" list. As you read it over, think about the degree to which familiar social infrastructure systems -- voting systems, energy production, health care, governance -- fulfill these demands:

Continue reading "Designing for the Long Term" »

October 23, 2004

Think of it as Insurance

While there is a global consensus of climate scientists on the reality of human-induced climate disruption, the details remain a bit fuzzy. Questions remain about how the process is unfolding, and the recent news that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are growing faster than models had predicted is disturbing (to say the least). There's still some uncertainty about the speed with which climate change is unfolding (although "slowly" may no longer be a credible scenario), and the scale of the disruption ("bad", "very bad", or "call Roland Emmerich").

But what does a reasonable person do when faced with the uncertain scale of quite likely disaster? Buy insurance.

Dr. Michael Schlesinger and Dr. Natalia Andronova at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the October 15 edition of Science, argue that an "insurance policy" approach is the best way to handle the likely need for mitigation of climate disruption and the uncertainty about its unfolding effects. They examined a number of possible scenarios, from "do nothing now" to "do everything now" against different scales of atmospheric sensitivity to greenhouse gases in order to determine the optimal approach. What they found is that the best combination of effectiveness and flexibility is to implement a gradually-rising carbon tax, starting at $10 per ton, climbing to $33 per ton in 30 years. $10/ton would amount to 5 cents per gallon of gasoline.

“It’s really a cost-minimization problem, given that we will eventually have to set a policy target sometime in the future,” Schlesinger said.

“The idea is to search for the tax that provides the least cost over the whole period. If the tax is too low, you do too little in the beginning, then after 30 years you have to do a lot. On the other hand, if the tax is too high, you spend too much now, and you may have to do only a little later.”

The least cost, the researchers found, is to implement a carbon tax that starts out at $10 per ton of carbon (about five cents per gallon of gasoline) and then gradually climbs to $33 per ton in 30 years. Such hedging effectively “buys insurance” against future adjustment costs and is extremely robust, especially when compared with a wait-and-see strategy.

“It would be much less expensive to buy low-cost, climate-change insurance now, than it would be to wait and act later,” Schlesinger said. People voluntarily purchase insurance as protection from extreme events when the risks are private, he said, but societies can require insurance when potential losses are distributed across a population. In the past, risk has influenced policies where voluntary action could prove insufficient.

The article is available at the Science website for subscribers, but the supporting material -- including many pages of the calculations that went into the scenarios -- can be downloaded for free (PDF).

October 24, 2004

The WTN X-Prizes: Motivating Cathedrals of Achievement

(WorldChanging ally Hassan Masum contributed the following essay:)

When SpaceShipOne cracked the 100 km barrier for the second time to win the Ansari X-prize, the significance of a cheap, reusable, suborbital launch vehicle was celebrated all around the world. As we reported previously, the WTN is following up by proposing a series of social X Prizes, and asking for suggestions. What challenges are worth setting up as prize targets? And as Nicole Boyer asked about prizes, "...under what conditions do they actually make a difference?"

Well, let's think about it a little differently: as an investment problem. Suppose you had from $10 to $100 million to spend, in social entrepreneurship or philanthropy. You want to create new technology or solve a longstanding problem - to bring something new into the world that increases the range of the possible. How could you get the best impact for your money?

Continue reading "The WTN X-Prizes: Motivating Cathedrals of Achievement" »

October 25, 2004

Sustainable Energy in the Developing World

In the comments on Vinay's post about flashlights, WorldChanging ally George Mokray gave some details about a talk at MIT by Kate Steel about the challenges of integrating photovoltaics into African rural villages. I thought the comment was worth highlighting, so got his permission to repost it on the front page:

Kate Steel spoke about solar electricity in Africa at MIT this week. The notes from an earlier presentation on sustainable energy in developing countries, with a focus on south Africa is available online at web.mit.edu/10.391j/www/Kate_0506.pdf. (Ed: the other lecture notes for MIT's Spring 2004 Sustainable Energy class also look very interesting.)

As one example, she said more rural people in Kenya get electricity from PV than the grid but there's no coordination between the grid and the distribution of PV. She is endeavoring to do a systems analysis of the problem. Furthermore, there is no linkage between PV and existing rural businesses: grain milling, restaurants, brewery/bars, snack shops/kiosks, satellite TVs, and mobile phones. The only business that can conceivably be all or predominantly solar is the mobile phone business. There are no warranties or insurance in rural Africa so development experiments can't afford to fail. ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group) and Ignite Innovations are two groups that have developed solar PV lanterns for rural use but the price point is still too high, over $100 per.

Urbanization may diminish the need for rural electricity in the near future; in any case, the greater problem is the indoor pollution and biomass use from even the newer, more efficient stoves. Mali will exhaust all its biomass in 60 years at present rate. 70% of all the energy used in Africa is biomass. The crucial problem is less reading light and a radio/TV/computer than a safe, efficient, and non-polluting stove. If we can do that, some space heating (or a hearth) would be nice.

I asked about solar stoves but Ms Steel said that they weren't being adopted. It would take no other, ready alternative in order for them to be generally used. LPG is the next step up from wood, charcoal, and dried dung. Electric stoves is what the people want in part because that is what they perceive the developed countries as using.

WTN "Social Entrepreneur" Awards

The World Technology Network is an interesting group. We've linked to them a few times -- they're behind the proposed "social X-Prize" idea, and held a huge conference earlier this year on "Leapfrogging the Grid: Distributed Generation in the Developing World." Our own Nicole Boyer was one of the organizers of that event, and she promises to tell us all about it when she gets a chance.

WTN has now announced its 2004 winners of the World Technology Network Awards, which recognize outstanding achievement in categories such as biotechnology, design, energy, ethics, social entrepreneurship and many more. Many of the awards are for projects with a distinctly worldchanging flavor. SciDev.Net, one of our favorite sites for coverage of the intersection of technology and society, has the details:

The social entrepreneur prize — for people who apply technologies to social problems in a sustainable way — was awarded to Brazilian Fabio Luis de Oliveira Rosa, who has spent 20 years developing systems to bring electricity to people in isolated rural areas.

Rosa, the executive director of the Institute for the Development of Natural Energy and Sustainability in Porto Alegre, initially developed a low cost electrical grid for rural areas that went on to supply electricity to one million in Brazil.

"Then, I developed another approach to serve people using solar photovoltaic energy," says Rosa. "It is a completely new concept business approach that can bring electricity to poor people in a completely sustainable approach, without subsidies."

The SciDev.Net article is inspiring, but reading over the details of the various nominees and winners -- 20 categories, with five or more nominees apiece -- is humbling. From biomolecular computers to advanced solar technologies to efforts to develop a rainforest plant DNA bank and more, the work done by these researchers and developers provides ample evidence that another world is, in fact, here.

Leapfrogging Into Space

Following up on Jeremy's post from earlier this month about Iran's plans to put a satellite into orbit in the next year or so, a couple of reports caught my eye this weekend about the increased space activity of countries once considered "third world." The ability to regularly launch satellites into orbit (or beyond) is important for a variety of reasons. As we've noted repeatedly here, satellites are incredibly useful tools for understanding what's happening with a region's environment, population, urbanization, etc., as well as for facilitating communication. Homegrown launch capacity means being able to put up a satellite without having to pay the US/EU/China/Japan/Russia for the privilege.

Reuters and SciScoop have the details about Brazil's successful test of a prototype satellite launch vehicle. Previous tests failed, sometimes explosively. Brazil hopes to be able to sell this design to the ESA. The Reuters piece notes that Brazil also wants to turn its equatorial Alcantara space base into an "international commercial satellite launch center."

Finally, India, which already has a successful domestic satellite program, is now setting its sights a bit higher: the moon. Kerala Online reports about a press conference held by G Madhavan Nair, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) about a planned mission to put a satellite in a polar orbit around the moon. The satellite will study the moon's surface, and will "serve as a vital stepping stone for developing technologies needed for ISRO's inter-planetary missions later."

October 26, 2004

Java Log

I could have sworn that I had posted about this before, but apparently not. National Geographic News has a new article about the Java Log, a fireplace log made from coffee grounds. Burning brighter and hotter than sawdust logs, it's better for the environment than either sawdust logs or traditional firewood. Besides recycling material that would otherwise enter the waste stream, it puts out 14 percent less CO2 than firewood and 54 percent less CO2 than sawdust logs. With Winter having bum-rushed the stage here in the SF area, I'm going to see if I can pick some of them up this weekend.

Pocket Translation of the Spoken Word

It's a recurring element of near-future worlds: the phone (or video screen or implanted chip) that automagically translates spoken phrases to or from your own language, allowing you to converse freely with anyone. No longer shackled to a tour group or three months of an intensive language class, one could travel the world with ease, confident of the ability to communicate with the locals. I suspect this fantasy of a translation device is more prevalent among those of us in cultures less prone to learning multiple languages, but even multilingual global nomads would find occasional technical assistance useful. NEC's pocket spoken-word translation device, as discussed in a recent New Scientist, seems to be a step in this direction. Translating between Japanese and English, it's aimed at Japanese tourists.

I have my doubts about how well it will work. Machine language translation is a hard problem; if you want to get a sense of the difficulty, just try entering a phrase into Google's "Language Tools" page, translating it to another language, then translating it again back into English. While there are certainly machine translation systems better than that on a freely-available webpage, I haven't seen evidence of any which are good enough to be of use beyond emergency circumstances. Translation of spoken language is even more difficult, in part because conversational speech recognition technology isn't quite ready yet, and in part because so much of human communication goes beyond words. Tone, body position, gestures, and especially the context of the world around you all play into the meaning of the words chosen.

Still, even if it doesn't work all that well, it's a harbinger of an inevitable development. At some point in the next couple of years, we'll have very rough spoken translation tools available to us; shortly thereafter, rough spoken translation tools will be embedded into mobile phones. After that, it's just a case of improvements in the hardware allowing for faster processing and improvements in the algorithms allowing for less-error-prone translation. I would expect that, by 2015 or so, it will be as hard to buy a mobile phone without a translation chip as it is now to buy one without a camera.

Eventually those two technologies could eventually converge, or at least intertwine. I would expect to see a "what does that say?" cameraphone application to show up any month now. And it's possible that a camera, allowing the translation system to recognize body position, gesture and perhaps even context as well as the tone and the words, may be the necessary step to making machine translation really work.


Lots of places have linked to the GlucoBoy story, but it's certainly worth noting. The father of a young diabetic lad noticed that the kid loved his GameBoy but neglected his blood glucose meter, so invented a plug-in device in order to do blood readings with the GameBoy. What stands out about this invention (aside from its "street finds its own uses for things" shine) is the reminder of how widespread general purpose computers are, even in the guise of dedicated-purpose devices.

Alex noted the question of what a $100 computer would look like earlier, and it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it must run on an Intel-type chip, or have the standard peripheral interfaces. A GameBoy is pretty close to a $100 computer right now; well over 100 million units have been sold worldwide. What would it take for other non-game modules to come out? Where's the PollutionBoy (with air quality reader)?

Why Smart Buildings=Green Buildings

Excellent article at the Technology Review website about the growing use of smart building systems as a method of increasing energy efficiency. The details of the diverse mechanisms employed won't come as a real surprise to most WorldChanging readers, but it's good to see them collected in a single article. The article includes a couple of interesting claims: since 2000, around 19,000 people have been LEED accredited (the article then says that 9,000 were accredited "in the last month alone," but that claim seems a bit hard to accept without evidence, and I found no reference to that number at the LEED website); and about 4 percent of new commercial construction is now done under LEED guidelines.

October 27, 2004

UIPA Nominee

We just got the word from Utne magazine that they've put us on their list of nominees for their 2004 Independent Press Awards, in the "Online Cultural Coverage" category (we're at the bottom of Page 4, the last entry on the list). The list includes (among others) Alternet, CorpWatch and Media Matters, as well as WorldChanging friends BoingBoing and Smart Mobs. In such company, we can say with all seriousness "we're happy just to be nominated." Thank you!

New Hominid Species Unearthed

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies..."

Archaeologists working on Flores Island, at the eastern tip of Java, have discovered the skeletal remains of a new hominid species -- a relative of Homo sapiens, but a different branch of the family tree. Two aspects make this story particularly compelling: the hominid, tentatively named Homo floresiensis, stood only three feet tall as an adult; and it died out in relatively recent times, only 12-13,000 years ago, when a nearby volcano killed off much of the island's life. The full report will appear in next week's Nature; detailed press accounts can be found at New Scientist, the BBC, and the Washington Post.

The evidence currently suggests that H. floresiensis is an offshoot of Homo erectus, a hominid species ancestral to Homo sapiens. It is most decidedly not modern human: the skull morphology is all wrong, and the multiple skeletons found from different layers of the cave site show that the dwarfism was a population-wide characteristic. The species appears to be the first example of a higher primate evolving via what biologists call the "island rule:" an isolated population, in an environment with limited resources but no real predators, will tend towards species dwarfism. The prehistoric dwarf elephant Stegodon is known to have inhabited Flores Island during the same period.

Continue reading "New Hominid Species Unearthed" »

Alex Speaks At Poptech

Question: can a talk that begins "Ladies and Gentlemen: we're screwed!" leave one feeling hopeful?

Answer: when it's given by our own Alex Steffen, it can.

Alex was a presenter at last week's Poptech conference, a nifty confab started by WorldChanger Andrew Zolli which brings together smart people, new ideas, and incisive discussion. Alex's talk last Friday could be called "WorldChanging 101." It brought together, in one 25 minute package, the themes and motivations driving us here at WorldChanging, along with myriad examples of why we are certain that another world is, in fact, here.

People who were there at Poptech seemed to love the speech. Fortunately for those of us who weren't there, IT Conversations has made streaming and downloadable audio versions of Alex's speech available, in multiple formats (APX, MP3 streaming, AAC for iPods, and vanilla MP3). Download them all!

Updated: you can see a "Graphic Facilitation" image created during Alex's talk at this link. Graphic facilitation is a kind of note-taking-by-illustration popular with some consultancies. The photo of Alex on that page, by the way, is one of my favorites.

(yet more below...)

Continue reading "Alex Speaks At Poptech" »


Dr. Joe at the bookofjoe -- the world's only blogging anesthesiologist -- has a couple of posts up this week about MatchingDonors.com, a site which makes an end-run around the calcified bureaucracy of the existing United Network for Organ Sharing by letting potential organ donors and recipients find each other online. MatchingDonors likens what they do to asking in a church or community group for volunteer donors, but doing so with a worldwide audience. With upwards of 60,000 patients in the United States alone waiting for an organ donation, MatchingDonors has the potential to accelerate the process of getting organs to those who need them. Unsurprisingly, its existence is troubling to those who believe the current model is the best way to ensure fair distribution of organs.

(more in the permalink...)

Continue reading "Organster" »

October 28, 2004

It is the business of the future to be dangerous.

WorldChanging friend Stefan Jones reminds us of this quote from Alfred North Whitehead, in "Science and the Modern World," 1925:

Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages.

We are living in a truly great age, it seems.

UK Gov't Evaluating Linux

In our zeal to celebrate the growing use of free/open source software in the developing world, we sometimes forget to note that Linux, etc., can be pretty great for the developed world, too. Yesterday's Financial Times held a good reminder, then, with an article detailing the UK government's procurement agency's report highlighting the value of shifting to Linux and other open source apps. The article also mentions a few other European government centers considering a shift away from Microsoft. Few of the report's conclusions will come as a surprise to anyone following the growth of F/OSS, and the standard Microsoft responses quoted at the end are beginning to sound pretty tired. Still, it's a welcome reminder that the Linux Penguin (or, my preference, the BSD Demon) doesn't just thrive in the South.

(Thanks, Tim!)

Extremophile Protein Cleans Wastewater

Extremophiles are very cool. If you haven't heard the term, extremophiles are living creatures -- typically bacteria -- which are able to thrive in environmental conditions long thought to be too hot/too cold/too acidic/too radioactive/too deep in solid stone/etc. for life to exist. (The plenitude of extremophiles on Earth is one reason why xenobiologists are starting to think that Mars may actually harbor life.) It turns out that the biology that lets extremophiles live in nasty circumstances can often be of great use for what's called bioremediation. We've mentioned, for example, bacteria in the genus Geobacter, which devours various kinds of minerals, including radioactive waste.

Now comes a report at Genome News Network that a protein extracted from an extremophile microbe found in a geyser at Yellowstone National Park may provide a cheap, efficient, and natural method of cleaning hydrogen peroxide out of industrial wastewater. The protein from the microbe (Thermus brockianus) lasts -- in the lab, at least -- 80,000 times longer than the current industrial cleanup methods. What's more, the proteins can be filtered out and reused. Hydrogen peroxide cleanup is an ongoing problem in the textile and paper industries, where H2O2 is often used as a bleaching agent.

October 29, 2004

Know Your (Voting) Rights. These Are Your Rights.

30 states in the US have laws requiring employers to give time to employees to go vote. Time to Vote has a rundown of the states with voting time laws, and the details for each, along with links back to the actual statutes. Note that in many of these states, employers must post a notice of employee voting time rights. Have you seen a sign at your place of work? Since many of the states also require that the employees ask for the time off in advance, check now to see if you need to make a request today.

MSNBC Wants You

The perennial third place in the cable news market, MSNBC has decided to try something a little different with its election coverage: citizen journalists. Joe Trippi, who ran the Dean campaign, is spearheading the idea. MSNBC is looking for coverage of the ballots and voting process, as well as the "flavor" of individual polling places.

What are you seeing?  What happened when you went to vote?  What’s turnout like where you are?  If you went out door to door to get-out-the-vote for a candidate or party, how did it go? What response did you get?  Why did you decide to do it? 

Anyone can write a partisan screed on this election— to be honest those won’t make it on the air, or even on the blog.  But a truthful report, filed by someone who takes the spirit and responsibility of citizen journalism seriously, can make this experiment in democratized journalism work better than most would expect.

Reports must be filed on the website, but photos can be emailed in -- an ideal use of email-enabled camera phones if there ever was one. Citizen reports will show up on the MSNBC election blog, and the most interesting ones will be read on the air.

This is an appealing idea, and while MSNBC may not carry it off well, it is a signpost of the changing nature of our relationship to news and information. It may not be OhMyNews, but it will certainly be worth checking out.

Virus-Detecting Biochip

Harvard researchers have developed a highly sensitive biochip able to detect a single virus in real time in unpurified samples. The system uses 20-nanometer silicon nanowires coated with antibody proteins for a specific virus, then connected to a fluid microchannel. Detectors using this biochip could provide early warnings of viral infections, as the sensor is able to detect the presence of a virus in very small concentrations. The researchers' next step is to combine multiple virus detectors on a single chip, allowing for simultaneous sensing of hundreds -- or perhaps thousands -- of different viruses.

(Via Technology Research News)

Update: Reader Sennoma notes in the comments that the original pubication of this research was as an open-access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (auto-download PDF). Sennoma's post in his own blog about the biochip is definitely worth checking out.

What's the Best Path to CO2 Reduction?

In a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Duke University scientists Robert B. Jackson and William H. Schlesinger calculate what it would take to reduce American carbon dioxide output by 10%, comparing established carbon sequestration methods with efficiency improvements in transportation. They found that sequestration was less effective than anticipated, and vehicle efficiency increases proved a much better option. The article itself is behind a subscriber-only wall, but the abstract is available, as is a detailed news release from Duke and an article in Nature News. While their calculations are interesting, I think they're missing the bigger picture.

Continue reading "What's the Best Path to CO2 Reduction?" »

October 30, 2004

Atlas of the Biosphere

This is a beautiful site.

The Atlas of the Biosphere, a service of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a wonderful resource for global and regional maps of environmental data. The maps cover four broad categories: human impacts, land use, ecosystems, and water resources. Global and continental maps are available for each subject, all approximately 1600x1200 in size (making them perfect for desktop backgrounds). The map description pages include Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data for ESRI ArcView, the widely-used GIS software, allowing the creation of new mapsets.

The maps give country-based information for most human activity subjects (such as infant mortality, proportion of population under the age of 15, and per capita oil use) and more precise gridcell-based information for most environmental subjects (such as net primary productivity, built-up land, and lakes and wetlands).

Beyond the maps, the Atlas of the Biosphere also has a set of system schematics, in Flash format, showing processes such as the carbon cycle and the Earth's "radiation budget." The SAGE group takes advantage of the SWF format for animation, which is nice, but not for interactivity. Perhaps in the next iteration.

SAGE describes the Atlas as an "ongoing project," and they encourage suggestions for additions.

About October 2004

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

September 2004 is the previous archive.

November 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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