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November 2004 Archives

November 1, 2004

The Participatory Panopticon at the Polls

The outcome of tomorrow's election in the US may be decided by cell phones. I don't just mean the percentage of voters who, by using a mobile phone as their primary voice number, don't factor into the pre-election polls. I mean the percentage of voters who carry a cameraphone and are willing to use it. As we've discussed here before, network-connected digital cameras and wireless cameraphones are fundamental tools of the second superpower.

Republicans and Democrats alike fear the possibility of disruptions at polling places driving some voters away before getting a chance to vote. Protesters, armed "guards," discriminatory voter challenges -- all have the possibility of intimidating or even actively preventing voters from casting their ballots. Such problems are by no means new. What is new is the ability of individual citizens to document voter harassment, and even to let others know about it almost instantly.

Continue reading "The Participatory Panopticon at the Polls" »

Principles of Humane Systems

Information architect Adam Greenfield wrote an essay recently about "ubiquitous computing," and what system designers need to think about in order for such technology to be seen as useful and acceptable, rather than oppressive and unwanted. As I did with Dan Bricklin's essay on designing software to last for centuries, I found the general rules that Greenfield articulates to have broader application beyond computer code. His five principles of "designing useful, humane instantiations of ubicomp [ubiquitous computing]" can be seen more broadly as good rules for designing humane systems of all sorts -- technologies and techniques which will integrate seamlessly into human life, not run roughshod over it:

  • Default to harmlessness. Systems fail; when they do, they can fail gracefully or they can fail catastrophically. When a system fails, it should do so in a way which does not itself make problems worse.
  • Be self-disclosing. Systems should be transparent. The way in which they achieve their goals should be clear, as should the inputs and the results.
  • Be conservative of face. Don't humiliate the user. Don't make her or him feel stupid. Don't draw unnecessary attention to the user in public.
  • Be conservative of time. Don't make tasks more complicated than they need to be. Don't make people waste their time.
  • Be deniable. Systems should allow users to opt out, whether to use another system or to refuse participation entirely.

    It will come as little surprise that voting systems, particularly electronic voting systems, seem to me to be prime examples of violations of nearly all of these principles (it's unclear the degree to which electronic voting systems would violate rule #3, but I wouldn't put it past them). I'm sure we could easily come up with a variety of other systems (traveler security, for example) which breaks these rules, too. I'd hazard a guess that these rules are more likely to be broken than observed. Still, they make for a good set of guidelines for people who are trying to fix things.

  • November 2, 2004

    Diesel Fuel Cell?

    Good news and bad news time.

    Good news: scientists at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, working with the Office of Naval Research and fuel-cell company SOFCo-EFS, have developed a system to allow even the dirtiest diesel fuel to be used by a fuel cell. By reforming the diesel into hydrogen, the system produces twice the energy output and no sulfur or NOx pollution.

    Bad news: the development is currently focused on military uses, such as running Navy ships. It's also incredibly expensive, running a few hundred thousand dollars per unit. Hopefully, this will change as we get more civilian demand for cleaner, quieter power systems to replace dirty, noisy diesel generators.

    Accelerating Change 2004

    Accelerating Change 2004 conference is this weekend, in Palo Alto (on the Stanford University campus). The list of speakers is impressive and, while the overall thrust of the conference is towards keen new tech, there looks to be a decent assortment of speakers who will be grappling with the social implications. I'll be there, covering the conference for WorldChanging; if you see me, be sure to say hi.

    It's not free, but if you're into what the next decade of technological development might hold, it should be a fun weekend.

    Unanticipated Results #3348: Cephalopod Dominance

    According to the Australian science journal, Australasian Science, ocean warming due to climate change and fisheries depletion due to over-fishing have allowed squid populations to explode. The researchers claim that the global biomass of squid now exceeds that of humans.

    "This trend has been suggested to be due both to the removal of cephalopod predators such as toothed whales and tuna and an increase of cephalopods due to removal of finfish competitors,'' said Dr Jackson.

    "The fascinating thing about squid is that they're short-lived. I haven't found any tropical squid in Australia older than 200 days.

    "Many of the species have exponential growth, particularly during the juvenile stage so if you increase the water temperature by even a degree it has a tremendous snowballing effect of rapidly increasing their growth rate and their ultimate body size.

    "They get much bigger and they can mature earlier and it just accelerates everything.''

    Cephalopods such as squids and octopus have remarkably sophisticated brains, and are able to solve complex puzzles. Jaron Lanier, in a talk I saw him give a few months back, suggested that the only reason cephalopods don't dominate the planet is that they don't pass along learned behaviors to their young through acculturation (as do primates). Global warming and over-fishing may well have given cephalopods the leg-up -- tentacle-up? -- they need to take over.

    I, for one, will now feel much less guilty about eating ika when I have sushi.

    (Via Charlie Stross' Diary)

    November 4, 2004

    Alternative Energy Megaprojects

    Although we at WorldChanging tend to trumpet the proliferation of distributed renewable energy systems, we do recognize that the big centralized systems can be green, too. Two different big green power projects showed up in my inbox this week, and they're both worth taking a look at.

    The first is the new "tidal lagoon" power system under construction at the mouth of the Yalu River in China. British company Tidal Electric is the lead engineering group on the project. At 300 MW, it will be the largest tidal power project in the world. Tidal lagoon power systems use large-scale enclosures which generate power as they are filled or emptied by the change in tides. Lagoon systems present less of a disruption to the local ecosystem than the "barrage" generators more often used in tidal power systems (such as the current largest tidal power generator, the Rance River project in Brittany, France). Although tidal power is not available at a constant rate, it is predictable, making it easy to integrate into existing power grids. Despite the size of this project, it looks like a winner.

    As ambitious as tidal lagoons may be, they pale in comparison to the Solar Thermal Tower scheduled for construction in Australia. At a kilometer in height, with a base collector five kilometers across, the tower would be potentially the largest construction project ever. The principle is simple: air beneath the collection area is heated by the sun, much as in a greenhouse, and rises up the tower, where the differential in pressure between the top and the bottom keeps the air moving fast enough to drive turbines -- in essence, it's a heat-pumped super-windmill system. The tower is supposed generate 200 MW, and should be able to do so fairly constantly, even at night. A test tower built in Spain in the late 80s demonstrated that the technology works, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Solar Tower has been approved by the Australian government, and construction is intended to begin next year (a 2002 New Scientist article about the idea suggested that work was supposed to begin in 2003, so this may be one of those perpetually-a-year-away endeavors).

    There are still many questions about the feasibility of the Solar Tower, ranging from keeping it stable in the winds at 1 km to whether a heat-trapping project of that size would alter the regional environment. There's also the question of cost -- can it be built inexpensively enough to make the power generated competitive with more conventional approaches? I'm skeptical, but I do think that it's a worthwhile project. It's hard to tell whether something so audacious can also be practical -- it's easy to be caught up in the spectacle of the kilometer-high tower and the roughly twenty square kilometers of greenhouse glass.

    November 5, 2004

    Anticipating Acceleration

    As I noted a couple of days ago, I'm attending the Accelerating Change 2004 conference this weekend in Palo Alto. The schedule of presentations and breakout groups is available online, and I've been going over it trying to decide which topics are going to have good WorldChanging content. I've also been looking at the schedule with an eye towards what's not there that should be -- and I've found a few examples.

    The theme of this year's conference is "Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface," and several of the talks seem to be right up WorldChanging's alley. I'm looking forward to seeing Microsoft's Gordon Bell talk about "MyLifeBits" (a draft version of what I've called a "personal memory assistant"), because such a system would be integral to a fully-developed participatory panopticon world. The ability for individuals to record what they see around them in a nearly-always-on fashion will be revolutionary, and the pieces are coming together far faster than most people realize. When I'm asked at a party what big surprise the next decade may hold, I almost always give "the participatory panopticon" as my answer.

    Given the conference's theme, I'm surprised by some of the topic omissions. There really should be a discussion of "smart objects" or other such manifestations of digital capacity embedded in physical items. Increasingly, we have the ability to put sensors, displays and other digital devices into previously dumb materials, from walls to clothing to lamps. This commingling of the physical and virtual realm will be an important factor in how we live in the near future, as we'll be able to get feedback about our surroundings and behaviors, allowing us better-informed choices.

    Even more surprising is the lack of scheduled discussion about the overlay of virtual information and physical spaces in an understanding-the-world context -- the "urban informatics" concept much discussed here and elsewhere over the past year. Urban informatics is the smart object concept writ large, with previously-dumb streets and buildings a source of useful, interesting or (at least) amusing information available to anyone with a wireless mobile device. The idea is still in the early stages, and many questions remain about how it should be manifest. Who (if anyone) controls the information? How should it be presented? Should you have to ask for it, or should it (virtually) tap you on the shoulder? Is it just for mobile phones, or just for mobile/hand-held computers, or just for something not yet widely available? What about suburban informatics? Or rural informatics? Does the presence of a passive, wait-until-you-ask system ruin the experience of being alone in nature? How can you tell tourists from locals in the city if everyone can know where and what everything is with minimal effort?

    I have similar concerns about the lack of discussion of network-enabled physical systems, such as smart energy grids or even smart mobs. From the list of topics that are there -- virtual communities, virtual money, and the like -- the conference seems perhaps a bit too focused on the implementation of physical world concepts in the virtual world than on the entangling of the virtual and physical spaces. For me, this latter subject is much more interesting. It's definitely more worldchanging.

    Solar Capacitor

    Roland Picquepaille has the details on a new type of solar cell, a "photocapacitor," which integrates the ability to store electricity once generated by the solar cell. All the usual caveats apply: it's still in the lab, it may not be cost-effective, your mileage may vary, etc., but it certainly does look interesting (especially its ability to be twice as efficient than a standard solar cell on cloudy days).

    November 6, 2004

    Notes from ACC04 -- Dan Gillmor

    At the Accelerating Change Conference 2004, Dan Gillmor spoke about his book, We the Media,along with some of his observations about the increasing amount of information available to individuals through new forms of mediation. His main argument, that journalism had once been a lecture but is now a conversation, is one that those of us in the blog world have taken to heart, even if some in the traditional media are less enthusiastic. Weblogs (along with mailing lists, discussion boards, and the like) have become a critical part of the media complex, as they allow for rapid (and global) fact-checking, and make it harder to keep stories hidden. (You can download We the Media for free under a Creative Commons license, so there's no excuse for not reading it.)

    One story he told struck me as emblematic of the effect of wireless, mobile information systems. He was shown a demo of a system combining a bar-code reader and an Internet-connected handheld computer; when a product's supermarket bar-code is scanned, the handheld does a Google search for the product. In the demo, the first link for a box of cereal pulled from the store's shelf turned out to be a product recall -- the box didn't list an ingredient that some people were allergic to. As Dan put it:

    Every object can tell a story, and if the story is "if you eat me I will kill you," that's a story you want to hear.

    Notes from ACC04 -- the Transparency Debate

    This afternoon at the Accelerating Change Conference 2004, David Brin, author of The Transparent Society,and Brad Templeton, chairman of the board at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, debated the relative virtues of transparency and privacy.

    (I should admit a personal interest in this right up front: way back in 1996, I "debated" Brin in the pages of Time magazine on this very subject (the text of the article can be found online). My own views have evolved a bit since then; the "participatory panopticon" essays I've written here at WorldChanging reflect the ambivalent nature of transparency-enabling technologies, and my appreciation of both their benefits and drawbacks.)

    In the extended entry, you'll find the notes I took during the Brin-Templeton debate. It seems they both want to play the role of the "realist" in the discussion. The core of Brin's argument is that surveillance technologies are here, and we should fight to make sure that they are two-way, and not just in the hands of elites; the core of Templeton's argument is that widespread transparency technologies will inevitably be corrupted and co-opted by those in power, and that we're better off fighting to hold the line where it stands now. It's the sign of a good discussion that they both made very strong cases for their views.

    Continue reading "Notes from ACC04 -- the Transparency Debate" »

    Notes from ACC04 -- Gordon Bell on MyLifeBits

    The talk I was most looking forward to seeing Saturday at the Accelerating Change Conference 2004 was the one by Gordon Bell, from Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, talking about MyLifeBits. MyLifeBits is an early attempt at what I call a "personal memory assistant" -- a device which would stores copies of everything you see and hear, for later retrieval as needed. MyLifeBits isn't quite that powerful; it only stores personal documents, web pages browsed, selected images, audio records of phone calls, and a few other file types. It's really intended as a vehicle to allow engineers to figure out what the barriers would be for the fuller version.

    So far, they've learned a few key things: meta-data is really the core of something like MyLifeBits -- the annotations and contextual information that makes a stored file meaningful; of the various kinds of meta-data one could automatically or manually add, date and time is ultimately the most important; once something is stored, the challenge then becomes user interface -- how do you find something that you've stored? These lessons are more common sense than big surprises, but the Microsoft BARC team has taken some important steps towards figuring out some solutions.

    Two more items of note: BARC's term for a device to do constant capture of what the user hears and sees is "CARPE" (continuous archival recording of personal experience); and the idea of a system to store copies of everything you've ever read, written or heard was anticipated nearly 60 years ago, in a 1945 article called "As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush. If you haven't read it, you should -- it's a wonderfully prescient vision.

    November 8, 2004

    Seaweed vs. DDT

    The Washington Post reports on research demonstrating that a powdered mix of red and green seaweed greatly accelerates bioremediation of DDT accumulated in the soil. Because DDT is very effective at wiping out malaria-bearing mosquitos, it is still used in over two dozen countries, primarily in Africa, to combat the deadly disease. But DDT has devastating longer-term effects on a wide range of species, and is incredibly persistent in soil -- even though it hasn't been used in the US in over 30 years, significant traces can still be found in treated areas. The seaweed mixture enhances the ability of anaerobic microbes in the soil to break down DDT; in one test, the researchers found the seaweed-powered microbes eliminated 80% of the DDT in contaminated soil in six weeks.

    The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    I'm pleased to be able to announce the formation of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a new organization dedicated to the responsible, constructive examination of "human enhancement technologies" -- the biological, informational, and social technologies allowing us to live happier, healthier lives. From the official announcement:

    We believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed.

    As yet there has been no institutional home for the consideration of the ethical challenges of emerging human enhancement technologies free from both anti-regulatory dogmas that deny the legitimacy of democratic public policy, and technophobic red herrings such as anxieties about transgressing the boundaries of humanness. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies intends to fill that gap.


    The Institute will organize several events per year in Europe and North America. In July 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference in Caracas Venezuela, focusing on human enhancement technologies and the developing world, with the World Transhumanist Association. [...] In September 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference on Human Rights and Human Enhancement with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

    I was asked to serve as Global Health and Development Policy Fellow for IEET, and have happily accepted. Other IEET Fellows familiar to WorldChanging readers include Emerging Technologies Fellow Mike Treder and Human Rights Fellow Dale Carrico.

    The Institute argues that the global discussion we must have about the use of human enhancement technologies is not just between those who would forbid them entirely and those who demand unrestricted proliferation. We must also hear from those who argue for socially responsible development, which seeks to match human desire for knowledge and improvement with society's need for equity and democracy. WorldChanging readers (and contributors!) may not agree with some of the positions and arguments adopted by IEET, but should appreciate its purpose: to promote the ethical use of technologies to expand human capabilities.

    November 9, 2004

    Long Now Seminar on Human Life Extension

    It's Long Now Seminar time again. This month is Dr. Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, talking about "the Prospects of Human Life Extension." It's the first of two seminars on the topic; next month is Ken Dychtwald on the "Consequences of Human Life Extension." WorldChanging readers already have a heads-up on some of the issues -- I covered them last month in my essay "What Would Radical Longevity Mean?"

    The Michael West talk is this Friday, November 12, at the Fort Mason Conference Center in San Francisco. Doors open at 7pm, lecture begins at 8pm. Admission is free.

    Weaving The Future

    When we read about "wearable" computers, we generally see accompanying pictures of awkward-looking college students wreathed in cables and black plastic or adorned with oversized sunglasses with all sorts of bumpy protruberances. But such images are an artifact of the requirement that computers be encased in hard shells. Such a limitation may now be falling away. Recent advances in flexible electronics have made it possible to weave computational intelligence, including both input and output, directly into fabric. We may soon be in a world where wearable computers don't just show up on the cover of Wired, but also on the cover of Vogue.

    Eleven years ago, WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling wrote a brief essay for cyber-counterculture magazine Mondo 2000 entitled Computer As Furoshiki, which described a computing device in the form of a meter-square piece of cloth. Solar-powered, the fabric could serve as a display, was touch-sensitive, and could even fold itself with embedded artificial muscles fibers. Computer As Furoshiki laid out a vision of pervasive computing that feels very different from the mobile-phone-and-eyewear-centric conventional notion of the future. Cloth is more intimate than hard plastic; clothing is as much an extension of our skin as it is a tool. A world where computing devices are regularly embedded in fabric is one where the computer adopts that same intimacy. It's a kind of cyborgism, without the messy implants.

    Continue reading "Weaving The Future" »

    November 10, 2004

    Biomimicry 101

    Biomimicry -- product design based on features from the organic world -- is truly worldchanging. We talk about biomimicry quite often here, so it's nice to run across a good summary article laying out the basics of what's being done today with biomimetic design. The Wired article "Ideas Stolen Right From Nature," although largely a straightforward survey of consumer applications for biomimetic processes, nicely portrays the methodology's real-world and present-day uses. WorldChanging readers will be familiar with most of the ideas the article talks about, but it's a good quick summary for the uninitiated.

    Win a Prius

    I received word today that the environmental group Center for a New American Dream is running an interesting contest: come up with the best slogan directed at car manufacturers to encourage them to build more fuel-efficient cars, especially hybrids, and win a 2005 Prius. Seriously.

    The slogan will be used as part of a massive advertising and PR campaign to get the word to automakers that Americans want more hybrid cars, and want them now. As Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin noted in his Sunday wrap-up article on WorldChanging, at the current rate of introduction, hybrids will make up only 4-7% of the auto market (and 2-4% of the "light truck" market) by 2008, improving "fleet efficiency" by a whopping 2%. Hybrids are great, but they're just not being rolled out fast enough.

    The contest rules are straightforward: the contest is open to adult residents of the 48 continental US states (sorry, Alaska and Hawaii); the slogan must be limited to 10 words or fewer; one entry per email address, so if you're just bubbling with ideas, go buy a domain; and the slogan must be posted to the website by 11:59 pm EST on January 24, 2005.

    Ah, yes, the website. As of the time of this posting, the New American Dream site is slow to the point of seeming broken. With patience and a fast connect, though, you can still get some useful info. Presumably they'll be fixing this problem as quickly as possible, so it may be working fine by the time you read this.

    I must admit that I hadn't been aware of the Center for a New American Dream before, but they look like a good group: the staff have solid backgrounds and the advisory board includes WorldChanger Alan AtKisson as well as WorldChanging favorites Lester Brown, Paul Hawken, Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, along with many more.

    Here's your chance to do some memetic engineering, change the US for the better, and get a swoopy new hybrid -- all in ten words or fewer.

    November 11, 2004

    Applying the Precautionary Principle

    WorldChanging Allies Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology have written a terrific (and brief) essay on the application of the Precautionary Principle to nanotechnology in particular, and to emerging scientific and technological concerns more broadly. We've talked about the Precautionary Principle before (follow the link for the standard definition, if you're not familiar with the term); it's a useful method of thinking about how to respond both to new technologies and to new scientific understandings of global change. There are two broad forms of the Principle, characterized by Phoenix and Treder as the "strict" version and the "active" version. The strict form holds that research and development which can be shown to have possible harmful results should be stopped, period. There actually aren't too many people advocating this position, but they do exist. The active Precautionary Principle "calls for choosing less risky alternatives when they are available, and for taking responsibility for potential risks." Rather than the traditional risk assessment method of asking "how much harm is acceptable?" the active form of the Precautionary Principle asks "how much harm is avoidable?"

    Although the Precautionary Principle is generally applied to implementations of new technologies, the active form is a useful way of thinking about how we respond to global warming induced climate disruption. As the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development put it,

    Principle 15: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

    Redesigning Transportation

    The U.S. transportation system is arguably broken -- or, at least, in serious trouble. From traffic jams to gasoline prices, suburban sprawl to highway subsidies, the system we have at present is not the one we would have chosen, had we known what we were in for. WorldChanging readers know all too well the panoply of globally-devastating second-order effects arising from voracious oil consumption. The solutions at hand (hybrid cars, "hydrogen highways," smart road info, parking taxes, and the like) are more akin to spot fixes than real transformation. Is a greater transportation revolution possible? What would it look like?

    Bruce McHenry thinks he knows.

    Continue reading "Redesigning Transportation" »

    November 13, 2004

    Knowing the Planet from Above

    Satellites are able to take the measure of our planet in ways that are essentially impossible from the ground. Both NASA in the United States and ESA in Europe are devoting considerable effort to expanding their Earth-observing satellite fleets. The results of these efforts are quite often worldchanging in the best possible ways.

    The European Environment Agency, working with the ESA's Earth Observation Directorate, is set to publish a broad set of data based on satellite studies of land use data in Europe. Part of the ESA's Global Monitoring for Environment & Security program, the land use information will be of great value to both leaders and citizens.

    Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, believes remote sensing from space opens plenty of new ground. She takes flooding as an example: “Based on satellite observations of actual floodings in recent years we will be able to see some trends. We can point out which areas are at higher risk of future flooding, and we can analyse how roads and other forms of sealing of the soil will impact flooding.

    "This information is obviously of interest to policy makers. At the same time information on flooding will attract attention from people living in these areas. They might not be so interested in the overall trends but they want to know 'Will my house be flooded?' Similarly people might want to check a number of other environmental developments in their neighbourhood."

    We've said it before, but it's always worth reiterating: the more we know, the better the choices we'll make. We can no longer afford to be ignorant of the implications of our decisions. Projects like this are small but important steps towards understanding what we're doing to and with Earth's environment.

    Mobility 2030

    mob2030.jpgGreen Car Congress turns us on to the new Sustainable Mobility Project report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD): Mobility 2030. The final report from a two year research project, Mobility 2030 covers a broad range of transportation issues. The list of "indicators of sustainable mobility" give a small taste of what the full report covers: accessibility; financial outlay required of users; travel time; reliability; safety; security; greenhouse gas emissions; impact on the environment and on public well-being; resource use; equity implications; impact on public revenues and expenditures; prospective rate of return to private business. It's a pretty mainstream approach -- there's no talk about more radical solutions -- and appears to represent a mobility-focused iteration of what I've come to call the New Baseline. There's a lot of data here, and I'm still reading through it. As you might expect, the report is big: 180 pages, and a 5.7MB PDF download.

    Continue reading "Mobility 2030" »

    Fighting Global Warming, State by State

    The Chicago Tribune has identified something we've talked about a number of times here at WorldChanging: American federal government reluctance to do anything substantive about climate disruption may be less important than the growing number of state government projects and initiatives to fight global warming.

    In recent years, the focus of efforts to control future greenhouse emissions has shifted to the state level. According to the Pew Center, at least 28 states have undertaken measures to reduce such emissions, including a new Colorado requirement that large utilities there must produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, such as wind power, by 2015.

    There are still plenty of things that only the feds can do -- treaties, controls over emissions of aircraft and shipping, and the like -- but we shouldn't assume that because the EPA is dragging its feet, we've lost. The fight has just shifted venues.

    November 14, 2004

    LED Light Bulbs Real Soon Now

    We've been enamored of LED lighting for awhile now, so it's good to get word that functional LED-based light bulb replacements are going to be hitting store shelves "in a few more months." Advantages: ten times the life of incandescent bulbs, one-tenth the energy consumption (making them more efficient than compact fluorescent, too), less heat, and plastic bulbs that don't shatter when dropped. Disadvantages: three times the cost of incandescent bulbs... and still not yet available.

    (Thanks, Daniel!)

    Alternative Energy in Korea

    skalt.jpgAlternative Energy Blog points us to two big alt energy projects now underway in South Korea: a 254 megawatt tidal energy system, and a 15 megawatt solar power grid.

    Ground breaking for the Shihwa Lake tidal power project is set to begin in November, and is scheduled to be completed by 2009; this will likely get it up and running prior to the Yalu river tidal project I posted about last week. As a result, the Shihwa Lake project will (temporarily, at least) become the largest tidal power generator in operation. Alt Energy Blog notes that, at the current cost projections, the price-per-kilowatt from Shihwa Lake will be just under 9 cents, a fairly competitive price. (The linked article also gives some details about a planned experimental "current power" plant which uses both tidal flows and temperature differentials to generate electricity.)

    The South Korean solar power grid begins construction in February, with scheduled completion in October 2006. At 15 megawatts, this will be the largest single solar power installation in the world. It will be eventually be joined with other plants in the South Jeolla province to provide a total of 37 megawatts. No price estimate was given.

    Why the World Loves Bollywood

    I just ran across a fun (and lengthy) article in today's New York Times explaining, in great detail, what it is about Bollywood movies that the rest of the world really enjoys, even if they aren't terribly popular in the United States. In short, it's the lack of cynicism. We've talked about Bollywood before (as well as its up-and-coming competitor, "Nollywood" -- Nigerian movies): they're a terrific way to get into thinking more globally about society and culture.

    As India becomes more of a global power, a modern state with modern problems, I have to wonder how long it will be before the nature of Bollywood movies, in turn, changes.

    November 15, 2004

    Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

    A recurring theme in recent WorldChanging posts is the argument that state governments can play an important role in fighting global warming-induced climate disruption. Jer posted about the West Coast Governors' Global Warming Initiative earlier this month; now it's time for the East Coast to be in the (green)house.

    Future Now points us to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which describes itself as "a cooperative effort by Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions." Initiated in 2003 by New York governor George Pataki, RGGI combines the efforts of nine states (New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont), along with representatives from Eastern Canadian Provinces Secretariat and the Province of New Brunswick, to develop a regional cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The program is set to be unveiled by April of 2005.

    And it may not stop with just those nine states and a province. The British newspaper The Independent reports:

    The scheme could even link up with the emissions controls and trading system being established by the European Union next year, allowing emission allowances to be traded across the Atlantic. It is understood that informal talks have taken place between environmental officials of the US states and their European Commission counterparts.

    If you (like me) hadn't heard of RGGI before, it's not surprising. The RGGI website is filled with the flat language of policy, not flashy graphics and exciting prose -- which is how it should be. Dealing with climate disruption is as much an issue of good governance as it is media relations, and it's nice to see some websites emphasizing the former over the latter.

    Tumblin' Tumbleremediation

    Researchers at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro have found that Russian Thistle -- a.k.a. tumbleweed -- absorbs a substantial amount of depleted uranium from the soil (at least while still rooted -- once they start tumblin', they aren't doing much good). This is good news for efforts to clean up weapons test ranges and battlefields. The lowly tumbleweed may prove to be a useful addition to traditional remediation.

    What Does Peak Oil Mean For Designers?

    WorldChanging Ally IDFuel.com has a short article up today about the impact of "peak oil" on both the cost of living and product design. It lays out the issues clearly, and has interesting links. I do hope that IDFuel dives more deeply into the question of sustainable design in the near future, however. They've done some good work on that front, and as good Viridians, we know that product designers are the shock troops of social transformation.

    November 16, 2004

    World Community Grid

    Distributed computing -- sometimes called grid computing -- is very worldchanging. A bunch of PCs can chew on pieces of a big computing problem in their spare time, coming up with answers in the aggregate faster than most supercomputers. SETI@Home is the most famous of these projects, but now IBM has launched World Community Grid as a mechanism for undertaking large-scale computing projects in the public interest:

    World Community Grid's mission is to create the world's largest public computing grid to tackle projects that benefit humanity.

    Our work has developed the technical infrastructure that serves as the grid's foundation for scientific research. Our success depends upon individuals collectively contributing their unused computer time to change the world for the better.

    IBM and United Devices, the company providing the grid technology, have already had one successful project come from their efforts: smallpox drug discovery. Distributed contributors ran through 35 million potential drug molecules and found 44 strong candidates, doing in months what would have normally taken years, even decades.

    The World Community Grid is now focusing on the Human Proteome Folding project, seeking to understand how protein shape relates to protein activity. Figuring out protein folding -- which is a really hard problem -- would lead to better cures for a wide array of diseases and disorders. The Institute for Systems Biology, which is coordinating the project, has a page full of useful information here.

    The main downside with WCG is that the United Devices software they use is closed source and Windows-only. BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), the engine running SETI@Home, is free/open source software and runs on a wide array of platforms, including Linux and MacOS X. The projects now underway for BOINC users include climate prediction, astronomical searches for pulsars, and (lo and behold!) an effort to understand protein structure.

    The Effects of Global Warming

    Once again, the Onion says it all with a handy infographic.

    (My favorite: "A whole lotta biomes are gonna get all fucked up")

    Political Rights and Terrorism

    Rights vs. TerrorMuch of the conversation about the roots of terrorism assumes that terrorism comes from economic dislocation and degradation, that the poorer a nation is, the more likely it will be a well-spring of terrorist movements. But that assumption doesn't match reality. While there are certainly examples of groups using terror as a tactic emerging from the most down-trodden parts of the world, there are also plenty of examples of terrorists coming from relatively well-off nations.

    Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, examined statistics for both domestic and transnational terror groups around the world and correlated them to other characteristics such as per-capita income, education levels, religious and ethnic fractures, and economic development. As it turned out, there was no statistical correlation between economics and terrorism, or between education and terrorism. Nor was there a correlation with any of the other characteristics, save one: political freedom, as measured by Freedom House's Index of Political Rights.

    But the connection wasn't straightforward:

    Continue reading "Political Rights and Terrorism" »

    November 17, 2004

    Victoria's Real Secret? Arborcide.

    chainsawvicky.jpgForestEthics, a San Francisco-based environmental group focused on protecting forests, is hosting the "Victoria's Dirty Secret" event on Thursday, December 2nd, to kick off its new campaign to change the environmental practices of the catalog sales industry. Every year, catalog retailers send out about 17 billion catalogs, and essentially none of the paper used in the catalogs contains recycled content. Most of the trees used for catalog paper come from North American old growth forests, including Canada’s Boreal forest, which is the second largest roadless area on the planet -- the size of 12 Californias laid side by side. The ForestEthics campaign focuses on Victoria's Secret, which is one of the largest catalog retailers around, and certainly the most visible.

    What makes ForestEthics interesting is both their willingness to engage with pop culture (and a bit of culture jamming, as the photo in the event invitation -- excerpted here -- suggests) and their demonstrated success. In 2002, ForestEthics, in a campaign involving the band REM and over 600 demonstrations around the country, convinced office supply retailer Staples to adopt environmentally sound practices in its paper sales. As a result of the campaign, Staples agreed to use an average of 30% post-consumer recycled content in its paper products, phase out paper from endangered forests, and create an environmental affairs division. Other office supply retailers moved to match these moves, as Staples was able to use this decision as a competitive advantage.

    The Victoria's Dirty Secret event promises "an evening of hors d’oeuvres, wine,
    and tales of forests and fancy lingerie," and really, who could say no to that?

    November 18, 2004

    Happy Kyoto Day: February 16th

    The last last shoe has dropped: the Russian parliament (or Duma) ratified the Kyoto Treaty today, meaning that it will take effect in 90 days -- February 16th. The only four industrialized countries not to sign the treaty: Australia, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the United States. The US situation we know all too well, and Australia is led by a close Bush ally. But what's up with Liechtenstein and Monaco?!?

    NASA to Provide Data to World Conservation Union

    sat.jpgIt's almost as if NASA and the European Space Agency are in some kind of competition. Such a space race would not be without precedent. Only this time, it's not a race to get to the moon, it's an information race to make Earth-orbiting satellite data available to broad audiences. Last week, I posted about the ESA making land use data available. Now it's NASA's turn.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration today signed an agreement with the World Conservation Union to provide satellite data to help with a variety of conservations efforts. The IUCN (as it's known) is the world's largest "environmental knowledge network," comprising members from 140 countries, 114 government agencies, and over 800 NGOs, and has been in operation for over fifty years. Since 1999, it's been accorded "Observer" status at the United Nations.

    NASA satellite data will be used in several IUCN support systems for conservation, including the Species Information Service, Protected Areas Learning Network (PALNet) and the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

    IUCN's Species Information Service is a worldwide biodiversity and conservation management tool [...]. NASA will help IUCN develop this globally accessible, biodiversity database.

    PALNet and the WDPA also will benefit from NASA data. Many of the world's 100,000 protected areas are poorly mapped, due to inaccessibility and lack of resources. NASA's satellite imagery will enable creation of accurate maps. In addition, the data will help create a "Protected Area Archive," which will be incorporated into PALNet and WDPA projects.

    NASA data will also be provided under the IUCN Conservation Commons Initiative on sharing environmental knowledge.

    Your move, Paris.

    The Conservation Commons

    conservation_commons.gifCareful readers of today's NASA/IUCN post below may have noticed an interesting sentence in the pull-quote: NASA data will also be provided under the IUCN Conservation Commons Initiative on sharing environmental knowledge.

    But what is the IUCN's Conservation Commons Initiative? The World Conservation Union site is unhelpful (search is broken, and there are no clear links to anything like this Initiative), so we turn to Google, which points us to a document at the ant biology information resource The AntBase: The Conservation Commons (PDF).

    The Conservation Commons is [...] the expression of a collaborative effort to improve open access to, and unrestricted use of, data, information, and knowledge related to the conservation of biodiversity with the belief that this will contribute to improving conservation outcomes. At its simplest, it encourages organizations and individuals alike to place documents, data, and other information resources related to conservation in the public domain. [...] the Conservation Commons is an approach designed to improve the management of data, information, and knowledge related to conservation. [...] The Conservation Commons will support and strengthen conservation decision making and our ability to scientifically comprehend the complex integrity of nature through improved logical synthesis of these resources and technical “interoperability” between systems and databases.

    The goal of the Conservation Commons is to build a database of "fair use" material specifically to "improve open access to, and unrestricted use of, data, information, and knowledge related to conservation of biodiversity." Organizations involved in the initiative include NGOs (such as the Nature Conservancy, WWF International, Conservation International), government-connected agencies (such as NASA, ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity Conservation, Chinese Academy of Sciences), and corporate entities (such as Chevron Texaco, Shell International Exploration & Production, Red Hat - Open Source Affairs). The initiative's principles are straightforward: Open Access; Mutual Benefit; and adherence to Rights and Responsibilities.

    As it stands now, the Conservation Commons remains a proposal; the database and fair use information resources are not yet compiled, although some organizations are now offering their material under Conservation Commons terms of use. According to Open Access News, the proposal will be officially adopted by the IUCN on November 20, at the World Conservation Congress now underway in Bangkok.

    Listening to the Grapes

    Reuters reports that French scientists have worked out a way of measuring summer temperature variation using the records of grape harvests. Such records stretch back to the 14th century. The results were unsurprising. While there were periodic warm stretches, the summer of 2003 was unusual. "The summer of 2003 appears to have been extraordinary, with temperatures that were probably higher than in any other year since 1370," claimed Pascal Yiou of the Laboratory of Sciences for Climate and the Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

    Hydrogen On Demand

    Green Car Congress points us to a potentially exciting new fuel cell system which uses sodium tetrahydridoborate: NaBH4 with a catalyst as the source of hydrogen fuel. The reaction is entirely inorganic (i.e., no carbon output), requires no energy, operates at ambient temperature, and the NaBH4 is non-flammable and non-explosive. The main difficulty may be cost and availability -- any chemists in the audience care to say what it takes to create sodium tetrahydridoborate?

    November 19, 2004

    The Fritz Institute

    FI.jpgWhat do you need to mount a humanitarian relief effort? Donations of the needed materials, whether food, water, shelter, and/or tools. Permits to operate in the afflicted area. Strong arms to load and unload the aid. And some way of moving it. Logistics is a cornerstone of humanitarian relief, but the information revolution in "supply chain management" that brought increased efficiency and lower costs in the commercial sector wasn't visible in the humanitarian relief arena.

    Until now.

    The Fritz Institute is an organization dedicated to bringing modern logistics techniques to the world of disaster relief, and to help build "institutional memory" for humanitarian agencies. Founded in 2001 by Lynn Fritz and Dr. Anisya Thomas, the Institute provides logistics software and a network of knowledge and partner resources for organizations large and small engaged in global humanitarian efforts. The Humanitarian Logistics Software, built in coordination with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, brings the experience and best practices from the commercial sector to bear on the problems of the humanitarian relief delivery process. Their annual conferences and "Network of Knowledge" capture the evolving lessons from humanitarian efforts in order to develop and document broad solutions for common problems.

    Dr. Thomas, now the Managing Director of the Fritz Institute, spoke with me yesterday about the Institute's programs and what it believes to be the challenges it will face in the near future.

    Continue reading "The Fritz Institute" »

    November 20, 2004

    Hybrid From A Land Down Under?

    Australian automaker Holden (partially owned by GM) and Australian national research center CSIRO are working together to build "next generation" hybrid automobile technologies, according to a CSIRO press release. The research will focus on "supercapacitors, advanced batteries and energy management control systems." Collaboration between Holden and CSIRO has already led to the "ECOmmodore" hybrid sedan... four years ago. Which, upon roll-out in 2000, listed many of the same technological features. Which you can't buy, but which still gets trotted out as an example of how green they're trying to be, despite (according to their Vehicle R&D page) "investing in more environmentally friendly technologies for which there is little market demand or economic incentive."

    So why are Holden and CSIRO now trumpeting research they've been doing for years? They can read the writing on the wall. Oil prices keep going up, demand for more fuel-efficient cars is steadily rising, and hybrids are sexy. American manufacturers have been slow to get new hybrids to market, and Holden may be in a position to be able to step up as a hybrid car leader (or, at minimum, provide their established technology to their partner parent, GM). To me, this is a sign that the auto industry may well be set for a bigger shakeup than anyone expected.

    How Cities Evolve

    Cities are alive, organic, vibrant with motion on the streets, pulsing with citizens crowding the sidewalks. They grow, and decline, and sometimes die. They evolve, transforming at the pace of nature, not fashion, changing in response to changes of both their constituent populace and the broader social environment. At their worst, cities are overwhelming; at their best, cities are stimulating. Quite often, they're both, and more.

    Continue reading "How Cities Evolve" »

    November 21, 2004

    Towering Over The Desert

    Remember the solar tower I posted about a couple of weeks ago? It's a kilometer-tall chimney generating a couple hundred megawatts of power through temperature differentials at the top and bottom of the tower soon to be built in Australia. Questions remain about the plan's practicality, but it just might be crazy enough to work, as the saying goes. Well, those in the northern hemisphere jealous that Australia will be getting a giant power-generating phallic symbol should fret no more, if the report that the Alternative Energy Blog found is accurate: SolarMission, the California licensee of the solar tower technology, may be set to announce plans to build 2,600 megawatts worth of solar towers, presumably here in North America. That would be 13 towers, at 200 megawatts apiece, dotting the landscape of the desert southwest. Should be interesting if it actually happens, but I wouldn't advise holding one's breath.

    Integrated Solar Building

    PhysOrg points us to a press release from SunPower, a subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor, which just completed construction of a "building integrated photovoltaic" system using its high-efficiency A-300 solar cells. The A-300s are useful for architecture for a number of reasons: they look neutral/dark grey in color, as opposed to the shiny blue of most solar panels; the connection systems are designed not to be externally visible; and (most importantly) they produce nearly a third as much more power per square meter than most other cells (21.5 percent efficiency instead of 12 to 15 percent), and remain very sensitive under low light conditions. The system will produce up to 1.8 kilowatts.

    The building, which will house the headquarters of BioHaus (which makes solar power gear, unsurprisingly), is located in Paderborn, Germany.

    Set aside the PR-speak and think about the implications of building-integrated solar. The idea of covering hundreds of square miles with solar panels is a non-starter, for a variety of environmental and efficiency reasons. There are much better ways of using solar power as part of a changing energy strategy. But we don't want to have the power grid go away, and neither do we want to be dependent solely upon a small number of large centralized generators. The value of distributed renewable generation isn't to allow "off-the-grid" buildings, or even to replace bigger systems entirely; distributed renewables give the power system some flexibility and a "cushion" in case of problems.

    While bolt-on solar power systems have their place, distributed renewables will really come into their own when they are considered part of the building-as-a-system, not an optional add-on. Sustainable building design is really taking off all over the world. Buildings that combine efficient design and integrated solar could potentially be able to feed power back in to the grid consistently, only needing to pull grid power in unusual circumstances. Building-integrated renewables make it possible to start thinking of buildings as power sources for cities, part of the overall sustainability system of the urban environment.

    November 22, 2004

    How Rich Are You?

    How does your income stack up to the rest of the world? You may be surprised: if you make at least $47,500 a year, you're in the global top 1%. London-based creative media firm Poke has built a handy website called, simply, GlobalRichList, which reveals where you stand financially compared to the rest of the world. Enter in your annual income, tell it which denomination to use (US Dollars, Canadian Dollars, Japanese Yen, Euros, Pound Sterling), click the magic button... and find that you're (for example) the 46,777,566th richest person in the world, approximately.

    Or not. This is hardly a scientific exercise; the rankings are based on averages and data from over five years ago. It doesn't take into account cost of living, "purchasing-power parity," or any of the other complexifying factors that make economics so much fun. But it is provocative, because even if the precise ranking is wrong, it's unlikely to be wrong by even an order of magnitude: I may not be exactly the 46,777,566th richest person on the planet, but my "real" ranking is probably within a few tens of millions of that on either side. And even that degree of approximation puts me financially better-off than close to six billion people -- something which I knew to be true, but remains kind of staggering when spelled out in this way. I suspect that many readers of WorldChanging would fall into this same rough ranking.

    How rich are you? If you're reading this site, you're very likely in the top 10% of the planet. What are you going to do with your wealth?

    (IDFuel also wrote about this site, and their post is worth checking out.)

    (Thanks, Jet!)

    The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City

    windfarm.jpgAll models of reality make assumptions about reality. The better sorts of models try to make those assumptions explicit and, best of all, changeable. More worrisome are the models which hide the assumptions within swanky graphics and animations. Many of us here greatly enjoy SimCity, the well-known and highly-regarded urban planning simulation from Maxis. We're not alone -- SimCity is now in its fourth iteration (Windows users can even play the original SimCity online for free.), and continues to be a steady selling game. Unfortunately, SimCity is often seen as more than a game: SimCity, in all of its versions, shows up in classrooms, research papers, and (rumor has it) planning offices around the country. And that has some troubling implications.

    Continue reading "The Map is not the Terrain; the Sim is not the City" »

    November 23, 2004

    The Methane Option

    WorldChanging reader John Atkinson alerts us to an article in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled "Greenhouse Gas Growth Rates" -- a fairly innocuous title for what could be a very important bit of research. In this article (which PNAS has made Open Access, Drs. James Hansen and Makiko Sato of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Earth Institute at Columbia University show that reducing methane (CH4) in combination with reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would be both more feasible and more effective as a means of keeping global warming to 1-2°C over this century than reductions in either alone.

    The argument is fairly straightforward: in order to prevent coastal flooding, global warming needs to be kept to 1-2° C above current averages; doing so via CO2 emissions controls alone would require that atmospheric CO2 be kept to below ≈440 ppm (parts per million) -- not much of an increase over current CO2 levels of around 375 ppm; but because methane is more powerful a greenhouse gas per molecule, by cutting methane emissions by 400 ppb (parts per billion) while reducing or keeping stable other fractional non-CO2 greenhouse gases (such as N2O, nitrous oxide), the CO2 limit rises to ≈520 ppm, a level which can be more readily achieved.

    Continue reading "The Methane Option" »

    November 24, 2004

    Conservation Commons Update

    We posted recently about the Conservation Commons Initiative -- a proposal for an open-access information resource for those working on issues of biodiversity and ecological conservation. It's a terrific idea. In the subsequent week, I've received two updates to the material posted in the initial article:

    Stuart Salter, the manager of the World Conservation Union's Species Information Service, wrote to inform us that the Conservation Commons Initiative website is now up and running. Not only does the Conservation Commons website include information about the initiative itself, the database is up and running. Check it out.

    In addition, in the comments on the original piece, the American Museum of Natural History's Director of Library Services Thomas Moritz points us to his 2002 piece "Building the Biodiversity Commons", which laid out in greater detail the need for and utility of an open information resource for ecological conservation. I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in either biodiversity or the growth of the intellectual commons model read this article. Thank you, Thomas!

    Restoring the Grand Canyon, Experimentally

    The Grand Canyon, no matter how much a work of natural beauty it appears, shows numerous signs of human handiwork. Perhaps the most subtle is the gradual loss of sandbanks resulting from the 1963 construction of the Geln Canyon dam upstream. Along with controlling water flow, the dam traps the sediments which had, for millennia, filtered through the canyon, creating sandy habitats for land and river life alike. As a result, four out of eight fish native to the Grand Canyon have died out, and a fifth extinction looks likely soon.

    But the Independent reports that an experiment is now underway to see if restoration is possible. For 90 hours, additional water has been piped in at the rate of 41,000 cubic feet per second, stirring up 800,000 tons of sediment. The flow will end today, but the experiment is just beginning. Over the next 18 months, scientists with the US Geological Survey will be watching the formation of sand bars and silt pools to see if the result is a resurgence of native species. If so, further water flows will help keep the sediment moving the way it should. More information is available from the Bureau of Reclamation and the USGS.

    The scientists working on this project will not be able to restore the Grand Canyon entirely, but may be able to shift it back towards a state closer to natural. This will be difficult, but it's worth trying. The Independent talked to Bennett Raley, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior about this issue:

    [Raley] said the experiment was a process by which scientists try something, learn from their mistakes and then try something else.

    "Speaking tongue in cheek, playing God is harder than it looks," he said.

    Energy For Development 2004

    Energy for Development 2004 sounds like a conference which could have significantly WorldChanging results. It's organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment in coordination with the World Bank, UNDP and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The WBCSD press release describes the conference in this way:

    Energy is the key to economic development, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. By 2050, energy demand could double or triple as population rises and developing countries expand their economies and overcome poverty, according to the recently published WBCSD report ‘Facts & Trends to 2050: Energy and climate change’. Further, huge investments are needed in developing countries to enable energy production and distribution to underpin sustainable development.

    The privatization and liberalization of the energy industries in developing countries have failed to attract enough investment, and energy markets have been unable to draw enough private sector money.

    Instigating the investment needed will require new forms of public-private partnership involving the private sector, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations, knowledge institutes, and governments. It will also require the expansion of innovative financing mechanisms, such as micro-credits.

    E4D will take place December 12-14 of this year in the Netherlands, but even if you're in the neighborhood, don't think about dropping by -- the conference is invitation-only. Fortunately, E4D has put much of its preliminary material online. The conference background document (PDF) makes particularly good reading for WorldChangers; many of the key issues we talk about here (sustainable energy, democratic development, good governance, access for the poor, the environment, leapfrogging) are at the top of this conference's agenda, and the background document goes into substantive details about both the current situation and possible strategies.

    (If any WorldChanging readers are attending this conference, we'd love a first-hand report of the discussions!)

    November 25, 2004

    Sustainable Business News

    The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is an interesting group. While they are clearly focused on the need for businesses to make a profit, they strongly advocate policies, strategies, technologies and ideas for doing so in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. They're involved in projects WorldChangers can definitely get behind, from scenarios of sustainable mobility to conferences on energy and the developing world. I'm still poking around at their website, but I've already found more fascinating documents and presentations than I know what to do with.

    One great resource for WorldChangers are their "e-newsletters," which reprint news reports relevant to sustainable business practices from all over the world. The newsletters (which are divided by subject -- Business and Sustainable Development, Energy & Climate, Sustainable Livelihoods, and Sustainable Mobility) come once weekly, and cover topics familiar to WorldChanging readers. Read on for some highlights from last week's selection:

    Continue reading "Sustainable Business News" »

    November 28, 2004

    Sterling on Fab Labs

    We wrote about Fab Labs a few months ago -- the combination of 3D scanners, Linux computers, laser cutters, 3D milling equipment, etc., assembled by the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT for use in the developing world. It's one of the coolest and potentially one the most revolutionary projects going, as it could be the jumping-off point for the biggest developing world leapfrog ever. Now Bruce Sterling (a name mentioned on WorldChanging once or twice) writes about Fab Labs for the latest issue of Wired, doing what he does best: seeing the possibilities.

    Now imagine a vast, rising tide of bastardized things, shoddier than the cheapest postwar products of Japan, coming from Congo, Myanmar, Fallujah - a global outbreak of Napster-fabbed mayhem. Fabbing would be the ultimate industry for the perennially unindustrialized; the consumer cornucopia for the antideveloping world; a mushroom patch of recycled decay that pops up whenever the World Trade Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, or US Patent and Trademark Office turns its back.

    November 29, 2004

    Generic Biomedicine

    The American patent on Human Growth Hormone -- useful for fighting wasting diseases associated with AIDS -- expired in 2003. So why isn't there a far-less-expensive "generic" version available in the US? Because HGH is a protein "biologic" drug, and protein drugs are far more difficult to produce than "small molecule" drugs, and the FDA says it can't be certain that the generic versions are identical to the originals.

    So goes the story in the December Technology Review. Biotech companies have made substantial sums on life-saving complex protein drugs, and now the patents are starting to expire. With "small molecule" drugs (the kind regularly advertised on television and in the hundreds of pieces of spam you got today), the process of duplicating the molecule in order to create a generic version is straightforward, as are the tools for confirming that the drugs are identical. But proteins are big, complicated molecules, with varying properties depending on how they fold. Biomedical proteins aren't just conjured up in test tubes, but are often produced by reengineered bacteria. Duplication is difficult. But help is on the way:

    Continue reading "Generic Biomedicine" »

    Self-Driving Cars

    Our post about a revolutionary approach to redesigning transportation drew a bit of discussion, much of it very informative. One of the commenters pointed us to this article at EE Times about the current state of the art in "autonomous vehicles," and just what it would take to get us to a world of self-driving cars. It's a fairly technical piece -- it is a journal for engineering professionals, after all -- but if you don't mind a bit of tech jargon, it's fascinating reading.

    Short version: augmented assistance cars are here and will only get better, but fully autonomous cars remain a ways away.


    We're still a few years shy of being able to put up personal Earth-observing satellites. In the meantime, you can always take advantage of images from satellites owned and operated by someone else. We've posted about the "Public Eye" project run by the DC think tank Global Security a few months ago, which makes current pictures of hotspots around the world available to the public: timely, possibly informative, but narrow in scope. We've also posted about the ESA making satellite data on land use patterns available to the public: possibly timely, definitely informative, moderately narrow (EU only). Today we have Keyhole, a satellite company recently acquired by Google. Keyhole is making its Earth observation software available for free download and 7 day use, allowing you to zoom from place to place. The entire world is covered, to varying degrees of detail (with some locations showing sufficient detail to pick out individual people). Windows-only, and no longer free after the 7 day trial, but worth checking out.

    Biggest problem, though: it's not live, updated data. It's shots from over the last few years, some from as far back as 1999, others from just several months ago. So we add to our list Keyhole: not at all timely, moderately informative, but very broad in scope. And a lot of fun to play with.

    China's Energy Agenda

    WBCSD brings us a report that China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced its medium- and long-term energy policies late last week, and the results are... well, not what WorldChangers might have hoped for. China plans to still focus on coal and oil use in 2020, albeit at much greater efficiency than at present (right now, China's coal plants require 22 percent more coal per kilowatt of power produced than do comparable plants in the United States). Their focus is on China's energy shortage, which could put a brake on the nation's growth. Unfortunately, nothing in the report suggests that potentially restricted oil supplies, greenhouse gas emissions, or even choking smog problems entered into the plan. If there's a prediction to be made based on this agenda, it's that 2020 will not look at all like what the NDRC thinks it will...

    Wireless Cities

    futurecity.jpgIf cities evolve, what will shape their evolution over the next few decades?

    Salon has an interesting article today about the use of wireless technologies as the drivers for urban change. "Urban Renewal, the Wireless Way" (subscription or brief advertisement required) looks at the realization that embedding networked technologies in urban spaces isn't dehumanizing, doesn't "eliminate geography," but can be enriching both socially and economically. Cities have long been home to dense social and information networks -- in the ethnic and artistic subcultures, in the patterns of business and commerce, in the every day communication of millions of people -- and digital tools make these networks both more accessible and more powerful.

    Call it the "new new urbanism," a fusion of telecommunications technology and urban design that is at once a 21st century zeitgeist and a familiar riff on the age-old interface between cities and technology. "From an urban design perspective, a lot of technologists are just discovering public space," says Dennis Frenchman, chairman of the master of city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's an old story that goes back hundreds of years." A consultant on Seoul's Digital Media City, Frenchman himself is part of a very new story. The DMC will incorporate all-digital signage, with programming capacity accessible to the public, personal positioning services, intelligent street lamps and transparent storefronts that will reveal a building's inner uses as well as real-time Web feeds from sister cities.

    The overall purpose of the DMC design, Frenchman says, is to infuse life on the street with multiple layers of meaning. "We're in a transitional moment," he hastens to add. "Huge kinds of things are happening."

    Continue reading "Wireless Cities" »

    November 30, 2004

    A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 1 of 3)

    jh.jpgFor many, the term "transhumanism" suggests a rejection of humanity or a dismissal of the body of philosophy we call "humanism." Some of the movement's proponents don't help matters, embracing an Ayn Rand-style libertarian perspective and disdain for "unenhanced" humanity. But not all transhumanists are the same. A growing number see the drive to develop technologies to strengthen and extend human capabilities as part and parcel of the push to improve global social conditions, and recognize that there is a necessary role for society and government in the safe development and fair distribution of new technologies. They refer to themselves as "Democratic Transhumanists," and their founding philosopher is Dr. James Hughes.

    Dr. Hughes is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, where he teaches Health Policy, Drug Policy and Research Methods in Trinity's Graduate Public Policy Studies program. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he also taught bioethics. He is a member of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities, and the Working Group on Ethics and Technology at Yale University. He has been a longtime left activist, having founded EcoSocialist Review while in grad school, as well as working on systemic reform of health care organizations to empower patients.

    He is also a Director of the World Transhumanist Association, and the author of the recently-published Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Dr. Hughes sees Democratic Transhumanism as existing in the space left fallow by both the libertarian transhumanist wing and the Luddite element of the left. As he put it in his lengthy and detailed treatise on the philosophy:

    Democratic transhumanism stems from the assertion that human beings will generally be happier when they take rational control of the natural and social forces that control their lives. This fundamental humanistic assertion has led to two intertwined sets of Enlightenment values: the democratic tradition with its values of liberty, equality, solidarity and collective self-governance, and to the belief in reason and scientific progress, that human beings can use reason and technology to improve the conditions of life.

    A recent manifestation of these principles is his founding of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), an organization at which I am a Fellow. Over the past month, I've had an extended email conversation with Dr. Hughes, discussing the sometimes-strained relationship between progressive principles and technological utopianism. Because of its length, I'll post the discussion in three parts. Today's focuses on the meaning of Democratic Transhumanism.

    Continue reading "A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 1 of 3)" »

    Nuclear Hydrogen?

    Here's one for the Green Dilemma bin: researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have shown that they can crack hydrogen from at a conversion rate of 45-50% (compared to ~30% for conventional electrolysis) by adding heat to the process, 1000°C worth -- the kind of heat one gets from a so-called "Generation IV" nuclear reactor. Green Car Congress has a terrifically-detailed write-up of the research, including this provocative line: "According to INEEL, a single next-generation nuclear plant will be able to produce in hydrogen the equivalent of 200,000 gallons of gasoline each day."

    The two big hurdles for the advent of the Hydrogen Economy are the price of fuel cells and the availability of hydrogen. While research continues on improving solar->hydrogen technology, the reality is that hydrogen fuel is expensive to make in quantity. What if the most cost-effective way to make enough hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles required nuclear reactors?

    Electric Octospeedster

    Okay, so this is just weird, but it is interesting. It's an electric car -- the Eliica, short for Electric Lithium-Ion battery Car -- that can do 0-60 in four seconds is faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo, and accelerates at 0.8 Gs. It's also around 5 meters in length, 2400 kg in weight, and has eight wheels. Yes, it's made in Japan. The 10 hour recharge (and the price, over $300,000) are the primary drawbacks.

    I, for one, am now waiting with bated breath for the inevitable showdown between the all-electric Eliica and Toyota's hybrid-electric supercar, the Alessandro Volta, which also boasts 0-60 in 4 seconds acceleration. Gentlemen, push your Engine On buttons...

    Update: Green Car Congress has more details. Also, be sure to read the first comment on this post, from Jeff Rusch. This car could be a more WorldChanging development than it initially appeared!

    (Thanks, Jet!)

    About November 2004

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

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