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December 2004 Archives

December 1, 2004

A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 2 of 3)

Continuing the conversation with Dr. James Hughes of Trinity College, founder of the Democratic Transhumanism movement.

Read Part I.

Democratic Transhumanism, despite its futuristic trappings, hearkens back to an earlier manifestation of the liberal tradition. In the 19th and early 20th century, scientific rationalism and technological utopianism went hand-in-hand with socialism, feminism, and progressivism. This changed in the post-WW2 era, as science and technology seemed to many to be increasingly the tools of military and corporate giants. The anti-technology perspective emerged most strongly in the environmental movement, which often linked ecological irresponsibility (industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, unethical animal and human experimentation, etc.) with technological development. While many progressives and greens are more willing adopt cleaner, better technologies today, some of the anti-technology biases remain. From Dr. Hughes' essay on Democratic Transhumanism:

Today most bioethicists, informed by and contributing to the growing Luddite orientation in left-leaning arts and humanities faculties, start from the assumption that new biotechnologies are being developed in unethical ways by a rapacious medical-industrial complex, and will have myriad unpleasant consequences for society, especially for women and the powerless. Rather than emphasizing the liberty and autonomy of individuals who may want to adopt new technologies, or arguing for increased equitable access to new biotechnologies, balancing attention to the “right from” technology with attention to the “right to” technology, most bioethicists see it as their responsibility to slow the adoption of biotechnology altogether.

The tension between philosophies focused on for social justice and environmental responsibility and the transhumanist movement is strong, and the evident frustration and anger in Dr. Hughes' tone -- both in the article linked above and in today's section of the interview -- reflects his belief that the human enhancement movement should be considered an ally, not an opponent, of those who are trying to better the human condition. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on many of the topics discussed in today's section, but we do agree on an underlying value: responsible technological development is critical for building a better planet.

Continue reading "A Conversation with Dr. James Hughes (part 2 of 3)" »

Welcome Dina!

Dina Mehta is the latest new addition to the WorldChanging team, and we're very happy to bring her on board. She's based in Mumbai, India, juggling writing her weblog Conversations with Dina and running her consulting company, Explore Research, which focuses on brand, product and service strategy. Her blog posts about social software and collaboration networks caught my eye months ago, and when Alex and I started talking about asking her to join us on WorldChanging, he said "she's definitely one of us."

Welcome to WorldChanging, Dina -- glad you're here.

December 2, 2004

We Win One!

Back in June, I posted about the National Weather Service requesting comments on a proposed policy to make weather data officially "open access" -- a proposal opposed by the chairman of Accuweather and other firms who wanted to make publicly-funded weather data only available through commercial vendors. Well, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the department overseeing the NWS) has decided to go forward with the plan as proposed, making explicit a "Commitment to Open Internet-Based Standards for Information Sharing." Of the nearly 1500 comments received, 1190 supported the policy, while only 176 opposed it.

Free/Open Source applications making use of NWS xml feeds are widely available. Now we know that they will remain so. Good work, everyone!

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

Concluding the conversation with Dr. James Hughes of Trinity College, founder of the Democratic Transhumanism movement.

Read Part I.
Read Part II.

While it may be difficult to see in the aftermath of last month's election, the compositions of the post-World War II coalitions on both the Left and the Right are changing. Emerging issues, from globalization to climate disruption to intellectual property rights on the Internet, are starting to push some traditional allies apart and traditional opponents together. For Dr. Hughes, human enhancement technologies will likely prove to be another axis for new political friction. From his democratic transhumanism treatise:

The biopolitical spectrum is still emerging, starting first among intellectuals and activists. Self-described “transhumanists” and “Luddites” are the most advanced and self-conscious of an emerging wave of the public’s ideological crystallization. We are at the same place in the crystallization of biopolitics as left-right economic politics was when Marx helped found the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, or when the Fabian Society was founded in England in 1884: intellectuals and activists struggling to make explicit the battle lines that are already emerging, before popular parties have been organized and masses rallied to their banners.

Will transhumanism -- or human enhancement technology -- be a key line of conflict for the 21st century? It's possible, although I suspect it will be part of a larger struggle both over the direction of human technology and the nature of "personhood." If the core philosophical struggle of the 20th century was over "how we live," the core philosophical struggle of the 21st may be "who we are."

I also suspect, moreover profoundly hope, that the "transhuman" meme falls to the wayside, and that tools and techniques that help us live healthier, longer, happier lives are seen as human technologies, something rightly available to us all, not something that implicitly divides us. Progressives are thinking a lot about "framing" these days, and rightly so: how we describe something imparts a great deal of meaning. Just as Dr. Hughes wishes (as said in Part I of the interview) that, in due time, "democratic transhumanism" will shed "democratic" in the name because the need for equitable, fair, and full distribution of enhancement technologies will be obvious to all, I hope that "democratic transhumanism" will shed "transhumanism," because the realization that enhancement technologies are simply part of our cultural birthright as humans will be equally obvious.

In the final installment of my interview with James Hughes, we talk a bit about what the future may hold for the democratic transhumanist movement and humankind in general.

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

Carbon Markets Underway

One of the elements of the Kyoto treaty is the use of carbon markets. This lets those countries either producing under the treaty limits of CO2 or not currently bound by the treaty (for now, mostly developing nations) sell carbon emission rights to treaty-bound over-producers. While this may seem like a way for over-producing countries to just keep spewing excess CO2, it's actually a very good idea: few countries are close to making the Kyoto limits without buying credits, so there's considerable demand; even as more countries get their emissions in order, the emissions allowed will gradually decline over time, making the remaining credits inevitably more expensive; countries will therefore have an economic incentive to be net carbon credit producers instead of consumers. It's definitely an incentive for developing countries to adopt cleaner technologies sooner, so as to continue being sellers and not buyers as they continue to grow. We're now starting to see how these markets will play out.

Reuters reports a partnership between a Norwegian firm and a Brazilian landfill to trap and burn methane emitted by the landfill; this will reduce the net addition of methane (21x more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2) to the atmosphere. Norway would get the credit -- equivalent to 670,000 tons of CO2 -- and Brazil the cash, currently €8.25 ($10.98) per ton. While this is one of the first deals signed, it's far from the only one around.

Elsewhere around the globe, Telnes [technical director of the Norwegian company, DNV] said about 200-300 clean energy projects were nearing certification in developing nations with perhaps another 1,200-1,300 on the drawing board.

"In the long term I wouldn't be surprised if we saw between 500 and 1,000 projects coming on every year," Telnes told Reuters. DNV, perhaps best known for checking ship designs, is a world leader in certifying environmental schemes.

With the markets now underway, there's a real need for information about their function and efficiency. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development often gets stories from the for-pay Point Carbon, a website which collects information on carbon markets and the UN's "Clean Development Mechanism" which coordinates these developing world carbon-for-cash schemes. Point Carbon has abundant information about carbon markets, from news feeds to market analysis to explanations of just how it all works. Some of the explanatory pieces are free, but much of the material requires a subscription fee.

I'm still looking for a free source of carbon trading info. Any suggestions? This is a process which is definitely worth watching.

December 3, 2004

More De-Mining Goodness: Rats

APOPO, a Belgian organization based at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, has developed another tool in the global effort to detect and remove landmines. Trained rats -- specifically Cricetomys gambianus, the African Giant Pouched rat -- can sniff out the residual chemicals from landmines and scratch the ground, indicating to handlers the explosive's location. Light enough in weight not to set the mines off, the rats are well cared for, and able to cover around 100 square meters in about a half hour.

APOPO is also working on training rats to detect signs of tuberculosis through scent, with initially good results.

Event-Based Risk Analysis and Global Warming

storm.jpgSwiss Re is the world's second largest insurance company, is known for taking the threat of global warming-induced climate change very seriously. One big problem with climate disruption is that it makes loss estimate projections based on historical trends unreliable. Environmental Finance reports (via WBCSD) that the insurance firm is now shifting to an approach they call "event-based risk analysis," which creates 500,000 simulated hurricane life cycles, modeling nearly every possible combination of storm intensity and path. This also allows them to model what happens when a storm hits an already-storm-damaged location.

Swiss Re has a short report (PDF) going into more detail about the results of the 2004 Hurricane season, and how event-based risk analysis is used. It makes for interesting reading, revealing how insurance analysts think about risk and natural disasters. While the authors are exceedingly careful to point out that climate change cannot be definitively fingered as the driver of the unusual (and occasionally unprecedented) weather seen this year, it's clear that Swiss Re is acting under the assumption that the 2004 storm season isn't an anomaly, but a harbinger.

Nanotech and Peak Oil

The always-interesting CRNblog at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology posted this week a short essay going into the possibility of soon reaching "peak oil," and the ways in which further developments in molecular manufacturing could help us avoid serious problems. The essay itself is good, as usual, but what is more notable is the ensuing discussion. Lots of good ideas and diverse viewpoints, and well worth reading.

Want $5,000 Towards Buying a 45+ MPG Car?

There's a catch. You have to be an employee of Hyperion, a Santa Clara, California, based software company:

Under its Drive Clean to Drive Change initiative, Hyperion will reimburse employees US $5,000 for vehicles that achieve 45 miles per gallon or the equivalent of gasoline. [...] The standard also is achievable by fuel-efficient vehicles using technologies such as hybrid, diesel and electric that increasingly are available in most of the countries in which Hyperion does business. [...] “We know we are not necessarily going to change the world through this initiative, but we aim to get people thinking about change,” said [Godfrey] Sullivan [president and chief executive officer of Hyperion].  “Drive Clean to Drive Change is not just a good thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.”

Under the Drive Clean to Drive Change plan, employees who have been with Hyperion for more than a year can apply for the subsidy for one vehicle every four years. Up to 200 employees a year will be funded, on a first-come, first-served basis. A shining example of a "transcommercial" company policy, and definitely good to hear about.

December 4, 2004

Martian Park Service

olypark.jpgNo human's going to step foot on Mars for a couple more decades at best, but that hasn't stopped people from thinking about what we should do when we get there -- or, more to the point, what we should not do. Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, have proposed that we (the global 'we') set aside a series of conservation parks on Mars, places where no human activity (especially terraforming) should take place. The seven proposed park locations cover relatively obvious locations such as the northern (water) ice cap and Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, as well as locations of either historical (the Viking and Pathfinder landing sites) or geological (the Hellas crater) interest. They seek to limit the environmental impact of human activity in these areas.

The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, Austria, would be best placed to administer the parks, [Cockell] says, although he has not contacted them about the idea. They already oversee planetary protection regulations that limit the number of spores allowed on a Mars lander. But the sole purpose of this is to stop experiments looking for life becoming contaminated, says Cockell. "There's no sense of any greater environmental protection."

The struggle between those who wish to keep Mars pristine and those who wish to make Mars more habitable for humankind is the core plot driver for Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent Mars trilogy (and in a delicious bit of meme-play, those who want to change the environment are referred to as Greens, and the Reds are those who want to keep Mars as it was). This Martian Park proposal would satisfy neither side, of course, as it either blocks off too much potentially interesting places from human activity or gives up most of the planet, depending on one's point of view.

Continue reading "Martian Park Service" »

Is There Really A Climate Change Consensus?


Naomi Oreskes, at Science magazine, undertook a study of the 928 peer-reviewed papers and reports published between 1993 and 2003 which included the keywords "climate change" when indexed. Not one of them argued that observed climate change was natural in origin. As Oreskes puts it:

This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.


Many details about climate interactions are not well understood, and there are ample grounds for continued research to provide a better basis for understanding climate dynamics. The question of what to do about climate change is also still open. But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.

(Thanks, John Maas)

December 6, 2004

Hydrogen 101

Perhaps the most widely-accepted vision of what a greener future will look like is that of the "Hydrogen Economy." Everyone from ecofuturists like the Rocky Mountain Institute to petroconservatives like the Bush administration extol the virtues of hydrogen powered vehicles. We talk about hydrogen as a future fuel here on WorldChanging with some frequency; it remains our best bet for moving beyond greenhouse gas-emitting transportation technologies.

But the move to hydrogen is not without its challenges. We've mentioned that a few times here, but if you're interested in the future of transportation and energy, it's a subject worth understanding. Fortunately, the current issue of Physics Today has a lengthy and detailed article covering the current issues and possible developments in the efforts to build the hydrogen economy. (While not overly-complex, it is a Physics Today piece, so it assumes some comfort with scientific and technical terms.)

The challenges to the shift to hydrogen are in three fundamental areas:

Continue reading "Hydrogen 101" »

HSBC -- The First Green Bank?

The Financial Times reports that British bank HSBC is about to start improving efficiency, trading emission credits, and planting thousands of trees around the world in order to balance out its carbon emissions, trying to become the first "carbon-neutral" international bank.

Stephen Green, chief executive, said: "In 2003, HSBC's CO2 emissions from using electricity, natural gas, fuel oil and business travel were more than 550,000 tonnes. We need to act now to reduce our emissions."


As a bank, HSBC is hardly the worst offender for contributing to global warming. But the 550,000 tonnes figure is set to rise to 700,000 tonnes this year as a result of acquisitions, which equates to 2 to 3 tonnes for every member of its staff.


The carbon management plan, to be implemented by 2006, will examine three ways of achieving carbon neutrality - tree-planting, increasing HSBC's energy efficiency and trading emissions on emerging carbon exchanges and elsewhere.

The article notes that Swiss Re was the pioneer in financial institutions seeking to become carbon-neutral.

(Thanks, Tim!)

Biodegradable Plastic

flowerphone.jpgIt's been all over the blogosphere, but we've now been asked to say a little something about it: researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, and the Pvaxx Research & Development company have come up with a polymer that looks and feels like any other plastic, but which biodegrades to soil; researchers then embedded a sunflower seed in the plastic, so that when discarded, a plant will grow, feeding on the nitrates in the biodegraded polymer. Motorola initiated the research, but hasn't yet decided whether to actually use the material.

While some of the coverage for the story has suggested (at least in the headlines) that this will lead to biodegradable mobile phones, the reality is at once less exciting and more practical. Although discarded cell phones are contributors to toxic metals in the waste stream, the likely initial use will be for the interchangeable cell phone covers, popular with the kids these days and more likely to be tossed out when no longer fashionable or "groovy." Moreover, biodegradable plastic could have much broader application than phone shells; the CNN report suggests that Pvaxx is already looking at uses in "electronics, horticulture, ammunition and household cleaning." I must admit to finding that particular combination of applications fascinating.


Jeff Egnaczyk alerts us to DestiNY USA (yes, that's the way they're spelling it), a new "Mall of America"-style development underway in upstate New York. The notable -- and potentially worldchanging -- element is the emphasis the developers are putting on their planned use of renewable energy to operate the facility. They claim that DestiNY USA will be 100% renewable energy-powered, and have a lengthy flash animation about the biodiesel-fueled power/heat/cooling/laundry/greenhouse system they're going to put in.

As Jeff notes, the details are slim and are currently more vague promises than actual delivery, but the potential is interesting. DestiNY USA is definitely worth keeping an eye on -- let's hope they live up to their promises. If successful, it could be a terrific way of demonstrating the power of green design.

(Thanks, Jeff!)

December 7, 2004

Fixing The Power Grid

distelec.jpgYesterday we posted about the Physics Today article covering the current status of hydrogen fuel technology. The same issue of Physics Today has another article of interest to worldchangers, this one covering the history and potential evolution of the electrical power grid. While it focuses on the grid in the United States, most of the observations are applicable across the developed world, and give some hints for leapfrogging directions.

The North American power grid is truly an astounding feat of engineering, but it has seen better days. Investment in infrastructure upgrades and repair in the 1990s was as low a percentage of industry revenues as it was in the days of the Great Depression and World War II. The system was built to handle the kinds of varying analog loads typical of the 1950s and 1960s; the need for constant clean power characterizing digital technology is more taxing to the system than many of us are aware. Policies to introduce greater market competition, open access to providers, and even environmental regulations have added uncertainty and stress to the creaking infrastructure. The 2002 blackout in the northeast, while a sign that the emergency systems operated properly (if they hadn't, the blackout would have been far larger and much longer-lasting), was also a harbinger of failures to come.

But there are solutions at hand, and some are ideas we've talked about here on WorldChanging. They include:

  • Advanced Conductors, using carbon fiber cores;
  • Distributed Energy Generation, increasing the resilience and reliability of the infrastructure;
  • Computer Modeling of Markets, for better planning; and
  • "Energy Portals", two-way communication between consumers/consumer devices and the provider(s).

    The article suggests a number of other solutions, as well.

    Adding distributed energy and "energy portals" (a term which smacks of late 90s dot-com jargon to me) has the potential to make the electricity network run in a way approximating the Internet, with a greater diversity of both providers and consumers -- and, when you add home generation via solar, wind, fuel cells or plug-in hybrids -- nodes which do both. Following this line of thought, an Internet tool which could lead to a provocative future for the power grid is BitTorrent: a Free/Open Source system of distributed file sharing, where a downloader doesn't get the entire file from any one source, but from all BitTorrent users with the file currently online. Moreover, once the downloader starts to receive the file, s/he becomes an upload source as well. I can imagine a system where instead of sharing files, a Free/Open Source Power network of homes share electricity, both "uploading" and "downloading" as needed, using the BitTorrent model.

    There are undoubtedly many problems with this idea, but at it's an intriguing possibility.

  • Honda's Number One

    Which of the big six auto manufacturers -- Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, Toyota -- has the overall best environmental performance? If you read the title of this post, you know the answer. For the last six model years for which there are full government records, Honda has had the best combined fleet performance in terms of both smog-causing and heat-trapping emissions, according to a new report (1.6MB PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists. GM, conversely, has the worst results, going from 4th place in 1997 to last place in 2003. Honda's smog-forming emissions in 2003 were less than half of the overall average, and their fleet greenhouse emissions were 82% of average; GM, by comparison, came in at 129% smog/104% greenhouse. Interestingly, Toyota, widely praised for its Prius, dropped from 2nd place to 3rd as their larger trucks grew more popular, with 84% smog/88% greenhouse, with Nissan moving to the #2 spot (70%/94%). Ford had the overall worst greenhouse emissions, at 107% of average, but moved to #4 on the basis of its smog emissions, only 91% of average.

    December 8, 2004

    A Return to the Age of Sail?

    Wind power is not a new concept. Windmills have been around for centuries, and wind-powered sailboats have been around for even longer -- since 3200 bce, or even earlier. The advent of engine-powered shipping relegated wind-powered boats to hobbyists, tourists and adventurers. But if the German company SkySails is right, we may soon see a return to shipping powered by the wind.

    The notion is straightforward: a large parasail-type kite on a tow cable can add significant power to a standard diesel engine ship when lofted to 500 meters or so in the air. How much power? SkySails claims that a cargo ship can increase speed for a given fuel consumption by at least 10%, and often more; conversely, a sail-enabled ship can run at its standard speed but cut fuel consumption by as much as one-half. The technology is more efficient at capturing wind power than standard sails, takes up less shipboard space, and supposedly does not require additional crew. Navigational software linked to real-time weather data routes for optimal wind speed and travel time. The design has won a number of German innovation awards, but has not yet been field-tested in its full configuration (at least as far as I can tell); SkySails proposes that the design would work not just for commercial vessels, but for ships of all types.

    If SkySails works, the benefits are more than reduced fuel cost or shipping time. The SkySails site claims that "the toxic emission volume of the world trade fleet equals that of the United States." A system (such as SkySails) which can cut fuel consumption and reduce travel time would in turn reduce those emissions.

    While there is something superficially absurd about massive cargo ships being pulled along by kites, upon reflection the notion makes sense. It's a novel form of "hybrid" power, taking advantage of strengths of diverse propulsion systems: the consistency of diesel engines and the free availability and startling strength of wind power. While SkySails still needs to demonstrate that their system works as claimed, we will undoubtedly see more of these "situational hybrid" power generation systems in years to come.

    Personal Fabrication by EMail

    parts_r1_c2.gifI'm looking forward to the day that nanofabs make it possible for any of us to "rip, mix and burn" physical objects. In the meantime, however, more conventional fabrication techniques remain necessary for those who wish to create complex material devices. This means machine shops and tools -- the kinds of gear included in MIT's Fab Labs. But if you don't have your own machine shop, and MIT hasn't seen fit to drop a Fab Lab on your block, you have another option: the Internet.

    eMachineShop will build parts for physical objects to your specifications, using a variety of standard techniques (injection molding, milling, punching, etc.). Free (in the gratis, not libre sense) CAD software walks users through the process of designing parts, and eMachineShop will manufacture the unit in whatever quantity (including one-off). A recent article about the site notes that most of the users are either making prototype parts for new designs or recreated parts for old hardware when replacements are no longer available.

    printed_circuit_boards_lime_21.gifAnd what if your new device needs some electronic smarts? Individual electronic components are relatively simple to come by, but in order to make a real prototype, the components need to be seated on a printed circuit board. You can't just wander down to Radio Shack and pick one up, however; they need to be specially crafted. Again, the Internet comes to the rescue, with a site called Bare Bones Proto PCBs. Send 'em your design, they send you your boards.

    It's likely that many WorldChanging readers are right now going "so what?" A few of you, however, are already quivering in your seats, imagining what you'll make. These services make it possible for garage industrial design to take on far greater sophistication than before. The number of people with the knowledge and desire to do industrial design far outweighs the number who also have the requisite tools. These companies (along with the competitors who undoubtedly exist -- post URLs in the comments when you find them) are in many respects the design world analogues of the cheap editing software which opened up new worlds of video and musical creativity. Coming up with an innovative idea is terrific; being able to make that idea manifest, whether as a work of art or a work of design, can be worldchanging.

    (Thanks, Jet and CTP!)

    Diesel vs. Hybrid vs. Gasoline

    Green Car Congress has an interesting post today looking closely at the relative performance and environmental stats of the 2005 model year Honda Accords: the four and six-cylinder gasolines, the four cylinder diesel, and the six cylinder hybrid. The results are quite interesting:

    the Accord Diesel (using petroleum diesel) offers the lowest fuel consumption and the lowest CO2 emissions, even surpassing the Accord Hybrid.

    The Accord Diesel (which is not offered in the US) gets 43.3 miles per gallon and emits ~143 grams of CO2 per kilometer, compared to 33/165 for the Accord Hybrid. Use of biodiesel would further lower the carbon footprint of the diesel Accord. And while some of the efficiency comes from being a four-cylinder instead of a six-cylinder vehicle, it's worth noting that the diesel model greatly out-performs the four-cylinder gasoline model across the board.

    Be sure to read the comments; Mike also addresses questions about the relative non-CO2 emissions.

    December 9, 2004

    Military Diesel Hybrids in Testing

    The US Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command are now testing the "Shadow Reconnaissance Surveillance Targeting Vehicle" (Shadow RST-V for short). What makes this notable is that the Shadow RST-V is a diesel hybrid-electric, able to run in electric-only mode, hence making it a "full hybrid." It gets nearly three times the miles-per-gallon of the military version of the Hummer, and about twice the commercial Hummer mileage: 758 kilometers on 95 liters, or roughly 18 miles per gallon, vs. 8-10 mpg for the H2.

    That the American military is testing a new stealthy recon vehicle is not particularly worldchanging. But think about American car culture: the military styling and legacy of the Hummer line is a key motivation for the many purchasers who want that alpha-monkey feeling. The same motivation would apply to the Shadow. A civilian version of the Shadow, stripped of armor and hardpoints and the sundry trappings that the military needs and civilians can't have, would be lighter and get better mileage, probably up into the low 20s. That's not revolutionary, but it is significant. Even more significant would be the "hybrid reframing," directly attacking the myth that hybrid cars are wimpy vehicles for greens & yuppies; that, more than anything, could be the key to making hybrid vehicle technology dominant.

    Beyond Microcredit, Part II

    Microcredit is one of those brilliant ideas which is at once simple and revolutionary. As many as 100 million people have had their lives made better through loans of very small amounts of money (about 90% of which are paid back). We looked at other forms of microfinance last year, but it's definitely worth revisiting the idea. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development hosts a new article exploring the idea of "micro-insurance" (making insurance protection available to those in poverty) and the need to make remittance transactions less onerous and expensive. These ideas make a huge amount of sense, would be relatively cheap and easy for microfinance institutions to carry out, and would make a huge difference in millions of lives.

    It could make a great difference if poor people were given access to insurance, says Dr Johan Bastiaensen, an expert on microfinance at the department of development policy at the University of Antwerp. "Theft or a minor illness can be a life threatening accident for someone struggling to make ends meet," he told IPS. "Insurance is arguably the most wanted financial product in developing countries."


    Funds transferred by migrants to families back home are a vast, reliable and useful income for developing countries, he says. They exceed the level of official development aid (ODA), which stood at $ 68 billion in 2003.

    International money transfer agencies like Western Union and Money Gram provide quick and reliable transfers, but charge a juicy commission. "It is one of the most blatant injustices in today's world that poor immigrants need to pay a 15 to 20 percent commission on remittances to their families back home," Bastiaensen argues.

    December 10, 2004

    Real Climate

    RealClimate is here. It's a blog written by nine working climatologists from around the world (all experts in their field), focusing on explaining climate science, providing context to current reports in the mainstream media, and rebutting the fallacious arguments of carbon lobby hacks. They've started off with a bang -- in their first ten days of operation, they've covered climate models, critics of the "hockey stick" temperature reconstruction, the Arctic Climate Assessment, urban heat islands, solar influence, and more. For anyone interested in climate science, this site will be the first place to read every day. Highly recommended.

    Middle of the Road Isn't The Safest Place To Be

    The Christian Science Monitor has a short article today about the National Commission on Energy Policy's new set of proposals for US energy strategy. In trying to avoid controversy, it apparently manages to adopt really obsolete positions and still disappoint just about everyone. Elements include:

  • Investing in oil production in the developing world.
  • Doing "cap & trade" on greenhouse gases, but not until 2010.
  • Build the Alaska natural gas pipeline.
  • Invest in advanced coal technologies.
  • More nuclear plants.
  • Increase investment in renewables by $360 million per year.

    The more cynical among you will not be surprised to learn that even this has generated opposition from the usual suspects.

    A more 21st century, future-oriented -- yet hardly radical -- agenda can be found here.

  • December 12, 2004

    This Week in Green Design

    We have a new addition to our Sustainability Sundays lineup: Justin Thomas of Metaefficient. Meatefficient "searches out products that we believe are more effective and healthier for individuals and the world, yet are comparable in price to mainstream products." We're glad to feature the best of what Justin's found lately, here on Worldchanging:

    EcoResin Furniture
    EcoResin Furniture

    3Form has just introduced a new line of furniture made with Varia Ecoresin. Varia is manufactured under strict OHSA approved standards and is free of VOC's, solvents and emissions. 3form ecoresin and Varia are built to exceed LEED accreditation insuring at least 40% post industrial recycled content, and are free from plasticizers and stabilizers.

    Self-Contained Watering System

    The Oasis Automatic Plant Watering System by Claber is a programmable system that distributes up to 6 gallons of water to as many as 20 plants. It is a completely independent system, needing no connection to a tap or electrical main. It runs on one 9V battery.

    Welcome, Hassan!

    Hassan Masum joins the roster of WorldChanging contributors today. He's a problem solver by training and temperament, with a strong grasp of technology and a strong bias towards positive, creative outcomes. Much of his work focuses on developing and understanding tools for collaborative development, and one of his best-received works is his essay (with Yi-Cheng Zhang), Manifesto for the Reputation Society, which explores the how reputation mechanisms found on websites such as Slashdot, eBay, Amazon and others may scale up to be a broader phenomenon. Like many of us here, Hassan also works with scenarios as a tool for understanding social, technological and economic change.

    We greatly look forward to seeing his insights and ideas here at WorldChanging. Welcome, Hassan!


    It's become increasingly clear that the 21st century will be built with carbon nanotubes. EurekAlert lists yet another application for the plucky little singled-walled molecules: fluorescing biosensors:

    "Carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce in the near-infrared region of the spectrum where human tissue and biological fluids are particularly transparent," said Michael Strano, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at [University of] Illinois [Urbana-Champaign]. "We have developed molecular sheaths around the nanotube that respond to a particular chemical and modulate the nanotube's optical properties."

    The test setup was able to detect glucose levels, signaling changing concentration via changes in light when excited by a laser. Carbon nanotubes last longer in tissues than other fluorescing organic molecules, so they'll be more usable for extended monitoring. And the technique should work for a wide array of chemical types, allowing for extremely accurate health and environmental sensors.

    Ideas 2004

    This week's New York Times Magazine has an interesting collection of short pieces it calls "The Year in Ideas: A to Z." The ideas run the gamut from "Acoustic Keyboard Eavesdropping" to "You Don't Need Superstars To Win," and include several WorldChanging favorites, such as "Land Mine Detecting Plants" (WC post) and "Concrete You Can See Through" (WC post). Several of them are of particular WorldChanging interest: "Augmented Bar Codes," "Dumb Robots Are Better," and "The Micropolis," among others.

    December 13, 2004

    WiFi Ambient Device

    "Ambient technologies" are supposed to make streams of variable information noticeable without being intrusive, and are a clever method for "making the invisible visible." They're designed to remain at the periphery of one's perception, notable only when the monitored conditions (the weather outside, power consumption, a child's location, email status, etc.) changes. We noted the Ambient Orb awhile back, which while interesting, suffers from only responding to a small number of different inputs from a subscription-only proprietary wireless frequency. Now the Register (a UK technology website) notes that British Telecom is showing off their own ambient display, which reads whatever assigned data over plain old 802.11 WiFi. It looks like it's a technology demo, not a product preview, which is unfortunate; ambient displays and WiFi seem like a perfect combination.

    (Via Engadget)

    Lessons From Leapfrog Biotech

    This week's Economist looks at the growing level of innovation in the health-related biotechnology industries of developing nations. No longer simply copying existing drugs and treatments, nations such as China, India, Cuba and Brazil have begun to make substantial contributions to global bioscience. Biotechnology is an ideal leapfrog pathway, as it doesn't require a substantial existing industrial base, only well-educated scientists -- education acquired both in the West and, increasingly, at home. It also is a useful pathway for dealing with one of the problems of development: populations afflicted by serious diseases, yet not rich enough to be seen as an attractive market for American and European pharmaceutical companies.

    Developing world biotech groups have come up with innovative treatments for (among others) Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Chagas Disease, and AIDS, with the research sometimes based on local knowledge of indigenous plants and traditional treatments. Some of the research is government driven, but local entrepreneurism is an important part of biotech innovation. This may present some difficulties down the road; the rapid growth of the developing world biomedicine industry is triggering some concern for health activists such as Médecins Sans Frontières. This is not because the drugs and treatments aren't useful -- they are, critically so -- but because a number of these biotech leapfrog nations are starting to adopt stricter patent regimes, potentially restricting the ability to produce cheap copies of new medicines produced elsewhere. A conflict between the principles of South-South science transfer and the desire for WTO membership seems to be on the horizon. It will be interesting to see if the growing "open source" biotech movement gains any ground in these nations.

    The Economist piece is based on the December issue of Nature Biotechnology, which surveys the state of health-related biotechnology research in Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea. (PDFs of each of these articles are available at no charge, although a multi-step free subscription to the website is required.) Each article looks at examples of recent health biotech developments, as well as the lessons each state teaches to other developing nations looking at local bioscience efforts. Nature's overall conclusions are worth listing, because they apply to leapfrogging efforts beyond biomedicine:

  • Focus on local needs. The greatest successes come from solving important indigenous problems.
  • Success is expressed in many ways. Don't assume that the developing nation must follow paths established by the developed states, or even by other developing nation innovators.
  • Build on educational and health systems. Good local education systems are the heart of successful innovation-based development.

  • Improvements in Organic Photovoltaics

    organicsolarcell.jpgOne of the drawbacks of traditional silicon-based photovoltaic cells is that they are hard. While it's possible to embed traditional solar cells in fabric, it's not an optimal situation -- the cells themselves remain solid, even if the fabric is flexible. The backing electronics required for silicon cells adds further complexity to using them as anything other than a standalone add-on for devices or buildings. But what if the photovoltaics were made of something other than silicon?

    Organic photovoltaics are flexible, lightweight, and potentially less expensive than traditional solar cells (they're "organic" because they're based on carbon). The main drawback is that organic PV cells are nowhere near as efficient at converting light into electricity as silicon cells. A recent development at Georgia Institute of Technology, however, is starting to close that performance gap. By adding a chemical called pentacene to the carbon "buckyballs" (Fullerenes again!) used in making the organic solar cells, the researchers were able to boost the efficiency to nearly 3.4 percent, with signs they could get to 5 percent in the near future. This compares to 25 percent for silicon cells (and up to 50 percent for experimental materials).

    Although organic solar cells aren't as efficient, their other characteristics -- flexibility, weight, ruggedness, cost -- still make them attractive. They can be more readily embedded in other materials, from fabrics to plastics to roofing, and are ideal for small, low-power projects such as remote sensors. If, a decade from now, you drive a car with solar cells on its roof to help recharge the hybrid batteries, these are mostly likely the cells you'll be using.

    December 14, 2004

    Profile of California's Emission-Fighting Legislator

    Fran Pavley, California state Assemblywoman from Agoura Hills, was the sponsor of the legislation instructing the California Air Resources Board to draw up plans to require automakers to reduce fleet CO2 emissions by 30% by 2016. The New York Times has a short profile of her, going into some detail about the auto industry's choice to send lawyers, not engineers in response. Not a deep piece, but an interesting one.

    Mobile Phones for Homebrew Sensors

    phonehack.jpgElectronic sensors are an important part of knowing the world. Sensor technology is pretty remarkable these days, and useful components can be both very small and very inexpensive. Scientific research and culture hacking alike already take advantage of widely available, useful sensor tech. With a modicum of understanding about how to assemble electronic devices, any student or hobbyist could be a Junior Jeremijenko in no time!

    Gizmodo points us to a Czech company called Bladox, which manufactures small circuit boards and software to plug into old mobile phones, turning them into accelerometer-based car alarms: when "unauthorized" motion is detected, the system will call the user via the old phone. While this isn't particularly worldchanging in and of itself, the idea of using old mobile phones as the communication element of home-built sensor devices is intriguing.

    Bladox makes boards and software allowing for a wide variety of inputs; better still, their applications are all licensed under the GPL. With this hardware, pretty much any kind of low-power sensor system (temperature, location, motion, air quality, etc. etc.) could be hooked up. Rigging a mobile phone as part of a sensor system takes care of one of the critical elements of any such device: communicating results. As long as there's network coverage in the sensor location, the results can be sent to anyone in the world with a phone. And the sensor-phone would still have a phone number, allowing for calling in to get results as needed. There are numerous solar panel rechargers for phones, so keeping the battery topped up wouldn't even be a big issue.

    The vast majority of mobile phone users discard their old phones long before they stop working. The fact that many mobile services "lock" the phones, making them only work with that particular service (unless unlocked, a sometimes tricky process), makes such a wasteful practice almost inevitable. There are millions of completely functional but ostensibly useless phones out there; you probably have a few sitting around your home (I know I do). While recycling is possible (and far preferable to just throwing them out, given the toxic metal content), there's something particularly appealing about reusing the phone in novel ways.

    What would you make with a system like this?

    What Will It Take To Make Solar Competitive? Nanotech. And Seven Cents.

    Seven cents per kilowatt-hour, that is. That's about the standard price for electricity in the United States (some locales will vary; California averages about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour). Renewable power needs to be price competitive with 7 cent non-renewable sources. Tidal can be, and wind is close, but both have location requirements (and wind needs lots of space). Solar, however, is still generally priced out of competition, in the 30-45 cents per kilowatt-hour range. But nanotechnology may well change that. Investor's Business Daily profiles three companies working on applying nanomaterial and nanoengineering discoveries to the more efficient generation of solar electricity: Nanosolar (making solar cells 100x thinner than current ones), Nanosys (making specialized materials for embedding into construction material), and Konarka Technologies (making light-activated plastic).

    Favorite line of the article: In time, such work could become "world changing," said Josh Wolfe, a managing partner of nanotech-focused investment firm Lux Capital.

    December 15, 2004

    Real Climate vs. Fiction Author

    Backchannel discussion here at WorldChanging has lately centered on whether or how to respond to the publication of Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear, a lengthy polemic (in novel's clothing) pooh-poohing the idea that global warming-induced climate disruption is real. We decided to wait and see if any interesting responses pop up elsewhere, and point to those. We didn't have to wait long.

    RealClimate.org, the group blog written by respected working climate scientists, takes State of Fear head on in two posts, pointing out errors of omission, commission, and evident confusion, and demonstrating (for those still uncertain) that while Crichton can spell the big scientific words, he really doesn't know what he's talking about. It's a thorough and well-argued takedown. (And for those who say, "hey, it's only a novel, it doesn't have to be real," remember that Crichton added an appendix where he explains his putative non-fiction case.)

    Undoubtedly, in days and weeks to come, we'll see more detailed dissections of what will nonetheless be a popular novel, so stay tuned.

    Leapfrog 101

    frog.jpgI've been asked twice in the last two days to give some examples and explain the logic behind the "leapfrog" concept. It occurs to me that many WorldChanging readers may be wondering about what leapfrogging is, and why we talk about it so much. Here's the argument:

    "Leapfrogging" is the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps. We see this happening all around us: you don't need a 20th century industrial base to build a 21st century bio/nano/information economy.

    Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of "progress," leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside), or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of WiFi and free computers in poor urban areas).

    The best-known example of leapfrogging is the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding. As we've noted, mobile phone use already exceeds land line use in India, and by 2007, 150 million out of the 200 million phone lines there will be cellular. There are similar examples from all over the world.

    Examples of leapfrogging other than with mobile phones abound. A few, pulled from the WorldChanging archives, include:

    Continue reading "Leapfrog 101" »

    Rural Computing in Peru

    The BBC reports on the Agricultural Information Project for Farmers of the Chancay-Huaral Valley, 80 kilometers north of Lima, Peru. Combining computer training, agricultural information, and wireless access, the 14 telecenters will be open to the region's 13,000 rural inhabitants and 18,000 students.

    The project is notable for a number of reasons. All of the software used is free/open source, community training has been attended by men and women equally, and each of the 14 telecenters cost only $3,200. The driving force behind the project is to get farmers communicating with each other, sharing knowledge and ideas:

    One of the key elements of the project is the Agricultural Information System, with its flagship huaral.org website.

    There, farmers can find the prices for local produce, as well as information on topics ranging from plague prevention to the latest farming techniques.

    The system also helps the inhabitants of the Chancay-Huaral Valley to organise their vital irrigation systems.

    "Water is the main element that unites them all. It is a precious element in Peru's coastal areas, because it is so scarce, and therefore it is necessary to have proper irrigation systems to make the most of it," Mr Saldarriaga told the BBC News website.

    The information network also allows farmers to look beyond their own region, and share experiences with other colleagues from the rest of Peru and even around the world.

    This appears to be a textbook example of how to integrate information networks in the developing world -- the inclusion of training, the use of free/open source software, and (most importantly) the emphasis on communication among the users, not just consumption of centralized information and entertainment. It's a pilot project, so organizers are watching closely to see how well it works before implementing it elsewhere in Peru. Fortunately, it sounds like they've taken the correct first steps.

    (Via SmartMobs)

    December 16, 2004

    Want To Use Hydrogen Now?

    IDFuel has a nice write-up of some of the various currently-available hydrogen fuel cell systems. While you may not be able to go buy a hydrogen fuel cell car right now, you can buy home fuel cells to function as backup generators, and will soon be able to install a fuel cell system in your boat. Interesting stuff -- small changes, to be sure, but little bits of the future. The conclusion to the piece is worth reiterating: There is no need to feel like as one small designer you can't help in the transition to a sustainably fueled economy. There is no reason to believe that this future will arrive all at once, or in one giant chain of mammoth endeavors.

    The Material Future

    brucesrfid.jpgBruce Sterling, WorldChanging Ally #1, recently gave a talk at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen about the future of objects, design, spimes and the "internet of things." The talk is now available in streaming video. He's not in his familiar (and beloved) Sterling Rant Mode; it's more of an academic presentation (perhaps he's practicing for his new guest teaching gig). Although Bruce is somewhat subdued, it's still an interesting talk -- he has an excellent sense of the important factors shaping the future of material objects, and the results of deep integration between objects and information.

    He argues that there are six key factors shaping the future of material objects:

    1) Interactive chips that can label objects with unique ID;
    2) Local and global positioning systems that can determine the location of tagged objects;
    3) Powerful search engines, particularly for local searches -- a Google for finding things around you;
    4) 3D virtual design of objects;
    5) Rapid prototyping production and fabricators;
    6) Cradle to cradle manufacturing, zero-emissions production, "design for disassembly," and "a new kind of death for objects."

    It's a lengthy talk, lasting for about an hour, but Bruce manages to tie together some important trends in a compelling way. If you have any interest in the future of design, sustainable production or privacy, definitely take a look.

    More Flexible Solar

    solarcells.jpgImprovements in solar cells are coming hot & heavy of late; interestingly, most seem to be improvements in usability, not efficiency. New Scientist reports on the latest story, a three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar. They've come up with a light, extremely flexible (can be rolled up), thin solar cell material able to be sewn into fabric. The unsurprising downside is the low efficiency -- currently 7%, probably getting up to 10% before going into production. That's better than the possible 5% of the organic solar cells we mentioned the other day, but still not up to the 25+% of traditional cells. For many of the likely applications -- recharging mobile phones, MP3 players and so forth -- that's not a deal-breaker, but we're still hoping to see the flexible solar material efficient enough to run something truly interesting. The big advantage of this technique is the projected cost -- a panel the size of a sheet of paper, easily able to charge phones (and whatnot), could cost as low as about $10.

    While H-Alpha Solar doesn't seem to have a website (if any of you find one, I'll update this post), the EU research website has a PDF providing a few more details.

    (Via Régine's Near Near Future)

    December 17, 2004

    Rendering DC Irrelevant

    Further evidence that action taken by state-level governments and global corporations can make up for federal intransigence about acting against global warming-induced climate disruption comes from the UN conference on the climate, ending today in Buenos Aires. According to Reuters, greenhouse gas reduction efforts in California and New England states were cited by attendees as models for the rest of the world. "When designing our energy policy, Germany will always look to California because it's the best example," said Barbel Hohn, environment minister in Germany's largest state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In addition, multinational giants such as DuPont, Alcoa and IBM have set their own greenhouse gas reduction targets, sometimes to levels greatly exceeding the standards set by the Kyoto treaty. DuPont's emissions, for example, were 68% lower in 2003 than in 1990.

    Hybrids and the Future

    The Economist has published a remarkably detailed analysis of the history and future of hybrid automobiles (while nominally only available for subscribers, FuelCellWorks.com has reprinted the article in its entirety; this may be a "read it while you can" situation). The piece is notable for several reasons: a clear explanation of the differences between different hybrid vehicle technologies; a digression into the history of Toyota's clean vehicle research leading to the Prius; and a discussion of the plausibility of diesel-based hybrid cars. I've been following the evolution of green vehicle technology for awhile, and I still learned a lot from this article.

    The article also describes a next generation hybrid technology referred to as a "plug-in hybrid:"

    The next step may be the "plug-in" hybrid, which is not the backwards step its name suggests. Unlike the electric cars of the 1990s, none of today's hybrids needs to be plugged in - but if plugging were an option it would be a good idea. Andrew Frank and his team at the University of California Davis' Hybrid Electric Vehicle Centre are working exclusively on plug-in hybrids, which can operate as pure-electric vehicles over short distances (up to 60 miles, with a large enough battery pack) but can switch to a hybrid system when needed. Since the average American driver travels about 30 miles a day, plug-in hybrids could be recharged overnight, when electricity is cheaper to produce, and need never use petrol at all, except on longer trips.

    According to studies carried out by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit organisation based in Palo Alto, California, plug-in hybrids could be one of the cleanest and most efficient kinds of car.

    The plug-in hybrid seems a good solution for the "usually drive less than 30, want to drive more than 300" problem -- drivers who regularly use their cars only for short trips, but don't want to be limited to only short trips.

    How Do We Know That CO2 Increases Come From Human Activity?

    RealClimate has an interesting post up today explaining how climatologists can say with some certainty that the observed increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere comes from human activity. The IPCC report goes into detail about many of the lines of reasoning, but RealClimate adds another scientific argument. The article is a bit technical -- enough so that the author has noted that it needs a rewrite -- but makes sense if you follow the reasoning. Let me break it down:

    Continue reading "How Do We Know That CO2 Increases Come From Human Activity?" »

    Why Leapfrogging Matters

    Leapfrogging is not just a developmental issue, it's also an environmental issue. As long as developing nations rely on greenhouse-gas-heavy power and industrial technologies, the worse off they'll be as they develop. We're already seeing this happen. Of the top six greenhouse gas producing countries, three are considered "developing" nations: China, at #2; India, at #5; and Brazil, at #6. Furthermore:

    ...between 1990 and 2000, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew by 69 percent in India, 57 percent in Brazil and 33 percent in China.

    Argentina and the EU are crafting an agreement involving cash incentives and technology transfers to push the developing world towards sustainable energy and industrial technologies. Let's hope this assisted leapfrog plan works.

    December 18, 2004

    Give My Creation... LIFE!

    What if you could create life in a test tube?

    The BBC reports work done at the Rockefeller University which comes closer than ever to just that. Vincent Noireaux and Albert Libchaber, at the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology at New York's Rockefeller University, have constructed what they call "vesicle bioreactors" which can express genes and have crude cell-like parts.

    The soft cell walls are made of fat molecules taken from egg white. The cell contents are an extract of the common gut bug E. coli, stripped of all its genetic material.

    This essence of life contains ready-made much of the biological machinery needed to make proteins; the researchers also added an enzyme from a virus to allow the vesicle to translate DNA code.

    When they added genes, the cell fluid started to make proteins, just like a normal cell would.

    A gene for green fluorescent protein taken from a species of jellyfish was the first they tried. The glow from the protein showed that the genes were being transcribed.

    The researchers published their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; the article requires a paid subscription, but a free abstract is available here.

    The researchers go out of their way to state that these are not living organisms, and are just biological machines which happen to replicate many of the functions of living organisms. Even taking their claims at face value, it's clear that we're not too far from being able to construct entirely new organisms in laboratories, and have made significant progress along those lines since the last time we mentioned synthetic biology here on WorldChanging.

    If ever there was a situation that called for the precautionary principle, this is it. But I would like to see a real application of precautionary analysis, not simply knee-jerk prohibition. Wholly synthetic creations may actually be a safer pathway than altering more complex extant organisms when it comes to efforts in bioremediation or the like, and a precautionary approach should pay attention to those possibilities. Simpler organisms would have fewer opportunities for unexpected interactions and outcomes, for example, and "kill switch" genes (making the synthetic cell require a rare resource to survive, for example) would be easier to introduce. Synthetic biology has obvious potential dangers, and these should not be underestimated, but no one should assume that the only possible outcomes from this kind of research is negative.

    Solar Powered Water Purification

    Alt-Energy Blog points us to an article about the use of solar powered water purifiers on the island of Kulhudhuffushi, in the Maldives. Starting in January, 2005, a set of off-grid systems will start producing bottled drinking water for the island's inhabitants; the government of the Maldives has identified twenty some islands as candidates for these systems.

    The units use solar power to draw the water up from brackish sources below the surface and pass it through a system of reverse osmosis units to remove all pathogens, metals and dissolved solids, using just 20% of the power of a standard reverse osmosis unit.

    Each unit can produce 500 litres of water per day from a single 100 Watt (1 square metre) solar panel.

    Solar Energy Systems Infrastructure, the company making the systems for the Maldive government, plans on introducing the technology to other off-grid islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. One would presume that being on an island is not a prerequisite for the use of this technology; any location with a combination of brackish water and abundant sunlight would suffice. As access to clean water is far and away the most important development issue around, leapfrog technology like this could indeed be worldchanging.

    December 19, 2004

    The Week In Green Design

    Each week, Justin Thomas of Metaefficient gives us a peek into new finds in sustainable design. Metaefficient "searches out products that we believe are more effective and healthier for individuals and the world, yet are comparable in price to mainstream products." We're glad to feature the best of what Justin's found lately, here on Worldchanging:

    100% Corn-Based Packaging Now In Use

    Cargill Dow's
    line of 100% corn-based bioplastic "NatureWorks Packaging" is now being used by a number of food companies to package fresh produce and salads. Dow Chemicals, a partner in the Cargill Dow company, has a questionable environmental and ethical track record. However, the Natureworks product is making breakthroughs for bioplastic into the food packaging marketplace. For example, Del Monte Fresh Produce is converting from PET containers to NatureWorks PLA packaging for fresh-cut pineapple, melons and fruit & vegetable medleys. Newman’s Own Organics will offer several organic salad varieties in two-piece, rigid tubs made from NatureWorks PLA. Club Fresh is using NatureWorks PLA for cut melon, fruit mixes & diced vegetables. We hope to see more manufacturers adopt biodegradeable packaging soon.

    LED Christmas Lights
    Energy Efficient LED Xmas Lights

    These LED lights extremely energy efficient and are replacements for the those fallible conventional Christmas lights. LED Christmas lights are bright, don't burn out or break and are cool to the touch.

    Reclaimed Wood Furniture
    Reclaimed Wood Funiture

    These attractive tables and chairs are designed by Scrapile. They are made of reclaimed scraps of wood from local wood shops. The unique texture comes from the combination of the various types of wood that is recovered. Scrapile is run by Brooklyn-based designers Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt. For more information contact: Carlos Salgado.

    December 20, 2004

    More Holiday Greenery

    Alex listed some green/sustainable/enviro-friendly holiday presents ideas yesterday; here's more. Wired News takes on the greenish gift theme, coming up with some interesting options along with the unsurprising hemp granola stuff. My pick for the WorldChanging favorite on the Wired list? The same ones mentioned by our own Dawn Danby a year ago: the Thames & Kosmos science kits covering alternative energy and fuel cells. Now to hook them up to my Mindstorms and DNA Explorer to create a sustainably-powered gene sequencing robot...

    FCX Street Legal

    Honda's FCX, its experimental fuel cell based car, is now legal to drive on the streets of Japan. This is the second-generation fuel cell model, as the earlier version had a hard time with cold weather. The work to get the fuel cells working in freezing conditions had the useful side effect of increasing their overall efficiency by 20%.

    Interestingly, second generation Honda FCX cars could already be found on the road -- but in the US. Last month, Green Car Congress reported that the state of New York took delivery of two cold weather FCX for testing, joining several cities in California and the Los Angeles region's South Coast Air Quality Management District. That brought the number of FCX on the road in the US to a dozen; let's see how many now show up in Japan.

    Energy Leapfrogging

    reap.jpgOur friend James at the Alternative Energy Blog gives us a good example of the interconnection between leapfrogging and sustainability. Cambodia has the lowest level of electrification in Southeast Asia, with only 13 percent of rural citizens and 54 percent of urban residents with electricity. For a variety of geographic reasons, building a centralized power grid is an enormously expensive proposition. Instead, Cambodia is embarking on an ambitious plan to bring electricity to 100% of its rural population by 2020 by using a decentralized grid -- and by relying on micro- and pico-hydroelectricity, biomass and solar photovoltaics.

    The goals are outlined in the draft Cambodian Renewable Energy Action Plan (REAP). While the plan is not yet complete, some details are available at the Cambodia Renewable Energy & Rural Electrification website. REAP targets for the next five years include:

  • 6 MW (around 5%) of electrical supply capacity from Renewable Energy sources;
  • 100,000 households served;
  • 10,000 solar (PV) home systems;
  • The creation of profitable, demand-driven renewable electricity markets.

    Energy Probe Research Foundation, a Canadian environmental group, undertook a detailed analysis (free subscription required) of Cambodia's renewable plans late last year. REAP's key conclusions read like an energy leapfrog checklist:

  • Continue reading "Energy Leapfrogging" »

    December 21, 2004

    Neural Interfaces

    One of the classic tropes of 80s cyberpunk is "jacking in" -- connecting one's neural interface from a hardware-augmented brain to the computer networks at large. The neural interface was one of those science fiction technologies that made for good stories, but as a real-world development, it raised all sorts of questions. Who'd want to go through the surgery for that? What about upgrading when better technology came out? And who's going to beta test the thing?!?

    Well, get ready, because we're about to get some answers.

    Cyberkinetics, a Massachusetts company, has launched the first human trials of their new BrainGate neural interface. This won't be for console cowboys trying to make their big cyberspace break, but for the physically disabled needing communication and activity.

    The System could potentially be used to help increase the independence of people with disabilities by allowing them to control various devices with their thoughts. Through their control of a personal computer, users of the BrainGate™ System may be able to control a variety of devices to complete everyday tasks such as composing an email, answering the telephone and controlling a television...

    The principle of operation of the BrainGate™ Neural Interface System is that with intact brain function, neural signals are generated even though they are not sent to the arms, hands and legs.   These signals are interpreted by the System and a cursor is shown to the user on a computer screen that provides an alternate "BrainGate pathway".   The user can use that cursor to control the computer, just as a mouse is used.

    Not surprisingly, the other probable candidate for early adoption of this technology is the military.

    All the usual caveats apply regarding experimental technology, but the chances are good that the BrainGate (or something very much like it) will eventually be a mechanism for the severely physically disabled to continue to be productive and engaged with the world. And while it's undoubtedly enormously expensive now, there's no reason why such systems wouldn't be just as subject to Moore's Law as any other digital device. Within a decade of its initial release, the costliest part of a neural interface would likely be the surgery.

    While assistive technology for the disabled quite often picks up mainstream uses, I don't see too many people choosing to go under the knife for an implant. The reason is the combination of the risks of surgery and the continued improvement of the technology. Who'd want to choose between being stuck using (effectively) the first computer they ever get and having brain surgery every couple of years? I suspect that the next step in the technology -- driven both by mainstream users and the desire to bring down implementation costs -- will be a non-invasive version, able to pick up on changes in brain electrical activity without opening the skull. And then make it wireless...

    (Via CybDem)

    Metal Rubber

    In the "this could be big, but not just yet" department is Metal Rubber.

    Metal Rubber, a filmy brown material that can extend to three times its original length and conduct electricity as well as a bar of steel...

    Few major companies have yet stepped up to announce any official plans for the novel new polymer, but SRI International may experiment with Metal Rubber to construct artificial muscles and astronomical mirrors, and reports say that Lockheed Martin is using it to create aircraft wings with more give.

    Yet, there are huge potential ramifications for everything from jet liners to medical devices. Think flexible circuits and displays that take your laptop and cell phone to the next level of shock resistance. Or artificial limbs that can bend like their real counterparts.

    Of course, what immediately came to mind for me was the application of a flexible conductive material to wearable fabric computers. The furoshiki future gets closer every day.

    December 22, 2004

    Alternative Energy in Germany

    bavsol.jpgThe world's biggest solar power plant went online in Mulhausen, Germany this month, putting out 6.3 megawatts of power. The plant is part of a set of facilities in Bavaria which produce a total of 10 megawatts of power using 57,600 silicon solar panels, built by the Berkeley, California, PowerLight corporation. (PowerLight also built the solar array on top of San Francisco's Moscone Center.) Another 10 megawatts will be coming online soon in a four-location project funded by Michelin. Beyond solar, Germany is also the world's leading producer of wind power, with over 16,000 windmills; power generation capacity from wind amounted to 14,609 megawatts in 2003, up from 334 megawatts in 1993. Renewable power sources currently produce more than 10 percent of the nation's energy, a level which is supposed to double by 2020 and reach 50% by 2050. It will likely improve faster that that -- as of projections from 2000, the 10% point wasn't supposed to happen until 2010.

    This explosion in the use of renewable energy has been driven by the German Renewable Energy Law (EEG), passed in 2000 and updated earlier this year (PDF). The EEG guarantees that, for a limited time, the nation's electric utilities must buy all wind, solar and other renewable power at a price per kilowatt-hour higher than that of power generated from coal, nuclear or natural gas. Currently, the rate for solar is ten times that of traditional energy sources. Interestingly, the law stipulates that the utilities must buy the power whether generated by commercial, industrial or residential generators. This contrasts to the situation in places like California, where residences with solar connected to the grid can zero out their power bill, but don't receive payment for power fed into the grid.

    As noted, these higher prices aren't set in stone. Recognizing that improvements in technology will drive generation costs down, the tariff bonuses paid to solar, wind and biomass will decline gradually over time. For onshore wind, the bonus period is five years; for offshore, it's twelve. Solar, which isn't yet as close as wind to being fully-competitive, gets twenty years. In addition, the added tariff for solar will not apply to any facilities built after the national installed solar capacity gets to 350 megawatts; this tariff structure has the effect of encouraging solar power installation as early as possible in order to take advantage of the higher rates. The rate structure is also divided up by size, with higher rates generally going to smaller facilities, expressly to encourage the development of diverse, decentralized power production. (A detailed analysis of the 2000 version of the plan is available here.)

    Germany's economy is still shaky from the integration of East Germany, and while 80% of the German public supports Germany's active participation in the Kyoto regime, higher energy prices (which include an added 3 euro cents per liter gasoline tax) aren't very popular. This law is very much an investment in the future. Likely economic benefits of the EEG may take some time to come: carbon credits to sell to less-aggressive nations; expertise in renewable technology implementation; and possibly the most important, insulation against price shocks as oil becomes harder to find and the negative effect of fossil fuels becomes even more obvious.

    We'd like to thank the Academy, and our Mothers -- We Won an Utne!

    Wow! We just found out -- WorldChanging was selected by Utne Magazine as their 2004 Independent Press Award winner for Best Online Cultural Coverage.


    Driven by a vision of progressive collaboration and reform, WorldChanging explores the democratizing potential of modern technology with sharp insight and unwavering idealism.

    Thank you, Utne. And thank you, WorldChanging readers, for inspiring all of us here to do our very best to show that another world is, indeed, here.

    December 23, 2004

    Dale Carrico on the Trouble with Transhumanism

    One of the hats I wear is Global Health and Development Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. It's no secret that the founders of IEET (as well as many of its Fellows and supporters) openly describe themselves as "transhumanists;" this concept, in turn, troubles some people who might otherwise sympathize with the Institute's aims. As it happens, I'm uncomfortable with the term, as well.

    WorldChanging friend (and fellow IEET Fellow) Dale Carrico, in his Progressive Futures column at the futurist/technology site BetterHumans, makes a persuasive case that the use of the term "transhumanist" is dangerously confusing, inaccurate, and ultimately not in the interest of those who would promote the socially-beneficial use of new technologies. (Disclosure: Dale shared earlier drafts of this essay with me, and I responded with comments and suggestions, some of which are reflected in the final version.) The Trouble With Transhumanism (Part One and Part Two) argue that "transhumanism" undercuts the outcomes-orientation of those who would support progressive technologies, but feel either excluded from or disturbed by the identity focus of the term. I agree very much with his perspective, although I'm more willing to jettison the term entirely than he is.

    I would encourage you to read Dale's pair of essays, even if you have no interest in "transhumanism" as a concept. The tension between identity and outcome is found in nearly every activist community (e.g., "environmentalist" or "feminist"), and the question of what technology-progressivism entails is relevant to many WorldChanging discussions. You may not agree with his perspective on human nature or human modification, but his larger arguments are important to consider.

    Voyage Into Space

    esamars2.jpgTwo tangentially related space items today -- one about Mars, the other Saturn, both from the ESA.

    If you've paid any attention to space news over the past year, you know that NASA landed two rovers on Mars; these have been sending back fascinating images and data about the Martian geology and environment. If you have followed the news a bit more closely, you probably heard that the European Space Agency also sent a lander to Mars this year -- Beagle II, named after the ship that carried Darwin -- only to have it smack unceremoniously into the Martian surface. But it seems only real Areophiles know about Mars Express, the ESA orbiter that carried the ill-fated Beagle II. Mars Express continues to work just fine, thank you very much, and has been sending back some of the best color images of Mars I've ever seen, along with some potentially revolutionary data.

    Continue reading "Voyage Into Space" »

    IDFuel On Sustainable Design

    It must be the "write articles in pairs" season. Dominic Muren, at the always-interesting design size IDFuel, has a terrific pair of articles on how "rebellious" (e.g., anti-capitalist) trends can lead to greater consumption, which in turn pushes towards less-sustainable design -- and what designers can do about it. Rebels Without The Cause We Think (Part One and Part Two) may make you feel a bit guilty, but should also give you a bit of hope about the future course of product design.

    December 27, 2004

    Tsunami Animation and Information

    tsu.jpgThe US Geological Survey has a link to an animation of the course of yesterday's Indian Ocean tsunami created by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (650K download). Each frame is a ten-minute interval; the whole thing covers the first 180 minutes of the tsunami. It's a vivid demonstration of how long it takes for a tsunami to travel -- and why early warning systems can be so valuable.

    The International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific has crafted FAQ and Tsunami Safety Rules pages in reaction to the Indian Ocean event. Since tsunamis can happen at any time -- an earthquake is all that's needed -- anyone living close to the water should keep these guidelines in mind.

    December 28, 2004

    The Tsunami Next Time

    Can we prevent the next Tsunami 2004-type disaster?

    We can't stop earthquakes from happening. We can't block or dispel tsunamis before they hit shore. What we can do is prevent the kind of loss of life seen this week.

    Moreover, many of the steps we can take to mitigate the danger of tsunamis would also save lives in other disasters. The two key factors? Ones we return to time and again on WorldChanging: How do we gather information? How do we communicate it?

    In this case, we do well with the former. It's in communicating that we fail. But solutions are possible -- worldchanging solutions.

    Continue reading "The Tsunami Next Time" »

    December 29, 2004

    Asteroids, Tsunamis, and Knowing When To Shout

    impact.jpgThe December 26 tsunami was a deadly reminder that even exceedingly rare natural events can happen, and can have devastating results. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that warnings could have been issued and responded to, but the systems to do so weren't available. But around the same time, we came very close to having a second reminder, one which could have led to an even more terrible result.

    On December 23, astronomers noted that asteroid 2004 MN4, which orbits the Sun near the Earth, had a 1-in-300 chance of hitting the Earth in April of 2029. This corresponded to a rating on the Torino Scale of 2 -- a slight chance of impact, with widespread regional damage if it happened. The Torino Scale was developed as a way of putting asteroid strike possibility announcements in context, to make sure that the level of risk -- so far, always quite low -- was clear. Every time a possible asteroid hit has been announced, refined study of the rock's orbit over the subsequent few days eliminated the possibility, lowering the Torino Scale rating to 0.

    Late on December 24, the Torino Scale rating of 2004 MN4 was upped to 4, with a 1-in-60 chance of hitting the Earth. On December 26, the 1-in-60 chance was quietly increased to 1-in-37. While still a 97% chance of missing the Earth, the Torino 4 rating was by far the highest level ever given to a potential impact. Finally, on December 27, astronomers were able to refine the asteroid's orbit sufficiently to determine that 2004 MN4 will miss the Earth in 2029, albeit only by a few tens of thousands of miles.

    Continue reading "Asteroids, Tsunamis, and Knowing When To Shout" »

    Satellite Before-and-After

    srilanka.jpgDigitalGlobe has made available high-resolution satellite images of Sri Lanka beaches taken both before and during the tsunami flooding. While the individual stories and videos of the disaster bring home the personal tragedies, sometimes the big picture is necessary to grasp the scale of the devastation. The images are natural color photos at 2-foot resolution (that is, each pixel shows about 2 feet); the details are simultaneously impressive and heartbreaking. DigitalGlobe has also decided to make the images available for free use, as long as conspicuous credit is given.

    Rohit and Dina on The World

    rohit.jpgWorldChangers Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta were featured in a radio segment on today's edition of The World, a co-production of Public Radio International and the BBC. They're talking about the role blogs have played in distributing information about the South Asia tsunami. You can listen to the segment online, from The World's website (Windows Media). It's great to hear their voices.

    I am convinced that the tsunami has been the transformative event for blogs, and I am proud that worldchanging contributors have played such a key role in making blogs a medium with real weight and value. Rohit and Dina's work at The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami website, along with the work of their colleagues, has been remarkable and inspiring. Thank you, Dina. Thank you, Rohit. You've done us all proud.

    (Thank you, Ramdhan Kotamaraja, for bringing the radio segment to our attention!)

    Update: The radio segment is also a text piece at the BBC News website. For those of you who couldn't or didn't want to listen on Windows Media format, now's your chance to read what Rohit and Dina (and others) had to say. You don't get to hear their voices, but it is more readily quoted for posterity.

    December 30, 2004

    Earthquake Info

    Aftershocks in the South Asia region continue, and while seismologists don't anticipate another 9.0-scale earthquake there in the immediate future, some of the quakes which have happened over the last couple of days have been pretty strong.

    If you're interested in keeping track of what's happening under the ground, the best resource is the US Geological Survey earthquake website. They have maps of all quakes around the world as well as frequently-updated lists of earthquake activity. There's a lot going on right now. Today's earthquakes measuring greater than 5.0 (so far):

    5.9 2004/12/30 17:58:09 ANDAMAN ISLANDS, INDIA REGION

    5.5 2004/12/30 17:34:44 NICOBAR ISLANDS, INDIA REGION

    5.1 2004/12/30 13:29:45 NEAR THE EAST COAST OF HONSHU, JAPAN

    5.5 2004/12/30 04:27:37 NORTHERN SUMATRA, INDONESIA

    5.6 2004/12/30 01:04:51 OFF THE WEST COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA

    The Architecture for Humanity/WorldChanging Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal

    We've been working to bring you both useful information and insightful thinking on the unfolding tsunami disaster these last few days. But words don't house people.

    That's why we teamed up with Architecture for Humanity on December 27 to launch the AfH/WC Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal. Our initial goal? To raise $10,000 by the end of the year.

    Much to our delight and gratitude, the response to our joint appeal has been phenomenal. WorldChanging readers contributed far more than our original target -- over $25,000.

    Which makes us think that together we can do even better.

    This is an opportunity to do something big. As Cameron noted in his Fund Update, Architecture for Humanity and WorldChanging now want to raise $100,000 by the end of the year. Our original goal of $10,000 could build a school; $25,000 could build a medical clinic. But $100,000 can change the destiny of a town. As before, all money raised will go to reconstruction.

    This last week has demonstrated that the WorldChanging community -- readers, writers, allies -- are not only smart and caring, but enormously generous. Please join us in taking this extra step in proving that another world is in fact here.

    The WorldChanging Team

    Disaster-Secure Design

    WorldChanging ally W. David Stephenson, who specializes in distributed security strategies, crafted a list of what he would consider the ten key elements of an effective security model. It struck me as I read his list that most of these are precisely what would be needed for a distributed, reliable warning and response system for any kind of emergency, including natural disasters.

    In Stephenson's model, the system elements should:

  • Also have day-in-day-out applications so that they will both be familiar in an emergency (i.e., not requiring users to have to learn something new when they're already stressed) and will have economic and/or social benefits so their purchase and deployment are more easily justified.
  • Be decentralized, so they are less likely to be rendered inoperative by attacks on a centralized switching facility, etc.
  • Be in the hands of the general public, so they leverage technology that is already in use (and, given the inevitable cost and procurement limits of government technology, more current) and that people are likely to have with them when disaster strikes, so they can get up-to-the minute information.
  • Be location-based, so that we can get away from lowest-common denominator evacuation and response plans that are likely to cause their own problems such as traffic jams.
  • Empower the public, because authorities may themselves be incapacitated and our fate will be in our own hands, and because we may be more likely to listen to trusted friends and/or neighbors than distant authorities.
  • Be two-way, so that the general public and/or responders who may be the first to come upon an emerging problem can feed information back to authorities.
  • Be redundant, because various technologies have distinctive strengths and liabilities that may render them unusable, or, make them crucial fall-back options.
  • Allow dissemination of information in advance, so they can be quickly activated and/or customized in an emergency (instead of requiring massive data-dumps in the midst of a crisis).
  • Be IP based, because packet-based information will require less bandwidth in a situation where conserving it is crucial.
  • Foster collaboration, because multiple agencies and jurisdictions may be involved and will need to share information from a wide range of sources on a real-time basis.
  • If you replace the word "attacks on" in the second item with the more general "damage to," you have an excellent starting checklist for what a disaster response system would need. The emphasis on the empowerment of the public as both users of and contributors to the workings of the system is particularly important. We all have a responsibility to look out for each other, and -- as examples from open source to election protection show -- informed, aware groups can often do what centralized authorities cannot.

    As nice as a 10 point list is, however, it's missing a few important elements; design needs don't always fit into nice round numbers. We've frequently discussed ideas and models of sustainable, long-term, functional design here. Drawing from some of them, we can flesh out some of the other points a smart, modern disaster-secure system would need to cover.

    Continue reading "Disaster-Secure Design" »

    December 31, 2004

    Radio, Radio

    Turnabout is fair play, I suppose, so tomorrow Dr. James Hughes will interview me -- on his radio show, Changesurfer Radio. We'll be talking about WorldChanging, emerging technologies, and how to embrace the new ethically. The show starts at 5:30 pm EST; for those of you not in Connecticut but still interested in listening in fascinated horror, it will apparently be available in streaming radio on WHUS. Audio archives will also be available afterwards; I'll link to them if I don't embarrass myself.

    Energy Leapfrogging in Morocco

    morocco.jpg(Note for new readers: We'll continue to post tsunami-related analysis today and in coming days, but we're going to start shifting back towards the broader scope of issues we cover here at WorldChanging. We hope you find our coverage of models, tools, and ideas for building a better future interesting and useful.)

    The Alternative Energy Blog points us to a set of articles at ArabicNews.com about the current status of renewable energy in Morocco. We've noted before the potential for abundant use of wind and solar power in the developing world, and Morocco seems to be taking tentative steps towards greater reliance on renewable energy. As with other developing countries, solar power is of particular value in rural electrification; it currently is 3 percent of the rural electricity mix, but is on track to be 8-10 percent by 2007-2008. Solar is also being used in urban settings, with an emphasis on solar water heating. The number of solar water heaters jumped from 20,738 in 1998 to 111,332 in 2004. Part of the jump in use can be attributed to a 1999 UNDP-coordinated program supporting the deployment of solar heaters and solar power collectors.

    The big renewable push, however, is in wind power. Morocco is ideally-located for wind farms, and Moroccan wind farms generated 203 gigawatt-hours in 2003, up from 194 GWH in 2002 and just under 64 GWH in 2000. (Pictures of one of the Moroccan wind farms, run by a company called Sahara Wind, can be found here.) Two more wind farms are scheduled to come online in 2006 and 2007.

    About December 2004

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

    November 2004 is the previous archive.

    January 2005 is the next archive.

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

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