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January 2005 Archives

January 2, 2005

This Week in Green Design, 1/2

Every Sunday, Justin Thomas of Metaefficient brings us the best in the week's green design breakthroughs. Here's 2005's first installment:

LED Floodlights

Enlux, a company in Arizona, has created floodlights built from LEDs. They did this by removing the diodes from their individual plastic housings and clustering them on a heat-dissipating circuit board, known as a light engine. They also created finned aluminum housing that spreads the heat across its surface. The 22-watt floodlight ($80) gives off about as much brightness as a 45- to 65-watt incandescent bulb. The real energy efficient comes in with the colored floodlights, which are ten times as efficient as their incadescent counterparts.

Human-Powered Snow Thrower

This new snow throwing tool, called a "Whovel", uses your body weight to lift and throw snow and slush. After suffering repeated back injuries, the company founder began working on snow removal designs that could reduce back injuries, while avoiding the many problems associated with gas-powered snow blowers.

Solar Shower

This looks interesting — it's a solar shower that heats 5 1/2 gallons of water with a built-in solar collector. Created in Europe, the imported shower is able to heat water to 140°F in 1-2 hours in sunny weather. The manufacturer claims that the shower is capable of capturing heat from the ambient temperature in the air on hot, but cloudy days. It hooks up to a regular garden hose, and allow you to adjust the water temperature from warm to cold (cold water is delivered directly via the garden hose).

Tsunami: What Happened

When something as wide-ranging and devastating as the South Asia tsunami happens, it's easy to get lost in the abundance of stories, rumors and details. WikiPedia has done a masterful job of bringing together and keeping current the facts of the event, and SEA-EAT, of course, continues to collect massive amounts of information on the recovery and relief process. But one of the best overviews I've found so far is at the New York Times website -- it's not as granular as Wikipedia nor as encyclopedic as SEA-EAT, but it's richly illustrated with dozens of powerful photographs, helpful maps, and occasional informative animations (requires Flash). If you're looking for a clear capsule depiction of what happened, the NYT page is a good place to start.


NetHope is a non-profit global collaboration between international NGOs seeking to use information and communication technologies as a force for good. They make a device called the NetReliefKit -- shown to the right -- which can best be thought of as "communications hub in a box" for NGOs in the field. Rugged, it can provide both voice communication and Internet links via satellite, and can be powered by a car battery. It has built-in WiFi, making it possible for a single NRK to serve an entire facility.

NRKs are designed specifically for use by NGOs engaged in disaster relief efforts, and will be deployed in in the tsunami zone starting next week, starting with Banda Aceh in Indonesia, then in Cuddalore and Andaman in India, then Ampara and Mullattivu in Sri Lanka. This deployment is a joint project of NetHope, Cisco, CGNET and Inmarsat. NetHope has been testing the NRK in the field -- they were used in relief efforts in response to the earthquake in Bam, Iran -- and the FAQ document (PDF) reflects something of their work-in-progress.

Red Herring has an interesting article on the use of wireless and satellite technology as a tool for disaster relief:

“A satellite signal is particularly useful in a desperate situation,” says Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. Ms. Ask says that using a satellite signal to create a core to a wireless network, and then deploying wi-fi access or extending the range through a mesh network, would be an ideal way to get information infrastructure to residents and first responders. Users could access the wi-fi connection for VoIP or data services, and because of the high bandwidth, the network could move data-rich content like maps of the terrain, schematics of buildings, or satellite photos of the landscape.

NetHope was founded in 2001, and includes a number of well-known NGOs and IT companies as members and partners. On their webpage describing the services they provide, I was particularly pleased to see this entry:

NetHope focuses on solutions that have major local content in terms of service and support to ensure long term sustainability of our deployments. NetHope develops in-country chapters; fosters technical interaction; and holds training courses in-country or regionally in advance of deployments.

As we've said, leapfrogging can be key to the long-term recovery of the affected nations. It's good to see tools such as the NetReliefKit, intended for aid agencies, can also be designed to help facilitate the leapfrogging process.

(Thank you to W. David Stephenson for bringing this to our attention!)

January 3, 2005

India: Nanotech, Leapfrogging, and Irreverent Science

Nanotechnology has all of the earmarks of being a key leapfrog pathway. Advances rely more on brainpower than industrial might, and the economic potential of molecular manufacturing -- a form of nanotech that has not yet arrived, but is getting closer rapidly -- is astounding. It's no surprise, then, that not only are developing nations putting money into nanotechnology research, they're doing it with an eye towards longer-term payoffs, not simply nanomaterial production. New Kerala has an article about Indian Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal's announcement of a new nanotechnology "mission" for the Indian government. India has already invested Rs 50 crore (about $11.5 million, if I got my Indian number translation correct) in a new Centre of Nano Bio-technology, located in Chandigarh.

Sibal's statement accompanying the nanotechnology mission announcement is worth quoting in full:

"While the scientific community will make efforts to provide solutions in resolving issues. I hope to provide the necessary enabling environment for you.

"For the scientific community I pledge to do the following. Bring autonomy in their functioning, for only those who are irreverent of the past in the scientific sense, will guide the future.

"Invest in Human Resource Development and expand the skilled human resource base to meet the needs of technology for industry, academia and research and development institutions.

"Provide a suitable regulatory mechanism for an effective bio-technology policy.

"Strengthen the management system for intellectual property rights including awareness, modernization of the patent office; providing for an effective system of enforcement of such rights and helping educational institutions and small industries in protecting their intellectual property.

"Provide for an effective public private partnership in R&D and technology based industries.

"Set National Missions in nano-technology, transport intelligence systems, technology development for judicial re-engineering. Eradication of malnutrition and discovery of curative and preventive medicine for malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis."

That sounds like laying the groundwork for one hell of a leap.

(Via Howard Lovy's Nanobot)

Transparent Electronics

Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a new kind of material which should enable the creation of transparent electronic devices. Unlike many other recent breakthroughs, these do not use carbon nanotubes or the like; they are, in fact, entirely inorganic, and are most closely related to zinc oxide transistors. This means that the technology for production is already fairly advanced, lowering the ultimate cost of making devices using this new technology. In addition, much to the surprise of researchers, high quality transistors can be made at just above room temperature -- today's components are often made at 700-1,100 degrees centigrade.

Transparent electronics could have a wide array of applications, from vehicle windshields able to display warnings and directional information to improvements in copy machines and solar cells. And the applications to participatory panopticon-related technologies are pretty obvious...

Eye of Science

killzell.jpgOne of the often under-appreciated aspects of science is its ability to show us the striking, alien beauty of the world around us. We're somewhat familiar with pictures from space; images from the Hubble telescope adorn office and dorm walls around the world. Less familiar are images from the micro-world -- detailed depictions of insects, fungus, electronics, even bacteria and viruses. These, too, can be awe-inspiring.

The photographers at Eye of Science have set out to make certain that we know just how amazing the micro-world can be. Working with electron microscopes, computertomographic equipment, and high-end Macintoshes, Oliver Meckes and Nicole Ottowa have been doing scientific photography for over a decade. Their philosophy -- mixing scientific fact and an artistic eye -- results in some of the most jaw-dropping images I've seen in a long while. Prints and calendars are available, but their site itself is worth spending a half-hour exploring. These are breathtaking pictures, composed with grace and beauty. And they are all around us, even if we can't see them.

(Via Josh Rubin's Cool Hunting)

Tropical Disease Initiative

moskito.jpgThe "Free/Open Source" model could be as revolutionary in the world of biological science as it has been in the world of software. We've the notion of open source biomedical research a number of times here, and expect the idea to be of increasing importance in the coming years. An open source approach to biological research offers significant leapfrog potential, as scientists in the developing world could participate in the research and get unrestricted access to what has been learned, and local companies and governments could produce the resulting medicines. And just as free/open source software fills niches ignored or awkwardly approached by proprietary software, a distributed, collaborative, transparent process of biomedical development can take on health challenges that pharmaceutical corporations have determined to be unprofitable. Perhaps the most glaring example of this category of medical research is the realm of tropical diseases: malaria, dengue fever, African sleeping sickness -- fatal diseases, rampant in the developing world, but for which cures offer little profit.

The Tropical Disease Initiative seeks cures for these "orphan" illnesses using an open source research and development model. Started by Dr. Andrej Sali, professor of Biopharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UC San Francisco, TDI will combine the efforts of hundreds of volunteer researchers from around the globe, focusing on the application of computational biology and chemistry on drug discovery (see the extended entry for a graph illustrating the TDI process). Dr. Sali, along with Stephen M. Maurer (professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) and Arti Rai (from the School of Law at Duke University), details the open source research process in a new article entitled "Finding Cures for Tropical Diseases: Is Open Source an Answer?", freely available at PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal:

Continue reading "Tropical Disease Initiative" »

January 4, 2005


We don't often talk about advertising here, but this banner ad -- I won't tell you who it's for, as it will spoil the ending, but WorldChanging readers will appreciate the cause -- is simple, powerful, and an excellent use of interactive media. It's a "hangman" game in Flash: click on the letters to try to spell the phrase, and when you guess wrong, gallows are gradually built and a man is hanged (a rather morbid game, admittedly). Check it out.

Biomimetic Adhesives -- The Lessons of the Gecko

gecko.jpgAs far as lizards go, geckos are pretty amazing. Terrifically successful -- there are 850 different gecko species -- the gecko body is also quite energy-efficient. One species, the Frog Eyed Gecko from the Gobi desert, can move more than three times as far per unit energy than other creatures of similar size. But what makes geckos truly amazing is their uncanny ability to stick to pretty much any surface. Gecko feet adhesion "leaves no residue, is directional, detaches without measurable forces, is self-cleaning, and works underwater, in a vacuum, and on nearly every surface material and profile." In 2002, biologist Kellar Autumn at Lewis & Clark University in Oregon discovered that the adhesion came from van der Waals Forces, minute molecular-scale attraction, (spider feet work in a similar, albeit simpler, manner). Each gecko foot is covered with millions of tiny hairs, or setae, which branch in to nanoscale tips, or spatulae; each seta is strong enough to lift 20mg. The combined adhesive power of a gecko's four feet is over 90 lbs.

Autumn's lab has continued to work on revealing the secrets of gecko feet, and yesterday unveiled their latest discovery: why gecko feet actually get cleaner in use. It turns out that the solution wasn't in biochemistry, but in biogeometry. The shape and structure of the spatulae will discard small dirt particles even as they continue to adhere to more stable surfaces. The implications of this discovery are wide-ranging. As Autumn puts it:

This means that synthetic self-cleaning adhesives could be fabricated from a wide variety of materials. The possibilities for future applications of a dry, self-cleaning adhesive are enormous. We envision uses for our discovery ranging from nanosurgery to aerospace applications.

Or, as he's quoted in the Times, "We're not talking about just the glue of the future, we're talking about the screw of the future." Working with Ron Fearing at UC Berkeley, Autumn's research has already led to larger-scale synthetic versions of gecko setae. In 2003, they managed to create artificial setae with adhesion on the order of 0.5 Newton per square centimeter; their eventual goal is adhesion force equivalent to gecko setae, 10 Newton per square centimeter.

One feature of systems of millions of tiny attraction points is that they can be both incredibly strong and readily detached. A gecko is able to peel its feet up and run at a good clip, or stand still and be nearly impossible to pull from a window or wall. As Autumn suggests, geckomimetic adhesive could be of enormous value in object construction, as the adhesion force could be quite strong. At the same time, being able to simply peel apart components -- with no chemical residue -- would enhance our ability to design for disassembly, an important part of cradle-to-cradle thinking.

Artificial Intelligence, Real Rights

creation 2.0Should a "thinking" machine have human rights? The question is less absurd -- and less distant -- than some may assume. We may be getting very close to the point of being able to build machines able to emulate (or display, depending upon one's perspective) consciousness. Thinking about what that might imply is useful now, before the reality confronts us, argues Columbia University's Benjamin Soskis in the current edition of Legal Affairs. Moreover, thinking through the details of whether to assign rights to seemingly self-aware machines will allow us to examine other messy ethical issues in ways which give us some emotional distance. Soskis' essay is a detailed, thought-provoking piece, well-researched and illustrative of a variety of perspectives. He doesn't come to any grand conclusions, but he does raise important questions.

There have been no significant recent breakthroughs in AI research to make one think that the R2D2 is just around the corner, but the combination of steady advances in hardware sophistication and new advances in cognitive science suggest that such breakthroughs are entirely possible. As "traditional" approaches to AI have faltered, it's quite possible that a breakthrough will come more as an "aha!" moment, a realization of a new paradigm, rather than as the cumulation of a long history of close-but-not-quite attempts. But even absent Microsoft Conscious Self-Awareness for Windows, there are good reasons to have considered ahead of time what we will and will not accept as "proof" of consciousness, and what limitations there should be on the rights of self-aware non-humans. At the very least, we should be aware of how the idea of self-aware machines can be abused:

Continue reading "Artificial Intelligence, Real Rights" »

January 5, 2005

Top 100 Science Stories

Discover magazine has listed its top 100 stories for 2004. The list of titles (with links to lead paragraphs) is available online; only subscribers get the nitty-gritty. WorldChanging readers, however, already have the low-down on quite a few of them, from spinach as a fuel cell power source (WC post) to the discovery of Sedna, an almost-planet in an orbit beyond Pluto (WC post) to Discover's number one story, the overwhelming evidence for global warming-induced climate change, and the shift in focus from "is it happening?" to "what can we do?" (WC posts here and here and here and here and here and...).

One Earth Year on Mars

One year ago on January 3, the Mars Exploration Rover 1 -- more popularly known as "Spirit" -- landed successfully on Mars. MER 2 -- or "Opportunity" -- has its landing anniversary on January 24. MER 1 & 2 are easily the most successful Mars missions ever, and quite possibly the most successful (in terms of new discoveries made, new technologies tried, and ongoing results) space missions ever. The rovers were only supposed to last three months, and while most of the engineers expected to go well beyond that, few anticipated that both would be this healthy a year out. They've lasted through the worst of the Martian northern hemisphere winter, and spring should give them more sunlight (=more power) to work with. Of course, the year's just half-over on Mars; the Martian year lasts 687 days (Earth days, that is --Mars spins 669 times in the same period). NASA's MER mission site has the scientists' top 10 images from the two rovers, 25 favorite raw images, videos, maps, daily updates and much more information.

The City: The Next Big Venture?

An interesting tidbit popped up this week in the San Jose Mercury News "Silicon Beat" page, which focuses on the doings of the Silicon Valley celebrities, venture capitalists. John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, is particularly well-regarded, and in a Q&A session with reporters, he revealed his big venture play for the future -- infrastructure for cities:

Lately, the firm has started prowling for energy deals, a departure from its traditional focus on information services and healthcare. “That’s a left turn, a new initiative for Kleiner,” he told the audience, made up mostly of other venture capitalists and investors. Most of Kleiner's investments in energy so far are still in stealth. Urbanization will be one of the biggest global trends between now and 2030, Doerr explained, citing several studies including one by the National Academy of Sciences. Asia, in particular, will be creating scores of huge cities, he said. They’ll need clean water, power and transportation.

The site seems to be down at the moment, but the above is the key quote. If anyone was wondering if a renewed focus on urban issues was just a fantasy of environmentalists and design geeks, attention from VCs should disabuse you of that notion.


The urban commuter is an elusive-yet-seductive market, it seems. Recognizing that, for now, electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles (other than hybrids) don't have the range as full-time replacements for gasoline autos, a number of designers have decided to go after the drivers who have a short daily ride to-and-from work, often at speeds well below 50 miles per hour. From electric two-seaters to cars that literally run on air to complete redesigns of the transportation grid, the local commute is widely seen as the best nut to crack to bring alternative transit to the mainstream. Unfortunately, so far there's been little outright success.

The latest attempt to make commuting less environmentally harmful is the personal electric vehicle, or PEV. Often designed as an electric moped or scooter, PEVs are intentionally humble devices in no way seen as a broad-spectrum replacement for cars. Generally speaking, they max out at around 30 miles per hour (and that may require pedaling on top of the motor) and a range of about 10-20 miles on a charge. They're also relatively inexpensive -- as low as a couple hundred dollars for a low-end model, up to $1,500 for a serious electroscooter -- and some are light enough to carry on board a train. A recent New York Times profile is fairly informative about the new generation of electric bikes, their problems, and their potential.


Continue reading "PEVs" »

At Home on the Ice, and Beyond

As Régine reported in November, the British Antarctic Survey is holding a competition, through the auspices of the Royal Institute of British Architects, for the design of their new "Halley 6" habitat. In early November, they narrowed the selection to six; they've now brought the choices down to the final three, and the architects are set to journey to the Antarctic site to begin the last phase of design.

The requirements (PDF) for the habitat were fairly strict. The conditions at the Brunt Ice Shelf, the location of the Halley research station, are extreme, even for Antarctica. High winds are a constant problem, the winter temperature drops well below -50°C, and the "ground" itself is a thick layer of unstable ice. Halley stations 1-4 were crushed by moving ice; Halley 5 (PDF) survives still, but is reaching the end of its usable life, and is expected to float away on broken ice by 2010.

Halley 6 is intended to come online in 2008/9, and must last 20 years. On top of being able to withstand Antarctic conditions, the design needed to be usable, and to meet a variety of treaty-required environmental regulations:

Continue reading "At Home on the Ice, and Beyond" »

January 6, 2005


exxonsecrets.jpgConfidential to those out there who want to make big money and don't care who or what gets hurt along the way: become a climate change "skeptic." There are quite a few well-funded institutions and corporations out there willing to spend quite a bit of cash in the desperate attempt to convince people that climate change isn't happening, if it is it isn't human caused, either way it will be beneficial, there's nothing we can do about it anyway, and anyone who tells you otherwise hates America, capitalism, and probably apple pie, too. These "skeptics" often have lofty or serious-sounding institutions behind them, although these institutions seem to be different every time. And the "skeptics" generally seem to get a lengthy hearing by people in economic and political power. Surely all of that is coincidence, of course.

Continue reading "ExxonSecrets" »

More Energy Leapfrogging

I'm really happy that WorldChanging Ally James at the Alternative Energy Blog is back in full-scale blogging action. Alt-Energy has become the number one place to find good energy leapfrogging stories, and today's offerings are no exception. Two more developing nations are on track to adopt renewable and alternative technology solutions for recurring energy production and distribution problems.

Tanzania, located on the east coast of Africa, is considering the use of wave and tidal power to generate electricity for the island of Zanzibar, replacing old gas turbine generators. Zanzibar currently draws about 31 megawatts of power, well within the capacity of ocean power systems. The current power generation operates at a significant loss; the coastline's strong tides and currents could make this renewable option a better economic choice.


Continue reading "More Energy Leapfrogging" »

London Calling to the Faraway Towns

Jamais at the Tate Feb 2004Much to my delight, once again, I will be heading to London (and, this time, I'll add a brief visit to Paris at the end of it) the last week of January. London is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I haven't been to Paris in almost a decade. This won't be a work trip, per se, and I'll be visiting friends -- but I'll still be carrying out my WorldChanging duties!

So I ask: what WorldChanging exhibits or places or people should I try to check out while I'm there?

I know I'll be hitting the London Design Museum to check out Under a Tenner -- WorldChanger Cameron Sinclair was one of the designers asked to contribute to the exhibit. But what else should I see in London? And on the continent, I'll be staying at WorldChanger Nicole Boyer's flat -- and I'm sure the resulting endless conversations about scenarios, innovation and changing the world will tax the patience of our long-suffering partners. Anyone else I should make a point of looking up for the short visit to Paris?

Leave a comment, or drop me some email...

January 7, 2005

Mike Treder on Nanotech and Poverty

WorldChanging ally Mike Treder, at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, wrote a great short piece today asking hard questions about the role nanotechnology might play in reducing global poverty. He has generously agreed to let us repost in full.

Nanotechnology Priorities
Mike Treder, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Michael Lerner of Tikkun has published a sobering commentary on how funds are spent to relieve suffering. Here is an excerpt:

Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.


Continue reading "Mike Treder on Nanotech and Poverty" »

Before and After, Lined Up

We mentioned Digital Globe's before and after satellite images of the December 26 tsunami. While the images themselves are stark and powerful, the presentation on the Digital Globe site wasn't terribly illuminating. Now a .Mac user has set up a Before and After toggle for 14 of the shots with the geography lined up exactly -- a single click can show exactly what happened.

The pair of pictures of Kalutara Beach, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in particular, is borderline surreal in its horror.

Bioremediator Genome

Wired News and Reuters have details on research done at Cornell analyzing the genome of Dehalococcoides ethenogenes Strain 195, a bacteria able to digest chlorinated solvents. It's currently being used at 17 different locations for toxic waste cleanup. Other strains of the bacteria can process the PCBs and the chemicals underlying DDT. Most interesting is the fact that these bacteria apparently evolved in response to toxic wastes dumped by humans:

In 1997, Cornell University researchers described D. ethenogenes and its ability to clean up chlorinated solvents. Around that same time, DuPont researchers discovered that D. ethenogenes was present at many of their toxic sites. It turns out the bacteria likes to hang out where it can find food, that is, PCE and TCE.

That seems natural until you consider that D. ethenogenes specifically eats PCE and TCE, and the harmful compounds were introduced to the environment only about 60 years ago. The genome sequence suggests that the bacterium has evolved in response to humans dumping the chemicals, Seshadri said.

Sequencing D. ethenogenes DNA should help us (a) better understand how bioremediating bacteria work, (b) figure out ways for them to work more efficiently, and (c) evaluate the possibility of introducing bioremediation capabilities to other organisms.

January 8, 2005

The Best of 2004

wcsun.jpgWe had imagined that, at the end of 2004, we would undertake a semi-elaborate set of posts looking back at the year gone by and forward towards the future. We were talking scenarios, elaborate summaries of ideas, maybe even a bit of podcasting. The December 26 tsunami and the resulting days of reportage, discussion and analysis tossed all of that out the window, of course, and for the better: the insight, openness and collaborative spirit demonstrated by the team in its efforts to bring meaning from tragedy were the best possible examples of what WorldChanging seeks to accomplish.

Although we'll continue to respond to the evolving situation in Southeast Asia, we thought we'd take a moment to mark the new year (albeit a week late) with something a bit simpler. We asked our contributors to look back over 2004 and pick their three favorite stories, including (at least) one of their own. Most were able to grab a moment to do so (and we'll update with any stragglers as they come in). In the extended entry, you'll find our picks for favorite posts, along with short explanations of why the stories were selected. There was a little overlap, but quite a bit of difference -- highlighting the intellectual diversity of our contributors.

We'd like to hear from you, too. Please take a moment to tell us which stories stood out for you as being the most interesting, provocative and worldchanging of 2004. And If you're a new reader, this is a good opportunity to see what we feel best represents what we've been trying to do at WorldChanging. Let us know what you'd like to see more of.

Thank you for reading WorldChanging. Let's keep building a better world and a bright green future.

Continue reading "The Best of 2004" »

January 9, 2005

The Week in Sustainable Design

Book: Earthbag BuildingEach 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:

Earthbag Building

What is Earthbag Building? Well, plainly enough, it's a method of building using bags filled with earth.

This newly released book, Liquid Gold,is the first comprehensive guide to all the tools, tricks, and techniques for building with earthbags.

Having been introduced to sandbag construction by the renowned Nader Khalili in 1993, the authors developed this "Flexible Form Rammed Earth Technique" over the last decade. A reliable method for constructing homes, outbuildings, garden walls and much more, this enduring, tree-free architecture can also be used to create arched and domed structures of great beauty ó in any region, and at home, in developing countries, or in emergency relief work.

More about Earthbag Building.

Lead-Free Garden Hoses


Some garden hoses leach lead and other chemicals into the water. The problem is that they are made of PVC, which uses lead as a stabilizer. Consumer Reports tested 16 brands of garden hose sold at national chains and on the internet. In some hoses they measured 10 to 100 times more lead than the EPA considers safe coming out of a faucet. The hoses they found to be lead-free are: Gardener's Supply Company Hose, Teknor Apex Boat & Camper Self-Straightening Hose, Swan Marine/Camper Hose and the Better Homes and Gardens Kink-Free Hose. Also available is the Handi-Hose (pictured above) which is a compact flat hose, approved by the NSF and FDA for drinking water.

Using Urine to Grow Plants

Using Urine to Grow PlantsThis book, Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants, by Carol Steinfeld explains how urine can be utilized as a resource! Urine contains most of the nutrients in domestic wastewater and usually carries no disease risk. Starting with a short history of urine use — from ritual to medicinal to even culinary — Liquid Gold shows how urine is used worldwide to grow food and landscapes, while protecting the environment, saving its users the cost of fertilizer, and connecting people to the nutrient cycles that sustain them.


Home Page: Liquid Gold

January 10, 2005

The Price of Truculance

Reinforcing the theme of yesterday's essay by Gil Friend, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development has reprinted an editorial from the Duluth News-Tribune arguing that lagging adoption of high-efficiency, conservation-focused and renewable energy technologies and policies will have an adverse effect on American businesses. It's conventional wisdom among the carbon hacks that an aggressive shift away from fossil fuels would lead to a massive, long-lasting economic downturn (ironic that opposition to doing anything about climate disruption is so closely tied to the one academic discipline that does worse at predicting the future than weather forecasters). Arguably, it's more likely that not moving to renewable energy technologies and efficiency-focused policies will have the negative economic result, as Kyoto adherence is clearly where global markets are heading. The News-Tribune editorial spells out that position nicely.

Breakthrough in Paint-On Solar

A quantum dot may be tiny, but this development has the potential to be quite big.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have developed a new form of photovoltaic material using "quantum dots" -- confined sets of electrons with unusual optical and electronic properties -- embedded into a thin polymer film. The material can generate the photoelectric effect using infrared light, and is the first photoelectric polymer to have significant infrared sensitivity. When working across infrared and visual spectra, it has a photoelectric efficiency of 30% -- six times better than other polymer photovoltaics. 30% efficiency would make quantum dot polymer solar cells competitive with traditional silicon-and-glass panels, and far more functional. Quantum dot polymer material could be used in device cases, and Ted Sargent, one of the researchers responsible for this development, claims that the material could readily be spray-applied or painted on.

"We made particles from semiconductor crystals which were exactly two, three or four nanometres in size. The nanoparticles were so small they remained dispersed in everyday solvents just like the particles in paint," explains Sargent. Then, they tuned the tiny nanocrystals to catch light at very long wavelengths. The result – a sprayable infrared detector.

As this suggests, the implications of the discovery are broader than just photovoltaics. The quantum dot polymers have a sensitivity to infrared which will be of enormous value in medical imaging, fiber optic communications, and sensor technologies. As the polymer could be readily woven into fabric, it could enable better wearable biosensors, and would definitely be an enabling technology for fabric computers. The big win, of course, would be the possibility of an easily-added solar power layer to the external shell of any device using electricity. It doesn't have to replace plug-in power completely to be a significant efficiency improvement.

The research will be published in the February 2005 edition of Nature Materials, but is now available for download by subscribers. A summary can be found here, along with supporting graphics and materials (free subscription required).

Innovation and Development

mdg.jpgThe United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation thinks there's a better way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Three years in the making, their new report, "Innovation: Applying Knowledge In Development" (PDF), is a weighty tome, coming in at just under 200 pages. It takes a hard look at the relationship between efforts in scientific research (and technological innovation) and the breadth of economic development. I'm not done reading it, but I can already tell it will be an important contribution to the debate on the best approaches to development. I can also already see some places where it has blind spots.

The few news stories about the report (none, as far as I can find, in the major US media) emphasize its key conclusion, one with which we are in full agreement: scientists and technology experts should play a role in steering a nation's development as large as, if not larger than, the role played by economists. This is backed up in the report by good historical evidence. Nations where a scientific advisor plays a key role in government decision-making have a better track record of development.

Many of the present structures arise from outdated economic thinking, [Task Force leader Dr. Calestous] Juma says. ''It was thought that the main sources of economic change were land, labour and capital,'' he told IPS. ''But now science and technology is the driving force behind economic transition. And changes in the world of science and technology are coming much faster than in the world of land, labour and capital.''


''Putting science at the centre of government decision-taking is politically significant both in the developing and the industrialised world,'' Juma said. [...] But science can deliver quick and more dramatic benefits in the developing world. ''Jamaica has a well established mechanism of scientific advice to the prime minister's office,'' Juma said. ''In human health Jamaica now records the same longevity as industrialised countries because of the use of science in the health system.''

The report focuses on four key recommendations:

  • The creation of science and technology advisory groups at the national level;
  • Greater investment in local institutions of higher learning, and their greater involvement in the service of community and national development;
  • The strengthening of programs to encourage and support business development;
  • Greater investment in infrastructure -- communication, information, energy, transit -- as the underpinnings of technological innovation.

    The report, at least upon first review, has two glaring omissions.

  • Continue reading "Innovation and Development" »

    January 12, 2005

    First Image of an Extra-Solar Planet

    browndwarfplanet.jpgAlthough astronomers have discovered over 130 planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, we've never actually seen any of them. We know about them because of the changes they cause in a star's brightness, or wobbles in a star's orbit, or a number of other inferential methods. But the Hubble space telescope may have captured the first image of a planet outside of our own system -- a gas giant, roughly five times the size of Jupiter, in a distant orbit around a so-called "brown dwarf" star about 225 light years from Earth. The astronomer leading the research, Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona, says he is "99.1 percent sure" it's a planet; further observations will make it "99.9 percent sure."

    A number of features made it possible for this planet to be seen -- its size, distance from its parent star, and the fact that brown dwarf stars are too small to shine like a normal star and wash out the dimmer reflection and heat of a planet.

    Climate Models and Real Science

    If you're not reading RealClimate, you should be. It's quickly becoming an excellent resource not just for understanding why climatologists argue that the Earth is warming and that human-introduced greenhouse gases are to blame, but for seeing how science works in general. Their recent examination of how we know that the measured increases in CO2 come from human activity was an excellent example of how breadth of evidence across disciplines can be applied to a given subject. Today, RealClimate contributor Gavin Schmidt takes a look at how climate models work, and asks "Is Climate Modeling Science?" Although the article focuses on climate models, it's a useful treatise on how sciences of all sorts use models to further understanding.

    While Schmidt comes down in favor of using models (no real surprise), the article emphasizes how much work goes into checking the models, and how difficult getting them right can be:

    Continue reading "Climate Models and Real Science" »

    Surowiecki. Gladwell. Two Men Enter. One Man Leaves.

    Well, perhaps not quite that dramatic. But a public conversation/debate between James "Wisdom of Crowds" Surowiecki and Malcolm "The Tipping Point"/"Blink" Gladwell is still pretty interesting, at least for those of us interested in social networks, framing and memes, group behavior, and cultural change. Surowiecki and Gladwell are two of the best-known social observers around right now, and they both make trenchant observations apt to trigger cascading aha! moments for readers. Slate is hosting a week-long conversation between the two writers, now on day three. The conversation remains polite, but we're still hoping for a strike to the jugular at any moment.

    January 13, 2005

    Climate Models as Science -- at Home

    modelcp.jpgYesterday, we mentioned a RealClimate article discussing the value of climate models. In a bit of fortuitous timing, Columbia University, the National Science Foundation's Paleoclimate Program and NASA's Earth Science Directorate have released "EdGCM," Global Climate Model software for use by students and educators, allowing non-specialists to examine climate simulations for themselves. It uses the same NASA global climate model that real climate researchers use, wrapped up in a comfortable graphical interface. It comes with a selection of pre-built simulations -- from the ancient "iceball Earth" to changes in solar luminosity to a number of global warming variations -- as well as the tools to tweak the data and assumptions.

    Using EdGCM teachers and students can easily create experiments that simulate a wide variety of climates of the past, present and future. In this way the teacher can supplement textbook-based lessons on the fundamentals of the climate system with experiential learning, which involves students in the method that scientists themselves are using to study the Earth’s climate system. Teachers can simulate climates of various periods in geologic history, for example, the Cretaceous Period or the Last Glacial Maximum. They can simulate climate changes that may occur in the future, such as global warming or the effects of deforestation. And, they can simulate the impacts of modern climate events such as El Niño/La Niña cycles or volcanic eruptions. The new interface allows such detailed control over model functions that EdGCM arguably has more user-definable capabilities than does the research-only version.

    This is serious software, and requires a combination of serious hardware and serious time to complete useful runs. An old iMac can do about 10 simulated years in a day, while a new dual-G5 machine can do over 200 simulated years in the same amount of time. The software guide suggests that global warming simulations need at least 35 simulated years to generate useful outputs. Once you've completed a run, however, the software includes tables, maps and plots to make it easy to understand (and, as needed, present) the results.

    Continue reading "Climate Models as Science -- at Home" »

    Ford and GM Play Catch-Up

    sequel.jpgUndoubtedly Mike Millikin will have more to say in his Sustainable Sunday transportation wrap-up, but this week's North American International Auto Show seems to have been the platform for at least two of the big three US carmakers to pretend that they haven't let Toyota and Honda get the better of them in terms of green cars.


    Continue reading "Ford and GM Play Catch-Up" »

    Global Dimming, Global Warming, and Bad Reporting

    Reports that British researchers are claiming that cutting back the use of fossil fuels will make global warming worse are popping up on the web today, and many strike the headline and text pose of this piece from the otherwise reliable Reuters, which mixes an alarmist lede with long-discredited crap that "scientists differ" about global warming. The implication of the article is that attempts to fight climate disruption are silly and will just make matters worse. Because this story will undoubtedly be racing around the blogosphere (especially on the "it's not happening, we didn't make it happen, and it will hurt us too much if we stop making it happen" circuit), here's what the report really says.

    Global Dimming is the observed effect of increases in particulate matter in the atmosphere. There has been a substantial drop in the amount of sunlight hitting the planet over the past half-century -- 22% globally, and up to 30% in some locations. It seems to be caused by pollution from burning coal, oil and wood. Because it cuts the amount of sunlight hitting the ground, it cuts the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases, and that has troubling implications.

    Continue reading "Global Dimming, Global Warming, and Bad Reporting" »

    January 14, 2005

    Organic Polymer Electronics

    polymerchip.jpgWe pay attention to developments in polymer electronics for a couple of reasons: they can be flexible, meaning that they can have applications beyond traditional computing devices; and they can be printable, meaning that they can be produced very inexpensively, and potentially even via next-generation fabbers. The technology is still fairly immature, but this week saw some details (and pictures) of a pretty interesting breakthrough.

    PolyIC, a German start-up partially funded by Siemens AG, announced in November that it had developed prototype entirely-plastic RFID tags operating faster than any previous polymer circuit, 600 kilohertz. More details have now emerged:

    The developers have created the world’s fastest (600 kilohertz) integrated circuit made of organic material. What’s more, they have succeeded in using printing techniques to produce highly stable circuits made of polymers, something no other group of researchers in the world has achieved, according to information released by PolyIC. The distance between the two conductors is less than 50 micrometers, about as thin as a human hair. These chips even function after being stored for two days at a temperature of 60 degrees Celsius and at 100 percent humidity, and will continue to work until temperatures climb above 120 degrees Celsius.

    PolyIC is targeting a per-chip price of under one cent after these are commercially available next year, bringing us closer to the world WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling discusses when he talks of "spimes" and the "internet of things." RFID is an reasonable first application of this technology, but printable polymer electronics will have a broader scope as the technology matures. The idea of printable electronics is particularly interesting, as it maps nicely to printable photovoltaics.

    Humanitarian Use of Satellite Information

    Satellites gave us some of the most powerful images of the tsunami, showing the scope of the disaster and the scale of the damage, and have proven crucial in the recovery and reconstruction process. Some of the satellite photos came from government agencies, while others came from commercial outfits. They are not a replacement for on-the-ground work, but are terrific information resources for those trying to carry out humanitarian relief in times of crisis.

    Satellite information is available for humanitarian efforts in part due to an international agreement specifically calling on nations operating satellites to help in the case of an event such as the December 26 tsunami. The agreement is the "Charter On Cooperation To Achieve The Coordinated Use Of Space Facilities In The Event Of Natural Or Technological Disasters," more generally known as the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters (ICSMD). A "natural or technological disaster" -- defined in the charter as a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances -- allows signatory countries to request special access to relevant satellite information archives, live data, telecommunications, and broadcast facilities from other signatory nations.

    While the December 26 tsunami was by far its most visible activation, the charter has been triggered numerous times in recent years, and as recently as yesterday due to hurricane-force winds hitting Sweden. Six space agencies currently offer their resources through the charter: the European Space Agency (ESA), the separate French space agency (CNES), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), and Argentina's Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE). Russia, China, Japan and Brazil are notably absent.

    The Charter website has a nicely-produced pamphlet (PDF) describing the organization and its function.

    But satellite information shouldn't just be available in times of disaster. UNOSAT, formed in 2002, is a UN consortium of governments and private companies working with ICSMD to provide broader availability of satellite images and data for humanitarian purposes. (This ReliefWeb newsletter from March of 2003 goes over some of the rationales and applications of UNOSAT.)

    Outside of UN auspices, Respond is a newly-formed European consortium of government and private organizations offering global mapping services, from satellites to GIS data, for use by humanitarian agencies dealing with crises ranging from slow-moving famines to sudden earthquakes. Respond intends to provide maps of all sorts as well as alert and communication services. Although Respond is still in its early stages, it is already actively providing extensive mapping and GIS data for tsunami reconstruction efforts and (as we mentioned in December) humanitarian relief in Darfur.

    Hello, Titan!

    landing01.jpgIf you've been at any of the vaguely science and technology related websites -- or even major news sites -- today you've undoubtedly already heard, but since we've been posting about this all along, we should note this if only for completeness' sake: Huygens made it to the surface of Titan.

    This is the first time we've tried landing on an outer solar system body, and the system -- a combined NASA/ESA effort -- seems to have worked flawlessly. We'll get more information and images once the folks back in ESOC Spacecraft Operations get done processing the data. I can hardly wait!

    January 15, 2005

    CIA 2020 Scenarios

    The National Intelligence Council is a nominally-independent group of intelligence analysis and strategists who provide policy advice to the President (whether he listens to said advice is another story). Although most of the work they do is classified, they do occasionally produce open material available to everyone to read. This week they presented their scenarios for 15 years out, a document entitled Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project. The full text is available as HTML and as PDF. It's an interesting read: a well-structured set of scenarios that do an excellent job of completely missing the big picture -- a big picture which is implicit in the report's own supporting material.

    The four scenarios -- Davos World, Pax Americana, A New Caliphate, and Cycle of Fear -- represent different visions of conflicts between "terrorism" and "globalization." The underlying themes of the scenarios are clear from their titles, and roughly boil down to whether globalization or terrorism "wins" and the degree of US domination of the system. Absent is any consideration of responses to globalization other than terrorism, or to an evolution of the nature of globalization (other than a bigger role for Asia). Also absent are any real signs of scientific or technological breakthroughs, decentralization as a model, the second superpower, the rise of developing nations (other than China), or indications that climate change and sustainability are concerns. In short, it's a set of scenarios of a changing world which forgot to include any real changes.

    What makes this all the more striking is that the documentation for each scenario includes substantive data and analysis, often specifically discussing the key issues ignored by the scenarios themselves. Although the focus is primarily on economic globalization and conflict, there is useful information on demographic changes, the status of women (particularly with regards to education), the role of international institutions, even a mention of leapfrog development. If the scenario authors had actually used the given source material, the scenarios could have been a bold look at future possibilities, instead of reading like a rehash of The Lexus and the Olive Tree with a little Tom Clancy thrown in.

    But even bad scenarios have value. As mentioned, the supporting material is well-presented, and is worthwhile reading for anyone wanting to think about what the next decade might hold; there will be few surprises for WorldChanging readers, but it's good to see various elements brought together. More importantly, the scenarios serve as triggers for "hey, what about..." observations, highlighting important drivers of future change by simply making their absence so conspicuous. In this way, the scenarios are a template; the real story of the future can be told by filling in the missing pieces.

    January 16, 2005

    The Week in Sustainable Products

    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:

    Micro and Pico Hydropower

    17104.jpgIf you own property that has access to a stream or river, and want to produce your own electricity, then Hydropower should be your first choice. The cost of equipment is lower, and the kilowatt per dollar return is much better than any other alternative energy source.

    The most important element to have when producing hydropower is what is called "drop". The greater amount of change in a stream's elevation, the better it is for producing electricity. A small stream with a good drop is better than a larger stream with a small change in elevation, because the turbine needed to tap a small stream is smaller, easier to install and less expensive. Hydropower often produces an excess of power, when used as a direct AC system. This excess can then be used to heat your water or warm your house, for example.

    Turbines are available from Alternative Energy Store, Backwoods Solar or Real Goods.

    A recent post at Alternative Energy Blog pointed out that villagers in Vietnam are using $20 "Pico Hydro" turbines (300W and 500W) to power their homes, because it is cheaper than buying power from the grid. Apparently these turbines are not available in the U.S. — the only web site selling them is in Nepal.

    More details on setting up hydropower systems can be found in this NREL document (PDF).


    Continue reading "The Week in Sustainable Products" »

    Tracking Wildlife From Above

    Satellites aren't just good for measuring urban growth or atmospheric chemistry or the impact of natural disasters -- they can count elephants, too.

    The Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo, has been working with NASA to use satellite imaging to count wildlife. Their initial experiments -- spotting and counting their own animals at the Bronx Zoo from a pass by a QuickBird satellite -- proved quite successful, and they are now preparing to use satellite images to "count wildlife in exotic locations, including elephants and giraffes in Tanzania, flamingos in South America, and elk, bison and antelope in Wyoming." Counting from orbit has some advantages over traditional methods. Satellites can image otherwise hard-to-reach locales, can snapshot large expanses in one pass, and are much less stressful to animals than traditional counting methods of capturing and tagging or even flying overhead in low-flying aircraft.

    January 17, 2005


    biobot.jpgAs harbingers of the future go, this one has it all: self-assembly, biomimicry, cybernetic integration of biology and machine, and revolutionary potential for both medical applications and swarm robotics. It's very much the kind of scientific report that makes one feel like this is, in fact, the 21st century. As with many such breakthroughs, this one will take some time to play out, but even this early stage is pretty amazing.

    Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, department of bioengineering have developed a method of growing frog heart muscle cells linked to an artificial skeletal framework, and powered by glucose in solution. Unlike previous approaches using developed muscles to power artificial systems, the muscles were grown, self-assembling along a polymer framework. Once fully attached to the frame, the muscles could contract and expand, moving the entire biobot along.

    In this system, individual cells grow and self-assemble into muscle bundles that are integrated with micromechanical structures and can be controllably released to enable free movement. Having realized such an assembly [...] we demonstrate two potential applications: a force transducer able to characterize in situ the mechanical properties of muscle and a self-assembled hybrid (biotic/abiotic) microdevice that moves as a consequence of collective cooperative contraction of muscle bundles.

    Near Near Future points to a BBC News piece for details; a New Scientist article also fills in the specifics.

    Muscle-powered microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent an attractive alternative to micromotors. They could operate inside the human body by feeding on glucose in the blood. "It could be used for micro-surgery," says Jeff Xi, one of the team. "Perhaps this could be used to push away plaque in an artery."

    But integrating biological and man-made materials could have a variety of potential applications. The technique could, for example, enable paralysed patients to breathe without the aid of a ventilator by stimulating the phrenic nerve - which controls the movement of the diaphragm - with a small electrical pulse.

    [...] And more fantastic ideas have been proposed by NASA, which has provided funding for the project. The US space agency hopes that swarms of muscle-powered microbots could one day repair damage to remote spacecraft automatically.

    The research was reported in Nature Materials; as usual, an abstract and supplementary materials are freely available (site sign-up required), but the full article requires a subscription to the journal. In this case, the supplementary links are well-worth checking out: two Quicktime movies of the musclebot in action!

    Lula vs. Gates

    Definition of power: Bill Gates trying -- and failing -- to get on your schedule to talk.

    Reuters reports that Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and chairman, has been "lobbying" to meet and talk with Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (best known simply as "Lula"), at next week's World Economic Forum -- so far, to no avail.

    Brazil has been at the forefront of the movement to get the developing world to adopt Linux rather than Windows as they build out their information infrastructures. From the developing world perspective, this makes a great deal of sense: Linux is free as in gratis (so it can be distributed to millions of users at little incremental cost) and free as in libre (so users can get inside the code to modify it for both better functionality and education), whereas Windows, even at a discount price, can be very costly, and ties users to the whims of Redmond. Brazil plans to partially-subsidize the purchase of 1 million computers with Linux for its citizens.

    Gitmo Goes Green (Sort Of)

    Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, the saying goes. When one thinks of the American military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sustainability isn't what immediately comes to mind. Yet the LA Times reports that Guantanamo -- known colloquially as "Gitmo" -- is installing a new set of windmills and high-efficiency diesel generators to power the base:

    Two of the four windmills, each capable of generating 950 kilowatts of electricity, are operational, and the other two will be online by the end of the month, said the Naval Facilities Engineering Command's Mark Leighton, who is overseeing the project.

    Augmenting the wind power are two new diesel generators that operate more efficiently and cleanly than the Cold War-era units they are replacing, which will boost annual fuel savings to $2.3 million once all the new technology is activated in the next few weeks, Leighton said. The equipment also will cut carbon dioxide output at these pristine southern shores by 13 million pounds a year.

    The drivers behind this move are a more politics than environmentalism. Guantanamo must remain entirely separate from the rest of Cuba, so all water and power production must be handled on-base. But that doesn't mean that the site can't be a renewable energy role model. Windmills allow the base to overcome sporadic power shortages, handle peak use periods (which more-or-less coincide with peak wind production), and to compensate for problems in the diesel generators. In short, it's a classic example of the value of diverse interconnected generation systems.

    (Via Gristmill)

    South Asian Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries

    SciDev.net reports that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation participants have begun to draft a regional Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TDKL): an information base of traditional medicine, foods, architecture and culture to fight patent claims from rich countries:

    Continue reading "South Asian Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries" »

    January 18, 2005

    Pardon Our Dust...

    WorldChanging is doing a behind-the-scenes move over the next few hours. If all goes well, it should be imperceptible to you, the reader. One of the side-effects of what we're doing, however, is that any comments made over the next couple of hours could be lost. Please don't make any comments to WC posts until we're up and running in our new location. If you're just burning to let us know what you think about something we've posted, send us email.

    Thank you for your patience.


    If you can read this...

    ...you're hitting our new server!

    A Practical Plan

    cmr.jpgWe talk about the Millennium Development Goals pretty often -- as Alex noted over a year ago, they're "the closest thing we have to an international consensus on how to meet the basic needs of everyone on the planet." Economist Jeffery Sachs is the head of the Millennium Project, and while he may not be the most radical thinker when it comes to meeting global development needs, he has some pretty solid ideas. He thinks we can eliminate deeply-rooted poverty, worldwide, by spending "50 cents out of every $100 of rich-world income in the coming decade." But what would that mean, in detail?

    This is what it would mean: Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the Millennium Development Project report, is at once audacious and eminently plausible, a combination that delights both the scenarist and the activist in me. It's a massive document (over 33 MB if downloaded as a high-resolution PDF) but it spells out just what the world needs to do to end the grinding misery of poverty, what it can do, and how. It gives real-world, realizable steps to meeting an idealist's dream:

    The report, "Investing in Development," doesn't stop at malaria, though controlling it might be the greatest bargain on the planet. The project's scientists show how special "fertilizer trees" could replenish Africa's soil nutrients and lead to a doubling or tripling of food crop yields in just a few years, enabling farmers to grow more food more reliably and break free of famine. Using these and other cost-effective modern tools, Africa could have its own "green revolution," as Asia did some decades ago. As in Asia, food security in Africa would be a prelude to sustained economic growth.

    The study documents how emergency obstetrical care could be provided at local clinics even in impoverished settings, saving hundreds of thousands of mothers who will die in childbirth this year because of obstructed labor and other complications. The project similarly documents how the introduction of low-cost, nutritionally balanced school meals, using locally produced foods, could improve the health, nutrition, school attendance and performance of more than 100 million children in the world's poorest countries.

    Taken together, these and similar steps would change the face of extreme poverty -- indeed, put the world on a path to eliminate it in this generation.

    People in extreme poverty are outside the global economy, outside the global culture, outside the global future. We can do something about this. We must. And now we can't say we don't know how.

    January 20, 2005


    cellprinting.jpgYou'll never look at your ink-jet printer the same way again.

    Researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, have developed a process for building human skin, bones and organs to spec using ink-jet printer technology.

    This breakthrough overcomes problems currently faced by scientists who are unable to grow large tissues and have limited control over the shape or size the tissue will grow to. It also allows more than one type of cell to be printed at once, which opens up the possibility of being able to create bone grafts.

    "Using conventional methods, you are only able to grow tissues which are a few millimetres thick, which is fine for growing artificial skin, but if you wanted to grow cartilage, for instance, it would be impossible," Professor Derby says.

    The key to the advance which Professor Derby and his team have made is the innovative way in which they are able to pre-determine the size and shape of the tissue or bone grown.

    Using the printers, they are able create 3-dimensional structures, known as 'tissue scaffolds'. The shape of the scaffold determines the shape of the tissue as it grows. The structures are created by printing very thin layers of a material repeatedly on top of each other until the structure is built. Each layer is just 10 microns thick (1,000 layers equals 1cm in thickness).

    [...] Professor Derby believes the potential for this technology is huge: "You could print the scaffolding to create an organ in a day," he says


    Continue reading "Bioprinters" »

    Global Dimming, RealClimate-Style

    Of course the folks at RealClimate would take on the BBC "Global Dimming" story, and give it the kind of examination we've come to expect from the professionals. They now have two articles up, both well-worth reading. The first, aptly titled "Global Dimming?," takes on the concept in general, has a number of pointed comments about hack sensationalist journalism, and discusses what it means when scientists are uncertain. The second, Global Dimming II, looks at the history of the idea of global dimming and what might be causing it. A good pair of posts, nicely explaining the ideas.

    January 21, 2005

    A Big Thank You...

    As mentioned over the past couple of days, WorldChanging moved its server and hosting due to greatly increased traffic. The move seems to have been completed successfully. For all of that, a few thanks are in order:

    First, a thank you to Laughing Squid for being WorldChanging's server host from day one. Reliable service, good support, and a great attitude towards people trying to make a difference in the world. We can highly recommend them, especially for artists and non-profits wanting low-cost, high-quality service. We were sorry to move, but our increased traffic meant that we outstripped even their largest-scale package.

    Second, a thank you to Polycot, WorldChanging's new server host. Also providing terrific service, they have the added benefit of having a WorldChanging contributor as CEO. They'll be able to handle our bandwidth and server needs as we continue to grow. We expect a long, happy relationship with them.

    And finally, a special big thank you to Polycot's Technical Director, Jeff Kramer. He spent hours with me making certain that every little detail of the server move was handled correctly and promptly. The transition resulted in no downtime, and was seamless for our readers -- all thanks to Jeff's able administration. Thank you, Jeff -- you rock.

    Finally, thank you for understanding if we've posted less frequently this last week, been slower to answer emails and had a distant, preoccupied look in our eyes... as you can see, it really was us, not you.

    Why Upscale Hybrids Make Sense

    We've asked in the past whether upscale and SUV hybrids -- the Accord Hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h, Ford Escape Hybrid, etc. -- make real sense, given that the increased fuel efficiency still only brings them at best to what a non-hybrid Civic might get on a bad day. But Clark Williams-Derry, at the Northwest Environment Watch's Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, employs a bit of math to demonstrate that what seems intuitively true may not be so. As it turns out, shifting from a low-mileage to a moderate-mileage vehicle has a greater positive effect than switching from a moderate-mileage to a high-mileage car.

    All else being equal, switching from a 15-mpg SUV to a 30-mpg car is twice as beneficial as switching from a 30 mpg car to a gas-sipping, 60-mpg hybrid.


    Continue reading "Why Upscale Hybrids Make Sense" »

    Meet a Nanotechnologist (but don't call her that)

    Technology Review is running a brief interview with Dr. Angela Belcher, MIT material scientist, MacArthur Grant winner and cofounder of Cambrios Technologies. She uses reengineered viruses as tools to create compounds at the molecular scale. The conversation is short, informative and somewhat amusing.

    Your company describes its business as “directed-evolution technology.” So the goal is something with potentially very broad application? It’s a platform technology, yes. The aim is to work our way through the whole periodic table and be able to design materials of all kinds in a controlled way. My biggest goal is to have a DNA sequence that can code for the synthesis of any useful material.

    Leapfrogging in the News

    torstar.jpgThe Toronto Star had two excellent articles about leapfrogging this last weekend, both worth checking out.

    The first, "Leapfrogging the technology gap," by Alexandra Samuel, is an introduction to the concept with a particular focus on information and communication technologies. Few of the examples will come as surprises to WorldChanging readers, but the article brings together cases and observations in a useful way. Of particular note is the suggestion that leapfrog development is a result of the correlation of infrastructure improvements and economic growth. While the article discusses only telecom and (to a lesser extent) computing, the idea applies more generally. Most of the leapfrog development projects we've discussed at WorldChanging have focused on infrastructure -- energy, water, and transportation, along with telecom and Internet.

    Another Star article from the same day underscores this point. "Three sectors to watch," by Tyler Hamilton, takes a look at "technologies that are helping nations jump ahead." It too gives a quick explanation of leapfrogging, but then moves in to examples across a familiar spectrum of technologies: water treatment; transportation and energy; and computing & communications. The article hits the important WorldChanging notes -- distributed generation of renewable energy, Linux and open source software as leapfrog catalysts, even LED lights.

    Leapfrogging is definitely a meme on the rise. We didn't invent the term, but we're happy to have helped give it a push.

    Where else have you seen the idea show up?

    January 23, 2005

    This Week in Green Design, 1/23

    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:

    Solar Tubes: Very Efficient Heating

    Apricus makes a unique solar hot water heater which is 30-40% more efficient than flat plate solar systems. The secret to the performance is the use of cylindrical evacuated glass tubes to absorb the heat from the sun. Because the tubes are cylindrical, there is always a surface area that is perpendicular to the sun. The tubes also house a vacuum between two layers of glass. Why a vacuum? A vacuum is an excellent insulator. The insulation properties are so good that while the inside of the tube may be 304°F (150°C), the outer tube is cold to touch. This means that solar tube water heaters can perform well even in cold weather when flat plate collectors perform poorly due to heat loss. More information: Apricus

    Slow Sand Filters

    Slow sand filters are perhaps the most efficient means of producing clean drinking water.

    Slow sand filters rely on biological processes for their action rather than physical filtration or disinfection. They require no electricity, no chemicals and no filter changes.

    How is this possible? The secret is that slow sand filters work through the formation of a gelatinous layer called the hypogeal layer or "Schmutzedecke" on top of a layer of fine sand. This layer consists of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, rotifera and a range of aquatic insect larvae. As a Schmutzedecke ages more algae tend to develop and larger aquatic organisms may be present including some Endoprocta, Snails and Annelid worms.
    The Schmutzedecke is the layer that provides the purification for water treatment -- the underlying sand provides the support medium for this biological layer. As water passes through the Schmutzedecke, particles of foreign matter are trapped in the mucilaginous matrix and dissolved organic material is adsorbed and absorbed and metabolised by the bacteria fungi and protozoa.

    The water draining from a well managed slow sand filter can be of exceptionally good quality with no detectable bacterial content.

    Blackburn and Associates produce a slow sand filters for residental use.

    January 29, 2005

    Postcard from London

    postcardLHR.jpgMy trip to London is done, and I am now sitting comfortably on WorldChanging contributor Nicole Boyer's couch in Paris. Now that I have steady connection for the evening, I thought I'd pass along some of my observations.

    The picture illustrating this post was taken from outside the Design Museum, which houses (among other exhibits) Cameron Sinclair's entry in the "Under a Tenner" show (the extended entry has a few shots of Cameron's selections). Visible in the background of this photo is the Swiss Re tower (aka "the Gherkin"), notable for a number of reasons, including the fact that it uses 50% less energy than a conventional office building of comparable size. Swiss Re has been at the forefront of pushing businesses to take climate change more seriously, and is trying to live up to its own sustainability demands.

    Climate change and sustainability became the recurring themes of the visit. In London, it's hard to avoid these issues. The Carbon Trust has billboards everywhere saying "How Will Climate Change Your Business?" The head of the Royal Society scientific academy had a lengthy article in the Guardian this week tearing into US oil company-backed carbon lobbyists trying to push their agendas into UK policy discussions. The Conservative party positions on climate change are as radical as the US Democratic party could hope for (and the positions taken by Labour and the Lib Dems (PDF) would leave the American punditocracy sputtering). I spoke to three different design and academic groups during my visit, and the question of "how do we make the community/business more environmentally sustainable?" came up again and again.

    What makes this all particularly impressive is that London already displays many of the characteristics of a green city. It's quite dense, with a public transit system -- the Underground -- which is the envy of most of the world (although I'm told with great assurance that the Paris Metro is much better). The center of the city uses congestion charges to moderate traffic, and most cars are already much more fuel-efficient than the American average (we saw dozens of Smart cars, of numerous style variations, in the blocks around the place we were staying). You can even get home wind turbines that attach to the side of the house just like a satellite dish.

    Add in the vibrant art scene, the booming economy, the casually multicultural mix (a British accent is a distinct minority on the streets, it seems), the rapid embrace of wireless technologies, and the widespread recognition that the city must continue to evolve... and it's clear that London in the 21st century is a truly worldchanging city. It draws me back like a magnet, and gives me hope for the planet's future.

    Continue reading "Postcard from London" »

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