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February 2005 Archives

February 2, 2005

Shameless Self-Promotion

ivoted.jpgVoting for the Bloggies closes tomorrow, February 3rd, at 10pm EST (that's 0300 GMT Feb 4, for you world travelers out there). As noted earlier, not only is WorldChanging nominated for "Best non-weblog content of a weblog site" (a frankly mysterious classification, as precisely what the admirable "non-weblog content" consists of is not specified), sites run by WorldChanging contributors Dina Mehta, Rohit Gupta, Taran Rampersad and Régine Debatty are also up for awards. Bloggies winners will be announced at this year's South by SouthWest, and several of us will be on hand to participate in the festivities.

The old phrase "vote early, vote often" only half-applies now: your chance to vote early is gone, so make this last day count.

Win a Prius, the Update

Last November we posted about Center for a New American Dream's hybrid slogan contest, with the winning slogan earning its creator a new 2005 Prius. Unsurprisingly, the contest was popular: New American Dream received nearly 35,000 slogans. The top 100 finalists are in, and now's your chance to vote on which one you think would best convince car manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. The top vote-getters won't automatically win the car -- wisely, New American Dream has chosen to use popularity as just one of the factors to be considered -- but the top three will win "Community Choice Awards," a one year membership to Better World Travel, including bicycle and auto roadside assistance.

The voting closes on February 15th, and requires that you sign up for the site.

Upcoming Conferences

Mark your calendars now. Here's a selection of 2005 events of interest to WorldChangers, courtesy WBCSD, happening all over the world. They will all undoubtedly have high-minded speeches, interesting presentations, and potentially useful workshops. If you're going to go to any of these, let us know -- we'd love first-hand reports!

Business/NGO Engagement: How to create win-win outcomes (Ethical Corporation)
22 Feb. 2005 - 23 Feb. 2005
London, United Kingdom

Cairo 9th International Conference on Energy & Environment
13 Mar. 2005 - 19 Mar. 2005
Cairo, Egypt

Engineering Sustainability 2005
10 Apr. 2005 - 12 Apr. 2005
Pittsburgh, United States

13th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD-13)
11 Apr. 2005 - 22 Apr. 2005
New York, United States

Green Power Mediterranean
25 Apr. 2005 - 27 Apr. 2005
Rome, Italy

Carbon Expo 2005
11 May 2005 - 13 May 2005
Cologne, Germany

World Water Week 2005
21 Aug. 2005 - 27 Aug. 2005
Stockholm, Sweden

A Little Peek at the Future

wmbelevator.jpgWilliamsburg doesn't need a space elevator, or so says a flyer now found on the streets of this Brooklyn community. Boing Boing has already mentioned this, but I thought I'd post about it for a slightly different reason. While it's a nice bit of activist memetics, what struck me when I saw it was that this is an example of Marx's famous phrase ("history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce") turned on its head. This call for protests against the building of a space elevator is political satire, aimed at luxury high rise development, but I have no doubt we'll see similar protests against the construction of a real space elevator. People will fear pollution from nanoparticles used in construction, the risks of an accident (and since the equator is the best location for a space elevator, any accident could hurt those who live along the equator -- i.e., the poor -- the most), and yes, even problems of "Less Parking, Weird Ribbon Thing, Constant Loud Whirring Noise, Increased Space Elevator Truck Traffic." Many of those fears will be unsubstantiated, but we will see protests nonetheless. F.E.T.S.E.o.t.N (Fight Extremely Tall Space Elevators on the Northside) should be thanked for giving us this little glimpse at tomorrow.

Urban Transport Concept: the Naro

naro.jpgIt's not a motorcycle, but it plays one on the street.

The Naro is a two-person vehicle which combines motorcycle and car design elements in order to provide a mix of comfort, maneuverability, and efficiency. Co-designed by Coventry University's Art and Design course and Prodrive, a British motorsport company which makes its money providing cars for racing teams, the Naro is intended to fill a transport role similar to the Smart and other lightweight, small-footprint, high-mileage vehicles. The Naro seats two in a jet fighter-style cockpit, providing enough room for a small bit of cargo; one of the first intended applications is as a single passenger taxi.

Weighing only about 300kg, less than a third of most city cars, it is expected that the Naro will be powered by a small petrol or diesel engine giving up to 100mpg or by a new generation of fuel cell engines running on hydrogen. While designed primarily for the city, the aerodynamics of Naro means that it would be more than capable of motorway speeds.

As long as there are no crosswinds, one presumes.

The lead designer, Damian Harty, is the subject of a lengthy and fascinating article in Engineer Live, a journal for (you guessed it) engineers. The dilemmas involved in the design of a tall, slim vehicle amount to more than just how to keep it upright in a stiff breeze. The Naro will lean in turns, for example, just like a motorcycle but distinctly unlike a traditional passenger car. How will people accustomed to driving a car adjust? What's the best control mechanism -- a steering wheel, handlebars, or something entirely different, like a joystick?

The design is reminiscent of never-to-be-brought-to-market vehicles from Toyota and MIT: the vehicle of the future, it seems, will look something like a moon buggy crossed with a Mac Mini. Despite its concept-car looks, the Naro is apparently on its way to production by the aptly-named Narrow Car Company. Sales will be to European markets at first.

February 3, 2005

Carbon Disclosure Project

143 investment groups, representing over $20 trillion in assets, have joined together under the banner of the Carbon Disclosure Project to ask the top 500 corporations on the planet (as determined by the Financial Times) about environmental policies and plans. The questions are both philosophical and operational, and give a good read on how the company approaches climate issues. This is the third year the Carbon Disclosure Project has sent out its questions. Last year, over 300 of the 500 responded, up from 245 the first year. The Project expects an even higher turnout this time around.

The number of participating investors grows each year, too. The first CDP was sent with the signatures of 35 investors; the second listed 95. This year, 143 investment firms have signed on to the Project. The investors (scroll down) include numerous global asset management groups and reinsurance companies; only a few are explicitly "socially responsible" in their approach (and few WorldChanging readers will be surprised to find that Swiss Re is on the list). Institutional investors and reinsurers need to focus on the long term, and are rapidly becoming the shockwave of sustainability in the business world. This much institutional money asking the 500 biggest companies about climate change issues can force the issue onto corporate agendas far faster than pickets and petitions.

The previous years' responses are available by company, as lump documents, or via a search page. The Carbon Disclosure Project lists which companies responded and which did not; some of those declining to participate may come as a surprise. (Amazon, Costco -- what's up? WalMart, Dell, and even ExxonMobil responded, why can't you?) Answers to this year's questionnaire are due by May 31st, 2005. If you're a shareholder in the companies that declined to respond last time around, think about leaning on them to participate.

Unfortunately, much of the site's material is available only in Microsoft Word .doc format, including this year's questionnaire. If you'd like to see examples what they're asking -- and the Project encourages non-FT500 companies to answer the questions, too -- a few of the questions are reproduced in the extended entry.

Continue reading "Carbon Disclosure Project" »

Not Just Mangroves

It's clear that the elimination of mangrove forests along Southeast Asian coastlines made the impact of the December 26 tsunami even worse. But we're now seeing signs that it's not just mangrove forests which can reduce the effect of flood surges -- casuarina and eucalyptus trees work well, too:

On Dec. 26, as the killer tsunami struck down thousands of people and homes in Tamil Nadu state, the casuarina and eucalyptus trees which had been planted to appease the weather gods saved the lush green village of Naluvedapathy.


The casuarina trees, which numbered more than 60,000, took the brunt of the tsunami waves as they swept Naluvedapathy.

The giant waves inundated dozens of thatched-roof houses in the village as they swept inland [...] But the casuarina trees had considerably weakened the waves and reduced the impact, villagers said.

Tamil Nadu government officials are now assembling a trust fund to plant casuarina and eucalyptus trees along the state's entire 1,000 kilometer coastline.

The Urban Grid

Now here's an unexpected combination of WorldChanging interests: AlmereGrid, a city-wide distributed computing grid. Taking advantage of the fiber-optic network installed in the town of Almere, in the Netherlands, AlmereGrid will be the first "heterogeneous city computer Grid" in the world, and will initially be used for medical and scientific research. Design began last year, and testing is now underway. Details in English are pretty slim, though -- any Dutch-speakers out there want to let us in on updates?

AlmereGrid aims to select a number of essential and appealing applications with researchers "from the neighbourhood". The advantage is that computing time donors can establish a relationship with the ongoing research. The computing time donors will receive a programme that has to be installed on their computer. AlmereGrid will only use the processors of the connected systems whenever the owner is not using the computer.

A design document (PDF) from July of last year gives a good overview of what the AlmereGrid initiative wants to accomplish. According to the website of the Aurora Grid group at Rotterdam Institute of Informatics Education, AlmereGrid is testing a variety of grid applications, including the open source distributed computing software, BOINC. (Aurora's grid software overview is a good summary of what's out there and how it's being used, by the way.)

This project feels like the first tremble of a pretty big earthquake. As fiber optic networks get installed in more communities, projects like this will become easier and easier to do. The motivations for joining in on projects will vary -- some places will do so out of altruism, others will seek to rent "supercomputer" time to the highest bidder, and others will be driven to compete with neighboring towns for bragging rights over total calculations per month. And what happens when communities realize that the various computers around town (in everything from traffic light controllers to parking meters to, eventually, local information hubs) are actually "idle" for most of the time? The BOINC folks better start working on a version for embedded processors...

The Crossbar Latch

It's become accepted wisdom that Moore's Law -- the pace at which transistor density increases (or, roughly, the pace at which computers keep getting faster) -- will run into a fabrication wall fairly soon. Etching chips already requires the use of high-energy lithographic techniques, and quantum effects at the smaller and smaller distance between components is becoming harder to deal with. For some pundits, this means the end of the steady growth of computer improvements. They're right, but not in the way they expect. The imminent demise of silicon transistors has led researchers down new pathways with far greater potential than mere doubling every 18 months.

Last week's Journal of Applied Physics contained an article by physicists from HP's Quantum Science Research center entitled "The crossbar latch: Logic value storage, restoration, and inversion in crossbar circuits." The article describes the development of nanoscale circuits which perform the core logical functions of transistors -- AND, OR, and NOT.

The experimentally demonstrated latch consists of a single wire acting as a signal line, crossed by two control lines with an electrically switchable molecular-scale junction where they intersect. By applying a sequence of voltage impulses to the control lines and using switches oriented in opposite polarities, the latch can perform the NOT operation, which, along with AND and OR, is one of three basic operations that make up the primary logic of a circuit and are essential for general computing. In addition, it can restore a logic level in a circuit to its ideal voltage value, which allows a designer to chain many simple gates together to perform computations.

The BBC report on the research gives a good explanation of how it works, and the usual disclaimers apply -- still years away, may not work in the way initially thought, etc. Still, expect to see more of these kinds of announcements over rest of the decade. The "end of silicon" threat was recognized awhile back, and most of the big IT research groups -- Intel, IBM, Motorola, along with HP -- started their post-silicon teams long ago. That research should soon be bearing fruit. Most of it will almost certainly involve nanotechnology, but be prepared for interesting results with polymers and even biotechnology.

Wind Replaces Nuclear

More of a symbolic replacement, to be sure, but symbols count: the Long Island Power Authority has installed two 50 kilowatt wind turbines on the Shoreham, New York, site of a defunct nuclear power plant. The two turbines should provide 200,000 kWh annually, not a huge amount -- enough for a couple thousand homes, perhaps. Longer term LIPA goals include an offshore wind generation facility producing 140 megawatts, coming online in summer of 2008.

February 4, 2005


Agricultural biotechnology, when done wrong, has the potential to be environmentally, scientifically and economically disastrous. The negative scenario is grim and familiar: monoculture crops, with insufficient testing for complex interactions with other organisms, owned by giant biotech companies paranoid about intellectual property ("genetic rights management," as I've termed it). But genetic modification techniques are not inherently evil, and when applied with wisdom, can have positive results. Alex has mentioned this more upbeat scenario in a few posts, but it's useful to see it in action. And, thanks to the Timbuktu Chronicles, we now have an excellent example: NERICA, or New Rice for Africa.

Developed by Dr. Monty Jones of the West Africa Rice Development Agency (WARDA), NERICA is a hybrid strain of rice, developed using biotech by West African researchers, which is on its way to bettering the health of West and Central African citizens, restoring agricultural sustainability, and improving the economics of food importation for the region.

Continue reading "NERICA" »

WSJ on Trends in Building

The Wall Street Journal has a short but interesting list of ten trends in architecture (broadly conceived), with a particular focus on buildings going green. Some interesting tidbits from the list: buildings use 39% of energy in the US, more than cars; there are 453 office buildings, amounting to nearly 65 million square feet, now under construction under LEED guidelines; since 2000, 167 buildings have been LEED certified, with more than 1,800 now being built.

(Via Gil Friend)

Ford to Use EPA Diesel Engine

The New York Times reports that Ford has agreed to use a diesel engine designed by the EPA in new-generation cars and trucks. Diesel is generally a more efficient fuel (around 30% better than gasoline), but it has had problems in the past with particulate and nitrogen oxide pollution. Cleaner diesel engines now power about half of the cars sold in Europe, but are only a small fraction of vehicles in the US. The new engine, designed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, runs clean enough not to require special filters, meaning that it should have a low production cost. I suspect Mike will have more details about this in his Sustainability Sundays post.

Naked Eye Asteroid Flyby

Remember our old friend 2004 MN4? You know the one -- it had astronomers reaching for the antacids because, unlike every previous "Earth-crossing" asteroid spotted, the chances of it hitting the Earth increased the more they studied its path. Fortunately, they finally determined that it would miss us in its very close pass in 2029. But it turns out that it will be close enough to be visible from the ground as it shoots by -- so close, in fact, that it will pass within the orbits of some satellites. This will be the closest known approach by an asteroid in history, roughly 22,600 miles from Earth. It should be as bright enough to be seen by the naked eye in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia -- but only in locations with dark skies.

Mark your calendars now.

German Wind Megaproject

5M.jpgAs much as we love the distributed, diverse, smart-network energy systems, there's something viscerally appealing about the megaproject approach to alternative energy. Some of the megaprojects are a bit bizarre, but many are completely reasonable, once you get over the scale. The new 5M wind turbine project just inaugurated in Germany looks like it should be the latter.

Standing nearly 400 feet (120 meters) in height, the 5M turbine, now in testing and connected to the grid, will eventually be moved offshore, putting out 5 MW at full output. The blades alone stretch over 200 feet (61.5 meters) apiece. It has a helicopter platform at top for maintenance (the image to the right is a computer graphics demo from RePower, the manufacturer, illustrating what a maintenance visit might look like). As Renewable Energy Access reports, this is only the first step:

During prototype testing, [...] the 5M will remain on-shore.

Offshore projects are in the making though. During the event, Talisman Energy, coordinator of the EU-supported "DOWNVInD" project confirmed their plans to propose to the European commission the use of two REpower 5M turbines as a demonstration project 25 km off the coast of Scotland.

In addition, a cooperation agreement was concluded with BARD Engineering GmbH as part of the development of the BARD Offshore I project in the German part of the North Sea. Final planning permission is expected for this year.

Megaturbines like 5M arguably are a better choice than farms of smaller (and smaller-output) windmills, as the massive turbine blades spin more slowly, and are therefore much less likely to result in bird kills.

Germany is already a renewable energy leader, with renewable sources making up 10% of overall German production, and wind making up over 30% of electricity supplied to the German states of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The German Renewable Energy Law is widely considered responsible for triggering the explosion of alternative power production. Germany plans to meet half its overall power needs with renewables by 2050, but it looks to be on a path to get there much faster.

Vodafone Predicts the Future

vodafone.jpgIt used to be a requirement that cutting-edge technology companies produce a video showing what The Future (tm) will be like when the swoopy new toys their R&D folks are thinking about over beers eventually come to pass. The best-known of these videos is the Apple "Knowledge Navigator" video from the early 1990s (and if anyone has a link to that video, please let me know), showing just how much better (happier, more fulfilling, not drinking too much, etc.) your life will be (in The Future (tm)) once you have a computer-generated guy in a bowtie reading your email to you, making your travel plans, carrying on an affair with your spouse (if I remember correctly)...

Corporate videos are somewhat out of fashion, replaced by websites chock full of Flash animation. Last year, Vodafone -- one of the world's biggest mobile communication companies -- launched its Future Vision website, which shows you what it thinks The Future (tm) will look like when everyone has organic polymer wrist displays, wireless communication between everything around them, cell phones drilled into their skulls (if I remember correctly), and the like. I kid because I love -- this is actually a very cool demo site, with branching storylines of attractive young people on the go and at home in London and Rome, attractive middle-aged people at work in the office and on trains in Germany, and requisite schlumpy guy getting in shape in Stockholm (but surrounded by attractive young and middle-aged people).

The technologies on display fall into the realm of "pretty likely, albeit not quite like that," from my point-of-view. They're all a bit too hip and clean, with none of the "street finds its own uses for things" quality I'd expect in reality. Nobody's bluejacking the electronic paper magazines or snapping untoward photos with the cameras built into their hipster eyeglasses. But Vodafone, to its credit, does give the viewer a chance to comment on the technologies presented in each vignette, rating them and telling the company (in effect) "yes, I want this" or "no, stop doing that."

You may not think that you're going to learn how to make the world a better place by spending a bit of time poking around in this vision of The Future (tm), but the site provides a useful exercise for the reader. Think about the tools as shown -- wireless displays, two-way wrist TVs, realtime networks everywhere you go -- and ask yourself how would they really be employed. How would they be used outside of European capitals? How would they be used in the developing world? Assuming these devices come about, how can we use them to make the world a better place? Because Vodafone's vision may not be completely on target, but I suspect they're not too far off; it's good to start thinking now about how to make these tools our own.

February 5, 2005

DIY Interactive Maps

indymap.jpgSocial Design Notes has written up a Flash-based interactive map of global indymedia sites. This is interesting in and of itself -- it never hurts to have direct links to outside-the-mainstream media sources around the world. The map is easy to use and relatively self-explanatory -- drag a box to select a region, click a country to zoom in, click to dot to jump to the indymedia page. Useful, to be sure... but that's not the really cool part.

SDN is also making the application, with maps, available for download as datafiles, for others to use as they see fit. They ask for $10 if you'll be using it as part of a for-profit enterprise, otherwise the material is free (but not Free, as the source Flash code does not appear to be included). US and UK/Ireland maps are available as well, along with alternative examples of map/data combinations. Best of all, there are detailed instructions as to how to use all of this to make your own interactive maps to put up on your website.

I'm eager to poke around through the datafiles -- I wonder how easy it would be to create a WorldChanging Map, with map-based links to stories set in particular regions...

WorldChanging at Doors

Doors of Perception 8, in Delhi, India, is looking like a real WorldChanging event. Just take a look at the announced speakers: nearly every one could be the subject of a WorldChanging story (and some already have). The panels include Joi Ito, Natalie Jeremijenko, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales... as well as our own Cameron Sinclair and Alex Steffen. Doors of Perception -- "a conference and website at the forefront of new thinking on design and innovation" -- takes place March 21-26, so if you're not local, buy your plane tickets now.

Grancrete and "Spray On Buildings"

Lost in bigger news at the end of December was this story from World Science Net about "spray-on" buildings. Grancrete, a sprayable ceramic which hardens quickly into a solid form, is...

...stronger than concrete, is fire resistant and withstands both tropical and below-freezing temperatures, the developers said; it keeps homes in arid regions cool, and those in frigid regions warm. 

To build a home, Grancrete is sprayed onto Styrofoam walls, to which it adheres and dries, according to the developers. The Styrofoam remains in place as an effective insulator, although Wagh suggests simpler walls, such as woven fiber mats, also would work well and further reduce the raw materials required.

Grancrete is made from local materials, including sand or sandy soil, ash, magnesium oxide and postassium phosphate, found in fertilizer. It's still in testing, however, particularly for earthquake and hurricane resistance. The developer, Dr. Arun Wagh (at Argonne National Laboratory), is originally from India, and hopes to see Grancrete used as an inexpensive and quick building material for the poor. Grancrete was a 2004 winner of R&D Magazine's top 100 innovations. More details and a photos of a Grancrete building in production are available in this PDF from Argonne National Lab.


NASA has installed a regional climate monitoring system in a decommissioned US military base in Panama now used by UNESCO. SERVIR -- the Spanish acronym for the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System for Mesoamerica -- is a hub for monitoring environmental conditions across Central America. It's now part of the facility run by The Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC).

NASA's main site gives the overview:

Featuring a massive, Web-based data archive of maps and satellite imagery, decision-support tools and interactive visualization capabilities, SERVIR is designed to aid government and industry across the seven countries of Central America and the southern Mexican states. [...] The system contains user-friendly, interactive tools. It is designed to make NASA Earth observations and predictions freely and readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Designed to track weather, climate and ecological events, the system has already shown results in Central America, monitoring wildfires, red tides, and blooms of toxic algae threatening local fishing areas.

...and SERVIR's home site gives a few more details:

Continue reading "SERVIR" »

February 6, 2005

The Exeter Conference

Why are we so concerned with the minutiae of diesel engines, the availability of satellite maps, the disclosure of carbon emissions, and so forth? Because they all connect back to global warming-induced climate disruption: why it's happening, how we know about it, and what we can do about it. The results of continued rapid increases of levels of greenhouses gases in our atmosphere will be pretty awful -- world-changing, one might say, but in a bad way. But just how bad? How fast will they happen? And what are our best choices for mitigating the worst of it?

These were the questions asked at the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" conference held in Exeter, UK, on February 1-3, bringing together around 200 climate scientists from around the world. Although the initial trigger for the conference was the need to define precisely what constituted "dangerous climate change," the scientists ended up instead detailing "critical thresholds that we should aim not to cross" -- a less dramatic phrase, but an approach more focused on science than policy. The conference covered three broad issue: an assessment of impacts, an examination of climate sensitivity and emission pathways, and what our technological options for mitigation will be. Impressively, the presentations from each of three days are already on the website for download. The Steering Committee report (PDF) summarizes the findings.

Continue reading "The Exeter Conference" »

February 7, 2005

South-South Science and the MDGs

The Millennium Development Goals are, at their root, a checklist of what it will take to meet the basic living needs of every person on the planet. They call for clean water, literacy, elimination of starvation, and the like -- simple, readily achievable goals. If the MDG project leaders had their way, it wouldn't cost the developed world much to see these goals implemented, around fifty cents for every $100 of developed world income.

In the meantime, however, developing nations are looking for ways to achieve these goals on their own. Science is key to this, especially science done cooperatively between developing nations (aka "South-South science"). Medical biotechnology, in particular, may prove to be a key to the success of the MDGs.

Continue reading "South-South Science and the MDGs" »

IDFuel on Hydrogen

020105_bacteria.jpgA recent editorial in Business Week argued "When people talked about innovation in the '90s, they really meant technology. When people talk about innovation in this decade, they really mean design." It's fascinating to watch the ways in which design concepts and philosophies are beginning to take root outside fields traditionally thought of as "design." Similarly, it's wonderful to see designers begin to embrace more fully the broader social, technological and environmental context in which they work. WorldChanging ally IDFuel is an excellent example of this broader-context approach, as is IDFuel editor Dominic Muren's article from last week on hydrogen.

The article is a summary of recent findings in the world of biohydrogen -- the use of naturally occurring microbes to generate hydrogen from raw foodstuffs. It's a good summary, filled with interesting links and useful tidbits of info. I encourage you to go read for these alone. But it was the concluding paragraph that caught my eye.

These systems are still in their infancy, but this is the perfect time for designers and architects to begin thinking about how their introduction might alter the social and urban landscape. First of all, now that the fuel for cars no longer needs to be refined meticulously, or at least it's refinement will not require huge, ugly plants, what opportunities for integration into a city are there. [...] The possibilities are intriguing, as always. It's certainly a cool time to be designing.

Exactly. Exactly. Climate change, smart mobs, the emergence of advanced bio and nanotechnologies, the evolution of energy, transportation and urban systems... these forces intersect and recombine, co-evolve and co-inspire, and will provide a wondrous and productive canvas for forward-thinking designers. This is why WorldChanging, in the end, has a clear-eyed optimism about the future. The tools for transforming the world are already here -- and, just as important, so are the desire and the talent.

California Pulls Out the Stops

Since taking on the entire auto industry was clearly an insufficient challenge for the government of California, the state's public utilities commission has now decided to embark on a project to change the way it regulates utilities in order to address climate disruption and greenhouse gas emissions:

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) today announced it is gearing up for its groundbreaking Feb. 23 en banc to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions by identifying best practices for all PUC regulated companies (electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, and transportation). Presenters include representatives from the academic, research, business, insurance, shareholder activist, and state government organizations.

"We are the first PUC in the nation to squarely address the issue of climate change, as it relates to all of our regulated utilities.  This is an unprecedented and much needed step in the United States, and I am pleased that, working with Governor Schwarzenegger and his administration, we are leading the charge on this important issue," said PUC President Michael R. Peevey. [...]

Opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to business operations include power plant operation, fleet vehicle efficiency, building efficiencies, and overall reduction of energy consumption.

If you thought the lawsuits came fast when California started pushing for reduced vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, just wait. The power, telecom and transportation companies officially regulated by the CPUC include some pretty mammoth corporations. It will be interesting to see if any of them have the foresight to work with the CPUC on this instead of against it.

The first meeting of the project will be Wednesday, February 23, in San Francisco. I'm going to try to attend. Interested parties are encouraged to read the CPUC climate change background paper, which goes into some detail about why they've decided to take this step. Unfortunately, they've only made the background paper available as a Word document. When I found that the paper was little more than text and a single table, I used Word's HTML conversion utility to produce an HTML version of the CPUC climate change paper.

February 8, 2005

Bruce on Bag

The ever-interesting Treehugger managed to get a solar-power backpack into the hands of WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling, now on an extended stay in Pasadena, California. Bruce's review of the bag -- or, perhaps more accurately, Bruce's articulation of the observations made by his daughter, who actually used the thing -- are, as always, amusing and insightful. Money quote:

Given that I have a solar-powered dynamo now, how about a backup server. too? If I had two or three petabytes of flash memory in a bag, I could backpack data storage for anybody who plugged in -- I'd be the Johnny Appleseed of voltage and memory. I'd carry a community on my back rather than trudging a dusty way to splendid isolation.

Don't forget the WiFi, Bruce. Don't forget the WiFi.

The $100 Dilemma

osbourne.jpgAt last week's World Economic Forum in Davos, MIT technology celebrity Nicholas Negroponte announced a project to build $100 laptops for the developing world, for use as textbook replacements, information/communication tools, and the like. The idea is fairly ambitious: the proposed laptop would have a 14-inch color display, and will run Linux on AMD chips.

[Negroponte] described the device as a stripped down laptop, which would run a Linux-based operating system, "We have to get the display down to below $20, to do this we need to rear project the image rather than using an ordinary flat panel. [...] "The second trick is to get rid of the fat , if you can skinny it down you can gain speed and the ability to use smaller processors and slower memory."

The device will probably be exported as a kit of parts to be assembled locally to keep costs down.

Interestingly, the reports don't mention what Negroponte plans as the network interface (modem, ethernet, or wireless), or whether such a connection would even be included in the basic design. Connectivity of some sort seems an obvious need, but the drive to cut costs might end up making that a relatively expensive option.

A perhaps greater issue is that Negroponte seems trapped in an American-user mindset of how people will want to access information and communication resources. While laptops are wonderful tools (I'm writing this on one right now), the computer device with the largest global penetration isn't usually referred to as a computer at all -- it's the mobile phone. The number of mobile phone users worldwide is roughly 1.5 billion, and is expected to top 2 billion by 2006; current Internet use, conversely, is just under a billion, and is projected to hit 1.2 billion in 2006. Manufacturing processes for mobile phones are pretty efficient these days, and the operating systems and applications they come with are simple but relatively powerful. How would the "$100 Computer" look if it was built as a step up from the mobile phone instead of as a stripped-down laptop?

Continue reading "The $100 Dilemma" »

Biology News

Dear WorldChanging,

Where can I find regularly updated headlines on the biosciences appropriate for non-specialists, but with none of the distractions of those other sciences in the mix? Oh, and RSS-friendly, please.

DNAching for Information

Dear DNAching,

Try Biology News. It covers biotech, stem cell research, bioscience news, even has a discussion forum. It runs a little heavy on the Google Ad placement, but what are you gonna do?


(via SciScoop)

February 10, 2005

Wave Energy

wavepower.jpgThe great renewable energy myth is that it's more expensive than obsolete sources of power. While that's arguably true for solar -- although less so all the time -- it's definitely not the case for wind. And, as it turns out, it's not the case for wave power, either. Built in the right locations, wave power generation can be as inexpensive as wind -- that is, competitive with more traditional power technologies (and, I would argue, even cheaper when externalities are added in). This comes from EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, following a multi-year study of the economics of wave energy.

Conceptual designs for 300,000 megawatt-hour (MWh) plants (nominally 120 MW plants operating at 40% capacity factor) were performed for five sites: Waimanalo Beach, Oahu, Hawaii; Old Orchard Beach, Cumberland County, Maine; WellFleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Gardiner, Douglas County, Oregon; and Ocean Beach, San Francisco County, California.The study determined that wave energy conversion may be economically feasible within the territorial waters of the United States as soon as investments are made to enable wave technology to reach a cumulative production volume of 10,000 - 20,000 MW. (Land-based wind turbines, in comparison, generate 40,000 MW.) [...]

Continue reading "Wave Energy" »

Tsunami Solar Light

One of the terrific elements of the Project Re:Build effort (supported by the Architecture for Humanity/WorldChanging Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal) is the focus on sustainable reconstruction: This appeal, coupled with pro-bono design services and material donations, will allow for the building of more than just basic shelter, allowing the construction of schools, infrastructure and medical clinics. With a more holistic and sustainable approach of reconstruction, a truly worldchanging idea, the funds will help to build beyond simple dwellings to live but create real communities for life to grow, rebuild and renew.

A similar (if narrower) project has now come to my attention: the Tsunami Solar Light Fund. Renewable Energy Access is spearheading an effort to "provide 1,500 solar power home systems and 25 solar-powered community street lights in the Tamil Nadu region on India's southeastern coast." Working in coordination with the Solar Electric Light Fund, an NGO promoting efforts to bring photovoltaic power to rural villages around the world, the Tsunami Solar Light Fund will help make the tsunami reconstruction efforts an opportunity for energy leapfrogging.


ecoist.jpgEcoist makes "one of a kind" handbags of varying sizes out of candy wrappers, food packages and soft drink labels. Keep them out of landfills, the argument goes, by wearing them on your arm. In addition, Ecoist will plant a tree (via Global Releaf ) for every bag purchased.

To be honest, I find them a bit on the ugly side, but Josh Rubin: Cool Hunting likes them, so what do I know?

Is This So?

John Perry Barlow, EFF co-founder and cybercurmudgeon from the 1990s, made the following claim at the World Social Forum last month:

"Already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger," said Barlow

Anybody up for fact-checking this statement? If true, it's a simple-but-powerful meme...

(Via Gil Friend)

No One Should Suffer For Chilled Wine

Reports from Verdopolis are starting to come in. First on the dock we have this post by Will Duggan, of the US Partnership for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. He writes of the session entitled "Adaptation and Innovation: Business Opportunities in a Time of Environmental Challenge," which included participation from officers of Swiss Re, BSH Home Appliance, and Deutsche Bank AG. The title of this post comes from a comment made by Franz Bosshard, President and CEO of BSH, about the need to make sustainability an expected part of how things work -- the end-user shouldn't have to worry about whether or how the product meets sustainability guidelines.

Great report, Will -- thanks for the heads-up!

UK Green Car Ratings

The UK's Department for Transport has unveiled a new set of vehicle ratings based on how much CO2 they emit per kilometer. The rating scheme, part of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, uses data from the UK's Vehicle Certification Agency, and is set up as a basic A-F, with "A" ratings going to vehicles putting out less than 100 g/km -- right now, only the Honda Insight and battery electric vehicles, although fuel cell (or even air-powered) cars would presumably also end up with this rating. WorldChanging favorites Prius and Smart are "B" cars, putting out 101-120 g/km; worst of the bunch are the Land Rovers and Lamborghinis and the like, getting an "F" for their greater than 185 g/km emissions. All 42 car brands available in the UK have agreed to participate in the ratings scheme, which is ostensibly voluntary.

As much as the A-F ratings are easily understood, I'm still rather fond of the rating system found in the US for overall emissions. The labels are increasingly grand, and the acronyms sound right out of a science fiction story: LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle), ULEV (Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle), SULEV (Super-Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle), PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) and ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle). Can I say I'm glad they didn't go with Super-Duper-Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle?

(Thanks, Lorenzo!)

Open Source Biotech Makes Its Mark

sem_colour.gifWe've followed the progress of open source bioscience from early on. The logic of open biotechnology is quite compelling, and potentially very world-changing, as it can make the tools and techniques for improved health and development widely available across the developing world. Science should be a fundamental part of development policy. Open source bioscience may be one of the most important catalysts for leapfrogging we have.

Open Biotech has now had its first big breakthrough. Researchers at Cambia, a life sciences institute in Australia, have developed TransBacter, an open source alternative to the Monsanto-patented process for transferring new genes to plants. Publishing in this week's Nature, they detail (PDF) how they developed the process and -- more importantly -- how others can get free (as in "libre") access to it. This work is part of the Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative, which seeks to build a broad toolkit of open source biotechnologies, and is already available as a project in the BioForge open source biotech forum.

Continue reading "Open Source Biotech Makes Its Mark" »

Emily Gertz at Verdopolis

Our own Emily Gertz is attending Verdopolis, as well, and will be filing reports on what she finds for Grist (as well as doing a write-up for WorldChanging). Her first day's observations are now online, and are well worth checking out. This paragraph caught my eye:

This good mood is what seems to be different about Verdopolis. It's a gathering where we dispense with arguing the moral imperative of fewer cars and more trees, and instead get on with figuring out how to design the bright green future for our growing cities. It's beyond anger, done with denial, and waist-deep into acceptance. And at this panel, we were accepting that human-caused climate instability has arrived, and making it better is both the right thing to do and a huge business opportunity.

Sounds like our kind of event.

February 11, 2005

HOV Hybrids, Nationwide?

We didn't note California's passing of a law awhile back allowing hybrid vehicles to drive in carpool (High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV) lanes with just a single occupant. While a nice gesture, it was ultimately a pointless one -- because Federal money underwrites HOV lanes, they control the rules, and the US Department of Transportation has so far been unwilling to bend the law to allow solo hybrid drivers in (with the exception of Virginia, in 2000). That may change, if a bill introduced by car alarm magnate/current Republican legislator Darrel Issa passes. The bill would allow states to set their own rules for HOV lanes, which means that as more states pick up the idea (Arizona, Connecticut and Georgia are considering rules similar to California's), a hybrid driver could eventually be able to drive in carpool lanes from sea to shining sea.

Or maybe not -- as always, the devil is in the details. California's rule, for example, requires a sticker, and only 75,000 will be authorized. This is to avoid overcrowding of carpool lanes, which apparently has been a problem in Virginia. And the California law also only applies to vehicles getting greater than 45 miles per gallon -- Insights, Hybrid Civics, and Priuses, , Hybrid Accords, Hybrid Escapes, and other upscale hybrids, no -- something that US automakers have complained about. Missouri legislators have written a bill which would open up the HOV lanes to any hybrid which gets 10% better mileage than a standard version vehicle. This may make Ford happy, but would definitely result in crowded carpool lanes, and seems like an awfully low bar to meet.

Cradle to Cradle Home Competition Winners

Cradle to Cradle design certainly sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice? The C2C Home Competition, which opened last summer in Roanoke, Virginia, sought to answer that very question. The results are now in -- and if this is what a future of "embracing renewable energy, recyclable materials, and nature as a model for design" will look like, the neighborhoods of post-oil, post-auto cities will be stunning places indeed. And, more to the point, the neighborhoods of Roanoke will start to look pretty stunning, too. The winning C2C designs will be built starting this summer.

The competition received 625 submissions from 41 countries, and managed to narrow the selection down to four professional and four student designs. Jurors were Daniel Libeskind, Bill McDonough, Randall Stout and Sarah Susanka. Some of the contest rules were a bit abstract; the guiding principles included points such as "Restore: The home you design must stop the process of taking and begin the process of giving" and "Exert Intergenerational Responsibility: The World Belongs to the Living. Consider this as it relates to the objective of loving all children of all species for all time." The base design and space guidelines, however, were fairly straightforward.

The results, however, were anything but.

Continue reading "Cradle to Cradle Home Competition Winners" »

Sustainable Electronics

Electronics -- computers, stereos, mobile phones, etc. -- are rapidly becoming a big part of the waste stream. That's bad: not only are these devices often still functional (if no longer "useful"), they typically contain toxic metals which should not get into ground water; electronics make up 70 percent of all hazardous waste. Governments are waking up to the need for better electronics recycling, and so are manufacturers -- and designers. This week saw a good Los Angeles Times piece (here republished in the Seattle Times) about moves in the electronics industry to become less wasteful in their designs.

The key driver in this is the increase in regulations, especially in Europe, demanding that manufacturers accept their products back for recycling. WorldChanging Ally #1 even gets quoted:

"If companies know they're going to see these things again, will they design them differently? You bet they will," said Bruce Sterling, a lecturer at Pasadena's influential Art Center College of Design, which next year will include "sustainable design" classes in its curriculum.

(I expect that he'll appreciate the academic attribution, not "science fiction writer/Viridian Pope-Emperor.")

Continue reading "Sustainable Electronics" »

February 12, 2005

The Solar System, to Scale

Web designer Troy Brophy, fascinated by how things scale, has created a nifty page demonstrating just how much space there is in space. The Solar System is a six million pixel-wide page (where each pixel=1000 km), with the Sun at the left and each planet in its appropriate orbit and at an approximately correct size (at least within 1000 km of correct). There are links at the top to allow a jump to each planet, a good thing since simply scrolling left to right makes finding planets rather difficult. If you'd like to see how the planets match up against each other without a lot of scrolling and jumping, there's a link to put them all on a single screen.

The page requires IE6 or Mozilla/Firefox; the super-wide tables apparently don't render properly in Safari or Opera.

Barcoding Life

barcode.jpgHow many species are left on Earth -- and how would you know if you've stumbled across a new one?

We now about 1.7 million of the estimated 10-30 million species on the planet. If we had a database of unique genomes of every one, such questions would be readily answered; such information may be years away at best. Nonetheless, various efforts are underway to get an accurate accounting of the life forms on our planet (see WorldChanging posts here, here and here). The most promising pathway appears to be the "DNA barcoding" project. DNA barcoding narrows the particular characteristics of each species to a few, easily-identified genetic markers, which can then be read in the field with a handheld device. We talked about the initiation of the Barcoding Life program a year ago -- and we're now starting to see the results.

The BBC reports on the proceedings of last week's International Conference on the Barcoding of Life, hosted by the UK's Natural History Museum. At the conference, three major new projects were announced:

Continue reading "Barcoding Life" »

Pax Warrior

paxwarrior.jpgScenarios don't have to be about the future. We can learn from the examination of past experiences, exploring how alternative options may have played out. These are often referred to as "counter-factual" exercises, as they are intended to play out in ways contrary to historical fact, giving participants insights into both how decisions are made and the complexity of events. Pax Warrior, a computer simulation-documentary on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, is designed to be just this sort of counter-factual exercise. In Pax Warrior, the player is given the role of a UN Peacekeeping commander in Rwanda, and is asked to make a series of increasingly-difficult decisions about how to respond to evidence that something awful is taking place.

There isn't an obvious "right answer" in the simulation; seemingly-correct choices can have unforeseen (yet utterly plausible) results, as the text in the image here shows. The goal isn't necessarily to stop the genocide (although that would obviously be an ideal outcome), it's to educate players about the complexity of managing humanitarian situations. A Canadian team began working on the project in 2002 in coordination with academic and activist specialists on human rights and genocide, and a beta version of the software is now available.

Continue reading "Pax Warrior" »

February 13, 2005

Mars Gashopper

The Mars Exploration Rovers ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") have performed well beyond their expected lifespans, and have by all measures been an enormous success. But they roll slowly around the surface of Mars, and have gone just a few kilometers each, largely avoiding any kind of rough terrain. In order to get a better look at the variety of the Martian landscape, we'll need something which can move faster over any kind of ground. Something which can fly, but which can also land and take samples, repeatedly.

Enter the Gashopper:

The gashopper would get its electricity from a large set of solar panels built on top of its wings. It would use this electricity to retrieve carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, and then store it as a liquid inside the aircraft. When enough gas was stored up to make a flight, it would heat up a hot bed of pellets and then pass the CO2 through it. Now hot, the gas would act as a propellant, and allow the gashopper to lift off vertically from the surface of Mars. Once airborne, it could then fire more gas out a rear thruster and begin flying as an airplane, using its large wings for lift and maneuverability. When it was ready to land, the aircraft could slow its airspeed, and then touch down gently as a vertical lander.

While still very much in the early-testing/proposal stage, the gashopper has a distinct advantage over many other proposed explorer vehicles: it is designed to use resources already present in the Martian environment (sunlight for power and CO2 for propulsion), so it can keep going as long as the hardware itself is functional. In addition, it won't pollute the Martian atmosphere with chemicals which might confuse any tests for organic material. A sustainable, environmentally-sensitive, wide-ranging exploration system for Mars? I'm all for it.


New Sustainability Sunday contributor Joel Makower wrote a pretty interesting essay last Sunday, too, on his weblog: Are Evangelicals the New Environmentalists? Joel looks at the shifts in the attitudes of the American Evangelical Christian movement regarding the environment. This doesn't mean a wholesale adoption of progressive values, but a careful embrace of the notion of stewardship of the planet:

"The environment is a values issue," the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, told the PostÂ’s Harden. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right."

It will be interesting to see if the broader realization that the environment is in serious long-term trouble can function as a bridge across the poisonous American political faultline.

Verdopolis, Day Two

Emily's article at Grist on the second day of Verdopolis is now up, and is (of course!) an excellent read. (We linked to her article on day one here.) This time she covers the panel on "The Green City," where the speakers grapple with the difficulty of making built spaces both sustainable and livable. This applies to more than the shape (and insulation levels) of buildings. Transportation must be "livable," too.

"Good transportation design fosters a good attitude in people," Vergara says, and then -- as I'm finding is typical at Verdopolis -- presents an idea that once I've heard it, is so smart it's startling. To sell multibillion-dollar mass-transportation projects, start with the last thing: Design the vehicle. [...]

Cesar Vergara is not giving any ground on the inevitability of the personal car in his vision of the green city."The car of the future is a railroad car," Vergara says, "and there's a bike waiting for you at the other end of the ride."

IDFuel on the Cell

cellproc.jpgI had noted the announcement of the IBM-Sony-Toshiba "Cell" processor last week, but had not paid it close attention. While (as a relative of the PowerPC architecture) it may end up in future-generation Macs, its initial use will be in the Playstation 3; console game systems really aren't on my radar these days. However, IDFuel's Dominic Muren gave me a well-deserved (virtual) smack upside the head -- the Cell processor looks to be a pretty big deal for some distinctly worldchanging-relevant reasons.

If you haven't heard of it, the Cell is a new processor design which starts out at speeds well exceeding the best from Intel, with the potential to run ten times the speed of today's fastest computers (and you thought Moore's Law was dead...). That's nice, but faster processors are hardly a surprise. One aspect that makes it interesting is it's "multi-core" architecture: each processor in turn comprises multiple sub-processors, each able to handle tasks independently (even running different operating systems). What makes the Cell very interesting, however, is that the task-shuffling between and among cores isn't limited to a single Cell processor: the chips can send tasks across networks, creating ad-hoc distributed computing groups. And since the Cell runs at relatively low power -- the one used in the Playstation 3 will likely consume 30 Watts, the equivalent of a mobile Pentium -- it can be used in a much wider array of hardware than traditional PC processors. IBM, Sony and Toshiba are already talking about the Cell as being useful for mobile devices (phones, PDAs) and home electronics. In a Cell-enabled environment, not only can various devices talk to each other, they can share computing resources.

Continue reading "IDFuel on the Cell" »

February 14, 2005

Treehugger on Getting Green Power

So you want to use renewable sources for your home power, but can't install solar panels & a wind turbine? About half of US retail power customers have the option of purchasing "green" power from their electrical utility companies (or, to be more precise, have the option of asking the utilities to buy a fraction more power from a renewable source to put into the grid at large -- electrons are electrons, and everyone on the grid draws from the same pool). If you aren't in that lucky half, there are other ways to boost the use of renewable power, from pricing premiums to "tradable renewable certificates." Treehugger has the breakdown and the links.

Geo-Greens, Take Two

Tom Friedman's "Geo-Greens" model may not be fully-baked yet, but is clearly the subject of his next book. His Sunday column in the New York Times continues to expound on the concept, and this time he manages to get in a couple of decent proposals. The money quote:

As a geo-green, I believe that combining environmentalism and geopolitics is the most moral and realistic strategy the U.S. could pursue today. Imagine if President Bush used his bully pulpit and political capital to focus the nation on sharply lowering energy consumption and embracing a gasoline tax. [...] Sadly, the Bush team won't even consider this. It prefers cruise missiles to cruise controls. We need a grass-roots movement. Where are college kids these days? I would like to see every campus in America demand that its board of trustees disinvest from every U.S. auto company until they improve their mileage standards. Every college town needs to declare itself a "Hummer-free zone." You want to drive a gas-guzzling Humvee? Go to Iraq, not our campus. And an idea from my wife, Ann: free parking anywhere in America for anyone driving a hybrid car.

(Emphasis mine.) While as a hybrid driver I can certainly get behind that last suggestion, I think the divestment strategy in particular has a great deal of merit. The 1980s college campaigns to cease investments in companies which did business with the Apartheid government in South Africa drew a great deal of attention to the issue, and helped to bring about the end of the regime. We would need a catchy ska tune, though...


Three great ideas that go great together -- nanotechnology, solar power and hydrogen. We've mentioned before the growing use of nanoengineering to develop materials better able to split hydrogen from water using solar energy. Technology Research News brings word of another step in making this a reality.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have constructed a material made from titanium dioxide nanotubes that is 97 percent efficient at harvesting the ultraviolet portion of the sun's light and 6.8 percent efficient at extracting hydrogen from water.The material is easy to make, inexpensive, and photochemically stable, according to the researchers.

The downside is that only about five percent of the sun's energy hitting the earth is ultraviolet light; work continues to figure out how to shift the nanotube response to visible light. The original article appeared in Nano Letters; the full text (with illustrations) is available online.

Nanotechnology and the Developing World

Image Courtesy DOE/NRELThe Meridian Institute, a strategic solutions consultancy, is running the Global Dialogue on Nanotechnology and the Poor, a project intended to trigger a conversation about the ways in which nanotechnology can be applied to the problems of development and poverty. Anyone may participate, and I encourage WorldChanging readers to do so. Meridian has prepared a short (29 page) document outlining the key issues in some detail. The Global Dialogue project would prefer if you signed up for the questionnaire prior to downloading the document, but the paper itself encourages broad distribution.

The Global Dialogue project is very much a WorldChanging-style discussion:

The goals of the GDNP are to:
  • Raise awareness about the implications of nanotechnology for the poor;
  • Close the gaps within and between sectors of society to develop an action plan that addresses opportunities and risks; and
  • Identify ways that science and technology can play an appropriate role in the development process.
  • The Global Dialogue will feed into a large-scale, multi-stakeholder meeting in April to address the issues raised. SciDev.net is also covering the Dialogue, and has prepared an excellent intro to the question of whether nanotechnology can be applied to development issues. For me, however, the answer is already crystal clear:

    Nanotech may be the ultimate leapfrog technology.

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology and the Developing World" »

    Verdopolis, Day Three

    Emily's third dispatch from Verdopolis is now up at Grist -- go read it. (Here are links to posts about Day One and Day Two, if you're keeping score at home.) This time, in "The Three Marketeers," she looks at the "Show Me the Money" session. The upshot? The suits are joining the fight.

    'Bout time.

    Know Your Products

    Our beloved Régine Debatty, in her Near Near Future weblog, recently linked to a couple of services allowing you -- the consumer -- to know better just what you're buying when you pull that can or box off the supermarket shelf. Both blend performance art, ethics and technology -- and both have great unrealized potential.

    The first is the Corporate Fallout Detector, created by James Patten, a Ph.D. candidate in the Tangible Media Group at MIT's Media Lab:

    The Corporate fallout Detector scans barcodes off of consumer products, and makes a clicking noise based on the environmental or ethical record (selectable via the "sensitivity" switch) of the manufacturer. [...] Due to increasingly complex global supply chains, a single product we buy may contain parts made by various companies all over the world. We may agree with the business practices of some of these companies, while not with others. The complexity of the relationships between manufacturers can be so great that it becomes unclear how to translate our personal convictions into good buying decisions, and all purchasing decisions involve an unavoidable element of risk. [...] For some people, the clicking sound it makes brings back ominous memories of Geiger counters sold to the public in the cold war era. The hope is that hearing this sound, combined with the sight of someone scrutinizing products in a store will cause people to think about their buying decisions in a different way.

    Videos of the Corporate Fallout Detector in use are available (QT small, QT big, WM small, WM big). The data for the CFD came from a variety of sources, including Ethical Consumer and the European pollution database. Unfortunately, the CFD is something of a one-off, and is not actually available to the public.

    Next up is the Visible Food Project, created by Chicago-based artist and writer Claire Pentecost:

    The VisibleFood project is a website and database created to expose the hidden costs of the globalized system that produces, processes and distributes our food. [...] Think of it as a "Whole Truth in Labeling Act" initiated and performed by citizens in the absence of government and corporate responsibility. No such database currently exists. We have designed ours as a managed open content system so that new information can be submitted by users who are either already doing this kind of research or are inspired to start.

    The beta database is online and available for use. You can search for companies, brands, specific products, ingredients and toxins. It's still mostly empty, but Visible Food has instructions for information gathering. As a collaborative project, it needs the active participation of shoppers everywhere; unfortunately, Visible Food uses an opaque sign-up and data management system. What we need is more of a Wikipedia approach. Anyone up to the challenge?

    February 15, 2005

    A Bad Idea, But A Real Question

    Image Courtesy DOE/NRELThe recently-appointed head of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Joan Borucki, advocates replacing the 18 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax in California with a "tax by the mile" system charging a fee for distance traveled in California, as determined by a Global Positioning System device installed into every vehicle, and collected at the gas pump. The reason? California car buyers have put so many hybrids and other high-mileage vehicles on the road that the amount collected in California in gas taxes since 1998 has declined by 8% (inflation adjusted), even while miles traveled has increased by 16% in the same period.

    This would mean that someone considering switching from a 15 mile-per-gallon truck to a 45 mile-per-gallon hybrid sedan for a 30 mile commute would pay the same amount of tax for the trip.

    This system is currently being considered in Oregon, under the "Road User Fee" label, and a test of 250 vehicles in Eugene, OR, is set to begin later this year. Other states are watching the results of the Oregon tests and the California discussion. As proposed, however, the "tax by the mile" system won't fly. There are too many problems with the plan's design. Nevertheless, the longer-term issue of declining gas taxes still has to be dealt with. Read on for more.

    Continue reading "A Bad Idea, But A Real Question" »

    HIV vs. Cancer

    The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is pretty remarkable in its ability to spread throughout the body and, as a retrovirus, to rewrite the DNA of the cells it attacks. But the part of the virus genome which makes it so prolific is not the same part which triggers such a deadly disease. It is possible, in fact, to remove the disease-causing payload of HIV entirely, creating an "impotent" strain of the virus. As will be reported in the upcoming edition of Nature Medicine (abstract online), such a neutered form of HIV has been used by a UCLA research team to target melanoma cells in mice -- in effect, to lay the groundwork to use HIV to fight cancer.

    The UCLA team employed a two-step approach to transform HIV into a cancer-seeking machine. First, the scientists used a version of HIV from which the viral pieces that cause AIDS had been removed. This allowed the virus to infect cells and spread throughout the body without provoking disease.

    "The disarmed AIDS virus acts like a Trojan horse – transporting therapeutic agents to a targeted part of the body, such as the lungs, where tumors often spread," said Chen [Irvin S.Y. Chen, Ph.D., director of the UCLA AIDS Institute], a professor of medicine, microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

    Continue reading "HIV vs. Cancer" »

    Ten Gallons of Kyoto

    Tomorrow's Kyoto Activation Day, so in commemoration, Bruce Sterling's latest Viridian Note (#00432) is an infodump of the "ins and outs of Kyotology" -- the Gallon Environment Letter, produced by the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment. Want to know the Kyoto Treaty's history? Its mechanisms for enforcement? A breakdown of greenhouse gas emitters (per capita, the US is number two -- and number one might surprise you)? Kyoto plans in Canada? The EU? What happens next? It's all here, and more, complete with links to even longer documents giving you even more details. Read it all. It's good for you.

    Biomimicry, Scorpion-Style

    Given the difficulties involved with figuring out how to make machines walk, it's no surprise that some roboticists are turning to arthropods as models. After all, insects and spiders and such are able to move pretty readily on some fairly simple hardware (including exceedingly simple brains). A machine would be doing very well to be able to match arthropod articulation. Are they there yet? You be the judge.

    Frank Kirchner, a roboticist from the University of Bremen, is collaborating with Silvano Colombano at NASA's Ames Research Center in the development of an eight-legged robot with walking behaviors based on that of the scorpion. The Scorpion (as that is its name, of course) is able to sense changes in terrain and respond accordingly. Nature News has a brief write-up of the technology, along with a video of the Scorpion in action which demonstrates how far biomimetic robot mobility has come, and how far it still needs to go.

    Future generations of the Scorpion may be crawling along rocky crevasses on Mars (perhaps carried as the payload of a Gashopper) and through buildings knocked down by earthquakes or other disasters here on Earth.

    Why Leapfrogging Matters

    Our post last week about the $100 Computer generated quite a bit of good discussion. Implicit in some of the comments, however, was the question of what use people living in the developing world would have for a seemingly-frivolous bit of information technology. Smart Mobs author and WorldChanging ally Howard Rheingold, in his new piece for The Feature, has an answer: market information.

    Markets aren't only for the rich. Certain kinds of information, however, convey advantages to those have the right data at the right time. Until recently, only the relatively wealthy had swift access to relevant market information. The cost of technologies that connect people with economically useful price data has declined steadily, however, from the tycoons of the early 20th century with their home ticker-tape machines to the day-traders of recent decades with their desktop PCs, and now, to farmers in developing countries who are beginning to own mobile phones.


    Continue reading "Why Leapfrogging Matters" »

    February 16, 2005

    Bill McKibben on Windmills

    Grist points us to Bill McKibben's editorial in today's New York Times. McKibben notes that proposed windmill farms often generate local opposition based on the argument that the size of the wind turbines ruins scenic views and lowers property values; such arguments often come from people calling themselves environmentalists. McKibben fairly gently suggests that such folks look at the bigger picture, and learn to love (or at least live with) the clean energy towers. I'll be more blunt: global warming is going to do a lot worse to the environment than just make the coast less scenic, and NIMBY opposition to having their seaside resorts' views "ruined" by only-visible-on-the-clearest-days windmills on the horizon needs to end. Now.

    Or, as Dave Roberts at Grist put it: Oil and gas exploration is ravaging the American West. The nuclear industry is resurgent. And oh yeah, the globe is frying.

    If environmentalists take global warming seriously, and expect others to take it seriously, maybe they shouldn't become bitchy provincialists the minute you want to build a wind turbine that impedes the scenic view off the back porches of their vacation homes.

    Damn straight.

    Styrofoam Homes

    The Federation of American Scientists has been working on the development of energy-efficient housing materials which can be assembled quickly, relatively inexpensively, and with local production. Their focus has been on the use of "Expanded PolyStyrene" (EPS) wall and roof boards with a "cementitious" coating. EPS has some real advantages -- it's easy to work with, long-lasting, and has excellent thermal properties (cutting heating/cooling costs by 50-70 percent in some tests). Last summer, they embarked on a pilot project for Afghanistan. They're also going to be building a model home in Houston. (For those concerned, EPS does not use chlorofluorocarbons in manufacturing.)

    Now comes word that a two-story test house (shown to the right) made of EPS clad with cement board (and fit together without wood framing or braces) has passed earthquake testing. But this wasn't just passing minimal structural requirements: the house remained fully intact after being shaken harder than the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. The FAS pages for the housing material includes some images of the EPS panels used, demonstrating both how easily it can be cut and shaped during construction (prior to cement cladding) and just how strong the clad boards are. Check the extended entry for a large image of a full-size pickup truck parked on a suspended EPS board without any significant bending or denting.

    A 2004 FAS article gives some cost estimates. Depending upon choices of materials in the construction, a 72 square meter EPS house in Afghanistan would run from just over $1,000 to just under $6,000 total, including labor and capital expenses; the cement-clad EPS design was estimated to run around $3,000. It may not be the least expensive home building material, but it's still fairly reasonable -- and the energy efficiency and structural integrity make a real difference.

    EPS panels are now available for construction projects in the US, having passed Uniform Building Code standards; a company called ThermaSAVE has more details.

    (Via Ken Novak)

    Continue reading "Styrofoam Homes" »

    Happy Kyoto Day

    The Kyoto Treaty becomes active today. Is the world saved yet?

    No, but that's okay. It doesn't matter that (as critics from all sides never tire of pointing out) the treaty itself pushes for minimal reductions in CO2 emissions -- 5% under 1990 levels -- and doesn't include rapidly-developing nations like China and India. In and of itself, the Kyoto treaty won't solve global warming or avert disastrous climate disruption. But that's not the point of Kyoto.

    Continue reading "Happy Kyoto Day" »

    Green Flight

    Global travel is good; reducing air pollution (including GHG emissions) is good. Unfortunately, as we've noted in the past, air travel is a significant contributor to atmospheric pollution. The more you fly, the bigger your ecological footprint. Increased use of biofuels might help in the short-term, but solving this problem is going to require some serious effort.

    That's what the "Efficient and Environmentally Friendly Aero-Engine" (EEFA) program is about. Coordinated by the European Union, EEFA includes 53 partner groups, including the entire European airplane industry, various national defense and technology agencies and numerous universities. Begun in 2000, the program seeks to (PDF):

  • Reduce fuel consumption by 12% to 20%
  • Reduce NOx emissions by 60% 80%
  • Reduce cost of ownership by 20% to 30%
  • Improve reliability by 60%
  • Reduce time to market by 50%
  • Reduce life cycle cost by 30%
  • Ambitious, to be sure, but obviously of great value. EEFA plans to start testing new engine designs this year.

    End Poverty Now

    James Traub wrote an excellent and brief essay in this last Sunday's New York Times entitled "Freedom, From Want." In it, he asks why it is that the United States, source of the Marshall Plan, is so reluctant (even now, post-9/11) to spend money on economic development assistance. The US ranks last among donor nations in development aid, at 0.15 percent of gross national income (compared to Scandinavian countries, for example, which are close to 0.7 percent of GNI now). It's not a happy article, but it does lay out the issues at hand clearly and succinctly.

    A similar piece appears to be found in yesterday's Financial Times, by Martin Wolf. "The Elimination of Poverty" starts out with two hard to dispute propositions: first, the elimination of destitution, disease and deprivation is taking too long; second, additional assistance to the world's poorest countries is easily affordable. I'm told that the column makes a strong statement in support of rich country aid for development, but unfortunately getting to the article requires a FT subscription. Any subscribers willing to summarize Wolf's arguments in the comments?

    Britain and India, Together Again

    While we can often be found extolling the virtues of South-South science, it's good to see a bit of North-South science in the mix, too. SciDev.net reports that India and the UK have announced plans to "collaborate on sustainable development projects, including conducting research on climate change together." The UK is taking the lead on the project, and this is only the first step:

    UK environment minister Elliot Morley... added that China would be the next country that Britain engages with in this way, which is aimed at addressing the issue of achieving economic growth without damaging the environment.Climate change is one of the areas of collaboration identified in a joint statement issued by Tony Blair and Manmohan Singh, the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and India, during Singh's visit to the United Kingdom last year.The other areas include clean sources of energy, biotechnology and bioinformatics, nanotechnology, agriculture, and health research.

    The UK, which is ranked #6 in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, has very clearly gotten religion on the subject. India, while seeing its own emissions grow, is also quite conscious of its geography. Climate disruption has a good chance of altering monsoonal rainfall patterns, with potentially nasty results, as a fluctuation of just ten percent in the monsoon rainfall amounts can trigger widespread flooding or drought.

    February 17, 2005

    GSM 4 3B

    c117.jpgThe GSM Association, the industry organization for manufacturers of the most widely-used variety of mobile phones, wants to get mobile phones into the hands of the three billion or so people who live in areas covered by GSM networks, but who don't have a phone of any kind. Cost is the main barrier -- the cost of the service, local taxes, and cost of the unit itself. The GSMA intends to tackle all three, but their first initiative is the one over which they have the most control: the cost of the phone hardware.

    The Emerging Markets Handset program asked 18 different phone vendors to submit designs for phones with an end-user cost of under $40, with a longer term goal of sub-$30 (this in comparison to typical cost at present of close to $100). The GSMA chose the Motorola C114 platform as its reference phone; Motorola will begin production this Spring. The initial production target is six million handsets in the first six months, ramping up from there as production efficiencies allow for even lower phone prices. Nine emerging market mobile phone operators (covering much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East) have agreed to participate in the program, as well, providing lower cost service to match the phone. ("Emerging markets" are defined as having a below-average rating on the World Bank's GNP per capita index and a mobile phone penetration of under 50%; there are about 125 such countries.)

    As noted here recently, mobile phones are particularly useful in the developing world, as they provide ready access to market information otherwise unavailable in rural and small village communities. Any disaster information/alert system relying on mobile phones and SMS will benefit from the emerging market handsets, too. And in a world where young adults often have to leave their home communities (and sometimes home countries) to find work, we shouldn't underestimate the value of simple communication.

    Dev World Nano Net

    Announcements about nanotechnology programs and plans in the developing world are coming pretty fast now. The latest is a proposal from the executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Mohamed Hassan, that nanotech research groups in developing countries form a collaborative network. Hassan goes on to suggest that Africa be the first focus region for such a network.

    South Africa leads the field on the continent. According to its national strategy, from 2005 onwards it will dedicate US$5 million to US$10 million each year to nanotechnology research and development.

    In comparison, said Hassan, 2003 figures estimate that China spends US$175 million each year, with a 200 per cent growth rate. And the Brazilian government's 2004 budget for nanotechnology was US$7 million.

    Part of the problem is the political instability of many African states, suggested Mike Treder of the US-based Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

    Hassan agreed, adding that although several African governments pour money into science and technology, the brain drain draws their trained researchers out of the region. As a result, they effectively support research and development elsewhere.

    South-South collaborative nanotechnology networks. That pretty much sums up what the leapfrog future will look like.

    Images of a Changing World

    Pasterze1875Web.jpgOregon photographer Gary Braasch is documenting in images the changes to the environment increasingly resulting from climate disruption. His site, World View of Global Warming, contains dozens of photographs of changing conditions, from accelerated glacial thawing to images of flooding and drought to the rise and decline of plant and animal species. While many of the pictures are striking, it's the images of retreating glaciers that are to me the most dramatic. The Pasterze Glacier in Austria, shown at right, is now simply gone, as this Braasch photo attests. Although glaciers have been gradually pulling back for thousands of years, the thaws over the past century have generally been notably faster than past patterns.

    What sets the Braasch site apart are the abundant references. While footnoting does not necessarily indicate accuracy, the references (most of which are from primary scientific sources) do underscore the point that Braasch is making. And while it should be noted that even the most ardent global warming-focused climatologists will hesitate to assign blame for specific events (whether hurricanes, glacial melts, or droughts), the very breadth of the images tells its own story.

    The BBC has a selection of Braasch's images, set up as pairs from different years.

    The Saudi Biodiesel Juggernaut

    Okay, maybe not quite yet. But the Guardian reports that a British firm, D1 Oils, has launched a joint venture with a Saudi oil firm, Jazeera for Modern Technology, to make biodiesel for export.

    The new fuel is to be produced from plantations of jatropha trees on land that used to be desert. The black seeds from conker-type shells produced by the plants will be picked and fed into special refineries to be built in Saudi Arabia.The resulting fuel will either be used locally or mixed with crude oil and shipped to Europe to feed a growing demand for more environmentally friendly petrol.

    (Press release from D1 Oils here.) Jatropha is well-suited for this purpose, as it grows well with little water and in harsh environments. Jatropha-based biodiesel is already used in Africa and India.


    Salon editor Andrew Leonard interviews UK science fiction author Iain Banks (subscription or brief ad required). Banks is the author of a number of novels set in the world of The Culture, a galaxy-spanning, AI-enabled, post-consumption society that is, in a nutshell, pretty much the world I'd love to live in. The interview, while short, is rather provocative:

    I have sometimes in my darker moments, suspected that we -- humans, human society, our species -- are incapable of anything like the Culture. Because we are just too damn nasty. But on the other hand, I'm not, in principle, against genetic modification. I think we could make beneficial genetic improvements to ourselves, I mean, just supposing there was a bigotry gene, that was responsible for racism, and sexism and anti-Semitism -- all the bad "isms" -- suppose you could get all that out. You could end up with something like the Culture. [...]

    My worry about the genetic modification of behavior is that if we had that now we might all end up fundamentalist Christians.

    Well, you lot might! [Cackles gleefully.]

    It's all about who gets the technology first and how you spread it. Is it government run, or by very large corporations, or can it be done in the old-fashioned science fiction way, by one lone genius and an attractive assistant, working in a laboratory somewhere? Obviously, not to be too glib about it, the very idea of evolving ourselves scares large parts of society. It takes a lot of thinking about.

    February 18, 2005

    Thank You, Taran

    WorldChanger Taran Rampersad has decided to move on, and to focus his attention on his work at KnowProSE and his ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide. Taran joined us last April, and has been a spirited and dedicated voice for free/open source software, open access and open collaboration. We have been honored to have him in our midst, and will continue to follow his writings and ideas with great interest.

    Thank you for being a part of the WorldChanging community, Taran. Be well.

    Scout World

    Motor Trend of THE FUTUREIf you're not reading WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling's weblog at Wired News, now's definitely the time to start. The class that he's teaching at Pasadena Art Center College of Design has embarked on an exploration of scenarios for the 2010 future of Southern California, the most provocative of which (and the one the class is now focusing on) is "Scout World":

    In "Scout World," the threat is hysterically extreme but people are hysterically inventive! They're out beating the boundaries of the possible, looking for anything thatworks or even doesn't work!


    "The Scout World society... will probably make quick (wrong?) decisions when the conflict between science and ethics rears its head. The growing population and aging demographics will continue to pose threats that cannot completely be answered with technology. Scout World denizens may put off long-term solutions... people also want to feel secure and install any gadget that they feel might enable them to cope with any catastrophe."


    "Yeah, sure, we make mistakes here -- but we can make a MILLION brand-new mistakes super fast!"

    For the last week, Bruce's blog has been filled with artifacts of this future -- magazine covers, newspaper headlines, and, most recently, product designs: what does something as simple as a bottle of apple juice look like in 2010? The students have come up with a variety of options. They've been using "personas" (or, as they've been called elsewhere, "microscenarios") -- stories of individuals, their lives, needs and desires -- as anchors for the designs. This is a standard technique in the world of design, but is increasingly becoming a useful tool for business and organizational strategists.

    As with any set of scenarios, you don't have to agree with the assumptions or conclusions to learn something. And Bruce's posts on this project form a well-illustrated primer on the intersection of design, futurism, and innovation. I greatly look forward to what this group will come up with next.

    Warming the Oceans

    It's almost time to put a moratorium on WorldChanging stories pointing to yet more research showing that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity. Opposition to the idea at this point is entirely political, not scientific, and while the added data points are undoubtedly useful to researchers, such stories tend to run together. Our focus now should be on doing something about the problem. That said, the latest "it's happening" story, coming from this week's 2005 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is still worth noting -- because of its certainty, its depth and its provenance.

    Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, working with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI), have found "clear" and "compelling evidence" of human-forced global warming in the oceans. The Times of London has the an extensive write-up:

    Continue reading "Warming the Oceans" »

    Carbon Nanotubes Destined for your Hybrid

    Our love affair with carbon nanotubes continues unabated; the latest reason is research at UC Davis demonstrating a process for building high power supercapacitors using carbon nanotubes. Supercapacitors deliver a fast, powerful jolt of electricity; hybrid and fuel cell cars require high-power capacitors in order to start the engine, something typically done multiple times throughout a trip. Remember that hybrids are designed to cut the engine any time the vehicle stops, then restart very quickly once the brake is released. That takes power.

    What makes the carbon nanotube-based supercapacitors interesting is that they have a power density of 30 kilowatts per kilogram, compared to 4 kilowatts/kilogram for commercially-available capacitors (and 20 kW/kg for experimental versions of traditional designs).

    For those who want more details, you can read the paper in the February edition of the journal Nanotechnology.

    Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society

    Global warming isn't the only topic being discussed at this week's AAAS meeting. University of Pittsburgh researchers at the conference announced a significant step forward in the development of functional-replacement artificial limbs. They created a simple artificial arm which can be controlled by neural impulses directly from the brain, via a series of extremely thin implanted probes. A test monkey (its healthy real arms restrained) was able to learn to move the prosthetic arm with sufficient precision to be able to feed itself. Or, rather, the monkey and the arm co-learned: the monkey learned how to control the arm, and the arm's software learned what the various brain signals meant. The next step will be to create more complex hands and fingers for the artificial arm, and ultimately to make neurally-controlled prosthetics available to humans with missing or paralyzed limbs.

    This is certainly encouraging news for the millions of people around the world who have lost the use of hands, arms or legs due to disease, accident or conflict. Sophisticated cybernetic limbs will undoubtedly be initially very expensive, but advances in microprocessor, software and material sciences will over time drive down the costs of everything but the surgery; those who receive these artificial limbs later will also benefit from the years of "beta testing" by the early recipients. It may be a decade or two before who have lost limbs due to land mines could gain the benefit of this technology, but the University of Pittsburgh research suggests that such a day will come.

    This is also another step forward in the ongoing process of figuring out how to use digital technology to augment human abilities. This is not the only research on how to make machines "listen" to nerve signals. And while the point of the research is (quite appropriately) figuring out ways to assist the disabled, the history of adaptive technology shows that augmentation for therapy usually leads to augmentation for enhancement.

    Continue reading "Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society" »

    Woven PV

    It's time to move past the image of photovoltaic (PV) technology as being clunky, brittle and ugly black panels on rooftops. It is possible to create well-designed, interesting personal products using classic solar cells. Moreover, new forms of photovoltaic materials will allow for the integration of solar power into wide varieties of goods. One of the most intriguing is the idea of adding PV power to items we wear. Solar backpacks already exist -- but what about solar clothing? If the Massachusetts-based Konarka Technologies and the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) are right, we'll soon see not just solar cells sewn onto jackets, but solar power woven into fabric itself.

    Thin-film polymer PV makes this possible. While less efficient than traditional silicon panels (8% as compared to 25-35%), solar polymers are more flexible, better able to withstand damage, and potentially cheaper to make. Konarka has already demonstrated a functional polymer PV fiber; their work with EPFL will focus now on weaving a fabric from polymer PV threads with at least 4% efficiency.

    At that low level of power, you'll need a broad area to soak up enough energy to do anything really useful. Unsurprisingly, the initial application of the fabric will likely be in tents, probably for the military. The polymer PV fabric would be woven into the canvas or nylon, making the entire tent a power generator (at least during the day). Sails for sailboats might also be an early application.

    I say, still too clunky. I don't care that I can't charge my computer with a solar jacket -- I could at least trickle-charge my mobile phone. And what about solar curtains for the home -- they don't have to run my house, but they could still feed power back into the grid, passively, day after day. Ultimately, I'd like to see smart, power-generating fabric integrated throughout consumer products, replacing old, static, dead fabric. We don't need to power our society on solar cloth alone -- but that doesn't mean we can't get it to help.

    February 19, 2005

    Muji House

    Mention "Muji" to most Americans, and you'll get a blank look. Not from everyone, of course: a few will remember the brand from William Gibson's deliriously excellent Pattern Recognition, and those who have lived in Asia or Europe may nod wistfully, a look of dreamy longing in their eyes. Muji is a Japanese store which sells a variety of goods, from clothing to CD players to housewares, all under the philosophy of the company's full name: Mujirushi Ryhohin, "no brand, good product" (we posted about Muji back in December of 2003). While not explicitly a "sustainable design" outlet, Muji emphasizes simplicity, recycling and the avoidance of waste in its production and packaging. People who shop at Muji often become somewhat fanatical in their devotion.

    Muji is now applying its design philosophy to housing (Japanese page; rough English translation here). This strikes me as an interesting early indicator of something potentially big. What happens to the world of architecture when industrial designers, more accustomed to imagining new forms for coffee makers and laptops, turn their attention to the design of living spaces? After all, dwellings are just another kind of cultural artifact. What new insights might emerge?

    Calton Bolick, an American on a long-term stay in Japan, wrote about discovering the new Muji demo home on a trip to Yurakucho:

    Continue reading "Muji House" »

    Imagination, Innovation, and the Mobject

    We don't point to every Bruce Sterling article or speech, it just feels that way. Nonetheless, his new piece (PDF) at Innovation magazine (the mouthpiece of the Industrial Designers Society of America) lays out why science fiction is relevant to design, explores why design is important for thinking about the future, and tries to coin a few new words on top of it all. These last are all variants of "blobject," and one of them -- "mobject" -- feels like a winner:

    How does this work in practice? I envision some kind of universal fabricator. A big, bad, cheap fabricator that makes stuff out of utterly worthless raw materials. Straw and mud, perhaps. Or chopped grass, cellulose, recycled plastic and newspaper, even sand. A big, rugged, dirty, emergency thing like an upended cement mixer. But smart. There’s a lot of code in there. Free, unpatented code.

    So, how does it work? You’re a mob. You’re panicked; you’re shell-shocked; you’re thirsty. You need buckets. The mobject-maker spits out these general issue buckets. Khaki-colored maybe, the color of mixed dirt. Ugliest buckets in the word, but they work. They carry water. Now you need latrines, so out come a few hundred of them. Sewer pipes. Shower stalls. Faucets. The appurtenances of urban life. Squeezed out in molds, on the spot. Basic, safe water infrastructure so you don’t die of dysentery like every other dispossessed mob in the world. You wouldn’t normally put up with this mobject way of life, but if your town has been smashed in an earthquake, then mobjects are kind of handy. One helicopter and one fabricator and a week later you’ve got a town. It’s not a pretty town, but at least you’re not dead.

    The New Oceanography

    The combination of sensors, robots and cheap information technology is triggering a transformation of oceanography, according to a lengthy article from SeaWeb published at PhysOrg. High-tech oceanography is moving away from connect-the-dots sampling and towards a whole-system, big-picture understanding of the oceans, marine life, and the role of the sea in the global climate. From mapping via multi-beam sonar arrays to tracking fish migrations using microelectronic tags to the discovery of new species using deep sea remote-operated vehicles, oceanographers and ocean biologists have tools at their fingertips now that rival those of space exploration.

    "For every tool we have to explore outer space - space stations, tethered missions, rovers, mapping - we have a comparable tool for ocean exploration," says James Lindholm of the Pfleger Institute. "This suite of technologies allows us to study an environment that is equally hostile to human life."

    "It's exciting," adds Les Watling of the University of Maine. "There hasn't been this level of true exploration in the ocean for a hundred years."

    Of course, some of the tools now used are the direct result of space research, such as satellites able to see across the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, peering into the ocean's depths, identifying changes in temperature and chemistry.

    Continue reading "The New Oceanography" »

    New Scientist on India

    nsindiacover.jpgThe latest issue of New Scientist (cover date Feb 19-25) has a special collection of stories on India as an upcoming knowledge and technology powerhouse. The stories cover topics ranging from biotechnology and GM crops to the Indian space agency and satellites, with pieces about information technology, mobile communications, and energy along the way. Unfortunately, while the stories are all online, most are available only to subscribers. Two of the articles can be read for free, however, and even if you're not going to run out and buy a copy of the magazine, these are worthwhile reading.

    The first, "Vaccines for pennies," is a short piece on a pair of Indian ex-pats who wanted to bring an inexpensive new vaccine for hepatitis B to India, but couldn't get venture funding in the US to produce the drug. SmithKline Beecham sold a vaccine for $20 a shot; US venture capitalists couldn't believe there could be a solution for far less. By returning to India and setting up shop there, the company they founded, Bharat Biotech, "now sells the vaccine in developing countries for 28 cents a shot."

    More telling, however, are the statements from the Bharat founders used to close the article:

    Krishna Ella says he wants to tackle third-world diseases neglected by the multinationals, a sentiment often voiced by Indian entrepreneurs who believe scientists have a duty to the poor.

    "It feels very satisfying," says Suchitra Ella. "We are on top of the world because we are doing something that is really required for countries like India."

    Continue reading "New Scientist on India" »

    February 20, 2005

    Saturn's Blue Sky

    While many of us at WorldChanging are ardent supporters of space exploration for good scientific reasons (especially robotic exploration, at least until an elevator is built), sometimes we have to admit to ourselves that part of why the Mars Rovers, Mars Express, Cassini/Huygens and the others are so interesting is that they can come up with some truly spectacular images. One of the most recent from Cassini is just jaw-dropping: the blue sky of Saturn, with the moon Mimas in the foreground. A small sample here wouldn't do it justice -- you really need to see this at full size.

    Sustainability in Sixty

    Minutes, that is. Joel Makower has a short post up on his weblog asking the following question:

    How would you convey the simple-yet-complex concept of sustainability to today's college students (assume undergrads)?

    If helping to shape the minds of young people isn't inducement enough, Joel is offering a one-year subscription to his Green Business Letter to the best and/or most innovative submissions. Get your ideas in by March 15.

    Smart Grids, Grid Computing, and the New World of Energy

    Lightning_Paris.jpgMoving to a post-fossil energy infrastructure is no small task. Leave aside the politics of the problem for a moment, and look at the logistics: replacing coal, oil and gas-fired power plants with cleaner, renewable technologies isn't simply a matter of unplugging one and plugging in the other. Renewable sources often requires wide spaces to generate useful amounts of power, and need to be situated in areas most conducive to their generation needs (sunny regions for solar, windy for turbines, the ocean for wave, etc.). Moreover, there is great value in adding in small, local generation (often referred to as micro-generation) to the mix, from wind micro-power, micro-hydro and rooftop solar panels to more exotic technologies like Stirling Engines, plug-in hybrids, and potential future developments like photovoltaic curtains.

    Such a model of diverse, widespread sources of power generation is typically called "distributed energy," and it has some definite advantages over the current, largely centralized infrastructure. Distributed power can be more robust against accident or attack on the power grid: knocking down a 5 megawatt wind turbine would be bad, but not nearly as disastrous as abruptly taking a 1,000 megawatt coal power plant off the grid. Distributed power also allows greater resource flexibility: the more varied the resources used to generate electricity, the less likely are disruptions resulting from limited availability of one of them. This latter is particularly important due to the variable nature of wind and solar. Output from a given wind or solar farm will rise and fall with local conditions, but the overall availability of electricity from multiple locations and resources can still be consistent.

    But distributed energy is currently more costly than centralized power (PDF). Some of that cost comes from managing the complexity of variable power generation, changing usage patterns, and a multiplicity of sources. Distributed energy resources will have to be managed more like a computer network, complete with abundant routers and switches. The success of distributed energy is ultimately dependent upon the increasing availability of computer-enabled power networks, or "smart grids." And smart grids for distributed power, in turn, will increasingly rely upon the availability of distributed computing.

    Continue reading "Smart Grids, Grid Computing, and the New World of Energy" »

    February 21, 2005

    Open Source Chemistry

    zinc.jpgWe get pretty excited around these parts at the prospects for open source biotechnology (and have even mused about what open source nanotechnology might look like), so it's good to see another field begin to embrace the open source philosophy. ZINC -- which, in the free software tradition of recursive acronyms, stands for ZINC Is Not Commercial -- is a free database of compounds for "virtual screening." That is, ZINC provides 3D models of chemical compounds in a standard "docking" format used in chemistry and biochemistry software, allowing researchers to assemble and test new chemical compositions on their computers. While useful across chemistry-related disciplines, this is particularly important for drug discovery and development -- and could be of great value to biochemistry and pharmaceutical researchers in the developing world.

    ZINC was created by Brian K. Shoichet and John J. Irwin, faculty at the pharmaceutical chemistry department of UC San Francisco, and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Shoichet and Irwin announced the opening of the project late last year in an article published in the journal of the American Chemical Society.

    ZINC encourages users to upload information about chemical compounds not currently in the database (which already contains 2.7 million entries). Unlike BioForge, ZINC does not explicitly adopt free/open source software as a model; nonetheless, they do not try to extend copyright over submitted compounds, and emphasize both on the site and in their descriptive paper the free and open access elements of the project.

    (Via Open Access News)

    Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future

    It's something of an assumption of many bright green types that the personal transportation of the near future will run on hydrogen fuel cells. After all, hydrogen can be cracked from water using little more than electricity (from renewable sources, ideally), and the fuel cell process results in little more than water as waste (again, ideally). While the chemistry of hydrogen production and use has proven a bit more complex than hoped, the real stumbling blocks to a move to a hydrogen fuel cell world have been the capabilities of the hydrogen and fuel cell systems themselves. Hydrogen is tough to store in sufficient quantities for travel, making range a problem; furthermore, the fuel cells themselves are expensive and often quite delicate, unable to operate under moderately adverse environmental conditions.

    Two recent developments might bring the fuel cell future a bit closer, however.

    Continue reading "Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future" »

    Getting Rid of Glass

    Ken Shuttleworth is the architect responsible for the Swiss Re "Gherkin" tower in the heart of London (as well as numerous other odd and interesting buildings). In the current Building Design, a newsweekly for UK architects, Shuttleworth declares war against the all-glass building facade. (Fairly painless free reg required.)

    The high-energy, gas-guzzling fully glazed office block is totally dead, a thing from a previous time when we all had a more naive, cavalier attitude towards the environment. It’s the end of an era and we should all rethink what we are doing to the planet. And facade design is on the frontline of a change.

    [...] It is time as architects we faced up to our responsibilities; climate change is the biggest thing to affect the planet for generations and with half the world’s CO2 coming from buildings, we are directly in the firing line and in the best position to effect a change. We have to go super-green; we have to be more responsible and convince our clients and the property family as a whole that this is important.

    Shuttleworth's a man on a mission -- and his buildings live up to his word.

    (Thanks, Laurence Aurbach!)


    How to dispose of those old cell phones and other such devices in an environmentally responsible manner is a recurring topic here. Recycling services do exist, but they may be hard to find. That should be less of a problem now. Call2Recycle, a non-profit program started last year by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, has a database of locations in the US and Canada accepting old rechargeable batteries and cell phones for recycling. Batteries are recycled for their metals -- nickel and iron to make stainless steel, and cadmium to make more batteries -- while cell phones are either refurbished and resold in the developing world or recycled in an unspecified "environmentally friendly" way.

    The whole "people in the developing world would love your old phone" meme is probably on its way out, especially as phone makers move towards low-cost modern phones specifically for low-income countries; we will need to see more groups focusing on actually recycling phone components. But even if you're not about to toss that old phone, the database of rechargeable battery drop-off spots will be useful. Looks like I have one just around the corner...

    (Via So What Can I Do?)

    Population Trends

    The UN has released its latest "World Demographic Trends" report, including information from 2004. The press release summing up the findings is here, and you can download the document itself (in all of the UN official languages) here. It's only 22 pages (at least in English), and is worth checking out.

    Read on for a few of the tidbits, including how soon we'll hit 7 billion, what the population should be in 2050, and the explosion of mega-cities around the world...

    Continue reading "Population Trends" »

    February 22, 2005

    Good News Against HIV

    A team led by Scripps Research Institute biologists has figured out the structure of a rare but naturally occurring antibody which effectively destroys nearly 100 strains of HIV.

    The body makes many antibodies against HIV, but they are almost always unable to neutralize the virus. Nonetheless, the immune systems of some patients with HIV have beaten the odds and have produced effective neutralizing antibodies. The structure of one of these, called 4E10, is described in the latest issue of the journal Immunity.

    "This antibody is very broadly active," says Scripps Research Professor Dennis Burton, Ph.D., who led the research with Scripps Research Professor Ian Wilson, D.Phil. "It neutralized nearly 100 different viral strains of HIV from all over the world. [During tests in the laboratory], every one of them was neutralized."

    4E10 was isolated from an HIV-positive individual about a decade ago by Burton and Wilson's collaborator Hermann Katinger, a doctor at the Institute for Applied Microbiology of the University of Agriculture in Vienna, Austria, and one of the authors of the paper.

    By solving its structure, the researchers have taken a big step towards being able to construct a "mimic" protein to stimulate the human body to make 4E10 antibodies. The research appears in the February 2005 edition of Immunity. A summary is available for free; the full text of the article is only accessible to journal subscribers.

    Participatory Telemedicine

    While most of us would prefer to interact face-to-face with our doctors, that's not always an option: patients may be too remote for a doctor to reach, or a necessary specialist may not be available nearby. In the past, that meant that the patient would need to travel to receive care, or wait until a doctor or other health provider could visit. The advent of telemedicine, the examination and diagnosis of medical conditions via networked cameras and monitors, changed that. Telemedicine is increasingly used in rural areas of Western countries as a means of providing quality health care remotely, and more generally as a way for specialists to apply their knowledge globally without getting on a plane; it's also proven useful for researchers in Antarctica, where the cold and the dark of winter make travel in or out impossible, echoing the fields origins in the space programs of the 1960s.

    Telemedicine isn't widely used outside of the West, despite its evident utility for the developing world. This is due, in large part, to its technological requirements: telemedicine has come to rely upon high-bandwidth network links for the transmission of medical data and high-resolution images. As a result, the developing world telemedicine focus is often on bringing in high-end hardware. But that may soon change.

    Research at the University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland, published in the current issue of Archives of Dermatology, tested the usability of camera phones as an approach for visualizing leg ulcerations. The researchers compared face-to-face evaluations of leg wounds to evaluations made via mobile phone pictures, under normal lighting, and sent via email.

    Continue reading "Participatory Telemedicine" »

    Free Mojtaba and Arash

    freemojtabaarashday-button.gifThe Committee to Protect Bloggers is asking those of us with weblogs today to call attention to the plight of Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, imprisoned in Iran for writing in their blogs against the crackdown on journalists and bloggers in late 2004 and early 2005. The Iranian blog community was once a flourishing example of free speech, but soon drew the attention of the religious authorities . Today, Arash Sigarchi was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to 14 years in jail on charges ranging from espionage to insulting the country's leaders; Mojtaba Saminejad remains in jail on a billion rials bail, re-arrested just days after posting a 500 million rials bond. The BBC has additional details on the Committee and the Free Mojtaba and Arash Day project.

    The Sequestration Option

    Carbon sequestration -- taking CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it, well, somewhere -- doesn't generate a great deal of interest among hardcore climate change wonks. That's in part because the various sequestration options each have serious drawbacks, in part because sequestration isn't as easy as it sounds, and in part because sequestration is seen by some as being an 'easy out' for continuing a greenhouse-intensive lifestyle. From this perspective, it's the liposuction of the fight against climate disruption: it might help in the short term, but without changes in behavior, it won't matter much.

    As it becomes increasingly clear just how bad the greenhouse gas situation really is, however, we may come to reconsider that position. It's looking increasingly likely that we will need to really crank up the sequestration research on top of shifting hard and fast towards more efficient, greener designs and technologies. To that end, the Washington Post provides a basic overview of current sequestration research. It doesn't touch on every project out there, but it does cover the mainstream ideas: biomass offsets, serpentine neutralization, and liquefying CO2 for undersea insertion.

    Energy Leapfrogging

    Implicit in the idea of leapfrogging is a move not just to a more technologically advanced system, but to a better system: cleaner, more sustainable, less damaging to the environment and more in line with the needs of the local communities. Leapfrog systems are often distributed and decentralized, as these approaches often provide more flexibility and more local control. But there isn't a single path to leapfrogging; regions will adopt technologies which fit their needs and resources. Three examples of developing world adoption of new energy technologies make this clear:

    Continue reading "Energy Leapfrogging" »

    February 23, 2005

    What Does Augmentation Look Like?

    parkingassistjpg.jpgDig through the galleries of what the "car of the future" is supposed to look like, and you'll often see pictures of families riding comfortably in what looks like a parlor on wheels, perhaps playing a game, with no human behind the wheel. It's a recurring fantasy -- the automobile auto-pilot, the car able to drive on its own, the robot taxi navigating the city to your destination. As with many futuristic technologies which look so nice in the movies, reality is a bit more difficult: DARPA's computer-controlled auto competition last year, for example, ended with no successful finishers.

    It remains to be seen whether people would even want a computer-controlled car. There's not a lot of anecdotal or statistical evidence that people would be willing to give up control in that way; think about the cultural implications of the terms "driver" and "passenger." And computer-controlled vehicles would almost certainly be required to drive better than 99% of humans behind the wheel to be trusted. What we're far more likely to see is computer-augmented driving -- and therein lies a question.

    Continue reading "What Does Augmentation Look Like?" »

    Battery Breakthrough?

    Among the problems with using batteries as the energy storage medium for vehicles are two big convenience-killers: recharging is not anywhere close to as fast as pumping gasoline into a tank, and the batteries themselves don't store sufficient power to go reasonable distances. If Altair Nanotechnology is correct, however, those problems may soon be less of an issue. According to a press release picked up on Yahoo! business (among others), Altair has developed a technology for allowing Lithium-Ion batteries to recharge in a matter of minutes, not hours, and to hold "three times the power" for the same price.

    Press releases are well and good, but let's see the technology in action. It's probably still years away from commercial application, yadda yadda yadda, but the implications are clear. If what Altair Nanotechnology claims is true, the battery vs. fuel cell "format war" for tomorrow's cars may just be heating up.

    Around the World and Into Tomorrow

    (From the project's home page: Everything that is impossible remains to be accomplished -- Jules Verne)

    The last time Bertrand Piccard flew around the world in one go, it was in a balloon. He was one of the three self-described "adventurers" who flew the “Breitling Orbiter 3" non-stop around the planet in 1999, a 19th century way of finishing out the 20th. The next time he does so, it will be in an aircraft completely powered by solar energy -- this time, Piccard is looking forward, not back, for his inspiration.

    Solar Impulse is his project to construct an entirely solar-powered aircraft and fly it around the world non-stop. To say this goal is ambitious is an understatement; success will require breakthroughs in pv efficiency and materials engineering, not to mention a pilot willing to live for days on minimal amounts of food and water. But for Piccard, Solar Impulse is a way to inspire a new focus on sustainability by accomplishing something on the edge of the impossible:

    Continue reading "Around the World and Into Tomorrow" »

    Electricity, Kyoto, and the African Sun

    Recent developments in photovoltaics tantalize those of us in the West, allowing us to imagine a future of energy-producing fabrics and widely distributed power grids. Solar is seen to be one of the many parts of an emerging, renewable energy system, potentially embedded into our material goods and contributing to our efforts to build a bright green lifestyle. If new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, that'll just mean wind and wave power take on a greater load.

    But in the developing world, Africa in particular, solar has the potential to be a life-saver, providing clean energy in the remotest of locations. With no moving parts, solar panels are harder to make but simpler and cheaper to maintain than traditional diesel-powered generators, needing only batteries to store the power accumulated over the course of a sunny day. Their expense, however, remains a problem; if new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, efforts in the developing world to shift aggressively to renewable energy sources could fall by the wayside. The Kyoto treaty, however, may provide a solution.

    Continue reading "Electricity, Kyoto, and the African Sun" »

    Giving a Damn

    Cameron Sinclair, WorldChanging contributor and founder of Architecture for Humanity, has a brief interview in pages of the newest issue of Wired. It focuses primarily on his philosophy -- "Design like you give a damn" -- and how he implements it. His answers demonstrate that Cameron's WorldChanging to the core:

    So, what's the answer?
    Show people what can be done if you apply smart design that really takes account of ­peoples' needs. We also want to co-opt advances in technology - solar panels, recycled materials - and infuse them into communities that traditionally have not been leading-edge.

    Banking on the Community

    Copyright 2001, Mona SerageldinMoney is imaginary.

    More precisely, money is the tangible manifestation of an agreement between you and other people that the oddly-colored piece of paper in your hands has value. This lets currency rates slip and slide relative to each other, as people try to agree on exactly what the value should be, but it also has another implication. If you can find enough people to agree on its value, you can make up your own money.

    In 1998, the residents of the Palmeira District, a slum in Fortaleza, Brazil, did just that. Setting up an organization called Association of Neighbours of the District of Palmeira, the residents created a new bank -- the Bancos des Palmas, or Palm Bank -- and a new currency, the Palmas. The bank and currency not only succeeded, they have thrived.

    Continue reading "Banking on the Community" »

    February 24, 2005

    Ten Gigawatts of Wind

    The Scotsman reports that the Irish firm Airtricity is set to put up 5,000 two-megawatt wind turbines in the North Sea, producing ten gigawatts of power. When completed (and, as it has not yet been approved, the completion date is not set), it will be the largest wind farm in the world, assuming no competing megafarms get built in the meantime. The 10GW wind farm would help Scotland meet its goal of generating 40% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

    It will be interesting to see if the bragging rights over "biggest wind farm" becomes a point of national pride and competition.

    Dam Dirty Shame

    New Scientist reports that the IPCC is considering changes to the calculations of "climate budgets" to include greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric dams. It turns out that hydro power can produce significant amounts of both CO2 and methane, sometimes even more than fossil fuel-using generators.

    This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines.

    The IPCC changes would increase greenhouse inventories in countries with lots of hydro power by up to 7%. New Scientist has a map of which countries would be most affected by the proposed changes. Unsurprisingly, they are generally the nations with the largest land area, largest populations, or both.

    There is ongoing debate over whether to retain dams or remove them. One of the strongest arguments for retaining hydroelectric dams has been how "clean" the power generation is. If the research into dam greenhouse emissions is correct, that rationale could be seriously undercut.

    (Via Warren Ellis)

    Sachs on India

    Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs is, if anything, controversial. Reviled by some (see, for example, the fifth comment down, from "trouble"), praised by others, he has moved from being a market-focused proponent of "shock therapy" for nations in economic trouble to the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on Millennium Development Goals, and a passionate proponent of global efforts to eliminate poverty.

    Indian business magazine The Smart Manager interviewed Sachs, and his discussion of India's current situation and likely potential touches on many issues we talk about frequently at WorldChanging, such as urbanization, the environment, rural technology, and the course of Indian development. The entire conversation is worth reading, regardless of which Sachs camp you fall into. I've selected some particularly interesting quotes for the extended entry.

    Continue reading "Sachs on India" »

    Renewables Across the Country

    It may seem like the west coast and the New England states are the only parts of the US paying any attention to the need to shift to renewable sources of electricity. It's an understandable assumption; after all, some of the country's most aggressive proposals to combat greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil fuels are coming from these regions. Fortunately, that perception, while understandable, is wrong. Renewable projects and proposals can be found across America. Some are small, some are big, but all move us in the right direction.

    Some examples, pulled from today's stories at Renewable Energy Access:

  • The governor of Illinois has proposed a new Sustainable Energy Plan (PDF) requiring that electric utilities generate at least 8 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2012, the equivalent of about 4,000 megawatts of power. Three-quarters of that would come from wind. The plan would also increase efficiency standards. Given that both environmental groups and the regional power utilities support the governor's proposal, it appears to have a good chance of implementation.

  • Continue reading "Renewables Across the Country" »

    Wind Power in the US

    Reader Joseph Willemssen, in the comments to the recent post on Renewables Across the Country, linked to the American Wind Energy Association database of projects. The map showing the amount of wind power by state immediately draws the eye: California tops the list with 2,114 megawatts; Texas is a distant second at 1,288 (but since the database was last updated in late July, that won't include Sweetwater 2, so that should be 1,379 megawatts); Minnesota comes in third, with 595 megawatts. 15 states have no wind generation at all.

    Total installed wind generation in the US: 6,831 megawatts (including Sweetwater 2). An impressive total, to be sure, but we still have a long way to go.

    (Thanks, Joseph!)

    Voting With Their Stock

    Shareholder pressure may prove to be a key tool for convincing large businesses to adopt practices less likely to promote global warming. GreenBiz reports that, for the 2005 proxy season, a record number of shareholder resolutions on climate change were filed with automakers, oil companies, real estate firms, financial institutions and power utilities. The landslide may be starting.

    State and city pension funds and labor, foundation, religious and other institutional shareholders have filed 31 resolutions requesting financial risk disclosure and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with nine oil and gas companies, six manufacturers, three electric power providers and two automakers. The companies are among the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the country, making them especially vulnerable to the risks of likely regulatory- and market-based limits on carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. In addition to the 31 resolutions, shareholders are also involved in negotiations with several dozen other companies aimed at improving those companies' disclosure and action on climate risk.

    Continue reading "Voting With Their Stock" »

    Viridian Furniture

    The Viridian Furniture List has been updated, with all of the new entries going into the "What If Green Design Were Just Good Design" category. What is the Viridian Furniture List, you ask? It contains links to companies designing, making and/or selling places to put your butt without hurting the planet and (usually) without looking like you subsist solely on granola. Some of the entries are definitely for the yupscale crowd, but many point to good looking, sustainably-built, inexpensive products.

    Go check it out -- and if you don't see something that should be there, drop the curator, David Bergman, a note...

    Wind Power for your Phone

    The idea of using photovoltaics to recharge a mobile phone on the go comes as no surprise these days. But what about other renewable power sources? While wave and tidal power probably won't be of much use, wind is a possibility. Lo and behold, students at the Department of Industrial Design at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi have come up with a small (pocket-sized), inexpensive (Rs 200, or about $4-$5), wind turbine that can be used to recharge phones. With sufficient airflow, it can put out about 4 watts -- not an enormous amount of energy, but sufficient trickle-charge a phone or power an LED lamp.

    One of the paradigm-shifting aspects of wind and solar is that, for small uses, power generation can happen just about anywhere. This pairs up nicely with the proliferation of small, network-enabled gadgets. Power should be as accessible as communications. If the cost of relatively-efficient solar and micro-wind turbines can be brought down sufficiently, we may be heading towards a world where any structure or piece of equipment expected to be outside in the sun and wind for extended periods of time have minor power generation features.

    (WorldChanging contributor Ethan Zuckerman adds this alternative phone energy source:)

    Slightly more expensive, but now commercially available is the Sidewinder cellphone charger, which uses a small hand crank to power cellphones. At $25, the product appears to be designed for travelling executives, not developing world users, but the concept could be adopted by developing world engineers and customized for local needs. Motorola is offering a similar product, Free Charge, designed in collaboration with FreePlay, well known for their work making wind-up radios and flashlights. Unfortunately, Free Charge will set you back at least $70, making it unlikely to have a major impact for developing world users.

    The Bright Green Panopticon

    camphone.jpgThe "participatory panopticon" is the emerging world of camera and network-enabled devices, allowing us to capture, store and send our passing observations of the world around us. We see it emerging with cameraphones sending email to doctors for inexpensive telemedicine. We see it emerging with software designed to annotate and index every file, every sound, every bit of video on one's computer. We see it emerging with digital images, sent around the web, threatening the centers of power. That the participatory panopticon is a mixed blessing is a given; for every activist surreptitiously documenting polling abuses via cameraphone, there are dozens of sad voyeurs hoping to capture a wardrobe malfunction the same way.

    But our observations about this phenomenon have, so far, focused on its social manifestations, the changes to our behavior and our politics. But how does the participatory panopticon intersect the Bright Green future? They're more closely connected than you might think.

    Continue reading "The Bright Green Panopticon" »

    February 25, 2005

    Have We Passed the Peak?

    "Hubbert's Peak" is the point at which oil production reaches its maximum possible, and known sources of oil then decline. It's generally thought to be something which will happen "soon" -- five or ten years from now. But Sustainability Sundays contributor Joel Makower tells of a letter at Energy Bulletin from an anonymous oil industry insider claiming that the cheap oil peak has already been reached, and we're now on the tumble down. Anonymous makes this unsettling observation: It is not a question of “if” peak oil has occurred – it has! The better question might be “when are the crows coming home to roost?”

    Anonymous insiders should always be taken with more than a grain of salt, but the arguments that Anonymous and Makower make are well-worth thinking about. How does the sustainability agenda change if peak oil has already been passed?

    Thinking Big

    CongoRiverMap.jpgCould Africa build its development on renewable energy? Conditions in much of Africa are ideal for the deployment of solar power, but other technologies beckon. South African power company Eskom believes that the hydroelectric potential of the Congo River may be Africa's best bet. Not only could Congo River power supply African development, they argue, excess electricity could be sold to Europe. While the plan itself is unlikely to move forward, it raises a larger question about Africa's role in the global energy economy.

    "We calculate that hydroelectricity from the Congo could generate more than 40,000 megawatts, enough to power Africa's industrialization with the possibility of selling the surplus to southern Europe," Reuel Khoza, chairman of the South African-based power company Eskom Holdings, said at UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. [...]

    The scheme, which will initially focus on the Inga Rapids, aims to supply surplus electricity to places like Spain and Italy via an inter-connector under the Mediterranean Sea after satisfying the power requirements needed for Africa's industrialization.

    This proposal is little more than that for now (Eskom doesn't even link to it on their website), but it points to an interesting scenario. If transmission line efficiency can be sufficiently boosted (likely using carbon nanotubes), could we see a world where regions with optimal characteristics for renewable generation take on a central role in the global grid? This is at once the polar opposite of the heavily-distributed smart grid model and an interesting potential partner -- imagine coupling renewable powerhouse regions (solar in Africa and Australia, wind in the American plains, etc.) with supplemental local and micro-generation all over the globe.

    The biggest problem with the Eskom plan, from an environmental perspective, is the potential greenhouse impact of flooding sections of the jungle by building hydroelectric dams . As we noted yesterday, decaying plants in dam-flooded basins produce large amounts of CO2 and methane; the problem is worse in the equatorial regions. (On top of that, as a commenter points out, the resulting loss of biodiversity would be enormous.) Perhaps a better plan for exploiting the power of the Congo River would be the use of tidal or river-flow generators. I wonder if anyone has looked into that option...

    Kyoto as a Model for Medical Innovation

    Open Access News points us towards an interesting proposal: a global Medical R&D Treaty (PDF) which obliges signatory nations to spend a certain percentage of GDP in support of core medical research, including the development of biomedical databases and tools, vaccines and drugs, and evaluations of those products. The Treaty, intended to replace current and planned trade agreements that focus on drug patents and prices, also includes a tradable credit scheme explicitly modeled on the Kyoto climate treaty to allow signatories to meet the requirements.

    Additional credits can be earned by engaging in research on:

    • R&D for neglected diseases and other priority research projects,
    • "Open public goods," such as free and open source public databases,
    • Projects that involve the transfer of technology and capacity to developing countries,
    • The preservation and dissemination of traditional medical knowledge, and
    • Exceptionally useful public goods.

    Open and globally collaborative research is thereby encouraged, without being absolutely required.

    Continue reading "Kyoto as a Model for Medical Innovation" »

    Rust Belt Leapfrogging

    BusinessWeek has a brief but suggestive article about the proliferation of nanomaterials companies in regions not generally known as being modern centers of technological innovation: Cleveland, Ohio; Albany, New York; and Norman, Oklahoma. They cite a variety of reasons why many nanomaterials firms have set up shop well away from IT and biotech hotspots on the coasts, including the dominance of government funding over venture funding and the variety of skillsets needed in nano companies ("ranging from experts in new textiles to defense contractors"). What immediately struck me, however, was the parallel to nanotech as a leapfrog engine in the developing world. So-called "rust belt" regions in the US have long suffered a brain drain similar to that plaguing developing countries, and economies based on declining industries are just as open to big changes as economies moving away from an emphasis on resource extraction.

    This wouldn't be isolated to the US, of course. Leapfrog/innovation-based emerging industries could end up as economic engines of economically stagnant regions around the industrialized world. When we think about the potential for leapfrog development, we need to keep in mind the model may apply to far more places than we first might think.

    Biology Taking A Lesson From I.T. (for a change)

    Biomimicry and biomorphic software remain favorite topics around these parts, which is why a headline at New Scientist caught our eye: "Compression algorithms harnessed to fight HIV." Biologists at the University of Washington and at the Royal Perth Hospital are taking a look at computer code as a model for vaccine development.

    Machine learning algorithms commonly used to compress digital images and recognise patterns in email spam might also be able to help scientists find an effective vaccine for HIV. [...]

    HIV mutates rapidly, thus evading the human immune system. This means that vaccines developed to counteract one strain may not be effective against another variant.

    But the researchers hope that algorithms capable of finding patterns in digital information could also help identify key genetic features across many different strains of HIV. This could enable them to engineer an HIV vaccine that is effective against several strains at once.

    The article notes that the specific algorithms used were developed by Microsoft. If that's the case, the code was almost certainly patented by Microsoft. I'd be interested to find out (if any of you are in a position to know who to ask) what kind of licensing agreement went into giving the researchers access to the algorithms.

    Material Explorer

    matex.jpgReader Maurits Ruis tells us of Material Explorer, a site launched last week in coordination with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and by a consulting group called Materia. It's a database of new materials for use by architects and industrial designers, with a standardized ratings of material characteristics (density, weight, resistance to heat and chemicals, etc.). It manages to be both fascinating and frustrating.

    The fascinating: The search engine lets you select a wide array of characteristics of your desired material, or search on a material's name; trying to find which combinations lead to which materials can easily occupy an afternoon. The descriptions of the materials are quite detailed, reasonably well illustrated, and complete with information about the manufacturer. For a designer looking to experiment with new stuff, this site could be very useful.

    The frustrating: While there's a demo page allowing for sample searches, full use of the site requires a sign-up process. (It's particularly frustrating that the terms of service claim that one can opt-out from Material Explorer email spam, but there seems to be no way of actually doing so when signing up.) More importantly, none of the characteristics and keywords used by the database have strong connections to sustainability. There's no way to search on "amount of chemicals used in production" or "biodegradable" or "recyclable."

    As a way of digging into what kinds of new materials may be available for a project, it can be useful, but it is lacking some key features. But for our purposes, Material Explorer is a proof-of-concept, a demonstration that such a compendium can be built and can be fun to use. What we need now is the Sustainable Design Database of Materials -- does one already exist? If not, who's up for the challenge?

    More About Population

    wpop.jpgReader Joe Deely, in a comment in Alex's post yesterday, Winning The Great Wager, provided a link to a new UN demographic document, World Population Prospects (PDF). As we noted a few days ago, the UN has updated its population and demographic trend data; this document goes into greater detail about fertility, mortality, and life expectancy than the previous piece, but skips discussions of urbanization and migration. Those of you interested in why the peak world population projection has now dropped to 8.9 billion should definitely check it out.

    Those of you who like to play with the data, however, should instead turn to the World Population Projections website, which gives access not just to the raw data, but to the various models (the Prospects piece only uses the "medium variant" -- where's the fun in that?).

    And those of you who really want to play with population trends should check out World Population to 2300 (PDF). Yes, you read that right. It's a study of how the planet's population might change not just over the next 45 years, but over the next 245 years. It's utterly fascinating -- it's the ultimate "now if things don't change, what could the world look like?" scenario. The graph showing the three population scenarios is excerpted in the extended entry (and shown in miniature above). Of more value are the discussions and essays about thinking in the very long term about slow-changing human trends. Recommended reading for scenarists, demographers, and those who like to think about change.

    Continue reading "More About Population" »

    February 26, 2005


    earthmeasure.jpgHow should one measure a nation's energy footprint across time? After all, if we're trying to increase efficiency of energy use, we need a baseline to tell how well we're doing. The question takes on a new twist when one wishes to compare two or more places. Simply counting BTUs or CO2 output won't do it; a large country, no matter how efficient, will inevitably consume more power and produce more greenhouse gases than a small one. As it turns out, there are two broadly accepted approaches to solving this dilemma, measuring per capita and measuring per productivity -- the latter generally called "intensity." They each have their advocates: per capita shows consumption per person, a crude version of the footprint; per GDP shows consumption for economic activity, a rough measure of efficiency.

    The US Department of Energy Energy Information Administration makes available a huge variety of global energy and carbon measurements. The data are generally available as Excel spreadsheets, and typically cover 1980 to 2002, with entries for most countries. In the extended entry, you'll find links to some key datasets on energy consumption and carbon emissions, as well as an exploration of what these numbers might tell us.

    Continue reading "Intensity" »

    The Seas of Elysium

    marsice.jpgIs there life on Mars?

    Not little green men, of course, but bacterial life. This last week has seen a flurry of stories coming from the Mars Express conference in the Netherlands relating to the possibility of life on the Red Planet. Solid, irrefutable proof isn't here, but a growing number of discoveries are pointing to the very real possibility that the fourth planet in our system may harbor tenacious microbes of its own.

    The big announcement this week was the discovery of what seems to be a sea of pack ice frozen just underneath the ground in Elysium Planum. Water ice is by no means unknown on Mars; the planet's north pole is largely covered by it. But Elysium lies just north of the planet's equator, where summertime temperatures can actually come close to 0° C. The ice appears to be covered in ash, protecting it from sublimating away in the thin atmosphere. The coverage also makes the presence of ice hard to confirm through direct observation, and while other theories of what could have caused the unusual formations don't fit the facts as well, only a lander able to drill down through the soil could confirm or refute the hypothesis.

    Continue reading "The Seas of Elysium" »


    I was contacted recently by WorldWater, a company making solar-powered irrigation and water supply technology, to let us know that they have been asked to supply water pumps for irrigation and purification projects in Sri Lanka, as part of the post-tsunami reconstruction effort. WorldWater has active projects in California as well as in East Africa, the Philippines and (pre-tsunami) Sri Lanka. It looks to be pretty straightforward photovoltaic-powered pump technology, but they definitely seem like a company worth knowing about.

    February 28, 2005

    Green Space, Green Transportation

    urbanbike.jpgWhy don't people walk or bicycle more often? The benefits of doing so are well-known: improvements in health, lowered stress levels, reduction in pollution, etc.. Some people clearly do, of course; whenever we post articles about green improvements in automobile technology, we're sure to get comments telling readers to just get on a bike. But many people, it seems, have a strong aversion to biking and walking for transportation. Is sprawl the main reason, making it hard to get to work on time (and not looking and smelling like one just completed a leg of the Tour de France)? Is it the weather? Or is there another factor at work?

    Epidemiologist Amy Zlot, at the Oregon Department of Human Services, sees a strong correlation between bicycling/walking for transportation and the amount of green space in the urban environment. The amount of green space, in turn, is connected to the relative diversity of the urban environment. The findings were published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

    “In this set of observations, walking and bicycling for transportation was positively associated with parkland acreage,” say Zlot and co-author Tom Schmid, who did the research while employed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data did not show a significant relationship between the level of walking or cycling for pleasure and the percentage of urban parks.

    Continue reading "Green Space, Green Transportation" »

    Pan-Asian Biotech Association

    SciDev.Net notes the founding of the Federation of Asian Biotech Associations, an organization intended to promote collaboration between industry and academia across a wide swath of Asia and into the Pacific. The organization is notable for two reasons, both relating to membership. The first is that there are no member countries traditionally thought of as being in the "highly developed" world; no Japan, no Australia, not even South Korea. There's a strong South-South element here.

    The second... well, let me give you the list of members, and you'll quickly see the second interesting membership element: FABA's founding members are India, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Iran, Saudi Arabia... and Israel? Indeed. The road to peace and cooperation in the Middle East may lie through the labs of bioscience.

    EELS for Kenya

    eels.jpgWe covered the proposed $100 computer for developing world education awhile back, and one of my conclusions was that (should the plan go forward) a hand-held device was a more promising path than an American-style desktop, and that Linux should be the underlying OS, not some proprietary, locked-down system. Today comes word of a program now underway in Kenya which takes up that challenge, and gets it partially -- but not completely -- right.

    The EduVision E-Learning System (EELS) is a low-cost electronic textbook system now being tested at the Mbita Point primary school in western Kenya. Students are issued hand-held devices wirelessly connected to the EELS "BaseStation," which itself has a satellite downlink for regular content updates. Educational materials and student information are stored on the Linux-based BaseStation servers; the hand-held "E-slate" devices use Linux, as well. While the current generation EELS needs to be connected to grid power, EduVision claims that they will be adding a dedicated solar panel system in the near future for remote villages and towns.

    EELS does not appear to be an appropriate solution for regions with grinding poverty and war, but relatively stable developing nations looking for greater connection to global information networks -- that is, most of the leapfrog nations -- may be likely candidates.

    Continue reading "EELS for Kenya" »

    Finding the (Energy) Future in Tea Leaves

    Coca-Cola Central Japan has installed something called the "eKOsystem," a methane fermentation system which uses the coffee grounds and tea leaves left over from the manufacturing of coffee and tea-based drinks to provide heat and energy for the plant.

    Relying on a waste to energy scheme should lower the company's operating costs by reducing waste volumes and associated waste transport/processing costs, enable energy savings by use of generated methane gas in the plant, and reduce the environmental effects of CO2 that would normally get released into the atmosphere as the coffee and tealeaf waste ferments.

    The system costs $3.9 million (JPY 420 million), and the installation was part of a joint research project with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a government agency.

    Vancouver Abides

    vancouverchange.jpgFor many of us, cities are the most tangible example of slow change. Buildings rise and fall, streets and wires unfurl, but at a pace which is simultaneously gradual enough to be almost invisible to our day-to-day wanderings, and still fast enough to be shockingly evident within the space of our lifetimes. That's what makes before/after and 'century cam' projects so particularly appealing when it comes to cities -- they collapse a slow change that normally only registers on the periphery of our consciousness down to an instant.

    Alexandra Samuel points us to the City of Vancouver's community planning website, which has an abundance of before-after shots on a site called The Changing City. Probably the most gripping are the panoramas linked from the top of the site -- ultra wide images (over 3700 pixels wide) of various parts of the city (False Creek, Stanley Park, Granville Bridge), eight sets in all. In 1978, the first of these photos were taken for a planning study; in 2003, the images were re-shot, from more-or-less the same locations. Each before and after is set up to fade from one to the other, or flip back and forth as a rollover graphic (I found the rollovers to be much more reliable). The contrasts, the changes over 25 years, are startling, sometimes jarring.

    (A minor nit -- unlike Douglas Levere's New York Changing project, the 2003 photographers did not take great pains to line up their cameras at exactly the same locations and angles as the original pictures. In the cropped combination shown here, for example, I had to rotate the top image by a few degrees to get it to line up better with the bottom. Some of the shots are off by much more than that.)

    Follow the "Other Changes in the City" link for some more before/after shots of different buildings. The pictures are set up to contrast how much and how little some buildings change. They aren't as dramatic as the panoramas, but bring the changes down to a more human scale -- this corner, that apartment house.

    Cities evolve at their own pace; projects like the Vancouver Changing City site give us a glimpse of that evolution.

    About February 2005

    This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in February 2005. They are listed from oldest to newest.

    January 2005 is the previous archive.

    March 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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