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April 2005 Archives

April 1, 2005

Aloha Wind

The state of Hawaii relies on petroleum imports for 90% of its energy use, according to Renewable Energy Access, but it's about to get its first real wind farm. UPC Wind Partners has been signed to build a 30 megawatt wind farm for the island of Maui. The US Department of Energy wind map for Hawaii shows a section rated "superb" on the south edge of the western part of the island, although the neighboring island of Molokai appears to have the most consistently good space for wind power.

Expect visual NIMBY fights about this project, unfortunately.

Hybrid Sales Up

It's no surprise: when gas prices go up in the US, sales of fuel-efficient cars also go up. March 2005 now holds the record for sales of hybrid passenger vehicles in the United States: 16,619 cars sold, a significant gain over the previous record month, December 2004, which saw 10,441 sales. Of the March hybrid numbers, 10,236 were Priuses., but all hybrid car manufacturers saw gains and record sales. Green Car Congress has some great graphics illustrating just much of a jump this really was.

With summer approaching, it's unlikely that gas prices will drop substantially, and there's good reason to suspect they'll go up more. Demand for hybrid cars is, in turn, also likely to increase. But Priuses are already hard to come by, with waiting lists in most locations. Although Toyota has already boosted production, Honda and Ford (with the Hybrid Escape) may be in better positions to take advantage of the demand. MixedPower.com reprints an article observing that the Honda Accord Hybrid's high price is a way of controlling demand; it is also could end up being a source of big money for Honda if those turned away from Toyota car lots decide to go with the Prius' main hybrid rivals.

This is why GM & DaimlerChrysler (among others) are kicking themselves about not jumping on the hybrid trend, and focusing on trucks/SUVs now, fuel cells later. Not because they feel a sudden urge for responsibility. Because not having an attractive higher-mileage vehicle out now is putting them at financial risk.

Trying Again: Another First Image of Extra-Solar Planet

We posted in January about the image captured of a planet orbiting a brown dwarf -- essentially a star without sufficient mass to fully ignite -- and said the astronomers who took the snapshot were "99.1% sure." But doubts still remain, the planet is still not confirmed, and the status of the star (brown dwarf) and the "planet" (huge, many times bigger than Jupiter) left many astronomers less-than-satisfied.

Now we get a second chance at astronomical fun. Space.com reports that a team of European astronomers, working since 1999, have imaged a confirmed planet around an honest-to-goodness star. GQ Lupi is about 400 light years away, and is only about a million years old -- a youngster compared to our six billion year old sun. The planet is quite far from its parent star, at roughly twice Neptune's distance, but has been positively linked to GQ Lupi over the six years of observations. The only remaining doubts are about its mass, which is currently estimated at about twice that of Jupiter, but may range up to double that.

April 4, 2005

How Cities Learn

Stewart Brand, whose credits are too numerous to mention, will be speaking this Friday night in San Francisco on our relationship with cities.

Cities are the human organizations with the greatest longevity but also the fastest rate of change. Just now the world is going massively and unstoppably urban (governments everywhere are trying to stop it, with zero success).   In a globalized world, city states are re-emerging as a dominant economic player.  Environmental consequences and opportunities abound. [...]

As the author of HOW BUILDINGS LEARN I kept getting asked to give talks on "How Cities Learn."  With a little research I found that cities do indeed "learn" (adapt) impressively, but what cities mainly do is teach.  They teach civilization.

Stewart's talk is a last-minute addition to the Long Now seminars (a replacement for the planned speaker). While live streaming is unlikely, Long Now has been great about making certain to put up audio recordings of their speakers (in a variety of formats) soon afterwards. "City Planet," Stewart Brand, 7pm (doors open), Friday, April 8, Fort Mason Conference Center, San Francisco.

Multi-Rotor Wind Power

7rotor.jpgWind is one of the oldest sources of power, with evidence of use dating back to 3200 BCE. But this doesn't mean that there are no more opportunities to innovate. Selsam's new wind turbine system design, partially funded by a grant from the California Energy Commission, is proving able to deliver substantially more power at a given wind speed than equivalent-sized traditional models. The innovation? You can see it in the picture: multiple rotors on a single turbine unit, set an angle.

The tests have been remarkably positive so far. A single seven-rotor unit was able to generate the equivalent of 6000 watts in winds of 32.5 miles per hour, six times the power generation of a single-rotor turbine of the same size (7' diameter) in a footprint not significantly larger than that required by a traditional turbine. This is the largest version they've built so far; an earlier four rotor/4' diameter turbine produced 1 kilowatt, and a 13 rotor/18" diameter system produced 400 watts of power. The angle prevents the rotors from "shadowing" each other in the wind, and the multi-rotor design actually reduces vibration.

The FAQ page addresses some of the expected questions, including where they see the system headed. The string of rotors on a shaft lofted by a helium-filled lifting body notion is intriguing, and indeed Selsam claims that NASA has expressed interest in the design for use on Mars.

Is this the future of wind turbines? Perhaps, but Selsam still has some work to do. Six kilowatts is good, but real-world use will need something substantially larger; just how far will this design scale? Unlike traditional turbine designs, the structure of the Selsam unit appears to provide more perching locations for birds; would bird strikes be a significantly greater issue? Finally, there's the look. As we've noted, wind power advocates often end up fighting a rear-guard action against local conservationist groups opposed to the "visual pollution" of traditional turbines -- systems which many people actually find quite attractive to look upon. The Selsam design, conversely, doesn't (at least in its current form) provide much in the way of visual appeal. Could a revolution in wind power design fail in the market because it's ugly?


IOOC.jpgThe Indian Ocean Observing System -- IOOS -- is an international project to build a sensor network across the Indian Ocean in order to monitor ocean and atmospheric conditions. Started in 2000, nine deep ocean moorings are already in place (three each from Japan, the United States, and India), with more planned, including a cooperative venture between Australia and China, along with the integration of existing ocean monitoring systems. The Indian Ocean Panel, which is coordinating the system's development, is a joint effort of CLIVAR (the Climate Variability and Predictability project) and GOOS (the Global Ocean Observing System project).

While the December tsunami heightened the awareness of the need for greater ocean monitoring in the region, the need for more information about changes to the environment has been growing for some time.

Dr [Gary] Meyers [of Australia's CSIRO] said the recent discovery of El Nino-like phenomena in the Indian Ocean - strong two-way interactions between ocean and atmosphere - has highlighted the importance of regional data collection to understand and predict seasonal and longer-term climate variability over all the surrounding continents.

Continue reading "IOOS" »

Hippy Shopper

Welcome to Hippy Shopper, a new Meta-Efficient/Treehugger-style green consumer & lifestyle blog aimed at European readers. Nice selection of items so far -- some undoubtedly familiar to regular readers, some new -- and a blogroll with an admirable mix of sustainability and design sites (as well as us -- thanks!). It's still pretty new, so some shakiness to the tone and format are to be expected, but it's a welcome addition just the same... especially to those of us who are working on making the move overseas in the near future.

But, please, the name!?! I'm so going to have to disguise the link in my RSS reader...

(Via Sustainablog)

A Climate Minister for the UK?

A group of Parliament members, the "Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee," has officially endorsed the idea of appointing a minister for Climate Change, according to UK news site ePolitix. The committee expressed frustration with the lack of direction to the government's climate-related efforts, and warned the government not to "water down" its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. UK weather blog Rising Slowly seeks clarification: So, a department that publicly declares its own lack of clout asks the powers that be to grant it a minister to it can, err, have more clout?

A Climate Change Minister may not be in the cards immediately, but the idea will likely live on; I would expect to see Climate Ministers (or Secretaries) in many governments in the not-too-distant future.

April 5, 2005

Ten Light Years to the Inch

I admit it -- I'm a sucker for art that combines science and beauty, and the Star Map Crystal definitely covers both. Designed by Bathsheba Grossman, it's a 3" glass cube laser-etched with a 3D map of all the stars within 5 parsecs (~16 light years) of the sun, with labels for each. A shrunken-down image here wouldn't do it justice, so I encourage you to follow the link to see the object for yourself. We've mentioned art based on biology before, so it's good to see some of the other natural sciences in play, too.


psp.jpgWhile the dust is still settling on the implications of "Podcasting" -- the semi-automated distribution of web content intended for use on digital audio players -- a new distribution medium is rising.

The PlayStation Portable (PSP) is Sony's new portable gaming device. Sony built in the ability to play a variety of media types, including video. But while Sony may have intended that feature to be used to play movie disks, people have already worked out ways to let the PSP play standard web video formats. Some are using this to play ripped DVDs or "TiVo to go" files, but others are setting their sights on something far more interesting: PSPcasting.

Continue reading "PSPcasting" »

More on the Toshiba Battery Breakthrough

Want more information on the Toshiba superfast recharge battery? Green Car Congress has a good rundown of the details of the technology, as well as how it fits with requirements for advanced-technology vehicles. The Toshiba battery looks to be just as revolutionary as we had suspected, meeting two of the three main criteria for what the US Advanced Battery Consortium (the group tasked to design next-generation electric vehicle batteries) considered as long term goals -- and coming pretty close on the third. GCC notes that one stumbling block may be Toshiba's decision last year to sell off its lithium-ion battery factories to Sanyo -- but this may be good news in disguise if it forces Toshiba to license the design to a variety of producers...

April 6, 2005

Reversible Thermoelectric Nanomaterials

This is one of those stories that may seem a bit dense and technical at first, but should make you say "woah" (in your best Keanu Reeves voice) when the implications hit.

Two physicists -- Dr. Tammy Humphrey, Australian Research Council Fellow, and Dr. Heiner Linke, at the University of Oregon -- have determined that a particular structure and configuration of nanowires can have remarkable thermoelectric properties. Electricity can be generated from heat differentials across materials; historically, applications of this thermoelectric effect has been terribly inefficient, generally working at about 15% of maximum possible efficiency (the so-called Carnot limit). In a paper published in Physics Review Letters (PDF), Humphery and Linke have shown that specially structured nanomaterials can operate at much higher efficiency, perhaps even right up to the Carnot limit. What's more, the nanomaterial's thermoelectric effect is completely reversible, meaning that the application of electricity to the material would allow it to function as a heat-pump, pulling heat out of one end and pushing it to the other. The press release from the Nanoscale Device and System Integration conference (where the breakthrough was presented) is good for non-technical readers; the review of the article in Nature Materials online (free subscription required) is a bit more technical.

Thermoelectric generation is attractive for a number of reasons, including its utility at a variety of scales (from microscale on up) and its ability to take advantage of energy that would otherwise be wasted as lost heat. But the inefficiency of current thermoelectric technology limits its use. Current thermoelectric applications generally have a "ZT" rating (the measure of temperature-electricity conversion performance) of less than 2; a rating of around 5 is generally considered necessary for economical use. The Humphery-Linke model has a ZT rating of 10 at room temperature -- more than twice the level needed.

So what does this mean?

It could mean refrigeration without pumps and chemicals, and battery-powered "cold packs" able to maintain a given temperature for as long as the power held out (very useful for transporting sensitive medical supplies). It could mean high-end microchips able to operate at full speed with power-consuming fans replaced by heat-ferrying materials. It could mean very precise control over temperature for lab equipment and sensor technology.

It could also have significant applications in energy production and transportation. It could make marginal geothermal sites much more useful, opening up myriad new sources of non-polluting generation. It could be matched with photoelectric technology to capture additional electricity from otherwise wasted heat. And it has clear applications in hybrid vehicles, allowing for electricity to be generated from engine heat, providing an additional source for battery power beyond regenerative braking and direct engine recharge.

The Humphery-Linke article discusses only the physics of the idea, not the engineering. However, the Nature Materials review of the piece suggests that applications will not require new breakthroughs, and the thermoelectric nanomaterial model should be readily testable using "quantum dots." It's likely that real-world use won't match the maximum theoretical efficiency of the materials, but that's okay -- even if thermoelectric nanomaterial applications are only half as efficient as they could be, they could still be remarkably transformative.

A Shortage of Death?

holy_fire.gifWhat will happen when biomedical science allows people to live healthy lives lasting well beyond what is now considered "maximum possible age?" This is not a new question at WorldChanging; both Alex and I have addressed various possible scenarios and possibilities. It is a topic less often explored in the mainstream media, however, and when it is, it's usually presented as something wacky or fringe, and rarely given its due consideration. It's highly likely that the next several decades will see substantive breakthroughs in health and longevity science; it's important to start thinking now about how we want such a world to turn out.

Charles C. Mann, in the May 2005 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, gives us "The Coming Death Shortage," one of the few mainstream articles that both takes the idea of radical longevity seriously and explores its implications. It's not a perfect article -- some of its conclusions are a bit alarmist -- but it's a good one. The full text online is available only to subscribers, so I would encourage you to either pick up the issue or find it in your local library. Hit the extended entry here for some excerpts and discussion.

Continue reading "A Shortage of Death?" »

The Creative Lure

spore.jpgSometime later this year, or early next, I will disappear for days, possibly weeks. When that happens, you'll know that Spore has arrived.

Spore is the new title announced at the 2005 Game Developer's Conference by Wil Wright, the genius behind Sim City, the Sims and a variety of lesser-known computer toys (he hates to call them games). Spore is nothing less than the ultimate world-building simulation. Start with single-cell goo, then evolve through multicellular life forms, move onto land, develop social creatures, start cities, and eventually start colonizing more planets. And none of it is pre-programmed -- everything, from the creature movement to social interaction -- is emergent, based on simple rules and the results of player creative decisions.

Wright popped back into the editor to show us all just how flexible it could be. His goal was to make the editor a toy, something gamers would love to spend time with. "Lure the players into being creative," as he explained it. Sure enough, just about anything was possible with the editor: Wright demonstrated an upright dog whose front legs were twice as long as his back legs, a creature with an enormous floppy eggplant-shaped head that had no less than a dozen hungry beaks, a six-legged critter with two snapping heads that skittered along very fast, and finally a fully-functional Care Bear. (!)

Regardless of what you could dream up, the game would find a way to make it work. Top-heavy characters would bobble along awkwardly, creatures with branching networks of a dozen legs would learn to walk, and animations for fighting and eating would be generated on the fly.

Spore includes city creation, with player-created architectural designs. It includes economic, social and military interplay between different societies on the world players make. It includes tools for terraforming other planets, when players get to that point. And the vast majority of it is based on emergent properties of simple rules, not pre-scripted events and behaviors. Players will have the ability to shape all aspects of the worlds they make. Players will be creators, not just manipulators. And if desired, players can download creatures, societies and designs made by other Spore players.

Gamers are all abuzz about Spore, in part because, despite its evident complexity, the game as demonstrated at GDC appeared extremely accessible and easy to learn. (My favorite gamer comment about Spore? A tossup between "I want to have Wil Wright's baby" and "I, for one, welcome the return of Wil Wright overlord.") The real question, from a worldchanging perspective, is whether Spore will be another Sims -- an interesting time-sink -- or another SimCity -- a learning tool. I know which one I'm hoping for; I'll let you know when it comes out. Or, more likely, a few weeks after it comes out; I'll be busy building a world.

RSF Awards

Congratulations to WorldChanging contributors Rohit Gupta and Ethan Zuckerman for the nomination of their other blogs for the Reporters Sans Frontières "Freedom of Expression Blog Award." Rohit's "Chiens sans frontières" and Ethan's "Ramblings on Africa, technology and the media" are both provocative and interesting, and well worth your time. Good luck to each of you!

April 7, 2005

Shout Africa

Digital video technology is providing worldchanging in Africa. We noted awhile back that a digital video-based movie industry was growing in Nigeria -- referred to as "Nollywood" -- relying on cheap digital production tools and easy digital distribution (such as video CDs), and aimed at the global African diaspora. BoingBoing points us to the other end of the digital video chain: digital movie houses. Shout Africa is a South African home-grown digital cinema company, with twenty movie houses in historically disadvantaged sections of the country. Moore's Law-driven reductions in the cost of digital technology will mean that this will spread quickly; Africa may soon be home to a leapfrog movie industry, all digital and with a unique and powerful voice.

Extended Daylight Savings Time

For most of the United States, Daylight Savings Time started last weekend -- clocks are set an hour forward, so that the "daylight" part of the day extends to a later hour. For a variety of reasons, this has a small but noticeable effect on energy consumption. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is drafting legislation to extend the daylight savings period for two months, so that it starts the beginning of March and ends the last Sunday in November. A recent study by the US Department of Transportation concluded that a two month extension would save the equivalent of 10,000 barrels of oil per day.

If this passes, a couple of questions present themselves: would the remaining three months still be referred to as "standard time;" and what's the argument for not simply extending daylight savings to the rest of the year?

Duke Energy CEO: We Need A Carbon Tax

It's almost enough to cause a double-take: the CEO and Chairman of Duke Energy announced that the firm will lobby for the introduction of a carbon tax in order to reduce fossil fuel use and address global warming.

"Personally, I feel the time has come to act - to take steps as a nation to reduce the carbon intensity of our economy," Paul Anderson told several hundred Charlotte business and civil leaders at a breakfast meeting. "And it's going to take all of us to do it."

Anderson expressed concern that the lack of action at the federal level will result in 50 different state-level policies. While that's an understandable caution, it ignores the current cooperation between states on environmental policies. We're more likely to see a small handful of different policies, with significant regional alignment (e.g., the Northeast, the West coast, etc.).

Anderson acknowledged that a carbon tax was unlikely to appear under the current administration, but wanted to get the discussion started.

(Via Green Car Congress)

The Declaration of Leadership

decofleader.jpgSustainability Sundays contributor and WorldChanging Ally Gil Friend spoke this week at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. His talk had the somewhat staid title "Business and Sustainability: Risk, Fiduciary Responsibility, and the Laws of Nature," but from all accounts, it was very well-received. Joel Makower (another Sustainability Sundays contributor and WorldChanging Ally) was there, and let's us in on Gil's big idea: the "Declaration of Leadership" for sustainable business.

The Declaration itself is a colorful and well-constructed document -- I have a hardcopy given to me by Gil in front of me now -- and the text itself is stimulating and even a bit provocative. Gil hasn't put a downloadable copy on his site yet, but Before Gil got a chance to put a copy on his website, Joel went ahead and typed in the text. You can read the whole thing over on Joel's site; here's a taste of it:


  • The well being of our economy fundamentally depends on the services from nature that support it;
  • Business activity has a profound impact on the ability of nature to sustainably provide those services;
  • We are committed, as business and community leaders, to the well being of both economic and ecological systems, of both humans and other living things;
  • We believe that these goals are compatible (and where they seem to be incompatible, we are committed to finding better ways to do business that make them compatible).

    We envision our company, suppliers and customers, and our community doing business in ways that:

  • Preserve, protect and ultimately enhance the living systems -- of this region, and the planet -- that sustain our business and the larger human economy;
  • Provide ever greater value in meeting the real needs of our customers, suppliers and communities;
  • Meet human needs in the most efficient and economical means possible, in order to include the greatest percentage of humanity.
  • The Declaration is a clear statement of what it means to run a sustainable company. Nothing listed is outrageous or radical, yet as a whole it describes an outlook on business which would be revolutionary if -- when -- widely adopted. I look forward to Gil giving us more details about the Declaration in an upcoming Sustainability Sundays post, and over at his own weblog.

    (UPDATE: As noted above, Gil tells us in the comments that he has now put a PDF of the Declaration on his website. Check it out.)

    A Cycle of Extinction?

    biodiversitycycle.jpgUC Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller and grad student Robert Rohde have found something odd, and a bit troubling. Looking at the marine fossil record for the last 545 million years -- that is, from the start of the so-called "Cambrian Explosion" of life -- Muller and Rohde found that the diversity of genera drops significantly every 62 million years. (Genera are the level above species in taxonomy.) Some of the best-known mass extinctions in paleontology, including the end of the dinosaurs, occurred on this 62 million year schedule. But what causes it?

    Muller and Rohde's article, published last month in Nature, also shows a weaker 140-million year cycle. The full text of the article is behind a subscription wall, but supplementary material -- including details on the statistical math of their study -- can be freely downloaded.

    There are a number of possible explanations for the cycle of extinctions, but none fit perfectly.

    Continue reading "A Cycle of Extinction?" »

    April 8, 2005


    Achieving the Millennium Development goals won't happen without support from governments, the private sector and NGOs. The challenge is daunting, and pathways to success non-obvious. But the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) thinks it has a solution: basic, straightforward projects with an explicit emphasis on the needs of the poor supported by cooperation between governments and business. These "pro-poor public-private partnerships" -- referred to by the UN group as "5P" -- are helping rural communities in various Asian and Pacific countries get closer to the Millennium Development Goals, and are doing so in environmentally sustainable ways.

    In 2003, UNESCAP started four "5P" projects, each emphasizing a different key Millennium Development Goal category: water, electricity, health care and biodiversity. A brochure detailing the projects can be downloaded here (PDF).

    Continue reading "5P" »

    Blood Vessel Nanogel

    Cool? If it works. Freaky? You betcha. A research group at Northwestern University have come up with a nanofiber and protein-based gel which, when injected into the body, self-assembles into blood vessels to heal tears or blockages, "jumpstarting" recovery.

    The new technology also can be used to quickly re-grow blood vessels for trauma victims and diabetic patients, who have a hard time growing blood vessels, Stupp said. The research can be used to help solve other medical problems, including cancer, he said."If you know how to grow blood vessels, you also know how to prevent them from forming," Stupp said. "We can do the inverse and use it to starve a (cancerous) tumor."

    Usual caveats apply -- three to five years before available, not yet tested on anything other than rats, etc. etc.

    The Blair Watch Project

    The Blair Watch Project is an effort, coordinated by the UK newspaper The Guardian, to keep tabs on the UK's Prime Minister Tony Blair as he goes about campaigning around the country. The project was prompted by the Labour party's decision to limit Blair's media exposure on the trail; now it looks like he'll be covered by more cameras than ever. On one level, it's another example of networked citizens acting as journalists, providing information to other interested citizens, with some help from traditional media; on another level, however, it's a telling example of the growing power of the participatory panopticon in the realm of politics. Although professional photojournalists cover political campaigns, they can't be everywhere, or cover every angle. Now, every citizen with a camphone can be a reporter, capturing the inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown. The lack of cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax.

    The Guardian is using the digital image site Flickr to host the submitted photos, and will republish the best. It's likely that 99.99% of the images will be (at best) dull, but there's always the slight chance that the right person in the right place at the right time will capture something that can reshape the election. Keep your camphones charged and your signal strong...

    (An aside: Whoever came up with the name for the project should be given a hefty bonus, even if they came up with it long ago and held it until the perfect opportunity came along...)

    (Via Smart Mobs/Ben Hammersley)

    April 9, 2005

    Speaking of Stewart Brand...

    Stewart has an article in the current issue of Technology Review in which he claims to be presenting "Environmental Heresies":

    Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbanization, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.

    Dave Roberts at Gristmill has the best take on the article, and I more or less agree with his reaction. But I would add: Stewart seems to be railing against the version of the environmental movement with which he was familiar decades past.

    Recognition of the environmental advantages to urbanization isn't a new phenomenon, and the Erlich-style hysteria over population was generally discarded long ago. Even the still-widespread resistance to GMOs and nuclear power usually has more to do with an educated opposition to how these technologies have been deployed (and the lack of oversight and out-and-out deception often involved) than some kind of knee-jerk "science bad" mantra. I'm not saying that the 1970s hippy treehugger caricatures with which Stewart may be most familiar no longer exist, but they certainly no longer represent the bulk of environmentalist thinking.

    WorldChanging Weekend

    "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!" -- Emma Goldman

    We're unveiling a new category and theme today: WorldChanging Weekend. Every Saturday, we (along with guest contributors) will be writing about worldchanging and worldchanging-related pieces of global culture: movies, games, books, music and more. We should never lose sight of the idea that changing the world should be fun.

    Examples of posts which would fit in with the WorldChanging Weekend theme include my recent pieces on Spore and PSPcasting, Nicole on A Force More Powerful, Cameron's piece on music mash-ups, our ongoing musing about Bollywood, and of course the extended discussion of The Day After Tomorrow.

    But we'd like to kick this off by giving you the floor, and asking you what you think are great examples of worldchanging ideas in global pop culture. What games have you played, movies have you seen, books have you read that have inspired you to think differently about the planet and its future? What should more people know about? What would you like to see in a game or movie or book?

    Let us know what your worldchanging weekend looks like.

    Battlestar Galactica

    bsg.jpgIt may be hard to believe that the best science fiction television show of 2005, maybe one of the best shows on television of any genre, is a reinvention of a schlock 1970s Star Wars rip-off, but it's true. The SciFi Channel's new version of "Battlestar Galactica" is quite possibly the most engaging, best-written pieces of science fiction TV since "The Twilight Zone." To make it all the more interesting from a worldchanging perspective, the producers have embraced the potential of the web in almost unprecedented ways.

    The new version may be superficially similar to the original -- a struggling remnant of humankind flees the relentless pursuit of the robotic Cylons -- but the differences are significant. The series deals with the political repercussions of a catastrophe, conflicts between military and civilian authority in a seemingly-endless state of emergency, limits on resources, human rights, religious conflict... As with most pieces of good science fiction, it explores what we are going through in the present without ham-fisted allegory.

    Don't believe me? The first episode of the recently-concluded first season, "33," is available online for viewing in full, uncut. Check it out for yourself (requires RealPlayer plug-in).

    Continue reading "Battlestar Galactica" »

    City Planet

    I managed to go see Stewart Brand's talk last night, "City Planet," a look at the co-evolution of cities and human societies. It was a wide-ranging discussion, with much to contemplate; Stewart's an engaging speaker, and he's clearly been thinking about these issues for some time. Long Now will have an audio recording of the talk up soon, but for now, here are some of the idea highlights:

    The planet is urbanizing quickly: 3% of Earth's population lived in cities in 1800; 14% lived in cities in 1900; nearly half the planet's population lives in cities today; two-thirds will live in cities by 2030. Every week, around a million new people arrive in cities.

    This is driven both by personal economics -- cities have the jobs, and it's increasingly hard to survive economically in rural areas -- and by global economics. Globalization is giving greater power to cities, as communication networks and market transactions bypass nations in favor of city-to-city connections. Multinational companies go to where the workers and consumers are; NGOs go to where the need is greatest. Rural areas are emptying out so quickly that some governments are offering free rural land to people to get them to return to the countryside and "hollowed-out" towns.

    "Nations have borders. Cities have centers."

    Continue reading "City Planet" »

    April 11, 2005

    Wireless DNA Sensor

    Technology Review has a short article on a new DNA chip that adds a tiny wireless transmitter, making it possible to conduct and report on tests from within a sample.

    Since this kind of chip can transmit data from inside a sealed container, samples tested with it are less likely to be contaminated by researchers or the environment, and samples containing pathogens are less likely to infect workers. Assuming patient samples can be prepared easily for chip analysis, the chip could also make it easier to detect DNA variations in settings less controlled than a research lab. Though the research is still in its initial phases, Hitachi expects that the chips could be used in clinics or small hospitals to help doctors decide which drugs to prescribe for patients.

    Some quick searching didn't dig up any more information; anyone have a better link?

    As the cost of biological sensors drops, and the ease-of-use increases, expect to see expanded use of on-site/real-time testing of health, consumer products and the environment. This isn't necessarily all for the better: some of this testing will have a "make the invisible visible" quality, but much of it will have the effect of "feeding consumer fears."

    Innovation and Development

    SciDev.Net has published a terrific set of articles looking at the relationship between innovation and development. Innovation doesn't just mean coming up with new ideas; innovation is coming up with applications of new ideas, or even new applications of old ideas. Innovation also has an element of interaction, as it's often a conversation between inventors (who have "codified knowledge" of the function of a new system or technology) and the users (who have "tacit knowledge" of how such systems and technologies fit into their lives and work).

    The key distinction between invention and innovation is this focus on use -- inventions are potential change, innovations are changes realized.

    Continue reading "Innovation and Development" »


    The 15th Annual Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy starts tomorrow in Seattle, Washington. The theme: Panopticon.

    Over time, and particularly recently, surveillance of ordinary citizens has increased to dramatic levels. Not only are governments watching more aspects of their citizens’ lives, but those in the private sector are increasing surveillance of people as well. Often lost in the race to “increase intelligence” are discussions about different approaches to address problems like the threat of terrorism that are equally or more effective, but do not involve extensive and constant surveillance.

    The speaker and session lists are online. The topics look provocative and interesting, and we hope to have a report or two from the conference here at WorldChanging.

    SBML and the BioModel Database

    SBML.jpgToday sees the opening of BioModels, an online database of annotated open biological models. BioModels is a collaborative effort of the UK's European Bioinformatics Institute, the Keck Graduate Institute in the US, Japan's Systems Biology Institute and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, along with the Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) team. SBML is a standardized, open source language for describing the behavior of biological systems, allowing biologists to share models and results easily.

    Even the simplest living organisms perform a mind-boggling array of different processes, which are interconnected in complex ways to ensure that the organism responds appropriately to its environment. One ofthe best ways of ensuring that we really understand how these processes fit together is to build computer models of them. If a computer model behaves differently than the real organism, we know that we've neglected an important component of the system. Quantitative models can also reveal previously unappreciated properties of complex systems, paving the way towards new drug treatments.This approach, known as ‘computational systems biology,’ is becoming increasingly popular now that scientists are accumulating detailed parts lists for many organisms, thanks to genome sequencing projects and other efforts to comprehensively document the components of living entities.

    This is a good example of how open standards and open access can facilitate scientific understanding. SBML can function as a Rosetta Stone for bioinformatics, translating the results of research across myriad modeling packages, making it possible for researchers around the globe to share in each other's work. The BioModels database, in turn, parallels the work at BioForge in making tools for discovery freely and openly available.

    Computer modeling is widely used in the natural sciences; translational markup languages and model repositories would clearly be of value across a wide spectrum of research fields. We have quite a few readers doing scientific research -- do similar efforts exist in other fields?


    gwiz.gifThe G-Wiz, an Indian-made small electric car now available in the UK, is a test of the idea that a low-speed, short-range, low-cost vehicle will work in an urban setting. With a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour and maximum range of 40 miles, the only real use of the G-Wiz will be as a short-commute intra-city personal vehicle; the exemption from the "congestion charge" and free central London parking make the G-Wiz ideal for use in London. The G-Wiz costs only £7,599 (£6,999 under current promotion), although a variety of styling features can bump the price up considerably. GoinGreen, the UK retailer, claims to "carbon balance" the manufacturing, shipping and first 16,000 miles of driving.

    In principle, a vehicle like this is well-suited for dense urban settings, functioning as a low-cost transport for goods too bulky to be readily carried on public transit. This is a niche occupied by small gasoline vehicles like the Smart; the G-Wiz trades reduced convenience for even lower cost. As of Spring 2005, about 200 G-Wiz cars are on the road in London, although a recent flurry of attention should push that number up.

    revanxg.jpgBeyond the green cred, the really interesting aspect of the G-Wiz is that it's a vehicle designed and built in Bangalore, India, and now being sold in the UK and Malta, and soon in Japan. REVA Electric Car has sold about a thousand vehicles in India, and has recently expanded its capacity to build upwards of 6,000 annually. The newly-unveiled next-generation REVA, which extends the electric car's range to 120 miles and its speed to over 70 miles per hour, should greatly expand the vehicle's potential utility.

    This is the inevitable next step for leapfrogging -- innovative designs and ideas from the leapfrog nations making their way to the developed world. As innovation increasingly becomes a driver for development, we'll see this happening more and more often. We're still trying to come up with a pithy expression to capture this leapfrog-back effect, though -- any ideas?

    Become a Citizen Journalist

    We've been watching the growth of OhMyNews from the earliest days of WorldChanging. Reports from the original Korean-only version of the collaborative news site were influential in the 2003 Korean elections, and the English-language "International" version has become an interesting source of global perspectives, features and opinion. Now OhMyNews is opening up its "citizen reporter" system, making it possible for anyone to contribute stories.

    After submitting your registration details with OhmyNews for confirmation by our staff, you will find your very own reporter's desk where you can keep track of readers' reactions in real time. This includes the number of people who've read your stories and their comments, and the amount of cybercash you earned.[...] OhmyNews International editors will read through your stories, fact-checking them and editing for style, making them more polished for your readers.

    This last bit is what distinguishes OhMyNews from other collaborative news sites like Slashdot or Kuro5hin, which implicitly rely on their readers to do the fact-checking for them. Wikinews also relies on readers for fact-checking, but as a wiki, readers can make fixes directly.

    (Via Smart Mobs)

    April 13, 2005

    Nanotechnology and Development

    nanomdg.jpgA new report, published in the latest edition of PLoS Medicine, lays out precisely how emerging nanotechnologies can help to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

    63 specialists around the world were asked by the Canadian Joint Centre for Bioethics to identify the ways in which nanotechnologies could be used in the developing world. The group ranked the potential of different applications, and linked them to five key MDG categories.

    We posed the following open-ended question: “Which do you think are the nanotechnologies most likely to benefit developing countries in the areas of water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in the next 10 years?” These areas were identified in the 2002 UN Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. We asked the panelists to answer this question using the following criteria derived from our previous Top Ten Biotechnologies study.

    Impact. How much difference will the technology make in improving water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in developing countries?
    Burden. Will it address the most pressing needs?
    Appropriateness. Will it be affordable, robust, and adjustable to settings in developing countries, and will it be socially, culturally, and politically acceptable?
    Feasibility. Can it realistically be developed and deployed in a time frame of ten years?
    Knowledge gap. Does the technology advance quality of life by creating new knowledge?
    Indirect benefits. Does it address issues such as capacity building and income generation that have indirect, positive effects on developing countries?

    The resulting list covers issues familiar to WorldChanging readers.

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology and Development" »

    Plastic Electronics and the Ink-Jet Future

    printedtransistor.jpgIt's entirely possible that one of the most important technological innovations of the 20th century will turn out to have been the lowly ink-jet printer. As it happens, the technology that makes it possible to squirt minute quantities of ink in precise patterns onto a sheet of paper is perfect for spraying out other materials (such as resin, plastic and even biological tissues), assembling them into solid objects. In some cases, the only significant difference between an experimental fabricator and the cheap printer that came free with a box of cereal is the content of the "ink" cartridge.

    We're rapidly approaching a time when useful objects can be printed out as easily as a photo. Related breakthroughs are happening regularly. The Material Science group at Northwestern University published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, describing a new, very low voltage thin-film organic transistor material which will allow both inexpensive production and significantly lower power-consumption for plastic electronics.

    "This means having plastic electronics the size of a pen battery -- rather than an automobile battery -- power your cell phone," said [Northwestern Professor of Chemistry Tobin] Marks. "And, instead of being carved out of silicon, transistor structures would be printed in a fashion similar to that of newspapers, but with organic molecules as the ink and plastic as the paper. Much as the New York Times prints a different edition of the newspaper every day, we could flexibly print a wide variety of electronic devices quickly, easily and cheaply."

    We talk about fabbing (aka "3-D printing" and "stereolithography") with alarming frequency here for a few reasons: the necessary technologies are coming together very quickly; it has a significant "open source" potential; and, for both the developed world and the developing world, it has the potential to be seriously worldchanging. Material fabrication using ink-jet technology will be something we'll be dealing with far sooner than many might expect; of the various near-term and medium-term technological and social changes we talk about here, this will be one of the first to hit big. All the more critical, then, that we start thinking now about what we're going to want and need from the ink-jet future.

    So thought-experiment time: what would be required to make a 3-D printing world sustainable? What does "cradle-to-cradle" fabbing look like? What does the capability to print electronics & photovoltaics make possible that we couldn't do before?

    April 14, 2005

    Business Ethics Magazine's 100 Best Corporate Citizens, 2005

    Business Ethics magazine has just published its list of the "100 best corporate citizens" for 2005, the sixth consecutive year they've produced such a listing. Companies from the top 1,000 biggest publicly-held firms are rated on how well they respond to the needs of shareholders, their communities, minorities and women, their employees, the environment, human rights, their customers and ethical governance. It's an interesting list (PDF); some familiar names rate highly, as do some unexpected firms, while some well-regarded companies don't appear at all. This could be because of the weighting of the various categories, or because scoring is based in part on whether the candidate firms respond to a questionnaire from the magazine.

    The magazine's ratings add categories as ethical concerns evolve. The "governance" category is new this year, for example, in response to the growing concerns over the behavior of corporate management. I wouldn't be surprised to see energy efficiency, transparency, and "production sustainability" added in years to come.

    (Via Gristmill)

    Starbucks & Nike, Doing the Right Thing

    Starbucks is #42 on the Business Ethics 100; Nike is #31. Neither firm is without controversy. But today comes a bit of news about each which underscores why these companies made the list.

    Starbucks announced today that it is committing to buying 5% of the electricity for US stores from renewable power sources; the move will cut emissions by an amount comparable to removing about 3,200 cars from the road. Now, five percent isn't that much, and in years to come we'll all do much better than that simply by being on the grid. Nonetheless, high profile companies making efforts like this is one of the drivers that will bring that future about faster.

    Nike, fresh from unveiling its Considered line of enviroshoes, has just released a detailed corporate responsibility report (after having been silent on the issue since 2002). Among the topics covered in the report is a full list of its suppliers, a move to greater transparency which should be applauded, even by those who remain concerned about past practices. Nike is aware of the need for greater transparency in order to regain public trust: "We felt the risks of any future lawsuit were far outweighed by benefits of transparency," says Hannah Jones, Nike's vice-president of corporate responsibility. "Because if we've learned anything as a company, it's that closing down and not talking about the challenges and opportunities doesn't get you far."

    (Nike via Gristmill:TriplePundit)


    swera.jpgSWERA -- The Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment -- is a site from the UN Environment Program which serves as an information resource about (you guessed it) solar and wind energy resources in thirteen partner countries. Notably, all thirteen are in the developing world: Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya in Africa; Bangladesh, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka in Asia; Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in Latin America. The tools provided by the SWERA site range from maps and regional assessments to support for decision-making software and geospatial/GIS planning kits.

    The overall aim of SWERA is to bring sustainable energy approaches to developing countries through increased investment in renewable energy projects. The database and analytical tools developed through SWERA will help governments develop realistic energy policies and programmes that are based on sound knowledge of available renewable resources.

    SWERA doesn't try to fund projects or coordinate activities; rather, its purpose is to make the information available which will make those projects and activities possible in the developing world. The "About Solar and Wind" page is a good example of the site's value: a clear, structured set of links explaining the tools for measuring solar radiation, the models and satellite data available, and how to set up a ground measurement station. And while the thirteen participating nations are the focus of the data collection, the SWERA site also includes links to solar/wind assessments, tools and projects across the globe.

    This is one of the many UN programs quietly making a difference, even while higher-profile controversies rage.

    From Silicon Valley to the Silicon Village

    fab_book_gershenfeld.jpgNeil Gershenfeld, physics professor at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and the creator of the Fab Labs, is touring to promote his new book, Fab: The Coming Revolution On Your Desktop.I have his book, and will have a review in the coming days. He's speaking tomorrow night at the Bay Area Futures Society meeting in Palo Alto, but I got a preview of his talk tonight at my old stomping grounds, GBN. I won't try to relate everything that he said -- his talk relies on the visual presentation, and was a bit more wide-ranging and fast-moving than I could capture in my notes -- but I do want to pass on a couple of important observations.

    [I encourage you to tune in tomorrow night to the streaming video of his talk. (Unfortunately, in order to support the anticipated demand for the stream, they're putting it out in Windows Media format. Good luck.) The talk is definitely worth paying close attention to; if he uses the same presentation at Friday's talk he used tonight, be forewarned that the beginning can be a bit confusing, but it all becomes clear later.]

    The underlying logic of the Fab Labs is this subtle observation: "For all the attention to a digital divide, there's an instrumentation and fabrication divide that's even larger." It's important to make access to information as widespread as possible. But as we noted here the other day, innovation -- the application of new ideas -- is the critical development catalyst. Without tools for making real the new ideas access to information inspires, recipients of inexpensive computing devices and cheap access to the Internet are little better off than before.

    Gershenfeld related the roadblocks he's encountered while trying to bring Fab Labs to more places around the world. Research funding doesn't support development aid; aid funding doesn't support research. The World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, even the Pentagon all found the Fab Labs fascinating and clearly valuable, but ultimately not in their purview of support. For Gershenfeld, the catalyst for their spread will have to be bottom-up, in the marriage of microfinance (which functions as a bank, and tries to minimize risk) and venture capital (which actively seeks out risk, but with great potential upside). These "micro-venture" outfits would (like VCs in the developed world) provide financial seeds for risky start-ups, but would (like microloans in the developing world) only need to put out relatively small sums of money. Gershenfeld called it "Silicon Valley at the scale of the village."

    Welcome to the era of the Silicon Village.

    April 15, 2005

    Googling the Future

    googlezon.jpgWe regularly point to scenarios of the future crafted by businesses and other organizations. These are usually short stories of people making use of various gizmos and gadgets from Tomorrow to live their otherwise very recognizable lives. But that's often one of the biggest downfalls of these corporate scenarios -- they may show changes to the tools people use, but they rarely show the broader changes in behavior that would result. For the most part, that's to be expected -- the telephone or computer company wants you to focus on the neat new toy, not think about the new ways you'll live.

    Continue reading "Googling the Future" »

    European Review of Political Technologies

    From the second superpower to smart mobs to cyberdemocracy, information technology is reshaping how politics work in the developed world. Much of the discussion, however, has focused on the American experience -- Howard Dean, political blogs, electronic voting irregularities, and the like. But political technology can be found around the world, and (as should be expected) perspectives and opinions vary on its value and utility.

    The European Review of Political Technologies is a new journal published by the Politech Institute covering issues of governance and democracy online. The March 2005 issue is available online, with papers from researchers from NGOs, academia, and the corporate world. The papers (which are all in PDF) can be a bit dry, but for those of us interested in the evolution of democracy in the wired world, it's good to see some new perspectives brought into the mix.

    Solar Powered Drip Irrigation

    BP Solar is set to start building a large-scale solar-powered drip irrigation system in Sri Lanka. The first phase of the contract will bring the system to 5100 families, reducing overall energy consumption, soil erosion, and the use of dangerous kerosene-fueled pumps. Renewable Energy Access has some details, mostly about financing.

    And that's pretty much all I can find about what sounds to be an interesting project. The BP Solar and BP Solar/Australia websites don't have any information on this, and all the news reports I could find appeared to be simply republishing the Renewable Energy Access piece.

    Any of you have better leads on this?

    Satellites for Everyone

    clearcuts.jpgWe've been talking about the proliferation of satellite images for public consumption here at WorldChanging for awhile now, but Google's recent integration of their mapping application and the recently-acquired Keyhole satellite data has brought the topic back into the limelight.

    Most evocative are the "memory maps" which use the system's ability to add pointers and links to the satellite maps. Creators of the memory maps annotate the images, describing their own histories and lives, illustrating them with the photos from space. The memory maps are then posted to the image site Flickr; the memory map category has (as of this evening) 379 photos. The annotation feature is part of Flickr, not the Google maps, but one can easily imagine Google adding it -- being able to share comments and observations along with map URLs is quite useful.

    But people aren't just using the Google satellite maps for nostalgia.

    Continue reading "Satellites for Everyone" »

    April 16, 2005

    Food Force

    Can a video game be educational and still be good? The history of educational games is spotty, at best; arguably SimCity comes closest, and there the academic aspects are debatable. Part of the problem is that most games, like other forms of drama, require some kind of conflict or tension, and it's challenging to make drama organic to math quizzes. Situations where the drama is a natural part of the lesson stand a better chance of succeeding as a game.

    Because games are active, not passive, forms of entertainment, they have a very real potential for education. You don't just watch people making choices, you make them yourself. That's why we keep returning to the topic of "serious games" like A Force More Powerful, Pax Warrior, and Industrial Waste.

    When one hears that the United Nations has produced a video game about food aid, skepticism is a reasonable response. But the reviews of Food Force, the new game produced by the UN World Food Program, have been surprisingly good. Food Force -- which is designed for 8-13 year olds -- puts players in the role of the rookie on a food aid team working in the fictional country of Sheylan. The game has various stages with different kinds of tasks, from action elements like running food convoys over dangerous roads to deliver aid, to simulations like finding, buying and shipping food from around the world. The final mission is a SimCity-like game where food aid is used to help rebuild the nation's economy.

    The game is written in Director, and is available for Mac and Windows. As one reviewer noted, this is precisely the game which should be made open source, as the game designers aren't trying to sell it and open source code would make translations into other languages happen faster. The game is big, weighing in at 227MB for the Windows version, 198MB for the Mac, but the site does encourage downloaders to burn copies for others. The download site is occasionally overloaded, so if you want to check the game out, you may need patience.

    This game makes me wonder what more complex, less aimed-at-kids, simulation games set in the developing world might look like. What would SimMegacity be like? Or SimLeapfrogNations? Or even SimWorldChanging?

    National Budgets On Your Mobile

    Speaking of serious games and political simulations, the UK's Liberal Democrats party has made available IraqCost, a Java-based mini-application for mobile phones that allows participants to re-allocate the £5 billion the UK government has so far spent on the Iraq war. Download is free (and even available outside the UK, should one be so inclined); the results of the alternative budget choices can be sent back to the LibDem site.

    Simplistic? Sure. Overtly political? Of course -- there's a Parliamentary election going on in the UK right now. But it's also an interesting evolution of the use of mobile phones as a political tool, moving beyond communication and organization into the realm of interactive policy advocacy. It also foreshadows the possibility of doing something like this for real -- sending out the budget to every citizen for allocation decisions. The notion of collaborative budgets has been a staple of science fiction for decades; the reality would undoubtedly be riddled with problems (from the sheer complexity, at the very least). Nonetheless, the idea of being able to tell your government precisely how to spend its money will be compelling to a great number of people.

    In the case of the IraqCost site, the budget decisions are completely moot, as they refer to money already spent. But this djinni is out of the bottle: how long will it be before the mobile phone budgets reflect upcoming decisions, and a political party makes a big deal about how "millions of citizens" are "demanding" that the money be allocated -- as determined by a tiny app on their phones?

    (Note about the IraqCost website: perhaps reflective of the LibDem's status as the UK's third party, a number of the links appear not to work. They do, but they've been mis-entered. All of the real pages have .HTML suffixes, but some of the links go to .HTM. If you get a "page not found" error, add an "L".)

    Nine Inch Nails @ Home

    A sign of things to come? Nine Inch Nails, the rock band fronted by Trent Reznor, has released the digital loop files [70MB] for its latest single, in a format for the Apple music editing app GarageBand. Reznor is encouraging fans to remix, re-edit, and play with the sound files, making their own versions of the song.

    Powerful, inexpensive tools for creating and editing audio and video are increasingly in the hands of everyday people. Sometimes that means opportunities for entirely new creations; often, it means opportunities to play with existing cultural artifacts, making them new all over again. Remixes can be better than the originals. It will be interesting to see how successful Reznor's experiment turns out to be.

    (Via Metafilter)

    April 18, 2005

    "Environmental Heresies" -- Continuing the Discussion

    Stewart Brand's recent piece in Technology Review, "Environmental Heresies," is getting a bit of play for a number of reasons. Brand is relatively well-known, and his association with the founding of the Whole Earth Catalog gives him an immediate bit of green/counter-culture cred; furthermore, in the piece, he says that the threat of global warming is greater than the threat coming from nuclear power, and the chattering classes do seem to love the sight of an environmentalist endorsing nuclear power. Technology Review is continuing the debate online, with Joseph Romm (a specialist in energy and efficiency) responding to Brand's points, and Brand replying in turn. It's unclear precisely how long this blog debate will continue, but Romm has already raised some good issues.

    As I commented earlier, Brand's "heresies" aren't, really, and seem to reflect an awareness of the environmental movement as it stood a decade or three ago. With a couple of the subjects (population and urbanization), the weight of opinion shifted awhile back towards the positions Brand claims as "heretical," while with the others (biotech and nuclear power), Brand seems to miss that much of the debate focuses on corporate misbehavior rather than on some rejection of science. Can one find greens making the arguments that Brand rejects? Of course. But environmentalists aren't nearly so stuck in the 1970s as Brand seems to believe. Hopefully, Romm will help him see that.

    Looking back 1.5 Million Years

    While much of the historical climate record comes from ice cores, it's possible to get useful information from drilling in other kinds of material. Last year, scientists in Antarctica pulled an ice core reaching back 740,000 years -- the most ancient found up to that point. But last month, researchers retrieved lake bed sediment cores from Lake Malawi with samples going back further than any previous cores of any type -- 1.5 million years.

    "The lake has restricted circulation and virtually no oxygen at the bottom, so each year seasonal deposition of sediment creates a pattern like tree rings," King said. "With the cores we collected we'll be able to look at very old records of climate data simply by counting and analyzing the layers."

    The researchers [...] chose to drill Lake Malawi because its unique location and geology will enable them to reconstruct a high-resolution, tropical climate history stretching back through the time when massive ice sheets periodically covered high-latitude North America and Eurasia.

    Hacking the Conclave

    During the run-up to last year's presidential election in the US, we posted a number of pieces about the security of voting technologies. Today, Bruce Schneier, a widely-admired security specialist, posted a piece to his blog about the security of the current election people are paying attention to -- that of the new pope. I'll let you discover his conclusions for yourselves, but he does an excellent job dissecting the ways in which the conclave system has developed protections against fraud and abuse, and finding the flaws that remain. Are the lessons replicable on a scale greater than the college of cardinals? Perhaps, perhaps not -- but they're certainly worth thinking about.


    loband.jpgIf the explosion in leapfrog-world information devices comes via built-up mobile phones instead of cut-down PCs, as I suspect, one big challenge will be making sure that websites are usable via such a medium. This boils down to two broad issues: layout and bandwidth. Most websites these days are built assuming that the user has a relatively wide screen; a screen hard-coded to 800 or a thousand pixels wide will be nearly unusable on a tiny screen, either shrunken down illegibly or requiring unacceptable amounts of scrolling to just read a sentence. The bandwidth issue applies to more PC-like devices as well: modem speed connections can choke on some of the big pages built assuming access to broadband.

    Loband offers a solution to both problems. Built by humanitarian information technology group Aidworld, loband is explicitly intended as a way for people in the developing world, using machines on slow connections, to access the full range of the web. Loband is technically a proxy system, in that visitors browse via entering URLs at loband.org. It then displays the page stripped of images and complex layout (but keeping font changes such as size, italics, etc.); the resulting page can be ready easily on pretty much any kind of display. This allows people browsing via slow connections or size-limited systems a much more usable experience. In addition (and possibly unintended by loband's creators), complex pages can be easily output by text-to-voice screen readers.

    Continue reading "Aidworld/Loband" »

    Green Rover, Green Rover...

    rover.jpgRichard Branson, founder of the Virgin companies (airlines, retail outlets, space tourism, etc.), clearly likes to think big. He's also starting to think green. In an article for the UK's Independent, Branson argues that MG Rover carmakers -- now bankrupt, and about to let go thousands of employees -- should be rescued by the UK and EU for a new purpose: to make hybrid cars.

    My solution is a radical one, but would help with what I see as Britain's pending energy crisis. We should steal the green mantle from the Japanese and Americans and become the first European manufacturer of hybrid cars.These highly efficient part-petrol, part-electric vehicles (which can do up to 120 miles to the gallon) are already big in Japan and are also taking off in the US. [...]But no one makes them in Europe. Meanwhile oil prices are soaring, our own North Sea reserves are running out and the evidence of global warming is overwhelming. [...]

    We can also not afford to ignore the fact that we are literally running out of gas; we need to reduce consumption. Fuel savings from the sale of hundreds of thousands of Rover hybrids would help to reduce Britain's overseas payments for oil (effectively paying for any subsidies). If we don't make this bold move, one of our neighbours will.

    European automakers make many high-mileage vehicles -- small, often running on diesel, and some approaching the kind of mileage one sees in hybrids like the Prius and the Civic Hybrid. Ironically, this has meant that European car manufacturers haven't felt the pressure to build even more efficient vehicles, and have allowed Toyota and Honda -- and now Ford -- to catch them napping. Of the various European auto companies, only Daimler-Chrysler is making any significant effort to get into the hybrid game; Peugeot-Citroën is taking baby steps with its Stop&Start technology, but the field is otherwise empty.

    Branson cites Airbus as a model for a pan-European technology production company competitive on a global scale. As Green Car Congress' Mike Milliken points out, the comparison is somewhat inapt. Nonetheless, the idea of Rover becoming a hybrid developer, perhaps partnering with European hybrid also-rans for technology collaboration, has quite a bit of merit.

    Who knows? If the UK and EU don't take Branson up on his idea, he might just consider it good enough to do himself. Virgin Green, anyone?

    April 19, 2005

    Hybrid Center

    The Union of Concerned Scientists has now opened HybridCenter.org, a website focusing on hybrid cars, including reviews, explanations of technology, and editorials. Regular readers of Green Car Congress or the various hybrid-focused weblogs out there won't find much that's new at Hybrid Center, but since the UCS has been pretty active in promoting hybrid vehicles over the years, I would expect the content at Hybrid Center to be of generally high quality. The site's generally well-laid out, with little auto and hybrid related facts sprinkled about. My favorite: sales of the Prius now exceed sales of the Hummer H2.

    Microscopic Microscope

    biochip.jpgThis is one of those inventions that sounds as if it was ripped from the pages of an overly-technical science fiction novel: an optical biochip, about the size of a cell, that uses lasers to analyze biological samples and then signal its findings. Researchers at the by UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council developed the technology as a way of making testing faster and more detailed.

    The research team moved away from the idea that a microscope is something you have to look through to create optical biochips onto which scientists can place biological samples. Special fluorescent chemicals are then used together with tiny light emitting lasers to allow the scientists to analyse the cells or targets within the cells. Researchers can use this capability to examine cellular conditions for certain diseases or to develop new treatments by studying the way cells react to a drug.

    The biochips also raise the possibility of a micro-laboratory, the size of a credit card, which would be able to perform medical diagnostics, improving patient treatment by reducing the number of hospital visits needed for tests.

    We're moving quickly to a point where sophisticated biomedical analysis can be moved from the lab to the field -- that is, from a centralized system to a distributed system. The interesting and valuable aspect of technologies such as this optical biochip isn't just the new feats it specifically can accomplish, but the new paradigm it suggests. Going from centralized systems to peripheral systems has been revolutionary in nearly every instance, from computing to energy to politics; distribution doesn't just replicate the centralized model in multiple locations, it offers up entirely new -- and usually unanticipated -- opportunities.

    Imagine, for example, home medical testing units ("the size of a credit card") able to run a variety of diagnostic tests on cheek swabs, smears of blood, urine, etc. In the traditional model, this information would be sent to one's doctor or hospital, which would then "control" the information (and the patient may not even be able to see the data being sent); the only real difference is that the test happens at home, instead of in a doctor's office. But why would it need to work like that? How about being able to send one's results to multiple locations for analysis, getting multiple "second opinions" simultaneously? As this all would happen over the net, there's no reason to be limited to one's local medical establishment. Hospitals outsource testing; why couldn't patients?


    plumpy.jpgOne of the big problems with fighting malnutrition in refugee camps and areas of extreme poverty is that the standard foods used for treating malnutrition -- powdered milk formulas called F-75 and F-100 -- require mixing with clean water, which is often not in abundant supply. Moreover, in order to make sure they're mixed properly, these powdered milk formulas are usually only administered at hospitals and feeding centers, often requiring miles of travel to reach, and where crowding can lead to the spread of disease. Milk-based products are also prone to bacterial growth. F-75 and F-100 are far better than nothing, and can be enormously beneficial, but this situation clearly calls for a new solution.

    Nutriset SAS, a French maker of therapeutic foods, thinks it has that solution: Plumpy'nut.

    Plumpy'nut is a peanut-based paste with the nutrition value of F-100 milk formula. Tasting like a slightly sweeter kind of peanut butter, it's far more palatable than earlier efforts at a food based treatment for malnutrition. Plumpy'nut requires no preparation or mixing -- it can be eaten right from the bag, actually -- and is categorized by WHO as a Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). Because plumpy'nut doesn't require monitored mixing with clean water, it can be distributed directly to affected communities.

    Plumpy'nut's first major use was in Darfur, where over 300 metric tons have so far been distributed; as a result, malnutrition rates there have been cut in half. Plumpy'nut was also used in tsunami relief efforts, and in Malawi, "Project Peanut Butter" is making plumpy'nut with local materials:


    Mark Manary, a pediatrician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis established Project Peanut Butter in Malawi, in southern Africa. To reduce costs, it uses local ingredients as well as a mix of vitamins and minerals supplied by Nutriset. Dr. Manary hopes to crank out 150 metric tons a year to treat Malawi's estimated 15,000 severely malnourished children.

    Dr. Manary initially used Plumpy'nut he'd received as a donation in 2001. Recovery rates soared to 95% from 25%. "We didn't need a statistician to tell us this was better," he says. "We figured if we wanted to continue, we needed to make it locally."

    [...] Despite the competition, Nutriset says it is open to local production. The company is hoping to establish a franchise network of local producers; it would supply its nutritional mix for a fee and offer advice on production and quality.

    A simple idea, well-executed, with significantly positive results and opportunities for local empowerment. Plumpy'nut may have an odd name, but it's clearly a worldchanging idea.

    April 20, 2005

    Mars Methane Confirmed

    We've been following the progress of the discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere for awhile now. First spotted by the ESA's Mars Express probe, the existence of atmospheric methane (which would be driven out of the air within 300 years) implies that Mars is much more lively than previously thought. Furthermore, methane is generally produced either through biological or geological phenomena; since we've seen no evidence for recent geological activity on Mars, a number of scientists are starting to seriously consider the possibility that Mars does, indeed, harbor life.

    Space.com now reports that Earth-based astronomers at the Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea have confirmed the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere, particularly over the equatorial regions thought most likely to harbor microbial life under the surface. As we accumulate more data about the cycles and amount of methane, we'll better be able to determine whether the methane comes from abiogenic geological sources. Discovery of life on Mars would give us our first look at a new ecosystem, and even a simple and primitive one would add enormously to our understanding of how planetary environments work.

    SMARTs in America -- Big Deal?

    ZAP, a niche motor vehicle company which made its mark building electric cars (hence its name -- Zero Air Pollution), announced this week that it had received final approval from the US Department of Transportation to start selling an Americanized version of the SMART "FourTwo" micro-coupe ("Americanized" means adding structural supports to meet safety standards and confirming that the emissions meet EPA regulations). ZAP claims to have pulled in over $750 million in pre-orders for the FourTwo. Sales are now contingent upon ZAP being able to set up a shipping and sales network to support that kind of demand. If all goes well, Americans will soon start seeing these two-seat cars zipping around their streets and highways.

    So what?

    Continue reading "SMARTs in America -- Big Deal?" »

    Location-Based Services, Making the Invisible Visible

    The possibility of receiving informational messages on one's mobile phone based on one's location holds a combination of fascination and horror for many of us. For every message about an interesting new exhibit at a small museum one is passing or blocked sidewalk up ahead, there would be dozens -- hundreds -- of spam-like messages imploring the recipient to eat, buy, consume, spend at whatever establishments are nearby. No thanks.

    But Vodafone in Germany has come up with an interesting service which may be compelling enough to pick up some users. For a monthly fee, users with allergies can receive pollen level alerts based on their current locations. The "Lorano Polleninfo" service...

    ...provides individualised pollen alerts that take into account both the current location and the allergy profile of the user, i.e. the pollens that the user is allergic to. The relevant pollen forecasts, in accordance with the personal profiles provided by the service users, are sent to their mobile phones.

    Continue reading "Location-Based Services, Making the Invisible Visible" »

    April 22, 2005

    Annotated Manifestos

    tw2be.jpgSomewhere between the one-way relationship of modern political conventions (where party platforms are on display, but never debated) and the collaboration-über-alles philosophy of party platform wikis (where altering the language of the platform is as easy as... well, as easy as wikis ever really are) lies TheyWantToBeElected.com. TW2BE is an experimental website designed by Mark Simpkins, Richard Pope and Gavin Bell, allowing visitors to annotate the platform statements of each of the three major UK parties. Using standard blogging software, TW2BE inserts comment links for each platform sub-section; as a result, the reader can go through the platform statements without interruption initially, then go back and see how others have reacted.

    The verdict? "Wonderful potential, needs work."

    TW2BE explicitly calls itself a "beta test," and it's clearly an idea in evolution. The idea of annotating the platforms can be a good one, as both critical comments (as most on TW2BE currently are) and supportive evidence can be posted. At worst, it will be another online shouting match; ideally, it will be an opportunity to explore how well different parties state their cases.

    While the comment system allows for extended discussions for each point, I'm not sure that a blogging app is really the best mechanism. The content is static, but the comments change frequently -- but the comments are hidden by text links. Nonetheless, Mark Simpkins calls it "another step in opening up the whole democratic and participatory process." It's a work in progress, to be sure, but one with definite potential.

    Sustainability: The Journal

    sustjournal.jpgWhat does "sustainability" mean? The question is harder than it first appears. It's hard to pin down a precise meaning, and even terrific explorations of the concept end up heavy on the metaphor. Part of the problem is that "sustainability" has different meanings when looked at from a scientific, a design, a social or a policy perspective, and too often those who focus on the particular categories talk past each other, or ignore each other completely.

    Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy seeks to change that.

    Continue reading "Sustainability: The Journal" »

    April 23, 2005


    freeciv.jpgOpen source software games are not altogether common. Good game design, like good graphical user interface design, is a lot harder than it may appear; as a result, the majority of open source games that do exist tend to be derivatives or copies of commercial computer games. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- by opening up the source code, developers can experiment with alternative rule sets and graphics, while still giving players a familiar experience. That's why I often lament the lack of openness in simulation games: I want to be able to go in and tweak the underlying assumptions.

    FreeCiv is a free/open source software version of the well-regarded "Civilization" computer game series. FreeCiv 2.0 was released this last week, running on Debian Linux, Windows XP, and Mac OSX, with ports coming for a wide array of other platforms. For those familiar with the commercial Civilization games, FreeCiv comes closest to the version of Civ from the late 1990s, Civ II, at least in terms of rules and graphics. It does have an outstanding multiplayer option, however -- unlike the commercial Civ games, FreeCiv was clearly built with a focus on multiplayer gaming.

    [Civilization is a game covering no less than the history of human society. Starting as a nomadic tribe, the player starts building cities, researching technologies (starting with "writing" and "bronze-making," working up to "space flight" and "biotechnology"), and exploring the world. As you might expect, for me it's enormously addictive; it's one of those games I refer to as a "3am game" -- I start playing it in the evening, and before I know it, it's three in the morning.]

    Surprisingly, the current commercial Civ version, Civilization III, is more readily customizable than FreeCiv. Civ III ships with a map and ruleset editor allowing would-be world-builders to make a substantial number of changes to the game's settings. Some developers have taken advantage of this ability to modify the game in order to come up with enormously more detailed versions of the basic Civ game. Rise and Rule, for example, adds hundreds of new intermediate technologies, culturally-linked units, resources, government types, city elements, and wonders; if you've become tired of the standard Civ III experience, I would encourage you to check it out.

    But if you want to make changes to the rules beyond those allowed by the editor, you're out of luck. That's the value of the open source aspect of FreeCiv -- if you're willing to get your hands dirty with coding, you can go in and change any aspect of the game. There's a long list of modification projects. As volunteer efforts, of course, they're updated slowly, occasionally abandoned, and need additional people on the teams. One that I find particularly interesting is the attempt to introduce some of the rules and ideas from Alpha Centauri to the Civ game; AC was one of the better non-Civ world-building games out there, with environmental and diplomatic options I've not seen anywhere else.

    Although I remain a big fan of the commercial Civ series, I'll continue to play around with FreeCiv, and keep an eye on the various mod projects. FreeCiv may seem a bit behind the commercial version in terms of look and feel, but it has a much greater potential as a game platform. If a "SimWorldChanging" is ever to get off the ground, FreeCiv would probably be a good base to work from. Although "reinventing the wheel" is something of the point of the Civ game, it's less attractive as a development path.

    April 25, 2005

    "Zero-Energy Footprint" Homes in Central London

    yorklake.jpgIf I do end up moving to London, I now know where I'd like to live. Yorklake Homes, in cooperation with BedZED, have opened a set of flats in central London which can be entirely self-sufficient for power. This is a step up from similar developments elsewhere, which only promise a reduction in energy pulled from the grid.

    A wind turbine fitted to the roof of an apartment block [...] compliments other eco-friendly features such as solar panels to convert the sun's rays into electricity, a hot water boiler powered by wood pellets, produced from wood waste and riple-glazed and krypton-filled windows to provide thermal and noise insulation. Also the exterior walls are exceptionally well insulated with a 300mm cavity filled with rock wool, the ceilings and floors are concrete slab construction which acts like super large storage heaters, storing heat in winter and coolness in summer and roof-mounted wind cowls provide innovative high levels of ventilation and heat reclamation

    The stylish apartments are at the leading of carbon emission-saving building technology and are a fine example for other architects and builders to follow. [...] [The] Swift near-silent wind turbine on the roof is one of the first domestically available of its type that generates power at mains voltage. When combined with the solar panels it enables the development to generate as much electricity as it consumes.

    Of the four flats, three are already sold; the remaining ground floor apartment is available at £270K. The main downside of this development -- aside from the price -- is the limited number of units in the structure, making the flats more of a technology demonstration -- or even a "concept home" -- than a real high-efficiency development. Although Yorklake sees the development as the first of a series, for now, it's just a tiny step.

    Microbial Hydrogen Generation

    Although some fear that the hydrogen economy, should it come, will be built atop of nuclear power plants, and others hope that solar and wind will provide enough juice to crack hydrogen from water, it may well turn out that the ideal source of hydrogen for fuel cells is the lowly bacteria.

    We've mentioned microbial fuel cells before, tiny powerhouses that generate electricity while cleaning wastewater. But researchers at Penn State have taken the microbial fuel cell off in a new direction, pulling hydrogen out of wastewater at a rate four times greater than the standard fermentation process, and ten times greater than straight electolysis.

    In their paper, the researchers explain that hydrogen production by bacterial fermentation is currently limited by the "fermentation barrier" -- the fact that bacteria, without a power boost, can only convert carbohydrates to a limited amount of hydrogen and a mixture of "dead end" fermentation end products such as acetic and butyric acids.

    However, giving the bacteria a small assist with a tiny amount of electricity -- about 0.25 volts or a small fraction of the voltage needed to run a typical 6 volt cell phone -- they can leap over the fermentation barrier and convert a "dead end" fermentation product, acetic acid, into carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

    Logan notes, "Basically, we use the same microbial fuel cell we developed to clean wastewater and produce electricity. However, to produce hydrogen, we keep oxygen out of the MFC and add a small amount of power into the system."

    [...] The researchers call their hydrogen-producing MFC a BioElectrochemically-Assisted Microbial Reactor or BEAMR. The BEAMR not only produces hydrogen but simultaneously cleans the wastewater used as its feedstock. It uses about one-tenth of the voltage needed for electrolysis, the process that uses electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen.

    The process does produce CO2, but as it's derived from biomass, the setup is closer to carbon neutral than other carbon dioxide generating methods of distilling hydrogen.

    The big potential here is suggested in the final line of the excerpt: this process is significantly more efficient than straight electrolysis as a means of separating out hydrogen from water. One of the strongest arguments made in support of the use of nuclear plants for hydrogen generation is that the electricity generated by solar and wind will be insufficient to generate enough hydrogen. If this process does in fact work as described, it could be the breakthrough making solar & wind a competitive path to hydrogen generation.

    April 27, 2005

    The Greening of the Creative Class?

    Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class made a bit of a splash last year. His argument -- that "cultural creatives" (an intentionally broad social-economic category) were most attracted to diverse, tolerant urban environments -- resonated with many, particularly those who were encompassed by his "creative class" definition. Florida asserted that the American locations driving the boom of the late 1990s, as well as what we here call the "Tech Bloom" of the 2000s, had particular social-cultural elements in common: relative population density; lively artistic communities; diverse cultures; an embrace of (or at least strong tolerance for) gay communities; and a multiplicity of universities. Urban centers that encouraged contact and connections across a wide array of cultures tended to stimulate the new ideas underlying the digital economy.

    Florida's argument is controversial, to say the least. His definition of cultural creatives includes professional categories other sociologists might otherwise omit, and it remains to be seen whether his assertions about the connection between creative workers and economic growth will hold true over the long run. Still, his basic argument -- that knowledge and media work represent key engines of economic growth, and environments supportive of cultural and intellectual diversity are attractive to these kinds of industries -- does seem to capture some of the underlying drivers of the current state of American society.

    In his research, Florida does not pay much attention to the environmental attitude of his creative class, other than lumping it into "lifestyle." But while reading an article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor -- "In Portland, living the green American dream" -- it struck me that there seems to be significant overlap between the creative class professionals and the rapidly growing circle of people embracing green/sustainable design in their lives. People who seek out urban environments with a combination of diverse stimuli and dense connections increasingly also are the people looking for material surroundings with a combination of smart design and high efficiency. The creative class is taking on a distinctly Viridian shade of green.

    Continue reading "The Greening of the Creative Class?" »

    Virtual March on Washington

    StopGlobalWarming.org has launched a "Virtual March on Washington," a bi-partisan effort to demonstrate a consensus about the need to respond now to the threat of continued global warming. The "virtual march" aspect will be a series of specific examples of the current effects of climate disruption, starting with the Shishmaref native village in Alaska, going step by step towards DC. The entire "march" will take a year, and is scheduled to get to Washington in late April, 2006. Unlike some examples of online activism, StopGlobalWarming.org seems to have picked up the support of some relatively influential people: Robert Kennedy, Jr., Senator John McCain, and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark, among others.

    The site's new, and there's not a lot there yet. It has something of a rough social networking aspect, wherein people who join the "march" can link themselves to names of those who have already joined, as a way of demonstrating the spread of the idea. If you'd like to join, you can hit the main page of the site. If you'd like to add your name to mine (and you're certainly under no obligation to do so), you can join via my page.

    Suspended Animation

    Suspended animation is a classic science fiction trope. In many stories, travelers on long space trips are put into sealed pods where they sleep away their journey -- and, often, stop aging. Sometimes the suspended animation was explained to be an advanced freezing technique, sometimes as elaborate technobabble, and occasionally directly compared to hibernation. It was science fiction verging on fantasy, and nobody thought it would be available any time soon.

    Well, get your pajamas ready.

    Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle have discovered a remarkably simple way to induce an extreme hibernation state in mice (which do not normally hibernate). The mice were exposed to air containing 80 parts per million of hydrogen sulphide -- a gas characteristic of rotten eggs -- resulting in a suspended condition. The state was readily reversed by exposure to normal air, with no ill effects.

    While hibernating, their metabolic rates plummeted by about 90% as their cells dropped their usual demand for oxygen. Core body temperatures dropped from the normal 37°C to 15°C.

    “Once down to around 15°C, instead of 150 breaths per minute, they were down to just a couple of really shallow breaths a minute,” says Roth.

    The researchers are still investigating precisely how the hydrogen sulphide induces this state. Although no human tests are in the works, medical scientists are excited by the prospect of functional, reversible suspended animation. Such a state would be enormously useful in the case of heart attacks and strokes, preventing tissue damage while the patient is transported to a hospital, and for preserving transplantable organs.

    Any use in space travel would be far off, of course. The furthest any human has gone so far has been to the Moon and back, and even a trip to Mars -- the most likely voyage over the next few decades -- would be short enough to handle without hibernation. Still, it's nice to see a widely-recognized bit of science fiction leap into the realm of the possible.

    Sadly, any age-stopping benefits remain purely speculative.

    April 28, 2005

    Earth Out Of Balance

    The issue of whether the planet is warming due to human activity is well settled, and over the past few months, we haven't devoted much blog space to pointing out Yet Another Global Warming Confirmation every other week. Today's press release from the Earth Institute at Columbia University is worth noting in passing, however, due to its cosmic phrasing of scientific results.

    The Earth's energy is out of balance.


    The study [...] reveals that Earth's current energy imbalance is large by standards of Earth's history. The current imbalance is 0.85 watts per meter squared (W/m2) and will cause an additional warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This is equal to a 1-watt light bulb shining over an area of one square meter or 10.76 square feet. Although seemingly small, this amount of heat affecting the entire world would make a significant impact. To put this number in perspective, an imbalance of 1 W/m2 maintained for the last 10,000 years is enough to melt ice equivalent to 1 kilometer (6/10ths of a mile) of sea level.

    Of perhaps more practical interest are the details about "thermal inertia," the lag between processes that have the potential to trap more heat and the realization of that potential. This thermal inertia is caused by the slower rate at which the oceans take up and release heat.

    ...there is an additional global warming of about 1 degree Fahrenheit that is already "in the pipeline," and has not yet manifested in overall ambient temperatures. Even if there were no further increase of human-induced gases in the air, climate would continue to warm about that much over the next century. [...] The delayed response of thermal inertia provides an opportunity to reduce the magnitude of human-made climate change before it is fully realized, provided that actions to reduce climate forcing agents are undertaken. On the other hand, if the world decides to wait for more overwhelming evidence of climate change, thermal inertia implies that still greater climate change will be in store, which may be difficult or impossible to avoid.

    This is why policy responses to global warming-induced climate disruption are difficult to craft. We face a pace disconnect between our tools -- industries and technologies -- and the problem. We're used to situations where changes to the causal factors result in visible, near-term changes in the effects. Geophysical processes don't work at that pace; improvement or worsening of greenhouse gas emissions will have no immediate consequences. Indeed, we may find that actions to cut greenhouse gases seemingly have negative results, as temperatures continue to climb. That's thermal inertia biting us in the backside, and those of us in the realm of analysis and explanation need to be prepared for the resulting public confusion.

    Low Cost AIDS Monitoring

    easycd4.jpgWhile much attention is (rightfully) given to the dilemmas surrounding the provision of AIDS drugs in the developing world, medication is not the only expense incurred in the fight against HIV. Accurate diagnosis and monitoring of AIDS can be costly, and is often only available in large urban hospitals. As individuals can have varying reactions to treatment, accurate measurement of T cells is critical for determining whether an intervention is successful. The cost of technologies to perform those counts -- called "flow cytometry" -- can be a barrier to effective treatment.

    The biotech company Guava Technologies, in cooperation with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has developed a new T cell enumeration tool aimed specifically at "resource-limited nations." The "EasyCD4" system is described by Guava as being "20 times more affordable" than standard flow cytometry systems. The entire system is built to reduce costs -- in training, in materials, and in infrastructure:

    Performance of the Guava assays is quite simple, with even novice users learning to use the EasyCD4 method in just a day or two. Testing requires only 10 microliters of whole blood per patient, making the method suitable for use in pediatric as well as adult patients. The Guava EasyCD4 assay also requires far less reagent per sample than other testing methods, dramatically lowering the overall costs of performing the assay. Moreover, the Guava EasyCD4 assay does not require nearly the amount of dedicated laboratory infrastructure. The system also does not require large amounts of buffered water as sheath fluid that are required by conventional flow cytometers. The elimination of the use of sheath fluid also results in less bio-hazardous waste and significantly further reduces the running costs of using the system.

    While we focus on developing vaccinations against and a cure for HIV-AIDS, it's important to remember that treatment is a bigger issue than drugs. The EasyCD4 system looks to be a useful new tool, allowing smaller clinics to provide early diagnosis and ongoing monitoring away from urban centers. This, in turn, has the potential to improve survival rates, as earlier diagnosis means earlier treatment -- and lower cost diagnosis can mean more resources for medication.

    (Via MedGadget)

    WEEE Man

    weeeman.jpgSustainability Sundays readers will recognize WEEE -- the EU's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, mandating that manufacturers of electric and electronic devices accept and properly recycle "end of life" equipment. WEEE will become law across the EU this summer, and the directive will go into effect as of January 2006. The goal of WEEE is to reduce the amount of electronic gear going into the waste stream; a corresponding directive, Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), limits and prohibits a variety of toxic substances in printed circuit boards.

    In order to publicize the onset of WEEE in the UK, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (otherwise known as the RSA) has crafted the WEEE Man, a 7 meter sculpture made up of discarded electric and electronic appliances. The WEEE Man represents all the device waste a single UK citizen will discard in a typical lifetime: 3,300 kilograms, or over 7,200 pounds. The WEEE Man sculpture is now on display on London's South Bank, near Tower Bridge (very close to the location from where I took the photo shown here earlier this year).

    The WEEE Man has a "Visible Man meets the Terminator via Best Buy" look to it, and is (in my opinion) remarkable both as a piece of public art and as a piece of public education. (Photos of the sculpture, including a much larger version of the press image used above, can be found here.) The WEEE Man website is also quite interesting, with abundant information about product manufacturing life cycles (including references to Cradle to Cradle and Natural Capitalism), details on the WEEE Directive, even a quick calculator of the estimated footprint of the various mobile phones and PCs in one's life (this last is based on information for EU countries only, so your footprint mileage may vary).

    The WEEE Man site also includes a section giving information on what individuals and organizations can do to reduce their device waste footprints. Some of the suggestions are just common sense -- more responsibility in purchases, more recycling and repair of existing gear, that sort of thing -- and some are more technical, particularly the information for businesses needing to comply with WEEE/RoHS.

    The RSA developed the WEEE Man project as part of a larger endeavor, an agenda they call Moving Towards a Zero Waste Society. Such a society would require full design for disassembly, cradle-to-cradle production processes, and an aggressive effort to eliminate toxins. It's an ambitious goal -- but ambitious goals are the ones worth pursuing.

    Home Energy Audit

    How much energy does your home consume? You can use tools like the Kill-a-Watt to check specific appliances, but that won't help you figure out if the aluminum windows, uninsulated water heater or aging dishwasher should be your first choice of replacement. Fortunately, the Lawrence Berkeley Labs has a useful tool online: the Home Energy Saver.

    The HES is a website with a multiplicity of questions about your home's energy status. You can rely on averages or get extremely granular, as desired. The more detail you can give, the more accurate the results will be.

    Each page of the audit gives you a session ID#, with the encouragement to write the number down. I'd second that encouragement -- there are so many questions that a browser crash, forcing you to re-enter all the answers, is more likely to make you give up in frustration. I know of which I speak...

    April 29, 2005

    Three Little Candles

    Reader Patrick Di Justo commented on yesterday's "Earth Out of Balance" post with a remarkable observation. I want to make sure that people who don't normally read the comments see it, so I'm putting it here.

    The article quoted in the post noted that the additional energy trapped at the surface by greenhouse gases amounted to the equivalent of a 1-watt light bulb per square meter. But Patrick notes:

    A one watt lightbulb is a pretty bad image. Who has ever seen a one watt lightbulb?

    A birthday candle makes a better image. Three birthday candles together put out about one watt. Imagine three tiny pink birthday candles burning on every square meter of the Earth's surface. Every square meter of farmland, every square meter of ocean, of forest and tundra, in every sidewalk square in every city all over the world, imagine three tiny pink candles burning day and night.

    That's global warming.


    nivo.jpgNdiyo is Swahili for "yes" -- and is also the name of a new non-profit organization set up to build and sell a low-cost network computer for the developing world. We've covered the question of how best to provide information services in low-income countries before, and I've argued that a beefed up mobile phone is a more reasonable course than a pared-down desktop. A big reason is that desktop computers, even pared-down ones, tend to be power-hungry and space intensive.

    Ndiyo solves one half of that problem. Their "Nivo" unit -- "network in, video out" (PDF) -- is a so-called "thin client" desktop drawing only about 5 watts of power (compared to over 100 watts for a typical desktop PC). In locations where the power supply is spotty, lower-consumption devices are at a distinct advantage. For the Nivo, the main power draw is the monitor. Traditional CRTs can draw 75 watts or more; with the far greener flat panel screens dropping dramatically in cost, a Nivo + LCD system could draw as little as 20-30 watts of power, total.

    The "thin client" model uses a single moderately powerful server splitting its time among a multitude of networked systems. Some data processing and the bulk of the storage is done on the server. Ndiyo units run a version of Linux along with a variety of free/open source Internet applications, all stored on the server. Thin clients have been available in the west for years, but never managed to replace PCs. Ndiyo believes that thin clients will do much better in places not already filled with networked PCs -- the lower cost and easier maintenance will be attractive for Internet cafés, small businesses and the like. The Ndiyo system is not meant as a home or personal computer.

    That may be its undoing. One of the lessons of the information technology revolution everywhere it's hit is that people demonstrate a strong preference for individual machines, with private storage of data and customized interfaces. The Nivo as Internet terminal cannot be personalized in that way; it doesn't even have the capability to use smart cards to store personal preferences (something Ndiyo plans to fix in an upcoming version).

    Still, a low-cost, low-power-consumption system is a more realistic catalyst for the spread of desktop information technology than is a chopped-down PC. It's particularly heartening to see the use of free/open source software at the core of a developing world computer. The Ndiyo device's current setup may not be perfect, but it has potential. Ndiyo's progress is definitely worth watching closely.

    Homebrew 3D Printer

    Want to make your own fab lab but don't quite have MIT's resources? How about using Meccano (known in the US as "Erector Set". Stop giggling.) and a glue gun? reBang weblog shows us that New Zealand's Vik Olliver has done so; a picture is worth a thousand words:


    He's reportedly able to get 0.25mm precision with the setup. He won't be making printed circuit boards with it any time soon, but it will be fascinating to find out what he can make with it...

    (Via All Art Burns)

    April 30, 2005

    The Catastrophist's Dilemma

    boom.jpgThe DVD of The Day After Tomorrow is out and, despite it being neither a terribly edifying spectacle nor subtle work of art, I felt compelled to pick it up. It's the first big climate change disaster movie, but it won't be the last; in it's own way, it's a historical document. When it came out last year, it generated a lot of buzz (something we played a tiny role in helping to create) and even more debate about its scientific veracity. TDAT was not meant as public education, but many (both global warming activists and denialists) thought it should be, and criticized its many scientific flaws.

    Having spent a bit of time in the late 1990s working in Hollywood on science fiction television production, I felt some sympathy for both the critics and the filmmakers. I've been in the position of arguing with a director over scientific realism (in my case, he wanted to make the moons of Mars appear as big in the Martian night sky as an Earthly full moon); I've also seen where worrying too much over a scientific detail can get in the way of telling a story (can the super-advanced alien race interbreed with humans? On the surface of course not, but then you start thinking about what super-advanced biotechnology might enable, and how it might work...). This tension is particularly acute when the story being told involves a natural or human-caused disaster: the structure of movies requires that you have a lead heroic character throughout, so disasters that take decades to unfold end up being compressed into a few days or weeks; the limited time of a motion picture and the dictum that you "show, not tell," make complex cause-and-effect confusing at best for viewers, so events with multiple causes and second/third-order, non-obvious effects get turned into simple (if big) explosions; and big budget movie audiences are conditioned to expect a relatively happy conclusion, so the heroic character must be able to eke out a victory, no matter how dire the straits.

    If you're a moviemaker, and you want to destroy much of the planet, you'd better make sure that (a) your hero is attractive, (b) the disaster is easy to understand, and (c) your ending is still happy. Now make that scientifically accurate.

    Continue reading "The Catastrophist's Dilemma" »

    About April 2005

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

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