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May 2005 Archives

May 3, 2005

The Circle Is Complete

Just to make the self-referential circle complete, here is a cameraphone photo of Howard Greenstein at MeshForum reading WorldChanging -- specifically, Alex's post about Howard's photo of me...

The talk went well, and I'll be posting a text version of it tomorrow. I'm told that an audio version will be available online soon, as well.

(Update: Howard just showed me a picture he took of me posting this entry. I'm afraid that if we take this any further, this conference would collapse into a singularity, so we'll stop now.)

May 4, 2005

The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon

This week, I spoke at the first MeshForum conference, held in Chicago. The following is an adaptation of my talk, which adapts some earlier material with some new observations. Fair warning: it's a long piece. I look forward to your comments.

The photo at right is by Howard Greenstein, taken during my presentation.

Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. WhatÂ’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

And we will be doing it to ourselves.

This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

Continue reading "The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon" »

May 6, 2005

Smart Energy Grids in the Real World

Smart energy grids will be a critical part of a bright green future, making it possible to integrate a wide array of energy sources with varying production levels (from giant wind turbines to home solar to wave power arrays) along with sophisticated abilities to control levels of demand and consumption. Much of the discussion of smart grids has been somewhat theoretical, however, or focused on the back-end systems juggling the connections. What about the home components?

News.com reports on a couple of examples of smart grid components allowing what they refer to as "virtual peak capacity" -- smart consumption controls providing focused consumption throttling, giving energy providers additional capacity to avoid brownouts or blackouts during heavy loads. The value for the energy utilities is capacity when needed most; the value for the consumer (whether at home or in commercial sites) is lower cost:

Depending on the climate control program consumers choose, they can get a monthly rebate or experience an overall reduction of around 15 percent to 25 percent.

The utilities, meanwhile, benefit by not having to build extra power plants or buy energy at peak prices on the open market. In Salt Lake City, a utility is installing Comverge control units in 90,000 homes. Since each unit can throttle about a kilowatt of energy consumption, the units will effectively perform the same job as a 90-megawatt plant, which can cost a few hundred thousand dollars to build.

EnerNOC focuses on commercial buildings; Comverge provides dynamic power management tools to consumers. These tools take advantage of cellular and Internet connections for real-time information about demand, load levels and prices. Since they require communication with the energy grid, these systems are only deployed in locations set up to use them -- but the number of such locations is growing.

(Via Sustainability Zone)

Green Building Performance

whrc.jpgWe love green buildings and sustainable architecture. Since the cost of going green when building a new structure is not significantly greater than not doing so -- and whatever added expenses occur are quickly recovered by lower operating costs -- we can't see why designers wouldn't build green. And since there's a strong correlation between cities with more green architecture and cities with more of the "creative class" driving their economies, we're likely to see even more regions encouraging (or even requiring) green building standards.

But as we all know, results don't always match design. How energy efficient and sustainable are these buildings, really?

The Woods Hole Research Center, one of the United States' premier institutions of environmental study, decided to find out for themselves. WHRC moved into its Bill McDonough-designed Ordway Campus building last year, and has spent the last year testing its performance. The Ordway building includes photovoltaics, solar thermal collectors, ultra-efficient windows and more, and was designed to reduce energy consumption by over 25% from the previous Woods Hole building while nearly doubling available space. In order to gauge whether the building meets its design, Woods Hole has set up 75 different sensors throughout the structure, measuring flows of electricity, heat, air and water, as well as the site's overall environmental condition.

The first year's results appear promising. From the Performance Overview:

For the past year the WHRC Ordway facility has performed closely to our originally modeled expectations. Total energy usage was 96,389 kWhrs with 30,589 being generated onsite by our photovoltaic system. The remaining 65,800 kWhrs was pulled from the electric grid. The upshot of this is that 32% of our facility’s total energy requirement was provided by the PV system.Even with a facility that is nearly twice the size of our old combined offices and labs, we are using less total energy and spending less money on energy while reducing emissions attributable to our operations to 36% of our previous total (17% of the national office average for a building of same size). With the installation of a wind turbine this will probably drop to zero, or even to negative emissions, meaning that we will effectively be reducing the emissions attributable to our neighborhood.

Real-time data from the sensors are available on the web. Building Energy Flow and HVAC System Results can be viewed with any browser; Performance Trends and Meteorological Trends are only available to Internet Explorer/Windows users.

Sharpest Ever Global Map In Progress

The European Space Agency's Envisat environmental satellite is constructing what will work out to be the most detailed image ever of our home planet.

Over the next two years, the Envisat's imaging spectrometer will take a series of 300 meter images of Earth's land surface area; when completed, the image will require 20 terabytes of storage.

The picture shown here is a mosaic from Envisat assembled from 1561 orbits taking place over May, July, October and November, 2004. Click it for a much larger version.

May 7, 2005

New Worlds

ook-destiny.jpgIf something exists only as bits, is it any less a real part of the economy?

It's a less simple question than it may initially appear. Many of the products or services which one might think of as being bits-only can have a usable physical instantiation as well (such as burning a CD of MP3s or printing a web page). That said, most economists and consumers would likely be willing to extend a form of economic and social "reality" to bits-only products such as network software or flash animations.

But what about swords?

Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a huge phenomenon. Millions of people play them, world-wide; I know for a fact that some WorldChanging readers play them, too. And, to a degree which may even surprise veteran players, MMORPGs are crossing over into the real world. Millions of dollars worth of sales of game objects take place every year outside of the games themselves. In-game economics are starting to affect the real world. Could the game identity one creates through words, actions and skills be far behind?

Continue reading "New Worlds" »

May 8, 2005

We Like Mike

Mike Millikin, publisher of Green Car Congress and Sustainability Sundays anchor, was tapped over at Grist to do some Q&A with readers. Mike's answers to reader questions are useful, informative, and wide-ranging -- just what we'd expect. Among the topics he covers are the environmental effect of hybrid car batteries, car-sharing, and the relative efficiency of air travel.

Check it out.

Consume Green

greenshopper.jpgIn the beginning, there was the Whole Earth Catalog, and it was good.

Today, if you want to get advice on how to construct a green(er) life through consumerism, you have myriad choices. If you want your advice from the remnants of dead trees, you can check out Plenty, Green*Light, and a bunch more. Those who prefer bits to atoms can go with (among others) Treehugger, HippyShopper (for the UK regiment), Metaefficient, even our own Bright Green Living Wiki. All of these provide advice from a perspective that's green first, consumer second. But what if you're more of a traditional type, and have a strong aversion to tie-dye?

Continue reading "Consume Green" »

May 9, 2005

Leaving the Stone Age

One of my favorite bright green clichés has to be: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

It's a reminder that efforts to replace non-renewable sources of energy with more sustainable technologies can be driven by innovation rather than desperation. But desperation is a powerful motivator; it's usually easier to sell policies with fear rather than hope, even if playing the fear card has nasty repercussions down the road. Desperation comes from a sense of vulnerability, not a recognition of undesirable results. And right now, the US is feeling particularly vulnerable when it comes to oil. The two most visible manifestations of the desperation agenda are the so-called "geo-greens" and the increasing visibility of the "peak oil" concept.

Continue reading "Leaving the Stone Age" »

Nanomovies by Touch

If you want to see what's going on at an atomic scale, you can't use a regular microscope -- atoms are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. Instead, nanoengineers, physicists, and others interested in mucking about in the realm of the very, very small use atomic force microscopes, or AFMs. AFMs build images by touching the tip of a probe -- just a couple of atoms across -- to the object to be imaged; the motion of the tip as it runs across the surface gets converted by computer to an image. Traditionally, this process is very slow, on the order of about one picture every ten milliseconds.

MIT researchers have now figured out a method of capturing the images in microseconds -- fast enough to create time lapse movies of nanoscale motion. Why is this a big deal? Because this enables researchers to monitor microscopic bits of engineering (like microfluidic pumps), keep tabs on the function of nanotechnological devices, even capture movies of biological activities at the sub-cellular level. Imagine a movie showing the replication of DNA.

Twenty Questions

20Qpocket_anim.gifMost of us who grew up in the US (and quite probably many outside the US, as well) know of the "Magic 8 Ball." Ask the ball a question, shake it up for a moment, then flip it over: on the glass you'll see the mystical answer to your question.

Reply hazy, try again.

While amusing, it's not terribly satisfying. It's more interesting, however, when the ball asks you questions. 20Q plays the "twenty questions" game, wherein a person thinks of a specific thing. The sphere asks the questions, and has 20 shots to narrow down the possibilities; the user can answer "yes," "no," "sometimes," "rarely" and a few other relatively ambivalent responses. Nearly every time -- about 8 times out of 10 -- the ball will arrive at the right answer by the time its 20 questions are up.

Impressive, to be sure, and a fun example of the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence software. 20Q uses a neural network with a million synaptic connections. It's based on 20Q.net, an online twenty questions game; unlike the toy, the online version continues to learn with each new player. After over 16 million queries, the online 20 questions game is startlingly sharp. While nobody would assert that 20Q was at all sentient, its ability to ferret out the right answer via guesses is uncanny. According to an entry on Kevin Kelly's "Cool Tools" list, the online version has 10 million synaptic associations, and well over 10,000 objects that it knows about. At this point, the major factor limiting its continued improvement is the number of people connecting to it who don't speak much English.

The 20Q project, along with ontological knowledge bases like Cyc, demonstrate the importance of broad knowledge about the world for artificial intelligence. The massive database for the Cyc project -- over 300,000 assertions about nearly 50,000 concepts -- makes it possible for Cyc to display a "common sense" understanding of potentially ambiguous situations and natural language phrases. 20Q uses non-hierarchical neural networks and Cyc uses a structured hierarchical knowledge tree, but it's clear that they're both relying on the same underlying philosophy: more information, with more connections, gives better results. I'd be interested in seeing how well a Cyc routine would do against 20Q.

Until that day, 20Q will have to put up with guessing what humans are thinking. Warning: it's easy to find that a couple of hours have passed while trying to stump the computer. Trust me.

May 10, 2005

I Voted For You Because...

Use of the web as a locus for political organization and discussion doesn't have to end once an election occurs. Very often, successful political figures take their victories as signs of full vindication of policies and proposals, even when voter feelings were less certain or more nuanced than the politician recognizes. Now the team that brought UK voters "They Want To Be Elected.com" -- allowing citizens to annotate party platforms -- has come up with I Voted For You Because.com, a chance for UK voters to explain why they voted the way they did, addressed not to other voters, but to the elected officials themselves.

This team is also responsible for They Work For You.com, which tracks the votes and positions of members of Parliament. These sites are wonderful examples of the web's potential in the political world -- it's more than tool for organization, it's more than a place to have shouting matches, it really can be an accessible mechanism for sharing knowledge about the world of politics.

Tracking Diseases From Orbit

epidemio.jpgAs long-time readers of WorldChanging know, I am especially enthusiastic about the use of space-based tools for watching and understanding geophysical and environmental systems. Big-picture views of the world can capture subtle interactions across large areas, as can the use of sensors picking up signals outside of the visible light spectrum. These are not replacements for ground observation, but important supplements.

The recently-unveiled Epidemio project is an excellent example of the application of satellite observation well beyond what most people might expect. Epidemio is a European Space Agency effort to use Earth observing satellites to track the spread of diseases in Africa. EO satellites don't monitor microbes directly -- they aren't quite yet up that -- they instead monitor the environmental conditions associated with the spread of disease. Heat, wind patterns, rainfall, dust, humidity -- all of these are clues for understanding an outbreak, when examined with an epidemiologist's eye. The ESA has provided satellite support for medical and epidemiological research before; Epidemio focuses the ESA's efforts, working closely with a variety of medical NGOs and agencies.

Epidemio data will cover urban maps, digital elevation maps, bodies of water, vegetation, land cover, land surface temperature and a service for monitoring wind-blown Sahelian dust. The last may be related to regular outbreaks of meningitis in North Africa.

"Meningitis outbreaks take place after a period without rain, low humidity and lots of dust in the air," explained Isabelle Jeanne of the Niger-based Centre de Recherche Médicale et Sanitaire (CERMES), associated with the international network des Instituts Pasteur and a partner in ESA's Epidemio project."The exact correlation is not yet known. But making use of satellite data enables us to follow week by week the development of the dust storms and the appearance of conditions favourable for an epidemic to start." [...] "The dryness and dust does not spread the bacteria directly," Jeanne explained. "Instead it seems as though the irritation caused to local inhabitants' mucus membranes renders them more vulnerable to bacterial infection. However an epidemic begins to decrease as soon as the first rain comes."

Epidemio is also working with CERMES to monitor environmental precursors for malarial outbreaks, is working with the Gabon-based International Centre for Medical Research to search for Ebola-carrying plants or animals. This last week, Epidemio made large sets of Sahel dust maps available for download, along with maps of Luanda and Lusaka to aid with WHO relief efforts fighting an outbreak of the Ebola-like Marburg virus in Angola.

Sensing the World

smartdust.jpgOne of the subjects that's close to our hearts here at WorldChanging is the use of sensor technology to understand the environment. Whether urban sensors for detecting pollution, ice probes for monitoring changes to glaciers, solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicles for monitoring the ocean, nanobiosensors for monitoring chemicals, even "feral" robotic dogs acting as mobile ecomonitors, swarms of cheap sensors networked together are increasingly among the best ways to keep tabs on environmental changes. Alex's pair of essays on Knowing Nature Through Technology (part 1, part 2) detail the massive utility of sensors as tools of environmental science.

The New York Times has finally caught on, and science writer William Broad provides a lengthy account of the current state of ecological monitoring systems:

Continue reading "Sensing the World" »

May 11, 2005

Two to Tango

tango.jpgLast February, we reported on the Naro, a two-seat tandem concept vehicle co-designed by Coventry University's Art & Design department and British motorsport company Prodrive. It turns out that Prodrive has been doing more than just imagining narrow vehicles, they've started making them. The Tango is a two-seat tandem electric vehicle moving from test car to production. It's small enough that it can perpendicular park in a parallel parking space, roomy enough for a driver over 6', and can go from 0 to 60 in four seconds.

As that acceleration statistic suggests, the performance of the Tango is impressive for an electric. Its top speed is about 150 miles per hour, with a range of 60-80 miles. Auto enthusiasts will undoubtedly drool over the component specs -- Prodrive makes serious performance equipment as its main business -- and the rest of us will recoil at the price: $85,000. They do plan to make a couple of cheaper models, with appropriately lower performance; the lowest-cost one is targeted to be about $18,500.

What justifies a price like that? Safety. Prodrive has designed the Tango to meet not just the standard vehicle safety requirements, but also the safety requirements of the SCCA and NHRA -- two of the big racing car associations. The Tango's passenger cage is designed to withstand an impact at 200 miles per hour. The racing car-level safety is one performance aspect Prodrive intends to include in all versions of the Tango.

Safety is a big deal with small car designers right now. Green Car Congress has a detailed report on Pininfarina's efforts to design chassis for ultra-compact cars able to withstand full-speed impacts from trucks. The results have been impressive -- simulations suggest that the absorption and redirection of front impact energy could be enough to make airbags unnecessary.

This isn't the approach Prodrive is using, but that's good -- the more ways designers come up with to make certain that small car passengers are secure, the more people will feel comfortable getting in one.

(Tango via Hippyshopper)

Mobile Computing, India-Style

mobilis.jpgAs we often think of India as a rapidly-developing, high-tech-focused nation, it's sobering to learn that there are only about 13 million personal computers there (in a nation of over a billion people). Projects like the "$100 Computer" seem well-suited for this market, but the spread of information technology in the world's largest democracy may well come from a local source. Encore Software, one of the makers of the Simputer, today announced a new design -- the Mobilis.

The stats on the system (PDF) are impressive, particularly given its Rs.10,000-Rs.20,000 price (about $230-$460). It can be used as a tablet or as a stand-up portable desktop, and weighs about a pound (~500 grams). Encore promises six hours of battery life, which sounds amazing to those of us accustomed to 2.5-3.5 hour laptops, but is mitigated somewhat by the lack of a hard drive; the Mobilis stores all of its data on Smart Cards. The basic version has a wired modem and ethernet, and the more expensive version includes GPS and a GPRS modem. The core OS is Linux, of course, customized for the local market with a variety of language options and a text-to-speech feature.

The Times of India and The Hindu have some additional details.

Will the Mobilis take off? I'm not sure; I still think that information tools for much of the world will evolve from the mobile phone, and not be limited-utility PCs. But the Mobilis clearly has greater functionality than the similarly-priced Simputer, without significantly added heft (the Simputer is smaller, but still too large to fit easily into a pocket). At the sub-$500 price point, I could see these devices doing relatively well in the West, with a few minor changes. Ultimately, it will come down to whether the devices have a sufficient variety of applications of direct value to the people they're selling to. That sounds obvious, but it's not uncommon to see new tech rolled out without much consideration of whether anyone is actually interested.

If the Mobilis succeeds, it will be worth celebrating. If it fails, it will be a failure worth learning from.

Self-Replicating Robots

Bill Joy must be tearing out his hair right about now.

Cornell University researchers have developed a methodology for self-replication by machines. That is, they've designed robots that can build copies of themselves. Although these robots can do nothing more than make more robots (as long as the components hold out, at least), self-replication has some serious applications for dangerous environments:

Lipson suggests that the idea of making self-replicating robots out of self-contained modules could be used to build working robots that could self-repair by replacing defective modules. For example, robots sent to explore Mars could carry a supply of spare modules to use for repairing or rebuilding as needed, allowing for more flexible, versatile and robust missions. Self-replication and repair also could be crucial for robots working in environments where a human with a screwdriver couldn't survive.

The scariest thing in the report? The note that one of the Cornell researchers has since moved to work at Microsoft.

(Reppy: "You appear to be making a duplicate of yourself. Would you like help with that?")

May 12, 2005

Kicking the Mule

crv.jpgIf China's going to clean up its environment, it's going to have to do something about the mules.

Chinese Rural Vehicles (CRVs or "mules") are small, typically three-wheeled vehicles powered by a single-cylinder diesel engine. There are about 22 million of them in China, and according to a study done by Daniel Sperling at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, they account for a quarter of China's diesel consumption -- and put out as much pollution as all other Chinese conventional vehicles.

The CRV dates back to a failed plan to industrialise China's rural areas in the 1960s. The surplus machinery was redirected to building a replacement for mules as the workhorse of rural transport, and so the cheap and basic CRV was born. The growth in the number of these vehicles over the past 25 years has been spectacular [...]. The most common model has three wheels, though there are also two and four-wheeled versions. They are simple enough for farmers to put them together themselves, although about half are assembled by three major companies.

Continue reading "Kicking the Mule" »

Leapfrog Blog

NextBillion.net describes itself as bringing together "the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policy makers, and academics who want to explore the connection between development and enterprise," with an explicit focus on the ways in which poverty can be eliminated through profit-making activities. Its blog "Development Through Enterprise" launched formally just last week. Many of the posts on the site so far read like brief entries in the WorldChanging "Leapfrog Nations" category, and in fact we've covered a number of the items they discuss -- for example: the India "Mobilis" computer (WC post here); the Vodafone study on the impact of mobile phones in Africa (WC post here); and the connection between nanotechnology and reaching the Millennium Development Goals (WC post here).

The posts on NextBillion won't always line up with the approaches we take here on WorldChanging, but -- at least at this early point in its history -- it definitely looks like a resource to add to one's RSS list...

(Via SmartMobs)

The Renewable Mix

It's not hard to find people arguing against the greater use of renewable energy sources by making the following kind of argument:

(Renewable Technology X) can't replace our current energy use because of (Insert Well-Known Reason), so it's pointless to pursue its development.

The Well-Known Reasons often boil down to what the industry calls "intermittency" -- the inability of the given energy technology to provide reliable amounts of power. And, constructed as that straw man, it's true: photovoltaics are ineffective at night; wind turbines are non-productive in still air. But as we've said here time and again, nobody is talking about replacing the entire energy infrastructure with a single production source. What will allow renewable energy to succeed is a distributed mix of a variety of sources connected via a smart power grid.

Now researchers at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University are arguing the same thing.

[Dr. Graham] Sinden initially looked at just three generation technologies: wind, solar and dCHP [domestic combined heat and power] — in effect, hi-tech domestic boilers, which produce electricity as they heat water. He ran computer models of power output based on weather records going back up to 35 years, and found that electricity production could be optimised by creating a mixture of 65% wind, 25% dCHP, and 10% solar cells. The high proportion of wind is because the wind blows hardest in the winter, and in the evening — when demand is highest. The dCHP also produces more at peak times, when demand for hot water and heating is also strongest. Solar makes a smaller contribution, and produces nothing at night. But it is still important to have it in the mix as it kicks in when wind and dCHP production is lowest.

Continue reading "The Renewable Mix" »


moo.jpgConverting bovine waste into power is not new -- we've mentioned a Vermont project ("Providing renewable energy one cow at a time") and went into a bit more detail about a cattle ranch in California making electricity from manure. In both cases (and the undoubtedly countless others), the electricity is produced by letting the waste convert to methane, then burning the resulting gas in something called a "methane digester." Certainly a good use of cattle waste, but is it the best use?

The Haubenschild Farm in Minnesota, already generating methane digester-electricity, decided to check out other options. In January, they became the location of the first cow manure-powered hydrogen fuel cell.

Phil Goodrich, the University of Minnesota principal investigator in the hydrogen fuel cell project at the Haubenschild farm, last Friday backed the assertion that this was a world’s first. The project was to see if running methane gas produced from cow manure into a hydrogen fuel cell could make electricity.It was working, said Goodrich on Friday. He explained that electricity has been made from a fuel cell before but never from methane produced from “predigested, pre-collected, biomass.” [...]

Continue reading "Moo." »

May 13, 2005

Smart Control for Home Solar

solarmeter.jpgHot on the heels of thermostat-like controls for allocating "virtual peak capacity" to smart electricity grids comes Sharp's new system for monitoring and controlling home photovoltaics. The JH-G51X lets you watch real-time power consumption in the home, how much of a charge you're getting from solar panels and how much energy you're drawing from -- or sending to -- the grid at large.

The system also calculates how much of credit you're building up with the local power company. It's unclear if in Japan -- unlike the US or (I'm told) Canada -- you can actually get a rebate from the electricity supplier should you send more power back to the grid than you use. Around here, the lowest you can go is a $0 bill, even if you're supplying enough power for the neighborhood.

An English-language story can be found at Akihabara News. The Sharp page in Japanese is here. The Google Translation of the page is here and, although the translation is fairly funky, it's actually relatively comprehensible. In whatever language, however, the system won't be cheap -- the simplest version will run close to $3,000, and the heaviest-duty version will run nearly $4,500.

Expect to see more of these kinds of smart energy meters and controls in the coming years. Knowing how much power you're using is the first step to using less. And while small readers like the Kill-A-Watt are definitely handy, an electricity monitor that can tell you the draw and overall consumption at each outlet would be much, much better.

Mapping Biodiversity

Nature conservation is an information-intense process. After all, you need to know what you're saving in order to tell whether or not you're successful. But tools for measuring biodiversity haven't always kept up with conservation needs. In the new issue of Journal of Biogeography, however, botanists from the Bonn University have produced the most detailed global atlas of plant biodiversity yet created.

A central innovation here is the breakdown of data by vegetation zone. Tropical rainforests are, unsurprisingly, shown to be among the most species-rich areas on earth. Indeed, Borneo's lowland rainforest is the most diverse of all, with around 10,000 plant species. By comparison, the whole of the Federal Republic of Germany contains some 2,700 different native plants. [...] An important "spin-off" from the project is a map showing how thoroughly the plant world has been studied in different regions. Among the "white patches" on the map, showing areas for which floristic knowledge is very poor, we find the southern Amazon basin and North Colombia, which are two of the world's most biodiverse areas.

The atlas will have immediate applicability to conservation work.

Continue reading "Mapping Biodiversity" »

May 14, 2005

News Art

10x10.jpgI'm enthralled by the novel uses people make of open Internet data streams.

10x10 takes news feeds from a handful of global sources, calculates which terms get used most frequently, and builds a 10 by 10 grid of images associated with those terms. Clicking an image gets links to connected stories; the pictures and stories are refreshed every hour. 10x10 has built a history of the images, including doing meta-sets of the most important terms & pictures of the week, the month, and the year.

Continue reading "News Art" »

May 15, 2005

Ultra-Long-Life Battery

One of the problems with spreading environmental sensors far and wide is the need to power them. While most of these sensors are designed to use as little power as possible, few can be run solely on photovoltaics; batteries, therefore, are a necessary component. So what can provide the best power over an extended period?

It may be tritium. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen and, yes, it's radioactive. But before you click the comment button, read on.

Tritium batteries work by absorbing beta-decay electrons in a silicon panel similar to traditional photovoltaics. The concept isn't new, but earlier designs were unable to capture a sufficient number of electrons to provide a significant amount of power. The new design, figured out by researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Toronto, Rochester Institute of Technology and BetaBatt, Inc. of Houston, Texas, uses a 3D porous silicon matrix which gives it vastly increased surface area. Tritium batteries can last for at least 12 years (the half-life of tritium) of continuous use up to over a century, depending upon battery design -- a significant improvement over traditional chemical batteries.

But what about the safety?

Continue reading "Ultra-Long-Life Battery" »

May 16, 2005

BioDASH and BioHacking


Systems Biology Markup Language.

Open Source Biomedical Research.

We are rapidly moving into a world where biology can be as manipulable as data. After all, DNA is code; life is information. The new tools and methods we're developing for bioengineering reflect this parallel, and the philosophies underlying the "hacker" ethic (in the original sense of someone devoted to exploration, invention and discovery) are being absorbed by the biological disciplines.

But whereas the original software hackers had to settle for the primitive tools of the 1970s and 1980s, today's biohackers can take advantage of far more sophisticated networks and collaboration tools. The latest example of the infusion of the information society into biological engineering is BioDASH -- "a Semantic Web prototype of a Drug Development Dashboard that associates disease, compounds, drug progression stages, molecular biology, and pathway knowledge for a team of users." As the announcement notes, this is the first step of a work-in-progress, and the developers hope that as people get more familiar with using the Semantic Web for life sciences, more applications will emerge.

(What is the Semantic Web?

The Semantic Web provides a common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries. It is a collaborative effort led by W3C with participation from a large number of researchers and industrial partners. It is based on the Resource Description Framework (RDF), which integrates a variety of applications using XML for syntax and URIs for naming.

"The Semantic Web is an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation." -- Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, Ora Lassila, The Semantic Web, Scientific American, May 2001

...That is, it's an emerging standard making information sharing and collaboration across disciplines and organizations simpler and consistent.)

Why is this important? Because, as Rob Carlson notes in the current Wired, the tools for doing sophisticated biological research are getting incredibly inexpensive, and more people -- in the West and in the leapfrog nations -- will be experimenting with biohacking. And standardized ways of sharing information and applications greatly reduces the risk of accident.

Carlson writes: "The advent of garage biology is at hand. Skills and technology are proliferating, and the synthesis and manipulation of genomes are no longer confined to ivory towers." The development of information systems like BioDASH will make that garage biology simpler -- and safer -- than ever before.

(Via Open Access News)

May 18, 2005

Masters of Design

The new issue of Fast Company -- a dot.com-era business magazine still hanging on -- is all about design, and looks to be fairly interesting reading. As of right now, among the few web-accessible pieces are a series of profiles of different designers, showing the breadth of design thinking across a variety of disciplines. Probably the most WorldChanging-relevant entry is the profile of Bruce Mau, whose "Massive Change" project has proven both inspiring and surprisingly controversial.

For Mau, design is a powerful tool that's best used to attack vexing problems. The exhibition leads viewers through spaces defined by challenges where there are new opportunities -- many spurred by technology -- for design to play a problem-solving role. There is, for example, a humble but elegantly designed purifier that makes drinking water accessible to the developing world. More than anything, Mau's goal is to push people to rethink their preconceptions about design and what design can accomplish.

The Numbers

Here are some particularly pleasing numbers about the climate:


37 (including a new set of 10).


One billion.

2004 and 23.

Together, these numbers show that U.S. federal intransigence over climate disruption does not mean that change for the better isn't happening. We've noted time and again that reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States can come from the actions of concerned local, regional and commercial entities. The numbers above are examples from just this last week of how crucial said actions can be.

Read on to learn just what these numbers mean -- and why they matter.

Continue reading "The Numbers" »

May 19, 2005

Solar/Electric Buses, India-Style

Reva Electric Car company -- the Indian automaker behind the "G-Wiz" electric car -- has been tapped by the Dehli government to build a fleet of solar-charged electric buses in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

[Minister for Science and Technology Kapil] Sibal said Delhi government officials would soon visit Reva's facilities to study the prototype developed for a smaller 16-seater air-conditioned bus. [...]"Considering the fact the proposed bus would be environment friendly, with very little expense on recharging the battery, low maintenance, running cost of Rs.1.20 per km, the social benefit of less pollution - this is an altogether workable proposition," said Sibal.

(Via GCC)

Green(er) IT

If you've ever worked in a data center or server room, you know that those places get hot. Many current microprocessors consume enormous amounts of power, and put out correspondingly enormous amounts of heat; as a result, most computer rooms require constant air conditioning. Furthermore, the back-up power supplies required to keep the servers from crashing during a brown-out or black-out are often power hogs themselves, sometimes consuming a third again as much power as they supplied to the computers. System administrators, focused appropriately on making certain that the computers functioned as needed, often only paid attention to power and heat issues when the infrastructure failed.

One of the results of the green building trend has been a re-examination of the heat output and power demands of information technology offices. For desktop systems, this means simple recommendations to turn computers off at night or shutting off monitors, as well as increased reliance on "green computers." But server functions generally don't allow for the machines to be unavailable, and servers are often operated "headless" (without a monitor) anyway. Solutions need to be a bit more sophisticated than that -- but such solutions are, increasingly, available.

Continue reading "Green(er) IT" »

Extreme Green Makeover

The ABC television show "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" ends its season this Sunday night with a green twist: the rebuilt house will include both photovoltaic and wind power systems.

PV Powered of Bend, Oregon, along with Sun Power Corporation (CA), Perfect Power (AZ), Unirac (NM) and The Good Power Company (AZ) were chosen to coordinate, design and install a state-of-the-art, 2kW PV generation system for the deserving family's new home. The system uses a combination of the highest efficiency inverter (PV Powered) and modules (Sun Power) available today.

As an added bonus, Southwest Windpower installed a 1kW wind turbine to augment the home's PV system. With an abundance of sunshine and wind available in Flagstaff, the home will receive 65-75% of its energy needs through clean, green renewable sources, and the Piestewa Family will see a significant decrease in energy costs. The addition of a grid-connected wind power system made this the first hybrid PV/wind system installed in the state.

As interesting as this is -- and it's certainly a good thing to have renewable power sources play such a prominent role in a relatively popular home show -- it doesn't look like it will be the WorldChanging Home Makeover. Renewable energy is good, but there's a lot more to a green home than solar panels and wind turbines. But it's yet another early warning sign of a cultural shift; don't be surprised to see "Sustainable House," "Green My Ride" and "America's Top Ecoactivist" on the Fall schedule in a year or two...

(Via Sustainablog)

Water of Life

microcyn.jpgWith the right mixture, water and salt can work wonders.

Oculus Innovative Sciences, a Petaluma, California-based biomedical company, has developed a formulation of "ion-imbalanced, super-oxygenated" water which is able to kill bacteria, viruses and spores, but leave multicellular organisms unharmed. But not untouched -- the super-oxygenated water actually speeds healing of severe burns, diabetic ulcers, even necrotic flesh. The product is called Microcyn, and this week it received "510K" approval from the FDA as a medical device.

Super-oxygenated water was first developed in the 1990s in Japan as a means of disinfecting water in nuclear reactors. While early signs suggested it might have medical applications, researchers at the time couldn't figure out how to keep it stable for more than a few days. Prior to the development of Microcyn, hospitals paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for small amounts of super-oxygenated water for limited, time-constricted use. In 2000, Iranian-born biologist Hoji Alimi bought the license for the water, and his company, Oculus, spent the next three years figuring out the stability problem. Unlike earlier super-oxygenated water formulations, Microcyn has a shelf-life of at least a year.

And it's already transforming trauma care.

Continue reading "Water of Life" »

May 20, 2005

Penguins in Cuba

The Cuban government has some serious problems, but occasionally it does make some reasonable decisions. They announced this week, for example, that they will eliminate the government use of Microsoft Windows in favor of Linux. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this announcement is that they hadn't done so already. Red-baiting notwithstanding, there are compelling reasons for the adoption of Linux (and other Free/Open Source Software) by developing nations -- lower cost of distribution, the ability to customize the applications for local needs, and the utility of open source as an educational tool, among others -- and some leapfrog countries have embraced it whole-heartedly.

Besides, for those of us hoping for positive developments in a post-Castro Cuba, the spread of a system with the underlying philosophy of free inquiry and experimentation is a pretty good early indicator...

Climate and the Leapfrog World

The Kyoto treaty, as most people know, does not include developing nations. The reasons behind this are two-fold: firstly, that the per-capita emissions of the developed nations are significantly higher than those from the developing world (even if the overall emissions from China and India approached developed world levels due to population); and secondly, that rich nations can better afford the transition to more efficient technologies without harming growth, while the poorer countries could find development stalled while trying to cut greenhouse gases. The presumption is that the developing world will be brought in for Kyoto II, the still-to-be-negotiated next phase kicking in after the first treaty ends in 2012.

The initial talks for a successor to Kyoto are now underway, and it's interesting to observe the early positions being staked out. While much attention is focused on whether the United States will participate, the real story may be the degree to which the big developing nations -- China, India and Brazil, in particular -- sign on. At this early stage, it seems that India is pushing hard to avoid being part of a 2012 climate treaty.

This observation is underscored by a series of brief essays by environmental activists in these three key leapfrog nations, published this week on openDemocracy. Rubens Born and Mark Lutes of Vitae Civilis Institute for Development, Environment and Peace in Brazil, Clifford Polycarp of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, and "Angel Green," a Chinese environmental activist writing under a pseudonym, present useful observations of the state of climate change politics in their respective countries.


Continue reading "Climate and the Leapfrog World" »

Global Change, Local Effects

How will global warming-induced climate disruption affect your hometown?

Analyses of worldwide effects aren't terribly hard to come by, but analyses that look at the results of increased temperatures, rising sea levels, and more energetic storms in particular locations are actually few and far between. The first one of any detail I've found is one coordinated by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University -- the Climate Change Information Resource for the New York Metropolitan Region, or CCIR-NYC. (If any of you have found similar sites for other locations, please post links in the comments.)

The CCIR-NYC covers pretty much what you'd hope it might: an overview of climate change; how to adapt to a changing environment; strategies for mitigating climate disruption; and, of course, regional impacts. Each of these sections go into greater detail, but since the last is the unique aspect of the CCIR-NYC site, it's worth looking at in particular.

The Regional Impacts category is split into five sections: projected changes; major consequences; coastal impacts; transportation effects; and economic impacts. Each section is filled with charts and graphs, laying out the sobering details about what the New York metropolitan region can expect to face over the next century. Special attention is paid to the effects of flooding, unsurprising given the rising sea level projections (potentially over 11 inches by 2020). Storms -- so-called "Nor'easters" and hurricanes -- are anticipated to become more common, with corresponding damage to beaches, coastal wetlands, and fresh water supplies.

The CCIR-NYC site includes a moderately extensive bibliography and link list, as well as a mailing list for people wishing to "discuss items related to climate change and variability impacts on urban environments" (yes, I've signed up). The one downside of the site is that it appears to be updated only sporadically; the last update was in late March, reflected by the "Upcoming Events" page listing (what sound to have been quite interesting) meetings in April...

Watching Each Other, Watching Your Food

docomo.jpgIf the Participatory Panopticon is heading our way, it will almost certainly hit first in Japan. Concerns about privacy manifest differently in Japan than in the US or Europe, and Japanese mobile phone makers and networks are experimenting with a growing array of new applications for high-speed wireless networks. Picturephoning points us to a couple of recent developments that definitely put Japan furthest along the road to the sousveillance society.

First is the production of a "television pocket" for video phones, a mounting and movement system allowing them to function in a manner similar to webcams. The text translated from the packaging is somewhat, um, abstract, but the accompanying illustrations -- showing one person keeping an eye on a sick parent and another keeping in touch with a pet left home alone -- make abundantly clear the utility of the hardware. What's notable about this is the underlying assumption that video streams will be widely and inexpensively available from handheld phones. This is as much a policy issue as a technology problem: carriers hoping to charge users even to send a cameraphone image over bluetooth to a local computer are going to be hard-pressed to allow flat-rate video bandwidth.

Second, and with much bigger implications, is a new English-language report (PDF) from NTT DoCoMo (the biggest and arguably most innovative mobile phone carrier in Japan) on the use of cameraphones as bar code readers for the purpose of checking on food quality control. The bar codes cover...

Continue reading "Watching Each Other, Watching Your Food" »

Global Wind Map

We've linked to wind power maps before -- maps of US wind potential, maps of US actual production, and the "SWERA" project looking at solar and wind potential in the developing world. But we haven't yet seen a map of global wind power potential. But we will soon.

Stanford University's Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson have just published an article for the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres mapping global wind potential. Over 8,000 wind speed measurements around the world were analyzed; of those, almost 13 percent of the stations examined receive sufficient annual average wind strong enough for power generation. North America has the greatest concentration of potential wind power sources, followed by the southern tip of South America and the Australian island of Tasmania. But how much power could be produced?

The authors found that the locations with sustainable Class 3 winds could produce approximately 72 terawatts and that capturing even a fraction of that energy could provide the 1.6-1.8 terawatts that made up the world's electricity usage in the year 2000. A terawatt is 1 trillion watts, a quantity of energy that would otherwise require more than 500 nuclear reactors or thousands of coal-burning plants.

The paper is behind a subscription barrier, but I've submitted a request for a copy for review.

May 21, 2005

Building on the Beeb

backstage.jpgOf all of the various news sources we link to at WorldChanging, undoubtedly the most frequently-linked is the BBC. If you follow the BBC News website, you'll understand -- the coverage breadth is phenomenal, the perspective is global, and the archives are available more-or-less in perpetuity. One could develop a reasonable sense of what the future may hold simply from reading the BBC Technology and Science/Nature sections on a daily basis.

And now, one can develop a whole lot more.

BBC Backstage is a new effort to make visible and available the underlying news feeds and programming interfaces for the BBC website, with the explicit goal of providing them for non-commercial use by the rest of the world. Links for text, radio and video are available; the usage restrictions boil down to (a) you can't resell the content, and (b) you can't remove the BBC branding from it. The slogan for BBC Backstage is "User Our Stuff To Build Your Stuff," and they seem to mean it.

But the BBC Backstage website is more than a simple listing of feeds and APIs. Users are encouraged to submit links to their prototyped work and to offer up ideas for others to work on. It's very much a collaborative atmosphere -- there are already dozens of prototypes and ideas up already, awaiting (and usually receiving) comments and suggestions. Some of them are really useful and interesting; a few good examples are a newsmap of BBC headlines (more detailed than the News Map site we linked to last week), an automated "Podcast" of BBC World News text as synthesized speech, and something called "mint" (mint is not text) -- a tool to download, merge and index video clips from a distributed source for video blogging use.

And, of course, there are RSS feeds for all of the channels: news about Backstage, new ideas, new prototypes, and a combined feed.

Let the news mash-ups begin!

Code Green

Extreme Makeover Home Edition, step aside. Let the Canadians show you how sustainable home design television is really done.

Code Green is a two-part television special, shown on CBC British Columbia this week, in which four sets of homeowners will be given C$15,000...

...and each will then be asked to employ those funds in a 6-week competition to gain the greatest reduction in energy and water consumption, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. All homeowners will benefit from the renovations they’ll complete... and the winner of the competition will further receive the grand prize of a hybrid car [A Honda Civic Hybrid].
C$15,000 (about US$11,850 or €9,400) isn't enough to install a significant solar photovoltaic system (of debatable utility in British Columbia, in any event), let alone to completely rebuild a house to LEED H specs. It is, however, more than sufficient to retrofit many of the home components often most responsible for energy wastage: leaky windows, old furnaces, poor insulation in the walls and attic, door seals, and appliances.

The first episode of Code Green is this Thursday, May 26th; the second is the following week, on June 2nd. If any of our British Columbia readers get a chance to watch this program, we'd greatly appreciate a review. And if someone knows of a BitTorrent of it afterwards...

(Thanks to the pseudonymous "mp" for giving us a heads-up to Code Green in the comments here!)

Postindustrial Design

While keeping in mind the admonition that referring to oneself as "post-" anything is inherently constraining, the notion of "postindustrial design" has a definite ring to it. But what exactly does the term mean? HyperWerk FHBB, a department of the University of Applied Sciences in Basel, Switzerland, is sponsoring a competition to find out.

We are looking for your interpretation of Postindustrial Design: "What does a Postindustrial Designer do?"The task is to express your thoughts and ideas on this subject on a front of a postcard. Three works will be awarded. The first prize will be printed on a postcard and distributed throughout Switzerland.

The competition began May 16, and runs through June 12. Judging will be completed by June 19. Time to get out your Sharpies and/or Wacom pads!

May 22, 2005

World's First Commercial Wave Farm

We've argued for awhile that hydrokinetic power -- tidal power, wave power, ocean current power and the like -- is the potential dark horse winner in the race to build breakthrough clean renewable power generation. Hydrokinetic power can avoid much of the "intermittency" problem of wind and solar (i.e., that the power source isn't always available) as well as the NIMBY "visual pollution" argument brought up by wind opponents. It's further back along the cost and development curve than wind and solar, but it's moving along swiftly.

Latest example: the Scottish firm Ocean Power Delivery -- the current leader in hydrokinetic technology -- is set to build the world's first commercial wave farm off of Portugal. When deployed in 2006, the three wave power generation units will provide 2.25 megawatts to 1,500 homes. And if all goes well with the initial build, OPD is set to deliver an additional 30 units, for a total of 20 megawatts of generation.

The wave power unit is called the "Pelamis:"

The Pelamis is a semi-submerged, articulated structure composed of cylindrical sections linked by hinged joints. The wave-induced motion of these joints is resisted by hydraulic rams, which pump high-pressure oil through hydraulic motors via smoothing accumulators. The hydraulic motors drive electrical generators to produce electricity. Power from all the joints is fed down a single umbilical cable to a junction on the sea bed. Several devices can be connected together and linked to shore through a single seabed cable.

A novel joint configuration is used to induce a tuneable, cross-coupled resonant response, which greatly increases power capture in small seas. Control of the restraint applied to the joints allows this resonant response to be 'turned-up' in small seas where capture efficiency must be maximised or 'turned-down' to limit loads and motions in survival conditions.

Each Pelamis unit generates up to 750kW of power, although actual output will vary with wave intensity. The Portugal wave farm will run about €8 million (roughly $10 million) -- not cheap by any means, but a worthwhile investment in a promising source of clean power.

(Thanks, Paul at Eyeteeth!)

Chinese Power Plans

China Daily reports that Beijing plans to make offshore wind generation a significant part of its power generation network over the next couple of decades.

Sea winds could be harnessed to generate an estimated 750 gigawatts, although few projects were under way now, [vice-chairman of the Chinese Wind Energy Association] Shi said.

This would be around 70 percent higher than the country's total installed generating capacity at the end of 2004 and maybe three times the potential of onshore sites.

China aimed to have 20 gigawatts of wind-generating capacity installed by 2020, equivalent to around 1.0 percent of annual electricity consumption at that time, Shi said.

(Insert sound of screeching tires here) -- China plans to have a national electricity consumption footprint of 2 terawatts by 2020?!?!? That's roughly equivalent to total global electricity consumption now. Somebody get Amory Lovins to Beijing to help them understand the efficient use end of things, stat!

(Via Sustainablog)

May 23, 2005

Global Wind Map, Revisited

windmap_sm.jpgI managed to get ahold of the global wind map article we mentioned a few days ago. "Evaluation of Global Wind Power" by Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson is a detailed analysis of wind data from over 8,000 wind speed measurements around the world. The results are generally more conservative than other regional studies, but even so, nearly 13 percent of the stations recorded sustained wind speeds in the "Class 3" category (6.9-7.5 meters/second) or better, with some few locations topping out over "Class 7" (9.4 meters/second or greater). Generally speaking, with currently-deployed wind turbine technology, Class 3 winds or greater are required for economically useful generation.

Read on for more details from the Global Wind Power report, as well as a larger version of the global wind map.

Continue reading "Global Wind Map, Revisited" »

Simming the City

chicagocrime.jpgIf the Sim is not the City, can the City be the Sim?

Regular players of SimCity will recall that the map of the town where you see the buildings and the little people going about their business is actually not the most important map in the game. The data maps -- showing crime rates, pollution distribution, traffic and the like -- are far more critical tools for figuring out where to put that police station, wind farm, or subway. But what if you could have similar maps for real cities?

The first steps along that path have already been taken, and rely on Google Maps. Chicagocrime.org is a freely browsable database of reported crimes in Chicago. That could be interesting to Chicago residents and visitors, to be sure, but what really sets this site apart from other crime blotters is the integration of Google Maps, showing the exact locations of the reported crime scenes. The data is pulled from the Chicago Police Department's website, the maps from Google's site -- and the combination doesn't look precisely like a SimCity window, but it's certainly evocative of it (the image to the right is an excerpt from the map of attempted robberies between May 1 and May 10).

Similarly, the SimCity map of housing values is evoked by the HousingMaps site, which pulls real estate info from Craigslist and layers it onto Google Maps of US (and some Canadian) cities. And there's a site taking an RSS feed for traffic info and making a Google Map of traffic conditions in a bunch of different cities. Pollution information doesn't seem to be quite granular enough yet to link to city maps -- but this seems an ideal interface for data from pollution-sensing bicycles. And, as we noted recently, there are people scouring the Google satellite maps for environmental damage (another candidate was spotted recently, what appears to be waste runoff into the ocean in Mexico).

With the SimCity model in mind, a wealth of new ideas for GoogleMap applications spring to mind, both directly taken from the game and simply inspired by it. School ratings, fire scenes, public transit outages, Critical Mass events, recent store closures (perhaps mapped against big box retailer locations), LEED-certified and registered buildings... A key step to making a change to a system is seeing its underlying patterns. GoogleMaps may well turn out to be a critical tool for recognizing where action is needed as we reinvent our urban environments.

Open Source Brain Visualization Tools

The notion of layering data onto maps doesn't just apply to cityscapes. It can be rather useful for brain surgery, as well. A recent article in the Financial Times profiled Atamai, a company which makes "virtual augmentation for neurosurgery" software, allowing the information coming from probes in brain tissue to display against a 3D representation of brain structures. Two aspects of the story stood out: the first, that the team which came together to form Atamai conceived of the project as a "GPS for the brain," a way to construct a standardized way of mapping brain locations for surgery; the second, that much of the code is open source, and runs on a variety of computer hardware (pretty much anything able to run Python and the VTK graphics suite).

An open source virtual augmentation system for locational positioning during brain surgery? I'm dizzy from the futurism.

(Complete text of article at -- and found via -- BookOfJoe)

Earthquake Prediction Map

quakemap.jpgSomeday, we'll be able to predict the onset of a major earthquake with the same relative accuracy as weather forecasts -- not perfect, but definitely useful days or sometimes a week or more in advance. Someday, but not today.

But what we do have today is a growing body of knowledge around what happens prior to a quake. Quite often, it's another quake -- a small foreshock to something much larger, or even a tremor on another fault line. With this in mind, the US Geological Survey has opened up a "Real Time Forecast" map for California earthquakes. The forecasts only look out 24 hours, a short but still better-than-nothing warning.

Nature News, unsurprisingly, has the details:

The forecast is generated by combining two types of information. First, a 'background' assessment is made of earthquake risk around California, by assessing the physical properties of various geological sites, along with the statistical behaviour of fault lines over long periods of time.Added to this are the anticipated knock-on effects of any seismological activity that has occurred over the previous days, months or years. This is what causes day-to-day percentages to change. This week, for example, a magnitude-4.7 aftershock in the Parkfield area, where a medium-sized quake occurred last September, has caused probabilities in the region to jump to around 1%.

The quake forecast map is something of a proof-of-concept for now. While it would be good to see similar maps for other parts of the world, I suspect they need to work out the idea's utility a bit more. The percentages are generally quite low, sufficiently so to make the map unlikely to impinge on people's day-to-day awareness. Still, I'd like to see a daily RSS feed, or maybe one which only sends out a new map if a forecast goes above a certain percentage.

We're likely to see more of these sorts of maps and displays in the coming years, as we learn more about how geophysical systems work, and (with regards to weather phenomena) as global warming triggers greater climate uncertainty.

May 24, 2005

Quantum Dots for Solar Power

Solar photovoltaic generation of electricity has a big problem: with currently-available technology, it's not terribly efficient. I mean that literally; the "solar constant" is ~1.35 kilowatts of power per square meter, but most off-the-shelf solar panels can only convert about 20-30% of that to electricity. Improvement is clearly possible, and some researchers have figured out ways to boost that efficiency to 50% or more (although some promising developments in flexible, polymer-based photovoltaics are far worse, with only 5-15% efficiency). One of the more interesting approaches involves using selenium "nanocrystals" to boost efficiency to up to 60%. Now researchers at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory have pushed that concept to a new potential efficiency peak.

By using lead sulfide as the nanocrystal -- or "quantum dot" -- material, the NREL team claims a potential efficiency of more than 65%. We've noted various worldchanging applications of quantum dots before (for infrared-sensitive polymer photovoltaics with ~30% efficiency, and for high-efficiency reversible thermoelectric materials), and it's clear that nanomaterial and nanofabrication research will be critical for making solar photovoltaic sufficiently efficient for widespread adoption.

As usual, the actual article is behind a subscription wall (and the journal is probably too obscure for most non-university libraries), but Alan at @Monkeysign has an excellent dissection of how the technology works, and what challenges remain before it could conceivably make its way to real-world use. I highly recommend checking out his write-up.

The Pioneer Anomaly

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 -- launched in 1972 and 1973 to explore Jupiter and Saturn -- have traveled to the most distant fringes of the solar system. As their fuel was spent decades ago, their travels are subject only to momentum and gravity. Therefore, their paths should be eminently predictable. Problem: They're hundreds of thousands of miles away from where they should be, and deviating by ~8,000 more miles every year.

The Pioneer Anomaly, as it's called, is one of the biggest physics mysteries around. JPL scientists started working in 1980 to figure out why Pioneer 10 and 11 get more and more off-course every year, proposing, testing and eventually discarding various explanations. It may turn out to be that our understanding of physics is due for a serious re-evaluation. Problem #2: NASA is about to destroy our only means of figuring this out.

The main body of data from the two spacecraft exists only on magnetic tapes that can only be read by an obsolete computer system. Access to the tapes (from 1972-1987) would allow researchers to go over every bit of information recorded by the probes. But NASA has pulled funding from further research into the anomaly, and is set to demolish the only computers able to read the data.

The Planetary Society, a group of space exploration enthusiasts, is trying to pull together sufficient money to save the computers from destruction, pull the data, and begin the analysis. The amount needed is startlingly small -- only about $250,000 -- considering that it's looking more and more like the result could be rewriting the laws of physics.

Carbon Tax in the UK?

If nothing is certain but climate disruption and taxes, here come the taxes part. The Royal Society, the highly prestigious UK scientific organization, is calling on the government to tax carbon dioxide emissions from all sectors, as the government has not done enough to curb CO2 emissions through other policies. They're particularly concerned that the upcoming closure of aging nuclear power plants will actually increase the use of fossil fuels in the UK and subsequent greenhouse emissions.

If the UK adopts such a tax, they wouldn't be the first; as we noted recently, New Zealand will begin taxing carbon in 2007.

(Via Green Car Congress.)

Do It Ourselves

metropolis.jpgFortune profiles the "Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy," with a look at some of the people and groups making it possible for home inventors and innovators to design, make and sell unique and novel products. The article focuses on a guy designing a music player that looks like a Pez Dispenser as well as a few other similarly-quirky ideas. It's a good intro to an up-and-coming movement.

And it completely misses the big story.

Fortune is spot-on when highlighting the effect of design software and the various online services connecting developers to manufacturers. And the analogy they draw, between this new generation of inventors and other pathways to digital creation (blogging, podcasting, even mash-ups) is a good one. But they miss the signal difference between previous waves of "DIY" innovation and the present: collaboration. The Internet doesn't just enable cheap advertising and fabrication-by-email, the Internet makes it possible for disparate, distributed groups to connect up and share designs, tools and ideas. Open software is about to meet open fabrication.

Continue reading "Do It Ourselves" »

Leapfrog Energy Roundup

Several links about energy innovation in the developing world hit the old inbox recently, and all are worth a look. Hit the extended entry to learn more about the Global Village Energy Partnership, the Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative, and what's happening with renewable energy in India.

Continue reading "Leapfrog Energy Roundup" »

Return of Sonofusion

In Sonofusion (2004), we talked about Purdue physicists demonstrating thermonuclear fusion takes place in tiny bubbles in liquids hit by a pulse of neutrons and ongoing acoustic oscillation (i.e., sound); In Son of Sonofusion (2005), we talked about researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign confirming aspects of the research, including the extremely high temperatures found in the collapsing bubbles (we're talking much hotter than the surface of the Sun). Now sonofusion returns, hotter and more powerful than ever...

The Purdue-led team -- Richard Lahey Jr., Rusi Taleyarkhan and Robert Nigmatulin -- have an article in the current IEEE Spectrum Online, the newsletter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a well-regarded and very serious group of technical professionals. In "Bubble Power," Lahey et al go into substantial detail about how they figured out sonofusion (now referred to as "acoustic inertial confinement fusion") and the current state of their research. The summary version: this looks like it could be surprisingly, startlingly real, with pretty astounding potential.

Continue reading "Return of Sonofusion" »

May 25, 2005

Human Changing

vitruvian-man.jpgThe question of how society changes when we can enhance aspects of human capabilities is something we touch on regularly at WorldChanging. It's at least as important a question as how society adapts to climate change or embraces new tools for networking and communication; some of us would argue it may be even more important. As a topic of discussion, it has often been relegated to fringe culture and science fictional musing, but a series of books over the last year have brought the idea ever closer to the mainstream -- and the most recent may be set to make the question of how humankind evolves a front page issue.

Dr. James Hughes, bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College and director of the World Transhumanist Association, published Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Futurein late 2004, examining the ways in which the technological enhancement of human capabilities and lives can strengthen liberal democratic cultures, not threaten them. (I interviewed Dr. Hughes last November, shortly after Citizen Cyborg was released: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) In March of this year, Ramez Naam, software engineer and technology consultant, brought out More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biologiccal Enhancement, focusing on the ways in which biomedical treatments can and will improve human abilities and happiness. Both of these books -- which I highly recommend reading, even if you're a skeptic about the implications of human augmentation technologies -- received highly positive reviews and greatly advanced the conversation over whether and how to enhance human capabilities through technological intervention.

But I suspect it's the most recent book in this line which will have the greatest mainstream impact. Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- And What It Means To Be Human just came out a few days ago, and I expect it to end up on the summer reading lists of policy-makers and pundits everywhere. If Joel's name is familiar, it could be because he's a senior writer for the Washington Post, covering technology and society; it also could be because of his highly-regarded earlier books, The Nine Nations of North America and Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Joel approaches his subjects with a journalist's detachment but a partisan's passion; I've known him for about a decade (he's a part of the GBN "Remarkable People" network), and he's never failed to have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. If Joel's covering it, there's little doubt it will soon be a regular part of our cultural conversation.

Earlier this month, I had the extreme pleasure of hosting a conversation between James Hughes, Ramez Naam and Joel Garreau, exploring the implications of human enhancement technologies. While none of the three could be termed a "bio-conservative," there are clear differences between their perspectives on how society can and should respond to new technologies (the lack of a bio-conservative in the discussion was intentional; I wanted the group to be able to explore the edges of implications, not get tied up in arguments over terminology or moral standing). The conversation ran over two-and-a-half hours; the resulting transcript is correspondingly lengthy. But I expect that you'll find the discussion compelling and fascinating, and well worth your time.

And, as always, we appreciate your comments to continue the discussion.

(Please note that the interview was sufficiently lengthy that Movable Type was unable to hold it in a single post; the continuation of the interview follows at a link at the bottom of this post.)

Continue reading "Human Changing" »

Human Changing (Continued)

[the continuation of the WorldChanging Interview with Ramez Naam, James Hughes and Joel Garreau. Part One here.]

Continue reading "Human Changing (Continued)" »

May 26, 2005

Amory Lovins vs. James Kunstler

Opinions on James Howard Kunstler's latest tract, The Long Emergency, vary pretty widely here at WorldChanging. Alex disagrees pretty strongly with Kunstler's dystopic vision; JonL found it (at least its manifestation in an interview in Salon) to be a "breath of fresh air." Personally, I'm in Alex's camp -- I'm tired of Apocaphilia in its various manifestations, and Kunstler in particular seems to claim that we can do nothing to head off disaster. Moreover, any attempts to invent better, more efficient, less damaging tools are pointless, in Kunstler's view, and he calls out Amory Lovins' "hypercar" idea for particular ridicule.

Lovins didn't like that, and responded to Kunstler. Salon managed to get Lovins' response, as well as a second exchange between the two. I'd have to say that Lovins comes across as the clear winner of the debate, although that's undoubtedly my own biases talking, at least in part. Not just my bias for Lovins' perspective, though, my bias for research over accusation and thought over fear. Or, as Lovins puts it, "Facts are more mundane than fantasies, but a better basis for conclusions."

As with all Salon pieces, you either have to subscribe (a nominal sum, and well worth it in my view) or sit through a brief advertisement before getting access to the piece.

Planetary Life Insurance

Remember Asteroid 2004 MN4? Quite possibly not -- news about it was overshadowed by the late-December tsunami. 2004 MN4 is an Earth-orbit-crossing asteroid that, for several days in late December, appeared to be on target to hit the Earth in 2029. Early estimates of chances of impact grew higher as the orbital calculations improved, something that hadn't happened with previous asteroid early warnings; only after some slightly-panicked number crunching did astronomers figure out that 2004 MN4 wouldn't hit the Earth, but would instead come within 23,000 miles -- the astronomical equivalent of having a bullet whiz right past your ear.

We can all breathe a big sigh of relief, right? Well, not so fast. When something comes that close to a planet's gravity well, its path shifts. With our current observations about 2004 MN4, astronomers estimate that MN4 has a 1 in 23,000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2035 and a 1 in 14,000 chance of hitting in 2036. We'd be able to calculate precisely whether or not the asteroid will hit after it passes... but at that point, if we found that it would hit, six or seven years is simply not enough time to do anything about it. Hollywood notwithstanding, it really doesn't help to blow an asteroid up -- you just end up being hit by a larger number of chunks with the same energy. The real solution is pushing the rock off-course... but that would take longer than we'd have. And when 2004 MN4 hit, it would unleash nearly a gigaton of energy.

So Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart -- whom we've posted about before -- has a plan. Not to push the asteroid out of the way now, but to land a transponder on it:

Continue reading "Planetary Life Insurance" »

How Much Does DNA Weigh?

DNA array
Optical microscope photo (a) shows arrays of cantilevers of varying lengths. (b) Zoomed-in scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of several cantilevers, and (c) Oblique angle SEM image of a single 90nm thick silicon nitride cantilever with a 40 nm circular gold aperture centered 300 nm away from the free end.  Copyright © Cornell University
The answer: 995,000 Daltons (1 Dalton is about the weight of a single proton or neutron), or a bit over an attogram (10-18 gram).

Cornell researchers -- who built a scale last year sensitive enough to weigh a virus -- have refined the system enough to be able to weigh a single DNA molecule. The scale actually measures the frequency of the vibration of a solid object, which will vary with its mass. The "nanoelectromechanical system" (NEMS) has not yet reached the limits of its potential sensitivity.

So what do you do with a scale that can measure DNA?

Continue reading "How Much Does DNA Weigh?" »

May 27, 2005

Getting Closer To The Mobile Leapfrog Tool

nokia770.jpgThe need for a cheap, mobile wireless computer in the leapfrog world is pretty clear, and a number of manufacturers have come up with designs for that market. The Simputer is the canonical example, but other attempts include the EELS and the Mobilis, with the Ndiyo taking the wired/desktop route. None of these are perfect, however, with substantial limitations in how they connect or how portable they really are. But the big stumbling block is the cost; of the units actually available for purchase, all cost in the $200-$500 range.

At that price, it might be a good idea to target more affluent buyers, then rely on production efficiencies to drive down costs. That's the path that Nokia seems to be taking with its 770 Internet Tablet. If you follow the gadgetblogs at all, you've undoubtedly seen the specs: WiFi and Bluetooth, full Linux OS with web browser and email, touch/write-on 800x480 screen, and ~230g in weight/141mm x 79mm x 19mm (0.5 lbs./5.5" x 3" x 0.75") in size. Due out this Fall, the target price is $350 (about the same as the Simputer or the Mobilis). There are lots of potential drawbacks to the 770 -- no GSM/GPRS, so no phone use aside from VOIP and no web access away from WiFi hubs; limited battery life (~3 hours active use); limited onboard storage -- but it's certainly evokes what I've described in the past as a "step up from the mobile phone instead of a stripped-down laptop."

I cite the 770 not because I think it's particularly wonderful (frankly, it won't be out for months and it may well be a lemon), but because it's the clearest sign yet of the rethinking of the Internet platform as a variant of the mobile phone. Price aside, the biggest limitation for its use as a tool in the leapfrog nations is the lack of GSM/GPRS networking, a surprising omission given that the manufacturer is Nokia. But the larger message is clear: very soon, at most in the next year or two, the hardware design for the mobile leapfrogging tool will be available; the next step would be driving the price down. With a cheap wireless device like that available, the web can truly be world-wide.

"Project for a New European Century"

Okay, so the article title is a bit pointed, but the argument made by Mark Leonard -- that the model for success in the 21st century will be Europe, not the US -- is an interesting one. The article, in the current issue of The Globalist, is pulled from Leonard's book Perpetual Power: Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. Although Leonard focuses primarily in the article on diplomatic and political interactions, the notion that the European model will do better in the 21st century parallels some of what we've explored here. In short, getting a jump now on a transition to high-efficiency, sustainable design could better position Europe to handle climate disruptions and "end of oil" scenarios. Add that to Leonard's argument that cooperation, international organizations and a focus on carrots over sticks is a winning strategy, and it makes for a scenario undoubtedly giving folks in DC stomach pains.

Solid State Lighting

nh-leds.jpgLEDs -- light emitting diodes -- have the potential to be profoundly worldchanging. From the "Light Up The World Foundation" to boosting LED efficiency to match or even beat fluorescents, the cool light from LEDs will be a big part of the bright green future. But researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have starting looking at some of the other applications of these solid-state lights (i.e., lighting that doesn't require filaments or funky gases, but instead is a solid electronic component) -- and what they found is pretty impressive.

In an article published May 27, 2005 in the journal Science, the authors describe research currently under way to transform lighting into “smart” lighting, with benefits expected in such diverse fields as medicine, transportation, communications, imaging, and agriculture. The ability to control basic light properties — including spectral power distribution, polarization, and color temperature — will allow “smart” light sources to adjust to specific environments and requirements and to undertake entirely new functions that are not possible with incandescent or fluorescent lighting. [...]

Continue reading "Solid State Lighting" »

May 28, 2005

Finding a Green Home

greenwichmil.jpgYou've decided to take the plunge, bubbles be damned: you want to buy a house. But you also want it to be as green and sustainable as possible -- perhaps you count yourself among the "cultural creatives," or perhaps you're a big fan of home-makeover television shows. Or, just maybe, you recognize that a high-efficiency, low-consumption dwelling can be comfortable and stylish, as well as very much an investment in sustainable living. So how do you find a green home?

If you're in the UK, you're in luck: not only are there sustainable building developers like BedZED and Yorklake Homes in operation, there's now Green Moves:

Green Moves is a website dedicated to advertising homes for sale that are more energy efficient than conventional homes. These homes could also be called environmentally friendly homes or green homes.

Green Moves is an ethical business initiative that has the support of two environmental charities: the Somerset Trust for Sustainable Development and the WWF (One Million Sustainable Homes Campaign). Green Moves also reinvests some of its income in tree planting to help offset the carbon emissions from housing.

Green Moves encompasses a wide range of environmentally-friendly building practices, from rainwater harvesting to solar photovoltaic generation to "green roofs." Homes advertised on the site are checked and accredited prior to listing. Unsurprisingly, there aren't huge numbers of homes listed, but the site has only been in operation for a short time. As more people find the site -- and as more builders/remodelers recognize the value of improving efficiency and design -- the listings will undoubtedly grow. And, as we noted a couple of months ago, the UK also has a mortgage lender focusing specifically on green properties, the Ecology Building Society.

Green homes certainly exist in the United States, too (and are popping up around the world), but I couldn't find equivalent home finding services in other locations. Where are they? If you're not interested in building your own green home, and don't live near an existing green development, what can you do?

Do any of you know of green home locator services in the US or elsewhere?

Microbe vs. Microbe

Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- or MRSA -- is an antibiotic-resistant form of the common microbe. Staph infections can be dangerous to people already ill or injured, and the proliferation of the antibiotic-resistant form is proving a serious headache to medical professionals. But a newly-discovered deep ocean bacterium, Actinomycete verrucosispora maris, produces a unique antibiotic chemical, abyssomicin C, able to kill MRSA and, potentially, other antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."

The most notable aspect of this discovery is the increased attention being paid to natural systems in our search for more effective medicines. In this particular case, the isolation of ocean microbes has meant that land-based bacteria have had no chance to evolve any kind of resistance to the deep sea antibiotics.

Tough Guide to the Singularity

The Singularity -- the point in the future where machines get smarter than people, after which all bets are off -- is, for some people, a deeply-desired goal, and for others, little more than the "rapture of the nerds (PDF)" (a deliciously pointed phrase thought up by Ken Macleod). For a growing handful of science fiction writers, it's their bread-and-butter. Charlie Stross, WorldChanging ally and science fiction storyteller, tends to fall more in the Macleod-Doctorow school of Singularity Skepticism, but that hasn't stopped him from writing one of the most engaging tales of humankind falling into the Great Technological Unknown I've ever read: the Accelerando series of short stories.

Accelerando is due out soon as a novel (and, as Stross has just revealed, there will be a Creative Commons electronic version). In the run-up to the release, Stross has crafted "Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds," a snark-filled, flippant and altogether terrific mini-wikipedia of Singularitanism. While I'm not quite as dismissive of the Singularity concept as some, I still found myself laughing sufficiently loudly while reading the site that I scared the cat.

A sample definition, one of particular interest to many of our readers:

Bruce Sterling is one of the former cyberpunk ScienceFictionWriters. He is believed to have become one of the first PostHumans some time around 1996. He now writes historical novels and teaches design.If you believe you are living in a universe created by BruceSterling, you are advised to pursue one of the following strategies:
  • cultivate an overwhelming, dry sense of ironic detachment
  • flee screaming

As some of you will recall, I've done a bit of role-playing game design in the recent past, so I was particularly tickled to find that a number of entries (for BushRobots, GreyGoo, and UtilityFog) are written up as old-style Monster Manual pages. (Which led me in turn to a particularly pleasing discovery: Charlie Stross invented the Githyanki. About 3 of you will know what I'm referring to, but those 3 should be rather amused to learn this.)

The only real disappointment about this Tough Guide is that the funky javascript engine used to display the text makes linking to individual entries sufficiently difficult that I never found a way to do so. Still, whether the Singularity will leave you Transcendent or PostHumous, Charlie's Tough Guide is a fun way to spend a weekend afternoon.

May 29, 2005

Triple Bottom Line, Down Under

ba_logo.jpgAustralian national research institute CSIRO and the University of Sydney have just published a report entitled Balancing Act -- A Triple Bottom Line Analysis of the Australian Economy, which looks at sustainability and the ways in which it can be embedded in the Australian economy. (Triple Bottom Line Analysis explicitly includes ecological and social costs and benefits in addition to traditional economic measures.) The report is massive, four PDF volumes amounting to nearly 100MB total, and is a wide-ranging look at the intersection of economic development and environmental responsibility.

Balancing Act provides an overview of the Australian economy using a set of ten environmental, social, and financial indicators. The environmental indicators are water use, land disturbance, greenhouse emissions and energy use; the social indicators are employment, government revenue and income; and the financial indicators are operating surplus (or profits), exports and imports.

Continue reading "Triple Bottom Line, Down Under" »

May 30, 2005

Free Software for India

cdac.jpgBrazil's position as the leading developing world champion of Free/Open Source Software may soon by challenged by India. The Indian government (working through the Technology Development for Indian Languages Programme and the independent Centre for Development of Advanced Computing) has begun distributing free CDs with localized versions of a variety of F/OSS applications. The first set of CDs contain Tamil-language versions of Firefox, OpenOffice, an email utility and a dictionary, as well as a variety of Tamil fonts (as the links suggest, all of these may also be downloaded directly from the TDIL website). Hindi will be next, with all 22 official languages of India covered eventually.

The CDs don't provide Linux, just applications (which can be installed under either Windows or Linux). The Indian government still has a ways to go before matching the ambition of Brazil's PC Conectado plan. But that doesn't mean that widespread free/open source software won't be useful. While the zero-cost aspect of the software is certainly appealing, the main value of F/OSS for India is the ability to modify it for local use:

[CDAC Researcher R.K.V.S.] Raman believes open-source software has two main advantages for the Indian population--it is relatively inexpensive and it can be modified fairly easily. "We are sometimes not comfortable with Western user interfaces--they don't make sense in our culture, particularly for rural people who haven't had much access to technology. If we want to modify the software we have to have access to the code," he said.

Too many developers of information technology for the developing world ignore issues of interface, assuming that a direct translation of menu items and alert text will suffice, or that developing world users have a less complex set of needs than Western users. The "Windows Starter Edition" rolling out soon from Microsoft is particularly bad in this regard, as not only does it not modify the interface for local cultures, it strips off most Windows features in exchange for a lower price. Windows Starter Edition is due out in India in June; we'll see if there's any market for it, especially once more Indian users get a taste of what Free/Open software can offer.

UK Business Leaders Call For Climate Rules

Although the UK government's policies on climate disruption sometimes seem forward-looking and aggressive by American standards, many in Britain see them instead as timid and woefully insufficient. Among the voices calling for greater governmental action are the heads of 12 of the biggest companies in the United Kingdom. The CEOs and Chairmen of HSBC Bank, BP, Scottish Power, ABN Amro, and Shell among others have signed a joint letter (PDF) to the recently-re-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, calling on the UK government to spell out an explicit and consistent policy agenda through 2025:

It is clear that the international community needs to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions at levels that prevent dangerous climate change. We note the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s recommendation that in order to contribute to achieving this goal at the global level, the UK reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050. We welcome the UK Government’s commitment to a reduction of this order of magnitude. As business leaders, our concern is with how we can help bridge the gap between today’s economy and the radically different low-carbon future that will be needed to deliver this target. [...]

Continue reading "UK Business Leaders Call For Climate Rules" »

Pod Mobs

Audio commentaries were just made to be hacked.

The rise of easily-distributed digital audio files and inexpensive portable players has made possible a world of homemade, underground alternative audio commentaries to use as substitutes for or adjuncts to the "official" versions found in museums and on DVDs. The New York Times notes the growing popularity of "remix MoMA," an alternative set of commentaries available at Art Mobs; these renegade tracks are provided by art students and instructors from the NY region, and have a style (and perspective) one is unlikely to find in the commentaries provided by the museum.

The homemade commentary concept isn't limited to museums. MP3 walking tours are becoming increasingly commonplace, giving tourists a peek into a city's culture not always available in the popularized accounts (and, incidentally, helping the visitors blend in with commonplace MP3 player headsets). And alternative DVD commentaries, while not giving the insider's perspective that one gets from hearing the writer or director talk about a movie or TV show, can give a wide range of critical opinions, observations about larger cultural connections, or even sarcastic humor of the MST3K variety.

Software in Africa

africalights.jpgWhich is better for public use in the developing world: free/open source software or proprietary software? Even casual readers of WorldChanging should be able to guess where our opinions tend to fall, but it's always useful to have empirical evidence to back up (or refute!) subjective beliefs. While a good deal of work has been done about free/open software in the South American and South Asian settings, less research has been done about free/open software in Africa ("Black Star Ghana," which we linked to over a year ago, remains a high point in the field).

Bridges.org is a technology NGO that works with organizations such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force), United Nations ICT Task Force, Glocal Forum, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to help promote socio-economic development using information and communications technologies. They have just published a report comparing the uses and utility of free/open source software and proprietary software in the African setting. The paper -- which can be downloaded directly from Bridges (PDF) -- does not take a zealous position on either side of the free/proprietary divide. Instead, it looks at the reality of computer use in economically developing areas, and illustrates the ways in which different approaches can achieve similar goals.

Some of the key observations and conclusions:

Continue reading "Software in Africa" »

May 31, 2005

Rural Innovations Network and the L-RAMP

RIN_cycle.jpgInnovations don't just come out of R&D departments and university labs; they can also come from people operating in the "real world" needing to figure out new ways to accomplish necessary tasks more effectively and efficiently. For the leapfrog nations, improvements to rural conditions are quite often at the focus of new ideas. In India, the Rural Innovations Network (RIN) is a highly successful non-profit organization set up in 2001 to help promote and disseminate innovative practices in the rural parts of the country. In August, 2004,, RIN teamed up with the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and the US-based Lemelson Foundation to launch L-RAMP -- the Lemelson Recognition and Mentoring Programme -- as a way of seeking out and supporting inventors and inventions coming from rural communities. This month, they announced a specific search for innovations with a "social purpose."

Part business incubator, part fabrication and market research facility, L-RAMP is meant to improve the ability of rural innovators to make their ideas more widely accessible, as well as more profitable. This builds on the core RIN agenda:

Continue reading "Rural Innovations Network and the L-RAMP" »

RepRap Update

Last March we pointed to the RepRap project -- an attempt by Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath's Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technology to design and build a Free/Open Source fabber. In the subsequent few months, Dr. Bowyer and his team have made substantial progress, including adopting a "Meccano" structure for the test unit similar to the Glue Gun Fabricator devised by Vik Olliver; a report by Vik Olliver detailing how to make one for yourself (PDF) can be found at the RepRap website, along with all of the current plans and design reports.

(Via reBang)

Seeing Double

doublevision.jpgLast June, I posted about the Deja View device -- a wearable camera and hard drive recorder, allowing users to save digital copies of whatever they see, and an early indicator that the participatory panopticon would soon be here. I said at the time that it may be ugly, ungainly and too limited, but it was a sign of more advanced technologies to come. And I was right.

I was alerted today to the DoubleVision system, a head-mounted surveillance camera hooked to a portable hard disk system. LCD display for on-the-spot reviewing is optional. Looking a bit like a small gun stuck to the side of the head, the DoubleVision improves on the portability and storage of the Deja View, while keeping the same general model. Most interesting about the system, however, is the marketing: the makers, Second Sight Surveillance, is explicitly aiming the DoubleVision at military, police and security users. No mention is made of sousveillance, media or citizen use (a "Lite" version of the system aimed at consumers uses video tape, not a hard drive -- still useful, sure, but definitely a near-dead medium).

The website doesn't mention price, and doesn't appear to do actual distribution of the equipment. Pity; this is just the sort of gear every protest organizer and citizen watch group will want well before the next round of elections...

Renewable Scotland

altenergyscotland.jpgMicrogeneration in Scotland is getting increasing attention, with last Friday's announcement that British Gas had signed a deal with Glasgow-based company Windsave to sell 1kW roof-mounted wind turbines to consumers in Scotland. While insufficient to power a typical home completely, it is enough to "cut annual electricity bills by up to a third and reduce CO2 emissions by half a tonne per annum." Definitely welcome news, but it turns out that it's just the latest in a series of home and local generation options for residents of Scotland -- and there's been a 14-fold increase in the number of such projects over the last five years.

The figures show that renewable devices are being installed in schools, businesses, ferry terminals and care homes across Scotland, although the majority are in the Highlands and Islands. The Highlands will have a total of 37 such projects by the end of this year, with biomass and wind the most popular sources of energy.

In Orkney, where there are 33 projects, turbines and heat pumps make up the majority of renewable devices installed, while in the Western Isles, solar panels are the most popular, making up nearly 40% of the total number installed.

Continue reading "Renewable Scotland" »

World Environment Day

green_cities.jpgWorld Environment Day -- which actually lasts 5 days -- takes place in San Francisco this year, and kicks off tomorrow. Established by the UN in 1972, World Environment Day is an education festival, with lectures, product exhibits and artwork all meant to make visitors aware of the ways in which the environment can be improved. The theme this year? As seen to the right, "Green Cities."

The schedule for the five days covers topics near and dear to the hearts of WorldChangers:

  • June 1: "Pure Elements" -- Food, water and air.
  • June 2: "Redesigning the Metropolis" -- Recycling, green building and smart growth.
  • June 3: "Cities on the Move" -- Transportation.
  • June 4: "Urban Power" -- Energy, renewables and energy conservation.
  • June 5: "Flower Power" -- Open space, biodiversity and greening the urban environment.

    (The site has a page letting you browse each day's activities, and a PDF showing all of the events.)

    The events are free, and most can be attended on a drop-in basis (although some, like Thursday's presentation by WorldChanging allies Gil Friend and Joel Makower, The Sustainable Business Phenomenon: Leading Initiatives in Redefining Business, do ask that you sign up). Most of Wednesday's events are at Fort Mason, while the remaining days are largely at the Metreon center.

    But here's the deal: the conference is set up so that all of each day's workshops run simultaneously -- if you attend Gil and Joel's talk on Thursday, for example, you won't be able to see Partners Planning for Sustainable Cities, Innovative Recycling Programs, or Smart Growth in San Francisco: Designing Cities for People and the Environment. Undoubtedly this is intended to keep each of the workshops to a reasonable size, and it will probably be possible to wander between them, but this is precisely the kind of situation that calls for smart mobbing.

    So, are you going to the event? If so, we'd love to have you share your observations about the workshops you saw in the comments below. Even if you can't make it to San Francisco, you can still help out by alerting us to other sites blogging the conference. There are bound to be a bunch of worldchanging ideas presented these next few days -- together we can make sure everyone has a chance to hear them.

  • About May 2005

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

    April 2005 is the previous archive.

    June 2005 is the next archive.

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

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