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July 2005 Archives

July 1, 2005

Ethiopian Coffee and the Internet

ecafe.jpgBy using an Internet-based auction for the first time, Ethiopian coffee growers received more than double their usual price for coffee -- and one bid was more than triple what the growers had received in the past. The auction was sponsored by the Ecafé Foundation, a non-profit organization providing education and support for coffee-growing communities around the world. Ecafé, in turn, is supported by the Dutch trading firm Trabocca BV and the US coffee importer BD Imports.

"Because of your support, the Ecafe auction generated more than $187,000 for Ethiopian cooperative coffee at an average price of $3.22 per pound," [Ecafé President Willem] Boot wrote in a letter thanking auction bidders. [...]

The highest bid received $6.50 per pound for Ethiopia's top-grade coffee from Yirgacheffe. The lowest winning bid was tendered at $1.82 per pound, Boot said.

Ethiopian coffee normally fetches an average of $1.30 a pound in normal markets .[...]

Four unions of 151 coffee cooperatives, with a total membership of 180,000 individual producers, participated in the auction with the hope of getting a better price for their product.

Ecafé has a page listing the auction results, including the bid histories.

This further underscores the argument that access to global information networks can have an enormously positive result for developing nations. We typically make the point that farmers (and fishermen, etc.) can use information tools to better follow market conditions, but this reminds us that the reverse is also true -- information networks also make global buyers aware of these local growers.

July 2, 2005

Gil Friend & Jane Byrd: Have mercy, I cry, City!

hanginggarden.jpgSystems ecologist and consultant Gil Friend runs Natural Logic, and is a regular contributor to our Sustainability Sundays feature. He wrote this piece for our 3000th post celebration along with his wife (and director of Natural Logic), Jane Byrd.

As the recent World Environment Day events recently reminded us, we now live on a majority urban planet. Back to the land? Ain't gonna happen, folks - and probably shouldn't, since six or 10 or 12 billion people spread out across the landscape could make many aspects of the human footprint worse instead of better.

Which may be why "density" is on the lips of so many world changing types lately. Infill and smart growth strategies are doing worthy battle with both traditional developers and well-intentioned NIMBYs (who sometimes seem to think that people shouldn't go anywhere...)

But as with so many world changing initiatives, the exciting - and often most practical - work lies in profound challenges to both the lock-in of status quo and the incremental palliatives of "reasonable" measures; Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti, Richard Register's EcoCity Berkeley, Institute for Local Self-Reliance's self-reliant communities, and the Zero Ecological Footprint city that keeps colonizing my imagination.

The key to surviving urban density: photosynthesis, economy, convivality.

Continue reading "Gil Friend & Jane Byrd: Have mercy, I cry, City!" »

Science Fiction Podcast

CNN is experimenting a bit with podcasting, and they've just put out a special program (MP3) on summer science fiction. The guests include Harlan Ellison, Connie Willis, and WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling. The interviews are fairly good -- and if you've never heard Harlan Ellison rant, you really should take advantage of the opportunity. And, of course, Bruce is Bruce...

Interviewer: Does anything stand out in your mind as being truly exceptional in science fiction cinema?

Bruce: Yeah, it's the ancillary rights. It's the lightsabers, it's the puppets, it's the plastic dolls. I'm not kidding!

Imagining Tomorrow

ffwd.jpgBack when I was doing business consulting, one of the regular treats for me -- and, as far as I could tell, for the clients -- were the projects that gave me a chance to create artifacts from the future, such as advertisements, magazine articles, video news segments, and illustrations. When done right, they would elicit in the viewer a kind of cognitive displacement, a mild confusion as to whether what they were seeing was real. When a client would casually refer to one of the artifacts in the course of a conversation as if it was, in fact, an ad they had just seen or an news article they had just read, I knew I had succeeded.

Image manipulation applications like Photoshop are great enablers of this sort of visualization of tomorrow. A tweak here, a cut & paste there, and suddenly you have an image that is simultaneously not quite right and entirely plausible. What's particularly enjoyable about this method is that anyone can do it. And now, Antwerp-based design group Pantopicon is providing an audience. Their "FFWD>>" competition presents a series of themes, and asks for images set in 2005 and 2025 as illustration. Five themes have been presented so far (the image above is from "Transport"); the next is "Safety," and images must be submitted by July 15 for consideration. Rules can be found here.

If you decide to submit photos, do let us know.

A bit more tongue-in-cheek -- but no less delightful -- is the 2056 issue of humor website The Onion -- billed this time around as "Americorp.biz's Finest News Source." The headlines range from the sublime to the silly (and at least one is probably not safe for most workplaces), but many have just the right balance of surreality and plausibility I so admire.

Remainder of Ross Ice Shelf Now in Smithsonian Freezer
DC—The 25-meter-long remains of the Ross Ice Shelf, the floating Antarctic ice sheet that was once the size of France, will be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's basement freezer through August. "We thank the generous citizens of Philadelphia, who donated this polar-cap remnant when it washed up on their shores earlier this year," curator Tim Riley said. "The ice sheet is a valuable artifact of the earth's geological past." Guests at an upcoming fundraising dinner will be served cocktails made with chunks of the shelf.

It's the little details that make this issue stand out: the alert notifying you that your browser doesn't support "ambient alpha-wave memestreams;" the offer to customize the site with a "less accurate but more reassuring version;" even the languages listed in the drop-down menu at the top.

This may not be the future we want, but if it's the one we get, at least we'll be laughing through the tears.

July 3, 2005

Real-Time Weather, Traffic Forecasts

weathermap.jpgTwo new services came to my attention this weekend, and while they aren't technically related, they cover subjects often found together: weather and traffic. Current traffic reports and weather forecasts are staples of commute-hour news reports in pretty much every country I've ever visited, and (at least in the US) some radio stations compete on the basis of just how often per hour they can squeeze in updates. What makes these two new services interesting is that they flip the format: as this post's title subtly suggests, it's the weather that's current and the traffic that's the forecast.

The Google Weather Map is a YAGMH (Yet Another Google Map Hack), a category which seems to grow daily -- and will undoubtedly be soon joined by the YAYMH for the Yahoo! maps. The GWM combines the map with weather data pulled from two sites: Weather Underground, which pulls current data from the Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS), largely located at airports around the US and territories, and (less frequently) from weather stations around the world; and Weather Bug, which has about 8,000 tracking stations in schools, TV stations and residences around the US. If you like images to match to data, the GWM also has links to weather webcams.

Continue reading "Real-Time Weather, Traffic Forecasts" »

The Week in Sustainable Vehicles (07/03/05)

Every Sunday, Green Car Congress' Mike Millikin gives us an update on the week's sustainable mobility news, looking at the ongoing evolution of personal transportation. Take it away, Mike:

Assisted by the first sales of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, June posted the second-highest levels of hybrid sales yet, with 19,223 units sold. This is behind only April 2005, with its 20,974 units.

For the first six months of 2005, hybrid sales rose to 92,558, some 2.5 times the 36,276 sold during the first six months of 2004.

The Highlander Hybrid leapt to second place among all hybrids sold, with 2,869 units posted during its first month. Toyota's Prius continued its market-leading sales trajectory, with 9,622 cars sold. The Lexus RX400h hybrid came in with 2,605 units sold.

Combined, Toyota's hybrids accounted for 79% of the hybrids sold in June, with the Prius alone accounting for 50% of that. (GCC)

At the same time, however, heavy discounting by GM pushed its sales up 41% in June compared to the prior year to deliver the best overall sales month since September 1986. Countering the trend still experienced by other automakers, GM SUVs turned in an even more aggressive 66% improvement in sales. (GCC)

For the first six months of 2005, sales of hybrids increased more than 2.5 times from the prior year to 92,558. Sales of full-size SUVs in the first six months of 2005 dropped 10.6% to 815,617—some 8.8 times the level of hybrid sales.

After pushing close to $61 per barrel, the price of oil closed at $57.26 on Friday.

Continue reading "The Week in Sustainable Vehicles (07/03/05)" »

Mars Journal

MARS: The International Journal of Mars Science and Exploration (a.k.a. The Mars Journal) combines a couple of my obsessions. It doesn't take many weeks of reading WorldChanging to learn that I'm an Areophile (Greek for "Mars Geek"); in addition, we also post here with some frequency about open-access academic literature. The Mars Journal is a new open-access publication, currently funded by NASA, providing peer-reviewed publication of scholarly papers about the Red Planet. Open-access means that all papers and supporting data can be read freely; contrast this to traditional scholarly publications like Nature and Science, where links to their papers generally have to say "subscribers only."

The Mars Journal is new, and is currently calling for papers. Issue areas it will cover include Mars Science (no surprise), Mars Technology, and Mars Policy, including discussions of "planetary protection." Author information and templates are available.

Countdown to Impact

The Deep Impact space probe has released its "impactor", which is now zooming towards the comet Tempel 1 at a speed of 23,000 miles per hour. It's scheduled to hit at 1:52AM EDT -- that's 10:52PM tonight for those of us on the west coast of the US, or just about 9 hours from the time of this posting.

The impact should be visible with a moderate telescope. But if you don't have a scope, have too much surrounding light to catch an image, or simply live on the wrong side of the planet to see it, NASA is providing a "Near Real-Time" image viewer.

Density as Efficiency

EnergySavingsNUN.jpgNew Urban News has an all-too-brief article about research by John Holtzclaw of the Sierra Club and Jennifer Henry of the US Green Building Council comparing the energy efficiency of "high-density urbanism" to Energy Star-rated homes. The result was surprising, even to people already inclined towards dense urban environments: even the maximum Energy Star savings was beaten by moderately-dense development of 12 housing units per acre. At 48 units per acre -- a moderate apartment or condominium complex -- the energy savings were double that of maximum Energy Star. The savings arise largely from efficiencies in infrastructure and transportation. The combined effect of higher-density living and usable non-auto transit is called "location efficiency."

Some related findings:

• An average urban household uses 320 million British thermal units (mBTUs) annually, while an average suburban household uses 440 mBTUs (assuming 2.5 people/family). The difference is mostly in transportation and infrastructure.

• Access to transit yields significant energy savings, but not as large as increased density.

• The economic savings from enhanced location efficiency from 10 years of new construction are about $2.3 trillion, mostly from reduced auto ownership, according to a study by Holtzclaw with David Goldstein and Mary Jean Burer of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A number of questions arise from this line of research.

Continue reading "Density as Efficiency" »

July 4, 2005


PIA02123.jpgThis is one of the first pictures of what the inside of a comet looks like.

On schedule, the Deep Impact "impactor" probe smacked into the surface of comet Tempel 1, resulting in a blast of ejecta visible from Earth. The NASA website has a variety of interesting images and animations, including what the Hubble Telescope saw and a movie of the impact from the point-of-view of the impactor zooming in at over 23,000 miles per hour. Over at the ESA website for its Rosetta probe, more animations and data, including the (expected) detection of water in the ejecta.

The explosion from the impact was bigger and brighter than expected, which is a very good sign that this mission was entirely worthwhile.

The Earth has been hit by comets before; it's a rare event, but it will eventually happen again. And while known comets like Tempel 1 have orbits that can be plotted well in advance, not every object emerging from the cometary cloud surrounding our solar system has such a widely-recognized cycle. If we're going to be able to prevent a comet from hitting us, we need to know what we're dealing with. Comets don't have the same composition as asteroids, and it's possible that the plans for pushing an asteroid out of the way wouldn't work as well with a comet. The more we know about what they're made of, the better the chance we'll have of preventing planetary disaster.

How Dense Can We Be?

Yesterday's post on Density as Efficiency triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, and reader Laurence Aurbach provided some very useful links expanding upon the issue. One link in particular stood out: the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's online exploration of "Visualizing Density."

While most WorldChanging readers probably recognize that dense development doesn't just mean massive concrete block apartments and congested neighborhoods, those remain typical representations of high-density urban life. The Visualizing Density project displays just how pleasing and appealing high-density neighborhoods can be, and helps to put a recognizable face on somewhat abstract concepts as "12 units per acre." The "Bird's Eye View" section takes a step-by-step approach to explaining different density levels, and steps that planners can take to ensure that the resulting neighborhoods are good places to live. It also explains some of the complexities underlying the measurement of density: where are the boundaries drawn for the representative acre? Do you include parks and waterfronts? How about scattered apartment complexes?

And for those of us still fascinated by SimCity, the site offers an additional treat: a Flash-based neighborhood-design toy. Players can either work to meet specific density design goals, or just "free play" design residential neighborhoods. The layout of the toy is very similar to SimCity, in that you have a flat plane upon which you can put down roads, buildings of different sizes, and parklands; the plane can be spun to view the result from different directions. Surprisingly, it doesn't allow for buildings mixing ground-level commercial and upstairs residential units -- an omission also characteristic of SimCity -- even though the combination is discussed elsewhere in the Visualizing Density site.

Regardless, for those of us wishing to better understand what real-world versions of Bright Green cities can look like, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy website is a welcome resource.

Green Car China

In a move surprising just about nobody who reads WorldChanging, another one of China's big carmakers has announced (PDF) that it will start producing hybrid cars of its own design. Geely Motors, China's biggest privately-owned carmaker, says that commercially-available hybrid cars will be available by the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They claim to expect hybrids eventually to account for half of its annual sales.

Earlier this year, state-supported automaker Chery announced plans to bring hybrids to market by 2006.

(Via Green Car Congress)

July 5, 2005

Gas-Optional Hondas?

Those who follow hybrid-electric automobile technology are well-aware that the Toyota "Synergy Drive" found in the Prius is considered more advanced than the Honda "Integrated Motor Assist" found in the Honda hybrids. Although the mileage figures are close, only the Synergy Drive can operate in motor-only mode, allowing the hybrid to run as an electric for short distances (this feature is what allows the aftermarket car hackers to turn the Prius into a fully gas-optional vehicle).

Expect to see GO-HEV hacks for the Hondas soon, as the carmaker announced today that its new hybrid engine for the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid will allow for motor-only operation at low speeds. The improvements will also increase overall power while reducing weight and cost, and will allow for a moderate increase in fuel efficiency. The new Civic Hybrids should be out this Fall.

Who wants to lay odds on how fast the California Cars Initiative has a working gas-optional version of the 2006 HCH on the road?

(Via Green Car Congress and Joseph Willemsen)

Micro-Wind for the Home

swift-turbine.jpgThe elements of bright green home design are rapidly coming together, and it's looking increasingly clear that high-efficiency consumption and home microgeneration are an ideal combination. We've looked at residential efficiency quite a bit recently, so let's turn again to the home power generation side. Of the three main sources of clean renewable power -- solar, wind and ocean (tide/wave) -- two are reasonable options for the individual buildings (sadly, home ocean power appears to have limited application). For solar, we can go with building-integrated photovoltaic shingles or wall/window units; for wind, we have "rooftop" (but often wall-mounted) turbines.

While most small wind turbine developers have focused on small towers for rural users, two UK-based manufacturers -- Windsave and Renewable Devices -- have been working on micro-turbines for the urban environment, and have been working with utilities and developers to get wind power into buildings. These efforts are starting to pay off, and in more than just number-of-roofs. Last week, the "Swift" micro-turbine from Renewable Devices won the "Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy" in the energy generation category.

Continue reading "Micro-Wind for the Home" »

Biodiesel Bad?

New research from Cornell and UC Berkeley agriculture and engineering professors concludes that, when all of the elements required to produce biomass-based liquid fuels (such as ethanol and biodiesel) are added together, the energy requirements for production far exceed the energy produced.

...corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; [...] soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced [...]

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix.

Although there are those who would dispute these calculations (update: and there are good reasons to believe that this is an overall poor piece of research) let's take them as given for the moment.

Continue reading "Biodiesel Bad?" »

Free/Open Source Software and the Preservation of Culture

From the F/OSS online journal NewsForge comes a timely reminder of one of the less-often-discussed values of open software development: the ability to customize to meet the needs of people who speak declining languages. Bruce Byfield looks at the version of OpenOffice.org customized to work in the Scots Gaelic language, an official language of Scotland now spoken by less than 2% of the populace. This fall, the Gaelic OpenOffice.org will be distributed to schools across Scotland.

The project began because Gaelic teachers were frustrated that students had to use English language software. Having Gaelic software, [Project Leader Evan] Brown says, "helps to provide an immersive language environment."

In other words, users of OpenOffice.org Gaelic are likely to learn better because they do not have to use an interface in one language while trying to think and write in another. Also, although Brown does not mention it, the simple fact that Gaelic is being used in a software program might help convince students that it is a living language, in much same way that Gaelic TV shows do. Both are evidence that the language is part of modern life and not just a museum curio.

Software in a language spoken by a small number of people will not be enough, in and of itself, to stop that language's decline. But it can slow the process -- and as information technology becomes a greater part of the global economy, and as the free/open source philosophy continues to spread, it could in the future serve as a platform upon which to start the process of restoring the language and culture.

Thorium Point

Wired News just published a brief piece on thorium as a fuel for nuclear reactors. Thorium-fueled reactors would produce about half the waste and 80% less plutonium than uranium-fueled reactors, and thorium is a more abundant element than uranium. The article notes that India is going forward with a thorium reactor this year.

This is the first I've seen about thorium reactors in actual development, so I'm curious if any readers have better resources for information.

Nanotechnology and the South-South Divide

The latest issue of Science includes a couple of very interesting articles about the state of nanotechnology research in the developing world. Chunli Bai, executive vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, gives an overview of the growing importance of nanotech research in China, and its current emphasis on nanomaterial production; the article helps explain just how China has come to have the third largest nanoscience budget in the world. But it's "Small Things and Big Changes in the Developing World," by Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, that is the most striking.

Hassan argues that the pace and pattern of nanoscience and nanotech research in the developing world increasingly mirrors that in the North, and that there are good reasons to believe that significant breakthroughs could come from laboratories in the developing world. As noted, China spends a very large amount of money on nanotech research (perhaps as much as $600 million total between 2003 and 2007), and India, Brazil, South Africa and a variety of other less-developed nations are also funding nanoscience relatively well. Hassan argues that this reflects both a recognition of nanotechnology's potentially critical role in developmental leapfrogging and an embrace of the larger notion that science is a fundamental engine of development.

At the same time, this could hasten the onset of a "South-South" divide even greater than the "North-South" divide with which we're familiar:

Continue reading "Nanotechnology and the South-South Divide" »

Carbon Offset Price Wars

David Bornstein's WC3K contribution about Terrapass elicited an interesting response. Eric Carlson, president and co-founder of Carbonfund.org, wrote to remind us that his organization (a) is a non-profit (unlike Terrapass) and (b) charges less per ton of CO2 than other carbon offset services.

(And how do they do it? VOLUME! No, seriously -- they combine multiple offset donations to be able to purchase and retire large blocks of carbon credits from global carbon markets.)

I had mentioned Carbonfund.org in my post last month about the utility of carbon credits and carbon taxes, but they're clearly worth giving another look.

July 6, 2005

Sunshine Mapping

The European Space Agency's ENVISOLAR project is an ongoing effort to measure and map solar light intensity across the globe. Clouds, ozone, atmospheric aerosols and the like can reduce the amount of sunshine hitting the ground; this information is useful for businesses needing sunlight -- tourism, farming, and particularly solar power generation.

ENVISOLAR takes data from a variety of satellite sources, such as the Heliosat-3 project, as well as the handful of ground-level solar intensity measurement stations. The measurements are akin to those done for the UN Environment Program's SWERA project, which looked at solar and wind potential in the developing world. The resulting solar radiation maps can be used by utilities to calculate best locations for and expected output from solar power facilities.

It's unclear from the ESA site how much of the map data will be made available to the public; the ESA is generally pretty good about making material available, but they're often pretty slow about it. It would be great if the data could be made available in real-time, as an XML feed -- imagine what one could do with that and Google Maps...

Getting Smarter About Getting Older

The implications of an aging global population is something that we cover on a regular basis here. The basics of the story are well-known -- there are a lot of young people in the developing world, and most nations in the developed world are getting older at a rapid clip -- but these basics mask some subtleties. Although there are more young people than old in the developing world now, for example, that's transient; rates of population growth are slowing, and that youth bulge will, in time, become a big wave of older folks needing age-appropriate services. Similarly, it's arguably less important that the average age is increasing in the developed nations than that the lifespan is increasing; the relative ages of people in Western societies, as measured by the amount of time they have left, is actually dropping.

And these don't even come close to accounting for what could happen as medical technology extends healthy lifespans to a radical degree.

Much of the public discussion of aging and society centers around concerns that are less and less relevant: fears of hordes of baby boomers in retirement homes, supported by back-breaking taxation on the handful of remaining young people; worries that the populations of European nations are dwindling at a dangerous pace; warnings of a world where the developing nations are home to masses of armed, jobless youths. Focusing social and global planning around those scenarios will only result in having no clue how to handle what really happens.

That's why this story in the Financial Times is so heartening.

Continue reading "Getting Smarter About Getting Older" »

A Swiftly Tilting Building

Chris Rorres, a mathematician studying models for the spread of disease at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, was struck by the way that some buildings in earthquakes topple over rather than collapse, behaving like a capsizing ship. The metaphor was apt, as the tilting and toppling was the result of ground liquefaction, where otherwise solid soil can under certain conditions behave like a liquid. The paper that resulted, Completing Book II of Archimedes' On Floating Bodies (PDF), looked at how different shapes and structures dealt with liquefaction; Rorres' website contains links to visualizations of the results. The latest Discover describes some of Rorres' explorations of buoyancy and the possible new design ideas coming from this observation.

New building requirements for earthquake-prone areas have not yet emerged from this research, but it is an interesting example of how we can come to understand better the needs of the human environment for survival in the a changing natural world -- and the unusual sources from which this understanding can emerge.

Portable Sousveillance

wifihotpack.jpgMike Outmesguine's guide to assembling a wearable WiFi hotspot is getting a bit of attention, and it's not hard to see why. His setup allows a full, relatively high-speed Internet connection; putting it all in a solar backpack, used to recharge the batteries, adds a nice Bright Green tint to the package. The system uses the "Junxion Box," an off-the-shelf WiFi gateway device -- there's little real hackery involved -- and relies on the growing EV-DO high-speed cellular network. It's not cheap to build, probably running a bit more than a thousand dollars (not counting network connection), but definitely not too difficult of an at-home project for many.

While most folks would probably use this for checking email in the middle of a park or web browsing for directions while driving, I see it as a particularly useful piece of what I call the participatory panopticon.

Imagine this scenario: it's a near-future national election, and protesters are out in force. Wanting to be able to (a) make a record of the event, and (b) keep track of troublemakers among both the police and the crowd, organizers distribute cheap wireless webcams to a number of participants. The webcams are routed through a backpack like this one (although probably with a longer life, whether due to more efficient components or a bigger battery), so that what they see is immediately sent out over the Internet, viewable by anyone and easily archived in dozens of different locations anywhere in the world. Additional backpack routers mean wider coverage for webcams.

In time, the hardware to do this will get smaller and require less electricity, just as solar panels will continue to become more powerful; expect to see a similar set-up able to operate 24/7 within a few years. The real wildcard in this is the availability of high-speed cellular networks. EV-DO is not universally available, and is incompatible with the GSM "3G" system slowly being rolled out in Europe. I'm sure it will all be worked out eventually...

July 7, 2005

On A Day Like Today

As many of you know, London is a regular destination for many of the WorldChanging contributors -- and (currently) home to one, as well. Alex is set to visit there shortly, I was just there a couple of months ago, and it's no secret that I look forward to a more permanent move there at some point. It's a city many of us love, for its history, its diversity, its rhythms and life. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a pretty damn good model of what a bright green megacity can be like.

It's hard, therefore, not to spend hours reading through the personal accounts of survival, not to dig through the growing number of personal photos posted to the web by people who managed to make their way through smoke-filled tunnels. But I won't -- I have a job to do.

On a day like today, it's especially hard to write about solutions, but on a day like today, it's all the more important to do so.

It's important to remind ourselves that we have in our hands the tools for our own transformation, and we can make the world a better place through our own actions. There are some who wish to change the world through fear and violence, but there are far, far more of us who want to change the world through knowledge, cooperation, democracy and a long-view wisdom about both our responsibilities and our opportunities. The future is on our side.

The solutions we write about here, no matter how seemingly trivial or transient, are part of a greater constellation of possibility. The latest green design, networked gadget or open-source model won't, in and of itself, solve the problems the world faces. But no one item or idea will do so -- only the ongoing, combined efforts and inspiration of the growing community of people who know that another world isn't just possible, it's here, and it's in our hands.


CAP_xml.jpgIn the aftermath of the December tsunami, we posted a variety of articles about the idea of a distributed emergency alert system. Such a system should be able to work over a variety of media, without being tied to a proprietary network or format. It should be open, so that it could be modified to meet local needs and new requirements. And -- most importantly -- it should be embraced by existing emergency networks and first responders, and not simply serve as an idealized model. Such a system now exists: the Common Alerting Protocol, or CAP.

CAP is an open, standardized alert information format usable to collect and disseminate warnings and reports of hazards and disasters, natural or otherwise; it's XML-based, so it's usable on a wide assortment of devices and media. CAP notes, documentation and commentary can be found at the wiki-based "CAP Cookbook." The protocol has been in development since 2001, but the tsunami seems to have accelerated its adoption. The April, 2005, draft of the v.1.1 protocol is available online (PDF).

The underlying value of CAP is the standardization of message format:

CAP defines a single message format with the essential features to handle existing and emerging alert systems and sensor technologies. This standard format can replace a range of single-purpose interfaces among warning sources and disseminations channels. CAP addresses the concerns about compatibility and operational complexity that have been stifling development. [...]

Continue reading "CAP" »

Fixing Nitrogen

The conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia is the key to the making of fertilizer. The current method relies heavily upon petroleum as a feedstock for the process, and the prospect of declining oil supplies has left some people worried about the viability of fertilizer-based agriculture. As we mentioned recently, an alternative feedstock from algae is now being studied. Now researchers at the University of Oregon have come up with a method of fixing nitrogen that can be done at room temperature and pressure (unlike the traditional process) -- potentially a more environmentally benign and simpler process than the current method. The article in the upcoming Journal of the American Chemical Society is online, but requires subscription, etc.

As usual, this is an experimental process taking years to get to commercial application, if ever. But it's also a good sign that peak-oil fears of the collapse of agriculture are probably unwarranted -- to whatever degree industrial agriculture can't shift to a fertilizer-free organic process, there look to be multiple possible alternatives to oil-based fertilizer.

Fighting Global Warming With Lab-Grown Meat

meat.jpg(Author's note: I debated whether to post this today; it's not exactly keeping in tone with the earlier pieces. I decided, however, that at a time when reality is almost too much to bear, a bit of surreality is useful.)

"Faux" meat biologically identical to real tissue but grown in the lab is something of a staple in science fiction. In January, researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, came up with a method of using ink-jet printer technology to build animal tissue structures, including differentiated skin, bones and organs. I referred to them as "meat-jet" printers, and argued that they could be the harbinger of the future emergence a new kind of cuisine: cruelty-free, waste-free, prion-free meats grown in the lab. Little did I know how rapidly this scenario might come about.

In the June 29 issue of Tissue Engineering, researchers describe methods of mass-producing "cultured" meats: muscle tissues with the same taste, nutrients and texture of "real" meat, grown under controlled conditions in the lab. This wouldn't be fake meat made from processed vegetables, it would be cellularly identical to the flesh from livestock -- but no animal would be killed for its production. (The article itself is under a subscription barrier The article is now available online, and a detailed summary is available here.)

The researchers -- from the US and the Netherlands -- aren't just talking about theory. They've started a non-profit company called New Harvest to develop cultured meat.

Continue reading "Fighting Global Warming With Lab-Grown Meat" »

Using Plastic to Detect Life

Nature News reports on the work of Mark Sims, exobiologist. He's developed a toaster-sized device to go on an upcoming ESA mission to Mars, intended to look for life -- using tiny patches of sticky plastic film.

The Specific Molecular Identification of Life Experiment (SMILE -- and someone needs to start slapping people who push for acronyms like this) will look for biomarkers -- molecules that are strongly indicative of life, from complex hydrocarbons to amino acids. The plastic film patches have molecule-size cavities designed to match specific biomarkers. This is a common technique with Earthly sensors, but the base material is usually biological in origin; by using polymers, researchers can avoid contamination of the sample, and of the Martian environment.

The SMILE biosensors may end up being used on Earth, too. As they are more resilient than biological material-based patches, they can be used in a wider array of applications. Scientists looking for extremophiles in deep sea vents or ice, forensic specialists trying to keep from contaminating samples, and security specialists needing inexpensive, rugged bioweapon sensors have all shown interest in the technology.

We're Not Afraid

The Internet forever changes the way we respond to events such as the London tube bombing. International solidarity is no longer limited to statements from politicians. Symbols of defiance and resolution are no longer only found at ground zero.

We're Not Afraid is a website which appeared earlier today, and consists solely of image sent in from London and around the world of people holding signs saying, simply, "we are not afraid." Alfie Dennen started the site and posted the first image; there are now several dozen pictures, and the site continues to grow.

Update: It turns out that this entry is a top link on Google for ' "I am not afraid" London' searches, which explains the surge of comments. Welcome to WorldChanging, new visitors. Please take a moment to look around -- we're a global weblog focusing on solutions to big problems. We talk about the models, tools and ideas for building a better, "bright green" world.

Our goal is to let people know that, as bad as things can be, the tools for fixing our problems are available, if we're willing to pick them up.

July 8, 2005

The Democratization of History

underkingsx.jpgWhen Howard Zinn wrote A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present in 1980, the effect was electric. It was a history book that talked more about citizens than leaders, more about daily lives than state conflicts. While it wasn't the first time that scholars focused on something other than the official histories as told by the winners, it was nonetheless eye-opening for academics and students everywhere. It signaled the end for the "great man" theory of history.

But histories based on the words, records and thoughts of average citizens have faced a serious problem: a paucity of documentation. People tend not to think of their letters and notes as historical artifacts, and for decades, only professionals would carry cameras around with them in their daily lives. Even as historians came to recognize the value of the stories and reflections from every day citizens, the records of key events used by scholars were still largely taken from the reporters and officials charged with documenting and explaining the world.

This is no longer true.

Yesterday's bombings in London will undoubtedly have many repercussions in terms of politics, and economics, and war, but its greatest -- if most subtle -- effect may be the confirmation that we have entered an era where we are all historians.

Continue reading "The Democratization of History" »


flockbot.jpgThe open-source swarmbot concept continues to spread.

We've touched on the subject before, but a recap may be fruitful: in order to better understand changing local environmental conditions (for agriculture, conservation, health, etc.), it helps to have a multiplicity of sensors providing data streams; those sensors can cover more area if they're mobile; rather than having to control each individual mobile sensor, "swarming" or "flocking" behaviors allow the bots to position themselves to maximize coverage yet retain local communication; by making the project free/open-source, people in low-income or resource-restricted communities can still take advantage of the system's capabilities.

The Flockbot Project, at the computer science department of George Mason University, is an attempt to design mobile, swarming robots able to perform useful actions, all at a (relatively) low cost.

This website describes an open design for a small, $800 robot suitable for "swarm"-style multiagent research, robotics education, and other tasks. Our goal is to get as much functionality as possible from $800 per robot, replicate the robot many times to create a small collaborative swarm, and document the results to make it easier for you to do the same. We hope to foster collaboration in the wider community and, ultimately, lower the entry-level costs for building such robots.

The robot design is remarkably complex, given the limited resources. It combines a Linux-based computer, wireless networking, a camera, a gripper, and multiple IR sensors, all on a 7" diameter wheeled platform. Future modifications include a move to a smaller control system, better mobility, and a price cut to below $500.

The Flockbots site focuses on the design and construction, with little information about actual experimental use. But the online materials are more than sufficient for hobbyists and hackers to follow in their footsteps. Who will be the first to use garage robot swarms in the field?

Science, Not Songs

Harvard Professor Calestous Juma is not one to shy away from controversy. As the head of the United Nations Millennium Projects's Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation, he trumpeted his group's report that investments in science were, by far, the best way to improve development in poorer nations. Now he's making headlines by declaring that the funds from efforts such as Live Aid/Live 8 would be better spent on agricultural colleges than on food relief.

In an interview with the BBC (RealAudio) earlier this week, he said "Science is very central to solving the bigger problems...Scientific collaborations with British universities will do more for Africa than distributing food aid. [...] Helping to build scientific expertise will do for Africa what the invention of the electric guitar did for Bob Geldof." He's interviewed along with one of the founders of SciDev.net, and it's well worth a listen.


Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are something of a worldchanging icon: biological systems that clean wastewater and generate electricity in the process. One system with two useful results. With so many different research teams on the job, MFCs are moving rapidly towards the "predetermined element" category of near-future scenarios.

Reports of new developments in MFCs are frequent enough that we don't need to link to each one, but the story popping up on the science feeds today was sufficiently telegenic that it's worth a QuickChange. Researchers at Washington University at St. Louis have developed -- and patented -- a new MFC design that has improved overall energy density and a structure better suited for real-world use. The "Upflow MFC" has stacked chambers, and the test model they built is described as the size of a "thermos bottle" (and 90% of you now have an immediate mental image -- see? Telegenic).

Moreover, the researchers claim that, when the efficiency is scaled up to closer to theoretical maximum, a single (presumably bigger-than-a-thermos) unit at a food-processing plant could power as many as "900 American single-family households" (and again -- you now have a sense of scale).

July 9, 2005

Globalization in the Virtual World

lineageII.jpgChinese farmers may be on the cutting-edge of the global economy. But not the Chinese farmers you're probably imagining -- rural agriculturalists in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese farmers I'm talking about sit in front of computer screens for hours on end, killing video game monsters online, over and over again.

In early May, I wrote about the growth of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and the real-world market that has arisen for virtual-world goods. People looking for an advantage (or simply pressed for time, and wishing to keep up with peers) will pay surprisingly large amounts of actual money for bits of virtual currency or rare items. And although nearly every MMORPG prohibits such sales, auctions of virtual gear can amount to millions of dollars every year.

Within the games, the act of repeating an action over and over again in order to accumulate the resulting treasure is known semi-derisively as "farming." Each monster killed or treasure chest opened may have a random assortment of loot, but, over time, the rewards are consistent; it's not unusual for players to spend an evening or two every week engaging in "farming" in order to build up sufficient gold to buy rare goods in-game.

Unsurprisingly, game worlds are therefore often home to "players" who game as a job, accumulating online goods to turn into real cash. But some have decided to outsource the efforts, hiring rotating shifts of players in places with cheap labor and decent Internet connections, simply to farm online games. The employees of these "cyber sweatshops" are paid minimal amounts to push a small assortment of buttons over and over (as the tasks most farming entails are extremely repetitive, they're easy to automate, drastically reducing the need for skilled control). For a variety of reasons, many of these companies seem to be in China, and "Chinese farmer" has become a typical in-game reference to those so employed.

Continue reading "Globalization in the Virtual World" »

Smart Mobs for Homeland Security

W. David Stephenson has been thinking quite a bit about the right way to counter the threat of terrorism. He argues (correctly, in my view) that the traditional military response is counter-productive at best, and that the only effective way to handle a distributed network of opponents is with a distributed network of protectors. He's talked about some of these ideas before, but in light of the London attacks, he has brought them together into a single post, "Smart Mobs for Homeland Security."

Who would it comprise? All of us: My concept... was to harness all of these wireless devices in the public's control into an ad hoc, self-organizing system to both inform and empower the general public to play a significant partnership role in homeland security. A number of David's proposals will sound familiar to WorldChanging readers, in part because we've pointed to some of them before, and in part because he's definitely thinking along the same lines as we have been with the use of open, collaborative efforts to ensure our own safety.

Biotech Leapfrogging in Central Asia

Kazakhstan is making a play to become the regional biotechnology leader, according to this article in Science, and as described by open-source biologist Rob Carlson. Carlson quotes from the article: The government has approved plans and is now reviewing financing for a $50 million Life Science and Biotech Center of Excellence, supported in part by the World Bank. SciDev.Net has some additional details -- the project will be headed up by Erlan Ramanculov, a Kazakhstan-born researcher who worked in the US for over a decade, specializing in viruses.

The Sensor Web

NASA is set to test a new project they call the "Sensor Web," combining data from multiple sources to build a more complete picture of atmospheric pollutants. It will make heavy use of the Earth Observing System satellites we've mentioned before, and the initial test will rely just on the Aqua and Aura satellites. But, when deployed, the Sensor Web won't stop there:

This interconnected "web of sensors" coordinates observations by spacecraft, airborne instruments and ground-based data-collecting stations. Instead of operating independently, these sensors collect data as a collaborative group, sharing information about an event as it unfolds over time. The sensor web system is able to react by making new, targeted measurements as a volcanic ash plume is transported to air traffic routes, or when smoke of a wildfire is carried aloft, then dispersed over large metropolitan areas. The sensor web has the potential to improve the response time of our observing systems by reconfiguring their sensors to react to variable or short-lived events and then transmit that information to decision makers so that appropriate alerts can be issued to those people living in the impacted areas.

What makes this project particularly notable is the system collaboration aspect. Previous multi-sensor projects would simply combine the data after-the-fact; the Sensor Web will use inputs from one set of sensors to guide another. Moreover, the Sensor Web will be using a "model-based" approach, using simulations and forecasts to project where the sensors should point next.

If a model forecasts high concentrations of CO, the sensor web's instruments can be commanded to make targeted observations of those locations. The actual sensor measurements can then be fed back into the computer model to improve the accuracy of the forecast. Talabac's team hopes to illustrate how such a model-driven sensor web could be used to enhance current measurement techniques, and bring to bear multiple complementary instruments to respond to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

NASA intends to start Sensor Web operations later this year.

July 10, 2005

Clinton at Aspen

It's interesting to watch the evolution of global warming as a political issue in the United States. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, for example, former president Bill Clinton pushed the climate to the top of his agenda, arguing that action on global warming would have a variety of benefits: "We've got to make it a national security argument and we've got to make it a jobs argument and we've got to make the price of oil irrelevant," Clinton said, suggesting the country could create millions of jobs if alternative energy efforts received a fraction of the tax incentives that go to "old energy."

What's notable here is that Clinton represents a very visible face for the Democratic Party, and if he is in fact pushing this as his key focus, we can expect to see the subject become a more frequent element in American political discourse.

Mapping Politics

iraqfatalitymap.jpgMaps are not neutral -- or, rather, the creation of maps is not a neutral process. The choice of what the map covers, and what details to include or exclude, is an inherently subjective process. We saw an example of that recently in the Chicago Crime Map, in which all offenses looked the same, and the data only covered arrests, not convictions (i.e., whether a crime has actually been committed remains legally in doubt). (Update: the very first comment below is from Chicago Crime Map, telling us that they added a color difference between different crime types shortly after I first took a look at them. Thanks!) Another example comes to us from Future Feeder, one that is extremely well-presented yet invites bigger questions about objectivity and information.

The Iraq War Fatalities map is a Flash-based display of Coalition deaths over the course of the conflict, up to June 27, 2005. The fatalities are shown as small dots on the map reflecting their location, and are listed day-by-day; sound and color are used to represent how many died on a given day (I highly recommend running the map with sound on). It's a simple display, but quite powerful.

Continue reading "Mapping Politics" »

Mobile Phones for Development

We've driven this point home: mobile phones are a crucial tool for leapfrog development. We're not alone in making this argument, but now a fairly notable source has taken up the banner -- The Economist. Although we're not always fond of the magazine's positions (and Alex is generally even less impressed with the periodical than I am), they do sometimes get it right in a big way. They're also a useful link to mainstream policymakers -- if The Economist is talking about it, it must be worth taking seriously.

The article, "Calling an end to poverty," covers examples we've brought up numerous times here, from mobile phones as economic tools for rural citizens to the GSM association's drive to produce a phone that's both affordable in the developing world and has useful capabilities. This bit of the article sums it up nicely:

Mobile phones have become indispensable in the rich world. But they are even more useful in the developing world, where the availability of other forms of communication—roads, postal systems or fixed-line phones—is often limited. Phones let fishermen and farmers check prices in different markets before selling produce, make it easier for people to find work, allow quick and easy transfers of funds and boost entrepreneurship. Phones can be shared by a village. Pre-paid calling plans reduce the need for a bank account or credit check. A recent study by London Business School found that, in a typical developing country, a rise of ten mobile phones per 100 people boosts GDP growth by 0.6 percentage points. Mobile phones are, in short, a classic example of technology that helps people help themselves.

(Via Emergic)

July 11, 2005


Researchers at UC Riverside have determined that carbon nanotubes can make ideal scaffolds for healing broken bones.

The researchers expect that nanotubes will improve the strength and flexibility of artificial bone materials, leading to a new type of bone graft for fractures that may also be important in the treatment of bone-thinning diseases such as osteoporosis.

In a typical bone graft, bone or synthetic material is shaped by the surgeon to fit the affected area... Pins or screws then hold the healthy bone to the implanted material. Grafts provide a framework for bones to regenerate and heal, allowing bone cells to weave into the porous structure of the implant, which supports the new tissue as it grows to connect fractured bone segments.

Current polymer and peptide fiber scaffolds have low strength and are prone to rejection; carbon nanotube-based scaffolds would be far stronger and have far less rejection potential.

This has been another of our series "Oh, Carbon Nanotube, is there nothing you cannot do?"

(Via Medgadget)

More Mobiles Than Landlines

...in the US, that is. The Los Angeles Times reports (registration required, try BugMeNot) that, by the end of 2004... there were 181.1 million cellphone subscribers, compared with 177.9 million access lines into U.S. homes and businesses, the Federal Communications Commission said in a biannual report. [...]

A decade ago, the industry had 25 million customers... it should pass 200 million this year.

India reached this point last year, as well, underscoring just how global the mobile information transformation is.

(Via Engadget)


It's a simple idea, but a good one: the East Anglian Ambulance service in the UK has launched a campaign for people to add an entry to their mobile phone contacts In Case of Emergency. First responders may have a hard time getting contact information from you if you're in shock, unconscious, or otherwise unable to respond. The ICE idea attempts to standardize a place for responders to look, if the awful should occur.

Simply type ICE plus a contact name and number into your mobile and help us to help you.

I did it as soon as I read about this campaign -- and the more of us who do it (and talk about it), the more the idea will be recognized.

Eat Your Curry

University of Texas cancer researchers have determined that curcumin, the yellow spice found in tumeric and curry powders, can block the development of a variety of cancers.

The study [...] demonstrates how curcumin stops laboratory strains of melanoma from proliferating and pushes the cancer cells to commit suicide.

It does this, researchers say, by shutting down nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), a powerful protein known to promote an abnormal inflammatory response that leads to a variety of disorders, including arthritis and cancer.

Human and animal trials are underway.

The Net of Life

netoflife.jpgIt's generally understood how genetic information is spread: from an organism to its offspring. For this reason, the traditional representation of evolution and the relationship between organisms is portrayed as a "tree," with an increasing number of branches emanating from the origin. But it turns out that this well-understood structure doesn't apply to microbes.

Bacteria don't just transmit genetic information to their offspring, they also exchange genes with other bacteria -- even bacteria from different species. This "horizontal gene transfer" happens with great regularity, and is responsible for a nearly 10% of the "gene transfer events" in bacterial evolution. As a result, the relationship between different microbial species is closer to a network than a tree, with otherwise distant types connected through gene swapping. Now researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) have determined what that bacterial network looks like -- and it turns out that the bacterial horizontal gene transfer network (PDF) has a lot in common with the world wide web.

Continue reading "The Net of Life" »

Scoping Out Sustainability

chook.jpgSustainability means far more than hybrid cars and recycling; it even means more than LEED buildings and dense cities. Real, lasting sustainability will require a transformation of both supply and demand, both production and consumption, across every facet of our society and economy. This is not a minor feat, obviously; fortunately, smart people are thinking hard about how to carry it off.

The UK Design Council is an organization of designers and academics looking to enhance the well-being of citizens through the proper application of design. They provide a variety of informational resources for both designers and non-specialists, covering everything from the nature of design and the design process through emerging issues such as corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The Design Council, through its information and outreach program RED, is working with government and business agencies to co-develop a new Sustainable Development Strategy for the UK. Last week, they unveiled Design & Sustainability: A Scoping Report, in an attempt to explore how to create demand for sustainable design and the best ways to spot and develop the resulting business opportunities.

The scoping document (Word format) is much more than that, however. Running well over 100 pages, it's a comprehensive analysis of the origins of sustainable design, its applications in recent years, and how it can be more broadly applied. It's an ambitious project, to say the least, and not always successful. But here's the really good part: the Design Council is explicitly calling this an "open source" document, and are offering it for use and modification by anyone -- and are asking for good ideas to be sent to them to be added in.

Continue reading "Scoping Out Sustainability" »

July 12, 2005

I Got Your Hybrid Taxi Right *Here*

A quick salute to the City Council of New York City: it unanimously approved a law allowing cab companies to make use of hybrid taxicabs. Given that 93% of the city's nearly 13,000 cabs are now 12 mile-per-gallon Crown Victorias, a shift to hybrids should triple the mileage, meaning a substantial improvement in both air quality and CO2 emissions -- and a big reduction in driver gasoline expenses.

Hybrid cabs should be on the road by this fall.

Green My Kitchen

If, like most people, you're not in a position to build a high-efficiency, environmentally-friendly home of your own, you can still improve the green stats of your existing dwelling. It's a good thing, too: residential energy use puts a surprisingly large amount of overall greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to the US Department of Energy, non-vehicle residential energy use in the US is responsible for about two-thirds as much greenhouse gas output as transportation (residential energy use produced 1,215 million metric tons of CO2 in 2003, compared to 1,875 million metric tons of CO2 from transportation, according to the US Department of Energy). More importantly, residential CO2 emissions are growing faster than those from vehicles (up about 30% from 1990-2003, compared to about 20% over the same time period for transportation).

Green Home Guide is a useful resource for figuring out what you can do to make one's home a more sustainable place. The site is just finishing up a month about kitchens, a particularly useful topic given that, for most people in the West, the kitchen is the most energy-intensive room in the house. The articles about building a new green dwelling on the cheap and doing a green kitchen remodel are interesting, but probably of more value to most are two articles on making one's existing kitchen greener: 10 Ways to Make Your Kitchen More Resource Efficient and Creating a Healthy, Environmentally Sound Kitchen.

Continue reading "Green My Kitchen" »

LEED and Beyond in India

leedplatindia.jpgAlthough the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard comes from the US Green Building Council, it has become widely adopted outside the US borders. It may come as a surprise to some, however, that India is second only to Canada in the number of LEED-registered buildings listed at the USGBC/LEED site. As long-time readers will recall, this includes the Confederation of Indian Industry's Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre (PDF) in Hyderabad -- the first building in the world to be given the LEED 2.0 Platinum rating, and declared the "greenest building in the world" in early 2004 (the National Resources Defense Council's headquarters (PDF) in Santa Monica, California, has now tied it in its LEED rating). In fact, two of the five LEED 2 Platinum sites in the world are in India.

They may soon be joined by a third.

The Auto Cluster Development and Research Institute Limited (ACDRIL) building in Pune, India, will be registering for LEED status, and the the designers promise at least a LEED Gold, but are aiming at LEED Platinum.

...the auto cluster buildings will use sunlight for most day lighting and natural ventilation to keep the usage of electricity to a minimum for lighting and air-conditioning.

The design envisages roof-top gardens for reducing heat pockets, use of recycled and local building materials, vermiculture, rainwater harvesting, sewage treatment plant, grey water recycling to be used for flushing toilets and gardens and use of renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) apart from a lot of greenery and water bodies, including a natural stream running through the site to beautify the campus.

The site is expected to be open in late 2006.

But India is not content to use the US standards for sustainable buildings. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Dehli is developing its own set of criteria which take India's local conditions into account. These standards will be known as "TERI-GRIHA, or TERI’s Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment"

(Via Sustainablog)

Hurricanes Shut Down Most Gulf Oil Production

listingrig.jpgFrom the "irony can be pretty ironic" department: Green Car Congress points to reports that 96% of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was stopped as a result of Hurricane Dennis -- with Hurricane Emily (not named after our Emily... as far as we know...) just around the corner. The force of the storm was enough to cause the "Thunder Horse" rig (jointly owned by BP and ExxonMobil, and due to come online later this year) to list at an angle of 20-30 degrees, as well. The production stoppage was down to "only" 56% by earlier today.

Hurricanes happen in the Gulf, and whether or not global warming had any direct connection to the force of Dennis is unknowable. Regardless, that a hurricane (possibly driven in part by global warming) shut down some of the oil production that eventually leads to more global warming is a further hint that (as the saying goes) "nature bats last."

Going Organic in China

USDA_sust_farm_China.jpgWhile the popular image of agriculture in China may be the rural peasant tilling his field using methods differing little from those of his grandparents, in reality Chinese agriculture is one of the most heavily-dependent upon chemical fertilizers in the world. According to the World Resources Institute database, in 2003 China used an average of 227.6 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable and cultivated cropland; by comparison, the US used 110.7 kg/ha and Europe an average of 73.4 kg/ha. But this is starting to change, as Chinese consumers begin to appreciate the nutritional value of organic products -- and Chinese farmers begin to appreciate their export potential.

The quick summary: over the last six years, China has increased its organic farm acreage nearly ten-fold -- and is well on its way to becoming the number one organic food producer in the world. Read on for a survey of where organic farming stands in today's China.

Continue reading "Going Organic in China" »

July 13, 2005

Saving People by Vaccinating Pigs

Cysticercosis kills upwards of 50,000 people every year, nearly all in the developing world; those who are not killed suffer symptoms ranging from epileptic seizures to blindness, as the disease attacks the brain and nervous system. Millions of people suffer from the disease, which is caused by tapeworms. (Here's the fact sheet from the US Centers for Disease Control.) But the life-cycle of the parasite requires an intermediate host -- pigs -- and that turns out to be the ideal point of intervention.

New Scientist reports on the work of researchers at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The scientists have developed a vaccine that triggers the production of antibodies in pigs that cause the eggs of the tapeworm to burst before developing further. The work has been remarkably effective:

Small-scale trials, in which eggs isolated from adult tapeworms were fed to up to 30 pigs, have already been conducted in Mexico, Peru, Cameroon and Honduras. The vaccine provided between 99.5 and 100 per cent protection in every trial. The Melbourne researchers, together with collaborators in Lima, Peru, now have plans for larger field trials in which the pigs will be allowed to forage as normal, they reported at a conference on parasitology in Melbourne last week. At the moment, two vaccinations about one month apart provide several months of immunity. The team's aim is to provide lifelong immunity with one or two shots, though they say the vaccine will still be beneficial even it has to be given yearly.

Although the same type of vaccine could work in humans, it's less costly -- and much faster -- to develop and deploy animal vaccinations. Existing tapeworm infections in humans can be treated effectively (if caught soon enough); by breaking the cycle in pigs, the spread of the disease can be prevented.

Aside from being of enormous benefit in the developing world, this is a good example of the value of looking at the ecology of infection.

Hurricane Makes A Reef

In 2002, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary saw the deliberate sinking of a retired US Navy ship in order to create an artificial reef. Artificial reefs are proven methods of helping to restore damaged undersea ecosystems; this one didn't serve that purpose, however, as the scuttling failed to go as planned, and the ship ended up resting upside-down and at an angle that proved dangerous to navigation. Subsequent efforts reduced the danger, but the ship was still not in the intended position -- until now.

Hurricane Dennis, pathing near the Keys, managed to generate sufficient undersea currents to flip the sunken vessel, putting it in the right-side-up position that was the goal in 2002. While the previous position was working fine as a reef, the new orientation will make it more attractive to divers -- who, in turn, help to support the artificial reef program.

The European Micro-Hybrid

minimobil.jpgThe "MINIMOBIL" is a new vehicle designed by a joint Austrian-Czech team as low-cost, high-efficiency personal transport for the streets of European cities. As a hybrid, it has a longer range (and higher potential speed) than similarly-sized electric vehicles; it is capable of all-electric mode, too, for 30-50 kilometers, more than enough for typical city trips. As the image shows, it's tiny -- four can fit in a typical parking space -- and due to its size, it may be classified as a "four wheel motorcycle" in Europe. The MINIMOBIL is designed with flexibility in mind, with the rear section being able to hold various modules for additional seating, cargo, even lawn maintenance. The default set up allows for two people to ride, sitting tandem.

The MINIMOBIL joins a growing list of microcars (which make the Smart look big) either on or soon-to-be on the streets of Europe: the G-Wiz all-electric (based on the India-made REVA); the Naro prototype design; the Tango, with safety specs meeting international racing car standards; even the MDI Air Car, which can go for about 50 miles on a single tank of compressed air. The MINIMOBIL is the first hybrid microcar; it's unclear from the limited English-language information whether the designers intend to sell the vehicle directly, or license the model to bigger carmakers.

Continue reading "The European Micro-Hybrid" »

Flexible Smart Paper

fujitsu.jpgFujitsu just announced a new form of "bendable color electronic paper," one that maintains its image without electricity. While Fujitsu sees it as a medium for price tags, menus and advertisements inside trains, it seems to me this would be ideal for low-power-consumption wireless mobile devices used largely to display text and static images (smart paper technology can't yet refresh fast enough for appealing animations). It also has obvious uses in wearable systems, as well as for "environmental" displays on walls, tables, and the like.

The target for commercial release is late 2006-early 2007. The question, of course, is how much it will cost.

(Via Gizmodo)

Grameen Phone at TED

villagephone.jpgAs he mentioned yesterday, Alex is at the TED Global conference in Oxford, England right now. He's scheduled to talk tomorrow morning, at 11:00 GMT; we will undoubtedly have a copy of his talk up on the site soon, and more posts from Alex about the other speakers at the conference. Those speakers include WorldChanger Dawn Danby, who spoke this afternoon, my colleagues at the IEET Aubrey de Grey and Nick Bostrom, worldchanging friends Clay Shirky and Robert Neuwirth, and sustainable design guru William McDonough, among many others. Today's speakers also included Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone.

Grameen Phone is the groundbreaking project, started in 1993, to bring mobile telephones to villages and rural areas in Bangladesh as a tool for both local empowerment and developmental leapfrogging. The program has been remarkably successful; Grameen Phone has more than 3.5 million subscribers and has distributed over 115,000 "village phones" throughout the country, where they serve as "owner-operated" pay phones. In and of itself, this has enhanced rural life. In particular:

Continue reading "Grameen Phone at TED" »

July 14, 2005

JonL with RU

Our own Jon Lebkowsky is the subject of the latest NeoFiles interview, now in Podcast format (MP3). RU Sirius and Jon L talk about his new book, Extreme Democracy,and the future of online tools for emergent politics. Definitely worth checking out.

Eco-Design and Future Cities

The BBC continues its reports on the ongoing TED Global conference in Oxford. Its latest piece is on the combined presentations of Robert Neurwirth (Shadow Cities), Stefano Boeri (editor of Domus) and William McDonough (Cradle to Cradle). This was clearly one of the TED Global presentations I would love to see in full: Neuwirth talking about the growth of squatter cities in the shadows of global metropolis; Boeri on the intersection of the virtual and the real as means of understanding globalization; and McDonough discussing his Next City model and its imminent implementation in China. The BBC piece is an all-too-brief summary of their ideas.

In addition, Alex spoke this morning -- he tells me it went well -- and we will link to any news or recordings of his presentation when they emerge. Let's hope the BBC is sharp enough to pick up on his talk, too.

Terraforming Earth

As long as humans live on our home planet, we will change its environment. Even the most sustainable cities change wind and weather patterns; even the most ecologically sound farming changes the local biosphere. This was true when the Earth held far fewer people; even if every human and human artifact disappeared tomorrow, the changes we've made to the water, soil and atmosphere would continue to exist for decades, centuries, even millennia. The question isn't how can we stop changing the planet, the question is how we can do so more wisely, avoiding the changes most harmful to the planetary ecosystem, and applying greater recognition of the long-term effects of our changes.

I say this to preface a look at a set of proposed feats of ecological engineering on a scale never before attempted intentionally. They may not be the best courses of action -- they may not be wise, or evince a good balance of benefit and risk -- but we should not rule them out simply because they involve making big changes to the environment. We're already making big changes, only without any foresight or design; to paraphrase Stewart Brand's 1968 epigram, we are already terraforming Earth, and might as well get good at it.

The August edition of Popular Science includes a relatively brief article by Michael Behar entitled "How Earth-Scale Engineering Can Save the Planet." In it, he looks at a series of massive projects intended to curb global warming. None of them could be considered easy; all are expensive, and carry a measure of risk. A few refer to ideas we've touched on here, and some border on science fiction. They don't address energy use efficiency, a reduction of CO2 outputs, or any other way to slow the increase of greenhouse gases. These are all responses to the unfortunately-too-plausible scenario of climate disruption going too far to be stopped with windmills, insulation and bicycles.

Continue reading "Terraforming Earth" »

Orphan Diseases, Collaborative Biology and Sequencing Parasites

trypanosoma.jpgAn international team of researchers from over 20 laboratories worldwide have sequenced the genomes of the parasites leading to some of the worst diseases in the developing world: African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. What they found was startling -- and has given new hope for a cure. It turns out that all three pathogens share about 6,200 genes, giving them far more in common than differing, despite being ostensibly only distantly-related species. This, in turn, opens the door to the possibility of new treatments able to target all three of these illnesses, which have otherwise been essentially ignored by major pharmaceutical companies because the victims are almost all in the poorest countries of the world.

Continue reading "Orphan Diseases, Collaborative Biology and Sequencing Parasites" »

Spam vs. Development

Those of us in the West who have been online for awhile can often have something of a blasé attitude towards spam. I don't mean that it's ignored, of course. Every day I get a couple hundred spam emails, and every day the admins at WorldChanging have to remove more spam comments and trackbacks, and add new terms to the site's blocking list. But with a sufficiently fast connection and sufficiently intelligent filtering software, the spam problem is more-or-less manageable.

It's a very different situation for many people in the developing world, however. The level of spam on the networks is as great (or even greater) than in the West, but a very large portion of those getting online do so with slow modems or in crowded Internet cafés that charge by the byte. A level of spam that might be considered annoying to someone in Los Angeles could be an insurmountable obstacle to someone in Lagos. This has important development implications: as more regional economic activity moves online, problems like spam, viruses and denial-of-service attacks can drive people out of business.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has just published a report on the subject of spam in the developing world (PDF), and it makes for sobering reading. A couple of big problems -- and some useful solutions -- stand out:

Continue reading "Spam vs. Development" »

July 15, 2005

Watching America

WatchingAmericaWebLogov6.gifIf the United States is the world's sole "hyperpower," does it really need to care much about how the people of other countries think about it? How you answer that question will go a long way towards predicting your response to Watching America.

Watching America is a website which offers, without commentary, news stories about the United States from the world's press. The list of sources it uses is impressive, and covers a significant portion of the world's nations. The non-English articles are translated by software, then cleaned up by native speakers and a former editor of the International Herald-Tribune. The Christian Science Monitor gives some details:

While the Internet has made access to foreign media only a click away, what makes WatchingAmerica.com especially powerful is its translations of foreign-language news into English. [...]

The distinction may seem subtle. But news organizations such as Al Jazeera put out different material for an English-speaking audience than for an Arabic-speaking audience. With this website, "you're getting to see what, in some cases, your enemies are saying to each other in their own languages about you," [site founder Robin] Koerner says. "That gives you insights which you cannot get from what they offer in English."

Few of the stories are particularly flattering to the US. Many are highly critical, mostly of foreign policies but sometimes of American domestic events. Policies towards the Middle East come in for the greatest amount of criticism, but there are pieces about issues of which few Americans are likely even aware.

Although the site doesn't comment on the articles explicitly, a question remains about how it chooses the articles -- and source newspapers -- for translation. An initial examination shows a decent selection of journals across a mainstream spectrum (e.g., in the UK, they pull from both the Guardian and the Economist), but few recognizably non-mainstream sources. Still, this looks to be an extremely valuable site for getting a picture of how American actions are viewed abroad. Happily, they provide an RSS feed of their content!

(Via Sciencegate)

Daily Kos Windfarm

One of the diarists at the liberal political site Daily Kos has come up with an intriguing idea: a wind farm owned entirely by investors from the site -- essentially a dKos Wind Farm. The person leading the move is an investment banker, and is still trying to determine whether the project makes sense financially -- but the signs look good. Whether or not this is a good idea, it has generated some interesting conversation in the dKos thread, as well as over at Gristmill (where I heard about it).

Toyota + BP + Biofuels

Both Toyota and BP have adopted more responsible approaches than most of their industry brethren towards the environmental impacts of what they produce. That's why it's not terribly surprising to see them working together on a cleaner-energy project -- they both want to be out in front of the wave of change.

Green Car Congress points us to this announcement in the Japanese business magazine Nikkei Business.

Toyota Motor Corp. has begun negotiations aimed at engaging in a joint research project with major oil company BP Plc., Nikkei Business has learned. The project concerns biofuels, alternative fuels derived from plant matter. [...] By entering into a new tie-up with BP, Toyota hopes to conduct research into matters such as the economic viability of biofuels, their effect on vehicles, and possible raw materials. Talks are currently focused on narrowing down the research interests. BP already operates a biofuel refinery in partnership with European companies, and is working to commercialize biofuels.

Academic debates about the viability of biofuels aside, if Toyota & BP together can't come up with ways to make biomass-based vehicle fuel work, I'd be convinced it's not a good prospect.

H2 Nanostorage

Good news, everyone! Because of unanticipated quantum-level effects in the interaction between carbon and hydrogen, the absorption capacity of carbon nanostructures (particularly nano-graphite platelets) is greater than previously modeled. A graphite-based physisorption system should therefore be able to meet the US Department of Energy standard of 62 kg/m3 volume density and 6% mass ratio of H2 storage.

Everybody follow that?

Okay, I'll try again. Read on for the extended explanation.

Continue reading "H2 Nanostorage" »


pvconcentrators.jpgWe're all familiar to some degree with traditional photovoltaics, the flat dark-gray panels that generate electricity from light. Improvements in photovoltaic technology keep popping up, and solar will undoubtedly be a big part of the bright green future. But less well-known are photovoltaic concentrators, systems that use lenses and/or mirrors to boost the amount of light hitting a given patch of photovoltaic material, with the goal of increasing the overall output. Photovoltaic concentrators are commonly used on satellites to maximize the power-to-weight ratio, but have had more limited success for Earthly energy production due to the cost.

That may soon change.

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory just held a conference on photovoltaic concentration technology in Scottsdale, Arizona. Among the announcements: the availability of PV concentration systems with efficiencies close to 40% at concentrated sunlight levels.

Continue reading "Concentration" »

July 16, 2005

Simulating Culture and the Ethics of the Off Switch

newties.jpgA consortium of European computer scientists are working on a project called NEW TIES -- New and Emergent World models Through Individual, Evolutionary and Social learning. Its goal is nothing less than to evolve an entirely new culture through the use of computer "agents" cooperating, competing and reproducing with each other in a vast simulated environment. My question is, have they thought through the implications?

The NEW TIES project appears on the surface to be a slightly less-colorful but more sophisticated version of The Sims (even though, as it turns out, the underlying display engine is actually from the first-person-shooter game Counter Strike). Like The Sims, the various simulated people will have needs (such as food and sex) and capabilities (such as tool use and communication); the difference, however, is that the NEW TIES agents have the ability to learn, and to pass on their learning to subsequent generations.

New Scientist sums the project up nicely:

Each agent will be capable of various simple tasks, like moving around and building simple structures, but will also have the ability to communicate and cooperate with its cohabitants. Though simple interaction, the researchers hope to watch these characters create their very own society from scratch.

Continue reading "Simulating Culture and the Ethics of the Off Switch" »

Forum on Social Capital

Last month, Social Fusion (a "social entrepreneur" incubator) put together a panel discussion on social capital at San Francisco's World Affairs Council. Panelists and participants included representatives from a variety of social investment organizations, and the conversation took a fairly deep look at the challenges, opportunities, and upcoming developments in the world of "venture philanthropy" and innovation.

The entire panel discussion is now available at the Social Edge website as both streaming (.m3u) and downloadable (.mp3) audio (links here go to full discussion; each section is also available in its own file). If you're interested in the future of social entrepreneurialism, you should definitely give it a listen.

Technorati as Public Utility

We have something of a love/hate relationship with Technorati here... well, perhaps "love/hate" is too strong. Fascination/irritation is probably better. Technorati helps us keep track of who is linking in to us, and has shown us many excellent sources of links and information; it's a very useful tool for tracking the evolution of various online memes, as well. But it doesn't update its numbers as often as we'd like (we've been stuck at the exact same number of sites & links for about a month now), and it's definitely a bit too popular for its own good -- system crash pages are unfortunately all too common on busy days.

Still, I have to agree with Wired's Adam Penenberg when he argues that "Technorati has become a public utility on a global scale." If Google gives a sense of the structure of the Internet, Technorati gives a sense of its flow: the propagation of ideas, of influence, of perspective. To the degree that blogging has become a valuable adjunct to traditional reporting, Technorati gives the blogs a collective voice, and gives readers entry to ongoing and constantly-evolving conversations stretching across multiple sites.

Penenberg ties his Technorati observations back to the web response to the London bombings. If we're all now historians, Technorati is the ever-changing index to tomorrow's history books.

(Via Picturephoning)

Ad Hoc Network Leapfrogging

meshnetwork.jpgCUWiN -- the Champaign-Urbana community WIreless Network -- brings together a bunch of worldchanging ideas into one useful package: Free/Open Source software to create ad-hoc municipal wireless networks using recycled old PCs. The software -- which can be downloaded from cuwireless.net -- just needs to be burned onto a CD, which can then be used to boot a PC (even something as old as a 486) with a wireless card. Once the system boots, the software configures itself, looking for other nodes to connect to; the CUWiN system uses "ad hoc networking" principles to link machines together to reach the computer that's actually connected to the Internet.

CUWiN [...] exceeds the functionality of many proprietary systems. They want to bring ubiquitous, extremely high-speed, low-cost networking for every community and constituency. Following in the footsteps of Linux and Firefox, CUWiN has focused on creating a low-cost, non-proprietary, user-friendly system. CUWiN's software will share connectivity across the network, allowing users to buy bandwidth in bulk and benefit from the cost savings. CUWiN networks are self-configuring and self-healing -- so adding new wireless nodes is hassle-free, and the system automatically adapts to the loss of an existing node.

The CUWiN system is suitable for the developed and developing world alike; the only costs are the old PCs, the wireless cards, the single broadband connection at the root of the network, and electricity. What's particularly appealing is that this model gives new life to functional-but-obsolete pieces of computer hardware, keeping them (and the toxic metals they contain) out of the garbage dump.

(Via W. David Stephenson)

July 17, 2005

Tuskless Elephants Through Evolution

Reuters reports that Chinese elephants are evolving to have shorter or missing tusks as a result of poaching.

Five to 10 percent of Asian elephants in China now had a gene that prevented the development of tusks, up from the usual 2 to 5 percent, the China Daily said, quoting research from Beijing Normal University.

"The larger tusks the male elephant has, the more likely it will be shot by poachers," said researcher Zhang Li, an associate professor of zoology. "Therefore, the ones without tusks survive, preserving the tuskless gene in the species."

Similar results are also said to be found in Africa and India.

DIY Circuit Monitoring

kondra.jpgOne rule of thumb is that it's easier to make changes when you know what you're changing -- that's one of the goals of "making the invisible visible." In particular, if you want to figure out how to reduce the amount of power you use in your home, you need to know where the power is going. In the past, we pointed to the Kill-A-Watt as a handy device for measuring the power consumption at a single outlet -- but what if you want more information than that?

David Vogt at Kondra Systems decided to test a power usage monitoring system he was going to implement for a corporate client by installing it in his own home. He took abundant pictures and chronicled his efforts at his website. The project required essentially rewiring his home -- but as a result, he ended up with a system that could track power consumption along every circuit, with usage graphs and over-consumption alarms.

His project may be too complex for most of us, but it does suggest an interesting alternative.

Continue reading "DIY Circuit Monitoring" »

Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

If setting up a local ad hoc wireless network isn't your cup of tea (...CP/IP), another option for making sure that those functional-but-obsolete computers (and the toxic metals contained within) stay out of the landfill is to make them available to people in poor regions looking to gain new skills. The BBC has a report on Computer Aid International and its latest project, Computers for Schools Kenya. CAI is a UK-based organization that accepts donated working PCs and refurbishes them for use in the developing world (primarily Africa, according to their activity list). They accept donated PCs from individuals and corporations (Mac users need not apply, nor anyone with a PC running anything older than a Pentium II).

While notable and noble, a couple of issues stand out: the first is that, although they mention at the bottom of a specs page that they'll toss in a Linux CD, they strongly emphasize the use of Windows; the second is that sending older PCs to the developing world means that, when they do eventually break, the toxic metals and such become the problem of communities potentially unable to handle the material properly. Computer Aid International really needs to hook up with an electronics recycling service to complete the lifecycle of the equipment they pass along.

July 18, 2005

REPRO and the Elimination of Waste

repro.jpgA core principle of sustainability is the reduction -- even the elimination -- of waste, whether the waste is of materials or of energy. Waste is another way of saying "missed opportunity." Much of the material that gets discarded as waste can be used again in some way, often as feed stock for other goods and services. This process is commonplace for paper and many commercial metals and plastics -- but what about food?

The REPRO project, a research effort with participation from numerous EU countries as well as Turkey and South Africa, aims to develop new methods: for making use of the waste by-products from the processing of foodstuffs. REPRO is currently focusing on two main food by-product areas:

REPRO will develop cost-effective and safe integrated methods by targeting two high-volume waste co-products which have had relatively little research: Spent grain (barley residues from the brewing industry) and vegetable trimmings (such as leaf, stem and pod tissues). These co-product wastes are rich in plant biopolymers, phytochemicals, nutrients and micronutrients.

Continue reading "REPRO and the Elimination of Waste" »

Hybrid-Electric... Bicycle

twike.jpgWhy is it that so many microcars have cutesy names? The two-seat Tango? The ultra-skinny Naro? The Smart? The G-Wiz?!?! Add the "Twike" to the list, albeit with a disclaimer: while it sounds like an all-too-precious version of "trike" (an impression supported by its three wheels), the word has not heard in the same way in Switzerland and Germany, its point of origin. Instead, Twike comes from "twin bike" -- and it's a much more intriguing concept than it might initially appear.

The Twike is a lightweight (~500-800 lbs.) three-wheel, two seat vehicle. It comes in two models, and both feature electric motors able to take the car up to 130 kilometers at speeds up to 85 kilometers per hour -- not quite freeway speeds, but more than enough for major roads and thoroughares. Like most modern electrics, it has regenerative braking to help recharge the battery, but can be "refilled" from a standard outlet. What differentiates the two models -- the Active and the Easy -- is that the Active also has a pair of recumbent bicycle pedals for each passenger, allowing the driver to extend the range of the vehicle, and get a bit of exercise while at it.

Few people have heard of the Twike and fewer still own one -- but they (and vehicles like them) may be the answer to a sticky transportation problem.

Continue reading "Hybrid-Electric... Bicycle" »

Micro-Wind Improvement In The Works

Home solar gets most of the attention from people seeking to generate their own clean power, but home wind turbines (usually called micro-turbines) are an up-and-coming power source. Design improvements have reduced the noise and vibration problems with rooftop turbines, and now engineers at the University of Alberta have come up with hardware that could make micro-turbines functionally useful at lower wind speeds.

Traditional micro-turbines provide essentially no power at wind speeds below 18 kilometers/hour. The new controller design from U of A allows the turbines to generate power at speeds as low as 10 km/hr -- and it's cheaper than current controllers, too. Dr. Andy Knight, who headed up the project, had this on-target observation:

"My work is something that can make a small change, and it's probably a bunch of small changes here and there that will add up and one day have a big impact."

Extremophiles Under the Ice

When the Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, it uncovered a previously unknown ecosystem: "cold-seep" extremophile organisms living in the near-freezing water in a trough covered by the ice shelf for 10,000 years.

Rare mollusks and bacterial mats thrived in the isolated water, with the energy for the ecosystem provided not by photosynthesis (as light couldn't make it through the ice) and not by volcanic eruptions, but by the chemical energy of methane released by undersea vents. Such cold-seep ecosystems have only been known of for about 20 years, and are found in just a few places world-wide. Exobiologists suspect that Jupiter's icy moon Europa may harbor life in cold-seep type environments.

Biologists are rushing to study this ecosystem, as the removal of the ice shelf means contamination with sediment and debris has already begun.


Wikis are an interesting Internet phenomenon. By allowing any reader to also be an author, they can quickly become detailed and heavily fact-checked sources of information. They have their limits -- the Los Angeles Times "Wikitorial" project crashed and burned as a result of heated partisan re-edits of posts and, eventually, digital vandalism -- but for topics which can be addressed in a relatively un-biased way, wikis can be enormously valuable. We saw the perfect example of this value in the aftermath of the December tsunami -- Wikipedia very quickly became the go-to spot for collected and swiftly corrected information about the event and what was known minute by minute.

Writer David Bollier, author of the OnTheCommons weblog (which investigates the ongoing evolution of the intellectual commons), has an excellent (and brief) piece on current trends in wikis and why more and more people are seeing them as a valuable tool for information distribution. Some of his examples should look familiar...

Bright Green Urban Leapfrogging

leapfrogcity.jpgChina and India seem to be taking quite divergent approaches to sustainability. It's tempting to over-simplify the differences as "top-down" vs. "bottom-up," but there are sufficient counter-examples in each society that such generalizations tell us little. "State involvement" vs. "benign neglect" is perhaps closer, except that the Chinese state choices are not always beneficial and the Indian state "neglect" has sometimes meant opportunities for emergence and entrepreneurialism. Regardless, the distinct cultures and politics of the two nations are clearly affecting how each comes to grips with the need to improve efficiency, reduce energy consumption, and bring a growing portion of their people the bounty of wealth and comfort.

When it comes to green buildings, the differences are clear. India's approach seems quite similar to that of the West -- lay out some semi-official ground rules, then encourage (but not require) builders to meet them. China's approach, conversely, seems to be more revolutionary than evolutionary -- build sustainable cities from the ground up. Read on for a look at the LEED-India standard and what William McDonough is up to in the village of Huangbaiyu...

Continue reading "Bright Green Urban Leapfrogging" »

July 19, 2005

Transcommercial Costco Revisited

A year ago, we posted a brief piece on the warehouse retailer Costco, identifying it as a proto-"transcommercial" company (what does "transcommercial" mean? Alex Explains It All here). July must be Costco month or something, because a couple more articles about the company popped up recently. They're worth pointing to simply as a reminder that it is possible to be a profitable large retail company and still pay fair wages, give good benefits and be considered a good place to work by union and non-union employees alike.

The UK's Financial Times has a good piece on the company (subscribers-only), but this article from the Labor Research Organization is actually more informative. Both pieces note that Costco pays well above industry average, and has both higher productivity and much lower employee turnover than its competitors; the LRO article also notes that the Costco CEO Jim Sinegal chooses to make only $350,000 annually (compared to $5.3 million for the Wal*Mart CEO).

The model is expanding, too: Robert Price, son of the founder of Price Club (a forebear to the current Costco and source of its employee-friendly policies) has started a line of warehouse retailers operating under similar standards in Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines, Price Smart.

(Update: The New York Times has a Costco article this week, too (see what I mean about July?), with some interesting details about the CEO's rejection of Wall Street Analysts who say he's "too benevolent" to his employees.)

Picturephone Vigilantes in Malaysia

"Vigilantes" is probably too strong a term -- it's a site for people in Malaysia to post cameraphone pictures of traffic offenders (and of people behaving properly, too, but there aren't nearly as many pictures there). The Malaysian Star notes that the site is operated by the national Traffic Ministry.

This is a nice example of two aspects of the participatory panopticon: (a) it's global; and (b) it makes it far simpler to record (and, possibly, prosecute) petty crimes and deceptions.

(Via Picturephoning)

Halley 6 South Pole Habitat Selected

In November of 2004, Régine reported that the British Antarctic Survey was holding a competition to select the design for its latest habitat, and had narrowed the field to six contenders. In January of 2005, I wrote a lengthy follow-up, going deeper into why a new habitat was needed, and noting that the final three candidates had just been chosen. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The Faber Maunsell/Hugh Broughton Architects design won out, as its combination of ski-type feet (for easy mobility using a tractor to push/pull the units) and extreme modular flexibility (to adjust to new research needs and personnel) were considered by the judges to give the design the best ability to respond to changing Antarctic conditions.

The Halley 6 station will make use of renewable energy sources and use advanced waste handling techniques; moreover, when the station is eventually retired, 20 years hence, all traces of it will be removed, leaving its location as clean as when they started. Construction will begin in January 2007 for occupation by December 2008.

(Thanks for the heads-up, Hans in Montreal)

Reinventing Concrete

HySSIL.jpgConcrete is one of the lesser-known players in the world of greenhouse gas emission. As Jeremy noted last November, the manufacturing of concrete is responsible for up to 7-10% of all CO2 emissions worldwide, a combination of the sheer volume of concrete produced and the very high temperatures required to create the core "Portland cement" material used in the standard process. But the industry is starting to wake up to the need to become more energy efficient, and two recent developments give some hope that a much greener (and potentially more sustainable) model for concrete manufacturing will soon emerge. One is a new form of concrete; the other is a new set of guidelines for the industry.

Jeremy's piece listed some of the alternatives to traditional concrete, including some which take less energy to make, have better thermal properties, or make use of materials which otherwise would have gone into landfills. Each has its drawbacks, as well, typically in cost -- one reason why traditional concrete remains so popular is that it's very cheap to make. In May of this year, however, CSIRO -- the Australian science and industrial research office -- announced the development of a form of concrete called HySSIL:

Dr Swee Liang Mak, who leads the HySSIL development team at CSIRO says, 'HySSIL is a revolutionary aerated cementitious (cement-based) product that is as strong as normal concrete but is only half as heavy. It provides up to five times the thermal insulation of concrete and is also impact and fire resistant'.

'HySSIL wall panels are also expected to offer significant cost advantages over existing products', says Dr Mak.

Continue reading "Reinventing Concrete" »

Where the Wild Things Are

canis_lupus.jpgMany of us have only a general knowledge of where various forms of wildlife live. It's not something that we usually need concern ourselves with in our day-to-day lives, but it's certainly relevant when thinking about the planet's biodiversity and environment. There's more to ecosystem variation than "jungle," "forest," "desert," and "plains;" each of the over 800 "ecoregions" recognized by biologists has its own set of niches for wildlife. Unless you're a specialist in conservation biology, you're unlikely to be in a position to learn them all.

Fortunately, the World Wildlife Fund has opened up an online database of wildlife locations called the WildFinder, covering over 30,000 species across four major groups (amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). Enter an animal name -- common or scientific, whole or fragment -- and the WildFinder will come up with a list of locations in which it can be found, along with data about the specific characteristics of each spot. Or you can pick a spot on the map and find out what lives there. Be careful with that one, though -- some regions have an incredible variety of organisms, and pages with 1000+ entries can take awhile to load.

Continue reading "Where the Wild Things Are" »

Detecting and Monitoring Disease

cd4monitor.jpgIt's often tempting to think about the microchip revolution in terms of computers and communication devices, bits of machinery with functions obviously derived from their digital components. But microprocessors have had some of their most worldchanging effects in the realm of biomedicine, and not just in terms of faster computer sequencing of DNA. Two more examples of this have come up this week: one to monitor the progress of HIV infections, and the other to keep watch for pathogens of all types. Both will see the greatest use -- and greatest impact -- in the developing world.

The July 2005 issue of PLoS Medicine includes an article describing the development of a new tool for counting CD4 lymphocytes in the blood of people infected with HIV. CD4 count is a key measure for monitoring the progress (or stability) of HIV/AIDS, but the lack of inexpensive, easy-to-use equipment has hindered the ability of doctors in the developing world to keep an eye on the health of infected patients. Existing "flow cytometry" equipment is expensive and fragile, and even cheaper, more rugged versions still have reagent and training costs. The authors (from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women's Hospital, University of Texas, and Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership) have developed and tested a prototype of a low-cost system based on "low-cost microfabrication, efficient light sources, and affordable microelectronics and digital imaging hardware" along with inexpensive "microfluidic" chips.

In tests, their cheap system performed as well as far more expensive flow cytometers. What's more, the design, with further refinement, could be made as a hand-held monitor:

Continue reading "Detecting and Monitoring Disease" »

July 20, 2005

Cheap Plastic Solar

plasticsolardenmark.jpgResearchers at the Danish group Risø have developed a polymer photovoltaic technology that would cost about 2% of current silicon PV panels: Risø claims that their new polymer pv should run about $15/square meter, as opposed to the $800/square meter they list for silicon. Moreover, this plastic solar cell has a useful lifespan of about two and a half years, which Risø claims to be a record duration for plastic pv.

So what's the downside? Efficiency. These cells have a conversion factor of 0.2% to 5%, as compared to common silicon pv at 12%-15%; photovoltaics in development have achieved up to 50% or so in the lab.

What can you do with 0.2%-5% efficiency? At first blush, not much, which is with Risø is now devoting its efforts to increasing the power output of their plastic solar.

But the tremendous price reduction changes the equation a bit. At $15/square meter, it becomes much more economically feasible to add a solar boost to otherwise unused external spaces. 50 watts for $15 (assuming the high end of the efficiency scale) isn't too bad; I could imagine homeowners wanting to put this material on south-facing walls, rooftops, even patio umbrellas. (As I think about it, it seems to me that this material as part of a beach umbrella would be great -- the power production from the typical 2m-diameter umbrella would be about 150-170 watts, enough to keep a phone or radio charged.) You're not going to power your entire house with this stuff, at least not at this level of efficiency, but even low-efficiency solar can be helpful.

Get it to 10% or 20% and keep the same price and durability, though, and you have the makings of a revolution.

(Via Sustainability Zone)

Google the Moon

Okay, everybody's pointed to this today -- heck, I even got a link to it from a relative -- but it's very much the kind of thing many of us love here. If you're among the fraction of the people who hasn't seen this already today, you're in luck:


It's a Google Map of the section of the Moon that the Apollo astronauts landed more than three decades ago. Don't zoom too far out -- it's not the whole moon by any means -- but go ahead and zoom in to max magnification for a predictable-but-charming surprise.

Google's doing this because July 20 is the 36th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Of course, it makes me wonder how difficult it would be to make a complete Moon map or even a Mars map using the Google Map (or Yahoo! Map, for that matter) technology.

Conservation and Blogging

The 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology just finished up yesterday in Brasilia, covering a variety of particulars under the general theme of "Conservation Biology Capacity Building & Practice in a Globalized World." As might be expected from a title like that, there were representatives from over 70 countries, all looking to figure out ways to reduce or halt the course of loss of biodiversity.

Nature sent its Washington correspondent, Emma Marris, to Brasilia to cover the event. She did so in part as a blog, one that makes for quite interesting reading. Her posts highlight the struggle in the field to figure out proper metrics, solid definitions, and the relationship between development and conservation. There's also the relationship between conservation and, for lack of a better phrase, framing:

One of the challenges in assessing impacts, however, is that the experts always overestimate the effect of changes on species. "There is a general tendency in conservation biology to paint things very black," says Robert Scholes of CSIR Environmentek in Pretoria South Africa. Sure. If they want anybody to pay any attention or, say, give them some money, they have to portray the situation as dire. Marketing, marketing.

The Struggle to Go Global

We posted about GEOSS -- the Global Earth Observation System of Systems -- just about a year ago. GEOSS is a multinational program to monitor the Earth's land, sea and air, using data pulled from more than 10,000 manned and automated weather stations, 1,000 buoys, 100,000 daily observations by 7,000 ships and 3,000 aircraft, and more than 50 satellites. This is a massive undertaking, and given that several dozen nations are involved, quite complex both technically and politically. A recent article in Nature (PDF) covers what has happened over the last year and, as should be expected, successes are well-mixed with roadblocks.

The December tsunami was a wake-up call for many potential participants, emphasizing the danger that they face by not having good access to broad sources of information. It's ironic, then, that one of the countries proving a bit recalcitrant is India:

Continue reading "The Struggle to Go Global" »

July 21, 2005

Re-Learning To Drive

Seth Zuckerman of Cascadia Scorecard writes to let us know about a new post at the site, Driver's Ed, Hybrid Style, which summarizes Amory Lovins' recommendations for getting top mileage from hybrid-electric cars. As we've noted here before, getting a hybrid to maximum efficiency requires a somewhat different driving pattern than most people use. Lovins' suggestions (as Zuckerman notes, buried on page 15 of a large PDF newsletter) match my experience with my Civic Hybrid, as well as the experiences of other hybrid drivers I know.

While some of these methods are good ideas for all drivers (e.g., don't go much over the speed limit, coast when possible), some reflect the differences between hybrid-electric cars and straight internal combustion engine cars. Fast acceleration from a stop, for example, burns a lot of gas in a standard car, but uses the battery-electric system in a hybrid most efficiently.

The claim that hybrids are "just like regular cars" may be a selling point, but it's not entirely true. If you drive a hybrid like you drive a gas-only car, it won't get the kind of mileage you're hoping for. Getting the mileage that makes non-hybrid drivers envious requires learning to drive the hybrid like a hybrid.

Beautiful City Billboard Fee

delete_vienna.jpgHow much of the world around us is covered in advertising? It's nearly impossible to escape brand logos (I see about 10 in front of me at my desk, without turning my head). Is there some way to use advertising space for a civic purpose?

The Canadian art group Them.ca thinks so. They've proposed the "Beautiful City Billboard Fee" for the city of Toronto, requiring that all billboard advertisements pay a special tax, based on the size of the sign. Funds derived from this tax would be disbursed to artists for the creation of public art.

This is clever on a few levels. The proposed fee is small enough that it won't cut significantly into advertising (that is, it won't put anyone out of business), but with the number of billboards in the city, will still generate six million dollars each year. At the same time, with the fees going directly to public art instead of to the city's general coffers, there will be limited incentive on the part of the city to allow for a greater number of billboards. The proposal has broad community support (over two-thirds of Toronto residents polled are in favor), and is in line with a number of other proposals and initiatives Toronto is considering.

Writer David Bollier (from whom I heard about this project) links the BCBA to a piece of public art in Vienna called "Delete!"

For a period of two weeks in June, Viennese shopkeepers agreed to let Christoph Steinbrener & Rainer Dempf put monochrome yellow fluorescent foil on all advertising signs, slogans, pictograms, company names and logos on Neubaugasse, a popular street for shopping. (Only signs needed for public safety were uncovered.)

The result (reproduced above; a larger image is at the artists' site) is a clever-yet-sobering demonstration of just how much of our public space is taken up by commercial messages. Some reactions from Viennese (including graffiti saying "I need consumer information! Argh!") can be found at Moblogging Vienna.

Digital Prayer Carpet

sajjadah1426.jpgI like this piece of functional art not because it's something that I would use myself, but because it's a lovely demonstration of what is possible with an increasingly smart material environment.

Artist Soner Ozenc has created a prayer rug for Muslims with an embedded digital compass and electroluminescent wiring. The image on the rug glows brighter as the rug is turned towards Mecca, dimmer as it turns away. The project is called Sajjadah 1426 -- Sajjadah being the Turkish word for "prayer rug" and 1426 being this year in the Muslim calendar. (Onzec's site is entirely Flash based; to see the images and his discussion of the rug, click Product Design and then Sajjadah 1426.)

This is an early example of the coming proliferation of situationally-aware material items, goods which can recognize where they are, what else around them is relevant to their use, and whether they are being used correctly. More examples are certainly to come.

(Via Gizmodo)


inveneo.jpgHonestly, it's hard to imagine a story that's a better example of what we're all about here at WorldChanging.

Inveneo is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that is bringing information and communication tools to remote villages in the developing world. These tools are based on free/libre/open-source software, and rely upon voice over IP (VoIP) and WiFi to connect multiple remote locations to each other and to the broader Internet and telephone networks. Moreover, the equipment at the stations operate via batteries charged by a combination of solar cells and bicycle generators. In short, Inveneo is using open source technology and renewable power to improve the lives of the global poor through better access to communication.

This isn't just a fantasy, a "we're hoping to do this soon" sort of project, either. With the assistance of the NGO ActionAid, Inveneo has deployed its system in rural villages in Uganda:

At 11:10am PST on June 8th, with a VoIP phone call from the Community Knowledge Center to the village of Nyamiryango, Inveneo's first solar and pedal powered communications system went live in the Bukuuku sub-county, Kabarole district of Western Uganda. This successful deployment was completed in partnership with ActionAid, and enables villagers to use a phone, computer and the Internet for the first time ever, empowering them to use communications and technology to improve their lives dramatically.

Continue reading "Inveneo" »

Sats and the City

urbanSE_USA.jpgGlobal climate models are pretty good -- better than some give them credit for -- but they're not perfect. There are still elements of atmospheric systems that they don't adequately cover. One such element is the effect of cities upon the climate. Arguably, this is not a disaster, as cities cover all of about 0.2 percent of the planet's land surface. But cities are growing, both in number and in size, and will soon hold half the planet's population. Even if the overall effect of urban development on the global climate is slight, results like the "urban heat island" effect certainly alter the local climates around cities.

How, then, could climate scientists account for cities in their models? J. Marshall Shepherd, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and Menglin Jin, at the University of Maryland-College Park, have authored a paper (in the May edition of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society) with one possible answer. Their solution uses satellites.

What is it about cities that changes the atmosphere?

Continue reading "Sats and the City" »

July 22, 2005

Texting for Rice (and Religion) in the Philippines

priest2.jpgA new article at the Philippines tech journal i.t. matters talks about the use of cheap GSM phones by the very poor, and the role of the local Catholic church in setting up commerce networks. "Alleviating poverty with technology's help" gives some real-world examples of our recurring argument that the proper application of information technology can be a powerful development tool. Moreover, it shows the utility of building upon existing information and communication networks -- in this case, the church -- as new technologies are introduced.

Tondo is a slum on the western edge of greater Manila, literally built upon a former garbage dump. Over 2,500 families live there, in a mix of official low-cost housing (dating back to the mid-90s) and squatter-city shanties. In February of this year, the parish priest, F. Benigno Beltran, introduced a kind of online commerce to the community:

...for Nestor's family of six, some things never change -- like having to live on just a kilogram of rice for an entire day, and to contend with a cloud of noxious gases from the garbage mount that can blanket the entire community.

This time, however, there is one glaring difference: these impoverished families have started using technology to get by each day on slightly better terms.

Continue reading "Texting for Rice (and Religion) in the Philippines" »

Personal Outsourcing

Ben Hammersley at The Guardian has written an article about outsourcing that puts a new spin on the subject. In this case, he's not talking about corporations moving jobs offshore, he's talking about individuals doing so. In the course of the story, he hires programmers in Belorussia, web designers in India and a transcription service in New Zealand, all at rates affordable for most developed world citizens.

I find this to be intriguing, but also a bit troubling -- although I can't quite put my finger on why. It's another example of the effect of global information networks on local economies, and undoubtedly the income from the work that can be done in this way will improve the lives of the coders and transcribers and the like who are doing it. At the same time, this is only possible due to the economic disparities between countries.

What do you folks think?

(Via Futurismic)

Further Concentration

pyron.jpgWhen scanning for emerging technologies, there are a couple of useful rules-of-thumb: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is; if someone claims everyone is ignoring their brilliant idea, it's probably not as brilliant as they think. It stands to reason, then, that if the brilliant idea that everyone is ignoring happens to provide benefits that are too good to be true, it's time to nod, smile, and move along as swiftly as possible.

I was prepared to do just that to this article about Pyron Solar, a San Diego-based company making a novel solar concentrator system (we talked about solar concentrators just last week). After all, the article spends its first third trying to draw an analogy between the Pyron Solar founders (John and Inge Laing) and Thomas Edison, particularly the early Edison that had to struggle to get people to recognize his brilliant ideas. The article then goes on to describe the Pyron system as being substantially better than anything yet produced in terms of solar: a device able to generate electricity at a cost-per-watt as low as oil or coal -- and possibly lower. But then I noticed something.

They've actually built the thing. And it works.

Continue reading "Further Concentration" »

Ecce Homology

eccehomology.jpgMore biomimetic art. Artist Ruth West, director of visual analytics and interactive technologies at the UC San Diego National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research and research associate with the UCSD Center for Research and Computing in the Arts, has come up with an exhibit entitled Ecco Homology. Bioinfo Online describes it thusly:

Named after Friedrich Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, a meditation on how one becomes what one is, the project explores human evolution by examining similarities – a.k.a. "homology" – between genes from human beings and a target organism, in this case the rice plant. [...] Custom software turns genes – incomprehensibly long strings of As, Cs, Ts and Gs – into luminous pictograms that resemble Chinese or Sanskrit calligraphy. Based on currently available biophysical information, the pictograms are scientifically accurate representations of proteins encoded for by the genes.

Ecce Homology will be on display at SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles from July 31 through August 4.

The website for the exhibit has numerous pictures, as well as a more detailed explanation of how they are derived. This definitely looks like something to check out if you're going to SIGGRAPH.

Electrolytic Bacterial Evolution

Stanford researchers gave a peek at some interesting ongoing research at this week's Always On conference. They've discovered a type of soil bacteria that absorbs photons and uses the energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. However, the microbe in question is anaerobic, meaning that it will die if exposed to too much oxygen. How, then, could these bacteria ever be used to produce sufficient hydrogen?

This sounds like a job for... Darwin!

To get around this problem, the researchers produce millions of the bugs and expose them to a low concentration of oxygen. They then take the ones that survive and use them to parent a new generation of bugs.

The idea is to, over time, create a new race of bugs that can survive in a relatively normal environment. Entire generations of bugs can be produced fairly rapidly, but wholesale changes in the genetic code do take time.

The research has been going on for about three years, and it's unclear how much longer it will take before they have microbes able to produce hydrogen sustainably.

(Via Sustainability Zone)

July 23, 2005

Elephant Pump

pumpaid.jpgReal globalism: a 2,000 year old Chinese design is now helping to bring clean water to poor rural Zimbabweans through the efforts of an Englishman.

Rope pumps have been around for centuries, emerging first in China. A loop of rope, if driven at sufficient speed, can pull water up from a well more efficiently than standard pump designs. The rope can be made from any material, and the volume brought up by the rope's motion can be increased with pistons spaced along the cable. The Elephant Pump is an improved version of the rope pump, designed by a group called Pump Aid, founded by Ian Thorpe. Their goal was to make a clean water system that would be as efficient, as inexpensive, as locally-appropriate and as sustainable as possible.

The community contributes some materials for construction of the pump, including sand and stones for building, hand made bricks for the pump housing and labour to assist in tasks during the building process. Ongoing maintenance costs are minimal since major components of the pump such as the axle have a lifespan of 50 years. The cost of maintenance and capital cost of the pump are far exceeded by the potential for income generation through small scale irrigation. [...]

Continue reading "Elephant Pump" »

Drop Until You Shop

shopdropping.jpgAmong the best pranks ever performed were the efforts of the Barbie Liberation Organization, which was supported by the organization ®™ark. In 1989, the BLO purchased hundreds of Teen Talk Barbie dolls (of "Math is hard!" and "I love shopping!" infamy) and Talking Duke G.I. Joe dolls (prone to shouting "Vengeance is mine!"), swapped their voice electronics, replaced them carefully in their boxes, and returned them to store shelves. As a result, Barbie demanded to hear the lamentations of her enemies, and G.I. Joe sought assistance for planning weddings. As the subsequent BLO statement put it, "The storekeepers make money twice, we stimulate the economy - the consumer gets a better product - and our message gets heard."

Not quite as clever -- but in a similar vein -- is Shopdropping, defining itself as (among other things) the opposite of shoplifting. But it's more than that:

Continue reading "Drop Until You Shop" »

DIY Computer-Controlled Telescopes

We're big fans of participatory science around these parts, and one that has some interesting potential is collaborative astronomy. We've posted about what that might look like -- particularly with regards to comet/asteroid hunting -- but such efforts generally require that one's telescope be hooked to a computer and, from there, to the Internet. But such computer-operated 'scopes, while available, are expensive.

Make points us to a site explaining just how to turn any telescope into a motor-controlled, computer-operated, and potentially Internet-linked viewing system. As with most of Make's links, the instructions are not for the timid, but they certainly be accomplished by non-specialists.

Summertime in the northern hemisphere is terrific for amateur astronomy, and Mars will once again this year be very bright due to proximity. Even a smallish telescope should be able to resolve the ice caps and color variations. And, I have to say, even the best close-up images of planets from probes don't bring the visceral excitement of seeing things like Martian ice caps, Jupiter's big moons and Saturn's rings with one's own eye.

July 24, 2005

Terraforming Earth, Part II

droughtplantcells.jpgI wrote recently about "terraforming Earth" as a way of discussing the potential need for large-scale engineering of geophysical systems in order to stave off the worst ravages of climate disruption. I was using the term "terraforming" largely metaphorically; although terraforming can mean simply making changes to a planet to render it more livable, its primary meaning is making geophysical changes to a planet to render it more Earth-like. The ideas are similar (after all, the places we would find livable are also apt to be Earth-like), but not identical.

But upon further consideration of the idea, it struck me that I was using "terraforming" correctly. Our goal with such megaprojects would be to restore the global environment to pre-disruption conditions, to return Earth to a general ecosystem status more-or-less characteristic of the Earth prior to the most problematic of the human-caused changes. Although none of the potential worst-case results of massive climate disruption (atmospheric carbon loads in the 600+ ppm, with corresponding temperature increases; "whiplash" ice ages; the melting of oceanic methane clathrates; widespread extinctions) are unprecedented in the history of the planet, they are by no means typical of the planet's history, and historical changes to the atmosphere do not normally happen with the speed we've seen for the human-induced disruption.

The goal of geo-engineering efforts would be, in short, to make Earth Earth-like again -- or, in other words, to terraform the Earth.

Continue reading "Terraforming Earth, Part II" »

How To Do Decentralized Energy

greenpeaceuk_de.jpgAs most readers probably recognized, we spend a lot of time talking about decentralized energy here. Topics like mixed generation, regional generation, microgeneration, smart grids, smart home energy monitors, even odd schemes for peer-to-peer energy sharing regularly grace our site. But while the benefits of decentralized energy seem pretty clear to us, it's always useful to have a comprehensive document talking about the technological options, political impacts, economic benefits, environmental results and leapfrog surprises related to energy decentralization. Better still if the piece spoke directly about the implications for a specific community, rather than in general about the concept. Oh, and the material should have lots of big, colorful pictures, to attract the eye and engage the imagination.

Cue Greenpeace.

Greenpeace UK, to be precise. The organization has just released a massive (~75 page) report entitled Decentralising Power: An Energy Revolution For The 21st Century, looking at what it would take to move the UK aggressively towards a distributed power network. The capsule argument, from the report, touches on arguments familiar to WorldChanging readers:

Continue reading "How To Do Decentralized Energy" »

Watch the Solar Race

The 2005 American Solar Challenge is nearing completion, with 17 teams competing to go from Austin, Texas to Calgary, Alberta. The race's website has the usual information about teams, car tech, and daily race summaries, but a particularly interesting feature is the inclusion of GPS tracking data on all the vehicles, updated every few minutes. As these are timed trials, not neck-and-neck to the finish line races, there won't be a thrilling moment when #3 MIT makes its move to pass the University of Michigan (#2) and University of Minnesota (#1). Maybe next year.

July 25, 2005

Nanoparticles and the Brain

The apparent ability of some nanoparticles to get into the brain is certainly cause for some caution; to the degree that nanotechnology and molecular engineering will shape this century, we want to be certain that we don't trigger greater problems than we solve. But the ability to get into the brain turns out to have some potential benefits. University of Buffalo researchers have developed customized nanoparticles able to deliver genes into the brains of living mice "with an efficiency that is similar to, or better than, viral vectors and with no observable toxic effect."

The paper describes how the UB scientists used gene-nanoparticle complexes to activate adult brain stem/progenitor cells in vivo, demonstrating that it may be possible to "turn on" these otherwise idle cells as effective replacements for those destroyed by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's.

In addition to delivering therapeutic genes to repair malfunctioning brain cells, the nanoparticles also provide promising models for studying the genetic mechanisms of brain disease.

The dangers of using viruses for gene therapy is that they may revert to "wild type," with potentially fatal results for the patients. Non-viral vectors don't have this problem.

(Via Medgadget)

Supporting Development With Science

Science -- both as the basis for technological innovation and as a way of understanding the world's systems -- is increasingly being recognized as a fundamental part of economic development. Although some developing nations are beginning to invest in scientific research, science is an inherently collaborative process, and flourishes in environments of transparency and international cooperation. UNESCO's new International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) appears to be very much a step in the right direction.

IBSP describes itself as:

...a new flagship initiative that will reinforce intergovernmental co-operation in strengthening national capacities in the basic and engineering sciences and science education through major region-specific actions involving a network of national, regional and international centres of excellence in the basic sciences. [...] The overall goal of capacity building in science and engineering is to promote networking, the sharing of information and good practices, and the development of innovative curricula, education and training, with an applied, interdisciplinary focus on applications to address the Millennium Development Goals, including the promotion of a culture of maintenance. Efforts will be in human resources development and promoting large-scale use of sustainable and renewable energy, energy diversification and efficiency with special emphasis on developing countries and small island states.

Sharing information, support of the MDGs, sustainable and renewable energy, and efficiency with an emphasis on developing countries: this sounds very much like a WorldChanging kind of project. More details can be found at the UNESCO News weblog.

Women Against Biopiracy, in Africa

sa_biodiv.jpgDespite recent court rulings, "biopiracy" -- non-locals patenting treatments based on plants used by indigenous communities -- continues to be a problem. Construction of databases and knowledge archives about native group uses of local plants is an increasingly popular way of combatting biopiracy (by establishing "prior art," and blocking patents), but such projects are not easily accomplished. Indigenous knowledge is often an oral tradition, and remote communities in the developing world may not be willing to share that knowledge with outsiders.

The Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Project is a South African effort to identify and protect the unique local biosystems used by local communities as medicines, based the authority -- and knowledge -- of female traditional leaders. The result has been something even greater than a knowledge archive:

Continue reading "Women Against Biopiracy, in Africa" »

Negroponte's Hundred Dollar Laptop

HDL.jpgThe design for inexpensive, useful networked information devices for the developing world is a recurring topic here. After all, the evidence is strong -- and getting stronger all the time -- that cheap, functionally-ubiquitous information and communication devices help to accelerate development. The political and cultural impact of personal devices allowing for ongoing access to knowledge and widespread group communication is somewhat harder to measure, but it seems likely that there's a positive result there, too.

We talk quite a bit about the form such devices could take, as function is intimately related to form. Will they be souped-up mobile phones? A handheld computer, like the Simputer (WorldChanging ally and former contributor Taran Rampersad got his Simputer recently, and his recent posts about its use definitely make it sound appealing)? Or perhaps something more conventional, like Nicholas Negroponte's suggestion of a cheap ("hundred dollar") laptop for young students across the developing world.

Except... it turns out that Negroponte's design isn't quite as conventional as I thought.

Continue reading "Negroponte's Hundred Dollar Laptop" »

July 26, 2005

Terraforming Earth, Part III: Geoethical Principles

The pace and course of global warming-induced climate disruption is such that, even with an aggressive global effort to cut greenhouse gas output starting today, temperatures will continue to rise for two or three decades. If the effect of rising temperatures hits a "tipping point" resulting in far-more-radical changes to the Earth's ecosystems than one might otherwise expect, we may be forced into using riskier, planetary-scale engineering projects to mitigate the changes and return us to "Earth-like" conditions. In Terraforming Earth, I looked at some of the proposals for large-scale reversals of temperature increases and CO2 buildup; In Terraforming Earth, Part II, I looked at the complexities of bioengineered adjustment instead of geoengineered mitigation.

But whether we end up taking the mitigation or the adjustment course, we will want -- need -- clear guidelines to help us make the right choices. Such guidelines would, for some, seem like common sense; indeed, their use would not be to tell us what to do, but as a consistent metric against which to test proposals. These principles would not tell us whether a given strategy would succeed or fail, but whether the strategy would be the right course of action.

As an explicit parallel to bioethics, these guidelines would be known as "geoethics."

Continue reading "Terraforming Earth, Part III: Geoethical Principles" »

Chinese Wind

China is trying, in fits and starts, to adopt an energy infrastructure based more on renewable sources. We've been following aspects of this story for some time. The latest chapter comes from New York Times writer Howard French -- and it hints that China's beginning to see just how important to its economy a move to sustainable power could be.

By 2020, starting from a minuscule base that it has established only recently, China expects to supply 10 percent of its needs from so-called renewable energy sources, including wind, solar energy, small hydroelectric dams and biomass like plant fibers and animal wastes. [...]

“We have huge goals for wind power development,” Wang Zhongying, director of China’s Center for Renewable Energy Development. “By 2010, we plan to reach 4,000 megawatts, and by 2020 we expect to reach 20,000 megawatts, or 20 gigawatts.” If anything, Mr. Wang said, these targets are too conservative, and may be easily surpassed.


NIAC.jpgIt's not often that one gets a chance to see the future. Oh, we can make projections and forecasts, but honest "this is what tomorrow will hold" moments are few and far between. Looking through the list of funded projects at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts feels a bit like getting a peek at the next decade; some of the myriad proposals will turn out to be plausible and readily implemented. The trick is figuring out which ones.

NIAC gives a relatively small amount of money (in two phases) to a wide assortment of research projects trying to push the edges of the possible. As a result, the project list feels like mashup of worldchanging ideas, scientific "what if.." games, and back issues of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. NIAC looks for "revolutionary ideas," defined thusly:

In the context of a focus on advanced concepts, NIAC defines "Revolutionary" as possessing one or more of the following six attributes:

Continue reading "NIAC" »

Open Source Warfare

IED-mobilephone.jpgGlobal Guerillas may be the best weblog that I hate to read. I hate to read it because the author, John Robb, is terrifically insightful when it comes to seeing how emerging forms of networked communication, information-dense environments, and bottom-up, emergent organization have transformed the world of warfare and conflict. It's painful to see the ways in which these forces -- which we tend to consider catalysts of positive change -- can be used instead in the cause of violence. (Alex mentioned Global Guerillas, and one of Robb's concepts -- "systempunkt" -- back in January.)

I've been reading Global Guerillas for awhile, but Robb's series of posts on the London bombings reminded me of the power of his central concept: that the "open source" model, when applied to political violence, can be as disruptive to incumbent institutions as open source software is to existing software markets. In the world of the Global Guerillas, the West=Microsoft.

The Open Source Warfare concept takes the developmental model for free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) and applies it to how guerilla movements learn and expand. Robb elaborated on the idea last September:

Continue reading "Open Source Warfare" »

July 27, 2005

Amazon Carbon Cycling

At first blush, this doesn't seem like terribly good news, but it does give us a bit more information to use when thinking about our climate response options. Researchers studying the carbon cycle in the Amazon River basin (particularly the uptake and release of CO2 by the region's plants) have found that, rather than sequestering the CO2 for decades or centuries, the carbon is cycled out back into the atmosphere within five years. Among the implications of this discovery (assuming it's confirmed) is that the Amazon rain forests are not good candidates for long-term capture of CO2, and that we need to pay close attention to the actual carbon cycle for each biome before assigning sequestration targets.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Post-Singularity Overlords

Well, not quite yet, but I'm practicing saying it nonetheless. IBM will be spending the next two-to-three years retooling one of its "Blue Gene" supercomputer -- in this case, the 8th fastest in the world, operating at over 22 teraflops -- to function as a mammal brain simulator. The "Blue Brain" project will simulate a single "neo-cortical column" down to a molecular level; the neo-cortical column is considered the key difference between mammalian brains and reptilian brains. Each neo-cortical column -- there are millions in a human brain -- has about 10,000 neurons and 10,000 synapses. This will be used to gain a better understanding of brain function, with the dual goals of improving artificial intelligence research and reducing the need for live animal brain research.

As FutureWire notes, however, the Japanese government is now developing a supercomputer that will be 73 times faster than Blue Gene, operational by 2011 and working at 10 petaflops -- around the estimated computing speed of the human brain.

Inuit, Climate Change, and Pun Control

WorldChanging contributor Emily Gertz has a lengthy article in the latest Grist Magazine on the claim by the Inuit people of the Arctic that global warming-triggered melting of the region is a violation of their human rights. She wrote a piece for us on the topic last December; the Grist article is more detailed, and covers much of what has happened in the subsequent half-year. It's not a terribly happy story, of course, but it's a useful early warning sign of the variety of legal responses to climate disruption that we will see as the process continues to wreak havoc on various communities around the world.

My only complaint: the relentless puns used as story and section titles...

Optoelectronic Tweezers

optoelectronic.jpgResearchers at UC Berkeley have developed a method of sorting and separating microparticles and cells using little more than a bright light and a photosensitive surface. The system, referred to as "optoelectronic tweezers," can control literally thousands of particles in parallel, and allows for the differentiation between living and dead cells. The system can even be used to move particles around like conveyor belts.

The idea is similar to that used in the ubiquitous office copier machine. In xerography, a document is scanned and transferred onto a photosensitive drum, which attracts dyes of carbon particles that are rolled onto a piece of paper to reproduce the image.

In this case, the researchers use a photosensitive surface made of amorphous silicon, a common material used in solar cells and flat-panel displays. Microscopic polystyrene particles suspended in a liquid were sandwiched between a piece of glass and the photoconductive material. Wherever light would hit the photosensitive material, it would behave like a conducting electrode, while areas not exposed to light would behave like a non-conducting insulator. Once a light source is removed, the photosensitive material returns to normal.

Continue reading "Optoelectronic Tweezers" »

Mapping Space, Politics and Possibility

poverty.jpgOne of the fundamental problems with writing for a website like this is that it's far, far too easy to get caught up in a particularly interesting site, realizing hours later that the day's almost over and the corresponding article still needs to be written. (I'll leave as an exercise for the reader a determination as to which days have that particular structure.) Some types of sites are more gravitational in this way than others; among the most seductive are sites about maps. We have a particular affection for mapping both as a practice and as a concept here; this is not surprising, as maps have a real utility for teasing out otherwise invisible connections as well as facility for making masses of information comprehensible at a glance.

A piece on Future Feeder pointed me to the Places & Spaces exhibit now touring around the world (physical showings are happening right now in both Stockholm, Sweden and San Diego, California, and will be part of next year's Meshforum). Places & Spaces is an attempt to compare and contrast geographical and conceptual maps, both as a way to examine human behavior over the centuries and to understand recurring ideas in science. The online version of Places & Spaces has copies of most of the exhibit's maps; some are more compelling than others, but most trigger reconsideration of how concepts are communicated. Probably the most immediately relevant to WorldChanging's interests is the map, reproduced above, entitled "You are not here," a cartogram of the 2004 world poverty report.

Continue reading "Mapping Space, Politics and Possibility" »

July 28, 2005

Making the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate Our Own

There's a lot of talk about the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, a new climate agreement between the US, Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea, but few details as of yet. Given the secrecy with which this agreement was crafted, and the expressed reluctance of three of the six partners (Australia, India and the US) to engage in any kind of actual enforced limitations on greenhouse gases, it's easy to be cynical about what this agreement will actually do. I suspect that, once the details are known, there will be quite a bit of justifiable dismissal from sustainability analysts.

However, I'd like to suggest something different.

When the details of the APP4CDC come out, I'd like us all to start scouring it for potential pressure points. What are the elements of the agreement that could turn out to be useful tools for forcing more change, faster change, better change than the negotiators intended? How can we use it in ways that actually can get us to where we want to go? What parts of the treaty can be re-framed in ways that strengthen the bright green approach, moving us to real emissions reduction and disaster avoidance? Think of it as memetic judo, cognitive tai chi, an attempt to use the energy of the agreement in ways that the signatory governments wouldn't expect.

It may not be possible. The Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate may be impossible to reframe because there's no content to it. But we shouldn't let an opportunity to turn the tables on those who would undercut real efforts towards radical reduction in greenhouse emissions pass us by.

Photons For Efficient Farming

Despite strong advocacy of smart organic farming practices, it must be recognized that industrial farming is not going away immediately. Given that, we should at least make fertilizer-based farming as environmentally-friendly as possible. The "N-Checker" (N for nitrogen) system, therefore, looks to be a step in the right direction.

Rapid pulses of polarized light can reveal nitrogen content in the leaves of crops, indicating how much fertilizer to apply, reducing the amount of waste. Less overuse of fertilizer, in turn, would "dramatically cut the nitrogen-laden runoff responsible for algal blooms and other damage to wetlands and waterways." The system can analyze around one plant per second, making it possible to cover tens of acres in a day.

GOHEV in Energy Bill

The final energy bill version now in the hands of the US Congress is disappointing all around, eliminating any conservation and vehicle efficiency rules while expanding subsidies for fossil fuels, but Green Car Congress notes it does have a small positive element: a $40 million appropriation (over 2006-2009) to establish a program to develop a plug-in hybrid/flexible fuel vehicle.

Preference is to be given to proposals that:

  • Achieve the greatest reduction in petroleum fuel consumption
  • Achieve not less than 250 miles per gallon petroleum fuel consumption
  • Have the greatest potential of commercialization to the general public within 5 years

    More a silvery patch than a silver lining, but still good to see.

  • Nanotech vs. Cancer

    nanocell.jpgBroadly put, there are two approaches to fighting cancers: chemotherapy, which is highly toxic to both cancerous and healthy cells; and anti-angiogenesis, which attacks cancers by cutting off their blood supply. Both have drawbacks -- chemo can kill much more than cancer cells (and against which cancer can develop resistance), anti-angiogenesis can trigger cancer survival responses such as metastasis -- and while they are in principle complementary, the very blood vessels cut off by anti-angiogenesis are those needed to apply the iterative rounds of chemotherapy.

    But a new nanotechnology-based method, devised by MIT's Biological Engineering Division, manages to bring the two approaches together, resulting in a cancer treatment far more effective than anything currently in use.

    "We designed the nanocell keeping these practical problems in mind," he said. Using ready-made drugs and materials, "we created a balloon within a balloon, resembling an actual cell," explains Shiladitya Sengupta, a postdoctoral associate in Sasisekharan's laboratory. [...]

    Continue reading "Nanotech vs. Cancer" »


    megalopolis.jpgIs the city obsolete?

    In the sense of being the locus of work, life and culture, obviously not. But when it comes to economics, transportation and planning, thinking purely in terms of urban centers and peripheries is often too limiting. Even state or nation level has limits, as financial and vehicular flows very often cross the quaint borders assigned decades or centuries ago. As a result, a growing number of urban analysts are starting to look at a new level: the megalopolis.

    The term megalopolis was coined in 1961 by Jean Gottmann, referring to massive agglomerations of population centers across a region; for people in the United States, perhaps the most visible is the "Bowash" corridor stretching from Boston, through New York, and down to Washington, DC. A megalopolis covers multiple metropolitan and "micropolitan" areas, yet has a distinct economic and historical identity. As the Bowash example shows, megalopolises (the awkward plural) need not be within the borders of a single political entity; indeed, urban planners in the European Union are starting to look at cross-national megalopolises in their strategies.

    In the United States, Virginia Tech urban studies professor Robert Lang argues (PDF) that there are 10 megalopolises (or, as he refers to them, "megapolitan areas"), with a total population of well over 200 million people -- two-thirds of the US population. Six are east of the continental divide, four are west, and they comprise both familiar regional agglomerations (e.g., "Cascadia," stretching from Portland, Oregon through to Seattle, Washington; "Northeast," something of an expansion of the "Bowash" corridor) and relatively new ones ("1-35 Corridor," from San Antonio and Dallas, Texas to Kansas City, Missouri; "Peninsula," encompassing Tampa through Miami, Florida).

    According to Lang:

    Continue reading "Transmegapolitan" »

    Make Your Own Cartograms

    Cartograms are those funky maps that provide additional information through the use of shape, distorting the geography for the sake of greater information accuracy. The canonical example is the cartogram of votes in the 2004 election: a straight map makes the "red" areas appear overwhelmingly dominant; a cartogram adding population does a much better job of showing the relative weight of urban areas.

    A comment in yesterday's post on maps led me to Michael Gastner's page at the University of Michigan. Gastner links to a number of his papers on cartograms and data display, but also provides a program for the creation of your own cartograms. The source code for the latest version is here (.ZIP), while a compiled but somewhat older Windows version can be found here.

    (Thanks, Ted W.)

    July 29, 2005

    HIV and the Developing World

    In the developed world, antiretroviral treatments (ART) are the standard therapy for HIV infection. But such treatments are rarely simple, often involving numerous drugs that need to be taken at precise times. It's not unusual for those receiving ART to see the therapy lose efficacy due to insufficiently diligent adherence to the treatment regiment.

    One common sense reaction to this risk is to emphasize the importance of ongoing attention to the patient by doctors, therapists and the patient's social circle. In the developing world, however, with fewer resources available to medical professionals, this common sense reaction becomes an assumption that ART efficacy will be lower, simply because the patient will receive less persistent attention from his or her doctor. Louise C. Ivers, David Kendrick and Karen Doucette at the University of Alberta's Division of Infectious Diseases decided to test this assumption, and their results could have significant impact on how HIV is addressed globally.

    Continue reading "HIV and the Developing World" »

    Stick It In Your Ear

    goldfish.jpgIf you wear a hearing aid, are you a cyborg?

    How about if you wear hearing augmentation gear, even though your hearing is otherwise fine?

    The UK design group human beans has come up with three prototype hearing augmentation devices (Flash interface) intended not simply for the hearing impaired, but also for the hearing able. Mute can sample and silence selected noises, from screaming infants to road work to "twittering colleagues." The .scp format allows an in-ear player to play music or other "soundscapes" altered to match the pattern of other noises around you. But best of all is the Goldfish:

    Ever missed something you wanted to hear? - a name, an announcement at the station, a vital fact in a meeting?

    Pop a goldfish in your ear and with one discreet tap you can reply what has just been said. In-ear short term memory.

    The Goldfish ear plug keeps a constant 10 second buffer, allowing for immediate playback of what has been recorded. If this concept sounds familiar, it should -- the notion of a "tivo for one's life" is a big part of the Participatory Panopticon. In addition, these devices demonstrate the "curb cut" effect, where augmentations initially meant for the disabled come to provide benefits for the able-bodied, as well.

    They're also spectacularly good examples of industrial design -- and there's a reason for that.

    Continue reading "Stick It In Your Ear" »

    Solar Thermal at the Bottom of the World

    The Halley VI station in Antarctica (we noted the winning design just a couple of weeks ago) will be the first Halley station to make use of renewable energy. From the outset, Halley VI will make use of a solar thermal system for heating water, taking advantage of the 24-hour sunlight of the Antarctic summer; as the modular station grows, the design allows for the introduction of solar photovoltaic and wind power. Electricity generation is augmented by a special ultra-cold-weather diesel generator -- sorry, biodiesel fans, the South Pole's just too cold for anything other than a special aviation formulation of petrodiesel.

    But given that petrodiesel may be harder to get by the time Halley VI is operational, the station's ability to use a variety of power sources means that replacing the diesel generator with an ultra-cold-weather fuel cell fortunately shouldn't be too much of a problem.

    Welcome, 2003 EL61

    2003EL61.jpgIn March of 2004, we offered a hearty "welcome" to Sedna, then held up as a candidate for the solar system's 10th planet. Although ultimately Sedna was relegated to non-planet status, over the last year we've learned a bit more about that most distant body -- it's not a Kuiper Belt Object, for example, but most likely a member of the Inner Oort Cloud, and the moon it was thought to have (because of its slow rotation) seems mysteriously missing.

    We've continued to keep a watch for objects in orbit around the Sun that could possibly be called a "planet" -- and it turns out that the most recent candidate has been hiding in plain sight. 2003 EL61 (it has yet to be given a formal name), although officially announced yesterday, was spotted initially in 2003, and images of it have been found in archives as far back as 1955. A newly-identified member of the solar system may not be immediately worldchanging, but provides a useful lesson in how science works and how we've come to understand our corner of the universe.

    Continue reading "Welcome, 2003 EL61" »

    Welcome, 2003 UB313

    2003 UB313Okay, enough.

    I admit I was a bit curious as to why Cal Tech's Michael Brown could be so blasé about being scooped on the announcement of 2003 EL61. After all, planet-type bodies aren't found every day... or maybe they are.

    This afternoon, Dr. Brown announced that his team, too, had found something new -- and what they found is pretty special. 2003 UB313 -- its real name is still pending approval by the International Astronomical Union -- is now being called the "tenth planet" by NASA. It's no wonder; 2003 UB313 is bigger than Pluto, closer in size to the Earth's moon (which is actually one of the biggest moons in the solar system, and at 2,100 miles in diameter, half again the size of Pluto). It's also at something of an odd angle, about 44 degrees off the ecliptic (the plane at which most planets orbit). It's currently at close to its peak distance from the Sun, 97 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun (a distance known as an AU); when it swings in close -- in another 500 years or so -- it will be only around 38 AUs away, not much further than Pluto.

    Continue reading "Welcome, 2003 UB313" »

    July 30, 2005

    War Between Democracies in the 21st Century

    It's a truism that democracies tend not to go to war with each other. And it's hard to imagine what sorts of conditions would lead to two long-standing democracies with relatively pacific characters to come to blows. But Denmark and Canada are in a dispute over territory, a dispute that is taking an ominous turn. Hans Island, a half-mile square rock roughly midway between Canada and Greenland, is claimed by both nations; a recent visit to the island by the Canadian Defense Minister triggered a protest from Denmark. As a result, both Denmark and Canada have taken their struggle over the Arctic island to... Google Ads.

    Toronto resident Rick Broadhead googled the matter and found an ad that touted Hans Island as Danish. [...] Internet users clicking on the ad were directed to the Danish Foreign Ministry's Web site.

    So Broadhead paid for his own Google ad and created a Web site to promote Ottawa's sovereignty. His Google ad leads users to a fluttering Maple Leaf flag and plays the national anthem.

    A quick check of Google shows that Broadhead is not alone in this now. Is this the flip-side of the decentralization of warfare?

    Ludology, Narratology, and Simulations as Paradigm

    paranoia.jpgI trust that's a sufficiently academic-sounding title.

    There's a surprising abundance of theory connected to game design. Since games generally combine both a regular system of event resolution and a progression of events leading towards a goal, academics focusing on both games as systems -- "ludology" -- and academics focusing on games as stories -- "narratology" -- can have a field day. As in any arena where there are multiple competing perspectives on how to understand a process, there is an ongoing tension between ludologists and narratologists. What stands out for me, however, is the degree to which both camps miss a third model for understanding games: games as ways of understanding the world, or (my coinage) paradigmology.

    Greg Costikyan is generally considered one of the best game designers in the business. His Paranoia series of role-playing games are, in a word, brilliant, pulling together twisted pop culture references, obsidian-dark humor, and a play style that encourages -- even demands -- both suicidal decisions and relentless back-stabbing. Costikyan writes the Games*Design*Art*Culture weblog, which combines lengthy dissertations on the nature of game design with pithy comments on the game industry.

    Last month, Costikyan provided an overview of the "Narratology/Ludology War," complete with links to key figures on both sides of the debate and his own perspective on the question. If you've never considered how academics might grapple with games, the piece will be eye-opening; if you have your own pet theories about gaming, the essay will likely provide evidence both challenging and supporting them.

    Continue reading "Ludology, Narratology, and Simulations as Paradigm" »

    July 31, 2005

    Waterbot and Feedback-Triggered Change

    waterbot.jpgWe talk incessantly about "making the invisible visible," a Viridian-derived principle arguing that making people aware of various environmental conditions or choices that normally remain hidden allows for better decision-making, almost invariably in the direction of better use, efficiency and conservation. Typically, energy use is the target application of the principle, and it's easy to see why: aside from a single bill totaling up monthly consumption (or, for some people, quarterly consumption), we normally have no way of knowing how much power we're using, and are quite often wrong in our guesses about which appliances and gadgets are the most hungry for juice. But electricity isn't the only flow amenable to transformational revelation -- water has many of the same characteristics.

    Ernesto Arroyo, Leonardo Bonanni, Ted Selker at MIT's Media Lab recognized the need for ways to clarify water consumption, and put some thought into what sorts of signals would both provide useful information and still allow for normal, necessary use of sinks and faucets. Their work resulted in the WaterBot (PDF):

    Continue reading "Waterbot and Feedback-Triggered Change" »

    Green GDP

    Environmentalists often harbor real skepticism about the "Gross Domestic Product" as a measure of economic health; after all, the GDP doesn't measure clean air or water, and both pollution resulting from industrial and commercial activity and cleanup of that pollution get counted. But what are the alternatives? Gernot Wagner of Environmental Economics ventures to describe some of the alternatives from the perspective of an environmentally-focused economist.

    The short version: all of the alternatives raise good points, but none of them are perfect, mostly for the same reason that market approaches to environmental protection are so fraught with difficulty -- assigning value to the environment is more of a political than an economic process.

    In Bloom

    Phytoplankton play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle, and both climate disruption and natural climate cycles (e.g., El Niño/La Niña) affect the size of plankton blooms and the corresponding CO2 consumption. We've talked most often about phytoplankton in the southern oceans, but it's important to remember that plankton blooms can happen throughout the world's seas. It's also important to note that these blooms can be staggeringly beautiful to see.

    The European Space Agency just posted an EnviSat shot of a phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea earlier this month. The bloom itself stretches around 200 kilometers, and is an almost un-Earthly shade of green. The ESA shot is available in a smallish jpeg and as a 2MB high-resolution TIFF. The latter makes for quite a spectacular desktop photo...

    Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra

    OilProduction.jpgI'm getting a shiver of deja vu these days when I read the peak oil-related websites. Some are boggling over the fact that "global warming" got more attention than "peak oil" in the discussions over the recently-passed Energy Bill in the US, while others are simply furious that the American public (and these websites seem predominantly American in focus) isn't taking peak oil sufficiently seriously. They're particularly bothered that mainstream discussion of the idea, when it happens, often pushes the peak date out by ten to twenty years (or more), making it seem like a distant crisis at worst.

    When I read all of this, I realize that it's happened before.

    Continue reading "Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra" »

    About July 2005

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

    June 2005 is the previous archive.

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