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August 2005 Archives

August 1, 2005

The Hundred Year Exposure

Artist Jonathan Keats has come up with an interesting variation on the "century cam" concept: keep the shutter open.

Starting Wednesday, a specially-built camera and specially-designed film will be opened in a hotel room in San Francisco; the exposure will last a hundred years, until August 3, 2105.

During that period, an estimated 12,000 couples will pass through the room, but Mr. Keats isn't interested in any of them. "People are incidental," he says. "Eventually they all die. And I don't have any interest in taking portraits. What I'm trying to document is history, in order to get a picture of time itself."

Mr. Keats calls his camera a continuous time capsule.

Hopefully the hotel (Hotel des Arts, in downtown San Francisco) is built well enough to withstand the size 8+ earthquake very likely to happen in the region during this century.

Disaster Relief from Space

ICSMD_Rom.jpgIn the wake of the December 26 tsunami, we posted a piece touching on the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters (ICSMD), a global agreement to share satellite information to support post-disaster relief efforts. The Charter is an important tool for nations without space programs of their own, allowing even the poorest regions the ability to use satellite images, maps and data to aid with rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts. The ESA and NASA are participants, along with the Indian, Canadian and Argentinian satellite programs.

The ESA has just posted an update on ICSMD relief, this time focusing on flooding in Romania. Storms across Southeast Europe have resulted in the worst flooding in Romania in over 50 years; 31 out of the 42 counties in the nation have been hit. On July 15, Romania officially sought support from ICSMD -- and had useful information before the day was out.

"We can say we had the chance to get very fast, very good images and maps," stated Iurie Maxim at the Nature Conservation Directorate of MEWM. "We were able to show out minister at 8pm some posters with images from the same day. The next morning the same posters were presented to the Prime Minister and forwarded to the people working on this issue. "We were able to provide the necessary tools to the people involved in the water department and to those involved in the civil protection."

The ICSMD is a powerful reminder that space programs aren't just about looking out at the rest of the solar system and the stars beyond; the ability to launch satellites and space probes is absolutely critical for both a better understanding of our home planet and our ability to respond effectively to environmental problems. As climate disruption and global warming lead to stronger and more frequent storms, we'll be very happy that programs like ICSMD -- and the space efforts it relies upon -- are available.

New Tool for DNA Sequencing

DNA-sequencing.jpgInnovation often comes in unexpected ways. We posted recently about the ScalaBLAST system, able to run genome sequences in under an hour, using one of the top 50 supercomputers on the planet. An enormous leap, certainly -- 9 hours is the current sequencing standard -- but its reliance on a supercomputer puts it out of the reach of medical professionals for a few years yet, at best. But it turns out that brute force isn't the only option.

Researchers at 454 Life Sciences have developed a method of running genome sequences that takes far less time than the current standard method, at a far lower cost -- and doesn't require a supercomputer. Instead, it relies on fireflies.

The machine uses the chemistry of fireflies to generate a flash of light each time a unit of DNA is correctly analyzed. The flashes from more than a million DNA-containing wells, arrayed on a credit-card-sized plate, are monitored by a light-detecting chip, of the kind used in telescopes to detect the faintest light from distant stars. Then, they are sent to a computer that reconstructs the sequence of the genome.

The main downside to this technology is that it's currently limited to DNA fragments of about 100 base pairs in length, far short of what the traditional method can accomplish. This means that, until the technology is able to read longer segments of DNA, it will likely be limited to the sequencing of organisms with smaller or simpler genomes. This still has significant value, as the tropical disease sequencing we posted about recently can attest.

If it takes another few years for the firefly method to reach a point that allows it to reliably sequence human DNA, what we'll see is a race between that and the brute force method -- on Moore's Law-cheap desktop computers -- as a tool for the hospital. A few years after that, it'll be a tool for any doctor's office. And a few years after that, something one could even get for the home. By the 2020s, you'll be getting DNA sequencing systems as the surprise in a box of cereal.

August 2, 2005

Solar Grove

A few other sites have mentioned this already, so it won't be news to many of you, but electronics manufacturer Kyocera -- who makes solar panels, among other devices -- has installed a "grove" of solar "trees" in the parking lot of its San Diego, California headquarters. The "trees" act as shades for the cars and asphalt -- reducing the need for car air conditioning and the "heat island" effect from the blacktop -- and have a generation potential of 235 kilowatts, working out (according to Kyocera) to about 421,000 kilowatt-hours per year.

Set aside for a moment the cost of the project and the fact that it got a 36% kickback from the state of California. As the price of solar comes down -- and cheap plastic solar comes onto the market -- we're going to see lots more of this. The solar energy hitting the ground on parking lots (and on roofs and roads and sidewalks and...) is wasted, for the most part. Last year, the American Geophysical Union estimated that the total built-up surfaces in the United States amounted to 112,610 square kilometers (an area bigger than the state of Ohio). If just one-tenth of one percent of that surface area -- 113 square kilometers (or 113,000,000 square meters) -- had 5% efficient plastic solar coverage, we'd be looking at a total energy generation potential of over 5.6 gigawatts. Not quite enough to power the whole country, but a pretty good start nonetheless.

Future Democracy

Dale Carrico consistently comes up with some of the most perceptive and novel observations about life in the rapidly-evolving 21st century. He's one of the originators of the concept of technoprogressivism, which can best be defined by the subhead of his blog Amor Mundi: "Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All." Dale's critiques of those who wish to shun technologies that might disrupt the social status quo, and of those who wish to shun the social context for the technological endeavors, are both insightful and (for me) compelling. Dale has been an occasional contributor to WorldChanging, and I'm happy to count him as a friend.

His latest essay, Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy, is a challenging foray into what will be, if not the key defining question of the early 21st century, the issue that will underlie our collective responses to the myriad challenges we will face in the years and decades to come. How can democracy, founded on the principle that all people should have equal rights and an equal say in political outcomes, survive the explosion of technologies made to increase personal wealth, knowledge and power? In a world where some people live to be 140 while others barely make 35, is democracy even possible?

Continue reading "Future Democracy" »

The Oil Depletion Protocol

(I'm traveling right now, off on a brief energy-related scenario project, so my postings will be a bit spare. Please let me know if you'd like to see more detailed examinations of any of the issues posted about this week. --Jamais)

Whether the oil peak happens over the next few months or next few decades, it's widely acknowledged that global conventional production of petroleum will see a sharp decline soon, with natural gas following thereafter. We know, in broad strokes, what needs to be done to keep that decline from turning into a global economic and political disaster, and the major recommendations -- such as an aggressive shift to alternative energies and transportation technologies, widespread adoption of higher-efficiency building designs, greater reliance on organic/local/smart agriculture techniques, and the like -- parallel what's needed to forestall the worst effects of global warming-induced climate disruption.

So how do we do it?

Richard Heinberg has a fascinating proposal, one that could reduce the risk of oil wars and economic ruin. It's simple to understand, and its logic is compelling. Heinberg, a professor at the New College of California and author of Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World,calls his proposal the Oil Depletion Protocol, as it is a formalization of what is already happening worldwide: oil reserves are declining, and all too soon demand will overtake production.

Continue reading "The Oil Depletion Protocol" »

August 3, 2005

Smart Mobs for Nature Security

We've talked a bit here about the use of camera phones and phone-mounted sensors as a "green panopticon," with individuals empowered to watch for and report violations of environmental laws. We've also been great proponents of the use of distributed sensors as ways of monitoring and better understanding the natural environment. But the Gristmill writer known as "biodiversivist" has managed to combine the two concepts in an intriguing way -- with distributed sensors pinging the mobile phones of forest rangers and the like, alerting them to potential incursions of poachers.

I like the idea; it fits nicely with other models we've talked about, and has a clear benefit. I would take it a bit further, though, with both webcasting of the sensor/camera results (as with the Cumbria Osprey cam the Gristmill post links to) and widespread distribution of sensor images of poachers to add a public pressure element to the criminal prosecution.

Dropping Knowledge

droppingk.jpgIf you could ask the collective wisdom of the world any question, any question at all, what would it be?

Absent a post-singularity realtime network of our unconscious minds, Dropping Knowledge may be the closest we get to such an opportunity.

Dropping Knowledge describes itself as "an educational resource and online network that connects people around the globe seeking to exchange ideas and solutions to the most pressing issues of our day." Participants are encouraged to ask questions of the collected wisdom of the assembled crowd about the nature of the world and human society. These questions will be combined with a broader international poll, seeking to build a "social issue framework." A thousand participants will be assembled to form a web-based research group to start to frame answers; this frame will be used by a group of over a hundred global leaders (including Umberto Eco, Bill McDonough, Nelson Mandela, and Bono) to assemble more specific answers. The results will then be put into an interactive online archive, designed to encourage further discussion.

If this all sounds ambitious, it is. Dropping Knowledge claims to have no underlying bias, and to seek only to reflect a multiplicity of viewpoints; the spectrum of perspectives represented by the 112 leaders is somewhat debatable, but the list does include a greater number of non-US and non-European names than one typically finds in these kinds of events. They claim that "generating wisdom is the ultimate goal" of the project. The website goes into great detail about their agenda, and if they are even close to successful, it will be a remarkable accomplishment.

I do wish, however, that they had greater trust in the assembled wisdom of non-famous people. I'm quite sure that the chosen participants will come up with compelling and fascinating ideas, but I want to hear more from voices who don't normally have an international stage.

Maybe what we need is a Wikiwisdom project.

(Thanks to Joel Makower for the tip.)

Airplanes in Motion, on the Ground

chorusmotor.gifAs I mentioned, I'm on a scenario project that has entailed a bit of travel. Upon my arrival at the airport yesterday evening, I couldn't help but be reminded of what can only be an incredibly inefficient use of the airplane's jet engines as a way of traveling around the tarmac. Effectively, it's a temporary transformation of a jetliner into a sluggish, ungainly, and utterly wasteful sort of bus. Not all airports rely on jets to move under their own power, though; in many, diesel "tow tugs" pull the jets to and fro. While undoubtedly more efficient than relying on the jet's own engines, these are still noisy, fuel-guzzling ways of moving around the runway.

But Boeing, working with a technology group called Chorus Motors, has come up with an ingenious solution -- an onboard electric motor attached to the nose wheel of the plane. In tests on a 767 under conditions equivalent to real-world use, the electric motor performed very well, showing that replacing tugs and jets with electric motors could have real benefits:

Continue reading "Airplanes in Motion, on the Ground" »

August 5, 2005

The End of Oil

endofoil.gifDuring a multi-hour delay at the airport for my return home yesterday, I picked up the newly-released paperback version of journalist Paul Roberts' The End of Oil(originally released in 2004, the paperback includes a new Afterword), and finished the book on the plane. Although I disagree with some of Roberts' analysis, I was impressed at his ability to draw together a number of factors and ideas that aren't often spoken of in the same sentence outside of places like WorldChanging. Environmental pressures moving us away from oil are given similar weight to issues of scarcity and depletion; efficiency of use is accorded as much importance as hydrogen fuel cells (although the book was clearly written before a number of recent breakthroughs in battery technologies); the economics of global development are taken into account alongside great power profligacy. The End of Oil is impressive and sobering introduction to the gravity of the energy and environmental challenge we face globally. It's less impressive -- although still useful -- when it addresses what to do to meet that challenge.

It's not a Bright Green book by any means -- Roberts seems hesitant to put some pieces together, and is ultimately too attached to the conventional wisdom -- but neither is it a rehash of commonplace arguments and examples. Call it Tarnished Green, just needing a bit of work to make it Bright.

Continue reading "The End of Oil" »

Curing Cancer with Nanotech, Revisited

One of my favorite posts to WorldChanging has to be Curing Cancer, from July, 2004. In brief, Rice University researchers found that flooding a tumor with gold nanospheres then illuminating the tumor with an infrared laser (through the skin, which remains undamaged) would result in the tumor being completely eliminated. Now Stanford University researchers have accomplished a very similar feat, this time using carbon nanotubes rather than gold nanospheres. The principle is the same: inundate the tumor with the material, illuminate the tumor with a low-power laser, cook the tumor into nonexistence without harming nearby healthy tissue.

Although the Rice University work is further along, this is extremely good news, as it is further demonstration of the viability of the laser treatment model. Given the existing caution about carbon nanotubes in biological contexts, and the demonstrated non-toxicity of gold, it's likely that the Rice approach is more likely to see wider use. But if the gold nanosphere technique proves not to work for some reason (or has other barriers to acceptance, such as cost), it's good to know that the carbon nanotube approach could be able to provide equally-powerful results.

Add other breakthrough cancer-fighting techniques, and we may well see the end of cancer as a scourge by the middle of the next decade, if not sooner.

A Question of Urbanization

Demographic information from the United Nations Organization has triggered widespread discussion of the degree of urbanization on the planet. According to UN figures, we are very close to 50/50 urbanization -- half the population living in cities, half in rural areas, and by 2030, well over 60% of the planet will be urban. But are these figures correct?

Research from France's Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement (IRD) says no. The UN models are too weighted towards Western-style urban development, they say, and overestimate the number of people in permanent residence in cities in the developing world. By drawing on historical records of developing world urban patterns, the IRD claims that the real urbanization patterns are far less dramatic than the UN has suggested. How much of an error are we talking about? Maybe a billion people:

Continue reading "A Question of Urbanization" »

August 6, 2005

Technology and Development

Recent pointers to research by UC Berkeley computer science graduate student R.J. Honicky had a familiar ring to them. Honicky's efforts to use mobile phones as inexpensive distributed platforms for mobile sensing, while clearly novel and worthwhile, are evocative of similar proposals and projects we've talked about on WorldChanging. As a result, I was more interested in some of Honicky's other projects -- and the growing student interest in the use of information technology in the developing world.

Continue reading "Technology and Development" »

Cameron Sinclair in the Washington Post

The work done by WorldChanging contributor Cameron Sinclair and his partner Kate Stohr at Architecture for Humanity ranks as some of the most important and truly worldchanging work I know. Cameron and Architecture for Humanity are the subject of a lengthy profile in today's Washington Post, going into detail of both AfH's history and the challenges faced by Cameron in his ongoing crusade to convince his colleagues to "design like you give a damn." This translates into the purposeful use of design as a tool for improving the lives of the citizens of this planet most in need.

For all of the discussion here about the importance of design as a method of turning understanding into interaction, it's easy to get swept up in the notion that innovation is all about transforming a product; sometimes, the more important innovation is about transforming the audience.

Driving the Costs Down

Last February, the GSM Association (the organization of manufacturers of mobile phones on the globally-used GSM standard) announced the Emerging Markets Handset Program, seeking to drive the end-user cost of a useful GSM phone in the developing world to under $40 by next year, and eventually to below $30. But for many, even $30 apiece is still not nearly low enough. Philips is launching a project to build a GSM phone (with SMS capability) with an end-user cost of $20; their goal is to bring that down to below $15 apiece by 2008.

The networking capabilities of these handsets are limited to voice and SMS (so no GPRS Internet access), but that's still a markedly useful level of information and communication technology. Even though the cost may still be too high for many individuals, this can still have a dramatic impact on development: $15 phones would make the Grameen Phone program able to reach a far wider array of communities, for example.

(Via Unmediated)

Simulations versus the Avian Flu

h5n1_outbreak.jpgGlobal warming is a slow-motion disaster; peak oil is still subject to a lot of debate; even a meteor strike is too much of a bolt-from-the-blue. No, when I really want to keep myself up nights with stress stomach aches, I turn to Avian Flu. Avian Flu -- H5N1 to its friends -- combines a variety of nightmares into one, easy-to-digest package. If an Avian Flu pandemic hits, we might see global deaths in the hundreds of millions, along with the long-term cessation of travel, massive reduction of trade, abandonment of environmental and development efforts, and the conflict that such chaos would unleash. Fortunately, one of the tools we can use to keep that scenario from happening is one we understand very, very well: computer simulations.

H5N1 is a rapidly-evolving virus easily transmitted across bird populations, fatal to a significant percentage of those infected. It occasionally mutates into a version that can be picked up by humans from infected birds; the first reported case was in 1997, and new outbreaks occasionally pop up in different parts of Asia. (For an excellent account of the early history of H5N1, see the indispensable Flu Wiki.) Over 100 people have died so far in southeast Asia and China, and the disease has been spotted in birds in Russia and Kazakhstan. There's no vaccine, although the heavy-duty antiviral Tamiflu has some value in knocking down the infection. So far, none of the human cases of Avian Flu have evolved into a version that could be readily transmissible from human to human.

So far.

Continue reading "Simulations versus the Avian Flu" »

August 8, 2005

110 Miles Per Gallon

How far can you go on a tank of gas with an unmodified, commercially-available car? How does 1,400 miles sound to you?

In what's probably the ultimate support for the argument that driving a hybrid means changing how you drive, a group of techies and environmentalists driving in Pennsylvania managed to take a stock 2004 Toyota Prius 1,397 miles on a single tank of gasoline, for an average of 110 miles per gallon. They accomplished this feat through a style of driving that could only work with a hybrid:

In order to achieve extreme fuel economy, the team primarily used a gas-saving technique called pulse and glide. It's a form of coasting that involves releasing the gas pedal, then pressing it slightly again to disengage the electric motors. And as they glide, the drivers glance at a built-in screen displaying vital statistics like average miles per gallon. [...] Using this technique, the team estimates they used the gas engine on only about 33 percent of the trip.

Imagine how well they'd do with a GO-HEV...

(Thanks, Joseph Willemssen)

Congratulations to Charlie!

WorldChanging Ally (and all-around very smart fellow) Charlie Stross won a Hugo this weekend for his novella The Concrete Jungle. And, yes, that's a link to the story itself, published under a Creative Commons license. Enjoy!

Banksy on the Bank

balloon.jpgSome of us here have a particular affection for the British street artist Banksy. While his medium is, technically speaking, graffiti, his art has a level of subversive brilliance that it's hard to think of him as just another tagger. Cameron did a short piece on Banksy a year ago, and Wired magazine's August 2005 issue has a longer article about him. But Banksy's latest move ratchets up both the subversiveness and the brilliance of his work.

Banksy has hit the West Bank.

More specifically, Banksy has taken his art to the Palestinian side of the wall Israel is building separating the two peoples. He created nine works on the wall, ranging from an image of a hole in the wall looking onto a beach setting to a silhouette of a girl flying through the air holding balloons. The UK Guardian has images of most of the pieces; Protein° Feed has a few more. Although the work is getting quite a bit of global media attention, Banksy's website portrays interactions with both Israelis and Palestinians discomfited by the project.

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.

Me: Thanks

Old man: We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.


Soldier: What the fuck are you doing?

Me: You'll have to wait til it's finished

Soldier (to colleagues): Safety's off.

Soldiers fired rounds in the air over his head, but Banksy wasn't arrested or otherwise detained.

Banksy describes the wall as "the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers."

Pump Up The Volume

The precise nature of the relationship between global warming and hurricanes remains the subject of debate. Although it's highly likely that increased atmospheric (and, as a result, ocean) temperatures has some effect on the location, frequency and/or intensity of hurricanes, a number of climate scientists remain hesitant to draw any specific conclusions about that effect. That's a wise course of action, in my view; it's important that, if climate scientists do present findings that global warming is increasing the threat from hurricanes, they do so in a way that is convincing to the broadest spectrum of climatologists.

That said, a growing number of climate researchers think that such a case is now being made.

MIT's Kerry Emanuel has published a piece in Nature arguing that, although research trying to link hurricane frequency with global warming has yet to find a connection, the same is not true for hurricane intensity:

Continue reading "Pump Up The Volume" »

Farewell, PUHCA

lightbulb.gifWhen George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 today, what may be the most important part of the bill received scant attention. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post mentioned it; in fact, it's noted by very few of the Google News sources talking about the Energy Policy Act. Yet it's this section of the Act, far more than subsidies for oil exploration or a few bones tossed to renewables, will likely have by far the greatest impact on the daily lives of Americans for years to come.

Today, PUHCA was repealed.

PUHCA -- the Public Utilities Holding Company Act -- was a part of the New Deal legislation, passed in 1935 in response to corruption and scandals in the energy companies of the time. PUHCA was meant to protect consumers against business dealings that could threaten the reliability of the energy utilities. As of today, some 70 years after PUHCA was passed, those protections are gone.

Continue reading "Farewell, PUHCA" »

August 9, 2005

WorldChanging Catch-Up

wcmix08.jpgArticles across the web that update topics we've posted about here at WorldChanging abound this week. Here's what they look like:

  • One of our best interviews has to be Emily's conversation with Natalie Jeremijenko back in October of 2004, discussing her efforts to shake up activism and American culture at large. Make magazine recently profiled Jeremijenko, and the interview portion of that article is now available as a podcast. You can get the podcast through iTunes (the instructions are here), or you can download the MP3 directly.

  • Plumpy'nut is a vitamin-enriched mash that's designed specifically to help malnourished children return to health. It can be made with local ingredients, side-steps problems of using dirty water in powdered milk, and can be provided by mothers without direct medical supervision. In short, as we noted in April, it's "A simple idea, well-executed, with significantly positive results and opportunities for local empowerment," and could lead to a transformation of how undernourishment is handled by aid and relief groups. The New York Times updates the Plumpy'nut story, with some good examples of the nourishing goo making a real difference.

  • Finally, in June we covered some tools for helping homeowners to buy or refit an energy-efficient home, including the Energy Efficient Mortgage offered in the US. Allies Cascadia Scorecard looks again at the Energy-Efficient Mortgages, and notes that Fannie Mae -- FNMA, the US mortgage guarantee agency -- is piloting a "Smart Commute Initiative" and a Location-Efficient Mortgage reflecting the savings offered by living in a transit-friendly community.

    I wonder how much working at home counts as a "smart commute"...

  • Finland, Finland, Finland

    Finland is a pretty decent place to be student or an older worker, but how does it stack up otherwise? Sunday's Washington Post tells us: generally speaking, there are few better places on the planet. As listed by the Post, Finland ranks number one globally in terms of competitiveness (according to the World Economic Forum), sustainability (according to the annual Yale/Columbia rankings), lack of corruption (according to Transparency International), and trains more musicians per capita than anywhere else.

    How much of the Finnish social experience can be used outside of Finland? Not all of it -- Finland has a small, mostly homogenous population, a focus on consensus over political competition, and a willingness to embrace very high taxes. But author Robert Kaiser argues that the education model would work elsewhere, but more importantly: ...we could learn from Finns' confidence that they can shape their own fate. Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more educated, more agile and adaptive, more green, more fair and more competitive in a fast-changing global economy. (emphasis mine)

    We can shape our own fate. That's the WorldChanging story, and we're sticking to it.

    Hello, Sunshine

    wulingsunshine.jpgIf China is to avoid an environmentally grim future, it's going to need to push the adoption of high-efficiency energy consumption technologies. In the case of vehicles, that means high mileage, whether attained through hybrid cars, electric bikes or fuel cells. But China has an odd combination of problems compounding the vehicle issue: increasing demand from citizens without the money to buy high-end, high-tech cars; a populace, especially in rural communities, heavily dependent upon pollution-spewing small cargo vehicle deliveries; and a strong political desire to build as much of its booming economy internally as possible.

    Fortunately, a vehicle is available in China that goes a long way to solving these problems: the Wuling Sunshine. It's a small van, running about $5,000 total in cost, and getting around 43 miles per gallon in the city. On sale since 2002, it's among the most popular vehicles in the country, helping to push Wuling to the number one spot in the light vehicles market. The surprising part of the Wuling Sunshine story? The van was designed by General Motors, co-owner of Wuling since 2002.

    Continue reading "Hello, Sunshine" »

    Ethiopia Lives

    EthiopiaLives.jpgAs powerful as words can be, the human mind is often more easily moved by images. Reading stories of hope or despair can be gripping, but pales in comparison to witnessing the moments in a person's life leading to such emotions. When the images that bear witness to these moments are captured by the individuals themselves, "powerful" becomes "worldchanging." Zana Briski's Kids with Cameras project -- documented in the award-winning Born Into Brothels movie -- is one example of just how meaningful such efforts can be, but today I found another: Ethiopia Lives.

    Nineteen Ethiopians turn their cameras onto their own lives and invite you to share their very personal perspectives. From diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country, their photographs give a rare insight into life in Ethiopia now.

    Continue reading "Ethiopia Lives" »

    August 10, 2005

    Brand Sensitivity to Climate

    carbonbrandvalue.jpgProgressives, those concerned about the course of globalization, and supporters of diverse local economies alike lament the power that national and global brands have over our economic choices. In a world of largely-undifferentiated commodities, branding is the medium for distinguishing one product from another, and so many companies put disproportionate effort into building and maintaining brand identity. But this emphasis on brand is arguably a lever for change: as people's attitudes towards a certain issue evolve, brands that become associated with the issue can be harmed. Specifically, as global warming and climate disruption become more widely-recognized public concerns, brands that are linked to climate misbehavior can have their value plummet.

    Such is the conclusion of the UK's Carbon Trust, a government-sponsored initiative to study the social and economic factors related to a need to reduce greenhouse gases. In a new report ("Brand value at risk from climate change" -- PDF), the Carbon Trust looks at how corporate identity and value could evolve in a world where climate issues capture the public attention. The summary conclusions are straightforward:

    Continue reading "Brand Sensitivity to Climate" »

    Gasoline Use Per Capita

    Which US state consumes the most gasoline per capita? Which consumes the least? Answers based on conventional wisdom and stereotypes might put California (home of the "car culture") close to the top, and some place fairly small and less prone to massive suburban sprawl, like Iowa, close to the bottom. Of course, I wouldn't be offering up those examples of "conventional wisdom and stereotypes" if they were at all right: California, it turns out, ranks #44 out of 51 in per capita gasoline use, at 413.8 gallons so far in 2005 (the District of Columbia has used the least per person, at 214.4 gallons); Iowa, conversely, ranks #8 at 553.9 gallons per person (Oklahoma is #1 at 625.8 gallons). As a whole, the average American has consumed 470.6 gallons of gasoline so far in 2005.

    This is according to the statistics compiled by the California Energy Commission based on US Department of Energy and US Bureau of the Census data.

    The state-by-state listing just begs for further analysis: the corresponding per capita rates of hybrid ownership and light truck/SUV ownership; average population density; portion of the populace living in "high density" environments; gasoline prices; telecommuting rates; availability of public transit; even "red" vs. "blue." Anyone up for a bit of number crunching?

    Climate Scorecard

    wwfgauge.jpgThe World Wildlife Fund has assembled a useful and interesting set of numbers (PDF) on the climate performance of the G8 countries, along with selected rapidly-developing nations. Using an easy-to-grasp (and only slightly ironic) "power meter" or "gas gauge" metaphor, each country is rated on conditions such as changes to overall carbon output, emissions per capita, emissions per GDP, and energy efficiency. Each indicator has its own gauge, and the countries are given overall scores, as well. It's probably little surprise that no country does better than a middling score, as each of the highest-rated G8 nations (France, Germany and the UK) has some key indicator that lags its otherwise good performance; it's probably even less of a surprise that the US does worst of all. The non-G8 nations (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) are given scorecards with numbers but no ratings, reflecting their developing status.

    All but one of the G8 countries (ahem) manages to score well in at least one indicator. Interestingly, the two indicators that show good results in the highest number of countries (5 out of 8, in both cases) are emissions per GDP (also known as energy intensity) and "transport" emissions per capita (i.e., planes, trains and automobiles). I think this is a very good sign. I consider these two to be particularly important indicators, as they reflect different aspects of overall economic energy efficiency. Improvements in emissions per GDP reflects both a shift towards renewable power and greater efficiency in both production and consumption of goods and services; improvements in transport emissions per capita reflects in part a growing "dematerialization" of the economy, a shift away from physically hauling people and goods around as a way of doing business. Or, to think of them as slogans, the first is doing it better and using less, while the second is doing it smarter and using less.

    The summary table from the document is excerpted in the extended entry, but I strong encourage interested readers to check out the full document.

    Continue reading "Climate Scorecard" »

    "Zero Energy Homes" Hit the Mainstream

    Although it's something of a misnomer, "zero energy home" has an attractive ring to it. The combination of wall and window insulation that keeps heat out in the summer and in during the winter, high-efficiency appliances and solar panels with "net metering" lets an otherwise standard American home consume little or no power beyond what it produces. A growing number of housing developments are offering ZEH as an option -- or as the default -- and mainstream media outlets are starting to clue in that something big is happening. The latest example is Newsweek.

    The article claims that the only real downside is the added cost of the equipment, around $25,000 before rebates. While certainly a considerable sum, if part of the original design, it's not an up-front cost. Rather, it's likely to be 5% or less of the total cost of the home, adding just a few tens of dollars a month to a typical mortgage -- and the amount saved every month on energy fees would more than make up for that.

    The home featured in the Newsweek article is in Sacramento, California, which is suffering through a summer of near-record heat (a stretch of 100+ degree days in late July was broken by a few days only in the high-90s; the record, 9 days over 100 degrees, was set in 1996), so it's not altogether surprising that solar panels work very well for this development. But solar isn't the only option; micro-wind and co-generation (where electricity is produced from the systems heating the home and water) can also play an important role in (currently) less-sunny climes.

    (Via Make)

    Pine Trees and Hurricanes

    As we mentioned a few days ago, although the argument that global warming is increasing the intensity of hurricanes is becoming more accepted, there's still a great deal of dispute over whether climate disruption is increasing the frequency of hurricanes. Human records aren't terribly helpful for more than a couple of hundred years at most, and hurricanes don't leave permanent and identifiable marks on the environment... or do they?

    University of Tennessee, Knoxville researcher Claudia Mora and her team think they've found the key to unlocking a record of past hurricanes. It turns out that hurricanes have a strong tendency to deplete the air of Oxygen-18 (or 18O), a rare isotope of Oxygen. The rain that falls from hurricanes has measurably less 18O in the water; this is "recorded" in the rings of late-season-growth trees such as Georgia Pines. By measuring the 18O in the tree rings, Mora and team were able to positively identify every hurricane that hit the region over the past century, and have mapped out a tropical cyclone record going back 277 years. They claim to have spottier information going back to 1450 AD.

    More details on this research will be released tomorrow at the Earth System Processes 2 conference in Alberta, Canada.

    August 11, 2005

    Near Zero Waste

    It's a simple statement: waste=inefficiency=higher cost=lower profit. But until recently, many industries ended up throwing away thousands of tons of waste from production every year, filling landfills and all too often leaching toxic materials into the ground. But product manufacturers are beginning to see the value of reducing, reusing and recycling waste materials, with occasionally dramatic results.

    Wired News profiles numerous companies that have taken active measures to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. Many of the companies report reuse and recycling rates of 80-90 percent; in some cases, such as the Subaru factory in Lafayette, Indiana, efforts have led to effectively zero waste output, as nearly all leftover materials can be reused, and the small fraction that cannot is in turn used in an incinerator for electricity generation. But the most interesting example is the Georgia carpet manufacturer that found that ground up carpet pieces make a good backing for new carpets, and started a recycling program to take advantage of material that would otherwise have gone to landfill (the spokesperson for the company claims that carpet makes up a significant part of industrial trash in landfills).

    This is a good indicator of the value of the high-efficiency mindset: waste goes from being not worth the trouble to care about to being not worth the trouble to make in the first place.

    Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane

    siberian_ice.jpgTerraforming Earth is the effort to use large-scale engineering to affect geophysical processes in a way to avert radical changes to the environment -- that is, to make Earth "Earth-like" again. I touched on the idea first here, expanded on it here, and explored some of the more philosophical questions here. In all of these pieces, however, you'll note that this terraforming work is thought to be an option for some time down the road, after other solutions are exhausted. There's no argument in those three essays that we should start large scale engineering efforts now.

    Today's email brought news that should make us think hard about how soon we might want to bring such efforts to bear.

    Many of you sent me links to the article in today's Guardian UK newspaper (linking to a New Scientist article) outlining a "tipping point" in the Siberian arctic: the permafrost appears to be melting. This is happening due to a combination of natural arctic temperature cycles, global warming (Siberia is warming faster than any other place on Earth), and a feedback effect from melting snow -- the darker ground absorbs more heat, resulting in faster melting of adjacent permafrost. Siberian permafrost covers a million square kilometers of ground that's largely peat bog; the peat has been producing methane for centuries, but that methane has been trapped under the permafrost. With the permafrost melting, the methane would be released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming by a substantial amount. How quickly the methane would be released remains an open question -- would it take years to release it all? Decades? A century or more? Clearly, this situation demands a great deal more study.

    It's important to note that the source of this story is not a peer-reviewed, multiply-confirmed piece of research in Nature, Science or the PNAS. It's an article in New Scientist about a presentation from a group of researchers just back from Siberia. This doesn't mean that the findings are wrong, only that we should be skeptical until they've been confirmed. But that such permafrost melting would result in the release of abundant methane is not a new theory, and New Scientist notes that independent research points to methane "hot spots" already forming in the region.

    For the moment, then, let's assume that the article is generally correct: the permafrost melt is getting faster, and the boggy ground beneath is releasing its pent-up methane. There are two important things to know about this situation: the amount of methane that would be released is projected to be in the multi-gigaton range -- one source says 70 billion tons, another says "several hundred" billion tons; and methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In essence, the release of (say) 100 billion tons of methane would be the functional heat-trapping equivalent of 2.1 trillion tons of CO2. To put that number into perspective, the total annual output of greenhouse gases from the US is about 7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

    This is a big deal.

    Continue reading "Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane" »

    Green Nanotechnology

    We're not the only ones thinking about the environmental and sustainability applications of nanomaterials and molecular assembly. Mark Wiesner, Director of the Environmental and Energy Systems Institute at Rice University is, too, and has written a readily-understood and well-structured article for the Pakistan Daily Times on precisely this issue. He's careful to address the environmental questions about the safe use of nanomaterials such as fullerenes -- indeed, that discussion takes up the greatest part of the aritcle. Fortunately, he doesn't come across as hyping the technology so much as providing some cautious optimism.

    Towards a green nanotechnology is a good introductory piece for thinking about the environmental implications of this emerging field; it answers some important questions, but leaves the reader hungry to learn more.

    Steampunk Solar Power

    SES_dish.jpgA new agreement was just signed by Southern California Edison to guarantee 20 years' purchase of electricity from a new 4,500 acre solar farm to be built near Victorville, California. The farm will initially be designed to put out 500 megawatts, but can be expanded to 850 megawatts. This will represent the largest solar power facility in the world, and will put out more electricity than all other US solar projects combined. Funny thing, though -- it won't use a single photovoltaic cell.

    Instead, these solar power generators will use a nearly 200 year old bit of technology: the Stirling Engine.

    Pretty much every time we post something about solar concentrators or home cogeneration or somesuch, we get a series of comments about the neglected beauty of Stirling Engines. Admittedly, Stirling Engines -- first invented in 1816 by Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling -- are quite elegant. Here's the Wikipedia entry on how they work:

    Continue reading "Steampunk Solar Power" »

    August 12, 2005

    Kids With Cameras, Revisited

    Cameron Sinclair first wrote about the powerful documentary Born Into Brothels last year, the work of his friend Zana Briski. The documentary covers Briski's "Kids With Cameras" project, which gave cameras and taught photography to a group of children growing up in the red-light district of Calcutta, India; Born Into Brothels went on to win an Academy Award for best documentary, and the Kids With Cameras project has since opened up operations in Haiti, Jerusalem and Cairo. Now many of the photographs taken by the Kids With Cameras in Calcutta are on display at the School of the International Center of Photography in New York City. The exhibition only runs through Sunday, so if you're in the area, you'll need to take advantage of this opportunity now.

    The exhibition is timed to coincide with the release of Born Into Brothels on cable movie channel Cinemax. The version shown on Cinemax includes an addendum segment, shot three years later, detailing Briski's reunion with many of the Calcutta children, who now attend boarding schools thanks to her work.

    Open Source Patents

    Abstractly speaking, when in a conflict, you have two options: use your strengths to counter the strengths of your opponent; use your opponent's strengths against it. The latter is clearly more difficult, but can have startlingly impressive results (just ask any practitioner of taiji or aikido). An interesting example of this latter philosophy popped up this week: free/libre/open source software partisans are beginning to use the patent system as a way to expand access to open software, and as a way to fight against the growing use of software patents as a tool to weaken the FLOSS movement.

    Red Hat will finance outside programmers' efforts to obtain patents that may be used freely by open-source developers [...]. At the same time, the Open Source Developer Labs launched a patent commons project, which will provide a central list of patents that have been donated to the collaborative programming community.

    The goal is to change the nature of the relationship between FLOSS developers, who are often work solo or in small groups, and the large commercial software developers, who have in recent years found patent infringement lawsuits (or even the threat of one) to be an effective way to shut down open source upstarts.

    Plant Stress and Changing Environments

    We know that when animals undergo stress biochemical changes result, some of which may be situationally useful (such as increased alertness), and some of which may be deleterious if too frequent or too persistent (such as increased blood pressure). It turns out that plants have a biochemical reaction to stress, as well. Stress, for plants, tends to mean environmental conditions outside the range for which they evolved -- too hot, too cold, insufficient sunlight or moisture or CO2, etc.. A typical plant response to such conditions is to shut down its own metabolism, to stop growing and to stop producing seeds and pollen.

    It's possible, in principle, to increase a plant's ability to withstand harsh environmental changes, either through traditional hybridization, smart breeding or, for more extreme cases, genetic modification. But such changes don't necessarily mean increasing a plant's tolerance for stress; a modified plant could still undergo metabolic shutdown in environmental conditions it could otherwise survive easily.

    Botanist Wendy Boss and microbiologist Amy Grunden of North Carolina State University have come up with a way to increase a plant's ability to handle stress through the suppression of the plant's stress chemicals. This is done through the introduction of genes from Pyrococcus furiosus, an extremophile undersea microbe that regularly gets pushed from superheated volcanic vents to sub-freezing temperature open water and back -- and survives without injury or stress. Such anti-anxiety modification is a necessary first step to making it possible for plants to be manipulated to make them survive better during extended droughts, radical temperature shifts... or in greenhouses on Mars.

    Continue reading "Plant Stress and Changing Environments" »

    Solar WiFi

    How come this isn't more common?

    Boulder, Colorado, has become the latest location to offer public free wifi with the access points powered by the sun. The solar panels can charge the system battery in about 5 hours, and the battery can operate the access point for up to 72 hours. The network can therefore remain up day and night, and the manufacturer, Lumin, claims that the panels are sensitive enough to "register a charge from the moon" -- unstated is just how much charge, but no matter: under nearly any conceivable scenario, solar powered WiFi access points could remain up and running without interruption for very long periods of time.

    Although Lumin and other solar panel access point manufacturers talk about the usefulness of their systems in the wilderness or in war zones, I can't help but wonder why these configurations aren't in greater use in more urban environments. By definition, a WiFi hotspot doesn't need to have cables connecting to client computers, and if you hook up something like an EV-DO card, it doesn't even need to have a cable connecting to the Internet provider. Why should it have a cable connecting it to its power source, then?

    (Original link via Roland Piquepaille)

    EMAS -- Concrete to Save Your Life

    Anyone who has driven through mountain passes has seen them: signs indicating an upcoming "runaway truck ramp," followed by what looks to be an off-ramp made entirely of sand. The logic of the runaway truck ramp is very simple -- if the truck can't stop itself, let physics take over by having the moving truck sink into the loosely packed surface. But as the Air France jet that ran off the runway in Toronto last week demonstrated, it's not just trucks that could be helped by getting bogged down.

    EMAS -- Emergency Material Arresting System -- is a form of foamed concrete used to slow down and stop aircraft that have overshot the end of runways, safely. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, [the] material deforms readily and reliably under the weight of an overrunning aircraft and the resulting drag forces decelerate the aircraft to a safe stop. Under test since 1999, EMAS has gone through a major design revision in order to better withstand the "jet blast" from aircraft successfully taking off. Now installed in 14 locations in the US, EMAS has had numerous successful uses:

    Continue reading "EMAS -- Concrete to Save Your Life" »

    Urban Density, Left-Coast Style

    LA_at_night.jpgWe know that there's a strong correlation between urban density and energy efficiency. Communities packing 12 or more households per acre are more efficient than less-dense communities built with the latest Energy Star appliances and materials. When planned and executed well, high-density residential areas can be appealing even to those reluctant to give up the space of single-family-home suburbia. When high density is the result of lack of planning or poor decisions, however, the result can be bad -- very bad.

    The article in Tuesday's Washington Post talking about urban density patterns has generated a bit of attention because of its seemingly counter-intuitive ranking (based on US Census data) of the Los Angeles metropolitan area as having the highest density of any urban region in the US. Indeed, this is surprising to those of us accustomed to thinking of density as meaning skyscrapers and closely-packed townhouses. But the story that leapt out at me from the numbers was just how close the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan region was to LA in terms of density. Based on the 2000 census, Los Angeles has 7,068 people per square mile, while SF-Oakland has 7,004 people per square mile.

    Flying into Los Angeles International Airport at night, it's easy to believe that density figure. There are points during the approach when, from thousands of feet in the sky, all an airplane passenger can see is a sea of lights stretching from horizon to horizon, hundreds of square miles of human occupation, stopped only by the Pacific Ocean to the west. From the ground, during the day, it doesn't have quite the same character (except perhaps when trying to drive the 405), due to the "polycephalic" character of the city. Los Angeles doesn't have a single center or downtown, it has dozens. San Francisco, conversely, has the trappings of the conventionally dense city: strong core, abundant pedestrian and mass transit traffic, mixed-use neighborhoods and residential streets with houses pushed (sometimes literally) right up against one another.

    Los Angeles and San Francisco, neck-and-neck at #1 and #2 on the population per square mile list, represent two very different models for the urban density future -- and both versions face important challenges.

    Continue reading "Urban Density, Left-Coast Style" »

    August 13, 2005

    Getting Over Frankenstein

    Chris Mooney, Washington Correspondent for Seed magazine, has an excellent article up at The American Prospect entitled "The Monster That Wouldn’t Die," about Hollywood's continued use (and abuse) of the Frankenstein story. Citing a number of current Hollywood science fiction adventures, Mooney argues that the story they tell over and over -- that there things Man was not Meant To Know and that the worst sin of all is playing god -- in the end leave us culturally ill-suited to think about the implications, both positive and negative, of emerging technologies.

    I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the weapon of the Frankenstein myth is repeatedly used as a club against modern-day medical researchers, who are seeking to cure people, not to become God. The "forbidden knowledge" aspect of the myth is also troubling. Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused. Finally, the concept of the "unnatural" is a disturbingly arbitrary criterion to use in ruling out certain kinds of behavior or technologies. Let us not forget that interracial marriage and homosexuality have also been labeled "unnatural."

    The broader point is that simply saying "no" doesn't qualify as wisdom, unless you're also capable of explaining why.

    Although I'm sure that a number of WC readers will disagree with his argument, I encourage you to give this a read and to reflect upon the myths we tell ourselves about science, knowledge and the future.

    Lessons of Ourmedia

    Ourmedia is a project allowing any person with net access to publish their text, image, audio and/or video files for public consumption, for free, with the promise of permanent web presence as long as the host, the Internet Archive, exists. (Dina mentioned Ourmedia in her survey of worldchanging social tools in April, and guest author Kenyatta Cheese mentioned Ourmedia in his coverage of "citizen television" in June.) Although blog hosting sites and other web providers can allow the publication of one's own media creations, restrictions on content, file size or type, and questions of the long-term viability of any given provider weaken the potential power of true collaborative popular creativity. By promising permanent free hosting and almost no restrictions on media, Ourmedia has the potential to become the cornerstone of an alternative media system. It's also suggestive of where activism may go in the months and years to come.

    Ourmedia's goal is to expose, advance and preserve digital creativity at the grassroots level. The site serves as a central gathering spot where professionals and amateurs come together to share works, offer tips and tutorials, and interact in a combination community space and virtual library that will preserve these works for future generations. We want to enable people anywhere in the world to tap into this rich repository of media and create image albums, movie and music jukeboxes and more.

    Continue reading "Lessons of Ourmedia" »

    Sustainable World Conference

    The Sustainable World First International Conference took place last month in the UK, and the meeting materials are now starting to appear online. The conference was sponsored by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), a UK organization seeking to "promote science responsible to civil society and the public good, independent of commercial and other special interests, or of government control." Presenters at the conference included activists, researchers and even a few politicians, with topics ranging from "Sustainable Food Systems for Sustainable Development" (PDF) to "Food and Energy Security: Local Systems, Global Solidarity" (PDF) to "Soil, Climate, Productivity and Environmental Justice". As you can probably tell, the conference's main topic was sustainable agriculture.

    ISIS appears to have as its primary focus opposition to genetic modification to foods. Although I believe the question of bioengineering is more complex than some supporters and critics would like to suggest, the efforts of science-based groups like ISIS are critical for keeping everyone aware of how risks are considered and problems are managed.

    August 14, 2005

    Environmental and Urban Economics Blog

    I must admit to some deep-seated skepticism around academic economics, primarily concerning the superficially "scientific" arguments economists often make that nonetheless remain devoid of the rigor of real science. Economics is most closely related to sociology and politics, yet some economists seem to want to present themselves as Real Scientists, using language (and sometimes models) derived from physics or biology. I'm trying to get over this knee-jerk response to economics, however, and have been looking for interesting websites and weblogs discussing economic issues particularly relevant to WorldChanging topics.

    My latest find is the new Environmental and Urban Economics weblog by Matthew Kahn, Associate Professor of International Economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. E&UE just started up a week ago, and Kahn has already started grappling with some meaty topics, from sprawl to whether "shame" is a viable tactic for encouraging good corporate behavior. His latest post (as of this morning) concerns the connection between incarceration of African American men for drug crimes and the incidence of AIDS in black women.

    I haven't yet decided whether Kahn's blogging will give useful insights into WorldChanging issues, but there are hints of that possibility; at the very least, I've found Environmental and Urban Economics to be sufficiently able to push my own thinking that I've added it to my regular RSS list.

    The Sixth Wall

    Photo by Emily Lesk, Marcela Delgado
    Is the rooftop wasted space?

    Architects and designers with a sustainability focus are increasingly looking at the roof as more than simply a covering for a building. The most salient aspect of a roof -- that it faces the sky, generally unimpeded by other structures -- triggers the most commonplace reconsiderations of the roof. Green roofs, white roofs, solar power roofs... all meant to take advantage of (or, at least, respond to) the roof's role as the face our buildings show the Sun.

    But there could be more to the rooftop than this. Four interns at the San Francisco-based design firm McCall Design Group took the summer to embark on a study -- part urban anthropology, part design brainstorm, part philosophy -- of the roof, in particular the ways in which urban rooftops could have a greater role in our material environment than simply holding places for antennas and HVAC units. Calling themselves the "Groundless Interns," the four (Emily Lesk, Marcela Delgado, Javier Galindo and Jeremy Dworken) explored different ideas for reimagining the roof, putting their evolving concepts down online in a weblog. This weekend's San Francisco Chronicle looks at what they've accomplished.

    Continue reading "The Sixth Wall" »

    The Green House

    colorado_court.jpgThe Green House,by Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne (2005, Princeton Architectural Press; $45), is one of those coffee-table books that could easily make one feel rather ashamed of one's current dwelling. Not only are the buildings presented in the book often achingly beautiful, they're built to meet current concepts of sustainability, integrating high-efficiency designs, recycled materials, low-water and low-energy requirements and so forth. Not only are the green homes better looking than where you live, the book implicitly taunts, they're better for the environment.

    One is not likely to come away from The Green House filled with ideas for how to make one's own digs greener and more stylish, but that's not the point of a book like this. The Green House fits the Viridian model of making environmental sustainability something to be envied, and then emulated. The book focuses on about 30 different locations around the world, divided up by context -- city, suburb, mountain, waterside, desert. This undercuts any argument that such buildings are only possible in limited circumstances, even as the the photos make clear that each is a unique offering.

    But paired with the photos is descriptive text that focuses rather explicitly on how each featured structure achieves its desired sustainability goals. The authors do seem to take the matter of sustainable dwelling seriously, and recognize that, while these homes may have a desirable appearance, their real value comes from how they function -- and that this function comes from new appreciation of the role of technology:

    Continue reading "The Green House" »

    August 15, 2005

    Urine-Catalyzed Battery

    peebatt.jpgInexpensive, easily-made medical sensors and disposable testing kits need inexpensive, easily-made power sources, but until now, these have been difficult to come by. "DNA Chip" type biosensors and the like don't need a lot of power, but do need some. With that in mind, a research team at Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology led by Dr Ki Bang Lee has devised a cheap-to-make paper battery that uses the fluid being tested -- urine -- as a power catalyst.

    The battery unit is made from a layer of paper that is steeped in copper chloride (CuCl) and sandwiched between strips of magnesium and copper. This “sandwich” is then held in place by being laminated, which involves passing the battery unit between a pair of transparent plastic films through a heating roller at 120ºC. The final product has dimensions of 60 mm x 30 mm, and a thickness of just 1 mm (a little bit smaller than a credit card).

    Writing in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, Lee describes how the battery was created and quantifies its performance. Using 0.2 ml of urine, they generated a voltage of around 1.5 V with a corresponding maximum power of 1.5 mW. They also found that the battery performances (such as voltage, power or duration) may be designed or adjusted by changing the geometry or materials used.

    Notably, 0.2 ml urine allowed battery output for over 15 hours at a 10 ohm load, and a second 0.2 ml drop gave another 15 hours of runtime at roughly the same voltage output. Urine tests are widely used for medical diagnoses, as concentrations of various chemicals (such as glucose) can accurately reflect the body's health (this also might make drug testing via urinalysis more common, although this possibility was not discussed in the research). The question that comes of this (for me, at least) is how scalable the battery system might be. How much power could one get out of a typical day's urine output? Could an inexpensive "paper battery" be part of emergency kits -- "Just Add Pee" -- or useful in relief efforts?

    Dr. Lee's paper will be available for free online for the next 30 days. Download of the paper requires free site registration at Institute of Physics’ Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

    Vanishing Point

    vanishing_point.jpgIf your primary view of the world is through the major press outlets, how much of the world do you really see? That's the question underlying the Vanishing Point project, put together by Mauricio Arango, supported by the Low Fi net art group. Vanishing Point takes the last 50 days of stories from the top newspapers of the G7 countries, parses them for references to countries around the world, then displays how "visible" each country is on a map. Vanishing Point requires Flash 7 to view.

    It's not unexpected that the G7 countries end up highly visible -- although it's interesting (and a bit telling) that Canada is much less visible than the rest. China, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are also very visible, with India, Iran, Russia and Egypt next in line. From this, it appears that economic weight and civil conflict are the two most reliable ways to get the world's attention. This is hardly surprising, of course, but Vanishing Point drives the point home in a visually arresting way. More surprising is just how little coverage there is of so much of the world. And it's not just developing nations that seem to drop below the radar -- European nations such as Portugal, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries are just as "invisible" as Guatemala, Kazakhstan and nearly all of Central Africa.

    Continue reading "Vanishing Point" »

    ZipCar Sharing in SF

    Car-sharing represents a model for transportation that overlaps both the private and public spheres. Taking advantage of the "access by proximity" available in urban settings, car-sharing makes it possible to reconceptualize personal vehicles as a community good. As WorldChanging reader Mars Saxman said awhile back about a car-sharing scenario, "the point is to think about [shared] cars as *part of* the (public) transportation system, instead of as an *alternative to* the (public transportation) system."

    The largest of the US car-sharing services, ZipCar, is currently only available to east of the Mississippi locations such as NYC, Boston, Chicago, and DC. Despite this relatively limited availability, ZipCar claims over 40,000 of the nearly 77,000 car sharing participants in the US. Expect that number to climb: ZipCar has just announced that it will soon be available in San Francisco, and later on in Portland and Seattle.

    Not that these cities are devoid of car-sharing services now. San Francisco (and some regional neighbors) is currently served by City CarShare, while Portland and Seattle are both homes to Flexcar. The CarSharing Network has more details on where shared car services are now available.

    (Via Green Car Congress)

    Ethiopia Leaps

    ethiopia_vsat.jpgAs much as we celebrate leapfrogging here on WorldChanging, we have to acknowledge that it's a risky endeavor. The introduction of an entirely new infrastructure or technology is almost always financially costly, and questions inevitably arise about the appropriate allocation of resources, the relative needs of the population, and whether the chosen path is actually the best way to achieve the leapfrog goal. Efforts that focus on information technology are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of criticism, as IT -- unlike (say) water or electricity, or even medical biotechnology -- has a less obvious day-to-day positive impact on the lives of the people making the leap. At the same time, as computers and networks have enormous potential as economic drivers, it can be tempting for a developing nation to push ahead with an IT strategy in hopes that it will trigger the kind of economic acceleration to make other sorts of development more readily achievable.

    Ethiopia is in the midst of just this sort of leapfrog process. We've noted encouraging signs recently that Ethiopia was embracing information and communication networks, but we didn't know the half of it. According to the Times of London, Ethiopia is spending 10% of its GDP on the introduction of local and regional computer networks, classroom computers and satellite-based Internet connections throughout the country. Although it hasn't much been in the headlines, this leap actually started several years ago; now, the hardware is ready, and the real work begins.

    With the infrastructure in place, politicians, engineers and users now face the challenge of realising its potential. The network is intended to deliver high-quality education, agricultural training and, eventually, a telemedicine service, as well as to provide the foundation for an internet-based telephone system that could replace the antiquated equipment used in most of the country.

    Continue reading "Ethiopia Leaps" »

    Approaching Geckomimesis

    geckomimetic.jpgIn January, we noted the work of biophysicist Kellar Autumn on an improved understanding of how gecko feet could exhibit such incredible adhesive power, yet leave no residue and even clean themselves during use. Gecko feet have complex microstructures known as setae and spatulae (tiny hairs and the fringes splitting off from them) that make use of Van der Waals force to allow geckos to stick to just about anything. Autumn's ultimate goal is to devise an artificial analogue to gecko adhesion, in order to make (in his words) not just the glue of the future, but the screw of the future: a dry, ultra-strong yet readily detached as needed, residue-free adhesive that works in vacuum, underwater, and on any surface.

    But Autumn isn't the only one working on that goal.

    On Friday, a research team led by University of Akron polymer scientist Dr. Ali Dhinojwala announced the development of artificial setae and spatulae made of multi-wall carbon nanotubes. What's more, the geckomimetic tubes demonstrate an adhesive force substantially more powerful than gecko feet.

    Continue reading "Approaching Geckomimesis" »

    August 16, 2005

    Hybrid Survey

    Anne Brooks, of the Geography Department's Environmental Policy, Planning and Regulation group at the London School of Economics, has put together a brief survey on hybrid vehicles. Hybrid owners and non-owners alike are invited to participate. The information will be used in her ongoing dissertation research on the economics of hybrid electric vehicles.

    As a self-selected survey, it's technically a scientific poll, but it should give her some insights into why people buy (or don't buy) hybrid cars. No personal information (other than opinions) is requested.

    Design, Innovation and World-Changing

    Luke Wroblewski, at Functioning Form, has written a brief-but-important comparison of different concepts of strategy and innovation, based in part on recent analyses of the role of creativity and design by Tim Brown, Roger Martin and Richard Florida.

    Wroblewski compares the "Business" Approach to strategy and innovation to the "Design" approach. Here are a few key examples:

     “Business” Approach“Design” Approach
    CompletedCompletion of strategy phase marks the start of product development phase.Never: continually evolving with customers.
    Tools used to communicate strategic visionSpreadsheets and PowerPoint decks.Prototypes, films, and scenarios.
    Described throughWords (often open to interpretation).Pictorial representations and direct experiences with prototypes.

    The full list is clearly aimed at those who think about design from a customer-product perspective, but I think it can be abstracted into a comparison of linear vs. complex approaches to a variety of worldchanging issues. Replace "customers" with "citizens," for example, and think about this as a prism for understanding political processes. Or replace "customers" with "species" for a model of understanding ecosystems.

    Taking a different angle, Wroblewski's list makes me wonder if there's a third column that needs to be added. If the "Business" approach is past its expiration date, and the "Design" approach is ascendent, what kind of approach is waiting in the wings? My first pass at what that might be is in the extended entry.

    Continue reading "Design, Innovation and World-Changing" »

    India Energy Independence

    India_Energy.jpgThe President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (who is, quite literally, a rocket scientist), made a major speech this week on the future of energy in India. The presentation (available in full here) covers the current status of India's energy production and consumption, and looks at what needs to be done to make India energy independent by 2030. It's a sometimes surprising mix of ambitious high-tech green endeavors and an almost stubborn continuation of traditional fossil energy sources. It provides an interesting comparison to the 2005 Energy Act just passed in the United States -- similar in some regards, dramatically different in others, but still clinging tightly to the old models of centralized production and control over energy.

    Those who have been following India's back room reluctance to participate in post-Kyoto restrictions on greenhouse gases won't be surprised that the closest Dr. Kalam gets to discussing global warming is a vague mention that "the climate of the globe as a whole is changing." He has good reason not to want to touch the carbon issue -- he sees the bulk of electricity production coming from coal, albeit largely from coal gasification. As a result, there's a pretty robust scenario painting India -- not China or the US -- as the main greenhouse gas emitter of the first quarter of the century, and Kalam's proposals do nothing to dispel that fear. It's interesting that China's government seems more ready to address the environmental dangers of coal use than the Indian government; the silver lining to this acid raincloud is that, as a democratic polity, India is in a better position to vote in a government willing to grapple with the problem than China would be if its leadership was more intransigent.

    But the Indian energy plan isn't just coal and self-delusion about carbon.

    Continue reading "India Energy Independence" »

    Never Smile At A Crocodile -- Unless It's Healing Your Infection

    Crocodiles have immune systems far stronger than the one in human beings. Evolutionarily, it's not a surprise: crocs engage in deadly territorial battles leaving participants covered in wounds (and often missing limbs) -- all the while in environmental conditions filled with some pretty nasty pathogens. And yet crocodiles rarely suffer from infection; it turns out that the crocodile immune system literally tears apart bacteria. Now researchers working in Australia's Northern Territory are looking at ways to use crocodile immune system as an antibiotic for humans.

    Initial studies of the crocodile immune system in 1998 found that several proteins (antibodies) in the reptile's blood killed bacteria that were resistant to penicillin, such as Staphylococcus aureus or golden staph, Australian scientist Adam Britton told Reuters on Tuesday. It was also a more powerful killer of the HIV virus than the human immune system. [...] "We may be able to have antibiotics that you take orally, potentially also antibiotics that you could run topically on wounds, say diabetic ulcer wounds; burn patients often have their skin infected and things like that," said [researcher Mark] Merchant.

    The use of crocodilian blood as the base for a powerful experimental medicine might sound like a plot twist in an upcoming Spider-Man or Batman movie, but it comes at the right time: there are now mutated forms of staph immune to all but the most powerful (and dangerous to patients) antibiotics.

    August 17, 2005

    The Onion on Biofuels

    The Onion, America's Finest News Source, takes on biofuels in this week's edition, with a helpful infograph listing some current lines of research. Among the fuels you might expect to see at your local gas station:

  • EcoCoal--bituminous, geologically occurring combustible that comes in a nice green container.
  • Ethanol--corn-based gas additive included at the insistence of corn-farming uncle.
  • DynOil--petroleum substitute made by putting long-extinct biomass under extreme pressure for millions of years.

    I found this rather amusing. As always, your mileage may vary.

  • Solar Prius

    This one is spreading around the "sustainable blogosphere" faster than Avian Flu -- Green Car Congress has a report on the efforts of a Canadian engineer to add photovoltaic panels to his Prius. The goal isn't to make the Prius entirely self-sufficient, but to boost its overall efficiency: the engineer, one Steve Lapp, reports a better than 10% boost in mileage using a rough, non-optimized version of the system, from ~52 miles per gallon to ~59 mpg. The "PV Prius" is very much a proof-of-concept demo -- I'd imagine that Toyota's designers will be appalled at how the big solar panel breaks up the smooth lines of the car -- but it's a good example of how the integration of local generation has the potential to enhance overall energy efficiency.

    There's still much work to do in order to figure out right number of panels, energy flow to batteries, and myriad other technical details. There's also the larger question of the overall efficiency of the photovoltaics, and whether future adoption of cheaper, low-efficiency polymer PV or expensive, higher-efficiency nano PV would have a better payoff. Still, expect some day to see "Sun-In Hybrids" shoulder-to-shoulder with "Plug-In Hybrids."

    Cheap Silicon PV

    Speaking of solar (see below), the growing interest in photovoltaics has sparked a sharp increase in the price of the high-quality silicon needed to make standard solar panels. It turns out that most silicon has too many other metals intermixed in the ore to be usable for photovoltaic power; processes for removing the contaminants exist, but are far too expensive to be worthwhile, even at current high silicon prices. But @Monkeysign points us to new research by a team in Berkeley which may make it far easier -- and cheaper -- to turn "dirty" silicon into pv-grade material.

    The research will be published in an upcoming Nature Materials, but is available (to subscribers) online.

    There's a lot to be said about what this might mean, but @Monkeysign does a terrific job of laying out the scenarios, so go check it out.


    CIMI_boat.jpgStories about positive change in present-day Iraq suffer two big challenges. The first is that the insurgency continues to unleash horrific violence against both foreign soldiers and Iraqi citizens, making news about political or social progress pale in comparison. The second is that reports of efforts to improve the lives and conditions of Iraqis are frequently treated as political footballs: supporters of the war seem to latch onto these stories as "proof" that going to war was the right decision; opponents of the war can dismiss the stories as exaggerations, isolated cases, or irrelevant in comparison to overall problems. It's difficult, at times, to see such reports simply as examples of people figuring out new and meaningful ways to try to do the right thing.

    The Canada Iraq Marshlands Initiative -- CIMI -- is precisely such an example.

    CIMI is an effort led by the University of Waterloo in Ontario to "contribute to the restoration of the ecological, socio-economic and cultural values of the southern Mesopotamian Marshlands" and to "improve the living conditions of the people living in and around them." The marshes are home to thousands of different species, some on the brink of extinction, as well as the cradle of the Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations five millennia ago. Restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands has enormous historical, ecological and, yes, political value; efforts to bring back the marsh ecosystem have potential benefits for both the local marsh dwelling communities and water management across the Tigris-Euphrates region, from Kuwait to Iran.

    The CIMI program is taking a decidedly science-based approach to marshlands restoration, trying to steer clear of any perceived ideological bias. Much of their effort will focus on building up capacities for monitoring, information analysis and collaboration -- all familiar topics for WorldChanging:

    Continue reading "CIMI" »

    Dwell Green

    Michelle Kaufmann Designs
    Two very different approaches to more sustainable dwellings came across the WorldChanging transom today, and while both are orthogonal to the "one-off design on your own (preferably quite spacious) lot" concept underlying many of the homes in The Green House, these two models appeal to very different demographics.

    Those who wish to live in a less wasteful home don't always have the option of building something new. This Sunday's New York Times takes a look at a NYC loft renovated for a greener footprint -- but rather than tossing the wallboard and other detritus, the designer recycled it into new building material, dramatically reducing the amount of waste and cutting the cost. Interestingly, while the article notes that the loft owner's husband works in the environmental field (for the Carbon Trust in London), the story isn't spun as "look at what these crazy treehugging hippies did with their loft," but as "look at how this designer figured out how to save money and avoid creating more trash." If one wasn't careful, one could get the impression that the New York Times Home & Garden section was actually starting to consider sustainability-focused design to be... cool.

    Continue reading "Dwell Green" »

    August 18, 2005


    Many of us here at WorldChanging are quite enthusiastic about the "local food" movement -- the drive to encourage people to primarily (or even exclusively) eat the foods grown within the local region, in-season. There are good reasons to prefer local foods, as they are arguably better for the planet than even organic fruits and vegetables trucked in from hundreds of miles (or more) away. It would be easy to think, however, that the whole "local food" thing is something that might be done in Berkeley or Boulder (and, admittedly, throughout the UK), but wouldn't make it in a more blue-collar part of the US.

    Think again.

    PASA -- the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture -- is a non-profit focusing on educating people in Pennsylvania and the Northeast US about the value of local and sustainable farming. They have a major office -- and a devoted following -- in Pittsburgh, a city evolving out of its steel-centered past. PASA membership covers farmers and agricultural scientists as well as local residents interested in learning more about local and sustainable foods.

    If you're in the Pittsburgh area this weekend, you may be interested in checking out PASA's "Summer Harvest Dinner," featuring the best of locally-grown fruits and vegetables, as well as chicken, lamb and pork from local farms. The dinner is taking place at ELEVEN on Sunday, August 21. Seating is limited.

    (Thanks, Drue Miller)

    Making the Involuntary Park Permanent?

    The so-called "de-militarized zone" between South Korea and North Korea (who are technically still at war) is devoid of any human habitation or activity, and has been for about 50 years. As a result, this space -- 250 kilometers long, 4 kilometers wide -- has become home to a staggering array of rare plants and animals, including the highly endangered red-crown crane. Bruce Sterling wrote about the DMZ as an "involuntary park" a couple of times on his Viridian mailing list, and it's back in the news now.

    Reunification between the Koreas remains a stated goal of both governments, and it's hard to imagine the North Korean regime remaining in its current brutal stasis indefinitely. At the very least, global climate disruption may well aggravate the poor harvests and famine that are already too common there, and the question of North Korean nuclear weapons development remains a global concern. In short, there's every reason to believe that the Koreas may reunify (or, at least, adopt a more peaceful and open relationship) within the next decade. When that happens, the DMZ will go away. So what happens to the "involuntary park?"

    Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner) wondered, too, but is in a position to do something about it.

    Continue reading "Making the Involuntary Park Permanent?" »

    LEED @ Home

    USGBC_LEED.jpgThe US Green Building Council has released its long-awaited draft of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for homes. LEED-compliant commercial buildings are both remarkably energy-efficient and provide interior environments friendly to workers. With the release of the LEED for Homes draft, developers and homeowners can see what steps are the most critical for making a home a green house.

    Technically, what the USGBC has released is a set of guidelines for pilot projects meant to test the utility of the various elements on the LEED for Homes checklist. It's likely that, once the pilot projects are completed and analyzed, the LEED for Homes rules will be modified. These projects will be built in 12 different regions (PDF) in the United States; interestingly, while most locations (including big states like California, Florida and Texas) are covered by single providers, Colorado has three.

    Even if you aren't a developer, potential home buyer, or even in the United States, the LEED for Homes guidelines make interesting reading. The Pilot Rating System document (PDF) explains the goals of the LEED for Homes project in more detail, and discusses each item on the LEED for Homes checklist in full. The draft checklist (PDF) itself includes numerous references to issues that we've talked about frequently on WorldChanging, including: site density, permeable pavement, rainwater harvesting, high-efficiency lighting, and more.

    Continue reading "LEED @ Home" »

    Re-Introducing the Wild

    elephant.jpgThirteen thousand years ago or so, North America was home to a variety of well-established species and one new one. The well-established species included relatives of modern elephants, lions, cheetahs and numerous other animals now found only in a few places in Africa and Asia; the new species was Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, when the new species met the old species, something had to give. Although paleontologists and archaeologists haven't pinpointed precisely why many of the North American megafauna died out, it looks highly like that humankind had no small role in their fate. These extinctions meant more than the disappearance of wild animals; they were massive disruptions to the continental ecosystem, the effects of which are still being felt.

    Is it possible to correct a 13,000 year old mistake?

    Josh Donlan thinks so. Donlan, at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, is the lead author on a paper in the latest issue of Nature entitled "Re-wilding North America" (subscriber-only, unfortunately), which argues that a range of megafauna once found (in somewhat ancestral form) in North America should be gradually re-introduced the American mid-western plains. Such animals include Bolson Tortoises, Bactrian Camels, wild horses of different types, Cheetah, African and Asian Elephants and, eventually, Lions. All roaming free over the American Great Plains.

    Continue reading "Re-Introducing the Wild" »

    August 19, 2005

    Remote Control

    remotehuman.jpgThis isn't "worldchanging" in terms of it being something that we should work to achieve; this is "worldchanging" in that it's a kind of technology that could have some seriously negative consequences if abused, so we should be paying closer attention to it now, while it's still early in its development. Moreover, we could even start brainstorming uses that could have real human benefit.

    I'm talking, of course, about Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation.

    The term may not ring a bell, so how about this: remote control of someone else's navigation while walking.

    It's long been known that certain kind of electrical stimulation can trigger changes to body perceptions of its location and where various limbs are (and aren't) -- a kind of awareness known scientifically as "proprioception." The body area so stimulated is the "vestibular" system, which controls balance. Electric stimulations of the vestibular system are used in research on how the body perceives itself (PDF), and as a way to control balance disorders. But it turns out that Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) can do much more. Researchers at Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) have found that it's possible to use GVS to the mastoid region (just behind and below the ear) in order to "steer" a walking person. Moreover, they are already planning on commercializing this technology.

    Continue reading "Remote Control" »

    Tiny Drones

    Remote operation air vehicles -- commonly referred to as "drones" -- have some interesting potential uses for environmental monitoring and video sousveillance (as well as myriad other less worldchanging uses). Recently, we've looked at "open source" remote flyers and large solar-powered long-duration flight vehicles. Today brings news of a couple of remote operation flyers that hit the other end of the size spectrum: tiny "unmanned air vehicles," or UAVs, weighing about an ounce -- or less.

    Swiss researchers have come up with an experimental self-guided drone able to avoid obstacles and weighing only around 30 grams, with an 80 centimeter wingspan. The device has two cameras onboard (each weighing about a gram), used for navigation. The Swiss team is at work on an even smaller UAV specifically for search-and-rescue and reconnaissance missions. (Technology Review, Roland Picquepaille)

    Don't work in a Swiss research institute? The Plantraco company is now selling a remote operation flyer that's even smaller than the Swiss device. Weighing less than four grams, the "Butterfly" is really only suited for indoor operation. It's also less sophisticated than the Swiss flyer, requiring complete control from the operator rather than having any on-board navigation. A one-gram camera would undoubtedly be too heavy for this one, but CMOS "camera on a chip" technologies are coming down in price; don't be surprised if the next version has remote video capacity, too. (Engadget)

    Ribbons, Sheets and the Nanofuture

    rolloutthenano.jpgThis is likely the biggest technological breakthrough of the year, arguably even of the decade.

    A team of researcher from the University of Texas, Dallas, and Australia's CSIRO has come up with a way to make strong, stable macroscale sheets and ribbons of multiwall nanotubes at a rate of seven meters per minute. These ribbons and sheets, moreover, already display -- without optimization of the process -- important electronic and physical properties, making them suitable for use in an enormous variety of settings, including artificial muscles, transparent antennas, video displays and solar cells -- and many, many more. The breakthrough was announced in the latest edition of Science. As usual, the article itself is behind a subscriber-only wall, but the abstract and supplementary information are available with a free site registration. The press release from UTD (carried by Eurekalert) provides abundant information, however; an article in the UK Guardian gives additional detail.

    If you've followed the developments of macro-scale materials made with nanotubes, you'll understand just how enormous a development this is. Previous "sheets" were small and took hours to produce via a liquid-assembly process. This technique allows a meter-long, five centimeter-wide ribbon to be created in seconds. The Science supplemental material page has a link to a video of this in action -- the image above right is a screencap from that video -- and the speed at which the carbon nanotube ribbon is produced is just amazing.

    But as startling as the production speed is, it pales in comparison to the material's properties. To start with, the measured gravimetric strength of the nanoribbons -- again, this is the unoptimized version -- already exceeds steel and carbon fiber materials such as Kevlar. Moreover:

    Continue reading "Ribbons, Sheets and the Nanofuture" »

    Light Faster Than Light

    Farnsworth: These are the dark matter engine I invented. They allow my starship to travel between galaxies in mere hours.
    Cubert: That's impossible. You can't go faster than the speed of light.
    Farnsworth: Of course not. That's why scientists increased the speed of light in 2208.

         --Futurama, "A Clone of My Own"

    We may not have to wait two centuries. Researchers in Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a method of altering the speed of light in an off-the-shelf optical fiber. Their findings were published in the current Applied Physics Letters, and describe being able to reduce the speed of photons in optical fiber to below 71,000 km/s (the speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000 km/s) as well as increasing photons to a speed "well exceeding the speed of light in vacuum." The press release isn't much more forthcoming than the abstract, noting only that "relativity isn't called into question, because only a portion of the signal is affected."

    Much more attention is given to the ability to slow light. This is because, counter-intuitive though it may be, slowing down light could lead to significantly faster computers. Slowed-down light would allow for temporary "optical memory," allowing for routing and processing of optical computing signals without having to convert to electricity (which slows down processing considerably). The speed gained by not having to do conversion from light to electricity more than compensates for any speed loss from "slow light."

    The attractive aspect of this development is that it uses off-the-shelf technology at room temperature, and doesn't require exotic materials or environmental conditions.

    Now if someone can explain (a) how much faster than light they achieved, and (b) why this doesn't violate relativity?

    Weather Experiment

    Or, to be more precise, a weather website experiment. The US National Weather Service has been looking at new ways of distributing useful weather information over the Internet for awhile now. XML-based data streams are widely used, but even pressure from corporations and Senators hasn't stopped the NWS from trying new ideas. All for free, of course -- this is paid for by US citizen taxes.

    The latest experiment involves Google Earth. Google Earth is a standalone software version of the satellite images underlying Google Maps; currently available for Windows, Mac (and Linux?) versions are coming real soon now. The NWS is now making weather forecast data available in the Google Earth plug-in format. Currently, files for maximum and minimum temperatures can be accessed and put into the system. There's little documentation, so it's unclear precisely what area this covers; it may only cover the region around the Tulsa, Oklahoma NWS office.

    Genetic Efficiency and the Carbon Cycle

    sar11.jpgA bacteria known as SAR 11 -- or Pelagibacter ubique -- now has the distinction of being the living organism on Earth with the most efficiently-coded genome. There are no signs of junk DNA, duplicate entries, or viral genes, and the code length itself is only 1,354 genes long (compared to the 30,000 genes in humans, which itself was a surprisingly low number). The only microbes with fewer genes are "obligate parasites" or symbionts, creatures that rely on another organism for some of their physiological processes. (The chart at right shows where Pelagibacter ubique (in red) fits in terms of genes and gene families -- other bacteria are in green, parasitic and symbiotic microbes in black.

    The researchers who figured all of this out argue that this goes a long way to explain why Pelagibacter ubique is the dominant species in the ocean. The mass of Pelagibacter ubique outweighs the combined weight of all the fish in the sea. Moreover, SAR 11 appears to be critical for the function of carbon cycle.

    Continue reading "Genetic Efficiency and the Carbon Cycle" »

    The WorldChanging Survey

    WorldChanging would like to learn more about you: where you're from, what you'd like to see on WorldChanging, and what you'd like us to do better. We've put together a brief online survey, and would love to get your responses.

    No personal or personally-identifiable information will be gathered.

    The survey will run through the end of August.

    August 20, 2005

    Quake III, Now With GPL Goodness

    The Quake III Arena "engine" has been released as GPL free software code, continuing id Software's tradition of releasing their older software to the public for free (as in libre) use. Why is this interesting? Because what they're doing isn't giving away an old game that nobody would buy, they're giving away a toolkit for virtual environments that is much more sophisticated than casual observers might expect.

    For those of you who aren't familiar with the genre, Quake III Arena is the third iteration of the "Quake" series of first-person shooter computer games. The "Arena" aspect means multiplayer capacity is built-in; with very little difficulty, a dozen or so friends can connect over a network and play against each other. By releasing the source code under the GNU General Public License, Id Software isn't making the game itself free to download -- the various textures and maps and sounds remain proprietary. All that has been released is the "engine:" the core software that controls things like the physics model, the interaction between objects, player motion, networking, communication between players, and so forth.

    What this means is that developers can use the Quake III Arena engine along with their own graphics and maps to create their own virtual worlds.

    Continue reading "Quake III, Now With GPL Goodness" »

    Nano Risk and Benefit Database

    buckyball-c60-nature.jpgWith fortuitous timing, a pair of nanotechnology research organizations -- the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) and Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) -- have assembled the world's first database of nanoscience research related to benefits and risks.

    Although nanoscale particles have long existed in the natural world, and studies of the effects of "ultrafine" particles from traditional material production techniques are well-established, the active manufacturing of materials (and, eventually, machinery) at the nanoscale has raised significant questions about their overall environmental and health effects. Some preliminary research has pointed to risks from materials such as carbon nanotubes under certain conditions; as these materials become easier to produce, and as their benefits become more widely known, we need to be able to show definitively the level of environmental and health risk they present. As we better know the level of risk, we can adjust our production, containment and mitigation techniques accordingly.

    Many nanoparticles exhibit unique chemical, electrical, optical and physical properties by virtue of their size, shape or surface characteristics. The great diversity of nanoparticle types that have already been created has made it difficult for scientists to make general statements about the potential safety hazards that nanoparticles might pose to living organisms. [...]

    "An informed decision about how to ensure the safety of nanomaterials requires a comprehensive review of where we are and where we've been with prior research," said Dr. Jack Solomon, chairman of the Chemical Industry Vision2020 Technology Partnership. "By gathering findings that are scattered throughout the literatures of biomedical application developers, toxicologists, environmental engineers and nanomaterials scientists, we are helping researchers and government funding agencies to see the big picture."

    The database is still in its early stages. It can be accessed through the ICON research summaries page, but work remains to be done to organize the data better.

    Will Climate Change Make Us Smarter?

    brainandbrain.jpgIt did before, at least according to a growing number of scientists specializing in the evolution of the human brain.

    When the hominid line split off from other apes about six million years ago, bipedalism and other physiological changes happened pretty quickly -- from the neck down. But it wasn't until about two-and-a-half million years ago that hominid brains started to really grow, from Homo habilis' ~500-600cc brains (chimps are a bit less than 400cc) to Homo sapiens' ~1400cc brains. The trigger for this cerebral explosion appears to be a period in which the global climate started going through a series of abrupt changes. Ice ages and warming periods flip-flopped, making it difficult for species relying upon particular environmental niches or conditions to survive. The species that did best were the ones able to evolve ways of dealing with rapid environmental changes; in the case of hominids, they got smarter.

    We now face another round of climate disruptions, and this time it's happening far faster than the natural processes of past eras. Other environmental hazards abound, as well, threatening to make a bad situation worse. Will all of this lead, once again, to a new phase in human intelligence?

    Continue reading "Will Climate Change Make Us Smarter?" »

    August 21, 2005

    Reminder: WorldChanging Survey

    Just a reminder for folks who don't come through here every day and sometimes miss items that get pushed down the page:

    We've put together a brief online survey, and would love to get your responses. We'd like to learn more about our readers and where you'd like to see WorldChanging head.

    And for those of you who have already taken the survey -- thank you!

    August 22, 2005

    Genetic Algorithms and Plumbing

    Genetic algorithms are sort of the ur-biomimetic process. While other examples of biomimicry can emulate certain aspects of natural design or the functions of particular organisms or ecosystems, genetic algorithms reproduce evolution -- arguably the core biological process.

    Genetic algorithms have been used to make some pretty unusual products, and we often think of GAs as a way of coming up with solutions for otherwise intractable problems. But genetic algorithms can have some fairly down-to-earth applications. And those applications, in turn, suggest some pretty radical possibilities for the Bright Green future.

    Continue reading "Genetic Algorithms and Plumbing" »

    The Green Ribbon

    GreenRibbon.jpgThe demilitarized zone between North and South Korea wasn't the first "involuntary park" to spring up in the ripples of the Cold War. The border between East and West Germany saw similar -- if smaller-scale -- conditions; the space along the border was often a "no man's land," and, left unmolested, plants and wildlife thrived. The "Green Ribbon" stretches from the Baltic to the Franconian Forest, running for about 1,400 kilometers (but only 20-100 meters wide in most locations). The total area of the Green Ribbon is just under 200 square kilometers. About half of the wildlife and plants in the Green Ribbon is considered threatened or endangered -- and therein lies an opportunity.

    Recognizing the ecological value of this stretch of land, the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND) [Alliance for Environment and Nature Conservation in Germany] and the Bund Naturschutz Bayern [Alliance for Nature Conservation in Bavaria] have started the process of acquiring the Green Ribbon, with the goal of keeping it out of the hands of developers -- as of June, they had purchased 140 hectares. Although the federal government initially promised to help protect the space, the post-reunification conditions and laws made keeping that promise complex; in the vacuum, the German states stepped in. Saxony put its entire stretch of the Green Ribbon under conservation protection in 1996. Federal steps have been less bold, but with a much larger agenda:

    Continue reading "The Green Ribbon" »

    August 23, 2005

    Retro: Winning the Great Wager

    Although WorldChanging is sometimes labeled an "optimistic" site, it's not, really; optimism, these days at least, implies an almost Panglossian willingness to ignore problems. Instead of optimistic, I'd argue that WorldChanging is a resolute site. We recognize the scale of the danger that the planet faces, and have focused on seeking out the ways in which that danger can be faced and beaten. Alex's essay from February of 2005, Winning the Great Wager, is an attempt to lay out in clear, unflinching terms precisely why the situation we're in is so dire -- and why hope is still not just possible, but required.

    We don't say it in public, but we've placed a giant wager here on the future of the human race. The terms of the bet are this: we can move to a new model, a model based on a standard of sustainability higher even than that which we'd need today to fit within our 1.9 hectares per person, but which provides prosperity to billions more, a prosperity equal to or greater than what today costs 10 hectares per person. And we need to do it in 25 years. And we need to get it right the first time. And the cost of failure is the planet.

    Retro: Beyond Relief

    Written shortly after the Southeast Asia tsunami, Alex's Beyond Relief quickly became the standard articulation of a bright green approach to disasters. Not only did it spur much conversation on the site, references to the ideas it presented quickly appeared all over the web.

    A primary goal of the first couple year's of relief and reconstruction work should be to help arm these communities with the expertise, technology and capital to "leapfrog" over older, out-moded, costly and centralized technologies and start right in on building lives of sustainable prosperity.

    This process should start the moment boots hit the ground. Relief is not simply about saving lives (though that is of course the top priority) -- relief is also the first step in the reconstruction. In the next months, vast efforts will go into building roads, air strips, water and power systems, emergency clinics and other infrastructure to support relief efforts. With that in mind, big international NGOs ought to be thinking, whenever possible, about the long-term utility of that infrastructure to the local communities. Can these huge investments be structured in ways that not only save lives today, but improve the community tomorrow.

    Take the WorldChanging Survey!

    In all of the dust and debris from today's transition to the new site layout, we don't want to forget that the WorldChanging Survey is still up and running, and will continue through the end of the month.

    If you haven't taken the survey yet, give it a shot. It's quick -- five minutes, really -- and will help us better chart the course of where we take WorldChanging in the weeks and months to come.

    August 24, 2005

    Retro: The Latest on Brazil

    Brazil is a nation that we find particularly fascinating here, in part because it exists on that razor's edge between building the future and falling apart. Several of today's Retrospective posts concern Brazil, but each comes at the subject from a different perspective. Last December, Alex did something of an overview of stories that seemed to popping up all over about the country's potential, The Latest on Brazil.

    Lula: "Brazil Is More Than Carnaval and Street Kids." It's also a growing economy, running a massive and successful microcredit program, investing in biodiesel as a strategic priority, making a big move into wind energy and opening its carbon emissions trading program. [...]

    Lula's still the darling of the global Left for his serious diplomatic and trade mojo. The Left in Brazil is less enamored of the austerity measures he's put in place to keep the Real stable and the IMF from doing an Argentina on their butts.

    Retro: The Brasilia Consensus, Free Software and Gilberto Gil's Dreadlocks

    Of all of the Brazil-related issues we discuss, probably the one we get the most excited about is their strong and growing emphasis on the adoption of free -- as in libre -- software. There's a bit of standing up to the superpower in their love of the penguin (as shown by Lula's notorious snubbing of Bill Gates at the recent World Economic Forum), but also a recognition (especially shown by Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil) that the ability to see and change the source code for software changes people from being solely consumers to being potential producers: at its root, the value of free software is more economic and political than it is technological. In The Brasilia Consensus, Free Software and Gilberto Gil's Dreadlocks, Alex ties this all together particularly elegantly:

    The idea that you can "take the politics" out of subjects like technology, development, trade regimes and intellectual property systems is, of course, patently absurd. There's practically nothing but politics involved here -- the technical issues, the innovation, are practically trivial in comparison to the political challenges involved in creating South-South science or fashioning the Brasilia Consensus. Our entire global system is a political construct, and Brazil is doing its best to hack that system to make it work better for the billions of people on this planet who don't own Microsoft stock. Technology is only a means to an end in that fight.

    Brazil isn't engaged in a science project, it's declaring a revolution.

    Retro: Thomas P.M. Barnett: The WorldChanging Interview

    We're always looking for opportunities to talk with interesting and provocative worldchangers. These interviews tend not to be the run-of-the-mill rehash of the same talking points one could find elsewhere; we really try to get people to talk about the ways in which their work and ideas are worldchanging. This is particularly important when the person being interviewed is not someone who might immediately spring to mind as having a "WorldChanging" perspective. Alex's December, 2004, conversation with Thomas P.M. Barnett is an excellent example of this. Barnett is a military strategist, and his views on the role the United States should play internationally often get him lumped in -- incorrectly -- with the "neocon" movement. In reality, his views are much more complex than that, and over the course of the lengthy discussion, we begin to see why he is the perfect subject of a WorldChanging Interview.

    We need to rethink the connections between security and developmental economics. We need to stop having an antagonistic relationship between military people and the development community, because the fact is, we're not succeeding at all in these failed states. Insecure places are desperately poor places. Desperate poverty breeds insecurity. We need a new approach, a more comprehensive and integrated approach that sees these problems as two sides of the same coin and thinks differently about how to solve them.

    Retro: Members Unite! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Newsletter And Crappy Coffee Cup Premiums...

    This September, 2004, post from Alex ranks as having the longest title of any WorldChanging post (at least until this one). More importantly, Members Unite!... was a sharp and controversial declaration that the world of advocacy had changed, and that very few of the big, established advocacy NGOs had changed along with it. A new model is being born, one that's more collaborative, informed and hands-on -- and has the potential to change the world.

    I have no doubt that such a shift will drive some NGOs out of business. This is a good thing. NGOs were never intended to be perpetual. They should exist at the sufferance of the world's need to change, not stumble on, zombie-like, until the heat death of the universe. We could use some house-cleaning. But I also have no doubt than many more NGOs would thrive and become more effective in a world of advocacy networks.

    For groups which excell at including members in their activities, advocacy networks will be like horse steroids: they'll get bigger, leaner, faster, stronger. For groups with an extremely specific focus and the humility to take the time to explain why that focus is important, advocacy networks will be incredible boons, providing the most effective way for small groups to find focused allies. For groups willing to learn how to collaborate on the fly, and work from a campaign-centric model, advocacy networks will be transformative.

    August 25, 2005

    Retro: The Post-Oil Megacity

    Will the inevitable (and potentially quite near) end of the oil era mean disaster? A growing number of pundits say yes -- that we are all far too dependent upon petroleum to fuel our economies, and we cannot adapt swiftly nor sufficiently to a world with limited or no oil. Urban theorist James Howard Kunstler has become the foremost voice in this movement, and in The Post-Oil Megacity, Alex takes on Kunstler's doom-laden vision. Not only is it possible to move beyond the oil era, Alex argues, doing so is well within our grasp, and the results will be living conditions better than we we have now. We can see the pieces already: smart growth, renewable energy production, green buildings, sustainable transportation, new technologies of production, innovations in the urban form...

    The list could go on and on. The point being: this is all stuff we know how to do now. We can rebuild it. We have the technology... or at least the ability to create the technologies. There are hundreds of examples on this site alone. And what we can do today is only the beginning. Yes, the situation is serious and the consequences of failure grave, but we're also growing more and more able to deal with that situation.

    Retro: The Kaya Identity and the "Conservation Bomb"

    The interplay between energy use, carbon emissions and global warming is one of the cornerstone issues we discuss. One of our main arguments about climate disruption is that there won't be a single, "silver bullet" solution. Instead, in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we will need to address energy production, carbon mitigation and -- critically -- efficient consumption of power. In June, I took a look at the "Kaya Identity," a formula showing the carbon results of changes to population, GDP per capita, watts per dollar, and CO2 per watt. Both efficiency -- decreasing the watts required per dollar of GDP -- and clean energy -- decreasing the CO2 per watt -- are good ways of avoiding disastrous scenarios. The effects of shifting to non-carbon energy sources are pretty well understood, but the value of greater efficiency can be quite surprising. Efficiency is, in a word, worldchanging.

    So -- without changing any other values -- if we alter the Watt/$ reduction box in the Kaya Calculator from -1% to -2%, something very interesting happens. Instead of needing 17 terawatts of carbon-free power to stabilize at 450ppm in 2100, we'd need 4 TW. That's not 4 terawatts out of ~50, either; that's 4 TW out of about 18 TW, because the boosted efficiency has reduced the overall consumption.

    Retro: Restoring Mangroves

    In the aftermath of the December tsunami, we made a point of trying to look at some of the bigger-picture issues that weren't getting substantive mainstream media attention. One such issue was the strong correlation between those parts of South and Southeast Asia that had managed to preserve their mangrove forests and those places that best withstood the ravages of the tsunami. Emily Gertz's Restoring Mangroves was a terrific distillation of the benefits of mangroves in the region, and a look at just what it would take to bring those mangroves back to the regional ecosystem.

    Mangrove Action Project documents sustainable management alternatives already in practice in the region that can both protect mangroves and provide solid livelihoods for the people who live near them. Silvofishery combines mangrove reforestation (or retention) with low-input aquaculture techniques. And Yad Fon's Community Forest Project in southwestern Thailand has successfully pioneered techniques for "community-managed forests" that combine grassroots organizing, democratic decision making, local economic development, micro-lending, and, restoration and protection of mangroves and local fish populations. [...]

    Preservation of human life as well as biodiversity, restoration of a vital ecosystem, and just economic development - clearly interwoven in the wake of a disaster that defies words.

    Retro: The Map Is Not The Terrain, The Sim Is Not The City

    Models and simulations are wonderful tools for helping us understand complex systems, and often show us relationships between components and actors that are not normally visible. It's possible to rely too heavily upon simulations, however, as even the best-constructed ones will leave out parts of the modeled system. One way of improving the capability of simulations to reflect reality is to open up their underlying engine, allowing users to get in and change the rules to better fit new information and previously-unrecognized conditions. In The Map Is Not The Terrain, The Sim Is Not The City, I took a look at how the popular computer game SimCity is used in the eduction of urban planners, and what might be accomplished if its proprietary code were opened up.

    [While some] complaints arise from the fact that SimCity is built as a game -- the "God Mode," for example -- most derive from inability to modify the underlying model, whether to include mixed-use development (the ground-floor commercial/upper-floor residential buildings which help to make dense urban environments livable), to vary the demand ratings for various services, to make pedestrian travel more acceptable, or to alter the efficiency and availability of renewable power generation. As a result, some models of urban development, such as the "New Urbanism" movement of the mid-late 1990s, fall outside the scope of the simulation, and become invisible to developers-in-training. While a free/open-source version of the software would be the ideal (if highly unlikely) solution, format information and tools for altering the model would be sufficient. They have tools for changing the appearance of buildings and props, why not tools for the parts of the sim that really matter?

    Retro: The Bogotá Experiment

    Innovative solutions to urban and social problems sometimes take unexpected forms. It's always fun to learn about ideas that both challenge our perceptions of what solutions can entail and come from places outside familiar Western locations. The efforts of former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus to change the way his beleaguered city works were particularly interesting, as he adopted unusual methods such as mimes as traffic monitors (resulting in a significant decline in vehicle accidents) along with more traditional ideas such as car-free days. The Bogotá Experiment was a brief but popular post, giving readers a reminder that success can take unusual forms.

    Mimes on streetcorners and occasional men-only curfews may not work in every city, but Mockus's success in Bogotá is a good example of the value of trying innovative approaches to solving seemingly intractible problems. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. It's a good thing, then, to try something new, even if it looks a little crazy.

    Retro: Urban Sustainability, Mega-City Leapfrogging

    The future of the city is a fundamental concern at WorldChanging, and is a topic we return to regularly, and for good reason: the planet as a whole is on the verge of becoming a majority-urbanized world. The question of the city's future takes two primary forms: How can the cities in the developed world become centers of sustainability, reducing the citizens' environmental footprint with smarter transit, energy and resource options? At the same time, how can the rapidly-growing cities of the developing world become both sources of sustainable economic growth and engines for ethical, democratic development? Alex's Urban Sustainability, Mega-city Leapfrogging brings these issues into focus, and shows how they are tightly linked.

    Ninety percent of population growth by 2030 is expected to concentrate in cities. The megacities of Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Latin America are expected to swell by almost another two billion people. That translates to over four billion developing world megacity-dwellers, the equivalent of building another Los Angeles every three months for the next 25 years.

    ...Redistributing the future to create bright green urban prosperity is a job of mind-bending complexity. It can only be done through innovation and collaboration of a scale and speed never seen before.

    Retro: Goa's RUrbanism

    The contributors to WorldChanging do many important and interesting projects beyond their terrific posts here. Some, like Alan AtKisson, are consultants, working closely with other leaders around the world on the application of worldchanging ideas. In April of 2005, Alan posted an extended presentation about the work of friends and colleagues in India on a project called Goa 2100, which seeks to transform Goa's capital city, Panjim, into an urban sustainability showcase.Goa's RUrbanism went into tremendous detail about the project and its potential; the term RUrbanism is meant to be suggestive of the project's goal to integrate urban and rural needs.

    One of most innovative features of the Goa 2100 project was its analysis of the entire "temporal economy" of the city and region. Using comparative time-use studies from around the world, and adapting assumptions to the South Asian context, the team modeled the time-use of Greater Panjim and created a "Time-use Budget" for both the present day's citizens, and for the citizens of a post-transition, sustainable Panjim, one hundred years from now. This analysis led to a key discovery: that time should be considered as an additional resource when considering the financing of a transition. ...It also calls attention to the fact that how people spend their time is a key element of both their quality of life, and the sustainability of a society. The Goa 2100 model — which allows for more than adequate personal, leisure, household, and community time, in addition to the needs of work, childcare, education and many other factors — appears to be the first sustainability analysis of the time-use of an entire city.

    August 26, 2005

    Retro: What Would Radical Longevity Mean?

    In the developed world and in much of the developing world, human beings are living longer, healthier lives. But how long can human lives truly be? People older than 100 years are becoming increasingly commonplace; some medical scientists suggest that the natural human span, if everything goes just right, may be up to around 140 years. But others argue that the natural span is no limit -- that we may be on the verge of a world where people could live for much longer than that. In What Would Radical Longevity Mean?, I take a look at several scenarios of what the world might look like if -- or when -- we figure out how to cure aging.

    What about relationships? While many marriages end in divorce, not all do. What does "til death do we part" mean when death may be centuries off? Can you imagine being with your current partner for another fifty years? Hundred years? Three hundred years? What if one of you wants the treatment and the other doesn't? [...]

    How does it change people's behavior if they know that they could live for centuries? Do they become more conservative? More adventurous? Are they less likely to have kids? How do they treat people who won't be living extremely long lives? Do they start thinking long term? Does society stagnate, or is the concept of "stagnation" itself an artifact of short-term thinking?

    Retro: Bruce Sterling is WorldChanging

    Bruce Sterling is WorldChanging Ally #1, and an inspiration for many of us here at WorldChanging Central. He has given us terrific support from the outset, and remains a good friend. In October of 2004, in celebration of our one year anniversary, Bruce (along with many others) agreed to write a piece for us. The result (which we published under the less-than-descriptive title, Bruce Sterling is WorldChanging) proved rather controversial: he suggested that the World Summit for the Information Society -- the WSIS -- could be seen as a marriage between the Internet and the United Nations, bringing together the strengths of both in a worldchanging way. As you'll see in the comments, not everyone agreed.

    Logically, there ought to be some inventive way to cross-breed the grass-rootsy cheapness, energy and immediacy of the Net with the magisterial though cumbersome, crotchety, crooked and opaque United Nations. Then bride and groom would unite their virtues and overcome those gloomy vices gnawing at their vitals. The global worldchanging multitudes could beat back the darkness of the gathering New World Disorder while swiftly improving the cramped lives of the planet's majority in a beneficent orgy of networked interdependence! Wow!

    Retro: Greens in Space

    What does space travel have to do with making the Earth a better place? A lot more than you might think. In Greens in Space, I lay out just why space exploration is so important to the long-term environmental agenda. I've returned to the topic a few times in the subsequent months, and while not every reader is convinced, I still strongly believe that we have a much better chance of understanding and repairing the damage done to the planetary ecosystem in part through the wise use of space exploration.

    Over the past few decades, notions of environmental sustainability moved from a focus on cleaning up pollution to a focus on understanding (and, where needed, responding to) global environmental systems. Picking up litter and reducing smog are easy concepts to understand; the dynamics between climate cycles, insolation, CO2 emissions from natural and artificial sources, and solar cycles are a bit more complex. Simply put, we can't understand the details of how our environment functions without a better understanding of the larger environment in which our planet exists, along with additional examples of planetary development. Turning our backs on space exploration means cutting ourselves off from a wealth of potentially-critical knowledge about our planet and solar system.

    Retro: Redistributing the Future

    There are a few pieces on WorldChanging we consider to be our primary texts, the articles that sum up core principles in a way that we end up referencing over and over again. Alex's Redistributing the Future is one of those posts. It was our earliest best articulation of why the open source model (which we've come to call "free/libre/open source," on the suggestion of people working on such software) is so valuable and liberating for the developing world. The title comes from a William Gibson quote, one that we hold dear here: "The future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet."

    The greatest strength of the open source model is that it is explicitly non-proprietary. It is a direct antidote to legacy ownership of key ideas, because the core concept is that no one should own core concepts. No corporation, no nation, no person can claim ownership over the core concepts in an open source project in order to demand royalties or restrict its use. No one using open source-built medicines, for example, would ever die of AIDS because some Big Pharma executive in New York or Berlin decided that distributing cheap drugs was too great a risk to their patents.

    Ultimately, that is the point: the 20th Century's model of development - the "Washington consensus," proprietary technological diffusion, the whole ball of wax - has completely failed a billion people and left another four billion falling farther and farther behind, while trashing the planet at an astounding rate.

    Retro: Rise of the Participatory Panopticon

    One of the issues I've been exploring over the last 22 months at WorldChanging is the question of what happens when large numbers of people have in their hands devices that can capture the sounds and images of the world and send them effortlessly (and wirelessly) across the Internet. Early versions of such tools are already here -- we call them cameraphones. But as these technologies get more sophisticated, the implications of the technology grow more dramatic. The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon is the edited transcript of a talk I gave at the MeshForum 2005 conference in early May; I knew the talk was successful when a listener came up to me later and told me that the world I had described was both attractive and very, very disturbing.

    ...the world of the participatory panopticon is not as interested in privacy, or even secrecy, as it is in lies. A police officer lying about hitting a protestor, a politician lying about human rights abuses, a potential new partner lying about past indiscretions -- all of these are harder in a world where everything might be on the record. The participatory panopticon is a world where accusations can easily be documented, where corporations will become more transparent to stakeholders as a matter of course, where officials may even be required to wear a recorder while on duty, simply to avoid situations where they are discovered to have been lying. It's a world where we can all be witnesses with perfect recall. Ironically, it’s a world where trust is easy, because lying is hard.

    Retro: The Tech Bloom

    The Tech Bloom is another of the WorldChanging ur-texts. Alex wrote it as an editorial for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer around the same time we were starting WorldChanging, and it captured beautifully an idea that has come to inform much of what we do: we are in the midst of an explosion of collaboration fueled in part by technology and in part by a growing recognition that bottom-up solutions can have the deepest impact.

    The conventional wisdom, during the Tech Boom, was that what drove innovation was the lure of giant piles of cash. That idea now rubs shoulders with the Berlin Wall. What makes creative people tingle are interesting problems, the chance to impress their friends and caffeine. Freed from the pursuit of paper millions, geeks are doing what geeks, by nature, really want to be doing: making cool stuff.

    Retro: Human Changing

    A growing number of very smart people argue that we are on the edge of a massive transformation of what it means to be human. Three excellent books about this transformation came out in the past year, James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg, Ramez Naam's More Than Human, and journalist Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution. The three authors have varied but complementary ideas about what human augmentation might entail, and (much to my pleasure) all three agreed to a collective interview. Human Changing is the result of that interview, and it remains the longest article we've ever published. It's so long that it actually exceeded the maximum length for the software, so be sure to read the "part II" linked at the bottom of the article.

    I think we're going to see that path with any enhancement and I think what freaks people out is the idea that it's going to be used by people who simply want to have advantage over their competitors. If you buy that path, then you're looking in the very near term at a potential division of the species between the Enhanced, the Naturals, and the Rest. The Enhanced are the people who have the interest and the money to embrace all of these enhancements. The Naturals are the ones who could do it if they wanted to, but they're like today's vegetarians or today's fundamentalists, and they eschew these enhancements for either aesthetic or political or religious reasons. The third group is the Rest and either for reasons of geography or money, they don't have access to these enhancements and they hate and envy the people who do. That division could get pretty exciting pretty fast in terms of conflict.

    WorldChanging Retrospective

    Just a reminder: all this week, the WorldChanging team is on retreat, talking about what we want our own organizational future to look like. Rather than let the site "go dark" during this week -- and to let our many new readers know that there is some interesting material in our now much-more-accessible archives -- we're running "WorldChanging Retrospective" entries with links to some of the more provocative, popular and/or illustrative of the site's themes posts from the last two years.

    In addition, another reminder: if you haven't taken the WorldChanging Survey, please do. We'll be closing the survey at the end of the month, and your answers will help us shape WorldChanging in the weeks and months to come.

    August 27, 2005

    Retro: Terriblisma

    As much as we try to focus on solutions and the possibility of success in dealing with global problems, we have to acknowledge the perverse attraction of disaster. Along those lines, Alex managed to dig up a word that was almost lost to the depths of time, and give it new resonance: terriblisma.

    The Renaissance Italians had a term, "terriblisma," by which they meant the strange, gratified awe one feels when beholding dreadful disasters and acts of God from afar. The term may be six hundred years old, but the sentiment could not be more contemporary. In fact, terriblisma is a quite native 21st Century aesthetic.

    Retro: Swades: NRIs, Leapfrogging and the Indian Future

    Non-Resident Indians -- NRIs -- represent a remarkable diaspora. Leaving India largely for reasons of economic opportunity, some NRIs are returning to their home. In Swades: NRIs, Leapfrogging and the Indian Future, Dina Mehta gives us an insightful review of the movie Swades (which means "our country"), discussing not just the story of the film, but the larger question of what is driving the return of the non-resident Indians.

    I’ve spoken to many returning NRI’s about their reasons for coming back to India. Very few speak of wanting to give back to the country. Typically they speak of today's opportunities in India -- of great salaries and a good standard of living. Supporting these is a certain global lifestyle now easily accessible in our towns – schools for kids, malls, recreation, communication, utilities, entertainment etc. There are bold plans to revamp direct and indirect taxes, e-governance in several states with the lead coming from Southern states, e-medicine, a new metro rail system in Delhi built in record time, a huge plan to wire up the whole country in the next few years. Just some examples. And when coupled with the lure of familial and community ties “back home” it’s a very attractive proposition.

    I am not really sure how many are returning to help India progress or give back to the country – many may just be recognizing that India is indeed a nation that is leapfrogging ahead and hence the opportunities are here, now.

    Retro: Walking Barefoot With Gandhi

    In Walking Barefoot With Gandhi, Rohit Gupta gives us a lyrical discussion of the Barefoot College, an educational institution in India that teaches rural citizens (often women) to be engineers, architects, even solar power technicians. The College was founded in 1972, but proceeds from a set of ideas described by Mahatma Gandhi decades earlier. In many ways ahead of his time, Gandhi combined promotion of the welfare of the poor -- the "barefoot" -- with deep ecological principles.

    The Gandhian model is somewhere between the ideal and the fantastic, for someone as wasteful as me, and if I come even close to emulating anything like that it would be a major personal success. I feel nowadays as if material objects I think I own, they own me. They make me spend more than I should, on more objects and devices that I don't need.

    To explore this further, I have recently started taking long walks on the noisy streets of Bombay, although not barefoot. Traffic being what it is, I have found walking a faster medium of getting from place a to place B, provided the distance D is not too much for my feet and faster traversed with a train. Then again, I find that getting anywhere faster, unless in an emergency, helps me to no particular end.

    Retro: The Culture of Extinction

    We are undergoing the Sixth Extinction, a wave of species death that has few comparisons across the breadth of Earth's history. As we become more aware of our impact and our responsibilities, a growing number of us attempt to tread lightly; nonetheless, more creatures will go extinct. In The Culture of Extinction, Alex makes a powerful and moving suggestion: the creation of a living archive of the dead:

    So, here's my modest proposal: I propose that we start wearing the dead on our skin.

    Images exist of a great many extinct species, and I expect the proportion of well-documented extinctions to increase in the next couple decades. I propose that we assemble and maintain a database of names, pictures and information on species which have gone or are clearly soon to go extinct. I propose we make it possible for people to "adopt" a dead species, on one condition.

    That condition? That you have an image of that species tattooed on your body in a visible place, with the Linnaean name underneath.

    Retro: Natalie Jeremijenko: The WorldChanging Interview

    Natalie Jeremijenko is an amazingly creative, brilliant designer. Her projects include the creation of "feral robotic dogs" for sniffing out toxic pollution, pollution-detecting Clear Skies Masks for bicycle riders, and novel, non-violent tools for protestors. Emily Gertz sat down with Jeremijenko for an excellent, wide-ranging interview in October of 2004, wherein the designer describes her work as an engineering teacher, leading the "DARPA of dissent," and the intersection of art, design and politics.

    There are Italian and Spanish direct action groups, very well trained in direct action. They’re doing marvelous actions using blow up pool toys, big happy smiley faces on the strike zones [parts of the body would be likely to be hit by police] so they can protect themselves. Putting pockets into these bright clownish costumes they wear, both mediagenic and highly visual, but also with room for putting in an empty two-liter soda container, with their tops on. These make good protection in the strike zone.

    Nonviolent defense is a long tradition. Profoundly misplaced, but necessary. I wish our energies could be better spent. Nonetheless, their threat has to be answered. And systematically, we have to answer every threat of this abuse power, of criminalizing political process, the political right to gather with a nonviolent method.

    August 29, 2005

    We're Back

    As you may already have surmised, the WorldChanging contributor retreat and board meeting is over, and we're spinning back up to normal posting activity. The meeting went very well, and you'll see some of the results of the discussions and brainstorming in the days and weeks to come. Although I can't spill the beans quite yet, I can say this: the next few months will be an exciting and very busy time at WorldChanging.

    One more thing -- many of you have written to let us know what you think about the new site design, and while the responses are, on the whole, quite supportive, some of you have given us very useful feedback about usability. I just wanted to let you know that we're listening, and will be huddling together (virtually speaking) over the next week or so to see what we can and should do to make the new design all the better.

    Katrina on the Wiki

    Wikipedia seems to be assuming an interesting role in the global response to disaster: the web home for the best current information. In the aftermath of the December tsunami, Wikipedia slowly embraced this role; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Wikipedia entry almost immediately became information central. This undoubtedly comes as a combination of both Katrina hitting an area already home to large numbers of web users and media outlets, giving more sources to draw from, and Wikipedia users recognizing the site's value during disasters.

    (Hat tip to W. David Stephenson)

    Leaving Home

    earthfrommess.jpgThe Messenger probe, launched in August of 2004, will take more than six and a half years to get to the orbit of Mercury. Even though Mercury is relatively close-by, in order to get there with a minimum of fuel use (allowing the probe to allocate less weight to fuel and more to equipment), Messenger needs to do "gravity assist" flybys of Earth, Venus, and even Mercury itself to gain and shed enough speed to get it into the right orbit. Close flybys aren't wasted -- Messenger trains its high-resolution cameras and sensors on the planets as it passes by.

    Earlier this month, Messenger performed its lone Earth flyby, and snapped numerous pictures during its brief encounter. The Messenger website, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, has the resulting gorgeous high-resolution images of our home; moreover, they have assembled the series into an animation of 24 hours of Earth's rotation, observed by Messenger as it speeds away. Messenger will never be this close to Earth again, and this is a lovely way to say goodbye.

    (Thanks, JWZ)

    August 30, 2005

    Alex in Grist

    alex_artsy.jpgIn April, Grist's Dave Roberts had a lengthy conversation with Alex Steffen about WorldChanging, the environment and what it will take to create the Bright Green Future. Dave had hoped to run it alongside a "rather ambitious long-form piece," but events transpired to make that not possible (a situation with which we are intimately familiar). As a result, Grist finally decided to publish the interview on its own, split into three parts.

    Part 1 of the interview focuses on technology and innovation, with an extended look at the importance of open-source and optimism:

    [Alex]: To be anti-technology in this day and age is to be anti-environmental. No positive future exists without vastly improved technology.

    The criticism you always hear is that we're relying on a "techno-fix," an artificial solution. But techno-fixes are what have improved all our lives the most. The fact that you and I beat the probabilities and didn't die of a childhood disease is directly attributable to technology; the fact that we don't starve once every few years is directly attributable to technology; the fact that we know enough about what we're doing to the planet to be worried about things like climate change is directly attributable to technology. Since we wobbled out of the trees and grabbed the first burning branch we've been using technology. Inventing better tools is part of being human.

    For long-time readers, Dave's conversation with Alex will cover much familiar ground. Newer readers will find much to think about, as over the course of the discussion, Alex spells out many of WorldChanging's underlying principles in clear, compelling language.

    We'll link to Part 2 and Part 3 as they show up.

    Harder than Diamond

    Diamonds have been dethroned. Long believed to be the hardest material around, researchers at the University of Bayreuth in Germany have just made something even harder: aggregated diamond nanorods.

    Aggregated diamond nanorods (ADNRs) are created by subjecting carbon-60 molecules (aka buckyballs) to immense pressures and heat -- 200 times atmospheric pressure and 2500 Kelvin. The resulting material has an "isothermal bulk modulus" (the technical measure of hardness) of 491 gigapascals, compared to 442 gigapascals for regular diamond.

    The material will have commercial applications (generally to do things that diamonds already do, but better), but its biggest impact will be symbolic: the notion that diamonds are the "hardest material on Earth" has long been an eternal verity. Now they've been beaten by something from the lab, a super-compressed buckyball. What's next -- the certainty of death and taxes?

    Blobject On Tour

    blobject.jpgBlobject is a Spanish company that exists in the intersection of several very worldchanging ideas: the use of electric micro-cars for in-town mobility; the use of free/libre/open-source software as a cornerstone of information technology; and the use of location-aware systems for deepening one's understanding of urban spaces. That the company name was inspired by a Bruce Sterling speech is just a wonderful extra.

    Blobject operates in Córdoba, Spain (and soon in Seville), renting small electric vehicles to tourists to let them roam the city. The vehicle used, the GEM e2 from Daimler-Chrysler, is a two-seat electric able to travel up to 50 miles in a single charge, at a speed up to 20-25 miles per hour (the speed, incidentally, is intentionally throttled to meet US Low-Speed Vehicle guidelines). While slow, open-sided cars are ill-suited for most practical uses, they are a good match for the needs of tourists, as they give access to the enjoyment of the sights, sounds and scents of the location.

    But the Blobject vehicles are more than swoopy-looking electric golf carts. These electric cars are outfitted with GPS and Linux-based computers:

    This service provides multimedia information on existing points of interest in the city of Córdoba. This service is pioneer in the world, as we combine an electric car with ICTs.

    Continue reading "Blobject On Tour" »


    The so-called "female condom," which never quite took off in the US and Europe, is becoming a key tool in the fight against AIDS in the developing world. The somewhat tricky insertion process, the feel of it, and the noise -- all of which were negatives to Western users -- have turned out to be wildly appealing in numerous markets. Over 10 million female condoms have been sold in the developing world since the late 1990s. The Guardian has the details (and discusses the use of the female condom in relatively graphic biological terminology; readers sensitive to frank discussions of sexuality should take note).

    The female condom has been particularly important in parts of the developing world ravaged by AIDS, as it gives women a way to protect their own health without having to demand that their male partners use traditional condoms. Moreover, the tickling sensations for the male partners from the polyurethane have become a selling point, prompting prostitutes in a number of countries to charge more for sex with the female condom. In Zimbabwe, the term "kaytecyenza" has been coined to reflect this sensation and the excitement it provides.

    With women making up nearly half the HIV cases globally -- and often far more in the developing world -- anything that both increases the likelihood of safer sex practices and puts the power of use into the hands of women has to count as seriously worldchanging.

    (Thank you, Janice!)

    Foresight in the Age of the Storm

    katrina0829.jpgIn the age of climate disruption, clear-eyed foresight is a necessity -- but hurricane Katrina was a reminder that foresight means more than imagining the worst and preparing for it.

    Katrina came as a surprise to few of its victims. The storm, which had been just a Category 1 when it crossed Florida, grew stronger over the warm ocean as it drew towards the Gulf Coast; in the age of real time satellites and doppler radar, residents of the region had ample warning that danger was coming. Nor was Katrina's arrival a surprise to meteorologists at the National Weather Service, who had earlier this month predicted that this hurricane season would be a strong one. Katrina's strength was certainly no surprise to climate scientists such as Kerry Emanuel or Kevin Trenberth, each of whom had published recent articles in top-notch journals arguing that greater hurricane intensity is the inevitable effect of global warming.

    No, climate foresight means recognizing the signs that the game has changed, and that simply doing more of the same, but better, won't suffice.

    Continue reading "Foresight in the Age of the Storm" »

    August 31, 2005

    Alex in Grist, Part 2

    The second part of Dave Roberts' interview with Alex Steffen for Grist is up today (we linked to Part One here). This one focuses on issues of sustainable urban and rural development.

    Alex: One of the places we've failed the worst is providing a vision of the rural future. [...] We need to do is start imagining what a high-tech, prosperous, 21st century rural life would look like. We can't allow ourselves to treat people in rural America the way environmentalists have sometimes been guilty of treating people in the developing world, which is saying, "well, you don't have a lot right now, so you're not really causing any problems, so just stay where you are." No future that requires rural America be poor is viable to sell to the American people. It doesn't have to be that way.


    waterlevels.jpgOne of the results of the December tsunami was increased interest in the development of integrated systems for monitoring the Indian Ocean. It's likely that Katrina, too, will lead to greater attention to our ability to keep tabs on the ocean environment. A key difference, however, is that there are already numerous sensors and monitors in place around North America, unlike the pre-tsunami Indian Ocean; the focus probably won't be so much on putting more sensors in place as on making better use of the data we already receive.

    The OpenIOOS is a good start at this, and deserves to get greater attention and support. OpenIOOS -- the IOOS, in this case, stands for Integrated Ocean Observing System -- is a project of the Office of Naval Research and NOAA's National Ocean Service, and combines a wiki with tools for displaying data meeting the Open Geospatial Consortium standards. Government and academic ocean monitoring resources are brought together in a single package, making both the data and the display available for general use. It's almost staggering how much data can be brought together in one site: storm tracks (both historic and forecast); coastal water levels; ocean currents; wave heights and models; a variety of satellite images (including sea surface height, temperature, and chlorophyll levels); wind observations; radar reports; and much more, all able to be combined on a single map.

    The map shown is part of a time series on sea level surges over the past 24 hours; a satellite image and wind map covering the last couple of days can be seen here.

    OpenIOOS is an impressive example of what can be done with open standards and abundant information.


    worldometers.jpgAs much a novelty as a data source, Worldometers uses statistical averages and your computer's clock to calculate a variety of figures about human beings and the planet we live on. These are basic javascripts (meaning that, if you really want to have a self-incrementing world population meter on your site, the code is right there), and should work on any standards-compliant browser. The site reports some problems with KHTML browsers like Safari, but it seemed to work fine for me...

    (Via information aesthetics)

    About August 2005

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

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