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October 2005 Archives

October 3, 2005

Pandemic Flu Awareness Week

pfawdate.jpgIt may not be getting many headlines just yet, but H5N1 -- Avian Flu -- is likely to be one of the bigger stories of the next few years. There are signs that H5N1 is becoming easier to transmit from person to person. As a result, Dr. David Nabarro, heading up the UN's response to the Avian Flu, has projected the very real possibility of 150 million people dying this winter from an Avian flu pandemic.

150 million people.

But such a scenario is by no means fore-ordained. There's much we can do now to head off a global pandemic. The most important step we can take is to raise awareness -- not to panic everyone, but to enable the planning and preparation necessary to respond appropriately when a potential pandemic strikes. Even if H5N1 burns out quickly and never becomes a global threat, it's hardly the only candidate; the more we do now, the better off we are for whatever does eventually hit.

To this end, WorldChanging ally Flu Wiki is spearheading an effort to make October 3-9 Pandemic Flu Awareness Week. They're asking bloggers and other online folks to work to increase public consciousness of the risk of pandemic:

Continue reading "Pandemic Flu Awareness Week" »

October 4, 2005

Mars By Balloon

marsballoon.jpgIn an odd bit of irony, the first technological method of human flight, the lighter-than-air vehicle, continues to haunt the imaginations of many futurists and technology forecasters. Images of mega-blimps hauling material goods have been staples of what the Future Will Hold for at least the last 30 years, and even today, inventors talk about turning airships into "gravity planes," or using them as "stratellites" to serve as city-wide WiFi hubs.

For me, the most plausible future use of lighter-than-air technology is also the most distant: as a means of extended study of other planets. On Earth, the airship proposals largely focus on tasks that can be accomplished by other means (even if less elegantly); on other planets, controlled-flight balloons are often the only way of achieving research goals. Balloons can get a much closer view of the world being studied than can satellites, can see much more of the planet than can ground rovers, and can stay aloft far longer than powered air vehicles. Two balloons have flown (relatively briefly) in the corrosive atmosphere of Venus, and many have pondered the possible use of balloons on Mars. Now the aerospace company Global Aerospace has come up with a design for exploring Mars by lighter-than-air vehicle that just might work.

Continue reading "Mars By Balloon" »

EU Renewable Target

The European Parliament has passed legislation mandating an EU-wide renewable energy target: at least 20% of energy production must come from renewable sources by 2020, with 25% as a non-mandatory goal when coupled with efficiency improvements. For electricity producers, this could mean getting 33% of their power from renewables.

According to Renewable Energy Access:

...the European Parliament voted for the following:

  • Renewable energies combined with energy conservation measures to reduce Europe's dependence on energy imports and diminish the political and economic risks resulting from these imports
  • Tax cuts to encourage renewables
  • Fair market conditions for electricity produced from renewable energies
  • End to distortions in the energy market
  • Clear increase of R&D budget for renewables in the upcoming FP7 program
  • The development of an export strategy for less-developed countries and emerging economies and as part of poverty reduction strategies
  • Renewables to be a key element of structural policy
  • Greater use of biomass
  • Further initiatives to promote the use of renewable heating and cooling technologies in particular in the building sector.

  • An End to the Sport Utility Home?

    The New York Times reports a welcome change: American home buyers are starting to turn away from the massive "McMansion" dwellings, and are looking for smaller homes with more amenities.

    To its credit, the article cites a number of possible reasons for this shift, from simple leveling off (the average desired home size of just over 2,400 square feet is a close match for the average purchased home size of 2,300 square feet) to higher energy costs for heating and cooling to changes in culture and style.

    Although nowhere in the article are efficiency improvements and home power generation mentioned, but this is still good news for those of us who want to see smaller environmental footprints as the norm. Solar shingles, super-efficient appliances and the like are increasingly seen as desirable features instead of "eat your vegetables" responsibilities, tying into the emerging market zeitgeist. This, in turn, could lead to greater demand, lower costs, and wider availability for people who otherwise might not be able to afford a greener life.

    The Role of Regulation

    greenmoneyecon.jpgThe European Union's been on quite a roll for changing how we produce goods. The Waste Electronic and Electric Equipment (WEEE) regulations went into effect in August; requirements that auto manufacturers be able to take back and recycle 85% of a vehicle become active January 1; the Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) rules kick in next July. The Registration, Evaluation, and Assessment of Chemical Hazards (REACH) regulations don't yet have a start date, but will likely come to pass soon. In short, if you make something and want to be able to sell it in Europe, you'd better be certain that what you're making is non-toxic and readily recyclable.

    But one of the (possibly) unanticipated results of the emerging battery of European environmental regulations is that many will come into effect elsewhere in the world, too, including the United States. Not because these non-EU countries are copying European rules, but because global manufacturers are already finding that it's often less costly to build and sell products that meet the tighter standards everywhere than to build to meet each market's varying guidelines. Moreover, some of the companies are starting to seek more regulation.

    Continue reading "The Role of Regulation" »

    The Information City

    airqindic1.jpgWorldChanging contributor Régine Debatty regularly posts fascinating links over at her main website, We Make Money Not Art. A couple of recent posts, however, stood out for me as terrific examples of a theme we return to regularly at WorldChanging: the integration of information networks and the urban experience. What made these two entries so compelling is that, together, they demonstrated that the relationship between information and urbanity is two way. With the first item, networked information systems are used to enhance one's experience of the city with frequently-updated pollution data; with the second, one's experience of space and layout in the city is used to make digital urban planning simulations more accessible to non-specialists.

    Continue reading "The Information City" »

    October 5, 2005

    Insurance and Global Warming

    flood_truck.jpg The global insurance industry leads the corporate world in acknowledging the reality of climate change. As we've noted before, the insurance industry (and the re-insurance companies, who insure the insurers against catastrophic claims, in particular) will bear the brunt of any global warming disasters; it's entirely in their interest to examine the science behind global warming as closely as possible, and not to play political games.

    European and Japanese insurers are moving faster in this regard, but an article in today's Washington Post demonstrates that American insurance companies are starting to wake up to global warming, too. "A New Worry For Insurers," linked (for the moment) from the front page, argues that insurance companies' growing acceptance of global warming is a manifestation of the post-Katrina era. Although it goes a bit too much into the tiresome "he said/she said" type of journalism, it does give a welcome look at how attitudes within the US insurance industry are evolving:

    Continue reading "Insurance and Global Warming" »


    FindSolar.com is a new site designed to encourage interest in the installation of solar power technologies. Look up your state and county, and FindSolar can return information on your solar energy potential, various incentives and exactly how a solar power system (pv or direct heat) would work for you. The calculator displays the estimated costs of a system, monthly and annual savings, even how many tons of CO2 per year would be saved (it's unclear whether this takes into account regional differences in power generation -- photovoltaics in the Northwest, for example, would be displacing mostly hydro power, while pv in Southern California would be displacing mostly natural gas turbines, and pv in the mid-west would be displacing mostly coal).

    Once you determine whether solar power is a good idea for your location, the site also has a database of solar power professionals, organized by location. The listings include consumer feedback-based quality ratings, but (as always) buyer beware. The site is sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society, the Solar Electric Power Association, and the Department of Energy, so you're not going to find many solar skeptics here.

    (Via Renewable Energy Access)


    As much as we love the idea of "net metering" -- being able to supply power back to the grid with home renewable generation, and get credit for it -- the technology has one big drawback: if the power grid goes down in your area, you can't draw power from your home system, even if the afternoon sun is making your solar shingles output power like crazy. There are good technical reasons for this, but it's still pretty annoying. Fortunately, Treehugger points us to a company called Gridpoint, which makes a device that serves as a combined "inverter" (for connecting your direct current solar pv to the alternating current grid) and battery backup. The system draws enough power from your solar panels to keep the batteries topped up, and when the grid goes down, you can still run your home.

    It may seem like a prosaic thing -- a battery back-up for the house -- but it's exactly the kind of technology that can make home renewable power that much more attractive to potential users.

    Nobel Prize for "Green Chemistry"

    The Nobel Prizes are being awarded this week, and today's announcement of the Chemistry prize has a definite worldchanging aspect. The winners, Americans Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock and Yves Chauvin of France, won for research that allows the production of pharmaceuticals and industrial plastics with far greater efficiency and far less resulting toxic waste.

    The environment aspect was foremost on the minds of the Nobel committee in awarding this prize: "This represents a great step forward for 'green chemistry', reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production. Metathesis is an example of how important basic science has been applied for the benefit of man, society and the environment," the committee said.

    As always, the prize honors work that was done some time ago, and has been proven to be useful and transformative. The original research, by Dr. Chauvin, was published in 1971; Grubbs and Schrock each managed to turn the research into useful material processes in the early 1990s.

    Real-Time River and Lake Levels

    centralafrica.jpgResearchers and civic officials in Africa will soon have access to near-real-time information on the height of rivers and lakes, thanks to the European Space Agency's Envisat program. Envisat is turning out to be one of the most significant ecological information projects ever; the "River-Lake" project is just the latest in a series of investigations of the global environment from orbit. Envisat is providing data for hurricane intensity forecasts, monitoring phytoplankton blooms, mapping atmospheric pollution, helping to coordinate aid efforts in Darfur, even assembling the sharpest and most detailed photograph ever of the Earth's surface.

    The Envisat River-Lake project is intended to assist with water management planning, as well as supporting efforts to prevent water-born illnesses such as malaria and cholera. The satellite uses a radar altimeter (similar to those used to map Mars and Venus) for surface measurements. As the system approaches its ultimate goal of 3-hour turnaround for the data, the River-Lake project may also have significant value as a monitor of flooding or storm surges.

    The River-Lake project wasn't actually an original goal of the Envisat, but is a new application of the satellite sensors:

    Continue reading "Real-Time River and Lake Levels" »

    October 6, 2005

    Global Warming on Mars, Revisited

    A few weeks ago, we pointed to some preliminary research suggesting that Mars was going through a "global warming" phase, noting that, if true, this might give us another data point about the relative strength of natural triggers for observed global warming on Earth. Fortunately, RealClimate comes to the rescue again, with a sharp post going over the Mars data in more detail. In short: the observed 3 year shrinkage of the south polar ice cap looks to be the result of a combination of regional topography and variations in dust storms, not external solar factors.

    Another Try At Quake Prediction

    Earthquake prediction has a notoriously bad track record. The underlying geophysical mechanisms are so complex (in both the "difficult" sense and the "emergent" sense) that successful backcasting -- using the models to "predict" past quakes -- is no guarantee that forecasting will be any better than random guessing. Last year, UCLA professor Vladimir Keilis-Borok got a bit of press for a method that successfully forecast two quakes... but failed from then on. Now researchers in Sweden are giving it a shot.

    The Swedish Defense Research Agency has come up with a method that was able to successfully backcast the Sumatran-Andaman earthquake last December (which triggered the deadly tsunami), as well as a more recent earthquake in the same area. Given the history of quake prediction, the Swedish scientists are rushing to say that this method is nowhere near ready to be used to look ahead. Still, coupled with increasingly useful seismic and geological data coming from new monitor technologies, it's inevitable that the Swedish method will be employed for forecasts. As before, if it succeeds, we'll be in a new world of disaster management... and if it fails, it just goes on the heap of previous attempts.

    New Songdo City Update

    Last April, Alex told us of New Songdo City, a development project in South Korea that attempted to transform the modern urban concept. The city plan looked ambitious, and Alex posed some very good questions about how whether this really could be a model for a "post-oil megacity."

    Today, over at We Make Money Not Art, Régine has an update on what's happening with New Songdo. I have to say, it sounds both intriguing and a bit like something out of a mid-90s vision of the future: Public recycling bins that use RFID to credit recyclers every time they toss in a bottle; pressure-sensitive floors in the homes of older people that can detect a fall and contact help; phones that store health records and can be used to pay for prescriptions. [...] When completed in 2014, the city's infrastructure will be a test bed for new technologies. [...] "The same key can be used to get on the subway, pay a parking meter, see a movie, borrow a free public bicycle and so on. It'll be anonymous, won't be linked to your identity, and if lost you can quickly cancel the card and reset your door locks."

    I hope to see the New Songdo model evolve over the next 9 years of development, with the high-tech information infrastructure being subsumed into a larger network for sustainable urban life.

    Sequencing the Killer Flu

    h1n1.jpgSometimes, the universe has excellent timing. It's Pandemic Flu Awareness Week, and what should we get but two major scientific papers detailing the biology of the virus behind the greatest pandemic the planet has ever seen.

    In 1918, when the total world population was about 1.8 billion people, a strain of virus known as the "Spanish Flu" infected about 20% of the planet, killing 50 million people before burning itself out. While records of what happened to the victims are abundant, we've had no clear idea of exactly what kind of virus killed so many -- until now. Scientists at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland led by Dr. Jeff Taubenberger have managed to piece together and sequence the entire genome of the virus known as H1N1 (the research is in the current edition of Nature); with the complete sequence in hand, Dr. Terrence Tumpey at the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was able to recreate the virus for study, as reported in the latest edition of Science. What the biologists found was unexpected, troubling -- and potentially the key to fighting the next influenza pandemic.

    Continue reading "Sequencing the Killer Flu" »

    "Disaster IT" and the Shelter Computer

    katrinacomp.jpgAs we become increasingly dependent upon the Internet and digital information sources in our societies, the more we need to have reliable information technology tools available in times of crisis. Disaster shelters try to have plenty of phone lines available; in the disasters to come, it will be equally if not even more important to have networked computers for evacuees. But the PCs used in shelters are often donated, with varying capabilities and functionality. Relief workers can't count on them having all the necessary tools and applications emergency users might need, and won't likely have the time to download applications and configure each PC perfectly.

    But there's a solution: a so-called "LiveCD," a bootable CD-ROM configured to have all of the necessary pieces of software. Because it's bootable, the underlying OS is secure from viruses and abuse, and each machine using the CD can have the exact same configuration and applications. Ars Technica, one of the better websites for technical information and analysis, has published a useful discussion of what is required for setting up a LiveCD for use in relief shelters entitled "Download, Burn, and Boot." The author, Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, worked in Louisiana in the weeks following Katrina, assisting in the development and maintenance of computer labs for evacuation shelters; the LiveCD for Disaster IT idea emerged from his experiences.

    Although a discussion of a CD-ROM may seem like geeky minutiae, it's actually an exercise in thinking about the needs of evacuees. One of the lessons that Stokes learned was that it's important not to assume that the needs of evacuees will be obvious:

    Continue reading ""Disaster IT" and the Shelter Computer" »

    October 7, 2005

    Neighbourhood Satellites

    nesa.jpgThe idea of portable environmental sensing is becoming a relatively common one among design and engineering students, but Neighbourhood Satellites, a Masters Thesis project by Myriel Milicevic at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, takes the concept in a new direction. Rather than make the detection of pollution an act of social or environmental responsibility, Milicevic instead makes it an act of enjoyment, linking the data pulled in by the hand-held unit (which looks like a satellite) to an interactive video game. Although the goal remains the same -- the accumulation of environmental knowledge -- the form of interaction arguably makes it more likely that the technology will continue to be used.

    As Natalie Jeremijenko's work shows, good emergent activism technologies often use a bit of whimsy to connect people to the results. There was no need to use robot dogs as the platform for her chemical sensors, for example, but doing so gave the project both a cool name ("Feral Robotic Dogs") and a grounding in recognizable aspects of Western culture (the use of dogs to search out scents, whether for tracking criminals or gathering truffles). By connecting his sensors to video games, Milicevic strikes a similar balance:

    Going around and measuring the levels of air pollution in your city seems to me an exciting thing to do. However, not being a scientist, I wonder for how long those numbers will keep my attention and, even more important - how can that surveying endeavour become an engaging activity for a greater group of city people?

    Continue reading "Neighbourhood Satellites" »

    The Personal Pandemic Preparedness Plan

    WorldChanging reader "Shaman," in the comments in Alex's August call to "Out-Collaborate a Pandemic," noted that he had written up a "Personal Pandemic Preparedness Plan" to hand out to friends and family, and a few other readers asked for copies. Reader Anna Sessarego-Mercer found that one of the recipients had posted Shaman's plan online, and asked us to link to it.

    The Personal Pandemic Preparedness Plan is a pretty good summary of the steps one should take to get ready for a serious pandemic event. It should be underlined that the scenario Shaman describes in this piece is among the worst-case likely scenarios, and not the only possible outcome of Avian Flu jumping fully to humans. Still, the steps described are useful even in a lesser epidemic; moreover, most of the preparation encouraged by this plan would serve well for many kinds of disasters, from earthquakes to massive storms -- any situation where you may be stuck at home for days or even a couple of weeks without any outside assistance.

    As Pandemic Flu Awareness Week draws to a close, it's important to remember that information and preparedness go hand in hand, and both are necessary to keep you and your loved ones safe in the event of a pandemic disaster.


    goodnight-square_0.jpgParticipate.net is a new community social action website, developed in part by our own Micki Krimmel. Participate.net is now up and running, and it's well-worth checking out. A project of Participant Productions, the social-action film company, Participate.net showcases activist projects directly related to current Participant releases, including the new George Clooney-directed Good Night, and Good Luck. Beyond its specific projects, Participate.net brings together an active community to address major social issues.

    The Participate community includes actors, filmmakers, issue experts, moviegoers, and activists from all over the world. They write blogs, share ideas, sign petitions, recruit new members, organize discussion groups, and take direct action. They are Participants in improving their lives, homes, schools, communities, and the world.

    Good Night, and Good Luck, which is getting terrific reviews, dramatizes the story of journalist Edward R. Murrow's on-running confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy. The Participate.net tie-in with the film is the Report It Now project, a citizen-journalism effort. Unlike most other citizen journalism projects (like OhMyNews), Report It Now focuses on video and audio stories, and the highest-rated stories may be rebroadcast on PBS or XMRadio.

    Another Participate.net effort, Stand Up, ties in with the upcoming Charlize Theron movie, "North Country," and is aimed to putting a stop to sexual harassment and domestic violence.

    When Micki has a chance to catch her breath, we'll have her give an inside perspective on getting Participate.net going -- and just how you can get involved.

    Nanotech for Organic Solar

    On the one hand, it's just another story about researchers boosting the efficiency of flexible, relatively inexpensive organic photovoltaic polymers: researchers at the New Mexico State University have integrated polymer and carbon buckyballs to raise organic solar material to 5.2% efficiency. On the other hand, it's another story about researchers boosting the efficiency of flexible, relatively inexpensive organic photovoltaic polymers: with so many groups taking so many different approaches to making organic solar efficient enough to be useful, we should see consumer-usable polymer pv sheets or even paint relatively soon, perhaps even before the decade is out.

    Gold Nanoparticles Revisited

    A couple of news reports came up today about gold nanoparticles, tiny spheres far smaller than a cell, coated with pure gold. One builds on a story we first talked about over a year ago; the other is very new -- and very weird.

    Researchers at UC San Francisco have published work in the journal Cancer Letters describing the use of gold nanoparticles and a laser to detect and kill cancer cells. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should: we first reported on the use of gold nanoparticles and lasers by researchers at Rice University to eliminate cancer cells in July of 2004. This research focused on a different type of cancer than the Rice work, as well as a different type of laser. [In addition, as the lead researcher on the project indicates in the comments, they use a different, significantly smaller, form of gold nanoparticle.](Coincidentally, while looking through the Cancer Letters site for a direct link to the abstract, I stumbled across yet another piece of research on gold nanoparticles, lasers and cancer, from Belarus.) What all of this means is that the gold nanoparticle & laser approach to cancer elimination looks to be an extremely robust method. I honestly believe we'll have an effective cure for cancer in tests before the decade is out.

    That is, if we're not busy using gold nanoparticles to build circuits out of bacteria.

    Researchers at the University of Nebraska have shown that bacteria coated with gold nanoparticles can function as an electronic circuit. The bacterial species Bacillus cereus will form bridges between gold electrodes on a microchip; when dipped in a solution of gold nanoparticles and a synthetic protein, the nanoparticles will coat the bacteria, which are still alive. This, in turn, allows the completion of a circuit. The value of the bacterial component comes from the way living bacteria respond to environmental conditions -- the hybrid bio-nanochip created by the Nebraska team was made as a humidity sensor, but other kinds of environmental sensing technologies are possible with the method.

    October 8, 2005

    Salsa de Arabia

    diabian.jpgSome of the most popular music from North Africa to Indonesia bears a striking resemblance to the songs found in Latin dance clubs around the world. Artists such as Amr Diab have popularized a style of music that mixes Middle Eastern harmonies and structure with Latin American rhythms and melodies -- and have become best-selling performers world-wide. This musical movement is a welcome demonstration that globalization can mean more than global markets for Mickey Mouse and Michael Jordan -- sometimes, it can mean connections and art that bypass the West entirely.

    Egypt's Amr Diab isn't the only Arab-language musician mixing Latin and Middle Eastern styles, but he's certainly among the most popular -- he even has tribute bands performing in Japan. His 1996 song Nur El Ayn (Real Media) can still be heard in dance clubs world-wide. The song's worth giving a listen, as it is an excellent example of how well the two styles can mash together. Other popular Amr Diab songs include Amarain, Tamally Ma'ak, and Ana Ayesh (all Real Media).

    Continue reading "Salsa de Arabia" »

    Playing Games with the Climate

    keepcoollogo.jpg"Shall We Play A Game?" -- WOPR, War Games (1983)

    I have a particular affection for games that allow one to contemplate the end of the world. It's not quite terriblisma, as I don't get a particular thrill out of losing; it's more of a sense that, with the right combination of risk, foresight and luck, the worst outcomes can be avoided. The tougher the challenge, the more satisfying the success.

    However, games simulating the possibility of global thermonuclear war are a bit passé now; instead, what we're starting to see is the emergence of games simulating the competition between nations in the era of global warming. It has the right underlying mechanism to keep it a "game": players seek to maximize their own situation without tipping the board into an "everyone loses" ending. Such games can be quite fun -- but as we've found before, the assumptions built into the rules are even more important to understand than the rules themselves.

    Political and environmental games are not new, but few have focused specifically on climate issues while still remaining more a game than a pedagogical exercise. This is changing, now that the European Climate Forum -- with support from re-insurance giant Munich Re -- has sponsored the development of several climate games:

    Continue reading "Playing Games with the Climate" »

    War is Smurf

    smurfwar.jpgWith images of real people killed, injured and/or left as refugees from war losing their emotional resonance, UNICEF has turned to killing Smurfs.

    In an advertisement set to appear in Belgium starting next week, approved by the family of the Smurfs' creator "Peyo," very bad things happen to the blue cartoon creatures:

    The short film pulls no punches. It opens with the Smurfs dancing, hand-in-hand, around a campfire and singing the Smurf song. Bluebirds flutter past and rabbits gambol around their familiar village of mushroom- shaped houses until, without warning, bombs begin to rain from the sky.

    Tiny Smurfs scatter and run in vain from the whistling bombs, before being felled by blast waves and fiery explosions. The final scene shows a scorched and tattered Baby Smurf sobbing inconsolably, surrounded by prone Smurfs.

    The final frame bears the message: "Don't let war affect the lives of children."

    In test showings, the sight of beloved cartoon characters killed by bombs proved far more effective than similar images from the real world at sending UNICEF's anti-war message.

    (Via jwz)

    October 10, 2005

    More Energy or Smarter Use?

    The UK Design Council's RED group has been working on a variety of projects linking design and energy/climate issues, and the corresponding RED blog is paying attention to new developments in the field. Today, RED linked to an article in the UK's Guardian containing a particularly pithy observation: a call for more power generation -- whether desired by politicians or energy industry executives -- is the answer to the wrong problem.

    One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.

    "Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy," says [Simon] Skillings [director of strategy at the UK's second largest electricity generator].

    This is precisely why we keep pounding on the idea of efficiency. It is possible in nearly every system we touch that uses energy to reduce the system's level of power use while improving the system's utility. Sometimes this means improving the efficiency of a common type of technology -- improving wall insulation, for example. Sometimes, however, it means improving "service efficiency" by looking not at the technology, but at what we're trying to do with that technology.

    Continue reading "More Energy or Smarter Use?" »

    Steven Chu on Termite Guts and Global Warming

    Nobel prize-winner Dr. Steven Chu is the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a premier government-funded scientific institutions. A specialist in both physics and biology, Dr. Chu has taken as his primary goal the development of carbon-neutral energy systems able to replace our current fossil-fuel economy -- and thinks that the solution may well come from termites (or the bacteria inside of them, to be precise). He detailed his ideas in a recent interview for the UC Berkeley news website.

    Either we'll genetically engineer the microorganisms from termite guts to produce more energy from biomass than they need, or we'll adapt the chemistry within the microorganisms to process the biomass ourselves. There's a lot of biomass out there. If we're ever going to raise crops for energy, it's not going to be for the oil we can extract from the corn or the sugar from the sugar cane that we can convert to ethanol, it's going to be for the entire biomass of the crop.

    Readers may disagree with some of Chu's ideas -- he's a cautious supporter of nuclear fission, for example -- but he's likely correct about the role of bioengineered bacteria in the shift away from fossil fuels.

    The $600 Solution

    Generally speaking, with solar power you can get a useful amount of power or an inexpensive system, but rarely both. Full-blown home photovoltaic systems typically run in the tens of thousands of dollars, while the much more affordable portable solar panels, backpacks and such are, for the most part, capable of charging your mobile phone or iPod but not much else. Where, you may well be asking, is the balance? Why can't we get a solar setup that puts out enough power to be useful, but won't require a second mortgage to acquire?

    According to the Off-Grid weblog, you can.

    Six hundred dollars -- not pocket change, but not hugely expensive for most folks in the West -- is enough to put together a solar photovoltaic system able to run a variety of useful appliances and electric/electronic devices for a usable amount of time on a week's worth of sunlight. The system encompasses a 32 watt photovoltaic panel, a couple of sealed gel batteries, and a few components to make sure that the pv and the batteries get along with whatever you're plugging in:

    Continue reading "The $600 Solution" »

    Collaborative Response to Disaster

    200px-AF-aid2.jpgThe tsunami of December 2004 made us all pay more attention to the need for collaborative, distributed tools for disaster response. These could piggy-back on mobile phone networks, take advantage of RSS and other web standards, even take advantage of existing measures such as ham radios. Each new disaster brings fresh reminders of how much more needs to be done -- and how difficult it is to assemble these tools in places most at risk.

    The Kashmir earthquake managed to kill, over the course of a few minutes, more people than have been lost in all of the hurricanes so far this season (including Hurricane Stan, which hammered Central America, killing at least 2,000 as a result of flooding and mudslides). As has become a standard (and welcome) response to large-scale disasters, a website was set up shortly after the quake to track news reports and centralize information on assistance; the South Asia Quake Help weblog was assembled by the same people who put together the South East Asia-East Asia Tsunami site. But as WorldChanging ally Taran Rampersad notes, there are still basic communication problems in the aftermath of the quake:

    Continue reading "Collaborative Response to Disaster" »

    October 11, 2005

    "Power Glass" and the Plastic Solar Future

    solarglass.jpgWe've written frequently about building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), the concept of putting solar power generation capabilities into building materials, rather than as bolt-on additions. While we imagine the potential of "spray-on" photovoltaics to turn every sun-facing surface into a power source, the most common manifestation of BIPV has been "solar shingles" for home rooftops. Now comes word (via Inhabitat and Treehugger) of another BIPV concept, "Power Glass." Manufactured by San Diego-area company XsunX, Power Glass puts a transparent, thin-film polymer photovoltaic layer onto window glass.

    According to XsunX, the thin-film polymer pv is suitable for "window, display, roof, canopy, and exterior façade applications." At least, they think so -- they haven't yet started shipping or licensing products, although they expect to do so soon. And they do appear to be getting close; earlier this month, they announced a process for creating "large area" sheets of thin-film pv, a necessary step for coating glass cost-effectively.

    Continue reading ""Power Glass" and the Plastic Solar Future" »

    A (Little) More on DTQs

    "Domestic Tradable Quotas" -- DTQs -- can best be thought of as personal carbon credits. Individuals would have an annual carbon quota; those who live more efficiently will have extra credits to sell off to those who are less cautious. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research proposed this concept last year in a briefing paper (PDF, although it's currently offline). It's an interesting idea, albeit one which needs a great deal more thought before implementation. (We touched on DTQs last September and this past June, and have talked about a variety of carbon-offset and carbon-neutrality opt-in programs for individuals.)

    Our friends at Grist have taken a look at the DTQ scheme in a bit more detail (although they reference the same Tyndall climate research center paper). It is an interesting idea, and author Mike Wendling explores some of its implications. Check it out.

    Taking on the Neglected Diseases

    sleepingsickness.jpgThere's little question that one of the triggers for pervasive poverty in the developing world is disease. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria afflict millions, and correspondingly receive most of the attention -- and research money -- from international development and donor agencies. But these "big three" diseases aren't alone; so-called "neglected" tropical diseases also ravage populations across South America, Africa and South Asia, but receive far less attention. Compounding the tragedy, these neglected tropical diseases are far more readily (and inexpensively) treated than the big three.

    Drs. David H. Molyneux, Peter J. Hotez, Alan Fenwick, all three specialists in tropical diseases, write in the current issue of Public Library of Science: Medicine that low-cost "rapid-impact interventions" against these neglected diseases could dramatically improve the standard of living across the developing world, and would serve both to bring nations closer to the Millennium Development Goals and make interventions against the "big three" diseases a bit easier.

    There are 13 tropical diseases generally considered to be "neglected" diseases, with insufficient money spent on researching and/or distributing cures (see the footnote inside for the difference between "neglected" and "orphan" tropical diseases). These include parasitic illnesses like leishmaniasis and hookworm, as well as bacterial diseases like trachoma and leprosy. Molyneux, Hotez and Fenwick argue that the 13 all have some fundamental traits in common -- not in terms of their biology, but in terms of their societal characteristics:

    Continue reading "Taking on the Neglected Diseases" »

    October 12, 2005

    The Near Future at the Motor Show

    tmsconceptcars.jpgAlthough hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles remain some years away from commercial availability (and, even if the market eventually moves towards entirely battery-based vehicles, we're still likely to see some fuel cell cars on showroom floors), it's interesting to watch the evolution of the experimental fuel cell vehicles that roll out at auto shows. In recent years, there has been a mix of very practical but arguably boring designs and stuff that is clearly meant to be more provocative than plausible. At the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show, however, we'll be seeing some designs that bridge the two categories: useful enough to potentially foreshadow what will eventually come out, while still unusual enough to both turn heads and challenge how we think about personal transportation. As usual, Green Car Congress has the goods, and has linked to the Tokyo Motor Show plans for DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and (in the purely motorcycle realm) Yamaha.

    Continue reading "The Near Future at the Motor Show" »

    Reviving the Space Race?

    Two Chinese astronauts ("taikonauts" in the local lingo) launched from a space base in the Gobi Desert today, almost two years after the first Chinese taikonaut, Yang Liwei, went into orbit. Two aspects of this launch demonstrate China's confidence in their burgeoning space program: the launch was carried live on Chinese state TV (a first for the program); and the Shenzhou VI spacecraft carried two people. Unlike the Soviet and American space programs, China went directly to a multi-person crew immediately following a single solo launch.

    All of this would be seen as national grandstanding were it not for China's stated plans to send taikonauts to the Moon, with the longer-term goal of establishing a base there. This helps to explain why the US government is still pushing for a renewed Lunar program, despite the needs of the unmanned space program and the larger question of federal budgets. The last space race was a superpower one-upmanship game; will the new space race be any different? We can hope...

    Test Ban Monitors and Tsunamis

    We love 'economies of scope' around here: efforts and ideas that manage to solve multiple, seemingly-unrelated problems all at once. The latest example can be found in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, describing the unique signature of the December 2004 tsunami as monitored by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty monitoring system. 78 of the CTBT stations, comprising seismic, hydrophone and infrared acoustic sensors, picked up signs of the December 26 earthquake and tsunami. What's more, the multiplicity of detectors made it possible to measure the intensity, speed and direction of the tsunami.

    The CTBT monitoring system could clearly contribute to the global effort to watch for dangerous seismic and ocean events. Doing so will require some political choices, however: "Until this earthquake killed 200,000 people, the data was only made available to the CTBTO itself and to state signatories," [researcher Roger Bowman] said, "and not to any hazard-warning organisation. I think there is going to be a loosening of data restrictions for this purpose, and I think the kind of data interpretation we have done could be folded into a hazard warning system."

    (Via Warren Ellis)

    Environmental Refugees

    envirorefugee.jpgWould you know an environmental refugee if you saw one?

    As a recent spate of natural disasters ably demonstrates, thousands of people can be driven from their homes with no place to go other than away from the devastation, and global climate disruption promises to make evacuation for environmental reasons a more frequent occurrence. The United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security is now looking at the issue of environmental refugees, and how best to recognize and support them (PDF). One of the big questions is precisely how to define "environmental refugee."

    The UNU says that, by 2010, the world will have as many as 50 million people driven from their homes by environmental crises:

    ...the number of people forced to move by environment-related conditions already approximates and may someday dwarf the number of officially-recognized “persons of concern,” recently calculated at 19.2 million [UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2004 “persons of concern” include “refugees” (people who have fled persecution in their own countries to seek safety in neighboring states, 9.2 million), civilians who have returned home but still need help, civilians uprooted by violence but who remain within their own countries, asylum seekers and stateless people.]. Indeed, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

    Continue reading "Environmental Refugees" »

    October 13, 2005

    Kenguru and the Long Tail

    kenguru.jpgIf you think this is just another "electric mini-car" post, think again. Yes, the Kenguru is a small, electric-power auto, but that's not what makes it interesting. The visible innovation of the Kenguru is the target market: people in wheelchairs; its deeper value is what it suggests for the future of material production: "Long Tail Manufacturing."

    Vehicles for people in wheelchairs aren't terribly unusual, but they're nearly always a modification of an otherwise stock car (typically a van, to allow room for the wheelchair). Such vans are often ungainly and extremely fuel-inefficient, and the modifications to allow wheelchair access are expensive. The Kenguru, designed by Hungarian rehabilitative services company Rehab Ltd., is in most respects the exact opposite from the modified van: small, efficient, and built from the ground up to fit the needs of wheelchair users. The Kenguru was a top nominee for the 2005 INDEX design award in the "Community" category (won by Architecture for Humanity).

    The concept is simple:

    The car’s interior space has no front seat – just a space built to house the driver’s own wheelchair so all he/she has to do is simply roll in through the extra large car doors and into position. The wheelchair locks into place, within easy reach of the car’s controls which are centred around a joystick.

    Continue reading "Kenguru and the Long Tail" »

    Plastic Solar, On The Cheap

    Photovoltaic polymer breakthroughs are coming fast these days, making the Plastic Solar Future all the more likely. Researchers at UCLA's School of Engineering published a paper in the current Nature Materials about their work on plastic pv, claiming the highest verified efficiency yet for polymer solar: 4.4%. Yes, that's lower than the efficiency other polymer pv developers have talked about, but this one has been verified by the US National Renewable Energy Lab, giving it the official stamp of approval.

    Of perhaps greater interest is the use of relatively cheap and readily-available polymers as the base material for the solar panels. The plastics are significantly less expensive than the base materials for traditional silicon photovoltaic materials -- less than one-third the cost at present, with an ultimate goal of just 10% of the cost of silicon. Similarly, the researchers believe that they'll be able to get the polymer photovoltaic efficiency up to 15-20%.

    Now, 10% of the cost of silicon is still more expensive than the $15/m2 Danish solar plastic we've talked about before, but the UCLA polymer pv is already more efficient than the Danish version, and the efficiency goal is much higher. I would be very happy to see a range of photovoltaic plastics available for commercial use, from 5% @ $15/m2 to 15% @ $50/m2 to 50% @ $500/m2.

    Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds

    hurricanemarket.jpgPrediction markets, like Yahoo!'s recently opened "Buzz Game" -- a "a fantasy prediction market for high-tech products, concepts, and trends" -- are pretty interesting, but occasionally controversial. Most of you will remember the US Defense Department's Policy Analysis Market project, which allowed (in effect) bets on the likelihood of coups, assassinations and mayhem in the Middle East. The Buzz Game isn't quite so provocative; players can buy and sell "stock" in various tech-related concepts, such as operating systems, rumored items, online maps, even massively-multiplayer games, receiving dividends based upon the frequency of searches on the term on Yahoo! (all the money is virtual, so no real cash changes hands).

    It may not be provocative, but it is inspiring. In looking at the Buzz Game, the folks at Network-Centric Advocacy came up with a good idea:

    Continue reading "Environmental Wisdom of the Crowds" »

    In The Year 2040...

    thingstocome.jpgThe political science journal Foreign Policy celebrates its 35 year anniversary this month, and in comemoration, they've asked sixteen leading thinkers to answer the following question:

    What are the ideas, values, and institutions the world takes for granted that may disappear in the next 35 years?

    The answers are intriguing. Some of the replies aren't terribly surprising, if you're familiar with the authors: Lawrence Lessig argues that The Public Domain will be gone within 35 years, for example, and Esther Dyson suggests that Anonymity won't last (Lessig's article freely available, Dyson's requires free registration). These two are among the most technology-focused essays of the group; there are no Kurzweilian predictions that the human species won't be here in post-Singularity 2040.

    Continue reading "In The Year 2040..." »

    October 14, 2005

    Solar Decathlon

    coloradosolardec.jpgThe Solar Decathlon is a competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy in which university and college student teams compete to design, build and operate energy-efficient solar-powered homes. Taking place on the National Mall in Washington DC, the event is open to the public through this Sunday. 18 teams competed in the Solar Decathlon, including teams from Puerto Rico, Canada and Spain, and the winning home designs were announced today. Colorado came in first (picture of the winning home to the right), followed by Cornell, Cal Poly, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the New York Institute of Technology.

    The designs vary dramatically, in part because the various institutions had access to differing funding levels, and in part due to the diverse philosophies underpinning the teams.

    Continue reading "Solar Decathlon" »

    Hybrid Driver's Ed

    As someone who has owned a hybrid car for two and a half years, let me be blunt: if you drive your hybrid the way you drove your last (non-hybrid) car, you're not paying attention. Hybrid-electric cars may look more-or-less the same on the outside as other gasoline-only vehicles, but the difference in the way they operate requires changing driving techniques in order to get the best mileage possible.

    We've talked before about hybrid driving tips, but now it appears that some of the manufacturers are starting to pay attention to the need to train new hybrid drivers to drive differently. Both Toyota and Ford are taking steps to raise buyer awareness about hybrid differences. Toyota is distributing pamphlets (PDF) with their Lexus R400h hybrid SUVs explaining why drivers may not get the EPA estimated mileage (and what to do about it), while Ford is actually taking engineers around the US to teach people how to drive their hybrid Explorers for maximum mileage. According to a report from one of those workshops, attendees were able to boost their mileage by over 10% immediately.

    Cradle to Cradle Certified

    zodychair.jpgOne of the better ideas in the sustainability industry has to be LEED certification for commercial buildings, the checklist of environmental, health, and energy/efficiency features managed by the US Green Building Association. But even as LEED branches out overseas and to the world of home building, architectural design is only a part of what we need to think about when looking at sustainability. Fortunately, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), William McDonough's design firm, has come up with a "Cradle to Cradle Certification" model for industrial design; today, they announced the first six recipients of that label.

    The newly-certified products include the Haworth Zody Chair (sole C2C Gold product), the Steelcase Think chair (C2C Silver), and the Hycrete concrete additive, which received certification as a "Biological Nutrient" product, a category for less complex materials. No C2C Platinum items were certified.

    For those of you still a bit hazy on the concept, Cradle to Cradle Design is a biomimetic approach to the design of systems. From the MBDC site:

    Continue reading "Cradle to Cradle Certified" »

    Gilberto Gil

    We have a great deal of interest in Brazil around these parts, in part because of the approach the current leadership has taken to issues around economic development (c.f., "the Brasilia Consensus"), and in part because of the innovative approach the nation has adopted regarding FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software). While President Luiz Inacio da Silva, or "Lula", is rightly given credit for the former, his Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, has been a profound influence on the latter. Gil is prone to showing up at Linux conferences, and has been vocal in his appreciation of the political value of the open source model, especially as it applies to more than just software.

    The UK's Guardian has a profile of and interview with Gil today, and it's sufficiently interesting to warrant being highlighted here. A sample:

    "This [the adoption of open source software] isn't just my idea, or Brazil's idea," Gil says. "It's the idea of our time. The complexity of our times demands it." He is politician enough to hold back from endorsing the breaking of laws, for example on music downloading, but only just. "The Brazilian government is definitely pro-law," he grins. "But if law doesn't fit reality anymore, law has to be changed. That's not a new thing. That's civilisation as usual."

    (Via BoingBoing)

    October 15, 2005

    The Cancer Nanobomb

    Panchapakesan-NanoBomb.jpgWhen I first saw the link to this story, I thought it was yet another illuminated nanospheres zapping cancer report; after all, lots of places appear to be working on that technology, so we should start seeing more results in the months to come. This one turns out to be different, however: University of Delaware researchers have put together a system that quite literally blows apart cancerous tissue with minimal damage to nearby healthy cells. The research was reported in the journals NanoBiotechnology and Oncology Issues.

    Dr. Balaji Panchapakesan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his team at the University of Delaware were looking at the optical and thermal properties of carbon nanotubes, trying to find ways to improve their use as drug delivery mechanisms.

    As they undertook various experiments, however, the team made a startling discovery. “When you put the atoms in different shapes and forms, they take on different properties at the nanoscale,” Panchapakesan said. “We were experimenting with the molecules and considering optical and thermal properties, and found we could trigger microscopic explosions of nanotubes in wide variety of conditions.”

    Continue reading "The Cancer Nanobomb" »


    wgtube.jpgPlaceopedia is yet another example of a couple of growing trends: the integration of online data resources with online mapping; and the drive to make urban environments "smart."

    As with most of the map-mashups, Placeopedia uses Google Maps, this time mixing it with (as the name suggests) Wikipedia. The concept here is that users can add links at Placeopedia to relevant pages on Wikipedia, allowing users to browse the interesting bits of trivia or useful local information appropriate to a given spot. There's already a decent mix of the two, at present, with both transit maps and tourist highlights easy to find.

    Continue reading "Placeopedia" »

    October 17, 2005

    Recycling the City, Revisited

    The New York Times takes a look at some of the questions we raised last month in "Recycling the City," about the enormous amounts of waste left over in New Orleans after the storms. The Times article gives a good sense of the scale of the problem, which amounts to 22 million tons of garbage:

    It is more trash than any American city produces in a year. It is enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over. It will take at least 3.5 million truckloads to haul it away. [...] This is not even counting the cars that have been abandoned on sidewalks, or the boats stranded on the streets. It is not counting the more than 1 million refrigerators, stoves and washing machines on curbs all over the area. This is not counting any of the hundreds of homes that will inevitably be demolished.

    Unfortunately, while raising many useful questions about just how this clean-up will be accomplished, the article focuses a bit too much on how awful the rotting food smells, and gives scant attention to the question of handling the tons of potentially dangerous materials that should not go into landfills. Worse, it leaves out any suggestion that potentially a large portion of the waste could be recycled. This will not be the last major urban clean-up effort we undertake this century, and possibly not even this decade; we need to get better at not making the situation worse in the long-term.

    Squatter Cities

    Robert Neuwirth studies "squatter cities" -- informal urbanized areas home to as many as a billion people worldwide -- in a particularly notable way: he lives in them. We've covered Neuwirth's work before, and greatly appreciate the insights he brings to the question of urbanization and megacities. He has an editorial in the current Fortune magazine, and it provides an excellent summary of his argument:

    Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has proposed that governments should legalize this development by offering squatters the chance to buy title to the land they’re on. [...] But while the idea may sound good (and would doubtless provide long-term employment for the lawyers and surveyors needed to untangle the land-use patterns in these primitive communities), it may not benefit squatters. [...] From the two years I spent living in four of the world’s squatter communities (in Brazil, India, Kenya, and Turkey), I’ve found that squatters need two far simpler conditions to enable their communities to grow. The first is what the U.N. calls "security of tenure"—confidence that they will not be arbitrarily evicted. The second is access to politics—some way to participate in the larger city.

    Climate Model Sees Extreme Future

    morehotevents.jpgA new set of model results from Purdue University give us a foreshadowing of what the effects of global warming-induced climate disruption will be on the nation that currently puts the most greenhouse gases into the air: the United States.

    In an article to be published later this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, geophysicist Noah Diffenbaugh and colleagues Jeremy S. Pal, Robert J. Trapp and Filippo Giorgi discuss the results of a five-month supercomputer simulation of global warming across North America over this century. This simulation exercise ranks as one of the most sophisticated ever run; the model was able to consider effects on individual regions 25 kilometers square, down from 50 square kilometers used in previous models.

    It's something of an article of faith among the remaining holdouts denying the existence of global warming that computerized climate models, as they abstract aspects of the climate, are essentially useless -- and (implicitly) if they had more details, they'd show that all was right with the world. Unfortunately, as our modeling methods and technologies have gotten better, quite the opposite has occurred. These days, reports from computer models are apt to show that things are worse than we thought, climate-wise. This one is no exception:

    Continue reading "Climate Model Sees Extreme Future" »

    Conservation Agriculture and Global Warming in Africa

    ACTN.jpgIt reads like a story from decades past: experts are trying to get African farmers to change their farming practices. But this time, the experts are also from Africa, and the modest changes they suggest are to encourage the conservation of quality soil and water. But while the changes may be modest, they hint at a much more dramatic question: how long can traditional farming methods withstand an era of climate disruption?

    The African Conservation Tillage Network, based in Zimbabwe, is assembling a manual on "conservation agriculture," a set of agricultural practices based on the specific needs of farmers in Africa, intended to reduce erosion and to save water. ACTN has pilot projects underway in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana and Zambia, all trying to implement conservation and sustainability-focused agricultural practices. In each location, the overall model of "conservation tillage" is adapted to particular regional needs. The manual, which is still in preparation, provides an overview of the desired practices:

    African farmers could boost yields and save money by taking simple steps to conserve soil quality [...] The manual recommends breaking the soil only where seeds are to be planted, as ploughing entire fields can degrade soil. Farmers are also advised to rotate crops to increase soil fertility and grow 'cover' crops along with their main crop to prevent runoff.

    Continue reading "Conservation Agriculture and Global Warming in Africa" »

    October 18, 2005

    Green Viagra

    So it turns out that the various pharmaceutical tools for curing erectile dysfunction have an environmental side-effect: their growing popularity in China is reducing the use of endangered species as cures for impotence. The Times of India reports on research by William von Hippel, a psychologist from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and his brother Frank von Hippel, a biologist from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, on whether patients return to the use of traditional treatments -- medicines made from seal penises and reindeer antler velvet -- once they've tried a Western medical treatment. In the group studied, none of those who had tried traditional treatments before went back to them. This matches up with controversial 2002 research from the same scientists showing that the trade in traditional impotence medicines was declining.

    There's much to be skeptical about with this research, of course: it was funded by Pfizer; the size of the studied group is fairly small; and impotence medicines are just one of many uses of animal parts in Chinese traditional medicine, so the overall impact on endangered animals is likely to be relatively low. That said, if true, it's an example of the sometimes unexpected sources of environmental progress.

    Disaster Response in a Box, Revisited

    mps2.jpgJeremy gave a quick pointer to SkyBuilt Power's Mobile Power Station (MPS), and it really does look like a WorldChanger's dream: combining modular solar panels, wind microturbines, batteries, and plug-ins for fuel cells and biofuel-friendly diesel engines, the MPS can generate a constant 150 kilowatts, can operate both off-grid and in parallel with grid power, is rugged enough to be dropped via parachute, and requires so little maintenance that a solar/wind unit has been operating continuously without being touched for over a year.

    The MPS and the inevitable competitors will see abundant use in the post-Katrina era. But thinking of the MPS solely in terms of stand-alone power misses its greater potential. The MPS is the final component needed to create the distributed disaster response kit. If we put the pieces together, we could have a system that provides both short-term and long-term support for a disaster-struck community's power, water and communication.

    We've covered a number of the other components before, and they're worth linking to again:

    Continue reading "Disaster Response in a Box, Revisited" »

    Safety in Knowledge

    When researchers at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland sequenced the genome of the 1918 influenza strain and posted it on the web, they may well have saved the lives of millions.

    For some readers, this may seem like a counter-intuitive proposition. After all, the 1918 flu killed up to 50 million people. And while the bioscience needed to re-engineer the 1918 strain is far more demanding than many might realize, remaking the virus is clearly possible: reseachers at the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta used the viral sequence to do just that.

    But those who decry this research and the publication of the genome as a "recipe for destruction" -- such as the erstwhile antagonists, Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy, who put aside their differences to write an editorial in the New York Times making such an argument -- both underestimate the value of widespread knowledge of how this virus works in efforts to combat similar pandemics and overestimate our vulnerability to this particular virus. The most important result of the sequencing of the 1918 flu is the knowledge given the world in its preparations for the next major pandemic flu.

    Continue reading "Safety in Knowledge" »

    October 19, 2005

    Error-Correcting Nanomaterials

    dnareplication.jpgGiven all the talk about mutations (particularly regarding a certain flu virus...), it's not altogether irrational to think that DNA replication is error-prone. It's not. One in 100,000 base pairs are mismatched during replication, but proofreading and error-correcting mechanisms in the DNA replication process reduce that error rate to one in one billion base pairs. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have figured out how to add DNA-based proofreading and error-correction to the production of nanoscale materials.

    “Instead of trying to avoid defects or work around them, it makes more sense to accept defects as part of the process and then correct them during and after the assembly process,” said Yi Lu, a chemistry professor at Illinois and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. “This procedure is analogous to how nature deals with defects, and can be applied to the assembly of nanomaterials using biomolecules or biomimetic compounds.”
    In protein synthesis, nature ensures accuracy by utilizing a proofreading unit that detects and corrects errors in translation, often through hydrolysis of incorrect amino acid building blocks. In a similar fashion, Lu and graduate students Juewen Liu and Daryl Wernette utilized catalytic DNA to locate and remove errors in a DNA-templated gold nanoparticle assembly process.

    This kind of biomimicry is a bit less attention-getting than biomimetic architecture or industrial design, but may in the long run be among the most important developments in the field.

    Brazil Wind Farms

    The southern Brazil city of Osorio is set to build three wind farms, to come online in 2006. The three wind farms will compose a wind generation complex that will rank as the largest in Latin America, and the second largest in the world. The project will have the capacity of generating 150 MW of electric energy, more than five times Brazil's current wind generation capacity of 28.6 MW. The wind complex is part of a $4B investment project from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, covering wind, biomass and small-scale hydro power.

    CommonCensus and the Megalopolis

    commoncensus.jpgThe CommonCensus Map Project asks a simple question: which city in your general region do you most identify with, culturally? From that question -- answered by over 16,000 people, and counting -- CommonCensus is building a cultural footprint map of the United States. The results are both fascinating and not terribly surprising: culture has much more to do with major cities than with political boundaries. Cities like Boise, Idaho, Denver, Colorado, and Minneapolis, Minnesota dominate cultural lives well outside of their home states; regions with multiple big cities in close proximity, such as along the northern east coast of the US, find that their footprints are much smaller, even if the populations are far larger.

    I have two major observations about the resulting map. The first is that, for the most part, the "cultural influence" regions more-or-less map to television coverage. That is to say, the sizes of the cultural regions are roughly equivalent to the area likely to receive the television stations of the "core" city. The second is that there's an interesting parallel here to the "megapolitan" areas demographers and sociologists have identified in the US.

    Continue reading "CommonCensus and the Megalopolis" »


    Tests in Europe of a "High Altitude Platform" broadband router have successfully demonstrated the ability to provide a high-speed wireless connection over a wide area from the air. The Europe-wide Capanina project, led by the University of York, operated a wireless-Internet-equipped balloon at an altitude of 24 kilometers over Sweden this week, according to the BBC. The goal of the project is to provide wireless coverage of a region 60 kilometers square at a speed of 120 Mbps; the project team say that they should be able to do this in less than five years.

    Such a system would be of particular utility in areas where terrain makes pulling wires or even installing enough wireless towers too costly. Because the cost of a HAP wireless system would be significantly lower than a satellite link, this model should be of great use in the developing world. At the same time, the ability to launch a balloon-based router relatively quickly -- potentially even releasing it from an airplane -- would be valuable during post-disaster response operations.

    (Thanks for the pointer, Lorenzo!)

    October 20, 2005

    Desert Tents, Courtesy the Space Program

    The ESA (European Space Agency) is showing off its "Desert Seal" inflatable tent concept at the SAFE exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Desert Seal is a one-person tent made for extreme environments, and while this particular design may not be widely used, it suggests ways to build robust temporary shelters for extreme environments.

    The Desert Seal uses a fan at the top of a "chimney" to pull in cool air during the day and warm air at night. The fan's battery is charged by a flexible solar panel on the top of the tent. The tent isn't based on a particular space technology, but instead comes from the use of the same design methodologies used to come up with systems for space exploration.

    "To design habitation for humans on Mars, completely autonomous solutions must be found. How can a construction be extremely light and easy to transport? How can the surrounding environment be controlled?”

    Although few of us will be in a situation that needs an individual desert tent, it's good to see that the people working on space survival technologies are willing and able to apply themselves to issues of Earthly survival, too.

    More Accolades for Cameron Sinclair

    Not a prize this time, but a Business Week, which continues to inch closer to "getting it" about WorldChanging ideas. Like many of the Cameron Sinclair interviews, this one focuses on how Architecture for Humanity came about, but does give some details about how the AfH idea is spreading.

    Architecture for Humanity has grown into a movement much larger than its founder anticipated. There are 152 AFH meet-up groups and chapters around the world working on their own local projects. In this regard it has something in common with the global Linux movement launched by programmer Linus Torvalds.

    Over the long term, Sinclair aims to adopt the open-source model more literally. From the beginning, he has tapped the knowledge of his members through competitions; one, to design a mobile AIDS clinic for Africa, generated a record 530 proposals from 51 countries.

    Get used to it, Cameron -- there will be more of these to come.

    Corruption Perception Index, 2005

    cpi2005.jpgTransparency International released its annual Corruption Perception Index today (we also covered the 2004 Index). Iceland just edged out last year's least-corrupt nation, Finland, with a transparency score of 9.7 out of 10; Finland and New Zealand tied at #2, with Denmark and Singapore rounding out the top five. The UK remained at #11, Canada dropped from #12 in 2004 to #14, and the US remained at #17, just ahead of France and just behind Germany. As was found last year, the majority of nations remained hampered by serious corruption, with more than two-thirds of the countries scoring less than 5 on the 10 point scale:

    “Corruption is a major cause of poverty as well as a barrier to overcoming it,” said Transparency International Chairman Peter Eigen. “The two scourges feed off each other, locking their populations in a cycle of misery. Corruption must be vigorously addressed if aid is to make a real difference in freeing people from poverty.”

    Continue reading "Corruption Perception Index, 2005" »

    October 21, 2005

    Nanotech Solar Breakthrough

    nanocrystal-D.jpgBroadly speaking, there are two types of photovoltaic materials: traditional inorganic solar cells, which are stiff (sometimes to the point of being brittle) and often expensive to make, but have decent efficiency of around 25-35% (with the potential for up to 50-60% with current research); and organic polymer solar cells, which are flexible (sometimes to the point of being able to be sprayed or painted on a surface) and relatively inexpensive to produce, but tend to have relatively short lifespans (generally no more than a couple of years, and sometimes far worse) and very low efficiency of around 3-5%. Ilan Gur, working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, may well have found a best-of-both-worlds solution: nanocrystal solar cells.

    In the current Science magazine, Gur (a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate) and his research group report on the development of ultra-thin inorganic photovoltaic semiconductors using nano-scale crystals. The material can be cast from solution, like organic photovoltaics, meaning the nanocrystal solar cells are far less costly to make than traditional silicon cells. Unlike the organic pv materials, however, the nanocrystal solar cells respond to a wide range of light frequencies, and can last for years. In fact, aging seems to increase the performance of the nanocrystal cells, rather than degrade it:

    Continue reading "Nanotech Solar Breakthrough" »

    Nanoparticle Water Filter

    Researchers at the University of Central Florida -- one a nanomaterials specialist, the other an expert in water filtration systems -- have been given a grant by the US National Science Foundation to develop a portable water filtration device using nanoparticles to kill bacteria. The goal is to develop a system that can be easily and widely deployed after a disaster.

    The key to the process is a naturally created nanoparticle that can kill bacteria that foul membranes used as filters to produce drinking water. In catastrophic situations such as Hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Pakistan, the membranes become so fouled by bacteria that they become unusable for water treatment. [...] Taylor, who has conducted water treatment research since 1975, said drinking water could be consistently produced even from wastewater if the fouling bacteria could be killed.

    The catch? They need to show results in six months. Then again, it sounds like they haven't heard of the Lifestraw -- maybe somebody should tell them.

    Distributed, Collaborative... Microfinance

    kivamicrocredit.jpgThe microcredit concept is based on the idea that a small loan to an individual, family or community in the developing world can kick-start a business, allowing the loan recipient to become a self-reliant economic actor; in time, the loan will be paid back, with a modicum of interest, thereby enabling the microcredit institution -- generally an NGO -- to underwrite another start-up. While there is some debate about the potential of microloans to affect the lives of the very poor, the concept is generally considered to be a success. Microcredit NGOs have a goal of reaching 100 million people by the end of this year.

    But the notion of do-good institutions doling out money to recipients has something of a 20th century character. While there are open-source models for microfinance, they generally seem to be intended to assist the creation of more microcredit NGOs. A new microfinance group, Kiva, intends to take a different course: they've built the world's first peer-to-peer, distributed microloan website.

    Kiva's first country of focus is Uganda, where the Internet is available even in poor rural areas. Lenders may loan money through kiva.org, which lists businesses in need of funding and provides background on the entrepreneur starting the enterprise. Individuals may makes loans in increments as small as $25, and can expect to receive repayment, without interest, at the end of the loan term, which typically runs between six and 12 months. Since Kiva's source of capital is charitably-minded individuals, it is able to provide more flexible loan terms than traditional financial institutions.

    Continue reading "Distributed, Collaborative... Microfinance" »

    October 23, 2005

    White Light, Less Heat

    quantumdot_led_4.jpgPlease note that this article has been updated from its original text, correcting a couple of mistakes. -- Jamais

    An accidental discovery at Vanderbilt University may well be the key to making light-emitting diodes the dominant lighting technology of the century. Up until very recently, the only way to make "white" light was to add yellow phosphors to bright blue LEDs. It wasn't quite right, though, as even the best "white" LED retained a blue tint. This week, we got the news that a chemistry grad student at Vanderbilt has stumbled on a way to make broad-spectrum white LEDs using quantum dots -- and in doing so, he may well have kicked off a revolution.

    Michael Bowers was making quantum dots, tiny nanocrystals just a few dozen atoms across. Crystals at that scale often have unusual properties, and the ones that Bowers created were no exception. When he illuminated his batch with a laser, rather than the blue glow he expected, out came a rich white light, similar in spectrum to sunlight.

    Bowers then took a polyurethane sealing liquid, mixed in some of his dots, and coated a blue LED. Although the resulting bulb -- pictured above -- is crude, it puts out white light. Its visible spectrum is similar to a typical incandescent bulb, but it puts out twice the light-per-watt, and lasts fifty times longer. One key reason for its efficiency is that it doesn't put out the infrared light typical of a regular light bulb; despite being much brighter, it's still far cooler to the touch. (The LED assembly still gets hot, however.) Completely by accident, Bowers had come up with a technology that possessed the quality of incandescent light, but none of its drawbacks.

    Continue reading "White Light, Less Heat" »

    Hurricane Season, 2005

    As Tropical Depression Alpha wanders through the Caribbean -- that's right, we've made it through the 21 named storms, and are now on the Greek alphabet -- NASA has made available a movie of the 2005 Hurricane Season, up to the early days of Wilma. The MPEG video is notable for a couple of reasons: it's easy to see both the consistent patterns and abberations of this year's storms; and the satellite image has an overlay of orange to red in the parts of the ocean warm enough to strengthen tropical depressions into hurricanes.

    Individual stills from the movie are available, as well.

    (Via Futurismic)

    October 26, 2005

    A Kozi Little Home

    This is the kind of leapfrog innovation that we really love around here: Cape Town, South Africa-based n'Kozi Homes has come up with a home design that mixes Buckminster Fuller and local materials. The dome homes are designed to be compatible with a variety of environmentally-sustainable utilities, from waterless toilets to solar power. The costs are remarkably low, too: a ready-to-live house, 33 meters square, complete with plumbing and power, would run about $10,000.

    (Via NextBillion -- Thanks, Rob!)

    October 28, 2005

    Nanotechnology: Less Dangerous, Potentially Life-Saving

    There has been a flood of nanotechnology-related stories popping up of late; it's almost enough to make one suspect a major breakthrough was near. I found two recent reports, one about current research, the other about potential capabilities, particularly interesting. In the first, Rice University researchers have figured out how to reduce toxic effects of some nanoparticles; in the second, editors at Nanotechnology.com discuss the direct medical applications of the emerging technology.

    Concerns over the toxicity of nanoparticles are certainly valid, and remain an important line of research. A great deal of useful nanomaterial safety research is happening at Rice University, including the Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits Database. In an upcoming issue of Toxicology Letters, researchers at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) report that water-soluble forms of carbon nanotubes can be rendered essentially nontoxic with minor chemical modifications:

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology: Less Dangerous, Potentially Life-Saving" »

    Breaking and Fixing LEED

    It's inevitable: combine a complex rule system and the potential for economic benefit, and you have a ripe opportunity for "gaming:" seeking the optimal combination of minimum effort and maximum result. Gaming a system isn't cheating, per se; you're following all the rules to the letter, even if you're not following the spirit of the rules. It has a similar result, however: the devaluation of legitimate effort, and confusion over the utility of the rules.

    With greater attention focused on green buildings of late, it should come as no surprise that the LEED guidelines, with lists correlating green methods and points toward silver, gold and platinum status, may have been gamed by builders. Grist has published a couple of very interesting articles about the phenomenon and -- more importantly -- what can be done about it. Fixing a gamed system isn't insoluble, but like so many other bad situations, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

    ICSMD In Action

    Shortly after the December 2004 tsunami, we posted about the ICSMD -- the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters -- a treaty facilitating access to satellite information in the event of a natural or human-caused disaster. Most of the major space-faring states are party to the charter, which makes it possible for nations without access to their own satellites to have up-to-the-minute images and maps of affected disaster zones. The charter was called upon again after the Kashmir earthquake earlier this month; the European Space Agency has now published a detailed description of the materials and access the regional governments received through the ICSMD.

    The first maps of the affected region were produced using archived satellite data within 24 hours of the disaster. They were made available to search and rescue teams directly in the field the following day via the NGO Télécoms Sans Frontières who were on the scene to set up a satellite-based communications infrastructure so the maps could be downloaded for printing and distribution.

    Continue reading "ICSMD In Action" »

    October 29, 2005

    Stanford on iTunes

    stanforditunes.jpgThis one's an early indicator of something, but I'm still not quite certain what. Stanford University has begun to make recordings of select lectures, speeches, interviews and events available on the iTunes Music Store, for free. The material currently available includes a number of WorldChanging-related topics: talks by Lawrence Lessig, Geoff Davis on Microfinance, Paul Erlich on Population and Sustainability, and over 50 presentations on Health and Medicine. A restricted access section provides course-related materials for students and instructors, as well.

    You'll notice that I haven't linked to any of the recordings. That's because they're only available through iTunes Music Store, which is accessed through (and therefore requires one to have) the iTunes application. This means that people on older machines, or non-Windows/Macintosh computers, are out of luck. The files are in the non-protected AAC format (.m4a), so more recent non-iPod players should be able to play them. (Adding to the complexity, the Stanford iTunes part of the ITMS is only accessible via the Stanford iTunes webpage -- you can't get to it by navigating through the iTunes application.)

    Continue reading "Stanford on iTunes" »

    October 31, 2005

    Hospital in a Box

    hospitalinabox.jpgIt's getting so that we may need a separate "...in a box" category. At last week's British Invention Show, medical technician Alexander Bushell and consultant Dr Seyi Oyesola unveiled a portable medical system intended to provide core surgical support in inaccessible areas. Designed to allow a team of three doctors to carry out common surgeries (including treating burn patients), the "Hospital in a Box" won the show's Invention of the Year award.

    Weighing in at around 150lbs, the unit is light enough to be dropped by helicopter into stricken areas, but contains anaesthetic equipment, a defibrillator, a burns unit, plaster-making facilities, surgical equipment and a built-in operating table. It even comes with its own tent to create an ad hoc field hospital.

    The system is powered by a truck battery, and is made to be readily recharged via solar panel. The basic kit, minus battery, costs about £14,000, or roughly US$25,000; additional modules provide support for an extensive selection of drugs and more specialized medical treatments (including orthopedic surgery).

    According to New Scientist, Bushell is working with groups in Nigeria to test the unit in remote areas. The system has a website with a few pictures but very little information.

    So at this point we have functional examples of medical support, renewable power, water purification, and networking/telecommunication gear, all "in a box" and usable for relief and emergency situations. We're getting close to a complete disaster response center able to fit on a flatbed truck.

    (Thanks to David Foley for the tip)

    Microfossils As Climate Indicator

    A research tool used primarily by the oil industry is finding a new application as a means for climatologists to gather climate data. How's that for irony? Foraminifera, single-celled organisms that produce easily-identified shells, are readily preserved in ocean and shore sediments. Samples can be tied to particular times and locations, making them useful for geologists looking for oil-rich layers; this also makes it possible to use foraminifera to identify disturbances such as hurricanes. By looking back over foraminfera fossils pulled up from shore samples, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are able to track the frequency of major hurricanes over the past several thousand years. The results are suggestive, but more research remains to be done.

    "The record indicates that big storms have been less frequent in the last 1000 years than in the previous 2000 years before that," Hippensteel said. Recent layers contained far fewer layers of sand and very few layers containing significant numbers of off-shore foraminifera, compared with numerous such layers in the previous millennia. [...] "Our records seem to show that we have been in a thousand year period of relative calm, but that result doesn't consider the possible destruction of the storm layers," he said. "Hurricanes may have been far more frequent before a thousand years ago… but we really don't know yet. We need more data."


    sunball.jpgThe Sunball, a "solar appliance" due out in mid-2006, is an example of something I expect to see quite a bit more of in the coming months and years: a renewable energy system combining a novel design with promises of easy installation and use. I have no idea whether the Sunball will perform up to the claims made by the manufacturers, Australia's Green & Gold Energy, but in many respects that's secondary. What's important is that we're now seeing more kinds of renewable energy systems aimed not at hobbyists and those willing to fiddle with clumsy tech, but at people who want something relatively stylish (whether the Sunball meets that criteria is a matter of taste, of course) and something relatively "plug and play." Building-integrated photovoltaics are another example, albeit a less-radical departure.

    Continue reading "Sunball" »

    About October 2005

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

    September 2005 is the previous archive.

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