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December 2005 Archives

December 1, 2005

Thank You, BusinessWeek!

BusinessWeek has named WorldChanging as one of its five "Best of the New Web" sites in the "Giving Back" category. Others in the category (which isn't ranked) include WorldChanging allies Omidyar.net and NextBillion.net, as well as OneWorld.net and DonorsChoose.org.

Winners in other categories include Engadget, Wikipedia, MAKE and (of course!) BoingBoing.

Congrats to all the winners!

Dossiers on Brazil, China (and soon India) and Climate Change

All WorldChanging readers should have SciDev.net near the top of their bookmark lists. The site's content is a graceful counterpart to our somewhat more manic presentation here: science and global development are its main focus, which means coverage of everything from nanotechnology to the ethics of research -- and, of course, the climate.

SciDev.net has just opened up two "Spotlight" sections looking at the role played by key developing nations in both the causes of and solutions for global warming. Spotlight pages for Brazil and China are now available, and one for India should be up soon.

The pages include "policy briefs" and opinion pieces, descriptions of background reading on the subject, and links to relevant websites and organizations. The China page is available in English and Chinese; the Brazil page is available only in English for now.

Synthetic Biology: The Comic

synthbiodude.jpgHow's this for surreal: the century-old, highly-respected science journal Nature has now published its first comic book. The subject is "Adventures in Synthetic Biology" (Flash req.), and it covers the adventures of an (apparently eyeless) adult scientist named Sally and her young companion known only as "The Dude" (any references to The Big Lebowski appear entirely coincidental). Sally teaches The Dude how to make things out of DNA modules, explaining as she goes just how this synthetic biology thing works.

Given the context of a comic book, one might imagine that issues of scientific responsibility would go unmentioned. As it turns out, they are mentioned, in the very first section: the scientist gives a warning ("Hmm... are you sure you understand enough about what you want to do? You don't want to make things worse."), which is promptly dismissed by The Dude ("We'll only find out by trying!"). The Dude's first experiment is a spectacular failure -- the chapter is even called "Icarus" in the non-Flash text version -- and the follow-up is the Dude's realization that he needs to learn more before doing anything else. The issue is dropped at that point, and the rest of the comic reads more like a how-to than an adventure.

It's notable that the comic brings up issues of responsibility, however obliquely; I just wish it kept the idea as a theme throughout. If there's a lesson that's good to impart from early on, it's that our ever-more-powerful technologies need to be matched with ever-more-diligent responsibility. Fortunately, the accompanying (pay-only) commentary on synthetic biology asserts that "Synthetic biology... will require community discipline and openness if it is to flourish safely."

Let's hope that's a lesson the Dude takes to heart.

(Via BoingBoing)

Thinking About the Fabrication Future

chaplin_mod_times1.jpgDavid Pescowitz tells us of the fabrication future scenario in yesterday's Salon (subscription or brief advertisement required). In "Desktop Manufacturing," Pescowitz lays out what would go into a personal fabricator, from 3D printing of the physical frame to polymer electronics. RepRap gets its due, as does MIT's Neal Gershenfeld. In fact, nearly every point that Pescowitz makes covers something we've gone into here at WorldChanging.

So why is this worth reading?

Because Pescowitz provides a useful summary of how the fabrication future could unfold, and does so in a relatively mainstream publication. This is a sign that an idea is starting to take hold; people outside the design and technology communities will soon want to have a say in how this future comes about. If it follows a path similar to previous emerging technologies with real-world implications, in a few years -- as the first early designs start to appear in labs -- we'll start seeing lobbyists looking for influence on the subject, industry groups looking for publicity, and poorly-drafted laws looking for a court date.

This concluding bit from the Salon piece tells us why:

Continue reading "Thinking About the Fabrication Future" »

Enjoy Europe While You Can

Dismal news really isn't our focus here, but we can't let this go without notice: the latest Nature also includes a report on an apparent weakening of the warm-water current in the North Atlantic due to global warming causing Greenland ice to melt. This flow keeps the UK, Ireland and the rest of Europe relatively temperate, despite being at latitudes similar to Canada and lower Alaska. A further weakening of the flow could result in a mini-ice age for Europe, and possibly further strengthen mid-Atlantic hurricanes.

It's unclear yet whether this is a single event or signs of a new trend.

Green Car Congress has a terrific summary. Additional good discussions can be found at The Oil Drum and (for the more technically-inclined among you) RealClimate.

December 2, 2005

Green Aerogel

Aerogel is one of those materials that sounds too bizarre to be real. Technically, it's 99.8% air, and 1,000 less dense than glass. It's also one of the best insulating materials known, working 39 times better than fibreglass. It was actually invented in 1939, but is best known as a tool used by NASA to capture space dust.

Soon, it may end up in your car.

GreenShift, an environmental sustainability-focused research and capital group, has just invested $500,000 in Aerogel Composite, in order to encourage their work on using aerogel to improve the efficiency of fuel cells. The use of aerogel both boosts the performance of energy transport and lowers the overall cost of production by reducing the need for platinum by 90%. Aerogel also has potential as an energy storage medium.

Sadly, it's still far too expensive to use for building insulation -- but since an inch of aerogel would insulate as well as a meter of fibreglass, you know somebody is thinking about it...

(Via Sustainability Zone)

Optimized Self-Assembly

self-assembly.jpgSelf-assembly is a fundamental part of how things work in the universe. We often see it at the nano-scale, whether we're talking about nanotechnology or biochemistry. You put the right components together in the right context, and what results is a structure -- DNA, for example. Traditionally, the use of self-assembly to build nano-sized materials requires a lot of repetitive experimentation: try this set of components under these conditions; now slightly alter the setup and repeat, until you get what you want.

If researchers at Princeton University are right, though, the era of hit-or-miss self-assembly experiments may soon be over. A team led by Dr. Salvatore Torquato applied mathematical principles of optimization, which is essentially a process of finding the most efficient operation of a given process, to how components of a nanomaterial are organized prior to self-assembly. According to their computer models, this makes it possible to determine how to build a particular molecular structure before one starts, eliminating the need for repetitive sub-optimal experiments.

''If one thinks of a nanomaterial as a house, our approach enables a scientist to act as architect, contractor, and day laborer all wrapped up in one," Torquato said. "We design the components of the house, such as the 2-by-4s and cement blocks, so that they will interact with each other in such a way that when you throw them together randomly they self-assemble into the desired house."

Continue reading "Optimized Self-Assembly" »

Oregon Embraces California

At least when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Oregon resident Watthead alerts us that Oregon governmor Ted Kulongoski has ordered the state's Department of Environmental Quality to create a local version of the California regulations on vehicular GHG. Popular sentiment in the state supports the governor on this, although automakers and the opposition party in the legislature are pledging to fight. If Oregon is successful in adopting these rules, they will join not just California but also New York and Vermont; New Mexico, Arizona, and most Northeastern states have also declared a desire to join in on the fun.

Oregon's decision affects more than just itself -- the state of Washington pledged to adopt the California rules, but only if Oregon does it, too.

(If Oregon does this, I may forgive them for charging hybrid cars double the normal vehicle registration fee.)

Sustainable Neighborhood Design

Back in August, while discussing the recent draft of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Home standards, we noted that the US Green Building Council was working on a LEED for neighborhoods, LEED-ND. This is a wonderful idea -- the application of green building concepts to communities.

More recently the ZEDStandards checklist, put out by the designers behind the UK's breakthrough BedZED project. The ZEDStandards spell out what a sustainable community design should include, covering everything from access to local food to proximity to transportation.

Finally, USGBC has released its first draft of LEED-ND, giving us an opportunity to compare different approaches to building environmentally sound and energy efficient neighborhoods.

Let's see how they stack up:

Continue reading "Sustainable Neighborhood Design" »

December 3, 2005

Hydrogen-Producing Bacteria Sequenced

Researchers at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) have sequenced the genome of Carboxydothermus hydrogenoformans, an extremophile bacteria that lives in a Russian volcano, eating carbon monoxide and producing hydrogen and CO2 as waste. Biological production of hydrogen is one of the candidates for how a fuel cell economy would be supported, so getting this sequence will help us better understand how hydrogen-forming bacteria do their voodoo.

Rather than give the full scientific breakdown of the research, I'll just point you to Mike Millikin's post at Green Car Congress.

An Exurban Scenario?

Engineer-Poet, who occasionally comments here, has a provocative post up at his own blog, The Ergosphere. In "the Triumph of Exurbia," E-P posits that a serious peak-oil collapse scenario could actually result in a world in which exurban sprawl -- the medium-lot mcmansion communities well outside the urban core and suburban ring -- is a preferable place to live. The reason? One could become close to self-sufficient for food and, possibly, energy on the lots typical of exurban areas.

The big problem would remain getting around. Here E-P doesn't argue that the current set-up, with a bit of tweaking, would suffice, and argues again for plug-in hybrids as a critical solution.

I'm not sure the scenario works, but it does suggest an interesting opportunity should some of the bleaker peak-oil conditions look imminent: people who know how to turn golf courses and back yards into productive spaces will be in great demand.

What's a Forest Worth? More Than You Might Think.

Photo by Garth Lenz for CBIEcosystem valuation is gaining momentum as a strategy to protect the environment while speaking the language of costs and benefits that governments and taxpayers understand. The classic environmentalist position that "nature is priceless" has, all too often, been translated into "nature is valueless;' ecosystem valuation confronts the price issue head-on, and increasingly often, comes up with compelling reasons why preservation provides more economic gain than resource extraction.

The latest example of the importance of this approach emerged last week in Canada, as the Canadian Boreal Initiative released a report (PDF) demonstrating that Canada's boreal forests -- which cover nearly 60 percent of the Canadian land mass -- are worth substantially more as ecosystem services than if cut down for lumber, cleared for mining, or inundated for hydroelectric power.

The estimated market value of boreal natural capital extraction, in 2002 dollars (the point the study began), is C$48.9 billion, minus an estimated C$11.1 billion in direct air pollution from the work and government subsidies, for a total of C$37.8 billion. The estimated non-market value of boreal ecosystem services in 2002 totaled C$93.2 billion. The ecosystem services are twice the value of natural capital extraction, even if costs are ignored:

Continue reading "What's a Forest Worth? More Than You Might Think." »

December 4, 2005

Hurricane Epsilon

IR image of atlantic weatherAs most of you know, this year's Atlantic hurricane season, which just ended officially (even if the Atlantic hurricanes haven't noticed), was the most active on record. What you might not have heard, however, is that all National Weather Service predictions were for Epsilon to weaken instead of getting stronger. This year's hurricane season wasn't just stronger and more active than anyone expected, it was also weirder.

This point is driven home by the latest update on Epsilon published by the National Hurricane Center at NOAA. I've reproduced the discussion here in its entirety:

10 AM EST SUN DEC 04 2005




When the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are visibly disturbed by the progress of a storm, you know things have gotten bad.

December 5, 2005

DIY $100 Laptop

MAKE blog has an amusing post about the beginnings of a project to make a $100 or so laptop with the main features of the One Laptop Per Child project -- portability, hand-crank & solar power, wireless network, and useful software -- using only materials gathered from sources like eBay, Freecycle, Craigslist, and the like. The object isn't to replace the OLPC computer so much as to see what can be done, now, with the detritus of a rapidly-evolving technology base.

A trip to a local used computer store will find dozens of still functional old laptops for amazingly low prices. What could we do with them to make them useful in today's world, not as Thinkpad/Powerbook replacements, but as new kinds of tools?

Renewable Energy as a Human Right

knowyourrights.jpgThe World Renewable Energy Assembly 2005 (WREA) just finished up in Bonn, Germany, and one of the documents emerging from the conference is something called "The Human Right to Renewable Energy." It's a communique that manages to be both awkward and inspiring, as its old-style 20th century activist prose doesn't quite match some of the document's more provocative and forward-looking ideas. The communique captures the transition now underway for global environmentalism, the shift from demanding a cessation of problems to encouraging the development of solutions.

Follow the link to read the text of the communique. It's brief, just about 700 words, and raises some very interesting issues even as it rallies against traditional environmental bugbears.

In the spirit of focusing on solutions rather than problems, I'd like to explore a bit several concepts raised by the communique that I think merit greater consideration: a "Renewable Energy Proliferation Protocol;" micro-finance for renewable energy in the developing world; and the concept of renewable energy as a human right.

Continue reading "Renewable Energy as a Human Right" »

Drive the Smart Way

The US Environmental Protection Agency has just updated its listing of automobile environmental ratings, with scores for air pollution and CO2 emissions. This time around, however, they've added a special tag for the vehicles that score best -- the "SmartWay" and "SmartWay Elite" labels -- to make it easier to pick out the overall greener vehicles from the EPA lists.

SmartWay Elite vehicles are those that score near the top in both categories (9 points out of 10); currently, the only vehicles so rated are the Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight.

The real value of the list, however, is for people who have decided that a hybrid is too expensive. Although no non-hybrids made the Elite rank, several gasoline-only cars came close, including some models that cost significantly less than a Prius or HCH.

(Via Treehugger)

Learning Ethics from Science Fiction

Creation 2.0, by Jamais CascioThe more powerful our technologies become, the more critical it is that technology developers approach their tasks in an ethical way. Not just the professional ethics of avoiding fraud and so forth, but socially ethical -- recognizing the implications of their research on fellow citizens and the planet. Teaching the philosophy of ethics to students more comfortable with quantifiable data and experimentation can be challenging, however. Recognizing this, Rosalyn Berne at the University of Virginia and Joachim Schummer at the University of South Carolina offer a different approach in a new paper in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society: use science fiction.

Berne and Schummer aren't looking at the broad scope of scientific research, however -- they're particularly interested in the emering field of nanotechnology. They're both well-versed in the field, and are well-regarded by nanotech analysts. In "Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students through Science Fiction," (pre-print version available here - PDF) Berne and Schummer explain why the study of ethics is particularly important to the engineers and researchers making the nanotech breakthroughs:

[Nanotechnology's] unknown and potentially substantial harms and benefits, the risks and opportunities it represents to social, cultural, and material life warrants immediate and careful ethical reflection. The effort to engage and develop an ethics for nanotechnology complements other efforts to explore the moral dimensions of the scientific and technological transformations of society...

Continue reading "Learning Ethics from Science Fiction" »

December 6, 2005

A World Without Snow


One of the many troubling aspects of global warming is the possibility of feedback effects, where changes resulting from a warming atmosphere serve to further exacerbate the warming. An example of how this could work is the interaction between warming and snow cover. According to Stephan Vavrus at the Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Climate Research, if global warming manages to melt off the current snow cover in the far north -- a distinct possibility -- the result would be a further increase in temperature of close to another degree (which would, in turn, further accelerate other effects of temperature increases).

The snow itself does more than reflect the sun's heat; it also serves as insulation for the ground, so that snow-covered soil is warmer than it would be otherwise. As a result, regions now covered in snow would instead see an expansion of permafrost, with resulting damage to structures and roadways in places like Alaska. Of course, as temperatures continue to climb, even that permafrost won't be so permanent...

Climate Accounting

ghgprojectaccounting.jpgThe first officially-recognized Clean Development Mechanism projects, in Honduras and India, have finally their carbon credits. One reason why the pace of CDM project certification is slow turns out to be a lack of standardization of greenhouse gas accounting processes. Although counting the greenhouse gases mitigated by clean development projects is well-understood in principle, just how the details are counted can vary from organization to organization. This lack of consistency -- and, occasionally, transparency -- prompted the World Resource Institute, working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, to assemble a standardized methodology for climate change mitigation accounting.

The GHG Protocol for Project Accounting (PDF) may sound like boring wonkery, but it provides a useful insight into the practical aspects of figuring out how to reduce our carbon footprints, and (just as importantly) to know for certain that we've done so.

The Project Protocol’s procedures are compatible with existing Clean Development Mechanism methodologies. However, the Project Protocol brings together in one place the key concepts, principles, and methods to account for GHG emission reductions from any type of GHG project. It provides detailed instructions for developing a GHG emission “baseline” using the two major approaches developed by climate policy experts [...]. It also explains how to account for the unintended changes in GHG emissions a project might cause, and how to report GHG emission reductions for maximum transparency.

The Project Protocol (which has its own website at GHGProtocol.org) is not intended to replace existing accounting mechanisms, but to supplement and translate between them, so that everyone is on the same figurative page regarding each project.

None of the six key principles embodied by the Project Protocol are terribly surprising, as each (relevance, completeness, consistency, transparency, accuracy, conservativeness) is typical of good accounting practices in general. What's notable is the effort the Project Protocol goes to in order to ensure the testable reliability of the results. This strikes me as enormously encouraging; the last thing an international effort to combine climate mitigation and global development needs is an accusation of fraud or accounting malfeasance.

Whistler 2020

whstemp.jpgWhistler 2020, a comprehensive civic sustainability plan crafted by the small Canadian town earlier this year, has just been given the International Livable Communities Award in the category of "Planning for the Future."

Whistler 2020 reimagines the resort community as a fully-sustainable, very low-footprint community, and spells out an ambitious -- yet practical -- agenda to make it so. The main document (PDF), published last May, outlines the goals and vision for the community; the resulting strategies document, adopted in August, provide more concrete steps for achieving that vision. Each of the sixteen categories, from arts & culture to water, gets a thorough examination of short and medium-term goals, along with policy recommendations for the next two years. The strategy documents have a good mix of idealism and practicality, with well-articulated (and plausible) descriptions of what a success scenario would look like alongside specific actions to be taken by civic planning authorities.

Continue reading "Whistler 2020" »

December 7, 2005

Greener Grenades

Grenades exist to kill people. But Swedish scientist Elisabeth Hochschorner and her team reasoned that they could be made to be less-harmful to the Earth, something of particular relevance during training, when all the grenades blow up is the ground.

In a study to be published in an upcoming Journal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology, they present the results of a "life-cycle assessment" of the environmental harm of grenade manufacturing and use, and found that the two most significant ways that grenades damage the planet are mining the copper used to make grenades and residues left over from the explosives themselves. The chemical remnants are more of a problem during training, as the copper can be recaptured and recycled; the mining, correspondingly, is more of an issue during wartime. The researchers also propose some ways to mitigate the problems.

The reaction that many of us might have is to argue that even better for the planet would be not using the grenades (or other munitions) at all. However, in a world where that scenario is not a likely one any time soon, it's good to see that green design methodologies can make things a little bit better, nonetheless.

Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting from Here to There

efficiencychartxrpt.jpgCarbon dioxide output from the United States will peak and then begin to fall in just a few years, according to the numbers derived by John Whitehead at the Environmental Economics blog. The reason is that carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon produced per dollar of GDP -- is dropping at a rate faster than GDP is growing. At the current pace of intensity reduction, CO2 output in the US will peak in 2008, and begin a gradual decline thereafter. (We previously discussed carbon intensity here.)

This is good news for a number of reasons, not least that it suggests that the current biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect could, with a bit more effort, achieve a far more dramatic reduction in CO2. How to do this is a mainstay of discussion at WorldChanging; here's a look at some of the numbers underlying these options. CO2 intensity is a function of two components: the energy required per dollar equivalent of GDP (or use efficiency of energy); and the CO2 output per MW equivalent of energy (or carbon efficiency of energy). By taking a closer look at the data, we can see which one has mattered more -- and which could stand some improvement.

Continue reading "Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting from Here to There" »

GMoke Goes (Partially) Off

George Mokray -- seasoned observer of the green community and regular commenter here -- has gone off-grid, at least in one room of his home:

My bedroom is now basically off-grid. [...]

This system is still a work in progress but for about $150 I've got one room that is independent of the grid, that provides me with radio and reading light for the foreseeable future without the use of coal, oil, gas, or nuclear energy. I have one room running on sunlight.

This is particularly inspiring because it's a clear demonstration that it's possible to make an environmental difference in one's own life without having to utterly transform every aspect of how one lives. Good work, gmoke!

December 8, 2005

Organic Radical Battery

necorganic.jpgIt's fascinating to watch the future emerge, piece by piece. Organic polymer electronic materials are very appealing, from a WorldChanging perspective: they contain few or no toxic metals, meaning that they are far less damaging to the environment; in many cases, they can be produced through standard "ink-jet" style printing processes, making them prime candidates for use in fabricators; and, because they are so flexible, they have applications far beyond what can be easily done with current electronics. In the past, we've looked at organic polymer solar panels, electronic circuits, and displays. Now we get to add batteries to the mix.

NEC's new "organic radical battery" technology uses a gel as its core material, allowing the final battery to be extremely flexible and thin -- the demonstration unit is 300 microns (0.3 mm) thick -- not much thicker than a typical business card. NEC claims that the battery can be fully recharged in 30 seconds; this isn't as much of a big deal as it sounds, as the power density of the battery is fairly low, just 1 milliwatt-hour (mWh) per square centimeter.

Such limited power is typical of organic polymer electronics. Organic polymer solar cells, for example, are at best around 5 or 6% efficient (compared to 25-35% for traditional silicon panels), and the organic polymer circuit mentioned above is limited to around 600 kilohertz -- or less than one-tenth of one percent as fast as this two-year-old laptop I'm writing on now.

For now, organic polymer electronics are likely to appear primarily in devices like sensors, RFID tags and "smart" building materials. But the technology keeps improving, and smart industrial designers are already thinking about what they could do with power, processors and displays as flexible as paper.

How the World Works

Salon has just launched a new weblog on globalization, entitled "How the World Works." Written by Salon's Andrew Leonard (disclaimer: I've known Andrew for 7 or 8 years now), the blog will attempt to explore the manifestations and impact of globalization without hewing to the Tom Friedman "it's all wonderful" or the Battle in Seattle "it's all a disaster" lines. Given what we have seen over the years from Salon, as well as from Andrew Leonard (a major proponent of free/open source software), I expect that most WorldChanging readers will find his column to be worth reading, even if they don't agree with all of his conclusions.

As with most things Salon these days, this falls into the "premium content" category: you'll either have to subscribe at a modest fee, or sit through an advertisement, in order to read the site.

Safer Nanotechnology

nanobarbedwire.jpgOf all of the developments we talk about here, the one with the greatest potential for both beneficial transformation and disastrous risk is nanotechnology. Today, nanotechnology consists primarily of nanomaterials and nanoparticles, which have properties that have effects at the molecular scale. This is already of great value (witness advances in photovoltaics, batteries, and medicine), but many people have raised questions about their safety. The importance of nanomaterials, however, pales in comparison to the potential impact of molecular-scale manufacturing. The implications of molecular manufacturing just get bigger and bigger the more one thinks about it, because of the way functional nanofactories would upset long-standing models of economic (and social and political) interaction. It's heartening, therefore, to see the growth of resources supporting the safe, ethical and responsible development of nanotechnologies.

WorldChanging readers are familiar with allies the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, run by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. CRN looks primarily at the implications of what they term "middle period" nanotech, such as nanofactories -- much more sophisticated than nanomaterials, but not the fantastic nanoassemblers of science fiction. I'm in the middle of an extended interview with Mike and Chris, but in the meantime, I strongly encourage readers to check out the recently-concluded "Inside CRN" series at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog. The five posts cover CRN's mission and goals, and explains how their focus differs from other nanotech resources. It's a great introduction to an extremely valuable organization.

CRN's focus on "middle period" nanotech is nicely complemented by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, PEN is an attempt to collect and analyze reports on the current and near-future status of molecular technologies. As they put it:

Continue reading "Safer Nanotechnology" »

December 9, 2005

OMI Goodness

OMI.jpgAlthough Aura is one of the US-launched Earth Observing System satellites, it includes instruments made by scientists from around the world. An excellent example is the Ozone Monitoring Instrument -- OMI -- made by scientists in the Netherlands and used to watch the formation of air pollution over Europe. OMI can measure the level of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in a 10 km column of air above the surface; the presence of nitrogen oxides, particularly nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a strong indicator of smog.

The gas - which comes from motor vehicle exhausts, power plants and industry - is an important precursor in the production of ground-level ozone, part of the photochemical smog that can blight city air, particularly in summer.
By following the development and spread of NO2, OMI can be used to help make forecasts of where problem air might develop. Long-term tracking of the gas can also identify emission hotspots.

The Dutch scientists use the OMI readings to generate daily maps of NO2 levels above Europe. To an extent the results aren't terribly surprising; the air above cities like London, Paris and Rotterdam is far dirtier than the air above rural and smaller urban areas. It is useful, however, to see how the NO2 moves, and -- as with many of the satellite studies -- the primary value comes from continued monitoring of changes, so as to better see the real-world effects of mitigation programs.

OMI measures more than just Europe, of course. Aura is on a polar orbit, so covers all of the Earth; the OMI team intends to expand their daily reports to more cities around the globe in the coming months and years.

(Thanks, Tim du Toit)

Geothermal Heat Pumps

heatpump.jpgIt's a little odd to think about, but you're probably standing on one of the best possible resources for home heating and cooling.

Although temperatures in the atmosphere can vary considerably over the course of a year (or even a day), the temperature underground remains fairly constant. At about six feet under, the soil measures from 45 degrees to 75 degrees fahrenheit, depending upon latitude. And this consistency, it turns out, can be a resource for keeping one's home warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Geothermal heat pumps move heat from one place to another via the circulation of a refrigerant fluid. They have a number of advantages over traditional heating and cooling systems, including low noise and essentially no maintenance. Most importantly, they use significantly less energy than traditional gas, electric or oil-based heating & cooling systems. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (PDF), geothermal heat pumps cost 30-40% less per month than traditional methods (and probably even less with current fuel prices). Moreover:

Continue reading "Geothermal Heat Pumps" »

December 10, 2005


interactivemapgraph.jpgOne of the delights of data visualizations on the web is that they can be both interactive and dynamic. Static maps and graphs have their uses, to be sure, but controllable animated presentations are better able to highlight changes and differences. Here are two provocative examples.

Personal World Map shows how far one can travel from a given location in terms of both time and financial resources. Select a starting city (from a limited and not very well distributed set, unfortunately), tell it your flight time and money limits, and the map will display what's accessible, moving target cities closer or further away depending upon how they fall within your guidelines. It's interesting, but it's real value is what it suggests for future applications.

Continue reading "Visualizations" »


This is an interesting idea. Leo Laporte (computer guru from the late, lamented TechTV), John Dvorak (professional curmudgeon), and Larry Lessig (Mr. Creative Commons) have joined forces to create a podcast show called "Triangulation." Here's how Lessig describes it:

The idea is totally John’s: pick a topic on which we all three roughly agree, and then spend 30 minutes drilling down on the layers of the subject. It is intended to be the opposite of Crossfire like malarky.

It's a bit unclear whether Lessig will be a regular, or whether he was there because the first episode covered the Google Print project and intellectual property issues.

While I'm not overly fond of Dvorak (he seems to specialize in getting things wrong), Laporte's a sharp guy, and I find the idea of a show that's the direct opposite of the superficial talking points yelling matches deliriously appealing.

Farmer's Market

ookifshot.jpgLast July, I wrote about the phenomenon of "Chinese farmers" -- people (almost always in China) employed to play online games such as World of Warcraft, collecting virtual money and valuable items for resale in real-world exchanges. This practice is said to be a multi-million dollar industry, despite being against the rules of most online games. Now the New York Times has caught wind of the story, and takes us behind the scenes of one of these "virtual sweatshops."

The article provides some interesting depth to the story, such as the observation that there may be more than 100,000 people now employed as "farmers" in China, and some example prices for goods and services (although it should be noted that the "100 grams of gold" claim is factually incorrect, as the game in question tallies gold in coins, not by weight). The accompanying multimedia presentation is worth a listen, as well.

This could well be the globalized industry to watch as a metric for the degree of development of a nation. Online role-playing games are extraordinarily popular. World of Warcraft is said to have over 4 million players, while the Lineage series may have far more than that, almost entirely in Korea, Japan and China. The buyers of these virtual goods and gold are people who have more money than time; right now, the buyers are largely in the US, Europe, Japan and increasingly in Korea. But as Internet access continues to spread, and places like China continue to grow economically, we will almost certainly see the locations of buyers and sellers change.

Continue reading "Farmer's Market" »

December 12, 2005

Understanding Methane Hydrates

As bad as the more obvious effects of global warming may be (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and the like), the less-well-known effects are the ones that could prove the most worrisome in the long run. Take frozen methane, for example. We've discussed the role of methane in climate change before -- it's 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2, but cycles out of the atmosphere far more quickly. The major risk from methane comes from large amounts being released in a relatively short period. Such large amounts exist frozen beneath the Siberian permafrost and deep in the oceans.

RealClimate explores in some detail today just how the frozen methane could melt, and what the result could be if it does so. The situation, as RealClimate sees it, could be disastrous, but there's still a great deal more research that needs to be done. Unfortunately, the article's key points are obscured by unusually dense prose. For example:

The juiciest disaster-movie scenario would be a release of enough methane to significantly change the atmospheric concentration, on a time scale that is fast compared with the lifetime of methane.

Continue reading "Understanding Methane Hydrates" »

Worldchanging Voice Mail

payphone.jpgWe've talked quite a bit about the utility of mobile phones as a tool for global development. Programs like Grameen Phone make possible communication, information, and even employment in some of the most destitute parts of the world. Although similar programs might prove useful as assistance for the very poor in the industrialized world, the existing communication network makes possible a simpler alternative: free voice mail.

Community Voice Mail is a non-profit providing voice mail services for poor and homeless individuals needing work and housing in 37 cities across the United States. One of the thorniest problems with being extremely poor is that the mechanisms for pulling oneself out of poverty often assume access to seemingly commonplace items: clean clothing, a mailing address, and (often most importantly) a phone number. Without a number at which to leave a message, there's no way for a potential employer to get in touch. But for the homeless, or people who are forced by financial conditions to change places of residence frequently and unexpectedly, this seemingly simple requirement is often beyond reach. Community Voice Mail breaks that cycle:

The Big Idea
Give unemployed and homeless people a telephone number that stays constant even if they can’t. The theory: they’ll find work much faster.
The Test: Our workers brought this idea to a Seattle-based voicemail company called Active Voice in 1992. The company thought their idea had merit, and donated a voicemail system. The workers distributed voicemail numbers to 145 people over 6 months, and a whopping 70% found jobs within 2 months!

In 2004, in a particularly weak national economy, CVM served over 44,000 poor and homeless people in the US. Of those, 55% of CVM users found jobs, and 65% of homeless CVM users found housing. 24,000 people found jobs that they otherwise couldn't have simply by having voice mail. It's a stark reminder of just how important these simple communication tools are to our community and economy.

CVM is looking to expand the service to 65 locations by 2008, with a projected use by over 65,000 people.

(Via BoingBoing)

Regulations and Business Strategy

generalelectricwind.jpgDo motivations matter? Last week's BusinessWeek looks at the growing trend of large companies moving to cut their carbon footprints, not out of any concern for the environment or the planet's future, but out of fear of being caught flat-footed by regulations that they see as inevitable. Financial analysts and (in particular) insurers drive this, making it clear to corporate leaders that the more they work now to cut down on greenhouse emissions, the better off they'll be when governments begin to act.

We've covered this trend before, but it's clearly accelerating. And what's especially interesting is that some of the early-moving companies are beginning to find out that -- much as we've long contended -- working to reduce their carbon footprint doesn't hurt their bottom-line, but instead improves it.

Because carbon is basically a proxy for fossil energy, cutting carbon equals cutting costs, argues energy guru Amory B. Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit energy and environment policy think tank: "Efficiency is cheaper than fuel."

Continue reading "Regulations and Business Strategy" »

December 13, 2005

Cellular Telemedicine, Revisited

bc1.gifIsraeli doctor Nitzan Yaniv had an idea: since infrared imaging can be used to detect early stages of cancer, particularly breast cancer, why not make home self-examination as easy as snapping a picture with a cameraphone? Taking the idea to Israeli phone company Cellcom, Yaniv discovered that not only would this be possible, it might actually be easy.

By installing new software and adding a basic infrared camera, a mobile phone could be transformed into a highly-effective diagnostic tool, offering far more accurate results than the self-checks many women do themselves, the Haaretz daily reported.
Dr Nitzan Yaniv, who developed the technology, said the results of the scan could be immediately transferred to a medical laboratory for analysis, which could determine whether further checks were necessary. [link added]

The Soroka medical center is also testing the technology as a way to detect early stages of heart disease, which also has a tell-tale heat signature.

This is not the first time that cameraphones have been proposed as diagnostic tools. In June, I pointed to a report about Swedish biomedical firm Uppsala BIO's work on a blood testing setup relying on cameraphones, and last February, I discussed research by Swiss dermatologists showing that diagnoses via cameraphone image could be nearly as good as in-person diagnoses for many skin conditions.

In all three of these examples, the readings taken by the phone must be transmitted to a medical center for analysis -- this isn't a doctor-in-your-phone quite yet. Still, these provide ample evidence that the technology for capturing images through a handheld networked device is far more important than advertisements extolling the ability to send photos of potential dates to one's chums would suggest. From environmental monitoring to location-based-services to homemade sensors, we're only beginning to see the utility of these mobile information, communication and observation devices.

(Via MedGadget)

Understanding Green Consumption

It's tempting to file this under Stating the Obvious, but research undertaken by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council on drivers for sustainable consumption is actually pretty interesting. In Towards a Social Psychology of Sustainable Consumption, Professor Tim Jackson looked at how consumers make choices regarding goods and services that could be considered "green." The conclusions are at once unsurprising yet fascinating:

...far from being able to exercise free choice about what to consume and what not to consume, people often find themselves locked in to unsustainable consumption patterns by factors outside their control. ‘Lock-in’ occurs in part through ‘perverse’ incentive structures – economic constraints, institutional barriers, or inequalities in access that actively encourage unsustainable behaviours.

Continue reading "Understanding Green Consumption" »

India's TKDL

We first reported on the use of Traditional Knowledge Digital Libraries as a means of fighting biopiracy nearly a year ago, and now the BBC has an update. India's TKDL is set to be opened for public viewing next year, and already holds 30 million pages of entries covering traditional medicines and practices, with photographs, scans and abundant detail. The goal isn't to restrict the use of these traditional medicines, but to ensure that they cannot be patented in places like the United States and Europe because of a lack of documented "prior art."

This will enable the revocation of patents on millennia-old plant-based medicines and health practices such as yoga -- various yoga positions have been patented in the US and Europe, despite their ancient history.

Heeding the Tsunami's Lessons

srilankatsunami.jpgThe Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly a quarter of a million people hit almost a year ago, and the latest issue of Science includes several articles addressing some of the lessons. Unfortunately, as is all too common, political rivalries and bureaucratic intransigence could well mean that the next disaster hits just as hard as the last. As is typical for Science, most of these articles require a paid subscription, but SciDev.net and UNESCO News provide details of two of the key pieces.

In "Indian Ocean Tsunami: Girding for the Next Wave," Richard Stone and Richard Kerr look at the sluggish response to the call for improved ocean monitoring. Early signs of cooperation were consumed by debates over who would host the monitoring center and the availability of real-time data. Time is of the essence, however -- the fault line on which the 9.3 December 2004 earthquake hit is more active, and a new study shows that another big quake in the area could be just as devastating.

In "A Dead Spot for the Tsunami Network" (the full article may be viewed here for now), Pallava Bagla gives us a reminder that it's not just the dominant Western powers that can be dangerously stubborn. India is refusing to provide real-time seismic and ocean level data, despite having the currently-best regional monitoring network, because of security fears. The ocean level data could be used by an enemy nation invading by the sea, India claims, and the seismic data could reveal more information about their nuclear tests than they care to acknowledge.

India's reluctance to share data could come back to haunt it. India has refused to hook up its vaunted array of seismometers to the Global Seismographic Network, 128 stations that record temblors and listen for signatures of nuclear detonations to help verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which India has not joined. The seismic network is crucial to quickly pinpointing a quake's magnitude and location-- and for analyzing tsunami threats.

These are not stories of solutions, but they're important nonetheless. These articles clearly demonstrate that, no matter how apparent the need and useful the technology, success requires us to grapple with long-standing social and political fears, uncertainties and doubts. There is no such thing as a purely technical solution -- every solution must be enabled and supported by society.

December 14, 2005

Bioplastic Phone

Details are slim, but NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest mobile phone company, is about to release a version of their popular FOMA N701i phone made of biodegradable plastic made from a plant called Kenaf. (NTT DoCoMo press release in Japanese here.) (See Below)

As transformative as mobile phone technology may be, the rapid churn of phone technology and ownership means that millions of usable but obsolete units get chucked away every year. Efforts to recycle the usable components and reuse the phones in the developing world are useful and important, but it's good to see work on making the objects less harmful to the planet to begin with.

(Jeremy Faludi adds, in the comments:

Actually, the plastic itself is not made from kenaf, the plastic is PLA, a corn-derived plastic we've mentioned before:

The kenaf is used as fiber-reinforcement of the plastic so it can be a decent structural material. PLA by itself isn't stiff enough for anything but packaging.

Oh, and by the way, if this stuff is reasonably cost-competitive, this wil be a HUGE deal. Lots of consumer products are made with "ABS" plastic, and NEC's press release says this PLA-kenaf composite can be stiffer than ABS. That's great news! It means tons of ordinary consumer products could go green.)

Fabber Art


The advent of 3D printers (or "fabbers") won't just transform the economy, it may well revolutionize the world of art, as well. MAKE points us to the work of Bathsheba Grossman, who uses made-to-order 3D printing services for her metal sculptures. Her designs come from mathematical formulas converted to computer code.

(If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because we've pointed to some of her other art work in the past.)

Disaster Communication

When it comes to disaster communications, what you say is as important as how you say it. Researchers at Temple University's Center for Preparedness, Research, Education and Practice (C-PREP), speaking today at the American Public Health Association meeting, argue in favor of points that we've made here before: transparency is key to successful disaster communication; and people are as likely or more likely to get information from non-traditional sources, so official communications can't rely solely on official outlets.

[Public Health Professor Sarah] Bass defines effective risk communications as timely, relevant and true.

Continue reading "Disaster Communication" »

Stabilization Wedges

wedgies.jpgFar too often, discussions of efforts to mitigate the worst effects of global warming bog down under an argument that is simultaneously factual and irrelevant: there's no single solution. Solar power (or wind, or nuclear, or sonofusion) is not going to be sufficient to replace all coal and oil use. Efficiency won't improve fast enough. Sequestration can't bury enough CO2. These are all true, but only in isolation. The solution that will work comes not as a single bolt from the blue, but from a combination of multiple, varied efforts.

Princeton's Robert Socolow has captured this beautifully in a concept he calls "stabilization wedges."

With stabilization wedges, a multitude of projects, from efficiency to de-carbonization to sequestration and more, combine to reduce overall carbon emissions, a task that at times can seem impossible. Individually, the wedges are difficult but achievable. As Scolow is quoted by the Economist, this approach "decomposes a heroic challenge (eliminating the emissions in the stabilisation triangle) into a limited set of merely monumental tasks."

Socolow's model for stabilization attempts to prevent a doubling of the amount of carbon emissions by 2050 by stabilizing at the current rate of 7 gigatons of carbon/year, globally. This is sufficient to prevent the kinds of disastrous results arising from a much higher CO2 concentration, but would have to be followed by further efforts to reduce emissions once stabilized. Socolow argues that we have more than enough different ways to achieve this goal, with current technologies and practices, and that the real question becomes not "can we do it?" but "what are the best ways to do it?"

Continue reading "Stabilization Wedges" »

Ethical Maps

maplecroftmap.jpgMaplecroft is a UK organization specializing in the coverage of the non-financial performance of global corporations and governments. Issues of convern include human rights, corporate governance and responsibility, the environment, and resource sustainability. Maplecroft crafts standard report documents, but presents its findings in an unusual way: it makes maps.

Maplecroft maps encompass the results of their work on responsibility and sustainability, along with material from more specialized groups like Amnesty International, the UN Development Program, and International Telecommunications Union. The maps appear to be updated relatively frequently, so few will contain substantively out-of-date information. They do require Flash, and I found the links to data explanations to be unresponsive on two different browsers. Nonetheless, most of the material is either self-explanatory or explained in the sidebar, and clicking on a given country will pull up an additional menu of information.

Some maps worth checking out include hunger, natural disasters, and human rights -- just updated for International Human Rights Day.

Continue reading "Ethical Maps" »

December 15, 2005

Mars Journal Now Publishing

Back in July, we noted the opening of Mars Journal, a NASA-funded open access scholarly journal focusing on the science, technology and policy issues related to Mars exploration. The first two items are now up: editor David Paige outlines the rationale behind the new journal; and planetologist Kenneth Edgett writes about data acquired from the Mars Observer and Mars Global Surveyor satellites regarding the Sinus Meridiani region. (Click here for a high-resolution image of the region in question.) Edgett's article includes seven images heretofore never released to the public.

Open access is a powerful scientific tool because it makes information available to those who previously could not easily see it. The leapfrog benefits are obvious in the case of open access biotech or medical research, but also accrue to subjects as esoteric as Mars research. The fascination with worlds other than our own is not limited to the industrialized countries; Brazil, Kenya or Pakistan may not soon have their own Mars programs, but it's entirely possible that the Mars Journal will serve as an inspiration to a new generation of developing world scientists.

Stopping Idle Draw

Many home electronic devices, from televisions to microwave ovens to electric toothbrushes, continue to draw a small amount of power even when turned off. Sometimes, this is to allow the device to respond to a remote control; other times, it's for little more than a light or (yet another) digital clock. This "idle power" draw (sometimes called "phantom use") may be a trickle, but can really add up with lots of gizmos. Putting these devices on power strips doesn't always help, as you can easily end up with a situation where you're sending power to every item on the strip when you're only using one.

Treehugger profiles a couple of different options to resolve this problem: the Wattstopper and the Smart Strip, two power strips able to sense when a plugged-in device goes idle and shut the power down completely. The prices vary, but they seem to be worthwhile additions to a household with more gadgets than time.

The one thing they're missing, though: a way to communicate the information about device activity back to a central monitoring system, so that you can know as much about how your stuff works as your stuff does.

We've Got SSSSSSSSSteam Heat

steamheat.jpgWe've said it time and again: waste is a sign of inefficiency, especially when it's wasted energy. The principle behind the regeneration of hybrid vehicles is that waste energy -- from brakes, from downhill momentum, from the engine running when not moving -- should either be used or eliminated. But as good as they are at capturing this wasted energy, hybrid-electrics aren't perfect. There's still a lot of energy going to waste as heat. But BMW may be able to do something about that.

BMW research has revealed its new "Turbosteamer" project, using the waste heat in the engine exhaust to drive a secondary steam engine, boosting vehicle performance by 14hp and reducing fuel consumption by 15%. You can find technical details in the usual locations: Autoblog has an English-language copy of the BMW press release, while Gizmag and Green Car Congress go over the specifics.

This is still in the labs at BMW central, so there's no real word on how expensive the system is or how soon it could be in production vehicles (the press release says "within ten years"). Still, it's notable that the mechanism doesn't involve a total refit of a vehicle, so it could (in principle, at least) be added with little difficulty to existing car designs. More importantly, since traditional hybrid-electrics don't capture the exhaust heat, this could easily be a way to boost both the efficiency and the power of hybrids. I'm not certain how much exhaust heat comes from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so the applicability there is unknown; of course, battery-only cars don't generate engine heat, so this system isn't likely to have much use in those models.

The bigger picture here is that BMW reminds us that we haven't come anywhere close to maximizing the energy efficiency of much of material environment. The next time you see heat or friction or motion simply escaping into the air, ask yourself how we could eliminate that waste. In some cases, it will be by preventing the waste from being generated in the first place; in others, as with the Turbosteamer design, it will be by turning that waste into a resource.

Remote Control Medicine

Scanning electron microscopy images of image of (A) a hollow, open surfaced, biocontainer, and (B) a device loaded with glass microbeads. (C) Fluorescence microscopy images of a biocontainer loaded with cell-ECM-agarose with the cell viability stain, Calcein-AM. (D) Release of viable cells from the biocontainer.
How do you deliver a drug to its exact target in the body? You could inject it directly, which can work for organs and larger clusters of cells; you could flood the body with the drug, so as to make certain that the specific body part gets a sufficient dose; or you could engineer the drug delivery mechanism so that it is only captured by the specific target. All of these can work, but none of them works in every case. If Dr. David Gracias of the Johns Hopkins school of medicine is correct, the best approach may be to steer the drugs through the blood stream with magnets.

In a paper to be published later this month in the journal Biomedical Microdevices, Gracias and his team demonstrate a new tool for encapsulating and delivering drugs in a body, as well as for biosensors able to travel through the bloodstream. The new system uses a combination of biomimetics, nanomaterial production, computer chip manufacturing techniques, and old-fashioned chemistry. The result are microdevices that would be familiar to anyone who has ever made a box out of paper.

...Gracias and his colleagues begin with some of the same techniques used to make microelectronic circuits: thin film deposition, photolithography and electrodeposition. These methods produce a flat pattern of six squares, in a shape resembling a cross. Each square, made of copper or nickel, has small openings etched into it, so that it eventually will allow medicine or therapeutic cells to pass through.

What's more, they self-assemble:

Continue reading "Remote Control Medicine" »

Peak Oil Scenarios in Ireland

eis4box.jpgI can think of few better topics for scenario-based analysis than peak oil. The mechanism (decline of petroleum production levels) is straightforward, but the timeline is highly uncertain; plausible results range from disastrous to transformative, with little chance that just ignoring the problem is the best path; it's arguably quite sensitive to technological development; and its impact will be felt at both the micro level of individual households and the macro level of global politics.

It's unlikely that there will be a consistent international response to the clear onset of peak oil. Rather, each country, and potentially regions within countries, will respond in different ways. Some will adopt a laissez-faire, market-based approach; others will see it as an opportunity for relentless top-down intervention. Earlier this year, the Irish sustainability non-profit FEASTA (profiled here a year ago) and Irish scenario planning consultancy Vivid Logic joined forces to run a scenario planning project looking at the impact of peak oil on Ireland. The preliminary results are now available at Energy Scenarios Ireland (ESI).

As the graphic illustrates, ESI uses a four-box model, where two divergent "axes of uncertainty" determine the broad shape of the scenarios. The two axes chosen by the ESI workshop are simple but useful: does the oil peak happen in the near term (2007) or the long-term (2030); and is the primary response by the Irish government reactive or proactive? Those two variables give us four very different worlds.

Continue reading "Peak Oil Scenarios in Ireland" »

December 16, 2005

Friday Catch-Up (12/16/05)

airshipturbine.jpgThere's a lot of worldchanging going on out there, and it's hard to cover even a fraction of it. Rather than let interesting ideas and nifty developments fall by the wayside, we'll be pulling together collections of annotated links on a semi-regular basis. Enjoy.

Flexible Circuits
This has been the week for flexible plastic electronics, with (at least) three different examples showing up. Gizmodo and the Inquirer note the development by TDK and the Japanese Semiconductor Energy Laboratory of a plastic microprocessor with wireless networking capability. ZDNet and Technology Review describe work by US company Sarnoff on organic polymer processors with speeds of up to 100MHz -- over 100 times faster than earlier plastic processor designs. And researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced this week that they'd come up with a way to make silicon electronics flexible, too, without any loss of capability.

Current electronic systems are rigid, limiting their use in everyday materials that embody some degree of flexibility, such as clothing or furniture, as well as in applications we haven't yet tried because they haven't been possible. These developments make a "smart environment" easier. In addition, organic polymer electronics are much friendlier to the environment than traditional electronics, and developments that make them more usable are a big ecological win.

(More catching up in the extended entry)

Continue reading "Friday Catch-Up (12/16/05)" »

White Roofs, Revisited

My post about the environmental value of white roofs garnered quite a bit of attention back in early 2004. According to research done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in warm weather regions, using white rooftops -- tiles, paint or other -- had a substantial environmental benefit, potentially greater than would be gained using traditional solar panels. It's good to see the idea is still getting some play -- as with this post in Treehugger today, quoting from a recent issue of New Scientist (which also mentions GRUMP -- the Global Rural Urban Mapping Project, which we talked about in March of this year).

If you live in a warmer area, as a growing number of us do, installing a white roof can be one of the smartest things you can do to both keep your power bills down and improve the local "urban heat island" effect. Other good steps: planting more trees and getting local city planners to avoid using dark black road seal.

Algerian Space Program

I'm really fond of the non-great power space programs, as they provide ample evidence for how the "greens in space" argument applies to the leapfrog nations. In nearly every case, the point is to launch satellites for environmental observation and communication. Of the space-faring leapfrog nations, only Iran and India are seriously pursuing their own launch vehicle technology (with clear military implications) -- pretty much everyone else piggybacks on someone else's rocket.

The Moor Next Door and Maghrebia bring us news about Algeria's space efforts, and they fit the pattern perfectly:

ALSAT-1 has already transmitted more than 1,000 photos for the benefit of users in national and regional development, telecommunications, agriculture and the water resources sectors. It has also played a role following the earthquake that affected Algiers and surrounding areas in 2003, the tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia and recent French forest fires.

On the heels of the initial success, the Algerian Space Agency (ASAL) has developed a 15-year satellite programme.

As the Moor Next Door puts it, very cool.

The Synaptic Leap

synapticleap.jpgLet's say you're an eager young bioscientist, ready to use open source models for your biomedical research and development. How do you do it? Well, you could put some of your work up on Bioforge, or try to hook up with a group like BIOS... but where are the enabling systems to make open source, collaborative development straightforward for researchers who don't want to be computer techs in their off-hours?

The Synaptic Leap wants to be that enabling system.

The Synaptic Leap is a start-up nonprofit led by Ginger Taylor of PeopleSoft (most of the group's employees, in fact, come from PeopleSoft). The Synaptic Leap describes itself as "dedicated towards providing a network of online communities that connect and empower scientific and medical researchers to conduct open-source style research." What that means in practice is the provision of online tools to allow researchers to coordinating efforts and exchange knowledge.

Their first project is a big one: Malaria, in coordination with the Tropical Disease Initiative (TDI). (We wrote about the TDI back in January of 2005.) Sometimes considered an "orphan disease" because of the lack of major pharmaceutical projects, much of the current effort to fight malaria focuses on blocking or eliminating the carrier, mosquitos. The TDI intends to find medical treatments to prevent and cure malarial infection; there is still much work to do, and much of what Synaptic Leap intends to accomplish is the efficient organization of the work among the international collaborators:

Continue reading "The Synaptic Leap" »

December 17, 2005

The French Democracy

frenchdemocracy.jpgMachinima attempts to turn one medium -- video games -- into another -- cinema. Many video games can be recorded, so that players can review their own adventures, or pass them along to friends; combine edited versions of these game recordings with amusing voice-overs or music, and you have a simple digital movie. By and large, machinima movies are done for humor or to tell action stories closely related to the game source material, and appealed primarily to people who were familiar with the games in question.

But machinima may finally have had its breakout moment with a fascinating short film called "The French Democracy." Using a game called "The Movies," French machinima-maker Koulamata tells the story of three young men in Paris who end up taking part in the recent riots. All three suffer different kinds of indignities at the hands of French society, triggering their decisions to fight back; the movie is very clearly on the side of the rioters. Whether or not one accepts the political perspective of Koulamata, he has done something truly remarkable: he has taken computer game characters and told a story with clear social relevance, demonstrating that machinima has the potential to be much more than a medium for dancing orcs and artistically-exploding jeeps.

Continue reading "The French Democracy" »

Public Health Games

publichealthgame.jpgThe University of Illinois-Chicago Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) is a program at the university's Department of Public Health, attempting to come up with innovative ways to provide healthcare education to providers, first responders and other officials. They use online training, multimedia, websites and the like, but also employ a growing number of simulations and games. Some of these may be found at PublicHealthGames.com.

The two simulations at the website now available for inspection -- "Bioterrorisk" and "Envirorisk" -- are fairly simple interactive exercises, barely "games" in the conventional sense. But CADE is now working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a larger-scale simulation of healthcare responses to disaster. The first version will focus on bioterror, but future modules will include pandemics and nuclear accidents. Wired has a short piece on the simulation, and screenshots can be found at PublicHealthGames. PublicHealthGames is a classic example of the "Serious Games" model, and the CADE team presented at last month's Serious Games Summit (unfortunately, the presentation is not currently available on the website).

This public health sim is a direct result of the poor response to hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated that the emergency responders were not adequately trained to handle a massive system disruption. The goal of the disaster sim (which does not yet have an official name) is to educate healthcare providers about how conditions change in disaster-scale events by placing them in simulated circumstances akin to what they'd experience in reality. Simulations and drills are common tools for emergency preparedness, but the expense and time demands of traditional live-actor simulations limit their availability.

December 19, 2005

Nanoarmor, and More

Inorganic fullerenes-- recently discovered non-carbon analogues to buckytubes -- are notable for a few important reasons: they can be produced relatively inexpensively, are chemically stable, and tests so far show them to be non-toxic. Moreover, they're incredibly strong. According to ZDNet, materials made from inorganic fullerenes have remarkable "shock-absorbing properties," making them suitable for (among other things) new kinds of lightweight bullet-proof armor.

During preliminary tests, these materials, which are five times stronger than steel, have successfully resisted to steel projectiles generating pressures as high as 250 tons per square centimeter.

The material tested, which for now can only be made in small quantities, is Tungsten Disulfide (WS2); ApNano, a company formed to work with inorganic fullerenes, plans to shift to Titanium Disulfide (TiS2) soon, as it will be lighter and stronger than WS2. Although ApNano is promoting the material as a potential new form of armor, strong, lightweight materials could have numerous important applications, including bodies for high-efficiency vehicles.

Are Wind Costs Falling?

Deng Yuanchang, deputy director of the Wind Resource Research Center at Sun Yat-sen University, claims in this article in the San Jose Mercury News that "With the development of wind turbine technology in China, the price is already falling worldwide. The price has come down about 20 percent." Unfortunately, the article doesn't follow up on this remarkable assertion.

I could see reasonable arguments both supporting and refuting this claim; there are more companies making wind turbines using better/cheaper technologies, but there's also a great deal more demand. My initial search for confirmation didn't dig up any other pieces talking about a 20% drop in wind power technology prices, and I don't have ready access to historical cost trends. I do, however, know that many WC readers have been looking at the wind industry for awhile, so let me throw the question to you folks: are the costs of wind power systems falling? And the 20% claim -- presumably over just the last decade or less, as China wasn't aggressively pushing wind until recently -- is this true?

(Found via Alternative Energy ~ Renewable Energy blog)

Microgeneration Potential

microgenreport.jpgHow plausible is a scenario of abundant use of distributed microgeneration for electricity and heating? Microgeneration -- the use of small-scale power generation sources like photovoltaics and wind micro-turbines -- has tremendous potential as a way of improving energy network reliability and increasing the use of clean, renewable power. Much of the discussion of the components necessary for both energy generation and a distributed network focuses on the plausibility and utility of the technology itself. But once we accept that these technologies are at least potentially viable, how then can we model market acceptance, uptake, and impact?

The UK's Department of Trade and Industry authorized the Energy Savings Trust, a non-profit company set up by the UK government in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to promote energy efficiency and to combat climate change, to perform an in-depth examination of the potential of microgeneration, and to determine what would be required to make various technologies successful in terms of both consumer demand and climate/energy efficiency.

The study's final report has now been published (PDF). Even if you don't live in the UK, if you have any interest in microgeneration or the role of distributed power in fighting climate disruption, you need to download and read through this paper. It's relatively lengthy -- running a bit over 200 pages -- but is presented as a slide deck, and is easily skimmed. Its findings are fascinating (at least to me).

Continue reading "Microgeneration Potential" »

How Much E-Waste Per Child?

ewasteperchild.jpgThe One Laptop Per Child proposal (aka, the Hundred-Dollar Laptop) generates controversy nearly every time it's mentioned here, whether due to questions about its necessity, arguments about its configuration, or push-back about whether it's really even possible. But a post today at Triple Pundit points to an even more critical issue: would the success of the OLPC plan result in an explosion of hazardous material waste across the developing world?

There's no question that the materials used in computers are problematic. Computer hardware can include plastics made with dioxin and so-called "brominated flame retardants," as well as mercury, lead and other harmful metals. Although the quantities may be small in any single machine, cumulatively, some 20-50 million tons of computer, electric and electronic waste enters the wastestream every year (PDF). When these materials get into the water supply, they can lead to birth defects and worse. As of now, the companies lining up to take part in the OLPC project all use traditional -- as in toxic -- materials for their systems. If the OLPC program manages to distribute a million laptops around the developing world, what kind of price will those regions have to pay a few years down the road, when the laptops are broken, discarded or replaced by newer designs?

A few years ago, the question would end there: we would have to decide whether we want portable electronics or zero harmful waste. But we're now moving to a world where we could have both. We've covered, in recent months, a variety of developments that could be combined to make a laptop that, when eventually discarded, would produce few dangerous waste products. The two breakthroughs that could make this possible are bioplastics, which use plants to create a replacement for inorganic plastics, and organic polymer electronics, which use organic chemistry to create computation and display devices.

Continue reading "How Much E-Waste Per Child?" »

Wesley Goes To Nollywood

nollywood.jpgFilmmaking has a cultural vocabulary. American action movies, Bollywood musicals, French art cinema -- all are immediately identifiable, not just by the actors or language, but by the cinematography, the pace, and simply by how the story is told. The rapidly-growing film industry in Africa, centered in Nigeria, is developing its own voice and style, but one that seems to generate quite a bit of ambivalence among those who follow Naija movies -- more familiarly referred to as "Nollywood" -- most closely.

The rise of Nigerian films and "Nollywood" was among the earliest topics on WorldChanging, and it remains a frequent touchstone. Nollywood's growing success is a testament to the importance of inexpensive, high-quality hardware and robust global distribution; the movies are arguably as important (if not moreso) to the African diaspora as they are at home. For now, Nollywood isn't nearly as visible outside of the global African community as, say, Bollywood, but that's gradually changing. As this post's title suggests, Hollywood heavyweights like Wesley Snipes are starting to poke around the Naija film world to see what they can use.

But the growth of Nollywood is prompting a not-entirely-positive reaction among those who follow it closely, in large part because of how the movies represent Nigerian society. Sokari Ekine at Black Looks ("Musings and Rants of an African Fem") posted today about this phenomenon, linking to several provocative essays and stories about the evolution of Naija films.

Continue reading "Wesley Goes To Nollywood" »

December 20, 2005

Honda Solar

Honda Motor Company announced yesterday that it would soon begin manufacturing thin-film solar cells, building a new production facility on the site of a current auto factory. Because the thin-film cells won't require silicon, they won't be affected by current shortages in high-quality Si used for traditional photovoltaics, and they will require less energy to produce. Honda plans to make over 27 megawatts worth of solar cells per year at the new factory.

By using thin film made from a compound of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), Honda’s next-generation solar cell achieved a major reduction in energy consumed during the manufacturing process to approximately 50% of the amount required by conventional crystal silicon solar cells. [...] The mass production of Honda’s next-generation solar cell became possible with a new mass production process for thin film solar cells developed independently by Honda Engineering.

(Also see this post at Environmental Economics, and check out this solar power tower design at Honda's Thailand headquarters.)

Africa Blogging

Just a quick pointer to an article at the BBC website entitled "African bloggers find their voice," which features both BlogAfrica -- a terrific source of ideas, opinion and insight from Africa-focused bloggers -- and our own Ethan Zuckerman.

"It can be a bit overwhelming, but it's a great overview of the conversations taking place in and around Africa," says Ethan Zuckerman, one of the people behind BlogAfrica, on his own weblog My Heart's in Accra.

Zuckerman, a resident fellow specialising in the impact of technology on the developing world at Berkman Center for internet and society at Harvard Law school in the US, is also one of the main drivers behind Global Voices - an even more ambitious project to follow interesting blogs from the whole world, with a focus on countries often overlooked by the mainstream media.

File Compression for Remote Diagnosis

waveletmamm.jpgIt turns out that a little bit of math can both improve the results of mammography and make expert radiological analysis available to more people in remote and poor areas of the world.

Researchers have known for a few years now that applying a mathematical transformation method known as "wavelets" to radiological images can improve the ability of doctors to detect cancer. But Bradley Lucier's team of mathematicians at Purdue has taken the process to a new level -- by using the wavelets method to compress mammogram images by 98%, not only can radiologists still detect cancer better than they can with unmodified images, the mammograms become small enough to send easily over the dial-up computer networks common in poorer parts of the world. The work will appear in the next edition of Radiology.

"Any technique that improves the performance of radiologists is helpful, but this also means that mammograms can be taken in remote places that are underserved by the medical community," said Lucier, who is a professor of mathematics and computer science in Purdue's College of Science. "The mammograms can then be sent electronically to radiologists, who can read the digitized versions knowing they will do at least as well as the original mammograms." [...]

Continue reading "File Compression for Remote Diagnosis" »


watercone.jpgUniversal access to clean water is one of the fundamental Millennium Development Goals, and inventors have come up with a variety of solutions for making non-potable water clean and drinkable. Some are shiny and high-tech, and others are terrifically simple. One of the easiest tools for making brackish or sea water usable requires little more than sunlight and time -- the Watercone.

Made of a rugged, transparent plastic, the Watercone is incredibly easy to use: fill up the base plate with salt water, place the cone over the plate, and wait. 24 hours later, a trough around the edge of the cone will contain 1-1.5 liters of fresh water, produced by evaporation/condensation. Pour the water out, and start again. Individual units are expected to cost around $50 apiece, although that will depend in large part on who manufactures them.

And that's the big problem. The inventor of the Watercone, industrial designer Stephan Augustin, is having trouble finding someone to make it. This is a bit surprising, as the Watercone has won numerous design awards over the past three years, has passed preliminary tests by CARE Germany, and is currently featured in the SAFE: Design Takes On Risk exhibit at the NY Museum of Modern Art. Apparently, previous licensing agreements have fallen through, and Augustin is once again looking for a manufacturer to bring the Watercone to the people who need it.

(Thanks for the tip, Corey Birnbaum)

December 21, 2005

Prius in China - Now Underway

We noted way back in September of 2004 that Toyota had reached an agreement with Chinese automaker FAW to begin manufacturing the Prius in China by late 2005. Well, it's about as late in 2005 as you can get, and finally we have word that production is now underway. This is the first Prius plant outside of Japan, and the auto is being built for local purchase.

The Toyota-FAW joint venture plans to sell only about 3,000 Priuses in China in all of 2006; this low figure is less surprising when one learns that the price will be "between 288,000 yuan and 302,000 yuan ($35,680-$37,410), compared with around $22,000 in Japan and North America."

(Via Treehugger)


Black Looks blogger Sokari Ekine has another website worth following, one that's a terrific example of why RSS aggregators are so useful. Afrotecnik describes itself as having a "focus on technologies for transforming communities in Africa and bridging the digital divide," and is good source for leapfrog technology updates. Recent posts have talked about the Simputer, microfinance, and open source in Africa.

Unfortunately, Ekine only manages to update it on a sporadic basis, a bad thing back in the day that one had to remember to hit a site in order to catch something new. These days, of course, we have syndication feeds, and aggregator programs that take of the "hitting the site on a regular basis" for you. RSS is a big reason why I can follow such a wide array of websites -- I think I have something approaching 500 active feeds in my list, and I'm always adding more. RSS is truly the Future Scanner's Friend.

Afrotecnik's feed can be found here.

Send Your Name To The Asteroids

Want to go into space? How about just your name? NASA is making it possible for people to "sign" their names to a satellite destined for the asteroid belt. The Dawn mission will launch in May of 2006, heading off to an encounter with the asteroids Ceres and Vesta.

This isn't the first time NASA has done something like this. In 1999, the agency asked for names to go on a CD to be sent to Mars on the 2001 Surveyor Lander. If you don't remember the 2001 Lander, it's because it was delayed until 2003, then scrapped in favor of the hugely successful Mars Exploration Rovers. The CD would have been destroyed by radiation soon after landing, a relief to the kids who worried that aliens would get their names (I'm serious). The names on the Dawn mission will go on a memory chip and not a disk, however, so presumably they'll last awhile.

NASA doesn't say whether they accept any responsibility for the names being used by alien invaders as a contact list.

Concordia Station

concordiastation300.jpgConcordia Station is one of the most isolated -- and most important -- permanent scientific outposts on Antarctica. A joint project of French and Italian national research programs, with the involvement of the European Space Agency, Concordia has just completed its first "overwinter" mission and is now home to its second crew. Antarctic research, while interesting, isn't inherently worldchanging, but Concordia is special: its location, Dome C, is rapidly becoming the best spot for a variety of scientific missions on Antarctica; and this year's overwinter crew at Concordia has the assignment of prepping for a mission to Mars.

The Dome C location has several notable -- and nearly unique -- characteristics.

Continue reading "Concordia Station" »

China's Intensity, Revisited

When China announced yesterday that, oops, it turns out that its 2004 and 2005 economy are 17% larger than it thought, I immediately wondered what effect these revised GDP figures would have on the carbon efficiency and energy efficiency figures I played with a few weeks ago. In "Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting From Here to There," I used US Department of Energy data on global energy use and carbon production to look at trends over the past 25-or-so years. China is the big outlier -- I had to build charts with and without the country in order to show trend lines -- but it's also demonstrating some big improvements.

Since the carbon intensity and use efficiency values compare tons of carbon or BTUs of energy to dollars of GDP, a change as significant as 17% in China's GDP was certain to make a visible difference. The problem is that the DOE figures only go to 2003, and China's retroactive fix was only applied officially to 2004 and 2005. It's unlikely, however, that the reporting errors only cropped up over the last two years; applying the 17% boost to the earlier years, while undoubtedly not accurate, is still probably more accurate than what we had before.

Hit the extended entry for new data and new graphs.

Continue reading "China's Intensity, Revisited" »


firstaidpod.jpgI'm always fascinated when a medium initially intended as purely for entertainment transforms into so much more. We've seen this happen with digital music players like the iPod; although meant just to play music, they've triggered the development of a new form of information presentation, the podcast. Now there are signs that the medium is taking another leap: the iPod may become a tool for emergency response.

FirstAidPod is an organization that provides emergency instructions as podcasts. The idea is that, while few of us carry around printed medical guides, many of us carry music players; if a medical emergency occurs, users can open up the correct audio file and listen to step-by-step instructions for handling common -- but life-threatening -- problems. Currently-available first aid podcasts include Infant CPR (.m4a) and Child CPR (.m4a), with Adult CPR coming soon. Future podcasts include instructions for handling choking, drowning and bleeding. (If you download these podcasts directly from these links, please also download this Publisher's Note (.m4a) with basic information about use.)

Continue reading "FirstAidCasting" »

December 22, 2005

RGGI Underway

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a Kyoto-style agreement among seven northeast US states, has been finalized and signed, and is scheduled to take effect starting in 2009 (we posted about the RGGI discussions last year). The RGGI group includes New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, and most of the rest of the New Englad states. Massachusetts, one of the states working on this agreement, is conspicuously absent; current speculation is that its Governor, Mitt Romney, is going to run for President in 2008, and needed to shore up support among Republican voters.

The RGGI agreement is notable in part because it formalizes a model for carbon trading that many see as a good compromise between climate greens worried about carbon and big businesses worried about a new cost. The carbon allowances plan includes a mix of carbon permits, price levels that automatically trigger additional permits, and the ability to use offsets in lieu of carbon allowances. The Environmental Economics blog has more details, including a link to a lengthy presentation on how the whole thing works.

Gyroscopic Bio-Sensors

Researchers at Newcastle University in the UK have come up with a new type of bio-sensor based on a vibrating disk a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. The tiny disk, with a gyroscope at its heart, is coated with proteins or DNA that the target marker -- in the research case, molecules produced by cancerous cells -- finds attractive. The vibrations are so precisely tuned that the weight of a single molecule can alter the motion of the disk in a readily-detectable way. The vibrating disk method could prove to be faster and more accurate than current chemical tests, and make possible easy testing for hard-to-spot phenomena:

The technology could eventually be developed for other types of cancer and a range of other diseases, including those caused by bacteria. This opens up the possibility of hospitals being able to screen new patients and visitors for MRSA, tuberculosis and other diseases to prevent the infections being carried into the wards. [...] Potential uses do not stop at medicine. In theory, the technology could be used to detect particles from biological or chemical weapons, providing an early warning system against terrorist attacks.

Earthquake Alerts Straight to the Phone -- On or Off

Japan's Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry wants to implement a program of emergency messaging over cellular phone networks, particularly in the event of earthquakes. The SMS messages would provide emergency instructions, evacuation routes, and the like; if a plan to piggyback the emergency alert system on top of a broadcast video for phones technology works out, the emergency alerts could also include animations and graphics.

Interesting, sure, but not much of a surprise at this point. What is novel about the system is that the Ministry also wants to be able to turn phones on by broadcasting a special signal, so that citizens can get the emergency messages even if they've shut their phones off for the night. They're working on the necessary technology in hopes of including it in future phones.

Somehow, I don't expect that a feature like that would be appealing in many places, but it's a novel solution to a clear (if minor) problem.

Going Solar in the Snow

roof_snow.jpgWhen we talk about home solar, we regularly hear assertions that it's fine for people living in regions that are (mostly) sunny year-round, but not a good investment for people living in places that get a lot of snow in the winter and rain in the summer. Solar homes are fine in the desert southwest US, but certainly not in the northern midwest or northeast United States.

Don't try to tell that to the Compaan family of Ohio, the Watson family of Massachusetts, or the Lord family of Maine. They all use solar power as their primary energy sources in their homes, and are quite happy with it. The Campaans have even converted a pickup truck to electric-only mode, so they drive solar, as well. And as verification that solar in the north works well, all three websites include photos of their homes covered in snow, photovoltaic panels clearly visible.

All three are grid-connected, and enjoy "net metering," where surplus energy is sold to the power company. In the winter, they do pull from the grid more often than they supply, but the annual balance works in their favor. (The Watsons are considering adding a wind turbine for winter power, but haven't yet seen a need.) This is an important point about the Bright Green world of distributed energy: it's not about going "off-grid," it's about being on the supply side of the grid.

Continue reading "Going Solar in the Snow" »


bioroot.jpgIn Open Source Biology, what typically gets shared is information, whether manifest as the sequence of a microbial genome or a process for transgenic biotech. This is why sites like The Synaptic Leap and BioForge are so useful: they provide a medium for that information sharing, with clear rules and methods. This more or less parallels the world of free/open source software. But unlike programming, bioscience requires more than information and basic equipment: it requires materials with which to work. Antibodies. Plasmids. Microbial strains. And most of the time, these materials cost money. This is where BioRoot comes in.

BioRoot is a free online database service for biolabs with two primary goals: it provides a powerful web-accessible lab materials database, allowing scientists to better keep track of what they have and what it can do; and it allows participating labs to list what they have that they don't need, and would be willing to share.

Continue reading "BioRoot" »

December 23, 2005

Friday Catch-Up (12/23/05)

protozoancoil.jpgThis week's Friday Catch-Up looks at Bio-Based Nanotechnology, Chinese Water Supplies, and Maps.

Bio-Based Nanotechnology
Why create new engineering materials at the nano-scale when nature can make them for you? A couple of recent discoveries bring bioengineering and nanotechnology closer together. Researchers at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., along with colleagues at MIT, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass, and University of Illinois, Chicago, have figured out how the fibrous coil "spring" of the protozoan Vorticella convallaria can be so strong -- possibly ten times the propulsive power of a typical car engine, if scaled up. The research came up with the structure and the chemical engine for this coil propulsion, with enough details that the next step is to replicate it in the lab.

Meanwhile, Duke University scientists have been able to use DNA's ability to self-assemble in order to mass-produce patterned structures. This is an important step towards mass producing nano-scale DNA-based electronic or optical circuits. These DNA structures are ten times smaller than the current best traditional chip lithography technique. The next step is to apply this process to molecular electronics; if it all works, possible applications include biological computers and microscopic sensor devices.

Continue reading "Friday Catch-Up (12/23/05)" »

Satellites for a Changing Planet

esasrilankamap.jpgSpace-based scientific research has an underappreciated role in building a better world. This week alone has three stories of important work being done from space on issues critical to WorldChanging.

The timelist example is the European Space Agency's retrospective piece on how satellite-based tools helped the rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the December 26, 2004, tsunami. Readers who followed our posts at the time will recognize some of the projects discussed, including the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters and the Respond group. The ESA article provides useful details as to how the ICSMD and Respond helped out, including examples of the images and maps given freely to rescue and relief organizations, such as the French ADU (Architects de l'Urgence, or Emergency Architects):

Continue reading "Satellites for a Changing Planet" »

The Year of Living Dangerously

2005 -- the hottest or second-hottest year since we started keeping records in the 1880s -- saw quite a remarkable collection of massive natural disasters. Some, like the South Asian tsunami (at the very end of 2004, but count it anyway) and the Pakistan earthquake in October, had no human triggers, and even the massive hurricanes can't be definitively blamed on global warming. But a provocative (and unsigned) Agence France-Presse piece argues that what we consider the "disaster" isn't the event but the result -- and those results are very much our fault:

From the Mississippi delta to the mountains of Kashmir and the beaches of the Andaman Sea, governments failed in almost every case to respect the basic laws of sustainable development.

In a nutshell, these rules are: don't house people in places that are at risk to disasters -- but if you do, respect natural defenses; keep the population growth to sensible limits; build wisely and ensure high safety standards in construction; and set up effective alert and response networks in the event disaster does strike.

This article tells a very WorldChanging story -- the need for sustainable development, response networks, and greater attention to the environment -- in a very non-WorldChanging way. What it says is that we've screwed things up, but we know what to do to make things better, if we're willing to try. It's an important essay, if you can read past the blame and dismissal.

Another Step Towards the Participatory Panopticon

One of the stumbling blocks to the creation of what I've termed the "participatory panopticon" is the need to organize and structure terabytes of data. While it's possible to add tags and metadata by hand, nobody would want to take that kind of time -- the system itself needs to handle it. Marc Davis and his team at Yahoo! Research Labs in Berkeley, California, may have brought that capability a bit closer with a new way to allow cell phones to identify who you've just snapped a picture of.

The concept... is based on a central server that registers details sent by the phone when the photo is taken. These include the nearest cellphone mast, the strength of the call signal and the time the photo was taken. [...]

...in tests Davis and his team found that by combining [facial recognition software] with context information the system could correctly identify people 60 per cent of the time. The context information can also be combined with image-recognition software to identify places within photos.

60% recognition? Not useful, yet -- but that's why it's still in the labs and not on your phone. This is just the sort of thing that will get much better, much faster than some might expect. Get ready.

(Via Picturephoning)

December 24, 2005

50 Books for Thinking About the Future

rand_logo.gifThe RAND Corporation is, in many ways, the height of official futurism. Founded by the Department of Defense in the 1950s, RAND has since spun off as its own organization, providing policy analysis for government and business across a spectrum of issues. It has a relatively well-regarded graduate school, the Pardee RAND school, and also runs the Pardee Center for Long Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition. So when the Pardee Center released a list of what it considered the 50 most important books for understanding the future, I fully expected it to be full of very traditional perspectives on both the world and its changes. Although this was true for the most part, the list had its own pleasant surprises.

The intent of the list is twofold. The first intent is to act as a reading list for someone who wants to understand at a more-than-passing level the factors that we can say seem to be most pertinent today in thinking about the longer-range human condition. I would hope that anyone who had read all 50 of these books would have a good feel for history, for how to think about the future, for the kinds of trends that are likely to have a serious impact on the future, and for the kind of surprises that might befall us as we move into that future.

Continue reading "50 Books for Thinking About the Future" »

Renewable Jersey

acuawindsolar.jpgOkay, folks, what's the number one message we preach about renewable power? Success comes from a mix of sources, not trying to rely on just solar or just wind. And I'm happy to say, we're finally starting to see that lesson demonstrated out in the world.

The Atlantic County Utilities Authority in New Jersey has opened up a new power center for its wastewater treatment facility near Atlantic City. Wastewater treatment is an important job, but very energy-intensive. When ACUA decided to add on-site power to the plant, they had to pick something that could handle the job -- so they went with combined wind and solar. The system, when completed, will include a 504 kW solar power grid and five 1.5 MW wind turbines.

The ACUA took a broad look at the entire campus of the large wastewater treatment facility and determined there were strong reasons to deploy both solar and wind. For wind, this area of New Jersey's coast has been identified as one offering some of the best wind resources in the U.S. The total 7.5 MW output of the wind turbines offer the bulk of the hybrid project's on-site power but solar proved a good fit as well since the facility is endowed with considerable open spaces suitable for solar. New Jersey's best-in-the-nation solar rebates, which pay for roughly half the cost of commercial solar installations, offered another push for solar. Lastly, the water treatment uses a vast amount of energy and they could use all the power they could get. And the combination of two renewable energy resources provides for a more consistent power delivery to the treatment plant since both the solar and wind resources fluctuate.

The system doesn't cover the entire power requirement of the facility, but when completed, it could account for up to half of it (assuming peak production from wind and solar simultaneously). ACUA estimates that the system will provide 20 million kilowatt-hours annually to the facility and to nearby residences. The main drawback of the system is that, like most home solar and wind units, it simply feeds into the grid, and doesn't have on-site energy storage or the ability to supply power in a grid failure. The ACUA intends for future renewable power projects, already in the works, to include these features.

More Energy Currents

The UK Design Council's RED team has added more ideas to the Future Currents site Dawn told us about in October. Check out their ideas for home energy monitoring, ranking and rewarding goods and services, and distributed power -- along with five ideas from top global design groups.

Readers can then vote on which ideas they'd like to see happen. Many of them are quite good, and seem easily implementable. RED uses a scenario approach with many of the products, providing a news clipping from the future describing a little bit of what the world looks like when the product or service is available.

About December 2005

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

November 2005 is the previous archive.

January 2006 is the next archive.

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

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