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January 2006 Archives

January 5, 2006

Electric Bike Ban Lifted in Beijing

You may recall earlier posts on the decision by Chinese leaders to ban the use of electric bikes in many major cities. Electric bike use is growing faster than auto use in China, and the officials worried about electric bikes as a the threat to the "pillar industry" of auto manufacturing. Word comes from Green Car Congress, however, that the Beijing city government has lifted its ban on electric bikes.

Removal of the ban came as pressure mounts on city administrators to tackle horrible traffic congestion, air pollution and possible fuel supply, caused to a large extent by a rapidly growing number of cars on the road.

It is just part of a series of measures undertaken by the capital city to address traffic congestion. Other major steps include greatly increasing the number of buses and building more urban railways.

Sustainable Mosque for the London Olympics

megamosque.jpgIslamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat and UK design firm Mangera Yvars Architects have proposed a massive new mosque for the London skyline to be built in time for the 2012 Olympics. The mosque is intended to hold 40,000 worshippers, with space for another 30,000 in the ancillary buildings; this is just 10,000 people shy of the total held by the planned Olympic stadium. But the mosque isn't just meant to be massive, it's designed to be as sustainable as possible.

The wind turbines built into the minarets get the most attention, but the facilities include a closed system for recycling the water used for ritual washing, a tidal power plant to take advantage of the mosque's riverside location, and combined heat and power (CHP) units and solar panels to generate any needed additional energy. The plans have yet to receive final approval, but the depiction at the architect's site (warning: horrible awful Flash interface) is worth the effort to check out.

The 180,000 m2 structure would look very little like a traditional mosque:

The project has adopted the idea of ‘Dawat’ by physically and metaphorically reaching out to provide large urban connections which invite people into the building from West Ham station, The Greenway and beyond. ‘Dawat space’ is an interstitial public space between the sanctum of the Mosque and the World outside. It is a place for Muslims and Non Muslims to interact, debate and promote a greater understanding between ideology, faith and humanity.

The project is controversial, however, and not just because of its £100 million price tag. The backing organization, Tablighi Jamaat, has been accused by the US government of links to more radical groups, something the organization denies. (It's worth noting that the UK has not sought to outlaw Tablighi, as it has done with other groups thought to have radical connections.) The Wikipedia entry on Tablighi provides a neutral discussion of the organization and its status, with links to both supportive and critical sites.

January 6, 2006

Friday Catch-Up (01/06/06)

Asimo.jpgThis week's catch-up takes us from green planning in Sweden to robots in Japan, with stops to check out voting machines in Wisconsin and another step in the rise of the Participatory Panopticon.

The Green Welfare State: Sweden is one of a growing number of nations with an entire government department dedicated to sustainability. The Ministry of Sustainable Development's responsibilities include renewable energy, efficiency and environmental protection. The Ministry's mission is to build what it terms "the green welfare state."

In the green welfare state, our country will reconcile good economic progress with social justice and protection of the environment, to our own benefit and the benefit of future generations. Being at the forefront of development, we will also be in a position to succeed in the export market and support environmentally sustainable social development in countries that are now experiencing strong growth. In this way, national progress is a source of global opportunities.

All well and good, but how does that translate into policy? In impressive ways, actually: Sustainable Development Minister Mona Sahlin recently announced a set of ambitious goals to reduce Sweden's already low dependence on coal and oil through the development of 15 annual terawatt-hours of renewable energy by 2015, with a further plan to eliminate oil use entirely by 2020. (Via.)

Continue reading "Friday Catch-Up (01/06/06)" »

Bruce, Jon, and the State of the World

Once again, WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling is holding court on the state of the world at the WELL, in the public "Inkwell" forum. Readers without WELL membership can send in questions via email. As always, our own Jon Lebkowsky is the moderator.

This isn't a "Chinese century," or anything so corny and fearsome. The Chinese have got maybe 25, 30 lively years in the sun before they run into the weirdest demographic problems on the planet. That doesn't even count their restive land-empire and the pervasive corruption problems they have. We ought to be crossing our fingers for the Chinese people, rather than sitting in some neocon bunker plotting their demise.

Mapping a Pandemic

googleearthavflu.jpgThe ability to mix data sources and digital maps opens up remarkable new ways of looking at -- and thinking about -- information. We've seen a number of good examples pop up over the last year, from crime statistics to transit information, largely using the Google Maps interface. Reporter Declan Butler has created a quite powerful map mashup for Nature showing the progression of H5N1 Avian Flu in Asia into Europe. This one doesn't use the online maps, however; it uses the Google Earth program, and ends up being a great demonstration of the power of that system. According to Nature, this map mashup is the only place this combination of data can be found.

Butler's Avian Flu map mashup (KML) charts the location of every reported animal and human infection since the outbreak began. Each point lists location, date, and (in the case of animal infections) the number of animals destroyed to slow the flu's progress. The pace and reach of the pandemic take on stark clarity with the map system, and the interface allows for both an in-depth examination of each incident and a big-picture overview of the disease. Butler describes the effort involved assembling this information on his blog.

The Google Earth program pulls the satellite image information from the Google server and combines it with a much more complex and responsive interface than one could get with a web browser app. Google acquired the software when it bought the satellite mapping company Keyhole last year. A Windows version has been out for awhile now, and a Mac version should be out any day now (I used a pre-release version of the Mac beta, and it worked beautifully on my Powerbook).

(Thanks for the tip, David Zaks!)

January 7, 2006

Massive Calculator of Accounting, +5

goldcoins.jpgCould you imagine receiving an itemized tax bill every month along with your subscription to an online role-playing game? That's a far more likely scenario than you might think -- and it's another manifestation of the growing convergence of the "real" and the virtual worlds.

Writer Julian Dibbell has long studied the sociology of online interactive behavior, and he (along with many other researchers) is fascinated by the economic aspects of the "massively multiplayer" games. Given that the virtual currencies (such as gold pieces used in World of Warcraft) have real, if unofficial, dollar values, Dibbell began to wonder: would the transactions using these virtual currencies be subject to American tax law?

The concept of taxing virtual currencies is not without precedent.

Continue reading "Massive Calculator of Accounting, +5" »

Geo-Green Thomas Gets Fired Up

We've posted links in the past to articles by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times calling for a "geo-green" agenda, making a move away from fossil fuels a national security issue. It's not because we think he's a brilliant writer so much as he's about as mainstream influential as they come; if Friedman is pushing this, it's going to be debated in the halls of power in Washington.

Well, he has a new one this weekend, and it's probably his most rabble-rousing version yet. Unfortunately, it's behind the "Time Select" barrier, so I can't link directly to the essay, but WorldChanging ally Watthead has generously excerpted some of the key pieces in his blog:

Enough of this Bush-Cheney nonsense that conservation, energy efficiency and environmentalism are some hobby we can't afford. I can't think of anything more cowardly or un-American. Real patriots, real advocates of spreading democracy around the world, live green.

Green is the new red, white and blue.

January 9, 2006

Value vs. Values

I'm always a bit baffled by the accusations that buyers of hybrid-electric cars are foolish, because the savings from the improved gas mileage won't make up for the increased cost of the car. That's probably a fact (barring another big spike in gas prices), but entirely irrelevant. What's the return on investment of a sun roof? Or four-wheel drive? Or ability to go three times the speed limit? People don't buy hybrids because they save money, they buy hybrids because of their underlying meaning: hybrids say something about their drivers, just as do family sedans, mega-SUVs and high-power sports cars. Further, I suspect many hybrid drivers -- like me -- bought in part to demonstrate support for a better vehicle technology.

The non-financial motivations for hybrid drivers are getting greater emphasis in research underway at UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies. HybridCars.com has an interview with researchers Ken Kurani and Rusty Heffner:

There are common meanings that run through our interviews. And there are often some individual meanings as well. Preserving the natural environment is the obvious meaning of the hybrid, but it's a lot deeper than that. What we hear from people is that when they buy a hybrid vehicle, it expresses their vision of a better world, and their desire for a society and a world where people work together for common goals. One of our subjects just had her first grandchild. That was why she felt the world needed to be a better place.

(Via Gristmill)

Debating Nukes

nuke.gifYesterday's Sustainability Sundays post from Gil Friend, "Houston: We've Got A Problem," generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it about whether or not nuclear power should be considered a -- or the -- solution to global warming, peak oil, and other unfolding energy-related problems. There are plenty of good reasons for worldchangers to oppose the expansion of nuclear power, but the institutional forces pushing for it are formidable. It's a recurring debate, one not limited to the comments in WorldChanging: this Friday, the Long Now lecture series will hold a discussion about this very topic, pitting Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, who opposes expansion of nuclear power, and Peter Schwartz, a former board member of Rocky Mountain Institute and chair of Global Business Network, who sees the potential for abrupt climate change as sufficient cause to support the expansion of nuclear power. (Disclosure: I used to work for Global Business Network, and still do occasional projects for them.) As always, if you can't make the event (because you don't live anywhere near San Francisco, for example), you can download the Long Now programs within a few days (a couple of weeks at the outside).

A useful argument about nuclear power is one that admits that the opposing sides each may have strong arguments; fortunately, Friday's discussion looks to be of that nature. Long Now characterizes it as a disagreement between environmentalists, and given that Schwartz now sees global warming as the biggest problem going, I'll accept that depiction. Moreover, the discussion is explicitly not a debate: The format requires each speaker to draw out the other's views and then restate them in a way that satisfies the opponent, "That's right. You got it." Smart.

Continue reading "Debating Nukes" »

New Standards

On Thursday, the US Environmental Protection Agency is set to release its proposed new standards for measuring automobile gas mileage. The new guidelines are intended to be closer to real-world automobile use than the current ones.

Under its new program, the E.P.A. plans to take into account factors used by the agency in measuring vehicle emissions. They include how a car performs in high-speed driving, defined as 80 miles an hour or more; aggressive driving, in which a vehicle accelerates more than 3.3 miles per second; while air-conditioning is in use; and during cold temperatures. All these factors can affect a vehicle's fuel economy.

(Great -- the EPA is adding "illegal," "irresponsible" and "known to degrade mileage at all times" factors to the mix.)

It's likely that most vehicles will see a drop in their mileage ratings under these new metrics, including hybrids.

Davos Blog

Davos Newbies reports that the 2006 World Economic Forum planners have asked all attendees to participate in a group blog for the event; the WEF's current (and rather quiet) weblog at forumblog.org will be the focal point.

The World Economic Forum was the first international organization to set up a blog at the Annual Meeting in January 2005 and the upcoming Annual Meeting will see a significant development in the experiment. All of the more than 2,000 participants, including presidents and prime ministers, will be asked to provide at least one posting for the blog.

As DN's Lance Knobel notes, it would be even better if the participants were asked to have their own individual blogs for the duration, but this is a pretty good start.

Ocean Energy Update

oceantidalmap.jpgSolar and wind are the twin giants of the renewable energy world. Everybody knows about them, and power generation projects involving photovoltaic or turbine technologies are, relatively speaking, commonplace. But there are other forms of renewable power out there; one we've followed for awhile now is ocean/tidal generation, something we usually call "hydrokinetic power." It's fascinating to watch this technology move from idea to implementation, and today we can see the surest sign that hydrokinetic power is beginning to hit the mainstream: regulation.

In the Ocean Energy Report for 2005 and Renewable Energy Access, Carolyn Elefant and Sean O'Neill of the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition lay out the current state of the ocean power industry. What's notable is that the report says little about innovative new ideas -- instead, it's all about how the companies actually testing new technologies are dealing with government oversight. It's a pleasingly mundane report, filled with detailed looks at the complexities of compliance with federal energy regulations while trying to test out new technologies.

For a better sense of what those new technologies are doing, we can hit the Ocean Energy Web Page at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). A year ago, EPRI released its final report on the potential for ocean and tidal power in the United States, spelling out the potential benefits of deployment of this technology. With its Ocean Energy project, EPRI is now following the evolution of this new power industry. The white paper on ocean energy (PDF) submitted last month to the Western Governors Assocation Clean and Diversified Energy Advisory Committee spells out the technology's benefits:

Continue reading "Ocean Energy Update" »

January 10, 2006

Asia's Biggest Solar Power Plant, in India

Indian newspaper The Hindu reports today that construction of a five megawatt solar power facility, claimed to be the largest in Asia, is set to begin in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President of India. Most solar power generation in India is currently in the kilowatt or smaller range, providing local and community power in off-grid areas. Programs like the Barefoot Solar Engineers have helped to expand the use of off-grid solar in India. The five megawatt project will be part of an ongoing attempt to increase the use of renewable sources for grid electricity.

Kerry Emanuel Profiled in the NYT

Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel knows hurricanes, and has historically been extremely cautious about drawing connections between global warming and hurricane strength or frequency. So when he published an article this past summer in Nature arguing a strong connection between climate change-driven ocean warming and hurricane intensity, the scientific world took notice. And when hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast a couple of weeks later, lots of other people took notice, too.

Today's New York Times has a brief profile and interview with Dr. Emanuel, one that helps to underscore the shift he has made from caution to concern.

There is no doubt that in the last 20 years, the earth has been warming up. And it's warming up much too fast to ascribe to any natural process we know about.

We still don't have a good grasp of how clouds and water vapor, the two big feedbacks in the climate system, will respond to global warming. What we are seeing is a modest increase in the intensity of hurricanes.

I predicted years ago that if you warmed the tropical oceans by a degree Centigrade, you should see something on the order of a 5 percent increase in the wind speed during hurricanes. We've seen a larger increase, more like 10 percent, for an ocean temperature increase of only one-half degree Centigrade.

Katrina was just the beginning.

Abrupt Climate Change -- How Bad Could It Be?

thedayaftertomorrow25.jpgIf global warming results in the "abrupt climate change" scenario of a "little ice age" in the Northern Hemisphere, just how bad might it be? A couple of new studies take a look at the paleogeological evidence to find out.

Although the idea of global warming triggering an ice age may be couter-intuitive, the science is pretty solid. Melting icepack in Greenland results in the dumping of large amounts of fresh water right into the path of the North Atlantic warm water flow, resulting in the slowing and eventual cut-off of the circulation; this, in turn, results in lower temperatures in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, with Europe likely to be hit the hardest. Such a pattern has happened in the past due to the slower natural cycles of global temperatures; the fossil and ice core evidence suggests that the shift from a warm, wet environment to a cold, dry climate could take place over a matter of a few years.

Recent findings that the warm water flow may, in fact, be seeing a dramatic reduction has turned this concept from a theoretical possibility to a very real threat. But what would that world look like? Two studies give us very different images of what might happen.

Continue reading "Abrupt Climate Change -- How Bad Could It Be?" »

Knowlege Generation in India: More Rural, More Global

indiascience.jpgI found an interesting pair of stories about science and knowledge development in India this week. One argues for a greater focus by Indian scientists on the needs of the rural population; the other argues for greater participation in Indian research by the global Indian diaspora. These are by no means contradictory concepts, but they make for a striking comparison.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the Indian Science Congress last week, and called upon local scientists to put a greater focus on issues relevant to the needs of the nation's primarily rural population. The concerns raised combine traditional development goals with leapfrog techniques:

"The Western world has not invested enough in research on water, biomass, solar and other relevant sources of energy because they are not under the kind of pressure we face," he said.
"Solar energy and biomass are areas where Indian scientists must be at the forefront of research and development." [...]

Continue reading "Knowlege Generation in India: More Rural, More Global" »

January 11, 2006

Sniffing Out Cancer

Anecdotal evidence that the ultra-sensitive noses of dogs can detect subtle olfactory signs of cancer abound, such as the story of a dog that kept sniffing a spot on a man's arm until he went to have it checked out -- only to find it was malignant melanoma. It turns out that these anecdotes reflect more than coincidence: researchers in San Francisco and Poland have run extensive tests showing that dogs can detect cancer by scent alone, even by smelling the breath of patients.

In this study, five household dogs were trained within a short 3-week period to detect lung or breast cancer by sniffing the breath of cancer participants. The trial itself was comprised of [sic] 86 cancer patients (55 with lung cancer and 31 with breast cancer) and a control sample of 83 healthy patients. [...] The results of the study showed that dogs can detect breast and lung cancer with sensitivity and specificity between 88% and 97%. [...] Moreover, the study also confirmed that the trained dogs could even detect the early stages of lung cancer, as well as early breast cancer.

The implications here are multifold: the potential for an extremely inexpensive, highly-accurate, non-invasive test for cancer; stimulus for tests of canine ability to smell subtle clues of other diseases; and an indication that there are detectable levels of molecular signs of early stages of cancer, with the possibility of engineering sensors that could be even more accurate and sensitive than dog noses.

Banana Paper

Current methods of making paper are often toxic, wasteful of water and energy, and terribly unsustainable. Recycling only goes so far; what's needed is an alternative method of making paper that is less-harmful to begin with. Papyrus Australia thinks they have that alternative: Banana Ply Paper.

Optimal parameters for an environmentally friendly but highly sustainable paper production industry include: Renewable raw materials: preferably a non-seasonal secondary fibre crop of which the BTT is a prime example given that it is cropped continually all year round; Low water usage: preferably none; Low energy usage: and preferably usage of renewable energy; Low levels of introduced chemical additives, preferably none; Low effluent discharge: preferably none, but with any discharge being non-toxic and non-pollutive.

Papyrus’ technology meets those criteria: BTT [Banana Tree Trunk, a waste product from banana farming] is the source of fibre; Production takes place amidst the plantations which reduces transport requirements and resultant pollution; No external water supply is used during the production process; Minimal amounts of energy are needed; There are no introduced chemical additives in the production process; No effluent is discharges or released into the environment: the only by-products are fluid (basically water) from the banana plant and off cuts usable as mulch which will be returned to the plantations from which supply of raw material is sourced.

What's more, production costs for banana paper are estimated to be less than one-fifth those of traditional pulp paper, and the capital investment costs just 3% of those required for pulp paper production. The big question: is there enough banana production to keep up with the global demand for paper?

(Thanks for the tip, David Chan)

Fifty Degrees Below

Fifty Degrees Below is the second in Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy, and in most respects builds solidly upon the foundation he laid out in Forty Signs of Rain. As is typical for the second book in a trilogy, much is left unresolved at the end of Fifty Degrees Below; nonetheless, it's clear by the end of the novel that a great change has taken place, and that we're about to see the repercussions. There's a lot more action in Fifty Degrees Below than in the previous book, and I suspect we'll see even more when the next in the series comes out.

The core of the story is an abrupt climate change event pushing the Northern Hemisphere climate into the "cold, windy, dry" state of a persistent ice age. Winter temperatures across the Eastern Seaboard of North America and across Europe reach the titular -50°, a sufficient disruption to give the main characters (who all work for the American National Science Foundation) license to explore a variety of solutions -- from public education to political campaigns to rapid, extensive research into renewable energy and efficiency technologies. The greatest effort, however, goes into something almost unimaginable:

...it was the next slide, REMEDIAL ACTION NOW, that was the most interesting to Frank. One of the obvious places to start here was with the thermohaline circulation stall. Diane had gotten a complete report from Kenzo and his colleagues at NOAA, and her tentative conclusion was that the great world current, though huge, was sensitive in a nonlinear way to small perturbations. Which meant it might response sensitively to small interventions they could be directed well.

Continue reading "Fifty Degrees Below" »

January 13, 2006

Massive Solar Program in California

The California state public utilities commission has approved the California Solar Initiative, a massive new program to support the expansion of solar power in the state, USD$2.8 billion going for incentives for solar power retrofits and USD$400 million going for incentives for adding solar to new construction. At USD$3.2 billion over 11 years, this puts California second only to Germany in investment in solar power. The plan's passage is the direct result of an outpouring of public support. According to Renewable Energy Access, the plan will lead to...

...the installation of approximately 3000 MW of solar energy, roughly the power equivalent of six large natural-gas fired power plants. [...] public support for the plan was repeatedly mentioned as a critical factor in bringing this plan to the CPUC. Over the last three months, 50,000 people have written to the California Public Utilities Commissioners to ask them to pass a long-term solar rebate program - more public comment than the CPUC has received on any issue they have ever considered, including the 2001 energy crisis.

LEED On A Budget

Oregon developers Interface Engineering managed to design and build the Center for Health and Healing at the Oregon Health and Science University to meet (and even exceed in some respects) LEED Platinum standards -- and do it on a budget no greater than that required for a conventional building. Moreover, they've decided to make the details available, for free. The 48-page Engineering A Sustainable World tells the story of the building project, and provides insights into how to create and build environmentally-friendly structures on a limited budget.

The book can be ordered through the Interface Engineering website; unfortunately, they apparently have decided not to make it available as a PDF download (which, frankly, would have been the ecologically-friendlier approach).

(Via Treehugger)

Friday Catch-Up (01/13/06)

safetyphone.jpgThis week's Catch-Up checks out viruses to make you healthy, GPS mobile phones as emergency tools, Googling the Earth, solar nanotechnology, and a breakthrough in space propulsion.

Phage Therapy: Bacteriophages are viruses that (typically) kill bacteria; they work their magic by infecting the nucleus of a bacterial cell with their own DNA, hijacking it to make more viruses. A growing number of bioscientists are looking at bacteriophages as, essentially, self-replicating antibiotics. Mike the Mad Biologist has more details:

Ultimately, the advantage and the disadvantage of phage therapy is that is a narrow spectrum treatment: a particular phage works against a certain species (or even a subset of a species). The disadvantage is that you have to know something about the infectious bacterium such as what species it is, and such diagnoses can take several days–time many patients do not have. On other hand, the evolution of resistance will be limited to a much smaller group of bacteria (and you can always try to isolate, or evolve in the laboratory, new phage, making the development process substantially cheaper).

Continue reading "Friday Catch-Up (01/13/06)" »


gridwise.jpgThe US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in cooperation with Whirlpool and IBM, has embarked on a year-long experiment in smart power distribution called GridWise -- and it could prove to be the sign that a revolution is at hand.

Smart grids and distributed energy are central to the bright green energy model. By decentralizing power generation and adding digital intelligence to the power network, we can build an energy infrastructure that's more flexible, better able to take advantage of renewable energy technologies, and more resilient in times of crisis. Groups as diverse as the Pacific Gas & Electric utility and Greenpeace UK support the concept, and an increasingly robust set of technologies make it possible to monitor and control how one uses -- and produces -- electricity.

The GridWise project connects 300 homes in the cities of Yakima, Washington and Gresham, Oregon to a new intelligent power network combining real-time monitoring of consumption and pricing, Internet-based usage controls, and appliances able to respond to power grid signals indicating problems by temporarily reducing energy use; this smart grid will be coupled with a distributed generation microturbine network. If all goes as planned, the result will be decreased demand on the utility and lower cost for the consumers. This will increase both the stability and the efficiency of the power grid.

Continue reading "GridWise" »

January 14, 2006

Congratulations, Gil!

Sustainability Sundays contributor Gil Friend won one of the Environmental Business Journal Awards for Business Achievement, in the Project Merit category.

Natural Logic for pioneering innovative strategies to assist companies and communities in initiatives that allow them to go ≥beyond compliance≤ and develop sustainable operations. By offering an innovative ≥risk and fiduciary responsibility≤ lens to clients and the public, the company says that it is changing traditional perceptions of environmental management by ≥deeply linking≤ environment, health and safety issues to company strategy, risk management, and the mandates laid out in corporate charters.

There are many winners this year, each a reminder that it's possible to do well by doing good.

Moore's Wall

wall.jpgRaph Koster is something of a controversial figure in the world of online games. Having worked on such games as Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, Koster wrote a book entitled A Theory of Fun for Game Design -- a book which some critics claimed described game concepts that few would actually call fun. But even his critics concede that Koster often has profound insights, and remains one of the most thought-provoking figures in the world of game design.

Koster spoke recently to an IBM conference about the co-evolution of games and technology, and he chose to address a seemingly odd topic: why Moore's Law has been bad for games. He calls it Moore's Wall.

The first thing to realize is that game play elements have not really become more complex. And by that I mean, the game play that was involved in the games in the early 90s, and the game play that’s involved today, midway through the following decade – they bear substantial similarities to one another. If you look at many of the top-selling genres, you can literally take a game from ten years ago, and set it down in front of someone, and they won’t need to read the manual. You can take one of the latest first-person shooters, send it back in time, and the players of those days would probably be able to understand what to do, even though their computers probably wouldn’t be able to run the game.

Continue reading "Moore's Wall" »

Making Backups

seeds.jpgAnyone who has owned a computer knows: always make backups of important content. Do so regularly. Preferably, put those backups some place that is unlikely to be harmed in a disaster -- a fire safe, or an off-site location. Disasters happen, but they're far easier to recover from if one plans ahead.

The same logic applies to other materials we hold dear. The government of Norway announced this week that it will be building an artificial cave deep in a frozen mountain to act as a storage facility for seeds collected by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project. [...]

Continue reading "Making Backups" »

January 16, 2006

New Horizons

Every (traditional) planet in the solar system has been explored up-close -- except one, Pluto. That's about to change: tomorrow, the launch window for the New Horizons probe opens, and very soon (possibly by 1:24pm EST) the spacecraft will be off on its 15 year mission to Pluto and beyond.

The NASA Press Kit for the New Horizons probe (PDF) provides a terrific overview of the mission, the space craft, and what scientists hope to learn when it finally gets to Pluto in 2015 -- and the Kuiper Belt in 2020.

The craft will map the surfaces of Pluto and Charon with an average resolution of one kilometer (in contrast, the Hubble Space Telescope cannot do better than about 500- kilometer resolution when it views Pluto and Charon). It will map the surface composition across the various geological provinces of the two bodies. And it will determine the composition, structure and escape rate of Pluto’s atmosphere.

New Horizons will be the fastest space craft ever built by humankind, traveling at 16 kilometers per second (or around 30,000 miles per hour) -- and it will still take over 9 years to get to Pluto.

Deforestation and Malaria

It turns out that deforestation isn't just a big picture environmental problem -- it has direct, immediate, negative results for human communities. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Johns Hopkins University has found that "malaria-inducing mosquitoes are likely to bite humans more than 200 times more often in cleared areas versus forested ones." Authors Jonathan Patz and Amy Yomiko Vittor argue that it's not just more people moving in to deforested regions that boost the infection rates, but a profound increase in the number of mosquitos.

Malaria rates in the Peruvian Amazon have soared dramatically in recent years, jumping from a few hundred cases in 1992 to more than 120,000 cases, or over a third of the population, by 1997... As trees have been steadily cleared away, the insect has presumably thrived in the more exposed, breeding-friendly pools still remaining in such disturbed habitats... The fact that deforestation, one of the fastest global drivers of landscape change, may affect the prevalence of a disease like malaria raises larger issues, says Patz. "I feel conservation policy is one and the same with public health policy," he says. "It's probable that protected conservation areas may ultimately be an important tool in our disease prevention strategies."

It seems that global environmental disruption isn't enough to discourage rampant deforestation, but direct threats to the health of local citizens just might be.

(Thanks for the tip, Jon Foley)

Software Libre in Venezuela

venezuelalinux.jpgBrazil has some local competition.

We've long celebrated Brazil's efforts to encourage the proliferation of Linux and other free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) as a tool for leapfrog technology development. Brazil has come up with some really interesting ideas, but the results have been mixed. Nonetheless, the concept of "software libre" as a catalyst for economic growth outside of the "Washington Consensus" has definitely taken root -- but it's one of Brazil's neighbors that may well take the concept even further than Lula and company could have dared hope.

This month, Venezuela's open source law goes into effect. This law mandates a two year transition to open source software in all public agencies. Jeff Zucker at the O'Reilly Radar blog has the details:

This massive undertaking will involve the training of hundreds of thousands of government employees and migrating of the software that runs not only their public agencies, but also their oil industry (which accounts for 70% of the country's economy and is one of the largest business enterprise in Latin America). [...]

Continue reading "Software Libre in Venezuela" »

Turning Emissions Into Fuel With Algae

206_algae_blue_green.jpgWhat we have now: power generation largely using coal and transportation almost exclusively using petroleum, both putting out gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Where we want to be: power generation and transportation almost exclusively using renewable energy methods, putting out very little CO2 into the atmosphere. The problem: we need to reduce CO2 faster than we can realistically shift from fossil fuels to renewable power. The (possible) solution: algae.

Isaac Berzin has developed a method of capturing CO2 from smokestack emissions using algae, and turning the result into biofuels including biodiesel, ethanol, and even a bio-coal substitute. His process, based on technology he developed for NASA in the late 1990s, captures more than 40% of emitted CO2 (on sunny days, up to 80%) along with over 80% of NOx emissions; in turn, it produces biodiesel at rates-per-acre that could make a full conversion to biofuel for transportation readily achievable. Berzin's company, Greenfuel, has multiple test installations underway, and expects to have a full-scale plant up and running by 2008 or 2009.

Continue reading "Turning Emissions Into Fuel With Algae" »

January 17, 2006

Open Source, Development and Design

Nilesource.jpgWhy do we consider the "open source" model a driver of leapfrog development? There are (at least) three good reasons: it enables production as well as consumption; it enables localization for communities that don't have the resources to tempt commercial developers to provide local versions of their products; it can be free as in "gratis" as well as free as in "libre" -- an important consideration for developing communities. All of this will be familiar territory for regular readers, but two more good examples of the utility of the free/libre/open source model emerged in recent days: the Africa Source conference in Uganda, and the Open Source Appropriate Technology discussion at Agroblogger.

The Africa Source II conference, held in Kalangala, Uganda, has just finished up, and it looks to have been a real success. Africa Source II focuses on how open source technologies can be implemented by non-governmental organizations working in Africa. Sponsored by the Tactical Technology Collective (which also produced the Asia Source conference Ethan talked about last year), Africa Source II mainly looked at how free/libre/open source software could be applied to education and development support, but also addressed the role of Citizen Media as a model for information distribution. A conference wiki contains links to notes from all of the sessions, and the conference blog has back-channel discussion and some interesting interviews with participants:

Q: From your experiences, what works best?
[Stephen Settimi, USAID's Global Health Bureau's senior technical advisor for knowledge management and ICT4D.] The solutions that have proven the best in international development are those that are heavily-driven by community expressions of need and desire to develop in certain ways. Needs for better health, or needs for better transportation of water. When it's community-driven, we get better outcomes. Specially if the community is integrally involved.

Continue reading "Open Source, Development and Design" »

January 18, 2006

Carbon Trading 101

WorldChanging contributor Gil Friend has a handy article up at GreenBiz.com entitled "The Nuts and Bolts of Carbon Trading," providing an easy introduction to the process for organizations considering giving it a shot.

1. Establish an emissions baseline -- how much do you generate? What are they main sources? What are your trends over time?

2. Set a specific reduction goal. The existence of a concrete goal (meaning, for example, a goal of "reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels," not simply "lowering emissions") makes measuring progress and determining success or failure much simpler. And don't set the goal comfortably low. Dupont plans to reduce GHG to 65% below 19990 levels by 2010; ST Micro is going for 100%; and Sweden plans to be off fossil fuels by 2020.

3. Identify efficiency opportunities through systematic assessment of your operations. Look beyond direct energy use (what about employee commuting? your supply chain?).

There's lots more to the piece -- check it out.

Open Source Software vs Bird Flu

CompLearn is a free/libre/open source software application that uses mathematical compression techniques to spot obscure patterns in a wide variety of data sources, from languages and music to biology. One of the authors of CompLearn, Rudi Cilibrasi, has applied this tool to a data set of 30 different H5N1 avian flu strains, and was able to build a tree graph of the relationships between the different versions of the disease. The goal?

...to track which strains are going where and when new strains pop up we can match them to the nearest previously known strain in the hope that this can shed light on the epidemiology of the situation.

Mathematical compression algorithms are turning into profoundly powerful tools (we blogged recently about the use of compression to aid the ability of radiologists to detect cancer, for example). And, as WorldChanging alumnus Taran Rampersad notes, this is a prime example of the utility of open source tools outside of the corporate computing setting.

New Tool for Making Vaccines

modtobacco.jpgResearchers at Arizona State University have come up with a truly ingenious way to make large amounts of usable antigens for the creation of vaccines -- using tobacco plants and a tobacco plant virus.

The Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) is a common problem for tobacco crops. In its natural form, it eats away at the leaves, flowers and fruit of the tobacco plant. But TMV can be easily modified by researchers, and can be used to introduce new genes to tobacco plants without using transgenic modification (meaning that the new genes will not be passed along to any subsequent offspring of the plants). ASU scientists employed TMV as a way to introduce genes that prompt the production of plague antibodies; the modified tobacco plants produce large amounts of antibodies in relatively short periods of time. Moreover, the technique allowed the researchers to trigger the production of very specific forms of the plague antigens, substantially reducing the incidence of adverse reactions.

Like most crops, producing vaccines in tobacco plants primarily revolved around issues of speed, low cost and high yield. “The major advantage of the vaccine is the rapidity of the system,” said Santi. “In a matter of 10 days, we can go from infecting the plants to harvesting the plants. From there, we purify the antigens in an additional one to two weeks to create the vaccine.” [...]
The beauty of the system is its potential versatility to fight against other pathogens as well. The research team’s next step is to refine their methods to achieve a large-scale commercial production of the vaccine.

As dangerous as plague can be -- especially with the possibility of its use as a bioweapon -- there are other diseases that would also benefit from a quick, relatively inexpensive method of vaccine production. It would be a welcome irony if tobacco, long a global health scourge, became the vehicle for widespread production of effective and safe immunization.

(Via Medgadget)

Don't Blame the Plants

A few days ago, a report in Nature from the Max Planck Institute suggested that plants may be responsible for quite a bit more methane than previously believed (methane is, as we know, 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but isn't nearly as abundant in the atmosphere). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this report exploded across the newsosphere, usually with headlines suggesting that plants were responsible for global warming, that planting trees to mitigate atmospheric CO2 just made things worse, and otherwise striking an odd balance of "we're doomed" and "it's not our fault!"

We didn't write about it here because we've read enough scientific reports to know when something is very preliminary, and not nearly as big a deal as press reports claim, a decision underscored by RealClimate's take on the report. Today, the researchers who wrote the Nature article issued a new press release trying to get everyone to calm down:

...our discovery led to intense speculation that methane emissions by plants could diminish or even outweigh the carbon storage effect of reforestation programs with important implications for the Kyoto protocol, where such programs are to be used in national carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction strategies. We first stress that our findings are preliminary with regard to the methane emission strength. Emissions most certainly depend on plant type and environmental conditions and more experiments are certainly necessary to quantify the process under natural conditions. As a first rough estimate of the order of magnitude we have taken the global average methane emissions as representative to provide a rough estimate of its potential effect on climate. These estimates... show that methane emissions by plants may slightly diminish the effect of reforestation programs. However, the climatic benefits gained through carbon sequestration by reforestation far exceed the relatively small negative effect, which may reduce the carbon uptake effect by up to 4 per cent. Thus, the potential for reduction of global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive. The fundamental problem still remaining is the global large-scale anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels.

Emphasis mine. The press release includes a brief paragraph explaining in more detail how the estimates were calculated; the amount of methane (CH4) emitted by plants is a tiny fraction of the amount of CO2 captured in the same time frame -- no more than 2g of CH4 for every kilogram of CO2. The greater greenhouse characteristics of methane make the effect of that small amount of methane disproportionately large, but (as quoted above) the overall reduction in carbon uptake is 1-4%.

In short, don't worry. Planting trees for carbon sequestration is still a good idea -- you should just plan to plant 1-4% more of them now.

Diesel-Electric Hypercar

aptera.jpgAccelerated Composites, a startup in Carlsbad, California, is now assembling a new diesel-electric hybrid of its own design, made of high-end composite materials and using supercapacitors instead of batteries. Like the Honda Insight, it will seat two. Accelerated Composites expects the vehicle, called the Aptera, to cost around $20,000.

Estimate mileage: 330 miles per gallon at 65 miles per hour.

That's not a typo. The combination of super-streamlined shape, ultra low-weight materials, and high-output supercapacitors gives the design incredible efficiency. And because the composite production process developed by Accelerated Composites is faster and more efficient than previous methods, the overall cost of the vehicle can be startlingly low.

Continue reading "Diesel-Electric Hypercar" »

January 19, 2006

Fighting Pandemics with Mobile Phones

biohazrdphone.jpgIt's not just wild-eyed social networking evangelists and telecom industry types talking about using mobile telephones as tools for disaster preparedness -- now the US Centers for Disease Control are getting into the act.

We talk a lot about the ways in which mobile network devices like cell phones can be used to alert people to health problems (such as allergens or pollution) or imminent environmental disasters. Typically, this takes the form of centralized systems sending out SMS text messages to a select group of users; there's already a protocol available for just such a system. The CDC wants to take this further, however, with a mobile phone-based tool for alerting people to potential pandemic risks:

At the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers are helping the CDC to develop an emergency alert system that would rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) features built into many of today's mobile handsets. In areas hit with an outbreak, people who carry GPS-enabled mobile phones and are subscribed to the alert service would receive an emergency alert text message with instructions about where to go or what to do during specific emergencies, such as an outbreak of anthrax or bird flu.

Continue reading "Fighting Pandemics with Mobile Phones" »

Global Warming-Resistant Agriculture

Word comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the UK of the discovery of the gene sequence that controls how barley responds to temperature and seasonal changes. BBSRC scientists believe that it may be possible to modify this gene to allow barley -- a staple crop in the UK -- to flourish in the warmer, dryer environment to come. Other key crops such as wheat, rice and corn likely have similar genes, and should be able to be modified in similar ways.

Such a proposal smacks of "adaptation," and those of us who argue that we have the means now to prevent climate disaster are usually a bit hesitant to discuss such a notion. It's not because we don't think adaptation is possible, it's because the concept has been so abused by those who seek to avoid making any changes to our fossil fuel society that to speak of adaptation at all runs the risk of having one's words dismissed by allies and distorted by opponents. There's also the deeper philosophical issue that a focus on adaptation can easily undercut more productive -- but more difficult -- efforts to halt and reverse disastrous changes.

The reality is that thermal inertia of the ocean and the atmosphere means we'll still see warming for at least the next couple of decades, even if we were to stop putting any more greenhouse gases into the air right this very second. The global environment is changing in ways that will take a long time to reverse, even in the best scenarios; in the meantime, we'll need to figure out ways to continue to support a civilization under stress. Being able to modify key agricultural products to live in the changing environment will be a crucial part of the overall solution. It's not adaptation -- it's crisis management.

Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0

PB20.jpgAbout two years ago, we posted a brief piece on Lester Brown's book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Brown is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and head of the Earth Policy Institute, and is best-known for the State of the World series. Brown has just come out with Plan B 2.0, updating the original work, and it looks to be one of the better summations of the WorldChanging perspective yet in print (but keep an eye out for the WorldChanging book...). Best of all, the entire work is online as both HTML and PDF (you can, of course, purchase a paper copy as well).

A listing of some of the chapter titles will give you a sense of the direction Brown's taking (the links are to the PDF version of the chapter; follow the "entire work" link above to get the HTML versions):

2. Beyond the Oil Peak
4. Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas
9. Feeding Seven Billion Well
11. Designing Sustainable Cities
13. Plan B: Building a New Future

Brown also discusses global poverty, energy efficiency, water shortages, and what would need to be done to shift the global economy towards greater sustainability.

Read on for some excerpts from the last chapter, "Plan B: Building a New Future."

Continue reading "Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0" »

January 20, 2006

The Nuclear Debate

The audio recording of the Peter Schwartz/Ralph Cavanagh discussion at the last Seminar About Long-Term Thinking isn't yet up, but Stewart has written up a brief but fairly complete summary of their arguments, and posted it to the new Long Now discussion boards.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said, world demand for energy will continue to grow for decades, as two billion more people climb out of poverty and developing nations become fully developed economies. China and India alone will double or quadruple their energy use over the next 50 years. We will run out of oil in that period. That leaves coal or nuclear for electricity. Conservation is crucial, but it doesn't generate power. Renewables must grow fast, but they cannot hope to fill the whole need. Nuclear technology has improved its efficiency and safety and can improve a lot more. Reprocessing fuel will add further efficiency. [...]

California, Cavanagh said, has led the way in developing a balanced energy policy. Places like China are paying close attention. PG&E has become the world's largest investor in efficiency, led by Carl Weinberg (who was in the audience and got a round of applause). And now there are signs that California may become the leader in setting limits to carbon emissions. Within limits like that, then the private sector can compete with full entrepreneurial zest, and may the best technologies win. Nuclear would have to compete fairly with new forms of biofuels and with ever improving renewables.

Fair warning: most of the comments on the Long Now boards are from people with quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear power engineering and a strong pro-nuclear perspective. If you choose to weigh in, be sure to have your facts straight. That said, the posters seem to have very little knowledge about renewables, and a few have made the kinds of blanket -- and factually incorrect -- pronouncements about renewable energy that they'd quickly dismiss were they about about nuclear energy.

Aside from the nuclear discussion, there's not a lot of content up yet on the Long Now boards, but go and take a look around. I'm certain that you'll find much of interest for WorldChangers.

Lovelock, Sterling, and Choosing to Survive

James Lovelock's recent essay in the Independent has prompted abundant discussion across the sustainable blogosphere, including here at WorldChanging, with Alan's recent post on Mega-Engineering. It's a dark and intentionally depressing vision of widespread famine, ecological crashes and conflict -- all driven by human-caused global warming. Lovelock, who claims to be an optimist on most issues, simply cannot see a way for humankind to avoid utter ruin.

Continue reading "Lovelock, Sterling, and Choosing to Survive" »

Friday Catch-Up (01/20/06)

world-tracker.jpgThis week's Friday Catch-Up takes a look at keeping buildings cool, "hybrid" houses, fighting pests with a biotech solution that works with nature, and tracking mobile phones.

Pre-Cooling that Works: Researchers have long known that cooling a building well below the desired temperature early in the day, then letting it warm up to above the desired temperature in the afternoon -- a process called "pre-cooling" -- can reduce electricity demands and actually keep a building cooler throughout the day compared to traditional thermostat control. The problem is, the "thermal mass" of small office buildings varies so widely that it's easy to get the pre-cooling wrong and actually increase power use. Now engineers at Purdue University, working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and funded by the California Energy Commission, have worked out a straightforward algorithm for effective and efficient pre-cooling.

"The idea is to set the thermostat at 70 degrees Fahrenheit for the morning hours, and then you start adjusting that temperature upwards with a maximum temperature of around 78 during the afternoon hours, " Braun said. "When the thermostat settings are adjusted in an optimal fashion, the result is a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in peak electrical demand for air conditioning.

Continue reading "Friday Catch-Up (01/20/06)" »

January 21, 2006

Serious Games Summit

A recurring theme on WorldChanging Weekend is the power of games -- video, board or otherwise -- to educate and enlighten. The standard term for these kinds of endeavor is "serious games;" the annual Game Developer's Conference has a Serious Games Summit allowing designers and analysts to get together to talk tech, theme and purpose. This year's GDC and Serious Games Summit will be in San Jose, California, on March 20-24 (20-21 for the Summit), and registration is now open.

I'm going to try to go -- and if you go, be sure to say hi.

Virtual Complementary Currencies

SLmoney.jpgThe real world/online game world mash-up continues.

The possibility of the government taxing the money you "earn" in online games (through killing dragons or whatnot) became much greater this week, as Second Life Boutique -- an online store that generally sells virtual world goodies for Second Life characters -- began to sell real world objects for Lindens, Second Life's in-game currency. The first item for sale, a video card, runs L$20,000, or about US$80 at the current L$250=US$1 conversion. In many respects, this is hardly a surprising development; after all, people can sell virtual objects for real money, why not the other way around?

The difference -- and why I began with a reference to the Internal Revenue Service -- is that what Second Life is doing by allowing this is setting up a complementary currency, one outside of the regulations and control of the formal financial system.

Continue reading "Virtual Complementary Currencies" »

January 23, 2006


damocles.jpgGoogle Earth is fast becoming a key tool for the monitoring of changes to our planet, via the use of online information layers -- the combination of networked data and Google maps are known as "mash-ups" (after the music genre). The latest mash-up is DAMOCLES, a project by the Technical University of Denmark to provide compelling and useful information on the effects of climate change on Arctic ice (unsurprisingly, the university has numerous projects related to arctic sea ice). DAMOCLES adds satellite and ground-level sensor data to Google Earth polar maps, providing daily-updated readings of ice motion and thickness.

DAMOCLES, a tortured acronym for "Developing Arctic Modelling and Observing Capabilities for Longterm Environmental Studies," seeks to reduce the uncertainties regarding the effect of global warming-induced climate disruption on the polar regions, with a current focus on the north pole. Climate scientists now recognize that global warming hits the poles much harder than the equatorial and temperate regions -- as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years -- with dramatic results. At the south pole, the warming threatens to break up the Antarctic ice sheet (if the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would raise sea levels by at least 60 meters), while at the north pole, warming has already led to the disappearance of vast stretches of ice pack, eliminating areas once used by Inuit communities and threatening wildlife.

Continue reading "DAMOCLES" »

Discovering Amory Lovins

Discover magazine has a short (two-page) but terrific interview with Amory Lovins (of Rocky Mountain Institute and Winning the Oil Endgame fame). The article has Lovins talking about his favorite subject, energy, covering subjects like the relationship between weight and efficiency, the utility of plastic resins over steel, why the Pentagon should matter to environmentalists, and just how he's managed to grow bananas in Colorado (the picture on page 2 of the interview, of Lovins holding next to a solar panel while eating a banana, is worth checking out). My favorite bit, however, has to be his beginning comment:

When I give talks about energy, the audience already knows about the problems. That's not what they've come to hear. So I don't talk about problems, only solutions. But after a while, during the question period, someone in the back will get up and give a long riff about all the bad things that are happening—most of which are basically true. There's only one way I've found to deal with that. After this person calms down, I gently ask whether feeling that way makes him more effective.

As René Dubos, the famous biologist, once said, "Despair is a sin."

African-Made, Solar-Powered Hearing Aid

godisa.jpgThis story absolutely made my day.

The SolarAid is a hearing aid designed and built by Godisa Technologies, a Botswana company founded to make low-cost hearing aids for the developing world. The SolarAid system combines a small hearing aid and a lightweight solar charger; Godisa developed the first No. 13 rechargeable button battery for the system. Godisa is Africa's only hearing aid manufacturer, and the only one in the world making hearing aids specifically for the sub-Saharan Africa environment.

The SolarAid, including the solar charger and an extra pair of batteries, sells for less than $100, and is built to last at least two to three years. But, as low cost as that is, Godisa wants to do even better: they want to make the design free to everyone -- essentially, to go open source -- if the Botswana government will let them.

Developed in Botswana with advisory support from World University Service of Canada, nearly 4,000 SolarAids have been sold in more than 30 countries.
In Brazil, Jordan and Pakistan, non-profit organizations are looking to develop their own versions of the SolarAid and have asked for Godisa's help in providing low-cost hearing aids for their workers.
Flying in the face of all sound business models, Godisa intends to transfer all its technologies for free. [...]

Continue reading "African-Made, Solar-Powered Hearing Aid" »

January 24, 2006

Energy System, Not Energy Supply

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is the UK's premier institution for the study and analysis of both the changing global climate and the steps needed to mitigate the problem. They do an excellent job of clarifying the key issues the UK and the world at large need to confront, and they make a point of questioning the conventional wisdom of how to respond. Dr. Kevin Anderson, a Tyndall analyst, has an editorial at BBC News arguing that the debate over energy sources, particularly over the need for more nuclear power plants, is misdirected. The real issue, he says, isn't energy supply, it's the energy system -- how the power we generate is used.

The notion that we need to look at energy consumption instead of energy source is not a new one. Its most visible advocate has long been Amory Lovins, who once noted that most of us don't buy oil or coal, we buy what we can do with the oil and coal. Similarly, Anderson argues that debates over how much nuclear is needed or the right balance of "clean" coal and wind is far too narrow. He then lays out the conclusions of recent Tyndall research on "decarbonizing" the UK, demonstrating the kinds of improvements possible with a focus on efficiency.

Continue reading "Energy System, Not Energy Supply" »

Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity

sustainableag.jpgIf you were designing a worldchanging agricultural system for the developing world, one less likely to generate the kinds of social, economic and environmental costs we see in the current dominant system, what would you want to include? How about: improved water use efficiency; reduced pesticide use; agroforestry, both to maintain nearby forest resources and to improve carbon sequestration; conservation tillage; even aquaculture, to incorporate fish, shrimp and the like as part of a larger integrated farm system. All wonderful ideas, but of course the reason that industrial agriculture remains dominant is that it's so much more productive, right?


According to a new study in the Feb. 15 edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society, sustainable agriculture techniques like those mentioned above, introduced to developing world farms over the last decade, improved farm yields by an average of 79% in four years. And not just in a limited set of locations: the study covered 286 different projects in 57 developing countries. That's over 12 million farms, or 37 million hectares -- about 3% of the cultivated area in poor nations.

In "Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries," Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in England, along with colleagues in Thailand, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico, concentrated on seven key sustainable agriculture methods:

Continue reading "Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity" »

January 25, 2006

Building Ecological Networks Where They're Needed Most

african_elephant.jpgScience is inherently collaborative. Fiction may be filled with researchers working in isolation to make some discovery, but the vast majority of real science happens because scientists can communicate and share ideas with each other. Such communication is all the more important when the research area is an intrinsically interdisciplinary field, such as ecology. But in an era when understanding the interrelated systems of the planet's environment is of growing importance, some parts of the world lack even basic organizations for ecological scientists to learn of each other's work. Fortunately, the British Ecological Society wants to change that.

The Society has just announced the opening of its Building Capacity for Ecology Fund, an effort to support the creation and expansion of ecological organizations in impoverished areas.

The Building Capacity for Ecology Fund will make £500,000 available over five years to support the establishment and development of ecological societies in Africa and Eastern Europe.

Continue reading "Building Ecological Networks Where They're Needed Most" »

Hydrokinetic in the UK

Today, the Carbon Trust, one of the UK's biggest climate and energy information groups, released a report on the potential for hydrokinetic power -- electricity generated by the flows of tides, waves, and ocean currents -- in the UK energy grid. The summary (PDF) hits the major points, as does the BBC article; the full report, sadly, is only available by calling the Carbon Trust's office. The story is clear, though: wave and tidal energy is less mature than wind and solar, but rapidly improving; by 2020, the sector could provide 3% of the UK's power; over the long run, hydrokinetic could provide 20% of the power supply. As we've discussed more than once, hydrokinetic power has many of the benefits of other renewable sources like wind and solar without [in the case of wave power, as much of] their major drawback, intermittency. [But see the comments for discussion on this issue.] Tidal, wave and ocean current power don't really have microgeneration versions, but that's okay -- ocean power can provide the centralized generation backbone for a distributed renewable network.

The one aspect of the report that disappoints me is the presumption that UK energy consumption will continue to follow established patterns. As noted yesterday, improvements to consumption efficiency could reduce energy use by 60% by 2050 (personally, I think the improvements could happen even faster than that). If efficiency reduces demand in that way, and at the same time hydrokinetic increases by the amount projected by the Carbon Trust, wave and tidal could eventually be responsible for half of the UK's power, not just one-fifth.

That is why it's important not to think of these solutions as operating in isolation. Efficiency alone=good. Distributed power alone=good. Hydrokinetic alone=good. Efficiency + distributed power + hydrokinetic=worldchanging.

Google Antarctica

Viewing ice flow changes in the Arctic via Google Earth is pretty cool, but what about the antipodes? You're in luck. Polarview.org, an "initiative of the European Space Agency and the European Commission, with participation by the Canadian Space Agency, to make earth observation (EO) services more accessible and affordable to anyone interested in the Northern and Southern Polar Regions," has developed a KMZ file for Google Earth providing Antarctica datasets, including both station locations and daily ice data.

By itself, Google Earth doesn't actually have terribly detailed maps of Antarctica; evidently, the photographic satellites the program uses don't take many south pole pictures. The Polar View Antarctic KMZ improves the situation, providing substantially higher-resolution images for selected sections of the continent. They aren't the six-inches-per-pixel resolution of some of Google's maps, but they're much better than the default view. Sadly, WorldChanging favorite Dome C isn't covered in these updated maps -- but now you can see exactly where it is!

(Via Google Earth Blog)

Money, Viruses, and Unexpected Resources

viralmoney.jpgUC Santa Barbara's Lars Hufnagel, along with Theo Geisel and Dirk Brockmann from the Max Planck Institute, have taken an Internet curiosity involving the travels of dollar bills and used it to create a breakthrough model of human travel patterns, one that could greatly boost our ability to respond to emerging epidemics.

Back in the days when few people ever traveled more than a few miles from their homes, diseases spread in a fairly linear way, slowly marching across the countryside. Today, the extreme mobility of the average industrialized country citizen (and their general aversion to wearing tags in their ears to facilitate tracking) makes figuring out how travel patterns relate to epidemic spread a difficult task. The research team theorized that tracking currency -- cash money -- would be the next best thing to collars and tags. But where could they find enough data about how individual bills migrate around the country? The Internet, of course.

Where's George? is a website allowing individuals to enter the serial numbers of the dollar bills (and other US currency) and their location, then to return later to see where those dollars have gone. It's an online curiosity -- not really a game, more like an information toy. As of this afternoon, over 76 million bills have been entered into the site, totaling over $430 million. The research team took this enormous wealth of data and found that human domestic travel patterns, as represented by currency, matched an unexpected -- but easily understood (for mathematicians, at least) -- scaling and diffusion model. This model will make it possible to build far more accurate simulations of epidemic spread and response, potentially saving many lives.

Continue reading "Money, Viruses, and Unexpected Resources" »

January 26, 2006

Chinese Car, Italian Design, Global Market

mycar.jpgInnovech may sound more like a manufacturer of computer parts than automobiles, but its new MyCar design may presage a radical shift in both the European microcar market and how we think about global economic cooperation. The MyCar is a direct competitor to the Smart -- a microcar that trades power, room and speed for extraordinary mileage, low cost and ease-of-use. Built and distributed by Hong Kong-based Innovech, the MyCar was designed by highly-regarded Italian automotive design firm Italdesign-Giugiaro. The initial test market will be Italy, but the longer-term plan is for the MyCar to be available across Europe, and perhaps eventually globally.

In many respects, the MyCar is just another microcar, albeit a particularly low-priced one. What makes it interesting, though, is the combination of Chinese manufacturing and distribution with Italian design. The European microcar market has largely been dominated by local designs (like Smart) and global brands. MyCar appears to be an attempt to build a local design via global manufacturing and ownership. But China isn't simply the source of cheap labor here; in essence, instead of an Italian company outsourcing its manufacturing to China, it's a Chinese company outsourcing its design to Italy.

Continue reading "Chinese Car, Italian Design, Global Market" »

Green Power Use Doubles in a Year

The US Environmental Protection Agency released its Green Power Top 25 list yesterday, a compilation of the greatest renewable energy use by a set of 600 "partner" organizations across the US who agree to preferentially buy green power. All told, the green power partner firms consumed over four million megawatt-hours of renewable energy in 2005, a nearly 100% increase over the 2004 total.

The 2006 Top 25 green power purchasers are buying enough energy to power more than 300,000 homes a year, which is also comparable to removing the emissions of nearly 400,000 cars from the road annually.

Topping the list is the US Air Force, which used over a million megawatt-hours of renewable power, 11% of its total consumption (a combination of biomass, geothermal, micro-hydro, solar and wind). More notable is the new #2 entry, Whole Foods Market, which recently shifted to a 100% renewable energy footing -- and managed to use over 450 thousand megawatt-hours of green energy.

January 27, 2006

A Bit of Bird Flu Good News

With recent reports of avian flu H5N1 spreading across Asia towards Turkey, it's nice to see a positive report on virus research. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have engineered a vaccine for H5N1 that provided 100% protection tests on in mice and chickens. Moreover, the vaccine successfully triggers a broad immune response that could work against multiple variants of the infection.

The focus of the research is on a vaccine for use in captive bird populations; the human infections have largely been in people who handle poultry. H5N1 is 100% fatal to chickens, but this vaccine, when delivered subcutaneously, protected all test chickens against levels of the virus far larger than they would likely face in a natural outbreak.

What's Next for Google Earth Mashups?

Okay, I admit it: I've become a bit enamored of Google Earth. It's fun to play with, sure, but the real reason is how well it illustrates big concepts. Avian flu progress and monitoring of polar environmental conditions are just two compelling WorldChanging-relevant examples of what can be done with the Google Earth application and networked access to structured data; additional WC-type examples that popped up this week include an overlay showing global fire data from NASA's Earth Observing Satellite network, and an overlay showing South American trade from the UN Comtrade database.

So what's next? Or, rather, what would we want to be next? What kinds of information about the planet, or human activity on the planet, would be enhanced by a digital world display? The ability of Google Earth to display multiple overlays at the same time -- the key information difference between Google Earth and the satellite view in Google Maps -- suggests that we might want to start thinking in terms of combinations. What pieces of global information would you find useful to compare & contrast?

Friday Catch-Up -- Nano Edition (01/27/06)

TiNanotubes.jpgIt's the all-nano action edition of Friday Catch-Up! This week: titanium nanotubes and solar hydrogen; the Centers for Nanotechnology and Society and the Nanoethics group look at the social impact of nanotech; carbon nanotubes wrapped in DNA -- for a good reason; and a detailed look at the key next-generation nanotechnology, the nanofactory.

Hail, Titania: Everybody likes to talk about carbon nanotubes (including yours truly), but the action in non-carbon nanotubes is really heating up. Penn State scientist Craig Grimes and his group have found that nanotubes made from the element titanium can significantly boost the effectiveness of solar technologies. Adding titanium nanotube structures to low-efficiency dye solar cells boosted their efficiency enough to make them potentially competitive with traditional silicon photovoltaics, and using titanium nanotubes in a "water photolysis" system made it possible to crack hydrogen from water with 13.1% efficiency -- that's more than double the best results of just a year ago. The drawback? It works best under ultraviolet light. However, according to Dr. Grimes, "If we could successfully shift its bandgap into the visible spectrum we would have a commercially practical means of generating hydrogen by solar energy. It beats fighting wars over middle-eastern oil.”

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Hands-On Leapfrogging

wndw-dish.jpgWireless Networking for the Developing World is a how-to guide for building, deploying and maintaining wireless information networks in rural parts of the developing world. Written by Tomas Krag, O'Reilly editor Rob Flickenger and a wide assortment of wireless hackers brought together by the Wireless Roadshow last October, the book is now available as a download under a generous Creative Commons "share alike" license (which means you can do whatever you’d like with the text, so long as you share the output -- allowing people to translate the text into local languages, for instance.) In the near future, the book will also be available in a print-on-demand format.

The website for the book includes a wiki to allow readers to participate in spotting and fixing errors, offering suggestions of case studies and useful websites, and contributing to the development of the next edition of the book.

The book is very clearly a practical guide, not a discussion of policy or social theory:

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January 30, 2006

Return of the Son of Sonofusion

star-in-a-jar.jpgCould the future of energy be found in a "star in a jar?"

In Sonofusion (2004), we introduced research from Purdue showing that sound waves pulsing through bubbles in a liquid could pop them with enough energy to produce (for a brief, tiny instant) a nuclear fusion event; in Son of Sonofusion (2005), we pointed to research by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign confirming key elements of the research, including the extremely high temperatures within the bubbles; in Return of Sonofusion (2005), we presented more confirmation, and a lengthy discussion of just how this process appears to work. Now Sonofusion is back, with an answer for a key criticism of the work.

The primary piece of evidence that fusion is happening is the measurement of bursts of neutrons coinciding with the flashes from bursting bubbles. But the process, as we noted in the first sonofusion post, requires an external neutron source to prime the reaction; critics have pointed out that there's no way to be absolutely sure that the measured neutrons aren't just from the external source. Now researchers from Purdue, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Russian Academy of Sciences have produced a sonofusion reaction without any external neutron source -- and found neutron emissions from the jar:

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Africa Source II Report

Black Looks points to details from Becky Faith of Pambazuka News on the recent Africa Source II conference, an attempt to expand the discussion of open source software and the open source concept in Africa. (We noted the conference earlier this month.) Highlights include discussions of the Creative Commons License as a benefit for Africa, localization of software for community empowerment, and the needs of disabled computer users in Africa. Of particular note was the emphasis on getting women involved in open source development:

Women from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and Egypt got together to discuss how they might advocate for open source amongst women. Mentoring for school-age girls to get them to consider information technology as a career was seen as a top priority. The openness of the FOSS community was seen as a great opportunity for learning and participation by women.

Faith points to the Africa Linux Chix website and mailing lists, which appear to be well-worth checking out.

Medical Data, Global Health

Two interesting and useful online databases give us two very different points on the spectrum of medical information.

GlobalHealthFacts.org is a new website providing searchable information on current country and regional health data. Created by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the site's goal is to provide up-to-date information on key data about the state of global health and healthcare. GlobalHealthFacts includes country-by-country information on HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as important socio-economic and demographic indicators such as physicians, nurses and midwives per 100,000 population, the rural/urban split, and the availability of international aid for healthcare. Country reports can be compared, and each particular piece of data has a link to original source material. The results page for a given country also includes a set of relevant news summaries from GlobalHealthFacts' sister site, GlobalHealthReporting.org. (Via Medgadget)

Hippocrates is a medical information search engine, providing one-click links to a variety of data sources about diseases and treatments. The search engine focuses on the "deep web," the dynamic content used to produce on-the-fly pages, which is generally invisible to traditional search methods. From what I could tell, the information sources searched are relatively mainstream -- although it does explicitly include alternative medical treatments -- and the data presentation is structured to make it easy for non-specialist users to find needed information quickly. Useful, to be sure, but what makes this website notable is that it was designed and built by the Indian company CloserLook, and runs on the big India news portal Chennai Online. (Via Open Access News)

The Green Growth Engine

greencalifornia.jpgThe argument we hear time and again against efforts to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions is simple: doing so is costly, will slow the economy, and will throw people out of work. Supporters of such efforts counter that the process would actually be beneficial to the economy, because of investments in new technologies and reductions of waste. Now a major study from the University of California, Berkeley, has come out in strong support of this latter argument, detailing precisely how the relatively aggressive California plan to cut greenhouse gases will boost the state's economy in surprisingly short order.

The California Climate Change Center at UC Berkeley is a cross-disciplinary institute including researchers in areas as diverse as public policy, resource economics, city and regional planning, environmental engineering, and the environmental energy technologies division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In short, this is a group of researchers and analysts well-versed in both the policy and scientific issues around climate change. Their most recent report, Managing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in California, lays out the technological, economic and policy options involved in meeting the goals of returning California to 2000-level emissions by 2010, 1990-level emissions by 2020, and 80% below 1990 by 2050. The researchers determined that pursuing a subset of these policies could achieve at least half of the California plan's goals while increasing the gross state product by $5 billion and creating 8,300 new jobs by 2010, and upwards of $60 billion and 20,000 new jobs by 2020:

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January 31, 2006

Sustainability Bloggers, Together Again for the First Time

If you're in San Francisco, come on by the Commonwealth Club tonight (January 31st) at 6pm for a discussion about green blogging. Our own Gil Friend is the moderator, and the panelists include Nick Aster from Triplepundit, Siel from Green LA Girl, Treehugger writer Kyeann Sayer, and, um, yours truly. It promises to be a good conversation and an excellent chance to meet your favorite green bloggers. More information here.

I'm told a few tickets are still available; reserve your seat at the Commonwealth Club website.

Design Students: What Does the Car of 2030 Look Like?

interiormotives.jpgAutomotive design magazine Interior Motives has announced its 2006 student design competition, and it's one that may be of particular interest for WorldChangers. The theme is "2030," and the goal is to present a scenario-based vehicle design able to meet the environmental, regional and social demands of the world of nearly 25 years from now.

How will...
...future designers manage the myriad of technologies and innovations in areas such as drivetrain, construction, driving controls, electronics and communications in parallel with the rise of hybrid vehicles and fuel cell vehicles?
...designers create increasingly adaptable, personalised and connected interior environments in which occupants can sit and control vehicles in ever-increasing comfort and safety?
...this happen alongside the drive to diminish the car's negative social and environmental impact by improving its urban integration, and minimising its energy waste and pollution?

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GlobCarbon and the Global Carbon Cycle

globcarbon.jpgWe know that we're adding millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, with demonstrably negative results for the global climate. But precisely how the planetary ecosystem reacts to this additional carbon is dependent upon the details of the global carbon cycle -- the ongoing transfer of carbon between the Earth's atmosphere, ocean, ground and biosphere. GlobCarbon, a European Space Agency effort to chart a decade's worth of data on changes to global plant life, will provide critical data to emerging carbon cycle models, making it possible to predict with much greater accuracy the ecosystem effects of the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon. GlobCarbon is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2007, but the first six year's worth of data have now been made available to researchers.

GlobCarbon relies on a variety of ESA satellites for long-term observations, and the project has accumulated 45 terabytes of input data so far:

[GlobCarbon] is focused on the generation of various global estimates of aspects of terrestrial vegetation: the number, location and area of fire-affected land, known as Burnt Area Estimates (BAE), the area of green leaf exposed to incoming sunlight for photosynthesis, known as Leaf Area Index (LAI), the sunlight actually absorbed for photosynthesis, known as the Fraction of Absorbed Photosynthetically Active Radiation (fAPAR) and the Vegetation Growth Cycle (VGC).

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About January 2006

This page contains all entries posted to WC Archive in January 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2005 is the previous archive.

February 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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