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February 2006 Archives

February 1, 2006

Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars... Real Soon Now

My 2004 call for automakers to build hybrid-electric cars that use modern low-emissions diesel instead of gasoline -- diesel providing more energy/volume, therefore a higher base mileage -- remains one of the most popular posts we've ever done. I'm pleased to see that the idea is finally getting some traction. French automaker Peugeot-Citroen announced this week that it has designed two hybrid-electric cars using the high-efficiency HDi diesel engine. The prototypes deliver an average of 69 miles per gallon (US rating) combined city and highway mileage, with a record low emission of 90 grams of CO2 per kilometer. Like the Prius, the Peugeot-Citroen hybrids will have a low-speed all-electric mode, meaning that they'd be candidates for a plug-in hybrid refit.

Don't rush off to your local dealer yet, though; Peugeot-Citroen says that the hybrid technology is still a bit too costly to be able to sell the cars at a competitive price, but that they expect to have them on the road by 2010. Buyer demand is a funny thing, though, and sufficient consumer interest in a very high-mileage car might bring them to market sooner, despite the higher price.

See Green Car Congress for the details.

Carbon, Global Warming and Understanding Our Options

realclimateco2stab.jpgNew articles on RealClimate and The Oil Drum provide useful insights into the state of our current understanding of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- and what we need to do in order to forestall disaster.

Peak oil community website The Oil Drum is playing host to an absolutely terrific series of posts from Stuart Staniford, examining the prospects for reducing carbon emissions and avoiding dangerous climate disruption, all from a perspective informed by the current peak oil debates. Stuart is a physicist and computer scientist by training, and brings that quantitative analytic eye to his work on understanding the climate; although his posts are written for a general audience, they are fairly math-heavy -- but even if formulae make your eyes glaze over, I encourage you to make the effort to follow his argument. He's not a climate scientist trying to explain his findings to the lay person, he's an educated non-specialist trying to understand what's going on.

In his first piece in the series, The Carbon Economy, Stuart lays out his plan:

Continue reading "Carbon, Global Warming and Understanding Our Options" »

African Telemedicine Conferences

Telemedicine is a worldchanging practice for regions that, for reasons of geography, economics or politics, are poorly-served by local healthcare. Advances in communication technologies make telemedicine more accessible, and we've covered a variety of applications for remote medical diagnosis. Global institutions are paying more attention to the potential for telemedicine lately, and two conferences -- one just concluded, one still coming up -- demonstrate the breadth of interest.

The European Commission's Directorate General for Development, in coordination with the African Union and the European Space Agency, just concluded a workshop on telemedicine in Brussels. The focus was on the use of satellites for telemedical applications, and the conference initiated a study -- to be completed by June of this year -- on what would be required to set up a pan-African telmedicine satellite network. Satellite communication systems have dropped in cost in recent years, and allow rural health clinics to take advantage of international medical diagnostic services.

At the other end of the institutional power spectrum, the Africa Telehealth Project seeks to build community healthcare programs in Africa through the use of telemedicine applications. In late May, the Africa Telehealth Group will host a conference on Telemedical Health Care in the city of San Angelo, Texas. The goal of the conference is to review recent developments in the field of telemedicine, and to work out ways to strengthen the relationship between US and European information technology and healthcare organizations with the nascent telehealth movement in Africa. Registration is now open.

Digital Witness

aburazr_sm.jpgFounded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Witness supplies video cameras and communication gear to allow people around the world to document abuses of human rights, partnering with human rights groups in over 50 countries. Witness attempts to create pressure for change by shining a light on injustice around the world. The people who take up cameras in the name of human dignity are remarkably brave, facing in many cases torture and death for the "crime" of revealing the truth. But the Witness cameras stand alone; their only connection to the rest of the world is via the hand delivery of video tape.

That will soon change.

In an interview at BusinessWeek online, Gabriel and Witness Executive Director Gillian Caldwell reveal that the organization intends to open up an online portal allowing people to send in video clips from digital cameras and cameraphones -- that is, if they can get the funding.

Are people already sending tapes or images from mobile phones?
Gabriel: We haven't had the structure to do that. That's the next challenge.
Caldwell: Implementation will be in the next 12 months. That's what we're shooting for, although we need financial support.
How will you keep control of the content?
Gabriel: We hope there will be some sort of self-regulating system. People, in order to get content uploaded, would have to rate three or four other pieces of material [on the site]. My country [England] is the most observed country in the world. I think the average person gets filmed eight times a day. The aim here is to turn the cameras back.

Continue reading "Digital Witness" »

February 2, 2006

Global Warming Maps

globalwarmingmapmash.jpgHere's an interesting first pass at an enviro mashup for Google Maps: the Global Warming maps at X-Maps.com.

X-Maps appears to be a search interface for Google Maps (and just why Google Maps needs another search interface I'll leave as an exercise for the reader). Buried within the site, however, is a listing of well over a hundred different locations in the US that produce large-scale emissions of CO2; each entry reveals the tons of CO2 output in 2004, and links to a Google Map satellite view of the offending site. The vast majority are power plants, unsurprisingly.

Most states are represented, and it's perversely fun to search for locations nearby one's home or office.

It would be easy to criticize aspects of the map: they misspell "emissions;" there's no pointer to references for the data (although the numbers I checked at random roughly match other sources); there's no way to dig down for deeper info; the map and listing are forced into small frames, requiring a lot of scrolling around, even on a big screen. But as a hint at what a climate reportage mashup might look like, the Global Warming X-Map is definitely worth checking out.

Clearly, though, there's room to do this better.

February 3, 2006

Climate Maps

Maps maps maps. Can we ever really get enough?

Maplecroft, the UK organization specializing in the coverage of the non-financial performance of global corporations and governments we discussed in December, has just released updated versions of some of its key environmental maps: carbon resources; greenhouse gas emissions; climate change; and renewable energy use. These maps give a geographic presentation to useful data resources.

The maps require the latest version of Flash to operate properly.

(Via NextBillion)

Mobile Phones in China

Wow... just... wow.

China already has more mobile phone users than the entire population of the United States, but the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (now there's a new twist on an otherwise Orwellian name...) noted yesterday that the number of mobile phone users in China is expected to top 440 million this year. That's a third of the Chinese population.

Anybody want to estimate what portion of Earth's population has a mobile phone?

(Via SmartMobs)

Earth Witness

razrearth.jpgThe idea of the emerging participatory panopticon scares a lot of people. That's not surprising; after all, there are numerous ways in which a world in which millions of us carry always-on, mobile networked recorders could lead to invasions of privacy, harassment of the powerless, and an increased coarsening of public discourse. But if we accept the notion that the participatory panopticon is a likely consequence of otherwise desirable improvements to communication and information technologies, it becomes incumbent upon us to think of ways to use it as a tool for good.

I've long admired the Witness project, which provides video cameras to human rights activists around the world in order to document violations and abuses. I was particularly happy to see the recent news that Witness plans to open up a web portal to enable users of digital cameras and cameraphones to send in their recordings over the Internet, rather than just as hand-carried videotape. While thinking about that development, however, it occurred to me that a similar model might work well for a "second superpower" army of networked environmentalists: imagine a web portal collecting recordings and evidence of ecological problems (human-caused or otherwise), environmental crimes, and significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be, in essence, an "Earth Witness" project.

Such a project wouldn't need to be limited only to problems. In the best WorldChanging spirit, the "Earth Witness" site (or "Environmental Transparency Project," or "Smart Mobs for Natural Security") could also serve as a collection spot for data about conditions around the planet. The data could be tagged with geographic information and, once uploaded, mashed-up with online maps for easy viewing and analysis.

Continue reading "Earth Witness" »

Build the Digital Witness Project

Our recent post on the decision by the Witness project to build a web server to collect digital camera and cameraphone images from human rights workers around the world has had an unexpected -- and wonderful -- result. Witness employee Bryan Nunez is participating in the resulting discussion, and, upon the suggestion of a couple of the other participants, has opened up a forum on the Witness website to allow the broader community to help figure out just what the digital portal will need to be successful.

The Witness digital video site will be a profoundly important step for the organization, and for human rights around the world -- giving the citizens in the greatest danger a chance to play a role in change for the better, with greater safety and a swifter response.

If you have thoughts on what the project might need, please take a moment to join the discussion, both here and (more importantly) at the Witness website.

Catching Up (02/03/06)

jiang-salmonella.jpgThis week's update checks out malaria outbreak prediction, solar ink, peeking inside a virus, nanotech capacitors, and the dangers of using search engines.

Climate Models Predict Malaria: In an article in this week's Nature, researchers from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts demonstrate that a combination of climate models can be used to predict outbreaks of malaria up to five months in advance, giving ample time to bring resources to bear to reduce the impact of outbreaks.

The study was based on an early-warning system developed by Botswana's National Malaria Control Programme. The system uses information about rainfall, health surveillance and the population's vulnerability to malaria to detect unusual changes in seasonal patterns of disease.
By using a combination of climate models, Palmer's team eliminated uncertainties in the system's predictions. [...] Following Botswana's lead, other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now developing early-warning systems.
"My colleagues are developing our methods for Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe," says Palmer. "Some research is being done for the more complex terrain of Kenya, though here the results are less well developed."

One of the benefits of increased understanding and more sophisticated modeling of the climate is a better ability to predict and respond to events driven by changes to the climate. This won't be the last time we see a story about improved disease preparedness based on better climate models.

Continue reading "Catching Up (02/03/06)" »

February 4, 2006

Making the Virtual Real

As we move into the fabrication future, we'll see a surprising cross-over between the skills of virtual world designers and the skills of designers of physical objects.

We're all familiar by now with the idea of real money being used to buy virtual goods, and even with virtual money being used to buy physical goods. The intersection of online worlds and the real world doesn't stop there, however. It turns out that the increasing detail of 3D objects in virtual environments makes it possible to think of them not simply as game objects, but as digital prototypes -- and 3D printers are the tool of choice for turning the prototypes into real objects. WorldChanging ally Csven Johnson is at the forefront of this movement. On his blog reBang, he discusses his efforts to convert the game data for objects into CAD data usable with rapid prototyping hardware.

The metaverse is not just an ethereal “storyteller’s” world. It’s a world comprised of data. Just look at the reasons Marketing people are salivating over it. The tracking data is orders of magnitude better than trying to count eyeballs watching a television screen. And in a 3D interface (which is what those videogames really are), that data goes well beyond just “hits” or “click-throughs”- it’s comprised of “vectors” and “3D positional data”. And here’s the important part: that data can be converted into more than just marketing statistics. It can be converted into real product; something you can hold… in the flesh. The Story made Real.

Continue reading "Making the Virtual Real" »

February 6, 2006

Up, Up and Away!

space_data.jpgOne of the reasons why mobile phone technology is so appealing to the leapfrog nations is that it's far less expensive and time-consuming to erect cellular towers than it is to pull miles of copper or fiber optic wire. But what if there was a solution that would be even cheaper and faster? Arizona-based Space Data and North Dakota's Extend America have developed a system using inexpensive balloons with cellular routers to provide wide-area coverage of sparsely-populated areas. North Dakota is set to be the test site for the system, which will use three balloons to provide coverage equivalent to 1,100 cellular towers. The balloons, once launched, would rise to a height of 20 miles, well above flight paths and transient weather conditions.

This isn't the first lighter-than-air communications network idea we've posted about; the Stratellite concept uses an airship to provide WiFi access across a wide area. What makes the SkySite concept different is that it uses cheap, disposable weather balloons as a platform, relying on a constant flow of launches and retrievals (the cellular hardware drops off and parachutes down after the maximum range is passed, and the balloon bursts at higher altitudes). The Sky Site system requires more frequent attention than a Stratellite or cellular tower network, but carries out its tasks at what should be very low cost.

I'm not sure that this will work out as a full-time replacement for towers, but it has obvious applications in both the developing world and in places recently struck by natural disasters. Inflation and release of cellular balloons can in principle happen very quickly, and can happen even during storms. We're generally disinclined to support systems that rely on disposable components -- recycle and reuse, people! -- but this has enough interesting potential that I'd like to see some effort go into figuring out how to make it a less wasteful process.

(Thanks for the tip, John Maas)

Biology Direct

vary_corals_186.jpgThe growing acceptance of the "open access" scientific publishing model has made possible further experiments in the world of academic literatures. Open access publication makes scientific work available at no cost, in order to further the spread of knowledge and ideas among communities -- such as scientists in the developing world -- often locked out of cutting-edge science due to limited resources. The non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals are perhaps the best-known open access effort, but now BioMed Central -- which had sought to combine open access with commercial publication -- has embarked on an arguably even more radical experiment. Biology Direct, a newly-launched series of biology journals, combines the open access model with a new, and very open, system of peer review (PDF): the reviews are published alongside the articles, with no anonymity -- and no rejection, even if the reviews are uniformly negative. (The author may choose to pull his or her article in such a case, of course.)

Everything in Biology Direct will be completely in the open: the author will invite the referees without any mediation by the Editors or Publisher, and the reviews will be signed and published together with the article. The idea is that any manuscript, even a seriously flawed one, that is interesting enough for three respected scientists to invest their time in reading and reviewing will do more good than harm if published -- along with candid reviews written by those scientists. Under the Biology Direct rules, an author is free to solicit as many members of the Editorial Board as s/he has patience for. The philosophy behind this approach is that what really matters is not how many scientists are uninterested in a paper (or even assess it negatively, which could be the underlying reason for declining to review) but that there are some qualified members of the scientific community who do find it worthy of attention.

Continue reading "Biology Direct" »

Revolution in a Box: the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Chris Phoenix and Mike TrederFounded in December 2002, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has a modest goal: to ensure that the planet navigates the emerging nanotech era safely. That's a lot for a couple of volunteers to shoulder, but Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix have carried their burden well, and done much to raise awareness of the potential risks and benefits of molecular manufacturing, including a major presentation at the US Environmental Protection Agency on the impacts of nanotechnology. We first linked to CRN back in October of 2003, and have long considered them a real WorldChanging ally.

We conducted this interview as a series of email exchanges over the last few months. This post captures (and organizes) the highlights of that conversation.

Mike, Chris -- thank you. Your work is one of the reasons we have optimism for the future.

WorldChanging: So, to start -- what is the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology hoping to make happen?

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: We want to help create a world in which advanced nanotechnology -- molecular manufacturing -- is widely used for beneficial purposes, and in which the risks are responsibly managed. The ability to manufacture highly advanced nanotech products at an exponentially accelerating pace will have profound and perilous implications for all of society, and our goal is to lay a foundation for handling them wisely.

Continue reading "Revolution in a Box: the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology" »

February 7, 2006

The Topology of Covert Conflict

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one to understand all of the implications, but even at this point it's clear: The Topology of Covert Conflict, a technical report by Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson of the Cambridge University computer laboratory, is an important piece of research into network-embedded conflicts. As the abstract makes clear, this research has wide application:

Often an attacker tries to disconnect a network by destroying nodes or edges, while the defender counters using various resilience mechanisms. Examples include a music industry body attempting to close down a peer-to-peer file-sharing network; medics attempting to halt the spread of an infectious disease by selective vaccination; and a police agency trying to decapitate a terrorist organisation. [...] Our models thus build a bridge between network analysis and evolutionary game theory, and provide a framework for analysing defence and attack in networks where topology matters. They suggest definitions of efficiency of attack and defence, and may even explain the evolution of insurgent organisations from networks of cells to a more virtual leadership that facilitates operations rather than directing them.

It's a dense article, with useful insights both for those who are working to prevent networked epidemics (of biological or computer viruses) and those who seek to use networked models for social change (such as "second superpower" political movements).

(Via Bruce Schneier)

NGO In A Box

logo.pngNon-governmental organizations, especially those operating outside of the industrialized world, are rarely in a position to have a sophisticated technology infrastructure. Unless the NGOs in question focus on information technology, chances are the computers and networks they use combine donated hardware, a mix of off-the-shelf commercial software (which may or may not be legally acquired), and far too little time deal with technology hassles. We've pointed, in the past, to the Non-Profit Open Source Initiative -- NOSI -- and its primer on "Choosing and Using Open Source Software" (PDF), but some organizations need more than a list of URLs. That's where the "NGO in a Box" program from the Tactical Technology Collective comes in.

NGO-in-a-Box is a set of specially-selected, high-quality free/open source applications, chosen to meet the needs of NGOs:

Its aim is to increase the accessibility of F/OSS to non-profits in developing and transition countries. The box is targeted at implementers working with small and medium scale NGOs, IT intermediaries (eRiders, consultants, trainers, technical supporters), system administrators of non-profits, and self-taught specialists helping civil society organizations on a voluntary basis.

The included applications range from the familiar (Firefox and Thunderbird) to the highly specialized (VNC, a tool for managing and controlling remote computers). The first set of NGO-in-a-Box kits, coming out in 2004, were localized for specific regions, but the "Phase II" version of the program seeks to provide tools for specific categories of applications. First up is the Security Edition:

Continue reading "NGO In A Box" »

Green Affordable Housing

For the moment, high-efficiency, renewable energy housing -- at least in the United States -- is realistically only available to upper-middle-class homeowners. People in "affordable housing" developments, even new ones, rarely have access to super-efficient windows and insulation or rooftop solar. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative wants to change that, and has launched a program to provide grants to green affordable housing projects.

This solicitation invites grant applications for:

  • Development and administration of a funding program to incorporate renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green design into affordable housing developments
  • Development of a state-of-the-art, green affordable housing development that incorporates renewable energy
  • Development of an operational plan that will lead to a program incorporating renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green design as part of affordable housing development

The Green Affordable Housing Grant program has just started, but has a quick deadline -- interested participants have until March 23 to get their proposals in.


reactome.jpgReactome is an open source, online knowledge base and map of biological processes in humans, including basic metabolism, hormonal signalling, and the cellular pathways that make infection possible. The Reactome map includes sections for each of the 23 processes it currently covers; the arrangement of reactions is reminiscent of a map of constellations, giving the map the nickname "starry sky." Late last month, the Reactome group released the newest version of the map, including for the first time the Influenza and HIV infection cycles -- as well as an entirely new way of visualizing the biological reactions.

[Reactome] is intended to teach scientists about parts of the influenza lifecycle they might not be familiar with, and to help researchers look at specific reactions and figure out ways to block them. [...] The influenza pathway component and a simultaneous HIV database going online mark the first time Reactome has displayed interactions between an infectious pathogen and its host, Dr. Scheuermann said.

Continue reading "Reactome" »

February 8, 2006

Solar Titanium Nanotubes

A few weeks ago, I posted that researchers at Penn State used titanium nanotubes to significantly boost the efficiency of cracking hydrogen from water using solar "photolysis," increasing it from ~6% efficiency to over 13%. In passing, I noted that they also claimed to have improved the utility of dye-based photovoltaics. Details of this latter discovery are now coming out.

A layer of titanium nanotubes roughly 360 nanometers in length gave the dye-based photovoltaics a conversion efficiency of about 3%. That may not sound like much -- and it's not -- but it is equivalent to the typical efficiency of commercially-available thin film and polymer photovoltaics. Moreover, the Penn State team believe that a thicker layer of titanium nanotubes should boost the overall efficiency to over 15% -- equivalent to commonplace silicon solar panels. The advantage here is that dye/titanium photovoltaics would be far less expensive to produce, requiring much less energy and fewer toxic chemicals.

Mexico City from Above

This is getting a bit of play in the blogosphere, but it's too good not to note here, too. C.O. Ruiz, a former helicopter pilot in Mexico City, took photographs of what he saw from the sky, and has now posted them to the web. They're all fascinating, but some -- like this photograph of the Mexico City megalopolis, or this one of a massive low income housing development -- are simply stunning. It's hard to select a favorite. The street market? The expansion of the city into the hills? Maybe the picture of the city taken from the rim of a volcano...

On the Brink of the Fuel Cell Future?

Honda_FCX_01.jpgThe hydrogen fuel cell vehicle concept, once the darling of the cybergreen/hypercar crowd, has diminished in luster over the past few years. Perhaps it was due to the sluggish pace of development. Perhaps it was due to the all-too-eager embrace of the technology by political and corporate figures well known to favor continued dominance of the petroleum economy. Perhaps it had just started to feel dated, like talking about freezing your head after you die -- a vaguely-embarrassing symbol of a particular era of futurism. That proponents of hydrogen cars kept talking about them being "just a decade away" even as the years progressed didn't help matters.

Honda may change all that.

Last month, Honda announced that it would begin production in Japan of its fuel cell FCX vehicle within the next three to four years. The FCX line has been Honda's fuel cell vehicle prototype for a few years now, and beyond a handful of experimental locations, the car seemed ill-suited to regular use. Tiny, somewhat underpowered, and saddled with a range about half of a typical gasoline-fueled car -- not that you could go long distances away from the one or two hydrogen fueling stations in the state anyway -- the FCX simply wasn't an attractive option. The new FCX design, however, changes all of that, and manages to induce something that previous hydrogen fuel cell vehicles couldn't: auto lust.

Continue reading "On the Brink of the Fuel Cell Future?" »

February 9, 2006

Sweden To Go Oil-Free (Revisited)

In early January, we pointed to Sweden's ambitious plans to build the "green welfare state," including efforts to eliminate the use of petroleum by 2020. The UK's Guardian just picked up on the announcement this week, however, and we've received numerous suggested links to their article. Since there's clearly continued interest in the subject, here are some useful links for people who may have missed them previously:

The Swedish Ministry of Sustainable Development's website.

The Ministry's October 2005 announcement: "Sweden first to break dependence on oil! New programme presented." This press release has more information than the Guardian article, and is well worth checking out.

The commission planning out this shift away from petroleum includes the chief executive of Volvo Trucks, a good indicator that industry is working with the government on this idea, not against it.

If Sweden can pull this off -- and given how aggressively the nation has moved to renewable energy sources, which now make up 26% of Sweden's energy production, that seems entirely possible -- it would be a strong positive reinforcement of the viability of moving away from fossil fuels.

A New Model for Understanding the Climate

Duke University's Adrian Bejan, along with colleagues from the University of Evora in Portugal, has discovered something potentially quite important: a recently-developed theory of optimizing flow configurations over time called Constructal theory can be used to model key parts of the global climate, and do so using only a small number of well-known inputs. Moreover, this theory could be used to build models of changes to weather patterns resulting from greenhouse gas accumulation. What makes this notable -- and possibly worldchanging -- is that Constructal theory is shaping up to be a universal physics principle applicable to everything from traffic flows to the evolution of the circulatory system. This is kind of abstract, but bear with me -- this could be a major discovery.

Constructal theory, developed in the late 1990s by Dr. Bejan, is the formalization of a superficially obvious notion: "For a flow system to persist in time (to survive) its configuration must evolve (morph) in time in such a way that it provides easier flow access." That is, over time, physical structures and processes evolve towards optimization of the imperfections of a system; because conditions of a system can change, such optimization may never be complete. Constructal theory takes this concept and turns it into a series of mathematical and geometric principles. The principles, in turn, have been able to predict a variety of well-known physical and biophysical laws, from the proportion of metabolic rate and size to the relationship between optimal cruising speed and mass of flying bodies. Constructal theory isn't just predictive, though; it can be used as a design application, and has been employed as a tool for optimizing travel time for people in buildings such as airports.

What Bejan and his colleagues have now done is to demonstrate that Constructal rules apply to the flows of heat in the atmosphere, and that fundamental climate systems can be derived directly from the theory. The researchers needed just four inputs: temperature of the sun, the solar constant, cloud cover and the Earth’s greenhouse factor. They believe that they will also be able to use the model to predict the effects of changes to these inputs:

Continue reading "A New Model for Understanding the Climate" »

The Wave Hub

wavehub.jpgThe South West England Regional Development Agency has kicked off a smart new program: the Wave Hub Project. Wave Hub will be an offshore facility for the testing and operation of wave energy generation devices, giving manufacturers a "plug-and-play" system to demonstrate how well their hydrokinetic energy generators work. This combines a couple of trends we've been watching for awhile: the growth of wave/tidal/ocean power as a viable renewable energy technology; and the emergence of green technologies as a path for regional differentiation and growth.

The Agency is explicit in its desire to make the region a leader in the development and deployment of renewable energy; they estimate that ocean power could be a £27 million a year industry for the region. Given that the UK's west coast has the potential to provide a significant portion of the nation's energy through ocean/wave power, it's a smart move for the South West RDA to emphasize this technology. The industry's clearly interested in the region's potential, too: three ocean power companies have signed on to do large-scale testing of their technologies, as well as to show how well they work to potential buyers, and another 13 companies have expressed interest in doing so.

The Wave Hub aims to create the world's first wave energy farm off the coast of Cornwall by building an electrical 'socket' on the seabed around 10 miles out to sea and connected to the National Grid via an underwater cable. [...]
The three companies shortlisted for Wave Hub are:

Continue reading "The Wave Hub" »

A Revolution Saved By Hackers

linuxve.pngIn an ideal world, the first country to wholly embrace free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) as a tool for economic and social change would be one that also embraced entirely free/open political discourse. Sadly, we don't live in an ideal world, and the spearhead of an open source revolution may well be Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. We posted last month about Venezuela's law requiring government agencies to transition to FLOSS over a two year period. Now GNU software engineer David Sugar, in a report for Technology & Change, provides more details about Venezuela's adoption of open source technology -- as well as why Chavez owes his continued office to computer hackers.

The appeal of FLOSS to developing nations is clear and simple: the software can be legally acquired free of cost; the lack of proprietary ownership means that users are not tied to a single company (likely located in the US or Europe); most importantly, the code is open, meaning that it can be modified to meet local needs and that citizens can learn programming and technical skills working with the software. It's a powerful argument, one that can be heard around the world. It's hardly surprising, then, that nations seeking to break out of the "Washington Consensus" would find FLOSS so captivating.

Continue reading "A Revolution Saved By Hackers" »

February 10, 2006

Concrete Canvas

Almost a year ago, Jeremy noted the development of "concrete canvas," a semi-permanent shelter in a bag developed by a couple of grad students at Royal College of Art in London. At the time, all they had come up with was a plan and a prototype -- they didn't even have a website.

Fast forward to the present: Concrete Canvas is now operational, at least as a website. They're still seeking funding for production, something that should be greatly helped by their being given the Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas earlier this month.

This is really a brilliant idea, and we're happy to see it get the recognition it deserves.

Open Source Microcredit, Revisited

panaceatamilweb.jpgSteve Jobs once said, "real artists ship." He meant that no matter how elegant or useful the computer code, the only way it has value is if it gets into the hands of users. We could say something similar about open source software for NGOs: real activists ship. No matter how important or beneficial the software, the only way it has value for the people who need it is if those people can use it. In fact, nothing is more depressing for a digitally-empowered activist than to stumble across a brilliant piece of software, only to find that the web page hasn't been updated in a year and the code itself remains both unusable and unavailable. And nothing is more exciting than finding that another solution is available.

Way back in August of 2004, Alex pointed us to the Microfinance Open Architecture Project, an open source effort to develop tools for NGOs trying to manage microcredit services in the developing world. The developers understood the needs of the users, and had the right philosophy around the value of open source. Potential users of the code may have grown more excited at its potential when the Grameen Technology Center adopted the code (PDF), renaming it Mifos -- the Microfinance Open Source project -- in January of 2005. Work progressed through September of last year... then stopped. There's no software yet available, only a quiet Sourceforge site.

Let me be clear: this is not a criticism of the Mifos project. Stuff happens, and all-volunteer efforts are often difficult to sustain for reasons that have nothing to do with dedication. Grameen clearly has not forgotten about Mifos, as they listed a job opening for a Software Development Manager for the project at the end of January 2006. But the fact remains that a project that seemed to have enormous potential a couple of years ago has yet to get into the hands of people who need it.

Fortunately, there's another option -- one that also happens to be open source. This one comes from a part of the world that has seen the value of microcredit: Tamil Nadu, India.

Continue reading "Open Source Microcredit, Revisited" »

Non-GM Biotech in the Developing World

If you think agricultural biotechnology just means genetically modified organisms and Monsanto breathing down your neck, think again. SciDev.net offers an overview of non-GM biotechnologies useful to farmers in the developing world. The listing of the methods and their benefits is a useful reminder that biotechnology means more than fiddling with DNA.

This briefing seeks to help fill this information gap by summarising the characteristics of the most common non-GM biotechnologies that are being developed and applied to crop improvement in the developing world.

Drawing on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) database on Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (BioDeC), it focuses on four types of non-GM biotechnology: tissue culture, molecular markers, diagnostic techniques and microbial products.

On the Horizon (02/10/06)

Our regular Friday mix has a new name! Today we check out the flurry of reports about just what we can do to respond to global warming induced climate change. The Pew Center has a plan; so does the UK government. And Dr. Peter Flynn of the University of Alberta has come up with something that starts to look awfully close to Terraforming the Earth...

Agenda for Climate Action: The Pew Center for Global Climate Change is a mainstream institution seeking to educate business and government leaders on climate-related issues; we've pointed to their efforts in the past, which have largely centered on laying out the case that global warming-induced climate disruption is happening. Like most of us, the Pew Center has now moved past the quite settled "is it real?" debate and is looking at how we deal with the problem.

Their new report, Agenda for Climate Action, proposes a series of realistic steps we can take to slow the changes, mitigate global warming's impact, and handle the unavoidable longer-term changes. The full document (which is relatively brief at only around 20 pages) can be downloaded here (PDF); the executive summary hits the major points. Few of the recommendations will be foreign to even casual WorldChanging readers; what's notable is that even the more radical steps seem positively mainstream at this point.

The highlights:

Continue reading "On the Horizon (02/10/06)" »

February 11, 2006

Someone Set Us Up the (Video) Bomb

videobomb.jpgVideo Bomb, a product of the Participatory Culture Foundation, is the latest in a series of components that allow us to build a distributed video infrastructure. Video Bomb works by taking submissions of links to online videos (they strongly recommend that you link your own material, but they're happy to link to the myriad "viral" videos floating around on the web), then allowing people to both tag the submission with keywords and "bomb" it -- that is, recommend it to other users -- so that the highest-rated items float to the front page. This sort of collaborative filtering is fairly commonplace, but it's a reasonably good way to bring interesting items to broader attention.

If Video Bomb just provided a collaborative linking & filtering tool, it would be interesting but not particularly worldchanging. It goes further, though, by making RSS feeds for the videos. Each tag has its own feed, and any video a user "bombs" goes into the RSS feed for that user. They describe the concept as being akin to making your own Internet-based television station, and that's not far off. In a matter of minutes, one can set up a "channel" (an RSS link) that shows items selected by a particular person or using a particular tag.

So how about a "WorldChanging" channel?

Continue reading "Someone Set Us Up the (Video) Bomb" »

February 13, 2006

Department of Lego Security

WorldChanging ally W. David Stephenson has an amusing and thought-provoking article up at his blog, comparing the choice made by Lego to open up the process of developing its next-generation Mindstorms kit with the choice made by the US Department of Homeland Security to keep information limited and access to decision-makers restricted. It's a mildly tongue-in-cheek post, but it makes some excellent points that map to our earlier posts about useful approaches for building worldchanging systems:

...what are the lessons for DHS from the Lego Mindstorms experience?

  • Open source is more robust. [...]
  • Don't think you have to keep everything secret. [...]
  • Don't think you have to -- or even can -- control everything. [...]

David adds useful detail to each of these points.

Lego is an excellent example of a long-standing institution that was able to actively and consciously change its approach to working with its broad community of interested stakeholders.

Sustainable NYC

Sustainable New York City (PDF) is a report from the Design Trust for Public Space examining concrete proposals for increasing the environmental sustainability of the city. New York is already arguably one of the most sustainable cities around, but to a great degree that sustainability derives from urban density, not conscious planning. The Design Trust's case studies show that it would be possible to move New York -- or, for that matter, any large city -- to an even more sustainable point, relying upon projects with proven good results.

The report, written by WorldChanging reader David Hsu, looks at three key areas: water and land protection; energy, air quality, and climate; and waste and materials. The case studies chosen as models are widely considered to be high-quality, successful efforts: Seattle's natural drainage systems; Chicago's green building program; and Santa Monica, California's, environmentally preferable purchasing program. Each case study is matched against a similar or complementary program in New York.

Sustainable New York City is a relatively short, well-illustrated document, and makes for interesting reading for those of us looking for practical steps for improving the environmental footprint of urban spaces.

Dignity, Humiliation and Changing the World

humandhslogo.jpgOpen up a typical political science textbook, and you'll see many potential drivers for conflict: contested resources; ideological differences; fears about security; lust for power. What you're unlikely to see is the inclusion of "humiliation." Yet, as we've witnessed in Europe over the last week or so, the belief that one's dignity has been insulted in a way that implies that an individual or group is unworthy of respect can be a powerful catalyst for unrest, anger and violence. Humiliation is an incredibly intense emotion, yet the differences between how different societies and cultures perceive it seem to be poorly understood -- and this lack of understanding can have tragic consequences.

An NGO calling itself Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) seeks to change that. A global network of scholars and social practitioners, HumanDHS is...

...committed to reducing - and ultimately help eliminating - destructive disrespect and humiliating practices all over the world. Our work is inspired by universal values such as humility, mutual respect, caring and compassion, and a sense of shared planetary rights and responsibilities.

Hard-nosed realist types may dismiss this language as fluffy goodness, but HumanDHS recognizes that the emotional manifestation of culture can lead to a starker division between societies than any ideological conflict. Put simply, issues around ideology largely concern our sense of the world around us; issues around dignity and humiliation concern our sense of how we are treated by that world.

Continue reading "Dignity, Humiliation and Changing the World" »

February 14, 2006

Climate Prediction, by way of the BBC

bbcclimateprediction.jpgClimateprediction.net, one of the largest distributed computing projects going, has started a new forecast in concert with the BBC. As before, users download code that runs in the background, allowing thousands of computers around the Internet to process parts of the whole project. In this new effort, climateprediction.net is looking at the changes to come over the next 75 years, but this time its model -- based on the climate and weather forecasting code used by the BBC -- includes a "fully dynamic ocean," allowing for a more complex interaction between the atmosphere and the seas.

Climateprediction.net garnered a bit of attention last year when researchers presented its first set of findings -- which included results showing that the range of temperatures towards the end of this century could be substantially higher than the IPCC baseline case.

Interestingly, rather than each participating computer working on a small chunk of the overall process, every computer in this BBC/climateprediction.net project will have its own version of Earth to examine. The simulation starts at 1920, and pauses at 2006; if the result is inaccurate (such as an iceball or runaway greenhouse Earth), it then ends. If the 2006 result is more-or-less comparable to the real world, the project continues, mapping out changes through 2080. Climateprediction.net estimates that the whole process will take 3-4 months. How many Earths you chew through in that time depends upon the speed of your computer and how idle you leave it.

What makes this version of the software particularly fun is that the "screensaver" mode shows your current Earth model in action, and has shortcuts for looking at current temperatures, cloud cover, and rainfall, among other bits of info. Since the software runs in the background, that's the extent of the interactivity -- but still, you do get to see "your" planet evolve.

(A minor annoyance: the BBC/climateprediction.net software is only available for Windows and Linux. Given that the core code remains the open source BOINC, and both BOINC and the previous climateprediction.net project supported the Mac, I can only presume that the current processor architecture transition at Apple has delayed the new code's introduction.)

February 15, 2006

LinuxChix Africa

greenchix_logo.jpgLinuxChix Africa manages to shatter two stereotypes at the same time: the idea that women aren't interested in free/open source software development; and the idea that women in Africa are bound to traditional cultural roles. Founded in late 2004 by Anna Badimo, a computer science graduate student in South Africa, and Dorcas Muthoni of the Kenya Education Network, LinuxChix Africa seeks to build Linux skills among African women, as well as to support more generally the use of free/open source applications and systems across Africa. Like most Linux and F/OSS communities, much of their work entails professional software development and public advocacy of open source, but LinuxChix Africa adds a unique twist: they focus their outreach on encouraging young women to pursue careers in computing.

LinuxChix Africa was a key participant in the recent Africa Source II conference, which (as we noted at the time) included a particular emphasis on getting more women involved in the use of open computing technologies for economic development. LinuxChix Africa participants place a high value on mentoring and visibility as role models; as they put it, "If they [African women] can see their future, they can realize their future."

The organization, which is a chapter of the global LinuxChix movement, sees Linux and F/OSS as part of a larger spectrum of tools for regional development:

Continue reading "LinuxChix Africa" »

GSM 4 3B Update

It's not just the big mobile phone manufacturers that are interested in developing ultra-low-cost handsets for emerging markets. Electronic component maker TTP Communications has announced a new "reference blueprint" for a full-function cell phone with an end-user cost of under $20. The phone design includes software such as email, camera and multimedia support, even voice recognition, along with interfaces for connecting external hardware.

TTP claims that further improvements to production processes should bring the costs down even further.

(Via Unmediated)

February 16, 2006

National Disaster Information System in India

Earlier this week, Indian minister for science, technology and ocean development Kapil Sibal announced the launch of the National Disaster Information System, which will use voice calls, SMS and a public address network to send disaster warnings to a pilot group of Indian citizens.

Using the system, once a warning about a natural disaster is received from the Meteorological Department, Geneva’s server pushes out the message simultaneously in 14 languages through SMS, and dynamically-generated voice messages to wireless public address systems and phones. The entire process is expected to take 33 seconds.

“The pilots are an experiment. The results of the pilots will be placed before the National Disaster Management Authority for a comprehensive project. The pilots will be integrated later with Tsunami Warning Center which is expected to be ready by September 2007,” says Union Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal, adding that the project is the first of its kind in the world.

(More information from The Hindu.)

Wattson, Come Here, I Need You

wattson-high-power.jpgUK environmental and sustainability consultancy DIY Kyoto will soon release a very cool new product they call Wattson. A combination of energy meter and portable display, Wattson can provide real-time information about household energy consumption, displayed as both a text display of current power demand or accumulated "burn rate" of power in pounds sterling per year, and a "non-verbal" colored LED display indicating overall energy health of the house.

DIY Kyoto -- which bills itself as providing products and services that "challenge & enable people to meet the Kyoto Protocol at a personal level" -- is explicit that the goal of Wattson is to make the invisible visible.

[Wattson] is based on the understanding that producing energy efficient products is of no use without an understanding of why they are needed. Without knowing what actually happens when we use the appliances in our homes we have no reason to make changes to our behaviour or purchases. [...]

Continue reading "Wattson, Come Here, I Need You" »

February 17, 2006

On the Horizon (02/17/06)

olpcsimp.jpgWhat's the best way to bring digital tools to young people in the developing world? One Laptop Per Child? One Cellphone Per Child? One Simputer Per Child? The race to bridge the digital divide is heating up.

The $100 Laptop in Progress: The last month has seen two big developments in the One Laptop Per Child project, also known as the $100 Laptop project (see previous discussions of OLPC here and here, along with Ethan's excellent overview). The first is that the OLPC project has officially teamed up with the United Nations Development Programme to deliver the low-cost computing device to the poorer parts of the world.

OLPC will first implement the program in seven diverse and very large countries. In each of those cases, the government will buy the machines to be given cost-free to students in well specified but large pilot projects. In the case of LDCs and poor countries, the UNDP will work closely with OLPC and other UN agencies on the ground to assist national governments to deploy the laptops to targeted public schools with a variety of internal and external funding sources.

Continue reading "On the Horizon (02/17/06)" »

Grameen Covers the Monopoly Board

The Grameen Bank organization, which gained visibility with the Grameen Phone project, is expanding into the provision of electricity and water using the same village entrepreneurial model. Created by inventor Dean Kamen, the village power and village water devices will be low-cost, low-maintenance, low-complexity methods of providing critical utilities to people in the developing world.

The electric generator is powered by an easily-obtained local fuel: cow dung. Each machine continuously outputs a kilowatt of electricity. That may not sound like much, but it is enough to light 70 energy-efficient bulbs. As Kamen puts it, "If you judiciously use a kilowatt, each villager can have a nighttime." [...]

The Slingshot [water purifier] works by taking in contaminated water – even raw sewage -- and separating out the clean water by vaporizing it. It then shoots the remaining sludge back out a plastic tube. Kamen thinks it could be paired with the power machine and run off the other machine's waste heat.

Compared to building big power and water plants, Kamen's approach has the virtue of simplicity. He even created an instruction sheet to go with each Slingshot. It contains one step: Just add water, any water.

We first noted the village power project last July, and Technology Review detailed both the generator and water purifier in October. Yesterday's CNN report doesn't break a lot of new ground on the story, but is getting a lot of attention -- and for a subject like this, attention can be the difference between success and failure.

(Thanks to Tim Du Toit, Rektide, Ryan Sims, and Chris Albon for all -- independently -- sending in this story.)

(Feb 27: This story has been updated with correct information on which Grameen organization is behind this project, along with the correct link. The water/power initiative is through Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, not the Grameen Foundation.)

Freedom to Connect

f2cconf.jpgDavid Isenberg's name pops up occasionally here on WorldChanging, and for good reason. He's one of the more forward-thinking telecom specialists around, and his work on whether to embed "intelligence" in a network or in the devices at the end (the latter is far better) has shaped the thinking of many people now working on social networks and the evolution of the Internet. I first met David a decade ago at Global Business Network, and I read his blog at Isen.com religiously. David wrote to me today to tell me about the upcoming F2C: Freedom to Connect conference, to be held April 3-4 in Silver Springs, Maryland. (See the extended entry for more details.)

F2C is an effort to highlight the concept that freedom to connect -- i.e., to communicate -- is as fundamental as freedoms of the press, religion, assembly and speech. The laws in many countries covering telecommunications, however, are often skewed towards the interests of providers; the Freedom to Connect conference will emphasize the rights of the users.

The need to communicate is primary, like the need to breathe, eat, sleep, reproduce, socialize and learn. Better connections make for better communication. Better connections drive economic growth through better access to suppliers, customers and ideas. Better connections provide for development and testing of ideas in science and the arts. Better connections improve the quality of everyday life. Better connections build stronger democracies. Strong democracies build strong networks.

Continue reading "Freedom to Connect" »

February 18, 2006

Dungeons & Deals -- Virtual Worlds as Social-Business Networks

doingbusinesswow.jpgCould an online game displace traditional in-person sports as social hubs for movers-and-shakers?

An article this week in C|Net suggests that online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft -- now counting over five million players -- could become the new socialization spot for executives and business leaders, citing a guild (player association) which includes tech heavyweights like Socialtext's Ross Mayfield, ICANN's John Crane, and uberblogger Joi Ito as members. Although the guild was formed simply as a way for friends to play the game together, members admit that some industry talk happens in between raids.

"Most of the time, we're talking about things that are more social, or talking about the game, and the game is really more of a social bonding experience," Ito said. "There are a lot of people making connections and talking about working with each other or bringing in their friends from work."

Continue reading "Dungeons & Deals -- Virtual Worlds as Social-Business Networks" »

February 20, 2006

The Open Future

crowduk.jpgThe future is not written in stone, but neither is it unbounded. Our actions, our choices shape the options we'll have in the days and years to come. We can, with all too little difficulty, make decisions that call into being an inescapable chain of events. But if we try, we can also make decisions that expand our opportunities, and push out the boundaries of tomorrow.

If there is a common theme across our work at WorldChanging, it is that we are far better served as a global civilization by actions and ideas that increase our ability to respond effectively, knowledgably, and sustainably to challenges that arise. In particular, I've focused on the value of openness as a means of worldchanging transformation: open as in free, transparent and diverse; open as in participatory and collaborative; open as in broadly accessible; and open as in choice and flexibility, as with the kind of future worth building -- the open future.

Continue reading "The Open Future" »

February 22, 2006

Seeing the World Through Digital Eyes

googleearthbig.jpg2005 will be remembered for many reasons, but perhaps the most worldchanging is the explosion in online geographic information systems, led by Google Earth. We've covered myriad Google Earth overlays in recent months, and the number and variety of useful datasets continues to grow. Scientists are particularly glad to have access to easy online digital globe software, as these new tools are significantly easier to experiment with than traditional GIS applications. The scientific journal Nature has been a leader in the advocacy and use of digital globes, and last week's issue included multiple articles about the application of Google Earth and other online virtual maps to scientific pursuits.

The reason why scientists are so excited by Google Earth and similar applications is easy to understand: not only do they allow for the quick visualization of the geographic context of research data, they allow for ready comparisons between different -- and often superficially unconnected -- sets of information. This, in turn, is already leading to new, important discoveries:

Rita Colwell, a microbiologist and former head of the National Science Foundation, has described GIS as the "ultimate, original, multidisciplinary language". Her own research is a shining example. Realizing that cholera epidemics spread inland from the coast, she correlated them with seasonal plankton blooms, discovering on the way that the Vibrio cholerae bacteria that cause cholera associate with gravid copepods, helping to break open their egg sacs by secreting chitinases. She went on to use remote sensing for a global predictive system for epidemics. As she has said, a major need is "to appreciate the complex reactions that characterize ecosystems — it is too complex for any one discipline".

Continue reading "Seeing the World Through Digital Eyes" »

I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (About Malaria)

Nature's Declan Butler (whom we have linked to several times in recent weeks) has a brief but provocative idea on his blog today, musing about alternative distribution media for medical information in the developing world.

...when I attended the UN Millennium Project’s Nobel Forum meeting in Stockholm at the end of last month, I discussed the problems in getting information on malaria and other diseases out to remote villages in Africa with Kenya’s health minister, Charity Kaluki Ngilu. I mentioned that even in the most remote areas of Africa one could almost always find Coca Cola, and suggested that perhaps she should think about piggybacking health programmes on top of such distribution infrastructures. I haven’t thought about this in detail, but it seems like an idea worth pursuing.

If you'd like to discuss the idea in particular, please check out Declan's blog. I'd like to talk more generally here about the use of arguably non-worldchanging platforms for worldchanging efforts.

I suspect that the majority of readers would feel that the widespread availability of Coca-Cola in parts of the world still struggling to get reliably clean water isn't an ideal situation by any means; moreover, that dichotomy is hardly unique to high-fructose soft drinks. But Declan may well be onto something: rather than railing against Coca-Cola's prevalence, would it make sense to -- in a bit of medical information judo -- leverage its ubiquity as a tool against a much more serious medical issue? Or is that buying into a market/cultural paradigm that should be avoided, even at the cost of lost opportunities for communication?

February 23, 2006

Transportation Futures

Urban_Colonies.jpg"Infrastructure" is a painfully wonky word for an utterly necessary concept. Infrastructure is the pathway for a society's flows -- of traffic, of information, of power, and so forth. Infrastructure is as necessary to civilization as blood vessels and nerves are to a body. And as with our body's systems, many of us only pay attention to infrastructure when it's showing signs of collapse.

That's why I am particularly heartened to find the new results from a large-scale scenario project looking at the future of infrastructure, run by the UK government's official Foresight Directorate. (And, as an aside: just how cool is it that the UK government has an official Foresight Directorate?!?) The project, entitled "Intelligent Infrastructure Futures" (PDF), offers four possible scenarios for how changes to energy, environment, and society will change transportation systems in the UK over the next 20-50 years.

Continue reading "Transportation Futures" »

Directed Evolution, Natural Sequestration and Terraforming the Earth

rubisco.jpgCan we avoid climate disaster simply by cutting back radically on the emission of greenhouse gases? Possibly not, and therein lies a problem. Because of the slow cycle time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the thermal inertia of the oceans, we are almost certain to see a continued rise in temperatures over the coming decades even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow. It may well be that a temperature increase of just a couple more degrees is enough to kick off a catastrophic shift in climate systems. A wise strategy for dealing with climate disruption, therefore, relies on drastic reductions in carbon output but would need to include careful efforts to extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it for an extended period of time -- and researchers at the Emory University School of Medicine may have figured out a way to do just that.

We've talked about sequestration a few times here, and always with a skeptical eye. Many of the sequestration proposals are efforts to reduce the greenhouse footprint of otherwise carbon-intensive processes, like energy production from coal. Although it relies on carbon capture technologies, this version of sequestration is just another form of carbon emission reduction, no different (from the atmosphere's perspective) from a shift to renewable energy or higher efficiency use. What I'm talking about here is the active reduction of existing atmospheric CO2 -- intentionally decreasing the concentration of carbon dioxide, not just waiting for it to cycle out. It's another example of Terraforming Earth, but arguably one on the less-potentially-disruptive end of the spectrum.

The Emory University group has figured out a way to boost the efficiency of the key carbon dioxide-fixing enzyme in plants five-fold. The enzyme, known as RuBisCO, is a thousand times slower in its processes than most similar enzymes, and plants have to make a lot of it in order to consume usable amounts of CO2; increasing its efficiency means that plants can take in and use much more CO2. Interestingly, the basic process used by the researchers turns many expectations about biotechnology upside-down: directed evolution:

Continue reading "Directed Evolution, Natural Sequestration and Terraforming the Earth" »

Climate Pathology

The human body makes for an appealing metaphor when talking about the planet's ecosystems. We're all more-or-less familiar with the workings of our bodies, and know, at least in broad terms, what kinds of threats are potentially fatal and what kinds are potentially painful but survivable. There's a risk of going too far, though, and either stretching the metaphor past the point of real science (e.g., referring to the Amazon rain forest as the "lungs of the planet") or being a bit haphazard with how the various metaphorical body parts fit together (e.g., James Lovelock's use of bodily analogies in his recent bit of apocaphilia). So when I saw the announcement that a collection of respected planetary scientists -- including WorldChanging friend Dr. Jon Foley -- would be discussing the "Vital Organs in the Earth System" at last week's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I was a bit worried.

Fortunately, the "vital organs" metaphor was used sparingly, but quite appropriately:

There is a growing awareness that the Earth, like the human body, operates as a complex, coupled system. This has led to the concept of "vital organs "or "hotspots," i.e. components, processes or regions that help regulate the functioning of the entire planet. Many of them are sensitive to human influences and all have the potential to reach critical thresholds that, once tipped, could lead to large-scale, abrupt changes.

Continue reading "Climate Pathology" »

Greenland, Antarctica, and Beach-Front Property

Quick tip: if you live somewhere that's a meter or less above sea level, you should probably move inland soon. This may well also be the case if you live somewhere that's three meters or less above sea level. And there's even a chance this may be the case if you live somewhere that's five meters or less above sea level. In short, head for the hills.

That's the hard-to-avoid conclusion when looking at the speed at which the glacial ice of Greenland and Antarctica is melting. Recent studies indicate that Greenland's ice cap is turning to water at a rate more than double what geologists had predicted. And, as Stuart Staniford's troubling and fascinating Living in the Eemian entry at The Oil Drum describes, the last time the planet had average temperatures around what's predicted for later this century, sea levels were 25' higher than at present.

We've pointed to Stuart's work before, and this piece is definitely worth checking out. Stuart does an excellent job of translating sometimes dense scientific literature into broadly-comprehensible material, and the focus of this post -- a comparison between the last interglacial warm period and the present, and the implications for sea level -- will likely be an increasingly-important subject of discussion in the years to come.

February 25, 2006

Earth Phone Speech

Presented at TED 2006.

I want to talk to you today about how the future we will create can be a future that we will be proud of. I think about this every day -- it's my job. I'm co-founder and Senior Columnist at WorldChanging.com, a website that you've heard a bit about this week. Alex Steffen and I started WorldChanging in late 2003, and since then, we and our growing global team of contributors have documented the ever-expanding variety of solutions that are out there, right now and on the near horizon. In a little over two years, we've written up around 4,000 items: replicable models, technological tools, and emerging ideas, all providing a path to a future that's more sustainable, more equitable, and more desirable.

Continue reading "Earth Phone Speech" »

February 27, 2006

The Open Future: Spirits in the Material World

When Cameron Sinclair took the stage to receive his TED Prize last Thursday, he devoted a good portion of his talk to the exploration of his idea for an "open source" form of architecture. Cameron's emphasis was on the openness of the designs and architectural innovations most useful to builders in the developing world, but the idea of open source architecture has the potential to go even further than that. It dovetails with the slow emergence of open source hardware, pointing us towards a world of individual power over design that has the potential to be extraordinarily worldchanging.

Continue reading "The Open Future: Spirits in the Material World" »

February 28, 2006

Camera Phone Dominance

2005 was the biggest year yet for camera phones, those pocket-size precursors to the participatory panopticon and potential planetary protection tool (yes, I got a special deal on "p"s, why do you ask?). Market research group NPD reports:

In 2005, 45 percent of all mobile phones sold in the U.S. were camera phones, up from 26 percent in 2004. Asia followed a very similar trend. Western Europe had a higher incidence of camera phones at 64 percent, and Japan had a much greater adoption rate with more than 90 percent of all mobile phones sold with camera capabilities both in 2004 and 2005.

This tells us two things: we're on the verge of seeing a major blow-up between advocates of strict control over recordings of intellectual property and advocates of universal use of communication tools; and we're approaching a point where location-based information and communication systems relying on cameraphones will have a large enough base of potential users to really make a go of it.

(Via Picturephoning)


widens.jpgLet's see... we've covered open source ad hoc communications networks, disaster/relief "in a box" networks, and easy to deploy combination data and voice networks... seems to me that we need something that does all three.


WIDENS (WIreless DEployable Network System) is a system developed by the "Information Society Technologies" group of the European Commission, intended to provide rapid set-up voice and data communication for disaster response, using ad hoc networking technologies.

“There is a clear need for such a system,” remarks Dr Vania Conan, project coordinator for WIDENS. “In emergency and disaster relief applications, there is a demand for using video-images and cameras to help monitor the operations – for instance, infrared cameras mounted on the helmets of firefighters. Although more of an extreme case, rapid deployment of a communications infrastructure – after a large scale earthquake or flood for example – is not possible with present technology,” he says.

Continue reading "WIDENS" »

Open Source and Air Resources

The Mad Penguin has an excellent interview with the information technology team at California's Air Resources Board (ARB), which has the primary responsibility in California for handling air pollution. The focus of the interview is the widespread adoption of free/open source software (FOSS) in the ARB computer network, but it seems to me the important lesson coming from this conversation is the close relationship between the FOSS philosophies and organizational transparency.

Although there's lots of talk about Linux distributions and the uses of PHP, read between the lines: this is an organization that has clearly learned the value of collaboration, transparent discourse, and open access to historical records.

(Thanks for the tip, Eric Boyd!)

About February 2006

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

January 2006 is the previous archive.

March 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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