QuickChanges Archives

April 5, 2004

Japanese Landmine Disposal Machine

Japanese inventor Kiyoshi Amemiya has developed a machine for clearing landmines 100 times faster than hand-removal. He's donated 36 of these machines to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bill McKibben on John McCain

Bill McKibben has an excellent conversation with Senator John McCain in the current edition of the National Resources Defense Council's OnEarth magazine. McCain seems to have embraced the need to fight global warming.

April 6, 2004

Globalization is not Americanization

Andrew Lam has an interesting essay up at AlterNet entitled Globalization vs. Americanization, in which he argues that we're seeing a "transnational revolution" -- and it's not just McDonald's and Disney, and that geography is no longer destiny.

April 7, 2004

Encyclopedia Astronautica

In case it's not already obvious, some of us at WC are big fans of space science. For those of you out there who are, as well, here is the Encyclopedia Astronautica, a startlingly comprehensive database of spacecraft, space programs, obscure space flight history, and everyone who has ever flown beyond Earth's surly bonds.

April 10, 2004

Green Inside

Intel moves towards greener chips. In a small, regulation-pushed, but still welcome step, Intel is going to reduce the amount of lead used in the manufacturing of its computer components. Now to just get rid of the Selenium, Cadmium, Chromium, Mercury...

April 12, 2004

Carbon Nanotube-Based Sensors

Science Daily reports that your favorite carbon structural variant and mine, the nanotube, can be made into cheap and disposable sensors for organophosphate-based pesticides and nerve agents, able to detect traces of OP in amounts as small as 5 parts per billion.

Political Optimism

WorldChanging ally Paul Hughes over at FutureHi posted an interesting entry this weekend going over reasons why some of the more commonplace pessimistic political scenarios (from martial law in the US to the panopticon singularity) may not be as likely as some fear.

April 13, 2004

Congrats, Charlie!

WorldChanging friend and kickass writer Charlie Stross has been nominated for two Hugo awards! One is for his story "Nightfall," and the other is for Singularity Sky, which was my favorite science fiction book of 2003. Congratulations, Charlie!

Rust-Breathing Bacteria

We've posted about the Geobacter genus of bacteria before -- microbes which evolved to use minerals as catalysts for making energy. National Geographic now has a short but interesting story about Geobacter discoverer Derek Lovley, and how we came to know about the more than 30 different species of mineral-eating microbes. (Via Mekka)

Technorati Trackback

As BoingBoing goes, so goes the blogosphere. Or so it seems. We've now jumped on the clever little Technorati Cosmos backlink hack bandwagon, so that you can see which other sites out there refer to our posts. It appears slightly more robust than the built-in Moveable Type trackbacks, but we'll watch to see how well it works...

April 14, 2004

Lawrence Lessig at FSF

Lawrence Lessig, fresh off of the successful release of his new book Free Culture (as well as its myriad remixes) was elected to the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation. The FSF is the home of the GPL (General Public License), the software license underlying many free/open source applications. Congratulations!

April 19, 2004

Listen to Jaron

As noted last month, Jaron Lanier will be speaking at the upcoming Bay Area Future Salon meeting. The details are finally set: Jaron will be speaking at the SAP Labs in Palo Alto this Friday, at 7pm. He will be updating his 2000 One Half a Manifesto essay.

Earth Day

reflexorset reminds us that Earth Day 2004 is coming up on Thursday, April 22nd. And while the event may no longer be particularly radical or worldchanging, it's still a good opportunity to educate and make a little noise.

April 22, 2004

Intercontinental Ballistic (Green) Missiles

According to Strategy Page, a military-oriented website, the US Department of Defense is about to undertake a program to replace the rocket motors on 500 Minuteman III missiles with a new version which will emit less toxic material while in use. Jokes about not polluting the air while nuking the world write themselves, but bear in mind that such missiles are occasionally launched in tests, so switching to a design which complies with EPA regulations does make sense.

April 23, 2004

Green Furniture

How green is your furniture (and I don't mean color)? It turns out that many chairs and couches are made in environmentally unfriendly ways. Environmental News Network reports today about a variety of companies shifting to sustainable, toxic-free methods of making furniture. Let's hope the design aesthetics match the green ideals...

April 24, 2004

Manifestations of Privacy

Christopher Allen at Life With Alacrity has a thoughtful post on what he calls the "four kinds of privacy:" defensive privacy, protecting information which puts you at risk from other citizens; human-rights privacy, protecting information which puts you at risk from the authorities; personal privacy, protecting information about your personal life and activities; and contextual privacy, protecting information which can be misconstrued or is inappropriately intimate. I'm not sure the distinctions are as clear as Allen describes, but the essay is well worth reading.

Ford Model U

While Honda and Toyota have raced ahead with hybrid cars, American manufacturers such as GM and Ford have tended to claim that they were working on something even better (even while grudgingly announcing hybrids to come out real soon now). General Motors' advanced hydrogen car efforts were profiled in Wired last year, and now Ken Novak points us to Ford's entry into the "wow, I wonder if this will ever come out?" motor rally: the Model U. I have to admit, it looks pretty nice. It would look even better on the road, and not just in a press release.

April 28, 2004

Chinese Solar Power

Ken Novak points us to an article in Electronic Components claiming that China will move into the top five list of solar cell producers this year, with a projected 60MW production worth of solar power units. It has also launched the "Chinese Lightning Project" to promote solar cells as a power source.

May 3, 2004

HLR on the PP

WorldChanging ally Howard Rheingold has a great piece over at The Feature entitled "Inverse Surveillance -- What We Should Do With All Those Phonecams." Regular WorldChanging readers will recognize the argument and some of the language ("sousveillance" we like. "Cyborglogging" we're not so sure about...).

May 7, 2004

Hybrid Vigor

The Baltimore Sun provides some useful info on the current status of hybrid cars in the American automobile market: U.S. registrations for hybrid cars rose more than 25 percent last year, to 43,435...Sales of Toyota's new Prius shot up 62.4 percent in the first quarter compared with sales in the first three months of last year...In March, Honda sold 2,725 hybrid Civics, the most ever in a single month... Half of the hybrids sold in 2003 were the Honda Civic hybrid, and just under half the old model Toyota Prius. Over 11,000 were registered in California, with Virginia coming in at #2 with about 3,400 new hybrids in 2003.

More on New Politics

In his AlterNet article "Smart Mobs vs. Amway," Brad deGraf gives a thorough updating and elaboration of the "New Models of Politics" ideas posted here recently. He pulls together many of the ideas about emerging political/campaign models bandied about in this space (and others) in a concise, clear way. Recommended.

May 10, 2004

Open Access News

I stumbled today across Open Access News, which has been around since May of 2002. It's a group blog and headline site on the open access movement. We've written about the value of "open access" research before -- it underpins the Public Library of Science group, informs the Open Source Textbook movement, and is an engine for "The Scientific South." Since science progresses best when scientists have access to each other's work, OA argues that research papers should be made widely and freely available, via the Internet, to all interested researchers. As the current dominant model involves charging staggering sums to universities for scientific publications (as well as to individual scientists seeking documents), a shift towards open access science would also make it far easier for researchers (and universities and countries) with limited financial resources to participate in scientific discourse.

May 11, 2004

GM Wheat Seeks New Opportunities

...because it won't be putting down roots any time soon. In what is widely considered a win for anti-GMO activists, Monsanto has decided not to push its new genetically-modified wheat strains. We applaud the decision, but would encourage Monsanto to look at this as an opportunity to do some real testing on the GM wheat, over an extended period. There may come a time that climate change requires that we modify our agricultural products to be able to survive, and good, long-term testing will go a long way towards making sure that we don't just take short-term solutions with long-term consequences.

May 12, 2004

Watching the European Parliament

Earth-Info-Net points us to, a site assembled by Friends of the Earth, WWF, Birdlife, and Greenpeace in order to monitor and publicize the environment-related votes of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The EU has authority over the vast majority of environmental regulations for member states, and sites like this are great ways of keeping tabs on those in power. As it happens, UK MEPs have the worst environmental voting record, while Danish MEPs came in first. Check it out!

Library of Alexandria Found?

A Polish-Egyptian archaeological team has uncovered ruins which appear to be the lecture halls of the Library of Alexandria. The 13 lecture halls, each with a central podium, could hold as many as 5,000 total students. The president of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities called it "perhaps the oldest university in the world."

May 13, 2004

Greenpeace on Trial

Not exactly worldchanging, but still worth noting. the US government is taking Greenpeace, the organization, to court in Florida for "sailor mongering," in response to activists boarding a boat bringing illegally felld Amazon mahogany to Miami. Greenpeace says the prosecution is revenge for its criticism of Bush. Given that nobody has been charged with "sailor mongering" since 1890, and the decision to charge the group and not the individuals involved, is arguably an attack on political speech, this is a case well-worth watching closely.

Linux in Egypt

You should check out today's posting on Slashdot of an interview with Egyptian Linux advocate, Alaa. It's a great introduction to the issues facing the uptake of Free/Open Source software in Egypt; many of the issues, especially the prevalence of pirated Microsoft software, can be found across the developing world. Warning: if you're not a regular Slashdot reader, I strongly suggest switching the "Threshold" settings for comments (found between the post content and the comment section) to 4 or 5.

May 18, 2004

Big Money for Madagascar Environment

Reuters reports that the World Bank has approved its largest-ever environmental grant to help Madagascar protect its unique ecosystem. "The grant of $49 million will be used to expand protected areas, establish conservation sites in forests and transfer forest management responsibilities to local communities. Conservationists say three-quarters of the estimated 200,000 plant and animal species found in Madagascar, exist nowhere else in the world."

May 19, 2004

Solar Recharging Adult Toys

Most vibrating adult toys come in two varieties: carbon-emitting and toxic-metal-waste-producing. That is, most either plug into the wall or run on batteries. But now you have a third option. Blowfish is now carrying a solar-recharging vibrator. 5-7 hours of sunlight leads to a full hour of full-power vibrating fun. (Picture at link entirely tame, but site as a whole is probably NSFW.) Okay, so this isn't our usual fare, but it's definitely good to know that the alternative-energy meme is spreading beyond cars & houses.

May 24, 2004


Tav writes to tell us that the next "WTF" (WTF's the Future?) will be taking place this Saturday, May 29, at 11am, at the 491 Gallery, Leytonstone, London. From the site: "WTF is an open space gathering/conference of the various grassroots projects, people and organisations working together to create the worlds we want. Including: social progressives, thinkers, doers, visionaries, hackers, activists, artists, musicians, academics, scientists, professors, engineers, philosophers, performers, anyone-who-is-doing-cool-projects. As an incentive to get up so early on a saturday morning, we'll be serving everyone who arrives early with a free, delicious meal. And, to top if off, after the conference, there'll be a party-till-dawn with 6 live bands in the main gallery and film screenings in the cinema next door!"

You UK WorldChangers should definitely check this out -- the last WTF was apparently quite cool, and this one sounds even better. And if you do go, please write and let us know what you learned!

Green Power in NY

JP Reardon points us to the ConEd "Green Power" page, giving NY area power consumers the option of buying electricity from New Wind Energy, a renewable energy company which provides 25% wind/75% hydro power. Like most on-the-grid green power initiatives, choosing this option actually means that ConEd gets a fraction more of its power from the renewables than from traditional generators, not that you get a special hookup directly from the wind farms. Walter Simpson, energy officer at SUNY Buffalo, gives more details here. (Thanks, JP!)

May 25, 2004

The End of Cheap Oil

I really wish National Geographic put the full text of their articles on their website (even if limited to subscribers). Unfortunately, they only provide teaser excerpts. The cover story of the latest issue of NG is "The End of Cheap Oil," and it's well-worth seeking out and reading. You can get a taste of it here, along with some very cool maps -- including a PDF showing the existing oil supplies left in the world, by country.

May 27, 2004

Welcome, Slashdotters

Alex's interview with climate change scenarist Doug Randall got Slashdotted today, which means quite a few more visitors to this site. So far, we seem to be holding up. If you're new here, take a look around, poke through the archives, and let us know what you think!


I am not a religious person, and am not in the habit of looking at religious groups for innovative approaches to global problems. But Floresta is genuinely interesting: they focus on deforestation as both a manifestation and a symbol of global poverty, using microloans, training in sustainable agriculture, and the planting of trees as a way of helping out the poor in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico. While evangelism is part of their efforts, they emphasize on the site that participation in religious activities is not a prerequisite for their services. They've worked in nearly a hundred communities, made over 2,000 loans, and planted over two million trees. (Via Slacktivist)

June 2, 2004

Open Source Voting Revisited

We've talked about electronic voting and the need for the inherent transparency of open source to make e-voting trustable before, so it's good to see the notion get some mainstream play. The New York Times Magazine had a good article this last weekend making the case for the need for open source for electronic elections.

Talk Energy

Talk Energy is a new discussion and news site focusing on alternative energy use for home and transportation. Based on slashcode, the discussion system used at Slashdot, Talk Energy mixes energy-related headlines, alternative power product reviews, classified ads, and a place for you innovative types to toss your ideas out for group evaluation. They're aiming for a million members, so check 'em out!

June 3, 2004

"Enertia" Homes

Enertia founder Michael Sykes wrote to us suggesting that we check out his company. Using sustainable design principles and green materials, Enertia promises homes which can save on power costs, will last far longer than most present-day houses, and do relatively little harm to the planet while they're around. At least according to the site's info, that is; have any of you built or lived in an Enertia home?

June 9, 2004

Simulating a Spill

You want to test new techniques for cleaning up ocean oil spills, but don't want to dump oil into the water -- what do you do? If you're the Norweigian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies, you use popcorn instead. It turns out that popcorn, once it absorbs water, forms an emulsion that mimics the behavior of oil in ocean currents... and any bits that don't get cleaned up in the test provide a tasty snack for wildlife.

(Via World Turning)

My Rights. To Go.

It's a bit gimmicky, sure, but the idea of adding a copy of the US Constitution to your iPod holds a certain appeal. The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy is making the Constitution available as an iPod "Notes" file (which, sadly, doesn't work with the ancient first generation iPods -- sorry, early adopters, like me) for easy portability and quick reference. One wishes that certain members of the current administration had a deeper familiarity with the text; perhaps this will help.

June 11, 2004

California Plans to Reduce Carbon

Even if Washington DC isn't interested in reducing greenhouse gases, California is. According to the Los Angeles Times (and republished by, "California plans to require automobile manufacturers to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in new cars by nearly 30% over the next decade as it implements the first regulation in the world to tackle tailpipe exhaust linked to global warming." The details will be outlined on Monday by the California Air Resources Board (CARB); historically, other states have followed California's lead on pollution controls, and even Canada is watching to see how well this works.

(Via Earth Blog)

Wireless in London

Informal, a UK group which apparently focuses on wireless free networking, has a detailed and fascinating report on the growth and diversity of WiFi in the greater London area entitled "The State of Wireless London." It documents the growth of wireless networking, and compares networks built by "freenetwork" groups to those built by commercial providers. The snazzy maps and detailed documentation are both cool and impressive.

(Via SmartMobs)

June 15, 2004

Listen to Bruce

That was quick -- LongNow has the audio recording of Bruce's speech last Friday up already. You can download it in MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and FLAC formats, but beware -- these are not small files (the MP3 is 66MB, for example).

(Thanks for the heads-up, Stefan!)

Update: Zander Rose, of Long Now, says in the comments:

We are getting slammed with downloads right now (morning of 6/16). We are working on finding a larger pipe to serve this out of now...

Quantum Computer Simulator

Speaking of web access to cool technology, the Fraunhaofer Institute in Germany has made a Quantum Computer Simulator available online, allowing you to test how various problems can be solved using a 27 qubit quantum computer. Do let us know if you do something cool with it...

June 16, 2004

BBC Opens the Archives

Wired notes that the BBC will soon open its vast archives, starting with nature programming, to web consumers. Only in the UK, though; people coming in from foreign IP addresses will be blocked. The article is particularly interesting in its detailing of just what a "content owner" actually has to go through in the current world of intellectual property regulations to make something like this available for use.

Copyright in Canada

Speaking of intellectual property, Canada is going through its own struggles with just how to balance the rights of IP users and the rights of IP owners (which, despite the common confusion, are *not* necessarily the IP creators). The report from the Canadian Parliament's so-called Bulte committee came down strongly on the side of owners. Toronto Star columnist Michael Geist has written a series of essays about copyright in Canada that are well worth reading, even if you're not a resident of the Great White North: Will Copyright Reform Chill Use Of Web? (May 31); and Copyright Reform Needs A Balanced Approach (June 14).

June 17, 2004

UK Shell Chairman "Very Worried" About Carbon

Energy company Royal Dutch Shell has had a rough year, what with overstating its oil reserves by 20% and being blamed for multiple deaths in Nigeria; it's not surprising, then, that the company's leadership is starting to take a long, hard look at the business they're in. Lord Ron Oxburgh, the recently-appointed British Chair of Shell, stated in an interview in The Guardian today that he's "really very worried" about human-induced global warming, and that "You can't slip a piece of paper between David King [the government's chief science adviser who said climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism] and me on this position." Shell (along with BP-Amoco) already invests far more money in alternative energy research than the American major oil company, Exxon-Mobil; we'll see if the new leadership is able to make a clean break with the past.

June 19, 2004

Electric Cars in the UK

The BBC notes the arrival of what it claims is the "world's best-selling electric car" in the UK: the Daimler-Chrysler Gem. At £7,000 for a two-seater with a 40 mile range, 30mph top speed, and a 7 hour recharging time, it's no surprise that the importer, ZEV Ltd, expects to sell all of 350 of them in the next year and a half. Nonetheless, given that it will be exempt from some of the hassles facing UK drivers -- road tax, London congestion charge, and many parking fees -- some people will certainly find it worth the limitations. It will be interesting to see how well it actually does. And UK WC'ers: let us know what you think of them!

June 21, 2004

Planting the Future

Reuters reports that a group of British scientists is recommending an aggressive shift towards the planting of crops not for food, but for a wholesale replacement of petrochemicals. The combination of declining supplies of petroleum (used for much more than fuel) and a still-growing global population means that replacements will be needed soon -- and it's better to start planning now for that event than to wait until oil (effectively) runs out. "At a news conference, [plant reseracher Alison Smith] complained that in the past there had been a lack of coherent thinking, but that was now changing in the face of the looming crisis."

The EU Parliament and Software Patents

Software patents are (generally) supported by big software companies and (generally) opposed by individual programmers (at least in my experience), so it comes as little surprise that the European Parliament seemed headed towards enacting a corporate-friendly software patent law. But reasonable amendments to the law passed by the parliament as a whole were tossed out by the Council of Ministers, some of whom then mislead their constituents on this fact. Because of this, the Dutch Parliament looks to be headed towards being the first nation in the EU to order its Minister to revoke his vote and force a parliamentary reconsideration of the law. This post on OS News is a fascinating account of angry Dutch geeks deciding to do something about a bad law -- and succeeding.

Glucose Fuel Cells

Your body doesn't use petroleum (or hydrogen, for that matter) -- why should your car? Today's New York Times has an article about researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory seeking to design and build fuel cells that run on glucose, a basic sugar metabolized by mammalian bodies into energy. Glucose could be used as a fuel for stand-alone gadgets, or drawn from the blood for medical implants or wearable devices. The technology is still in very early stages; the Sandia researchers admit they need to improve the efficiency of their systems by a million-fold.

June 22, 2004

Port of Los Angeles Goes (a Little) Green

On Monday, the Port of Los Angeles opened its first "Alternative Maritime Power" terminal, allowing a ship to run off of grid power rather than idle its diesel engines for its "hoteling" period in-dock. The Port claims that this is the first such grid-power hookup in the world. The concept is similar to the "IdleAire" project we mentioned last month, but on a far grander scale.

Although the AMP system supports just a single ship, the system does prevent the emission of a ton of NOx and 87 lbs. of particulates per day of use. The shipping firm adopting the AMP is China Shipping, but other companies are now looking at adopting the system. A press release is available, with some additional details (PDF).

June 25, 2004

Responsible Nanotech Student Program

Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology pointed me to their new program providing support for university students and instructors wishing to undertake research on molecular manufacturing. CRN co-founder Chris Phoenix says that "studies are urgently needed in politics, economics, law, and sociology, as well as technical areas such as chemistry, physics, and product design. Molecular manufacturing will be very powerful, but no one really knows yet what that will mean."

June 28, 2004

Help Keep Government Weather Data Free

For awhile now, the National Weather Service has been making weather data freely available in XML format over the Internet. Although technically "experimental," dozens of applications have sprung up to allow people to access this data on their personal computers (I use the open source "Meteorologist" application for my Powerbook). The NWS now wants to make this free access official, reasoning that since taxpayer money pays for the data, taxpayers should have access to it (the proposed policy change can be found here). However, it appears that the chairman of Accuweather (and leader in the commercial weathercaster industry) opposes this change, and wants the data restricted to those who will pay for it (and profit from it), and is asking (Word doc) his cronies to pressure the NWS not to adopt this policy. But you have a say, too: the comments page on the new policy is still open, and the NWS is taking comments until Wednesday June 30th. Add your voice!

(Via Open Access News)

Annotated UK ID Proposal

Mark Simpkins of Nodal Research wrote to tell me of his group's latest project: taking the consultation document (PDF) proposed by the UK's Secretary of State concerning identity card legislation, and converting it into web-readable form. Not just HTML, though: the team translated it into a Moveable Type blog document, allowing comments and annotation of each section of the proposal. As security expert Bruce Schneier can tell you in detail, ID card laws are terribly ineffective forms of security, causing more problems than they solve. By taking the UK proposal and making it interactive, perhaps the Nodal Research group can draw some attention to the danger inherent in the consultation document.

July 2, 2004

Cost of Cyberliving

Travis Daub has a piece in Foreign Policy comparing the cost-per-hour at Internet cafés around the world with the percentage of national populations living on $1/day. While there isn't a strong direct correlation -- Ghana, with 26+% of its population living on $1/day, has some of the lowest average rates ($0.60/hour), while nearby Nigeria, with a similarly poor population, has far higher rates ($5.40/hour) -- the numbers are worth thinking about when considering how readily nations can leapfrog. (Via Slashdot)

World Refugee Population Lowest in a Decade

Here's a bit of good news: according to the UN High Commission on Refugees, the number of refugees in the world fell by 920,000 in 2003, bringing the global total to 9.7 million. This is the second consecutive year that the global total number of refugees has fallen. The return of refugees to Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, and Iraq was cited as the chief reason, with more than half of the 1.1 million returned refugees going home to Afghanistan alone. 2.1 million Afghans still live as refugees, with about half of those in Pakistan. The UNHCR report on 2003 refugee trends can be downloaded here (PDF).

Transcommercial Costco

We're always on the lookout for corporations which show signs of being "transcommercial enterprises." The latest one to pop up on our radar is Costco -- the big-box, wholesale warehouse club retailer. While Costco may not embody everything transcommercial, its employee policies are surprisingly progressive. In most ways, it's the Anti-Wal-Mart. I've heard good things about the company (one of my best friends' father & brother work there), and this article by Jim Hightower on AlterNet sums up the qualities succinctly:

"We pay much better than Wal-Mart," [Costco CEO] Sinegal says. "That's not altruism. It's good business."

Indeed, Costco's pay is much, much, much better -- a full-time Costco clerk or warehouse worker earns more than $41,000 a year, plus getting terrific health-care coverage. Wal-Mart workers get barely a third of that pay, plus a lousy health-care plan. Costco even has unions!

Yet, Costco's labor costs are only about half of Wal-Mart's. How's that possible? One reason is that Costco workers feel valued, which adds enormously to their productivity, and they don't leave -- employee turnover is a tiny fraction of Wal-Mart's rapidly revolving door.

July 6, 2004

Hybrids Exempt from Smog Check in CA

Have a hybrid-electric car in California? Here's yet another reason to feel smug: the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Automotive Repair has decided that all Honda Insights, Honda Civic Hybrids, and Toyota Priuses are exempt from the biennial and change-of-ownership smog checks. While not an onerous burden, the smog checks are moderately expensive and inconvenient. As additional hybrid vehicles come on the market, they'll be added to the list.

Animated Titan Flyby & Map

Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations -- CICLOPS -- has released a nifty animated movie of the probe's flyby of Saturn's largest moon. The movie includes Cassini's initial scan of Titan's surface features (which are normally shrouded by clouds). Since Titan is one of the few objects in the solar system with both a rocky ("terrestrial") body and a full-blown, complex atmosphere, I am particularly interested in the results of deeper study of the Saturnian moon.

Digital Library in Pakistan, too

While the Digital Library of India project continues apace, not to be outdone, the Dyal Singh Trust Library in Lahore, the second largest book repository in the Punjab, has created a new department to facilitate the conversion of the entire collection to digital form, according to the Pakistan Daily Times. The library specializes in the collection of Pakistan newspapers; it has archives of every national paper for the last 40 years, and a number of periodicals from as far back as 1927. The article doesn't give much detail on the project, which appears to be on a much smaller scale than the DLI endeavor, but it is potentially a promising beginning to a larger effort.

(Via Open Access News)

Environmentally-Friendlier Chip Etching

The conventional method of making computer chips involves etching the circuit pathways on copper via an acid bath. This is, as you may imagine, a fairly nasty bit of business, involving materials hazardous to the environment and to human health. The UK firm QinetiQ has come up with a clever alternative, using an ink which attracts metals from a solution, allowing the circuit pathways to "grow" on the chip rather than be carved from it. The developers claim that not only does the method non-toxic, it costs 50% of the current etching method. QinetiQ (and I will pay vast sums to anyone who can strangle this new last-letter-capitalized naming meme in its crib) used to be DERA, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, sort of the UK's version of DARPA; looks like they've come up with a pretty significant breakthrough.

(Via engadget)

July 7, 2004

Green John

It's no secret that WorldChanging has a decidedly progressive-green tint to its politics. While we don't all agree on everything here, we do believe that a strong commitment to fighting climate change, support of non-politicized science, and global cooperation to solve global problems are critical. Unfortunately, we're not getting any of that from the current administration. That's why I was pleased to see that the League of Conservation Voters has identified Democratic Vice-Presidential pick John Edwards as having a very strong environmental record, both in the Senate and in his work as a lawyer. As Kerry has a similarly strong record, it's clear that the choice in November will be between two very different visions of the future.

Nature Methods

Zack Lynch over at Brain Waves points us to Nature's newest publication, coming this fall: Nature Methods, which focuses on "describing the development of new methodologies and significant improvements to tried-and-tested techniques" in scientific research. As WorldChanging looks at technique as well as technology, a journal from as respected a source as Nature dedicated to examining the utility and validity of both established and experimental approaches to understanding the world is more than welcome.

July 10, 2004

Watch the Fish

In other satellite news, the BBC reports about a proposal to put satellite monitoring data of fish populations online, to allow interested citizens to keep tabs on declining fish stocks, and to watch for signs of illegal overfishing of dangerously depleted populations. With upwards of 75% of global fish populations either overfished or fully exploited, a catastrophic collapse -- with enormous repercussions for the rest of the global ecosystem -- is all too possible.

Cancer Subway Map

BoingBoing points us to "A subway map of cancer pathways" in Nature: a remarkable visualization of how cells transform into malignancy. Links on the map take you to more specific information about given sets of genes related to the process. It's simply a brilliant representation of a biological process.

July 12, 2004

Mapping India

Next year, India will launch its first mapping satellite, allowing a full re-mapping of the subcontinent nation in about 18 months of work. India has had access to satellite data, but always from other countries. Having control over its own geography is a useful development tool; according to the Surveyor General, ‘‘We will now be able to generate these images on our own and several users, particularly those planning highways, the river-interlinking project and such development activities, will benefit."


One design technique which is shifting its way into futurist/consulting work is the "microscenario" process. Rather than imagining how the world will change, then thinking about how best to make products/services for that changed world, the microscenario process involves thinking of individuals living in the changed world, then coming up with ways to make individual lives better. It's a subtle difference, but one with real applicability (I've used it with a variety of consulting clients over the years, and they are constantly surprised at the results). It turns out that Bruce Sterling -- design afficianado and WC Ally #1 -- wrote a story called "User-Centric" for the December 1999 issue of DesignFax, a design engineer journal, which ably illuminates just how the microscenario process works.

July 16, 2004

Singularity Ahoy?

Well, maybe. Roland Piquepaille discusses the new 20 billion node neural network computing system at Artificial Development (site has essentially no content), which is intended to be the "first neural system to achieve a level of complexity rivaling that of the mammalian brain." With a thousand processors working away on 20 billion artificial neurons and 20 trillion connections, it does sound impressive. Piquepaille notes, however, that the company employs only programmers and mathematicians, no neurobiologists or cognitive scientists; we'll see if they can come up with something interesting.

July 19, 2004

Beating Like A Heart

Engadget links to the firm Eamex (link all in Japanese), which has developed a new pump system which (among other things) mimics natural heart rhythms. Apparently the pump will be usable for a wide array of products, from artificial hearts (naturally) to laptop liquid cooling systems -- and it's already smaller and cheaper than current equivalents. A surprising (but interesting) bit of biomimicry perhaps soon appearing in your computer.

The Environment and the Election

Seed magazine, a new non-specialist science journal, has put online a long article ("The Greening of Election '04," by Amanda Griscom) about the role the environment-as-issue will play in the 2004 presidential election. She makes a strong, albeit not entirely convincing, case that the environment has the potential to be a key element of a successful Kerry campaign -- not as a direct issue, necessarily, but as a force-multiplier, giving added weight to a variety of existing concerns voters across the political spectrum may have about Bush. Consider it the optimistic scenario of the environment as political focus in 2004.

July 26, 2004

Future Outsourcing

In the never-ending quest to look beyond what's next, I stumbled across an article in CRMBuyer suggesting that Africa was the inevitable future location for global IT outsourcing, once India had successfully used outsourcing to bootstrap its population into the middle class. While recognizing that the article appears to be largely based on a report from a company which just happens to facilitate global outsourcing, the logic is pretty sound. Africa won't always be a mess. If you're interested in the drivers of change in the coming decades, pay attention now to the places most people ignore.

Mainstream Green in the UK

As a quick follow-up to Alex's post the other day about the mainstreaming of green home design, the Guardian reports that a recent survey of British would-be home buyers resulted in 87% wanting substantial information about the environmental aspects of the homes they considered, and 84% were willing to pay an additional 2% (a seemingly small amount, until you consider how expensive homes are) for an "eco-friendly" home. It's not just mainstream home designers who are starting to think green -- mainstream home buyers are, too (at least in the UK).

August 3, 2004

Cameron Sinclair Rocks

New WorldChanging contributor Cameron Sinclair has been awfully busy with his group Architecture for Humanity, and it's in a pretty damn good cause. Wired News has an interview with Cameron up today where he talks about his latest big project: the Siyathemba design competition, looking for designs for a combined soccer field and health-care facility in Smokhele, a community in KwaZulu-Natal, which has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates anywhere. It's an inspiring project, and we're proud that Cameron is a worldchanger (in every sense of the term).

Talk to US

The notion that "because the US is so powerful around the world, people from every country should get a vote in who the president is" pops up now and again. I think that the notion's wrong, but not for the reason most might have: I think it's a kneejerk reaction to a historically temporary state, and one which could reinforce the unipolar condition which is not politically healthy for either the US or the rest of the world. Talk to US takes the view that, instead of global voting for the US president, what's needed is global communication: "US policies impact the whole world, but non-Americans have few ways to communicate directly with mainstream America. The international voices Americans do hear often represent only the extremes -- not ordinary people from around the world. Talk to US is changing this by gathering and distributing 30 second video messages from people around the world." Hear what people from different countries, ethnicities, classes, religions, etc. etc. -- including people from the United States -- have to say to and about the US. Whatever your political views, you'll find it educational.

Green Car Congress

Green Car Congress is an incredible resource for information and analysis about "technologies, issues and polices for sustainable mobility." The site creator, Mike Millikin, is a former infotech analyst now focusing on transportation. GCC has some of the best analysis I've seen lately of the increasingly ominous tidings from the oil industry (and the panic that's appearing in oil traders), as well as thoughtful discussions of the state of the automotive industry, all with an overarching focus on sustainable development. I'm still plowing through some of the archives -- he's been around since April -- but I strongly suggest those of you who have an interest in green transportation add Green Car Congress to your RSS feed or daily read list.

August 5, 2004

We the Media

This whole "give the book away and people will buy it" idea seems to be taking off. We noted awhile back that Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig's book Freeculturehad been released online for free (and promptly filled with hyperlinks by a group led by our own Taran Rampersad). Now it's WorldChanging favorite Dan Gillmor's turn, with his new book We the Media.We the Media looks at the rise of grassroots journalism in the Internet age. I was looking forward to reading it -- and now I have no excuse.

Styrofoam Houses in Afghanistan

This story has been picked up in the usual places in the blogosphere, but it's worth noting here, too: the Federation of American Scientists is promoting the use of expanded polystyrene foam as functional, efficient, and low-cost building material in Afghanistan and throughout the world. It turns out that styrofoam given a thin cement shell makes an excellent buildng material: very easy to work with (can be cut with a hot wire), inexpensive, long-lasting, has terrific thermal properties and is shock absorbant in earthquakes. The New Harmony House (in New Harmony, Indiana) was built using this material as a demonstration, with impressive results (including the house using 50-70 percent less energy than a conventionally-constructed home).

Accidentally Banning SUVs

A not-uncommon sight in California are signs in residential areas prohibiting vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds from driving on these roads. Heavy vehicles can severely damage streets, and many communities made the logical decision to ban three-ton-plus vehicles from roads simply not made to handle that much weight. After all, anything that big has to be a commercial vehicle with no legitimate reason to be driving down residential avenues, right?

Well, actually...

Slate magazine has an eye-opening article today examining the fact that nearly all of the extra-large SUVs and pickups popular these days actually weigh in at over 6,000 pounds, in part because of laws that give massive tax breaks to people who claim to use commercial-weight "trucks" exclusively for work. The article is richly detailed, and while the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the point is serious: heavyweight vehicles, whether Hummer or delivery truck, damage roads, requiring additional street maintenance that states like California can ill-afford. The solutions are not obvious -- raising the weight limit doesn't make the streets magically more weight-resistant, but enforcing the ban would anger the many owners of superheavy SUVs.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the lack of awareness city officials had that numerous popular SUVs weigh more than is legal for many residential streets. Most claimed that the rules wouldn't be enforced against SUVs, but their reluctance to upset the citizenry may well collide with fiscal temptation. Cities these days are strapped for cash; don't be surprised to see a jump in tickets being issued to Hummers, Excursions, Escalades, and the like driving down the wrong streets...

August 9, 2004

The Beauty of Travel

Extended text and a down-sampled, shrunken image would not do justice to Notes from the Road, the online journal and gallery of Erik Gauger. He's documented his travels in the cities and countryside of the Iberian peninsula, the West Indies, and across North America from the Atlantic coast to the deserts of Mexico, drawing maps and taking pictures with an old large format camera. His most recent entries tell us of the Isthmus of Central America, from Panama to Guatemala. The pictures he takes are simply gorgeous -- there's no other word for them -- and the maps he draws are themselves works of art. He's an ecotourist, but with a very human focus. He shows us not just the physical places, but also the lives of those who call those places home.

Notes from the Road isn't simply wonderful photography, art and words, it's ecological anthropology, and very highly recommended.

August 12, 2004

Open Source On Mars!

O'Reilly's has an interesting story about the decision by NASA to use free/open source software for Mars Rover control systems, both on Earth and on Mars (the Earthside software -- Maestro -- is actually available for download). The article doesn't go into great detail about precisely how FOSS was used in the Rovers, only that it worked -- and worked well.

(Via Martian Soil)

One More Degree

Good news & bad news time: the good news is, climate researchers have come up with an improved method for predicting the range of temperature effects from continued greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere; the bad news is, the low end of the predicted rise in temperature just went up by a degree, from 1.4°C to 2.4°C. Nature reports that a group at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research have devised a method which better accounts for the atmospheric factors (such as cloud reflection of sunlight) which don't yet have precise values, only informed estimates.

The results are still a range of temperatures, but a range that does not depend on any of the informed guesses being exactly right. The new method predicts a hundred year rise in global average temperature of 2.4°-5.4°C. The previous range, from the IPCC, was a 1.4°-5.8°C increase. While this does mean that the high end of the range dropped by four-tenths of a degree, the full-degree jump at the low end is of greater concern.

August 16, 2004

Blobjects & Gizmos & Spimes (oh my!)

Boing-Boing has a transcript of WorldChanging ally #1 Bruce Sterling's recent keynote for the 2004 SIGGRAPH conference, wherein he takes on "blobjects," the digital manipulation of industrial design, and "spimes" -- the next iteration of material objects (the order is: artifacts, the tools of subsistance farmers and gatherer-hunters; machines, used by customers in an industrial society; products, used by consumers in a military-industrial complex; gizmos, used by end-users in our current era; and finally spimes, used by "wranglers" -- all of which makes sense if you read the speech).

Alex adds: On second reading, I think this is the most important speech/rant Bruce has laid on us since the original Viridian Design speech. It's Viridian 2.0, essentially. Do yo'self a favor. Read it. ((Except -- Jesus God! "Spime" is an awful word. An insult to the tongue, an injury to the ear, and, to my mind, at least, utterly forgetable. We must be able to do better than "Spime."))

August 17, 2004

Sudan's Oil

Green Car Congress, linking to Lebanon's Daily Star, gives us some little-known backstory on the current crisis in Sudan, and why we should expect that unfortunate nation to continue to pop up in headlines: China now gets six percent of its oil from Sudan, and this percentage is expected to rise. Other major players in the Sudanese oil game include India and Malaysia. China's increasing hunger for oil has far greater implications than simply pushing up gas prices. As the Daily Star puts it: "The Darfur affair is giving China its first close-up experience of a Middle East crisis. How it will react if the crisis deepens remains to be seen."


Near Near Future reports today on the "Infothela" project in India, a bicycle rickshaw with high-speed internet access, multiple computers, and a mission to "improve education, health care and access to agricultural information in India's villages." The project is organized by the Indian Institute of Technology, which runs a rural wireless network to help bring information tech to the rural masses of India. NNF links to more info at USA Today and Smart Mobs.

August 20, 2004

Recycling Computer Hardware

Salon has an informative article (subscription or brief click-through ad required to get to it) on the benefits and drawbacks of California's new computer recycling law, which will add an extra $6 to $10 to the cost of monitors, flat panel displays, laptops, and TVs sold in the state. The goal is good -- get people to recycle the hardware, or at least turn it in to a registered disposal center, instead of dumping the toxic trash into the waste stream -- but the mechanism may not be the best one around, as it puts the onus on the consumer to do something. Maine has a better idea, one which echoes EU policy, requiring manufacturers to be responsible for recycling, pushing them to use less-toxic (and more readily reused) materials in production. Check it out.

Alternative Energy in Korea

The aptly-named Alternative Energy Blog reports that the "Korean government has set a target of generating 5% of their energy from alternative energy [sources] within seven years." This is in direct response to rising oil prices, which is both good and bad. Good, because shifting to a more diverse energy basis makes Korea less subject to price shocks, and helps an overall reduction in petroleum-based carbon emissions; and Bad, because a drop in oil prices down to the levels of a couple of years ago -- not incredibly likely, but certainly not impossible -- would reduce the pressure to do something, and if a transition to 5% production was proving more costly than expected, could easily lead to Korea abandoning the effort. Which would put them right back in the same situation when the next oil shock came around...

Fortune On Renewable Energy

WorldChanging ally Gil Friend notes that Fortune has joined Business Week in grappling directly with the issue of the need for alternatives to petroleum. The full article is behind a pay-to-read wall, but has an extended summary. Fortune's four-point plan includes: Improving fuel efficiency; more spending on alternative fuels; redoubled commitment to efficiency; and getting serious about solar and wind. Hardly a radical agenda, but as these ideas increasingly become the conventional wisdom of the business world, more radical approaches become much more thinkable.

August 21, 2004

Let A Million Solar Homes Bloom

As we've noted before, California's celebrity Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has turned out to be moderately green in many of his policies. The latest example of both the "green" and the "moderately" is his new proposal for California to add one million solar-powered homes by 2017, building on proposed legislation to require home builders to offer optional solar panels by 2008. While a million new solar homes sounds like a nicely ambitious number, the projected date (2017) seems somewhat timid (the California Building Industry Association projects that 200,000 new homes will be built in the state in 2004, so even without any growth in that pace, we'd be looking at around two and a half million by 2017; it's much more likely that the pace will climb, so a total of three or even four million new homes by 2017 is more plausible). I suspect that there are too many converging forces -- energy costs, recognition of environmental effects of certain types of energy production and use, the growing popularity of "smart grids" among planners and the growing diversity and dropping cost of solar power systems -- for such a development to take that long.

August 23, 2004

Electricity Revives Coral

Alex posted last April about efforts to build and renew coral reefs using wire mesh and low-power electric currents, and noted that results weren't yet clear. Wired now reports that these grids have, in fact, been impressively successful:

The grids were then seeded with small fragments of live coral, which begin to grow "between five and 10 times faster than normal, with much brighter colors and more resilience to hot weather and pollution," said a co-owner of the Taman Sari Cottages, an American who goes by the single name Naryana.

Some corals have been transplanted directly onto the bars, attached by wires or wedged into specially designed spaces. Soft corals, sponges, tunicates and anemones were also transplanted. Vibrant colors and growth up to nearly a half inch in less than a month have been recorded. Grids that suffered power failures saw less vigorous development and duller colors.

"Today, the fish are back, including deepwater fish which come into the reef to rest during the daytime," Naryana said.

Coral reefs are critically important to maintaining healthy oceans, and are under increasing threat; it's good to know that we may have a way of keeping them around.

Plastic Nanowires for Solar Panels

Researchers at Brookhaven National Labs and the University of Florida have come up with a way of creating polymer nanowires with specific application to solar power systems:

In conventional solar panels the energy from the sun is excites electrons in a semiconducting material such as silicon, creating the current flow. Replacing the silicon with polymer nanowires would make the solar cell much lighter, and eventually cheaper.

The so-called plastic solar cells can be made much bigger and are also more flexible, making them more versatile. Normal solar panels are rigid, expensive and their size is constrained by manufacturing techniques.

The report is from The Register which (a) doesn't give a lot of details or useful links, and (b) doesn't have the best reputation as a tech journal. Anyone have a more detailed -- and reliable -- link for the story?

August 24, 2004

Online Course on Climate Change

The Earth Council -- a Geneva-based international NGO "civil society vehicle created to follow up, promote, and advance the implementation of the Earth Summit agreements" -- has started an online seminar entitled "The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change." It is being taught by Sven Åke Bjørke, a lawyer, science teacher, and course designer for the UN University/Global Virtual University, and the project leader/lead author on two UNEP climate change research efforts, and more. The focus is on the scientific consensus (based on the IPCC) on global warming, but will also bring in perspectives from critics and outside researchers. It appears to be fairly introductory, but could be very interesting. Tuition is $54 now, going to up to $60 soon.

(Via SciDev.Net, which has more details)

August 25, 2004

Solar Power Steam Turbine

The Alternative Energy Blog notes an article in the Daily Yomiuri On-Line about a new solar-powered steam turbine system invented by one Professor Takeo Saito of Tohoku University. The Professor claims that he has been able to generate twice as much energy than he could get out conventional solar cells, with a power output of 1,300 watts. He intends on building a miniaturized version for washing machines.

The solar steam turbine may not be worldchanging per se (the fact that it uses superheated chlorofluorocarbons gives one pause, at the very least), but Saito's stated reasons for undertaking its development are. During Japan's economic bubble of a few years back, Saito, a specialist in energy and environmental sciences, determined that the then-current rate of consumption was simply unsustainable, and began work on alternative energy systems. As the idea that current rates of consumption are simply unsustainable becomes more widespread, expect to see more out-of-the-blue innovations as more people grapple with the issue (remember: with enough minds, all problems are shallow). Many of the resulting ideas and models will be somewhat unworkable, but some will be revolutionary. Count on it.

Brazilian Discounts for Renewable Energy

Also via Alternative Energy Blog is a report in Business News Americas that the Brazilian power regulator, Aneel, has announced that it will discount transmission and distribution rates by up to 50% for renewable power. Local predictions are that this will correspondingly double the demand. Discounted power types include wind, solar, small-scale hydro, biomass and cogeneration plants. The discounts -- which will result in a 10-15% drop in customer costs -- are intended to encourage smaller businesses to buy directly from the renewable generators, not from the "incumbent distributors."

August 26, 2004

Green Car Congress on Biohydrogen

WorldChanging favorite Green Car Congress has an informative post up today about new developments in biohydrogen generation discussed at this week's 228th meeting of the American Chemical Society. Since the most efficient current methods of generating hydrogen involve electricity (likely not from a renewable source) and natural gas (a non-renewable resource), and result in carbon emissions, looking for ways of getting economically useful amounts of hydrogen from renewable biomass is a Good Idea. GCC lists and links to some of the developments -- including a new method of increasing the efficiency of photochemical hydrogen production from water.

Hydrogen Delivery Vans

Delivery giant UPS is set to start using three hydrogen fuel cell medium-duty delivery vans, one each in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Ann Arbor. This will be the first time medium-duty fuel cell vehicles will be in mainstream use in the US. They have acceleration equivalent to gas or diesel vans, but have 10% more cargo capacity than the diesel medium trucks UPS now uses, and should have a much longer-lasting drive train, reducing maintenance costs. Of course, UPS has 88,000 vehicles, so this is a very tentative start, but if the technology lives up to its promise in the field, we should see a more rapid adoption down the road.

(Via Green Car Congress)

Welcome, Slashdotters (Again)

Alex's interview with Ethan Zuckerman was just linked to by Slashdot, which means a big increase in site activity (so if it takes a bit longer than usual to load, now you know why) and an influx of new visitors. So, welcome, Slashdot readers -- take a look around, read through some of the archives, and let us know what you think of WorldChanging.

August 28, 2004

Prius Sportscar?

Green Car Congress tells us of Toyota's plans to unveil a Prius sport version at next month's Paris Motor Show. With a combined gas-electric yield of 145 horsepower, it will do 0 to 60 in 8.7 seconds, while still getting Prius-like mileage when driven normally. Whether this more zippy version of the Prius will ever make it to showroom floors is another story, but I know there are already folks out there drooling over the possibility...

Hydrocarbon Sponge for Cleaner Cars

Nature reports that researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed a silicon, aluminum and oxygen sponge that looks (at the atomic scale) like "swiss cheese" -- and is able to absorb the smog-producing hydrocarbon emissions that catalytic converters won't catch while warming up. 80% of the hydrocarbon emissions escape during the first few minutes after a cold start. This sponge -- made of a material called SSZ-33 (they really need to work on their marketing, I suspect) -- traps the hydrocarbons until the catalytic converters are warm enough to function.

Garage-Built Scope Finds a Hot Jupiter

Sky and Telescope reports that a team of amateur and professional astronomers, using a network of off-the-shelf hardware (including a 4-inch Schmidt telescope assembled in the team co-leader's garage), identified a new extra-solar planet. It's a so-called "hot Jupiter" -- a massive gas planet orbiting closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun. Most of the extra-solar planets discovered thus far have been of this type, as the current best method for spotting planets outside our solar system involves watching a star for rhythmic perturbations. Massive planets very close to their parent stars are far and away the most likely to show up this way. Still, we've mentioned the possibility of amateur astronomers making important discoveries by linking equipment before, and it's good to see the scenario play out. More info on amateur astronomers looking for extrasolar planets can be found at

August 30, 2004

Darwinian Fisheries

Natural selection -- where certain traits give a population of a species a better chance of survival and reproduction under given environmental conditions -- doesn't result only from "natural" pressures. The problem of antibiotic overuse resulting in resistant bacteria is well-known, but Darwinian results from human activities may be showing up in an entirely new realm: cod. According to a subscriber-only article in this week's Financial Times (complete version is available in a Google Cache), researchers at the Institute for Applied System Analysis in Austria report a steady decline in north-east Arctic cod sizes over the past 60 years. They link this to fishing guidelines which mandate only the largest fish can be kept when caught; smaller ones are more likely to be thrown back, and therefore are more likely to pass along their genes. Changes to fishing rules -- specifying a maximum size as well as a minimum -- could reduce this selection pressure, but without countervailing pressure to make being large more survivable than being small, increases will happen much more slowly.

(Thanks, Tim!)

WiFi in Amsterdam

Reuters reports that a company called "HotSpot Amsterdam" launched a wireless network today with aims to cover the entire city of Amsterdam. "The first seven base stations are up and running, connecting historic areas that date back to the 13th century, while the entire city center will be covered by 40 to 60 antennas within three months, HotSpot Amsterdam founder Carl Harper said." Covering the entire city will take around 125 stations. Unlike some of the metropolitan WiFi efforts we've mentioned in the past, this will not be free -- but the E4.95/day and E14.95/month rates significantly undercut the far steeper fees charged by Dutch telecoms.

Solar Lanterns for Indian Villages

Ken Novak points us to an article in The Hindu noting that 660,000 houses in 1,000 villages in the state of Karnataka will receive solar-powered lanterns "as part of a 'self-village energy security programme' involving the State Government and the Union Ministry for Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES). This is part of a scheme to electrify 'remote' hamlets using renewable energy." The project will cost about $20m; 90 percent of the funds will come from MNES, and villagers would pay Rs. 40 to Rs. 50 per month -- about $.86-$1.10 (average income in India is Rs. 22,260, about $480).

August 31, 2004

UN International Open Source Network

As Taran told us, Software Freedom Day was August 28; it turns out that the United Nations was celebrating along with the rest of us. The International Open Source Network is an initiative from the UN Development Programme focusing on spreading the use of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) in the Asia/Pacific region. IOSN has primers on understanding FOSS, and using it in government and in education. From a fairly quick scan of the site, this looks to be one of the better resources out there for information about the growing use of Free/Open Source Software around the world.

Un-Electric Fridge in Darfur

In March, Dawn posted about Mohammed Bah Abba's "Pot-in-Pot" refrigerator design, used in Northern Nigeria. This week, brings us a lengthy article about the proliferation of the Pot-in-Pot in Darfur, Sudan. Known locally as the "zeer," they are being produced by the Women's Association for Earthenware Manufacturing. Use of the zeer reduces waste for the (mostly) women who sell vegetables in the local markets, thereby increasing their income.

One disturbing aspect of the article, however: it's written by an employee of the local development organization underwriting the manufacturing of the zeer, and nowhere in the article does it even mention the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. Since the mass slaughter of civilians targets one particular ethnic community, one can only conclude that the productive, positive folks quoted in the article are of the dominant group, not the targeted group. This is not to assume or assert that they support or participate in the massacres -- nonetheless, the juxtaposition is unsettling.

September 1, 2004

What To Do About Water

America's Finest News Source asks this week in its "What Do You Think?" column about the UN report that over one billion people lack access to potable water. The reactions are worth thinking about. Consider that of Mark Kunde, Systems Analyst: "This problem will be gone as soon as the earth's temperature increases enough to boil the world's lakes and streams, effectively sterilizing them."


September 2, 2004

Chinese Climate Monitoring

We've mentioned some of the various satellite systems the United States has launched recently for climate and environmental monitoring, so it's only fair to also take note of similar systems put up by other nations. According to Reuters, China has announced plans to launch three satellites dedicated to monitoring climate change. They will focus in particular on sandstorms and forest/prairie fires.

Unfortunately, the article also notes that the satellites won't be operational until 2012.

Alternative Energy in Pakistan

The Pakistan Daily Times reports that $875 million dollars is set to be invested in alternative energy; the money will come from "five international firms," including companies from Germany, Denmark, the United States and two from China. The German company G-Energy is putting up $400 million; the American firm Axces is investing the smallest amount, $75 million.

Unfortunately, the article gives few details as to the actual alternative energy plans, saying only that "875 megawatt electricity [sic] will be produced through air and solar enegy units." I presume "air" means "wind" in this context.

(Via Alternative Energy Blog)

September 3, 2004

RSS Feed Update

Just a quick note (and apology) about WorldChanging's RSS feeds. Today, I modified the RSS 1.0 "headline and excerpt" feed to display the author's name at the beginning of the entry. That was quick and painless. I also modified the RSS 2.0 "full article" feed to display the author name, posting time, and category, including a link to the category archives. That was less quick and painless, and resulted in the RSS listing being reset as having new material several times over the course of the day. I now have it working and displaying the way I want it to, so any "modified material" updates from here on out should be the real thing.

(A description of what RSS is, as well as some useful links, can be found here.)

September 4, 2004

Democratic Transhumanist Interview

RU Sirius interviews James Hughes in the current NeoFiles. Who's James Hughes? The founder of Cyborg Democracy, and a leader of the Democratic Transhumanism movement, which embraces both the desire for radical enhancement of humankind and the need for social fairness and justice.

[...] if you ask a libertarian transhumanist why they oppose FDA testing of life extension technologies [...], the libertarian will say "Why do I and a lot of other people have to die in the meantime waiting for the eventual legalization of this medicine?" Well, I say the same thing about healthcare and enhancements for the poor. Why do the non-affluent have to wait for these technologies to trickle down? Every other developed country in the world guarantees basic health care as a right, as should we, and once we have guaranteed a right to basic health care we should then start guaranteeing universal access to safe human enhancement technologies by including them in universal health care plans. Some will be too expensive, or have marginal benefits, and we can leave those to the (safety-regulated) market. But how long do you think any democracy would permit the top 10% to have access to an extra hundred years of life or an extra 100 IQ points that were inaccessible to the bottom 90%?

Hughes has a book coming out in October, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. I really look forward to reading.

September 7, 2004

Hurricane Watch by RSS

A few months ago, we mentioned that the US Geological Survey had earthquake reports available by RSS. I've been subscribing to the 5+ feed for awhile now, and it's fascinating -- and a bit creepy -- to watch the pattern of moderate-to-large quakes march across South-East and East Asia of late. But the USGS isn't the only government service making data available by RSS: the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center also puts out RSS reports for both the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic (in English and Spanish).

I wonder what other US federal agencies have RSS feeds. The RSS in Government site, referenced in the link above, seems to be updated in a spotty-at-best fashion, and hasn't touched its page of federal links since January. Anyone know of another resource?

September 9, 2004

Bacterial Toxic Remediation

The future is bacterial.

We've noted the various capabilities of bacteria numerous times, and today Wired News gives us yet another example of the power of our unicellular siblings: a bacteria which can turn styrene, a toxic by-product of the polystyrene industry, and turn it into a useful biodegradable plastic. Not only is this a natural process for removing environmental toxins, it's also an example of turning "waste" into "feedstock" -- a critical step for truly sustainable industry.

Automotive Carbon Tax?

Green Car Congress (I'll stop linking to them in stories if they stop posting such great stuff) has posted a provocative thought-piece exploring the idea of an automobile carbon tax. It would replace half of California's existing vehicle license fee; rather than that part of the fee being based on car value, it would be based on the car's mileage average miles-per-gallon of that car model. Some car owners would see their annual tax drop, some would see it grow, but the overall effect would be to help reduce California's existing fiscal problem while simultaneously nudging people to buy more fuel-efficient cars.


We talk a lot about energy efficiency as being a part of sustainability here. Innovations in efficiency will play an important role in making sure we have a bright green future. But what sort of innovations could we see? Well, here's an example of one which could be big:

University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory with a researcher from the University of Cambridge have demonstrated a simple and industrially scaleable method for improving the current densities of superconducting coated conductors in magnetic field environments. The discovery has the potential to increase the already impressive carrying capacity of superconducting wires and tapes by as much as 200 to 500 percent in certain uses, like motors and generators, where high magnetic fields diminish current densities.

Biodiesel in Jeep Liberty

Okay, one last pointer to Green Car Congress and then I'm done for the day, I promise.

Daimler-Chrysler has announced that it will fill the tanks of new Jeep Liberty Diesel SUVs with "B5" -- 5% biodiesel -- to encourage wider use of renewable fuels. The Liberty Diesel gets 30% better mileage than the gasoline version, and has 20% lower emissions. GCC has the details.

It's a symbolic step, but symbols are important.

September 10, 2004

Coffee, Now With Less Guilt

Tim alerts us to a report that coffee producers and four of the world's largest coffee companies -- Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft and Tchibo -- are set to agree on a plan to improve working conditions and environmental standards across the industry. Fully-implemented, it will cover 80% of the international coffee market.

Producers and traders adopting the code will have to pay minimum wages, cease using child labour, allow trade union membership and stick to international environmental standards on pesticides and water pollution. [...] Alongside the four companies, the voluntary code will apply to coffee producers from Brazil, central America and Africa. It will also be signed by NGOs, including Oxfam International and Greenpeace, and the International Union of Foodworkers, a federation of trade unions including coffee industry workers.

September 11, 2004

Microsoft, Linux and China

Emergic points us to an article at entitled "Does Microsoft Need China?," with some interesting insights into the power China could have in the global software industry if it continues to push Linux use:

But in the long run, China could pose dangers to Microsoft. If Linux flourishes there, it could spawn formidable low-cost rivals to the American company. "The real value of open source to a country like China," says Kevin MacIsaac, an analyst with the MetaGroup in Sydney, "is developing a public infrastructure for a software industry. It's a reasonable and cost-efficient way for China to compete globally."

Others in Asia see the potential. Japan and South Korea joined China in April on a project to jointly develop a new operating system based on Linux as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows. Thailand and Malaysia have instigated programs to offer low-cost PCs to citizens with Linux operating systems [...]. They're being helped along by Microsoft competitors such as Sun Microsystems, which has signed a deal with the Chinese government to supply its Linux desktop operating system and office program to as many as a million PCs there. Future electronics products shipped from China—such as mobile phones and DVD players—could be developed free from dependence on the Windows operating system.

September 14, 2004

Biodegradable Laptops

Nikkei Net reports that NEC will soon begin to produce notebook computers which use biodegradable plastics in their frames. "The plastic is made from materials derived from plants such as corn and is broken down into water and carbon dioxide by microbes. NEC says it aims by 2010 to make more than 10% of the plastic it uses in PCs biodegradable" The rest of the information is only available to Nikkei subscribers, although a search on the NEC site comes up with a short article from earlier this year about corn-based bioplastics.

(Nikkei link via Near Near Future)

Impedance Track -- Battery Gas Gauge reprints a press-release from Texas Instruments about their new "Impedance Track" technology, which they claim provides a 99% accurate measurement of battery capacity. It's not widely known that the battery gauge on electronic devices is actually a crude estimate based on use, not a real measurement of remaining charge. This is why laptops and cameras and such will occasionally go from "half-full" to empty -- the estimate didn't match the reality. This can also happen with bigger batteries, such as those in hybrids (a hybrid mailing list I'm on is currently discussing this rare but not-unknown problem). It can also result in devices shutting down because the gauge has calculated the battery is near-empty, even when it's not.

The TI technology, which works with LI, NiCD, and NiMH battery systems, is able to measure precise charge levels, and can even take battery degradation into account when making charge-remaining estimates. Given the increased reliance on rechargeable battery packs, a technology to make these devices more reliable is welcome indeed.

September 15, 2004

Prius in China

Green Car Congress notes that Toyota will be assembling the Prius in China starting next year, the first time the Prius will be built outside of Japan."Toyota will build the Prius with FAW [the Chinese automotive manufacturer] at the end of 2005, and may build another hybrid vehicle under a separate FAW brand, the two companies said in a press statement. "

September 16, 2004

Interview with Mike Mike

Following up on the Face of Tomorrow post from a few days ago, Dominic Muren of industrial design weblog IDFuel wrote to tell us of an interview they had just conducted with Face of Tomorrow photographer Mike Mike, entitled "The (Not So Evil) Face of Globalization." It's a good chance to learn a bit more about the artist and his mission. IDFuel is pretty cool, too -- I've added it to my RSS feeds.

September 17, 2004

Get Your Absentee Ballot

We've done enough stories on the uncertainty surrounding the reliability of no-paper-trail electronic voting that there's a good chance that many of you in the U.S. are considering voting absentee for the first time this November 2. Or maybe you're one of our numerous ex-pat readers, and have decided to vote this time around. Regardless, if you've never voted with a mail-in ballot before, you may be a bit uncertain about how to get one.

Overseas Vote 2004 is a site which partially automates the process of overseas voter registration and absentee ballot request. I say "partially," as you can't actually register or request a ballot online -- you still have to mail or fax in your paperwork. The site is a good way to make sure that you've filled in every box you need to, though, and has a very useful page indicating the registration deadline for each state (October 3 seems to be the earliest and most common deadline).

Overseas Vote 2004 is paid for by the Democratic National Committee, but has no partisan content.

The Guardian on the Future

The Guardian Unlimited -- the website for the popular UK newspaper -- published a set of essays on Saturday about what the world may look like in 2020. Topics range from urbanization to water use to China. The essays vary wildly in length, detail and quality, and none of them are provocative in a "oooh, I never thought about it *that* way" (at least to me). Nonetheless, they represent solid mainstream stories of what the next 15 or so years may hold. Our job is to make sure that the good ones happen, and the bad ones don't.

September 20, 2004

Individual Carbon Credits

Think emission-trading regimes are for big companies, multinational industries, and countries? Guess again. reports that researchers at the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research have suggested the deployment of "Domestic Tradable Quotas" (DTQs) as a means of allocating carbon taxes most fairly. Those who live efficiently could sell their DTQ credits to the more profligate emitters, making a tidy sum -- and encouraging others to be more efficient, to get in on the game while there's still money to be made. Very clever...

The article gives no real details on precisely how such a DTQ mechanism would work, and the only DTQ-related article (PDF) I could find in a quick search at Tyndall focuses more on why to do it than how, we'll have to put this in the "somewhat interesting, but let's hear more" category.

September 21, 2004

Diesel Hybrid Retrofit

Got a big diesel bus you wish was more fuel-efficient? Like serious hybrid-level efficient? Green Car Congress has good news for you. A UK company called Eneco has announced a retrofit diesel hybrid system which can provide 33% fuel savings, 33% reduced CO2, and up to 99% reduced hydrocarbon and CO emissions. The company is taking orders, and has already delivered the first of its retrofits.

September 24, 2004

California Adopts Vehicle Greenhouse Emission Cuts

Reuters reports that California has Air Resources Board has gone ahead and adopted rules requiring auto manufacturers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2009 and by 34% by 2016. These are actually a bit more aggressive than the draft we talked about a few months ago. It's likely that the auto industry will sue to stop the implementation of these rules, thereby delaying the inevitable.

Forbes on the Future of Energy has a Q&A with Newsweek Middle East regional editor Christopher Dickey and editor Paul Maidment on the future of energy. It's the best summation of the "enlightened" conventional wisdom I've seen in awhile. These folks aren't carbon dead-enders, but neither to they appreciate the growing demand for or increasing innovation in support of alternative energy. They might consider what they're talking about to be a radical change, but we'd just consider it the baseline.

September 25, 2004

Nanotech and the Developing World

WorldChanging friend Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology wrote a short but thoughtful essay about how emerging transformative technologies will intersect the needs of struggling parts of the world.

In the near future, when molecular manufacturing reaches the stage of exponential proliferation and has general-purpose application across nearly all segments of society — then the question of how (or whether?) to extend its benefits to the 2/3 of the world’s people who live on less than four dollars a day will confront us.

September 27, 2004

What is Hubbert's Peak?

If you've been paying attention to the debate around oil lately, you may have heard experts using the term "Hubbert's Peak" (or, perhaps, "Peak Oil"). If so, you probably soon figured out that it has something to do with the point at which we reach maximum production of oil, and it's downhill from there. But where did the phrase come from? What does it really mean? Caltech vice provost and professor of physics and applied physics David Goodstein gave a talk on campus a few months ago on just that issue -- and his talk (with graphics) is now available via the Caltech Newsletter.

It's a great summation of what it means to be at "peak oil," and the difficulties of figuring out what to do about the situation. WorldChangers may quibble about his too-easy dismissal of wind and solar, but he's absolutely right on the scope of the challenge.

September 28, 2004

Taxes and Hybrids

If you bought a hybrid in 2003, you got a nice $2,000 federal income tax deduction (and it was nice). If you bought one in 2004, though, the federal income tax deduction was only $1,500 -- down to $1,000 in 2005 and $500 in 2006 before disappearing entirely in 2007. At least, until today: Green Car Congress points us to an article noting that the "alternative fuel and hybrid vehicle" deduction has been restored, pushed back up to $2,000 for 2004 and 2005 (although it still drops to $500 in 2006 and then goes away). So if you bought a hybrid this year, your tax situation will be a bit nicer than you expected.

And if you haven't bought one, but plan to, you might want to consider moving to (or, at least, visiting) Connecticut. As of October 1st, Connecticut will stop charging sales tax on hybrids. The state's 6% sales tax will no longer apply, reducing the final cost by about $1,200. In order to qualify, the vehicle must get at least 40 miles per gallon, so that rules out some of the new "upscale hybrids" which don't quite meet that standard. For now, though, the hybrids out there for sale all qualify, so go get one, if you can find one...

Nano Wiki

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog points us to, founded by CRN director Chris Phoenix. It's a Wiki "designed to support collaborative research on the implications of nanotechnology and how to deal with them. In the process, it will produce a body of work on the technology, risks and benefits, and policy." If you want to take part in the evolution in thinking about how to handle potentially-world-changing new technologies, this is an excellent place to start.

September 29, 2004

Stop the Legalization of Extradition for Torture

Today we are seeing a test of the Second Superpower in action -- let's hope it works. Lots of blogs are talking about this issue and encouraging action, so you'll probably run across it multiple times. It's worth making noise about.

Sections 3032 and 3033 of H.R. 10, the "9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act of 2004" would legalize the extradition of "terrorist and criminal" suspects to foreign countries for the purposes of torture for information extraction. Specifically, the sections change our agreement to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As one intelligence official described it in the Washington Post (on December 27, 2002), "We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them.”

Torture doesn't work -- you can get anyone, guilty or innocent, to admit to anything with sufficient pressure. It also makes matters worse. Legalizing the use of torture -- even "outsourced" torture -- undercuts our legitimate attempts to stop the use of torture elsewhere. It makes the use of torture against our own citizens held by others all the more likely. And it simply runs against everything we are supposed to value.

The bill could come to the floor as early as next week. If you live in the United States, write your Representative about this mind-bogglingly awful provision. Rep. Ed Markey will be introducing an amendment to change this language to specifically outlaw this sort of extradition for torture. Markey's amendment is worth supporting.

Whether you're an American or not, contact your local media about this. This is not in the best traditions of American values and, regardless of its origins (apparently introduced by Speaker Hastert), this is not a partisan issue. The more light we can shine on this provision, the more likely it will die a well-deserved death.

More information here.

September 30, 2004

10 Point Plan For Security

David Stephenson wrote to tell me of his latest post on his homeland security blog (which focuses on "empowering the public, creative use of technology, win-win public/private collaborations yielding security and economic benefits, and protecting civil liberties"): "10-point plan to make security moms -- and all of us -- feel more secure." The list is a checklist of what a 21st century security plan should look like, with entries such as "work with existing groups, but also facilitate ad-hoc ones" (take advantage of what David calls "smart mobs for homeland security"), "call me on my cell" (take advantage of what I call the growing "participatory panopticon"), and "if you make us partners, also hold us accountable" (emphasizing that "fighting terrorism can't be an excuse for harassing neighbors...").

In the coming weeks, David plans to give more detail to each of the ten points.

October 3, 2004

BlogStreet India has "soft-launched" its new blog listing, BlogStreet India. BSI indexes, ranks and links to over 800 different blogs written by people in India. Conversations with Dina, written by WorldChanging ally and recent guest poster Dina Mehta, is ranked #37 out of 825. Features include an RSS search engine, a "most influential blog" list, an RSS2Mobile service, listings of popular books, movies and music discussed by Indian bloggers, and more. India is the world's largest democracy, an up-and-coming leapfrog powerhouse, and definitely one of the cornerstones of 21st century culture -- here's a way for those of us outside of India to start learning more, for those of you who blog from India to make your voice heard.

October 4, 2004

Satellite Maps vs. Kissing Bugs points us to an article at the European Space Agency website about an ESA-backed project to provide geo-spatial mapping services for humanitarian aid organizations. The effort profiled in the article is the fight against "kissing bugs" -- blood-sucking beetles which bite around the lips and eyes, spreading the parasite which causes Chagas. This wasting disease can be lethal, and affects 16 million people across Central and South America.

As part of a wider anti-Chagas campaign in the area [the Nicaraguan district of Matagalpa], Médecins Sans Frontières workers oversee a methodical house-to-house inspection campaign, identifying where cracks need to be filled in and control methods such as spraying are required.

This campaign is being guided by ultra high-resolution satellite imagery showing individual houses and even cars [...]
 "MSF is evaluating new methods to control Chagas disease, and the acquisition of a high resolution image of Matagalpa is part of this research activity," said Rémi CARRIER, MSF logistics director. "Up until now, MSF staff have been working with hand-drawn maps”.

"The use of space-based mapping technologies allows us to carry out a more efficient situation analysis of the Chagas disease on a house by house basis. It will also help us to implement effective control and monitoring programmes on the ground."

Recycle Your Phone (and other electronics)

California may have just passed a law mandating that cell phone retailers have a phone recycling program in place by July 2006, but that doesn't mean that (a) you have to live in California to recycle your phone, (b) your retailer is the best place to do it, or (c) you have to wait until 2006. Cellphones contain measurable levels of arsenic, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, copper, nickel and mercury, as well as lead in sufficient quantities to be classified as toxic waste. Simply throwing away that old phone is a bad idea.

"Recycling" the phone generally means putting it back into service elsewhere, often in a low-income or developing world region. Recycling service CollectiveGood describes their efforts this way:

CollectiveGood attempts to recycle donated phones back into reuse in the developing world (usually Latin America or the Caribbean), where they serve useful, longer lives and offer affordable communications, in many cases offering families their first modern communications. This helps bridge the digital divide, improving the quality of life for people in the developing world, and even helps their economies too.

In addition, Social Design Notes tells us of a new program by the New York City Department of Sanitation to collect electronic devices for recycling (or, at least, to keep them out of the waste stream). The efforts focus on old computers, which can be even more toxic than mobile phones.

October 6, 2004

Car That Runs On Air, Revisited

A few months ago, we posted a short piece on the MDI AirCar, a small commuter vehicle that runs on compressed air. AP has an updated report on the AirCar, which apparently has gotten past its earlier limitation of only operating for about 7 kilometers. Current models are able to go about 50 miles on a single tank of compressed air, more if you drive below the maximum speed of about 70 miles per hour. Recharging the tank (by plugging it in) takes about four hours; MDI claims that the electricity required to recharge the tank costs about $2.50 in France (presumably, AP took care of the currency and km/miles translation correctly). Let's see... 50 miles for $2.50... that's a bit better than a hybrid gets at California gas prices, but not outrageously so. Of course, the AirCar is cleaner than a hybrid as a greenhouse/pollution emission source, and much cleaner if you can charge it with your rooftop solar panels.

Sadly, there's still no sign of the AirCar being made available in the United States any time soon.

October 10, 2004

Reminder: Chat With Jamais

Just a quick reminder: today at 8pm EDT/5pm PDT/Midnight GMT, I will be the guest at the "Immortality Institute" live chat, where I will be holding forth on scenarios of what a world with radical life extension could look like. It's a bit outside our usual WorldChanging fare, admittedly, but it should still be fun. You can use your own IRC software or the site's Java client.

October 12, 2004

Real Electronics Recycling in South Africa

We posted recently about efforts to recycle mobile phones and other electronics. In many cases, recycling means reuse -- phones and computers and such are refurbished and put back into service in the developing world. One of the commenters, however, made an excellent point: this doesn't get rid of the toxic metals in the hardware, just pushes it into the hands of countries which may be less able to handle the waste.

Now comes word of "African Sky," an electronic waste recycling company based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The company will collect computers, cell phones, switchboards and the like from business clients, recycling the plastics and metal locally, and sending other components to their partner company, Citiraya, described as the world's largest electronics recycling group.

The primary investment for African Sky came from Vuthela, a South African "empowerment" organization owned in part by musician Johnny Clegg.

October 13, 2004

Paul Hawken on "The Long Green" Friday Night

From Stewart Brand:

The environmental movement has moved on.  It has become so deep and wide that it adds up to something new entirely, still unnamed.  Whatever it is, it is now the largest movement in the world and the least ideological.  Driven by science and patience, it is civilization-scale therapy.

So says Paul Hawken in a landmark address he will make this Friday evening, Oct. 15, in San Francisco.

Paul Hawken, "The Long Green," Friday, October 15, Fort Mason Conference Center.  Doors open at 7 pm for coffee, books, and conversation, lecture promptly at 8 pm.  Admission free ($10 donation very welcome, not required).

Paul Hawken co-authored the now classic NATURAL CAPITALISM with Amory Lovins and also wrote THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE and GROWING A BUSINESS.  He co-founded a great garden company, Smith & Hawken, and a great organic food company, Erewhon.  He chaired the introduction of The Natural Step to the US and currently is creating several companies for Pax Scientific.

I'll be there -- if you attend, be sure to say hi.

Fuck For Forest

How far are you willing to go to save the planet? If you're a young Norwegian couple with love for the planet and a disdain for clothing, you might be willing to go pretty far. Grist magazine's Lissa Harris has an amusing article about Leona Johansson and Tommy Hol Ellingsen's heroic efforts to raise money for environmental causes.

China's Fuel Efficiency Rules Will Exceed America's

Green Car Congress alerts us to the news that the Chinese government has approved new automobile fuel efficiency guidelines. Good to hear, but the big news is that these standards -- which are "not particularly stringent" in the words of the AP writer -- exceed US fuel efficiency standards. According to an analysis by US PIRG:

China’s new fuel economy standards require 32 different car and truck weight-based classes to achieve between 19 and 38 mpg by 2005, and between 21 and 43 mpg by 2008. Only 79 percent of U.S. car sales and 27 percent of U.S. light truck sales currently meet China’s 2005 standards. Only 19 percent of car sales and 14 percent of truck sales currently meet China’s 2008 standard.


China’s new standards prescribe a maximum level of fuel consumption for every vehicle within each weight class, meaning that every automobile produced in a particular weight class has to meet the fuel economy standard set for that weight class. The U.S. fuel economy system, on the other hand, only requires that car and light truck sales averages meet fuel economy standards for each class.


In China, if the automobiles do not meet the prescribed standards, they simply cannot be sold.

October 14, 2004

William Gibson is Blogging Again

Author William Gibson's line "the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet" has long been a cornerstone idea for WorldChanging. His most recent novel, Pattern Recognition,captures the zeitgeist of the present-bleeding-into-tomorrow better than anything I've read in a long time. He blogged for awhile a year or so ago, but now he's back.

I am particularly pleased with today's entry, as the event he's talking about ("...about seven years ago I happened to find myself in San Francisco...") was the same event where he and I met and talked about science fiction, writing for Hollywood, and the important of imagining the future.

It's Gotta Be The Shoes

In the ongoing effort to combat the greenhouse effect, the European Union has drafted legislation which would ban some types of... shoes.

Sports shoes with air pockets filled with so-called F-gases will be banned from sale within the 25-nation bloc under the proposed legislation.

"F-gases have huge global warming potential -- in some cases almost 24,000 times that of carbon dioxide," EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said in a statement. "By agreeing this legislation, member states have once again taken concrete action to fight climate change.

The proposed legislation would also put restrictions on the use of F-gases in refrigerators, fire extinguishers and automobile air conditioners... but you know it's the shoes that will be in all of the headlines.

The History of Social Software

WorldChanging Ally Christopher Allen (of Life With Alacrity) has written a fascinating piece entitled Tracing the Evolution of Social Software. Starting with Vannevar Bush's prophetic 1945 essay "As We May Think" and ending up with musings about the potential future of the concept, in many respects it's a capsule history of how people and computers have co-evolved. Go give it a read.

October 16, 2004

Biomimetic Art

Artist and trained quantum physicist Julian Voss-Adreae creates wood and steel sculptures modeled after proteins. According to a writeup in Genome News Network, "the sculptures are based on proteins found in nature, and his models must meet two criteria: They have certain aesthetic qualities and are 'scientifically significant.'" GNN has several example sculptures, and more can be found at his eponymous website.

Very cool stuff indeed.

October 18, 2004

Chinese Science Aid to Africa

We've noted before China's offers to assist African development through scientific aid. SciDev.Net this week has yet another example, from a meeting between the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UN's secretary-general Kofi Annan. All well and good, but this would be of only passing interest except for the comment from an unnamed Chinese official:

"China will send experts to train local technicians in African countries, and will also host training classes and sponsor African experts to learn in China about agriculture, water power and renewable energies". (Emphasis mine.)

China is clearly making renewable energy technologies a big part of its thrust to be a global power. Africa and other poor areas are terrific test-beds for Chinese renewable R&D, as system which would not be competitive in western markets can still find eager users. As Chinese renewable technologies get better, expect to see their target audience move from African aid to global consumers.

FedEx's Solar System

No, not a set of planets, but a private power grid. Reuters reports that FedEx is set to build the second-largest private solar power system in Oakland, California. At 904 kilowatts, it will supply 25% of FedEx's annual power requirements at its shipping hub at Oakland Airport. It will use 5,800 panels, covering 81,000 square feet, and should be operational by this coming May. The FedEx press release has a few more details.

October 20, 2004

Stephenson and Gibson and Sterling (oh my)

Neal Stephenson (author of the recent Baroque Cycle novels and of what remains the best opening page of any novel I've ever read, in Snowcrash) answers questions on Slashdot today. His exhaustive and clever replies will undoubtedly get plenty of blogosphere attention (and I see now that it's been picked up on BoingBoing), but even wise WorldChangers who steer clear of Slashdot should take a look. His best answer -- the question of who would win in a fight between him and William Gibson -- made me laugh so hard I scared my cats. I've excerpted it in the extended entry, but definitely go check out the whole post.

Continue reading "Stephenson and Gibson and Sterling (oh my)" »

Renewable Energy Business Notes

Two pieces of news today about the business and economic side of renewable energy.

The Earth Policy Institute breaks down the details of 2003 sales of photovoltaic cells. Production of solar cells hit 742 megawatts worth in 2003, 32% more than in 2002. Nearly half of solar cell production takes place in Japan, and European production has also grown dramatically. The US, unfortunately, saw its PV cell production drop by 14%.

The Financial Times reports that a new joint study by Greenpeace and the UK's Department of Trade and Industry shows that growth of the offshore wind industry would bring up to 76,000 new jobs in the UK, half in the economically-depressed north-east part of the country. The full report is available here (PDF).

(Thanks, Tim!)

Sorry, Free Willy, Not This Time. Sorry About the Tissue Damage.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that cetaceans -- whales, porpoises and dolphins -- do not have standing to sue the US government in court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco [...] said it saw no reason why animals should not be allowed to sue but said they had not yet been granted that right.

"If Congress and the President intended to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue they could and should have said so plainly," Judge William A. Fletcher wrote in an 18-page opinion for the panel.

The cause of the suit is serious -- the use of low-frequency sonar by the Navy as a possible violation of the Endangered Species Act -- and the ruling raises some interesting questions. If only people and "legal entities" -- that is, corporations -- have the right to sue, how will we define "people" in an era of rapid technological change? Would a putative machine intelligence have to be registered as a corporation in order to assert its rights? How would the courts define "person" if faced with radically bioengineered humans?

Is the act of asking for the protection of one's rights prima facia evidence that such rights should be granted?

October 21, 2004

Designing a Park in Cairo

The New York Times has a fascinating and lyrical article about the opening of the Azhar Park in Cairo. At 74 acres, it is the largest green space created in Cairo in over a century. It is also an example of the use of urban design concepts and principles to revive centuries-old architecture -- a revival that meets with ambiguous success, even as it has re-energized the community.

The site, at the city's eastern edge in one of its poorest areas, reflects the planners' social ambitions. For several hundred years, the city's most destitute carted garbage here and then sifted through it for anything of value. The dump gradually grew into a range of hills that extended nearly a mile, burying the old historic wall underneath it. The decaying medieval fabric of the Darb al-Ahmar district is just beyond. To the west of the park is the City of the Dead, a sprawling quarter of ancient tombs and mausoleums that for centuries have been inhabited by the city's poor.

The park, which opened to the public recently, rises out of this context like a virtual Eden.

Update: Reader Deborah Middleton, who is researching the Al Azhar park for her Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, has some serious concerns about the New York Times article. Read her critique in the comments.

October 25, 2004

Leapfrogging Into Space

Following up on Jeremy's post from earlier this month about Iran's plans to put a satellite into orbit in the next year or so, a couple of reports caught my eye this weekend about the increased space activity of countries once considered "third world." The ability to regularly launch satellites into orbit (or beyond) is important for a variety of reasons. As we've noted repeatedly here, satellites are incredibly useful tools for understanding what's happening with a region's environment, population, urbanization, etc., as well as for facilitating communication. Homegrown launch capacity means being able to put up a satellite without having to pay the US/EU/China/Japan/Russia for the privilege.

Reuters and SciScoop have the details about Brazil's successful test of a prototype satellite launch vehicle. Previous tests failed, sometimes explosively. Brazil hopes to be able to sell this design to the ESA. The Reuters piece notes that Brazil also wants to turn its equatorial Alcantara space base into an "international commercial satellite launch center."

Finally, India, which already has a successful domestic satellite program, is now setting its sights a bit higher: the moon. Kerala Online reports about a press conference held by G Madhavan Nair, the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) about a planned mission to put a satellite in a polar orbit around the moon. The satellite will study the moon's surface, and will "serve as a vital stepping stone for developing technologies needed for ISRO's inter-planetary missions later."

October 26, 2004

Java Log

I could have sworn that I had posted about this before, but apparently not. National Geographic News has a new article about the Java Log, a fireplace log made from coffee grounds. Burning brighter and hotter than sawdust logs, it's better for the environment than either sawdust logs or traditional firewood. Besides recycling material that would otherwise enter the waste stream, it puts out 14 percent less CO2 than firewood and 54 percent less CO2 than sawdust logs. With Winter having bum-rushed the stage here in the SF area, I'm going to see if I can pick some of them up this weekend.


Lots of places have linked to the GlucoBoy story, but it's certainly worth noting. The father of a young diabetic lad noticed that the kid loved his GameBoy but neglected his blood glucose meter, so invented a plug-in device in order to do blood readings with the GameBoy. What stands out about this invention (aside from its "street finds its own uses for things" shine) is the reminder of how widespread general purpose computers are, even in the guise of dedicated-purpose devices.

Alex noted the question of what a $100 computer would look like earlier, and it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it must run on an Intel-type chip, or have the standard peripheral interfaces. A GameBoy is pretty close to a $100 computer right now; well over 100 million units have been sold worldwide. What would it take for other non-game modules to come out? Where's the PollutionBoy (with air quality reader)?

Why Smart Buildings=Green Buildings

Excellent article at the Technology Review website about the growing use of smart building systems as a method of increasing energy efficiency. The details of the diverse mechanisms employed won't come as a real surprise to most WorldChanging readers, but it's good to see them collected in a single article. The article includes a couple of interesting claims: since 2000, around 19,000 people have been LEED accredited (the article then says that 9,000 were accredited "in the last month alone," but that claim seems a bit hard to accept without evidence, and I found no reference to that number at the LEED website); and about 4 percent of new commercial construction is now done under LEED guidelines.

October 27, 2004

UIPA Nominee

We just got the word from Utne magazine that they've put us on their list of nominees for their 2004 Independent Press Awards, in the "Online Cultural Coverage" category (we're at the bottom of Page 4, the last entry on the list). The list includes (among others) Alternet, CorpWatch and Media Matters, as well as WorldChanging friends BoingBoing and Smart Mobs. In such company, we can say with all seriousness "we're happy just to be nominated." Thank you!

October 28, 2004

It is the business of the future to be dangerous.

WorldChanging friend Stefan Jones reminds us of this quote from Alfred North Whitehead, in "Science and the Modern World," 1925:

Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages.

We are living in a truly great age, it seems.

UK Gov't Evaluating Linux

In our zeal to celebrate the growing use of free/open source software in the developing world, we sometimes forget to note that Linux, etc., can be pretty great for the developed world, too. Yesterday's Financial Times held a good reminder, then, with an article detailing the UK government's procurement agency's report highlighting the value of shifting to Linux and other open source apps. The article also mentions a few other European government centers considering a shift away from Microsoft. Few of the report's conclusions will come as a surprise to anyone following the growth of F/OSS, and the standard Microsoft responses quoted at the end are beginning to sound pretty tired. Still, it's a welcome reminder that the Linux Penguin (or, my preference, the BSD Demon) doesn't just thrive in the South.

(Thanks, Tim!)

Extremophile Protein Cleans Wastewater

Extremophiles are very cool. If you haven't heard the term, extremophiles are living creatures -- typically bacteria -- which are able to thrive in environmental conditions long thought to be too hot/too cold/too acidic/too radioactive/too deep in solid stone/etc. for life to exist. (The plenitude of extremophiles on Earth is one reason why xenobiologists are starting to think that Mars may actually harbor life.) It turns out that the biology that lets extremophiles live in nasty circumstances can often be of great use for what's called bioremediation. We've mentioned, for example, bacteria in the genus Geobacter, which devours various kinds of minerals, including radioactive waste.

Now comes a report at Genome News Network that a protein extracted from an extremophile microbe found in a geyser at Yellowstone National Park may provide a cheap, efficient, and natural method of cleaning hydrogen peroxide out of industrial wastewater. The protein from the microbe (Thermus brockianus) lasts -- in the lab, at least -- 80,000 times longer than the current industrial cleanup methods. What's more, the proteins can be filtered out and reused. Hydrogen peroxide cleanup is an ongoing problem in the textile and paper industries, where H2O2 is often used as a bleaching agent.

October 29, 2004

Know Your (Voting) Rights. These Are Your Rights.

30 states in the US have laws requiring employers to give time to employees to go vote. Time to Vote has a rundown of the states with voting time laws, and the details for each, along with links back to the actual statutes. Note that in many of these states, employers must post a notice of employee voting time rights. Have you seen a sign at your place of work? Since many of the states also require that the employees ask for the time off in advance, check now to see if you need to make a request today.

Virus-Detecting Biochip

Harvard researchers have developed a highly sensitive biochip able to detect a single virus in real time in unpurified samples. The system uses 20-nanometer silicon nanowires coated with antibody proteins for a specific virus, then connected to a fluid microchannel. Detectors using this biochip could provide early warnings of viral infections, as the sensor is able to detect the presence of a virus in very small concentrations. The researchers' next step is to combine multiple virus detectors on a single chip, allowing for simultaneous sensing of hundreds -- or perhaps thousands -- of different viruses.

(Via Technology Research News)

Update: Reader Sennoma notes in the comments that the original pubication of this research was as an open-access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (auto-download PDF). Sennoma's post in his own blog about the biochip is definitely worth checking out.

November 1, 2004

Principles of Humane Systems

Information architect Adam Greenfield wrote an essay recently about "ubiquitous computing," and what system designers need to think about in order for such technology to be seen as useful and acceptable, rather than oppressive and unwanted. As I did with Dan Bricklin's essay on designing software to last for centuries, I found the general rules that Greenfield articulates to have broader application beyond computer code. His five principles of "designing useful, humane instantiations of ubicomp [ubiquitous computing]" can be seen more broadly as good rules for designing humane systems of all sorts -- technologies and techniques which will integrate seamlessly into human life, not run roughshod over it:

  • Default to harmlessness. Systems fail; when they do, they can fail gracefully or they can fail catastrophically. When a system fails, it should do so in a way which does not itself make problems worse.
  • Be self-disclosing. Systems should be transparent. The way in which they achieve their goals should be clear, as should the inputs and the results.
  • Be conservative of face. Don't humiliate the user. Don't make her or him feel stupid. Don't draw unnecessary attention to the user in public.
  • Be conservative of time. Don't make tasks more complicated than they need to be. Don't make people waste their time.
  • Be deniable. Systems should allow users to opt out, whether to use another system or to refuse participation entirely.

    It will come as little surprise that voting systems, particularly electronic voting systems, seem to me to be prime examples of violations of nearly all of these principles (it's unclear the degree to which electronic voting systems would violate rule #3, but I wouldn't put it past them). I'm sure we could easily come up with a variety of other systems (traveler security, for example) which breaks these rules, too. I'd hazard a guess that these rules are more likely to be broken than observed. Still, they make for a good set of guidelines for people who are trying to fix things.

  • November 2, 2004

    Diesel Fuel Cell?

    Good news and bad news time.

    Good news: scientists at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, working with the Office of Naval Research and fuel-cell company SOFCo-EFS, have developed a system to allow even the dirtiest diesel fuel to be used by a fuel cell. By reforming the diesel into hydrogen, the system produces twice the energy output and no sulfur or NOx pollution.

    Bad news: the development is currently focused on military uses, such as running Navy ships. It's also incredibly expensive, running a few hundred thousand dollars per unit. Hopefully, this will change as we get more civilian demand for cleaner, quieter power systems to replace dirty, noisy diesel generators.

    Unanticipated Results #3348: Cephalopod Dominance

    According to the Australian science journal, Australasian Science, ocean warming due to climate change and fisheries depletion due to over-fishing have allowed squid populations to explode. The researchers claim that the global biomass of squid now exceeds that of humans.

    "This trend has been suggested to be due both to the removal of cephalopod predators such as toothed whales and tuna and an increase of cephalopods due to removal of finfish competitors,'' said Dr Jackson.

    "The fascinating thing about squid is that they're short-lived. I haven't found any tropical squid in Australia older than 200 days.

    "Many of the species have exponential growth, particularly during the juvenile stage so if you increase the water temperature by even a degree it has a tremendous snowballing effect of rapidly increasing their growth rate and their ultimate body size.

    "They get much bigger and they can mature earlier and it just accelerates everything.''

    Cephalopods such as squids and octopus have remarkably sophisticated brains, and are able to solve complex puzzles. Jaron Lanier, in a talk I saw him give a few months back, suggested that the only reason cephalopods don't dominate the planet is that they don't pass along learned behaviors to their young through acculturation (as do primates). Global warming and over-fishing may well have given cephalopods the leg-up -- tentacle-up? -- they need to take over.

    I, for one, will now feel much less guilty about eating ika when I have sushi.

    (Via Charlie Stross' Diary)

    November 5, 2004

    Solar Capacitor

    Roland Picquepaille has the details on a new type of solar cell, a "photocapacitor," which integrates the ability to store electricity once generated by the solar cell. All the usual caveats apply: it's still in the lab, it may not be cost-effective, your mileage may vary, etc., but it certainly does look interesting (especially its ability to be twice as efficient than a standard solar cell on cloudy days).

    November 6, 2004

    Notes from ACC04 -- Dan Gillmor

    At the Accelerating Change Conference 2004, Dan Gillmor spoke about his book, We the Media,along with some of his observations about the increasing amount of information available to individuals through new forms of mediation. His main argument, that journalism had once been a lecture but is now a conversation, is one that those of us in the blog world have taken to heart, even if some in the traditional media are less enthusiastic. Weblogs (along with mailing lists, discussion boards, and the like) have become a critical part of the media complex, as they allow for rapid (and global) fact-checking, and make it harder to keep stories hidden. (You can download We the Media for free under a Creative Commons license, so there's no excuse for not reading it.)

    One story he told struck me as emblematic of the effect of wireless, mobile information systems. He was shown a demo of a system combining a bar-code reader and an Internet-connected handheld computer; when a product's supermarket bar-code is scanned, the handheld does a Google search for the product. In the demo, the first link for a box of cereal pulled from the store's shelf turned out to be a product recall -- the box didn't list an ingredient that some people were allergic to. As Dan put it:

    Every object can tell a story, and if the story is "if you eat me I will kill you," that's a story you want to hear.

    Notes from ACC04 -- Gordon Bell on MyLifeBits

    The talk I was most looking forward to seeing Saturday at the Accelerating Change Conference 2004 was the one by Gordon Bell, from Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center, talking about MyLifeBits. MyLifeBits is an early attempt at what I call a "personal memory assistant" -- a device which would stores copies of everything you see and hear, for later retrieval as needed. MyLifeBits isn't quite that powerful; it only stores personal documents, web pages browsed, selected images, audio records of phone calls, and a few other file types. It's really intended as a vehicle to allow engineers to figure out what the barriers would be for the fuller version.

    So far, they've learned a few key things: meta-data is really the core of something like MyLifeBits -- the annotations and contextual information that makes a stored file meaningful; of the various kinds of meta-data one could automatically or manually add, date and time is ultimately the most important; once something is stored, the challenge then becomes user interface -- how do you find something that you've stored? These lessons are more common sense than big surprises, but the Microsoft BARC team has taken some important steps towards figuring out some solutions.

    Two more items of note: BARC's term for a device to do constant capture of what the user hears and sees is "CARPE" (continuous archival recording of personal experience); and the idea of a system to store copies of everything you've ever read, written or heard was anticipated nearly 60 years ago, in a 1945 article called "As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush. If you haven't read it, you should -- it's a wonderfully prescient vision.

    November 8, 2004

    Seaweed vs. DDT

    The Washington Post reports on research demonstrating that a powdered mix of red and green seaweed greatly accelerates bioremediation of DDT accumulated in the soil. Because DDT is very effective at wiping out malaria-bearing mosquitos, it is still used in over two dozen countries, primarily in Africa, to combat the deadly disease. But DDT has devastating longer-term effects on a wide range of species, and is incredibly persistent in soil -- even though it hasn't been used in the US in over 30 years, significant traces can still be found in treated areas. The seaweed mixture enhances the ability of anaerobic microbes in the soil to break down DDT; in one test, the researchers found the seaweed-powered microbes eliminated 80% of the DDT in contaminated soil in six weeks.

    November 9, 2004

    Long Now Seminar on Human Life Extension

    It's Long Now Seminar time again. This month is Dr. Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, talking about "the Prospects of Human Life Extension." It's the first of two seminars on the topic; next month is Ken Dychtwald on the "Consequences of Human Life Extension." WorldChanging readers already have a heads-up on some of the issues -- I covered them last month in my essay "What Would Radical Longevity Mean?"

    The Michael West talk is this Friday, November 12, at the Fort Mason Conference Center in San Francisco. Doors open at 7pm, lecture begins at 8pm. Admission is free.

    November 10, 2004

    Biomimicry 101

    Biomimicry -- product design based on features from the organic world -- is truly worldchanging. We talk about biomimicry quite often here, so it's nice to run across a good summary article laying out the basics of what's being done today with biomimetic design. The Wired article "Ideas Stolen Right From Nature," although largely a straightforward survey of consumer applications for biomimetic processes, nicely portrays the methodology's real-world and present-day uses. WorldChanging readers will be familiar with most of the ideas the article talks about, but it's a good quick summary for the uninitiated.

    November 11, 2004

    Applying the Precautionary Principle

    WorldChanging Allies Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology have written a terrific (and brief) essay on the application of the Precautionary Principle to nanotechnology in particular, and to emerging scientific and technological concerns more broadly. We've talked about the Precautionary Principle before (follow the link for the standard definition, if you're not familiar with the term); it's a useful method of thinking about how to respond both to new technologies and to new scientific understandings of global change. There are two broad forms of the Principle, characterized by Phoenix and Treder as the "strict" version and the "active" version. The strict form holds that research and development which can be shown to have possible harmful results should be stopped, period. There actually aren't too many people advocating this position, but they do exist. The active Precautionary Principle "calls for choosing less risky alternatives when they are available, and for taking responsibility for potential risks." Rather than the traditional risk assessment method of asking "how much harm is acceptable?" the active form of the Precautionary Principle asks "how much harm is avoidable?"

    Although the Precautionary Principle is generally applied to implementations of new technologies, the active form is a useful way of thinking about how we respond to global warming induced climate disruption. As the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development put it,

    Principle 15: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

    November 13, 2004

    Fighting Global Warming, State by State

    The Chicago Tribune has identified something we've talked about a number of times here at WorldChanging: American federal government reluctance to do anything substantive about climate disruption may be less important than the growing number of state government projects and initiatives to fight global warming.

    In recent years, the focus of efforts to control future greenhouse emissions has shifted to the state level. According to the Pew Center, at least 28 states have undertaken measures to reduce such emissions, including a new Colorado requirement that large utilities there must produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, such as wind power, by 2015.

    There are still plenty of things that only the feds can do -- treaties, controls over emissions of aircraft and shipping, and the like -- but we shouldn't assume that because the EPA is dragging its feet, we've lost. The fight has just shifted venues.

    November 14, 2004

    LED Light Bulbs Real Soon Now

    We've been enamored of LED lighting for awhile now, so it's good to get word that functional LED-based light bulb replacements are going to be hitting store shelves "in a few more months." Advantages: ten times the life of incandescent bulbs, one-tenth the energy consumption (making them more efficient than compact fluorescent, too), less heat, and plastic bulbs that don't shatter when dropped. Disadvantages: three times the cost of incandescent bulbs... and still not yet available.

    (Thanks, Daniel!)

    Why the World Loves Bollywood

    I just ran across a fun (and lengthy) article in today's New York Times explaining, in great detail, what it is about Bollywood movies that the rest of the world really enjoys, even if they aren't terribly popular in the United States. In short, it's the lack of cynicism. We've talked about Bollywood before (as well as its up-and-coming competitor, "Nollywood" -- Nigerian movies): they're a terrific way to get into thinking more globally about society and culture.

    As India becomes more of a global power, a modern state with modern problems, I have to wonder how long it will be before the nature of Bollywood movies, in turn, changes.

    November 15, 2004

    Tumblin' Tumbleremediation

    Researchers at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro have found that Russian Thistle -- a.k.a. tumbleweed -- absorbs a substantial amount of depleted uranium from the soil (at least while still rooted -- once they start tumblin', they aren't doing much good). This is good news for efforts to clean up weapons test ranges and battlefields. The lowly tumbleweed may prove to be a useful addition to traditional remediation.

    What Does Peak Oil Mean For Designers?

    WorldChanging Ally has a short article up today about the impact of "peak oil" on both the cost of living and product design. It lays out the issues clearly, and has interesting links. I do hope that IDFuel dives more deeply into the question of sustainable design in the near future, however. They've done some good work on that front, and as good Viridians, we know that product designers are the shock troops of social transformation.

    November 16, 2004

    The Effects of Global Warming

    Once again, the Onion says it all with a handy infographic.

    (My favorite: "A whole lotta biomes are gonna get all fucked up")

    November 18, 2004

    Happy Kyoto Day: February 16th

    The last last shoe has dropped: the Russian parliament (or Duma) ratified the Kyoto Treaty today, meaning that it will take effect in 90 days -- February 16th. The only four industrialized countries not to sign the treaty: Australia, Liechtenstein, Monaco and the United States. The US situation we know all too well, and Australia is led by a close Bush ally. But what's up with Liechtenstein and Monaco?!?

    Listening to the Grapes

    Reuters reports that French scientists have worked out a way of measuring summer temperature variation using the records of grape harvests. Such records stretch back to the 14th century. The results were unsurprising. While there were periodic warm stretches, the summer of 2003 was unusual. "The summer of 2003 appears to have been extraordinary, with temperatures that were probably higher than in any other year since 1370," claimed Pascal Yiou of the Laboratory of Sciences for Climate and the Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

    Hydrogen On Demand

    Green Car Congress points us to a potentially exciting new fuel cell system which uses sodium tetrahydridoborate: NaBH4 with a catalyst as the source of hydrogen fuel. The reaction is entirely inorganic (i.e., no carbon output), requires no energy, operates at ambient temperature, and the NaBH4 is non-flammable and non-explosive. The main difficulty may be cost and availability -- any chemists in the audience care to say what it takes to create sodium tetrahydridoborate?

    November 20, 2004

    Hybrid From A Land Down Under?

    Australian automaker Holden (partially owned by GM) and Australian national research center CSIRO are working together to build "next generation" hybrid automobile technologies, according to a CSIRO press release. The research will focus on "supercapacitors, advanced batteries and energy management control systems." Collaboration between Holden and CSIRO has already led to the "ECOmmodore" hybrid sedan... four years ago. Which, upon roll-out in 2000, listed many of the same technological features. Which you can't buy, but which still gets trotted out as an example of how green they're trying to be, despite (according to their Vehicle R&D page) "investing in more environmentally friendly technologies for which there is little market demand or economic incentive."

    So why are Holden and CSIRO now trumpeting research they've been doing for years? They can read the writing on the wall. Oil prices keep going up, demand for more fuel-efficient cars is steadily rising, and hybrids are sexy. American manufacturers have been slow to get new hybrids to market, and Holden may be in a position to be able to step up as a hybrid car leader (or, at minimum, provide their established technology to their partner parent, GM). To me, this is a sign that the auto industry may well be set for a bigger shakeup than anyone expected.

    November 21, 2004

    Towering Over The Desert

    Remember the solar tower I posted about a couple of weeks ago? It's a kilometer-tall chimney generating a couple hundred megawatts of power through temperature differentials at the top and bottom of the tower soon to be built in Australia. Questions remain about the plan's practicality, but it just might be crazy enough to work, as the saying goes. Well, those in the northern hemisphere jealous that Australia will be getting a giant power-generating phallic symbol should fret no more, if the report that the Alternative Energy Blog found is accurate: SolarMission, the California licensee of the solar tower technology, may be set to announce plans to build 2,600 megawatts worth of solar towers, presumably here in North America. That would be 13 towers, at 200 megawatts apiece, dotting the landscape of the desert southwest. Should be interesting if it actually happens, but I wouldn't advise holding one's breath.

    November 24, 2004

    Conservation Commons Update

    We posted recently about the Conservation Commons Initiative -- a proposal for an open-access information resource for those working on issues of biodiversity and ecological conservation. It's a terrific idea. In the subsequent week, I've received two updates to the material posted in the initial article:

    Stuart Salter, the manager of the World Conservation Union's Species Information Service, wrote to inform us that the Conservation Commons Initiative website is now up and running. Not only does the Conservation Commons website include information about the initiative itself, the database is up and running. Check it out.

    In addition, in the comments on the original piece, the American Museum of Natural History's Director of Library Services Thomas Moritz points us to his 2002 piece "Building the Biodiversity Commons", which laid out in greater detail the need for and utility of an open information resource for ecological conservation. I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in either biodiversity or the growth of the intellectual commons model read this article. Thank you, Thomas!

    November 28, 2004

    Sterling on Fab Labs

    We wrote about Fab Labs a few months ago -- the combination of 3D scanners, Linux computers, laser cutters, 3D milling equipment, etc., assembled by the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT for use in the developing world. It's one of the coolest and potentially one the most revolutionary projects going, as it could be the jumping-off point for the biggest developing world leapfrog ever. Now Bruce Sterling (a name mentioned on WorldChanging once or twice) writes about Fab Labs for the latest issue of Wired, doing what he does best: seeing the possibilities.

    Now imagine a vast, rising tide of bastardized things, shoddier than the cheapest postwar products of Japan, coming from Congo, Myanmar, Fallujah - a global outbreak of Napster-fabbed mayhem. Fabbing would be the ultimate industry for the perennially unindustrialized; the consumer cornucopia for the antideveloping world; a mushroom patch of recycled decay that pops up whenever the World Trade Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, or US Patent and Trademark Office turns its back.

    November 29, 2004

    Self-Driving Cars

    Our post about a revolutionary approach to redesigning transportation drew a bit of discussion, much of it very informative. One of the commenters pointed us to this article at EE Times about the current state of the art in "autonomous vehicles," and just what it would take to get us to a world of self-driving cars. It's a fairly technical piece -- it is a journal for engineering professionals, after all -- but if you don't mind a bit of tech jargon, it's fascinating reading.

    Short version: augmented assistance cars are here and will only get better, but fully autonomous cars remain a ways away.


    We're still a few years shy of being able to put up personal Earth-observing satellites. In the meantime, you can always take advantage of images from satellites owned and operated by someone else. We've posted about the "Public Eye" project run by the DC think tank Global Security a few months ago, which makes current pictures of hotspots around the world available to the public: timely, possibly informative, but narrow in scope. We've also posted about the ESA making satellite data on land use patterns available to the public: possibly timely, definitely informative, moderately narrow (EU only). Today we have Keyhole, a satellite company recently acquired by Google. Keyhole is making its Earth observation software available for free download and 7 day use, allowing you to zoom from place to place. The entire world is covered, to varying degrees of detail (with some locations showing sufficient detail to pick out individual people). Windows-only, and no longer free after the 7 day trial, but worth checking out.

    Biggest problem, though: it's not live, updated data. It's shots from over the last few years, some from as far back as 1999, others from just several months ago. So we add to our list Keyhole: not at all timely, moderately informative, but very broad in scope. And a lot of fun to play with.

    China's Energy Agenda

    WBCSD brings us a report that China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced its medium- and long-term energy policies late last week, and the results are... well, not what WorldChangers might have hoped for. China plans to still focus on coal and oil use in 2020, albeit at much greater efficiency than at present (right now, China's coal plants require 22 percent more coal per kilowatt of power produced than do comparable plants in the United States). Their focus is on China's energy shortage, which could put a brake on the nation's growth. Unfortunately, nothing in the report suggests that potentially restricted oil supplies, greenhouse gas emissions, or even choking smog problems entered into the plan. If there's a prediction to be made based on this agenda, it's that 2020 will not look at all like what the NDRC thinks it will...

    November 30, 2004

    Nuclear Hydrogen?

    Here's one for the Green Dilemma bin: researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have shown that they can crack hydrogen from at a conversion rate of 45-50% (compared to ~30% for conventional electrolysis) by adding heat to the process, 1000°C worth -- the kind of heat one gets from a so-called "Generation IV" nuclear reactor. Green Car Congress has a terrifically-detailed write-up of the research, including this provocative line: "According to INEEL, a single next-generation nuclear plant will be able to produce in hydrogen the equivalent of 200,000 gallons of gasoline each day."

    The two big hurdles for the advent of the Hydrogen Economy are the price of fuel cells and the availability of hydrogen. While research continues on improving solar->hydrogen technology, the reality is that hydrogen fuel is expensive to make in quantity. What if the most cost-effective way to make enough hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles required nuclear reactors?

    Electric Octospeedster

    Okay, so this is just weird, but it is interesting. It's an electric car -- the Eliica, short for Electric Lithium-Ion battery Car -- that can do 0-60 in four seconds is faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo, and accelerates at 0.8 Gs. It's also around 5 meters in length, 2400 kg in weight, and has eight wheels. Yes, it's made in Japan. The 10 hour recharge (and the price, over $300,000) are the primary drawbacks.

    I, for one, am now waiting with bated breath for the inevitable showdown between the all-electric Eliica and Toyota's hybrid-electric supercar, the Alessandro Volta, which also boasts 0-60 in 4 seconds acceleration. Gentlemen, push your Engine On buttons...

    Update: Green Car Congress has more details. Also, be sure to read the first comment on this post, from Jeff Rusch. This car could be a more WorldChanging development than it initially appeared!

    (Thanks, Jet!)

    December 2, 2004

    We Win One!

    Back in June, I posted about the National Weather Service requesting comments on a proposed policy to make weather data officially "open access" -- a proposal opposed by the chairman of Accuweather and other firms who wanted to make publicly-funded weather data only available through commercial vendors. Well, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the department overseeing the NWS) has decided to go forward with the plan as proposed, making explicit a "Commitment to Open Internet-Based Standards for Information Sharing." Of the nearly 1500 comments received, 1190 supported the policy, while only 176 opposed it.

    Free/Open Source applications making use of NWS xml feeds are widely available. Now we know that they will remain so. Good work, everyone!

    December 3, 2004

    More De-Mining Goodness: Rats

    APOPO, a Belgian organization based at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, has developed another tool in the global effort to detect and remove landmines. Trained rats -- specifically Cricetomys gambianus, the African Giant Pouched rat -- can sniff out the residual chemicals from landmines and scratch the ground, indicating to handlers the explosive's location. Light enough in weight not to set the mines off, the rats are well cared for, and able to cover around 100 square meters in about a half hour.

    APOPO is also working on training rats to detect signs of tuberculosis through scent, with initially good results.

    Nanotech and Peak Oil

    The always-interesting CRNblog at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology posted this week a short essay going into the possibility of soon reaching "peak oil," and the ways in which further developments in molecular manufacturing could help us avoid serious problems. The essay itself is good, as usual, but what is more notable is the ensuing discussion. Lots of good ideas and diverse viewpoints, and well worth reading.

    Want $5,000 Towards Buying a 45+ MPG Car?

    There's a catch. You have to be an employee of Hyperion, a Santa Clara, California, based software company:

    Under its Drive Clean to Drive Change initiative, Hyperion will reimburse employees US $5,000 for vehicles that achieve 45 miles per gallon or the equivalent of gasoline. [...] The standard also is achievable by fuel-efficient vehicles using technologies such as hybrid, diesel and electric that increasingly are available in most of the countries in which Hyperion does business. [...] “We know we are not necessarily going to change the world through this initiative, but we aim to get people thinking about change,” said [Godfrey] Sullivan [president and chief executive officer of Hyperion].  “Drive Clean to Drive Change is not just a good thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.”

    Under the Drive Clean to Drive Change plan, employees who have been with Hyperion for more than a year can apply for the subsidy for one vehicle every four years. Up to 200 employees a year will be funded, on a first-come, first-served basis. A shining example of a "transcommercial" company policy, and definitely good to hear about.

    December 4, 2004

    Is There Really A Climate Change Consensus?


    Naomi Oreskes, at Science magazine, undertook a study of the 928 peer-reviewed papers and reports published between 1993 and 2003 which included the keywords "climate change" when indexed. Not one of them argued that observed climate change was natural in origin. As Oreskes puts it:

    This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.


    Many details about climate interactions are not well understood, and there are ample grounds for continued research to provide a better basis for understanding climate dynamics. The question of what to do about climate change is also still open. But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.

    (Thanks, John Maas)

    December 6, 2004

    HSBC -- The First Green Bank?

    The Financial Times reports that British bank HSBC is about to start improving efficiency, trading emission credits, and planting thousands of trees around the world in order to balance out its carbon emissions, trying to become the first "carbon-neutral" international bank.

    Stephen Green, chief executive, said: "In 2003, HSBC's CO2 emissions from using electricity, natural gas, fuel oil and business travel were more than 550,000 tonnes. We need to act now to reduce our emissions."


    As a bank, HSBC is hardly the worst offender for contributing to global warming. But the 550,000 tonnes figure is set to rise to 700,000 tonnes this year as a result of acquisitions, which equates to 2 to 3 tonnes for every member of its staff.


    The carbon management plan, to be implemented by 2006, will examine three ways of achieving carbon neutrality - tree-planting, increasing HSBC's energy efficiency and trading emissions on emerging carbon exchanges and elsewhere.

    The article notes that Swiss Re was the pioneer in financial institutions seeking to become carbon-neutral.

    (Thanks, Tim!)


    Jeff Egnaczyk alerts us to DestiNY USA (yes, that's the way they're spelling it), a new "Mall of America"-style development underway in upstate New York. The notable -- and potentially worldchanging -- element is the emphasis the developers are putting on their planned use of renewable energy to operate the facility. They claim that DestiNY USA will be 100% renewable energy-powered, and have a lengthy flash animation about the biodiesel-fueled power/heat/cooling/laundry/greenhouse system they're going to put in.

    As Jeff notes, the details are slim and are currently more vague promises than actual delivery, but the potential is interesting. DestiNY USA is definitely worth keeping an eye on -- let's hope they live up to their promises. If successful, it could be a terrific way of demonstrating the power of green design.

    (Thanks, Jeff!)

    December 7, 2004

    Honda's Number One

    Which of the big six auto manufacturers -- Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, Toyota -- has the overall best environmental performance? If you read the title of this post, you know the answer. For the last six model years for which there are full government records, Honda has had the best combined fleet performance in terms of both smog-causing and heat-trapping emissions, according to a new report (1.6MB PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists. GM, conversely, has the worst results, going from 4th place in 1997 to last place in 2003. Honda's smog-forming emissions in 2003 were less than half of the overall average, and their fleet greenhouse emissions were 82% of average; GM, by comparison, came in at 129% smog/104% greenhouse. Interestingly, Toyota, widely praised for its Prius, dropped from 2nd place to 3rd as their larger trucks grew more popular, with 84% smog/88% greenhouse, with Nissan moving to the #2 spot (70%/94%). Ford had the overall worst greenhouse emissions, at 107% of average, but moved to #4 on the basis of its smog emissions, only 91% of average.

    December 8, 2004

    Diesel vs. Hybrid vs. Gasoline

    Green Car Congress has an interesting post today looking closely at the relative performance and environmental stats of the 2005 model year Honda Accords: the four and six-cylinder gasolines, the four cylinder diesel, and the six cylinder hybrid. The results are quite interesting:

    the Accord Diesel (using petroleum diesel) offers the lowest fuel consumption and the lowest CO2 emissions, even surpassing the Accord Hybrid.

    The Accord Diesel (which is not offered in the US) gets 43.3 miles per gallon and emits ~143 grams of CO2 per kilometer, compared to 33/165 for the Accord Hybrid. Use of biodiesel would further lower the carbon footprint of the diesel Accord. And while some of the efficiency comes from being a four-cylinder instead of a six-cylinder vehicle, it's worth noting that the diesel model greatly out-performs the four-cylinder gasoline model across the board.

    Be sure to read the comments; Mike also addresses questions about the relative non-CO2 emissions.

    December 10, 2004

    Real Climate

    RealClimate is here. It's a blog written by nine working climatologists from around the world (all experts in their field), focusing on explaining climate science, providing context to current reports in the mainstream media, and rebutting the fallacious arguments of carbon lobby hacks. They've started off with a bang -- in their first ten days of operation, they've covered climate models, critics of the "hockey stick" temperature reconstruction, the Arctic Climate Assessment, urban heat islands, solar influence, and more. For anyone interested in climate science, this site will be the first place to read every day. Highly recommended.

    Middle of the Road Isn't The Safest Place To Be

    The Christian Science Monitor has a short article today about the National Commission on Energy Policy's new set of proposals for US energy strategy. In trying to avoid controversy, it apparently manages to adopt really obsolete positions and still disappoint just about everyone. Elements include:

  • Investing in oil production in the developing world.
  • Doing "cap & trade" on greenhouse gases, but not until 2010.
  • Build the Alaska natural gas pipeline.
  • Invest in advanced coal technologies.
  • More nuclear plants.
  • Increase investment in renewables by $360 million per year.

    The more cynical among you will not be surprised to learn that even this has generated opposition from the usual suspects.

    A more 21st century, future-oriented -- yet hardly radical -- agenda can be found here.

  • December 12, 2004


    It's become increasingly clear that the 21st century will be built with carbon nanotubes. EurekAlert lists yet another application for the plucky little singled-walled molecules: fluorescing biosensors:

    "Carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce in the near-infrared region of the spectrum where human tissue and biological fluids are particularly transparent," said Michael Strano, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at [University of] Illinois [Urbana-Champaign]. "We have developed molecular sheaths around the nanotube that respond to a particular chemical and modulate the nanotube's optical properties."

    The test setup was able to detect glucose levels, signaling changing concentration via changes in light when excited by a laser. Carbon nanotubes last longer in tissues than other fluorescing organic molecules, so they'll be more usable for extended monitoring. And the technique should work for a wide array of chemical types, allowing for extremely accurate health and environmental sensors.

    Ideas 2004

    This week's New York Times Magazine has an interesting collection of short pieces it calls "The Year in Ideas: A to Z." The ideas run the gamut from "Acoustic Keyboard Eavesdropping" to "You Don't Need Superstars To Win," and include several WorldChanging favorites, such as "Land Mine Detecting Plants" (WC post) and "Concrete You Can See Through" (WC post). Several of them are of particular WorldChanging interest: "Augmented Bar Codes," "Dumb Robots Are Better," and "The Micropolis," among others.

    December 13, 2004

    WiFi Ambient Device

    "Ambient technologies" are supposed to make streams of variable information noticeable without being intrusive, and are a clever method for "making the invisible visible." They're designed to remain at the periphery of one's perception, notable only when the monitored conditions (the weather outside, power consumption, a child's location, email status, etc.) changes. We noted the Ambient Orb awhile back, which while interesting, suffers from only responding to a small number of different inputs from a subscription-only proprietary wireless frequency. Now the Register (a UK technology website) notes that British Telecom is showing off their own ambient display, which reads whatever assigned data over plain old 802.11 WiFi. It looks like it's a technology demo, not a product preview, which is unfortunate; ambient displays and WiFi seem like a perfect combination.

    (Via Engadget)

    December 14, 2004

    Profile of California's Emission-Fighting Legislator

    Fran Pavley, California state Assemblywoman from Agoura Hills, was the sponsor of the legislation instructing the California Air Resources Board to draw up plans to require automakers to reduce fleet CO2 emissions by 30% by 2016. The New York Times has a short profile of her, going into some detail about the auto industry's choice to send lawyers, not engineers in response. Not a deep piece, but an interesting one.

    What Will It Take To Make Solar Competitive? Nanotech. And Seven Cents.

    Seven cents per kilowatt-hour, that is. That's about the standard price for electricity in the United States (some locales will vary; California averages about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour). Renewable power needs to be price competitive with 7 cent non-renewable sources. Tidal can be, and wind is close, but both have location requirements (and wind needs lots of space). Solar, however, is still generally priced out of competition, in the 30-45 cents per kilowatt-hour range. But nanotechnology may well change that. Investor's Business Daily profiles three companies working on applying nanomaterial and nanoengineering discoveries to the more efficient generation of solar electricity: Nanosolar (making solar cells 100x thinner than current ones), Nanosys (making specialized materials for embedding into construction material), and Konarka Technologies (making light-activated plastic).

    Favorite line of the article: In time, such work could become "world changing," said Josh Wolfe, a managing partner of nanotech-focused investment firm Lux Capital.

    December 15, 2004

    Real Climate vs. Fiction Author

    Backchannel discussion here at WorldChanging has lately centered on whether or how to respond to the publication of Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear, a lengthy polemic (in novel's clothing) pooh-poohing the idea that global warming-induced climate disruption is real. We decided to wait and see if any interesting responses pop up elsewhere, and point to those. We didn't have to wait long., the group blog written by respected working climate scientists, takes State of Fear head on in two posts, pointing out errors of omission, commission, and evident confusion, and demonstrating (for those still uncertain) that while Crichton can spell the big scientific words, he really doesn't know what he's talking about. It's a thorough and well-argued takedown. (And for those who say, "hey, it's only a novel, it doesn't have to be real," remember that Crichton added an appendix where he explains his putative non-fiction case.)

    Undoubtedly, in days and weeks to come, we'll see more detailed dissections of what will nonetheless be a popular novel, so stay tuned.

    December 16, 2004

    Want To Use Hydrogen Now?

    IDFuel has a nice write-up of some of the various currently-available hydrogen fuel cell systems. While you may not be able to go buy a hydrogen fuel cell car right now, you can buy home fuel cells to function as backup generators, and will soon be able to install a fuel cell system in your boat. Interesting stuff -- small changes, to be sure, but little bits of the future. The conclusion to the piece is worth reiterating: There is no need to feel like as one small designer you can't help in the transition to a sustainably fueled economy. There is no reason to believe that this future will arrive all at once, or in one giant chain of mammoth endeavors.

    December 17, 2004

    Rendering DC Irrelevant

    Further evidence that action taken by state-level governments and global corporations can make up for federal intransigence about acting against global warming-induced climate disruption comes from the UN conference on the climate, ending today in Buenos Aires. According to Reuters, greenhouse gas reduction efforts in California and New England states were cited by attendees as models for the rest of the world. "When designing our energy policy, Germany will always look to California because it's the best example," said Barbel Hohn, environment minister in Germany's largest state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In addition, multinational giants such as DuPont, Alcoa and IBM have set their own greenhouse gas reduction targets, sometimes to levels greatly exceeding the standards set by the Kyoto treaty. DuPont's emissions, for example, were 68% lower in 2003 than in 1990.

    Why Leapfrogging Matters

    Leapfrogging is not just a developmental issue, it's also an environmental issue. As long as developing nations rely on greenhouse-gas-heavy power and industrial technologies, the worse off they'll be as they develop. We're already seeing this happen. Of the top six greenhouse gas producing countries, three are considered "developing" nations: China, at #2; India, at #5; and Brazil, at #6. Furthermore:

    ...between 1990 and 2000, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew by 69 percent in India, 57 percent in Brazil and 33 percent in China.

    Argentina and the EU are crafting an agreement involving cash incentives and technology transfers to push the developing world towards sustainable energy and industrial technologies. Let's hope this assisted leapfrog plan works.

    December 20, 2004

    More Holiday Greenery

    Alex listed some green/sustainable/enviro-friendly holiday presents ideas yesterday; here's more. Wired News takes on the greenish gift theme, coming up with some interesting options along with the unsurprising hemp granola stuff. My pick for the WorldChanging favorite on the Wired list? The same ones mentioned by our own Dawn Danby a year ago: the Thames & Kosmos science kits covering alternative energy and fuel cells. Now to hook them up to my Mindstorms and DNA Explorer to create a sustainably-powered gene sequencing robot...

    FCX Street Legal

    Honda's FCX, its experimental fuel cell based car, is now legal to drive on the streets of Japan. This is the second-generation fuel cell model, as the earlier version had a hard time with cold weather. The work to get the fuel cells working in freezing conditions had the useful side effect of increasing their overall efficiency by 20%.

    Interestingly, second generation Honda FCX cars could already be found on the road -- but in the US. Last month, Green Car Congress reported that the state of New York took delivery of two cold weather FCX for testing, joining several cities in California and the Los Angeles region's South Coast Air Quality Management District. That brought the number of FCX on the road in the US to a dozen; let's see how many now show up in Japan.

    December 21, 2004

    Metal Rubber

    In the "this could be big, but not just yet" department is Metal Rubber.

    Metal Rubber, a filmy brown material that can extend to three times its original length and conduct electricity as well as a bar of steel...

    Few major companies have yet stepped up to announce any official plans for the novel new polymer, but SRI International may experiment with Metal Rubber to construct artificial muscles and astronomical mirrors, and reports say that Lockheed Martin is using it to create aircraft wings with more give.

    Yet, there are huge potential ramifications for everything from jet liners to medical devices. Think flexible circuits and displays that take your laptop and cell phone to the next level of shock resistance. Or artificial limbs that can bend like their real counterparts.

    Of course, what immediately came to mind for me was the application of a flexible conductive material to wearable fabric computers. The furoshiki future gets closer every day.

    December 23, 2004

    IDFuel On Sustainable Design

    It must be the "write articles in pairs" season. Dominic Muren, at the always-interesting design size IDFuel, has a terrific pair of articles on how "rebellious" (e.g., anti-capitalist) trends can lead to greater consumption, which in turn pushes towards less-sustainable design -- and what designers can do about it. Rebels Without The Cause We Think (Part One and Part Two) may make you feel a bit guilty, but should also give you a bit of hope about the future course of product design.

    December 27, 2004

    Tsunami Animation and Information

    tsu.jpgThe US Geological Survey has a link to an animation of the course of yesterday's Indian Ocean tsunami created by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (650K download). Each frame is a ten-minute interval; the whole thing covers the first 180 minutes of the tsunami. It's a vivid demonstration of how long it takes for a tsunami to travel -- and why early warning systems can be so valuable.

    The International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific has crafted FAQ and Tsunami Safety Rules pages in reaction to the Indian Ocean event. Since tsunamis can happen at any time -- an earthquake is all that's needed -- anyone living close to the water should keep these guidelines in mind.

    December 29, 2004

    Satellite Before-and-After

    srilanka.jpgDigitalGlobe has made available high-resolution satellite images of Sri Lanka beaches taken both before and during the tsunami flooding. While the individual stories and videos of the disaster bring home the personal tragedies, sometimes the big picture is necessary to grasp the scale of the devastation. The images are natural color photos at 2-foot resolution (that is, each pixel shows about 2 feet); the details are simultaneously impressive and heartbreaking. DigitalGlobe has also decided to make the images available for free use, as long as conspicuous credit is given.

    December 30, 2004

    Earthquake Info

    Aftershocks in the South Asia region continue, and while seismologists don't anticipate another 9.0-scale earthquake there in the immediate future, some of the quakes which have happened over the last couple of days have been pretty strong.

    If you're interested in keeping track of what's happening under the ground, the best resource is the US Geological Survey earthquake website. They have maps of all quakes around the world as well as frequently-updated lists of earthquake activity. There's a lot going on right now. Today's earthquakes measuring greater than 5.0 (so far):

    5.9 2004/12/30 17:58:09 ANDAMAN ISLANDS, INDIA REGION

    5.5 2004/12/30 17:34:44 NICOBAR ISLANDS, INDIA REGION

    5.1 2004/12/30 13:29:45 NEAR THE EAST COAST OF HONSHU, JAPAN

    5.5 2004/12/30 04:27:37 NORTHERN SUMATRA, INDONESIA

    5.6 2004/12/30 01:04:51 OFF THE WEST COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA

    December 31, 2004

    Radio, Radio

    Turnabout is fair play, I suppose, so tomorrow Dr. James Hughes will interview me -- on his radio show, Changesurfer Radio. We'll be talking about WorldChanging, emerging technologies, and how to embrace the new ethically. The show starts at 5:30 pm EST; for those of you not in Connecticut but still interested in listening in fascinated horror, it will apparently be available in streaming radio on WHUS. Audio archives will also be available afterwards; I'll link to them if I don't embarrass myself.

    January 2, 2005

    Tsunami: What Happened

    When something as wide-ranging and devastating as the South Asia tsunami happens, it's easy to get lost in the abundance of stories, rumors and details. WikiPedia has done a masterful job of bringing together and keeping current the facts of the event, and SEA-EAT, of course, continues to collect massive amounts of information on the recovery and relief process. But one of the best overviews I've found so far is at the New York Times website -- it's not as granular as Wikipedia nor as encyclopedic as SEA-EAT, but it's richly illustrated with dozens of powerful photographs, helpful maps, and occasional informative animations (requires Flash). If you're looking for a clear capsule depiction of what happened, the NYT page is a good place to start.

    January 3, 2005

    Transparent Electronics

    Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a new kind of material which should enable the creation of transparent electronic devices. Unlike many other recent breakthroughs, these do not use carbon nanotubes or the like; they are, in fact, entirely inorganic, and are most closely related to zinc oxide transistors. This means that the technology for production is already fairly advanced, lowering the ultimate cost of making devices using this new technology. In addition, much to the surprise of researchers, high quality transistors can be made at just above room temperature -- today's components are often made at 700-1,100 degrees centigrade.

    Transparent electronics could have a wide array of applications, from vehicle windshields able to display warnings and directional information to improvements in copy machines and solar cells. And the applications to participatory panopticon-related technologies are pretty obvious...

    January 4, 2005


    We don't often talk about advertising here, but this banner ad -- I won't tell you who it's for, as it will spoil the ending, but WorldChanging readers will appreciate the cause -- is simple, powerful, and an excellent use of interactive media. It's a "hangman" game in Flash: click on the letters to try to spell the phrase, and when you guess wrong, gallows are gradually built and a man is hanged (a rather morbid game, admittedly). Check it out.

    January 5, 2005

    Top 100 Science Stories

    Discover magazine has listed its top 100 stories for 2004. The list of titles (with links to lead paragraphs) is available online; only subscribers get the nitty-gritty. WorldChanging readers, however, already have the low-down on quite a few of them, from spinach as a fuel cell power source (WC post) to the discovery of Sedna, an almost-planet in an orbit beyond Pluto (WC post) to Discover's number one story, the overwhelming evidence for global warming-induced climate change, and the shift in focus from "is it happening?" to "what can we do?" (WC posts here and here and here and here and here and...).

    One Earth Year on Mars

    One year ago on January 3, the Mars Exploration Rover 1 -- more popularly known as "Spirit" -- landed successfully on Mars. MER 2 -- or "Opportunity" -- has its landing anniversary on January 24. MER 1 & 2 are easily the most successful Mars missions ever, and quite possibly the most successful (in terms of new discoveries made, new technologies tried, and ongoing results) space missions ever. The rovers were only supposed to last three months, and while most of the engineers expected to go well beyond that, few anticipated that both would be this healthy a year out. They've lasted through the worst of the Martian northern hemisphere winter, and spring should give them more sunlight (=more power) to work with. Of course, the year's just half-over on Mars; the Martian year lasts 687 days (Earth days, that is --Mars spins 669 times in the same period). NASA's MER mission site has the scientists' top 10 images from the two rovers, 25 favorite raw images, videos, maps, daily updates and much more information.

    The City: The Next Big Venture?

    An interesting tidbit popped up this week in the San Jose Mercury News "Silicon Beat" page, which focuses on the doings of the Silicon Valley celebrities, venture capitalists. John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, is particularly well-regarded, and in a Q&A session with reporters, he revealed his big venture play for the future -- infrastructure for cities:

    Lately, the firm has started prowling for energy deals, a departure from its traditional focus on information services and healthcare. “That’s a left turn, a new initiative for Kleiner,” he told the audience, made up mostly of other venture capitalists and investors. Most of Kleiner's investments in energy so far are still in stealth. Urbanization will be one of the biggest global trends between now and 2030, Doerr explained, citing several studies including one by the National Academy of Sciences. Asia, in particular, will be creating scores of huge cities, he said. They’ll need clean water, power and transportation.

    The site seems to be down at the moment, but the above is the key quote. If anyone was wondering if a renewed focus on urban issues was just a fantasy of environmentalists and design geeks, attention from VCs should disabuse you of that notion.

    January 7, 2005

    Before and After, Lined Up

    We mentioned Digital Globe's before and after satellite images of the December 26 tsunami. While the images themselves are stark and powerful, the presentation on the Digital Globe site wasn't terribly illuminating. Now a .Mac user has set up a Before and After toggle for 14 of the shots with the geography lined up exactly -- a single click can show exactly what happened.

    The pair of pictures of Kalutara Beach, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in particular, is borderline surreal in its horror.

    Bioremediator Genome

    Wired News and Reuters have details on research done at Cornell analyzing the genome of Dehalococcoides ethenogenes Strain 195, a bacteria able to digest chlorinated solvents. It's currently being used at 17 different locations for toxic waste cleanup. Other strains of the bacteria can process the PCBs and the chemicals underlying DDT. Most interesting is the fact that these bacteria apparently evolved in response to toxic wastes dumped by humans:

    In 1997, Cornell University researchers described D. ethenogenes and its ability to clean up chlorinated solvents. Around that same time, DuPont researchers discovered that D. ethenogenes was present at many of their toxic sites. It turns out the bacteria likes to hang out where it can find food, that is, PCE and TCE.

    That seems natural until you consider that D. ethenogenes specifically eats PCE and TCE, and the harmful compounds were introduced to the environment only about 60 years ago. The genome sequence suggests that the bacterium has evolved in response to humans dumping the chemicals, Seshadri said.

    Sequencing D. ethenogenes DNA should help us (a) better understand how bioremediating bacteria work, (b) figure out ways for them to work more efficiently, and (c) evaluate the possibility of introducing bioremediation capabilities to other organisms.

    January 10, 2005

    The Price of Truculance

    Reinforcing the theme of yesterday's essay by Gil Friend, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development has reprinted an editorial from the Duluth News-Tribune arguing that lagging adoption of high-efficiency, conservation-focused and renewable energy technologies and policies will have an adverse effect on American businesses. It's conventional wisdom among the carbon hacks that an aggressive shift away from fossil fuels would lead to a massive, long-lasting economic downturn (ironic that opposition to doing anything about climate disruption is so closely tied to the one academic discipline that does worse at predicting the future than weather forecasters). Arguably, it's more likely that not moving to renewable energy technologies and efficiency-focused policies will have the negative economic result, as Kyoto adherence is clearly where global markets are heading. The News-Tribune editorial spells out that position nicely.

    January 12, 2005

    First Image of an Extra-Solar Planet

    browndwarfplanet.jpgAlthough astronomers have discovered over 130 planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, we've never actually seen any of them. We know about them because of the changes they cause in a star's brightness, or wobbles in a star's orbit, or a number of other inferential methods. But the Hubble space telescope may have captured the first image of a planet outside of our own system -- a gas giant, roughly five times the size of Jupiter, in a distant orbit around a so-called "brown dwarf" star about 225 light years from Earth. The astronomer leading the research, Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona, says he is "99.1 percent sure" it's a planet; further observations will make it "99.9 percent sure."

    A number of features made it possible for this planet to be seen -- its size, distance from its parent star, and the fact that brown dwarf stars are too small to shine like a normal star and wash out the dimmer reflection and heat of a planet.

    Surowiecki. Gladwell. Two Men Enter. One Man Leaves.

    Well, perhaps not quite that dramatic. But a public conversation/debate between James "Wisdom of Crowds" Surowiecki and Malcolm "The Tipping Point"/"Blink" Gladwell is still pretty interesting, at least for those of us interested in social networks, framing and memes, group behavior, and cultural change. Surowiecki and Gladwell are two of the best-known social observers around right now, and they both make trenchant observations apt to trigger cascading aha! moments for readers. Slate is hosting a week-long conversation between the two writers, now on day three. The conversation remains polite, but we're still hoping for a strike to the jugular at any moment.

    January 14, 2005

    Hello, Titan!

    landing01.jpgIf you've been at any of the vaguely science and technology related websites -- or even major news sites -- today you've undoubtedly already heard, but since we've been posting about this all along, we should note this if only for completeness' sake: Huygens made it to the surface of Titan.

    This is the first time we've tried landing on an outer solar system body, and the system -- a combined NASA/ESA effort -- seems to have worked flawlessly. We'll get more information and images once the folks back in ESOC Spacecraft Operations get done processing the data. I can hardly wait!

    January 16, 2005

    Tracking Wildlife From Above

    Satellites aren't just good for measuring urban growth or atmospheric chemistry or the impact of natural disasters -- they can count elephants, too.

    The Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo, has been working with NASA to use satellite imaging to count wildlife. Their initial experiments -- spotting and counting their own animals at the Bronx Zoo from a pass by a QuickBird satellite -- proved quite successful, and they are now preparing to use satellite images to "count wildlife in exotic locations, including elephants and giraffes in Tanzania, flamingos in South America, and elk, bison and antelope in Wyoming." Counting from orbit has some advantages over traditional methods. Satellites can image otherwise hard-to-reach locales, can snapshot large expanses in one pass, and are much less stressful to animals than traditional counting methods of capturing and tagging or even flying overhead in low-flying aircraft.

    January 17, 2005

    Lula vs. Gates

    Definition of power: Bill Gates trying -- and failing -- to get on your schedule to talk.

    Reuters reports that Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and chairman, has been "lobbying" to meet and talk with Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (best known simply as "Lula"), at next week's World Economic Forum -- so far, to no avail.

    Brazil has been at the forefront of the movement to get the developing world to adopt Linux rather than Windows as they build out their information infrastructures. From the developing world perspective, this makes a great deal of sense: Linux is free as in gratis (so it can be distributed to millions of users at little incremental cost) and free as in libre (so users can get inside the code to modify it for both better functionality and education), whereas Windows, even at a discount price, can be very costly, and ties users to the whims of Redmond. Brazil plans to partially-subsidize the purchase of 1 million computers with Linux for its citizens.

    January 18, 2005

    If you can read this...'re hitting our new server!

    January 20, 2005

    Global Dimming, RealClimate-Style

    Of course the folks at RealClimate would take on the BBC "Global Dimming" story, and give it the kind of examination we've come to expect from the professionals. They now have two articles up, both well-worth reading. The first, aptly titled "Global Dimming?," takes on the concept in general, has a number of pointed comments about hack sensationalist journalism, and discusses what it means when scientists are uncertain. The second, Global Dimming II, looks at the history of the idea of global dimming and what might be causing it. A good pair of posts, nicely explaining the ideas.

    January 21, 2005

    Meet a Nanotechnologist (but don't call her that)

    Technology Review is running a brief interview with Dr. Angela Belcher, MIT material scientist, MacArthur Grant winner and cofounder of Cambrios Technologies. She uses reengineered viruses as tools to create compounds at the molecular scale. The conversation is short, informative and somewhat amusing.

    Your company describes its business as “directed-evolution technology.” So the goal is something with potentially very broad application? It’s a platform technology, yes. The aim is to work our way through the whole periodic table and be able to design materials of all kinds in a controlled way. My biggest goal is to have a DNA sequence that can code for the synthesis of any useful material.

    February 2, 2005

    Win a Prius, the Update

    Last November we posted about Center for a New American Dream's hybrid slogan contest, with the winning slogan earning its creator a new 2005 Prius. Unsurprisingly, the contest was popular: New American Dream received nearly 35,000 slogans. The top 100 finalists are in, and now's your chance to vote on which one you think would best convince car manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. The top vote-getters won't automatically win the car -- wisely, New American Dream has chosen to use popularity as just one of the factors to be considered -- but the top three will win "Community Choice Awards," a one year membership to Better World Travel, including bicycle and auto roadside assistance.

    The voting closes on February 15th, and requires that you sign up for the site.

    February 3, 2005

    Not Just Mangroves

    It's clear that the elimination of mangrove forests along Southeast Asian coastlines made the impact of the December 26 tsunami even worse. But we're now seeing signs that it's not just mangrove forests which can reduce the effect of flood surges -- casuarina and eucalyptus trees work well, too:

    On Dec. 26, as the killer tsunami struck down thousands of people and homes in Tamil Nadu state, the casuarina and eucalyptus trees which had been planted to appease the weather gods saved the lush green village of Naluvedapathy.


    The casuarina trees, which numbered more than 60,000, took the brunt of the tsunami waves as they swept Naluvedapathy.

    The giant waves inundated dozens of thatched-roof houses in the village as they swept inland [...] But the casuarina trees had considerably weakened the waves and reduced the impact, villagers said.

    Tamil Nadu government officials are now assembling a trust fund to plant casuarina and eucalyptus trees along the state's entire 1,000 kilometer coastline.

    Wind Replaces Nuclear

    More of a symbolic replacement, to be sure, but symbols count: the Long Island Power Authority has installed two 50 kilowatt wind turbines on the Shoreham, New York, site of a defunct nuclear power plant. The two turbines should provide 200,000 kWh annually, not a huge amount -- enough for a couple thousand homes, perhaps. Longer term LIPA goals include an offshore wind generation facility producing 140 megawatts, coming online in summer of 2008.

    February 4, 2005

    WSJ on Trends in Building

    The Wall Street Journal has a short but interesting list of ten trends in architecture (broadly conceived), with a particular focus on buildings going green. Some interesting tidbits from the list: buildings use 39% of energy in the US, more than cars; there are 453 office buildings, amounting to nearly 65 million square feet, now under construction under LEED guidelines; since 2000, 167 buildings have been LEED certified, with more than 1,800 now being built.

    (Via Gil Friend)

    Ford to Use EPA Diesel Engine

    The New York Times reports that Ford has agreed to use a diesel engine designed by the EPA in new-generation cars and trucks. Diesel is generally a more efficient fuel (around 30% better than gasoline), but it has had problems in the past with particulate and nitrogen oxide pollution. Cleaner diesel engines now power about half of the cars sold in Europe, but are only a small fraction of vehicles in the US. The new engine, designed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, runs clean enough not to require special filters, meaning that it should have a low production cost. I suspect Mike will have more details about this in his Sustainability Sundays post.

    Naked Eye Asteroid Flyby

    Remember our old friend 2004 MN4? You know the one -- it had astronomers reaching for the antacids because, unlike every previous "Earth-crossing" asteroid spotted, the chances of it hitting the Earth increased the more they studied its path. Fortunately, they finally determined that it would miss us in its very close pass in 2029. But it turns out that it will be close enough to be visible from the ground as it shoots by -- so close, in fact, that it will pass within the orbits of some satellites. This will be the closest known approach by an asteroid in history, roughly 22,600 miles from Earth. It should be as bright enough to be seen by the naked eye in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia -- but only in locations with dark skies.

    Mark your calendars now.

    February 5, 2005

    WorldChanging at Doors

    Doors of Perception 8, in Delhi, India, is looking like a real WorldChanging event. Just take a look at the announced speakers: nearly every one could be the subject of a WorldChanging story (and some already have). The panels include Joi Ito, Natalie Jeremijenko, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales... as well as our own Cameron Sinclair and Alex Steffen. Doors of Perception -- "a conference and website at the forefront of new thinking on design and innovation" -- takes place March 21-26, so if you're not local, buy your plane tickets now.

    February 8, 2005

    Bruce on Bag

    The ever-interesting Treehugger managed to get a solar-power backpack into the hands of WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling, now on an extended stay in Pasadena, California. Bruce's review of the bag -- or, perhaps more accurately, Bruce's articulation of the observations made by his daughter, who actually used the thing -- are, as always, amusing and insightful. Money quote:

    Given that I have a solar-powered dynamo now, how about a backup server. too? If I had two or three petabytes of flash memory in a bag, I could backpack data storage for anybody who plugged in -- I'd be the Johnny Appleseed of voltage and memory. I'd carry a community on my back rather than trudging a dusty way to splendid isolation.

    Don't forget the WiFi, Bruce. Don't forget the WiFi.

    Biology News

    Dear WorldChanging,

    Where can I find regularly updated headlines on the biosciences appropriate for non-specialists, but with none of the distractions of those other sciences in the mix? Oh, and RSS-friendly, please.

    DNAching for Information

    Dear DNAching,

    Try Biology News. It covers biotech, stem cell research, bioscience news, even has a discussion forum. It runs a little heavy on the Google Ad placement, but what are you gonna do?


    (via SciScoop)

    February 10, 2005

    Tsunami Solar Light

    One of the terrific elements of the Project Re:Build effort (supported by the Architecture for Humanity/WorldChanging Tsunami Reconstruction Appeal) is the focus on sustainable reconstruction: This appeal, coupled with pro-bono design services and material donations, will allow for the building of more than just basic shelter, allowing the construction of schools, infrastructure and medical clinics. With a more holistic and sustainable approach of reconstruction, a truly worldchanging idea, the funds will help to build beyond simple dwellings to live but create real communities for life to grow, rebuild and renew.

    A similar (if narrower) project has now come to my attention: the Tsunami Solar Light Fund. Renewable Energy Access is spearheading an effort to "provide 1,500 solar power home systems and 25 solar-powered community street lights in the Tamil Nadu region on India's southeastern coast." Working in coordination with the Solar Electric Light Fund, an NGO promoting efforts to bring photovoltaic power to rural villages around the world, the Tsunami Solar Light Fund will help make the tsunami reconstruction efforts an opportunity for energy leapfrogging.


    ecoist.jpgEcoist makes "one of a kind" handbags of varying sizes out of candy wrappers, food packages and soft drink labels. Keep them out of landfills, the argument goes, by wearing them on your arm. In addition, Ecoist will plant a tree (via Global Releaf ) for every bag purchased.

    To be honest, I find them a bit on the ugly side, but Josh Rubin: Cool Hunting likes them, so what do I know?

    Is This So?

    John Perry Barlow, EFF co-founder and cybercurmudgeon from the 1990s, made the following claim at the World Social Forum last month:

    "Already, Brazil spends more in licensing fees on proprietary software than it spends on hunger," said Barlow

    Anybody up for fact-checking this statement? If true, it's a simple-but-powerful meme...

    (Via Gil Friend)

    No One Should Suffer For Chilled Wine

    Reports from Verdopolis are starting to come in. First on the dock we have this post by Will Duggan, of the US Partnership for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. He writes of the session entitled "Adaptation and Innovation: Business Opportunities in a Time of Environmental Challenge," which included participation from officers of Swiss Re, BSH Home Appliance, and Deutsche Bank AG. The title of this post comes from a comment made by Franz Bosshard, President and CEO of BSH, about the need to make sustainability an expected part of how things work -- the end-user shouldn't have to worry about whether or how the product meets sustainability guidelines.

    Great report, Will -- thanks for the heads-up!

    Emily Gertz at Verdopolis

    Our own Emily Gertz is attending Verdopolis, as well, and will be filing reports on what she finds for Grist (as well as doing a write-up for WorldChanging). Her first day's observations are now online, and are well worth checking out. This paragraph caught my eye:

    This good mood is what seems to be different about Verdopolis. It's a gathering where we dispense with arguing the moral imperative of fewer cars and more trees, and instead get on with figuring out how to design the bright green future for our growing cities. It's beyond anger, done with denial, and waist-deep into acceptance. And at this panel, we were accepting that human-caused climate instability has arrived, and making it better is both the right thing to do and a huge business opportunity.

    Sounds like our kind of event.

    February 11, 2005

    HOV Hybrids, Nationwide?

    We didn't note California's passing of a law awhile back allowing hybrid vehicles to drive in carpool (High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV) lanes with just a single occupant. While a nice gesture, it was ultimately a pointless one -- because Federal money underwrites HOV lanes, they control the rules, and the US Department of Transportation has so far been unwilling to bend the law to allow solo hybrid drivers in (with the exception of Virginia, in 2000). That may change, if a bill introduced by car alarm magnate/current Republican legislator Darrel Issa passes. The bill would allow states to set their own rules for HOV lanes, which means that as more states pick up the idea (Arizona, Connecticut and Georgia are considering rules similar to California's), a hybrid driver could eventually be able to drive in carpool lanes from sea to shining sea.

    Or maybe not -- as always, the devil is in the details. California's rule, for example, requires a sticker, and only 75,000 will be authorized. This is to avoid overcrowding of carpool lanes, which apparently has been a problem in Virginia. And the California law also only applies to vehicles getting greater than 45 miles per gallon -- Insights, Hybrid Civics, and Priuses, , Hybrid Accords, Hybrid Escapes, and other upscale hybrids, no -- something that US automakers have complained about. Missouri legislators have written a bill which would open up the HOV lanes to any hybrid which gets 10% better mileage than a standard version vehicle. This may make Ford happy, but would definitely result in crowded carpool lanes, and seems like an awfully low bar to meet.

    February 12, 2005

    The Solar System, to Scale

    Web designer Troy Brophy, fascinated by how things scale, has created a nifty page demonstrating just how much space there is in space. The Solar System is a six million pixel-wide page (where each pixel=1000 km), with the Sun at the left and each planet in its appropriate orbit and at an approximately correct size (at least within 1000 km of correct). There are links at the top to allow a jump to each planet, a good thing since simply scrolling left to right makes finding planets rather difficult. If you'd like to see how the planets match up against each other without a lot of scrolling and jumping, there's a link to put them all on a single screen.

    The page requires IE6 or Mozilla/Firefox; the super-wide tables apparently don't render properly in Safari or Opera.

    February 13, 2005

    Mars Gashopper

    The Mars Exploration Rovers ("Spirit" and "Opportunity") have performed well beyond their expected lifespans, and have by all measures been an enormous success. But they roll slowly around the surface of Mars, and have gone just a few kilometers each, largely avoiding any kind of rough terrain. In order to get a better look at the variety of the Martian landscape, we'll need something which can move faster over any kind of ground. Something which can fly, but which can also land and take samples, repeatedly.

    Enter the Gashopper:

    The gashopper would get its electricity from a large set of solar panels built on top of its wings. It would use this electricity to retrieve carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, and then store it as a liquid inside the aircraft. When enough gas was stored up to make a flight, it would heat up a hot bed of pellets and then pass the CO2 through it. Now hot, the gas would act as a propellant, and allow the gashopper to lift off vertically from the surface of Mars. Once airborne, it could then fire more gas out a rear thruster and begin flying as an airplane, using its large wings for lift and maneuverability. When it was ready to land, the aircraft could slow its airspeed, and then touch down gently as a vertical lander.

    While still very much in the early-testing/proposal stage, the gashopper has a distinct advantage over many other proposed explorer vehicles: it is designed to use resources already present in the Martian environment (sunlight for power and CO2 for propulsion), so it can keep going as long as the hardware itself is functional. In addition, it won't pollute the Martian atmosphere with chemicals which might confuse any tests for organic material. A sustainable, environmentally-sensitive, wide-ranging exploration system for Mars? I'm all for it.


    New Sustainability Sunday contributor Joel Makower wrote a pretty interesting essay last Sunday, too, on his weblog: Are Evangelicals the New Environmentalists? Joel looks at the shifts in the attitudes of the American Evangelical Christian movement regarding the environment. This doesn't mean a wholesale adoption of progressive values, but a careful embrace of the notion of stewardship of the planet:

    "The environment is a values issue," the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, told the Post’s Harden. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right."

    It will be interesting to see if the broader realization that the environment is in serious long-term trouble can function as a bridge across the poisonous American political faultline.

    Verdopolis, Day Two

    Emily's article at Grist on the second day of Verdopolis is now up, and is (of course!) an excellent read. (We linked to her article on day one here.) This time she covers the panel on "The Green City," where the speakers grapple with the difficulty of making built spaces both sustainable and livable. This applies to more than the shape (and insulation levels) of buildings. Transportation must be "livable," too.

    "Good transportation design fosters a good attitude in people," Vergara says, and then -- as I'm finding is typical at Verdopolis -- presents an idea that once I've heard it, is so smart it's startling. To sell multibillion-dollar mass-transportation projects, start with the last thing: Design the vehicle. [...]

    Cesar Vergara is not giving any ground on the inevitability of the personal car in his vision of the green city."The car of the future is a railroad car," Vergara says, "and there's a bike waiting for you at the other end of the ride."

    February 14, 2005

    Treehugger on Getting Green Power

    So you want to use renewable sources for your home power, but can't install solar panels & a wind turbine? About half of US retail power customers have the option of purchasing "green" power from their electrical utility companies (or, to be more precise, have the option of asking the utilities to buy a fraction more power from a renewable source to put into the grid at large -- electrons are electrons, and everyone on the grid draws from the same pool). If you aren't in that lucky half, there are other ways to boost the use of renewable power, from pricing premiums to "tradable renewable certificates." Treehugger has the breakdown and the links.

    Geo-Greens, Take Two

    Tom Friedman's "Geo-Greens" model may not be fully-baked yet, but is clearly the subject of his next book. His Sunday column in the New York Times continues to expound on the concept, and this time he manages to get in a couple of decent proposals. The money quote:

    As a geo-green, I believe that combining environmentalism and geopolitics is the most moral and realistic strategy the U.S. could pursue today. Imagine if President Bush used his bully pulpit and political capital to focus the nation on sharply lowering energy consumption and embracing a gasoline tax. [...] Sadly, the Bush team won't even consider this. It prefers cruise missiles to cruise controls. We need a grass-roots movement. Where are college kids these days? I would like to see every campus in America demand that its board of trustees disinvest from every U.S. auto company until they improve their mileage standards. Every college town needs to declare itself a "Hummer-free zone." You want to drive a gas-guzzling Humvee? Go to Iraq, not our campus. And an idea from my wife, Ann: free parking anywhere in America for anyone driving a hybrid car.

    (Emphasis mine.) While as a hybrid driver I can certainly get behind that last suggestion, I think the divestment strategy in particular has a great deal of merit. The 1980s college campaigns to cease investments in companies which did business with the Apartheid government in South Africa drew a great deal of attention to the issue, and helped to bring about the end of the regime. We would need a catchy ska tune, though...


    Three great ideas that go great together -- nanotechnology, solar power and hydrogen. We've mentioned before the growing use of nanoengineering to develop materials better able to split hydrogen from water using solar energy. Technology Research News brings word of another step in making this a reality.

    Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have constructed a material made from titanium dioxide nanotubes that is 97 percent efficient at harvesting the ultraviolet portion of the sun's light and 6.8 percent efficient at extracting hydrogen from water.The material is easy to make, inexpensive, and photochemically stable, according to the researchers.

    The downside is that only about five percent of the sun's energy hitting the earth is ultraviolet light; work continues to figure out how to shift the nanotube response to visible light. The original article appeared in Nano Letters; the full text (with illustrations) is available online.

    Verdopolis, Day Three

    Emily's third dispatch from Verdopolis is now up at Grist -- go read it. (Here are links to posts about Day One and Day Two, if you're keeping score at home.) This time, in "The Three Marketeers," she looks at the "Show Me the Money" session. The upshot? The suits are joining the fight.

    'Bout time.

    February 15, 2005

    Ten Gallons of Kyoto

    Tomorrow's Kyoto Activation Day, so in commemoration, Bruce Sterling's latest Viridian Note (#00432) is an infodump of the "ins and outs of Kyotology" -- the Gallon Environment Letter, produced by the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment. Want to know the Kyoto Treaty's history? Its mechanisms for enforcement? A breakdown of greenhouse gas emitters (per capita, the US is number two -- and number one might surprise you)? Kyoto plans in Canada? The EU? What happens next? It's all here, and more, complete with links to even longer documents giving you even more details. Read it all. It's good for you.

    Biomimicry, Scorpion-Style

    Given the difficulties involved with figuring out how to make machines walk, it's no surprise that some roboticists are turning to arthropods as models. After all, insects and spiders and such are able to move pretty readily on some fairly simple hardware (including exceedingly simple brains). A machine would be doing very well to be able to match arthropod articulation. Are they there yet? You be the judge.

    Frank Kirchner, a roboticist from the University of Bremen, is collaborating with Silvano Colombano at NASA's Ames Research Center in the development of an eight-legged robot with walking behaviors based on that of the scorpion. The Scorpion (as that is its name, of course) is able to sense changes in terrain and respond accordingly. Nature News has a brief write-up of the technology, along with a video of the Scorpion in action which demonstrates how far biomimetic robot mobility has come, and how far it still needs to go.

    Future generations of the Scorpion may be crawling along rocky crevasses on Mars (perhaps carried as the payload of a Gashopper) and through buildings knocked down by earthquakes or other disasters here on Earth.

    February 16, 2005

    Bill McKibben on Windmills

    Grist points us to Bill McKibben's editorial in today's New York Times. McKibben notes that proposed windmill farms often generate local opposition based on the argument that the size of the wind turbines ruins scenic views and lowers property values; such arguments often come from people calling themselves environmentalists. McKibben fairly gently suggests that such folks look at the bigger picture, and learn to love (or at least live with) the clean energy towers. I'll be more blunt: global warming is going to do a lot worse to the environment than just make the coast less scenic, and NIMBY opposition to having their seaside resorts' views "ruined" by only-visible-on-the-clearest-days windmills on the horizon needs to end. Now.

    Or, as Dave Roberts at Grist put it: Oil and gas exploration is ravaging the American West. The nuclear industry is resurgent. And oh yeah, the globe is frying.

    If environmentalists take global warming seriously, and expect others to take it seriously, maybe they shouldn't become bitchy provincialists the minute you want to build a wind turbine that impedes the scenic view off the back porches of their vacation homes.

    Damn straight.

    Green Flight

    Global travel is good; reducing air pollution (including GHG emissions) is good. Unfortunately, as we've noted in the past, air travel is a significant contributor to atmospheric pollution. The more you fly, the bigger your ecological footprint. Increased use of biofuels might help in the short-term, but solving this problem is going to require some serious effort.

    That's what the "Efficient and Environmentally Friendly Aero-Engine" (EEFA) program is about. Coordinated by the European Union, EEFA includes 53 partner groups, including the entire European airplane industry, various national defense and technology agencies and numerous universities. Begun in 2000, the program seeks to (PDF):

  • Reduce fuel consumption by 12% to 20%
  • Reduce NOx emissions by 60% 80%
  • Reduce cost of ownership by 20% to 30%
  • Improve reliability by 60%
  • Reduce time to market by 50%
  • Reduce life cycle cost by 30%
  • Ambitious, to be sure, but obviously of great value. EEFA plans to start testing new engine designs this year.

    End Poverty Now

    James Traub wrote an excellent and brief essay in this last Sunday's New York Times entitled "Freedom, From Want." In it, he asks why it is that the United States, source of the Marshall Plan, is so reluctant (even now, post-9/11) to spend money on economic development assistance. The US ranks last among donor nations in development aid, at 0.15 percent of gross national income (compared to Scandinavian countries, for example, which are close to 0.7 percent of GNI now). It's not a happy article, but it does lay out the issues at hand clearly and succinctly.

    A similar piece appears to be found in yesterday's Financial Times, by Martin Wolf. "The Elimination of Poverty" starts out with two hard to dispute propositions: first, the elimination of destitution, disease and deprivation is taking too long; second, additional assistance to the world's poorest countries is easily affordable. I'm told that the column makes a strong statement in support of rich country aid for development, but unfortunately getting to the article requires a FT subscription. Any subscribers willing to summarize Wolf's arguments in the comments?

    February 17, 2005

    Dev World Nano Net

    Announcements about nanotechnology programs and plans in the developing world are coming pretty fast now. The latest is a proposal from the executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Mohamed Hassan, that nanotech research groups in developing countries form a collaborative network. Hassan goes on to suggest that Africa be the first focus region for such a network.

    South Africa leads the field on the continent. According to its national strategy, from 2005 onwards it will dedicate US$5 million to US$10 million each year to nanotechnology research and development.

    In comparison, said Hassan, 2003 figures estimate that China spends US$175 million each year, with a 200 per cent growth rate. And the Brazilian government's 2004 budget for nanotechnology was US$7 million.

    Part of the problem is the political instability of many African states, suggested Mike Treder of the US-based Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

    Hassan agreed, adding that although several African governments pour money into science and technology, the brain drain draws their trained researchers out of the region. As a result, they effectively support research and development elsewhere.

    South-South collaborative nanotechnology networks. That pretty much sums up what the leapfrog future will look like.

    The Saudi Biodiesel Juggernaut

    Okay, maybe not quite yet. But the Guardian reports that a British firm, D1 Oils, has launched a joint venture with a Saudi oil firm, Jazeera for Modern Technology, to make biodiesel for export.

    The new fuel is to be produced from plantations of jatropha trees on land that used to be desert. The black seeds from conker-type shells produced by the plants will be picked and fed into special refineries to be built in Saudi Arabia.The resulting fuel will either be used locally or mixed with crude oil and shipped to Europe to feed a growing demand for more environmentally friendly petrol.

    (Press release from D1 Oils here.) Jatropha is well-suited for this purpose, as it grows well with little water and in harsh environments. Jatropha-based biodiesel is already used in Africa and India.


    Salon editor Andrew Leonard interviews UK science fiction author Iain Banks (subscription or brief ad required). Banks is the author of a number of novels set in the world of The Culture, a galaxy-spanning, AI-enabled, post-consumption society that is, in a nutshell, pretty much the world I'd love to live in. The interview, while short, is rather provocative:

    I have sometimes in my darker moments, suspected that we -- humans, human society, our species -- are incapable of anything like the Culture. Because we are just too damn nasty. But on the other hand, I'm not, in principle, against genetic modification. I think we could make beneficial genetic improvements to ourselves, I mean, just supposing there was a bigotry gene, that was responsible for racism, and sexism and anti-Semitism -- all the bad "isms" -- suppose you could get all that out. You could end up with something like the Culture. [...]

    My worry about the genetic modification of behavior is that if we had that now we might all end up fundamentalist Christians.

    Well, you lot might! [Cackles gleefully.]

    It's all about who gets the technology first and how you spread it. Is it government run, or by very large corporations, or can it be done in the old-fashioned science fiction way, by one lone genius and an attractive assistant, working in a laboratory somewhere? Obviously, not to be too glib about it, the very idea of evolving ourselves scares large parts of society. It takes a lot of thinking about.

    February 18, 2005

    Thank You, Taran

    WorldChanger Taran Rampersad has decided to move on, and to focus his attention on his work at KnowProSE and his ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide. Taran joined us last April, and has been a spirited and dedicated voice for free/open source software, open access and open collaboration. We have been honored to have him in our midst, and will continue to follow his writings and ideas with great interest.

    Thank you for being a part of the WorldChanging community, Taran. Be well.

    Carbon Nanotubes Destined for your Hybrid

    Our love affair with carbon nanotubes continues unabated; the latest reason is research at UC Davis demonstrating a process for building high power supercapacitors using carbon nanotubes. Supercapacitors deliver a fast, powerful jolt of electricity; hybrid and fuel cell cars require high-power capacitors in order to start the engine, something typically done multiple times throughout a trip. Remember that hybrids are designed to cut the engine any time the vehicle stops, then restart very quickly once the brake is released. That takes power.

    What makes the carbon nanotube-based supercapacitors interesting is that they have a power density of 30 kilowatts per kilogram, compared to 4 kilowatts/kilogram for commercially-available capacitors (and 20 kW/kg for experimental versions of traditional designs).

    For those who want more details, you can read the paper in the February edition of the journal Nanotechnology.

    February 19, 2005

    Imagination, Innovation, and the Mobject

    We don't point to every Bruce Sterling article or speech, it just feels that way. Nonetheless, his new piece (PDF) at Innovation magazine (the mouthpiece of the Industrial Designers Society of America) lays out why science fiction is relevant to design, explores why design is important for thinking about the future, and tries to coin a few new words on top of it all. These last are all variants of "blobject," and one of them -- "mobject" -- feels like a winner:

    How does this work in practice? I envision some kind of universal fabricator. A big, bad, cheap fabricator that makes stuff out of utterly worthless raw materials. Straw and mud, perhaps. Or chopped grass, cellulose, recycled plastic and newspaper, even sand. A big, rugged, dirty, emergency thing like an upended cement mixer. But smart. There’s a lot of code in there. Free, unpatented code.

    So, how does it work? You’re a mob. You’re panicked; you’re shell-shocked; you’re thirsty. You need buckets. The mobject-maker spits out these general issue buckets. Khaki-colored maybe, the color of mixed dirt. Ugliest buckets in the word, but they work. They carry water. Now you need latrines, so out come a few hundred of them. Sewer pipes. Shower stalls. Faucets. The appurtenances of urban life. Squeezed out in molds, on the spot. Basic, safe water infrastructure so you don’t die of dysentery like every other dispossessed mob in the world. You wouldn’t normally put up with this mobject way of life, but if your town has been smashed in an earthquake, then mobjects are kind of handy. One helicopter and one fabricator and a week later you’ve got a town. It’s not a pretty town, but at least you’re not dead.

    February 20, 2005

    Saturn's Blue Sky

    While many of us at WorldChanging are ardent supporters of space exploration for good scientific reasons (especially robotic exploration, at least until an elevator is built), sometimes we have to admit to ourselves that part of why the Mars Rovers, Mars Express, Cassini/Huygens and the others are so interesting is that they can come up with some truly spectacular images. One of the most recent from Cassini is just jaw-dropping: the blue sky of Saturn, with the moon Mimas in the foreground. A small sample here wouldn't do it justice -- you really need to see this at full size.

    Sustainability in Sixty

    Minutes, that is. Joel Makower has a short post up on his weblog asking the following question:

    How would you convey the simple-yet-complex concept of sustainability to today's college students (assume undergrads)?

    If helping to shape the minds of young people isn't inducement enough, Joel is offering a one-year subscription to his Green Business Letter to the best and/or most innovative submissions. Get your ideas in by March 15.

    February 21, 2005

    Getting Rid of Glass

    Ken Shuttleworth is the architect responsible for the Swiss Re "Gherkin" tower in the heart of London (as well as numerous other odd and interesting buildings). In the current Building Design, a newsweekly for UK architects, Shuttleworth declares war against the all-glass building facade. (Fairly painless free reg required.)

    The high-energy, gas-guzzling fully glazed office block is totally dead, a thing from a previous time when we all had a more naive, cavalier attitude towards the environment. It’s the end of an era and we should all rethink what we are doing to the planet. And facade design is on the frontline of a change.

    [...] It is time as architects we faced up to our responsibilities; climate change is the biggest thing to affect the planet for generations and with half the world’s CO2 coming from buildings, we are directly in the firing line and in the best position to effect a change. We have to go super-green; we have to be more responsible and convince our clients and the property family as a whole that this is important.

    Shuttleworth's a man on a mission -- and his buildings live up to his word.

    (Thanks, Laurence Aurbach!)


    How to dispose of those old cell phones and other such devices in an environmentally responsible manner is a recurring topic here. Recycling services do exist, but they may be hard to find. That should be less of a problem now. Call2Recycle, a non-profit program started last year by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, has a database of locations in the US and Canada accepting old rechargeable batteries and cell phones for recycling. Batteries are recycled for their metals -- nickel and iron to make stainless steel, and cadmium to make more batteries -- while cell phones are either refurbished and resold in the developing world or recycled in an unspecified "environmentally friendly" way.

    The whole "people in the developing world would love your old phone" meme is probably on its way out, especially as phone makers move towards low-cost modern phones specifically for low-income countries; we will need to see more groups focusing on actually recycling phone components. But even if you're not about to toss that old phone, the database of rechargeable battery drop-off spots will be useful. Looks like I have one just around the corner...

    (Via So What Can I Do?)

    February 22, 2005

    Good News Against HIV

    A team led by Scripps Research Institute biologists has figured out the structure of a rare but naturally occurring antibody which effectively destroys nearly 100 strains of HIV.

    The body makes many antibodies against HIV, but they are almost always unable to neutralize the virus. Nonetheless, the immune systems of some patients with HIV have beaten the odds and have produced effective neutralizing antibodies. The structure of one of these, called 4E10, is described in the latest issue of the journal Immunity.

    "This antibody is very broadly active," says Scripps Research Professor Dennis Burton, Ph.D., who led the research with Scripps Research Professor Ian Wilson, D.Phil. "It neutralized nearly 100 different viral strains of HIV from all over the world. [During tests in the laboratory], every one of them was neutralized."

    4E10 was isolated from an HIV-positive individual about a decade ago by Burton and Wilson's collaborator Hermann Katinger, a doctor at the Institute for Applied Microbiology of the University of Agriculture in Vienna, Austria, and one of the authors of the paper.

    By solving its structure, the researchers have taken a big step towards being able to construct a "mimic" protein to stimulate the human body to make 4E10 antibodies. The research appears in the February 2005 edition of Immunity. A summary is available for free; the full text of the article is only accessible to journal subscribers.

    Free Mojtaba and Arash

    freemojtabaarashday-button.gifThe Committee to Protect Bloggers is asking those of us with weblogs today to call attention to the plight of Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, imprisoned in Iran for writing in their blogs against the crackdown on journalists and bloggers in late 2004 and early 2005. The Iranian blog community was once a flourishing example of free speech, but soon drew the attention of the religious authorities . Today, Arash Sigarchi was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to 14 years in jail on charges ranging from espionage to insulting the country's leaders; Mojtaba Saminejad remains in jail on a billion rials bail, re-arrested just days after posting a 500 million rials bond. The BBC has additional details on the Committee and the Free Mojtaba and Arash Day project.

    The Sequestration Option

    Carbon sequestration -- taking CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it, well, somewhere -- doesn't generate a great deal of interest among hardcore climate change wonks. That's in part because the various sequestration options each have serious drawbacks, in part because sequestration isn't as easy as it sounds, and in part because sequestration is seen by some as being an 'easy out' for continuing a greenhouse-intensive lifestyle. From this perspective, it's the liposuction of the fight against climate disruption: it might help in the short term, but without changes in behavior, it won't matter much.

    As it becomes increasingly clear just how bad the greenhouse gas situation really is, however, we may come to reconsider that position. It's looking increasingly likely that we will need to really crank up the sequestration research on top of shifting hard and fast towards more efficient, greener designs and technologies. To that end, the Washington Post provides a basic overview of current sequestration research. It doesn't touch on every project out there, but it does cover the mainstream ideas: biomass offsets, serpentine neutralization, and liquefying CO2 for undersea insertion.

    February 23, 2005

    Battery Breakthrough?

    Among the problems with using batteries as the energy storage medium for vehicles are two big convenience-killers: recharging is not anywhere close to as fast as pumping gasoline into a tank, and the batteries themselves don't store sufficient power to go reasonable distances. If Altair Nanotechnology is correct, however, those problems may soon be less of an issue. According to a press release picked up on Yahoo! business (among others), Altair has developed a technology for allowing Lithium-Ion batteries to recharge in a matter of minutes, not hours, and to hold "three times the power" for the same price.

    Press releases are well and good, but let's see the technology in action. It's probably still years away from commercial application, yadda yadda yadda, but the implications are clear. If what Altair Nanotechnology claims is true, the battery vs. fuel cell "format war" for tomorrow's cars may just be heating up.

    Giving a Damn

    Cameron Sinclair, WorldChanging contributor and founder of Architecture for Humanity, has a brief interview in pages of the newest issue of Wired. It focuses primarily on his philosophy -- "Design like you give a damn" -- and how he implements it. His answers demonstrate that Cameron's WorldChanging to the core:

    So, what's the answer?
    Show people what can be done if you apply smart design that really takes account of ­peoples' needs. We also want to co-opt advances in technology - solar panels, recycled materials - and infuse them into communities that traditionally have not been leading-edge.

    February 24, 2005

    Ten Gigawatts of Wind

    The Scotsman reports that the Irish firm Airtricity is set to put up 5,000 two-megawatt wind turbines in the North Sea, producing ten gigawatts of power. When completed (and, as it has not yet been approved, the completion date is not set), it will be the largest wind farm in the world, assuming no competing megafarms get built in the meantime. The 10GW wind farm would help Scotland meet its goal of generating 40% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

    It will be interesting to see if the bragging rights over "biggest wind farm" becomes a point of national pride and competition.

    Dam Dirty Shame

    New Scientist reports that the IPCC is considering changes to the calculations of "climate budgets" to include greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric dams. It turns out that hydro power can produce significant amounts of both CO2 and methane, sometimes even more than fossil fuel-using generators.

    This is because large amounts of carbon tied up in trees and other plants are released when the reservoir is initially flooded and the plants rot. Then after this first pulse of decay, plant matter settling on the reservoir's bottom decomposes without oxygen, resulting in a build-up of dissolved methane. This is released into the atmosphere when water passes through the dam's turbines.

    The IPCC changes would increase greenhouse inventories in countries with lots of hydro power by up to 7%. New Scientist has a map of which countries would be most affected by the proposed changes. Unsurprisingly, they are generally the nations with the largest land area, largest populations, or both.

    There is ongoing debate over whether to retain dams or remove them. One of the strongest arguments for retaining hydroelectric dams has been how "clean" the power generation is. If the research into dam greenhouse emissions is correct, that rationale could be seriously undercut.

    (Via Warren Ellis)

    Wind Power in the US

    Reader Joseph Willemssen, in the comments to the recent post on Renewables Across the Country, linked to the American Wind Energy Association database of projects. The map showing the amount of wind power by state immediately draws the eye: California tops the list with 2,114 megawatts; Texas is a distant second at 1,288 (but since the database was last updated in late July, that won't include Sweetwater 2, so that should be 1,379 megawatts); Minnesota comes in third, with 595 megawatts. 15 states have no wind generation at all.

    Total installed wind generation in the US: 6,831 megawatts (including Sweetwater 2). An impressive total, to be sure, but we still have a long way to go.

    (Thanks, Joseph!)

    Viridian Furniture

    The Viridian Furniture List has been updated, with all of the new entries going into the "What If Green Design Were Just Good Design" category. What is the Viridian Furniture List, you ask? It contains links to companies designing, making and/or selling places to put your butt without hurting the planet and (usually) without looking like you subsist solely on granola. Some of the entries are definitely for the yupscale crowd, but many point to good looking, sustainably-built, inexpensive products.

    Go check it out -- and if you don't see something that should be there, drop the curator, David Bergman, a note...

    Wind Power for your Phone

    The idea of using photovoltaics to recharge a mobile phone on the go comes as no surprise these days. But what about other renewable power sources? While wave and tidal power probably won't be of much use, wind is a possibility. Lo and behold, students at the Department of Industrial Design at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi have come up with a small (pocket-sized), inexpensive (Rs 200, or about $4-$5), wind turbine that can be used to recharge phones. With sufficient airflow, it can put out about 4 watts -- not an enormous amount of energy, but sufficient trickle-charge a phone or power an LED lamp.

    One of the paradigm-shifting aspects of wind and solar is that, for small uses, power generation can happen just about anywhere. This pairs up nicely with the proliferation of small, network-enabled gadgets. Power should be as accessible as communications. If the cost of relatively-efficient solar and micro-wind turbines can be brought down sufficiently, we may be heading towards a world where any structure or piece of equipment expected to be outside in the sun and wind for extended periods of time have minor power generation features.

    (WorldChanging contributor Ethan Zuckerman adds this alternative phone energy source:)

    Slightly more expensive, but now commercially available is the Sidewinder cellphone charger, which uses a small hand crank to power cellphones. At $25, the product appears to be designed for travelling executives, not developing world users, but the concept could be adopted by developing world engineers and customized for local needs. Motorola is offering a similar product, Free Charge, designed in collaboration with FreePlay, well known for their work making wind-up radios and flashlights. Unfortunately, Free Charge will set you back at least $70, making it unlikely to have a major impact for developing world users.

    February 25, 2005

    Have We Passed the Peak?

    "Hubbert's Peak" is the point at which oil production reaches its maximum possible, and known sources of oil then decline. It's generally thought to be something which will happen "soon" -- five or ten years from now. But Sustainability Sundays contributor Joel Makower tells of a letter at Energy Bulletin from an anonymous oil industry insider claiming that the cheap oil peak has already been reached, and we're now on the tumble down. Anonymous makes this unsettling observation: It is not a question of “if” peak oil has occurred – it has! The better question might be “when are the crows coming home to roost?”

    Anonymous insiders should always be taken with more than a grain of salt, but the arguments that Anonymous and Makower make are well-worth thinking about. How does the sustainability agenda change if peak oil has already been passed?

    Rust Belt Leapfrogging

    BusinessWeek has a brief but suggestive article about the proliferation of nanomaterials companies in regions not generally known as being modern centers of technological innovation: Cleveland, Ohio; Albany, New York; and Norman, Oklahoma. They cite a variety of reasons why many nanomaterials firms have set up shop well away from IT and biotech hotspots on the coasts, including the dominance of government funding over venture funding and the variety of skillsets needed in nano companies ("ranging from experts in new textiles to defense contractors"). What immediately struck me, however, was the parallel to nanotech as a leapfrog engine in the developing world. So-called "rust belt" regions in the US have long suffered a brain drain similar to that plaguing developing countries, and economies based on declining industries are just as open to big changes as economies moving away from an emphasis on resource extraction.

    This wouldn't be isolated to the US, of course. Leapfrog/innovation-based emerging industries could end up as economic engines of economically stagnant regions around the industrialized world. When we think about the potential for leapfrog development, we need to keep in mind the model may apply to far more places than we first might think.

    Biology Taking A Lesson From I.T. (for a change)

    Biomimicry and biomorphic software remain favorite topics around these parts, which is why a headline at New Scientist caught our eye: "Compression algorithms harnessed to fight HIV." Biologists at the University of Washington and at the Royal Perth Hospital are taking a look at computer code as a model for vaccine development.

    Machine learning algorithms commonly used to compress digital images and recognise patterns in email spam might also be able to help scientists find an effective vaccine for HIV. [...]

    HIV mutates rapidly, thus evading the human immune system. This means that vaccines developed to counteract one strain may not be effective against another variant.

    But the researchers hope that algorithms capable of finding patterns in digital information could also help identify key genetic features across many different strains of HIV. This could enable them to engineer an HIV vaccine that is effective against several strains at once.

    The article notes that the specific algorithms used were developed by Microsoft. If that's the case, the code was almost certainly patented by Microsoft. I'd be interested to find out (if any of you are in a position to know who to ask) what kind of licensing agreement went into giving the researchers access to the algorithms.

    February 26, 2005


    I was contacted recently by WorldWater, a company making solar-powered irrigation and water supply technology, to let us know that they have been asked to supply water pumps for irrigation and purification projects in Sri Lanka, as part of the post-tsunami reconstruction effort. WorldWater has active projects in California as well as in East Africa, the Philippines and (pre-tsunami) Sri Lanka. It looks to be pretty straightforward photovoltaic-powered pump technology, but they definitely seem like a company worth knowing about.

    February 28, 2005

    Pan-Asian Biotech Association

    SciDev.Net notes the founding of the Federation of Asian Biotech Associations, an organization intended to promote collaboration between industry and academia across a wide swath of Asia and into the Pacific. The organization is notable for two reasons, both relating to membership. The first is that there are no member countries traditionally thought of as being in the "highly developed" world; no Japan, no Australia, not even South Korea. There's a strong South-South element here.

    The second... well, let me give you the list of members, and you'll quickly see the second interesting membership element: FABA's founding members are India, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Iran, Saudi Arabia... and Israel? Indeed. The road to peace and cooperation in the Middle East may lie through the labs of bioscience.

    Finding the (Energy) Future in Tea Leaves

    Coca-Cola Central Japan has installed something called the "eKOsystem," a methane fermentation system which uses the coffee grounds and tea leaves left over from the manufacturing of coffee and tea-based drinks to provide heat and energy for the plant.

    Relying on a waste to energy scheme should lower the company's operating costs by reducing waste volumes and associated waste transport/processing costs, enable energy savings by use of generated methane gas in the plant, and reduce the environmental effects of CO2 that would normally get released into the atmosphere as the coffee and tealeaf waste ferments.

    The system costs $3.9 million (JPY 420 million), and the installation was part of a joint research project with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a government agency.

    March 1, 2005

    Washington Post on Emission Cut Benefits

    Michael Northrop, director of the global sustainable development grant-making program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, has a to-the-point editorial essay in yesterday's Washington Post. In "Benefits of Cutting Emissions," Northrop lays out the case that, indeed, companies and countries which have gone ahead and worked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by improving efficiency, bringing in new technologies, or through other business process changes) can see a marked improvement in their economic and financial performance. The essay is little more than a checklist of examples -- many of which will be familiar to WorldChanging readers -- but it's good to see them collected in one spot, and in a mainstream publication. It's a good, pithy rebuttal to those who continue to tell tales of economic disaster if we dare try to cut greenhouse emissions.

    March 2, 2005

    Green Olympics 2012?

    The location for the 2012 games has yet to be chosen, but two of the top contenders are New York and London. As noted here recently, New York's efforts to get the Olympics have not gone without controversy; as Emily notes, there's no sign that the organizers for NY2012 have paid much attention to the "green Olympics" conversation going on around the world (especially in China, site of the 2008 games). London, however, seems to be embracing the green Olympics idea in a big way.

    If the bid goes out to London, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will feature many renewable energy and energy efficiency measures in the spirit of the country's recent adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.

    Energy conservation and the use of renewable energy will be promoted across Olympic venues, coupled with a public education campaign to raise awareness of these issues. [...]

    "This is a fantastic first step to contribute to a 'low carbon Games', and we are delighted to lead the way in helping to achieve this target at such a important international event," said Jeremy Leggett, CEO of solarcentury.

    I admit to mixed feelings about this. Of course the venues built for the Olympics should be as energy-efficient and as carbon-neutral as possible, but it would be sad if, in 2012, energy conservation and renewable energy still need to be promoted as something special and different. Making the Olympics in 2012 green shouldn't be seen as being ahead of the curve -- not having a green Olympics in 2012 should be seen as lagging behind.

    CDM Projects

    The "Clean Development Mechanism" (CDM) of the Kyoto Treaty encourages developed world deals in and technology transfers to the developing world in order to cut carbon emissions. CDM projects reduce overall greenhouse emissions, the greenhouse footprint of up-and-coming countries, and bring in new technologies and funds. What's not to love?

    Ken Novak links to a couple of articles about CDM projects, one from India, the other from the Philippines. These articles underscore the point that the developing world is part of Kyoto, and that the CDM can be an engine for energy leapfrogging. Read on for a few interesting quotes from each piece.

    Continue reading "CDM Projects" »

    March 3, 2005

    Chinese Renewable Energy Law

    PhysOrg passes along a report that the Chinese legislature just passed a Renewable Energy Law to "ease the energy strain, secure the country's energy security and better protect ecological environment." Beijing will push for 10% renewable energy by 2020; the new law requires that all state power grids purchase electricity from renewable sources. "Renewable" is defined as including hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal and "marine" energy (presumably tidal & wave).

    My take: this is largely window-dressing. 10% by 2020 is a remarkably unambitious goal, and may be met largely by expanded hydroelectric megaprojects. There's no sign that China is set to take advantage of its position to force real advances. Businesses around the world are hungry to get into the Chinese market. Imagine the result if China passed a requirement that all passenger vehicles sold by (say) 2010 used hybrid-electric technology, or that all new buildings (such as the towers going up across the south China coastal cities) meet LEED-style efficiency rules. China could and should do much more than this one new law.

    More Reverse Biomimicry

    We noted earlier the use of software compression algorithms as tools for discovering new ways for vaccines to spot and attack HIV. Now comes another example of biologists looking at software as a way of understanding nature. Canadian researchers have applied models for the propagation of computer viruses across the Internet to the spread of the spiny water flea in Canadian lakes, an invasive species. The network model provided new insights into both how the flea moves from lake to lake and how it could be controlled. The full text of the article, from the current issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, is available online. Fair warning -- the article is about the spiny water flea, not about the model used.

    While have great affection for biomimicry, the use of natural models for designed products and systems, this use of designed products and systems as models for understanding nature -- technomimicry? -- is also worth watching.

    (Via Biology News)

    March 4, 2005

    Hybrid Snowblower. No, really.

    Speaking of Honda, while poking around looking for details on their hybrid scooter, I ran across this gem: the HSS1170i hybrid-electric snowblower. The HSS1170i...

    ...combines a gasoline engine for powering the snowblower apparatus and charging the battery, with electric motors for forward propulsion. [...] Replacing the conventional gasoline engine with electric motors allows for computerization of the HSS1170i drive system. This results in smoother forward propulsion and optimum automatic speed control based on workload. [...] The HSS1170i is equipped with a Honda e-SPEC engine, an environmentally friendly vertical powerplant that surpasses US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Phase II regulations-the most stringent in the world.

    Moreover, the HSS1170i is the fourth hybrid snowblower in Honda's lineup. They actually make more models of hybrid snowblowers than hybrid cars.

    Can Travolta Make Hybrids "Cool?"

    I'm not holding my breath on this one, but stranger things have happened.

    In the new movie "Be Cool," a sequel to the quirky 1995 "Get Shorty," John Travolta's character ("Chili Palmer") is stuck against his wishes behind the wheel of a hybrid -- in this case, a Honda Insight -- much like he was stuck in a minivan in the first movie. And, as before, he goes about convincing the gangsters and gangstas he interacts with that he's the cool one with his hybrid, making everyone else switch to a similar vehicle.

    This is not an unadulterated good; the humor of the subplot rests on the audience assuming at the outset that hybrids are, in fact, not cool. That's not necessarily the case, Ed Begley Jr. notwithstanding. Regardless, if the end result is more people demanding hybrid cars, it's probably worth it.

    (Via Mixed Power)

    500 Miles Per Gallon?

    Fareed Zakaria's Newsweek column "Imagine: 500 Miles Per Gallon," in which he argues that a combination of flex-fuel and plug-in hybrid vehicle technologies could significantly reduce our dependence on petroleum, is getting quite a bit of attention in the sustainasphere (see, for example, here and here). That's fine -- it's always good to see the idea that we do, in fact, already have the technologies at hand to build a better planet get wider play -- but I have to admit some exasperation with the way the story is presented. "500 miles per gallon," it turns out, refers not to the fuel consumption of these green cars, but to their relative consumption of oil.

    The current crop of hybrid cars get around 50 miles per gallon. Make it a plug-in and you can get 75 miles. Replace the conventional fuel tank with a flexible-fuel tank that can run on a combination of 15 percent petroleum and 85 percent ethanol or methanol, and you get between 400 and 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

    As long as you mentally add that "of gasoline" every time he tosses out the "500 miles per gallon" figure, it's a decent article. And it is good to get this argument in front of a mainstream audience. I just wish Zakaria had been a bit more careful with his phrasing.

    March 7, 2005

    More Details on Fast-Recharge Batteries

    This week's New Scientist has a few more details about the rapid-recharge battery technology developed by Altair Nanotechnology we mentioned recently. Two interesting tidbits from the piece: the improved charge rate comes from increasing the effective surface area of the anode at the nanoscale; and the technology for improving the charge rate also translates into faster discharge rates, making the new type lithium-ion batteries suitable for rapid-discharge uses.

    The new design also gives the batteries a greater reuse life, up to 20,000 recharges before becoming useless, as compared to ~400 charging cycles for current Li ion batteries.

    Alternative Fuels

    Fareed Zakaria's piece in Newsweek suggested that plug-in hybrids combined with flex-fuel engines could greatly reduce our dependence on petroleum. We've talked about plug-in hybrids before, so what's this about flex-fuels?

    Broadly put, flex-fuel vehicles are those which can run on a variety of fuels, not just gasoline. While most gasoline engines will run acceptably on mixtures of a small amount of alternative fuel (e.g., ethanol) with gasoline, flex-fuel engines are designed to handle much greater amounts of non-petroleum fuel. "E85," or a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is a flex-fuel choice with some automaker support. This article at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development provides an overview of non-petroleum fuel options; generally speaking, the ones which include "mixed" or "blended" forms in the description are suitable for flex-fuel use.

    An advanced flexible engine technology, HCCI, offers a greater range than most flex-fuel engines. As we noted in August, Fiat will be introducing an HCCI engine design in Brazil able to use four different fuels -- gasoline, diesel, ethanol and natural gas. HCCI engines have significantly lower emissions and much greater efficiency than regular internal combustion engines, but they're also much trickier to design and maintain.

    March 9, 2005

    China's Renewable Energy Law Revisited

    Last week, we posted a reference to China's passage of a Renewable Energy Law, mandating that 10% of China's energy production be from renewable sources by 2020. One question that arose, due to a BBC report, was whether hydroelectric counted as renewable -- without including hydroelectric, the push to 10% renewable would be a bigger challenge and a more impressive goal. With hydro, conversely, my take was that the law was largely window-dressing.

    The confusion ends here. The Center for Resource Solutions, a US-based group working with China to expand the use of renewable energy sources, confirms that hydroelectric is, indeed, considered to be part of the renewable mix. Window-dressing it is, then.

    Learn To Eco-Drive

    Green Car Congress points us to a new program in Japan designed to promote changing driving habits to reduce emissions. This program uses: in-vehicle eco-driving navigation system that instructs the driver on fuel-efficient driving. These systems are being installed in official vehicles, private vehicles and taxis. The system detects sudden accelerations, abrupt slowdowns, harsh braking and idling, and calls the driver's attention to these problems by means of a computer-generated voice and a monitor display. The data can be saved to assess effects.

    The eco-driving project started in October and finishes this month; the driving monitors will be loaned out to individuals wishing to learn how to drive more efficiently.

    March 10, 2005

    47 Gigawatts

    The Global Wind Energy Council released figures showing that wind power added 7,976 megawatts to the global power production in 2004, bringing the total to 47,317 megawatts -- just over 47 gigawatts of wind power, worldwide. Germany ranks first in national wind capacity, at 16.6 GW, Spain second at 8.3 GW, and the US third at 6.7 GW. 72 percent of new wind installations in 2004 were in Europe, 16 percent in Asia, and only 6 percent in North America.

    Renewable Energy Access has more details.

    March 11, 2005

    First Summer Crossing

    This May, polar explorers Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen will begin a four-month journey across the Arctic Ocean -- the first time a summer crossing will have been attempted. They will travel by slac, a combined sled/canoe, and expect to be in the water at least 30% of the time. Or perhaps even more: summer ice depth in the Arctic Ocean is less than half of what it was in the 1960s, and the ice fields have become sufficiently clear that even the long-sought "northwest passage" may soon be open. Dupre and Larsen intend to use the summer crossing as a way to draw attention to environmental disruption and the effects of global warming, and will be collecting snow samples every 50 miles to be analyzed for pollutants.

    Upscale Hybrid Review

    We've occasionally posted about the coming wave of "upscale" hybrids -- more expensive, more luxurious, less efficient than the Prius or Civic Hybrid -- and it looks like vehicles are finally reaching the showroom.

    MSNBC has a review of the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid SUV using the Toyota "Synergy Drive" (also found in the Prius). The 29 miles per gallon combined mileage isn't going to get a second glance from Prius or HCH owners, but is still 38% higher than the 21 mpg achieved by the non-hybrid RX 330. Remember the counter-intuitive math of fuel consumption: a driver choosing the 400h over the 330 will save around 1.3 gallons of gasoline every 100 miles, roughly the same savings seen by a driver choosing a 48 mpg Civic Hybrid over a 28 mpg non-hybrid Accord. Lexus 400h drivers may be overly-conscious of not wanting to look like they've made any sacrifices, but they're actually doing a better job of reducing emissions and gasoline dependence than they may realize.

    March 12, 2005

    Central American PV to the Grid

    Solar photovoltaics are fairly rare in Central America, and none of them are connected to the grid. El Salvador is about to receive the first one -- a 20 kilowatt system on the roof of the German School in a suburb of San Salvador. The system will be built by a German pv company, Phonix SonnenStrom AG. Construction started in late February, and the system is scheduled to come online on April 7. While a single 20 kilowatt solar pv system isn't much compared to the growing supply of wind power, it's a start. The Bright Green future will have a mix of power sources, and in the coming years smallish solar installations will become increasingly common as costs continue to drop and Kyoto/CDM projects proliferate.

    March 13, 2005

    10% of Europeans Safe from HIV

    It appears that around 10% of people of European ancestry are unable to be infected by HIV. These individuals carry a genetic mutation that blocks the virus from entering cells. It appears that the source of this mutation was the Great Plague of the middle ages, which was not the bacterial bubonic plague, but was instead "a continuing series of epidemics of a lethal, viral, haemorrhagic fever that used the CCR5 as an entry port into the immune system."

    It remains to be seen whether this will assist with efforts to create an anti-HIV vaccine.

    Emergency Alerts by Cell/Pager/Text

    We posted last December on the DC Text Alert program, which sends emergency alerts via SMS. The Washington Post (via Yahoo! News) has more details on the system, which is now called the Community Emergency Alert Network. Traffic, weather emergencies, road closures, and the like are beamed to the text-capable devices of over 16,000 subscribers. Broadcasts are available in English or Spanish.

    March 14, 2005

    California Clean Energy Fund

    One of the better bits of fallout from recent energy troubles in California is the implementation of the California Clean Energy Fund, a $30 million investment fund to seed new companies focusing on clean renewable energy production. Profits from the investments would be fed back into the fund, which would otherwise operate as a non-profit organization. Three leading venture capital groups -- Nth Power, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and VantagePoint Venture Partners -- will manage the investments. More details at the SF Chronicle and Businesswire.

    (Via GCC and Ken Novak)

    Future Washington

    Rohit passed along this gem, and I thought it worthy of broader note: writer and editor Ernest Lilley, new resident of the American capitol city, is producing an anthology of science fiction stories set in a future version of Washington, D.C.. I'm a sucker for a good piece of political science fiction, and this anthology will undoubtedly have some great examples of the genre. Authors who have expressed an interest in contributing include some well-known names, but all writers are welcome to submit their offerings.

    Deadline for story submission is early April, 2005 (which is less of a deadline and more of a deadsmear, but I digress.

    March 15, 2005

    Party With Bruce

    The Bruce Sterling-hosted after-party is a long-standing South by SouthWest tradition. It used to be held in his otherwise quiet suburban Austin home, but has since outgrown such humble settings. This year, its location was a closely-guarded secret, but the cat's now out of the bag, courtesy Mr. Sterling himself. He posted the details for tonight's shindig on his blog.

    Here's the catch: it's a costume party.

    The Gimmick:
    This party will be taking place in the year 2010.
    Come dressed as yourself five years from now.
    And prepare to vanish like a magic pumpkin
    well before midnight.

    How Long Does It Last?

    Quick quiz: How long does carbon dioxide last in the atmosphere? If you said "a few hundred years," you're partially right -- but not completely. It turns out that the chemistry of atmospheric CO2 is a bit more complex than is generally thought. The University of Chicago's David Archer has a guest piece over at RealClimate, spelling out why pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere makes for a real long-term mess.

    When you release a slug of new CO2 into the atmosphere, dissolution in the ocean gets rid of about three quarters of it, more or less, depending on how much is released. The rest has to await neutralization by reaction with CaCO3 or igneous rocks on land and in the ocean... If one is forced to simplify reality into a single number for popular discussion, several hundred years is a sensible number to choose, because it tells three-quarters of the story, and the part of the story which applies to our own lifetimes.

    However, the long tail is a lot of baby to throw out in the name of bath-time simplicity. Major ice sheets, in particular in Greenland, ocean methane clathrate deposits, and future evolution of glacial/interglacial cycles might be affected by that long tail. A better shorthand for public discussion might be that CO2 sticks around for hundreds of years, plus 25% that sticks around forever.

    March 16, 2005


    Talk about misreading the market... Green Car Congress posts a link to a nice bit of crow eaten by the CEO of DaimlerChrysler, Dieter Zetsche. Admitting that they, along with most other car companies, had completely misjudged the market impact of hybrid cars -- and given Toyota and Honda the "moral high ground" -- Zetsche said that DaimlerChrysler was working with GM to build next-generation hybrid technologies.

    Zetsche added that the collaboration between GM and Chrysler aimed at developing full-hybrid architecture will benefit both companies.

    "As my wife often says, 'If you know you're going to arrive a bit late to the dinner party, be sure you bring the best wine,' " he said.

    GM executives have said the new hybrid system will be available on full-size SUVs and pickup trucks by 2007.

    March 21, 2005

    South-South Pharma

    This has "shape of things to come" written all over it.

    Brazil is one of a handful of countries outside the west with the technical expertise to manufacture anti-AIDS drugs; in order to qualify for the WTO rules giving developing nations the right to use generic versions of patented drugs in emergencies, they have to be able to manufacture them locally. As part of an ongoing program to spread that expertise, Brazil has agreed to help Mozambique fight HIV/AIDS by first acting as quality assurance for imported anti-retroviral drugs, and then building a pharmaceutical plant in Mozambique to produce anti-retrovirals locally. Brazil will train Mozambican staff to operate the facility.

    Diesel Hybrids Real Soon Now

    Last June, we asked where the diesel-electric hybrid cars were. After all, diesel engines tend to get higher gas mileage per gallon than gasoline engines, and biodiesel shows some promise as a way of reducing dependence on petroleum. Adding hybrid tech would have the potential to boost mileage figures even higher than that of the Prius or Insight. It turns out that such technology had been tested, but (aside from narrow uses) never really rolled out in passenger vehicles. Today, however, Wired has a report detailing efforts on the part of automakers GM and DaimlerChrysler (known to be working together to play catch-up with hybrids) to bring out hybrid diesels in the near future, with the potential to boost fuel efficiency by up to 25%.

    The downside appears to be price, with manufacturers claiming that the technology would add up to $8,000 to the cost of a vehicle. I'm skeptical of these figures, however. Automakers currently suing the state of California to block the implementation of CO2 emission reduction rules have a vested interest in showing that making their vehicles more efficient would be too costly.

    Zero Emissions Cargo Ship

    orcelle.jpgIs a cargo ship partially pulled along by the wind not sufficiently green for you? How about one complete with photovoltaic-covered sails, power-generating fins, and fuel cells? That's the design now being shown around by Wallenius Wilhelmsen, one of the world's biggest cargo ship manufacturers. Although the "E/S Orcelle" is a concept vehicle (i.e., not intended for production in this form), Wallenius Wilhelmsen intends this as a demonstration that efficient, clean technologies are now available for the shipping industry. The E/S Orcelle, if built as a car carrier (its somewhat ironic default configuration), would be able to carry 50% more than current car carrier ships at similar tonnage -- and would completely eliminate the use of pollution-laden ballast water tanks.

    (Found via Gizmodo)

    March 22, 2005

    Wolves As Climate Effect Mitigators

    The April 2005 edition of PLoS Biology has an article (released to the web 3/15) describing how Gray Wolves help the Yellowstone regional ecosystem better ride out episodes of climate change. Many predators are also (or even largely) scavengers, but gray wolves are not. It turns out that gray wolf predation patterns actually help scavengers; without gray wolf kills, many scavenger species are unable to make it through shorter winters (when prey species are less likely to die from starvation themselves and can move around more). Wolves act as a "safety net" for scavengers in times of environmental change.

    While interesting in its own right, this story points to the larger issue of recognizing changing the components of a system can have unanticipated (and unintended) consequences, especially when the system is under pressure. Education in how systems -- particularly natural systems -- function, and an emphasis on systemic over reductionist thinking, should be a fundamental part of 21st century schooling.

    My copy of Ken Boulding's The World As A Total System is a bit ragged these days. What texts -- newer ones, if possible -- would you suggest to people who wish to have a better understanding of systems, particularly ecosystems?

    Clean-Energy Trends 2005

    Sustainability Sundays contributer Joel Makower sent us a link to a new report from his company Clean Edge, detailing leading trends in sustainable energy-related businesses. The brief (18 page) report makes for interesting reading; the business side of the bright green future really seems to be picking up steam. Joel summarizes its findings in his blog, and an excerpt is available here. The entire report can be freely downloaded.

    Joel's "five trends to watch:"

    • the growth of fuels from biomass in the U.S. and Europe
    • the growth of energy efficiency due to high energy prices
    • the resurgence of electricity generated by concentrated solar power stations
    • the emergence of the hydrogen infrastructure
    • how the growth of green buildings is stimulating markets for new products and technologies

    Scientific Balance

    darwinhasaposse_sm.jpgDave Roberts at Gristmill gives us the heads-up on this delightful editorial from the latest issue of Scientific American. The SciAm website only has the first couple of paragraphs for free, but a helpful LiveJournal user has retyped the whole thing. Go read it.

    Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody’s ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.

    (I've been waiting for a chance to use this graphic, btw -- click it for a link to bookmarks with that design. Bigger version in the extended entry.)

    Continue reading "Scientific Balance" »

    March 23, 2005

    Mandatory Mileage Gauges?

    Rod Edwards at Sustainability Zone suggests that making mileage information readouts mandatory would be a useful step towards greater driving efficiency. It's a not-so-unreasonable argument: the cost of implementation would be fairly low, so automakers couldn't complain about expense; it would be useful information, giving consumers a way to make better choices; and anecdotal evidence suggests that drivers change their habits when shown how mileage is affected by driving patterns. I'm told that many new cars already include mileage readouts (some with the ability to shut it off, when the news is too painful). Mandatory mileage gauges would by no means result in sufficient improvement in efficiency by itself, but it would be a good -- and easy -- start.

    March 24, 2005

    Canada Gets Green Car Promise

    In the Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic department: Reuters reports that Canada has reached an agreement with major carmakers to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from their vehicles by 25% by 2010. As the Sierra Club notes, this is essentially the same requirement as the emissions-reduction law passed in California last year -- the one that the same automakers are suing to stop, claiming that they cannot meet its demands. As the Sierra Club's Dan Becker notes, "The auto companies are now in the awkward position of telling a judge that they cannot make the same cars in California that they will make in Canada."

    A number of states have signed on to the California proposal (under a federal law allowing states to choose between EPA air quality rules or tougher California requirements); adding in Canada, and over one-third of the North American auto market will have the stricter greenhouse gas emissions rules. This could result in most carmakers simply using the stricter guidelines across the board, rather than trying to build certain cars for Canada & the coasts.

    (Via Salon)

    A Solar Eclipse On Mars

    h_deimos_sun_03.jpgOkay, so it may not be particularly world-changing in and of itself, but it's still pretty cool: the Mars Rover "Sprit" has captured images of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos transiting the Sun. When our Moon does that, we call it a solar eclipse. As the photo here shows (click it for the QuickTime movie), the ratio of Martian Moon size to Sun size doesn't result in a real eclipse, but it's the same process.

    (Extra bonus coolness: You Are Here -- a photo of Earth as seen from Mars.)

    March 25, 2005

    Donating a Green Million

    Renewable Energy Access reports that Puget Sound Energy is donating 1 million kilowatt-hours of green power "to families who need help paying their energy bills as a way to mark the utilities hallmark of serving a million electric customers in the state." It's a bit more convoluted than that, but the idea's good. PSE will donate $60,000 to the Salvation Army's Warm Home Fund (enough to purchase a million kWh), then buying a million kWh worth of renewable energy certificates from Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which invests in renewable sources such as wind and solar.

    T. rex Tissue

    Even those whose contact with paleontology was limited to toy dinosaurs as children know that fossilization means the gradual replacement of organic material by minerals, and that over millions of years, all that's left is rock in the shape of bone. If scientists are lucky, conventional paleontological wisdom goes, they might get an imprint of skin or feather left in the mud and then hardened. Nobody would ever imagine that soft tissues would ever survive the fossilization process.

    Time to rewrite the biology texts. Dr. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University and Montana State University has managed to extract blood vessels and fibrous tissues (good pictures here) from the interior of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex femur found in 2003. The bone had to be broken in two in order to be lifted from its resting place, and researchers noticed that the interior of the fossil wasn't quite as solid as the exterior. Schweitzer used a mild acid to dissolve the mineral components, leaving organic material which was stretchy and pliant, with well-defined blood vessels and cell structures. Schweitzer went on to duplicate the process with three more dinosaur specimens, two more T. rex and a hadrosaur.

    The research as it stands demonstrates a close structural resemblance at the microscopic level between the dinosaur tissues and large birds such as ostrich -- hardly a surprise to those of us who have continued to follow paleontology well past the toy dinosaur phase, but a welcome confirmation of current theory. Given the obvious Jurassic Park jokes, paleontologists are being very cautious about any notion that DNA could be extracted from the tissues, but do suggest that proteins could be identified. 65 million year old proteins would be a tremendous boon to our understanding of evolutionary biology.

    March 26, 2005

    Wind Power Maps

    Treehugger points us to a site at the US Department of Energy showing wind power maps for most American states. There aren't too many surprises in store -- as expected, wind power tends to be greatest along high hill and mountain ridges, and along coastlines. Still, it's interesting to get an early warning as to which locations may turn out to be wind power capitols in the not too distant future (hello, Wyoming!).

    March 28, 2005

    Ocean Power Update

    We've posted a number of items about ocean power (aka tidal power or wave power). It's the dark horse renewable energy system -- not many people are aware of it, but the more one learns about its features, the more attractive it becomes. Less transient than wind or solar power and less of a visual trigger for NIMBY backlash than wind turbines, ocean/tidal is starting to get more attention. If I was a betting man, I'd wager that, by 2050, ocean/tidal power will represent the largest source of centralized energy production worldwide (solar will probably figure higher overall, with the broad use of solar-embedded building materials, paints and polymers).

    Technology Review has a good overview article on ocean power, including links to some companies developing the technologies and some discussion of current projects. Few of the technological or environmental claims in the piece will come as much of a surprise to WorldChanging readers. What might be a bit more startling is the news that the US Department of Energy has discontinued funding for ocean power development. As of the present the UK appears to be pushing to become the world leader in ocean/tidal power.

    Oh, and one last cool thing about ocean power. Tides are generated from the pull of the Earth's moon. Ocean power can, in all seriousness, also be called Lunar Power.

    Biodiesel, North Dakota Style

    Green Car Congress points us to an announcement at the website of ND senator Kent Conrad of plans to build the largest biodiesel refinery in North America. A German company, Science and Technologies Industries International, will be the parent company behind the venture. The plant will produce 100,000 tons of biodiesel annually (a little over 2,000 barrels/day); the source biomass will be canola grown in North Dakota and Canada. Construction begins in August, and will be completed by December 2006.