Archive for February, 2005

The End of The Universe

Monday, February 28th, 2005

Now, the end of the universe is one of those things we could likely avoid thinking about, without too many consequences. However, it is sometimes interesting to consider what might happen a few billion years from now, will the universe start to contract, and eventually squish itself back into a little point before exploding again into the big bang? Or will it just continue expanding forever, until the suns go out, and all is cold.

In either of those situations, you have to wonder what will happen to humanity, if we perchance happen to be there, or to some other intelligent life, if any exists and makes it that far. Is that just the end of all life? It’s somewhat disconcerting to think so.

A fellow named Frank Tipler believes that it’s inevitable the universe will fill up with intelligent life, and that by the time the universe collapses, the ability of life to process information will be asymptotically infinite (as we get closer to the collapse, the closer to being able to process an infinite amount of information), allowing that life to essentially simulate the entire universe again, thus reproducing all of us, and our lives again, in this simulation of what is essentially the universe.

It’s an interesting idea, although I’m certainly skeptical that he bases his theological statements entirely on the bible. It’s interesting to wonder what the world will be like in a few thousand years, let alone a few million or billion.

You can read a little bit about his theory here (Tipler’s site) and here (wikipedia).

Along the same lines, there’s a fun short story by Isaac Asimov that has another ending to the universe:
The Last Question

Religion and Ecology

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

A wonderful program today on the CBC’s radio series, Tapestry on God’s Green Earth: Religion and Ecology. It was quite inspiring because it celebrated humans and the environment as part of creation (BTW, which was defined as 14b years).

It includes two site of note:
The Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology
The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University

I believe that the green nuns mentioned in the broadcast are the Sisters of St Martha on PEI. The nuns see themselves as advocates for earth and ascribe to a cosmology that puts earth/ecology as a necessary step between humans and god.

E-Waste in Bangalore

Friday, February 25th, 2005

From Madhav Badami, our professor of Urban Planning and Environment

Greetings all,

This is my first blog post ever. Actually, I was meaning to blog a couple of weeks ago, in response to the BBC news item on e-waste in the city of Bangalore in India. Unfortunately, I was laid low by an attack of acute tendonitis, and I have been back on my feet only the last three days (it is like being born again, I can tell you).

Before I proceed, I wish to declare my motivations for blogging on this particular topic. First of all, I have a strong academic interest in policy-making for waste minimization; and I am particularly concerned about the growing waste problem in low-income countries such as India (I will get to why in a bit). Secondly, and at least as importantly, I spent some of my best years living and working in Bangalore. So, this is a city I care about. Bangalore is situated on the Deccan Plateau in the south of India, and because of its altitude, enjoys year-round temperatures that are significantly lower than in the surrounding plains. I have been visiting the city ever since the 1970s, and I can even now recall how very beautiful it was then — lots of greenery, broad sidewalks, and very clean (unlike many other Indian cities). And although it has deteriorated considerably because of rapid urbanization in the last couple of decades, it is even now considered to be India’s Garden City.

Now, about the changing waste situation in India. India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s, and ever since then, urban incomes and consumption have increased dramatically. Not only has consumption increased, the kinds of things that are consumed (and discarded) have changed as well. For example, electric household appliance use has grown by leaps and bounds (and so has energy consumption). Western fast foods, with all that they entail, have become popular, and the amount of packaging has increased. And so, just as consumption has changed (both in terms of quantity and quality), so also has waste. Waste in Indian cities used to be predominantly organic (food, yard wastes, and so forth), with very little non bio-degradable stuff, such as plastics. Recycling rates were very high, and the bulk of the recycling was done informally. For example, a chap would come to our house (and every other house in the neighbourhood) once every two weeks or so, on a bicycle, and pay to take away all the newspapers, and any bottles and cans that might have collected since his last visit. The newsprint would be (and still is) converted into packets for groceries, vegetables, and snacks. Very little was allowed to go waste. The only thing that was thrown away was food leftovers. Incidentally, most Indian households use stainless steel utensils and cutlery that are handed down from generation to generation (we do too, in Montreal, and many of our stainless-steel vessels come from my wife’s and my parents). And milk was typically collected in a stainless vessel in the morning, from the local dispenser (earlier, when I was a child, it used to be brought home by the local milkman, on his bicycle. )

But with the rampant consumerism in the 1990s, the amount of waste generated has increased, and the composition of waste has changed, as discussed. The share of non-biodegradable materials, and materials that either cannot be recycled or are very difficult to recycle, and hazardous wastes in the waste stream has increased significantly. Enter the computer industry. Simultaneously with liberalization in the early 1990s, the computer software industry started booming, mainly in Bangalore; this was in large part because over the past four or five decades since India gained independence, Bangalore had been the centre of several manufacturing and hi-tech industries (earth moving machinery, aircraft, electronics and telecommunications, precision equipment, and so forth), and the centre of higher education in the sciences. As the computer industry in Bangalore grew, it began to attract many major foreign multi-national computer firms (IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Oracle, to name a few). The city also became the headquarters of giant home-grown multi-nationals such as Infosys and Wipro. So much so that Bangalore has come to be known as India’s Silicon Valley. With this of course has come the problem of computer wastes that the BBC article talks about.

It is bad enough that municipal waste has been increasing dramatically in Bangalore and other Indian cities. These cities were already finding it difficult to cope, given the lack of infrastructure for waste collection and safe disposal. But the growth in computer wastes, and wastes from, for example, discarded mobile phones — it is estimated that two million units are being added every month, month after month, in India — has made a difficult problem significantly worse; and to add insult to injury, a lot of the computers used by people like us in the West end up more often than not in South Asia (and China), after we are done with them. All in all, a waste crisis. This is because many of the wastes from computers, mobile phones and other electrical appliances are hazardous, and if not treated and disposed of properly, can leach into groundwater and travel up the food chain.

As long as consumption levels were low, and the bulk of the waste was bio-degradable, the fact that infrastructure was inadequate was not a problem. But as the waste stream has become more complex and dangerous, more and more sophisticated and expensive technological systems and regulatory regimes are required to collect, treat and safely dispose of waste (note that sanitary landfills, for example, involve millions of dollars to construct, operate and maintain). Indian cities, given their meagre resources and multiple urgent priorities, simply do not have the wherewithal to put in place such measures. Also, as long as consumption levels were low, the population of Indian cities was not a serious problem. But just imagine the situation when you have 10-15 million people (as you do in some Indian cities), a rapidly growing number of whom are beginning to consume like North Americans, but with nowhere near the ability of North American cities to deal with the waste generated.

I would like to close with this one final point. The advent of the computer and software industry in Bangalore and other Indian cities has undoubtedly produced many socio-economic benefits — among other things, it has created tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and generated vast revenues to the exchequer by way of corporate taxes, and billions of dollars of foreign exchange reserves. At the same time, it is causing negative environmental impacts, of which computer wastes are only one. With the growing incomes has come dramatically increased motor vehicle ownership and use, causing major traffic congestion and air pollution, and severely straining the already inadequate road infrastructure. And many low income people have been squeezed out of the land markets within the city, and have had to locate in the periphery, in areas not well served by transit, as real estate values and rents have sky-rocketed (it would be interesting to consider if a manufacturing industry with similar employment levels as the computer industry and located in the outskirts, would have had this effect).

Your virtual girlfriend

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Cyberspace meets meatspace, in the form of your new virtual girlfriend, Vivienne. Developed by Artificial Life, Inc, Vivienne can converse in 7 languages and can move through 18 settings, such as bars, restaurants, shopping malls and movie theatres. She loves virtual flowers and chocolates that you can buy here. You can even marry her and get cell phone messages from her mother-in-law.

This is all done through your cell phone. According to the article, “Vivienne … is at the leading edge of a wave of services that companies are developing to take advantage of the much faster data transmission rates made possible by 3G technology.” It utilizes expert systems located on servers to handle the 35,000 topics that Vivienne can discuss, from philosophy to movies to sculpture to banking.

Apparently there are technical problems because the 3G cell phone batteries run down easily and there is no voice recognition (although she voices her responses, you have to text your requests). But consider the social problems.

Artificial Life has already run into delays in introducing Vivienne to men in Asia and Europe. It originally hoped to have her flirting on cellphone screens by last Christmas.

[However, there are cosmetic problems] -Vivienne is being reprogrammed not to bare her navel or display body piercings in conservative Muslim countries like Malaysia.

And the designers are worried that Vivienne’s boyfriends might become addicted to her so contact will be limited to one hour per day.

Now I can hear the guys thinking out there, “if only I could limit my conact with my girlfriend to one hour per day.” Or “if only I could get a girlfriend willing to ‘respond’ for a few virtual flowers or movie tickets.” Will we have lots of virtual hookups because they’re more efficient, giving us what we desire, instead of the more messy reality? From the success of certain types of chatrooms, I think the answer is yes.

Population estimate

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Here is a story from AP via the Globe about the UN population estimate for 2050: 9 billion people and mostly in the developing world. Just imagine the earth’s population almost doubling over 45 years, that’s an incredible increase compared to what we have recorded to now. What will the implications be for nature of this population growth? How can technology assist with dealing with population growth?

Friday Cat Blogging (the North-South Edition)

Friday, February 25th, 2005

Ambriento Gato
Starving Venezuelian mother enjoying the gift of Quebec tourists. Tuesday 22 Feb 2005, Margarita Island, Venezuela. Courtesy Prof. Frederic Fabry, School of Environment and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Maldives Pushes Ahead With Relocation Plan…

Friday, February 25th, 2005

What has been anticipated as now begun… the relocation of islanders.

Yesterday in the news they announced that the Maldives is going ahead with its relocation plan.

The Tsunami has obviously given the spark to Maldives to go ahead with the relocation plan, 40% of the country’s land have been submerged during the tsunami, but the real-problem of the island nations (we all know it) is the rise of ocean due to global warming. The Maldivian government plans to relocate 60% of its people from low-ground islands to higher ground islands.

Maldives have at least some higher-ground to relocate its people but it is not the case for another country with an even more critical situation, Tuvalu.

Tuvalu is a small country in the south pacific composed a a few coral islands, its highest ground is not more than 4.5metres above sea-level. More and more often Tuvalians see their whole country flooded during “king tides” that can reach more than 3 metres above normal sea-level. The last one was two-weeks ago. Tuvalu’s government is now trying to dress a relocation plan with Australia and New Zealand in case of an emergency.

I liked the analogy that the government of Tuvalu does between the “War on terror” and “climate change” in terms of national security.


Tuvalu said it understood that for many countries, particularly developed nations such as the United States, national security was now a priority and the island nation supported the war on terror.

Tuvalu representative Enele Sopoaga told the General Assembly that national security was also a priority for Tuvalu, but the threat it faced was not from terror groups or weapons of mass destruction but climate change.

“For Tuvalu and many small-island developing states security should be seen in its multi-dimensional nature. Our national security is threatened by environmental degradation emanating from outside the country,” Sopoaga said.

“The impact of climate change has the potential to threaten the survival of our entire nation,” he said.

<= END of quote

So which one are the most threatening WMDs? Sarin or CO2

Paris Hilton’s cell phone

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

I am a not so closet fan of pop culture. One thing that’s driving me crazy is this confusion over the hacking of Paris Hilton’s cell phone. Am I mistaken or was it actually her online database (on T-mobile?) that was hacked, a website that happens to be connected to her cell phone (SideKick)? Either reporters are incurious and are too lazy to understand how the technology works. OR, and this is more likely, it’s more sensational to report on a potentially new vulnerability, the hacking of cellphones that so many people now own. It’s like people worrying that computers, which aren’t connected to the Internet, will get hacked.

Or maybe this story has received so much coverage just because we’re supposed to feel sorry for the celebrities?

Environmental IT Purchasing

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

An interesting link I ran across, it appears to be an environmental checklist by the chief technical officer for the city of Seattle. I find it reassuring that it even exists! It covers goes over how to make environmentally sensitive IT purchases, and has a sort of checklist for effective purchasing, including energy efficiency, toxic materials, percentage of recycled material, as well as how to deal with the computer waste.

Of course, this is a government agency (presumably) asking these questions, and one could argue whether a company driven purely by profit motive would have what seems to be a very reasonable set of criteria.

I can certainly imagine some change taking place if a few relatively large companies had this same set of criteria in their IT departments.

Link (Powerpoint… sorry!)

Mincipal Wifi’s

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

From the NYTimes reporting on Philadephia’s attempt at a municipality–wide wireless Internet network:

“City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let students and low-income residents get on the net.”

Municipal wireless is at the same time a fascinating experiment in technology diffusion, a scary story of surveillance, an interesting battle between the public and private sectors over who should build the infrastructure and finally, an example of overlaying virtual public space over physical public space at 1:1 scale. As much as I love wireless, I’m not certain it’s a good idea to have my nose buried in a laptop instead of occasionally experiencing the world around me (at minimum, I’d likely bump into the lamposts). But then again, is it any different from the continual connection to the virtual afforded by cellphones and Blackberries?

Wi-fi Networking News has a good round up on munipical inititiatives to create wireless communities.

Legal actions to halt innovation

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

Prevailing myths about computers hold that technological innovations epitomize progress, which are both desirable and inevitable. Next week in class, we’ll wonder out loud whether the inevitable thrust of progress is such a good idea, particularly when it seems devoid of any precautionary principle. But how comfortable do we really feel about halting progress? Consider this article from the The Washington Post, which asks: How should courts view technologies that have beneficial uses but also are heavily used for illegal acts?

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether a file-sharing service named Grokster should be held liable for the millions of people around the world who use it to illegally trade music, movies and software.

The entertainment industry is asking the court to rule that even though Grokster itself does not engage in stealing files, the service is responsible because it is predominantly used for theft and has done nothing to try to stop that use.


The prospect that the court might adopt this legal reasoning is sending shudders through the technology and consumer electronics communities. Hundreds of existing products could be threatened, they say. And they fear that new products, and early funding, will die in the crib if the gear might be co-opted by people wishing to use it improperly.

“If it’s so risky for me to try out new things or put new things on the market, you are really going to devastate people’s willingness to innovate,” said Elliott Frutkin, chief executive of Time Trax Technologies Corp., a Gaithersburg start-up.

For those of us who love our iPods, peer-to-peer software, and Tivo, can we be so quick to condemn progress? That is the conundrum for our-technology-loving culture.

Asbestos & Canada

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

There was an interesting reportage on radio-canada (cbc in french) on friday night about asbestos & canada. I found that the attitude of Canadian government and companies towards asbestos was the same “kind” of attitude than the one towards Basel treaty. Here’s some interesting facts that I noted from the reportage:

* Asbestos is recognized as hazardous and a threat for public health by all western countries except Canada.

* Some scientific studies show that with appropriate care, asbestos can be safe.

* The form of cancer due to asbestos takes 20-30 years to develop.

* The european union has recently banned asbestos completely.

* Canada blindly exports its asbestos to developing countries where they don’t take appropriate safety measures to handle it. Huge outbreaks of cancers due to asbestos are predicted in these countries (china, thailand,…).

* Other western countries accused canada of using its “good” image and being hypocrites towards developing countries.

* To be consistant and answer others accusations, canada lifted some restrictions on asbestos in canada… so now we put it everywhere in our roads. The government even considered put it in the parliement… but they backed off.

* If Quebec would be a country it would be the country with the highest rate of cancers directly linked to asbestos

* All the asbestos industry is in quebec and it’s worth about $160,000,000. It employs about 1000 persons only 4 months per year.

* Asbestos lobby would be one of the strongest, similar to tobacco lobby.

So basically the conclusion of the reportage was that we risk our own health, the health of thousands of construction workers in developping countries, the international credibility of canada… all this for saving that industry. And you can also do the maths:

- $(the welfare of the 1000 employees for the 8 months they don’t work)
- $(the medical cost for cancers)
- $(CSST cost)
- $(the indemnities for the relatives of the ones who die of that cancer)
- $(the cost of the agency that promotes asbestos)
Is it really worth it????

Someone keeps stealing my letters…

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

I’m not sure how many of you have had to deal with online communities, but one of the things holding them back definitely seems to be that a certain segment of people seem to be far more willing to be… unpleasant, when they feel anonymous. Spam is another branch in the same family, if the people sending all those e-mails, or running the bots which spam blogs and public forums actually knew the people using the forums/e-mail/etc, you can bet they’d think twice before they ran amok.

What brought this on is the following website: Someone keeps stealing my letters…

It’s pretty frustrating, there seems to be a high number of people who exist simply to try and mess up what other people are doing… I very nearly had a nifty sentence before someone came in and decided to wreck it. In fridges with more than say 20 people, it’s impossible to write anything at all.

Chicken feathers in computer circuit boards

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2005

Today in Wired there is an article about a researcher from the university of Delaware that is currently investigating the possibility to use chicken feathers and soybean oil in the circuit board manufacturing process, the soybean oil to replace the epoxy and chicken feathers to replace the fiberglass. In addition to the fact that it would be environmentally friendlier it would have the following advantages:
- There are a plenty of feathers available and mainly used for low-grade animal feed for cattle.
- Farmer could make more money out of their chickens.
- “It lightens the weight of the composite and creates an environment conducive to high-speed circuits.”

Informal Education in Florida

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2005

You’ll all be happy to know that I visited a small museum with an interactive computer exhibit that told me all about the flora and fauna of the park we were in as well as the hiking trails I could choose to walk on.

In the Everglades interp centre today there was a computer telling me all about the mosquitoes in the area!

I have yet to go on an interpretive program, but have seen a couple rangers straying around the areas we have visited. the museum and interp centre there were also some examples of more conventional non-personal educational media – such as a board with several swatches of animal pelts asking the visitor to decide which animal each pelt belonged to.

This will be interesting to look into… but I know I was more captivated by the computer exhibit than a poster on the wall, maybe not more than the pelt guessing game though! and it will be interesting to see how effective an interpretive program is compared to the computerized exhibits!

hello from gator land

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2005

People and nature:

This will be short and sweet as internet time in hostels is precious! Today we were in Everglades National Park! There were alligators EVERYWHERE! They were sunning themselves right up on the walking path. We saw at least 5 or 6 within 100m. There were parents who were asking their kids to move closer and closer to a gator so they could get a really cool picture! Can you believe that? Why doesn’t society, in general, have a greater appreciation for wild forces, such as the alligator? and why is it that the alligator didn’t just snap at that child?

Well, western humans have done a pretty good job of learning how to dominate just about any situation – and since that gator wasn’t offering any resistence to the humans, they just kept dominating! The gators on the other hand are probably used to hoards of humans walking by everyday and taking pictures non-stop!

Spam escalated

Monday, February 21st, 2005

The spam has accelerated in the past day. And it has reached a level of sophisticaton that the spam prevention aspects of wordpress cannot easy detect it. Therefore we have to moderate the comments. So be patient with us if your comments do not appear immediately.

SHA-1 kracked!

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Another encryption method bites the dust

This is HUGE for the digital security world! The SHA-1 encryption method is a ubiquitous standard used in almost every server software, web browser, online shopping system… the list goes on!

Here is a link to Bruce Schneier’s blog where he was the first to report this development.

Google modifying webpages

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Here is a story about a new feature Google is offering on its toolbar whereby links are automatically inserted into webpages you are looking at. For example, you might be reading about a certain book and the Google program running in the background will place a link to in the webpage. Seems like a convenient feature but what about the publisher or creator of the webpage you are looking at? Don’t they have the right to control how the page looks? Or should you the user be free to modify it however you like? There’s somewhat of a controversy brewing over these issues.

HTML is inherently a client-side layout system, meaning the browser interprets the HTML and presents it a certain way. There really isn’t any way for webpage designers to know for sure how their pages will look on the other side. But is this new feature going too far? The article I’m linking to makes the interesting point that if Microsoft or Oracle or some other huge and less-loved company were doing this, the world would be up in arms.

The skycar

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Don’t know if you had ever heard of the skycar (Moller has been working on it since 1962) but I hadn’t until yesterday when one of my friend who is doing a business case study on it talked to me about it.
The skycar is a “personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle”. Their latest model can take up to 4 passengers, has a cruise speed of 315mph, a maximum range of 750 miles and a fuel efficiency of ~=20mpg, equivalent to the fuel consuption of a big SUV. The company claims it can burn any available fuel from diesel to natural gas. Considering it can burn 15.75 gallon of fuel per hour, I hope that by the time everyone has its skycar, its efficiency will be improved.
For the moment you can already put a $100,000 deposit to secure one of the 100 first skycar listed at $995,000 each.

PS: Mmmmh this might explain a lot of things about ufos :o ).