Archive for October, 2006

happy halloween

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

courtesy of the Mac-O-Lantern

sketch mapping

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Slashdot points to an article on the potential to sketch furniture in the air, have the sketch (including its geometry) transferred to a computer and then printed with a 3D printer.

Think of the possibilities for sketch mapping and for mental mapping. Even for dance!

the economics of climate change

Monday, October 30th, 2006

The Stern report that we blogged about last week was released today. The actual report is here.

The debate in blogosphere is now raging, with 26,113 posts so far.

natural commons meets creative commons

Friday, October 27th, 2006

David Bollier asks: “can we have an environmentalism for the net without also pursuing an environmentalism for the environment?” Or more basically, is there a common usage of the term and assumptions around “the commons”? How transferrable is that concept?

Those of us who study the commons realize that there is a big distinction between information commons and natural resource commons. The former are generally non-depletable and increase in value as more people use them, while the latter can be “used up” and abused. And so we have settled into a discourse that regards these two classes of commons as entirely separate beasts. We cheer the rise of commons-based peer production in free software, Wikipedia and Flickr. But when it comes to the shared gifts of land, water, air and genes, many “online commoners” are more sanguine about letting the “free market” and corporate America manage things as they see fit.

He points out that we become so enthralled with the net, the “New Paradigm commons,” that we lose sight of the “depressingly familiar “Old Paradigm” corporate behavior.” Read the thought piece because it reminds us that in our search for the new online environmentalist tool, wiki or google bomb we can forget that our computers are creating mountains of toxic trash.

cat blogging, the luv-ums edition

Friday, October 27th, 2006


ancient cat; young human.

another kind of climate modelling

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

A UK report will be released on Monday that predicts the economic effects of climate change. It was commissioned by the UK Treasury and conducted by Nicholas Stern, who was a chief economist with the World Bank. The message of the report: Climate change will have disasterous effects on the world’s economy. However, the investments now to turn it around are relatively small and will actually boost countries’ ecnonomies.

Speaking at a climate change conference in Birmingham, [David King, the UK government's chief scientific adviser] said: “All of [Stern's] detailed modelling out to the year 2100 is going to indicate first of all that if we don’t take global action we are going to see a massive downturn in global economies.” He added: “If no action is taken we will be faced with the kind of downturn that has not been seen since the great depression and the two world wars.” Sir David called the review “the most detailed economic analysis that I think has yet been conducted”.

sensing floods

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

A “grid” of smart river sensors will be installed in the Ribble River (Yorshire, UK). The sensors will monitor water pressure/depth and flow and will be used to predict impending flooding.

The article likens the network of sensors to grid computing:

Each node is smaller than a human fist and powered by batteries and solar panels. Each is also accompanied by a computer unit about the size of a packet of chewing gum, which contains a processor about as powerful those found in a modern cellphone.

The sensors are positioned within tens of metres of each other and communicate through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas. This enables them to collaborate for data collection and processing tasks, creating a larger community computer. The same “grid computing” approach is used to connect computers at different locations for distributed research projects.

If the river’s behaviour starts to change, the network uses the data collected to run models and predict what will happen next. If a flood seems likely – because it is rapidly rising and moving quickly – the network can send a wireless warning containing the details.

(Hmm but do the people in Yorskshire know that one of their rivers is broadcasting to a lab in Lancashire? The War of the Roses wasn’t that long ago… ;-) )

the call on wikipedia for freeing geo-spatial data

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

The wikipedia community has been asked to come up with ideas of what copyrighted items should be freed and made available to the general public. The wishlist is on a meta-wiki (meta-wikis assist the Wiki Foundation in coordinating wikis, such as wikipedia and wikimedia). Wikimedia has the copyright wishlist, which includes newspaper articles and photographs, 20th century sheet music, textbooks, and academic journals (including Web of Science, JSTOR). Here’s the wishlist for freeing up remote sensed images and vector files.

While perusing the list, I came across a term I’d never heard of before: abandonware. Someone suggested that the copyrights to discontinued software be purchased and distributed under a GPL.

the accidental Canadian

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

Nice article about Elizabeth May, founder of the Sierra Club of Canada and an “accidental Canadian”.

automatic 2-D to 3-D geometric conversion

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

Carnegie Mellon researchers have developed software to automatically generate 3 D images from 2 D images. Watch the video and see how they even create the 3 D visualization from a painting.

The press release reports that the software imputes the figure geometry from the straight lines in the image and, I’m guessing from the documentation, also possesses some expert system qualities in understanding objects like ground, shadows, and clouds.

Using machine learning techniques, Robotics Institute researchers Alexei Efros and Martial Hebert, along with graduate student Derek Hoiem, have taught computers how to spot the visual cues that differentiate between vertical surfaces and horizontal surfaces in photographs of outdoor scenes. They’ve even developed a program that allows the computer to automatically generate 3-D reconstructions of scenes based on a single image.

the Carnegie Mellon researchers will show that having a sense of 3-D geometry helps computers identify objects, such as cars and pedestrians, in street scenes.

More detail, including the downloadable software, can be found here.

Now, if the software could embed geo-references at various points within the image then we could stitch together some high resolution walk-throughs from separate photos that also could be anchored to map locations. Think of the possibilities for flickr! I wonder what would be the minimum number of pairs of x,y coordinates that the photographers would have to submit as geo tags? We could render aerials as well but we’d have to orient the images to maximize the horizontal and vertical. Also, think of the possibility in taking old hand-drawn maps and street scenes. This could be be a wonderful addition to the work already being conducted on draping images onto digital elevation models.

online advertising in an online world

Friday, October 20th, 2006

See advertising in and buy virtual or real products on an online MMORPG (massively multiplayer role-playing game). That is, see the Adidas ads in Second Life and buy the Adidas shoes for your avatar. Oh, and buy a pair in the real world too. The physical world of advertising meets online games.

The sudden rush of real companies into so-called virtual worlds mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research network in the 1990’s to become a commercial proposition — but not without complaints from some quarters that the medium’s purity would be lost.

The medium’s purity?? Advertising is an instance of the real world?? This article drips with unacknowledged irony.

I’m waiting for Sony ads in World of Warcraft.

Also, this caught my eye, the fear of competition from large, well-financed corporations:

In her second life, Ms. Fitzpatrick’s digital alter-ego is a figure well-known to other participants called Prokofy Neva, who runs a business renting “real estate” to other players. “The next phase,” she said, “will be they try to compete with other domestic products — the people who made sneakers in the [SeondLife] world are now in danger of being crushed by Adidas.”

Perhaps she’s in danger of competition from ReMax or Century 21. ;-)

Sometimes there’s even activism in the digital realm.

Some corporate events have been met with protests by placard-waving avatars. And there is even a group called the Second Life Liberation Army that has staged faux “attacks” on Reebok and American Apparel stores. (The S.L.L.A. says it is fighting for voting rights for avatars…)

Perhaps this will remind people to vote in the physical world as well? There is always hope that, in addition to commercial activity, some of the virtual world can seep into the real world.

online environmental science education

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Do science students need to conduct actual, physical experiments in chemistry, physics, natural resources, environment? Or can all science education lab work be done online? This is the question with which eduators and those who accredit science education are trying to grapple.

The arguments for online education (not necessarily an exhaustive list): lack of resources (we have no teachers; we have no labs; we’re poor and rural; we want to home school…), better grades (students are performing better on advanced placement exams to get into university), protection of the student (some experiments are dangerous or are in distant locations) and promotion of student individuality (students can take courses at their own pace, can take more advanced courses than currently offered in their schools or can take remedial courses). One such example of online science education is the Virtual High School, a nonprofit educational institution based in the US that reports to serve 7,600 students from numerous countries and US states.

The arguments against (which are not well-covered in the article): the inability of virtual space to simulate the physical world (e.g., smells, manipulation of substances and instruments), the uneven quality and lack of accreditation of online courses, as well as the dubious connection between doing well on exams and being able to conduct science.

Add to those, the argument by the online content producers themselves that online science in and of itself is insufficient:

Earl W. Fleck, the biology professor who created the virtual pig dissection, believes otherwise. Dr. Fleck began working on the virtual dissection in 1997 to help his students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., review for tests and to offer a substitute for those who, for ethical reasons, objected to working with once-living specimens.

Dr. Fleck, who is now provost at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, said students worldwide found the virtual dissection useful. But he called it “markedly inferior” to performing a real dissection.

Note how this is an example of mission creep in virtual education. What was created for one purpose, an assistance to real world practice, has become an end in itself. This is a real problem in any distance education. The temptation is to think that all you need is a computer and an Internet connection and you can learn everything you need to know. It’s the computer / Internet revolutionary lure. It’s an efficiency argument (why have our own lab when an online course can do it better and utilize the best instructors in the world?). So there is ample justification that a school need not seek investment in its own science education. More important, like textbook sales, online education is an incredibly lucrative market. There is every incentive to package and sell these virtual labs.

So can we conduct environmental science this way? Certainly there are strong arguments for online labs. For example, it’s difficult to do a real world science lab on global warming. Much of global warming research is computer-based anyway, so it’s relatively easy to move the desktop models online so that students can conduct their own ‘bite-sized’ climate change models. One can create similar online labs in water modeling and management, food systems, epidemiology and public health, even in sustainable forestry and habitat conservation. Technically, it’s relatively easy. But what does the student lose by not travelling to the river, taking the water sample, and examining it under a physical microscope?

Believe or not, I’m quite ambivalent. I do research in the use of geographic information systems by poor communities. A lot of the modelling and mapping could be done online and be used to educate people about the impacts of deforestation, air/water pollution, climate change, etc. Poor people in far flung places can be greatly assisted by online courses featuring the best environmental instructors and advocates in the world. But does that mean we need invest in no local teachers nor worry about real world practice in difficult places (say, science education for girls in Afghanistan)? Of course not, but balancing the on the ground environmental education against efficiency / technological razzle dazzle is difficult.

return of friday cat blogging

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Here’s a nice cat in the town of Deventer in the Netherlands. I like the reflection in the window.


carbon offsets–the new nigerian scam?

Monday, October 16th, 2006

The eco-consumer or community association has a new tool to assuage their guilt over riding an airplane or buying strawberries in January: the carbon offset. Purchase an interest in a tree planting project or fund R&D into climate development mechanisms and, voila, your carbon emissions have been compensated by good works. What with the £60m worldwide carbon market, however, this is becoming a prime area to rip off consumers. So how much do you know about that carbon offset scheme?

Francis Sullivan, a carbon offset expert who led attempts by banking group HSBC to neutralise its emissions, said: … “There are sharks out there who are literally just trying to get money off you. People were offering to sell us large chunks of the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. I don’t think it was theirs to sell.”

Concern is growing that the demand for offsets is allowing projects to claim savings they do not deserve, which are then sold on as “carbon credits”. A tree planting or windfarm project reckoned to save up 30,000 tonnes of carbon could sell an equivalent number of carbon credits for about £3 each. To provide a true carbon saving, the developers of such projects must demonstrate that it would not have happened without the investment raised by selling such credits, called additionality. The saving is then worked out against what would have happened, the baseline.

Mark Kenber of the environmental organisation the Climate Group said: “There are plenty of projects out there that are rigorous and have no problems at all. Then there are plenty that are not truly additional and you could question the baseline used. Then there are suspicions that people have sold the same ton of carbon to four or five different customers.”

Many of these mechanisms are available over the Internet. So you’re just a click away from feeling green. Perhaps you need to pause before you press the mouse.

model and visualize environmental change

Monday, October 16th, 2006

Okay, it’s been awhile. I’m enjoying my sabbatical in the Netherlands so blog activity has slowed way down. But with my recent upgrade of wordpress I’m ready to get started again. Here’s an interesting presentation on a piece of software that has amazing potential for landscape analysis, scenario planning, and participatory planning.

Let’s say, you’re concerned about the impact on erosion of a particular clearcut. You delineate the area, “build” the bulldozer, run the model, and then measure the siltation. Voila, you see your impact.