Archive for April, 2005

Cellphones invade the rich

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

Even as they used the technology, residents of rich North American communities thought they were free of its infrastructure. Instead the ugly but necessary–if you want to use cellphones–towers are invading even the wealthiest burb.

Their losing battle is becoming commonplace as hundreds of communities around the country wage the same fight against cellphone companies and the march of spindly, metallic and freakishly tall antennas into quiet, affluent precincts of suburbia.

Fears that the gigantic towers will reduce property values and cause health problems from radio-frequency emissions have created the kind of opposition that is usually reserved for waste treatment plants in many towns.

Compact cat

Friday, April 29th, 2005

A very contented self-folding Billy. Perfect for a rainy Friday.

Earth out of balance

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

From The Earth Institute at Columbia University:

Using satellites, data from buoys and computer models to study the Earth’s oceans, scientists have concluded that more energy is being absorbed from the Sun than is emitted back to space, throwing the Earth’s energy “out of balance” and warming the planet.

Scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (Washington, D.C.), The Earth Institute at Columbia University (New York), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (California) have confirmed the energy imbalance by precisely measuring ocean heat content occurring over the past decade.

The study, which appears in this week’s Science Express, a feature of Science magazine, reveals that Earth’s current energy imbalance is large by standards of Earth’s history. The current imbalance is 0.85 watts per meter squared (W/m2) and will cause an additional warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This is equal to a 1-watt light bulb shining over an area of one square meter or 10.76 square feet. Although seemingly small, this amount of heat affecting the entire world would make a significant impact. To put this number in perspective, an imbalance of 1 W/m2 maintained for the last 10,000 years is enough to melt ice equivalent to 1 kilometer (6/10ths of a mile) of sea level.

Nature-deficit disorder

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

This ought to interest Jennifer: According to today’s NY Times, kids have become so attached to their computer games that they’ve got an associative disorder, a disconnect from the environment.

The author Richard Louv calls the problem “nature-deficit disorder.” He came up with the term, he said, to describe an environmental ennui flowing from children’s fixation on artificial entertainment rather than natural wonders. Those who are obsessed with computer games or are driven from sport to sport, he maintains, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies, broader minds and sharper senses that are developed during random running-around at the relative edges of civilization.

Mr. Louv is the author of the upcoming book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder from Algonquin Books.

This quote from the book sums it up: “ I like to play indoors better ’ cause that’ s where all the electrical outlets are, ” reports a Grade Four student.

Gated online communities

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Fascinating story in the Washington Post called Which Side of the Velvet Rope Are You on? that an increasing number of websites are pushing their exclusivity. Basically, the un-hip aren’t allowed to participate in the virtual community.

Hmm. The polo set finally comes to online social networking.

Environmental heresies

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Courtesy of slashdot

Stewart Brand, famous for the Whole Earth Catalog and the Well virtual community, has just published an article called Environmental Heresies in The MIT Technology Review. He predicts that the environmental movement will have to reverse its position in the next ten years on four key issues:

  • population growth,
  • urbanization,
  • genetically-modified organisms, and
  • nuclear power.

Here are his arguments. Population growth is no longer a pressing problem because of global population decline. Urbanization is good because women gain more power and independence when they move to cities from villages. Moreover, empty villages mean that nature might return to those places. Genetically modified crops produce higher yields on less land area and with fewer pesticides and herbicides. He reminds the reader that the Amish, who are considered otherwise technology-adverse, have adopted GM crops. [He doesn’t mention the potential for gm crops like golden rice, which puts vitamins into food eaten by vitamin-deficient populations, although there are significant critiques of this approach.]

By far, his most controversial contention–he’s not the only one to make it–is that environmentalists will come to support nuclear power. Fossil fuel consumption must be reduced to slow global climate change. However, alternatives to fossil fuels, wind, solar, are considered incapable of supplying the energy that the world demands. Nuclear power is believed to be the only power source to meet the need.

He concludes that environmentalists have romanticized nature; whereas scientists, who have tried to promote these heretical ideas, have become the true radicals. It’s important for environmentalists to remain idealists, but it’s up to them to recognize these new realities. Don’t know whether I feel like a radical here, but I do find the latter two “realities” quite uncomfortable.

Environmentally friendly broadband

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Take a look at the company Sanswire, which is prototyping airships to deliver broadband as well as high definition tv. The goal is:

to build the nation’s first National Wireless Broadband Network utilizing high-altitude airships called “Stratellites” that will allow subscribers to access the Internet wirelessly from anywhere in the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. Not only will our subscribers have access, but any person with a wireless device that operates in the 802.11 protocol will be able to access the Internet at high-speed. The Stratellites will be positioned in the stratosphere, 65,000 feet (approx. 13 miles) high and provide a clear line-of-site platform for reaching an entire metropolitan area.

The airship is wing-shaped to be aerodynamic but also to create a very flat area on top so that it can be covered with paper-thin solar panels. The solar panels can power up to 800 pounds of communications hardware. Put aside the energy and chemical usage in producing the material, the airships sound like an environmentally friendly solution to our technologically hungry world.

Open source comes to politics

Tuesday, April 26th, 2005

Here’s an interesting application of the open source community, not for software generation but for work on politics. According to the site:

Demos is a greenhouse for new ideas which can improve the quality of our lives. As an independent think-tank, our aim is to create an open resource of knowledge and learning that operates beyond traditional parties, identities and disciplines.

Demos connects researchers, thinkers and practitioners to an international network of people changing politics. Our ideas regularly influence government policy, but we also work with companies, NGOs, schools and professional bodies – any organisation that can make change happen. Our partners share a desire to understand a complex, globalising world, and to play an active role in shaping its future.

The open source concept relates to the reports and articles published by Demos’s staff and partners, which users can “download, save, perform or distribute … electronically or in any other format, including in foreign language translation without written permission subject to the conditions set out in the Demos open access licence.” In an interesting riff on the open source/access concept, this link doesn’t work.

Will an open access virtual think-tank work and be valued? Are there inducements for content generation by participants, for example professional advancement, as there are with physical think tanks? Can this virtual public sphere advance constructive debate about democracy?

Cellphone Protests

Monday, April 25th, 2005

Cell phones have become the new medium for protest and the Chinese have developed the tool to a fine art

BEIJING, April 24 – The thousands of people who poured onto the streets of China this month for the anti-Japanese protests that shook Asia were bound by nationalist anger but also by a more mundane fact: they are China’s cellphone and computer generation.

For several weeks as the protests grew larger and more unruly, China banned almost all coverage in the state media. It hardly mattered. An underground conversation was raging via e-mail, text message and instant online messaging that inflamed public opinion and served as an organizing tool for protesters.

The underground noise grew so loud that last Friday the Chinese government moved to silence it by banning the use of text messages or e-mail to organize protests. It was part of a broader curb on the anti-Japanese movement but it also seemed the Communist Party had self-interest in mind.

“They are afraid the Chinese people will think, O.K., today we protest Japan; tomorrow, Japan,” said an Asian diplomat who has watched the protests closely. “But the day after tomorrow, how about we protest against the government?”

Nondemocratic governments elsewhere are already learning that lesson. Cellphone messaging is an important communications channel in nascent democracy movements in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution used online forums and messaging to help topple a corrupt regime.

Human gene in rice

Monday, April 25th, 2005

From the UK newspaper, The Independent:

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

And the debate:

[Professor Richard Meilan, a geneticist at Purdue University in Indiana]: “I do not have any ethical issue with using human genes to engineer plants”, dismissing talk of “Frankenstein foods” as “rubbish”. He believes that that European opposition to GM crops and food is fuelled by agricultural protectionism.

Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

Desperate housewives gaming

Sunday, April 24th, 2005

I find this mindboggling, but according to the Wasington Post, women over 40 now comprise the largest segment of game players online .

You match the Nicole Kidman card with the Nicole Kidman card, the Julia Roberts card with the Julia Roberts card, the J.Lo card with the J.Lo card. Simple enough. The game is called Ditto, and it’s on the Web site of Ladies’ Home Journal, and Karen Heal is, at this very moment, too preoccupied playing the game to talk about it.

When it comes to online games, women over 40 play the most often and spend the greatest number of hours doing so, even beating out teenage boys, according to a study conducted by Digital Marketing Services. The study is called the Casual Gaming Report. But there’s nothing casual about a 45-year-old mother of two who, day in and day out, logs on to her favorite site — Yahoo! Games, MSN Zone,, to name a few — a couple of hours before she goes to bed and a few minutes after she gets out of bed.

What I haven’t included here is that much of the gaming is the online version of traditional card-playing such as bridge. A lot of the activity combines gaming with chat, so it represents a multi-tasking use of the Internet. Still, read the whole article. It’s enlightening.

Your experiences in university

Sunday, April 24th, 2005

From the NY Times on student perception versus student reality in universities:

LIKE most large universities, the University of Arizona is a virtual city: 37,000 students and nearly 14,000 employees on a sprawling campus in Tucson of 174 buildings and 11,000 parking spots. Also like most of the country’s colleges and universities, it is not particularly selective. Arizona admits 83 percent of its applicants, although most graduated in the top half of their high school class. They sit in numbing lecture halls with 500 classmates; the only instructor they may know is a teaching assistant, and they are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

This is not exactly the popular image of ivy-covered higher education, but it’s the truth of it. Most students do not go to an Amherst or a Williams. They go to enormous public institutions like the Universities of Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Minnesota: more than five million undergraduates attend an institution with at least 15,000 students. The freshman class alone exceeds the population of a small town, and the course catalog is the size of a phone book. Mike Morefield, a junior at Arizona, remembers his first year: “It’s like somebody comes along with a pin right after high school, pops your bubble, picks you up, throws you naked into some college, and you’ve got to figure it out.”

Even though a university opens the door [by offering extensive advising and counselling], it can’t make an adolescent walk through it. However lost they may be, college students may never seek out an adviser. Intimidated, shy or alienated, they don’t drop in during faculty office hours. Parents out of sight, they struggle with their newfound independence, starting with the freedom not to wake up before midday or to eat pizza any hour of the night – and again for breakfast – or to put off reading assignments until cram time at finals.

McGill University isn’t as anonymous as large state universities. However, it can be very intimidating. So what have been your experiences in university? More important, what are your successful coping skills?

Whither weather?

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

The Palm Beach Post reports on a legislative effort to shut down the online offerings of the National Weather Service.

Do you want a seven-day weather forecast for your ZIP code? Or hour-by-hour predictions of the temperature, wind speed, humidity and chance of rain? Or weather data beamed to your cellphone?

That information is available for free from the National Weather Service.

But under a bill pending in the U.S. Senate, it might all disappear.

The bill, introduced last week by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., would prohibit federal meteorologists from competing with companies such as AccuWeather and The Weather Channel, which offer their own forecasts through paid services and free ad-supported Web sites.

Supporters say the bill wouldn’t hamper the weather service or the National Hurricane Center from alerting the public to hazards — in fact, it exempts forecasts meant to protect “life and property.”

The logic is simple: The government shouldn’t intrude on existing and potential offerings of the private sector because that could inhibit entrepreneurship. Consider this paragraph:

“The National Weather Service has not focused on what its core mission should be, which is protecting other people’s lives and property,” said [Barry] Myers, whose company, [ AccuWeather] is based in State College, Pa. Instead, he said, “It spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of ‘warm and sunny.'”

Aside from the absurdity of this statement that weather reporting and prediction can be separate–I guess the government should just focus on delivering information on the places where hurricanes might occur–, this logic presumes that the private sector would serve the public equally, for example, offering the entire country weather data as opposed to the major metropolitan areas such as NY, Chicago and LA. It also ignores the value-added that companies could offer by repackaging the data or offering specific features, such as weather alerts keyed to travel plans. Public sector initiatives do not exclude business possibilities. The US Census Bureau allows people to download geographic data. That hasn’t stopped Google maps or Mapquest from offering the very same data with different interfaces and features.

Second, there’s no acknowledgement in the bill that, by this logic, the public would be forced to pay twice, once for the initial data collection by the government and again for the private service reporting of the data.

This was my favorite paragraph in the article:

“The weather service proved so instrumental and popular and helpful in the wake of the hurricanes. How can you make an argument that we should pull it off the Net now?” said Nelson’s spokesman, Dan McLaughlin. “What are you going to do, charge hurricane victims to go online, or give them a pop-up ad?”

(Almost)Friday Cat Blogging

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

The imperious ruler of the household

My First Footprint

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

The Earth Day website has reminded me of the use of computer mediated communication in conveying the impacts of our consumption on the planet. So take the ecological footprint quiz today from Redefining Progress. Does it persuade you to change your consumption patterns?

Happy Earth Day

Friday, April 22nd, 2005

Earth Day is 35 today.

Moore’s Law: 40 years old and still going strong

Friday, April 22nd, 2005

From Madhav Badami

The BBC reminds us that Moore’s Law marks its 40th anniversary. The law is named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every 24 months. People thought that this rate of speed couldn’t be maintained but it has.

In the original 1965 article Moore also predicted home computers as one of the uses for these chips:

He had forgotten about it until a young engineer came to him with the idea to build a home computer, while he was chief at Intel.

“I said ‘gee that’s fine but what would you use it for?’.

“The only application he could think of for it was the housewife putting her recipes on it, and I didn’t think that was going to be a powerful enough application.”

The irony is rich. Our (masculine) global economy is fueled by a feminized technology.

More on Moore

long term planning

Friday, April 22nd, 2005

There is an interesting article by Jill Tarter and Bernard Oliver of the SETI Institute that discusses how long we would have to transmit a signal before we could expect a reply from the far side of the galaxy (assuming anyone replies at all). The time scale is about 140 000 years, minimum. To see what timescales humans are currently thinking about, the authors searched Google using the string “x year plan”, where x varied from 1 year to 100 000 years as both a number or text. They tallied the hits and graphed them. Beyond about 100 years, the hits were dominated by science fiction and religion. There were a few events that caused spikes, like Y2K at 2000 and Yukka Mountain (the proposed US nuclear waste repository) and the Clock of the Long Now at 10 000. As it turns out, environmentalists are planing in the 500 year scale, but few other areas are receiving such long term attention. The authors note that these findings do not indicate any level of proficiency or competancy in the plans, and that these are only plans posted to the web, not filed away in a drawer somewhere.

IT and the modern university

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

A Washington Post article points to a growing trend among university professors: replacing the course pack and the textbook with free online journal articles and textbook chapters.

“The use of electronic course materials has soared in recent years, as universities try to cater to a generation of students who grew up using the Internet and are often as comfortable reading words on a screen as on the printed page,” Vara [in the Wall Street Journal] wrote. “But publishers are wary of the practice, particularly as sales growth for textbooks has slowed in the U.S. The Association of American Publishers, a trade group, has sent letters to the University of California questioning the school’s practice of letting students read course material online.”

She cited Shiv Mahajan, a Stanford University freshman who didn’t buy a single textbook for his cognitive science course and has taken out only one book from the library so far this year: “In one recent lecture, he hadn’t finished the assigned reading ahead of time, but skimmed the last few pages on his laptop as the professor talked. ‘I’ve never been much of a book reader,’ he says.”

Publishers are catching on and going after universities, hoping to make an example of one or more of them. They may very well succeed. I suspect the likely outcome will be either a surcharge on online articles to replace the lost revenue, a charge on the online journals for which any one university already pays over $1m, or a return to the written product. In the short-term, it will likely be the third. So much for saving trees, although we have to balance this against royalties for authors and energy for the computers/Internet.

Computer Simulations

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

This is kind of neat: NRC researchers together with New Brunswick are using computer simulations to help plan for drastic events, such as massive power outages, and terrorist attacks…unfortunately they do not go into more detail about the computer software they are using, nor how the system works. I guess that’s private info. But it’s nice to know that there is continued research in the field…better safe than sorry, right?