Archive for May, 2005

Native people and climate change, part 2

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Check out the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has recently dedicated itself to addressing the effects of climate change on native peoples around the world and particularly in the sub-Arctic.

hello, kitty

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Existential questions from the drawing room seem to be left by the wayside. . . Can a genetic clone really fill the void left by a lost & gone pet? Or, is it nature or nuture? Now that legal barriers and technological shortcomings are subsiding, the real questions are: can cloning be profitable?

Many months ago, mention of Dolly et al would have been strictly science & technology, but the latest leap in closing is squarely a business article. The LA Times and NY Times both reported a price drop to the tune of $18,000.

You have to admire their style: “To display its work and perhaps to help demystify its science,” the laboratory at Genetic Savings and Clone is built within glass walls for the viewing pleasure of the public. The parlour talk has worn thin, and biomedical ethics has invited in ribald attitudes.

In a world where information is quickly commodified wherever it is uncovered, and genetics hold a bounty of information, perhaps it’s only a matter of time until price tags become affixed to every trait of someone’s child. . . or for the time being, someone’s pet cat.

Cat in a box

Friday, May 27th, 2005

Cat in a box

Municipal Fibre

Friday, May 27th, 2005

As seen on slashdot, Burlington Vermont is embarking on a plan to run fiber to the home. It’s interesting to note the approach: provide a fibre infrastructure at low cost, and then allow the private sector to lease a part of the bandwidth for phone, television, and internet.

The article is actually fairly informative, and does a nice job of presenting the head of the project, as well as some of the hurdles the project has faced. It’s interesting to note that the city feels it’s unlikely any private sector companies would get around to putting in the fibre for a good many years.

Computer mediated creationism

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

G. Thomas Sharp with Albertosaurus Photo
© Blue Channel Media, LLC,
courtesy Museum of Earth History

The Museum of Earth History is the newest entry into the normalization of creation science. The well-funded museum brings to creationism modern techniques of museumology and computer mediated communication. It certainly is popular. The museum, which open last month in Eureka, Arkansas has already seen thousands of visitors. An adjacent area, The Great Passion Play, has seen 7.5 million visitors.

The museum forms part of a Bible-based theme park in Eureka Springs. The parking lot is full of cars and coaches from all over the country. To enter the museum is to explore a surrealistic parallel world. Biblical quotes appear on displays. The first has dinosaurs, alongside Adam and Eve, living in harmony. The ferociously fanged T. rex is likely to be a vegetarian. Then comes the “Fall of Man” and an ugly world where dinosaurs prey on one another and the first extinctions occur. The destruction of the dinosaurs is explained, not by a comet striking the Earth 65 million years ago, but by the Flood. This, the museum says, wiped out most of the dinosaurs still alive and created the Grand Canyon and huge layers of sedimentary rock seen around the world.

Some dinosaurs survived on Noah’s Ark. One poster explains that Noah would have chosen juvenile dinosaurs to save space. An illustration shows two green sauropods in the ark alongside more conventional elephants and lions. The final exhibit depicts the Ice Age, where the last dinosaurs existed with woolly mammoths until the cold and hunting by cavemen caused them to die out.

MOEH has a very professional web site. If I didn’t know what the museum offered, the picture of the T. rex on the home page would suggest a museum of natural history. The computer mediated communication offered on the site is on par with other museums. Check out this movie that describes (or rather poses the question) how 1000 years of natural phenomenon could be created in one day.

Unfortunately, the novelty of the blending of science and creationism receives great play in the mainstream media, for example here and here. Even our modest blog is participating in the diffusion of information. That adds to the normalization of creation science. This paragraph perfectly captures the leading edge of normalization:

That wellspring of popular belief [that 45 percent of Americans believe the Earth was created by God within the past 10,000 years], and the political clout that comes with it, are the inspiration behind the museum. It is not interested in debating with mainstream science. It simply wants to represent the view of a significant slice of America. “We want people to see that finally they have something that addresses their beliefs, to show that we do have a voice,” said Thomas Sharp, business director of Creation Truth, the religious group that co-founded the museum.

As the ideas blend into the mainstream, you don’t need to debate science. Just present an alternate view. Because isn’t that what an egalitarian science is all about? Accepting alternative hypotheses? (As long as they can be tested, of course. But if you also can create your own methodologies then you can confirm your hypotheses.)

the cyborg manifestation

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

What we take for granted as technological niceties are easily cloaked becuase they seamlessly mesh with our human needs. Or, our human needs mesh with technology? An interplay evolves, and happily, the two combine. Hence, the “Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Harraway. This is old-hat for most, but reconsider the slurry of new gadgets with consumer comfort as their prime design goal, or, better, yet, consumer performance. The attack comes from both sides: humans being copied into computer/robot models and also computers complementing the mind&body. Some more glib developements: Ãœbergeek keyboard, ultra-manipulative computer interface, and reading to maximize space and efficiency.

Short-lived praise for Canada

Wednesday, May 25th, 2005

Contrast the previous post with this on the predominant myth of Canada, that it’s morally superior when it comes to the environment, politics, etc. The shine is off.

It’s a small world after all

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Computer models have linked ocean warmth to African drought. The authors of a new study predict that “a 50-year-long drying trend [in southern Africa] is likely to continue and appears tightly linked to substantial warming of the Indian Ocean.”

Read the whole article, which is cheery (not).

We’re number one

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Okay, it’s not about computers or the environment, but it’s a feel good article. Canada ranks number one in astronomy, in terms of the frequency that others cite our publications in astronomy-related scientific journals.

I love the title of the article, which isn’t explained but the reference should be apparent (the author knows his Canadians): Canada Looks Up, Way Up

more green technology a-blazin’!

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

In lieu of the status quo, what new technologies will be the top contenders against coal-fired power plants? No sectors will die out entirely (they’re all so neat!), but some will shine brighter… say, solar power? British Petroleum is picking up the slack and pouring money into this sustainable technology. Sustainable? Well, the costs of materials and energy-intensive production process have been depressing solar power.

Several months ago, radical departures form the standard volatic cell design emerged – my favorite was a spray-on polymer that aligned its molecules to conduct electricity from sunlight. For others, dive through the Technology Review issues of 2004.

Of course, technology works best in conjuntion with a support network. Just because there may be a patch of sunny-year-round grassy fields, it doesn’t mean electricity can be shipped efficiently enough without a proper power grid. Also from Tech. Review, May 2005; new superconductivity shortcuts include nanotube wires, with virtually ZERO resistance. Maybe wind farms will spring up in North Dakota like they’ve always wanted.

As for BP’s new solar program – it’s comforting when petroleum-intensive R&D makes room for green technology. But, one must always wonder, where is the line between greening and greenwashing?

Death by a thousand blogs

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Nick Christof, of the NYTimes, believes that the Chinese government is doomed. What or who’s going to do it? Blogs.

the Internet is beginning to play the watchdog role in China that the press plays in the West. The Internet is also eroding the leadership’s monopoly on information and is complicating the traditional policy of “nei jin wai song” – cracking down at home while pretending to foreigners to be wide open.

Colour me sceptical, but the Chinese government has been around for a long time and, I’m guessing, can find ways to use a new technology just as well as its citizens.


Monday, May 23rd, 2005

The luddite undertone you can hear in environmentalism’s True Blue voice may be the song of the siren. “Superhitechecology” takes the best of science and manipulates the laws of nature to, well, save ourselves from ourselves.

So it’s good news, more often than not, when engineering and the like take a day off to pitch in. Here, allow me to introduce GE’s ecoimagination, which not only sounds spiffy, but is in lowercase for utmost appeal.

Much like issues of climate change, these endeavors are framed in neat business plans, with long-term profit stability/ job security underlined several times. Say hello, Market-Driven-Performance, to If-You-Can’t-Beat-’em-Join-’em. For an excellent review of what Superhitechecology GE holds in store, without an audio introduction (did you see the GE site?), read Joel Makower’s article.

Jaguars and GPS

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Jaguars, which once roamed across Central America and were worshipped as gods by the Mayans, are now in serious decline. Reuters reports on a Mexican-Guatemalan project to fit jaguars with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) units so that their movements can be tracked by satellites. It is hoped that a better understanding of jaguars’ movements will help protect them and the habitat upon which they depend.

Although it is not mentioned in the Reuters article, presumably the project also will utilize Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Individuals jaguar’s movements will be overlaid on digital geographic layers of natural and human features to determine the threat posed by shrinking jaguar habitats (using layers such as vegetation, rivers) as well as expanded human activities (layers such as roads, farms). Researchers and practitioners will then be able to look at which jaguars are encroaching on farms, need to travel across roads to eat and mate. Also, I assume they’ll be looking for instances, sadly, when the GPS units are no longer transmitting or moving.

For my more activist readers: Lest we automatically reject the importance of considering local human activity such as cattle ranching, remember that it’s the local people one has to convince in order to preserve the wild species. Conservation International, one of the lead conservation non-governmental organizations on this project, has had many successes not, I would argue, because they use lots of GIS but because they involve local people in day-to-day conservation.

Computer technology meets organic vegetables

Sunday, May 22nd, 2005

In honour of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, see the organic foods version of Star Wars, Grocery Store Wars. (Someone needs to explain to me why a cannoli is included in the cast of characters.)

For some reason, organic food producers seem to be attracted to sf films as a way to promote their vision. For another example, see The Meatrix.

Ok, for another video, which draws on toilet themes of earlier posts (here, here and here), see this extremely silly Japanese advertisement.

Touch nature, virtually

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

Via slashdot

Wired News reports that researchers have developed a computer system to allow physical interaction over the Internet. The system enables touching and feeling [tele-haptic sensing] of animals or other humans in real time, but it’s first being tried out on chickens. Researchers call it the “first human-poultry interaction system”, although they don’t explain why the chickens (actually roosters).

The Touchy Internet was built by researchers at the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore (NUS) (with teams in other places such as Austria). Click on it. These guys have the coolest research website I’ve ever seen. Check out their video section, especially the ones on Human Pacman.

The immediate use, which comes to mind, is porn. After all, porn represents the number one use of the Internet. The Wired article mentions the possibility for rescue workers to remotely communicate with dogs as they search in dangerous or remote places. I wonder if this technology could be used as a component of nature interpretation, either in a virtual interpretive center or as a way for disabled people to interact with nature. Or it could be used to advance protection of distance habitats. For example, if we could touch them, would it help us better empathize with baby seals in northern Canada and therefore more vigourously protest the seal hunt? If we could pet dolphins, would we engage in protecting sea mammals from fishing? We could think of any number of environments that might benefit from tele-haptics.

Canada and copyright law, the revenge of the courts

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

CBC reports that Canadian courts have dealt a blow to the recording industry’s arguments that sharing music files breaches Canada’s copyright laws.

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the Canadian Recording Industry Association’s appeal of a March 2004 ruling that said ISPs like Shaw, Rogers and Bell did not have to reveal the names of 29 users accused of sharing thousands of music files.

See previous post about how this has implications for sharing of enivornmental data.

At this same time appellate courts move to protect ISPs, the Canadian federal government moves to amend the copyright law so as to quash file sharing. According to the article, this modification would force ISPs to take an active role in prosecuting file sharing.

Friday Cat Blogging

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Guardian of Coffee

Opal: guardian of coffee.

nuclear options become less optional

Thursday, May 19th, 2005

In a realistic breakdown of energy source options, the tally puts nuclear power far in the lead. A true-to-their-roots assortment of environmental movements continue to speak out against shifting energy supply to nuclear power plants, refusing to budge. Greenpeace sent an emergency email requesting petitions in favor of Sen. McCain releasing the generous subsidies for nuclear technology from the bill on climate change. They and others view such actions as a surrender, whereby conservation and clean energy are dismissed. Since when is nuclear energy such a hero?

But the long and short of it is that, as Stewart Brand and others are beginning to admit, and hard-line no-nukes folk are beginning to concede, the need for carbon-free energy eclipses the risk from nuclear power. In the three decades since a reactor has been built, technology has improved considerably; managerial concerns (the ‘Human Factor’) may never be infallible, and are what draw the most criticism towards nuclear power.

Shortly after his article in Technology Review (accompanied by a pitcure of Stewart the saintly prophet), the New York Times kicks in with a comprehensive follow-up, chock-full of reactions from across the board. Perhaps nuclear energy will get its wings after all.

See previous post for all the environmental heresies.

Whither privacy?

Thursday, May 19th, 2005

There’s a new article on privacy vis-a-viz Google maps, this time from a journal for security professionals. The issue is four-fold: the amount of georeferenced data on the web allows your name to be attached to your house; the increased scale of the maps, through the satellite images, gives the viewer enormous spatial detail; that viewer isn’t necessarily you; and finally the non-linear function of the search facility may lead to unanticipated additional violations of privacy (e.g., to the work location of someone with a similar name). The main concern of the author is national security–zooming in to see the details of dams and nuclear power plants–but the concerns for the individual are more tangible.

The same week sees this article on students from John Hopkins University who, working on a course assignment, were able to gather enormous amounts of information on residents of the City of Baltimore, all from legal public sources and for practically no money. The article’s central premise is that, in the pursuit of convenience in terms of online access to information on their houses and cars, Americans have exposed themselves to invasions of privacy.

What are we to think of privacy of personal information? Some thoughts.

1. The rich will be able to protect their privacy. I’m reminded of the people in the upscale areas of NY who wanted to opt out of the book, “New York: The Photo Atlas” because it contains aerial photos of their homes, backyards, and pools. They weren’t able to remove their photos from that book. However, they have greater capacity than the less well-to-do to protect their privacy, perhaps by scrubbing unsavory details from the Internet with the help of lawyers. For an example of an early data scrubbing, see Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community.

2. The poor will continue to trade their privacy for access. They already fill in online surveys and allow cookies to accumulate for free email or affordable bandwidth. What else can we expect as access becomes the currency of the modern world? What’s craven is to conclude that there’s no down-side to this exchange.

3. The youth will have a very different view of privacy from adults. There are precedents since youth in some areas of the US already live with transparent backpacks and metal detectors. Youth also are creating enormous records of their lives on the Internet and with varied media such as blogs and webcams. I suspect that they’ll value far different kinds of privacy from us. For the implications of no privacy, read The Light of Other Days by the masters of a science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The book presents a new device called a “WormCam,” that allows the viewer to see anyone, anywhere, at any distance and at anytime. In a world where nothing is hidden, behavior becomes extreme. Conversely, people go to any lengths to hide themselves, even to the point of losing their individual identity.

To some extent this technology makes easier problems that have always existed (e.g., cyberstalking, identity theft) and increases the vulnerability of the already vulnerable. Society and the law will be slow to adapt. However, we shouldn’t forget that people will adapt to and adapt the technology that invades their privacy.

Earthquake predictor

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

Live in or planning to visit California? Suspect there’ll be an earthquake in the next 24 hours? Check out the US Geological Services’ new online Earthquake Predictor. According to the Associated Press, these are “real-time, color-coded maps that provide earthquake probabilities in a specific region. Areas shaded in red represent a high chance of strong shaking within the next 24 hours (less than a 1 in 10 chance) while those in blue represent a very remote chance, say, more than 1 in a million.” The predictive maps are updated hourly with seismic data and if you’re interested in a specific place in California, you can zoom in to take a close look.

Scientists say that it’s not designed to predict when the big quake will happen but instead where and how big the aftershocks will be.

For those of you who want more details about the models, here’s the background: Real-time Forecasts of Tomorrow’s Earthquakes in California: a New Mapping Tool.