Archive for May, 2005

Soocer moms go off the grid!

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

Wired Magazine reports on a new generation and demographic of people deciding to reduce their reliance on traditional power. Solar panels and wind turbines are popping up all over the suburbs.

Wired calls it moving from the hardcore to the hybrid (or “hygrid”). The assumption is that the class of individual has changed. However, I would warrant that all the hippie ‘back to the landers’ in the 60s and 70s came from middle class families. What’s more interesting is the variety of reasons driving this new group of individuals:

Start with the cost of energy. Most US homes use natural gas for heat. Natural gas prices have been soaring. So has the price of electricity produced by coal-burning power plants. And that’s not even factoring in the more than $1 billion in subsidies that go to the oil and gas industry, or the environmental damage – increased greenhouse emissions and mercury pollution – caused by burning fossil fuels.

At the same time, the conventional power grid is showing signs of age. Energy use has increased far more quickly than capacity has been added. So blackouts and brownouts occur more often. According to Jay Apt, director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University, every four months the US endures a blackout large enough to cut power to half a million homes. Add the threat of terrorism, and homeowners understandably want greater security and control over their power. “I’d rather do it myself than trust the experts,” Bell says. When the grid goes down, his lights stay on.

The article adds that the cost of alternate energy has decreased for the average consumer. After all, “Only a handful of hardcore greens were willing to multiply their energy bills by eight to save the planet. ” To help with the cost, some US states have stepped in to subsidize purchases. So it seems that we’re finally moving past the paradox of the cost decreasing once more people start using the technology but people will only start using the technology once the cost decreases.

Robots gone wild!

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

Researchers at Cornell have just convinced robots to reproduce. That is, researchers have built block-shaped robots that are able to pick up, integrate and then hive-off the blocks to create duplicates of themselves. The video from the Cornell site is pretty cool (don’t try the mpg from the NYTimes site–it caused my computer to shut down).

The research is reported in the NYTimes, which reports on an article in Nature (sorry guys, it’s not free). I found the NYTimes article superficial, playing on the sensationalist angle (brave new world and all). Reporting at the Cornell site is better.

What the research shows me is how faaaaar we have to go before we achieve anything like what we have come to expect from movies like I Robot or earlier, Silent Running. Another site shows the state of the art on robot faces, fingers and eyes. It’s enlightening because the work is still primitive. We have robots in the world; they can handle the dirty jobs or give us the minimally intelligent toys. But they’re not C3PO and they are decades away from passing the Turing test.

What the research implies to me is that we have gotten blase about what our science can deliver. Science is a long slow process of careful incremental work. Rarely do advances appear quickly and never just because we wish for them. And where is the sense of wonder in this type of innovation? This is still pretty cool, even if it is blocks. I suppose the sense of wonder is drained into movies like Star Wars, which can do it all in CGI.*

The Cornell article also brings up the problem recognized by researchers in labelling this reproduction or self-replication:

human beings reproduce but don’t literally self-replicate, since the offspring are not exact copies. And in many cases, the ability to replicate depends on the environment. Rabbits are good replicators in the forest, poor replicators in a desert and abysmal replicators in deep space, they note. “It is not enough to simply say they replicate or even that they replicate well, because these statements only hold in certain contexts,” the researchers conclude. The conference paper also discusses the reproduction of viruses and the splitting of light beams into two identical copies. The analysis they supply “allows us to look at an important aspect of biology and quantify it,” Lipson explains.

Associated Links:
Researchers’ web page

*If it’s all been done, then where’s my anti-grav machine?

Green servers

Monday, May 16th, 2005

Via slashdot, an interview with Richard Sawyer, director of data center technology for American Power Conversion Corp., on whether computer servers have innovated to be energy efficienct without giving up performance.

I found the comments to the slashdot post to be the most interesting, particularly this one from Shalda:

Your average data-center manager could not care less about whether his server farm is environmentally friendly or not. On the other hand, electricity is a major expense. A dozen racks of 1U servers pulling 100-200 watts each will probably run you upwards of $80k/year. And that doesn’t even include the cost of cooling your server room (which will add another $20k or so). Server consolidations and energy efficient servers save money. And that will always be your driving force. If company A says they have a “green” server room, it’s just marketing. Their first concern and only concern is the bottom line.

Cynical but an entry point to convincing chief financial officers to purchase energy saving devices.

Cosmos Education

Monday, May 16th, 2005

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known – Carl Sagan. Interesting outreach program supported by the SETI Institiute that teaches interdisciplinary science to kids. They are dedicated to “…the role of science and technology in health, the environment, and sustainable development.” I guess searching the universe for intelligence lends one a perspective that sees Earth as a small fragile planet in need of careful management.

Will we become extinct?

Sunday, May 15th, 2005

Here’s an interesting take on extinction: We will genetically modify ourselves sufficiently that we are no longer Homo sapiens sapiens.

Conversely, by modifying ourselves, we will make ourselves extinction-proof.

Check out the alternate forms of humans at Human evolution at the crossroads: Genetics, cybernetics complicate forecast for species

I’m opting for astran.

Scale runs amok

Saturday, May 14th, 2005

Talk about jumping scale: rebuffing President Bush’s national policy, 132 American mayors embrace the Kyoto Accord on global climate change at the local level. Most of the mayors represent coastal cities and fear for the impacts on their residents and local economies.

Update: the mayors’ website.

Expo 2005: Nature’s Wisdom

Saturday, May 14th, 2005

This year’s World Expo in Nagoya, Japan is subtitled Nature’s Wisdom.

Thanks to rapid technological development, the 20th Century was characterized by mass-production and mass-consumption, which in turn led to material improvements in our daily lives. At the same time, these trends resulted in various global issues such as desertification, global warming, and a shortage of natural resources. As these issues cannot be resolved by any one nation, the international community needs to unite in confronting them: we must come together and share our experience and wisdom, in order to create a new direction for humanity which is both sustainable and harmonious with nature.

Environmental considerations were taken very seriously in both the building and the subject matter on display. An environmental impact assessment was conducted and steps were taken to preserve the ponds and vegetation, although the definition the developers have for preservation of what was an existing youth park as well as the effectiveness of protecting a site that will experience 10m visitors has yet to be evaluated. Numerous innovations are showcased in the park, such as wall greening, permeable pavement, bamboo for building and cooling huge buildings, biodegradable plastics for all the eating utensils, ozone to process the waste water and, I imagine, plenty of super toilets. All the buildings are designed to be broken down into modules and reused. The Expo 2005 website has plenty of artists’ renditions but few images of the actual site, so it’s difficult to get a sense of what it looks like. I gues you have to be there.

In particular, check out the NGO Global village, subtitled the ‘Interactive Fun Zone’. And what expo with nature as a theme would be complete without a pavillon on robots?

Official Mascots of Expo 2005: Morizo (Forest Grand Father) and Kiccoro (Forest Child)

The Guardian has a great review of the Expo–the article is worth reading on its own–that compares the Expo to an Edo-dynasty palace garden instead of a techno-fest. The article also contains these wonders of translation:

Following the exhortions of arcane signs through the grounds, I promised to avoid making “exhibitions of collective enthusiasm”, to refrain from “scattering gas, liquid, powder and other items”, and the “sowing of seed”.

Wired woodlands

Friday, May 13th, 2005

Take a look at the article on the Wired Woodlands. It is a small forested reserve up in the San Jacinto Mountains in southern California. The James Reserve is owned by the University of California at Riverside. It is now covered with “more than 100 tiny sensors, robots, cameras and computers, which are beginning to paint an unusually detailed portrait” of innumerable processes in the natural landscape, from nesting behaviour to soil chemistry.

I’ve been to the James Reserve several times because it is the natural home of the Society for Conservation GIS (well, ok, it’s not home but it’s the site of the original meetings of the group). I remember how exciting it was when the director of the reserve got word that he won this major National Science Foundation Grant. This represents a major innovation in the use of computers to monitor the environment.

Friday Cat Blogging

Friday, May 13th, 2005

It’s dinner time!

Computers, Society, and Wikis

Friday, May 13th, 2005

An interesting personal web site I came across today, the site of Mr. Keunwoo Lee, of the University of Washington. It has a few interesting links, including a Society and technology wiki, as well as some tips he has for professors considering using wikis in courses.

Among other mildly interesting things to be found, UW seems to allow people to sign up for various credit weights for the same course, for example, if someone wishes to participate only in the discussions for credit, they can sign up for 1 credit, if they wish to present a paper in addition, they can sign up for two credits, and so on. It’s an interesting amount of flexibility, which would seem beneficial when students want to take a broader range of courses.

To request this at McGill would no doubt result in commissions to investigate the possibility of creating a steering committee to create the new forms allowing it to be passed to the senate for approval before being sent to more implementation commitees.

Happy Birthday, Post-it Notes

Sunday, May 8th, 2005

A delightful story of the diffusion of innovations and the happy accident of unanticipated consequences. A perfect remedy to the lack of control people felt was induced by the computer and information overload.

via Slashdot.

Earth: not so dim after all

Sunday, May 8th, 2005

NYTimes reports three new papers in Science that call attention to a major gap in how the climate system works. The papers report that the Earth is brightening, that is, more sunlight is reaching the earth’s surface and is not being reflected by clouds or volcanic dust or pollution. Scientists don’t exactly know what’s causing the brightening, or how this is affecting the rest of the climate.

The findings of Dr. Wild and his colleagues are based on data through 2001 from a network of ground-based sensors that directly measure the sunlight hitting the ground. But the sensors are not evenly distributed, with the greatest number in Europe, few in Africa and South America, and none covering the 70 percent of Earth’s surface that is water.

Dr. Pinker’s team analyzed satellite data from 1983 to 2001 that covered the globe. Its findings about brightening, which basically agree with Dr. Wild’s, rely on computer models to estimate how much sunlight reaches the surface.

Finally, a team led by Dr. Bruce A. Wielicki of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia reports that measurements from the agency’s Aqua satellite show a slight decrease in the amount of light reflected off Earth since 2000, which corresponds to a brightening on the surface.

So whom does one believe? The models or the sensors or the images? And why isn’t the Earth dimming like the models have predicted? The public likely will view this conflicting data as simply more evidence that climate change is a hoax.

Mouse click hunting

Sunday, May 8th, 2005

Want to hunt deer or bear remotely? You pay your money and you are given remote control of a rifle physically located in the Texas brush. The Washington Post explains how it works:

The Remington .30-06 rifle is mounted atop a homemade contraption of welded metal and a piece of butcher block, and is attached to a small motor, three video cameras (two linked to the Internet, including the one embedded in the gun scope) and a door lock actuator, like that used in a car. The actuator is attached to a wire that pulls the trigger at the click of the mouse. From virtually anywhere, someone with an Internet connection can fire the rifle.

Not surprising what the Internet enables. What is surprising is the coalition that supports a ban on animal hunting by remote control.

In a rare alliance, hunters and the National Rifle Association have joined forces with their traditional foes, the animal welfare and Humane Society activists. And some scholars, not surprised to see violent computer games elevated to another level, are questioning the propriety of an enterprise that blurs the line between the reality of man-stalks-beast in the great outdoors to the virtual anonymity of shooter-pulls-trigger from thousands of miles away.

This application inevitably begs the question of whether diabolical individuals wouldn’t propose this for a city street in Bagdad. Let’s hope the alliance is as vocal about humans as they are about hunting.

BTW, why can’t someone design a remote control device that is more beneficent towards the environment, like a tree seedling planter or a litter remover?

Friday Cat Blogging: the end of semester edition

Friday, May 6th, 2005

She enjoys having students speak their minds.

Canada and intellectual property

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

Will you go to jail in Canada if you share files via peer to peer?

It looks like the answer is no. Slashdot explains that the US is mightily upset with Canada’s refusal to follow the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It links to Michael Geist’s site, for further info. Geist is a professor of law at U Ottawa and is a frequent commenter on law, e-commerce, and copyright. I’ve referenced his work a number of times because he’s an invaluable resource on Canadian Crown Copyright issues. Geist excerpts the following from the Office of the US Trade Representative

Canada is being maintained on the Special 301 Watch List in 2005, and the United States will conduct an out-of-cycle review to monitor Canada’s progress on IPR [intellectual property rights] issues during the upcoming year. We urge Canada to ratify and implement the WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] Internet Treaties as soon as possible, and to reform its copyright law so that it provides adequate and effective protection of copyrighted works in the digital environment.

What gets me is that at the same time Canada takes a narrow view on intellectual property vis-a-viz the private sector, it’s absolutely committed to Crown Copyright, which allows almost perpetual ownership of government-generated data. This makes the use of geographic information systems (GIS)–computerized mapping software–very difficult. GIS relies on copious quantities of data and most of that data comes from government sources. Most of the data is environmental, such as rivers, vegetation and topography, although the most commonly seen data is roads data in applications such as MapQuest. Under US copyright law, slight rearrangements of the data constitute a shift in ownership–you add value to it, you own it. By contrast, under Crown copyright, considerable modification of the data only adds to the value of the Queen’s data–you modify it, the Queen thanks you very much and takes it back. Remember, the public has already paid for this data. But it has to pay again if it wants to use the data.

DIY Debibrillator

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

Philips Medical Systems Technology has plans to sell a home defibrillator. That’s right: if your spouse or child or friend’s heart has stopped beating, you could grease up the paddles and jumpstart their heart . Not surprisingly, there are concerns.

some doctors and other emergency medicine experts are skeptical of the product making that promise – HeartStart Home, which at a list price of $1,995 is the first external heart defibrillator for sale without a prescription.

External defibrillators in the hands of trained professionals can and do save thousands of lives each year. That it is why they have made their way beyond emergency rooms and ambulances to be widely installed at airports, gyms and other public places.

But some medical workers and doctors say they fear that having a device like HeartStart in the house might delay calls to 911 to seek the dispatch of an emergency medical service team.

Anyway, great conversation piece for dinner guests. Additionally, you now can justify all those hours of watching ER.

Demogogic Blogging

Monday, May 2nd, 2005

I stumbled across the blog of Zach Braff today, specifically his garden state blog. It is a reminder of how powerful celebrity has become. Some of his posts have over three thousand comments, and the average seems to be about one thousand comments per post. Admittedly, the posts seem to be on the order of about one per month, allowing more time for comments to be made.

Such large numbers of posts, particularly when compared to most other blogs seems to indicate something about the internet audience. Mainstream North American culture has a huge presence on the internet, and its presence seems to justify the use of the term audience, the majority of its presence on the internet is not interactive, it is one way communication: no one would expect Mr. Braff to respond to comments, and the comments reflect that. Because of this, I feel many people tend to underestimate its online stature.

It is this mainstream which is being completely missed by most websites. Sites like RealClimate and even much larger sites like slashdot or fark, still can’t address even a fraction of the audience that conventional media reaches. In addition, the internet audience of those sites generally tends to be the converted, not exactly the median view on any given issue.

I feel it is the challenge of the left to push their message into the mainstream in such a way that it is for the most part indistinguishable from entertainment.

Just when you thought the trees were safe…

Monday, May 2nd, 2005

Out comes a report that the print magazine industry is pushing hard at its advertisers by launching

a $40-million, three-year campaign … to win advertisers and try to convince them that magazines, which have existed in the United States for nearly 250 years, are likely to be here for the next 250, come what may. At the same time, the newspaper industry has begun a multimillion-dollar, three-year campaign to make over its image in the eyes of advertisers.

The make over apparently is needed because, compared to the Internet, magazines are viewed as old-fashioned. What the article doesn’t point out is the synergy between print and Internet, where traditional magazines like Ladies Home Journal offer online versions that include interactive elements like games and message boards.

Does anyone read print magazines anymore and why?

Dirty laundry–the scientist edition

Monday, May 2nd, 2005

A number of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have become highly critical of their boss. In an effort to express their opinions and oust the laboratory’s director, they’ve started a blog. But Los Alamos is no ordinary laboratory. It is the home of the famous and highly secretive Manhattan Project, the project that built the bomb. And it is still the place where some of the best physicists go to engage in weapons research, although Los Alamos additionally has become a major center of basic research in physics.

As the NYTimes reports, this is no ordinary blog.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, isolated in the mountains of New Mexico, has a long history of maintaining the highest level of federal secrecy. The laboratory’s very existence was once classified. Today, barbed wire rings many of its buildings, federal agents monitor its communications, and its employees are constantly reminded that loose lips sink ships.

I have mixed feelings about blogging for this kind of change. On the one hand, all possible traditional forums for change should be exhausted first. On the other hand, sometimes that’s fruitless. It also opens up the criticizer to vindictive job action. Blogs offer anonymity–in the Los Alamos case, only a fraction of the posts are signed–so they can protect the criticizer. They also can let loose a torrent of uncivil and indeed unprofessional behaviour. And, in the more general case of scientist blogs, they expose the institution’s dirty laundry when the public is already leery of funding science.

Christian first-person shooter

Sunday, May 1st, 2005

NYTimes writes on the drive to create a Christian gaming market.

The Rev. Ralph Bagley is on a very 21st-century sort of mission: introducing the word of God into what he calls the ”dark Satanic arena” of the video-game business. But he has an old-fashioned calling to back it up. ”I’ve always just loved video games,” he says. ”I was one of the guys playing Pong. When I became a Christian in 1992, I still wanted to play, but it was hard when the best-quality games out there were Doom, Quake — Satanic stuff, you know? Stuff that if I went to church on Sunday and came home and wanted to play a video game, I kind of felt a little bit guilty about it. I tried to find other games out there that were Christian, and there were none. Absolutely nothing. I’m the kind of guy that when I see something that’s not being done, I want to do it myself.”

Can Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series become the next successful console game?