Archive for June, 2005

Smile, you’re on RFID cam

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

In case you’re not paranoid enough, look at a website devoted to alerting people about the existence and potential geo-surveillance capabilities of Radio Frequency ID tags.

RFIDs are tiny specks of computer chips that are used to track items at a distance. For more information, check out the post about the use of RFIDs for automated car rental and an earlier post about how RFIDs will replace barcodes.

The website, Stop RFIDs, compiles reports of where RFIDs are being placed, “hidden”, in products you might buy at Wal-Mart, Target, CVS or Tesco.

These companies say that they want RFIDs for inventory control (when to restock the shelves) and marketing strategies (who buys what constellation of products). The website makes the all-too believable claim that they are being used to spy on people.

The site brings up the example of Gillette razors, which contain RFIDs in the packaging. The RFIDs can sense when the razors are picked up because the packaging moves away from sensors located under the store shelves:

Whenever a shopper picks up a packet of razor blades from a spy shelf, SNAP! A hidden camera secretly takes a closeup photo of the shopper’s face. (And a second photo is snapped at the cash register to make sure the product is paid for!)

(Wonderful. Now they’ll know when I have stubbly legs.)

More importantly, the use of RFIDs has implications for geodemographics, the study of the where people live by what people buy. Think Minority Report, where every passing advertisement knows who you are and what you like (in terms of products). Or “redlining”, a concept in which companies draw a virtual red line around a community and refuse to offer services there, such as mortgages (too many people in the community are defaulting) or health care (too many people buy fatty foods). Doesn’t matter what you consume because you’re defined by your geographical location.

RFIDs have implications for the war on terror as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government didn’t start tagging religious books such as the Koran or books on radical environmentalism. If you bought such a book then the government would know it and could know, depending on the density of sensors, when and where you were carrying it.

Virtual protest and gaming

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

An old story but a creative one on virtual activism to protest “advergaming”: Big Mac Attack.

The BBC has a nice report on how computer games are finding their political voice.

A Guardian article on marches taking place inside massive online player games.

the chronos complex

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Some would say that all of humanity can be encapsulated in two concepts: space (x, y, z coordinates do it all) and time (past, present, future).

The classic, Wester children’s story runs “once upon a time… and they lived happily ever after”, and a typical Torres Strait Islander runs “the man set out from [point A]… and reached [point E]”, with no ‘finally’, no ‘the end’, this narrative is about space. Perhaps, for clarity’s sake, I should say that time envelopes space, as space is subject to change over time (and for the time being, forget the vexing question of the static/flux state of a system duality). Some bold remarks about our obsession with time have been chronicled in “The Cronos complex I : an enquiry into the temporal origins of human culture and psychology“. (Is there anything doesn’t stock?)

The panic and anxiety that plague someone’s life can summarily be tied to time as well: smoking shortens your life, quite literally, and time travel may just be possible with some imagination.

Virtual activism for whales

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Greenpeace is organizing the first virtual march to protect whales.

Thirteen thousand and six hundred people from 58 countries… have already logged on to the Greenpeace website to join the world’s first ever Virtual March by sending in personal stories and photographs of themselves expressing outrage at the prospect of resumed commercial whaling. The images collected through the Greenpeace website will ‘march’ across Ulsan, as Greenpeace projects them onto buildings to remind [International Whaling Commission] IWC delegates, especially from South Korea, that global citizens want Whales – Alive! South Korea is threatening to support Japan’s objective to return to killing whales for profit.

The Virtual March will conclude on June 19, the day before the 57th IWC meeting, June 20 to 24, in Ulsan, South Korea. Greenpeace plans to project the pictures there.

The Virtual March is here, with an impressive flash introduction.

Late update: I’ll be on CBC Radio I, talking about the subject on Monday morning. Don’t know which regions of the country, though.

Later update: Here’s the first large scale virtual march, where thousands of people were mobilized against the Iraq war to bombard the White House and senators with phone calls and e-mails.

Friday Cat Blogging

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Eek. Someone is in the house. Hide!

what is it with these ‘nano-tubes’?

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

That’s it, pack your bags and get going. Nanotechnology is the new saviour for, well, everything. Even Moore’s Law has been pieced back together, keeping computing power something to set your clock to. That is, 10GHz. Read all about it, but make sure to check out the latest Technology Review as well for a heart-warming reminder of Moore’s Law and it’s constant reliability, as per IBM’s new leaps. Also, terebyte storage may be possible for this vast computing power, as immodestly bragged about here.

For dessert? As per the atomic-scale precision involved in nanotech, here’s an article to stir up The Uncertainty Principle

A nice job if you can get it

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

What happens to poor White House appointees who get caught editing out the impacts of climate change? The oil industry takes care of them.

A former White House official and one-time oil industry lobbyist whose editing of government reports on climate change prompted criticism from environmentalists will join Exxon Mobil Corp., the oil company said Tuesday.

The AP report above mentions that the leaked documents came originally from the Government Accountability Project, a program that defends whistleblowers. The former appointee and incoming oil exec was not the whistleblower. Instead,

Rick Piltz, who resigned in March from the government office that coordinates federal climate change programs, made the documents — showing handwritten edits by Cooney — available to the Project on Government Accountability and, in turn, to news media.

Get out of my cafe and take your computer with you!

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

Apparently some cafe owners, in places like Seattle, are pulling the free wi-fi out of their cafes, at least some times of the week. Why? Because the wi-fi users are staying too long and buying only one drink or none at all, taking up tables meant for four people, and not talking at all (a problem in cafes that owners mean to be social hubs). Many are belligerent when asked to leave or order another drink. After all, it’s a right to have wi-fi, isn’t it?

Out of Eden

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

For those of you interested in invasive species, the NYTimes has an excerpt of the first chapter of Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. The book’s author, Alan Burdick, sums up the problem neatly: “The greatest threat to biological diversity is no longer just bulldozers or pesticides but, in a sense, nature itself.”

The NYTimes’s review illustrates the book’s engaging prose that epitomizes the best of science writing. However, the reviewer wonders if Burdick goes too far in trying to soften the blow of environmental disaster and ends up contradicting himself.

Burdick tries to make the case that nature is adaptable enough to handle the changes in our topsy-turvy world. When scientists figure out how to isolate the problem and interpret all the variables, it appears, for instance, that even having 500-pound feral pigs rooting through the forests of Hawaii may not do the permanent damage conservationists fear. Instead of causing local extinctions, he writes, “most successful invaders simply blend into the ecological woodwork. . . . To the local eye, biological diversity seems to have increased. Isn’t that a good thing?”

Maybe Burdick is simply trying to avoid the hazards of environmental alarmism, but surely this goes too far. It doesn’t square with the evidence he has diligently accumulated: What about the Australian tree spreading rapidly through the Everglades that ”draws in so much water through its roots that it essentially converts open marsh habitats . . . into . . . dry land”? What about the European green crab, which “single-leggedly crushed the soft-shell clam industry north of Cape Cod”? And how about, shortly after a cholera epidemic in South America in 1991, ships dumping ballast water that released the same strain of cholera bacteria into oyster beds at Mobile Bay in Alabama? The argument that many, or even most, invasive species cause no harm risks encouraging a “What, me worry?” attitude in a public already too complacent about environmental change.

In addition to worrying about complacency, this passage should cause us to question the use of increased biodiversity as a measure of environmental quality. Are more species in a habitat necessarily better? Of course not. Still, it’s easier to do counts than it is assess the more qualitative aspects of a habitat. This problem has been called the “meaning/measurement dilemma” by Warner (1967). That is, the value or meaning of the measure varies inversely with the objectivity of the measure. Both activists and policymakers attribute low meaning to objective—easily quantifiable—measures (e.g., the number of spotted owls); conversely, high-level meaning measures (for instance, biodiversity quality) are viewed as too subjective. So if we are to assess the long-term impacts of invasive species then we need good (and publicly digestible) measures of the effects.

Response to the Death of Environmentalism

Monday, June 13th, 2005

I’ve talked about the report, The Death of Environmentalism several times (here and here) because its message has had such a traumatic effect on the movement. In a nutshell, DOE asserts that environmentalism has fixated on technical and incrementalist fixes and policy wonkery and is consequently incapable of addressing large scale environmental issues such as massive biodiversity loss and climate change. Also its authors have found an incredibly receptive community, including funders, to its nihilistic prognosis for the movement and its call for a populist to begin to address the problems of movement flacidity and environmental catastrophe.

In comes the response: The Soul of Environmentalism. To give you a sense of the trauma and the desperate need for a response felt by the authors of SOE, note the following which likens DOE to a “near-death” experience:

“We survived a virus!” cheered Michael Dorsey, a Dartmouth College professor of environmental studies and one of the new paper’s co-authors, before an audience of activists and foundation folks. “Those media guys tried to inject death into our movement. We beat back the grim reaper and those eco-necrophiliacs. We knew and we know when we look around that environmentalism is alive.”

The authors have even launched a blog to further discussion of their report and to forge new alliances among a broad array of organizations.

I have one major critique of SOE. However, let me begin by mentioning its substantive contribution: a re-engagement within the broader environmental community of the problems of environmental racism and classism. The movement has long been accused, and rightly so, of neglecting colour, class, native peoples, and urban issues as it focused largely on the interests of middle class whites–indeed, how the latter constructed nature to protect what we value (green leafy wildernesses instead of asthma free inner cities. Okay it’s polemical but it does have some truth). Robert Bullard’s ground-breaking work on environmental racism in the early 90s ignited interest in mainstream environmentalism; since then the movement collectively has backed away. After, acknowledging our role in perpetuating racism is hardly comfortable. DOE may have enraged many, but it has renewed the bonds that had been languishing.

That being said, SOE answers a question not asked in DOE and does not address the problems actually posed. I agree that DOE’s authors ignored race and class, created a singular set of environmental values where none exists, and adopted the language of the right wing in framing the environment. However, DOE has some things right. In many places, humans cannot live in harmony with nature (however it is socially constructed). Environmentalism is too in bed with traditional policy making processes. It’s too wedded to technocratic solutions such as geographic information systems (as much as I am a proponent of GIS, the advantages of its use versus other strategies such as protest has yet to be definitively proven). Outside of isms, SOE does not address the scalar problem of climate change. Indeed, by the time the peoples of the world come together in something akin the one world government inferred by SOE, there may not be much to save. I’m not saying that I like the solution proposed by DOE, either. It’s that SOE poses the problem, I hate to say it, as a kind of public relations problem, in other words, if only we could sell environmentalism better, or maybe it’s the differential impacts of environmental degradation, then more people would believe.

And who came up with this reframing of environment in SOE? It’s not all bad but some is awful. Remember that the object of reframing is to change the discourse in a direction that achieves your goals. But look at the following: “Fossil fuel use is a symptom of addiction.” Right, the public is going to adopt the discourse of addiction to stop buying SUVs. “One planet, Global community”? This sounds like world government, which to many in the US evokes images of the UN coming in with black helicopters to take over the US. “Expanding human rights to include sexual preference.” Consider that SOE represents a dialogue between the majority and minorities. Unfortunately, minorities are not unanimous in their support of issues such as gay marriage. In this, SOE has replaced one uniformity of values with another.

I’m still waiting for a adequate response for DOE, although I feel the need is less urgent than the authors of SOE do. With DOE, environmentalism has received a much-needed kick in the pants to respond to the big problems facing the world today. A manifesto, such as SOE, is not the solution. Let’s see what the environmentalists come up with.

Editing can get you fired

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

An update to an earlier post: Editor of US government’s climate change report resigns.

Very non-techie

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

But I bet they had cellphones, although where they stored them… 😉

Bicyclists Ride in Protest, and in Little Else

LONDON, June 11 (Associated Press) – About 100 naked bicyclists rode past Big Ben and the American Embassy on Saturday to protest the West’s dependence on gas-guzzling cars and to push for more use of bicycles. …

Rechargeable batteries

Sunday, June 12th, 2005

For those of you in Montreal: the fire stations are accepting no-longer-chargeable rechargeable batteries for disposal. This includes cellphone batteries and, I presume, computer batteries. Collection boxes are located outside the stations and they ask that you ensure they are the rechargeable kind and not regular batteries. I don’t know how they are disposing of the batteries but one hopes it’s as ecological friendly as possible.

Why do you do what you do?

Friday, June 10th, 2005

Maybe it’s not something you ask yourself while you’re an undergraduate, but it’s an essential question that over time we forget to answer:

Why do you do what you do? It’s a quiet but amazing collection of photos that ask the simple question.

Friday Cat Blogging: Cats in Heat

Friday, June 10th, 2005

In Montreal, we know it’s summer when the Grand Prix comes to town. In this house it’s when the cats migrate to the windows.

Belated cat blog

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Cat relaxing at Moorish Castle, Sintra, Portugal.

Oil company crafts US Kyoto policy

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

An update to yesterday’s post. The Guardian reports that the White House wrote letters to ExxonMobil thanking them for their role in crafting the government’s climate change report. The letters also sought to assure Exxon and other anti-Kyoto business associations that US climate change policies would be structured in ways that companies would find acceptable.

Isn’t the sweet? No one writes thank you letters anymore. Or maybe, if they do then they shouldn’t keep a paper trail.

a grain of salt, anyone?

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

A sombering thought, one that might be good to take down: there are a lot of neat statistics that make environmentalists feel warm and fuzzy… such as this banner. Of course, there are countless types wonderful endeavors that somebody, somewhere is putting their all into. But all the neat statistics may blind some from the true ‘true cost’ of things. In example, it would be possible to power an overwhelming part of the US with a wind farm in North Dakota (they have lucky winds), but the power lines would dissipate too much energy. OK, so why not install superconductivity-enable power lines? Or nano-tube powerlines, both with close to zero resistance (and thus close to full transmission capacity)?

Because, these things costs something too. That is, energy, resources, capital, etc. etc. The moral of the story? Don’t get carried away, I wonder if it just might be more harm than good.

The speculative science meets politics

Wednesday, June 8th, 2005

Jaded readers will not be surprised by the announcement that a White House appointee “who once led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports to play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.”

What is shocking is the NYTimes graphic of an actual page of the document with hand-written annotations striking out paragraphs because climate change is “speculative”.

witness environmentalism being born

Tuesday, June 7th, 2005

another bonafide environmental group is emerging at McGill. . . and you can be witness to its beautiful development at the new site for Gorilla Composting As of 11am, GC was granted the coveted ‘independ student group’ status.