Archive for September, 2005

Zero Emissions Vehicles: Not Anytime Soon

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Recently, GM and a few other car makers have decided to discontinue producing electric vehicles, claiming that the production was economically unsustainable. The companies recalled many of the vehicles that had been leased, leaving behind many disappointed consumers. Much of the focus of large auto companies has been shifted towards gas-and-electric hybrid automobiles, which have been receiving a lot of hype and media attention. There are notable mileage limitations with solely battery powered vehicles and they require several hours worth of recharging. Additionally, while operation of the vehicle produces zero emissions, the power plants that produce the electricity used to power the battery are nowhere near zero emissions. Zero emission technology has a long way to go from here.

Arctic ice melting at dramatic pace

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Dramatic photos to back up earlier computer models.

Virtual activism absent content

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Ran across this site: Go Petition is petition hosting portal that allows users to create and visitors to sign electronic petitions. What’s fascinating is that the site is not embedded in a larger site that has an agenda. The site owners claim that they have no political affiliations. So anyone can use it. Petitions range from exhortations to the Chinese government to stop the cruel treatment of bears all the way to entreaties to the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants to continue the television series. And there are very local pages as well, like eliminating parole for specific prisoners. This site elevates the means – the petition writing – over the ends – the petition goal.

You would think that absent a connection to a major group (e.g., clicking through the Greenpeace site to their petition), no one would want to sign these petitions or even create them. But maybe that’s the point. The creators of petitions may want the immediacy of action; maybe they’ve been alienated from major organizations. Maybe the users of this site just represent the fragmentation and isolation of the modern world, that is, they eschew the face-to-face connection of organizations in favour of the more anonymous activism of the net. The same can be said for the signers: they want to DO SOMETHING but they just don’t know how or don’t want to physically interact with others to find out.

The site does showcase several success stories but one wonders whether or not these kinds of efforts can be effective. Perhaps what they really provide is a vent in a passive agressive society or in a society where people feel relatively powerless.

Hello, operator?

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

One phrase that strikes a rich chord in modern science, especially in chaotic systems, is “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions”. With a computer model of protein interactions, a research team at UCSD found that the same few proteins could produce radically alternate outputs from only minor differences in input. The model enabled the team to trace the communications within the cell through inference on the input/output duo, with a fairly complete understanding of the parameters a cell might respond to.

The prevailing opinion prior to this study was that computational models would be hard-pressed to predict cellular function based on outside signals, which is exactly what these new findings have accomplished. The image on their news release says it all:

Obvious implications for this uncovering of “hidden conversations in the cell’s wiring” lie with a cell-sourced problems, such as treatments of cancer which start by increasing immune functions. With a delicate drug tool, it is possible to “interfere with one of the pathological functions of the proteins, but leave the healthy functions intact.”

Rita and new uses of the Internet

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

As never before, Hurricane Rita prompted high use of the Internet to inform the general public. This article mentions several.

For example, the Houston Chronicle featured on-site blogging before and during the hurricane from about a dozen “citizen” bloggers. Additionally,

Web surfers were able to get firsthand accounts Friday through podcasts and photographs. They could track the storm using Google-powered maps. And they could find housing and other emergency information from government and private Web sites.

They established a live streaming feed called RitaCast and made arrangements to produce a new personal audio dispatch every hour, each about 20 minutes long. The group was even trying to take calls from listeners — something rare with podcasts.

One interesting item, implied in the article, was as some television stations were flooded out of their offices and newspapers couldn’t operate their paper plants, they turned to webcasting.

BTW, the Washington Post has an excellent interactive map of Rita’s impact (although it did crash Firefox). You also may want to check out, which can track the movement of hurricanes on a map. The site combines Google’s map api with data from the National Weather Service. The site’s administrator, Mike Cornelius, wrote software to automatically extract latitude and longitude coordinates from government storm advisories.

ID is science (not)

Monday, September 26th, 2005

Parents in Pennsylvania are seeking to block the teaching of intelligent design in their children’s schools.

The [Dover township, Pennsylvania] school board, represented by the Thomas More Law Center, a religious-based nonprofit firm, took the position that this was about freedom of speech.

“Intelligent Design theory is really science in its purest form,” said Pat Gillen, a lawyer for the board. “It promotes the search for knowledge that embodies the essence of a liberal education.”

This argument is part of repackaging ID. Not only do proponents seek to distance themselves from the Christian god. They seek to change the actual definition of science, from hypothesis testing using empirical evidence of the natural world to a more general search for knowledge. This, of course, includes everything that is researched and taught at universities and schools. I guess we no longer need separate arts or humanities faculties. Everything is science.

Protest songs in the Age of the Internet

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

Music has always provided a fertile medium for expressing protest. One thinks of the American folk singers of the 1960s, like Bob Dylan and his song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. But it goes back much farther:

In the 18th century, songwriters responded to current events by writing new lyrics to existing melodies. “Benjamin Franklin used to write broadside ballads every time a disaster struck,” said Elijah Wald, a music historian, and sell the printed lyrics in the street that afternoon.

This quote comes from a NYTimes article on music and protest in an Internet age. The Internet allows many issues, from the plight of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico to the actions of the International Whaling Commission, to reach a world-wide audience. This can also be done to music, the most recent events in New Orleans being a case in point. Kayne West, an American rapper, made a comment on a nation-wide telethon to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. West said that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The idea for an online music video was born.

Mr. Randle and his partner, Micah Nickerson, wrote a rap based on the stories of the people they were helping. On Sept. 6, Mr. Nickerson sent Mr. Randle an instant message containing a music file and one verse, recorded on his home computer. Mr. Randle recorded an additional verse and sent it back, and 15 minutes later it was up on their Web site:

“Within the first 24 hours, it was downloaded 10,000 times,” Mr. Randle said. “It crashed our server.” Since then at least five sites have posted the song, with downloads of 100,000 each, he said.

In New Brunswick, N.J., Marquise Lee, a freelance video producer, heard the song and thought it called for a video. He downloaded scenes of African-Americans in New Orleans, intercutting them with images of President Bush and unrelated scenes from a Kanye West video. “It was a first-person account of the struggle – ‘Come down and help me,’ ” said Mr. Lee, 25.

The video remix is here. A cool side note is that the video samples another “only on the Internet” flash movie, which protested the Iraq War.

Thanks to Garry Peterson for the tip.

Informing vs. Making Change

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

Tim Jordan’s book Activism! (2002) portrays protests as a method to “cause us to focus on the meaning of particular movements and their demands.” Protests are now so frequent in our society they may be seen by a blind eye, so many causes and so little time… However, interestingly, Jordan writes protests “inform changes in our societies.” Thus instead of pushing change right now the strong point of a protest is informing society. However a major part is getting an informed society to change its lifestyle. How can actions of protest be involved in this movement?


Sunday, September 25th, 2005

The average man or woman in Britain uses over 3 tons of electrical and electronic waste in a lifetime. How do you convey that quantity in a dramatic way? WEEE man is an art installation in Britain that attempts to graphically demonstrate the average amount of electrical and electronic waste that a Briton uses in his or her lifetime. The sculpture stands 7 meters high and looks a lot like C3PO. It’s made from discarded equipment such as washing machines, televisions, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and cellphones.

WEEE comes from the European Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which is just now becoming law in the European Union. The law requires that all manufacturers who build and retailers who sell products in the EU assume responsibility for the products at the end of their usefulness. Technically, it’s called end-of-life management. The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of WEEE going into landfills by reducing the number of goods used, finding other users for the goods, decreasing the amount of hazardous materials in those goods, or recycling the components where possible.

Here is the text of WEEE.

Update: calculate your WEEE footprint here.

My favourite recycling sites

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

Here are some of my favourite recycling strategies.

Recycling Snow (or grit)
Edmonton plows the snow from its streets and places it in into a landfill that’s fitted with a settling pond at the base. As the snow melts, the gravel and sand settle to the bottom. The grit is recovered by the city and then reused the next year.

Rain Trap System
The Rain Trap System uses over 1 million tires during the construction of a typical golf course. The tires are halved, placed edge to edge, and then buried. They act as a a subsurface irrigation system to hold and recycle water. According to the site, the soil is capable of holding “266 percent more water for turf grass roots than natural soil.”

The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary
The City of Arcata, California, US created a relatively low-tech alternative to traditional sewage treatment: an artificial wetlands waste treatment plant.

Alberta’s Green Tax
This year Alberta, Canada launched a program to impose a surcharge on the purchase of computers, computer peripherals, and televisions. The “advanced disposal surcharge”defrays the cost of disposal of electronic and electrical devices. The surcharge ranges from $5 for laptops to $45 for large-screen televisions.

Cash for Old Cell Phones
Several companies are offering cash for your old cell phones. Besides getting cash, or in some cases reward points, you also can save the environment.

What are your favourites recycling sites?

Plague decimates World of Warcraft

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

This is the true impact of computer technology: in what is considered to be the most popular online game in the world, thousands of virtual characters have fallen victim to a fatal computer virus.

To give … powerful characters more of a challenge, Blizzard [the creator of WOW] regularly introduces new places to explore in the online world.

In the last week, it added the Zul’Gurub dungeon which gave players a chance to confront and kill the fearsome Hakkar – the god of Blood.

In his death throes Hakkar hits foes with a “corrupted blood” infection that can instantly kill weaker characters.

The infection was only supposed to affect those in the immediate vicinity of Hakkar’s corpse but some players found a way to transfer it to other areas of the game by infecting an in-game virtual pet with it.

This pet was then unleashed in the orc capital city of Ogrimmar and proved hugely effective as the Corrupted Blood plague spread from player to player.

Although computer controlled characters did not contract the plague, they are said to have acted as “carriers” and infected player-controlled characters they encountered.

Apparently, this isn’t the first computer virus to affect online games. According to the article, hundreds of Sims died from an infected guinea pig. Remember, it’s all virtual. (I hope it isn’t a hoax because it’s too delicious a story.)

Aussie Cat

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

Here is a photo of Jackie’s mother’s cat, MR BIG, who has just returned from the vet where he had his spring shave (it being spring in Australia)….

Creationist assault on museums

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

Science museums and other natural science institutions are now training their staff and volunteers to cope with challenges to the theory of evolution that are increasingly common and occasionally downright aggressive.

One company, called B.C. Tours “because we are biblically correct,” even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. Participants hear creationists’ explanations for the exhibitions.

One of these groups might be 30 or 40 people strong. (So now creationists travel in packs?)

Obviously, if they pay to go in, creationists have every right to experience the museum as well as ask staff tough questions. But not questions that, according to the article, have become openly hostile and belligerent.

They peppered Dr. Durkee [of the Museum of the Earth, Ithaca, NY] with questions about everything from techniques for dating fossils to the second law of thermodynamics, their queries coming so thick and fast that she found it hard to reply.

After about 45 minutes, “I told them I needed to take a break,” she recalled. “My mouth was dry.”

Staff have been told to explain to museum goers that evolution (or geology or natural science) exists in the realm of science and therefore responds to questions that can be empirically tested (also that, contrary to belief, there isn’t loads of evidence countering evolution). The training allows staff to rehearse answers to common questions. It can make staff comfortable, not just with the script, but also with the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of evolution. The training also underscores that there are thinking creationists who will appreciate the explanations even if they remain unconvinced.

If all that fails then staff should simply “excuse themselves by saying, “I have to go to the restroom.””

Climate Activism – Greenpeace and Coca-Cola Co.

Monday, September 19th, 2005

While conducting some background research on virtual and physical activism this weekend, I found a very creative form of activism which I have already met (you probably did too), but which I did not know by name until now. It is called culture jamming and I find (after a short research) that activists, on the net and off, have been using it very effectively.

Culture jamming aims at turning company logos into a social and/or environmental critique against the corporations they represent by transforming them slightly, giving them some new meaning.

During their 2000 campaign against Coca-Cola, aiming to make a point against the company’s practice of using refrigerating units containing HFCs, Greenpeace turned the Coca-Cola logo and slogan into a climate change message.

In its effort to spread the message (the image), Greenpeace used various tactics to alert activists worldwide. They released a report that exposed the company’s practices, which they sent out by mail and in electronic version distributed by email. In collaboration with Adbusters Media Foundation, they put up a website ( which featured the climate change bears advertisement.

Coca-Cola Co. moved swiftly to introduce more sustainable practices.

With the use of the Internet to spread the message, culture jamming has become a powerful activist tool. One reason mentioned in the article is that NGOs (even small ones) are able to make use of the Internet, as well as ‘having an increasing capacity to compete with multinational corporations on the brand-name level’.

I think, that the success lies in the image itself. It is self-explanatory: everyone knows Coca-Cola and almost everyone has heard of climate change. It is easy to make the connection. The nature of the message (easy to understand and creative) and the fact that this image can be sent anywhere in the world in the matter of seconds must make CEOs think hard about the consequences a similar campaign is likely to have on their company’s image.

Population growth and environmental degradation

Monday, September 19th, 2005

We tend to treat population growth and environmental degradation as though it were a one-way causal street, namely population growth causes environmental degradation. However, there is no lasting empirical evidence that has affirmed this claim.

However, there is ample evidence–to be scientifically correct, not causative evidence but ample associative evidence–that environmental degradation negatively impacts population growth. One example is endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that interfere with the sexual development of animals. A study just published by the University of Ottawa reports on the impacts of exposure to high levels of one such EDC, hexachlorobenzenes (HCBs), on the sex selection of children. The study tracked over time the number of boys and girls born in a native community in Sarnia, Ontario. The Aamjiwnaang community live next to the Sarina-Lambert Chemical Valley, a complex of petrochemical, polymer, and chemical industrial plants.

The authors tracked the sex ratio from 1984 to 2003. From 1984 to 1992, the ratio of boys to girls was about 1. But something happened in the mid-1990s and the ratio of boys to girls declined. These were not minor differences in the sex ratio: from 1999 to 2003, half as many boys as girls were born to members of the Aamjiwnaang community. The authors are not sure why the rate declined when it did–they do not have longitudinal data on environmental quality. However, a 1996 soil study found high concentrations of both inorganic and organic contaminants. Among the organics, high levels of HCBs were found in the soil.

If you’re interested, the full text of the study is available here. It’s an easy, albeit alarming, read. In addition to effects on human population, the study also reviews the endocrine disruption in local wildlife in the region.

Many EDCs are essential to computer production. See related post on the impacts of brominated flame retardants.

Next hydrogen engine to come from Canada?

Monday, September 19th, 2005

They’ve cut down the size and dramatically reduced the possibility of explosions. The question is: will it work (and how expensive will it be)? Joe Williams, Sr., originally from Winnipeg, thinks his Hydrogen Generating Module (H2N-Gen) is the solution to the Kyoto Accord:

Smaller than a DVD player – small enough to sit comfortably under the hood of any truck or car – it could be big enough to solve the world’s greenhouse gas emission problems, at least for the near future. In fact, it could make the Kyoto protocol obsolete. Basically, the H2N-Gen contains a small reservoir of distilled water and other chemicals such as potassium hydroxide. [The device is added to an existing gasoline-powered engine.] A current is run from the car battery through the liquid. This process of electrolysis creates hydrogen and oxygen gases which are then fed into the engine’s intake manifold where they mix with the gasoline vapours.

It’s a scientific fact that adding hydrogen to a combustion chamber will cause a cleaner burn. The challenge has always been to find a way to get the hydrogen gas into the combustion chamber in a safe, reliable and cost-effective way.

Williams claims he has achieved this with his H2N-Gen. His product, he said, produces a more complete burn, greatly increasing efficiency and reducing fuel consumption by 10 to 40 per cent – and pollutants by up to 100 per cent.

I’m skeptical but hopeful.

Virtual activism for climate change

Monday, September 19th, 2005

One of the themes of the blog this fall and winter will be the use of virtual activism to influence climate change policy. Here’s an example.

Stop Global Warming has just been launched by a high profile group of actors, journalists, politicians, musicians, and environmentalists. It is billed as the Live 8 for climate change. The site invites people to join a virtual march on Washington and to stir activity on college campuses. The site also blogs news on climate change, mostly from the US.

Mostly, the site serves as a platform to launch a benefit telecast, called Earth To America!, which TBS will broadcast on Sunday November, 20.

There’s even a bracelet, (made by ROOTS).

Penguins, redux

Monday, September 19th, 2005

In my earlier post on the adoption of the March of the Penguins movie by the conservative movement, I had wondered how proponents of Intelligent Design could use the story of emperor penguins to exemplify ID when the opposite seemed true. Then I came across this:

But intelligent design advocates don’t mind misunderstandings like these at all. In fact, it is precisely this kind of confusion that I.D. proponents and other antievolution activists hope to foster, the movement’s critics say. Adopting a “Gee whiz” attitude seems to be how some laypeople digest the idea of intelligent design: Any animal that looks strange or exists in a fashion that is not readily understandable must be a manifestation of divine artistry.

Back to the exploitation of uncertainty to undermine science.

Eight ways to save the world

Sunday, September 18th, 2005

The World Summit meeting recently concluded at the United Nations. Sadly, the leaders from the 191 countries came nowhere close on their original promise to deliver on the eight Millenium Development Goals by 2015.

A series of articles in the Guardian Newspaper reminds us (a) how easily achievable the Millenium Development Goals actually are, and (b) how inextricably joined are environmental protection and poverty alleviation. Eight ways to save the world is also a photography exhibit in London, which illustrates the development goals (the main page of the Guardian series contains examples of the photos). Below are the eight goals, linked to their associated Guardian articles.

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To give all children a primary school education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership.

Vermont rest stop a model of waste water treatment

Sunday, September 18th, 2005

A newly re-opened rest stop on Vermont Highway cuts across nature, war and memory, fiscal sensibilities, technology, and toilets. Oh and there’s a linkage to Canada, too.

It goes like this. The very first Vietnam War veterans’ memorial was located on Interstate Highway 89 in Vermont. The rest stop, where it was located, had to be shut down because of an inability to manage the sewage system (toilets being an essential component of a rest stop). Instead of trying something prosaic, the state decided to innovate and try to link waste water treatment in some way with the memorial. Insulting? Fiscally irresponsible? Read the article for the amazing conclusion.

BTW, the living machines mentioned in the article come from Living Systems, a company in Taos, New Mexico.

Another in our toilet series: see previous post for a list of posts as well as a silly Japanese advertisement.