Archive for October, 2005

Use of virtual activism regarding climate change

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Here’s an example of how hard it is to distinguish the different types of virtual activism and determine an impact of each:

Earth Action Center, an initiative of Natural Resources Defence Council sends out an (1) email blast, asking people to (2) watch a flash activism cartoon, which prompts viewers to (1) do their own email blast to a US congress person or (3) send them an e-card.

So which is the most effective? The postcard, the cartoon or the initial email? That’s why it’s important to look at the basket of techniques. Even so, an non-governmental organization still would like to know which egg in the basket is the best one to invest in.

Oil Offal

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I’m sure by now, most of us have been exposed to the news that oil prices have gone up fairly substantially in the past few months. Everytime I hear a story on this, I have two competing demons in my head, the first saying something to the effect of “Well, maybe more expensive energy will make people consider some non oil-alternatives and stop buying those houseboats on wheels”, with the second chiming in that high world energy prices disproportionately hurt the poorest, while the rich will grumble a bit and continue along their marginally less merry Range Rover ways.

This leads me to wonder, if we could wish for an oil price, what would we set it to? Too high an oil price, and in addition to hurting developing nations, we might get a lot more coal, and will likely have more exploration in places which otherwise might escape the drill bit. Too low an oil price and we get a cost which isn’t coming close to reflecting the true cost to society of our energy.

Along the same lines, I read an article on cnn a couple of weeks ago, which apparently is no longer findable, where readers wrote in to express some of the sacrifices they were making with the cost of gas being above 2 USD. A lot of them were simply laughable (with the tone of the laughter depending on your level of cynicism), along the lines of the father lamenting he had to drive the 1990’s Civic the 50 mile commute to work, while his son got to drive the 3 mile commute to school in their suv, oh the horror. Weaving among those stories however, were the people who were unable to continue to afford dental insurance.

Something of a conundrum. Are there environmental economists whose business it is to balance such things?

Virtual worlds, virtual vacations

Sunday, October 30th, 2005

But is there room for virtual eco-tourism?

Missing U.S. cat found in France

Friday, October 28th, 2005

A well-travelled animal, even if it was unintentional.

Greenpeace and co. – running things into the ground

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

Here’s a story: I am an economist working for an eNGO (or running an eNGO?), and I want to go about proving that renewable energies are under-prioritized. In fact, break-throughs like new, fancy, cheap solar panels need encouragement (monetary incentives, tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) so that renewables can take the lead in providing primary energy for society.

Well, well. It won’t work just yet. Scanning mostly any mainstream account of energy choices and alternatives describes renewables as a niche-source. Limited applications include in-situ provision of energy for, say, manufacturing hydrogen.

The real hurt comes from a simple fact: wind and sun come and go, and capacity for storage is plagued with poor efficiency. Supplying energy to a power grid is impossible, because the mis-match between supply and demand cannot be righted if a few cloudy, windless days roll by. Everyone’s back to candles and extended weekends (who’s going to go to work?).

Now then, what does Greenpeace say? Popular arguments are often a mimicry of public paranoia and poor grasp of science. Most notably, the profound distaste for the only, repeat, the ONly wholesale source of carbon-free energy: nuclear power. Even if MIT concludes the same. The recent volleys of email-cum-spamming from Greenpeace characterize nuclear power as a terrorist threat (everyone’s favorite, especially in the cozy Mid-Western US).

I certainly wouldn’t say that the “Tainted Desert”, the South-Western desert region in the US, hasn’t been ravaged by toxic waste in the air, water, and soil, hasn’t caused exploding adult and infant radiation poisoning and cancer, hasn’t forced US imperialism to extend itself in a 40’s-era-fashion over vast tracts of Native American land, jobs, and communities only to offer bitterly-bitterly-ironic compensation by funding the construction of cultural history museums, or general added to the triumvirate of industrial-military-government blinded dominance in matters of science and social justice. Of course not.

But, if the climate is changing, then campaigning against nuclear power has to be re-thought. Quite seriously. Otherwise, many parallel campaigns against threats to sustainability, rain forests, oceans, icebergs, species biodiversity, natural heritage, etc. seem to tug against each other, until they become hopelessly behind the catastrophe.

Beyond Message Frameworks

Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Does communication over the Internet improve an environmental campaign or “merely change how it frames its message?” This is a question discussed by Jenny Pickerill in the book Cyberprotest: Environmental Activism Online (2003). The Internet allows communication at faster rates and is passed over a large worldwide audience, with less governmental control. This instant communication without limits of physical distance can created a dialogue between people on the Internet. A case can be made that the Internet is space for people to answer and react to others involved in an issue, creating discussion and involvement. Does the creation of dialogue constitute go beyond changing how an environmental movement frames its message? Many researchers argue this creation of dialogue aids the democratic process. However, the Internet is still limited and not available to everyone, resulting in larger inequalities.

New satellite imaging reveals rainforest devastation

Saturday, October 22nd, 2005

New satellite imaging techniques have revealed that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed twice as fast as previously thought.

Scientists have discovered that previous satellite photographs of the Amazon have missed a form of surreptitious logging that is equally destructive, but not as apparent from space.

Now a team of American and Brazilian specialists have for the first time been able to assess from space the damage done by “selective logging”, when one or two trees are removed leaving surrounding trees intact.

More on the imaging:

Scientists have been working for eight years to find a way of detecting the large-scale damage caused by selective logging. From this work emerged the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLAS) which processes data from three Nasa satellites. The information is fed into a powerful supercomputer which can spot changing patterns within each image pixel.

“For example, the signals tell us how much green vegetation is in the canopy, how much dead material is on the forest floor and how much bare soil there is,” said Dr Asner [, head of the study]. “Extracting those data has been a Holy Grail of remote sensing. With CLAS, we’ve been able to obtain a spatial resolution of 98ft by 98ft for the Brazilian Amazon Basin. That’s huge.”

I don’t know whether to call this positive technological innovation or not, considering how depressing the findings are.

Click here and here for more info on the Stanford work.

Obligatory Friday Cat Blogging

Friday, October 21st, 2005

Mr Evil demands to be fed!

(and for the more literal minded, no I don’t feed Mr Evil at the table or the counter. And it took forever to get him to pose.)

Open source and innovation

Friday, October 21st, 2005

To what extent does our software have to be free or shareware to encourage innovation and research? This NYTimes article points to the new phenomenon called map mash-ups that has arisen because of Google’s free api.

What I find exciting is the “meta-multiplier” effects. It’s happened in the growth of third party value-add ons. In the US, the inexpensive and broad-based distribution of Census data made much of GIS software development (read-survivability) possible; without this easily accessible digital data, we wouldn’t have seen the advent of digital gazetteers. Basic map api’s such as Google maps build on this data availability and have created a platform for new companies such as These api’s also have created new opportunities for public participation GIS. Think of, an application to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. This interface was built on top of Google maps in 1 1/2 hours.

Obviously Google has a very different business model from ESRI. However, even ESRI has made its modeling interface “open source”. What’s next? ArcIMS?

Flash activism

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

Here’s a new flash activism site on climate change called the climate mash.

Party without wires

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

If you’re in the Montreal area and you want to party with people who have a vision of a wireless Montreal…

Ile Sans Fil is now at 10,000 users! We’re celebrating.

So . . . we’re doing a call-out. Do you:
– spend *way* too much time being a rockstar (on garageband)?
– work for bandwidth?
– consider joining the online class action whenever your ipod flashes “lowbat” but still drool over the nano?
– blog every cheese sandwich you eat?
– have RSI?

After two years of busting our chops, we’re ready to put down our laptops, pringle’s antennas, and o’reilly books for one night. Come party with us October 22 (this sat) on our first annual PubCrawl.There will be (much) beer, t-shirts and prizes.

Prizes are:
-Wifi TeliPhone with 6 months free service (long distance inc.)
-512 mb iPod shuffle from the Coop UQAM
-Accesories you never knew you needed from Toshiba
-a little something you may have heard of called the “iPod Nano”

[What amuses me is that the characteristics for likely partiers is different in French:
– Vous passez vos week-ends à jouer les Rock stars (avec GarageBand)?
– Vous songez à inscrire une connexion à Internet sur fibre optique à votre liste de cadeaux de Noêl?
– Vous bloguez sur tout ce qui bouge?
– Vous seriez prêt à vous remettre au Kraft Dinner pour acheter un iPod nano?
– Vous souffrez atrocement du syndrome du tunnel carpien ?]

activism at large

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

It seems quizzicle that anyone not familiar with the concept of virtual activism readily argues that ‘virtual’ can be traced to 1 degree of separation from ‘physical’, while those who claim to be ‘experts’ in the field are quick to agree and continue making the distinction nonetheless.

One bold method from in a oft-cited article uses “process tracing” to draw a line from dot to dot to dot in order to establish causal relationships, where each dot is an actor or event, starting from NGOs and ending with international negotiations (Betsill and Corell, 2001). Imagine, howeve, the complexity of this trace:

Out of an idyllic blue sky dotted with birds and butterflies come warplanes that carpet-bomb the Smurfs’ forest village, killing Smurfette, leaving Baby Smurf wailing in distress and sending Papa Smurf and the others bolting for cover.

The scene from a bizarre commercial featuring Belgium’s lovable blue-skinned cartoon characters is so upsetting it can only be shown after 9 p.m. to avoid scaring children.

Yet it is part of a UNICEF ad campaign on Belgian television meant to highlight the plight of ex-child soldiers in Africa.

“It’s working. We are getting a lot of reactions, and people are logging on to our Web site,” said Philippe Henon, a spokesman for the Belgian office of the U.N. children’s agency.

. . .

“We get reactions from all over the place,” he said. “People are shocked and want to know the reasons behind this cartoon image.”

The goal UNICEF has with this campaign is to attract donations for its program to aid children in war-torn areas. Imagine the diffiuculty – but also, the real possibility – of doing research that draws from NGO representatives, policy makers, and all stripes of media to show how influence is caused by specific actors. But, what is physical and what is virtual is a secondary matter, an issue of semantics. It does, however, make for promising – if disturbing – advantages in activism. See below:

papa smurf!

Cell phones in Africa

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

Cellphones are changing not only communication in the continent of Africa, but its commerce:

NAIROBI, Kenya – Amina Harun, a 45-year-old farmer, used to traipse around for hours looking for a working pay phone on which to call the markets and find the best prices for her fruit. Then cell phones changed her life.

Harun is one of a rapidly swelling army of wired-up Africans — an estimated 100 million of the continent’s 906 million people. Another is Omar Abdulla Saidi, phoning in from his sailboat on the Zanzibar coast looking for the port that will give him the biggest profit on his freshly caught red snapper, tuna and shellfish.

Friday cat blogging

Saturday, October 15th, 2005

Sharpen the claws, spare the furniture.

You are what you eat

Friday, October 14th, 2005

How do you feel about your food security?

In a tragic, Jared Diamond-esque realization, it might strike you that the entire South American continent hung by an agricultural thread, and then fell. Specifically in the Yucatan Penninsula, with the expansive plots of crops nestled in too-thin dirt, an extended spell of no rain caused the spongey earth to cake up and kill the crops, and, subsequently, the civilization.

So much for Aztec urban planning.

However, we are not immune to similar legendary catastrophes. Much attention has been given to Food Security in recent past. The famous economist T. Homer-Dixon writes much about how resource scarcity, especially food and energy, are the seeds of inter-national conflict and war. With the emergence of high-powered GIS and analysis, a ‘Famin Early Warning System‘ was produced a short while ago to model risks. Attention at the L. D. Earth Obersvatory, Columbia University, has kept global-perspective detail on draughts that can – and will, beyond a shadow of a doubt – re-occur in the near future.

And now, an upcoming lecture:

“Room at the Table for Everyone: Challenges to Global Food Security in the 21st Century.”

Professor Don Smith – Chair, Plant Science Department, McGill University

Friday, October 21, 2005
Redpath Mueum Auditorium

The Positive Side of Global Warming???

Tuesday, October 11th, 2005

The polar ice caps, as they retreated this year into the smallest size ever recorded, are presenting new opportunities for investment and profit. Entrepreneurs are eager to explore the region for potentially vast amounts of natural resources (including oil), that are projected to be worth billions of dollars. The ice caps could retreat for summers at a time, leaving room for the territory to be explored and mined. According to the U.S. Geological survey, the Arctic contains one quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources. Already countries have been negotiating over the titles of the land. A Denver investor bought Churchill, Manitoba, a Hudson Bay Port, from the Canadian government in 1997 for a mere $7 and is now seriously considering re-opening it to Arctic traffic. With the receeding ice caps, industry will greatly expand in the region, bringing him revenue in excess of $100 million per year. The government of Manitoba is investing millions into developing the area. A Swedish shipbuilder has recently designed a ship that is capable of navigating through icebergs, and after selling two of them for $90 million, the Russian government liscenced the design and is building two of its own. Does it strike anybody as odd that our overconsumption of fossil fuels is causing noticeable and alarming (albeit only to some) changes to our planet, and instead of reflecting on the potential consequences of our behaviour, our fellow countrymen look to further the process??? How deep can we dig ourselves into this mess in the hope of recovering more oil???

Late night friday cat blogging

Friday, October 7th, 2005

Clammy being pensive.

I can see the money rolling in

Friday, October 7th, 2005

America Online (AOL) to buy Weblogs Inc. network for $25million US. No, no. Computers, Society and Nature cannot be sold at any price (wait a minute…)

frontier energy frontier

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

Let’s do some math.

How can we aim to get carbon-free energy for the least amount of all-inputs-considered?

One exciting sector in energy is the BioFuels explosion (figuratively speaking, of course). These fuels derive from plant and vegetable matter. They produce energy from breaking down the matter in combustion, but with negligable emissions. Coupling this with the notion of capturing already-available sources of fuel instead of letting them become a waste issue is an attractive concept.

Consider this idealized view:

frontier planning

However, the numbers are not adding up as many speculate. With BioFuels, it seems the sustainable cards cannot be played – it may not even exist.

Producing ethanol and biodiesel from a variety of crops is just not worth the effort, so much so that it plain hurts. Some math:

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:
— corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
— switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
— wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:
— soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
— sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

“Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation’s energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment,” says Pimentel. “Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits.” He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.

This quote and the above numbers come from a July 1, 2005, study at UC Berkeley.

Undetterred (as well they should be), environmental scientists concerned with righting this energy imbalance have been cutting as many corners as possible. Within this panorama article, mention of the many process steps and treatment applications come under scrutiny. Much work has been done, however, to roll many steps into one, for example, having on talented biotic enzyme do more than its share of chores, reducing the energy input required to churn out fuels.

The argument that neither biomechanically- or thermochemically-produced biofuels can compete with standard fuels is still contended, however, by some that say the math hasn’t been honestly calculated. The UC Berkeley mention builds on what Dr. Pimentel, Cornelle University, has produced, which has been criticized for using out-of-date data on the inputs necessary for fuel production.

Of course, it’s not all about the simple ‘energy math’. Consider the cropland which would supply all the biomass. Whole-sale growing of corn or any other single crop, according to Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth, requires pesticides and fertilizers that can find their way into the environment in water runoff from the fields. Replacing the entire U.S. fuel supply with corn ethanol would require at least 60 percent of the nation’s available cropland, according to calculations by Marcelo Diaz de Oliveira of the University of Florida.

Computers and toothbrushes

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

In the past I’ve talked about the ubiquity of computing. It’s come to this: the Oral B triumph toothbrush, an electric toothbrush with an onboard computer that tells you how long to brush or polish your teeth with its two circular brushheads.

The reviews are good, even if it’s tough to be nagged by a smart-alek toothbrush. And it is packed with computers.

the brush head has another microchip in it, which chatters with the handle’s on-board computer, providing feedback in 13 languages on the LCD. The on-board computer recognizes each user’s brush head by its unique chip, so it can track usage and prompt the user when it’s time to change brush heads.

When you’ve polished enough, an image of a tooth appears on the LCD screen, with an asterisk of light glinting off a corner. And when one has brushed enough with the cleaning head, the LCD screen displays (heaven help us) a smiley face. A little cloying for adults, perhaps, but it should get kids into gear to brush properly.

The brush head also notifies the user every 30 seconds to shift gears and brush another mouth quadrant. It also notifies you when the recommended two minutes lap time has elapsed — very sportsmanlike for the wired (as in orthodontia) prepubescent user.

Welcome to the age of smart devices, that tell you when you’ve run out of coffee, drunk too much, or didn’t gargle enough. Welcome also to the age of hazardous waste in small domestic packages. If you thought it would be difficult to dispose of toothbrushes before because they were composed of multiple plastics, now it’s doubly difficult because that tiny device is stuffed with microprocessors and batteries and all sorts of hazardous waste.