Archive for October, 2005

Useful, but is it legal?

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

William Bright, a a design director at, decided it would be a great idea if people could access subway maps on their iPods. So he chopped the maps into pod sized pieces and offered them for download. Thing is, these images are copyrighted and the copyright holders, the subway authorites, got mad and went after him. (Well, after his site got noticed by a blog, he got noticed by the authorities.)

The sad lesson is, someone may create something imminently useful, perfectly suited to a technological innovation, and free and it still may run afoul of the law.

See Washington Post and wired for further details.

Greenpeace and e-waste

Sunday, October 2nd, 2005

I didn’t know that one of the main thrusts of Greenpeace is computer waste.

Particularly interesting is the ranking of companies on their global policies on toxic waste.

Strategies to Reduce Electronic Waste

Sunday, October 2nd, 2005

With 50 million computers being made obsolete every year, here’s one site that contains concrete strategies to reduce some of the waste.

Environment for Kids

Sunday, October 2nd, 2005

Here’s a great site from Japan for kids that doesn’t talk down to them. It’s Kids “Create Your Future”, a site that both explains environmental problems and offers concrete ways for kids to positively impact the environment.

The following example onHow to have a car without owning it offers a very sophisticated way of framing the problem and embedding the solution, which could be public transportation:

We buy cars because we want to have the freedom to travel conveniently whenever we like. In other words, we want the service provided by the car, not the product itself. It’s important to understand the difference between the service of a product versus the product itself.

Umm, maybe we should try these arguments out on adults.

Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

Coltan, Gorillas and Cell Phones is the title of a report in Cellular News.

Coltan stands for columbite-tantalite, which is a metallic ore of niobium and tantalum. It resembles a crumbly white powder when the material is extracted. Eighty percent of the coltan in the world is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Refined coltan is important because it can store an electrical charge. The storage of minute quantities of electricity is essential to the operation of circuit boards, on which microchips sit. This includes the circuit boards in cell phones. As our thirst for cell phones grows, so does the need for coltan. According to a Uganda Gold Mining Ltd–a Canadian company, coltan is predicted to grow at a rate of 14 percent per year.

The tragedy in the Congo is that wars are fought and lives are lost in the struggle to control access to these minerals. Coltan sells at about $100US. A Congolese worker can earn 20 times as much mining coltan as doing other work. At one point the value of coltan peaked at $600US a kilogram. So it’s not surprising that wars might be fought and even spread to neighbouring countries such as Rwanda (which has no coltan of its own but, surprisingly, exports it).

But there’s an added environmental tragedy in the story of coltan.

The main area where Coltan is mined, also contains the [World Heritage Site] Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Mountain Gorilla. In Kahuzi Biega National Park the gorilla population has been cut nearly in half, from 258 to 130 as the ground is cleared to make mining easier. Not only has this reduced the available food for the Gorillas, the poverty caused by the displacement of the local populations by the miners has lead to Gorillas being killed and their meat being sold as “bush meat” to the miners and rebel armies that control the area. Within the Dem. Rep. of Congo as a whole, the U.N. Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight Dem. Rep. of Congo national parks has declined by 90% over the past 5 years, and only 3,000 now remain.

The gorillas are not inexorably doomed just because we must have cell phones.

Due to the damage caused to the Gorilla population and their natural habitat, companies that use Coltan are now starting to demand that their Coltan only comes from legitimately mined sources and is not a byproduct of the war. American-based Kemet, the world’s largest maker of tantalum capacitors, has asked its suppliers to certify that their coltan ore does not come from Dem. Rep. of Congo or from neighbouring countries. Such moves could lead to “Gorilla Safe” cellphones being marketed, much in the same way that Tuna meat is now sold as “Dolphin Safe”.

The question is, are we as consumers willing to demand “Gorilla Safe” certification for our cell phones? Are we willing to pay more for that product or eschew newer cooler models if those models fail to comply with the certification? We would have to be extremely vigilant because ensuring “Gorilla free” capacitors would demand that consumers take some role in monitoring each part of the manufacturing chain to prevent “bad” coltan from creeping in.

Other sources: BBC
United Nations
Born Free Foundation

MIT to develop $100 laptops

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

Members of MIT’s Media Lab have prototyped a $100 computer. The computer comes equipped with a color lcd screen, 500 MHz processor, and 1 gigabyte of memory (on flash memory, no less). It also has Wi-Fi capacity. To further reduce costs, the computer runs Linux. The goal in creating a $100 computer is to provide every single child in the world, especially in the poorest countries, a laptop computer.

To render the computer durable for poorer regions of the world, it will be enclosed in a tight rubber casing so it can be made water- and dust-resistant. One interesting feature is a hand crank that will allow children in areas lacking reliable energy to generate power.

The initial plans are to produce 150 million computers for poor children in the world. Negroponte, head of MIT’s Media Lab boasts that “these humble $100 notebooks would surpass the world’s existing annual production of laptops”. This is great news, providing laptops to children as a way to connect them to the advantages that we almost take for granted in the developed world. But before we uncritically salute this development, has anyone considered the environmental impacts of all of these new computers? At present, some 50 million computers are made obsolete every single year. That’s 50 million computers that need to be disposed of, which is millions of kilograms of cadmium, lead and mercury as well as flame retardants and other organics that are carcinogenic. Has anyone thought of that?

More information can be found at MIT’s Media Lab