FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Why Wal-Mart Isn't Smiling

The fortunes of Wal-Mart are supposed to be a bellwether for the rest of the US economy. So when the retail giant turned in a lame November sales increase forecast of only 0.7%, observers grew concerned. However, other retailers are reporting post-Thanksgiving sales in line with the more optimistic 3 to 4% growth numbers.

So what's up with Wal-Mart?

An article in Slate suggests that Wal-Mart may have reached the limit of its ability to cut costs and undersell the competition. Minus that, it must compete on quality, customer service and the overall shopping experience -- factors that level the playing field a bit.

Some have suggested that a Wal-Mart backlash might be in the works. But I see an even more fundamental problem, as does the Slate article.

When I compare my local Wal-Mart with my local Target, I see two "big box" discounters that couldn't be more different.

I truly enjoy shopping at Target. The store is bright, clean and organized. The goods are every bit as attractive and stylish as what one would find in a more upscale store. Yet the prices are right, and I can find everything from toothpaste to printer paper to lawn fertilizer. Rarely is anything out of stock. Even their store-brand items are packaged with panache.

Contrast this with the Wal-Mart not a half-mile away. The store is filthy. Half the time, even common items are out of stock (despite the chain's much-touted inventory control system). Boxes and other junk block the aisles, so much so that some are completely impassable. Much of the merchandise is shoddy; I've bought clothes there that have fallen apart on the first wash. The store is crowded, noisy and chaotic, and checking out takes forever.

But Wal-Mart's low prices make the hassle worth it, right? Often, the prices I pay at Wal-Mart are no better than -- and are in some cases higher than -- other stores. At any rate, who needs more hassles, especially this time of year?

Granted, my Wal-Mart is in the process of expanding, and perhaps they'll correct some of these shortcomings in the process. But it stands to reason that I'm not the only one who notices this contrast. This holiday season, where would you rather shop?

The Wireless City

Are cell phones and other wireless devices changing the way we relate to the urban landscape? An article in Salon suggests that, as wireless devices penetrate our "communal spaces," people become more isolated from one another even as they remain in close proximity.

This is true to a degree, as people typically spend more time on their cell phones when out in public than conversing with one another. But I doubt that mobile devices are totally to blame for this. We have whole generations that were raised not to talk to strangers, so there's a reluctance among many to strike up conversations with people we don't know.

Devices sometimes have the opposite effect, causing people to unintentionally intrude on others. Consider someone talking very loudly on a cell phone; it's hard for one to ignore what may well be an intimate conversation. In another time, that person could have gone into a phone booth and closed the door for some privacy. Now, there seems to be no concern that others will hear details of one's personal life. Once, I sat next to someone -- a manager of some kind -- discussing the specifics of having fired a subordinate!

Another widely publicized phenomenon has been that of people watching X-rated movies on DVD players in minivans and SUVs. As weird as this might seem, it's another form of intrusion. Ever pull up behind a minivan in traffic where the DVD player was clearly showing SpongeBob Squarepants? Imagine a family pulling up behind the same minivan and inadvertently seeing images of nudity or explicit sex...

Part of the problem is that we might need to re-learn how to use and behave in public spaces. This might sound strange, but many of us did not grow up with public spaces. We grew up in suburbs where public spaces were rare at best. Malls were an exception, but there, people were expected to shop and eat, not socialize. Cities had more public places, but many of these were unsafe and best avoided.

Source: Future Now

Cheap Hydrogen?

One of the biggest hurdles on the way to the much-touted "hydrogen economy" -- in which hydrogen would replace petroleum as our primary fuel -- is the enormous cost of generating hydrogen. Now, researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have teamed up with Salt Lake City-based ceramics firm Cerametec to create a process for cost-effectively producting hydrogen.

The process involves generating hydrogen with nuclear reactors, which can heat water necessary for the process with greater efficiency than can other kinds of heaters. Indeed, one of the drawbacks in generating hydrogen is that it requires more energy than the resulting hydrogen yields.

The obvious drawback to this plan, of course, is the need to build more nuclear reactors. As well as being politically risky, this has environmental and engineering consequences -- after all, no new reactors have been built in the US in 30 years.

Source: KurzweilAI.net

Monday, November 29, 2004

Genetic Testing for Athletic Performance

Wonder if Junior is going to be the next NFL superstar or Olympic gold medalist? An Australian firm, Genetic Technologies, has developed a genetic test that they claim will determine athletic potential.

The test measures the gene ACTN3, which produces a protein necessary for powering fast-twitch muscles. Athletes typically have a high level of this protein, so it stands to reason that anyone with it would have at least some athletic prowess. However, the test is controversial because, critics say, it would close the door on less genetically endowed athletes who have other characteristics (stamina, coordination, mental discipline) that would compensate for the lack of that protein. Similarly, an individual with strong ACTN3 might lack the capability -- or even the desire -- to be a great athlete. There is also the risk of putting children on a "fast track" toward athletics against their will, while discriminating against kids who don't test as well yet have a true passion for sports.

This is yet another clear case of technology jumping ahead of society. We have the means to make these kinds of measurements, but we don't yet know how to handle the consequences.

Source: FuturePundit

Glut in Flat-Panel TVs?

Planning to buy a flat-panel TV this holiday season? If so, you may want to wait. Because several new factories are set to come online within the next few months, we may see a glut of plasma and LCD TVs, cutting prices in half by the end of 2005.

Source: The New York Times

Blogosphere Doubling Every Five Months

A report by Internet marketing firm ClickZ has found that the number of blogs has doubled every five months ove the last year and a half... harking back to the explosive growth of the Web during the mid- to late-'90s.

Among the other interesting statistics ClickZ cites are:
  • A new blog is created every 5.8 seconds, resulting in 15,000 new blogs being created every day.
  • By the end of this year, 10 million blogs will exist online... but only 1 million will be updated regularly.
  • Active bloggers post nearly 300,000 posts daily.
  • 11% of all Internet users -- 50 million individuals -- are regular blog readers.
  • As most bloggers and blog readers are aware, blog activity spikes during key news events or controversies, though it has been on a sharply upward trend since this summer's political conventions (see chart below).
  • The vast majority of bloggers are under 30, with over 50% being between ages 13 and 19.

Source: unmediated

Microgenerators Can Run Electronics, Outlive Batteries

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a miniature generator that could power small electronics (such as cell phones and PDAs) and last up to 10 times longer than conventional batteries.

Such microgenerators, each the thickness of a dime, contain tiny spinning magnets that serve as their energy source -- a technology called a microelectromechanical system, or MEMS. The faster the magnets spin, the more energy they produce.

GIT hopes that its next generation of microgenerators will be powerful enough to power laptops, radios and GPS devices.

Source: GeniusNow.com

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Thanksgiving Break

This may be my last post for several days, as I'm taking some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday. Next week I plan to attend an emerging technologies conference, so I hope to be able to post from there with some interesting insights.

To all our U.S. readers, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Subjective Software

For all it's capable of doing, modern computer software is remarkably stupid at times. For instance, while a word processor can spell check and even offer grammatical help, it can't understand what you're writing, and can't distinguish subtle nuances in language. If you say something is "cool," the software can't tell whether you like that thing very much or it's at a cold temperature. Or, in the case of your favorite ice cream, you might mean both.

Now, researchers at Cornell University are attempting to develop software that can understand context and interpret subjective statements. The software will search for subjective words such as "wonderful" or "terrible," and separate subjective from objective statements. The end goal is to produce software that can detect human emotions that come through in speech and text, such as irony, sarcasm and humor -- prerequisites for artificial intelligence.

Source: TRN Newswire

Smart Yarn

Researchers at the UTD Nanotech Institute have developed a "smart" yarn made from carbon nanotubes. Aside from being strong and flexible, the yarn has the potential to conduct electricity, be hardened for added protection, contain sensors, and in general act as a "soft" exoskeleton. The yarn's creators believe that commercially viable production might not be far off, especially as more uses are discovered for it.

Source: Slashdot

Keylogging Not Prohibited by Wiretap Laws

A federal judge in California has thrown out criminal charges against a man accused of using a keystroke logging tool to spy on his employer. The judge declared that "keylogging" did not fit the criteria for communications protected under the Wiretap Act because the information did not travel over a network.

Rest assured that this is only a temporary situation. Industries of all sorts will certainly lobby Congress to close this loophole, and the current business-friendly legislature will comply. In the meantime, beware of what you type over a LAN... and especially be careful when using wireless keyboards and mice, as those signals can be intercepted very easily.

Sources: SecurityFocus, Slashdot

An Electric Car With Muscle

Who says electric cars have to be for wimps? The Japanese-built Eliica (short for Electrical Lithium-Ion Battery Car), can go from 0 to 60 in four seconds and can hit 230 MPH -- faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo!

Driving this bad boy will definitely get you noticed. In addition to its power, the Eliica features smooth handling. However, you'll need 10 hours for every recharge.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Progress and innovation are not victimless, as shown by the gradual phaseout of VHS video cassette recorders and videotapes. Consider:

The speed with which DVDs have been adopted is astonishing. A few years ago, DVDs were on the bleeding edge; today, a DVD player can be had for less than a night out at the movies. Expect to see further VHS obituaries after the holidays.

Sources: C|Net, Techdirt

"Values Voters" Still Like Their Sexy, Violent TV

Judging from the outcome of the past presidential election, Americans are yearning for more morally wholesome content from the media. But, according to TV executives, that's not showing up in the Nielsen ratings. The two hottest shows this season -- CBS's bloody C.S.I. and ABC's steamy Desperate Housewives -- top the ratings throughout the country, in "red" and "blue" states alike.

Indeed, what surprises many media observers is the uniformity of the ratings, and how the top shows are so consistent in most all media markets. Even in staunchly conservative Salt Lake City, Desperate Housewives is one of the top hits. And it's the number one show in Atlanta, in the heart of Bush country.

Conversely, shows like Joan of Arcadia with strong spiritual themes, have done poorly in the ratings... which isn't exactly encouraging networks to make more of them.

There is no overarching reason why this is the case. The fact that these racy and violent shows do so well in "red" areas shouldn't be a surprise given that despite the electoral map, political leanings don't break cleanly along geographical lines. Additionally, media watchers note that despite the occasional uproar over such transgressions as the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" or the more recent Desperate Housewives promo on Monday Night Football (which, they note, was repeated incessantly on news programs), television standards trend toward increasing permissiveness. Remember the Murphy Brown controversy in the early '90's when the main character had a child out of wedlock? Seems quaint, doesn't it?

Source: The New York Times

Global Camera Phone Backlash

Privacy advocates around the world are urging makers of camera phones to act responsibly when marketing their products. They cite numerous privacy complaints about camera phones, as well as their ability to compromise security in government or private business environments.

Camera phones have already been banned outright in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and South Korea and the United States are working to formuate acceptable-use standards for camera phones in their countries. One requirement South Korea is considering is that camera phones make a sound of at least 65dB when snapping a picture. At the very least, this would alert others in a public space that a camera phone is in use.

The camera phone dilemma is clearly a case where technology has outpaced safety and security procedures, as well as the rules of etiquette. Says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, "We hope that consumers will keep in mind the public responsibility that comes with owning this type of product, and [we] encourage retailers to actively educate their customers about appropriate use of these devices." However, solutions that balance privacy and security with consumers' right to own camera phones may take time to develop.

Source: Silicon.com

Are Flexible Displays Ready for Prime Time?

Flexible displays -- computers monitor that could be made paper-thin and foldable, allowing for literal "electronic newspapers" -- are one of those technologies that always seems to be "right around the corner." But like videophones, is it really a technology that people want, even though it sounds cool?

Philips Research has developed a flexible display that might finally serve as a commercially viable product. Their five-inch diagonal screen has a 320x240 resolution and is only 10 microns thick, allowing it to be rolled into a one-centimeter tube. No word on when the display will be commercially available.

The key advantage to this flexible display is its toughness. All the components are plastic, unlike traditional monitors that contain glass and other delicate parts. This would make the flexible display practical for rough-service applications and in the military, where its light weight would be an added benefit. Philips engineers imagine applications such as "smart pens" that could contain a rolled-up flexible display, and flexible displays as an auxiliary to mobile phones and GPS devices. Unique, specialized functions are going to be the key to flexible display's success in the marketplace, after all.

On a related note, a British/German company called rAndom has developed Watch Paper, which is "a fully functional clock printed onto ordinary paper." rAndom claims that Watch Paper can be integrated into household wallpaper, and that it's the first step toward interactive wall displays.

If rAndom can miniaturize Watch Paper enough, another application would be on prescription medicine bottles. An "alarm clock" printed right on the bottle would help patients remember to take their medication on time.

Sources: TheFeature , Beverly Tang

Computers as Authors

So what do you think of this as an opening paragraph?

Dave Striver loved the university - its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one's dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving.

Who wrote it? Not me. The question is, what wrote it? The author is Brutus.1, a computer program developed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in conjunction with IBM.

According to an article in the New York Times, researchers are making progress in developing computer programs that can write fiction. The challenge, of course, is giving computers the emotions and life experiences necessary to create anything anyone would want to read. But they've come a long way since the days when programs spewed out gibberish.

So, once computers start writing, how long will it be until they start blogging?

Friday, November 19, 2004

Generation Tech (or, Why Can't Mom Make Her Computer Work?)

Ever since the dawn of personal computing in the late '70s, it's been an assumption that young people are more adept at technology than their elders. The division between the savvy youngster and the clueless older person echoes the old joke about sex education:

DAD: Son, it's time we had a talk about sex.
SON: Sure, Dad. What do you want to know?

A clever article in the current issue of Newsweek illustrates the problems both young and old folks face with today's technology. The author, Brad Stone, discusses how millions of older Americans rely on their children and grandchildren to troubleshoot their computers and other technology. Indeed, anyone under the age of 40 has surely had to come to the rescue of a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or older neighbor who had some gadget or doo-dad that was just beyond their ability to comprehend.

My first experience with this was when I was about 10, when an elderly friend of the family couldn't get reception on the TV in her apartment. I immediately found the problem; it had come disconnected from the central apartment antenna (this was way before cable). Within five minutes she was back in business... but the problem had her completely flummoxed.

The subtext of Stone's piece is the thoroughness with which the Internet has penetrated American society. No longer the domain of young geeks, the Net has become an equal opportunity platform. Hence, the issues that are beginning to ensue.

Stone argues in his article that technology shouldn't have to be so difficult, that our elders should be able to master it just as well as we can. A large part of the problem is that much technololgy is so poorly designed, without regard to the end user. Stone uses digital phones as a case in point:

[T]he headaches keep escalating as digital technology infiltrates new, once simple appliances. Take the newest digital phones. Phones used to be simple and easy to use, didn’t they? Over a year ago, I fell for a new Samsung mobile phone offered by Sprint. The phone, the i500, combined a Palm Pilot into a seemingly well-designed compact handset. It looked great, and I could carry one device around instead of two. Even today, 14 months after I bought it, the silver clamshell gadget elicits amazement from friends.

But the only thing that amazes me now is how crappy it actually is. The graffiti pad on the phone stopped working soon after I bought it. The screen frequently goes on the fritz. And the little stylus that slips into the handset appears specifically made to get lost in the seat cushions of my car. I recently checked a mobile-phone chat page on the Internet and found that lots of other users were having the same problems. We all paid way too much for a gadget whose primary function is to raise its owner’s blood pressure.

Stone is hardly alone in his feelings. A recent survey conducted on mobile phone usability by Wacom Communications found that a remarkable 85% of those surveyed felt that they were "too dumb" to use their mobile devices properly, and that only a third were taking full advantage of their devices' features!

Phones are a perfect example of what's so often wrong with technology. Our parents grew up with a very basic phone -- most likely the Bell System's Model 500, created by legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfus and considered a masterpiece of clean, functional design. The Model 500 was "the phone" from its introduction after World War II until the dawn of touch-tone dialing.

The Model 500, for its part, was an outgrowth of the equally legendary Model 302:

No one ever needed a user manual or tech support for the Model 500 phone. It just worked. Granted, it had no real "features" to speak of, but for the one function that counted -- making and receiving phone calls -- it was without equal. Same thing with our elderly friend's television, minus the disconnected antenna. She jus turned it on, selected the channel, adjusted the volume... and she was done.

So why can't today's designers get it right? Even one of today's more elegant examples of functional design, the iPod, can be vexing at times. One problem is that everyone wants to develop that "killer device" that's going to do everything, and eliminate the need for any other device. By doing that, these vendors want to be the ones to set the standards, and be everywhere, all the time. The result is increased complexity, illustrated in yet another old joke that imagines a certain well-known software company in the car business.

It's a myth that all young people are tech savvy while all older people are tech ignorant. The reason why younger people are generally more comfortable with technology, I think, is that we have to understand it in order to survive. PCs and networks are just as much a fact of life in the workplace as phones and Rolodexes were in our fathers' and grandfathers' offices. If you can't master them, you can't do your job. Our elders never had to learn about all this technology; aside from certain career paths, their lives were largely technology-free.

But those days are over... and it would benefit IT vendors to more carefully consider the products they develop. Following the example of the Model 500 phone, they should strive to:

  • Focus on one function and get it right.
  • Keep the technology "under the hood" as much as possible.
  • Make usage intuitive. Can a small child use it? Can great-grandma?
  • Don't just make it idiot-proof. Make it life-proof.

This way, Mom and Dad can enjoy their technology... and won't have to rely on their kids for tech support!

Thanksgiving Travel May Set Record

Despite record-high gas prices, Americans are planning to travel more than ever this Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA. Always one of the busiest travel times of the year, this Thanksgiving will see an extimated 37.2 million people travelling more than 50 miles from home -- up 3% over last year, and surpassing the record set in 2000.

The travel industry is particularly excited about these numbers, as they reflect high consumer confidence and an increased comfort with post-9/11 air travel. About 12% of expected travellers will travel by air this Thanksgiving, up by 4% over last year.

The industry also expects more travel over Christmas and New Year's, in part because of the calendar. Both holidays fall on weekends this year, so people may be encouraged to travel on those long weekends.

[FOLLOWUP] TiVo to Offer "No Skip" Ads

Following up on the theme of DVRs being a disruptive media technology that will change the nature of TV advertising, along comes a report from the New York Times that TiVo is planning to introduce "fast-forward tags" that will allow advertisers' logos to appear on the screen when a viewer skips over ads in recorded programs. TiVo is also planning to offer interactive tags that will allow viewers to "drill down" for more information on an ad that interests them... not unlike clicking on a Web ad banner.

DPA: The New Security Threat

Think you're secure because you use a "smart card" to access online resources, and encrypt all data that you send over the Net? Well, think again. A new technique is emerging that could allow intruders to intercept and read even the most securely encrypted communications.

Differential Power Analysis (DPA) work on the principle that encrypted communications "leak" minute amounts of electrical power, and that encryption keys can be found by measuring changes in these leaks. Using DPA, even encryption techniques unknown to the hacker can be reverse-engineered and broken. Cryptography Research, Inc. discovered the DPA technique several years ago, and has patented a number of anti-DPA techniques that it is now licensing to vendors. Most of these techniques involve either lowering the amount of energy leakage in transmissions, or generating "white noise" to cover up the fluctuations. CRI has also published white papers on the topic, and markets testing devices for measuring the amount of power leaking from various devices.

DPA is surely going to be of great interest on both sides of the security issue. As word about DPA spreads, vendors will have to assure their customers that their security is DPA-resistant. The government and the military will also certainly express interested in DPA, both as a defensive and an offensive tool.

Source: eWeek

Fading Ad Gallery

I'm a firm believer that anyone interested in the future has to be mindful of the past. To that end, I'm fascinated by urban relics -- abandoned buildings and the like. They say a lot not just about where we've been, but where we're going as well. After all, there was a reson why these places were left for dead, and that reason impacts our lives today and tomorrow.

Also, as a former (or recovering) advertising copywriter, I'm interested in vintage advertisements. And so, when I came across the Fading Ad Gallery, I couldn't resist.

Ever walk by an old building and notice a very old, faded advertisement painted on its side? Some are recognizable today (Coca-Cola ads are common in almost every city), while others clearly evoke another, very different time. Like fossils, they speak to us over a great distance, telling us what life was like long ago, and illustrating how much (or how little) times have changed.

The Fading Ad Gallery is a Brooklyn-based art project designed to "explore our changing urban landscape," and includes photos of vintage building ads from all over the world. You can visit the actual gallery at 679 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, or you can simply browse the website (NOTE: It's a graphics-heavy site that may load slowly on less robust Internet connections).

Warning: Content Under Pressure

There's nothing new about blaming the Internet for society's ills. The sad thing is, the Web continues serving as a scapegoat, long after it has entered the mainstream.

In England, a young man took his own life after frequenting a Dutch-based website that advocated suicide. Said the coroner who was on the case of the site in question, "It is the height of irresponsibility to publish a site which could encourage someone to be tipped over the edge. The internet is there to educate and improve life, not destroy it."

Meanwhile, back in the States, a group of researchers is calling on Congress to investigate online pornography, which they call "more addictive than heroin." And of course, Congressional conservatives are only too happy to oblige. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on science, organized the hearings.

The question in both cases is not whether the Net is inherently "bad" -- an argument made in the mid-'90's when many were new to cyberspace -- but whether content creators are responsible for the actions of those who read or view their content. Also, is the Net being treated differently than other media in this regard?

To be sure, there's a lot of ignorant, antisocial and downright disturbing content out on the Net. But blaming these sites for other people's actions, in my view, is a cop-out. If we are going to hold individuals accountable for their actions, we can't allow ourselves to fall back on the argument that "the devil made them do it." If we're going to ban content that might encourage people to harm themselves, let's repeal the Second Amendment and confiscate all the guns. Or bring back Prohibition so we can save all those alcoholics.

In the case of politics, the Net is an attractive target. Congressfolk will pontificate and criticize online porn till their tongues fall out of their heads, and they'll look like proactive leaders, and no one in their right minds will challenge them for fear of being branded "pro-porn."

Netizens who have been online any length of time are no strangers to this kind of controversy. The best we can do is to educate others about the way the Net works, and the tools available to filter content where appropriate. And yes, there are disturbed individuals out there who need help. Let's focus on getting them the help they need, rather than painting an entire community with a broad brush.

Source: Techdirt

Thursday, November 18, 2004

BlogExplosion: My Take So Far

Several weeks ago I signed up for BlogExplosion, the service for bloggers to increase their traffic by looking at fellow members' blogs. Now that I've had some time to get to understand how the system works, I have some thoughts...

Overall, my experience has been positive, though I wonder what surfers who view FutureWire really think of it. If they land on it at random, are they really interested in reading it, or do they just want to move on to the next blog to rack up their credits? A lot of the blogs I come across are (to me) boring as sin... so I'm suspect those bloggers aren't exactly turned on by FutureWire.

The lack of any kind of preference-based surfing -- in which you would see only those types of blogs that interest you -- has both its upside and its downside. On the downside, I see a lot of blogs that don't interest me in the least. Not to say that they're bad... they're not just my cup of tea. On the other hand, I'm being exposed to a lot of different perspectives and approaches to blogging that I likely wouldn't see otherwise. I'm also learning about techniques and tools that other bloggers are employing to increase visibility, or just for fun.

The rating tools have courted some controversy, especially the ability to see who rated your blog and what rating they gave it (a feature that has since been disabled). I like to give high ratings to blogs that are clever and original, even if I don't personally agree with their content. As for blogs I genuinely don't care for, I follow my mother's advice that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. I've only given low rating a couple of times to blogs that I felt were too stupid or sloppy to ignore.

Perhaps the best indicator of BlogExplosion's success is that, since I've been a member, the overall quality of the member blogs has improved tremendously. The blogs seem to be more focused, and the writing more crisp and compelling. Many others are pushing the envelope with design, with varying results.

Overall, my goal with BlogExplosion was not simply to increase traffic, but to reach out to others who might find what I have to say interesting. To that end, I haven't yet been able to "connect the dots" and learn how many have added FutureWire to their list of must-read blogs as a result of having found it on BlogExplosion. For instance, a reader may only visit a blog's website once, but subscribe to that blog's RSS feed, making him/her a loyal reader who is under the radar. Hopefully, BlogExplosion will add improved metrics to help bloggers learn that.

If you're a blogger, you have nothing to lose by signing up with BlogExplosion. You may not get huge numbers, but that might not be what you're looking for anyway. If you hook up with even a few readers who genuinely like your blog and will read it regularly, that's what matters.

Cars of the Future: Safe and Smart

The online version of Fortune magazine features a look at cars of the future, with a focus on safety features (exernal airbags, collision warning systems, eye monitoring for drowsiness, blind spot and lane drift alerts) and convenience (self-parking, "smart" GPS systems). Conspicuously absent, however, is any discussion of automated driving (gridded highways that would control the car automatically, for example), innovations to increase mileage and performance, or environmental technologies.

UPDATE: EE Times has posted an interesting, fairly technical piece about self-navigating vehicles, which can provide services ranging from collision avoidance to full-blown self-driving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Red vs. Blue Rift Widens and Deepens

I had promised myself I wouldn't write anymore about the election and the "red vs. blue" divide, but some of the continued discussion about it in the blogosphere makes that impossible. If the Internet is any kind of a social barometer, a stormfront is approaching.

For starters, you might have seen this little gem come across the wires over the last couple of weeks:

Yes, it's a joke, but it speaks volumes about how people perceive the outcome of the election, and their lack of faith in unity.

The mainstream media long ago said of the election, "Bush won... get over it." But plenty of people aren't about to get over anything anytime soon. One rant that has made the rounds online is the subtly titled "F*** The South". A more eloquent essay along the same lines is "The Urban Archipelago". The message in both pieces is the same: liberal, urban areas that make the "blue" states blue need to stand their ground and reject the conservative policies of the rural, "red" states. And since urban America controls most of the wealth and pays most of the taxes in this country (of which "red" states are the primary beneficiaries), the "blue" states cannot be taken lightly.

For liberals who feel ashamed rather than angry, there's SorryEverybody.com, where one can post one's picture with a statement apologizing to the world for the U.S. re-electing Bush.

Such verbal temper tantrums would be easy to ignore if it weren't for two things. First, vitriolic statements are only increasing in frequency, as are stories of disillusioned Democrats considering emigrating to Canada. Secondly, no less a mainstream publication than Fortune has picked up on the vibe, running a piece that's eerily similar to the two essays mentioned above, minus the profanity.

On the flip side, there's an open letter to the Democratic Party from "A Sad American" who explains why John Kerry didn't get her vote. The letter illustrates how the divide isn't as clear-cut as many would see it, and how, in her case, the election presented an agonizing choice.

Truth is, we really do appear to be splitting into (at least) two separate countries, if not geographically, then philosophically. The Internet only appears to be exacerbating this trend. The rise of distributed media, combined with the decline of centralized "mass media," allows people to cherry-pick the information that reinforces their personal views. If you're conservative, you can ready only conservative blogs, listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News and safely ignore the "liberal media." And liberals can do the converse. Gone are the days when "everybody" watched Walter Cronkite. Today, even though the Net has brought the world to our fingertips, it's easier than ever to isolate ourselves in thought bubbles.

If George W. Bush wants to cement his legacy, his biggest accomplishment might be to re-unite the nation for his successor, whether that person be a Democrat or Republican. Yet much of what drives this ongoing controversy is whether he really can -- or even wants to -- take those steps.

[UPDATE] X-43A Scramjet Reaches Mach 10

NASA's unmanned, experimental X-43A scramjet reached a speed of about 6,660 MPH -- ten times the speed of sound -- in its third and final test Tuesday. The X-43A program will now be cancelled to make way for other NASA priorities; however, the tests show the promise scramjet technology holds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Customer is Always Right... But Only When We Say So

The Wall Street Journal reports that Best Buy is planning to divide its customer base into groups of those whose buying practices help shore up the company's bottom line ("angels") and less profitable, higher maintenance ones ("devils"). If you buy items at list price, never return products and don't take advantage of rebates (i.e. an impulse buyer), you're an "angel." But if you're a bargain-hunter who makes Best Buy honor its lowest-price pledge (i.e. a savvy consumer), you're a "devil."

Best Buy's strategy will be to purge its customer base of "devils."

This strategy is not new, but it's radical for a discount retailer... especially one that's locked in a mortal struggle with fellow "big box" discounters Circuit City, Target and Wal-Mart. Exactly how Best Buy plans to do this remains unclear, but it could include charging fees for returns and selling only high-end, high-profit merchandise.

In this age of increased competition, such a strategy seems foolhardy. Open contempt for one's customers goes against every tenet of conventional business thought, especially since those "devils" are simply following store policy. If you're willing to pay top dollar for electronics, after all, why not shop at your local "mom and pop" dealer (remember them?) But if Best Buy does pull it off, it will mark a new era in retailing. And it will effectively change Best Buy from a big-box discounter into something different. But will it remain a place where people will want to continue doing business?

Source: EMERGIC.org

The Doctor Will See You Now...

Ever knock yourself out to get to a doctor's appointment on time... only to sit in the waiting room for what seems like forever? Scheduling problems waste everybody's time, including the doctor's. IBM is teaming up with Florida International University to pilot a new, "smarter" patient scheduling system that is based on autonomic computing principles.

The system attempts to take into account variables such as usage spikes, equipment maintenance periods and time required for specific procedures. It also tries to construct schedules based on patients' specific needs based on their records, and the estimated length of time they would need with the doctor. Ultimately, the system would help cut costs as well as improve patient care.

Source: Techdirt

Flextime Makes a Comeback

All the rage during the dotcom boom, then vilified during the bust, flextime and other creative workplace scheduling strategies are making a comeback, according to an article on C|Net. Not only are workers demanding job sharing, telecommuting and other flexible work options, but employers are realizing that these options increase productivity and employee retention. They also save money, both for the employer (as an economical employee benefit, and in reduced office space) and employee (less costly and less stressful commuting). In one estimate quoted in the article, telecommuting increases worker productivity by between five and 20 percent.

Atkins is Dead... Long Live Atkins!

A study presented at a meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity this week suggests that diets that are low in fat are better for losing weight and keeping it off than diets that are low in carbs. Low-carb advocates have countered that the low-carb diets used in the study contained more carbs than recommended by Atkins and other diet plans. However, fat appears to have been the big variable in this study: the majority of dieters studied who ate a low-fat diet were able to maintain lower weight than those who followed low-carb diets that largely ignore fats.

Those in the health, diet and fitness professions have spoken of a backlash against extreme low-carb dieting for some time now. If this most recent study is corroborated, it will likely accellerate that trend. However, it's likely that the Atkins craze has permanently affected the American diet.

Some of you older folks might remember the Pritikin diet in the early 1980's, which was one of the first to emphasize lowering fat intake. Since then, low-fat eating has evolved from a craze to a part of daily life. Coupled with more detailed food labeling mandated by the federal government in recent years, consumers have a better idea of what's in the foods they buy, and can choose healther products. In fact, neither low-fat nor low-carb dieting would be possible without this information.

So it goes that the Atkins fad has changed the way we eat... not by making us low-carb fanatics, but by educating us about the simple need to consider carbs when we choose food. That way, we can make sensible food choices that balance all the nutritional components of what we eat.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

In today's world, it's tough to meet even your closest neighbors. Unless you're unemployed or telecommute, you probably don't spend much time at home during weekdays. At night, you're too tired to socialize, and you have other things to do anyway. On weekends, you're out as well. Besides proximity, our neighbors don't seem to have much in common with us. And when we do speak to them, it's often out of argument or conflict.

Through social software, one enterpreneur has decided to do something about that. If people can use the Web to get dates, organize politically and network professionally, why not use it to meet their neighbors? Jared Nissim has created MeetTheNeighbors.org, a registry for neighbors and neigborhoods to enter and organize real-life get-togethers. Right now, most of the users are young people in apartments in New York City (who are naturally inclined to seek out new friends and "hook up"), but the site is open to anyone, anywhere.

Even more so than apartment complexes, a system such as this would be invaluable for suburban communities that make it way too easy for households to avoid each other, intentionally or not. Suburban developments with no central hub discourage walking and other features that foster interaction. This phenomenon was thoroughly documented in Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone... who, by the way, has taken his own stab at using the Internet to foster real-life community building, BetterTogether.org

Source: Smart Mobs

Monday, November 15, 2004

"New Media" Contributing to Unrest in China

As China emerges from its Maoist past to become a postindustrial power, growing pains are starting to show. An Asia Times article notes numerous incidents of protests and rioting across the country in recent months, and states that major incidents of social unrest have increased by 15% since 2003.

The sources of this unrest are many, but one factor may be that by providing citizens with information they never had before, "new media" outlets are creating a level of frustration with the government and society in general:

Making matters worse for the government, China's "new media" appear to be reaching a critical mass. While news of unrest is usually blacked out of the Chinese media, word is now spreading quickly via the widespread use of modern communications, including mobile phones, faxes, instant messages and the Internet, reaching Chinese nationwide. Activists in China have also become more adept at communicating with the foreign media. Within the past year, for example, dissatisfied Chinese citizens have begun to contact foreign journalists directly using mobile phones, short messages, faxes and e-mail...

"I think the real new dimension is that activists on the streets and across the country are communicating with each other, and this didn't happen before," said [Asian Studies Professor Dru] Gladney. "Really, what's different now is the transregional coordination and awareness, rather than an increase" in unrest.

And, Gladney told Asia Times Online, bottling up these channels of communication won't be as easy. "This is clearly of concern to the leadership, but I'm not sure the government can prevent it," he said. "We're dealing with the cell-phone generation where people are in communication more than before. You can't turn back the clock on that."
In other words, parts of China are succumbing to smart mobs. And one way or another, the Chinese authorities are going to have to come to terms with them, either through suppression or acceptance.

Opinions vary on how the Chinese government will ultimately be affected by this social stress. Some believe that the government can stamp out the unrest at a time of its choosing, and that localized, uncoordinated unrest poses no threat to the Communist Party. Others, though, warn that technology-driven protest doesn't need centralized leadership to challenge established authority. They point to the fall of the Soviet Union -- an event that took much othe world by surprise, and that was driven in part by common people's access to information sources that couldn't be censored.

China could be reaching a tipping point at the very moment when it is emerging as a global technology power. Regardless of how China responds to its internal turmoil, the effects could have wide-ranging impacts throughout the world.

Source: unmediated

50-Year-Old TV Dinners, Anyone?

Hopefully you won't be stuck eating one of these on Thanksgiving, but frozen meals (a.k.a. TV dinners) have a colorful history that says a lot about our modern culture. The Christian Science Monitor takes a look back at the invention and evolution of the frozen dinner, which turns 50 this year.

Source: GreedyGirl

Creative Ways to Support the Troops

As Veterans' Day passes and the holidays approach, you may be thinking of ways that you can support our troops in Iraq and elsewhere other than simply putting a magnet or bumper sticker on your car. The Art of the Blog has a post listing numerous projects and programs for showing support to both the U.S. and U.K. militaries. Many welcome donations, while others seek volunteers. This post appears to be updated regularly as new resources are discovered.

NASA to Fly Scramjet at 7,000 MPH

NASA is planning to fly its experimental X-43A scramjet at 7,000 miles per hour (11,260 kph), as a follow-up to its flight in March that reached nearly 5,000 MPH.

Scramjet technology is exciting because it allows aircraft to achieve very high speeds while using minimal amounts of fuel. However, the X-43A will be retired after this upcoming flight.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Gap to Offer "Stereo Sweatshirts"

Wearable computers may be with us sooner than we think, if a new offering from The Gap is any indicator. The clothing retailer is teaming up with toy maker Wild Planet to market the "Hoodio," a fleece jacket with a waterproof FM radio sewn into the sleeve and speakers in the hood. The garment is machine washable and will retail at GapKids outlets for about $68, beginning Nov. 15. Click here for more detail.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Neural Implants Take a Step Forward

New Scientist reports that scientists at the California Institute of Technology have developed a device that automatically moves electrodes through the brain to seek out the strongest signals. The movement is small -- in micrometers -- but it's enough to enhance the performance of brain implants.

One of the biggest challenges in making neural implants a reality is that the implants have trouble receiving consistent signals from the brain. Resolving this problem represents a critical step for neural implants, which has the promise of helping paralyzed people regain mobility, and allowing amputees to control robotic prosthetics.

LED Lighting Comes of Age

You may have heard about efforts to create lighting fixtures from light emitting diodes (LEDs) for some time. The advantages are many, as have been the technical difficulties. Well, it finally appears that someone has finally gotten it right.

According to Popular Science, a company called Enlux has developed a practical LED light. Their 22-watt floodlight produces an output equivalent to a 45- to 65-watt incandescent light, and lasts for 50,000 hours (approximately 35 years of average use). The lights, however, will set you back $80 a pop. For more information on the lights, visit the Enlux website.

A practical LED light to replace incandescent and flourescent lighting has been a Holy Grail of electrical engineers for years. LED lights "burn" cool, last for decades, are rugged, and use a fraction of the energy of conventional lighting. However, difficulties in developing such lights have included generating sufficient brightness to allow them to light a home or business, and creating a high-quality neutral white light (ever notice how LED lights seem to be in every color but white?).

LED lights have been around for decades, most commonly found in electronic equipment. Over the past couple of years, LED Christmas lights have appeared on the market. Recently, I saw a strip on sale at BJ's for about $25; not bad, but way more expensive than what you'd pay for regular lights (as little as $1 a strip). Cool-burning LED Christmas lights are billed as being safer than regular lights, more economical in the long run, and more durable (besides being less prone to breakage, the colors don't fade). But you still have untangle the strings every year...

Source: Futurismic

DVR to Transform TV Advertising

A survey of advertising leaders by the American Advertising Federation (AAF) found that the vast majority of those surveyed said that digital video recorders (DVRs) will have a major impact on TV advertising in the coming years.

Over half of those surveyed forecast growth of non-traditional advertising formats to counter the ability of DVR users to skip over 30-second commercials, and 21% said that traditional TV advertising will disappear altogether. Only 4% said that DVRs are overhyped -- a drop from 13% who expressed that opinion in a similar survey in 2003. And the number who believed DVRs will have only limited market penetration dropped from 22% in 2003 to 8% this year.

This correlates with research that has found that over 90% of DVR owners use their devices to skip over some or all of the commericals in programs they record. The research is also aligned with surveys projecting explosive growth in the DVR market within the next five years.

However, these same concerns were voiced years ago when the VCR entered the mass market, and 30-second spots are still with us. Truth was, people didn't use their VCRs to record TV programs that regularly, preferring instead to rent movies on video and watch videos they recorded themselves. The difference will appear if and when DVRs truly change the way people watch television -- something VCRs never really did.

So what are the trends we're likely to see if these predictions hold true? Some possibilities include:

  • Heavier, less subtle use of product placement in programs
  • More interactive content, and greater use of websites and text messaging connected to programs
  • Incentives for watching advertisements, such as coupons or other special offers
  • A return to the fully-sponsor-owned model of programming that was common in TV's early days (i.e., Texaco Star Theater)
  • The end of commercial television as we know it, and the rise of the HBO-style subscription channel model
  • A la carte programming, whereby viewers pay for each program they watch (in my opinion, the least likely option)
  • Programming that follows the PBS model of corporate underwriting. Corporations and nonprofit groups could -- for tax incentive, public relations and other reasons -- fund channels and programs that serve the common good. The danger here is that programming could devolve into political shenanigans.
  • The use of social networking to create fan groups, and promote gatherings during which advertisers' products would be features. This might work very well for high-profile sports events, which are social in nature to begin with. Otherwise, this would only be effective with extremely popular programs.
The growth in DVR use could have other effects as well. For instance, if a majority of viewers record the shows they watch, scheduling will become less important. It won't matter if a show is on at 8 PM, 8 AM or the middle of the night... the viewer will simply set his or her DVR to record the show accordingly. This could affect everything from the concept of "prime time" to the need for shows to fit into tight 30- and 60-minute time slots. Real-time programming will be reserved for news broadcasts and live events.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

New Emerging Technology Think Tank

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is a relatively new group dedicated to "promoting and publicizing the work of thinkers who examine the social implications of scientific and technological advance." Among other things, the group publishes an e-mail newsletter and journal, sponsors conferences, and supports internship opportunities. Many of the contributors and fellows will be familar names to those who frequent the emerging-technologies blogosphere.

IBM Once Again Has World's Fastest Computer

Moore's Law is alive and well.

Big Blue reclaimed the title of producing the world's fastest computer when IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer was clocked at 70.72 trillion canculations per second. This is almost double the processing speed of the previous record holder, Japan's Earth Simulator, which weighed in at 35.86 trillion calculations per second. The Earth Simluator, in turn, was four times faster than any other computer when it debuted two years ago.

Blue Gene/L requires 2,500 square feet of space and uses about $1 million in electricity every year. However, computer scientists say that these are modest requirements for a supercomputer, the result of its high efficient design. Blue Gene/L will be put to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where it will ultimately be upgraded to handle 360 trillion calculations per second.

By comparison, the typical home or office PC can perform a mere one billion calculations per second.

Device to Diagnose Patients by Looking in Their Eyes

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. One company is taking that maxim literally by developing a clinical device that allows doctors to diagnose patients' illnesses by looking into their eyes.

The article in USA Today is short on specifics, but West Virginia-based MD Biotech has developed a noninvasive instrument that analyzes various properties of the eye, and can use what it finds to diagnose "a wide range of injuries, illness and physical abnormalities." The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the good folks who brought you the Internet, has given MD Biotech nearly $1 million in grants to develop the device. DARPA sees potential in military use, where diagnoses on the battlefield would need to be made on-the-fly. But another obvious application would be in pediatrics; doctors could use the device on very small children too young to give useful feedback about their condition.

One question is clear: If a doctor can diagnose diseases with one of these instruments, how else could this technology be used? And that spawns many, many other questions...

Could pharmacists use the technology to determine if a customer has allergies to specific medications? If someone had a contagious disease, could their eyes be scanned at a distance, and could they be prevented from, say, entering a public building? Could someone on a first date scan the eyes of their partner to learn whether he or she has an STD? Could you scan your own eyes to give yourself a regular checkup, consulting with your doctor only if something serious turns up? Could this technology diagnose emotional as well as physical maladies? The possibilities are endless... assuming the technology works.

Source: Techdirt

Is There a Doctor in the House?

An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine forecasts a shortage of doctors in the U.S. within the next 20 years. Richard Cooper, MD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin predicts that the U.S. will need up to 200,000 additional doctors between 2020 and 2025.

Fewer graduates from medical schools, combined with an aging population, are causing the shortage. However, others point out that shortages may not necessarily be across-the-board, and will likely vary by specialty and location. Other variables such as new healthcare technology, recruitment initiatives by medical schools, insurance reimbursement practices and malpractice will also affect the number of doctors in the coming years.

Peak Oil

It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a futurist, for that matter) to realize that the recent rise in oil prices is not an anomaly, but a long-term trend.

Seeing this, a new concept of "Peak Oil" is emerging, which is defined as the point "when our collective ability to extract enough oil is exceeded by our demand for oil." Although we're better at extracting oil than we used to be, the planet's reserves are finite, even if we were to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling. And global demand is increasing as countries such as China and India step up their consumption, combined with the developed world enjoying a relatively healthy economy.

Source: Association for the Study of Peak Oil. Click here for larger views and other charts.

Exactly when we'll hit Peak Oil is a point of debate: some say we'll reach it within a few years, whole others say Peak Oil is decades away, if at all. According to one estimate, global demand has already come within 1% of supply (many industry experts believe any difference below 10% is a problem). The UK-based Energy Institute estimates spare oil capacity to be as low as 0.5%, especially since large quantities of OPEC's capacity is currently bottled up in war-torn Iraq.

Concern about this phenomenon is so great that it has its own think tank, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). This group estimates that the world could reach Peak Oil as soon as 2008. More conservatively, BP exploration consultant Francis Harper believes that peak production will occur between 2010 and 2020 -- still, too close for comfort.

In other words, we barely have enough time to begin looking for a solution. We could, of course, open up the ANWR for drilling, but bringing that oil online could take years... and at any rate, it's a stopgap solution. Petroleum engineer Jack Zagar argues that finding further new reserves could take decades. According to ASPO, we don't have that kind of time.

What else can we do? Some advocate the development of molecular construction through which fuels could be created through nanotechnology. Hydrogen cells and improved solar energy are also options. If those technologies don't work out, revisiting nuclear power may be a necessity. But whatever we do, the U.S. and the world need a strategy for alternative fuel development, distribution and conservation, and to make it a top priority.

It would be wonderful if President Bush would commit us to a timetable for ending our reliance on fossil fuels, just as John F. Kennedy did in committing us to landing on the moon. If he's looking for a project to build his legacy, this would be ideal. But I'm hardly optimistic. The U.S. has a history of putting alternative energy on the back burner and associating it with "fringe elements." That was especially easy during the era of cheap oil in the '80s and '90s. Sadly, the day may come when we wished we had taken that "fringe" more seriously and had begun developing alternatives when we had the chance.

Sources: KurzweilAI.net, Responsible Nanotechnology

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Firefox Fever

Today, Mozilla released its final 1.0 version of its Firefox web browser -- an event that's posing the first serious challenge to the dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE) browser since MSIE crushed Netscape in the late 1990s. This year, MSIE's share of the browser market has fallen from 95.5% to just under 93%, in large part because users have turned to Firefox, Opera and other alternative browsers.

Eight million people downloaded the preview version of Firefox 1.0 the past several months, and reports are that the Firefox server has been clogged all day with people attempting to download the final version since it was released at 1 A.M. this morning. Stephen Pierzchala, senior analyst at Net performance management firm Gomez, calls the problem a "success crisis."

So what's all the excitement about? Demand for non-MSIE browsers has been high since security vulnerabilities began appearing in MSIE earlier this year. Users have also responded positively to Firefox's features, such as built-in popup blocking, tabbed viewing, and performance that matches or surpasses that of MSIE.

The Holidays are Going to the Dogs, Cats and Other Pets

Following the trend established in past years, retailers expect holiday shoppers to shell out big bucks for presents -- not just for themselves and their kids, but their pets as well.

It's no accident that PetSmart has become a giant among "big box" retailers, and many malls features stores such as Jake's Dog House, which sell upscale items for both pets and pet lovers. Pets can enjoy their own holiday activities, and have their pictures taken with Santa. Dogs can now get massages, take yoga classes, and even get facials! Web sites such as CatsPlay.com are picking up where the infamous dotcom victim Pets.com left off, but with a more tightly focused audience -- affluent owners of pampered pooches and coddled kitties.

According to the Pet Industry News, Americans will spend $30 billion on their pets this year. And in one survey, 28% said that they planned to spend more money on Christmas presents for their pets than for their spouses.

Why all this indulgence? Any pet lover will tell you that the wonder of a pet is that they're so different from people... they accept you for who you are, they ask for very little other than some food and a place to sleep, and they really don't care whether you can afford $300 for a doggie sweater. And unlike kids, they don't need to be put through college! As the population grows older and the number of Baby Boom "empty nesters" increases, the demand for companionship will certainly increase. Young singles and couples are finding that pet ownership is a good prelude -- or even alternative -- to parenthood. Some have credited the animal-rights movement for advocating the idea that "animals are people too." Plus, the ability to spend large sums of money on our pets has become a status symbol.

Look for further indulgence of our favorite critters in the future. In the meantime, make sure you have everything on Fido and Buffy's "wish lists"...

Heart Medicine for Blacks a First

BiDil, a heart medicine with demonstrated success in cutting heart-related deaths among blacks, may become the first medicine ever approved for a specific racial group.

This could be the start of a generation of medicines tailored to patients' genetic makeup. The drug was developed in response to evidence that regular ACE inhibitors were less effective on blacks than on other groups. Other studies suggest blacks have less nitric oxide in their blood; nitric oxide widens blood vessels, and BiDil boosts levels of nitric oxide.

However, some cardiologists believe that BiDil could be just as effective with other racial groups. They argue that social rather than genetic differences put blacks at higher risk for heart disease. Whether or not BiDil ushers in a new era of genetic-specific drugs, it highlights the importance of factoring racial differences into clinical trials.

Families Giving Up 'Burbs for the Big City

Real estate agents are noting an increase in the number of families who are choosing to live in cities rather than the suburbs. They are joining young singles and "empty nesters" who appreciate the advantages of city life and condo living.

Observers believe that families are willing to accept the higher expenses of city life in exchange for greater cultural assets and the elimination of the daily commute (a particular advantage in this era of expensive gasoline). There is also the desire among many parents to send their children to exclusive private schools in the hearts of major cities such as New York. The trend, however, appears limited to upscale families who can afford to live in fashionable urban neighborhoods.

Climate Warming Faster than Previously Thought

According to a report from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, the Earth's average temperature has increased by approximately 1° F over the past 100 years, and may increase by as much as 10 degrees by the end of the century. It doesn't sound like much, but scientists are already noting effects, especially in the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and much more rapidly than an earlier U.N. report forecast. Researchers studying the Arctic climate change and resulting thaw could destabilize structures in the region, and cause polar bears to go extinct by 2100.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from thawing Arctic soil, creating a "feedback loop" that could accellerate global warming even further.

The Pew report unequivocally blames human activity for the rise in temperatures, particularly auto exhaust and coal-fired power plants. It is doubtful, however, that the Bush administration will take any further proactive action to cap emissions than it already has.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Intelligent Fabric

Eleksen, a British-based company, has developed a method of manufacturing sensors and switches from textiles. This, of course, opens the door to all kinds of "smart clothing" and fabrics that have network awareness, such as blankets and children's toys. The fabric can be sewn and washed, and can generally tolerate far more abuse than standard electronics.

Because of its ruggedness, the technology has lots of potential in medical, military and emergency management applications.

Purple Reign

Tired of election post-analysis and discussion of the red vs. blue cultural divide? Yeah, me too. But get used to it, as we keep analyizing the impact of a second Bush administration on our future. At any rate, here's one tidbit that's worthy of discussion...

USA Today
has published a map of election results by county, showing which counties voted for Bush (red) and Kerry (blue).

At first blush, the most striking feature of this map is how overwhelmingly red it is. Conservative bloggers such as Michelle Malkin have used this map to argue that support for Bush runs much broader than even the state-based electoral maps suggest.

But take a closer look. Although red counties far outnumber blue ones, the blue counties are largely clustered around major population centers. In other words, while the red counties have the geographic edge, the blue counties have the demographic advantage.

Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan have produced several cartograms that distort the electoral map based on population (highly populated areas are enlarged). The following is their cartogram of the electoral map by county:

Suddenly, the red areas aren't so dominant anymore...

Second, note that, with some exceptions, most states have a mix of red and blue counties. Some red states may only have a couple of blue flecks... but again, those are generally population centers. So, instead of being divided between red and blue states, we're a collection of "purple" states. No matter how "red" or "blue" a state is, few are monoliths, and not everyone there thinks alike.

Nothing illustrates this phenomenon more clearly than this annotated map by cartographer Paul Fly (click here to see an enlarged, zoomable version). On this map, the only areas colored red or blue are those that voted 100% (or close to it) for Bush or Kerry respectively. Everything else is a shade of purple.

So what does this all mean? It means that we're more diverse than some of us like to admit. We have to figure out ways to cooperate, compromise and work together if we're going to accomplish anything in the coming years. Yet is also means that we have very real differences that we're going to have to accept and overcome.

NOTE: "Gray" counties are those whose vote counts haven't been tallied fully as of this date. USA Today updates this map continually, so check it regularly to watch gray counties fill in with either red or blue.

Telecommuter's Home/Office of the Future

Recently I came across a book in the library called Telecommuting Success by Michael J. Dziak. Overall, the book is a collection of best practices aimed at first-time teleworkers. It is, however, a bit dated (published way back in 2001), and according to Amazon, it's out of print.

Despite this, one section jumped out at me as I read it. Dziak spends some time discussing the future of telecommuting -- he believes it's a growing trend -- and speculates on how the home of the future might change to adapt to telework:

  • Knowledge workers might have rooms in their home dedicated to business entertaining and small meetings (a throwback to the "parlor" concept of Victorian-era homes). These rooms, naturally, would be equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment.
  • "Convertible" rooms would change quickly from a home office to another purpose. This would be especially handy for small homes where space is at a premium.
  • Pervasive environments that allow teleworkers to conduct business from most any room in the house. Devices would interact via wireless connections, and homes would have their own miniature data centers that would securely house the main systems that would govern all this pervasive activity.
  • Security concerns would become paramount. In addition to crime prevention, homes of the future would be built with an eye toward disaster prevention and recovery.
  • In addition to office areas, homes of the future might have rooms devoted to child care, home schooling and eldercare.

A recent article in PC World describes how such a future home might operate.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Young Voters Are "True Blue"

According to the liberal blog Daily Kos, the youth vote (ages 18-29) in the general election skewed far more Democratic than the general electorate:

Notice how "blue" supposedly solid "red" states like Mississippi, North Carolina and Arkansas become when the vote count is adjusted for age. However, most of the South and Midwest remain strongly Republican.

Assuming this is accurate (the data is, after all, based on exit polls), it will be interesting to see if this trend holds steady, or if today's young voters will skew conservative as they grow older. If they continue to vote liberal -- assuming they keep voting -- the Dems will have something to smile about in 2008 and beyond...

Friday, November 05, 2004

Moblogging as a Learning Tool

"Blogs and wikis were yesterday. Moblogging is today." So writes Howard Rheingold in a fascinating piece in TheFeature about smart mobs and pervasive environments in education.

In this vision, students would be connected to one another through an m-learning environment, automatically notified when someone is seeking a specific piece of information. Ad hoc groups could form that include instructors, and the group would be directed to the information they needed.

What's interesting about this piece as much as the technical foresight are the comments. Many are skeptical, but one commentor hit the nail on the head when he pointed out the distinction between "learning" and "schooling."

It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas...

One of the major radio stations in the Philadelphia area has begun playing holiday music in what they bill as a "holiday preview weekend." Soon they'll switch over to an all-holiday format until after Christmas Day.

You may have noticed that this has become a trend over the last few years. And there's a good reason for it. Some say it started in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, when a little extra holiday cheer seemed just the ticket for a nation still in shock and mourning. At that time, the stations that adopted the all-holiday format began right after Thanksgiving.

But then something funny happed: stations realized that with the all-Christmas format, they had a ratings hit on their hands. So they started up even earlier.

And why not? It seems that, belatedly, radio station managers have stumbled upon a fundamental truth about American culture: people love Christmas! The genius of the all-holiday format is that stations can mix up old chestnuts from the likes of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis with carols sung by the latest pop idols.

By doing that, the media rediscovered something they thought they had lost long ago -- the mass audience. It's one of those things that's so obvious you're amazed that no one hit on it earlier. Why, after all, do people of all ages watch those old Chrismas movies like It's a Wonderful Life and specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch year after year?

No all-holiday stations in your area? Fear not... just go to a site like the Christmas Radio Network and listen to holiday music through the Internet.

The Rise of Social Software

The term "social software" gets thrown around a lot, to the point where a lot of us don't have a clear idea of what it is. Truth is, social software encompasses broad categories of technologies that allow people to interact in ways that were never before possible. These range from the review features on Amazon to text messaging on mobile devices.

Blogger Dare Obasanjo quotes Adam Bosworth describing the nature and value of social software:

The real value in my opinion has moved from the software to the information and the community. Amazon connects you to books, movies, and so on. eBay connects you to goodness knows how many willing sellers of specific goods. Google connects you to information and dispensers of goods and services. In every case, the push is for better and more timely access both to information and to people. I cannot, for the life of me, see how Longhorn or Avalon or even Indigo help one little bit in this value chain.

My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on.

The platform of this decade isn't going to be around controlling hardware resources and rich UI. Nor do I think you're going to be able to charge for the platform per se. Instead, it is going to be around access to community, collaboration, and content. And it is going to be mass market in the way that the web is mass market, in the way that the iPod is mass market, in the way that a TV is mass market. Which means I think that it is going to be around services, not around boxes.

Obasanjo breaks social software into five categories:

  1. Communication (IM, Email, SMS, etc)
  2. Experience Sharing (Blogs, Photo albums, shared link libraries such as del.icio.us)
  3. Discovery of Old and New Contacts (Classmates.com, online personals such as Match.com, social networking sites such as Friendster, etc)
  4. Relationship Management (Orkut, Friendster, etc)
  5. Collaborative or Competitive Gaming (MMORPGs, online versions of traditional games such as Chess & Checkers, team-based or free-for-all First Person Shooters, etc)
Obasanjo also notes that the big obstacle in social software is that all these systems are currently fragmented; there's no "killer app" that ties them all together. That's probably because the field is so relatively new that no one has yet worked out the process by which an uber-platform would really work. Once that's done, one of two things have to happen: either a commercial developer (Obasanjo is betting on Google) would have to construct a viable business model by which they could make a profit while providing consumers with a cost-effective service; or the code would have to be released to the open source community, where a system could be perfected that's focused on functionality rather than profit.

Meanwhile, developers are creating social systems that address highly focused needs. One of these is POPstick Outburst, which at first blush appears to be a souped-up version of Friendster or LinkedIn, but also works as an interactive marketing tool. However, as with so much related to the Internet, these social systems create some interesting unintended consequences. "Fakesters," or people who create fake profiles on Friendster and other networks, add a level of interest and actually enhance interest in and value of the network, as blogger Ross Mayfield argues. Even in "top down" systems such as POPstick, it may be the "bottom up" effect that provides the real value.

One other area of interest is the growth in wiki technology. Until recently something of a curiousity, wikis are starting to make inroads into the business world as knowledge maangement tools. Startups such as Socialtext are marketing wiki technology as collaborative intranets. Combining wikis with RSS technology increases their reach and usefulness exponentially, as wikis suddenly become an "anywhere, anytime" resource.

Social networking may indeed be the next big emerging technology, but perfecting it will be a trial-and-error process. It seems as though we're approximarly at the point with social systems where the Web was around 1995 or '96... a few bleeding-edge developers are trying to build useful systems, and many of them failing. This blog post outlines one wiki enthuiast's "failure" in trying to implement a wiki in a teaching environment.

Sources: Emergic.org, Smart Mobs

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Political Futures Markets Show Promise

An article in Slate takes note of two political futures markets that had a far more accurate read of the election than did many phone and exit polls. In such systems, participants "invest" in candidates based on their viability; some systems yield a payout if the candidate wins.

The Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) and Irish-based TradeSports both forecast a Bush victory, and the vote split in IEM was very close to the real thing. The credibility of polls -- especially exit polls -- took a real beating this time around, and some believe that futures trading systems will be a more accurate alternative.