FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, December 30, 2004

FutureWire Predictions for 2005

Well, I may as well do the new-year thing and add my own thoughts to the growing collection of predictions for 2005. Based on the trends I've been observing this past year, combined with the best of other people's forecasts, my own intuition and that magic 8-ball I got for Christmas (just kidding!), I'm offering my own forecasts for the coming year in four areas that FutureWire has been covering.

The war in Iraq, energy prices, terrorism and (as we've seen this past couple of weeks) natural disasters will be the big variables for the coming year, with the power to change or negate anyone's forecasts for 2005.

So here goes. Have a safe and happy new year, don't drink and drive, and all that good stuff...


Blogs will continue to proliferate and shape public opinion. Like the Web in the mid-'90s, blogs are in their toddlerhood; we're chasing them around making sure they don't pull a bookcase down on themselves. But they're maturing rapidly, especially with established news organizations embracing the blog format.

Audio and video blogging (a.k.a. podcasting) will increase as well, but their growth will depend on the adoption of high-speed Internet access in the home. Ultimately, anyone so inclined can create their own "radio" or "TV" show, and, through viral PR, could emerge as the next big media personality (think JibJab). Conversely, the creative potential of audio and video blogs will bring more world-class talent (and more dollars) into the blogosphere.

Personal media players that hold photos and play audio and video files will be the must-have gadgets for next holiday season. Recordable DVD players that interact with personal media devices will also be hot.

Concerns about privacy and identity theft will increase. A movement will emerge that will seek to place limits on employers' use of technology to monitor employees. We may even see the rumblings of an anti-technology backlash.

Interest in RFID tags will continue to spread. Standards will be codified, and prices will fall low enough to make tags attractive to even low-end retailers.

The use of cell phones in public will become an increasingly contentious issue. Public places will establish "cell-free" zones where making or receiving phone calls or text messages is prohibited.

Social networking will increase in popularity, with virtual communities becoming just as important to people's lives as real ones. People will belong to many different professional and social networks. Capitalizing on snob appeal, highly exclusive social networks will appear, charging exorbitant entry fees and requiring references from the "right" people for membership.

File sharing will continue to stymie the music and movie industries, as users develop new technologies to circumvent crackdowns. In response, independent music labels and film producers will pioneer new business models that balance access with compensation for artists. Coupled with Internet-based distribution, their reach could pose a real threat to major labels and studios.

Municipalities looking to establish their own wireless networks will run afoul of phone carriers, cable companies and ISPs, who (correctly) perceive such initiatives as threats to their business. The whole thing will probably end up in court, unless partnership arrangements can be worked out.


Hiring will increase, creating a seller's market that will be the most lucrative for workers in years... though nothing like the dot-com boom of the late '90s.

Much of the prosperity of the developed world will hinge on energy costs. If they hold steady (or better yet, fall), all will be well. But a disruption in oil supply could slow or even stall the global economy.

Entrepreneurs will attempt to build new business models around blogs, though few will succeed outright. One possibility is a talent market for freelance bloggers; another is an investment market for blogs that, unlike BlogShares, uses real money.

Telecommuting will become increasingly common. As the labor market tightens, more employers will offer it when possible, and more workers will demand it. In the event of an energy shortage, businesses and even individuals might be offered tax incentives for telecommuting.

Though not quite ready to retire, Baby Boomers who feel time is more important than money will choose to "downshift" their careers -- working fewer hours for less pay, but with more free time and less stress. Employers facing hard times may encourage downshifting as an alternative to layoffs.


The "culture wars" will continue to be fought on a variety of fronts, and at a grass-roots level. Evangelical Christians will continue to assert themseves... ultimately ushering in a backlash from other, non-Christian groups.

Liberals in "red" areas will migrate to "blue" communities, and vice versa, further sharpeining regional divides. People who never before thought of themselves as liberals or conservatives will more closely identify with political and cultural labels.

In a non-election year, news from Washington will take a back seat to other events -- but not if, for instance, President Bush has an opportunity to nominate a new Supreme Court justice.

In the event of an energy crisis, the Bush Administration will take heat for not making alternative energy a national priority. If a crisis is severe enough, a new national political figure could emerge who places energy at the top of his/her agenda.


As the culture wars divide the population more sharply, and the dominant voices become those of the extremes, media outlets will be forced to choose sides. Instead of valuing the media for its objectivity, audiences will choose media based on political and cultural preferences (or what in the old days they used to call "bias").

The FCC will face pressure to impose more stringent "decency" standards on network television, while Congress will seek to censor cable TV and satellite radio. The Internet will remain the last bastion of unregulated media -- only because so much of it can originate and be mirrored outside the US. Look for a rise in offshore Internet hosting firms if this scenario plays out.

Expect to see at least one major news personality break away from their current employer and strike out independently with a text, audio or video blog. Already, we've seen a precedent with Howard Stern abandoning traditional media for satellite radio. Any breakout blogging star will be a highly controversial figure who is "too hot" for regular TV or radio; pornography will almost certainly gain a foothold here as well.

As cable TV, satellite radio and the Internet eclipse traditional broadcast media, a "media divide" will appear as those who are unable or unwilling to pay subscription fees face fewer news and entertainment options. Though traditional broadcasting isn't going away anytime soon, the perception will be that the "best" material is on pay services or online.

Games will continue to become an important part of the media mix. Writers looking to market manuscripts will opt to sell their work to game developers rather than movie studios or book publishers.

Advertisers will need to develop alternatives to the traditional 30-second TV commercial, as more people use DVRs to zap commercial spots. Product placements, Web tie-ins and ticker-tape ads are candidates.

The Fly-Powered Robot

British scientists have developed a robot that could simultaneously take honors as the year's most clever and most gross innovation. The EcoBot II powers itself solely by eating housefiles to generate electricity. The robot uses human excrement to attract files, which it then captures and digests. Mmmm, tasty!

The EcoBot is designed to operate over prolonger periods in harsh environments, where humans would not be available to replace or recharge batteries. It could also function in areas where solar panels would not be effective. Robots like the EcoBot could serve as surveyors for military, security, industrial and environmental applications.

Source: CNN.com

Asteroid Strike for 2029 Ruled Out

If you're making any plans for April 13, 2029, feel free to pencil them in. NASA scientists who feared that an asteroid might strike Earth on that date have changed their forecast, saying that asteroid 2004 MN4 will safely pass us by. NASA has been tracking the asteriod since June, initially thinking that it might be on a collision course with Earth. But after studying its trajectory more closely, they are now confident that the asteroid is not a threat.

Source: CNN.com

Study: The Internet Takes Up More of Our Time

A recent study conducted by the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society has found that Internet usage takes time away from other aspects of life, including socializing, TV viewing and even sleep.

"'People don't understand that time is hydraulic,' Norman Nie, the group's director, said, meaning that time spent on the Internet is time taken away from other activities."

While hardly earth-shattering news, the study has come up with other interesting tidbits, including:

  • 75 percent of all Americans now have some level of Internet access.
  • The average user spends 14 minutes per day -- or 10 workdays a year -- dealing with computer problems.
  • Women are heavier users of e-mail and instant messaging (active use); men prefer Web browsing, discussion forums and chat rooms (passive use).
  • Younger users prefer synchronous communication such as instant messaging, whereas older users prefer e-mail.

Source: New York Times

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

More Emerging Tech Trends for 2005

The end of the year is a time when most people reflect on "the year that was." However, as futurists, we're much more interested in the year to come.

Earlier this month we profiled the top technology trends for 2005 as selected by the Consumer Electronics Association. Now, Red Herring is weighing in with its top picks. Its top-ten list is a bit more esoteric, though nothing in it should surprise anyone who follows emerging technologies.

A Dire Warning for Local TV News

Media consultant Terry Heaton has written an essay warning that 2005 will be a "do or die" year for local TV news outlets. "2005 will be the most important and difficult year in the history of local broadcasting," the piece begins, "and by year's end, the landscape could well be littered with the corpses of those who hung on too long."

Heaton discusses how the disruptive technologies we've profiled here -- blogging, moblogging, podcasting, videocasting, to name a few -- will continue to hammer away at the business models of local TV news stations, who don't have the financial resources of the major networks to stave off the attacks. Regional TV news media, he argues, will have to embrace new technologies if they are to survive, though too many are in denial.

Already, in the Philadelphia media market, we've begun to see the beginnings of such change. The local network affiliates have been leaders in creating Web-based content and videocasting, and have begun taking baby steps into the blogosphere. Heaton's timetable might be aggressive for major markets like Philadelphia, as they have the resources to hire the best technical minds for engineering a turnaround. Smaller TV news markets are likely to be far more vulnerable.

Source: Pomo Blog

Tsunami Relief

I'm back from my all-too-brief Christmas hiatus, hoping that those of you who celebrated the holiday had a good one.

Of course, the big story over the past several days has been the deadly tsunami that struck southern Asia and, at latest count, caused 80,000 deaths. If you are interesting in helping out in any way you can, CNN.com has posted links to charities and relief agencies who are accepting donations on the victims' behalf.

Also, as you might imagine, Smart Mobs has posts telling how mobile phones and SMS messaging have helped save lives during the disaster, the role that blogs are playing in relaying information and coordinating relief (such as this Blogger blog), and an ICQ message board and free SMS service dedicated to helping people locate friends and loved ones in the stricken areas. WorldChanging is covering the situation as well, with numerous posts and links to resources.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Merry Christmas To All, And To All a Good Night!

This will likely be my last post until after Christmas... so I'm taking this time to wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday (especially for those of you travelling through the Midwest this week). I also want to thank all those who have supported FutureWire over the past six months and made it a success.

It would seem that a blog dedicated to the future wouldn't have a lot to say about Christmas, a holiday that's all about reminiscing, tradition and nostalgia. Everyone wants an old-fashioned Christmas; no one wants a futuristic one. Recall that in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Spirits of Christmases Past and Present were amiable sorts... but the Spirit of Christmases to Come was to be feared.

But allow me to set aside my futurist hat for a moment and don my other hat -- that of a "citizen journalist." And in that great journalistic tradition (yes, even in the blogosphere, some traditions must hold fast), I'd like to quote a passage that, as much as anything ever written, captures what Christmas is all about.

Faithfully, newspapers around the world reprint this every season. You've probably read it a million times... yet while it was written over a century ago, it never gets old, cliched or irrelevant. I'm referring to young Virginia O'Hanlon's famous letter to the long-defunct New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus, and editorial writer Francis P. Church's equally famous reply:

Dear Editor—

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. [N.B. For more on the history of this letter, click here.]

The letter was first published in 1897, but it could have been written yesterday. The unstated charm of it, of course, comes when you realize that it would have been so easy for Mr. Church to have sent little Virginia's letter to the "circular file," muttering something about dumb kids wasting his time. And it would have been so easy for Virginia to have joined the ranks of the cynical and disillusioned as a result. But thanks to the earnestness of both, that's not what happened. And that's what makes it special. Would a modern child consider writing such a letter to, say, the New York Times or CNN? Would one of their editors take the time to respond so eloquently?

Neither Virginia nor Francis Church could have fathomed such a thing as the Internet, but as you can see, their exchange lives on in cyberspace. And in all likelihood, our great-grandchildren will read and re-read it on December days to come, and be moved by it every time.

One of my goals with FutureWire has been to help readers make sense of a world that's constantly changing. Yet some things don't change, and shoudn't change. Christmas, thankfully, is one of them. Beyond the hype, hysteria and commercialism, Christmas is good for the soul, no matter how you celebrate it.

Holidays give us "permission" to do things we're too self-conscious to do otherwise. Halloween allows us to dress up as someone other than ourselves. Valentine's Day helps the romantically-challenged express their affections. On Mother's Day and Father's Day, we can tell Mom and Dad how much we love them without embarassment. Likewise, Christmas allows us to relive our childhoods... or even reconstruct them. Through Christmas, we can celebrate all that's good and charitable and fun without a hint of irony. And in a frightening, all-too-adult world, that's therapeutic. The "true meaning of Christmas," after all, is rooted in childhood innocence, through which even the most jaded of us have been conditioned all our lives to love it. If nothing else, it's the one day all year when the outside world reliably grinds to a halt, when all adult cares and worries are set aside. It's the one day our secular culture continues to hold sacred, honoring the birth of one child by celebrating all children.

The need to celebrate at this time of year goes back to the dawn of recorded history. In European culture, "Christmas" predates the birth of Christ by thousands of years. Even those neolithic people, so long ago, recognized the need for a celebration during an otherwise bleak time of year. And in a couple of days, Christians everywhere will rejoice in the birthday of Jesus.

So with that, I repeat my yuletide wish for you, whatever your plans for this holiday.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

P.S. Graphics for this post were swiped from ELMS Puzzles Christmas Gallery

From Barry Bonds to Cyborgs

AlwaysOn has an interesting perspective on the recent steroid controversy surrounding Major League Baseball. Perhaps we're simply seeing the tip of the iceberg, as body enhancements as predicted by transhumanists become more widespread and more sophisticated. If we are troubled by the prospect of Barry Bonds and other athletes enhancing their performance through chemicals, how will we react to the advent of cyborgs and bionics, which could be upon us sooner than we think?

Source: AlwaysOn

Clothes Made from Soy

Sounds a little odd... but like so many things futurists look at, it makes perfect sense once you give it some thought. Chinese fabric producers are developing soy-based fabrics, which are cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than traditional textiles. Developed in the late '90s, soy textiles are popular in Asia, but are just now beginning to appear in Europe and the US.

An eco-friendly clothing retailer called Of the Earth is marketing a line of soy-based "soy yoga" wear (shirt pictured above). Top fashion designers such as Giorgio Armani have embraced organic cotton, so it's possible that they have their eyes on soy-based fabrics as well.

Source: bookofjoe

Weather Podcasting

Just in time for holiday travel, a programmer named Jorge Velazquez has written a script that sends weather forecasts via RSS feeds.

The Perl script parses the XML feed of Weather.com, and has three variables: locid (location ID; a ZIP code will work for US locations), dayf (how many days forward you want your forecast, up to 10 days; default is 2), and unit ("m" for metric, "s" or "e" for standard/English). Included in Jorge's post is his programming methodology and the source code.

You can test the script by putting the following URL in your RSS feed reader:


Replace "XXXXX" with a valid ZIP code or city code. The result should be a five-day forecast for the location of your choice. The script also supposedly converts the text to audible speech in MP3 files, though the LAME encoder is necessary.

If nothing else, this is an interesting experiment in potential uses for RSS feeds and podcasts, and hopefully will serve as a inspiration to others.

Source: Gordon McLean

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Germany Builds Solar Energy Power Plant

A California company, PowerLight Corp., has built a 30-acre solar power generating facility in Bavaria, in southern Germany. If successful, the plant would serve as a model for generating renewable energy.

The plant went online just this month, and is capable of generating 10 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 9,000 German homes. All while creating zero pollution.

Germany is the world's leading producer of wind power, and the second-largest producer of solar energy (after Japan). German law allows producers of renewable energy to sell that power back to the electricity grid at premium rates, leading to a boom in solar farms and windmills among landowners. These, however, are proving to be controversial, as many see them as eyesores. All these elements provide lessons for the resto of the world to learn about the pros and cons of renewable energy.

Source: The Higher Pie

Gaming Industry Surpasses Film Industry

Video and computer gaming is on a roll... so much so that the industry's $10 billion annual revenue has surpassed that of Hollywood. Game titles such as Halo 2, Sims 2, Grand Theft Auto and Half-Life are household words, even in households without gamers. New releases of games attract crowds and long lines normally reserved for blockbuster movies and and albums from the hottest music acts.

[Alert readers have noted that the gaming industry has surpassed domestic film box-office revenue only, not DVD rentals or overseas releases. However, even this is a significant achievement.]

In November alone, sales of video games hit $849 million. When Microsoft released Halo 2 last month, it reported sales of $125 million in the first 24 hours! Compare that with this year's biggest opening weekend for a movie (Spider-Man 2), which grossed $114 million.

What's driving these numbers? Clearly, the technology keeps getting better every year, which in turn attracts talented programmers and other creative types who want to develop even better games. But unlike the Atari and Coleco games kids that my generation grew up with, today's games are aimed at adults (whicn explains why games feature more sex and violence). Gamers in their 20's and 30's with disposable income and time on their hands cheerfully plunk down $50 a copy for the latest games. Indeed, a survey by the Entertainment Software Association found that the average gamer is 29 and spends more time playing games than watching TV or going to the movies.

Read that last sentence again. This is where today's -- and tomorrow's -- entertainment dollars are going. Investors, marketers, creatives and advertisers all must take careful note if they want to stay on top of this demographic. Expect also to hear more news and controversy concerning games, ranging from the effectiveness of rating labels to their potential role in the decline of other media.

Source: Slashdot

Media 2014: A Flash Documentary

Filmmaker Robin Sloan has created a Flash-based documentary from the perspective of the year 2014, covering the "history" of news media from the advent of the Web onward. It's an excellent summary of where we are and where we're headed -- though the end point is far from a utopian vision.

Though the film is only 8 minutes, it's best viewed through a high-speed connection.

Source: Slashdot

Merry Christmas... Or Else!

Every year at this time, we hear tales of political correctness run amok as symbols of Christmas come under fire. Now, there's a new and equally distressing trend in the opposite direction.

A group in California is organizing a boycott of Federated Department Stores -- the parent company of Macy's and Bloomingdale's -- because it uses phrases like "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" in its advertising and store decorations. Many have interpreted this as a sign that conservative Christian evangelicals, emboldened by the results of the recent elections, are embarking on a new wave of activism.

Of course, people have the right to shop where they wish, and the "invisible hand" of consumer preference will always decide which businesses thrive and which fail. But it's no better to bully someone into celebrating a holiday than to bully them into ignoring it. Since when did wishing happiness to others, regardless of verbage, become such a nasty thing to do? If someone is going to wish me a merry Christmas, I want them to mean it; otherwise, feel free to wish me a happy holiday. Wish me a happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule; I respect your convictions enough to be honored by your good intentions. And if I wish you a happy Christmas, I would hope you would accept it in kind.

We've reached a point where it's not only offensive to hope for a merry Christmas, it's offensive not to as well. You can't win.

This most recent controversy underscores our poor understanding of our diverse society... not just in the US, but globally. As the "global village" contines to shrink, this challenge is only going to grow. Bloggers, whose work has exposed them to cultures they wouldn't have been aware of otherwise, are doing their part to use their tools and knowledge to increase multicultural cooperation. Yes, it's a baby step, but that's how anything worth doing gets started.

Sources: Boston Herald, Personaldemocracy.com

Monday, December 20, 2004

China Goes Car-Happy

If I were to write about congested superhighways, car-generated smog and high fuel prices, you might assume I was speaking of conditions in the US. But no... these now exist in China, which is experiencing an automotive boom, along with all its consequences.

China now has 25 million cars -- not a lot in a country with a billion-plus population. But that number is expected to double within five years, and triple by 2020. Motor vehicles currently consume 10 percent of China's energy, and China is now second to the US in carbon monoxide emissions.

In an attempt to "leapfrog" over pollution and fuel economy problems, the Chinese government is encouraging motorists to drive smaller cars and hybrids, tightening emission standards, and promoting development of alternative "green" fuels. One factor motivating the Chinese is their hosting of the Olympics in 2008, when they plan to present an environmentally-friendly face to the world.

China's efforts in this area could have a global impact. Because it represents such a large market, any fuel or pollution standards China sets could well be adopted by other countries hoping to export cars there -- even the US.

Source: MSNBC.com

Best-Ever Free Utilities

What better gift to give your favorite geek this year than to point him/her in the direction of some free software! TechSupportAlert.com has a list of the 49 best free computing utilities, complete with links. You'll likely find some familiar names here, plus some new ones as well.

Source: Eyebeam
Download and use all software at your own risk

Self-Heating Foods

Are you so kitchen-challenged that you can't boil water? If so, technology is coming to your rescue. In another sign that the culinary world is going to hell since Martha Stewart went up the river, we now have cans of coffee that heat themselves when opened.

The can mixes calcium oxide and water to heat the can to 140 degrees F in six minutes, and keep the contents warm for a half-hour. The product has been tested in European and Asian markets for some time.

Trendsetting chef Wolfgang Puck has adopted the technology for his own line of lattes, which should be reaching US markets in a couple of months. Each can will retail for about $2.25. By midyear, processed-food manufacturers will adapt the self-heating technique to tea, cocoa, rice and fish products.

These products will certainly generate some buzz simply because of the novelty aspect, but long-term, their real benefit may not be with harried yuppies, but in situations where heat and electricity are unavailable, such as in disaster and war zones, and parts of the developing world. In such situations, they will be livesavers rather than conveniences.

Source: Engadget

When Newspapers Become TV Stations

As the Internet continues to blur distinctions between media types, some interesting combinations are appearing. One of these is the inclusion of video clips in websites run by newspapers. Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry trade journal, profiles the use of video clips by the News-Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, on its website, DelawareOnline.

Delaware and the News-Journal represent a unique case because the News-Journal is the state's primary paper, and Delaware does not have any major TV stations of its own (being so close to Philadelphia, it doesn't need them). Therefore, DelawareOnline serves a more important purpose than newspaper websites elsewhere. From 2003 to 2004, traffic to DelawareOnline increased tenfold.

As broadband Internet increases its reach and the traditional newspaper continues to struggle, it's little wonder that newspapers everywhere are watching what DelawareOnline is doing and seeing how online video could fit into their strategies. National newspapers such as USA Today (whose parent company also owns the News-Journal) and the Wall Street Journalare eyeing this trend as well. The surely also want to beat any upstarts at their own game.

But the best application might be in what might be termed "micromarkets" -- small but important media markets that aren't well served by traditional "big media" yet want local news. Delaware (the northern part, especially) is a highly affluent, dynamic micromarket that would certainly be of interest to advertisers. Newspapers have the resources, credibility and business motivation to cover these markets, and for them, online video is simply a logical step forward.

Sources: unmediated, POMO Blog

Fabric Keyboard a Step Toward "Smart Clothing"

UK sensor manufacturer Eleksen has developed a flexible fabric keyboard and joystick that can connect via Bluetooth with a PDA or game system.

This product is yet another step toward developing "smart" clothes that carry controls, monitors and interface devices. Already, Eleksen is developing similar controls that provide heat elements for jackets, lighting controls that can be hidden underneath wallpaper, TV remote controls and interfaces for MP3 players.

Source: Electronics Weekly, Clippings.reblog

Biometric Passports by October '05?

US passports issued after October 2005 will include chips containing images of the holder's face, which can be checked against a facial scanner. Or at least that's the plan.

Tests of iris and other biometric scanning systems in the UK and elsewhere have yielded discouraging results. Iris readers have proved difficult to aim correctly, and the process of validating identities is slower than planned... leading to longer delays at airports. As a result, some observers are declaring the biometric technology too immature to put into production.

Source: Nature

AOL, Lycos List Top Web Searches of 2004

As the year winds down, we inevitably start to look back on "the year that was." That's not very futuristic, but looking back can sometimes give us an idea of where we're headed.

Take Web search terms, for instance. They reflect our interests and concerns, whether they be profound or trivial. AOL has released its top search terms for 2004... and the results tell us that we were highly concerned about celebrities, the election, hurricanes, celebrities, sports, celebrities, dieting, celebrities, American Idol, poker, celebrities, and certain "wardrobe malfunctions." Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, the Olsen twins, Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson topped the celebrity searches -- possibly more because of the controversy they generated than their talents.

Over at Lycos, Janet Jackson was the most searched-for topic of 2004. Hmmm, wonder why... Celebrities commanded six of the top 10 Lycos searches, and entertainment themes dominated the year's top 100 searches. Nick Berg, whose videotaped beheading by Iraqi insurgents was relased on the Internet, was number 5. The Iraq War was number 16. George W. Bush and John Kerry, at numbers 81 and 96 respectively, almost didn't make the cut.

Overall, there were few surprises in the top searches, as they reflected largely mainstream (if slightly perverse) interests. Perhaps the most significant thing this tells us is how ordinary the Web has become, and how we rely on it as a tool for investigating those things that we're most concerned about. It also suggests that, based on the search topics, the majority of those searching via AOL and Lycos are young people. It would be interesting to see a breakout of search terms by user age, if such a statictic could be calculated, as well as geographic location and income bracket. Or, maybe we're really all that into Britney and Janet...

Source: ClickZ

Friday, December 17, 2004

Holiday Lexicon

For a little Friday afternoon fun, here are a few new words to describe some of those weird and perverse situations we all encounter this time of year (originally attribited to DailyCandy):

Mistleho n. Someone who hangs around under the mistletoe, waiting to get kissed. ("Eve was being such a mistleho at the company party that no one else could get any play from the cute tech guys.")

Eggsnog n. A makeout session that takes place under the influence of eggnog.

Hallmarketing n. The outrageous marketing push that begins two months before each holiday (Halloween decorations in July, Christmas decorations in October).

Santa fraud n. Poorly costumed Santa Claus impersonator. ("Avoid department stores at all costs. They're overrun with Santa frauds this year.")

Dreidel robber n. Someone who cheats young children at dreidel.

Yulezilla n. Someone who goes way too overboard with the Christmas decorations (usually Mom).

Mrs. Claws n. Work buddy's wife whose steely gaze keeps her husband's female colleagues on the other side of the office-party dance floor.

Source: Princepessa

Personal Mobility: Not Done Cookin'

Today, the Segway Human Transporter (HT) is more known for the marketing hype that preceded it than for its ground-breaking design. But the HT may prove to have simply been ahead of its time, as other developers are creating their own personal transporters. However, they appear to be ahead of their time too.

Earlier this month, Toyota unveiled its i-unit prototype, which is essentially a very tiny car for one person.

At first blush, many people -- Americans especially -- will wonder what possible use they would have for such a device. It's a good question. I certainly wouldn't want to take this little guy out on I-95! It appears to be just as clunky as a car for city maneuvering. What happend when it rains or snows? And where the heck are the kids supposed to sit??

For now, personal transportation devices may be a "hammer in search of a nail." They don't fit elegantly into our lives, either culturally or geographically. From an engineering perspective, these devices are exciting and innovative. But with a few exceptions, they aren't very useful to us yet.

Perhaps there may come a culture shift whereby personal mobility will play a critical role. Communities would have to be built with these devices in mind, including infrastructure and legal considerations; retirement villages would be a good proving ground for these. Energy shortages may nudge us toward accepting personal transportation devices, but while the principles behind them are sound, we simply aren't ready for them.

Source: Responsible Nanotechnology

Who Is Liable for Global Warming?

Representatives for the Inuit people of the Arctic are petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to rule against the US for "causing global warming and its devastating impacts." Other environmental groups are planning lawsuits against those they hold responsible for generating greenhouse-gas emissions.

Though these cases are hardly clear-cut -- especially since we still don't have a firm understanding of how global warming works -- they will set important legal precedents if they are successful. They will also raise key questions that will surely be debated for years to come, such as:

  • Who exactly should be held liable? Governments? Corporations? Whole industries? Individuals?
  • If a corporation was a heavy polluter in the past but took aggressive anti-pollution measures later, to what extend would it still be liable?
  • If a corporation was operating at a time before pollution's impact on the environment was recognized, how liable would they be?
  • What about corporations that are no longer in business, or that have been acquired several times over?
  • Would the US's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol make it automatically liable?
  • What, if anything, would constitute an effective remedy, other than monetary damages?
  • If pollution from one nation were conclusively shown to adversely affect another, could that be considered an act of aggression?
  • Would developing countries be held to different legal standards than developed countries?
  • What new regulations would develop as a result of successful lawsuits? How will regulated industries be monitored?

Of all these questions, the most fundamental is whether global warming is truly a manmade condition. The answer to that question will either nullify or propel forward this movement.

Source: CNSNews.com

Cell Phones as Change Agents in North Korea

Human-rights activists who follow events in North Korea are reporting that North Koreans are increasingly able to use cell phones to communicate with the outside world. The proliferation of phones and more powerful networks from nearby China are making it possible.

Cell phones are, of course, illegal in North Korea, a communist country where the government controls nearly every aspect of everyday life (cell phones were briefly legalized last year, but only for the government elite). However, North Koreans are able to purchase them during excursions (both legal and illegal) to China, and smuggle them back across the border.

Most cell phones are used for business or to speak with relatives in South Korea. But observers note that dissidents are beginning to use them as tools to report on conditions in the poverty-stricken country, which has been so destitute that people have been forced to eat grass and tree bark to survive.

Commenting on the situation, South Korean politician Kim Moon Soo says, "[S]omething strange is going on in North Korea. A lot of North Koreans are not happy under dictatorship and are not well off, so loyalty for [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il's regime has lessened, and they are beginning to yearn for the outside world. The leadership is having a hard time controlling people through food distributions, prison camps, and executions."

The harm that communications technology can do to repressive regimes can never be overemphasized. Communication empowers, and it's no accident that totalitarian states take great pains to control it. But newer technology disintermediates, allowing people to reach out to those who they could never contact otherwise. One of the most storied examples is the role of fax machines and photocopiers -- which seem so mundane today -- in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Smart Mobs

Airships as Wireless Antennae

The golden age of airships ended with the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937. But in our high-tech age, the airship may find a new niche: that of a high-altitude antenna for wireless Internet.

A company called Sanswire Networks is testing an airship called the "Stratellite," which is essentially a floating 802.11 wireless hub. Unmanned Stratellites can remain in a stationary position at 65,000 feet for up to 18 months, guided by GPS coordinates. The airships use a stable mixture of helium and nitrogen for lift, and are built from rugged Kevlar fabric.

Each Stratellite can hold several thousand pounds of communications equipment, and have a potential reach of 300,000 square miles -- approximately the area of Texas. Theoretically, two Stratellites, each deployed over Boston and Washington DC, could create a wireless network serving the entire northeastern US, reaching as far west as Ohio and as far south as the Carolinas. However, the first-generation airships will likely serve single metropolitan areas.

Sanswire is planning tests of the Stratellites in early 2005, and will proceed with development based on those results. One potential problem is that, by covering such a wide area, a Stratellite creates a massive single point of failure. Without some kind of redundancy (such as deploying Stratellites in pairs), the wireless network could be vulnerable to sabotage, natural calamities, or simple system failure.

Source: ExtremeTech

Robots in the Bloodstream

Tiny robots could one day be used to deliver medications by travelling in the bloodstream. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have created a 3-mm-long robot that can move about the bloodstream via an external magnetic field. An operator could "pilot" such a robot and deliver drugs to precisely the areas of the body where they are needed.

The research team is developing even smaller robots, with a goal of creating a model that's less than a millimeter long.

Source: NewScientist

Thursday, December 16, 2004

America Left Behind?

Slate has a commentary on how the American economy is increasingly being left out of the world economy. Consider the following observations:

  • Air travelers needing to switch flights in North America are more likely to do so in Canada rather than the US, due to increased visa paperwork when touching down on American soil.
  • Foreign investors, overwhelmed by regulations imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, are avoiding US financial markets.
  • Fewer foreign college students are coming to the US for their education.
  • Brazil is poised to surpass the US in food production.
The article is quick to point out that these developments are more due to economic improvements made throughout the world than fundamental weaknesses within the US. And many of these challenge have no simple solutions. Nonetheless, the issues suggest that the US will need to look at ways to streamline processes and make itself attractive for global business, and regain its place as a lead player in the global economy. Otherwise, the US will find itself increasingly isolated, and suffer for it financially.

The Future of the Silver Screen

With Hollywood's recent initiative to silence movie-swapping services such as BitTorrent, speculation has renewed as to the future of movie theatres. This was a hot topic in the early days of television and, later, home video, which Hollywood initially saw as a threat but later embraced.

On the one hand, according to media blog Waxy.org, some people will always be willing to pay for the theatre experience. Theatres, also, have thrived by having exclusive rights to first-run films. But theatre attendance has been steadily declining, with three out of the top five chains going under by 2001. And what sets the Internet threat apart from TV and home video is its ability to deliver (or pirate) first-run material, making it a classic disruptive technology (acceptable quality + lower cost + added convenience).

The film industry needs to address this issue creatively; lawsuits may be a short-term fix but are not a permanent solution. At Waxy.org, commenters offer their solutions. Among them: enhance the theatre experience, lower ticket prices, and do what the music industry failed to do and embrace the Internet as a delivery mechanism before it's too late. Other grassroots initiatives, such as the Open Source Cinema project, could pose additional threats to Hollywood's business model.

Source: Waxy.org, unmediated

2004 was Fourth-Warmest Year on Record

Now might be the time to invest in companies making sunscreen and swimwear. This year has proven to be the fourth warmest year ever recorded, according to the World Meterological Organization, the UN's weather bureau.

This fits in with a trend of increasing warmth, with the top 10 warmest years all occurring after 1990, and the top five occurring after 1998 (which was the warmest year ever). Overall, the average global temperature was 0.8 degrees above normal.

The WMO, which monitors weather all over the world, says that the warm weather contributed to heat waves in Europe, increased typhoon activity in the Pacific, and, of course, North America's brutal hurricane season.

Source: Associated Press

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

E-Paper in 2010

Vin Crosbie believes that within five years, e-paper will not only be able to display both text and images, but will contain the trappings of today's laptops -- complete with CPUs, batteries and wireless connectivity. Publishers would be able to transmit text, video, audio and interactive advertising, in a hybrid format that contains the best of today's newspaper, TV, web and RSS media.

Although I'm intrigued by the possibilities of e-paper, I wonder how consumers are going to want to interact with it. Personally, I find traditional newspapers clumsy. Would something in book form be more appealing? Could e-paper take on the characteristics of today's Tablet PCs, allowing users to interact through longhand writing? Imagine an editorial page with a real-time discussion forum going on as you're reading it! Or, would readers prefer a more immersive environment, obtaining their news and entertainment through 3D goggles than e-paper? Might e-paper find a more appropriate home in the corporate world, where reports could be edited by workgroups and the final draft presented without having to print more copies?

Source: unmediated

Nanotech May Boost Solar Power

One of the historical drawbacks to solar energy is its expense, especially when compared with fossil fuels. But with oil prices on the rise, several technology startups are turning to nanotechnology to make solar cells more efficient and cost-effective.

Nanosolar, Nanosys and Konarka Technologies are three firms stepping up to the challenge, which is this: Electricity currently costs about 7 cents per kilowatt hour in the US, whereas solar-generated electricity costs more than six times that amount. Clearly, they have the work of making solar energy competitive with other energy forms cut out for them.

One approach is to manufacture paper-thin solar cells that are 100 times thinner than anything currently available. Using titanium oxide nanocrystals, solar cells could be formed into all sorts of shapes, and molded onto almost any object. Translucent cells could even be placed between windowpanes in skyscrapers and cars.

These kinds of products could enter the market in as little as two years.

Source: WorldChanging

Online Holiday Shopping Up 24% Over 2003

According to a report from Hitwise, US visits to shopping-related websites accounted for nearly 10% of all Internet traffic for the week ending Dec. 11 -- a 24% increase over the level of traffic during the same period last year.

Interest in classified-advertising sites surged a whopping 134% in the past year, followed by automotive and auction sites. Specific sites, such as Shopping.com, Dell.com and Walmart.com, have received substantially more traffic this year than at this time last season.

Click for larger image

The chart above shows a remarkably consistent traffic pattern between mid-November and mid-December for both 2003 and 2004, though the rate is consistently higher for 2004. Note the spike in traffic over Thanksgiving (which was later in the month in 2003 than in 2004).

One thing the Hitwise survey doesn't discuss, however, are sales figures. If they are consistent with web traffic and are significantly higher than last year, it will simply reinforce the impact that online retailing is having on holiday shopping, and on the economy at large.

Source: ClickZ

Me-TV: Feedreader for Videocasts

Me-TV, a videoblogging answer to Bloglines and Feedster, has launched in alpha mode. Users can subscribe to videocasts and watch the videos in the site's "vogbrowser."

Source: unmediated

New Asimo Robot Can Run, Shake Hands

Honda recently unveiled the latest version of its Asimo humanoid robot, which is now capable of running at 3 KPH, recognizing and avoiding obstacles, and shaking hands with people whom it meets.

Among the robot's new features are more sophisticated joints, improved traction, and shock absorption.

All things considered, Asimo doesn't do very much in the way of useful tasks. But Honda's work in this field is expanding the state of the art, and will give other robotics designers tools to build upon.

Sources: Mainchi Daily News

MSIE Market Share Slips Below 90%

The success of the Firefox 1.0 browser, released last month, is taking a toll on the market dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Long considered the industry standard browser, IE has come under fire for its security flaws, so much so that several major institutions have abandoned it altogether, and many IT security professionals advise against using it.

Meanwhile, Firefox marked its 10 millionth download last Sunday, and presently has a market share of about 4 percent. This, combined with the popularity of other browsers such as Opera, have pushed IE's market share below 90% for the first time in years, according to the Dutch-based Internet metrics firm OneStat.com. Though other metrics firms continue to rank IE much higher, OneStat gave IE an 88.9% market share in late November.

Clearly, even an 88.9% market share is dominant. But 2004 may be remembered as the year that IE suffered a critical loss of consumer confidence. What Microsoft does to remedy the situation will determine its position and influence in home and corporate computing for years to come.

Source: ZDNet

".mobi" Domain Approved for Mobile Devices

ICANN, the governing body that regulates Internet domains, has approved the ".mobi" domain for content created for cell phones and other mobile devices. Nokia, Microsoft and T-Mobile were the driving forces behind this domain.

Content in the .mobi domain will be tailored for mobile devices, taking into consideration small screens and limited data capacity.

ICANN also approved the ".jobs" domain for use in human resources.

Sources: Smart Mobs, MSNBC.com

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Holiday Movies for the Harried

A beloved part of Christmas is gathering 'round the TV with a big bowl of popcorn, settling in to watch a classic holiday movie. But if you don't have time for that this year, check out Angry Alien's 30-second Flash rendition of It's a Wonderful Life, performed by animated bunnies. And for those of you wrapping up your Hanukkah celebrations, check this out.

Source: Greedy Girl

This Season's Weirdest Gadget???

Still struggling to find the perfect present for the man or woman who has everything? Then check out the USB-powered eye massager. Marketed by a company in China, it supposedly relieves eye strain through vibration.

Seems like a 20-minute nap in a dark room would do just as well. It's free, and no USB port is required...

Source: I4U News

Technology as Tyrant

It's an article of faith in information technology that becoming increasingly wired will liberate us from the drudgery of the workplace. For some of us, that's come to pass. But for many others -- especially those farther down on the corporate totem pole -- technology is becoming a new "ball and chain" that dehumanizes employees and increases stress.

Technology has already allowed management to become further detached from unskilled workers and, rather than create new "flat" organizational structures, has reinforced traditional top-down hierarchies. James Hoopes, a professor of business ethics at Babson College, points out that in many organizations, particularly in sales and retail, some workers are effectively managed by computer. RFID tags will only increase this level of control of workers, as management will be able to thoroughly track employees' whereabouts at all times.

Hoopes suggests that businesses need to develop new ways of emowering employees, such as setting up "whistleblower" hotlines through which employees could complain and report abuses. He also notes that "e-tyranny" may lead to a rejuvenation of the labor movement in America, as well as a less business-friendly atmosphere in Washington. This kind of backlash may be nudged along by the labor shortage and struggle for employee retention that many HR consultants predict within the next few years.

Source: CIO.com

Hollywood Declares War on File Sharing

It was inevitable. Now that video file-sharing systems have begun entering the mainstream, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has borrowed a page from the RIAA playbook and filed lawsuits against operators of "indexing servers" that help users download files from BitTorrent, eDonkey and other file sharing systems. In addition, the MPAA is planning to sue ISPs for their role in file sharing.

This illustrates yet another chapter in the continuing cat-and-mouse game between entertainment consumers and those wishing to enforce copyrights. As technology improves, though, the ability of groups such as MPAA and RIAA to keep up with file swappers will get increasingly tenuous.

Source: Wired

Low-Carb Dieting on the Decline

For months there have been signs that the Atkins-inspited low-carb dieting craze has been waning. Now there's more evidence that dieters are finding the "low-carb lifestyle" onerous and are giving it up.

According to one estimate, as many as a third of Americans who have been on low-carb diets have quit for good. Many of these dieters, though, have come away with a better appreciation of nutrition and healthier eating habits (so don't rush out and buy stock in Krispy Kreme just yet). The real losers have been the food manufacturers who invested heavily in low-carb products -- products that are now gathering dust on store shelves.

Of course, the more important question now is, what will the next diet craze be?

Source: MSNBC.com


Just when you had gotten up to speed with podcasting, along comes podcasting with video. Services like Vogbrowser and FeedsterTV are offering RSS feeds for video.

One thing holding videocasting back is the lack of user-friendly tools for sending digital files to TV. Indeed, converting video to digital format is still a challenge, but video tools are making this progressively more easy. Plus, there's the bandwidth issue; if you're on dialup, videocasting is out of the question. But as tools become easier to use, services become more plentiful and bandwidth increases, videocasting could become a new outlet for creative videographers. Or, it may just become another way to swap porn and pirated movies...

Sources: Wired, Emerging Technologies

Monday, December 13, 2004

"Chips Everywhere" by 2020

No, we're not talking about the potato variety... British Telecom futurist Ian Pearson predicts that pervasive computing environments will be a reality within 15 years, with computing chips embedded everywhere... including the human body. Not only will the devices around us will be self-aware and aware of us, but our clothes and personal accessories will be "smart" as well (such as intelligent contact lenses that project information in front of us). Much of our personal technology will be powered by our own body heat, helping to create "body area networks" that accompany us everywhere, all the time, and continually interact with the high-tech world around us.

Not yet known are the privacy implications for being so thoroughly networked, and the impact that such networking will have on the human body, both physically and emotionally.

Sources: Smart Mobs, BBC.com, Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

More Cool High-Tech Gadgets

Still looking for unique, high-tech gifts for that special geek in your life? PhysOrg has a "cool gadget collection" that includes, among other things:

  • A manual cell phone charger that operates by hand crank.
  • A "MemoryFrame" that connects to a computer's USB port and displays digital photos like a monitor.
  • A lamp that can be adjusted to any height.
  • A virtually indestructible keyboard.
  • A voice-activated remote control.

Global Warming Could Cause Disastrous Climate Shutdown

Global warming could shut down a major Atlantic Ocean circulation pattern that could spell disaster for the world's climate, say scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The thermohaline circulation transports warm water to the North Atlantic and vice versa, helping to keep global climate in balance. If this circulation is disrupted or shut down, warm water could stop flowing northward, leading to cooling of the northern hemisphere.

Natural thermohaline shutdowns have occurred in the distant past, usually corresponding with dramatically cooler temperatures and ice ages worldwide. Global warming could disrupt the thermohaline by melting glaciers, introducing more fresh water into the oceans and throwing off the salinity balance of ocean waters.

What exactly affects the thermohaline circulation is not clear, and scientists do not know if global warming would necessarily be a factor. But if the thermohaline were to change, the impact on the world's climate would be catastrophic.

Source: PhysOrg

Impact of Popular High-Tech Toys

Surprise! High-tech toys and gadgets are the hot item this holiday season. Video games such as the red-hot Halo 2, the Robosapien robot, portable DVD players and iPods seem to be at the top of everyone's lists.

In the midst of this, retailers are starting to notice some interesting and significant trends:

  • The boom in high-tech is coming at the expense of more traditional toy manufacturers such as Mattel and Hasbro. Sales of traditional toys continue to decline year after year.
  • Toys aren't just for kids anymore. One market research survey found that 52% of the adults surveyed wanted toys or toy-like items as gifts.
  • High-tech toys are being developed for increasingly younger children. One item for 6-month-olds is a plush-toy cell phone.
  • The high prices of high-tech toys are putting the squeeze on less affluent families. However, parents appear willing to spend money on toys that foster learning, regardless of cost. Additionally...
  • As they spend more money on toys, parents are becoming increasingly price-sensitive and area aggressively seeking out the best bargains. Hence the growth in toy sales among the "big box" and online retailers, and the decline of premium toy merchants such as FAO Schwartz and Zainy Brainy.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Textually.org

A Renaissance for Older Cities?

Older industrial US cities could benefit from a combination of urban renewal efforts, growing interest in city living, and growth restrictions in suburban and rural areas.

According to Joseph Seneca of Rutgers University, older cities such as Newark, Hoboken and Jersey City in New Jersey, as well as the state's heavily urbanized Hudson County, are enjoying a rebirth as businesses seek new office space. Meanwhile, the amenities and convenience of city life are appealing to "empty nester" Baby Boomers and their twentysomething children. Finally, "green space" initiatives in the suburbs and rural areas are curbing growth opportunities there, whereas cities are working hard to encourage new development.

Cities in northern New Jersey have the singular advantage of being so close to New York City. Whether this trend will apply to older cities elsewhere remains to be seen. A true test would be Camden in southern New Jersey, recently declared to be the most dangerous city in America.

Source: The Times of Trenton

What Mobile Usage Patterns Can Tell Us

Moblie marketing guru Tomi Ahonen argues that mobile providers are sitting on a wealth of data about their customers that can not only help them market their services more effectively, but can reveal lots about how mobile users behave.

Ahonen says that the following events are significant, as they can indicate social and demographic movement:

  • Abruptly adopting a new service, such as text messaging. This can indicate a major lifestyle change, such as a marital breakup.
  • Users who receive a lot of traffic (phone calls and messages) versus those who send a lot of traffic.
  • The emergence of "alpha users," who teach and informally support other users.
  • The reasons behind second subscriptions.

Source: TheFeature

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Oxyride Batteries to Arrive in US Within Six Months

Looking forward to getting cool gadgets for Christmas, yet worried about all the juice they'll require? If so, oxyride batteries may be for you.

The advanced battery developed by Japan's Matsushita Electric will debut in the US and Europe in April 2005. The oxyride battery (named for its use of oxy nickel hydroxide) can deliver 1.5 times the power and nearly twice the life of a standard alkaline battery because its electricity-producing matter is more concentrated. AA and AAA sizes will cost roughly $1 apiece in the US.

Friday, December 10, 2004

I Want My Mobile TV!

MTV might mean something very different for tomorrow's generation -- mobile TV. BusinessWeek reports that the market for television programming develivered over cell phones and other mobile devices could explode from just a few hundred thousand today to million a few years from now. Revenues are projected to reach as high as $2 billion by 2008.

Mobile TV, combined with digital video recording technology, could allow viewers to record and view their favorite programs anytime, anyplace. TiVo is already rolling out software allowing its subscribers to view recorded programs on their networked laptops.

Mobile TV has numerous applications besides entertainment and news delivery. In the business and academic worlds, it could be used in conjunction with e-learning and teleconference systems. And, as with all mobile technology, it can bring information to isolated populations.

Merry C_____mas!

The unfortunate trend of US school districts having fits of political correctness and banning all references to the Christmas holiday (while in some cases permitting other religious references) is alive and well. The TongueTied blog collects news stories related to these misguided efforts on the part of educators and municipalities. You don't have to be a conservative to appreciate the sheer weirdness of some of these stories. Some are quite comical, while others are simply pathetic. But all illustrate that we have a ways to go toward understanding what it means to live in a diverse society.

Artificial Christmas Trees Making a Comeback

Artificial Christmas trees are gaining popularity over live trees, as the newer designs look better and are easier to set up that older models, especially those that are pre-lit. Artificual trees are also safer and less messy than their all-natural cousins. Plus, they're a one-time investment that can last for many years. My pre-lit artificial tree, for instance, is a six-footer that I set up in about 15 minutes. No fuss, no muss, no strings of lights to untangle...

Those who prefer live trees seem to be favoring "choose and cut" tree farms over roadside lots. Even so, market share for live trees has fallen from 35.4 million trees sold in 1990 to 23.4 million in 2003. Conversely, sales of artificial trees have increased steadily.

A related trend is the growing interest in Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees that were popular during the 1950s and '60s. Once considered the height of tackiness, vintage aluminum tress are now highly sought after by nostalgia buffs and young hipsters with an eye toward the ironic. Interest in aluminum trees is so great that an aluminum tree museum has been established in Brevard, North Carolina.

A recent search on eBay revealed that vintage aluminum trees -- once relegated to flea markets and yard sales -- are selling for as high as $300 each. And if interest continues to grow, that price might prove to be a bargain next Christmas!

Sources: MaineToday.com, NPR (audio)

"Downshifting" vs. Retirement

The disappearance of employer pensions, combined with an aging population, are leading both workers and employers to consider alternatives to traditional retirement. One option being explored by employers is "downshifting" -- the ability of an older worker to reduce working hours and workloads while remaining on the job.

A downshifting worker could, for instance, work only half-days or a few days a week; a work schedule could be tailored to a worker's individual needs, provided it's in line with the employer's business requirements. Downshifting has a number of advantages for both workers and employers, and offers a compromise between continued full-time employment and retirement.

Sources: University of Kent, World Future Society

Mobile Phone Users Double Since 2000

Nearly 1.5 billion people worldwide use mobile phones, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Mobile phone subscriptions have doubled since 2000, with China, India and Russia leading the surge.

By contrast, land line subscriptions have remained flat or have declined since 2001, largely because of lower international telecommunication rates. Currently, mobile phone users outnumber users of land lines.

Adriana de Souza e Silva, whose thinking on mobile technology we've discussed here before, suggests that mobile phones, when coupled with SMS and other interactive utilities, are becoming the "new media" that's changing the way we perceive space and place. If that is true, the sheer number of mobile phone users will accellerate the pace of that change.

Sources: Reuters, trAce, Clippings.reblog

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Students Abadon Libraries for the Web

Fewer grade-school and college students are relying on libraries for their research projects, instead getting their information online... causing teachers and librarians to worry about the quality of the information they're getting.

CNN.com features this telling anecdote:

Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman tried to force students to leave their computers by requiring at least one book for a September class project.

She wasn't prepared for the response: "Someone raised their hand and asked, "Excuse me, where would I get a book?"'

Bear in mind this occurred at one of our nation's elite technical universities...

Educators worry that while students are Internet-savvy, many have not developed the skills to distinguish quality information online from hoaxes and sources that are deliberately misleading. A case in point is a photo of a supposed "home computer of the future" that was reported to have been published in the 1950s:

The photo and related story were later revealed to be a joke, yet they were widely circulated on the Net as fact. Another false story recently circulated -- and that was picked up by liberal blogs and even some mainstream news media -- stated that President Bush had been arrested on war crimes charges while in Canada, complete with (obviously Photoshopped) pictures.

Educators also worry that the growing use of the Web for research may lead to sloppy research practices, such as ignoring multiple sources in favor what simply shows up first in a search engine. Many of those search results, moreover, are sponsored, further biasing the information students receive.

This kind of academic sloppiness falls in line with what Internet critics such as Clifford Stoll predicted over a decade ago. However, the Internet is not going away; in fact, the movement online is only growing as the first generation to grow up with the Web enters college.

To that end, everybody has some responsibilities here. Educators need to teach essential Internet research and information evaluation skills alongside stronger library skills, and point out where libraries can offer services that the Net cannot. Students need to have the research bar raised, with requirements for multiple, non-Web sources when doing research. At the college level especially, there is no excuse for research shortcuts.

Finally, producers of online information have a special responsibility to be as accurate as possible, and to carefully evaluate their sources. Surely there will be social and political biases, but those exist in the print world as well.

Sources: CNN.com, Snopes.com

Home Invasions: US vs. UK

In which country is it more dangerous to be in your home, the US or Great Britain? If you said Great Britain, you're right... if you're talking about home-invasion robberies.

Violent home invasions have become a serious problem in the UK, fueled in part by laws against gun ownership and violence in self-defense. British law holds that a person who kills an intruder in their home can be charged with murder; a self-defense argument does exist, but the threshold is very high.

In the US, by contrast, burglars who commit home invasion statistically have just as great a chance of getting shot as they do going to jail -- a significant deterrent even when homeowners don't own guns. If you're a burglar intent on committing a home invasion, you don't know if the homeowner has a gun and an itchy trigger finger... and you probably don't want to find out the hard way.

As a result, a movement is afoot in Great Britain to strengthen homeowners' rights to self-defense. Efforts to loosen restrictions on gun ownership, however, may still be a ways off.

How Britain resolves this issue will be of interest to other parts of the world, especially where crime rates are high. It should also be watched in the US, where we agonize over the consequences of our Second Amendment rights. Certainly, if Britain makes changes and home invasions decline, gun-rights advocates in the US will be able to show that gun ownership has benefits, even for those who choose not to own a firearm.

Source: GlennReynolds.com

Life Expectancy May Decline By 2010

A bulwark of futurist thinking is the belief that life expectancy will steadily increase in the future. However, new research is calling that assumption into question.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as many as 40 countries will experience reductions in life expectancy from 1990 levels by 2010. Persistent diseases for which treatments are either extremely expensive or nonexistent -- such as AIDS -- are the primary culprits.

Sources: American Enterprise Institute, World Future Society

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Pop-Up Shops a Hot Retail Trend

Ever notice those stores that appear in shopping strips overnight, then vanish only a month or two later? That's not due to bad business planning -- it's completely by design. Pop-up stores are the newest thing in retailing, allowing marketers to generate buzz for their products on the cheap.

Many of the most common pop-ups are for seasonal items, such as Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations, where keeping a store open year-round wouldn't make sense. However, other retailers are finding that temporary storefronts have their advantages. In some cases, retailers can generate enormous word-of-mouth interest by opening a storefront in a very high profile location (midtown Manhattan, for instance), and only staying open for a couple of weeks. Hence, sales are high while rent is kept in check.

Leading the movement is "urban apparel" retailer Vacant, which has opened highly successful pop-up stores in London, Miami and Chicago. Vacant caters to a trendy crowd by carrying limited edition, hard-to-find items. Vacant devotees exchange news of new store openings via newsletter and word of mouth.

Source: Business 2.0

"Mental Illnesses" as Survival Skills

Increasingly, anthropologists and psychologists believe that traits that today are considered mental disorders were in fact critical survival skills for our prehistoric ancestors. Through natural selection, they were passed down to us, yet they now conflict with our modern world.

Researchers at the Univeristy of Minnesota have shown that impulsive behavior, such as that shown by those with attention deficit disorder (ADD), gives animals a competitive edge. Delaying gratification is a sign of maturity in our culture, but in the wild, one cannot afford to wait for better opportunities. Plus, easily-distracted animals may be more aware of their surroundings and be better able to evade imminent danger. Such traits would have served our early ancestors well, yet they cause problems in our more structured world.

Similarly, behaviorist Nancy Etcoff has suggested that symptoms of depression may have aided our ancestors by allowing them to conserve resources and even show signs of submission to superiors. Anxiety and what are now considered panic disorders may assist in a "flight or fight" response when faced with a threat. University of Michigan psychiatrist Randolph Neese calls this the "smoke detector principle": it's better to send out a false alarm than to fail to detect a fire.

Source: FuturePundit

Dude, What's Up With the Word "Dude"?

A linguist from the University of Pittsburgh claims that use of the word "dude" in modern language reflects deeper meanings in social interactions that being a mere salutation.

Scott Kiesling believes that use of the word among men is a symbol of what he calls "cool solidarity":

Cool solidarity is especially important to young men who are under social pressure to be close with other young men, but not enough to be suspected as gay.

"It's like man or buddy, there is often this male-male addressed term that says, 'I'm your friend but not much more than your friend,'" said Kiesling, whose research focuses on language and masculinity...

He found the word taps into nonconformity and a new American image of leisurely success.

Kiesling studied tapes of college students going back to 1993 to develop his "dudist" theories. Among the "rules" for applying the word he found were its use between genders (girls sometimes use it amongst themselves; guys can call girls "dude" if they are good friends but not romantic) and within social hiearachies (authority figures such as parents, bosses and teachers are not "dudes").

Kiesling says that "dude" has been around since the 1800s, but caught on in its present form after the release of the popular 1981 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which influenced a generation of "slackers." And although that generation has grown up and are now parents themselves, they never fully left behind those roots.

Technologies to Watch in 2005

The Consumer Electronics Association has issued a report on the top five technologies to watch in 2005. Their top picks include:

  • Media servers for managing digital music and movies, coupled with home networks
  • Portable entertainment devices, and continued growth in popularity of MP3s and digital music downloading.
  • "Smart" networked home appliances.
  • Gaming, particularly the growth of wireless multiplayer games.
  • Telematics for networking vehicles and other mobile devices.

The report is a must-read for anyone following consumer electronic trends.

Source: World Future Society

Technology: Chicken or Egg?

The Red Herring blog has a provocative series of essays exploring whether technology drives progress, or vice versa. The essays' argument is that "technological determinism" -- the belief that technology alone determines our destiny -- is false. Cultures have strong influence over the technologies they create, and communities apply the technologies that make sense to them. This, indeed, is part of the classic definition of disruptive technology: for a technology to disrupt, it must perform a task as well or better than existing technologies at a reasonable cost. Technology for technonogy's sake disrupts nothing.

Tracking the trajectory of new technologies is one of the most vexing tasks of anyone concerned with technology or futurism. The Red Herring essays defend their argument by noting that the best technology doesn't always win in the marketplace (Apple vs. IBM, Beta vs. VHS). So how can one predict what path technology will take? What will be a hit, and what will flop?

The one case where the theory of technological determinism makes most sense is when a technology is so revolutionary that it enables users in ways that they never considered before. Thomas Edison's phonograph, for instance, was a wholly original creation, not an improvement on an existing concept, as was his light bulb. When phonographs were first demonstrated, they were seen as so radical that observers thought they were instruments of the devil. Even so, market forces drove the phonograph's development; it never occurred to Edison to sell music recordings (he envisioned it as a business dictation tool), yet that proved to be the phonograph's most lucrative purpose.

In the end, the success or failure of a new technology is determined by a host of cultural, economic and regulatory factors, the combination of each of which is unique. The Internet, for instance, existed for nearly 30 years before the dotcom boom of the 1990s. Yet it didn't enter the popular consciousness until public access to it was allowed in the early '90s. That, combined with the rise of easy-to-use computers, the World Wide Web protocols, graphical web browsers, and the ability of computer users to dial into networks via modem created a "perfect storm" that led to the technology's explosive growth. So many variables are what make the futurist's job so difficult... as well as so fascinating.