FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, January 31, 2005

Students Think First Amendment Rights Go "Too Far"

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That's the text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution -- a guiding principle of our nation that men and women have fought for for over 200 years. Yet when asked about it in a recent survey, more than one in three high school students believed the First Amendment goes "too far" in protecting individual freedoms.

The survey revealed other alarming attitudes among high schoolers. For instance, half the students felt that the government should approve news stories prior to their release, and 17% believed that people should not be allowed to express unpopular views.

The majority of the students also displayed a poor understanding of what is protected under the Bill of Rights. For instance, most did not realize that controversial forms of protest such as flag burning were legal.

The survey suggests that students are simply not informed about the Constitution, and that schools are doing a poor job in teaching civics and motivating students to take an interest in government. However, a follow-up study would be useful to gain a deeper understanding of exactly why high school students hold these beliefs. Are they simply ill-informed? Or are they actually more reactionary than the older generation? Are these beliefs held across the board, or do they represent a specific subset of students? If students were to learn more about politics, government and American history, would that change the way they feel about the First Amendment?

Source: CNN.com

Blogging the Iraqi Elections

A blog called Friends of Democracy has been chronicling the progress of the Iraqi elections from a street-level, Iraqi perspective. The blog includes both photo and audio feeds. The project is financed by Spirit of America, a group that supports American military and civilian personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other blogs covering the situation in Iraq from an insider's perspective include Baghdad Burning and Baghdad Dweller. Of course, all the liberal and conservative political blogs are having their say on the results of the Iraqi elections as well. The CyberJournalist blog has a comprehensive list of other blogs covering the elections and other events in Iraq.

Source: Michelle Malkin

Computers are Lousy Readers

The process of watching a child learn how to read is nothing short of fascinating. The moment when a child "gets it" and can not only recognize letters and words, but understand what he or she is reading, is a testament to the power of the human mind.

Understanding the context of the written word, however, has so far eluded even the most powerful computers. Indeed, we're all familiar with OCR programs that scan a printed page and spew out gibberish. Now, the Pentagon is taking on the challenge of developing literate computers.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- the good folks who brought you, among other things, the Internet -- has contracted with scientists to develop a computer system that can learn by understanding natural language, the way people do, as well as interpret nuance. The idea is to develop computers that can be taken into the battlefield and adapt to constantly changing, chaotic surroundings. A truly literate computer could be given an open-ended instruction, such as "go scout out that area over there," and be able to execute it.

Source: AP (Excite)

Mink, LA, Gets Phone Service

Annoyed that you can't get DSL service in your area? Be glad you haven't lived in Mink, Louisiana, all these years. The rural town has just gotten telephone service -- that's plain old telephone service -- after campaigning for it since 1970. BellSouth Corp. recently wired the isolated hamlet at a cost of $700,000, or $47,000 per phone (a cost that will be subsidized by other Louisiana phone customers). And you thought the new Motorola Razr cell phones were pricey!

The state has set up a commission to look into ensuring that all its residents have phone service of some kind, simply as a public safety measure. Another unwired rural town, Shaw, got a cell phone tower recently after a resident had a heart attack and died before an EMT crew could be contacted.

As we ponder the 21st century, it's instructive to realize that many of our citizens -- even here in the US -- are barely in the 19th or 20th centuries when it comes to some technologies. Understanding that will help us to better apply technology in a meaningful way.

Source: CNN.com

Friday, January 28, 2005

How Wikis Could Change Business Communications

Public relations expert Steve Rubel blogs on how wikis have the potential to revolutionize the PR industry by providing a new tool for creating media directories. For those not familiar with the industry, media directories are used by advertising and PR agencies to locate media outlets such as newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations so they can purchase ad space/time or pitch stories. Directories are also extremely expensive, and must be updated frequently as personnel change and outlets come and go. As an example, Rubel cites TheNewPR Wiki, which aggregates business blogs and other PR resources.

Wikis are collaborative knowledge environments in which items can be freely added and edited. Perhaps the best-known wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit and contribue to. Aside from the open-editing capability, wikis are in one respect a throwback to the early days of the Web, when the emphasis was on hyperlinking of content.

Terry Heaton says this about wikis:

Wikis are a much bigger deal than most people realize. They are yet another visible sign of Postmodernism in our culture — a rejection of the idea that knowledge should be controlled for profit. Wikis are anarchical, and that terrifies command and control, top-down thinkers (Modernists). Wikis are a very efficient method of building massive databases of searchable and organized information. It confounds Modernists that they actually work.

Wikis can certainly be used by any enterprise that needs to share and manage information... which is to say, any enterprise. If widely-used and reliable wikis emerge for media and other business directories, however, they will "bubble up" from below, developed by smart people for the benefit of other smart people. Don't expect the existing players in the directory industry to jump on this... although somebody could surprise us.

There's a parallel between wikis (which are human-friendly) and XML-based web services (which are machine-friendly) that can connect disparate systems from across business lines to create industry consortia. However, wikis may have the jump on web services, as they are easy and cheap to set up, can be created and managed with little IT overhead, and can be edited on the fly by anyone with the appropriate access.

Sources: Micro Persuasion, POMO Blog

How Will Amish File Taxes Electronically?

When the state of Pennsylvania mandated that all businesses file their taxes electronically starting this February, no one apparently took into account the Amish, who shun electronics and most other modern conveneinces. Anna Fisher, an Amish woman who works at a furniture and craft store in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, says, "It's against our church rules to use electricity and computers. It was so simple doing it by paper. We try and keep our (business) as simple as we can."

The state says it is working with Amish business people to come up with alternatives.

Source: PittsburghLive.com, Drudge Report

Micropayments: Big Money in Small Change

Gartner is predicting that online micropayments -- transactions ranging from $1 to $5 -- will become a driving force in e-commerce over the next decade. In fact, Gartner predicts that micropaypents will become a $60 billion market by 2015.

Lower transaction costs, combined with a demand for a la carte purchases of inexpensive digital items like music and ringtones, are driving the micropayment market. Also driving the trend are young people, who want to buy relatively inexpensive items online. Many types of subscription services could be sold "by the slice" via micropayments, making them more appealing to those who want to make occasional purchases with the committment or expense of a long-term subscription.

Micropayments are not new to e-commerce. What has been missing in the past is an infrastructure that would allow users to place money into accounts if they coundn't or didn't want to use traditional credit cards. Once such an account system is established with the universal acceptance and trustworthiness of, say, Visa or Mastercard, micropayments could truly take off.

Source: Forbes

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Digital Back-Channel

In his article about how the Internet "back channel" is empowering new constituencies and changing business, technologist Kevin Werbach makes an interesting comparison between the eruption of Krakatoa over a century ago and the tsunami that struck south Asia in December:

In 1883, a volcanic eruption produced a devastating tsunami that killed tens of thousands. As Simon Winchester details in his fine book, Krakatoa, the new technology of the telegraph allowed people around the world to learn of the disaster immediately, magnifying its historical significance.

Fast-forward 121 years. The recent Asian tsunami, also caused by seismic event near Indonesia, highlighted a similar revolution: The ability not only to receive information, but to respond in real time. In the two weeks following the disaster, nearly 200,000 customers of Amazon.com (AMZN) contributed $15 million to the American Red Cross relief fund through a link on the site's home page. Other leading Web sites had similar efforts. That couldn't have happened just a few years ago.

Source: MSNBC

End of the Broadcast Paradigm?

TV networks' fear of the FCC decency crackdown has reached such heights that Fox is now blurring out "naughty bits" on its Family Guy cartoon. With the recently-announced resignation of FCC chairman Michael Powell, there's no guarantee that the crackdown will let up -- indeed, an even more conservative chairman could take the helm.

Some folks welcome the crackdown on nudity, violence and offensive language, while others see it as a suppression of free speech. The arguing is sure to only get louder, and the only thing we'll be able to agree on is to disagree.

The problem, however, is not with the FCC, or with conservatives or liberals. The problem is the paradigm of broadcasting, which is contradictory in terms of viewers' rights. The "public airwaves" are treated as common space, and people have the right to not be exposed to things in public that would offend them. But at the same time, we informally hold that adults have the right to view most any type of material.

The threshold of applying standards is choice. Because one must make a conscious decision (and work a little harder) to read a book, go see a movie, listen to satellite radio or visit a website, those media are held to a much less rigorous decency standard than broadcast TV or radio. The choice factor also makes it easier to keep these materials away from children or others who don't wish to see them.

So is the solution to eliminate the broadcast paradigm altogether? If we must make a conscious choice to access any kind of information, would that end the need for a body like the FCC to apply arbitrary decency standards? If programming systems like On Demand make television an a la carte medium, and other video is delivered through broadband Internet, would this satisfy those who wish to see adult-oriented materials and those who don't?

The Death of Social Space

IPods are way cool, of course. But an unintended consequence of everyone (everyone young, that is) listening to one on personal headsets is that our sense of public space is changing, and not necessarily for the better.

Author John Naughton writes in the Guardian that personal music players, cell phones and the like are "coccooning" people so that they no longer interact when out in public. He writes:

The proportion of young people who never venture out in public without first putting on headphones is astonishing. And yet one rarely sees anyone over 40 similarly equipped. This will change with the maturing of generations who have grown up with headphones welded to their ears. And as a result, our concept of social space will change. Imagine the future: a crowded urban street, filled not with people interacting with one another, but with atomised individuals cocooned in their personalised sound-bubbles, moving from one retail opportunity to another. The only sounds are the shuffling of feet and the rock muzak blaring from the doorways of specialised leisurewear chains.

He compares this self-absorption with films shot in the early 20th century that show people conversing, being aware of their surroundings and considerate of other people.

Naughton's conclusion: personal technology changes behavior on a very personal level, making it easy to isolate one's self even when out in a crowd. Technology like iPods and cell phones are simply the latest entrants into a trend that began with the automobile and the suburb, which remove people from urban spaces and isolated them on a very physical level.

Socioligist argue that this has already affected the fundamental ways in which we relate to one another. For instance, we teach out children (correctly, sad to say) not to talk to strangers, that unfamiliar people are to be feared. This lesson carries over into adulthood. So why risk talking to anyone when you can listen to your iPod?

The loss of social space will continue to have profound consequences for the way our urban (and even suburban) spaces function, and the richness that we derive from the vibrancy that they used to generate. However, there's evidence that some are fighting back, especially against obnoxious cell phone talkers.

Source: Wired, Clippings.reblog

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Climate Study Finds Earth Warming Faster Than Previously Thought

A climate research study run out of Oxford University in the UK has found that the Earth's climate is warming much faster and more drastically than previously believed, and that the planet's average temperature could increase anywhere from 2 to 11 degrees Celsius (36 to 52 degress F) over the next century.

"I think these results suggest that our need to do something about climate change is perhaps even more urgent," David Stainforth, the chief scientist in the study, says. "However, with our current state of knowledge, we can't yet define a safe level [of carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere."

Results from the study indicate that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 400 ppm would be considered "dangerous," though there's no consensus on what "dangerous" really means. The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 378 ppm, and rising at a rate of 2 ppm per year. By that reckoning, the Earth will reach that "dangerous" level in 11 years, assuming the increases remain steady.

ClimatePrediction.net uses a distributed comptuing model similar to that of SETI, where volunteers can add their PCs to the grid for running climate simulations. The network includes 95,000 computers from over 150 countries.

Sources: BBC, Slashdot

TV Advertisers to Deploy New Digital Tracking System

Advertisers who produce TV commercial in the US will soon begin using a new digital tracking system that will allow for more precise tracking of ads. Eventually, the system could be used to deliver custom-designed advertising to particular households.

Called Ad-ID, the system will use a 12-character code to identify each TV advertisement, and will serve as a central repository for all TV ads that can be monitored and controlled through intranets. The top four US TV networks (NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox) will comply with Ad-ID.

In the short term, the system is expect to cut costs and reduce the chances of ads being aired in the wrong slots. But eventually, advertisers hope to leverage Ad-ID to target ads to precise demographics. For instance, families with small children might see more ads for diapers and toys, whereas high-income households could see more ads for upscale products and services.

TV networks would have to develop the infrastructure to deliver such advertising, but the demographic data already exists through regionally segmented databases such as Claritas. Just for fun, look up your own ZIP Code in the Claritas PRIZM database to see the economic, social and lifestyle segments of people who live in your area.

Sources: USA Today, Future Now

Net Insecurities Hampering E-Commerce

A while back we commented on Internet users who were severely curtailing, and even halting, their Net usage due to worries about viruses, sypware and phishing scams. Now there's additional evidence that security issues are having a negative impact on e-commerce and other Internet business.

A Forrester Research survey found that 26% of banking customers surveyed would prefer to do their banking in person or via phone than online because of worries about phishing, and 19% don't trust the Internet enough to enroll in online banking programs. Similarly, a Harris Interactive poll found that e-commerce grew by only 1% in 2004, versus nearly 20% in 2003.

Needless to say, these are critical concerns for anyone whose business depends on the Internet. It's also conceivable that these concerns will move from the consumer to the enterprise sector, where response to security threats could well determine the future of e-commerce.

Source: CSO

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The "Chipped" IT Executive

John Halamka, MD, chief information officer at Boston's CareGroup Healthcare System, is pioneering the use of implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in a unique way. He's volunteered to have one implanted into his body.

The VeriChip, made by Applied Digital, is the size of a rice grain and contains a 16-digit number that can be captured by a reader and linked to data about the owner -- in this case, the person's medical records. The VeriChip, typically implanted between the shoulder blades, was approved for use by the FDA in October 2004.

Dr. Halamka joins about 40 other people in the US with implanted VeriChips. He will report on the results of his testing in February.

Source: Health Data Management

Your Next Phone Might Not Be a "Phone"

Technologist Russell Beattie ponders the role of mobile phones, and wonders why, with all their features and computing power, we only use them when we ourselves are "mobile"...

Mobile phones still need that killer app which takes out the need for context. They need to get to the point where they are less devices that you use while out and about, and considered more destinations in their own right. In other words, the current crop of apps are mostly created with that "mobile context" in mind. So you could say I haven't looked at my phone lately because I haven't been moving much. This is wrong. It's limiting a platform which can potentially do anything that a small computer with broadband access can do. The person who comes up with the app that compels a person to use their phone without considering the fact that it's a phone is going to have a killer app on their hand. One could argue the opposite, that mobile phone apps *should* only be used in the mobile context, but I think that's too narrow minded. [Emphasis added]

In other words, you're no longer talking about a phone, but something else entirely. Something that's not just a conglomeration of functions, but a device that can provide seamless, effortless communication whether it be text, sound, video or still images. To that end, the device that Russell Beattie envisions hasn't been invented yet, and may not for some time. Even if it were to be developed tomorrow, it would present such a radical communications paradigm that the general public would need time to warm up to it, more time to master it... and even more time to learn how to use it productively.

Source: EMERGIC.org

XML That Smells

A Spanish university researcher claims to have developed an XML language that can transmit smells. The code (dubbed "XML Smell") would command a "smell palate" on a PC, mobile phone or other device to emit a specific odor at a given time.

At first blush, the idea sounds ridiculous. One might even smell a rat (rimshot, please!) We can only imagine what some smart-alecky 10-year-olds would do with this on their blogs and websites, after all. But the concept of transmitting smells electronically has practical applications. Devices are in the works that would, for example, detect gas leaks and other toxic odors, measure air pollution, or help prevent social embarassment by warning the owner of bad breath and other offensive body odor.

Source: Textually.org

End of the Usenet Era?

One of the saddest spectacles in the history of the Internet has been the slow, steady decline of Usenet newsgroups. Once the go-to place for vibrant online discussions, Usenet was the forum of choice for old-school netizens long before the Web became commonplace. Back in my freelance writing days, Usenet was an essential tool for article research, generating leads and snagging interviews with knowlegeable people. Then, when I began programming, newsgroups became indispensable for helping to answer those tough coding questions.

But like a once-thriving city that has been reduced to a slum, Usenet is now a shadow of its old self, the victim of spam and other forms of abuse. It may well be for this reason that AOL will drop its newsgroup service in February. This, combined with legal challenges to ISPs for carrying newsgroups containing child pornography, competition from proprietary group systems such as Yahoo! Groups, and loss of Usenet support from other providers, may spell the end of Usenet as a viable Internet service.

AOL users, however, will still be able to access newsgroups through independent services such as Google Groups.

Sources: Spam King Blog, Techdirt

Roughing It In 1992

To many of us, 1992 doesn't seem like all that long ago. But then we watch a retrospective like VH1's I Love The '90s that brings back memories, and we start to see the disconnects between then and now.

Now, an essay in the New Yorker illustrates how much times have changed by profiling a family who, as part of one of the children's class project, lived like the typical family would have in 1992. Hardly sounds like roughing it, but that meant no cell phones, no DVDs, no text messaging, no iPods, no TiVo and no Internet. It also meant rediscovering vintage technologies like newspapers and VCRs. For kids and parents alike, it was a real challenge... and a real eye-opener.

UPDATE: The New Yorker article is available here, and a comprehensive discussion of the essay is available here.

Granted, the differences the essay focuses on are technologies that many might regard as optional, but the difficulties this family encounters in giving them up illustrate how deeply these technologies have ingrained themselved into our daily lives, and how important they really have become. It also makes one wonder how different our lives will be in a decade, simply based on new technology.

Sources: The Shifted Librarian, Techdirt

Monday, January 24, 2005

It's 5 PM... Do You Know Where Your Laptop Is?

One of the byproducts of mobile computing is the near-epidemic of misplaced laptops, cell phones and other mobile devices. One recent survey of taxis around the world found that cab passengers left behind over 11,000 laptops, 31,000 PDAs and 200,000 cell phones over the last six months.

Although the survey found that most of the devices were returned to their rightful owners, lost mobile devices pose serious security threats both to business and individuals. The issue will become even more important as mobile device become increasingly common. Ford Motor Company is doing its part to accellerate the trend, as it has replaced desk phones of 8,000 employees with Sprint PCS mobile phones.

Sources: CNN/Money, Techdirt

More Evidence of US Politcal, Religious Polarization

If the outcome of the 2004 presidential election wasn't enough evidence of our deep political divide, a survey by a group called Public Agenda has found that churchgoers have become more rigid in their beliefs concerning such issues as abortion and gay rights, and less tolerant of compromise. Reasons for this range from a feeling of persecution among those surveyed (most all Christians) to a new boldness in advancing and defending a religious political agenda.

Assuming this trend continues, we can look forward to ever more intense political and social conflicts -- and less incentive for politicians to compromise and actually get things done. Conflict will likely spill over into areas that used to be largely apolitical, such as science and technology, leading to new, creative (and ultimately counterproductive) forms of divisiveness.

UPDATE: We saw some evidence of this new divisiveness in Hollywood this week, when the Academy Award nominations were announced. Some conservatives were upset that The Passion of the Christ wasn't nominated for major award categories, and took it as evidence of liberal bias in show business. However, the very liberally-slanted Fahrenheit 9/11 was snubbed even more completely.

Source: Boston.com

Pondering Unintended Consequences

One of the biggest challenges for futurists is trying to forecast unintended consequences of technologies and trends. It's easy enough to speculate on how a certain technology or innovation will affect the future, but time rarely travels that linearly. More typically, unseen events, people and other factors interact with the innovation to affect its outcome for better or worse.

The UK IT journal The Register has an interesting piece on the history of unintended consequences, illustrating how supposedly minor and harmless decisions can have dramatic, often catastrophic outcomes years later. For example, the article highlights the US decision to sell the Shah of Iran high-quality printing presses for producing paper currency in the 1970s. No harm done there, right? Well, fast-forward about 20 years, when the Mideast became flooded with counterfeit $100 US bills. The culprit was Iran, now in the hands of anti-American Islamic revolutionaries... and the bogus currency was being used to, among other things, finance terrorist activities.

The article offers sage advice for futurists:

The law of unexpected consequences is one that we simply can't afford to forget, and even though they're impossible to adequately plan for, we can minimize their effects. We have to worry about it, and we have to always ask the hard question: given this new thing foo, what are all the possible results that could happen? Brainstorm. Think out of the box. Don't be afraid to consider whatever crazy idea pops into your head. Trust me: it's never crazy enough.

The piece summarizes with an observation that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that traces of it are showing up in the water supply. If that's happening, could that be the case with other drugs? Narcotics? Viagra!?!? Now that's an unintended consequence to ponder!

CT Body Scans: The Emerging Medical Trend That Wasn't

Several years ago, CT body scans were all the rage. The idea that a patient could get his or her entire body imaged in one process, and find out about any problems early, seemed like the future of medicine.

Today, though, interest in body scanning seems to have ebbed, and those clinics that haven't yet closed are fighting for survival. What went wrong? Mostly, patients didn't feel like shelling out $500 to $1,000 -- which usually wasn't reimbursed by insurers -- for the service. It also didn't help that professional medical societies advised against the procedure, claiming the scans weren't conclusive enough to detect and diagnose anything meaningful.

The rapid rise and fall of the CT body scanning business points to the limits of consumer-driven healthcare, which many argue is the wave of the future in health. In consumer-driven healthcare, patients control their healthcare decisions -- including the money spent on their care -- with doctors relegated to an advisory role. One of the characteristics (and maybe problems) of CT body scanning services is that they disintermediate the physician from the process. The patient goes to the CT clinic independently, and receives the results directly. Perhaps one disincentive to getting a body scan is that patients want their doctors' involvement... and when they discuss it, their doctors discourage them from getting a scan.

Perhaps CT body scanning is simply a technology that's ahead of its time. But the collapse of the business model should provide valuable lessons and warnings to anyone pursuing opportunities in consumer-driven healthcare.

Source: The Health Care Blog, The New York Times

US Stem Cell Lines Contaminated?

Several news organizations are reporting that most if not all of the human embryonic stem cell lines that are available for US researchers are contaminated with nonhuman molecules. If this is accurate, it could pose a particular problem for US biotech leadership, as the Bush administration has denined federal funding for additional human embryonic stem cell harvesting. This could up the up the ante for states, notably California and New Jersey, that are seeking to fund their own stem cell initiatives. It could also reignite the general stem cell debate in the US, which would undoubtedly take on a different tone in the post-election environment.

Sources: Wired, Slashdot

The Once and Future TV

As you're surely aware, the big news story over the past 24 hours -- other than the weather and the football playoffs -- has been the death of legendary late-night talk show host Johnny Carson.

When Carson retired from hosting The Tonight Show in 1992, it marked the end of an era in TV entertainment. Now, we're pondering television's very future. The Long Tail blog discusses several emerging Internet-based TV outlets, and how Internet technology, better blogging/podcasting/videocasting capabilities, digital video recording and mass amateurization, will change TV entertainment. David Bollier of Onthecommons.org calls the phenomenon "Make-Your-Own Culture." In a sense, it's an ironic throwback to the days when Johnny Carson hosted a no-budget 15-minute show called Carson's Cellar in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early days of TV... years before he became a cultural icon. Could another Johnny Carson emerge from a TV source that doesn't yet exist? Or was Carson a figure who was unique to his era?

Added to the mix is news of the resignation of FCC chairman Michael Powell. Best known for his involvement in the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" and other decency issues, Powell presided over an agency that was at a crossroads of regulation issues. The decisions that Powell's successor makes regarding media conglomerates, VoIP, Wi-Fi and fiber optic networks will have an enormous impact on the future of TV, both in terms of technology and content. Where the Internet will be able to fill any voids or offer alternative "programming" remains to be seen.

Sources: CNN.com, C|Net, EMERGIC.org

Friday, January 21, 2005

Tide Coldwater Challenge: A New Twist on Internet Marketing

Marketing soaps and detergents is about as old as American capitalism itself. And as the first true heavy-duty laundry detergent, Tide has been a ground-breaking product ever since its introduction in 1946. But Proctor & Gamble has yet again managed to put a new spin on product introduction with its new variety of Tide, Tide Coldwater. They're using the Internet to promote it... but doing so with a difference.

P&G is linking Tide Coldwater to an energy-saving initiative -- as the product is designed to clean clothes better in cold water (hence the name!) -- and a campaign to help low-income Americans with their energy bills. Through the Tide Coldwater website, consumers are invited to sign up to receive a free sample of the product... and by adding their ZIP Code, they are added to an interactive map of the US that shows how many people have similarly responded.

Those who have signed up can similarly recruit their friends, thereby helping to spread the word about Tide Coldwater through social networking. At the site itself explains:

The ColdWater Challenge Map utilizes a new system that facilitates web-based sign-ups and social networking. This interactive map of the United States illustrates the diffusion of the ColdWater Challenge by tracking the spread of forwarded emails, highlighting the "six degrees of separation" between consumers who have accepted the challenge.

By recording each person that participates, and who he or she has invited or emailed, the system is able to calculate and display the actual impact of every individual. By allowing people to track their own impact on a cause, the ColdWater Challenge Map helps prove that one person can make a difference.

Currently, the map shows that the Challenge has spread pretty thoroughly throughout the eastern half of the US and along the West Coast, but not so much in the West.

Whether or not the ColdWater Challenge can really make a difference in energy conservation, or in selling the product, remains to be seen. Depending on its success, the campaign could take Internet marketing to a new level, or just be dismissed as another geeky gimmick. At any rate, P&G deserves an "A for effort" in using the Web for marketing in a new and creative way.

Source: Future Now

Why Seniors Don't Go Online Now, But Will in the Future

We've written before about the lack of senior citizens in cyberspace, and have speculated as to why this is. Now, two new studies both confirm the dearth of seniors online and offer some insights as to why they're in no rush to go there.

The first, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that just over 30% of American seniors (age 65+) surveyed have ever been online. However, 70% of what the report calls the "next generation of seniors" (those aged 50-64) have been online. The report goes on to point out dramatic differences in Internet usage between the two generations, particularly when searching for health information.

The second, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project last March, corroborates those findings. Pew found that only 22% of American seniors go online, but 58% of those aged 50-64 do so. However, the report found that those who do go online are just as enthusiastic about it as their younger counterparts. The Pew report calls those aged 50-64 the "silver tsunami" (a phrase they probably wouldn't use if the report were being written today), and also speculates as to why those aged 65+ don't participate in cyberspace more:

[M]ost seniors live lives far removed from the Internet, know few people who use e-mail or surf the Web, and cannot imagine why they would spend money and time learning how to use a computer. Seniors are also more likely than any other age group to be living with some kind of disability, which could hinder their capacity to get to a computer training center or read the small type on many Web sites.

Commenting on the Pew report, blogger Lois Ambash adds her own interpretation:

Younger adults readily concur that no one would tolerate a high-maintenance refrigerator, telephone, or even VCR. Most people have neither the time nor the interest to pamper machines as erratic, complex, and unreliable as the average personal computer. The incentives to develop fluency in the use of Internet and computer technologies often come in the form of job requirements, paychecks and promotions.

From this perspective, the precipitous drop in Internet use among people over 65 takes on a different cast. Are the over-65s too incurious, intellectually limited, or set in their ways to embrace electronic technologies? Instead, consider a less condescending explanation: These seniors may have attained a maturity level and sense of self that lets them comfortably say no to unfriendly machines. Poorly-designed controls, ever-changing screen images, counterintuitive navigation, and incomprehensible documentation may just not command their time and attention. In other words, the decision to steer clear of new technologies may reflect rational choice, rather than ignorance or impatience.

Those aged 50-64 -- the eldest Baby Boomers -- are largely still in the workforce, and have developed Internet skills as a matter or course. Therefore, it's likely that they will remain online long after they retire. However, it will be interesting to see whether this influential group presses for more user-friendly interfaces and accommodations for disabilities. The problems of cyberspace pointed out by their predecessors, after all, should not and cannot be ignored.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Scarlet Letter Society

Actionable intelligence. That's what giant information broker ChoicePoint calls the service it offers. The company, currently valued at $4.1 billion, aggregates public records, criminal histories and other information of interest about individuals. Its clients include potential employers and, since 2001, the US Department of Justice.

Investigative reporter Robert O'Harrow recently profiled ChoicePoint for the Washington Post. There's nothing illegal about what ChoicePoint does, and the argument can be made that "actionable intelligence" is a necessary tool for national security. But the availability of so much information on so many individuals is fraught with unintended consequences, especially if it is abused, misrepresented or simply wrong. Anyone with even the smallest blemish on their record could pay for it years, even decades later. Mistakes could be difficult if not impossible to correct. With identity theft rampant, what is the potential for "identity sabotage" and blackmail? Anyone running for public office or seeking a job with high-security clearance would have to be prepared to explain minor transgressions from their youth. Indeed, as privacy advocate Charles Hoofnagle calls it, we appear to be seeing the dawn of a "Scarlet Letter society."

Information technology allows us to collect massive anounts of personal data, yet it doesn't give us an ethical framework for managing it. Firms such as ChoicePoint claim they have strict standards controlling how their information is to be used, but these can be violated by someone motivated and diabolical enough. Defending one's privacy in the face of such massive databases will be a major challenge over the next several years.

Or, perhaps Sun CEO Scott McNealy was more right than even he realized when he famously stated in 1999: "You have zero privacy. Get over it!"

Source: MSNBC.com

Yet Another Obit for Mainstream Media

More and more, it appears that the CBS News "memogate" debacle has marked a turning point in the history of the nation's news media. Newsweek's Howard Fineman adds his voice to the list of those who are declaring the traditional "mainstream media" dead, or at least beaten beyond recognition. Much of what Fineman writes echoes what has already been said, but he makes one rather profound observation:

[T]oday's media food fights are mild compared with the viciousness of pamphleteers and partisan newspapers of old, from colonial times forward. Yes, I know: the notion of a neutral "mainstream" national media gained a dominant following only in World War II and in its aftermath, when what turned out to be a temporary moderate consensus came to govern the country. Still, the notion of a neutral, nonpartisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto. Now it's pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things.

Instead of blaming the bloggers and other technologies for corrupting journalistic objectivity, Fineman observes that "bias" is actually the normal state of affairs in media, and that neutrality is an abberation. It appears that staking out a political position will be the wave of the future for the nation's media (ever notice how few political blogs are moderate?), and that George W. Bush is merely the first in a long line of highly polarizing political figures.

But who will benefit from this polarized new world? Those who can argue their positions most clearly? Those with the most money and power? Those who have charisma and a flair for showmanship? The sexiest and most outrageous? We'll soon find out.

Source: MSNBC.com

Nano Robots Become a Reality

Many futurists predict that microscopic, self-replicating nano-robots will be a part of our not-too-distant future. Now, because of work being done at the University of California Los Angeles, that future might be here sooner than we think.

Researchers at UCLA have grafted rat cells onto a silicon chip, creating a true "cyborg" that has tiny, functioning "legs," as well as the potential to replicate. The device moves as the cells contract.

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Online Music Sales Rose Tenfold in 2004

Music lovers are increasingly obtaining their music online -- legally -- as sales of downloadable music soared in the US and Europe by a factor of 10 in 2004. The number of pay download sites quadrupled last year as well, and the catalogue of legally available music now stands at over one million songs.

The growth, measured by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), was driven by the popularity of iPods and other MP3 players, as well as the desire of music consumers to download music a la carte rather than to buy entire albums.

The music industry finally appears to be getting the message about online music, making it easier for consumers to download tracks rather than fighting them. As a result, the industry was rewarded with its first-ever significant revenue from legally downloaded music ($330 million). Consumers, for their part, are showing their willingness to pay for downloads so long as the price is fair and the process is convenient.

The IFPI predicts that global revenues from online music sales will double in 2005. Less clear, however, is how more traditional elements of the music industry -- namely retailers of CDs -- wil be affected by this trend. Also not clear is how downloading music might change long-established business models within the industry -- something the industry in the US has fought so hard to protect -- or whether the growth in legal downloading will lead to a corresponding drop in illegal file shareing.

Source: AFP Worldwide News (Yahoo!)

Telecommuting Catching on Worldwide

A recent survey conducted by Netilla Networks reveals keen interest in telecommuting both in the US and Europe. Netilla conducted it survey of commuters at New York's Penn Station and London's Liverpool Street Station.

Of the commuters surveyed, 70% believed that working from home and other flexible working arrangements raises worker productivity, and 64% believed that it fosters greater employee loyalty. A whopping 90% believed that telecommuting benefits both employers and workers. However, 80% said that they would not want to telecommute full-time.

The numbers remained fairly consistent in the surveys conducted in New York, London and other European cities.

Source: Herman Trend Alert

Hafnium Bombs: WMDs of the Future?

Last week we profiled Project Pluto, a super-weapon prototype from the 1950s. Now comes word of a new generation of high-tech WMDs. These nuclear bombs would use the isotope hafnium-178, a material so volatile that its explosive force is potentially 50,000 times more powerful than TNT.

Hafnium (Hf) is ordinarily a stable element that is used to make rods for nuclear reactors. In fact, it is through these spent rods that hafnium-178 isotope was discovered. The basic research for hafnium bombs was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s for possible applications for the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. "Star Wars").

Hafnium bombs, though, wouldn't be "bombs" in the typical sense. Instead of exploding violently, they would emit deadly gamma rays that could penetrate thorugh thick walls and deep bunkers.

Weaponizing hafnium-178 is highly controversial, as many scientists believe it's neither pratical nor possible. One major barrier is the price tag; hafnium-178 costs a cool $28 billion an ounce! However, if the power of hafnium-178 could be harnessed economically and safely, it would yield enormous peaceful benefits. One ounce of the isotope can boil 120 tons of water, giving some measure of its potential as an energy source.

Sources: Washington Post, Minding the Planet

NFL to Podcast Playoff Games, Super Bowl

The NFL is collaborating with audiobook distributor Audible Inc. to distribute sound feeds to the remaining playoff games via iTunes and other music sites, allowing fans to listen to games through iPods and other devices. The NFL will also podcast the Super Bowl.

Recordings will be available for games scheduled for this Sunday. Complete games will cost about $10 each, and highlights will cost about $5. The games will not be podcast live, but are designed for hardcore fans who might have missed a game or want a souvenir.

This coming Sunday (1/23), the Atlanta Falcons will play the Philadelphia Eagles, and the New England Patriots will play the Pittsburgh Steelers. The winners of those two games will face each other at the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 13.

Source: NFL.com, AP (Excite)

FBI Ditches Carnivore

The FBI has quietly abandoned its custom-designed Internet surveillance technology, called DCS-1000 or better known as "Carnivore," according to a report submitted recently to Congress.

The existence of the controversial technology, designed to intercept and monitor Internet traffic, was revealed in 1998, though the agency reportedly used it only a handful of times, even after 9/11. The FBI says it is switching to commercial monitoring technology, which it says works better at a lower cost. It should be noted that at the time Carnivore was developed, equivalent commercial products did not exist.

The FBI did not reveal how much it spent developing Carnivore, but estimates range from $6 million to $15 million. This revelation comes on the heels of a report that the agency would have to completely revamp its $170 million computer system upgrade that would allow agents to manage cases electronically.

In related news, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to determine whether law enforecement agencies are required to obtain a search warrant to monitor a suspect's Internet traffic under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Source: AP (Excite)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mobilize Your Social Network with Dodgeball

No, we're not talking about the game you played in grade school or the Ben Stiller movie. Dodgeball.com is a social networking system that allows members to broadcast their whereabouts via SMS text messaging to friends in their network. Members can use Dodgeball to locate friends within a 10-block radius, broadcast messages to an entire group, or be automatically notified when certain people are nearby. Dodgeball has been available in beta mode since 2000, and launched in wide service in April 2004. Currently, the service is available in 22 US cities.

It's not hard to imagine the applications that a service like this would have for business, politics, education and emergency management. It also begs the question of privacy; after all, do you really want you boss being able to track you all over town? But if enough people find a service such as Dodgeball useful and manageable, it could prove to be a key component of future mobile communication.

Source: Smart Mobs

The Healthy Cell Phones

Who says cell phones are bad for your health? South Koreans, who consistently push the envelope of cell phone technology, are being offered several services that will allow them to use their mobile phones to keep tabs on their health.

SK Telecom is introducing a "moblie health care phone" that will allow users to monitor their blood sugar, stress and body fat levels by pressing their thumb on a sensor. Rival carrier KTF is offering a phone-based eye exam, which can detect color blindness and even verify corrective lens prescriptions. KTF phones will also include a game that supposedly can measure levels of intoxication. The services will be primarily marketed to middle-aged customers and those who are too busy to make doctor appointments.

Sources: JoongAng Daily, Smart Mobs

2 Billion Cell Phones by Year's End

The consulting firm Deloitte & Touche forecasts that the global cell phone market will grow to 2 billion users by the end of 2005, driven largely by developing economies in Asia and Latin America. This will represent an increase of 500 million mobile phones since mid-2004.

The firm also predicted that some established mobile phone markets will see 100% saturation in 2005. Meanwhile, mobile phones and voice over IP (VoIP) services will combine to put market pressure on traditional fixed-line carriers.

Source: CNN.com

Good News, Bad News on Tech Hiring Front

If you're a techie looking to get a job or change jobs, 2005 may be your year. According to Business Week, 35,000 tech jobs were created last year, with 10,000 jobs created in December alone. BW quotes Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, as saying, "We're picking up the pace as we enter 2005... Tech companies have cash, capital, and confidence. They're both able and willing to hire." Zandi predicts the tech industry will add 214,000 new jobs this year -- the largest increase since 2000, and bringing the total number of tech jobs to the number that existed in 1999 (but off the peak reached in 2001).

However, no one expects a return to the boom in hiring seen in the late '90s. And wages are rising very slowly, if at all. In fact, a poll conducted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) found a 1.5% decline in median wages. Outsourcing to China and India is cited as the primary reason for lower wages.

Sources: Business Week, Lockergnome

Airbus Unveils A380, Largest Airliner Ever

Airbus, the European airplane manufacturer, has unveiled the A380, a double-decker airliner that's the largest ever built. Already, customers have anted up $40 billion in orders, though the A380 has about a year of flight trials ahead of it before it sees commercial service.

The "superjumbo" A380 can carry up to 555 passengers (and up to 800 if most seats are configured as economy class), though some airliners are opting for fewer seats in exchange for amenities such as bars, gyms, shops, spas and sleeper cabins... effectively making it a "flying hotel" for transoceanic flights.

Despite massive cost overruns, the A380 is being hailed as the first truly innovative airliner since Boeing introduced the 747 forty years ago. The hope is that the larger plane will make long-distance flights more economical and more efficient, and will mark a turnaround for the commercial air industry, which has yet to fully recover from 9/11 and the 2001 recession.

Sources: CNN.com, Airliners.net

Growing Pharmaceuticals in Plants

Pharmaceutical firms are looking at ways to essentially grow antibodies and vaccines in plants such as genetically modified corn. The first of these drugs could reach the market next year, and has the potential of becoming a $2 billion-plus market by 2011. Both startup firms and established pharmaceutical firms are investing in this technology.

The catalyst for this technology growth is a shortage of biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities. However, public concerns about such genetically modified plants affecting the food supply could hold back its development.

Source: CNN/Money

Friday, January 14, 2005

Internet Users Giving Up on Broadband

They're clearly in the minority for now, but some Internet users are so fed up with viruses, spam and spyware that they're cancelling their broadband connections. Some are switching to old-fashioned dialup connections, while others have abandoned the Net altogether. For any business that depends on the consumer-driven Internet for profits, this is an ominous trend.

Spyware appears to be the main culprit here. One estimate suggests that up to 80% of the world's computers contain some amount of spyware -- not even Bill Gates himself is immune! Another study found that over 30% of consumers surveyed were making fewer purchases online because of security concerns. Considering these statistics, technology and Internet-based firms everywhere should be making secure computing their number one priority... for their own sake was well as their customers'.

Source: Los Angeles Times

[BREAKING NEWS] Huygens Probe Transmits Pictures from Titan

The European Space Agency has begun receiving pictures and data transmitted from the Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn's moon Titan earlier today. The first images of Titan, taken just prior to landing, depict a rugged landscape that appears to have been shaped by some kind of erosion and liquid flow.

The probe was designed to transmit data for only a few minutes after landing, but reportedly transmitted for an hour and a half.

For the latest updates, visit the Cassini/Huygens websites maintained by the ESA and NASA.

Sources: ESA, NASA, CNN.com

Will the Future of Electricity be Nuclear?

Science writer Peter Huber and physicist Mark Mills have written a provocative book titled The Bottomless Well: The Twilight Of Fuel, The Virtue Of Waste, And Why We Will Never Run Out Of Energy. The book's controversial premise: The only energy source that can meet America's future needs is nuclear power.

Huber and Mills state that each American continually uses about 1,400 watts of electricity on average. The move toward hybrid cars and other electricity-drive transportation will put additional stress on the electric grid. Huber and Mills argue that there are political and practical reasons to move away from fossil fuels, while other alternative energy methods such as solar and wind power cannot generate enough energy to meet our needs.

The only other energy source available, they conclude, is nuclear, which they claim is cleaner, safer and more economical than it's given credit for being. Since nuclear reactors themselves are relatively small, they can be easily shielded for greater safety and protection from sabotage.

Sources: FuturePundit, City Journal

CIA Looks Ahead to 2020

The National Intelligence Council, a strategic thinking group within the CIA, has issued a report called "Project 2020" that attempts to visualize the world 15 years hence. Overall, council vice-chairman David Gordon called the predicted changes "a very bumpy ride."

Among the group's scenarios:

  • Al Qaeda will go away, but terrorism won't. Smaller, more shadowy terrorist cells will continue to carry the flag for Islamic extremism. These groups will leverage technology to achieve an element of surprise in their attacks, which may involve biological agents.
  • The US will remain a superpower, but it will be joined in power and influence by China and India. Russia may continue to decline.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan could prove to be models of democracy for the rest of the Arab world. However, Iraq is also at risk of becoming another breeding ground for terrorists.
  • The US will no longer dominate popular culture, as India's "Bollywood" will rival and then eclipse Hollywood.

For the full downloadable report, click here.

Source: Toronto Star

[BREAKING NEWS] Huygens Probe Lands on Titan

Scientists from the European Space Agency have reported that the Huygens probe landed on Saturn's moon Titan today at approximately 7:45 AM ET.

"We have a signal. We know that Huygens is alive meaning the dream is alive," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general for ESA, which designed Huygens. "This is already an engineering success and we will see, later this afternoon, if this is a scientific success."

Source: CNN.com

How to Manage Techno Trash

One of the unintended consequences of technical innovation is the waste created by obsolete hardware. Discarded computers are a particular problem because of their lead, mercury and other toxic contents. The problem is not going to go away by itself... which is why a group of activists calling themselves the Computer TakeBack Campaign are calling attention to it.

They have singled out Apple, in part because of that company's reputation for ethical conduct, and in part because the iPod and other Apple products post special disposal problems. The campaign is urging Apple to take a leadership postion in component recycling.

Regardless of how successful the campaign is, it is calling attention to a serious problem that grows larger each time we upgrade a system to something newer, faster and cooler.

Source: Clippings.reblog

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Anatomy of an Earthquake

Engineers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have created the first-ever animated image of an earthquake's seismic waves. Using coordinates from 1,000 GPS monitoring stations, the engineers created an image of the 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Hokkaido, Japan in September 2003. Each of the receivers took a measurement once every second, with accuracy within millimeters.

Click here to view the animated GIF image.

Source: New Scientist

What a Difference a Century Makes!

When thinking about the future, it's often helpful to think about the past as well. This blog post lists some interesting statistics from the year 1905, making very clear how much our world has changed in 100 years. Among the more remarkable stats:

  • The average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years.
  • A three-minute call from Denver to New York City cost eleven dollars.
  • There were only 8,000 cars in the U.S., and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California.
  • The average wage in the U.S. was 22 cents an hour.
  • Ninety percent of all U.S. physicians had no college education. Instead, they attended medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press and by the government as "substandard."
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • The population of Las Vegas, Nevada, was 30.
  • Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at corner drugstores.

Yet Another Blog Traffic Service

First there was BlogExplosion, the referral-based traffic generation service that generated traffic to members' blogs when they visited other members' blogs. Now, in the same vein, there's BlogClicker, which I'm giving a try. If you've come to this blog courtesy of either service, welcome! If you're a blogger looking to generate traffic, try out both.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Project Pluto: The Ultimate WMD

An illustration of how much our military-political world has changed since the Cold War era can be found in a 1990 article from Air & Space Magazine. The article discusses Project Pluto, a nuclear-powered, unmanned supersonic ramjet bomber that would have rained hydrogen bombs along its flight path. Its official acronym was SLAM (Supersonic Low Altitude Missile), and a James Bond villain couldn't dream up a deadlier or more dramatic weapon.

Along the way, Pluto would have spewed radioactive particles, and its hypersonic shock waves would have been strong enough to kill people on the ground -- a true doomesday weapon if there ever was one. After commissioning Lawrence Livermore Laboratories to develop the project in 1957, the military thought better of it and cancelled it in 1964. Not only was the necessary technology unavailable at the time, but its developers realized that Pluto would have to fly over US and allied territory in order to reach its targets, making it a threat to friend and foe alike. Plus, there was no safe way to test such a device.

In an era when car bombs in Iraq are a more immediate threat to our military than H-bombs in the Soviet Union, Project Pluto could not appear less relevant. However, one paragraph in the article stood out, and should be instructive to anyone investigating emerging technology:

Like Hula Hoops and Slinkies, Pluto is now an anachronism, an all-but-forgotten remnant of an earlier -- but not necessarily more innocent -- era. At the time, however, deadly as it would have been, Pluto had the almost irresistible appeal of any radically new technological innovation. Like the H-bombs it would carry, Pluto was "technically sweet" to many of the scientists and engineers who worked on it. [Emphasis added]

Though long dead, the Pluto Project continues to remind us that technology cannot exist in a vacuum, but must go hand in hand with purpose, perspective and consequences.

Source: Boing Boing

Critical Skills for Creative Change

Nearly anyone who works in any kind of an organization can relate to Dave Pollard's essay on "Creative Solutions, Critical Skills." In it, Pollard discusses the flawed approaches most organizations take to change and business challenges, and then argues that teaching employees how to think critically is the necessary step for keeping employees productive and happy while achieving cultural and organizational change.

Source: Innovation Weblog

File-Swappers Stay One Step Ahead of RIAA

At times, the battle between file-swappers and the recording industry (RIAA) seems like the never-ending chase between Wiley Coyote and the Road Runner. No matter how clever Wiley thinks he is or how hard he works, Road Runner remains perpetually out of reach.

Despite the RIAA's legal and educational efforts, file sharing continues to rise, especially among college students. The RIAA has attempted to flood networks such as Kazaa with spoofed files, but file-swappers' response has simply been to migrate to newer networks such as eDonkey that remain beneath the RIAA's radar. As long as smart people can create new networks, file-swappers will stay a step ahead of the RIAA.

Even more underground -- and more basic -- than new networks is the time-honored method of manually exchanging music by directly copying CDs and MP3 players. The kids today call this "hot-swapping," and in theory it's little different than the taping of LPs to cassettes that folks did in my college days (yes, I'm dating myself here). The difference is that our way was time-consuming, and unless you had a state-of-the-art system and used top-quality cassettes, the end product usually sounded like crap. Today's file-swappers can download an entire high-quality music collection within minutes.

Beep! Beep!

Sources: CD Freaks, Lockergnome

Simulating Disaster

The US Air Force and the University of Buffalo are teaming up to develop a predictive software program that can simulate the primary and secondary effects of natural and man-made disasters. Acting as an expert system of sorts, the software is based on information gathered from multiple sources during a variety of disasters, dating back to the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California. The purpose is to better manage emergency response and to anticipate secondary emergencies.

When used, the software will be able to help emergency managers deploy resources within minutes after a disaster occurs. It will also provide scenarios to help them prepare for secondary events such as ruptured gas lines, power failures, releases of toxic chemicals and widespread disease.

The system is currently in beta mode, and should be ready for deployment within a year.

Source: PhysOrg

Nanofabrics Can Generate Solar Energy

A Canadian research team has developed fabrics using nanofibers that are sensitive to solar rays -- not just those rays that typical solar cells register, but rays outside the visible spectrum as well. These nanofibers have the potential to capture up to 30% of the sun's energy, as opposed to only 6% that can be harnessed today.

In addition to generating solar power, these nanofibers could also see use in fiber optics and low-light imaging applications.

Sources: Eurekalert, GenuisNow

Time vs. Money

If you had the choice, would you rather have a $5,000 raise, or the equivalent in time off from work? Salary.com asked this question in a survey in November, and the results were surprising.

Although the majority of respondents (61%) said they'd take the money, 39% chose the time off. This is significant because the number of those who wanted time off rose by 20% since Salary.com conducted a similar poll three years ago.

Does this suggest a shift in values among American workers? The poll wasn't a scientific survey, but it could indicate changing attitudes about work that could shape the workplace of the future. Possible causes for this shift include:

  • A new generation entering the workforce that's more concerned with values and family than personal wealth.
  • A general sense of burnout and overwork. After all, what good is money if you don't have the time to spend it?
  • Less allegiance to employers as downsizing and outsourcing shake long-term career prospects.

Salary.com predicts that employers will respond to these concerns by offering more generous vacation packages. This will become increasingly important as Baby Boomers retire and the labor market tightens.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Your Political Compass

Web surveys are an interesting diversion, but rarely more than that. However, the creators of The Political Compass have created a test that is not only interesting, but actually instructive and useful.

Like many political surveys, TPC attempts to measure your leanings. What makes TPC unique, however, is that it goes beyond the typical left vs. right, red vs. blue ratings to provide a more in-depth look at one's political makeup. It does this primarily by separating positions on economic issues from social issues.

Visit the site to see where your political views stand; you might be surprised. Then, see where the creators have rated historical figures and contemporary politicians. You'll be in for some surprises there as well.

[BREAKING NEWS] Apple to Produce $499 "Mac Mini", Flash-Based iPods

Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced today that Apple will unveil a $499 "Mac Mini" aimed at the budget PC market. The computer will be sold without monitor, mouse or keyboard, but will include "Panther" (the latest version of Mac OS) and a suite of digital media tools. The Mac Mini will go on sale later this month.

Apple is also debuting two new iPods that use flash memory instead of a hard drive. The 512MB version will retail for $99, and the 1GB version for $149. These iPods will be much smaller than the standard models, and will lack the iPod navigation screen, instead playing songs in "shuffle" mode by default. Like their bigger brethren, these iPods are compatible with both Windows and Mac computers.

Analyst see the new iPods as a move by Apple to gain a foothold in the budget-priced flash-based MP3 player market, which has been growing rapidly. Indeed, one of the big complaints historically directed at Apple has been that its products are too expensive for entry-level and price-sensitive consumers.

Additionally, Jobs announced iWork, an office suite designed to compete with Microsoft Office; agreements with several luxury car companies to include iPod adapters in select models; and an update on "Tiger," the next version of the Mac OS tentatively scheduled for release in the first half of this year.

Source: ZDNet

Cell Phones for Grade Schoolers

In the UK, the fastest growing segment of new cell phone users are children under 10. Likewise, pre-teens in the US are rapidly becoming cell phone customers. Children as young as 5 are getting their own cell phones, whether to be like their older siblings, or to give mom and dad peace of mind in a post-9/11, post-Columbine world. Although the appropriate age for cell phone ownership is a matter of debate, prepaid plans and relaxation of phone bans in schools have made it easier for kids to have them.

Kids are an interesting market segment because they are often the drivers of new phone technology. Unlike adults, who often care only about basic features, children want "cool" ring tones, games and text messaging. As long as pre-teens remain a major consumer force, cell phone manufacturers and carriers will happily oblige. Cell phones are a status symbol among the grade-school set, so these kids take their selection of models very seriously. And, of course, today's kids are the comsumers and decision-makers of tomorrow... so their expectations in the future won't be anything less.

Sources: TheFeature, New York Times, BBC News, Techdirt

Pumping Iron, 21st Century Style

Fitness has been big business since the jogging craze first swept America in the 1970s. As a result, most every community has at least one gym. But now, a new trend is taking shape, according to Springwise, a firm that tracks marketing trends. Segmented fitness is producing fitness centers that cater to specific demographics looking to attain specific goals.

The Curves chain of fitness centers for women is one of the nation's fastest growing franchises. Part of the appeal of Curves is that it's a place where women can work out without feeling uncomfortable or intimidated. Plus, Curves uses "circuit training," a more intense yet less time-consuming workout method.

Now, Cuts promises to offer a similar service to men, with a 30-minute cardio workout that promises to burn fat while developing lean muscle. Unlike women, who tend to be highly health-aware, 80% of the US male population doesn't work out regularly. Despite those odds, Cuts is a growing franchise.

These chains are successful because they recognize that though men and women have different fitness goals, everyone is time conscious. And with clean, bright and beginner-friendly atmospheres, both are light years away from the old-fashioned "muscle" gyms. So it stands to reason that yet another chain, Fitwize4kids, is bringing the curcuit training concept to young people. Using specialized equipment, Fitwize4kids offers a 45-minute workout specially tailored for kids. As concern grows over childhood obesity, kid-friendly gyms will likely become a common sight in the coming years.

The segmented fitness trend will likely grow as populations are identified with specific fitness needs. Young people who want to improve sports skills, moms and dads looking to shed a few pounds, and seniors trying to stave off the effects of arthritis all represent very different -- and very lucrative -- market segments.

Source: Springwise

Monday, January 10, 2005

Will "Exertainment" be the Hot New Game Trend?

A niche gaming market making its presence felt at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is "exergaming" or "exertainment" --essentially video games that require physicial exertion to play.

Games that simulate dancing or downhill skiing are being marketed for Sony Playstation and other game systems. Their manufacturers are not only stressing their entertainment value, but their ability to get kids off the couch and, hopefully, get fit. Games like this will surely gain more attention as concern over childhood obesity grows.

Many of these games, however, are not cheap. Kilowatt SPORT, a racing simulator that uses a device similar to an elliptical exercise machine, retails for $800.

Source: AP

Iran Cracks Down on Blogging, Social Networking

Word has come out of Iran that the government there has blocked access to most of the major blogging services, including Blogger.com. They have also turned off access to social networking sites, and personal sites such as Yahoo! Personals. However, it's been noted that LiveJournal and TypePad remain accessible.

Techies and globally-aware bloggers -- both inside and outside of Iran -- are now trying to put their heads together to see how they can circumvent this blockade. Suggestions include promoting the use of P2P applications and proxy servers that can't be readily filtered, and using satellite hookups to reroute traffic around government-controlled firewalls. Activists are also encouraging the petitioning of US and EU officials to put pressure on Iran to change its policies, though the success of this approach is remote.

Some have speculated that articles such as this piece in the Wall Street Journal celebrating the disruptive, pro-democratic (and pro-American) influences of technology prompted Iranian authorities to react. Other governments throughout the world are surely watching this development, and speculating on how they too might be able to bring those pesky bloggers and social networkers under control. The rest of the world's response to this will also be of great interest, as it will test the West's commitment to promoting democracy in the Muslim world.

Sources: Hoder.com, Smart Mobs, Personal Democracy Forum

Will CBS Fallout Change Mainstream Media?

Today, CBS News announced that it fired four senior executives and producers over the now-infamous story about documents supposedly illustrating President Bush's service (or lack thereof) in the National Guard. The documents proved to be forgeries -- a fact caught and publicized by bloggers and others who scrutinize the media. Already, the incident has been an effective career-ender for former CBS anchor Dan Rather.

What kind of impact will this have on the mainstream media? Truth is, the media has changed a lot already, and it didn't just happen overnight or by the sudden appearance of a blog or two. The "mainstream media" is a very different animal from the institution I studied in journalism school back in the mid-'80's, thanks to cable TV, the Internet, talk radio, and simply a general cynicism and distrust of large news institutions. As Terry Heaton writes in his POMO Blog:

It was an angry public that brought all this about. The public has been angry with the [mainstream media] before, but this time they were able to publish their objections for others to see and further complain. This is new in the world of journalism, and it's why this event will shape the trade for years to come. The blogosphere didn't just happen. The energy for it has been building for decades, and the genie is now out of the bottle.

Now that top-level executives have been made personally accountable for their actions, their counterparts in other organizations are surely paying very close attention. This will affect how news is reported, for better or for worse. Better, because any story they release from now on will have to be absoultely airtight, and researched thoroughly. Worse, because some in the mainstream media may feel the need to pander to a vocal minority who will pounce on any story they disagree with. And anyone with an agenda can feel free to discredit a news story, using the CBS incident to argue that the mainstream media no longer has credibility.

Like Terry Heaton says, the genie is indeed out of the bottle. The challenge for the mainstream media will be coming to terms with that genie while producing accurate, credible news stories.

Sources: POMO Blog, CBSNews.com

Cell Phone Credit Cards Appear in US

Already a mainstay of commerce in Japan and South Korea, cell phones that contain credit card information are gradually making their way into US markets. Pilot projects are underway in which cell phone users can pay for items by aiming their phones at a infrared data reader.

Ideally, cell phone credit cards would be a fast and convenient way to pay for purchases, particularly for small transactions. Mastercard, Visa and American Express have "contactless payment" initiatives underway. McDonald's and CVS are among the retailers experimenting with the systems. Most of the major cell phone manufacturers are developing models with IR ports and that can hold credit card data.

The product trials now underway are revealing problems with the technology, which the companies involved have vowed to fix. Among the most serious is the occasional difficulty in getting the readers to register signals coming from the phones, negating the convenience factor. Security, of course, is another critical element. Every point in a transaction must be fail-safe from a security standpoint, as the first major vulnerability or hack could permanently destroy confidence in the technology.

Even after all the bugs are worked out, don't worry about rushing out to buy a credit-card-enabled phone just yet. Even advocates of the technology concede that widespread adoption in the US is years away, simply because of the time needed for retailers to deploy the necessary reader and back-end equipment.

Source: New York Times

Verizon Offers Video Clips for Phones

In February, Verizon Wireless will start a videocasting (VCAST) service for its cell phones. Content from its EVDO (Evolution Data Only) network includes news clips from CNN and NBC, weather forecasts from AccuWeather, and entertainment from VH1 and Comedy Central.

Verizon will offer three phone models -- from LG, UTStarcom and Samsung -- that are VCAST compatible, which will cost approximately $199 each after rebates. The EVDO service will cost an additional $15 per month over regular charges.

No one is sure exactly how many consumers will subscribe to the service. The most likely early adopters may be frequent travelers who want up-to-the-minute news updates without having to go to the Web. But it's an intriguing first step toward bringing videocasting into the mainstream.

Sources: PC Magazine, TheFeature