FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Blasts from the Past

I'll be traveling the remainder of this week, so I'll present this week's Friday diversion a few days early...

Anyone over the age of, perhaps, 30 remembers some aspect of the Cold War, whether it be the Cuban Missile Crisis, "airraid drills" in school (I never understood the logic of how hiding under a desk could protect you from a nuclear bomb) or Ronald Reagan ordering Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Now, a website called CONELRAD has compiled a history of some of the more over-the-top Cold War moments and mementos. Most anecdotes are from the 1950s and '60s, when nuclear paranoia was at a fever pitch.

Much of the site's "atomic culture" content -- such as dire scenarios of "Soviet America", condemnations of "Marxist minstrels," or a supposed public service announcement by actor Arthur Godfrey to be played if the nation were to come under nuclear attack -- looks bizarre when seen through modern eyes. But CONELRAD is important on several levels. If you're too young to remember much of the Cold War, you'll likely appreciate the site's retro-ironic take on the era. If you do remember, it'll be a somewhat weird, even ghoulish walk down Memory Lane. Beyond that, there are clear and important parallels between the fears and reactions of that time with ours... and with times to come.

As it happened, the Soviets were either too disorganized to wage real war on the US, or they simply knew better than to try. Fast-forward to today, when terrorists walk the fine lines that separate fearlessness, insanity and stupidity. Just as concerning are less-than-rational governments like that of North Korea, which works furiously to acquire nuclear technology while its people starve. Behind the Cold War peculiarities that it preserves, CONELRAD is useful by showing how deeply nuclear fears permeated our culture... and how similar worries could do so again.

SOMEWHAT RELATED: A more cheerful memory of this era can be found at The Color Television Revolution, a homage to the early days of color TV in the late 1950s and early '60s. Especially interesting is a QuickTime excerpt of the first-ever broacast of a color TV program prerecorded on videotape, shown on NBC on Oct. 17, 1958.

Source: Boing Boing

TAICON 2005 Conference Postponed; Comdex Cancelled

The Arlington Institute's TAICON 2005 conference, "Tools for the Development of Humanity," to have been held April 25-27 in Washington DC, has been postponed indefinitely. The Institute cites "serious logistical problems" as the reason for the postponement, but says it will reschedule later this year. This comes on the heels of yesterday's report that Comdex -- once the gold standard for technology shows -- has been cancelled for a second year in a row.

Hilton Jumps On the iPod Bandwagon

No, this time we're not talking about Paris. The Hilton hotel chain -- which manages Hilton, Doubletree, Homewood Suites and Embassy Suites hotels -- is installing clock radios in its rooms to which guests can attach their iPods, allowing them to wake up to their favorite MP3s. The chain is also offering iPods and iTunes downloads as prizes on its website.

Clearly, Hilton realizes how many of its guests are iPod users. The move also shows how deeply iPods have embedded themselves into the technical and cultural mainstream over the past few years.

Sources: CNET, Techdirt

Good News About US Teens

Teens take the blame for many of our social problems, it seems. But according to one tracking system, today's teens appear to be drinking less, committing fewer crimes, and having fewer babies.

According to the Child Well-Being Index, a measure developed by the Foundation for Child Development:

  • The teen birth rate dropped by half between 1992 and 2004 (from 20 births per 1,000 girls to 10.9 births)
  • Binge drinking among high school seniors fell from 36.9% in 1975 to 29.2% in 2004.
  • The number of teens who were victims of violent crime fell from 120 per 1,000 in 1994 to 45 per 1,000 in 2004.

The numbers are so impressive that Jeffrey Butts, directory of the youth justice program at the Urban Institute, stated, "Maybe we have the next 'greatest generation' coming along here."

There is disagreement, however on the forces that have made these numbers fall. An improving economy, better policing, and the lessening of crack cocaine have all been credited. Simple demographics may also play a role, as well as more effective parenting techniques. Plus, in the category of fewer births, it's not clear whether that is attributable to fewer teens having sex or more teens practicing birth control.

Not all the findings were this positive, however. The study found that more teens were living in single-parent households, and that obesity among teens was on the rise. However, if given a choice, most of us would rather see kids reaching for chips and soda than booze and dope any day...

Source: CNN.com

AT&T to Test WiMax as Alternative to Data Lines

AT&T will begin tests later this year to see whether "WiMax" high-speed wireless technology is a viable replacement for wired broadband Internet connections. The first trial will occur this spring in the town of Middletown, NJ.

The advantage of WiMax is that it allows data throughput at very high speeds and over longer distances than other wireless protocols. The promise is that WiMax service could be offered over large areas and at lower cost than traditional wired data services.

Source: Computerworld

Pet-Friendly House Design

NOTE: The Blogger.com dashboard has been on the fritz for much of yesterday and today. Therefore, postings may not be as frequent as usual.

As more Baby Boomers (and even Gen-X'ers) become "empty nesters," they are expected to turn their nurturing instincts toward their pets. This has already spawned an industry that includes "big box" pet supply stores like PetSmart, as well as more specialized and upscale pet boutiques. Now, home designers and remodelers are seeing the opportunities of home designs with pets in mind.

Such modifications go beyond the traditional "doggie door" (though even this is being re-thought, as some doors are being made from clear Plexiglas so dogs can see what's on the other side before going through). Some home designers are including bay windows with large ledges to accommodate Fluffy or Fido's sunbath, and are adding windows that are lower to the ground. Kitchens are being fitted with "pet nooks" where the family pet(s) can have their own place to eat and sleep.

Source: Herman Trend Alert

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Internet Surpasses Yellow Pages for Consumer Info

When shopping for local products and services, consumers are letting their fingers do the walking... but it's to click a mouse, not to flip through the Yellow Pages.

A new Kelsey Group survey shows that in 2005, more US adults are using the Internet to research shopping than they are the Yellow Pages, and just as many are using the Net as are local newspapers. This represents a 10% increase in Internet usage for local shopping from 2o03.

Use of the Yellow Pages sharply declined in homes with Internet access, but alarmingly, remained flat in homes without Internet access... suggesting a broader cultural shift away from dependence on the Yellow Pages as a shopping resource.

Clearly this will have a serious impact on how businesses advertise -- and may move the Yellow Pages into the realm of vanishing Americana.

Source: eMarketer

Monday, March 28, 2005

Obesity Could Reduce Average Lifespans; Fast Food No Help

Obesity has become such a problem in the US that researchers believe that it could actually reduce the average American lifespan. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago estimate that within 50 years, the average lifespan of 77.6 years will shorten by two to five years due to obesity-realted illnesses -- erasing approximately 25 years in steady lifespan gains.

Not helping the cause is Burger King, which is introducing its Enormous Omelet Sandwich. The sausage, egg, cheese and bacon sandwich weighs in with 730 calories and 47 grams of fat. Though fast food leader McDonald's has been offering more health fare as of late, and Subway made its name as a healthy alternative to fast food, other fast food restaurants appear to be going against the health tide. Last fall, Hardee's introduced its 1,400-calorie, 107-fat-gram Monster Thickburger.

The market success or failure of these sandwiches will tell us much about how much Americans care about their waistlines or health in general. Putting this in perspective, an "average" healthy daily calorie intake is between 2,000 and 2,500 calories. The recommended maximum fat intake (including all fats) for a 2,000-calorie diet is 65 grams. Learn more about recommended daily nutritional values here.

UPDATE: McDonald's, for one, may have backed off of super-sizing, but they know where their core market lies, are wagering that they're not health nuts, and think they know how to reach them. It's been reported that Mickey D's is seeking rap stars who will mention Big Macs in their songs. In return, the artists would receive a royalty of $1 to $5 each time their song is played on the radio. This tells us that a) McDonald's sees the young urban hip-hop audience as its core customers (or at least a customer base worth cultivating), and b) thinks the best way to reach this audience is through an unconventional (some might say subversive) marketing campaign. No details on which rappers have taken the bait, but McDonald's hints that they have received some promising responses.

Sources: MTV.com, CNN.com

Internet Television Distribution

We've discussed this many times before, but Chris Anderson at Long Tail has a post that summarizes everything that's wrong with today's television, in terms of demographics, falling ratings and ineffective advertising models. Anderson points to a rather jargony article in MediaPost, a publication for advertising media buyers, suggesting that TV advertising is reaching a critical tipping point that could transform the advertiser-broadcaster relationship.

However, the post also points to solutions -- not for the powers that be, but for the viewer. One of the most intriguing is a company called Brightcove, which was founded by Jeremy Allaire, the co-creator of the Cold Fusion programming language. Brightcove allows a way for independent video producers to distribute their works through the Internet. In a sense, it's like Napster for video, except with a business model that allows content creators to get paid for their work.

Brightcove certainly has the potential to be highly disruptive to the television industry. One thing standing in its way, though, is the need for more broadband Internet in the household. But Brightcove attempts to address another major sticking point in content distribution, that of rights management. Once those problems are solved, we could indeed see a "perfect storm" that transforms television as we know it.

[BREAKING NEWS] Blogging the Latest Indonesian Earthquake

Paul Tan, the Tsunami Disaster blog and Irish Trojan are blogging the latest Indonesian earthquake, which occurred just hours ago and measured a magnitude between 8.2 and 8.5. Fears are that it could possibly trigger another tsunami like the one experienced by the region in December. More on local blogging here.

UPDATE 1: The US Geological Survey now says that the quake had a magnitude of at least 8.7. If the quake spawned a tsunami as feared, it would strike populated areas in the region by 3 AM Tuesday (4 PM Eastern time Monday). Updates at CNN.com and MSNBC.

UPDATE 2 (2:50 PM EST): A second, 6.0-magnitude earthquake has been reported in the Sumatra region. Geologists believe that this quake was too large to be an aftershock of the earlier quake. Some good news: no signs of a tsunami have been reported so far.

UPDATE 3 (5:00 PM EST): About 300 people have been reported killed by the earthquake so far, and several villages near the epicenter have suffered catastrophic damage. Concerns about a tsunami seem to be waning, though the US Geological Survey reports "small" tsunami activity in the Indian Ocean. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center maintains that damage from a tsunami remains a possiblity and should be "presumed." Read the latest PTWC Pacific bulletins here.

The Fab Lab

A story that generated lots of buzz on tech and futurist blogs last week was the "Fab Lab," a set of tools developed by MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms that can literally build devices from the ground up. The Fab Lab can mill machine and electronic parts to a millionth of a meter; the stated purpose is to help innovators in developing countries develop and maintain technology. As an article in The Economist explains:

In Pabal, an Indian village with a population of 5,000, a dairy farmer's income is tied to the fat content of his cow's milk. Students at the nearby Vigyan Ashram science school are using a fab lab to build a sensor that will give Pabal's farmers a precise measure of that fat content. In Takoradi, Ghana, people have used the labs to produce a cassava grinder, jewellery, car parts, agricultural tools and communication equipment such as radio antennas. Solar-powered items to harness the relentless local sunlight are in the works. In Norway, Sami animal herders—who are among Europe's last nomads—are using fab labs to make radio collars and wireless networks to track their charges. And in Boston (admittedly not part of the developing world, but conveniently near MIT), the residents of a mixed-income housing complex are using one of Dr Gershenfeld's labs to create a wireless communication network.

The Fab Lab costs $20,000 -- a lot at face value, but not much considering that it does the job of machinery that costs much more. Some analysts have compared the revolutionary impact of the Fab Lab to that of the personal computers, which took computing out of the labs and brought it to the masses... and lowered costs dramatically.

Sources: The Economist, Future Salon

Technology Makes the Difference for Prospective Employees

What makes a person want to work for an organization? A great salary? Generous benefits? Training opportunities? A casual workplace? Interestingly, a Canadian survey has found that an organization's technology can make or break a candidate's decision to accept a position.

An Ipsos-Reid survey of over 1,100 Canadian workers found that 75% agreed with the statement: "technology tools and software are an important consideration" in choosing a place to work. Additionally, 20% of the respondents said that their current employers weren't giving them the technology tools to do their jobs properly.

According to the survey, the technologies considered most important by workers were those that aggregate information and help them make critical decisions. To that end, customer reationship management and other data mining tools are enormously important. Communication tools -- e-mail, cell phones, wireless laptops, collaboration software -- were also considered crucial. Technology, workers say, plays a critical role in how successful and productive they will be in a new job.

Those of us who have worked in the management end of technology have known this for years. The very best job candidates, who can cherry-pick their job offers, put the quality of a firm's technology at the very top of their list of considerations when weighing their options. If the firm's technology isn't up to snuff, it's scratched from the list. Also, a firm with top-drawer technology may be able to draw key employees away from its competitors.

Sources: Globe and Mail, Techdirt

Friday, March 25, 2005

Kyrgyzstan: The World's Newest Hotspot

Yet another news story overshadowed by the Terri Schiavo drama was this week's apparent democratic revolution in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. If you've never heard of this country, you can be forgiven. It's a former Soviet republic in Central Asia that borders on China. You can learn more about Kyrgyzstan via its entry in the CIA Factbook.

The blogs Registan.net and Thinking-east.net are blogging the Kyrgyzstan uprising. Meanwhile, the Russian news service Interfax reports on another disturbance in another former Soviet republic, in Belarus in the city of Minsk.

Sources: Instapundit, Dan Gillmor

Invasive Species

We so often worry about endangered or threatened species that we don't often think about "invasive species" -- those that move outside of their native habitat to cause problems for other ecosystems. In other words, species that are too successful.

The Invasive Species Weblog documents such species that have been introduced to alien habitats by accident, natural expansion, or through ill-conceived releases. The species often go on to spread disease, threaten the indigenous wildlife, and even cause economic damage. Invasive species are yet another unintended consequence of globalization and lack of attention paid to the environment.

Source: WorldChanging

Honeybee Network

If you're a really bright and clever person with great ideas, yet live in a remote part of the developing world, how can you make your contribution to the greater society? Perhaps by letting people find you.

An initiative in India called the Honeybee Network seeks to locate smart people with innovations and put them in touch with other villages who could use their ideas. Example of such clever folk inventions discovered through the network are a device for scaling coconut trees and a fully functioning robot.

Source: WorldChanging

Dixon and Nixon

As much as I dislike lumping psychics in with futurists, emerging technologists and trendwatchers, an item from the current issue of Newsweek piqued my interest nonetheless. Thus, as our weekly Friday diversion, we'll examine how psychic Jeanne Dixon reportedly advised President Richard Nixon in the early 1970's.

Dixon rose to fame by supposedly predicting the election and assassination of JFK, and throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, her predictions regularly appeared in supermarket tabloids. Now, tapes recently unearthed by the commission investigating 9/11 reveal that Dixon consulted with the President on what she believed to be terrorist threats and other matters.

She predicted terrorist attacks against Nixon, as well as against Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and comedian Alan King. In general, Dixon was concerned about the safety of prominent Jews in America. Nixon responded by forming a counterterrorism commission in 1972... though this may also have been inspired by the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics that year.

In other areas, Dixon's predictions were way off. For instance, she predicted that World War III would break out in 1958 in China, that the Soviets would be the first to put a man on the moon, and that a cure for cancer would be found by 1967. As for Nixon's difficulties in the Watergate scandal, Dixon assured the President that there would be a rough road ahead, but that "everything will turn out fine." By the 1980s, Dixon's predictions were so consistently off the mark that another one of her high-powered clients -- Nancy Reagan -- concluded that the psychic had lost her powers.

But Nixon remained loyal to his "soothsayer" -- perhaps in part because Dixon remained loyal to him, predicting that he would ultimately be regarded as one of America's greatest Presidents.

Source: MSNBC

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Alternative Sources for Stem Cells

Several research projects offer promise for harvesting viable human stem cells from sources other than human embryos -- potentially removing a major ethical quandary in the progress toward stem cell treatments.

Experiments with human muscle, skin and fat cells have yielded encouraging results. An Australian research team has cultivated stem cells taken from inside an adult nose; these could potentially be used for growing nerve, heart, kidney and muscle cells. And in Norway, a research team has used adult human bone marrow cells to grow spinal cord nerves in chicken embryos.

The Catholic Church funded part of the Australian study to demonstrate that progress in stem cell research could be made without using human embryonic stem cells.

Sources: MSNBC, FuturePundit

US Carrier Groups Converge on the Middle East

Virtually lost in the chatter between the Terry Schiavo controversy, the Michael Jackson trial and assorted other news stories are reports that three US aircraft carrier groups are either headed to or are in place around the Middle East. The carriers USS Carl Vinson and the USS Theodore Roosevelt are en route to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea respectively. This will mark the first time since February 2004 that the US will have had so much naval firepower in the region. As India Daily reports:

Each of these carrier groups carry nearly 85 aircraft and is capable of delivering precision-guided munitions. In addition, there are anti-submarine aircraft, airborne-early-warning and rotary-wing aircraft. Because [of] in-the-air refueling capabilities, these aircrafts can operate from a long distance. The carrier groups are independent and can operate indefinitely.

So what's up? Blogger Glenn Reynolds and conservative commentator Jerome Corsi speculate that the US and the Europeans are preparing a "good cop, bad cop" routine with Syria and Iran. The Europeans will continue friendly negotiations while the US stands behind them with the brass knuckles. Corsi in particular believes that the Bush administration is losing patience with Iran and its insistence that it is not building nuclear weapons.

Are we looking at preparations for a showdown with one or both countries, perhaps sooner rather than later? If negotiations break down, and if the administration feels confident with the progress of democracy in Iraq and Lebanon (both of which are still very much question marks), anything could happen.

Sources: WorldNetDaily, India Daily

Which Grocery Stores are Going High-Tech?

Is your local grocer jumping on the latest technology, or is it a laggard? Business 2.0 has a quick overview of several cutting-edge grocery stores and the technology they're rolling out.

Metro Future Stores in Germany are rolling out self-service kiosks (already used in deli sections of many ShopRites); "smart shelves" that read RFID-tagged products, locate misplaced items and send real-time alerts when items need restocking; and real-time advertising via plasma screens. Certain Albertsons stores (a.k.a. Acme Markets in the Midatlantic region) are experimenting with handheld scanners that customers can use to total up orders and transmit to a self-checkout register, as well as with fingerprint payment systems.

Grocery stores are also rethinking the shopping process as well. Many stores now feature "express areas" where shoppers can grab one or two items (a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, or a pre-made sandwich) and pay via self-service checkout. Of course, as anyone familar with grocery stores knows, bad process is the real source of problems. Self-service checkouts generally work poorly when shoppers buy more than a few items, and nothing's more aggravating than a busy shopping day when only one or two checkout lanes are open.

Grocery stores tend to be conservative when it comes to technology, but once a good technical solution emerges (one that offers value to both grocer and shopper), it catches on like wildfire. It seems today as if grocers have been accepting debit cards forever, but we have to remind ourselves what a recent innovation that was. Now, shoppers can avoid the embarassment of being caught short of cash at checkout, and grocers don't lose sales.

Florida as the New Bellwether State

Carlos Watson of CNN believes that Florida is becoming America's new politically trendsetting state, from the Terri Schiavo controversy, to its pivotal role in the 2000 Presidental election, to a test-based education standard that served as the model for President Bush's federal "No Child Left Behind" initiative.

The reason, Watson suggests, goes beyond Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's relationship with his brother, the President. Florida's growing, diverse population makes it an accurate cross-section of America, containing conservative, moderate and liberal elements. "Florida is incredibly diverse along almost every major dimension (race, age, income, economy, nationality, geography, politics, etc.)," writes Watson, "and consequently now sees many of the most forward-looking problems before anyone else."

Don't look for anything radical or bleeding-edge to come out of Florida. Instead, view it as a microcosm of America, and an indicator of what the average American (if there is such a thing anymore) is thinking and where he/she wants to go. You can bet that the savvy politicians will be.

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Texting Finally Catching On in the US?

Americans haven't embraced SMS mobile text messaging the way that their European and Asian counterparts have. However, a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that one quarter of all US cell phone users have sent or received text messages within the past month.

Not surprisingly, the younger the user, the more likely he or she is to use texting features. Sixty-three percent of users aged 18-27 have used text messaging, compared with 31% of users aged 28-39, and 7% of users over 60.

The survey also found that 28% of those surveyed have received "spim" (instant-message spam) and other unsolicited messages.

Source: CNN.com

"Snakebot" Can Conquer Most Any Terrain

The mobile robotics lab at the University of Michigan has developed a snake-like robot that can maneuver around almost any type of terrain, including stairs, pipes and wide gaps. Such a robot would offer very clear benefits in emergency search and rescue, industrial inspection, military applications and space exploration.

The OmniTread Serpentine Robot has treads that cover virtually all of its long, flexible body. The robot has multiple sections that are connected with bellowed joints that can adjust and act as a steering mechanism. The current version of the robot requires an external power source, though a self-powered version is under development.

View a video clip of the OmniTread in action (Windows Media Player required).

Source: PhysOrg

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Food Additive May Slow Fat Absorption

Fast food lovers may be able to have their fries and eat them too, if experiments with a modified food additive continue to be encouraging.

Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (don't try to pronounce it, just call it HPMC) is commonly used as a food additive to modify texture. However, increasing the levels of HPMC in highly fatty foods appears to help prevent insulin resistance -- a condition that's often a precursor to diabetes. By extension, the additive chould also help reduce levels of obesity that come from eating foods laden with fat. So far, studies indicate that five grams of HPMC per serving are required to produce the beneficial effect.

Researchers don't yet know why HPMC slows down fat absorption. They also caution that, even if their studies continue to show positive results, HPMC won't be a green light to super-size. "Obviously, the less fat you eat, the better off you are," says Wallace H. Yokoyama of the USDA, who is coordinating one of the studies. "But if you're going to eat high-fat foods, then adding HPMC to it might help limit the damage." Fat absorption is slowed, after all, and not blocked... and this isn't to say anything about calories.

Source: Scientific American

When You Need a Pizza NOW!!

Remember the pizza delivery chains' 30-minute delivery guarantees? They largely disappeared because the pizza joints got sick of arguing with customers who timed them with stopwatches, then demanded free pizzas. Plus, the harried delivery guys drove like banshees and caused accidents.

If you miss those days, they may be on their way back, thanks to Wisconsin-based Super Fast Pizza. Using high-tech mobile kitchens, they bake their pizzas en route and shoot for (but don't guarantee) 15-minute delivery times. And your pizza is literally hot out of the oven! The kitchens-on-wheels are wired with WiFi and can accept online orders on the fly; in fact, customers who order online get a free soda! Super Fast has a limited menu and a single size (medium), but their price of $10.99 per pizza is competitive with the more traditional shops.

Currently, Super Fast is only serving the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin area; with a conservative growth plan, they are moving to other Wisconsin cities in the near future, and hope to have 20,000 franchises within 20 years. In markets that value fast, convenient service over gourmet options, the Super Fast model will surely be attractive, and could well redefine "fast food." In fact, writing this piece is making me hungry... wish there was a Super Fast here in Jersey!!

Sources: Springwise, Pizza Marketplace News

Technology + Big Business = The Killing of FM Radio

People, it seems, have been complaining about commercial radio programming for as long as it's been around. Yet complaining about it is like complaining about the weather: everyone does it, but no one does anything about it.

That may be changing. In commenting on a recent Wall Street Journal piece on the upheavals in radio programming, Blogger Barry Ritholtz notes that MP3 players, satellite radio and the trend toward M&As in the radio business have degraded traditional FM radio and possibly driven away an entire generation of listeners. Ritholtz is particularly critical of the erosion of the listener-DJ relationship; in the past, he notes, listeners relied on DJs to expose them to new types of music, and play what they thought was the very best stuff. Now, with station consolidation, fewer choices and centrally-dictated playlists (what Ritholtz calls "McMusic"), music is too uniform and bland to be of much interest. Little wonder that Internet radio and P2P music sites are filling that void.

FM stations are fighting back by playing more music from more diverse sources, and playing fewer commercials. However, this may well come at a price to radio's bottom line, as ad revenues have leveled off since 2000. Radio may also have to temper its content to placate growing censorship calls from politicians seeking to impress the religious right, as well as other critics.

Ritholtz calls the blanding of FM radio the "Hamburger Helper Effect":

Consider the modus operandi of all consolidators: Purchase assets, eliminate redundant administrative functions, achieve economies of scale. Clearchannel did this – and more -- by firing local program managers, DJs, eliminating formats, and tightening playlists – all of which ultimately reduced the amount of varied music on the radio.

In effect, they lowered the overall quality and breadth of what they were playing. Equate this to a hamburger chain introducing meat extender. It will certainly lower costs, and increase profits – but only short term. Over time, the patrons of the restaurant simply will stop coming. Revenue slides, repeat customers go away, so the business tanks.

That’s FM radio today.

It's not a fun time to be in the FM radio biz. Today's DJs and programming directors are afraid or unable to push the envelope, yet they can't play it safe either. Perhaps FM radio will go the way of AM when FM came along after World War II; unable to compete with the sonically superior FM signals, AM stations gradually gave up music and switched to sports, news and talk formats. In other words, if you can't beat 'em, go off in a totally different direction.

Source: Long Tail

Will Mobile On-Demand Do What Napster Couldn't?

The MocoNews blog has several posts that point to alternate revenue streams for content creators, including musicians. As mobile handsets become more sophisticated, they may become the major conduits for entertainment content. Listeners, for instance, could download music and video clips, and pay via SMS. Or, they could point their devices to sites such as Roomobile.com and download content, some of it for free. Readers can even download books to their mobile devices (assuming they can read very small type).

Trends like this are important for two reasons. First, the high-functioning mobile devices simplifies the content acquisition process for the consumer. Instead of having to hook up an MP3 player to a PC, a consumer can connect his or her mobile device directly to the source. Second, sites that can accept payment directly from mobile phones and other devices allow content creators to receive payment for their work, while disintermediating all the middlemen that drive up music, video and publishing costs. This comes at a time when consumer groups are pushing back against the music industry and Hollywood for their inflated prices and crackdowns on P2P networks.

Sources: CNET, unmediated

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Global Darkness Shortage

A byproduct of the modern world that we don't often think about is the shortage of darkness, or the presence of nighttime artificial light and our 24/7 society that's so constant that it disrupts the natural day-night cycle. Now, a growing number of scientists believe that depriving ourselves of darkness can actually make us sick.

Darkness advocates say that constant exposure to light sources -- whether they be from the inside or outside -- disrupts sleep cycles and causes physical stress. They even discourage the use of night lights, arguing that the human body evolved in environments where nighttime meant absolute darkness. Scientists are conducting studies to see whether exposure to nighttime light can suppress the body's production of melatonin, an enzyme believed to aid in fighting diseases such as cancer.

Sources: Taipei Times, Boing Boing

Who is Allowing Stem Cell Research?

William Hoffman of the University of Minnesota has compiled a map of the countries with the most flexible and permissive policies on embryonic stem cell research. Nations in dark brown (most notably China, India, Japan, the UK and South Korea) have "permissive" policies (almost anything goes except human reproductive cloning); those in light brown have "flexible" policies (permitted, but with restrictions). Nations in yellow (including the US) have the most restrictive policies or are not involved in research.

In the US, California is singled out because of its Proposition 71 that provides a state constitutional right to pursue stem cell research. It's important to note that permissive stem cell research policies do not necessarily imply scientific leadership; the US, after all, has more genome sequencing centers than any other nation.

The site has several other maps showing different types of scientific, technological and economic leadership throughout the world.

Source: Future Salon

iPods for Religious Study

MP3s such as the iPod aren't just for playing music anymore. Thanks to podcasting and similar technologies, college professors are distributing lectures in MP3 format, and radiologists are using Photo iPods to store and review patient images.

Now, iPods are being used for religious instruction. A 23-year-old entrepreneur named Yehuda Shmidman has created what he calls the ShasPod, an iPod pre-loaded with an audio version of the 2,711-page Talmud used in a cycle of study known to Orthodox Jews as the Daf Yomi. The program, in which students read a page a day, takes 7-1/2 years to complete.

Daf Yomi lectures have long been available on the Web in MP3 format, but Orthodox Jews are forbidden from using the Web for purposes unrelated to work -- even for religious instruction. Thus, devices such as the ShasPod are particularly useful for Orthodox Jews. However, religious law prohibits them from using electrical devices of any type -- including MP3 players -- on the Sabbath.

Orthodox Jews are hardly alone in leveraging MP3 players for religious study. Christian groups in particular have begun regular podcasts of sermons, Bible study, music and interviews.

Sources: The New York Times, we make money not art

Firefly Develops Cell Phone for Kids

Last week we discussed how more kids were wanting and getting cell phones. Now, a startup called Firefly Mobile has developed a cell phone specifically designed for young children.

The phone, which uses a prepaid calling plan, has simplified design; no games or text messaging capability; has speed dial buttons for Mom, Dad and 911; and can only dial those numbers that parents program into it. The phone is also smaller than a regular cell phone, fitting more comfortably into a child's hands.

The Firefly phones are scheduled to go on sale through the Firefly website in May, and at Target stores this summer.

Sources: Designtechnica, MobileTracker

Saturday, March 19, 2005

What Terri Schiavo is Teaching Us

Yesterday, as you no doubt heard, the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman, was removed at the request of her husband, and against the wishes of her parents. The removal was a culmination of years of legal battling and protests that literally involved an act of Congress, and is not over yet.

The Schiavo case is important to futurists because it gives us a glimpse into issues that will rock society in the years to come. The most obvious issues are the advances in medicine that allow profoundly disabled individuals such as Schiavo to remain alive... as well as provide hope of recovery through stem cell research and other means.

The other issue is demographic. As our population ages, we will have many more people who will have long life without health. They will become critically ill and disabled, to the point where they, like Schiavo, will be unable to communicate their wishes and needs, leading to second-guessing and conflicts. This, combined with medical technology that can prolong if not enhance life, will create a legion of Terri Schiavos -- and a morass of legal, ethical, religious and even economic controversies for the rest of us to navigate.

Indeed, what makes the Schiavo case so difficult is its central set of contradictions. Terri is not "brain dead" or on a resiprator; she is not elderly, suffering from a terminal disease or otherwise facing end of life. If I were her parents, I would want to keep her alive. If I were her husband, I wouldn't fight to disconnect her feeding tube. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to live like that, and I don't know who would.

Most futurists believe that advances in medicine will one day find ways to reverse brain damage... but the key phrase there is "one day." In the meantime, those of us who could find ourselves in Terri Schiavo's unfortunate position (which is to say, any of us) owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to consider living wills that will give our families and doctors guidance for our care. Living wills (a.k.a. healthcare or physician directives) can specify many medical decisions, including tube feeding and resuscitation, so that individuals -- not courts, special interest groups, Congress, or anyone else -- can control their healthcare to the very end.

Perhaps Terri Schiavo is not so much teaching us as warning us, that healthcare can be a double-edged sword, and one that will become ever more problematic in the coming years.

UPDATE 1: MSNBC reports that advocacy groups such as Aging with Dignity are being flooded with requests for help in preparing living wills in light of the Terri Schiavo controversy. Aging with Dignity offers a "Five Wishes" document that helps individuals create their own living wills without the need of a lawyer, and that are legally binding in most states. Nonetheless, MSNBC notes that 85% of Americans do not have written living wills.

UPDATE 2: Technology Liberation Front cites an excellent commentary that views the Schiavo case in light of advancing biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The Latest Medical Technology is... Maggots???

That's correct... Clinical trials are underway in the US and UK to evaluate the medical value of maggots. Turns out the little dudes are remarkably effective at safely cleaning and disinfecting leg ulcers and other persistent wounds.

In Britain, patients whose wounds have been treated with sterilized greenfly larvae report less pain and faster healing. Both the US Food and Drug Administration and the British National Health Service recognize maggot therapy as a valid medical treatment.

Maggots were used in medicine for hundreds of years before the era of antibiotics. Recently, maggot therapy has caught on around the world, most notably the US, UK, Israel and Germany. Practitioners claim that the demand for their services has grown markedly over the last five years.

Source: Reuters (Excite)

Friday, March 18, 2005

Hydrogen Cars for Sale in 2012

The good news is that hydrogen-powered cars ar on their way. The bad news is that we may have to wait seven more years for them.

DaimlerChrysler, one of the automakers on the forefront of hydrogen fuel cell technology, plans to make hydrogen cars available to the general market by 2012. It has already shipped experimental hydrogen cars to several countries, including the US.

Though progress in hydrogen fuel cell technology is promising, DaimlerChrysler still has technical and logistical hurdles to overcome. Hydrogen cars, for instance, perform poorly in very cold weather. Fuel cells are also too large, expensive, and short-lived to be commerically attractive. And then there's the whole issue of infrastructure; without hydrogen filling stations, where will motorists tank up?

Sources: Wired, GeniusNow

Spending More to Stay Connected

The cost of cell phone plans is going up, according to the wireless-industry group CTIA. After reaching a low of $39.43 in 1998, the average monthly cell phone bill has risen steadily, and reached $50.64 in 2004... only a few dollars shy of the average bill a decade earlier!

Why the increase? CTIA points to a number of factors, including increased phone taxes, greater usage overall, more available services (and fees), and the wave of industry mergers that have reduced competition.

One phenomenon possibly contributing to the rise in average fees is that of "cord-cutters" -- customers, usually young people, who abandon their land lines and use their cell phones as their primary phones. Such customers tend to purchase the most expensive plans with lots of minutes. The CTIA survey, however, does not take into account savings from canceled land-line service that often offsets or exceeds cell phone fees.

Source: eMarketer

Artificial Neuroscience

The more we learn about how the human mind works, the less we realize we understand. This is especially true when considering how to create sentient machines -- machines that think and feel as we do.

A common rule of thumb is that a computer would have to be able to process at least a trillion calculations per second to be able to come close to replicating the human brain. But increasingly, scientists are realizing that this is not enough. Things that we do subconsciously are incredibly difficult for machines, which don't as yet function on the subconscoius level.

Tyson Durst of the University of Alberta proposes a new field of study, "artificial neuroscience," that would explore not only the possibilities and limits to artificial intelligence, but the ways in which sentient machines would interact with humans. Asimov's laws of robotics aside, would AI machines subscribe to the same set of ethics and morals as humans? Would they perceive the world differently, and if so, how? Would sentient machines ultimately view themselves as oppressed and campaign for their freedom?

Such questions have traditionally existed in the realm of science fiction. But as thinkers like Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute argue, we need to start thinking about them now, for by the time we develop AI and are faced with very real ethical crises, it will be too late.

Sources: Asimovlaws.com, Univ. of Alberta

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Vatican Condemns "Religion of Health"

A February statement from the Vatican sharply criticized what it called the "religion of health," seeking to point out inequities in basic healthcare between poor and affluent countries, and holding up the ailing Pope John Paul II as an example of stoic acceptance of the human body's limits.

Said Vatican theologian and morality expert Rev. Maurizio Faggioni:

"While millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires... The medicine of desires, egged on by the health care market, increases the request for pharmaceutical and medical-surgical services, soaks up public resources beyond all reasonableness."

While the Vatican was likely trying to express a sense of well-meaning social justice here, the problem comes when trying to define such terms as "reasonableness." One can certainly argue that cosmetic surgery is not necessary... but is it "unreasonable" and therefore bad? Is it "unreasonable" to want to be healthy, happy and illness-free, and thus a more productive member of society? Does "unreasonable" care include keeping a vegetative but living person with no hope of recovery on expensive life support? At what point do we draw the line between "basic" and excessive medical care?

When asked the latter question, Rev. Faggioni said, "[I]t is difficult to establish what a decent minimum is" -- suggesting that the top Catholic thinkers don't have any better answers than the rest of us.

One can take Rev. Faggioni's statements or leave them; after all, these are the folks who condemned Copernicus and Galileo. But these are the kinds of tough questions that will be asked increasingly as healthcare technology increases and we inch ever further into the realm of transhumanism. Indeed, any responsible and ethical society needs to ask them. At what extent do we pursue a brave new world of genetic and stem cell treatments and post-human capabilities while leaving behind those who have no healthcare at all?

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune

Can a Cute Robot Make People More Generous?

What is it about the human persona that makes us want to help others? Altruism is one of the traits that separates us from animals, but we know surprisingly little about it, or what evokes feelings of caring and generosity.

Scientists believe that caring is an evolutionary trait, leading early humans to cooperate and pool their resources to survive. But what exactly triggers caring emotions? To answer that, an experiment at Harvard used two groups: one that was asked to donate money online, and another that was also asked for donations, but through a website that featured a cute, doe-eyed robot named Kismet. The group donating through Kismet's website gave 30% more money than the group without Kismet.

The researchers concluded that there is something deep within our primal memory that responds to big, pleading eyes. It's perhaps one reason why we respond with affection toward babies, puppies and other cute, cuddly critters. Yet, as the experiment showed, we can't distinguish between an actual cute critter and a likeness of one.

Understanding what triggers feelings of giving can be used by everyone from charities to the IRS to marketers, both honest and dishonest. If you want someone's money, don't schmooze or threaten them. Just stare at them with big, soulful eyes...

Source: New Scientist

Multimedia Guide to Using Trackbacks

Establishing trackback links is a powerful and easy way for bloggers to increase traffic and gain visibility on other blogs. Yet they're often tricky to use.

Jim Edwards' marketing blog "I Gotta Tell You" features a tutorial on trackbacks, including video and audio clips illustrating exactly how they work and how you can leverage them for your blogging efforts.

Source: Blogcetera, Blogging for Fun and Profit

More Video Games Featuring Drug Use

Back when Mario and Luigi began "powering up" by eating magic mushrooms, who knew that they were on the cutting edge of what has become a staple of video games: drug use. Many of today's hottest games feature illegal drugs as a common element... yet the way they handle them is sometimes surprising.

In the game Narc, the latest version of which will be released next week, players can use drugs to "power up" or disable their enemies, not unlike in Super Mario. Drug use is also treated as morally neutral, as even cops can use drugs in the game. But drug use also carries consequences, from hallucinations to arrest. Upcoming games that will feature drug use prominently are Snow and a game based on the movie Scarface.

Game developers insist that, as the story lines of games become deeper and more complex, portraying drug use is as necessary an evil as portraying violence. "If you can blow someone's head off, I don't see why you can't have drugs, as long as it fits the context," said Doug Walker, game designer for the Dutch developer Guerrilla Games. Developers also cite the fact that half of video game players are adults (the generation that grew up on Pac Man and Donkey Kong) as justification for expanding their artistic license.

Of the 40 games labeled for drug content, more than half were released in the last three years. This includes last year's top seller, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes before a member of Congress begins to rail against this trend, or studies appear that show the effect of game-portrayed drug use on kids.

Source: The New York Times

A Planet of 100 People

Statistics culled from the US Census Bureau, UNESCO and other sources reveal a telling portrat of the world if its population were shrunk to 100 people. Keeping all the current proportions of the actual world's population intact, the figures reveal:

57 people would be Asian
21 would be European
14 would be from the Western Hemisphere (both north and south)
8 would be Africans

51 would be female
49 would be male

70 would be non-white
30 would be white

70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian

89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual

50% of the world’s wealth would be in the hands of 6 people
All 6 people would be citizens of the United States

80 would live in sub-standard housing
70 would be unable to read
50 would be suffering from malnutrition

1 would be near death
1 would be near birth
1 would have a college education
4 would own a computer

Source: Incoblogo

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Adding Y!Q Searches to Blogger.com Blog Posts

You may have noticed Yahoo! Search (Y!Q) links added to the bottom of each FutureWire post. These present a popup with links to additional Web resources as found on Yahoo. Blog developer Jeremy Zawodny posted on his blog instructions for adding Y!Q to MoveableType blog posts. However, with some minor tweaks, the same code works with Blogger.com blogs as well.

Follow Jeremy's instructions, which work essentially the same with Blogger.com blogs as with MoveableType (because Blogger is fussy about how it accepts HTML, I can't post the code here). The key modification to make is to change the input value variable from $MTEntryTitle$ to $BlogItemTitle$. This allows Y!Q to search based on your post's title; of course, the wording of your title will affect the quality of the search results.

The Y!Q search works in Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera browsers.

How Reality TV is Changing an Industry

Reality TV is making its mark on business -- and not just the television industry. Motorcycle expert John Wyckoff argues that reality TV is singlehandedly responsible for the growth in the custom chopper business, which in turn is shaking up the conventional motorcycle industry.

Shows such as The Discovery Channel's American Chopper, which shows customized bikes being built from start to finish (and all the drama in between), are driving interest in custom motorcycles. Granted, the bikes built by these custom shops are extremely expensive -- costing well into the six figures -- and appeal to a niche market. However, this niche market is highly influential (as are all upscale niche markets), redefining what it takes for a motorcycle to be considered "cool" in the marketplace.

Suddenly, upstart bike builders such as Big Dog Motorcycles and American IronHorse are the new must-have brand names, eclipsing established and respected brands like Harley-Davidson. Considering how iconic Harley-Davidson is (classic marketing question: how many of your customers get tattoos of your logo?), this is no small accomplishment. Wyckoff quotes noted bike designer Arlen Ness as saying of Harley, "Now Harley-Davidson is just another bike. They lost their 'cool'."

That's a damning thing to say... and a testament to the disruptive power of reality TV.

Source: Small Business Trends

Nearly Half of all US Kids Own Cell Phones

A recent survey by the global research firm NOP World has found that 44% of US children between the ages of 10 and 18 own cell phones. The percentage of 15-to-17-year-olds owning cell phones jumped from 42% in 2002 to 75% in 2004.

The survey also found that kids are interested in multifunctional phones, such as camera phones and those that can play MP3 music files. This suggests that cell phone usage may increase even more among young people as phones become available with more functions.

The young people surveyed also indicated a high level of brand loyalty, with 77% staying with their original carrier, and only 11% looking to switch within the next six months. However, this might have something to do with many kids being on family plans, where the parents make the purchasing decisions.

Of all the major cell phone carriers, Verizon and Cingular had by far the highest levels of brand awareness, with nearly half the respondents recognizing those names. Sprint, AT&T (now owned by Cingular) and T-Mobile came in a distant third, fourth and fifth respectively. Much of this is surely due to aggressive advertising on the part of Verizon and Cingular. Teens' brand-consciousness gives those two carriers a distinct advantage; teens may also carry that brand loyalty with them as they enter adulthood, offering recommendations, buying cell phones for family members and influencing the choices of their employers.

Source: eMarketer

Caribbean at Risk for Major Tsunami, Say Scientists

The devastating tsunami that struck southern Asia last December moved that phenomenon to the top of scientists' research lists. Now, three researchers studying historical data say that the northern Caribbean might be the next tsunami "ground zero."

Nancy Grindlay and Meghan Hearne of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Paul Mann of the University of Texas at Austin believe that the boundary between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates -- near the Greater and Lesser Antilles islands and the US Gulf Coast -- is volatile enough to produce a major tsunami. They base this belief on the geological history of the region, which includes 10 devastating tsunamis since 1492. Studies of underwater landslides show that even more powerful tsunamis occurred before 1492.

The most recent tsunami to strike the region was triggered by a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in the Dominican Republic in 1946, and killed about 1,800 people.

Source: Eurekalert

Smart Companies Putting Their Customers to Work

Increasingly, businesses committed to innovation are putting a new spin on the old adage "the customer is always right," and turning their customers' knowledge and needs into new product development. Taking a cue from bottom-up development processes such as open source software, companies are using online communities and the hacker mentality to not only learn from their customers, but to actively involve them in product development.

"Demand-side innovation" (one of its many names) can take many forms. BMW, for example, posted a "toolkit" online allowing customers to model new ideas in telematics and online services; BMW selected the best ideas for development, and invited the contributors to meet with its engineers in Munich. The game developer Electronic Arts monitors and networks with grassroots fan websites for its games, where enthusiasts post game modifications created with tools that are shipped with the games. General Electric routinely pulls together what it calls its "lead users" in meetings to discuss future needs and ideas for its major product lines. The office supply store Staples held a contest for new product ideas, and received 8,300 submissions.

Such customer driven innovation not only leads to better and more useful products, but provides customers with a unique sense of ownership of the end product... even if they didn't personally participate in its development. The concept is nothing new, as customers have been sending compaines product ideas for years (the development of the pickup truck originally grew out of suggestions from farmers), but the Internet is making this kind of networking exponentially easier.

For more ideas on managing innovation, read "Five Key Strategies for Making Open Innovation Work for You" at Innovation.net.

Source: The Economist, Innovation Weblog

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More of Your Decency Tax Dollars at Work...

Aren't you glad your government expended so much effort (and money) to determine that the racy Desperate Housewives/Monday Night Football promo that aired last November was, in fact, not indecent? [Adobe PDF file]

Source: BuzzMachine

More Web Sites Embrace TV-Style Video

Video on the Web is nothing new... but now, some websites are launching TV-style programs that are available on demand, in a format familiar to TV viewers that goes far beyond the typical 30-second Quicktime clip.

An Atlanta-based company called Multicast is a pioneer in this field, making a name for itself by producing religious webcasts on its StreamingFaith.com site, which features sermons and inspirational programs lasting in length from 15 minutes to one hour. Recently it developed webcast programming for TheKnot.com, a website for engaged couples and newlyweds.

Mainstream networks aren't about to be left behind. To promote its new show Fat Actress, Showtime launched a simultaneous premiere of the show on Yahoo!

The on-demand feature alone will make webcasting attractive to many viewers. But for many would-be webcasters, the biggest variable is attracting advertising dollars. Product placements, as well as sidebar and banner advertisements have been considered for webcasts; the traditional 30- or 60-second commercial inserted within the webast itself has not. Though not all webcasters are concerned with advertising, a solid advertising model that would be effective for sponsors and accepted by viewers (those with broadband Internet represent an especially attractive demographic) would propel webcasting forward dramatically. Otherwise, webcasts would have to settle for being either loss leaders or pay-per-view events.

Sources: The New York Times, unmediated

Forget Drunk Driving... Don't Text and Drive!

You might have read about this in the latest issue of DUH! magazine...

ATHENS, Ala. -- State troopers said a Tennessee man who was typing a text message on his cell phone as he traveled south on Interstate 65 was killed Saturday night when he lost control of his pickup, which overturned and went down an embankment.

Troopers said 26-year-old Lucas Rolin of Ardmore was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the vehicle in the 9 p.m. accident near the Athens-U.S. 31 exit.

Troopers recovered Rolin's cell phone and said he was trying to send a text message at the time of the fatal wreck.

Sadly, we're likely to read more stories such as this in the near future as more people take up texting... accompanied by all the usual warnings, scoldings and attempts to legislate what ought to be common sense.

Sources: NBC13.com, Smart Mobs

Monday, March 14, 2005

Dept. of Energy Report Warns of "Peak Oil" Risk

A report on the Aljazeera website states that a study commissioned by the US Department of Energy warns of the risk of a peak in world oil production... and that its impact on the US economy could be catastrophic.

Peak oil is the theory that the world is running out of major oil reserves, and existing reserves will ultimately be exhausted, with demand for oil outstripping supply. "World oil peaking is going to happen," the report says. Only the "timing is uncertain".

"Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic. But the process will not be easy. Expediency may require major changes to ... lengthy environmental reviews and lengthy public involvement."

The report suggest three scenarios: The first is that governments and the energy industry seek and implement alternative energy solutions 20 years before peak oil occurs; the second is that they do so 10 years before peak oil, and the third is that solutions are implemented when peak oil is apparent.

The report also offers some warning signs that would indicate when peak oil is nearing. "As world oil peaking is approached, excess production capacity ... will disappear, so that even minor supply disruptions will cause increased price volatility as traders, speculators, and other market participants react to supply/demand events... Simultaneously, oil storage inventories are likely to decrease, further eroding security of supply, aggravating price volatility, and further stimulating speculation ... oil could become the price setter in the broader energy market, in which case other energy prices could well become increasingly volatile and unpredictable."

UPDATE: Salon reports that S. Herold Inc., the Wall Street firm that warned of the Enron debacle nearly a year before the energy giant went bankrupt, is sounding the peak oil alarm as well. Herold believes that the major oil producers will hit their peaks between 2007 and 2009. Not to say that the wells will start drying up after that, but oil producers will no longer be able to ratchet up production at will to meet an ever-growing demand (China and India are expected to double their consumption within the next decade). As a result, oil prices will soar, producers will be forced to turn to unconventional (and expensive) oil sources such as tar sands and shale, OPEC will gain more leverage than ever over the world economy, and the US will remain ever more dependent on oil imported from unstable and unfriendly parts of the globe. Similarly, oil industry analyst Charley Maxwell believes that non-OPEC producers will hit their peaks within the next five years. Alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, clean coal, natural gas and even nuclear power could help offset an energy shock, but the real consumption culprit is the automobile -- to which end the US will be forced to aggressively pursue hybrids, hydrogen-fueled cars and an improved public transportation infrastructure.

Sources: Future Now, Futurismic

Personals, Entertainment Drive Online Spending

Netizens just want to have fun! A survey by the Online Publishers Association (OPA) has found that, out of the $1.8 billion spent online in 2004, more than half was spent in the personals/dating and entertainment/lifestyles categories. The latter category saw a 90% increase over 2003. The next largest category, business/investment, saw a 6.3% decrease from 2003 to 2004.

The entertainment/lifestyles category includes online music sales, which suggests that purchasing and legally downloading music is becoming a mainstay of e-business. This is particularly interesting as more consumers enter in the market for downloading movies and other media, as well as for podcasting. Single-payment spending online increased by nearly 5%, indicating that consumers would rather pay for individual purchases rather than subscribe to a service.

As for the personals/dating category, it remains strong but appears to be plateauing. JupiterResearch expects personals and dating sites to see a 9% growth in revenue this year -- respectable, but nothing like the 70%+ growth they enjoyed in 2002 and 2003.

The OPA survey is not comprehensive of all e-business activity, and does not include revenues from sites marketing adult content, gambling and illegal products and services. Neither does it measure revenues from ISPs or Internet business services.

Source: eMarketer

Goodbye Nordstrom... Hello Wal-Mart!

Upscale retailers such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, where sales have remained strong and steady for the past two years, may be in for some rougher times as economists predict a cooling-off of luxury spending this year.

A combination of higher tax burdens and less growth in real estate prices may put the pinch on the most affluent consumers. Economists also believe that a decline in luxury spending may be cyclical and influenced by fashion and trends.

Meanwhile, discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target may benefit from a growing job market, which would put more money in the pockets of the middle class. Perhaps some of these folks might do well enough to visit Saks... just as Saks customers are headed in the opposite direction to check out Wal-Mart bargains.

Source: CNN/Money

A High-Tech Home With a Good Pedigree

The German engineering firm Werner Sobek Ingenieure has designed a radical high-tech house that not only pushes the limits of technology, but also minimizes material and energy needs.

As the firm itself explains:

It is our firm conviction that modern buildings should not only represent the latest technologies, but also minimise the use of resources, be light, transparent and designed and built with a view to easy dismantling and recycling. Minimising the use of resources means using as little material as possible in the construction of a building, minimising the energy demand of the building over its lifetime and, if possible, making all construction materials recyclable.

The house, named "R 129," uses lightweight construction from plastics and titanium, and lots of transparency. It is also round, to optimize usable space. The "skin" of the house features a "low e" coating that reflects heat in the summer and retains it in the winter. Indead of fixed walls, residents can arrange cells to create "rooms" as they see fit. And when the residents don't care to be on public display, they can activiate an electrochromatic foil envelope that also contains solar cells. A carbon floor regulates temperature year-round.

However revolutionary R 129 might seem to those who prefer faux mansions in developments with aristocratic names like "Wellington Estates," R 129 has clear roots in the designs of Buckminster Fuller, and even The Jetsons. In fact, R 129 seems to be an updated version of Fuller's groundbreaking 1946 Dymaxion House. But if a few of these are built, have demonstrable energy and space-utilization benefits, and even sold, it could have an impact on designers of more traditional homes, encouraging them to explore different construction techniques.

Source: we make money not art

Childhood Obesity Spreading in Rural US

Research throughout the US is uncovering an alarming surge in obese children in rural communities, with one study finding a 5% increase in obese children in rural areas between 1999 and 2001 -- twice the increase of urban children.

Studies in western Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and West Virginia have all come to the same conclusions. In West Virginia and Arkansas, surveys have found that as many as a quarter of public school students may be obese.

But why? No one reason stands out, but researchers note that, contrary to stereotype, rural children don't do lots of hard work on family farms -- in part because family farms are disappearing, and those that are left are highly mechanized. Yet these families still eat a heavy "farm diet" of fats and simple carbohydrates. Meanwhile, rural kids are immersed in the same high-tech gadgetry as other kids -- which might exercise their minds and reflexes, but not their bodies. Poverty also plays a role, as does boredom in communities that have little to offer children.

Obesity and its impact on healthcare is a key future trend. At a health fair in western Pennsylvania, Dr. Darrell Ellsworth found that 60% of adults measured had metabolic syndrome, an assortment of health conditions that can lead to diabetes and heart disease. "The numbers for obesity in children were nowhere near what they are today and you can just imagine what we're going to be looking at 10 to 20 years from now if nothing is done," Dr. Ellsworth said. "That 60 percent ... that's going to seem like a pretty low figure."

Source: CNN.com

What "Baghdad Spring" Can Teach Futurists

Time and again, the so-called "Arab street" has surprised the pundits. In the wake of 9/11, the conventional wisdom was that the Arab street would explode if the US invaded Afghanistan or any other Muslim nation. When that didn't happen (due to a combination of police action and no great love for the Taliban), it took the world by surprise. Next, we were told that average Iraqis would greet US troops with open arms once they toppled Saddam. That didn't happen either. Then, almost overnight, countries throughout the Middle East seemed to embrace the wave of democracy that was started by the January elections in Iraq... once again startling many.

The phenomenon of the Arab street has a lot to teach those who attempt to gauge the future. The primary lesson is that we in the West -- even those who profess to be experts -- have a generally poor understanding of what's really going on in these countries, and therefore lack context to understand what may be coming. Our government officials are exposed largely to their Arab counterparts, who are ususally out of touch with the common man and woman. Even native observers are typically middle class expatriats and not entirely tuned in to what's going on at street level. Combine that with our overall poor understanding of Arab culture and Islam (the two go hand in hand), as well as not knowing the language, and one soon understands how hard it is to forceast anything meaningful.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has named the recent Mideast democratic outbreak "Baghdad Spring." He illustrates, among other things, that like elsewhere in the world, economic interests will trump political and ideological ones ("It's the economy, stupid!"), citing an economic agreement between Israel, Egypt and the US that is wildly popular among Egyptian merchants. He also uses the 1989-91 wave of democracy that toppled Soviet communism as a template to forecast what might become of Arab states in flux:

This "Baghdad spring" will not blossom into sustainable democracy in any of these Arab states without a broader middle class and civil society institutions to support it. For too long, U.S. foreign policy was based on buying stability in the Arab world by supporting dictators, who destroyed all the independent press, political parties, unions, real private sector and civil society in their countries - everything except the mosque. Iraq is the starkest example of this, which is why democratization there will take time.

Looking at Eastern Europe on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a lecturer on the Middle East at Oxford, "we could have predicted which countries would have an easy transition to democracy and which ones not." Countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, which had a history of liberal institutions and free markets that had been suppressed by communism, quickly flourished. Others farther east, which did not have such institutions in their past and were starting from scratch - Bulgaria, Romania and the former Soviet republics - have struggled since the fall of the wall.

Global political upheavals don't happen every day, so predicting their outcomes is tough even in the best of circumstances; obviously, there are stark differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today. But whether we're looking at politics, technology or business -- especially in a situation that we don't fully understand -- learning about history and culture, along with juxtaposing a situation with similar events, is necessary for giving us the insights to build scenarios.

RELATED: Publius Pundit is blogging the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, complete with news reports, on-scene interviews, photos, audio, video and other surprises.

Friday, March 11, 2005


For our weekly Friday diversion, The History of Sanitary Sewers offers everything you ever (or never) wanted to know about waste disposal, sewers, chamber pots, outhouses and toilets.

A timeline provides details on the history of sewage treatment from ancient times to the present. The site is additionally of interest to us because it addresses future waste treatment and water usage issues and technology. Plus other fun stuff...

Source: Enviropundit

Next-Generation Wearable Computers

The next generation of wearable computers and electronics is being designed to be discreet, rugged, comfortable and stylish... as well as more functional than previous designs.

A handbag being developed by MIT, for instance, can keep track of one's belongings via RFID chips and otherwise effectively serve as a PDA. It could cost as little as $150, and is upgradeable. A health monitoring arm band by BodyMedia can help wearers monitor their stress and exercise levels, and can contribute to weight loss programs. "Smart shirts" are being developed for emergency workers to help monitor distress levels, and for the chronically ill, so that caregivers can constantly monitor their condition.

Many of these advances are thanks to new electronics that are flexible and washable, and to new fabrics such as Du Pont's Kevlar-based Aracon, which looks like ordinary fabric yet can conduct electricity. Sales of wearable computers and electronics are expected to rise sharply in the coming years, from just over 260,000 units last year to hearly 1.4 million in 2008.

Sources: BusinessWeek, Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

"Red List" Catalogs Threatened Species

A sobering reminder of our fragile ecosystem is provided by the Red List, an online database of extinct and threatened plant and animal species. Created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Red List is searchable by status (extinct, extinct in the wild, threatened, vulnerable, etc.), year, geography, habitat type, and reasons for threat/extinction (loss of habitat, pollution, inbreeding, etc.). For instance, this Central American harlequin toad (Atelopus varius) is listed as "critically endangered" as of 2003:

For the record, 174 species are listed as having been declared extinct in 2004.

Source: WorldChanging

Japan Declares 2005 "Year of the Robot"

The Japanese fondness for robots is no secret. Now, scientists and government authorities have informally delcared 2005 the "year of the robot." This coincides with a major robot expo opening in Nagoya later this month, as well as a new generation of humanoid robots that can converse with humans in multiple languages.

"Ms. Saya" is a humanoid robot who has worked as a receptionist for Tokyo Univiersity of Science for two years. Says professor Hiroshi Kobayashi, her inventor, "I almost feel like she's a real person," but that, "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy."

While people in the US would find the presence of such a robot unsettling to say the least, Ms. Saya and her counterparts are becoming so common in Japan that the government is drawing up safety guidelines for keeping robots in homes. Indeed, robotics experts predict that every Japanese household will own at least one robot by 2015.

Among the other robots under development in Japan: a babysitter that can recognize childrens' faces and call parents in case of emergency, a "robo-cop" security guard that can detect and thwart intruders (using non-lethal means), robot pets that provide therapy for the elderly, a robotic wheelchair that can can navigate traffic via GPS, and robotic servants that can serve food from a refrigerator upon request.

The Japanese government is investing billions in robot R&D. But why such intense interest in robots there? Japan's low birthrate and aging population, for one, are creating a need for nonhuman workers. Japan also has a tradition of creating robot-like mechanical toys that goes back well over a century (baby boomers will recall that it was Japan that brought us Astro Boy). Interests in robotics is even connected to Japanese religion. Says Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, "In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own."

Source: Washington Post