FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, April 29, 2005

Verizon Turning Off Free Wi-Fi in NYC

As the saying goes, there's no free lunch. And apparently, there's no free wi-fi either... at least not in New York City, and not coming from Verizon.

Over a two-month period, Verizon will turn off free wi-fi access points that it installed in about 380 phone booths throughout the city in 2003. Most are in Manhattan, with a few in Brooklyn.

At that time, wi-fi was a novelty, and Verizon was trying to establish itself in the market space. But now, as Verizon spends millions to upgrade its wireless network, it's ready to cash in on the growing wi-fi market. Specifically, it is promoting EV-DO technology, which offers a wider coverage and seamless connectivity for roaming devices. Verizon is apparently banking that customers will be willing to pay for a higher quality connection.

Source: AP (Yahoo!)

Terrorists are Lax About PC Security, Too

Are you one of those computer users who posts your passwords on your monitor with stickies? Of course not. But you probably know people who do. What's more, you might find it interesting that the world's most wanted terrorists aren't any better at computer security that those folks.

In February, US troops in Iraq captured a laptop belonging to terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Though al-Zarqawi himself got away, the laptop was found to contain a wealth of information about the terrorist and his contacts.

You would think that one of the world's most heavily pursued criminals would keep his digital information strongly encrypted, hidden, and accessible only with biometric tokens or something equally tough to break. Uh, no. Actually, examination of the laptop found digital pictures kept in, of all places, the generic Windows "My Pictures" folder.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, says that terrorists are hardly geniuses when it comes to computer security. "They tend not to have heavily encrypted computers, they're not using strong passwords. And just like business travelers, they lose their laptops."

Of course, the possibility exists that the laptop was a plant, intended to be found by US troops and lead them on a wild goose chase. But since it was recovered in such a high-level raid, that's considered unlikely.

Source: Forbes

Thursday, April 28, 2005

To Drop Some Pounds, Catch Some Z's

Evidence is mounting that a good night's sleep is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight. When researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute genetically disrupted the sleeping patterns of mice, they found that those mice gained weight, and developed high cholesterol and fatty livers.

The researchers believe that healthy sleep cycles help regulate metabolism and appetite. When the mice in the Hughes study were given a mutant "clock" gene to disrupt their sleep cycles, they essentially became insomniacs. In addition to sleeping less, they ate irregularly, and were more sluggish than their more well-rested counterparts.

We live in a culture that tends to disparage sleep, equating it with laziness and weakness. Our 24/7 culture doesn't help; we all get hooked on TV and Web surfing until the wee hours of the morning, after all. "You snooze, you lose," the saying goes. Now, though, we know that one thing we may well lose is weight.

Source: FuturePundit

iPods are Hot -- Literally

IPods are the hottest electronic gadget around. So hot, in fact, that New York City transportation authorities blame iPod theft for a spike in subway crimes since the beginning of the year. Other cities report similar high rates of iPod theft.

Felony crimes on NYC subways have risen 18% since January, an increase almost entirely attributed to thefts of electronic devices like the iPod. Transportation officials are planning to launch a PR campaign urging subway passengers to guard their devices, and to be aware that white earbuds are a dead giveaway that they have something worth stealing.

The supposed reason behind the thefts is interesting. There's no real black market for the devices; thieves on the wrong side of the digital divide simply want iPods for themselves. Says Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "The participation gap creates techno-envy, where the kids who are locked out of participation in the culture covet those tools and devices that are considered essential to being a young person." Simply put, poor kids will steal the status symbols they can't afford to buy.

We've written before about how mobile electronic devices are becoming essential to modern life, especially among young people. This crime wave is merely the dark side of this trend coming to the surface.

The integration of media devices with everyday life makes their loss especially traumatic. Psychologists studying the matter say that those whose iPods have been lost or stolen report deep despondency that goes beyond normal feelings of losing an inanimate object.

Source: Washington Post

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Open Source Radio

KYOU Radio (broadcast as 1550 AM [KYCY] out of San Francisco and streamed online at kyouradio.com) bills itself as the world's first "open source radio station," obtaining all its content from podcasts. It will be interesting to see who else picks up on the concept, and whether it could prove to be an antidote to the current slump in the radio industry.

The station is an underperforming asset owned by Infinity Broadcasting. In this news story, the new format is described as "experimental."

UPDATE: A slightly different take from an article in Business 2.0, which, while speaking highly of podcasting, says that MP3s, and not radio (online radio especially) are the wave of the future:

[D]igital music is the first big market that allows mass customization. With an iPod/iTunes or Creative Zen/Napster combination, I can create my own radio stations, sans ads. It doesn't even cost much. Companies like Napster will rent you as much music as you want for $15 a month.

UPDATE 2: Not to be outdone, Sirius satellite radio announced its own podcast show, to be hosted by former MTV personality Adam Curry. The show will debut May 13.

Ode to a TV Antenna

In a post several weeks ago on vanishing Americana, I suggested one of those vanishing items was the television antenna -- not satellite dishes, but the wiry, spindly contraptions that once graced the rooftops of modern homes throughout the land. Today, I saw something that made me ponder how a once-cutting-edge technology is literally destined for the junkheap.

A number of homeowners in my neighborhood are having their roofs replaced this season. One of those lives a few doors down from me. This morning, I noticed in his pile of things to be hauled off to the trash his old TV antenna, rusted yet neatly collapsed. The new roof is antenna-free.

The houses in my neighborhood were all built in the early 1980s, when cable TV was just starting to become mainstream. As a result, relatively few houses ever had antennas to receive broadcast TV. My neighbor's house was one of the last... and now, his antenna is no more.

When I was growing up in the early '70s, a friend once asked me why my house didn't have a TV antenna on the roof. Indeed, the house stood out in the neighborhood for that very reason. The answer was that my father had (wisely) installed our antenna in the attic, where it was effective yet not exposed to the elements. Who could have known that, two decades later, the appearance of our house would be the rule rather than the exception?

Why wax sentimental over an ugly piece of metal? The disappearance of those rooftop mishmashes of tubes and wires is just one more manifestation of change. And while this blog's purpose is to celebrate change, it's enlightening to at least be aware of what came before.

When is a Smart Building "Too Smart"?

"Smart buildings" -- buildings whose climate, lighting and security systems are managed by computer -- are nothing new. But they've received attention lately as building managers consider integrating their systems into service oriented architectures (SOAs), allowing data to be shared and ported to smaller devices within a building. But at what point does intelligence stop becoming the smart solution?

Research into intelligent buildings has found that often, building management metrics conflict. User comfort, for instance, is not compatible with energy savings if occupants continually turn up the heat and override efficiency settings. Or, if sensors fail, how will the building's systems respond? Will they attempt to compensate, or will the failure act as a "circuit breaker"?

Costs are also becoming a concern. Making a building "intelligent" has very clear up-front expenses as well as maintenance costs. Hardware and software also run the risk of obsolecense; if a sensor breaks and it's no longer being manufactured, will the entire system need replacing?

Building engineers are increasingly taking a more tactical approach to building intelligence, such as focusing on one specific metric (which, more and more, is security). "I honestly think the idea of having everything networked together misses the point," says Harvard architectural professor Michele Addington. "You can do a hell of a lot with a few discrete things. There's a concern that the technology is coming in before we have the sophistication to know how best to deploy it."

In other words, we run the risk of having our buildings outsmart us.

Source: Technology Research News

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Wendy's vs. the "Monster Meme"

I'm no fast food maven, but on occasion, I've found Wendy's chili to be pretty good. But when Anna Ayala claimed to have found a severed finger in her bowl of Wendy's chili back in March, I must admit I lost my hankering for the stuff.

Now that the allegations have proven to be a hoax, where does Wendy's go from here? Already, the chain claims to have lost $2.5 million in business in northern California alone, where the alleged incident was reported, and has had to cut employees' hours and even resort to layoffs. And thanks to incessant reporting on 24-hour cable news -- not to mention all those jokes by the late-night talk-show hosts -- the damage could go even deeper.

The incident underscores just how damaging an allegation against a business can be in today's media environment. One can think of this as a "monster meme," a story that takes on a life of its own, growing out of control, with potentially disastrous results.

Like an innocent person wrongly convicted of a crime, Wendy's has its work cut out for it in rebuilding its reputation. As Johnson & Johnson did when it was faced with its Tylenol product tampering crisis in 1982, Wendy's will have to leverage every bit of creative thinking and pure PR muscle it can muster to win back customers. Fortunately for Wendy's, the Tylenol crisis provides a precedent for success.

Blogging for Business

BusinessWeek made blogs the topic of its cover story this week. Its message: beyond the hype and silliness often associated with blogging, businesses had better start taking the blogosphere seriously if they want to stay competitive.

How does business change when everyone is a potential publisher? A vast new stretch of the information world opens up. For now, it's a digital hinterland. The laws and norms covering fairness, advertising, and libel? They don't exist, not yet anyway. But one thing is clear: Companies over the past few centuries have gotten used to shaping their message. Now they're losing control of it.

The article profiles a lot of names and blog-related ventures that are familiar to blogging veterans. Aside from being a good "blogging for dummies" piece, the article offers some interesting insights of its own:

[B]logs could end up providing the perfect response to mass media's core concern: the splintering of its audience. Advertisers desperate to reach us need to tap niches (because we get together only once a year to watch the Super Bowl). By piggybacking on blogs, they can start working that vast blogocafé, table by table. Smart ones will get feedback, links to individuals -- and their friends. That's every marketer's dream.

The big companies have what the bloggers lack. Scale, relations with advertisers, and large sales forces. They can use these forces to sell across all media, from general audience to bloggy niches. Already, Yahoo and Microsoft have been investing heavily to position themselves for niche advertising. And in February, the New York Times laid down $410 million for About Inc., a collection of 500 specialized Web sites that smell strongly of blogs. "What's to stop them from turning those 500 sites into 5,000?" says Dave Morgan, founder of TACODA Systems, an Internet advertising company.

Okay, so that probably won't shock anyone. But the BusinessWeek piece is one more layer of legitimization for blogs, and one more form of power. So this week, if your boss, or your boss's boss, approaches you asking about this blog stuff and how it can help the business, you'll know why.

RELATED: BuzzMachine suggests, only half jokingly, that CNN's ratings are catching up to those of Fox News because of CNN's recent focus on blogs' take on the news.

The Mind Readers

How close are we to what might be the ultimate disruptive technology: mind reading? Or at the very least, a souped-up lie detector? If you said "closer than we think," you read my mind...

Experiments with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have demonstrated how a subject's thoughts could be "read" -- even subconscious thoughts the subject wasn't aware of having.

Researchers at University College London found that, when measuring brain activity in the visual cortex, the fMRI registered sights shown to a subject that he later could not consciously recall. Scientists conducting similar research in Japan could determine exactly what part of a complex image a subject was focusing on (in their case, a plaid pattern).

"This is the first basic step to reading somebody's mind," says Geraint Rees, who led the UK study. "If our approach could be expanded upon, it might be possible to predict what someone was thinking or seeing from their brain activity alone."

Source: Betterhumans

A Self-Service Backlash?

With ATMs, online shopping, voice mail, self-service gas pumps, self-service supermarket checkout lanes and check-in kiosks at airports and hotels, we interact more with machines and less with people than ever before. As a result, we do a lot more work than before... and some of us are getting fed up.

"We're exhausted doing all this work," says author and self-service critic Nicols Fox. "There's just so much that we have been asked to take over. I think we are reaching a breaking point here." Fox, who owns a bookstore in Maine, refuses to do business with distributors who charge more for phone orders than online orders. Fox may be in the minority, but her frustration indicates a deeper problem with our self-service society.

Many aspects of today's self-service are poorly designed, causing more problems than they solve. Plus, today's machines just aren't very smart. ATMs, for instance, are a proven technology that works very well for specific tasks, such as getting cash out of your checking account. It solves the problem of accessing cash regardless of the bank's hours, and allowing you to access that cash in non-traditional locations. But for more complex banking needs, or when a problem arises, we want to talk to a human with functioning brain cells.

Self-service check-in kiosks at airports are another case in point. Normally they work wonderfully, speeding up an otherwise tedious process. But recently, I tried to check in for a flight at a United Airlines kiosk, which repeatedly told me that it could not find my flight or my reservation in its database. Slightly panicked, I went to the check-in desk and spoke to an attendant. He immediately knew what was wrong; my e-ticket was marked for United but the flight was actually on US Airways (the two service each other's routes). So I simply went to the kiosk at US Airways and checked in without a problem. The moral: the kiosks weren't smart enough to tell me I was in the wrong place, but the human attendant was.

Some self-service processes succeed precisely because they remove the human factor. I speak here of self-service gas pumping. Living in New Jersey, where self-service fueling is illegal, it can take me as long as 20 minutes on a busy day between the time I pull into a service station and the time I leave. I have to wait for an attendant to get to me, take my credit card, get my order right (interesting how many times they "accidentally" give you premium instead of regular), come back to take the pump out, and charge my card (yes, I could save time by giving them exact cash, but not much). And that's not to mention the times they fail to put the gas cap back on properly or slop gas on the car (which does wonders for both the paint job and the environment). This is not to disparage conscientious, competent gas attendants, but when I pump gas myself, I can be in and out in five minutes, tops. No fuss, no muss.

Yet other self-service processes are kludgy, in want of a more elegant solution. Self-service checkout lanes in grocery stores are a perfect example of a process that's no less complex than the one it's supposed to replace. Unless you have only a few items, self-service checkouts take far longer than lanes with a human cashier. The problem is that the self-service checkout lanes don't automate or streamline anything; they merely make you do the cashier's job. Half the time, a problem arises whereby a clerk needs to reset the machine, negating any labor savings on the part of the store, and any time savings on the part of the shopper. In fact, self-service checkout aisles worked so poorly for Kmart that they yanked them out of their stores not long after introducing them. In the stores where I shop, the only thing that makes the self-service checkout lanes faster is the fact that almost no one uses them, so there's never a line.

Self-service checkout aisles are not a bad concept in of themselves; they're just missing a few components. RFID tags on products and contactless payment systems would complete the equation, allowing shoppers to simply walk out of the stores and have their orders charged to their credit or debit cards automatically. Instead of trying to automate an already labor-intensive system, this would eliminate the checkout process altogether, saving time for consumers while lowering labor costs.

Of course, the system might not be smart enough to realize that an RFID tag or your smartcard is malfunctioning, triggering the shoplifting alarm or charging you $200 for a $2 item. In that case, you'll be grateful for the human clerk who can set things right... assuming one is around.

Source: Chicago Tribune

A Robot With Social Graces

It might have a face only an engineer could love, but Nico the robot is a true social butterfly.

Developed at Yale, Nico has a head, a neck, and a movable arm that gives it hand-eye coordination. More importantly, Nico can interact with those around it, recognize itself in the mirror, and even exhibit a degree of empathy. By being able to locate individuals and interpret their emotions based on their vocal intonations, Nico can help in work with children, particularly those with autism.

Nico represents a step forward in creating not only artificial intelligence, but artificial emotional intelligence -- a crucial development if we expect to someday interact with robots the way we interact with one another.

Source: we make money not art

Caller ID Spoofing: The Newest Consumer Threat?

Caller ID "modification" is new attempt to thwart Caller ID services. Online firms such as Telespoof claim to allow their customers to choose any number as their Caller ID. Their website claims that "Private Investigators, Skip Tracers, Law Enforcement, Collection Agencies and Lawyers" would be among those interested in their services. The services supposedly work with landlines, mobile phones and VoIP.

Though Caller ID spoofing is legal in the US and UK, concern is growing that spoofing services will be abused by everyone from pranskters to con artists to predators. To that end, Caller ID spoofing has attracted the attention of consumer groups, and some spoofing services have restricted their clientele to law enforcement and private investigation services.

Those who follow privacy issues could have predicted the advent of Caller ID spoofing, as every instance of electronic tracking will be met with an equal and opposite hack to disable it. Though it may protect the privacy of some, Caller ID spoofing also has the negative effect of making the entire Caller ID system less trustworthy. Will phone carriers respond by hardening their services? Will politicians get involved (answer: yes, as soon as a case of spoofing abuse makes the news)? And -- need we ask -- when will the lawsuits begin?

Sources: BBC, Lockergnome

AMD CEO Predicts a $100 PC

In a C|Net interview, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) CEO Hector Ruiz forecasts the advent of a $100 PC by 2008:

I don't think a $100 computer is out of the question in a three-year time frame. A lot of people forget that the first cell phones came out at $3,000 to $4,000 and today are free. I think there's going to be some of that same kind of movement with computing and communications devices.

It's important for us to not lose sight of the segment that today doesn't have any products built for it. The trickle-down effect of desktops and laptops into that segment just doesn't work. I believe that we have an opportunity to use our x86 know-how and capability to really build products for that segment. That will be the [Personal Internet Communicator] at the beginning, and there will be more. I think, within three years, it's not at all unreasonable to think of a $100 laptop for that segment.

Web Sites Stealing Ad Dollars from Newspapers

More bad news for newspapers. Google and Yahoo are reporting impressive gains in their advertising revenues... gains that appear to be coming at the expense of national newspaper advertising. While Yahoo reported a 50% increase in ad revenue over last year, Dow Jones' ad revenues fell nearly 11%, and The New York Times' revenues rose an anemic 0.8%.

The overall percentage of advertising dollars going into newspaper advertising is slipping, while Internet and cable TV advertising is growing. One reason behind this growth in online advertising is the ability to measure click-through results and target ads to specific demographics. This way, advertisers get metrics and can direct their messages to the desired markets to save money. Newspapers, for their part, are fighting back with inserts that can be tailored to specific ZIP codes. Yet this may benefit smaller regional newspapers rather than the big-city dailies.

Source: The New York Times

Monday, April 25, 2005

Smart Mobs Rock the Developing World

Anyone curious about the global impact of smart mobbing need go no further than the Smart Mobs blog -- a must-read for the serious futurist anyway. Lately, the phenomenon in which crowds coalesce and interact via cell phones and text messaging has taken on a decidedly international -- and revolutionary -- flavor.

Anti-Japanese protests in China were fueled by e-mail, texting and cellphone conversations, long after the government banned coverage of events in the state media.

The mere fact that smart mobbing exists in China is remarkable, considering how tightly the government controls the Internet and other media. Needless to say, the Chinese smart mobs are making authorities very nervous.

Just as surprising -- and perhaps of even greater consequence -- is the emergence of text messaging as an underground news medium in the Middle East.

Women demonstrating for voting rights in Kuwait,
in a protest organized in part by text messaging

As cell phones become more common in the Arab world (over half of Kuwaitis own them), texting is empowering those on all points of the political spectrum who have been disenfranchised, from women to teenagers to pro-democracy activists to Islamic radicals. Although most of the Persian Gulf states strictly regulate print, broadcast and Internet communication, they have not yet found an effective way to block SMS messaging. As the region continues to be shaken by change, the role of smart mobbing in the Arab world will be watched very carefully.

Sources: Washington Post, New York Times

Microsoft Rolls Out 64-Bit Windows

After much discussion and speculation, Microsoft this week is launching 64-bit versions of its Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional operating systems. These are designed to work with hardware featuring 64-bit CPUs such as the AMD Athlon 64.

While 64-bit systems might be the wave of the future for Microsoft, they won't make an impact on most desktop and laptop PC applications just yet. The first 64-bit systems will likely be used for running servers, followed by professional-grade music and graphics applications.

Source: ZDNet

Doez Multitasking Mak Yoo Stoopid?

A study performed by the UK Institute of Psychiatry in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard has found that people are addicted to information -- a condition they dub "infomania" -- and that those distracted by multitasking suffer an IQ drop worse than those who smoke marijuana.

Not surprisingly, the study found that 62% of those studied checked e-mail and text messages after work hours (in the US, those numbers would most likely be higher). As for the IQ drop, the study concluded that the constant distractions from answering messages had mentally corrosive effects similar to losing sleep or smoking dope.

Sources: BBC, Smart Mobs

The Science Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Cafe Scientifique is an informal, Meetup-style gathering of science- and technology-minded folks that's beginning to catch on in the UK. Groups meet in cafes, pubs and restaurants to hear scientists, technologists, writers and others talk about their work, and to ask questions. Meetings are free and open to the public.

In a sense, Cafe Scientifique sounds like a throwback to the European salons of the Eighteenth Century, which served as incubators for some of the modern world's greatest scientific and political thinking. Can Cafe Scientifique live up to that standard? More fundamentally, will the concept spread beyond the UK?

Source: GeniusNow

Friday, April 22, 2005

Cellphone TV Moving Toward Standards... Can Regulation Be Far Behind?

As handheld-based television inches ever closer to the mainstream, two inevitable questions come to mind: When will the medium have its "Janet Jackson moment" with objectionable content, and when will the medium be regulated? Not if, but when?

TV that's broadcast to cell phones and other mobile devices may soon get standards that will allow content creators to make all kinds of content available. Crown Castle's digital video broadcast handheld (DVB-H) and Qualcomm's forward link only (FLO) are two leading protocol candidates at this point (though one analyst believes that widespread adoption of any standard is at least four years away). The platforms may not be as permissive as the Web or RSS, but any kind of open standard is going to set some content creators up for controversy.

Surely, some geeky wonks in Washington are already looking into this, and in today's political climate, too much special-interest money is at work for the politicians to leave this alone. Hopefully, the industry will beat them to the punch with content ratings, parental controls, and kid-friendly devices such as the Firefly phone.

Source: Technology Liberation Front

Cell Phones Hurting Watch Sales?

Yet another unintended consequence of technology: Makers of low-end wristwatches are accusing cell phone manufacturers of hurting their business. Cell phone users, they claim, are using their phones as their primary timepieces; as a result, watch sales are down. Sales of luxury watches, however, appear to be unaffected.

Source: Engadget

Killer Mailboxes!

If you've ever had your mailbox vandalized by the neighborhood punk, you know the infuriating feeling. Someone's destroyed your property, yet in most cases there's little if anything you can do about it.

A Boulder, Colorado company called MailBoxer feels your pain. They offer three vandalism deterrent devices that, while they might not totally protect your mailbox, can help you achieve a sense of fighting back.

The "Stinker" consists of tubes around the box that, when ruptured by a bat or other object, release "skunk oil" that will hopefully get on the perpetrator. The "Bat Grabber" uses sharp nails (hidden under plastic) to grab and hold onto a bat or stick. Perhaps the most interesting device is the "Tattler," a radio transmitter that can sense vibrations and alert the owner to activity at the mailbox. Not only does the Tattler "cry for help" if the mailbox is vandalized, but it can signal when mail is being delivered.

Perhaps version 2.0 of the Tattler can include a small night-vision camera that can snap pictures whenever someone approaches. But then, it's a sad statement on our society when we have to go to such lengths to protect something as simple as a mailbox.

Robotic Dental Drill Eases Implant Procedures

Preparing patients for dental implants is a delicate process that currently can only be done by highly skilled, specially trained oral surgeons. Now, an Israeli firm called Tactile Technologies has developed a robotic, self-guiding drill that automates the process, ensuring pinpoint accuracy and greater comfort for the patient.

The device uses a frame that's clamped to the patient's jaw. The frame helps the surgeon locate the precise spot to drill, and allows the surgeon to control the entire procedure via PC.

With this device, more dentists and oral surgeons would be able to offer implant services, and subsequently lower costs.

Sources: New Scientist, Boing Boing

Better Late Than Never...

John Battelle of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism posted some predictions for 2005 back in December. Most involve media, blogging, search and other Internet-related topics. Nearly five months into the year, several appear to be approaching reality, and the rest aren't too far-fetched.

RFID: Tagging Boxes Only the Beginning

Asset tracking is perhaps the most common application cited for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags... but futurist Paul Saffo says that that's just the beginning of RFID's potential.

"Your business is just at the point where you could bury yourself in RFID issues and that would be a horrible mistake, because you'll miss the big opportunities," Saffo said to attendees of an RFID conference. "Your business is too small to generate its own lift. The biggest impact on your business is going to come from things utterly outside of it. So pay attention to the things on the outside."

Tagging packages has emerged as an early RFID application because it's relatively easy to do and has immediate return on investment. Saffo argues, though, that RFID will have a much bigger payoff down the road, especially in automating large processes, in ways we haven't thought of yet.

Saffo suggests that contactless payment will be the first really big RFID breakthrough. If shoppers can "pay" for their items through RFID-based credit/debit cards, check-out lines in stores will no longer be necessary. The entire design of stores and the very process of shopping could change radically within 20 years, Saffo predicts.

Indeed, any business that requires an up-front transaction could be transformed by an RFID network. Imagine going to a hospital and being admitted and triaged the minute you walked in the door. Or going to a hotel and heading straight to your room.

Of course, this begs the question of privacy -- something Saffo addressed. "At the end of the day, we're going to feel like tagged bears," he said, "but we'll find ways to conceal our location."

Source: TheFeature

A Cordless Phone That's Ideal for the Elderly

As our population ages, businesses are going to have to think of innovative ways to serve them. One of these is phone maker Uniden; their model EZI996 is a 900 MHz phone that has several useful ergonomic features that would seem to be especially appealing to seniors and others who find ordinary phones difficult to use.

Among other things, the EZI996 has:

  • A red light that flashes when the phone is ringing (making it easy to find if it's off the cradle)
  • Extra-loud volume
  • Large buttons on the keypad
  • Large, easy-to-read type on the Caller ID display
  • A reasonable price ($40)

One drawback to the EZI996 is its 900 MHz frequency. Generally, 900 MHz isn't as strong as higher frequencies, and is vulnerable to interception, though the sound quality of the EZI996 is reported to be excellent.

Sources: Boing Boing, Futurismic

Light Appliances

Italian designer Giovanni Cannata proposes a network of "light appliances" that would interact and allow owners to communicate with others. Although the thesis is theoretical and lacking in technical details, it does address an issue that we in the US often don't think about: many in Italy -- and most around the world -- don't use PCs or the Internet, and therefore need a simpler way to access the Net's communication capabilities.

Source: Smart Mobs

Thursday, April 21, 2005

US Population Continues Moving South, West

Go west, young person! Or, go south. Either way, you'll be in good company.

The US population continues its move southward and westward, according to the Census Bureau. By 2030, three states -- California, Florida and Texas -- will encompass nearly half of the nation's population growth.

By 2011, Florida will surpass New York as the third most populous state; California and Texas have the first and second largest populations, respectively. Arizona and North Carolina are expected to displace Michigan and New Jersey on the top 10 list of most populous states.

Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Utah (in that order) are expected to be the five fastest-growing states between now and 2030.

Source: CNN.com

US Catholics to Follow Conscience, Not Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI appears to have his work cut out for him when it comes to his American flock. A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that three-quarters of US Catholics surveyed planned to follow their own conscience on tough moral issues, while only 20% planned to follow church and papal teachings unconditionally.

Benedict will also need to reach out to Catholics, who have just begun to learn who he is. The poll found that 60% don't know enough about Benedict to form an opinion about him, and that despite Benedict's well-publicized conservative views, nearly half of those polled weren't sure in which direction he'd take the church. The good news for Benedict, however, is that 31% have a favorable view of him, and only 9% have an unfavorable view.

Because of his age (78) and the fact that he himself has predicted a "short reign," Benedict has already been pigeonholed by many as a "caretaker" pope who will not have the globetrotting dynamism of his predecessor. But even if he has only a few years on the world stage, the impact of Benedict XVI could be surprising... and greater than expected. It was, you may recall, another "caretaker" pontiff, John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

UPDATE: If you would like to send the new pope an e-mail, you can drop him a line at benedictxvi@vatican.va

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Americans Worry About What Their Kids Watch... And Not Just Sex and Violence

A new survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that, although Americans are worried about indecency in the media, they also have other concerns.

For the most part, the survey broke down along predictable age, religious and political demographics (for instance, Democrats object to violence; Republicans object to sex). Although the survey respondents expressed concern over harmful content, large numbers also worried about excessive government restrictions on the media. The respondents overwhelmingly believed that parents should be the primary gatekeepers of what kids see and hear, and that audiences should "vote with their channel changers" to reject offensive entertainment. Respondents also expressed a high level of confidence in the content rating systems used for movies, television, and video games, as well as music advisory labels.

Just as interesting, the respondents didn't limit their concerns to sexual or violent content. Respondents strongly opposed media that depicted illegal drug use, as well as reality shows that humiliate the participants. In fact, 17% said that reality TV has made television worse over the past few years. Entertainment depicting gay characters and themes revealed a generation gap; 27% of those in the 18-49 age bracket objected to gay-oriented TV, whereas 42% of those in the 50+ bracket did.

From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age

Creative, collaborative thinking in the workplace will move from the exception to the rule in the workplace of the future. And today's generation of young workers might not be prepared for it.

HR expert Daniel Pink calls the new reality of business the "Conceptual Age." In it, tomorrow's organizations will have to constantly explore new ideas, and become bolder, more flexible and more visionary if they are to remain competitive. These organizations will expect their employees to be creative, ask questions and take risks.

Meanwhile, Pink says, the young generation is being prepared for precisely the opposite type of environment. Their days are highly regimented, and there's less time in their busy schedules for play and exploration. And because they spend so much time on the computer, they spend less time interacting face-to-face.

Pink suggests that schools and universities need to step up to the challenge, introducing curricula that instill a passion for learning (as opposed to rote memorization) and exploration. But, faced with budget cuts and testing requirements, many schools will say that they won't be able to do so. Will this open the door to private schools that emphasize creative thinking?

Source: Herman Trend Alert

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Sprint Partners with Fox News Channel for Mobile Video

Sprint customers who use PCS Vision Multimedia phones will be able to receive on-demand video news clips from Fox News Channel, under an agreement announced today.

Depending on the exact plan purchased, Sprint PCS customers can get the video service for between $9.99 and $25 per month.

In offering video clips to mobile customers, Sprint joins Verizon, which launched its V-CAST mobile video service in January and offers, among other things, CNN video news clips.

Source: C|Net

Why Young People Aren't Newspaper Readers

Media bloggers such as BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis are constantly reminding us that as a news medium, the newspaper is dying. Though it's been in declining health since the early 1980s, the newspaper industry is constantly having nails hammered into its coffin by more immediate information technologies.

If newspapers are hoping to attract young readers to their traditional products, it may be a lost cause. Witness this excerpt from a young blogger, MasterMaq, whom BuzzMachine quotes:

I hate almost everything about newspapers. I don't like the size of the paper. I don't like the way it makes everything black. I don't like that every page has to be jammed full of stuff. I don't like that the pages are not full color. I don't like that once I find something interesting, I can't do anything with it (like send it to a friend, or blog about it with a link, etc).

In other words, MasterMaq hates newspapers because they're not websites or blogs. Those media meet his needs; newspapers don't, and nothing can be done about that.

Newspaper readership is down among young people, but not because they are illiterate or unconcerned with current events, as many have suggested. Young people care very much about the world around them; they just want to learn about it in real time, and through the high-tech tools that they can relate to.

Presuming that MasterMaq is representative of his peers, traditional newsprint may be in even deeper trouble than anyone thought.

Source: BuzzMachine

Papal Smoke Cam

Want to be among the first to see the Vatican's smoke signals indicating the election (or not) of a new pope, yet aren't in Rome or don't have access to cable TV? Then watch MSNBC's smoke cam, which is trained on the all-important chimney.

Most of the time it's like watching the proverbial paint dry, but if you catch it at the right moment, you'll see history in the making. Microsoft Internet Explorer and Media Player required.

"Disappearing" Technology

An interesting piece from The Economist, originally printed in October: The hallmark of a truly successful technology is that it simplifies and "disappears" into the environment, so that we are barely aware of it most times.

The article notes that clocks, sewing machines and phonographs were originally complex high-tech devices requiring volumonous user manuals and lots of patience. It also reminds us that, in the early days of electrification, large businesses had "VPs of Electricity."

Initially, the article states, technologies are hard to use because they are "created by nerds" who worry about getting the features right rather than making an elegant solution. Only later do those with an aesthetic eye approach the problems of usability. That, combined with the growth of supporting infrastructures, allows technologies to "disappear" from view even as they become more complex behind the scenes.

For instance, the earliest cars were not for the faint of heart. They required both physical stamina and a wealth of mechanical knowledge. But eventually, cars became simpler to drive, aided by both technical improvements and the growth of highways, service stations and other things to make drivers' lives easier.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Asteroid Thought Harmless Might Strike Earth After All

Not to scare anybody, but Asteroid 2004 MN4 may hit us after all. Scheduled to make a close flyby of Earth on April 13, 2029, some astronomers initially feared that it could come close enough to impact. Now, astronomers will need to examine its flight path when it makes that approach to determine whether it could strike Earth later on, notably during another flyby between 2035 and 2037.

If the asteroid were to strike Earth, the impact would be the equivalent of detonating 1 gigaton of TNT. Or, as Slashdot puts it, "while that won't cause a massive extinction event, it causes widespread devastation." In other words, we'd survive.. but barely.

Source: Slashdot

Rethinking Environmentalism

A while back, we discussed how Christian evangelicals and others who traditionally opposed environmentalism were now supporting ecological policies. Now, in another "heretical" move, some environmentalists are changing their long-held stances on a number of issues.

Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, has written an article for the MIT Technology Review describing how environmentalists are revisiting -- and revising -- their positions with the changing times.

Take population, for instance. In the 1960s and 1970s, people spoke of the "population explosion," an exponential increase that would suck up resources, cause pollution and do other kinds of bad things. But now, the world's population is dropping, largely because of increased urbanization, which leads to greater independence for women and, ultimately, fewer births. Urbanization, therefore, is starting to be seen not as an oppressor but as a liberator.

Brand also cites biotechnology and even nuclear power as areas where some environmentalists are shifting from staunch opposition to cautious support. In the case of nuclear power, concern over the impact of fossil fuels on climate may trump the not-insignificant matter of radioactive waste disposal.

When and whether these positions will change among the environmentalist mainstream remains up for debate. But Brand's argument is that environmental positions are not -- and should not be -- treated as Gospel.

Source: Smart Mobs

Friday, April 15, 2005

McDonald's Turns 50

Quick -- name five McDonald's jingles or slogans from years past! If you can do this in under thirty seconds, you quickly gain an appreciation for the impact that the fast food chain has had on our economy and culture.

This week's Friday diversion celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Golden Arches. This week in 1955, enterpreneur Ray Kroc became a franchisee of a new hamburger chain in California run by two brothers named McDonald... and the rest is history.

The following are highlights of some of the key moments in McDonald's history:

  • 1948 -- The McDonald brothers open their first restaurant in San Bernardino, California
  • 1955 -- Ray Kroc buys in
  • 1962 -- "Golden Arches" adopted as trademark
  • 1963 -- Ronald McDonald appears on TV for the first time
  • 1965 -- McDonald's goes public
  • 1967 -- First restaurants opened outside the US (in Puerto Rico)
  • 1968 -- The Big Mac is added to the menu
  • 1970 -- McDonald's restaurants are in every US state
  • 1973 -- Breakfast is served with the introduction of the Egg McMuffin
  • 1974 -- First Ronald McDonald House opens, in Philadelphia
  • 1975 -- First drive-thru opens
  • 1979 -- Happy Meals introduced
  • 1984 -- Ray Kroc dies
  • 1985 -- McDonald's added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average
  • 1990 -- In an environmentally friendly move, most plastic and foam packaging is eliminated
  • 2002 -- Salads added to the menu
  • 2003 -- The "mystery meat" in Chicken McNuggets replaced with 100% all-white meat
  • 2004 -- In response to a health backlash, "Super Size" menu items eliminated

One factor that's contributed to McDonald's long-term success is its ability to get out in front of emerging trends early and capitalize on them (or counter negative trends before they became problems). Once McDonald's realized that kids were the backbone of their business -- and when the Baby Boomers started families -- Happy Meals and playgrounds appeared. As the 24/7 society emerged, more outlets began staying open round-the-clock. And as their customer base became more environment- and health-conscious, so too did the Golden Arches.

Today, Mickey D's is doing all right financially, and is focusing on improving its existing outlets rather than expanding (after Russia and China, where else is there to go?). Improved food quality, amenities such as WiFi Internet access, and payment via "contactless" Mastercard are all on the menu, so to speak. Yet challenges lie ahead; increased competition, management turnover and the continued threat from obesity-related lawsuits could all leave a bad taste in investors' mouths.

Source: CNN/Money

Prince Harry is No Computer Geek

Britain's Prince Harry, scheduled to begin military officer training at the elite Royal Military Academy Sandhurst next month, reportedly did poorly on a computer proficiency test administered to assess his skills. Though he is said to have passed the physical proficiency test with flying colors, he has been told to brush up on his IT before classes begin.

It's not clear exactly what was included on the test, but military spokespeople are quoted as saying that it was "a lot more complex than just sending e-mails," and that "instructors were amazed that Harry failed it."

Prince Harry appears to be the first royal facing this particular problem. Is there a benefit for someone in line for the British throne to be a computer whiz? Maybe not, but if he is to be symbolic leader of an increasingly high-tech nation such as Great Britain, it would behoove him to relate to some of that technology.

Source: CNN.com

DARPA Develops Life-Like Bionic Arm

DARPA, the military R&D center that brought us the Internet, is developing a life-like bionic arm that will be as close to the real thing as has ever been developed.

The agency describes it as a "neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore full motor and sensory capability to upper extremity amputee patients. This revolutionary prosthesis will be controlled, feel, look and perform like the native limb."

Under its "Revolutionizing Prosthetics" program, DARPA is shooting for a four-year development-to-production timeframe, in which it will have to meet Pentagon specs for a device that can allow the wearer to pick up fine objects, lift up to 60 pounds, have tactile sensitivity and write longhand. The device will be wired directly into the wearer's peripheral nervous system.

Source: Defense Tech

Seeing the Light with LED

In our high-tech world, the backbone of our electrical lighting system -- the incandescant light bulb -- is a 19th century technology, little changed from the days of Edison. But it will soon have a contender: light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that burn cooler, last longer, are more rugged, and use less energy.

LEDs have, of course, been around for years. The reason why they have never been used for lighting is because no one had figured out a way to make an LED that gave off white light. They exist now, but they remain cost-prohibitive for most applications.

Prices for LED light bulbs are expected to fall, and when that happens, they'll have a ready market. The US Department of Energy estimates that widespread adoption of LED lighting could cut national energy consumption by nearly 30% by 2025 (with the price of oil rising, political support could rise for rebate programs and tax breaks for LED light conversion). And because an LED light can last at least six years, maintenance costs associated with light bulb replacement will drop as well. The longevity of LED lights make them attractive for rough-service applications, and in places where the replacement of bulbs is physically difficult.

Source: AP (Excite)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

More Young People Carrying Plastic, Debt

Not long ago, credit card companies wouldn't have thought of offering cards to anyone under 21... and anyone without a full-time job at that. My first credit card, which I got my senior year in college back in the mid-'80s, had a whopping $200 credit limit! Now, however, a survey by Junior Achievement finds that 11% of teenagers -- some as young as 13 years old -- are carrying plastic.

On the whole, teens manage their credit carefully, with 82% paying their bills in full every month. But that leaves 18% who carry a balance... which, if they're not careful, can snowball into major debt down the road.

Financial experts worry about this trend, with many saying that young teens are too young to be given credit. Others, though, argue that if they are taught to manage credit responsibly by schools and parents, teens can handle credit with no problem.

Advocates of teen credit say it is a teaching tool, and prepares kids for a world in which credit and credit cards are a fact of life. Others, though, caution that we may be cultivating a generation of debtors, whose financial problems society will have to ultimately confront.

RELATED: Burgeoning credit card debt isn't exclusively an American phenomenon. The Times of India reports that, as more Indians join the middle class, personal debt -- and rates of default -- are increasing as well.

Source: AP (MSNBC)

Schools Save Money Through Energy Conservation

When the Olymipa School District in Washington State hired a resource conservation manager, they expected her to save the district money by looking into more efficient ways to use resources. However, they may not have counted on Britten Witzenburg to save nearly $75,000.

Witzenburg has implemented a number of cost- and resource-saving initiatives, all of which are simple and relatively low-tech. One of the biggest payoff items is expected to be the installation of 365-day thermostats that the district could use to automatically lower heating or cooling of buildings on holidays or over the summer break. The thermostats were provided to the district free of charge through a local energy rebate program.

At a time when school districts are facing budget cuts and are trying to pinch every penny, creative yet simple solutions such as this are exactly what they need.

Sources: The Olympian, WorldChanging

BitTorrent-based TV

The other day we heard a suggestion that the major news media adopt BitTorrent technology to distribute their online video clips. Now, a group called Participatory Culture is launching an open source, Internet-based TV service that does just that.

The group calls its initiative Desktop TV (DTV), allowing content creators to publish their video Blog Torrent, a technology that combines RSS and BitTorrent. Through Blog Torrent, viewers can download clips that interest them, and program their viewing experience TiVo-style. Participatory Culture is distributing source code now, and plans to begin broadcast service in June.

Source: Smart Mobs

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"Asian Flu" Strain Mistakenly Released

The virus that caused the 1957 "Asian flu" pandemic was accidentally released to 3,700 labs worldwide from a lab in the US. The virus samples were included in testing kits between October 2004 and this past February.

Scientists are now scrambling to find and destroy these virus samples before they possibly escape and spread. Already, some of the virus samples in Canada have already escaped, though no infections have been reported so far.

There is precedent for a flu strain escaping the lab and infecting the general population (it occurred in Russia in 1977, though that strain was comparatively benign).

As a result of this release, scientists are calling for a "major reassessment" of the safe handling of deadly pathogens.

Source: New Scientist

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Decline of Pure Science

At a time when our destiny is increasingly determined by science and technology, our commitment to research and development of pure science endeavors is dwindling. Today, those who control R&D funding increasingly insist that scientific research have an immediate payoff. Nothing wrong with that, but much has been learned from exploration for exploration's sake.

Science writer Rick Weiss laments this sad state of affairs in the Washington Post:

Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.

Weiss blames much of this diminished interest on a post-9/11 state of fear and the fact that science is an easy target for politicians looking to cut budgets. Libertarians will counter that it's not government's role to fund science, but federal programs such as DARPA have yielded immeasurable benefits to the military and others, giving us the Internet among other things.

The reason, however may run deeper. Culturally, we demand immediate gratification -- a by-product of our capitalist instincts and our increasingly shortened attention spans. Anything that doesn't pay immediate and measurable benefits is quickly dismissed as a failure. In this kind of a world, where can pure science -- which can take years if not decades to generate a return on investment -- find a role?

Do We Really Want to be "Always Connected"?

Now that being tethered to the workplace via cell phone, Blackberry and Internet has evolved from an option to an expectation, a majority of those who responded to a Silicon.com reader poll said that they prefer not to be working while "always on the move."

Though the survey was unscientific, it may indicate the beginning of a backlash against the "always connected" workplace, and a desire for workers to reclaim a degree of work-life balance. While some would welcome the return to the days when the workday ended promptly at 5:00 PM, a more likely outcome is the blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life. Just as today's knowledge workers don't toil in factories, they no longer need to be bound by factory-like rules. If employers expect workers to take calls and answer e-mail in the evenings, they shouldn't object to workers taking care of personal chores during the day.

Indeed, greater management of one's schedule seemed to be a theme in the Silicon.com poll. The majority of respondents said that they would prefer to work from home, which on the surface seems to fly in the face of their desire to unplug. But it more likely suggests that what workers really want is autonomy and control.

Sources: Silicon.com, TheFeature

Playing the Market Pays for At-Risk Students

At-risk middle school students in Maryland who took a course on investing and the stock market showed stronger math and language skills, had better overall grades than their peers, and had better attendance. The "Stocks in the Future" program was developed in part by The Johns Hopkins University.

Students have reacted positively to the course because it is relevant and delivers a lot of useful knowledge. "Every student understands the importance of money," says Johns Hopkins researcher Douglas MacIver. "They may never figure out why they need to know about the Magna Carta or the second law of thermodynamics or how to diagram sentences, but they immediately grasp that stock market literacy might help them make wise investments, and thus, make life-long dreams more attainable."

In the class, students earn money to buy stocks through good attendance and good grades ($3 for every A, $2 for every B, and so on). The students can cash out their stock funds when they graduate from high school.

Source: Eurekalert

Car Buyers Prefer Buying Online

In yet another sign of the times, a survey conducted by Borrell Associates has found that car shoppers are more likely to use the Internet than newspaper classified ads to find new or used cars. Of those surveyed, 11% said they used the Web to find the car that they bought, as opposed to 9% who found their car via newspaper advertising.

In response, auto-related online advertising jumped 51.5% in 2004, and is projected to grow to $2 billion by 2006.

There are surely a number of factors contributing to this rise. We know how people are going online more and reading newspapers less. We also know how little people enjoy negotiating with car dealers. Even those who relish the negotiation process leverage websites such as Edmunds and Kelly Blue Book to research the lowest prices for vehicles and compare deals.

Source: Techdirt, IT Facts

Monday, April 11, 2005

President Bush's iPod

A technology can officially be considered mainstream when the President of the United States adopts it... or at least gives it a serious try. Benjamin Harrison turned America on to electric lighting when he had it installed in the White House in 1889. The adventurous Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to fly in an airplane. JFK may have been our first "television President," but FDR was the first POTUS to appear on the tube, in 1939 for the opening ceremonies of the now-legendary New York World's Fair.

Our current Chief Executive has a high-tech "first" under his belt as well. George W. Bush is reported to be an iPod fan.

For someone not known for delving deeply into pop culture, Bush's musical tastes are surprisingly eclectic. "IPod One" is reportedly loaded with country songs from George Jones, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. But it also includes Aaron Neville, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison.

As for First Lady Laura Bush, she hasn't yet gotten an iPod, but is reportedly something of an online shopaholic.

Source: Free New Mexican

Internet Zero

Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and one of the creators of MIT's Fab Lab concept, co-authored an article in 2004 for Scientific American proposing an "Internet Zero" (or Internet 0 or I0), an IP-based protocol that could network everything, from keys to light bulbs, by giving each object a unique digital identity. I0 would be an open source protocol that would use "big bits" for optimum efficiency, and asynchronous transmissions that maximize the number of devices on a single channel. I0 would also be peer-to-peer, allowing two devices to communicate without the need of a third.

Recently, Gershenfeld appeared on C-SPAN's Digital Futures Series discussing I0. Will I0 be the next Internet buzz-phrase? How quickly will it catch on? Who will back it? And how soon will it generate a privacy backlash?

Source: Future Salon

Mainstream Media: What's Hot? What's Not?

Chris Anderson's Long Tail blog summarizes the elements of the media that are doing well versus those that aren't. For those who follow media or Long Tail issues, there are few surprises here.

Music, television, radio, newspapers, magazines and books are all on the downside... and some of the numbers are stunning. Radio listenership, for instance, is at a 27-year low, and music sales are down 21% since 1999. On the other hand, movies, video games and the Web are all on the upswing, with all continuing to set records, while Web advertising is set to break the $10 billion mark this year, reaching 5.4% of all advertising.

RELATED: The number of viewers watching streaming video of events at the Vatican last week on MSNBC's website exceeded ratings for its cable network. Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine makes the argument for MSNBC and other networks with a Web presence to adopt Bittorrent-based video to expand their reach and further leverage their Web potential

Source: Long Tail

Is DNA Profiling a Threat to Civil Liberties?

A little over a decade ago, the use of DNA in the field of criminal justice was the stuff of science fiction. Today, it's so familiar that whole TV series are built around it. Now, though, some are beginning to ask whether DNA profiling will have the unintended consequences of restricting civil liberties and fueling prejudices.

Under California's Proposition 69, approved last fall, police can retain DNA profiles for anyone arrested for a crime -- regardless of whether they are charged. Similar laws exist in the UK. Says Tania Simoncelli at the American Civil Liberties Union, "If your DNA is on the database it means that you are forever an automatic suspect for any crime in the future. It undermines the principle of presumptive innocence." But it's not just principle that critics of DNA profiling are worrying about. Being on a list, they say, could needlessly prevent people from traveling or obtaining employment. Critics also suggest that because minorities are over-represented in such databases, they could be presumed guilty in an investigation.

Police, meanwhile, argue that DNA profiling is an effective and essential tool for law enforcement. Often, those arrested and profiled for one crime can be linked via DNA to other unsolved crimes, which might never have been solved otherwise. DNA has also absolved truly innocent people of crimes of which they were accused.

As DNA technology becomes more sophisticated ahd databases become larger, questions such as these will take on greater scientific, political, legal and ethical significance.

Source: New Scientist

Friday, April 08, 2005

Cookie Monster to Get Healthy

It may be a sign of the times, but you may view it as either a revelation or a sacrilege. Entering its 36th season, Sesame Street is about to get a health makeover... and Cookie Monster is going to learn to cool it with the chocolate chips.

The new season will have a "Healthy Habits for Life" theme, with segments focusing on nutrition, exercise, and hygiene. Cookie isn't giving up his favorite snack entirely... Sesame Street producers stress that he's not going on a diet or giving up sugar entirely. But he and the rest of the gang will be eating more fruits and veggies, and reserving cookies as a "sometimes food."

Source: Yahoo! (AP)

Better Ways to Advertise on Mobile Devices

Ever since mobile devices first gained popularity, marketers have salivated over their potential as an advertising platform. However, the first wave of advertising models proved to be overly invasive. "Push" advertising that has been accepted for years on radio and TV becomes spam on a device as personal as a mobile phone. Now, though, marketers are rethinking how to leverage mobile devices as an advertising platform.

The keys to success seem to be a) to respect the audience and recognize that they are on a personal device, and b) engage them in a way that interests and motivates them. Posting billboards with instructions to SMS a destination are an interesting experiment, as is encouraging the audience to snap pictures with their camera phones and submit them.

Advertising agencies and their clients are willing to roll the dice with these kinds of experiments because they know the growing significance of mobile devices in our lives. Says Andrew Robertson of the BBDO advertising firm, "We are rapidly getting to the point where the single most important medium that people have is their wireless device. It's with them every single moment of the day." The level to which the mobile audience will tolerate this linkage of their devices and advertising remains unclear. An even more important question is how effective mobile advertising will prove to be in the long run. The most clever, most technically innovative ad campaign in the world is no guarantee of more sales for the agency's client. And if it doesn't deliver the customers, it's as good as no campaign at all.

Sources: TheFeature, unmediated

Thursday, April 07, 2005

New Theory on Why the Neanderthal Went Extinct

Sometime around 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthal humanoids suddenly went extinct. Most anthropologists suspect that the new, improved humanoids, Homo sapiens, had something to do with it. But no one has ever been sure exactly how.

Now, new research suggests that the Neanderthal might have fallen victim to Homo sapiens' superior ability to specialize in labor, trade and network... offering us modern folk lessons in the process. Because they interacted over wide areas in diverse ways, Homo sapiens could spread learning and develop economic efficiency. By pioneering "reciprocal obligations," those who were good at hunting could trade food for other goods and services that they might not be able to procure otherwise. Hence, the free market was born.

The Neanderthal, by contrast, were apparently not able to trade and divide labor as effectively. Research suggests that they lacked the organizational and planning skills to exchange materials and ideas on a wide scale. By not venturing much beyond small groups, the Neanderthal simply found it harder to compete for resources.

But does this necessarily mean that our ancestors' skill at trading and networking drove the Neanderthal to extinction? Not all anthropologists buy into this theory. Nonetheless, it does raise some intriguing questions... particularly whether we as a species might be genetically disposed to free trade and exchange of ideas.

Source: FuturePundit

Japanese Space Agency Shoots for the Moon

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is proposing an ambitious plan to develop unmanned and manned vehicles to visit the moon, and a lunar base by 2025. The plan would develop a manned lunar vehicle within 10 years, double JAXA's budget to $2.6 billion, and scrap some existing initiatives.

The purpose of a moon base would be to mine for minerals that are rare on earth but possibly plentiful on the moon. The base would undoubtedly make heavy use of nanotechnology and robotics.

Sources: AP (Yahoo!), Spacetoday.net, Futurismic

Sony Files Patent for "Brain Interface"

Sony has filed a patent for a "prophetic invention" that would provide users with "sensory experiences" such as images, tastes and sounds. The devices is non-invasive, using magnets to activate specific areas of the brain. In short, the device would allow a user to "plug in" to a virtual environment; it's been compared to the cyberworld of The Matrix minus the jack in the back of the skull (not necessarily a flattering comparison, but you get the idea).

If the technology proves feasible, it would offer a wealth of possibilities for everything from recreation to healthcare to education. It would also open a Pandora's box of dangers and possible abuses. However, don't look for it on sale at your local electronics store anytime soon. By calling it a "prophetic invention," Sony stresses that the device "was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us." In other words, at this stage it's nothing more or less than a very cool idea.

Sources: I4U Future Technology News, New Scientist

"Cybercabs" on the Streets of San Francisco

Most frequent taxi passengers will tell you that the era of the chatty, witty cab driver seems to be over. But long cab rides will no longer have to be boring, if a pilot project in San Francisco proves successful.

This week, 200 taxis in San Francisco will be fitted with touch-screen kiosks, which will allow passengers to access the latest news, sports scores, weather, local events and restaurant listings. The back-seat devices are manufactured by The Interactive Taxi Co., with software developed by PeerDirect, a unit of Progress Software Corp. The devices connect to a wireless network through Verizon's cellular service, and can maintain the perception of a steady-state connection even in "dead zones."

The San Francisco pilot could open the door to similar initiatives around the US. Interactive Taxi has already launched successful pilots in Boston and Chicago. And New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission, which is responsible for nearly 13,000 vehicles, has expressed strong interest in the technology.

Sources: San Francisco Examiner, Kiosk Marketplace News

Online Grocery Shopping Makes a Comeback in Cities

Online supermarkets became one of the symbols of the dotcom boom, hailed as the shopping method of the future, then fading into oblivion when the bubble burst. Now, second-generation online grocers are thriving in urban areas where good supermarkets are hard to find, and grocery shopping is awkward under the best conditions.

Online grocers SimonDelivers.com, Peapod and FreshDirect are among the winners in this space. FreshDirect in particular is making its mark in New York City. The service, which delivers fresh groceries to one's door, appeals to upscale, Net-savvy consumers pressed for time, as well as anyone else who finds it difficult to get out to a supermarket. Landlords have begun using the service as an incentive for prospective tenants.

According to a Zagat survey, 52% of New Yorkers say they had ordered groceries through an online service. FreshDirect, for its part, doubled its sales in 2004, to $100 million. In response, established grocery stores are adding their own online delivery services.

Sources: Techdirt, The New York Times

Congress May Extend Daylight-Saving Time

By now you have turned all your clocks forward for daylight-saving time... right? Now, as part of energy conservation legislation it is considering, Congress is looking into the possibility of extending daylight-saving time. Under the new proposal, DST would begin on the last Sunday of March and end on the last Sunday of November.

By one estimate, extending DST could save as much as 10,000 barrels of oil per day by extending daylight into the evening. For more information about DST, go here.

Source: CNN.com

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Media Chaos Scenario

The Carnegie Corporation has commissioned "Abandoning the News," a major report on how new technology is disrupting traditional news media (download a PowerPoint summary of the report here). To anyone who has been following the subject for any length of time, nothing in this report should be surprising. However, it does provide a solid summary of what's going on and at least one scenario of what will happen.

Among the more interesting snippets from the report:

  • The study found that Yahoo! and MSN were the most frequently cited news sources, beating out local TV news, network and cable TV websites, newspapers and cable networks. National broadcast network news was dead last. This is true among young people especially (surprise!)
  • Among 18-to-34 year-olds, the Internet had the highest positive image and highest level of news credibility. Nespapers came in last.
  • Also, young people overwhelmingly said they intended to rely on the Internet more in the coming years as a news source, at the expense of other news sources.
  • The number of daily newspaper readers is dropping steadily, to the point where newspapers may no longer be a factor in news in the coming years.
  • Classified advertising -- long a cash cow for newspapers -- is being hurt by the Internet. Sites such as Craigslist are estimated to be costing San Francisco area newspapers up to $65 million a year in classified revenue.
  • In general, most Amercians under 40 don't follow or care about the news the way their elders do. CBS News president Andrew Heyward calls them "informed impressionists." "News is gathered by the impressions they receive from many sources around them," he says. As a result, "We are going to have to be accessible without just being bite-sized... We are way behind in translating the strengths of television to the new media. We are nowhere on storytelling for the new media and for these younger audiences. We have to figure out how to use the new technologies in ways that address our strengths—immediacy and personality. There is a broader, new definition of news that we will need to develop for this next generation."
  • Free newspapers, such as Metro and Express that are distributed in metropolitan areas, are one way that the newspaper business is fighting back.
  • TV and cable will likely face the same audience dropoff that newspapers have seen. In response, they will need to develop programming for specific demographics (think Long Tail), and move more of their programming to broadband Internet. Programming will also be designed to be device specific, such as for video-capable mobile phones.

Source: BuzzMachine

China Faces Labor Shortage

Who'd have thought it? A country with a billion-odd people -- the world's most populous -- is experiencing labor shortages in its industrialized Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Whereas busloads of prospective workers used to trek to these regions in search of jobs, factories must now actively recruit. Workers are also leaving the cramped, squalid conditions of Guangdong. Those who are staying put are striking to assert their rights.

Those studying the phenomenon believe that this is only the start of a long-term trend. "The number of people in the labor force is going to be going down for the next 15 years," says Dali Yang of the University of Chicago. "This is a shift in demographics that is really good, not just for salaries but for work conditions."

A flattening population and China's rising standard of living -- which gives workers more employment options and raises expectations -- seems to be at the heart of the shortage. Chinese workers also have tools long familiar to their Western counterparts, particularly employment websites.

Of course, higher wages will also mean higher production costs. And higher production costs will mean that China will no longer be the low-cost production giant... which would affect everyone in the US from Wal-Mart to Wall Street.

Source: The New York Times

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

"Bionic Eye" Under Development

Physicists and opthamologists at Stanford University are developing what they call an "optoelectronic retinal prosthesis system." In layman's terms, a bionic eye.

The device replaces retinas that have degenerated -- a leading cause of blindness. It is currently being tested in rats, with human testing being at least three years out.

The system presently consists of a video camera attached to the eye's photosensors. A chip is implanted in the eye; the system also relies on a pocket-sized CPU and a battery pack.

Presently, the technology should be good enough to allow users to determine shapes and colors, recognize faces, and even read large-print type. As the technology improves -- and as they learn the details of how the eye processes images -- researchers expect to improve on the eye, perhaps even adding "extras" such as infrared sensitivity.

Such news ought to be of great interest to those tracking future demographics, as macular degeneration will be a growing concern among our aging population.

Source: Roland Piquepaille's Tech Trends

ANTS in Space

NASA is developing a new type of robotic space probe that could maneuver over almost any type of terrain while networking with other probes to form "swarms" to spread out over rugged terrain of a distant world, or change shape to form useful objects.

The first prototype in NASA's autonomous nanotechnology swarms (ANTS) vision is hardly nano in size. In fact, it's a relatively large, rather inelegant device called the TETwalker (for tetrahedral walker). The pyramid-shaped devices moves by continually toppling itself over; this prevents it from getting stuck, and allows it to operate in any position.

NASA's long-term plan is to develop miniaturized TETwalkers that would operate as a swarm that could configure itself into a variety of shapes, adapt to multiple conditions, and repair itself if damaged. All of these are highly beneficial traits for a probe system that would explore harsh, distant environments such as those of Mars or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

TETwalkers were tested in Antarctica in January, and the development team is exploring how to apply artificial intelligence to the project. NASA, however, does not expect ANTS to be ready for deployment for another 30 years.

Source: NASA, Roland Piquepaille's Tech Trends

The Waterproof, Outdoor LCD TV

Just in time for summer, Sunbrite TV offers a 20.1" LCD TV monitor for the outdoors. It's waterproof, weatherproof and even insectproof, so you can place it by the pool, or watch TV in the rain or during a plague of locusts! Presumably, it's also kid-proof too...

Seriously, beyond backyard warriors, any outdoor venue could make use of a rough-service LCD monitor, as well as some indoor locations for which a standard model would be too delicate. A slightly modified version would make a compelling electronic billboard.

Source: unmediated

Monday, April 04, 2005

Running for Pope

According to the rules of the Catholic Church, any Catholic male in good standing and under the age of 80 is eligible to become pope. Although the winning candidate is almost always a cardinal, he doesn't have to be. This curious loophole has encouraged some dark-horse hopefuls to toss their hats (or should I say miters) into the ring.

Google "running for pope" and you'll see a growing number of websites and blogs devoted to some of these long-shot candidates... clearly most all with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Someone (or something) named Avery Ant has declared his candidacy, and even has a video on his website. His qualifications are his ability to speak Pig Latin and a promise to "kick antichrist ass." He's also unemployed and needs the job.

Another person named Dennis is also campaigning on a platform to establish Web-based masses (there might actually be something to this) and a reduction in the tithing rate from 10% to 9%.

Just one more thing to illustrate how much has changed since the last papal election...

UPDATE: As the papal conclave draws closer, online campaigning is taking on a more serious tone. MSNBC reports that individuals and even archdiocese are using websites to promote their favorite cardinals.