FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is Obesity Overrated?

One of the biggest health-related stories within the past year has been concern over the growing epidemic of obesity in the US. There's no doubt that Americans are getting heavier... but now, a new group of researchers is arguing that the health risks associated with obesity are overstated, and that studies supporting those ideas are erroneous.

These researchers point to new studies that indicate increases in death rates from obesity are statistically insignificant, and argue that underweight people are at greater health risk than their overweight counterparts. They also cite studies disproving any connection between obesity and heart disease, and stress that tables such as the body mass index (BMI), which tells people their "healthy weight" based on their sex and height, are unrealistic and inaccurate measures (bodybuilders, for instance, typically have an "obese" BMI). Such charges are reflected in recent scholarly titles, including The Obesity Myth, by Paul F. Campos (Gotham Books, 2004); The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology, by Michael Gard and Jan Wright (Routledge, 2005); and Obesity: The Making of an American Epidemic, by J. Eric Oliver (Oxford University Press, August 2005).

Moreover, these critics allege that much of the anti-obesity research is funded by the diet and pharmaceutical industries. "The war on fat," says author Paul F. Campos, "is really about making some of us rich."

Maybe some of the recent concerns about obesity sound paranoid, but this isn't to say that it's OK to cancel your gym membership and start super-sizing your meal portions. Somewhere, common sense has to intervene and strike a balance between starvation dieting and total neglect of one's body. Plus, much of the arguing on this subject appears to be taking on economic and even political overtones. Just as critics accuse anti-obesity researchers of being in bed with the diet industry, how closely might some of those be allied with the food and restaurant industries, who would very much like us to stop worrying about which foods make us fat?

Obesity is an important topic that requires much more study. This controversy simply marks an opening volley in what will surely be a long and brutal battle.

UPDATE: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reiterated its position that obesity is indeed harmful. Specifically, the CDC wanted to clarify its position in light of one of its studies that revealed fewer obesity-related deaths than did previous studies. "What we don't want is for this debate to continue to confuse people," said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding. "Obesity and overweight are critically important health threats in this country. They have many adverse consequences."

Source: Scientific American

Media Turn Up In Flight, and On the Menu

Electronic entertainment is turning up in some curious places these days. Or maybe not so curious...

Airlines -- even those that are cash-strapped -- are considering installing monitors for each seat, through which passengers can watch movies, play games, listen to music or even access the Internet. For a small fee, of course. Airlines see this as a profitable venture, even as they endure higher fuel prices and cut corners elsewhere. Says Song Airlines vice president Tim Mapes, "Once you put the capital onboard the plane, it's a one-time expense. It's making the investment provide the absolute best return possible."

Planes are a logical place for this kind of media. Passengers represent a captive audience who would likely find a $5 fee for a movie or the ability to check their e-mail quite reasonable. However, those looking to distribute electronic media are getting even more creative than that...

McDonald's recently launched a pilot of Blaze Net, a kiosk that allows patrons to burn CDs, download cell phone ringtones, and print digital photos. The kiosks have been deployed in several McDonald's in the Chicago area, where initial response has been "overwhelmingly positive," according to a McDonald's spokesperson. Restaurants in West Virginia and Florida are next on the pilot list.

Regardless of the success of Blaze Net, Mickey D's might want to take a cue from Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and creator of Pong, the great-granddaddy of all video games. Bushnell's latest venture, Media Bistro, allows patrons to watch TV, play video games and surf the Web while they eat -- providing high-tech versions of the booth-side mini juke boxes that have graced diners and soda shops since the 1950s. A few tweaks to make the games kid-friendly and feature all our favorite McDonaldland characters, and the concept sounds tailor-made for the Golden Arches.

Bushnell should know a thing or two about combining video games and food. After launching Atari, Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese...

Sources: Boston Globe, Washington Post, MTV News

A "Ginormous" List of "Confuzzling" Words

Well, maybe it's not all that ginormous, but it does contain the best words not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The hallowed dictionary publisher recently solicited suggestions for new and obscure words not in its pages, and the responses it received were clever, useful and fun. Among them:

  • confuzzled (adj): confused and puzzled at the same time
  • cognitive displaysia (n): the feeling you have before you even leave the house that you are going to forget something and not remember it until you're on the highway
  • phonecrastinate (v): to put off answering the phone until caller ID displays the incoming name and number
  • troddle (v): to wander around without knowing of doing so
  • snirt (n): snow that is dirty, often seen by the side of roads and parking lots that have been plowed

Maybe you won't use these words in everyday speech, but the exercise simply goes to show how language is dynamic and ever-changing.

Smart Lights

Recent advances in the application of light-emitting diode (LED) and solid-state electronics for lighting may lead to the development of "smart lights" that can adjust themselves to specific conditions and even communicate with one another.

A recent article in Science magazine describes how smart lights can save energy and money (using only 3 watts to deliver the light equivalent of a 60-watt conventional bulb), deliver optimum light quality at different times of the day, provide the best type of light to grow plants indoors, and even communicate with other devices through rapid bursts imperceptible to the human eye. For instance, brake lights on a car could send out a signal to the car behind it to slow down.

Don't look for smart lights to hit the market anytime soon, though. Researchers are still learning how to deliver quality LED light through all points on the spectrum.

Sources: Eurekalert, Genius Now

Gadgets Define Kids' Social Status

There's nothing new about kids wanting to have stuff just because "everybody else" has it. Growing up in the modern world, after all, is all about trying to fit in and maintain one's social standing... and usually, doing that means having the right gear. These days, however, fitting in is a costly proposition, as gadgets like iPods, camera phones and portable DVD players become must-have fashion accessories for kids and teens.

Market researchers who study teen consuming habits have noted a significant shift in the way young people regard style. Whereas kids used to rely on clothes and hair to make a statement and define themselves, today's teens measure social status through high-tech devices. Many credit the stylish iPod for this change, but the now-ubiquitous cell phone has also surely played a role.

These marketers cite the "nag factor" in driving the purchase of these gadgets, placing much of the financial burden on parents and grandparents. Marketers also note that "gadget envy" cuts across all socioeconomic lines, affecting young people everywhere.

Sources: New York Times (via Taipei Times), Techdirt

Monday, May 30, 2005

Are Researchers Relying Less on the Web?

Librarians, subject matter experts and professional research intermediaries who thought they might be made obsolete by the Web should be reassured by a new survey suggesting that netizens are relying on the open Web less for research. According to the survey conducted by Outsell, a firm that serves the information industry:

[P]eople who use the Internet in their jobs are starting to tire of going directly to the open Web. Just 67 percent say they go to the open Web for the information they need for the job, compared to 79 percent in 2001. They are increasingly more likely to rely on corporate intranets, colleagues, libraries, and other intermediaries.

The survey also found that users spend more time searching for information since 2001 (11 hours vs. 8 hours per week), and now spend the majority of their time (53%) searching for information as opposed to analyzing and applying it.

Granted, Outsell has a vested interest in promoting the services of professional researchers. However, they may well be on to something here. As more information becomes available on the Web, the harder it becomes to use general purpose search engines to locate specific, relevant information. Also, information workers are increasingly pressed for time, and are rediscovering tools that help them narrow their searches quickly, such as specialized databases, portals, and good old fashioned human librarians. The survey also points to potential business opportunities for researchers willing and able to help their clients locate valid information quickly.

Friday, May 27, 2005

A Nation of E-Mail Junkies

How many times a day do you check e-mail? Once, twice, several? Do you check it late at night? On weekends? On vacation?

If so, you have plenty of company. A new survey conducted by America Online and Opinion Research Corporation has found that many of us check our e-mail several times a day, after hours and even while on vacation.

The survey revealed that many of us check e-mail:

  • Several times a day (47%)
  • While on vacation (60%)
  • In the middle of the night (40%)
  • First thing in the morning (40%)
  • Right before bedtime (14%)

The survey also found that 26% of those surveyed haven't gone for longer than two to three days without reading their e-mail.

At first blush, this survey seems to reinforce the perception that America is a nation of workaholics. It makes sense, after all, as more of us enter the 24/7 workplace, and more of us work remotely. However, the survey also found that e-mail is used for personal use as much if not more so than for business. Thus, it illustrates how e-mail has become a fundamental part of our lifestyles, as much so as the phone and Web.

Source: Earthweb

Times Have Changed in First Grade!

Back when I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who, as part of her standard toolkit of punishments, put masking tape over the mouths of kids who couldn't stop talking. I can't recall anybody thinking it was terribly inappropriate, and our parents at the time probably thought it was a good alternative to spanking.

Fast-forward 40-odd years. A Terre Haute, Indiana elementary school substitute teacher has been fired for taping the mouths of six of her first-grade students. She said it was just a joke, but parents and the school district weren't laughing.

Come to think of it, my first-grade teacher took it pretty seriously too...

Source: WTHI-TV

Memorial Day Travel May Set Record

Despite high gas prices -- and with air travel rebounding to pre-9/11 levels -- the AAA estimates that a record 37 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more away from home this Memorial Day weekend.

Air travel has become particularly attractive, with low fares and the growth of low-cost carriers like Southwest. The US Department of Transportation is estimating that the average air fare is about 20% cheaper than in 2000. However, this is also expected to lead to crowded airports and delays. So if you're planning to hit the skies this weekend, be sure to get to the airport early!

Source: CNN.com

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Photoblogs to Help Fight Crime

Police in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, are posting photos of football (a.k.a. soccer) hooligans on its website in hopes that the public can identify the pictured individuals.

The action is reportedly in response to a particularly violent riot that occurred in April. Since the photos were posted, 15 of the 60 suspects have turned themselves in.

Source: Smart Mobs

Conan O'Brien on the Future of TV

Once again, this week's Friday diversion comes a day early. The late-night talk show host speaks his mind on where television is headed.

Sources: Newsweek, Technology Liberation Front

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How Molecular Manufacturing Might Work

If you follow nanotechnology and wonder what manufacturing at the molecular or near-molecular level might look like, you can now view a graphic presentation of a theoretical process at work.

Pioneering nanotechnologist Dr. K. Eric Drexler has teamed up with graphic animator John Burch to develop an animation showing the molecular manufacturing process at a literal "desktop factory" from start to finish. You can view a four-minute Quicktime movie, or a static slide show.

Sources: Nanotechnology Now, Future Salon

Sex + Watchdog Groups = Great Advertising??

In today's political climate, the following seems to be the perfect recipe for creating memorable, far-reaching TV advertising:

1. Shoot a commercial featuring lots of sexual innuendo, but stopping just short of anything really naughty.
2. Before airing, allow conservative watchdog groups to get wind of it so they can get in an uproar and start a grassroots campaign to stop it.
3. Make sure that bloggers and the national news media talk about it, and vigorously debate family values vs. free speech. Provide TV networks with clips of the ad so they can run it over and over. If you're really lucky, Leno or Letterman will joke about the ad in their monologues.
4. Once the commotion has died down, offer to pull or scale back airings of the ad, thereby saving a bundle on airtime.

Who knows if the Carl's Jr. fast food chain intended to follow this strategy, but they appear to be benefitting from it nonetheless. Their new TV ad, featuring Paris Hilton washing a car while wearing a sexy swimsuit, is loaded with innuendo. Way too much, says the Parents Television Council. The PTC's main complaint is that, unlike a risque program that can be placed into a late-night time slot, a commercial can pop up at any time (though Carl's would not likely buy time on children's shows for this ad).

If the PTC's goal was to suppress this ad, it failed miserably. As noted above, the ad is featured on news and talk shows everywhere, and can even be viewed online at spicyparis.com Historically, attempts by watchdog groups to censor and boycott what they see as offensive media usually backfire. Instead of shutting down this programming, their actions have put everything from the '90s sitcom Married With Children to GoDaddy.com on the map.

Was stirring up controversy part of Carl's intent? Possibly. In any case, they made their point, and got their name out there. But the critical question remains: Now that we know that Paris Hilton can wash a car, can she sell burgers?

Source: CNN/Money

The Transparent Newsroom

A blog launched by the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, presents an innovative way in which mainstream media can leverage new media. The Daily Briefing blog gives readers a fly-on-the-wall view of newsroom activities and editorial staff meetings. The blog reveals the decision-making process that goes on at the paper, as well as a Q&A forum where readers can submit questions to the editors.

Not everyone will want to make such a blog a part of their regular reading. But considering the controversies the MSM has been embroiled in recently, this kind of transparency may help clear up misunderstandings by shedding light on how editorial decisions are made.

UPDATE: Techdirt features a rather harsh critique of the Daily Briefing, questioning not only the usefulness of the blog, but whether or not it can be truly considered a blog at all.

RELATED: Poynter Online notes a similar blogging effort being conducted by a newspaper in Boulder, Coloardo. The effort apparenty hasn't gone over very well, though the post offers some suggestions for improvement.

Sources: Poynter Online, unmediated

Credit Card Holders in Georgia to Pilot "Blink" Cards

JPMorgan Chase & Co. will begin a pilot rollout of its new "blink" credit cards with about 400,000 cardholders in Atlanta and other Georgia cities. The bank will begin mailing the new cards to customers June 1.

Instead of the typical magnetic stripes, the blink cards use RFID chips to hold information. The card merely needs to be held close to a reader rather than swiped through one. Chase is hoping that the technology will speed checkouts; it estimates that blink cards can shave 20 seconds off a typical transaction at a fast-food restaurant. That doesn't sound like much, but those seconds add up.

7-Eleven convenience stores will be among the first retailers to be outfitted with readers for blink cards. The readers should be in place in the Atlanta area by next month, and 7-Eleven hopes to have readers installed in all its stores by year's end.

Atlanta's reputation as a trendsetting city led Chase to select it as the first pilot city. Says Tom O'Donnell, senior vice president of JPMorgan's card division, "It's a dynamic place where people are on the go."

Source: AP (Excite)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Looming Public Health Worker Shortage

A 2004 report by the American Association for State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) states that the public health departments in half of the states in the US are understaffed, and may be unable to handle widespread health crises. Because public health workers would be on the front lines in the event of a bioterror attack, the matter is one of national security as well as national health.

The report also noted that the average age of public health workers is 47, meaning that large numbers of them are nearing retirement age. Recruitment of younger workers is difficult because most public health departments can't compete with the private sector on salary. In some cases, healthcare workers can double their salary by moving from the public to the private sector.

Congress is stepping in to help alleviate the shortage by considering legislation that would forgive student loans and offer scholarships to students who commit to public health careers. As beneficial as this approach may be, it depends on students completing college programs, and the public health system might not be able to wait that long.

Source: MSNBC

States and Cities, Not the Feds, to Drive Fuel Efficiency

Green Car Congress, a group that monitors developments in sustainable vehicles, reports that the Senate Energy Committee voted to reject an amendment to the energy bill it is drafting that would have increased the fuel efficiency for SUVs and light trucks from 21 to 27.5 MPG by 2011.

Meanwhile, New York's environmental protection agency is proposing to adopt California's stringent environmental standards for vehicles. And New York City has signed on to the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which endorses the 7% greenhouse gas emission reduction for the US as specified in the Kyoto Protocol.

It appears, then, that states and cities comprising the nation's most populous areas are taking a leadership role in fuel efficiency and emissions reduction, as opposed to the federal government. When changes come, we can expect to see them coming at this level.

Source: WorldChanging

Stuck in an Airport? Hit the Gym!

The next time you're stuck in an airport, you might be able to pass the time by working out. Although a few airports offer their own gyms, many more are adjacent to hotels that have gyms for their guests. Some of these make their gyms available to non-guests for a nominal daily fee.

A website called Airport Gyms is a directory of gyms in or near US and Canadian airports. Many of these facilities cater to those who have airport layovers and delays, providing everything from towels to disposable swimsuits.

"I don't understand why more airports aren't capitalizing on it," says frequent flier Harvey Reed, who hits the gym whenever he has an airport layover. Adds Mike Harrington, supervisor of the Hilton health club that's near Boston's Logan Airport, "You can go to the bar and have a beer and a hamburger or you can do exactly the opposite [and get some exercise]."

Source: AP (Yahoo!)

Snow Leopards on Everest

Recent sightings of endangered snow leopards on the slopes of Mount Everest in Nepal have given conservationists something to cheer about. Sightings that occurred during an October 2004 field study mark the first confirmed spottings of the elusive predator in 40 years.

In contrast to other threatened species that are being crowded out of their natural habitats, snow leopards appear to be expanding their range into harsh, remote regions such as the Himalayas, where they are fairly safe from human interference.

Source: CNN.com

The Best (And Less-Than-Best) of Videoblogging

Videoblogging may be the hottest new blogging trend. But if the videos at Videoblogging.info, a videoblog aggregator, are any indication, the medium is still in need of refinement. Amateurism may be democratic and in keeping with Long Tail theory, but it doesn't do much to ensure quality.

However, there are some interesting videos here worth watching if you have the time and bandwidth to spare. Surely the Steven Spielberg of videoblogging is out there somewhere... but so far, he or she is keeping a very low profile.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Conditions Right for Another Harsh Hurricane Season

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that the Atlantic hurricane season for 2005 will be just as bad if not worse than last year's.

"NOAA's prediction for the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season is for 12 to 15 tropical storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes, of which three to five could become major hurricanes," said NOAA administrator and Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher (Ret.) "Forecaster confidence that this will be an active hurricane season is very high."

If the predictions turn out to be accurate, it will continue a pattern of above-normal hurricane activity that began in 1995. Last year saw 15 tropical storms in the Atlantic (normal = 10), 9 hurricanes (normal = 6) and 6 major hurricanes (normal = 2).

NOAA expresses such confidence in its forecasts because all the conditions are right for an active season in the Atlantic. Warmer waters, low surface pressure, a favorable easterly jet stream from Africa, weaker easterly trade winds and upper-level easterlies that expand westward all combine to encourage the formation and development of severe storms.

By contrast, the NOAA is predicting a below-active hurricane season for the Pacific. The official hurricane season lasts from June 1 through Nov. 30 in the Atlantic, and from May 15 through Nov. 30 in the Pacific.

Will Hybrids Save the World?

Are hybrid vehicles the saviors of our transportation system, weaning us off foreign oil while continuing to offer us the freedom of our auto-centered lifestyles? Some say no, that the American people can't possibly replace their traditional cars with hybrids that quickly and in sufficient enough numbers.

However, others cite an unexpected interest in hybrid sales, noting that, if current trends continue, 80% of new cars sold by 2015 could be hybrids. But that's an optimistic estimate, and even if it came to pass, it might not put a dent in oil consumption.

A Booz Allen Hamilton survey shows that, even with aggressive hybrid adoption, oil consumption wouldn't likely fall until nearly 2020. Medium and low hybrid adoption would only slow the increase in the growth of oil consumption.

Source: Christian Science Monitor

The True Power of Blogs

After the heady days leading up to and following the 2004 presidential election, are blogs headed for the "trough of disillusionment" on the Gartner Hype Cycle?

Recent research suggests that the power of the blogosphere may be vastly overstated. A Pew Internet study has found that blogs don't create news so much as pass it around (which blog readers already know, but more on that in a minute). It also found that 16% of US adults read blogs... which, spun another way, tells us that 84% of US adults don't read blogs. If that's the case, how important can blogs be?

It's not surprising to see blogs entering the Gartner "trough." I've believed for awhile that the current state of the blogosphere is analogous to the state of the Web during the late 1990s prior to the dotcom bubble burst. Not everyone was on the Web, but that's what made it so cool -- the Web represented an elite of trendy, smart, affluent people. Then as now, enthusiasts congratulated themselves on having entered a brave new world that would obliterate the old. And for awhile, it looked like they were right.

But then the bottom fell out. Many dotcoms went down the toilet, driven under not by the technology but by bad business models or bad management. The Web hit the "trough" hard (the 2000/2001 recession didn't help), but came back and is now on the "plateau of productivity." The Web left the domain of geeky kids with funky body piercings to become a much more democratic medium. True, websites aren't as sexy as they were seven or eight years ago, but that's only because they're a ubiquitous part of the business and social landscape. To businesses in 2005, having a URL is just as essential as having a phone number. Perhaps even more so.

So it will go with blogs. Lots of us bloggers like to pontificate about how we're destroying the "old media," that we're rewriting the rules of journalism blah blah blah. As with the early webmasters, we se ourselves as an elite, smarter and hipper than everyone else. True, some blogs and websites have scooped the mainstream media, and blog discussions have called the MSM on some errors. Blogs also allow "citizen journalists" to provide "man on the street" perspectives in regional hotspots.

Both the early Web and the blogosphere were unique products of their time. A "perfect storm" of technological and economic factors (a red-hot economy, the introduction of Windows 95 that brought GUIs and multimedia to the masses, the arrival of cheap Internet connectivity, etc.) made the Web possible. Similarly, blogs have benefited not only by easy-to-use blogging services like Blogger and Movable Type, but by a political and social atmosphere that invites commentary and controversy, as well as a fundamental distrust of the MSM.

But instead of destroying the MSM, blogs are entering into a symbiotic relationship with them. When a blogger calls a MSM publication or broadcaster on an error, that, in the long run, helps make the MSM stronger and better by forcing it to stay on top of its game. Checks and balances, as they say in DC. In turn, the MSM provides blogs with source material for discussion and analysis. Most blogs, after all, "reblog" material, putting it into the hands of others who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see or read it. In this way of acting as repeaters and amplifiers, blogs provide the bulk of their service.

Blogs won't "destroy" the MSM any more than television destroyed radio, or websites destroyed brick-and-mortar businesses. However, they may well alter them. Before television, radio was a very different medium than we see it today. It featured drama and comedy shows as well as music, and because of that, people related to it differently. When television came along, that programming moved to TV, and radio had to reinvent itself. Exactly how blogs will change MSM, if at all, remains to be seen.

Blogs will enter the "plateau of productivity" when more professional journalists and MSM start blogging (as is happening already), and more bloggers acquire sharper journalistic skills. Quality will replace hysteria and hyperbole as the hallmark of good blogging (though there will always be room for a juicy rumor now and then). And, as more "ordinary people" discover the blogosphere, it will lose its stigma as being solely for extremist politics and weird ideas. Some will mourn that, but the blogosphere will remain a place where smart, insightful people can speak their mind and be heard. And if that's not power, I don't know what is.

RELATED: Adam Thierer of the Technology Liberation Front echoes many of my sentiments.

UPDATE: The Newest Industry blog notes concerns from prominent bloggers about "blogger burnout" and the need to step back a bit. The post proposes a "Break from Blogging Day," on which no one would read or post to blogs. "Walk away from your computer. Go outside. Go for a walk. Write a long journal entry, ON PAPER. Read a book." The post even proposes a date: Friday, June 3. Is this simply a healthy reassessment from people who are overworked, or the seeds of a full-scale backlash?

FAA Nixes Billboards in Space

Those of you eager to see Coke, Budweiser or Nike advertisements hovering in the night sky are in for a disappointment. The Federal Aviation Administration wants to prohibit "obtrusive" advertising in zero gravity.

"Objects placed in orbit, if large enough, could be seen by people around the world for long periods of time," the FAA said in its filing. "Large advertisements could destroy the darkness of the night sky." Theoretically, large orbiting billboards could be created that would be larger and brighter than the moon, and that could be seen with the naked eye.

Still unclear is whether the FAA will have the means or the authority to actually enforce this rule. It would also only apply to American advertisers.

Source: CNN.com

Friday, May 20, 2005

Here Comes the Bride... and the Bill!

Wedding bells aren't the only ringing today's engaged couples are likely to hear. Cash registers will also be ringing with wedding sales, as the average wedding now costs over $26,000! The growing sophistication -- and expense -- of weddings is part of a long-term trend.

American couples will spend about $125 billion -- which is approximately the size of Ireland's GDP -- on weddings in 2005, according to the Fairchild Bridal Group. "The bridal industry is now a life stage that encompasses fashion, travel, home furnishings and more," says Daniel Lagani of Fairchild.

There's some good news in this for parents, though. In part because couples are now marrying older (between 27 and 29 years old on average), they are less dependent on Mom and Dad footing the bill. This year, only a quarter of marrying couples will rely on parents to cover the tab.

Source: CNN/Money

A Real-Life "Bionic Woman"

Surgeons at the University of Southampton have successfully implanted a "bionic" device to help a stroke patient regain her hand and arm movement. The patient is a 46-year-old hairdresser who has suffered two strokes in nine years, affecting her left side, though not affecting her ability to walk.

The 1.7cm-long device mimics neurons that carry messages from the brain to the arm. The device can be implanted into the shoulder through a small incision.

Such devices have been implanted before, though the Southampton researchers are hoping that theirs will show superior results, allowing the patient to regain full control of her left arm.

Source: Future Feeder

NASA Proposes Ambitious Mars Agenda

Riding high off the stunning success of the Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA is proposing an ambitious set of programs to further explore the Red Planet, in preparation for a hoped-for manned mission.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is currently being prepped for an August launch. The Phoenix Mars lander is scheduled for launch in 2007, followed by the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter in 2009. The Telecommunications Orbiter will serve as a permanent uplink station for all future Mars missions.

The nuclear-powered Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover system may launch in either 2009 or 2011. Still on the drawing board are plans for a mission to return samples of Mars rock and soil to Earth.

Beyond that, any further Mars exploration will depend on NASA's budget and competing priorities. President Bush's space vision, which he outlined in January 2004, calls for a manned mission to Mars, but not before 2020 (some at NASA cite 2030 as a more realistic date). By then, a whole new generation will be in charge in Washington... and will be facing an entirely different political landscape. Mars may or may not matter by then.

NASA is not alone in its desire to further explore Mars. The European Space Agency has proposed an ExoMars rover to be launched in 2011. Among other things, ExoMars will contain the internationally-designed Pasteur science package to further test for signs of life.

Source: Space.com (Yahoo!)

Seniors May Be the Next Hot Online Market

Conventional wisdom has always held that adults over 65 have little interest in the Internet. But now, because that demographic will soon be populated by tech-savvy Baby Boomers, that view will certainly change.

"The current generation of adults over 65 hasn't fully adopted Internet use, in large part because many had retired before online access became common in the workplace," says Debra Aho Williamson of eMarketer. "The next generation of seniors will be very different." The Boomers' more adventurous approach to life may also play a role in their embrace of new technology, in contrast with their more risk-adverse elders. Plus, in wanting to keep up with their children and grandchildren, seniors will find the Internet to be essential.

Williamson's research supports those views. Computer usage has grown steadily among those aged 50-64 and those over 65, though far more of those in the 50-64 category (67%) use computers than those 65+ (31%). According to Williamson, 73.7% of those aged 50-64 will be online by 2008, as will 34.1% of those over 65.

The expected influx of seniors online will have far-reaching effects in the Internet industry, from marketing to content creation to usability. Developers and Internet entrepreneurs will be presented with new opportunities, as well as challenges to common assumptions that the Net is strictly the domain of the young.

Source: eMarketer

Big Leap Forward for Stem Cell Research

South Korean researchers have developed a process of creating embryonic stem cells by cloning human cells. The research could accelerate work in stem cell research... as well as the ethical controversies.

In the process, cells are taken from a patient. The DNA from those cells is injected into a donated egg whose own DNA has been removed. The egg then grows into an embryo, and its stem cells can be harvested to treat the patient.

The major ethical issue is that the embryo created in this process is viable, and could theoretically be implanted in a uterus to grow into a human baby. In other words, a clone. In addition to the ethical concerns many have about embryonic stem cells, this process opens up the entire issue of cloning.

The research, however, may also provide better ways to study how genetic-based diseases develop. The result could be more effective drugs and alternatives to using genetically modified animals for research -- in itself an ethical issue.

Source: Forbes

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Watch Live In-Flight TV on Your Laptop

Yet another reason to take your laptop with you when you fly... and yet another distraction from getting work done in-flight. This summer, Connexion (a subsidiary of Boeing) will begin offering satellite-linked in-flight TV available through laptops.

The initial offering will be five channels, including MSNBC, CNBC and BBC News. This service -- initially to be offered on Singapore Airlines -- is a first for transcontinental flights.

Depending on the plane's configuration, laptop users will be able to receive the programming through either Ethernet cable or 802.11b wireless connections.

Source: Silicon.com

"Star Wars Episode III" on BitTorrent; What Took 'Em So Long??

Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith has not even been in theatres 24 hours, and already it's reported to be available on the Internet via BitTorrent. Reportedly, a screening print (with timestamps) appeared online sometime Wednesday, a full day before the film was released to the public. If so, it had to have originated with an industry insider.

According to one count, 16,000 people were downloading the film from BitTorrent at one point.

Considering the hype surrounding this movie -- not to mention the geek quotient -- can anyone be truly surprised?

Sources: Reuters, Waxy.org

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

DIY Manufacturing

Technology is making it easier not only to create and distribute information, but to manufacture physical products. Just as blogs have created a culture of "citizen journalists," do-it-yourself manufacturing is giving rise to "citizen engineers." An overview of this phenomenon in Fortune notes:

Much as eBay transformed distribution, [DIY manufacturers are] redefining design and manufacture. The infrastructure is there: Yahoo Groups make it easier for people to trade ideas and learn quickly; free or cheap computer-aided-design (CAD) programs allow users to cobble together blueprints; and inexpensive manufacturing in China allows the idea to go from file to factory. There are even websites like Alibaba.com that will help these small-timers find Chinese factories eager for their work, meaning that the amateur nation has its own Match.com.

The article profiles a former IT executive who is designing and manufacturing a combination digital camera/MP3 player... without a manufacturing infrastructure.

The DIY trend is not lost on established players; instead of being threatened by it, some plan to capitalize on it. Microsoft is working to develop "phidgets" -- small electronic components that can be programmed via Microsoft's Visual Studio Express. Using phidgets, individuals could develop their own RFID tagging or other electronic system.

Canadian Venture Shoots for Passenger Space Flights by 2007

A Canadian contender for last year's X Prize may be ferrying paying passengers into suborbital space by mid-2007. PlanetSpace uses a rocket called the Canadian Arrow, and is backed by Indian-American entrepreneur Chirinjeev Kathuria, who previously backed efforts to extend the life of the Russian Mir space station.

Canadian Arrow did not actually compete for the X Prize because it was not completed in time. However, its core technology is about as mature and stable as it gets -- it's based on the German V2 rocket of World War II.

PlanetSpace's current plan is to take passengers 70 miles up on a 15-minute ballistic flight, giving them several minutes of weightlessness and a spectacular view of the earth. Fares would start at $250,000, which would include 14 days of pre-flight training.

Source: MSNBC

A Tool for a "Sharing Economy"

Fundable is a beta web tool that allows groups of people to pool their resources to make a large purchase, eBay style. If too few people join in a "group action," or if not enough money is raised by a certain date, all money is refunded. Fundable can also be used as a fundraiser, or as a negotiation tool.

Among the group actions listed on Fundable are raising funds for a schoogirl in Peru, a dedicated web server, a DVD player for troops in Iraq, and development of an online game.

Source: Smart Mobs

Receive Amber Alerts via Mobile Phone

If you have a mobile phone capable of receiving text messages, you can now sign up to receive Amber Alerts through your device by going to www.wirelessamberalerts.org. You can select up to five ZIP codes to monitor. The service is provided by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CITA) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Source: AP (Excite)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Michelin Reinvents the Wheel

Sure, it's the oldest cliche around, but it appears that Michelin really has invented a whole new type of wheel. An integrated tire/wheel that does not rely on air pressure, the "TWEEL" is more rugged than, yet performs just as well as conventional tires.

Short-term applications of the TWEEL include use in wheelchairs and small personal transportation devices such as the Segway HT. Ultimately, though, it could prove to be a replacement for conventional automotive tires.

Source: Gizmag

Before Manhattan Was Manhattan

It's hard for us to imagine the island of Manhattan as anything other than the quintessential urban landscape. But once upon a time, the concrete jungle was home to virgin forest, rolling hills, and wildlife that included cougars and elk.

To help us visualize what Manhattan looked like before the arrival of Europeans, Eric Sanderson of the Bronx Zoo's Wildlife Conservation Society has made a virtual reconstruction of Manhattan circa 1609, the year it was "discovered" by Henry Hudson.

The Big Apple, circa 1609

Called the Mannahatta Project (Mannahatta being the island's original Native American name, meaning "land of many hills"), Sanderson's reconstruction is based on historical data from the 17th century onward. Nearly 50 scientists from a host of disciplines participated in the virtual reconstruction of the pre-European landscape.

Why do projects like Mannahatta matter, other than to provide us with historical eye candy? Sanderson says that they illustrate the enormous impact that humans have had on the landscape over time, and underscore our role as environmental stewards. "To get from 1609 to 2005, it took 25 generations of people making decisions about what kind of landscape and what kind of world they live in. The question is what is Manhattan going to look like 200 years from now? Is it going to be taller and taller and taller buildings? Is the whole world going to be taller and taller and taller buildings? It's a choice that we make today…and our kids will make that choice…and people 200 years, 400 years from now inherit the consequences."

A brief video explaining the project is available in Real and QuickTime formats.

Sources: ScienCentral, Future Feeder

Stem Cells Regenerate Damaged Spinal Cords in Rats

Researchers have been able to use embryonic stem cells to regenerate spinal cords of recently-injured rats, allowing them to walk again.

The study, conducted by Dr. Hans Keirstead of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California Irvine, was recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Neuroscience.

As promising as the research is, however, it contains one critical caveat. The treatments have only worked on subjects with recent injuries. Therefore, when human trials begin, only patients with new injuries will be considered.

Reaction from the disabled community ranges from cautious optimism to disappointment that the research can't help those with chronic injuries. One suspects that pro-lifers and the PETA folks won't be thrilled with it either.

Sources: Wired, AiKnowledge

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Return of the Phone Booth

Clark Kent will once again have a place to change into his Superman duds, now that phone booths appear to be making a comeback in some locations.

The booths, however, aren't for pay phones, but for cell phones. Restaurants, libraries and other public venues are installing phone booths to give patrons a quiet place to make phone calls while not disturbing others.

Source: NetworkWorld

Internet Users are Online More, Consuming Other Media Less

Over 60% of Internet users polled in a recent BURST! Media survey are spending more time online... and less time watching TV, or reading newspapers or magazines.

Nearly 88% said they were spending as much or more time online now as they did the year before. Yet over 30% said their consumption of television, newspapers and magazines declined over the same period. However, nearly 40% of those surveyed spend the same amount of time reading and watching TV as before.

Source: eMarketer

Are Reading and Writing Archaic Skills?

Are reading and writing destined to join the host of human skills rendered obsolete by technology? One California futurist thinks so.

William Crossman believes that by 2050, the written word will vanish, to be replaced by talking computers.

Far from being alarmist about this, Crossman is actually an advocate of the trend... so much so that he heads the Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures. Crossman believes that, the more we leverage computers in communication, the more that cultures will be able to interact and achieve world peace.

As interesting as the idea is, it's hard to believe that reading and writing will vanish completely. It may change and evolve (such as when hieroglyphs were replaced by alphabets), but the fundamentals are so hard-wired into humanity that we're unlikely to abandon them anytime soon, and certainly not within 45 years. Crossman's assumption, after all, is that artificial intelligence will be adopted on a global level in a relatively brief period of time.

The written word has survived technological assaults from all fronts -- the telephone, phonograph, television, radio, movies -- and is still with us. In fact, with e-mail, blogging and text messaging, writing is actually making a comeback. Some of us even buy those ridiculous anachronisms called books... and enjoy them! Books require no power, no interface, and don't break when you drop them.

Plus, do you really want to have some computer blabbing at you all day long?

Sources: Inside Bay Area, Smart Mobs

CNN Profiles Ian Pearson

CNN.com profiles futurist Ian Pearson of British Telecom, in which he explains his role and value to BT, as well as some of his work methods.

Congress May Take on the SSN

Faced with high-profile security breaches of ChoicePoint, Bank of America and other well-established firms -- as well as multiple other smaller hacks -- Congress is rethinking how personal information is secured.

Multiple bills are in the works to alter the way that Social Security numbers are used, and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is pressing for legislation that would "outlaw the use of Social Security numbers for any purpose other than government purposes."

Of course, SSNs were never intended to be general-purpose identifiers, but took the first steps along that road during the 1960s, when they were used for tax identification. During the 1970's and '80s, SSNs were linked to a variety of personal information, including bank accounts and insurance.

There's not reason why banks and credit bureaus can't generate their own identifiers that would undoubtedly be more secure than permanent SSNs. Ideally, such identifiers should be temporary, changing on a regular basis or whenever the customer chooses. They can also be secured through token technology, which would require a physical device (smart card, etc.) in addition to an identifier to access one's personal information.

Source: C|Net

Friday, May 13, 2005

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars "Several Decades" Away, Say Researchers

Research to be published in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Journal suggests that dauting technical challenges in developing hydroven fuel-cell cars may take "several decades" to solve.

With current technology, fuel cells wear out five times faster than combustion engines. High material costs additionally make fuel-cell cars cost-prohibitive. Plus, there's the whole issue of a hydrogen delivery infratructure to consider. "A fuel-cell car built with today's technology would cost about $250,000, but you would have no place to fill up the tank," says Rakesh Agrawal, a Purdue University professor of chemical engineering, and a co-author of the article.

The article also warns that producting hydrogen in vast quantities could cause the very environmental problems that hydrogen fuel cells are supposed to alleviate. One source of hydrogen is coal, which presents its own set of enviromental challenges.

Agrawal believes that the problems are solvable, but that they'll just take time. "An optimistic prediction would be that a significant number hydrogen fuel cell cars will be entering the marketplace around 2020, and by 2050 everybody will be driving them."

Source: FuturePundit

Cow-Powered Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A Minnesota dairy farm is generating electricity with a hydrogen fuel cell, using a hydrogen source that it has in abundance -- cow manure.

To generate hydrogen, the farm places manure in a digester that yields "biogas," a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, water vapor and trace gases. It is then cleaned and converted to hydrogen for the fuel cell.

The fuel cell currently generates only 5 kilowatts of electricity. However, the experiment -- reportedly the first of its kind -- is encouraging enough for experiments to continue.

Source: Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture

IE Share of Browser Market Falls Below 90%

A year's worth of security worries and competition from other browsers has put a dent in the US market share of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser. The Web tracking firm WebSideStory estimates that IE's market share is now 89%, compared with 95% last June.

The open-source browser Firefox has increased its market share to nearly 7%, up from 3% in October. America Online's Netscape browser has a 2.2% share.

Not helping Microsoft's cause is IBM's recent endorsement of Firefox. Big Blue is encouraging its 300,000 employees worldwide to adopt the browser.

IE remains strong in Asia, commanding a 98% share in China. But in Germany, where some government offices have adopted Firefox, IE's market share is below 70%.

Sources: ZDNet, AP (Excite)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Worst of "Star Wars"

There's no question that the Star Wars movies represent the greatest entertainment franchise in history. With so much demand for all things Star Wars -- not to mention a filmography that spans nearly three decades -- it stands to reason that not everything in George Lucas' idea bank is golden.

Forbes magazine profiles some of the franchise's less stellar moments, including lame spin-offs like the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, irritating characters, muddled reshoots, and what has to be the worst Christmas album ever made.

Depending on how you feel about Star Wars, these missteps will strike you either as bad judgement or outright sacrilege. At any rate, where are black holes when you need them?

RELATED: Employers expect to see a spike in absenteeism next week when Star Wars Episode III opens. One estimate pegs the loss of productivity during the first two weekdays of the film's release at well over $600 million.

The New Battle for Ground Zero

It's hard to imagine a topic that fills so many Americans with so much passion as the future of Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center that was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. Presently, the official plan is to replace the Twin Towers with "Freedom Tower," a gossamer glass and steel structure that would be one of the tallest in the world when complete. According to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's website, construction plans for Freedom Tower are on schedule despite recent safety and security concerns and need for a partial redesign.

Because feelings about Ground Zero reconstruction run so deep, many disagree with the Freedom Tower concept even at this late date. Donald Trump, for one, is not a fan; "The last thing we need in New York is a skeleton representing the World Trade Center," he says. "I think it's not an appropriate design."

Engineers Kenneth Gardner and Herbert Belton likewise disagree with Freedom Tower... so much so that they have proposed their own design for "Twin Towers II." Simply put, they propose to rebuild the towers almost exactly as they were before the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but with structural reinforcements, better fireproofing and more and wider stairwells.

The new towers would be built adjacent to, rather than on top of, the original towers' "footprints"; those would be incorporated into a 9/11 memorial.

Those pressing for rebuilding the Twin Towers count Trump and former New York Mayor Ed Koch among their supporters. As we move through the summer and approach yet another Sept. 11 anniversary, the controversy will only grow louder. Is it too late for the Twin Towers II supporters to alter the LMDC's plans? We'll see.

Multimedia Cell Phones Leave Early Adopters Cold

Early technology adopters aren't rushing to jump on the multimedia handset bandwagon, according to a recent In-Stat survey. Only 9% of those surveyed were excited about buying a cell phone with MP3 music capability, and only 11% were excited about phones with TV functionality.

Price is suspected as a factor that is dampening enthusiasm, as well as the sheer novelty of multimedia handsets. The survey did, however, uncover one bright spot for multimedia carriers: early adopters expressed strong interest in receiving news and weather updates on their mobile devices.

None of this can be good news for Microsoft, which is counting on its Windows Mobile smartphone software to challenge Apple's iPod and other portable media devices. In fact, Bill Gates recently told a German newspaper that "[i]f you were to ask me which mobile device will take top place for listening to music, I'd bet on the mobile phone for sure."

Source: 3G Portal

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

One-Man "Video Journalists" Coming to Local TV News

San Francisco's KRON-TV will reportedly migrate from two-person field crews to solitary "video journalists" who will report, record and edit their material themselves. KRON is the first major-market TV station to make such a move.

The switch is largely driven by economics, and it's unclear how many crews will be transitioned or how quickly. Also unclear is how the quality of the finished product will compare with that of conventional field crews... or whether audiences will even care.

The move illustrates one more way that technology is making it easier to gather information -- whether one is an independent "citizen journalist" or a professional TV news operation. It also represents one tactic that local TV newsrooms can take to cut costs and remain relevant. Ultimately, only time will tell if KRON is a pacesetter in this area, or if VJs prove only to be an interesting experiment.

Source: Lost Remote

"BetaBatteries" Could Last for Decades

A team of researchers supported by the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program have reportedly developed a porous-silicon diode that converts very low levels of tritium radiation into electricity. The result is a "BetaBattery" that has an extraordinarily long life.

Because the tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope, is embedded in the battery's plastic, there's no risk of radioactive contamination from the device. And though they might be a hard sell to people looking to juice up their iPods or cell phones, BetaBatteries have clear applications in hard-to-service devices such as satellites and climate-monitoring equipment. An added benefit to BetaBatteries is their ruggedness, operating in temperature extremes from -148°F to 302°F.

Because the tritium decays so slowly, BetaBatteries can theoretically provide power for decades -- possibly outliving the devices they were meant to run.

Sources: Eurekalert, Roland Piquepaille's Tech Trends

Global Warming Could Cause Cooldown In Europe

Through an odd chain of events, climate change related to global warming could create substantially colder weather patterns in Britain and Europe.

The Gulf Stream, which delivers relatively warm water to the region, is powered in part by the sinking of supercooled water in the Greenland Sea. As cold arctic water sinks, warmer water from the south flows in to replace it, driving the Gulf Stream current. But thanks to warmer temperatures, this sinking effect has weakened significantly. As a result, warm Gulf Stream waters could cease to reach Europe within the next few decades, sending temperatures plummeting across the continent.

The warming of the Greenland Sea waters was measured by Cambridge University researchers aboard Royal Navy submarines. Among the phenomena the researchers noted were the thinning of North Polar ice caps and the demise of the Odden ice shelf, which hasn't formed properly since 1997.

Peter Wadhams, the Cambridge professor who led the study, compared the effects to those portrayed in the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, which envisioned a sudden ice age brought about by rapid climate change. "One of the frightening things in the film... showed how the circulation in the Atlantic Ocean is upset because the sinking of cold water in the north Atlantic suddenly stops," he said.

Though the possibility of Europe freezing as a result of this activity represents one scenario, others are less dramatic. Not receiving Gulf Stream waters could actually benefit Europe by keeping it temperate while the rest of the world broils under higher temperatures.

Source: Times of London

Yahoo! Disrupts Online Music with Y! Music Unlimited

Yahoo! has launched a beta of its online music site, Y! Music Unlimited. Subscriptions start at $4.99 per month under the yearly plan ($59.88)... substantially less expensive than other music subscription services. Members have access to 1 million songs, and can download songs to PlaysForSure-compatible devices; songs will remain available on the device so long as the owner's subscription is valid. Burnable downloads are available for 79 cents each.

NTT DoCoMo Profit Fall Reflects Cell Phone Market Saturation

NTT DoCoMo, Japan's leading mobile phone carrier, reported its first-ever drop in profits yesterday, reflecting increased competition, a costly shift from 2G to 3G service, and a saturation of the Japanese cell phone market.

DoCoMo operating profits fell a steep 29% in the last fiscal year. "We have entered the 15th year of our business . . . and penetration [of mobile phones in Japan] is approaching 70% so we are beginning to see a limit to the growth of mobile phones," said DoCoMo president Masao Nakamura. The resulting market plateau is forcing all Japanese cell phone carriers to lower costs to attract new customers.

Source: Financial Times

Weathering the Coming Brain Drain

The first wave of Baby Boomers is scheduled to retire in 2011. This loss, combined with cutbacks in training, waves of downsizing, immigration restrictions, and the trend toward foreign workers being lured home, will put an enormous strain on organizations over the next decade.

Authors Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap note that these most senior workers possess an invaluable asset, a thorough understanding of processes, technologies and the organization itself that they call "deep smarts." The knowledge they carry in their heads is every bit as valuable to an organization as any database. In many cases, these folks are undervalued... and organizations don't realize the impact of their loss until it's too late.

Leonard and Swap argue that business leaders need to tap and "re-create" these deep smarts before these folks retire. They urge organizations to establish mentoring programs that pair younger workers with older ones, managed by "knowledge coaches" who ensure that the younger worker is learning as much as possible. As expert and protege work together, they say, the younger worker will learn the expert's approaches to problem-solving that can't be conveyed by traditional training.

Organizations that have a lot of Baby Boomers as employees have about six years to implement knowledge transfer programs. After that, unless they can convince senior employees to defer retirement, organizations are on their own.

Source: CIO

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

How Collaboration Tools Can Save Lives

We think of online collaboration tools as a handy way to chat and share files in the office. But they can also prove to be lifesaving tools when applied in a crisis situation.

US Navy doctor Cmdr. Eric Rasmussen is a veteran of many disaster relief efforts, including the December 2004 tsunami that struck East Asia. Leading a series of collaborative experiments called Strong Angel in 2000 and 2004, Rasmussen found that collaborative tools were essential to coordinating disparate elements of a relief effort. Satellite-based Internet connections, virtual workspaces, document sharing and improvised data networks were all applied to the experiments. Coordination proved easier, and relief workers and materials could be brought on the scene more quickly and efficiently... saving lives in the process.

Unfortunately, the East Asian tsunami illustrated what could happen when the principles of Strong Angel could not be applied. Because various factions withheld information or did not leverage the tools they had in the best possible way, civilian and military relief teams had difficulty coordinating, resulting in errors and waste.

It's important to stress that bleeding-edge technology is not the issue here. Strong Angel emphasized the use of common, off-the-shelf technologies, as well as the processes needed to make them effective. Strong Angel also favored the use of low-bandwidth Internet connectivity, simulating the lack of network access that would typically accompany a regional emergency, particularly one in the developing world.

Source: Baseline

Rethinking the Box Office

As we move into the summer movie season, Hollywood is nervous. Sure, crowds have been camping outside theatres for weeks waiting for the premiere of Star Wars Episode III... but that's proving to be the exception. Last weekend saw the release of the first official summer "blockbuster" -- Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom -- and audience response was tepid. Kingdom brought in only $20 million in its opening weekend... hardly blockbuster numbers.

Indeed, last weekend's box office take was off 22% from the same time last year, and grosses are off 5.4% for the year, despite higher ticket prices. Movie audience levels have dropped steadily since 2002.

Higher prices, annoyances such as cell phones, and generally mediocre movies are all cited as reasons behind audience decline. Perhaps, but another reason may be that audiences are merely eschewing the "theatre experience" for at-home viewing via DVD, on-demand cable, satellite and Internet delivery. Why put up with the hassles and expense of the megaplex when you can enjoy the same movie in the comfort of your own home with a state-of-the-art (and increasingly inexpensive) home theatre system?

That, combined with the colossal distribution costs associated with films these days, is pushing Hollywood to experiment with new strategies for distribution. One is to accelerate the theatre-to-DVD track, debuting a film in a relatively small number of theatres just long enough to generate buzz, and then releasing it on DVD. Lions Gate Films tried this "hit and run" approach recently with the critically acclaimed movie Crash. If it pays off, expect to see a more rapid cycle of movies heading from theatres to the video stores.

One also suspects that part of the box office decline might be demographic. Many movies are driven by the teenage audience, whether they be out on dates or just looking to get out of the house. But as the pool of teenagers drops and the population grows older, theatres become a less appealing destination.

Despite this, it's too early to say whether the end of the movie theatre is nigh. But in the future, theatre runs may be reserved for heavily hyped, megabuck extravaganzas. "What sells nowadays is excitement," says Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com. "A pretty good movie isn't good enough anymore." To hit at the box office, "a movie has got to be spectacular." To that end, the future of the Hollywood may well be determined by the performance of this summer's purported blockbusters.

UPDATE (6/17/05): An AP-AOL poll found an overwhelming majority (73%) saying they'd rather watch movies at home than go to a theatre... which would surely explain any box office slump. The availability of movies on DVD shortly after their theatrical release, the preponderance of sophisticated home theatre systems, babysitting issues for those with small children, the overall expense of a night out at the movies, and a general sense that recent movies aren't all that good all weighed in as factors. Plus, the survey detected what could be a backlash against bad behavior by Hollywood stars, such as Russell Crowe's recent phone-throwing incident for which he was arrested -- something that might have factored into poor box office for his recent movie Cinderalla Man.

Source: CNN/Money

Broadcast TV: Where the Boys Aren't

TV advertisers have always coveted the male 18-to-34 demographic. But for the past several years, those viewers have been steadily abandoning broadcast TV in favor of basic cable (particularly Comedy Central and the Cartoon Network) and other types of media.

According to Nielsen, broadcast TV viewership among 18-to-34 males fell this past year by nearly 8%. By contrast, this demographic's viewing of basic cable rose by 5.3%, and comparative playing of videogames increased by a whopping 16.7%! Since broadcast TV viewership among this demographic has fallen steadily since the 2001-2002 season, it's probably safe to call this a long-term trend.

Note to Budweiser: Pump more of your ad dollars into The Daily Show, Adult Swim and Family Guy reruns. Maybe even some videogame tie-ins are in order.

Source: Long Tail

Should Bloggers Adopt MSM Ethics?

Jeff Jarvis, Ann Althouse and Glenn Reynolds are just some of the bloggers who have slammed a New York Times op-ed piece by Alan Cohen calling for more stringent ethics in the blogosphere.

Cohen observes that bloggers follow no standards or codes of ethics in their reporting. Bloggers counter that such standards are unnecessary, and that Cohen's piece is merely more boo-hooing that mainstream media (MSM) is being upstaged by the blogging revolution. It was we and not the MSM who upheld standards during Dan Rather's Bush National Guard fiasco, bloggers say. Tim Worstall even jumps down Cohen's throat because, in his piece, Cohen lumped the Drudge Report in with blogs -- clear evidence that Cohen doesn't have a clue.

With all due respect to bloggers who routinely roll their eyes at MSM defenders, I believe Cohen makes some valid points. As the blogosphere matures and more people rely on it as a source of information, tools for accountability are going to emerge. Even if they're nothing more than voluntary codes of conduct, readers will at least have some assurance that a blog is attempting to adhere to a level of quality and accuracy. It's simply the next logical step in the self-policing that "governs" the blogosphere today.

Standards will emerge, in part, because the blogosphere is not a place where all blogs are created equal. The big "alpha" blogs that get a lot of media attention exist on one level, while smaller blogs by individuals are farther down on the food chain. Alpha blogs have their "brands" to consider, and can always use those to ensure high standards. But what about the small upstart bloggers? Signing on to a code of conduct would help them achieve a level of credibility that they might not be able to achieve otherwise.

Much of the current controversy is reminiscent of the dialog that took place during the early days of the Web, leading up to the dotcom boom. Back then, webmasters and dotcoms would say, "We're different, we're special. The 'old economy' is dead, so we don't need to adhere to those rules." Well, we all know how that turned out. The "new economy" wasn't any different from the old one, and many a dotcom paid the price for their "difference."

There may or may not be a blog bubble to burst. But like dotcoms, the blogs that survive and thrive will be those that offer something that their predecessors couldn't, yet observe established standards and practices. Ebay is an example of a dotcom that succeeded by offering a new service that would not have been possible without the Web, yet took itself seriously as a business. Likewise, blogs have a lot to offer the media world that print and broadcast media simply aren't equipped to provide. But that doesn't absolve blogs from assuring their readers that they are acting in the most responsible and ethical manner possible.

Space Stations to the Rescue!

In response to worries over the risk of global cataclysms, either natural or man-made, some futurists and technologists have banded together to form the Lifeboat Foundation, dedicated to preserving humanity in the face of certain doom.

Their mission statement reads:

The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, dedicated to providing solutions that will safeguard humanity from the growing threat of terrorism and technological cataclysm. This humanitarian organization is pursuing all possible options, including self-sustaining technologies using AI and nanotechnology, with an emphasis on self-contained space arks.

For as little as $10 a month, you can reserve a spot on one of their space station "arks," which they hope to have completed by 2020.

Source: Future Feeder

Take a Load Off With Motorized Luggage

It might be the biggest innovation in luggage since the addition of wheels and pull-out handles. Live Luggage offers motorized luggage powered by rechargeable lithium-ion power cells. The "Anti-Gravity" handle shifts the bulk of the weight of the luggage to the wheels.

In addition to aiding harried travelers in hauling heavy cases, the Live Luggage power system can traverse rough terrain and even negotiate steps. The motors make it possible to make the cases larger than the usual luggage pieces.

Live Luggage will be reach the marketplace this fall, just in time for the holiday season.

Source: Engadget, bookofjoe

The Pill Turns 45

Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of a technology that was disruptive on so many levels -- the birth control pill. On May 9, 1960, the US FDA approved the use of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive.

Today we take the Pill for granted, but we must remember that it was the first reliable method of birth control that women could control directly. As a result, the age of family planning had truly arrived. By separating sex and conception, the Pill also changed attitudes about sexuality, and altered our fundamental concepts of relationships and the role of women in society.

Source: The Writer's Almanac

Bright Greens vs. Geo-Greens

Rising oil prices are making environmentalists out of everyone these days. Even conservatives are advocating alternative fuels and conservation. But not all "greens" are cut from the same cloth.

"Bright greens" -- traditional environmentalists who support sustainability and environmental protection -- are now joined by "geo-greens." A term coined by New York Times reporter Tom Friedman, "geo-green" describes people whose environmental concerns are driven primarily by national security concerns. With oil prices on the rise, the voices of geo-greens are growing louder and are being heard in such heretofore environmentally oblivious locations as the Bush White House. Represented by such groups as the Energy Future Coalition, the Apollo Alliance and the Set American Free coalition, geo-greens are mostly motivated by the US's dependence on imported oil and the impact of that dependence on the nation's economy and security. The Apollo Alliance in particular believes that the US should make energy independence a priority on the scale of the effort to put humans on the moon.

But can bright greens and geo-greens truly get along? Though many of their goals are the same, their tactics differ widely. For instance, many geo-greens support the expansion of nuclear power -- something that's anathema to bright greens. But bright greens who take an end-justifies-the-means approach recognize that geo-greens have one thing they have never had: access to those in power, and the ear of conservatives who have previously opposed environmental initiatives. If bright greens and geo-greens can cultivate a symbiotic relationship, they can elevate the visibility of their goals and accomplish more, faster.

UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor covers the strengthening alliance between bright green and geo-greens. This alliance, the article notes, is pressing for legislation encouraging conservation and alternative fuels on a level far more robust than anything currently being discussed.

Source: WorldChanging

Monday, May 09, 2005

Would You Like Tax With That Happy Meal?

We're familiar with "sin taxes" on such goods as cigarettes and liquor, but now there's a new tax twist: a tax on fast food.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has proposed a 2% tax on fast food to help balance the city's $300 million budget deficit. A vote on the measure is scheduled for July 1.

If enacted, the measure would be the first in the nation to tax fast food. Clearly, restaurants aren't happy about the proposal. Others see a minefield of loopholes and litigation.

For instance, what would qualify as "fast food"? A burger at McDonald's, or ribs at Chili's? Would it depend on which has the most calories or fat content? Would it depend on how quickly the food was served? What about salads and other healthier fare being offered by fast-food restaurants these days? Would restaurants that tout their healthier menus, such as Subway, be affected?

Not mentioned in depth in Kilpatrick's proposal is any expected health impact of the tax. The tax does not appear to be designed to dissuade people from eating unhealthy food. Rather, it's merely an income-generating tool for the city... in which case the goal would be to get people to eat more fast food. A 2% tax would hardly break anyone's budget, after all.

So in a sense, the tax presents the worst of both worlds. People would still eat plenty of fatty, high-calorie food... and just pay more in taxes for the privilege.

Source: CNN/Money

Wedding Photographers: Yet Another Profession Challenged By Progress

The other day we talked about how bicycle messengers were being made obsolete by e-mail and the Internet. Now, we learn that wedding photographers are being threatened by the rapid pace of technological change.

A great deal of a photographer's income comes from making reprints of portraits. Since they control the negatives, this has been an easy way for them to make money. These days, however, customers can simply scan the prints on their home computers and make as many prints as they like. They can even take them to commercial photo kiosks... at least ones where the staff don't check closely for copyright violations.

Additionally, customers increasingly want to be able to share their photos online, either by e-mailing them or posting them to a photo-sharing site such as Flickr. This doesn't jibe with the wedding photographer's traditional practice of presenting the photos in bound albums.

Unlike bike messengers, the primary service of any kind of professional photographer -- taking high-quality photographs that are properly lit and composed -- will always be in demand. Over time, though, photographers may need to change their business tactics. For instance, instead of relying on making reprints, they can charge a higher up-front price, provide the customer with negatives or digital copies of the prints, waive any copyrights to their work, and charge an annual "archiving" fee to securely store negatives or digital copies. They can also offer added services such as choreographing the photos to a DVD or PowerPoint slide show.

Ultimately it's a win-win situation; the customer feels as if they're getting value and have full control over photographs that they, after all, paid for. And the photographer can make a profit and not feel as though he or she is being ripped off.

Sources: Techdirt, The Inquirer

Military Gets BUFF to Handle Information Overload

Like many institutions these days, the military relies on information technology to gather and compile terabytes of information, from battlefield action to strategic decision-making at the highest levels. To help make sense of all this data, the Pentagon is evaluating a technology called Brute Force Fusion (BUFF), which can sort through 170,000 hourly intelligence reports and compile data into real-time actionable items at the ground-force level.

The onslaught of electronic intelligence adds a new wrinkle to the time-honored "fog of war." "What we face on the battlefield is a massive glut of information to be sorted," says Jason Denno, deputy director of the Battle Command Battle Lab-Huachuca. "The amount of data generated by sensors on the modern battlefield is rapidly outpacing the ability of the human to understand. The problem is hard enough when sensing only enemy forces, but it gets completely unmanageable when you add the presence of coalition forces, non-combatants and even domestic or wild animals. To truly understand what's going on, all of these things must be identified and tracked."

Sources: Military Information Technology, Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

When the Rat Race Never Ends

The prevalence of instant electronic communications -- e-mail, cell phones, IMs and the like -- combined with the need to work with global business partners who are many time zones away, has created an atmosphere of "work creep," especially in tech centers such as Silicon Valley. Teams that manage outsourced workers in Asia are the most prone to this sort of hyper-extended workday, as they frequently hold teleconferences in the middle of the night, after their usual workday.

As a result, human resource experts are increasingly concerned about worker burnout. Some managers have taken creative approaches to manage the workload, rotating teams so that workers aren't on-call all the time. But others are starting to see high turnover and other signs of discontent, and such stress is causing some executives to question the productive value of offshoring.

Worker advocates are drawing parallels between the present situation and that of "speedup" attempted by the auto industry in the 1920s. Then, auto assembly lines were accelerated, but workers were not paid more for their increased effort. Some say that the stress caused by speedup led directly to worker unrest and the labor union movement.

Source: AP (Excite)

Friday, May 06, 2005

Five Frogs

For my weekly Friday diversion (though it seems like most of today's posts have been diversions), I have chosen this inspirational riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left?

Answer: Five.


Because there's a difference between deciding and doing.

Go jump off a log this weekend!!

Source: Nan's Winning at Work

Booby Traps

If it weren't such a serious topic, you might mistake this next item for a belated April Fools bit. Apparently, UK intelligence experts are becoming increasingly worried about the risk of female suicide bombers wearing explosive bras.

Unfortunately, this isn't just the product of some intel analyst's dirty mind. In 2002, a teenage suicide bomber blew herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket while wearing an explosive-laden bra, killing herself and two others. And in Sri Lanka, an explosive bra detonated while the wearer was being searched. The bomber and four police officers were killed.

If these sort of "innovations" keep up, one has to wonder how long it will be before full-scale strip searches will be required in order to board aircraft or enter secured facilities. Until more fool-proof and less invasive methods of explosive detection are developed, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine might -- albeit tongue-in-cheek -- have the solution: fly naked.

And on that unsettling note, have a great weekend!

UPDATE: A more sensitive explosive detection system may be on the horizon. MIT researchers have developed a laser-based sensor that can detect TNT particles in concentrations as little as five parts per billion. The technology, which could be theoretically used to detect biohazards, gas leaks and even the presence of alcohol on one's breath, could be market-ready in as little as two years.

So God IS a Republican After All...

The liberal blog DailyKos reports that a Baptist church in North Carolina has effectively expelled its Democratic members. Nine members who had supported John Kerry in the last election were "excommunicated." In protest of the church's action, 40 of the 405 church members resigned. Local ABC affiliate WLOS-TV, which initially reported the story, has the following summary on its website:

East Waynesville Baptist asked nine members to leave. Now 40 more have left the church in protest. Former members say Pastor Chan Chandler gave them the ultimatum, saying if they didn't support George Bush, they should resign or repent. The minister declined an interview with News 13. But he did say "the actions were not politically motivated." There are questions about whether the bi-laws were followed when the members were thrown out.

Additionally, discussion on the DailyKos post speculates as to whether the action violates the church's tax-exempt status.

Hopefully this will prove to be an isolated incident. But it merely underscores the growing cultural divide in the US, along with an attitude of intolerance that has no upside in a nation built on tolerance and diversity. Liberals and conservatives are both guilty of these kinds of excesses. In public discourse, we've descended from "I don't agree with you, but I'm willing to respect your point of view" to "I'm right and you're wrong" to "I'm right and you're evil." It's getting so bad that even the Bushes are catching flak from the religious right, and that old-school conservatives like George Will are saying "enough already!"

Ultimately, such attitudes have the effect of shutting down productive discussion on nearly all issues. At a time when we have so many serious matters to talk about, this is the last thing we need. No wonder that all the news services obsess over the runaway bride story, and that those who care about real news are turning to the blogs (though Jeffrey Dvorkin of NPR would take umbrage to that).

UPDATE: The Rev. Chan Chandler, the pastor at the center of the church expulsion dispute, aburptly resigned Tuesday (5/10). He attributed the controversy to a "great misunderstanding" and said that staying would "cause more hurt for me and my family." Chandler has not apologized for his actions, and his supporters maintain that the dispute has nothing to do with politics.