FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, September 30, 2005

Exploring Mars by Balloon

Technologies for controlling balloons have led to the possibility of balloon-based planetary probes, particularly for exploring Mars.

A balloon "rover" could cover vast amounts of territory in a short time, and would provide higher-resolution images than are possible with an orbiter. Balloons could also drop surface probes and science packages at various points.

Sources: Genius Now, EurekAlert

New Media and the Nature of Authority

The other day we noted how the recent Gulf hurricanes have helped push blogging further into the mainstream. Indeed, the blogging revolution has moved from the realm of hype to a very real challenge to mainstream media... noted by none other than the executives of the major TV network news services.

Blogger Terry Heaton reported on a recent meeting of media executives and bloggers (the fact that such a meeting took place at all is significant), and came away with the notion that the news execs not only acknowledge blogging, but understand that distributed media is changing the very way that we think about news and information.

One concept that Heaton picked up on is that not only are bloggers influencing the MSM in a deep way, but that their relentless questioning is whittling away at the "illusion of omniscience" that states that everything has an absolute truth. To anyone who controls traditional levers of power -- political, journalistic, academic, scientific, religious -- this is a deeply threatening concept.

Just as profound, he observed:

Jay Rosen said something terribly important that (imo) went over the heads of most people in the room. He said the nature of authority is changing in our culture, and that this directly impacts all media. He used the example of a person who goes to the doctor and gets a prescription for an ailment. The doctor explains how the medication will work. The patient then proceeds to the drugstore and receives the medicine, along with (perhaps) an explanation from the pharmacist about how the medicine will work. But then the patient goes home and gets on the Internet to research the thoughts of others who've used the medicine to discover what THEY think about how it works, and this impacts the doctor's authority. The doctor is still the doctor, but gone is the automatic acceptance of his or her words as gospel. This is new in our world, and I couldn't agree more. It's the major challenge of all institutional authority, and it's one of the truly fascinating things about a culture drifting into postmodernism. [Bolding for emphasis added]

US, UN, EU Battle for Control of the Net

The US government has deemed "unacceptable" a proposal from the European Union that would put the Internet under United Nations control. Currently, the core routing computers that run the Internet and house its master directories are run by ICANN, a private organization that is supervised by the US Department of Commerce.

Some countries argue that placing the Internet under international management would better serve developing countries that are increasingly relying on networked communication. The US counters that doing so could make the Internet vulnerable to the whims of rogue countries such as North Korea, or larger powers such as China that don't support principles of free speech.

The matter of Internet control is an important one, as that control implies substantial power. A body with such power (as the Commerce Department has now) can easily shut down entire domains or filter out certain content on a global level. As more people around the world come to rely on Internet communications, online access will be increasingly seen as a fundamental resource like water and energy. Individuals will regard access as a human right; nations will consider it a strategic asset. Denial of Internet access by one country to another could one day even be considered grounds for international sanctions, embargoes and even war.

Source: AP (USA Today)

One Step Closer to "Electric Broadband"

The idea of serving broadband Internet access through existing electrical wires has been around for some time. Japan's Matshushita Electric has taken a big step toward making the theoretical a reality with a chip that allows users to connect to the Net simply by plugging their devices into an ordinary power outlet. The chip would essentially act as an interface between a device and the outlet.

Besides the obvious advantages of leveraging power outlets for online access, Matshushita's system delivers speeds up to 170 megabits per second -- faster than conventional Ethernet. The system could also bring us closer to the pervasive computing environment, in which electrical devices of all sorts could be networked.

UPDATE: Several alert readers have noted the irony that Japan has for now banned Internet access through electrical lines (or power line communication [PLC]), citing interference with radio frequencies in the 2-30 MHz range.

Sources: USA Today, Smart Mobs

IBM Poised to Counter the Boomer "Brain Drain"

IBM Business Consulting is staking out a position to help companies facing the oncoming mass retirement of Baby Boomers and expected "brain drain" that will result. As InformationWeek reports:

IBM Wednesday introduced consulting services to help companies prepare for the loss of highly skilled and knowledgeable baby boomers set to retire in the next few years. The services, offered through IBM Business Consulting Services, will furnish companies with diagnostic tools based on advanced analytics, strategies, and methodologies to help them understand their employee base in real time, retain employees, transition knowledge from retirees to younger workers, and transform business processes to handle the demographic change and significant loss of skills.

With the median age of the American worker around 40, looming retirements are a critical problem for many employers. Within 10 years, the number of American workers over age 55 will double. IBM says organizations risk losing major skill sets and their competitive advantage as key workers retire. Exacerbating the problem, many organizations don't have a clear view of which skills they may be about to lose through retirement. "It's no longer a zero-cost option," says Edward Vitalos, an associate partner in IBM Business Consulting Services' human capital management group.

Many organizations -- especially government agencies -- have a shortage of younger workers due to hiring freezes and layoffs in the 1980's and '90's. When the Boomer workers at those organizations leave, no one will be waiting in the wings to succeed them.

Helping organizations cope with both the labor shortage and knowledge depletion resulting from retiring workers will be a lucrative business opportunity over the next few years. Another opportunity may be in job placement, matching businesses needing to hire replacement workers with Boomers looking for retirement jobs.

Nanotubes Extract Hydrogen from Water

As touted as it is as the energy source of the future, hydrogen is difficult and expensive to produce. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a process to extract hydrogen from water that's twice as efficient as previous methods.

The process uses "defective" carbon nanotubes; their defect is that they are incomplete and therefore more reactive, pulling out hydrogen atoms.

This process is of interest because it doesn't require high temperatures, which has been a limitation to hydrogen production. The researchers note, however, that their work is early and that it could be years, if ever, before their process becomes commercially viable.

Source: Worldchanging

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


An interesting byproduct of changing gender roles and the "metrosexual" trend is grooms who take a proactive role in their wedding plans. Once the exclusive purview of the bride, more weddings are being planned by men, who can be just as fastidious and demanding as their future wives.

The phenomena of metrosexuality, overall higher expectations for men in relationships, couples who marry later in life, time-pressed women, over-the-top weddings and TV shows like The Bachelor that emphasize the romantic, chivalrous groom, are all combining to fuel this trend. Interestingly, it also may be coming at the expense of another wedding tradition -- the bachelor party. Increasingly, grooms and their buddies are swapping lap dances for spas and manicures.

Source: TIME

Get Ready for Web 2.0

Emerging web technologies such as service-oriented architecture are colliding with social networking practices, collaboration tools such as wikis, easy-to-use media tools, Long Tail principles, James Suriowecki's approach to the "wisdom of crowds," and personalized media such as blogs to create what many are calling Web 2.0. Tim O'Reilly has written what is seen as the formal definition of Web 2.0. Dion Hinchcliffe of the SOA Web Services Journal blog is doing an excellent job of summarizing and explaining the phenomenon:

I try to describe Web 2.0 as a term given to a natural emergence of related events, rather than some artificially imposed vision. I think that's a very true and crucially important aspect of Web 2.0.

It's now so clear that people are suddenly shifting their attention en masse to the Web for their computing needs. That is, instead of installing and maintaining a bunch of rapidly aging and non-integrated bits onto their personal computers.

People are finding that Web 2.0 places like Flickr,or Voo2do, and especially del.icio.us are terribly useful because they're always available, whenever they need it, anywhere they go, with their information.

And then there's the added value factor of putting your information into a highly social place. It becomes much, much more useful. People can leverage it, add value to it with comments, tagging, aggregation, bookmarking it, and so on. Your information, if you want, becomes part of the scene.

And with Web 2.0 apps, you still maintain control of your data. You haven't lost it at all, you've really just put it in context. Yes, so Web 2.0 is such an engaging, lively, and useful place when compared to computing alone.

To visualize what Web 2.0 looks like conceptually, Hinchcliffe provides this illustration:

To answer the "how," he provides this schematic of a Web 2.0 architecture:

Perhaps the most important thing about Web 2.0 is that, like Web 1.0, no one person or corporation is creating it. It's organic, growing and evolving as we speak. The tools available for building it are able to interact, creating a "mash-up" effect that can be seen in reblogging, audiovisual remixing, and the creative ways in which people are using Google Maps. Indeed, the very concept of Web 2.0 is emerging, with thinkers like Hinchcliffe still working to define and understand it.

Funny thing is, by the time Web 2.0 is thoroughly understood, it'll be time for Web 3.0!

In addition to Hinchcliffe's blog, the MapOfTheWorld wiki is an excellent tool for tracking and learning about Web 2.0.

UPDATE: Could it be that Web 2.0 is already hitting the downside of the hype cycle? Venture capitalist Rick Segal posts a harsh counterpoint to Web 2.0 on his blog, particularly taking to task startups that are relying on Web 2.0 as merely a buzzword. Segal, it seems, is in no mood to party like it's 1999. On a more positive note, Brian of the brianstorms blog has posted a response to Tim O'Reilly's initial article, carefully examining the elements of Web 2.0 point by point. And Josh Hallett has some fun talking about the prospects for Web 2.1, 3.0 and 4.0.


With Katrina/Rita, Blogs Truly Come of Age

Despite the hype generated by political bloggers who chronicled and fact-checked last year's Presidential campaign, it took two nasty bitches to push blogging into the mainstream: Katrina and Rita.

The two hurricanes are by far the most blogged-about -- and most searched-for -- topics in the history of the blogosphere, according to those who measure blog traffic. Bloggers in the affected regions provided first-hand accounts, while others used annotated maps and satellite images to show damage. Still others have served as fact checkers, calling out, for instance, former FEMA director Mike Brown's lack of previous emergency management experience, and referencing past reports noting the danger New Orleans faced even after President Bush and other politicians claimed that no one foresaw the devastation. The political bloggers are now joining in, with liberals and conservatives alike attacking government spending plans for hurricane reconstruction.

Most importantly, the mainstream media now take blogs seriously, seeking them out as a valued resource. The facts provided by bloggers have even helped mainstream news sources take a newly aggressive reporting posture after years of fluff and kowtowing to official sources.

Despite this, there are signs that blogging remains an emerging technology. Smart Mobs cites three UK articles noting that while 77% of Brits surveyed rely on blogs as a key information source, businesses have not yet woken up to the potential of blogs to either help or damage their public image, and the vast majority outside the IT and media industries are unaware of blogging.

Source: TechnologyReview.com

New Orleans, Gulf Coast Census to Drop

As those in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast begin to face the overwhelming task of rebuilding from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, some tough decisions will have to be made about what to rebuild and where. The only thing certain at this point is that the region will never be the same as before.

Engineers are already evaluating structures, trying to determine what can be salvaged versus what buildings are total losses. Next, they will have to decide which areas to rebuild. Low-income neighborhoods are not likely to be reconstructed, at least not like they were. Who, after all, wants to rebuild a slum? But will the rebuilding include affordable housing, or will the new homes be priced outside the reach of low- and middle-income families? Also, building is not likely to happen in areas that are dangerous or that are now polluted. It's urban renewal, the hard way.

At any rate, the big question now is how many people will actually come back to the region. Those with property and businesses will want to return, but what about poor people who may find themselves better off in areas to which they have recently relocated? These people may not be back, and it is for this reason that observers such as the Herman Group believe that the next census will show a drop in overall population for the Gulf region.

Albums on Memory Cards: Rockin' or Rock-Headed?

The recording industry's latest attempt to come to terms with technology has arrived in the form of albums on memory cards. Virgin Records is releasing the Rolling Stones' latest album, A Bigger Bang, on "Gruvi" memory cards from SanDisk.

The card contains an encrypted version of the album, plus additional tracks from past Stones albums that can be unlocked for an added fee. None of the tracks can be copied to a PC or MP3 player, or shared with other listeners. Such limitation -- combined with the card's cost ($39.95) -- is certain to limit the memory card's appeal.

RELATED: As if record execs didn't have enough to keep them up at night these days, there's buzz about an unsigned band out of Brooklyn and Philadelphia called Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Despite not having a record label, Clap has sold 17,000 copies of their self-released debut album. Even more impressive, Clap earns approximately $8 per disc -- far more than the typical signed artist, who makes only $1 per disc. This, combined with the chatter they're benefitting from online, reduces any incentive bands like Clap would have to seek out a traditional record label.

Source: AP (Excite)

Monday, September 26, 2005

RFID Tag With Display

Epson has developed a passive RFID tag with an electrophoretic display screen, allowing it to show LCD-like letters and numbers.

Because the tag is passive, it has no batteries or other energy source of its own; it gets its energy from adjacent tag readers. The tag remains too expensive for widespread use, but costs are likely to come down as creative users find benefits in these tiny displays.

Source: RFID in Japan

The Creature from the Network

A secondary school in the city of Trondheim, Norway, in collaboration with artist Lars Paalgaard and the Bengler Collective, an artist group specializing in electronic media, has created a "network organism" that lives and interacts within the community of 1,000+ wired students. The Nomen Nominandum (NN) project's webpage describes it best:

Nomen Nominandum (Name to be Known, for those of you who didn't major in Latin) floats around on the school network. If you call for it by voice or mouse movement it may come to your machine. If you play with it in the right way it will stay until it gets bored. When sleeping it curls up on its secluded plasma screen. It has real-time moods, sleeps in on Mondays and may decide to go away for a month in January. Its growth is very slow and as with living things you may never see it grow, but rather remember that it looked completely different some years ago.

Although conceived as an art project, such an organism could be created for productive purposes, such as business collaboration (in which it could be a virtual group coordinator), or as an educational or therapeutic tool. However, it could also be deployed for ethically questionable and even sinister purposes. NN is, after all, little more than a controlled virus.

Source: we make money not art

Love Me, Love My iPod

Is a car or home stereo that's compatible with iPods meeting a growing customer demand, or is it just cool? Does the distinction really matter?

BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Ferrari and other luxury nameplates are leading the way in adding jacks so drivers can listen to their iPods on the road. Chevy is also getting in on the act, as will surely many (if not most) other car makes. High-end stereo maker Denton is including iPod jacks in its units as well. (Considering how long the iPod has been on the market, my initial response to this was, "What took you so long?")

Of course, iPod users have always been able to listen to their favorite tunes in their cars via cassette deck adapters and FM transmitters... for a lot less than many of these car makers are charging for their adapters. And the ultimate in adaptation would be to enable both iPods and host devices with Bluetooth for wireless connectivity.

The method of connection, though, is perhaps less important than the mere fact that a connection is there. Making a product iPod-aware says that both the product and its manufacturer (and, by extension, the consumer) are hip, high-tech and forward-looking. Adding jacks to cars and stereos simply makes sense, owing to the growing legion of iPod owners. If making products iPod-friendly is measurably tied to increased sales, expect other makers of MP3 players to aggresively pursue connectivity deals with manufacturers.

We could be seeing the beginning of a hype cycle here. Remember a couple of years back, when weird and largely useless USB devices were all the rage? The question now is, what are some of the silly places iPod adapters are likely to turn up now?

Source: Ubercool

Friday, September 23, 2005

Interactive Toothbrush

What can be a simpler technology than the humble toothbrush? In truth, in the last few years, the toothbrush has gone high tech, with an assortment of bristles and electric pulse movements.

UK designer Tom Bentley has added a new wrinkle to children's toothbrushes (add your own English dental joke here). His design is interactive, telling children whether they're brushing correctly (i.e. adding too much or not enough pressure) and when they've finished. The brush also interacts via RF with a crocodile toy that lets the child know when it's time to brush.

Source: we make money not art

The New Net War: Microsoft vs. Google

Ten years ago, Netscape threatened to knock Microsoft out of its position at the center of the personal computing universe. Having initially missed the Internet boat, Microsoft quickly had to reposition itself, freely distributing its Internet Explorer browser, which quickly became the de facto standard and leaving Netscape in the dust.

Today, another company is threatening Microsoft's dominance: Google. Once again, Microsoft is adjusting its strategy, shuffling management and making its MSN Web portal a key component. This time, however, the challenge is more than simply besting a single application. As a series of Web-based services, Google takes an entirely different approach to its business. It's also wealthy, with at least $7 billion in the bank. It's working to acquire cutting-edge Net applications such as Skype, and is reportedly looking to build a nationwide optical network. And it's attracting some of the best though leaders in the business... including some former Microsoft employees.

But Microsoft isn't exactly poor itself, and has proven itself a nimble competitor despite its size. As Google and Microsoft wrestle for Internet dominance, the end result could be mass convergence as Internet players create news alliances and constantly tweak their business models. The great unknown from all this convergence is the future of the Internet. How radically will it change? And will it remain the open platform we've come to know and love?

Source: ZDNet

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Wither the Digital Home?

For years -- decades, really -- technologists have been waxing enthusiastic about the "digital home," where all electronic devices are interconnected. But, as a recent article in The Economist reveals, the digital home remains, like the "paperless office," a dream... not because it's not technically feasible or manufacturers don't have products to offer, but because there's no consumer demand.

Technology consultant Pip Coburn calls the motivation to adopt a new set of technologies a "sense of crisis" -- which is lacking in the case of the digital home. Why invest in complicated and expensive technology when present solutions meet their needs? The article cites a survey showing that 27% of consumers who bought home networking equipment had problems installing it and needed technical support. Systems, in addition to being user-hostile, are not interoperable, and different standards are confusing. There's evidence that consumers find the idea of a pervasive environment a bit scary and too "Big Brother." There's also disagreement about what the term "digital home" means. Does it describe the completely pervasive, networked home? Or does it simply refer to a home with digital devices, such as PCs and DVD players?

The iPod Nano Earns Cheers AND Jeers

The ars technica blog features an exhaustive review of the new iPod nano. They even perform an "autopsy" by taking the device apart (revealing components that the reviewers at Engadget estimate cost about $90).

"The nano is nearly perfect," they write. "It is amazingly small and packs almost all of the features of the iPod photo and a few more." However, the feeling among those who have tested the nano is not universal, as Russell Beattie's less-than-enthusiastic review attests.

Russell is clearly in the camp that believes the era of single-purpose devices has passed, and that Apple ought to be focusing on an iPod that integrates phone, video and other features. However, that doesn't seem to be the point of the nano. The argument over device functionality -- should we strive for multiple best-of-breed devices or one "killer" device? -- will rage until either someone develops The Ultimate Device, or we decide that a device should do one thing well. Either way, that point remains quite a ways off.

Blogger Testifies Before Congress on Free Internet Speech

Michael Krempasky of the conservative blog RedState.org testified today before the Committee on House Administration of the US House of Representatives. The topic: Political speech on the Internet, and the prospect of it being compromised by the Federal Election Commission and others via the Online Freedom of Speech Act.

His prepared speech, posted on the blog, is interesting reading not simply because it is an eloquent defense of free Internet speech, but because it offers a concise history of blogging and discusses its impact on politics and other areas.

Source: Personal Democracy Forum

Cracking RFID

If RFID tags are going to be the glue that holds together the pervasive computing environment of the future, security must be a primary consideration. Several graduate students from Johns Hopkins University have completed an analysis of a widely used RFID device -- the Texas Instruments DST tag, found in ExxonMobil SpeedPass electronic payment devices, among other places -- and their findings are sobering.

The students were able to crack the tags' 40-bit encryption algorithm using commonly available hardware and software components. With this equipment, they show how an attacker could eavesdrop on an active transaction session to grab a key and, theoretically, gain access to an otherwise secure system.

The students are careful to point out that systems such as SpeedPass use elaborate anti-fraud technology, so they should still be regarded as secure. However, they suggest that RFID tags contain a stronger key, using a 128-bit algorithm.

Finally, it should be noted that the analysis was conducted with the cooperation of Texas Instruments.

Source: Boing Boing

Challenge of the Megacities

Mention the phrase "city of the future" to fans of classic science fiction, and they'll likely conjure up mental images of ultra-clean, ultra-high-tech, ultra-planned environments that cater to their residents' every whim. Perhaps even with flying cars!

The reality, though, is markedly different. The world's cities of the future are megacities that are homes to huge, very poor populations. As cities in the developed world shrink, cities in the developing world are overcrowded, polluted and unsanitary.

By 2015, the world will have 33 megacities, 27 of which will be in the developing world. “By 2050, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, imposing even more pressure on the space infrastructure and resources of cities, leading to social disintegration and horrific urban poverty,” says Werner Fornos, president of the Washington-based Population Institute.

EMagazine profiles several such cities: Jakarta, Indonesia; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Mexico City; Lagos, Nigeria; Mumbai, India; and Tokyo (the only one in the developed world). Although each of these cities has unique characteristics and problem, common threads run throughout. Transportation is a universal challenge; to that end, many of these cities are working to develop more efficient, sustainable public transportation systems to alleviate traffic jams and pollution. Governments are partnering with private business to improve housing. Physicians are volunteering to provide free health care.

The fact that these cities are searching for solutions to their problems is encouraging. However, the best long-term solution may be for governments to encourage more evenly distributed growth. Just as this has happened organically in the developed world in the form of suburbs and "edge cities," megacities can dilute and spread out their growth. Yet that poses environmental challenges of its own.

Source: Futurismic

A Nanobot Prototype

Researchers at Dartmouth College and MIT have developed a tiny steerable robot that's about the size of a piece of dust. The nanobot moves like an inchworm, with a steering arm that pulls it along.

Presently, the robot can move only on a special surface. But it might prove to be the prototype of a nanobot for a host of applications, as well as a component of "smart dust."

Source: Technology Research News

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Broadband Video Milestone: Viacom May Buy iFilm

In a sign that broadband video content is becoming a mainstream business, media giant Viacom is working on a deal to purchase iFilm. The reported price of the deal is $50 million.

In the short run, iFilm might not seem to be a profitable acquisition for Viacom. But as the owner of MTV and VH1 (among many other TV entities), Viacom could certainly make use of iFilm's presence to claim an early stake in broadband, reaching out to new audiences who might be more inclined to watch video via the Internet than through traditional TV.

Source: PaidContent.org

Peer-to-Peer Banking

The creators of UK-based Zopa have combined social networking and peer-to-peer principles to allow users to be both bankers and banking customers. Zopa has introduced peer-to-peer banking, in which members can lend and borrow money to and from other members. Money is distributed among multiple borrowers to decrease the risk of defaults. Rates of return for lenders can range from 6 to 9 percent, depending on the credit-worthiness of the borrowers that each lender chooses to work with.

If Zopa can negotiate banking regulations, it can spread to other countries, including the US. Nonetheless, Zopa is an example of a new business model made possible by the Internet and dynamic pricing technologies pioneered by eBay and others.

Source: Business 2.0

The FutureWire Wiki

In response to some suggestions I received through the recent FutureWire survey, I have begun an experiment in applying futures content to a wiki. It's still in first-draft stage, but I have imported some forecasts I had written previously in hopes that they can be more easily annotated and updated, and collect input from all the great future-focused minds out there.

Please visit the wiki here (wiki.futurewire.net); all constructive input is welcome. I'll post the status of this wiki as the experiment continues.

"Scientific American" Looks 50 Years Out

In its a special issue called "Crossroads for Planet Earth," published this month, Scientific American takes a look at how current trends will affect us 50 years from now. Healthcare, biodiversity, poverty, public policy, energy and economics are all covered from a futurist perspective.

Source: Putting People First

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Population Sink

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, "population explosion" was a key buzzphrase. The fear was that the world's population would continue to grow exponentially, increasing competition for natural resources and stress on the environment.

More recent data, however, shows that the rate of population growth has fallen dramatically in the last few decades, and that the world's population will actually begin to shrink. One study has found that the world's population will likely peak at around 9 billion by 2070, and then contract. The UN Population Division forecasts global birthrates falling below replacement levels as early as 2045. Developed countries are leading this trend through secularization and more women working outside the home.

Demographers and futurists see many ramifications in this overarching trend, including:

  • Stress and even collapse of pension and social security systems, as well as the overall tax structure

  • Changes in migration patterns as underpopulated countries work to recruit immigrants to replenish their labor supply; such migration will lead to inevitable cultural shifts and cross-pollination

  • Unrest and militancy among youth populations, especially in poor regions where the population continues to grow

  • A growing reliance on robotics to provide labor

  • New government policies that encourage couples to have children

  • Wage inflation as labor becomes an increasingly scarce commodity

  • Economic shifts as demand decreases for some products and services

  • A global backlash against birth control

RELATED: In a move to encourage more births, France is offering subsidies and tax credits to families with three or more children.

Source: Emerging Issues in Philanthropy

Our 1,000th Post!

This week, FutureWire passed the 1,000 post mark! As always,a hearty "thank you" to all those who have supported FutureWire and made this milestone possible.

US Braces for Avian Flu Outbreak

The federal government might have been caught flatfooted by Hurricane Katrina, but it intends to be more proactive in fighting a possible outbreak of avian flu (a.k.a. H5N1) this coming winter. At a cost of $100 million, President Bush has ordered an experimental French vaccine for the disease in response to outbreaks that have been reported in Indonesia.

Scientists and health professionals disagree as to the risks posed by H5N1. Some suggest that the H5N1 virus is not rugged enough to spread globally, as did the 1918 flu that may have killed up to 50 million people. Others, though, are more pessimistic. "We know we're overdue for an influenza pandemic strain, and we know it will occur, but we don't know when or even exactly what virus will cause it," says Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. "It is possible that the virus won't be H5N1 at all or that this virus will change in a way so that the vaccine under development doesn't work against it."

Hopefully we wont experience the vaccine shortages that we saw last year. So at any rate, the best things people can do to stay healthy this season are to get their flu shots and practice good personal hygiene (especially hand washing). Having a couple of treatments of Tamiflu on hand might not be bad either. And if you do get sick, stay home if at all possible, both to take care of yourself and to not infect others.

Source: FuturePundit

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Car That Runs on Air

A French company called Moteur Development International (MDI) has developed a car that runs on compressed air. Scheduled to debut in London tomorrow, the Air Car has a top speed of 68 MPH and a range of 124 miles. It can be recharged via refilling the compressed air tank (two minutes) or charging an internal battery (3-4 hours). The car is pollution-free, and only needs servicing every 31,000 miles. More technical information is available here.

MDI plans to build 3,000 vehicles a year, and is working on licensing deals around the world. In addition to a car, MDI has developed a five-passenger taxi, a pick-up truck and a van.

Source: AiKnowledge

Shale Oil Becoming Economically Viable

Rising oil prices are making oil extracted from shale an economically viable energy source. Shell Oil claims it can process oil from shale for about $30 a barrel -- profitable for Shell while being far below current oil prices -- and generate about 3 million barrels a day.

As with most energy solutions, oil from shale is no quick fix. Shell will not know whether the process is truly viable commercially until 2010. But as an alternative energy source, shale oil is nonetheless worth exploiting; research shows that oil shale deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah could yield 800 billion barrels of oil. That's three times the size of Saudi oil deposits, and enough oil to meet a quarter of the US's current oil consumption for the next 400 years!

Shell is developing an environmentally friendly in situ process for extraction, meaning that the shale can be electrically heated to extract the oil directly from the ground without having to mine the shale.

Source: FuturePundit

The ROKR: Poised to be a Hit?

Apple, Motorola and Cingular are all betting that the new Motorola ROKR mobile phone/MP3 player will catch on with customers who want to carry one device instead of two, as well as cell phone users who don't yet use an MP3 player. The ROKR contains an integrated version of iTunes, letting users download (and purchase) songs directly to their device... creating what Apple and Cingular surely hope is a lucrative revenue stream. The device also features a video camera, Surround Sound speakers, and Bluetooth.

The ROKR may be ideal for the majority of those who use MP3 players, as one survey found that half of those polled store fewer than 100 songs -- the maximum number the ROKR can hold -- on their MP3 devices. Another survey of US teens found that nearly half would spend money to download ringtones, streamed music, and MP3 files. Now that must be music to these companies' ears!

One downside to the ROKR, however, is its steep initial cost. At about $250, it is surely too pricey for many of the teens who make up its largest potential user base.

Source: eMarketer

Friday, September 16, 2005

Time to Consider a Maximum Wage?

As mentioned here and elsewhere, a silver lining of Hurricane Katrina is that it is forcing us as a nation to confront issues related to race and class. Socially-conscious economists have been wrestling with the growing global disparity between rich and poor. Even in a prosperous country such as the US, the richest 1% of the population control more wealth than all of the bottom 90%. Anyone who doesn't think that affluence in America is spiraling out of control need only watch MTV's new reality show My Super Sweet 16, in which obnoxious, spoiled rich teenagers plan (i.e. throw tantrums over) their Sweet 16 parties. Contrast this with the scenes we've watched from New Orleans over the past couple of weeks, and both the show and the behavior it showcases are particularly appalling.

In capitalist societies, there's nothing wrong with being wealthy. But how can we better support hard workers struggling to earn a living wage?

In an article in the July/August issue of The Futurist, Sam Pizzigati explores several options for raising the standard of living for the world's poorest citizens. In the US, at least, outright wealth redistribution, punitive taxes and salary caps would neither be popular nor realistic. However, Pizzigati notes two other options that warrant consideration.

One, the so-called "maximum wage," has already been instituted by some corporations. The principle behind the maximum wage is that the highest-paid person in an organization (typically the CEO or other top executive) cannot earn more than X times the salary of the organization's lowest-paid employee. If an organization's lowest salary grade is $8 per hour, and its maximum wage is 10 times that, its top earner could only make $80 per hour, or approximately $166,000 per year (a respectable paycheck by most standards, but a pittance compared with some of today's executive salaries). Therefore, it's in senior leadership's self-interest to ensure that the bottom salary tier remains as high as possible. When the lowliest janitor or mail clerk gets a raise, everyone in the organization benefits. Some economists have suggested that if a maximum wage were not mandated by law, government could still encourage it by requiring any company it did business with to employ a maximum wage. Critics of the maximum wage note that it typically does not take into account benefits or stock options, which executives have greater access to than their subordinates. Also, companies could simply contract out low-wage jobs to get around the rule, and peg a middle- or even upper-tier professional pay grade as its "lowest" salary. Even so, Pizzigati notes that maximum wage proposals are beginning to gain support in Europe, where outrage over pay inequity is a growing political issue.

The other idea Pizzigati discusses is more utopian in scope and would involve more fundamental change. Edward Bellamy's classic 1888 "futurist" novel Looking Backward, which imagines a socially aware America in the year 2000, featured a pay structure in which all work pays the same wage. The difference was in the number of hours required to work. The less desirable the job, the fewer hours one was required to work per week. Someone working in a comfortable office job, for instance, might be required to burn the proverbial midnight oil seven days a week, while someone else cleaning sewers or collecting garbage might only have to work a few hours a week... and both would receive the same pay. Workers would bid on the jobs they wanted, weighing the comfort level of the job against the number of hours needed to work it (could Bellamy have foreseen eBay?). Such a system would reward tough manual labor, but would punish (or at least negate) education or intellectual ability -- hallmarks of today's information age. Also, Bellamy wrote at a time when physical labor was the norm in the workplace. But even if the idea is unworkable, it does raise interesting questions about the (often misplaced) value we place on certain jobs.

Such approaches may seem far-fetched and even anti-capitalist, but they and other solutions must be considered in light of social and political instability that is beginning to result from income inequality in some countries. In Brazil, which has the world's greatest wealth gap, the affluent hide within fortified homes and offices, and commute by helicopter rather than risk going out in the crime-ridden street. In short, a society where the "haves" and "have nots" are far apart is a ticking time bomb -- think Russia before 1917 or China before 1949. Many parts of the world are headed in this direction. Will America ultimately face such a calamity? Or will we be proactive and implement solutions in time?

UPDATE: One region in which the income gap is reaching a crisis level is China, where government researchers fear social unrest over labor and wage disputes. The wealthiest 20% of China's population earn half the total income, while the poorest 20% earn not quite 5%, and nearly 30 million Chinese live in absolute poverty. The government has so far done little beyond cutting taxes for the middle class, but one must wonder whether the stage is being set for an anti-capitalist backlash.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Summertime Blues

Americans are pessimistic about the economy and their government, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It's little wonder that President Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low... though Democrats aren't necessarily being seen as having all the answers, either.

Most depressing of all, the trends causing Americans to feel so blue may be leading to worse times instead of better ones. The economic trends are pointing toward higher unemployment and an overall slower economy even before factoring in the effects of Hurricane Katrina. According to Pew, economic pessimism shot up in August to the highest level during Bush's tenure. It also marks the first time since January 2001 -- the very start of Bush's first term -- that more people were pessimistic about the economy than were optimistic.

Aside from the economy, numbers also bode ill for Bush on the Iraq war. Barely half (51%) of those surveyed by Pew support our current open-ended military commitment to Iraq, and 57% support a timetable for troop withdrawal. Bush has even lost his edge on what many see as his political trump card -- support for his approach to terrorism and homeland security.

Energy is also putting a drag on Bush, although only 27% in the Pew survey blamed him for rising fuel prices. Energy concerns, however, offer a mixed bag for Democrats, environmentalists especially. Those surveyed by Pew support higher fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles, yet they are also more supportive of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Overall, respondents felt that developing new energy sources outweighed conservation as a national priority.

Since Bush won't be facing another election, these numbers affect him less than Republicans who are closely identified with the administration, and who will be up for re-election in 2006. Although the 2006 elections are more than a year away (a lifetime in political terms), candidates in both parties are surely keeping a close eye on Bush's poll numbers.

Bush's woes, however, aren't necessarily a gain for Democrats. In the Pew survey, only 49% of Democrats approve of the job their leadership is doing. Additionally, 63% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents thought the party was doing a good job advocating its core values -- support for the disadvantaged, the working class and minorities. This suggests that Democratic success in future elections will depend on new candidates who can energize the party base and convince undecided voters to vote Democratic.

Some have suggested that the political, logistic and even ethical fallout from Katrina, combined with angst over the war in Iraq and the religious right's social agenda, could trigger a fundamental shift to the left (or at least to the center), ending the general trend toward conservatism that began with Ronald Reagan... perhaps even leaving the Democratic establishment behind. Already, we're seeing signs of the return of "big government" in the post-Katrina public funding needed to reconstruct the Gulf region and support displaced persons. Any speculation on other political implications may be premature, but the current level of disaffection shows that the electorate is restless... and will become more so if the economy deteriorates.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

More on Traditional Cash vs. Digital Currency

Yesterday we reported on how digital cash is beginning to supplant traditional coinage in Japan. Today, MobHappy discusses how people are using prepaid cell phone airtime as currency, especially in developing countries. It's nothing more or less than high-tech bartering, but it illustrates the value that people around the world place on cell phone airtime, as well as the flexibility and portability that this type of "currency" offers.

And for those of us who are still stuck with spare change, Amazon.com is teaming up with Coinstar to issue Amazon vouchers for change deposited in Coinstar machines. The incentive for consumers is that if they accept the Amazon voucher, Coinstar waives the 8.9% fee.

Source: Techdirt

The DIY Generation

Trendwatching.com identifies the rise of "Generation C" -- not an age demographic, but a mindset of creative people who take advantage of new technical tools to create and publicize their own content.

We know about bloggers and tools such as Flickr that allow people to share photos online. But Trendwatching notes a whole collection of tech resources that break down the barriers between creative people and potential audiences:

  • Xingtone.com, allowing people to compose and even sell their own ringtones.

  • Self-publisher Lulu.com, which allows authors to publish their works in book form "on-demand" as they are ordered (meaning no upfront printing costs).

  • RedPaper, where authors can sell their articles (and may be a model for for-profit blogging).

  • Online travelogue TrekShare.

  • Apple's GarageBand, where musicians can record and upload their music to be downloaded through iTunes.

  • Hostbaby, where independent musicians can create their own websites that include audio streaming and concert calendars.

Presuming such services catch on (and there's no reason to believe they won't), they could redefine not only the way content is produced, but how it is accessed. Traditionally, content aggregators (publishers, broadcasters, record companies, movie studios) have served as gatekeepers between content producers and audiences. Because they bear the substantial upfront costs of reproducing and marketing content, aggregators must be selective in choosing the content creators they worked with. Economics demand that aggregators work only with the top-selling authors, artists, bands and filmmakers. In the case of broadcasting, limited bandwidth dictates that the aggregator be highly selective (a broadcaster can only broadcast one program at a time, and there are only so many time slots in a day).

Now, however, we are seeing a convergence of technologies that make Generation C possible:

  • The Internet, which allows anyone so motivated to publish and access content to or from nearly anywhere in the world (eliminating the need for distributors and brick-and-mortar retailers). The Net also offers unlimited "broadcasting" bandwidth; you can download as many songs, digital books and movies as you want, and access them at your convenience.

  • Inexpensive tools that make writing and recording easy for the non-expert. You might not have to be an engineer or designer, though you still need to be a good musician or writer to create something worthwhile (eliminating the need for technical expertise).

  • Dynamic pricing models, which allow content creators to charge and audiences to pay a fair price for the content they want (eliminating the need for traditional marketing).

  • "Just in time" manufacturing, enabling the economical creation of very small quantities of a piece of content (eliminating the need for mass manufacturing and warehousing). In the case of purely digital content, even this is not necessary.

With these trends firmly in place, middlemen are cut out, and it becomes economically feasible to pursue niche audiences. This in turn fuels a cycle of encouraging content creators whose visions and creations may not appeal to a mass audience, but who have something worthwhile to say nonetheless.

The downside to this trend (for some, at least), is the potential end to big payouts to the top few creatives. Intstead of a few authors, bands and actors making millions while upstarts struggle for recognition, more people can make a respectable (yet maybe not exorbitant) income from their work. This is proving to be the biggest disruption of all, as many people derive their paychecks from the big earnings of the top creatives, and they understandably don't want to see their livelihoods dry up.

However, Generation C still needs the support of those who can help them reach their audiences. Considering that, those who are part of the traditional distribution network have an opportunity to reinvent themselves, developing ways to streamline the links between content creators and audiences.

UPDATE: WorldChanging, which has cited this post, makes an important point about DIY culture: It empowers creative people all over the world, in developed and developing countries alike. With technology so inexpensive and so far-reaching, even those with modest means and in remote locations can participate.

Now, Even Wal-Mart Has a Blog!

You know that blogging has truly hit the mainstream when Wal-Mart -- that bastion of middle America -- starts a blog. WalMartFacts.com could be a useful tool for the discount retailer that, despite its size (or perhaps because of it), suffers from continued public image problems. The most recent posts, for example, highlight how the retailer is helping victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Groundbreaking Artificial Hand Includes a Thumb

One of the limitations of prosthetic hands is that they lack functioning opposable thumbs. After all, it's a thumb that makes the human hand so functional. Researchers at Britain's University of Southampton have developed a motorized hand that includes a thumb, allowing the user to grip and manipulate objects.

The thumb has two motors, one for rotating and the other for flexing, giving it a broad range of motion. A prototype is in the works, and future versions may include fingers that can sense pressure to simulate touch.

Source: RealTechNews

Roland Piquepaille Blogging for ZDNet

Roland Piquepaille, an emerging tech blogger whose posts are frequently cited here and elsewhere, is now blogging for tech publisher Ziff-Davis (ZDnet). His blog, Emerging Tech Trends (RSS), covers most of the same topics as does his old blog. Always good to see bloggers landing some gigs as a result of their work. Congrats, Roland!

Number of Japanese Aged 100+ Doubles in Five Years

The number of Japanese age 100 and older is expected to surpass 25,000, with 1 million Japanese centenarians by 2050. Japan has a nationwide average of 20 centenarians per 100,000 people, twice the US average.

Currently, the oldest person in Japan, Yone Minagawa, is 112 years old. Putting this in perspective, Yone was born in 1893, the year that Rudolf Diesel patented his diesel engine and Thomas Edison opened the world's first motion picture studio. She was two years old when Marconi invented radio, seven at the turn of the 20th Century, 12 when Einstein introduced his theory of relativity, 15 when Picasso co-founded cubism, 19 when the Titanic sank, 39 when Hitler took power in Germany, 52 when World War II ended, and 76 when Apollo 11 made the first manned moon landing. Her life spanned the entire rise and fall of Soviet communism, as well as the history of flight from the Wright Brothers onward.

Futurists and other specialists will want to study Japan's aging population for two reasons. First, Japan will serve as a policy laboratory for learning how to manage an aging population while its youth population is shrinking. One approach Japan is pursuing is leveraging its robotics expertise to support both the elderly and their caregivers. Surveys in Japan have found that those needing care frequently prefer robotic assistance to the help of humans.

Second, it's clear that Japanese are living longer on average than their counterparts in other countries. Healthcare and public policy researchers will want to learn what factors contribute to this, as well as how to enhance the quality of life and quality of healthcare for the elderly. Even in Japan, age rates vary; Okinawa, for example, has a remarkable centenarian rate of 51 for every 100,000 people.

Katrina Could Boost Housing Market, Construction Industry

Concerns about the bursting of the housing market "bubble" might be mitigated by Katrina, as thousands of dislocated Gulf Coast residents deplete an already low housing inventory. Rebuilding efforts, which could cost anywhere from $100 billion to $200 billion, will likewise put a strain on construction labor and materials... perhaps to the point of accelerating wage and price inflation.

Construction of single-family homes are expected to hit 2.04 million units this year -- the highest level since 1973, a period when young Baby Boomer families were flooding the housing market. In 2004, housing prices rose by a whopping 12.5% -- four times the rate of inflation. In some states, home prices were up by more than 30%!

Any increased value in the housing market is only sure to exacerbate fears among New Orleans' poorer residents that a conspiracy exists to dislocate them and confiscate their homes, and validate accusations of racial discrimination. To help those displaced by Katrina find new places to live, however, several Internet tools have appeared to help match people to available housing.

RELATED: An article in MSNBC.com takes the opposite, more pessimistic approach to Katrina's effect on the housing market. Under this theory, inflation caused by post-Katrina economic disruption could cause interest rates to rise. This, combined with related job losses, would erode homebuyers' buying power, effectively bursting the real estate bubble.

Source: CNN Money

FEMA on Sustainable Futures

If anyone understands the effects wrought by poor planning and limited foresight, it ought to be the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Perhaps with new leadership in place, FEMA can begin to put plans such as those for sustainable reconstruction into action, especially in New Orleans.

Japan Sees Fewer Coins in Use

Yet another casualty of technology may be traditional coinage. In Japan, digital cash and credit cards have apparently led to history's first decrease of the number of coins in use (by 0.05% in July).

Aside from the demise of a currency that's been around since antiquity, this drop shows that, in Japan at least, purchases of even very small items are being made digitally. The implications of this are huge, for it suggests an electronic "paper trail" through which purchases of all sorts can be tracked and monitored.

Sources: Smart Mobs, RFID in Japan

Monday, September 12, 2005

Why Pimp Your Ride When You Can Geek It?

So, you had your heart set on that sweet SUV until the gas prices soared out of control? Well, you can still ride in style by "geeking" your car, or outfitting it with the latest in technology.

GPS screens are only the beginning. Experts in "telematics," the art of geeking cars, have installed full PCs that monitor the vehicle's vital signs and enable advanced communications such as e-mail and "personalized telemetry," which can tell your friends where you are at any given moment. Cars are also being outfitted with cameras that record the road around the car... handy if one is the victim of a hit-and-run accident.

And if you worry that all this technology is distracting, cars are even being equipped with cameras that watch the driver for signs of drowsiness or inattention... and "yell" at him or her to wake up!

Sources: USA Today, Techdirt

Friday, September 09, 2005

Want to Lose Weight? Eat a Good Breakfast!

Mom was right -- breakfast is good for you. Not only is it delicious and nutritious, but it might also help you lose weight.

A study of 2,400 teenage girls by the Maryland Medical Research Institute found that those who ate breakfast had a lower average body mass index than those who skipped a morning meal. The fact that breakfast foods are typically healthier than foods eaten later in the day (sugar-laden cereals and fatty meats such as bacon notwithstanding) might have contributed to that outcome. Additionally, the girls who ate breakfast might have had healthier overall eating habits and more balanced diets than their breakfast-skipping counterparts. Eating breakfast might also prevent sugar drops and cravings, which in turn lead to unhealthy snacking.

Source: CNN.com

The (Disconnected) State of the Mobile Worker

A recent white paper from Nokia, "The State of Workforce Mobility" (PDF), contains some surprising and important observations about how mobile devices are deployed and used in the workplace:

  • Although more businesses are deploying mobile technology, less than a quarter of workers use cell phones for business purposes, and only 10% use laptops for work.

  • Business users do not replace their cell phones as frequently as one might think. Mobile phones are in operation an average of two years... longer than the consumer average of 18 months.

  • Size doesn't matter. Large companies are no more or less willing to provide mobile technology to their employees than small ones.

  • Chinese businesses are leading the pace in mobile phone adoption, with 68% of Chinese decision makers saying they would consider replacing land lines with mobile phones (as opposed to 22% of American decision makers).

  • Nearly 60% of business decision makers say they do not plan to purchase additional mobile devices within the next 12-24 months, even though demand is high. Concerns about cost and difficulty of deployment are cited as the most common reasons discouraging further deployment.

  • Top executives are the employees most likely to be using mobile technology... suggesting a technology gap between "haves" and "have-nots" in many organizations.

  • Security is the top criterion for selecting e-mail or IM solutions (no surprise there, really).

In short, businesses may be missing the boat when it comes to deploying mobile technology in the workforce. "Regardless of geography, company size, or whether companies are compensating employees for mobile devices and related services," the report concludes, "the workforce is increasingly reaping the benefits of mobile technologies, so much so that an interesting disconnect between decision makers and employees has evolved." Perhaps further studies linking mobile technologies to increased productivity will convince these decision makers that the mobile workplace is a worthwhile investment.

Cell Phone Users Don't Know, Can't Use Devices' Features

With video downloads and Internet access, cell phones are more powerful than ever, and technologists expect them to be the gateway to personal information. However, a recent survey reveals that most users are unaware of their cell phones' capabilities... and often can't use them if they are.

The survey, conducted by UK-based mobile software developer SurfKitchen, found not one mobile phone user who could correctly identify their phone's data package. High prices, poor usability and unreliable service posed additional barriers to users getting the most out of their phones.

As with most all technology, the problems lie not with ill-informed consumers, but with providers who favor "bells and whistles" over simplicity. Going forward, usability and reliability will be key issues for phone manufacturers and carriers, with the companies offering the most dependable, easiest to use services winning in the marketplace.

Sources: Techdirt, Vnunet

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The "New" New Orleans

They say that when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been handed (maybe thrown) more lemons than they can handle over the past week. But can the region turn a disaster into an opportunity?

Despite assertions from its residents that the Big Easy will rise again, powerful politicians have questioned the wisdom of spending billions to do so. As the Katrina disaster fades from the headlines and emotions ebb, expect more pols to echo this sentiment. Already, polls are finding that a majority of Americans believe that New Orleans will never fully recover from the disaster. Many of those who have been evacuated may never return, and with so many sights and sounds of human suffering, the image of the Crescent City as a carefree party town will be forever tempered.

That said, some are already envisioning a "new" New Orleans... one that will be better and safer than ever. The Next Hurrah blog proposes an "Eco New Orleans" that will features smart growth, green housing and a distributed energy program. WorldChanging features a similarly ambitious and sustainable blueprint for rebuilding.

On a more immediate note, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine outlines a strategy for using online technology to coordinate recovery efforts and get survivors back on their feet.

UPDATE: Putting Jarvis' ideas into action, Greg Burton of Genius Now has set up the Recovery 2.0 wiki, where people can network and share ideas for helping with recovery efforts. The Katrina Help Wiki is a similar resource. Katrina Help is one of many blogs set up to provide up-to-the-minute information.

UPDATE (10/4/05): Enviropundit has a post that links to several resources covering hurricane-resistant building codes and construction techniques.

Source: Genius Now

Zero Energy House

With energy costs rising steadily and shortages of fossil fuels a distinct possibility this winter, homebuilders and architects will want to take a close look at architect Zoka Zola's Zero Energy House in Chicago. The term "zero energy" is a bit of a misnomer, as the house does have electricity, though it's produced entirely from the house's own solar cells and windpower.

The house is positioned to take maximum advantage of the sun for both heating and light. Plants and trees (including a "green" roof) provide both cooling and insulation. Ample windows provide ventilation to cool the house in the summer. In the winter, concrete interior walls can retain heat to keep the house warm throughout the night.

Source: Inhabitat

The Mobile Convenience Store

UK-based Benjy's Sandwiches is taking the lunch truck concept to the next level, outfitting Benjy's Delivered "vanchise" vans that unfold to sell virtually any type of food.

The vans can serve worksites, catered events and other locations without requiring external power. Benjy's Delivered vans typically serve sandwiches, hot food, hot and cold drinks, salads, fresh fruits, snacks and desserts. The vans also appear neater and cleaner than the typical mobile lunch truck, making them more appealing to discerning customers.

Vans such as these can serve all kinds of temporary locations efficiently and economically. With disaster relief on our minds recently, they could even be used in emergencies to serve groups of displaced persons.

Source: Springwise

Vending Machines... They Aren't Just for Sodas Anymore

Coca-Cola will pilot a next-generation vending machine in Ireland that will sell not only soda, but digital content such as ringtones and downloadable music.

The content, which will be managed by UK-based Inspired Broadcast Networks, will be downloadable to customers' mobile phones via their carrier, Bluetooth connections, or memory cards. The machines will be networked to Inspired's command-and-control center via DSL.

The machines will be rolled out to 200 locations in Ireland over the next several months. However, it's not clear if or when these machines will enter the US market.

Source: TheRegister.com

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Through Katrina, Will America "Rediscover Its Poor"?

The one positive thing that Hurricane Katrina may do for the US is to mobilize us to engage our national problems of race and poverty. The images that we have all seen over the past week, combined with local, state and federal governments' inept response, have shocked and outraged us. More importantly, the disaster has forced us to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that too many Americans are poor and therefore powerless.

Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe writes, "The searing images of New Orleans -- including the sight of sick and elderly patients literally lying on a conveyer belt at Louis Armstrong airport -- could well mark America's rediscovery of its poor." Canellos notes that catastrophic flooding in the Mississippi River region in 1927 marked the first time that the US Government was held accountable for disaster relief. As with now, the brunt of the disaster fell on poor blacks, and the President (Calvin Coolidge) was roundly criticized for failing to comprehend the scope of the calamity. Also, like now, the general public of the Jazz Age was self-indulgent and largely indifferent to poverty, especially in the South. Yet that attitude changed after the disaster.

How our current rude awakening will affect us socially, economically and politically in the months and years to come remains to be seen. But it could be dramatic. According to Canellos, many historians believe the Republican administration's lack of response to the 1927 flooding played a large role in shifting Southern blacks' political allegiance from the Republicans to the Democrats. And, as 9/11 spawned a new sense of patriotism and a greater awareness of world events, Katrina could inspire Americans to do more to combat poverty, whether by donating more to charity, volunteering, or campaigning for public policy reform.

Real-Life "Mighty Mouse" Regrows Limbs, Organs

Scientists at Cambridge University have quite a remarkable mouse on their hands -- one that can regenerate lost limbs and heal damaged organs. The hope is that the genetic characteristics of this mouse can be translated to other animals, and ultimately, humans.

The key seems to be in fetal liver cells. After the experimental mouse received these cells, it was able to regrow its tail and toes, and heal a damaged heart and eye. While the Cambridge team won't win any awards from anti-vivisection activists, their research could prove a breakthrough in human longevity and quality of life.

Source: Times Online

Cell Phones Could Reach Gigabit Speed by 2010

Japan's NTT DoCoMo is developing a fourth generation (4G) cell phone network that can transmt data at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second -- allowing cell phones to download feature-length movies in about a minute. This kind of speed is crucial if cell phones are going to be, as many predict, the literal key to personal information technology going forward.

The experimental technology used to achieve such speed is called Variable-Spreading-Factor Spread Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (VSF-Spread OFDM). In English, that means that the network uses multiple radio bands to transmit data simultaneously. The 4G phones can also receive data from multiple base stations.

Although the major phone carriers would need to buy into this technology to make it viable, NTT DoCoMo hopes to launch a commercial 4G network by 2010, most likely either in China or Japan.

Source: New Scientist

Friday, September 02, 2005

Helping Others this Labor Day Weekend

As we approach the end of the workday before a holiday weekend, the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina is not far from our minds. The web makes it easy for us to donate to the Red Cross and other relief agencies. Most of these agencies are focused on badly-needed immediate relief, but others such as Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities USA and Architecture for Humanity will need long-term funding for sustainable rebuilding and permanent housing for the now-homeless.

The bad news is that many of these websites are reportedly experiencing heavy traffic and may be slow to respond. The good news is that this shows how much people want to help. So if you're donating money to any of these websites, please be patient. If you experience difficulty using these sites, try accessing them during off hours.

For our US readers preparing to celebrate Labor Day, have a good one, and stay safe.

Going Low-Tech in Katrina's Wake

Rescue workers in New Orleans and other sections of the Gulf Coast devastated by Katrina are learning the limits of technology. Waterlogged computers, severed data lines, downed cell towers, and an overall lack of electricity are making most communication devices useless.

The few working radios are running out of battery power, with no way to recharge them. The New Orleans police are using a single radio band for their radios, and many rescue teams are resorting to using drivers and runners to transmit messages. However, the Red Cross is working to get satellite phones into the region, and BellSouth has restored phone service to 150,000 customers (out of about 1.6 million) as of Thursday.

Four years after 9/11, we are still figuring out how to cope with widespread communications breakdowns. With technology being so ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive these days, developing contingency plans for keeping life-saving communications online should be a priority.

Source: AP (Excite)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans Catastrophe Illustrates the Value of Foresight

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, is there any noise? If a futurist speaks but no one listens, is there any foresight?

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," said President Bush in an interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he discussed the federal government's response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina earlier this week. "They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."

In hindsight, the breaching of New Orleans' levee system is an obvious outcome, given that the levees themselves are decades old. Indeed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has considered serious flooding from a hurricane strike on New Orleans one of the top three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country" since 2001. And on Sunday, the day before the storm hit the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an article noting:

A computer model run by the LSU Hurricane Center late Saturday confirmed that [Katrina was following the track of Hurricane Betsy, which struck Louisiana in 1965]. It indicated the metropolitan area was poised to see a repeat of Betsy's flooding, or worse, with storm surge of as much as 16 feet moving up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and topping levees in Chalmette and eastern New Orleans, and pushing water into the 9th Ward and parts of Mid-City. High water flowing from Lake Pontchartrain through St. Charles Parish also would flood over levees into Kenner, according to the model.

The Times-Picayune also did an expose on the dangers of a direct hurricane strike on the Big Easy back in 2002. A post in the Huffington Post cites several other predictions placing the levee system at risk. The warnings had been sounded... yet no one in power seemed to be listening, culminating in our President responding to a national catastrophe with an astonishing level of cluelessness.

So if people with foresight did identify the risks long before this past week, why weren't they listened to? Or if they were listened to, why wasn't their advice acted upon? The usual combination of denial, political wrangling, limited budgets and competing priorities surely derailed any proactive efforts. And granted, a colossal storm such as Katrina would be difficult to cope with even under the best of circumstances and with unlimited resources. But no amount of "would, coulda, shoulda" can help the people of New Orleans today, whose world is crumbling into a literal cesspool of chaos, lawlessness, hunger and disease that will likely get worse before it gets better.

Hurricane Katrina now joins the long list of natural and man-made disasters whose impact could have been at least blunted through careful future thinking and scenario planning... as well as planners and government officials who take such foresight seriously. As the past week has proven, it's not enough for smart people to analyze future trends and risks. Their voices need to be heard by those who can turn foresight into action, and make a difference.

UPDATE: Genius Now, Minding the Planet, BuzzMachine and WorldChanging all have excellent posts that echo and elaborate on this theme. See also: